Jun 21, 2016


These few weeks in Rome, my mind has been on three things in particular, none of which are related to the Rome trip at all: the guitar, resuming work at Koi when I'm back, and the prospect of adopting a child in the future. (Walao Karen, no boyfriend alr thinking about kids?? Lol) Well, regarding #1, I really miss playing the guitar even though I'm not great at it but the church I've been with is actually letting me play the guitar for service on Sunday! This is a huge deal for me because I've never played or sung at worship at my own church or cell group in Singapore, so... hooray! Hopefully I can play all the chords?

(plug for Rome Baptist Church, if ever any Rome tourists-to-be chance upon my site: yes, there are Protestant churches in Rome! And RBC made me feel so welcome right away. I felt more welcome at this church, more immediately assimilated into a bunch of friends, than I ever have at any other church in my life (and I've visited a good number of them, in a number of countries). My first day there I started talking to the person sitting beside me, Joseph from India, and some other guy who introduced me to the group of young adults and we all (Joseph included) went for lunch at a park, and had gelato after, and two of them accompanied me to the Pantheon. And every week there are new faces and the bunch of us go for lunch together and people are immediately friends and it's lovely :) such immediate, warm fellowship. New people just come up to the group all the time. And then there's a Bible Study thing on Fridays that some of the young adults in that group go for, and I just asked one of the guys if the church would let me play on Sunday, and he was like yes we'd be glad to have you!!! And I was like wow really, I should have asked earlier LOL I've been ITCHING to play the guitar - although I'm not good at all, only know the few essential chords - hopefully that's enough)

But this post isn't about #1, it's about #3. Adoption has always been at the back of my mind, and for some reason I've been thinking about it a fair bit here. Why do we still give birth and have our own kids when there are so many kids out there who don't have parents? I think every married couple that is willing and able to raise / nurture a child well (the prerequisites for any couple to have kids imo) should think about why they aren't adopting instead, just like how every hopeful pet-owner should consider the option of adopting an animal instead of buying one from the pet store. Why make more babies when there already exist so many children who need the care of parents? Yet it's a part of our humanity, perhaps, to want a baby that's our own flesh and blood. There's something special about having this life created by you, knowing that it's completely yours, a product of you and your spouse, the testament to and manifestation of your love that is unique and wholly special to the both of you. There's something very incredible about creating life. Yet aren't these selfish reasons, and the option of adoption far more reasonable and selfless?

Perhaps, if I have the money and tolerance (...and a husband...lol), I might have three or four children, two of whom are adopted. The fears lie in how one might reveal the fact of adoption to their children, how they might receive it, and whether their lives would indeed turn out for the better because of it. I envision that someday, when the little one asks where children come from, I might along with the technicalities of sex explain the fact of their adoption, along with the concept of how we are adopted children of God. God, in His love for us, reconciled our imperfect selves to Himself through the sacrifice of Jesus who paid the price for all our shortcomings, so that there was no sin left that could separate us from God. Being humans, we are still sinful, but through faith we call ourselves the adopted children of a perfect Father.

You received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. - Rom 8:15-17

Does this fact of adoption make our relationship with God any less? Of course not; in fact, it shows even more greatly how much God loves us, that He would go the lengths to be our Father.

Jun 16, 2016

Saint Peter's Basilica / Irreverent Tourists

I stand in line waiting for the bag check, Memoirs of Hadrian in my hand. A short distance ahead of me, three girls are dressed in bustiers and skirts, midriffs entirely exposed. One has a jacket draped around her that I'm assuming she'll put on once she's inside; another has a glossy translucent wrapper around her shoulders that looks more like a classy wrapping paper or a huge roll of tracing paper than a shawl. It covers nothing. I can still see her bra strap beneath her bandeau.

On the way in, a small crowd is gathered around a little opening in the wall, taking pictures...it's a Vatican guard! The tourists are raising their arms, tiptoeing, clamoring to click the shutter; the sole lanky young man dressed in pompous red yellow and blue stands upright and unperturbed, his left arm outstretched to grasp a long metal pole.

In the basilica I see so many tourists with cheap translucent shawls carelessly wrapped around their waists as a makeshift skirt in an attempt to cover up. Cheap shawls, shawls that you can still see through, shawls that aren't tied properly so their shorts and bare legs still show - please can they not? If they don't have the respect to bring a skirt or just dress appropriately when they know they're going to St. Peter's Basilica of all churches - how would they feel if they knew they were in the presence of the King of Kings? Is this the way we respect royalty, let alone divinity? Sure, you might not believe in the religion; but at least respect the place by dressing right. Would you tie a "ROME" shawl around your waist as a makeshift skirt if you were going to a nice place for dinner? Why does a church warrant even less respect?

People walking around in berms and sandals, in a jumper and hobo pants, tour guides walking around with a raised umbrella or a small scarf tied on a stick. I mean, would you just look at the grandeur of this place for a second, spoiled by humans. The church adopted the architectural layout of the basilica, which in ancient times was a marketplace full of shops, because it was spacious and covered and it fit the needs of the church. Perhaps the St. Peter's Basilica of today feels more like an ancient basilica than the planners might have expected, with all that noise.

"EXCLUSIVELY FOR PRAYER AND ADORATION" - the chapel behind thick pale green curtains brings relief. Silence. People are kneeling, praying. Sitting there in prayer, when I run out words to say I still feel the presence and peace of God inviting me to stay, to simply be with him and let His presence fill my heart, in a quiet place undisturbed by visitors wandering and cameras snapping and people calling out to one another. I just sit in the little sanctuary enjoying the presence of God. Perhaps this is what adoration is about.

I also spend a long time in front of Michelangelo's Pieta. Tour groups float by me; I simply stand with my elbows on the barrier, taking in the emotion of the piece... I have never had a sculpture speak to my heart like that before, never spent so long staring at a statue before. Were you there when they nailed Him to the cross?
A few days ago in the Vatican museum, a painting by Caravaggio made me think about how the apostles and Jesus' loved ones must have felt the night he died... betrayed, foolish, resigned, despondent. We gave our lives to follow Him... and He turned out only to be man. Dead. Scourged. Humiliated in every way. We thought there might be more and we banked our lives on it. Now He has left us, abandoned orphans, stupid to have believed something so impossible.

Beside me, a mother snaps a photo of her daughter with the Pieta. A pause; she doesn't move away. "Did you get it?" "Yes," the mother replies. "I just want to look at it." That's right. That's the way to be a tourist. Many people just snap a photo and go.

Near the entrance, a monk? - dark grey robe and a rope belt, no priest's collar - takes a rest on the floor, massages his leg. He's got a bright green earpiece in one ear, characteristic of those tour groups. A man comes over, tells him he can't sit there... he looks up with a friendly chuckle, massaging his leg.

At the painting of the transfiguration of Jesus by Raphael, the body of Pope Innocent XI lies below the altar, his face and hands encased in silver. A frail and withered picture, yet quite intriguing. Many simply snap a photo and go; tour groups crowd around for a minute, and then leave; I stay for quite a while. Another woman beside me, too, lingers. Eventually she comments "That's gross" and walks away. A Chinese tour group - ah maybe I'll understand something - unfortunately not. But they're nice, quiet and respectful. They come and leave silently. The tour guide speaks softly into her mouthpiece. Another tour group comes by, brushing past me, carrying musical instruments, orange bandannas tied around their collars.

At the tomb of the popes: the first thing I see is the tomb of Pope Boniface VIII - HURHUR alarm bells go off in my head. Dante hated Boniface. In Inferno, in the circle of hell for bad popes, a condemned soul mistakes Dante the sojourner for Boniface: "Dost thou stand there already, Dost thou stand there already, Boniface?" - he can't put Boniface in hell yet because Boniface is still alive. Talk about sick burns. The description at his tomb says that he "convened the first Jubilee Year in the history of the Church (in 1300) which saw the participation of famous personalities as the poet Dante Alighieri." LOL. Well. Dante would be rolling over in his grave right now. I guess we tell the stories we want to tell, eh?

At the tomb of Saint Peter:
"Who is Saint Peter though?"
"Saint... Peter...Apostle"
"You can take photos, as long as you don't get caught," said a mother to her child. (really? In the church of St. Peter's? In Vatican City???)
(note: this picture is taken from Wikipedia - we weren't allowed to take photos)
Lots of gasps. I too gasped inwardly when I saw it. Didn't realise we could still see the original spot. Saint Peter was believed to have been buried here because Nero's circus was here, where Peter was believed to have been martyred in the 1st century. His tomb was found in a complex of tombs - people wanted to be buried close to the Apostle. Then Constantine built a church over this spot in the 3rd century, the original St. Peter's Basilica, before it was rebuilt in 1506.

(What we see today isn't the original church, but bits of the old church still remains. The obelisk, actually, makes for a great story. The obelisk, was originally quarried around 1314-1197 BC (!!!) and stood in Heliopolis, then was moved to Alexandria by Augustus, and then to Rome by Caligula in 37AD. The obelisk then stood in Nero's circus, where Peter was crucified, and where Constantine's church was eventually built. Today it stands in a slightly different spot from where it originally was - Pope Sixtus V had it moved a little in the late 16th century together with the rebuilding of the basilica. Source)

We can't take photos - some people are snapping pictures but I decide to be a good and honest tourist instead - so I sketch. A tap on my shoulder: "It's beautiful!" Haha, no, not at all; I just got over the fear of being terrible at drawing. I can't sketch, but the sketch is only for me, so that I can remember it, and one doesn't actually need much to be able to sketch.

People walk by the tomb, not realising what's on their right... a guy in a blue polo tee calls his friends back. "That's Saint Peter's tomb." Their eyes open, mildly impressed. "Ooh."

--abrupt ending...wtv--

Jun 13, 2016

Men of Rome

The Church of St. Augustine reopens in fifteen minutes, so I take a short walk towards the Pantheon, to the café where Russell works. Last week I had a macchiato there while waiting for Carmen and Amanda, and we struck up a conversation - turns out he's been to Singapore before, because his brother works there. "Do you know Eunos Avenue 7?" In his delight at meeting a Singaporean he gave me a free gelato and said I should come by again, so I guess now's a good time.

He's serving a couple of people at the counter but the moment I walk up to the counter he gives a happy "Hey! I saw you walk by in the morning!" Over cappuccino I tell him the places I've visited, and he says he could take me around someday after his work shift ends. Russell charges me one euro less for the coffee, so it goes to the man with polio in the piazza.

At the Church of Saint Augustine I linger at the souvenir counter, deciding on a postcard. "Hello," the man at the counter smiles. "Are you from the Philippines?" I shake my head, ask him to try again. "Hmm... Korea? China? Malaysia?" "Close!" "Indonesia?" "Close! It's in the middle." He still struggles for a while, so I give him the answer. He tells me he's from India. "Where in India?" "The north, Punjab. You know it?" "Ah, yes." "You do?" he asks, pleasantly surprised. "Yes, there are a lot of Indians in Singapore." "Ah, Singapore. It's a beautiful city." He tells me that he came from a Hindu family, but converted to Catholicism, and has been working for churches in Rome for five years. We both marvel at the beauty of this city, and the effort the country puts into preserving its history. After a while I go off to look around the church a little more, but I return to the counter to ask him for his name. "Sandeep," he says. "And this is a brochure for you, so you can know more about the church." "Oh, thank you, that's so useful! How much is it?" "No, it's for you. Actually I wanted to give it to you earlier, but you walked off so fast!" He refuses to let me pay for my postcard of the Caravaggio painting, either. I tell him that this is actually my second time in this church, because I want to write about it for this week's assignment - upon hearing that he reaches into a drawer and presents me with a bigger book that contains detailed descriptions of every painting and chapel. Again he lets me refuse to pay the €5: "I don't take money from students!"

Armed with the book that has all the information I need, I'm wandering around the church when he taps on my shoulder: "come, let me show you this." He unlocks the gate to the chapel of Saints Augustine and William; fifteen minutes later I'm still there, taking in the massive paintings of Saint William being healed by Mary, majestically dressed in blue and orange, and of Saint Augustine contemplating the Trinity. "Oh, you're still here. Let me show you something even better, before Mass starts." He walks towards the high altar, up the platform - I stand at the threshold, but he motions for me to come in - leads me behind the main altar through the curtain. "We don't usually allow visitors in here..." - this is where the choir stands? The apse and the paintings behind the high altar tower over me; I cannot take it all in. I let myself marvel at the sheer size of the space, and at the privilege I had of meeting someone so eager to share the beauty of this church with me.

The rosary is being said as I leave; I stop by the souvenir stand again on my way out, to get one more postcard of the same Caravaggio painting - for Sam, perhaps. The stand is swarmed with tourists now, and Sandeep is attending to multiple people at once; I try to make him take the mere 50 cents that it's being sold for. He keeps refusing, and motions for me to come to the front of the counter. I reach out to give him the money; instead he gets out a bracelet from his drawer and slips it around my wrist - "this is for your friendship." A man beside me at the counter who witnesses this looks at Sandeep and says, "You are a Gentleman." I'm so touched - "you keep giving me stuff!!" - we shake hands again, my heart full of the grace of people I have met in Rome. On Day 1, half an hour after I left the airport, my valuables were stolen by a pair of men. Even now my guard is usually still up, and I've been wary to the point of being a little rude to a few people - not without reason, though. But since then I have had the privilege of meeting so many kind people who have given without asking in return, and they have really helped to to redeem my perception of Rome and its people. Thank you, Roma :)

Jun 8, 2016

Women of Rome

I am always struck by the bold openness and love with which Amanda and Carmen approach the beggars on the street. One of the beggars we see today is a woman sitting on the sidewalk by a wall. Carmen reaches into Amanda’s bag, gets out a sandwich, and the both of them kneel on the ground to offer it to the woman. She is grateful, shakes their hands, but then holds up her plastic cup and then motions to her throat while saying something in Italian; Carmen gets out her pouch and puts in five euro. The girls introduce themselves and ask her for her name: “Lianna”. “From Italy?” “Romania,” she says, just like everyone else we’ve met: the man with dysfunctional limbs who begs on a skateboard, the woman in Trastevere with nine children. All this while I am standing beside Carmen and Amanda, too awkward and timid and afraid to say anything at all, too afraid I won’t understand anything Lianna says or won’t know how to communicate with her. But I have been very inspired by Carmen and Amanda these few days anyhow, and watching the way they interact with the people on the street has changed my perspective on how I can help people back in Singapore. The beggars do need money, but showing love is about so much more.

A group of Italians walk by: “No no no no no!” a woman shouts, wagging her finger at Amanda. From the few Italians I’ve talked to, they generally strongly dislike the Romanians in their land. “They’re either beggars or thieves,” said the woman who helped me speak to the police the day my valuables were stolen. She said the guys who stole my stuff were Romanians, too. My passport, laptop, money, all gone because of a clever trick.

We wait for the group to pass by, keeping our gaze down. “Do you want to pray with her?” Carmen asks Amanda when they leave, and Amanda holds both Lianna’s hands, bows her head in silent prayer. Lianna slowly begins to pray, quietly, with petition and sorrowful sincerity. It feels like a song, a beautiful trance almost, with its trembling crescendos and whispers. At last she says “amen”, and takes our hands, kissing them in turn. Amanda makes the sign of the cross on Lianna’s forehead with her thumb.

Another woman we meet on our way back is sitting by a lamppost. She looks up at each passer-by, raising her cupped right hand half-heartedly, a not-too-pleasant look on her face. “I have one more,” Carmen says, and puts down her bag to retrieve a sandwich wrapped in aluminium foil. She thanks Carmen as the girls kneel before her, raises her cup, asks for money. “I’m sorry, I have none,” Carmen says; the woman graciously smiles and puts her cup down. They ask her for her name. “Eleanor,” she says. We note among ourselves later that it sounds like Helena, mother of Constantine.

While we’re waiting for the tram to go back home, an older lady walks towards an empty seat. She is well-dressed and has obviously taken the effort to look beautiful, as Italian women are accustomed to dressing (note for anyone planning to come to Rome: don’t dress shabbily!), but her slow hobbling gives her age away. Another woman takes her seat, so I get up and offer her mine. A waterfall of words immediately burst forth; in the most energetic-yet-tender grandmotherly way, she basically says something to the effect of “no, don’t get up for me; there’s enough space, here, we can share”. I don’t understand a word but I guess from the way she makes space on the bench and the tinkling tone of her voice, so I squeeze on the bench between her and Amanda and smile. She continues speaking, though, a continuous gushing of friendly words. Her speech is a gentle cascading of jewels, glinting as they fall lightly into a stream, but I don’t have the slightest clue what she’s talking about. I’ve heard that the best thing to do in a situation like that is to smile, so I do, really widely. I don’t know what to say so I laugh. Eventually she comes to something that sounds like a question, and as she looks at me expectantly I am given away: “I’m… sorry… I don’t understand…” “No?” she says. She responds one last time in Italian. Later Carmen tells me that her last sentence was “Even though I cannot speak to you, I understand the language of your laughter.”