In 1992, the monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth II used a Latin phrase “annus horribilis” in her Christmas message. Meaning “a horrible year”, the Queen made references to several events that happened in the United Kingdom that year, as well as a great personal and national loss when part of Windsor Castle caught fire. It was that same year that saw the marriages of two of her sons, Charles and Andrew, break down. In the light of such heartbreaking events, it would be considered excusable to lament that it was indeed an “annus horribilis”.
For many people all over the world, this is the time of the year when they find themselves spending some time in thought and reflection about what the past year presented them with, and at the same time, cast their hopeful eye on what the next calendar year may bring. Journals and newspapers often feature a montage of the highlights of the past year, and these can evoke memories of incidents of both delight as well as sadness or melancholy when our eyes fall on stories and events which may have affected us in one way or another.
What should set us apart as Christians from mere worldly musings is the deeper and spiritual dimension of these experiences because we believe that God speaks to us through the circumstances that we have found ourselves immersed in. Vatican II calls these the ‘signs of the times’. If we do not contemplate on these life-stories of ours with an eye toward God and how he has been with us, guiding us and leading us, moulding us and loving us, our year-end musings and thoughts could just be vain exercises of mental recollections without allowing them to touch our soul and move us toward holiness and godliness. Done in a spirit of faith, prayer, reflection and contemplation, it can help us to see the way in which the divine finger of God had been tracing lines across the landscape of our lives.
When our faith in God’s providence and love is deep and abiding, it would be hard to really name a year as one that is ‘horribilis’ and leave it at that. Faith is what allows us to believe that there is no door that God has closed in our lives without leaving a window open. Faith also reminds us that there is no one incident that we should be taking in isolation apart from the rest of the tapestry of our lives, where the myriad other strands of our lives criss cross and touch each other through the warps and wefts of the canvass that we can only see in limited form most of the time.
Incidents involving sadness, failure, illnesses and losses in their multifarious forms will abound in each of our lives. Just because we had them in our lives this year does not make the year a horrible one. What a truly horrible year would be one in which we would have been completely out of touch with God and lived as if we were the ultimate raison d’etre of our lives, where we have displaced God from his rightful place at the heart and centre of our lives. It would be a year without soul, and a year of existence, rather than a year that saw us truly living. At Christmas we are reminded that Emmanuel means “God with us”. Though that reality has never changed, the corollary is often sadly lacking because we are often not with God.
When we have the gift of faith and are deeply in touch with not just the miracles of God, but the God of miracles, every year can be seen as an “annus mirabilis” (year of wonders), giving us the ability to not just look askance at the darker moments that we have had to experience and encounter. It is very tempting for many of us to dismiss those negative and anxiety-filled moments and to only thank God for the positive and happy moments that brought obvious delight. Would not our love for God and our gratitude then be conditional, where we only thank God for the good things and silently curse the bad? We would be living in a dualistic frame of mind where we are only willing to see blessings in their obvious forms, using our very limited line of worldly sight. But when we are open to the myriad and unexpected ways of God, faith allows us to live non-dualistic lives where we dare to even give God thanks for the moments where we were in a dark space, and ironically, where God often speaks in loud whispers. In our shared quest for holiness patterned after God’s holiness, it will be necessary to hold that tension of seeming opposites – the good as well as the bad, the successes as well as the failures, the joys as well as the sorrows, and the consolations together with the desolations.
2013 will always be special for me. Though cancer came a-visiting, causing me to put on hold so many things in my life, this ‘visitor’ will also be remembered as the catalyst for so many other graced moments where I had been deeply touched, motivated, and in a very paradoxical way, strengthened and fortified. Despite my living with Leukemia and its harsh treatments and therapies, I have been blessed with the ability to minister to others in some strange and unexpected ways. Never in my wildest imaginations had I ever thought that a hospital bed in isolation wards and a long and arduous convalescence could be a ministering platform, but yes, it has been proven again that God can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
With the New Year approaching in a few days’ time, the task at hand for all of us is to reach into the most generous depths of our hearts to really be grateful to God for the past year’s providence, no matter what the experiences have been. When we can expand our hearts to take in and appreciate even the struggles and challenges that we had to go through and are willing to dare to thank God for them, even an “annus horribilis” can become an “annus mirabilis”.
May you, my dear readers, have a year in which God draws you ever closer to him, giving you the grace to respond to him in love, charity and greater holiness. God love you.
Fr Luke Fong is a catholic priest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore. He blogs regularly at Reflections & Ruminations.