Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Confession of Alessandro Serenelli, 1961

I'm nearly 80 years old. I'm about to depart.

Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself.

My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried.

There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life.

When I was 20 years-old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer. Thirty years of prison followed.

If I had been of age, I would have spent all my life in prison. I accepted to be condemned because it was my own fault.

Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society. The Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins from Marche, welcomed me with angelic charity into their monastery as a brother, not as a servant. I've been living with their community for 24 years, and now I am serenely waiting to witness the vision of God, to hug my loved ones again, and to be next to my Guardian Angel and her dear mother, Assunta.

I hope this letter that I wrote can teach others the happy lesson of avoiding evil and of always following the right path, like little children. I feel that religion with its precepts is not something we can live without, but rather it is the real comfort, the real strength in life and the only safe way in every circumstance, even the most painful ones of life.

Alessandro Serenelli, May 5, 1961

--- original Italian text ---

Sono vecchio di quasi 80 anni, prossimo a chiudere la mia giornata.

Dando uno sguardo al passato, riconosco che nella mia prima giovinezza infilai una strada falsa: la via del male che mi condusse alla rovina. Vedevo attraverso la stampa, gli spettacoli e i cattivi esempi che la maggior parte dei giovani segue quella via, senza darsi pensiero: ed io pure non me ne preoccupai. Persone credenti e praticanti le avevo vicino a me, ma non ci badavo, accecato da una forza bruta che mi sospingeva per una strada cattiva. Consumai a vent’anni il delitto passionale, del quale oggi inorridisco al solo ricordo. Maria Goretti, ora santa, fu l’angelo buono che la Provvidenza aveva messo avanti ai miei passi. Ho impresse ancora nel cuore le sue parole di rimprovero e di perdono. Pregò per me, intercedette per me, suo uccisore.

Seguirono trent’anni di prigione. Se non fossi stato minorenne, sarei stato condannato a vita. Accettai la sentenza meritata; rassegnato espiai la mia colpa.

Maria fu veramente la mia luce, la mia Protettrice; col suo aiuto mi diportai bene e cercai di vivere onestamente, quando la società mi riaccettò tra i suoi membri. I figli di San Francesco, i Minori Cappuccini delle Marche, con carità serafica mi hanno accolto fra loro non come un servo, ma come fratello. Con loro vivo dal 1936.

Ed ora aspetto sereno il momento di essere ammesso alla visione di Dio, di riabbracciare i miei cari, di essere vicino al mio angelo protettore e alla sua cara mamma, Assunta.

Coloro che leggeranno questa mia lettera vogliano trarre il felice insegnamento di fuggire il male, di seguire il bene, sempre, fin da fanciulli. Pensino che la religione coi suoi precetti non è una cosa di cui si può fare a meno, ma è il vero conforto, la unica via sicura in tutte le circostanze, anche le più dolorose della vita.

Pace e bene!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Folktale told in the Winter Solstice

Photo by Charel Klein
The story goes that there were three gods: The first ruled the sky, the second ruled the earth, the third ruled the universe. Each god was unshakably convinced that he himself was the greatest of all the gods, and no day passed without the three gods boasting quarrelsomely about their own greatness. Eventually they became tired of convincing the others by words alone. They agreed to hold a contest, so that each can take turns to reveal themselves to the people and then find out which one among them was the greatest, once and for all.

The god of the sky mustered all his strength, then with a flourish of his left hand he whipped up the fiercest storm that the world has seen of this age. Forceful gales blew over the ocean in to the land from the furthest north, sweeping people off their feet, and carrying their homes away in mudslide and deluge. With the snap of his finger he created the lightning, and anything or anyone who crossed the path of thunder were burned to a crisp. With his right hand he shook the land and a great wave passed over the ocean, and soon a thousand fishing towns nestled by the western shores of the ocean were soon carried away by the raging waters: women in the homes, children in the homesteads, and men in fishing boats. And the Barentines and the people of Tunu and Iceland fell prostrate before him in terror and said: enough, we shall worship you; hereafter take our sacrifice. 

The god of earth mustered all his wit, and with the sweetest singing tone began to sing to the people. The wealth of your masters are ripe for the taking, as are the bounty of all the earth. Rise up against your oppressors, take what is rightfully yours. Hold on to no scruples, as I who wield the wheel of history is by your side. With his left hand he set the houses of the wealthy aflame, and with the right hand he uprooted the trees of the forest, and turned the skies grey with soot. The enlightened masses of the eastern lands fell upon their enemies with gleeful pillage, even turning on their own tribesmen in their fervour for progress. But after this unfortunate time of bloodshed and rapacity had passed, peace once again returned, and the people who remained saw all these and were happy. We shall worship you, you who have created our new world, chorused the prosperous Lenese and the well-fed Chukchi, hereafter take our sacrifice.

The god of the universe mustered all his power, then became a small child, a helpless and minuscule homunculus who grew in the womb of a woman, who bore him in the stables and brought him up until he became a man: a man of genuine human likeness and appearance, who walked among the people. He spoke in a humanly tongue of love, mercy, and the unity of mankind. Men and women of all trades were drawn to him; those who believed his words became as newborns, coming to be again in haloes of water and fire: new men of shrewdness and wisdom, incapable of deceit, yet as innocent as the buntings in the snow. With his power he forgave people of their wrongdoings, healed the incurable, and raised the dead. The rich and the powerful resented his ways, but when they tried to kill him, he tore down their place of worship and built another in its place within three days. And the Rumelians and Taimirians fell prostrate before him in the new temple day after day, proclaiming his name above that of every other god.

And this is why the Barentines live in perpetual fear of the elements, why the Lenese live in absolute confidence in their industriousness and scientific knowledge, and why when you ask a Rumelian about the god whom they worship, they could speak of him for days and days without ever stopping for breath.

References: Psalm 82:1, Philippians 2:6-11, John 3:5, John 1:47, Matthew 10:16, Mark 14:58

Photo of Snow Bunting by: Charel Klein (

Thursday, November 26, 2015

You have never left my side

You have never left my side.
You were there in my darkest hours,
When the Tornado-demon hovered by my ears,
Convincing me that I have been left utterly alone.
That I was worthless dust, left by the wayside,
That my friends have fallen away
And all that I can look forward to is for the next storm to pick me up
And scatter me into the cornfields of Nebraska.
But I know that not all my friends have fallen away
Because the ones that remain have become my support.
In my heart I know, though my emotions had withered to the bone,
And consigned themselves to the realms of the Damned,
That you are present in every Tabernacle;
That in every feast I taste the fruit of thy goodness
And work of human hands;
That whenever the demon should incite me
To close my doors from my brothers and sisters,
I should throw them wide open.
And so let this worthless dust be scattered into the prairies
Let it tell of your succour and help.
As my feeble senses fail, so shall your glory fill the lands
Down to every canyon and dank alleyway;
Lasting joy in the face of grief.
Ach, let it be so.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Postgraduate Journal 3.12.6

Faithside: This semester has actually been pretty good on my side, despite the emotional low point miasma that stuck around when the semester started and I hauled ass right back to the school residence. Part of this is because I resumed my old practice of joining daily mass in the church across the road from my residence hall. I first joined (and committed to) daily mass in a panic during a particulary severe depression pang when I was working in Nebraska, whereafter the affliction was cured within two weeks. For this I credit the very reassuring presence of Jesus in the tabernacles and also the connections that I have built with members of the Nebraskan and Singaporean faithful who have stayed by my side and have been real champs. In November the church remembers the faithful departed and I have found joy in telling people the story of Tina and keeping her in the realms of the remembered. I am also especially grateful to Amanda and co. and their newly-fromed Ubi Caritas group in Yale-NUS College, a place where the spirit of rigorous enquiry and willingness to tackle big scary questions of faith has been nurtured and maintained. Guys, if you are reading this, I heart you all; this semester is gone too soon!

In other news, (1) daily Rosary was instated on the NUSCSS side, to the point that a small group of us, myself included, are doing it out of sheer force of habit. October was the month of the Rosary, not November, but it does not seem to matter any more to the diehards. (2) I have started a three-year programme of marking daily readings in the bible, because I heard an extraordinary claim that church readings cover the entire bible in three years, and I just have to see if that is really the case.

Scienceside: I have now a co-supervisor from Physics, a very kind and agreeable old professor dude, and am now caught in the thickets of computational physics. I actually prefer being snagged in the brambles of calculation than sucked into the quicksands of experimentation. One reason for this was that experimental people I have had to work with seemed to have scant interest in finding out how things actually work, and seemed to be bent on making things work by sheer power of will and by working themselves into a state of delirium (in which case anything at all can be thought plausible). The more important reason was that I sucked at experimental work while at the same time was passably good at calculation, having dabbled in computational techniques since my undergrad days. But even then, calculations sometimes don't work, and in fact at this moment none of my projects are working, and I have increasingly found myself compelled to cram undergraduate theoretical physics in order to understand the inner workings of my software, with its myriad weird error messages, (contra)indications, and acrobatic tricks.

I have been taking a course where I have learned to do computational physics from scratch. It started with some simple linear algebra and then swiftly degenerated into a mad scramble to write a working program with C that does high-powered stuff like Quantum Monte Carlo and the Metropolis Algorithm on Ising models and Schrodinger Equation solvers. Sad to admit but sometimes I fail to produce a working code (the Hydrogen molecule project has been especially disastrous), and the physics students are all pwning my arse at every turn. But I am positive, because my stated mission for this PhD adventure is to punch way above my weight, and this semester shall be no exception.

My first attempt at Monte-Carlo

Thursday, October 08, 2015

A visit to an old friend, the park official

Don't look so alarmed, Park Official Du. I know you're expecting me. You're not? Well then, please don't mind me having taken your seat while you were away for the day. It's just my little joke. Do you remember me? We met in college, during millitary training. Wasn't it fun? I have noticed your new pet project in the park has just been completed. My word, how the media loved it. I must congratulate you for having made it so well. It's not easy these days in this society, and you know that.

Don't look so glum, Park Official Du, managing the park is hard work, but I'm sure it (wink) pays off. Will you be so kind to help out an old friend? You know the economy these days, people burning out their cash on Shanxi coal mines and now grounding themselves like ships on coral in the stock market. You know it's tough surviving in society nowadays. Nice to have someone you can trust, eh? It's my nephew, they still aren't releasing him for the hit-and-run case, which you must have heard by now. I would have made them see reason, but they're already eyeing my own books. Some foolhardy cretins must have been trying to frame me again; I suppose they are about to use my good-for-nothing nephew as an excuse! Maybe I can't take care of the police very well now, but I'm sure they'll still listen to you, Park Official Du.

The past ten years have been a dream, but on the whole my family has never been very wealthy people. All we have, you might know, are each other, and a set of stainless steel cups which is our heirloom. It pains me but I must part with it, in gratefulness of having ever known you. No, please don't refuse it, I have made my decision to give it. I insist.

Besides, we still have a lot of these cups back home. You can have more of it if you'd like; yes, yes, you really can. It's been sitting idly with us all these years, and it will be such a shame if someone else got hold of it and accidentally... dropped it... on a glass bridge, for example. Yes, like the one that you built. It just wouldn't look very nice, don't you agree? (laugh) Oh, don't mind me, Park Official Du, it's my strange sense of humour again. It's a joke, as always. I'll leave you now, and hope to be seeing you around again.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Misa de Cristo Rey (Working Title)

A sneak peek of Sanctus

I composed a mass setting after being seized by the Muse for a few times over the months. I would like to dedicate it to the Parish of Christ the King in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I got the first brainwave. The name "Mass of Christ the King" seems to be taken, though. Should I find a new one?

Will anyone be using it? Will all this effort end up in something again? It's hard to tell, as always. But I have to start moving before I can find out at all.

Thursday, September 03, 2015


When you hear my petitions, Bubska,
Dance our dance, that no man will ever see
Sing my song, which only Eternity shall heed

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Postgraduate Journal 3.2.4

A moonlight picture of the "America" taken Christmas night, 1901, Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition
(Semester 3, week 2, Thursday)
It is my style now to write about things from which I have been a bit detached, be they things that had happened in the past, ephemeral thoughts, or other things not concerning myself. I was mainly worried about appearing egotic on the internet. However, the need arose for me to put them in order when depression cycles happen too often to be amusing anymore, so a friend has recommended that I start writing again.

My life is a mystery to people now.

I have to clarify that I am now working towards a PhD. I have had to repeatedly explain that I didn't go through a Masters course. Sometimes I suspect that the same people come back to ask me the same questions again, and that even so they leave with a vague incomprehension.

The undergrads do not know. My family does not know. Doctoral students not from my lab do not know. Groupmates probably know, but they don't know anything else about my life. Not one person would know enough. And then I fade into the background of every setting.

A big gathering of my undergrad friends happens. It is in the daytime. I have lab.
A big gathering of my working friends takes place. It is on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday night. I have night lessons.
It happens on Sunday. I am at church or refusing to do anything if not with my family.

The fact is that my acquaintances are becoming strangers, deep friendships are becoming superficial, and that I am shedding my circles. It is like being in a room with walls that are closing in, like a ship sailing in a sea that is freezing over. It always feels like my schedule is to blame, or the inability of others to accommodate it, or that no one would bother to do so.

Me: Aren't you free at all?
Them: We are undergrads. We have classes, we have work.
Me: So do I, but I have decided to put them aside, if only for two hours.
They recede. They disappear. The echoes of their revelry fade away.
I go back to work.

What is the meaning in what I do?

So now I have work instead of a whole bunch of acquaintances. The work is usually something the prof has thought up.

But why? I always ask! Why this in particular?
The prof says: read these papers.
The prof says: it can be applied to such-and-such.
The papers make: no sense
The applications are: castles in hot air

Is there a meaning? How does one get about business? I ask my senior, who have been through more and therefore should know better.

The senior says: just do whatever boss tells you.
And I leave this husk of a human being alone, feeling none the wiser. I have no desire to get chewed up in this system and get spat out as a cynic.
The meaning must be arrived at through work, it must come with pain. Those do not matter, but there has to be a meaning.

Can I quit and do something else?

I can, and then I pay back a year's worth of stipends, and then try to find some job. I have no idea what.
I still feel that doing science is my life's calling.
I can quit next year, and then pay back two year's worth of stipends. It will be as if I had never lived in these two years.

A certain Dr. R. came to talk to us youngsters this Monday. He had found a way around this whole depression brouhaha while he was a student himself. The message is this: light, light is at the end of this tunnel, seek and you shall find! Glumness and despondency seem to be a common affliction across the board for those who have decided to trod this path. I had scoffed at this thought in the beginning, but I think the gravity of the situation is pretty clear to me now.

I stay at an apartment in school. I am dismayed to learn that some of my roommates have been positively antisocial. I have no desire to get chewed up in this system and get spat out as a psychopath.

Can I reach out to anyone?

I reach, but they are elusive. They fly away to fairyland with sunshine and flowers. They have no capacity to understand sadness. They yawn at my morosity.

I reach, but they have very important business to attend to. They go, they get married, they travel. They forget.

After a few tries, I give up.

I sometimes pray to Bubska who is lost at sea. I have no way of telling if she hears me or if she is passing it on. I can only hope.

A treasury of stories and memories are bottled up inside of my mind. They have to be told to listening ears, or they may wilt in this tight, crowded space. I write, but even this blog may be an echo chamber.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Short Stories from the Czech Republic

During the Ascension long weekend in May 2013, I went to Kraków to visit classmates and passed by Prague and Ostrava in the Czech lands. Two years have passed and the memories of the two days that I spent in the country have been distilled to two short stories. Maybe, it's better this way.

1. Prague
The highlight of Prague was the Hare Krishna Parade that came out of flipping nowhere and tore through the Old Town like a tornado.

The procession was heralded by very loud music, which is followed by the peculiar sight of a bunch of people sporting tiny ponytails and looks of profound peace and tolerance on their faces. They waved their hands in the air and danced in sprightly footsteps, as a megachurch member might do. It was a refreshing contrast to the dreariness of travelling alone in the day, so I stalked them as they went on their way, from Wenceslas Square to the Astronomical Clock, always keeping several paces behind them.

A granny was among their ranks, and she was in charge of dancing particularly vigorously and handing out promotional flyers to hapless people who got in the way. As it happened, Prague had a not trivial population of destitute people, and one of them had planted himself in Kožná, prostrating himself at the side of the alley behind his upturned hat. Emanating an air of overwhelming benevolence and compassion, the granny let drop a flyer into the man's hat and rejoined the parade. But the beggar, philistine as he is in matters of spirituality, only gave it a dismayed glance and then cast it contemptuously aside.

2. Ostrava
The highlight of my stopover at Ostrava was this meal, which was quaint as balls:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

From the Coffee Table at Siem Reap

It just so happened that I am now in Cambodia to join Dad for a few days. I am pleased to report the existence of St. John's Church, but probably won't be able to make any of their mass/rosary timings. The church is rather understated in stark contrast to the insane fixation that people have on Angkor Wat, which is not even currently used as a house of worship. In other news, we biked out of town to visit some farmers in the morning. The highlight was trying salak, which is a fruit imported from Thailand. The Australians saw those things for the first time today and they (the fruits) were much better-tasting than their Indonesian counterparts.

UPDATE: Turns out people worship at A.W., and I stand corrected