Settling for the EXTRAordinary life

by Rachael Philip 

Annual Silent Retreat at St Mary's Tower Retreat Centre NSW

Carmelite Friars of Varroville NSW

Mass at Carmelite Monastery, Varroville NSW

OCD Students Encounter - Bangkok Thailand 2019

The Meeting of East Asia Oceania Fraternity of Discalced Carmelite Frairs

Career-minded Philip Tay was suddenly gripped with the age-old thought that there must be more to life than work and money. The thought was allowed to simmer in his mind as he kept his options open.

Priestly ordinations are grand liturgical affairs drawing scores of clergy as well as hundreds of people from both near and far. But the ordinations on August 6 will be different. For one, the event will not see a church overflowing with the faithful. Instead, due to social distancing, only those invited will be allowed to attend.

Reverend Deacon Philip Tay Kok How OCD and Reverend Deacon Francis Go Sheau Peng OFM Cap will be ordained as presbyters by His Grace Most Reverend Julian Leow, DD, the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur. Brother Bonaventure Rayappan will be ordained a transitional deacon. The ceremony will take place at the Church of St Francis Xavier, PJ (SFX PJ).

The restrictions, which allows Deacon Philip to invite only 30 guests, will not put a damper on his big day. Instead, he thinks his ordination will be a powerful witness of the faith; that despite challenges and restrictions, the Church still stands firm.

“The ordination is a continuing sign of God’s blessings on the Church especially in these trying times. Since the priest is ordained for the service of the community, the ordination mass will remind us all that no matter what happens the Church will always provide for the spiritual needs of its flock,” says Deacon Philip.

“Although the faithful cannot be present physically they will be present spiritually watching the ordination mass through their devices. This is also a blessing as live streaming is borderless, everyone near and far can follow the mass,” says the 45-year-old who hails from Melaka.

God calls in strange ways

In his 20s, Philip Tay says he was a regular guy looking to graduate, get a job then get married and settle down in life. Just ordinary, regular things.

Then something absolutely strange happens. It was 1995. Philip and his friends were in the Philippines for the 10th World Youth Day. On the last day of the event, standing on a crowded street waiting for the pope to arrive, a Filipina walks up to him and his friends, and asks if they were seminarian.

“No, why?” Because you look like one, was the answer. She moved away. Philip was left wondering what seminarians look like. (Important, because it would be the look he would wear sometime down the road.)

“What she said got me thinking and, when I returned to Malaysia, I started to journey with the Jesuits as I have an affinity with the youths and the Jesuits were in charge of Campus Ministry at that time. But nothing came out of this. Eventually I went on with my life. I had a girlfriend, I graduated and started working and was keen on building a career.

Deacon Philip was employed at Selangor Pewter, first in the Industrial Engineering department as a draughtsman and later as a CAD/CAM technician.

But one day this thought entered his mind: There has to be more to life than work and money. In his younger days, Deacon Philip was active in various youth and catechesis ministries, such as the Catholic Students Society and the Parish Youth Council in Good Shepherd Church, Setapak.

“I think it was my involvement in ministries that led me to believe that God wanted me to serve his people. I signed up for the next KL Archdiocese vocation weekend, hoping that it would help in my discernment. I also contacted the Archdiocese Vocation Director and journeyed with him.

“After a year, I decided to apply to enter the seminary. I entered College General in 2005 but left in November the following year to discern a vocation for a religious priest,” said Deacon Philip.

For the next five years he worked first in SFX PJ as a sacristan and later on as a certified trainer in human development. He continued his discernment but eventually gave up on the idea of becoming a priest because it seemed to lead him nowhere.

“In 2012, in a retreat, I got to know some Carmelite friars and reconsidered the vocation of a religious priest but it was a tough decision as my career was taking off. But, in the end, I mailed in my application.”

He was accepted into the Postulancy programme in 2013 and move to the Formation House in Punggol, Singapore. It was a tough journey and he felt like leaving halfway but stayed on until the year-end assessment. He cleared the assessment and proceeded to do the Novitiate programme in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

Novitiate was even more challenging and again thoughts of quitting assailed him but he persevered, completing all three assessments.

“After taking my first vows in January 2015 I spent the next four years doing Philosophy in Singapore and Theology in Australia. Throughout my journey, I am deeply grateful for the unconditional support and the prayers of my family and friends. It helped me immensely in my journey because, ultimately, a vocation is a gift and call from God, and if it’s not meant to be, then no matter how hard one tries, it will never happen.”

Community and prayer life

Deacon Philip says he chose the Carmelite Order because it is rooted in a deep prayer life and strong community support. Carmelite friars live in a community of friars. He also cherished the two one-hour slots reserved for meditation daily, which helped him to centre himself on God and prepare his homilies. The other aspect were the writings of the Carmelite saints, which he found to be rich and deep in spiritualty.

“In the Carmelite Order, you will find many gems of spirituality in the writings of its saints. For instance, in St Teresa of Avila’s masterpiece The Interior Castle, I learned that to be a good priest, self-awareness is important. The book promotes journeying deep into oneself and developing a strong relationship with God.

Deacon Philip has a soft spot for the Little Flower, which he got to know better during his years studying Theology.

“Some secondary sources opened my eyes to St Thérèse’s spirituality. This helped me appreciate my Carmelite life and to approach the priesthood in a different manner. For instance, her Little Way is about not drawing attention to oneself but to direct all attention to God. As priests, we should lead people to God and then fade into the background, leaving the soul to enjoy their relationship with God.”

To sustain him in times of difficulties and doubts, Deacon Philip says he will turn to the words of Scripture for strength.

“This is based on my personal experience over the years, not only as a Carmelite but as a lay person as well. However, there are moments when books have helped to strengthen the faith and give some meaning to life. For example, books written by Fr Marc Foley, OCD, The Love That Keeps Us Sane and The Context of Holiness, both on St Thérèse, has helped me to gain more insight into Carmelite living.”

To those discerning a vocation, he recommends making daily mass a priority.

“Anyone who is discerning a priestly or religious vocation should have a love for the Mass. They should also get a spiritual director who can guide them. Spending time in prayer is also important as it helps to develop a deeper relationship with God.”

The above interview was initiated by Wilson Henry, longtime writer and journalist who passed on before he could complete the article. He will be remembered as one who wrote with passion, who handled projects with meticulous care, and whose concern and interest for those afflicted and in distress infectious. Racheal Philip picked up where he left off to complete the write-up.

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