The school chapel was somehow out of bounds for me, a self imposed rule. I peered into it once after catechism, an optional class in standard one. I remember I was scared, the fug in the dimly lit room, uninviting. The big statue of Virgin Mary did not calm my nerves. I bolted out after no more than five uneasy steps into the room. Why? I was a little boy, not quite seven. The lifesize Jesus was nailed to the crucifix, I could feel his immense pain, it was undeniable on his sad face. I wasn’t prepared to witness cruelty and death in a religious room, a place for contemplation and confession. The crucifix was as macabre as the gallows, both murder weapons that display their dead victims high up, a useful deterrent.
In 1976, the last year of my school life, a friend invited me to the chapel to pray with her. She was a beautiful girl with long slim legs and matching black long hair. An Asian version of Artemis. Sure! I wasn’t saying no to the girl of my dreams. After all, the other boys had behaved like cockroaches clamouring around a pot of honey for the past many months whenever she was present. It crossed my mind, why would she invite me? The me had a face riddled with acne, further detracted by the coconut hair cut. The me had gangly puny arms and a chipped front tooth which prevented me from flashing friendly smiles. I was not in those boys’ league, they paraded their cockiness and god-given confidence with panache. Not that I pigeon-holed myself as one of inferior caste, a son of a dhobi man, a Xiyi ren. What I had spades of was “Inner Strength”; I was grateful for the name given to me. I deduced my dad would have valued strength as a prerequisite for steadfast grit and unwavering loyalty. But, I never revealed my “Inner Strength”, it was always buried inside my shy and quiet shell. Praying is a deep personal experience with God, yet she invited me to pray with her. I did not tell her I wasn’t on talking terms with God anymore, he never answered me and so I gave up talking. Without any hesitation, I followed her into the chapel.
The fug in the room was still there. But, Jesus looked less in pain, as if he had grown used to the suffering as I grew up.Virgin Mary now looked more serene and at peace, they have been together all this while. They would have looked at me, the chap in the chapel and wondered why I was there. They would have remembered the urghhling who bolted out of that room.