Thursday, 2 December 2021

Chasing Nouwen's Rembrandt in St Petersburg, Russia

I first came to know about the book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri Nouwen in June 2001 at a seminar in church. I must have been drawn to its cover and purchased it almost immediately.

The book essentially captures Nouwen's reflections on a painting by renowned Dutch artist, Rembrandt (1606 - 1669) titled, The Return of the Prodigal Son. As the name suggests, the painting is Rembrandt's interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11 - 32).

There were three parts in Nouwen's book that grabbed my attention: 

From Chapter 7: “The true centre of Rembrandt’s painting is in the hands of the father. On them all the light is concentrated; on them the eyes of the bystanders are focused; in them mercy becomes flesh; upon them forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing come together, and through them, not only the tired son, but also the worn-out father find their rest.” 

From Chapter 8: “It all began with the hands. The two are quite different. The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal son’s shoulder and back. I can see a certain pressure, especially in the thumb. That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father’s left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip." 

From Chapter 8: “How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand.” 

Nouwen’s reflections on Rembrandt’s masterpiece added a new dimension to my understanding of the parable of the prodigal son. 

I made a mental note to look for the painting so that I can physically marvel at these observations that Nouwen had meticulously reflected on. I learnt that the painting is displayed at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. In 2001, the dream seemed out of reach for me who lived 8,670km away. 

Fast forward to September 2018 and I was planning a trip to the Baltics and Poland. My return flight was from Kuala Lumpur to Helsinki after which I would travel south towards the capital cities of the Baltic nations – Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius; and onwards to Warsaw and Krakow in Poland. 

While researching for the trip, I discovered that there was a free entry visa for travelers who enters Saint Petersburg by cruise ship or ferry. 

I also discovered that Moby SPL Limited operates regular ferry services from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg. 

That was a fantastic opportunity to organize a trip from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg before flying back to Kuala Lumpur. My quest to look for Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son was alive. 

I arrived at Saint Petersburg with a carefully planned itinerary. Since I had less than 48 hours (due to the free entry visa), I could only experience selected activities like search for beautiful underground metro stations:

... watch a ballet performance titled, Le Corsaire at the Mariinsky Theatre:

... attend Sunday Mass at St Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church:

... and visit attractions such as Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood:

The entire ceiling and all walls of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood were covered in art.

... Kazan Cathedral: 

I've not been to St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, so Kazan Cathedral is by far the biggest Christian house of worship I've been to. 

and the Hermitage State Museum, or Hermitage, as it is popularly known as:

After getting off the ferry and checking into my hostel, I was already tired, but mustered enough energy to walk to the Hermitage. 

After purchasing an entrance ticket, I picked up a museum guide and made my way into the building. 

This statue of three girls caught my attention when I entered the Hermitage.

The first thing I did was to find my bearings and locate where the main exhibits were, especially Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

After wandering from room to room, from exhibit to exhibit, fatigue began to set in. The lack of clear and sufficient signages at the Hermitage didn’t help either. Information in the museum guide started becoming fuzzy. 

Soon I came to the end of the building. Thinking that Rembrandt’s masterpiece was in the next building, I exited the building that I was in. 

There was a personnel on duty and I asked her where exactly was Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal SonWhen she said that the painting was in the building that I had just exited from, I realized that I had made a mistake. I asked whether I could re-enter the museum. She said that tickets are for single entry only, and that I would have to purchase another ticket. On no! I looked at my wrist watch and realized I didn’t have time to go to the main entrance of the Hermitage to do so as the museum was about to close. I was also tired and wanted to rest. 

After mulling over the mistake that I had made, I made a difficult decision to leave the Hermitage without seeing the very painting that I had travelled 8,670km to Saint Petersburg for. I wouldn’t have time to return the next day as I had a packed itinerary. It was a painful decision but I had to learn to let go. 

On the ferry back to Helsinki, I clutched Nouwen’s book and reflected on the lessons learnt from this trip. 

I may have missed an opportunity to stand in awe before Rembrandt’s masterpiece, but perhaps it was God’s way of telling me that it is alright to let go of things that are not meant to be, or beyond my control. Anyway, this is an excuse to re-visit Saint Petersburg and discover more experiences (and lessons) that the magnificent city has to offer.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

2020 - A Pandemic Year of Challenges

This will probably be the shortest look back post I've written in this blog as I didn't travel much in 2020 because of the pandemic. 

Ronan Keating Concert at Arena of Stars, Resorts World Genting - 14 February 2020
An acquaintance from church had given me 2 tics for the concert in return for a ride up to Resorts World Genting and coffee money. I happily agreed on the barter trade and brought a friend to accompany me to the concert. 

Although we sang our hearts out at Ronan's hits like When You Say Nothing At All and If Tomorrow Never Comes, I felt that the concert which lasted around 1.5 hours was a tad too short for the price of the tic. Thankfully I didn't pay for the tics or else I would have asked for a refund.

Mr Keating rocking the crowd at the concert. 

Participated in Kuala Lumpur City Day Half Marathon - 8 March 2020
This was the first and last run I had participated in before the Movement Control Order (MCO) kicked in on 18 March 2020. 

Because COVID-19 was spreading rapidly at that time, many participants didn't turn up and this gave ample room for those who participated to practise physical distancing throughout the run.

COVID-19 pandemic
What can I say but the pandemic has turned our lives upside down. It had indeed been a challenge and perhaps even a blessing to some extend. I captured my experiences during the initial part of the MCO here.

The things that I had learned during the pandemic warrants another blog post on its own.

Started volunteering at Samaritan Hope Home (SHH)
SHH is a centre for the homeless located in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur. The homeless could go to SHH for a meal 6 days a week. However when the MCO was enforced on 18 March 2020, SHH had changed its modus operandi to packing food for distribution to the homeless instead. 

This is the food that we packed daily during the MCO:

Getting sufficient manpower to pack the food was a challenge as many volunteers were fearful of stepping out of their homes, let alone volunteer at SHH. 

In the end we only had around 8 volunteers to pack the food and clean up after. We started at 8.00am and finished around 2.00pm daily, 7 days a week. Back breaking work indeed, but the rewards were immeasurable. 

Visited Perhentian Island in August
This was a long awaited trip after not being able to go anywhere since 18 March 2020. 

We drove to Kuala Besut, stayed overnight at a small motel beside the bus station, and took the ferry to the island the next day. Along the way we stuffed ourselves silly with nasi kerabu and keropok.

After seeing the beauty of Perhentian Island, I kept asking myself how come I didn't visit this island before. 

Perhentian Island is indeed paradise on earth and I'm planning to make a trip there again once the monsoon season is over.

The drive from KL to Kuala Besut was an 8-hour journey which was too long for me. By the time I reached home, my feet had become swollen due to water retention. I had to get a feet massage and went for a short 5km run to get my blood circulating. So no more driving to the East Coast. Instead, I'll fly to Kota Bahru and travel by road to the jetty.


In the coming year I hope we'll be able to travel more and that marathons (HM & FM) will be allowed too. 

Eventhough I like to travel out of Malaysia, perhaps 2021 is the year I do my part as a citizen by travelling more within Malaysia to help revive the economy.

However the end of the pandemic is not in sight yet. As I type this, a new strain of virus have been found, and eventhough vaccines are being distributed around the world, we do not know whether it'll be effective at all.

So in the meantime, we must take care of our health, watch out for each other, and trust in the Lord that everything will be alright.

Here's to a hopeful 2021.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Life in a time of COVID-19

The Movement Control Order (MCO) has been in effect since 18 March 2020 and will go on till 14 April 2020.

The aim of the MCO is for people to stay home and to practise social distancing. We're also told to wash our hands frequently using soap and water and to use hand sanitisers.

During this time only essential businesses are allowed to operate. Supermarkets and convenient stores can only operate between 8.00am - 8.00pm. However only the head of the family is allowed to go get groceries. Customers are not allowed to dine-in at eateries but take-away and food delivery are allowed. Public transportation such as MRT and e-hailing services have limited operating hours.

The Malaysian Government is very strict on this and many who have flouted the law have been arrested. Yesterday 24 seminarians from College General were arrested for playing football in the college field. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three hours of community service on weekdays for three months.

The World Health Organisation has said today that they expect Malaysia's COVID-19 cases to peak in mid-April. So there's a possibility that the MCO may be extended. I tell you ... if that happens, there'll be more people suffering from psychological problems compared to coronavirus.

'Work from Home'

I've been 'working from home' since 23 March 2020 after the Central Bank of Malaysia asked all banks to reduce their staff working in the office to 50%. The thing is ... my bank does not provide laptops for staff due to security issue. Therefore I can only 'work from home' via phone calls and WhatsApp messages. I feel helpless at times but there's no other way. 

More Time

Now that I have alot of time on my hands, I'm maximising it by doing all the things that I didn't have time to do before, e.g. catching up on my reading, blogging (already completed 2 blog posts in a week!), Netflix (finished Season 1 of Mindhunter), etc. It would be a shame if I didn't accomplish anything by the time the MCO ends on 14 April 2020. 


On weekdays I've established a daily routine like waking up the same time as on a typical day to the office. I need to report to my Head of Department every morning via WhatsApp about my health condition, i.e. whether I'm having a fever, whether I'm not feeling well, etc.

After showering and taking my breakfast I'll read the news and do some writing or fiddle around on social media.

Since the laundromat is closed during the MCO, I now have to hand wash my clothing which I do twice a week. Thank heavens that the usage of clothing is minimal when one is staying home. And thank heavens for dry-fit t-shirts which dries quickly. 


I go out to get groceries about once a week and I wear a face mask each time I go out. 

I'm blessed to be living right smack in the middle of the city where there're many supermarkets and convenient stores within walking distance from my flat. 

I'm careful whenever I go out as there have been reports of people getting robbed on their way back from grocery shopping. People are getting desparate these days and some are resorting to robbery and thef.

When I went to get groceries during the initial stages of MCO, I bumped into three youth dressed in black jacket and black jeans in one of the lanes. Their menacing way of walking told me they were up to no good and I quickly walked away as fast as I could. 

During the early stages of the MCO, I had ordered vegan burgers and sausages online and that has lasted me till now. Today I ordered salad in support of local businesses. I made sure I ordered two salads to maximise the delivery charges.

Influx of Nonsensical Information and Fake News

Now with the MCO is in full force and many of us are staying home, people use their free time to forward anything they receive via WhatsApp without verifying the info first. Most of the time the info turns out to be nonsensical information or fake news. I've muted many chat groups and individuals because there's just too much of these being sent around.

What irritates me most is when two people in the same chat group sends the same shit one after the other to the same chat group. Clearly shows that people don't read their messages.

Chartered Banker Examination

My Chartered Banker examination which was scheduled at the end of March 2020 has been postponed to July 2020. 

Part of me was rejoicing when AICB called to inform that my exam had been postponed. When it finally sank in, the other half of me was loathing the thought of having to sit for two papers in July. Well, I'll just have to wing it.

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