Sabbatical reflection

It has been a month since my sabbatical began. I feel better rested physically and psychologically. Longer hours of sleep, exercise, and disengagement from pastoral duties does wonders. Being overseas helped too because you became unavailable physically.

I also feel thankful for the many blessings of God. Never thought of touring Spain, never was interested. But in pursuing the kingdom, in seeking rest and restoration, I ended up in Spain, beginning in San Sebastian and ending in Barcelona, staying at many towns and cities along the way, in Basque and Catalonia regions, often walking in the streets and countryside. I love silent retreats, silence and solitude. I love hiking. And I was blessed by Ignatius Spiritual Exercises and spirituality. All these three elements that nourishes me were present in this sabbatical program. What a blessed trinity!

This was followed by a vacation and catch up time with Mike and Amy in Bolton. They were very gracious and availed themselves to us for five days. We had significant time catching up usually over meals – restaurant, home-cooked and takeaways. It was around 7 to 18 degree centigrade with gloomy clouds and rain on quite a few days. This restricted our plans but it meant more rest, early to bed and late to rise. It was a contrast to the Camino Ignaciano– late to bed, early to rise.

Now I am glad to be back home. I feel relieved. Spanish and English food and weather are good – for a while, usually tolerable for two weeks or so, in my experience. I like Singapore. I like the smells, tastes, sights of home.

I don’t like the haze though. This morning, I saw the haze and told my wife, “Thank God that in the last three weeks, we were away overseas breathing fresh mountain and countryside air”.

I had an inspired thought this morning as I reflected on how to use the rest of my sabbatical wisely: treat each day as you would a sabbath day with an eye on REMEMBRANCE (spiritual nourishment), REST (physical and emotional self-care), RELISH (life-giving engagement and activities).

“Lord, help me do this and experience more of your love.”

 

Barcelona: ending our Camino Ignaciano

It took an hour by bus from Manresa to Barcelona. We stayed in Denit Hotel near the Plaza Catalunya, where protests were taking place. We were there to trace St Ignatius presence there during his grammar studies and labour of love.

We were reviewing and remembering and sharing to conclude the retreat and camino.

Tireless Fr Jose steadfastly diligently conducts his final pilgrimage sharing about St Ignatius
A wefie with St Ignatius
Barcelona has its quirky art in many public places
Graffiti can also be found in side streets and alleys

We had visited various places where Ignatius gave help and received help and hospitality while in Barcelona. Nothing has remained after nearly 500 years.  They could locate the sites, but other buildings have been built over them.

Wefie with the Sagrada Familia in the background
The Passion facade was stark yet striking
The inside of the Sagrada Familia is a fit dwelling place for God and worshippers to meet

We also visited the world famous Catholic minor basilica called Sagrada Familia. It had been under construction since 1882 and is estimated to be completed in 2026- 100 years after Gaudi, the chief architects death. The tour kept me in awe throughout the hour and was worth every cent.

The last supper…this is starters only!

On the final day, we sat outside a cafe in lovely weather, ordered our drinks, and shared where we were and what God has been doing and saying during the retreat before closing in prayer.

Last faith sharing session over coffee (photo by Lance)

After the camino officially ended, we walked around on Sunday afternoon. Over the two days I have witnessed three peaceful demonstrations: one by catalans protesting the jailing of their “independence” leaders; one that supported a unified Spain, and one near the cruise center with Lebanese protesting against mismanagement by their nation’s elected government.

Our hotel was located near Plaza Catalyuna so we had to skirt the protestors on our way home from dinner(photo by Juliana)

Peter Claver patron saint of slaves…and retirees

I have never heard of Fr Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest-missionary,  until we passed by the town he was born and grew up in during the Camino Ignaciano. Born in Verdu, Spain into a rich farming family, he was well educated and intelligent. He later joined the Jesuits and was sent as a missionary to Colombia, at that time a newly established colony called Kingdom of New Granada.

Statue of Peter Claver with African slave child

There he became a priest and served the slaves who were cruelly brought in by shiploads from Africa and sold to landowners and mineowners who needed labourers.

Peter Claver humbly served among them offering care for the sick, speaking up for them to the owners, and catechizing them in the faith. Through his hard work, compassion and solidarity with the slaves, it is estimated that 300,000 were baptized during his 40 years of ministry in Cartegena. To me this is amazing, even if you factor in the pressure on slaves to comply because of their fear of their owners.

A simple minimalist chapel at his family home, now a shrine

The irony is that after years of faithful service, in his 70s, he fell ill, and while assigned an ex-slave to care for him, Fr Peter Claver was sadly neglected and largely forgotten till the day he died. Only at his funeral was there a deeper gratitude and appreciation for his years of service, as “a slave of slaves forever”.

This story stirred in my soul feelings of sadness, and the fear of being forgotten and neglected after I retire from my position as senior pastor.

It made me recall now, with some regret, that I had somewhat forgotten and neglected my predecessor pastor P.J. Johney, after he retired. In my immaturity and obsession of trying to fix the church and move it (as though this could be done by human effort and wisdom- what audacity and stupidity!), I had not taken as much time to honour, love and listen to him as I could. I was too into growing the church, when I should be growing myself in love and compassion.

I wonder what it would be like when I step down. Probably the same: forgotten and neglected. I had better prepare myself emotionally and mentally for this. There will obviously be dimunition of one’s power and role in decision making, as well as status and honour. Its the same for retirees in the working world. During this retreat I could with the help of the spiritual director, attend to these emotions and let it sink, and process them by talking about them to the Lord and receive His peace and joy, which surpasses all logic and human manufacture.

Thank you Fr Peter Claver! Perhaps you should not only be “the patron saint of all slaves”, but also of all retirees!!

The Camino Ignaciano cast

I originally wanted to get a taste of training as a spiritual director but it was not to be since the church leadership felt the last quarter of the year would serve succession better. I was thankful for this in the end, for my spiritual director Lance Ng, of Kingsmead Centre, invited me and my wife to a pilgrimage called Camino Ignaciano with a retreat content. He had gone in 2018 and wanted to see if the pilgrimage could be modified to embed the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises(SE) in the camino. My wife and were the last two to be added to the list of about 16 pilgrims. Lance led the retreat “component” and worked in tandem with Fr Jose who gave historical info and spiritual insights into Ignatius, the man. Great teamwork.

I liked the way Lance explained to us the dynamics of the SE day by day in 30 minutes sessions; the way he reminded us to be fully present to God and to ourselves, and to have a contemplative posture at all times.

I dread cold weather, but Lance Ng loves
Fr Jose Lluis Iriberri S.J.,  the Jesuit priest leading us with his knowledge and patience
Lance Ng, and Kae, who provides administrative support for this pilgrimage
Audrey handles all the financials involved
The  beautiful pilgrims from Singapore

The other spiritual director is Fr Jose Luis Iriberri S.J., who was assigned the task of establishing this spiritual pilgrimage, quite unlike the better known but now secular camino de Santiago.

Fr Jose has information at his fingertips and showed he had done extensive research and countless caminos before this one. We were privileged and blessed to have him. His homilies were short, sharp and satisfying and his sense of humour pleasantly surprised us as our rapport with him grew.

I will always remember his pleading voice, “Come on pilgrims, you can do it! ….let’s go…etc.”

With these two leaders as our guides the sixteen of us pilgrims have been touched and blessed, informed and inspired, and connected with the Lord and one another, in reflection and prayer, and in faith-sharing and individual direction.

The administrative tasks were divided between Kae and Audrey and all the pilgrims were thankful for their humble hard work. Lots of changes had to be made as pilgrims withdrew, or had to leave midway, or could only join us midway, due to unforseen circumstances. Thank God for these helpers that lighten the load of the spiritual directors.

I am deeply grateful for these guys who made this camino such a meaningful one. May God enrich their lives as they have enriched ours, to the greater glory of God.

St Francis Xavier inspiration

You cannot but be impressed and moved by the life and work of St Francis Xavier. Here I was at Castle of Xavier, where he was born, and grew up. Its surreal. I once did a paper on Xavier’s missionary toils in Japan. Now Fr Jose gave us the saint’s birth to death sketch of his life. Brilliant student in Paris University, sportman, confident, respected, from a rich family. Gave up all to follow Christ in the mission fields. Served in Goa, India, Malacca, Indonesia, Japan, Macau. He died of sickness at age 46 while waiting to enter China. Estimated 30,000 baptisms in his one decade of preaching Christ. Stupendous. Just to get from Portugal to India took almost 2 years by ship!!

Castle of Xavier: St Francis early years spent here
St Francis and his passion for reaching the lost in Asia in a giant poster

What motivated him? I asked. It was the experience of the length and breadth and height and depth of God’s love. He had done the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and had a real trust relationship with the Lord.

The tiny chapel with an unusual crucifix in the Castle of Xavier

I saw the tiny chapel in the castle where he likely prayed in. An unsual figure of a smiling crucified Christ dominated the chapel. All around the walls were dark figures of death, of white bones and skeletons.

A smile on the dead Christ’s face

Why a dead Christ with a smile? The job of saving mankind is finished? Peace and joy knowing He pleased the Father? Laugh of victory over sin, death and Satan? A smile of love as He knows He will be with His Father soon? No one knows what was on the sculptor’s mind. Anyway, it must have fascinated and moved St Francis in his younger years, or at least stayed with him through his years of hardship and suffering.

My room for two nights in the retreat house

I felt grateful too when I thought of God’s call on my life. I had experienced great encounters with God during the charismatic revival of 1970s. I believe it was experiencing this vast love of God that propelled me into obeying God’s call, with all its sacrifices and service. And it was being kept in this love of God that kept me serving in WRPF all these past 39 years of ups and downs. I feel grateful to God for this grace and privilege of serving this one church all this while.

Relishing and being present

Its vineyard country we have entered, following one of the journeys of St Ignatius.

Vineyards all around us
The Jesuit priest leading us eating the fruit of the land

We walked 15km on Saturday and about 14km today. The only difference to me was that the former was quieter and hardly anyone crossed paths with us, while today, many who were walking the Camino Santiago walked past us, including locals exercising on Sunday, a few every seven minutes.

The weather was windy, cool and sunny yesterday, but cloudier and less windy today. In both cases a short sleeve T shirt and long pants sufficed. The jackets we wore earlier in the morning had to be removed by 10am because the day grew warmer.

We walked through the town on Sunday
We got our Camino Passport stamped.
Our hotel was formerly the medieval palace of a duke whom Ignatius visited

I felt that two blessings were being granted as I relished the long walks in cool weather and lovely scenery.  It took my mind and heart off church responsibilities and burdens. This disengagement is such a blessing.  Secondly, I also needed to simply rest, eat, exercise and be fully present with the physical world, its sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. This grounds me in the now, instead of dwelling on the past or the future.

My wife decided to fly off with St Ignatius

Walking 19km with “broken bones”

The camino led us through shop streets and apartments.  People have yet awakened. We began our walk at 7.30am in silence after a meditation on scriptures that evokes awareness of sins, but from God’s eyes of love.

Cool fresh air and sunny skies
With Kae and Corina
Through many former train tunnels

We walked past factories, past offices, markets, onto a railway track converted to new uses. Some locals cycled past, some jogged and most were brisk walking. We were immersed in forests and meadows, the tunnels and factories and farms, the bridges and streams, the darkness and sunshine, the birdsong and hum of machines. These comprised the sanctuary in which we pondered over our life’s journey, over scriptures and what we have been moved by thus far as we walked. And all this in silence and peace.

The route of Camino Ignaciano is identified by orange markings

I was pondering over a scripture from Psalms 51, “let the bones you have crushed dance”. My bones have been crushed on the altar of ministry and his promise to me  is a redemptive dance and rejoicing, something I have experienced, and still do today, and will in future. He never fails.

It ended up being a 5 hours walk covering 19km, before the bus picked us up and brought us to a charming, rustic, beautiful,  family farm home converted into a hotel catering to pilgrims. Gorgeous rooms, dining areas, great food and family hospitality.

Lovely charming rustic hotel that was once a family farmhouse

Beautiful modern but elegant church

Magnificent Diocesan shrine of Aranzazu

Eucharist in side chapel

The evening ended with eucharist, a siesta, dinner and a session titled, “Loved Sinner” to prepare us for the next day’s walk.

We retired totally spent.