One of the good things about Seven Fountains retreat center is that there are several good cafes along the main road it is situated at. One of them, my favourite, is the Art Roastery just across the road from its main entrance. It’s a hip, arty and creatively done up cafe with live birds and garden as its key features – besides good affordable coffee and cakes. It is a magnet for the Facebook and Instagram generation. Its unique setting beats the stale Starbucks blah blah standard decor.
Anyway, after four days of silence, solitude and prayer I gave myself a reward and had a flat white and a slice of exquisite and to die for coconut cake. Maybe the many retreat meals of vegetables and fruit and unsweetened chrysanthemum tea that I had made me crave for a booster. And so I had it. It was a great place for reflection and journaling. There is a back room away from the crowd where you have more privacy and that was where I went.
This kind self-reward of three hours of reflection and break from the normal routine adds colour, introduces freshness and eases some of the intensity of interior work. I find that the relaxing change makes me feel energised and ready to continue the prayer journey.
Myself: I am here because I am worn out and tired. I also find I am not drawing as much life from scripture as before. What is going on?
Fr David: Yes sometimes people find it difficult to pray well simply because they are exhausted. It is possible that this may be the reason scripture meditation is not as life-giving as before. You are a Singaporean and you are a very busy stressed up people. Furthermore, you are Chinese.
Myself: Ha ha (laughter). I still have some pain in my heel. Gout.
Fr David: Oh that’s terrible. I had that too. There are three things important to health: 1) Prayer as a relationship with God, 2) Resting well. When we rest well we are better able to pray well and move closer to God. 3) Exercise. Exercise the mind and well as the body.
Take a good rest. Rest as much as you want. Be present with the silence. Enjoy the quiet. Go out to the open air, to nature. Maybe go to the Chiangmai University lake or the waterfall. Walk the labyrinth and the garden,
I love Ignatian spirituality. It is holistic: spirit, mind, emotions and body are all important. It is very practical and contemplative active.
I did not know how tired I was. I thought I was quite rested. Church camp in Bangkok, followed by an extended eight day of vacationing. Then the week before I was home bound and even bed-bound because I was recovering from a vicious bout of gout. I was indeed surprised that I slept more than usual including catnaps between meals. Furthermore, I found myself drowsing during prayer. I made a deliberate effort to sleep and rest more in this retreat.
The food at the Seven Fountains is wholesome. There is always rice and simple salad available for lunch and dinner, plus a vegetable and a meat and a vegetable soup. So it was not difficult to cut down on my meat intake and increase my vegetable and fruit consumption. Gradually I got better and I believe the fiber heavy diet helped my recovery from gout.
The interesting thing is that as I rested well and ate well, I was also praying better and the scripture began to come alive for me. “He make me to lie down on green pastures, He restores my soul”.
No wonder the angel simply let a stressed out prophet Elijah sleep, wake up to eat, and exercise. It readied him to hear God by the time He got to the cave.
The Seven Fountains Ignatian Spirituality Center keeps upgrading itself. It is almost like it has a Singapore spirit. Upgrading and improving is a passion that drives the country. I see it here in Chiangmai. If I remember correctly there were so many improvements over the last seven years. One major one was ensuite bathrooms. Another was the bitumen repairs. Then the rabbits and turkeys came. And the wooden hut was renovated and air conditioned to be another great prayer space. Yesterday, when I came in, I saw the new elevators.
Apparently the sight of older retreatants lugging luggage up the staircase moved the priests with compassion, and in addition the financial means was there for the lifts to be done. I also noticed the enlargement of the dining space to accommodate more dining tables and chairs. The grounds have also been spruced up, with the unwanted plants and weeds and ponding and stagnant water removed and the grounds looking like a newly barbered head. All in all it gives the sense of hope, freshness, and progress.
Where did they get the money from? From donations, many of which I suppose to be from Singaporeans. It is a lovely partnership or fellowship where giving and receiving is the order of the day; the priests and their generosity of opening the retreat and giving direction freely, the Singaporean retreatants so blessed and transformed by the ministry, giving generously in return. What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the Everlasting Arm!
In a sense this upgrading is what also happens in our lives as we learn to be silent, and pray in solitude, with the help of spiritual directors. The Lord draws near, we become sensitive of the movements of the Spirit, we become open to Him and obey Him and we are transformed or “upgraded”.
That is why I am here this week. I feel tired physically and weary emotionally. I have not been praying well. I have lost my appetite for lectio divina. I spend more time on reflection and journaling. Is this a season I have gone into? I need to understand what is going on. Is it perhaps my tiredness and weariness dulling my appetite for God? I look forward to a deeper love for the Lord, which is the grace I desire and seek.
It had been six years since I last had my silent retreat at Seven Fountains Spirituality Centre under Fr David Townsend. Church friends who have gone there recently have told me of changes in the center, as well as outside. Like the newly tarred roads and new animal residents in the center; the gentrification of the surrounding areas; the barring of Chiangmai University and its lake to outsiders; and the new shopping malls and cafes that have opened.
Eng Hwa, a pastor from Praise Evangelical Free Church kindly did all the bookings. The week we wanted was fully booked. We asked if there were available dates earlier or later and praise be to God we took the five days available the week before. We also booked a hotel room nearby for a few days, so we could extend our prayer retreat, as we were graciously permitted to use the retreat facilities and grounds, during the extended stay outside the center. Both of us were assigned a local Thai spiritual director, a Fr Saichon. When the dates were finalised we booked the Scoot tickets at SGD$233 each.
We arrived at the center around one plus on a hot afternoon and after settling in our rooms went out to look for food at the BOAT restaurant. During the light leisurely late lunch we decided to start silence from dinner onwards. After unpacking, I needed a bath and a nap. It had been a long day.
The next day spiritual director saw me and he got to know my background and experience in prayer retreats. Then he handed me the prayer and meditation for the day. I was asked to do a “faith history” for the first day, and on the second and third day, a “vocational history” with several passages of scripture each. Over the several days I set aside time to pause, pray and ponder, and allow the Lord to lay on my heart what He had for me. I had no major decisions to make nor much processing to do, so I was more relaxed and open. Suffice it to say that at the end of the retreat, I felt very grateful, enlightened, reassured, strengthened, and left the retreat with a sense of assurance, anticipation and excitement about what laid ahead for me.
I had to tackle some emergency work from the church though. The retreat center does not allow for retreatants to use the wireless (though they have wireless equipment installed). So I had to retreat to a Art Cafe nearby, buy a cup of coffee for 60-80 Thai baht to access free wireless to complete two pieces of urgent work. Thank God this did not affect the rhythm of the retreat.
The Art Cafe is a unique cafe. It looked like a glasshouse and it housed the owner’s pet merbuk, a lovely songbird. Initially I was taken aback but later I got used to this energetic friendly bird.
I was glad that the local Jesuit priest was my spiritual director. It is good that Asian spiritual directors have been trained so that there is less dependency on the Caucasian priests. We have this bias that prefer the Caucasian as we think they are superior. I think we need to break that mentality, and learn to trust the Lord to use the locals to give good direction. How else can they improve unless they have more and more experience? I was blessed by Fr Saichon and I could sense the Lord was using him to direct my meditation and prayer times. “Some trust in horses and some in chariots, but we will trust in the Lord”. Praise God.
I could not sleep well the first night due to an overdose of caffeine. So the next day it was only one cup a day and an hour of brisk walking in the evening at the park at the Chiangmai University entrance. All apprehension about not being allowed into the university disappeared, and so I got bolder and went farther to the Angkaew lake. No security officer stopped me. The lake was such a peaceful place for exercise and relaxation.
After the retreat we moved to the BED hotel and spent mornings in prayer at the retreat center and the afternoons and evenings in long walks, and having our meals at the Maya Shopping Mall about 15 minutes walk away. We caught some movies too: “Walk With Me” a documentary about mindfulness; “Kingsmen” – an action comedy that ends up being good at neither; and “American Assassin” that feels as fast-moving and exciting as Bourne Identity. I saw more movies at Maya Mall in those few days than in two years in Singapore. I returned home refreshed, recharged and reassured.
A bow bent for too long may break. So after a week of spiritual intensity, it was good to unwind the tension, and relax among friends, both old and new-found, on a one day tour to the waterfalls and to the highest mountain in Thailand, the Doi Inthanon. We set off with our English speaking tour guide, Lino, from Green World Travel, who was friendly, caring and interesting company. The temperature was cool the higher up we went.
Rainbow at waterfall
At the Maeya waterfalls, we saw a beautiful rainbow beyond a “SLIPPERY ROUTE” sign. Certainly apt: we can always find the faithfulness of God, and the sign of better times, beyond danger and risk. With the spray upon us we had a refreshing and fun time just standing there, taking photos and taking the sights in of the beautiful Maeya waterfall, jungle and sky, and giving praise to the Maker.
The King’s garden
We next went to one of the King’s horticultural project along the slope of a mountain. We had lunch at a restaurant overlooking a valley. We gorged on barbecued chicken and salt covered barbecued fish we had purchased earlier at the waterfall stalls. We walked around gardens, among lovely flowers of all kinds, fountains, and pine trees. It was afternoon. The weather was warm but dry. It had not rained since I arrived in Chiang Mai over ten days ago. The waterfalls and the mountain were symbols of what we have experienced in the silent retreat – the refreshing, the rainbow of hope, the spiritual heights.
The mornings and evenings were lovely and cool and the birds and squirrels always came alive with their song and dance routines. The afternoons were warm but not so humid.
“Relax, do whatever relaxes and refreshes you. Don’t force the scripture passage to yield anything. Just relax”. This was the advice my spiritual director Fr David Towsend, SJ, kept repeating over the next few days. Yes, we Singaporeans are always in the productivity game. Since walking relaxes me I took several long walks….and jogs. The Chiang Mai University is a mammoth campus, as I found out, during these explorations.
The other retreatants were going through a whole morning and afternoon of talks. The returning retreatants only needed to attend the morning sessions conducted by Simon and Rinda Tan. They each would meet with spiritual director Simon or Rinda daily for thirty or more minutes. Simon and Rinda were gracious to allow me to join the community as and when I wanted and to have the priest as my spiritual director. There were four pastors at the retreat(see pic below).
Silence began at dinner time. It would continue for the next six days. It’s the spiritual equivalent of not opening the oven too often to see if the cake was baked. Sharing prematurely would dissipate the depth to which the Lord wanted to work with us on an issue.
Sunday, 14th November:
Attended the Sunday morning mass. An hour and ten minutes. A liturgical service with scripture and sermonette interspersed with songs and climaxing with the Mass. Fr David Townsend spoke about why the Creeds were so important to the church and how it often required courage in the ancient days to recite them. There was certainly a price to pay for speaking the truth. John the Baptist knew that. When he saw Jesus he declared, Behold the Lamb of God, and straight away he lost two faithful members. Later he would lose his head, literally, again for speaking the truth. This business of truth speaking was serious stuff.
David had already given me a passage to meditate on and as it was Sunday, I did not meet with him.
Eat. Pray. Journal. Sleep. Getting into some kind of rhythm.
They tell me reading biographies is sort of okay during a silent retreat, unlike reading books on spiritual stuff that might lead me on a detour from what God is saying or doing inside me. The same goes for MP3 messages. So I brought along and finished “Born for Blessings” by Bishop Moses Tay. It was a straightforward account of his life and career as Bishop and then Archbishop. Was impressed that the Bishop, later Archbishop, was very committed to the Lord’s work in his youth and later as a general practitioner. He received his University of London theological education via correspondence and was ordained a priest while still in medical practice. Bi-vocational- this is something the church will see more of in the future, I believe! Anyway this book offers an insider’s view of what happened in the upper echelons of the Anglican communion during the denomination’s recent turmoils.
Just some notes for readers to get an idea of what a silent retreat looks and feel like. Nothing matches the experience though. Of course what happens in the interior life remains private in my own journal. However, brief diary notes over the next few days may give readers an idea of what it was like. Hopefully they may want to have a retreat themselves.
Thursday, 11th November:
Here I am. The common response when God beckons His own. Here I am. Half a day of travel, with an hour’s transit in Bangkok. Half a day to settle into the Seven Fountains retreat house in Chiangmai. Mine was a little room with a view and a balcony on the corner of the third floor of Block 2.
Here I am Lord.
Had a cheap and good Japanese meal before the retreat proper began. Tsunami is just three minutes walk to the left as you walked out the entrance gate of the retreat house.
To view videos clips of the Seven fountains grounds see below:
Friday, 12th November:
It was good to begin. House rules and orientation. Shown the different blocks, chapels and dining area and other spaces. Simon and Rinda brought us out to the Chiang Mai University lake area just fifteen minutes away.
Watched the “Bucket List” movie, which gave new meaning to the scripture catchphrase, Watch and pray. Hmmm….what would my bucket list look like?
The dining hall was still crowded with animated conversations.