I feel very privileged and grateful. This camino experience had been made possible because my leadership wanted my sabbatical to be in the last quarter, and Lance Ng my spiritual director invited me to this spiritual exercise cum pilgrimage. I originally had signed up for an Olleh Kyushu hike but had to withdraw from it in order to give this priority. I received a kind of additional divine confirmation that I made a good choice to do this.
The sabbatical graces that I have been asking of God are threefold: 1) to have good physical and soul rest, 2) to be present and attentive to life-giving and delightful things, 3) to fall more deeply in love with Jesus.
Interestingly, in the notes handed to us, I read this insightful saying of Arrupe, a prominent leader of the Jesuits. It filled me with joy and amazement! I took a picture so its in my phone and I can reflect on it more.
It expresses my desire during this sabbatical. I ask the Lord to light a fire of love for Jesus in my soul. This is what I desire and pray for.
It was National Day. It was a hazy and lazy day for me. One I regretted. I went for a long ride to the Jurong Lake Gardens with my Brompton bike. The cloud cover and slight haze made for a cooler ride. The park was more crowded than usual but still pleasant to cycle on the park connector. It makes no difference marking out paths for cyclists, pedestrians and joggers. Most do not observe them anyway. Still it was a pleasant 10km ride back and forth from my home to the endpoint near the AYE expressway.
TV and internet
When I returned my brother in law and wife were visiting. They had been there an hour but I was riding. Talked a little before they too went off and my wife and I went out to the Yuhua hawker center and market for a yong tau fu lunch. We bought some kueh kueh for tea so when I got home I plonked myself in the sofa and surfed the web happily: Arsenal had bought some good players at the last day of the transfer window and I was reading all that different newspapers in England said about that. I also manage to catch a Korean variety show, a K-movie titled Microhabitat, and in the evening an African movie titled, The Queen of Katwa, based on a true story of a chess prodigy. The whole afternoon and evening was taken up with internet news and television.
Reviewing the day
On Saturday morning as I reviewed how I idled on National Day I regretted that I was throughout the day mostly oblivious to the presence of God with me. If the Holy Spirit had been a physical friend who was with me the whole day he would have felt offended, upset or saddened that I had hardly paid any attention to his presence with me throughout the day. So absorbed was I in relaxation activities I had forgotten His lovely presence. As I sat there I enjoyed His companionship. It was so peaceful, refreshing and enlightening. I felt sorry and told Him so. And I found my thoughts absorbed in the Korean movie I had watched. In God’s mercy and ability to recycle waste, I saw how the Microhabitat movie threw light on a verse that had puzzled me before. I even remember praying, Lord help me understand this verse. And now the Lord was shedding light on it using the Korean movie to give me some insights into the life of the Spirit.
I felt blessed and enjoyed God’s company throughout the Saturday as He helped me finalise the sermon I would preach on Sunday about the Holy Spirit. Life with the Spirit is always interesting.
This prayer of trust in God is not easy. I find that when I bring a burden, problem or concern to God, I have strings attached. I unconsciously want it answered my way, and usually as soon as possible. I want the outcome to be what I envisage to be God’s plan or will in a given situation. If things does not pan out that way, I get upset, frustrated, worried. But I am learning.
I am learning prayer from Mary, the mother of Jesus. She saw that the wedding at Cana was in trouble because the wine was running out (John 2). It was a big problem because hospitality was a big thing. It was hard for hosts to estimate the amount of food or wine needed because virtually everyone invited could invite anyone. What did Mary do? She told Jesus, “They are short on wine.” That’s all. She did not tell Jesus what he needed to do and how to do it. When I pray, I find myself telling God what to do as though I know the best way of solving various problems. Who has known the mind and ways of God to counsel and instruct him? Of course none of us tell God what to do – except unconsciously or unknowingly – in prayer. It cannot be called a prayer of trust in God then. It should be called a prayer to control or use God.
This insight from Mary’s example has been an impetus for me to learn to pray by just letting God know there is a problem and telling him I don’t know what to do and I trust Him with it. If he does whisper, or bring to my mind something I could do about the matter, I will just do it, no matter how irrelevant or inadequate the action he drops in my mind may seem. Pouring hundreds of litres of water into stone jars seemed totally inadequate and irrelevant to the shortage of wine in the wedding, but the servants did as they were told and lo, and behold, God was able to do exceeding beyond all that Mary could ask or imagine, and all the glory goes to him.
When I do the prayer of trust in God it liberates me from this grasping tendency to want to maintain control over events and peoples future, over wanting to look good, over my lust for success as I define it, over greed and selfishness. I enter a realm of peace, contentment, and abandon. I welcome a willingness to let God be God, for I acknowledge that I am not.
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 labyrinth is one of the key prayer features of the Seven Fountains. In past retreats I could never quite enjoy or relate to it even though I had used it a number of times.
This retreat, I find myself gravitated to it and deriving life from using it as a prayer method. I start off my “journey” to the center, unloading a matter before the Lord. I pour out my burden to the Lord about a specific matter. I do it until I reach the center, which usually takes about ten minutes or more.
The important thing is to know that my task is to tell the Lord the problem, that’s all. I do not tell Him what He should do to fix it. How He fixes it is up to Him. Like Mary who went to Jesus with the problem, “they are running out of wine”, and left it to her Son. We do not need to tell God how to fix it. He is the ultimate Fixer. He has His ways and timing and sometimes unknown to me, I could be the one in need of fixing!
By the time I stand at the Rock in the center, I have downloaded all my troubles to the Lord, and there I fully hand over the matter to Him and wait in silence to see if there is some insight, image or movement within me.
Then I would move out of the center again twisting and turning till I am out of the puzzle, but this time feeling lighter and at peace and giving thanks to God.
I did quite a number of rounds of this, for as a pastor I do have burdens which I am carrying that I should not be carrying. So laying it all down to the Lord in a prayer activity helped me feel at peace, grateful, faith-filled, and fulfilled.
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.