This silent retreat was for seven days in early December. It took a day to travel to the Cistercian Monastery near Dalat, Vietnam: two hours by flight to Ho Chi Minh City; a 45 minutes domestic flight to Dalat, and a final hour by bus to this cool weather mountain retreat. It was the same hours returning to Singapore. One day of re-entry program was added.
The retreat proper began with a half day of orientation and then grand silence began and continued for seven days. Each day we met with our chosen spiritual director. There were 28 retreatants from Singapore and Malaysia and 6 spiritual directors. Securing this slot was difficult as the guest rooms were often occupied from local needs.
I enjoyed the retreat, and will post about it later after Christmas and New Year. However I did manage to make some simple slideshows from the photos I have taken. Three slideshows to be exact. Apple makes it a breeze. But only after I have loaded the photos from my Android Samsung Galaxy Note 5, which was quite a chore.
The first slideshow, is the most complete one which shows the beautiful grounds, some of the food we ate, and the one day Dalat re-entry program before we flew back.
The second slideshow excluded the food section, and allows more time to appreciate each photo and stir nostalgia.
I do not keep the sabbath as a law, but I live by the wisdom of sabbath. Christ is my sabbath. In Christ I have entered a spiritual rest from all works and labouring to earn salvation. However there is wisdom to be drawn from God’s idea of rest, remembering, and relishing one day a week.
One day in the week, usually Monday my day off, I choose to slow down to rest and avoid the kind of work which I usually do. I take time to meditate and pray. I try to delight in everything throughout the day. I rest.
This Monday morning, I cycled to the Japanese Garden and found a bench facing the disused golf course of the now defunct Jurong Country Club. The government seized it for its vaunted development of the rapid rail station and peripheral mixed development.
Slowing down takes time. I was sitting there still and silent for 40 minutes. My thoughts were everywhere. So I sought to focus on my physical senses especially the sense of sound and touch. It helped. I shut my eyes, felt the cool breeze, and listened. Immediately, I heard the distant and faded pounding of a piledriver– thud, thud, thud. I heard something that sounded like a motor boat in the distance. There was the sound of excavators at work. There was the chirping of small birds and sometimes the squak of the heron. A golf cart rolls by behind me and I can hear that too. Must be the park management staff. Even the crickets whistle incessantly. A lot of construction work is going on at the fringe of the Jurong Lake and some even in the Chinese Garden.
Slowly my wandering thoughts which were like distracting monkeys jumping all over the branches of my mind, calmed down and quietened, as though asleep. Finally I did come to a place of restfulness and I meditated on the stages of prayer and the life of prayer that Jesus lived. Some lovely thoughts and took some notes of the insights.
I rounded off my time with the Lord cycling around the Chinese Garden and saw this couple having a photo shoot of their infant child. It was the first time I have seen a child photography session in the Chinese Garden.
How do we trace progress in our prayer relationship with God? An author by the name of Mark Thibodeux wrote about The Four Stages of Prayer that may give us a helpful framework to reflect on our personal answer to this question.
Firstly, talking at God. This is where all believers start their prayer life. It revolves around telling God our needs, problems, and desires. We even tell God how he can resolve them. At this level, God is nearly treated like an object, a gigantic prayer answering vending machine. Its a I-it kind of relationship if we go by Martin Buber’s categories. Sadly, many Christians stay at this stage and never move on, even after many years as a follower of Christ.
The second stage is where we talk to God. At this stage prayer still revolves around words. The improvement is that we are more aware and conscious of God as a person, usually as a friend with whom we could share our needs, desires, thoughts and ideas, and what has been happening in our daily lives. There is a greater care to treat God as a person, a friend capable of and desirous of mutual love.
The third stage is where we learn to listen to God. This of course is a natural build up from stage two, for when you are conscious that God is a personal friend, you naturally wonder if this Friend has anything to share with you: his heart – thoughts, desires, emotions, goals. The main way of course is through meditation on the word of God. Taking passages and reading and reflecting on what God may be saying to us is listening to God. There are many other ways that God speaks to us too (creation, dreams, visions, objects, events, prophecy, signs) and we should not limit what he chooses. However, the truths of the Bible is God’s main and sure way of sharing with us what is on his heart. Do not mistaken this for Bible study or exegesis and these are important, but what this is about is the experiential truth encounters with God in scripture meditation and prayer.
The final stage is being with God. This is where we go with God beyond communication to communion. This is similar to human relationships where through knowing a person more intimately there is no need to use words all the time to nurture the relationship. Presence and silence and keeping company would do. We may feel his awesome presence, his overwhelming love, or his compassion or power even though no words are exchanged and we are merely sitting with eyes closed and mouth shut in prayer. At this stage it does not mean you do not interact with God anymore with words. It is a build up of previous stages but each stage layer by layer becoming richer and richer, and deeper and deeper.
So once we know where we are, we can make it our desire and prayer to move to the next stage of prayer and intimacy. We can consciously seek to relate to God as a personal friend and share more of our life without always coming to him only when we need help. Or we may want to listen to God more attentively in prayer, meditation and all the other ways God speaks to us and learn to record what we heard in a notebook. For those who want to go even deeper they will find themselves brought to a place of helplessness and dependence – and usually silence and stillness. Better still, instead of having to go through a trial that brings you to such a place, cultivate times of stillness, silence and solitude with God. Learn to wait on God silently for 15 minutes and progress to longer periods of wordless intimacy.
What do you think of these four stages of prayer? Are they easy to relate to? Do you know of other frameworks of progression in prayer? Do share in the comment below.
This simple message was preached at New Horizon Church. It expresses my conviction about the great need for a more contemplative approach to prayer in the church. If we want to live a life that pleases God, we need to learn to silence the inner noise and listen to God. We need to learn spiritual discernment. This contemplative spirituality is akin to the old Pentecostal tradition of waiting on God. We Pentecostals should not be overly cautious about wading into the waters of contemplative spirituality.
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.
I was in two church camps this past June. One was my church camp in Bangkok. The other was the Church of the True Light (Anglican) camp held at the JEN Hotel at Puteri Harbour in Johor. I was the guest speaker at the camp and I developed the theme of LISTENING TO GOD. This was the third time I taught on contemplative prayer at different church camps in the last several years. Let me give an outline of some of the sessions:
LISTENING TO GOD IN THE GOSPEL: Church and nationwide revival is great but while we pray and wait for the Spirit’s sovereign move, we need to dig deep wells and tap the living water table that will give us sustainable personal revival. The Trinitarian gospel is often thought of as what we receive only at the beginning of the Christian life. We actually need the gospel message all our life, throughout our faith journey. It is the gospel message that gives life and continually revives us.
LISTENING TO GOD IN THE SCRIPTURES: The word of God wedded to the Spirit is what gives us life and revives us. We do this by listening to God in ALL of scriptures, and in SOME of scriptures. The four movements of the classical lectio divina (divine reading) was taught and practised and discussed in groups.
LISTENING TO GOD IN SILENCE & SOLITUDE: God meets and speaks with us when we are alone and silently listen to God. This was the experience of Elijah when he ran in fear and panic from Jezebel. He could not hear God for his body and soul was drained by flight and fear, and his mind was filled with chatter of doubt and visions of death. God used silence and solitude to bring Elijah to a place of inner quiet so that he could again be revived to hear and obey God. This session was followed by a practice of silence and solitude.
LISTENING TO GOD IN DAILY LIFE: The review of the day or examen is a method of prayer which sensitives us to discern God’s presence, activity and communications with us. This session was followed by practice and group discussions.
LISTENING TO GOD IN TIMES OF CHOICE: We make choices, and our choices in turn shapes us. They can lead us away from the first love or towards a greater love of God. We have different choices to make in daily life but there are those impactful choices where more thought, prayer and counsel are needed. How do we do it well? And when we have the peace of God, how do we discern if its a true peace of divine origin or a false peace that comes from the flesh or the enemy?
LISTENING TO GOD IN THE SABBATH: Showed them how the sabbath could be celebrated as salvation and as wisdom, a way of life that God intended for our good and to shape our rhythm of rest, work and prayer. Celebrating sabbath is needed in maintenance of the fire in our hearts.
A SESSION AT A TIME
At the camp, I sort of lived out the day a session at a time. After finishing one session, I would prepare myself physically, spiritually and mentally for the next session until I hit the tape at the finish line. However I am thankful for all the mealtime fellowship with familiar faces (for I had spoken in their church camps a few times over the decades), and the power naps in between. One of the wonderful things about doing church camps is that you get to know the people better and as you do so the message becomes sharper in terms of application and relevance. Thankfully, all my materials had been prepared in advance. However there were still tweaks here and there to improve the material and the powerpoint.
CHURCH OF TRUE LIGHT & PASTOR VINCENT HOON
I admire the Church of the True Light (English congregation) for its giftedness in prophecy and visions. The Lord had sent Rev Vincent Hoon and gifted individuals there and the windows for the wind of the Spirit to infuse the church with the supernatural gifts suddenly swung open.
I got to know Pastor Vincent Hoon in late 1990’s when both of us came alone to the Love Singapore Prayer Summit and ended up sharing a room. We hit it off and have been meeting regularly for the last 20 years for peer mentoring, updating and prayer.
This Anglican church moved in the Spirit and their worship was soaking worship with opportunities for people to express themselves in dance and sharing insights. I was moved, inspired and learned much. The worship also helped me and God’s people get ready for what God had for them in the teaching and prayer workshops. I returned to Singapore soaked in the power of the Spirit.
It shows that learning in the Spirit is mutual edification. We learn together, and we grow together, and we advance together in the faith journey. I trust that those in the camp, whose season it is to dig wells for themselves, now have the tools to do so and I pray they will persevere till they hit the water table! May they enter and enjoy sustainable, personal revival.
The theme of our Holy Week was The Gethsemane Journey. Can the Pentecostal and contemplative blend? Why not? Although the practices of the Pentecostal and the contemplative seem to be incompatible opposites they actually enrich and deepen each other! I saw this in our experience of Holy Week 2017. I handed the planning to our young pastoral staff: Ethel, Tom and Sarah. I told them the parameters was that we share with the church different practices of prayer both contemplative and charismatic. This was what they came up with.
Monday: Lectio Divina
Tuesday: Praying the Psalms
Wednesday: Prophetic prayer
Thursday: Intercessory prayer
Each evening would begin with time for people to be still and wait on God in silence with background instrumentals played over the speakers. Then there would be brief explanations of the prayer practice we would be doing. Followed by an hour for people to actually enter into the practice of prayer. The last segment would be a partaking of Holy Communion.
The worship hall would be made conducive with dim lights, devotional instrumental music (except of the last evening when we had a live band), and the hall would be cleared of the usual auditorium seating so people could sit anywhere on the floor or chairs along the edges.
Personally I enjoyed each and every evening of Holy Week. It was no chore. The Lord was present each night to impart different insights and experiences. The first night a Scripture portion lighted up and shifted my posture towards a ministry matter. The second night I felt I was crying out to the Lord on behalf of the sick. The third night, I composed and sent prophetic prayers and words to three friends. The last night, I had to facilitate the intercession evening. However I enjoyed the soaking session with the live worship band. Whether contemplative or charismatic practices are used the common element is the presence and power of God.
The whole Lent and Holy Week can possibly be a seasonal “curriculum” for personal and church renewal. How does your church use this season for God’s glory? Share with the readers what your church has done.