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.
Air fares to Chiangmai are daylight robbery. Direct flights would easily cost upward of SGD$300 even rising to SGD$600 in peak season. For anything under SGD$300 you would have to include a stopover, which meant a long wait at a Bangkok airport.
This was what I was rudely made aware of as I tried to book a flight to Chiangmai in mid-July. It’s not the school holidays; it is the rainy season, so I thought it would be inexpensive. SIA’s direct flight was close to SGD$500. By God’s grace, the God must have brought to my mind Scoot. Thank the Lord, I have finally managed to get a Scoot ticket for SGD$350. I was over the moon.
I am heading to Seven Fountains Ignatian Center for a 8 days retreat and rest. The pastoral ministry does take a toll on most of us, and we all do need that time-out to rest, sleep, eat, drain out and process the negative emotions and experiences, deal with the shadows in our life, draw closer to God and feel His unconditional love, practical care and the peace that passes all understanding. To know Him more, to love Him more, to follow Him more closely.
Why is it important to have an experienced priest or minister trained in spiritual direction to accompany you? Most times, we are violent towards ourselves – condemning ourselves, pitying ourselves, angry with ourselves, regretting missed opportunities and mistakes. It can get depressive and self-harming. A director would be quick to spot that, alert you, and direct you gently to green pastures and still waters of God’s mercy and grace. They will help you be more gentle with yourself. No more bashing of oneself but rather basking in the grace and love of God.
I am thankful the church I serve, World Revival Prayer Fellowship, gives its pastoral staff five days paid leave and a reimbursement of up to $600 for directed retreats annually. This has been very helpful. I wish such an enlightened policy had been around when I was new in the ministry. The purification, the healing, the strengthening of faith, and simply the rest of mind, body and emotions all add up to a restorative, redemptive, regenerative time in the Lord. I always return with more grace, more peace, more love, more resolve, more energy. Always! And the church people benefits when their pastor is renewed in the Lord, or is more in love with the Lord, or simply more rested in body and soul.
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.
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.