Refreshed at Seven Fountains Spirituality Center

The Ignatius Block where most men stay

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.

Pastor Eng Hwa and me at the BOAT restaurant

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.

My spartan bedroom with attached bathroom
With insect gauze and nice greenery for room view

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.

Bird in the glasshouse (Art Cafe)

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.

Fr Saichon local Thai Jesuit priest

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.

Breakfast in BED hotel

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.

 

 

Xavier House: Silent retreat

Silence and solitude still our stormy selves and position us to listen better to God. That was what I experienced during my five days of silent retreat in Xavier House on Cheung Chau island, Hong Kong. Besides the physical and soul rest, my spirit was able to feast on the word of God and I must say unlike my several previous retreats this was one of consolation with wonderful moments of  assurances and joy.

Why Cheung Chau? Well my pastor friend Eng Hwa had gone there several times and had talked about it. One day I felt an urge to try this Ignatian Spirituality Centre. Anyway the airfare costs about the same as flying to Chiangmai, where I usually went to the Seven Fountains spirituality centre. I was also ready to have a change in setting, and to try a different spiritual director.

So my pastor friend Seng Chor and I made an application. They only accepted those who have already experienced at least a three day silent directed retreat. And we had to change our dates a few times to suit the availability of the spiritual director assigned to us, a Fr Paul Goh, a bi-lingual Singaporean Jesuit priest who was posted to this centre in 2012.

Our flight was delayed by two hours because of the Typhoon Nida which brushed by Hong Kong the day before. We landed at the Hong Kong International Airport. From there we took the airport railway to the “Hong Kong MTR Station”. Then we walked five minutes to the Central Pier and boarded the frequent ferry to Cheung Chau.

Cheung Chau is a fishing town. In the harbour were berthed hundreds of fishing boats. By the time we reached there at about 3 or 4pm the boats were all back. The main street by the quayside was a long stretch of shops of all kinds facing the sea. It is packed with Hong Kongers every weekend as there were a few hiking trails and beaches on the island.

We followed the map given by the retreat center and we had to walk up a slope to reach the Xavier House, which was nicely perched on the slope of the island with a fantastic sea view and breeze. The early Catholic missionaries knew how to buy properties for their work! The whole retreat area was about a football field size but spread across the slopes. There were many niches for seating and private meditation and a beautiful chapel that had a full glass panel facing the sea. However, the single bed room was typically small like all living spaces in Hong Kong.

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Typhoon Nida felled a tree in town the day before

 

Cheung Chau is a fishing village so its full of fishing boats in the harbour.
Cheung Chau is a fishing village so its full of fishing boats in the harbour
Cheung Chau pier is lined with supermarkets, seafood and tim sum restaurants, cafes, dried seafood stalls, bicycle hire shops and a MacDonalds.
The Cheung Chau harbour front is lined with supermarkets, seafood and tim sum restaurants, cafes, dried seafood stalls, bicycle hire shops and a MacDonalds
The path leading up the slope to the Xavier House.
The path leading up the slope to the Xavier House
The part of the L shaped building facing the sea.
The part of the L shaped building facing the sea
The large tennis court sized yard and sea view.
The large tennis court sized yard and sea view
A nice sheltered meditation spot facing the courtyard and sea view.
A nice sheltered meditation spot facing the courtyard and sea view
If you prefer the outdoors there are many wonderful spots for quiet mediation.
If you prefer the outdoors there are many wonderful spots for quiet meditation
Another excellent shaded spot;
Another excellent shaded spot
If you love heights....
If you love heights….
Another few seats for journaling and contemplation
Another few seats for journaling and contemplation
Spoilt for choices.
Spoilt for choices
View of the cross on top of the building.
View of the cross on top of the building
View of the cross from the top of the building, another place for night or early morning meditation.
View of the cross from the top of the building, another place for night or early morning meditation
On top of the rooftop
On the rooftop
Cheung Chau at dawn.
Cheung Chau at dawn
Cheung Chau in the morning
Cheung Chau in the morning
In the of the beautiful chapels
In one of the beautiful chapels
My "hong Kong sized" room.
My little room
Home cooked healthy Cantonese food was served at lunch and dinner. Breakfast was bread, butter , jam and peanut butter
There was home cooked healthy Cantonese food at lunch and dinner and breakfast was bread, butter, jam and peanut butter and cereals
There were about 30 retreat ants staying for different periods during my 4 nights stay there
There were about 30 retreatants staying for different periods during my 4 nights stay there
Town was five minutes away so sometimes I had tim sum with the Lord
Town was ten minutes walk away so sometimes I had tim sum with the Lord
Sometimes I hiked to get rid of calories and meet God in nature
Sometimes I hiked for exercise

The retreat director was diligent and asked for four one hour and fifteen minutes sessions of prayer and meditation per day. He gave four Bible passages and two optional ones. Each day I met him at 7.45pm and shared what the Lord had spoken to me through the passages and what affections, feelings and desires they stirred. He listened intently and gave some insights but mainly, he listened. His training lasted 13 years and included specialised counselling and spiritual direction. I was blessed and quickened by the meditations and God spoke to me through the passages. We began on Tuesday night and ended on Saturday evening with a thank you dinner. I left the retreat refreshed and recharged. My faith has been quickened and I am very blessed and very thankful that the church I serve supports such retreats for pastors. Seng Chor and I moved to a hotel on Hong Kong island and did some touristy stuff. Never liked the urban side of Hong Kong but after flying all the way there what is another two days?

Spiritual exercises: retreat, restore, re-configure

Room 212 balcony view

Nature’s  welcome

Despite divine assurances that this lengthy retreat would do me good, it was with some apprehension that I settled into the room 212 that would be my home for thirty five days. Air Asia had flown me into Chiang Mai, Thailand, at about eleven plus, and I was glad to be at the Seven Fountains retreat centre before midnight. All the rooms in the block had been renovated with attached bathrooms and I was the first guest to enjoy it. When I awoke the next day, a beautiful balcony view welcomed me. A huge raintree and a flame of the forest spread their gracious branches to hug me. Energetic squirrels, mynahs and butterflies looked for breakfast. This is the day the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.

Gregory, Kenny, David Townsend, Peter

Together with others on a journey

The last meeting I had with David Townsend was in November 2010. He was directing my ten day retreat. My apprehension still lingered as we caught up with developments in the centre and what’s been happening with me. He gave me a well known passage to meditate on. It’s about God’s care for us and our value in his eyes being much more than birds and lilies. Another passage from Psalms said, My meditation of Him shall be sweet, and that was the word that dissolved my apprehension.

Later in the day, I bumped into the other two retreatants, Gregory Chan and Peter Anthoney, both Malaysians and final year seminarians. Over time a bond would develop amongst us, despite the solitude and silence, for we were going through a similar retreat program.

Many wonder how people can be in prayer, solitude and silence for many weeks. Most cannot keep silent for even a day.  I too wondered. Thus my early twofold anxiety: Will I be able to bear the lengthy solitude? Will it bring about the rejuvenation of a burnout pastor? Will the Lord accomplish his gracious restoration work?

Momentum of prayer

room with a viewThe schedule of each day was rhythmic. Three to five periods of an hour or more each were set apart for meditation, prayer and journaling. Meditation was mainly on Gospel passages and a few other contemplative exercises. The daily 40 minute morning meeting with David, my spiritual director, would be followed by one period; after lunch there would be two periods; and after dinner, one period. Meals were at 7am, 12 noon, and 6.30pm. Filling in were the naps, the jogs and walks, reading Men in White, a book about Singapore’s ruling party, enjoying nature at the grounds and at the Huay Khaew reservoir. The mind and heart were gently and imperceptibly led into a momentum of prayer that gave me a sense of progress, and gave me a booster when I hit the wall.

Weekends were welcome as they seem to give a feeling of lightness and change. There were the Sunday services in Thai and English in the chapel of the retreat center. It was different from the weekdays: more people both expatriate and Thai could be seen on the grounds. The food was sometimes very special or way below par.  The streets and Chiang Mai university seemed empty and sluggish. It felt less intense during the weekends.

School of discipleship, prayer and discernment

How would I personally describe the retreat program? It was a school of discipleship, prayer and discernment. God’s love was revealed through creation and redemption. This love was magnified as it was contrasted with human sins and weaknesses disfiguring all of creation. The meditations and prayer covered creation and fall, incarnation, the life and ministry of Jesus, the passion week, the resurrection appearances, the ascension, the coming again and Pentecost. A persistent focus was on seeing Jesus more clearly, labyrinthloving Him more dearly, and following Him more nearly. At several points in the retreat the challenge of discipleship came to the foreground: as you have viewed and experienced God’s vast love in meditation and prayer, what is your response? Romans 12: 1 was in operation: in view of God’s mercy, I offered myself as a living sacrifice. Consecration of all that I am and have naturally followed when I experience the grace of God afresh. It was both struggle and grace as I came to finally pray, as Jesus did in Gethsemane, Father, not my will, but Yours be done.  To be willing to do whatever He wills, at whatever the cost, for the greater glory of God was the end point intended.

It was also a school of prayer as I would learn to pray with the imagination, with honest feelings, with reverence and depth. There were no “How to’s” or techniques taught.  Prayed as you can, not as you should or must, is one of the memorable gems that the My cup overflowsdirector underlined in one of the sessions. So with whatever knowledge or experience I had thus far, I went on my knees or sat and prayed.  Learning to discern the spiritual movements in my heart and how to make better decisions is another growth area for me. This was relevant and interesting and it helped me see the important role of discerning of spirits in the church, and resulted in a strong personal desire for this grace-gift.

Restoration and re-configuration

The Lord was gracious and faithful and He ministered to me directly in prayer and meditation. Like a shepherd He tended to me. He made me lie down in a restful atmosphere and feed on nutrient rich pastures and still waters. He restored my soul. He showed me the right path to take and promised to be with me through thick and thin. He dealt with the past, filled me with His presence, and gave me hope for the future.

The immediate effects of the prayer retreat is best described metaphorically. It felt like a Celebration at Tsunami - we Finally did it!spiritual re-configuration had taken place. Changed focus, increased knowledge and awareness, spiritual aliveness and alertness, and rejuvenation of my desires to serve God’s people. A better operating system was installed. To change to a geographical metaphor, the tectonic plates of my soul have moved and the fault lines have closed. Revived, re-configured re-commissioned, and ready to go in peace and serve the Lord.

It took thirty five days to complete my retreat program. The first few days was for preparation and the last one or two was for reflection on and thanksgiving for what the Lord has revealed of Himself and had done in me.

Having my wife around and Juniper Tree

a Juniper Tree chaletMy wife joined me for a short prayer retreat and vacation at the tail end. It was wonderful to have her with me as I unwound in the last few days. She enjoyed her three day prayer retreat with another director, Puspo.  At the same time, it was good I could show her around some of the interesting places outside Seven Fountains,  and fete her with Japanese food at the popular Tsunami restaurant nearby. Later we moved to another place in Chiang Mai called the Juniper Tree. From there we idled, and shopped at the large Airport Central Shopping Mall and the night bazaar. The Juniper Tree was a small hotel with a swimming pool bought over by a ministry that sought to provide a place for cross cultural missionaries to rest, recuperate, and be refreshed.enjoying a foot massage after shopping Elijah suffered burnout and sat under a juniper tree and the angel fed him with food and he slept under the tree. Many of the missionaries I saw there were Caucasians serving in various countries in Asia. Many came to rest and be refreshed and unwind from the stresses of their cross cultural work. Some came because of medical needs, and two were about to deliver babies. One or two came to renew their visas.

The path ahead

Back home I continued in my reflections and readings of books on the spiritual dynamics of the retreat program, spiritual direction, and the discerning of spirits. A friend, pastor Seng Chor had given me a book titled, Sacred Listening – James Wakefield, a Protestant  adaptation of the retreat program for lay people who cannot take a full 30 days retreat. The program runs for 6 mothns requiring an hour and a half everyday the path aheadfor the exercises. Adapting what I experienced for church use would be a useful project for me to work on. Furthermore, recently, the recommended book list for my third AGST master’s module (Spirituality and Faith Development) arrived and I am now beginning to read and enjoy the stuff:

To Know As We Are Known – Palmer

Streams of Living Water – Foster

Exploring Christian Spirituality – Collins

………..and many other readings. Looks like another enjoyable and enlightening module awaits me in the middle of September. That would be the last month of my sabbatical. October first, by the grace of God, I will be back shepherding the flock with renewed heart and mind and body.