My wife and I went to the Chau Son Cistercian Monastery in Dalat, Vietnam for a silent retreat. Going on a retreat has always been a delight. Often the Lord surfaces issues and sets us free. We feel His presence much more and receive life-giving insights. This is a diary of my retreat.
Mon, 3rd Dec 2018
It is interesting to get acquainted with fellow pilgrims who have decided to make a retreat. They come because they sense a desire to make one. Some came on the suggestion of someone they looked up to. A few felt a deep need to do so. Others like me do it as part of a personal rule of life – a customized pattern of living that makes space for God in your life.
Our lives intersect because we are journeying together in the next seven days of slowing down to reflect and pray. Today I met other serious seekers of God. Conversations with people who love the Lord made this day of travel a pleasant and inspiring one.
The day past rather quickly. My wife and I left home at about 8.30am and after a leisurely breakfast arrived at Changi Airport Terminal 4 at 10am for a group check in. This went smoothly and soon we were in a Vietnam Airlines international flight that went 1 hour 45 minutes. This was followed by a 35 minutes domestic flight from Ho Chi Minh to Dalat. The final leg was a bus trip of an hour, arriving at the Chou Son Cistercian Monastery at about 8pm. There we were served a lovely supper of beef and carrot stew, with French baguette, and rambutan.
Earlier in the bus, we had drawn lots and each of us chose our own room. This way everyone found it easier to accept the room whatever view it had. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s room. Hopefully the transparency helped. Soon we settled into our respective rooms, and retired for the night.
Except that I am here writing this daily log. Why am I doing this? Do I need a reason. I felt like doing it that’s all.
Tuesday, 4th Dec 2018
All I remembered of the night was how it turned cold in the early hours of dawn and I had to get up and wear my down jacket. Before I knew it, I awoke a little late and hurried to a breakfast of baguette, fried eggs, cheese and cilantro and local Vietnamese coffee. Silence only begins after the afternoon briefing, so chatter filled the dining hall.
Since many of us were new to this place, we were broken into groups and brought around the monastery to familiarise us with the various spaces. They showed us the places where we were to have our gatherings for the morning Mass (Eucharist), the briefing hall, the night prayers. We moved around the grounds of large fish ponds, pine forests and vegetable farms set against lovely forested mountains, bright blue skies and fluffy clouds. We were shown where the Cistercian brothers and monks lived, which was out of bounds for us. We saw many of the brothers landscaping a grotto and working the fields. Ora labora – prayer and labour is integral for a monk’s formation. I felt so grateful to be in such a conducive and inspiring environment for a silent prayer retreat of seven days.
The estimate is that the property is the size of about 92 football fields. That is a lot of land to walk around and many prayer spots, pavilions and seats for reflection and relaxation. Outside the main entrance the road leads out to more land and plantations that belong to the monastery. This is a gift of God and the legacy of the French colonial past of Vietnam.
During the Mass, out of respect for the Catholics, we who are Evangelicals did not partake of the Mass but went forward for a prayer of blessing instead. We signified this by crossing our arms across our chest (sign language for “love”) so that the celebrant knew we went forward for a blessing. From tomorrow onwards the daily Mass was at 6.30am. I need to set the alarm for sure.
The morning briefing began with an exercise where we were partnered up and each took turns to be blindfolded and led by the other. I thought only youth campers did such things but we did it anyway and learned afresh the meaning of trusting God step by step despite our fears. There were 28 retreatants and 6 spiritual directors. In the morning we were asked to make a list of our spiritual directors in order of preference, and whether we were open to being assigned any of them as the Lord led. By afternoon they announced who our spiritual directors were. Mine was Sister Elizabeth, a well-known Sister of the Good Shepherd. After the dismissal the Silence commenced.
The night prayer was at 7.30pm every evening and I got a sweet taste of it. Silence, examen, adoration and praise and contemplation. It ended with thanksgiving and joyful singing. That was one hour that went quickly. After that I walked straight to the open field in front of the lake view and looked up into the night sky: the stars, oh the stars! It was awesome. Some of us would look up at the stars almost every night. It is now 9pm. I had better retire now. Good night Lord.
Wed 5th Dec 2018
This morning I met my spiritual director Sis Elizabeth. She has been in the ecumenical scene for decades, having years of experience as a spiritual director and herself involved in training spiritual directors too. We had a good rapport and we were able to establish trust rapidly. I talked about the wonders of Chau Son and how grateful I was to God for the way He arranged for me to be here in this beautiful, massive space with scenic views of lakes, mountain, and farmland. The mountain air was cool and refreshing. I also talked about a few issues that emerged during the silent night prayer. We talked about what these were and how the Lord might want to reveal the meaning of these emerging emotions.
Later, when I was alone the Lord dropped an idea to do an act of burial to symbolize the surrender of two disordered affections that the Lord has revealed. After I did the burial, a joy gradually welled up within me. A sense of being set free from a heavy burden. A peace and freedom to let God be God, and to surrender the future. Later, as I walked around the lake, I felt a lightness and a joy bubbling forth. Right after the burial, I sat down and was given another idea of what to do with the other issue that had surfaced. Tomorrow I will write on a stone the size of a bowl and throw it into the deep lake. Meanwhile I will let what I have already done sink in. I will relive that whole burial experience and relish it more deeply.
Thursday, 6th Dec 2018
I am so grateful to God for the idea of another symbolic act – throwing a medium sized stone into the lake from the pavilion. I heard a plonk sound that seemed to indicate deep waters. The reading from Isaiah 45 was “I will remove the shame”. My thirty eight years of ministry and leadership had its mistakes, failures and shortcomings. So many that I can run a course on how not to do ministry. That morning that invisible load of shame sunk into the redeeming waters of the lake of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Later in the evening, as I pondered more deeply over this, I felt a joy spring forth when this sweet thought sprung to mind: on the day of Judgment, none of these mistakes, failures and shortcomings will be brought up for discussion or judgment. It is all under the blood of Christ.
I will henceforth reject any return to such dark, discouraging brooding. I am trusting God for a forgetfulness that will surprise me some day in the future.
Friday, 7th December 2018
On advice of my director, I rewrote Psalm 139 into a God first-person song to me. Re-paraphrasing the Psalm as though God
was addressing me. Then I recorded what I wrote and listened to it over and over. Gradually it grew in me, this sense that I am somebody special, and deeply loved by God. He took so much forethought, design and passion to make me. He watched over me everywhere I went, interested in everything about me, or that happened to me, that I said to others, and how I behaved. He laid his hands on me to bless me, He guided me so I do not go astray, He held me fast when I was going through very tough times. He was always cheering me on and celebrating even the small wins as thought they were monumental advances. And He will lead me to the everlasting way whenever I seem to go astray.
Sat 8th December 2018
Jesus meant for life to be simple but we have complicated it. The apostle John saw it: trust in Jesus Christ, and love one another.
We were made in God’s image and likeness. God is love, but sin in the world has distorted that likeness in us so that we tend to become self-centred destructive people.
Jesus came to cancel our sins and restore that image and likeness of love. He shed the Holy Spirit upon us and poured out the love of God, so that we are capable of being loving again.
It’s that simple and this love can be incarnated in us by His Spirit and expressed in a down to earth, sweat-tears-and-blood, practical love. One act at a time, and day after day. To do this I have to live in the present – not in the past nor in the future. To be aware now of what I hear, see, touch, smell, taste and to respond with God’s practical love in every situation. We moderns tend to elevate the world of thought and ideas and intellect. We do it at the expense of being aware of the physical and emotional dimension which God has designed as equally important elements of wholeness.
I reviewed fast motion my whole life and bathed it in the light of God’s presence and care and knowledge of me. It cast my whole timeline and memories with the grace and a personal caring love of God for me the unique individual. If God was with me showing such absurd, undeserved love, then He will be with me in the remaining days and years of my life. No need to fear.
Sunday 9th December 2018
Woke up early to catch the Cistercian monks do the Laudes (meditation) at 4:30am. They chanted in Vietnamese and it was beautiful, devotional, serene, reverent. They sat, stood, bowed, kissed the Bible, and they sang. For a good half an hour of singing and reading scriptures. I soaked in the interesting atmosphere of adoration.
I looked at the many monks and noticed that many were young men. I was impressed. I pray they will continue to grow and persevere in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Last night’s prayer hour, they introduced a beautiful icon showing Jesus with his hand over the shoulder of St Menas, a martyr. This ancient painting transported me to a time when a picture is worth a thousand words. There is so much meaning beneath the surface: the pose, the eyes, what they both carried, and the gaze. I found it fascinating and felt drawn to do a sketch of the icon. Alongside this I first read John 15 where Jesus said to the disciples that He no longer called them servants but friends. That hand on St Menas shoulder made him feel comforted, honoured, special, strong and wanted. Jesus wants to be my Friend. This awesome privilege hit me with added force.
Monday 10th Dec 2018
I gather the fruit of the seven days of silent retreat. It was two movements: one a setting free from two attachments: and the other, a movement towards following Jesus in his practical love more closely.
The Lord has done wonders in me breaking me free from the weights of the past and the future. Retreat does wonders in surfacing issues for the Lord to clean up or set us free. We do not need to come with an agenda if there seems to be none. Often we are so busy that we are often unaware of weights and issues that are harmful to us and others. Silence and solitude gives God the space and opportunity to raise these to our awareness. This is certainly one reason we need spiritual directors to accompany us – they can co-discern with us these movements in our hearts.
I am learning that living in the present is vital. I want to be more fully present to what is happening around me. I need to follow Jesus in hearing, seeing, feeling, and responding to the situations that present themselves to him on a day to day basis. My mind tends to be so deep in thought preparing a sermon, seeking solutions to problems, or occupied with theoretical ideas and theological issues that it hinders me from being aware of people problems, of listening deeply and with empathy, and being present to whoever or whatever is before us. I am seeking a practical, down-to-earth spirituality of living and loving that has hands and feet, eyes and ears, and towel and basin.
The retreat ended with a time of prayer and thanksgiving during the hour of prayer. Everyone gave thanks to God for how they were blessed and graced during the retreat. The lights were dimmed, and each one addressed their thanksgiving to the Lord Jesus, with all the rest listening in with grateful hearts. To enact this thanksgiving each retreatant lighted their candle in the front. With the end of the meeting everyone exploded with joy and hugs and handshakes and overflowing goodwill and peace. Christmas has come early.
Tuesday, 11th December 2018
We went on a tour of Dalat. This was to help us with re-entry. Good idea. Everyone was radiant with joy as we chat and took photos and shopped and ate. Twenty eight strangers and seven days of silence and yet a strange bond of closeness and love was forged – this is truly a fellowship in the Spirit.
Wednesday, 12th December 2018
It was time to go back to Singapore. We were still overflowing with the fragrance of God’s love and peace as we made the journey home.
Thank you Lord for being with us throughout the retreat, and for all the retreat directors who accompanied us we give you praise. Thank you too for the hospitality and silent devotion of the Cistercian monks. To God be the glory.
Here is a 5 minute slideshow of the Chau Son Retreat