Silent Retreat in La Salle House

Author Thomas Green called a prayer retreat a vacation with the Lord. My experience of retreat did not bear that out. Certainly not during those years when I was pastoring. Those retreats were not vacations, but more like intense wrestling with God and myself. Now that I have retired from the pastorate (but not from ministry), I am finding more sweetness and rest in my retreats. Most notably, in this recent eight days of silence (part of a spiritual direction formation program), I found myself seeking the grace of God’s loving embrace. I wanted to taste more of his love for me. Every day I desired this and prayed the Lord will draw near and reveal his love to me. He answered my prayers. 

Core Identity

As a result of this retreat, I found myself deepened in my core identity. I am his child and he is my Papa. My father did not show much affection, did not talk much, and was a typical Asian father who kept his children socially distant. It is no wonder that in my relationship with God, I found myself more able to relate to Jesus and my helpful friend, the Holy Spirit. Calling God Father in my prayer felt foreign or distant. In this retreat, I found myself imaging myself as a little child clinging, hugging and resting on Papa’s shoulders and neck, committing all my cares and concerns to him in child-like faith. In my journal, I wrote letters to Papa to express my feelings and thanks and prayers to him. I am his beloved. I will enjoy being with him and depend more on him.

I also had a wonderful identification with God as Creator and Master Craftsman. My spiritual director gave me Psalm 139 as one of the passages to meditate upon. I had this same passage and meditated on it for five days during a Chau Son Retreat in Dalat, Vietnam. I thought there would be no more juice to squeeze from this passage but I was wrong. One evening during an hour of adoration, the leader read Psalm 139 and the verses about how God created and crafted us with tender love and detailed care stood out strongly for me. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made….my frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance….” (Ps 139: 13-16).

At that time, I was spending time in the “CREATE” room where many art materials were made available for retreatants to use in prayer. I took a wooden cross and made a glass mosaic piece. I took time to draft designs on paper, try out different glass pieces and colours, worked at pasting the glass pieces carefully, and filling the grouts with cement. My thoughts were on this artwork even outside of the Create room. I fussed over every imperfection, and tried to rectify gaps in the grouting. I was engrossed while I made the cross and was very pleased when it was done (see above). Then suddenly it dawned on me that this was how my Creator and Father was feeling when he made me in my mother’s womb – with great love, creativity in design, care and passion, attention to details, and how proud he must have felt when I was born because I was his masterpiece. I caught a glimpse of our heavenly Father’s passionate love and satisfaction with me, and this moved me. I will celebrate and accept who I am despite my flaws and lack, rejoice in my unique strengths and not envy others of their different gifts and ministry.

Not only was I his beloved child to give him joy, and his beloved masterpiece to display his glory, I had a deepened sense of being his beloved servant. Isaiah 41:8-14, 43:1-5 and 2 Corinthians 4 were other passages given to me for prayer. I prayed with these passages and they reaffirmed for me that though retired from pastoring the church, I am still God’s servant, called, chosen and authorized to represent him in the world and to do his will. A fresh faith sprung up in me of the authority and ministry that God has entrusted to me.  I will be bold and confident as his servant and depend on him to back me up with resources.

It was a lovely retreat and the Lord was kind and gracious in blessing me with these gifts of assurance and revelatory knowledge. I knew these truths in my head and they never affected me. Now they have deeper roots in my experience of his love. 

A team from Life Direction Singapore did a great job of organising and leading this retreat. This eight-days silent retreat is the last major formation element of the one year and nine months “Spiritual Direction Formation Program” (5thbatch), which was lovingly and with much dedication organized and led by them. It is, in my opinion, the best formation program for spiritual direction that you can find in Singapore. I have been greatly blessed, equipped and formed under these formators. 

Where was the retreat held? At the La Salle House(see above), on the grounds of St Patrick’s School which is straddled between East Coast Road and Marine Parade Road, and opposite CHIJ Katong Convent. It is a new building and they are very quickly tackling teething problems. The bedrooms had attached bathrooms and were comfortable, and there were prayer rooms, spiritual direction rooms, meeting rooms of different sizes and a huge dining area. The food that was catered was excellent (see below). I was impressed. 

However as there were more retreatants than rooms, the men were sent to stay in the old retreat rooms of the Brothers’ Residence next door. I got used to the 1970’s décor(see below), eclectic furnishings and dark room. Soon the room became my regular place of prayer for the entire retreat. I decided to have three periods of prayer each day, and one of them was spent on some bench in the open air at the East Coast Beach, to which I cycled in about twenty minutes. 

If you want to have a directed retreat as an individual or a group you can get more information HERE. However if you wish to attend a retreat outside of Singapore there is one coming up in Cebu Island, Philippines, during Advent. You may want to consider this retreat (see below) with a link if you wish to register.

Register HERE.

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What is Spiritual Direction?

This beautiful image with a magnet for the refrigerator was given by Teresa Hogan, a friend from the faith sharing group I am in. She bought it from the famous Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, Korea. When I beheld the 4cm square print of a painting (see above), it straightaway struck me as a beautiful image of what spiritual direction is all about. 

Spiritual direction is about accompanying someone on a journey. Although the picture is actually one of a couple on a journey, it can be anyone. I liked the idea of the spiritual director carrying a staff with a cross at the top, a symbol of our dependence on Christ’s finished work during our spiritual journey. The small sail boat at the harbour reminds us that the journey we take away from the safety of home, may be marked by strong winds and massive waves at some point, and having a companion on this journey of life is vital. Most blessed of all is to have the nurturing and caring Spirit watching with love over our going out and coming in (Psalm 121) and this is pictured in the white overarching cloud in the picture. 

I decided not to stick this to the fridge. I will keep it and place it at my desk to remind me what this ministry is all about. But what exactly is Spiritual Direction? Let me give you some of the descriptions that was given to us during one of the lessons in the Spiritual Direction Formation Program I am attending.

“An interpersonal relationship in which one person assists others to reflect on their own experience in the light of what they are called to become in fidelity to the Gospel” (Carroll & Dyckman).

“Spiritual direction, as we understand it then, is directly concerned with a person’s actual experiences of his relationship with God …. religious experience is to spiritual direction what foodstuff is to cooking. Without religious experience there can be no spiritual direction. 

We define spiritual direction, then, as help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship. The focus of this type of spiritual direction is on experience, not ideas, and specifically on religious experience, that is, any experience of the mysterious Other whom we call God. Moreover this experience is viewed, not as an isolated event, but as an expression of the ongoing personal relationship God has established with each one of us”. (Barry & Connolly S.J.)

A spiritual director made this observation in one supervisory session: ‘Spiritual direction is like panning for gold. A directee comes and together we dip into the stream of their life and pull up all kinds of things. Rocks of all sizes – I can never guess what is coming next – all kinds of conflicts and problems, then all of a sudden some fleck or nugget of pure gold emerges into view in the bottom of the pan as we swirl the water around, emptying out the rocks.’ This is a powerful and captivating metaphor of the process of spiritual direction. Together, the director and directee look at everything – whatever is in the water and the pan – during their session. The director receives the directee’s life and everything in that life, helping the directee contemplate the gold among all the conflicts and block and stuck places. A skillful, graced director gives that gold reverence, time, interest, and attention until the directee realizes how much more valuable and significant are the flecks of gold – the experiences of grace and the Spirit – then are all the stuck or problematic areas of his or her life.” (Ruffing RSM)

“Spiritual direction seeks primarily to enable the seeker to achieve a deep relationship or grounding in God and thus to live a life of total freedom, individuality and deep love. This is an awesome and complex process which entails ridding oneself of past psychological injuries and traumas, false ways of thinking and acting, and undue attachment to any person, possession, or spiritual practice. At the same time it encourages and fosters a practice of deep prayer so that one can discover ones’ deepest self, and thereby find the will of God in one’s life.” (Alice McDowell)

If you are looking for spiritual direction, Life Direction Singapore , an ecumenical group that has a list of available trained spiritual directors of Catholic or Protestant backgrounds.

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Spiritual Direction Formation Program: The Practicum Phase

It has been a year and I am in semester three of my spiritual direction formation program. I have observed that formation always took priority over information. This is good. This is the way it should be. We learn to listen to God, to listen to one another, and listen to movements in our soul. This growth does not come by more information, but by more formation: awareness and discernment through personal reflection, through spiritual direction with a spiritual director, and through faith sharing in groups.

After three rounds of giving direction to one another in-house, we now enter the phase of spiritual direction practicum. Each us have to find two directees to give spiritual direction to under an experienced supervisor. I feel excited about this phase, and look forward to learning more about spiritual accompaniment. The formators are very serious about the formation of spiritual directors, and want to ensure that even during this phase the volunteer directees will benefit from their sessions.

On Saturday, we had a Day of Prayer at the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary retreat house opposite the Botanic Gardens at 49 Holland Road. In each semester, a few days are devoted to such retreat days or week. We learn to be aware of what God is doing in our life and to respond to his invitations. 

For the first half of the day, we were instructed to reflect on the past year and to observe movements, encounters, people, blessings and joys, struggles and burdens, doubts and certitude, passion or aridity, hope and longing. As I reflected on the past year I gave thanks for the excitement and joy of observing the personal and spiritual growth in my formation. The highlights of my year were mostly related to the formation program.  

Lunch was fulsome: bento sets, beverages, banana cake, chocolates, and grapes. All was eaten in silence. We were to savour the fullness and richness of this blessing. I was so satiated I found myself wishing for a nap. 

The afternoon reflection was thankfully more tangible, since we had a heavy meal. We each took prayer shawls of different colours, cuttings and patterns. The long prayer shawl of the Jews is called “tallit/tallith”). “Tal” means tent. “ith” means little. Thus, with the shawl over our heads we set up a little tent, and invite God into our home, and we fellowship with Him in private prayer. The four fringes of the shawl are called “tzitzit” and comes from the Hebrew word “tzutz” which means “to gaze”. What a beautiful description of what should happen in prayer. With this “tent” we were instructed to meditate on the uncertainty of the journey ahead of us, similar perhaps to the twists, turns and movements of Joseph and Mary, accompanied by the holy infant Jesus. I have no certitude of what the future holds, but with God’s presence, I feel very assured and rested that like Joseph, who was entrusted with Jesus, I would experience the provision and providence of God.

At the end of the day of prayer, it was announced that we will get a confirmation via email of who we are giving direction to and what we need to do. I look forward to this new movement.

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“Walk In A Relaxed Manner”: book reflection

Joyce Rupp is a retreat leader, conference speaker and author of many bestselling books on Christian spirituality. This book is her reflections about the 36 days of walking 805 km across northern Spain, from Ronscevales to Santiago. It is called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one of the three famous Christian pilgrimages. She walked the camino at the age of sixty and wrote about the life lessons she learned from it.

I asked myself: How do you write about a 36 days walk? Do I write in a diary format? Take journal notes every day of distance, weather, places, people, scenery, food and refugios and convert these into a kind of travel diary. How repetitive and boring! How about writing a “how to” book, a book that gives practical information and helps pilgrims to prepare themselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually so as to maximise from the camino experience. Nobody would buy such a book.

The author chose to write in a “relaxed manner”: 25 short, interesting chapters captioned with the life lessons she gleaned.  I thought this was the best way to do it. The lessons were digestible and clear. At the same time, she covered the other information, details and stories in a topical and accessible format. Each chapter she unfolded the lesson she learned, and substantiated it with many instances and examples of experiences that illustrated her point. For example, one of the life lessons she learned was living in the now, not in the past, or in the future. She extracted from her journal an example of this: “It has been a hard day of walking. I did not expect to be so tired each day. I can’t have expectations of it. I just need to live NOW. Even this refugio at Estella. At first, when I saw the situation, I said to myself, ‘Just grit your teeth and think of tomorrow.’ But then, I said, ‘No, I must enter into THIS experience, NOW.’ After I did this, the situation didn’t look quite so deplorable and I found I could tolerate it better.”

The main takeaway for me was the lesson of walking in a relaxed manner, which is the title of the book. Rupp wrote: “Gradually I accepted my diminishing energy. I learned to be at peace with it. I also grew more grateful because the deliberately measured pace helped me slow down inside, causing me to become more contemplative as I walked along. This did not happen the first week, however. During the first week our sense of urgency continued to grow. Each morning we made as early a start as possible. We packed our backpacks faster. If we stopped for mid-morning coffee, we didn’t tarry long. When we met other pilgrims, we cut our conversations short. When we paused to rest our feet, we kept the stop brief. Our unspoken motto became: Push onward. Push forward. Push, push, push. Rush, rush, rush. We soon discovered that the rushing and pushing cause us to lose our enjoyment of the walk itself. We left home in order to experience the freedom of getting away from it all but we simply took the tensions with us in new forms. The place of our stress changed but we had not changed. We continued to strain and groan under the desires and expectations of achievement and accomplishment – goals which our culture thrives on and implants in us almost from birth.”

She continued: “When I came back home from the Camino, I observed how rushing and hurrying and pushing are evident everywhere. Overachievement, competition, comparison, addiction to work and duty, unreal expectations of needing to do more, the obsessive pursuit of having more – all these fell on us as heavy cultural and self-imposed burdens. When these attitudes and messages press in on us, they cause us to lose our harmony and self-satisfaction. There is far too much hurry and worry in most lives. There never seems to be enough time to complete the daily chores of laundry, lawn care, meal preparations, phone calls, and paying bills, let alone the pressure of other accomplishments that people feel compelled to do. Parents with children involved in an overabundance of activities, health care workers working double shifts, educators saddled with extracurricular tasks, managers with countless meetings, retired people with too much scheduled – these are some of the many people who need to walk in a relaxed manner, but who find their responsibilities and overextensions make it difficult to do. Undoubtedly, it will take a lifetime for me to fully learn the lesson of walking in a relaxed manner.”

I enjoyed reading this book that was given to me by pastor Thomas, and was amazed that the author was able to glean so many life lessons that will help us in our life’s pilgrimage. This book is a must read if you wish to do the camino or a part of it, or any other kind of camino, or long hikes over many days. It is a catalyst for fruitful reflection about your life’s pilgrimage, which is the most important of all pilgrimages.

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Inviting the Mystic, Supporting the Prophet: book reflection

Initially I was intrigued by the title of this book written by Katherine Marie Bykman & Patrick Carroll. It caught my curiosity. As I read the foreword and introduction, I felt drawn to the authors’ thesis as it was something I wholeheartedly agreed with: the tests of authentic prayer are in the fruit of the praying life or the community. I was interested in the relationship between prayer and service, mystic and prophet. 

I was not disappointed as the authors describe the symbiotic relationship between the mystic and the prophet in the believer’s life. “The starting point is not as important as that the circle be complete: prayer leading to life, and life leading to prayer. Real prayer leads to involvement; real involvement leads to prayer. Deeper spirituality impels to action; action impels to deeper spirituality, and the circle continues and deepens. The mystic becomes prophet, the prophet becomes mystic” (Dykman & Carrol, 80).  I used to believe that every plan or service should spring from prayer, but now I am willing to concede that for some people, action came first, and I should not disparage some “prayerless” action, but guide such active persons to seek God in prayer more.

I like the authors’ description of spiritual direction. It is not narrowly confined to the guided development of the directees’ prayer life, but a journey with them in their larger faith development, which includes conversion, struggle, integration, awareness of reality and a call to radical love, not just the prayer life.  The call to radical love would include immersion in works of service, justice and compassion. “All these holy people are holy not just because they pray or write eloquently about that prayer, but because their prayer leads them to respond to Christ in the given historical cultural moment. All of them respond in a unique way to unique situations in which they find the Lord calling to his people. But all respond outside themselves in service. Each mystic becomes a prophet”(Dykman & Carrol, 82). This reminded me how this emphasis on mission and service is so similar to Ignatian prayer spirituality.

The chapter on PRAYING THROUGH THE DESERT is particularly enlightening for me. The authors gave two descriptions of the desert experience in prayer: one from St John of the Cross of the 16th Century mystic and poet, and another through Thomas Merton a 20th Century mystic and poet. I found both helpful and complementary. The advice to spiritual directors leading others through the desert experience is to help the directee look at his or her larger or entire life. “We cannot judge our prayer, whether it be consoling or desolate, by how we feel when we pray, but rather by how we are loving when we live” (62). A person’s prayer life may be desert-like but an examen of his life may reveal God’s loving activities and presence in many areas of his life of service. This helps him see that God’s love is as strong as ever and that the desert may be God’s way of moving on the purification of his faith in and love for God and not the result of his sin.

I enjoyed this book and found myself underlining many sentences and paragraphs. These definitely deserve further reflection and discussion with the Lord. 

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