an account of a personal prayer retreat
Leaving on a Thai jet plane
It began with taking flight. Sometimes we must take leave of all that is familiar, routine.. especially when it begins to weigh and direct us in uneasy ways. We feel weary, joy is leaking too fast... Or when we feel strongly about certain things and may need to discern what our emotions, thoughts and even our bodies are trying to signal to us. it is time to disengage for a bit and re-anchor, hear, return to Centre, rest.
As the Thai language was spoken over the public address; it dawned on me that some twenty years ago, I took my first airplane ride – into Thailand on a Thai airways flight… I was seventeen on my way to the mountains of North Thailand. Then, I was young, eager and full of all my fears but yet confident I was shaping up to be a top-flight missionary. The team affirmed me and voted me “most likely missionary”. I guess this means that my self-assessment wasn’t too way off?
This time, I sit next to a busy executive who tells me the familiar story: work a few more years to save up then quit and do something more altruistic.
The second flight i sat next to an age-spot covered pot-bellied man who made my seat feel even smaller…
The retreat centre was so familiar the lady behind the counter went through it like routine. A taxi came up and a woman driver with a pretty smile and fresh perms helped me with my bag. I ask about children, then greeted her ‘happy mother’s day’. She speaks warily of a tomboy 30yr old daughter. Before I leave, I tell her I have come to pray and ask that she too seek God and pray for her daughter to find God’s love so she can love herself. I give her more than the expected fare and she smiles even wider.
Fr Townsend appeared and helped me with my luggage. We walked to the Aruppe building and clamber up some narrow stairs, my left knee acting up a little. After a brief introduction to my room, he grinned and said, 'gentle down'. What kind words to a world weary traveler!
First Eucharist (communion)
It’s my first time sharing communion with my Catholic brethren. The old priest tall, with sandals that looked too small, came in his White robe. He seemed austere at first, but once he started speaking, there was a liveliness and authenticity that I simply had to smile and nod in eager response to. Some parts, he sounded like he used French; his European accent still thick and it became unclear when the words were read off the black book with its two bookmark laces that he kept fingering.
A young lady seated at far right began to sob. The lady next to me began to dig about in her pockets. I decided I would risk any incursion; and got up to get some tissue from my bag for her. The priest did not intervene and was not interrupted.
I began to talk with the Lord. I had traveled some eight hours and now about to embark on a necessary inward journey. "Lord, feed me" was my simple request. As the priest began to consecrate the bread, tears came to me. I felt a sadness. The it lifted. We ate the wafer after dipping it in the wine. For the first time I saw a priest munch on his larger wafer; then empty and dry the wine cup! Such aplomp – we Protestants have to drink our leftovers in the pantry!
After dinner, I retired to my room. The temperature upon arrival was 36 deg Celsius! I prayed earnestly for that to change!
After some tossing, I realized that I would have to use my back support cushion for a pillow and hugged the room pillow. Clearly missing my bolster here! (and no I am not referring to the human variety).
It can be hard to rest easy when one is concerned about oversleeping! I must make the most of the early morning cool and then see Fr Townsend at 9am. Turns out it’s a pointless anxiety; because when i got up and looked: 545am.
Since breakfast is served at 7, and this is probably the coolest time of day or night, i got up. Without any clear agenda, everything can move unhurried. I put on the lightest tee I brought, considered my possible movements and packed my bag with Bible, journal, water bottle and my hand phone. I will need to find out if they may have an adaptor for me to charge it with. The hundred meter walk to the dining room was delightfully filled with bird aerobatics, squirrel playfulness, and cool morning air. I even spotted a cat!
The dining room was dark but simple bread with jams and butter were laid out. I smiled at the young girl who had walked in. The I saw the clock: 630am. Yikes! I had forgotten about the time difference again! I ate quietly all by myself then set out to wander the grounds. After wiping off leaves and dust, I found a comfy chair just my height made out of a tree stump. But the tropical insects were a little too friendly for me; so I moved to a building where I could fend them off- but alas the fan was a noisy clacking machine! I moved on again to the largest chapel of all. It was a big cavernous space with three columns of pews, a little organ right at the back near the entrance. The side walls had woodcuts of the stations of Christ. I sat toward the right after turning on a fan, suddenly aware that I have not longed for God, and I felt weary. The stained window had the deer from Psalm 42.
As I turned around to face the front, I noticed it: the Jesus on the crucifix right in the front affixed to the stain glass was flying off the cross! Not the usual arms pinned agony, but a triumphant, lively, leaping off figure with hands spread eagle and fingers splayed- I notice I was nervous he may actually come right down next to me. I also longed to touch those fingers, to hold, or rather be held by those hands. I lifted my arms for a brief moment, letting them meet his.
The labyrinth* lies just beyond this chapel. I have had mixed feelings about it: i fear being ahead, different, further misunderstood...But then, I am here by Your invitation, and it is for this that I have come! LORD, simply lead me.
A retreat affords us to really slow down for there is no one waiting to see us or demand things of us. The simple meals are prepared, the places tidied and even the laundry is done. All of a person's basic needs are attended to; an especially welcome break for mothers. All that is left is to move about without haste; taste the air, feel the breeze and breathe deeper.
Walking out to meet my director for an introduction session, i became aware of questions...bubbling to the surface. They filed orderly past my mind's screen. When I did later get a chance to try to recollect them, only two questions remained; and not with quite the same nuance. I turned this over to the Lord, certain He will guide me. After I tried to pin those disappearing bubbles of questions down, I sensed there were other concerns.
Later on, even though it was nearly midday, I felt it was time to walk the labyrinth. Funny how I had used this word 'labyrinth' years earlier to describe how lost I felt. I prepared myself at the threshold with a simple prayer for God to lead me and began walking. Again, I was aware of a certain distance, a lack of intimacy with the Lord. But thankfully, I did not turn all inward, absorbed with myself. I walked slowly feeling the crunch of the fine peebles, sometimes pausing to look at a leaf, and picked up a twig. It felt good to hold. It's easy to get impatient and think to jump the mere foot-high hedges to speed things along, I realised.
Soon, I began thanking God for the different periods of my life, beginning with my parents…
The greater drongo swooped dangerously close and then stood on the branch of the large flame of the forest. I talked with it for a while, then noticed a cheeky little squirrel had come to join in the fun. Psalm 104 as sung by Amy Grant came to me...and then I heard: "you are my precious possession". My heart was steadied. A bright orange and white butterfly seem to tease and play with me, flying ahead of me for several feet before disappearing into the main hedge.
Walking on, different prayers and songs emerged effortlessly... as I finished, I asked the Lord, what He would have me do; especially in my church.
It got hot so i retreated to my room to freshen up and sit under the fan. I decide to continue reading the Way of Agape that I had brought along. The chapter I read was unequivocal: the simple, powerful word that remains the unchanging bedrock of what it means to love God: obedience.
More songs found their way out from within including a Chinese one that began 袮深深爱我， 我 也爱袮， 耶稣， 袮就在这里 （ni shen shen ai wo, wo ye ai ni, yesu ni jiu zai zhe li）...
I was seeing my Fr David at 9, so I decided on a leisurely start, waking up, doing my stretches and taking a slowest walk I can mange to the dining hall. Even yesterday, my mind kept trying to plan what to say so I had to push those nervous thoughts away. The conversation wasn't to prove any point. He will never know the details of my struggles or questions; his role was to listen and suggest ways I can sharpen my discernment. The discoveries and decisions are all mine to make- the Spirit of truth leading me.
My quiet breakfast of an overlooked sunny side up with toast and milo was noisily interrupted by sounds of - believe me- construction ! Bane of the Singaporean! Well, I had seen early signs of it when I arrived. Thankfully, the noise would not be heard very far at all.
The conversation didn't seem too welcome at first, for I felt I had barely elucidated my plight. Perhaps my tears clouded things somewhat. But I listenend, and I heard affirmations really: things to consider; which I have. He referred to the storm Jesus calmed and it was one od the etxts i read in the morning which later arose within as a song with the line: "even while the storm waves beat, I rise and stand upon my feet for i have found that beneath me is soild ground".
The reminder to discern spirits in particular was instructive; and yes, the talk returned me to God's sovereign watch-care and my responsibility to choose gratitude, love and kingdom - whatever the circumstances.
I return to the labyrinth. The greater drongo bird came by (again!), and then the talkative one-eye cat. It was a walk in sweetness, and i received a promise of being a fruitful vine. A plant i had not seen at all yesterday greeted me from the foot of the rock in the centre - so life springs from the Rock of my salvation!
Later I would find two gems in the library: Anthony Mello's The Way of Love, and Joan Chittister's Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope. (just had to visit the library!)
My inward journey is nearly over, and I find my heart and thougts begin to remember individuals and their needs-- but mine is to lift them before the Lord and not solve or fix them.
God has surrounded me with Himself; sweetness follows me; and I was indeed led -- one memory, thought, confession, sin, truth, and possibility, to the next. I can write a book on decision-making now! Gently, my shepherd helped me see but yet would not let me sink into questions, regret and despair. Indeed, the final note is Hope which is not about specific outcomes but about being held, led and loved by Him without fail. Things may change as I walk in loving obedience, or they may not. What matters is I have changed from fear to courage, from needing answers to offering answers, from attachment to detachment, from longing and loss to freedom and love; LORD help me keep clinging to You, my Life-Source, the Vine!
*the labyrinth is a ancient garden path that the church adopted to allow for a slow reflective walk. The most famous one is probably the one painted on the grounds of the Chartres Cathedral, France: