Mary PW Chin
This page is about retreat centres, where folks go for a world apart. I call this process debugging, which is an integral part of a programmer's life. Every real-world computer program is imperfect and would have some bugs. In order to make the program work or make it more robust, we debug. I spent my teenage debugging late into the nights. Teenage, after all, is a time for an addiction of some sorts. This leads us back to the original focus of this page — spiritual retreats, where retreatants try to realign themselves and shake off things they cling on to, which include addictions.
Temple of Seoul
Seoul, South Korea
Saint Asaph, Wales
Casa Le Stuoie
I first read Thich Nhat Hanh's book back in the nineties. I know him as the Buddhist analogue of Thomas Merton; indeed the two were good friends. I had wanted to visit Plum Village for a long time; somehow postponed too many times over too many years. Finally, time was up and so I registered for the New Hamlet and booked my tickets right-away.
At Plum Village, I found the nuns' giggles so pure. They hold hands during evening walks within their own gardens. Completely voluntary; no external expectation; no pressure. This is quite different from the need to stick together when out and about in a perceived different, outside, world, when one feels the need for support from one's own kind.
Community living is not new, but Plum Village recreated for me the meaning of community living. On my second day there, a saying by Thay which I encountered two months earlier flashed back across my mind. Oh how could I have momentarily forgotten that saying — that
the next Buddha will not come in the form of a person, but in the form of a community.
Dare you, dare me, in any traditional Buddhist context, raise a suggestion so anti and so revolutionary? Thay did. Here' a second echo: don't expect the next Buddha to come in the form of an individual, but realise it in the body of a community.
During my week there, there was a day when our group was due for walking meditation but a nun came to say apologetically that because they were preparing for a long trip, we might have to go unaccompanied. When the time came, indeed no nun turned up, so we started out ourselves. I was watching my steps as usual, looking down on the ground around my moving feet. As we walked further and further, I saw from the corners of my eyes a brown long skirt catching up, then another, followed by another and yet another. Before long, I was flanked left and right with nuns making their perfectly calibrated strikes, guiding us, joining us, walking with us.
I didn't know nuns multiply. I felt the support; so warm.
I used to see Buddhism as a philosophy. At Plum Village I got to know Buddhism as a psychology. If I wish to learn psychology, I'll learn from Thay. To me, he has overcome the barriers of psychology, which trip community living and which underly tolerance-based struggles. Thay somehow got it right. In the monastery I found no elements of hero-worshipping of the master — another testimony of healthy psychospirituality. I also began to see how throughout history the Catholic church has been tripped by psychology left and right, landing herself to ill handling and ill interpretation.
Temple of Seoul
In a quiet corner of Seoul, we were given monastic robes to change into. We were instructed to greet every passing monk by bowing our heads with both palms meeting each other. The monks taught to eat like they do. Each of us was given 4 brown bowls neatly tied in a bundle with a napkin. The bowls were stacked orderly according to their descending sizes, reminding me of kiddies' stacking toys. There was a prescribed way to manoeuvre the kit at every stage:
untie and tie the napkin around the bowls;
dishing out each bowl with both thumbs and placing each on the spread-out napkin; there was an invisible, allocated parking space on the napkin for each of the bowl according to its size;
rinsing each bowl with hot water that was passed around, before and after the meal;
we had to make sure every single piece taken from the main dish was consumed -- left-over pieces were strictly prohibited;
but we were reminded repeatedly to leave a piece of the magical kimchi to the last -- that was to be the sponge during the after-meal bowl-rinsing.
According to the hosting monk, the ability to handle the above rite gracefully indicates the seniority of a monk. There was a voluntary translator as the monk spoke little English. He described junior monks as
baby monks -- the term found great favour among us!
Some of the fellow participants had some difficulties:
no smoking throughout temple stay; and
guests were expected to sit cross-legged on the floor, or one ends up stacking up cushions and struggling to keep the pile in shape.
Both Ampleforth Abbey and Ampleforth School sit on the same
Benedictine ground. The boarding school is supposed to be one of the best. Parents from across the world send their children here.
I first visited Ampleforth shortly after
Cardinal Hume's death (1999). I revisited in autumn 2004. Public transport is available but not frequent. On both visits I found a bus a day in each direction. The bus departed from a square by the gallery, which is about 7 minutes walk from the Victorian-style York Station.
Ampleforth is a place where one is compelled to kneel down and kiss the ground. The vast, picturesque space reminds one of his/her proper proportion with respect to nature. During my second visit, I walked to my heart's content, and found the lake I didn't get to reach the last time. It was indeed as faraway as fellow visitors tried convincing me of.
On Sundays the students joined us at Mass. It was the place where I found strict discipline not of our age: the youth attended masses in formal attire; altar boys and girls did not scratch their heads or giggle or whisper to each other.
Ampleforth was where I first heard Gregorian chants live. Offices and all prayers were chanted. The chanting chants right into the core of the soul, gathering all thoughts and calling all stray senses back to their meeting point of origin. Some sort of sweet dryness and bareness. An experience of blessed servanthood, of total obedience and ultimate surrender.
Before saying goodbye I bought a CD of Gregorian chants from the Abbey Shop. Only to discover that the experience couldn't be replicated. Till this day, each time I come across the word
precepts I instantly recall being present in that chapel in Ampleforth Abbey, sitted by the visitors' row, diagonally across the chanting monk. Maybe that word happened to be over-used at that particular point in the liturgical calendar. Or that it is indeed the intended emphasis of the community.
Ampleforth was the monastery where Cardinal Hume, much respected by the British society, spent many years of his life as a
Benedictine monk. At Mass, one of his fellow monks related how Cardinal Hume always spent each morning, the cream of the day, in prayer. And I remember that to this day.
How nice it was to hear a monk speak of a fellow monk with such respect and affection. In many cases when people live in communities, minor weaknesses can get so unrepresentatively blown up under the microscope. Not so in this case.
Food was absolutely superb in 1999, less in 2004. Bedrooms were without locks in 1999. I was surprised to find my room door having no locks, but given the backdrop, I felt secure. On my second visit in 2004, there were locks. On last access their website explicitly states that there are locks!
Worth is a cousin of Ampleforth. Visitors who have been to Ampleforth should be sparing with their expections. Here is another beautiful place for Benedictine chants which permeate right into the marrow. I was there for a Thomas Merton program autumn 2003.
Asirvanam Monastery is not only Benedictine, but vegetarian. Despite my every sincerity to accept the food with gladness, my stomach just wouldn't agree with the diet, causing trouble which invited much caring attention from the monks, who prescribed and prepared meals with fresh coconut milk.
I shall never forget that scene of over 1000 dairy cows across the pond. Black and white, black and white, and black and white. Awesome.
There were two white gentlemen making their retreats there: a priest and a Brother. Both are missionaries devoted to India, Indian living and Indian growing. True missionaries. In one of the sermons we were taught how to pray: by positioning the hand with the thumb pointing towards our bosom:
the thumb is closest to our heart - we pray for our loved ones;
the index finger is the one that points and directs - we pray for teachers in the world;
the third finger is the tallest - we pray for leaders in the world;
the fourth finger is the weakest - we pray for the marginalised, the deprived, the weak and the sick;
the fifth finger is the shortest - we pray for the humble me.
I was at
Seven Fountains, a Jesuit Spirituality Centre, on transit to visit my parents and sisters in Malaysia. It is a place to be reminded of things we have forgotten and sometimes, also a place to come to our senses. I found the Asian touch very warm; the delicious cooking out the world; the chapel more beautiful than Italian basilicas; the acoustics of the piano in the chapel exceptionally brilliant. I bade farewell 2 days before the Indian Ocean Tsunami — a close escape and a near miss.
Most visitors at Seven Fountains came from Singapore, Malaysia and neighbouring countries. Some work at the borders with refugees. Most are in social service.
Home-produced bananas were served in eat-all-you-want quantities. When I saw the bananas on my first day, I exclaimed to myself, yes! I recognise this! I was instantly reminded of the home-grown bananas in
Asirvanam Monastery. That characteristic fade yellow and pale grey!
On arrival I was shown into my room. I shut the door, but found no notice on the door… Where's the fire evacuation procedure typically found at retreat centres in the West? Interestingly, I felt safer than anywhere else. This was a place where mutual help would be simply human and spontaneous. No procedures, no protocols, no legalities required. No division, no alienation. There was no accommodation or office areas marked "private" either. The Jesuit masters lived among the male retreatants and shared common washing facilities. Nothing exclusive for themselves. They live simply as locals. I heard that near the borders where they serve refugees, living is even less comfortable, more basic, and tough.
Here, exposing one's feet is not offensive! In fact, it is a mark of respect, if not veneration. Resonating with Moses' style I guess. This is in common with Malaysians who haven't lost their Malaysianness. We approach the temple or the altar barefoot as a sign of humility. We, of course, keep such places clean enough to go barefoot!
When one of the Jesuits, Fr. Iker, a Spanish, sat down to befriend me, his first words were, "
Ni jiao sheme mingzi a?" ( "What is your name?" in Mandarin.) I found that ticklish! The Spanish Jesuit actually speaks, reads and writes both Mandarin and Thai. Die-hard missionaries! In Malaysia, so many Chinese find picking up Mandarin an insurmountable task. So many try years and years but just get nowhere. What can I say? That's the die-hard ardour of die-hard missionaries. They can move mountains.
Or perhaps I needn't look as far as Chiang Mai. Back in Penang (Malaysia) we have Father A. Julien (1917 - 2004) who, against all odds, founded several Chinese schools. Fondly referred to as "Yulian Shenfu", he is said to be 比华人更华人 -- more chinese than the Chinese themselves. This is not about picking up a few foreign phrases here and there: "
Guten Tag", " Chiuso", " Biglietto", " Sayonara" or " Mi scuzi" from phrase books. It is about learning to speak and write and think and understand and be one with the local community. It is not for convenience as a tourist, or for fun to impress others. It is about laying down one's youth, if not life, for people outside one's race.
Moving to a new place and learning the local language is the initiation rite missionaries volunteer themselves to, calling for a sacrifice more than a momentary tattoo pierce. It is a commitment signed with love: I commit to be among them and become one of them, not they become one of us. That's what Christianity is all about: God became man to be with us. Emmanuel. It is that same story of the boy asking daddy, "Aeroplanes are so high, how do people get up the aeroplane?" The answer was, "My son, the aeroplane comes down to pick us up so that we don't need to go up."
Missionary pursuits are not to convert people to a same faith, but to give hope and to share the message that nature is for us, and with us. Nature embraces us all, whether we attempt to give it a name, say, "God", or not. Speaking of mission and missionaries, I think the time has come for Asians (including Chinese) to contribute and to answer the call to be missionaries. No, we don't need to be European, or white, to be missionaries.
During one of the sermons, Fr. David Townsend God's continuous creation. The Creation didn't stop with Adam and Eve in Genesis. Nor did it stop with one's own birth. But everyday, over and over again, we are re-created; and God continues to look upon us and sees that
it is good. Since hearing that sermon, to this day, I recite the Credo with renewed fervour: I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen … This knowledge offers tremendous consolation for each hopeful dream we start and spoil, the chances we have missed, and the graces we resist, as the hymn goes.
The need for new beginnings! People make new year resolutions. How about taking every moment of every day as a new beginning? When one is able to see each moment an unfolding newness, I guess that's what Buddhism calls
This is an Ignatian centre boasting a full list of walks with stunning views of the Snowdonia. I have yet to notice a place so pristine, so faraway from pollution. It is also the only place I've been where I wished I had a torchlight with me. Turning off the lights in the night, believe me, it was
pitch dark. I would visit again not just for the walks but also for that spectacular canopy of stars and the pitch-dark nights.
This is a
cousin of St. Bueno's. I visited back in winter 1998. It was complete with jacuzzi and sauna facilities, an art room and a music room. Compared to St Bueno's, the surrounding is less serene in terms of noise, exhaust and light pollution. Fr. Paul Fletcher said profoundly enriching signed Masses. Loyola Hall ran very practical programmes e.g. healing retreats for broken marriages. It has since closed and was put on the market by the Jesuits in September 2016.
This is the international headquarters (or 'motherhouse') of the Franciscan Missionaries of Divine Motherhood (FMDM). Ladywell, what a beautiful name.
It was Easter Sunday when I came out early to "meet the risen Lord". Upon reaching the convent door I realised oopsy, forgot to ask the Sisters how should I open the door to let myself out. Before touching the locks, I earnestly hoped that the door wasn't alarmed. It was too dark, and the inner door had shut and locked itself behind me -- I had no choice but to feel for the latches. After many unsuccessful attempts, hooray the door finally threw itself open! I stepped out into dawn, laughing to myself that perhaps that was the sense of freedom Audrey Hepburn felt in "Sound of Music" when she broke out of the convent. Before I finished laughing,
DOE, a deer darted across the long driveway! I saw a deer, I saw a deer!
Here, I heard some of the finest female voices in my life. Taking the trouble, making the effort to train and practice for the praise and glory of God is itself a consecration. Masses were celebrated with perfect balance of reverence, joy and live. Striking such a right pitch is uncommon.
Casa Le Stuoie
In Assisi, I found myself the ideal accommodation: Casa le Stuoie. This not-for-profit house-of-welcome was sparkling clean; Franciscan hospitality was constant; full-board meals were incredibly delicious; room rates were extraordinarily cheap. I felt so settled that I didn't feel like going home. I prefer this to any 5-star hotels. On my second visit 6 years later, I didn't manage to book Casa le Stuoie, as it was full. I lodged at the adjacent Domus Pacis instead. It is only a walking distance from the train station.
Basilica Degli Maria Santa Angeli (where Francis spent most of his time) is just 2 minutes' walk away, and this is where my romanticism for candle-light procession was renewed!
My first visit was a week over Saint Francis feast day. My second visit was a fortnight over Christmas; Christmas Mass was celebrated with a live baby being brought to the crib! The congregation sang
tu scendi dalle stelle most passionately.