Monday, October 19, 2015

Reflection on the Academy for Spiritual Formation (Singapore) 2015

The first Academy for Spiritual Formation (Singapore) which is associated with Upper Room Ministries in the United States was held in Majodi Centre in Johor Bahru, Malaysia from 12-15 October 2015. This is the first time it is held outside the US. About 20 academies are organised in the States annually and I have always wanted to attend one. It is a wish fulfilled when I (a Malaysian) was invited by the Singaporean organisers to attend this inaugural academy. So it was with great anticipation that I went to the academy and when I checked into the centre and take note of the decorations and the programme, I felt I have ‘come home’! I have been interested in spiritual formation for more than thirty years and to come into a community of liked minded people is such a blessing.

The program of the academy was designed to follow the rhythm of worship and life. Every day, it starts with morning prayer, food (breakfast), lecture/talk, silence and solitude/personal quiet reflection, group sharing, food (lunch), some free time, lecture/talk, silence and solitude/personal reflection time, Eucharist, food (dinner), covenant (small group) sharing, night prayer, and then the great silence/no talking until the next morning at morning prayer. This is a good rhythm but it took me almost three days before I can enter it. I struggled at Morning Prayer because I am used to have my coffee the first thing after I wake up. It was really a struggle in my decaffeinated state to worship! I must confess that I spent most of the reflection and free time sleeping for the first two days. I was so exhausted and I believe many of the participants were too. While this is a good rhythm for the academy which is in an artificial organised set up, I do not think it is workable in our daily lives. Most of us live lives of organized chaos; mine is anyway. Mainly I wake up and pray that the day will be good and collapse at night, thanking God that I survived the day. It does not approximate the medieval monastic rule of life this rhythm is patterned after.

The morning, Eucharist, and evening prayers are actually one-hour long worship services. And it is highly liturgical. I was told it was ecumenical. The worship leaders, homilies and liturgies were excellent. I enjoy attending liturgical services in traditional liturgical churches. These churches have long traditions. Attending and participating the liturgies in this academy feels strange to me as I do not sense any church traditions behind it. It is like attending the service of independent churches but with more words. Some of the actions had me mystified, like pouring water out of a jar into a bowl, until it was explained to me (I was told it is like baptism but why at the beginning of the service, I wonder). The introduction of some Asian hymns in an attempt at contextualization was good as many of the hymns in the Upper Room hymnal are new to me. The daily theme of return, rest, renewal and re-engage was meaningful to me as a movement of entering and leaving. The daily decorations of the altars were beautiful and a credit to the creativity of the Singapore team. The addition of a labyrinth, and a prayer room were excellent facilities I make use of frequently after I have rested and moved into the flow of worship and silence.

The small group discussion at the end of a day was wonderful and helpful. I am so glad to make the acquaintance of my covenant group members; to feel their warm acceptance, to share and pray with and for one another. We are now good friends and even have a Whatapps group. May we continue to edify one another.

The academy speaker was Majorie Thompson who took both the morning and afternoon sessions. I understand that in the States, there will be two speakers; one for the morning and the other for the afternoon sessions. I have no reservations about Majorie taking all the sessions. I have been looking forward to meeting her ever since I read her book Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life in 1995. I am so glad she has autographed for me her new 2014 second edition which I bought especially for this purpose. I regret I did not bring and offer to her my books on spiritual formation: Till We are Fully Formed, Spiritual Formation on the Run and Tales from the Monastery. Not too sure she will read them anyway. I find Majorie a gracious lady, soft-spoken and very open about her struggles; a wounded healer. The theme was Sabbath. There was a lot about Sabbath which she shared that I am still processing. New insights came when she shared about her Sabbath from ministry during her time of mourning after the death of her husband, and also about being Sabbath for one another (Sabbath sanctuary). The theologian in me is still trying to come to terms with them. I especially enjoyed her sharing about Henri Nouwen whom she had worked with.

These four days are wonderful days of dwelling in a spiritual safe place to rest and renew. It feeds the scholar and the mystic in me. There are elements here that appeals to these aspects of me. There are some confusion amongst some participants whether this is a conference or a retreat. Some expected more teaching and are mystified by the contemplative aspects. Other expect a retreat and long for more periods of silence of solitude. I find there is a wonderful balance here.

I summarise what I have learnt as that Sabbath is the intentional synchronizing of our natural rhythm in homecoming to stop-rest and renewal in a space-time container with God in our daily life. I am reminded that Sabbath is essential and I need to intentionally make space for it in my busy weekly schedule. What is wonderful is that I have a beautiful encounter with God in the academy. It did not happen at any specific spot like during my walk in the labyrinth or prayer time. It is a general sense of His presence, healing and refreshing me. He affirms and confirms the direction I try to serve Him. And that is exactly all I needed. Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

19 October 2015


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