Nong Khai, Thailand — Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fifth round of bloggers: Katie Delaney is a Good Shepherd Volunteer with the Fundación Madre Josefa (Mother Joseph Foundation) in Santiago, Chile, and Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.
I spent my last week in silence at the Seven Fountains Jesuit Retreat Center in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I'm not intimidated by silence, but eliminating language, technology, and many of the comforts I rely on in Nong Khai made this week uniquely challenging.
There was also a nervousness that sat in my stomach. While I do enjoy exploring the complexities of my spirituality, I don't always connect it to a particular religion. I do identify as Catholic, but I've found that once you own that label, there can be an expectation that goes with it.
I am still trying to understand the role religion plays in my spiritual identity, and bringing someone else into that confusion was unnerving. As the retreat progressed, however, I was grateful for my spiritual director for meeting with me every day, planning meditations specifically for me, and giving my needs his undivided attention. Getting to release my words and receive positive feedback in return made the silence less lonely and reminded me why I came to retreat.
Each day, my director gave me a question to reflect on, and he carefully chose meditations as a complement to this question. My first day was spent asking God to help me understand how much he loves me, and the following day, I reflected on how I was intended to respond to this love.
As I coped with the first two days of my silence, a familiar feeling of loneliness set in and began to creep into my meditations. I've been living alone for three months, and I'm realizing more and more how important companionship is to my happiness.
I sat alone in a beautiful chapel surrounded by the unfamiliar, and I knew this retreat was only going to expose me to an even greater sense of loneliness. I opened my Bible and read the following passage:
Lord, you have examined me and you know me
You know everything I do;
from far away you understand all my thoughts.
You see me, whether I am working or resting;
you know all my actions.
Even before I speak, you already know what I will say.
You are all around me on every side;
you protect me with your power
Your knowledge of me is too deep,
it is beyond my understanding
Is there a way to be truly alone in this world? If God's presence is constant, then even in the utmost isolation, he would still be by your side. I find great comfort in that.
The third and fourth days of my retreat prompted me to reflect on the purpose of my baptism and to recognize the areas in my life where God was calling me.
In the center of the Seven Fountains property is a labyrinth. This was my first exposure to labyrinths, and I was immediately drawn to walk its twisted path. In this labyrinth, you get to the center almost immediately, so you quickly realize that this must not be your ultimate goal, though it's nice to be in the middle.
I had initially thought that a labyrinth was the same as a maze, that you would be deceived with multiple routes that could ultimately lead to a dead end. The mathematician in me wanted to solve the labyrinth and find the fastest way to reach the end. I soon discovered, however, that there are no tricks, and if you follow the path, it will lead you where you need to go.
I thought of this in relation to the path God has set for each of us, with the final destination being the fulfillment of our life's purpose. You don't need to be brilliant to find the center; you just have to follow the path. There may be road blocks to confront, or you may grow inpatient with its length, but you continue on, hoping the reward is greater than you have imagined.
This labyrinth was marked with small shrubs, and you could see the whole labyrinth from any point, even though you might not know how to reach the center. Of course, as humans, we all have free will. The labyrinth allows us to cut corners and step outside of the designated path if we desire. However, when we do this, we risk losing our place and getting lost. We may end up moving further and further away from our goals or cutting our journey shorter, making the experience less rewarding. We have choices in life, but not all paths help us get closer to the center. God forgives, so wherever you are on your path, your purpose will never leave its position, and you always have the opportunity to find it again.
The final day, I was encouraged to decipher my own personal experiences with God and appreciate the uniqueness of this relationship. I understand the appeal of silence, and I do believe that for many, it allows space for God to speak to them. As I mulled over the question for this last day, I could recognize that God was present in my silence, but I hear him the loudest in my relationships with other people. My spirituality is defined by the recognition of our kinship with all humankind and my duty to promote justice. I am the most sure of myself and my place in the world when I am entrenched in marginalized communities and I know we are journeying together.
"People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says: 'It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.' I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts" (Matthew 9:12-13).
I see God every day in my Nong Khai community when I witness others' love. If God represents goodness and love, it is impossible for me to see those values without human connection. I appreciate the silence for its simplicity and clarity. Although silence may not be my preference, I've learned that you can find God in all spaces at any time. He is always beside you, and there is nothing that will make him turn from you. I think the question is not whether you can hear God, but where you hear him the loudest.
[Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.]