"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light." -- Matthew 11:28-30
ACTUALLY, "meek and humble of heart" i am NOT. More like "angry and proud of heart". And Matthew 11:28-30 had never been one of my favorite verses. In fact, found it quite bewildering most times. So it all came as quite a surprise in May.
My 40th birthday was approaching and i wanted it to be a special birthday. Afterall, 40 years is a very long time -- in biblical tradition, a very special period; and according to a saying by Confucius, the age where one can have no more perplexities.
A few friends offered to celebrate it with a dinner. Eventually, decided to go on a four-day silent retreat at the Ignatian Spirituality Centre and so to speak, "claim my birthday gift from God". This was half a joke. Sure, God will bless me. How? Who knows? Who can tell God what He's to do?
THE FIRST TWO DAYS of intense prayers were great. Was beginning to get into a prayerful mood --from the second morning, woke up around 5.30am, washed up, prayed for an hour, attended morning mass at 7am, relaxed a little, then prayed the second hour, had lunch, walked a little, prayed the third hour, rested, talked with my spiritual director (SD), had dinner, walked a little, and then prayed the final fourth hour.
A friend SMSed a birthday greeting on the second morning, my birthday. Pleasantly surprised, started to SMS a number of friends, especially Christian ones, for birthday wishes and prayers. The responses flowed in. Mood got better. Decided to buy a cake and celebrate at lunch with the other four retreatants -- two priests-to-be, a young lady and a middle-aged woman.
Passed by a fruit stall enroute to the cake shop. The fruit-seller more or less 'coerced' me into buying eight mangoes for $10. Smilingly obliged. Upon returning to the centre, proceeded to put the mangoes on the dining table, one for each retreatant. We ate with relish. And i celebrated my birthday with a cake and lots of fruits -- fat juicy sweet mangoes.
That morning's gospel reading coincided with that Sunday's reading: John 15:5 where Jesus said, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing."
Was quite happy. Made a birthday wish that my next 40 years will bear even more good fruit. Started talking with the retreatants. Told the middle-aged lady that i woke up three times in the middle of the night before, feeling wide awake. Not sure if the nap i took the day before had caused this. Each time, I went back to sleep.
She advised me to pray whenever i wake up in the middle of the night. i smiled, "You mean, pray like Samuel did on the advice of Eli?" She smiled too. "Yes, you can say, 'Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.' "
That night, woke up in the middle of the night again. Was really sleepy. Didn't want to get up. So, just rolled over and prayed in my heart, "Lord, if you have something to tell me, please speak. Otherwise, let me go to sleep."
Drifted into dreamland for the first time in three nights. One strange thing happened after another. Were not pleasant at all. More like a warning. i woke up, vaguely disturbed. Almost six. Proceeded to the washroom to get ready for one-hour prayer before morning mass. Stood before a mirror and a basin, still vaguely troubled, "Oh no, not again?"
Then, the strangest thing happened. A firm male voice sang in acapella, soft and clear, as though coming from within or just around me:
All who are weary come unto Me.
All who find life a burden
I will refresh you,
Your soul will find rest;
For My yoke is easy,
And My burden is light.
The voice of John Michael Talbot (JMT). A song from a CD that i have. The voice continued singing:
Take My yoke on your shoulders and learn,
For I am gentle and humble.
I will refresh you,
Your soul will find rest,
I am gentle and humble of heart.
My yoke is easy,
My burden is light,
Your soul will find rest.
Take My yoke on your shoulders and learn,
I am gentle and humble of heart.
Then, silence, as though nothing has happened. Wow! Was Jesus speaking to me? With JMT's song?
Proceeded to do my first hour in the prayer room. Went for mass. Met one of the priests-to-be at breakfast. Told him what happened. What to make out of this? Later, told the middle-aged lady too. Kept wondering -- why the song, what's the message?
Evening came. Met my SD and told him about the dream. He smiled, "Perhaps a manifestation of your fears and worries." Told him about the song. He looked surprised, was about to smile again. i quoted Matthew 11:28-30. Then it all became clear as daylight. Just the night before, when my SD asked me what i wanted to give up in response to God's love and my own sinfulness, i had replied, "My anger and my pride."
"...learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart"
Was Jesus inviting me to seek Him through prayer more often so that i can learn from Him how to be meek and humble of heart?
(See also Secrets of the Vine.)
Since this May, i've told many people in church and at work about the amazing song that i had heard in the Ignatian centre, partly to boast and mostly (i hope) to encourage others.
Their reactions were as varied as their faith in me, as well as their personalities and perhaps spiritual conviction.
Some were deeply edified and encouraged to pray more and to practise the virtue of humility. Some listened and responded politely in a non-commital way. Some were silent. Some looked fearful as though they saw in me the shadow of John Nash (as in A Beautiful Mind).
Several times, i tried making a joke out of it: "i could be schizophrenic!" while knowing at heart that this cannot be so -- i've never heard voices or seen "weird people" before.
It cannot be, as one friend suggested, that someone was playing the John Michael Talbot (JMT) song from a CD player nearby. It was around five forty-five in the morning. The wing where i stayed for four nights was designated for female retreatants only, and there were only two other female retreatants. On the morning that i heard the song, one (a young girl) had left the night before and only one (a middle-aged lady) remained. Her room was a few doors away from the washroom. So, no way any music can float from her room to the washroom. Anyway, when i told this lady about the song, she simply looked surprised and was silent.
And to top it all, the song was sang in acapella, very near me (almost in or around me). The one in my CD has music. Period.
Now, could someone have sung it while in the room right next to the washroom? Just which man would have a voice as beautiful as JMT's, be right door (in a woman's wing) and want to sing that song at that hour?
The other mystery is the message itself. In my wildest dreams, i cannot even imagine the significance of Matthew 11:28-30. It wasn't my favorite -- verse or song. Ddn't know it's called the Sacred Heart prayer by Jesuits until Fr Paul Goh said so the night i told him about the song. Also didn't know that there's a Sacred Heart devotion based on this prayer. (Since then, i've been attending mass on First Fridays. A few months ago, started doing so at St Mary's because it's the only parish near my home that observes the devotion.)
Finally, is there a Franciscan element in the message? Matthew 11:28-30 is the gospel reading for St Francis' feastday on 4 October every year. Found out recently that JMT is a secular Franciscan who had started a lay order called Brothers and Sisters of Charity in a place called Little Portion Hermitage near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, USA.
And more: JMT has recorded a CD called Wisdom that seems to be based on the theme of humility; he also runs a retreat called The Lessons of St Francis which "will lead participants through a series of practical reflections on various topics such as simplicity, humility, compassion, creativity, community, solitude, service and prayer as seen through the writings of St. Francis, his followers and biographers".
And more: 'Troubadour for the Lord': John Michael Talbot reflects on career, ministry, community, tragedy.
Asked my SD a few months ago what he made out of this, he said the voice or song could be self-generated.
"Not in 40 years!" was my rejoinder.
It's been more than a year since this special event. Before May 2003, i've never heard voices or songs in this way. After May 2003, likewise.
Last month, the Godma of my friend W. returned to Singapore for a short visit. She had also bought for me JMT's Wisdom CD and The Lessons of St Francis book. What joy to listen to the songs and to read JMT's words of wisdom!
Was especially struck by the chapters on Simplicity and Humility. For the former, tried to put the tips into practice. For the latter, couldn't help but notice the similarities in JMT's insights and mine. Coincidence or providence?
Confucius's account of his gradual progress and attainments, according to The Analects of Confucius, Lunyu 2:4 (20):
子曰 ' 吾十有五而志於學 、三十而立 、 四十而不惑 、五十而知天命 、六十而耳順 、七十而從心所欲 、不踰矩 '
The Master said, "At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.
"At thirty, I stood firm.
"At forty, I had no doubts.
"At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
"At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
"At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right."
The Master said, 'At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free from doubts; at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven; at sixty my ear was attuned; at seventy I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the line.'