On the hilltop of Marymount Convent, nestled behind a majestic row of trees, sits a two-storey green and white building that bears no name. The only clue to its identity is a piece of yellowed masking tape that clings to the wall above the doorbell, marked with the words “Oasis Retreat”.
This is the same doorbell I pressed 10 years ago, when I arrived to start my first guided silent retreat at Good Shepherd Oasis. I had told a Catholic friend how aimless I was feeling after graduating from university, and she had suggested I come here (I’m not Catholic, but retreats at the Oasis are open to all). She described a silent retreat as “church camp without socialising.” It turned out that I would spend most of my times in silence, except for talking to a nun for an hour each day. Meals were served in the communal kitchen at 7 a.m., 12 p.m. and 6.30 p.m.; the rest of the time I was left to my own devices (except for my mobile phone, which I was encouraged to switch off during the retreat).
It was the simplest of set-ups, and yet there was something compellingly restorative about it. I’ve been back to Good Shepherd Oasis five times since for silent retreats, and I leave each time with the kind of serenity that could get me smiling through a two-hour traffic jam on the PIE. Does such a transformative effect derive from the divine? Perhaps, for nothing really dramatic happens during a retreat. The first day is usually the most eventful as I wean myself from the talking and busyness of everyday life by pacing frantically about the retreat grounds in a cold sweat. But I quieten down by the second day, when I spend most of my time lounging in bed, looking at the ceiling, scribbling in my journal, reading the Bible, and rocking in the garden swing.
In the mornings, I talk to Sister Elizabeth Lim, a lively nun in her 70s with cropped silver hair and a bubbly laugh. Instead of the typically didactic approach one might expect of religious leaders, she adopts what she refers to as a “spiritual guidance” approach, which is essentially a gentle stream of questioning to ease retreatants into a more reflective mode. There’s a lot of “How are you feeling?” and “Why are you feeling this way?” and from the answers, she offers some reflection points for me to mull over for the rest of the day.
In the 14 years that Good Shepherd Oasis has existed, over 5,000 people have attended retreats here, with most of them hearing about it through word of mouth. It’s an affordable affair – $75 a day for room and board, and counselling. According to Sister Elizabeth, the people who attend retreats are of all ages, religions, occupations and family backgrounds. Some stay for the weekend, some stay for a month and some even come from other countries (I usually stay for four or five days). The only common thread among the retreatants is a yearning for inner peace amid challenging life situations such as bad relationships, burnouts or, as it was in my case on most occasions, aimlessness.
Over the years, Good Shepherd Oasis has become one of the few places I’ve come to regard as a refuge, even though I’m not Catholic. But in January 2011, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) announced that it plans to tear down most of the Marymount Convent premises to make way for a new North-South Expressway. By 2014, Good Shepherd Oasis and its surrounding buildings – Good Shepherd Chapel, Orange Valley Nursing Home, Missionaries of Charity Gift of Love Home and Rose Villa – will be gone.
A space solitary
The 63-year-old building that currently houses Good Shepherd Oasis didn’t originally have a name. It used to be the living quarters of a few nuns and formandees (women training to be nuns), and it was only in 1998 that Sister Elizabeth began holding guided silent retreats here. But she has been conducting such retreats since the 1970s. “It started when I was training young women to become Good Shepherd Sisters. Silent retreats were one way of helping them to discern their life direction and build a deeper relationship with God,” she recounts. “Soon, other Catholics and Christians heard about what I was doing and started coming to me on an individual basis.”
The demand for silent retreats grew steadily through the decades and by the 1990s, Sister Elizabeth had difficulty constantly ‘borrowing’ space within the Marymount Convent compound for her retreats. She put in a request to the Catholic authorities for this building – then unoccupied – to become the permanent premises for her retreats. While there are about 15 Catholic retreat centres in Singapore, the set-up at Good Shepherd Oasis specifically caters to one-on-one guided silent retreats modelled after the dynamics of Ignatian spiritual exercises.
“Everything about this place is just perfect. It’s up on a hill, away from all the noisy traffic and surrounded by greenery,” says Sister Elizabeth. “And yet it is so centrally located – near the city, near Mount Alvernia Hospital, near MacRitchie Reservoir. There’s really nothing more I could have asked for in a retreat space.”
The set-up of Good Shepherd Oasis is cosy and functional. Meeting rooms and the dining area are on the ground floor, while the second level holds 14 bedrooms and a study-cum-living room space with sofas, water features and a little library. Sister Elizabeth’s favourite spot is outside, in the blossoming garden that she and her fellow Good Shepherd Sisters have lovingly nurtured over the past decade. There are fruit trees and bougainvillea bushes, and a lovely pot of dusty blue hydrangeas at the entrance. In the middle of the garden are two yellow and red swings and a foot reflexology path. Only the tops of Mount Alvernia Hospital and some flats are visible in the distance.
“During a retreat, being surrounded by nature is crucial to help realise one’s connection with the rest of creation and how little control we actually have over our lives,” says Sister Elizabeth. “Many retreatants struggle with this idea of letting go. Just by listening to birds chirp or leaves rustle, some of them have gained deeper personal insights about living contentedly in the moment.”
For me however, it’s the tiny retreatant bedroom that is my ideal spot for silent ruminations. The room is spartanly furnished with a narrow single bed, a small study table, a sink, and a wooden wardrobe. But there are little touches of homeliness: a tiny potted plant, a candle with some matchsticks, and an inspirational poster on the wall. During one retreat, I was placed in a room where the poster showed a young girl leaning her cheek against a giant hand with the words, “See! I will not forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hand.” In everyday life, I would have probably skimmed or even overlooked a poster like this. But in the silence at Good Shepherd Oasis, time seems to slow down, and my senses and level of awareness invariably become heightened, sensitising me to simple advice such as that written on this poster, or the gentle questions posed by Sister Elizabeth every morning. In the silence I start to feel like a little child again, with that oft-forgotten sense of wonder about everything around me, even as I come to terms with the less than pleasant aspects of my life and myself.
Continuing the silence
Since the fateful announcement by SLA, Sister Elizabeth has been on the lookout for a new location that can offer a similar environment to Good Shepherd Oasis. “The thing about having silent retreats is that you need lots of space and nature to create a conducive solitary environment. It can’t be in some tall building with concrete everywhere,” she says. “I’m just not sure if I can find a place like this anywhere else in Singapore today.”
But she is determined to continue this ministry. Sister Elizabeth is troubled when she reads newspaper reports about the rise in divorce rates and mental illness in Singapore. More than ever, she feels that there need to be more places like Good Shepherd Oasis where people can reflect upon their lives in an accepting, peaceful environment, to find out what is really making them feel and act the way they do in everyday life.
“Socrates once said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. And yet so many people in Singapore lead such hurried, busy lives. They don’t have time to think about why they are doing what they are doing,” Sister Elizabeth observes. “All human beings innately need solitude for that space to reflect. Some may think it’s about being escapist, but it’s actually quite the opposite – solitude allows you the space to respond to yourself, to God and the world around you.”
Her open-ended approach to counselling is based on the idea that people need to tell their stories on their own terms. “For most retreatants, there’s this sense that nobody wants to listen to them. But when I ask them questions or mirror back their thoughts, they start making important realisations.” In order to create a comfortable environment for retreatants who are not Catholics or Christians to open up, she avoids making references to God when she speaks with them. “At the end of the day, all the retreatants are looking for is love and happiness. To me, these two things are God-centred, so I just take everyone as they are,” she says.
While she admits to still being “heartbroken” over the impending move, Sister Elizabeth says that she will “put her faith that this move is the Lord’s work.” In the meantime, she’s intent on fully appreciating Good Shepherd Oasis while it’s still around. On sunny mornings, Sister Elizabeth takes out the hammock and hangs it by the mango trees, so that she can lie down and watch the clouds go by.
Words & Sound Melanie Lee
Images Darren Soh
This article was amended on 24 June 2012.