by Melvyn Foo
A question like ‘Why should I go for School of Witness(SOW)?’ does not admit of a simple answer.
On one hand, there are too many reasons to go. On the other hand, all these reasons would have never convinced me before I went for SOW.
Take, for example, the reason that I encountered God. Before SOW, I never even knew I needed Him. Or the reason that I was healed. Before SOW, I would have been offended if you had called me broken. Before SOW, I was perfectly happy being a Sunday Catholic.
Why, then, did I go at all?
I attended SOW in 2010. I had been fresh out of army, so spending another six weeks booking in and out of camp was inconceivable. Or at least, it was for me. As for my community at church, four of them seemed to have little hesitation despite being in my exact situation. However, after they had signed up, they delighted in cajoling me to join them.
So here is the unglamorous truth: I succumbed to peer pressure.
I was the master of my fate and the captain of my soul
During my JC years, these last lines of the poem Invictus had been my personal motto. I wrote those lines in my pencil case, so that whenever I opened it, I would remind myself that every iota of my life was mine, and mine alone, to determine. I alone would define who I was; no one else would shape my identity. Not society, not friends and certainly not family.
When I share with confirmands this story, I would ask them next: What do you think I felt at the end of it all? What do you think I felt after holding the reins of my life so tightly, so powerfully? Invariably, perhaps because meritocracy and millennialism afflicts us all, one of them will answer rightly: I felt tired. Every decision was a resistance, every choice was a rebellion. As master and as captain, I bore the full burden of my ego.
So, imagine the liberation I felt when I surrendered my life to God during SOW. It happened when I was praying alone in the chapel next to our rooms. There was no prayer ministry, no soft lighting, no quiet music. It was just me and God. “I belong to myself,” says one of the characters in Calvary, one of the best Catholic films I have watched. “Not to anyone else.”
“True,” Father James begins. And then he concludes, “False.”
This is the fundamental misconception that SOW corrects: the question of identity is not ‘Who am I?’, but rather, ‘Whose am I?’
Once upon a time, I believed in other worlds. My favourite genres were (and still are) fantasy and science fiction. Some days, I would dream of discovering a secret doorway, like a Wardrobe or a Diagon Alley. I have even tried moving things with my mind—several times. To me, even before SOW, my world of work and worries seemed petty and drab. “There must be more than this provincial life,” rings Belle’s aria in Beauty and the Beast.
This is how CS Lewis explains these longings: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world could satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” In SOW, I encountered people who lived for that other world. I saw people whose lives glowed with such desires which nothing in this world can satisfy.
I like to think that it was the embers of such desires that the peer pressure stirred, desires that smoldered even amidst the deluge of worldliness that the National Service drowned me in. And, like what Tolkien said of a good fairy-tale, SOW both satisfied and whetted such desires. Because in SOW, I realised that it was possible to live in this world but not be of this world. I saw that ordinary people could love extraordinarily. I saw that the orthodox life could be a radical life. I saw that sinners could be holy.
But again, my hindsight biases are showing.
A few days before I entered SOW, I had met up with my one of my closest friends—an agnostic. I told him to watch out for me.
“I don’t want to become one of those boring holy-moly church people,” I had said to him. I had not wanted to lose myself. I don’t think I did—become either overly holy or moly. But I did become more whole. As for losing myself, I had not only lost, I had surrendered. And in doing so, I found a truer me than I ever could have held on to on my own.
I attended SOW again in 2017 as a staff. This time, I had been fresh out of a job.
“Why do you need eight weeks for a church camp?” my non-Christian dad asked.
You don’t, not really. Most conversion experience retreats are nowhere near: Confirmation camps are at most four days long, Treasure is four days too, Awaken and CER are five days. But you do need a little more than to form habits. And virtues, as a SOWer might learn within the first few days, are habits. After all, we are not just here for a one-shot experience; we are learning to live, to love, to witness.
“We’re not in a retreat. We’re not in a camp… a school is a marathon,” Juliana(Ju) said in one of the first book outs this year. And a marathon has rhythm. Every day, there is prayer and there are games. There is morning worship and night sessions. There is Mass. The food is home-cooked, the cutlery is hand-washed, the testimonies are heartfelt.
In such an environment where the three classic conditions of making close friends—proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a safe space to be vulnerable—are so prevalent, even a recluse like me cannot help but belong. More than a couple of this year’s SOWers have breached the walls of my heart and have made it to the wall of photos in my room.
Go alone if you want to go fast, but go together if you want to go far
But at the end of the day, as Fr Jude pointed out, if all we talk about when we come out of SOW is the program, then we have failed. It is not about the program. It is about Jesus. It is always about Jesus. And SOW, regardless of how any of us dress it up, is all about Jesus.
I shall stop here for I do not wish to preach to the choir. Nor do I wish to propose answers; that is SOW’s role.
I only hope to ask the right questions. And here are three of them:
(1) This is the possible (I would argue ‘likely’) treasure in the field, the pearl of great price. Is eight weeks and S$600 too much to pay for the chance to discover how much more there is to this provincial life?
(2) When else will you ever have the opportunity again to set aside eight weeks of your life for God and God alone?
(3) Whatever else you think you can do in those eight weeks—an internship, a holiday, a hobby—don’t you have the rest of your life to do it?
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