The Journey of Spiritual Companionship - NG PAN Yi Jung, Annie Assistant Professor of Practical Studies
Interviewed and Written by: Mimi Tang (MDiv 96)
The office is more than a workplace. The ornaments on the wall, displays on the desk and books on the shelves all reveal the occupant’s personality and attitude.
Even before I set foot inside Annie’s office, I could smell a delicate fragrance from behind the half-ajar door. Her office was immaculate, but Annie still felt that it was “a bit messy, and could be better”. From how she used the space in her office and from our conversation, it was evident that she was in the habit of keeping everything neat and tidy. However, the heavenly Father’s sense of humor is always beyond our plans and expectations, and the path that He has laid down for His children is full of pleasant surprises.
Love, Family and Personality
“There has not been much order in my life since marrying [Ng] Wai Hang (MDiv 96).” Annie’s smile seemed even happier than usual.
Annie left Taiwan, her homeland, in 1993 to study theology. She was originally headed for the United States but somehow ended up in Hong Kong. She had intended to use her time of study to rest and to gain a broader theological perspective before considering the next focus of her ministry, but then she met Wai Hang and was moved by his incomparable support and care. They started dating in the first year of her study, got married in her third year, served together after graduation and then went together to Heidelberg for Wai Hang’s further studies, which lasted eight years. Annie never thought that with her personality, she could be a missionary; let alone being involved in evangelism among Chinese intellectuals in Europe. She also never thought that she would be studying pastoral theology and Christian spirituality at the Catholic University of Leuven, or that she would obtain two Masters and a PhD within a few years.
Annie and her husband Wai Hang in Swiss Alps
Annie and her husband Wai Hang with her PhD supervisor Professor Bob Faesen of Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.
Even though Annie experienced many shifts in external circumstances, she thinks she has always been on the same path, with the same focus. “After coming to Hong Kong, I began to tread an uncertain path, but my calling was very clear. It really did not matter where I would go; so long as I was serving in discipleship and theological education among Chinese churches, I knew I was on the right path.” Her path kept unfolding so that she could continue boldly. “I felt my very self unfolding. God allowed me to experience my own identity so that I could keep on discovering new and surprising things about myself. He helped me to see myself as a person He created, a person with many flaws – but I really enjoyed seeing the changes in myself.”
Annie’s love for quiet reflection is part of her personality and her desire for freedom is another part. “I love freedom! I think there are two dimensions to freedom. There is the freedom you enjoy because you are sure of your calling and know what your focus is at this stage in life, that is, what are the one or two most important things in your life. If a person can truly enjoy her focus, without caring too much about what other people think of her achievements, then she has one kind of freedom. That is why I have seldom been bothered by other people’s opinions of myself.” Studying spirituality has helped her to grasp better this freedom to live out her calling. It taught her to ask whether she was serving from her heart’s desire, or from fear and anxiety. Was she loving willingly or just trying to prove herself? “I started to discern the change in my inner being. I used to serve out of fear, or to please people or satisfy expectations, but with age and experience, there has developed in me a focus on God and a willingness to allow the Holy Spirit to help me become myself. This inner guidance has given me room to reflect upon my actions and my motives, so that I can enjoy the pleasure of God more than worry about the opinions of others.”
This personality of Annie can be traced back to her childhood. She was the second born in her family, and her brother was the only male descendant in her extended family while her elder sister was a top student at school. “Both of them shouldered the expectations of our family. I think that kind of pressure is too demanding. The top student is usually an unhappy person, always having to worry about falling from first place. I would rather take second, third or fourth place.” Annie’s parents were relaxed with her when they saw that she was healthy and did well academically, and they even allowed her to take risks and pursue her interests. Annie could try things that her sister and brother were not allowed to try. “My coming to Hong Kong, going to Germany with Wai Hang and ending up in Belgium are all related to the freedom my father gave me to ‘take risks courageously, not be afraid of failure and always be ready to start again.’”
Search, Discern, Unfold
There will always be times of doubt and anxiety when a person searches for his calling. Annie wants to tell students at CGST that the most important thing is for a person to be clear about his calling, by discerning if that calling will allow his life to be shaped by God. “I see calling as a process of unfolding.” At first there may only be a vague direction, but a person will gradually learn if he is walking in God’s calling as he looks back at the people and things that the Lord has placed in his life, the paths he has walked and the things that have touched and affected him. If he is prepared to give willingly, without grumbling, and if he looks for the signs and confirmations the Lord has given, then he will know. “This calling has to be discerned through passion and devotion, which is what I care most about the spiritual growth of CGST students.”
When we chatted about spiritual growth and discipleship, Annie recalled her days at Heidelberg, when her involvement in evangelism and pastoral work enabled her to come across various traditions of spiritual formation. Her initial interest in these grew into a more determined search for understanding. “Heidelberg was interwoven with different Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic traditions of spiritual discipline, which encouraged me to reflect upon the evangelical tradition. Being surrounded by European culture allowed me to see the impact of history and culture on different Christian traditions and expanded the framework within which I examined spirituality, while my personal experience in pastoral ministry made me re-examine my attitude towards spiritual discipleship in church. My simple lifestyle in Germany gave me time to read spiritual classics and to have a regular time for personal reflection, which helped me to savor my new experiences and to gain a deeper understanding of spiritual formation.”
Having lived in Europe for nearly ten years, Annie realized that spiritual formation is not just about a person’s inner being, nor is it a merely personal search. “We can see the impact of the Christian faith and church tradition in the whole European culture. We can see the beautiful expression of a social spirituality in the Europeans’ respect towards human dignity, their protection of the environment and their cries for justice in politics. This contrasts with the pure focus on evangelism in Chinese churches. During those years, I learned to look at spiritual formation from a cultural and historical perspective, and began to compare the influences of different church traditions on cultivating spirituality. If a community wants to examine and critique its own work, it must do so from the perspective of tradition. This helped me to appreciate the burden of studying theology, because theological reflection requires exactly such knowledge of your own culture and tradition, as well as a sense of responsibility for your church in its particular generation.”
When Annie was studying theology of Christian spirituality, she was invited to become faculty-in-preparation at CGST. She returned to CGST after graduation and focused on the development of spiritual formation by lecturing on spiritual classics and on different Christian traditions of spiritual discipline. She also became consulting pastor of Hong Kong Mandarin Bible Church. In the past term, she taught a new course called “Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Companionship”. Annie views herself as a companion. “Companionship is a journey of becoming fulfilment. In the process of guiding others in their growth, not only can I contribute my knowledge, experience and technique, but I can also experience growth with the other person. Then I can know myself better, respond more deeply to the Lord’s calling and encourage one another to live out the person God created each of us to be. This is an encounter in which each of us is part of the process of the fulfilment of the other. I look forward to more of such encounters, so that I and my community will continue to experience God’s abundance and mystery.”