Djoni Sutanto, a parishioner of the Church of the Holy Spirit, stayed at monasteries in Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and Australia over several years.


Martin See speaks to Djoni Sutanto, who is re-staging a photo exhibition of his experience of monastic life

A vast crimson sky arches over a Trappist monastery in Flores, Indonesia. A carved wooden stool, with rays of sunlight pouring down on it, stands in a quiet corner of a room.

These are two powerful images of Christian monasticism that viewers to a photo exhibition will get to see from March 27-April 4.

Left and below: The simple rhythms and settings of monastery life.

The event, to be held at CANA, the Catholic Centre, will showcase 24 photo artworks of Indonesian Djoni Sutanto, a parishioner of the Church of the Holy Spirit.

Sutanto, who is in his late 30s, says he hopes to introduce Christian monasticism to the Catholic community in Singapore through his exhibition titled Come Away, Search Within, Rest...

The photography enthusiast had held the same exhibition in February, and CANA is restaging it due to popular demand.

“I visited this exhibition and was overwhelmed by the exhibits which exuded such depth, peace and transcendence,” said one visitor, Ms E. Chuoong. “It was God’s way of drawing me closer to Him. It has shown me that solitude does not equate to loneliness.”

“The exhibition gave me a sense of reflection ... It reminded me of a silent retreat I had experienced,” said another visitor, Ms Nikki Dy-Liacco from the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.

Sutanto, who started working in Singapore in 2007, said that despite a successful career and promising future, he nevertheless felt a sense of disenchantment with life here. He thus decided to embark on a journey of contemplation and prayer.

He also remembered feeling forlorn and restless after his father died the previous year.

All these led to a four-year spiritual journey during which he stayed at Trappist and Benedictine monasteries in Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and Australia. “It has not been an easy journey, but I did have a lot of fun!” recalled the Singaporean PR who is self-employed.

Sutanto said he would email the monasteries’ guest masters requesting residency, and often enjoyed favourable responses. The conditions were that he had to observe silence, participate in their Liturgy of the Hours, and share in the chores.

He fondly recalls the hospitality and warmth of the monks. “They are just ordinary human beings like us,” he said.

Sutanto, who grew up in Malang, East Java, said the monastic life attracted him even when he was a teenager.

He became Catholic at the age of 14 – the only member of his family to do so – and attributes it to his Catholic primary and secondary school education.

He recalled joining the Legion of Mary then and visiting the Carmelite monastery. “This transformative first experience with the life of solitude, prayer, silence, yet full of genuine joy ... made a strong impact on me,” he said.

He later worked in Japan from 1995, and in 2002, spent half a year in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. There he discovered the writings of Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, which rekindled his teenage passion for monasticism.

Sutanto said that although he took photos of his monastic stays during his four-year spiritual journey, he never had the intention of staging an exhibition.

“I thought that I could give a talk or seminar but then I was struck by the question of ‘how would I describe solitude in words?’ It was then that I realised that photos probably would do a much better job!”

He continued, “Through my journey, I realised that this world believes in a call to material achievements. But life in the monastery is repetitive and simple with minimum distractions. This routine gradually freed me from the domination of my false ego and helped me to listen to the subtle voice of the Spirit.”

The free exhibition will be held from March 27-April 4 at CANA, 55 Waterloo St, 2F, Singapore 187954. Opening hours: 11am-9pm daily, closed on April 1. Sutanto will also hold dialogues with visitors at 7.30pm daily and at 3 pm on March 31.

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