saturday, 8 march
Seconds, minutes, hours, quarters of the day;
Lunar and solar days make up a month,
Yet there are many times and many seasons;
One single sun runs through them all.
O Nanak, your Lord is likewise One,
However many his aspects are.
from the Sacred Writings of the Sikhs
I had kind of a day off yesterday. As is typical of my hosts here, they told me there was a change in the schedule that left me a day and a half off to myself, and then filled the day with things for me to do. The last concert of this series was here on Thursday, again a very nice and receptive crowd. Because I have stayed on I have actually gotten to know some of the folks here. I’m staying with the Redemptorist community; the house has seemed very homey to me.
Yesterday morning I was asked to do a session with the choir. It wasn’t completely clear what they wanted me to do with the choir, some general spirituality, some things about liturgical music and how to get people to sing better, or, perhaps, just a repeat of the concert for the elderly folks from the choir that hadn’t been able to make it the night before. I was, I’ll admit, groaning under the weight of it, trying to work up some enthusiasm even as the few people were gathering, but as soon as we got going it went well. We were about 30 people in a little auditorium. Even a small group of high school aged kids came who were part of the music ministry here. I did not now what I was going to say, nor did I have any inspiration of what to sing, but somehow it just got rolling. And I found myself talking about the connection between the Word and the voice, and how often I discovered in other traditions two things: 1) an essentially vocal music and 2) that they were singing their Scriptures. I brought in the example of the Brahmin priests at Tiruvanamalai first, and then Hafiz and the Jewish cantors, and then made the tie in with monasticism and liturgy in general. It is odd, not only here, but everywhere throughout the Catholic world that this insight tends to be rather surprising: that liturgical music is all about singing the Word, and that is what we have to learn form studying other traditions. I think I have my talk for NPM in the summer ready now.
I sang a few examples with them and was only sorry I did not have the Psallite stuff with me (what I do have here in Asia is back with my hosts in Kuala Lampur, arriving today). Well, that led to a few very interesting conversations, one in particular with a woman who has been married to a Hindu for years and told me that that was the first time she had ever felt some comfort about being open to his tradition. We talked about the difference between the faith and the cultural expressions of it, and I probably went on at too great a length about it, but it is exactly in a place such as this where that plays such a vital part of their life. Afterwards I went out for tea with four of the young guys, who show some of the mix of races and cultures here––Tamil, Chinese, Portuguese, and especially the mix of the latter two, Eurasian. They all speak Malay (Bahasa) which I compulsory to learn in school, but none of them are fluent in the mother tongue any more. It may be just this generation that is losing it. They were all musicians, and are frustrated with the Catholic Church for having such boring music, but are really attracted to––are you ready for this?––“praise and worship” music, Charismatic music from Don Moore (I don’t know him, an American) and music “like they have in the Methodist church.” They liked what I did but have already been steeped in what sounds to me like the worst of music in English (as in India) that it is very hard to break them out of the mindset of drums, bass, synthesizer, etc. I am not here to do liturgical music workshops, and was resistant to being dragged into one, but somehow this is all not far afield from my other work.
In the afternoon, I was given a tour of the two great caves by a man named Joseph. He himself is a successful Chinese businessman. He owns his own marble factory (though he told me it is actually limestone that they deal in). The first cave was far out of town, a huge cavern with stalactites and stalagmites, and a rive running through it way, way down deep. It was a guided tour as the place has been prepared for tourists and is maintained by the government for tourism, though our guide said that tourism has been low for this spot. Our guide was a Malay, who was most keen on showing us all the natural formations and water painting––owls, and seahorses, Kuan Yin and a woman’s head. The other in the group were four young folks from Indonesia who are here in Malaysia working in a microchip factory, and spoke little or no English, so he kept switching back and forth between English and Bahasa, with Joseph helping out a good deal too. Afterwards we went to another cave, closer to town, that I enjoyed even more. All along the hills near the outskirts of town there are temples built into the caves, and this was the biggest and most famous one. The front side was given to Taoism and Confucianism, and the back side (with its own entrance) to Buddhist. So at the front there was a statue of Confucius holding the I-Ching, and the three great sages of Taoism; at the back there were various statues of bodhisattvas, most prominently Kuan Yin and Maitrya Buddha. Then behind that there was a fabulous garden with a walking-running path and a huge lotus pool. I enjoyed that even more than the stalactites and stalagmites.
In the meantime I got another good lesson in Malaysia culture and politics from Joseph. The most poignant thing that I remember him saying was that even a few years ago he used to be able to socialize with his Muslim neighbors, especially those among them who were the most open. But that is almost a thing of the past for him, not for any loss of love for them but because it is so had on them, as the imams have gotten stronger and more influential, warning against being polluted by mixing with people of other faiths. He says most people have just given up and have learned to live quietly side by side without a lot of mix between the peoples. It is hard to separate the ethnic from the religious issue here, because this is a matter of ethnic Malays who are all Muslim, and who are being favored by the government as bumi putra, sons of the land, in a kind of affirmative action program. The only problem is that the affirmative action program, which has been in place 30 years, has not been helping the poor; it has been helping those in power, who seem to be keeping the little people in control through religion. Yesterday was Friday, and of course everyone was going to the mosque. Joseph said it was not accident that the elections had been scheduled on a Saturday because the ruling party, Barisan Nasional, was counting on the imams to urge their listeners to vote them in again.
* * *
9 march 08, Singapore
Well the big news that trickled into us as we ended our retreat Sunday noon was that the Barisan Nasional lost heavily in the elections, losing at least five of the thirteen states. I knew of the Chinese discontent with them––there has been a long standing rivalry do the Chinese’ great success in business––and I had heard on the BBC that the Indians were finally fed up, having also been on this soil for many generations. What no one was quite ready for is that the ethnic Malays themselves swung. The paper said that 80 per cent of Malays along with Chinese had turned against the BN and as a matter of fact in one state they themselves, who seem to be using Islam for power and control, actually lost to the Islamic party (PAS) in one state. Someone had said to me that there was a chance the “common people” among the Malays themselves were also fed up because the programs set in place that were supposed to be benefiting them seem to have only been benefiting the politicians. I am impressed with the courage of the “common people” among the Muslim Malays, and hopefully this signals a new chance for relations between the various races and some extrication of religion being used as in a divisive way. The excitement was palpable but tinged with anxiety. People were reminding each other to erase all their phone messages and be careful what they texted and said to each other via cell phones, because they are convinced the ruling party (it is still in the majority) will be tapping phones and invading privacy. And police are urging people not to celebrate publicly, because the last time the BN lost the public celebrations among the Chinese especially sparked off race riots and led to many deaths. It felt like an historic day to be there and I tore off the front page of the newspaper to keep as a souvenir.
My time here in Asia is done for now. The short retreat at St Anne’s in Penang went well enough. It had been cut short specifically because of the elections. Folks there are enthusiastically encouraging me to come back to Malaysia and “stay longer.” I’m of two (or three minds) about it. On the negative side I want more home time, but also I keep remembering a couple of folks in India especially who were very negative about people from the West coming in as teachers in the East. That opinion has a lot of layers of baggage, I think, I understand it but, on the other hand, I also think that the whole invisible wall between east and west should be dismantled at some point anyway. I found when speaking about music though, the same thing is still going on as in spirituality in general: many Christians in Asia are still steeped in Western European forms and concepts (including music), and not the best of Western European (especially in music!). So that inculturation has not happened yet. Nor has the bridge to other traditions been solidly, permanently constructed. There seem to be merely rope bridges thrown across swollen streams from time to time. Meaning, on the positive side, I always learn so much here and find that the “common people” are craving something that they are not getting from the their own, most likely due to a lack of resources and personnel, not a lack of good will, talent or depth surely. It occurs to me that these are still “missionary” times, or that they are missionary time again, but in a very different way then the colonial missionary times, even apologetic times but in a new sense of that word too. I find myself on the non-Christan side often trying to merely justify why Christianity is still vital and why it to is an expression of the perennial philosophy. And music and meditation still seem to me to be the two vehicles most suited to the task at hand for the global church in this globalized world.
May all beings be at peace.