Friday, March 6, 2009

house of love

See how God has purchased of the faithful their lives and their possessions; in return theirs is the Garden, and so they struggle in God’s way.
(Qur’an 9:111)

1 march 09
Jakarta, Indonesia

I arrived here after a short restful stay in Singapore last week, just enough time to do my laundry, get a couple of runs in and visit with my friends quickly there––generally re-group. Leonard offered my services to his friends in the WCCM here in Jakarta. Since they did not really know me nor I them, it was interesting to monitor the e-mails going back and forth about what I might do for them.

I had a bit of an issue getting through passport control at the airport. I remembered that I could buy a visa on arrival, but I forgot that I needed money to do that and I had left all my American cash with Leonard and had rid myself of all my Singapore dollars at the airport buying some American magazines and a novel to read. So, per the friendly woman at the visa booth, I had to go to passport control, leave my passport with a guard there, go down the hall and find the ATM machine, come back and retrieve my passport from the guard, go and fill out forms and pay for the visa at one window and then pick it up at another before going through passport control. This took a while, and struck me as actually oddly informal and relaxed so I wasn’t sweating it too much. But when I got to baggage claim all the bags were off the belt and a young guy met me as I was rounding the corner (how did he know?) and pointed me to a cart with my backpack and guitar on it, asking, after a fashion, if they were mine. When I said yes and before I could say anything else he started wheeling them away toward customs. I thought it was part of the official thing. He saw me through customs and was pointing me toward the door and, with a firm grip on the cart with my bags, said, “My tip, sir?” Oh. I at this point didn’t understand the currency yet, so I offered him one bill, but he said, “Too small.” Oh. So I showed him another bill. “So small, sir!” So I wound up giving him another bill that he thought satisfactory, which I found out later was the equivalent of paying him $50. Well done, good and faithful servant!

Two very friendly women were waiting for me with a sign, a young woman, Hanna, a university student, and an older woman named Susanna. I was anxious to hear what their English sounded like since my friends had been warning me that I was going to have to speak a lot slower and clearer in Jakarta. Hanna’s English was very good. Mind you, I am impressed when anyone takes the time to learn a foreign language and relieved when it happens to be mine, so I am not being critical when I say she like most people I meet here speak good but halting English. They say they have passive English; they understand much better than they can speak. Many of them have an accent much closer to American than British, due to TV and movies. But there are few here for whom English is a first language.

I am staying at Santa Ursula, a convent attached to a grade school and a girls-only secondary school right next to the Cathedral and right across the street from the national mosque.
My hosts lamented that Jakarta is a dirty city, “dirtier than Kuala Lampur,” Hanna said, but this guesthouse is a wonderful clean place. The architecture is Dutch colonial, but I'm not entirely sure what that means. There are lots of open corridors and verandahs and slatted enclosures for the windows. The interiors are pretty dark, and the chapel is a high-ceilinged simple and sunny building tending toward Gothic design, with a few very modern touches in furnishings and decorations. The sisters meet for Morning Prayer followed by Mass at 5:20––I heard them chanting from my room the other day, in harmony! I can’t wait to attend and see what’s up.

The national coordinator for the WCCM, a very capable man and a medical doctor to boot, named Hendra met me and took me across town for dinner, and we were met by Drs. Emon and Maisie, Hanna’s parents, who all seem to have a hand in coordinating my stay here in Jakarta, and are all most eager to accommodate me for anything I need. I just stayed that first night and then headed right off next morning with another of my host of hosts, Soprato and his wife Siska. I have to get used to this: this happened also in Malaysia but it seems even more frequent and aggressive here: I am constantly being offered food, oftentimes to the point of people putting food right in front of me or on my plate, even after I’ve turned it down. We stopped for tea on the way back from the airport, for example, and Susanna asked if I wanted anything to eat as well, and I said no at least twice but still a large basket of fried onion rings appeared and she said, “Eat, Father.” If I had been hungry, this is not what I would have ordered even in a moment of weakness. But I ate three to be a good guest. We also stopped at a dairy store on the way to the retreat. Suprapto and Siska asked if I wanted anything, I said no, and the next thing I knew they were asking me what flavor of yogurt I wanted them to buy for me. I said, I don’t understand, will there not be food at the retreat? Yes, but this is to supplement. Oh. And then at all the meals at the retreat, Maisie was especially worried that there would be enough vegetarian food for me, to the point of having a plate of something separate always waiting when I walked in the room, which was nice but two or three other women kept coming up to me as well with other things to eat, at meals and at tea time. And the word “No” meant nothing. I am trying to find that fine line between being a gracious guest and having some healthy dietary boundaries.

The retreat went well. It was held up in the mountains south of Jakarta and closer to the center of the island. It was a crowded area, really, in spite of not being urban. In the neighborhood where the retreat house is located there are many such retreat houses and villas and cottages. Ours was called Grha Kasih (stet), which means the “House of Love.” It was beautiful, surrounded by rice fields and a handful of mosques, dirt roads and paths all around that made for interesting walks. It’s rainy season there so it rained off and on the whole weekend, and the air was refreshingly cool.

This, as you may know, is actually the largest Muslim country in the world. I don’t feel any sense of the repression of Islam from the government here that I felt and heard about in Malaysia, since the government is not Islamic in anyway. As a matter of fact the motto of this country is “unity in diversity.” I have still not spent enough time in Muslim countries to not be moved by the muzzeins calling out the hazan several times a day. Allah akbar! Both mornings at Grha Kasih they started at 4:30; I tried to count and heard at least five going at the same time. One was so beautiful I wanted to run and find the masjid (mosque) where he was, and I carried his melody in my mind for hours. As a matter of fact, it is 6 PM here back in Jakarta as I write and they are just starting up again.

I think we got the language issue resolved early on. Those who came to this retreat knew that this was going to be all in English, and that there would be no translator. I found a good pace and volume, and spoke carefully and simply as I could, given the nature of the topic. I’ve carried a whole stack of talks with me here so that I would have lots to choose from in any given location. It seemed best to offer the Spirit, Soul and Body primer here. We of course also had meditation times, and liturgies and, at their request––my reputation preceded me––, optional stretching and breathing before morning prayer and meditation. Of course I also sang songs with them before each session and taught them how to chant the psalms and did a musical program one evening as well. So, really, they got the whole works. (Side note: these folks can really sing! And they learn quickly too. They took to chanting the psalms like nothing, and easily learned every song I taught them. Plus, they sang the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei for Mass today in pretty melismatic Gregorian chant.)

The hardest part of the Spirit, Soul and Body presentation is always the part on soul, when I do my stumbling best to talk about the layers of consciousness a la Katha Upanishad and Ken Wilber. I prepared extra hard for it, given the language barrier, and even drew a diagram this time. I expected stunned silence, but to my surprise there were so many questions, good questions, hard to answer questions. I think that this is still something we are not used to hearing about, that the meditative way opens up new uncharted territories in our own consciousness, and so care and cultivation of soul is of vital importance. At some point I had to cut the questions off––they were coming to me in the hall, at meals and during the Great Silence at night. But this morning––and all of that was a lead up to be able to tell of this––I had the idea to write on the board:

sarx––––>flesh (body)––––>sarkikos

… to illustrate using Saint Paul’s language how it is not enough to be either “of the flesh” or “of the soul”; he wants us to be “of the spirit”––pneumatikos. Before I started, I asked Hanna if she could tell me the Indonesian words for these three terms as well, to make sure I was getting my point across. Now Indonesian––bahasa Indonesia––comes from Malaysia and is an amalgamation of all kinds of influences as is evidenced by this: somehow the Semitic root for spirit snuck its way in, possibly via the Arabic influence of Islam, because the word for spirit is roh, which must be a cognate of the Hebrew ruah. (I found out later that this was true, and “Holy Spirit” translates as kudus roh, kudus also coming from the Arabic.) And the word for soul must have come from the Sanskrit––the Hindus were here long before the Muslims––because the word for “soul” is jiwa, as in the Sanskrit jiva, jivatman as opposed to paratman, for instance. Not only was I excited, but you could see on their faces that they got it. It was a pretty exciting little moment, and I am yet again convinced of the seminal importance of this particular approach to spirituality and the unique contribution that Christianity can make to it.

There had been some hesitation about me bringing in comparative religious elements, so I had toned down a lot of my quotations and pulled my favorite Indian songs, as well as the readings from Universal Wisdom, but of course it started slipping out when my guard was down and I was on a roll. And glad that it did: a goodly number of the folks needed exactly that, perhaps especially because we are in this melting pot part of the world. There was actually a man there who believed in reincarnation, giving me the same reason that Pandit had given me last week: “One lifetime is just not enough time to work all this out!” But also great questions about enlightenment, about life after death, about being able to use yoga or Tai chi or other Asian mind-body techniques.

Long story short (too late for that…): it was a real success. I’m a little tired and glad to get the evening alone here at the convent guesthouse. I did wander the streets of the neighborhood for an hour or so, but now am settling in and readying myself for the days ahead. I met the only other guest staying here, Janet, who is from Australia. It was so much fun to speak with someone for whom English is a first language after three days of picking through my words so carefully and we had a great conversation at dinner. This school where I am staying is an Ursuline school, that is, run by the Ursuline sisters. Janet is also a teacher at an Ursuline school in Australia and for this, her sabbatical year, she is going around the globe spending time at other Ursuline schools, learning and teaching, as I would say. She is already proficient in Japanese and is teaching that here, and will be in Japan for part of the year and then on the West End of London for part of the year. It was so much fun exchanging notes with a fellow pilgrim and she gave me all kinds of useful inside dope about Australia for my upcoming trip there.