Sunday, January 31, 2010


Resentment is the mute, animal protest of a mistreated psychological organism. Driven too far it becomes mental sickness; that too is an adaption in its own way. But it is an adaption by way of escape.
(Thomas Merton, "New Seeds")

1 feb 2010

I'm leaving Tiruvanamalai today. This will be the longest I stay in any one place during this trip, longer even than Shantivanam, though I did leave for a few days last week. On Tuesday I went down to Madurai with the Quo Vadis team for a series of events at TTS--Tamil Theological Seminary. That is a major school for the CSI--Church of South India. I originally thought that CSI was the Indian version of Anglicanism, but it actually consists of Methodists and Presbyterians as well, and in very good relationship with Lutherans. My tabla player friend Theophilus' father is Principal there, so I have heard of it quite often. It was a good six hours drive down from Tiru, with our friendly Muslim driver Basha at the wheel again. When we got there we found out that there was some confusion with the rooms and while we were trying to fgure out what to do about it Theophy himself showed up. He and his new bride Belinda were staying as well, on their honeymoon of sorts. He invited us all into the Principal's house for refreshments, and set himself to solve the problem. One of the solutions was that I would stay with them there in his Dad's house. It was actually a very private room on the second floor with its own bath, a separate entrance and a veranda out front, so I was quite happy with it, and he was thrilled that could stay there. "It's wonderful that you've come home!" he said a number of times.

JP and Agnete and a German woman from Denmark named Elle were going to do some sessions with Lutheran pastors from around Tamil Nadu of something called biblical drama. As I understand it, it is something based on Jesuit scriptural meditation but was developed by the Palatine Fathers, in which participants take on one of the roles of a character in a story and see what comes up in them from their experience of it. Many of the pastors had studied there at TTS so it was for them a kind of reunion and homecoming, a place where they could naturally have a spirit of input and renewal. I wasn't to do much with that particular group, so I wound up having the whole first day to myself outside of meals and a rehearsal with Theophy. (Since he was there I co-opted him into playing for the concert with me which was to take place the next night.)

My own work started the next day. I was to give a public lecture to the whole student body and whoever from the faculty wanted to come as well. It had never been made quite clear to me what exactly they wanted me to talk about, nor how long or for whom until the last hour or so before, but I had assumed that the talk I give on the theological justifications for inter-religious dialogue--a talk I call "The Ground We Share"--would suffice. It's about 20 typed pages but can be broken up in various places to shorten it. I figured, hey, a seminary, a theological faculty, I had better do my homework, so, as is my wont, I spent a good part of Wednesday going over that talk to make sure I could deliver it with some coherence. An hour before the talk I was told that it was going to be translated into Tamil, so Jiva, one of JP's assistants, and I scurried around trying to get the whole thing photocopied so that my translator would have a script to follow. But when we got to the hall a few minutes before the lecture was to begin, my translator, a sharp guy named David Rejendra who is on faculty there, said that it wasn't going to work that way, that instead I should just talk informally and take questions. What we wound up doing was having two gentlemen on the stage with me, one on either side. Of course, I didn't know exactly what I was going to talk about now again, so I asked them to conduct it like an interview to give me some focus and help. I actually didn't need as much help as I thought but it was good to have them there for confidence, and I launched into pretty much my normal spiel about Spirit, Soul and Body: Universal Call to Contemplation. Indians are pretty informal about staying put and going and coming during even formal evnts such as church services and lectures--I had been warned of that--and we were butting up against lunch time, but a good two thirds of them stayed all they way through the hour and a half. We started taking questions after about 45 minutes, I think.

After my experience at Gurukul Theological Seminary in Chennai, the Lutheran counterpart to TTS, I was aware of the sensitivity especially among Protestant Christians to any kind of "brahminization" of Christianity. This is someting Fr Bede and Abhishiktananda got accused of: not an Indianization at all, but a Sanskritization, setting up a whole new priestly class and ritual, not indigenous. You almost have to live in India to understand how resentful some non-brahmins are toward Sanskrit and toward Hindi, even, which I have heard described as "that vegetarian language." Here in Tamil Nadu. for instance, they are proud of their Tamil language whihc maybe older than Sanskirt and is still a spoken language. Snaskrit is the language of the upper caste. The majority, so I'm told, of Protestants are Dalits, who have experienced repression, discrimination and at times out and out persecution due to the caste system and are naturally suspicious. We had even heard from Fr Michael Amaladoss, SJ, how Catholic seminarians as well don't want to hear about Abhishiktananda or any talk about advaita/non-duality or yoga or meditation; they want to talk about action, especially the Dalit version of Liberation Theology. And especially the young, the students, are adverse to any kind of quietism; one student last time told me that meditation and yoga was a way of keeping people quiet, whereas Dalit folk theology was full of dancing and singing.

It's interesting how many times one or another form of that argument has come up these past days, regarding also folks in the West who need to isolate meditation and contemplative prayer from any kind of ritual, dance or music. It is an absolutely false dilemna as far as I am concerned. There are degrees, obviously, but I was reminded of the retreat I did with Ishpriya some summers ago at San Damiano in Danville. It was a silent mediation retreat and the staff there had brought us in to do it together, me doing music and liturgy, she giving the conferences. Ishpriya herself was a little suspicious at first, but we found after the first sessions that we were absolutely complementary and were anxious to work together again. But the staff got complaints about having music during a "silent retreat." We were both baffled. This is the other side of argument at TTS, that you shouldn't waste time in silence when there is so much work to be done. I always want to say, "Then you shouldn't waste time sleeping or eating either. Or maybe you should just try exhaling for a while instead of breathing in, and see how long you last."

Anyway, there were a lot of good questions and I only fielded on very well worded challenge to my remarks, in three parts: We shouldn't set up a dualism of body and soul, which I agreed and clarified that I was actually combatting dualism by trying to understand the human person as an organic complex whole; that we shouldn't fall into quietism, to which I again agreed and said that that was why I emphasised the stream of living water flowing back out of the believer's heart; and that we shouldn't set up a hierarchy of superior people who sit up on mountain tops in meditation, to which I simply agreed. Many of the other questions were about inter-religious dialogue. To do this kind of thing in India is very humbling because they are living cheek to jowl in a much more intensely diverse environment than I. A number of students brought up the idea of identity with God, the "aham brahm'asmi-I am brahman," and I got to launch into my telso-scopos-praxis argument.

A number of them, including one man from Malaysia, brought up how to deal with political and social tensions in regards to religious differences, and I had to admit that my responses were going to be very much abstract, that they themselves knew more about this than I. You may recall that there has been an ongoing controversy in Malayasia as to whethert or not Christians could use the word Allah for God, which is not a problem for English speakers but is for native Bahasa Malaysia speakers for whom there is no other word. It was finally resolved in the courts that, yes, Christians could legally use the name Allah in print and in speech, which led to some Islamists (as opposed to Muslims, so I am told) burning down four churches. That apparently led to a retaliaitory burning of some mosques as well. This is not abstract stuff for folks in this region, especially in India where there are still people alive who remember the bloody aftermath of the partition of India. One of the students asked me directly how they should deal with the caste system which is still operative even within Christianity. Again, I told them that I didn't haev any good answers for that because there was little way I could understand this type of societal arrangement, though we did speak a little about eocnomic divide in America, racial issues and immigration. I have to check my natural sunny American optimism at the door and get a good dose of pragmatic realism without losing hope in situations like that. In my mind I'm thinking, "It's not enough hear to all join hands and sing 'Kumbaya' around the campfire here." From what Agnete tells me it is more heightened in the Mideast, where we hope to be going together in the Fall with Imam Naveed.

That evening I did a concert in the same auditorium. It was one of the harder concerts I have done. It was hot and crowded, and the crowd was hesitant at first and then a little restless. Especially young Indians are used to very loud, rhythmic music, with electronica and/or a full band, more than to a gentle evening of Indian classical music with tabla and flute or sitar. They seemed much more pleased with singing along than in listening to long meditative pieces, so I was discarding pieces and adjusting along the way. There were some folks from other traditions there as well, Hindus and Muslims, I was told, invited as guests. "Bismillah" was again a big hit, and I pulled out the "Jaya Nam" bhajan that saved me in front of the 3000 school children in Tiru in 2007. It was great to have Theophy with me, and his Dad and Mom sat proudly in the front row. As I introduced Kabir's song "The Drink Sent Down," I just briefly mentioned the situation in Malaysia, where I had first run into trouble myself singing that particular song. At that point Rev Dr Gnanavaram himself stood up and launched into quite a lengthy explanation in Tamil, which he thought was his duty as Principal of the school. I found out later he mainly wanted to address some evangelicals who he were also in the crowd and might not understand why a Christian would sing to Allah at all. The only words I understood were "Muslim extremists" and "Christian extremists." I was saoked with sweat and exhausted after the concert in a way that I rarely am. I didn't think it had gone very well, but there were many positive remarks and Elle, who had been at the concert in Tiru, told me that she liked this one better. "It was more intense," she said.

The next day, Agnete and Elle were scheduled to do a session of biblical drama with the final year students but they decided that there were too many of them (35) to do it at once. So they had asked me to take half the class and then switch, an hour and a half a piece. So I decided to do a group lectio divina with my half, which seemed a good counterpart to biblical drama. The Jesuit style meditation is discursive and expansive, the monastic is more focused and heads soon to the place beyond words. I sort of stumbled on a way of doing group lectio a few years back that has worked for me in many situations, and with texts other than Judeo-Christian ones as well. I introduce the four stages: lectio-reading, meditatio-meditation (I use this as an opportunity to talk about discursive as opposed to one-pointed meditation), oratio-prayer, and contemplatio (which I use as an opportunity to talk about the Christian understanding of samadhi, infused contemplation and grace). Those four stages then apply to four levels of meaning of Scripture (if there are any lectio purists out there reading, this is my simplified version of the four): historical, moral, symbolic and the mystery beyond words that the reading is pointing to. And then I apply those to four levels of consciousness: ordinary, moral conscience (Freudian, but I didn't say that here), symbolic dream consciousness (Jungian, but again I didn't say that here), and then again the mysterious depth of our own consciousness beyond names and forms--the Word into Silence.

I thought the sessions went very well. The students were politely attentive at first, taking notes studiously. But they perked up a little more when I talked about the levels of meaning of Scripture, and they really seemed fascinated when I applied that to levels of consciousness. I said out loud that I thought people in India were naturally more open to the symbolic level of consciousness and the dream world, so they should really pay attention to it. JP was with me translating line for line, and I thought he was really enjoying it too. (He later asked me to write out my notes and give him a copy.) Then we did the four different reading of the Scripture texts, choosing one word, then one phrase and then opening up for discussion. They spoke in Tamil with JP leading the discussion and one of the students whispering translation in my ear along the way. At the end I asked them to create the shortest prayer possible to use as a prayer word (I was assiduously avoiding using the word "mantra" for the reaons above stated), and led them into a brief period of meditation. At the end I asked one of them to lead the others in singing a Tamil song. That was the highlight of my time there at TTS, after which we piled into our cars and headed back to Tiru.

What is so interesting, as it was at Gurukul, was to be in a non-Catholic (and non-Hindu) Christian environment in India. Neither of the things that I stand pretty firmly on, my own Asian expression of my Catholic Christianity, necessarily work there. So I need to re-find the universality and then re-state it in a language that is not bogged down and loaded with brahminical Sanskrit India or priestly Latin Rome. What really stays with me is their beautiful, receptive sincere faces, and the millions of individual paths to the Divine, "each in his own language, each in her own tongue."