Sunday, February 28, 2010

the ancient art of god symbolism

28 feb, 2010, on the way home.

On my way home now, back in Singapore for one day before flying back to California tomorrow. After the reletive retreat of the first days in KL, the last few days were kind of a blur of activity, and the weather was unrelentingly humid and hot, so I got back here pretty tired and slept the air-conditioned sleep of a worn out pilgrim last night here at the friary of St Mary of the Angels.

There were two concerts Friday. The first was in the afternoon at Pure Life Society itself, sponsored by the INSAF, the inter-religious group there. Beforehand I had sat for a few minutes with Mr PK, one of Mother's main assistants, and Dr Amir, the secretary of INSAF, whom I had met last year. Dr Amir is a devout Muslim who is also involved in all kinds of experiments with body-mind techniques and traditions, including Qi Gong. He writes a regular newpaper column about it all. He told me about a special song that is sung for Muhammad on that day, being the Prophet's birthday, and I suggested that he do it at the beginning of the event, to which he hesitantly agreed. So as we began, Mr PK introduced Dr Amir as "the only Muslim in attendance today," and he sang the chant for us, quite well, too, in spite of his diffidence.

About a third of the crowd was made up of the senior students from Pure Life, both boys and girls ranging from about 12 to 17 years old. They were not always the most attentive crowd, especially the girls who were doing a lot of talking and giggling even into the first three or four songs. I kept looking over their way while I was speaking and even while I was singing, trying to catch an eye or two directly instead of scolding them, that old teacher trick. It took a while for it to work, which of course had a negative affect on the rest of the crowd too and so I was unusually distracted and dropped a few verses and chords here and there. That makes for a lot of work. So I started leaning toward more audience participation than I had planned on because that did tend to keep their attention more. Because of the incident here last year about my poor pronunciation of an Arabic word, combined with the recent controversy over Christians and the use of the word "Allah," I had decided not to perform either "Bismillah" or "The Drink Sent Down," partly because I didn't want to seem like a smart aleck stirring up trouble, and partly as a kind of gentle protest, to be in solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters who have not been allowed to speak their own language. Instead I was going to allude to the controversy and sing "The Ground We Share." But since Mr PK had said that Dr Amir was the only Muslim in attendance (which meant my interlocuter from last year was not there) and since I really needed more audience participation, I pulled out the "Bismillah" after all. And I'm glad I did because it was a big hit again, so much so that one of the other members of INSAF told me twice later that I simply must get them a copy of the song, both recorded and written, so that they can use it, and Mother mentioned also as I was leaving how much she loved it. "And a song like that is especially salient here in Malaysia," she told me, "where we are all living together." Another man said, "If Muslims could see with what passion you sing the name of Allah they would be convinced that there was no controversy." I also sang "The Ground We Share" and they would like that one too for their use. I tell people sometimes that I grew up in an era when I really believed that you could change the whole world with a single song, and I am feeling pretty certain of it again. (So, Pennington and Rivera: we have got some work to do...) Mother also asked if I would consider writing a theme song for Pure Life and INSAF. These comments from people after a concert are often the greatest learning experiences I have. Another woman told me pointedly, "It is so good that you are out here singing these songs and doing this work as an American" (not as a Christian monk mind you--as an American--"because we have such a poor opinion of Americans in this part of the world now after these last years." I told her about writing to Eboo Patel, the increasingly well-known Muslim speaker and author who is on the President's Council for Inter-religious Initiatives (I probably got that latter name wrong): "If you do talk to the President, please just let him know that I am out here doing my part. If it matters to him, there is one monk wandering the world singing these songs, doing his part."

The other point of that story was that my interlocuter from last year was actually there; he has slipped in late. I wish I had known and we could have spoken. I think he actually did me a great service.

After the concert at SFX that night (St Francis Xavier Church as opposed to SFA, St Francis of Assisi) there was an unusual number of folks wanting me to sign their CDs. There are always a handful but this time, even though the church was mobbed, it seemed way out of proportion. While I was singing away a group of 8 or 9 young people approached me, a little shyly, one or two of them wanting me to sign, some just wanting to stand there it seemed. They had such beautiful birght faces that I really wanted to bask in their presence, so I started a conversation with them. I could tell from looking at them that they were neither Chinese, Indian or Malay and I found out soon on that they were all from the island of Borneo, from the two states, Sabah and Sarawak, in the north quarter of the island that are known as Eastern Malaysia. The southern rest of the island belongs to Indonesia. (More and more the whole idea of borders between so-called countries seems so arbitrary, especially the ones super-imposed by the colonials.) In the course of chatting with them and asking them questions, I ascertained that they are all Catholics and that they all live together, and that turned into an arrangement for me to come to their place on Saturday for lunch and music. After a wonderful Saturday morning trek through a jungle park named Gassling Park with a friend of his, Jeff, Dr Pat's son, who has been my interpid chauffeur, running partner and dharma protector all week, drove me out to Shah Alam, an area about 20 km outside of KL. Shah Alam is home to the famous impressive Shah Allam sport stadium and also to UITM, the University of Islamic Technology and Management. This university is reserved to "bumis"--short for "bumi putras"-sons of the land, in other words, no Chinese or Indians, only ethnic Malays, who are all Muslim, but also through a kind of loop hole in the law, the indigenous peoples of Eastern Malaysia, since they are also technically "bumis." What makes the Eastern Malaysians feel twice out-of-place there is that not only are they not Malays, they are not Muslims, but mostly Christians. So one of the bishops on Borneo bought this house specifically for Eastern Malaysian Catholics to live together. Mind you, they themselves are only somewhat related geographically, but are from different states and different tribes and therefore different language groups themselves. They communicate mostly in Bahasa, but are mainly united in that they are all Catholic. These, of course, are also the main people affected by the ban on using the word "Allah," since that is the word for God in their language. It all got very concrete, and fascinating. These are little nuances about which most of us in the West would have no idea at all.

About 15 of them gathered to meet with me, soem whom I had not met yet. They all came pouring out of the house as we pulled up. One of the members of the group is a very talented artist named Kandy. He has already finished school, but while working toward making a living on his art he remains there in the house serving as the cook. I was told he was famous for "Kandy Soup," and I had asked for that specifically. They had a very nice meal of that and many other dishes laid out on the mats on the floor of the main room and we chatted through lunch, mostly us asking eachother questions. I think I had more questions for them than they for me.

Then after eating we spent most of the next hour and a half singing. They did a bunch of their songs for me, the words projected onto a screen from a computer, in a variety of languages, mostly in the "praise and worship" genre. These included at least one song in English that went like this: "Move a little bit for Jesus, you feel good (sic): bop-shoobop, bop-bop-shoobop," followed by some bahasa words: "Fewah, fewah, fewah-oh..." Then, "Twist a little bit for Jesus..." and "bump," "dance," etc., all with motions. They liked what they called "action songs." At one point they also sang a beautiful "Alleluia" in a pentatonic scale in imitation of an indigenous stringed instrument which I recored on my phone, and they also performed a dance for me. Two of the guys were pretty good guitarists, first just accompanying the group, but then I asked each of them to play a little something. The one, Zyzy, has been studying classical guitar and he did two nice pieces for us. The other, Rolland, did a Latin jazz piece, also very good. I did a little set for them too of the pieces that I thought they would like the most: "Sab Bhole" from India, "Lovingkindness" from Indonesia, and the my bluesy arrangment of the American Quaker "How Can I Keep From Singing," which Rolland played along with me. It was great fun. Jeff and I had had an agreement that he would pick me back up in two hours but if it wasn;'t going well I coul djust text him and he would come earlier. When he arrived we were singing and dancing, so he came in and we stayed another half and hour while we prayed together and they showered me with gifts, including a framed copy of one of Kandy's latest prints.

At the concert at SFA on Friday night, on the other hand, there was one young guy who was sitting to my left who even without my glasses on I could tell was riveted in attention through the whole evening. As at SFX the night before, I geared this event toward half singing/half speaking on Lenten themes. I spent a good fifteen minutes just explaining the theology behind "Streams of Living Water" and another on "This Is Who You Are," for instance. For me, when someone is paying as much attention as this guy was, it really gives me a lot of energy, so after the performance when he came up and introduced himself, I thanked him for his energy. His name was Ian, and he is the conductor of the youth choir there at that church. (They were rehearsing that very night after the concert, by the way, at 10 PM!) He introduced me to his father Patrick and his brother Julian as well, who are also both musicians, and was really keen to talk about music and spirituality. As a matter of fact, I was to be presiding at Mass there Saturday night, so we arranged to get together afterward with him and his brother and some other members of the youth choir. One of Dr Pat's friends from SFA had also arranged a dinner for us all, so we wound up a group of about 20 driving across town to a wonderful Chinese restaurant in a shopping mall (thanking God by this time for the air-conditioning), gathered at two large round tables. About a dozen of the young people showed up so we were all together at one table, Ian right to my left. He started with the first question of the evening and we, or mostly I, talked straight through the whole meal, with food continuously appearing on my plate every time I looked down. They asked great questions, some about increasing their own spiritual life and that of their music ministry, and some other questions about dealing with other religious traditions. I won't go into the whole conversation here obviously but just these two points. First, I was so grateful again to talk about a theology of the Word, and the Word as beauty-truth-goodness and the semine verbi--"seeds of the Word," and how when we really understand that, it becomes a bridge to other traditions. Secondly, as I was explaining to them some more of the inner meaning of liturgy as I understood it, again I was convinced of how powerful liturgical spirituality is, and that as Catholics that is our greatest treasure.

I've been reading the book "The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals" by Swami Parthasarathy, the father of the Sunandaji who gave those excellent classes on the Gita last week, and the introduction to the book, similar to what she herself said in one of her talks, really impressed me. It's another way of saying what I keep haranguing about to my religion teacher friends about the Bible: "Just read them the stories! Just read those great stories!" In this post-modern age of demytholigization (excuse that word), we've lost something that someone like Baba Hari Das has recovered for the folks up at Mount Madonna, for instance. Here's how Swami Parthasarathy puts it: He says that Hinduism perfected the ancient "art of God-symbolism." But, and this certainly does not apply just to Hindus, this ancient art has gone neglected, with the result that the symbols festivals and rituals "have been shorn of their philosophical significance and reduced to mere superstition," such that Hindus have either blindly accepted or rejected them. What he aims at is exposing the deeper philosophical meaning of these rituals, symbols and festivals, and I might add he does it very well. And that is what we could do with liturgical spirituality and an approach to Scripture such as lectio divina as well. Just like in that little act of mixing the water and the wine at Mass--"may we come to share the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity"--if we leave out little rituals and gestures like that in the name of expediency or avoiding superstition instead of evoking the deeper meaning they convey to another part of the brain through another medium of communication--the mythic mind instead of the rational mind--, we are on the course of starving our soul of its favorite language, the language of song, poetry, art, dance.

Anyway... After the meal and conversation, I wanted some of my favorite Malaysian teh tarik, so Ian offered to take me home across town to Puchong himself so that I could spend more time with them. They took me to their favorite mamak--the name for the Indian Muslim eateries that are so popular in Malaysia, especially among young people. I am told that they are the Malaysian equivalent of American junk food, but our junk food should be so good! Roti and fired noodles, all kinds of fatty meat dishes and of course, teh tarik, literally "pulled tea," made with condensed milk and swung through the air ("pulled") to aerate it and give it a rich deep taste. More talk there and then we stopped back at Ian and Julian's house, where Julian impressed me with a bit of Chopin on the electric piano. We added their mother and an aunty who the route straight to Puchong to our caravan and around midnight they delivered me safely to Pure Life for my last very warm night in the swami's hut on the hill.

Pat, Jeff and Joe drove me down to Singapore, where they were coming anyway for a housewarming party at Jeff's new apartment on Sunday. I made a brief appearance there too but was happy to find my way to "my" room here at the friary. I got a nice run around Bukit Batok Nature Park this morning, then treated myself to one more breakfast of teh, half-boiled eggs and kaya toast down at the hawkers below, and am now waiting for Leonard who will host me to hop around and have a last visit with several friends here before I head home in the morning. I'm so grateful for all the wonderful hearts and souls that I've encountered on the way, and longing to see the faces of the wonderful hearts and souls in the ground we share back in California.

In the name of the One beyond all names,
the Word made flesh
and the Spirit poured into our hearts,
in whom we live and move and have our being,
may all be happy,
may all be free from ills,
may all realize what is good.
May none be subject to misery.