Saturday, February 25, 2012

on spaceship earth

Selfishness is unnecessary and henceforth unrationalizable.
War is obsolete.
(Buckminster Fuller)

I just finished leading a three-day retreat in the most amazing place. It’s called Penang Hill, or in Malay Bikut Bendera, Flag Hill. It juts about 3,000 feet up above the island of Penang (Pilau Pinang) just off the northwest coast of Malaysia. I’ve been on Penang twice before but never to this particular spot. It is the oldest of the British colonial hill stations, dating back to the 18th century. There are at least three ways up the hilly spine to the summit. We drove up the road, which is the steepest paved road I’ve ever been on. You have to have a special permit to go up it. We drove in and left our cars in town at some kind of travel agency and were loaded up into three hefty four-wheel drive vehicles and even they seemed to be straining. It was like Lombard Street in San Francisco for 5 kilometers. There is also one major hiking trail, which I‘m told is very popular and local folks set up rest stations along the way with water and Chinese tea for dehydrated hikers. There is also a funicular railroad that dates back to 1901 but was upgraded only recently in 2010. The one piece of literature that I could find about the place said though that “the earliest mode of transport to the hill was via horses or a system of ‘doolies,’ where masters were carried up the hill on special sedan chairs. After that a system of bridle paths were cut by Indian penal servitude prisoners for the establishment of more bungalows on the hill.” Can you imagine? Many of the bungalows remain, as well as some major buildings such as the house of the governor and a convalescent home that was used so I was told, by British soldiers recuperating from the Armenian War. And one of the women who was on the retreat also lives in one, and she brought us there for tea after the retreat ended. It looks like a charming English cottage in the middle of the jungle.

The folks from the WCCM had booked out an entire hotel (11 rooms), called the Bellevue at the very summit. It is surrounded on all sides by jungle/rain forest with lots of creatures and the constant din of insects. There is also an aviary, large cages full of exotic colorful birds. Just across the road is a little amusement park, restaurant, mosque and Hindu temple. Yesterday, Saturday, the place was full of visitors.

This place was a favorite haunt of Buckminster Fuller, the American systems theorist, architect, engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist, especially well-known for his geodesic domes. As a matter of fact I was given the room that proudly bears a placard stating that this was the room where he stayed on his frequent visits. It was a spacious double room, but very simple, no air conditioning (one of the reasons it was so popular is because it is considerably cooler up there) and none of those dreaded flyers and handouts you usually find in hotels.

Buckminster Fuller was one of the pioneers of global thinking, and he explored principles of energy and material efficiency in the fields of architecture, engineering and design. He didn’t think there was an energy crisis, only a crisis of ignorance and he was not a big fan of petroleum. He thought, from the standpoint of its replacement cost out of our “energy budget” it actually cost nature over a million dollars per U.S. gallon to produce, so its use as a transportation fuel by people commuting to work represented a huge net loss compared to their earnings. Even though he was optimistic about humanity's future, Fuller was concerned about sustainability and about human survival under the existing socio-economic system. At the same time often criticized utopian schemes as being too exclusive. To work, he thought that a utopia needed to include everyone. He defined wealth in terms of knowledge, as the “technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life.” His analysis of the condition of what he called “Spaceship Earth” made him conclude that at a certain time during the 1970s, humanity had already attained an unprecedented state: that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of major recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level, such that competition for necessities was not necessary anymore. And so, cooperation had become the optimum survival strategy for the human race. Fascinating guy, and way ahead of his time.

I always find it interesting to be leading a spiritual retreat, at that a Christian one, and to at the same time be surrounded by such prophetic and, dare I say, holy thinking coming from a secular source. This is the kind of wisdom from the world that all people of faith should be listening to, and/or leading the way. I was reminded of Pope Benedict’s message for World Peace Day this year, which everyone on the right and left overlooked as usual when he lamented that “some currents of modern culture, built upon rationalist and individualist economic principles, have cut off the concept of justice from its transcendent roots, detaching it from charity and solidarity.” Whereas authentic education teaches the proper use of freedom with “respect for oneself and others, including those whose way of being and living differs greatly from one’s own.” He went on to tie it to economic policies, which is not unusual for him, but oft-overlooked: peace-making, he wrote requires education not only in the values of compassion and solidarity, but in the importance of wealth redistribution, as well as the “promotion of growth, cooperation for development and conflict resolution.”

I am noting again how the dividing lines are drawn again in our political discourse between the peace activists and environmentalists on the one side and the supposedly pro-life people on the other. Even the Catholic candidates never mention that other side of Catholic social teaching, focusing exclusively on gay marriage and abortion. How can you be pro-life and be against universal health care? (Even though the American bishops oppose the current Affordable Health Care Act, they defend in principle the right to universal health care, as does the pope.) How can you be pro-life and still support a preemptive strike against Iran (which is against the just war theory of the Catholic tradition) or excuse/condone the use of torture, for God’s sake, which the pope explicitly condemned in 2005. (By the way, Pope Benedict at the same time also issued a warning about fundamentalism. “Religious fanaticism, today often labeled fundamentalism, can inspire and encourage terrorist thinking and activity,” he said.) On the other hand I was so discouraged by President Obama’s misstep with the contraception mandate, where he had a real chance to forge some political common ground with some moderates on the religious right. Just as I wonder how so many people can be so concerned about the suffering of animals and yet be completely intransigent with regard to abortion on demand with no restrictions whatsoever. (As Speaker Gingrich last week brought up that then-Senator Obama opposed the “Born Alive Infants Protection Act” in 2008, which is really coming back to haunt him now.) It is so hard to hold these things together. We all have our agendas and blind spots. Cooperation is the optimum survival strategy for the human race. If there were to be a new political party, that would be the one––really pro-life, pro-justice, and nobody would vote for it.

This is my last day in Malaysia. I really have loved Malaysia even more this time. The blend of cultures is so unique––very strongly Indian, very strongly Chinese, all the while with the underlying Malay culture, and the curry of it all stewing together in the pot with enough European sensibility remaining from colonial days to make it all seem very comfortable. I always feel like I’m almost in India when I get here. I did my final event last night here in Penang and today spending the day at College General Penang, which is the Catholic seminary for the entire Malaysian peninsula. There are only 13 seminarians here with two priests and a retired bishop in residence as well. The rector, Fr Gerard, is also the spiritual director of the WCCM here in Malaysia, and has been a gracious host. I got a great night’s sleep in a cool dark quiet room, did all my laundry, packed up some stuff to leave behind for my return, took a walk on the beach and I’m pretty much ready to go. Tonight Gerard and “the boys” are taking me out to dinner at the local hawkers stand––Penang is renown for its food––and then my intrepid hosts and friends Pat and Joe will drive me to the airport in KL for the flight to Chennai, and then hopefully somebody will be waiting to whisk me off to Tiruvanamalai.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

update from malaysia

In working for reunion it is necessary first to be humble;
second to be patient and await God’s hour;
and third, to avoid any discussions that may impair the virtue of charity.
We must leave aside, for the moment, those elements on which we differ.
(Agustin Cardinal Bea, at the announcement of the Vatican II)

ash wednesday, ipoh, malaysia

Sorry for the lack of posts. I actually just haven’t had much new to say outside of boring ol’ travelogues. But I’ll let you know what’s been up on the road.

I’ve done six out of seven concerts here in Malaysia now. Actually they have not been listed as concerts but “evenings of prayer, song and reflection” I think, but basically concerts with a lot more talking, as I have done often now. The difference of these is that they have been all Christian/liturgical music, none of the songs from other traditions and none from secular poets––mostly music from “As One Unknown” and “Awake At Last” two of the liturgical collections I did for OCP. The main organizer of most of the events asked me to specifically focus them on preparation for Lent/Easter, and they got permission to print 500 copies of “Awake At Last” just for sale here in Asia, so I focused even more on that music. (I have tried to tell them gently that 500 CDs is a very ambitious goal.) The one exception to the theme has been “The Ground We Share,” the song about Jerusalem which I added into the program. I really want to keep the awareness about the situation in the Holy Land alive wherever I go. Some years back I sang that song here for the first time, and the Malaysians got it in a profound way since they have had their own tensions with sharing the land with their ethnic Malay Muslim neighbors. They have been sweet events and the participants very receptive and appreciative.

Early last week, before the concerts started I did several more informal things for my young musician friend Ian whom I had met three years back, on music, on meditation and worship. I had stayed those first days with the Capuchin friars in Kuala Lumpur, and then four days with Mother Mangalam at Pure Life Society, as I noted earlier. She was as always a gracious host, and allowed me to receive a number of guests there as well as come and go for my various work.

Then this week Monday I took the beautiful comfortable electric train up to Ipoh. I have been here twice before, once for work and once just to visit some friends that I made the first time. I am staying with the Redemptorist fathers in their community home that houses both the parish priests, the superior and a mission team. They are a well read, bright, lively and welcoming bunch of guys, and I felt right at home right away. I’ve been able to beg out of socializing much with my hosts to spend a lot of time reading and writing. Though they did take me out to two delicious Chinese vegetarian lunches. Most of the young folks I met here three years back, and who also entertained me and took me on a grand tour of the countryside, are gone away to university by now. But one of them, Melvin, drove in on his motorcycle after classes and we were just going to go for a tea or juice and visit afterward. But in the end we decided to go with his Dad and another gentleman named Nicholas to find Nicholas’ son Joel, one of that gang, who was working at a lounge across town. We wound up being a group of about 12 or so, men and women, seated at an open air Irish pub. I couldn’t quite tell, but I think Joel was pleased to see us all descend on him. I introduced the concept of Fat Tuesday (it being the day before Lent––Mardi Gras) to them all––they had never heard of the term before. So, given how Malaysians love to eat, a juice and a tea turned into pizza and a roasted leg of pork. I had a Greek salad, which seemed odd enough at an Irish bar in Malaysia.

Tomorrow I head to Pinang with folks from the World Community for Christian Meditation to lead a retreat in what reports to be a beautiful retreat house in the hills, only accessible by four-wheel drive, so I thought I’d update this now before I run out of internet connection. Some things I’ve been reading and pondering: a book that I glanced through when I was here three years ago called “His Name Is John,” a biography of Pope John XXIII, written in 1963, and published just after he died, between the first and second session of the Second Vatican Council. It made me fall in love with him again, the great stories of his warmth and humanity and deep desire for unity among Christians and all people of good will, his broad mind and big heart. It seems like a miracle that such a man could have been pope, and even more astonishing the dreams he had for that council. There is much talk all over the world among Catholics these days either worrying about or happy for the end of that era, as if! I’m still letting it wrestle around in my heart, knowing myself to be a pure bred son of that Council, born the year John was elected, started grade school the year the Council began, raised in what I think of as the best of the liberal tradition.

My own path in religious life doesn’t look like that of many others of my age group, liberal or conservative, but I see it as a direct result of having been surrounded by these brilliant progressive, prophetic minds and hearts like Sergius Wrobleski and the Gospel Family and the Catholic Worker in Chicago, and the “Community,” these young couples who used to meet at each others’ houses every Saturday night in the 70s to break the bread and open the Word. I was just a kid in the corner, sometimes playing the guitar for their Masses, but listening off to the side at all the conversations. And all the “radical priests” (as Paul Simon sang) and sisters and brothers who immersed themselves in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Others who dared to live poor among the poor and live out new forms of contemplative life in poustinias and urban hermitages and went off to study Zen and Yoga. I often say that part of the reason I stick to doing what I am doing is because there are so few of us who are given the chance and support to try new and creative things like this anymore, so much of the church is involved in battening down the hatches.

I’ve also been following closely––too closely––the political scene in the US, Rick Santorum’s rise, President Obama’s problems with the contraception mandate. I want to be careful with what I say, but I think I can say this to any of my Catholic friends that are reading: Rick Santorum is not all good. Barack Obama is not all bad. Period. And vice versa. But, boy, is this going to be a difficult debate, never have the lines seemed so clearly drawn. And yet the political scene abhors subtlety and candidates thrive on calumny and caricature. It may be that there is no salvation at that level, but Jesus did say, concerning the rulers of this world, It shall not be that way with you! Let is not be that way with us. This would be a good time for fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

something new

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
(Is 43:18-19)

Sunday, 18 February 2012

I had a good visit with the archbishop of Kuala Lumpur the other day, Murphy Pakiam. I had met him once before (though he didn’t remember), but I was again taken aback by how informal and easily accessible he was. He showed up a little late for our meeting, very casually, modestly dressed in a nice pair slacks and an open neck shirt, sandals. He’s a very scholarly man, it seems, and talked openly about many things going on in his world. I didn’t know that he serves on the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. He said that he tells the folks in Rome that they talk about inter-religious dialogue but here in Malaysia they live it every day. He described various encounters he has had, how he encourages folks to reach out in very practical ways across religious boundaries, such as visiting a sick Muslim too when communion ministers bring Eucharist to the hospital, and involving oneself in common social problems. He also told of taking part in various rituals. He’s careful but creative. It reminded me of something that Fr Lucien Diess said to me often: “We can’t do everything, but we should do all we can.” So, for example, one time he was asked to venerate certain images in a man’s home. There was an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus next to an image of Ganesh. The bishop gently explained that he could less the image of the Sacred Heart but that he “didn’t have the authority to bless the image of Ganesh.” The man accepted that humbly with no problem.

He is also very practical about things liturgical. Again asking him about the new translation of the Missal and the increased tendency toward the Latin Mass, he put it in the context of the fact that some of his priests and he himself sometimes have to have working knowledge of four languages already––English, Bahasa, Tamil and Mandarin. That sort of puts the new English translation in context. When he explained to the Holy Father that he simply couldn’t require his men to learn Latin on top of that, he said the Pope just raised his hands in the air and said, “Of course not!”

He also said that during his ad limina visit, the pope was a perfect gentleman, very courteous and kind, which I have heard about him often. Though many not agree with his philosophical and theological direction, one has to give him that. We also talked about the pope’s approach to inter-religious dialogue, and he thinks too that we have taken a step somewhat backward now. We talked about the fact the as Cardinal Ratzinger our present pope didn’t even attend John Paul II’s first Assisi convocations, and had the wording of the official record changed so that the words “Let us now pray together” were stricken from the record. He did convene another gathering this past year, but it got very lukewarm reception and coverage, at least in the Italian press. He corroborated for me that the Holy Father is really convinced that Greco-Roman philosophy and law were somewhat divinely inspired, and that it was providential that they grew up with Christianity. This of course puts a veil of suspicion over many Asian approaches to Christianity, and certainly over the thought of Fr Bede and, one would assume, even more over Abhishiktananda. This again is a step backward from John Paul II’s document Fides et Ratio where he declared that

In preaching the Gospel, Christianity first encountered Greek philosophy; but this does not mean at all that other approaches are precluded. Today, as the Gospel gradually comes into contact with cultural worlds which once lay beyond Christian influence, there are new tasks of inculturation, which mean that our generation faces problems not unlike those faced by the Church in the first centuries.

Then the pope went on to say that his thoughts “turn immediately to the lands of the East, so rich in religious and philosophical traditions of great antiquity. Among these lands, India has a special place.”

I was thinking of all that when I read the gospel from Mark 2 this Sunday. I love the image of the house that we heard in the gospel, there were too many people in the house so they opened the roof to drop a paralyzed man in so that Jesus could heal him. It reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome. It’s a first century Roman structure that’s built with an open space in the center of the roof, called an oculus, an eye, that lets in a shaft of light and also, sometimes, like the day I was there, the rain. I was remembering too our friends from the Esselen tribe in Carmel Valley, CA. The first time I met them we had a ceremony in their round house where they hold their prayers services and sacred rites. It also has an opening in the center, like a huge teepee, to let the smoke out, the smoke of course being a symbol of the prayers rising to the Great Spirit, as we sing in Psalm 140: My prayers rise like incense. My hands like the evening offering. I also really love the churches in Malaysia and India that are open. SFA the other night, for instance, has no walls, just pillars, and so of course the air comes through, and also sometimes a little bit of rain blows in, and often birds come zooming through like little jet fighters, or soar around the ceiling.

It leaves me feeling as if we have a tendency to prefer to trap God in in our churches, especially in the West. Our buildings seem to be built to keep God in! Maybe even in our theology, and that’s a bigger problem; whereas real faith likes to break the roof off. Jesus was amazed at their faith in doing that and rewarded them right away. Real faith let’s in the surprises, new ideas, new languages, new songs, the rain and the wind, the blind and the lame, and the poor smelly people that there is no room our in our cozy tiny little buildings.

Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to prefer the open air. Maybe that’s why he delighted in them opening the roof. Some of his best sermons were outdoors, on the mount, in the field, on the plain, at the seashore. I remember coming back from a little walk along the Sea of Galilee and looking out over the field and spontaneously came to my mind the words, Look at the birds of the air; learn from the flowers of the field! And all those images of the wheat, and the mustard seed and trees and shrubs that he uses––maybe Jesus knew something about God preferring the open spaces. I’ve been reading the book of Exodus lately, how God leads the people through the desert as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. That God didn’t like being confined to closed spaces. As a matter of fact when David wants to build God a house, God says through the prophet, “You want to build me a house?!” From then on out, God keeps escaping the house.

Often in the Gospels the scribes and Pharisees are contrasted with the people of faith––the people of faith as opposed to the religious people! I suppose the scribes were similar to the religious conservatives of our day. They were trying to keep order, defined by an exact set of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” At least they liked to keep religion reined in. And let’s have some sympathy––conservatism then, just as it is now, is justifiable. They were trying to conserve and preserve a pure ethic, a sense of spiritual heritage and a cultural identity amidst a frenzied world of Roman persecution and centuries of exile and occupation. They were good people, but the circumstances may have made them a little narrow and scared.

They accused Jesus of blasphemy! Before we get smug––so would we probably, God rarely lives up to our expectations or, should I say, God rarely lives down to our expectations. At any rate, they weren’t ready for this Jesus who was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy which we also heard this week: See, I am doing something completely new; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? They were not ready for a god who was going to take the roof off, to let God out and to let the poor in!

But mainly maybe they just couldn’t believe––as we have a hard time believing––that God could/would/did give such power to a human being. That’s the scandal of the Incarnation, the surprise that such power has been poured into us, the God cold come so close. And somehow it seems they couldn’t quite grasp this fundamental truth––that we matter; that created thing matter, that the flesh matters, our health, our bodies matter; that our happiness matters; that people matter; that matter matters; that God does not abhor creation. And that the real house of God is the human person, but not a house the holds God in, but a container pervaded by the spirit that surrounds and permeates it, like the burning bush that Moses saw, unconsumed by the flame.

A God who gives us a strict set of rules to follow with no surprises would be a lot easier. But of course that’s not an adult relationship and that’s not a real act of faith. That’s fire insurance; that’s self-preservation. Faith is walking on the waters of uncertainty, like Peter walking on the water. Faith is letting the roof off, letting in the sun and the rain, and the blind and the lame. Faith is being ready for surprises. Faith is also facing the future with confidence and hope, not with fear and protectionism.

At one point in my visit with the archbishop the other day we were talking about good Pope John XXIII. He was saying that after the very scholarly, stiff and formal Pope Pius XII, John was such a surprise and pleasure. There are stories of him smoking Galloises in the Vatican gardens, and the various charming comical things he said along the way. But the big surprise was when one day he told everyone that he had had a vision, and that there was going to be an ecumenical council to opened the windows and bring an aggiornamento–an updating to the Catholic Church. Talk about opening a hole in the roof! Who was ready for the surprises in store when the wind started blowing in the church. I’ve heard various folks talk about the “era of Vatican II” or even an end of the Vatican II era. It calls to mind the motto of First Congregational Church in Santa Cruz where we have so many good friends, the saying of that great feminist theologian Gracie Allen that they have emblazoned all over the place: “Never place a period where God has put a comma.” The church, and we human beings in general, are always in need of reformation and aggiornamento. And, as Fr Bede pointed out over and over, everything about us needs to constantly be renewed, so that we can speak a new language for a new age and a new generation, the language of our philosophy, our music and other forms of art, of our social justice and our ecological policies. There is a real tendency in the Catholic Church now to return to old forms and old ways, liturgically and otherwise. Whereas the prophet challenges us today to remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new! (Is 43:18-19) I hope we’re not putting a period where God has placed a comma. We at times need to open the roof to let in surprises, maybe also to let our prayers out, to re-circulate the air in our communities and our congregations and families, new forms of life and new ways of evangelization and catechesis and formation.

See I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?

pure life

In the orthodox sense I am not a Christian, yet in a way I consider myself a Christian for, as many of my Oriental brethren do, I look upon Jesus as a great Yogin and a great Paramahamsa Sannyasi, for in life and teachings are in perfect harmony with their ancient treatises on Yoga and the metaphysical and spiritual teachings of the Upanishads.(Swami Satyananda)

Saturday, 17 February 2012

After the first three nights at SFA (since that room was only available ‘til then), there was some discussion about where to house me, and I asked that I could come back here where I am now––at the Pure Life Society with Mother Mangalam. This is the ashram-orphanage founded by her with Swami Satyananda. I’ll repeat my explanation of this place from three years ago…

Swami Satyananda was a Malaysian-born Tamil Indian, born in 1906. He had a Roman Catholic education (interesting to note that he would later write a what he called a “catechism” if the Indian religion), entered government service at 17, and spent ten years studying yoga, during which time he met some sannyasis of the Ramakrishna order. He first had a career as an educator, both in regular schools and adult education programs, and was active in social, cultural and religious movements. Then in 1937 he joined the Ramakrishna Order, after which he studied Sanskrit and Indian philosophy. In 1940 he was sent to Singapore (when it was still part of Malay) as the head of the RK schools there, and studied and lectured particularly on comparative religions, and also did lots of work in education and social reform. He parted amicably with the RK order, mutually deciding that he was on his own path. He continued to live as a monk but was heavily involved in social work, education, pacifist conferences and inter-religious dialogue. He was greatly respected and decorated by local government leaders. As a matter of fact his book “Influence of Indian Culture on Malaya” was at one time the recommended text book for the Malayan Civil Service Examination. He joined the Indian Relief Committee after WWII and in 1950 established this place, the Shuddha Samaj–Pure Life Society, which includes an orphanage, a school, an adult education center, the Temple of the Universal Spirit, and a printery which issues a magazine called Dharma. In 1960 he suffered a terrible car accident from which he never fully recovered and he died a year later. Since then this place has been under the guidance of his closest disciple, Mangalam, affectionately known as “Mother.”

It is also Swami Satyananda who taught Father John Main how to meditate when Fr. John was stationed here in KL as part of the English Civil Service, which would later bear fruit as the seed of the World Community for Christian Meditation, for whom I have done considerable work and who have been such good friends to me. I will be doing a retreat for the WCCM next week in Penang, and my friends Leonard and Pat Por are involved with them too. The sweetest part of the whole thing is that I always get to stay in the Swami’s old hut, a few steps below the Temple of the Universal Spirit. As is often the case in India, main room of the hut (where he actually lived) has been turned into a kind of museum and shrine, with articles of his clothing and some of his books and autographs. It’s rare that anyone stays here but Mother always spruces it up for me, and this time even had a real bed brought in instead of the cot that I have used in the past. I always feel as close to India as possible in Malaysia and especially here. The room that I stay in attached to the main room is very much like a cell in the ashram, cement floor and noisy fan above, the bathroom consisting of a squatting toilet and buckets for a bath.

I’ve got most of today off again (Saturday here) and one of my young friends is coming up to do some yoga and meditation with me up in the Temple. So I’m feeling very much at home.

Friday, February 17, 2012

essentially vocal

17 February 2012

Humility does not consist in hiding our talents and virtues,
in thinking ourselves worse and more ordinary than we are,
put in possessing a clear knowledge of all that is lacking in us
and not exalting ourselves for that which we have.

I came up from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (KL) on the Aeroline bus. Someone figured out that it was cheaper, more comfortable and––with traveling to and from the airport, checking bags, and security on top of the flight––not much more time consuming to take a really nice bus on the well-worn path between Singapore and KL than it would be to fly, hence these kind of luxury bus lines with comfy seats, a nice meal and touch screen entertainment. This is the second time I’ve taken one from the port in Singapore, which is a whole ‘nother world too, surrounded by luxury liners and scores of sailors, western tourists in brightly colored vacation clothing, and local young people working as guides and helpers.

I stayed the first three days and nights with the Capuchin Franciscan friars who have a parish and retreat house/formation center––St Francis of Assisi (SFA, the Malaysians seem to like the acronyms even more than we do) where my young friend is heavily involved. It is he who was the major impetus to get me back here this year, as I mentioned earlier. He had a few things scheduled for me. Monday night he and another friend of his, James, who was acting as my escort during my first days here in KL, took me to a nice restaurant and we filled in a bunch of gaps from our e-mail correspondence over the past two years, about yoga and meditation, about music, and inter-religious dialogue. Really another one of those amazing rare conversations when you meet someone who is interested in almost everything you are involved and seems to get it too. I then had a couple of luxurious mornings off to myself in my room at their new retreat house, a simple but clean room with private bath and optional air-con. After a few days in Singapore to adjust to the climate and time zone (16 hours difference!) I now felt ready to out myself to the tasks at hand, inner and outer.

Tuesday night we had a sort of informal gathering with a group of young musicians, for which I was over prepared. Ian wanted me to share with them my specific approach to liturgical music, so I had brought with me all kinds of samples of what I call “essentially vocal music,” the “popular chant” that the pioneers of Vatican II hoped would arise out of the “native genius.” (Oh, someone please tell me that it has not all been in vain!) I explained to them the concept that I got from none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger back in the 1980s encouraging liturgical musicians to spend as much time in the “antechambers” of liturgical music. This simple phrase was a huge inspiration to me as I was exploring some way to break out of the rock/pop sound and yet not merely succumb to the temptation to fall back solely on Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and hymnody. (The operative word there is “solely.”) I emphasized that the music that we got “from the streets” still had to be converted and baptized, but that there were already sacred sounds all around us in maybe-not-so-obvious places. I talked about music having a language all its own, and why it was not impossible but difficult to use things like rap and straight on rock n’ roll for the liturgy, just as it was difficult to use polka music––because the music is already saying something before we force words on top of it. At the same time I said that I thought that there was a sort of “ax laid to the root of the tree” John the Baptist energy to rock n’ roll that I didn’t want to lose. And I told them that at some point I realized that it was from other cultures and other religious traditions that we had the most to learn, because often these cultures and religions had music that was essentially vocal and rooted in ritual and word. I forget abut the fact that I wrote an article based on a talk about this when I first started on the road in 2003, called “The Future of Liturgical Music,” since when I first came out of the monastery I thought I was mainly going to be involved in liturgical music. And lastly, I emphasized that in looking at these other cultures and traditions I didn’t want to be an African or be a Buddhist, but I wanted to learn from them, maybe catch some of the energy and sensibility of their music, and let it teach me about my music. I often also forget that I this is probably the root of my studying other religious traditions, and I wound up with the same approach––looking at my own tradition from another house, finding the universal, learning from someone else. I remember back in about 1988 having an argument with an evangelical Protestant musician about this, him telling me that nothing good could possibly come from another tradition that wasn’t Christian; all that music and ritual had to be wiped out at conversion. This was also the Catholic missionary approach at times too. But the best of the Roman Catholic tradition (and I cling to this!) is that grace builds on nature.

So anyway I pulled out for and taught them “The Canticle of the Three Young Men,” and “Praise to You,” inspired by Nigerian and Ghanan music respectively; the Pavana/Holy and Children of Jerusalem” obviously from India; “How Great is Your Name” and “This is My Body” from Psallite inspired Afro-Caribbean music. And then various things that seemed to come out of nowhere or everywhere––“Live on in My Love,” “There Is A Light,” “Shine on Me.” It was almost all done a capella, emphasizing the voice and the “essentially vocal” nature of it all, and the fact that we were singing the Scriptures. Also emphasizing the fact that this all was also “chant” to me, not just Gregorian. We had so much fun. And I think that they really got it, maybe in a way that most Westerners would not. This was a group of naturally ethnically-culturally mixed people, inter-racial Chinese, Indians and Portuguese, Christians living in the midst of a Muslim majority with many Hindus and a few Buddhists thrown in for good measure too. As Archbishop Murphy said to me a few days later, “In Rome they talk about inter-religious dialogue. Here we live it every day!”

Then Wednesday I had the first of what will be seven “concerts.” I put that in scare quotes because the main organizer here, Dr Pat Por has wanted to emphasize these as evenings of music, prayer and reflection, specifically in preparation for Lent. They’re pretty much concerts with a little more talking. She also asked that I stick to Christian/liturgical music for these, and at that mainly music from “Awake At Last,” the album of music for Lent and Easter that I produced in 2008. It’s been interesting for me, since I rarely do concerts of all Christian/liturgical music anymore, even in church settings I’m always throwing in a Sanskrit chant or a Metta Sutta or a “moon in my body.” But I have complied. The first two have gone very well. I’m trying to do the same program each night (I might get bored and start improvising at some point) and Ian prepared a Power Point so that the refrains are projected overhead so that people can sing along, and I’ve got an outline of some lesson to teach from each song.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

fired up

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have begun our real journey.
(Wendell Berry)

15 feb 2012

It’s 6 o’clock AM on a sweaty morning in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All around me I can hear the muezzins through their loud speakers (one quite near my window) waking everyone up with their throaty intonation, Allahu Akbar! God is great! What a thing to wake to. I suppose the folks who live in Muslim countries such as this get used to it, like train tracks or a factory whistle near your home, but I am always moved by it again my first days here.

I am on one of my crazy pilgrimages across southeast Asia again. I have not had the inspiration to write much yet in spite of several requests to do so before I left, but I shall add this brief log here if for no other reason than out of a sense of obligation, and see if that primes the pump.

The main reason for this trip came from here in Malaysia, which up ‘til now has been a stop on my way to or from somewhere else. I had a strong connection with a young musician named Ian here in KL when I was through two years ago. Ian is also highly connected with the young people of his parish and others in the city and dreamed up a scheme for me to come and do some things with and for them, a little bit of everything––mostly music, worship and meditation, and hopefully how those things all tie together. I hooked him up with my stalwart supporters and friends Leonard (in Singapore) and Dr Pat Por (here in Malaysia) to see if there were some other things I could do for them as well having flown this far across the sea. They, especially Pat, did indeed and offered to get me passage all the way to India for my labors. So here I am, over a week into a seven-week trip that will eventually land me at Shantivanam again.

I started out in Singapore, as usual. There wasn’t actually that much work to do there, but my friend Leonard Ong kept me occupied with various activities and the marvelous hospitality that he and Claire and the kids always show me. Another acquaintance from my Asian journeys was also in Singapore at the time, Gunawan from Jakarta, Indonesia, the gentleman who took me out to eat at the Chinese Buddhist Indonesian restaurant my last night in Jakarta, which inspired the song “Lovingkindness.” We became “pen pals,” (what do you call someone you have a long distance correspondence with over the internet?) keeping track of each others’ lives and families over these past three years. His sister-in-law lives in Singapore so he and his wife Imelda arranged to take a holiday there at the same time I was going to be there, along with Gunawan’s father, sister and their two boys. We were able to spend most of Saturday together wandering around Singapore. Imelda and his youngest son Jason also came up with him to St Mary’s for Mass on Sunday where Leonard and Claire already were with their two kids. When we went down for our breakfast tea and kaya toast (coconut jelly) and half-boiled eggs at the hawker stand afterward I felt oddly consoled by what seemed to be a pretty unique experience, almost like might have happened at home, two families that I knew coming together and hanging out.

Saturday there were two events sponsored by our friend Aaron Maniam who works for the government of Singapore, one time in the Office of Strategic Planning, and now as a teacher and trainer of community leaders and activists. In the morning he had me meet with a small group of “youth activists.” He wanted me to tell them about my life and work, especially the latter as an example of a unique way to use one’s gifts in a type of activism. I had not really thought of myself in that way, and often feel as if I am not actually doing enough in terms of real concrete activism for the sake of a world so in need of so much––“the corporal works of mercy,” as we call it. But when I got to thinking about it, it was pretty easy to explain what I do and why. Pretty much two things that both come out of one thing¬¬––music and meditation surrounding universal wisdom. When I first got started on this particular phase of my life almost ten years ago, almost from the start, and certainly after 2004, I began to focus on learning more and teaching others about the various religious and spiritual traditions of the world Fr Bede’s life and teachings easily convinced me right away that we could learn from these other traditions––universal wisdom, the perennial philosophy––especially the marvelous lessons I have learned about meditation and contemplative prayer. But the added benefit that it didn’t take long to figure out was that of promoting mutual understanding (as we say in the Sangha, borrowing from the second Eucharistic Prayer for reconciliation, “to be a sign of unity and an instrument of peace”) in a world so filled with discord and ignorance, where as I often say about my own country, “many important and influential people are saying some very ignorant things about other religious traditions.” And in this day and age that kind of ignorance is beyond dangerous; it’s deadly. (Maybe it has always been so, i.e. the Crusades.) The things that I’ve heard directly out of the mouths of the Republican candidates concerning Israel and Palestine, especially Speaker Gingrich’s assertion that the Palestinians are “an invented people,” could get someone killed. That’s culpable ignorance if not an outright twisting of the truth for political pandering.

That leads to the point I headed toward with this group of young activists and the question I asked them. I don’t know if they have this expression in Singapore but I asked them, “What gets you fired up?” Because I realized that I actually had had an awakening of a real activist spirit of late, especially after my trip to the Holy Land. I came home and wrote three new sets of lyrics, all toward the aim of addressing the human rights violations going on there. I told them about that and then sang one of the songs for them that I’m very happy with, called “One Minute to Midnight,” inspired by our ill-fated day at the tombs of Abraham and Rachel in Hebron and Bethlehem:
Father, what should I do? I ask
as I sit weeping next to your tomb.
Mother, ‘s there any advice you can give?
We’re so far from your merciful womb.
How can I bring back the sister, the brother
I’ve exiled in fear and in hate?
The clock keeps ticking––one minute to midnight.
Please, help me before it’s too late…

Then they shared with me their own stories, and I was pretty edified. They were involved in such marvelous creative work, such as working with youth at risk, promoting classical cultural expressions, and promoting awareness of victims of severe brain injuries. It was one of those humble gatherings where I felt like the depth of the connection was more important than the breadth.

That afternoon we had a reprise of the event we held three years ago when I was through here. It was called “Faith and Music as Prayer and Devotion,” part of a monthly interfaith dialogue series sponsored by an organization called EIF––Explorations in Faith. It was sponsored again by the Sikhs at their Gurdwara and it of course included a free meal in their dining hall, which is always open to all. This time the participants included a wonderful Islamic singer (with his three children) named Brother Nor, the Sri Krishnan Temple Bhajan Group, Master Sarwat Singh, the leader and teacher of the Gurmat Sangeet Academy of Music, and two folks from a Buddhist Center. As for those latter, I had sung the same “Lovingkindness” for my part of the program, introducing it as a Chinese Buddhist Indonesian song based on a text from the Pali text Ituvitaka with the story of the restaurant in Jakarta. In his remarks after their performance the young man in the group gave us a brief description of the Ituvitaka text and thanked me for singing that song––since they were both Chinese Buddhist from Indonesia! You never know.

There was also an interesting duo that was dubbed as a contemporary Christian group, who performed the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” on saxophone and violin, and then the Schubert one as well. This was not at all what I was expecting. One of the two gave a fascinating introduction to the piece by talking about the connection between theology and symmetry, as evidenced by architecture such as the al Hambra in Granada and Mahaballipuram in Tamil Nadu, both of which I have visited. We spoke briefly afterward and made plans through Aaron to reconnect on my way home. I also met another young man at the gathering afterward who started asking me the most unexpected questions, in the sense that they were so coming at me from someone in Singapore. He wanted to know about the chanting tones that I had written for Shantivanam 12 years ago based on the ragas, as well as about the Camaldolese psalm tones and a few other questions about liturgy and inter-religious dialogue. Of course it turns out that he lied in California for a time and happened on the Episcopalian Holy Cross monks who use our psalter, and that he is working on a doctorate in inter-religious dialogue. You never know.

Enough for now. I'll update on my time in Malaysia soon as well.