Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tihei mauri ora!

19-21 September, 2016, Whangerie, New Zealand

I am being hosted here in New Zealand by our Camaldolese oblate, Michael Dougherty. We had met some years ago (2005) at Gaunts House in England at the Bede Griffiths’ centenary event there that I attended with Fr. George of Shantivanam. Michael and another of our oblates here, Phillip Saunders, have been in touch numerous times over the years, and were eager to have me stop since I was going to be “in the neighborhood.” Our Fr. Daniel, who is the official oblate chaplain for this region, had been here some years ago as well, so I saw no problem with that at all. All told there are only four Camaldolese oblates here, nevertheless they seem to be a very tight knit group and it means a lot to them to have chosen to follow the Camaldolese charism in their own way. They are also in touch with our oblate community in Australia and all members of the World Community for Christian Meditation, for whom I have done a lot of work over the years.

Michael and his wife Elizabeth have a lovely place well outside of the town of Whangerei, about two hours north of Auckland on the north island. Folks in this area seem very intentional about living close to and gently on the land. Michael and Elizabeth have a well-gardened acre on a larger 60-acre parcel of land that was purchased specifically to put ecological and spiritual practices together. I find it all very inspiring. Elizabeth is a wonderful cook and the kitchen is full of all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables, many from their own garden, and all kinds of herbs and sauces and spices and wonderful homemade things. I told Elizabeth as I was struggling with my jetlag (it’s a 10 hour difference from Rome!), that I kept waking up not knowing where I was. Sometimes I thought I was in Wales (because of the landscape), other times I thought I was with my friends Elizabeth and Gillian up at Turtle Creek in Washington State (because of the wondrous kitchen).

One of the things you notice right away in New Zealand is how much the indigenous Maori culture is present in people’s minds. Many of the signs around stores and schools are in both English and Maori. Right away, for instance, in the arrival hall at Auckland airport you pass through a carved wooden arch called a waharoa. As you pass you can hear the voice of a woman chanting something called a karanga–a call. I had been advised by one of our oblates here, Phillip Saunders, that thought I may be tired (I was!) it is worth taking a moment to understand what is happening, and so I did. A lot of what follows is drawn from what Phillip sent me.
The waharoa is not only an entryway; it’s considered to be a threshold between two distinct environments, a liminal space. In traditional terms the waharoa was a portal between the group within a fortified precinct and a visiting group that restricted and manage the flow of a visiting group, defining the perimeter of any given precinct. But more importantly for our purposes, the waharoa was seen as a point of contemplation. This information that Phillip sent me stated that if one enters through a waharoa with the correct intentions, one would be entitled to hospitality and opportunities. In customary Maori society, no negotiations happened until this process had formally taken place. So the waharoa really symbolizes a relationship pathway between the two nations, two peoples. The karanga–the “call,” on the other hand, is meant to communicate both message and emotion. It usually comes from both sides: the host calls first answered by the visitors a call and response goes on. The purpose of this call is to “weave a spiritual rope to allow the symbolic waka–canoe of the manuhiri–visitors to be pulled on. It should never be broken and the sound should be continuous, each side weaving in and out of each other.
Thus the karanga is not just a call of one person to another: it’s a spiritual call that has been heard in Aotearoa––the native name for New Zealand––for generations and generations, providing the medium by which both the living and even the dead of the visitors can cross over to unite with the living and the dead of the hosts.

This reminds us that entering into a new space is never or never ought to be just a simple act of walking. Wherever we go, there is a presence of a people, and a coming together both physically and spiritually. I was reminded of walking through the entry gate of Tassajara, or how my friends and I used to anoint ourselves with oil as we began a hike in the wilderness.
There was one other Maori practice that Phillip alerted me to, that he thought related ot the yogic notion of prana–life energy in the breath. The Maoris have custom called hongi, which is a ritual greeting done by lightly touching noses and foreheads, and inhaling and thus exchanging breath with each other, sharing life force. This goes with the legend of the creation of the first woman, Hineahuone, who was formed from clay by the creator god Tane, who then breathed life into her nostrils. (You will recall of course the second story of creation, and the Lord God doing this with and for Adam.)

Another similar Maori concept is “Tihei mauri ora,” which literally means, “Sneeze! It’s the breath of life!” I’m told that this is often used in a practical way to draw attention to a speaker at the beginning of formal speeches. I might try it some time.

I just spent three days staying at a Baptist retreat center on the coast with three of our oblates and had a wonderful retreat with them, conferences, stretching and breathing, chanting and praying and wonderful meals provided by Elizabeth. This morning I did a short presentation for some high school students at the local Catholic high school, which went really well. The kids were very interested, well prepared and articulate, and had great questions. Today my kind handlers have given me some time off for good behavior, so I am sitting in a very nice internet café in the library, and then to wander around town on my own recognizance. Tonight and tomorrow night two presentations at local churches, singing songs and telling stories. Really wonderful hospitality and reception here from these good folks. Off to Australia on Friday.

(I can't download any pictures of illustration but will try to remedy that later.)