Thursday, December 27, 2007
“Christmas Misrepresents Jesus”
That’s what I thought I heard Br. Martin say at his talk on Saturday. And that’s what I wrote when I typed up my notes later. But upon reviewing my handwritten notes before asking him to expand on this provocative idea during his talk on Christmas Day, I discovered that he in fact had said “Christians misrepresent Jesus,” a less controversial notion. Still, Martin has told us that the central message of Jesus is to transcend the “God of history” and the “collective mind.” Even to focus on the resurrection as a real event is a misrepresentation of that message. The birth, death and resurrection of Christ, according to Martin, must be understood internally rather than externally. Although it is easy to fall into a pit of despair over the literalization, commercialization and trivialization of Christmas, here at Shantivanam there is a marriage not only of the east and west but of old and new traditions, religious and secular, which give the holiday new depth.
I have been running from the traditional Christmas since my family broke up nearly seven years ago. The songs, the lights, decorated trees, and even the dreaded Christmas shopping, brought pain rather than pleasure. In the years following, I fled, to Bakersfield with Luke, San Luis Obispo with Diana the year after Peter’s death, and to India (last year I was in London with Helen). As a Catholic convert, I’ve tried to celebrate the birth of Jesus with as much religious fervor as I can muster, but the truth is that Christmas for me has always been Santa Claus and “The Night Before Christmas,” wrapping presents and putting toys under the tree for the children, and caroling with friends. My father read me the story of St. Nick, “so lively and so quick,” and I read it to my children. In the more recent past, our family Christmas has been a walk after dinner and a movie in the evening. At Shantivanam this year I was able to combine Christmases past, present and future.
At the vesper service in the yoga hall early on Christmas eve, the community gathered to sing “Silent Night” in five languages (including Danish and Japanese), to chant the Psalms and to hear Fr. George’s Christmas message. We began by singing “Ubi Caritas” and lighting candles, which we placed on the floor beside the four-sided Jesus the Yogi. Vanya read T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” while Indira interpreted the poem with a dance. Then I read “The Night Before Christmas,” directing the story to Celeste, 7, and Percy, 10, who had arrived in the afternoon with their parents James and Maura from England. There were also several Indian children, relatives of Prabu who is one of the seminarians, and I don’t know what they made of it. In the candlelight, fireflies flashed under the conical roof. Our impromptu choir sung a beautifully harmonized version of “A Noble Flower of Judah,” the carol that signifies Christmas for Sr. Sarananda.
A couple of hours later, the villagers began arriving for midnight mass. The chapel had been decorated with garlands of sweet-smelling flowers and the porch with newly designed kolams. Women and young girls were dressed in colorful saris and had placed flowers in their hair. Men and boys wore slacks and freshly pressed shirts. Soon the room was packed and latecomers clustered outside around the doors. The service, led by Fr. George, was in both Tamil and English. Pinto, another seminarian, played organ, and the high nasal Tamil voices celebrated the birth of a baby long ago ,in far off Palestine. But it was also understood in the Indian sense of awakening to the birth of the divine in our hearts. Christmas, in Br. Martin’s symbolic view, is the transition from the “God of history” to the “God of eternity,” and for this, he says, a virgin is required, “one who must die to the past in order to gain the eternal.” We western pilgrims were in the minority in the chapel and from time to time I found children starring at me. I smiled back to see their happy reaction. In India, under a full moon, surrounded by joyous Christians, I felt a new understanding of Christmas, one that could unify the secular and the spiritual.
After mass, the crowd processed to the giant crèche that had been constructed by a team of workers supervised by the seminarians in a whirlwind two days. Next to the crèche stood a tall simulation of a Christmas tree (in that it wasn’t a pine or fir) decorated with balloons. The curtain was opened and lights were turned on; the crowd gasped. Inside the crèche there was a whole landscape, with plants people, and a working waterfall, and not one but two figures of the baby Jesus (it is the custom here to touch the feet of the larger one). Cake and tea were disturbed, and here came Santa with a pack full of candy. I dressd up as Christmas Tata (Father Christmas) two years ago, wearing a silly suit and hat and a disgusting mask. Michael G. took on the role last year and volunteered a repeat performance. During a trip to Trichy that morning we had purchased a better mask, along with some treats for the children, but it was still difficult to see out of the eyeholes. At one point, besieged by children, I heard Michael shout “help” and we all laughed at the joke. But it turned out he was seriously disoriented, and a small child came to his rescue to lead him around. The greeting here is “Happy Christmas” and it was shared by one and all. The villagers left slowly and we pilgrims drifted off to our rooms by 2 a.m.
I was tired and feeling bruised. Waking involuntarily not long after 4 that morning, Michael and I left to do errands in Trichy at dawn. We caught a bus outside the ashram and watched the full moon settle behind us as sunrise filled the sky in front. In the large city, we ate a traditional Tamil breakfast at a restaurant in front of the central bus station. Using my right hand, I sipped hot coffee from an aluminum cup and dipped pieces of a pancake (dhosa) into various spicy sauces set out on a banana leaf. Outside, while waiting to cross the crowded road, I was fiddling with my camera and not paying attention, and a bus bumped up against me. Indians jumped to my aid, but I stayed upright and was relatively unhurt, if a bit shaken. After some internet time, we took a bus to the street bazaar around Rock Fort to do some shopping. We found the Santa mask in a shop with other goods for Christians (as if Santa and Christ go together). On the way home we got on a private bus that had Indian music videos playing on two screens, but at an acceptable volume.
On Christmas Day, there was no mass in the morning, but we were invited across the lane to Sr. Mary Louise’s Ananda Ashram where Fr. Icchi from Japan celebrated mass in the tiny upstairs chapel. Fr. Bede asked the sister to start the ashram at a time when women were not allowed to stay at Shantivanam. Several nuns joined her. Even though the gender-restrictive rule was eventually lifted, many pilgrims prefer the quiet of Ananda to the sometimes busy social scene across the street. And Sr. Mary Louise is known to provide tamer food, less seasoned, for tricky tummies. Michael H. is staying there as he recovers from typhoid fever (his second case in seven years of living in India), and at the midday mass he assisted the priest who, himself, was suffering from a fever. Michael played his guitar and led the singing. Last January our group from Santa Cruz had tea with the sisters, and Fr. Cyprian celebrated mass in the chapel where, we were told, the body of Abhishiktananda had lain after his death.
After lunch on Christmas, I got to share another family tradition: a movie. I had a copy of Mira Nair’s film, “The Namesake,” and set up my laptop, with a pair of speakers to amplify the sound, in a corner of the dining hall. She also directed “Salaam Bombay” and “Monsoon Wedding.” Released last year, it is the story of a Bengali couple that lives in America where their son and daughter do not appreciate the Indian customs and traditions they try to maintain. The father is a university professor and named his son Gogol after his favorite Russian author. By coming to terms with his name, the son eventually is able to integrate his Indian and American heritages. It is an emotionally moving story and the scenes in India are beautifully filmed. I bought a couple of bags of popcorn from a vendor on the bus the day before, and so our viewing pleasure was complete (at least my image of it). The children of some of the Indian workers at the ashram poked their head into the hall and watched the film with us. On Christmas evening, a few of us gathered in the meditation hall around some candles to share our spiritual paths and the reasons why we were drawn to Shantivanam. One of the most appealing facets of the ashram is its ability to assemble a collection of interesting pilgrims from all over the world.
There were a number of last minute arrivals before Christmas festivities commenced. The British family took two rooms in our residential compound and soon Percy was running around with some of the young Indian Christmas visitors. My old friends Vanya and Jim returned for their annual visits. Both are British, but Vanya has lived in the Nilgiri Hills near Ooty for many years where she works with tribal people on agricultural and social issues. After leaving Shantivanam two years ago, I shared a taxi and stayed one night at the Femina Hotel in Trichy with Jim, who adopted six Indian children with his late wife (“the youngest of whom is now over 40,” he said). We spent an evening at a bar with an unusual cowboy theme. Dr. Raj of Hyderabad came and went; he set out to become a priest but Bede convinced him to go to medical school, and now his charity operates an AIDs clinic and an orphanage. Indira’s statuesque friend Erica from Germany arrived by plane in Trichy. Only 18, she has been to India twice before with her father and is studying yoga and dance on a trip of several months. Pete came from Sri Lanka where he was watching cricket matches. A social worker in England, he was here during Bede’s final months and now he regularly spends the cold winter months in Asia. The day after Christmas, a group of eight seminarians from Bangalore came for a three-day retreat. One couple arrived from France, and another pair from Quebec, who are currently living in Dubai where the husband teaches psychology and philosophy, dropped in at tea time one day and stayed for Br. Martin’s talk.
I have attended Martin’s 4 o’clock talks for two weeks now and am beginning to get a pretty fair idea of his theology. According to his schema, there are four levels of understanding, which can be applied to everything, from the body, to consciousness: 1. individual; 2. collective; 3. universal, and, 4. unitary. Sometimes he describes it as a tree with: 1. leaves; 2. branches; 3. a trunk, and 4. roots. The first two levels comprise the realm of becoming in time, of history, and the second the realm of enfolding, in eternity. Religion, present at only at the first two levels, should be a womb or a nest but is too often a cage. Sin is false identity of who we are. We are meant to grow through the individual and collective levels to the universal, beyond religion, where “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Jesus came to show us the way which culminates in the unitary: “I and the father are one,” what he called the Kingdom of God (and Hinduism calls advaita, non-duality). In ordinary life we look for “essential unity and functional duality,” chopping wood and carrying water in the presence of God. Faith, beyond belief, is the experience of entering into the unity of God. Death is dying to the ego, the individual and the collective self, and resurrection is awakening to the eternal within us, to God in the cave of the heart. Jesus is unique because he brought together the Asian wisdom tradition, where love of God is predominant, to the Western prophetic tradition, where love of neighbor is predominant. The spiritual practice of the first is meditation and the second, prayer, and Jesus, “the marriage of wisdom and action,” combined them both. “Jesus brought not a new religion but a new way of being human,” Martin has said. “Everybody has to grow into the only Son of God.”
I’m sure I’ve not done his thought justice, but this is my preliminary summary. It has helped me to realize that the collapse of my belief structures and the dissolution of my spiritual identities is not an end but a beginning, not something to lament but to put behind me. I’ve become aware of my almost pathological need to have an identity, to call myself a pilgrim, a searcher, and a believer, to be a Catholic or a Buddhist. In Martin’s schema, this means I am stuck at the level of collective consciousness, dependent upon the support of a group (but permanently in rebellion against it). Not everyone I meet finds this is a problem. Just as I needed to be an official student in order to justify my love of study, I have needed to identify myself with a particular religion, or combination of paths, to justify my search for ultimate meaning. I hope, after my sojourn in India, that I will finally be able to let it all go.