Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's gift

As Clare is in Spain for a few days with daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law, New Year's Eve, like the rest of the weekend I've spent enjoying a little silence and solitude, when I've not had to go out and work. As a chilly wet Cardiff hit midnight and the fireworks started over in Bute Park, I was chatting with my cousin Ivor, an architect in Cambridge, reflecting together on the passing of Auntie Celandine, and other family members. There was nothing to keep me up after this, so after a few gulps of dank night air and alcohol-free, I went to bed, the more distant sounds of firework explosions punctuating my drowsiness.

This morning, on my way through the Civic Centre, a handful of workers were out dismantling the 'Calennig' stage from last night's festivities. Streets had already been swept clean, and were almost empty of people. I don't suppose a huge number of people were out partying last night, but don't really know, as I didn't bother to leave the house again after returning from New Year's Eve-ning Prayer with my two churchwardens. The shops had not yet begun to open. If the sun hadn't poked through the clouds it might just have looked a bit more desolate in the city centre.

As I anticipated, nobody showed up for the 10h00 Eucharist. The few regulars being away overnight meant it was only likley that casual passers by would drop in, maybe hotel guests who'd noticed the advertised service. For me, it was important to be there, to wait, to make the invitation. I said the Angelus, read aloud the Liturgy of the Word, for the Naming of Jesus. Then just as I was finishing, in came a solitary Indian man whom I've got to know over the past few months. In his mid thirties, he's a contract computer programmer working here, as are several other Indian Christians we've had in church this past few years. But J. is a Hindu, hungry and thirsty to learn and know more about God and puzzled by many things he is finding out.

We've had several deep, interesting conversations - some face to face at home or in church, others on the phone. He does internet bible courses, and watches every bible video he can get his hands on, but needs dialogue to expand and interpret the information he takes in. He is growing in devotion to Jesus, but also trying to work out how all this fits in with his Hindu culture.

He'd come to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and presented himself at the communion rail. As I recognised him, I gave him a blessing. Next day he rang me, puzzled. The last time he'd been in church he's been given communion, as the distributors didn't know any different. Then I explained that communion was what bound together the baptized in relation to Jesus, and he seemed to understand, and said he will be happy to accept a blessing on another occasion.

Because the information he receives is mediated by websites and not by human contact with a community, his prodgious amount of data is not well interpreted. Also, he comes across confusingly different Christian interpetations too, and hasn't yet acquired the skill of discerning wholesome truth from rubbish. He put me on the spot by asking about this. "How do I know the difference between the good things out there and the evil?" He asked. All I could think to say - trying to think in geek-speak to a programmer - was, "You need a simple rule with which to filter and process the data you have. So admit and follow only what you perceive to be loving, truthful, compassionate, liberating and inclusive. This is what Jesus did and taught." Did I say that? Is this what I do?

I believe he's considering baptism, because of his growing devotion to Jesus, though there are bound to be problems for him, given that conversion is too often associated with de-racination, turning one's back on family and culture. I expressed to him my view that all world religions possess great spiritual truths and offer a path towards God, and that no matter what Christianity had made of him, Jesus lived and taught God's embrace of all people without discrimination or exclusion. Jesus took as his foundation the best of Judaic teaching, so it must be possible to draw out the best and highest Hindu spiritual teachings, and discover that these converge with the way of Jesus and are embraced by Him. I told him that I believed it was possible to baptize (understood as interrogated by, and immersed in the love of Christ) any culture that had high spiritual values, to be a disciple of Jesus with Hindu roots, but that this is a difficult narrow path. Even an Indian Christian community has its own culture, which may or may not be suspect in Hindu eyes. It's a question of finding the right place in which to express one's discipleship. I also told him of Bede Griffiths and Henri Le Saux and others who had plumbed the depths of Indian spirituality as part of their Christian monastic journeys, so he has gone off to look up their books on the internet.

In the end, I'm convinced that the key to the convergence of great religious traditions lies in their spiritualities and their prayer life. Monks are quite good at exploring this, largley because their way of life has stripped them of over-dependency on any particular culture, but focusses them on fellowship and prayer, in what Herbert Slade called 'Contemplative Intimacy'. I just don't think we're nearly as good at this as we need to be. The ways in which we are used to pray are too culture bound, and engaging with them may not free people and open them up to a deeper experience, but rather leave them feeling confused and alienated. We've a lot of work to do in this area, especially at St John's, as a place of welcome and prayer at the heart of the city.

Nice start to the New Year. Now, off to Switzerland for a complete rest and change from the world of work.

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