Saturday, July 17, 2010

India/Bangladesh pilgrimage #4

Tuesday the group went to Dhaka Univ and to a mosque, but I spent the day with the ass't nuncio, Msgr Mark Kadima, a Kenyan priest. There was a problem with my visa that I had to straighten out with the Indian embassy in order to return to India. It was an enjoyable day because I got to see more of Dhaka at the street level. Mark took me with him to do some shopping and he also found a little shop where they repaired my watch for about 25 cents. (Unfortunately, I promptly broke it again.)

In the afternoon we met with a group of Sufi Muslims. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that is very accepting of other faiths. The Sufis believe that God is in all of us. It is also said to be the predominant form of Islam in India.

Abp Marino had us all to dinner again that evening. Other guests included Father Francesco, a missionary in Bangladesh who is very involved with the Sufis. Francesco is from Milan and trained as a pulmonary surgeon before entering the priesthood. Another guest was Brother Guillaume, a member of the Protestant Taize community. A Baptist minister, the Rev. Martin d'Hingan, who is in charge of a mission to lepers, sat across from me. I was seated between Abp Marino and Chairmaine Mendes, the wife of Neo Mendes, a business man in Dhaka.

After dinner Abp Marino thanked us for coming. Then I toasted him for his hospitality. I quoted Methodist theologian Albert Outler, an official observer at the Second Vatican Council. Outler said that if Pope John XXIII had lived a couple of years longer, he and the other observers would have been singing the "Te Deum." I said that if we could spend a few more days with Abp Marino, many in our party would have been singing the "Angelus." But Rabbi Jonathan Miller made the most moving comment. He said that one of the prayers in the Sabbath liturgy thanks God for "giving life to those who lie in the dust," and he said that that was what he had seen the archbishop and the Catholic Church do for the people of Bangladesh -- give life to those who lie in the dust.

Afterward, the archbishop gave us lovely gifts: a medallian commemorating the election of Benedict XVI, a rosary blessed by the pontiff, and a book about Bangladesh.

We got back to the hotel between 10 and 11 but had to be on our way the next morning by 4.45 am to make our flight to Calcutta. As it was, the flight was delayed by several hours, but we were met in Calcutta by representatives of our tour company who took us to the hotel. After lunch we toured the Victoria Museum, an enormous Victorian building that chronicle British rule in India and is a monument to the Queen Empress of India. Anup was our guide our entire time in Calcutta and seemed very pro-British. He said that families still aspire for their children to go to Britain for their education. The British succeeded, he said, because they made an effort to understand Indian culture and accepted it.

After the Victoria Monument we went to the "mother house" of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. I can't convey how moving that experience was. Mother Teresa's very simple tomb is in a chapel on the ground floor. One floor above it is her room. It contains a small bed, chair, and table. We talked at length with Sister Gertrude, the second nun that Mother Teresa recruited. She was delightful. She had been one of Mother Teresa's students at the Sisters of Loreto school before she founded the Missionaries of Charity. After becoming a nun, Sister Gertrude also trained as a physician and took care of Mother Teresa during her illnesses and was with her when she died. However, the most moving part of that visit was watching the faces of Anup and our other guide, Nagendra. Although both are Hindus, they hung on every word Sr Gertrude said and their faces glowed as they listened. It is abundantly clear that Mother Teresa is just as much a saint to the Hindus as to Catholics and other Christians.

Mother Teresa said, "There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic." She also said, "The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace."

In the evening I went with Steve Jones, the pastor of Southside Baptist Church, to a mall for dinner with Subir, an Indian pastor who operates an outreach to street children. He and his staff take them from the street and the garbage dumps each morning, give them a bath, teach them, and offer them the chance to learn about the Christian faith.

The next morning we left the hotel around 8 am. Our first stop was Calcutta's enormous flower market. There must be at least 100 stalls selling thousands of flowers. The reason for the market is that flowers are among the principal things offered to the Hindu gods/goddesses and certain flowers are sacred to certain gods. Every home and work place has a shrine to a god that always has fresh flowers in front of it.

Our next stop was the old synagogue. For hundreds of years there was a substantial Jewish population in Calcutta and there were 4 synagogues. Now almost all the Jews have left and the synagogue no longer has services. It is a beautiful building, however, that looks very much like a church on the outside. Inside it has box pews as you would see in an 18th century Anglican church. The thing I liked best, though, was a plaque outside the door commemorating a member of the synagogue who flew with the RAF in WW2, was killed over France, and is buried in France.

Afterward we went to the Sri Ramakrishnan monastery. To get there we took a boat across the Ganges. Along the way we were able to get a good view of Calcutta. The monastery is a deeply prayerful place. The main part of it is a meditation hall that is about the size of St. Alban's. The floor has no seating; people just sit and meditate wherever they wish. Ramakrishnan was a Hindu holy man who taught the unity of all religions. His disciple, Swami Vivekenanda, visited the US and spoke at the Chicago Congress of World Religions in 1893. They founded the Vedanta Society, an outreach to the US.

Near the monastery is a huge temple to Kali, the mother goddess. It is as chaotic, noisy, and unprayerful as the monastery is quiet and meditative. Nevertheless, the Indians seem to prefer the temple. It was thronged with people seeking to offer Kali gifts. It seemed to me that this must have been the kind of thing that St. Paul saw when he visited Athens and saw the temple to the "unknown god."

After lunch we visited a Jain temple and we finished the day with a visit to artisans who make larger than life statues of the gods that are used in festivals.

I am writing this in Varanasi (also known as Benares), the holiest of Hindu holy cities. But more about that latter. You might want to know, however, that I'm writing from an open air internet cafe with no air conditioning just around the corner from our very nice hotel and located on a street that is not much better than a dirt road. The contrasts in this country are jaw dropping...