The last few days has been filled with forays into the wide world of India food, traffic, and religious sights and retreats into the (literally) quiet comfort of the Loyola campus where my explorations were done from a reading chair. Why go to India and read? India has a vast literary world, with many local publishing houses that makes printing cheap and affordable. As compared to across the continent of Africa, where a religion book store typical signifies evangelical self-help books that have been shipped (donated?) from america, here there is a definite local flavor to the libraries. I am doing my work at the Institute for the Dialogue of Cultures and Religions (…), essentially trying to get up to date on a theological world which is moslty only available in selections deemed viable for the Western world by publishing houses (thank God one such of them is Maryknoll, dedicated to making such literature available) or through secondary literature. My aim is not just to do research from an armchair, transplanted to India, and over the coming 8 weeks I will have a chance to visit ashrams where intra-religious work is done, inter-religious dialogues, and with theologians who are engaged in the work of dialogue.
My first venture out into the local neighborhood was on foot on friday (6/26) evening, in search of good indian food with a student I met from Pondicherry. While after a year of traveling in Africa, I tend to be suspicious of those who approach me on out of the blue on the street, this man approached me speaking french. He was a 1st year at the college and his french was impeccable. It was this shared interest of ours that I found absolutely disarming. I was not interesting to him because I was american or white, but instead because I was a fellow french speaker. Most students learning french at the college level are encountering it for the first time. Pondicherry, known to some of it as the setting of the book The Life of Pi, is a former French Colony. There, Sherri studied french at the alliance Francaise, who reportedly does it properly. After meeting him, I felt an immediate sense of trust, and deciding to trust my intuition asked after his own dinner plans. We walked for almost more of a mile (mostly due to a wrong turn), and I am came to viscerally understand that the streets of chennai are built nor for people or pedestrians, but cars, buses, motos, and auto-rickshaws (3 wheeled taxis). The already narrow sidewalks are often filled with debri, downed powerlines (which were particularly unnerving at the time due to the recent rain), and market stands. Meanwhile, they also serve as the public urinal for drivers and pedestrians alike, adding one more smell to an already interesting bouquet of ordors that comprise of indias fleurs du mal.
One thing that has struck me walking around here in Chennai, is how absolutely ignored I am as a foreigner. This is a relative statement I am making compared to my experiences in Africa, where often I am part of the Mzungu zoo. I love the countries I have been able to visit in Africa, and the people indeed are very friendly, but there is a certain celebrity status that one gains there simply due to the color of one's skin. I don't know whether it is merely due to a culture that already identifies strict boundaries in the interpersonal, or a colonial history that both saw more foreigners here, and saw them out in a momentous and symbolic struggle for independence, or because I am in a large city or any combination of the above, but it remains, nevertheless, striking. That is not to say, however, that the autorickshaw still won't try to cheat you out of 75 rupies. A person does have to make a living.
On Saturday, I was invited to begin dining with the jesuits. This has simplified my life immensley as I not only don't have to go out seeking 3 meals a day, but I also have the joy of companionship as I meet the men who have dedicated their lives to religion here. It is amazing speaking with the jesuits and hearing all that they do. A number of them are professors here ranging from studies such as history, economics, education, and business, while an equal number of scholastics are studying such things as bio-technology, applied computers, social work, etc. I know this was typical once upon a time among the jesuits in the US, but it seemed that a number of the ones that I met while studying at Berkeley were leaving lives in such disciplines to begin a life a ministry in the parish. Then again, my experiences are also extremely limited.
At my first meal at the Jesuits, I met Johannes, a german volunteer who is in town just for the weekend before heading off to the town where he will teach english of all things. We took the opportunity of both being foreigners who have had little exposure to Chennai to set off and explore the wider Chennai. We negotiated with a rickshaw to head off to the church of San Thomas, where legend holds that the remains of St. Thomas are to be found. The church itself replaced another church that was in the same location in the 1800's and maintains the same Gothic style that Christ the King, the church on campus also has. The architectural anamolies evoke images of an earlier india under colonial power, where the church itself was a representative from abroad. I have not yet had the chance to see if modern churches here depart from this foreign norm. Like Santigo de Compostella and St Peters at Rome, this church lays claim to the bones of one of Jesus' own disciples and is a place of pilgrammage. Outside the city one can find the mount of San Thomas, where the same apostle was supposedly killed.
Following our visit of San Thoma, we set off for an altogether different religious experience, going to the temple of Mylar. Here the pantheon of deities of hinduism are gathered together where hindu devotees can make offerings and encounter the divine. I have to admit a certain hesitancy at my first encounter with such a foreign religion. While I have read the many accounts of the great deities all representing the various forms of the one formless deity, and even a plaque at the entrance to the temple explains to travelers that these are not anthropomorphic idols, but mere representations, encountering the ritual of a religion as practiced by its devotees is very different than being exposed to its texts. I know very well the same claim could be made of my own catholic tradition, with its strange rituals, but this first inter-religious exposure set me in a greater state of bewilderment as I reminisced my own earlier exposure to the popular tribal religion of Burkina Faso where I was present to animal sacrifices at the sacred streams. My desire to better understand beyond the texts this great religion pushes me to learn more, even as my initial encounter with this foreign religion set me amiss.
Meanwhile, my own research has had its own ups and downs as I met with Fr. Amaladoss, who told me that Inculturation was shelfed by the vatican some 20 years ago. Fortunatley, encountering his written works, I was able to better understand the nuances behind what he says, and saw developments of the notion of contextual theology that I found both enlightening and exciting. I will not bore you with these theological reflections, but I will impose on you a prayer, which I found very comforting as I encountered turbulent intellectual waters:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability-
and that it may take a very long time
And so I think it is with you.
your ideas mature gradually-let them grow
let them shape themselves, without undue hast.
Don't try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete
Pierre Tielhard de Chardin SJ
Well enough from me! I hope all is well with you at home. I welcome your responses and comments, though I cannot promise any quick responses to emails!
Michael Thomas Le Chevallier
Loyola College, Chennai, India.
Michael Le Chevallier
MDiv candidate 2011
University of Chicago