Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thomas and Temples

 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:

Patient Trust

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!

Take care,
Michael Thomas Le Chevallier
Loyola College, Chennai, India.

Michael Le Chevallier
MDiv candidate 2011
University of Chicago

Monday, June 29, 2009


cell phone number. this is valid for all of a week, so, synchronize your watches! 091 9790999111

Saturday, June 27, 2009

nights are now air conditioned!

I was reading an extract from a speech on a conference on violence and castes and a feminists was saying that due to the system of patriarchy most decisions are made by "the knife and the mustache." India is probably one of the few places in the world where the symbol of  male domination is the mustache!

Michael Le Chevallier
MDiv candidate 2011
University of Chicago

Friday, June 26, 2009

ways to cope with the heat-- night time edition

  keep a bucket of water by your bed and a handkerchief. throughout the night, dip the handkerchief in the water and place it on your body. the evaporating water (best with a fan) will cool you off.

Michael Le Chevallier
MDiv candidate 2011
University of Chicago

alive in chennai

Today I arrived in a hot and muggy india. Riding along in the bus between the international gate and the domestic gate, with local music playing in the background bouncing along between construction roads brought back to me that now almost typical taste of traveling for me.

Whoever told me that it was a bad idea to travel in india during the summer was not far off. It is hot here. Hot hot hot.
I also remember a former travelmate of mine telling me about honking in India. It is almost as if their horns were an extension of the cab drivers bodies. They would sooner cut off a limb than forgo honking. I went on what seemed to be a treacherous ride from the airport to the jesuit college. I'm not quite sure why, but the driver took us on a detour through narrow streets that were built perhaps to fit two cars, but not when there are people, donkeys, food carts, etc. Tonight, I sleep; tomorrow, I explore

Michael Le Chevallier
MDiv candidate 2011
University of Chicago

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

cancel that

With full size aquariums, free wifi, an indoor stream, comfy spacious lounges alongside the water, and giant "first people's" carvings, I think that the Vancouver airport may be the best I have ever been in.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Departure Day

so It begins again. My feet are off the ground, and I am running... hopefully. I write this first post of the continued journeys of michael Le Chevallier from the PDX airport. This is the best Airport in the world, not because i'm still starry eyed over OR, though that will always be the case, even with our dubious mayor in portland, our colorful personalities in the east, and our notoriously non-diverse state (i do like things in threes) but instead because it has Free WIFI, offering me this last chance to touch base before lift off. I have quite the gauntlet ahead of me. I fly off first to vancouver, where i will walk around the terminal in order to appreciate the mountainesque views. From there it is on to London, then 7 hrs later to Mumbai.I have convinced the person at the flight desk to send my baggage all the way through to chennai, so hopefully I will be on the plane with it.at least this way, if it doesn't come with me to mumbai, it will somehow continue on. So what am I doing in India? I was given a grant from the ministry program to engage in research regarding international issues somehow touching on questions of ministry. I am exploring crosses between inculteration work and interreligious dialogue. I will be spending 2 weeks in chennai, then on to bangalore, followed by a month in Bede Griffiths Monastery in Tamil Nadu. After that, it is a bit of a mystery. I'm happy to have at least 7 weeks planned, however, given that I wouldn't have been able to say that 4 weeks ago. India has been a place i have wanted to travel to since I met a missionary from there when i was in Tanzania. I almost went when ethiopia was approaching war with Somalia, but, of course, the US supported Ethiopia would never land on the US travel warning list for a measily issue of war.
Back to the matter at hand: 10 weeks in India... I'll keep you updated. Now I'm off. Good bye!