Monday, May 30, 2011

The family in Asia

My brother and I wove our way down narrow, dirty Asian streets on which neither of us had been before, hoping almost against hope that we were following the vague directions correctly. Finally we made our best bet as to the correct side ally out of the furniture market, hung a right, and began up the hill, unable to see beyond a couple buildings ahead of us.

And suddenly, there it was: a small building tucked in the ally with a makeshift wire cross on top. No wonder our taxi driver had been unaware of the building’s whereabouts; had we not known exactly where to look, we would have never found the tiny Catholic church.

At 8:15, the room was not yet too crowded, and my brother and I managed to find a seat in which the altar was partially blocked by a large pillar. In many ways, the room felt familiar, as if I had been there before in America or Canada or Ireland or Italy: there was the same holy water by the door, the same kneelers on the pews, the same altar in front, the same statues of Mary and Joseph on either side, the same crucifix in the middle, and the same silently praying parishioners as the congregation gathered. Yet there were other indications that I was most definitely “not in Kansas anymore”—the flashing lights around the crucifix, the florescent, cheap plastic flowers that decorated the corners of the arches in place of marble carvings, the bright red paper Asian characters that adorned various prominent places on the stucco walls.

An old Asian woman on our pew got up and retrieved some prayer books from the back of the room, handing the useless items to us with good-natured hospitality. I smiled and whispered my thanks, one of the few words I knew of her language, and made a mental note to follow along in the completely unintelligible characters in order to be a gracious guest. The Asians made it clear that this pair of light-skinned Westerners were more than welcome in the parish, and their hospitality transcended the language boundary.

When the service began everyone knelt and remained in that posture for the next hour, chanting in the bouncing strains of their tonal language. It could have been a pagan rite for all I knew; it certainly sounded like the ritual of a foreign religion. Of course, it was not, and as the minutes wore on I eventually identified from the particular patterns of repetitions that they were chanting the rosary. After that they moved on to a litany as the room filled up, the old women from the beginning making room for the families that were gathering. Finally, when mine and my brother’s knees were crying out for relief while the old women around us were seemingly unaffected, the congregation sat down.

Rather than a service, the congregation moved on to readings that my brother identified from his rudimentary knowledge of the language were from Luke. They read straight through a lengthy passage, alternating between readers and gaudy recorded renditions with background music, and it became clear to me that there would be no mass at this parish. The reading continued for nearly half an hour before we had to leave to get to my brother’s team meeting, both a little disappointed that we would not have the chance to speak with the parishioners who had exchanged many friendly words and glances with the pair of visiting Westerners.

“She told us, ‘You are family,’” my brother had translated after the first old lady had greeting us in our pews. And I left knowing she was right, that we were family members in this strange mixture of foreignness and familiarity, in that intersection of the West and the East where we could share in their prayers for nearly two hours without knowing the words, underneath a spread of plastic neon flowers and Asian characters and Western statues, in a culture of religious persecution that stripped away any need to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants (considered different religions in that part of Asia) and varying levels of communion with the Vatican and language barriers since there was apparently no priest to celebrate mass anyway. In that small, crowded room that morning, as we knelt on aching knees and listened to prayers we could not utter, we were simply family.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The tallest building in the city

We left the pub that night and made our way to the cars, stopping in front of my car on the street.

“Is that the tallest building in the city?” my visiting friend said with a chuckle, pointing to a laughably short version of a skyscraper. I smiled and shrugged, the handful of tallish buildings not having merited my close attention in the months I had lived in the little Midwestern city.

“No,” another friend mused, cocking his head awkwardly at the other buildings in sight, “it’s not that one. I forget which one of these it is.”

“Is it that one?” I asked, pointing to another of approximately similar height to the last, suddenly engaged in the scavenger hunt now that I didn’t have to be the authority.

“No,” he hesitated, turning to scan the horizon the other direction. “The tallest building is obvious when you see it. I don’t see it.”

“Well,” I challenged, “it’s gotta be right around here. The city’s not big enough to have its skyscrapers distributed beyond a couple blocks.”

He turned his body in one final 360 around the city. “I don’t know why I can’t see it, but it’s not any of those.”

After the failed attempt to find the building, the three of us said our goodbyes and the skyscraper-authority walked toward his car, leaving the visitor and me to climb into my vehicle. Suddenly, from where he stood a half-block away from us, our friend shouted, “Come ‘ere, ya’ll! It’s right above you!”

Sure enough, we walked out to where he was standing and saw the skyscraper above us, obviously taller than any of the others we had been assessing. The five-story lobby attached to it had prevented us from seeing it as we stood directly next to it. As it turned out, we could not see it because we were so close, not because we were far away.

“It’s like the tallest building in the city,” my visiting friend said a few nights later in a conversation about the presence of God amidst our doubts, about his presence in the Church and the world and the sacraments, about Mary and other sticky theological points for me and my friends who grew up in a church tradition that made his theology seem so foreign, about the kingdom that was apparently in the already-but-not-yet as if the “not yet” did not nullify the “already.”

I looked at him dubiously.

“Really, Em,” he insisted. “We couldn’t see it because we were so close to it, not because we were far away. I think you are much closer than you realize.”

“You really think so?” I challenged flatly, absolutely skeptical about the dubious suggestion that I was missing so many things my friends of greater faith were seeing because I was just so “close” to them.

“I do,” I said unblinkingly. His faith seemed firm enough for the two of us.

Monday, May 2, 2011

All is not well

Late at night on the Thursday before Easter, a young man was shot on my street. I heard six gunshots and went outside to see him lying on my friends’ yard. We will probably never know why he was killed.

The night after Easter, a little ways south of me, a long-standing feud between two neighbors finally led to one stabbing the other with a kitchen knife.

The next night I heard a gunshot in the house behind me and called the police. I’m starting to think I should put 911 on speed-dial.

Yesterday evening I learned that a cousin who has struggled for years with infertility just had a miscarriage.

And then late yesterday night while I was finishing up a Latin paper, I heard the news that a man who killed a lot of people ten years ago in an event that would characterize world politics for the first decade of my adult life was killed in Pakistan. There were messages of celebrations being sent around the ciber-waves between my friends around the country.

But there was no celebration in me. I don’t have it in me to celebrate death—not this week. Yet in the middle of all those brushes with death, we commemorated the Lord’s death, the only hope we have that our tragedies have meaning. If there is any hope that death is redemptive, it is not because of its perceived justice, but because of its lavish grace. I hope to learn to see that one day.

At any rate, I can’t process my thoughts about death right now in crunch time, but I thought in commemoration of the events of yesterday I’d throw up an old poem from that day three weeks into my freshman year of college when I walked into my freshman composition class and learned the world was changing. Pardon the angst and the melodrama (but honestly, it was an appropriate day for it); I’ve changed as a poet since then, but in many ways my spirit is still screaming in the same way.

God have mercy on the souls of those who died in New York and DC ten years ago. God have mercy on the souls of those who died in Pakistan yesterday. God have mercy on us all.

* * *

September 11, 2001
You normally spend your time kicking the ground
Because he is the only close person around
To look up at you as you trample him down.
For the dirt is the only one who’at least understands
The feeling of crushing, the sickening sound.
Though you don’t always like all the mud on your hands
At least it is someone who’ll always be there.

Does anyone care?
You go to find love
But find only tolerance there.

And you finally scream at the top of your lungs
But the world is so big and your voice is so small
That your cries seem to add up to nothing at all.
And you cry “Hey, can you hear me?
All is not well.
Hey, can you hear me!”
But nobody hears ‘til you speak with your guns.

And wrong has become all you see anymore,
And life has become just one cankerous sore.
Will the wrongs that were done by the rich to the poor
Justify what you do now to get your word said?
You might learn not to hate if there was any more.
Well, if her god is love then he must be dead,
And your hate must be fine ‘cause at least you can feel.

Is anything real?
You sing when you hear
She’ll also have pain in the deal.

And you finally scream at the top of your lungs
But the world is so big and your voice is so small
That your cries seem to add up to nothing at all.
And you cry “Hey, can you hear me?
All is not well.
Hey, can you hear me!”
But nobody hears ‘til you speak with your guns.

Well I don’t have the answers; I’m only a child,
And the wrongs have become so incredibly vile
That thoughts of true peace are exceedingly wild.
But still I have faith—you can call me na├»ve—
That there’s power in grace and in love through this trial.
At least I have chosen what I will believe.
Maybe I’m chosen; I’m chosen to give.

A way to forgive?
I hope he can show
Us a worthier life we can live.

And now I will scream at the top of my lungs
Though the world is so big and my voice is so small
And my cries seem to add up to nothing at all.
So I’ll cry “Hey, can you hear me?
All is not well.
Hey, can you hear me!”
Perhaps they will hear when I speak with my love.