Wednesday, 23 January 2019

At Cowley

Last weekend, on Saturday, we went to Cowley for our monthly recollection.  It was nice to meet Frs Peter and Graham, after long.  They had done much to welcome us and make us feel at home.

Among the many beautiful things I noticed in the small Chapel and the meeting hall, what really caught my attention was the two glass stained windows embedded on the wall, on either side of the tabernacle.  One is of St Francis de Sales and the other is of Don Bosco.  I learnt that they were originally in the Salesian house or Chapel which was somewhere uphill from the present location.  The design of stained glass with its colour combination is intricate and very beautiful.  Most appealing was the metal work holding the whole painting, not just as a frame but holding the bits of glass and at the same time forming part of the image.  I doubt if the artists who made them, certainly not computerised given their age, were literate or highly educated.  But they certainly knew to do a very intricate and beautiful job.
The left icon on the top of this image of Don Bosco, is a bit intriguing.  The one on the right is clearly a chalice.  The one on the left appears like a shell but to me it felt more likely that it was Our Lady - given the two great devotions of Don Bosco: The Eucharist and Mother Mary.

Business affairs

I received my new student railcard on two days ago.  My former railcard expires tomorrow. The online site stated that once I registered my railcard I can renew it within one month of its expiry.  That's what I did in the last week of its life.  I received a reply stating that the renewed railcard will be dispatched soon and taking into account any possible delays in the post, the expiry date of the new card was moved back to one week.  So the new card instead of expiring on January 24, 2020 will now expire on January 31, 2020.  I completed the application and payment of fees on January 18, 2019 and had the card in hand, via post, on January 21. 

This is truly a very ethical and sensitive way of doing business.  Not taking into account any other aspect of their service or commenting on their other liabilities, the very fact that the company would extend the deadline of the new card, owing to some postal delays is indeed praiseworthy.  Such efficiency and sensitivity is truly praiseworthy.  

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Accompaniment

As part of the (personal rare!) reflection on the General Chapter and its preparation, I felt that that youngsters here in the West have a greater need for accompaniment and support than those in the East.  Youngsters here tend to 'gain' their independence soon after their school - more or less at the age of 18.  By then they finish school and mostly move out of their parents house, either for higher education or work.  From then on their dependence on the parents drastically reduces.  The physical distance from home makes a lot of difference.  Even if the children were 'independent' for their personal matters since a couple of years (their sixth form or so), the real moving out of the house, marks a clear separation. 

Unlike this scenario, in the East, children stay with their parents right till they get married. And most even when married continue to live in the same house with the parents (at least the boys).  So in this sense they still enjoy that support of the parents and elders at home.  While in the West, young people learn taking on responsibility early on in life, the danger of them not having anyone to fall back on when in times of crisis, especially if they are far away from home or do not really enjoy a comfortable relationship with their parents, is greater.  It is at these crucial times when they need a shoulder to lean on or a listening ear, or a gentle pat or knock (depending), that most youngsters either make or break themselves.  Most rely on friends. But not always.  Social media is perhaps the closest 'friend' most have! 

In this scenario, accompaniment matters most.  It is not mere presence in those crucial or demanding times, but much prior to that!  Only when a young person feels comfortable with someone or looks upto someone as more than a friend, but not necessarily as a parent, that he or she is going to turn back to that person in times of need.  In this sense, accompaniment envelopes presence and demands a prolonged and sustained effort. 

Friday, 18 January 2019

Religion: a different perspective

Reading Schleiermacher's On Religion, for the lecture today, I came across the following passage in his first speech (Apology):
I wish to lead you to the innermost depths from which religion first addresses the mind. I wish to show you from what capacity of humanity religion proceeds, and how it belongs to what is for you the highest and dearest. I wish to lead you to the pinnacles of the temple that you might survey the whole sanctuary and discover its innermost secrets.
[Schleiermacher, F. (1996) On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, Crouter, R. (ed.), Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 10-11].

Presented it to the students for discussion to see what they thought was the pinnacle, the sanctuary and the rest, that Scleiermacher is referring to in this passage.

While sitting with one of the groups it struck me that the passage can be viewed from a totally different perspective.  The normal reading of this gives one the impression of religion being a very special fact of human life.  That it is grand, large and tall.  How religion helps one achieve the best and the highest of human possibilities.  That religion is at the highest point of human experience, from which you can look down and see how the other aspects fare.  In the light of what precedes this passage and the whole mood of the speech, it is quite easy to arrive at this interpretation.

However, what struck me was that while religion does offer a different perspective, it is not a hierarchical standpoint that religion facilitates. Even if it does, from that position there is nothing hierarchical.  From a birds eyeview there is no tall, or big or great.  The whole dimension of viewing reality changes.  Nothing is tall, great, mighty, lofty, high, low... the viewpoint is totally different! So the same passage can also mean that religion offers a totally different view of the world and ourselves, something not possible for other aspects of life to offer or atleast offer easily. 

Doubt and faith

Came across this quote today morning.
Doubt and faith both are status of mind.  Doubt creates the darkest moments in our finest hour; while faith brings finest moments in our darkest hour. 
Appeared sound in the beginning.  But then something struck as out of place or not complete.  Both, doubt and faith, are not just related to the mind.  They have more to do with the heart than the mind.  Moreover, they compliment one another.  They feed into one another and sustain the other.  Far from being in competition or out to annihilate the other, each of them actually sustains the other.  A genuine doubt will urge you to move towards its resolution and in the process you are bound to rely on some convictions or principles.  That's faith.  Granted that at the end of the process, those principles or convictions may not any more be there or be modified.  But then you arrive at something 'better', something more profound and deeper.  Similarly true faith is not something that lacks doubt or has no place for it.  If one does not doubt, one will never experience what faith truly is.  

Thursday, 17 January 2019

The Church

For many centuries, especially since the Crusades, Christians have tried to 'restore' the Church to its former glory and supreme universal position.  Most efforts, even at the highest order, be that of bringing back the Latin Mass or emphasis on the Canon Law or fidelity to the practices of piety, have been to see the Church as what it was in the medieval times: glorious, resplendent, beacon of light for all and in all matters, be that of faith, liturgy, social or individual dilemmas, community squabbles; a universal point of reference or standard for matters concerning morality and justice.  This intention was indeed noble and in a sense justifiable.  However, there is one difficulty: That is not what Jesus wanted the Church to be! 

Jesus wanted the Church to be more like the yeast: invisible, yet effective; useful but not pompous;  felt but not standing out; communitarian, but not judgemental;  true, but not proud.  In the early days, the Church was rightly what Jesus wanted it to be.  That's how it achieved all the glory and credibility.  The challenge today is not to 'regain' that glory and credibility, but to be authentic.  The former will eventually follow.  And even if it does not, no big harm, because that is not what the Church is.  

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Not this

One of the difficulties in today's era, not that it did not exist earlier, is that in protesting or condemning something of the present or ongoing, we declare, "Not this!"  That this is not what we want.  We detest that the present standards or incidents are far below the 'accepted' norms or expectations.  That these events or policies or plans are not what we want.  But most often what we fail to progress to is to explicate what it is that we actually want.  To merely state 'not this' in protest is nothing noble or progressive.  Such protests can also be carried out by those who want to basically disrupt life and create a diversion.  They are happy to join and sustain the melee because it serves their narrow interests elsewhere. 

Nobility in protest is where we have the courage to stand up for what is right and are able to express that what we stand for; not merely be satisfied with 'not this'.  

Saturday, 12 January 2019

All the nations shall be blessed in him

The antiphon
All the nations shall be blessed in him 
is one that recurs very frequently this Christmastide.  And I could not but observe the stress laid on different words by the members of the community.  I may be reading too much into the semantics of this simple prayer we have been reciting practically every morning for the past two weeks, but nonetheless can't get it out of my head everytime I hear this. 

Some stress 'all', surely indicating that all people of the world irrespective of their beliefs are blessed by Christ.  But some stress the same word with a different intent or meaning:  all people, in spite of their varied beliefs, will be graciously blessed by Him!  The latter is surely a very mean approach. 

Then there are some who stress the word 'nations', I suppose indicating all authority and groups, not just individuals.  Some emphasise the word 'blessed', indicating the gifts He showers.  Others stress 'in him', which I figure is in a way reviving the pre-Vatican understanding that only through Christ, can any good come about! 

Whatever be the original intent of the author, one simple sentence can be interpreted in a thousand ways.  But I suppose the Lord who knows our minds, and hears our prayers, is gracious to bless us all. 

Dog walking

Here in the West dog walking is a kind of job!  For all apparent reasons it is to exercise the dog.  Given the fact that the dog lives indoors with the family, and the house may not have a large outhouse where it can run and play about, the dog needs to be taken out for a walk, not just to stretch its legs but also to relieve itself.  As such it is a task to be carried out everyday.  Some places people are employed to do this task, because the family members are too busy to do it! 

That said, there is another angle to it too.  This whole phenomena is not just because the dog needs it.  The real need or reason for all this and is more and more the case, today that it is an exercise for the ones at home!  Not the dog.  The dog is only the excuse or the one blamed!  Dog walking is today being promoted as an exercise for the young people, especially students!!  A sort of stress-buster! 

Now that's called dog days! 

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Petty little Christmas

During prayer this evening it struck me that practically everything about Christmas is to do with normal, everyday little things.  There's nothing extraordinarily big or huge that is in play for Christmas.  The original Christmas itself is all about, the star, the manger, the shepherds, the wise men, petty politics of power and rule, strenuous journey, Bethlehem itself being a place of little renown.  Even the gifts the three kings/wise men brought were something of a teaser and not really hugely costly.  I'm sure the costliest of the three, gold would have been a bit of it.  Certainly not a crown or a huge brick!  That would have been used to buy some tools or wood in Joseph's carpentry shed.  Most important of all, and at the centre of it all is a little, helpless, infant.  Not a mighty king or ruler, not a celebrity.  Not any wealthy family.  A mere young couple far away from home and perfectly homeless in a strange town.  Just a little baby boy. 

The liturgy of the celebration today too is simple.  It does not have the intricacies of the Easter vigil.  At the most, joyful songs.  People are not hugely worried about big things.  All across the world it is a time when families gather together, especially for a family meal.  Holidays.  Gifts for one another.  Petty little things, with and for one another.

Wish we retain the same spirit: petty, little Christmas!  

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The Unforgettables

Those of us in the teaching profession always remember a couple of our students, not matter the years passed or the number of students we have taught.  These few will never be forgotten.  As for me, they are not always the brightest or the most obedient ones.  They are the most mischievous ones!  I still distinctively remember some of them from my early years of practical training - way back in the early 2000s.  Of those I taught in the formation houses, most of them are not Salesians or priests anymore, and I know not where they are and what they're now up to, but everytime I remember them or something happens that reminds me of them, I smile!  The same with a couple of those I remember during my short stay at Punganur and Ramanthapur too.

Quotas and education

The whole debate about reservation in educational institutions is again cropping up.  None would, in their true conscience, claim that this is for the good of all.  The timing and tone of it sounds more like a political move rather than an effort at societal well being.

In this whole debate about who should be granted concession and who shouldn't, what is conveniently left out is the true purpose of education.  The very meaning of education is distorted.  This whole ball game being played out makes education merely a stepping stone for economic prosperity and status.  While education does entail that, financial well being is not the sole or the highest purpose of education.  It is building up of character.  Unfortunately, the type of education being discussed and fought over is not something that forms character, it is one that distorts!  People get qualified but deformed!  Young people have a certificate but lack basic human values.

While a healthy debate is always beneficial and needed, it should also raise relevant questions; not remain narrow minded and fickle.  The ongoing debate about quotas in education for the 'economically weak in society' (even that category, though defined, is something that cannot be really figured out in a multi-dimensional Indian context) should also raise pertinent questions about the purpose and type of education we envisage for the next generation.  

Monday, 7 January 2019

Distinguishing truth from falsehood

The first reading of the day, from the first letter of St John, offers us some guidelines in discerning the spirit of truth from that of falsehood.  The criteria John offers is based on whether the prophecy or words coming to us carry the name of Jesus.  If yes, then they are from the true God; if not, they are from the evil one. 

I wonder if the same criteria is applicable and relevant even today.  If going by Jesus' name alone we can cleave the truth from the untruth.  If viewed from a purely religious perspective, it may cause more harm than good, if we adamantly stick to this criteria to be universal.  More than ever, today the world looks for authenticity, integrity and wholeness.  If what is presented to us covers all aspects of life; not just the material and economical, but the spiritual, emotional, social... that it is for the good of all and not just me and those dear to me... that it is for all the time to come and not just beneficial immediately, here and now... perhaps these are some of the factors that would help me discern the validity of any prophecy or message. 

On the other hand, if I look at Jesus' message, the Gospels, it contains all the above and more.  Hence John is not too far off the mark or being too parochial in citing Jesus as the criteria of distinguishing between what is from God and what is not. 

The light of the star

Light has always a very special significance in Christian tradition.  In fact, in every tradition across the world, religious or secular, light plays a very important role.  It is not just the function of it, but the very meaning and possibilities it brings to the fore, while itself being 'unseen' makes light a peculiar phenomenon. 

Christmas, of all feasts, is a feast of lights.  We use lights extensively in our decorations for this feast.  Though Easter is more liturgically closer to the theme of light, Christmas somehow 'appears' brighter!  But what struck me most today was the fact that the actual Christmas, b'day of Jesus, the only actual light available was that of a star.  Not the bright shining sun or the luminescence of the moon. Just a star!  And how much light does a star emit?  Barely anything.  But when that is the only light available, it appears bright. 

As we begin the new year, it strikes me that we begin it in the light of a star.  We are now called to follow that little light.  Hopefully it will lead us to the light of our lives - as it did the shepherds and wise men. Rather than look for the bright radiant and focussed lights, the challenge is to locate and follow the little light of a star. 

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Watching a plant grow

I have on my table beside my laptop a pair of orchids.  I picked up the orchid from outside a church, where the Parish priest had been transferred months ago, and this plant in a plastic pot was rolling around in his garden struggling to survive the heat of summer.  Since the time I brought it home and re-potted it, it has never bloomed.  The last time I re-potted it, in June, I separated the two shoots and planted them in two separate containers. Both have picked up well.  Now in one of the bigger plants there is a small stalk coming up and I feel it is a flower stalk, not an aerial root.

I've never used any chemical sprays or fertilizers so far.  Just plain rain water and perhaps some natural fertilizers like chicken pellet powder or eggshell powder, once in a way.  I was in no haste to make it bloom.  I have been happy watching it grow.  Even if it does yield just one flower it is fine by me.  I'm not pushing the plant into some race to produce a large stalk of lengthy flowers.  I've been watching and observing what the plant takes in best and being happy just to see it grow.  The shift from the room below to the one in the attic has not been really helpful for the plants.  Down below they enjoyed a great amount of direct sun on the window.  Here I don't have a window, just a sunroof.  The growth has indeed been slow.  A real lesson for me in patience.  But as both the plants put out new leaves and roots, and one even ready to flower, I feel happy.  I hope the plant does too!

Many question the point of having an orchid plant but no flower!  I have no such expectations.  I'm happy with the plant looking healthy, even without a flower.  That's the reason, I'm not feeding it any artificial products.  I want the plant to be at home, without more than the already artificial settings! 

Mangoes in December

While at home for holidays last month, I got to taste the mangoes from our farm.  They were preserved, frozen in a very peculiar way, for me!  Mummy had sliced the mangoes and frozen them in a plastic container with a seed at the bottom and one at the top.  Someone had told them this way of preserving mangoes retains not just the fruit but the original taste as well.  I should say, it does! 

Not only mangoes, they had kept alive a couple of stalks of sugarcane, some mulberry fruits, a watermelon....  Of course, none of these were frozen.  They were all fresh from the garden

Thanks to Mummy and all at home for constantly thinking of me.  

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Of Gods and (wo)men

The Sabarimala row in Kerala is turning a bit nasty.  On the one hand, there is the Supreme court's direction banning any prohibition of anyone on the basis of gender to a common place of worship and on the other, there is the age-old tradition of the temple itself.  If that tradition were a fringe one, then one could put it aside, but in this case it touches one of the core values of the deity: the deity being considered a bachelor.  A heady mix of politics and religion is never healthy!

I've heard Catholics and other religious laugh it off or not really be bothered.  But I wonder what if the Court tomorrow decides to take up the issue of oridnation of women in the Catholic church.  Will the same catholics who are indifferent to the ongoing issue about Sabarimala take the same attitude?

However, for me there is something greater at stake here - in both the cases.  We often lose the focus.  We miss out important values for the sake of trivialities.  When and why does upholding entry or denial to do so into a place of worship, become more important and sacred than a human life? Why isn't there an uproar when men or women are killed, or inhumanely treated right before our eyes?  It is a question of getting our priorities right.  Getting into the temple or staying out is of no great signifiance.  If Ayyappa truly gets 'polluted' by a human being, then he certainly is no great a god.  And if only by getting into the garbhagruha of Sabarimala one gets to heaven, then heaven certainly is not worth striving for. 

As for the gods, I'm sure Lord Ayyappa and God the Father are having a good laugh at our expense somewhere up above! 

Women and India

In India we have a peculiar perspective of the feminine gender.  On the one hand, we revere them as goddesses and deities and on the other they are one of the most suppressed and marginalised in the society.  In classical Hinduism, there is the hierarchy of gods and while the male gods have their supremacy, it is their wives or consorts who wield a great amount of influence on their better halves.  So much so, these goddesses have their own temples and rites.  Moving away from the structured religion, even among the tribals and other castes, female gods supersede their male counterparts not just in influence but in numbers as well. 

But when it comes to actual living, women find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchical structure.  Worse if they belong to any of the already marginalised communities: tribals, dalits and other religions.  Double suppression.  In spite of having the most number of female gods across any country in the world, India also stands out for the number of rapes that are carried out in the country. 

On the one hand, the mother in the family is the one most loved and considered the backbone of the family, women in general are the least respected in society.  Prior to becoming a mother, a woman right since her birth is merely a burden, or a risk which constantly needs to be supervised, protected and 'preserved'. 

The feminine gender is revered but not respected; and this lacunae needs to be addressed not in the society as a whole but in the family.  No amount of laws and ordinances will change the scenario unless a girl - and a boy - is treated fairly at home by all the members of the family.  

Friday, 4 January 2019

Renaming

In the Gospel of the day, Jesus renames Simon as Peter.  Later Saul becomes Paul.  Though not as prevalent as before, even today those joining some religious orders are given a new name.  Some of this renaming craze has rubbed on to Yogi Adiyanath, the UP Chief minister and Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime minister, who are renaming cities and islands across the country. 

Yesterday the Church celebrated the name feast of Jesus.  The name refers to an identity.  A personhood.  Not so long ago, Bombay was renamed Mumbai.  I wonder if that name change transformed the city into something better or more noble.  If not, what end did the change achieve?  This name tampering is a sign of uncertainty or anxiety.  Not sure of what the present situation will lead to. Hence the itch to do something without really addressing basic issues.  Unfortunately in most cases, the change is only a cosmetic change.  Nothing really changes (except a huge expense for the exchequer, in the cases of chaning names of cities).  However, if there is a change and then people wish to rename an identity, then it makes some sense.  But to hope that by merely changing a name, the whole identity will change is to dream in broad daylight.  

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Leap of faith

Speaking of Communion 'adventures', Fr Michael, the parish priest, was narrating of an incident some years back when he was visiting one of the elderly ladies in her flat and had taken Holy Communion for her.  The story was that she was very ill and all had given hope that she would live through it.  So her family, sold off her dog while she was in the hospital.  And then she made a complete recovery!  So the family had to buy a new dog, before she arrived back home. 

The new dog, not being used to the high rise buildings the family was living in, was very restless.  So on this occasion when Fr Michael reached the house, with the Holy Communion, for this elderly lady, he found the dog unusually active.  Just as he was about to give the lady the communion, the dog leapt high and almost got the Communion! Almost!  Such was the 'leap of faith'!

Devotion to Don Bosco

During his lifetime, Don Bosco constantly advocated his boys and those around to grow in three devotions: to the Eucharist, to Mother Mary and to the Holy Father.  However, if we review the impact of this in the Salesian tradition, one can very well grade them in the order of devotion to Mother Mary, to the Eucharist and to the Holy Father, in order of importance.  Not that there is some sort of competition or conscious grading.  It is just that devotion to Mother Mary stands out in the Salesian tradition, much more than the other two. 

However, there is one devotion we Salesians of Don Bosco have not really bothered about: devotion to Don Bosco himself.  After all, he is a Saint. A well known and worthy saint, at that.  But somehow we never promoted among those with and around us the devotion to Don Bosco.  A couple of years ago, just before the relic of Don Bosco was making its rounds in India, there was a move in one particular parish or place where the Salesians tried this out: spreading devotion to Don Bosco.  I did not hear much about it anytime afterwards!   The relic came and went, nothing much happened.  I'm yet to meet any family or even individual who really 'reveres' Don Bosco as a saint, as most do with regard to saints like St Anthony, St Joseph, and so on. 

That said, I don't think there is any need of making a great effort at 'spreading devotion to Don Bosco'.  That very attempt would go against what Don Bosco wanted all his life.  He wanted us all, especially young people, to grow up as loving children of Mother Mary and genuine disciples of Christ, with respect for the Church.  He would hate himself being promoted at the cost of any or either of these.  

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

A Prayer

A good way to begin the new year... found the following prayer on a bookmark in my breviary this morning
My dear Lord
teach me to be generous.

Teach me 
to serve Thee as Thou deservest.

To give - 
and not to count the cost.

To fight - 
and not to heed the wounds.

To toil - 
and not to crave for rest.

To labour - 
and not to seek reward,
save that of knowing that I do Thy will. 

Mother Mary as Holy Spirit

Fr Sean, the other day while celebrating Mass, accidently stated that Mother Mary was Holy Spirit for Don Bosco.  However, he then did realize that it was not very untrue either. 

I sat in the Chapel after Mass reflecting on this odd comparison.  The more I viewed it from my knowledge of Don Bosco and his ways of going about, the more true I found it to be.  Don Bosco rarely spoke of the Holy Spirit.  He certainly was no 'charismatic' preacher or advocate of the Holy Spirit.  However, everyone who has read his life or known him will vouch for the fact that he was an ardent devotee of Mother Mary.  So much so, I wonder if he ever mentioned Mary the same number of times as he mentioned Jesus in his whole lifetime.  Not to say that he considered Mother Mary to be greater than Jesus or the Holy Spirit.  None of that theological debate.  But if Holy Spirit is something that is considered as all-pervading and ever involved, for Don Bosco that was exactly how he viewed Mother Mary, as ever loving, all-pervading, and always close at hand. 

Hence in our Salesian tradition, we have a central place for Mother Mary.  Perhaps someday someone may wish to research the role of the Holy Spirit and Mother Mary in Don Bosco's life and the Salesian tradition.  I will not be surprised if he or she comes to the same conclusion: Mother Mary as the Holy Spirit, in the Salesian tradition!  
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