China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2016/Jan

How might God contemplate China? – a prayer –

In his farewell letter, written before he and six brother monks were martyred in 1996, Christian de Chergé, the abbot of the Cistercian Monastery of Tibhirine said:

This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills
-immerse my gaze in that of the Father,
and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them,
all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit,
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences.

In times of hurt and darkness, we need to remember even more the gift of the Holy Spirit whose joy is to establish communion (not sameness), to recreate, lest we become fixed or monotonous.

The Spirit plays with differences, perhaps like an artist who plays with notes and intervals to create harmonies.

Recently I was given the grace to learn how it is to be contemplated by God. The thought occurred to me that in China, Christianity has often been considered a foreign faith, as though Chinese and Christian identities are forever separate. But even death or self-imposed differences cannot separate us from God.

What might it be like to contemplate with God his children of China, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, and filled with the gift of the Spirit?

A method of contemplative prayer, lectio divina, goes back to early monastic tradition. One listens with the ear of the heart to the word of God. In this process, one reads aloud a passage from the bible, until a word or phrase begins to stand out.

Savour the word, using our senses (sight, taste, sounds…). Let that word interact with our memories, history, hopes and desires. Talk personally with God about them.

Then rest in God’s presence. Let God contemplate us. Let the word of God touch and heal us.

Granted I cannot pray the lectio divina in the position of the Chinese people and culture. I offer the following prayer exercise in humility, knowing that I barely scratch the surface of prayer and the Chinese experience.

Let us begin by reading aloud Psalm 84: 1-8:

How lovely are your dwelling places,
O Lord of Hosts.
My whole being yearns and pines
for the courts of the Lord,
My heart and my body cry out for joy
to the living God.

Even the sparrow has found a home,
the swallow a nest to place its young:
Your altars, Lord of Hosts,
My King and my God.

How blessed are those who live in your house;
they shall praise you continually.
Blessed those who find their strength in you,
Whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of the Balsam,
they make there a water-hole,
and – a further blessing – early rain fills it.
They make their way from height to height,
God shows himself to them in Zion.

Home, nest, house, dwelling-places are words that resonate with the Chinese people. Home is identified with stability.

The Chinese character, 家, depicts a pig under a roof, an ideal sign of plenty.

When conditions of want or conflict drive one from one’s village or town to another, sometimes thousand of miles away, it is said that emigrants, and sometimes even the children of emigrants, long to return home.

As they wait, many try to recreate the comforts of home (the smell and taste of food, old or new media that connect, sounds of children learning their mothers’ tongue in community schools).

But few ever go home. And so as generations thrive, as they take root in a new environment or culture, the heartstring grows tenuous… the longing subsides only to arise unexpectedly, as when tears overflow when one hears the sound of erhu in a hall where the lights are dimmed.

Upon reading Psalm 84 a few times, it seems the word pilgrimage actually comes closer to the Chinese experience. What is a pilgrimage?

According to custom, ancient Israelites went on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate three major festivals, Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles or Tents). There they remembered how God intervened and saved the people.

But when the Temple was destroyed, first in 586BCE and then the rebuilt Temple in 70AD, the people who were scattered could no longer go on pilgrimage.

Instead, in synagogues or homes where people gathered, the children of Israel remembered the events by reading passages from the Torah.

Books in the bible record the salvation history of a people whose identity is founded upon a mutual relationship – the covenant that binds the Israelites and God in fidelity. The Christian revelation further extends the covenant to all nations.

Like the Israelites, who yearn and pine (for the presence of God in the Temple), the Chinese have also been casting about for a sense of home. From the humble household shrine to the stately Tiantan where emperors worshipped the heavens, the practical and devout Chinese people have imagined a home under the heavens that bestows stability and prosperity.

Now it is possible to go through life without knowing the presence and love of God. Perhaps we can ask the question: how is God present among the Chinese people in our version of salvation history?

Psalm 84 records pilgrims passing through the Valley of Balsam before they reach the Temple. Some translations render the phrase, Valley of Weeping, because the trees weep resin. The Jewish people recall the joy of being one with God, which is the goal of pilgrimage. Though tears are part of the pilgrimage, that joy is guaranteed because God is with them.

Generations of Chinese have been displaced, caught up in wars, civil wars, poverty, urbanisation and globalisation.

Their journey is a pilgrimage, if only because they are not content with a condition of bondage. In exile they long for home that is an original state of freedom and dignity.

As they pass through the Valley of the Balsam,
they make there a water-hole,
and – a further blessing – early rain fills it.

How has God blessed the Chinese people on pilgrimage?

I may be biased. But poetry is one place where we see the children of China all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion and filled with the gift of the Spirit.

In Chinese tradition, a few poets have stood out, marked by a rare combination of poetic genius and shining integrity. They are suffering servants, who put the common good above personal gain or advancement.

For not siding with the powers that be, Su Shih (1037 to 1101) was eventually exiled to Hainan, the southernmost edge of the Sung empire. In Red cliff elegy, he reflects on China’s history:

The Yangtze flows east
Washing away
A thousand ages of great men
West of the ramparts –
People say –
Are the fabled Red Cliffs of young Chou of the Three Kingdoms
Rebellious rocks pierce the sky
Frightening waves rip the bank
The backwash churns vast snowy swells –
River and mountains like a painting
how many heroes passed them, once …

Think back to those years,
Chou Yu –
Just married to the
younger Chiao –
Brave, brilliant
With plumed fan, silk kerchief
Laughed and talked
While masts and oars vanished to flying ash and smoke!
I roam through ancient realms
Absurdly moved
Turn gray too soon –
[The earthly abode] passes like a dream –
Pour out a cup then, to the river, and the moon.
( trans. unknown)

Su recalls the famous river battle of 208. The country was splitting into three kingdoms. Heroes and warriors competed. Like the fearsome landscape, there were great men who led rebellions, who inspired awe, or whose actions stirred powerful consequences. Yet the river washes them away.

The poet feels and reflects (Absurdly moved/Turn gray too soon). God had been absurdly moved too – so much so that God sent his son to ransom all.

The poet poured a cup of libation. He recognises that the earthly home is not permanent. Where is the true home?

Like the poet who contemplates and the river that carries people’s dreams and livelihood to this day, God accompanies us as we salvage and heal from the wounds of history.

Of all the poets who came before him, Su Shih thought most highly of Qu Yuan (c.340-278 BCE), who collected and wrote the Book of Southern Songs while he too was banished for speaking truth to power.

In Asking Heaven (天問), Qu Yuan raised more than 170 questions about the cosmos, nature and civil society.

… When above and below were not yet formed,
Who was there to question? …

Yin and yang mixing,
What was the source, how did it transform?…

Why did sages whose virtues were unblemished
Came to an unusual end?
Mei Bo’s body was chopped to pieces,
Jizi was forced to feign madness.

Heaven gave you the mandate.
How would you carefully preserve it?
As the kingdom was given to one to rule
Why did the rulers change from time to time? …

Like Job in the bible, Qu Yuan gazed at eternal mysteries. He was looking for an interlocutor. If prayer is mutual communication with Another, Asking Heaven may be a prayer.

His presumption to ask (rather than blindly accept) would suggest a kind of intimacy.

The generosity with which he poured out his life (he drowned in the Miluo River) testified to a life of commitment.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:1)

The young woman … will give birth to a son
Whom she will call Immanuel [meaning “God is with us”] Isaiah 7:14 

In this Jubilee of Mercy, may we walk together as pilgrims to share the light and love of a God who walks with us.