Friday, August 22, 2008

Religion and Food

Religion and food are two things I am always curious about. When I travel I want to see churches and temples and I want to try local food. I have been interested in these things since I as a teenager reading Gourmet Magazine, vicariously traveling the world with Lillian Langseth-Christiansen and Ronny Jacques (the photographer). Of course then I’d drive my mother crazy trying to buy exotic ingredients for the recipes that followed each article. The food gave a sense of the exotic, but also provided a way to feel what it might be like to live in a foreign country; at least I could eat what they ate, I told myself. Religion, on the other hand, appeared in Gourmet as romantic cathedrals or charming devotees praying in romantic places to be admired before going to a charming little restaurant where they serve the finest ceviche, or whatever. As my vocation developed my interest in religion became a personal search for meaning and connection. My sense of calling first struck me most forcefully standing in Sacre Coeur in Paris, staring up at the depiction of Christ in the dome, while all those charming Parisians bustled about lighting candles before going home for their coq au vin. Now that I am more or less always on the road, I still look for local food, and opportunities to pray.

In Korea I have had some amazing meals and some extraordinary encounters with religion, both Christianity and Buddhism. First the food! Every restaurant we’ve eaten in has served meals on low coffee table height tables. I find it excruciating until the legs go completely numb. Once numbness sets in, I don’t feel any pain (until I try to stand up, that is!). But authentic eating experiences are serious business, so I would never sit in a chair. No pain, no gain. I am afraid I’ll fail as a restaurant reviewer for Gourmet because I didn’t have a notepad to write down the names of the things I ate. But this is a Franciscan blog, anyway. The brothers weren’t always too sure what it was either, or at least not the English translation. But on my first day we ate walnut jelly cut in cubes with a fiery hot chili sauce. Christopher John said it was a real test of chop stick proficiency if you could get the jelly to your mouth without wearing it. Served with this was a plate of noodles and fried tofu. Now were the noodles buckwheat noodles. Some said yes, some said no. I am not sure if we were all sure what we were talking about, but we all had opinions, and the noodles were delicious! Small paper cups of Nescafe gave the meal an authentically ethnic close.

Another night, after touring the border with the communists and prowling around in the dank tunnels the North Koreans have burrowed under the border, we were starving. So we went to a favorite Franciscan restaurant (i.e. cheap) and squatted around a low round griddle. I was given a place in the corner so I could lean against a wall. A hostess came and unceremoniously dumped on the griddle a huge bowl of chopped cabbage, mixed with rice cakes, yams, and chicken coated in the favorite fiery hot chili sauce. This was stirred around until she finally pronounced it safe to eat (no raw chicken bits). It was fantastic! The cabbage had become soft and sweet, and the yam provided a lovely counterpoint texture. The chili made my nose run, so it was probably just about right.

Traveling by bus to visit our Franciscan sisters in Gumi, Br. Christopher John contacted some friends of his who are very well off. They met us and took us to a fabulous restaurant where there was a well under the table and portable seat backs to rest against: first class. Lunch was a banquet: octopus, sting ray (while all these are ordinary fish, I couldn’t help thinking of Dame Edna’s comment, “nothing so scrumptious as an endangered species!”), chicken, beef in teriyaki-tasting sauce, and about 8 kinds of kimchee. Kimchee can be liquid (it tastes like the juice from a sauerkraut jar), or slices of pickled radish, or large pieces of cabbage with red chili sauce, green beans and leaves and garlic, sesame leaves: it seems the sky is the limit. We ate small rice balls that were brought to the table wrapped in leaves, slices of yam, acorn squash and chunks of corn on the cob, watermelon, noodles in broth.

Another night the retired Bishop came for evening prayer and took us out to dinner to a restaurant which featured 101 ways to eat tofu. They fried it at our table and we added flavor from a flotilla of small side dishes. Then a large tureen of boiling red broth with large pieces of tofu was brought to the table. No matter what you do to it, tofu is tofu—and I enjoyed every bite.

Religion is going to get a bit short changed here, I am running out of time: have to pack to go to Australia. Nevertheless, the brother’s chapel is wonderful. The floor is covered with lacquered paper, and again we crouch on cushions. The lectern is a traditional Korean desk and the altar is a low table; we saw exquisite examples of these kind of furnishings in Gyeongbokgung, the royal palace in Seoul.

Visiting the Korean Franciscan Sisters in Gumi, we had a terrific liturgy in a somewhat Victorian-looking chapel. Pictured here is the inside of their home.

My hankering for exotic religion got satisfied when we visited a Buddhist temple in Seoul. The monks had put up many colorful lanterns as a protest against the President of Korea because he has systematically curtailed their life. The liberal Christians also protest against him for he same reason. He is particularly fond of his very conservative Protestant faith. I always like to see religion in the public forum, so to speak. In the area around the temple we could hear the people chanting. Peeking through the doors, I saw rank on rank of lights burning in front of some very impressive statues.

I watched a Buddhist monk walk across the courtyard. He looked very relaxed, a bit focused on meeting the person he was walking towards: smiling at her, and bowing his head as he walked. I suddenly had a memory of all the times I’d be walking towards the friary and see somebody I knew waiting by the door. You could hear the brothers singing in the chapel, smell dinner cooking in the kitchen. My ordinary is another person’s exotic. I find deep reassurance and hope watching this small Korean encounter; we all do so many of the same things, in similar ways. Life is beautiful and I feel vulnerable to it.

Francis always told his brothers to go among people of different cultures and simply share their way of life. If the example of the brothers’ life provoked questions, well and good; then was the chance to share the truth of Jesus Christ. Learning to go among the peoples of the earth with respect and love, I pray they see me and recognize something too. After swapping recipes we may get down to deeper things, deeper hungers, greater hopes and possibilities.

Hanging near the border with North Korea is a large bell. It is made of wood or papier mache or something, not metal. It is called the Peace Bell. It stands as sign of the hope and longing for the people of Korea, and people everywhere, for peace in this world. Never have wars sorted people out. I have a great deal more faith in travel writers, cooks, monks and friars.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Home near the DMZ

"Welcome to the Society of St. Francis" the sign says.

I arrived in Korea last night after a nearly 14 hour flight from Washington D.C. As we traveled back to the friary from the airport, Br. Christopher John was pointing out the various local attractions. One thing he said pierced my jet-lagged fugue state: “near the DMZ.” It turns out we are very near to the border. All day I have been thinking about how the brothers have placed themselves in an uncertain, in-between place. It is not as if they live on the Gaza strip or in Iraq, but just a month or so ago a tourist was killed at the border. It is still very difficult to travel; the friars helped to organize a peace pilgrimage to North Korea and all cell phones, cameras and laptops had to be left behind. The border and all that it means to the people of Korea is just “over there.”

This little friary seems to be part of the huge drama of the reconciliation of a people who have suffered for many years. Obviously, nearly all prayer and conversation is carried on in Korean, so any words in English stand out with a special vividness since I don’t understand any Korean. The three brothers have been reading the lessons at the daily office in English, which seems an incredibly generous thing to do. At any rate, this morning’s lesson was about the parents of Samson entertaining an angel of the Lord; they played an important part in the story of salvation by offering a simple meal. So the simple things can have the most far reaching impact.

The brothers’ prayers and welcome to men and women seeking a time and space for quiet seems all the more profound to me. There were three guests here when I arrived. Like most of our friaries around the world, there are usually a few people around. One of the essential pieces of being a peacemaker is to carry on living with integrity and joy and affirming life, welcoming people into clean and orderly spaces, and the humane routines of shared meals, silence, prayer, laughter. Franciscans seem to thrive in places like this. One of the things we talk about is that the witness of life is often more eloquent than words.

So today we shopped, ate lunch (walnut jelly and buckwheat noodles!) then went for ice cream (black sesame seed and walnut—walnuts play a big part in the local food), looked at dams, roads and lots of tunnels and other construction projects. The brothers shared a dislike for the construction boom, pointing out the encroachment on the rice paddies, the cheap and gaudy tourist facilities. And we told stories about our lives, our hope for the Franciscan community in Korea. I has been an incredibly rich and eloquent day.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ecumenical Dialogue

This week I traveled to Washington D.C. for a week of engaging conversations with some Roman Catholic Franciscans. The convener has been the Minister General of the Society of the Atonement, Br. Jim Puglisi, and there were representatives from the OFM’s and Capuchins as well as Sister Joyce, Minster General of my first order sisters in CSF, with Sr. Pamela Clare and Br. Cesar, SSF. There were 8 members all together. We were talking about ecumenism among Franciscans vis-à-vis our mission: the history of it, the way we teach new members about it, the spirituality behind it and how we can work together towards realizing even more connection between Anglican and Roman Catholic Franciscans.

I realized during the week that my whole ministry has been about making connections with people of different Christian traditions, in most cases trying to create momentum for helping the poor. Working together is not an “option”; it is absolutely necessary if we are to present the Christian Gospel with any kind of authority. But at the same time it is necessary to respect the differences among us. I had to let go of some resentments when they asked for blessings instead of receiving the Eucharist.

One of the greatest gifts God has given SSF, I realized again, is our small size. Our minority allows us a great freedom: freedom to try things, to change direction if we need to, freedom from always having to “get it right” and justify ourselves to a huge bureaucracy. But our freedom also has some pretty big responsibilities that come along with it: we are responsible for trying new things, imagining new ways to live, keeping our priorities on God, the Gospel and the people who come our way. And on loving each other; because we are so small it is possible to know every member of the order and to have a relationship with each brother, at least in prayer. That is how I understand part of my job: to know and love the brothers and sisters. Out of these relationships God will bring a new thing. We don’t need to know what it is, because if we did we might become fearful or anxious!

Growing in love for one another is of course what we did during this week. The difference between the first evening at dinner and tonight is remarkable. The first night the Anglicans sat at one end of the table, and the Roman Catholics sat at the other end. It was not intentional mind you, we simply sought out the people we knew and were comfortable with. Tonight we were all mixed together and the table was loud with laughter. The dining room crew was rattling their equipment to alert us to the late hour. Church unity doesn’t seem such a far fetched idea.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Lambeth Conference celebrates conclusion

It is only Sunday morning, and the conference doesn’t end ‘til tonight, but already people are leaving. Like the Liturgy, it is very much “the Mass has ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” There is a strong sense of having walked together, having learned much about each other. But now begins the harder work of taking the story back home to the people who were not part of the “process” and want results. Bishops must find a way to get people to talk to each other, and to engage with all the bishops who were not at Lambeth.

One bishop (unnamed) was quoted on the TV news as characterizing the conference as a “talkfest,” as if that were nothing. Watching the majority of the bishops engage in the process and listening to the way they interacted outside their group sessions, I would say something incredibly important happened. Again to cite my friendly author Alain de Botton, writing “On the Sublime” in his book The Art of Travel (he is paraphrasing the words and attitude of God speaking in Job): “Do not be surprised that things have not gone your way…the universe is greater than you. Do not be surprised that you do not understand why they have not gone your way, for you cannot fathom the logic of the universe. See how small you are next to the mountains. Accept what is bigger than you and what you do not understand. The world may appear illogical to you, but it does not follow that it is illogical per se. Our lives are not the measure of all things: consider sublime places for a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.” We have all been part of something much larger than our orders, parishes, dioceses or church provinces. All of us have had to develop a larger perspective than we came with. It has been bewildering at times, annoying (if not enraging) at times, and there have been times of incomparable sweetness in prayer, conversation, (and for me) long lovely runs through the English countryside. It amounts to a great deal.

Last night we had a plenary session with four stewards of the conference telling the bishops what they thought of Lambeth. They seemed to have had a good time. One of the bishops asked the representative stewards on stage what they hoped the Anglican Church would be like in thirty years (when some of the stewards might be sitting in the bishops’ places). I don’t know how I would have answered on the spot like that, but as I thought about it, I would hope that in thirty years a bishop’s sexual orientation will not be the cause of huge uproar. That the leadership of the Anglican Communion will be gay and straight, black and white, male and female from all across the globe, and we will be engaged in imaginative ministries, sharing the Good News in Word and deed, (and in thirty years time) able to celebrate a new global consciousness of how to live on the earth in harmony (an end to war), and as people in solidarity with the earth, having developed sustainable technologies and strategies and attitudes that heal and help the earth. I hope that people everywhere will have enough to eat, and able to live with dignity and joy; that children can grow up without fear.

Yesterday, I dog-eared a hymn we sang from our hymn book Lambeth Praise because it says much of what I carry away in my heart:

We cannot measure how you heal
or answer every sufferer’s prayer,
yet we believe your grace responds
where faith and doubt unite to care.
Your hands, though bloodied on the cross,
survive to hold and heal and warn,
to carry all through death to life
and cradle children yet unborn.

The pain that will not go away,
The guilt that clings from things long past,
The fear of what the future holds,
are present as if meant to last.
But present too is love which tends
The hurt we never hoped to find,
The private agonies inside,
The memories that haunt the mind.

So some have come who need your help
And some have come to make amends
As hands which shaped and saved the world
Are present in the touch of friends.
Lord, let your Spirit meet us here
To mend the body, mind, and soul,
To disentangle peace from pain
And make your broken people whole.

Words: John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958)

Tune The Banks o’Doon (Ye Banks and Braes) Scottish folk melody harmonized by John L. Bell.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The twists and turns

I have been wondering how to characterize the last two days. Then yesterday I attended the blessing of the new labyrinth of the University of Kent. It is a beautiful labyrinth, and I found myself thinking about all the twists and turns life takes. I had a conversation with Gene Robinson (finally), and found myself admiring him for his courage to stand up and be himself, saying “I am the man” at the eye of the storm (as his book title has it). He has suffered a lot of criticism. Many people have sniffed that he is a “publicity hog” and opined he isn’t doing the gay cause any good. Yet as were reminded at the sermon at out opening Eucharist: "Social justice is monotonous." It requires tenacity, and in our world today, sophistication with the media. His photo was put into the guard booth at Canterbury Cathedral so if he were to try and get into the opening service he would be recognized and stopped. He is forbidden to meet with people at Lambeth except in pre-arranged venues. It makes me feel sick to my stomach that the Church feels it has to take such measures.

In general the approach to the media has been that they are the enemy. I can understand providing a safe place for the bishops, but there seems to be a profound distrust, and this is only exacerbating the negative coverage the Lambeth Conference seems to be getting, at least in the British newspapers.

Later on Thursday I attended a Healing of Memories workshop lead by Michael Lapsley. He is the director of the Institute for Healing of memories in Capetown, South Africa. Michael is an Anglican religious (provincial minister of the South African province of the Society of Sacred Mission –SSM). During the apartheid struggle he lost both of his hands when he opened a letter bomb. His story of his move from victim to victor is incredibly moving. He has taken his experience and turned it to gold, helping others to heal their memories and find freedom. Basically he operates on the principle that stories can heal. Even in our brief workshop we told a few stories. I know that in the bishops’ “indaba” groups, people are telling stories. But not all stories will be finished by the time we leave on Monday; I will need to process much of this when there is time…my next airplane ride!

But then at the reception held by the Bishops of the province of Papua New Guinea, we were all invited to stand and sing one of my favorite choruses: “We are one big, happy family, God’s family are we: she is my sister, he is my brother and God is our Father who loves you and me.”