Saturday, December 26, 2009
Week 4: Christmas in Chennai
A week filled with incredible activity preceded our Christmas in Chennai. The weekend before, we were guests to the family home of Shanty.
In the highlands of Kerala – some 60km west of Pala. Tucked among lush greenery that reminded us of Oregon (except for its tropical trees and seas of tea), Shaman and Sonrisa were treated to a fishing expedition on the family cardaman estate and I was treated to visit a small college of 600 students nearby that is part of a Muslem educational network. The extended family of Shanty converged (including her mother, three sisters, one brother, and their families which together had eleven grandchildren having almost constant fun together. Constant also was the kitchen where feasts were prepared three times daily, in part to honor us. Guests are to be treated as God, we are told – though even God might have been embarrassed by their devotion to us.
This entry is written on Christmas Day, where we are celebrating 5 nights in Chennai (formerly known as Madras). As I gaze this morning over our obviously occupied hotel suite, the only clear sign of the holiday is our Christmas tree: a three inch tall wax candle we lit after mass last night. All four of us (Sonrisa, Shaman, Kristine and I) attended services at the Basilica of St. Thomas beginning 9:30pm Christmas Eve along with a crowd of several thousand. While only 2% of India is christian, those living in Chennai certainly turn out for this holiday.
Earlier on Christmas Eve we took in the sights of the city, including a cave where St. Thomas (one of the twelve original apostles of Jesus) is said to have hidden for four years prior to the year 72AD when he was murdered on a nearby hilltop (which we also visited). The cave was about 24 square feet with hardly room to stand and a small entrance allowing one person to squeeze through at a time. A 2x2 stone upon the floor served as a place where St. Thomas devoted much time in prayer. The thought of this man who traveled so far to spend 20 years in South India so long ago was sobering to us all. Any attempt for us to so hold Jesus in our hearts would seem to pale by comparison with the faith and suffering of this man….
Tomorrow we return to Pala (in Kerala) by train, to prepare for the departure of our daughter Sonrisa for the U.S. to resume her classes at PCC this Winter Term. She is not looking forward to night time on the train as we expect to find the same company of cockroaches who joined us on the trip here. At least we can be thankful that they do not feast on humans. They eat just about everything else, but at least not us! I, for one, look forward to the Super Fast Chennai-Kottayam train (which could be renamed the Cockroach Express)!
My talk on Gandhi at Madras University on December 23rd went well, with an audience of 30 not bashful to ask questions about how practical and relevant Gandhian Nonviolence may (or may not) be today. The stimulating exchange of views had me doing my best to respond as Gandhi might: affirming the right of people to disagree with him while also affirming the foundations of a vision humanity has yet to listen much to. A Gandhian commitment to seek improved understanding of Truth through seeking to love even those who might hate him requires tapas (voluntary suffering/sacrifice) which most people find too demanding. Yet is this not also the message of Buddha (hate cannot destroy hate, only love can destroy hate) and the way of the cross Jesus spoke of?
Our best present to ourselves this Christmas is as it always has been: our love for one another. Merry Christmas greetings from our Hindu and Moslem friends show how very encompassing this love can be. That we were able (with difficulty) to telephone our daughter Mira (back in the U.S.) has warmed our hearts. Others in our immediate family are likely to follow later this day. Even so, know that our thoughts transcend the distances between us and all others since(whether nations admit it or not), the reality is that we are all related as one human family.
Peace be with you all during this holiday season.