Thursday, April 1, 2010
THE CROSS IN THE DESERT
NOTE: As I re-post old files from the TrueWester blog, this one seems best for Good Friday. Previously published in ORIENS in Australia.
THE CROSS IN THE DESERT
"To the Sojourners in the Dispersion."—St. Paul
February 18, First Sunday of Lent, Sultanate of Oman 1999It's February, and the winter weather is sweetly warm, the night desert smells toasty, and The Church of the Holy Spirit is beginning an earnest and devout Lent in the Sultanate of Oman, near Saudi Arabia, where tiny islands of Catholicism flourish like desert flowers behind compound walls. Driving to Mass, I ease my Land Rover past a broad stream of Catholics entering the narrow gate into our parish.
Since the Muslim day of worship is Friday (Saturday and Sunday were already taken), and many Catholics, especially those who work in Muslim homes, are off on one of those days, the Bishop permits Catholics in Arabia to meet the Sunday obligation on Thursday evening, Friday, or Sunday. It's Thursday today, but the liturgy is for February 21, the First Sunday of Lent.
Where are we? At the Church of the Holy Spirit, in the Vicariate of Arabia, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, where Bishop Bernard G. Gremoli, a Capuchin from Rome, shepherds the countries of the Persian Gulf. Here, unlike Saudi Arabia, where any but Muslim prayers are illegal, Christianity is permitted behind walls in Oman, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar (Kuwait, which also permits immured churches, is in a Cypriot diocese). Here, eight priests (seven Capuchins and one Jesuit) minister to some 40,000 Catholics in two churches in the Muscat capital area, Ruwi and Ghala, and one each in the port cities of Salalah and Sohar. On land generously donated by the head of state, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, churches rise from the contributions of people who give their hearts. Here also, teams of priests and charismatic laymen carry the sacraments to thousands of workers in the interior cities of Nizwa, Sur, and Ibri, where Mass is often celebrated in private homes or hospital rooms, and to thousands more in some twenty oil field compounds. It occurs to me that many of the sheep of the dioceses of the West could be heartened by a modern epistle to the beleaguered, from the Churches in the desert, in the sign of the cross.
February 28, 1999 Second Sunday of Lent
In the desert, there are no troubling grays, deceptive ambiguities, hermeneutical confusions. Like the jar the poet Wallace Stevens once placed on a hill in Tennessee, which immediately organized all the countryside around it, the cross, if placed on any dune in Arabia, becomes a stark statement of Gospel fact. Stevens, who called for a priest on his deathbed, would have understood our ways here, where Catholicism is plain in doctrine, and rich in sound, image, and touch.
When a friend new to the country accompanied me to his first worship here, we stayed through the English Mass, for which we were late, through the next, in Konkani, sweet and beautiful in tone and music, the rhythms part Latin, part Indian. The sheer power of many hundreds of people bent in deep reverence was like something from our youth in the 1950's, something at once majestic and simple, like the house of Peter on the Sea of Galilee, where fishermen, tax collectors, and slaves prayed together with psalms and hymns, their workaday world at bay.
We are in an ocean of such simple fervor. At Christmas, children carol outdoors under palm trees in eight languages—English, Marathi, Konkani, Malayalam, Arabic, Tagalog, Sinhala, Tamil. Since almost all expatriates speak some English, the major Masses on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday are in English. Many show up for as many Masses as they can get to, and prayer groups often pray for the maids and serving boys whose Muslim families will not permit them to attend church, hoping to convert them to Islam through higher wages and less pleasant suasions.
At the back of both the Ruwi and Ghala churches, there are mosaics of St. Anthony of Padua together with plaques giving prayer instructions. The people line up after Mass, each lovingly touching the mosaic before they kneel in prayer. Many of these parishioners, I know, are praying for a new job before they are caught with an illegal visa, or for just a new job, or for home.
Whether Sri Lankan or Filipino or Pakistani or Indian, they are the mass of the three-quarters of a million expatriates that serve the 1.75 million Arabs of Oman. Like their compatriots in the other Gulf countries, they are happy to have jobs, even at the 125 dollars a month that many of them earn as domestics and laborers. Many will do anything to get to church, and when I see them striding gaily in groups up the highway, I think of Jesus among them, happy to be with men who work with their hands, Jesus of the desert, dust on His feet.
March 7, 1999, Third Sunday of Lent
I'm just a few minutes early for Mass in Ghala. Hurrying across the courtyard, I see a hooded Capuchin severely eyeing the last-minute arrivals. On the other side of the parking lot, Protestants and Greek Orthodox gather on their side of the enclosure. In the compound with Saints Peter and Paul twenty miles away in Ruwi, there are also Indian Orthodox Christians who trace their conversion to the visit of St. Thomas, and Buddhists and Hindus under tents furious with jangles and hot clouds of incense, all in the same walled compound, where liturgies and languages sometimes fly fast and furiously together, "Amazing Grace" floating above "Holy God We Praise Thy Name" and Tantric chants.
Near the chapel attached to "our" Church of the Holy Spirit, the largest in the Ghala compound, people cluster around the Lourdes grotto, some of them kneeling on the stone, some bowing foreheads to the ground, some praying with arms upraised like gaunt figures from Fra Angelico. It's only nine AM but the sun is at full blast and the sky stretches a thin, cyanotic blue over Arabia, the temperature already eighty as winter collapses into summer. Later, the second prayer of the day, Dhuhr, will thunder awake the Friday worshippers as Allah Akhbar! ricochets around this mountain basin. Never quite synchronized, the muezzins bounce their electronic calls to prayer off the barren rock faces of the towering Jabal Akhdar. Since the first prayer call at about five AM, Fajr, Islam has slept.
We are allowed no bells to answer the insistent chorus of the mosques, but we have a wooden cross, our foolishness, as St. Paul calls it, carefully tucked behind shrubbery to prevent it being seen from the roadway. It is, indeed, a scandal in this police state, permitted but enclosed by law. Where we enter from the main road, a road sign reads "The Church" in English and Arabic. To the Muslims, we are all the same. At the entrance, scrawled Arabic signals that the compound is haram, forbidden. Though the Basic Law of Oman promulgated by the Sultan guarantees freedom of religion, it excepts anything that will give "offense," which for the Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia Muslims who live here, is much bigger than the eye of a needle.
March 17, 1999, Feast of St. Patrick
I merge with the flow going in the merciful blast of air conditioning, dipping my fingers in one of many heavily used holy water fonts. The church is nearly full, I have to scout out a pew where I can squeeze in at the end. Like everyone else, I genuflect, all the way down, not a tap at third base, and make the sign of the cross full, not a signal to the pitcher. As before every Mass here, the parishioners are booming out the rosary in dialogue between left and right sides. Hundreds of voices ring out each prayer, exactly and firmly, the English Indian-Victorian. Most have their rosaries. At the end, we say the Memorare, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, and the Litany of the Sacred Heart and Consecration of the World to the Sacred Heart. After the rosary, as after Mass, and as always in this church, there is the delicious quiet I knew as a child, complete with the occasional bird fluttering in the apse, the soft shuffling and coughing, the distant murmur of someone praying at a shrine. The church is a place of peace, a place to come to, a place to be in prayer with the One who went away to pray in the desert.
The sanctuary lamp burns always, the church is open during the day, and people make frequent visits, many of them walking great distances to do so. The Tabernacle is beautiful, ornate in a starburst of carefully designed silver, backlit and centered in native marble directly behind and above the altar, on which an altar cloth reads, "Come Holy Spirit and Fill Us With Power." Above the tabernacle, there is a large mosaic of the twelve apostles at Pentecost, hands lifted in various attitudes of prayer, a tongue of flame over each head. Mother Mary is at the center, kneeling. The faces are individual, as are the hair styles, and very Eastern, each expectantly in awe. The line for confession stays busy right up until the Mass, sometimes afterward. The sign by the many booths reads, "Do Not Delay Your Conversion!" They have been much used today, the climax of a heavily attended three-day retreat for married couples, many of whom attend without spouses because their monthly earnings don't earn them the privilege of bringing a family into the country. When there is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as with today's conclusion of the retreat for couples, the congregation lustily sings Tantum Ergo Sacramentum and other Latin hymns.
Here, the war is against Satan and the horrible blankness that appears when the Gospel is gone. I try to imagine a world without the Roman Catholic Church, to imagine these crowds without the revolutionary declaration of Peter that the Holy Spirit is pouring itself on all the peoples of the earth. I try to remember what my life is like when I despair or run away: a desert without the cross.
It is the Feast of St. Patrick, the bold saint who civilized Ireland under the Celtic cross, farming the barren ground at the (then) last frontier of the West, where the Faith had retreated from yet another culture war. Historians tell us that the Celtic Cross stood at every crossroads and wayside signifying that the traveler has entered Christian land. On the post-Christian West's monotonously one-dimensional horizons, sports domes, office marts, and the Golden Arches define the new landscape, as crosses and bell towers now fast disappear into the materialist wasteland in which—except for the calls to prayer from Muslim minarets that now rattle England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and parts of America—religion is merely an anachronistic embarrassment.
For many in America, including in the church, the cross is now just another symbol in a Jungian pantheon, found more often as jewelry on tattooed teenagers and satanic rock stars than on priests and nuns. In America, many orders refuse to wear habits, they say, because the Church must now be modern, and they walk pants-suited, cross-less, and habitless through airports where young people dress—often with crosses—as Nazis or transvestite ghouls. Having forgotten that the church is not supposed to look like the world because it is set over against the world, we now face the ridiculous prospect of living among barbarians who wear the cross as a mockery or a trinket while Christians surrender the thing for which martyrs in Japan died horrible deaths rather than spit upon. When Father Varghees preaches on vocations, he says we all have a vocation to follow Jesus to the cross. It is the sacred irony of history that the Romans nailed Jews and Christians to the cross for hundreds of years until it became the sign of life.
Whether mocked and banned or mocked and travestied, the cross, hated by Islam and modernist Moloch alike, can arouse fury. In Kuwait I witnessed a wealthy Kuwaiti lady harangue an Indian jeweler for having some small gold crosses on display. "We do not want such things here in this country!" Muhammed had such a repugnance for the cross that he smashed everything brought into his house that had the symbol upon it, and according to his close follower, Abu Hurairah, prophesied that Jesus would come among the Christians and "break the cross and kill the swine." Perhaps for this reason, some Imams say that the theft of a cross or crucifix from a church does not incur the usual punishment for theft, amputation. Crucifixion is a punishment some Muslim authorities decree for highway robbery, others for blasphemy. When Desert Storm entered Saudi Arabia, a young American soldier told me in Kuwait, a whole village surrounded her white-cross marked ambulance and pounded on it, pointing at the cross and screaming with anger.
March 28, 1999, Passion Sunday
The fourth prayer call of the day has just sounded as the first Mass of the evening begins. The heat is on the rise, only the late evenings are pleasant now, and the suspicion awakens that the hottest country on earth will soon live up to its reputation. The parishioners fill the night with some hymns already known and loved, alternating politely between Filipino singsong and Indian stateliness.
As we consider the Passion of Our Lord, we know who we are, members of a body which began in the Middle East, where the Jordan flows through the desert, but which moved to the heart of the evil empire and grew in prayer, fasting, and martyrdom. As Bishop Gremoli reminded us on the Feast of Saint Joseph, Rome is the center and home of the Catholic Church, and the Pope is the Vicar of Christ and successor of Peter, the first shepherd of the flock. If we are to be Catholics, we must follow Rome in all things, he says. When I ask young Kerlalites, Goans, and Sri Lankans in Oman what religion they follow, they say "Roman Catholic, sir."
Roman Catholics all, at the passing of the peace, we bow to each other with palms pressed upward together, eastern style. At communion, flocks of sareed, unmarried Indian women throng forward, each praying for a good husband (a practice complemented by advertisements in the local English-language papers seeking suitable brides for “good Catholic boys”). The Eucharist is received on the tongue, and except on weekdays, when tincture is practiced, in one species only. During the consecration, everyone kneels. People kneel and pray in various postures, like some medieval tableau. One almost expects Saint John Foucauld to enter and hurl himself onto the floor, Islamic style. Not everyone receives, some hang back in prayerful penitence. A half hour after Mass, there are still young men kneeling and standing in adoration, their arms uplifted, finger and thumb touching, like yogas.
Evangelical fervor, one of the pastors tells me, is intense. Charismatic prayer meetings and retreats flourish. I attended one given by a Filipino priest from a large (several thousand) charismatic community in Manila which lasted for four days, filling at least ten hours each day, in which people from many countries worked hard together to learn Catholic truth. Guided and taught by well instructed priests, this charismatic movement does not conceive itself in opposition to the official church or liturgy, possibly because the official church and liturgy here regard Satan, not Rome, as the enemy.
Missions come and go to accommodate the many tongues and sensibilities of the people. English, it occurs to me, is the mysterious liturgical language here for many, and they participate respectfully; but as much as possible, missions, retreats, confessors, and special feasts honor the dozens of cultural families. One priest, an Indian who speaks Arabic and says Mass in the Eastern Syrian Rite, ministers to the Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians. Other priests rove through the diocese ministering to the smaller groups and tongues. There are, one of the priests leading the charismatic groups tells me, many, many healings and, he adds, "Jesus told us that even greater things would be done in His Name!" During a conversation with a pastor who heads the charismatics, a young high school student comes in to beg Father's blessing and prayers—he has an examination today. Father rises and the boy kneels to receive a long prayer, hands on his bowed head. Some of the fervor, Father says, pours in from Kerala in India where most Gulf Indians come from (the other source is Goa). There, Father explains, a giant retreat center in Potta receives every week between twenty and twenty-five thousand people in a five-day retreat, "irrespective of class, caste, language, or color. Here they become one, here they experience true conversion to Jesus Christ!"
Many of these people save their money to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which the Capuchins lead each year. In the latter chapters of Ralph McInerney's The Red Hat, an African is elected Pope, and Rome begins to fill with yellow, black, and brown peoples who, much to the displeasure of the Romans, cook their meals over charcoal in the streets and roar with pleasure when the Pope appears to bless them. The Church has shifted from the neo-pagan West to Africa and Asia, from which missionaries now come to minister to Cleveland and London.
April 1, 1999, Holy Thursday
I'm late. I have to park out near the highway as about five thousand gather for the Feast of the Institution of the Eucharist. The church indoors is full, the crowds sitting in front of huge screens. Outside thousands more fill the courtyard by our new outdoor altar. Father Jesus gives a sermon on the Eucharist, the Real Presence, and the Paschal Sacrifice that any Church Father or Doctor could sign without hesitation. "If there were no Real Presence," he says, "which is unimaginable, our churches would be empty and we would have nothing." After the basic theology, he leans over and shares his conversations about the Eucharist with Capuchin Padre Pio, the witness sent to tell us this sacrament is our eternal food. Three priests and ten Eucharistic ministers distribute communion to the five thousand. After Mass, the choir sings O Salutaris Hostia as the priests process to return the sacrament to the main altar inside for Exposition and Adoration until midnight. An hour after this begins, the church is still packed.
As I walk across the courtyard, the moon is full, the air full of smoke from outside the walls as thousands of Arab men cook evening meals by the roadside, part of the weeklong Eid celebration of their widespread belief that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice their ancestor Ishmael, not Isaac, though the Q'uran is obscure on this point and commentators divided.
The cross is alien here because even on the natural level, as Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man, it contradicts all the East. The symbol of the East is the O, the circle, the serpent with its tail in its mouth, the enclosure of eternally struggling yang and yin. Including everything and going nowhere, it comes to nothing, Chesterton says. The sign of eternal recurrence, it spins its cycling wheel. The Wheel of Buddha, which takes the form of a swastika, spins away from being a cross into being a hoop in an endless game of illusion. "The cross breaks out of the circle that is everything and nothing." It breaks out of the eastern gnosticism in which everything is mind because Christ's broken body, stretching into eternity in the sign of the cross, dies, as poet David Jones wrote, "not on any hill, but on this hill." Today, on Easter, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, dead on the cross and risen to the Father. When the women came to tell the disciples that Jesus was not in the tomb, they could not believe it. Everything had ended the same old way again, they thought. No, as in the Celtic Cross, the + had cancelled the O. "Behold," Jesus said, "I am doing a new thing!"
April 2, 1999, Good Friday
Today is filled with Stations of the Cross, from eight to five, in each of the eight languages of the parish. I missed the English version, so at 10:30 I squeeze in to the Malayalam service. I grab the end of a pew and hold on for dear life; our subcontinental ushers are experts at packing, and before it's over, I'm nearly off the end and into the floor in the arms of several men who are peering around a pillar. By the time Good Friday liturgy begins at 11:30, the church is chock-full, as an Indian journalist would say, and hotting up. The altar table has been removed, and behind a curtain, there is a bare cross some ten feet high, a ladder leaning against one arm. The children used this in the morning for their re-enactment of the crucifixion. The ushers have spread colorful cloths on the floor below the sanctuary, and they now pack some fifty women, of all ages, here at the foot of the cross, where they will kneel and sit for several hours. The ushers then fill all four major aisles with men until the crowd flows out into the courtyard. We are at Calvary, quiet, attentive, prayerful.
The service begins with extraordinarily haunting and beautiful Malayalam music. Malayalam is a Dravidian language, one of mankind's oldest, and the rhythms of the music are solemn and strong, some of them familiar from Indian classical music, floating above organ, sitar, and tabla. The congregation prays with palms pressed upright before the face, or with palms lifted, some of them fluttering. When the priest enters to read the Gospel and prayers, the women cover their heads.
I don't know the language but I am deeply moved nevertheless. I've heard this Capuchin preach in English, and preach well, but now in his native tongue it seems the wraps are off. The sermon is very long and passionate, rising and falling in clear patterns of dramatic parallelism, and he carries the people with him to the foot of the cross. He would give any Protestant evangelist stiff competition. The music for the Stations, obviously a translation of Stabat Mater into Malayalam language and music orders grief and fastens our meditation on the events of the Via Dolorosa, as such music should. Many in the congregation have small Stations of the Cross liturgies in pulpy, tattered pamphlets. I notice two boys, 10 or 11, each following every word and singing each verse.
"We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." Outside our compound, the billion-plus Muslims deny the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Trinity, the Scriptures, Original Sin, and Salvation. "Unbelievers see in the Cross nothing but Christ's ignominy," St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "but we see the instrument of our salvation representing God's power triumphing over his enemy: the word of the cross to those that perish is indeed foolishness but to those who are saved it is the power of God." Imagine what the Stations must look like to dwellers in either Arabian or cultural deserts: people following two crossed sticks on which is hung a broken body, repeating over and over that by this instrument the world has been redeemed.
April 1, Good Friday evening
When I was an altar boy at Sacred Heart Church in the coal fields of West Virginia, nothing haunted me more than the stripping of the altar on Holy Thursday and the bare, ruined sanctuary of Good Friday. Here in Oman, our worship has not become disconnected from what the soul needs for full recognition of what is happening in Holy Week. Under the devout and hard working Capuchins, who are always full of good cheer but never possessed of silliness, primal images open our hearts to the mysteries of the Faith. Here men and women instinctively and spontaneously follow the instructions of the Apostle Paul, covering at appropriate times and praying with upturned palms. Here true theology always begins, with the women at the foot of the cross, and here true worship always returns.
April 3-4, 1999, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday
At midnight Mass for Easter, as for Christmas and New Year's, it's best to arrive an hour and a half early, minimum, before church begins if one wants a seat. Outside, the mountains release stored heat that enfolds one in an oven. Hundreds of folding chairs are already full, and behind them begin vast rings of worshippers who can glimpse the Mass on a number of television monitors. People arrive in busses, vans, and taxis driven by curious Muslims who dourly eyeball the infidel hordes. Everyone is dressed in Sunday best. In the endless sea of blacks and browns dotted with white, there is the Church Universal, ethnically uncleansed and scorning no one, Chesterton remarked with awe, accepting not only coolies but even tourists. Under spectacular stars, Christian music floats over the wall, past the Toyota repair shop where cars are slam-banged onto lorries, and toward the neighborhoods of Islam.
The Easter Vigil precedes the Mass. The service begins at 9:30 and ends at 1 AM. I'm on deck at a little before 8 to get a chair. Our new outdoor altar is splendid, and the sight and smell of thousands of candles (we bring our own) during the blessing of the New Fire and the renewal of the Baptismal promises moves me to joy, the joy of the first recognition of Easter, that life is not what we thought it was, but something so inexpressibly wonderful that we can only sing Alleluia, Alleluia in the Church's full witness that He is risen indeed.
Today Father Jesus preaches on the Church. Only the Catholic Church, he reminds us, is the full and authentic voice of Jesus Christ in the modern world. He says it simply, forcefully, without equivocation. Today we are also reminded that the parish food fair will raise money for the architectural changes we are doing for the Jubilee Year of 2000, which will include two stained glass windows, one of the Resurrection, one of the Assumption. The desert sun will blaze the images into our souls. Despite our comparative poverty, we will have these made in Italy. While many in the West have imitated the Muslims in iconoclastic wrecking, and have confused penuriousness in architecture with zeal for the poor, the Third World, mindful of what St. Thomas Aquinas said about the need for sense-images in turning the mind to understanding, picks up the shards of the West and puts them back into the churches again. Neither does the Third World neglect the poor, regularly stuffing the parish poor box in the vestibule as well as the one marked, simply, Mother Theresa.
April 3, Easter Sunday morning, the desert
A few years ago, I camped on Masirah Island off the coast of Oman. Though most Americans have never heard of it, its British air force base served as a major point of departure for the bombing of Iraq. In camouflaged hangars, American planes and other equipment still await each serial crisis. Near the base, an amateur British biologist took me to an extraordinary sight. I thought I was seeing things. It was, indeed, in the rays of the setting sun, like a vision of Resurrection: a huge Celtic Cross, towering over a small graveyard. It is the only public cross in all the millions of square miles of the Arabian desert.
The story is that an ancestor of the present Sultan Qaboos, angry that the islanders had murdered seven shipwrecked British sailors, permitted the Royal Navy to erect the cross here, and then placed a hundred year curse on the island. Fourteen centuries ago, before the rise of Islam, all of Arabia was dotted with Christian and Jewish settlements. Killed, forcibly converted, or driven out, much of their blood was spilled into the sands, often by crucifixion, just as Egyptian and Pakistani Muslims are crucifying Christians today. Seeing on this Easter the signs of hope in my brothers and sisters, many of whose families are now persecuted in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Lebanon, and elsewhere, I pray that the Holy Spirit will renew us in the cultural desert of the West, and here as well, in the real desert, where we began, where He and the Apostles walked and preached as strangers in a strange land, and where, here and there, one can find crosses, the sign of the True West, the compass for all our pilgrimages.