By Fr. Jack Lau, OMI
The question asked of me many times while at Aanmodaya Ashram (an ashram is a hermitage, monastic community, or other place of religious retreat found in South Asia), an Oblate Ashram in Kanchipuram, India was, why are you here? “Why are you, a westerner here at this ashram which we find difficult to live in?” And I would tell them a story of how at 5 or 6, I had a photo of the Buddha in my room and by 11, incense was burning before him. Needless to say; I was not an ordinary first grader. But that answer usually ended the conversation. I continue to ponder that answer, for there is a part of me that is drawn to Asia and to the temples of Asia.
My first experience was in traveling to Thailand in 2004. I stayed with the Oblates and traveled about with them. I remember going to the juniorate and going on a class trip to a local temple. I was excited and my eyes were open, and my heart was already there. Yet the students, probably all about 18 or 19 were shocked that we were going to a temple. For they were taught at home not to go to other places of worship, much like in the U.S. before the 1960s & 70s. Yet the Oblates of Thailand understood well the power of the culture to open up the heart. So, among the Oblates, prayer and the church environment, reflected the prayer at the temple. All were seated on the floor and the soles of one’s feet never faced the teacher or the image of the Holy. As a foreigner one learns by looking, observing, asking when necessary and making plenty of innocent mistakes. What I saw in Thailand was a Catholicism that looked as if Jesus grew up in Thailand.
That experience surely touched me for while helping-out at an Eco program at the Novitiate, one of the General Councilors (Oswald Firth, OMI, from Sri Lanka) came through. My demeanor must have stood out to him. He said to me, “you ought to spend a considerable amount of time at the Oblate Ashram in India.” At that time, I had already been instructing numerous yoga classes in Buffalo, Minnesota and was practicing Yoga while studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
I arrived in Chennai India early in the morning to the warm greetings of the Provincial House. After a couple of hours of sleep there was an early mass and breakfast. I was shown my place, which had a fork, spoon, and knife all in place. Then I looked around and no one was using utensils. The right hand was all you needed! And so “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” And yes, the food was different and spicier than I was used to. No cereal or café au lait!
It was that morning I meet Joseph Samarakone, OMI; director/guru/teacher/Acharya of Aanmodaya Ashram, a ministry of the Oblate Province of India. Sam, as I called him, was an imposing caricature. He seemed tall, though I was taller, he was large framed draped in orange, a white full beard and blue piercing eyes. His voice was deep and commanding. That afternoon we jumped into a jeep and drove about 1 hour to Kanchipuram-“City of a thousand temples”. I arrived, was blessed by the women of the ashram . I had a tour of the ashram and then I was shown my hut/dwelling. It had electricity, a bathroom, and I brought with me the mosquito net which I hung up with dental floss! What more could one want.
I came to realize quickly that I would be spending between 5 to 7 hours a day in the temple sitting. At first it was in the round teaching centre with the statue of the seated Jesus (Sat Guru/Supreme Teacher) in the front. After about 7 months the temple which was under construction was completed and blessed by the Superior General. What I experienced is that God speaks through cultures, through the lives of the people and their sacred texts. So, each day we would be reading from a variety of text. Friday was usually the Sufi Mystics. Saturday was from the Jewish Mystics and on the other days we read from the Christian mystics and the Sages and Saints from around the world. God is still speaking! Being in the State of Tamil Nadu where the Shivite experience/expression of Hindu culture was prominent we would read and ponder daily the local Shivite saints. Manikkavachaka was the sage that Sam would recite daily. One day, the electricity went out and he continued by memory the entire text. Sam was passionate and brilliant, and he shared with me his love of sacred scripture from around the world. (There are YouTube of his talks on-line) I continue to read and ponder these sacred texts throughout the week and often use them in my sermons. I am drawn to the Upanishads for their poetry, clarity, and rootedness in the human experience. “Hear, O children of immortal bliss! You are born to be united with the Lord. Follow the path of the illumined ones and be united with the Lord of Life.” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 2:5)
An important moment in my journey was a visit to the Sikh Golden Temple, a gurdwara located in the city of Amritsar, Punjab, India. I spent the day walking around the large pool on hot white marble. I asked a group of young people; “who can go in the pool?” They said anyone can in the pool. So, I continued to walk and then I said, “what makes this water any different than the Jordan, the Tiber or even Lourdes”? And with that I plunged myself in, and a woman near me handed me her little boy. I will hold that moment and memory close to my heart and allow it to guide my way. I have carried these many experiences with me into the cave of my heart.
This past month (Sept 2023) I was able to attend an Oblate Ordination in Colombo Sri Lanka. Much can be said, yet to drive through the city streets, and walk along country paths I could see shrines with the Buddha and his disciples, Jesus, Mary, and Anthony of Padua through-out the country. As one looking in from the outside, the spiritual essence of the country was present and at least for me was not oppressive but inviting. I saw a lived faith reality in the temples and shrines. I saw it in homes with statues of both the Sacred Heart and the Buddha. The author and contemporary prophet of our time, Thich Nhat Hahn (d.2022) would see, “Jesus and Buddha as brothers”.
The moment of profound stirring was my visit to Seba Seth Gedera, an faith community founded by Oblate Michael Rodrigo, OMI -Martyr. (d. 10 Nov 1987) (On the OMI MUD page there are links to Michael Rodrigo’s OMI, writings)
Michael was about respecting individuals and lifting them up while celebrating their experience and faith. He was not there to impose a colonial church upon the people, in fact he was not there to build a “church”. Rather he was there to build the kindom (I purposely use the word ‘kindom’ for it reflects to me family relationships rather than the word kingdom that reflect to patriarchy and power) through dialogue, hard work, and radical relationships. Michael was also known for his knowledge of local healing herbs and vegetation. He was highly respected by the local Buddhist monasteries and was invited to teach (dharma talks).
As I walked into the small chapel, I fell to my knees in the place where his shattered body laid. I had read about him and seen the gruesome photos, but being there was something very different. Michael’s path into the kindom reality is one in which the Oblate family might study and be challenged by. It is about presence, respect and a radical “oneing” within all of humanity and all of creation. (LSi#91) “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”
This past year I have been participating in a Buddhist / Catholic Dialogue regarding the environment sponsored by the World Parliament of Religion. Laudato Si states (225) Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived our authentically, it is reflected in a balance lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to the deeper understanding of life.
As I continued to study and pray with the text of the deep wisdom of the world and the more that I see/read and take in, I see a common tap root. Richard Rohr, OFM, writes: “The recurring theme of all religions is a sympathy, empathy, connection, capacity between the human and the divine – that we were made for union with one another. They might express this through different rituals, doctrines, dogmas, or beliefs, but at the higher levels they are talking about the same goal. And the goal is always union with the divine.”
Thank you for the invitation to share a bit of my story as I continue to sit in and be present to the Word that is reflected throughout all of creation.