Cambridge, MA. In the past weeks I wrote about my recent, brief visit to China. Readers may have picked up on an underlying theme: I felt it was too late (in life) to give myself over to the China experience, its culture and ways of life and religions, its history and languages and current day destiny. I may visit China again some time, but at age 62, I do not envision bringing it into the center of my life and research as a comparative theologian.
In the back of my mind too was that, by contrast, this coming week marks a full forty years since I first traveled to India and Nepal. I went for my Jesuit regency – practical, teaching – experience just after college, part of the preparation for ordination, to Kathmandu, up in the Himalayas, in Nepal, that small country, in-between the giants of India and China, and possessed of Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) and many others among the world’s tallest mountains. I arrived in India on July 6, 1973, and in Kathmandu the next day, July 7. I stayed for a full two years and more, teaching in St. Xavier’s School, a superb institution (then and now) established in 1951 by American Jesuits in India, at the invitation of Nepal’s king.
At St. Xavier’s, starting at the end of July 1973, I taught English language — grammar, speech, literature — and “moral science,” a deracinated and rather abstract inculcation of moral principles which I, like the teenage boys I taught, found rather detached and dull. And so, momentously for me and memorably for many of the Hindu and Buddhist boys I taught, I turned to Hindu and Buddhist stories and scriptures, and brought those ancient and living religions into the classroom, as exemplars of moral principles, and it all came alive.
Beginning those days in Kathmandu, I found my way among the Hindu texts and practices, insights and emotions, visited the great temples, and created a space at the school where the boys could pray and praise God in their own language and by their own music — and I could watch and listen, drawn into the devotion and vision underlying their practice. I found myself as person, scholar-to-be, and Jesuit, in those two years. It was then and there, in July 1973, that I began my study of Hinduism, that field of expertise in which I have persisted and which I have deepened over these four decades as traveler, student, and professor. Without fully realizing what I was getting into, I was in fact laying the foundation for the entirety of my life: the American Catholic Jesuit priest and scholar who would study Hinduism for forty years and more, learning from Hindu traditions on every level of my being. What I do now began then.
I am just about to send to the press a now completed book that I’ve mentioned in this blog a number of time: His Hiding Place is Darkness: A Hindu-Christian Theopoetics of Divine Absence (Stanford University Press). This is a book about the absence of the beloved in the Song of Songs, read by Bernard of Clairvaux and his successors, read along with the Tiruvaymoli (Holy Word of Mouth), a set of one hundred mystical songs by the great mystic saint Shatakopan. While I researched and wrote this latest book only in the past five years, its intellectual and spiritual merits, such as they may be, are indebted to a prior thirty five years of learning Hinduism, as a Catholic, following upon that first 1973 journey with some fifteen further journeys to Nepal and India. It is not a bad thing that an intellectual project can mature for decades, unseen, before it gets written down.
I mention all this as I mark the fortieth anniversary of my first visit to India, Nepal, and Hinduism because — aside from the fact that I love anniversaries — I wish to admit to my readers the other side of a point I often make. I have always insisted that you can right now, just as you are, begin to study a religion other than your own and enrich your life with its wisdom, puzzles, and challenges — by a book, some images, a short trip to another religious place. Thus my third China blog, the poetry, etc.
But there is also an advantage to engaging in such study of another tradition with single-minded devotion for a very long time: slow learning as long learning. Paradoxically, life is too short and the issues of interreligious understanding too urgent for us to rush to judgment about other people’s religions. If you want to make a difference, take your time. Better to take a decade — or three or four — to learn from another religion and let it seep everywhere into your faith and mind and prayer. Particularly if you are young, consider this possibility: listen to some other religion with careful attention, patience, openness, reflect on it in light of your own faith, and travel back and forth, again and again, over the decades. You will never run out of possibilities or be finished with this learning.
I could continue on here, about the wonderful Jesuits I worked with at St. Xavier’s during 1973-1975, the boys I taught – now men in their 40s and 50s – and then too I could write about the instances of Hinduism that have stayed with me: Shiva Ratri (the night festival of Lord Shiva) and Diwali, the festival of lights; the devotional songs of Hinduism, beginning with Gandhi’s favorite, which my students knew how to sing, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram; and the Dakshin Kali goddess temple outside the Kathmandu Valley, where I encountered, as if for a first time outside my Catholic faith, the holiness of a sacred place where earthly and divine realities meet.
But this is a blog made of words, so I close with the first poem in Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore’s famous collection, a poem that I first read in the fall of 1973, as if a portent of what my life would be, ever after:
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales,
and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy
and gives birth to utterance ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.