The Hopes of a Young FCJ on Our Bicentenary Year: Part II
This is Part II of a reflection on what it means for me to be a young FCJ in today's world. Read Part I here and Part III here.
2. Bridging Cultures
Growing up in Singapore has also given me an interesting vantage point from which to view our efforts at interculturality as FCJs. While geographically and historically part of Asia, Singapore society has been very much influenced by the West (with the strange result for example that my family always spoke English at home!). It is also culturally diverse, its population consisting largely of descendants of immigrants from different parts of Asia, bringing with them their different cultures and religions. In some sense, we bridged and appreciated the gifts of East and West.
All this I took for granted growing up. My intentional adventures in interculturality, though, really started when I left home to join the FCJs in the Philippines. Little did I know how much pain there would be in letting go of the way I had lived - all the unspoken assumptions I had shared with everyone else in my own place - and feel powerless even to speak in a language not my own. In a sense it was like becoming a child again; unlearning and taking on a very different worldview of how things worked, how social interactions were done, what was acceptable to do.
Then I lived for two years in two very different parts of Indonesia, learning another new language. But in Yogyakarta what I found most interesting was the influence of religion - how it was in the very air that one breathed: in the mesmerizing call of the azhan five times a day; in the greetings offered to you by neighbours; in a small child proudly telling you that she was fasting on a Ramadan day; in the ancient Hindu and Buddhist monuments towering over the landscape, that were old even before the advent of Islam. Christianity is a latecomer there - as it is in most parts of Asia.
One of my fondest memories of Indonesia was the opening of a new FCJ spirituality centre next to
our convent, a few months before I left. We had invited the whole neighbourhood - mostly Muslim - to a traditional 'wayang kulit' (shadow puppet) performance, which would go on for hours. To open the program, a group of women from the neighbourhood had been invited to sing folk songs. They were all Muslim except for the conductor and me (they had asked me to play the music on our keyboard). It was an unexpected and very joyful experience for me to be a part of the group. After their piece, I was mesmerized by the 'wayang' performance, though someone had to explain it to me as it was in Javanese, which I did not understand. The most amazing thing for us that night, though, was how many of our Muslim neighbours showed their trust and support in us by attending the opening of our Catholic institution, despite the prevailing political climate at that time in which religion was sometimes used as a bone of contention.
The story being told that night in the ‘wayang kulit’ was part of the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana – a story that has been told and retold countless times in parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, over countless generations. I had first encountered it in India, and was surprised to do so again in Cambodia and now in Indonesia. It - and the Hinduism that has been is vessel - has been woven so deeply into the fabric and memory of Asia in a way that Christianity cannot yet contemplate. So too in different parts of Asia have the teachings and traditions of Confucius and the Buddha.
I wonder sometimes if we are barely beginning to scratch the surface of possibility as FCJs in Asia. As Catholics we are inheritors of a tradition coming to us from the West, which has defined our lives. As vowed religious we have pledged our lives to the quest for a God whom we know from the scriptures and revealed to us in Jesus, our faithful companion. In living fully that life, can we not also look for inspiration in the spiritual journeys of our ancestors in these Asian lands, the search for God undertaken by countless generations before us, whose monuments we still see and revere, and whose stories have shaped our societies and our hearts? Is not God found in countless guises?
To be an FCJ in an age where the world is shrinking, then - to live out fully our charism of companionship - is, I think, to be open to peoples, cultures, places and ways of doing things that are not our own, in the knowledge that we are all one in God's creation. Letting go of your own lens – and the prejudices and false security that go with it – is undoubtedly a painful process, but it opens up so much of the world beyond your limited horizon. The Philippines - with all its beauty and contradictions - has strangely become home to me now, even despite the struggles with language and expectations that sometimes make me lose sight of that. Just last week as I rode a crowded jeepney on the way back from work, looking out at the tired faces of people on the road avoiding dirty puddles after a rainstorm, I suddenly realised - unexpectedly and with delight - that I love this place and its people, and that my destiny is inextricably bound up with theirs. Perhaps the pain of letting go is merely a small price to pay for a deeper understanding of one’s place in God's boundless communion.
Secondly, to be an FCJ from Asia specifically, I think, is a great grace. We have received such rich gifts from the Society, which were passed on to us by our sisters in the West. And we also carry in our bodies and spirits the gifts of our ancestors and the lands from which we come. Might we not more intentionally make of the latter a gift back to the body of the Society, so that together we might live out in a richer way our commitment to unity in diversity?
I hope, therefore, that in the years to come we as FCJs in Asia will mine more deeply the cultural gifts that are ours - from lands marked by the great religions and by our particular traditions and histories - and share them more widely with the Society that we have made our home. In this process may we all be open to change and be changed by one other as we explore more deeply together the mystery that is God.
Read Part III of this reflection here.