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Posted by Walter Mason on Friday, 30 November 2007
The Sacred Heart Parish church just around the corner from me must be one of the busiest Catholic churches in the country. From Friday evening there is an endless progression of services in various languages. Parking can get very tight. For years there was a decaying cement statue of the Virgin next to the church which was very popular - particularly with Vietnamese parishioners. If you were to go walking very early in the morning you would find several elderly Vietnamese people deep in prayer in front of the fence that protects the statue. In the last year the old statue was removed and replaced with this odd new on which looks as though it might be made of sandstone. The surrounding area has been paved and landscaped and a higher fence put around it to dissuade vandals. If you look closely it might be possible to discern a slightly oriental cast to the Virgin's features - or am I just imagining it? I think the statue was done locally, as I've never seen one like it in Vietnam. I kind of like it, but then, I'm biased.
Since I have some time on my hands and have been wandering around my neighbourhood, I thought I'd share some of the special sites that mark my travels. I am lucky enough to live in Cabramatta, one of the most energetic and multicultural suburbs in Sydney, perhaps in the world. More than half the residents of Cabramatta were born somewhere else - primarily Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, but increasingly from China, Iraq and Sudan. There are also pockets of Serbians, Croatians, Ukrainians, Poles, Italians, Chileans, Uruguayans, Russians and Estonians. One need never hear English spoken on the streets around here, though among young people there is a ubiquitous 'Cabra Accent' which incorporates the slang and intonations of Vietnamese, Khmer and Arabic - it is truly unique, and seems to cross all racial boundaries.
This building is just around the corner from my house, and is one of my faves - they have lion dancing practise there, and also ballroom dancing classes for the elderly Vietnamese-Chinese who frequent the centre. I am led to believe that the Teo Chew are among the more numerous of overseas Chinese communities, and are particularly prominent in Bangkok.
So what's a Buddhist/Unitarian/Swedenborgian/Liberal Christian who grew up a Protestant with distinctly Hindu leanings doing with a devotion to the BVM? I don't know, I can't explain it, but ever since I was a child I've been devoted to the Virgin and found great solace in her image. When I found out about the Hail Mary I begged my Catholic cousin Marisa to teach it to me, and thus become one of the only people in the Inter School Christian Fellowship - that hyper-protestant body - who had the Hail Mary as part of his regular prayer life.
Of course, it didn't take me long to ditch the ISCF, but I always remained devoted to Mary, and I seek her out wherever I go in the world, lighting candles and sending up prayers. I have never taken part in a Novena, but it is one of my secret wishes, and I hope to do it one day! What a glorious idea.
So, I have favourite Marys in Macau and Vietnam. I also have my own little Marian pilgrim path in Sydney, which I may detail one day (it's raining today and I have shocking neuralgia, so I won't be leaving the house). I also have all kinds of radical ideas about the similarities in imagery between the Virgin Mary and Kuan Yin - backed up, I must say, by some prominent academics.
The photo accompanying this post is the icon of Mary at St. Benedict's, Arcadia. In front of this icon every night they sing the Miserere in Latin, just before the monks go to bed. It is always such an incredibly moving moment.
I also happen to think that a devotion to Mary - or more specifically, a lack of it - was what destroyed Protestantism. People cannot live without a feminine face of spirituality - in my opinion it is a primal human need.
Hail Mary, full of Grace...
Whenever I can (which isn't very often) I try t o escape for a day or two of solitude and reflection. I have tried many places, but I am most at ease at St. Benedict's, a humble little Benedictine monastery in Arcadia, in the outskirts of northern Sydney. There's nothing much to do at St. Ben's, which is just as I like it. I don't think I'm the best guest, because I spend practically all my time in my little room, reading, meditating, praying and sleeping. Mostly the latter. I can sleep for days at a stretch there, waking up only when the monks ring the bell for prayer. I suppose it's an indication of how exhausted I must let myself get.
I've just been there recently, for four wonderful days, and more and more I come to see the time I spend there as a precious gift to myself. The monks are all wonderful men, quiet and gentle and unassuming, allowing me complete freedom to fill my days as I please. Sometimes, in a romantic mood, I can imagine myself living out my days there, rarely leaving the cloister.
The decor is nothing special - suburban Sydney is pretty short on medieval abbeys. But I am content in the late 60s institutional setting, nicely weathered and sustaining just the right amount of decay to make it homely.
It is at St. Benedict's that my interest in Benedictine spirituality has been nurtured, and I am greatly in awe of those good men and women all over the world who are satisfied to live beneath the rule of St. Benedict, that oddly comprehensive little document that some say has helped to shape Western civilization.
I watched Jesus Camp for the first time last night on DVD, and what a frightening little film it is. All of those hyped up little children whipped into emotional frenzies by creepy adults who claim to speak for Jesus. This follows hard on the heels of a wonderful book I just finished reading called People in Glass Houses, an expose of Hillsong, that ugly Sydney mega-church that spews hate and stupidity in the guise of religion, by Tanya Levin, a woman who grew up in the church. Jesus Camp proves what Levin alleges in her book - that Pentecostalism is an extremist cult that is manipulative, destructive and poisonous. As Levin points out, if Muslim groups were doing and saying the same things they would be under surveillance by the government, but in Australia the Prime Minister turns up to Hillsong services and praises them as good Australians. Right-wing homophobes who believe that everyone but them is going to hell, sure, but model citizens nonetheless.
What is saddest, and rendered most poignant in Jesus Camp, is that the beautiful and innocent souls of young children are infested with this mania and hatred from the very earliest age - lending credence, surely, to Richard Dawkins' contention that organised religion is just another form of child abuse. PLEASE see Jesus Camp, and read Levin's very important (and completely absorbing) book. Pentecostalism is moving into the mainstream, and presenting a benevolent and benign face - we need to be vigilant about maintaining our religious and social freedom, and about according respect to cultists and extremists seeking to exert undue influence in our society. Believe me, the Evangelical Pentecostalist vision of the world is ugly and frightening, and more people need to know this.
Posted by Walter Mason on Friday, 9 November 2007
I've done it! Just written my last ever essay for my undergraduate degree! An immensely satisfying experience - though I can't quite rest on my laurels yet - I need to complete a take-home exam for Monday, and I have a real exam on Monday as well - a tough one at that! So this weekend will be relatively low-key, to say the least!
My last essay, if you're interested, was on the Fo Kuang Shan Buddhist movement, and is really quite good, if I say so myself.
Thang and I are going to Macau/Shenzhen/Hong Kong in January for a well-deserved break before 2008 starts being truly crazy. I fell in love with Macau and Hong Kong while on a brief visit earlier this year, and was determined to go back and explore them more fully.
I love everything about them. I love Macau's sleepy and truly unique mix of sleaze and mysticism, Europe and Asia. I just love to stroll around the Old City eating Portuguese tarts and visiting temples and churches - I could do it all day, and will for a week in January! And there is Hong Kong - what a wonderful, crazy place. I love its food and its kooky temples and its beautiful people and its crowds during the evening. Like other great Asian cities (Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City), I don't think you could ever truly exhaust Hong Kong's possibilities. Hong Kong is exactly like its movies, which I think is a good thing.