Monday Morning Musings

Posted on December 26, 2016 under Monday Morning Musings with one comment

A Sri Lankan temple at Sarnath honoring Buddha

This is the first time that I have been away from home and family at Christmas time since the days when I was young, single and had a full head of hair! And while I missed many of the traditions associated with this time of the year, I experienced some things that were quite extraordinary.

On December 23rd. I left one of the richest places on the planet ( Abu Dhabi ) and flew to one of the oldest and poorest cities in India, Varanasi. My flight took me through New Delhi which is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Sitting in the departure lounge in Delhi , waiting for my flight to Varanasi, I had trouble seeing the airplanes sitting a few hundred meters away. Varanasi wasn’t much better when I landed. My lodgings for Christmas were at the administrative headquarters of the Indian Missionary Society ( IMS )  run by Catholic priests. The current chief officer of the order is Father Thomas who was a parish priest and pastor in Cape Breton for several years. The facility shares the land with an ashram,  or spiritual centre.

On Christmas Eve Day, Father Thomas took me around the city to visit several of their facilities including their seminary. Their work takes them to all corners of India and not surprisingly most of their missionary work is directed towards helping the poor. Both Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama have been guests at the seminary. Among the many people I met,  one was a  medical doctor who provides his services at the semianry,  as well as in the community. He is affectionately known as the “ snake doctor” as his specialty is treating snake bites. This was both comforting and disconcerting  to me. He told me that he had treated more than 1000 patients in the last year, most of whom had been bitten by cobras. I decided to pay more attention to where I walked!

IMS has been in existence for 75 years and they spend a lot of time in the neighborhoods providing a wide array of services. The population is predominantly Hindu and over this long period of time, they have come to understand  Christianity. Hindus have many gods and are accepting of other faiths.

I noticed a lot of activity at the ashram early in the day as it was obvious that preparations were underway for a large Christmas celebration. Around noon time, people started to arrive, carrying food for the day along with bedding for an overnight camp out. At 3:00 p.m. music and dance began at an open air field covered by a tarp, mainly for protection from the sun. By this time , several thousand people had arrived and there was a very festive atmosphere.

The crowd swelled to some 10,000 people by 6:00 p.m. when a Christmas drama was presented. It was the story of the birth of Christ with several interesting adaptations that acknowledged the mostly Hindu audience. Of course, it was all in Hindi so I didn’t understand a word, but that didn’t matter as the visuals, the dancing, the color and the music, kept me highly entertained.

I joined the priests for dinner at 8:00 and at 9:00 a concelebrated midnight mass was held back at the main stage. The spiritual director of the ashram presided. But before mass began, he preached… for over an hour. He sat on the stage, surrounded by 25 or so priests. He spoke and read from scripture. He had a wonderful voice and from time to time led the congregation in song. He also took command of the stage standing near the front. He was an incredible orator. The only word I recognized all evening was “hallelujah” and when he repeated it several times in a row, raising his voice each time, he had the crowd in a near frenzy. Martin Luther King would have been impressed with his oratorical skills. Mass ended at midnight and celebrations continued till the wee hours of the morning.

I didn’t see any sign of Santa… or Christmas trees… or presents.

Christmas morning was low keyed as everyone was trying to recover from the long night. In the afternoon, I was picked up and taken to a home that houses the railway children. DARE ( Development Association for Research and Empowerment ) is one of the many projects of IMS and it’s administrator is Father Abhi who comes to the Diocese of Antigonish every summer to put on missions to raise money for this home. The previous evening at the festival, I watched in awe as the children from the home performed a few dances.

Every day, tens of thousands of people come into Varanasi by train. Many of them are pilgrims coming to bathe in the Ganges River. For a variety of reasons, many children are simply abandoned and left at the railway station. Many of them become beggars and are forced into labour and become the victims of sexual abuse.”  DARE is an organization with a special focus on rescue and rehabilitation of the children trying to find food and shelter from the trains and railway stations,” according to their mandate. “ We provide temporary shelter, education, vocational training, family counselling, foster care and legal aid to children to have a better future.”

I had a chance to spend time with the children. It was very humbling. A group of university students showed up with a hot lunch and Christmas presents… the only ones that they would get this Christmas but I’m certain that being in a safe place, is the greatest present that they could ever receive.

They desperately need a 20 person mini bus to transport the children to school. More on this at a later date. Maybe we can help them acquire this. “DARE to be different?”

I hopped on the back of Fr. Abhi’s motorcycle and travelled to Sarnath, a spiritual destination for Buddhists around the world. It was at this site that Buddha first preached to his five companions after enlightenment. It is a place of worship and peace.

What happened after we left was anything but peaceful.           

It was late in the afternoon when it was time for me to go back to my residence. A taxi was hired and Fr. Abhi decided he would come with me.  Darkness was setting in as we crawled through the congested ( and noisy! ) streets of the city at rush hour. Our taxi driver rear ended a brand new SUV. What ensued is a story in itself but it was a very dangerous situation as the three occupants of the SUV were extremely upset. They were very big, menacing looking guys and they were demanding restitution on the spot. A crowd of about 25 curious onlookers surrounded our taxi and everyone was shouting and waving their arms. I found out afterwards that some were supporting the taxi driver while others were on the side of the aggrieved. This could have ended very badly for our driver ( possibly tragically ). Stay tuned for the full story but from all accounts, me being from Canada possibly saved this guys’s life. It was a very dramatic and unsettling end to a Christmas Day that I’ll not soon forget.

I have a story for you later in the week. It’s called “ A Delhi Sandwich.”  Leaving Abu Dhabi provided a bit of drama that I just had to chronicle.

Much later tonight ( India time ), I will be Skyping with the participants of the street hockey game on Hillcrest Street.

Have a great week.

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