Thursday, March 31, 2022

Love on a human scale: The Gospel according to Ivan Illich - Book Review

Clarion Journal for Religion, Peace & Justice, August 26, 2021

Every now and then a book comes into my life that puts me in a happy dilemma: I want to lend it to all my friends, but I don’t want it to leave my house. Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey is a labour of love by Illich’s long-time friend and co-conspirator, David Cayley. At 552 pages, its heft reminds me of the boxes of “a good, but inexpensive wine” that Illich managed to write off as a teaching expense. This opus represents many, many evenings of intelligent, friendly, and finally life-changing dialogue that culminate in a near-symphonic quality. Cayley’s deep understanding and clear prose pull a complex, balanced harmony out of themes that to the casual reader of Illich could seem eclectic. What does medical overreach have to do with the 12th-century innovation of silent reading or the New Testament concept of the Anti-Christ or the dissolution of gender as a capitalist phenomenon, for heaven’s sake?

In a confusing and troubling time, this book gave me the permission to weigh the harm done by coronavirus against the harms done in the fight against it, a model to help me accept and be grateful for some of what medicine provides, and still have the confidence to resist to the hysteric shunning of my unvaccinated friends. In the wake of the discovery of more than 1,308 unmarked graves for Indigenous children who were coerced into residential schools and never came home again, the book helps me name the totalitarian hubris of a church that thought it could “do what God cannot, namely manipulate others into their own salvation” through brute force, child abductions and mind control, and repent of such hubris through a closer walk with Christ, rather than by running away from my spiritual inheritance.

One of Illich’s mottos was “I fear the Lord is passing me by.” Illich receives in Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan a radical freedom to encounter the other Other in the human other—an opening to friendship that can not be guaranteed, a surprise that cannot be institutionalized. His other motto was Corruptio Optimi Pessima—the corruption of the best is the worst. Glorious innovations tend to have dark shadows. A faith in which there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free is uniquely prone to an imperialism that flattens Indigenous cultures and drives men and women out of the complementarity of gender into the competitive, unidimensional arena of sex.

This last idea risks generating much more heat than light, and a book review by a white man about a biography by a white man about another white man seems unlikely to help the cause. I may just be securing my copy from being borrowed! At the risk of mansplaining, I will spill a little more ink on what may be a stumbling block for many in accessing Illich. Many of Illich’s friends advised him against publishing his thoughts on this matter, and when Gender came out in 1982 it did mark a fall from grace for Illich among the New Left.

Cayley’s chapter on “Gender” takes care to first understand what Illich had to say before critiquing some of his nostalgia and gender essentialism, a courtesy that was not granted him by early reviewers. Cayley summarizes Illich’s argument as follows:

Illich speaks loudly against equality as sameness. But he also speaks loudly for equality in its sense of equity, arguing that most women suffer irremediable disadvantages in a realm of universal circulation and competition. The two points are connected. Illich claims that idealizing equality may allow some women to rise to new heights of wealth and influence but that it will hurt many more—by lowering the status of every form of sustenance that occurs outside the cash nexus in which equality finds its measure, by fostering an illusory sense of opportunity, and by inviting those who fail to seize these opportunities to blame themselves. His analysis of feminism, in this respect, took the same form as his analysis of every other modern institution that he explored—it incites envy and delivers frustration. Only by reversing economic growth, unbuilding the global megalith, and restoring human scale will the majority of women regain their dignity, he says, because only then will the contribution of those who have been shunted aside in the rat race begin to matter. This is the sole sense in which he speaks against equality: equality-as-justice, he says, cannot be achieved without a firm rejection of equality-as-sameness.

Illich is on the lookout everywhere in his work for one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore the bonds and bounds of our bodies, whether the social bodies of community and culture or the physical bodies of women and men. Visions of justice that require everyone to have the same kinds of jobs, visions of health that require everyone to take the same kind of medicine, visions of education that require everyone to have the same kind of standardized credentials are for Illich a liberal power fantasy with an ugly underbelly, a perversion directly inherited from a church that could envision the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven as the mass conversion of global humanity into a single catechism and a single rite under a single worldly authority with divinely underwritten supremacy. Such a universalism inherently corrodes human freedom and erodes “the soil of friendship” which is always limited and local. “As long as you think of the world as a whole,” Illich said, “the time for human beings is over.”

Illich is trying to protect islands of the homegrown, the homemade, and the homespoken. I think of feminist friends who make homegrown pickles with their homeschooled children when they could easily get jobs that would pay for cheaper pickles, cheaper child care, and then some. Perhaps at the kitchen tables of these mothers, Illich’s analysis of gender has “reached the hour of its legibility,” as is hoped by Giorgio Agamben, another male commentator. Besides the voice of Illich’s colleague Barbara Duden, and a comment from Cayley’s wife, we hear little sympathetic commentary from women in this chapter. That is too bad.

Illich calls this domain of the homemade “the vernacular,” reviving an old Latin adjective that could be applied to one’s mother tongue as well as to a cow raised at home instead of acquired at the market. He hopes such islands can align in an “archipelago of conviviality”—a chain of islands where life is still livable on a human scale, where we can love one another as neighbours and renounce the kind of “care” that implicitly takes the point of view of a systems administrator. It is not that Illich is against institutions and systems organized to achieve social goods, but as a loyal dissident of the Roman Catholic Church, he is acutely sensitive to the harms done in the name of good, and of the importance of limits and humility for those of us who get caught up trying to save the world, whether with sacred rites or secular ones. “Risk awareness,” Illich said to Cayley late in life, is “the most important religiously celebrated ideology of today.” That was before the Coronavirus lockdown.

Illich blesses the missionary impulse at the same time as he chastens it. He understands that whether inspired by Jesus or by a medical breakthrough, people will want to share their good news. But he sees with near-clairvoyant power how the good news is accompanied by a terrible danger. Humans inspired by visions of God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven all too easily construct an artificial, man-made world from which there is no escape.

As a reader of Illich via Cayley, I find myself more deeply drawn into the good news of Jesus, and more able to discern and rebuke the spirits that dress up like Jesus while perverting his good news. I find myself both grateful for a vaccine that reduces the symptoms and spread of a nasty virus, and alert to the shadows of a campaign of global vaccine compliance. When a frightened neighbour who does not attend my church recently reached out to me to ask if I could write a religious exemption for her son so that this unvaccinated young man could attend college this fall, I said yes. As I did so, I silently thanked Illich and Cayley for helping me get my head around what the hell is going on in this strange time and how in heaven’s name such a yes to my neighbour could possibly be a yes to Christ.

Monday, April 6, 2020

A Time for the Vernacular

Rediscovering the home economy inside our COVID19 quarantines

My wife cut my hair this weekend. In recent years, I had become accustomed to the pleasures and precisions of professional haircuts. The home hairdo was a bit nerve-wracking for both of us. When your hairdresser says, “Well, there’s always hats. You like wearing hats,” you do not feel the same boost in your confidence and sense of your own handsomeness as when you walk out of a professional barber shop.

But it was fine. I looked in the mirror and did feel handsome. And loved and taken care of in a way I don’t get from the barber. That’s the difference between a professional haircut and what Ivan Illich would call a vernacular haircut.

My wife has been rendered unemployed by the COVID19 crisis, and my own work hours have shrunk to about 5 hours a week. Many, many others are suddenly in similar situations. But our un- or under-employment does not mean that we are doing nothing. It does not mean that we have no economy. Many of us are rediscovering the skills and joys of a home economy. I have a friend who is taking up beading again. Another is playing her violin for the first time in five years. Another has started a youtube channel and has taken up baking bread for his family. Prairie Flour Mill at Elie, Manitoba, is suddenly milling around the clock trying to keep up with the demand for flour as thousands of home bakers have suddenly rediscovered this vocation.

According to Illich, the vernacular used to refer not only to home-spoken dialects, but to the economy of the homemade, the homespun and the homegrown. For example, a vernacular cow was an animal that had been born on your home farm, as opposed to an animal you purchased at the market.

Illich reclaimed this term to refer to “activities of people…not motivated by thoughts of exchange,…autonomous, non-market-related actions through which people satisfy everyday needs—the actions which by their nature escape bureaucratic control…[and] that we want to defend from measurement or manipulation.” Illich noticed in the 1970’s (another time of economic “downturn”) that the narrative of progress and development was confronted by a force that had not been anticipated: the rich and the privileged were carving out spaces for themselves that were free of “the damages inflicted by development.”

Decades prior to the advent of telecommuting, Illich notice a trend in which “You have arrived if you can commute outside the rush hour;…if you can give birth at home…are rich and lucky if you can breathe fresh air; by no means poor, if you can build your own shack.”

Just this morning, my daughter passed along a youtube video of a 25-year-old British do-it-your-selfer who built her own tiny home with the help of friends and family. “This is my dream home,” Johanna said. “That’s what I want to learn to do.” Bingo, Mr. Illich.

I do not want to make light of the terrific economic pain that a predicted 30% unemployment rate will cause in this country, and the even greater pain it will cause in “the world's first rich failed state” on our southern border, where the social safety net is weak, polarization and inequality are extreme, and the private gun arsenals are vast. A kick at this darkness will not bleed daylight. We need to go gently, very gently into this dark night. The more fairly and evenly our governments can spread the burden and redistribute resources in this crisis, the better.

But I also don’t want to miss out on a rediscovery of the pleasures of a slower, more home-based economy that is underway on a massive scale. I was talking yesterday with a restauranteur friend who tells me that despite COVID19’s terrible impact on her business, she is hoping that we actually don’t return to “normal” as we knew it. She is reading about signs all across the world of animals and birds coming back, of eco-systems healing as the pollution and noise of “economic activity” abates. In her own life, she is experiencing a badly needed rest, and rediscovering parts of herself coming back out into the open, like shy woodland creatures long-banished by the noise and bustle of her business.

Another friend is suddenly much happier in his marriage. How much was the pain and alienation he had been locating between himself and his wife really just the collateral damage of the double income young suburban family structure that has become the normal formula in hyper-capitalist late modernity? When every morning is a frantic race to get everyone out the door, who can hold a space in which family can come home to one another? At the risk of committing a professional heresy, I have begun to wonder out loud whether some part of the drop in business in family therapy is not the fear of a Corona-virus infection, but the fact that just being in each other’s presence with few outside pressures is the healing balm that many couples and families have been aching for. I look forward to a bump in babies nine months from the onset of our self-isolation.

The last century has seen the professionalization and monetization of many, many tasks that used to be exchanged in the informal economy of human community. Decade by decade, we capitulated to the logic that it does not make sense to bake your own bread, grow your own garden, educate your own children, carry your own teachings, perform your own ceremonies, do your own healing work, if you can specialize in one of these areas as a professional, and get paid a rate that is worth more per hour than your time would be worth if you yourself did any of those other things for your loved ones. You can buy all that stuff with fewer hours of your time.

You could. And now perhaps you can’t. What are you discovering about the trade-off? Illich once calculated that for all the extra time and labour it took to pay for a car and the infrastructure of a car-based society, we weren’t actually getting anywhere more efficiently than if we walked or rode bicycles.

One more consideration. As it was in the 1970’s, the option of the stay-at-home economy is the luxury of a certain class. One of the greatest evils that Illich documented about our present age is that it has destroyed the world in which it was possible to live without money. This is perhaps the greatest injustice our present society has done to the poor. The poor among us are those who have lost access to both to the economy of “good jobs” and to the intact land base and the intact human communities inside of which the pleasures of the vernacular economy can be found. If you are finding a new satisfaction in your days at home in this strange time, do not forget about them.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Event

In an article entitled, “Survival of the Richest,” technologist Douglas Rushkoff talks about how the wealthy are plotting to leave the rest of us behind after “The Event”—a euphemism for the environmental collapse and societal breakdown they have come to see as inevitable in the looming climate crisis. Rushkoff describes an eery meeting, for which he received “by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk — about half my annual professor’s salary,” where he sat down with five super-wealthy hedge fund managers, who soon made it clear that they were not interested in his prepared presentation on the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own:

“Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska?…Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, ‘How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?’…They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time."

It’s a longstanding pattern of the super-rich, this next-level logic of the gated community—like the Viking aristocracy who condemned themselves to starve last in the collapsing colony they had fancifully named “Greenland,” the icy island where they had attempted to impose the pasture and dairy agronomy of Scandinavia and despised the Indigenous life ways of the Inuit. In their case, a global cooling of a few degrees was the tipping point toward death. In our case, global warming is the existential threat. Jared Diamond, who tells the story of the Greenland Vikings in Collapse, wonders what it is that makes humans double down on unsustainable and inequitable ways of life in moments of cultural crisis. Like the Easter Islanders who felled their last trees to cart one last batch of stone idols into place to save them from the ecological breakdown of their island economy. Instead of building life boats to get off the island, they prostrated themselves one more time before the cult that was condemning them to death.

Death cults are nothing new. The kind of political power that rises from sacrificial altars has been with us from the dawn of human civilization, and is with us still. Once we had high priests who determined who would die and who would live in the ceremonies that guaranteed our prosperity. Today we have the infallibility of the market determining the sacred necessity of misery and extinction at “lower” levels of existence for the sake of an energetic, consumptive bonanza in the upper levels of global capitalism. Ask a question about the validity of this cult and you can expect the same frantic condemnations heaped on iconoclasts of the past.

The iconoclastic prophet Isaiah described the escape fantasies of the elite of his day in words that need little translation to land smack dab in the middle of Rushkoff’s meeting with the five super-rich hedge fund managers:

"Hear the word of YHWH, you scoffers who rule this people…Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death…when the overwhelming scourge passes through, it will not come for us, for we have made lies our refuge…’ I will make justice the line and righteousness the plummet; hail will sweep away the refuge of lies and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”  (Isaiah 28:14-17)

There is no safe place to sit out a civilizational collapse. We’re all in this together. This is the truth that the elite are blind to in their bunkered refuge of lies. Rushkoff sees a blessing in the fact that the vast majority of us cannot afford the fantasy of high-tech, high-security hideaways: “Luckily, those of us without the funding to consider disowning our own humanity have much better options available to us. We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways.…we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone.”

Friday, March 8, 2019

A Small Glory Story

The Small Glories began their touring season of 2019 on a cold February night in a little old country church in Beausejour, Manitoba. Not the church that had been planned, mind you, because the furnace conked out and the toilets froze. We could see our breath when we got to the venue. “How do they heat this place?,” I wondered. “Looks like candles,” said JD. I laughed. “That’s it. Just light all the fucking candles!” I swear more when the temperatures drop from below zero Celsius to below zero Fahrenheit. That’s what the minus F stands for for me. 

JD lit some candles on the old altar, and I called my buddy Mike McLean. Mike got the furnace going again, but when JD went to take a piss and found the water in the toilet bowl as solid as the porcelain that was holding it, Cara said, “What are we going to do?”

By that time folks were streaming in for the gig. Darlene Omichinski had a key for Zion Lutheran, but they were hosting a tap dance thing. Duane and Deb Versluis had keys for Grace Lutheran. Don Zueff joked that we would be going over to the dark side, but we all piled out the door and headed for Grace and warmth and working toilets. In the end it was just another Small Glory story, a story about trying to make something work, about failing and picking up the pieces and starting all over again.

It struck me that The Small Glories made it safe for us that night to all gather in one church, then safe to leave it and gather in another. That’s no small thing. I know this because I am friends with a lot of the people who came that night. Some of them can’t go to each other’s church, and a lot of them can’t go to church at all, because it’s dangerous for them. So it was odd, and glorious, to enter into music in a church that night that held space for all of us.

People have been gathering in churches for hundreds of years. Sometimes you came because you fell in love with somebody and you wanted to make a big promise. Sometimes you came because you had a new baby and you wanted to share this new happiness with your neighbours and enlist their help. Sometimes you came because someone you loved had died, and you needed good way to say goodbye. Sometimes we came to tell ourselves a story that made us feel better about ourselves than the people who weren’t there. And sometimes we came to fall on our knees, praying like the angel from Montgomery: “Just give me one thing that I can hold on to, ‘cause to believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”

Those places are emptying out now. And after a while the toilets freeze or some other damn thing breaks down. I don’t know if we need churches any more. I do know that we need some songs that can gather us, and some places where we can sing together, now more than ever. “Truth is bread,” said Simone Weil, the 20th-century mystic who refused Christian baptism, “you know it by its taste.” I believe the same is true of art. It’s bread for the journey, and people nowadays are starving for it.

The Small Glories are feeding the people. They know something about truth and art and harmony. They know that one note can get together with a different note and open up a space between them that brings us all in. They know about the many ways we suffer, the many ways we love, the many ways we heal. Their new album is about a couple of come-from-aways who landed at the meeting place of the Assiniboine and the Red, a side-winding meanderer and a fat and lazy prairie river with more power than you would guess. Two wondrous travelers arrived here and made their home with us. I’m so glad they did. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Love Supreme, Supreme Danger

I've been catching up on the literature of CPT. CPT stands for Christian Peacemaker Teams. But today when I read their publications, I more often read the adjective "Christian" in reference to problematic nouns like "hegemony" or "Zionism." You can still see "christian" in the small font of their elegant logo, a white dove sitting on a length of barbed wire that is vining into an olive branch under the dove's feet. The dove's eyes are keeping close watch on the barb. The olive leaves are either less interesting than the barb, or simply growing of their accord, like the seed of the kingdom that sprouts and grows, we know not how. (Mark 4:27)
Image result for christian peacemaker team logo

In its repentance of Christian hegemony and its growing friendships with peacemakers of many faiths, CPT today identifies its mission as "Inclusive, multi-faith, spiritually guided peacemaking." I am encouraged and troubled by this, both at the same time. CPT for years has been a light on the hill that I could point to to say, this is what authentic Christian action looks like in the world. With so many abuses committed in the name of my saviour, CPT was an example I could feel proud of. "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket," says Christ in the conclusion of the Beatitudes. Then, not long after, he says, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them." Oh, Christ, you're on to me again.

The early Christians, in their astonishment at the light of Christ, made bold claims. "God...highly exalted that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend...and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." (Phillipians 2:9-11) David Cayley, in a recent interview on The Ferment, says that anyone who is a Christian, if they really are a Christian, wants to share the Good News. But he soon after adds that the prerequisite of this sharing is a profound silence before the other. 

In the great "every knee, every tongue" hymn of Phillipians, Christ's glory is coupled with and preceded by Christ's supreme humility: 

"though he was in the form of God, 
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross."

In light of this example Christians are exhorted: "Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus." (2:5)

It is such a mind that repents of chauvinism, that resists the temptations of prestige and recognition, that empties itself of divine claims in order to bring out divinity in the other. It is such a mind that drops me to my knees.

For many of us Christians who are waking up to our history of arrogance and our complicity in colonial oppression, there is an impulse to recoil at the early church's proclamation of the universal lordship of Jesus Christ. Of course. A more convenient handmaiden to empire could hardly be found.

But this continues to cast the problem of Christian mission into the categories of who is better than whom. The early church cast the problem in categories that are more radical, and more revealing: Christ/Anti-Christ. They understood the Love Supreme that was astonishingly, uniquely and indispensably revealed on the Cross of Christ to be accompanied by a supreme danger: a new "mystery of wickedness" nested in the church, capable of a kind of evil not seen in the world before. Ivan Illich, who I am following here, taught me to see that the lordship of Christ, uncoupled from Christ's humility, could become an imperial standard that could violate not only the geographic sovereignty, but the spiritual sovereignty of the other. Roman spiritual imperialism only insisted that you bow before their gods. Christian spiritual imperialism insisted that you invite the colonial anti-Christ into your heart.

In a recent interview, Cree elder Walking Buffalo (Stan McKay), reflecting on the confusing character of Canadian racism that he experienced in residential school, said, "Many of them were nice to us, even as they were destroying us." As I watched the viral video this week of calm, polite CFS workers and RCMP officers take yet another baby from the arms of yet another weeping Indigenous mother, Stan's words rang in my ears. There is a mysterious, confusing evil at work among us.

When Stan recalls the teachings of his mother and father to never take more than you need from the earth, and to consider anything extra you have as something to be shared in community, I have to confess (as did a significant minority of early missionaries) that the cultures that Europeans encountered on Turtle Island were spiritually more attuned to the way of life outlined in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount than the grasping, control-seeking, imperial cultures that funded the drive for Christian conversions in this place. When my Haudenosaunee friend Adrian Jacobs asserts in an Indigenous Testamur that Indigenous theology is the host of any non-Indigenous spiritual tradition brought into this place, I breathe in the hope of the Beatitudes: that it is the anawim, the humble, righteous, simple-living people--who we call in English "the meek"--who are the rightful inheritors of the earth. When the people who in their own languages call themselves Inninew or Anishnaabeeg tell us that they are the keepers of the earth in this place, set here by the Creator to practice Mino Pimatissiwin--the good life lived in harmony with all our relations, I understand them to be saying little else. When these meek (again) inherit the earth, I will understand our prayers for Christ's kingdom to "come on earth as it is in heaven" to be answered.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Gospel and Trauma

There is a vast generation that has been traumatized by the Gospel story as a propaganda tract for terror and war, as a bedtime story for cultural euthanization. Before this generation the evangelist must now keep silent. But there is another generation coming up behind this one that will be traumatized by their lack of any story at all, of a story that can make sense of their twittered and splintered existence, and of the apocalypse that is coming for us all. The day will come when they will need the story of the angel in the fiery furnace, or they will go mad in the great conflagration that is underway. Already any of them who are awake see the flames licking at the doors of their house. It is for them that we must hold the story of a peace not as the world gives, a story of forgiveness, resurrection, and the eternal possibility of beginning afresh.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Spinning Water, Flat Water

A Visit to Chùa Hải Hội Temple
As an assignment for my Spirituality and Family Therapy course, I was tasked with attending a spiritual gathering outside my comfort zone and write a reflection on the experience. It was an assignment I enjoyed very much. Here it is.

"In my contacts with these new friends, I feel consolation in my own faith in Christ and his indwelling presence.” 

- Thomas Merton, upon connecting with Buddhist monks in Tibet.

I pull into the parking lot quickly, a little later than I had intended. Beside me, an Asian woman is just getting out of her Porsche SUV. She opens her trunk and pulls out a plain grey tunic, which she begins to pull on over brand-name clothing. I walk quickly past, hoping to get inside and meet up with my interpreter before the service begins. A nun with saffron robes and shaved head greets me - the same calm and friendly voice that I spoke with on the telephone two days ago. She introduces me to Di Van, a soft-spoken, slender woman with slightly greying hair: “She will interpret for you and answer your questions.” We shake hands (on my initiative, I think) and bow to one another (on her initiative, I think). East meets West on friendly terms, and she leads me up several flights of stairs into the temple.
We enter into the back of what feels to me immediately like a throne room. I associate it in my mind with the royal courtroom of Kublai Khan as I saw it in Marco Polo on Netflix. Three large, gold-embossed buddhas are enthroned across the front of the room. The side and back walls are adorned with thousands of identical little Buddhas. Worshippers are kneeling and bowing toward the front. Di Van tells me to bow and I follow suit. Now is the time to be a gracious guest and not the time to make a stand about bowing to idols. I don’t even know if that’s what’s actually going on here. I have the feeling of being surrounded by powers and facing a power that do not quite understand. I am in someone else’s territory. I am grateful for a guide who speaks to me with gentle courtesy, doing her best to orient this Western stranger, who has come for reasons she accepts to be his own. Neither she nor the nun ever asked why I wanted to come here. I asked, and they welcomed. It was that simple for them.
All the prayers and scriptures are chanted, to the rhythm of a huge slit drum, accented by massive bells that seem to ring endlessly into their diminishment. I cannot tell apart the tonality of the language and the tonality of the musical scale in which the group is singing. To my ears, the sound is plaintive and primal, the cry of humans reaching higher than themselves for help and blessing. The drum varies the pace of prayer considerably, like a train leaving the station, gradually picking up the speed for all those aboard, and then with perfect control applying the brakes for a smooth stop at the next station. The physicality of the ritual cultivates a feeling of calm alertness. The body is seated, but the back is straight. The voices call out, the liturgy guides. The song is a balance of passion and structure.
I am impressed by how much the prayers are other-oriented. There is a long prayer for the spirits of the deceased who are stuck in lower, more miserable states of consciousness, “different levels of hell,” in the words of Di Van. A significant aspect of the community’s spiritual work seems to be to come to the aid of these lost spirits. Later, the scripture reading relays the story of the Buddha going into the spirit world to find and assist his mother to let go of attachments that kept her spirit in a state of suffering.
Memorials for the recently deceased are part of the ceremony, and celebrants walk amongst the congregation with pieces of paper that they lay on the heads of family members, “so that their relatives will recognize them,” Di Van whispers.
Next are prayers for those who are suffering in this life. I don’t know what I miss in the content that is not translated for me, but I am surprised that at no point do I hear anything of the type of self-help spirituality that I tend to associate with Western practicioners of meditation and mindfulness. There is talk of helping others to reach nirvana, but not of seeking nirvana for oneself. 
Next there is a food offering ceremony for the Buddhas. I am reminded of similar ceremonies in Indigenous community, and I wonder about the cultural and genetic connections as I look at the woman chanting with the slit drum, her long black ponytail running down her back. 
There are some things going on that I am not comfortable with. Are the food offerings, in Buddhism or Indigenous practice, a way of “wheeling and dealing” with the spirit world? Why do these spirits need earthly food? Why do they need paper certificates to recognize their relatives? And I don’t like the Buddha I discover in the corner of the room, with big hair and angry eyes and sword in hand.
But I know that my own religion is full of pomp and garishness and superstition, and that from its swollen body it has birthed saints. Who can say what is bloat and what is pregnancy? We too have caked the Christ with gold and addressed him as our feudal “Lord.” The laughing Buddha and the banqueting Christ seem to suggest that the subversion can run powerfully in the other direction, that they are more than capable of seducing the status-obsessed monkeys that build their shrines into a glory beyond our schlockiest dreams. So if they aren’t worried, I can relax too, even about that crazy red swastika on the chests of the ten thousand Buddhas gazing calmly at me from their perches on the walls. Whatever it means to them, I know it’s not what it means to me.
After the ceremony, Di Van leads me downstairs to a banquet hall where folks are sitting down for a delicious vegetarian Vietnamese noodle soup. I ask her about the grey tunic she is wearing, and she explains its significance. The grey colour is to encourage calmness, to reduce distractions for the eye in the temple. I get a sense that part of what is being discouraged is the rating game by which humans signal our specialness and stature to each other through the  clothes we wear. “Rivalry,” as James Alison says, “is the enemy of worship.” It is as true here as it is in Christian sanctuaries.
The grey tunic is also a sign that Di Van is a devotee of “The Five Precepts” - which are to stay away from killing, avoid lying, avoid adultery, avoid intoxication and avoid stealing. Each of these cloud the mind and sow discord in the human community. Anger seems the most important  state to avoid and calmness seems to be the most desirable state of being, but again, not for one’s own sake, but in order to be reincarnated into a higher state of consciousness, to return to the world able to help people. Di Van admits that those who come to the temple infrequently typically come just to seek favours for themselves and their families. “They do not yet understand the real teaching.” I am impressed that her tone is neither blameful nor embarrassed. Her voice is untroubled, matter-of-fact.
A young boy chimes into our conversation. He introduces himself as Christopher, and I have to laugh to myself that here in this place, at this table, I meet a young friend whose name means, “Christ-bearer.” 
“Excuse me,” he says. “When I was at Chinese temple, I went to the toilet to pee, and when I flushed the toilet, the water spinned around and around and around.” I am delighted by his change of subject and his passion for it. He proceeds to tell me of other places he has seen this spinning water: bathtubs and raging rivers. “That river is dangerous. You can’t swim in that spinning water. You have to swim in the flat water.” He sounds like a little Buddha.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Look at that Buddha.” He points behind me to a fat and jolly laughing Buddha who looks like he’s just heard the best joke he’s heard all week. 
“He looks like he’s having a good time,” I say. 
“Excuse me, because he’s happy?” says the boy. “The Buddha loves children,” he adds, and then, out of the blue, “And I love Jesus.”
Di Van smiles into her soup, and Christopher’s slightly embarrassed mother laughs.

“Well, how ‘bout that,” I say. “So do I.”