By Janet Thomas
It’s quiet in town when I set out for Saint John’s in the Wilderness, which is about a mile down the treacherous road to Lower Dharamsala. But because I’m walking this time, and not hurtling along in impending vehicular catastrophe, I finally get to pay attention to the scenery. It’s a serene, gently treed hillside. There are no buildings along the way and very little traffic at this hour. I’ve given myself plenty of time to get there before the service starts so I don’t have to walk quickly or even think quickly. There are no beggars to face or merchants to disappoint. Inside and out, it’s as quiet and alone as I’ve been since arriving in India. But suddenly I’m joined by a dog.
He arrives out of nowhere and takes up the walk with me as though he is mine. Right alongside, he trots. Like a guide dog I’m thinking as we exchange pleasantries—he with his tail wag, me with my surprised greeting and gladness. He’s quite handsome, with a healthy light brown coat and a jaunty, focused step. My own step gets a bit jauntier and I express my appreciation to him as we go. I was very aware of being all alone on this walk, and suddenly I’m not. We walk the mile together as though he’d taken me to obedience classes and I think about my old Lab, Buck, and his unconditional love, loyalty, and ability to eat an entire pie without taking a breath. I wonder if this is him, reincarnated within walking distance of the Dalai Lama’s home. A new lifetime on its way towards a human rebirth as a more enlightened monk—as long as he can stay out of the temple pantry. This pup certainly isn’t inclined to explore the smells along the way. He seems to be on assignment.
Saint John’s in the Wilderness appears through the forest and it really does feel like it’s in wilderness, even though we are but a short mile from town. The delicate fir trees have been left to grow freely and the burial mounds bring a gentle rolling green to life. The old stone presence of this Anglican Church is both formal and friendly. It looks as though it belongs here and I am reminded of Saint David’s Cathedral in Wales and its humble location in a small valley surrounded by small hills. The cathedral doesn’t loom over the landscape in some sort of omnipotent statement of Christian power and might. It settles into place and is discovered like a hidden treasure. Saint John’s feels the same way. It blends into its environment—an array of subtle greens and grays, stones and trees. Christianity was once like this—nature and human nature in partnership. “Not even stewardship,” a Celtic Christian theologian once said at a workshop I attended. “It was partnership.”
He went on to speak of the ways in which early Christianity honored nature and original blessing not original sin. How women were part of its very fabric and celebration of life at its core. It all changed in Nicea, when it was decided that Christianity would be based in Rome, where power and might and maleness were already culturally, historically and architecturally in place. We say the Nicean Creed every Sunday at Saint David’s on the island where I live. But I am always thankful to that workshop in which I recognized myself as a Celtic rather than a Roman Christian. Dominion over nature always seemed like such a misguided principle. “Nature bats last,” is a bumper sticker statement I saw somewhere.
The British constructed Saint John’s in the Wilderness in 1852 and it was one of the few structures around that survived the 1905 earthquake in Dharamsala. The only thing damaged was the bell, which fell ringing and swinging to the ground. Otherwise the church was left intact. Lord Elgin, Viceroy and Governor-General of India in 1862, is buried here.
As soon as we turn down the pathway to the church my four-legged companion bolts off to explore. It’s as though he knew we were coming here all along and now he’s free to roam while I do whatever it is I do inside the place. As so much of what is happening to me on this trip comes with built-in significance, his behavior hardly seems unusual. I enter a church dense with silence, and a Morning Prayer service underway. I take a seat in a pew at the back and notice the colorful dahlias decorating the front of the church. There are wooden beams heavy overhead supporting a high curved ceiling; and stained glass windows illuminating the youthful and muscular innocence of Jesus as he is baptized by John, and a beautiful Mary, her arm flung across her forehead in a gesture of apprehension and supplication, her eyes alert and knowing. I think of the enormous task it must have been to get these windows here and I am impressed, until the weight of colonialism and its exploits raises its reliable head.
This conflict has not been lost on me throughout this journey but I have been unable to find criticism at every turn about the colonial influence, maybe because it lends itself so much to my personal history. I was born into an odd confluence of Welsh-ness and English-ness and even though historically the Welsh have hated the English with great passion—some perhaps still do—the “Englishness” of Great Britain leaked across the borders into Scotland, Ireland and Wales, just as it did here in India. I am of that particular culture in which a kind of elegance was perpetrated on places and people that weren’t interested in acquiring it. Yet it remains elegant just the same. I remember the curved colonial balcony in the hotel in Majnukatilla in Delhi and how it thrilled me in such an odd way.
There is only one other white person in the church, a young man sitting in the pews across the aisle from me. He appears comfortable and familiar with the congregation and I wonder if he’s a regular here. Everyone else is Indian, including the minister who is lighting the candles on the altar. He’s a small man wearing white robes and a long red drape across his shoulders. When he turns to us his face radiates peace and tremendous kindness. As he surveys our gathering of perhaps forty people, his eye rests momentarily on me. He says the word, “Welcome.” Then he speaks in Hindi, with warmth and gentleness in his voice and a kind of humble merriment in his being. A regal Indian woman strides up to do readings from the Bible. Her voice is as commanding as her presence and her authority an expression of real righteousness. There is no doubt in this woman, and no doubting her, either. Her husband and two daughters beam at her proudly.
When the minister regains the pulpit, he regards me once again. Then he begins in halting and fractured English, “I am the caretaker here. I am not the priest. I am here to love God with you all and to welcome you to here.” I feel my presence as an intrusion and a burden. I had hoped to be invisible, to blend in with the crowd, but my foreignness is being graciously accommodated—even as it excludes others—and there is not a thing I can do about it. Nobody turns to look at me but I sense a ripple of consensus through the gathering, as though they have experienced this quite often: the stranger in their midst and the re-adjustment of language.
He doesn’t give a formal sermon, but instead talks to us about Christmas carols and their history. And in-between is singing, sometimes in Hindi, sometimes in English. I find out that Silent Night was written as a poem one Christmas Eve by a young Austrian priest who then asked his friend to write a guitar accompaniment for the next day’s service. He tells us about the Fantasia on Christmas Carols written by Ralph Vaughan Williams, an English man who was Charles Darwin’s nephew. I know about Vaughan Williams because of his transporting Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis and his voluntary enlistment into the medical corps in WWI. His second wife, poet Ursula Wood, described him as an atheist who eventually “drifted into cheerful agnosticism.” I had no idea he was related to Charles Darwin, who was himself a religious scholar and a man who had faith in both evolution and spirit. Then we sing Amazing Grace, which was written by John Newton who was the captain of a British slave ship before he became an abolitionist and a man of the cloth. It was Newton who inspired the intrepid William Wilberforce in his twenty-year struggle to get the British Parliament to ban slavery, which they did in 1807.
I’d always wondered about the words in Amazing Grace: “That saved a wretch like me.” I had no idea the song originated in Britain and that it’s author was a man spiritually devastated by his role in the slave trade. Finally, our caretaker-minister shares with us a story about a hymn written by a Korean man who, out of great hardship, wrote a beloved carol, the name of which I do not understand. It is after this story that his tears well up. The whirl of spiritual contradiction, multi-racial devotion, human despair and God’s grace all presented to us from the heart of this humble man. By the time we sing “Morning Has Broken,” I, too, am in tears.
At the end of the service, our minister who is not a minister comes up to me with a big welcoming smile and a grasp of my hands. I can feel his warmth, physically and otherwise.
“You come back tomorrow,” he says. “We practice for Christmas.”
But tomorrow I am going up the mountain with Norbu and I have no idea when we’ll be back. I also have no idea what it means to practice for Christmas; but I do know I’d like to be there.
“I’ll try,” I say, and thank him for the lovely service.
“I’m just the caretaker,” he says. “For many years, I care for the church.” His love of this place is as palpable as the warmth of his grasp.
When I get outside my four-legged companion is sitting on the top of a stone wall. He comes over as soon as I notice him and then trots alongside as I explore the graves, many of them marked with Celtic crosses with their sacred circles incorporated into the stark right angles. The monument to Lord Elgin says he was sixty-two years and four months when he died. It was installed by his wife, Mary Louisa and recounts her husband’s history as Governor of Jamaica, Governor General of Canada, and High Commissioner and Ambassador to China amongst other “high offices.” All of which presents a conundrum of consciousness.
I have just experienced the gift of Christian love offered by an Indian man in an Anglican church on the outskirts of a town that is home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. And the biggest monument here is to a British upper-class colonialist who loved Dharamsala and wanted to be buried here. I am in a Thin Place and it is making me dizzy with its mysticism, its incorrigibly incorrect and correct politics, and its absurdity. The only thing that makes any sense is the dog. It doesn’t take long before all the parishioners have left and I’m left alone with this swirling craziness and perhaps for a moment I get it. In a Thin Place the veil between worlds loses its density. The church needed the Brits; the caretaker needed the church; the Dalai Lama needed Dharamsala; the wife needed Lord Elgin—although I’m not sure India did. This moment of Christianity needs Buddhism to appreciate the irony. The moment of Buddhism needs Christianity to appreciate the mysticism. It’s all Buddhist Emptiness. And emptiness is just another word for inextricable Celtic interconnectedness. None of it has inherent meaning without the “other.” Except maybe the dog and we all know “dog” is God spelled backwards. It doesn’t get any thinner than this. I feel as though I’m in this graveyard with Jesus and Buddha and they are both laughing out loud. Maybe God is, too.
Why are we here, after all: to dissect meaning or to celebrate it? If I try to dissect what it all means—from the holocaust of my childhood to the definitions of Buddhism and Christianity—all I am left with is the chill and disconnection of intellectual analysis. But if I celebrate it—from the personal grief and loss to the complexity of religious contradictions—I am enlivened with meaning. It tells me I exist. It reaches into me with its mystery and mirth. It sets me on the path without a map and sends me on the way. The Celts had small boats with sails and no rudders. They trusted in spirit to fill the sails with meaning and direction. And in some way, as powerless as I’ve felt throughout my life, it is spirit that has filled my sails and sent me here and there and wherever it was that would help me heal. And spirit sent me to Buddhism. And the Dalai Lama sent me to Christianity. If becoming whole means becoming stuffed with contradiction, who am I to argue? Maybe India needed Lord Elgin after all. He certainly needed India. After all, he wanted to be buried here.
It has been a momentous morning at St. John’s in the Wilderness and I have no idea how I will speak of it. Saint John the Baptist is himself described by scholars as the boundary between the Old Testament and the New. He was of the Thin Place. He also announced himself as a “voice in the wilderness” and preached as well to the wilderness within the lives of the people. He baptized Jesus while feeling as if he had no right to do so. He went into the wilderness to fast and to pray. He ate locusts and dressed in rough camel hair robes. He was mistaken for the Savior yet never wavered from his role as humble servant. And Jesus loved him and respected him. And John baptized Jesus. Then he was betrayed and beheaded. There is no end to wilderness, nor is there an end to the voice in the wilderness.
It’s after noon when Dog and I set off back to town. When we reach the spot from which he first appeared he disappears back into his secular life. And I do the same. I go off to find Thrinley, hoping she hasn’t already gone off to lunch. I want to tell her that I want to eat Tibetan momos and drink Indian tea; and I want to be a Christian even if I am a Buddhist.
Copyright 2007 Janet Thomas