|May 18, 2015 • VOL. 53, NO. 10 • Oakland, CAA|
Remembering the Nepalis' faith in the face of hardship
There were many delights in sharing a single room apartment with three other Peace Corps volunteers in the heart of the central bazaar in Kathmandu of the early 1970s. Narrow streets teemed with pedestrians, bicycle rickshaws and solid, sturdy men pushing overloaded carts. Vendors, in the tiniest of spaces, sold all sorts of basic wares besides fresh fruit and vegetables. In the background, Buddhist monks clanged cymbals in worship while, across the street, Hindu priests chanted and burned incense.
Many of those dwellings now lie fallen in the mountains of rubble which cover the streets of this ancient city.
Kathmandu was an occasional respite from the distant countryside where we worked on gravity flow water systems with varying degrees of success. My project was sideswiped by lack of materials (pipe and cement had to be imported before being carried on villagers' backs for 10 miles); water disputes; and my own naiveté if not incompetence.
The adage that "you receive more than give" rang true to my experience. Simple pleasures — sipping a hot brew at the smoky tea shop in the morning; gathering around the village's lone radio in the evening while my hosts listened to folk songs, tolerating my desire to listen to the daily five minutes of news headlines in English; the everyday awe of contemplating the endless, undulating terraces of rice paddies snaking up narrow valleys to the Himalayas. I remember a kid telling me how excited he was at the prospect of eating meat, an annual occurrence coinciding with the major Hindu festival, Desain.
In this time when I railed that there could be no god, I lived among folks who worshipped daily. Each Hindu home had its sacred place, blessed by a Brahmin, with smatterings of flower petals and tika. As you approached a Buddhist village, more and more religious carvings appeared in the rock outcroppings, and occasionally, a prayer wheel turned by the force of a small stream underneath finely painted pictures of the Buddha. I drank my stiff millet wine, trying to fathom the spirituality that flowed naturally through their lives but, could not scoff at their religiosity.
It would take several years before it dawned upon me that a spiritual life was mine if I would let myself to be drawn to the Catholic roots against which I had so severely rebelled. As I quietly found my way back to the prayer and liturgy of my youth, I sensed that I was drinking from a similar stream. This stream, the right path for me, may have never unfolded had I not met the joyful, spiritual goodness of my Nepali hosts in their formidable day-to-day struggles.
The latest reports have yet to filter in from this area at the epicenter of this furious earthquake. The simple houses — stone masonry with mud mortar covered in a bright white wash — are precisely the ones most vulnerable. I was always amazed at the unbounded gift of Nepalis for conviviality in the face of hardship. Thanks to them, I can pray that they remain so before this severest of challenges, and that we be as generous to them as they were once with me.
(Bill Joyce is a parishioner at Holy Spirit Parish/Newman Hall in Berkeley.)
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