AN ESSAY ON MY VISION
John P. Martin
My very first encounter with the Bengali people took place on the morning of December 7, 1975 in the town of Barisal, Bangladesh. I had just arrived there the night before from Dhaka the capital of the country on a long pleasant river trip on a colonial era rear paddle steamer. It was not a pleasant encounter at all. In fact it was the harshness of that encounter that stuck with me for many years thereafter. The first Bengalis that I met were only men, for women were not used to walking on the streets in this Muslim country. Their leering eyes and loud jeering mouths denoted a level of aggressive behavior towards me that I was just not ready to handle. I don’t know if they meant to be aggressive, but I picked up as aggressivity their response to this lonely white foreigner walking through their midst down the road. They managed to breach my self-protective walls and get inside me and rummage around uninvited. The result was a severe culture shock experience that left me with some dramatic shifts in my personality, as I found myself forced to live more on the feminine than my usual masculine side. Since I was not accustomed nor prepared nor guided in any gradual manner to live this way, one of my usual reactions to such a trauma was to get intimidated and depressed.
Many of my diary entries from that December 7th in 1975 were speckled with references in one form or another to my depressed state of mind and heart. I was getting used to being depressed, while at the same time I was yearning for relief from the sadness under my gloomy veil.
On March 31st, 1979 I traveled from the town of Tangail to the city of Mymensingh in north central Bangladesh for a personal retreat experience at the monastery of the Poor Clare Sisters, returning home on April 5th. I was living in Tangail with three other companions in an experimental effort at an “apostolate of presence” among our Muslim brothers and sisters. This meant that we eschewed any overt attempt to evangelize or convert them to our Christian tradition. We were listening to the new orientation toward believers of other religious traditions that had emerged from the Second Vatican Council from 1962-1965. In line with its innovative document on our proposed relationships with such believers, we were respectful of their tradition and open to learning and assimilating whatever we could from the treasury of their spiritual riches.
And so I found myself taking this time off on a retreat during which I read, prayed, reflected and wrote many notes on the Vision statement that had been elaborated by our most recent Maryknoll Chapter in the fall of 1978.
A “Chapter” is an event that is mandated in every religious order in the Catholic Church, every six years generally, for an evaluation of the membership’s ongoing life by all superiors and elected delegates: the outgoing leadership team gives an accounting of their stewardship; current issues and problems are discussed; a new leadership team is elected for six years and mandates or recommendations are promulgated to guide their stewardship.
I was always in the habit of doing this kind of deep reflection on our Society’s Chapter documents because in the discussions and directions of those chosen men I saw the action of the Holy Spirit for the guidance of our missionary presence in the world. I was used to looking for affirmation of my own missionary life and presence, and this time, some consolation that my gloomy veil was not providing me. During those six days on retreat I managed to continue the reflection process begun earlier by working on points #15 through #26 of that Vision statement.
Unexplainably there was something missing from my diary for those days that was far more significant than that reflection process, as important as this was for me as a member of my Maryknoll missionary society.
In December of that same year, on a visit to the Christian Hindu ashram of Father Bede Griffiths called “Shantivanam” (Forest of Peace) in the State of Tamil Nadu in South India, I put to writing for the first time my vision of myself for my own future. I recalled specifically having had this vision on a retreat in Mymensingh, which was earlier in April of 1979. It was not like a fantastic movie reeling across the screen of my mind as it unwound the elements and the ideas and the people therein. It was more like an instantaneous flash of inspiration. It was a flash that dove deep into my mind and heart, spirit and psyche, being so welcome in the midst of my life beneath the veil, as I have come to describe those years. It was a vision that was given to me, not one that I had devised as it were in consonance with Maryknoll’s that I had been reflecting on for several months.
Years later I read a revealing biography, whose author I do not recall, of Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a French Jesuit priest and professional paleontologist, whose evolutionary thinking and deep spirituality had become a bellwether for an era of renewal within the Catholic Church and far beyond its borders as well. After his death in New York City in 1955, his writings in French were slowly getting translated and published in English when I was in our major seminary for four years from 1962 to 1966. I discovered his groundbreaking “The Phenomenon of Man”. One of the most striking features of his life was that he was subject often to depressive episodes. And he had his struggles over many decades with obscurantist officials in the central administration of the Vatican who tried their best to keep his influence from being propagated through his writings. So in 1926, they forbade him ever to publish anything, and in 1926, he was sent into exile to China, where he developed into an eminent scientist who documented the evolution of our human species. He lived and worked in China from 1926 to 1946.
His biographer made the point that from a life that was speckled with so much depression he was nonetheless able to elaborate an evolutionary spirituality that integrated his scientific, philosophical and spiritual principles with a tone of utmost optimism about the future of humankind in a set of stages.
Depressed? Just like me! Relying on what I had assimilated in earlier years from his evolutionary thinking, I saw myself using his framework of utmost optimism but with a twist of my own. And curiously my personal vision took place within the context of my prolonged depressive state while living among the Bengali people since 1975. The confluence of these two phenomena has always seemed to me to be a sign of the validity of my vision as an inspiration from Without, and not a creation from within. A person living in a depressed state would not be usually capable of creating a vision for his/her life with a totally open perspective about the future. Depression in its usual psychological dynamic truncates one’s vision of the future, and drives one to live in a reverberating and revolving past, making anything new or hopeful extremely if not entirely remote. And yet despite this improbable condition of mine, I was gifted with this vision of myself and of myself in my future and of all of humanity in our future. My vision seemed to have cut through those normal barriers put up protectively by my mind so as not to have to deal with my past or my future. This vision seems to have been a gift from heaven that broke through and helped to give me hope for my future, with a more realistic perspective on my past.
During this, my first stay at “Shantivanam”, on December 11, 1979, I wrote the first version of this vision that was revealed to me previously during my stay in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. Here I quote the vision in italics and then make comments on it.
“I was able to verbalize like never before my vision as it has come to me thru (sic) my effort and call to immerse myself in a particular culture and society, thru (sic) my reading of T.(Teilhard) de Chardin and now reinforced by Sri Aurobindo.”
First of all, I hereby bear witness to the fundamental commitment of my life as a missionary with Maryknoll to live with a people of a culture and society not my own. This I have done so as to delve into their lives and values with the hope of assimilating them into my own life, as in Mexico for nine years. This has been a reciprocal learning and assimilation process, as at no moment could I prescind from my own reality and history under the pretense of only being open to receive something from them. In Mexico I became aware of my fundamentally introverted personality becoming more extraverted and thus more balanced as a result of my friendships and work with them. They also helped me to rouse my latent sense of humor.
I bear witness also to the enormous influence that Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had on my life as I read one after another of his works that got published in English between 1962 and 1966, my years in the major seminary prior to my ordination. His evolutionary thinking had a solid foundation in his renowned scientific work for decades as a paleontologist. The synthesis that he created with his faith in science and his Christian faith has been a paragon of light and inspiration for many people, whether Christian believers or not. I had been rejecting as alien to my life and way of thinking the Church’s “canonical” Thomistic philosophy and theology, based on the synthesis created by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Father Teilhard’s synthesis, scarcely coming out of hiding after his death in 1955 when his works could be published, seemed to be a better guide for my life and my thinking and my spirituality.
Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) came on the scene for me during my visit to Father Bede’s ashram in 1979 which is not far from that of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, South India. I happily learned that he was Bengali and that I was learning his native language. Fortunately he spoke and wrote fluent English as in his many philosophical works edited from his Ashram. Flowing from Indian philosophy he devised a synthesis for the evolutionary development of humanity from the top-down, as it were, from the initiative of the Divine. Teilhard’s evolutionary movement started with his scientific knowledge and moved up and beyond to humanity’s future encounter with the Divine.
“Relying on the thresholds of T. (Teilhard) de Chardin, I see all mankind passing to newer and higher stages of life and of consciousness and of union….”
Teilhard saw in the paleontological record sufficient evidence for a series of great leaps in the evolution of the universe that he described in terms of pre-life, life, thought and survival. Evolution is a process of the steady increase of consciousness in the within of all created things and of complexity of structure in stages that he called “geosphere”, “biosphere”, “noosphere”. My statement was a quickie synthesis of his broad evolutionary thinking.
“The full extension of this threshold-passing experience into all the branches of one’s life and of mankind’s life has to be done, it seems to me, thru (sic) the particularities of each cultural group on the face of the earth.”
Here I wanted to extrapolate from his synthesis based on his scientific expertise to an area that is more of my expertise, namely, cross-cultural living and transformation. From my reading of his works thus far, I had not perceived much interest or enthusiasm on his part for Chinese history, culture and language. His works that I had read hardly mention anything about culture, let alone cross-cultural living and the transformation that is promised after a significant period of reciprocal living and learning among persons from different cultural backgrounds.
“The New Man, the fullness of the noospheric growth, the next step in man’s superconsciousness has to take place through the interpenetration of cultures.”
In Teilhard’s view, humanity is now engaged in the evolutionary process of growth in human consciousness, the stage that he called “noosphere” (the sphere of mind). In his characteristic optimism, the inevitable outcome of this development will be a “super-consciousness” of humanity raising the capability of our human mind to unforeseen heights.
That will bring about a convergence of the entire universe into ultimate union at the “Omega Point”. I was making the point that this evolutionary development necessarily had to take place in history, in culture and in society. He by no means advocated that these could be prescinded from or overlooked. From my reading of his work to that point, he did not seem to have emphasized them sufficiently. So I saw that it would be indispensable for all peoples in all cultures with their peculiar histories to interact with one another. In fact many were already doing this, and continue to do, for the fullness of this union at the “Omega Point” to take place.
“Each cultural group is a unique creation, a unique response by men and women to their environment, to one another and other groups and to God. Each group has developed some unique trait and configuration of what it means for them to become the ideal man, woman, brother, sister, father, mother, child, creature, friend, etc.”
I used “creation” in the sense of a new phenomenon in human history that is not duplicated. I did not mean to touch the theme of the original creation of the universe. Each cultural group emerges from a multitude of factors to present itself to the rest of the world as something new and unseen, with fresh responses to problems and to needs, and unique initiatives in relationship with all beings in their constellation: those within their group, as well as those perceived as outside, whether other human groups or their physical environment or some transcendent sense of the divine. The marvel is that every cultural group has its own peculiar constellation of every possible historical and cultural human aspect. There will be similarities with more local groups but enormous differences from more remote groups.
We already know anecdotally any number of such traits and qualities of life as portrayed by the members of numerous ethnic groups that we know, as when we say: you can count on the Italians to be such and such; or the Polish to act thus and so; it’s easy to tell that she is Asian, etc.
“The proliferation of communications and the evident inter-dependence of all upon all are pressures and yearnings of mankind for a more complete communion of one with all.”
By saying “pressures and yearnings”, I mean to state clearly that the impetus for this evolutionary movement can have two sources, namely from one’s reactions to pressures from outside one’s self or group or element of creation for a progressive move forward, as well a from those inner movements of the spirit that motivate one to move forward.
Since I wrote this in 1979, we have witnessed the shrinking of the distances that used to separate us one from another anywhere in the world. Communications media, entertainment licenses and economic alliances, to name a few aspects of current international affairs, have put us in touch with so much of what goes on in the world so fast that we are more likely to be experiencing overload. We have gotten used to a certain type and level of communication of ideas and values and experiences that seem to be standardizing our understanding of other peoples. Even if superficial, our understanding is growing.
The other side of this globalization is that there will emerge opportunities for us to know one another much better as human beings and as distinct members of our unique cultural groups. We may well grow in appreciation of one another, dilute our prejudices against one another and have meaningful interchanges as friends, neighbors and citizens.
One of the more significant ways in which this vision is already being realized, on the ground, is through inter-racial, cross-cultural and inter-religious neighbors, friendships and marriages.
The dearest example in my life has to do with my friends George and Lupita Mkhitaryan. You may have guessed that he is Armenian, and correctly so; how about Lupita being Mexican? Correct.
I have known her family since my arrival in the Colonia Yucatan in the eastern forests of the State of Yucatan in Mexico in 1967. Lupita was born to Gaspar Marin and Teresa Sosa who lived with his Mayan speaking parents. Lupita was left for a year or two with her grandparents while her parents went to Los Angeles and got settled in with jobs and a house. Lupita was 5 years old when she migrated to Los Angeles and became perfectly bilingual and bicultural.
In college in 1987 she met George who had migrated with his family from Armenia five years before. This unlikely couple from such different cultures has become a very mature and stable family with their three daughters, who can understand and speak three languages.
“But it will take more than tourists to accomplish this and more than scholars of other cultures;”
With no intent to disparage the importance that people give to these two cultural interchanges, I mean to point out that they are important but limited. They are a sincere interchange on the part of those who participate in them. Surely much good is achieved in the area of mutual understanding and respect for peoples of other cultures, for everything has some relevance. There is a deeper challenge still, according to my vision that involves a commitment to more intimate living and sharing with people of other cultures. This statement surely reflects my own personal experience of visiting foreign places and even studying the history and culture of those peoples.
“rather what is called for is a transcultural person who will leave his own society to live and convivir (sic: this Spanish word means ‘to live with’ but more accurately to ‘share the life of others’) and die to self and come to life anew in bridging the gap between himself and his culture and people of adoption or mission, in assimilating into his very self the unique traits and qualities that this people has achieved, their special experience of a frontier of humanity, of what it means to be human in their unique time and place, maybe never reached or even imagined by anyone else on earth.”
Here I am taking my own life experience as an overseas missionary as the model for the way to achieve this vision. It expresses what has been and continues to be my goal in life. It is what gives meaning to my commitment to the peoples of the cultures who have graciously accepted me in their midst as a guest, then a neighbor and even as a friend.
I came down on the side of believing that I have been transformed by living and sharing my life and values with peoples of several cultures, in that I have assimilated as permanent traits of my personality qualities that I saw in those host cultures and at times did not see but nonetheless have come to see as their gifts to me. From my ten years in South Asia, I have assimilated an alternative foundational value of respect for the being of the other, which is a complement to that of my culture of origin, namely, mutual love in interpersonal relationships. Others may think that such interchanges do give us significant experiences which remain as memories but do not penetrate to one’s heart or soul or transform our lives.
“The New Man can only be a frontiersman of the creation of a New Humanity if and when he completes the cycle and returns to share his own life with his own people, else the experience remains within him alone.”
By this statement I mean to imply that for the ultimate reciprocal transformation of each by all it is not enough to retain this treasure for oneself without sharing it in some fashion with others. It is great that one becomes transformed by one’s encounters, but it is immensely more significant when those spiritual riches are shared so as to extend their influence more broadly.
“Nationalism is good insofar as it raises the consciousness of a people to their uniqueness and independence and dignity and an obstacle to the growth of New Men and New Women and a New Humanity when political sensitivities inhibit the flow of people from culture to culture, from society to society.”
Here I am making sure not to disparage any “-ism” or philosophy of life as though there could be one with no value at all for this synthesis. I mean to point out also that every “-ism” or philosophy of life very likely will have consequences that are positive or negative for the realization of this dream vision.
“I see myself as a person of the wide world and secondarily as citizen of the U. S. Yet I live under the restraints of movement that are imposed by immigration laws. Oh, for a Passport of Humanity! Who will give me one?”
I have two passports, American and Irish, and permanent residency in Mexico which go a long way toward this goal.
“In this context I can get a glimpse of the role of the trans-cultural missioner. And somehow my role as a priest is becoming clearer when I see myself as a mediator of the transcendent to others, and as an agent of unity-building (man’s efforts) and of celebration of communion (God’s gift).”
The initial tension in my life created by rejecting to become a diocesan priest and yet becoming a priest in order to become a missionary receives a dose of tranquility by this part of my vision. I have seen myself fulfilling the elements of this statement in ways that were integral to the Tradition in which I was raised, like serving as a ministerial priest in a Christian community, as well as in non-conventional ways by hanging out with believers of other traditions in their sacred places.
On September 19, 2009, I wrote another version of my vision with some important modifications, without benefit of the above text at hand. This version presupposes a Christian acceptance of the traditional teaching that Jesus came from God first as a human being by his birth of Mary, which we celebrate at Christmas. He went through his passion, death and resurrection experience to come alive again, for death could not hold him fast. He ascended into heaven to preside with His Father over the ongoing work of salvation that He left in the hands of his apostles and disciples. And most important of all, Jesus is to come again at the end of the world in what will be his Parousia, which in Greek means “presence” or “arrival”, when He will exercise ultimate judgment on all of humanity.
“If I may, allow me to draw a brief caricature of the Parousia, as may appear in the mental concept of some: God-Apart-From-Us will decide someday to end the world. Jesus will be sent from heaven and will come to call us all to judgment, catching us all in the time frame of how we will be or what we will be doing at that moment. The good people, like gentle sheep, will go to heaven because of their personal merits and virtues. The other poor bastards will go to hell because of their sins and crimes.”
This caricature is meant to be faithful to the core beliefs of many Christians despite my flippant turn of phrase that should indicate that I do not fully accept this understanding of this Christian teaching. Which is another way of saying that I have an alternative understanding.
“No one will be involved in any responsible way in this process because only God-Apart-From-Us knows and decides such things. So as not to get caught in a “bad” moment, it is incumbent on us to always be good, especially to others. To be good, we have the model par excellence in Jesus´ life, death and resurrection, the power of His Spirit to energize us, and the guidance of the Church to ensure our correct bearings, not to minimize the ineluctable protection and influence of Mary and the saints.”
This explanation points out a key element of this understanding to my way of thinking: the only human involvement is a moral one, namely that we be doing good so as to avoid punishment for misbehaving. We would thus be passive uninvolved objects or “victims” of the sudden unannounced coming of Jesus and his judgment. Our moral responsibility is focused solely on our own behavior of being good Christians and “to love our neighbor as ourselves”. Apocalyptic language quoted from the Bible and enhanced by preachers’ imaginations is meant to scare the hell out of people so that they behave well or better than in the past. This does not satisfy me as a sufficient explanation for the second coming of Jesus. Too thin. Not enough body to it.
“On the other hand, I prefer an entirely different perspective, vision, if you will, of the Parousia as From-Within. Once again, very briefly stated it would sound like this: when every person and human group, culture and religious tradition will have been infused and enriched with the values, insights, intuition, intelligence, symbols, experience of life and of the Transcendent of every other person and human group, culture and religious tradition, then will there appear a New Humanity and a New Creation, and Jesus will have come in His Parousia-From-Within.” (Original underlining)
By this statement I see myself charged with a new challenge of cosmic proportions in that I am ever bidden to be such a clear channel of all that is good and true and beautiful that I have learned from my birth culture that others will be attracted to these values in me and to my person. I as a person will never be separated from this task and this challenge and this cosmic responsibility. There will always be someone with whom I shall be interacting who would be able to assimilate something of these values from me, and I too will always be able to reciprocally learn from them. One of the values in this perspective is that it gives a cosmic importance to the slightest actions and gestures and words of our daily lives. They all have a role to play, whether we are aware of this process going on or not. To put it another way: everything contributes to this grand evolutionary process in which we are all ineluctably involved. And I mean everything: the banal, the trivial, the sublime, the compassionate, the commercial, the military, the failures, the deceptions, the sins, the tourism, the diplomatic.
A key feature of this vision is its total dedication to inclusivity, in that every human being as such has a part to play responsibly in the evolution of this schema for all of humanity.
When I sense that we as humans have such a sublime and convergent and unifying goal as the end of our evolutionary process, and compare it cursorily with the sad state of affairs in our countries, our cultures, our religious traditions, etc., I get the sense that we may well be here on this earth for a good many more millennia before anything approaching this Parousia-From-Within can occur.
“Thus we do have a responsibility and lots of it too, for bringing about, creating, fomenting and promoting all of the unity, mutual acceptance and enrichment, hospitality, compassion, inter-dependence, collaboration and common contemplation of the Divine Mystery, that is humanly (really divinely) possible for us in our life and with our life, with our gifts and errors, our growth and hard learnings (sic), our relationships and joys.”
John Patrick Martin was born of Irish immigrant parents in New York City in 1939, partaking of their Irish culture, proudly. At age twelve his inspiration to become a foreign missionary carried him through 11 years of seminary to ordination in 1966 and a first assignment to Mexico. He dedicated himself to his priestly ministry Learn more...