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News from Tabriz, Iran
Sliwa left for good on 4th March . In a few months, I shall be doing the same. I have started to sort things out, to tidy up and decide what I shall give away. I am like the Happy Prince in the story by Oscar Wilde, which tells the story of how, at the end of autumn, a statue of a prince covered in precious stones asks the last remaining swallow to pluck off the stones, which have become useless to him, one by one and carry them to every poor person… At the moment, there are so many things in the house I need to get rid of. Keeping objects going back over a lifetime is not just hoarding, it is retaining a link with the people you love or have loved, with yourself, with what you once were, in other words with little bits of yourself, with little bits of your life.
Tabriz, at the end of winter, night is falling; another day nears its end, a day no better or worse than all the others, a day just like the others, during which one has said almost nothing, done almost nothing. In life, there is so little we can say, so little we can do. "Please help me cross the road; there are no traffic lights here, I will miss the bus, and I have already got a bad mark at school." It is a child's soft voice. "Hold my hand, and we will cross together, between two cars. I am catching the bus too, to go home." Before leaving me, he says once more, happily, "You see, the bus waited for me. I will give it a good mark." I reply: "Good bye! But tell me your name; what are you called?"
We brothers were looking at the question of human salvation as a whole, while the local Christians could not see beyond the interests of their own community, something also seen as totally respectable. At that time, in our prayers we were requesting, seeking, hoping for great things regarding Islam, some sort of revelation – "and they all lived happily ever after". This time I am asking a selfish, self-interested question: where and when do we find these big surprises the parables promise will be in our fields or in our nets?
Our 'Nazareth life' here was, and still is, poorly valued as a contribution to the overall 'spiritual wealth' which, like any financial organisation, must 'make a profit', be it through words, deeds or community projects. The Christian minority in this country assesses things in terms of prestige and of the 'truth'. What Christians here respond to are magnificent ceremonies following Vatican rites and protocols. They watch them on TV, they long for them, they clamour for them all the time, and after they have watched them, they circulate CDs of them, full of crimson, purple, mitres, crosiers, filmed from all angles with zoom lenses. It relieves the emptiness and vicissitudes of their life here. But what really makes us feel that we exist are not so much events, people, things, all the outside world – it is the richness of the life-giving, interior, secret spring that waters the days and these sun-filled lands, something that cannot be measured.
In Baba-Baghi we have never encountered a young Iranian Christian interested in joining the Fraternity. No, never. In any case, the normal first step for a young man with a vocation would be to seek to serve the community, which is badly in need of Christian teaching and training, before embarking on God knows what adventure in the Fraternity. The Little Sisters, who settled in Tehran shortly before us, had one or two enquiries from women who did not stick with them either. Is there any point in trying to discover why we have remained trees that bear no fruit? I ask the question just to try out the 'truth game', not to make anyone feel guilty or rebellious.
Perhaps it has also got something to do with the lifestyle of the brothers, who come from a very westernised generation and are living in a Middle Eastern world of the sacred, alongside a traditional Christian culture of the sacred which is so different from that to be found in Europe. Here, the way we live seems totally eccentric, fanciful and unconventional.
A priest or a monk should be someone serious, set apart, traditional, with a beard and a cassock. You do not need a telescope to spot one, they are unmistakable. They defend the honour and prestige and smooth running of the community of which they are the guarantors; their life, activity and service is devoted to the Church, through pastoral work and celebrating the liturgy. They do not do any paid work, or course, least of all manual work; that would represent a loss of dignity. And this dignity must also be maintained by their lifestyle, in accordance with the normal rules established by the conventions of their community: they must live in a particular kind of house, furnished in a particular way, employ a specified number of staff, drive a particular kind of car, and so on. Bishop X once said to me: "Here is some good news - my car is the same as that of the Ambassador of Y". And the community of the Armenian priest of Tabriz have given him a 4x4, like that of the Turkish consul of course. Both vehicles score 10/10. The Bishop and the priest would not be found on the bum-freezer of a pink bus crawling out beyond the suburbs of Tabriz (score 2 or 3/10), through a moonless night in the pitch black desert. Yet this bus crosses the desert, a single moving point of light.
And what about the Sisters? Well, the Little Sisters have attracted no vocations, but another congregation who look after the community have, over the last few years, taken in seven young Christian women. Some of them have a school-leaving certificate, and the Sisters raise their social status while they are abroad. They receive training and gain qualifications, and become nurses, social workers or kindergarten teachers.
But then, unlike the Little Sisters, other congregations can offer the guarantee of hundreds of years of establishment in Iran and in the Middle East; their values are 'classic', 'solid', 'typical', 'visible', 'useful'. They can be trusted because they are there to serve the Christians. They live in houses, very large houses, with considerable means. Could it be that it is this impression of security – or dare I say, of wealth – that attracts vocations? It is not that I am envious or jealous, is it just that, outside the West, The Fraternity's lifestyle appears, in a different cultural context, as too novel, too difficult, too strange, too vulnerable, too lacking in security, compared to the traditional context where all is conventional, rule-bound and 'holy'? It is like driving against the traffic on the wrong side of the road! Or like little Mohammed who’s afraid of missing the bus, and thinks all is lost, when he encounters all the cars clubbing together aggressively and preventing him from crossing the road.
Yet the new, the seemingly difficult, the things that appear strange, insecure or unsettling, are all part of the Gospel! Jack was a young electronics engineer, who gave up everything to go into a seminary. I admire him. He was ordained in Tehran in July 2005. One must be able to give everything up, without knowing the future, without fear of the unknown, as when coping with aggressive traffic, or looking out of frosted-up windows. Yet, for a lot of other 'vocations' I sometimes tend to feel that people are drawn by an attractive and reassuring guarantee of training, prospects and promotion.
Click, click, bling, bling - the engine is turning again, in 4:4 rock-and-roll rhythm. The miracle has happened! I will go to Father de Foucauld’s canonisation in Rome, even if it is by the pink bus! The bus moves off again, while we sing the departure song, "Allah Akbar". A nip of whisky would have gone down well, even a little 'whisky baby', together with a "Cheers!" and before, during, after a few Ave Allahs and Maria Akbars, shaken not stirred in a cocktail. The bus moves on without a hitch – no casualties, no drama. But I was wrong – the pink bus deserves 20/20, like the Armenian 4x4, like its ambassador’s twin, like the Sisters’ Peugeot. I didn’t know how lucky I was. One always learns too late how much happiness and warmth and gentleness and tenderness are lingering in the shadows of life. Like earlier on, when I was crossing the road, with Mohammed’s hand protecting mine like a glove – he was entrusting me with not just his hand, but his soul.
What a wonderful opportunity it was, the unknown treasure of a passing encounter with a child. "Please, help me cross the road." A child’s prayer, which suddenly seemed to make one's own life change into a prayer. "Please, help me" – an opportunity to be seized - or ignored. For ever. A 'please', a 'help me' to say goodbye, an unheard of and challenging goodbye which takes one’s whole heart. A goodbye like a few bright pixels on a darkened screen – the dark screen of the end of the day. Another day, another life, just like all the others. Because in fact virtually nothing happened.
Inspired by Brother Charles...