Sunday, July 4, 2010

Life Profession in Papua New Guinea

Two weeks ago I was in Yorkshire, England. Now I am in Papua New Guinea. Yesterday, phoning my credit card company to make a phone payment, the account manager who helped me asked: "Can I hear jungle noises in the background?" It's a small world some days.

But cell phones don't always work. It didn't work in Bienga, the small village on the Ope River where a group of us went to celebrate the Life Profession of Brother Charles Iada on June 29, St. Peter's Day. The world seemed a big and scary place as we plowed up the river in our small boats. The banks were choked with foliage. The brothers had been warning me about crocodiles--Br. Charles' father had been eaten by one a few years back. As the story goes, the crocodile flipped the canoe and ate him. It was reassuring, as we arrived in the dark to hear the high pitched shouts: "Oro! Oro!" Welcome! Welcome!

We couldn't see a soul until some enterprising youths hooked up a flourescent tube light fixture to a portable generator. The roar of the gas powered engine couldn't compete with the vigorous singing by men in loin cloths, women in tapa cloth skirts and face paint. Modern technology illuminating some ancient rites of hospitality.

Village life is sort of familiar to me; but every time I find myself in these situations I feel like I've been sucked through a knot hole. We gathered in a thatched shelter to eat our dinner. In my mind I grappled with the things which set Westerners to jabbering: mud, mosquitoes (malaria!), crocodiles and sore bums from long hours on unpadded seats. I tried to act cool as I took in the latrine, spoon-sharing, the common cup at dinner--not enough to go around, so use your neighbor's! Meanwhile my hosts admired my sandals, urged me to eat more of--what was it? They asked "Where is America? So are you English or Australian?" I wonder did Lewis Carroll ever visit a small tropical village?

I awoke the next morning to a rain drenched scene, in a hut high on a hill top. Below was the village and we could see the makeshift church built of tarps and palm branches. The regular chapel was not deemed big enough for the expected crowd. A long line of young women was snaking from the river bank to the church. Each had a basin on her head. "What'er they doin'?" I asked. Rain had flooded the sanctuary and they were filling the low places with sand. Mud caked the hem of my habit and squelched between my toes as we processed into the church for the great day. Not only was it Charles' Life Profession, but it was the village church's patronal festival and the Archbishop's first visit. At breakfast they'd asked me to be the preacher on this great day.

Daunted, we nevertheless proceeded: thurifer, crucifer, torchbearers, Archbishop and friars in high church Anglican regalia. Everyone else in feathers and leaves and bits of bark, including two young women attendants for the Archbishop. Br. Charles wore a magnificent crown fashioned from the beaks of the Horned-Bill (?? that's what they told me--some kind of big bird) and feathers from a casuary bird. "It's probably the only moment of glory you'll ever get," the Archbishop quipped. "Enjoy it." He was escorted up to the Archbishop by his father's youngest brother. I spoke, trying not to make too many parenthetical remarks and unnecessary stories which is my default mode when I am trying to think of something to say. Not much needed to be said, as everybody was goggle-eyed at the thought of a man making a life profession of vows of poverty, chastity and obedience--no different from a crowd of teary aunts and cousins in New York, I thought. Nobody is too sure it is really the best idea but everybody wants to be in the spirit of the day. I hit joy, love and gratitude really hard.

The deed was done and we departed the by now steamy structure, rain having given way to full sun. I was not prepared for what greeted us at the door of the church: a pig trussed on a pole, laid on the ground; I was walking with the bishop and before I knew it an axe was buried in the pigs head, blood spraying everywhere. The people shouted and danced with joy. Swallowing hard, I walked along. It happened two more times. That was the moment I felt light years from home.

And yet the only reason I was there was because the same Gospel inspired me as it has Charles. The same stories of St. Francis, and friendship with a band of brown-robed men of every race and language and people and nation.

Won't you come and join our happy crew?