Across the road (2)

The Greek Orthodox church is on Hania Street.  We told the students we would meet them down there, after lunch, at the KFC on Kent Terrace.  It was raining a bit, and cold as we shuffled inside the church.  Just inside the door was Father Demetrios in a long black robe, with a bushy black and grey beard.  The students were very appreciative of his appearance, and also of the inside of the church which was ornate and highly decorated.  At the far end was a richly carved wooden screen blocking off the congregation from the altar.  The altar could be seen through an open doorway in the centre of the screen.  There was a modest dome above, and chandeliers, icons along the walls, carved wooden chairs to the right, and a baptismal fount to the left below a large picture of Jesus being baptised by John.

The Father was assisted by an avuncular, rotund man with a shaved head who helped out when the Father’s English failed him.  It often failed him with religious words and terms as it turned out, which initially created the impression that he had no idea what he was talking about.

Father: “Here is a picture of Jesus, and… um, Jesus and the…”

Assistant: “Disciples, Father.”

Father: “Ah, yes, Jesus and the Disciples.”

Afterwards I learned that most of the girls found this couple very “cute” and took a shine to them.  The Father was keen to point out things,

“Here is God’s all-seeing eye” he said indicating the painted eye above his head.

He slipped off behind the screen and came back with an incense burner, “and here,” he continued, “the incense… container?”

“Burner?” the assistant suggested.

“Burner.  Incense burner.”  He swung it back and forward as its pungent smell of the incense hit our noses.  “To ward off the devil.”

We nodded.

“It has twelve bells for the twelve disciples.”

Excitedly he pointed at the picture of the last supper, “why doesn’t this man have a gold circle around his head?”

“He’s Judas!” we called out.

“Yes, yes, but why no gold halo?”  The Father seemed excited.

“He betrayed Christ?” a girl said.

“Ah ha!”  The Father was delighted.  We had played into his hands.  “No.  Because he committed suicide.”

We looked confused.  The assistant stepped in.  “Only God can take away the gift of life, which only God can give.  This crime of Judas’ was worse than betraying Christ.”

The Father was smiling.  It was obviously a favourite trick of his this question.

The assistant went on.  “Suicides cannot be buried at the church.”

My students seemed comfortable with this, but I felt irritated.  Murderers I suppose would be fine.

The Father went on.  “If we dig up a body after five years and it smells of incense then we know that the person was a saint.”  The girls were pleased with this extraordinary fact.

We continued to be bombarded with curious facts.  All the icons along the walls had to be in the medieval 2D – no new-fangled Renaissance perspective for them.  The blood and body of Christ all got put in a goblet together and were not taken separately.  The service was done in Greek, not classical Greek or modern Greek, but a Greek somewhere in the middle.  One girl asked how Greek Orthodox was different from the Anglicans which led to a long back and forth in Greek and then a confusing description of the Trinity.  Another girl asked about female priests.  Father Demetrios said something to the assistant and laughed.  I imagine that he said: “I’ll let you answer that one.”

The assistant looked uncomfortable, and said: no.

The day after all this we were discussing the field trip in class and one student asked about the grand chair that was reserved for Christ during the second coming.  “Are they actually expecting him to show up and sit on that chair?”  I said that I thought that they were.  “Jesus is going to have to do a lot of whizzing about,” she continued.  All I could think to say was that it wouldn’t be like the Amazing Race, more like Santa Claus, except the people on the naughty list are eternally damned.

*****

I was pleased to hear some of the girls say “wow!” when we pushed inside St Mary of the Angels.   After some pottering about down the aisles and looking at the statues, Father Tom ambled out from somewhere at the back.  Father Tom was an elderly man, easy-going and amiable.  We sat down and he introduced himself and the church to the students.  He told us about the statues (“we don’t worship them,” he said, “but they remind us of things”), and pointed out the picture of the Pope.

He went on to talk about the Eucharist, which he explained well.  It was during this explanation that I had one of those moments when you realise a number of things all at once.  Father Tom explained that he genuinely believed that once the Eucharist had been performed the bread and wine truly became the flesh and blood of the living Christ, and that if he didn’t believe that he would be off from the church tomorrow.  It made me realise that if you want to experience the extraordinary then you need only go across the road.  The Hindu temple may have appeared to be exotic to the students, but here was a man telling us that he believed he ate the body and blood of Christ on a daily basis.

I also realised, afresh, how strange Christianity is.  I think it hit me fully for the first time when I was in Italy which is stuffed full of churches stuffed full of bits and pieces of dead people who other people now touch in the hopes that, essentially, their magic will rub off on them.  As it happens at the moment we are looking at the East India Company in History class.  There is a point in that story where the intellectual denigration of Hinduism by missionaries takes hold.  How odd, I now think, that men who regarded having a man nailed to a cross in their holy buildings as perfectly normal, and thought they were eating his flesh and blood, would criticise the barbarity of other religions.

But we left happy.  Father Tom had been a genuine, friendly man who shared his beliefs openly with us and was humble and quiet.  It is, to be fair, a long way from the raw new frontier of Calcutta to Boulcott Street in Wellington in 2013.  The students had enjoyed themselves, and had been curious, and confused, offended and pleased all in one day.  I had been reminded how peculiar ordinary life can be, and how the extraordinary is hidden behind almost every door.  I should be glad I live in a society that can tolerate all this divergent peculiarity, including my own perverse belief in science.

*****

“You’ve heard the story about evolution?” the Hindu priest had asked the girls at the start of the day.

The girls had nodded.

“We don’t believe that story,” he had said.

I noted Rama the monkey-god holding his porcelain smile over the priest’s right shoulder, and I smiled back.

Across the road (1)

It was cold and overcast on Thursday morning but there was almost no chance I would cancel the Understanding Religion field trip having spent weeks setting it up.  Just before we left one teacher asked me if I thought we would need head scarves for the mosque.  The thought of improvising 80 head scarves was a little alarming, but I decided it was the kind of thing the head of the mosque would have mentioned and remained outwardly calm.

We met most of the students at the front of the aquatic centre in Kilbirnie.  By the time we were all there it looked a little bit like we were staging a protest in front of the aquatic centre.  A women in a military uniform showed up and asked me if the centre was closed.  After I had assured her that it was open, she came back with 40 kids from St Marks’ School.  As the kids filed past me I wondered what kind of swimming programme the Anglicans were running that required a military attaché.  We left more or less on time for our first stop.

There is a large Indian Cultural Centre on Kemp Street, and inside that there is a Hindu temple.  I have never been in either the centre or the temple.  Inside the large, deserted and frigid foyer I followed a trail of sandals to the doors of the temple which were plastered with various signs telling me I shouldn’t eat or drink inside.  Inside it was very warm.  Pleasingly there was a row of ornate, gorgeous and garishly coloured statues at the far end of the temple which otherwise was really just a large, ordinary room with plastic seats and the smell of  incense.  The temple priest was a youngish, Indian man in white with a long strand of hair down the nape of his neck.

The girls filed in after removing their shoes and sat down on the plastic chairs.  The priest began by explaining that he had only been in New Zealand for 15 months, and that his English was limited.  Actually his English was excellent, but his accent was strong and this threw some of the students off.  For a long time I thought he was telling us that the Gods had weapons so they could attack Islam, but it turned out he was saying “evil” which was a relief.

The priest explained that there were four repeating ages, and that we were living in the fourth age which was the bad one where everything gets mixed up and disasters start occurring before the whole caboodle eventually goes up in smoke.  Proof that we were in the fourth age: tsunami, global warming, having to pay for bottled water, and women wearing pants.  Shortly after this our pack of pant-wearing girls (many with bottled water in their bags I have no doubt) went up to the front of the temple to look at the statues.  In the unlikely event  I take up an organised religion I think the statues could swing it for me with Hinduism.  The multi-armed Shiva, the elephant-headed Ganesha, the turtle that supports the world on its back, the monkey Rama, and Krishna’s flute.  So much more stimulating to look at than Jesus nailed to a cross.

The girls were taken with idea of Krishna and his lady friend.  They never married, they never made love, it was a love of the heart only.  Lots of appreciative cooing from the girls on this.  Never mind the other 16,000 wives.  One student sidled up to me:

“Mr?”

“Mmm?”

“You know how all the statues look like girls?”

I nodded.  The statues did all look like girls.  Except for the monkey and the elephant.

“…but some of them are guys?”

“Mmm.”

“What do Hindus think about homosexuality?”

Not knowing – but guessing – the answer to this question, I encouraged her to ask the temple priest who confirmed my guess.  He shook his head and waved his arms.  Has there ever been a religion that was really accepting of everyone?

We left, after I had improvised a thank you and the girls had clapped appreciatively, to go and stand in the freezing cold driveway and make jokes about global warming.  Thankfully the mosque wasn’t far away.

*****

“It used to be a postal distribution centre,” one of the teachers told me as we sat in the library of the mosque.  Presumably the minaret was a later addition to the building.  “And then it was converted,” it wasn’t much of a joke, but I was still a little miffed that no one laughed.

The library of the mosque was large, and had wood cabinets filled with books behind glass running along the walls.  The Muslim girls in our group, after pulling up their head scarves (they had come prepared), had led us in the women’s entrance of the Mosque which was off to the side of the grander male entrance and, I noted with a certain amount of delight, also served as the disabled entrance.  We waited for a while in the library which was a little cold.  The girls chatted and waved their phones around.  Eventually Mohammed showed up.  We had met last year and we shook hands.  He has a nice full beard, and a little white cap which helps the students get in the mood.  When I told him we would be there for half an hour he seemed momentarily alarmed but I couldn’t tell if this was because it was far longer or far shorter a time than he had imagined we would be there.

He talked about the five pillars of Islam.  Girls tentatively asked questions.  Why the hat?  He shrugged.  It’s just a hat.  Why the beard?  He shrugged.  It’s just a tradition.  He talked about the wonderful equality and lack of discrimination in Islam.  I couldn’t help but recall the women’s entrance to the mosque, and the fact that we were sitting outside the women’s prayer hall.  Mohammed took us into the men’s prayer hall.  It was almost completely bare, but the patterned carpet and the ceiling tiles had all been put in diagonally so that the faithful knew which way to pray to Mecca and this created enough interest for the students who had shushed each other violently before they went in.  Pacific Island girls in any kind of religious setting brook no whispered chat.

It seems that in New Zealand Muslims pray to Mecca over Antarctica.  I suppose this is the shortest route.  For a religion that has very sensibly restricted representation so that its followers don’t venerate the messenger, it seems strange that there is so much of a fixation on the Kaaba at Mecca.  That fixation is pretty compelling however.  The thought of millions of people around the globe all facing towards a central point five times a day is equals parts awe-inspiring, and disturbing to the outsider.

After we left the mosque it was time for lunch.  It began to rain, but the girls had already scattered.  After lunch we would be visiting the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholics.