Letter from France

I checked my website and could confirm that it was almost six months since I posted my last letter, triggered by the passage of my father. I have since been busy with my studies and my life, and time simply passes by. In the time in between, I have actually written or required to write some essays and assignments which I intend to place on my website one of these days, but not yet.

I have been telling people that I am in Paris. To many people, Paris means France and vice versa. Well, I was in Paris for a few days, but I have been in France for more than a few days and would be in France for two more weeks, hence the title of this letter.

Some of you would know that I was away in June for a pilgrimage to Lourdes and other places. I usually carry my laptop with me when I travel so that I can write down a few thoughts for what they are worth and write the odd letters when I have collected sufficient thoughts. Indeed, my friend Alice once made the point that I wrote more if not only when I was away.

I had my laptop with me for the June trip, but it turned out that all the hotels in which I stayed during the trip did not have internet facilities; and my travel schedules had been such that I could not find time to write during the trip. The result was that I was unable to organize my thoughts as well as I had wanted.

Back to the present, I left Hong Kong on 28 July, in a big rush. I had thought that I had plenty of time to prepare for the trip, but obviously I had yet to perfect the art of living. I failed to pack quite a few things and over-packed others. This trip is actually in three parts. Let me elaborate.

The first part is a pilgrimage – yes, another pilgrimage – led by a Jesuit priest to landmarks in Spain and Paris that the founders of the Society of Jesus had visited and made famous. The trip also included Lourdes, which means that I was in Lourdes twice in as many months.

The second part is a private visit to a friend’s chateau in France, which is where I am writing you from. My friend had acquired the chateau two years ago and is still in the midst of refurbishing and furnishing it. The chateau is about 300 km north of Paris and another 40 km to the nearest train station of a city called Laval. I call it a private visit in the sense that I am going there just by myself and with no plans and no agenda for doing anything. It is my idea of a real holiday or a break from life during which period I would not meet anyone I know, do nothing, and above all make up for sleep deficits accumulated over time. In short, it is mean to be a period of real rest, something many of you would envy. I would come back to this later.

The last and the third part is a visit to the Plum Village, a rather remote and undisturbed village south of France, the nearest train station from which is at least 600 km (my estimate) from Paris. The Plum Village is a rather famous name amongst Buddhists and their friends. It was started by a Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a world heavyweight teacher and author in mindfulness meditation. I signed up for this mindfulness retreat which has been billed as one for scientists in the field of consciousness or neuroscience. I am conscious that I am hardly qualified. I am motivated by a desire to gain some first hand experience on Plum Village teachings and practices, and I am going there with no preconceived idea and an open mind. I have met a few friends in Hong Kong who have been there before. They are all in absolute and unconditional praises about the experience. Indeed, a group of Plum Village returnees have formed themselves into a community or sangha called Friends of Plum Village. They have a website and are ever ready to offer advice to anyone in Hong Kong who wants more information on the Plum Village. I would likely write about the experience after I am back. By the way, Plum Village promises not to provide computer hook-up, facilities to send or receive faxes, or phone calls or emails for guests, except in case of emergency.

Let me now share with you some of my pilgrimage experience. I refer to my recent trips to Lourdes and other places rather than to the oft repeated and not untrue statement that man is a pilgrim on earth. Many religions encourage their faithful to go on pilgrimages. The Catholic Church for example has assured plenary indulgence for those going on pilgrimages. Pilgrimages can take many forms too, and some of us could be going on one without being aware of doing so.

I understand now that many Catholics in Hong Kong go for pilgrimages on a regular basis, easily annually, sometimes twice a year and may be even more frequently, so that there is a market for tour operators. However, not many travel agents in Hong Kong are aware of the potentials, and indeed many are put off by the fact that most clients on pilgrimages would not have the time or opportunities to buy designer goods or expensive items, hence depriving their agents of potentially lucrative income.

Let me illustrate by citing a family I met on one of my recent trips. This family of four has been visiting Lourdes at least twice sometimes five times a year. The youngest member who is in her early teens said she had been there for over ten times. Seeing such faith and devotion first hand is eye-opening and a blessing in itself.

In some way, such phenomena or practices may be likened to those who would visit cities or countries regularly for other reasons. Thus, we have seen green card holders making their regular pilgrimages; compulsive shoppers going on their buying sprees every other season; skiers, golfers or other sports enthusiasts going on their regular and often weekend trips; and so on. Someone has said that materialism has fast become the Number One religion in the West, which is why one could say that those shoppers and to some extent those weekend golfers are simply making their pilgrimages religiously.

The difference with a pilgrimage that I am discussing is the spirituality aspect where faith and humanistic ethics take the centre stage.

So as to keep this letter to a readable length, I would focus on Lourdes for the rest of this letter.

Lourdes is in France and was the site where the Blessed Virgin Mary made 18 appearances to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Bernadette was a 14 year old peasant girl, uneducated and lived in extreme poverty with her parents and five younger siblings. The Church spent four years investigating her claims before approving devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. Since then, Lourdes has become one of the most famous shrines, attracting more than one million pilgrims each year. There have also been claims of thousands of miraculous cures at the shrine.

Many claims of cures have been firmly and irrefutably verified medically and were hence documented miracles as such. There are numerous books and documentaries on such cures, including a Hollywood movie made in the 1940’s which won six academy awards. But what are perhaps more miraculous and marvelous are the moral and spiritual cures that may not be as spectacular, but which take place every day.

It has been said that no one leaves Lourdes without a gain in faith. I would like to believe that I have gained in faith through my recent visits; and I can see myself making future visits.

At the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, one can join any one of the many programmes laid out by the Pilgrimage Offices and many volunteer organizations, all free of charge. It is surprising that they are able to keep out commercialism at the Sanctuary. There are Mass of almost any languages at different times all day; international Mass; daily Blessed Sacrament Procession and Blessing of the Sick; Torchlight Marian Procession, again daily; adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, in many languages; Way of the Cross; baths; daily pilgrimage service; video shows; water walks; and lectures. There are many churches and chapels at or near the Basilica; there are services for youth, for volunteers and for the sick; and there are also facilities for gifts and donations.

The place is picturesque; and the architecture of the chapels and basilica, very much worth seeing. The air is clean. It can be hot at times and it rain, but it is always very pleasant.

I have a special liking for the water of Lourdes. I went to the baths on both visits and I felt very good afterwards. All the people I knew had similar or better experience: some felt ecstatic, many felt relieved, others overjoyed; still others overwhelmed or broke out in tears. The Offices have prepared notes, again in six or seven languages, at every station to guide pilgrims so that first-timers such as me won’t feel helpless. I liked the water of Lourdes. I drank as much as I could and washed my face and hands at the taps as often as I could.

I have also participated in a few processions and I felt good. The singings were in multi-languages, including English, but the responses of the pilgrims were spontaneous and spirited. I see happy faces and faces with faith written all over them wherever I go. I should tell you that I also joined a procession in Sicily and I had to watch out for my bag and purse all the way.

The atmosphere is extremely conducive to prayers; and one sees people praying everywhere and all the time. One can almost feel the power of prayers and the faith of the people.

Emerson said that, “belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief in denying them.” Erich Fromm conceded that “faith is not one of the concepts that fits into the intellectual climate of the present-day world,” but argued that faith is Man’s character trait and questioned whether Man can live without faith. Fromm reminded us that “faith” was used in the Old Testament to mean “firmness”, denoting “a certain quality of human experience, a character trait, rather than the content of a belief in something.” [Fromm – Man for Himself (1947)]

When my Jesuit priest whom I followed to Spain and Paris learnt that I was going to Plum Village, he suggested that I should focus on the Bible first. I responded with a look in the eye that I have faith in my God to guide me wherever I go.

Tomorrow (14 August) is the feast day of St Maximillan Kolbe, priest and martyr, who gave up his life and went to the gas chamber – during German occupation in the Second World War – so that another fellow prisoner could live. Kolbe is another testimony of faith, this time Christian faith.

I wish that you would all gain in faith day by day; and I hope to write you soon.

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