Friday, 15 June 2007

Essay on Faith

Essay on faith

Last Tuesday 9/11/2001 I watched the tragic events unfolding in the US with the terrorist acts in New York, Washington and elsewhere while on a Red Cross training course in France. Three days earlier Ahmed Shah Massoud and his friend Aseem were killed in Tajikistan by the same person suspected of the US attack. They were both good friends whom I met frequently.

I drank tea with Osma Bin Laden in 1996, when I met him in Laghman province in Afghanistan. He seemed a serious and likable man. Tea, like faith, is a connector, a healer and a leveler. I am sure God made tea as a ritual and ceremony of peace. I also drank many cups of tea with Massoud and Azeem. So why do tea drinkers kill ? Why were we born ?

Man’s inhumanity to man and inhumane killings have been part of my life. So has God’s love and blessings. But how does one write about a personal thing called faith ? It is like describing the intimate feelings I have for family, something unspoken and intensely personal.. But I will try.

Nicolas Bouvier, a Swiss writer and artist wrote, “ My belief is that one must have passed through fire oneself....to be able to sort out...the contents of those storehouses of sorrow, where fortunately we can also find, more often than we might have dared to expect...enough small miracles to motivate and encourage those in the field who are so often compelled, to quote a mediaeval Japanese poem, ‘to bear the unbearable and tolerate the intolerable.”

When I was 19, I traveled by sea from New Zealand to Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and saw my first storehouse of poverty and exploitation, especially in Peru. I spent four months in the high alta-plano living with the Quetchua Indians, the remnants of a once proud and sophisticated civilization: decimated by the Spanish. Colonization, another of the world’s evils which has been glorified in the name of God. There followed time in the Barriada (slums) of Lima where I saw extreme poverty. There I saw “Faith” , something spiritual and simple, from a non-material world giving them hope and the strength to survive. It helped shape my faith.

I saw my second storehouse of sorrow. Vietnam 1971. My first assignment overseas. Seeing the aerial bombing of villages and countless people killed or maimed for life, by naphalm, B 52’s, M 16’s, helicopter gunships and land mines made me see how the “other half dies.” .

It was so far from my Sunday school and Bible class days in New Zealand where we were told of God’s perfect world and moved wise men of camels across a make-believe desert in a sand pit, with paper palm trees. The World looked so perfect..

I soon found an ever increasing imperfect world off my shores, where I have spent most of my adult life..

In 1971, sitting in the bar at the Continental Palace in Saigon, I recall meeting that famous war correspondent, Martha Geldhorn, who had just come back from having been with US forces and she commenting on the futility of war and the deeper meaning of life...”That spiritual world up or out there,” she described so wistfully, and then dismissed the comment. She had her doubts about it. I knew she had been married briefly to Ernest Hemingway but I refused to raise that issue, for fear of being strangled by such a delicate woman. I thought at the time, it must have been more difficult living with Hemingway than covering any war.

I think most about my spiritual life a lot, but more specifically in bars, on mountains, in wars or when I see poverty and exploitation. Perhaps it is the biblical wine, wars, mountains and the good Samaritan. These places/people evoke strong emotions for me. Having a strong spiritual leaning to my life has helped me through incredibly difficult times.

I like to think I am a Christian...far from being a good one, and I try to pray most days, and the more difficult the going, the more and the harder I pray.

One memory haunts me, from 1995 in a hospital ward at Kharte Se hospital. At least 50 children/teenagers who had legs, hands, feet and legs blown off by landmines during the past few days, had to, twice a day, dip and then soak their freshly severed stump into plastic bags of iodine, to ensure the flesh and bone was clean before operating. The plastic bag would be held by a relative or parent. The first to dip their bloody stump would pierce the air with lachrymose scream of death and as each child being forced to dip their stumps, sometime having lost two legs and an arm, the screaming built up to build up to a crescendo for two to three minutes. During that period, I used to ask “ Why God, where were you when that child was out gathering wood and stepped on a land mine.? “

Today when I pick up my young son, I marvel at the delicacy of, and the simple joy a baby gives and it makes me think deeply about the ephemeral nature of life. children.

Over the years I’ve been inside the storehouse of sorrow in wars, floods, earthquakes., famines, droughts, landslides, cyclones and sheer and simple poverty and exploitation.

Religions, spirituality and heaven, hell and the afterlife fascinate me. For me I believe in the one God and a Christ-like figure. I haven’t seen Christ but believe I have spoken to him. I also feel close to all the prophets of the Bible and the Koran, the heroes of Avesta’s, a canonical work of the Zarathustra, the Ramayana and the Mahabatra fascinate me. I have wandered deeply into Buddhist territory and thought and am constantly aroused by the Sufi poets. But above all, the spirit of the nomads of the great steppes and the Polynesians who constantly challenge my thoughts as the were able to take on new religions, shrug them off like winter coats, or old canoes, and go back to the spirits and roots of their ancestors at will.


I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth

What moves me most is mountain landscapes and my dream of being a snow flake wafting from the sky. To fall on a mountain pass or a col, or even atop of a mountain peak. To later to be part of a bergschrund, a snowy arete, a snow field, a neve, a glacier, a crevasse and in my anger and power, an avalanche. And then when I melt, that long trip down the river to the sea. The processes of snow, ice, glaciers, and mountain geology fascinate me and have drawn me back in awe time and time and time again. While reveling in the beauty of the mountains it reminds me our life on this earth is as ephemeral as a snowflake.

I once could ski like the wind down mountainsides in New Zealand, France, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. I often repeat the runs in my mind. What keeps me traveling and working these days is the anticipation of seeing something new and the sense of awe evoked by architecture, landscapes, people and their cultures. To close my eyes and to look back at the history behind these special places, provides a sense of place and purpose in my life Frequently the kaleidoscope of contrasts, from awe to awfulness, between pomp, power and poverty, I feel sick and angry and ask why is it so ? But when I slow down and meditate, I know God is part of the world’s latticework of life, and my anger dissipates.

The excitement and challenge of a new job, leading a new team, forming a new relationship or taking a ride (challenge) with nature such as climbing a mountain, exploring a seldom visited mountain region, kayaking a wild river, kayaking across the sea to some distant point, competing in a triathlon when you don’t know the course, teaching my child to swim and planting a garden or a tree is part of God’s expectations of us.

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Above my desk in Delhi is a photograph I took in December (1999) in Agra of a inlaid marble panel from the Taj Mahal, the world’s greatest monument to love. Sometimes I dwell on the deeper meaning of love, love Agape. But as New Zealand’s poet Denis Glover writes about me and so many others, I am a thistledown planted on the wind , yearning for new challenges and things to stimulate my thought. Not long before my Mother died - who was born deaf, and the most and influential woman in my life - told me “ Don't die ignorant , try everything once.”

Everyone blames God when things go wrong and forgets to praise him when they go right.

I’ve tried most things in the material and spiritual world. All I can say is “ Thank God for this world, each dawn, sunset, flower, wave and child; there is a life hereafter.”

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