Saturday, November 28, 2009

Two Catholic Missionaries In Tibet I

By the 1840’s the Imperial Chinese government was beginning to realize just how precarious its long cherished independence was. It looked on with alarm as one of its neighbors after another fell to the Western powers. The pattern of absorption was often the same — first came either missionaries who attacked traditional institutions, or merchants who demanded unfair privileges. When their behavior caused trouble and the government tried to keep them in line, the missionaries or merchants would demand protection from their respective governments and soon gunboats were sailing and armies marching. Determined that this would not be their fate, the Chinese had banned all missionaries and had tried to restrict merchants to a few so-called treaty ports. But if the merchants were and cunning and determined, the missionaries were even more so. Ignoring rightfully enacted laws and statutes, missionaries had disguised themselves and penetrated into some of the most remote parts of the empire. Suspecting some of them of spying for Western powers, as indeed they often did, the Chinese had put in place a series of draconian measures to deal this threat. Any missionary caught could expected to be executed, often after horrible torture. Such was the situation when Father Regis-Evariste Huc, a French member of the Lazarist Order arrived in Portuguese enclave of Macao in 1839. The next year, taking advantage of yet another British attack on Chinese forces, Huc slipped across the border in disguise and made his way to Peking. From there he went through the Great Wall into Mongolia. He spent three years learning the language and later met Father Joseph Gabet who was head of the mission there. The two become friend and gradually conceived the audacious idea of taking the Gospel to the most remote, the most forbidden place on earth - Lhasa the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. The chances of getting there and returning alive were, the two men knew, very slim but with a courage and faith typical of their kind, this only made them more determined to go. In August 1844 the two intrepid missionaries together with a Mongolian convert acting as servant, set of towards the west on what was to be a remarkable 2400 kilometer journey. Passing through seemingly endless stretches of uninhabited grass land and desert they finally got to the regions where Tibetan Buddhism prevailed. On one occasion while staying at a wayside inn a senior lama and his retinue arrived. Curious to know who the strangers were the lama paid them a visit Hue and Gabet refused to stand to greet him, a breach of etiquette which the lama had the good grace to ignore. After a few polite exchanges the lama saw the prayer book which the missionaries had deliberately put out for the purpose of initiating a discussion on religion. The lama picked up the book, flicked through the pages, admired its gilt edge and then said; "Our two faiths are like this", raising two fingers and putting them besides each other as he did so. The missionary’s response to this spontaneous gesture of good-will and magnanimity was predictable. "Your beliefs and ours are at odds with each other", Huc said. "The object of our journey and our efforts, and we make no secret of it, is to substitute our prayers for those in use in your monasteries". "I know", said the lama with a smile and after some more conversation he left. If Huc and Gabet were hoping to become martyrs it would not be at the hands of the Buddhist lamas. Despite their rocklike sense of superiority and occasional rudeness, Huc and Gabet were generally far more sensitive and tactful than most missionaries of the time. Huc later wrote, "All the experience of our long journey... convinced us that it is through teaching and not controversy that one must work for the conversion of the unbeliever. Argument can reduce an adversary to silence, humiliate him even, anger him sometimes, and convince him never. When Jesus Christ instructed his Apostles, he told them; Ite, docete omnes gentes, and this does not mean ‘Go and argue with all nations’. In our own day, two schools of philosophy, one following the steps of Descartes and the other of Lamennais, have long argued the question as to whether paganism is a crime or an error. In our opinion it is neither, but simply the result of ignorance. The mind of the pagan is in darkness; show him a light and the darkness is gone. He needs no Cartesian no Lamennaisian imputations, he simply needs instruction". However, such sentiments also highlight Huc’s naive optimism. During their stay in Tibet the two missionaries had the opportunity to ‘show the light’ to many people but not one came forward to be baptized.

1 comment:

Justin Choo said...

What happened to them? Did they go to heaven?