Missionary in Mongolia, on becoming a Christian in a Buddhist Country (photos)
Fr Marengo has lived on the Asian steppes since 2003. He writes about the Easter Triduum under a tent chapel, the baptism of eight catechumens, as well as forgiveness and reconciliation among families. Easter in Arvaiheer is always a “miracle of faith [that] is always poignant.”
Arvaikheer (AsiaNews) – In the silence of an unusually grey afternoon caused by the dust brought by the spring wind, we found ourselves praying in the yurt-shaped chapel, the Mongolian tent of the parish of Arvaikheer. Thus began this year’s Triduum.
That day probably was not that different, as the disciples made their way to the upper room. The Master was waiting for them; he already knew, they didn’t. Soon they would have their feet washed and see their reflection in that dirty water that was pure love.
Then came the Jewish dinner, which took on a new, unheard of meaning. Even the Christians and the catechumens of Arvaikheer were amazed. From the water of the basin to that of the spring that irrigated life two days later to give birth to a new relationship with God the Father . . .
The next day we contemplated Christ who did not descend from the cross like a superhero, but accepted the human condition until the end, going so far as to die a violent death. This is a very challenging experience for people used to assessing God's favour on the basis of worldly success and a peaceful life, far from illness and suffering. The sky was still gray and there is no good Friday that isn’t so.
Then came the Saturday morning retreat. This is a beautiful tradition to help the catechumens prepare for the ritual set to take place that evening, which also enables those already baptised to renew their faith and welcome the new members of the community.
We always come to this moment full of weaknesses and tensions. It almost seems like the devil stuck his nose into it. The liberating cry of confessions (which lasted two hours for just 30 people and two priests) was followed by the miracle of forgiveness that we exchanged in the chapel with a gesture as concrete as possible.
This year each person had to go to others and say a few words like "excuse me" and "thank you", before hugging and being hugged in turn. This came with more tears and sobs. If faith doesn’t go through this emotional aspect, it remains abstract whilst there is a need for a lot of concreteness.
Some people who get literally sick over rifts and misunderstandings (the expression they use is "going into another's mouth"), resorting to Buddhist lamas and shamans to "magically" solve their tensions, found deep release when they looked at and forgave others in the name of the One who first took charge of their spiritual burdens.
Easter here is truly a transition, which each person perceives in their own way. Four teenagers (15 to 18), who faithfully underwent the two years of preparation prescribed by the provisions of the local Church, experienced it as the crowning moment of a journey that led them to join the community of believing "adults".
For Chuluuntsetseg, 50, it was a slow and progressive approach. For Baterdene, who spent eight of his 28 years in hospital and undergoing surgery, it meant meeting the Lord in his suffering and understanding that someone was willing to alleviate it for love of Him. Finally, Otgonerdene and Sainzaya, respectively 10 and 13 years, practically grew up in the mission.
Eventually, Easter vigil came. In the early hours of the afternoon the sky was ochre and dust blown in by a spring storm was everywhere. It was hard to stand up and not swallow dust and feel it grinding one’s teeth. When the wind died down a bit, we decided to build a fire where the house wall offered some shelter.
Dry dung burnt, not wood. A woman of the community bought it out of compassion from a poor woman at the market. Usukhjargal is a cute 8-year-old boy who was baptised as a child. He told his father to arrange the dung in the shape of a cross. This was done just before light entered the darkened yurt, before Gantulga, as a good poet and storyteller, declaimed the Exultet as if it were a Mongolian praise.
The liturgy flowed harmoniously in its various parts. Then the catechumens were invited to approach the large cross-shaped stone hanging from the central pole of the yurt, serving as an anchor so that the wind didn’t blow the tent away and as a symbolic link between the Mongols, their land and their beloved sky.
The Catholic family that lives in the steppe on the border of the Gobi Desert now has eight new members. At the end of the celebration, pictures were taken and good wishes and blessings exchanged.
Here, godparents play an important role. They are the ones who offer gifts to the newly baptised and receive them as a sign of gratitude for guiding them to the faith.
This is Easter in Arvaikheer. Many things could be improved. We missionaries and locals have so many limits; yet the miracle of faith is always poignant. On the Sunday of the Resurrection, the new members came to church wearing white shirts (in perfect Mongolian style made by women involved in a sewing project).
After Mass we drank suutei tsai (a salty tea with milk). We also had lunch with khuushuur (meat dumplings) cooked by another woman of the community.
Life here is hard, not very poetic. During the two days of the dust storm, shepherds kept an eye on their flocks at a critical time when sheep have their lambs.
This is not a time for accolades, as many challenges are still to come. Yet, these people have fresh hope in their hearts and know that the "God of Heaven" has come down to them and has taken them with him to accompany them every day, into eternity.
* Consolata missionary