"Of the Wall - with Padre James Bhagwan" Wednesday, November 05, 2008, p7
I recently had the opportunity to travel to the region of Tuscany in Italy. The flight from London to Pisa took just a little bit longer than it would take to fly from Nadi to Taveuni. My hosts were kind enough to show me around two beautiful towns, Pisa and Lucca.
Lucca is famous for an ancient Roman wall which surrounds the old part of the town. There are many beautiful buildings and churches which attract locals and tourists alike. Pisa is home to the "Miracle Square" within which are a baptistery, cathedral, cemetery (where many prominent sons and daughters of Tuscany and Italy - such as Pope Gregory XIII and Cavour - are buried) and, of course, the world-famous "Leaning Tower".
The designs of the buildings and the artwork, both within and without - in paint, stone and wood, were the products of some of the most famous artists in history. However, this letter is not meant to be a lesson in history or art.
As I recovered from this slight overdose of beautiful art, I also realised that I was, for once, part of a Christian minority: a Protestant very near to the centre of the Catholic world. As I explained my vocation, what type of Protestant and the origins of Methodism, including the fact that both John and Charles Wesley were Anglican (Church of England) priests even unto death, to my hosts, I began to think about how we in Fiji view each other's religion and, for Christians, other denominations.
It is true that I am a member of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma. It is the way through which I choose to express my spirituality and live my faith. My commitment to this "method" of spirituality has seen me enter the Ordained Ministry, albeit currently on probation.
Yet I am an ecumenical Christian; I am a person who is a firm believer in the whole Church as the Body of Christ. I am someone who celebrates the visible unity of the Body of Christ through the recognition of the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist (Holy Communion) and of the common Ministry of the worldwide Church. So much so that my sole academic and theological qualification is a Bachelor of Divinity in Ecumenical Studies and that my family live ecumenically with my wife a committed Catholic and my children baptised members of the Anglican Church. Rather than cause difficulties or conflicts, our diverse religious life has been enriched by experiencing and understanding the different traditions of the church and through that understanding our common bond in Christ.
Over the last weekend the Christian calendar has commemorated All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
It was interesting to read both articles and comments in the local news media in Fiji and how these events are perceived by the public as just a Roman Catholic feast day, rather than a tradition of the worldwide Church.
I found an interesting article in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal which I feel may put things into perspective:
"All Saints' Day traces its beginnings to the early Christian practice of honouring martyrs. On the anniversary of the martyr's death, a "hallowed eve", Christians kept night-time vigil over the tomb then celebrated Communion the following morning. The list of martyrs and their feast days grew so over the years that they began outstripping those dedicated to Christ.
"That's when reformers broke with the practice," said the Reverend Rick Brooks, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church. He added, however, that in the 1980s some mainline Protestant churches began reconsidering the value of ancient, liturgical feasts.
"Perhaps we'd thrown out the baby with the bath water," said Brooks. In fact, he's recently discovered that All Saints' Day was a favourite of Methodism's founder, John Wesley.
"Wesley's journals indicate this," said Brooks, adding that Wesley retained that appreciation from his time spent as an Anglican minister during which he used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Today, most churches that follow the liturgical calendar, such as the Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and some Presbyterian churches observe All Saints' Day in some manner."
The first tune that I ever learned to play on the harmonica was, "When the saints go marching in". I came in handy when I tried to impress my then-girlfriend-now-wife, who had attended St. Thomas High School where that was one of the school's songs.
A friend of mine recently sent me a message on Facebook (the virtual/internet version of sitting around the tanoa) to the effect that she didn't understand why my son, Francisco-Xavier was named after a Catholic saint. Another friend of mine seeing this message, almost worked himself into an electronic frenzy at the apparent ignorance of Christian saints by someone. As a member of the Christian community, I find myself bemused whenever I find references made to "Catholic Saints".
The Wikipedia on-line encyclopaedia (consulted as a matter of expediency rather than preference) has the following entry under the term "Saint":
"A saint (from the Latin sanctus) is a human being to whom has been attributed (and who has generally demonstrated) a high level of holiness and sanctity in an exemplary life of virtuous behaviour. A saint is therefore not simply a believer but one who has been transformed by virtue and presents an example (often providing guidance) to other human beings striving to conform their lives to God. Such a person is often (but not always) recognised after their death by other human beings as someone who lived a divine life and who is in the Divine presence even in death. Saints are sometimes formally honoured by fellow believers after their death being given the title of Saint before their name. Examples are the Apostles, martyrs, and doctors of the Church.
Saints are not exclusive to Christianity. In most religious cultures, there are people who have been recognised as having fulfiled the highest aspirations of religious teaching and have realised God's will in their actions. In the mystical traditions of the world's religions one who has reached the uppermost level of purity and wisdom are also referred to as a saint."
Obviously there is some difference in who qualifies to be an officially recognised saint and who we see as saints in our lives. A short time ago I watched the film, "A Guide to Recognising Your Saints", which stars Robert Downey Jr and Shia LaBeouf. In this movie, the central character Dito, played by both Downey Jr. and LaBeouf begins to believe that he has been saved from his friends' fate by his saints with the further realisation that his saints were his friends and family.
In our busy lives, with so many pressing personal issues to deal with, how often do we stop to look and see, to recognise and acknowledge the saints in our lives - parents, siblings, teachers, friends, colleagues, strangers - those whose advice, actions and support have helped us in our life's journey?
Regardless of our how we express our faith in the divine, we can all express our thanks for those who have had faith in us and those who have been there for us, whether we understood it at the time or not. Let us learn to recognise the saints in our lives. Perhaps in doing so, we can also recognise the unconditional divine love that is manifested through them.
May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light and peace.
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an award-winning radio and television producer and writer. He is currently on leave from the Methodist Davuilevu Theological College where he is a member of the Faculty. All opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and policies of the Methodist Church in Fiji or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is affiliated with. Email: padrejamesgmail.com