Xin Chao from Hanoi,
It’s a congested city, a lot of smog and smushed rats, but lots of color, too. The streets are lined with small businesses, people selling fruits and pho and knickknacks. Personally, I don’t like cities, so Hanoi has been a bit stressful. Visiting a pagoda and the Temple of Literature, which was Vietnam’s first University, offered a reprise from bike horns and pushy taxi drivers, but that was but one afternoon. Visiting the marketplace in Hanoi was wild—There were street shops, like in the rest of the city, but then there was a massive warehouse that was stuffed wall to wall with fabrics, dried mangos, bags, underwear, sunglasses, literally everything. The aisles were extremely close together, and the proprietors would often sit in little caves carved out of their inventory; some ate and talked with neighboring sellers, others napped. I’ve never seen so many things in one place. It was hot and overwhelming, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything. But the wildest part of Hanoi, by far, was the motorbikes.
There are 7.5 million people in Hanoi, and every one of them has a motorbike. The women wear chic skirts and high heels as they ride. The children stand in between their parents and the handles. Baskets containing sacks of rice or pigs are often strapped to the side or back of bikes on the freeway. Bikes buzz through the streets and alley ways like bees. And much like bees, they use some kind of intuition to swerve in and out and around one another without colliding. Traffic lights, stop signs, and road rules of any kind don’t really exist in Hanoi. Drivers self-regulate at intersections, aside from a handful of major roads which contain lights (though these, too, seem like suggestions). Parked motorbikes get first preference on sidewalk space, so pedestrians mostly take to the street. When a pedestrian needs to cross the street, the instructions are as follows: Look for a gap in traffic. Walk with confidence at a steady pace. DO NOT STOP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD. Also don’t run. Keep going and the bikes and cars will go around you. They see you. Crossing the street is extremely necessary, though. The first few times were terrifying, but then I started to get the hang of it. I’m not comfortable, per say—I definitely get an adrenaline boost every time I safely make it across. It’s like human Frogger…exhilarating.
On Saturday night, I successfully crossed three streets and made it to church, where I attended Mass. I didn’t understand a word. Well, I got Amen, but other than that, nada. Because Mass is the same in every country, more or less, I could follow along a little bit, but mostly I just sat (and stood, and knelt, and sat, and stood, and knelt) and let the foreign sounds flow over me. Even though the space looked Catholic—stained glass, pews, crucifix—and even though I was able to take communion (which was a rice cracker, by the way, gluten free host for the win!!) I didn’t feel like I was in Mass. Without readings, songs, or a homily to grasp onto, the whole tradition felt devoid of meaning. (I was also fighting a chest infection and was pretty doped up on Amenflu and antibiotics and had slept for roughly sixteen hours the night before, which could also have contributed to my inability to focus…) Lost as I felt, it was a pretty cool experience. I took some holy water on the way out and went home to sleep another twelve hours.
I woke up at 7:00 the next morning, and had more than enough time to eat, shower, make-shift-sauna, and clean my room a bit before the 10:30 English Mass. I walked in and saw English missals on sale for 40,000 VND (about 2.00 USD), so I bought one, borrowed a hymnal, and took my seat. Though I was hearing these readings for a second time, it was nice to understand them a second time around. I was also happy that the English Mass included female readers and Eucharistic Ministers. At the Vietnamese Mass I noticed a lot of subtle sexisms, or maybe divisions based on gender would be a better way to put it. For one, the pews were divided: left set of pews for men, right for women. Though the women outnumbered the men practically 3:1, not a single reader or EM was female. The catholic church is rife with sexist traditions which likely won’t change soon, even with Francis at the helm. For this reason, I think it’s especially important to have female voices at every service, even if they won’t be the ones presiding over the Mass or reading the gospel.
I believe in scrutinizing one’s faith and religious choices—we must allow for periods of doubt and questioning in order to grow and accept new truths, new Truths. This morning was not one of those times. Rather, it was one of the times when I felt it all snapping into place. You won’t connect with every mass, I remember hearing back at home. And I certainly don’t. But this was a good one. The priest said a few things about the readings, and then went on to say, that we cannot know ourselves until we know god—and we cannot know god until we sit in darkness, silence, and prayer. Without attempt or proper planning, even, I spent the last year doing just that. I wouldn’t say I know anything for certain after my year “off” (more like a year “on” but we’ll let that sit for a while), but after this mass in Hanoi, an additional piece slipped into place. “The pursuit of god,” the priest said, “is not a pursuit of knowledge, but rather a pursuit of love.” Woah. Everything I believed and practiced before going to church can be summed up in pretty much that statement exactly—except it can’t, because that would dilute the meaning too much, but you get the point. Love, which can hardly be described, though a lot of poets have tried, is bigger than us all. It’s noble; it’s pure; it’s messy and imperfect, but that’s just part of the deal. Knowledge—scholarly knowledge, that is—requires proof and consensus. It requires sources and footnotes. The pursuit of god is not a pursuit of knowledge, but rather a pursuit of love.
In the Gospel reading this week, Peter and a few others are on a mountain top with Jesus. God appears with Elijah and Moses from a cloud, and tells them Jesus is his son. Some guys witnessing something mysterious and important on a mountainside, pretty typical as far as the bible goes. But when they came down from the mountain, they could not talk about what they’d seen; it wasn’t as if anyone would have believed them, anyway. (And you better believe if it’d been Patricia and a few others, they not only would not have been believed, but also persecuted…but let’s table gender & the bible for a bit). So they kept their questions to themselves, holding in their hearts the strange mysteries they had witnessed.
The mystery of faith as it is described in the catholic tradition is exactly like crossing the street in Hanoi. You have to look for a gap, close your eyes (ok, maybe don’t do that in the street) and go for it. They say the motorbikes will move around you if you just set your eyes straight and go at a constant pace. Don’t run and don’t stop. Just set your sights on the other side and trust.
While I was writing, this great song by the Avett Brothers came on, and it totally fits this post, so here you go: