The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, February 06, 2012


Contemplating change
Siriakus Ndolu knows what it’s like to be persecuted for religious beliefs.

In 2005 the Catholic priest was meditating in WestJava. Because he fears retelling the
event might spur a repeat we’ll keep the location secret.Enough to say a fundamentalist nob stoned his tiny cottage and those of four other meditating priests, claiming they were there to
‘Christianise’ villagers.
Ironically the priests were hermits in silent contemplation. They weren’t even communicating with each other; conversion was neither planned nor possible.
The police intervened and local people gave protection. Further trouble was prevented when key
Catholics in the government and military got involved.

“Yes, I was frightened,” said Father Siriakus. “That was a psychological reaction. But faith is deeper. I trust my life to God.
“The attackers didn’t understand Christianity. They came from outside the district. They were provoked, told they must kill. Of course I forgive them.”

There’s little chance the Flores-born Carmelite will have a similar experience in his present job as chaplain to the Indonesian Catholic community in Perth. He arrived last year after 15 months of services led by an Australian priest who spoke only a little Indonesian. But the 620 Catholic families in the Western Australian capital wanted a native speaker for their spiritual guide.

What they’ve also got is a man who has clear views on secular issues, nurtured in Indonesia through contemplation and sharpened by his experiences abroad.

“About 90 per cent of my parishioners are ethnic Chinese, mainly from Jakarta and Surabaya,” he said. “They don’t identify with other Chinese living in Australia. They are Indonesians.

“Many arrived after the 1998 riots during the fall of Suharto. Some have retired, others are
students or in business. I’m told they are happy here and more are coming. Many apply for permanent residence but they maintain their Indonesian culture, language and identity.
“Some work in Indonesia while their families stay in Perth. This can create problems. I urge
husbands and wives to stay together. Family unity is so important.”
The other message to his busy Westernizing flock is to slow down and consider the benefits of contemplative prayer.
It’s something he promoted for several years in East Java working out of Malang, the city where he studied theology and was ordained in 1995.
He’s a follower of the English Benedictine monk John Main who lived in Malaysia where he discovered meditation using a mantra. He learned the techniques from an ascetic, then taught them in the US and Britain.
Father Siriakus has written a small book Meditasi Kristiani (Christian Meditation)
outlining his ideas. He has used this to set up contemplative prayer groups across East Java and hopes to do the same in WA.
A mountain to climb, and not just because – as he admits - Indonesians aren’t always happy in their own company. There are demands and seductions not present in the Republic.
While many of the 8,000 Indonesians in Perth attend mosques, temples and churches, their hosts
tend to prefer beaches and barbeques to piety and prayer.
“I’m constantly asked why atheism is increasing,” said Father Siriakus
“I think one reason is that the government in Australia takes care of almost everything, welfare, education, health care. My parishioners pay high tax but they don’t complain because they get good services in return.”
It’s this first-hand experience of a multicultural Western democracy that’s now shaping Father Siriakus’ views. As a child he thought the West was immoral, but as he became better educated realised all nations harbor wrongs.
“We think Australians are secular, but their society has been built on Christian values,” he said.
He’s been impressed with the discipline of traffic, the efficiency of public transport, the quality of roads and parks, the care for the elderly and handicapped and the integrity of politicians.
Cynical Australians electors might raise their eyebrows at this last observation, but the priest is adamant. “Here the government works for the people, but in my country government people work for themselves,” he said.
“Public servants must learn to be servants of the people. I want politicians and administrators at all levels to embrace a code of ethics. This should require them to act with integrity, be rofessional, work for the poor and ensure the nation’s resources are fairly shared.
“I want to tell our leaders that the system can work. I know, because I’ve seen it function here. Like the parable of the sower I want to spread the word.”
It might sound airy-fairy, perhaps the product of excess meditation and insufficient realpolitik, but Father Siriakus, 44, is no callus-kneed philosopher. His father is a farmer and local community leader who fostered a sense of social justice among his nine children. On a recent trip to Flores to visit his sick mother Father Siriakus challenged a local politician to lift his game, and pledges to do the same nationally when he returns to Indonesia in 2014.
With other Carmelites he is establishing a hermitage outside the northern port of Maumere, safe on the slopes of Mount Kelikeo. Here lay and clergy will be able to retreat from the world to meditate, a practice he recommends because it brings the contemplative “closer to God.”
“Our power to serve the people originates from an inner spirit, otherwise known as love,” he said. “During my year as a hermit I spent time gardening and caring for animals and fish – it brought me in contact with nature.
“I’ll probably go back to a hermitage sometime in the future, but now I’m completely engaged with the world.
“Indonesia is a nation full of gossip, of talk about unworthy things, and too many worries. As Indonesians we should follow the culture of quietness that is part of Javanese tradition, to think about our people, our culture, the past and the future.

“Change must come from within. We cannot start to clean the world unless we first clean our own homes.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 February 2012)

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