Yesterday, Yunkyung and I went to his farmhouse in the country. He has a small home – almost a retreat, really, on a plot of land overlooking a narrow mountain valley filled with rice paddies and a small country village. During the day, the air is filled with the sounds of nature: cicadas thrumming, birdsongs, the faint gurgling of a brook that runs through his property. Yunkyung comes here most weekends, as a place to write and reflect with little or no interruption.
Over the last fifteen years, he’s planted ginkgo, apricot, chestnut trees, and a number of pines. Yunkyung has also planted a variety of other herbs and plants. Virtually everything has some use, usually medicinal. He treated me to a glass of what he called apricot tea. It was almost a syrup, made from apricots he had dried, then put in a large jar with water and sugar last year. He poured a few teaspoons into a glass, added some pomegranate vinegar, and cold water from the spring on his property. It was absolutely delicious; very refreshing. Without the vinegar it is almost too sweet.
Last night we cleared an area of weeds and vines and planted napa cabbage and small daikon radishes that will be used to make homemade kimchee in the autumn. We had dinner in the village in his favorite restaurant. There were four low tables only – and no chairs; a very traditional way of eating in Korea. The food was wonderful and plentiful: a variety of kimchee, small raw squid in a spicy sauce, a fluffy egg soufflé-like dish, delicious salted fish, and a stew made of kimchee and tofu, rice and what the Japanese call nori (thin rectangles of salted dried seaweed which I love with rice). It only cost 10,000 won – about 11 dollars.
Before arriving at his farm, we stopped on the way at a nearby Buddhist monastery and temple that boasts an 1100 year-old ginkgo tree. While we sat in the shade of one of the buildings, Yunkyung mentioned that Buddhist religious life is more similar to Catholic religious life than the life of Protestant ministers. He was thinking about the role of celibacy in both Catholicism and Buddhism, but we spoke a little about other aspects as well.
I mentioned the Benedictine motto of “ora et labora” (prayer and work), and he said Buddhist monastic communities had a similar custom. Many such communities would farm the land around the monastery to provide their own food. Those that did not have arable land, like the monastery we visited high up a mountain valley, would send monks into the neighboring villages in the valleys below the monastery to beg for grain and other foodstuffs, while preaching Buddhist tenets to the farmers. Sounds similar to the early days of the mendicant communities like the Dominicans and Franciscans.
“Nowadays,” Cha said, “many Buddhist communities are rich. Individual monks even have their own passenger cars.”
That, too, sounds like religious communities in the west. How easy it is for us religious to forget the witness of a life of simplicity, even some austerity, in a consumption-driven world.
“Still,” he added, “there are some monks who are deeply devoted to prayer and meditation. One monk who recently died, went seven years without lying down. When he wasn’t eating or working, he was sitting in the lotus position in prayer and meditation. He became the head of his order of monks, and when he died, there were so many people at his funeral...”
My friend, Yunkyung, who is not religious, nevertheless meditates regularly. He said he began in 1999, and even went to a meditation house for awhile. The vibrant, radical practice of a faith tradition will almost inevitably engender some level of curiosity in others.
Catholic religious life has ideally been a way to practice the faith in a radical way. Not only has it been meant as a way of identifying more deeply with the humanity of Christ, it has also meant to remind those living “in the world” that there is more to life than power, autonomy, wealth, and family; that there’s more to life than this life. The danger is religious life can become merely an “alternative lifestyle,” not calling lay people to incorporate prayer, reliance upon God’s providence, and service of others into their own lives, but becoming a remarkably different way of being a Christian. Then the impact of religious life on the lives of lay people is profoundly diminished. We become the ones who have been called by God, while everyone else can feel free to live according to their own desires. In a culture that has become increasingly filled with specialists, religious become the religious professionals – the only ones competent to evangelize or catechize. In a situation such as this, one might well ask, “what can the religious learn from the lay person?” and come up with the answer, “nothing.”
Perhaps it was this question, or the sense that religious life was having little or no impact on the lives of lay people, that led religious to abandon traditional habits and communal life after the Council. Returning to the fundamental charism of their founders would not have required – or even called for – the changes in externals, but something had been lost in their meaning along the way.
One of the questions I must struggle to answer for myself is, “how does one live a distinctive religious life today that points to a life beyond this one, while at the same time respecting the profound value of the lay vocation to transform society through a radical following of Christ in this life?”
My friend, Cha Yunkyung, while not overtly religious, has cultivated a life that would be suitable for Catholic lay people. He is deeply devoted to his family as well as the university students he teaches (the children of his former students call him ‘grandpa’). He is involved in research investigating the ways in which people are educated around the world and is a founding member of the recently established Korean Association for Multicultural Education. He is at home in nature and utilizes its bounty for himself and others, and he meditates to help develop self-control. From what little I understand about the life of a Confucian scholar, he seems to fit the model. From what I know about how Catholic lay people are to live, he has a lot of those characteristics, too – and I find a lot to respect and value in his life.
We're talking more and more about religion and about God. He certainly respects my faith.