Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

Friday, 31 May 2013 14:13

平凡人生的非凡挑戰

若能通過瑣碎的平凡,來形塑與精鍊我們的靈魂,我們的存在便能非比尋常。

撰文│魏明德  翻譯謝靜雯 繪圖│笨篤

Tuesday, 28 May 2013 15:20

The extraordinary challenge of living an ordinary life

There are extraordinary moments in life. Moments of deep, soul-shaking happiness, moments of tremendous discovery, moments where the mountain we climb during the entirety of our existence suddenly offers us a glance of the richness of its landscape – valleys, clouds, streams and lofty peaks... There are also moments of extraordinary misery, when a beloved one disappears, when one's love is betrayed, when sickness is diagnosed, or when goals and dreams prove impossible to fulfill.

Friday, 03 May 2013 16:43

宣揚溫柔之道─ 教宗方濟的核心使命

教宗方濟宣揚的是一種溫柔之道,亦即能關切、憐憫他人,能對他人開放,以及能去愛的一種力量。

撰文│魏明德;翻譯│謝靜雯


Friday, 26 April 2013 12:52

Religious Colonialism: Cultural Loss in the Solomon Islands

Sitting nearby his canoe Thomas speaks more at length of his sense of cultural loss. Like the rest of his family and the whole village, he defines himself as a Catholic. But he speaks of the missionaries of the ancient time with a thinly veiled resentment: "They took everything away from us... they were very clever... They alienated us from our customs by making us afraid that our ancestral ways would lead us to death, and also by pointing out that the sacrifice of pigs and other rituals were all very expensive. They took away the skulls, and dumped them into the bush... They told us that they was only God, no spirits or ancestors... No, we cannot come back to the past, we cannot retrieve ancient sacrificial ways. We would be afraid to do so. If they had only suppressed bad customs.... But they took everything away, the good with the bad."

Friday, 26 April 2013 12:51

Shell Money, Dowries and the Skulls of Ancestors: The Living Traditions of the Solomon Islands

One of the lineage ancestor, a woman coming from the island of Bougainville, is supposed to have been the one having introduced shell money, the making of which the Langalanga people are reputed for. We accompany some women of the village to a neighboring island where they gather shells, and we witness the process of preparing shells into long strings, white, black, red, which will be given as bride price or used for other occasions.

lagoon09ONLINEThe shell used is first broken into small pieces. A flint tool, fixed on to a drill, serves to bore a hole in the fragment. These small pieces are threaded and the string thus made is progressively smoothed. Some islanders have started a kind of advocacy movement, pleading for the recognition of shell money as an alternative national currency. Actually, Malaita shell money is only one of the forms of traditional currency used for exchanges of goods such as canoes among different ethnic communities, payments for bride price, or settling of disputes and sealing reconciliation. Bird feathers, dog teeth, porpoise teeth were also accounted for. Also, fossilized clam shell rings were in use in the western Solomon Islands.

Thomas, our host in the lagoon village, intones a eulogium of past customs. He demonstrates to us how the bride price was negotiated, announced and offered, strings of shell money lying on the ground, and I cannot but feel a bit uneasy: I do sense the beauty of the traditions he narrates and the loss of which he deplores, but I also sense the burden that was imposed on women, whose use value and chastity were evaluated and publicized in such a way.

But a moment later, I feel truly moved when Thomas makes me visit, in the part of the village where only men were able to gather, the ruins of a hut where the skull of a deceased custom priest still lies on a stone. In ancient times, the body was decaying on the ground, embalmed with leaves, for seven days, before the skull was introduced in the hut through a special door, different from the one used by the living. At one point, Thomas starts to speak to the skull in this familiar, conversational and yet deferential tone which I have heard in Tafalong – the same voice you use for elders and for ancestors, gently informing them of the coming of a stranger, and telling them that they have nothing to worry about. The depth and familiarity of the relationship between the living and the ancestral world resonate deeply in my heart.

Photos by B.V.

Friday, 26 April 2013 12:49

The Langalanga People: "Natives" of the Man-made islands of the Solomons

Canoes and boats are gathered at the wharf and on the shore. Several delegations have made the journey on boats reconstructed from past designs and techniques, be they aboriginal or dating from the early European navigators, thus testifying to the revival of seafaring throughout the Pacific. Such revival speaks of a quest for identity, a mix of modern sporting, and adventurous spirit with a fascination for a natural lifestyle and traditions, of a thirst for collective endeavors bathed within the "feel' and the "beat" of the ocean. Several ships offer the participants a short cruise along the shore. On the deck of the "Pacific Voyager" I dream of longer journeys under a sky of endless blue...

tomokoSeafaring was intense among the various islands of the Solomon archipelago. Flying away from headhunters some groups navigated along the coast till they encountered a safe haven, at short distance of which they built artificial islands offering a safe refuge, or else they migrated to adjacent islands. People also paddled to places where they could dive for shells, trade shell money and make marriage alliances. Canoes of various sizes were used according to the length and the purpose of the trip. Boatbuilding is active in the Malaita Island. It is one of the main activities of the Langalanga people, whose lagoon we visit once we arrive in Malaita – after a three-to-four-hour boat ride from Honiara.

Langalanga people are known for being mobile and industrious. A missionary has recorded the testimony of an old man: "We Langalanga people are perched like birds on branches. We have no land of our own, except our hand-made isles. We take off to do our fishing, to go to the gardens or markets on the mainland, to barter and to find bride price for marriage. Then we fly back to our nesting branch, and perch there till the next need arises."

langalanga lagoon ceriseThe lagoon itself lies in dreamy silence, its water as clear as the sky, lush forests pressed against the sea. Still, the artificial islands on which people live - the oldest supposed to be built fifteen generations ago – remind us that the landscape is man-made after all, and is loaded with history: the lagoon was first populated by castaways and refugees who were trying to protect themselves against invasions. In Busu village where we stay, eleven different lineages, from different geographical origins, are still accounted for, this for a population of around 500 people.

 

 


lilisiana groupIn Lilisiana village, Malaita Island

Photos by Cerise Phiv

Friday, 26 April 2013 12:46

A Vibrant Culture with an Ugly Facade: Honiara and the Pacific Art Festival

Let me admit it: Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, situated on the Guadalcanal Island, does not strike the visitor with awe. Cavernous Chinese shops filled with all kinds of goods, administrative buildings and houses in concrete scattered around the roads that run parallel to the coastline, commercials for "Solomon Telekom" and the "SolBrew" beer, the two brands that seem to monopolize the advertising expenditures of the country... nothing that really draws the attention. On the hills, a monument adorned with granite plaques recalls the naval battles that ravaged the island during WWII. Modest but numerous Adventist, Catholic and Protestant churches are landmarks all along the way. In the haven and on the beaches, carcasses of warships still lay down, giant ghostly presences. But there is also a kind of softness in the atmosphere, a mixture of gentleness and restraint in people's conduct that, from the start, intrigues and seduces the newcomer.

In Honiara, a wide field has been surrounded by high fences in preparation for the festival, and is divided into two villages – traditional houses hosting on the one side the different provinces and cultural groups from SI, on the other the delegations from abroad, among them the Taiwanese one. A vast public, mainly local, attends the dance and music performances, looks at the handicrafts for show or for sale, marvels at the similarities and differences of languages and customs witnessed from one island to another.

I am usually a bit dreary of festivals and other public events, but this time I find myself thoroughly enjoying the show. I especially like to stay in the SI village, with the huts under the shadow of the giant trees, and to watch the performances offered by tribal groups from the mountains and the coast. The dancers from Isabel Island are my favorites.festivalIsabel05-copyONLINE

Contacts are easy and relaxed. Dancing, panpipes and drums, tattoos, weapons, canoes... I enjoy myself like a child, far away from the megacity of Shanghai where I usually live. Near the main venue of the festival, the little village of Doma, right on the seashore, offers performances from the various tribes living in Guadalcanal Island. Children play on the sand, the music of the drums and that of the waves join into one. The Pacific starts to operate its magic.

Not far away, within walking distance of the fishing village of Lilisiana, the festival gathers local people between the seashore and a lake. The setting is modest, but groups are coming from far away villages, some of them from the mountain bush, and other from the coast. Mathilde, a woman form the Lau tribe, tells me that she takes care alone of a plot of land, where she cultivates cabbage. Her English is quite good: she has worked for five years for a Catholic NGO, she tells me, and in 1997 she even went to the World Youth Day in Paris. She directs the dancers' troop of her village, and performs with much gusto and sense of humor.

Photos by B.V.

The following video is an interview and a performance by Arasuka'aniwara, a panpipe collective from the Solomon Islands:

This video is currently not available for readers in Mainland China.

 

Friday, 26 April 2013 12:39

Swept away from Sinology by the Allure of Taiwan's Pacific coast


I have been living in Taiwan since 1992, but, like most inhabitants of the island, I have been turning westwards more often than eastwards. And when I was leaving on research trips, most of the time they took me to southwest China, to remote mountainous areas, to study religious rituals and social changes, seemingly as far away from the Pacific world as possible. Still, a few months after my arrival in Taiwan, I spent some time in Taitung County, and, since then, the Pacific coastline entered my vision and my imagination. As the years went by I returned more frequently to Eastern Taiwan, as if drawn by a mysterious force leading me away from what had been my center of gravity. In 2008, I spent around 4 months of rest in Tafalong, an Amis village in Hualien County. festivalDoma06ONLINEThat was a hot summer, and there were few trees around. I was often lying down, trying to recover from the heat as well as from the state of exhaustion that had led me to this refuge. When I was able to, I wandered around, most of the time in the early morning or in the late afternoon, and later on I painted – painted the fields, the mountains and the houses that were surrounding me, painted the feelings of heat and exhaustion which were sometimes overwhelming, and painted also the stories, chants and myths I heard. I also listened to family tales and to ancestors' genealogies. The documentary we subsequently produced with the Renlai team is called "On the Fifth day, the Tide Rose", referring to the chant that describes the deluge from which the first couple that inhabited the village escaped. I still remember the struggle against heat and exhaustion, my reactions to the personal and collective stories I was listening to, the strange and enchanting beauty of this part of Eastern Taiwan, situated between two mountain ranges, and the mysterious attraction of the sea nearby. You do not see the ocean from Tafalong, but the Pacific is waiting a few kilometers away, like a giant, threatening and captivating presence. You do not see the ocean in the paintings created at that time, but it is hidden into them – for the Ocean is the primal force that made me come with these tiny islets of ink, colors and paper scattered among the Sea of Unknowing.

Along the years, the experience of standing on the Eastern seashore gave rise to a pervading feeling: I started to see the Pacific Ocean not only as a physical but as a "mystical" space as well; and reading more about the Pacific world I realized intimately that its immensity and the experience of its crossing had inspired in-depth spiritual experiences expressed through stories, myths, poems, music and epics; its borders and islands have witnessed the coming and melting of all the world's mystical traditions breaking along its shore wave after wave; it is ultimately one of the privileged spaces where humankind has refined and chanted the experience and "resonance" of the Divine. The commonality of such spiritual experience is sometimes summarized by the term of "oceanic feeling", though such wording remains open to challenges and controversies. The metaphors of "depth", "abyss', 'water", "resonance', "oneness" and "circularity" also find special echo through the physical experience specific to the Pacific world. Linguistic and musical expression, mystical experience, literary and artistic metaphors, and cross-cultural synthesis here melt into one.

And Taiwan is a point of departure, of melting and of destination of the stories weaved by the waves...


But does Taiwan's youth, especially its indigenous youth, nurture a sense of belonging to the Pacific world? Does its original connection with this open world encourage its creativity, its perception of the "resonance" that related stories, music and art forms take throughout this oceanic interchange? Such questions have been shared and debated by more and more people, as Taiwan's quest for meaning and spiritual depthwarcanoes48ONLINE has intensified and evolved during the last ten years or so. The quest for the Pacific connection (a quest often inchoative and ambiguous,) has been part of a shifting Taiwanese identity. Taipei Ricci Institute and Renlai have been actors in such endeavors, and have gathered a wealth of material on Taiwanese indigenous people and Pacific arts and stories, accumulated through filmed interviews, field trips and documentary records of international conferences. Ricci Institute and Renlai have also played a role in the formation of the Taiwan Pacific Studies Association, and have led groups of indigenous youth to Canada and to Fiji. This is how the project of making a documentary revolving around Taiwan's indigenous youth and the Pacific took shape – and this is how I went to the Solomon Islands in the summer of 2012. The timing of our trip coincided with the 11th Pacific Arts Festival that was drawing Pacific islanders from the entirety of the Melanesian and Polynesian worlds. Therefore the experience was twofold: it was an authentic meeting with the Solomon archipelago, and also an encounter with the diversity of cultures and people that together weave into one the Pacific family. And indeed, feelings of diversity and of commonality were continuously intertwined during all the encounters that took place during our time in the Solomon Islands.

Friday, 29 March 2013 14:13

儀式與個人成長

儀式並非只是空有形式,若人們能以專注、尊敬的態度參與其中,便能潛移默化地獲得成長與改變。

撰文∣魏明德  翻譯∣謝靜雯  繪圖∣笨篤


Wednesday, 20 March 2013 15:27

Preaching Tenderness

When you are playing Word Association I guess that "Papacy" usually does not trigger the response "Tenderness" - neither does "Tenderness" elicit the word "Papacy"...

Still, "Tenderness" was the central word in the homely pronounced by Pope Francis at his inaugural Mass on March 19. He repeated the theme several times, saying: "We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness! Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!"

Let me say something that will sound strange to many people: I think that Francis has learnt something about tenderness not only in his family and through his whole life (which is obviously the case) but also in St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits... Strange indeed! Most of the time, the Jesuits do not have the reputation to indulge in tenderness. Stern, rigid intellectuals – such goes the cliché even up until this day, and I must confess that sometimes the cliché is not without truth, at least in part... But I have found in many of my brothers a real, discreet and truly delicate tenderness. Let me recall here René-Claude Baud, a big, strong tower of a Jesuit whom I got to know during my noviciate in Lyons – Rene-Claude had spent most of his active life as a caregiver in the emergency room of a hospital, and the delicacy of his presence was a testimony to the humaneness he had fostered while confronted daily by the naked presence of Life and Death.

Ignatius and his first companions had not given to the Jesuits a more precise task than the one of "helping the souls" as they were fond of saying, when the Order was founded, in and around 1530-1540. Early in the history of the Jesuits, this general direction translated into tasks that have been called "ministries of consolation." "To console" was a master word for Ignatius: Console when you preach and confess, when you visit prisoners and sick people, when you reconcile enemies (those were indeed the first missions that the Jesuits embarked upon) and even – yes- when you teach...

There was a spiritual, even mystical foundation to this focus on consolation. The experience that the "Spiritual Exercises" (the spiritual guide for advancing in spiritual life) that Ignatius wanted to nurture was the one of the Consoling Christ, the one who comes to heal our most secret pains and mourning when one progressively opens up to his presence in our heart. When inviting meditation on the Resurrection, Ignatius asks the one doing the Exercises "to consider the office of consoling which Christ our Lord bears, and to compare how friends are accustomed to console friends." Deep, real, overwhelming, often unexpected consolation is indeed what the Spiritual Exercises are meant to bring to the soul. It comes with a refining and an enlargement not of our reason but rather of our emotions. Ignatius himself was a man of emotions, as testified to by his friends, who recalled him sitting on the roof of the Jesuit house in Rome at night and looking at the stars, tears rolling down his cheeks. One of his companions wrote: "From seeing a plant, foliage, a leaf, a flower, any fruit, from the consideration of a little worm or any other animal, he raised himself above the heavens." Tears of consolation were so abundant in Ignatius that he asked for the grace of not experiencing them anymore, fearing for his sight.

For sure, such an inspiration – which was actually very close to the spirit of St Francis of Assisi, a saint most dear to Ignatius – was often betrayed in the history of the Society of Jesus. But it always remained present, at times hidden like a spring under the ground. Pope Francis seems to me to have drawn from the spring, and now shares its water with the whole world. I rejoice deeply that what he is proclaiming first is nothing else than the centrality for life and faith of tenderness, and of heartfelt consolation.

Image source: Wikimedia

Friday, 01 March 2013 11:02

冬春之替的主教

教宗本篤十六世的辭職,不僅見證了他個人的謙卑,同時也顯示出教宗並非「神祇」。

撰文∣魏明德  翻譯∣謝靜雯

 

 

Monday, 18 February 2013 11:36

A Pope between Winter and Spring

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has come for most commentators as a big surprise. How can someone in a position of power voluntarily relinquish it? Power and honors exert so strong an attraction on us that we often see political, economic or clerical leaders cling to them till the end of their lives. Therefore, the departure of the Pope comes as a testimony of personal humility: Benedict XVI has recognized publicly the fact that he no longer had the physical strength necessary to carry on. The fact that he made this announcement on the day marked on the Catholic liturgical calendar for praying specially for the sick makes such recognition even more moving. The gesture made by Benedict reminds me of the words addressed by Jesus to Peter: "I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." (John 21,18) Let us first admire the courage and clarity of someone able to evaluate what he still can reasonably do or not do. This is certainly a lesson in inner freedom.

But two additional questions were raised when Benedict XVI's resignation was made public. The first one might have troubled many Catholics - though it has been asked also by many people who do not belong to the Church: is not the office of the Pope "something special", something sacred somehow? Did not his predecessor, John-Paul II, and several other popes before him, show another example when they persevered till the end, notwithstanding the burden of their illness? Benedict XVI alluded clearly to this when he said in his declaration that the office of the Pope was not carried on simply by "doing things' but also by prayer and by offering one's sufferings. It is not primarily an administrative office, but a spiritual one as well. Still, he also made it very clear that personal discernment could lead different people to reach different decisions. This Pope, whose style has often been presented as conservative, finished his Pontificate with a revolutionary decision, one that will have a profound impact. A Pope is no longer a "prisoner" of his own status, but rather someone who, like many elderly people nowadays, must cope with an ever evolving health situation: what is the best way to live the remaining years of ones' life? Silence and prayer are indeed an option worth considering. By doing so, the Pope has highlighted the humanity, the frailty of any spiritual leader – and spiritual leaders may show also their leadership in the way they renounce their charge. I personally think that the Pope's decision will help advance towards Christian unity: the Bishop of Rome can peacefully resign when his health compels him to do so, as every other bishop and Church leader does The Pope is not "divine", he is a man who can recognize the moment when someone else must take charge. A humbler vision of the Papacy may help to cement unity around it, as many Protestant leaders have already noted in the past. Relinquishing the "magic" of the Papacy will actually make the Papacy stronger, by highlighting the role it can play for all Christians.

The second question that has been raised is to know whether the Pope resigned because of the crises that have agitated the Catholic Church these last years. It seems that Benedict XVI rather thinks that he has helped the Church to return to the basics, that he has put the house more or less in order, and that he can thus leave without failing his duties. For sure, his pontificate has been a tormented period. May Spring now come on the Church, and may she become able to better listen to the voices coming from Asia, Africa and South America, so as not to be only a house of sorrow but also and foremost of praise and of joy. This is certainly the wish of Benedict XVI himself, and he has certainly sacrificed much of himself in order to allow other people able to harvest one day what he has sown.

Photo by Giuseppe Ruggirello [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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