A Meeting-Place of East and West

CHAPTER XI

Within sight, far as the eye can reach, there is no other symbol of the West. The expanse of broken ground, reclaimed from the jungle in days gone by, stretches beyond, desolate and forgotten, shrubstudded and bramble-grown, unkempt, like a woman in rags. Groups of mud-built, straw-thatched huts dot the landscape, slung together, battered and worn, marked with the angry passing of many a storm of wind and rain. Tiny nut-brown urchins play in the mud, lazy and somnolent, naked and unashamed, in a necklace of coral or a single string with a golden charm. Teams of oxen, four abreast, move slowly with all the languor of the East as they turn the heavy sunbaked soil of the homestead fields. The cry of the elephant-driver and the deep-voiced tinkling of the bell come faintly as the huge beast lumbers away along the grass-grown path. All these are of the East, Eastern. Only the low whitewashed building, round which the monarchs of the forest seem to have grouped themselves in loving and protecting care, bears fearlessly aloft the symbol of the West. Eaised heavenwards above the western porch there stands the Cross, triumphant over the storm and stress of centuries, steadfastly looking out at once a challenge and an appeal to the alien faiths that lie within its ken.

Out of the east a great storm gathers. Light masses of film-like cloud race onward, precursors of the dead, dull, bank of grey that moves more slowly in their wake across the sky. The air grows full of the noiseless sound of abundance of rain. The rustle of leaves, the bending boughs, the sough of the wind, make sad music like the voices of mourners mourning for their dead. The world grows dark as if at twilight. Deep gloom reigns in the dim dark shadows of the trees. Athwart the Cross a ray of light still lingers like a living flame from an ashen sky. A mighty rush of wind sweeps over the plain, bending the forest trees with sudden force. It is as if the world, moved by a sudden impulse, bowed down before the Cross that stands alone unmoved by the gathering storm. Firm like a rock in a troubled sea, it rises white against the darkening sky.

The first huge drops of rain strike heavily on the fallen leaves like the patter of feet that flee in terror from the anger of the storm. The doors of the church stand open, thrown back wide, as if in mute offering of sanctuary from the raging elements without.

Buffeted by the wind and rain outside, there is a wonderful calm within. The great empty church, with its silent time-worn walls, is like a sudden haven of rest in the storm-tossed world. Straight from the wild Eastern scene without, one is caught in a strange atmosphere of familiarity and peace. This might be some village church in the far-off West. The stoup of holy water, the Stations of the Cross, the side chapels with their bright figures of the saints, and high above them all, towards the east, the dim brilliance of the altar, far off and mystic, clothed in the surrounding gloom as in a veil, here there is nothing of the East. Outside, save the church itself and the Cross it bears aloft, there is nothing of the West. In all this land of great and vivid contrasts, there could scarcely be one more sudden and complete.

It is with something akin to aw T e that one pauses on the threshold. This is all that has survived of the once great quarter of the city that stretched for miles on either hand. Here, in days gone by, the English, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese once had their settlements, while beyond and around, to the river to the south and to Tungi on the north, lay the great city of the Mughals, the capital of all Bengal. Four miles, silent and deserted, lie between it and the Dacca of today. Gone are the palaces of the Viceroys and the garden-houses of the merchants; gone are the busy streets and market-places and the clamouring camps of armies. Of all that stood in the olden days on this once densely populated spot, only the church of our Lady of Eosary survives.

How this outpost of the Faith came there, no man knows. It may be that the Syrian Christians, whom Vertomannus found in the opening days of the sixteenth century in Bengal, first worshipped here, and that the Portuguese, hastening in the van of European nations in the East, but restored and added, making what they found tenantless fit for the service of their Church. But of the story of these early days no record has survived. The builders have left an enduring monument of their piety and faith, and with that they have been content. Their names are forgotten, but their work remains. The faith and the ritual that had been their birthright in their own land in the West they brought through much strife and tribulation, bravely planting it in their new home in the East among a hostile and fanatical people. They came of a magnificent, fearless race, the race of Henry the Navigator, of Cortez and Vasco da Grama, a race of intrepid explorers, of skilled seamen, first in the field in the new world that suddenly opened its gates upon the old in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, eager to push the fame of their great little country into untrodden paths. In India they had quickly taken their place in the east and south and west of the great peninsula, founding their factories and building their churches, showing the way to the other nations, who were not slow to follow in their wake. When they reached as far as Dacca in the east one asks in vain. Now almost all visible sign of their presence has passed away. This enduring monument of their faith, four miles north of the city, is one of the few traces that still remain of their one-time power and influence in the land.

Within the church itself there is evidence sufficient of its antiquity. As one treads with reverent feet the time-worn stones in nave and chancel, one passes above the resting-places of many a worthy of a bygone age. The epitaphs commemorative of their virtues still remain, faithfully preserving their memories among succeeding generations that would elsewise have long since forgotten. Scattered here and there in no set order, but casually, as if each sought in death the familiar spot where each in life had worshipped, they lie beneath the stones inscribed in Armenian and old Portuguese, difficult to decipher and worn by the passing of many feet. Here lies the oldest inscription of them all, to one Choy Daviatis, who died on June 7, 1714, a long narrow slab, half in Armenian, half in Portuguese, carrying one back to the days when Muslim Viceroys still strove to rob the English of their privileges in Bengal, and Farrukh Siyar, setting out from Dacca, had but a little while before made his triumphal march to Delhi and seated himself upon the great Aurungzeb’s throne.

The rain has begun to fall with a ceaseless patter on the roof. The great nave of the church grows dim and shadowy as if at nightfall. Over the chancel a veil has fallen. From without there comes the glorious scent of the refreshing rain upon the grateful earth. A sudden gust of wind sweeps in through the open door, swinging the lamps like censers before the altar.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, from overhead there comes the call to prayer. It rings out into the storm, slowly aud solemnly, pregnant with warning and appeal. Along the path the quick patter of bare feet comes hurrying out of the rain, and the figure of a girl stands framed in the great stone doorway, her steps arrested, her large dark eyes widening at the unfamiliar sight of a stranger in the familiar place. Her spotless sari, white, neatbordered, drawn gracefully over her head, clings to her slim body, heavily soaked through with the rain. Great drops fall from it, forming little puddles on the flagstones as she stands. But it is only for a brief moment. Then, the old hereditary instinct surviving even after long centuries of Christianity, she hastily draws the veil across her face and, dipping her ringer in the stoup, makes the sign of the Cross and moves noiselessly to her place before the altar of the Virgin. There is no backward glance, no furtive look from behind the veil. Nothing but the momentary startled flash in the eyes showed her knowledge of the unaccustomed. Absorbed in her devotion, she kneels, oblivious of all else.

Then in straggling groups or one by one they come, these simple worshippers in the church of our Lady of Eosary of Tezgaon. Descendants, many of them, of the original builders of the church and bearing their names, there is little now, after the lapse of many generations, to distinguish them from the natives among whom they dwell. Others of pure native strain, they and theirs have so long professed the Christian faith that they have forgotten their own past days and know not whether their forbears once were Muslim s or Hindus. It is a wonderful sight. Here, on one common ground, East and West seem to have met. All caste distinctions long since forgotten, they have united now for many generations in the Credo of the Catholic Faith. As one watches them, each so utterly Indian of the East, yet performing the observances that one associates so entirely with the West, the finger reverently dipped in holy water, the signing of the Cross, the genuflexion towards the altar and the silent passing with hushed feet to the appointed place with no glance to the right hand or to the left, it seems to be given to one to see as in a glass darkly a dim vision of the great miracle of the drawing together of East and West.

An acolyte in spotless white moves silently with lighted taper before the altar. One by one the tiny flames gleam warm and red, out of the surrounding gloom. On blue and white and gold the light falls with marvellous effect. Raised aloft, the massive candlesticks seem to lift heavenward the light they bear. Out of the dim grey shadows they gleam like beacons. Everywhere the familiar symbols of the great Faith of the West stand out pre-eminent.

The fretful cry of a child breaks suddenly upon the stillness. One is back again in the East as one turns towards it. A mother is rocking at her breast a naked, struggling, brown baby, crooning to him softly in hushed whispers. A jingle of bracelet and anklet, as a girl beside her moves from her cramped position on the narrow wooden footstool, makes unaccustomed music. A tiny urchin calmly unwinds his scanty garment, soaked through with the rain, and, spreading it on the ground to dry, stands forth naked, sublimely unselfconscious and sublimely happy. Another lies on the floor, with laughing eyes, and plays with the hem of his mother’s robe. The mother, a still smaller infant in her arms, kneels on regardless. The rest of the white-robed throng, noting none of these things, kneel motionless, absorbed and unobservant.

The service has begun. The hushed voice of the priest, speaking the first solemn words of the Mass, breaks the silence. ‘Introibo ad altare Dei.’ Could there well be anything more of the West, Western ? The majestic Latin words ring with strange insistence in this far-off and forgotten outpost of the Faith. ‘Dominus vobiscum,’ and its quick response, ‘Et cum spiritu tuo.’ Then the thrice repeated ‘Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison,’ and again ‘Dominus vobiscum ‘and the unfailing answer ‘Et cum spiritu tuo.’ Things of the East and things of the West fade out of sight. The ‘one Church ‘of the magnificent confession of faith in the words of the Credo is without distinction of race or language, of peoples or nations, of East or West. In a flash one sees the consummation of all that men deem impossible. For a moment the difficulties seem no longer insurmountable, and the differences fade away and vanish.

The great service, which has been repeated such countless times, which has survived such marvellous vicissitudes, which has been the light and life of such unnumbered generations, draws towards its consummation. Out of the shadow round the altar the priest, and the acolyte, swaying the censer, move slowly. Censing the kneeling worshippers, they stand in the fuller light of the chancel steps, and a wonderful silence falls. Absorbed in the service of the West, forgetful of the East, one’s eyes fall suddenly on the bare brown feet of the acolyte, and things of the East, with their immeasurable remoteness, crowd back again, and the dim vision that had held one, in spite of oneself, half slips away. The spotless robes are the robes of the West, but all else in the small figure that stands beside the priest is so strikingly of the East. Then, as swiftly as it came, the momentary confusion of thought ceases, checked in the wonder of the deeper hush that has fallen upon the reverent worshippers. The tinkling of the bell proclaims the passing of a mystery. The climax of the great service is reached, and the people wait with bowed heads the solemn moment of the Elevation of the Host. ‘Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.’ Again all distinctions are swallowed up. One watches, spell-bound, the passing of this magnificent service of the Mass here in the midst of these unexpected surroundings. It is the same wonderful mystery, the same solemn ritual, the same faith that has been as the soul of nations, for which men have fought and died, which has held enthralled the greatest minds that the civilisation of the West has given forth, to which one ma3^ deny allegiance, but not admiration and respect. It is the same great act of worship here, in this far-off Indian countryside, as in the magnificent cathedrals and churches of the West. The same reverent hush falls at the tinkling of the bell. The gentle whimpering of the child at its mother’s breast, that one only notes at its cessation, is stilled. The jingling of anklet and bracelet ceases. There is not a movement. The silence is oppressive, such a one as makes its presence felt. One is carried back in thought to that great silence that falls upon the vast throng of waiting people in the courtyard of St. Peter’s as they hear the momentous words ring out, ‘Habemus Papain,’ or when the Holy Father from the loggia, turning about to the four quarters of the globe, solemnly bestows his blessing on the world. Surely, if ever, it is here, in the common profession of a great faith, that East and West shall meet.

And then again one’s eyes fall upon the kneeling worshippers, and in a flash it seems to be borne in upon one that ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ They are repeating the Kosary, reverently, befittingly. But it is in a tongue unknown in the West, a soft, sibilant tongue, yet strange, uncomprehended, fixed like a barrier between them and the West. Clad in their saris, their veils half drawn across the face, these women of the East have so little in common with their sisters of the West, and those with whom they have come in contact have mostly passed them by. The men, living the simple life of the cultivator and the labourer, knowing nothing beyond the joys and sorrows of the moment, in thought, in speech, in manner of life, lie centuries behind the West. Is there a force in the world that could furnish them a meeting-place?

A sudden ray of light falls full across the altar. One had almost failed to notice that the rain had ceased. Brilliantly the sunshine falls on white and blue and gold, and upon the Cross that towers above. It illuminates the face of the priest as he turns once more to give the blessing. ‘Dominus vobiscum,’ and again the answer comes, ‘Et cum spiritu tuo.’

There is a stir at last among the congregation. The solemn service is at an end and the worshippers file slowly out. The tiny urchin gathers up his single garment, and winding it round his waist, with eyes wide fixed upon the stranger, toddles out, holding his mother’s robe. The women, still with bent, reverent heads, pass by with gaze averted. Only when outside the sacred precincts do they allow their curiosity full play as they glance back furtively before they hurry out into the warring elements beyond. For the storm has begun again, and the earth is given over to the wind and the rain.

The acolyte hastily puts out the lights upon the altar, and the chancel falls back again into shadow. The outlines of the Cross grow faint and indistinct. The wonderful vision that it was given to one to see of the drawing together of East and West has passed. In the great emptiness and silence of the deserted church it seems but as a dream when one awaketh. Yet as one passes out and leaves the church behind, the last backward glance reveals the uplifted symbol of a faith of world-wide claims and aspirations, crowned in a halo of light, triumphant, insistent, a steadfast beacon of hope through every change and for all time. And one knows that within its shadow the East and the West have met.

 

HAPTER XII

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