THAT SPRING day was a memorable day for the high school where I was learning French in preparation for the university. A celebrated missionary had come to address the faculty and students on the Catholic Church in China. "Celebrated", that is, among European Catholics - to me, his Belgian name, Vincent Lebbe, at first meant nothing, and his Chinese name, Lei Ming Yuan ("The-Thunder-That Rumbles-In-The-Distance") struck me as presumptuous - all the more so because he was short of stature, and his soutane was old and faded and full of patches - not unlike the robe of a Chinese stage "beggar".
As it turned out, a "beggar" Father Lebbe actually was. After twenty years as a missionary in China, he returned to Europe in 1919 and had ever since been traveling from one European country to another, and from city to city, begging for funds and scholarships in behalf of the two hundred or more Chinese students he had lured away from the Radical-Socialist and Communist-dominated Franco-Chinese Federation and its affiliated Student-Workers’ Movement.
I had only a very short interview with Father Lebbe - but long enough to convince me that he was not what I had imagined him to be. His ragged appearance belied his dynamic and magnetic personality. Before we parted company that night, he said to me: "I will say Mass very early tomorrow morning-I want you to serve my Mass. After breakfast you will accompany me to the railway stationer we will talk more on the way".
"But, Father", I protested "I am a Buddhist, and I don’t know Latin; neither do I know what the Mass is all about"... "Never mind" he cut me short. "You shall serve my Mass. I'll tell you what to do".
On the way to the railroad station the next morning, Father Lebbe told me: "I am going to apply for a scholarship for you at the University of Louvain. One of my brothers-in-law, a professor at the University, has just built a new home. He and his wife, my youngest sister, are very good people. I want you to live with them. you will like them and they will like you, I’m sure".
There was something of my father in Professor Thoreau. The devotion with which he prayed every morning before breakfast and every evening before dinner recalled my father’s meditation or "concentrated sitting". Devout Roman Catholics, the Thoreau’s were not in the least bigoted or prejudiced. They never talked religion to me except when I asked them questions about Christianity.
On Christmas Eve I accompanied Professor and Madame Thoreau to the Midnight Mass at nearby St. Anthony’s Church. I knew by then the meaning of Christmas. I had read St. Luke’s description of the first Christmas night in Bethlehem - and I found it quite appropriate that Professor and Madame Thoreau should choose to sit beside their butcher and baker instead of taking seats in the front pews, one of those reserved by tradition for so-called people of "good social standing". After the service we returned home in silence, glorifying God in our hearts, like the shepherd s in Luke’s story.
During the Christmas vacation Father Lebbe came to Louvain to see the 15 or 20 Chinese students studying there. Known as "Father Lebbe’s students", they were all Catholics, the most promising of those whom Fr. Lebbe had converted from the Radical-Socialist Student-Worker's Movement in France.
"Everything I have seen up to now, in the university and in this home, impresses me very much", I said to Fr. Lebbe that evening. "Catholicism is the religion that I could embrace. But there are a number of doctrinal points that hold me back. Such is, for example, the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross".
"Do you still remember", asked Fr. Lebbe, "the teaching of the Buddhist Pure-Land Sect?"
"I think I do", I answered, "although it was long ago that I lost interest in any religion".
"Well", said he, "There is a parallel between the Gospel revelation that God the Father sent Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, to die on the cross for the salvation of the human race, and the Pure Land teaching that the Buddha-Savior Amitabha sent the Boddhisatva Avalokitasvara or Kuan-Yin to the world to lead all men to everlasting happiness".
"Precisely", I objected, that’s whereby doubts come from. Kuan-Yin is not even a Buddha. Jesus Christ claims to be the Son of God, how can He die? Even Kuan-Yin cannot die. The very thought of a Buddha or a God who is liable to suffering or death is repugnant to us Buddhists. By definition, a Buddha is a being that cannot suffer or die, for he is outside and above the Wheel of Life and Death".
We argued back and forth until midnight. What finally convinced me was Father Lebbe’s own personal religious conviction rather than the soundness of his theological reasoning. After all, I said to myself, there are more "mysteries" in Buddhism than in Christianity, and religion is above all a principle of life and not a set of abstract "truths" for the theologian or the philosopher to juggle with. A theologian, I said to myself again, may be able to unravel the mysteries of his religion, but what good would it do him-and his fellowmen- if he did not live up to the requirements of the mysteries he claims to penetrate and which he takes upon himself to teach to others? Father Lebbe was not a theologian. He loomed above theology. He so loved Christ and China that his sole ambition was to lead China to Christ.
To further dispel my doubts, Father Lebbe invoked the Buddhist notion of Bhakti, which my father used to explain to me in the sense of total devotion to the Buddha-Savior Amitabha and total compassion towards all sentient beings. Because the Son of God was all-immersed in Bhakti", Father Lebbe declared, "He gave Himself up on the cross in order to lead mankind to His Father-not only the mankind of two thousand years ago but all mankind until the end of time".
Father Lebbe himself was all immersed in Bhakti, so totally dedicated was he to Jesus Christ, and so totally devoted to the welfare of his Chinese students.
That night I did not sleep at all. At 6 o’clock in the morning, I served Father Lebbe’s Mass for the second time, this time having a better understanding of it, and, more important still, believing in it, for it was after that Mass that I asked Father Lebbe to baptise me.
My decision to become a Christians however, was also the result of my personal observation of Professor and Madame Thoreau’s exemplary Christian life. Without ever making any attempt to "convert me, they gradually and unconsciously exercised a decisive influence upon me, by simply carrying out the teaching of the Gospel which they professed to believe in.
NOT LONG after my baptism, I made up my mind to become a monk. But my confessor and spiritual director, regarding my yearning for monastic and contemplative life as nothing but the fleeting enthusiasm of a new convert, advised me to wait a few more years until I had attained Christian maturity.
In my quest of "Christian maturity", I began to attend the office of Vespers at the Benedictine Abbey of Mont-Cesar, at the outskirts of the city. The spectacle of the black-robed monks singing in unison and by turns bowing, genuflecting, and kneeling together around the altar brought back to memory my early Buddhist ascetic-contemplative life, thus making my resolve to be a monk all the stronger. I talked several times with the Guestmaster. He gave me St. Benedict’s Rule to read. The Benedictine Rule appealed to me very much. But written in the 6th century, could it still be followed to the letter in the 20th century? According to the Guestmaster, his Abbey was composed mainly of scholars, writers and teachers. My conception of Monachism was still my Buddhist father’s-that a monk is a pure contemplative. In the light of this conception, I could not figure out how a monk could be anything but a monk, that is to say, a man devoted exclusively to prayer and meditation.
While my mind was thus beset with doubts and confusion, I learned that Mr. Lou Tseng-Tsiang, China’s former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, had lost his wife and was, for this reason, seriously contemplating becoming a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of St. André near Bruges. I learned, too, that this Abbey was considering the possibility of founding a monastic community in China-"That", I said to myself, "may very well be the sign we have been waiting for".
During the summer vacation I went to Bruges and spent a few days at the Abbey of St. André. The Guestmaster welcomed me most cordially. The Abbot revealed to me his plans for China and expressed the hope that I would take an active part in the new venture. "The project is very attractive indeed", I answered, "and it would be an honor to be part of it, however, before making any definite commitment, I should like to consult with my parents first".
My father’s answer to my letter was brief and to the point. He said, "If your conscience tells you that you should become a Christian monk, then go ahead, follow the voice of your conscience. But go into it seriously and courageously. One needs courage to be a good monk". Then in a detached manner, as though the matter did not concern him, he added: "Your mother wants you to obtain from the venerable Abbot permission to continue your secular studies, even as a monk". I translated the letter for the Abbot. My mother’s request, which my father conveyed half-heartedly, seemed to amuse him. He read it out loud and slowly, then he said to me laughing, "Your mother must be an extraordinary person. She reminds me of Zebedee’s sons’ mother. Do you know the Gospel episode?"
As I was not sure, he picked up the New Testament from the book-shelf and read to me: "Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons. ‘What do you want?’ Jesus asked her. She answered, ‘Promise that these two sons of mine will sit at your right and your left when you are King.’ ‘You don’t know what you are asking for’, Jesus answered them. ‘I do not have the right to choose who will sit at my right and my left’.
"Like our Lord", the Abbot commented, "I have no right to grant your mother’s request. The matter pertains to my Senior Council and the Chapter".
He stopped for a while, thinking hard, then went on to say: "However, out of respect for your mother and father, I will take it upon myself to send you back to Louvain University after you have completed your monastic and ecclesiastical training."
I was dumbfounded. I wanted to thank the Abbot but something like a hot rice dumpling was choking my throat. The Abbot dismissed me.
"Now go back to the Guesthouse", he said, "We’ll talk again tomorrow. What I have said to you is strictly confidential. You may reveal it to your parents but to nobody else".
After a week in the Guesthouse, I was invested with the novice’s habit along with other candidates. Contrary to the saying that "The habit does not make a monk", I thought I was someone else in my "holy garb"- tunic, scapular, and cincture. When I got up for the office of Matins at 4 o’clock the next morning, I said to myself, "Now we’re in for good. We’re new man. We must live up to it. ‘Courage, Father has said, and Father was our first Spiritual Master".
YANG AN-YUEN, O.S.B.,
receives the Benedictine habit
ABBOT THEODORE NEVE, O.S.B.
October 4, 1927
I DID not have any trouble observing the Rule and Customary. This was due to my early Buddhist ascetic training and the moral and spiritual support of the Master of Novices, Dom Gabriel Eggermont. An electrical engineer who joined the Abbey in his thirties, Dom Gabriel was a man of experience and of insight, but above all he was a holy monk, and his holiness commanded the respect and affection not only of the Novices but of the professed monks as well.
Dom Gabriel did not know much about China and the Chinese, but he seemed to understand my Chinese way of thinking and acting better than many another. He was always careful not to make me lose face before the other Novices. This the Guestmaster once did to a Chinese student who came on a retreat with other students. On their arrival that evening we had apples for dessert. The Chinese student took one and munched it with gusto. After the supper, the Guestmaster detained him in the refectory to teach him how to peel an apple with a knife and fork. With a broad smile, the student thanked the Guestmaster for the free demonstration. The next morning, however, he left the Abbey without saying goodbye to anyone.
The Father Sacristan who was also a teacher at the Abbey School, had a nephew missionary in Inner Mongolia. The young missionary hated the Chinese and said so in his monthly letter to his uncle, who took pleasure in reading the most virulent passages to me. Did he propose to test my religious vocation, according to the Holy Rule, which says, "Let him examine whether the novice is zealous for the Divine Office, for obedience, and for humiliations"? In any case, he always saw to it that I be assigned to serve the latest "private Mass", celebrated during the breakfast hour by a sick priest who had lost almost entirely the use of his free will. I should have been thankful to the Father Sacristan. Instead, I complained rather bitterly to Dom Gabriel. Any other old-school Novice Master would have given me a half hour lecture on the monastic virtues of patience and endurance. But Dom Gabriel knew better.
"Relax", he said quietly. "I’ll straighten out the situation".
The very next day I was relieved from my twofold duty to serve the late Mass and do the sacristan’s bed room. As a substitute)I was appointed to the "Office of Humility", which consisted in doing the Novice Master’s room and cleaning up the novitiate toilets. Careful though I was in handling Dom Gabriel’s chamber pot, I slipped and crashed with it on the floor of the corridor. Accident or no accident, it was one of those "offenses" the Customary listed as "major"- one which required that I brought the broken pieces to the Chapter of faults held every Friday morning. Accordingly, before the assembled Community, I held the pieces aloft saying, "I accuse myself of having broken Father Master’s chamber pot". Everybody, including the Abbot, looked at blushing Dom Gabriel with amusement. After the Chapter, I apolgized to him and asked him, in accordance with the Customary, permission to punish myself by taking my bowl of soup on my knees, in the middle of the refectory, during the noon meal.
Following the chamber-pot incident, I was relieved from manual labor altogether. I was given two hours of Latin lessons a day instead of just one. Added to the regular classes of Holy Scripture, Commentary on the Holy Rule, History of Monasticism, Liturgy, and Gregorian Chant, that made an average of five hours of study each day. They were not called "classes" nor "studies". The Canon Law forbade novices to "study".
My Latin teachers were novices like myself, but they were good teachers. And they loved Latin, "The language of the Church", as they called it. "Of all languages", they never tired of telling me, "Latin is the most logical". I could not quite agree with them. To my Oriental mind, Latin was an upside-down language, similar to what Europeans called a "Chinese jigsaw-puzzle".
We were ten novices One of them, Brother Michel, was an ex-Communist militant from Paris, brilliant mind, lovable character. He died in the middle of our noviceship, at the age of twenty-five. For twenty-four hours, his body lay in an open coffin in the huge and cold Abbey Church. For twenty-four hours, the Church bell tolled every half hour - slowly, mournfully, causing my nerves to stretch tauter and tauter, until I could bear it no longer. In order to avoid being a nervous wreck, I signed up for the night wake, from eleven to midnight. Kneeling on a priedieu before the lifeless body of Brother Michel, I thought of my little sister, Jade-Orchid, who had been carried away by an epidemic of smallpox shortly before I left home. In her open coffin in the Hall of Ancestors, I furtively deposited a red rose, whispering to her as I did so, "We have no orchid. Take this rose with you in your journey to the Pure-Land". Even as I was thus musing, I fell asleep. In a dream, I saw happy Jade-Orchid singing, frolicking, and gamboling in a green meadow. I called her. My own voice woke me up with a start. Brother Michel was staring at me, mouth gaping. Cold sweat ran down my body from head to foot. I wanted to shout for help; I could not open my mouth. I wanted to run away; I could not move. Nor could I keep my eyes off the glassy and vacant stare, too afraid lest the corpse should rise up all of a sudden and jump at me . . .
At long last, bearded Brother Wolfgang came up to relieve me. Pretexting dizziness, I asked him to accompany me back to my room through the dark cloister. I left my room light on until dawn. Shame or pride prevented me from revealing this chilling experience to the Master of Novices; I did however, ask him to excuse me from the funeral services.
It was not long before Lent. In keeping with the Holy Rule, Don Gabriel gave each one of us novices a book to read during the holy season. The one I received was about the early monks of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Their mode of life reminded me of my Buddhist fathers To emulate them, I obtained permission to fast and put on a hair shirt from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. If fasting did not cause any discomfort, the hair shirt did provide a rather unpleasant experience. Whenever I made a movement, I had the sensation of being swarmed with a thousand red ants or fleas. I became irritable, especially in the presence of a brother novice I had not been able to get along with. My irritability did not leave me until Maundy Thursday, after we had chanted together Jesus’ ultimate recommendation: "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another". After Vespers I went to see the brother novice and asked his forgiveness for all the nasty things I had done to him. Thereafter we became good friends. Sadly enough, following his ordination to the priesthood, he was sent to the Congo as a missionary and there, while hunting in the jungle to feed his famine-stricken people, he was gored to death by a wounded buffalo.
That evening, while in meditation at the foot of the Altar of Repose, I heard a voice, faint but distinct, surfacing from the depth of my soul. "This hair-shirt experience should teach you once and for all that monastic life does not consist in the performance of unnecessary acts of penance or mortification, and that one single act of brotherly love is worth more than forty days of self-inflicted suffering".
UNDER THE guidance of Dom Gabriel, the Master of Novices, and Dom Edouard, the Guestmaster and Editor of the quarterly missionary journal, Le Bulletin des Missions. Mr. Lou Tseng-Tsiang had become Father Peter-Celestine Lou, O.S.B. On the day of his profession of vows I was appointed "porter". Among other things, my duty was to open and shut the refectory door and give a pinch of holy water to the Abbot, the Prior, the Subprior, and the Master of Novices-and also to each guest. On that day, the guests were all VIP’s-the personal representative of the King of Belgium, Chinese Ambassadors, ministers and consuls from all over Europe. As the Chinese Ambassador to Lisbon was entering the refectory for the banquet, I presented him with a pinch of holy water. Thinking I wanted to shake hands with him, he grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously, and said in a voice that boomed like a Buddhist temple gong in the silent cloister: "How do you do? How do you do?" A violent fit of laughter seized me. I had to leave my post and forgo the dinner, which, I learned later, was "formidable".
Mr. Lou was fast approaching his sixties when he applied for admission as a novice at the Abbey of St. André; and he had had almost forty years of diplomatic service to his credit. After his profession of vows, he confided to me that his sole ambition was to follow a centuries-old Chinese tradition.
"You see, Brother Ta-teh", he said, "In the past, when a public servant felt that he had fulfilled his obligations toward the State, he would retire to his native village or to some remote place to spend the rest of his life in contemplation or in communion with nature. That, I assume, is what your father has been doing. Even though I cannot compare myself with your father, at least I have the desire to imitate him".
"Why then", I asked him, "Do you study Latin and scholastic philosophy and theology? At your venerable age, it must be hard on you " .
"Between you and me", he answered, "It is only because Father Abbot and Father Edouard, my spiritual counselor, have talked me into it. "You see, Brother Ta-teh", he went on after a short pause, "My Confucianist training has taught me never to disappoint people knowingly. I cannot shake off my Confucianist training any more than you can shake off your Buddhist training completely".
Father Peter-Celestine was ordained to the priesthood in 1935. After World War II, in August 1946, Pope Pius XII appointed him [titular] Abbot of St. Peter’s of Ghent. He died three years later, January 15, 1949.
Following my own profession of vows, I was sent to the Abbey of Maredsous, along with other young student-monks or "clerics", to begin the first year of the six-year study for the priesthood.
The Abbey of Maredsous had produced Abbot Columba Marmion and such scholarly monks as Dom Germain Morin, Dom Ursmaire Berliere, and Dom Philibert Schmitz. As an "intellectual Abbey", it looked down on St. André, a "missionary Abbey". This came as a shock to me. Even though superficial and sketchy, my study of the history of the Benedictine Order had taught me that from the year 596 A.D., when Pope St. Gregory the Great sent Benedictine missionaries to England, until the year 1000 A.D., when the powerful Order of Cluny was born, for five hundred years the Benedictine monks devoted themselves to missionary labor for the evangelisation of pagan Europe. If they had not done so, would there have been such thing as "Christendom"?
But all intellectuals, be they monks, are not necessarily proud and disdainful. Don Idesbald, the Prior and Novice Master of Maredsous, told me that "True intellectuals are humble people". He himself was a model of humility, simplicity, and kindness. I found this out a few days after our arrival at Maredsous. Late that afternoon, I knocked at his door. He had just returned from a walk and was washing his feet in a small tub of hot water. "It makes you feel good", he said. "Soaking your feet in hot water refreshes you mind", he said again-(I thought I was hearing Jesus say, "Learn from me; I am gentle and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls"-Matthew 11:29).
Another meek and humble man was our professor of History of Christianity. He revealed himself in a prosaic manner. Speaking one day about an intricate political event in the Middle Ages, he said, "It is a Chinoiserie" Suddenly realising my presence among the students, he took on a sorry look and cut short his lecture. I followed him to his room and said, "I would have used the term Chinoiserie myself, for we Chinese can be just as complicated as the historical event you were describing". we exchanged jokes, laughed together and became friends.
AFTER COMPLETING the study of philosophy at Maredsous, we, "young clerics", continued our ecclesiastical formation at the Abbey of Mont-Cesar, in Louvain. As I had been told before joining the Benedictine Order, Mont-Cesar was also an "intellectual Abbey". And like Maredsous, it counted among its members such big-name scholars as Dom Bernard Capelle, the Abbot, Don Odo Lotin, Dom Bernard Botte, and Dom Maieul Capuyns. But it was not forbidding at all. Its red-brick Romanesque structure had something of the warmth of our own Abbey of St. André.
Upon my arrival at Mont-Cesar that October evening, I was greeted by the Prior, Dom Albert de Meester.
"So you are a Chinese", he said. "Aren’t you by any chance one of those babies I bought for five francs a piece?"
We laughed together at the distasteful practice current among Catholic missionary societies, which, as a means of raising funds for the upkeep of their personnel, invited gullible European Catholics to "adopt" or "buy" abandoned "Chinese babies" which probably existed only on paper.
The Abbey of Mont-Cesar was the theological school or "Clericate" of the Belgian Congregation of Benedictines-and the Congregation was made up of the Abbeys of Maredsous, Mont-Cesar, St. André, Tyniec (Poland), Trinidad (British West Indies), Singeverga (Portugal), and Glenstal, in County Limerick, Ireland. We were thirty or forty clerics or theological students from different countries. During my second year of theology, Father Vincent Lebbe sent from China two of his Little Brothers of St. John the Baptist to study with us.
Ten monk-scholars made up the faculty, including Dom Bernard Capelle, the Abbot. For reasons known to him alone, Dom Bernard Botte, Professor of New Testament Exegesis, disliked me supremely. One day, during my second year, he thought he could ‘catch" me and throw me out of his class. I had forgotten to bring my New Testament note-book. So as not to come late to his lecture, I used loose sheets to take down notes. Thinking I was doodling, as I often did in other classes, he interrupted his lecture, stepped down from the chair, and rushed straight to my place-only to find a diligent student, dutifully summarising what the professor had been talking about. Frustrated, he "caught" me at the quarter oral examination by asking me questions no second-year student could possibly answer with any fluency.
I liked our professor of Canon Law but I was allergic to this subject. A month or so before the summer examination, however, I studied Don Leclef’s course in Marriage Law particularly hard-for no other reason than fear of vengeance. In honor of the Cleric Master, we had put on an hour-long variety show, in which there figured a dummy dressed in the Benedictine habit complete with hood and all. The next morning, just before the Canon Law class, someone put the dummy next to my seat. At first Dom Leclef pretended not to see it, but after ten minutes of lecture he could stand its presence no longer. "Take it out"’ he shouted. No one moved. "Take it out, I say"’ Brother Duez, the senior cleric, hoisted it on his back and marched out of the class room. After the class, I apologized to Dom Leclef. "Oh", he answered with a wry smile, "It’s quite all right".
It wasn’t all right at all. At the Canon Law examination, both oral and written, I thought I had answered all the questions fluently. But the day after I returned to St. André for the vacation, Abbot Neve summoned me to his office.
"How come", he asked, frowning, "You got zero in Canon Law?" I told him about the dummy incident. "That", he remarked with a hearty laugh, "is the Pope’s Mule"’ (He was referring to Alphonse Daudet’s tale, in which the Pope’s mule gives a resounding kick on his keeper’s hindside for a wrong the keeper did him thirty years before. The irreverent Daudet call the kicking action "An ecclesiastical grudge".)
Back at Mont-Cesar after the vacation, the first thing I saw was our names and examination marks posted on the class room door for all to see. The practice was unwholesome, I felt: it humiliated the average students. That very night, someone who obviously felt the same way I did, secretly rewrote the results, upgrading the B and B- students, and degrading the A and B+ students. It was great fun to see the students’ reaction as they entered the class room in the morning-the radiant smiles of the average students and the dejected countenance of the smarter ones.
Abbot Capelle never discovered the culprit. Neither did he ever discover who had poured salt and pepper into his and the other professor’s water jug before supper that evening. Never had I heard so much coughing in a monastic refectory. It must have been the work of one of those friendly (or mischievous) leprechauns or poltergeists, who, they say, like to entertain senior monks.