An old man, dressed in a loose red robe, bows his head in respect, one scholar to another.
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His skin is a kind of dark amber, and his eyes glitter behind lids that sometimes make them look half shut. He is a storehouse of ancient lore. He knows the paths of the stars and the planets, what makes for a wise and useful minister, and what sacrifices are to be offered in honor of one's ancestors. He can tell the virtues of the good emperors and the vices of the bad. He is master of the multitudinous and labyrinthine pictograms of his written language.
"Honorable Father," he says, l am ready to see the map."
The other scholar, a man in his prime, is dressed in the same manner, but he wears a cross around his neck. His flesh is permanently sun-darkened, and gleams with a tinge of bronze. His hair is black, with that wave in it that signifies foreigner. He responds to his visitor with the intimation of a smile, and rolls out a large parchment upon the table. It is covered with impossible shapes, like those of fabulous beasts, shaded in various colors, all of them lurking or peering beneath a grill of arcs and parallel lines.
"Here it is," says the young man.
They remain silent for a while. The old scholar touches the parchment here and there with his fingertips. "I do not see my land, Father."
"We are here, my good friend Pao," says the young man, pointing to a spot near the Great Sea. "All of this land, from the cold wasteland of the Mongol here, to Tonkin in the south, and from the sea westward to the mountains of Tibet, all of this great land is yours."
"I had thought we were almost the whole world," said Pao, shaking his head a little sadly.
"Master Pao," the Jesuit Matteo Ricci replied, laying a hand upon the old man's shoulder, "that is a fond dream to which all men are prone."
Meeting people in love
When Matteo Ricci traveled to the Far East as a missionary in 1580, he knew he had to learn everything he could about the Chinese culture, in order to bring them the Good News most effectively. He understood that the Chinese were an ancient and proud people, with long and venerable traditions. He spent several years in the Portuguese colony of Macao, mastering Mandarin Chinese, a language as different from any in Europe as it is possible to be. He had already studied mathematics and astronomy in Italy under the famous Father Christopher Clavius,with an eye to using those studies to earn the esteem and the friendship of the Chinese, who believed that the moral task of mankind on earth was to reflect the beautiful silent Order of Heaven. In other words, Matteo Ricci was what we now would call an anthropologist as were so many others among his brother missionaries.
I have heard people pride themselves on being "multi-cultural" who read at most two languages, and whose idea of culture seems to be limited to what comes out of the oven and what flag flies from the eaves. They have much to learn from the Catholic missionaries. You cannot bring the Good News to a people, or really any news at all, unless you know them, but to know human beings to the core you must love what is lovable in them, honor what is honorable, and forgive what is foolish or wicked. So the missionaries observed the peoples to whom they ministered, and their letters and diaries are invaluable sources of information.
But more than information. It is one thing to be aware that the Chinese believed that their land took up almost the whole globe, and to know that they would be surprised and dismayed to learn otherwise. It is quite another to be able to disentangle that pride and folly from their admirable sense of order and tradition, spanning many centuries. Matteo Ricci, like Junipero Serra, and Isaac Joques, and Jean de Brebeuf, learned from the inside what the people were whom he loved. And we must insist upon the fact of this love.
Love that seeks truth
Consider what happens when the depth of Christian love is not there. Margaret Mead, the queen of anthropology, went to the South Seas and studied the mating habits of the natives, resulting in the too influential and now discredited Coming of Age in Samoa. She had something of a liberal agenda; the natives caught on to it, and played their cards accordingly. The people under the microscope flipped the lens the other way around. I'm not saying that Mead despised the Samoans; she liked them very much. But Father Ricci had to love the Chinese, with the charity that hopes all things, believes all things, and endures all things. Father Ricci had to love them with a love that would defy one disappointment after another, unto death. He was not martyred, but he would never return to his native land. He never enjoyed the accolades due to a celebrated scholar.
I think that the Catholic missionaries had to be most discerning, precisely because the articles of our Faith are of ultimate concern. They could not simply say, "The people of China leave food offerings for their deceased ancestors, so they must be worshiping them as deities." Maybe they were, and maybe they weren't. Father Ricci determined that the most learned among them considered it an act of filial piety. Since they brought food to their elders in life, they thought that the best demonstration of their honor would be to 'bring" food to them after their death. The common people, however, had mingled the practice with a good deal of superstition, and that, too, had to be taken into account.
…but to know human beings to the core you must love what is lovable in them, honor what is honorable, and forgive what is foolish or wicked.
Father Ricci sought out the wisest sages among the Chinese, and determined that the most ancient Chinese deity of all was the Tien-Chu Shih-I—"heavenly Lord" or "Lord of heaven." That Lord was the one in whom all things had their origin, and whom all things in heaven and earth obeyed. So after long observation and careful study of the old texts, he wrote The True Doctrine of God, a short and brilliant catechism of the Catholic Faith, filled with citations from the venerated words of such ancient wise men as Confucius and Mencius. For we believe that God does not leave any of his beloved people entirely in darkness.
Love of God, the bond of friendship
After many years of patient labor, Matteo Ricci was accorded the rarest of privileges. He, a mandarin from the West, was allowed entrance to the Forbidden City, the abode of the emperor himself. It was a momentous occasion.
For we are not talking about slick operators, buying land from indigenous peoples by paying them nuggets of glass, or rotting out their virtue by soaking them with firewater. Matteo Ricci came alone, with the best that his world had to offer, as a gift to the best of the people to whom he was both preacher and servant.
What a sight that most have been, in the early weeks of 1601, when Father Ricci, summoned at last by the Emperor Wan-Li himself, walked along the stately courtyards of the imperial grounds! I imagine him escorted by a parade of counselors and scholars and priests, while porters carry upon a litter the most fitting of gifts — maps and clocks and the astrolabe about which Father Ricci's teacher Clavius had written with so much precision and admiration. There before them rises the many-colored palace itself, its tiers of roofs curled in the style of the East, where dwelt the emperor, the North Star upon earth, whose duty was to rule his people with the same constancy as the North Star above ruled the heaven.
The man of God met a man who longed for God. Is that not the profoundest thing we can say about our fellow men, in whatever culture we may find them — that in the recesses of their hearts they long for God? If so, then only someone whose heart and mind are turned to God can ever really understand the hearts and minds of others.
I will not enter into the disputes that arose, the most bitter of them long after Father Ricci had died, between the Jesuits on one side and Dominicans and Franciscans on the other, regarding whether the mode of worship the Chinese Catholics had adopted was licit, or whether their continuing to honor their dead in the traditional way smacked too much of paganism. It is a tangled affair, ending in defeat for the Jesuit position. But Matteo Ricci has not been forgotten. The best of that noble culture, which the methodical and murderous Mao Zedong tried to sweep from the face of the earth, survives yet, and the moral seriousness of the Chinese, their natural piety, and their love of the beauty and order of the universe will someday, I firmly trust, find their fulfillment in Christ.
Yet another reason to turn in prayer to the east.
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Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2016 Magnificat
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