Singing Scottish songs in Sri Lanka

Dan in Sri lanka‘Now, no more talking… use your nose, and give your mind to it,’ said Rat to Mole … They moved on in silence for some little way, when suddenly the Rat was conscious, through his arm that was linked in Mole’s, of a faint sort of electric thrill that was passing down the animal’s body. Instantly he disengaged himself, fell back a pace, and waited, all attention.

The signals were coming through!

Mole stood a moment rigid, while his uplifted nose, quivering slightly, felt the air.

Then a short run forward – a fault – a check – a try back; and then a slow, steady, confident advance.

The Rat, much excited, kept close to his heels as the Mole, with something of the air of a sleep-walker, crossed a dry ditch, scrambled through a hedge, and nosed his way over a field open and trackless and bare in the faint starlight.

Suddenly, without giving warning, he dived; but the Rat was on the alert, and promptly followed him down the tunnel to which his unerring nose had faithfully led him.

It was close and airless, and the earthy smell was strong, and it seemed a long time to Rat ere the passage ended and he could stand erect and shake himself. The Mole struck a match, and by its light the Rat saw that they were standing in an open space, neatly swept and sanded underfoot, and directly facing them was Mole’s little front door, with ‘Mole End’ painted, in Gothic lettering, over the bell-pull at the side.

This extract from the very well-known children’s novel The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, closely resembled my experience of travelling with a Tamil, a Sinhalese and a Burgher to their native country of Sri Lanka in the last week of October.

I was ‘Rat’ accompanied by several ‘Moles’ including ministers of this church. The long, trackless plane trip that began in silence seemed to take all night and longer. But with time differences, the ‘dive’ from ‘faint starlight’ proved to be just after midnight. Arrival was indeed ‘close and airless’ – very warm and humid, but I was glad to ‘stand erect and shake myself’.

Not having travelled overseas before (other than Tasmania and New Zealand) I kept close by my companion’s heels as I felt their (albeit doleful) ‘faint thrill’.

The occasion of the trip was the invitation by Rev David Pargeter to accompany him and others to represent the UCA at the 100th anniversary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, including attendance over several days at the Annual Review Meeting of the Ecumenical Network on Sri Lanka.

Attending the Centenary Thanksgiving Service, held at the Cathedral of Christ in Colombo, was an extraordinary privilege. Three hours of ecumenical worship in dripping heat and humidity may not sound like privilege, but it was.

Have you ever sung the Lord’s Prayer to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’? Sounds sickly you may say … something Cliff Richard would do (and once did). But in the circumstances, it was very moving, as were the choirs and the preaching. The title of the Scottish tune translates to ‘times gone by’ and is about remembering friends from the past and not letting them be forgotten.

As we substituted the well-known words of prayer to the well-known tune, I found myself pondering the meaning of the song. ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot?’ What if they’re not ‘old acquaintances’? Does it mean that we shouldn’t forget anyway? Or does it mean that if we do forget, we should remember, but how can that be?

Maybe it just means that we should remember that we’re beginning to forget … to forget that the people of this extraordinary, beautiful and populous country have endured civil conflict for nearly three decades. Perhaps it’s about re-membering these afflicted people who are continuing to arrive on our shores seeking asylum because there are many refusing to forget.

As I understand it, in Asia, the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ tune is so ubiquitous it is understood as a song of togetherness.

As well as celebrating the New Year, it is very widely used to symbolise endings and new beginnings. Which is, of course, the subject matter of the (poetic) words we sang – the Lord’s Prayer.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”

My experience of Sri Lanka was a kind of letting go of the particularities of this time and place in which I live. Soon after I arrived, I began to identify with the culture of this remarkably friendly, food-and-faith-oriented people. Everywhere I looked, faith was present in Sri Lanka.

It is ranked the third most religious country in the world – 99 per cent of Sri Lankans say that religion is an important part of their daily life (70.2 per cent Theravada Buddhist; 12.6 per cent Hindu; 9.7 per cent Muslim and 7.4 per cent Christian).

And yet a durable peace continues to elude these faithful people.

The political grievances that led to the conflict apparently remain unresolved. Everywhere I looked there was a billboard with a smiling face of ‘His Excellency, the President of the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka’ who attended perhaps the largest (high security) event we were invited to – and in so doing, caused others to boycott it.

Unforgotten and unsaid, was the fact that many who have been internally displaced remain unsatisfactorily resettled. Human rights violations have clearly not been laid bare with honesty. Fear remains present, even in the faces of faith leaders.

‘We often think of peace as the absence of war’, says Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He said:‘… if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds – our own prejudices, fears and ignorance…to work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women’.

In the course of our visit, hope arrived for me in the form of several conversations with people from the youth movement Sri Lanka Unites (SLU). These young people between 18 and 30 years of age represent all ethnicities and religions. They have taken it upon themselves to work, not only on their own hearts and minds, but on those of their parents. In many respects they are like Mole, yet they have never left the home that is so dear to them.

I understand that the collective noun for a group of moles is a movement. The philosophy behind SLU is one of hope and reconciliation. Among other things, it is a home-grown movement and not an organisation … its activities are widespread and simultaneous in moving toward the same goal of peace and prosperity for future generations.

“… ‘wonderful’ and ‘most remarkable’ said the Rat at intervals, when the chance for an observation was given to him.”

Similar words applied for this visiting ‘Rat’ Moderator of the Uniting Church, who has now come home, thinking surely we can find ways of nurturing this movement.

I look forward to welcoming the Rev WP Ebenezer Joseph, general secretary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka when he visits us in the near future.

Dan Wootton

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