By Teresa Wong |
I personally did not know this monk. I had never seen him before. I did not know where he came from. I did not even know his name. All I knew was that he was a Catholic priest; he was a person who tamed the prison; he was a glorious martyr; he was a hero who offered himself entirely for others, all because of love! He was also a trail blazer who showed us the way. I had given up my faith earlier on. But he led me back into the bosom of God.
Chiang was released from prison. This was during the end of the Cultural Revolution, but the unceasing red terror still haunted our daily lives. One day, Ming, a classmate of mine, invited me to his home in such jubilation tempered with a shroud of secrecy: his elder brother Chiang had returned from his imprisonment! I had long known the name of Chiang for he was the infamous hoodlum chief in our area. He was arrested during the Cultural Revolution and was imprisoned in the Heavenly Lake Farm in An-Hui Province. Heavenly Lake Farm was a terrifying labor camp. The mere mention of this labor camp would send chills down one’s spine.
Ming’s house was packed with people. Most of them were old followers of Chiang while he was the chief. The house was buzzing with greetings and small talk. When the people settled down, Chiang started talking, “I am going to tell you all the story of a monk, a Catholic monk.”
“A Catholic monk?” This caught my attention and I pricked up my ears even though I had given up my faith long since.
Everybody called him “Monk,” Chiang said. “Our prison cell had a total of forty-eight persons. A few were political prisoners. The rest were either thieves, robbers, rapists or heroes like me. The most respected person, however, in our cell was the monk. I was absolutely puzzled about this when I first moved in. A skinny old man, who knew neither kung-fu nor the art of boxing, was the most respected person? Was it because of imprisonment seniority? I heard that he had been in the camp since 1955.”
“1955?” I relived momentarily the night of September 8, 1955. It was a night of horror and the beginning of worse to come.
(Editor’s note: September 8, 1955 was the day when Bishop Kung, the Bishop of Shanghai, was arrested together with over 300 priests and lay persons in one simultaneous sweep.)
Chiang continued, “The monk was a quiet person. His countenance was peaceful and calm. His eyes were bright and his gaze was sharp and piercing. Whenever we were in deep pain, or so enraged that we wanted to kill or to tear someone apart, our suffering and rage would subside and the atmosphere of hatred would gradually disappear so long as the monk was around, holding our hands and placing his right hand on our heads. There was a saying in the camp, ‘do not fear heaven, do not fear earth, fear only the danger of a wife asking for divorce.’ Whoever received such a letter of divorce from his wife, and one of these things would always happen, he would either cry his heart out or he would want to die and bang his head against the wall like the beating of a drum! All of us would watch this with a sense of indifference or ridicule. The monk was the only exception. He would embrace the person and hold his hands. Then he would place his right hand on the man’s head. I did not see the monk talking or chanting. Strangely enough, the man who was howling only a few moments ago would then calm down. Then the monk would talk softly to him for a short while.”
“Laying the right hand on his head? Oh..this must be an act of benediction!” I immediately realized.
Chiang continued, “During times of boredom, we were a lustful bunch and would gather around and crack dirty jokes. We would pass around our home-made pornographic drawings. The monk was the only one who would not listen, who would not read and who would not laugh with us during this entertainment. He would sit at the corner of the cell with his head bowed and eyes closed. In fact, he would sit in that fashion whenever he had nothing to do. He would sit for a long time, too. At the end of each working day, all of us had worked so hard that we would drop dead on our beds and be unable to move at all. The monk was the exception, and he would insist on sitting. One night, I woke up and saw him still sitting up. I asked him, “Aren’t you tired? Better go to sleep early.” He answered softly: “There is no better rest than this. He would give me strength.” “Who?” I asked. He raised his head and looked up momentarily. He did not answer my question. I looked up in the direction he looked. I saw a roof, nothing but the roof.”
“The quietest moment in our cell was when mail parcels came and were opened,” Chiang recalled. “Stitch by stitch all of us watched the opening of the parcel. Absolute silence would permeate every corner of the cell. With the exception of the monk, there was anxiety, hunger, admiration, and jealousy in the forty-seven pairs of eyes that were glued to the opening of the parcels. He went his own way as if nothing was happening, or he would sit by a wall in the room with his eyes closed. It befits only a person with such calm and peace to be called a hero!”
“That was not just sitting by a wall. That was meditation and praying!” These words almost escaped me in an attempt to correct Chiang’s ignorance, but they did not. I did not have the courage to admit that I was a Catholic. Moreover, I had turned away from God for so many years that I was not sure whether I was still considered a Catholic.
“There was no mail parcel for the monk,” Chiang noted. “Nobody came to visit him. It seemed as if he had no family. Oh, no, I remember now. Once he did receive a parcel containing a winter jacket. He immediately gave that to Tzong who had no family. He kept the wrapping as a memento. According to the monk, he did not know who the sender was.”
“The monk did not understand medicine,” Chiang observed. “But every time one of us fell ill, the person that looked after the sick was always the monk. He would especially care for the dying. He would stay close to the dying at all times and would hold on tight to the hands of the sick person, accompanying him until he drew his last breath. At which time, he would close the eyelids of the dead person and make a sign of the cross on his forehead. You are truly exceptional, brother monk!” exclaimed Chiang. And he continued, “In the camp, the worst suffering was not hard labor, not being beaten while hanged. It was hunger! Imagine this: there was not a day that we had enough to eat, year after year! It was beyond description to express the feelings of hunger. At every meal, the monk would save two-thirds of his ration for others. He said, ‘I have a small appetite. You are all young and need more to fill your stomach.’ So we thought he was serious and took turns at sharing this. One day, Fung found the monk chewing and eating weeds in the bushes. When he saw Fung, he dropped the weeds hastily like a child being caught at some mischief. But Fung, with tears all over his face, dashed to the monk and grabbed his hands...”
“During his last year with us, the monk washed the heads of quite a few of us,” Chiang remembered. “Regardless of whether he was a counter-revolutionary element, a hoodlum lord, or a gangster, he would cry his heart out during the head washing. Cry they did, but their hearts were filled with joy!”
“That washing of heads! That was the rite of baptism!” My heart was pounding, but there were no words from my mouth!
“A strange thing happened to those whose heads were washed. They fought no more and cursed no more. They liked to help and care for others, just as the monk did,” Chiang said. “Last year, the monk died. He died of starvation. Liang, who was a doctor, could witness to that fact. In fact, we all knew quite well that he died of starvation. While he was seriously ill, we saw with our very own eyes that the stool he passed out were weeds!”
“After his death, the monk received the highest honor from us. Each one of us took out the best we had, the newest, the most precious or the most treasured. We dressed him with Whei's army cap, Ping's shirt, Ren's pants, Loong's socks, my shoes; and scarfed him with Fung's white towel. Although we dressed the monk haphazardly, he certainly had a new, clean and tidy look as opposed to the shabby look while he was still alive. He was ready for a formal dinner party. We also hung his only possession around his neck: it was a rope full of knots, a peculiar rope that for every ten knots there was a special single knot.”
“That was a rosary!” Waves of emotion were choking me, choking my chest.
Chiang’s narration continued, “In the camp, the most disgusting most punitive job was to bury the dead. Usually the dead were buried in a shallow dugout covered with a thin layer of soil. That would be the final destiny of the dead in the camp. Within a day or two, the grave would be unearthed by scavenging wild dogs. The dogs would wander around with severed limbs from the dead in their mouths. But for the monk, not only did we hasten to prepare the burial site, we also wanted to dig the deepest grave for him. Now, he is lying in a grave as deep as the height of two men, facing the rising sun. Every day, he would be the first to welcome the early rays of dawn and the first to watch the sun rising...”
I could not keep silent anymore. Abruptly, I stood up and said loudly, “He was no monk. He was a Catholic priest. I am a Catholic too...” I broke down and started to cry. My crying muffled all that I wanted to continue to say. Everybody in the house was stunned and stared at me with mouths wide open. The atmosphere froze. The air in the room seemed taut with tension.
Chiang was first to recover and to react. He said in a low, solemn, but commanding tone, “Whatever was said here shall stay within the four walls of this room.” Then he walked up to me and hugged me. He laid slowly his right hand on my head. Through tears in my eyes, I looked up at his face: a face full of peace and calm. I seemed to have seen the monk. “You! Was your head washed too?” I asked soberly. The hoodlum chief, Chiang, nodded in silence and held my hands ever more tightly... - End
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