Sunday, April 13, 2008

Popes and Lamas

My grandfather, from my dad's side, was a man of few words but when he spoke, every sentence carried weight. He wouldn't have done well in America with its meaningless small talk. I had tremendous respect for him and never addressed him in a familiar form, like the French "tu", although I had no trouble using it with other relatives and family friends of the same generation. He lived a few miles from our home in a house that he had built with his own hands for himself and my grandmother. Before the structure was completed she suddenly passed away after a short battle with cancer. I have only a vague recollection of her when she visited after learning about her terminal illness and I remember the tears and hugs which left a lasting impression on an almost 3-year-old. She spent the whole day with my sister and me, having previously not felt particularly close to my father's second family. After all, the responsibility of taking care of my half-brother fell upon her and my grandpa during the war, as my dad's first wife died a few days after giving birth and he was on the battle front. Perhaps grandma felt one child was enough for my father, as she herself only had two, my dad and a sister seven years younger.

Grandpa lived by himself for 15 years. I would see him two or three times a week. In the winter snow my father's car would often get stuck on the slippery hill by the house. I had to help him to drive it up early on as I was much better with the use of the clutch. My dad's instinct was just to press the gas pedal harder and naturally the car would get even more hopelessly stuck. Every Sunday grandpa would come over for lunch. We ate the big meal early in the afternoon on the weekends. For many years during the winter months my family would go over to his place for a sauna bath. During the summer we would of course enjoy the sauna at the summer home but during the cold season that wasn't a possibility. My grandpa was a masterful craftsman and was equally at home with wood and metal. Our home was full of furnishings he had created, for instance wrought iron ceiling fixtures and floor lamps with built-in little tables, his own design. Once I started to play the violin he made many exquisite cases for the instruments. I was in my upper teens and in Los Angeles when I got my first commercially produced Jaeger case.

Grandpa was an avid reader and since I treasured him so much, his favorite literature became mine as well. He was fond of Giovannino Guareschi's Don Camillo books, an interesting choice for a man who never went to church and certainly wasn't a Catholic. But the dialogues Don Camillo had with Christ in his little church must have made sense to my Vaari, and they made sense to me, too. The love-hate relationship between the town's priest and communist mayor, Peppone, could have taken place in postwar Finland. The very satirical book Comrade Don Camillo about the prelate's trip to the Soviet Union as a secret member of the communist delegation was published in time for my grandfather to enjoy it. We laughed so hard about the Russian-made tractor that wouldn't start until Don Camillo blessed it with his holy water he had smuggled from Italy. My grandfather passed away in 1967 and the author a year later.

So, in spite of never having set foot in a Catholic church until I was in Vienna and in Paris, I was well aware of many of the unique facets of the religion. Having read every word of Guareschi's books time and time again made me become interested in the topic. I was a great admirer of Pope John XXIII who managed to put a human face on the papacy. He has been often called "the most beloved Pope in history" and "renewer of the church", the latter term used even by Protestants. A very different Pope is about to visit the United States, Benedict XVI. It seems to me that Catholics in this country, at least in this corner of the country, and the present German Pope think unalike and perhaps their faith is based on a slightly different set of values. Many see him representing the past when we should look forward to the future and all the problems it seems to bring mankind. Nevertheless, the White House is planning on a grand reception, a more festive one than for any other head of state or religious leader ever before. I don't know what to think of all that pomp. Shouldn't the Pope be as humble a person as the other religious dignitary visiting here in Seattle, the Dalai Lama? "The Seeds of Compassion" event has taken place for a number of days now. Today 16,000 schoolchildren, our youngest daughter included, got to see the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Based on the numerous interviews I have seen, I genuinely like this intelligent yet simple man with his infectious laughter.

So, Seattle has done its best to welcome the Lama, yet I must wonder if His Holiness is impressed by all the materialism most of his local hosts exhibit. They praise a man whose religion and views they can hardly begin to comprehend. After all, he is the leader for a very simple, oppressed group of people in the Himalayas. China has made his return impossible and with the Olympics coming up, political leaders have to weigh the importance of trade relations with China versus human rights of the people in Tibet. I can almost sense the relief of our president having a "real" religious leader to impress. Many local civic and other leaders here are equally uncomfortable: Seattle is after all one of the main ports for Chinese imports. Also, the kind of wisdom this Lama represents is very foreign to the way local bigwigs think and act. Perhaps the children today with their open minds are the best audiences for the Really Good Man. A friend told me that someone quite the opposite is in charge of some of the musical entertainment for the Lama. Perhaps the Not-So-Good Man has simply made a mistake and thinks that this is a Deli Lama from Manhattan and provides an opportunity to dine on that South American delicacy, barbecued llama, in addition to shrimp, clams and other treyf delicacies his family is so fond of.

I know I would be at total ease with His Holiness, but it is hard to imagine what those two polar opposites would talk about, were they placed face to face. Who knows: the Dalai Lama might have been able to reveal to the other one what kind of lifeform he would come back as in reincarnation. A Pacific Northwest giant clam, the geoduck, would be a good choice. At least life as that immobile bivalve mollusk life would be less destructive and Nirvana thus a bit closer, perhaps in just a hundred millenia or so.

Photo of Tuomo Talvi by Ilkka Talvi 1963
The Little World of Don Camillo: Baptism