On the Mystery of Meeting

A “Farewell Lecture” given for the Humanities Research Institute, Sogang University, on March 22, 2007

    The questions are always there, day after day, for all of us, questions acute or veiled, bothersome or amusing: “What brought me here? How did I come to this particular place and to this particular moment? What pattern can possibly underlie the series of events out of which this moment has emerged?” Whatever account we might want to give of the course of a lifetime, our own or someone else’s, there can be no denying that most of the main turning points, for better or for worse, happen because we met someone, because someone brought new possibilities or limitations or directions into our existence. Of course, most of the people we encounter day by day seem not to have much effect on our lives, although it only takes a moment to realize that even the slightest second’s delay in buying a subway ticket one day might have made all the difference to a whole series of situations; “If I had not looked in a particular direction at one precise moment, you and I would never have met.” Still, there are certain meetings that have an enormous impact on our lives, while most are fleeting exchanges.

No meeting, I believe, is fortuitous; the contrast that Boethius’s Lady Philosophy in the Consolation of Philosophy encourages us to make between Fortune (the illusion that all happens by pure, meaningless, blind chance), and Providence (the faith that there exist meaningful, though hidden, justifications for all that happens to us) justifies a providential reading of existence that contradicts the postmodern rejection of all meaning or of any kind of providential dispensation. However, discerning clearly the Hand of God in one’s own existence is not usually given to us, and the line dividing coincidence from destiny cannot be drawn with certainty. So as we look back along the series of meetings that seem to have been responsible for our current situation, we find ourselves bemused observers and puzzled tellers of our life’s uncertain tale.

    There was surely a concatenation of meetings that brought me into the Community of Taizé in 1969, but here I want to start by stressing how utterly my life was changed by that day in 1972 or 1973 when some unknown person drove Cardinal Kim Sou-Hwan up from Lyon to attend evening prayer in the Church of Reconciliation at Taizé. No one knew he was there but, as it happened, during the prayer one of the brothers prayed aloud for the Church and people of Korea. Since the arrests of Koreans, including Christians, engaged in resistance to the Park Chung-Hee regime and the Yushin reforms were often in the press at that time, it was natural for us to offer such a prayer; later the names of Bishop Daniel Chi and of Kim Chiha were often mentioned. That unexpected mention in prayer of his suffering country impressed the Cardinal deeply. Praying for Korea! People in this out-of-the-way French village were praying for his country in its time of need!

    Almost certainly that alone explains why he came back the next day and asked to meet our Prior, Brother Roger. Otherwise, I suppose he would have returned to Korea and soon have forgotten the evening prayer in a dark church in a tiny village he had never heard of before. But he returned, and was invited to celebrate a Mass in Taizé’s village Church. Brother Roger was there, with one or two Catholic brothers, but he did not receive communion. The Cardinal asked why, and he said: “We must suffer in order to achieve unity.” Perhaps that phrase evoked for the Cardinal a parallel with the Korean experience of division; in any case it impressed him by its depth of spiritual insight and he recalled it years later. That encounter became a decisive meeting for me, although I was not present at it.

    My own sense of a guiding hand begins in 1974, when Taizé summoned a “Council of Youth” and some 40,000 people arrived there for a few days of meetings, young people from many different countries. I cannot explain why it is that, among all the hundreds of people I had to help welcome during that week, I only recall one. He was a priest from Korea, he said, he was a Jesuit studying in Rome; his name was Park Hong. Little did we know that our paths would cross again in Sogang . . .

    Early in 1977, I left France, with other brothers, for Davao City in the southern Philippines. There we began to live a very simple life in the middle of a huge, poor neighborhood, in Agdao. In November, Brother Roger and other brothers came to live in Hong Kong for a month and we went to join him there. Each year he used to make a similar visit to some place in a continent far from Europe, some place of suffering where hope was sorely needed. Hong Kong was, at that time, the closest he could hope to get to China, whose borders were still tightly closed. We lived, about 15 of us, in a wooden shack perched above the water in the harbor of the township known as Aberdeen. In front of us were dozens of little wooden ships moored, on which poor families lived, most of them refugees who had fled from China. On one of the ships lived a group of Little Sisters of Jesus, whose spirituality is very dear to us.

Their inspiration was the vision expressed by Charles de Foucauld, who had lived as a hermit in North Africa and had been killed by bandits on December 1, 1916; every year, December 1 is a special day for them and they were going to come to our shack on December 1 for a Mass. Just before lunch that day, we saw a small boat being rowed toward our house, with a rather tall man in black standing in it. Someone suddenly said, “It’s Cardinal Kim from Korea!” That was my first sight of him. He was in Hong Kong for a meeting, and had heard that Brother Roger was there, so had come in search of him. He joined us for midday prayers and for lunch. During lunch, I was close to him. He asked Brother Roger if he could not send some brothers to live in Korea, to help the young people reflect and pray more deeply. Brother Roger simply said that at present there were no brothers available, but perhaps later . . . and I remember thinking that I would surely find myself in Korea, sooner or later.

    So, after 2 more years spent in Davao, I came to Korea, arriving on May 7, 1980, just in time for another grave crisis, the tragedy of Kwangju and the coup d’état. The main question facing us, however, was more mundane; although the Cardinal had arranged for us to have a house in which to live, we still had to find ways of earning a living, in order to pay not only for food but for the Korean language classes we urgently needed. That summer, with the universities still closed, I happened to visit Sogang University to meet a Jesuit who had studied in Paris, Fr. Sŏ In-sŏk. Quite unexpectedly, he suggested that I might care to teach some simple French when the university reopened, since the person who had been doing that was unwell. He arranged for me to meet Fr. Tracy and so I first came to Sogang in September 1980, humbly teaching “French Lab” in C Building with no teaching materials, and no Korean ability. I taught basic French in simple English.

    Since my theme is the mystery of meeting, I cannot avoid mentioning a particularly mysterious and meaningful meeting that happened at that time. One day in 1981, as I was struggling to teach French to a handful of students cowering behind the partitions in the language lab, a student slipped in, in the middle of the class, and took a seat at the end of the front row, near the door, virtually out of sight like the others. When the class ended, instead of rushing out with the rest he came toward me, apologized for having come in like that, and explained he had thought it was an English class, but had not wanted to disturb me by leaving again. I found that very admirable.

That might easily have been all, but he asked me who I was and, quite by chance, I mentioned that I was a brother, not a Jesuit but from Taizé. I rarely mentioned Taizé because in those days virtually no one in Korea had heard of our community. I was therefore quite unprepared for his enthusiastic response: “Oh, Taizé!” He explained that he had seen a slide presentation about Taizé in his home parish in Daegu while he was still in high school, a year or so before. The Benedictines in Waegwan had made them. He was very aware of what Taizé was and so a relationship began. No other meeting I have made in Korea can be as precious to me, since that student is now a brother in our Community; his parents became like my own, welcoming me warmly whenever I visited them, to the very end of their lives, and I attended the funerals of both of them.

    Years passed and one day in the late 1980s, I mentioned to Professor Kim Tae-ok of our Department my interest in trying to translate some Korean poetry. Through her I met Ku Sang, both through his poetry and as a person. One of his poems is the immediate source of my topic here:

A Pebble  by Ku Sang

On the path before my house
every day I meet a pebble
that once was kicked by my passing toe.

At first we just casually
brushed past each other, morning and night,
but gradually the stone began to address me
and furtively reach out a hand,
so that we grew close, like friends.

And now each morning the stone,
blooming inwardly with flowers of Grace,
gives me its blessing,
and even late at night
it waits watchfully to greet me.

Sometimes, flying as on angels’ wings
it visits me in my room
and explains to me the Mystery of Meeting,
reveals the immortal nature of Relationship.

So now, whenever I meet the stone,
I am so uncivilized and insecure
that I can only feel ashamed.


집 앞 행길에서
그 어느 날 발부리에 채운
조약돌 하나와 나날이 만난다

처음에 우리는 그저 심드렁하게
아침 저녁 서로 스쳐 지냈지만
돌은 차츰 나에게 말도 걸어오고
슬그머니 손도 내밀어 친구처럼 익숙해갔다

그리고 아침이면 돌은
안으로부터 은총의 꽃을 피워
나를 축복해 주고
늦은 밤에도 졸지 않고 나의 안녕을 기다려 준다
때로는 천사처럼 훌훌 날아서
내 방엘 찾아 들어와
만남의 신비를 타이르기도 하고
사귐의 불멸을 일깨워도 준다

나는 이제 그 돌을 만날 때마다
미개하고 불안스런
나의 현존이
부끄러울 뿐이다.

That poem, in which a Christian awareness of Eternal Love seems to combine with the Buddhist stress on the impermanent, illusory nature of all our contingent realities and relations (인연), was also in Kim Young-Moo’s mind when he wrote a poem on the same topic using the same expression in the title:

Lotus leaves
—Mystery of meeting

Meeting lotus leaves,
wandering raindrops have turned into pearls.

Where can I find my own lotus leaf?

Whose lotus leaf can I be?

        만남의 신비

떠돌이 빗방울들 연잎을 만나
진주알 되었다

나의 연잎은 어디 계신가

나는 누구의 연잎일 수 있을까

The meeting with Kim Young-Moo, was especially providential. He had often met brothers from Taizé living near New York while he was doing his doctorate at Stony Brook in the US. Before he returned to Korea, they gave him our telephone number. He called, I answered the phone, and that was the beginning of a deep, wonderful relationship, until death took him in 2001. Meeting, then, at its best, is the event that saves us from the abyss of solitude and meaninglessness we are ever confronted with. In every person lurks the muttering dread of a double darkness: “I have no one to share with, my life is without meaning or value.” Through meeting, we sense we might pass from despair to hope, from solitude to communion, and so to the essential meaning of human existence. We need others more than we can ever realize.

In both those poems, meeting leads to sharing, and what is shared is blessing, love shared in relationship. Ku Sang used to stress that he wanted his poem to evoke the similarities between Christian 진교 (communion, koinonia) and Buddhist 인연 (nidana). Buddhism often stresses the slightness of the initial encounter; Koreans speak of the way in which a momentary contact of sleeves as two people pass can serve as the starting point for a whole chain of cause and effect, gradually drawing their lives together over the course of multiple incarnations. For Buddhist thought, it seems, any drawing together is the result of desire, and therefore constitutes a continuation of karma, the wheel of continuing birth and causality that involves the suffering to which only radical detachment and enlightenment offer an end. Meeting and relationship are nonetheless as vital for them as for anyone else; there is no other way to live as human beings.

In a not very popular Christian view, detachment in relationship is also seen as a good when it serves to prevent mutual exploitation or excessive earthly attachment. Human meetings and relationships are recognized as highly ambiguous things in both dispensations, as they are already in Plato, who warns of the temptation to remain on the level of carnal, physical attraction, instead of rising to the immaterial, spiritual level. But the Christian emphasis on agape / love sometimes tends to obscure this hesitation, especially today when the world of affective responses is almost the only one recognized as suitable for love. Perhaps we need the Buddhist corrective by which we learn not to try to distinguish good and not-good by applying the distinctions of unhelpful moralizing criteria, and certainly we should not automatically welcome every warm feeling of attraction as a positive value and a blessing.

    In my Korean experience, the meeting with Ko Un as person and as originator of texts has been formative of an understanding of Buddhist ways of seeing and saying. In one poem, he indicates the Buddhist radicalism regarding the bonds formed by even the most sacred relationships:

Destruction of Life

Cut off parents! Cut off children!
This and that, and this not that,
and anything else as well –
cut off and dispatch by the sharp blade of night.
Every morning, heaven and earth
are heaped with all that’s dead.
Our job is to bury that all day long

and establish a new world there.


어버이도 자식도 베허라
이것도 저것도 저것 아난 것도
또 어떤 것도
어둠 속의 칼날로 베허 버려라
다음날 이침
천지는 죽은 것으로 쌓여서
우리 할 일은 그것들을 하루 내내 묻는 일

거기에 새 세상 세우는 일

But in another poem he mitigates this familiar Buddhist rejection of all relatedness:

Why Kill?

Let be. Please, let be.
Kill Buddha
if you meet him?
Kill mother and father
if you meet them? Why kill?
Things made of clay all fall to bits
once soaked by monsoon rains.

왜 죽여

가만 둬 가만 두라구
부처를 만나면
부처를 죽여?
아비 어미 만나면
아비 어미 죽여 왜 죽여?
그저 장마철 비 맞으면
흙으로 만든 것들 다 허물어지지

Buddhists are on the whole far more familiar with this kind of paradoxical notion than Christians, who prefer to gloss over certain saying of Jesus, such as: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). “누구든지 나에게 오면서 자기 아버지와 어머니, 아내와 자녀, 형제와 자매, 심지어 자기 목숨까지 미워하지 않으면, 내 제자가 될 수 없다. The fundamental Buddhist discipline is usually described as a cutting of all links, ultimately even those with the Buddha, since each life has to find its own way alone: thus the provocative formulation, “Kill Buddha if you meet him.”

The Christian paradox of meeting is best expressed in the similar but far less familiar Christian confession: “This is Thou, but this is not yet Thou.” The balance between the immanence and the transcendence of God is very often neglected in favor of an all-embracing affirmation of God’s presence. But we need sometimes to recall that Christians, like Buddhists, recognize that the attractions of the immediate, temporal order to things can only too easily blind us to the nature of the realities that are “above,” beyond all thought, and invisible, very unlike this present order of human meetings and partings. The absolute being of the One (who is Lord) is so utterly other that its presence is necessarily a kind of absence, its voice like a deafening silence, and its love so unthinkable that we mostly prefer to quail back into sense. In our Christian living, we have to preserve a double image of God, of Christ: he is both present in manifold form to and in every human person, and present as himself alone, unique and single.

    From very early times, meetings have figured in literature as special moments of emotional intensity, of drama and blessing. The Iliad reaches its emotional climax in an extraordinary meeting, when aged Priam, king of Troy, makes his way into the tent of the terrifying Greek hero Achilles, protected by gods, and falls at the feet of the enemy who has recently killed his son, Hector, and defiled his body, begging to be allowed to take his remains back for burial. Achilles can only gaze in wonder at such a venerable figure kneeling at his feet. At the end of the Odyssey, the encounter after so many years of Odysseus and Penelope, fraught with uncertainties and unspoken doubts, forms a corresponding climax.
More recently, Dante’s Commedia is composed of a constant chain of meetings, each of them placed in unspoken comparison with the defining meeting with the living Beatrice related previously in the Vita Nuova, by which he says he came to know God. For him, there had been one defining meeting with a human person, and when he first met her, he said, “The spirit of life trembled and said, 'Behold a god stronger than I who is come to rule over me'. The animal spirit of the brain was amazed and said, 'Now your Beatitude has appeared'. The natural spirit in the guts said, 'O miserable wretch! How often now I shall be disturbed.' Once dead, Beatrice became even more his human guide to the Mystery of God.

    Bliss, Beatitude, or as Ku Sang said, Blessing . . . 복, 행복, 축복, and let us never forget that the Greek word for that, makarios, means “happy.” Dante is the great example of how the Blessing of Meeting gives rise to memory, by which it is made present over and over again, even though that moment is long past and the person no longer in this world. That act of memory, re-membering, recalling the past into present, the dead into presence, is known in Greek as Anamnesis, the word designating the act by which Plato said we recognize the true nature of everything through a recalling of their eternal Forms glimpsed in eternity before our birth. Anamnesis gives rise, not only to knowledge but to Eucharistia, thanksgiving; the central form of Christian worship, as also of the Jewish Passover, involves Anamnesis, recalling the saving acts in which the Lord encountered his people and saved them into life. To recapitulate, then, our topic has expanded into a linked process: meeting, sharing, blessing, communion, anamnesis, eucharist.

    Memorializing, as an expression of Anamnesis, is one of the most significant acts of the writer, especially the poet, according to certain recent notions. In modern times, among British poets, Geoffrey Hill has particularly stressed the poet’s prophetic responsibility to memorialize the often forgotten but unforgettable dead, in particular those who have died cruelly, at the hands of the unjust, the Shoah being the prime example and his particular duty. The memorializing poem challenges the threat of oblivion into which the unjust would like their victims to vanish as if they had never existed. It cannot, of course, restore the dead to any kind of life, but it is a humane duty in the process of history:

Those varied dead. The undiscerning sea
Shelves and dissolves their flesh as it burns spray
Who do not shriek like gulls nor dolphins ride
Crouched under spume to England's erect side
Though there a soaked sleeve lolls or shoe patrols
Tide-padded thick shallows, squats in choked pools
Neither our designed wreaths nor used words
Sink to their melted ears and melted hearts.
        ("Drake's Drum")

Or from the poem “Funeral Music”:

.. If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us -- or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end 'I have not finished'.

The pity the reader is invited to feel for so much wasted life, and so many unwilling deaths, is not dwelt on, but it lingers as an angry question in the silences that surround any such modern Anamnesis. I have several times related Hill’s concerns to the work undertaken by Ko Un in writing Maninbo and the itinerary I have followed here lends strength to the importance of reading those poems in the right way. It is perhaps too easy to lament the impossibility of reading and responding adequately to the thousands of poems comprising Maninbo, already 23 volumes with more to come soon. But such a vast compilation might be the only adequate response to a history such as Korea’s, marked by so very many wasted lives, destinies cut short, unfulfilled meetings and broken relationships. The Mystery of Meeting should not be celebrated at a lesser rate; Hamlet’s father’s is far from being the only ghost that cries out in the night “Remember me!” to those with ears attuned to the immortal nature of relationship.

Ko Un has written  in Maninbo Vol. 7 of the meeting that revealed to him the call to be a poet:

When the 1940s were nearly done and
I was in second year of middle school,
I was making the two-mile journey home
along a dusky path at twilight
trudging along
getting near the Mijei crossroads
when suddenly I noticed something lying
in the middle of the dark path.
My heart skipped a beat
then fluttered wildly as I picked it up.
It was a book.
A poetry book.
The poems of Han Ha-un, Korea’s leper-poet.

‘On and on along the earthen path....’

Once back home,
I read and reread it all night long.
I read the commentary too, written by a certain Cho Yŏng-am,
three or four times,
and the commentary by someone called Ch’oi Yŏng-hae, too.

From that day on, I was Han Ha-un.
From that day on, I was a wandering leper.
From that day on, all the world was an earthen path.
From that day on, I was a poet – a sorrowful poet.

    Returning to the simpler realities of Taizé for a moment, it is worth recalling that in English (and in most European languages) the events that are held there week after week are optimistically called “meetings” where Korean prefers the lower-level “모임” and leaves the possibility of real meeting open once people are together. We offer young adults, especially, but others too, from all over the world, the possibility of coming together, spending a week in close proximity, praying together and spending time reflecting and talking in a village where there are very few distractions. Language barriers may prevent complicated discussions of abstract theories, but it is usually possible to exchange echoes of simple events in daily existence. Thus meeting gives rise to exchanges about each one’s life-quest, this sharing of life experience engenders hope and new courage. The result is community and communion, with the slow realization that there is indeed only one human family, a family that can be seen as one despite its immense diversity. True universality has nothing to do with any kind of uniformity, and difference is the raw material of exchange in sharing.

    Week after week, young people tell our brothers how important the experience of meeting and sharing has been, sustained as it has been by the three times each day when the talking stops and everyone turns together toward God in praise, listening, and silence at the common prayer. And time after time, they tell us how the deepest moments of sharing were those during each prayer when there is deep, complete silence. Differences of language and culture, of personality and experience do not matter there; just being turned toward God side by side is already communion, filled with anamnesis and eucharist. That, we realize, is what it means to be the Church, ekklesia / kyrios, Gathered People / One with Christ, as the 2 etymologies for most western words meaning ‘church’ put it: Church as a community of meeting and sharing, communion and hope, memory and thanksgiving, unity and peace.

It is no coincidence that one of the best-known song from Taizé declares: Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Every instance of human fellowship, of loving communion, every good meeting, is already a manifestation of God’s eternity; the “Church” is essentially this communion. Charles Williams termed it the “Co-inherence” since we dare in this way to affirm the impossible identity of temporal human loving and eternal divine Love; In the Huayen school of Buddhism, especially, there is something similar in the image of Indra’s Net, where the pearls at the knots of the mesh reflect one another perfectly, all beings are then contained in each other, separate identity being preserved and dissolved simultaneously.

    In the great Credo of Nicea we confess a kingdom that “shall have no end” and that challenges the realities of loss and separation, mortality and transience that are the stuff of most literature, not only of elegy. Every merely human meeting is shadowed from the start by an awareness of those limitations, our essential fragility, and people who enjoy the deepest loving union usually cannot easily contemplate the prospect that one day there will be separation, as one dies before the other. Then I, being a translator, like to recall something written by John Donne, who was both a poet of vigorously human love and a preacher of the love of God. In the 17th of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, famous for the phrase telling us not to send “to know for whom the bell tolls” because we all undergo death when anyone dies, there is a very special passage:

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

We are all, he says, engaged in writing by our daily lives our own particular chapter of a single book, the Book of Humanity. But there is no way anyone can read that book now, and when a person dies it seems to us that their chapter is torn out and lost, vanishing unread. Only death, Donne says with the Church as a whole, is not what it seems. It is not an end but a transformation, a transfiguration, a translation “into a better language” – that of God, with whom human life is not destined for death but for eternity. “Journey’s end in lovers’ meeting” Shakespeare made Feste the Clown sing optimistically in Twelfth Night, and everyone knows it’s not really true. “Journey’s end in lover’s parting” is more accurate but in God’s dispensation, all the separate chapters, once translated, are brought together eternally, meeting in a Heaven imagined as the ultimate library. Here on earth, nothing is more depressing than a library, even a small one, because we know we shall probably never find the book we really ought to read, never have time to read all that we would wish to, and will not so much as open the covers of the great majority of books over which the authors have labored so long for our edification.

    In Eternity, Donne says, we shall all be at one and the same time book and reader. Instead of being a closed book, even to ourselves, every chapter, no matter how short and humble, will lie open and transparent, perfectly legible, able to be read in a flash, totally, by God and by every other denizen of that eternal communion. Today we might want to express this in terms of database and search engine, but the important thing I want to stress is that our every meeting here and now, in a subway, on the streets, even the lightest brush of a sleeve, contains a foreshadowing of that ultimate meeting in Eternity: “Take, read, this is our story.” And in that ultimate reading, nothing is lost, no one is forgotten. We only find the true meaning of our lives all together.

Already in this life, no meeting is completely without meaning because, as Donne says, “no man is an island, entire in himself” and our fragmentary encounters here and now contain the promise of an eternal fulfillment, a meeting and sharing, a loving and communicating without limit or end. That was what Ku Sang meant by “사귐의 불멸, the immortal nature of relationship”. Christian tradition sometimes calls it the “communion of saints” but that might be misunderstood to indicate an exclusive selection. For our unresting Translator will not be content until the eternal library offers an eternal meeting with, an eternal reading of, and an eternal communion with and between every human life that every was, without exception. And there have always been those in the Church who insist rightly that we should at least sometimes pray for the redemption of the fallen angels, of Satan and his crew, since they too are part of the Book. Only so will the Mystery of Meeting be fulfilled.

    Another way of putting this fulfillment is that by which T. S. Eliot ends Four Quartets, with echoes of passages by Julian of Norwich as well as Dante:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.