Wisdom from the Orient

Guest from the West: Lessons for the West from a Lifetime in the East

by Hugh MacMahon

(Original Writing, €15.00 pb; ISBN: 978-1-78237-849-5)

Currently Fr Hugh MacMahon is the Executive Secretary of the Irish Missionary Union (IMU). This book records some of his experiences as a missionary in the field in Korea and China. However, he also passed essential periods in Ottawa and elsewhere studying and reflecting on what he had seen and trying to place it into some larger framework. His hope is that, having spent a career in the East “saving souls”, as the old saying goes, he might be able to bring back to his native Ireland some important lessons.

The first thing to be said is that this fluent and often amusing book does indeed impart some important insights that the Church here in Ireland might well learn from. But one wonders if the powers that be will take the time out to read and to inwardly digest what Fr MacMahon tells them.

At the heart of the book is a deep respect for the local cultures, so different from the Ireland he was reared in, and the understanding he developed for them. Saving souls in the past had so often meant producing individuals who were detached from their own culture and made into often shabby (but ambitious) replicas of westerners. At the heart of his work was a desire to work through the local culture, much as the early Jesuits in China (such as the great Matteo Ricci) did. This notion, it has to be said did not appeal to many at home or in Rome. But on the ground it produced important results.

When thinking about our own culture do we at times forget that our ideas to are formed by language. Language changes and with it the ideas we feel we can believe.

Language was often at the heart of the problem. A Columban missionary once told this reviewer that in expounding Christian beliefs to the Chinese mind he encountered problems with his students. The Trinity for instance, as one of them explained: “Honourable Father we understand. Honourable Son, we understand. But Honourable Bird, very difficult.”  

The language of Chinese society simply could not encompass the new notion.

In Korean (to the study of which he had devoted a lifetime) he found that the language allowed you to say some things, but not others. The expression was focussed not on one’s self, but on the group or community. A young Korean, he notices, does not say to a pretty girl “I love you” but rather “you are beautiful”. The emphasis is not on the self, but the other.

This he sees as a part of the Confucian view of the world, a philosophy or way that underlies so much of life in the East.

But then there is also Buddhism which, by contrast, emphasises mindfulness and the interior way, in contrast to the social. And beyond that are other religious ways, such as Taoism and shamanism, of which he provides most interesting accounts.

So saving souls in the East was not a matter of simply reproducing (as so many of his teachers had it seemed assumed) what was suitable for a town in Galway. The real need was to make the Gospel understood, to unfold the nature of the sacraments, in terms of the culture of the people.

Indeed, how few of us in the West ever consider how one propounds the nature of the Eucharist in a culture which has neither bread nor wine. The mystery of the Incarnation has to find other calm words, others ways.

This book is written with a light and well-practised touch. MacMahon is alive to the often funny, sometimes strange, sometimes ludicrous, incidents in the life of a guest from the West in the Orient.

Serious purpose

But the heart of the book has a very serious purpose, to raise our awareness of the wider world and its inner life and that need to respect other cultures. Ireland today is a more varied community than it was when he set out for Korea in the 1960s. We have opportunities to learn at home the lessons he had to learn in a faraway country.

Hugh MacMahon remarks that “writing the book was a useful opportunity to reflect on the dramatic changes over the past 50 years.

“In Ireland, we have seen the shift from overflowing formation courses for would-be missionaries in the 1960s to empty seminaries and mission convents at present. Within the Church, there is deep confusion about what mission means today and whether any need for mission overseas remains.”

This most interesting book will reveal just how these problems are faced on the ground. What the author has spent a life time learning is well worth a reader giving a few days to reading. 

Those empty seats at the assembly would seem to suggest that the true mission field is in Ireland itself.

And Fr MacMahon’s book will be very useful for when Oriental Christian missionaries at last arrive as “guests from the East” to work in Tallaght.