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Searching for peace at Flores' 'Kampung Rohani'

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Maumere  /  Tue, September 4, 2018  /  08:47 am
Searching for peace at Flores' 'Kampung Rohani'

Welcome: Romo (Father) Siriakus Ndolu stands at the entrance of the track to the Kampung Rohani (Soul village) camp site in Maumere, East Nusa Tenggara. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

Guests do not have to be Catholic or even Protestant to stay at Kampung Rohani (Soul village) in Maumere, East Nusa Tenggara, though some who follow other religions might be put off by the inclusion of the word “Christian” in the movement’s title.

The sign says Kampung Rohani (Soul village) but it’s no standout. Vines threaten to throttle the posts. The sun has warped the plywood and faded the lettering.

There are no landmarks on this uphill road from Maumere, the capital of Sikka regency, East Nusa Tenggara, so the chance of missing the small gap in the thick bushes is great. Best find a guide and a stout stick because the track is a rock-strewn ankle-twister.

The difficulties in finding this secret valley are a metaphor for its purpose — the search for serenity and the divine.

Almost 300 meters further down, there is another sign — this one a shade more professional. It says Selamat Datang Peserta Camping, meaning “Welcome, Campers”. From here, there’s the odd splash of light shafting through the trees, glare bouncing from roofs of corrugated iron.

Close up, the houses are tiny and humble, knocked together from bamboo and rough-hewn timber. The facilities are basic: there’s a communal dining room and kitchen with an open-fire, but the flush toilets are modern.

On the architrave of one hut hangs an old blurred photo of a long-dead Londoner, John Main, founder of the World Community for Christian Meditation.

Seeking Eden: A sign near the camp welcomes those searching for serenity and the divine.Seeking Eden: A sign near the camp welcomes those searching for serenity and the divine. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

This is the retreat of Romo (Father) Siriakus Ndolu, a Carmelite priest who has built the camp to expand his belief in the benefits of quiet contemplation in an unspoiled landscape.

“I came across John Main’s writings by chance when a Dutch priest gave me one of his books,” said Ndolu. “I thought Father Main’s philosophy had great merit so I translated his works Word into Silence and Way of Unknowing into Indonesian.

“There are now 120 centres throughout the archipelago.”

It was fellow seekers here and abroad that Ndolu called on to help fund his dream of a haven that would welcome anyone in need of a break and to be at peace with nature.

“I had a marvellous response,” he said. “Though not everyone could contribute at once, they did so later.” He estimates it has cost Rp 600 million (US$45,000) so far, though much work has been done by volunteers. The 28 hectare forest was originally owned by a parishioner.

The sanctuary is open to men and women: the fees are Rp 150,000 ($12) a night, which includes basic meals. It’s safe and adequate, but the accommodation wouldn’t glimmer on a city hotel’s star rating chart.

What people do is up to them. They can ponder the meaning of the world, pause to reflect, talk to like-minded folk, help with chores, plant trees and tend to the gardens, or practise Main’s meditation techniques twice a day.

This means sitting still and upright for up to half an hour with closed eyes while silently and continually reciting a prayer, sacred word or phrase. There’s nothing unique about this exercise — most religions embrace similar routines, but it helps if the environment is conducive to peace.

The vegetation is lush. A small river snakes through the valley. There are monkeys and wild pigs. This land hasn’t been farmed — it’s as Eden as anything can be in this geologically unstable isle. “I want visitors to enjoy the simplicity,” said Ndolu.

The sanctuary doesn’t feature the religious kitsch found in Maumere city, like the giant concrete Jesus dominating a manicured park where many come to pray. The contrast is stark.

Who’s hungry?: The camp features simple huts made from bamboo, a communal dining room, open-fire kitchen and modern toilets.Who’s hungry?: The camp features simple huts made from bamboo, a communal dining room, open-fire kitchen and modern toilets. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

Main originally led a secular life, including a stint in the army. Religious doubts pushed him away from the church and into law. After graduating, he joined the British Colonial Service and was sent to what was then Malaya, a mainly Islamic country. It was a fortuitous move.

In Kuala Lumpur, he met an Indian yoga master, Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Back in the United Kingdom, Main reconciled with Catholicism, and then taught in the United States where he studied the writing of an early Eastern European saint, John Cassian, finding parallels with the Swami’s Asian philosophy.

Main died in Canada in 1982 aged 56, but by then had published enough material to launch a world-wide movement.

Ndolu was ordained in 1995 in Malang, East Java. Originally from Flores, he spent four years in a wealthy Perth suburb ministering to mainly Chinese-Indonesians living well in the West Australian capital.

The experience gave his prejudices a thump. “In Indonesia, I thought the West was secular and immoral,” he said. “Then I saw that the welfare services, though funded through high taxes, have been built on Christian principles.

Ndolu started work on the Maumere retreat when he returned from Australia four years ago full of ideas that had been fermenting while away from his homeland.

Slowly, more facilities are being built. Though there’s no proselytizing, a few Catholic artifacts are starting to appear that could shift the emphasis from spirit to faith, and dissuade some.

The capacity is now around 80 campers. There are ten small huts, three a bit larger, and two halls.

Ndolu says he’s aware that if Kampung Rohani gets too big the atmosphere might be damaged, so he is cautious about expansion. There’s a narrow sealed road into the retreat, but it has been washed out by a storm and currently unusable.

So the only access is through the gap in the bush for sure walkers and determined seekers. No carbon monoxide, no rattling motorbikes, just peace.