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A retreat for all seekers of solitude at the time of pandemic

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Malang, East Java  /  Mon, May 18, 2020  /  03:46 pm
A retreat for all seekers of solitude at the time of pandemic

Spiritual chamber: Sister Marie Luise poses in front of the grotto of Rumah Retret dan Aula Pondok Bethlehem (Bethlehem Retreat and Lodge) in Malang, East Java. (Courtesy of Erlinawati Graham/-)

Marie Luise does not care who books into the Catholic retreat she runs outside Malang, East Java as long as they’re seekers of wisdom.

“We’ve had Muslims, Hindus and Protestants stay here,” she said. “They’ve come from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia and South America. Jesus was a Jew – he didn’t follow a Christian denomination. In heaven there are no religions.”

But anyone planning to use the lush and well-equipped retreat on the lower slopes of Mount Kawi for social distancing must be prepared for extensive Catholic iconography, from posters to statues – including some made by Muslim sculptors.

Work in progress: A statue of Jesus entombed, one of the many Catholic objects at the retreat.Work in progress: A statue of Jesus entombed, one of the many Catholic objects at the retreat. (Courtesy of Erlinawati Graham/-)

Should non-Catholics fear seduction by portraits of Jesus looking like a Hollywood heartthrob? Will Biblical quotes on walls become lodged forever in the mind? Can touching grotto walls or accidentally brushing against a concrete crucifix lead to sudden conversion?

Sister Marie laughs away the idea that religions infect the unwary like the coronavirus, saying that people who come to the place can find their own God and believe what they want to believe.

“I just ask, ‘What hopes do you have for this life?’ If you find Islam – well, that’s OK. I’ve been in mosques. I need to understand Islam and so should we all.

”I want to see an improvement in relationships between religions. I want to break down barriers. We must treat everyone with respect.

“Never forget our national motto is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika. [Unity in Diversity]. I also draw inspiration from Vatican II.”

In 1962, the reformist Pope John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli 1881-1963) rocked the established church and its 1.2 billion members when he initiated the three-year Second Vatican Council, though he died before its completion.

Ecumenicals hoped his standout statement, “we were all made in God's image, and thus, we are all Godly alike”, would draw different denominations and faiths together. That was before the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and the war in Syria, which triggered a tsunami of Islamophobia.

Now the crisis facing Christians in the West and driving many from churches is the discovery of pedophiles in the clergy, Catholic and Protestant – an issue rarely discussed in Indonesia, though not by this nun, “This is a great sin. I feel very angry. They should all be in jail and excommunicated.”

When pressed as to whether she’d report a pedophile to the police, she bursts into a song about reconciliation and love. It’s a technique more effective at diverting hard questions than the standard duck-and-weave response favored by politicians.

Sister Marie has a mixed heritage: Chinese, Sundanese, Minahasa (North Sulawesi) and Japanese. “I have never felt discrimination,” she said.

She grew up in a Shinto family in Jakarta. Her father was a bank accountant and her mother a medical worker. Her grandmother was a Muslim. There were seven children in the family.

She converted to Catholicism in her teens, disappointing her boyfriend. “If I’d married I could have only served my husband and children.  Now I can serve everyone.”

The Rumah Retret dan Aula Pondok Bethlehem (Bethlehem Retreat and Lodge) was opened earlier this century but despite its short tenure, it needs constant maintenance.

Prayer may be fine for healing a wounded soul, but it doesn’t repair a holey roof. Scrambling across wet tiles is no task for the six middle-aged nuns who live on site, so locals are recruited to hammer and nail.

Many families and business have their names on plaques of grottos and statuary.

Fresh produce: Sister Marie Luise (left) shows the commercial garden used to raise funds for the retreat.Fresh produce: Sister Marie Luise (left) shows the commercial garden used to raise funds for the retreat. (Courtesy of Erlinawati Graham/-)

The nuns run an organic commercial garden, orchards and other ventures to raise funds. They offer accommodation at Rp 200,000 (US$14) per person per night including meals. The standard is equivalent to a two-star hotel.

Apart from Vatican II, the 62-year-old nun and former high school principal in Central Java takes her progressive cues from Clara Fey (1815-1894), the German founder of Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus who promoted education for girls. She was beatified in 2018.

Mother Clara came from the spa town of Aachen, where Sister Marie spent eight months studying her philosophy. The Indonesian has a teaching degree from Santa Dharma University in Yogyakarta. In 2010 she took 45 students to New Zealand to learn more about Western education. She was appointed to run the retreat two years ago.

“I have no problems with a secular society,” she said.  “I accept the Pancasila foundation of our Constitution,” she said. Pancasila is a set of five tenets promoted by the Republic of Indonesia: one God, a just and civilized society, national unity, representative consensus and human rights.

“Foremost though is that Jesus never rejected anyone – so we don’t either.” (ste)

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