For the past two weeks my wife and I have been traveling with family, friends and others, including a number of NCR readers, through central Vietnam. We began our trip in Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, moved by bus to Hoi An, a 17th century Vietnam coastal trade city, then down to Nha Trang, Vietnam, a booming tourist center.
This is the sixth time my wife and I have led tour groups through Vietnam in recent years. We come back here to share Vietnamese culture, history, cuisine and religion with friends and to visit my wife's family members along the way.
For the past two days we have been in the coast town of Phan Thiet, 90 milies or so northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. This area used to be a center of the Cham kingdom before the Vietnamese moved south in the 19th century and took control of this region. The Chams originated in India and follow Hindu teachings.
You might say that the religious beliefs and practices of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and most recently Catholic Vietnamese, have shaped the cultures of people in this part of Vietnam.
This morning a dozen of the 28 in our group got up early to take a few moments to reflect on the beginning of our communal Lenten season. We sat today only a hundred meters or so from the South China Sea, which the Vietnamese understandably call the East Asian Sea, and read today's readings, and offered each other ashes, which came of local palm leaves burnt for the occasion.
As we sat and prayed together we were very much aware of others from other religions who have prayed on these grounds before us. Our prayers and the ashes we placed on each other’s foreheads, indeed, reminded us of the temporal nature of our time here. We could not help but think about those who have worshipped in so many different ways, through different cultures, before us, reaching out in praise and gratitude, asking the blessings of the Deity.
We left our brief service feeling connected not only to Catholics around the world who will be receiving ashes today, but also in a new way to other unknowns who have walked these sacred lands before us.