I have to admit that I was scared today. I’ve gone way off the map, at least off the Seoul map. I was in Southern Korea where English isn’t spoken at all. I was equipped with a few phrases of a destination, written in Korean on a piece of paper, and that is it. It was a trip in which buses led me to busses and the constant fear hovered that if I didn’t make it home before night fall, I was in big trouble.
This is all to go see the shrine which holds the body of the most famous of the Korean Martyrs, Fr. Andrew Kim. He was the first native born Korean to become a priest. He was killed at Saemanteo which I visited last Friday.
This is my last day in Korea. Nothing here has been easy. I’m adjusting to the food, to the schedule. I can’t even recognize the language and maps do not always have phonetic spellings, which is a big help when you are tying to at least communicate where you want to go.
I got to the city of Ansung and had my first real culture shock. I got off the bus and started saying “Miramae. Miramae.” This is name of the town to which I wanted to go. I knew I needed to get another bus, but there was not too much of a clue where the bus was. The bus port in which I was dropped off did not have stops for the local bus I needed to board. Someone would point me in one direction. Then another person would point me in the exact opposite direction.
I ended up walking through a crowded market which I have renamed “Semolina lane.” There were dried squid, cooked squid, and live squid squirming at the tables. Dumplings cooking on vats of oil (at foot and dust level), onions, big melon-sized-potato looking things, fish of every kind but the kind I knew, and butchered chickens lying at ground level, stacked 5 high with only a piece of cardboard protecting it from what I was sure was dog feces.
“How do these people not die from food poisoning!” I thought, “And enough with the squid already.” Nothing was refrigerated and occasionally a fish stand would have a few chips of ice to help keep things “cold.”
“I got to get out of here1” I thought, “I have no idea where I am. There is no guarantee I can get home. This is crazy.” Finally, I found a place that nodded their head at me when I said “Miramae?’ They even put numbers into a calculator to indicate the time 2:30. I pointed “here” and they nodded again. OK, I’m in business, but still concerned. I should just go back to the other bus. I don’t know if this one will get me to where I need to go. Now I’ve got two hours here, and other than being the entertainment of some old ladies also waiting for a bus, I’ve got nothing to do but… pray. And boy did I pray. For two hours, talking to Jesus, invoking the intercession of the saints, especially Andrew Kim. After all it was his fault he chose to witness to Christ, get tortured and murdered, and become a saint with a shrine in the middle of nowhere!
Would it be so bad if I gave up? Probably not. I’m sure I’ve gotten farther than most would even venture, but this isn’t about what other people would do, it’s about what I’m called to do. I’m sure God will forgive me if I don’t make it to a church today. I get on the bus, nervous that I’m about to venture to a place I can’t find on a map. I don’t even know where this bus goes, or which stop is mine. Then I hear the first two words which make my day, “Miramae, last stop.”
The voice came from a young Korean woman named Sungman Choi, she and her friend, Michael Lim, who is becoming a priest in the Archdiocese of Singapore. They were traveling to the Shrine of St. Andrew Kim as well. Talk about an answer to prayer.
When we realized that God had put us together on this journey, we talked the rest of the evening. It was no longer a worry that I was coming home after dark. It was no longer a worry that I wouldn’t get back. I was with friends, fellow pilgrims. There are three sites that we saw at the Shrine. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of the Shrine by clicking here. When your Google Earth browser opens, please click on the tabs to the left to view the various sites.
The first site we saw was a massive church, built in 1984 for the pope’s visit and the canonization of the Korean martyrs. In addition to the murals and paintings, the upper level of the church holds wax figures of the methods used to torture and murder the Korean martyrs.
Up the road a bit, lays the tomb of St. Andrew Kim and a relic of his which can be venerated. We were fortunate enough to find a worker at the Shrine who was about to leave, but told us about the shrine and the life of Andrew Kim. She also permitted us to venerate the relic. Normally, veneration is done by kissing a holy object. Currently in Asia, there is fear of the spread of different diseases, so they allow you instead to place your cheek upon the relics, and in Korean etiquette, there are no shoes worn in the chapel. Finally, we visited the original church of the shrine which has the jaw bone of St. Andrew Kim on display at the foot of the altar.
Sungmon told me that she thought God meant for us to come together. Why did I forget that God was looking after me? Why did I fear? We are a pilgrim people in search of the reign of God that is already in our midst. We are not alone on the journey. We never have been. We never will be. The choice we must all face is whether we will brave our fears to follow that journey. Not speaking as a theologian right now, I don’t know what the greatest sin in the world is, but one of them must be to say “No! I’m not going to follow you God, because you can’t guarantee that everything will work out the way I want it, the way I planned it, the way I think it should be based on my limited experience.”
Sungmon and Michael appeared to me as if angels, and turned my fears into a day of splendor. What joy it will be when we all arrive at our final destination. Today was merely a hint of that great day, when every tear will be wiped away, when our greatest fears will be relieved, and our greatest hopes will be attained.
So we give thanksgiving. I shared great conversations about the Church with Sungmon and Michael, most of which I will spare you. But one brief thought. Catholic Christianity is a religion infused with European symbols, one of them being bread. Bread is not a staple of the Asian diet in the same way that rice or noodles are. We talked about this. Even though bread does not have the same meaning to Europeans that it does to Asians, bread does offers us a symbol of breaking a sharing. Even if it is highly a European symbol, it is useful.
There are others symbols though. Sungmon bought a gift for Michael as we waited in Ansung for the bus back to Seoul, she got a bag of mandarin oranges, a fruit native to this part of the world. She peeled the oranges, broke them, and shared each orange in equal parts to each of us. It wasn’t the Holy Communion of the Liturgy, but it was eucharistic. With the fruit of the land and the work of her hands, we shared a blessed meal, as blessed companions, on a blessed journey, giving blessed thanksgiving. Amen.
Why was I afraid?