For years during the 1980’s we worked in SE Asia. We were paid next to nothing. That’s the way of development work that we learned there; people only pay for what is valuable to themselves. Nobody in North America pays to have poor people taken out of poverty on the other side of the world because there is no benefit to people who are footing the bill for this. But that was okay because it was most rewarding work. Of all of what we personally learned there this was probably the most valuable, that we could live on virtually nothing, which actually developed into that which is most important for us today, that we actually came to desire to live on virtually nothing. This ultimate rejection of materiality simplified every aspect of our lives and especially our spiritual lives. There came to be fewer and fewer conflicts between our personal desires for gain, and status, and accumulation, and our love for God. The less we had the freer we were to practise being in the presence of God. And eventually we came to see that our desires almost always threw up barriers between ourselves and God. Sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor and come and follow me, became a clarion call. We stepped away from capitalism and consumerism there in that land.
Coupled to this was learning to fabricate what was needed from raw goods. Isolated as we were you had to become your own innovator to meet others’ needs in the development work. This became another delight.
We also came to learn how to work around the various governmental controls over the poor there. Repressed by rules and regulations, we came to understand how to circumvent these for the benefit of the people whom we served.
We also came to understand how the others with whom I had worked before were actually not what they presented themselves to be. They were manipulative and punitive, in spite of their professions of love for these people and their supporters back home. They asked us to participate in these deceptions. When we refused they ostracized us. So we learned how to stand up under persecution from within our own ranks.
Also, in the total absence of media we read as we had never read before. We counted it a privilege to read a vast majority of Merton’s writings in SE Asia where he had so longed to go. We talked extensively with Buddhists and came to understand and love Buddhists, which is something that our coworkers could not bring themselves to do. We came to practise contemplative prayer in this great solitude as the mists rose over the rice paddies and water buffalo grazed in our yard each morning. Here contemplative union was formative and came easily.
Over time it became very clear that our coworkers desired to work with others who espoused fundamentalist Protestant ideology, rather than us. And so after years we made the decision to leave them to their own devices, and we returned to the land of our birth, but this time gravely out of step with our native culture.