A Discussion with John McConville, Teacher at Xavier Learning Community, Ching Rai, Thailand
July 2, 2019
As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in July of 2019 undergraduate student Allison Ross interviewed John McConville (Connors), a teacher at Xavier Learning Community (XLC) in Thailand. In this interview, Connors discusses the classroom, XLC's unique Jesuit expression, and religious diversity among the student body.
So just to start, would you mind telling me a bit about yourself?
My name is John McConville and I go by Connors, so all the students call me Teacher Connors. Not to be confused for someone else. I live in the Bay Area. I live in a Jesuit community in Oakland, California. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist so I make my living by doing counseling, and I also do spiritual counseling. I work at a Jesuit center in San Francisco, where I rent an office. I’ve known the Jesuits here in Thailand for many years, because I was a Jesuit scholastic here. I was a Jesuit at one time. I did not get ordained, but I did the full training.
So as a scholastic, I studied Thai here in Bangkok, and I lived in Chiang Mai at Seven Fountains. I got acquainted with the Jesuits and their different work here. And it was through the Jesuits that I knew already that I met some of the younger Jesuits like Father Vinai and Father Pichet. I’ve known Father Vinai for about 15 years and in the process of knowing him and traveling back and forth from the United States to Thailand, he started talking to me about his dream of having an educational center for the hill tribe students. So I said, “Well, I may be ready to teach there sometime.” So we kept in communication. The school opened in 2017. I was finishing my last year of doctoral studies (that’s the academic studies). So I couldn’t come right away, but I said, “How about 2018?” And he said, “Fine." So I came in August of 2018.
And how long do you plan on being here, do you know?
Well, I plan on being here until tomorrow, when I go to India for a two-week course. Then I come back and I’m here for only a week or two. Then I leave for the United States, and I’ll be back because I have to do more research and connect with my chair on my Ph.D. dissertation. But I plan to be back for a second semester. And then maybe for the next couple years, I'll be only one semester. And them, if things work out, I’ll continue on and just be here.
So working at XLC, what kind of classes do you teach? What are your responsibilities here?
Well, I teach more in the academic studies, like Developmental Psychology, Intercultural Communications, and Literature. And they call the course, the literature course, Book Report. But basically it’s learning different forms of literary criticism and how we use them, to make them not only understand the story but give them a sense of how to look at the story in unique ways. To understand more deeply what the author’s intent is and what the meaning of the story is, go beyond personal opinion. You know, literary criticism, that stuff. So trying to give them a critical eye when they read. Not just knowing the words, but it’s also understanding the deeper meaning.
So then you’re working mainly with the sophomore students?
Yes, I work with the sophomores. I have an enrichment class with the summer class, the Beta class. That’s English Enrichment, but for the most part I’m teaching these academic courses.
And had you had much teaching experience before you got to XLC?
I’ve been a teacher since 1972. My first teaching job was in 1972 at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.
What subjects have you been teaching since then?
Well, I taught Cultural Geography and English Literature, Creative Writing, different aspects of literature like the novel, the short story. But after that most of my teaching has been in the field of theater and dance, because I’m also a trained dancer. I’m a ballet dancer and I’ve worked professionally with ballet companies. So I used to teach in Bangkok, at the International School of Bangkok, and I taught at Chulalongkorn University. And I also taught at different dance centers in Bangkok. So basically, I taught dance technique, ballet or modern dance. And with the high school students and middle school students, I taught hip hop and jazz. So I did a lot of theater with the students and a lot of dance productions. So my teaching has taken a different course. So actually, when you teach theater, you’re actually teaching literature, but you’re teaching it in a different way.
Interesting. So I know you helped choreograph the performance for this weekend. Do you do much theater work around XLC?
Last semester, I did a little bit more. I brought 10 students together and we did a modern dance. And then we put on a play, A Christmas Carol, during Christmas time.
Yes, I had the sophomores put on the play. We wrote the script. I kept a lot of it together, but some of it was too much. We had to condense it in the interests of time. But all the sophomores participated. Yeah. They memorized all their lines, they played the characters, and they did a pretty good job.
How would you say that teaching and working at XLC compares to other teaching jobs you’ve had in the past?
Well, I mean there’s a remarkable difference in terms of the students. It’s partly because of location, where we are. We’re a somewhat isolated community out here in the countryside, and because of the different strict rules of the living conditions, we're kind of forced into a community. But also the students, most of them really enjoy being in the community, so it’s not like a forced community, so to speak. But the restrictions keep us pretty tightly together. So there’s a lot of friendliness. Students are enthusiastic. They express gratitude. I think some of the students have a hard time connecting with me because they’re taught to be very respectful of adults, and I’m an older adult. So they haven’t warmed up. But most of the students are extremely friendly. It’s in contrast to teaching in the United States, where it takes a little bit longer to make connections with students.
Here it does?
No, in the United States. Teaching in the United States.
That idea of being respectful of adults, how does that influence the classroom?
I think it’s more complex than what we see. It’s a very interesting thing, but it’s very hard to describe it simply, so I may get a little convoluted here. The students, what I notice with Thai people and I also notice it with our hill tribe students, who are a mixed bag—you know, they have a lot of experience living in Thailand but they also grew up in very unique communities where the culture is stronger than the Thai culture, and the Thai culture, family Thai culture and societal Thai culture, is a lot stronger than American culture in general—so they’ve been taught to respect the adults. And they do, but they also are very friendly. So it’s like you get that side by side, and there’s no way to explain it in terms of comparing it. It’s just a fact. So some days you’ll meet the students, and you could tell they’re tentative and they want to be respectful. And other days, I’ll get a big hug from them. They’ll run up and be very cheery. So I think part of it is mood, because these are college-age students and you know you go through so many emotional ups and downs. It’s a time where people fall in love a lot, and I think that that is part of the equation. So it’s not just me.
I think as I stay on here, there are more and more students who confide in me, where they didn’t do that in the beginning. There’s a certain innocence about our students. I feel like a lot of them are very optimistic. They’re positive thinking. They also think that sometimes that they work… underneath that structure of being very respectful is also a human being. And I think that they fight inside about how they want to be. Because society, when it teaches you how to be in a certain way, you kind of follow the rules but inside, there’s sometimes a feeling of rebellion. Or, “That’s not me. That’s not what I want to do.” And so they have to sort of hide that part of themselves in order to fit in. And so I think that that can cause a bit of, the way our psychology, our egos are structured, it can be somewhat of a conflict. “What do I show on the outside and who am I on the inside?” And I think in some ways, that’s where the students are more different than American students, who do not have as much conflict in saying who they are and what they want. Especially today, I think students in America are encouraged to express themselves and to say who they are.
Do you think there’s anything about XLC that helps negotiate that conflict or deal with it for the students?
I think structurally we’re coming closer to it, but we haven’t gotten there yet. And most recently because Father Bee is the minister of the house, and he sort of sets the disciplinary tone in the school and creates, doesn’t really create the rules on his own, but he’s more strict about things. And the students haven’t really bought in on that on an emotional level. I think for the most part, students are still very conflicted about this, but they don’t want to show disrespect to Father Bee. And they all know that they’re here on scholarship and they’re very lucky to be here. So I think we need an intermediary between the very strict rules and how Father Bee is setting them down and how to help the students buy in, so that it’s not “me against” but it’s “us together.” And I don’t think that that structure is complete yet; I think we’re still talking about it. "How do we get the students to buy in to how we live here as a community?”
What would you say is the purpose of the rules?
Well, I’m not completely sure. And I think that that’s why there’s conflict, because it’s not as clear. I think that there is a sincere desire on Father Bee’s part, and I don’t want to just put him in a single category, because I think he consults with Father Pichet, Father Vinai, Father Tom, who are basically administrators. I think that they really want to make clear to the students, they are trying to create students with good character and good habits. And we all know that teenagers and young adults are going to rebel and are going to act out, and it’s part of the business. So I think that there’s an intention to create a high-standing school with high disciplinary regulations so that it’s a respected school in Thailand. And I think in Thai culture, that kind of school—where it’s you know very well-structured, very organized, with very clear rules, and a very strong disciplinary action—that in Thailand is regarded as a very upstanding school.
If you were to go to some place like UC Berkeley where, and I know this school because I live close by and I have friends who teach there, the students have an extraordinary amount of freedom, there’s a lot of craziness. A lot of drinking and a lot of smoking pot and a lot of hanging out. A lot of students don’t go to class. But they’re very smart and the teachers are very demanding and they have a high-standing academic; it’s known throughout the world. So it looks like, “Well, how could you be such a well-known school and so respected, but all these students just are drunk all the time?” You know? And having sex here and sex there, and you know everybody’s in relationships, it’s all crazy. And yet it’s still regarded as a very high-standard school and everybody wants to go to UC Berkeley. At least in my area, where I live. So that school just couldn’t exist here. It just doesn’t, it’s not in the Thai mind to think that that’s….
So I think that we’re working under a very different model, and we can’t really judge it from the outside. We can’t say from a Western point of view that, “This school is wrong,” or “These rules are wrong.” “They shouldn’t be doing this,” or “They shouldn’t be doing that.” I think all that is left better in the hands of Thai people, to our Thai administers and our Jesuit faculty, to figure that out. But what I know as a psychologist is that if somebody doesn’t buy in to the rules, then you’re going to have a problem. And one of the ways you work on that is having a discussion where all points of view are respected. And then someone finally has the final word.
And would you say you haven’t seen that much discussion around the rules here?
I’ve seen complaints, but I haven’t seen a constructive conversation. And I think it needs to be...my personal opinion is that a conversation needs to be moderated from the outside, that we can’t have, someone can’t come in with a bias and say, “Okay, we're gonna have a discussion,” but they really mean, “We’re gonna have a discussion and then you’re gonna do what I say.” Those are two different things.
So students have complained about the rules, but has that been about it or has there been more?
I don’t think that they have the venue wherein, where they really feel like they can freely talk or their ideas are valued. In Thai tradition, you may say, the students may say one thing that they feel is difficult, but that doesn’t mean that anything is going to change. It’s not a bad thing; it’s really great when people can say what they think and it’s not the same thing as the administrators think. But I think we have to go just a little bit further and that is, “Okay, how can we solve this problem together?
When you say that the students don’t necessarily feel like they can freely talk, do you think that only applies to discussions of the rules? Or do you see that in other areas around XLC?
I think that there are certain things around the living conditions that are not necessarily in the category of rules, but a sense of requirement about how they spend their day. Because they have a very regulated schedule. You’ve noticed, right?
They get up and they’re expected to be at prayer at 7:00 a.m. They all have a job that they do in the morning before class, then they have a full day of class. Then they have an hour of farming and other jobs that they have to do. Then they have about an hour of free time. In the evening, I would say a small majority go to Mass. Our summer students are in tutorials in the evening. And students right now are pretty busy with exams, so it’s a full schedule. And on weekends, they have jobs that they have to do. So… I can’t remember what your question was.
Just the sense that they can’t talk freely, does that apply to other aspects of life?
I think that they would like a little bit more free time. I think that they would like the ability to get in and out of town a little bit easier, or some freedom to leave campus without going to ask permission. I think that they’re worried that… One of the things that’s difficult about this is that because the Jesuits really know all the hill tribe communities and where the students are from for the most part, when the students go home, they’re afraid of just being themselves for fear that word will get back to the school that they were misbehaved, that they drank or they partied or they didn’t obey their parents or whatever the case might be. And then the Jesuit would find out and they would get scolded. So they feel like they’re being watched no matter where they are.
Would other schools in Thailand feel that way or is it unique about XLC?
I don’t think that the school is too far off the mark of some of the more strict Catholic schools. And I do think that Father Bee came from a very strict Catholic school, and so did Dodge; I think Dodge doesn’t make rules, but so did Father Pichet. And you know Father Vinai grew up in Catholic institutions where the rules were quite strict. So I think they’re all following a tradition that they’re used to and that is common in Thailand. So I’m saying this to you, but I probably wouldn’t say it to a Thai because I feel I have to be sensitive to what Thais believe is the right kind of way to act around institutions, you know? It’s comparative to a white guy going in to a group of women and telling them what to do without listening very much to their opinions or not knowing what they’re… I grew up with seven sisters, but I would never tell my sisters what to do. Mainly because they were very dominant in the family, and they told you what they were going to do. But it’s the same kind of thing in a way. You have to know, “What’s the context? What’s the culture?” And even some of these comments might be off because I’m an older white male, even though I’ve lived in Thailand for over 15 years and I speak the language very well, I understand a lot of what people are saying. It still is something that I want to take the proper place. I don’t want to be the one that says, “This is what you have to do.” It just wouldn’t work.
Yeah. So with your experience in a lot of different Catholic institutions and schools, are there ways that XLC is very different than those? Or is it fairly similar?
Well, the language around formation is very similar. I think what I’m, one of the things that I was surprised about the most was how readily they sing together. You know, so if they’re at Mass they really sing a lot together. Or when they’re in communal prayer, they sing together. Sometimes in class, they’re just so eager to sing and they all sing as a group. So singing is a lot more part of expression that’s very—I don’t find students in the United States that comfortable with singing as a group. So in that way they express, if it’s a religious song or a spiritual song, they just go sing it right out. They enjoy that. But the language around formation, especially Jesuit spirituality, is very similar to what you would hear in the United States. What I do know is that the students do not have as much experience… I mean, they have experience of Buddhism.
But what influences a lot of people’s thinking in the United States is spirituality over and above religion. Meaning, “I don’t call myself Catholic the way I call myself spiritual.” Or “I don’t call myself Jewish in the traditional sense, but I’m a spiritual person.” And I think when you know, when you’re able to divide spirituality from religion, it expands your thinking a lot more. It doesn’t mean that you can't be part of the religion, but we all know that the Catholic Church, some of the ways that they express themselves is quite old-fashioned or doesn’t really hit the mark, you know? And so how do you still be a Catholic, feel like you’re a Catholic, and yet your spirituality expands beyond the walls of Catholicism? I don’t think that this school is exploring that paradigm. In the Thai mind, things are very much in categories. “This is psychology. This is religion. This is Buddhism.” We don’t really talk about spirituality. And spirituality covers all of that. Am I making sense here?
Yeah, you are.
So I feel like there’s a certain way that the mind has now expanded around religious faith or spirituality, and I think it’s just simply because of experience. However, I go into a foreign classroom and I say, “Let’s sit for one minute in silence together,” and I feel like I'm kind of an odd man out. People don’t quite know what to do. Or people do quiet down and sit, but it feels like it only goes so deep. I go into a Thai classroom, all these Catholic students, and I say, “Let’s sit for one minute and be quiet together.” We go on. And I just thought, “Oh, it's not just Buddhism, it’s cultural.” That these people know how to be mindful in that very special way, that’s more somatic, that’s more cultural, that’s just part of life. And I think we’re still, in the United States we’re still at a very young stage in that. So you know, here I said one thing, again I’m saying another. But I still feel like it’s a category. So anyway.
And do you see that kind of mindfulness reflected a lot among the students at XLC?
I think they know how to practice it. I don’t know if they apply it so much to when they get anxious or nervous, or when they get angry. I don’t know if they can apply it as much on a psychological level. I just couldn’t speak to that. But you know, moments of prayer when we’re together, or these moments of silence in the classroom, the only way I can measure it is what I feel. Which is a way of knowing, but it’s not empirical science. But you just know something in your body when you’ve experienced this. Like wow. So in some ways, I think they have the tool of mindfulness in a way that American students or Western students don’t have it.
How do you think that mindfulness affects life in the classroom or life at XLC in general? If at all?
Well, I think if I suggest to the students, “Take a breath. Calm down,” I feel like they actually can do it. Whereas if you say it to a Western student, I don’t feel like they can do it that easily. Does that answer your question?
Yeah, they’re actually capable of taking a deep breath.
Yeah, they are. They really are.
So besides the mindfulness, what other kind of Thai influences do you see in the culture at XLC?
Well, there is a great care for the elderly. Very compassionate. There is an extraordinary understanding of the land and the gifts that the land brings. You know, kind of an environmental understanding that’s very rich. Just being with them, I just appreciate the fields and the vegetables and the trees. And I’m often reminded, I’ll be taking a walk with someone and they’ll point out something that I just like “What?” They’ll say what it is. So there's... They’re not great with garbage, although I think our community is becoming more aware of garbage and how to handle it, but Thais in general are not that great about garbage. And I think it’s something that we’re still learning today.
Does that mean like recycling, or what do you mean by that?
Well, just throwing things in a garbage heap now. And sometimes it’s wasteful. So I think there’s more of a, just a kind of cultural appreciation of the earth here. I think it’s a kind of funny thing, but I think everybody knows everybody’s business. I think in general people appreciate one another here, like they look out for each other. And they also, in them all, they have such appreciation for their families. Like American kids wanna get out, forget about Mom and Dad. But our students are just really family-oriented.
And that looking out for each other and their families, is that something that’s uniquely Thai, or does it come from somewhere else?
No, I think it’s uniquely Thai and I also think it’s uniquely chao khao. Chao khao is hill tribe. I think culturally it’s something that you just are so aware of family and so thoughtful of family. And I think this causes conflict with some of our students because parents want students to be certain ways, and they worry about their children. And they don’t know how to draw boundaries between their worries and their children, meaning if they’re worried, the children know they’re worried. And the children feel guilty that the parents are worried. So there’s an intermingling in that way of psychological consciousness. So I think it's many levels. And some of it’s really good and some of it’s really awful. But I do think it's cultural, yeah.
How do you think having students from so many different ethnic backgrounds affects life here at XLC?
I think it adds diversity and excitement. And I think that that’s one of the things the students really love. So that they’re not, you know, it’s sort of like our version of “American student in San Francisco travels to, let’s say, Omaha, Nebraska.” You know? And suddenly, there’s a whole different life there. People are friendly in different ways and you get to know people. And, “Gee, oh, live in Illinois? Wow, what’s that like?” It’s that kind of feeling. So the ethnic groups, the diversity of ethnic groups, adds a certain excitement in ways of getting to know each other. Yeah.
Do you think the students here really try to understand each others’ cultures?
Yeah, I do. Because they go to, we haven’t so much this semester, but last semester we often went to different students’ villages for events, special occasions. Some of our Lahu students or our Hmong students would dance with, would dress up in the Akha costume and dance with the Akhas and learn their dances. And that kind of thing. So there’s a real enthusiasm for knowing each other and knowing each other’s cultures.
And do you think there’s an understanding on more than the superficial level, if that makes sense?
Oh, very much so. I really see a deep interest in each other.
Can you elaborate on why you think that? Or can you think of any specific examples?
Well, the way I see it… It’s just my opinion, you may get different opinions from different people; you probably have already. But I see people from different cultures or different tribes befriending each other and going to each other’s homes. And then when you hear conversations about each other, I hear them talk about, “Oh, we went here and we had this food and we did this.” But I also feel like it’s more than just the exterior. That there’s this kind of, you know, you can't touch it but there’s this feel of genuine interest and care for the other. So it maybe my romanticization of it all so I really don’t know, and I’m sure some people would feel like it’s just surface, but when I visited other villages with students who were not of that village, or of that hill tribe, I’ve seen them mingle with the people. I’ve seen them talk. And then in Book Report or in other classes, I hear them talk about each other in ways that demand a little bit more understanding.
What do you mean by that? Demanding more understanding?
Demanding more understanding meaning what they feel and what their obligations are towards their family, and how they appreciate and understand maybe a difficulty that another student is having that’s not of their hill tribe. Sometimes going out of their way to do something special for someone else. You know, they’re very simple, they don’t have a lot of money, but you buy a snack for someone. Or you know someone is having problems and another person will, say, invite them for a walk, just gratuitously. And they’re not of the same hill tribe. So those are some of the things that I see.
Would you say that XLC actively works to foster those interactions? Or is it more the students themselves taking it on?
If I were to answer this as truthfully as I can, I don’t hear from our administrators that we have to know one another’s culture. As part of the regulation. But I do hear from the priests, either at Mass or when I talk in front of the students, an encouraging word about caring for each other, and understanding our differences and the ways that we are alike, and learning how to appreciate one another, and what a wonderful opportunity it is. So I do hear the words from top down in that way. I don’t hear it specifically like, “Because you’re all from different hill tribes, you’re separate, you don’t know each other very well, so part of what we’re going to do is really get to know one another and like each other and have friends.” It’s not said that way. It’s said in another way. One that I feel is more sensitive to everyone, is more human. Which is basically, “We’re all together. We experience a lot of diversity here in our community, and we have this great opportunity to come and work together and to know each other.”
And what are the ways that XLC tries to promote this idea of caring for each other?
Well, on a simple level if we’re going out on an outing, just to look out after each other. Try not to, be sensitive to, if you naturally gravitate to people that are from your own hill tribe from your classmates, be sensitive and bring people in so that we’re not exclusive.
So that’s staff and faculty saying it to the students?
I hear that more from like Father Tom or Father Vinai than I do from faculty and staff.
Are there other ways that these more moral goals influence life at XLC?
When you say moral, what do you mean?
Goals beyond just like teaching students English. I guess, what would you say that XLC is trying to do here?
Well, it’s a Jesuit, very much part of Jesuit education is educating the whole person, which is not just gaining knowledge, but learning how to live together, how to love and respect each other, you know how to be of service, not only to your community but to the outside world. And that is going to have its own effects. I mean, if you’re doing something good for your community, it influences you. You see that you’re doing something and it carries over into your daily life and how you live with other people. You know, it’s kind of a natural flow. So I think that that’s carried out. Because I’m not in the classroom of other teachers, I don’t really know exactly how they do this. But because I hear the other like the Jesuits speak publicly, and because I’ve been in some of their classes, I already know what they, that there’s this emphasis on educating the whole person.
Do you think XLC really lives up to that purpose?
More-so than most Jesuit educations, yeah. And I’ve been in a lot of Jesuit institutions.
Can you explain a little more about why you think that? Or situations where it really has lived up to it?
I think in some ways there’s an advantage here because we’re just beginning, and the enthusiasm for creating a Jesuit institution in Thailand is kind of at a high level. So that alone, there’s an energy. But I mean granted, you were with us when we traveled down to Chiang Mai. These are very diverse students, you know, and some of the traveling was not that easy. But I think in general there is a buy-in to be together and to go on this trip together and to enjoy as much as they can. Unless I just misread everything. But that was a good majority, I mean a good number of students went. You know? And to have that sense of camaraderie and togetherness. I’ve seen that in other things that we do together: going to a person’s village for some special celebration, where a large number of students go and do overnight stays. Hang out with each other. There’s often, there’s been day trips like to the waterfalls or to different villages in the mountains that students participate in together. I think when the students do farming together it’s pretty amazing. That they help each other.
So I mean, I do feel like you get a stronger sense of what it means to be community here than in these larger institutions, where it’s next to impossible to have that same kind of spirit. You may have, “I’m part of the Social Justice Committee, and so I have 10 friends and we’re really connected about this particular thing.” Or “Thirty of us went to El Salvador and we did this kind of thing for two weeks, you know, and it really taught us a lot.” But here, it’s like 24/7 we’re together. And so in some ways it seems a little deeper. And the Jesuits are just, you know, here. They’re all over, you’ve seen them. They eat together with the students, they hang out together with the students, they’re available to talk with the students. That’s different. You don’t find that many Jesuits on a university campus that hang out every day with students. Well, that’s because their responsibilities are so much, at such a high level with academics. You know, maybe 15 minutes to give you and that’s about it. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I’m trying to be specific.
Yeah, this is very helpful. How would you say that having the Jesuit fathers around influences life here?
I think it establishes a sense of fatherly love and care, that they’re genuinely here for the students. And many of these students come from families that were not able to provide that kind of loving care that primary caregivers normally give. They end up in orphanages or they end up living in institutions that are run by very nice people, but they’re not their mom or their dad. They’re not their grandparents. So when you ask who their primary caregivers were, many of them will say, “Well, it was my grandmother.” Or they’ll say, “At 3 years old, I went to live in a dormitory, so it was this teacher or that teacher.” So to have a representation that’s kind of steady, that’s more what we would call object permanent, a person on campus always there demonstrating a lot of care, helping students out, making sure that they provide food, shelter, and sometimes clothing, you get the feeling that someone loves you. And that’s a very different feeling than walking on an American campus and you meet a Jesuit who’s very well-educated and very busy and very academic and is very kind, but that’s about all. You don’t feel like there’s a real personal “Oh my God, this guy really does care.”
Is this how you feel about it, or have you heard students talk about the fathers that way?
Yeah, it’s more like what I see. But I do see like them running up to a priest and talking, or saying something that’s very much like what a child would say to a parent. And you know, I have to say I get, when some students will talk to me I feel like, “Oh, I’m their father. I’m their dad; I’m not a teacher.” Or I’m the friendly uncle who really cares about them. Something like that. So I’ve heard a few students who’ve said from time to time something really nice about a priest, but it’s more an observation. And you know all observations have my spin on them, so I’m not saying I know the truth.
Of course. So clearly having the fathers around influences life; religion influences the students here. Would you say there’s any way that having a diversity of student influences the way that religion is practiced around campus? Does that make sense?
Well, it’s really weird at some points, but you know we have Buddhist students, we have a few Muslims, we have students who would say that they’re more animist, as well as Catholics, and then we have Protestants. But what I’ve noticed is that when we’re all in Mass together, they just participate fully. There’s no way that they get excluded. I think some of them easily go to Communion even. So that’s one way they may express their religiosity. I don’t feel like it’s, I mean obviously Catholicism and Jesuit spirituality is dominant, but I’ve never heard a dirty word said about other religions. And I feel like, on a non-intellectual level there is a sense of respect and fluidity.
What I miss a bit is the willingness to put, to shape a sense of collective coherence together, a theology of everyone on an intellectual level. I kind of miss that aspect, the intellectual conversation of diversity that truly extends an accepting hand. You know, if you talk about church as, the Catholic Church as Mother Church, the magisterium, what often happens is that we start... when we talk intellectually we start making very strong divisions. And I’m looking for conversations that don’t do that, that are intellectual, that use our minds and our reasons and not just our fists.
Where have you seen those kinds of conversations before?
Well, I’m a student at the California Institute of Integral Studies, so I’ve seen conversations like that there. If you read, if you dive in to the teachings of spirituality even within Catholicism, like a very outspoken famous Catholic theologian, Franciscan Richard Rohr, you’ll hear the conversations loud and clear. And no one’s afraid of it. But if you start talking as, “This is the rule of the Church and we make our religion right here,” then you’re hearing a lot of separatism. But it’s a form of intellectualism, you know? And I don’t adhere to it, but I don’t want to come down and say, "Who am I to say that they’re wrong?" I just understand things differently. And I guess I’m looking for peers who understand things the way I do. I’m not sure if I’m answering any of your questions. Because you keep asking these questions, I feel like maybe I didn’t answer what you’re asking.
No, this is all very interesting. Can you give an example of like the conversation you would like to see?
Well, I’m going to India soon. My teachers in India adhere to the spirituality of Sri Aurobindo, who is probably one of the most well-respected spiritual teachers of his time in India. He’s dead now; he died in the late fifties. But he carried the tradition of Hinduism, especially the tradition of the Danta into the twenty—first century. That spirituality is very expansive; it has room for everybody in it. To me, when he speaks about the experience of God, it’s much more what I’ve experienced as a Catholic than the way some Catholic priests talk about God. So there is one example right there, is that I have to go to India and study Hinduism to understand my own religion.
If you study the psychology of Carl Jung, you dive right in to a spiritual understanding of the soul that many Catholics are afraid of, because they feel like it’s anathema because we’re talking in the realm of psychology and the psyche. But how do we understand things? We understand things at ground-level in our psyche, you know? And Carl Jung is talking about, “This is the ground where we experience God, is our own consciousness.” Is there something so crazy about that? No, it’s profound. But Catholicism will say, “No.” I mean strict Catholicism, some strict theologians will say no, that we don’t experience things through the psyche. God touches us. The truth of God is there and we can either acknowledge it or we don’t acknowledge it. And we forget that it's, “What is our experience of God?” Can we open the door and talk about it? And then we listen to people of other faiths and hear them talk about their experience of God. And you sit down and you say, “Wow, this is really amazing. We’re having very similar experiences. Not the same, but we’re having very similar experiences. And how profound and how connected we are.” So I don’t know if that answers your question.
Yeah, it does a lot to explain that conversation, yeah.
There was a Jesuit here not too long ago. His name was Edward, and he was visiting Father Tom. What I found so wonderful about him is we started talking; he found out where I was going to school getting my Ph.D. and what I was studying. He knew all those people and really got it, and we had this deeper conversation about the experience of the psyche and the experience of God. The experience of, simply of how we understand, what’s our framework of understanding our spiritual lives. And that conversation has not happened with me with the Jesuits here. But it happened with this one man, and I think it’s probably because he’s in the field of theology and psychology, and so those are the things that he studied. But it felt like a breath of fresh air. So it’s like, what is our approach in life? What’s exciting for us? I can’t force every Jesuit to have this kind of framework or understanding, but it was just really nice to have it for the short time that I did.
Not having that framework, is that something unique about XLC, religion in Thailand, the Catholic Church in general?
It’s not about the Catholic Church in general because you’re going to find all kinds of conversations, and some are pretty wonderful. I think the Church in Thailand is fairly conservative. And certainly the cardinal, the reigning cardinal in Bangkok, is somewhat anti-Pope Francis, which a lot of people are. And a lot of cardinals are. A lot of bishops are anti—, but I would say the majority are with Francis. But there are some very loud voices that are against him. And I think that’s somewhat representative, or it sets a certain tone. If I want to be part of the Church, I have to act within the proper way. I might feel differently. If I want to do anything good, I’m not going to go outside the boundaries of what the Church is telling me in Thailand. But because I have this authority, it’ll help me go in and do other things that are needed and wanted and that government is not doing in villages with people. Providing just basic needs of existence. So I don’t see a great thrust in the Jesuits here or in the Church to be liberal or to be liberal-thinking around theology.
So one final question I have is, are there any other broader differences that you would comment on with Catholicism here at XLC versus Catholicism generally?
Let me get the question again, you’re talking about XLC in general? Or XLC and outside XLC?
Yeah, mostly just XLC. If there’s any differences in what Catholicism looks like in practices here versus broader Catholicism.
Well, it’s very interesting because the Jesuits may stick to the rules, be careful what they say publicly that’s going to be quoted, printed. But true to form, they usually are a little more liberal than the run-of-the-mill Catholic priests, diocesan priests. I feel like the Jesuits here, because of their training, their travel, their education, that there’s a stronger sense of humanity. Kind of a cultural sense of what it means to be a human being, even though their tastes in movies might be quite different than mine. But I get, there’s a difference between an educated person and a person who’s not that educated. I think the person that’s not that educated as they grow older tend to become more and more narrow. And I think a person who’s educated tend to at least stay within that realm or expand a bit as they get older. So I feel like the Jesuits here are more… I don’t know, because of their education, their travel and experience with culture, I just feel like there’s a lot more humanity that’s being expressed through that. Which lends itself to sort of a more liberal theology.
When you say there’s a more liberal theology here, how does that fit in with your comment earlier that you felt like there weren’t enough conversations that were opening?
Well, you know as I was saying that, I was also asking myself the same question. I don’t think that their theology was very concerned or spent much time with psychology and how psychology has influenced our thinking, our spiritual natures, or our understanding of our spiritual natures. So I think in that realm, it’s somewhat limited. But I think in terms of their theological understanding, if you listen to their sermons, they’re more personal and they’re a little bit more free in talking about Scriptures. If you were to listen to a diocesan priest talking about the Scriptures, you feel like the box is closing in. They're just talking about a very strict interpretation of a certain Scripture passage, and that strict interpretation is very narrow-minded and somewhat childish. Because we’ve had diocesan priests here come and preach, and I listen to their sermons and I think, “They actually do it.” But the Jesuits are kind of, they’ll compare it to, you might have heard the sermon where Father Vinai talked about the ideas of Nietzsche.
That was my first night here.
You wouldn’t hear that from a diocesan priest. So in that way, they’re a little more expansive in their understanding.
So am I understanding it right that they’re more expansive but not quite what you'd want it to be?
If I could be very specific, none of them have been psychologized. None of them have studied psychology in any depth, and so they don’t know what that discipline has lent us to understanding spirituality. And that’s where I think the Church fails a bit, for this is a larger discussion. And my interests, so I’m talking about my particular interest that has its own limitations, but my interest is expanding our conversation through the disciplines of psychology and through the discipline of world religions and cross-cultural religious communication.
Like Buddhist-Christian dialogue. What does it mean to sit in emptiness? I don’t have those conversations. What other spiritualities talk about the dark night of the soul? What are mystical experiences beyond what our Catholic tradition teaches us? What is the destiny of humanity beyond saying that we all should love Jesus and go to heaven? There’s other ways of talking about those that are very important to understand Jesus, very important to understand what Christ means. And that is not just a theological discussion. That it’s a human discussion that involves a lot more than just knowing what Scripture says. So as you can see, I’m a bit passionate about this.
Yeah. I think that answers my questions. Do you have anything you want to clarify or add?
Well, you know, when we talk about social justice, it’s very hard to be completely clean because you’re always, we’re human and we can’t… if we’re helping this person, we can’t necessarily help that person. So our focus has been a large one here at XLC, and that is to provide opportunities, education, the English language, to a group of people who have been underserved or ignored or humiliated in society. So with that focus, there is a strong sense of doing something that’s socially just. In the process, we also have people that we’ve hurt and those stories will probably come out later, you know, as they usually do.
I often think of colonialism, what happened in colonialism. Well, we gave a lot of people opportunities, but then we shut out a lot of people and we smashed down on culture, on personal culture. So I’m hoping that we are very sensitive to those areas. I think one or two individuals might feel that they’ve been cast aside in the process of really helping the majority, but that should not detract us from doing the work. But I think to have clean, across-the-board social justice for all is somewhat naive. But you have to admit, this school is providing a certain opportunity to students that they wouldn’t have had otherwise and most of them are very grateful for it.
Can I just ask, when you say that some people could be hurt in the process. In the context of providing this opportunity, what do you mean by someone being hurt in that process?
Well, I think we’re seeing it a bit around the rules and regulations at this school. And some of the students are feeling negated by some of these rules, and that there’s no place to really express their feelings or emotions. So while they’re getting a good education, they’re feeling, they’re not, I don’t think the intention is there, that they’re feeling like, “Well, you want me to have these rules and regulations, so in some ways you’re telling me not to be who I am, yet you’re giving me an education, so what’s the deal?”
No, I would love to see the results. And everybody’s important, everybody’s opinion is important, and you’re hearing a lot of different opinions in your position. I don’t mean to negate anybody else; I’m just giving my opinion.
Yeah, I completely understand.