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"... you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The red roof of the Church of St. John in the Wilderness peaked through the dense pine, deodar cedar, and rhododendron forest just outside McLeod Ganj, a hill town above Dharamsala, India. It was a little over a mile away, and the heat of the day had not yet risen to our altitude. Watching for rhesus monkeys in the trees, I walked to church beneath the vista of the 18,000 foot peaks of the Dhauladhar Range. 

October is the best time to be in Dharamsala. The drenching monsoon rains have passed. The worst of the year’s heat is behind. And the winter cold and snow has yet to descend from the mountains. Drawn by the plight of Tibetan exiles, we filled our days with interviewing former Tibetan prisoners of conscience, many of whom were tortured for their faith by their Chinese captors; teaching English language conversation classes; and attending lectures by the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. 

Amidst hillsides festooned with Buddhist prayer flags moving in the wind and nearby Hindu temples, the Church of St. John recalls another temporary era. Built in 1852, this former Church of England sanctuary was the center of church life for countless members of the British Raj (diplomats, soldiers, businessmen, and families) for almost one hundred years. 

Worship this recent October Sunday was lively and heartfelt, even as the small congregation was surrounded by plaques and headstones of the past. Major Calvin Fredrick Birch, 1st Gurkha Rifles, died age 41. Elizabeth Anne Blackwell, born Isle of Man 1822, died Dharamsala 1871. “Officers who fell in the Great War 1914-1919: France, Mesopotamia, and Palestine.” And many more, eroded by the annual rains and spreading green moss.

We are a nation whose commercial and military “empire” surrounds the world. The signs are everywhere if one choses to look: Exxon Mobile; Microsoft; Bank of America; Halliburton; Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan; facilities in Columbia; Guantanamo, Cuba and hundreds more examples. It has been our modern history to help shape the world through our institutions, governmental and non-governmental.

So, as my faith walk continues, it is meaningful to visit a place like India. Today’s Indian population is 1.2 billion. (The U.S. population is about 312 million.) Its Indus Valley history dates to the Bronze Age of 5,000 years ago. And, while the presence of London’s East India Company and the British Raj was profound in its impact, the sweep of time moves on. The drenching monsoon rains, the heat, the mountain cold and snow come and go.

Walking amongst the decaying crosses and moss-covered tombs of St. John’s cemetery, once a part of Britain’s vast global empire, I am struck by a powerful sense of impermanence. Moss and lichens eat away at the once sharp corners of graves. Names and dates erode and become nearly invisible. Weather, time, and human inattention tumble markers soon covered by dirt, leaves, and pine needles. With each passing year, this piece of the British Empire recedes further and further into memory and from relevance.

As written in Genesis 3:19, the Lord God said to Adam “…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The monkeys still clamor in the trees outside McLeod Ganj. The peaks of the Himalayas inch slowly higher each year as the Indian tectonic plate grinds northward into the Eurasia plate. And I return home to our North Country holding less tightly to the objects around me and the institutions with which I have been associated.

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Gary Payton Gary Payton is on a Faith Walk that takes him to Russia, Eastern Europe and Sandpoint, Idaho

Tagged as:

death, impermanence, St John in the Wilderness, McLeod Ganj, India, Dharamsala, Dalai Lama, empire

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