Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
May 17th, 2005
High School


On initiative and discipline

Seeing the words “initiative” and “discipline” coming out of any outgoing senior’s blog may seem wierd to you, but there’s a reason I’m posting about it now, and it has nothing to do with senioritis.

Yesterday, a group of 13 Saudi educators visited St. X, as you may have read from St. X’s poorly written article on the event. For some reason, the administration decided to let them talk with Mr. Ott’s AP Modern World History class for the 45 minutes of eighth period.

We gathered in the Multipurpose Meeting Room, formerly room 158, to hold a friendly question and answer session. After we got through the business of introductions – which they’ve probably heard too many of during their seven-week tour – they started to ask us progressively harder questions: Were we in favor of coeducation? Did we come to St. X because our parents wanted us to?

But one of them, a short man with a bushy beard that I couldn’t help looking at, posed to us the hardest question of all. Paraphrased from the translator:

In Islam, we have a strict rule that you set aside your work and pray five times a day, as dictated by God. Here, we’re told that the teachers often bring you into the chapel to pray, and many teachers begin their classes with prayer. So it seems that prayer for you is initiated by the teachers, not by God.

At first, I was somewhat disappointed that this man had introduced a somewhat hostile line of conversation into our discussion. But in retrospect, I’m glad that he gave the discussion some significance, something meaningful to talk about. Now I’m just disappointed that we wasted this opportunity to really say something.

As I recall it, Fr. Deye began by citing the Litury of the Hours as the Christian equivalent to the Islamic salah. But that’s really not an equivalent, because we don’t have to pray the Hours, and in fact, very few people actually do. And no matter now much monks and nuns pray for us, as Father suggested, it’s just not the same.

Then a few students tried to weigh in, reflecting on how they sometimes pray, but not as part of a regulation; they pray when they are in the right frame of mind. Someone also mentioned that we lead very busy lives. In essence, they were telling the guests that we pray when we feel like it, when we can fit it into our schedule.

He wasn’t satisfied. When he pressed again for an answer, all he got was the same, each time repackaged with slightly different wording. They probably came out of the group conversation thinking that none of us had backbones; that all we did was give excuses. Or, as David put it, “They think we’re pagans.”

Before you dismiss our friendly yet serious Arab visitors as being unaccepting, I want to assert that maybe it was mostly our fault. Most of us at St. X are Christian – the majority of us Catholic, in fact. And a good portion of us hail from Catholic elementary schools. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that we do attend a Catholic institution – which, interestingly enough, the translator described in Arabic as a madrassa. But what it means is that most of us have never had to explain our faith to a non-Christian or even a non-Catholic. Our faith has simply been taught to us, and we agree and obey, however begrudgingly – and selectively.

We attend a liberal Catholic school, where things are not necessarily taught, but at least practiced, in a relativistic way. We don’t require Mass each day at school, or even once a month. We hardly pray communally, either, unless you count the Our Father that we stumble on in our foreign language classes.

I’m not excusing myself from my own criticism, either. In a paper for Mr. Daley’s Introduction to Theology course once, I mentioned somewhat vaguely that “I [did] not think that Mass is for everyone,” my rationale being that not everyone is ready to experience it fully, to participate in a level any deeper than the motions – or the snores.

But my other culture (Vietnamese-Catholic) and our Arab guests have begun to teach me that maybe a better approach is to not simply say that ritual and religion aren’t going to work out for us; maybe a better approach is to figure out how to make it work out. American religion and theology is plausibly the laxest known to Modern Man. We have “spirituality,” which isn’t a bad thing in my mind, but it often serves as an excuse: a handy-dandy answer when someone comes up to you and asks why you declare yourself as Christian, but “not religious.”

And it works, because we get to focus on the other aspects of our lives, then sit quietly in our bedrooms before we sleep each night, getting closer to God. And we also go on Sundays, of course. And we have this thing called “good works.” (Again, I’m not criticizing these things per sé.) We’ve, in effect, condensed God into an average 19 minutes each day, like some kind of Cliff’s Notes.

(If I’m getting too preachy, kick me now. :^P )

What I’ve found is that, while we have grown more relaxed in our religious life – more open and accepting, as many would say – other cultures have stuck to a more rigid expectation when it comes to a relationship with God. It’s discipline that they’re emphasizing here. And, perhaps in a defense of laziness, I excused people from Mass by saying that they wouldn’t get anything from it. In fact, that’s very close to saying, “Getting something out of religion is too hard, so let’s just not even try,” as I throw my hands up in the air.

(One question that’s been bugging me: how did the group’s interpreter translate “to get something out of prayer”? That phrase was used a few key times during the discussion, yet how can you translate the phrase so that it doesn’t sound so greedy on our part? “They have to get something from God in order to be satisfied?” they might be asking.)

So maybe the other cultures, such as Islam, have something going for them, as they emphasize discipline as a means of becoming closer to God. Maybe you can “grow” into religion, the way we eventually grow into adult responsibilities – or, at least, the way most of us do.

Maybe the only way we can truly bridge the differences between the Western world and the Muslim world is to learn something from them. I’m not talking about fundamentalism here: I’m talking about learning to accept a faith – maybe the one that we were raised in, but never seriously embraced. Not to accept faith simply for what it is; rather, to accept it as an opportunity; to see some promise in God.

It’s not an alien concept: for an Ignatian school, it should be surprising that so few people practice any form of serious reflection, like Ignatius’ Spritual Exercises or “experience, reflection, and action,” which I’m in the midst of right now. In some way or another, we all pride ourselves on being independent, right, and important. I’m no exception. But why can’t we also start priding ourselves on being faithful, responsible, and disciplined?

And how do you translate that into Arabic?


  1. Minh, if i can say anything,I can say this. the islamic religion was, and is, a waste of time, full of pointless propaganda like "eat bacon and allah shall send you to hell" and "girls are the most evil ever aahhahghahghah alllayelylala" i had to put up with that propaganda for 5 years. and all i can say is this: pray that naveed doesn't see this. end of story.


  2. Who’s Naveed?

  3. Albert Trinh

    You don't know who naveed ahmad is? Oh, lucky you...

  4. You can't be serious- ha ha, good one... this humor brought to you from, with a GPA of 94.22957320189 − π/3, SAT of 1520 − 101, ACT of 30 + 2 etc... Minh Xuan Xuân Nguyễn CVXII + VI. Thanks and good night

    PS: Again, mr dowine.

  5. Yes, Antar, I edited your comment. Very Stein-esque if I do say so myself. But at least I always approve your comments, instead of censoring them to Kingdom Come.

    By the way, I have no idea how many Nguyễn Xuân Minh’s there are in my ancestry. (The family name went first up until my generation.) CVXII+VI sounds like a reasonable guess, anyhow – if you throw out all the rules of writing Roman numerals, of course. But who’s counting? :^)

  6. Got a point there. Now to the other pointless point... WHY ISNT MR DOWINE TEACHINE EUR LIT.....