When You Pray, Please Remember the Wonderful People of Burma

The people of Burma smile and I weep. They weep and I pray. They pray and I am enraptured.

A Burmese child at prayer
A Burmese child at prayer (photo: Register Burma Correspondent)

Q: What does a missionary do?

A: He does as God pleases and as he deposes.

As I close my eyes and remember Burma in which I had lived on and off for five years, I recall the smiles around me. The Burmese smile at me whether they know me or not. The sight of my ungainly, gangly form sets me apart but their smiles and their friendship bring me back into theirs and God’s good graces.

I can’t honestly say I’ve had the same reaction in other countries in which I’ve lived. Some pleasant ones. Some irritable ones. Some nations cling to onerous values and revisionist histories. Some exhibit a certain snobbishness and racism of which I have nothing good to report.

But not Burma. Not everything there is a basket of roses, including the baskets of roses. They oversalt their food and I can’t find a pair of flip-flops in my size to save my life. But, despite these egregious faults, I love Burma and the Burmese.

I struggled with the language for the years I was there. St. Francis Xavier, who did missionary work throughout Asia, said that the Japanese language was created by Lucifer himself so as to curtail the progress of spreading the Gospel throughout that country. With all due respect to the Jesuit saint, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Burmese, instead, has the honor and distinction of being the most difficult language in the world.

The Burmese language will always be my white whale and my albatross.

I’m a happy person and don’t demand a lot. But even I admit that I’m happier in Burma than in any other place I’ve lived. Spain was wonderful. Italy far surpasses anyone’s wildest expectations. Indonesia is magnificent. And I love Belgium. I often dream of India and I have fond memories of Germany. But Burma and its various ethnicities have opened their arms to me. I’m the foreigner whom everyone wants as a friend. I’m the foreigner who welcomes all those who wish to be my friend. And my happiest experiences are there with a grateful populace who have endeared themselves to me and shore me up as I consider how Burma has become undone.

Point of information: the Burmans are the major ethnicity in Burma but there are 147 other linguistic and cultural groups in the country which has collectively come to be known as Myanmar, which in Burmese means “fast and strong.” I can only presume that the name refers to these delightfully laid-back people who have never once ever struck me as efficient or physically powerful. The name was made up in the 1980 by the communist military junta at the time. Apparently, they didn’t want the nation’s ethnic majority to be somehow synonymous with … you know, most of the people who live there. It’s like how Italy refers to the Italians who live in that country and Germany means the “Land of the Germans.” So, the logical course of action was for the unity-aspiring Burmese government to change their name to Myanmar using the Burmese language to name it.

Now you know why I love these people. Pope St. John XXIII always reminisced about his time as Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey and said that he had fallen in love with the Turks.

Having been in Burma for many years, I now know what he means. The people there mean everything to me. They smile and I weep. They weep and I pray. They pray and I am enraptured.

Burma has had an underappreciated history ever since the end of WWII. The Burmese Tigers were the reason the Japanese ultimately abandoned the country with their tails between their legs at the end of their vicious 85-year-long conquest of Asia prior to World War II in which they killed millions of people. They brutalized the Burmese but the Burmese are not a people to take things lying down.

Before the communist putsch in the 1950s, when it seemed all of Asia was going to go red — something Kennedy, Eisenhower, MacArthur and Nixon worried about — the Burmese were the most educated people in Southeast Asia, largely due to the Catholic Church building a string of schools available to rich and poor alike. No one was turned away. Very often, a local princeling would donate land near a temple school so that their children could receive morning instruction in what was referred to as “Western subjects” such as medicine, the sciences, mathematics, logic, geography and navigation. After lunch, they would retire to their temple schools to learn about history, poetry, language and Buddhism.

T’was Burma where East joyously met West. 

Burma has subsequently suffered a great deal. Please keep its wonderful people in your prayers.