WORD reaches me from one of the Herald's select band of
mainland Chinese readers that there are some pretty rum goingson these days in the heart of inscrutable but panda-ridden Peking.
The forecourt of the Pavilion of the Fragrant Buddha has been
cluttered up with all sorts of
mysterious objects — ancient astronomical instruments.
Italians, medieval armour and a veritable spaghetti of cables — and all in celebration of possibly the greatest feat of bus-missing every accomplished in the entire history of the Church.
I refer, of course, to that remarkable request sent by Kublai Khan to the Pope for one hundred learned Christian missionaries — a request which was even more remarkably kicked round the corridors of the Vatican until it was forgotten — in the same way as secular income tax rebates are today.
The request is most probabl■ languishing even now in some obscure curial in-tray, snugly
nestling beneath similarly ignored petitions for the automatic beatification of ex-Herald editors and the excommunication of all football referees.
This great sin of omission is soon to be captured by the marvels of cinematographic cunning for our delectation and tooth-gnashing remorse. It will provide us with an excellent opportunity for re-education.
In the west Kublai Khan has been dealt with rather shabbily.
He is all too often confused with his unlovable and consistently mispelt grandfather Chinghiz who was the sort of man who would be able to hold his own in a Toxteth primary school and who com bined within his person all the obvious charm of Rupert Murdoch and all the wit and warmth of General Jaruzelski.
Kublai, on the other hand, was the epitome of gentleness with an enthusiasm for ecumenism which makes even the ARCIC conclusions look tame.
It is a great injustice that in the English speaking world he tends only to be remembered for being in the first line of the perpetually wingeing Coleridge's metrically brilliant but otherwise painfully derivitive poem.
We are inclined to forget that Kublai was more open to Christianity than any imperial ruler of China before or after him. He has a sincere respect for and curiosity about the faith which deserved to be dealt with seriously.
It is rather touehing that when he dispatched Niccolo and Maffeo Polo back to Europe the only treasure he asked them to bring back was some oil from the lamp which burnt in the Holy Sepulchre.
That is not to say that the Khan would have been a push-over for the papal missionaries. He was no forerunner of the despised riceChristians.
For all his sentimental nostalgia for the nomadic way of life — and there cannot be anything wrong with an emperor who sows prairie grass in his palace courtyard as a reminder of his forefathers' simpler lifestyle — Kublai yearned for sophisticated closely-argued persuasion.
He firmly believed in an academically muscular form of religious dialogue. Had the 100 missionaries "versed in the seven arts" set out from the Vatican, they would have been required to enter into formal dispute with the other religious teachers at the Khan's court to prove the superiority of Christianity — the kind of singing for your vredal supper which is often easier not to do. Kublai had what my grandmother used to describe as "great leanings" — thus conjuring up pictures in my infant mind of people prematurely stooped like muddled astronomers looking for stars on the ground.
This understandable confusion was only dispelled when I first saw Malcolm Muggeridge on television and saw with some disappointment that despite his leanings he seemed able to sit down and move round with a ramrod straight back.
However like all politicians, the Khan did not let his leanings make him topple over. He was wary of putting all his eggs in one religious basket.
When Niccolo, Maffeo and Marco Polo were in his capital, Khanbalik, one Easter, they were surprised to see the Khan conducting a ceremony of incensing and kissing a book containing the four gospels.
Anticipating Mgr Knox's "Reunion All Roundby about 700 years, Kublai explained to the mystified Italians that he observed all Christian, Moslem, Buddhist and Jewish feasts so as to be sure of being on the right side of whoever out of Jesus, Mohammed, Moses or Buddha was greatest in Heaven.
But the Khan was not always so calculating( pragmatic. When
he trounced h is unfavourite uncle, a Christian warlord called Nayan he silenced his courtiers who were jeering at the faith of the vanquished army. He would allow no criticism of the Christian God.
Nayan's defeat, he said, was proof of the strength not the weakness of Christianity when it could not be used in the name of such a treacherous toad as Nayan. He added that fighting men should not march behind a banner bearing a cross — it was a symbol of suffering which was too holy for such use. I wonder what he would have made of the American nuclear submarine, the Corpus Christi?
Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAD and the China Film Coproduction Corporation are piecing together a story of the encounter between the Polos and the Great Khan. Film has been shot in Morocco, Mongolia, Peking and Venice.
It will be interesting to see what is said — and what is not said — about the Khan's request for instruction. Apparently Burt Lancaster has been typecast as the Pope, a sprinkling of Mongolians will play a sprinkling of Mongolians and Sir John Gielgud will be the Doge.
The film should make fascina ting viewing. At the very least it will be an improvement on "Son of the last film you saw on satanism part 56 with disasters and as many pirahna fish as you can eat thrown in".
It will 'shed light on a ridiculously ignored watershed in history. It is salutory to remember that the only contemporary reference to the power of the Khan in English annals is the visionary insight from a monk at St Albans that the growing power of the Mongols meant cheap herrings at Yarmouth because the Baltic fishermen were too preoccupied with the Tartars to set out to sea thus letting the plump herrings swim south to Mongolfree English waters.
But I hope this film will be more than a foray into the exotic unfamiliar world • of the Yuan dynasty. I think it is a story with a domestic message more important even than cheap her rings.
The Khan was a man of pride. Contemporary records indicate that he showed great favour to Christianity yet never became a Christian. It is important to remember why this was.
Marco Polo explains that the Khan would not be baptised into the faith until he felt he knew enough to answer all the questions such a conversion would bring.
He asked for help with some of those answers, he asked for bread and barely received a stone — and that is a very unexotic problem faced by many who are searching here and now and can so easily by politely and deferentially ignored.
TODAY women from 150 countries will be wrestling with a dramatisation of the life of St Brigid of Kildare translated into 60 languages. It's all part of the fiftieth annual World Day of Prayer devised this year by Irish women from both sides of the border.
The prospect of ladies from Tonga to Alaska solemnly reenacting the life of a fifth century Irish cowgirl is -rather enticing.
I must admit I have a soft spot for St Brigid largely because an edition of her life by the reluctant biographer Cogitosus is the oldest book I have ever held and also because you cannot help admiring anyone who could wear anything as ridiculously uncomfortable as the silver and brass shoe purporting to be hers (its now on show at the National Museum in Dublin).
St Brigid specialised in really mundane miracles. She was given to hanging her cloak absentmindedly on sunbeams — it never works for me — and she performed more feats with dairy products than any other saint in the liturgical calendar.
She was absolutely mustard with butter. milk and lost cows: — surely a natural candidate for being patron of the EEC agricultural policy — and at least she kept her miracles under control: there are no artificial lakes or mountains round Kildare.
I cannot help feeling that her attitude to the episcopacy might cause some Methodist eyebrows to quiver.
Once, according to Cogitosus, when she saw three bishops approaching the grove of Kildare, being a highly sagacious woman, she knew that the normal tricks with butter and milk would be no good. With great presence of mind she turned a trough of bath water into beer. No wonder she was canonised.
And before trios of bishops begin scouring the country for prayer groups. I feel it is only fair to point out that the drama will concentrate more on St Brigid as a teacher of the faith than as a beer-maker, but even so, episcopal participation will be welcome.