"The Story Of A Javanese Priest"

The Story Of A Javanese Priest


I am Fr. Antonios from central Java. I am a married priest with one wife: Presbytera Marina , and one son (Ireneus ) and two daughters (Paraskevi and Kyriaki). Ireneus and Paraskevi are in the university, while Kyriaki is still in the primary school. Before I tell my story, I think I should tell you about my Javanese culture so that you can understand where I come from. Javanese people comprise the largest ethnic group of more than 350 ethnic groups in Indonesia. The Javanese have their own language that is completely different from the national language of Indonesia, the Bahasa Indonesia. There are more than 350 different separate languages and dialects in the country.

In his world famous book “The Religion of Java”, published in the sixties, Clifford Geertz divided Javanese society into three groups: Priyayi, Abangan and Santri. It happened that he made his field research in a small town which he called “Mojokuto” in his book, which is actually a fictitious name for a real town, Pare, which is a few kilometers away from Kediri City, which is my home town.“Priyayi” stands for an aristocratic group within Javanese society who are directly or indirectly connected with Javanese royal family bloodline. They comprised the elite in contrast to the masses, or “little people” (Wong cilik) within the Javanese society. Until the 18th century the priyayi, under the royal families, were the rulers of the Javanese states. They emphasized the refined court life and high etiquette, as well as intricate high Javanese language, as the sign of being a priyayi. This priyayi culture is largely influenced by the Javanese historical past of Hindu and Buddhist way of thinking, worldview and outlook which emphasized the importance of meditations, asceticism and union with the divine. This largely Hindu-Buddhist influence of the priyayi spiritual and mystical belief and practices are known as Javanese mysticism or “Kebatinan”.

The famous Javanese “Wayang Kulit” shadow play that depicts the Hindu epic story of Mahabharata and Ramayana accompanied by the very refined “Gamelan” percussion music orchestra, along with the Javanese refined graceful court dances are the hallmark and icon of the priyayi culture. Some scholars consider “priyayi” cuture as a variant of Islam within Javanese society, because in spite of what is said about the priyayi culture, officially they consider themselves to be Muslims.

“Abangan” is the culture of the non-aristocratic Javanese masses, or “little people” (Wong cilik). It does not have the character of priyayi’s emphasis on refinement in the matters of way of life and high etiquette as well as high Javanese language. The priyayi considered the abangan culture as being uncouth or rough (“kasar”), in contrast to their own, which is refined (“halus”). The abangan people, even though they officially still consider themselves Muslims, do not espouse Islamic tenets and do not practice any of the Islamic religious practices. Their connection with Islam is very nominal; rather they practice the folk-beliefs influenced by Javanese animism.

For them the world of the spirits is real, and they are surrounded by these spirits. Therefore the most important religious practices for this group of Javanese masses are the offering to the spirits or the deceased. There are two kinds of offerings – individual offering called as “sesajen” and given to sacred places and shrines, and communal offering in the form of sacramental common meal, known as the “slametan”. Paranormal practitioners, or the “dukuns”, are kind of priests for this Javanese “abangan” religion.

An almanac book known as “Primbon” is considered to be a book of guidance for a person on how to find auspicious days for any undertaking, or to find the meaning of dreams, and any good or bad omens that one may receive. It also contains intricate calculations of one’s day of birth or horoscope for the purpose of embarking in any business or any activities in life, and it is a kind of Holy Scriptures to the “abangan”.

The abangan culture also has a kind of religious practices of its own, such as a variety of fasting, the commemoration of one’s day of birth, and various rites of passage. Some lower-ranking priyayi are also considered to be part of the “abangan” variant. My family belonged to this last variant.

“Santri” is a name given to Orthodox Muslims, who cling to Islamic tenets and religious practices in the Javanese society. The santris have their own typical Javanese religious institutions called as the “Pesantren”. It is a religious boarding school, where young Muslims are taught by the “Kyahi” (Religious Teacher) various subjects on Islamic religion. It is similar to Hindus’ “ashram” in India, and the “Kyahi” is similar to a guru.

Nowadays, however, this distinction made by Geertz is blurred, as many “priyayis” or “abangans” also consider themselves to be santris, and become more knowledgeable about Islam, while practicing their particular priyayi or abangan practices.

I was born on September 19th, 1947, into an abangan, or rather, a lower ranking priyayi family. From my childhood I lived with my “abangan” grandfather; hence, I inherited the abangan way of life and outlook, even though officially we considered ourselves to be Muslim. We did not have an emotional attachment to Islam, because we considered ourselves to be Javanese first, before we considered ourselves to be Muslims. Therefore during the fifties and sixties, when Christianity experienced unprecedented growth in Indonesia, my family decided to become Christians.

Automatically I was also included in this conversion, it all happened in the city of Kediri, East Java, a few kilometers away from Pare, where Clifford Geertz did his field work while I was going to Sunday School. I attended a Baptist church Sunday School class from 1957 to1961, and only a year later I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior Lord, a common practice among the born-again, evangelical Baptist Christians. It was also during this time, when I was 10 years of age, that I submitted myself to God for the ministry. A year later at the age of eleven years old, I was baptized in the Baptist Church. Those were the times that I attended my primary school in Kediri City (1954-1960).

After my graduation from primary school, I decided to move to Malang City to live with my parents. Malang City is a couple of hours away from Kediri to the east, and it is a very beautiful city with cool weather all year around, because it is located on the foot of a high mountain. I spent my junior high (1960-1964) and high school (1964-1967) days in Malang. During this period I changed my church membership from a Baptist Church to Dutch Reformed Protestant Church, and I served as a sunday school teacher in this church (1966-1968). In 1967 I underwent a deep conversion experience, and I was 19 years old at that time.

The following year I decided to go to the Baptist seminary in order to prepare myself for the ministry as I had dedicated myself to God when I was ten years old. So I spent my time studying theology at Indonesian Baptist Seminary (1968-1972) in the City of Semarang, the capital city of Central Java Province (9 hours away from Malang to the west, and 2 hours away from Solo to the north). During my seminary days in Semarang I also worked as a church-planter for Semarang Mennonite Church (1969-1970), but later (1970-1972) I worked as a youth leader for the Semarang Reformed Church.

I graduated from the seminary in 1972. Because of my interest in children ministry, in 1973 I joined the “Leadership Training for Child Evangelism Fellowship” for one year. The following year I returned to my hometown and was a schoolteacher at Petra Elementary School for two years (1974-1976). I taught first and second grades in this school. For the next four years I found myself working with the Word Vision International, Indonesian Branch, in Jakarta (1976-1980) as a Project Officer of Child Welfare Program.

In order to equip myself more in the work of Church ministry, I went to Seoul, South Korea in 1980, and spent two years studying at the Asian Center for Theological Studies and Mission, where Fr. Daniel Byantoro was also a student. Soon we became close fiends. I did not know much of the inner struggle of Fr. Daniel as a student in finding the true Church, and I did not know anything about the Orthodox Church at this time.

I did not realize that it was the time of Fr. Daniel’s intense search for the Apostolic Church. He did not say anything to me about his spiritual search, except that he always said that he wanted to have Christianity communicated within the Indonesian culture that has an oriental form, and he was big on enculturation, with which I agreed. He shared with me ways to do this enculturation, in theology and in practice. But at that time I did not connect this intense interest in enculturation and his emphasis on the eastern nature of Christianity with his restlessness in finding the Church of the Apostles.

In 1981 I had to leave Korea, due to some problems that I had to attend to in Indonesia, even though I had not yet finished my study. Later I finished my studies; I did not meet Fr. Daniel again for many years. I did not know what happened to him during these years.

Even though I did not consciously wait for Fr. Daniel’s return, I consider the times after my return and my ministry work in Indonesia as a waiting period, namely waiting for my being accepted to the Orthodox faith.

I returned back from South Korea to continue my ministry with the World Vision International in Jakarta for the next nine years (1981-1990). Those nine years can be divided into several periods of appointment of my ministry. In 1981-1985 I was appointed as “Church Planter Coordinator of LEPKI”. The words LEPKI stands for Indonesian words “Lembaga Pelayanan Kristen Indonesia” (Indonesian Christian Ministry Institution”) which is an agency of World Vision International. I also had the opportunity to take several different courses: in 1982 I took the “Allen Management Workshop” in Jakarta; in 1983 I took “Advanced Pastoral Studies” in Malang City; in 1985 I attended “Communication Workshop” in Manila, The Phillipines; in 1988 I took “Dale Carnegie Course” in Jakarta; in 1989 I attended “Prasetya Mulya Management Institute” in Jakarta; in 1990 I attended “Team Integration Workshop” In Jakarta; and in 1990 I took “Workshop on Managing Project” in Jakarta. After I left World Vision, I took two more courses where in 1993 I took “Management Academic Workshop” in Malang, and finally in1996 I attended “Institute of Christian Education Studies” in Malang City.

In order to expand the LEPKI’s mission works, in 1984 I received my ordination as a pastor from a “GEPSULTRA” local denomination. The word GEPSULTRA is an acronym for “Gereja Protestan Sulawesi Tenggara” (The South East Sulawesi Protestant Church”). In 1985 – 1990 I was appointed as a Spiritual Program Coordinator of World Vision, Jakarta, by working with LEPKI in Malang City.

During this time Fr. Daniel Byantoro, who was overseas, contacted me. I was surprised when he told me that he had become an Orthodox Christian and had been ordained a priest. He told me that he would return to Indonesia on June 8, 1988. He also informed me that his mother (now deceased), and a friend of his brother (Fr. Yohanes), a young Pentecostal evangelist by the name of Parluhutan Manalu (who later became his paid office staff worker and has now become an Orthodox priest under the Greek jurisdiction) would come to pick him up at the airport in Jakarta. He asked me to meet him at the airport.

The coming of Fr. Daniel after almost ten years away from Indonesia was a joy to all of us. Fr. Daniel stayed with our family for several days before he embarked to his hometown to see his relatives. He often visited our family whenever he had to do his mission works in Jakarta. While he was with us, he shared a lot of things with us about the Orthodox faith. I felt an affinity with what he told us. It is because being a Christian from an “abangan” Javanese background with a tint of priyayi culture, something rang a bell in me. In the Javanese mystical tradition, God is spoken of as “Sejatine ora ana apa-apa, sing ana iku dudu” (“In truth there is nothing, thing which is, actually is not”), in the sense that in the very reality God is “nothing” when expressed by human speech.

What human speech and ideas can say about God as “is”, the “is” of these human speech and human idea about God, “is not” when the reality of God in Him is concerned. So when Fr. Daniel related the Orthodox idea of “apopathic approach” of God, that God is “unknown in His essence”, with this familiar Javanese belief, my Javanese soul was rekindled. It is this very mystery of God that I lacked and tried to bury when I became a Protestant, yet it had never gone away.

Also, Fr. Daniel connected the Orthodox teaching, that God in His “essence” is unknown which means God is unapproachable in the depth of His Being, yet in His “energy” He can be experienced through His Holy Spirit, thus God is closer to man than his own soul, with that of the twofold reality of God in the Javanese mystical belief that God is “far”, yet ”near”, or “unapproachable” yet “dwells in each of us”. It reminded me of Javanese belief that God is “adoh tanpa wangenan, nanging cedhak tanpa sesenggolan” (“so far away without limit, yet so close by without being able to be touched”). He is far away without limit, because He is unapproachable as no one knows God’s Essence, yet He is so close by, because through the Holy Spirit God causes His Energy to dwell within us.

Again I was amazed when Fr. Daniel related between the Incarnation of Christ in which the Humanity of Christ is united to His Divinity in His One Person without confusion, without mingling, and without separation and without division, and the Javanese mystical idea of “Manunggaling Kawula lan Gusti” (“The Union between the Servant/Creation and the Master/Creator”). The Humanity of Christ is of course in the nature of “servant/kawula = creation”, and His divinity is in the nature of “Master/Gusti = Creator”. Therefore I could see that Christ is the fulfillment and the key toward achieving this Javanese yearning for “Manunggaling Kawula lan Gusti”.

Furthermore, the idea of salvation as “theosis” (“deification, divinization”) that Fr. Daniel shared with me truly flabbergasted me. Fr. Daniel related this Orthodox teaching on “theosis” to the Javanese teaching on “Sangkan Paraning Dumadi” (“The Origin and Destination of Creation”). According to Fr. Daniel, by virtue of the union between the humanity and the divinity in the Incarnation of Christ, the power of death that dwells in the humanity of Christ was defeated and destroyed by His divinity; therefore the humanity of Christ was raised from the dead. Death has been destroyed through His resurrection; while death is caused by sin, therefore sin is also defeated by this same resurrection of Christ. The resurrected body of Christ could not be defeated by death and sin anymore, the undying life of His divinity was now revealed through His resurrected body.

Therefore the resurrected body of Christ is now the source of that undying life, or that eternal life, which is the life of the divinity of Christ Himself, namely the life of God. As the resurrected body of Christ is now imbued with His divine life, therefore that resurrected body of Christ is now “divinized” or became partaker in His divinity, without itself changed into God in its essence.

Those who believe and are united to the death and resurrection of Christ through faith by virtue of baptism are united to this divinized resurrected body of Christ. The resurrected and divinized body of Christ is now in heaven in a glorious form, and those who are united to Christ in His glorious resurrected body through faith expressed in baptism and living the life of Christ in His body, the Church, will receive the same glorification or divinization. What Christ is now in His glorious state; that is what they will become. Therefore Christ is the origin and source of that “eternal life”.

The emphasis on life eternal, reminded me of Javanese mystical insistence on finding “Sejatining Hurip” (“The Essence of Real Life”). From Fr. Daniel’s explanation, I could see how Christ is the origin (“Sangkan”) of the Eternal Life, and Christ is also the “Paran” (“ Destination”) of that Eternal Life. Christ is the essence of Javanese belief in “Sangkan Paraning Dumadi”.

Those are the essence of the high philosophy of Javanese mysticism espoused by the “priyayi” Javanese. But being also raised and brought up in the “abangan” side, I felt the emphasis of meal (I mean – “the Holy Communion”) as being central to Orthodox Christian life, which reminded me of the centrality of the “slametan” common meal ceremony in the “abangan” variant of Javanese culture. In short I felt so overwhelmed by the way Fr. Daniel related Orthodox Christianity to this Javanese oriental belief and culture, and I found nothing alien to my culture as a Javanese in Orthodoxy. It is so natural to my oriental mind, it is so true, it is so beautiful, and it is so Eastern. I do not have to fight against my eastern-ness in the way I am thinking, as I have been trained so far in Protestantism.

I began to think that this was what Fr. Daniel had been struggling with for a long time when he was a student. He had found a Christianity that really caters to his eastern and oriental mind. I rejoiced in the fact that I am the first witness of the coming of this teacher of Orthodoxy among the Indonesians, and I was the first to welcome him. But unfortunately I was not the first to be received into Orthodoxy due to my ties to my work.

In 1990 – 1996 I did not work directly with World Vision Office in Jakarta, but was appointed to be fully in charge of LEPKI as “Regional Office Manager”, so I had to move to Malang City.

In 1995, Fr. Gordon Thomas Walker visited us in Malang with Fr. Daniel Byantoro. Fr. Gordon came to Indonesia to visit Fr. Daniel, his so-called “Indonesian son”, on his way to Damascus to the Patriarchate of Antioch. His visit to Malang City coincided with the Islamic Feast of Eid’ul Fitri that marked the end of Ramadan fast. He said that he was impressed by the hundred thousand of people who prayed together that morning in an open, huge stadium, bowing down to the ground in unison. After the prayer he saw them asking forgiveness from each other, even a to a stranger that they did know, by shaking hands.

Fr. Gordon told us that it reminded him of the practice in the Orthodox Church on Forgiveness Sunday before entering the great fast of Lent in preparation of the Feast of Passover/Pascha, where all Orthodox people shake hands and hug, asking forgiveness from each other. He believed that this Islamic practice was taken directly from this Eastern Orthodox practice. He believed that it would be wonderful if all people in the whole world can forgive each other as sincerely, as it was done by these Muslim and Orthodox Christian people.

While in Malang City, Fr. Gordon gave a lecture on Orthodoxy and shared with us his conversion to the Orthodox faith. I had been Orthodox at heart that time, but I was still tied to my work and I could not do anything. Fr. Daniel, however, patiently waited for me, and still visited my family wherever we lived. In 1996 I terminated my contract with LEPKI, and in 1997 I found took more courses in theology at my former seminary of the Indonesian Baptist Theological School for my theological refreshment, while at the same time finishing my thesis for my unfinished study in Korea to get my degree.

While taking courses in the Seminary I joined “Cross Cultural Mission Ministry” for the Sundanese ethnic of West Java, near Jakarta, so I moved again from Malang City in East Java, to West Java. From 1997 to 2000, I was appointed to be the ”Director of Sundanese Cross-Cultural Training Center” by this organization. The name of the organization was “PARI Mission” and it had International Partnership.

During this period, Fr. Daniel opened a new parish (“Aghia Epiphania”) in the city of Jakarta, and he moved to Jakarta; therefore it was easier for him to visit our family. After a long struggle and consideration, especially on the part of my wife, we were officially received into the Orthodox Church in 1998. At this year of 1988 we attended a local Protestant denomination, and upon our being accepted into Orthodoxy, we asked a letter of attestation to change our membership into the Orthodox Church.

Fr. Daniel had long desired for me to help him in the mission for the Orthodox Church, so he asked me if I was willing to be ordained as an Orthodox priest. Fr. Daniel asked me to prepare all the necessary papers to be presented to the overseeing bishop. In 1999, when the bishop visited Jakarta, I was introduced to him at the Church office, and all my papers and documents were given to him.

The bishop told me that I was going to be ordained in July. I waited and waited, as did Fr. Daniel, but there was no news and no action until Fr. Daniel’s departure to the United States in 2001. My contract with “PARI” mission organization was over, and there was no news on my ordination, but life had to go on. I had to find other work, and I got a job offer in Malang City again. This time I worked for an organization called “Compassion”, where I had to be responsible for “Child Spiritual Nurturing Program”; I worked for two years, from 2000 to 2002.

To our sadness this was the period of Fr. Daniel’s suffering and difficulties. We expected him to come home in a few months, but each time he called us he informed us that his effort had not given any fruit; it took five years. We felt Fr. Daniel’s difficulties, and we joined in prayer for the successful efforts and Fr. Daniel’s return. My family made the prayer of “Paraklesis” every evening begging for mercy to God for Fr. Daniel.

Fr. Daniel always made long-distance calls from the United States to comfort us and to inform us on what was happening with him in America during this period. In 2004 my contract with Compassion organization was terminated. I got an offer to work as Student’s Dean at Pentecostal Theological Seminary (2002 – 2005). Before I accepted the offer I asked Fr. Daniel’s advice as to whether I should take the offer or not, due to my being a member of the Orthodox Church.

Fr. Daniel advised me that since I needed money I should take the offer, but I should be honest that I was an Orthodox Christian to everybody, especially to the Director, and that I was not interested in changing my own faith at all, and that I would not be able to take any Holy Communion in this Pentecostal Church. At first it was okay, but slowly pressure was put on me to leave the Orthodox Church and join Pentecostalism, since nobody knew what happened to Fr. Daniel. Meanwhile Fr. Daniel kept making long-distance to give information and encouragement for my family; during this time we lived in the theological school’s compound.

At last the joyful news came, when Fr. Daniel informed me that he had been successful in finding a bishop that would support his vision for GOI, Archbishop Hilarion of Australia of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. He also informed that I would be ordained soon. After a long struggle and waiting, on March 2005, Archbishop Hilarion made his first visit to Indonesia, and ordained several men, including me, into the priesthood.

After my ordination, Fr. Daniel sent me to start a new mission outpost in the city of Salatiga, not far away from Solo. In this city I started to do my ministry as a priest of the St Anthony the Great Orthodox Community. I pray that God will prosper my ministry and His Holy Orthodox Church will be planted deep in this area. Amen.