Sunday, September 17, 2006

Honoring the Divine

"One prayer in Jerusalem is worth 40,000 elsewhere." -Islamic Saying

At the end of my Sunday evening ashtanga yoga class last night, my instructor read one of the many interpretations for the meaning of Namaste. It happened to be a version of my nome du plume* that I typically like best:

"The Great Perfection in me honors the Great Perfection in you, and in that place, we are One."

With sore muscles but a refreshed spirit, I walked out of class last night and into the waning moments of my American weekend. The thought occurred to me that there were a lot of things that happened this summer (and since) that have tested my resolve to live according to this mantra. Maybe this is part of growing up, I thought to myself. Or even better, maybe this is part of growing solid.

Given safety issues and the hope of meeting new people, I chose to live in the dorms at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For $550 a month, these were very Spartan accommodations, which left much to be desired, even with the lowest of expectations. The dorms were filthy, loud, and unsafe. Ferrell cats (and their feces) lived in the hallways, where some students left food for them on dirty plates that were never cleaned. The beds were body-fluid stained, two-inch foam pads on a metal frame from the 1970's. We were given bedding--a two sheets and a blanket, which were also covered in a mysterious array of body fluid stains, and smelled of impermeable cigarettette smoke. No dorm had a locking front door, and in the women's dorms, we were cautioned never to leave our door unlocked (even if we were inside our room), and to NEVER, EVER, EVER take a shower in the communal bathroom (with no curtains) without locking ourselves inside. To say the least, it felt more like hell than home.

Because single rooms were out of the question, I was randomly paired to live with a 19-year-old American girl from Virginia named Sarah. As it turned out, this was Sarah's first time ever traveling alone, much less in a foreign country. Until this point, she had been living at home, studying the piano, leading her local Christian youth group and desperately longing to be the wife of a future church preacher who will preferably "play the guitar or some other important musical instrument, and be "down" with The Lord". Sarah came equipped with a shiny new passport, two new, overstuffed suitcases, a flute-like instrument thing and a very well-worn Bible. She had never washed her own dishes, didn't know the first thing about doing laundry by hand, and was a complete babe in the woods when it came to sorting out how to get around a new college campus, let alone a new country. She believed in Jesus and she really liked to sing about him. She did not, however, believe the first thing in personal hygeine or cleanliness. For her, sharing a room with me meant utilizing my personal affects while I was gone. And when I was there, she kept me company by quoting biblical scripture to me when she told me the stories of her day, about the loves of her life, etc, etc, etc. It was fun times.

The irony of living with Sarah at this point in my life versus 5 or even 10 years ago is that I was actually very patient with her. I really listened to her. I let her go on and on and on about Jesus-this and living-in-Divinity-that, and I actually thought very deeply about what she had to say. Even the day that she told me that I was going to burn in hell with the Jewish folks for being a Roman Catholic, I listened to her. There was no need to take offense. She was simply repeating what had been preached to her. And, honestly, she had no real basis of understanding the implications of what she was saying. Of course, when she quoted Revelations to me and told me that the New Testament was clearly indicting the evil tyranny that is the Roman Catholic Church, I gave her a lesson on the history of Rome and the eventual rise of the Roman Catholic Church, which was far from existing in the times of the writing of Revelations. Far from being an expert theologian, I was at least able to wrap her argument inside out, with a simple time and space dependency approach. At any rate, it was during that conversation that it occurred to me that Sarah was actually the age of my students back home. Perhaps I wasn't going to find a good buddy/roommate in her, but, if anything, her naivete and world view in general was giving me the opportunity to test my ability to practice patience with this person while being a good mentor/teacher myself.

If anything, my time with Sarah was successful in teaching her that one does not have to be a fundamentalist Christian to be a fundamentally good person. Sure, she probably still tosses and turns at night thinking that it's a shame that I'm going to have to burn in hell on Judgement Day, but, nevertheless, she had the opportunity to learn from me that there are good people outside of her social nexus who are also capable of living in Grace and honoring the Divine in every aspect of their lives. She would often say things to me like, "You know, it wouldn't take much for you to be a real Christian. You already do all of the right things." And I would respond, "Yes, but do you really think that God cares if I worship the way you do or if I worship in mosque or a synagogue? Think about it. It's all the same sentiment, just in different vocabulary words. But, really, in the end, it's all the same thing: same God, same House. Your label may be important to you, your sense of community and identity, but it's just a distration to me."

Mmm...maybe she got it. Maybe she didn't. Point is, I didn't hold it against her, and I didn't take anything personally. At the very least, knowing me made her confront who she was up until this point in her life. She needed this. I have no doubt that she had to come all of the way to Jerusalem to find this for herself. And, in turn, witnessing this confrontation helped me to see that I am not only beyond the deep, angst-ridden, personal introspection stage of my life, but able to be a good resource for those who are still there. Maybe I changed her by opening her head just a little bit. If anything, she certainly opened mine.

* I hope I got my French-ism right this time. Thanks again, Anon.

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