Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ode to a dear friend

"God likes us to wake up in the morning, and look out at the sky and enjoy the fresh air. He wants us to look up and see him, and enjoy him. And thank him for making me, for making this day. He just wants to love us."

In a recent conversation, a very dear friend of mine said something very similar to this (I forget the exact quote, but you get the idea). She said it with a face that radiated contentment and eyes that gleamed with excitement. And she just kind of threw it out in the middle of a conversation about something only slightly related.

It is moments like these that make me feel I have a special connection with S, even though she could be no more different from me in all material ways. She is from a different religion, born on the other side of the world from me. She has never left the country where she was born, barely even left the city where she lives. She only finished 6th grade before getting married at the age of 15, and now, at 25, she has three children. We do both have white skin and black hair, but she always conceals her hair and I don't. She acts in deference to everyone around her who is more educated and more experienced in things of the world, whereas I have a tendency to say exactly what I speak, especially considering that I am often the oldest and most educated woman in the room when I visit with her and her family. Her days are spent cooking for her husband, cleaning for her in-laws, and visiting with other relatives, and she could barely read a book if she tried. Lately, it seems I have done little but read.

Even with all this, I feel somewhere, deep in my heart, that she and I share a special connection. She seems to know true joy and have a deep knowledge of God, even if she rarely expresses it in words - and on those occasions that she does, her "faulty theology" is likely to be gently reprimanded by her more-educated relatives. And yet, when she speaks, I see in her eyes what I feel in my heart. It's something I'm really not sure I can put into words myself, even with all my years of education. Call me a fool and a dreamer, but I believe that our spirits are communicating: her and me, while the rest of the women in the room - and there are plenty! - are none the wiser!

I sometimes tell people about my dear friend to explain why it is I believe that spiritual awakening does not need to be accompanied by doctrinal precision. The world of what is spiritual is something that goes beyond words, and thus beyond whatever attempts us humans can make at theorising and summarising it in theoretical or theological terms. I don't understand it myself, I just know I love it when I see it.

But I do wonder how far it can go without the brain following along. After all, God created man not only with soul, but also with mind and body. I see in S's physical expressions that her body is tracking with her soul, but it doesn't seem to me that her mind is engaged in the same way. If it is, then what her mind knows is radically different from what my mind knows, and so how can our spirits connect while leaving our minds so far apart from each other and even in opposition to each other? In other words, can she believe a completely different set of doctrinal beliefs from me, and yet know the same spiritual reality in the depths of her heart? Do I need to try to "teach" her about my doctrine? Or do I need to learn her doctrine? Some part of me says that yes, it is my duty to transfer the information that I have to her, but I honestly can't think of why! It would only confuse her, either leading her to think that she and I don't have that connection that I believed was there, or else throw her into turmoil with her family who currently share her doctrinal beliefs.

No, I don't want to mess with S's mind. If I see something good in her spirit, it seems that I need to trust that and not jeopardise that. But what about those around her? Especially those relatives who are more educated than her and so think that they are more in touch with truth and reality than her. Should I - can I? - challenge their spiritual complacency that seems to be a result of intellectual cockiness?

Anyway, these are the types of questions I've been asking myself lately. So I wonder what connection there is between spirituality and religion and other types of thinking and believing and doing. Either way, people like S deeply inspire me, as examples of the beatitudes in practice. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven... Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth... Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

Friday, April 11, 2008

Stark Reality

As I rode on a comfortable bus into the city upon my arrival in the Middle East four days ago (Has it really been only four days? It feels like a lifetime), I gained a new perspective on what makes living in this region so incredibly different from living in the West. It's the proximity of reality.

I sat directly behind the bus driver and watched as his seat literally bobbed up and down, up six inches and down six inches, over and over. And he just drove, apparently indifferent to the defect in his seat that made his ride so bouncy. Out the front window I saw families on either side of the highway enjoying makeshift picnics: amidst the sounds of engine motors and the scent of exhaust fumes, they sat around gas burners which they used to make tea and keep themselves warm. A nice afternoon out. There were also men standing on the side of the road, waiting for buses or rides or something. The Middle East is a hitchhiker's paradise, I suppose.

All these things engaged all the physical senses, in both pleasant ways and not-so-pleasant ways. The bus driver enjoyed a smooth highway literally with bounce. The picnickers basked in the cool spring evening air while enjoying delicious cups of tea - all the while experiencing what to a Westerner would be a hyped-up (or incredibly simplified) roadside rest stop. The hitchhikers walked, waved and chatted with other hitchhikers as they got along with the simple business of getting where they needed to go.

This contrasted vividly, I thought as I gazed past the bouncing seat at the cars up ahead, more developed nations, where we have the means of sheltering ourselves from reality, from the stark unpleasantries of reality. Do we realise that by airconditioning our houses we lose the unparalleled joy of enjoying a picnic on a gorgeous spring evening - even if it is situated among trucks and pollution? Do we realise that having our own cars and well-scheduled public transport systems may rob us of the thrill of finally catching a ride, the excitement in waving down a bus and running to catch up with it?

In the last four days, which have consisted of missed and rescheduled flights and events, long border waits, and driving aimlessly through neighbourhoods trying to rediscover without a map the highway I'd just left, I feel like I've done as much living as I did in two months in the U.S. Of course this isn't true - the calendar tells me otherwise, and my emotional barometer tells me time is actually passing much faster here than it was before this trip. But my senses have been reactivated and I have come once again face-to-face with reality; I don't have clean air and a comfy home and television faithfully sheltering me from living. I'm getting dirt under my fingernails, both literally and figuratively.

So I now ask, Do I want to live life fully with my eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin? Or do I want to take it slow, venturing out into reality only when I feel real and truly ready? But then again, every moment in the U.S. was precious as I had the freedom from distraction to think and process and grow - perhaps that is in fact a deeper, albeit more distant, reality than the stark reality I experience in a less-cushy part of the world like the Middle East.