One holds my hand to lead me through the doors and down the hall. She is accustomed to the statues lurking at every turn, but I am not: in the stairwell, an Aryan Mary placidly treads on a gagging snake; a short, bald friar permanently intrudes into the female cloister; and in the community room, Jesus carelessly dangles drops of wooden blood over the doilies and pink curtains. My room is simple and there is commotion over whether the baseboards have been dusted for my arrival. I wash my face at the sink, then sit upon the bed until prayers. The sisters, mostly old women now, sit in two choirs, facing in mirror image, and sing. They sing of oil, milk and honey, but do not shy away from songs of vengeance, pettiness, plagues, weeping and gnashing of teeth—they sing of all. I linger at the edge of their music and ask silent questions. Can it be that after two children, one divorce and forty years I am going to become one of them, become of them, become them, become? Around me, thirty voices merge into the single, low, clear, patient, endless woman’s voice of God.
It is September 11, 2002. The National Cathedral in Washington, DC, United States is packed to capacity with Sisters of Charity in white and blue stripe, Buddhist monks in saffron robes, Catholic priests, and hordes of laypeople on folding chairs. Fans oscillate weakly across the audience, and programs are flapped in vain at sweating necks and faces. Outside, additional hordes bake on the lawn while squinting at giant video screens relaying indoor goings-on. There has been some singing, some praying, some talk of interfaith dialogue and tolerance, some mention of the tragedy one year before. It is all Important. The Dalai Lama is the featured speaker and so speaks, in English but mostly in Tibetan with his translator. After he has concluded his remarks, a fat bishop approaches with something red in his hands. He informs the Dalai Lama that he, as a representative of his diocese and of the Catholic faith in general, is presenting his Holiness with a small gift. And here is the ground zero of this August gathering, the moment from which all others spring forward and back. The Dalai Lama looks at the bishop as his translator echoes the words. And he laughs. He laughs the purest laugh this generation will hear. It is not joy at receiving the gift; it is joy that such a thing exists, that it has surprised him. The laugh flies at the speed of sound, free of the weight of mockery, bitterness or greed, from a soul fallible yet somehow perfect. It ripples from his throat, tickling first the rows of dignitaries and clergy, then on back to sisters, monks, general seating and lawn squatters. It cuts like a gamma ray through humidity, moods, dinner plans, note taking, and cathedral walls. The entire congregation laughs with the Dalai Lama, delighted and surprised at their involuntary but purifying laughter. In a few seconds it has faded and the ceremony and the sweating recommence until dispersal. Perhaps only a few notice that their lives have been bisected by this languageless round performed en masse, or that a mushroom cloud of joy rising from the nation’s capitol has left an invisible pinprick of light at its epicenter.
An hour more of dark before dawn. Asleep. But now the alarm, the toilet, cold water splashed on my face, somehow into pants and shirt, gathering ingredients of the day–bag, lunch, key– okay– and I’m down. Wedged in the couch warm in the sweater, the pet rat’s tiny heart pulses with contentment, nested by my big slow heart. Can’t stay here, we can’t stay like this for long– but not yet, not yet to go and be human. It’s two minutes free of any presence of mind, just me and the other animal, tired and awake and breathing here now. And in the marrow of my bones, I thank God for stupor.
They’re singing and speaking all the same words and outside trains pass, sound like cannons, thunderclaps, giants clanking armor. They’re blessing a little girl, pouring warm water over her ears and smearing oil over her brow and through the window bums do a Sunday morning stumble as sunshine burns off the last alcohol. They’re biting at the bread of life and sipping together their spiritual drink in the old white building unremarkable off Toole Street, unrecognizable as churchly, dedicated, even inhabited. The trains and the prayers disperse, as afterwards do the people, mingling with the sun and the bums, in the middle of it, smiling and trying and fallible and real.