Bombs, eels and swim team

It was a long time coming, but at last I realize that spiritually, I need something to push against. Resistance and difference fuel deeper connection. I don’t mean bigotry or the “prosperity gospel” or apathy towards the needy or oppressed; those conversations need to happen, but what I mean is words and stories.

I’ve gone to faith-y places where I agree with every word said and sung – they’re praising nature and thanking the universe, smudging the elements on new babies’ foreheads – but my heart doesn’t move. The people are good but I feel no motion. Instead, I am pulled to denominations, to specificity, to all the lush details so easy to debunk, deflate, mock. You draw lines, you claim anything, you’re a tempting target. The Dalai Lama lectures on some particular number of jewels, and his laugh penetrates my cells. The Hare Krishnas fill the air with perfume and din and color, which I do not understand, into which I am absorbed. I don’t buy any of it, but my friends see me come out into the dirty New Orleans air and say I am glowing.

And the place I have made my faith home says Lord. Yuck. Sings Jesus, sings Christ, sings heaven. I’m forever substituting “life” and “God” and “spirit” and “light,” or even “death” and “darkness,” which are holy too, instead of those loaded words I would not honestly use, or want to. What is this team I’ve joined?

They read from a book out of which maybe half, or a third, of the readings are what I call “bombs.” Like heavy stones dropped into a lake. The extreme example, of course, is Leviticus. Verse from Leviticus? Bomb. Kersploosh. Whoops– some folks were trying real hard to get it right, but it sank to the bottom. Look at it down there beneath the deep, clear water. Just remember that it’s there, watch out for more incoming, don’t throw any in yourself, and keep swimming. Others are eels, slippery fish. Parables? What the hell did that mean? Ah well, maybe it’ll find a river and lead upstream someday. Keep swimming.

But bombs and eels and questionable proper nouns aside, these are the right people for me. Energy flows. I feel a part. We’re in the same drink, treading and paddling and rescuing one another. We speak different languages, and apparently, for in spite of this we still connect, the difference makes that connection more true.

The Dalai Lama laughs

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.