Monday, March 10, 2008

Off the Highway

Off the Highway

There is a small restaurant, one of a vast chain called “Huddle House” restaurants, in Alabama. I was driving along the Interstate and was hungry and I pulled off the highway, parked the car and headed inside. I sat at the counter. It was a small, friendly place. People nodded to me and smiled as I sat down. I nodded back. I placed my order – the waitress was a thin blond woman and I guessed her to be in her fifties. A young woman came into the restaurant and stood next to me, waiting to talk to the waitress. She was about seventeen years old. She was dressed in what looked to be a brand new “Huddle House” uniform, identical to those that the other women and men were wearing – a red top, black pants, red hat. She and the older waitress chatted for a moment and it was the young woman’s first day at work. The older woman assured her that things would be okay, that there would be someone helping her, especially when the place got very busy. So, she told her, there was nothing to worry about. She then took out a piece of paper from her pocket and wrote down her name and phone number. “My name is Nellie,” she said. “I live just around the corner and if you need any help at all, you just call me and I will come right over. You hear? It is no problem at all. Do not think for a second that you are bothering me. I am only too glad to help.”

The young woman took the piece of paper, folded it and put it in her pocket. “You make me feel at home already,” she said. And Nellie looked at her and smiled and said, “I was where you were once and I remembered the kindness of people when I was starting out. You remember – and just do the same some day.”

I listened. And I thought. Maybe, I thought to myself, that I listen to such conversations and read more into them than they mean. Perhaps I should just let it go, but the scene and the words seemed to be nudging me to remember something.

I have read a lot about God. I am what might be called a professional religious since I am a priest, live in the monastery, and am immersed in language, symbols, references to God and the holy seven days a week for every week of the year. Well, perhaps I should qualify that – there are occasional trips home to see my mom, who is not well, and therefore I get hungry when I drive and find places like the Huddle House. And I cannot help it if I hear what is being said – after all, the women were so close to me. As close as these words are to you.

I got back in the car and headed east, toward Atlanta, and, with the waitresses in mind, another image came to me almost as fresh as the one I was just leaving behind. A few days earlier I was in a restaurant near my mom’s place. I go there early and was the only one in the large dining area. The waitress came over and took my order and when she took the menu back from me I noticed that she was missing all of the fingers on her left hand. I watched as she walked away. I watched as she arranged some napkins and utensils on another table. I watched as another waitress came over to her and said that she would be just around the corner if she needed help carrying anything. The waitress with no fingers smiled and said, “I think I will be okay – but I will give you a holler if I need help.”

It is hard for me to place into some kind of a coherent conversation what it is I know to be of my monastic life, with all its religious finery – and the easy, raw and available beauty that people speak to each other every day. The instances I saw on my little road trip were words of availability – people going out of their way to be of help. In once living vignette it was an offer to help a newcomer, a stranger. In the other, a woman knew the need of another woman who had no fingers and who could not carry things like most of us full fingered people do.

I suppose that the difficulty I experience in my wonderment about this life and the life of the road is that people often come here to the monastery to find a sense of God. I leave here, driving along roads and getting hungry, and listen and see. And somehow I believe that God speaks sort of anonymously but yet as clear as a bell. I pull off roads and find that I am dining with religious revelation, even though there is no cloister in the Huddle House and no altar in the restaurant near my mom’s place.

My life as a monk is good. I think that I need to parameters of this place to help me situate a sense of God.

Yet when I am driving, heading east to the monastery, I cannot forget what I heard and saw just a few miles west.

We are all born with something missing – be it fingers, a decent chance at life, a strong or willing heart, a sense of meaning. And we all are strangers at one time, one place, or another. It seems to take me a bit of hunger and a turn off any familiar road to rediscover what a monastery, or a restaurant, or a church or office or home are all about.

God lives and travels through each of us. No one person has or lives a full sense of God. Each of us is part of the living road toward God. God is the destination and God is the way. We are all aware of such in different and varying degrees. I have this place, set apart to ponder the many roads of life. And I am grateful for it. But I am as well thankful for the hungers in life that make me turn in different ways, seeking God, seeking food, and finding his presence all along the way.

Pulling off the familiar can seem to slow us down. But I find that in that stillness, I am sometimes given the opportunity to refresh myself and to pick up the journey again, knowing that I experienced something good, just a bit a bit back East.

1 comment:

Gerhard Venter said...

This really made me think. Maybe we go "somewhere" to find God because we think He is "elsewhere." When you live in the noisy world outside the monastery you think you cannot possibly find God - even inside yourself - in that ungodly racket.

Thank you for reminding me that He is alive and well an powerful OUTSIDE cloistered gardens too.