Thursday, June 11, 2009

Salvation and the Tuna Fish Sandwich

Salvation and the Tuna Fish Sandwich

I have heard that roughly seventy-thousand people pass through our monastery every year. We are on the tourist maps and in religious sights-to-see brochures. I am the Guest Master of the retreat house, so I have an opportunity to meet many of those who grace our lives with their presence. I give orientations several times a week and am often called upon to give talks to groups who visit us. I enjoy my “job.” I am always meeting new people, people from all walks of life and from many varied places on the religious “map.” People, of course, are the living embodiment of the church. There are people who are liberal in their thinking and there are those who feel more comfortable in the conservative realm of devotion.
Last Saturday I was asked to give a brief talk to a group of visitors. It was a group of mentally and physically challenged adults. They were accompanied by their parents and chaperones. I met them in a large room beneath our church. Chairs were arranged in a large circle and when I walked into the room, I saw a chair which was reserved for me. Well, not everyone was able to use a chair. Several of the people were wheeled into place on their small motorized vehicles. And there was a man who wore a blue helmet and who leaned against a pillar. I noticed later that when he walked, he did so in fits and starts, shaking a lot before he was able to steady himself, and then took one small step at a time, and then began to shake again until he steadied himself and the shaking stopped. Then he would move forward again.
I sat down and began to speak, telling them about the life here, about what we are about. I shared with them a few things about myself – where I grew up, how it was that I came here, and then invited the group to ask questions. To my right there sat a young man who was wearing a baseball cap. He tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to him and he smiled and said “I want to live here. Wanna be a monk, maybe a priest. Gonna do it. Gonna, gonna do it do it do it” He stuttered, trying to get the words out. He smiled. I told him it just might work, that it would take some time. “Time, time, time,” he said, seeming to like the cadence or the sound of the words. Or maybe it was a way that he let things sink in, by a need to repeat important words over and over. He had a wonderful smile – I could feel him listening to me, taking in every word.
I had brought my camera and wanted to take some pictures, but the light in the room was poor. I thought to myself that I would meet the group later, when they went outside for lunch.
Later, I came back and it was raining, so the group was in the same room, having their lunch. The tables were rearranged so as to easily accommodate the movement and placement of those who had the wheelchairs and motorized vehicles. I let go of the idea about taking photographs. I sat near a couple and later found out that they were the parents of one of the older men. We chatted a bit – they were interesting, easy to chat with. We spoke about the church with its present challenges, opportunities and problems. They were well informed and extremely articulate in terms of church related – human related – issues. I was listening intently to what they were telling me about their journey re church and their son when suddenly I noticed movement before me, on the table. I looked down and a sandwich wrapped in cellophane paper glided across the table and stopped in front of me, guided by a hand. I looked up and their son beamed at me. He did not say anything, and nodded. “It’s for you,” his mom said.
The son moved off, back to his table. I let the sandwich be for the time being. Several minutes later, I spotted him across the hall, standing at his place, looking at me and smiling, his arm raised high and his hand making a pointing motion down. He wanted to make sure I had noticed the sandwich. I lifted it off the table, showed it to him, and he beamed and sat back down.
I went back later in the afternoon, hoping to see them again, but they had left earlier than had been originally planned. I suspect that the stormy weather had something to do with it. I hope that they come back again someday.
The monastery attracts as many questions as there are the people who ask them. Many of the questions hover around the presence of God – how to find him, how best to order one’s life so as to allow a space for God to make an appearance. I suppose it is assumed by many that we monks have some sort of a knowing edge when it comes to divine matters, to the revelation of the holy in this life. And so it is that for most of us, language strains to situate in a fairly convincing way the parameters of God in this life. We have monks here who speak about such things very well. And we have a lot of books, CDs and videos, audio tapes and the like which offer a huge array of God related topics.
Yet how well aware I am at this writing that there are other conversations, other ways of being in this world that are no less striking in their offerings of what God and salvation are all about. I sat with that group on Saturday, crafting as best I could some words about the holy and this life, well aware that I was speaking to many levels of comprehension and experience. And in the midst of some high flying words about whatever – grace or peace or the psalms, a tuna fish sandwich made its way, unbidden, right before me. And there it sat as I spoke. And then I saw the giver out of the corner of my eye, waving and hoping that I saw what he had given to me. He was a man who will never get things really “right” but who does what is of deepest “right.”
And the teetering man, the man in the blue helmet, who needs to take life a very careful step at a time lest he fall. All around him were those who would pick him up and help him get to where he needs to go. But it is best that he tries each step alone, for now. Yet he is never really alone. He is watched, loved, and will be helped to his feet when the time calls for it. As a gathering of believers, no matter where our place on the religious map, we fall. Being human is to risk each step, each teeter and shake that goes with it, trusting in the move forward, and being lifted up when we go down.
“Gonna, gonna, gonna be a priest.” I wanted to photograph him, to remember him. The light in the room was not bright enough, the light above. Yet how a different kind of light shown from below, through everyone in that room, people looking for God yet bearing him with such beauty. A priesthood we all are and share, as real as the priesthood that young man wants and is already. A priesthood of smiles from wounded bodies, a priesthood of a tuna fish sandwich and a reminder from afar that it is there in front of you and, of course, that there is more to come if you need it.
God may seem far, but he is near, kind of across the room, where he needs to be, yet giving us what we need and ready to come again and give more. He is waving.
All of life, all its beauty, sadness, teetering joy and stammering – God comes slowly, through it all. “It’s for you,” I was told. Words that say it all.
We are of God to each other. And what is revealed through human weakness is the most powerful of God’s many manifestations. It was just that way in the dimly lit room, where the light was brightest from below.

1 comment:

4get2remember said...

I love the lens through which you see life...