Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Vision in White

One final post from my Aegean trip. Or at least that's my intention - one never knows.

At the last minute before I left for my trip I put my habit into my suitcase, motivated more than anything by the fact that I was all packed and my suitcase only weighed 30 pounds. I have a light-weight summer habit, and I thought: "Why not?" I had no intention of wearing it on a regular basis during the trip. After all, we don't wear it at home except for worship and for meals on Sundays and feasts. But one never knows what may come up. I did know that we were to have two special dinners on the ship; the Captain's Welcome Dinner at the beginning and the Farewell Dinner at the end. It seemed likely, or at least possible, that I would want to trot it out on one of those occasions.

We had several days in a hotel in Istanbul at the beginning of the trip, so we were 5 days into our adventure before we boarded the Corinthian II. By this time the group who had come for the time in Istanbul (about 45 of us - half the total number who would be on the ship) had gotten to know each other pretty well, and most people knew who I was. If they hadn't met me, the talk had gotten around. The news had spread: There's a Monk Among Us!

The second night out was the Captain's welcoming dinner. And on the first morning there lying on my bed was my invitation to be seated at the Captain's table. This clearly was to be An Occasion. If I was going to wear The Outfit, this was the time.

So I got dressed and made my entrance, right in the middle of the pre-dinner cocktail reception. Now there's no way to walk into a cocktail reception quietly if you're dressed in a white Benedictine habit. You have to endure the reality that you are going to be the center everything, at least for a few minutes. After 45 years, I'm used to it.

And so it was. The buzz of conversation nearly stopped. Every head turned. People I had gotten to know pretty well smiled and seemed pleased. For the rest, it was the usual mixture of things, ranging from pleasure through curiosity to distaste. The conversation began again. I was explained to everyone who didn't know. I was certainly a Presence.

All of this I was anticipating. What I wasn't prepared for was the reaction of the crew. Our crew was mostly Eastern Europeans (Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Poles, etc.) with a smattering of Western Europeans. They didn't know who I was. They weren't prepared at all. And, to my great surprise, they were thrilled. I was rather startled when the Maitre d kissed my hand. He explained: "This is the way we greet the monks." He is a Bulgarian named Bogdan, which he proudly told me means "Gift of God". (I don't know if the Bulgarian word for God is 'Bog' or 'Dan' - both are rather disquieting to my American ear). The Captain is Greek, though a naturalized American citizen since his wife is American. He was clearly terribly pleased that I was gracing his table in all my monastic splendor. All through the meal, the serving staff whispered in my ear how happy they were that I was there. And as I left people appeared from the kitchen and who knows where else to greet me, kiss my hand, and say how wonderful it was that I was there. In all my long monastic life I can't recall anything like that dinner.

I've thought a lot about that evening. I don't usually enjoy being a Symbol. It makes people uncomfortable more often than not. Americans prefer their religious symbols in church, and certainly not at fancy dinners. But the delight that the crew took in my presence was not the false sort of "How lovely to see you" sort of thing. It was real joy. And it didn't put me off at all, which quite surprised me.

As it happens, this is not the first time I have encountered something like this in Europe. I was in Germany three years ago to perform a wedding for some friends, one of whom is German. I know enough German to conduct the ceremony with a certain amount of grace, so it went fine. We had a great party afterwards and it broke up about 2:00 am. Then we went back to the bride's family home where I was staying and we were followed by some of the guests. We settled down in the living room, poured some more drinks and talked away the night, exploring, of all things, issues of Faith. Talk about unexpected! These were young people. They are the secular products of an agressively secular society. Their life is a lot less religious than that of most Americans. They have no use for the Church as they know it; it simply has no meaning for them. They can't imagine living their lives and trying to fit into what they know of institutional Christianity. But though this has been the case all of their lives, their spiritual quest is right there close to their surface. They haven't found any way to practice it, but they are very much in touch with it. And they are concerned with the situation. They feel that a complete life should have some expression of spirituality in it. They don't know what to do. But they are looking. Looking hard enough that they didn't want to go to bed at 3:00 am - they wanted to talk for several hours about it. The sun was well up when we finally got into bed that morning.

And so with the crew of our ship. I had no follow-up conversation with them, but the situation seems familiar to me. They are from societies that have had most expressions of religious faith squeezed out of them since the 1950's. Most of them have grown up either quite alienated from religious practice, or just unconcerned, at least on the surface. And then I appear, all dressed in white, and something that they turn out to be deeply aware of bubbles up. Joy comes with it. The sight of someone for whom a life commitment to faith is a possibility seems to open a part of them. It's important to them.

It certainly speaks deeply to me of the depth of the spiritual level of our being. This isn't just something that is pounded into us, along with guilt, in Sunday School, to be rejected and forgotten later on. This is a part of our being. This longing for God and for the depths of ourselves comes with having a human nature - of that I remain convinced. It can't be eradicated. We who are Christians don't practice some esoteric craft unknown to the majority of humanity. We are expressing the longing that all people are born with. We are walking in Christ's footsteps to God, and knowing that we will - we must - do that comes to us along with being a human person.

And I think of all those people who feel this and have no way to do anything about it and no one to talk with. They look for a sign of hope for themselves. Usually I am not comfortable being taken for that sign, because it seems to imply so many inauthentic ways of behaving that I am not willing to represent. But I felt none of that in this encounter with the crew of the Corinthian II. I only felt joy. I wish the trip had permitted some unfolding of that with some of them, and clearly some of them would have been more than happy to do it. But neither our schedule or theirs permitted it. I can only hope, and pray, that they will find a way to live what their hearts so clearly desire. And I trust what so many of the spiritual masters have said: "The desire for God is itself a way of knowing God".

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