Wednesday, February 08, 2006
call to prayer
Call to prayer
I moved to Sri Lanka about eight weeks ago with my husband. We arrived on December 8, 2005. It is from our new environment that I share the following thoughts...
Leo and I moved here from Alexandria, VA where I attended a small Episcopal church near our home. St. Clement was a very nice place for me. I felt at home there though I knew no one...at home with strangers, who fast became people I looked forward to seeing on Sunday mornings. They were people with whom I shared the sacred silence of early Sunday mornings, I knelt with them and we received the sustenance of Holy Communion side by side. Holy Communion, bread and wine. There was another kind of communion that took place after church, in the kitchen. Coffee was our wine and doughnut holes our bread. We giggled, dropped powdered sugar on our shirts, passed the napkins, and told stories and jokes, asked each other questions, and shared a little about our week. It offered additional opportunities for connection and fellowship, and it too meant a lot to me.
When I received the final word that we were moving to Sri Lanka, I was very excited. We had been waiting and planning for this move for many months. My excitement revolved around realizing the dream of serving as an aid worker in another part of the world, experiencing a new culture, stretching myself in new ways professionally and personally. The excitement was about COMING. I had different feelings about LEAVING.
Leaving our family and our friends was hard, though I have had some practice. I have lived at least a 10 hour drive or a several hundred dollar plane trip away from my beloved friends and family for most of my adult life. Leaving my church was a bit different.
It had taken me awhile to find a place to worship...to "be spiritual" with other people. I grew up in a Christian family but my heart and mind had been opened to other cultures and faiths, including Buddhism so I wasn't even sure what I was looking for other than a place that I felt comfortable and a place that I sensed God's presence. For the most part, I chose to wake up early and take my beloved dogs to an old growth forest about an hour south of DC. We would walk in silence together. I felt I was worshiping with them. I felt God in the forest, I smelled and heard and sensed the Holy Spirit in the trees and moss and bubbling brooks and slap-happy expressions on my dogs' faces. It was good church. I rejoiced and felt full and thankful and was inspired to be a nicer and calmer version of myself the following week. What I loved about the forest was that I was the only person in sight and sound...but ironically, it was fellowship, a sharing of presence and connection of spirit that I sometimes missed. And that's around the time that I began attending the Church of St. Clement, a three minute walk from our home.
Leaving St. Clement was hard because it had been such a personal growth process for me to find it and be strong enough in my personal identity and spiritual identity to become a part of the family there; to become an active part of the church.
Soon after we arrived here to Sri Lanka, I began getting the question from people, "what is your religion?"
I am not used to having to answer that question.
Here in Sri Lanka, ones religion is a part of ones identity in a way that I have never before experienced. It defines you in a way that incorporates a social, political, racial, cultural history and context that is unique to Sri Lanka. When I say that I am Christian here, people react. In the flicker of a second, I see in the eyes of the person facing me a recognition of context and of category that I have only a superficial knowledge of, and it makes me want to explain my answer...Christian...as in, I believe in the teachings of Jesus...I strive to live up to His ways of loving and living in the world. There are things that being Christian mean that I do not identify with, that I do not want to define me or my way of loving and living with my earthly brothers and sisters.
We arrived in Sri Lanka on December 8th. In my mind and heart, I held prayers for my family and friends. I thought of my home church, St. Clement. I imagined Father John gearing up for the busy advent season and Christmas weekend I yearned to be there, sitting in the front pew, beside Ellen and in front of the woman who always prays for Suzanne. I had a very meaningful, relaxing weekend with my husband, my younger brother, and his girlfriend at the seaside in the south of Sri Lanka. There were several Sri Lankan friends that we made over that weekend, and several more wayward Western tourists that all joined up somehow, in spirit...we all wore our Santa hats which we got for buying a tin of Pringles down the road, and watched the waves and sunset, and sunrise, and thought about home and enjoyed each others company.
In the newspaper on December 25, 2005 was a headline stating that a prominent political leader was shot in the head during midnight mass.
I do not mean to imply that Christians are at all targets of random acts of terrorism here. Nor do I mean to say that it's not safe for me to go to church or declare my faith to anyone who asks. It's just a different context.
Before I left home, the seminarian at St. Clement had researched the Episcopal (or Anglican as it is referred to here) church in Sri Lanka. He discovered an interesting thing. Since the country has a long Buddhist national and cultural history, the Anglican church has embraced some elements of Buddhism into its practices. The specific recitation pattern of the three refuges in Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, have been incorporated into the Anglican worship service to reflect the Holy Trinity.
My mother-in-law was Buddhist and it was at her temple that my husband and I first met. My father-in-law is Catholic and my husband was raised Catholic but was heavily influenced spiritually by his mother's Buddhist faith. My husband did not feel at home the way I did at St. Clement in Alexandria. He also did not feel the need to attend an organized worship service on a regular basis so I attended church by myself.
When Matthew shared his research findings about the Anglican church in Sri Lanka and its Buddhist influences, I was really excited. So was my husband. We were very curious to check it out together.
We've been here for eight weeks and have not yet made it to church. The Christians at my office ask me every Monday if I made it to any of the Colombo churches over the weekend. I don�t feel quite ready. I am still getting used to being here...a new culture. And still getting used to what it means to be Christian...as opposed to Buddhist, as opposed to Hindu, as opposed to Muslim, as opposed to the average loving joe on Anula Road.
As I look out from the window, I see the bulbous top of the mosque reaching up between palm tree tops and the long spire of the Buddhist temple just to the left, and in the distance I hear church bells...and what wakes me up in the morning is often not my alarm clock but the Muslim call to prayer...which, as the sun is rising through the mist and smog of this Asian city, sounds like God. The call to prayer is sung in a language my mind does not understand but which stirs my soul.
Children across the street at the Hindu school sing at mid-morning in yet another dialect of love and I am reminded of the blessing of this new experience.
Although I do not doubt my spiritual roots, nor do I question my dedication to Christianity, I feel the need to continue taking time to breathe in the many voices in the air and allow them to further expand the meaning of love in my heart and soul. This is my church in these days for it stirs my spirit and causes me to stop and be thankful and quiet and listen.
One day I will venture out...to the church down the street...just as I did back home. And until that day, I share my Christian love with the family I create throughout the day...on the walk to work, smiling at the man with no legs and whispering a prayer for every person I pass, seeing flowers and watching cows forging in trash heaps, sweating and being alive with everyone else...it's all my day, it's infused with God's presence, and I'm learning...constantly.