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YOUR DAILY LIFE IS YOUR TEMPLE
By Anne Rowthorn
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 Anne Rowthorn
All rights reserved.
A Place Called Home
The mosques and churches float through our memories, Prayers devoid of sense or taste echo from the walls. Never has the heart of God been touched by them, But still beats on amidst the sounds of drums and bells.
Migjenji (Millosh Gjergj Nickolla), an Albanian poet
Benoît was the only child of the owners of our vacation house in Larcat, a remote French village high in the Pyrenees. He was eighteen years old and had just finished his term at the lycée. He was returning from a party with his friends and the car missed the turn and tore into a tree. Benoit was the only passenger killed. His parents, whose permanent home was in the city, chose for his funeral the little hillside church in their ancestral village. The villagers, mostly retired folk with deep roots in the hamlet, had all welcomed my husband and me when we first arrived—they invited us to their homes, told us when the baker made his deliveries, brought their spare garden produce by, and warned us that when we heard an almighty roar echoing through the village on a Wednesday morning not to worry, it was only the shrill horn of the butcher making his rounds. Daily they stopped by and gave us progress reports as to how the family was coping with their loss and how the villagers were planning a funeral reception. While we were merely vacationers, they readily incorporated us into their lives, and they assumed we would attend the funeral, just like everyone else.
On the appointed day when the church bells rang out over the hills, my husband and I walked through a desolate group of young people gathered in the churchyard, Benoît's friends, into the church where the elderly villagers were already seated. Several grandmothers with gnarled hands were threading rosary beads between their fingers. At the last minute the young people entered and the service began. Then it struck us forcibly that the only people saying the responses were the elderly—and the two of us! As the priest began the Lord's Prayer, it was the same. Benoît's friends uttered not a word. They were not disrespectful; they did not have an "attitude." They just stood there, immobile and with such sadness in their eyes. They had lost their friend in a terrible accident and they were still in shock. Then the realization hit me: they did not know the Lord's Prayer. They had never been taught it. These were very typical urban French teenagers, well educated and responsible. But their parents had not taken them to church when they were children and for some, this was the first time they had walked through the doors of a church.
At their best, churches present Jesus Christ so compellingly to children that they will experience Christ as a living, active presence in their lives. This did not happen for me, and my guess is that for many people it was the same. But conversion does not matter at this point in a child's life. What does matter is that children be raised in their particular tradition, whatever that may be, and that they absorb its teachings. All those years of catechism, First Communion classes, Sunday school, junior choir, Young People's Fellowship, Christmas pageants, high holy days, and listening to scripture Sunday after Sunday may roll off their backs, little noticed, recognized, or appreciated. But if the tradition in which children grow up does nothing else, it lays a foundation and gives them a treasury of resources to draw on for the rest of their lives.
I think many of us are like the writer Richard Bernstein, the New York Times book editor and former Time magazine bureau chief in Beijing, who retraced the path of the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang. Hsuan went on a pilgrimage to discover the roots of Buddhism in India, where in the sixth century Prince Siddhartha left his noble family and their riches to receive enlightenment in the wilderness. He became the first Buddha: the one who is awake, who is enlightened. Bernstein was captivated by the monk whose only goal was to discover the Ultimate Truth, and what the writer reveals about himself is what probably many of us would say if we were completely honest. Bernstein is obviously a seeker. "In matters of the spirit," he writes, "I am a Jew. I come to all religions as a skeptic, essentially a nonbeliever.... I am a strangely religious nonbeliever, a devout sort of atheist." In spite of this, Bernstein has a religious place he can call home, for he is grounded in the culture of his faith that has stayed with him:
I am tied to Judaism by aesthetic sentiment, by respect for the martyrdom of others, and by a sense of history.... In the antiquity of Judaism, and in the duration of the Jewish conscience, I feel linked in a very long chain, one that stretches way back to the beginning of recorded time. In there is my religious meaning.... After all of the centuries and all of the blood, I do not want it to end here, with me.
Bernstein reminds me of my friend Sarah, who has a large family that gathers from Florida, New York, and New Jersey to celebrate the Seder at her home in Connecticut. This is a high point in the year, and everyone looks forward to it. Yet Sarah told me she does not know whether or not she believes in God and that no member of the family goes to synagogue. So I asked her why, then, does she take such pleasure in the Seder? "Anne, you've got to understand that it's an identity thing. It's about family." Now that I get it, I feel a little envious of my Jewish friends every year when Passover rolls around. I recall a statistics class in which the professor asked the forty or so of us whether we would be at home the next week observing the Seder. Virtually every hand shot up. It felt as if all the world was Jewish, except for me. My guess is that most of my companion students were something like Sarah, observing the Seder and their identity as Jews whether or not they have a well-articulated belief in God. Nonetheless, I am envious. Christians simply have no comparable rite that brings together, around the dining room table, family, fun, distinctive foods and drink, ritual, and the retelling of the ancient stories of the people—all in a rite in which children have distinct roles.
At Passover, every home where the Seder is observed becomes a sanctuary and every common dining table an altar where the history of the liberation of the Jews is told through scripture, literature, legend, folklore, and song. The night of the Seder is different from all other nights. On an ordinary night, the small children eat their dinner, do their homework, and go to bed; on the night of the Seder, they follow their father around the house, removing by candlelight any crumbs of leavened bread. On an ordinary night, they turn off their lights and retire to their dream world; on the night of the Seder, candles light the darkness and they take their part at the table with their elders.
Toward the beginning of the rite, the youngest child who can read asks the traditional four questions—Why is this night different from all other nights?—and after three of the four ritual glasses of wine, the bitter herbs, the traditional foods, it is a child again who opens the door to the prophet Elijah, the honored guest at every Seder. In Jewish lore, Elijah never died but was magically carried off to heaven. He is said to be the champion of the oppressed; he brings hope, cheer, and relief to the needy, and he performs miracles of rescue and deliverance. After the door is closed and the fourth glass of wine is poured, children who are very observant will notice that there is a little less wine in the cup reserved for Elijah, a sure indication that he is with them at this Seder.
My own family has two customs that are our household identity rites. One is the table blessing over the evening meal, and the other is our Thanksgiving Day thanksgivings. When the children were young, Jeffery and I wanted a table blessing that would be, simple for them to learn and remember. With the dinner ready, we would pause, hold hands around the table, and say, "God is great; God is good; and we thank him for our food." And we would add, "and God bless Granny and Uncle Jay," naming grandparents and family members who were absent from the table, and ending with "and all of us."
This worked well for years and years, and the families of any guests who were dining with us were incorporated into the grace. But when the children were in junior high school we decided to write a new grace that was less simple and childlike, that was better liturgy, and that would make our Jewish friends feel welcome. Their reaction was immediate and decisive: they weren't having it! How could we take away the grace that had become such a familiar family practice? Why didn't we ask them? The new grace was summarily discarded. In retrospect, our mistake was that Jeffery and I had underestimated, in Sarah's words, "the identity thing." Our simple little prayer had become part of the children's passive vocabulary of faith; it was their place called home. Now they are in their late thirties and some of them have children of their own, but the table ritual never changes. When they are home these hulking six-feet-four-inch men and their sophisticated sister, along with their partners and children and friends, will sit down to the Rowthorn dining table, clasp hands, and say, "God is great; God is good; ..." When we get to the final phrase asking for a blessing on "all of us" the little ones will smile at each other and give their hands an extra shake. If there is any lesson to be learned it is this: if you want good liturgy, do it right from the beginning!
A family ritual that we feel a little more proud of is our Thanksgiving Day thanksgivings. The board has been laid with food and floral offerings of friends and family. A large turkey adorns the center, dressed up with its cranberry necklace and surrounded by the usual traditional side dishes—the creamed onions, mashed potatoes, wild rice, yams, nuts, and celery. The household now gathers around the table. We pause, and everyone who wishes, including the children, offers a short prayer or phrase in thanksgiving for the blessings they have received since the last Thanksgiving Day. Life's changes and achievements and pleasures are offered up, along with prayers for family members and friends. The little ones thank God for new puppies and babies on the way, their elders remember family members who have passed on. At the conclusion, one member reads the closing collect, which begins, "Blessed are you, O Holy God of the Universe. You in your goodness sustain the whole world with grace, loving-kindness, and compassion. We thank you that you have sustained us and all our loved ones since last Thanksgiving Day...." There have been times when Jeffery and I have wondered how this ritual was sitting with the children, and there were a few times when they would mutter, "Oh, do we have to do this again?" However, a couple of years ago Chris was living in Kyoto and celebrated Thanksgiving with a group of his American and Japanese friends. All was set out to behold and just as the company was about to dive in, Chris suggested they hold hands around the table and recite their Thanksgiving Day thanksgivings. It was a place called home, far away from home.
The traditions we experience as children with our families remain with us the rest of our lives. My memories are filled with the sights and sounds and smells of my childhood church: the habits, the teachings, the music, the chanting, the silence, the aroma of incense, the light of burning votive candles. Ornate statues of the Virgin, melodies of psalms that echo in my head, fragments of scripture that steal into consciousness throughout the day and comfort me during a sleepless night. Remembrances of weddings and baptisms, funerals, the bareness of Good Fridays and glorious Easters, every corner of the church flowered and fragrant, and my First Communion on my ninth birthday. All these activities, memories, and teachings, absorbed over a lifetime, have planted a bountiful garden within, and I draw on its fruits every day of my life—and in particular during times of crisis.
On an ordinary Sunday when I was about eleven years old, the priest visited my Sunday school class and handed out to the children copies of the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. He told us to memorize it, and there it stays, embedded in my memory. Perhaps more than any other prayer, psalm, or scriptural phrase, this prayer—"Lord, make us instruments of your peace ..."—has shaped my conscience and guided my actions throughout my whole life. Such is the passive vocabulary of my religious life, and if you grew up in an observant family of any tradition, you will have your own. The totality of our religious tradition creates what Bernstein calls "aesthetic sentiment." It is there to nurture us throughout our lives. My concern for the young friends of Benoît is that they never developed the passive vocabulary of their faith, so when tragedy strikes they are left empty-handed.
Almost everyone has a place they can call home, a spiritual home. If I could take myself back to Benoît's funeral and the gathering of his friends, I would ask them about their family customs. If they still had grandmothers or great-grandmothers living, I would suggest that they talk with them and ask them about the spiritual traditions of their families. While their parents may not have passed on a spiritual heritage, almost every family has spiritual roots of some sort, though for some it takes more sleuthing to find them. If there is truly nothing there in the family, then we need to look elsewhere because everyone needs a place called home. Otherwise we spend our lives living on the shores of others' experiences, never grounded, never secure. If Benoît's friends could not find spiritual traditions within their families, then I would ask them if there were any people whom they admired, or if they knew anyone they might consider to be wise—a teacher perhaps, a class advisor, the kindly neighbor who always greets them when they return home from afar, the parent of a friend, the old man tending the community garden, the lady down the street who radiates such warmth. It is never too late to find our way home, or indeed to find a new one.
Whoever we are and wherever we are, everyone needs a place called home; however observant or non-observant we are, we need that anchor. It might be the passive vocabulary of faith such as the simple "God is great; God is good" embedded in the family's collective memory, or the yearly Passover Seder. Or it might mean adopting a new spiritual home, as I would have urged Benoît's friends to do. Our mosques and churches and temples and home rituals float through our memories where the heart of God still beats on amidst the sounds and bells. The first building block of a vibrant spirituality for our time is the place each of us calls home. However far away from home we may wander, either literally or metaphorically, we still call out to God. And deep within our hearts, in our own familiar language, God answers, "I am here. I am with you. Wherever you go, I will go. While you may flee from me, I will always be by your side, loving you, protecting you, encouraging you to taste of the richness of my creation." Grounded in the aesthetic sentiment of our religious roots, we are free to taste the wisdom and delights of others and to look at all of life's circumstances as roads to spiritual enlightenment, opportunities for passionate engagement in every aspect of our lives.
Following the Temple Path
I maintain that every major religion of the world–Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism–has similar ideals of love, the same goal of benefiting humanity through spiritual practice, and the same effect of making their followers into better human beings.
–Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet
Paradoxically, once we have our place we call home, with roots in our own faith, we are free to draw on the riches of other traditions. Anchored in our own religious tradition, whatever it may be, we can wander Ulysses-like through other great religions and cultures, seeking inspiration and understanding. A spirituality for our day thrives in diversity. I came late to this realization, but having done so, my life has been forever enriched and transformed. While I am a loyal Episcopalian and would never leave the church that has nurtured me all my adult life, I readily seek strength and enlightenment from other traditions, Christian and non-Christian alike.
Excerpted from YOUR DAILY LIFE IS YOUR TEMPLE by Anne Rowthorn. Copyright © 2006 Anne Rowthorn. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. A Place Called Home
2. Following the Temple Path
3. Work: The Fabric of the World
4. Cherishing Children
5. Opening the Doors of Perception
6. Loving the Earth and Keeping the Garden
7. The Eleventh Commandment: Hospitality
8. Money Talks
9. Rushing for Justice
12. Your Daily Life is Your Temple