Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Tyrone's Prayer Book

Over at Beginner’s Mind ( Robert has many interesting observations today, wrapping up with ' "That's just the way I am!" How many times have you heard or said this? By the time the words have echoed off the walls, they are no longer true, if they ever were. Not only is there hope that we can change ourselves, there's a certainty we will.'

This leads me to wonder how much control we have over how we change, at least in the direction and speed of change. There is so much in the world that we do not control. Even our own hopes, needs, drives and dreams seem to well up from some uncharted corner of our deepest selves. How can we help but feel like aliens in our own minds and bodies?

I believe that our individual trajectories are not entirely under our own control. At the same time, I believe that we each have significant influence over the choices we make, not only in our actions but perhaps more imporantly in the attitudes which drive the alternatives that we allow into our little spheres. We draw on long held values as well as immediate, intuitive flashes of insight. Where do these come from?

Whatever you call that source of direction, many of us call it God. The terminology doesn’t really matter, though I often think that God must be as annoyed at children who won’t use a proper name as any of us would be never to be called by name.

Perhaps this is as good as any place to relate my own particular conversion experience.

Many years ago in Brooklyn, I was attending a local church to which I had turned in my distress after leaving my husband. As for many people, it was a shock to find myself having done such a thing. I didn’t believe in divorce; I had said so for many years. And judging from the reactions of friends and family, I had done something not only unheard of, but unforgivable, so my support network had some big holes in it. To add to my distress, I knew I had made the only choice that would allow me to continue living a hopeful and positive life. After the day I fell headlong down the stairs in New York’s Penn Station, I seriously considered it was the only choice that would leave me alive. I thought church might help, and it did.

But I felt awkward about being there on “false pretenses.” I put this in quotes, because I later learned that my qualms were shared by many churchgoers, that in fact, the best churches speak truly to the very same doubts I had. Still, at the time it seemed unfair that I was enjoying such a warm and wonderful social framework while not necessarily buying into the basic premise. Did I really believe in God? How about this whole idea of his sending his Son to save us?

I had long understood the world in many dimensions, the literal physical overlaid by the spiritual, the imaginaray, and the metaphorical. But how was I to understand this increasing need to create clear and tangible links from each of these worlds to the others?

I was volunteering at the neighborhood homeless shelter. For anyone who has not done this, I highly recommend it as a personally enriching experience on many levels. My partner for the night was an older gay man named (name changed here) Alex. We would serve a meal, talk with the dozen men in our care, sleep in the next room, then serve breakfast and see the men on their way. This was a shelter that rotated from church to church, and the men were carefully screened to exclude serious mental illness, violence and overt substance abuse. The men even stopped at another facility for a shower before they came to us.

They were marginalized people. Men who had been hanging on by a thread. Men who were one paycheck from eviction from their shabby apartments, who then lost the job. Men with a long history of substance abuse, who were clean, at least for the moment. Men who pulled sheets of notebook paper with block lettering out of their pockets to ask my advice on their resume. It was the best resume editing, and the most heartfelt, that I ever did.

I had done this gig once before, over the river at St Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan. Years later a refuge for rescue workers at Ground Zero, St Paul’s was one of the earliest churches in New York. I woke up in the sanctuary proper, which is painted rose and that lovely Colonial blue-green, sun streaming through tall windows of rippled antique glass, the sounds of Wall Street traffic in the background, and a charming yellow striped cat named Sur (short for Sursum Corda) purring loudly on my chest. One of the loveliest moments of my life, brought to me by the ten homeless men in the next room.

But that was reminiscence. Back in Brooklyn, as I was setting out soup bowls and napkins, I became aware that Alex was engaged in an increasingly heated argument with one of the ten homeless men who were our guests for the evening. A man with a good heart, Alex tended to be a bit difficult and his interactions were sometimes confrontational, especially when the subject was religion, which Alex experience either as liturgy or his own personal variety of the charismatic. He was getting argumentative, and the homeless man was getting agitated.

Distraction. That was what we needed. I shooed Alex off to ladle soup into bowls, and steered the homeless man over to a table, with some difficulty disengaging him from telling Alex what he thought of his excessive, overwrought, ornate, queen-like variant of religion. “What’s your name?” I temporized. His face turned back to me, and I had a chance to look at the man.

A tall, thin man of stunning black complexion, Tyrone was dressed head to toe in a white canvas jumpsuit, which was unaccountably spotless. The man lived on the New York City streets, and he was wearing a spotless white jumpsuiit. I swear, you can’t make this stuff up.

“What were you talking to Alex about?” Whatever possessed me to go back to this obviously difficult topic? But it was not a problem to Tyrone.

“I was telling him about Jesus.”

“Okay. How about if you talk to me for awhile. What do you believe about Jesus?”

Tyrone looked at me as if I were simultaneously the scum of the earth and the most pitieable creature he had ever encountered. He pulled himself up to an even greater height, looked down his nose in his most compassionate way, and intoned, “It’s not what I believe. It’s what he is.”

Dear reader, it was as if all the cylinders in the locks to my heart, mind and soul lined up and the doors fell open. I apologized immediately, “Of course, you are right. Please tell me more.” And he did.

Tyrone had a tiny paperback book that contained all his favorite prayers. It was his most prized personal possession, but he offered to lend it to me because he felt I needed it more. Here I was a successful banker with a good apartment, a string of academic degrees and loving friends and family. And I was being—quite rightly—pitied by a man living on the street. I got it.

I did borrow his book. How could I refuse such a gift of the heart? I photocopied it and returned it to Tyrone two days later, with my sincere thanks. I have been fortunate that my faith has been unshaken since that day. People tell me that it is not necessarily true that faith is like a revolving door that goes only forward, but that has been my happy experience.

Faith in what? I’m not sure I can even explain, living as I do in worlds imaginary and metaphorical. But I do believe in hope and light. I do believe that the rushing winds of the Holy Spirit kiss the corners of our mundane physical spaces. I do believe in tangible, physical links from each sphere to the others, like the actual and concrete visit of God to our grubby and glorious world and like the dominion of a tiny baby over us all.

‘Tis the season.


Anonymous said...

I was bobbing around this morning-- from datinggod to beginnersmind and ended up here and AM SO GLAD I DID. Your post will be with me all day. Thanks.

Visual-Voice said...

Beautifully written. You've touched my heart with the authentic spirit of Christmas! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Real Live Preacher,

thank you for this story. Funny how the little things get us.