Friday, March 25, 2022

"I was a stranger..."

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I have been “sitting” for meditation three mornings a week with a small and diverse ZOOM sangha.  We sit together for 20 minutes practicing the nurture of the heart-mind.  I experience significant challenge in the practice of observing the flow of thoughts and distractions and emotions that flow through consciousness at any given moment.  In a 20 minute “sit” I may need to practice “returning to my breath” almost moment to moment.  “Monkey mind,” a mind that jumps from distraction to distraction, like a monkey enjoying flight in the trees, is     a  state I live in a lot of the time.
            For many years in my spiritual practice, cultivating compassion as a first response to any situation I may encounter has been my commitment and my greatest challenge.    There is often a bit of a gap between my initial (and not always compassionate) judgement, and the eventual arrival at a more loving and hospitable response.
           I was able to observe it with  much greater clarity this week - bowing with gratitude to my teacher and the teachings.    I received a call from a total stranger whose friend and mother-figure was dying. She said “Can you come?  Can you say a prayer?”  So far, so good.  Of course I can. 

        I entered a house full of physical chaos - the result of the months long downward slide of a home in the grips of a terminal illness.  There was barely a path through the clutter and debris from the front door into the bedroom where death was happening.  So far so good.  My heart broke wide open for this family who had already suffered insurmountable loss and was about to lose wife - mother -grandmother - the nuts and bolts that held the family together.
    We conversed.  We prayed blessings for her as she embarked on her final journey.  The back story was that the couple had been married 41 years ago by a priest ( the husband is Roman Catholic) and a minister (the dying woman was Protestant) in our local church.  It was of profound importance to the surviving husband that his wife’s funeral be concelebrated in the same way -with a priest and a minister in attendance.  Still, so far, so good. Compassion dictates that the comfort and care of a grieving family is paramount.

                                   Death came before midnight of that same day.


      I awaited the customary call from the funeral home, letting me know specifics - time, location of the funeral and burial - - but there was a glitch.  The local priest was reluctant to concelebrate a service and burial of a non-Catholic.  There goes my compassion - - like a bird in flight - - right out the window. How could a servant of God refuse the rites of the church to a grieving family?  I watched with a kind of chagrined amusement  as all my judgements and biases flooded in - - rather too embarrassing to list them here.  I stewed with my thoughts and feelings  as I tried to find my way through my resistance without doing any damage.  After several unsatisfying attempts to reach the priest, we finally managed a brief conversation and put together a “game plan” for the service and burial.  

          Compassion at a very low ebb - judgement and aversion abounding.    I kept observing.

    I sat with the sangha early on the day of the funeral and began to feel the glimmers of return to a bit of balance in my heart-mind.  
    I walked into the funeral home about 30 minutes before the service was to begin, greeted family members, sat with the grieving husband for a few minutes and went in search of the priest.  I found him contemplating a collage of photos of the deceased, sweat pouring from his forehead.  He turned to look at me when I called his name and introduced myself.  I saw a young, frightened and confused child looking at me with eyes like a deer in the headlights.  

 My heart cracked wide open.  Here was a priest, brand new to the island,  finding his way into our peculiar island culture - - called upon to do something his tradition was very ambivalent about - - not really knowing how to handle something for which there was no guidance or language in the prayerbook ritual.  He did not know the family nor did he know anyone else in the gathering. He did not even know me. He was a stranger.
    Gone were my judgements. Gone was my irritability. Gone was my frustration.  All replaced by a compassion that wanted to embrace him and tell him it would be OK.  I could offer my familiarity with the community’s customs, reassure him that sometimes weird situations arise and that we could just “go with it” for the sake of a suffering family, that I would handle the parts that just didn’t fit with his tradition.  I could feel compassionate love and generosity and hospitality for this stranger in our midst.  It turned out that we actually worked quite well together.
    It was a great learning experience for me.  No matter how long or how much I practice my spiritual disciplines, I am vulnerable to knee-jerk responses that are less than compassionate. I can be fearful and judgmental of the stranger  as though I had never practiced at all.  I learned that face to face encounter with the stranger can result in the awakening of compassion when the reality of his or her humanity is in full view in relationship.  I learned that the stranger is my teacher.
   Millions of strangers are in the making with the war in Ukraine.  I read a few days ago that in Poland it is not just the social service structures that are welcoming refugees so much as it is Polish families who are opening their homes and their hearts to strangers, welcoming them, clothing them, feeding them, providing a place of refuge in the maelstrom.


    Strangers, teachers of compassion abound in this world.  We have only to encounter them and be open to what they will teach us.
Vicky Hanjian

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