A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be a part of an Inter-faith event at Mount Royal University. The interfaith chaplaincy office invited students of different religious faiths to speak about these faiths, how they personally came to them, how they understood them and what their faith means in their everyday lives. Sikh, Christian and Jewish students spoke to the group. Afterwards, we ate subway and talked in a big circle about any questions anyone had for anyone else.
I loved it. I love hearing people talk about what’s meaningful to them. I love how hearing about the details of what’s important to people from faiths not like mine sounds both foreign and also familiar at the same time. I love hearing about different practices that bring meaning and depth to lives, even when they aren’t completely understood yet. I love hearing how intertwined one’s childhood, one’s parents, one’s community or lack thereof – all the parts of a life’s story– has everything to do with the shape of one’s faith.
What stood out for me, in all the discussions, was something the young Sikh student said. She stood at the front , hair wrapped in a beautiful peach turban, wearing a Kelly green sweater and talked softly, with a smile the whole time, but unwaveringly about how her faith showed her a way to observe a reverence for every human life. Even her own; even her own as a woman.
It was the word reverence that caught me. Reverence for every life. All life.
Seems like a nice idea. A nice idea we entertain…..sometimes. Until that other life starts getting in the way of our own…..
I was still mulling over reverence and what that looked like in my world when I got back in the car and started driving. The radio came on and I heard the news of Stuart McLean’s death. This made me really, really sad. More sad than I anticipated. Could be because of my own experience this past year but more, I think it had to do with what McLean offered to the world – a way of seeing its quirky truth and being kind and also really funny about it.
The interviewer had one of McLean’s long time producers on the show and asked,
“What was he like to work with?” And in her answer she said,
“What made him such a good performer and such a good storyteller wasn’t that he was naturally like that. He became that way because he was an incredibly good listener. I want to say he was a mirror, and he reflected the stories back to those who told them. But mirror’s not quite right. It’s almost like he was a conduit for other people’s stories. He listened and observed and did this incredible job of just sort of passing the stories along to others.”
I heard that and I immediately thought of the reverence that girl was speaking about again. And reverence went from being a nice idea (that I can sometimes afford others when it doesn’t cost myself too much) to being an action. I thought of reverence being an action, or even just an active posture , that has its dna,its root, its force and importance, in the practice of listening. The active posture of reverence.
What does listening do for reverence. How would actual listening change the way in which I “revere” someone, the way in which I understand them, understand their importance. How would the quality of listening change the way real people’s lives are given to the world. Could this be possible?
About a week after this night, I was off trying to finish my preparations for a 3 day retreat I was leading for the women at church. The theme was “Practicing Prayer.” I was at a local coffee shop, coffee, my laptop, some books and a bottle of water in hand. I just sat down at the window ledge, where the serious coffee shop work gets done, and before I had a chance to take of my coat, not even fully seated on the raised chair yet, a hand pushed a piece of paper into my view. The white paper had a drawing of a pipe, with smoke rising from it and in the smoke an eagle, some feathers, a cross and a face. The drawing was pen, with long, continuous, unhesitant lines. It was titled “Prayer” and signed at the bottom. I looked up at the paper pusher and saw a man. I was obvious quickly that he was without a home. Ragged with no teeth. A clean sweater and a dirty-in-a-Calgary-chinook-way coat. His shoes falling apart where the toes met the soles. He had a backpack and a mountain dew in his hands.
In that brief moment, I was annoyed and aware that everyone in the coffee shop was also aware of us. That’s the (unfortunate) nature of these things deep in the suburbs. I had one day to finish my very-important-prayer-retreat-preparations. I was under the weather and feeling pressed. I didn’t want to be interrupted. But then I read the title of the picture again. I can’t very well ignore that can I?
I looked at the picture and said, “It’s beautiful. What does it mean?” He said I could have it for $10. I smiled. “I don’t have any cash on me. But I do really like it. I really like how you did the eagle-its really beautiful. What does it mean to you?”
And he told me. He outlined all the thoughts he had put on that page. And then he talked. And then he talked for almost 90 minutes. I didn’t say much at all. He talked. Quietly, sometimes mumbling, sometimes raising his voice. He told me story after story, one story rambling into another. He told stories in conversations–he told the stories all the way through by voicing the different actors in the different conversations that made these stories up. A story about a man trying to give him money on the street. A story about what people say about his pictures. A story about how Jesus talks to him. A story about what atheists say to him when he tells them about Jesus. A story about when his braids got cut off when he went to jail when he was young. A story about being accosted on the c-train. A story about giving himself a tattoo with a pin. A story about the Blood reserve, where he was from. A story about the RCMP coming to his wife’s home and taking him away after a fight. A story about sleeping last night in the cemetery across the street from the coffee shop we were in. A story about his two daughters. Here he stopped. He looked outside for a good 10 minutes. I didn’t say anything. We had been there for over an hour by this point. I didn’t have to. One tear came down from each eye, just wetting the crease beneath his eyelid, travelling down the lines of his face, seeping into the deep lines of his cheeks. He wiped one away. “I wish I could see them.” he said. “It’s so hard…….I’m really struggling…….it feels very dark……So dark……it’s really hard.”
He was quiet again for a few minutes. Then he started telling me about how God talks to him. How he could almost feel when God directs him. How when last night, he was going to try to break into the cars at the C-train station to see if he could get change for some food but that he felt a hand on his shoulder, almost pushing him to the side. And he turned to see who it was but there was no one there and he knew it was Jesus telling him to wait. And so he waited in the cemetery and heard voices all night – kids voices, he felt eyes looking at him over the fence and he was scared. And in the morning he started walking again and found a 5 dollar bill. And came here to get a mountain dew. He looked at me at this point and said, “Usually nice people don’t let me talk this long. Its like you’re a priest and I’m in confession.” I laughed.
I didn’t say much, really, at all. I affirmed that God was with him. I said I hoped that God was with us all. And that the world did seem pretty dark sometimes. And I nodded at his question “ why do we all have to get so angry?” I didn’t know.
I bought him two sandwiches. I offered my water but he said that I needed it. He could get water. He gave me the picture for free but asked me if I could send it on to France. He heard that the French really like native art.
My friend told me that a man gave her a picture in the parking lot of another coffee shop along a different part of the C-train tracks. Perhaps it was the same man. I think about how he might do his days and I think about what today is like for him. And truly I am praying that its not so dark, not so dark that he can’t see You, God. And I am aware that I have a privilege and responsibility of being able to think through, read well, and devote resources to ways that could, in real life, change the rules that actively do not help him be who He was created to be. So I am doing that too.
But in those fleeting moments when I realized that my day was going to be different than what I had thought, when I realized that I was being approached by someone who makes people, and me, sometimes really uncomfortable, I thought, “What should I do?” When being faced with someone who doesn’t live, or doesn’t have the chance to live, by the same rules I do, I don’t always know what to do. I asked that question but then an overwhelming feeling of –“wow, that’s so not the right question” came over me. It was not “What should I do” but “How am I to be to this person?” that I needed to be asking that morning.
And the young Sikh girl in her peach turban and green sweater saying the word “reverence” came up. Stuart McLean’s listening so as to be a conduit for people’s stories, for their lives, came up. And I just decided in that moment to not shut it down, not to give him money and be on my way, but to just sit and listen. I knew we were getting stared at. I knew I wouldn’t get the work done I had thought I would do that morning. But the active pose of listening was what the Spirit-that-Draws-Everything-Back-to-Himself was apparently at work with that morning. I don’t always listen to that spirit – in fact, I don’t more often than I do. But for whatever reason, I was ok with listening that day. And not listening with half my brain trying to figure out what to say, what to do, what the people working at the coffee shop were thinking, but actually just entering into a real conversation with a real person. Not listening in such a way as to add this person as a character to the action of my life but listening to hear his life because he was a real person right in front of me. And that should be enough to make us stop in our tracks. Reverence. Listening. A real life that adds real life to everything around it not because of its net worth, but because of its presence.
I’m glad he pushed that paper in front of me. I hope he wasn’t sorry either.
His name was Bernard. And his life held a lot of stories.