The worship experience that most resonated for me was one in which I wasn’t present, at first. Decades ago, while I was homeless, I was invited to take meals with a Hare Krishna group that met around Newburgh, New York, and because I was hungry I took them up on it. A part of the understanding, not uncommon among religious charities that provide food for people, was that I would take part in one of their services.
A Krishna service is a misnomer. It’s more like a short, extemporaneous lecture punctuated by ecstatic dancing and chanting, very similar to Sufi celebration. The way this particular group operated was that individuals were invited to the house its members communed in, sat in a large room listening to one essentially tell the story of his conversion to Krishna or his recognition of Krishna’s influence on his life, then be invited to eat of the prana or gift that Krishna had for us, have short conversation for digestion, and then dance and sing to celebrate our acceptance of Krishna’s prana.
All I wanted was to eat. Having spent the previous days subsisting primarily on peanut butter and crackers, I had been lured by the promise of mounds of hot rice and raisins, dates, oranges, and of course the eyes of the shave-headed girl who’d invited me. I certainly wasn’t interested in a lecture, although the nascent anthropologist in me was open to experiencing it. Still, when the time came for the lecture/personal tribute, I managed to excuse myself to the bathroom and remained there for about 15 minutes, which seemed like the right amount of time.
It was an old house, one of those hundred year and older grand family mansions of the Hudson Valley burghers that had been subdivided and made into apartment housing over the decades and eventually remade back into spaces for family-type living. It had a large bathroom on the first floor, which was where we visitors were relegated to, with plants and guest towels and white walls (the Krishnas fetishize the color white) but it was also drafty and unheated. It was set up with books and pamphlets and I knew I could pass time there painlessly.
I sat on the floor and started paging through a book. Several rooms over, the personal testament of some gawky middle class suburban kid began and occasionally sounds came in under the door that I identified as his voice getting louder and then softer and then people muttering appreciatively.
The illustrations in the book were captivating. Nearly 30 years on and I wish I’d noted the title of the book or even snuck it out with me. They were old Hindu woodcuts and paintings of pilgrims and ascetics, monkeys and housewives, merchants and jaguars. I was lost among those illustrations, lingering on page after page, trying to drink in every element of every picture as if it was the dinner I was waiting for.
Eventually the murmuring outside the room grew quieter with a few scattered single loud words. I grew more transfixed by the pictures and then by the silence I experienced in the room. And it dawned on me, this was the prana I was receiving. The food was nice, the food was what I needed, but equally necessary was this silence and meditation I was allowed in the hundred year old bathroom of a Hare Krishna commune. I had been invited to share time and food with them and all they’d asked for in return was a little of my time to listen to them. I had that time to give; it wasn’t as if my life was going anywhere fast anyway.
I jumped up and put the book back on the stack next to the toilet and hurried back out to rejoin the group as the Krishna convert finished his narrative. There were appreciative mutters from people gathered in the room. The eyes of the shave-headed girl were on me as I returned to my place on the floor next to her: she had seen people hide in the bathroom before, I knew, people for whom the only prana was food and someplace warm, and my epiphany was that I wasn’t there only for that. I was also there to be given space to develop into something or someone I needed to become and the immediate path was to take me through these people.
I tried to explain that to her during the conversation after we ate. It wasn’t nearly as well-articulated as it may seem now. She smiled and nodded as if she understood but I had no doubt she’d heard something like that before too. But it was real, I assured both her and me; I wouldn’t join them but I’d like to remain near them, learning what I could. (And, I admitted, seeing her and eating on a regular basis.)
When we stood to chant I chanted and then danced with abandon. That summer I returned to the commune for days at a time, staying in my car and studying with the ascetics there. The girl, whose name I’ve forgotten, eventually left to seed another commune in New Jersey. I was asked to join the group moving there but said no. I hadn’t found a home but I had found one of the landmarks I recognized on the way there.