The final segment of my essay "Spiritual Homelessness," and again a part of which some of you may have read before.
Part III: What is my hope?
A final story, this one about me rather than people I’ve known. The worship experience that most resonated for me was one where 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 providing 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, similar to Sufi celebration. Individuals were invited to the house where its members communed, 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 make a fetish of 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, 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 I said no. I hadn’t found a home but I had found one of the landmarks I recognized on the way there.
In loss there is also discovery. This last story illustrates what it was that I found when I was in need: a place to be and people to be with. At this time my Rule of Life was simple: to exercise, shave, and brush my teeth every day. That has not changed. It is still my Rule.
But what do I want to do, if it is not being in a traditional church setting with traditional church people? I’ve often been most comfortable with people on the edge of civilization, people whose transgressions have put them there or who have put themselves there, liars, cheaters, thieves, the lame and the halt. My service, if I can design it, would be this: I would spend my days walking around and talking with street people, listening to their problems and their joys, laughing over coffee, crying over injustice, holding hands. One of the things that appeals to me about Unitarian Universalism is that it’s not evangelical, so I would not be bringing the Good News of it to people, but would use it to listen to people tell me their good and their bad news.
My problem, of course, lies in the fact that I don’t know anyone who will pay me to do this. From the Krishnas I have learned such service is often gratis. My problem is that I have also learned I like being married and having a home to return to each day. Toward this end I’ve made the decision recently to seek licensure as a chaplain as well as ordination because that is essentially the sort of work I want to do, only on a larger scale than a facility or even an area. In my dreams I would even do this nation-wide.
It is my calling to be with other people. While I’ve never seen myself as a chaplain, and I’m still not certain that’s how I see myself, I find I am very comfortable being together with people who need someone there. I’ve worked for a long time to create what Murray Bowen and Rabbi Edwin Friedman called a “non anxious presence”—Buddhism would call it nonattachment, the Krishnas would call it Krishna-consciousness—in which anxiety over a result is accepted and released. It’s a concept I’d only begun to comprehend when I ate Krishna’s prana, but I know now it’s my gift to present that to others. I continue, of course, to work on using it on myself. In my imagination I characterize it as being like a duck, placidly floating above the water, below it peddling like crazy. It is in this wobbling tension where I find my hope.