Believer, Beware in Transit
Inhaling (silent) thank, exhaling (silent) you, inhaling (silent) help, exhaling (silent) us. I do this meditation with my back straight, hands to lap, feet to ground—centering myself in seat 54C, Believer, Beware and a notebook on the tray table in front of me, as Lufthansa flight 405 begins its initial descent. I breathe this slow way not because I get nervous on flights, but because I get compulsive about prayer.
Inhaling thank, exhaling you, I’ve made a buddha of gratitude. These breathing thank yous do express my longing. But there’s a whole lot of fulfillment here, too (perhaps what we believers are to be wary of.) I honestly feel grateful, almost always, for this abundant life I live. The buddha is in the prayer itself: I inhale help, exhale us, twice in alternation with three inhaling thanks and exhaling yous, making a mantra of help us thank you in five-breath cycles I do—on subways and street corners, in diners and bathroom stalls, now in an aircraft cabin (that religious freak who could be sitting next to you), morning breath on the back of my teeth—just my own silent voice breathing help us thank you. This improvised integration of five-breath meditation with prayers of thanksgiving and petition I’ve heard in all kinds of church liturgies—my own eclectic spirituality, smacks of what someone named Sheila described to socialist Robert Bellah as “Sheilaism.” This personalized way of religion, as Jeff Sharlet tells us in “The Apocalypse is Always Now,” infects even buddha killers these postmodern days.
I’ve got the Sheila bug, and it’s starting to reek of the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner—that is the female protagonist’s obsession in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. (Read it, asap, after Believer, Beware!) Except help us thank you is contrition and Christ free (Sheila-selective spirituality to a tee.) But it’s got that Jesus-in-your-heart quality of Christian prayer: talk to God, anytime, anywhere. And many of us dispatchers from the margins of faith write about the ilk of preachers who say “Jesus, Jesus,” in a sickening mantra way, as if their personal savior were pulsing through their bodies and wringing out, in sweat, breath and spit, right apocalypse-always now. And though we can’t stomach Jesus in our hearts, we keep telling stories of those who hold him near and precious, with the “deep sympathy modified by revulsion” Sharlet attributes to Susan Sontag’s take on camp sensibility. This blog is part response to Sharlet’s introduction to Believer, Beware and part introduction of my own—to dispatches from the peripheries of a convoluted could-be pilgrimage. I’m on my way to Jerusalem (via Frankfurt), and I’m in for some awkward questions at the airport:
“Do you know anyone in Israel?”
“What is the purpose of your trip?”
I have a travel study grant. But in my own silent voice, projecting itself on my heart-mind when I’ll be in the land Christians, Muslims, Jews (and Bahá’í too) hold holy, the question is existential: Why am I here? Even Sheila doesn’t know.
I’m not going to Jerusalem to walk where Jesus walked, or to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, or to climb the Temple Mount (though I will offer a silent wail at the Western Wall and slip a scribbled prayer in one of its cracks). And though I’ve followed fragments of Egeria’s writings-home about the Holy Sepulchre to her fourth-century Roman Christian sisters, I’ll make my own itinerary to the cave tomb where Jesus was laid. Here I go—notebooks, gospels, a new Heretic’s Bible testament close at hand. Bear with my ecstatic epiphanies that may fall flat in blogospect, as I revisit some Believer, Beware stories, along my warped and wayward ways.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.