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Christians and Idolators at Prayer

I had a somewhat interesting experience with spontaneous prayer today. Heavy snow is often good for that.

Our Fulbright exchange teacher, Mr. R., carpools with me to and from work each day--a very reasonable arrangement, since I'm his mentor teacher this year. I've enjoyed the exchange of educational ideas a lot, and the cultural exchange has been pretty rich, too. The initial difficulties I had, trying to communicate with him around religion, have mostly resolved since my earlier post on the subject; on a day near Samhain, he was asking about American Halloween customs, and somewhere in the midst of my multi-cultural, multi-religious attempt at explanation, something clicked. He made the connection between Hindu traditions honoring ancestors and the dead from his native India, and my family's Samhain practices. There was a brief, deeply awkward silence--as a Christian and (I thank Marcus Borg for the terminology) a Biblical literalist, he disapproves of Hindusim--and then his instinct for politeness led him to change the topic while he digested the idea that his friend (for I am that, to be sure) and respected colleague was (I suppose he would think) a godless heathen.

Religion does sometimes rise as a topic between us on our drives. I am the advisor for our school's gay-straight alliance this year, and he is a frequent attender of the school's Bible club. I'm also really hoping to somehow take the training to teach a course in the Bible as literature at my school (and then arrange, somehow, funding for textbooks, and school board approval for the new course) both because I want to remedy my own Biblical ignorance and because I do find it sad how little knowledge of that part of our culture most of my students have. (Surely a familiarity with basic Bible stories is at least as much a part of cultural literacy in the United States as is a familiarity with Homer and the Greek pantheon?) Mr. R., meanwhile, is interested in comparing the ways that graduate study and pay scales are linked in contracts for American teachers--and, indeed, in the differences between the educational systems at all grade levels.

Not to mention, we are both deeply religious people, active in our respective religious bodies.

So the subject rises. We acknowledge it--and sometimes blink a few moments at the differences in our worldviews. (The gay-straight alliance was clearly somewhat shocking to him on many levels--though he is far too civilized to say so outright. I find it mind boggling, not so much that his marriage was arranged, as that he clearly expects to arrange his own daughter's one day.)

And then, today, it snowed.

I mean, really snowed. One of those really fast, hard onset storms, that leave the road a whitened wilderness within thirty minutes of the first flakes. School was canceled at 10:45, but I did not leave my classroom until 11:15. Mistake.

Mr. R., who has never seen snow until the last storm--a measly 1" of sloppy weather--did not rush out the door, because he knew that the storm had only started within the previous 30 minutes, and he assumed it would be no real difficulty. I had not sufficiently communicated to him the urgency of the situation. Mistake again.

I am not a terrific winter weather driver. (Great on muddy Vermont spring roads, though--honest!)

I decided to risk County Road. Yet another mistake.

My school is no more than a 25 minute commute from my home--in good weather, at least--but it is in the foothills of the Berkshires, and the roads are steep and winding. And I have all-weather radials, which are good...but not great. So there was a certain amount of fishtailing going on, even before we hit The Steep Part--a stretch of hemlocks, stone walls, and winter woods that is lovely when the road is clear, but a bit terrifying when it's not.

Granted, it's uphill, not downhill, so there wasn't much risk to life and limb. But my cell phone doesn't work along that stretch of road... and I really, really do not want to be stranded in a country ditch in a heavy snow storm, waiting for AAA.

So I did what comes naturally, and prayed.

I thanked the spirit of my car (whom I have named Viggo, after a certain extraordinarily attractive actor) and encouraged him to do his best for us.

I addressed the spirit of the mountain, assured her that I loved this mountain, respected it, and asked her to let us pass.

I spoke to the Lord of the Greenwoods, and asked Him to let us pass.

And I prayed, with spontaneity and sincerity, and right out loud, to Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Lady of Winter, Lady of the Woods, Lady of the Wild Things, to please, please, help us up the mountain and let us pass.

Mostly, of course, this came out, as such prayers are wont to do, in sotto voce exclamations of one word or two: "Grandmother! Great-grandmother!" and the car would fishtail and grab hold once more. "Let us pass! Lady!" and the wheels would slip, fin, and finally hold.

Poor Mr. R. was probably frightened at my display--not so much, I think, for the display of spontaneous, up-close idolatry, as because he could not have known the situation was no graver than it was.

I, however, was to busy praying and finagling our way up the hillside to give much attention to the duties of a host. And when I heard Mr. R's whispered subvocalizations (far more discrete than mine, but clearly as heartfelt) I was glad to have the help.

The more prayers the better. And, hey, this Jesus guy he's so fond of may or may not be the same Spirit as the Light that enfolds me so often on First Day mornings in meeting for worship, right? The Light of meeting is all right by me--especially, I will admit, while praying through a snow storm.

I find it interesting, however, that whatever my ideas may be about God, when I am consciously making a request of the cosmos, I direct it first and foremost to the Mother of All. I suppose my Wiccan roots are showing...

I also find it interesting that, today, in prayer as I drove, I felt that same sense of a door opening in my heart I feel in meeting for worship among Friends.

It's as if, when I need to name or personify my experience of Spirit, I reach for the names and metaphors by which I first experienced spiritual life directly. But at the same time, I have been changed enough by my Quaker life and worship that I experience even that familiar touch at least partially through what almost seem like new, Quaker senses.

After we had passed the worst of the drive, I returned to hosting duty, and tried to convey the relative lack of danger we had truly been in. The route is not very wild, and we would hardly have frozen to death. Even had we somehow fishtailed into the path of an out-of-control oncoming car, we were all moving slowly enough that the accident would have been a mere fender-bender.

Mr. R. was perhaps no more than partially reassured. Poor man! He would have been much happier today in the car of a more confident driver--or at least, one with better tires and four wheel drive. But he was friendly, positive, upbeat--praised the school system for dismissing school early.

And acknowledged to me that he had been praying.

"I know," I said. "I could tell. Thank you."

I did not tell him I had been praying. Clearly knew. And I knew he was no more offended by my prayers than I had been by his.

"Look," I could have said to him. "You know this enormous Mystery at the heart of things by one name. I know it by many. But neither of us understand It. Both of us love and trust it. And it's fine that we are different--and when we need to, we pray together just fine, too."

I could have said this. But I didn't need to, so I did not. The sincerity of praying together had said all that needed saying. So, I concentrated on the road, and got us home in one piece.

But, as much as I disliked the nasty drive in nasty weather, I am grateful for the moment of clarity with someone whose ideas are often truly foreign to me--but whose heart is not.

I think he might say the same.


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