Friday, May 30, 2014

Merton and Public Transportation

The Street's Alive in Istanbul
I've been thinking about Thomas Merton today: mindful of his well-remembered experience of grace and relief in downtown Louisville decades ago.  It could be all the time I've spent on public transportation in Istanbul: the trams and the buses, the metro and the funicular.  I'm shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, with grandmothers admonishing surly kids, lovers leaning into an exciting night out, students debating the meaning of it all.  And every one of these sisters, every one of these brothers is shining (as Merton writes of his own epiphany).  I truly do love all these people!  They shine, all of them, with a not-so-hidden glory.  I understand so little of what they're saying--and even if I did understand, would I know them any better?  And yet, they are kin to me, somehow.   

Merton describes this grace in this way in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
"I almost laughed out loud!"  On the tram tonight, a two-year-old straining against his mother's restraint: and he's making eyes at every one in the car.  As if we're all in collusion with him!  "I almost laughed out loud!"  Two young lovers--one in full burqa--ride the tram like a surfboard.  She's holding a little fold of his pink polo shirt, for balance, for affection.  "I almost laughed out loud!"  A mother and daughter ride the funicular to Taksim Square after a day of shopping, bags in both arms.  And the twenty-something daughter leans in, rests her tired forehead on mother's shoulder.  They ride like that, from Kabatas to Taksim; and I ride along too.  "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."
Waiting for the Tram
It's all this and more, isn't it?

Near the end of my ride, the tram's doors slide effortlessly open, and a woman crawls aboard on all fours.  Her feet are mangled, badly deformed, without socks or shoes.  She pulls herself onto the tram, as others step aside, making room, plenty of it.  This too is public transportation; this too is the holy city of God.  And more to the point, she too is my sister; she too is the not-so-hidden glory of God.  "We cannot be alien to one another even though we are total strangers."  And when a young drunk stumbles on and sits down--with a thud--in the seat next to mine: the kin-dom of God is richer, stranger, more puzzling than ever. 

But all of this is Merton's vision, I think, at what is now the corner of Fourth and Mohammed Ali Boulevard.  There is no isolation at that corner, nor the intersection of East and West in Istanbul.  Here (as there) I have "the immense joy of being man"--with this puzzling family of sisters and brothers.  Here (as there) we shine: without knowing it a good bit of the time.

Along this sabbatical journey, I've made a point of memorizing Merton's poignant prayer of 'not knowing.'  It's a great comfort to me; even more, a great joy.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Tonight, the right road runs across Istanbul, and across the Galata Bridge; and on that road rolls a tram with God's people.  And tonight, o tonight, they are shining indeed!
On the Ferry to Kadikoy
Two Violinists Play on Istiklal Cadessi 

I was told this dervish is also a physician!
Sufi Guide
At the Fatih Mosque