Returning to the river

Jordan. In Jordan. At the Jordan River.

Before visiting Jesus’ Baptism site along the Jordan River this weekend, I had anticipated the moment for years.  Every time we’d sing “On Jordan’s Bank” at Mass, I’d think about how powerful the experience might be—going to this holy place from which my name comes.

(I learned from my archeology professor a few weeks back what my name really means: slopping, fast, running water.  Though its now stagnant and small, the Jordan River (or “Naher al-Urdun”) used to be a strong, flowing river that descended from the Golan Mountains and into the valley.  Because of the softness of the clay, its path was twisting, zigging and zagging, but still swift and quick because of the water’s strength.  “Urdun”—Jordan— seems to mean playful, determined, even passionate, and I’d like to think that there’s a reason I share that name.)

Though I tried to temper my expectations about my visit to the river, I still had them nonetheless.  I wanted to have a moving experience, to sit on the bank, alone and in quiet, and ponder my name, my life, and my God.

But, upon arriving, I realized that wasn’t likely going to happen.  Our group’s tour guide moved us quickly from spot to spot, and some students in my program were loud, unaware, and outright disrespectful.  Often, anger and resentment bubbled up in me—feelings that can never accompany good prayer.  I wanted my special moment, and others were ruining it.

Photo credit: Caroline Chapman

Thankfully, the Spirit was able to break through and settle on me at times.  The white wings of doves—the symbol of the Holy Spirit— flashed in the sun as the birds flew from the stairs of the nearby church.  The coldness of the water made the murky river feel somehow cleansing as I washed my hands in the shallows.  And a rich, warm smell rose up from the green, life-giving land that God wanted to give His people.

These moments didn’t make up for, or fill the place of, the moment I expected.  They were beautiful, but they weren’t what I wanted.  What I still want.

But, surprisingly, I’m not that disappointed. Because I realized that I can go back.  Maybe not physically, (though I hope to again,) but in prayer and in my imagination.

Whenever I need time to think or be alone, I can walk slowly and sit quietly in the grasses of riverbank. I can hear the birds chirp short “eeks,” and squint as a bug bounces against my face.  I can follow John the Baptist as he ducks under branches to reach the water.  And I can climb down the stone steps with Jesus, and take his sandals as he slips down into the water.

All of us have been graced with imaginations, and God wants us to use them.  God works through them.

And God wants for us the things that we want most for ourselves.  He wants me to come back to the river.

Photo credit: Caroline Chapman

The Garden (“Peeling Oranges” Series)

One cold morning, I wait for the American neighbors next door, who share a cab with me to school.

A smoky mist rises up from their host mother’s garden, the night’s frost melting and crystalizing again in the air.  It curls around laundry polls and hovers above the lemon trees, full of pocked yellow bulbs even in winter.  The sun slips over the back wall and into my eyes, blurring my vision until all I see is light.  The threads of mist, the fallen lemon half-buried in the soil, the bird’s feather that floats to the ground—all of it is light.

I wonder if this is what Adam saw when God walked in the Garden.

Peeling Oranges

During my time in Jordan, I’ve taken many photographs, images that, when I look back at them years from now, will bring back the feelings I felt in those places and with those people.

When I look at this picture, for example, I’ll remember sitting in the cold, purple sand in Wadi Rum at sunset.  The rising rippled rock overhead reminded me of my smallness, and of God’s unimaginable greatness.  And this was a lesson I needed to be reminded of.  As I was sitting in the sand in Jordan, my first paid piece of writing was being published in the U.S., and I felt quite proud in what I had been able to do, what I had accomplished.  But in those large, looming mountains, God had carved AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam).  He was telling me, “You wrote through my power, and for my glory—the greater glory of my creation.” This photo will remind me of humility.


When I look at this photo I’ll remember walking the streets of downtown Amman, a crowded area filled with shops and stands, sweets and smoky rug shops.  I’ll remember a feeling described so well by Paulo Coehlo in his book, Aleph, which I began reading when I arrived in Jordan: This is exactly what I need to do right now: walk, walk, walk, breathe some fresh air, take a look at a city I’ve never visited before, and enjoy the feeling that it’s mine. This photo will remind me of the homey comfort I can find, even in new places.

But some of my most beautiful experiences here have not been caught on camera.  Photographing them would have taken away my ability to fully participate in the experience, and or would have caused others to become unnatural or nervous.

Still, I want to preserve these images and the bits of Truth that often accompanied them.  And I can do that best by writing them down.  Over the next few months, I’m going to collect these images and share them here, in a series called “Peeling Oranges.”

This title comes from one image during a cloudy afternoon last week. As I rounded the corner and turned into my neighborhood, I heard the chatter of young children playing in the street.

“Jordan!” One of them called—my 10-year-old host brother.

“Do you want a part of this orange?” I asked him in Arabic.  I pulled it out of my bag, hungry for a snack.

I split it among him and his friends, who hovered shyly against the wall.  I handed a slice to a boy with a pink, scarred hand, and to a little girl who chewed on the empty plastic cylinder of an oversized pixie-stick.

My fingers cold and covered in sticky juice, I peeled the orange and placed the rind on the crumbly sidewalk, the bright color of the skin contrasting sharply against the grayish brown of the cement.

We chatted for a bit, I asked their names, and scooped up the rind from the ground.  The encounter was short, and seemingly unimportant to those who may have been watching.  But sometime during those few moments—in my host brother’s joking, in the hesitant looks of the little ones, and the juice seeping between my fingers—something else was making itself known.

I had a feeling, an awareness, that this simple moment was important, even extraordinary, precisely because of its ordinariness.

It should be no surprise to me that God continues to reveal himself in the most ordinary ways.  It’s a concept that I think and write about a lot.  But each time, I’m still taken off guard.   Each time, the revelation seems at once familiar and new, comforting yet challenging.

More often during my first month in Jordan, I’ve been thrown off my feet not by picturesque views from mountain tops but by peeling oranges with children.

These brief, fleeting, ordinary moments, despite their power, can easily be lost. I don’t want these images—and the love I feel—to fade. And that’s why I write.

Taxi Rides at Maghrib

After my first day at the university a few weeks ago, I jumped into a cab with a friend at dusk, stressed and tired from the long day.  My mind was reeling with the new situation and setting, preoccupied with the computer problems I was having.

But as I settled into the back seat, the cabby changed the radio station, and long, throaty vowels began to emanate from the speakers and fill the cab.  It wasn’t music, but a recitation of the Qur’an.

I quickly noticed that it was maghrib, sunset—one of the five times Muslims pray every day.  In the same way that the verses vibrated inside the car, the call to prayer, or azan, was echoing throughout the limestone hills of Amman.

As we drove into the increasing darkness, I felt a sense of calm settle in.  The seat seemed to cradle me as the recitation told me to rest and reflect.  Through the Arabic verses that I rarely understood, and through the peace I felt as I listened, God remind me of his presence in my life, and his increased closeness as I navigate my life in Amman.

I am in a new and different place here, and sometimes that newness and difference can wedge a feeling of nervousness in my stomach.  But during that taxi ride, God reminded me that as my life becomes new and different, God will also present himself to me in new and different ways.  God won’t—can’t—reach me in the same way he does at home or at Georgetown, because Amman isn’t Indianapolis or D.C.

The key is that I must be able to recognize these new and different manifestations, even if they exist outside my usual experience, or even outside the practices of my own religious tradition.  This ability to recognize requires courage and a deep trust in the limitless and mystery of God.

Amman at maghrib

Maghrib has become my favorite time of day here, not simply because of the pink light that rests over the hills, but also because of the azan that calls me to remembrance. It calls me to complete an Ignatian “daily examen” of sorts, to recognize the new ways God reveals himself to me in the laughs of my Arabic professor and the big blue eyes of my 2-year-old host sister.

My experience of maghrib reminds me of the end of a poem by the 13th century Muslim Sufi mystic, Rumi:

Sunlight looks slightly different on this wall
than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities, from a light,
and when we praise, we pour them back in.