Empty plane seats

This post goes along well with my last post “Returning to the river,” in that it expands on the importance of trusting in the divineness of our own imaginations.

On each of my three flights to Amman during January, I had an empty seat next to me.  This made the plane rides relaxing and enjoyable, but not simply because I could stretch out and didn’t have to squeeze by someone on my way to the bathroom…

~~~

Before I left for Amman, I was concerned about how I would transition, how I would feel navigating a new home alone.  Because I am so close with my family and friends and talk to them often, I was uncomfortable with the thought that my contact with loved-ones would be less frequent, and that I’d feel more isolated.

But then the most basic and yet profound thought struck me over the head: I won’t be alone.

This idea seems unsurprising.  Of course, God is with me and is in everything I encounter (I’ve talked about that much in recent posts).  But this insight was different.  I realized that I not only can find Jesus in the people and places around me, but I can find the person of Jesus—the physical, social, emotional human being—around me as well.  I can picture Jesus doing everything with me.  I can talk to him, be held by him, and share my excitement, anxiety, and sadness with him.

This understanding brought me so much peace, and my concerns seemed to slip away.  Navigating this journey would be so much easier, since I had someone doing it with me.  Though I didn’t know yet what life in Amman would be like, I had already started imagining Jesus there with me.

I prayed this prayer the night before I left for Amman:

Dear God,
Help me let you be my companion.
Walk with me in the streets.
Sit and drink tea.
Lay down next to me as I read your book.
I know I don’t need to ask; you’re already there.
Just give me a wave in the face if I forget you’re with me*.
Amen

(*This is a reference to “On Religion,” an excerpt of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.)

The day of my departure to Amman arrived, and I boarded the plane in Indianapolis to Toronto to find that the seat next to me was empty.  When I sat down on my London-bound plane, the chair beside me was again unoccupied.  And a third time, when I boarded for Amman, the seat next to me wasn’t filled.

But I quickly realized that these seats weren’t empty—someone was sitting there.  It was like God the Father had booked the seat for his Son.

I imagined Jesus there, next to me.  Barely able to contain my excitement after speaking in Arabic with one of the Canadian flight attendants, I gave Jesus a fist bump.  In an airport bathroom, I looked over at him as we washed our hands.  (Apparently Jesus is the only man allowed in the women’s restroom.) When I went to sleep and stretched across the seat, I rested my head on his lap.  Jesus’ presence tempered my anxiousness and brought comfort.

For me, one of the many beauties of Christianity is the way it embraces the physical, human, and historical world.  The person of Jesus inhabited time and space many years ago, a fact that allows us to bring him into this world again.  (It’s hard for me to explain my understanding of this fully.  It’s a combination of personal revelation and Church theology I’ve learned.  I need to do more reading on this in order to better articulate the more visceral understanding I have.)

Since I’ve been here, I’ve often found Jesus beside me, participating in my life.  He lounges on my host sister’s bed as I write this post, or squeezes in on the couch with my host family while we watch Arab Idol.  When I start feeling sad or uncomfortable or nervous here, I realize it’s because I haven’t been bringing Jesus into the picture.

A few weekends back, Jesus sat with me for a long time on the mountain where John the Baptist was executed.  I looked over, up the hill a bit to where he was sitting, and when we made eye contact, he scooted across the edge of the cliff down to where I was. I could hear the gravel pulling on his clothes as he shifted down the hill.  I remembered the Bible passage in which Jesus sits alone after hearing the news of John’s death, and I felt like we were experiencing that moment again together.  He didn’t have to be alone in that pain, just as I never have to be alone either.

Mukawir, the mountain on which John the Baptist was executed.

What do I call moments like this, I’ve wondered, when I see so clearly my Lord with me?

I think they are visions.

That may seem like a gutsy thing to claim.  Heck, I’m not Moses or Juan Diego, who saw God in a bush or Mary on a rosy hilltop.

But I think claiming to see visions isn’t the scary—or outright crazy—thing it initially seems to be.

During the last several years, a few friends of mine have told me they had visions, and I completely believed that they had.  But I wondered how they came to them? I thought, how could I ever receive a vision?, as if visions are things that come to us from the outside.  As if we have no control over the images that are presented before our eyes by God.

But from my own experiences, imagining Jesus with me, I understand now that visions don’t come from without.  They come from within, from inside our own hearts and minds.

Ignatius vision of Jesus at La Storta.

Mystics like Teresa of Avila (whose name I took at my Confirmation), Ignatius, and Rumi didn’t receive external images, ones imposed on them from the outside.  They simply trusted their imaginations, and realized that God was in the images and the stories they created.

When I think back on my own visions, it feels like the line between God’s work and my own has been blurred, and I know that’s because God’s divinity resides in me.  My creation is His, and His is mine.  I can trust these images and find meaning in them. I can intentionally bring Jesus into a situation, but that doesn’t make his presence any less holy.

~~~

All around—in the crowded coffee shop, inside the dry cleaners in my neighborhood, and on the crumbling, terraced hills of Jordan—empty seats are reserved, waiting for me—for us—to fill them up.

“Of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
—Dumbledore to Harry, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

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.

Images from Iraq

Along with its series containing leaked information about the Iraq war, the New York Times published these two slideshows–one depicting civilian deaths and one illustrating detainee abuse by Iraqis (and overlooked by Americans.)

Civilian deaths: Watch the slideshow here. (Lynsey Adarrio for the NYT)
Prisoner abuse: click here to see the slideshow. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

If we saw these pictures of war every day on the news, I think wars would be much less frequent.  The carnage that they cause is immense, but it often hard to realize its scope when we don’t see the pictures everyday.

Though we as Americans are not exposed to these pictures, many are.  Middle Eastern media more frequently publishes these photos, no doubt causing anger and sadness and horror in viewers, and even more importantly contributing to their (often justifiable) negative view of the U.S.

In American media, which is influenced so heavily by politics and those who benefit from the enterprise of war, we don’t show these images.  This is a disservice to American citizens, who deserve to know as much as possible about the conflicts in which we engage.  I encourage the American media to be courageous and provide us the images we so desperately need to see.

 

Click here to see an interactive map of civilian and military deaths in Iraq from Al-Jazeera English.

Later this weekend or this upcoming week, I hope to post about this week’s Fast-a-thon at Georgetown, in addition to a reflection on the Prayer in Daily Life retreat I attended this week through Catholic Campus Ministry.  I also may post a reflection on the firing of NPR’s Juan Williams.