by Patricia P. Hoge
As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I have itchy feet. I love to travel the world. As of this fall, I have visited all 7 continents, all 50 states, and 64 countries. Ask me where I am going next, and I will share my plans to visit the next 11 countries on my list. My favorite part of travel is learning about the culture and beliefs of my hosts.
The other day, I was reading the daily meditation, sent by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and came upon the concept of “pray your life.” Brother Curtis Almquist wrote, “Whether you are preaching a sermon or washing a window or pulling a weed, what you are about is learning to ‘pray your life.’” I love this concept and would like to add to that sentence, “or exploring different faith cultures.”
As part of my travel experiences, I have been blessed by a Living Goddess in Nepal, a Dongba Shaman in China, a Buddhist monk in Mongolia, and an Imam in Croatia. I have attended the Christmas Eve service at Westminster Abbey in London and Advent services at Notre Dame in Paris. My first morning in Turkey, I was awakened by the early morning call to prayer at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. While I was in Gonder, Ethiopia, a priest insisted that I hold a goatskin, illustrated Bible from the 5th century. With each of these opportunities, I felt God’s presence in my life and realized how we, as humans, need and want God’s love and blessings. Additionally, I have learned how we, regardless of our faith backgrounds, are more alike than different.
For example, several years ago, I was on a boat crossing Lake Titicaca in the Bolivian Andes. That morning, as I marveled at the beauty of Illimani, my personal favorite of the Andean peaks, I was asked if I would like to receive a traditional Andean blessing. I quickly said yes. The shaman, who was descended from the Incas, took at stalk of kantuta, the beautiful national flower of Bolivia that grows only in the Altiplano, and dipped the stalk in a bowl of water. As he used the tantuta flowers to sprinkle water on my head, I was instructed to repeat the three laws of the Incas – Ama Llulia (I will not lie), Ama Sua (I will not steal), Ama Quella (I will not be lazy). As I thought about these three laws that have governed the Incas from their beginnings in the early 13th century, I remembered that the Spanish didn’t conquer them until the late 16th century. Thus, these three laws predated the introduction to the Incas of the Christian Ten Commandments. That experience has made me listen carefully for rules and commandments in religious traditions around the world. What I have realized is that every religious tradition is based on essentially the same principles. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37–39)
Ten years ago, I had the honor of joining an exchange team of people from Georgia in the United States to Ulyanovsk, Russia. The team had been working with the local university to create a cultural and educational exchange of ideas. Ulyanovsk is located 15 hours by train southeast of Moscow, on the Volga River. The birthplace of Vladimir Ulyanov (better known as Lenin), Ulyanovsk is home to one of the largest higher educational institutions in the Volga region. Established in 1988, Ulyanovsk State University has an annual enrollment of more than 15,000 students. During the Soviet period, many of the historical and cultural buildings of the city were destroyed or repurposed. On the Sunday when we were in the city, the University was celebrating the restoration and rededication of the chapel in the medical school. I was one of two members from our delegation invited to participate in this important event. The local Russian Orthodox bishop, the city’s mayor, and the president of the university were all participants in the ceremony. After the short ceremony and reception, which had luscious food, I had a few minutes in the chapel by myself. As I stood there reflecting on the beauty of the chapel and the honor of being present at the event, I thought about how privileged I am to live in the United States, where I am free to worship as I please. Additionally, I recalled, “…. I remind you to rekindle God’s gift that is within you.” (2 Tim. 1:6)
My first major solo trip, after my husband died four and half years ago, was to Australia and New Zealand. I was shopping in a small grocery store in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia (the Outback), when a young aboriginal woman walked past me. Her body odor was so strong that my eyes started to water and my stomach began to heave. My first thought was, “Good grief, why doesn’t she take a bath.” The next day, I visited Uluru, a huge sandstone formation, almost six miles in circumference. Uluru is considered sacred by the Anangu people, one of the indigenous peoples of the area. They belong to the oldest culture in the world, which has existed more than 60,000 years. As I stood absorbing the rich reds and oranges of the sandstone and feeling the heat of the sand radiating on my feet, I heard my Anangu woman guide say that her people consider it their duty to respect and look after the earth. These seminomadic people live in this desert that receives only about 12 inches of water a year. The Anangu hold the hares, wallabies, and snakes of the area in high esteem. They recognize how essential water is to the animals and plants that share the land with them. Bathing is considered a waste of water. I stood there feeling very humbled by my judgmental thinking of the day before. Ever since then, when we get to the line in the Prayers of the People, where we say, “For the just and proper use of your creation,” I am reminded that the Anangu people have been taking care of God’s creation for 60,000 years, and we Christians are mere beginners.
It was an overcast cold day, as my rubber dinghy landed at Esperanza Base, Hope Bay, Antarctica. As I climbed the rocky hill to visit the base, I was struck by the starkness and loneliness of the landscape as I viewed this Argentinian Research Station at the end of the world. Many more penguins greeted me than people! I learned that less than 100 people lived on this base, and they stayed for at least a year. I was glad I was only staying for an hour. And then, I heard that the Bishop of Antarctica was waiting in the chapel and would like to offer his blessing. As I walked into this very small chapel, there he was, Padre Pablo. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he smiled and welcomed each of us, inviting us to come forward for individual blessings. As I walked out of the chapel and looked around me, I thought of, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mk. 6:31)
This past May, I was in Marrakesh, Morocco at the beginning of Ramadan. My guide, Hishem, explained that to become an imam, a man must first memorize the entire Quran. During the 30 days of Ramadan, the imam chants the entire Quran from memory. That evening, I stood across the street from Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in the city. The mosque, famous for its 229 foot minaret, was built in 1150. The minaret’s design has influenced Moroccan architecture for centuries. The mosque itself can accommodate 20,000 people inside, and the grounds outside another 20,000. It was almost 9 p.m., time for the last call to prayer of the day. The grounds of the mosque were covered with reed mats for people to kneel on in prayer. As I stood watching, hundreds and hundreds of the faithful were streaming onto the grounds. The men were in djellabas, the traditional dress of Moroccan men, and the women in kaftans with their heads covered. The women knelt together, apart from the men, as they waited for prayers to begin. Finally, when it seemed like the mosque’s grounds could not possibly hold another body, the rich tenor voice of the imam chanting the words of the Quran came from the speakers on the minaret. As I stood there with my eyes closed, listening to this incredible voice chanting, I realized it sounded like the voice of a Jewish cantor I had heard at a Shabbat service in Jerusalem, or the chanting of monks in a little church in Croatia. Yes, the words were different, but the sounds of the chanting were the same. “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.” (Ps. 89:1)
With each travel adventure, I realize more and more that I am ‘praying my life.’ The various religious symbols that I have collected and display in my living room serve to remind me of the faith lessons I have learned. There is a small olive wood cross presented to me by two Palestinian men, one Muslim and one Christian, at an international conference years ago. That cross reminds me that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all ‘People of the Book’ and that our roots are shared. A turquoise and coral Prayer Wheel from Nepal reminds me “to pray without ceasing,” (1 Thess. 5:16). From Bhutan, I brought a prayer box containing the image of Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist god of Compassion who helps me to remember the words in the second verse of Hymn 379, “God is love … and when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod, then we find that selfsame aching deep within the heart of God.” The small statue of Parvathi was a gift from my Hindu hosts, when I visited India. Parvathi is the protector, the destroyer of evil and regeneration of life. A small black ironwood statue reminds me of, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16) From Bolivia, I brought a small clay figure of Pachamama, known by the indigenous people of the Andes as the earth mother. When the Spanish forced conversion to Roman Catholicism on these people, the Virgin Mary became united with Pachamama. Many in South America believe that our problems arise when we take too much from nature, from Pachamama. My little clay figure reminds me of, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. The world and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1–2). And my latest addition, from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is a handmade tin box with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Looking at this little prayer box reminds me that miracles are real and do happen. “Jesus looked at them and said, with man, this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mk. 10:27)
In Arabic, the word, Inshallah, means ‘If God wills it.’ Inshallah, I will continue to “pray my life” by exploring our beautiful and diverse world for many years to come.