In a weather beaten journal from a past hiking trip to the high country of Strathcona Park I have scratched in pencil this quote from Thomas Merton’s “ Mystics and Zen Masters.”
“ The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey.”
Landscapes have always intrigued me, they have a mysterious way of shaping our lives, especially, cultural, and societal landscapes. Because, unconsciously navigating the world around us we create interior landscapes that restrict and confine our movement. My experience of growing up and living in the prevailing culture of that time, and religion shaped my interior landscape. I think there comes a point in everyone’s faith journey that the interior topography of the mind has been mapped out. This inner map comes complete with borders, boundaries and barriers, places beyond for which I’m restricted to enter. Safe places, dangerous places. Hospitable places, inhospitable places.
We only discover how good a map is, by when we start to move in the world around us, locally and globally. It’s when we try to orient the inner maps to the cultural and societal landscape around us that we discover a startling reality. The landscape of culture and society is constantly in a state of upheaval, shifting and moving. This is what it is to be lost...when our inner map no longer identifies or represents the landscape around us.
We are stuck. These inner maps with all their borders, boundaries have become obsolete, and nonfunctional. We can, try like when we were kids, to force a puzzle piece into a space that it doesn’t fit. From a distance it may look like you’ve completed the task. Close up, it looks like an act of force. Close up, it obviously didn’t work.
If I can, I’d like to share a very personal story with you. Growing up, for along time I was in place where everything fit. You could drape my inner map over top of my outer landscape in which I physically lived. They were identical. The borders, boundaries, all the network of routes of travel matched. I lived in an area where I was comfortable. There were many others comfortable in that area. We looked the same. We talked the same. We liked the same things. We believed the same things.
We knew there were people beyond our borders. They, talked different; looked different; liked different things and believed different things. It’s not so much we didn’t like them. We chose not to understand them.
In the military there really isn’t such thing as free will. They send you, and you go. There is no discussion of options, and other choices. There is only, “ Yes Sir “, you pack and you go.
In 1973, my inner map was about to be edited revealing a whole new landscape in which to live. I lived in Ismailia Egypt for a year, south of Cairo on the road through the Sahara Desert to Alexandria. I was living in a bombed out building just after the end of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Our responsibility was to secure a buffer zone for the UN,
between Israel and Egypt.
I was now in a place where I was truly lost. Try as I might, no matter which way I turned my inner map, I could not orient it to the landscape of the culture and society around me. I was outside of “my” neighborhood, “my” friends and “my” likes. I was outside of my comfort zone.
My religion told me Israel was good. God liked Israel, they were his chosen people. Through some mysterious adoption process, my religion was now a part of their family. So, now God had a preference to me...he liked me. Also, on my map in those regions beyond, those restricted areas were people God didn’t like. My inner map was telling me, I might be in one of those restricted areas. There was a sense of fear, anxiety of the unknown, of this totally foreign landscape.
In time, I met people that lived outside of the borders of my internal map. I discovered to that they nagivated their lives using an internal map whose borders were shaped by their culture and society. They lived their lives within the borders they had constructed. Soon I would discover it doesn’t matter what borders we draw on our maps, them or us . The reality of God bleeds across our borders in both directions.
Where I worked in Ismailia we tried to hire local people to work as laborers. It was supposed to be a win; win situation. It helped provide employment and some prosperity to the town, and to build a bridge of relationship between them and us. I got to know one family fairly well, the man’s name was Najeeb. He was tall and thin, wore tattered clothes and sandals. His dark skinned face was weather beaten, a smile filled with missing teeth. On his head he wore a tightly wound turban. He spoke mainly Egyptian infused with fragments of broken English. He was different, and lived well outside the borders of my internal map. Likewise, I lived well beyond the borders of his map.
But, here we were, not by choice, total strangers from far away lands with different maps who would have to navigate life together...here...now.
Like in all wars, the people living on the margins, living in poverty and injustice normally suffer the most. It was no different here. Driving around you couldn’t escape the poverty, it was every where. My working relationship with Najeeb was initially awkward. It was like two deaf and blind people learning dance. There was a lot of miscommunication, and of stepping on each others toes, but eventually we did find a sense of rhythm and began to move together.
In the warehouse where Najeeb and I worked, there was a constant flow of supplies coming in and going out. With that, also comes a constant pile of ever growing waste; lumber, cardboard and plastic. It was at the end of one day, Najeeb asked me what we did with the waste. The policy was to burn it. Najeeb asked if it might be possible for him to have some of it. So the next day, Najeeb and I loaded up one of our trucks with lumber from pallets, cardboard, plastic and wire. We drove to Najeeb’s neighborhood on the southern fringe of Ismailia. Najeeb’s plan was to use some of the material to renovate the house his family was living in. His home reminded me of something my daughters when they were little would construct in the backyard. Najeeb’s house was constructed out of every conceivable material you could think of, cardboard, plastic, corrugated metal, rope and a dirt floor. In this house he lived with his wife, three sons, daughter, two goats, and a donkey tied to a mill wheel outside.
Mysteriously, and slowly I was discovering a new map. It was the internal map that Najeeb navigated his life, shaped by his culture and society. Najeeb taight me so much; humility, hospitality, compassion, generosity, love, forgiveness...and abundant grace. His life was permeated with the presence of his God, in conversation and how he lived his life from moment to moment. His life revealed a gratitude that I have yet to experience, or have seen since. His five daily prayers were weaved into the fabric of his daily life. At first I saw it as some fundamentalist ritual, but for Najeeb it was a reality check to the presence of his God, and an acknowledgement to that presence through conversation.
We would make many more trips to Najeeb’s neighborhood sharing truck loads of recycleable material with his neighbors. I began to have meals with Najeeb and his family. Cooking on an open fire, sitting in a circle, cushions and carpet on the dirt floor, we shared stories and prayers. Into those dreams we prayed. Soon we discovered, we shared the same dreams. We were discovering a common humanity.
There was no holy war in Najeeb’s living, or his faith. There was no burning conviction to convert me. No conviction to kill me as an infidel when my back was turned. Nor did I feel I had to convert him to my faith. He befriended me...he loved me. I loved him.
How could this be? Somehow I and wandered outside the borders of my internal map into a restricted area, past the do not enter sign. That initial fear, and anxiety had evaporated like rain in the hot desert sun. Strangely in my mind, I looked back, and discovered all the borders on my internal map were erased. It was a map in which I looked around in all directions, as far as my eyes could see there was no borders.
Into my mind floods another desert scene, Jesus meeting the woman at the well. A meeting of faiths over water and thirst. There is a Samaritan and a Jew. Jesus doesn’t try to convert or coerce the young Samaritan woman to join the Jewish faith. There is a profound moment-of-truth from Jesus.
It doesn’t matter if you worship on your mountain, or whether you worship in the temple. What matters is, if you worship in spirit and truth. Because God is truth, and these are the worshippers he is looking for.
Was this similar to mine and Najeeb’s experience? We came together, both living lives, navigating with different internal maps. Both of which we thought was the correct map.
But because of circumstance, fate or by some mysterious divine appointment we crossed borders...onto each others restricted areas. Only to discover it was us that made them restricted areas.
God has no restricted areas. God bleeds across all our constructed borders, erasing all lines, no matter how hard we etch them on our maps.
There is profound wisdom to be found when our internal maps are confronted with the landscape of real life, different cultures, societies and faiths; places outside of borders we’ve constructed. It’s outside these borders we discover there is one God. It’s out here in our perceived restricted areas, in respecting and listening to each others humanity, and faith we find ourselves closer to the voice of God. It’s here we discover God bleeds across all our borders. It’s here Najeeb and I discovered we really are on the same map. The reality, Najeeb’s God, my God...is our God. In our relationship we saw the image of God in each other...both children of the same father.
It’s my prayer, that we would not fear our restricted areas. We could confront our fears, anxiety and enter. That there, we might discover God is already there. That we would look hard to see a humanity, all, created in the image of God.