As I waded through the morning Email yesterday, weeding out the saccharine “forwards” and marking mail from family and friends to read at leisure later, a single subject line snagged my attention.
” U.S. judge denies bid for nativity scene in California town”
I checked the sender, realized it was a fellow blogger who, like myself, had been blogging fervently and ferociously in the past few months. We both had deep reservations about the encroachment of religion into the American political scene and had both commented passionately on the subject. There was no question in either of our minds.
Religion was a private matter and had to remain so.
So when I clicked onto the letter and opened it, I felt a little tremor of satisfaction. Now people were waking up, I muttered to myself in a most curmudgeonly way. I read …
LOS ANGELES, Nov 19 (Reuters) – A federal judge denied a bid
by a group of Christian churches on Monday to force a California
beachside town to reopen a park to a nearly 60-year-old
Christmas-season nativity display it discontinued after atheists
upstaged the event last year.
“Aha,” I said. Savoring a brief instant of satisfaction. And then I felt a stab of pain. I reread the Reuters clip.
The pain persisted.
It seemed to be radiating from somewhere in the region of my heart. As I sat there staring at my computer screen, I realized the print was a little blurry and after a few seconds I identified the cause of the murky letters. My eyes were full of tears. Which made no sense to me. After all, I was so adamantly opposed to proselytizing and so irritated by conservative braying about “values”. Why were my tear ducts betraying me? I could feel the wetness on my cheeks.
Confused, I got up and sat on my sofa, stretching out my legs and closing my eyes … my time-tested panacea for doubts and questions. Just sit quietly, clear the mind and wait for something to emerge. I like to think God or Yahweh or Brahma or the Great Engineer does indeed answer questions, if I can clear the accumulated mental detritus from my brain and offer an empty space for some celestial input.
A friend of mine insists it’s merely nerve synapses or some such technical phrase. And that it all boils down to it ” being in my mind”. I don’t care. It works for me.
I sat there quietly, consciously draining my mind and earnestly asking for insight. The word “crèche” suddenly emerged, hauling behind it a train of images. And something clicked almost audibly. A crèche is a Nativity scene. But I hadn’t used the word for years.
I suddenly remember the little crèche we had when I was a child. It was a small box-like structure containing the figures of Joseph and Mary and the Christ child in a dark wooden stable. A little cut-out back window featured a tiny brass star which revolved somewhat disconcertingly when the display was jostled. But the most intriguing feature was a front flap which when opened, extended the scene with several sheep, a goat, a few chickens and a cat all neatly glued to its inner surface. When Christmas was over, I remember my sister bidding the baby Jesus and the animals good-bye as Mom folded the flap back up to seal the crèche for the next year.
As I tugged at these old images, I suddenly remembered Mom telling me how we got the crèche. We certainly didn’t have it when I was a small child. And there was a reason for that. In French Catholic Quebec, there was a subtle but deep schism between the Catholics and the Protestants. And we were Protestants. While it never catapulted the province into the terrible conflicts we saw in Ireland, it was there. A persistent nagging undertone which expressed itself in separate School Boards, separate churches and a host of smaller details.
Protestants didn’t wear small gold crucifixes around their necks. They didn’t have rosaries with mysterious prayers assigned to each bead. They couldn’t do something bad and then have their sin “washed away” by telling a priest what they had done. They didn’t have wonderful churches filled with gorgeous statues of saints and a huge altar ablaze with gold and marble. And candles too. Protestants didn’t have those lovely shimmering candles.
But two things in particular caused me to veer towards breaking the last of the Ten Commandments … “Thou shalt not covet.” I truly envied the little Catholic girls who got to dress like miniature brides for their First Communion. When Mary Gorman spread out her white batiste and lace dress on her bed and puffed up the ruffles, I gazed at it almost overcome with longing. Oh to have a dress like that! To look like a bride. It was almost too much to bear.
The second thing was the crèches, which appeared at Christmas time in the courtyards of the Catholic churches. Some families even had smaller ones in their homes and I thought these tiny structures much surpassed the ordinary doll houses my sisters and I had. I wanted one for years, but was told that they were “Catholic” things and that Protestants didn’t display them in their homes. Which seemed odd to me since it was clearly the same Christ child’s birthday we were all celebrating. But rules were rules.
However one year when I was thirteen or fourteen, I came downstairs on Christmas morning to find a little crèche standing on a tiny fold-out table in front of the tree. My youngest sister was kneeling in front of it, absolutely entranced and my Mom was watching her. She put a finger to her lips to warn me that there was a secret here and that she’d share it later. But for now a “Christmas angel” had hitched a ride with Santa Claus and left the crèche for Bethy. There were traces of tears in the corners of her eyes.
Later in the kitchen as we bustled around laying out plates for the holiday breakfast, Mom confided in me. “We were in Eaton’s a couple of weeks ago. And I let go of Bethy’s hand as I picked up something to check the price. When I looked around, she was gone. I was frantic and started running up and down the aisles. Then I saw her. In the Christmas decoration aisle. She was kneeling on the floor in front of a crèche and she was absolutely mesmerized. The sight of that little baby in her bright red snowsuit and sitting like one of the Magi adoring the Christ child was so touching, I had to buy one for her.”
Before I could remind her that she’d just teetered towards idolatry, she said softly, ” It IS Christmas and we really are celebrating exactly what the crèche represents.”
It made perfect sense to me.
And now over forty years later, it still seemed to make perfect sense.
But there was something more. I closed my eyes again and stretched out my legs, willing my breathing to slow down and my mind to clear.
There was some other reason for the turmoil of emotion which that newspaper article had engendered. Why was I so upset about something which seemed to be a logical outgrowth of public resistance to Christian proselytizing? Surely it is only fair not to permit religious displays on public property. Wasn’t the judge’s decision on the Nativity display supporting that the very separation of Church and State, which I had been so voluble about in the last few months? Why was something gnawing at me?
As I sat there trying to sift through memories and emotions, I remembered another crèche. In India. Years after I had drifted away from “being a Christian” to being the sum of the many faiths I had experienced on my personal journey towards understanding.
I hadn’t really thought much about that slow drift as it was happening. It was a process of accretion. I added the concept of reincarnation in my teens, experienced the pure mystical connection of the Sufis in my twenties, practiced or tried to practice the “detachment from desires” of the Buddhists as I grew older. And through it all, maintained that the Golden Rule of “Do unto Others’ was the pinnacle of all divine commandments.
It all seemed quite compatible to me, as long as I didn’t insist that the only way was through Christ. I balked at that idea. It just didn’t make sense. If God created the Universe, it seemed impossible that He would create so many souls destined for Hell or destruction by the accident of their birth into non-Christian families.
So I no longer listed myself as a Christian when that information was requested on various documents. I had my tonsils removed as a Hindu and years later, when a polyp was excised, I declared myself a Buddhist. For me the central element of my own faith was the ability to connect directly with God or the Universe. Without intervention.
Which was what I was doing right now. Connecting directly. Or trying to. My mind as always resisting and veering off on tangents. And I could make no sense of my confusion. Surely some charming childhood memories weren’t sufficient to so derail my very firm ideas about organized religion. But now a second crèche seemed to be surfacing.
So I sat and focussed on that second crèche. It had been set up outside a house in Juhu, a very posh suburb of Bombay. Juhu was an enclave of movie stars and industrialists where most of the homes featured a security guard half asleep at the front gate. Except for old Dr. Narde and his wife, there very few Christians in the community. There were a scattering of Muslims, a couple of Parsis and as far as I knew, only one other foreigner besides myself. The overwhelming majority were Hindus.
And at Christmas time, except for my home and Dr. Narde’s, there were no adornments on any of the other bungalows. I regularly put up a Christmas tree and scrounged for some ornaments from the little bazaar at Santa Cruz which was home to the largest Anglo-Indian community in the city. Then every year, I’d locate the one Christmas tape I had brought from Canada … a medley of familiar carols.
I didn’t even know the crèche was there. Until my cook Kishan bounded in one evening with a basket of vegetables and some cooking oil for dinner. He had a huge smile on his face and a smear of red powder on his forehead, indicating he’d just visited the Hindu temple down the road. He began to wave his arms around, indicating something quite special had occurred and I leaned forward to hear what it was. Kishan was a veritable repository of every event in the Juhu community.
Finally he composed himself sufficiently to announce, “Memsahib , ek bahut achha Chreeshmass mandhir … rasta mein … नज़दीकी ”
“Memsahib, there’s a beautiful Christmas shrine … in the road. Nearby. “
He was beaming as he described the scene with the English baby God surrounded by animals and kings and farmers. There were so many other beautiful gods. A lady like Parvati and her consort Shiva were there. With big round gold crowns on their heads. And apsaras too, flying overhead.
It took me several minutes to untangle the jumble of Hindu gods from the Christian one, after realizing that the crowns were halos and the apsaras angels. Kishan was talking about a traditional Christmas display. A crèche. Somewhere in Juhu. I waited until he ran out of breath to ask for directions.
“Across from Patel Kutir” he clarified.
So later in the evening, I took a walk to the Patel house. I was unprepared for the magnificent display erected outside the house across the street. It extended from the compound wall out onto the very edge of the road. An elaborate manger lay under a beautifully constructed wooden arch. The baby Jesus rested in a circle of straw in the very center of the tableau while hovering around Him were the traditional visitors. The Three Magi, shepherds and angels as well as several sheep and cows, a horse, several piglets, two dogs and a cat. But interspersed amongst the familiar images were several other figures. A fruit-wala , a tiffin delivery man with his cart, two fisherman and a lady selling venis or hair garlands.
I stood there with a flood of memories surging over me, My childhood Christmases, the carols, the Nativity story … “And it came to pass in those days …”
Thirty years later, I could recite Luke 2 from memory. And there I was, standing in the middle of the road, in a suburb of Bombay looking at one of the most beautiful crèches I had ever seen. Created by hand, lovingly … by a Christian family living in a Hindu neighborhood. And as I stood there. more people passing by stopped to look and admire. Several, seeing I was a foreigner and probably knew more about this “English” mandhir, asked me questions. And I answered as best I could. Then we folded our hands and bowed our heads to each other as they went on their way.
“Namaste” they said. “Merry Christmas” I offered. And we all smiled.
Now twenty-five years later, I was sitting trying to make sense of my conflicting emotions over the Nativity scenes banned in Santa Monica. Trying to understand why I felt the ban was so unjust, so wrong. Intolerant. It was intolerant.
And then suddenly, on the wings of an apsara perhaps … I had my answer. It lay contained in two words. The first was “tolerance”. The Christian family who spent so much time and love building their crèche to display outside their home in Juhu, had no fear it would be vandalized, no fear that some petty official with a tape measure would declare it “encroaching” on a public road, no worries that some religious group would protest and plaster posters all over it. They had no fear at all.
They knew that people would stop and enjoy its beauty. Maybe some questions would asked about the Nativity and the story of their Saviour’s birth. They knew that it would be greeted with pleasure. That a cook like Kishan might tell his mistress about it. That no one would feel it dangerous or threatening. Just a celebration of a God’s birthday.
And they were right. What did the passersby say to me as we went our ways? They said ‘Namaste”
And that is the second word. “Namaste” नमस्ते
It means … ” I honor the God in you”
When we learn to honor the God in each other and lay aside our differences of faith, when we can give respect to those who follow a different path and when we freely offer love to each of God’s creations, then we will have understood the entire meaning of our lives on earth.
The Gleeful Guru
.* Artwork by Anthony A. Gonzaléz.