I took a ride to the airport last week to pick up one of our monks, Cassian, who was flying in from Paris. He was there for a series of meetings.
I love airports. I got there early and found a seat and people-watched for an hour or so. There is a new complex — the International Terminal area — an almost brand new building, clean and shiny and very spacious with easily accessible parking.
I found a seat and waited in the arrivals area. There were so many people, people from different cultures, speaking different languages. I had a bird’s eye view of a microcosm of the world. I could have easily sat there all day.
While waiting I chatted with a young Vietnamese woman who was sitting next to me. She had her little boy in her lap and he was smiling and squirming, seemingly very anxious to join the parade of people who were passing in front of us.
She smiled at me and asked where I was from and I told her the monastery. I could tell by the look on her face that it was a new word to her. She said she was Buddhist. I told her I was a monk and then her smile broadened and I knew she understood the meaning of that word.
She told me that there are many Buddhist monks in Vietnam and that she and her family attend Buddhist ceremonies not far from where she now lives, which is in the Atlanta area.
I heard my name called and when I looked up I spotted Cassian. I said a quick goodbye to the lady and her little boy and went to greet Cassian and help him with his baggage. When we passed by where the lady had been sitting, she and her little boy were gone.
I have thought of her often since that afternoon. Our conversation was very brief but for me it carried a lot of meaning. Being what I suppose what might be called a “religion professional” I am perhaps more steeped than most people in the finer points of religious doctrine, tradition, practices and history.
Living here in a Catholic monastery seems more often than not to overload me with God-language, so much so that I have wondered if we monks allow ourselves to hear God through the ongoing traffic of our carefully chosen and practiced rituals.
Monastic life can be likened to a religious highway with no rest areas, no stop lights, no distractions. I suppose that it can be argued that cloistered life is a near straight way to God.
But it may also be argued that God lurks as well in airport arrival areas, like a detour from the tried and true, speaking something new and refreshing through a young Vietnamese woman and her little boy. Showing me something new, something wondrous.
So I thought about the grand scheme of things as I watched so much vastness of this world compressed into a small area, walking right in front of me, people from so many cultures moving in a kaleidoscopic fashion, many of them dressed in such colorful clothes – travel clothes, greeting clothes, farewell clothes.
Does it really matter what we are? I do not think so. “Whatever gets you through the night,” as John Lennon sang.
Life is brief. Maybe all that matters is kindness. Everybody is looking to feel at home, to find some smattering of God in this life. I can exist in something as simple as a smile, followed by a few words of curiosity.
The Vietnamese lady has a love for God and her family in her life. She held her son in much the same way that I imagine she held God. I will surely never see her again. But her few words and a smile made me grateful for all the differences in this world, and how God finds his home in and through all of them.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.