The Joyful

He was sitting on the edge of the highway when I saw him. Cars sped by, but he was motionless. His heavy black robes fell like curtains over his folded knees and a single scallop shell hung from his neck. A wide brimmed hat hid most of his serene face. Must be from an ancient monastic order, I thought to myself, probably doesn’t speak English.

Sitting outside a pizzeria, the cloaked figure appeared again, walking briskly this time. My curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to catch his attention. Do I smile? Do I wave? Do I dare to say words that he certainly won’t understand? He smiled and a hundred wrinkles creased his face. I smiled too, assuming that this was as far as our communication could go. He nodded and raised his hands to his chest, bowing briefly in a respectful namaste. My hands fumbled in confusion. Who is this smiling monk man? What religious order does he follow? What country does he come from? How many Caminos has he walked? In what God does he believe? His bare feet slapped the cobblestones as he strode away. Each sole marked with the colours of the earth.

At the garden gate, at the place were we would stay that night, I saw him again. He was kneeling in the grass, playing the part of a masseur for an aching pilgrim. I reached for my phone to capture the bizarre scene. He looked up and smiled. My hand retreated from my pocket, embarrassed to have even considered snapping a candid shot of someone so sacred.

“Five euros for a massage,” another pilgrim explained, “only five euros and he will take away all your aches and pains.” I watched from a distance, still unsure how to ask all the questions I wanted answered. To those who weren’t alarmed at the sight of a grinning monk, the deal was too good to refuse. So my husband laid down on the grass and took his chances on the monk massage. I heard him tell a bit about our life. He spoke quickly, like he would to someone who spoke English everyday. So I got up from my observer’s seat and pulled a lawn chair up close. Like a swim coach overseeing a meet, I leant over my knees and interrogated the masseur monk. He smiled from his place on the grass, his palms pressed into my husband’s shoulders.

“I’m from California,” he said, in a voice forty years younger than his face.
“What sort of monk are you,” I cut to the chase.
“I’m a joyful monk,” he explained, “if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘no.’ If someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘no.’ Still yet, if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘yes.’ And if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘yes.’” He laughed and looked up at my face expectantly. Clearly I wasn’t the first curious pilgrim to cross his path.

“Which religious texts have you read?” I pressed on, aiming for a straighter answer.
Without hesitation he rambled off an assortment of major religious texts. Pausing for a second he added, “none of the Jewish stuff though.”
I didn’t press that point, but I was curious why he had also omitted the primary Christian text.
“Have you read the Bible too?”
“Ya but it’s mostly crap,” he admitted with a laugh.
I raised my eyebrows. What sort of monk walks the camino and hates the Bible?
Noticing my surprise, he offered an explanation, “the only part of the Bible that’s any good is Jesus’ words. What people should do is just get one of them Bibles with Jesus’ words in red letters. Skip everything except the red letters.”
An eavesdropping pilgrim pulled out his smartphone. “Just the red letters? Where do you get one of those Bibles? I might actually read that.”

I smiled and tried the reconcile the scene before me with my own love for the Bible and my belief that it is (in it’s entirety) the word of God. In a way, I had to agree with the monk. If you were going to read just one part of the Bible and you couldn’t stomach the whole crazy story, then I guess the words of Jesus would be the right place to start. In a split-second, I made up my mind to agree.
“Yes, read the words of Jesus!” I nodded enthusiastically, “he was a pretty great guy.” I turned to the pilgrim who had entered our conversation. “You can find those Bibles everywhere. The Gideons give them away for free.”
The monk began singing a song about Gideons Bibles as he massaged my husband’s calves.
I laughed and launched into another question: “When did you decide to become a monk?”
The monk thought for a moment and then began to recount a story that most people would only tell their closest friends. His life was once much different. He was a band leader and a husband. He was married for twenty years before it all fell apart. His unique combination of aspergers, bipolar, and alchoholism meant that his fists sometimes had a mind of their own. He spent some time in jail before he realized he needed help. When he got out, he set out in search of God. He read everything he could find, and joined a variety of religious communities. He was given a new name and a new life.
“I am called ‘The Joyful,’” he explained with a grin, “With a personality like mine, there are only two things I could be in life: either an entertainer or a monk. So now I am an entertaining monk.” He bobbled his head, making his wide brimmed hat dance.
I laughed again.

“So why did you choose to do the camino?”
For that he had a quick answer. “Most people do this walk for themselves. They want to get away from something or find something. But I am doing this walk for everyone else.”
I nodded, noticing his particularly thorough massage work on my husband’s battered and dirty feet. I couldn’t help but be reminded of another man, who, 2000 years ago, showed love by kneeling on the ground and touching weary feet.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I would do it. It was easy enough to sit in my lawn chair and discuss religious texts. But would I kneel on the ground and put into action the words that I professed to follow?

It’s been more than a week since my encounter with “The Joyful” and I still can’t quite figure out what to make of it. Should I be sceptical of his story? Should I be ashamed to have agreed with a man who dismissed a large portion of the religious text I follow? Should I just take inspiration from his joyful and compassionate spirit? I don’t know. But I do know that I saw a glimpse of Jesus’ words in action. The red letters come to life. And that I will never forget.

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Waiting Day

“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6

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Today is Saturday, yesterday was Friday, tomorrow is Sunday. Keeping track of the days gets tricky while travelling. But I actually care this time because today is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Does it have a special name? I don’t think so. Perhaps Grocery Shopping Saturday? Hide the Eggs Saturday? Clean the house Saturday? 

Is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter supposed to have a spiritual mood or is it just a day for getting everything done for Easter? 

While travelling I don’t have much to do for Easter prep. I don’t have a house, probably won’t have a fancy dinner, and I spend enough time hunting for chocolate in the dusty bottom of my backpack. Strip away all of that and today just feels like a waiting day. A day to wait on the Lord. 

The good news is I have been practicing waiting. I’ve gotten good at waiting. Waiting for trains, waiting for buses, waiting in lines to see old things, waiting to find out if a host will take us, waiting to see if our working holiday visas will be approved….I could go on. But all those little writings are just symptoms of a much bigger waiting season. For the past three months I have entered a purposeful season of discernment. Sure it may seem like I am traipsing across a continent with my husband in tow hitting up all the major landmarks, but what may not always be apparent is that while staring up at yet another cathedral ceiling I find myself in purposeful prayer, wondering when God will speak his words of wisdom to me. I know I’m not Joan of Arc, but would a clear loud voice from heaven directing my future path be so much to ask for? Be honest, I’m sure you’ve asked for it too. 

I have heard snippets of God’s voice: in an email from a friend reminding me that my value is not defined by economic productivity, in an acquaintance’s honest Facebook status, in finding fulfilling work at the archives, in watching other families play at a city park, and so many other fleeting moments. But I crave the clarity of God’s actual voice saying, “you chose the right degree, dear daughter. You will have a fulfilling career and you’ll be able to balance it with motherhood, no problem!”

But God doesn’t work like that. I’ve been reading the first five books of the Bible over the last few months and I can’t help but notice all the waiting. Not just one day or three months, but years! Forty, fifty, hundreds, thousands of YEARS. God plays the long game. An eternal perfect being isn’t confined by our tiny ideas of deadlines and efficiency. God speaks and calls when the time is right. When the time has fully come. Therefore I will wait upon the Lord and trust that just as he brought the Israelites through the desert, just as he brought the promised Messiah that this world desperately needed, just as he raised him from the dead after three days, that same Lord and saviour will instruct my path. All I can do is embrace the waiting, trust God’s timing, listen attentively, and act faithfully.

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“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Cats and “Contradictions”

February 18

Our first full day in Istanbul began with another smorgasbord of food, this time above ground, at an outdoor restaurant just a few steps away from the glistening Bosphorus. Elyse told us it was time to grow-up and order our own food, so we cautiously made our way to the buffet counter, clutching our plates like detention slips. At the counter, we became lost in the shuffle of assertive Turkish brunch-goers. Recalling one of my two Turkish words I called out, “Abi? Abi!” Which has no real equivalent in English, but means something like ‘sir’ with a weightier connotation, since it implies that the man is older, wiser, and deserves my respect. Eventually a large hairy pair of hands grabbed our plates and promised “large Turkish breakfast” and we were sent back to our table with out heads down. We confessed to Elyse that we weren’t bossy enough to order our own breakfast. Eventually plates appeared filled with slices of meat, cheese, eggs and of course more tomatoes and olives. The most delicious of the dishes came separately and bore an island of creamy cheese in a small lake of honey. The centre piece of the display was a geometricly perfect honey comb. My assumption that it was decorative was defeated when Elyse cut off a square and popped it in her mouth. Turns out honey combs aren’t as crunchy as they look and are nothing like the cereal.

Yet again we found ourselves unable to finish the meal, and I saw an opportunity for a free packed lunch to fuel our day’s excursion. While Jakob and Elyse bantered back and forth like siblings, I reached under the table and into my backpack where I found the well-used ziploc bag that usually holds gum and odd candies. Dumping its contents, I held it on my lap until a lull in the conversation. The opportune moment arose and I pounced.

“So shall I pack this up!?” I sprung the baggie from my lap.

Both Jakob and Elyse raised their eye brows and burst into laughter. Yes, thigh-slapping and hand-waving laughter.

“How long were you holding that thing?”
“Where did you get that from?”
“Oh this is so Meghan.”

Although I don’t think being prepared is that funny, I can admit that I could have picked a more casual approach. Between fits of giggles, Elyse kindly reminded me that, like anywhere, the servers here will put the leftovers in a nice little container so that you don’t have to feel like a ravenous dog sliding cold cuts into your purse.

Speaking of dogs, at some point on this first day I did manage to solve the mystery of the subdued strays:
“People in Istanbul treat each other like shit,” Elyse explained, “commuters shove to get on the metro, drivers run down pedestrians, and religious conservatives hiss at short skirts, but the animals in this city are always loved and cared for without fail…just one of the many contradictions of Istanbul.”

The stray dogs may have caught my attention, but it was the street cats that captured my heart.
Aren’t these little guys adorable?

It’s true, I did find Istanbul to be a city of confusing (at least at first) contradictions. It seemed like even the slightest observation, like a patriotic portrait on the wall or even a construction zone, could lead to a lengthy explanation. Thankfully, I had two very good teachers at my disposal, Elyse and Alev Scott. No Alev is not a new travel friend, in fact, Alev has no clue who I am. But I did find her book, “Turkish Awakening” covered in a thin layer of dust on Elyse’s bookshelf. Alev is half Turkish and half English, and at the time of writing her book (2014) she had spent two and a half years working in Istanbul as an English teacher. With her witty and wise prose, Alev explained to me not only the coexistence of animals and humans in this city, but also secularism and Islam, covering and uncovering, patriotism and political protest. According to Alev, what may seem like a contradiction to western logic, usually makes sense in Istanbul. If you’re curious, you really need to read the book for yourself.

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I can just say that one of my most humbling moments was when I read her “Women Undercover” chapter. As a feminist, I firmly support women’s right to cover whatever part of their body they see fit. As a practicing Christian, I see the attraction to dressing in a way the reminds you of your love for God and your commitment to your faith. But even with my appreciation of coverings in all shapes and forms, I was still slightly baffled when I saw two women, one with long loose curls and the other with a colourful scarf secured around her face, chatting and laughing like the best of friends. Alev scolded me from her pages: what ignorance to think that people can’t be friends just because they have different religious beliefs or personal practices! I was immediately embarrassed. Why yes of course, am I not friends with a spectrum of people, many of whom do not share my religious beliefs? Moreover, as Alev puts it,

“the ostensibly nonreligious Turkish woman might be a sincere believer who does not see the need to wear the headscarf; the headscarf-wearer might wear it from habit, but have private doubts or questions about Islam.”

As a passerby, there is no way to know and there is no need to know.

Thanks for the wake-up call Alev and thanks Istanbul for reminding me to ask questions instead of jumping to conclusions. Let’s see if I can be a bit more open minded in my next two Istanbul days…it’s almost bazaar time!

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And this is what we did on Day One other than read books, eat breakfast, and take cat pics.