catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 20 :: 2013.11.01 — 2013.11.14


Sacred places

It was at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand where I first saw people pray to someone other than the God I knew. Several people were kneeling on a woven rust-colored mat on the ground in front of a golden statue of Buddha. Their shoes had been slipped off and were sitting around the edges of the mat. There was a low-standing cement trough filled with sand and orange candles, and a second trough was filled with tall, thin incense sticks. An older woman was kneeling in front of this trough with a smoking incense stick between her hands, which were folded together in prayer. The stem of a single lotus bud was wound around the stick, the light green bud hanging down as if it were kneeling, too. The woman said some words I could not understand, and then she placed the incense stick in the trough and laid the flower on a table heaped with other lotus buds.

My Christian mind went back to the story in Exodus when the Israelites forgot who they were and got tired of waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain and so they melted all their gold and made the golden calf to worship. There is a scene in the old movie The Ten Commandments when Moses breaks the calf and shouts at the people God has just freed from slavery. Yet I did not feel the desire to break these people’s golden god. I suppose what I felt was awe. For the first time, it was real. There were really people in the world who did not know or worship God. There were people who had real beliefs that were not like mine. I felt a strange reverence toward their beliefs and customs.

That day we visited the temple of the Emerald (actually jade) Buddha. The outer walls and columns of the temple were inlaid with millions of tiny jewels and pieces of gold. The result was a gorgeous building whose many colors twinkled in the sunlight. Its multi-tiered golden roof made it look majestic. Outside the temple, there were more of those lotus flowers and huge urns filled with water. People were dipping the flowers in the water and then using them to sprinkle water on the heads of their friends as a blessing. It reminded me of baptism. We had to remove our shoes before entering the temple. “Remember not to point your feet at the Buddha,” my missionary friend warned. “Keep your feet behind you.” The room was quiet, except for a few muffled prayers here and there. At the top of an enormous gold shrine sat the small jade Buddha. Some people were kneeling with their heads and bodies all the way to the ground. Others had their eyes closed as if in meditation. Still others were quietly looking at the statue. I had the feeling that I was on holy ground. Holy Buddhist ground.

When I first visited an Eastern Orthodox church, it reminded me a bit of my experiences with Buddhism. Before the liturgy started, people lit candles in a table filled with sand, much like what I had seen Buddhists do. Incense smoke filled the room as the priest walked by swinging a censer. A bouquet of flowers sat at the foot of the large icon of Mary. People bowed their heads and crossed themselves often. Though there were no jeweled columns, there were quite a few icons, and the gold halos around the heads of the saints seemed to glow. The people sang gorgeous melodies and a few cantors chanted deep harmonies. I felt that same sense of being in a holy place, on holy ground, that I had felt many years before at the Grand Palace.

These sacred places, though created by different religions, have something in common: a sense of mystery — not a mystery that needs to be solved, but mystery that tells us that we are in the presence of something unexplainable, something beyond our full understanding. Yet we don’t shrink from that mystery; instead, we enter into it. Whether it is by praying, or by lighting candles, or by singing praises, or by blessing our friends with water, we enter into this unexplainable thing called faith.

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