The woman next to me had them on her lap, running them through her fingers. Was she a nun? I didn’t want to violate the Code, so I couldn’t just turn and look. I also didn’t want to distract myself from my davening for too long. (How long is too long? I think it’s similar to the five-second rule for eating food you dropped on the floor – a moment is okay, after that you’re asking for trouble.)
Then I noticed the plastic divider in front of me, which separated us from the driver (affording him protection from spitballs, if nothing else). It was reflective, and I could see my seatmate perfectly well in it without having to turn.
She was middle-aged, dressed conservatively, her nondescript features notable only for the intensity of her expression, her lips moving in fervent prayer. Was she a nun on holiday, and thus out of her habit and habitat, or just a holy roller on her way to work? Was she even now praying for the return of Jerusalem to the Church’s hands? Had she noticed me with my siddur and added in a few prayers for the salvation of my soul? Or maybe its damnation! After all, she’d no doubt been taught that someone in my family had killed her Lord. Even though her Lord was actually someone in my family
“Peace on Earth in 30 Min., 45 with Traffic: Rosary beads, a yarmulke, and a lot of overthinking”
Eric Brand will never know how glad I am that he wrote this missive. Lately, I’ve been going through one or two challenges as far as how Jewish people see Christians. I haven’t experienced it as very complementary, to say the least.
On top of that, I’ve been musing about how my wife and children see my Christian faith. I’ve been taking a few conversations and a few cues and clues, and winding myself up quite a bit about what they mean. Maybe I’m right, but then again, like Mr. Brand, maybe I’m overthinking things.
A chance encounter on a public bus in New Jersey results in a Jewish man and a Catholic woman sitting next to each other. Both of them are praying, him with a siddur and her with rosary beads. Their religious orientations are unmistakable. While the “code” of riding public transportation from Jersey to New York forbids each of them from talking with or even looking at each other, what could they have been praying about?
That ticked me off. Was it right to stereotype and scapegoat me? Hadn’t my people suffered enough? Did I have to be subjected to this? I was just a guy on a bus!
I tried to go back to my siddur, but I could see those hands working the rosary beads out of the corner of my eye, and I could sense those lips going a mile a minute, spewing who knows what. Well, okay, lady, I thought, maybe this is a test from God to see if I have the right reaction! How about I throw in some prayers for your soul? How about we have a nice debate and pick apart your faulty theology?
I was mulling this over, thinking about a good opening crack, when I was struck by another thought. If I can see her, she can see me. And she can see me looking at her – and not davening. Better get those lips moving, buddy, you don’t want to give this religious nut a leg up on feeling superior.
I admire Brand’s transparency in describing his thoughts and feelings. I try to show that side of myself as well. What “teachable moment” might we inspire or intersect if we just write down what we think and feel about each other and let those words be accessible via the Internet? More than that, what can the writer learn in the writing?
I was still mouthing some words from the siddur when my brain re-engaged momentarily and focused on what I was reading. “God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.”
Oh, while there were two people in that seat, there were actually three “personalities” present. God had something to say to Brand and maybe to his Catholic traveling companion as well (we’ll never know what she was thinking during all this, alas).
“God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.”
I know the assumption in the text from the siddur is that “all who call upon Him” means “all Jewish people who call upon Him,” but if God’s House is really to be a house of prayer for all people, then all people aren’t just Jewish people. It’s everyone who “calls upon Him with sincerity.” What if the Catholic woman was calling upon God sincerely? Was God as close to her as He was to Brand? Is God close to all of us when we sincerely call upon Him? Is He as close to me, a Christian, when I pray as He is to a davening Jew?
We religious people make a lot of assumptions about God and we make a lot of assumptions about each other. It would have been a complete breach of public transportation etiquette for Brand to have introduced himself to his seat-mate and struck up a conversation with her about their faiths. But if that could have been accomplished, maybe his fears would have been allayed somewhat (or maybe not). One Catholic person commented on Brand’s column and this might help figure out what the woman on the bus could have been thinking:
As a Catholic, who reads aish.com, I can almost guarantee that very few of us are condemning anyone to hell. We are all G_d’s children.
While Brand never talked with the Catholic person next to him on the bus, God managed to get his attention in the pages of his siddur.
I know I’ve wondered if my Jewish wife feels at all threatened about me going to church and what that means about my attitude towards Jews, but I wish she’d believe that we’re all God’s children.
But more than my concerns about my wife’s fears about me, Brand taught me that my own imagination could well be creating a situation that isn’t real.
But I left the bus undaunted – even after Comb-Over stepped on my foot as he rushed to get to the escalator – with a smile on my face. Jewish tradition tells us we should consider the world as though it was created for each of us. Because each of us has a unique touch of godliness that gives the universe purpose.
But there’s another way to look at it. We each create the world for ourselves. Our perceptions, our attitudes, our thoughts produce the world around us every moment of our waking days. We see, hear, experience what we want, what we will. And in doing so, we affect all the other people busily creating their worlds.
That’s a big responsibility. I’m glad I was able to figure this out before the journey ended. Fortunately, there was traffic.
The world is still a big, bad, ugly place in many ways. There’s all kinds of trouble and troublesome people around. But we also create the world we live in. We can choose to be upset, anxious, or angry because we are choosing to imagine what people think and feel about us. We can choose to communicate or choose to be silent. And even if silent, we can choose how we consider the people in our lives, for good or for ill.
I’ve heard it said that an anxiety attack is a person’s response to an emergency that does not exist. It still feels real, but the only danger is the choice we’ve somehow (it’s not volitional) made inside. Perhaps my being a Christian isn’t the danger I’ve imagined it is to my wife and children. And if some Jewish people, including my friends, believe my faith is a problem, please talk to Eric Brand. Maybe my faith isn’t automatically against you. Maybe I love you.