c r i s    h a r r i s

Paradox

 

St. John's Church, Çavusin, Turkey


I look past my left foot down the cliffside to the markets on the street far below, and I tighten my grip on Mehmet's outstretched hand. My foot is secure in half of a child's grave niche. The rest of the grave tumbled away along with half the hillside in the earthquake of 1960, exposing dozens of living chambers carved into the Cappadocian rock of Çavusin, and the shattered narthex of St. John's church. From my threshold footing I see afternoon shadows lengthening in the valley below, the gold of dry grasses in jumbled stone below me, the silver of trees down on the street. Every rock face is pocked and carved with doorways, dovecoats, staircases, portals into dark tunnels in the volcanic tuff. Holding tight, I step my right foot over to the ledge where Mehmet is standing, and then pull my left from the grave and up onto solid ground. A doorway in the stone, decorated with carved circle and cross, leads to a massive chamber, smoke darkened, where decorative pillars turn the walls into a cathedral, and up high, where neither iconoclasts nor local vandals, nor the families that lived in these rooms for hundreds of years could reach them, friezes depict angels and saints.


St. John's church is one of the oldest and largest rock-cut churches in the area, its construction credited to 5th century Byzantines. The frescos date much later, 10th or 11th century work covering over early geometric patterns painted in red ochre. Mehmet tells us that his family lived in these caves, used the church as a stable for their animals, lost lives in the quake when the hollowed out hillside split and fell, leaving a ridge so thin you see daylight through the carved doors and windows opening out onto the next valley.


The grave niches are ubiquitous, coffin shaped hollows in the floors of caves, especially in the churches. They are at most two feet deep. At Goreme, the guides tell groups that bodies were interred temporarily, for just forty days, then exhumed and reburied elsewhere. But in one church off the main path, we see the graves have plexiglass covers and after a few minutes of curious looking from different angles, my wife Mary points out the bones inside, brown with age. In one, I see an arch of teeth and the birdlike structure of scapula. In some churches, the entire floor is a series of these niches, in sizes ranging from adult to infant. Often, a grave or two spans the threshold of the doorway. You enter the dark, tomblike space by stepping over the newly dead, to see thousand year old images of Christ healing the sick, raising up Lazurus. Up a faint dirt path in the Ilhara Valley, we find a nameless, abandoned church, its friezes mostly gone and the remains etched with graffiti. Beside the door rests a six foot wide millstone, rolled back and toppled from the entryway. We stand a minute in the dry heat before stepping inside, listening to a few birds and children down by the water below.



Kalighat Temple, Kolkata India


A month earlier, a bearded Hindu priest wearing a wreath of marigolds leads a group of my students through Kalighat temple in Kolkata. I keep an interested look on my face, and do not visibly hesitate to remove my shoes, put away my camera, enter the crush of visitors already packing the narrow passageways early on a Wednesday morning, though part of me is recoiling at the strong smell of blood around the goat sacrifice pavilion (where a skinny kid with a yellow nylon rope around its neck waits patiently), at the grit under my bare feet, at the press of sweaty pilgrims and tourists at each turn in the architecture. The lead guide is in constant negotiation with the priest—making sure we are not rooked out of too many rupees, declining to sponsor a goat sacrifice, slowing the rapid pace of the tour. We enter the tiny shrine to Kali by stepping up a series of steep stairs. Inside, men are chanting at full voice, incense is burning, and the guide is shouting instructions. One by one, in quick succession, we are prodded forward, handed a blossom, and told to look the idol in the face and throw the blossom at her. When my turn comes, I'm surprised by the urgency, the hands on my elbow pulling me to the doorway, beyond which an abstract Kali with shining golden tongue stares three eyed at me. I throw my blossom hard, and they shove me along to make room for the next person. In each corner of the small room, leather straps hang from the ceiling. When it gets busy, the chanting priests loop the straps around one wrist so that the pilgrims they are blessing with outstretched right hand do not sweep them out of the shrine as they pass.


When I teach Hinduism, Kali presents a challenge. She's portrayed as demonic, wild in violent ecstasy, her tongue flapping, eyes wild, bleeding heads in her hands, a necklace of skulls, standing among corpses, standing on the chest of Shiva, her lover. My students back home, mostly thirteen and fourteen, ask with earnest curiosity why Hindus would worship her, what they see in her, what she represents. They get Rama and Krishna, avatars of messianic Vishnu. They all know boon-granting Brahma and are spooked by Shiva dancing. They love Hanuman the monkey, and smirk at unmanned Indra. But Kali baffles them. After two weeks in India, travelling largely north of Darjeeling, she is becoming clearer, but this temple, near the black water of the Adi Ganga river, throws us all. We've learned that she is the violent enemy of evil, that the heads belong to demons, that her expression is one of utter shock, because Shiva has laid down before her so that she would go too far and wake from her destructive frenzy. She is pictured coming awake in amazement, not that she has killed all these creatures, but that she has trod on her husband, an act so impossible that it ends her uncontrollable rampage.


The priest walks us across an alley and through a doorway to the Kundupukar, a swimming pool size tank of cloudy green water. It's quiet here, and only a few people are stepping out of outer layers to enter the water. The bearded priest is joined by a younger assistant carrying an armful of wreaths. The bearded priest takes our guide, Max, down to the level of the water, where a small bronze Shiva statue dances on a pedestal. After a minute, Max walks away and the priest calls me down. He fills my two hands with blossoms and asks me my name. I tell him and he instructs me to place a blossom on the statue's pedestal, where a dozen are already lying.


"Pray for you," he says. "What is your wife's name?"


"Mary," I say, and he motions me to place another flower. They are more golden than yellow, soft and crushable.


"Pray for your wife. What is your mother's name?"


"Margaret," I say, and place my flower.


"Pray for your mother. What is your father's name?"


"Renne," I say, suddenly tearing up. It seems unnecessary to mention that he has been dead over sixteen years, and that I think about him, if I don't pray for him, every day.


"Pray for your father," he tells me. "You have brothers?" We go on, down by the pool, with my handfuls of flowers in the sun, the sweat trickling on my back, through my family, my work, my house, my friends, and I place my blossoms and pray. I wipe tears off my face before the kids see me. When we are done, I sign my name in a small book he carries, thank him and walk away to join Max. Together we watch an old woman whose bones show through the dark skin of her back, who has waded into the fetid water to bathe and the priest's assistant comes to talk with us. His English is idiosyncratic, but good, and he asks us about our trip, tells us that this is water piped from the Ganges, changed every week. Before, he says, it was not changed often and people who came to pray often got sick. And then he asks if we have seen Kali, and says the most remarkable thing.


"If you believe, then she is good. If not, then she is a rock. Pray to the rock, or some other rock. Doesn't matter."


I ask for clarification. He smiles, shrugs, tries again.


"Doesn't matter what you pray to. Is all one God, everywhere. So pray Jesus, pray Allah, pray Kali. Or pray rock. Is the prayer that matters." Down below us the old woman has spread her arms, leaned into the water, and started to swim.




The Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey


Two minutes into the Church tour and I'm staring at a corner above the souvenir stands where on two ten by ten panels, Herod's soldiers are slaughtering the innocents with swords and pikes. There's a woman screaming while a soldier holds her infant by one foot and stabs it under the armpit; a mosaic of red tiles spews from the wound. Up high, a baby is impaled on a pike, which enters between the legs and emerges out its face, thankfully turned to the wall. Tour groups are moving by, but I'm stuck wondering about this graphic violence. I was born on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and have always been fascinated by this story.


The Chora Church, in the Edernikapi neighborhood of Istanbul, has been in its present location in one form or another since the fourth century. First a monastery, it was named "Chora," which means country, or fields, or the uncontained lands, because it stood outside the city walls of Constantinople. While the monastery, and succession of built and rebuilt churches never moved, both the walls and the meaning of the word changed. In 423 CE, Emperor Theodosius erected a massive set of city walls, with sixty-five foot guard towers and forty foot outer walls, a fifty yard no-man's land and smaller inner walls, thirty-one miles of fortification around the shore and across the peninsula. These days, the Chora church is now contained in a packed residential neighborhood, where it is known as the Kariye Mosque and Museum. The uncontained is now contained, and since Ottoman days, sports a modest minaret. In parallel, the Greek word chora added symbolic meaning too, coming to mean the untouched land, the virgin field, and ultimately, the Virgin Mary. Here, the mosaics of the virgin bear Greek inscriptions that read "He chora tou achoretou" translated as "the house of the uncontainable" or the container of that which cannot be contained.


We move through the narthex, and the interior narthex. This is a different gospel portrayed here, the gospel of St. James, which develops an extended Mary narrative not found in the synoptics. These are stories I know only from folklore and Nikos Kazantzakis—Joseph's staff leafing out to prove he is the right suitor, Mary dedicated to the temple as a child, an angel feeding her bread. The text was declared apocryphal for the Western church in the Gelasian Decree of 323, but that didn't stop the Eastern church and many curious Catholics from learning these stories. Joseph is an old man in this tradition, widowed with sons from his first marriage, and though the staff blooms, he never knows his young wife, who remains virginal, the chora, until her long sleep, her "dormition."


The history of the church is like this too, a broken narrative of cyclic loss and renewal. Crushed by an earthquake in 556 and rebuilt by Emperor Justinianos, the church was in ruins again by the 8th century. Restored in 843, it disappears from history until the 12th century, when the emperor's mother-in-law had it rebuilt. The ravening looters of the Fourth Crusade didn't completely destroy it, though they ruined many other Byzantine churches in search of riches. The oft quoted American historian Speros Vryonis writes of the Crusaders,


The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. [...] The Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered [...] the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church's holy vessels [...] According to Choniates, a prostitute was even set up on the Patriarchal throne. (152)


But the Chora church survived to be restored by Metochites between 1302-1320, when at the height of his influence in the court of Andronicus II, he pumped a fortune into the construction of the church's parraclesion and commissioned the mosaics I'm trying to figure out. When the Turks took the city in 1453, they left the church alone; the Grand Vizier of Sultan Beyazit II is credited for repurposing the church as a mosque in 1511. The Muslim worshipers who followed added a modest mihrab and the minaret, screening the images in the nave during services, covering many others in whitewash that saved them from fading for centuries. Renamed as a mosque, it was protected for perpetuity, and its treasures preserved to be noted by explorers in the 17th century, cleaned and repaired in 1765, catalogued by Joseph von Hammer in 1822, and visited by Kaiser Willhem II, Emperor of Germany in the 1890s.


Just inside the main door to the church, in the exterior narthex, a pregnant Virgin spreads her arms toward two angels who fly up the arch toward her on either side. Her eyes have slid toward the one on her left. In the center of her chest is an egg-shaped bubble of light blue, a clothed infant Jesus at its center. He holds a scroll in his left hand. An inscription describes Mary, in black letters against the gold, as "The Mother of God, the dwelling place of the uncontainable." Now turn 180 degrees, walk through the door into the interior narthex and keep going, right through the imperial door reserved for royalty and into the nave. Two large icons here, adult bearded Jesus with hand in blessing on the left, Virgin and child on the right, use the same word to describe their subjects. The inscription on Jesus, faded and broken now, reads "Dwelling Place (Chora) of the Living." Over Mary and the sad looking Christ child the lettering is clear—"The Chora of the Achoretou." But turn around again and look over the door to the nave, where in a panel eight feet wide the mosaic pictures the Dormition of the Virgin. A grey vaulted bubble rises from her, and where it overlaps the mourning saints it occludes their color, as if it were translucent. Inside the arch, in glorious gold robes and halo, stands Jesus, holding in his arms an infant Mary, reborn in heaven as a child of God. Child of the mother, father of the mother, contained by the pregnant virgin, holding the ever-virgin girlchild, above the door within the wall that leads to another door within a wall which leads to the hot sun of Istanbul out in sight of the ancient walls of Theodosius. I back inside for one more picture—at the top of the image, just above Jesus' arched bubble of grey, is a figure I know. It's a crazy cluster of wings, six of them, swirling in all directions, the veins of the feathers distinct in gold against brown and red. At the center of the wings, a tiny face. The seraphim watches over the scene inscrutably, afire.


Sandakphu, West Bengal, India


My students and I hiked the Singallila ridge for something like twelve miles on the third day. Rain began early, and slicked down our pack covers and coats. We joked often that despite the Nepali border markers, it looked like Scotland, with the grassy hill rolling into the mist. In the fog, perspective was limited and photography impractical. We just walked, and looked, and talked quietly. On the uphills we gasped and on the downhills we took stock of our limited view. After we dropped packs at the lodge, we backtracked to the high point and climbed the little promontory to hail the stragglers when they crested, thinking we could take their packs and lead them in. The rocky crag was crisscrossed with prayer flags, most faded and molded to an olive green, with shreds of yellow and red mixed in. One boy said he had to see a man about a horse, and turned away from us, unzipping. I cursed him, asking how he could piss on prayer flags. He just pointed at the bushes and turned his body; everywhere he turned they were there, moldering in the bushes. He had to piss somewhere, and he was probably going to hit a prayer flag wherever he went.


The next morning we hiked uphill from the lodge and over the ridge, down a steep trail lined with scraggly pines, to a temple our guides never named. A red tin roof nestled tight over a small concrete box of two rooms, and the mist broke up against the building. Inside the cold temple, we used flashlights to see the congealed butter meant to drip on Shiva lingam. We parsed the weird mix of icons from Krishna to Parvati to Rama to Hanuman to a figure split down the middle, half Vishnu half Shiva. We found a calendar Jesus with well-conditioned hair, and two different Buddhas. Kali we found across the hall in a smaller, windowless room. She came as a bronze statue this time, standing with one foot raised, looking through a grate toward the Shiva shrine.


Outside in the fog, a student and I work together to tie prayer flags to trees. Water beads up silver all over our raingear. Other members of the group come in and out of focus, just figures in mist against tortured pine trees. Our lead guide Baichung, a gentle Sikkamese man with excellent English, an enormous overbite and an encyclopedic knowledge of local flora, touches me on my left shoulder.


"Cris, you will like this other shrine. This way," he says, and leads me back to another set of red roofed buildings, built low and up against the hillside. It takes a minute for me to understand what I'm seeing—a long shelf of striking black rock littered with candles, coins, scraps of images, flowers, molding rice. Flags hang from every possible contact point, tied to nails and beams. The buildings house only this rock, these offerings. There are no pictures of gods, no statues, only the rock formation and puddles of rain trickling down. This time of year, with the park closing for the rainy season, the whole region is quiet, but this is the quietest spot we've seen. I stand a long time, listening to the rain.


I find the rest of the group crouching around a pool of calm water. The pool is spring fed, and housed in concrete blocks. Our guides fill bottles, look with wonder at the ancient pines and flags all around. The students fill bottles and sterilize them with UV light pens. The bottles are all colors of plastic, and glow in the misty light.




Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey


By ten a.m. the sun is a weight on my shoulders. We cross the broad pavilions that separate The Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia, where college-age men sweating under red velvet jackets and fezzes with golden tassels are stirring ice cream and serving it to tourists. When tour buses disgorge their cargo, one guide with a bright placard held above her head on a stick rushes away at the front of the group, another with the same color placard brings up the rear. Sections of concrete pavers are being replaced in center of the plaza and a bulldozer has cut power to the stand of ATMs on the southern end. People still line up, trying to stick their cards into the dead machines. The crowds do not abate as we pass through the metal detectors and x-ray machines, but the interior of the massive museum-once-mosque-once-greatest-church-in-Byzantium is cave dark and cool in its complex of logia, exo and eso-narthex. Out in the vast plain of the main sanctuary, under the dome that reaches a height of 182 feet at the center, it is impossible to feel the size of the space. My guidebooks tell me that Notre Dame de Paris and the Statue of Liberty could both fit in here; neither assertion proves to be entirely true. But it is a beguiling space full of floating domes and arches, elegant solutions to a thorny problem—how to create the most massive basilica in Christendom, a temple to outshine all others. Much of what appears beautiful open architecture here is of course driven by geometry and physics, questions of weight and mathematical forms never before tried. "Have faith in God," the Emperor Justinian told the architects, and somewhere between faith and logic they got it pretty right.


I stand for a long time on an upper balcony, watching, taking pictures. Two fast moving groups take turns around me, each at the rail for thirty seconds, a blur of camera equipment, chatter of Spanish and Japanese, a cascade of shutters nicking closed. When I've had my fill of trying to comprehend the enormity of the air contained by the structure, I stroll by the mosaics, where I must wait my turn to approach, as legions of tourists are marched up to each surviving example of 13th or 14th century artistry, given a digest history (often in multiple languages) and then everyone takes pictures. Constantine himself appears in one of the better preserved pieces. Unlike the mosaics of the Chora Church, many of those in the Hagia Sophia were destroyed by Crusaders or iconoclasts. Those that were saved were preserved by conquest: the conversion of the church to a mosque involved plastering over fabulous depictions of emperors and saints, miracles and tribulations, saving a few mosaics from the ravages of time. In the Donation Mosiac, Constantine bends to offer an idealized model of the walled city to Jesus and Mary. Jesus flashes an Orthodox gang sign—three upheld fingers to represent the trinity.


It was Constantine who convened the first council of Nicea, in what is now Iznik, in 325 CE. The council settled a number of theological matters that mattered not a bit to Constantine, who just wanted a unified church for his own political reasons having more to do with expediency than salvation. The big fight was to settle the Arian Controversy—a claim now known as the Arian Heresy—that Jesus was the creation of God, made not begotten, of similar but not the same substance. The fighting got so heated that Bishop Nickolaus of Myra is reputed to have risen from his seat while Arius was lecturing, crossed the council hall and slapped Arius in the face. He was jailed for this breach of decorum, though when Jesus and Mary came and freed him, the good bishop was restored to his position. Or so the story goes. This is of course, the same Nickolaus who came to be canonized, and is now more commonly known in the west as Santa Claus.


But why was the matter so important that St. Nick came out swinging? So critical that the words of the Nicene Creed, established at the Nicean Council, are mostly about this question? Consider the 325 CE text:


We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.


In case the opening sentence left any doubt, the 325 Creed concluded with this little warning, which I guess seemed mean-spirited by 381, when a new council removed it:


And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion—all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.


Legions of Christian schoolchildren who memorize the creed are thankful for this editing, but the matter is in some ways the central Christian paradox, that God can be man, can be fully incarnate and yet of one being with God. That God can be a Lord or King, or voice from the whirlwind, or a fire on the mountaintop, or a man on a cross, or a breath across the dark waters. To me, though, it is linked to a deeper paradox still. The Gospel of John opens with these words in the old King James Version: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Five verses later, John the Baptist is bearing witness to coming light, and by verse 14, "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." This gospel, like the synoptics, was written in Greek, and the word for Word is Logos, a term that in philosophy and religion can mean different things to different people, but is the root of words like logic and logistic. For the Stoics and Neoplatonists, it was a term that embodied Plato's idea of forms, the structures that generated the shadowy world in which we live, the rational rules of the universe. The Word, then, can be understood as the generative principle of the world, the perfect concept, the mathematical, logical, deep-down things divine truth that can only be glimpsed in imperfect versions down here in the cave. But. The word can be made flesh and dwell among us. One can be three, and three one, and the divine can be human, and the human divine.


These paradox both confound me and comfort me in my travels, and make me feel at home when in Darjeeling I am standing before a depiction of boddhisatva, each straddled by tantric consorts at the moment of greatest resistance to ecstasy. There are boddhisatva of anger, of revenge, of fear, of hate. They are fearsome and monstrous, with wild hair and green faces. I have come to recognize the container of the uncontainable in the echoing beauty of calls to prayer, broadcast by loudspeaker from a minaret in Uchisar. Though the recording of the muzzein is keening and lovely, his words are preceded and followed by an awful squawk as equipment in the minaret powers up. I've come to reconcile the old message that he who loses his life will find it in the perfect irony of the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna tells Arjuna that victory and defeat are illusions, that life and death are illusions, that his essence cannot be created nor destroyed, and that he must fight the battle before him. I'm still wrestling with Crusaders who destroy churches, who slaughtered Muslim civilians in Jerusalem because Urban II told them "to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends," adding that "Christ compels it." Perhaps it is only in paradox that we can glimpse the fabric of existence stretched so taught that through the warp and woof of reality, we begin to comprehend the incomprehensible, begin to understand not what's behind it all, but at least what is missing.


I change the batteries in my camera before we head out into the sunlight of Istanbul in July. I am aware that throughout my travels in Turkey I am often busy taking digital photographs of painted or mosaic representations of theological concepts and characters, images of images of ideas of human truths. I read guidebook after guidebook, sometimes even in the physical place I am trying to understand. The Hagia Sophia, I read, standing under its dome, was in fact dedicated to the Logos, the second person of the trinity, the Word, the unknowable ideal form. Its dedication feast is celebrated on Christmas Day.




Darjeeling, West Bengal, India


The light comes up early at Andy's guesthouse on Dr. Zakir Hussein Road, and with it the horns of puja down in the valley. I walk into Chowrastra Square with one of my students, also up in the pre-6:00 a.m. cool, and buy chai at the stall there for five rupees. The proprietor serves the chai strong, squeezing the cheesecloth sack of tea and spices between two chopsticks to extract the darkest brew into our glasses. He plunks the glasses into holes punched roughly into an aluminum sheet covering his counter. We promise to come back later for egg sandwiches with chili and cilantro inside.


After tea, we walk across the square and up the spiraling road toward the sonic chaos of Observatory Hill, a massive Shiva temple under a cloud of brilliant prayer flags gleaming in the sun. It's a riot of color, noise, smell and action. Ragged-clothed brahmin chant by the gates, each slightly out of synch with the other, one hand raised and the other on faded pages of scripture. Priests chant inside the shrines, splashing statues and lingam with melted butter for petitioners who stuff rupees into gilded boxes. The monkeys swing through the prayerflags, the mothers clutching young with one arm while they cross the web of color, the males dropping down to menace if you stand still too long. A thick pall of incense hangs along the ground; oil lamps ready in gleaming rows. We circle clockwise, keeping a wary eye on the monkeys, visiting each shrine and making the obligatory bows, taking off sandals to step inside, slipping them back on between holy spaces.


Teaching Hinduism always involves one last paradox, the lovely Upanishadic idea of atman and Brahman, the individual spirit and the universal energy, how these concepts are unified, and how little they seem to affect the daily expression of Hindu ritual. Over and over again, Hindu scriptures assert that the one and the all are in fact one. Composed between 1100-900 BCE, the Rig Veda describes Perusha the cosmic person out of whom comes everything. The sun and moon, the castes, gods, cords for binding the sacrifice, prayers and sticks for burning the sacrifice. Once all these elements are in place, the gods bind Perusha with the cords and sacrifice him to Perusha.


In the Chandoyga Upanishad, composed 500 years later, the poor smart-aleck Svetaketu comes home having learned the Vedas and is repeatedly, and torturously instructed to learn a higher wisdom, that atman, the one self, is Brahman, the infinite. Thou art That, he is told until he begins to conceptualize it. This utterly monistic idea, that all creation is really one thing, one universal divine energy, has implications for what actually matters in life, or cycles of lifetimes as one moves toward inevitable reunion with the universal, release from this play, this world of illusion. Yet Hindus offer sacrifice and prayer to the gods for not just wisdom and understanding, but also for healthy sons, good luck in business, victory in war. Even dharma, the sense of duty and cosmic order, is an illusion in this cosmology, but woe to him who fails to do his duty, who fails to honor dharma. You do your job, you know your place, you live as well as you can, you come to the temple and pray for an auspicious marriage, and if you are wise you do it knowing that all things are already married, and auspiciously too. Nevertheless, you put your crumpled rupees in the box.


When we first arrived in India, we were trained in the Namaste bow, palms pressed together on our chests. Namaste, translated most simply and directly is: "I bow to you." Western New-Agers sometimes prefer the more extrapolated translation "I recognize the divinity in you," or "The divinity in me recognizes the divinity in you." It satisfies me mightily that inside the Hindu universe, the simple translation already means the more overwrought version, "I" and "you" being different atman who are of course, Brahman.


On the way out of the Shiva temple, one of the chanting Brahmin gestures for me to approach. He sits cross-legged on a little platform, pillow and book on a simple cloth. The lettering of the book is faint and purplish, like old mimeographs. He is dark and wrinkled, has a gray and white beard, wears a heavy brown sport coat despite the rising heat. I come closer and without stopping his verses, he blesses me with an outstretched finger, dotting white paint on my forehead. I swallow down a familiar lump in my throat, mouth Namaste, and walk into the morning.

 
 



Works Cited


Vryonis, Speros. Byzantium and Europe. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. Print.

 

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CRIS HARRIS teaches writing at an independent school outside of Cleveland, when he's not gallivanting around the globe with students or raising tomatoes in his garden. A long time ago, he studied fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but came to realize all his best stories were true. His work has appeared most recently in The Flexible Persona.


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