16 October 2006

Mea culpa...

A sannyasin, who has experienced the transitory nature of enjoyment, is qualified for Self-Knowledge; but such enlightened ones do not constitute the major portion of society. It is the duty
of others, who belong to the first three stages of life and who identify themselves with the body and mind and seek material happiness, to engage in sacrificial action.

Swami Nikhilananda
Introduction to the Upanishads, Volume 1

Kevin came home late from work and sat down at the kitchen table with his papers and trade magazines all around him to eat. I sat down to keep him company. It was dark outside the bay windows, a perfect fall night.

I asked, “How was work?”

“I don’t want to talk about work right now. I don’t want to think about it.” Kevin looked back down at his plate, the day’s replayed conversations going on in his head were visible. When he forgets someone is watching, he actually nods and shakes his head when he thinks about what he wished he’d said or done. It’s like he’s trying to make the past come out right this time. He was deep in it that night.

Distraction sometimes helps so I offered some. “Okay. Well, I think I have a problem.”


“I can’t do rituals and I can’t figure out why,” I said. Kevin looked up so I went on. “I mean, putting flowers at the feet of statues or making a big deal out of any icon as if it was “It”, as if it was God, just plain feels wrong. Like the white bearded guy on a cloud. Maybe I’m just spiritually retarded.”

He started to smirk. My “plight” was making him happy, no doubt about it. He’d been pretty nervous about me lately, about this project of mine but, aside from occasional cracks about my falling prey to some cult, he was too supportive to come right out and say something.

I tried to head off whatever playful jibe I saw percolating by rushing on. “Swami Sarvadevananda says he’ll teach me some of what I’m supposed to do in a temple tomorrow, some of the rituals, but it feels weird to try to do them. I’m constantly judging myself.”

Matt wandered in wearing his white terrycloth bathrobe, fresh from the bath. He may be fourteen but he’s from some other decade with his love of bathrobes and formal pajamas, slippers and combed wet hair. And he has flawless radar for times when Kevin and I start to talk. He sat down to listen at his place at the kitchen table as Kevin asked me, “So what’s the big deal?”

“Well, if I can’t make myself at least learn rituals, if I can’t get over this, I have a big problem with this project.”

“So, just act ‘as if’ and see what happens.”

“But I feel like a big fake. I can’t even do simple things-- I mean, when you meet someone you respect, you’re supposed to touch their feet.”

“Ew.” Matt said.

“It’s not ‘ew’, Matt.”

“You don’t have to kiss them, too, do you?”

“No, you just bend down and touch them. I thought it was a ritual that only the Whittier temple people did but they even do it at the Vedanta Center which is pretty Americanized. Half the people are Americans and even they bend down and touch Swami Sarvadevananda’s feet. And tomorrow I’m supposed to learn the real ritual stuff. I mean, the whole point of doing these rituals is that it’s supposed to lead to devotional feeling, to some experience of the presence of God and I can’t even make myself do the basics.”

Kevin said, “Don’t you think that every Catholic who goes to mass doesn’t feel awkward sometimes?”

They do? It never occurred to me.

Kevin had been an altar boy and even went to Catholic school for a little while but he doesn’t go into church buildings anymore if he could help it. He has faith so long as an institution isn’t involved.

“Did you ever feel something," I asked, "when you did the kneeling and praying and stuff? Ever?”

“Maybe once or twice when I was a little kid.” He immediately bowed his head, mouth buried into his chest, and started mumbling something. As he came to what sounded like the end, he pounded his chest and said, “…Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” right as the back door flew open and in walked Luke, all teenage chest and long hair.

“What up? What’s going on? Was that Latin?” Luke’s been taking Latin since seventh grade, continuing it as an independent study when the school no longer offered it in high school.
Kevin answered, “Some of it. It’s what you say when you’re an altar boy. I never really learned the part in the middle but, if you mumbled it, no one ever really knew.”

“Did your dad know?” I asked. Kevin’s father was a Knight of the Catholic church.

“No, the priests always said ‘Kevin’s such a nice boy but quiet!’”

Everyone laughed. Stories about our messing up or having things we felt bad or awkward about when we were kids are always a big hit with Luke and Matt.

I tried to catch Luke up on what he’d missed. “I was just saying I’m having a problem doing the rituals. I walk up to the Swami and tell myself this is the time I’m just going to bend down and touch his feet and I can’t. It’s getting ridiculous. How am I going to get anywhere with this project if I don’t get over this?”

Matt thought he could help, his wet head tilted sideways and his hands spread wide on the edge of the table to broadcast his seriousness. “You know, you weren’t born with this like other people. You don’t know what they feel. You’re just going to have to do it to find out.”

Swinging open the fridge with a swagger and grabbing the cranberry juice from the bottom shelf on the door, Luke cut right to the point. “You’re too proud.”

“What?” I thought he said I made him proud. Okay, I was so desperate to hear words like these, I clearly was willing to just make them up in my head.

“No,” he answered. “I said, you’re just too proud to do what you’re supposed to do.”

Maybe I am. Maybe it’s just as simple as that. I want to be different, to not need ritual, especially because it’s so very, very foreign to me and requires humility. Humility and obedience, not my strong suits.

I had nothing to say so I looked at the clock and said. “Okay, too proud or not, it’s bedtime, way past time. What are you two still doing up?”

“Aw, Mom, why do you always do that?” Luke said, “Just when it starts getting fun.”

Matt agreed. “Yeah, you’re a real party pooper, you know?”

“That may be, but it’s time. Now. Do I need to start counting? Five, four, three, two…” And they were gone.

Why does counting still work, anyway?

And why do I hear what they say louder than anyone else?

(16 October 2006)

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