Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Grace of Kathmandu

My trip to Kathmandu has been remarkable. The town still bears the wounds of the devastating 2015 earthquake. Buildings are secured with long, angled beams reaching to the ground. Many ancient sites are now rubble. Others are off limits because they are too unstable.

And yet, this community glimmers with hope and joy. It probably helps that I’ve been here during the celebration of Holi, when Hindus throw colored powdered in the air, all over each other, and down everything possible, including the huge white dome of the “Monkey Temple.” Holi celebrates the love between the Hindu deities Radha and Krishna, so there is nothing but joy and delight to be found.

My primary goal in visiting Kathmandu was to take an early morning airplane flight to see Mt. Everest! I have NO interest in climbing the mountain, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see this peak that attracts such commitment and even devotion. I’ve often wondered what would make someone go through the pain required to reach the peak, just to… momentarily stand at the top of an icy mountain. I’ve been to the tops of many mountains, but I wouldn’t endure the suffering or risk required to climb them. It seems foolish, at best, to me. So, I didn’t know whether the flight would be a let down or something special.

Turns out, it was something really special. This mountain is incredibly compelling. The ice field itself is beautiful. It sparkles even as the sharp, frozen ridges warn of danger. The sky was clear blue on the day of my flight but the peak of Everest is still hard to see. Blowing snow can obscure the view, so as each of the dozen passengers on my flight were invited into the cockpit to look across the mountain range, we laughed and cheered when we caught a glimpse of it.

I got another view from my side window as the plane banked and turned back toward Kathmandu. Photos can hardly capture the sense of awe that this mountain inspires. I imagine part of my wonder is about getting to see a place that I never, ever expected to see in person.  But the other part, for me, is about the majesty of God’s creation. This singular peak, reaching higher above the sea than any other, is like a particularly impressive statue created by a master sculptor. Or rather, an artist’s masterpiece is a little like the creative work of God. I flew home in gratitude that I had been blessed to see such a work of art.

Later that same day, I went to the Monkey Temple or Swayambhunath Stupa in the heart of Kathmandu. It is a Buddhist temple named for the many monkeys that call it home. Because of the Holi celebrations it was busy and the colorful prayer flags seemed to be especially bright. Hinduism does not distinguish between other religious traditions, so it’s not surprising that buckets of watered down yellow chalk were poured over the top of the white stupa. Everyone cheered and took pictures, including me.

I then walked around the circular temple and came to a row of prayer wheels. These are metal cylinders mounted upright. Buddhists spin the wheels one by one as they pray for all the same things for which we Christians pray. I felt compelled to spin the wheels and was surprisingly moved by the act. I slowly walked down the row, spinning the wheels and praying for friends and family on the other side of the globe. Up until that moment I had been a tourist, an outsider, looking in on others’ religious and cultural observances. But like any good symbol and ritual, the prayer wheels drew me in to prayer and worship and I was no longer a mere tourist.

The Buddhist keepers of the temple would not have been offended by my Christian prayers at their temple. Like Hindus, they see all religions as part of one spiritual reality. As for me, I trust that God is drawing us all toward God's own self in whatever path we walk, and that in the death and resurrection of Christ all of creation is reconciled to God. I’m grateful for the experience of God’s presence in a place I did not expect. I now hold in my memory the stunning view of God’s handiwork at Mt. Everest and the quiet contemplation of the spinning prayer wheels. When I am weary of work or frustrated with Mumbai traffic I can recall these moments and be reminded of God’s presence there, and also in the more mundane matters of day to day life.

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