By Keith Turman
Our journey to China began early on Christmas morning. Chan and I left Waynesville before sunrise and had a quiet drive to the Charlotte airport. I told a few kids at the Christmas Eve services that I would keep an eye out for Santa—maybe catch a glimpse of his sleigh heading back to the North Pole. We didn’t see him, or many other people for that matter. I wondered how many besides Santa would be traveling on Christmas day. As it turned out, not too many. At times it felt like we were the only ones at the airport, and our walk to the gate was peaceful. It was good for my tired soul.
But that changed rather quickly. I heard her talking long before she sat down across from us. I guess she didn’t realize how much I was enjoying the quiet. There was some comfort knowing that phone conversations aren’t allowed on airplanes. Boarding and finding our lonely seats near the back of the plane felt like a Christmas present. I settled happily with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and then I saw her coming. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you where she landed. An older woman sat next to our chatty friend, who was in the window seat behind Chan. I wasn’t eavesdropping—I promise—but I now know that the noisemaker, who had converted to Islam, became very energized when she discovered that her seatmate was a Muslim from Bosnia. I can tell you all kinds of stuff about their kids, their faith, and what life is like for people in Bosnia. What is the opposite of eavesdropping? I couldn’t find a word for it in the dictionary, but that’s what happened.
Jet Blue is a nice airline. They have tiny screens on the headrest that provide helpful information, like where to find the sick bag or the parachute. But once in the air, instead of fading to black, the little TV plays the same four commercials for the remainder of the flight. An off button was not included in the ticket price. I gave up, tucked my book into the seat pocket, and fell asleep to the discourse on Bosnian cooking that was happening behind me. The last leg of our trip was a late-night flight from Beijing to Chengdu. The cabin was dark and quiet, except for my reading light and for the woman next to me, who decided that midnight was the perfect time to play loud games on her phone, which she held right next to my ear. I was becoming restless for an escape from loud.
A week into our Christmas vacation in China, we went to Labrang Monastery in the Gansu Province, a one-hour flight to the middle of nowhere, and then a one-hour bus ride on roads frequently crossed by longhorn sheep, yaks, and hairy pigs. The place was stunning—a fascinating contrast to the neon-lighted skyscrapers and busy subways of Chengdu. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains, the monastery is famous for its rich Tibetan culture and unique Tibetan food. The Tibetan people are striking in their features—a ruggedness that seems to reveal a hardworking life in a harsh climate, and a beauty that seems common in native people. The monastery, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s largest, has chapels, golden-roofed temple halls, and living quarters that once housed 4,000 monks. It is home to six monastic colleges, and has long corridors of prayer wheels. Monks, villagers, and pilgrims make daily trips around the expansive outer walls to pray and chant while spinning the wheels and holding their prayer beads. After checking into the guesthouse, we joined the throng. About halfway around, we sat on a bench beside an old monk in a burgundy robe who was very kind and wore a gentle smile. While sitting on the bench, a woman completely covered in dust dropped to her knees, flopped to the ground on her belly, and stretched her arms out completely in front of her while touching her head to the dirt. She got back on her feet, took two steps to her left, and did it all over again. Ben said she was a pilgrim, and probably traveled a long way on foot for the opportunity to pray in this sacred place. We had found a quiet place, among quiet people.
I am curious about their prayer habits. What are they thinking when they spin the wheels and carry their beads and prostrate themselves to the ground? What are they praying about? Who are they praying to? Do they think their prayers and their rituals make a difference? I became curious about my own prayer habits, their devotion prompting me to ask the same questions of myself.
Jesus’ disciples were curious, so he taught them how to pray, mostly by example. He emphasized what I’ve learned to be an important practice. “Whenever you pray, find a secret place, a quiet place. And God, who sees in secret, will meet you there.”