Published October 11, 2007
My friend Alfredo was due to arrive via air from Caracas, Venezuela, and he told me that he would be waiting in front of the Delta international terminal at 3:30 in the afternoon. I got to the airport much earlier, found a place to park and walked into the terminal and found a place to sit. I could see the people as they emerged from the customs area. It was crowded—there were thousands of people. I like to “people watch.” I watched as people from all over the world arrived.
There were so many different colors of people, and customs and dress. A woman sitting next to me, on my right, asked me the time, which I told her. She then offered that she was waiting for her son, who was flying in from Düsseldorf for the wedding of her oldest son. She paused and listened to the woman on my other side, who had two little boys. They were handsome looking kids—one had brown hair and his younger brother had blond, almost white, hair.
“She is speaking Dutch,” the woman on my right said. She paused. “It is where I am originally from, Holland.” I wondered as to why she moved from Holland to here but did not ask. I did ask her where the wedding was to be. She said it was going to be a yard wedding, with a tent and a catering service. “No religious nonsense,” she said. She was going to say something else, but she saw her son and got up quickly and went over to him. I watched as she hugged him and he gave her six kisses, three on each cheek. They stepped back and looked at each other and laughed and then headed arm in arm toward the baggage area.
I watched as people from Africa walked by, dressed in brilliantly colored clothing. Soldiers passed by, too, dressed in identical desert uniforms. Most were very young. A woman passed who walked with great difficulty. One leg was shorter than the other. She dragged the shorter leg behind her. An older man passed, carrying a guitar case in one hand and a small briefcase in the other. An older woman stopped, looked about her and consulted a piece of paper in her hand, and looked about her again. She looked worried and anxious. She shook her head and resumed walking, but there was a sense about her that she did not know where she was going. I watched as she entered the baggage claim area. She stopped and spoke with a policeman, who pointed toward a baggage carousel. She nodded her head and moved on.
I thought about a reading we had, here at the monastery, early that same morning. It was a selection from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “Divine Milieu.”
The selection was a beautiful one to start the day. It was about how God is everywhere, in everyone, in everything. God lives and moves through all that is. And, if I may paraphrase de Chardin, it was about how our prayer should move us to enter deeply into the God who is not to be “found” outside experience. Prayer should, at its best, move us to realize that we are always “in” God.
I think now of the lady at the airport who scoffed at the idea of a religious ceremony for her son, calling religiosity “nonsense.” She may be right, or wrong. I do not know what she meant by religion. But I like placing her words, even her life, in the generous created order envisioned by the great French theologian and paleontologist de Chardin.
Amidst all the colors and kisses, the weariness and joy, the foreign ways of speaking, being, getting lost and being found in the airport, it is all of God’s world and very being—as close as the next flight, as close as those young brothers, as close as anything you can name. I may well not think of it all in those terms most of the time. For life may just be life to me—be it in terms of waiting for a friend, listing to a woman’s joy about her son’s wedding and then kissing another son in a warm welcome. But there is more to life than “life.” It is moving according to a design that is a gift, albeit, as St. Paul wrote, veiled from us. We see only dimly.
The Tower of Babel story tells of a long ago time when people wanted to be like God, so they built a tower in order to reach the heavens. And God grew impatient with them and caused them to speak different languages, and so there ensued a great confusion. And the tower fell. The world was leveled by nonsense. And we are still struggling to recover, struggling to glean a living sense from the nonsensical.
Humanity has long ago given up the idea of finding God through ingenious constructions. Towers gave way to theologies, to avenues of ideologies and words and ideas. I do think that much has been written in the hope of our becoming God-like.
We live in a time when it seems that God is, for many, a nonsensical idea. Or an irrelevant one. We are about ourselves and our busy lives. It is hard to see how God “fits” in the modern world. There are so many words, so many ways of being and seeing in this world—even in the confined space of an airport terminal. It is as confusing as the time of Babel and the fall of the tower.
I sat at the airport, looking at so much difference and how it “works.”
People helping people, moving through an awareness of difference but moving, caring, loving and helping. I doubt that many people were conscious of it all.
Life flows by, seemingly independent of the need to bracket it with some religiously inspired framework. Yet the divine is of the milieu.
I like to believe that God is moving us toward each other and helping us build towers, bridges, avenues to and for each other. Admittedly there are those among us who are bent on destroying whatever is built. Something in us resists roads to human community.
We all know the terrors of the age in which we live. Airports, especially, are symbols of the potentially destructive force that can destroy life on a massive scale. It has happened before. We pray with all our hearts that it will not happen again.
And if it does?
There will be those among us who will embrace others in whatever ruins there might be. There will be those who expend their lives in the effort to see, hear and take to heart what is different in the hope of making this earth a home for all.
A young couple will soon speak vows of love to each other somewhere tonight in Atlanta. The words will come from what is deep in them—a need for nurturing and preserving their love for a lifetime. They will hope for all the sense that life can bring to their vowed commitment.
The nonsense of religion may or may not be present at the wedding—it all depends on how you look at things. How you see a kiss, a stranger helping another, a man carrying his guitar, a woman struggling to walk with a malformed leg: an imperfect world of such beauty, of a loving genius and pattern not of our own making.
Alfredo? He got another ride home. We got our signals crossed. But I had a good time—savoring life and making some sense of it in the milieu of the international terminal.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His latest book, “Portraits of Grace: Images and Words From the Monastery of the Holy Spirit,” is available at the monastery Web store at www.trappist.net.