Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Praying in Front of God and Everybody

“What are you doing?” my four-year old neighbor asked me as I approached my backyard altar yesterday morning. Our houses stand less than ten yards apart, and the grownups observe a studied and necessary convention of privacy. It’s hard not to be aware of one another’s comings and goings, our social arrangements, even sometimes a fragment of domestic argument that drifts from one window to another. We’re careful to maintain the fiction that we know of one another’s lives only what we’ve chosen to share. It’s the business of a four-year-old, thank God, to chip away at the careful artificiality of our boundaries.

“I’m taking this bowl away to fill with fresh water for some flowers,” I answered breezily, brushing off her well-founded curiosity why a grown man goes out, rings a bell, kneels briefly twice day, five steps from her cellar door, in front of a half-disintegrated brick barbecue, gets up a few minutes later, bows, and goes back into the house. I’m already exotic, since I live with another man. This puts me right over the top.

What kept me from instead sharing some less evasive introduction to my practice? I could have explained that this is where I say prayers twice a day: as the daughter of practicing Roman Catholics, she would have found that intelligible enough. I could have explained that the flowers are like the flowers in church, that the bell helps me remember that the time I spend here is important, like the incense I burn at dusk and the small camphor fire I light in the clay puja lamp. I could have explained that the colored stones arranged in a circle in front of the small bronze Buddha represent the north, east, south, and west and remind me that the earth is our mother.

Instead, I let my self-consciousness about personally chosen ritual get in the way of our exchange, and in the process contributed to a child’s incipient sense that ritual is private, eccentric, and not to be talked about—perhaps that it’s even, in some sense, illicit.

I can do better than this. I can do better by her, and by myself, and by the world she’s growing up to create.


  1. It's hard to acknowledge and explain ritual, even to open-minded children. I have never felt comfortable praying in front of my children; my girls only saw me do so once, at their grandmother's funeral, and I couldn't help but notice their fascination. What makes us feel embarrassed about allowing others -- even those we love -- to witness this most heartfelt act?

  2. I have a strong sense our reticence is specific to culture and within culture to class, but I've got little evidence to back that up. At the same time, there's something not merely sociological but powerfully intrapsychic about such hesitancies--and perhaps sometimes with good cause. What I can report is that my young neighbour was fascinated the day before yesterday when I invited her to come with me for my evening puja. She asked if the seated Buddha against the back wall of the shrine was a statue of my mother, and I explained that no, he was a very wise man who lived a long time ago. I didn't interpret, just talked about what I was doing. The next morning, I found a careful arrangement of long grasses in front of the altar.

  3. So lovely! Especially because it's now *her* private ritual too -- notice how she left the grasses at a time when she was there alone -- so you share the ritual, but separately.