A Good Place to Pray
Along with Karen Williams, David White, Mary Duhoux, Raju, Rose and Purna I am walking through the Manaslu region of the Nepal Himalayas. Every step overwhelms my imagination with a mythical beauty I have rehearsed in in my heart for decades. This route of single track trails, around Mt Manaslu, the 8th highest mountain in the world, has only been open to foreign tourism since 2009. For over three weeks we walk. There are no roads, no airstrips, just a walking-path, terrifying footbridges over seemingly bottomless canyons, and the constant warning of vigilance.
“Be careful of the donkey trains! They are packed with supplies for the villages and will push you off the trail if you are in their way. Someone dies this way every year. When you see or hear them coming be sure you are on the mountain side, not the canyon side!”
In this region of Nepal we walk each day from village to village. We arrive late in the afternoon and sometimes, the really slow ones in the group (Me!) arrive after dark. Raju makes sure that I am not alone. His gentle encouragement makes being behind easier than one would think. Once he joined me as I stopped for a break, sat on a rock and had a snack. As we resumed our walk, after less than 10 minutes, we moved around a corner and I saw our destination, a small Nepali village.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was so close?” I asked.
“You needed to rest. Didn’t you?” He replied
His was not an American way of thinking. An American guide would’ve said, “Let’s go. It’s not far. You can do it!” And I would have exhaustedly kept moving up the trail.
This kind of travel leads one to prayer. “Oh God! Don’t let me be pushed off a cliff by a herd of donkey’s, or yak, or sheep, or goats, or Tibetan horsemen!” This also is an American way to pray. Quite different from the way our Nepali friends invoke the attention of God, or in their case, Gods. Crisis, or peaceful moment, you cannot neglect to pray while traveling in Nepal. All along the trail are prayer wheels. When we walk past them we spin them. Prayer flags blowing in the wind at all mountain passes, summits, descents, canyons, bridges, houses…they are everywhere. Buddhist Stupas, intricately designed passageways with Buddha’s eyes on the top and beautifully detailed paintings on the inside. There are Mani walls, slabs of stone with mantras carved forever in the rock. Monasteries dot the side of mountains and temples are often found on the edge of villages. As we walk by I notice the movement of our Nepali friends. They observe historic custom and touch these objects of veneration, always walking clockwise.
“Raju,” I say. “Why is there a shrine in this particular place?”
“Because it is a special place.” He says.
“Why is it a special place?”
“Because there is a shrine there.”
We both begin to laugh at this circular explanation. It is confounding to me and reasonable to my Nepali friend.
As one walks through Nepal it is difficult not to pray. I spin prayer wheels, tie flags, run my fingers through mantras carved deeply into stone. I’m not sure what all this means. I’m Christian and it is quite foreign to me. Our ways of praying are a reflection of theological understandings as well as cultural tradition. This Nepali way of praying affirms my prayerful movement and the presence of God in my walking and touching. I buy a string of prayer beads and find them quite helpful as I pray; invoking the name of Jesus in my heart while beads carved from yak bone allow me to move a little, even when I am still. I sit on a stone, taking another break, rubbing my beads between my fingers.
It’s a little over a year later and I am still trying to understand how to incorporate prayer into the simple movements of my daily life. Last night I slept in the basement of a church filled with refugees seeking asylum in the US. I do this once a week. Most of these folks are women and children, many of the husbands and fathers have been killed. They are from Central America and Mexico. Use your imagination…place a small child on your back and take the hand of another as they walk beside you from a village in Honduras to Nogales, AZ. A stroll of three to four months! Every step would have to be a prayer. How could you find the strength to continue any other way? Children run and play with toys on the floor. I offer peppermint sticks. Every child, without instruction, takes only one. There must be plenty for others. Their suffering has not made them greedy. I reflect again on my walk about in Nepal. How is it that movement transforms the way I pray, think and feel?
It’s December 28 and people are beginning to talk about New Year’s resolutions. Is that helpful? Perhaps. Last year I decided that I would exercise 70% of the days in 2017. My life has been shadowed by heart disease since I was 38. I’m 64 now. I have always been consistent in my exercise. It’s not that hard. I like it. But 70%? Five days a week. If I exercise the next three days I’ll be up to 75%! Woo hoo! There were some other declarations I made on January 1 that I put off until some time in the future. Whatever matters to you…start now!
Once again I think of Nepal. For much of our trip Mary, David, Karen and Rose are ahead. I look up and see Raju and Purna, gazing at the ridge of Mt Manaslu, beads in hand. I hear little children running through the church basement with little thought to the future. They are glad to be warm, dry, clean and with full bellies tonight. I think to myself, this is a good place to pray.