On Sunday I offered incense marking the memorial of someone I met many years ago.
He was a Polish priest or monk, can’t remember which, by the name of Fr. Jan Bereza and I met him at our first or second bearing witness retreat at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps. My memory is bad, it more and more doubles as imagination, but in that memory I see him wearing black. I remember him in a monk’s black robes—perhaps he led a mass there—and also in jeans and a black sweater when he wasn’t being official.
I recall how moved and shaken he was by the retreat, by the international gathering in that place, and how much he spoke to the need for interfaith dialogue and understanding. This in a country whose Catholic establishment continues to be highly conservative, no fans of Pope Francis, and with lots of anti-Semitism still deeply entrenched. Jan (he asked me not to call him by his title) died soon afterwards from cancer, more than two decades ago, but I continue to remember his humility, how earnestly he tried to share his understanding and feelings in fledgling English.
I often feel embarrassed when others try to use whatever little English they have to communicate from their heart while I can’t speak any of their language at all.
Many people who participated in that first retreat in 1996 have died, but for some reason I’ve kept the date of his death in my calendar all this time because of how he moved me in only one or two encounters. Moved me, as in: created movement. Something happened, some small vein of energy burst forth and affected, and continues to affect, my life.
Yesterday was the day of his memorial even as I don’t know what year he died.
Why do I light incense in such situations? A few reasons, but one is that it’s my way of participating in the timelessness of things. Another way of saying that is that I remember the past, but that’s not really it. For one thing, as I said above, my memory more and more becomes imagination—like Proust maybe, without the talent. And secondly, because there is no past, just timelessness in which everything is now. And since now changes quicker than I can say the word, I’d say that everything is a fluid now.
My unliberated brain of course says otherwise, and that’s fine, it shows I’m not senile yet, but I am deeply aware that time and space are unhindered by any ideas I have of them. Things are here and now, and if I don’t experience them that way it only reflects the narrowness of my experience (and the limits of my senses, which are the tools through which I experience things) rather than the truth of their existence.
Somewhere deep inside me I feel a dimension of meaning and meaningfulness that has nothing to do with any stories in my mind.
We had a snow squall the other day. One moment it was blue and sunny, very cold, and the next moment everything turned gray, and then white. You could hardly see anything through the window. A maelstrom of wind and snow passed through, and as I watched, two things came to my mind: I hope Lori is okay with Henry. She’d just driven away to take him for a walk in face of phone alerts about a squall, but I knew their walks are short, not far from their car. The second was: I should email Jeff Bridges and tell him that this reminds me of his very fine movie, White Squall, that he made years ago about such a phenomenon.
But the point is that even as these little scripts appeared in my mind, I was aware of something else entirely, a mutual reaching out, a recognition shared by the tiny snow particles, the massive wind, the shaking glass window, the waving trees, and me. Even as words wrote themselves out in my brain: Lori, Jeff, alerts, squall, something else was coming at me and I was responding with no consciousness on my part, just looking out the window.
Thinking about things is just skimming the surface. I do my meditation daily, other practices, too. But in the middle of the day I come to a stop sometimes, my gaze held by a deep wine-colored rose that is slowly dying and drying up. Only it doesn’t feel dead to me at all.
Or seeing tracks on the snow the squall left and feeling that they’re as remarkable and eternal as tracks imprinted on rocks found by archeologists from millennia ago. The mind pleasantly patters on, teliing me they were made by critters or dogs or even hopping birds, all going after food, but another sense, having nothing to do with identification or a story of what happened or who/what did this, tells me these are as timeless as the teeth of mastodons.
People ask at times where is love in Zen, where is it in Buddhism. For me, it’s everywhere in this practice. It’s in the sense of infinity taking your form, so how can’t it love you? Or the form of a snowflake, or the bluster of wind, or the woman looking out the window.
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