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The Word Made Flesh
Along with my theatre company Dzieci, I was invited to participate in the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona. This was a complex experience, but I would like to share some impressions, and focus on the area of greatest interest for Dzieci, which is Service.
Dzieci has a commitment to spirituality in action. This is not an easy path; great diligence is required to balance an inner inquiry with an outward aim. For assistance, guidance, and inspiration, we search for those who make efforts in this way. We look for a work that is not only of the mind and heart, but also of the body. In Barcelona, we found a luminous example of such a practice.
The Sikh community, which was a co-presenter for the Parliament, had made an offer to serve vegetarian lunch for whoever wished to eat. Difficult to imagine how this could be possible, considering that some 10,000 people were in attendance, but by nature, being starving artists, the eleven members of Dzieci journeyed to the seaside for our free meal.
An enormous white tent had been erected, and as we approached, we were greeted by one smiling Sikh after another, gently welcoming us and guiding us inside. In the vestibule we were directed to remove our shoes, then we queued up to wash our hands. Another gracious host dried our hands, then passed us along to a group of young women who covered our heads with white kerchiefs and gestured for us to enter the main chamber.
The entire space was given a lively elegance by a red carpet that covered the entire ground. Our mouths hung open in awe; the impression was so profound. Hundreds of people were seated on the floor in neat rows, already enjoying their meal. In the back, we could see a partitioned area where the food was being prepared. To the side were exhibits about the Sikh community, as well as an area set up as a temple, from where we could hear the continous hum of a chant. In the heat of Barcelona summer, we noticed the tent was surprisingly air-conditioned. A line of young women eagerly pointed the way to an empty seating area on the floor, and we gratefully took our place.
We sat cross-legged, in front of plastic plates, and instantaneously a line of turbaned waiters came through, each heaping diverse portions of aromatic vegetarian victuals, bowing, smiling, and looking directly into our eyes. We were so honored that we felt a call to not eat in a habitual manner. As we had been blessed, it was only appropriate to bless our food, and to try to eat with the same attention that was being bestowed upon us. As I looked around, I was struck by the variety of my dining companions, who by now numbered close to a thousand. Robes of saffron and crimson. Brooks Brothers suits and sensible shoes. African prints and Gap khakis. All eating communally. All being served as equals.
And as long as we kept eating, the food kept coming. I noticed that young and old alike were ladling portions onto our plates. It was pointed out to me that even the most revered of the Sikh leaders was moving up and down the rows with a bowl to serve. That is the aim and path of the Sikhs: service executed with precision and love.
We never missed a meal in the tent. As the week went on, I noticed more details. How at certain times a chant rose up among the community as they continued to dish up their delicacies. How prayers emanated from the kitchen area, blessing each dish, as it was being prepared. How, each day, there were more and more non-Sikhs joining in the line of service, spooning out rice, passing out drinks, clearing away plates.
There is a question for me: “What is transmission?” The Parliament seemed so overladen with talk about religion, about spirituality, about peace. Words, words, and more words. What reaches us only through the ears? What lingers only in the mind? What is touched? What is changed? In a white tent, beside the Mediterranean Sea, was the word in action.
A conscious effort includes attention to the last detail, a final impression that will rest in the soul. Each day, as I left the dining hall and removed my head scarf, I would notice a lone Sikh gentleman, aged and stooped over, tenderly picking up a pair of shoes from the hundreds lined up in the foyer, carefully dusting them off, and placing them neatly back on the shelf, before moving on to the next pair.
© Matt Mittler 2004
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