By Isabel Abbott
I walked onto a mountain-bound airplane last week, equipped with boundaries that were more like barriers and the earbuds of non-engagement, and only moments later entered into the unexpected encounter.
After settling into my window seat and preparing to lose myself in my book, I heard the two women sitting next to me begin speaking of the Parliament of World’s Religions, which I was also attending. When Maria turned to me and asked if I was flying home or away to Salt Lake City, I responded I was from Chicago, traveling to the same conference as her and Sawsan. As it was a conference about religion, the door was opened to converse about our own orientations, beliefs and lived experience of faith. What was bringing us there? Our lives had now intersected. The three of us began speaking and listening in earnest.
We were Muslim, Mormon and Secular Humanist. We were a cardiologist, a labor and delivery nurse, a writer and birth and death doula. We were women: human, and hurting, and in love, rich with complexity of lived story and hard earned arrivals.
What was remarkable, was that in this door being opened to share of our distinct religious identities, we chose to walk all the way through and into an encounter where we met not only one another but our own selves, in surprising and powerfully real ways.
For three and half hours we sat together in the crowded and cramped seats, hearing one another in our true differences, and honoring the threads of connections which bound us together in shared humanity. We spoke of our faith and religious understandings and beliefs, theology and love known through justice, and the places prayer intersects with the broken body.
We spoke of tattoos and prohibitions and learning how to swim—the way it feels to lay opened on your back and let the water hold you. We spoke of ovarian cancer, and the deaths of those we had loved, and the hot flashes of menopause, and how to advocate for one’s rights when your life is lived in the margins. We spoke of fasting, and clarity, and infertility, and what it means to have sacred texts when you don’t believe in God.
We asked direct questions of one another.
We learned we were willing to be uncomfortable and enter into the gaps between us all the same. We were, in the language of Nelle Morton, “hearing one another into speech.”
Interfaith dialogue can happen in consciously chosen and constructed settings. There is the academic arena of thoughtful inquiry and engaging of difference, and there are religious leaders coming around the table to explore and determine where they might foster peace and serve their community together. There is the preparing and offering of multi-faith worship services in times of crisis or celebration, and there are the ways interreligious engagement might take place in activism and community organizing as people work together to bring about social change.
It also has the opportunity to occur in the unexpected encounter.
The stranger that becomes the intimate stranger, who will forever hold parts of you and your story as you now carry theirs with you. They are not encounters we can manufacture or singularly cause to come about, because it is their disruption into our own routines and ways of being that is the very source of their significance. All we can do is remain open to them when they arrive, welcome or uninvited, willing to wake us from our own isolation.
Maria, Sawsan and I connected because we each happened to sit down next to others traveling and attending the same conference. We chose to look up from our own private thoughts and see one another. We then entered into trialogue where we learned of one another’s lives and realized we want to continue to collaborate—to explore what it might mean to bring our distinct religious and nontheistic perspectives to the question of how we work to honor the diversity and dignity of people in relationship to their God and body.
And yet, the connection and conversation itself became its own creation, the fecundity of entering into unknowns where what comes next is formed and born from the interchange between the persons present. We engaged with the personhood of one another, and in this, we encountered our own selves, familiar and foreign and both all at once.
I am often asked the question, “If you do not believe in God, what do you believe in?” There are an assembly of answers I can and often do offer, statements of belief in humanity, love for the world with all its particularity, in the power of art and our exquisite capacity to seek and create meaning from our lives. These are all true responses. But this is so often what I know as most true.
“I believe in the gaps,” I answer.
Which is to say, I believe in the unknown and in the inimitable conception that happens in true encounter. The margins. The spaces between places. The movements amid them. When we slip into the cracks where creation comes from.
I may not believe in a God or worship in rites and rituals of devotion to a deity. But that unnamable knowing that happens when two people make eye contact and for those moments, don’t look away. That which occurs when we meet and our met by one whom we did not anticipate, and suddenly something in us is both altered and affirmed. The world that comes to be when we engage not as user and object but as intimately relational.
This. This is my worship—what happens in the spaces between two people or things, the creative relational where a reality now exists that did not before and cannot ever again in precisely that way.
Some may know and name this as God or an expression of the divine. For me, it is, simply and fully and with reverence, the gaps. And I do not need this to be different, for us to reach some kind of mutual language or relate only in that which we can claim as shared. For it is the difference—the distinction itself—which perhaps forms the gaps, that allows for the encounters, and here we are all in the uncharted unknowns.
Here, we gave birth to what did not exist before. Here, where we surprise ourselves.
Where life interrupts. Where people disrupt. These unexpected encounters where, in the act of engagement with another, we are both changed and yet somehow have been freed to become more of ourselves, alive and evolving and pressed against the edge of our own becoming.
Perhaps we need not always clamor toward common denominators, losing our sense of separateness, but rather choose to enter in when the unanticipated arrives, and mind the gaps. This is what I knew for those hours. A Mormon and a Muslim and me, a nontheist, finding one another and ourselves while a roaring piece of winged metal hurled us across a sky.
Disrupted and called into creation, we became both the bridge and the walkers in our willingness to listen and speak, to know and not know, to encounter the other and our own selves and the Mystery—or God—the great gap, which resides between.
Isabel Abbott is a writer, activist, embodiment artist and speaker.
With a professional background as birth and death doula, a space holder for the mulitvocality of our public and private grief, a sex educator and an embodiment and movement workshop facilitator, she works with those crossing thresholds, questioning their gods, wrestling with their love, grieving and dying into life.
She writes regularly on belonging to the body, the holiness of hunger and the sacred and profane, and her writing has most recently been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Ars Medica, elephant journal, Soul Growth Radio, and Rebelle Society.
Photo: Gwen Moss/source
Editor: Dana Gornall