Thursday, July 21, 2005

What are you talking about?

While we were in Madrid, the children and I logged many hours of walking along the broadest boulevards and the narrowest alleys of that magnificent city. One evening we watched in awe as the longest flag ever manufactured was unfurled along the city’s main avenue in anticipation of being chosen to host the 2012 Olympics. During our many walks in my favorite city in the world, we were accosted by beggars, approached by vendors, and gawked at by MadrileƱos of all ages. We walked with ice cream cones, cold drinks, and our supermarket sacks. We walked early in the morning, in the midday heat, and in the cool of the evening.

There was one common factor in every walk we took: conversation. We talked about the tight pants and revealing tops we saw, the countless dogs, and the breathtaking architecture. We talked about friends we missed in the States and friends we’d made in our travels. We talked about the Spanish traditions we wished were part of our culture and the American traditions that we wish were part of Spanish culture. We talked about our family, the families of people we loved, and the families we watched on television. We talked about places we'd visited, places we hoped to go, and places we hope we never go. My relationship with my children grew far deeper on that journey than it would have had we stayed here in Charlotte, and talking as we walked was the main reason why.

As we meandered through Madrid, my eyes and my mind often wandered to the people we encountered along the way. Some walked alone with their heads bowed in silent and somber contemplation of the sidewalk. Others window-shopped and dreamed of wearing fine clothing and fine jewels. Still others walked with family and friends, chattering away in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, and Japanese, among other languages. No matter where I was, who I saw, or what language they spoke, I wondered what they were talking about.

Were they discussing the struggles in their marriages, the challenges of parenthood, and stress at work? Were they listing the various ailments and treatments being suffered by and administered to ill friends and family members? Did they share with one another their fears and doubts and worries about terrorism, the new President of their nation, and the state of their fragile economy? Were they commenting on the beauty of the city they were in or the merits of a city they'd visited previously? Were they concerned with mounting personal, national, and international debt? Were they recounting the details of the previous evening’s delightful dinner or how poorly it had been prepared? Were they struggling to get pregnant or lamenting being pregnant yet again? Were they planning upcoming weddings or dealing with the despair of divorce? Were they commenting on the recent birth of a new baby or the grief of recent bereavement? Were they walking to job interviews or returning to dead-end jobs? Were they going to care for alcoholic spouses or drug-addicted children? Were they lamenting the inexplicable lack of contentment despite having acquired all the stuff that they thought would fill the empty places in their lives? What were they talking about? This inquiring mind wanted to know.

In Madrid’s Prado Museum, I saw several paintings depicting one of my favorite Bible stories and was reminded that my curiosity about ambulatory conversations was nothing new. The twenty-fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke relates the account of two dejected disciples who had left the city of Jerusalem and were traveling to Emmaus just days after Christ's death and burial. Centuries before my Spanish sojourn, somewhere on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus, Christ Himself appeared to them and asked them: “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

His simple question prompted several more of my own. What if someone appeared beside me and asked me what I was talking about, thinking about, and dreaming about as I walk through this life? What if that same someone walked alongside me for a while and listened attentively to my answer? What if that Someone clarified for me all the connections, all the coincidences, and all the consequences of everything that has happened in my life? What if this Sacred Stranger joined me on my journey, walked me all the way home, talking, laughing, and listening all the way?

And what if I did the same for the people I know and love? No, I don’t have the answers to anyone else’s deepest questions. Nor do I have the solutions to anyone else’s most difficult problems. I can barely articulate my own questions, never mind answer them. But what I do have and what I am praying for more of is the willingness to walk alongside my fellow pilgrims, ask them Christ’s simple question, and then listen attentively as they answer.

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