Last impressions are important. They stick with you long after you have gone, and constitute a great deal of the things that you remember about a person or a place.
Of the many things that bother me… no wait, I learned a new way to say this. Instead of saying that someone is bothering you, you should say, “That person is making possible my salvation.”
Of the many things that are making possible my salvation on this pilgrimage, one of the most important is the use of public toilettes. I am required to use them frequently, since I have no home. This can be quite adventuresome in places such as China, Hong Kong, and India where the public toilet is essentially a porcelain matt with a trough in the center and two places to keep your feet as you squat. When I experienced this luxury, I considered writing the Ad Sodalitatem Board of Directors to ask them for combat pay.
But more frequently, I have a simple problem. I’m trying to wash my hands and the “automatic” faucets don’t automate. Until, of course, you give up and move to a different faucet. Then the water flows quite freely.
Well in Turkey, the automatic faucets actually work, and when it is the last thing you experience before you get on a plane to leave a country, it leaves a good impression. I wanted to sing a hymn. Something to the tune of, “Thank you Turkey for having working water faucets in the public forum.”
But instead I just got on the plane.
As I sat on the plane, I began to think of my experience of Turkey, and of my growing understanding of religion. Water dominates that experience. In almost every religious tradition, Christian, Muslim, Greek/Roman pagan, there is a tendency to put water near a religious temple. But the problem is, at least in ancient times, you can’t just put the water near the temple, you have put the temple near the water.
The Greek Orthodox churches I saw yesterday do this most blatantly. They actually build the church on top of the spring and let the water flow out of the church. The Romans and Greeks knew the importance of water, and built giant aqueducts and the first systems of plumbing, in order to fill pools of water and fountains, always dedicated to various gods, within their cities. At Christian shrines all over the world, there is a shrine area, and then a fountain where they sell bottles so you can fill up on water, and bring the water home to share with others.
The relationship of water to religion is something largely overlooked today, but historically it makes sense. A spring in the desert was mysterious and life giving. Religion is mysterious and life giving. A temple with a spring was… mysterious and life giving. If you were seeking health, you would go to the church.
Funny word “health.” If you follow its linguistic equivalents in other religions you can find remarkable comparisons. “Sano” is health in Spanish. Ancient English (around 900 AD) uses the word “hale” which eventually becomes the word “whole.” To be whole, was to have good health.
Then you look at the word “holy” and you get a nice surprise. In Spanish, it is “Santo” and in English, the word “whole” becomes “holy.” There is a direct correspondence between health and holiness.
What I am getting at is that the more you look at the development of religions from the mere perspective of “where did the temple get built,” you begin to notice that religion is less about doctrine and beliefs, and more about the practical experience of being able to live well. Those who sought the waters of the temple found health. They lived. They bathed in the mystery of life that could not be explained, but if they avoided the waters of life, they perished.
Religion, especially today, is much more complicated than that, and I don’t want an oversimplification to diminish the beauty and integrity of the various religious systems, but when you really get down to it, religions develop around the mysteries that give life. The reason for the rules and regulations are because it was discovered that obeying these rules and regulations gave wholeness, that is to say holiness.
In a day and age where our water fountains are found in shopping malls, information is sped across the planet with trillions of 1’s and 0’s per millisecond, cars zoom by us maniacally, leaving us indifferent to the strangers we pass by, and animals are sacrificed not to gods, but to the highest bidder at the supermarket, it helps us to know that the reason we turn to the Faith is the same reason people have always turned to the Faith, to give life, to be made whole.
The last impression I have leaving Turkey is public toilettes with automatic water faucets that work. It reminds me of the numerous places in Turkey where I saw first-hand the connection between water and religion. This is a good last impression to have. It is a much better last impression than the one I am having as I look out the plane window and watch the flight mechanic work on the plane’s engine for the two hours we are sitting on the tarmac while I write this blog. That’s a last impression that I don’t want to keep so much, especially on the same day a terrorist bomb blew up in Ankara, Turkey, just a few hours south of here. These are less consoling thoughts, and I really don’t know how to weave them into a useful reflection on religion. I’ll stick with the automatic faucets that actually work.