Bedroom Window Spirituality

Just off the airplane that had carried me from Instanbul to Dar es Salaam, I stepped into my new bedroom.  Immediately I heard the Muslim call to prayer filtering through the mosquito nets that covered my bedroom window.

“Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” I thought.

It was 4:00 in the morning, and practically the whole world was asleep, but that didn’t stop one of the nearby mosques from calling people to rise, pray.

“Get up! Get up! Your bed will turn into a coffin,” the man called out in Swahili.

But life, as it is wont to do, has gathered itself into familiar patterns and what began as novel has become a morning routine. Even if the message isn’t aimed at me, it has become my own personal call to prayer.

Like the other sounds, smells, and sights I encounter everyday, this morning call to prayer filters through my mosquito screen-covered window into my life.  It’s led to what I’ve begun to call my bedroom window spirituality.

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Truism: we do not enter into relationship with others, God included, in some disincarnate spiritual zone.  Our spiritual life is rooted in and shaped by our daily experience – even when that experience enters through the bedroom window.

I use the same prayer methods I did before, but these are not the same prayers.  Now it’s Dar es Salaam, sneaking below the window curtains, that curbs the sharp edges of my prayers. It’s my crowded, industrial, religiously diverse neighborhood that cups my encounter with the Gospel.

So now I’m called to prayer by three nearby mosques.  Now the downshifting of diesel truck engines grind across my room.  Now the sweet, sharp smell of burning plastic slides up the walls of my house and into my room.

The images that appear when I pray the examen (or when I catch myself daydreaming rather than lesson planning) tend to look a lot like the flood of people and things that I see during the rest of the day.

I see the woman who does not have a lot to give her own family, but who still regularly gives me fried cassava when I walk by.  I hear the greeting of “As-salamu alaykum” from my kofia-wearing neighbors.  I taste soda1 and coffee and feel the ubiquitous plastic chairs that random strangers and new friends offer me.

DeS Port by Siddarth Pendharkar at Flickr

The Dar es Salaam Port

Unlike a faucet, I can’t – and wouldn’t want to – turn off this flow images. When I close my eyes and turn my thoughts to the Lord, it’s images of Dar es Salaam in all its generosity and struggle and beauty in which I’m immersed.  Without being called, it’s these people who drip into my reflection on God’s activity in my life and in our world.

That said, some of us might have limited bedroom views.  When I was in graduate school in Chicago I spent one semester with a window that opened onto nothing but a brick wall no more than an arm’s reach away (I called my Semester of Living in a Cave in Chicago).  I hope my spiritual life wasn’t as dark as my room was that semester.  After a few weeks of living there I realized that I had to be intentional about finding ways to let the world into my heart.

Because what we see from our bedroom windows, from wherever our home location is, has a significant impact on how we relate to others.  A recent article by Nate Berg in The Atlantic, “Isolated and Under-Exposed: Why the Rich Don’t Give”, says the same.  Berg highlights a recent study by the The Chronicle of Philanthropy that indicates two things: first, that the rich give a lower rate of their discretionary income to charity compared to others; second, that that rate of giving goes up when wealthy people live in economically diverse neighborhoods rather than in affluent enclaves.

The conclusion is straightforward: if I regularly interact with neighbors who have opportunities similar to my own, it’s highly likely that I will start to think that my experience, my way of life, is the norm.  If we stop for a moment, we know that may well not be.

Those windows into our rooms can also be windows to our hearts, opening them up – or not – to the challenges faced by others.

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Of course we’re not stuck.  Of course we can live in a wealthy area and still enter into relationship with those of different backgrounds.  Of course we can live lives of committed service from many home locations.

But in my own experience it’s awfully difficult to do.  In my own life simply reading about something or someone “out there” doesn’t bring spontaneous prayers to my heart in the way that rubbing shoulders does.

I knew what malaria was, but it became real when malaria killed a child in a family I knew.  I had read about HIV and AIDS, but it wasn’t until a student of mine told me the story of how his parents died of AIDS and that he was HIV positive that it became real.  Like the sound of that call to prayer, they had entered the window of my life.

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Bedroom window spirituality actually has deep roots in Jesuit tradition.

Ignatius of Loyola, sensitive to how our external world affects our internal life, used to advise retreatants to adjust the light in their rooms to suit the mood of the retreat.  During the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, when one contemplates sin, Ignatius instructs us to deprive ourselves of light.  Sometimes closing the blinds on our bedroom window deepens the reflection.

A Jesuit who knows the Spiritual Exercises better than just about anyone I know asks those doing spiritual direction with him to commit themselves to regular contact with the material poor.  Contact with the poor greatly deepen the experience of prayer, he says, and naturally help deepen our encounter with Jesus throughout the Exercises. It’s not that we can’t find Jesus in other places, but it also makes sense to spend time with the people, and in the places, where Jesus said he would be.

None of this is to say that the window with the roughest, or loudest, or ugliest view is therefore the most spiritual.  (Getting caught up in a kind of dark competition to see who can suffer the most is just as far from real spirituality as is locking ourselves away in affluence).  After all, there’s a reason why most retreat houses are in quiet, beautiful places, and why Jesus so frequently goes away to pray in an isolated place.  I cannot prevent my eyes from seeing or my ears from hearing when I’m in living contact with the poor, but even so I can still prevent myself from feeling what I see and my hands and feet from acting in response.  Which makes time apart, time for quiet, all the more important.

Even if we live in an idyllic gated community, often our lives are anything but quiet.  We often need some space to make sense of the joy and pain we feel – including the pain that hides behind those seemingly perfect gates.  Just as I put screens to prevent those malaria-carrying mosquitoes from entering my room, unless I have some distance from the complicated realities around me I often end up putting screens around my own heart.

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We move too often as Jesuits.  Eventually, I’ll move again and I won’t have a 4:00 AM wakeup call unless I set the alarm myself.  Still, no matter where I go, my bedroom window will be a way for God to get through to my heart.

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  1. Does anyone else who grew up in a “pop” part of the country feel like you’re betraying your roots every time you find yourself uttering the word “soda?”  Even when the local word in Swahili is “soda,” I still can’t say it without a little inner-squirming.