Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 8:40-56) transports me to Lhasa, Tibet, where on any given day you’ll find hundreds of pilgrims prostrating themselves in prayer in front of one of the several sites considered holy to Buddhists. One of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims set to reach Lhasa this year is eleven-year-old Goinbo Cering, who along with his uncle began the daunting journey covering thirteen hundred plus miles of rugged terrain six years ago from their home in China’s northwestern Gansu Province. They will realize their dream when they reach the Potala Palace, the site where the 14th Dalai Lama resided before Mao crushed the Tibetan uprising in 1959, forcing the Buddhist leader into exile. Young Goinbo, like others of the most ardent pilgrims, makes his way via the ciak, the most demanding pilgrimage in the world. Practitioners of the ciak move slowly along their path via continuous prostrations. With leather coverings protecting knees, hands, and forehead, they go through the formal steps of prostration: standing with palms together at heart level, raising hands overhead, touching the crown of the head, the brow, the throat, and heart. They then bend fully at the waist with arms parallel to the ground. Next, they lie down, fully prostrate, with hands, knees and head all touching the ground in that order. Finally they push themselves up, repeating this pattern over and over throughout the journey, moving one body length at a time toward their destination.
It seems tame by comparison, but I was struck by the number of repeated prostrations Luke documents in his gospel. Six times we find people from every walk of life encountering Jesus and falling prostrate at his feet – a brash fisherman, a loose woman, a demon-possessed man, a hemorrhaging woman, a synagogue ruler, and a leper. Today’s passage weaves two of those stories together: the woman with a 12-year-old bleeding disorder, and the religious leader desperate to help his dying 12-year-old daughter. There was something about the humility, if not the downright humiliation, of falling prostrate at the feet of this itinerant story-teller, that gave people access to a power far beyond their imagination. Being around Jesus wasn’t enough; the story tells us that crowds of people were squeezing in on the holy man, touching him from every angle. But out of that pressing and grasping and clinging crowd, Jesus sensed one touch, the touch of a woman whose energizing life-force had virtually drained from her body and who was down to her last hope. It stopped him in his tracks; the clamoring crowd and the little girl would have to wait their turn.
Following the example and encouragement of my friend and mentor Mahan Siler, I am going to try incorporating prostrations into my daily prayer life. I suspect that doing ten or twenty will be a stretch for me (no pun intended); I can scarcely imagine the discipline and perseverance of someone like Goinbo Cering and his fellow pilgrims. We in the western world of Protestant Christendom live so much in our heads, pondering and deliberating and dividing ourselves over matters of theology and ethics; rarely do we feel the incarnate – the embodied – word of God made flesh. Prostrations, like breathing prayer, enables us to get out of our heads and physically experience what it feels like to surrender, to let go of all those things that captivate us in our culture. The humility and humiliation of prostration is so counter-cultural in and of itself. We’re the people who don’t believe in kowtowing to anybody. Surrender is not an option. And yet this is the path, at least from Luke’s perspective, that gives us access to the most amazing healing energy and life-giving power in the universe. I am convinced now that participating in radical Christianity, a goal many strive toward, is not achieved by the heady cultivations of edgy theologies or progressive politics, as noteworthy as those aspects of faith are. In some ways, it feels like those of us stuck in our heads are like the crowd, pressing in and touching and squeezing Jesus from every angle, without really touching the power. No, I suspect that the most radical and counter-cultural thing Christians could do in our society would be to don leather aprons and gloves and headbands and do twenty minutes of prostrations a day. It’s still nowhere near a ciak, but it would get us closer to accessing the Holy, a power far deeper than politics and theology, and would move us one body-length at a time toward freedom from all those ambitions and addictions that keep our lives and our lifestyles in a vice grip.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.