Posts Tagged ‘beautiful’


One of the last days in Jaipur, several of the group wanted to do a tour of three Jain temples; we needed to send a staff person with them, and I was the only one available. Sigh. I didn’t want to go. I had seen the temples. I was tired of coordinating, of answering questions, talking to the driver, figuring out food and water… I wanted to stay in one place, get work done, and not sweat.

But of course, I was “happy” to go. Of course I want my colleagues to see these amazing temples, and besides: this is why I am here. I put on extra deodorant, baby-powdered my entire body, got two bottles of water and money for the driver, and headed out.

I once read a bit of CS Lewis where he talks about doing things one doesn’t want to do. He framed it beautifully, by first asking about one’s love for and commitment to God. He helps us imagine how we would rush to do any single thing for Jesus, if he only needed and asked. And I can imagine that–walking great distances to bring expensive perfume, or staying up all night in a garden. Of course I would do the very thing God asks me to do.

And then Lewis reminds us: What if the thing God asks you to do is this? To sit in class, for hour after hour, and study even when you hate the subject? To stay up with the baby, rocking and rocking, even when you are so, so tired? To listen for a little longer to the tiresome woman at coffee hour after church? To help your neighbor move, even though it’s hot outside and you’ve worked overtime every day this week.

I’ve often thought of this, in long lectures, long train trips, during stressful or tiresome conversations. I say, “This, this moment/chore/conversation/task: this is what I am asked to do, in this moment and on this day.” It helps me feel the whole picture–that all of the little things I do are connected to bigger things–and to remind me not to just do the brave/exciting/laudable things, but also to tend to the mundane.

So I called this to mind. I said, “Stephanie, this is the thing you need to do, today. This is the one thing you are here to do.”

It was a truly great day. At the first temple, on a huge hill overlooking the city, the rain clouds swept in. I sat on a bench and watched the green of the trees and the white marble turn bright and odd, as the gray storm light swept in. I knew my camera would never capture it, so I tried to tell my brain, “Remember, remember, remember.” The wind was cool and the leaves turned their backs.


By the time we got to the second temple, the rain had ended, but the air was cool and no one else was at the temple. We had it to ourselves. I wandered around, and found that alone, with the cool air, it was like entering a temple for the first time. I felt blessed and lucky to have access to such a holy place. With the sun hidden, the votives seemed more essential.



I found an empty part, either under construction or abandoned. A metal and stone dome covered the space. Either I was talking to myself, or praying out loud, because I realized the echo was fantastic.

And so, with no one around, I began to sing. Oh, it was the best acoustics I’ve ever experienced. If I held out a note long enough, and my voice was directed dead ahead, the echo would hold out the note long enough for me to harmonize with myself. I sang “Beulah Land,” an old hymn I always find near to mind.

When my grandmother died, my sister and I sang at her funeral. The night before, in my grandparents’ old farmhouse bedroom, we practiced. I had never really sung with my sister before, unless it was along to a radio or tape, or maybe in church. Her voice sounded like mine. Sitting next to her on the bed, I felt like our voices were the same–it was so strange, hearing two of the same voice.

I remembered that moment, and other times I’ve sung that hymn, as I sang there under the dome. I love that even when I am wrong-headed and stubborn, and reluctant to do something, I can still end up having an amazing experience.


By the time we got to the third temple, the light was changing again, for evening time. I had the rooftop to myself, and enjoyed peeking through the temple vimanas (towers) at the surrounding buildings.

I have sort of been taking for granted that I’m in India again. I’m distracted by logistics, by making sure things are going smoothly, with answering e-mails and preparing for the next group. And there are fewer surprises: I was expecting the smells, sounds, crowds, and heat. And yet, of course–this being India–delight and awe catch me up short, when I least deserve it.


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Mary in splendor, in Hagia Sophia.

Mother Mary was all over this trip. Surprising that after having lived in places like the Bronx, where she is also frequently found—from shrine to garment to tattoo—that I would feel so close to her at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

When I was little, going to a missionary Baptist church out in the country, Mary didn’t come up very frequently, although I often got to play her in Christmas pageants. (Having blonde hair and blue eyes that matched her robes seemed prerequisite.) Even with nativity sets, I was always interested in the tiny baby, and in rearranging the stable crowd in various scenes. Mary wasn’t doing much in those little ceramic sets—kneeling, eyes cast down.

At one point in upper elementary school, I undertook to read the entire Bible, cover to cover. There’s not much Mary in there, either, actually. I loved the book of Esther, which read like a novel, and liked the idea of Eunice and Lois, early members of the church important enough to have names. Besides her magnificat, Mary doesn’t say anything. And Jesus himself is kind of rude to her in the wedding story, acting annoyed that she pressed him into service. And, to be honest, growing up trying to be a good girl, Mary just seemed meek and mild, the opposite kind of woman that a subscriber to Sassy magazine would aspire to be.


Tradition says that after Jesus, as he was dying, charged his dear friend John with caring for Mary, John took her to Ephesus, where she lived out her days. This shrine is on the site of where her house is supposed to have been.

When I did my master’s in Byzantine hagiography, I finally started thinking about Mary in earnest. I saw images of her as God-bearer, as a near-warrior lady, holding the safety of humanity underneath her skirt, looking with intensity at Christ as she begs forgiveness on our behalf. My professor said, of her downcast eyes, “In these [Byzantine] images, she’s not looking down because she’s meek. She’s looking down because she is nobility, and they don’t look commoners in the eye.”

One of the things that’s so exhilarating about Istanbul is that beautiful images are grander than you can imagine, and jaw-dropping beauty is around every corner. I frequently found my eyes filling with tears. I would turn a corner, look up, and see an image of the theotokos, completely not expecting it, and stunned into staring.

Or I’d see something out of the corner of my eye, look up, and see Christ as king, splendid and solemn, staring at me from centuries ago—gold still shining in the dim cave light.


Outside the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus, where pilgrims tie prayers on scraps of paper.

I couldn’t help by pray, and be awed (which is also a kind of prayer, I think), along the way.

CS Lewis defined the word “numinous” like this:

“Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind.

It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous.

Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.”

(When I looked up this story to get the details right for this post, I also found the following quote from Shakespeare that gets at “numinous,” “Under it my genius is rebuked.”)

So I would be walking around Istanbul, thinking about pistachios and how I used to always misspell “Constantinople,” (despite that master’s degree) and would suddenly find the hairs on my neck rising as I see another fresco, another mosaic, another image that stops my voice.

It’s hard to write about the numinous. When you have an experience—in a stand of sugar maple trees, at a child’s baptism, at the bed of a dying grandparent, in a chapel in Prague—that brings goosebumps, tears, a whoosh of energy in the gut and heart, and it feels like all of creation meaning…

It’s like the old writing class edict “show, don’t tell” falls apart. How can I show you? I can only tell you that I was greedy for images of holy and gold, and was blessed with more than I could handle.


Votives lit by pilgrims at Mary’s house.

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Two days ago, some of us visited the Monkey Temple– outside of Jaipur, near mountains, a kind of broken down abandoned place. But there are people, monks, kids swimming, a scant few tourists, and monkeys.

Ganesh, inside of one of the temples. The buildings are like abandoned castles and have temples, shrines, and icons in otherwise empty rooms, throughout. You’re walking barefoot along hot marble, you walk up an empty staircase or turn a staircase, and there is another vista, or peeling wall of color, or breathtaking idol.


One of the monks, inside a tiny room shrine. He anointed the top of our hands with perfume, and then our foreheads with bright orange, and then came around, asking our names, and brushing the top our our heads with a feather bouquet.

The colors and smell, and heat, and concentrated devotion, were so intense. I get a feeling like my elbows and sides are kind of getting floaty, with the potential to expand out. Hard to explain. Like getting light headed, but in my body’s structure, and in a good way.


I can’t get enough of these empty rooms, with old painting and detailing. This room reminds me of an old dowager, who once was the belle of the ball, but now is aged, and her skirts are drooping and her hair fallen. Plus, the monkey.


The next day, our entire group took a walking tour of Old Jaipur, including the insides of the walled city. Old Muslim worship spaces, from Mughal times, have been turned into apartments. Shops, animals, children, laundry, shrines, food, trash, and noise abound.

Tough little girl, with fabulous shoes, outside one of the gates.


View from the outer walled space into the inner walled room. I love the curlicues of marble and plaster.


We were treated to spicy lentil pastry pockets, with fresh yogurt. Delicious street food.


We ended the tour by stopping at the cafe–literally dug out into one of the walls–that has the best chai in Jaipur. Hot, milky, luxuriant with cardamon.


We broke into groups to explore…I visited countless textile and jewelry shops. Here is an abundance of sari material. A wealth of colors and textures.


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We woke up early in Hastinapur and visited one more local temple, attached to a school. A local Jain founded the school and the community supports scholarship students from the surrounding town.

My view from the women’s side of the worship service.

Me with a local family.

Singing on the bus to Agra. (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Wonderwall,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Hotel California”…)


The Taj Mahal! First of all, I can’t believe I was actually at the Taj Mahal—I try to imagine all of the images of it I’ve seen throughout my life, from calendars to posters, screen savers, even the little tea tags on our bags in Delhi had the image of that most famous monument.

A few months ago, I was really stressed out from school, and needed to read something comforting. I still have a copy of The Secret Garden my Grammy sent me when I was eight years old; I re-read it. This has long been a beloved book of mine, and I was surprised to see how much of my sense of self and the world has been influenced by it. And—the book starts out in India; Mary’s father was an important British military figure, and her family lived in luxury surrounded by Indian servants. The descriptions of the heat, the lushness, the smells and foods…I had long forgotten the story starts in this faraway continent. How strange to think of myself in McLeansboro, Illinois, reading this story and trying to picture the world. And now this same self has encountered the Taj Mahal, and knows the heat, lushness, and smells Mary describes.

It is huge. Dreamy. A mirage. Massive. Inspiring. I walked through one of the gates, and saw my first glimpse of it through a giant, decorated archway—the pale, nearly-glowing whiteness, the arching gracefulness, the splendor.

The mausoleum itself is surrounded by gorgeous green grounds, with waterways and red brick outbuildings that would themselves be amazingly beautiful if not competing with the Taj itself.

View of one of the gates.

At the far end of the gardens.


In all its magnificence.


Archways, soaring archways at every turn.

The ceilings within the mausoleum.


The beloved wife’s tomb.


Detail of the jeweled inlays.


Stone screens and carved marble.


Arabic script to illuminate the marble.


Into one of the gates.

Detail of corners surrounding doors and archways.

Detail of marblework.




The gate through which we entered and exited.

After the Taj, the bus dropped those of us in the six-week program off at the train station so we could leave for Jaipur.


Outside of the train station.

The arrivals and departure board.


Inside the station—only two tracks. A posh, English-accented recorded voice announced arrivals and departures. Small carts sold soda, water, juice, and snacks. Entire families lay on blankets waiting for their train.

Initially, our train was delayed from 7:35 pm to 9:00 pm. And then ‘til midnight. And the day before, the “midnight” train hadn’t come until 3:00 am. Jaipur is only four hours away, so our handler rented three taxis. The drivers piled our possessions on top of the cars, we piled in, and undertook the journey.

The roads into Jaipur were the best I’ve seen. We reached campus around 1:00 am, and were greeted at the gate to our building with biscuits, an anointing with red on our foreheads, and our wrists were tied with red thread. Tea service was waiting in the dining room if we liked.

Our accommodations are much nicer here—the rooms are better appointed and cleaner, and we have warm water. After taking a bucket shower, I took to my bed—right next to the fan. The weather is cooler here, and with the fan right next to me, I experienced the most delicious sensation: I was so cool that I wanted to be under my sheet. For the first time in India, I climbed under the sheet, and fell happily asleep.

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After Delhi, we took a rented “Tourist” bus to Hastinapur. Because three tirtankaras were conceived, renounced this world, and died there, it is a most holy city for Jains.

The first place we visited, and where we overnighted, was the famed Jambudweep. Part temple complex, part holy site, part dilapidated theme park…and we met and sat with a holy woman ascetic, who blessed us and gave us gifts.

A building manifesting the shape of the Loka, or the cosmos. The Loka has three levels–the hellish or bottom levels, the middle level, where we are in this world, and the upper or heavenly levels.

Inside the Loka-shaped building was a building-high series of glass cases with representations of the devils, mortals, animals, and gods and goddesses within the levels. Here are some devils.

Here is the Holy Mother Mataji, with one of the other nuns. In the ceremonies, we sang, “Mother, give us knowledge,” repeatedly. She gave a sermon on Jain astronomy. We received, in addition to being anointed with red on our heads, necklaces with a medal of her face, and she gave us each a ring, to remind us of the virtues we were learning here in India. I was asked to say a few words, and talked about how much we appreciated their hospitality, and were moved by the energy and holiness of the place.


In both ceremonies at Jambudweep, elaborately costumed girls danced.

Me, laughing.

Me, being interviewed by Zee TV. They asked me why I came to India, what I was studying, what I had learned from Mother Mataji’s lecture, and what I would take home with me regarding my new learnings about Jainism.

Jambudweep isn’t the only temple complex in Hastinapur; we visited at least three other temples, with many, many smaller rooms of idols and places of devotion within.


The stairs up to another temple.


Another giant, marble idol.


This photo is for my father-in-law. Notice that the workers have built for themselves scaffolding out of bamboo and rope…and are high off the ground working on this tower. Bamboo and rope!


Gates at another temple.


Food offerings to an idol.


One of the temples was shaped like a giant, eight-story wedding cake. After you entered at the bottom, you walk up eight floors of ramps, spiraling up to the top– another physical manifestation of our process in this reality, ascending. At the top, you reach the temple, with stunning views of the countryside and town.


For the closing ceremony, they asked us to dance, and quizzed us on Jain facts (I won a prize, a gold and diamonte Om figure), and then we met members of the congregation. I was photographed, and met so many families, especially with children. One perk of this is that many families want to photograph me holding their babies. Of course I don’t mind!


Details within one of the temples.


Two idols well-dressed and embellished with tiaras and flowers.



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Digambara means “sky clad,” that is, digambara monks wear the air. They go naked.  They have no possessions at all—their very bodies are expressions of non-attachment to this material world. We made pilgrimage to two digambara monks at a place called KundrakundraBhakti.

In one discussion of “self” in a lecture, we were challenged to consider the following, “Describe yourself without using your name, references to your appearance, age, profession, education, family background, material possessions, geography or ethnic heritage…”

What would be left? What words or phrases would still indicate my “selfness” (in this thought exercise I can’t even say “Stephanie-ness”)?

One lesson from this consideration is that I am a soul. We are souls, embodied souls, yes (and what fascination we have with these bodies), but the soul is our essential nature. As C.S. Lewis said, “I do not have a soul. I am a soul; I have a body.”

I think it would be an interesting and fruitful Advent or Lenten practice to be mindful of all the time and thought I spend on the material world—I love magazines like Real Simple, Cooking Light, Oprah Magazine, and catalogues, and window displays…but all of these things, recipes, home décor ideas, crafting inspiration, clothing and jewelry and food…they are all related to my material body in this life, not at all related to my soul. It would be fruitful to take time to notice and cultivate the things that actually feed, nourish, and cultivate my soul. Music? Meditation and prayer?Acts of generosity and altruism? Taking care with my food and water use?

How can we help one another attend to our souls?

The older, bald man in the photograph is Kundakundacharya, a well knownDigambara monk. We were allowed to hear him speak, and ask him questions. I asked him, “Do you look forward to death, or are you afraid of death, or do you not think of death at all?” He answered, emphatically, “No, no—I do not think of death until the moment it comes. I am like a wick in an oil lamp; the wick does not know, and does not care, how much oil is left until the last moment, and the light is extinguished.”

Me, trying to stand like the Jain goddess of knowledge. She is always shown with a book in her hand, and her legs make a triangle. The triangle is related to logic within the Jain cosmology, with the points helping illustrate how we make inferences about our observations.

Dr. Jain in front of a huge statue of Mahavira, the last (most recent) thirtankara. This open air temple is called Ahimsa Stahl. Mahavira is on a hill overlooking Delhi.

Me and Nelda, a classmate from CST/CLU.


A little girl at Ahimsa Stahl.

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I’m with Matt, Remy, and my Mom and Stepdad on Catalina Island. Gorgeous. Very islandy. We took the ferry from Long Beach early this morning, with front row seats on the top deck. I think it does something biologically to gaze out on blue sky and blue sea. I saw my first dolphins! Dozens of them from the ferry, leaping. I told Matt that I’ve seen so many dolphin tattoos and trinkets over the years, I kind of forgot they’re an actual, incredible animal.

We had an incredible lunch (scallops, two kinds of shrimp cocktail) and then rented a golf cart to see the whole island. There’s some kind of old casino from the 20s, very Art Nouveau, and a botanical garden. We’re in an amazing little inn, with a balcony and view of the water. For dinner, Matt and I (and Remy) went back down to the waterfront and had more incredible seafood near the water. We saw more dolphins (the innkeeper said a pod more than a thousand) from our balcony.

Apparently, there are bison all over the island, left over from some long ago movie shoot– the studio couldn’t be bothered to take them back off the island. According to local lore, there are also perhaps some wild black panthers running around– I saw this old movie poster today. Apparently, the movie has to do with turning black panthers into women?? There’s something about these old movies, and strange connections between “science” (or the promise of science?) and sexuality. Strange.

Last year, the museum on the Island hosted an exhibit called, “Before she was Marilyn: Norma Jean Baker on Catalina Island.” I’ve never been in thrall to Monroe, but there’s something really poignant and compelling about the idea of “her year on the island as a newlywed teen.” I recently read that when all of her belongings went up for auction, it was noted that she didn’t actually have that many clothes or luxury items– but she had a lot of books, especially first editions, and had spent a lot of time trying to educate herself. There’s something so American about that, and equally American in that no one knows or remembers that.

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