A Wedding at Ishtar
It’s eight in the morning. The doorbell startles us. My American bride moans. “What time is it? Who could that be?”
I shuffle to the door. It’s Georgi, my childhood friend. He and I used to swim in the Mediterranean Sea in our underwear because we did not own bathing suits.
Georgi smiles. He knows that we have just arrived from Oklahoma after twenty-eight hours of airplanes, airports, security checks, and snailing traffic. He knows because he was at our home, awaiting us, when my American bride and I arrived at four in the morning.
“Georgi? What’s wrong?” I yawned.
“Nothing is wrong. You have been chosen to be the best man this afternoon.”
“Best man? Best man at what? I asked with insomnia-parched voice.
“Best man at the Ghantous wedding. They’ve been waiting all year for you.”
“Do I know the groom?”
“No, but you know his father, your childhood playmate, Nazeeh.”
“Why did you wake me up so early if the wedding is this afternoon?” I mumbled, rubbing my eyes.
“Because you have to preside at the nine o’clock wedding breakfast. They will not start without you.”
In Lebanon—where societal rules are more potent than legal laws—social mores are not to be violated. My American bride’s sleep-deprived, first-time-in-Lebanon eyes stared at me with dry disbelief as I explained that I had to leave her all alone for an unknown ‘Lebanese’ while. Fortunately, she was far too foggy to protest. Instead, she turned her back to me, buried her face into the pillow, and murmured, “You Lebanese are something else.”
Half asleep, I showered, dressed, and got into Georgi’s car. During the ride, I learned that the groom’s name was Nasseem, the bride’s name was Hala, and the breakfast hors d’oeuvres featured niblets of raw goat meat, raw lamb fat, and raw calf liver. I also learned that my role as best man was chosen by the groom’s father to honor me for having helped control, by telephone, his long-term, resistant hypertension.
I launched the breakfast ceremony by raising my arak drink and offering a long, well-wishing toast to the bride and groom. Comically, arak—our homemade, anise-laced grape alcohol that turns white when broken with water—made us look as if we were toasting one another with shots of milk.
The breakfast hors d’oeuvres were offered from large, bronze trays—poised on dancers’ heads—among strumming ouds and ululations. I peppered, salted, and ate the offered bites of raw meat, fat, and liver—but followed them with a hefty dose of Cipro, which I had pre-stashed in my pocket precisely for that purpose.
Back home, I found Judy still in jetlag slumber. Trying to pay back my own sleep debt proved Sisyphean. Lying in bed with eyes closed did not assuage my raw-meat-fed, arak-watered brain. Uncontrolled, my thoughts, like a flock of chattering birds, flew in and out of my mind’s tree and kept me awake with their loud, inaudible noises.
The afternoon announced itself with yawns and slow stretches as Judy awakened and wondered why I was already dressed.
“You’re wearing a suit and bowtie?”
“I’m the best man, remember? I told you that before I left this morning.”
“I do remember what you told me, but I had a hard time believing it. What time is it anyway?”
“It’s fifteen after two.”
“And what time is the wedding?”
“It starts at four.”
“Am I invited?”
“Of course, darling, but at breakfast Georgi insinuated that everyone would understand if you felt too jetlagged to attend.”
Donning a disconcerted look, Judy sat upright, rolled her eyes, got out of bed, and carefully examined her hair in the mirror.
“I believe I can be ready in an hour,” she affirmed with a formulated smile. “How far is the church?”
“Mar Elias’s cave is thirty minutes away, but from car-to-cave is an additional twenty-minute walk. We need to leave at three, darling,” I apologetically but firmly stated.
“We’re going to a Mar cave?” She gasped.
“St. Elijah’s (Mar Elias’s in Arabic) is a holy cave, darling, inside an olive mount, thousands of years old, and has hosted thousands of weddings.”
“And the foot road to the cave is a dirt road, I presume.”
“You cannot walk to the cave wearing high heels, if that’s what you mean. Most ladies will climb wearing flat shoes. But there will be donkeys to carry those who cannot make it up the winding dirt road.”
“You want me to get dolled up and ride on a donkey to a cave? Is that traditional for an American bride’s first day in Lebanon?” She glared with jesting eyes. “You Lebanese are something else,” she reiterated.
“We can talk about it while in the car. Please hurry up, darling. Georgi will be here soon.”
Judy refused the donkey ride. The expression on her face—as she, step by step, trudged up the dirt road—vacillated from a half-smiling frown to a half-frowning smile. But when she arrived at the mouth of the cave, she sighed with loud relief as her face glowed with triumph.
“There’s no altar,” she marveled as she surveyed the large, open-mouthed cave. “Oh, and there are no lights or candles or benches to sit on,” she observed as she gazed at the surrounding stalactites and stalagmites that shadowed the cave’s prehistoric walls.
“It’s just a big cave, darling, with a weeping rock at the back.”
“Rocks weep in Lebanon?” She smirked.
“If you pray hard enough, the rock in the back will ooze holy water.”
Our conversation was intercepted by wedding guests who cheerily welcomed us, scanned Judy with inquisitive eyes, and exchanged merry chatter. Then the busy hum suddenly died down and the crowd parted when the Oracle of Ishtar, Father Ignatius, dressed in festive habit, walked in followed by the bride, groom, and their families.
At the giant weeping rock in the back of the cave, he stood facing us with wide-open arms, as if he were calming the waves. The bride, dressed like a white dove, and the tuxedoed groom stood facing Father Ignatius, while the rest of us stood behind at an awed distance. The only light, which came from the setting afternoon sun at the mouth of the cave, threw a halo around Father Ignatius. That awe-inspiring apparition brought tears to the eyes of the faithful while the massive weeping rock, basking behind the Oracle of Ishtar, stood dry.
Before starting the service, Father Ignatius motioned for the maid of honor and me to join the nuptial couple. Then, with unopened Bible in hand, he conducted the entire service from memory, intoned the Byzantine chants with siren, tenor voice, and ended with the following homily:
“Before I pronounce you man and wife in Holy Communion, I want you to understand your role upon God’s earth. You, and your future family, have been summoned here to increase world joy and reduce world suffering. This is your calling, your earthly mission, and your reason for being. Increasing joy and reducing suffering should transcend your family, your friends, your acquaintances, and your country. They should be directed toward any life capable of suffering and should encompass all of nature’s sentient beings. Let your heart scrutinize what you are about to do. If doing it causes suffering, directly or indirectly, refrain from it. If doing it harms nature or humanity, refrain from it. If doing it pollutes Mother Earth, refrain from it. Let your peace and joy come from loving, giving, and protecting Mother Earth and its inhabitants.
“Treat the world as you would treat your own home and treat everyone in it as you would treat your own family—for the world is your home and everyone in it is your family. Think of others before you think of yourself and do not pass judgment, especially when you think that you are correct, because you will never know enough to judge correctly. Regard everything that transpires as natural because nothing unnatural ever transpires upon God’s earth. Be kind, especially to the undeserving. Be kind both in your thoughts and in your actions, for kindness is the immaculate womb that nurtures and fosters love.”
When Father Ignatius finished his sermon, the stone behind him, slowly and silently, began to seep. He raised his arms again and with a great voice he commanded the crowd to form a line. Reverently, starting with the bride and groom, the wedding guests touched the holy water, dabbed it on their foreheads, and exited with bowed heads. Judy and I were the last to touch the weeping stone.
“I’ll translate the sermon to you later,” I said to Judy.
“Translate? Why do I need a translation?”
“Because you don’t understand Arabic.”
“But the sermon, which made the stone weep, did touch my heart and that’s what really matters. I can see why they call Father Ignatius the Oracle of Ishtar. I want him to bless us.”
“There’s going to be a seaside wedding reception,” said Father Ignatius to Judy and me, in Arabic, when he saw us waiting.
“I am waiting for you to bless us,” replied Judy in English.
Father Ignatius smiled, touched the weeping rock, drew the cross on Judy’s forehead and mine, and said in Arabic, “Let us go to the mouth of the cave; there are stones that we can sit on and talk. My English is not good enough, but your husband will translate.”
At the mouth of the cave there were three flat stones arranged in a trinity. As we sat facing one another, Father Ignatius’s eyes beamed like sapphires, which mesmerized Judy. In the distance, the wedding procession, headed by the bride and groom, snaked down the winding dirt road toward the awaiting cars and the flowered bridal limo. Father Ignatius waited until the wedding procession meandered out of sight before he addressed me in Arabic.
“There are questions in your American bride’s eyes. If you will interpret as our dragoman, she is welcome to ask, and I’ll be happy to respond.”
Before I was able to translate what Father had said, Judy got up and hurried back into the cave. As I was about to pursue her, Father said, “Let her be. She’s going back to the weeping rock.”
Father and I chatted for about ten minutes, visited sundry topics, compared-and-contrasted life in America to life in Lebanon, and were lost in conversation when Judy reappeared with an astonished aspect.
“The stone still feels cool and wet, but it has stopped weeping,” she blurted, standing reverently before Father Ignatius.
“It’s one of our recurring, local miracles,” smiled Father.
I seized the moment and told Judy that Father would like to know what questions are on her mind.
“I only have one question, Father. Why do humans continue to splinter into feuding and warring groups whereas the rest of earth’s species are able to coexist more amicably?”
“It’s a shameful Homo sapiens trait,” replied Father.
“Why did God make us so prone to conflict and destruction?” asked Judy as she sat back on her stone.
“There’s not a good religious answer, my dear, but there is a good scientific answer. When creationism fails to explain certain phenomena, we turn to evolution for answers. Religion comforts our souls whereas science satisfies our minds. ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’ said Jesus.”
Judy seemed flabbergasted to realize that Father Ignatius held both, religious and secular views. “Is that why they call him The Oracle of Ishtar?” she asked me, while still gazing at Father’s beaming eyes.
“I think they call him Oracle because he explains to them what they are unable to understand. Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, gave its name to the nearby town, Darb Ishtar, which is the cave’s custodian.”
With flaming interest, Judy re-addressed Father Ignatius. “Please Father, why do you think that the human race continues to splinter into feuding and warring groups?”
“Because natural selection favors survival,” my dear. “The only way for Homo sapiens to survive was to unite into tribes. Those tribes competed with one another because food was scarce. Larger groups preyed on smaller ones and when they grew beyond their ideal size, they splintered into smaller factions that fought each other. The chronicles of history are naught but power struggles among human groups. Evolution, unfortunately, has saddled humanity with group brains—biased, opinionated, prejudiced, and highly superstitious brains—selfish brains that favor their own at the expense of all others.”
“But we can still think with our individual brains, can’t we?” Asked Judy after a pensive pause.
“Not really. No matter how hard you try, you can only think with your American brain, and I can only think with my Lebanese brain, because these are the groups that formulated our brains. Nature, nurture, culture, and experience—the endowments of our particular times and places—have differently formatted and programmed our brains.”
“How about my husband, who was born-and-raised in Lebanon but has lived all of his productive life in the US?”
“He is fortunate because his brain has become bicultural, a great advantage.”
“Father, since group brains are biased, opinionated, prejudiced, highly superstitious, and selfishly favor their own at the expense of all other groups—how can we free ourselves from this bondage?”
“Enlightenment is the only way to intellectual freedom, dear. We are our brains, and no matter where we live, we mostly live inside our brains. Therefore, unless we work hard to enlighten our brains, we will remain brain incarcerated.”
“And how do we enlighten our brains?”
“By challenging them, doubting our charged opinions, and vetting our negative thoughts to make sure that we are not thinking with our biases. Enlightenment implies daring to look reality in the face, daring to study the facts before we formulate opinions, daring to think impartially without the allure of emotions, and daring to spend more time trying to disprove our charged opinions than trying to prove them. Wasting our intelligence on finding support for our opinions is the most unintelligent mistake humans make.”
“But challenging our brains is so difficult, Father,” said Judy with perturbed voice.
“Indeed, my dear. No prophet, thus far, has been able to enlighten and emancipate the human groupminds, and that’s why history tends to repeat itself.”
“Are you including Jesus among those prophets?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” affirmed Father Ignatius with apologetic tone. “Christianity has splintered into numerous sects, and religious wars continue to cause horrific suffering. Selfish group insanity, a most dangerous manifestation of biased brains, is at the heart of wars, terrorism, and violence in the world.”
Hearing Father Ignatius’s confession brought tears to Judy’s devout Catholic eyes. With a whimpering voice, she asked, “When Jesus taught us to love one another and to love our enemies, was he telling us to shun our group brains and interact as individuals instead?”
“That’s what universal love—the love that transcends all groups—is all about, dear. We are one race on one earth and, if we want to survive, we must interact as kind and responsible members of one global family.”
Father Ignatius looked at his watch, stood up, walked over to Judy, and gave her a hug. Down the narrow dirt road, we walked in single file, which hindered serious conversation.
“Are you coming to the beach party?” asked Father Ignatius as he opened his car door.
“Yes, Father,” replied Judy with an eager voice.
“Good. I’ll see you at the beach then.”
Driving home, Judy was silent. The conversation I was expecting to sprout remained unverbalized, but I could almost hear her humming thoughts drone like bees round her dizzy head.
At home, I made a pot of Arabic coffee and as we sipped, sitting on the veranda, she sighed and broke her taciturnity with her exasperated expression, “You Lebanese are something else.”
“What something else are we, darling?”
“I don’t know, but my visit to Lebanon is helping me understand you better.”
“In what way?”
“I can now see your two-group brain at work. Things that I could not understand before are becoming clearer. You do have two brains, you know, and you are 100% Lebanese and 100% American. I now feel the excitement of having married two husbands in one man whereas, poor you, have only married one wife in one woman. I hope you will not grow to find me boring.”
“Never, darling. If I should ever find you boring with my American brain, I would find you exciting with my Lebanese brain, and vice versa.”
Judy smiled, got up, surveyed her image in the large, hanging mirror, and affirmed, “I shall wear my high heels to the seaside wedding reception.”
At the party, Judy was disappointed. She was hungry to continue her analytical conversation with Father Ignatius but the boisterous decibels bursting from the band precluded meaningful interlocution. She was also surprised when one of the dabki dancers left his arm-in-arm dancing chain, pulled her out of her seat, and inserted her into the foot-stomping line. Despite her protestation, “I don’t know how to dance the dabki,” she quickly fell into step and was cheered by the spectating crowd.
Back home, Judy surprised me with, “I would like to continue my conversation with Father Ignatius. I still have many questions about group brains.”
“Yes, the idea of programmed group brains intrigues me.”
“Tomorrow is Sunday. We can attend mass at St. George’s church and spend time with Father after the service.”
“I’ve never been to an Orthodox service before. What is it like?”
“You’ll find out tomorrow.”
The echoing Byzantine, a cappella voices, ancient icons framing the alter, St. George glaring at us while his long spear slays the dragon, the two-thousand-year-old stone walls, and the irregular stone floor, transfixed Judy. Her aspect, wonder-stricken with astonishment, summoned approving nods and smiles from the congregation.
Father Ignatius thrice venerated Judy with his incense censer as he blessed the rows of head-bowed worshipers. When the mass ended, one of the altar boys brought Judy an offering of holy bread and said, “For you from Father.”
We remained behind and waited for the church to empty. Father Ignatius approached us with a dawn smile that glowed between his mustache and beard. “Come see the weeping icon,” he invited, and walked us to the huge stone pillar that supported one of the massive church arches. There, ensconced in a recessed shrine, reclined Virgin Mary’s ancient icon with a candle burning at its base. “See the shining tracks underneath the eyes,” he pointed. “That’s how the Virgin cries.”
“Why does she cry?” asked Judy with feathers in her voice.
“She is lamenting the suffering of humanity. Let’s sit, facing her, on this bench. As we talk, she might grace us with fresh tears.”
“Father,” began Judy. “I was intrigued by your group-brains idea. I spent a sleepless spell last night deliberating its ramifying meanings.”
“It’s not my idea, dear. Many thinkers have reiterated the same idea throughout the ages. We don’t want to believe it because it implies that we are all brain slaves—not free to think beyond our time-space cocoons—not free to think beyond our givens, biases, dogmas, and superstitions—and not free to think beyond our cultural mores.”
“Are you implying that we are robots, Father?”
“Robots, indeed, programmed by nature, nurture, culture, and experience. But, unlike robots, we do have the power to challenge and reprogram our brains with enlightenment.”
“And what’s enlightenment, Father?”
“Universal, indiscriminate kindness.”
“Kindness is enlightenment?” gasped Judy.
“Indeed, my dear. Universal kindness is what leads to universal courtesy, universal acceptance, universal sympathy, universal love of humanity, and the love of earth and all of life on it. Kindness is our ladder to joy and to the understanding that our differences are merely programmed brain artifacts. The inherent humility of kindness prompts us to alter our opinions in obeisance to contrary facts. Its inherent empathy helps us love those less fortunate others who are enslaved by toxic brain programs. And its inherent altruism leads us to love those others deemed undeserving of our kindness. That, my dear, is enlightenment.
“Love alone is fickle; it can abruptly expire, succumb to jealousy, become vengeful, resort to violence, swing to hate, go mad with passion, and lead to confusion. Unlike love, which can abruptly visit and depart the soul, genuine kindness is the soul’s eternal flame. It remains lit and ever stable. Unlike love, it does not expire, or succumb to jealousy, or become vengeful, or resort to violence, or swing to hate, or become mad with passion, or abandon courtesy, or lead to confusion. Love without kindness is tempestuous and dangerous. Kindness is what enlightens love and guides it away from its fickle and cruel ways. Kindness is love’s gentle mentor.”
Here, Judy turned suddenly pale, her chin quivered, and her eyes moistened with held-back tears.
“She’s crying,” she mumbled.
“Who’s crying?” I asked.
“The Virgin. Look.” She pointed.
“I don’t see tears, darling.”
“Well, I do. Look at the shiny tracks. They’re shimmering.”
“Only the chosen see Her tears, said Father Ignatius.”
“Do you see them, Father?” I softly asked.
“No, but I have seen them before when others couldn’t.”
Back home, looking exhausted, Judy said, “I’m going to bed.”
“But my aunt has invited us to Sunday lunch.”
“I can’t eat. I’m going to bed.”
“But, darling, she has prepared a special lunch for you with numerous invitees.”
“I’m sorry. I have so much on my mind. All my life, I had thought that love is what leads to kindness. Now, having been enlightened by Father Ignatius, I’m starting to realize that indiscriminate kindness is what leads to universal love and to the humility required to understand others. Realizing that genuine kindness is more trustworthy than love has been mindboggling. I feel hungover. I need to sleep it off.”
I called my Aunt Salam to explain. She was cheerfully gracious. “No problem. Let your bride sleep. She must be exhausted. We’ll have dinner instead.”
“But how about the invitees?”
“They’re all family. They’ll understand.”
Back in the bedroom, Judy lay in disquieted slumber. Still in her Sunday clothes and shoes, sprawled over the coverlet like a lingering dream, rearranging herself every few breaths as if chasing after her lost saints, she groaned and moaned and mumbled unintelligibly. Perhaps her mind is reprogramming its mind, I wondered, or perhaps she is sailing an ocean, rough with cultural waves and religious storms. I tiptoed out and sat with a poetry book by Talal Haidar, a local poet who writes in vernacular Arabic.
And, unaware, Earth slipped and tumbled into space
As what happens slips and falls into the past
And what remains is ever less than what has passed
And Earth has spun too many times already
Perhaps She’s had enough.
Disturbed, Judy slept into the late afternoon. When she awakened, a dawn shone from her visage. “What time is it?” she asked.
“How was your aunt’s lunch?”
“She postponed it until seven tonight.”
“Yes, darling. You are the guest of honor, and nothing happens without you.”
“Oh, how sad.”
“What’s so sad?”
“I can’t remember my dreams. They were so dreadful, so wonderful, and so beautiful. I so wanted to share them with you,” she gasped. Then, as an afterthought, she asked, “Is Father Ignatius invited?”
“He’s Aunt Salam’s son-in-law. I’m sure he’ll be there.”
“Good. I’d better get ready then. I awoke with so many questions on my mind. I need to write them down before I lose them like I lost my dreams.”
Dinner was lovely and the invitees included many relatives and friends, all of whom welcomed Judy with eager eyes, smiling words, and cheerful chatter. When it was time to eat, Judy did not recognize any of the featured foods. “Is this raw meat?” she quizzed pointing to the kibbi.
“Everything you see is cooked,” I reassured.
“I don’t know how to choose,” she blushed.
“I’ll fill your plate for you.”
“Father Ignatius,” she suddenly squealed and ran to greet him, leaving me with two full hands. “Would you please come sit with us?”
We chose a private table on the veranda, overlooking the olive plain, which sat like a green mountain lake surrounded by glowing towns that crowned its hilly shores. There, in the cool night, Judy’s wish came true. Father Ignatius, wearing a sunset smile, extricated himself from the social bouquet that entangled him and joined us.
“Do you like our food?” asked Father.
“So far, I’ve loved everything I’ve tasted.”
“Aunt Salam is the family’s master chef and the town’s culinary consultant. I’ve been after her to write a cookbook for posterity, but she says that she wouldn’t do it because it would require a lot of measurements and she never measures.”
With growing impatience, Judy held down her curiosity until dinner was over, coffee was served, and the invitees started bidding us goodnight and trickling out.
“Quietude invites conversation,” solicited Judy, addressing Father Ignatius. “Seeing the weeping rock and the weeping Virgin filled my mind with restless questions.”
“What type of questions, dear?”
“Questions about group brains.”
“Is that the first time you realize that we have been programmed by our groups?” asked Father.
“Yes. This idea has blurred my worldview; I can’t see as clearly as I used to.”
“Try to ask your mind to think of nothing,” challenged Father. “Try it now. Close your eyes and try to think of nothing.”
Judy closed her eyes and sat motionless. Frowns furrowed her face, her chin quivered, and her lips pursed. Father Ignatius and I waited. After a seemingly long while, she gasped as if she had just come up from an underwater dive. “I can’t do it,” she bubbled with clenched fists.
“Only death can silence the brain,” explained Father. “While alive, our brains continue to churn and think, day and night, without respite.”
“So, what does that mean, Father?”
“It means that we do not control our brains; it is our brains that control us. Our brains are wild horses, dear. If you do not train them, they will throw you off and injure you. But if you train them well, they will take you places, and the better you train them, the farther they will take you.”
Trying to absorb the concept of wild horses, Judy sighed and pensively gazed at the darkness shadowing the vast olive plain, at the little lit towns hanging like chandeliers around that lurking shadow, and at the star-lit heaven, shimmering and unaware. Holding our breath, Father and I exchanged knowing glances as the quietude became awkward. We watched Judy’s fingers crawl into clenched fists—as if she were thinking with her knuckles, as if she were holding the reins of an unruly brain, as if she were training a wild horse that is trying to topple her. Then, as though her reverie were jolted by an epiphany, she glared at us and declared, “Indeed, we are our brains. And we believe whatever our crazy brains believe. And we do whatever our crazy brains tell us to do. Oh, how catastrophic.”
“Unless we train and gain control of our group brains, our brains will continue to control us,” affirmed Father Ignatius.
“And how do we train and gain control, Father?” asked Judy with quivering voice.
“By depersonalizing our brains and viewing them as young, impressionable students. By re-training our brains with ethical enlightenment. By doubting what our brains think until we can verify it by scrutinizing the facts. And by forbidding group forces from programming our brains with unkind, selfish group ethos.”
“And how do we do all that, Father?”
“We do it by denying unlawful entries into our brains—unlawful entry of judgements and opinions elaborated by the media, political preachers, public speakers, and electronic screens—and by disobeying our brains when they condone unkind, aggressive, hateful, violent, ugly, or selfish solutions.”
After Judy listened, pondered, and assimilated what Father had said, she declared, “To become enlightened, we need to become brain skeptics then. We need to become brain adversaries when our brains elaborate unkind thoughts or ugly opinions about others. Elaborating unkind sentiments and ideas about our less fortunate fellow humans should be the clue that we are elaborating false judgement. Isn’t that what you’re saying, Father?”
“We not only need to feel empathy for others who are blindly obeying their unenlightened, negatively programmed brains, and others who sincerely think that their unkind opinions and actions are indeed correct. We also need to feel deep gratitude for not having been saddled with such unkind, intolerant brains,” replied Father with a flush. Then, noticing Judy’s overwhelmed aspect, he added, “Perhaps we should finish this conversation tomorrow?”
“I don’t think this conversation has a finish, Father,” sighed Judy. “But could you conclude this brain-searching evening with a clear and simple capsule? I feel that a peaceful coup d’état has overthrown my mind, and I need help to come to terms with my new world view.”
“A clear and simple capsule,” hummed Father, as if vespering. “That’s a most difficult task.”
We waited in silence and exchanged muffled glances as we watched Father peruse the profound recesses of his brain. Then, his face relaxed in a eureka smile and he said, “I’m a religious man who trusts science and believes in God but keeps the two separate. My science-trusting mind tells me that we are our brains, that our brains are programmed by nature, nurture, culture, and experience—the four forces of our time-place cocoons that are purely set by coincidence and are not under our control. Knowing that, how can we blame those who are unkind for being what they are? Do we blame the insect-laden tree for bearing blighted fruits?”
Father asked this rhetorical question, gave us time to absorb its meanings, and then continued.
“When we cease to blame fellow humans for the ‘insects’ that infest their brains, only then can we replace blame with understanding, compassion, and kindness. Conjuring compassion for those whose brains have been programmed with negative traits and treating them with kindness is the essence of enlightenment.
“Isn’t that also the essence of Christianity?” asked Judy.
“It is, my dear, but Christianity conjures this compassion by asking us to love one another, including our enemies. Enlightenment, on the other hand, conjures this compassion by asking us to be kind to one another, especially those less-fortunate, undeserving others who have been saddled with unkind, negatively-programmed brains.”
“Is that where enlightenment and Christianity meet? asked Judy with searching gaze.
“Indeed, my dear. Enlightenment arrives at universal love through kindness, whereas Christianity arrives at it through faith. Universal love is the offspring of kindness, the essence of life, and the magnanimous force that binds earth to all its inhabitants.”
“Is universal love your clear and simple capsule, Father?”
“Universal love is the sun whose smile brightens the tenebrous alleys of humanity. But love is a very complex capsule.”
“So, what then is your simple capsule, Father?”
“Kindness is the measure of enlightenment. You can measure one’s enlightenment by measuring one’s kindness, or one’s lack of it. That, my dear, is my simple capsule, the capsule you can take back with you to America.”
Judy, feeling confounded by Father’s simple capsule, scratched her head and asked, “How about education. Doesn’t it also lead to enlightenment?”
“Only the education that teaches kindness leads to enlightenment. The rest of education is irrelevant. Being educated does not equal being enlightened. A great scientist or professor, or professional, or technician does not have to be enlightened to be great. However, great enlightenment can only come through great kindness because, as I said, kindness is the measure of enlightenment.”
Judy paused in thought for a long while and gazed at sky with abstract-seeing eyes. Father Ignatius, thinking that she was finished with her questions, stood up and prepared to leave.
“And how about freedom, Father?” asked Judy as if she had found this last question in the stars.
“How about it?”
“Since Christianity does not address freedom, what does enlightenment have to say about it?”
“Enlightenment censors freedom.”
“Censors freedom?” Gasped Judy with gaping eyes.
“Indeed,” affirmed Father without hesitation. “Freedom is like food,” he simplified. “If we do not have enough to eat, we starve. If we have enough to eat, we prosper. If we have too much to eat, we become morbidly obese and pay a hefty price with the adverse effects of morbid obesity. Being morbidly free through the abuse of freedom is as dangerous as being morbidly obese through the abuse of food, and both abuses stand to become tempered by the censorship that enlightenment brings.”
Our two weeks in Lebanon exposed Judy to an ancient, time-tested culture, bursting with miracles, superstitions, and traditions—and her exposure to Father Ignatius exposed her to a new world view, a new way of thinking graced with kindness and enlightenment.
On our way to the Beirut Airport, she gazed at the war-torn devastation that had seemed strikingly different when we first arrived and said, “Nothing seems different anymore.”
“Would you come back,” I challenged, “even though ‘the Lebanese, are something else’?”
“Your country is my country, and my country is your country,” she smiled, “and like you, I now have the advantage of two brains.”
“Kipling was right, then,” I quipped.
“Kipling? What do you mean by that?”
“Rudyard Kipling in his 1889 poem, The Ballad of East and West, opens with this stanza:
Oh, East is East, and West is West,
and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently
at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West,
Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
though they come from the ends of the earth.
Lebanese-born Dr. Hanna Saadeh, MD is both a creative writer and an infectious disease specialist in Oklahoma City, OK. He travelled to the US in 1971 for completing his post graduate medical training. The twenty-year Lebanese Civil War prevented him from returning to his fatherland, thus making Oklahoma his second home, where he has been productive as both physician and writer. Dr. Saadeh has authored five poetry books, four novels, and a collection of short stories. For more about Dr. Saadeh’s works, please visit his website: