This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 9-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read essays from past Emerging Writers Program cohorts. As 2023 begins, we are happy to offer this essay about attentiveness to others and holy moments by Nabuule Vivian.
I did not anticipate engaging in conversation with anyone on my flight. I had a plan: I would board the plane, get comfortable in my assigned seat, close my eyes like one meditating but truthfully as one who doesn’t like the nauseous feeling of takeoff, and perhaps read once we were cruising 33,000 feet above sea level. I hurried through the airport traffic to find my gate, C22, and perhaps a seat away from all human interaction and commotion, looking forward to savoring the promise ahead of delving into this new calling as a spiritual writer. Having just completed the orientation part of a writing program at Collegeville, I was ecstatic. The three days had been a rejuvenating retreat for me—a consolation indeed that offered me the quiet time that I much needed for continued discernment and rest.
“Good afternoon passengers, this is a pre-boarding announcement for flight…” the announcement interrupted my train of thought, bringing me back to the present. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was briefly distracted by the trees across the airport tarmac whose leaves were beginning to turn yellow and orange. I fidgeted, trying to find my boarding pass and my luggage. It was a full flight, we were warned upon entry. Being among the last passengers to board, cabin space was limited. I headed back to my seat, 17B, looking forward to reading a book.
As a hospice chaplain, I often describe my role as one where I never have an agenda or plan.
My assigned seat was on the aisle and my neighbor graciously offered his window seat, which I politely declined. Dressed in a burgundy t-shirt with ‘M’ on the front which I assumed was for Minnesota, blue jeans, black Nike sneakers, and a black cap covering his white hair, 17A seemed unsure of my reception to friendly conversation. As I fastened my seat belt, I realized that I was feeling tense and anxious about the possibility of my neighbor expecting conversation, but patiently resigned myself to the unexpected and unknown. As a hospice chaplain, I often describe my role as one where I never have an agenda or plan when I visit my patients and/or family members. This, I have found, allows room for mystery and connection that often leads to a journey of self-exploration and knowledge.
Before long, 17A started to talk about airplanes. He was evidently fascinated about flying, sharing that his favorite phase was take-off.
I interrupted, “I hate every part of flying.” I shared how I had recently experienced an uncomfortable feeling of drowsiness and shortness of breath on a plane and how the fear of it turning into a medical emergency increased my anxiety.
As we accelerated for take-off, 17A turned to the window, placing his face closer to the pane. I observed his demeanor change—a softness in his features and calm in his eyes as the plane rose off the tarmac. “See, see how fast it goes.” He excitedly tapped my forearm, the awe on his face so heartwarming.
I turned towards the window for a brief moment and closed my eyes. “I have never paid attention to this part of flying,” I said. “I almost always go to sleep as soon as I take my seat and fix my belt.” Travel by air is exhausting for me, starting with planning the trip, getting to the airport, going through the security checks and finding my gate. When all that is done and I am finally settled in my seat, my body gives in to the days of accumulated exhaustion.
“If I were an animal,” 17A dreamily shared, “I would like to be a bird.”
I didn’t interrupt this moment. Ignatian spirituality teaches that in order to see God’s presence in the world, we must be disposed to the world that we live in—the world in front of us. As much as I desired silence, I felt a gentle invitation into this conversation. An old familiar feeling, one where I am drawn in a different direction than planned. At that moment, a part of me opened up to trust and experience what my neighbor was offering. I have also heard that there’s revelatory power in storytelling.
“I have lived in Minnesota my whole life; I do know that I will move somewhere else some day because I am getting too old for the winters and my children are all grown and living their own lives,” 17A shared, adding, “I want to stay as long as my parents are still alive so that I can take care of them.”
As he talked about his family and their significance in his life, I was interrupted by something else—my own narrative. My mind drifted to my parents, whom I haven’t seen in four years. My father’s head is now filled with gray hair and the long-distance telephone calls and time difference make the conversations more challenging. Coming from a culture where the younger family members take care of their elderly, emotions of sadness and longing—but also joy in the memories—surfaced. As we talked about our family values and practices, I realized that we shared much in common despite coming from different continents.
We shared much in common despite coming from different continents.
This interruption to my planned solitude forced me not only to be open to a wider world of others, but also opened me up to the wider world of my interior. I felt an invitation to deeper self-reflection, a sense of common humanity and connection, particularly necessary during these polarizing times.
St. Ignatius teaches the discernment of the presence of God in all things—an incarnational spirituality which means believing that God can be found in our everyday interactions and events. I have come to the realization that this requires a certain degree of openness and vulnerability. This discernment requires belief and hope that this journey to the unknown will lead to deeper self-awareness in union with a power bigger than myself. There’s something beyond us which we can experience from other human beings. To live life in dialogue with the divine may sometimes require being in dialogue with others without any expectations. In modeling vulnerability and openness, 17A provided me with a mirror to reflect on my inner world.
To live life in dialogue with the divine may sometimes require being in dialogue with others without any expectations.
As the plane landed, I shared that it is uncommon for me to engage in conversation with strangers on a plane. “It is difficult for me to start conversations,” I explained.
“It’s the same with me,” 17A replied. I acknowledged that it was courageous of us to try. We both gathered our belongings from the cabin and walked out of the plane, away to our different lives and realities.