A few years ago at the end of yoga class my teacher brought her hands together in front of her, fingers pointing upward as in prayer. She bowed to us and said. “Namaste”. Everyone else returned the blessing. Everyone except me. I had no idea what she was doing, and it felt threatening. Then she spoke. “The god in me honors the god in you.”
“WHOA! I am a Christian,” I thought. “I don’t go around worshipping other people, and I do not see myself as God!” God is God, and I am very aware of my own sins and darkness. I felt upset by this namaste. My religion felt under attack.
Then I received a letter from a friend who had been a nun. She was one of the most godly people I’ve ever known, filled with gentleness and love. She operated a yoga studio. I felt stunned when a letter to me ended with, “Namaste!” We wrote occasionally, and EVERY LETTER ended with, “Namaste!” Each message crashed in my soul. Why was the most radiant Christian I know addressing me with a Hindu message?
When I asked what namaste meant, people said, “the god in me sees the god in you.” That felt downright creepy. It threatened my most basic belief that God is above, far above everything else in every way.
I already had struggles with gods inside me: hungers and fears about money, sex, power, and justice. Powerful emotions would dominate me like anger or fear or desire. Who needs more spiritual powers tearing around inside?
But people kept encountering me with “namaste,” upsetting the applecart of my soul. Indeed, part of what I need from God is to keep shaking me up, stretching my heart, not closing me down. So I tried bowing before others when they initiated the gesture, and saying, “Peace be with you!” This Christian-Hebrew blessing avoided ignoring my friends’ greetings or engaging in a gesture that seemed wrong to me.
Next, a door opened… a crack. A whisper within. “You believe deeply that every person is created with the image of God inside. You read it the Bible. And one of your deepest values is to look for the good, that image of God, in even EVERY person… even the P.I.A. who exasperates you.”
So the other day I looked up “namaste.” This word and gesture (namaskar) began perhaps three thousand years ago in the Indus Valley and was adopted by many religions. Namaskar is a traditional Indian welcome and farewell, an act of respect. When a person makes this gesture they’re saying. “I salute the spiritual qualities I see in you.”
I flashed back to a movie of Mother Theresa. When she encountered a nun in her order she would take their face between her hands and look the person in the eye with intense love. Just seeing that kind of love warmed my heart.
In our pandemic time when a handshake or heartfelt embrace is dangerous, one Jewish political leader recommends namaskar. The more I think about this spiritual practice, the more I find I am actively searching for the ways God is living and shining through each person I meet, particularly the ones who evoke my judgment or anger. I want to honor and call forth the light of God in them. I want to encourage the light as I end a visit with a friend, maybe with a “Namaste” bow. In fact, I tried this gesture the other day to honor a spiritual friend, and I actually felt blessed!
So some time when you least expect it (to quote the Candid Camera slogan) don’t be surprised if someone comes up to you, bows, and says. “Namaste!” It might be me!
-Marsh Hudson-Knapp is a member of Second Congregational Church UCC where honoring all people is our commission. You can contact him at MRHudsonknapp@gmail.com