He was already talking when he got out of the cab and met me at the trunk. It seemed as though I was catching him in mid-conversation though I was the only person around. He took my bag, loaded it, never pausing for a breath in his stream of words. He was complaining about crazy drivers as one after another careened around us on State Street. By the time we were both in the taxi, he had moved on to other subjects. By the time we had gone ten blocks I knew a great deal about him, his work history, his travel experience, his father. Every comment, so far, made negative point. Looking down at his ID photo, I saw the image of a frowning sixty-something man.
I need to pause for a moment to say that I am the guy who prays his taxi driver speaks nothing but Farsi so conversation will impossible. When I get to my seat on a plane, I’m the guy who immediately puts on his headphones, turns on his music, and closes his eyes. And that’s when I’m flying with Debbie. Imagine how non-communicative I am with strangers. I’m an introvert, and I recharge my emotional batteries by going inside myself.
So, needless to say, I was less than thrilled with the fact that my taxi driver was a talker. I was tempted to sneak my phone out of my pocket, and text someone to call me so I could make my escape.
But there was a problem.
About that time, however, just as I was plotting my escape, I remembered one of the four vows I have taken in my spiritual disciplines. These are called the Bodhisattva vows, one of which solemnly promises to meet all sentient beings with compassion and interest.
Providentially (?) it was at this very moment, just as I called to mind the vows I took several years ago, that my taxi driver asked me what I do for a living. Good grief, I thought, the whole universe is conspiring to make me engage this person “with compassion and interest.”
I was tempted to lie.
In my heart of hearts, in my soul of souls, somewhere deep within my spleen, I knew that if this man found out I am a minister, the flood-gates of talk would open even wider. There’d be a flood of questions and stories. I’ve seen it happen again and again.
Nevertheless, I told him the truth.
I told him I am a Presbyterian minister. And, sure enough, the immediate result of my confession was to loosen his tongue even more.
Spiritual disciplines are called disciplines because you do them even if you don’t feel like it. And, whether I liked it or not, I needed to face the reality that non-committal grunts at thirty-second intervals was not an adequate fulfillment of my vow to engage this sentient being “with compassion and interest.” I needed to listen to him, to track with him, to show interest in him, even to participate in a conversation I hadn’t actually been involved in to this point.
After he made a few comments about his religious upbringing as a Roman Catholic, he asked me how Presbyterians and Catholics compare. And it was then that we started to talk. At first, very tentatively, I told him where the Presbyterians and Roman Catholic Church has diverged in history. I talked about our Reformed revolt against the abuses of power and corruption among Renaissance popes and the sale of indulgences to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. I told him that really we have a lot in common.
We discovered we both like the current pope. He admitted that his own belief in God centered on a Higher Being whose moral consciousness is the key to good and order in this crazy world. And we found that our personal beliefs were really pretty similar however our denominations might differ.
The time flew as we made our way to the airport. We laughed together, this man who seemed to sport a permanent frown and I. Shared hopes. At one point I told him a story from Flannery O’Connor, after which, to my surprise, he pulled a spiral notebook out to write her name down so he could go get her short stories, At the end of the ride, we sat in the taxi a while so we could finish our conversation.
As he retrieved my suitcase, he asked if he should call me Father, and I said Michael will do nicely. He smiled broadly. And I blessed him in the name of God and told him he is a good and wise man, and that I was honored to have spent time with him. Which I doubt seriously I would have done if not for the Bodhisattva vow to “meet all sentient beings with compassion and interest.” The vow I didn’t want to remember led me into a relationship I’m not sure I’ll ever forget.
It’s a funny old world, isn’t it.