I ate dinner at the campus coffee house, where many of the tables are set high with clear partitions, so patrons have the option of tuning out their surroundings or communicating directly with those sitting opposite. I have developed the obnoxious habit of always plugging into my iPod. Today, however, it had run out of battery, and I found myself eavesdropping on the girls across from me.
It wasn't intentional. They did not speak loudly, but rather they enunciated very carefully. Their words sounded they were reciting lines from a nineteenth century novel. They both looked extremely troubled, their faces young and afraid. At first I thought maybe one was consoling the other on a particularly traumatic event, perhaps the loss of a family member or friend, or maybe the crisis was embedded more deeply within; a crisis of faith or loss of innocence. I tried very hard not to stare, and kept my eyes on the book I had in front of me. But I couldn't help but listen.
One of these girls was praying on behalf of her friend. Both of them closed their eyes, and one of them kept her eyes lowered. At this point I swore she was reading from some religious text, and when I peeked below the table I was surprised to see nothing there. She either knew the words by heart, or was improvising them on the fly. Words I hadn't heard or seen in a long time. and we will pray in the Lord's name, to give (and here she said her friend's name in such a quiet whisper I couldn't make it out) the strength within herself to shoulder her responsibilities...it was like hearing a foreign language. As she spoke, I saw tears form behind her friend's closed eyelids. Something was going on back there. I felt like a voyeur. How is it that these two young girls can do this for each other?
It was hard to hear them over the loud pop of the coffeehouse radio, not to mention the clamor of hungry students, the ringing of cash registers and the random shouts of passing friends. Watching them discuss God in the crowded cafeteria reminded me of overhearing philosophical conversations in the locker room; when it does happen, it seems out of place.
When she was done, her friend looked visibly shaken. She put one hand to her chest and seemed to take it all in, whatever that it might have been. They spoke quietly for a few more moments, and then they switched roles, and the second girl said a prayer for the first. I was transfixed. It was like watching a performance with method actors.
I finally tore myself away and walked to class, thinking of Emily Dickinson and how she refused to be baptized, and how that decision was so monumental in her community's eyes, although it seems so comparatively trivial today. I tried very hard to think of the last time I asked someone, anyone, to pray for me, or the last time someone, anyone, asked me to pray for them. Nothing came to mind.
I wonder, does the lack of intention indicate some sort of skewed moral compass? Do I rely too heavily on evidence-based reality, or worse, fictional, invented stories, to give me strength?
I couldn't bring myself to put my headphones back on when I left the building, and was amazed at how lovely and engaged the world was without the soundtrack.