by Nathanial Putnam
Christ showed up at airport security. In my rush to get to the gate on time for my flight to a Minnesota monastery, where I’d be meeting for the first time with a community of monks who have invited me to think about joining them, I forgot to empty my water bottle before the checkpoint. After I passed through the metal detector, barefoot on thin carpet under a low, dim ceiling, a grey-bearded man wearing a turban and a blue uniform with a gold badge told me I was supposed to go back out and empty the water there. I glanced behind me, at the rows of silhouettes snaking towards the terminal, and then back in front, where musical voices and footsteps echoed off gleaming tiled aisles to the departure gate.
When I faced him again, his green eyes softened. “What time does your flight leave?”
My gut clenched and my weight shifted, leaning me closer to him, on the balls of my feet. Is this poise? Is this what grace means? To know that I’ve made a mistake, not know how it’s going to get resolved, and still hope? My father—who himself has a grey beard and green eyes–taught me to show special respect to people from different cultures. In this instance, would that mean apologizing profusely, or asking politely for pardon?
I didn’t say anything other than answer his question directly, quietly looking him in the eye. He turned and walked away, carrying my bottle in hand.
Grace, here, required being completely at the mercy of someone who doesn’t know how how obsessively I attempt to appear reliable and dependable on a daily basis, even in situations with stakes as low as the quality of the cup of coffee I serve to strangers—let alone how mortified I’d be to show up a day late for the people who might consider inviting me to move in with them for the rest of our lives. What did that security guard notice when he looked back at me? I was most likely just one of the thousand hurried and harried he’d see on that shift, one of the hundreds of relatively oblivious who’d shuffle through his line, and probably one of the dozens of pushily panicked who’d make the same mistake. But did he observe how clearly I knew that I depended on him, and that any mercy he’d care to show me would be gratuitous? Grace, again, rocked me off balance—nothing I could earn, nothing I could demand, nothing I could even expect.
He disappeared for a few minutes, and then returned with my now-empty bottle.
“This isn’t how we do it,” he insisted. “I could get reprimanded. This isn’t our procedure. I’m risking my job.”
All I could do was say thank you, I’m sorry, I understand, and thank you again. I couldn’t even remember to bless him with the salutation my father had taught me the Sikhs use: “Sat Sri Akaal” – “God is the ultimate truth.” I may never know the full truth of why he decided to pour out the sloshing water and let me pass into a bright corridor. But thanks to him, I now know a little more about the ultimate truth of God.