The flight from Glasgow to Dubai is full. As we wait at the departure gate we are entertained by the squeals and squalls and squabbles of scores of children, who are under 5 and who will also be making the journey. Probably I am not the only one who hopes that I won’t be sitting too close to any of them. Eventually we board. I discover with a flicker of dismay that one of the louder children, a boisterous 2-year-old, is indeed sitting just across the aisle from me.
For the first few hours of the flight he lives up to the reputation he gained in the departure hall. His young mother, a woman in her early 30s, her gentle features half-veiled by her hijab, strives tirelessly to keep him in check. She responds to his kicking and screaming with a firm tenderness and never raises her voice. She gives him her attention unstintingly, and when the meal arrives, she patiently feeds him. He responds with more demands and more crying. She perseveres. She is alone, and he is a full-time job and may well be so for the next 20 years or more, until he produces grandchildren and she begins all over again.
At last her patience is rewarded, and he falls asleep, stretched out across both their seats. She squeezes herself into a tiny corner, so as not to disturb him, and for a while peace reigns. Perhaps now she can snatch an hour of quiet for herself, I think. But next time I glance across the aisle, she has turned her face to the window. Her head is bowed. Her hands are unobtrusively outstretched in supplication in a way that very few would notice. She is praying!
The serenity I had first noticed in her face—a serenity more powerful than the heat of a toddler’s fury—now spreads across the aisle and enfolds me too.
“When you pray, go to a quiet place and close the door.”
She has “closed her door” and is quite oblivious to those around her, to the cabin crew jostling by with their drinks trolleys and the passengers shuffling up and down the aisle, exercising their extremities, pacing out the impatient hours that still separate us from our destination. She is perfectly still. Her child sleeps. She is with God.
I glance at the moving map on the screen in front of me and notice that at this very time we are flying right over Baghdad and Basra, narrowly bypassing Fallujah. My neighbor shares the faith of many of those who have been embroiled in combat down there. She lives it in her own way, a way of love more powerful than force.
Her prayer lasts for around half an hour; then she returns to our world. She strokes her wayward son’s hands as he sleeps. Her prayer and her love are one. Her contemplation flows directly into action for the one entrusted to her care. And gradually her own head nods. Her eyes close. She rests, like a weaned child in the arms of God. I silently add my own Amen to this scene of quiet sanctity, thanking the God we both worship for the privilege of witnessing this hour of grace.
The human family often behaves like a fractious toddler, still perhaps in our infancy. When we fail to get what we want, we scream and fight for it. There are interludes of peace; but when we wake to the reality of our condition, our first response is to cry again and resume our inexorable demands on one another and on our earth. Only love is big enough to hold all this. Tonight I have seen what love looks like in practice. I have seen the face of God in the heart of a loving mother.
Love is gentle. Love is kind. Love is patient and long-suffering. Love does not return rage for rage but seeks to calm rage with quiet reason. Love does not coerce, but coaxes. Love shows itself in actions and not just in words. Love knows that to prevail, it must remain connected to its source, and so love prays. And though we may have the power to subdue the nations and the wealth to purchase our every desire, if we have not love we are merely clashing cymbals, signifying nothing.
Love has countless faces. Tonight, on a flight from Glasgow to Dubai, she wears a hijab and honors Ramadan and reminds me that where love is, there is God. Her silent presence tells me, with an eloquence beyond words, that in the presence of love our borders dissolve, and heart encounters heart in the deep silence of a mystery who alone can hold all our tensions in its healing, transforming light.