We’re in Bangkok on the first leg of our trip. Twelve of us are traveling with a guide, a native Thailander from a village near the river Kwai. He tells us it’s winter, but it’s hot, in the upper 80’s. Luckily, the little bus we travel in is air-conditioned.
Yesterday morning on my way to the bus I smelled incense. Looking for its origin, I saw a young man standing in a tree-shaded area beside the road. He was placing a marble urn holding several red incense sticks he had just lit onto a pedestaled table. As I watched he gave a little bow then turned to a young woman standing nearby. She handed him two beautiful arrangements of fresh flowers which he solemnly placed beside the incense. I was witnessing a sacred ritual.
The setting was a tiny outdoor chapel, maybe eight feet wide by twelve feet long The walls were trees and plants; the roof was the sky; the floor was a platform of black marble laid over raw earth. The table was an altar. His offerings sat beside small clay jars of water, candle holders, two marble urns filled with sprays of purple orchids, and an intricately patterned tray holding a bunch of small bananas, a coconut with a straw protruding from under its lid, and a pineapple.
A few steps beyond and above the altar, framed in an open-sided ark inlaid with multicolored glass mosaics, was a gilded, four-armed god sitting serenely on a lotus flower. Draped in a thick garland of marigolds, he was flanked by items of worship. Above his head hovered a giant, hooded, seven-headed cobra. I was charmed and intrigued. What was this place? Why was it here? Who was the god? Why were these people bringing flowers and incense to him? Our guide, Ole’, (yes, pronounced like the Spanish accolades for bullfighters), provided the answers.
This place is a spirit house. You can find them all over Thailand. Based on the Hindu belief in the sacredness in everything, they are outdoor chapels where people can honor the spirit of the land and those who have lived there by invoking the blessing of the creator god, Brahma. Usually they are located on the northeast corner of the property where they will not be in shadow. Perhaps the young man used to live on this land where now there is a large, modern hotel. Maybe he came to honor the birthday of an ancestor. Or maybe he and the woman are caretakers of this particular spirit house and come every morning to honor the god with their gifts.
I’ll never know the identity of this couple or the reason for their devotion. But I won’t soon forget their attitude of sincere reverence. It was obvious they were living a myth that informed and infused their lives. They had taken a few moments to enter the presence of the sacred, knowing they were known by something beyond themselves, believing their sincere actions and generous offerings were appreciated and worthy.
It doesn’t matter what your myth is or what gods you worship or how you invoke their presence. What matters is that you have a religious attitude toward the miracle of your life and the people, places, and symbols dear to you: that you practice awareness of the Mystery, approach it with reverence and a sincere desire to honor it, make efforts to connect with it, and derive purpose and meaning from it. What matters is how you are living your myth. All day I’ve been asking myself, “How am I living my myth?