It is Holy Thursday, near the end of Lent, the day we remember Jesus’s Last Supper. Jesus took a towel and a basin and washed his disciples’ feet, and he told them to love one another. After supper, he went into the garden of Gethsemane and prayed.
My friend Isaac and I are driving, as we do every year, to a small, ineffectual protest at an immigration detention center in Cary, N.C. Every year, a stalwart band of Holy Week pilgrims gathers in a grocery store parking lot in Cary, and we process to the immigration detention center and set up two chairs. One chair is occupied by whoever is having her feet washed, and the other is left empty, as a reminder of the people who are absent from us — from our families and our churches — because of current immigration law.
I attend this foot washing because I think it is good to put myself near a space of arrest and incarceration on the days when we commemorate Jesus’s arrest and incarceration. I attend as a tiny witness to my belief that regardless of national policy, Christians are called to welcome the stranger in our midst. I attend because a few years ago, in a season of my life when I felt very far away from God, the footwashing service outside the detention center called me back into something like recognition of God’s nearness and God’s majesty. Also, I attend this service every year because it is one of the few times I get to see Isaac. He lives a mile away from me and we ride over to Cary together, and I may not see him for five or six more months, but I know we will have this one car ride to catch up on our lives.
On this Holy Thursday, I am thinking about Jesus, and I am also thinking about Nhat Chi Mai. She was the Buddhist nun who, on May 16, 1967, went to the Tu Nghiem temple in Saigon and sat down with a basin. Her friends assumed she was there for the traditional washing of the Buddha, but her basin was full of gasoline, not water. Nhat Chi Mai poured the gasoline over herself and lit herself on fire. She sat in the lotus position while she burned, and she prayed, and she died. “I offer my body as a torch to dissipate the dark to waken love among men to give peace to Vietnam the one who burns herself for peace,” she had written to the American government. “I AM BURNING MYSELF,” she had written. “I pray that the flame that is consuming my body will burn away all ambition and hatred which have been pushing many of us into the Hell of the soul and creating so much suffering among human beings. I pray that the human race will be able to inherit Buddha’s Compassion, Jesus’ love, and the legacy of man’s humaneness.”
During the Vietnam War, at least six other Buddhists in Vietnam burned themselves to death in protest, and at least eight Americans self-immolated, perhaps most famously Norman Morrison, a devout Quaker who burned himself in a garden outside the Pentagon on Nov. 2, 1965, and whose death, it is thought by journalists, catalyzed Robert McNamara’s turn against the war. But it is Nhat Chi Mai that I am thinking about on Holy Thursday.
Or maybe it is not really accurate to say that I am thinking about her, for I don’t know what to think. It is a venerated thing in the Christian tradition to imitate Christ even to the point of death, but I wish it were not so venerated.
I wonder what kind of faith one would have to have — in the resurrection, in the resurrected body, in setting your treasure by in heaven — in order to burn yourself to death in protest. I am not alone in not knowing what to think: even Buddhists and Christians in Vietnam in the 1960s did not know what to think about self- immolation. Was this truly a nonviolent protest? Was it worship or suicide? How can something be nonviolent when it does violence to the self?
So I am not so much thinking about Nhat Chi Mai as holding my imagined picture of her burning body in my mind. Our basins, unlike Nhat Chi Mai’s, hold water.
At the detention center, Isaac leads us in a liturgy, as he does every year, and he offers a short sermon, as he does every year. He says he is tired of coming here. He is tired of it because nothing ever changes. Protest, like prayer, can become tedious. While Isaac is talking, my mind flashes forward 40 years, to him and me in our 70s, still making this pointless annual drive to Cary. It is both a deeply depressing thought and a hopeful thought. Part of the hope is this: if we are still coming here, that means we are still praying. This is Isaac’s point, I think. Protest ultimately is prayer, in part because in protest you are ultimately protesting against God. Why has God not kept God’s promises? Perhaps a life of contemplation is the most profound resistance there is — certainly it is more profound than my annual appearance at this foot washing.
There is some relationship that I can’t quite pin down between Nhat Chi Mai’s body and the burning bush. Her body’s being consumed and the bush’s refusal to be consumed — both command attention.
It is not just attention to the truth about ourselves that God’s flame can direct. God’s flame also wants to focus our attention on the world. If you wish to do politics, you have to be capable of paying attention to the world. You have to pay enough attention to notice that there is anything you might want to do politics about. You have to pay attention long enough to notice the harsh way that power is arranged, and long enough to see the suffering. Before you can act, first you have to see. (This is even true even of God. “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt,” God says to Moses from the burning bush. “I have seen their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them.” God, too, has stopped to gaze. God has gazed at the Israelites in slavery, and seeing their suffering, God determined that it would be impossible to remain up in heaven or up on Mount Olympus or wherever it was God was before taking to that bush. God determined that it would be unbearable to stay so far away from the suffering of the Israelites, and God came down to deliver the people. You have to see before you can act.)
I do not want to instrumentalize prayer. Prayer, finally, is not productive, and it is not a means to an end. And yet, I know from my own halting two decades of prayer — of on-again, off-again prayer, of prayer that is consistent and prayer that is sporadic — that it is precisely contemplation that is turning me into a person with the capacity to attend to God and to God’s world. How can I become a person who pays enough attention that I might notice something and then act in response? Prayer, lectio divina, reading the same passage of the Bible again and again and trying to notice what God has for me to notice; sitting in silence; walking in silence; repeating the psalms over and over — these habits might teach me how to pay attention. As I pay attention, this Holy Thursday, to the ignic witness of Nhat Chi Mai, with her basin of gasoline.
Lauren F. Winner is the author of “Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God” (HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) from which this article is adapted. She is author of many other books, including “Still,” “Girl Meets God” and “Mudhouse Sabbath.” An Episcopal priest, she teaches at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.