I first fell in love with stained-glass windows as an American exchange student in France 26 years ago - at Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame de Paris, and Chartres Cathedral to be exact. It was awe at first sight. I've been hooked on stained-glass windows ever since.
Here in San Francisco, my favorite knock-your-socks-off stained-glass windows are in Grace Cathedral. Our faux European, gothic cathedral, stuck smack on the top of Nob Hill, is good enough for me when it comes to experiencing stained-glass art. It's the best European experience you could find in the United States.
Stained-glass windows are always uplifting to me. They are color, texture, light, inspiration, beauty, and grace, all in one. Add that to the immensity of a cathedral, or the simplicity of a church, and the combination is hard to beat. Nothing quite beats the oomph of this brand of church art, for me. Well, almost nothing.
Backtrack to the Sunday morning I called a cab to take me to church. This particular morning, a few weeks after Sept. 11, I was thinking about my church, a Christian Protestant church, and about Islam and the Koran.
I had just borrowed a copy of the Koran in English, after having struggled to read a French translation. But I still wasn't clear about what I was reading or even how to read the Koran.
I was frustrated about this. How could I understand Islam, so I could better evaluate recent events and contribute to the understanding of a culture and religious practice - an understanding that is so greatly needed? What's at the heart of the Koran?
With these questions in my mind, I got in the cab and started my journey.
The friendly driver asked me about my church, and I mentioned prayer and healing as the main themes. He nodded in agreement. "Yes, we all need to pray right now."
We started talking about the terrorist attacks and other events. I asked him if he had a religion. "Yes," he replied. Then, after some hesitation, "I am a Muslim."
I was thrilled. I lobbed questions at him about the Koran. He answered enthusiastically.
All too soon, the cab pulled up in front of my church, the driver turned off the meter, and we continued our discussion for another 20 minutes.
This man told me that when he reads the Koran, he uses common sense and "knows the truth."
Then he began to describe what he saw as God's love appearing in nature - in the trees, in the birds, everywhere that there is beauty. In Islam, respect for these things and for other human beings is paramount, he said. He was emphatic about the fact that the Islam he knows and practices is being twisted to serve the ends of those who would terrorize.
I felt this spirit of love the cab driver was talking about filling the cab to the brim. That was the beginning of my understanding of what Islam is.
He said that his wife is Christian, and most of his family is Christian, so we discussed what Christians and Muslims have in common. Prayer and love in your heart, for a start.
As we concluded our discussion, I wished him "In sha'Allah" ("God willing"). That's the one thing I know how to say in Arabic.
"Pray for peace," he replied. "We all need to pray for peace."
"Yes, we do," I said. "And I will."
As I went into my own church for the Sunday service, I was feeling something wonderful that I couldn't explain. Ushers asked me what had happened, why I had been in the cab for so long. Was everything all right?
"Yes," I replied. "The cab driver is Muslim, and we had a talk about Islam and Christianity. It was awesome."
Later that day, I felt compelled to go to Grace Cathedral to look at the stained-glass windows I love and to think about the conversation in the cab. As I entered the cathedral, I soaked in the indigo blues of the stained glass, the reds, yellows, and royal purples. The grandeur of the cathedral was beautifully simplified by the shafts of colored light breaking in on the immense space, this space dedicated to love and to peace.
I suddenly recognized what I was feeling.
It was what I have felt every time I go into a cathedral to enjoy stained-glass windows, but it was more than that. It was also the unarticulated feeling I had experienced earlier that day. It was the cathedral in a cab.