As I was walking down the street in SoMa at lunch I spied something a bit off. In San Francisco, where the unusual is usual, the bar for double-takes is set laughably high. But the sight ahead of me cleared it easily: four people seated at an outdoor café, heads bowed solemnly, in collective prayer in front of their yet untouched salads and sandwiches. As I approached, I was pretty sure their hands were joined together under the table, and this immediately brought to mind to a dinner years ago at the home of a former boss.
Now, I am not a religious person. At least not in the usual sense, though I suppose there are times when I will admit contemplating the possibility of a collective energy and purpose to the universe. Attending a religious school in my youth was, ironically, the force that led me to abandon traditional spirituality. The heavy-handedness of their dogma pushed me out of the chapel and into the secular parking lot, left to mingle with the atheists and agnostics.
However, at that dinner, I reacted quickly to the call for grace as I settled into my chair. I deftly joined hands with my boss and his wife, bowed my head and closed my eyes earnestly. My early schooling, it appears, had finally saved me, at least with respect to proper etiquette. As my boss began his incantation, his trademark booming voice now speaking with a quiet forcefulness, I was overcome with the sincerity of the scene. I decided this was a fine way to begin a meal. At least for the faithful.
In the present, drawing nearer to the lunchtime group, I was stunned at the brazen public display of piousness. It was one thing to pray privately at home, but quite another to do so here, in a city far removed in time from the Mission that gave it its name. If I were less of a cynic, I might have asked the divine for insight. Were these tourists? A church group? Pilgrims? But before I would pass them, my question would be answered. Not from above, but from below.
At the table in front of me sat four typical technologists, each sitting with head angled sharply, hands in lap, fingers closing ranks around the softly glowing screen of a cellphone. Devout to be sure, and comfortably so, in the custom of the culture and the place: four apostles of the app, worshiping independently prior to a meal, as is the ritual demanded by a life online.
However unexpected this realization, however unanticipated this truth, what happened next surprised me even more. I didn’t laugh out loud. I didn’t crack a smile. I didn’t even break my stride. What I did instead was to reach for my cellphone in the hope of capturing the moment in Instagram.
Perhaps I am more religious than I thought.