Participating in the Passion: Reflections on Frans and Easter

April 7th, 2015 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who was murdered during Syria’s civil war after living there for over fifty years. I’ve already written much about Frans in the year since his death, but on this occasion, I’d like to reflect on his life in light of the great Easter mysteries that Christians continue to celebrate this week.

Frans lived Easter. It wasn’t something he simply remembered and celebrated; he embodied it.

Frans van der Lugt

Frans van der Lugt

“I want share in their suffering with them,” he said in a YouTube video as bombs echoed behind him through Homs’ ravaged Old City, “in their sadness, their fear, their suffering, and their death. I want to be in the hearts of the people, until I move with them from loss and hardship to a new horizon.”

Frans understood what many of us fail to realize: that Easter isn’t simply about what Jesus did, but what Christ calls us to do.

Substitution or participation?

Many Christians understand the events of Easter as “substitutionary” or “vicarious” atonement. They see Jesus’ Passion and death as something God accomplished long ago to save us from our own personal sins. But this view, which I grew up with, misses the point. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus summons his friends to walk the path to Calvary with him, to follow his example and participate in the world’s suffering.

During the Last Supper, Jesus does not tell his disciples that they will get off the hook. He does not promise them cushy lives won by his brutal death. He does not pass “get out of jail free” cards around the table, but rather hands them the bread that is his body, and the wine that is his blood. To truly save humanity from the sin and suffering that plague creation, he tells us, we must become his Body and mirror his self-sacrificing love.

This call to participation is most powerfully demonstrated when Jesus washes the feet of his apostles in John’s Gospel. After rubbing the dirt and sand off their feet—a task usually reserved for slaves—Jesus says,

Sieger Köder's depiction of Jesus washing Peter's feet.

Sieger Köder’s depiction of Jesus washing Peter’s feet.

“Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.

If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13: 12-15)

This view of Christ’s Passion, which is referred to as “participatory atonement” by theologians, recognizes that Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary is incomplete if we are not participants in it ourselves. This interpretation, which was developed by the early Church Fathers, says that our at-one-ment with God is accomplished if we, along with Jesus, radically give of ourselves to others by accepting the suffering of the most vulnerable, the most hated, and the most marginalized.

Frans’ motto: “Let’s move forward”

Frans must have understood Jesus’ Passion as something in which he was called to take part. Otherwise, he would have left Syria when he had the chance. But he refused to leave the besieged and blockaded city of Homs. Instead, he shared food with the starving, even though he was near starving himself. He visited those who were suffering and lent them a kind ear. He engaged with rival warring factions, and called everyone “brother,” even his masked murderer.

A powerful painting by artist Farid Jirjis depicting Frans' murder and Jesus' crucifixion.

A powerful painting recently posted on the Facebook page of the Jesuit Residence in Homs. It depicts Frans’ murder and Jesus’ crucifixion.

It seems appropriate, then, that we mark Frans’ death during our celebration of Easter, when we recall how death is somehow transformed into new life. In the wake of his murder, the Muslim and Christian communities he cared for have grown stronger and more connected. Cross-continental friendships that were forged over social media to memorialize his legacy are already producing bountiful fruit. I’m fortunate to have been a part of this international community, which emerged spontaneously last year and which continues spread Frans’ message of peace and musharika.

Musharika, a word Frans used often to describe the relationships he saw in Syria, is hard to translate into English. “Sharing” and “partnership” get close; “communion” gets closer. Musharika is about “participation in the life of another,” about stooping down and washing another’s feet.

As we enter into our Easter season, we thank God for the life and example of Frans, and stand up on our newly washed feet, ready to “move forward.”

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For more about the life of Frans, check out the following links:

-My essay, “Why I Cried in Arabic Class,” which was republished at Millennial Journal.
-“Forty Days Later and Fr. Frans,” an article by Jesuit Paddy Gilger, which features my artwork.
-Reflections on Frans’s life by Fr. Louis Taoutel (Video in English)
-A compilation of interviews with Frans during the siege of Homs (Video in Arabic)
-A documentary on Frans’ important projects: the Ard Center and his interreligious hike (Video in Arabic)
-A slideshow of images of Frans with the people of Homs (Video in French)

The Paschal Paradox

In a world full of suffering and violence, we are given this truth at Easter:

Al-Masihu qama min bain al-amwat,
Wa wati al-mouta bil-mout,
Wa wahab al-hayata lil-lethina fil qubour.

Christ has risen from the dead.
In dying, he trampled death,
And gifted life to those who were in the tomb.

We still do feel the sting of death, and we still experience the pain of suffering. But we know how much God loves us, that he is here with us, right in the midst of it.

For that reason we always, always, always have hope.

“The Father of us both”: Fr. Christian’s last testament

19 years ago today, in the Atlas mountains of Algeria, seven Trappist monks where kidnapped from their rural monastery. Eventually murdered along with many thousands of Algerians and foreigners in the mid-1990s, the French monks had decided to stay in their African home despite the country’s civil war. The story of these men, and the two other monks who managed to avoid capture, is told in The Monks of Tibhirine and “Of Gods and Men,” a book and film which recount the monks’ common life of prayer, work, and service.

On this anniversary, I’d like to share a letter written by Fr. Christian de Cherge, the prior of the monastery and a scholar whose theological writings were deeply influenced by his lived experience among Muslims. Fr. Christian’s theology of dialogue has deeply impacted my own, and much of it comes through in this letter. Fr. Christian’s voice is one we desperately need to hear today–in a world which is still marred by violence, state terrorism, prejudice, and persistent inequality. I hope you find his words as powerful as I do.

The Last Testament of Christian de Cherge

“If it should happen one day—and it could be today—
that I become a victim of the terrorism
which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria,
I would like my community, my Church, my family,
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept that the Sole Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I ask them to pray for me—
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to be able to link this death with the many other deaths which were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value.
In any case it has not the innocence of childhood.

I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil
which seems, alas, to prevail in the world,
even in that which would strike me blindly.
I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death.
It seems important to state this.
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder.
To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the ‘grace of martyrdom,’
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages.
It is too easy to salve one’s conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists.

For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received from it,
finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel,
learnt at my mother’s knee, my very first Church,
already in Algeria itself, in the respect of believing Muslims.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify
those who hastily judged me naïve, or idealistic:
‘Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!’
But these people must realize that my avid curiosity will then be satisfied.
This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—
immerse my gaze in that of the Father,
and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them,
all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit,
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences.

For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God who seems to have willed it entirely
for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which sums up my whole life to this moment,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you, my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,
the hundredfold granted as was promised!

And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing.
Yes, I also say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU to you, in whom I see the face of God.
And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Ameen. In sha ‘Allah.”

-Christian de Cherge

Algiers, December 1, 1993 – Tibhirine, January 1, 1994.

“Even if I don’t see it again”: Marie Howe on mysticism

Today’s Gospel reading in the Catholic Church–about Jesus’ transfiguration–reminded me that for some time I’ve been wanting to share the following poem by Marie Howe.

Like the Gospel reading, which describes the apostles’ brief glimpse into the transcendent, Marie’s poem, “Annunciation,” describes the joy and solace of moments of seeming communion with God. In different ways, both pieces speak of a dazzling brightness which accompanies the realization that the things of this world and the things beyond it are much more intertwined than they usually appear. The two accounts also hint at the disappointment which comes after these fleeting, mystical encounters. They acknowledge that the peace and clarity we feel will come to an end. We have to come down the mountain, just as Peter, James, and John did in today’s passage.

Marie writes the poem in the voice of Mary, mother of Jesus. She reads it beautifully, so I encourage you to listen to her recitation of it below, via Soundcloud. You can also read the piece and listen to it on the On Being website, where you can also find On Being’s hour-long interview with her.

Marie’s poem nearly perfectly articulates what I’ve felt in my own experience. I nearly cried when I first heard it. It provided me with a reminder I needed: that though the emotion that emerges in prayer sometimes fades away, the experience was still real, and is worth hanging on to. I hope you enjoy the poem and find it as moving as I did.

In closing, I’d also like to share a quote from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which also channels the message of Marie’s poem and the transfiguration story.

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light …. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”

Why American Colleges Need The Islamic Call to Prayer

Earlier this week, I published my first piece for Huffington Post Religion. I’m grateful it’s received wide circulation: 4.5 thousand ‘likes’ on Facebook and over 200 shares. Here’s the link to the piece on HuffPost’s website. It is reproduced below.

Why We Need the Islamic Call to Prayer at American Universities

The average college student spends eight to 10 hours a day on a smartphone. Eighty percent of college students report feeling frequently stressed, and one in 10 have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or other mental disorders. Like the rest of the country, universities are fraught with busyness and competing distractions. Students rush around, faces buried in smart phones and heads cluttered with things to do.

Given this grim reality of college life, it’s too bad the Islamic call to prayer won’t be proclaimed from Duke University’s bell tower. The adhan can be an antidote to some of the challenges college students face.

Since Duke’s decision last week to not broadcast the call to prayer from its chapel steeple — prompted by Islamophobic rhetoric and threats against Duke’s Muslim community — the national discussion around the incident has centered around questions of pluralism and religion in the public space. But what was missed in those debates was the meaning and purpose of the adhan: encouraging deeper mindfulness among those who hear it.

The adhan, like the ringing of church bells, calls us to gratitude, appreciation and attentiveness–things that the modern American university desperately needs. This kind of practice is especially suited to universities with a religious heritage or mission — like Duke or my alma mater, Georgetown — where the balance between rigor and reflection is encouraged, but often hard to strike. Religious and non-religious students alike have much to gain from being called from the chaos of their days to remember the greater purpose and meaning of their lives.

A Catholic in a Muslim land

When I lived abroad in Amman, Jordan during and after college, the adhan was a familiar part of my daily life. Five times a day, the rolling syllables of Allahu akbar — Arabic for “God is greater” — echoed across the city. Chanted from tall minarets and amplified by loud speakers, the adhan bounced off stone buildings and reminded Muslims to pray wherever they were — at home, at work, at school or even at the mall. Sometimes, when I’d visit my local produce shop, I’d find the owner praying outside, his rug unrolled on the sidewalk and his body bowing in humble prostration.

The adhan became something that I, as a Catholic, grew to deeply appreciate and enjoy. Countless times, the words “Come to prayer, Come to well-being,” prompted me to step back from my day and remember what was most important.

I remember one of my first nights in Amman, when I climbed into the backseat of a cab, laden with my heavy backpack and the stress of adjusting to a new city. My mind was full of questions and doubts about whether Amman could ever feel like home. As we sped down the streets of Amman as sunset fell, the adhan came on the radio, and immediately a feeling of calm settled over me. The lyrical words drew me out of my anxiety and calmed my racing mind.

In the months that followed, the adhan continued to remind me to praise and thank God for the blessings of the day, and to ask for God’s help in facing the challenges that would inevitably come my way while living in Jordan. It made me more attentive to the world around me — the beauty of the pink sky at maghrib, the white flowers on the jasmine trees and the kindness of those I met.

A good habit for all

Colleges could benefit from being prompted to mindfulness. Deeper awareness and thankfulness are necessities for today’s campuses, where stress and strain run rampant.

My Muslim friends at Georgetown described to me the benefits of being called to pray, not just once on Fridays, but five times a day. Alerted by their watch, phone alarm or intuition, they’d get up from studying or hanging out with friends to pray. Being called out of their daily activities helped them cope and keep perspective when they were over-worked or concerned about grades.

That’s why the adhan can be good for everyone — even for those who aren’t Muslim, and for those who don’t believe in God. For most people, something is “greater,” whether they choose to call it God or not. The adhan can help us recall what gives our lives meaning, and can help us cultivate an attitude of gratefulness. It can help us look up from the cellphone in our hand and notice the blue sky, the purple shadows stretching across the snow or the smiles of those we pass by.

I don’t anticipate that many universities will choose to adopt the adhan on their campuses anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean that students and others can’t begin habits that yield the same results. Many campuses have bell towers, which ring on the hour or other specified times of day. At Georgetown, the bells toll in a clang excitedly at noon and six in the evening — a custom reminiscent of earlier times when monasteries rang bells seven times a day to call Christian religious to pray the psalms. For me, and for many students I knew, these bells were an invitation to focus on what’s truly important.

The events at Duke should not only be a spark for discussions about diversity and tolerance. They should also compel us to attend to the things that are akbar — the deeper needs of our soul.