Why I cried in Arabic class

Though the conflict in Syria is raging less than 50 miles away from my home in Amman and the effects of the war can be seen and felt in countless ways throughout the country, I have lacked much of any emotional reaction to the horrific humanitarian, cultural, and environmental destruction that is occurring just beyond Jordan’s northern border. I think this is a pretty natural human response, to become numb to news of the ‘same old’ tragedies we hear bits and pieces about everyday.

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The news of Fr. Frans van der Lugt’s assassination—and the emerging stories about his prophetic ministry and witness—is what shook me out of my emotional apathy about the Syrian conflict. It’s not Fr. Frans’ European background and white face that makes his death so striking. Rather, what makes his murder so salient is that despite his apparent otherness (and his opportunity to escape) he decided to accept the same fate as his adopted Syrian family, with whom he’d lived almost fifty years.

Martyr and missionary

Many people have already written essays about Fr. Frans, who “liked ice cream and Zen and hiking retreats with Mass and reflections.” Particularly moving pieces are “What Martrydom Means” and “A Man of Peace.” These accounts and remembrances describe a life of complete service of and total communion with the people of Syria. The more I read about this Jesuit missionary, the more I am convinced that he is a true example for our time, a modern day prophet who reminds us by his life and death of the complete self-giving Passion of our Savior.

He has been called “a martyr for interreligious dialogue.” He founded Al-Ard (which means, “The Land”), “an organization that cares for the mentally handicapped and provides one of the rare spaces where the three Abrahamic religions can come together and pray.” He was also famous for his eight-day maseer, a retreat/pilgrimage/hike, in which he led Christians and Muslims in Zen meditation. The Jesuits in Homs also hosted a social club and a bread baking operation for the needy.

What I hope to share here is a translation of an Arabic-language video Fr. Frans recorded, which I’ve translated into English with the help of my Arabic tutor. Fr. Frans recorded many of these videos, talking not only about the plight of his starving and wounded community, which has experienced a blockade for nearly two years. I chose to translate a video in which he describes the “communal” or “sharing” spirit of the Syrian people.

The translation is below. You can see the original video at this link. Notice how Fr. Frans continues chattering away as bombs drop incessantly nearby.

Hello! I want to talk to you about my experience with the Syrian people whom I love so much. I came to Syria in 1966 and I came to know the people through many activities and different fields. First through the schools, camping and hiking trips, and later I got to know them through psychological assistance, yoga and Zen Buddhist meditation, and through the ‘Ard Project (‘ard means “land” in Arabic), a countryside development program, and after that through the Spiritual Exercises, lectures, meetings with different groups, meetings with individuals, and visits to people. 

Thanks to this presence, I came to really love the Syrian people. I took part in beautiful things and I received the abundance and generosity of the people! Now we see a people who are really tormented, and with them I share in their treasure and in their sadness, their fear, their pain, and their death. The communion is about being present, connections, and closeness, and because of this I want to be in the heart of the people, until I move with you from hardship and loss to a new horizon—from fear to peace, sadness to joy, and death to life. I want to be with the people in the bosom of these circumstances even as we face together the labor pains, the passage, and the new birth.

If someone asks me, “Why do you love the Syrian people? What do you love in them?” I say “I love so many things about this people. Really beautiful qualities.” So I thought in these sessions (video clips) I will talk about “What do you find in the Syrian people that you like?” Today I want to talk a bit about the spirit of sharing and communion that exists in the heart of the Syria people. They like to share with others what they are living.

First we’ll look at what is around us [in our neighborhoods]. We see a mother in hard circumstances, she is cooking, but she doesn’t cook only for her own family. She is also thinking about others! After they eat they send half of the food to others, a gesture done without pretentiousness or condescension, and without feeling like “you owe me because of what I’ve given you.” No, with simplicity. 

The second thing is if we are taking a trip, and the people we meet are also living in hard circumstances and they don’t have much in the house. But we notice that they always keep something in the house for a guest. It is impossible not to give the guest something better than you what you have for yourself. They always give the guest the best of what they have. Sometimes on trips, they tell us about their pain and suffering, but always after the question they ask is, “And you, how are you?!” They love to share also the things that you are living! They can be at the peak of their own pain and still be open to the other and being together with them. 

We discover the willingness to share in our daily life, but we discovered this willingness even more in our trips and hikes outside! For example, [during a trip on foot,] we enter an orchard. And on our trips we do not allow our participants to take fruit from the trees. But sometimes, the owner of the orchard comes, and he invites us in sharing. He says: “A hundred welcomes! Here you go, young people! Eat! And a thousand ‘healths’ to you! The orchard is yours! The property is God’s [not mine].” He’s not annoyed that they ate his fruit, but he’s happy. He’s happy because he offered this opportunity to share, and he is happy to see them happy. He doesn’t think of money and he doesn’t count the cost, but he lives a partnership which is innate, brotherly, and unguarded, which flows like water from a spring. After they leave, he does not say “Thank God they left! I wish they’d never come or never been born!” No one in our society has this attitude. I’ve never heard anything like this.

For today, this is enough. We will continue talking about this sharing spirit of the Syrian people another time. 

The “Most Generous”

This Syrian spirit of generosity is not just one I learned listening to Fr. Frans’ accounts. I have also learned it from my tutor, who himself is Syrian—from Homs—and whose name means “the most generous” in Arabic. Every day I walk into class he offers me tea (which I usually accept) and he even helped my roommate and I find our current apartment. It’s thanks to him that I’ve progressed considerably in the spoken dialect, and he can’t be blamed for the fact that, like Fr. Frans, I still often mix up gender agreement of nouns and adjectives.

As we listened to and reflected on Fr. Frans’ poetic language about the Syrian people, my teacher began to share about the beautiful atmosphere of pre-war Homs. He lived much of his life in Homs, and his wife is from al-Hamidiyyeh, a Christian neighborhood famous for its charming and walkable streets. (The al-Hamidiyyeh neighborhood association is responsible for posting many of the videos of Fr. Frans.) Before the war, Homs had a vibrant culture of weekly concerts, plays, and outdoor activities. Fr. Frans was an active part of this community.

A number of years ago, my tutor and his wife attended a youth performance of Hamlet. This adaptation of the play was modern and comical, and following the show Fr. Frans delivered a lecture on the philosophy of theatre. This was my tutor’s only encounter with Fr. Frans, but he, like the rest of the city, was aware of this saintly man and his perpetual optimism. My teacher’s former neighbor in Homs knew Fr. Frans quite well, and felt he was like a father or close friend.

A misty mystery

I don’t know what exactly brought tears to my eyes, but the combination of the beautiful culture and its tragic loss; the foreign sound of bombs and the familiar sound of Shami Arabic; and the human goodness that somehow persists in the midst of evil made a lump rise in my throat. I looked over and noticed that my teacher was fighting back tears, too.

Since encountering Fr. Frans, the Syrian people, and what they have to teach us about generosity, solidarity, and communion, the tears I lacked before have started flowing more freely. I find myself crying in anger and sadness because the injustice and pain that seem unending. And I find myself crying in hope and joy because people like Fr. Frans and my tutor exist.

And I anticipate that I’ll continue crying throughout this week, this Holy Week that somehow affirms and gathers up these conflicting feelings. During the next seven days, we are invited into this paradox of tears, a place where we cannot discern whether our emotion is due to sadness or joy, death or life. The Paschal mystery of Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection tells us that these opposites actually go hand in hand.

But this mystery also teaches us the most important lesson of our faith, which an Arabic saying captures so strikingly. That, in the end, regardless of death and sin’s pervasive power, “still, the world is good.”

Thank you Fr. Frans, and you, my Most Generous teacher, for reminding me that the blockade will be lifted, that the stone will be rolled away, and that what appears to defeat is in fact the means for everlasting life.

We are preparing ourselves to Easter, reflecting on crossing from death to resurrection. We feel like we are in the valley of the shadows, but we can see that light far away, leading us to life again…We hope that Syria experience resurrection soon again… and let’s move forward. –Fr. Frans

 

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Standing with the Savior

Written March 24, 2014

Today is the anniversary of the death of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was shot and killed while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. How fitting that today’s Gospel reading, one of my favorites from Luke, is paired with the feast of Romero, who stood with the poor and marginalized even when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so. I’d like to offer some reflections on both the reading and Romero’s example, which call each of us to speak out for and walk alongside those whom our society would rather ignore, oppress, or deem the “enemy.”

The Rejection at Nazareth

Today’s Gospel reading only includes the last four verses of this narrative, but I’ve reproduced the entire passage below.

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to readand was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.’

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.

He said to them,“Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”

He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”

Jesus said to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place. Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away.

This passage is at times confusing, convoluted, and even contradictory. While I don’t attempt to flesh out the full meaning of this passage—I’ll leave that task to biblical scholars— I like to suggest a few lessons I think we can take from the text. What is Jesus saying to those around him? How does this connect to Oscar Romero? And most importantly, what does it say to us today?

Standing with the ‘other’

…He has anointed me/ to bring glad tidings to the poor./ He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives/ and recovery of sight to the blind,/ to let the oppressed go free…

This excerpt from Isaiah, which Jesus proclaims in the temple, speaks about his relationship with some of his world’s most marginalized groups: the sick and deformed who were shunned and blamed for their illness; children and women who lack value or a voice in society; the poor who were exploited by the rich; and the state that used fear (e.g. public crucifixions) to drive people into subjugation. These populations, which society ignores or intentionally excludes from the community, are the people with whom Jesus, and all of us, are called to live.

Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.

Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.

Jesus teaches us through his life and words, especially through Luke’s account, that the ‘other’ we are called to love is not just our brother, friend, or neighbor, but our enemy and, even more strikingly I think, those who we deem unworthy of any attention at all. He challenges his listeners in Nazareth to reconsider their closed categories and understand that no one is outside the realm of God’s love.

To further this message, Jesus brings up two stories familiar to his Jewish listeners: that of the widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian. In both of these stories, prophets of God (Elijah and Elisha, respectively) meet and save two individuals who are not a part of Israel, the Jewish people. They are both foreign, outside the bounds of the promised land, and are perceived by the ‘chosen people’ as rejected by God. And, yet, the stories demonstrate God in fact chose to stand with the outsiders, affirming their dignity in the face of a world that wished they didn’t exist.

The life of Oscar Romero shows us what this kind of solidarity looked like in twentieth century El Salvador (which means, “the Savior,” in Spanish). Shortly after Fr. Romero was elevated to the role of archbishop in San Salvador a brutal civil war broke out between the Salvadoran state (which received from the U.S. over 1 million dollars daily, in addition to training in inhumane military tactics) and Marxist rebels. Romero became a “microphone for Christ,” preaching on the archdiocesan radio station against the violence that engulfed the poor. He not only spoke against the Salvadoran state (an unprecedented move for a religious leader in the country) and begged American President Jimmy Carter to end military aid to El Salvador, but he lived simply and spent his time among the poor campesinos who suffered most. This essay by former Jesuit John Dear describes in detail many of Romero’s remarkable acts.

Isaiah, Jesus, and Romero’s call also extends to us. A true faith, they tell us, results in a life of solidarity among the widows, Namaans, and campesinos of our own time and place. Maybe they’re the teenagers incarcerated for minor drug possession in Washington, D.C. or the migrants from Sri Lanka and the Philippines that clean wealthy homes in Amman. For me, they’re the Muslims who find their beliefs misrepresented on the news, or discover their places of prayer targeted in hate. romero-41

Missing the message

“Some want to keep a gospel so disembodied
that it doesn’t get involved at all
in the world it must save.”  (Oscar Romero, 12/1/1978)

Oscar Romero didn’t always live the radical life of solidarity we know him for. When he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador, he was seen as a safe choice who would maintain the status quo of inequality and oppression that benefitted the state and Church hierarchies. Pre-war El Salvador was plagued by extreme socio-economic disparity, and the poor’s call for political and economic justice and were met by brutal state repression. Some priests and lay people promoted a new theology of liberation that empowered the marginalized of El Salvador, but Romero and other leaders sought dampen its effects, afraid of change. For many years before his appointment in San Salvador, Romero’s faith was watered down; his belief in Christ did not compel him to act, to reach out to those struggling in his country.

Like Romero, the residents of Nazareth in today’s passage fail to understand the full extent of the message of Jesus. The congregation in the synagogue praises Jesus’ after he finishes reading the powerful passage from Isaiah. They like the ‘idea’ of the faith on paper—they like the tradition, the history, and the preaching—but they miss the deeper message, and prefer to ignore that which challenges their comfortable notions of ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Sensing their misunderstanding, Jesus attempts to impress upon them the full meaning of the scripture by referencing the familiar accounts of the widow and Naaman. When the people finally recognize how much Jesus’ message uproots their insular and exclusive worldview, they are “filled with fury.”

When initially confronted with the radical message of Christ which was spreading among the poor in his country, Romero responded with fear and avoidance, as I expect most of us would (and do). He didn’t want to change, didn’t want to accept Christ’s challenge. It was only when a fellow priest, Jesuit Rutilio Grande, was murdered for his solidarity with the poor that Romero was compelled to action. Let us hope that it does not take the death of a friend to spur us to act.

Unpopularity

No prophet is accepted in his own native place.

Isaiah, Jesus and Romero’s stories also tell us that the work of solidarity is unpopular. Isaiah left Israel to minister elsewhere after his own people refused to listen to his critiques of their unjust society. Jesus returned to his boyhood home to hear insults from his friends. Romero found many fellow church leaders turn against or ignore his message, even the pope.

The rejection of prophets (and even God himself!) should inform us of the kind of rejection we no doubt will face if we properly live our lives alongside the ‘other.’ I’ve often received raised eyebrows, puzzled looks, and direct criticisms when I describe to friends and acquaintances my hope to improve the portrayal and perception of Muslims. It hurts when members of my church, where we hear Jesus’ call to dismantle our ‘us v. them’ dichotomy, still hold on to attitudes of separation and marginalization.

But in the moments when we experience skepticism or denunciation from those in our own communities, we should be comforted by the knowledge that we are on the right track. If we attempt to walk alongside those rejected by the community, we shouldn’t be surprised when that same community shuns us as well. 

A disappearing act

The end of the passage from Luke ends dramatically, with the congregation rising up against Jesus and dragging him to the edge of a hill, intending to do away with him and his call for change. But Jesus mysteriously “passes through the midst of them” and escapes.

We know from the rest of the Gospel that Jesus doesn’t ultimately escape from the hostile crowd. Three years later he dies at the hands of the mob, accepting the fate of all those oppressed or forgotten by the powers that be. From the beginning, Jesus knew that his way of solidarity not only risked a loss of friends, but also a threat to his life, and yet he chose to take that path. Jesus demonstrates that the only authentic path of solidarity is one of complete participation and sacrifice.

Romero understood the seriousness of this path when he saw countless priests, nuns, and lay people were murdered for their work to liberate the poor. He knew the risks and threats to his life and yet still he persisted. If anything, he spoke out more strongly.

An icon on Romero.

An icon on Romero.

Romero was shot and killed by a government-sponsored (and U.S. trained) death squad while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. He was one of the 75,000 plus people who were killed during the twelve-year civil war (this number is likely a low estimate). A million people were displaced and a countless number, especially children, were ‘disappeared.’ Forced disappearance was a terror tactic used by the government against civilians and likely resulted in the executions of those ‘disappeared.’ Statistics report that potentially 8,000 people were disappeared before and during the civil war, and again the number is likely a conservative estimate.

Though on the surface it seems that Jesus’ and Romero’s sacrifices accomplished little—thought it appeared that the mob had won— their stories tell us that death and failure are only a mask for the true transformation of society. Knowing his death was imminent, Romero said, “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

That’s the mystery of Easter and of Christian faith: that what seems to be defeat is in reality a mechanism for victory and new life. By his death, Romero became a symbol and source of strength for Salvadorans and people globally, compelling then to work for change in ways he never could have on his own.

A cross from Central America.

A cross from Central America.

Jesus and Romero’s deaths remind us that our call to solidarity is ‘all or nothing,’ that we can’t just disappear and bolt when things get dangerous. They remind us not to become discouraged when our work seems insignificant or unsuccessful. And, most importantly, they remind us that though they, our leaders and guides, have disappeared, their spirit can rise again in us, the people of the Savior.

“Christ is now in history.
Christ is in the womb of the people.
Christ is now bringing about
the new heavens and the new earth.”
   (Oscar Romero, 12/1/1978)

Since the 25th is the feast of the Annunciation, another event which took place in Nazareth, I wanted to share this photo from the Church of the Annunciation, which I visited with my parents and Chris two weeks ago.

Some of the resources I used for this piece can be found here:

-United Nations Biography of Romero
-A reflection from U.S. Catholic
-An editorial from Sojourners
-Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on liberation theology

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Diet Advice from the Caliph

The walls of the priest’s office were lined with black-and-white photographs of his father donning a checkered Jordanian kufiyyeh and his little sister wearing her white First Communion dress. Newer pictures of Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, Roman Catholic bishops of Jordan, and Pope John Paul II, flanked the family shots. 

But the most striking images in Fr. Hanna’s office were the plainest ones: white sheets of paper with Arabic and English quotations spoken by famous individuals. There were sayings by Martin Luther King, Jr., Aristotle, and even a character from the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But the most commonly quoted leader was someone less familiar in the Western world: Ali bin Abi Talib, one of Islam’s most important caliphs and Fr. Hanna’s “beloved friend.”

Fr. Hanna is a scholar of Christian history in the Middle East and an ecumenical and interfaith leader in Jordan. I visited his parish in outskirts of Amman to talk about my research on Muslim-Christian relations and the media in Jordan. For Fr. Hanna, like every Jordanian, interfaith dialogue is not simply an interest, but a way of life. For over a thousand years, Muslims and Christians have lived together—drinking coffee, doing business, watching each others’ kids, and even celebrating holidays—without a thought. They’ve rubbed off a lot of each other, both theologically and culturally, and Fr. Hanna’s affinity for the caliph Ali demonstrates that.

The words of Ali were scrawled in loopy Arabic calligraphy, so Fr. Hanna deciphered and translated them for me into English. One phrase talked about rejecting a wealthy lifestyle, and another warned about getting overly attached to worldly relationships. But Fr. Hanna’s favorite quote of Ali’s is a bit more practical: it was diet advice.

We walked into the kitchen, where the phrase was pasted above the table and next to a sparkly, woven image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It read, “Whatever you limit yourself to is enough.” He told me that the phrase keeps him from eating too much. “If I limit myself to a banana for dinner, and tell myself it’s enough, then it will be,” he said.

But Fr. Hanna does not just eat small meals just to watch his weight; he, like Ali, recognizes the spiritual benefits of fasting. We talked about how many Catholics in the West have abandoned the practice which Muslims, who fast for the entire month of Ramadan, and ِEastern Orthodox Christians, who have a number of strict fasting periods, have maintained. We agreed that Western Christians should re-adopt fasting, which diverts the mind from the body and instead directs it toward God.

Still standing in the kitchen, Father told me a final Arabic saying which illustrates the deep connections between Christians and Muslims. “We say that ‘the heart of a Muslim is a little bit Christian, and the heart of a Christian is a little bit Muslim.’ It’s because Muslims receive so much of their religious heritage from Christianity and because Christians here have been so influenced by Islamic beliefs and culture.”

This sharing, or “enculturation” as Fr. Hanna put it, is at the heart of religious life  in Jordan and in the Middle East more largely. How beautiful it was to be reminded of it there, standing beside the ornate words of a beloved Muslim and an image of Jesus, whose glittering, open heart is made up of a little bit of all of us.

The image of Jesus' Sacred Heart and Ali's quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.

The image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and Ali’s quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.

To learn more about Ali, click here.

To read more about surprising similarities between Christians and Muslims, check out my latest post for Commonweal.

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The $200,000 Conversation

This afternoon, while wandering the garden of my favorite, secluded hangout on an otherwise crowded hillside in Amman, I discovered the ruins of a Christian church and Islamic shrine. The site, which is still strewn with stone columns and pebbled with pale mosaic tiles, was home to an ancient church, built in the 500s and dedicated to St. George. Though the church was abandoned two hundred years later, the place remained a shrine to the saint until the 20th century. St. George—who is also revered in Islam as al-Khidr, meaning “the green one”—is a towering mythical figure in the Middle Eastern spirituality, and countless churches and holy sites in the region purport to be the location of his miracles and appearances.

An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.

An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.

As I was reading the brief plaque explaining the history of the site, which was excavated by Americans in the 1990s, I began a conversation in Arabic with a young pharmacist named Osama. I anticipated the conversation would consist only of small talk, but we quickly launched into a conversation about…surprise, surprise: Muslim-Christian relations. But this conversation was different than my usual ones, which usually involve talking about interpersonal relations between the two groups here. We began discussing  big theological questions between Christianity and Islam. He pulled out his smart phone to show me that he has both the Qur’an app and the Arabic Bible app, and asked why the Bible is composed into separate books with separate authors. I expect this a common questions Muslims ask, since their text, the Qur’an, has a single voice and author: God’s. I explained the ‘what’ of the New Testament—that people after Jesus wrote about him—and then attempted to move to the ‘why.’ I began to feel giddy as I brought up my favorite Islam-Christianity comparison explanation, where I compare the functions of Mary and Muhammad, Jesus and the Qur’an, and the Bible and the Hadith. (For many of you students and scholars of Islam out there, you might disagree with those comparisons. They may be simplistic but they’re good starting points for dialogue I think.) I’m not sure Osama really followed what I was saying, but I was proud of myself for trying to explain it—in Arabic.

What made this half-hour encounter so thrilling was that it was 98% in Arabic. Osama doesn’t speak much English from what I could tell, so it challenged me to stick to colloquial Arabic. It made me grateful for and proud of my Arabic program and professors at Georgetown. Those nights during my freshman year when I slaved away for hours on my beginner Arabic homework paid off in this one conversation (not to mention the countless more basic ones I’ve already had here.)

Osama and I then moved on to other topics including Islamic beliefs about al-Khidr, what determines prophethood in Islam, and the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. He used very technical, theological terms like ‘aqida (“belief”), fiqh (“jurisprudence”), and wahy (“revelation”), and I could follow what he said and interject my thoughts because of my very strong education in Islam at Georgetown. Without my classes with Dan Madigan, Jonathan Brown, John Esposito, and without the many lessons and sermons from Imam Yahya Hendi, and without the many conversations with Muslim friends, I could never have dreamed to have such a meaningful, deep, and heady conversation with Osama.

As we swapped contact information, I was flying as high as the pigeons overhead. I was bowled over with gratitude at the education I received at Georgetown, realizing that so much of what I learned in classrooms there was put to use in this single conversation half the world away. I felt that my four years of study—and the thousands of dollars paid by my parents—were more than worth it. So many people feel like their undergraduate educations are barely useful, hardly relevant, in the real world. But for me, alhamdulilah (thank God), that is not the case. Every day my Hoya education informs my experiences, but today I was especially conscious of my education’s remarkable impact.

As Osama and I parted, I not only felt grateful to Georgetown, but also to St. George, who, on the crumbling ruins of once-holy ground, is still making miracles.

Ruins of the church.

Ruins of the church.

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Poem: “Bethel”

About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.

The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.

I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.

But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m  learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.

In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.

Bethel
by Jordan Denari

This spot

where I place a stone
where the sparrow falls
and hovers like love over the waters
where He breaks a branch,
a rung on the ladder,
     and His foot touches earth near me.

where there’s a ringing in my ears,
     a tight, breathless squeezing
where fire passes between
     two wrestling beings
where I’m shoved into a cliff face
     and down into a ditch.

where a ram is found in the thicket
where mothers clutch branches of date
     and sal trees
where a father runs to me, though he was a long way off.

where my lover leaps across the hills
     and knocks at my door
     so sweetly asking for your address.

where the lilies no longer toil and spin
where light is poured back in
where the stone is rolled away
    and the Gardener calls my name. 

Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.

Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.

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The Way, the Truth, and the Life: An exchange with a reader

Earlier this week, a reader posted the following comment on my blog. I wanted to share my response (and the potential exchange that may ensue) with the rest of my readers. Stay tuned to see if the discussion expands–I hope you will weigh in as well.

Reader:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)

Hi Reader,

I’m going to guess that you posted this quote from John’s Gospel to imply, “Muslims and non-Christians aren’t saved because they don’t believe in Jesus.” I don’t want to assume, but since you didn’t provide an explanation, this is what I have to guess you meant.

I used to have a lot of trouble with this passage. I, like many, though that this passage was saying that those who don’t consciously assent to a belief in Christ will not go to heaven. This troubled me, because there are many billions of people who don’t profess this belief. I couldn’t believe that our God of mercy would not allow them the opportunity of salvation.

But, over the past few years, I discovered what the Catholic Church, my denomination, says about the salvation of non-Christians and what salvation means in general. Salvation is about becoming unified, becoming a member of the corporate body of Christ. Salvation is about Christ drawing us into union with himself. Salvation is not simply arriving at place, and it is not achieved by a formulation of words, or by a structure. Conscious, rational belief doesn’t save, and neither does the Church. Jesus–a person!–saves. The Second Vatican Council clearly stated that if people are saved, it is through Christ, that Christ came to save all of humankind, and that salvation is thus offered to all, regardless of their particular stated beliefs.

So I have come to understand John 14:6 in a new way, the Catholic Church’s way. I can easily proclaim and believe in this line from John while still embracing my Muslim brothers and sisters and not wanting to convert them. I know that Jesus wants to bring all of us to his Father. We all have the potential to be saved by Christ.

How do you interpret this passage from John? Two of the Second Vatican Council documents, Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate may be informative for Catholics who are unaware of the Church’s teaching on salvation. Check out Lumen Gentium, sections 9, 13 – 17 and Nostra Aetate.

Lumen Gentium 17 reads: “…Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world.”

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‘In our time’: Francis moves beyond Nostra Aetate

My newest piece on dotCommonweal. Read an excerpt here and continue reading on Commonweal’s website.

Muslim immigration to Italy. Persecution of Christians in Syria. Anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands. Anti-Christian rulings in Malaysia. Mosque burnings in the United States and church burnings in Egypt. These sad events are some of the most obvious points of contact between Catholics and Muslims in the modern world. Thus, it’s unsurprising that Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” makes mention of Islam and Catholic-Muslim interaction. In his familiar style, Pope Francis smartly roots his commentary on Islam in the tradition of the Church and his predecessors, while at the same time forges new theological territory.

Read more.

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