The Way of Perfection

October 15, 2014

Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, the saint whose name I took at my confirmation. Teresa is a looming figure in Catholic history. A reformer, writer, and mystic, she was one of the first women to be named a Doctor of the Church, an honor which acknowledges the saint’s important theological contribution to the Church. Her writings, which discuss busy-ness, distraction, and dryness in prayer, seem written to a modern audience stuck on their i-Phones and tied to their G-Cals.images-7

Teresa has not only impacted me through her spiritual writing, but through the women who carry her Carmelite charism. I’d like to share a bit about two groups of women—one in Indiana and one in Jordan—who have supported my spiritual life at crucial points in my journey.

The Carmelites of Indianapolis at the Monastery of the Resurrection

As a child, I often attended Mass with my family at the Carmelite monastery in Indianapolis. Each week, a local Jesuit priest (from my future high school, Brebeuf) would say Mass for the dozen or so sisters and a diverse group of Catholic lay people, including those in openly gay partnerships. The service was different than any other Mass I’d been to before, or have attended since. We sung the Gloria with non-gendered language; we passed the Eucharist throughout the rows and consumed it together; and we sat quietly after Communion, meditating as a song played from the CD player in the corner. The radical equality and solidarity preached by Jesus was mirrored in the Mass. I will never forget the soft, high voices of the sisters singing, or the passion with which Sr. Terese proclaimed the readings.

The (former) Carmelite Monastery of the Resurrection in Indianapolis.

The (former) Carmelite Monastery of the Resurrection in Indianapolis.

Carmelites are traditionally a cloistered order which, in the past, never left the monastery. In the early 2000s, these sisters still maintained a simple life of prayer, silence, and community within the monastery, but they often ventured out into the community to see the Harry Potter movies and go to Target. They were funny, relatable, and smart, reading dozens of newspapers and magazines each week to keep abreast on current affairs. This self-education about current events was another way they stayed connected to the world outside their walls. After reading about the Iraq War, the sex abuse scandal, or the Second Intifada, they came together and prayed, lifting up the suffering to God. Eventually, their prayer and reflection moved beyond the monastery in a more concrete way—through PraytheNews.com, a website developed by my dad’s advertising agency. The site featured the sisters’ prayerful commentary on world events, in addition to resources about Carmelite prayer and the history of the order.

Many of the sisters I knew.

Many of the sisters I knew.

These sisters taught me what it means to be socially conscious, and convinced me of the efficacy of prayer even when prayer seems hopeless. Through their encouraging words every week, they helped to nourish my vocation—something I can only recognize now with hindsight. They are still some of my biggest cheerleaders and I continue to correspond with Srs. Terese and Jean Alice now and then.

Because of the sisters’ old age and small numbers, they had to discontinue the PraytheNews website and move from their beautiful, stone monastery to another religious community in eastern Indiana. But their impact is still felt through their prayers, as Sr. Terese’s reflection illustrates:

“Hidden Friends,” God in Ordinary Time

Sister Terese in the monastery courtyard.

Sister Terese in the monastery courtyard.

I like to pray in the morning
When all is quiet.
In the summer, I frequently go outside
And walk the monastery grounds
Or sit in the courtyard.
In the winter, when the mornings are dark,
I prefer to sit in my very small room.
The windows are high, so that only sky
and the tops of trees
can be seen.
Periodically, the twinkling red and white
Lights of a plane far up
In the Heavens
Punctuate the blackness.
I try to picture the passengers traveling
To their destinations,
and I wrap them in prayer.
“Where did they begin their journeys?
What loved ones wished them well?
Whom will they meet when they land?
What calls them to be traveling at this hour?”
I hope them all
In my heart and pray
For their safety and their happiness,
Though they do not know
This unknown friend
Sitting in a monastic cell.
Sometimes, I wonder if one of them is looking
Down on the miniature trees and houses, seeing
The lights of the city,
Sending down silent blessings
Upon me—an unknown friend
Cradling me in prayer.
We could be sending arcs of blessing
Like rainbows through the skies.

Elisa and Amabel: Teresians in Amman

Elisa and I in 2012.

Elisa and I in 2012.

I met Elisa Estrada and Amabel Sibug in 2012, when I first lived in Jordan during college. They helped out with the Mass I attended—Elisa orchestrated the readers and Eucharistic ministers, while Amabel played guitar for the music ministry. During that time, they were friendly, kind faces, but I didn’t get to know them well until I returned to Jordan in the fall of 2013.

I was quite emotional on my first Sunday back in Amman, unsure if I could manage for nine months away from family and friends. When I walked into Mass, Elisa immediately recognized me, gave me a hug, and asked me, “Would you like to read?” She, like the Carmelites, also knew how to tend my vocation—I enjoy participating in the Mass by reading the Scripture passages. I sat in the pew, trying to pray before Mass began, but was still overwhelmed by the transition to my new home. Elisa noticed I was upset, and scooted next to me on the pew. “It is so nice to have you back,” she said. “We’re glad you’re here.” Her hospitality and welcome caused me to cry a new wave of tears, one of gratitude and relief. This interaction was a sign of the friendship that would emerge over the next year.

Elisa and Amabel both work at the Pontifical Mission Library, an institution of the Catholic Church which serves the whole community, Christian and Muslim. Children and adults alike come to check out books in Arabic and English, and to participate in religious events or skills workshops. I made use of the library as well, coming on free mornings to work on my research.

Elisa (L), Amabel, and I in May 2014.

Elisa (L), Amabel, and I in May 2014.

Originally from the Philippines, Elisa and Amabel have spent decades in Jordan. Elisa has been with the library since she helped open it in Jabal Hussein 40 years ago. They are members of the Teresians, a community of lay men and women who live out the spirituality of St. Teresa and the Carmelites. Their members are spread around the world, and most work in educational ministries. As single women, Elisa and Amabel live together in an apartment with a chapel, and every Friday, they welcome foreign workers—many of them Filipino—into their home for a meal. Elisa and Amabel serve and live among struggling but ordinary communities: Palestinian refugees, domestic workers, the elderly and the sick. They live out the Gospel injunction to “love thy neighbor” with sincerity and humility, attempting to walk with Jesus throughout their day. During my visits to the library, Elisa and I would often talk about her prayer life, how she was relating to Jesus and what He was teaching her. Usually, the message was trust—a message I constantly needed to hear. I now wish I had written down those conversations.

Elisa under the Elijah tree atop Tell Mar Eliyas.

Elisa under the Elijah tree atop Tell Mar Eliyas.

One afternoon last October, Elisa and Amabel took me with them on a mini-pilgrimage to two holy sites in northern Jordan. One of them was Tell Mar Eliyas, or the Mount of St. Elijah. Legend holds that Elijah was born in a town in northern Jordan, and that as a child he would climb a nearby mountain to pray. The Byzantines built a large church on this mountain, and its intricate mosaic floor is partially in tact today. At one end of the ruins is an old tree, with many ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to it. Muslim pilgrims also come to the site with particular petitions and pray to Elijah to intercede for them.

Some of the intricate mosaics, which are still intact, despite the site's lack of roof.

Some of the intricate mosaics, which are still intact, despite the site’s lack of roof.

Elisa, Amabel, their friend, Petra, and I explored the site and sat in silent prayer alone. The Carmelites’ style of prayer is characterized by silence, and they trace this emphasis back to Elijah, who was unable find God in the storm, the wind, or the fire, but in calm silence. It was grateful to pray at the place where Elijah prayed as a child, where Carmelite spirituality got its start.

Teresa’s women

I am so grateful to these women of St. Teresa, who have supported me in times of growth and struggle, and who model her challenging “way of perfection,” an avenue to God defined not by the avoidance of sin, but a path defined by self-giving love.

Through their humble service, they live out this saying of St. Teresa, which might as well have been uttered by Jesus Himself: The important thing is not to think much, but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. 

Overlooking the Holy Land from Tell Mar Eliyas.

Overlooking the Holy Land from Tell Mar Eliyas.

Neighbors, Aliens, & Enemies on the Anniversary of 9/11

How moved I was to stumble over these readings in the missal today, on the anniversary of 9/11. I share them here in the hopes that others will find them comforting, empowering, and challenging.

Radical Love

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19

“You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you.” Leviticus 19

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6

The Last Supper, by Sieger Koder

The Last Supper, by Sieger Koder

Human Dignity

“Truly, you have formed my inmost being;
You knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I am fearfully, wonderfully made.”
Psalm 139: 13-14

The Fruits of Generosity

“Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.” Luke 6

Surrender, and The Washing of Feet, by Sieger Koder

Surrender, and The Washing of Feet, by Sieger Koder

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

 

My talk at the Ignatian Family Teach-In

Last weekend, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to deliver the following speech at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice to an audience of over 1,000.

Using my own experiences with Muslim-Christian dialogue and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I argued that we as Catholics are called to engage in interreligious dialogue.

Click here, or on the image below to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims,” or read the full text of the speech below the photo.

Click here to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims” November 16, 2012, IFTJ

Full text of the speech:

Good evening.

[My name is Jordan Denari, I’m a senior at Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C. (applause) and a proud alumnus of Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis (applause).  Forgive me, I’m getting over a cough and lost my voice earlier this week, so bear with me.]

I’d like to begin first by saying “Assalaamu ‘alaykum,” which, in Arabic, means “peace be with you.”  It seems like an appropriate way to begin today, given that it’s a phrase that Muslims use to greet one another, and it’s something that Jesus encouraged his followers to say to each other as well.

During my freshman year at Georgetown University, I was asked the following question multiple times: “Are you converting to Islam?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked that question now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association, lived in the Muslim living-learning community, worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, and can often be spotted participating in Muslim Friday prayers with my hair wrapped up in a scarf.

In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and I feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before.

And that’s not spite of my engagement with the Muslim community, but because of it. Rather than pulling me away from my Catholic faith, interreligious dialogue with Muslims has deepened my faith, enriched it. Dialogue — which for me is about lived engagement with those different from myself — helped me fall back in love with the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.

At the beginning of college, while struggling with my Catholic identity and wondering if another religion like Islam might provide me with the connection to God that I was missing, I formed a close friendship with a Muslim girl in my dorm, Wardah. She taught me more about Islam than books ever could, because she simply lived her religion. When we roomed together as sophomores, she woke up early in the morning to pray and often stopped in the middle of homework assignments to pull out her prayer rug. Lacking commitment in my relationship with God, I wanted that kind of consistency in my own prayer life.

Wardah brought me to Muslim students’ events, like an iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. I was struck by the sense of community and solidarity I saw among my new Muslim friends, and realized how much I craved that, too.

Finding these emphases on prayer and community in Islam reminded me that they also existed in my own Church, and I wanted to find them again. I signed up for a Catholic retreat with the intent of improving my daily prayer habits, and I joined a small Catholic bible study that provided me with a community with whom I could reflect on scripture. My relationship with God began improving, and my appreciation for my Catholic tradition increased.

My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my exposure to Islam and my immersion into the Muslim community. But this process occurred differently than many might expect. People may assume that, after being exposed to Islam’s beliefs and practices and not liking them, I ran for the hills—the familiarity of Catholicism.

Instead, Islam, a faith not my own, became the medium through which I came to love the faith of my childhood. Islam provided me with a critical reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism.

I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith —for making me a better Catholic. I think immersion into any other religious tradition would have served me in the same way.

As I began to reflect upon my own faith journey and the way in which Islam brought me back to Catholicism, I wondered what the Church would say about my engagement with the Muslim community and the interreligious dialogue that was so crucial to my experience.

A class on the post-Vatican II Church began to answer my questions, and I was thrilled to discover that the Church’s understanding of the importance of dialogue mirrored my own.

For the Church, interreligious dialogue is essential, and its purpose is vast: fostering understanding and learning between different religious groups; establishing social peace and cooperation; and strengthening the spirituality of all those involved.

The Church’s dedication to dialogue officially began with Nostra Aetate, a revolutionary Vatican II document that describes the Church’s new relationship to non-Christian religions.  In only five short paragraphs, it reshaped the way the Church approaches people of other faiths.

It reads: the Church “urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.  Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”

The Church asserts that I can still remain true to my Catholic identity—that I am actually living out my Catholicism—while supporting and encouraging my Muslim friends’ way of life.

Pope John Paul II, who took strides to implement the ideals called for in Nostra Aetate, wrote in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis that participation in dialogue “does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality…” Rather, he said, “the strong beliefs and the moral values of the followers of other religions can and should challenge Christians to respond more fully and generously to the demands of their own Christian faith.”

This has been my experience precisely. And that’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are Muslims my good friends, but their devotion to their religion constantly motivates me to re-examine the way I live out my Catholicism.

And, it’s why I’ve led efforts at Georgetown to provide religiously-diverse students with opportunities to dialogue with one another. Thanks to our small-group dialogue program, students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and in seeing how other believers practice their faith, they reflect on their own tradition in a new light.

The most powerful—and likely surprising—line in Nostra Aetate is one that again speaks directly to my own experiences.

It reads: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. …[Their teachings] often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”

I feel “rays of truth”—or God’s presence—when I participate in Muslim prayer and squish shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the congregation.  I see the rays of truth when I watch the way my Muslim friends interact with one another in love.

And I hear the rays of truth in the azan, the Islamic call to prayer.  When I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan, I was constantly drawn into a state of prayer upon hearing the azan five times a day.  It was God calling me to dhikr, remembrance of God and the way he works in my life.

Nostra Aetate helped me realize that living a life of dialogue and interreligious engagement with Muslims was an inherently Catholic vocation, and it continues to challenge me today to live out that call in deeper ways:

The Church encourages all to “work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve, as well as to promote, together, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom, for the benefit of all mankind.”

It’s particularly important for me to stand in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters today, in light of the prejudices that Muslims face in the post-9/11 world.

Last month, anti-Muslim hate propaganda lined the walls of the D.C. metro, and a friend’s mosque was targeted in arson. And those are only two of myriad hate-filled and ignorance-driven acts that Muslims have had to cope with over the last few years.  When I worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, I’d read daily local news reports about hate crimes against Muslims, but never were they reported about on a national scale, despite the fact that between 2009 and 2010, hate crimes against Muslims in America rose by 50%.  As a Catholic, I can’t forget that our minority religious community too faced prejudice and scapegoating during an earlier time in American history.  Like Muslims, we Catholics were marginalized because we were “foreign” and “threatening to American law and way of life.”

Today, the same accusations—and worse—are leveled against Muslims. Because many Americans don’t know Muslims—62% claim to have never met a Muslim—the media’s negative portrayal allows the American public—and many Christians—to push Muslims to the margins.

Unfortunately, I saw this marginalization occurring in my own Catholic community back home in Indianapolis.  One afternoon during my junior year of high school, I opened my e-mail inbox to find a hateful, Islamophobic chain message, forwarded from a family friend.  The email contained inflammatory epithets about Muslims, who, according to the email, expressed tacit approval for terrorism and violence committed by a few radicals.  I was angry and sad that a family friend, someone from my own Catholic community, could espouse and promote this hateful sentiment—that she would lump terrorists together with people like my friend, Nadir, a Muslim who went to my high school, Brebeuf Jesuit, and now goes to Georgetown with me. He is an exceptional individual who exudes kindness and has committed his life to helping others.  I wondered how my family friend could put him in the same category as those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

It was immediately apparent to me that my family friend was not a hateful woman; it was her ignorance that resulted in her prejudicial comments. Those in my Catholic community who had circulated this email did so because of their lack of understanding of Muslims.

I hope my own story, and the call of Nostra Aetate, can help remind Christians how much we need our Muslim neighbors—how much we can learn about God and each other by engaging with them.  We must be like the Samaritan, pulling up the stranger.  We must bring Muslims out of the margins, making clear that they too are our neighbors.

Every night, I go to Mass in the chapel of the North American Jesuit Martyrs at Georgetown.  It’s a habit that I never would have anticipated myself undertaking four years ago, when I came to college shaky about my Catholic identity.  During the Eucharist, I often think about the fact that I wouldn’t be at nightly Mass were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics participate in their 10pm Mass, the Muslim students complete their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah, or prayer room, next door.  When I come to Mass discouraged about the state of Muslim-Christian relations—when it seems that violence and bigotry will win out—I’m often strengthened by the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every night: Allahu akbar—God is greater.

(End of speech)

A new narrative

The malicious and intentional spreading of an offensive, anti-Muslim video. The murder of an American ambassador. Protests around the world. Hate crimes against mosques in the U.S.

All of these events seem to further solidify the already-entrenched narrative about Muslim-Christian relations—that Muslims and Christians are in a “clash of civilizations,” fundamentally at odds, and hell-bent on the destruction of the other. The images we see on CNN, and the headlines we read in the morning paper, point to an inherent battle between the world’s two largest religious groups.

But another, more subtle, yet more powerful, narrative exists. One I’ve tried to share often on my blog. I was reminded of it again tonight, first at a banquet celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr (which was last month) and second at Catholic Mass.

The banquet, hosted by the university’s president and attended by diverse leaders on campus, began with the maghrib, or sunset, prayer. As the Muslims lined up in their rows, and rabbis, Jesuits, and other non-Muslims bowed their heads in reverence, I looked over to find one of Georgetown’s Franciscan priests in the prayer line with the other Muslims, bending and placing his head on the floor. I was so moved by the message that this Franciscan’s participation sent—that his belief in God, and his vocation as a priest, doesn’t preclude him from worshipping with those who are different. It actually calls for it.

At the end of the prayer, the university imam spoke to the congregation about the meaning of the Arabic word for prayer, salah, which literally means, “reaching out and connecting.” He discussed the importance of reaching out not only to God, but also to those around us.

This “reaching out” continued through dinner, as we met new people and shared stories. I was lucky enough to sit next to Georgetown’s first Jewish chaplain, a rabbi who retired a few years back. He told me of his time working in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements; how he was a Freedom Rider and met Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and that he studied under Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously said of the March on Washington: “I felt like my feet were praying.” I was not only amazed at the compassionate action of this man, but also by the fact that our conversation quickly transitioned into a discussion about how we miss cheap falafel in the Middle East.

He also spoke to me about his concern for the declining numbers of Jesuits. He began rattling off statistics about how many Jesuits were in the Maryland province when he began at Georgetown in the sixties, compared to today. As he finished his shpeal, I realized that I wasn’t talking to a Jesuit concerned about this decline, but a rabbi. He cares about Catholic clergy just as much as those in his own tradition.

After mingling with Muslim friends I hadn’t seen since before I went abroad, I went to Mass, where the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stressed that we are all parts of Christ’s one body. In the homily, the priest discussed the intersection of diversity, complementarity, and dependence—that in our diversity we complement one another, and more importantly help one another when we are in need.

I couldn’t help but think of the following passage from the Qur’an, which Georgetown’s president had read shortly before at the banquet:

“If God had willed, He would have made you one religious community, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race one another in good deeds.” Just as in Paul’s letter, the Qur’an speaks of God’s desire for diversity, complementary, and dependence.

And I thought of the sweetest thing that a Muslim friend said to me as we left the dinner—how he and others had missed me, and how a hole had been left, when I was abroad. I was struck by the kindness of his words, but also the greater truth that they held.

A truth that must become the new narrative about interreligious relations: that without one of us, there is a gaping hole. When one part of the body is missing—whether it be the rabbi, the Catholic girl, or the Muslim boy—we cannot move or act. We cannot “pray with our feet” and race together in the game of doing good works on our common planet.