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.
Residents of Yarmouk Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. After being bombarded and besieged by the Syria government, the camp is now embroiled in another round of fighting between the government, ISIS, and its own Palestinian fighters.
The family of Deah Barakat, who was murdered along with his wife and sister-in-law in Chapel Hill, NC. Several similar shootings have taken the lives of Muslim-Americans in recent weeks, but have received far less media attention.
Mourners in Garissa, Kenya, after the Somali-based group, al-Shabab massacred 147 Christian students at a university there.
Fr. Frans van der Lugt, who was murdered in Homs, Syria last April.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You shouldn’t read this blog post. At least not until you see the film, “Of Gods and Men.”
Really, stop now if you intend to watch it and don’t want me to spoil it for you.
The movie tells the true story of French monks living in the hills of Algeria during the civil war in the 1990s. These Catholic men worked simply alongside their Muslim neighbors, responding to medical needs and providing other basic services. Wanting to push foreigners out, both the government forces and rebel groups threatened the monastic community, but the priests chose to stay—and ultimately lost their lives because of it.
The film is at once hopeful and tragic, peaceful and terrifying. The moments of beauty and solidarity are just as heartbreaking as those of brutality and fear. Some of my favorite scenes in “Of Gods and Men” take place on Christmas, and that’s why it seems appropriate for me to write about this film now, as the holiday is upon us.
“Of Gods and Men,” which might just be my favorite movie, has helped me rediscover—or even recognize for the first time—some important lessons about the Incarnation (God becoming human in the person of Jesus) that many of us may often miss.
“A happy night in Palestine”
In the slanted afternoon light of Christmas Eve, an old monk named Celestin hobbles around the chapel of the Tibhirine monastery, organizing candles for the evening Mass. He cheerily sings this hymn under his breath:
God has prepared the earth like a cradlefor His coming from above.This is the night,the happy night in Palestine.And nothing exists except the child,except the child of life Divine.By taking flesh of our flesh,God our desert did refreshand made a land of boundless spring.
Celestin’s joyous anticipation of the birth of Jesus reflects the Christian attitude we expect during the season. It is only natural for us to be happy as we welcome our Salvation, the God who took on flesh to dwell among us—as a little baby.
This point (that God came to us not through military strength or kingship, as was expected, but instead through poverty and childhood) is not missed by the monks. Processing into the dark chapel to begin the Christmas service, the monks sing this hymn, and the youngest monk, Christophe, gently places a figurine of the newborn Jesus into the manger scene.
This gesture, and the hymn that the monks sing together in unison, is a reminder of the humility and vulnerability that characterize Christmas. Often, we become so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ birth that we hardly recognize the very powerful lesson it tells us about the way God works: not through massive displays of power, but through the simplicity and poverty of His creation.
The holiday of Christmas, the monks help us realize, is an acknowledgement that God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and love will be achieved in very unexpected ways, by and through people about whom we usually don’t give a second thought. Born to a stigmatized mother in a forgotten town, his life threatened by a power-hungry king, Jesus was the definition of “marginalized.” Most people didn’t care about him, and those that did wanted him dead. Yet, it was he who became the most important bearer of God’s transformative love. No wonder the monks exude an aura of awe as they sing quietly in dim candlelight.
“Take new lodgings in my heart”
The monks understand quite well, however, that the Incarnation is not simply a one-time event that happened two thousand years ago. It is also a cosmic mystery (a faith-filled assertion that God imbues all of creation and can be known in this world) that must be embodied and internalized by humanity.
Sitting around their meeting table a few weeks after Christmas, the monks discuss whether or not to flee Algeria, to escape the violence engulfing the country. The abbot of the monastery, Christian, reflects on the events that occurred directly before their Christmas Mass, when armed terrorists stormed the compound, looking for medicine to heal their wounded comrades. The encounter had shaken the priests, and woke them up to their own vulnerability and defenselessness. Christian explains to his fellow monks that the way to respond to the violence they face is by participating in the Incarnation:
I’ve often thought of that time … that time when Ali Fayattia and his men left. Once they were gone, all we had left to do was to live. And the first thing we did was … two hours later … we celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass. It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did.And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that child who was born for us … absolutely helpless and … and already so threatened.Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks. The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us.It’s to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are. The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity.The mystery of the Incarnation remains what we are going to live. In this way, what we’ve already lived here takes root … as well as what we’re going to live in the future.
Christian reminds us that the Incarnation is not fully achieved if we don’t allow the mystery to unfold in our own ordinary activities. By recognizing that God is born within us and in all creation, we naturally begin to live differently. We more consciously try to embody the traits exhibited by the child, Jesus: his trust and humility.
Christian’s speech reflects the sentiment of one of my new favorite Advent songs, “The Dream Isaiah Saw.” I can imagine the monks of Tibhirine praying these words, as I have done during the last few weeks:
Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.
“We do not see your face”
When we celebrate Christmas, we tend to feel joyful as Celestin did, ignoring the heavy stuff and leaving it for the solemn, rainy months of Lent. Jesus’ suffering and death seem far from our minds. Even if we do acknowledge the “fang and claw” that characterized Jesus’ time on earth and still plague our world, we perceive Jesus’ Incarnation as an event that somehow makes all that misery and pain go away.
But the monks help us understand that Jesus’ suffering—and our own—is inextricably linked with Christmas, a fact that we are no doubt more aware of this year, as we still contemplate the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre and violence against children.
As they finish the Christmas Eve hymn in the fading candlelight, the monks’ chant takes on a somber tone:
This is the night,the long night in which we grope,and nothing exists except this place,except this place of ruined hope.By stopping in our adobe,God, as with the bush, did forebodethe world on which fire would fall.
Jesus’ eventual suffering always lingers in the background of his birth. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat expresses so beautifully in a piece about the school shooting and Christmas, “the rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.”
The Incarnation is not about ridding the world of suffering. Instead, it’s about solidarity, about staying.
God became human to share in our pain, to struggle alongside us. God embraced our vulnerability and weakness in order to be intimately close to us. To me, that’s a much more powerful, loving action than if God, from a high seat in Heaven, simply improved our humanly affairs without actually engaging in them.
The monks knew that living the Incarnation was most importantly about solidarity, even if it meant their eventual death. They, like Jesus in the desert, were tempted to save themselves and leave behind the poor and marginalized they’d come to love. But ultimately they made the hard choice to stay.
By deciding to remain in Algeria, the monks didn’t choose “dying” over “living.” They simply decided to finish the work God had called them to do, with the understanding that either their living or their dying would be done in the service of God.
They, like Jesus, didn’t seek out death. Jesus didn’t say, “Ok, it’s time to die! Now someone find me a cross!” Rather, he remained with the people, loving them in a radically simple way, for as long as he could. As we see in the Gospels, Jesus did the will of the Father, whether that led him to walk down with Mary Magdalene in the valleys of Galilee or up the rocky mountain to Calvary. His living and dying were offered up equally to God.
Jesus’ example of self-sacrificing solidarity, and his call for us to emulate it, can be a hard thing for us to swallow. We, like Christophe, whisper to the darkness, “I’m afraid! Help me…” We wonder if God is truly good, if He allows us to face such uncertainty and struggle.
Douthat again offers some wisdom that we, and Christophe, may be comforted by: “The New Testament… seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.”
Douthat, and our whole Christian faith for that matter, argues that the experience of suffering does not imply God’s absence, and it is not an indication that God is not “good.”
Instead, we know that God is good because God is Emmanuel. Because God is with us, just as He is with Christian, who walks along the water and is brought to tears by the recollection of this hymn:
We do not know your mystery,Infinite Love,but You do have a heart,for You seek the Prodigal sonand hold against Your breast the troublesome child,which is the world of mortals.We do not see your face,Infinite Love,but You do have eyes,for You see through the oppressed,and look upon uswith a shining gaze…
*Special thanks to a good friend and numerous Jesuits who helped me to reflect on the wisdom of this film.
The title of this post comes from another of my favorite songs, Christus Paradox, which also inspired points I made in this post.