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.

Attentiveness in Advent

Every year during Advent, the four-week season leading up to Christmas, Catholics hear passages from Scripture that remind us to be watchful and ready for the coming of Christ.   These passages explain that we are not only awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming at the end of time.

Advent wreath in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel

Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of her son.
Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Luke 1)

John tells his critics that he is not the Messiah.
There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me. (John 1)

And Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for his second coming at the end of time.
Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. (Mark 13)

To be honest, every year during Advent I feel a bit bashed over the head with these constant reminders about Jesus’ coming.  ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’ I think after the third week. The message never seems all that surprising or relevant. We surely never forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth—even amid the red and green Christmas regalia—and the event of the second coming seems far away (and, in my mind, not quite as concrete as the way it’s described in Scripture.)

Thankfully, this year these concerns of mine were addressed by two Georgetown Jesuits, whose homilies on the Advent Scripture passages helped clarify what this season is all about.

These two events we hear about—Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time—are at the ends of a very long timeline of history, a Jesuit said, and we are in the middle, distant from them.  What we really should be preparing ourselves for are the third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ that happen in between.  The times when Jesus breaks into our lives in ordinary and unexpected ways.

As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, the act of God taking on human form in the person of Jesus.  The Incarnation isn’t a singular event that happened two millennia ago, but rather a fundamental doctrine that tells us in quite simple terms about how we understand God: God wants to be with us, here and now, and reaches out to us through human experience. A belief in Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove ourselves from this world in order to be with God; it says that we can best achieve unity with God by engaging fully with our human reality.

The question is, do we notice Jesus’ third, fourth, fifth, and infinite comings, these expressions of the recurring Incarnation?

Unfortunately, the Jesuit said, we often don’t.  We’re too connected to our phones, music, and email.  And even when we put the technology away, our minds are running at 100 miles per hour, thinking ahead about the ways in which we can be as efficient as possible.  We don’t give ourselves time to reflect back on our days, to find the times in which Jesus has appeared to us.  During Advent then, we must be actively attentive to the Incarnation, to God’s countless attempts to push through the clutter of our lives.

Knowing that I’m guilty of this lack of attentiveness as much as the next person, I welcomed this challenge from the Jesuit.  It’s a challenge I have already been working on for much of my time at Georgetown: to slow down enough to notice Jesus in my life.

And, thankfully, I have begun to notice.

When a chaplain-in-residence passed me on campus several weeks back, he said, “Hey Jordan!” and gave me a quick fist bump. It was a simple, silly gesture, one that the chaplain probably forgot about two minutes later. But for me, it was a brief, yet powerful example of the way Jesus appears to me everyday.  With his short but enthusiastic hello, the chaplain reminded me of the great love God has for me, reflected through ordinary people and ordinary situations.

I recognized the significance of this small act because I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (as I often do when I walk) or mentally preoccupied with my next task.  By simply slowing down, I was also able to recognize that the jokes I shared with my friends, the music the choir sang at Mass, and the beautiful sunset that burst into view as I turned a corner in one of the most ugly parts of campus are all little third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ.

Most if not all of the time, “finding Jesus” isn’t about having a mystical experience or undergoing a massive life change.  It’s about simply realizing that a hug from a mentor or a laugh with a friend is the mystery of Incarnation at work. 

It’s not always easy to realize, in the moment, that many of these everyday experiences are of God and from God.  It takes a moment of stepping back and reflecting.  In a homily later during Advent, another Georgetown Jesuit encouraged the congregation to reflect back on the ways Jesus has shown himself to us.  We closed our eyes.

Jesus “brings good tidings to the poor,” he said, quoting the day’s reading from Isaiah.  When you were down or depressed, how did others bring you up?  Recognize these moments, he said, and name Jesus as gift.

He continued: Jesus “heals the broken-hearted.” When you were broken-hearted or hurt, who helped you heal?  Jesus “proclaims liberty to the captives” and “releases the prisoners.”  When you were prisoner to your own habits or feelings of inadequacy, how did others free you from those things?  Be thankful for these moments, and name Jesus as gift.

When read in full, the Isaiah passage makes clear that the “good tidings” we hear from Jesus don’t come to us in abstract terms, but through the smiles and fist bumps of those around us. He says, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … he has sent me to bring good tidings…” We, humans, are the way in which God reaches out to the world.

This reflective exercise allowed me to think back on the at once simple and profound ways that I experienced love from friends, family, and mentors during past semester. When one part of my life felt empty, they (often times unknowingly) would rush in fill it up that hole to the point of overflowing.  Their outpouring of support and love was Jesus—God Incarnate.  It was a gift, and I must constantly reflect back in gratefulness in order not to miss it.

As we move into the Christmas season and begin the new year, we need not look for God outside of the normalcy of our everyday lives.  Instead we just to be more attentive to what’s already around us.  We must remember what we celebrate on Christmas: Emmanuel—“God is with us.”

This quote was cited by the first Jesuit during his Advent homily.

Around One Table

A few weeks ago, I co-organized and participated in Georgetown’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service.  Brought together by the Office of Campus Ministry and the student Interfaith Council, students representing different religious groups on campus gathered to share prayers, songs, and reflections of gratitude from their particular traditions.  Diverse members of the Georgetown community were also present, including the university’s five full-time chaplains (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant).  After the service, we all mingled while eating fall desserts and drinking hot cider.

Click this photo to see more images from the service.

The other organizers and I encouraged attendees to take what they’d seen and heard and talk about it with family and friends over the Thanksgiving break. Prayer services like this are sources of learning and should be challenging, eye-opening, and spiritually renewing.  But they don’t have their full impact unless they reach beyond those who attended the event.  The Arabic-inspired hymn sung by the Orthodox Christian Fellowship and the simple prayer presented by the Buddhist Meditation Sangha should not only affect the hearts and minds of those in attendance, but others in the community as well.  Otherwise, we may just be preaching to the choir.

With this blog post I hope to share a little bit of the service with my wider community, particularly by sharing the remarks I made to open the event. (A video of my speech can also be seen here.)

Good evening everyone. On behalf of the student Interfaith Council and the Office of Campus Ministry, I’d like to welcome you to our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving prayer service.  I’m Jordan Denari, the current president of the Interfaith Council.

If you’ve attended this service in past years, you’ll notice that this year we are seated differently.  This choice to sit around a single table was deliberate, and we hope it points to the symbolic way in which we, as an interfaith community, come together in prayer and gratitude, to invoke God’s name in Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Pali.

As people of faith, we often express our gratefulness for our blessings throughout the year, at Mass or Shabbat or other religious services, among those who share the same theological beliefs.  Our American holiday of Thanksgiving, then, provides us a particularly special time to gather in this interfaith setting around one table and as one community.

Before we hear from representatives from the student religious groups on campus, I’d like to walk us through a short reflection, in the spirit of St. Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises. 

Settle yourselves, maybe by closing your eyes, and remember that you are in God’s presence. (Pause)

Recall all the things you’re grateful for, and focus on a few things in particular—perhaps a family member, a caring friend or mentor, or an opportunity you’ve been given here at Georgetown. (Pause)

Allow these things to fill you up, and push out all the worry, frustration, and sadness you may be feeling. (Pause)

Gratitude helps us to achieve better perspective about what’s important in our lives.  And I encourage all of you to give yourselves these short moments of reflection during your busy days at Georgetown.  You may open your eyes. (Pause) 

This year, I’m particularly grateful for the interfaith community at Georgetown—for all the people seated around this table. 

We truly are an interfaith community. Our Catholic students attend Muslim prayers, and our Muslim students participate in Hindu services.  We work together to reach shared goals of alleviating poverty and improving educational opportunities.  And most of us have skipped studying for an important midterm to have a late-night discussion about religion and God with a roommate.

For me, this inter-religious engagement has not only helped me to learn about others.  It has also strengthened my own convictions and given me a better view into who God is. 

I think back to an informal interfaith event I participated in a few weeks ago. 

My Catholic faith-sharing group and I sat in the musallah, the Islamic prayer room, having been invited there for a Muslim Students Association reflection about forgetfulness.  The discussion centered around prayer and making time for God in our busy days.  As the Muslims described their struggles, the Catholics nodded eagerly, saying, “I know what you mean—I’ve had a hard time with that too!”   And when the Catholics expressed their difficulty of actually thinking about God during formalized prayer, the Muslims smiled and said, “We get that!” 

As we laughed and talked, I began to realize what others in the room were surely thinking: that we aren’t alone on campus in our struggle to find God and live as people of faith. 

Though we, as Buddhists and Mormons, agnostics and un-affiliated believers, may go about the practice of our faith in different ways, we all are searching. And that is one commonality that we will always share.  Knowing this, we can look to one another for support, even across religious lines. 

Just last week, one of my friends, Wardah, called me before we went to dinner at Leo’s.  She asked if she could come up to my room quickly to pray, and I said of course.  Wardah is Muslim, and we used to be roommates in the Muslim-Interest Living Community on campus.  As she situated herself toward Mecca, I sat on my bed with St. Ignatius’ Daily Examen, and we completed our short prayers. (If she hadn’t come over to pray, I probably would have skipped mine for the day.) 

Neither of us gave much thought to the significance of this little “interfaith prayer session”.  It wasn’t a big deal; we simply got up and went to dinner.  Our accommodation for one another’s beliefs isn’t questioned or even consciously considered, because it is something that stems from our friendship. 

And inviting Wardah to pray in my room was really the least I could do for her.  Thanks to the support of her and the Muslim community on campus, I was able to reclaim my own Catholic faith during my freshman.  It’s because of them that I’m a better Catholic.

It is this supportive, curious, and passionate interfaith community that I am so grateful for tonight. 

As we remember the gifts we’ve been given, and pray for those who lack essential necessities like food, protection, and love, let us also be grateful for our friends who are seated around this table.