Ignatius and Islam: Uncovering interfaith intersections

July 31 is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests better known as the Jesuits.

The essay below was originally published in National Catholic Reporter on July 17, 2015 on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday which concludes the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

It’s a special time in the Islamic world, and in the Ignatian world, too.

For the last month, Muslims have been celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, almsgiving, and praying over God’s revelation. For those at Jesuit institutions — schools, parishes, and organizations inhabiting the spirit of St. Ignatius of Loyola — this July is a celebration of the spirituality of the Jesuit founder, whose feast day is July 31.

This confluence of celebrations prompted me to reflect on the points of convergence between Islamic and Ignatian spirituality. As a student of Islam educated in Catholic Jesuit schools, I’ve discovered some profound similarities, or, as the late Trappist abbot Christian de Cherge would call them, “the notes that are in common” between the religions.

These similarities can be explained best by pointing to three Arabic mottos, central to the Islamic tradition, and their surprising Ignatian counterparts.

MashaAllah

MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.
MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.

The phrase MashaAllah, or “what God wills,” is used to express appreciation, gratitude, reverence, and awe about the good and beautiful. As my friend Zainab put it, it’s about recognizing “a flicker of God’s divine character” in the created world. Muslims exclaim it when their friends get into college, when they spot a stunning sunset, or when their relatives post a picture of their new, healthy baby on Facebook. I like to think of this prompt acknowledgement of God’s blessings as an immediate, “in-the-moment” Examen, the daily prayer of gratitude developed by St. Ignatius.

The Daily Examen encourages us to reflect back on — or rummage through — our day, looking for the places where God made Godself known to us. Often, these ayat, or signs of God, can be found in creation. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, and the Muslim mystic Ali al-Khawas, both realized this. In his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home,” Francis cites the Sufi writer, who wrote in the ninth century:

The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted.

Inspired by Ali’s poetic description, Francis writes:

Standing awestruck before a mountain, [the mystical person] cannot separate this experience from God, and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord.

What Francis and Ali are both describing is that “a-ha!” — or rather, MashaAllah — moment, when a person recognizes and acknowledges that it is ultimately God who is the giver of creation’s good gifts.

Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.
Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not just about seeing God in what appears to be beautiful and good, but finding Allah in all things. Both Christianity and Islam teach us that every experience — good or bad — is an opportunity to become closer to the divine. St. Ignatius talks about this as “finding God in all things,” a phrase which has become an important buzzword in Ignatian communities. Another Muslim mystic, the well-known Rumi, would have agreed with Ignatius. In his poem, “The Guest House,” he advises us to “be grateful for whoever comes, [because] each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

InshaAllah

Another phrase of great significance in the Islamic tradition is InshaAllah, or “if God wills.” Muslims use it when talking about the future, to qualify their anticipated plans with the caveat that God is ultimately in control.

The frequent mention of God’s will in Muslims’ speech points to the core endeavor at the center of Islam: conforming one’s will to the will of God. The word Islam refers to the peace that comes with surrendering to God’s will, and a Muslim is a person who submits to that God-given peace.

That is a notion familiar to those acquainted with Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius taught that we must constantly ask ourselves, “What is God’s will for me?” and “How can I live out God’s desires for me, and for the world?” Ignatius wrote that we could come to these answers through prayerful discernment.

Junayd, another spiritual giant, said this handing over of one’s free will to God brings deep ”contentment.” But the process of discerning God’s will and living it out in practice is challenging. Matt McKibben, a 2008_008671student at a Jesuit high school in Kansas City, Mo., described this challenge as riding with God on a tandem bicycle. After steering the bike from the front seat and maintaining control over life, he asks God to metaphorically swap places, praying, “Let me pedal hard while you guide the way. Let me keep focus, and stay with you always.”

By uttering InshAllah, Muslims vocalize their inner trust, or tawakkul, in God’s plan for the future. I can imagine my Muslim friends offering this prayer by the late Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, renaming it “Patient Tawakkul”:

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Allahu Akbar

Islamic and Ignatian spirituality also put a strong emphasis on God’s “greatness.” Each Islamic call to prayer begins with the invocation, Allahu Akbar, “God is the greatest.” It is used to praise and glorify God

Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.
Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.

who is transcendent, grander than we could ever imagine. This phrase of exultation is also used in ordinary life, to express “adulation and exuberance during a sermon or cultural performance, and conversely, even to [communicate] a sense of shock or distress upon learning of the death of a loved one.” Unfortunately, most non-Muslims will only associate this phrase with terrorists. They don’t know that NFL football star Husain Abdullah  uses it to give credit to God when he picks off a pass from Tom Brady on the football field.

The motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “For the greater glory of God,” was coined by St. Ignatius to remind us that every act we perform, big or small, can and should be dedicated to God. The motto vocalizes the common goal of Christians, Muslims and all people of faith, who endeavor to dedicate their lives to something greater than themselves.

St. Ignatius with the motto, For the Greater Glory of God.
For the Greater Glory of God.

Islam and Ignatian spirituality remind us that our existence is made meaningful by this: praising and glorifying God through a life of service to God and others. That’s why I was so thrilled with the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Laudato Si’ means “praise be to you” in the medieval Umbrian dialect of Italian spoken by St. Francis of Assisi, who had his own personal encounter with Islam through a meeting with the Muslim Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt. The title made me smile because it could have easily have been named Alhamdulillah another ubiquitous Arabic term meaning “praise be to God,” the equivalent for our Hallelujah.

At a bare minimum, this time of celebration can be an opportunity for our communities to learn more about each other. But it holds much more potential. These days should call us to praise God, not just from the comfort of our own, respective communities, but together, as a diverse community, unified by our shared goals and our common Source.

Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur'an at interfaith solidarity event. Source: Buzzfeed
Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur’an at interfaith solidarity event.
Source: Buzzfeed

Fr. Frans, an icon

After the death of Fr. Frans van der Lugt, who I’ve written about before, I painted this icon of him. I hope it captures just a small portion of his spirit and work, which have been so inspirational to me in the days since his death.

I am fortunate that the website of the Middle East Jesuits published my icon, with a description in Arabic of the symbolism. You can see the original Arabic post here on their website. I have translated it below.

Many thanks to my new friend, Tony Homsy, S.J., for wanting to feature my artwork on the site. He was a friend of Fr. Frans and will be traveling back to his native Syria to continue his ministry in the war-torn country. We pray that God will protect the Jesuits presence in Syria, and particularly in Homs.

It has been forty days since Fr. Frans’ murder. The fortieth day is a significant event in the mourning ritual of Middle Eastern Christians. Many believe that after a person’s death their spirit remains on earth for forty days and then ascends to heaven. Indeed, Fr. Frans’ spirit has been felt among us in the days since his death, reigniting my passion for promoting interfaith understanding. Now, as he comes face-to-face with the Father and intercedes on our behalf, let us find the courage to “move forward” and continue the important work for which Fr. Frans gave his life.

20140507-Frans Van Der Lugt01
Father and martyr Frans van der Lugt, S.J. © 2014 Jordan Denari, All Rights Reserved

(The original post by Tony Homsy, S.J. can be found here.)

An icon of the patron of interreligious dialogue: Fr. Frans van der Lugt

From the pencil of Jordan Denari

Jordan, an American student from the Jesuit Georgetown University, surprised us with this painting which demonstrates her love of the Arabic language, her passion for interfaith dialogue, and her gratitude for Fr. Frans van der Lugt, S.J., who is considered an example of incarnate love in word and deed. Having graduated from Georgetown with a degree in Culture and Politics, she now conducts research on Arabic-language Christian media and its effect on an Islamic environment. Her blog can be found here.

Description of the elements of the painting:

The cross at the top-left of the painting is the symbol of Christianity, upon which Jesus was crucified and redeemed humanity. Fr. Frans wanted to follow his Lord by offering his life for the sake of his loved ones.

The bismillah (top-center Arabic text) is an expression that begins most chapters of the Qur’an. In English it reads “in the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” Fr. Frans saw in Islam and its teachings a call to coexistence and fraternity. On the top-right is a green crescent and star, a common symbol of Islam. 

The phrase “Still, the world is good” (the Arabic text along the left side) is a simple phrase is a motto of optimism which Fr. Frans sent into the hearts of all to help them face their difficulties.

In the center is an image of Fr. Frans as we knew him, holding a book on the teachings of Zen. He was a master of integrating East Asian spirituality with Christian spirituality, and he had deep understanding of people’s personal spiritual experiences.

“For the greater glory of God” (the Arabic text along the right side) is the motto of the Society of Jesus and of Fr. Frans, who spent almost 55 years in Syria with the Society.

The phrase “Let’s move forward” (the Arabic text along the bottom of the image) is a saying used by Fr. Frans as a sign of resurrection and hope. After his horrific death, those who loved him took this simple phrase, which he used to end his speeches and writings, as they make their way through the darkness of death and hunger. 

The image on the bottom right is the symbol of the Society of Jesus. The letters “IHS” represent “Jesus Christ, Savior of humanity.” The image on the bottom left is the symbol of Zen Buddhism. 

The image at the bottom represents Fr. Frans’ two important ministries: offering personal spiritual guidance and leading an interfaith pilgrimage.

Fr. Frans, patron of interfaith dialogue, pray for us!

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

 

‘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.

Empty plane seats

This post goes along well with my last post “Returning to the river,” in that it expands on the importance of trusting in the divineness of our own imaginations.

On each of my three flights to Amman during January, I had an empty seat next to me.  This made the plane rides relaxing and enjoyable, but not simply because I could stretch out and didn’t have to squeeze by someone on my way to the bathroom…

~~~

Before I left for Amman, I was concerned about how I would transition, how I would feel navigating a new home alone.  Because I am so close with my family and friends and talk to them often, I was uncomfortable with the thought that my contact with loved-ones would be less frequent, and that I’d feel more isolated.

But then the most basic and yet profound thought struck me over the head: I won’t be alone.

This idea seems unsurprising.  Of course, God is with me and is in everything I encounter (I’ve talked about that much in recent posts).  But this insight was different.  I realized that I not only can find Jesus in the people and places around me, but I can find the person of Jesus—the physical, social, emotional human being—around me as well.  I can picture Jesus doing everything with me.  I can talk to him, be held by him, and share my excitement, anxiety, and sadness with him.

This understanding brought me so much peace, and my concerns seemed to slip away.  Navigating this journey would be so much easier, since I had someone doing it with me.  Though I didn’t know yet what life in Amman would be like, I had already started imagining Jesus there with me.

I prayed this prayer the night before I left for Amman:

Dear God,
Help me let you be my companion.
Walk with me in the streets.
Sit and drink tea.
Lay down next to me as I read your book.
I know I don’t need to ask; you’re already there.
Just give me a wave in the face if I forget you’re with me*.
Amen

(*This is a reference to “On Religion,” an excerpt of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.)

The day of my departure to Amman arrived, and I boarded the plane in Indianapolis to Toronto to find that the seat next to me was empty.  When I sat down on my London-bound plane, the chair beside me was again unoccupied.  And a third time, when I boarded for Amman, the seat next to me wasn’t filled.

But I quickly realized that these seats weren’t empty—someone was sitting there.  It was like God the Father had booked the seat for his Son.

I imagined Jesus there, next to me.  Barely able to contain my excitement after speaking in Arabic with one of the Canadian flight attendants, I gave Jesus a fist bump.  In an airport bathroom, I looked over at him as we washed our hands.  (Apparently Jesus is the only man allowed in the women’s restroom.) When I went to sleep and stretched across the seat, I rested my head on his lap.  Jesus’ presence tempered my anxiousness and brought comfort.

For me, one of the many beauties of Christianity is the way it embraces the physical, human, and historical world.  The person of Jesus inhabited time and space many years ago, a fact that allows us to bring him into this world again.  (It’s hard for me to explain my understanding of this fully.  It’s a combination of personal revelation and Church theology I’ve learned.  I need to do more reading on this in order to better articulate the more visceral understanding I have.)

Since I’ve been here, I’ve often found Jesus beside me, participating in my life.  He lounges on my host sister’s bed as I write this post, or squeezes in on the couch with my host family while we watch Arab Idol.  When I start feeling sad or uncomfortable or nervous here, I realize it’s because I haven’t been bringing Jesus into the picture.

A few weekends back, Jesus sat with me for a long time on the mountain where John the Baptist was executed.  I looked over, up the hill a bit to where he was sitting, and when we made eye contact, he scooted across the edge of the cliff down to where I was. I could hear the gravel pulling on his clothes as he shifted down the hill.  I remembered the Bible passage in which Jesus sits alone after hearing the news of John’s death, and I felt like we were experiencing that moment again together.  He didn’t have to be alone in that pain, just as I never have to be alone either.

Mukawir, the mountain on which John the Baptist was executed.

What do I call moments like this, I’ve wondered, when I see so clearly my Lord with me?

I think they are visions.

That may seem like a gutsy thing to claim.  Heck, I’m not Moses or Juan Diego, who saw God in a bush or Mary on a rosy hilltop.

But I think claiming to see visions isn’t the scary—or outright crazy—thing it initially seems to be.

During the last several years, a few friends of mine have told me they had visions, and I completely believed that they had.  But I wondered how they came to them? I thought, how could I ever receive a vision?, as if visions are things that come to us from the outside.  As if we have no control over the images that are presented before our eyes by God.

But from my own experiences, imagining Jesus with me, I understand now that visions don’t come from without.  They come from within, from inside our own hearts and minds.

Ignatius vision of Jesus at La Storta.

Mystics like Teresa of Avila (whose name I took at my Confirmation), Ignatius, and Rumi didn’t receive external images, ones imposed on them from the outside.  They simply trusted their imaginations, and realized that God was in the images and the stories they created.

When I think back on my own visions, it feels like the line between God’s work and my own has been blurred, and I know that’s because God’s divinity resides in me.  My creation is His, and His is mine.  I can trust these images and find meaning in them. I can intentionally bring Jesus into a situation, but that doesn’t make his presence any less holy.

~~~

All around—in the crowded coffee shop, inside the dry cleaners in my neighborhood, and on the crumbling, terraced hills of Jordan—empty seats are reserved, waiting for me—for us—to fill them up.

“Of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
—Dumbledore to Harry, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling