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.
Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha, the holiest holiday in the Islamic calendar. It is similar to Christians’ Easter celebrations, in that it is the most important holiday of the year, yet the worldwide festivities and preparations are less extensive than those during the month of Ramadan (which is similar to Christmastime in terms of the scope of celebration.) However, in Mecca, where over two million Muslims have traveled on pilgrimage, or hajj, the celebrations and rituals could not be grander, as I expect is also true in Jerusalem during Easter.
Eid al-Adha celebrates the sacrifice Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to make when God asked him to slaughter his son (Ismaeel/Ishmael). The story is quite similar to the Christian one, but with notable changes that speak to the differences between the two faiths. In the Bible, the story focuses solely on Abraham, and his willingness to give up his son in order to serve God. We never hear from Isaac, who, at least in my mind, is likely scared and confused. In the Islamic story, the focus too is on Ibrahim, but we also hear from Ismaeel, who is about to be killed. Understanding what his father is about to do, Ishmael welcomes the action, telling his father to kill him if that is God’s will. Luckily, in the end, both boys survive thanks to a ram caught in the bushes sent by God, who is pleased by his followers’ faithfulness.
When I first heard the Islamic version of the story, I was struck by the emphasis on Ismaeel and his willingness to submit to the will of God. His faithful trust in God’s plan is emblematic of the attitude that I’ve witnessed in so many of my Muslim friends and teachers. So often I hear the phrase, “In ‘sha Allah” muttered by my friends in the place where Christians might say, “hopefully.” The Arabic phrase translates to “God willing,” and is used when discussing anything that may happen in the future. My friends work hard to detach themselves from their own wishes and instead try to accept whatever God places in their way. This core quality is even expressed in the name “Islam,” which means “submission to God,” and “Muslim,” literally means “the one who submits.”
A few weeks ago, I participated in the Muslim Students Association annual Fast-a-thon, an event in which Georgetown students fasted in solidarity with their Muslim friends and classmates in order to raise money and awareness for a cause. We fasted from sunrise to sunset, without food or water, as if it were the month of Ramadan (which took place earlier in the year.) At the iftaar meal at the end of the day, I was fortunate enough to give a reflection on fasting and sacrifice in Islam. The following is what shared:
“Hi, my name is Jordan Denari. I’m a member of the Muslim Students Association; I live in the Muslim Interest Living Community on campus; and I’m a Catholic. A lot of people have asked me if I’m converting to Islam, which is not surprising given my involvement. But no, I’m not converting.
However, learning about Islam here on campus has been crucial to my religious growth and has in many ways brought me back to my Catholicism. Through my attendance at and participation in MSA events, I’ve seen the beauty in Islam, which helped me to find the beauty in my own faith, which I had been unable to see for a long time.
Last year’s Fast-a-thon is really where all of that learning began. Two of the biggest things I noticed about fasting in Islam—as I hope you’ve also noticed—are the emphases on sacrifice and community. Fasting from food, drink, and negative thoughts all day for a month is clearly a sacrifice, especially when compared to the less intense forms of fasting I’m familiar with in Catholicism. To my surprise, I quickly realized that Muslims were excited to fast, not only because their sacrifice was giving glory to God, but also because of the sense of community at the iftaar dinners, where Muslims gather together every night to celebrate their daily sacrifices.
I was struck by the power of these themes, and wondered why I wasn’t seeing them in my own faith. That encouraged me to take a closer look at Catholicism and find those themes—sacrifice and community—that are so prevalent in Islam. Through a lot of exploration last year, I found those things, but it was only while reflecting for this talk that I was able to see how similarly these themes intersect in Catholicism as they do in Islam.
That intersection is found in the Eucharist, the communion meal that occurs during Mass, in which we commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice. As Catholics, we too are called to sacrifice as Jesus did by serving the marginalized in our communities in order to bring God’s goodness into the world. Every week, when we gather as a community for the Eucharist, we are celebrating the sacrifices we live out every day in our own way. We may not be sacrificing food or water, but we are sacrificing our own time, our own goals, to follow the will of God. In that way, the Eucharist is very much like the iftaar meal we are sharing in tonight. At both meals we join in community to celebrate the sacrifices we make for God.
Finding this intersection point in the Eucharist makes the communion ritual that much more meaningful for me.
Last year’s Fast-a-thon was for me the unconscious beginning of a process of religious learning here at Georgetown. I hope all of you make this meal a conscious start to your own growth. I encourage you, whether you adhere to a specific faith or not, whether you believe in God or not, to take advantage of the opportunities you have here to learn from people of other faiths. It not only fosters inter-religious and cultural understanding, but it also has the potential to increase your understanding of yourself and God.
I want to thank the Muslim community on campus for its support and for bringing us here tonight. And especially, for helping me become a better Catholic.”
While Muslims today are slaughtering animals in remembrance of Abraham and Ishmael’s sacrifice, I am reminded of the Church’s own ritual slaughtering—the Eucharist—in which Jesus is offered up as a sacrificial animal, so that we, like Isaac and Ishmael, can be spared. Unlike my Muslim brothers and sisters, I don’t have to wait another year to engage in my faith’s sacrificial ritual. Fortunately, I just have to wait until Sunday.