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

 

Diet Advice from the Caliph

The walls of the priest’s office were lined with black-and-white photographs of his father donning a checkered Jordanian kufiyyeh and his little sister wearing her white First Communion dress. Newer pictures of Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, Roman Catholic bishops of Jordan, and Pope John Paul II, flanked the family shots. 

But the most striking images in Fr. Hanna’s office were the plainest ones: white sheets of paper with Arabic and English quotations spoken by famous individuals. There were sayings by Martin Luther King, Jr., Aristotle, and even a character from the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But the most commonly quoted leader was someone less familiar in the Western world: Ali bin Abi Talib, one of Islam’s most important caliphs and Fr. Hanna’s “beloved friend.”

Fr. Hanna is a scholar of Christian history in the Middle East and an ecumenical and interfaith leader in Jordan. I visited his parish in outskirts of Amman to talk about my research on Muslim-Christian relations and the media in Jordan. For Fr. Hanna, like every Jordanian, interfaith dialogue is not simply an interest, but a way of life. For over a thousand years, Muslims and Christians have lived together—drinking coffee, doing business, watching each others’ kids, and even celebrating holidays—without a thought. They’ve rubbed off a lot of each other, both theologically and culturally, and Fr. Hanna’s affinity for the caliph Ali demonstrates that.

The words of Ali were scrawled in loopy Arabic calligraphy, so Fr. Hanna deciphered and translated them for me into English. One phrase talked about rejecting a wealthy lifestyle, and another warned about getting overly attached to worldly relationships. But Fr. Hanna’s favorite quote of Ali’s is a bit more practical: it was diet advice.

We walked into the kitchen, where the phrase was pasted above the table and next to a sparkly, woven image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It read, “Whatever you limit yourself to is enough.” He told me that the phrase keeps him from eating too much. “If I limit myself to a banana for dinner, and tell myself it’s enough, then it will be,” he said.

But Fr. Hanna does not just eat small meals just to watch his weight; he, like Ali, recognizes the spiritual benefits of fasting. We talked about how many Catholics in the West have abandoned the practice which Muslims, who fast for the entire month of Ramadan, and ِEastern Orthodox Christians, who have a number of strict fasting periods, have maintained. We agreed that Western Christians should re-adopt fasting, which diverts the mind from the body and instead directs it toward God.

Still standing in the kitchen, Father told me a final Arabic saying which illustrates the deep connections between Christians and Muslims. “We say that ‘the heart of a Muslim is a little bit Christian, and the heart of a Christian is a little bit Muslim.’ It’s because Muslims receive so much of their religious heritage from Christianity and because Christians here have been so influenced by Islamic beliefs and culture.”

This sharing, or “enculturation” as Fr. Hanna put it, is at the heart of religious life  in Jordan and in the Middle East more largely. How beautiful it was to be reminded of it there, standing beside the ornate words of a beloved Muslim and an image of Jesus, whose glittering, open heart is made up of a little bit of all of us.

The image of Jesus' Sacred Heart and Ali's quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.
The image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and Ali’s quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.

To learn more about Ali, click here.

To read more about surprising similarities between Christians and Muslims, check out my latest post for Commonweal.

The $200,000 Conversation

This afternoon, while wandering the garden of my favorite, secluded hangout on an otherwise crowded hillside in Amman, I discovered the ruins of a Christian church and Islamic shrine. The site, which is still strewn with stone columns and pebbled with pale mosaic tiles, was home to an ancient church, built in the 500s and dedicated to St. George. Though the church was abandoned two hundred years later, the place remained a shrine to the saint until the 20th century. St. George—who is also revered in Islam as al-Khidr, meaning “the green one”—is a towering mythical figure in the Middle Eastern spirituality, and countless churches and holy sites in the region purport to be the location of his miracles and appearances.

An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.
An icon of St. George at the Khidr church in al-Salt, a town northwest of Amman.

As I was reading the brief plaque explaining the history of the site, which was excavated by Americans in the 1990s, I began a conversation in Arabic with a young pharmacist named Osama. I anticipated the conversation would consist only of small talk, but we quickly launched into a conversation about…surprise, surprise: Muslim-Christian relations. But this conversation was different than my usual ones, which usually involve talking about interpersonal relations between the two groups here. We began discussing  big theological questions between Christianity and Islam. He pulled out his smart phone to show me that he has both the Qur’an app and the Arabic Bible app, and asked why the Bible is composed into separate books with separate authors. I expect this a common questions Muslims ask, since their text, the Qur’an, has a single voice and author: God’s. I explained the ‘what’ of the New Testament—that people after Jesus wrote about him—and then attempted to move to the ‘why.’ I began to feel giddy as I brought up my favorite Islam-Christianity comparison explanation, where I compare the functions of Mary and Muhammad, Jesus and the Qur’an, and the Bible and the Hadith. (For many of you students and scholars of Islam out there, you might disagree with those comparisons. They may be simplistic but they’re good starting points for dialogue I think.) I’m not sure Osama really followed what I was saying, but I was proud of myself for trying to explain it—in Arabic.

What made this half-hour encounter so thrilling was that it was 98% in Arabic. Osama doesn’t speak much English from what I could tell, so it challenged me to stick to colloquial Arabic. It made me grateful for and proud of my Arabic program and professors at Georgetown. Those nights during my freshman year when I slaved away for hours on my beginner Arabic homework paid off in this one conversation (not to mention the countless more basic ones I’ve already had here.)

Osama and I then moved on to other topics including Islamic beliefs about al-Khidr, what determines prophethood in Islam, and the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. He used very technical, theological terms like ‘aqida (“belief”), fiqh (“jurisprudence”), and wahy (“revelation”), and I could follow what he said and interject my thoughts because of my very strong education in Islam at Georgetown. Without my classes with Dan Madigan, Jonathan Brown, John Esposito, and without the many lessons and sermons from Imam Yahya Hendi, and without the many conversations with Muslim friends, I could never have dreamed to have such a meaningful, deep, and heady conversation with Osama.

As we swapped contact information, I was flying as high as the pigeons overhead. I was bowled over with gratitude at the education I received at Georgetown, realizing that so much of what I learned in classrooms there was put to use in this single conversation half the world away. I felt that my four years of study—and the thousands of dollars paid by my parents—were more than worth it. So many people feel like their undergraduate educations are barely useful, hardly relevant, in the real world. But for me, alhamdulilah (thank God), that is not the case. Every day my Hoya education informs my experiences, but today I was especially conscious of my education’s remarkable impact.

As Osama and I parted, I not only felt grateful to Georgetown, but also to St. George, who, on the crumbling ruins of once-holy ground, is still making miracles.

Ruins of the church.
Ruins of the church.

Poem: “Bethel”

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.

Bethel
by Jordan Denari

This spot

where I place a stone
where the sparrow falls
and hovers like love over the waters
where He breaks a branch,
a rung on the ladder,
     and His foot touches earth near me.

where there’s a ringing in my ears,
     a tight, breathless squeezing
where fire passes between
     two wrestling beings
where I’m shoved into a cliff face
     and down into a ditch.

where a ram is found in the thicket
where mothers clutch branches of date
     and sal trees
where a father runs to me, though I was a long way off.

where the Lover leaps across the hills
     and knocks at my door
     so sweetly asking for your address.

where the lilies no longer toil and spin
where light is poured back in
where the stone is rolled away
    and the Gardener calls my name. 

Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.
Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.