‘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.

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.

Good Friday: Praying with Peter

Today, I think of the apostle Peter, who in the early morning of Good Friday denied Jesus three times.  After Jesus was arrested, numerous people came to him, asking if he knew Jesus.

 69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. 70 But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. 71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” 73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” 74 Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26: 69-75)

I imagine Peter’s eyes widen in fear as he turns, looking for the source of the rooster’s wail.  He stumbles away from group and rushes behind a deserted corner, where he slumps to the ground.  His prayer is a simple one: Oh Lord, what have I done?   Guilt overwhelms him and he wonders, ‘How could I have betrayed the one I love most? The one who put his trust in me?  In his time of need I abandoned him…’

Through the rest of the day, Peter watches from afar, as Jesus is beaten, mocked, burdened with a heavy cross, and hung up high to die with nails in his hands.  He sinks deeper and deeper into depression, replaying his betrayal in his mind.  The bitter eyes of the servant girl bore into his, as he jumps back in defense: ‘I do not know the man!’

But Peter’s guilt doesn’t relieve Jesus’ suffering.

It may have helped Peter to hear the following prayer, written by St. Francis de Sales.

 Stop worrying.
Whatever it is that you must do
to follow the path that God has shown you
do to the best of your ability.
And when you have done it
move on to the next thing.
Don’t keep rerunning it in your mind
trying to decide
whether your efforts were too little
or too much,
whether it was a great deed or a small one,
whether you might have done better.
If it wasn’t sinful and
you were trying to do the will of God,
it is enough.
Don’t worry. Move on.
Simply.
Calmly.
Peacefully.
Follow the path the Lord shows you
free of anxiety.
Otherwise
your anxiety will undermine
your efforts to grow.
If you do fail,
don’t let anxiety
overcome you,
but admit your failure,
quietly, humbly,
and in God’s presence.
Then get on with following the path
that God will continue to show you.
– St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, journalists, and educators

Peter made a mistake by betraying Jesus, but his worrying won’t do anything to change that.  Like Peter, we often need to be reminded of the meaningless of our worrying.  Despite Peter’s missteps, Jesus still chose him to lead his Church, to be the first pope.  And despite our own mistakes, God still manages to work through us, to make good out of our sinful lives.

I’ll end with the following quote, which is often referenced by the Jesuits:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

Holy Thursday: Praying with Jesus

Today, Catholics move into the most prayerful and solemn time of the Church year—the Triduum, which is made up of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.  These days prepare us for the highest Christian holiday, Easter Sunday, which celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead after his crucifixion.

For each day of the Triduum, I will post a prayer that speaks to that day’s particular mood and the experiences of a Biblical character who plays an important role in the day’s events.

Ignatian prayer asks us to contemplate Scripture in a particular way, placing ourselves in the Biblical stories and using our imaginations to better understand the characters we encounter.  In that spirit, we will “pray along” with Jesus, Peter, the apostles, and Mary Magdalene during the next four days.

Today, we pray with Jesus.  In the three Synoptic Gospels, we get a moving account of what seems to be Jesus’ most agonizing time in prayer.  After his last supper with his apostles, Jesus brings them to the garden of Gethsemane so he can pray.  The Gospel of Mark tells us that, “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” (Mark 26: 39)

He Qis "Praying at Gethsemane"

Knowing his death is imminent, Jesus comes to prayer in utter sorrow, no doubt with many worries on his mind.  Not only does he think about the physical pain he will endure when killed (he is clearly aware of the common form of execution in first-century Roman-controlled Palestine—crucifixion), but he is also concerned for those he leaves behind—his mother, his apostles (who can’t even manage to stay awake when he asks), and the countless disciples whose lives are at risk because of their association with him.  Will the movement he began die out once he’s gone?  Has he left his followers for dead?  Will he be able to endure the pain and mockery he will face?  Countless thoughts occupy his mind, and focusing on God’s will is difficult.  Tears drip like blood from his eyes, and he begs God to take his cup—his God-given mission—from him.

To me, this is one of Jesus’ most human moments, and it gives me comfort about my own prayer life.  So often I come to prayer distracted or in worry, lacking a clear mind and an openness to the silence of God’s voice.   When I kneel down before the Blessed Sacrament in Dahlgren Chapel or the beautiful Jesus icon in Copley Crypt Chapel in Georgetown, thoughts about my next workout, a previous conversation with a friend, and the upcoming summer come to mind, and letting them go is sometimes hard.  Knowing that Jesus too had a difficult time in prayer makes me feel much better about my own prayer life.  Rather than leaving the chapel feeling guilty for not getting through the Daily Examen (a common Jesuit prayer) or for speeding through my Hail Marys, I can feel solace, conscious that Jesus too struggled when talking to God or reciting the Psalms.

The end of Jesus’ prayer also has something to teach us.  After questioning God and asking for the cup to be taken away, he submits to God, accepting his will.  Immediately after his prayer, he is betrayed by Judas and arrested.  But Jesus is calm throughout the next and last 24 hours of his life.  He is generous and kind despite the horrible treatment he receives.  To me, this signals that Jesus’ prayer was “successful,” if prayer can ever be considered successful.  He must have received some solace from God, despite his distractions and initial distrust.  Jesus worked though his troubled thoughts, persevered in his prayer, and ultimately came out stronger and with a clearer perspective.  We too must strive for the same.

When I was on a 3-day, silent Ignatian Retreat a few weekends back, I was exposed to the following prayer, which perfectly expresses the mixture of emotions that often accompany us in prayer.  Jesus may have uttered a similar prayer to his father in the garden.

It would be easier for me to pray if I were clear

O Eternal One, 

It would be easier for me to pray 

if I were clear 

and of a single mind and a pure heart;
if I could be done hiding from myself 

and from you, even in my prayers.
 
But, I am who I am, 

mixture of motives and excuses, 

blur of memories, 

quiver of hopes, 

knot of fear, 

tangle of confusion, 

and restless with love, 

for love.
 
I wander somewhere between

gratitude and grievance, 

wonder and routine,
high resolve and undone dreams, 

generous impulses and unpaid bills.
 
Come, find me, Lord. 

Be with me exactly as I am. 

Help me find me, Lord. 

Help me accept what I am, 

so I can begin to be yours.
 
Make of me something small enough to snuggle, 

young enough to question,
simple enough to giggle, 

old enough to forget, 

foolish enough to act for peace; 

skeptical enough to doubt 
the sufficiency of anything but you,
and attentive enough to listen 

as you call me out of the tomb of my timidity 

into the chancy glory of my possibilities 

and the power of your presence.

Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace

May this prayer help us when we struggle in our own Gethsemanes.

A sacrificial feast

Written  November 2010.

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.

Muslims circle the Holy Kaba in Mecca
Orthodox Christians 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.

Depiction of Christian story

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.

Want to read and hear the Qur’anic passage from which the Ibrahim and Ishmael story comes? Qur’an, Chapter 37 (As-Saffaat), Verse 103

Want to learn more about Eid al-Adha and see pictures from the Hajj in Mecca?

 

 

Click here to see photos from the Washington Post.

 

 

Summary of the holy day

Al-Jazeera Special Report: Hajj 2010

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Also, today is the 21st anniversary of the murder of 6 Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador.  This weekend at the Teach-In we celebrated their lives and their sacrifice.