The Garden (“Peeling Oranges” Series)

One cold morning, I wait for the American neighbors next door, who share a cab with me to school.

A smoky mist rises up from their host mother’s garden, the night’s frost melting and crystalizing again in the air.  It curls around laundry polls and hovers above the lemon trees, full of pocked yellow bulbs even in winter.  The sun slips over the back wall and into my eyes, blurring my vision until all I see is light.  The threads of mist, the fallen lemon half-buried in the soil, the bird’s feather that floats to the ground—all of it is light.

I wonder if this is what Adam saw when God walked in the Garden.

Peeling Oranges

During my time in Jordan, I’ve taken many photographs, images that, when I look back at them years from now, will bring back the feelings I felt in those places and with those people.

When I look at this picture, for example, I’ll remember sitting in the cold, purple sand in Wadi Rum at sunset.  The rising rippled rock overhead reminded me of my smallness, and of God’s unimaginable greatness.  And this was a lesson I needed to be reminded of.  As I was sitting in the sand in Jordan, my first paid piece of writing was being published in the U.S., and I felt quite proud in what I had been able to do, what I had accomplished.  But in those large, looming mountains, God had carved AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam).  He was telling me, “You wrote through my power, and for my glory—the greater glory of my creation.” This photo will remind me of humility.

 

When I look at this photo I’ll remember walking the streets of downtown Amman, a crowded area filled with shops and stands, sweets and smoky rug shops.  I’ll remember a feeling described so well by Paulo Coehlo in his book, Aleph, which I began reading when I arrived in Jordan: This is exactly what I need to do right now: walk, walk, walk, breathe some fresh air, take a look at a city I’ve never visited before, and enjoy the feeling that it’s mine. This photo will remind me of the homey comfort I can find, even in new places.

But some of my most beautiful experiences here have not been caught on camera.  Photographing them would have taken away my ability to fully participate in the experience, and or would have caused others to become unnatural or nervous.

Still, I want to preserve these images and the bits of Truth that often accompanied them.  And I can do that best by writing them down.  Over the next few months, I’m going to collect these images and share them here, in a series called “Peeling Oranges.”

This title comes from one image during a cloudy afternoon last week. As I rounded the corner and turned into my neighborhood, I heard the chatter of young children playing in the street.

“Jordan!” One of them called—my 10-year-old host brother.

“Do you want a part of this orange?” I asked him in Arabic.  I pulled it out of my bag, hungry for a snack.

I split it among him and his friends, who hovered shyly against the wall.  I handed a slice to a boy with a pink, scarred hand, and to a little girl who chewed on the empty plastic cylinder of an oversized pixie-stick.

My fingers cold and covered in sticky juice, I peeled the orange and placed the rind on the crumbly sidewalk, the bright color of the skin contrasting sharply against the grayish brown of the cement.

We chatted for a bit, I asked their names, and scooped up the rind from the ground.  The encounter was short, and seemingly unimportant to those who may have been watching.  But sometime during those few moments—in my host brother’s joking, in the hesitant looks of the little ones, and the juice seeping between my fingers—something else was making itself known.

I had a feeling, an awareness, that this simple moment was important, even extraordinary, precisely because of its ordinariness.

It should be no surprise to me that God continues to reveal himself in the most ordinary ways.  It’s a concept that I think and write about a lot.  But each time, I’m still taken off guard.   Each time, the revelation seems at once familiar and new, comforting yet challenging.

More often during my first month in Jordan, I’ve been thrown off my feet not by picturesque views from mountain tops but by peeling oranges with children.

These brief, fleeting, ordinary moments, despite their power, can easily be lost. I don’t want these images—and the love I feel—to fade. And that’s why I write.

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.