“Even if I don’t see it again”: Marie Howe on mysticism

Today’s Gospel reading in the Catholic Church–about Jesus’ transfiguration–reminded me that for some time I’ve been wanting to share the following poem by Marie Howe.

Like the Gospel reading, which describes the apostles’ brief glimpse into the transcendent, Marie’s poem, “Annunciation,” describes the joy and solace of moments of seeming communion with God. In different ways, both pieces speak of a dazzling brightness which accompanies the realization that the things of this world and the things beyond it are much more intertwined than they usually appear. The two accounts also hint at the disappointment which comes after these fleeting, mystical encounters. They acknowledge that the peace and clarity we feel will come to an end. We have to come down the mountain, just as Peter, James, and John did in today’s passage.

Marie writes the poem in the voice of Mary, mother of Jesus. She reads it beautifully, so I encourage you to listen to her recitation of it below, via Soundcloud. You can also read the piece and listen to it on the On Being website, where you can also find On Being’s hour-long interview with her.

Marie’s poem nearly perfectly articulates what I’ve felt in my own experience. I nearly cried when I first heard it. It provided me with a reminder I needed: that though the emotion that emerges in prayer sometimes fades away, the experience was still real, and is worth hanging on to. I hope you enjoy the poem and find it as moving as I did.

In closing, I’d also like to share a quote from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which also channels the message of Marie’s poem and the transfiguration story.

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light …. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”

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.

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.

Arab poet Taha Muhammad Ali

I just stumbled on this video on YouTube of a poetry reading given by Taha Muhammad Ali, a renowned Palestinian poet.  His poem, “Revenge”, is beautiful in Arabic and English, and its message is one that we must often be reminded of–that hate should not breed hate.

I think I’ll be picking up his book, So What: New and Selected Poetry: 1971-2005