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.”
Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, the saint whose name I took at my confirmation. Teresa is a looming figure in Catholic history. A reformer, writer, and mystic, she was one of the first women to be named a Doctor of the Church, an honor which acknowledges the saint’s important theological contribution to the Church. Her writings, which discuss busy-ness, distraction, and dryness in prayer, seem written to a modern audience stuck on their i-Phones and tied to their G-Cals.
Teresa has not only impacted me through her spiritual writing, but through the women who carry her Carmelite charism. I’d like to share a bit about two groups of women—one in Indiana and one in Jordan—who have supported my spiritual life at crucial points in my journey.
The Carmelites of Indianapolis at the Monastery of the Resurrection
As a child, I often attended Mass with my family at the Carmelite monastery in Indianapolis. Each week, a local Jesuit priest (from my future high school, Brebeuf) would say Mass for the dozen or so sisters and a diverse group of Catholic lay people, including those in openly gay partnerships. The service was different than any other Mass I’d been to before, or have attended since. We sung the Gloria with non-gendered language; we passed the Eucharist throughout the rows and consumed it together; and we sat quietly after Communion, meditating as a song played from the CD player in the corner. The radical equality and solidarity preached by Jesus was mirrored in the Mass. I will never forget the soft, high voices of the sisters singing, or the passion with which Sr. Terese proclaimed the readings.
Carmelites are traditionally a cloistered order which, in the past, never left the monastery. In the early 2000s, these sisters still maintained a simple life of prayer, silence, and community within the monastery, but they often ventured out into the community to see the Harry Potter movies and go to Target. They were funny, relatable, and smart, reading dozens of newspapers and magazines each week to keep abreast on current affairs. This self-education about current events was another way they stayed connected to the world outside their walls. After reading about the Iraq War, the sex abuse scandal, or the Second Intifada, they came together and prayed, lifting up the suffering to God. Eventually, their prayer and reflection moved beyond the monastery in a more concrete way—through PraytheNews.com, a website developed by my dad’s advertising agency. The site featured the sisters’ prayerful commentary on world events, in addition to resources about Carmelite prayer and the history of the order.
These sisters taught me what it means to be socially conscious, and convinced me of the efficacy of prayer even when prayer seems hopeless. Through their encouraging words every week, they helped to nourish my vocation—something I can only recognize now with hindsight. They are still some of my biggest cheerleaders and I continue to correspond with Srs. Terese and Jean Alice now and then.
Because of the sisters’ old age and small numbers, they had to discontinue the PraytheNews website and move from their beautiful, stone monastery to another religious community in eastern Indiana. But their impact is still felt through their prayers, as Sr. Terese’s reflection illustrates:
“Hidden Friends,” God in Ordinary Time
I like to pray in the morning When all is quiet. In the summer, I frequently go outside And walk the monastery grounds Or sit in the courtyard. In the winter, when the mornings are dark, I prefer to sit in my very small room. The windows are high, so that only sky and the tops of trees can be seen. Periodically, the twinkling red and white Lights of a plane far up In the Heavens Punctuate the blackness. I try to picture the passengers traveling To their destinations, and I wrap them in prayer. “Where did they begin their journeys? What loved ones wished them well? Whom will they meet when they land? What calls them to be traveling at this hour?” I hope them all In my heart and pray For their safety and their happiness, Though they do not know This unknown friend Sitting in a monastic cell. Sometimes, I wonder if one of them is looking Down on the miniature trees and houses, seeing The lights of the city, Sending down silent blessings Upon me—an unknown friend Cradling me in prayer. We could be sending arcs of blessing Like rainbows through the skies.
Elisa and Amabel: Teresians in Amman
I met Elisa Estrada and Amabel Sibug in 2012, when I first lived in Jordan during college. They helped out with the Mass I attended—Elisa orchestrated the readers and Eucharistic ministers, while Amabel played guitar for the music ministry. During that time, they were friendly, kind faces, but I didn’t get to know them well until I returned to Jordan in the fall of 2013.
I was quite emotional on my first Sunday back in Amman, unsure if I could manage for nine months away from family and friends. When I walked into Mass, Elisa immediately recognized me, gave me a hug, and asked me, “Would you like to read?” She, like the Carmelites, also knew how to tend my vocation—I enjoy participating in the Mass by reading the Scripture passages. I sat in the pew, trying to pray before Mass began, but was still overwhelmed by the transition to my new home. Elisa noticed I was upset, and scooted next to me on the pew. “It is so nice to have you back,” she said. “We’re glad you’re here.” Her hospitality and welcome caused me to cry a new wave of tears, one of gratitude and relief. This interaction was a sign of the friendship that would emerge over the next year.
Elisa and Amabel both work at the Pontifical Mission Library, an institution of the Catholic Church which serves the whole community, Christian and Muslim. Children and adults alike come to check out books in Arabic and English, and to participate in religious events or skills workshops. I made use of the library as well, coming on free mornings to work on my research.
Originally from the Philippines, Elisa and Amabel have spent decades in Jordan. Elisa has been with the library since she helped open it in Jabal Hussein 40 years ago. They are members of the Teresians, a community of lay men and women who live out the spirituality of St. Teresa and the Carmelites. Their members are spread around the world, and most work in educational ministries. As single women, Elisa and Amabel live together in an apartment with a chapel, and every Friday, they welcome foreign workers—many of them Filipino—into their home for a meal. Elisa and Amabel serve and live among struggling but ordinary communities: Palestinian refugees, domestic workers, the elderly and the sick. They live out the Gospel injunction to “love thy neighbor” with sincerity and humility, attempting to walk with Jesus throughout their day. During my visits to the library, Elisa and I would often talk about her prayer life, how she was relating to Jesus and what He was teaching her. Usually, the message was trust—a message I constantly needed to hear. I now wish I had written down those conversations.
One afternoon last October, Elisa and Amabel took me with them on a mini-pilgrimage to two holy sites in northern Jordan. One of them was Tell Mar Eliyas, or the Mount of St. Elijah. Legend holds that Elijah was born in a town in northern Jordan, and that as a child he would climb a nearby mountain to pray. The Byzantines built a large church on this mountain, and its intricate mosaic floor is partially in tact today. At one end of the ruins is an old tree, with many ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to it. Muslim pilgrims also come to the site with particular petitions and pray to Elijah to intercede for them.
Elisa, Amabel, their friend, Petra, and I explored the site and sat in silent prayer alone. The Carmelites’ style of prayer is characterized by silence, and they trace this emphasis back to Elijah, who was unable find God in the storm, the wind, or the fire, but in calm silence. It was grateful to pray at the place where Elijah prayed as a child, where Carmelite spirituality got its start.
I am so grateful to these women of St. Teresa, who have supported me in times of growth and struggle, and who model her challenging “way of perfection,” an avenue to God defined not by the avoidance of sin, but a path defined by self-giving love.
Through their humble service, they live out this saying of St. Teresa, which might as well have been uttered by Jesus Himself: The important thing is not to think much, but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love.
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.
Last weekend, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to deliver the following speech at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice to an audience of over 1,000.
Using my own experiences with Muslim-Christian dialogue and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I argued that we as Catholics are called to engage in interreligious dialogue.
Click here, or on the image below to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims,” or read the full text of the speech below the photo.
Full text of the speech:
[My name is Jordan Denari, I’m a senior at Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C. (applause) and a proud alumnus of Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis (applause). Forgive me, I’m getting over a cough and lost my voice earlier this week, so bear with me.]
I’d like to begin first by saying “Assalaamu ‘alaykum,” which, in Arabic, means “peace be with you.” It seems like an appropriate way to begin today, given that it’s a phrase that Muslims use to greet one another, and it’s something that Jesus encouraged his followers to say to each other as well.
During my freshman year at Georgetown University, I was asked the following question multiple times: “Are you converting to Islam?”
I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked that question now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association, lived in the Muslim living-learning community, worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, and can often be spotted participating in Muslim Friday prayers with my hair wrapped up in a scarf.
In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and I feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before.
And that’s not spite of my engagement with the Muslim community, but because of it. Rather than pulling me away from my Catholic faith, interreligious dialogue with Muslims has deepened my faith, enriched it. Dialogue — which for me is about lived engagement with those different from myself — helped me fall back in love with the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.
At the beginning of college, while struggling with my Catholic identity and wondering if another religion like Islam might provide me with the connection to God that I was missing, I formed a close friendship with a Muslim girl in my dorm, Wardah. She taught me more about Islam than books ever could, because she simply lived her religion. When we roomed together as sophomores, she woke up early in the morning to pray and often stopped in the middle of homework assignments to pull out her prayer rug. Lacking commitment in my relationship with God, I wanted that kind of consistency in my own prayer life.
Wardah brought me to Muslim students’ events, like an iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. I was struck by the sense of community and solidarity I saw among my new Muslim friends, and realized how much I craved that, too.
Finding these emphases on prayer and community in Islam reminded me that they also existed in my own Church, and I wanted to find them again. I signed up for a Catholic retreat with the intent of improving my daily prayer habits, and I joined a small Catholic bible study that provided me with a community with whom I could reflect on scripture. My relationship with God began improving, and my appreciation for my Catholic tradition increased.
My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my exposure to Islam and my immersion into the Muslim community. But this process occurred differently than many might expect. People may assume that, after being exposed to Islam’s beliefs and practices and not liking them, I ran for the hills—the familiarity of Catholicism.
Instead, Islam, a faith not my own, became the medium through which I came to love the faith of my childhood. Islam provided me with a critical reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism.
I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith —for making me a better Catholic. I think immersion into any other religious tradition would have served me in the same way.
As I began to reflect upon my own faith journey and the way in which Islam brought me back to Catholicism, I wondered what the Church would say about my engagement with the Muslim community and the interreligious dialogue that was so crucial to my experience.
A class on the post-Vatican II Church began to answer my questions, and I was thrilled to discover that the Church’s understanding of the importance of dialogue mirrored my own.
For the Church, interreligious dialogue is essential, and its purpose is vast: fostering understanding and learning between different religious groups; establishing social peace and cooperation; and strengthening the spirituality of all those involved.
The Church’s dedication to dialogue officially began with Nostra Aetate, a revolutionary Vatican II document that describes the Church’s new relationship to non-Christian religions. In only five short paragraphs, it reshaped the way the Church approaches people of other faiths.
It reads: the Church “urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”
The Church asserts that I can still remain true to my Catholic identity—that I am actually living out my Catholicism—while supporting and encouraging my Muslim friends’ way of life.
Pope John Paul II, who took strides to implement the ideals called for in Nostra Aetate, wrote in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis that participation in dialogue “does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality…” Rather, he said, “the strong beliefs and the moral values of the followers of other religions can and should challenge Christians to respond more fully and generously to the demands of their own Christian faith.”
This has been my experience precisely. And that’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are Muslims my good friends, but their devotion to their religion constantly motivates me to re-examine the way I live out my Catholicism.
And, it’s why I’ve led efforts at Georgetown to provide religiously-diverse students with opportunities to dialogue with one another. Thanks to our small-group dialogue program, students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and in seeing how other believers practice their faith, they reflect on their own tradition in a new light.
The most powerful—and likely surprising—line in Nostra Aetate is one that again speaks directly to my own experiences.
It reads: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. …[Their teachings] often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”
I feel “rays of truth”—or God’s presence—when I participate in Muslim prayer and squish shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the congregation. I see the rays of truth when I watch the way my Muslim friends interact with one another in love.
And I hear the rays of truth in the azan, the Islamic call to prayer. When I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan, I was constantly drawn into a state of prayer upon hearing the azan five times a day. It was God calling me to dhikr, remembrance of God and the way he works in my life.
Nostra Aetate helped me realize that living a life of dialogue and interreligious engagement with Muslims was an inherently Catholic vocation, and it continues to challenge me today to live out that call in deeper ways:
The Church encourages all to “work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve, as well as to promote, together, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom, for the benefit of all mankind.”
It’s particularly important for me to stand in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters today, in light of the prejudices that Muslims face in the post-9/11 world.
Last month, anti-Muslim hate propaganda lined the walls of the D.C. metro, and a friend’s mosque was targeted in arson. And those are only two of myriad hate-filled and ignorance-driven acts that Muslims have had to cope with over the last few years. When I worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, I’d read daily local news reports about hate crimes against Muslims, but never were they reported about on a national scale, despite the fact that between 2009 and 2010, hate crimes against Muslims in America rose by 50%. As a Catholic, I can’t forget that our minority religious community too faced prejudice and scapegoating during an earlier time in American history. Like Muslims, we Catholics were marginalized because we were “foreign” and “threatening to American law and way of life.”
Today, the same accusations—and worse—are leveled against Muslims. Because many Americans don’t know Muslims—62% claim to have never met a Muslim—the media’s negative portrayal allows the American public—and many Christians—to push Muslims to the margins.
Unfortunately, I saw this marginalization occurring in my own Catholic community back home in Indianapolis. One afternoon during my junior year of high school, I opened my e-mail inbox to find a hateful, Islamophobic chain message, forwarded from a family friend. The email contained inflammatory epithets about Muslims, who, according to the email, expressed tacit approval for terrorism and violence committed by a few radicals. I was angry and sad that a family friend, someone from my own Catholic community, could espouse and promote this hateful sentiment—that she would lump terrorists together with people like my friend, Nadir, a Muslim who went to my high school, Brebeuf Jesuit, and now goes to Georgetown with me. He is an exceptional individual who exudes kindness and has committed his life to helping others. I wondered how my family friend could put him in the same category as those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
It was immediately apparent to me that my family friend was not a hateful woman; it was her ignorance that resulted in her prejudicial comments. Those in my Catholic community who had circulated this email did so because of their lack of understanding of Muslims.
I hope my own story, and the call of Nostra Aetate, can help remind Christians how much we need our Muslim neighbors—how much we can learn about God and each other by engaging with them. We must be like the Samaritan, pulling up the stranger. We must bring Muslims out of the margins, making clear that they too are our neighbors.
Every night, I go to Mass in the chapel of the North American Jesuit Martyrs at Georgetown. It’s a habit that I never would have anticipated myself undertaking four years ago, when I came to college shaky about my Catholic identity. During the Eucharist, I often think about the fact that I wouldn’t be at nightly Mass were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community. While the Catholics participate in their 10pm Mass, the Muslim students complete their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah, or prayer room, next door. When I come to Mass discouraged about the state of Muslim-Christian relations—when it seems that violence and bigotry will win out—I’m often strengthened by the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every night: Allahu akbar—God is greater.
When I chose the name Teresa of Avila for my Confirmation name during my freshman year of high school, I didn’t know what an important, meaningful decision I’d made.
I picked her because she founded the Discalced Carmelites, a group of sisters I had grown close to in Indianapolis and admired for their contemplation, simplicity, and intellect. Living in Spain during the 16th century, Teresa was a prolific spiritual writer and was eventually named a “Doctor of the Church” for her contributions to Catholic thought. She was a mystic, something that at the time sounded pretty darn cool, even though I didn’t really understand what it meant. And—most importantly!—Teresa’s life is celebrated on October 15th, the day before my birthday.
Since picking the name Teresa, I have—without knowing it—grown closer to her. As I started to read bits of her work, I noticed that we share more than a love for writing and a common day (give or take) for celebrating our lives. I see my own experiences mirrored in hers, and I’m also struck by the way she challenges me to go deeper in living my relationship with God. I’m currently taking a class on medieval women mystics because I wanted to be forced to read Teresa.
I’d like to share a few excerpts from her work that are particularly powerful for me, in the hopes that they will be edifying for others.
Finding God Within
Mystics across all religious traditions share an understanding that God can be found inside the heart. It’s a radical and powerful assertion that often challenges our usual notions of a distant God.
It is an ennobling thing to think that God is more in the soul of man than He is in aught else outside of Himself. They are happy people who have once got a hold of this glorious truth. In particular, the Blessed Augustine testifies that neither in the house, nor in the church, nor anywhere else, did he find God, till once he had found Him in himself. Nor had he need to go up to heaven, but only down into himself to find God…
You need not go to heaven to see God, or to regale yourself with God. Nor need you speak loud as if He were far away. Nor need you cry for wings like a dove so as to fly to Him. Settle yourself in solitude, and you will come upon God in yourself. And then entreat Him as your Father, and relate to Him your troubles. Those who can in this manner shut themselves up in the little heaven of their own hearts, where He dwells who made heaven and earth, let them be sure that they walk in the most excellent way…
He sits on the innermost seat of your heart, and holds it to be His best and bravest throne.
Prayer as Love and Relationship
Teresa is known best for her writings on cultivating an interior prayer life. She experienced an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus, and often reported visions and moments of ecstasy and union with God. This is why Teresa is also known as St. Teresa of Jesus.
Prayer is an act of love.
For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us… The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love.
She had candid, often humorous conversations with Jesus. When she asked Jesus why her friends and others showed her hostility, Jesus said to her, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends” and she responded, “No wonder you have so few friends.”
But it took her a long time to develop this close relationship. She writes that she tried unsuccessfully for eighteen years to converse with Jesus.
The Importance of Action
Teresa understood that prayer meant nothing if it wasn’t tied to action. Christ’s love, she recognized, can only be expressed through our human activities.
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.
Like all of us, Teresa was a busy, overworked woman. She founded a new order and was busy instructing sisters, writing, and fending off the Inquisition. But she, like St. Ignatius, practiced ‘contemplation in action.’
If you [God] want me to remain so busy, please force me to think about and love you even in the midst of such hectic activity. If you do not want me so busy, please release me from it… I know that you are constantly beside me, yet I am usually so busy that I ignore you.
Intent on doing God’s will, she offered up her entire being for God’s service.
I am Yours and born of You,
What do You want of me?
In Your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse — Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do You want of me?
Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abundance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do You want of me?
Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
Or exalted high,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?
Living in a country steeped with Islamic thought, Teresa was influenced (consciously or not) by Islamic mysticism, Sufism, and contemporary theologians have argued that this influence is reflected in her writing.
My own spiritual life has also been shaped by Sufism, particularly by the poetry of Rumi, and thus this point of connection between Teresa and I was initially surprising and comforting.
My choice of the name Teresa illustrates the way in which God works through even the most mundane or careless of our actions. Though I had no idea of the name’s significance at the time, God did. God wanted me to draw closer to Teresa, so I could draw closer to Jesus and find him in myself and in those around me.
It seems appropriate to end with this prayer from Teresa, a prayer I wouldn’t be surprised to find in a book of Rumi’s poetry.
Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.
St. Teresa of Jesus, pray for us.
For Teresa’s feast day, I made oatmeal CARMELitas for my friends at Mass!