My commentary in The Indianapolis Star

I was invited to write the following commentary for The Indianapolis Star’s Faith Forum column on Saturday, August 11, 2012.  The positive feedback has been tremendous; I’ve already been told that it was discussed at length at a local Quaker meeting, and a professor at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indy will use it as required reading for his class on dialogue!

Dialogue deepens, not weakens, woman’s faith
Jordan Denari

“Are you converting to Islam?”

This question was addressed to me multiple times during my freshman year at Georgetown University, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked it now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association (MSA), lived a Muslim living-learning community, and worked at an Islamic advocacy organization.

In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before. And, that’s not in 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 isn’t only formal discussions, but also lived engagement with those different from oneself — 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 (which this year is being celebrated from mid-July to mid-August.) 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 things in Islam — prayer and community — 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 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.

That’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are they are 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. Students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and they identify similarities and crucial differences, which I would argue, are a positive thing worth discussing. Differences in creed and ritual show us the diversity of forms in which believers understand their relationship with God, and help us identify the unique position espoused by our own tradition.

This kind of dialogue challenges the assumption held by many believers who feel that engaging with people of other faiths forces us to sideline aspects of our practice, water down our doctrines, and drop our distinct identities. But the dialogue in which I participate and promote doesn’t ask us to compromise on or abandon our differences; it thrives on the sharing of them.

I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith — and for making me a better Catholic. I hope others can say this about their experience of dialogue, too.

Bio: Jordan Denari, an Indianapolis native, is a senior at Georgetown University. She has been published in America, a Jesuit magazine, and her efforts at building interfaith relationships have been featured in other Catholic news outlets. She writes about Muslim-Christian relations on her blog, Witness (jordandenari.com).

 

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.