Ignatius and Islam: Uncovering interfaith intersections

July 31 is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests better known as the Jesuits.

The essay below was originally published in National Catholic Reporter on July 17, 2015 on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday which concludes the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

It’s a special time in the Islamic world, and in the Ignatian world, too.

For the last month, Muslims have been celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, almsgiving, and praying over God’s revelation. For those at Jesuit institutions — schools, parishes, and organizations inhabiting the spirit of St. Ignatius of Loyola — this July is a celebration of the spirituality of the Jesuit founder, whose feast day is July 31.

This confluence of celebrations prompted me to reflect on the points of convergence between Islamic and Ignatian spirituality. As a student of Islam educated in Catholic Jesuit schools, I’ve discovered some profound similarities, or, as the late Trappist abbot Christian de Cherge would call them, “the notes that are in common” between the religions.

These similarities can be explained best by pointing to three Arabic mottos, central to the Islamic tradition, and their surprising Ignatian counterparts.

MashaAllah

MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.
MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.

The phrase MashaAllah, or “what God wills,” is used to express appreciation, gratitude, reverence, and awe about the good and beautiful. As my friend Zainab put it, it’s about recognizing “a flicker of God’s divine character” in the created world. Muslims exclaim it when their friends get into college, when they spot a stunning sunset, or when their relatives post a picture of their new, healthy baby on Facebook. I like to think of this prompt acknowledgement of God’s blessings as an immediate, “in-the-moment” Examen, the daily prayer of gratitude developed by St. Ignatius.

The Daily Examen encourages us to reflect back on — or rummage through — our day, looking for the places where God made Godself known to us. Often, these ayat, or signs of God, can be found in creation. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, and the Muslim mystic Ali al-Khawas, both realized this. In his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home,” Francis cites the Sufi writer, who wrote in the ninth century:

The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted.

Inspired by Ali’s poetic description, Francis writes:

Standing awestruck before a mountain, [the mystical person] cannot separate this experience from God, and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord.

What Francis and Ali are both describing is that “a-ha!” — or rather, MashaAllah — moment, when a person recognizes and acknowledges that it is ultimately God who is the giver of creation’s good gifts.

Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.
Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not just about seeing God in what appears to be beautiful and good, but finding Allah in all things. Both Christianity and Islam teach us that every experience — good or bad — is an opportunity to become closer to the divine. St. Ignatius talks about this as “finding God in all things,” a phrase which has become an important buzzword in Ignatian communities. Another Muslim mystic, the well-known Rumi, would have agreed with Ignatius. In his poem, “The Guest House,” he advises us to “be grateful for whoever comes, [because] each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

InshaAllah

Another phrase of great significance in the Islamic tradition is InshaAllah, or “if God wills.” Muslims use it when talking about the future, to qualify their anticipated plans with the caveat that God is ultimately in control.

The frequent mention of God’s will in Muslims’ speech points to the core endeavor at the center of Islam: conforming one’s will to the will of God. The word Islam refers to the peace that comes with surrendering to God’s will, and a Muslim is a person who submits to that God-given peace.

That is a notion familiar to those acquainted with Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius taught that we must constantly ask ourselves, “What is God’s will for me?” and “How can I live out God’s desires for me, and for the world?” Ignatius wrote that we could come to these answers through prayerful discernment.

Junayd, another spiritual giant, said this handing over of one’s free will to God brings deep ”contentment.” But the process of discerning God’s will and living it out in practice is challenging. Matt McKibben, a 2008_008671student at a Jesuit high school in Kansas City, Mo., described this challenge as riding with God on a tandem bicycle. After steering the bike from the front seat and maintaining control over life, he asks God to metaphorically swap places, praying, “Let me pedal hard while you guide the way. Let me keep focus, and stay with you always.”

By uttering InshAllah, Muslims vocalize their inner trust, or tawakkul, in God’s plan for the future. I can imagine my Muslim friends offering this prayer by the late Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, renaming it “Patient Tawakkul”:

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Allahu Akbar

Islamic and Ignatian spirituality also put a strong emphasis on God’s “greatness.” Each Islamic call to prayer begins with the invocation, Allahu Akbar, “God is the greatest.” It is used to praise and glorify God

Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.
Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.

who is transcendent, grander than we could ever imagine. This phrase of exultation is also used in ordinary life, to express “adulation and exuberance during a sermon or cultural performance, and conversely, even to [communicate] a sense of shock or distress upon learning of the death of a loved one.” Unfortunately, most non-Muslims will only associate this phrase with terrorists. They don’t know that NFL football star Husain Abdullah  uses it to give credit to God when he picks off a pass from Tom Brady on the football field.

The motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “For the greater glory of God,” was coined by St. Ignatius to remind us that every act we perform, big or small, can and should be dedicated to God. The motto vocalizes the common goal of Christians, Muslims and all people of faith, who endeavor to dedicate their lives to something greater than themselves.

St. Ignatius with the motto, For the Greater Glory of God.
For the Greater Glory of God.

Islam and Ignatian spirituality remind us that our existence is made meaningful by this: praising and glorifying God through a life of service to God and others. That’s why I was so thrilled with the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Laudato Si’ means “praise be to you” in the medieval Umbrian dialect of Italian spoken by St. Francis of Assisi, who had his own personal encounter with Islam through a meeting with the Muslim Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt. The title made me smile because it could have easily have been named Alhamdulillah another ubiquitous Arabic term meaning “praise be to God,” the equivalent for our Hallelujah.

At a bare minimum, this time of celebration can be an opportunity for our communities to learn more about each other. But it holds much more potential. These days should call us to praise God, not just from the comfort of our own, respective communities, but together, as a diverse community, unified by our shared goals and our common Source.

Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur'an at interfaith solidarity event. Source: Buzzfeed
Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur’an at interfaith solidarity event.
Source: Buzzfeed

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.

Conversations with a Carmelite

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

Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstacy

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,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Islamic influence

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.

Two of my friends who also share the confirmation name Teresa!

For Teresa’s feast day, I made oatmeal CARMELitas for my friends at Mass!

Empty plane seats

This post goes along well with my last post “Returning to the river,” in that it expands on the importance of trusting in the divineness of our own imaginations.

On each of my three flights to Amman during January, I had an empty seat next to me.  This made the plane rides relaxing and enjoyable, but not simply because I could stretch out and didn’t have to squeeze by someone on my way to the bathroom…

~~~

Before I left for Amman, I was concerned about how I would transition, how I would feel navigating a new home alone.  Because I am so close with my family and friends and talk to them often, I was uncomfortable with the thought that my contact with loved-ones would be less frequent, and that I’d feel more isolated.

But then the most basic and yet profound thought struck me over the head: I won’t be alone.

This idea seems unsurprising.  Of course, God is with me and is in everything I encounter (I’ve talked about that much in recent posts).  But this insight was different.  I realized that I not only can find Jesus in the people and places around me, but I can find the person of Jesus—the physical, social, emotional human being—around me as well.  I can picture Jesus doing everything with me.  I can talk to him, be held by him, and share my excitement, anxiety, and sadness with him.

This understanding brought me so much peace, and my concerns seemed to slip away.  Navigating this journey would be so much easier, since I had someone doing it with me.  Though I didn’t know yet what life in Amman would be like, I had already started imagining Jesus there with me.

I prayed this prayer the night before I left for Amman:

Dear God,
Help me let you be my companion.
Walk with me in the streets.
Sit and drink tea.
Lay down next to me as I read your book.
I know I don’t need to ask; you’re already there.
Just give me a wave in the face if I forget you’re with me*.
Amen

(*This is a reference to “On Religion,” an excerpt of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.)

The day of my departure to Amman arrived, and I boarded the plane in Indianapolis to Toronto to find that the seat next to me was empty.  When I sat down on my London-bound plane, the chair beside me was again unoccupied.  And a third time, when I boarded for Amman, the seat next to me wasn’t filled.

But I quickly realized that these seats weren’t empty—someone was sitting there.  It was like God the Father had booked the seat for his Son.

I imagined Jesus there, next to me.  Barely able to contain my excitement after speaking in Arabic with one of the Canadian flight attendants, I gave Jesus a fist bump.  In an airport bathroom, I looked over at him as we washed our hands.  (Apparently Jesus is the only man allowed in the women’s restroom.) When I went to sleep and stretched across the seat, I rested my head on his lap.  Jesus’ presence tempered my anxiousness and brought comfort.

For me, one of the many beauties of Christianity is the way it embraces the physical, human, and historical world.  The person of Jesus inhabited time and space many years ago, a fact that allows us to bring him into this world again.  (It’s hard for me to explain my understanding of this fully.  It’s a combination of personal revelation and Church theology I’ve learned.  I need to do more reading on this in order to better articulate the more visceral understanding I have.)

Since I’ve been here, I’ve often found Jesus beside me, participating in my life.  He lounges on my host sister’s bed as I write this post, or squeezes in on the couch with my host family while we watch Arab Idol.  When I start feeling sad or uncomfortable or nervous here, I realize it’s because I haven’t been bringing Jesus into the picture.

A few weekends back, Jesus sat with me for a long time on the mountain where John the Baptist was executed.  I looked over, up the hill a bit to where he was sitting, and when we made eye contact, he scooted across the edge of the cliff down to where I was. I could hear the gravel pulling on his clothes as he shifted down the hill.  I remembered the Bible passage in which Jesus sits alone after hearing the news of John’s death, and I felt like we were experiencing that moment again together.  He didn’t have to be alone in that pain, just as I never have to be alone either.

Mukawir, the mountain on which John the Baptist was executed.

What do I call moments like this, I’ve wondered, when I see so clearly my Lord with me?

I think they are visions.

That may seem like a gutsy thing to claim.  Heck, I’m not Moses or Juan Diego, who saw God in a bush or Mary on a rosy hilltop.

But I think claiming to see visions isn’t the scary—or outright crazy—thing it initially seems to be.

During the last several years, a few friends of mine have told me they had visions, and I completely believed that they had.  But I wondered how they came to them? I thought, how could I ever receive a vision?, as if visions are things that come to us from the outside.  As if we have no control over the images that are presented before our eyes by God.

But from my own experiences, imagining Jesus with me, I understand now that visions don’t come from without.  They come from within, from inside our own hearts and minds.

Ignatius vision of Jesus at La Storta.

Mystics like Teresa of Avila (whose name I took at my Confirmation), Ignatius, and Rumi didn’t receive external images, ones imposed on them from the outside.  They simply trusted their imaginations, and realized that God was in the images and the stories they created.

When I think back on my own visions, it feels like the line between God’s work and my own has been blurred, and I know that’s because God’s divinity resides in me.  My creation is His, and His is mine.  I can trust these images and find meaning in them. I can intentionally bring Jesus into a situation, but that doesn’t make his presence any less holy.

~~~

All around—in the crowded coffee shop, inside the dry cleaners in my neighborhood, and on the crumbling, terraced hills of Jordan—empty seats are reserved, waiting for me—for us—to fill them up.

“Of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
—Dumbledore to Harry, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Taxi Rides at Maghrib

After my first day at the university a few weeks ago, I jumped into a cab with a friend at dusk, stressed and tired from the long day.  My mind was reeling with the new situation and setting, preoccupied with the computer problems I was having.

But as I settled into the back seat, the cabby changed the radio station, and long, throaty vowels began to emanate from the speakers and fill the cab.  It wasn’t music, but a recitation of the Qur’an.

I quickly noticed that it was maghrib, sunset—one of the five times Muslims pray every day.  In the same way that the verses vibrated inside the car, the call to prayer, or azan, was echoing throughout the limestone hills of Amman.

As we drove into the increasing darkness, I felt a sense of calm settle in.  The seat seemed to cradle me as the recitation told me to rest and reflect.  Through the Arabic verses that I rarely understood, and through the peace I felt as I listened, God remind me of his presence in my life, and his increased closeness as I navigate my life in Amman.

I am in a new and different place here, and sometimes that newness and difference can wedge a feeling of nervousness in my stomach.  But during that taxi ride, God reminded me that as my life becomes new and different, God will also present himself to me in new and different ways.  God won’t—can’t—reach me in the same way he does at home or at Georgetown, because Amman isn’t Indianapolis or D.C.

The key is that I must be able to recognize these new and different manifestations, even if they exist outside my usual experience, or even outside the practices of my own religious tradition.  This ability to recognize requires courage and a deep trust in the limitless and mystery of God.

Amman at maghrib

Maghrib has become my favorite time of day here, not simply because of the pink light that rests over the hills, but also because of the azan that calls me to remembrance. It calls me to complete an Ignatian “daily examen” of sorts, to recognize the new ways God reveals himself to me in the laughs of my Arabic professor and the big blue eyes of my 2-year-old host sister.

My experience of maghrib reminds me of the end of a poem by the 13th century Muslim Sufi mystic, Rumi:

Sunlight looks slightly different on this wall
than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities, from a light,
and when we praise, we pour them back in.