islam

Women in Abrahamic Traditions

“Please explain to me, because I don’t understand,” asked a woman in the audience, “Why it is that people can convert to Islam or in the case of the school girls, be forced to convert to Islam, but the reverse is not true? For example, the woman in recent weeks that was put to death because she converted to Christianity.”

This question was directed to Mahnaz Shabbir, who was a guest panelist at the Dinner of Abrahamic Traditions held last week at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. This event is part of a series organized by the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and that night’s topic was “Significant Women Role Models in Abrahamic Traditions.” Shabbir was the third and final speaker, representing an Islamic perspective. Rabbi Linda Steigman and Chancellor Jude Huntz had preceded her, speaking respectively from the perspectives of Judaism and Christianity.

As one who loves religions and who also identifies as a fervent feminist, there are many difficult questions I have to ask of myself. Why is it that the same holy scriptures that at once inspire in me a sense of wonder and give me a glimpse into the divine oftentimes also have the ability to frighten and repel me? How is it that the same scriptures that reveal the meaning of compassion, faith and justice, also display some of the worst instances of hatred, violence and inequality? These, I imagine, are difficult questions for anyone who has struggled with the faith. I still remember the first time I read with great dismay in the first letter to the Corinthians an admonition for women to remain silent in church, “for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” (1 Corinthians 14:34, KJV) Even today, while I openly declare my undying love for the Bible and the New Testament, I have to admit this is a passage I wish we could just delete. And there are others like this, in the Hebrew Testament and in the Quran. Too many to list, really.

“There’s good and there’s bad in every place, but we shouldn’t always just emphasize the bad,” answered Shabbir. And there lies the rub, I think. Religion is most alive when we struggle with it, and it goes stagnant when we accept it as a given, when we take it for granted. Struggling with one’s faith means for me that we ask questions, and it means that when can’t find answers, we find new ways to ask questions. Shabbir faced the question head on, “There are people who use our faith in ways they shouldn’t. There is no forcing of someone to be a Muslim, that is not the teaching of Islam.” She elaborated on this and continued to explain the root of these reprehensible acts and misrepresentations of the religion, “You have to remember there are areas of the world where not everyone is as educated and that sometimes people become religious leaders without any education at all.”

This is true across all faiths, in my opinion. I’ve certainly experienced this in my own evangelical upbringing. In no uncertain terms, Shabbir condemned the incident in question and others like it, “It was wrong, and in America many Muslim organizations did everything we could to try to stop that incident, but unfortunately it wasn’t successful.” It is at this point that she emphasizes that there is good and there is bad, and she drives this point, “There’s a whole lot of good going on.”

Linda Steigman, Rabbi and Chaplain, teacher and interfaith counselor.

Linda Steigman, Rabbi and Chaplain, teacher and interfaith counselor.

In true “people of the book” fashion, all three presenters at the event recounted stories of remarkable women in the scriptures. We heard the stories of women such as Sara, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, the foremothers of Abrahamic religions. Stories about women who believed God’s promises, women who acted virtuously and courageously, women whose example inspires many even today. Women who, as Rabbi Steigman put it, “made a real difference by taking brave, gutsy actions.” She told the stories of Esther, Ruth and Naomi. But she also told the lesser-known story of Yael, a brave woman who delivered Israel from the troops of King Jabin when, as Rabbi Steigman put it, “took a tent-pick and put it through the head of Sisera after she wooed him with warm milk, and we don’t know what else was in the warm milk!” (I don’t remember hearing that story in Sunday School!)

This is all great. We need to hear the stories of these historically significant women, but I really want to know about the place women hold in Judaism today. In spite of the fact that women were held in high esteem in post-biblical times, the fact is that they were expected to run the home and even a business in order that their husbands could study. That rubbed me the wrong way. Did it mean that women were held in high regard as long as they fit a prescribed domestic gender role?

It turns out I’m wrong, and happily so. Yes, women were not commanded to attend to time-bound commitments or go to Synagogue. However, Rabbi Steigman declares, “There’s a difference between being not-commanded and being forbidden, and this is the road that women today have taken in becoming much more active in the Jewish clergy.” She tells us the story of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi to be ordained. Her ordination took place in Germany eighty years ago, which seems late in the grand scheme of things, but is certainly longer ago than I expected. Rabbi Jonas was killed in the Holocaust in 1940. The next woman rabbi was ordained in 1973 in the reformed movement of the United States, “And now, about half of the each class of ordinees are women. Eventually, the rabbinate will be half women and half men, maybe more women, we don’t know,” said Rabbi Steigman. I had no idea the numbers of women in the rabbinate were this high. There is a lot of good going on, indeed.

Jude Huntz, Chancellor at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Jude Huntz, Chancellor at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

“Abraham is often called our father in the faith, and in the Christian tradition we often refer to Mary as our mother in the faith,” said Chancellor Huntz. He drew parallels between the promises God gave to Abraham and to Mary, about the child they would each have, about how they each responded to God’s promise and about how they each faced the prospect of the sacrifice of their sons. The difference being, of course, that Abraham’s son was spared and Mary’s wasn’t. And then he compared Mary to another father from the New Testament, Zechariah. “If we look at Mary in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew we see a remarkable woman,” Huntz said, adding that the Gospel of Luke highlights the role of women as role models and leaders of the faith. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, did not believe the promise of the Lord and his incredulity was punished with the inability to speak for three days. Mary, on the other hand, believed and accepted the promise, in spite of the repercussions she would face as a young woman pregnant out of wedlock. In his reading of the Gospel, Huntz sees women and men in contrast, he quips that “The women are always getting it and the men are not.” This to him, serves to remind us of the stories of all the remarkable women in the the Old Testament Rabbi Steigman has just shared with us. I want him to talk about 1 Corinthians 14:34, but then I remember there is a lot of good going on, and I shouldn’t just emphasize the bad. There is, after all, a lot of good.

Mahnaz Shabbir, President of Shabbir Advisors, is an active advocate for interfaith dialogue and has written a number of articles for a variety of publications.

Mahnaz Shabbir, President of Shabbir Advisors, is an active advocate for interfaith dialogue and has written a number of articles for a variety of publications.

“There are five pillars of Islam. It isn’t five pillars for men and five pillars for women. It isn’t that men do one thing and women do another. We all do the same things,” said Shabbir. I could sense this is a question she has had to answer countless times. It reminds me of the only question people think to ask of vegans, “But, how do you get your protein?” She proceeds gracefully, but sternly as she quotes from the Quran, “O mankind! We have created you from a single pair of male and female…the most honorable of you, in the sight of Allah is the one who is most righteous of you.” (49:13) This is an aya she often refers to as she makes a point about gender equality in Islam. “Here, in the words of God through the angel Gabriel, we view that God has made us equal, men and women. The only thing that makes us any different is how pious we are,” she says. Okay, that’s great, I’ve read the Quran and I know that there is even an entire chapter dedicated to Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus. But what about the way women are treated throughout the Islamic world? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot these days and I need help. Shabbir tells us “That has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with culture. It’s important that we understand what the religion is before we go into the distinctions of culture.” And it’s true, she talks about women in Islamic countries who are not allowed to drive and reminds us that, “The Quran doesn’t say anything about automobiles!” This is helping me out. I can relate this to the different schools of Buddhism I’ve studied. Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, looks so different from Zen Buddhism in great part because it has assimilated into its practices so much from Tibetan culture and folklore.

The Prophet’s equal treatment of women is documented in great detail in the Haddiths. There is an instance where he is asked to whom one should pay respect after paying respect to God and the Prophet answers, “To your mother.” Twice more he is asked and twice more he gives the same answer. Only the fourth time does the Prophet say, “To your father.” Shabbir jokes that perhaps this means women are more important than men, but she quickly adds, “no, we’re equal.” There are other accounts, like the fact that the Prophet stood up every time his daughter Fatima walked into a room as a sign of respect toward her and other women. Shabbir tells us about other significant women in Islamic tradition, and then she moves on to talk about remarkable Muslim women today. Dr. Shirin Ebadi, for instance, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Iran. She is well-known for her personal accomplishments, but mostly for her leadership in human rights activism. She’s a Muslim. Ingrid Mattson is a professor of Islamic Studies, an interfaith activist and a former president of the Islamic Society of North America. She’s a Muslim convert. Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister of Pakistan, Khaleda Zia was the prime minister of Bangladesh, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the prime minister of Indonesia; all three, Muslim women. “We haven’t had a woman president in the United States yet, but we’ve had Muslim women prime ministers in other countries,” remarks Shabbir. This is true, and for me it’s painfully true. She makes a few more points about the equality of women in Islam and she closes by saying, “In America I can practice my religion exactly the way the Prophet wanted us to practice.”

Whenever we can have an open and honest dialogue between people of different faiths, whenever we can ask difficult questions and have the courage to struggle with incomprehensible truths; there is no doubt in my mind that there’s good and there’s bad in every place, but we shouldn’t always just emphasize the bad. And, what’s more, there’s a lot of good going on.

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New York, Day 5

The Who & The What, Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA)

Faith, family, gender and cultural identity are explored in “The Who & The What,” a play at once moving and thought provoking. It is the story of a devout muslim man and his two adult daughters. We learn early on that the mother has passed on, a victim of cancer. Zarina, the oldest, is a writer with a very progressive and human understanding of the Prophet. When her sister, Mahwish asks what the subject of her novel is, Zarina replies, “gender politics,” and then clarifies, “women and Islam.”

Because of my upbringing and my undergraduate studies, I’m much more steeped in Christianity than in any other religious tradition. I’ve learned quite a bit about Buddhism over the past couple of years, but I’m very much still a beginner. When it comes to Islam, I’ve barely scratched the surface. In my reading of the Holy Quran, however, there are matters of gender disparity that I’m still struggling to understand. So I found myself identifying with Zarina and her theories about the Prophet and the revelation. But of course, most of the audience seemed to identify with her too.

Afzal is a loving father who has sacrificed so much for his family and who’s only desire is to see his daughters happy. But his conservative views and Zarina’s liberal views are diametrically opposed, and so conflict arises. Over the course of two acts, we see the small family struggle with tradition, with faith, with gender and generational differences. These are painfully divisive matters for father and daughter and while there is some comedic relief, I found myself tearing up a few times (I’m sure the fact that I’ve missed my two daughters this week contributed a bit).

Not my photo. Taken from the Lincoln Center's website.

Not my photo. Taken from the Lincoln Center’s website.

I’m fascinated with the notion of struggling with one’s faith. For me it was an essential part of growing up and developing my identity. So, it was very interesting to see this struggle transpire, albeit on stage, within the context of a faith tradition other than my own. When Zarina’s father gets a hold of her manuscript and reads it, he is appalled and fearful not only that she may have blasphemed, but that there might be serious and fatal consequences as a result. I didn’t have to worry about that. When I struggled with my faith I was worried I might at worst offend someone and at best earn a spot on their prayer list. But Afzal is genuinely concerned that his daughter may bring physical harm upon herself. So, naturally, the implications of challenging traditional theological views are vastly different within the context of Islam.

Zarina stands by her claims that casting the Prophet under a more human light only makes him more remarkable. She contends that questioning longstanding assumptions is not disrespectful. She stands for inquiry while her father declares, “I have no questions.” Zarina’s faith is never at risk, in fact she ends up marrying an Imam. Rather, she struggles with her faith so that she may more fully own and express it. But the conflict is too great for this father-daughter relationship to bear and Afzal ends up banishing her from the family and he forbids Mahwish from ever mentioning her name. Where the play succeeds, for me, is that we are able to see both Afzal and Zarina objectively. He is not a bad father and she is not a bad daughter, they have just not been able to reconcile their differences. He struggles to uphold the faith of his ancestors while she tries to redefine the faith for a new, American reality. There is a semblance of a resolution in the end, but the struggle remains.

As I left the theater, I happened upon the Museum of Biblical Art. I hadn’t planned on visiting, in fact, I didn’t know about it. But I’m very glad to have happened upon it. The current exhibit, “Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden,” is a collection of whimsical, poignant and unexpect takes on the themes of the Garden of Eden, paradise lost, temptation and the loss of innocence.

“Eden as the perfect natural paradise -now lost- is a significant metaphor for the conflicted relationship between humans and the natural world. The works in the exhibition illustrate ways in which we continue to attempt to recreate paradise in our gardens and surroundings, as wel as demonstrate the disastrous effects we have had on the environment.”

Since photography was allowed, I’m able to share with you two of my favorite pieces.

Fred Tomaselli Study for Expulsion 2000 Leaves, pills, acryllic, photocollage, and resin on wood panel

Fred Tomaselli
Study for Expulsion
2000
Leaves, pills, acryllic, photocollage, and resin on wood panel

The figures of Adam and Eve are based on a fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Masaccio, which Tomaselli chose for its particularly emotional rendering of the Expulsion. Through this iconic image, the artist considers the eternal human search to find paradise again.

Mark Dion The Serpent Before the Fall 2014 Artificial and natural plants, wood, papier-maché, and magic sculpt

Mark Dion
The Serpent Before the Fall
2014
Artificial and natural plants, wood, papier-maché, and magic sculpt

At the end of the Garden of Eden story, the serpent is cursed by God to crawl on its belly. Some have interpreted this to mean that previously the serpent had four legs. Mark Dion imagined such a creature in a display at a natural history museum, and brought that to fruition in his work.

 

 

 

New York, Day 3

Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, Interfaith Center of New York, Islamic Cultural Center of New York, Ramadan Iftar Interfaith Dinner

 

"Like walking through a grove of sequoias."

“Like walking through a grove of sequoias.”

When I think of Gothic cathedrals, I tend to think of those imposing, majestic feats of architecture dating back from the 12th to the 16th century. As I arrived at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, I was immediately captivated by its magnitude and splendor. To my (very) untrained eye, it seemed like a structure that had stood in its place for a few centuries, if not as long as the city itself. But as the tour began, I quickly learned -much to my surprise- that not only is it a fairly recent building, but it is also still under construction. In his guide of Manhattan’s worship, “From Abyssinian to Zion,” David W. Dunlap says, “Wandering among the giant columns of one of the world’s largest cathedrals is an experience akin to an awe-struck journey through a grove of sequoias. But after 112 years -and counting- it is far from finished.” (My edition is 10 years old, so it’s actually 122 years and counting.) I don’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary to describe the sense of vastness I experienced walking through this Cathedral. For a little over an hour, as I admired the stained glass, the seven chapels, the craftsmanship and the sheer size of this place; I didn’t need to believe in something greater than myself, I could see it with my own eyes and walk it with my own feet. The very physical experience of feeling so small in a sacred space instills in me a sense of awe and wonderment. And I imagine that is part of the idea behind these massive structures, to remind us that God is greater than we can ever comprehend. The tour guide referred to it as “an unfinished cathedral” a number of times, and I found that an interesting point. Is anything ever finished?

Light upon light at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

Light upon light at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

On a much smaller scale, but equally captivating, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York is a sight to behold. This is a decidedly modern house of prayer, and it is one that I found particularly compelling. I arrived fifteen or twenty minutes before Thuhur, midday prayer. People were already beginning to congregate in the lower part of the building where a smaller prayer hall is located. I asked if I could visit the main space in the upper level and a staff member kindly escorted me to it and let me in. As he opened the door, I was suddenly bathed in sunlight and struck by the openness of this place. I had seen photographs of this hall and I had read Dunlap’s description, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was seeing with my own eyes. The mihrab (the niche tht points toward Mecca) is framed by inscriptions from the Quran, which I later learned include “Light upon Light; God guides to his light whom he will.” Here was another sacred space building on the theme of vastness and openness, only this one in contrast with the Cathedral I visited earlier was filled with natural light. In his description, Dunlap talks about the simplicity of this design as a necessity for avoiding national attributes due to its dependence on support from many Islamic countries. But he also notes that, “Simplicity also encourages meditation.” I would’ve loved to stay longer, but my host reminded me it was time to go to prayer.

The office for the Interfaith Center of New York is located within the 19-story Interchurch Center building. It was a busy time when I arrived, but Dr. Sarah Sayeed was very gracious to sit down and chat with me for a little while. Dr. Sayeed, Director of Community Partnerships, is one of six staff members at the Center. It is a small but very mighty group with year-round programs and initiatives. One of their primary focuses is religious diversity training for teachers, social workers and other professionals. Dr. Sayeed tells me they strive to teach “Religion as it is lived, not as it is found in a textbook.” The other main focus of the Center is to create opportunities for religious leaders to come together, as she says, “Not to talk theology, but to address problems.” The Center is concerned with finding ways for religious groups to work together toward solving problems. I want to understand why the Center avoids theological discussions and she explains that every faith has within its ranks interpretive strands that don’t wish to participate in interfaith work. This is something I’ve been wondering about, what it’s like to be committed to interfaith work and to one’s own faith. I’m stumbling trying to put my question into words, and she helps me out, “We do interfaith, not interproselytizing.”

Elly Mason-Murray and Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Interfaith Center of New York.

Elly Mason-Murray and Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Interfaith Center of New York.

My impression is that people who are passionate about interfaith dialogue and work, are also deeply committed to their own faith. How then, I wonder, is a devout practitioner able to entertain theological views that are potentially diametrically opposed to her own? We are talking about dialogue, not mere tolerance, and to me that involves being able to hold opposing views in one’s mind. “Because of their own commitment to faith,” she tells me, “people understand that worship has meaning.” That is, because devoted people understand the value and meaning of their own faith, they are able to relate to the the value and meaning of the faith of others. Not only that, they are capable of appreciating the other’s faith. I ask Dr. Sayeed what she thinks is one of the most common misperceptions about interfaith work. “People think interfaith is about syncretizing or washing over differences,” she tells me. I’ve experienced this in diversity initiatives in the past, the notion that we should focus on our similarities and ignore our differences. And I’ve seen the concept of inclusion, to varying degrees of success, address this “washing over” in diversity work. Interfaith work acknowledges and upholds the values and ideas that are unique to each faith, but interfaith advocates see that there is real progress to be made in working together from a commonly shared foundation. “All faiths share a commitment to social justice,” says Dr. Sayeed. In my brief time learning about other faiths, I have found this to be true.

Oud and frame drum ensemble with interspersed readings of Rumi's poetry.

Oud and frame drum ensemble with interspersed readings of Rumi’s poetry.

My day ended with the Ramadan Iftar Dinner jointly organized by the Interfaith Center of New York, Peace Islands Institute and Union Theological Seminary. Hosted by the Seminary in a beautiful room, the evening was a time of learning, celebration and joyous fellowship. Iftar is a communal breaking of the fast for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. This event, however, was an interfaith Iftar dinner and so Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists, to mention a few, were in attendance. I’ve already lost track of how many “firsts” I’ve experience along this journey, but I can tell you I sat at a dinner table last night next to a Rabbi and an Imam. Overhearing them talking and sharing an occasional joke, was very significant to me for some reason I can’t explain. Dr. Sayeed offered opening remarks. Mary Boys, Dean Professor of Practical Theology at UTS, delivered a few words as well. She talked about the study of interreligious engagement and she also remarked that, “religious people eat well together.” Imam Ibrahim Sayar, of Peace Islands Institute shared some remarks as well. He would later come back to deliver a call to prayer. There was lovely music performed by an oud and frame drum ensemble, which was followed by a video presentation titled, “Journey of Fasting.” Professor Jerusha Lamptey, from UTS, was the keynote speaker. She talked about what it means to fast and about how Ramadan is “A time out to realign our priorities, to find equilibrium and balance in life.” The time for Maghrib, when the fast is broken with dates and water, arrived as Professor Lamptey concluded her presentation. Muslim, as well as non-Muslim, brothers and sisters began taking small bites of dates from a common bowl at each table.

A few people still lingering after Iftar dinner.

A few people still lingering after Iftar dinner.

Following Imam Sayar’s call to prayer, the food line was opened. Non-Muslims proceeded toward the food while Muslims left to a designated space for prayer to return a few minutes later. The rest of the evening was filled with conversation, laughter, smiles and of course, food! As I looked around the room I couldn’t help but feel incredibly fortunate for this precious human existence, how lucky to be in this room and share a meal with these brothers and sisters. As the evening came to a close, I was also filled with gratitude and emotion. More than ever before, I felt a great sense of belonging, I felt at home within this great, global family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York, Day 2

Mahayana Buddhist Temple, The Village Zendo, The Wall Street Synagogue, Prayer Space NYC, 9/11 Memorial, St. Joseph House Catholic Worker, Maryhouse Catholic Worker, Bhakti Center.

The Buddha in the main shrine room of the Mahayana Temple.

The Buddha in the main shrine room of the Mahayana Temple.

There was a woman standing in front of the massive statue of the Buddha at the Mahayana Temple. She made a short bow and started to walk out. We made eye contact and I quietly asked if she was a Buddhist. “No, I’m a Catholic, but I can certainly see the similarities,” she said. I asked if she could explain. She pointed at the panels along the sidewalls depicting the life of the Buddha and continued, “I see the Buddha’s birth and it reminds me of Christ’s birth. Buddha’s temptation, Christ’s temptation, fasting and teaching, and so on.” She asked if I was a Buddhist, I said yes but not in the Mahayana tradition. With a puzzled look she said, “There are different kinds?” “Yes,” I replied, “another similarity! Just as there are different denominations in Christianity, there are different schools of Buddhism.” She smiled, started to leave and said, “You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.” I didn’t catch her name and she didn’t care to be filmed, but I immediately wrote everything down.

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Yu Jin Steele is a long time practitioner in the Zen Buddhist tradition. I ran into her outside the elevator, on our way to The Village Zendo, which is housed in a suite on the 11th floor of a Soho building. I learned all about her teachers and their lineage, and I learned that her husband and her children practice as well. At some point she mentioned that many of the day time practitioners at Village Zendo are not as interested in the religious aspects of Zen and prefer to focus on meditation only. Whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion depends on whom you ask. So I asked her.

The Village Zendo

The Zendo

“It is a religion because it involves faith. You may not believe in God, but you have to believe that sitting on your ass is going to do something. And well, sitting doesn’t really do anything, but the point is you have to believe,” she said. I asked if her practice ever took her into a different plane, perhaps something mystical or otherworldly, as many religions do. “I’m always on a different plane,” she replied, as if to imply that that’s the problem. “What I need to do is be here, awake,” she continued. And that’s what the practice does, it grounds you. It is not an escape or a withdrawal to another state of mind, it is working toward being fully present here and now. “It’s an inside job,” she said smiling.

This is the only photo I took.

This is the only photo I took.

My experience at the Wall Street Synagogue was a bit of a wake-up call. But the truth is I needed one. I needed to be reminded that I can’t just walk into any house of worship I fancy and expect to be welcomed with fanfare. Nothing bad happened, really. It’s just that I felt terribly out of place. The moment I walked in, I could tell that the twenty or so men gathered for Mincha knew I didn’t belong there. I was the only one there without a yarmulke, which made me feel like I stood out, like I was being disrespectful and like I was naked. A very kind man discretely offered me a yarmulke from a basket, “Would you like this?” he said. “Yes, thank you,” I replied and put it on. Mincha is meant to be “an oasis of spiritual time in a tough workday, a moment of calming nerves and focusing on priorities.” I was mortified I might be ruining it for the others. But as we walked out, I briefly spoke with the cantor and that made me feel much better. He pointed me to the office where all my questions would be asked, and all was well in the end. The good news is that I’ve actually been invited to the next synagogue I will visit.

The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree

Visiting the September 11 Memorial is a very powerful and moving experience. The truth is I can’t find the words to express what I felt, and I don’t really want to try. Some things are better left unspoken. What I can say is that I was struck by the imposing size of the voids in the ground, the photographs don’t do it justice. One thing that caught my attention and that I could have easily missed was the Survivor Tree. This is a tree that, although severely injured, survived and recovered from the attacks at the World Trade Center. It has become a sort of relic; people leave flowers at its foot and others touch its limbs in a reverential manner. I’m grateful to have had an opportunity to visit this important and most definitely sacred site.

I’m embarrassed to admit that until today my knowledge of the Catholic Worker movement was little to none. A few weeks ago I asked my friend Lance if he knew of any churches or religious organizations in New York that were in line with his philosophy of ministry. Without hesitating, he told me to go to St. Joseph House Catholic Worker. So I did. A man named Matt opened the door and let me in. The dining hall was empty and clean, ready for the next meal. He was busy chopping lettuce and preparing other dishes. He told me all about the Catholic Worker philosophy, about the notion of instilling in individuals a sense of working and thinking. He talked to me about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, about their view that one should follow works of mercy. The people that live and work in this house, as in many other Catholic Worker houses, feed the hungry and clothe the needy in their communities. They also offer showers and other help. Matt gave me a quick crash course as he wiped down the counters and tidied the kitchen. He suggested I visit the Maryhouse, which is located a couple blocks away. He called to let them know I was coming.

Jane Sammon shows me the very first volume of The Catholic Worker.

Jane Sammon shows me the very first volume of The Catholic Worker. Photo of Dorothy Day in the background.

Dorothy Day was a cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement. On May 1st, 1933, she and Peter Maurin published the very first Catholic Worker newspaper. The Maryhouse has been a house of hospitality for many years. As you walk through the main door there are stairs that lead down to the dining hall and stairs that lead up to an auditorium, an office and a small chapel. The floors above are living quarters. Dorothy Day lived and worked in this very house until her passing in 1980. I sat in the small chapel, no bigger than the average dining room, and made a mental picture since I wasn’t allowed to take photographs. There were about fifteen chairs, a crucifix, a few icons (one depicting Dorothy Day), and a couple of armoires along the back wall. At the front of the chapel there was an altar table, the very table upon which Dorothy Day was placed for her wake. I sat there quietly for a while, taking it in. And then a woman popped her head in and introduced herself. She pronounced my name in very good Spanish and mentioned she had spent some time in Mexico. Her name is Jane Sammon; she lives and works in the Maryhouse and is one of the associate editors of The Catholic Worker. She showed me into the office and into the archives for the paper, which just celebrated its 81st anniversary.

“Ora et labora” is a Benedictine motto by which the Catholic Worker lives. Pray and work. People in these house communities work together and live together; there are shifts and duties to be shared and plenty of work to be done. And it is an ideological movement as well, “We are a pacifist movement,” she tells me, “the left leaning side of Catholicism.” She is on her way out and she has already given me so much of her time, so I ask one last question, “How is the work you do informed or influenced by your faith?” She tells me that many of the workers, although not all, are Catholic. “In this house we have prayer every single night. We say the hourse, which are part of the Benedictine tradition,” she tells me. “Do we force people to go to mass? No! We’re a freedom-loving community. But the work cannot continue without a life of prayer and I think there are still many of us who believe that.”

Adigopi Priya Dasi

Adigopi Priya Dasi

I had not intended to visit the Bhakti Center. Upon leaving the Maryhouse, I decided to stop for a bit of nourishment at a juice bar on my way back to the hotel. It was late and I hadn’t eaten all day. While I waited for my juice, I spotted a business card for the Bhakti Center. I picked it up and read the Hare Krishna chant on the back. The server at the juice bar told me the Center was only a couple blocks away, so I decided to check it out. Over the past couple of months I have experienced some rather serendipitous things and this was certainly one of them. The Bhakti Center’s ground level is a store front stocked with books, instructional materials, clothing and other artifacts. At the back is a vegetarian restaurant and tables. There are many programs offered at the Center; yoga, meditation, teaching, festivals and Kirtan. A woman managing the storefront asked if I needed any help. I told her I knew nothing about Bhakti and was eager to learn. She was most gracious and eventually introduced me to her friend and fellow devotee, Adigopi Priya Dasi. We chatted for a good long while.

I learned that Bhakti is the natural condition of the soul, which is pure, continuous love of God. Bhakti arises from India, from the study of the Gitas and the practices of chanting mantras and devotional yoga. Adigopi’s first experience with Bhakti came at the age 18 in Hollywood, California where she witnessed a group of Bhakti devotees (you know them as Hare Krishnas) chanting and dancing along Hollywood Boulevard. She bought a magazine from them and was deeply inspired by what she read in it. Eventually she became a devotee herself and was initiated. She was so generous with her time and her explanation of Bhakti, but she hoped her teacher, Radhanath Swami would come down so she could introduce me. “You really should meet him,” she said.

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Radhanath Swami

Soon enough Radhanath Swami entered the room and Adigopi took me up to meet him. With a very warm and peaceful smile he reached out and hugged me. He then held my hands and said it was very good to meet me. I knew I was in the presence of a holy man and I felt humbled. We sat down and had a brief, but very rich, visit. I learned that he was only in New York for a brief visit as he lives and works in Mumbai, India where he has established a number of Ashrams (centers for spiritual teaching) where around 10,000 people study and practice. He also oversees environmentally-conscious water harvesting operations as well as other initiatives as part of an eco-village. He tells me that the leading cause of illiteracy in India is hunger, so his organization feeds over 300,000 children a day. I find this beyond amazing.

I tell him I want to know more about Bhakti, could he tell me what the essence of this faith is? “Everyone is looking for happiness. Happiness is within ourselves,” he says measuredly. “Religion is a word that means ‘to bind back,'” he continues. “And, yoga means ‘to reconnect’ with our true essence, to love God.” I ask him how one expresses a love of God, what does that look like in practice? “One way is chanting the names of God. That helps us reconnect with God and we live our life in that connection.” When I have an opportunity to meet with clergy, I like to inquire about their views on interfaith work. “There are different aspects of God, but there is only one God,” he says. “Sun, Sol, Surya; they are different languages but they all mean Sun. Different religions are the manifestation of one truth, of harmony with God.” As our time together draws to a close, he pauses for a moment and says, “What Jesus taught was Bhakti. The prayers of St. Francis, that’s Bhakti. Bhakti is to serve with devotion.”

You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.

It is always better to go to the source

This past Wednesday I called the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City to schedule a visit. I had been reading through the website and learned that the center was open to visitors. The woman on the phone took my information and said she’d call me back with a time. About an hour later she called to let me know brother Mustafa would be happy to meet with me the following day. I was thrilled to have a visit scheduled so soon. This was to be my second visit to a mosque. The first was over twelve years ago, when my friend and co-worker, Khalid, invited me for prayers.

I arrived a couple minutes early and left my shoes in the rack by the doors. A few minutes later, I was introduced to Mustafa Hussein, the Service Manager for the ISGKC. He welcomed me into his office and for the next three hours he spoke to me about Islam, about the Prophet, about God, about the Holy Quran, about prayer, about fasting and about community. I was captivated and grateful that he should take this much time out of his busy day to speak with me.

“If you want to know something, it’s always better to go to the source,” he said. I had just mentioned I knew little to nothing about Islam, but that I had done some reading about it. He asked what I had read and had a Muslim written it. I hesitated and he explained he’d rather be talked to than about. It made perfect sense and I felt affirmed for having scheduled this visit. Thirty minutes into our conversation I realized I hadn’t set up my recording for the interview. I couldn’t bear to interrupt, so I decided to listen more intently than ever and try to commit as much as possible to memory. Did you know, by the way, that millions of Muslims have memorized the Holy Quran in its entirety?

The Holy Quran is the revelation of God’s word to the Prophet. Brother Mustafa explained that it is not meant to be read in a linear fashion; that it is not a history book but rather a collection of stories through which God reveals himself to man. Many of these stories are of people, places and events found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. He told me about Moses, about Joseph and even about Jesus, all from a Quranic perspective. I knew this, that Islam shared a lot of common ground with the other two Abrahamic faiths. But to hear it explained from a personal point of view made it really come to life. I was riveted.

Prayer and fasting are two of the five pillars of Islam. And Muslims are people of prayer, stopping five times a day to pray. This is how a Muslim speaks to God, it is an act of worship and it is most often done communally. “When we pray we take on certain positions. It is said that the closest one can be to God is when one touches his forehead to the ground.” To prostrate oneself and touch one’s forehead to the ground is a sublime act of humility and submission. I love that; I love that in order to be close to God one must first be humble.

“Is prayer a two-way street? How does God speak back to you?” I asked somewhat nervously. “Good question,” he said and I felt back at ease. He said that we speak to God in prayer and that God speaks to us in scripture. It was nearly 2:00 in the afternoon and men were beginning to arrive for prayer. Brother Mustafa showed me around the building. The main prayer hall is a big open space, bathed in natural light thanks to the large windows along the walls. There is no furniture and there are no icons or symbols. To the unsuspecting eye, it appears to be a big empty room. I asked about the absence of symbols or icons and I learned that the Prophet was very concerned about idolatry and that is one of the main reasons why there are no depictions of God or any of the prophets. There is a niche in the middle of the northeast wall, but it is also empty. Its function is to point to Mecca, to orient those praying toward the holy site. I learned that the holy month of Ramadan was about to begin, so I asked a few more questions about that.

Brother Mustafa said I was more than welcome to join for Ramadan services, and for the breaking of the fast at night, which is a big gathering for the community. He gave me a copy of the Holy Quran and explained that it is only referred to as such when it is in Arabic, so that what I was holding was actually referred to as “a translation of the Holy Quran, but not the Quran itself.” I was about to thank him for his time and for his consideration when he said, “Oh, prayers are beginning” and quickly joined the others. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. But that’s okay… I will be back.

 

RAMADAN BEGINS THIS SATURDAY

Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer and doing of good deeds. Through fasting and prayer, Muslims practice self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity. When I arranged for this visit, I was not aware that Ramadan was so soon upon us. Fasting is a spiritual discipline found in many of the worlds religions and many of the central figures in different traditions are known to have fasted for extended periods of time. Moses fasted, Jesus fasted, the Prophet Muhammad fasted, and the Buddha fasted. It is no surprise that fasting is universally held to be a means of gaining closeness to God or enlightenment.

Have you ever fasted or considered fasting for spiritual reasons? Tell me about your experience, I want to know!