Monday, October 13, 2008

the tent of abraham

O servant, where do you seek me?
Lo! I am beside you.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque:
I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
neither am I in rites and ceremonies,
nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If you are a true seeker,
you shall see Me at once:
you shall meet Me in a moment of time.

Kabir says, ‘O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath!”

There was a beautiful gathering at Holy Cross hall and church here in Santa Cruz last night. It was called the Tent of Abraham. I may get these facts wrong, but I believe it was started by a Rabbi Arthus Waskow in New York shortly after the terrorist attacks, an event to gather the children of Abraham––Jews, Christians and Muslims––all together. Abraham is of course known for his hospitality, from the famous story of being visited by the three visitors in Genesis 18. Sylvia, one of the hosts of the evening, made a clear mention of the fact that Abraham “ran to the entrance of his tent to greet them,” bowing to the ground.

So our friends here in Santa Cruz, (Pax Christi and members of our Sangha) with the help of a young Muslim man, have held such a gathering four times now. This year what was added to it was a time of dialogue beforehand. Rabbi Paula, a representative from the Muslim community and an Episcopalian priest each gave a short presentation on the place of ancestors in their respective traditions. Then we broke into small mixed groups and answered questions. They were good questions: 1. just to introduce ourselves we had to say our name and also something about it, its meaning or background; 2. where was our mother’s mother from? (What a lot of interesting responses that brought!); and finally, 3. what is there about your religion that you would like people to know? At the end of our time together one of the Muslim men, a Turkish man named Bora, who was actually from my small talking group got up and sang the call to prayer. I don’t believe I have ever heard it sung live, nor have I ever heard it sung so heart-felt and beautifully. I had goose bumps and tears in my eyes. While we all sat in silence the Muslims laid cloths on the ground and did the whole series of gestures that accompany the salat, led by this same gentleman.

We then adjourned to the beautiful little mission chapel for evening prayer. The three of us who were presenting there had been asked to consider something that had to do with peace. Another rabbi read and sang from the Bible, and then offered some reflections. Then this same Bora who had led the salat chanted passages from the Qur’an while the other, Bulent, who was one of main collaborators in the event and who had spoken earlier, translated them for us. But what they chose! They chose all passages about Mary, the mother of Jesus, to honor us. Again, chills, goose bumps and tears, not only at the beauty of hearing the scriptures sung like that, but at the graciousness of the gesture to sing those passages for us.

Then I was up. Ziggy, one of the organizers, did tell me that the others were going to chant the scriptures, in Hebrew and Arabic respectively, and suggested that I probably didn’t want to chant the Gospel in Latin. But it seemed to me that this was a little teachable liturgical-musical moment too! Few Catholics realize that there is a tradition of singing the Scripture readings in our tradition (that, by the way was the conceit behind the oratorio that I composed, The Song of Luke) and that that possibility is also offered to and exhorted upon presiders to do also in English. So I did.

I could have picked a dozen other passages concerning peace, but the one I chose was Matthew 5:38-48 from the Sermon on the Mount that makes it as clear as possible, beyond any shade of doubt, what Jesus’ teaching is on peace, and it is setting the bar pretty high. It’s not just saying “try to get along with everybody”: it’s saying offer no resistance to evil! And turning the other cheek! It’s kind of amazing that we so often hear from government leaders who are pretty ardent public Christians, but never hear this passage quoted when we are discussing foreign policy. It’s just too impractical, I guess. I must confess that I have a hard time being an absolute pacifist (perhaps to my shame); I think there are situations when defending the poor and the weak and the innocent call us to make use of a righteous means of arms. But––and here’s the rub––anything I do or advocate has to be informed by this model and exhortation to perfection.

A bunch of us have here in Santa Cruz t-shirts and stickers with the ubiquitous local logo “No Enemies.” I like it a lot. What it means to me is this: the weird thing about saying, “love your enemy,” as Jesus says, is somehow when you love someone they could no longer possibly be your enemy. Later in the Gospel of Matthew (22:36) among other places, Jesus offers as the second part of the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As your very self! As if that other were your very self because in some way that other and you make up part of a “self.” Some of my Indian friends instead of writing, “yours truly,” like to sign off their letters by writing, “Your very self!” As Ecknath Easwaran interprets the Katha Upanishad (1.2.8): They who see themselves in others and others in themselves through spiritual osmosis help others to realize the Self––that is, the Atman or Spirit––in themselves.”

In fact, there is a level of being deeper than body––where we are all divided; and deeper than our minds, our intellects and our souls––where we all maybe divided. There is the level of spirit, that realm, that aspect of ourselves, before name and form, before ritual and dogma and doctrine, and, if the mystics of our traditions are to be trusted, beyond name and form too, beyond ritual, dogma and doctrine, where we are one with God and one with one another. It is then that we realize that we are one great body, that phrase that St Paul loves to use so much, and this I don’t think he means as an allegory: I think he means it literally. (Perhaps it is similar to what the Buddhists call dependent co-origination?) What happens to one part of the body is happening to the whole. When we really realize what an intricate web created reality is at a material level––and what we learning about the psychic realm seconds that, that we are connected in so many ways at a subtle level––we understand these things more. And it is even more so at the level of spirit. Just as the sense of separate self sort of disappears in our relation with the Divine as we are only conscious of the Divine, just as the sense of separate self disappears for moments between two lovers, so corporately our sense of separate selves also somehow dissolves, united in our common submission to That-which-is-greater-than-us, when we are all of us gazing in the same direction, gathered around the well that is the source and ground of our being.

We all got to de-brief a little this morning at 8:30 Mass at Holy Cross. (I’m filling in there for a couple of weeks.) Ironically, the reading was from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 4, where he writes allegorically about Hagar and Sarah, Hagar, the slave woman representing the covenant of Mount Sinai and Sarah representing the freedom of the children of the promise, the children of the heavenly Jerusalem, freedom in Christ from the law. Hagar, of course, is the mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael who is revered as the father of the Islamic people. So I first warned folks not to take the allegory literally, but to marvel at the fact that here we had all three traditions present––Paul writing to Christians about Ishmael concerning freedom from the Jewish law.

I also cautioned against getting to smug about this “freedom” from the Law. The Gospel that accompanied it was Jesus saying that this is an evil generation because it asks for a sign, but none will be given but the sign of Jonah. And the sign of Jonah, of course, is that just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the whale, so Jesus would spend three days in the heart of the earth. That’s where the freedom comes from: kenosis-emptiness, death. Freedom comes from, as our Muslim brothers and sisters might say, submission, which is the meaning of the root of both the words “islam” and “muslim.” That’s why Muslims say that Jesus was a “muslim”: he was one who submitted totally to God. He didn’t even deem equality with God something to be grasped at. And it was therefore that God raised him on high and gave him the name above every other name. This is the wisdom that Jesus says is greater than the wisdom of Jonah, greater than the wisdom of Solomon, the wisdom of the grain that must fall into the ground and die if it is to yield a harvest.

And it is as crazy and counter intuitive as “turn the other cheek” and “offer no resistance to injury.”

How many ways we have to die to our little selves so that our true perfect self may be born! The one I think about the most these days is this whole slow subtle process of “training the senses and stilling the mind.” Because, as the Dhammapada says:
Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by the mind, created by the mind.
If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering follows,
as the wheel follows the hoof of an ox pulling a cart.

Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by the mind, created by the mind.

If one speaks or acts with a serene mind happiness follows,
as surely as one’s shadow.

Animosity does not eradicate animosity.
Only by loving kindness is animosity dissolved.
This law is ancient and eternal.

There are those who are aware
that they are always facing death.
Knowing this they put aside all quarrels.
(1:1-2, 5-6)
Changing our mind, changing the world. Do not be conformed to this world! Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.