To discover Sufism,
it is up to you to take the first step
to drink from the sources of Divine Love.
It is like honey--
you cannot enjoy its sweetness if you do not taste it.
(from the Tariqa Qadiriyya Boutchichiyya)
16 november 09
I'm in London now, about to begin the working session with my fellow members of the Collegeville Composers Group. The original plan was for me to go up to Islington and spend the day and night with my friend Giovanni, yogi and rolfing master who I met through Laurence and the WCCM. But his mate Luke got stricken with the flu, so I got a room at a hotel near Heathrow, where I have to meet the others tomorrow, and was going to take the Tube into town and meet Giovanni for dinner and an evening out, and maybe some touristy gawking, all of which I was looking forward to. But then Giovanni wrote that he too has been struck down. As wonderful as it would have been to do all those other things, I still found myself not all that heart broken, glad to have some time to myself. I got in early and was in my room by 10 AM, and here it is after 5 PM and I am as happy as a hermit in the woods at the Park Inn Heathrow, with a gym (with a hot tub and sauna), wireless internet, Rai Uno on the cable television, enough room for my yoga mat, my guitar and Bible, a tea kettle, a pub called the Three Magpies across the street, and a free breakfast buffet in the morning. After a week of a lot of people stuff, who needs London? "Sit in your hotel room as if in Paradise," St Romuald might say, 'twere he in my running shoes.
I thought the evening at Sunhail's was to be the highight of the week, but it got even better, richer, deeper, with this little encounter on Sunday afternoon. It hadn't occured to me that I would have so much interaction with Muslims on this trip to Denmark. But indeed, there are a lot of Muslims in Denmark from many different parts of Asia and the Mideast. Of course, the country's relationship with Islam came into much higher relief after what Danes refer to as "the cartoon crisis." Put briefly, as one Dane explained it to me, while Denmark has long been regarded a neutral and friendly country, people here talk about the "cartoon crisis" as almost as much a watermark as we talk about 9/11. (You'll remember when a Danish newspaper ran a cartoon of Muhammad that was highly insulting to Muslims.) She said that the resulting cultural crisis revealed both the dark underbelly of xenephobia among the minority extreme right wing of Danes, as well as the dark side of some Muslims who were at least threatening to resolve a religious-cultural offense by violence. So, I was happy and should not have been surprised that I got to spend so much time with Muslims.
Agnete had arranged for me to spend the afternoon with Naveed Baig and his group of young Sufis from Pakistan. I think it is safe to describe them that way. Naveed is a soft-spoken bespecatcled gentle old soul, though quite young yet, perhaps in his mid-thirties. He was born in Denmark, and is immersed in promoting the Muslim community, active in civil society organizations, co-founder of MID (Muslims in Dialogue), which is the largest youth organization in Denmark, and also a member of the steering committee of IKS (Islamic Christian study center), which also functions as a dialogue center. The rest of his bio, gleaned from the Web also reports that
He has written various articles for Danish newspapers and journals, including an Islamic theology for spiritual care and counseling, sharing his gained knowledge from his work in hospitals and prisons. Furthermore, He contributed to an anthology regarding the post-cartoon scenario published by the 'information' publication. He participated in the month long series 'Islam's faces in Denmark' on DR (Danish Radio), and has also been quoted by various newspapers especially with regards to dialogue work and Islamic spirituality. Furthermore, he has organized and participated in outreach ventures as lectures at various universities, churches and for hospital staff. He was recently part of a Danish delegation to Syria in the aftermath of the cartoon crisis, supported by the Danish foreign ministry.He is also a member of the Qadriyya Sufi Order, and is known as an imam (which he told me literally translates merely as "the one who stands in front") both for his hospital chaplaincy and his leadership of this particular group of young men.
I of course had no idea exactly what to expect, and really only the vaguest idea of what I would do or was expected to do. I'm starting to really enjoy that part now, to be prepared to go in just about any direction but to first meet a few people, look into their eyes, smell the room, get a sense of where people are at. You can tell a lot just from walking into a room, I think, and watching how people interact. I often think about these two different occasions in the past when I had no idea what to do. One was the famous concert for 3000 school children arranged by JP in Tiruvanamalai. Even now when I look at photos of that event I laugh at the look on my face. I recognize it. I'm saying to myself, "Oh. My. God. What am I going to do for a half an hour with this beautiful sea of faces that don't speak English?" The other time was when Shannon took me out to the prison in the central valley to give a day of recollection. I had plenty of things with me, but when I walked in the room I knew I wasn't going to be able to deliver any of it in the way I normally do. It wound up being one of the most memorable days of ministry I've ever had. I told someone that night on the phone that I had never felt so satisfied and so exhausted by a day's work.
As it turned out, I was to do the first part of the program, 45 minutes, whatever I wanted to do. We were a group of about 20, mostly young men. Some of them had been brought by a striking guy named Tokir, fellows he studies Arabic with. There were a few women and children as well, all arranged in angled tables with chairs in a small hall. So I decided to just pull up a stool, sit in the middle of them and sing my songs and tell my stories, talking about Fr Bede, and Universal Wisdom and the stories behind, and the reasons I sing, those particular songs. I only got through three or four songs with those long introductions. It was especially nice to open with the Gregorian Latin chant and then the Sanskrit one, and then go into "Hidden in My Silence," because that already brought three traditions together. Not only was Ghalib (from whom I got the refrain) Muslim, he wrote in Urdu, the native language of most Pakistanis. Something that Naveed said in his introduction made me want to mention over and over again "finding words that we can all share." That led of course to pulling out the "Bismillah" song again and telling the story of St Francis and the Sultan. I also had them sing "Lead Me" with me, of course. I must say, with all due respect, they were not giving me a whole lot back singing-wise, but they made a valiant effort. (There was however one young boy, maybe six or seven years old who sang out quite boldly and beautifully, named Hasan, I found out later.) They were not super responsive either but very attentive and respectful. So I wasn't sure who well I had connected. It wasn't a concert setting really, but more of a presentation, you might say. When I finished a very fine young Pakistani Sufi singer named Adeel then did the second half, singing selections from the Qur'an and various devotional poems of great teachers. (Again, Hasan sang along with some of the first pieces Adeel did which we well known traditional songs.) Adeel had asked me to stay up in front with him, and help him lead the dhikr then, which I thought was quite an honor, even if it was only a small thing. And then I led a short prayer service, which I called "Word Into Silence" as we normally name our regular service back home, which was sort of a very short lectio divina. Adeel sang (and Naveed translated) a section of the Qur'an, and then I taught them to let the words roll around on their own lips, then move into the mind and then to "put the mind into the heart." After a short meditation I sang a passage from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's Gospel and led them into the same thing. And then I pulled out the beautiful prayer from the Harmony Center in Singapore which I have been carrying around with me for years now and prayed it out loud. It was all very good, simple and sweet, in the best sense of the word.
I wrote earlier that I hadn't found them terribly responsive, though attentive and respectful, while I was speaking, to contrast that with our interaction afterward. I had a number of beautiful very in depth conversations with several of the guys who came up to me and wanted to speak. What I noticed the most about them was their presence: they were really present when they were speaking with me, or shaking my hand or giving me a hug, looking me right in the eye, standing quite near--really present. I knew I was hearing from their hearts.
I enjoyed meeting Naveed very much. I had told Agnete earlier that week that I really want to go to the Mideast some day, if for nothing other reason than just to sing these songs there, and she mentioned it in front of Naveed. I said to him casually, "We should go together." And he actually took to the idea right away, and little sparks started lighting right away in Agnete's eyes and mind with her genius for setting these kinds of things up, and we tossed the idea around a bit. I think that just might happen and I hope it does. What a beautiful thing it would be to do programs together, what a sign, what power in presence.
Agnete and I had spoken the day before about the pain around the issue of inter-communion between Catholics and especially Lutherans, there in Denmark, but really all other Protestant denominations. Often our own Catholic leaders want to insist that we can't share communion because we are not unified. But one wise holy old man once taught me that Eucharist is not just the sign of unity: it's also the instrument of unity--it's what makes us one. Why should we deny medicine to the sick? And so we ache. But I was thinking too that there is actually something good about the pain. It's a sign that we know something is wrong, and also it's the ache of the longing for the healing of that breach. It goes the same with our bonds of love with people from other traditions too, other ethnic groups and countries. That ache spurs us on. We need to wail and fast and mourn too, and then we need to be spurred to do unity, not just long for it, just as we know from Thich Nhat Hahn that "there is no path to peace--peace is the path," so there is no way to unity: unity is the way. Sychronistically someone wrote in an e-mail to me the other day about "the discomfort/pain of conflict that is inherent in any calling to wholeness..." and I thought of that later. One of the men at Naveed's group simply handed me a note when I had finished and was packing up my guitar and told me that this had occured to him while I was speaking and singing, and so he had written in down for me. After we left the building I pulled it out of my pocket and read it. It said simply,
In the Name of Allah
Most Gracious Ever Merciful
There is no sorrow
Sorrow is love
I half wanted to go back in and talk to him about it, but I figured "words are darkened lamps on a stranger's silent grave" anyway. Yes, that's it: It's all love. Even sorrow is love in disguise.
Agnete, ever the consummate host, then had me over to her place for a delicious farewell meal. We were again joined by Elizabeth, and she and I had a good discussion about en-bodied spirituality while Agnete cooked. At dinner Agnete told some amazing stories about her travels these years, from dodging bullets in Palestine to sneaking a group of pilgrims across the Syrian border while Israel was bombing the daylights out of Lebanon a few years back. I am amazed and inspired and humbled to have been in such good company this week. I feel as if I have been given more than I gave. The very friendly taxi driver told me at 6 AM as he dropped me off at the airport, "You must come back when the sun is shining. Copenhagen is soooo bea-uuu-tiful" with a big toothy grin. I said--though I don't know if I will spell it correctly--"I will. Tusund tak!" A thousand thanks.