Friday, October 22, 2010

the deepest thing inside

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
Catches the thread of all sorrows
And you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore...
(Naomi Shihab Nye)

thursday october 21, 2010

I found the event at the Haigazian Armenian University difficult, though my friends all said it went quite well. I was having trouble reading the audience, so I wasn't sure I was connecting, and when that happens I have this bad habit of talking faster and faster and running thoughts together, which I thought I was doing. But apparently it didn't show. There have been several times when I have been asked to do events where folks can't decide whether they want me to sing or to speak, and so I will do about half and half, but generally I opt on the speaking side, giving long explanations of the songs, because each of the songs I do have quite a story behind them. And that's what I did yesterday, with a long introduction first about Bede Griffiths' particular approach, which I have adapted and adopted. Part of the issue for me was that about half the attendees seemed to be the university faculty, including the president of both Hagazian and NEST Near East Shcool of Theology), and others who I knew to have their doctorates in the area of religious studies. And another part of my nervousness was knowing that I would undoubatbly be speaking to some Muslims as well, and I so don't want to misrepresent anything nor dishonor their tradition by making any kind of facile comparisons. Yet another element is knowing that in this war-torn country there are no easy answers, no quick solutions. It is the patient work of building (re-building) relationships and bonds of trust based on our common humanity and what we share in the praxis of spirituality.

But, as I said, it went well enough. The others who have heard me do what I do already enjoyed hearing the "stories behind the songs." At one point I mentioned that I had been so nervous the night before singing in Arabic. Then a little later during the presentation when I was fielding some questions, one woman raised her hand and said, "I don't have a question. I just want to hear you sing in Arabic!" So we did the Bismillah again, along with the story. I had a number of wonderful conversations afterwards, mostly with young people who were in attendance.

Then our friend Nayla whisked the lot of us--Agnete, Ace, Steve and I--away to her home for dinner. Fr Fadi joined us as well. Nayla lives in a spacious airy apartment in the Verdun district of Beirut. It has been in the family for some time, I take it. There were polished stone floors throughout and long floor length curtains all around. The walls were tastefully decorated with religious art from around the world, a Tibetan tonka, a Buddhist icon, Arabian paintings and calligraphy, photos of whirling dervishes, various prayer beads. We ate in a sitting room at the far end of the apartment, at a large low sqaure table that was surrounded on two sides by a divan and on two sides by carpet and cushions. In other words, we actually did "recline" at table. Nayla brought out dish after dish of mideastern food, many things I had eaten before and several dishes I had not, including a chickory recipe and a new kind of cheese. It was quite a feast. Ace and Steve had also brought along a large box filled with sweets that they had acquired on their journeys up into the hills during the day.

At first our conversation centered around philosophy and theology, since Fadi and Nayla are both experts in their fields, one Christian, one Muslim, and also co-founders of Adyan. I was picking their brains about some of the theory behind their praxis. I was especially interested in Fadi's notion of "truth," which he says underlies his own work in dialogue. If I may try to express it: he thinks that we often have too Western a notion of truth that comes from Roman law and Greek philosophy, truth as a static objective thing. Whereas he suggests that the Eastern view of truth is more dynamic, and he gave as an example how Jesus says of himself, "I am the way, the truth and the life." So perhaps we could see truth as situated between the way and the life, that is, a practical way of living and an actual life situation. (I can almost see poor Jos Ratzinger rolling his eyes and sighing over yet another example of relativism, but still...) The conversation at some point turned to the war here (it's never fasr from anyone's mind), and where each of them had been especially during the last 34 day war with Israel, which, the more one hears about it, seems less like a war than an initial skirmish on the southern border followed by Israel bombing the dickens out of Lebanon for a month. Agnete was also here exactly then, with an interfaith group, and regaled us with stories too of how she had to usher those under her care out of the country via Syria.

We are still trying to figure out what to do after the work is done and we return from Syria on the 29th. Nayla and Fadi had some great ideas, one of them being for us to join them on one of their Spiritual Solidarity days that is taking place on the 30th, a gathering of Christian and Muslim leaders somewhere to the south. I said "Absolutely" and Fadi said, "Under one condition: that you lead the crowd in singing the Bismillah song." Okay, though at the same time Nayla said that they would have to check with some of the imams and sheikhs in the crowd to make sure that no one would be offended. The offense this time could possibly be not necessarily that a non-Muslim would sing words from the Qur'an, but that it would be accompanied by a guitar. Some Muslims don't approve of musical instruments as part of worship.

I have a close monk friend in Italy named Ildebrando. He is from San Miniato al Monte in Florence, the community I lived with several times, especially when I was studying Italian. Ilde is actually from Lebanon though, and connected me with his family before I arrived. His sister and a niece came to the concert the other night, his niece has been in touch several times with all kinds of helpful information, and then his brother-in-law Neeb called the other day and basically told me that he was going to pick me up at one o'clock on Thursday and I was welcome to brinbg along anyone I wanted and we were going to spend the day with them. So he came and Steve and Ace and I piled into his Hyundai and he whisked us across Beirut. To avoid the traffic jams he made a long loop south out of town and then back up into East Beirut, pointing out the different districts as we drove. "Here was the very poor area, mostly Shia Muslims. Here was the region dominated by Hizbollah. Here was the Druze area and here the road that divides the Druze from the Christians; notice the soldiers who stand at other end of the street keeping the peace and keeping them apart." The family compound is built high in the hills, overlooking both the Druze region and the airport right on the shore of the Mediterannean Sea. As we had flown in the other day I shuddered just a bit thinking that this very runway had been blown up by the Israelis as they sought to destory the Lebanese infrastructure. The Wehbe family had had a box seat in the balcony for the whole spectacle. He also pointed out to us different bombed out buildings and bunkers with gun turrets right across the street from their property.

I keep having flashes both of Italy and of India, as if this place is somewhere between the two. As a matter of fact it is, both geographically and culturally. Some of the buildings and shops as well as the crowded dirty streets and madcap traffic remind me of India; but the hospitality and outdoor terraces and long curtains and awnings remind me of the Italy, particularly Sicily. We gathered under an awning and ceiling fans outdoors along a long table set for a feast. We were quite a crowd, besides Deeb and Nadia, there was Ilde and Nadia's brother Naseeb with his wife and infant son. They live in Italy as well, but Naseeb is working here in Lebanon again for the Italian army that makes up part of the UN peacekeeping troops. Then there was Deeb's cousin and his American wife, who live in LA where they run a restaurant among other business ventures. He told us the whole story of being sent away from Lebanon by his father during the civil war because his father thought he was hanging out with the wrong people and might get into trouble. So he escaped first to Mexico, but then told us the whole story of slipping into the US--this was back in the seventies--where he started working right away and indeed worked his way all the way up to citizenship, marriage and becoming a very succesful business man and civic leader. Then there was Ilde, Naseeb and Nadia's old father who only speaks Arabic and didn't participate much in the conversation, though his face lit up with a delighted smile both when he met me and when his little grandson Antonio came in. The languages flying around the table were amazing--Arabic, French, Italian and English. Lucky little Antonio will grow up with all four languages. So many things were discussed. Certainly Steve and Ace got on well with Deeb and his cousin, all men of "affairs" (business). We spoke at length about the political situation, relations with Israel, internal problems in the country, the assasination of Rafiq Harriri, even various conspiracy theories about 9/11 (that perhaps it was not Osama bin Laden nor the Bush/Cheney team who masterminded it after all, but a Jewish team...) and Fascism. Quite an education. I suppose one cannot go very long nor have to scratch very deep for these topics to come up in this area. The wounds are deep and running, the emotions are ancient and raw. There are certainly no easy answers.

I've also been back to NEST twice now. Yesterday I did their noon devotion for them. It's a free form service and I was told I could do whatever I wanted. I sang the new call-and-response setting of the Beatitudes that I wrote recently with them called "I Will Give You Rest," and then had Romans 5 read (by the professor of New Testament Theology, who introduced by putting it into its content about "Paul concluding his argument about justification by faith rather than the works..."). Then I spoke a wee bit about that reading in relation to the Spirit being poured into us not just covering over us (a subtle nod to the difference of Lutheran and Roman spiritual anthropology) and then had them sit in silence for time with the aid of the little Japanese rin that travels in my sea foam green Colton guitar case and ended with Streams of Living Water. They had wanted me to stay for lunch yesterday but I had already made the plan to go to the Wehbe household, so we went back today, attended the devotion and had lunch with a few of the faculty members and coffee (Turkish) with the students out on the breezy veranda afterward. There is quite a mixture in that place! Both students and faculty come there from all over the mideast as well as from Europe and the States because of NEST's specialty in Islamic Studies and Eastern Christian churches. We had lunch with two Americans and afterward over coffee I met Armenians, Palestinians, Syrians and Germans. One woman is specializing in religious violence and is here to focus on the Armenian-Turkish conflict of last century, which many of you will know of as a very contentious issue. I marvel how some of these young people (they seemed to be barely out of their teens) could already have decided to come to Lebanon so as to be able to specialize in Islamic Studies and Eastern Christian churches.

This afternoon we are headed south to Saida (the biblical city of Sidon) for a solo concert.