Wednesday, October 27, 2010

from aleppo

Yet it was I who taught them how to walk.
It was I who held them in my arms.
I nurtured them like infants and I
raised them to my cheek,
yet they knew not I was their healer.
O Israel!
(Hosea 10)

28 october, Aleppo, Syria

As I said, none of us was in very good shape for the concert here last night, but it went very well. Our immediate host here is a man named Razik, who has done a very good job of advertising the event. It was being held in a Syrian Orthodox church, which at first seemed like it would be a rather incongruous place for a concert. They had specially constructed a stage in front of the sanctuary, and there was a full sound system brought in, with four speakers, a monitor and a sound man in attendance. We were going to do a sound check at 4:30 but prayers were just starting then. A dozen or so priests or monks clad in black came in and were singing antiphonally, in Syriac, with the congregation which appeared to made up mostly of elderly women with heads covered. By the time they finished it was already nearly 5:30, the time when the concert was supposed to begin. We had to wait for the archibishop to show up, and he was placed right front and center in a special chair. A really good crowd showed up, nearly filling the church, by far the largest audience of the tour. Razik introduced me, first in Arabic and then in English, and then the archbishop got up and said some words of welcome too, again first in Arabic and then in English, about how happy they were that I could come there and sing, and how important the work I was doing was, spreading peace and understanding through music and dialogue.

And then I launched in, doing pretty much the same set that I had done the other night at the Danish Institute in Damascus. The acoustic in the building was stellar, though I was really backing off the microphone (Steve thought just enough). Razik was translating the introductions to the songs for me, which I was trying to keep short and to the point. I had asked permission to not do Bismillah this time, partly because I didn't think there were going to be any Muslims there and partly because I was not doing audience participation--very difficult in translation. The audience applauded loudly and appreciatively after every piece. The only chilling moment came when I did "When Israel Was A Child." I introduced it as I usually do, that it was from the book of the prophet Hosea, one of the few places in the bible where God is imaged as a mother--holding the infant tenderly to her cheek--and that I sang it with the hope that there will still prophetic voices that would call Israel and all of us back to our loving relationship with God. Several people left as I was singing that. I was wondering if they were leaving because of a mention of Israel. Then I did "The Ground We Share." I didn't sense any negative emotions from the audience from that one.

Many people came up to talk to me afterwards, mostly young people, and I was surprised at how many of them actually did speak English. I noted how many of them wanted to be able to find the words to the songs because they wanted to read them again. (I have to find a way to get them online.) One of the guys who came to talk was yet another Iraqi refugee, an engineer who is to be moving to California soon. He was very eager to talk, and told me that I should sing a song for the children, since so many Iraqi children are displaced and in dire situations now. I told that I actually did have a song--"Rachel's Lament"--specifically for the children but I had left it out because I had been told that not many people spoke English and I was afraid that a song that long would have been taxing to them. Too bad, it would have been perfect.

Agnete and I talked a bit afterward, and she too thought that the folks had walked out because of "Israel." She said that Razik had told her that when I said "Israel" it had been like a slap across the face, and I did notice that he hesitated when he was translating. Agnete said something even more chilling, that she hoped there had been no government agents there, to hear "an American singing a song about Israel." Of course the song is not about Israel, and it certainly is not in anyway in praise or support of Israel's actions in these last years. On the one hand, if we are about dialogue, then the Jewish tradition has to be brought into the conversation, and the Gospel still must be preached. At the same time, that is easy to say from my perspective. I spoke with one man afterwards who had lost his hands and eyes in an "accident" with the Israelis, for instance. That's all of the story he offered, but he was keen on getting me copies of his books on Syrian folk tales and his writings about the Israeli-Syrian conflicts. No one said anything negative to me directly, and I haven't heard anything from Razik, but it's pretty sobering.

It's hard to describe the, dare I say, hatred of Israel in this part of the world, both Lebanon and Syria. Several people have tried to tell us that it has nothing to do with Jews, per se, only for Israelis, but that only goes so far. Agnete says many people in this region simply ignore the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) completely, Muslims and Christians alike. I have heard the word "Zionist" many many times. As a matter of fact many seemingly reasonable people have a deep seated belief that the US is being controlled by Zionists. We even ran into someone who was showing us a book by David Duke, the former Klansman, about Zionism, that had been translated into Arabic. (Steve very diplomatically told him some more background about David Duke and warned him that this was not a good source.) The depth of the hurt and the indelible scars of history collude to make it seem impossible for there to be common ground. In recent memory are Israel's incursions into south Lebanon and taking the Golan heights from Syria, not to mention the very recent restarting of the building in the disputed Palestinian territories amid boisterous celebrations. It seems to me that folks here are steeled to the fact that Israel is here to stay, but they want the borders readjusted to the pre-1967 configuration and an end of the Palestinian crisis. And they also feel helpless to do anything because Israel is a formidable military force backed up by a superpower, the US. Israel is right to be paranoid--they really are hated here. But who stops first? Will Israel ever feel secure enough to stop being offensive or downright aggressive? Will the surrounding countries ever be able to trust them? And how does the Gospel of Jesus apply?

back to beirut and meeting a great man

Today many want to transcend the world of forms with possessing the forms. But we cannot throw away what we do not possess. The Sufis who were inviting people to throw away the external forms were addressing persons who already possessed the forms. (Seeyed Hossein Nasr)

26 october, back to Beirut

It's funny how these themes creep and then we see them everywhere. In Dr Nasr's book on Ideals and Realities of Islam, which I am enjoying greatly (belated thanks to Shannon and John), searching still for these universal truths, I got fascinated by the chapter on the Tariqah, usually known as Tasawwuf, which is the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam, better known yet as Sufism. Dr Nasr is showing how it is related to the Law, or Shariah, to make the necessary connection clear both to observant Muslims, who need to find the inner meaning of the Law, much in the way that Jesus preached to his contemporary Jewish co-religionsists, and to those who want to transcend the Law without having gone through the law. He brings these three together: the Shariah, the Tariqah and the Haqiqah, the Ultimate Truth. One leads to the other: you can't have the Way without the Law, you can't have the truth without both. I wonder if we couldn't reconfigure Jesus' words again (remembering Fr Fadi's formulation of the truth sandwhiched between the Way and the Life) and see here the progression of the Life (Shariah or Law) leading to the Way (Tariqah) which leads to the Truth (Haqiqah). And the Gospels record Jesus as claiming of himself that he is all three, which of course is shirk, or heresy to an observant Muslim.

As I wrote before, my friend and collaborator John Pennington has been here as well, in Lebanon, working for the US Embassy, a cultural envoy, offering clinics besides performing with the Lebanese Philharmonic and the Lebanese Orinetla Orchestra. After some difficulty, he arranged for us to do a performance at the US EMbassy itself for the Ambassador and her staff, Tuesday evening. So we all piled into two taxis and headed out of Damascus on Tuesday morning, one car bound for Aleppo in the north, where the lasty concert was to be on Wednesday, and the other headed back to Beirut, myself with Linda and Jonas, a bright young Danish man who is stationed now in Cairo as the director of Danmission's operation in the Mideast. But before going our separate ways, Agnete had another unexpected treat for us. We were guests of Sheikh Dr Salah Eddin Kuftaro the president of the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Foundation, with whom Agnete has built up a strong working relationship over the years. The Kuftaro Foundation, appraently to the displeasure of the Syrian government has been very involved in dialogue work for many years, especially under Dr Salah's father, Ahmad, who passed away six years ago. Dr Salah himself was just released from prison a month ago, arrested on some trumped up charges of tax fraud which were later dropped though he continued to be held, but reallyt for his work in dialogue and meetings with Christians and Westerners. Agnete thought that he might be taking a risk in meeting with us then, but he assured us not. His home was a good half and hour drive outside of Damascus, a beautiful little villa with a green lawn and a pool in the backyard, everything very neat and clean. He gathered us in a circle of chairs near the pool and just began speaking, with a gentleman named Mahmoud, who we had met the night before, translating throughout. He welcomed us as brothers and sisters, "grandchildren of the great prophets, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad." He talked about his experience in prison, and about his ongoing work, even offers that he ahd to live in other countries, including Russia. He told us too that he is to have an audience with the president of Syria soo, "And I don't think it will be to compliment me." He said he thought that there were three great problems that we are facing in this day and age: religious ignorance, religious fanaticism and Western exploitation of Mideasrn nartural resources. (I think that translates as "oil.") He has an obvious high regard for his relationship with Agnete and Danmission, and Agnete too was effusive in her praise of and affection for him.

Agnete then introduced me more amplyt and explained what I was doing there and elsewhere in the world--promoting peace and understanding between religions through music and dialogue. It sounded so lofty to hear it coming out her mouth! Is that what I'm doing? I'd like to think so. That is surely what all these other folks are doing and I am honored to be able to play my small part. She turned it over to me and suggested that maybe I had some things I wanted to say or ask the Sheikh. I was a little frozen, but I started talking and probably talked for ten minutes or so, about both the heart approach, through music, but how also I thought the head approach was necessary too, through study and understanding because--I have used this line a hundred times so far this trip--in these days ignorance is dangerous, and peope say a lot of stupid things out of a lack of understanding, and saying stupid things is what starts wars. I also mentioned that for all of his missteps, I thought that this was the area where Pope Benedict was correct and misunderstood: that he was trying to shift the dialogue from theological debate to cultural dialogue, sharing our common concerns as human beings; and how he was trying to bring a level of rational discourse to the conversation. The point he was trying to make in the ill-fated Regensburg address was that it is not rational to kill in the name of religion. He asked me to sing something for him with the guitar. Everyone wanted me to do the "Bismillah" again, since Mahmoud had told him all abou that song, but it just didn't feel like the right setting. And for some reason I really wanted to sing the Vedahametam. I explained the Indian idea of the purusha, and how I thought there might be resonances with the Sufi ideal of al-insan al-kamil, the perfect one. He liked that a lot and agreed. Then we had a very nice snack there at poolside, and some Turkish coffee in his private cottage-office-library at the back of the property. The Sheikh gave us a handful of little presents, books and prayer beads made by prisoners. It was really powerful to see someone who has been so persecuted and yet has not had his spirit broken nor his optimism shaken.

Then Linda, Jonas and I headed to Beirut. I met John at this hotel later that afternoon and, after a quick meal, his contact from the Embassy, a Lebanese woman named Diana, met us to drive us across and out of town up to the Embassy. You may recall that the US Emabssy was bombed in 1983, some 60 people killed, besides the Marine base being bombed a year later and the torturing and killing of William Buckley, the CIA chief, and some other aossorted killings and kidnappings. Now the Embassy has rented an entire village north of town of town, and heavily fortified it. It is very much self-contained, and no one leaves there without an armed guard. Also no one is allowed to have family living there with them. It was a comedy of errors getting into the place. John had inadvertently brought his wallet but not the pouck in which he has been carrying all his identification, and so wound up being without driver's license or passport. The two Lebanese soldiers who were at the first check point were not happy about that, even when Diana came up and tried to explain, nor when they got Ryan, the one who had brought John over, on the phone. They decided to check all of our equipment outside the check point. After rubbing the cloth over all of the cases and going to check it on his detector, the one soldier came back and rubbed them all again because something was giving off an indication that there was something explosive somewhere. A second check on a different machine cleared of us that. Then we went through individually, me first. Even after emptying my pockets completely the soldier's wand kept registering that there was something metal near my left ribs. But there wasn't! After patting me down, he went through my guitar case and one of the John's bags that I was carrying. Then another osldier led me down to the next check point where I had to turn in my passport and get a badge. At this point I had left John way behind and I was put in a cold bright waiting room for another 10 minutes or so, various soldiers coming in and out glancing at this guy with his guitar looking vaguely guilty.

Finally John got through as well and we were driven up to the Ambassador's private residence where the our performance was to take place. We were already about half an hour late so we were scurrying to set up. I didn't want to make a big deal about it, but I told John that I wasn't feeling well, sort of sick to my stomach and shaky. He asked if I was just nervous, and I said no, I wasn't sure what it was. I had already been feeling a little nauseous in the car, but I thought it was Diana's perfume of the crazy driving through Beirut traffic. We got going, but at about the third song I was feeling very queasy. I apologized to John and the audience and asked our host, Ryan, to show me the bathroom. I thought I might vomit but just stood there and breathed deep a few times and felt better. So I went back out. But not for long. As we were performing the Ambrosian Gloria, my stomach started heaving and I could feel my throat filling up. I barely made it through and had to rush off to the bathroom again and this time I was very sick. Somehow I made it back, with a mouth full of bile, and made it through the rest of the performance. By that time they had gotten a hold of the Ambassador's nurse and she was waiting to tend to me. While I was talking with her I started shaking and had to go again and this time even more came out. It was pretty gruesome, right there in the company of the Ambassador and all her invited guests. After that I was better and was able to have a conversation or two with her and some of the other guests. I spent a pretty dazed night back at the Casa D'Or, but I was never so happy to see a bed. By the time I woke up in the morning I knew my stomach was better but I was achy and feverish still. There was a long six hour car ride to Aleppo, Syria then, but I slept most of the way. Come to find out, both Ace and Steve had gotten sick too when they arrived at Aleppo the night before--it had to have been food poisoning from something we had all eaten. Ace probably had it the worst of all of us. He had actually passed out at one point in the bathroom and bumped his head on the toilet. Steve had to revive him and put an ice pack on his head. So we were none of us in very good shape for the final performance last night here in Aleppo... more on that, next entry.

from damascus

Now as Saul was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.' (Acts 9:3-6)

25 october, damascus

We piled into a mini-van and headed to Damascus, Syria on Sunday. I could somehow feel right away that we were not in Lebanon anymore, though I am still not sure I could say what the exact differences were. Perhaps this will explain it: when we were coming back into Lebanon on Tuesday (more on why we did that later) at the border the driver, who was Syrian, said to me, "Now you are leaving Asia and going into Europe." Syria is pointedly an Arab Republic, at this point pretty much run by a one party system, though that party insists that it is heading toward democracy. There is much less English or French spoken here. And the Syrians and Lebanese don't seem to be too fond of each other. One Lebanese told me that the Lebanese are more proud and think of the Syrians as backward because of the language issue and because they are more simple. I haven't met anyone who was disagreeable to us, though folks have been a little less forward with their hospitality while still generous.

We all stayed at Mar Elias, a monastery guesthouse quite near the walls of the old city. As we drove in Agnete pointed out to us the place where St Paul was lowered over the wall to escape the the Jews that wanted to kill him fort preaching Jesus immediately after his conversion. Right next to the guesthouse was the chapel of St Paul's conversion, surrounded by rather modern architecture covering over a cave into which has been placed an altar, with ampitheatre style seating sweeping up beyond it. It would have been a great place for a concert too, with no microphones. Steve and Ace and I took a little tour of the neighborhood for about an hour before dinner, just as it was getting dark. It was certainly not as Westerner-tourist friendly as the areas in Beirut where we stayed. We stopped in and had a halting conversation with a man who ran a music store with all kinds of stringed instruments, espeically ouds. He was hard at work installing an electric pick-up in an oud when we walked in and he happily turned it on and tuned it up and played for us for a while. Then Agnete bustled us off for a sumptuous meal at a restaurant near the Bab Touma-the Thomas Gate. The Syrians are quite proud of the fact that they sent St Thomas off from here to evangelize India, hence eventually the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malakar rites. (Syrian is not really spoken much anymore, replaced by Arabic centuries ago, but it is still used for prayer. I was remembering how Fr Bede spoke so fondly of those rites, which he and Fr Francis were translating into English, because the Syriac was so close to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. We were told that there are still a few villages in northern Syria where that Aramaic is still spoken.)

The restaurant was built into a large courtyard which Agnete told us was a typical Damascene house. It was quite crowded and is obviouslty popular with Westerners who come this way, as we were not nearer to the tourist center, the old city. The food here has been wonderful, but I desparately wanted something a little closer to my normal diet, and so with Linda's help I asked the waiter if it was possible to just get a plate of rice and some vegetables, since that was what accompanied all the meat dishes anyway, "because I don't take meat," I told the waiter. He said, "Why not?" and brought me a meal worthy of Santa Cruz county, a big plate of vegetables and a mound of rice. As we were leaving later I thanked the waiter for getting me that special meal and he tapped his stomach and said, "I hope you feel better." Apparently he thgouth that anyone who doesn't eat meat must be sick. His remark was prescient, as you will see below.

Monday we had a grand tour of the old city. Agnete had asked me the other day if I was enjoying myself. I told her in my own obtuse way, "I'm not not enjoying myself" but I was focused right now on the work at hand, not really able to relax. But that day, I really enjoyed myself. We walked right up Straight Street, the street mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles where Ananias went to meet Paul (then Saul) and pray over him to cure him of his blindness. As a matter of fact we were able to spend some time praying in the Ananias' chapel, a beautiful subterannean stone structure. We walked up past many artisans' shops and wound up at yet another sumptuous restaurant that also seemed to cater to Westerners. All of the wait persons were dressed up in period costumes as if from Ali Baba. I thought we were going just for a snack but it wound up being a bit of a feast again. I th9ink that there is no such thing as a simple meal here in the mideast. By now I'm on it though and have figured out how to order for myself, and I got a delicious lentil soup and an artichoke salad. After that Linda took us on to visit the souq and the grand Ummayad mosque.

A souq is a marketplace, and this is one of the most famous in the mideast. It appears to be miles of covered rows of shops, many of them specializing in just a few items, coffee, gold, cloth, produce, etc. And it truly is where people do their daily shopping. The biggest delight of the tour of the souq was that Ace found an old friend of his there, a gold merchant that he had known and worked with in Abu Dabi some years ago. As a matter of fact, the guy had an old photo of he and Ace under the glass that covered his desktop. He was a gold merchant, and after exchanging some greetings and family news, the two of them and Steve launched into a discussion about the price of gold and the economy and how Ben Bernanke's decisions on November 3rd are going to effect the global market.

We then went into the Ummayad mosque. The place had started life in the 9th century as an Aramean temple to thier god Hadad, then became old Roman temple to Jupiter, which during the time of Constantine was converted to a Christian basilica, and then to a mosque in the 7th century. At first the Christians and Muslims shared the space half and half, but slowly the Christians were elbowed when the caliph decided he needed to buld a mosque equal to any one in the world. In it is also a large sarcophagus that is said to contain the head of John the Baptist who is revered by both Christians and Muslims. Pope John Paul II visited there in 2002.

A young man motioned to us that he wanted someone to take his picture next to John's monument. Steve obliged and struck up a little conversation with him afterward. He asked Steve were he was from, Steve said USA and asked where he was from. Iraq. I don't remember the rest of the conversation, but the young man, Mustafa, couldn't have been more gracious. He kept saying, "You are most welcome here. You are welcome. Most welcome." We ran into him again later outside and again he wanted a phot take. This time I did the honors and we talked some more. He was an engineer but there was no work in Iraq. He was there with his mother and father; he was pushing his father around in a wheelchair. This was the first of many encoutners with Iraquis, and I must say they were all that gracious to us, but it is chilling to hear their stories. Many of them are applying to the UN for refugee status, and several we met are trying to move to the US. There are millions of Iraqi refugees in Syria. Syria has been very good to them, but the Syrians are not quite as gracious in their assesment of our involvement in Iraq. One told us that "they," meaning the Americans, destroyed the country "past, present and future." One Iraqi told us, "Before there was one criminal running the country, Sadam Hussein. Now there are hundreds of criminals and we don't know who they are." Another told us that Christians are now being persecuted in a way that they never were before, and indeed many of the Iraqis we met were either Chaldean or Syrian Orthodox. When you are here in this region and realize just what a different culture and mindset there is here, it is hard to imagine what would ever made President Bush and his team think that they could simply go in and depose a regime like that, for no legitimate reason. I couldn';t get the words out, but I wanted to say to young Mustafah, "I'm sorry. Not in my name."

That night the concert was at the Danish Institute, another beautiful large Damascene courtyard dating back to the 6th century. There was a fount in the middle, a raised stage area with a Persian rug underfoot and I was surrounded by candles. There was also large cool salons on either side of the courtyard, in one of which I sat and chilled out a little before singing. Acoustically, it was heavenly and I had decided to do a whole different kind of performance. I started with Clarence Rivers' spiritual styled "God Is Love" a capella, and then went right into "How Can I Keep from Singing." I even through "Put Love First" in there later in the concert as well as Rachel's Lament again, which seems more and more poignant.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

rachel's lament

Softly and far there sounds a lament
and a warring behind and before,
the grief of a mother whose life is rent
for her children are no more.
("Rachel's Lament," Tim Manion)

24 october, last day in Beirut

The other day we arrived in Saida a little earlier than we thought we would, and everyone, espeically Abdo, the driver, was a little hungry. So our intrepid organizer, Linda, got on the phone and found us the best Falafel place in the area. While the others were inside waiting for our orders to be prepared, Agnete and I stood outside looking over the city below us. We were already high in the hills. Agnete asked me what my impressions of Lebanon were. I said something about how hard it was for me to find a center anywhere, that there were so many ideologies and factions in tension. Suddenly, as if on cue, from our left a little boy came running down the hill. He was followed shortly by another young boy carrying a toy machine gun. As the first boy rounded the corner and disappeared further down the hill, the second boy got up on a mound of rock and aimed his gun at him and started "shooting," making noises with his mouth, "Pchew! Pchew!" Then four other little boys came down from the left, each carrying his own gun and they all stood up there on that mound and started shooting at the escapee. Who were they pretending to be? Who were they pretending the other boy was? Agnete said unfortunately, this is what they are used to. We used to "play war" and "cowboys and Indians" when I was a kid too, but it had no relation to anything in reality. For these kids, they may well have been imitating something they knew only too well.

We then went up to the Circle Dialogue and Developement Center. We were warmly formally welcomed by various members of the staff, then by the director, Mr Emil and the local Maronite Bishop Samil, neither of whom spoke English, only French and Arabic, so Linda did the honors of translating for us. Mr Emil explained to us some of the history of the place. They have been at it over thirty years, even before the construction of the beautiful facility they have now. They concentrate both on bringing together Muslim and Christian youth, but also on educational programs and vocational training. We asked who they thought might be coming to the concert, and Mr Emil said, "Nuns and politicians, faculty members and maybe some youth." We ascertained that there would certainly be a few who did not speak English, so Linda would continue her task of translating.

The concert that night was "a lot of work," I said later. Trying to figure out what songs would speak to that particular crowd and how to explain them as simply as possible to put them in the proper context. It went fine and I think that the crowd received it well. Again, the Bismillah song was the hit of the night. I had been wanting to sing Tim Manion's "Rachel's Lament" as part of this series of concerts, both because of its allusions to war and its topographical references--the valley of bones and the river of tears--that seem to fit so well in this region. I sang it at the concert Thursday night, prefacing it by telling the crowd about that scene in front of the falafel shop, and that there were many ways to kill a child, and that it was too bad that these kids knew so well how to play with guns, and how it was too bad, too, that I had as well when I was a child, and that the whole reason I was singing these songs is to raise up "the strength of a people whose lives will be spent / so that the children may die no more."

That night when we returned to Beirut, we met Rev Dr Riad Jarjour. He is the chairperson of the Forum for Developement, Culture and Dialogue, Linda's immediate boss, and one of the people directly responsible for my being here. Though he has not been in the area and so not at any of the events yet, he has been checking in regularly. This was to be our only opportunity to meet. He treated us to a feast of a meal at a very luxurious restaurant, once again three times as much food as we could possibly eat, complete with four different waiters tending to our every need, even replacing the plate and silverware ever time we finished a course. Ace and Steve were also with Agnete and I, and I spent more time listening than talking. Dr Riad travels all over the mideast both for the FDCD and for his own Prebyterian Synod. He had just arrived from Qatar and had spent the day dealing with some problems within his own synod. He is also very well respected by the government, so his perspective was rare and insightful. He seems to be the kind of man who can make things happen with a single phone call. I am coming back to Beirut to do a concert with John on Tuesday and there was some speculation as to how I would get here and who would come with me and whether or not we would stay the night or go right on to Aleppo, Syria where the rest of the group would be. Dr Riad decided that I would come in by taxi and that Linda would accompany me and, in spite of the fact that we had been told that were no rooms available at the Casa D'Or for me to stay the night, he made a call and, alas, there was one. Fait accomplit.

Yesterday then we had a concert up in Minyara. Luckily, John Pennington had a free day from his extremely packed schedule here in Beirut and was able to go with us and perform with me. It was the farthest out of town I had been thus far. We drove north past Tripoli and then headed inland and up into the hills of Akkar to the little town of Minyara. Our caravan this time included two others, Simiha, a young Muslim woman who has been to several of Agnete's Dialogue Camps and other events, and Petter, a young Dane who is studying at the American University of Beirut. Both of them were well informed about Lebanese history and politics. I had brought along my Lonely Planet guide, which has a pretty good essay about the poltical history of the region, but there were still some blanks and nuances that I was unable to fill in. Speaking with them both, I felt like I understood a little more and could also see why it is so complicated and frustrating. There are so many factions, each with its own agenda. There are the Sunni Muslims who are in the majority and who tend to be more pro-Western and pro-Saudi Arabia with all its wealth. There are the Shia Muslims, generally poorer, in the minority and more prevalent in the south. They are the ones who were thrilled by the visit of President Ahmadinajad last week, and are often the proterctors of the Hizbollah, and friends of the Palestianian refugees in the south of Lebanon. There are also two other Shia sects that are very prevalent here, the Druze and Alawites, the latter whom we will meet more in Syria. (I'll try to write more about them later.) There are various Christian denominations but most prevalent is the Maronites, who are also for the most part pro-Western. Some Christians also aligned themseves with Israel, who is for the most part considered all around the greatest enemy of Lebanon because it has blanket punished the whole country for the actions of one portion of the population. There are other Christians who align themselves with Hizbollah however, as well. And then there are some who are rather neutral. There is no real agreement whether or not the division of this region into two separate countries--Syria and Lebanon--was arbitrary, or positive or negative. And that it still only a crusory look.

And so, back to what I said to Agnete: it is hard for me to find a center, to find a specific spirit of Lebanon. I have this image of this country as a chessboard that the surrounding countries and some Western ones as well have been using for an ongoing confusing and deadly game of chess, but the children of Lebanon are the pieces. It is not that long ago that the US Embassy was bombed by a jihadist nor that American and British hostages were taken, so those of us visiting here also have the possibility of being used in the game.

The concert at the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church last night was easier, even though more translation was needed. Rev Hadi Ghantous and his wife Anna were our hosts, and again took us way up in the hills for a sumptuous lunch. From the terrace of the restaurant we could look out to our east and see Syria, and to our west and see the Meditarranean Sea. It was chilly and cloudy, threatening rain the whole time. They and Agnete are old friends. Hadi has built a beautiful new modern church with an ample hall below, where we performed the concert. There was some discussion about Bismillah (that song is the center of everything!), the fact that there might be some Christians this time who would object to it. I was sincerely questioning whether or not I should sing it, because I am here to encourage their work in dialogue but not here to "provoke" anyone. But Agnete was insistent and Hadi just wanted me to put it in the right context, which of course was going to have to be conveyed in translation. I put it in the context of how surprised I was when I found out that Christians in Indoneisa use the word "Allah" for God and how beautiful it was that we shared a word with Muslims. And then I talked about our own Tent of Abraham gathering in California and how beautiful it was that we--Jews, Christians and Muslims--have a song that we can share in common, something which isn't the easiest thing to do in America either.

Anyway, it went fine, as did the whole concert. The young people especially loved John's playing and were staring at him throughout. The crowd sang along well, even though in English, on Lead Me From Death, and I taught them my ostinato of The Lord is My Light as well. Hadi had thought it best if I accented the Christian biblical songs more for this concert, and I did, with a few of the others peppered in. There was still one old gentleman who complained that he hadn't known that there were going to be non-Christian songs sung, but I think he was in the minority. I am beginning the think the nervousness I feel before each of these performances is actually good for my focus--I don't take anything for granted--but it may eventually take a toll on my stomach...

We leave today for Syria. I fill in a little more later but I wanted to get this muich off to you all now. Ma'a salama!

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.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

music in dialogue

wednesday, 20 october 2010

It is a principle of beauty that a fair face cannot bear to remain hidden behind the curtain;
it is incapable of modesty, and if you close the door on it, it will only appear at the window.

All my events here in this region are co-sponored by Danmission with two other groups: Adyan and the Forum for Developement, Culture and Dialogue. Both of these organizations are represented by women every bit as competent and talented as Agnete from Danmission. Our first activity was to go to the offices of Adyan and meet all the people involved. We took a slow taxi ride for about 40 minutes through Beirut. Aside from a casual jog in the morning along the "corniche," the walkway along the sea shore, this was to be my first real glimpses of the city. It was quite powerful to still see bombed out buildings and bullet-riddled walls. It's a crowded city, full of construction sites and traffic, though nowhere nearly as gnarled or crazy as Delhi or Chennai, with which I was comparing it.

Adyan is a Lebanese foundation "for interfaith studies and spiritual solidarity," as their own subtitle reads. (I couldn't help but think of other ways to describe what we hope to do with Sangha Shantivanam.) I met first Fr. Fadi, a Lebanese diocesan priest educated (highly, it seemed to me) in France, who had just returned from Rome taking part in the synod of Mideastern bishops, about which I have read quite a lot from John Allen's reporting in the NCR of late. And then I met Nayla Tabbara, who is a professor of religion at two different universities and also leads some e-courses online. She and I had a nice private talk at one point, her telling me some of her background. She is a Muslim, an expert in Sufism but teaches World Religions. In the course the day I heard her quote both Gregory of Nyssa and Paul Tillich, and she nodded her head knowingly and approvingly several times while I was being interviewed later and during the concert, so she obviously has a broad knowledge and spoke passionately about her work. Nayla explained to me that Adyan (an Arabic word simply meaning "religions") was founded right during the war in 2006, with the thought that people from different traditions needed to unite in prayer. It is run by both Christians and Muslims. Among their various educational programs, they organize Spiritual Solidarity days, gatherings for religious leaders and believers from different denominations on the grounds of common spiritual and moral values, and aim to enhance inter-communatarian relations and networks in "post-conflict societies through sustainable reconciliation and developement." In a war ravaged country such as this, that is no mean feat.

I don't know quite as much yet about the working of the other sponsoring organization, the Forum for Developement, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), but their title is already pretty descriptive. The representative we are working with is a young spark of a woman named Linda Macktaby, who was also there to greet us at Adyan. That doesn't strike me as an obvious Lebanese name, but she is all Lebanese and a very dynamic vivacious woman, who seems to be able to make just about anything happen.

My first activity was an interview with a reporter from An-Nahar, the main newspaper of Beirut. The interviewer was an apparently well known journalist named Hala Homsi. She was delightful and quite well prepared. She had checked out my website and read some of my blog entries as well. (I still am getting used to the fact that the internet really is a public forum and has made it a very very small world...) The interview lasted a full hour I think, with Agnete, Nayla and Linda in attendance for the greater part of it as well. Hala had quite a range of questions for me, about my own work, my relation to my monastic community, about Fr. Bede, about music and interfaith dialogue. I'm always worried before hand that I am going to tongue tied in a situation like that but, as almost always happens, just put a nickel in my machine and I can't shut up. It's funny how when people ask you a question, it makes you think about something in a new way for the first time. She asked a number of times about my "mission" and my "message." I am not sure that I have been intentional about formulating either, and I told her as much. I just wanted to get out there and sing. I surprised myself sometimes with some of my other answers. She asked me what my main motivation was, and I said "pain and suffering," meaning, that I saw so much suffering in the world and I have wanted to find for mysewlf, and pass on to others, some way of not only surviving that suffering but being relieved of it. "Pain is inevitable," I have heard it said, "but suffering is optional." She also asked me what my main message was to the people of Lebanon, and I said that I felt like I was here more to learn than to teach. I hope people will like the music that I bring, and I hope if called on to teach I can offer some inspiration, but I feel, as in India, that I have so much to learn in a culture such as this that has lived with such turmoil, survived civil wars and invasion, and has lived with the tensions of two religions trying to coexist for so long--this is all new territory for a kid from Romeoville, Illinois.

I said to Hala a few times, "I want to say this very carefully in case my friends back home read it," to which she replied, "No worry, it will all be in Arabic."

We had our first concert then last night at the Near East School of Theology (NEST). This was one of few events that John Pennington luckily could do with me. So miraculous, it seemed to me, that he even showed up in the subterranean auditorium, and we had about an hout to put a program together. The times when I have been nervous are very rare, and this was one of them. Besides being my first concert in this region, having no idea what to expect of the audience reaction or participation, I was going to try to sing the few songs from Islam, with Arabic words, in front of native Arabic speaking Muslims and sheikhs. This felt more intimidating than singing Sanskrit in front of brahmins and Indologists. My biggest worry (still twitching from my experience in Malaysia two years back) was mispronunciation, but I was also worried about a slip of the tongue, as often happens when I am nervous, and accidentally saying something downright stupid, if not offensive. And then on top of that--if I knew this, I had forgotten--a film crew from the local TV station showed up with three cameras, and while I was trying to figure out the set list and rehearse with John they were re-arranging microphones and lights and setting up cameras. I was a little relieved to find out that Agnete was somewhat nervous too, this being our first event together here.

As it turned out, we were able to focus the nervous energy into a very good performance. I barely had to consult my notes or cheat sheets, and the Bismillah (the piece I was the most worried about) was a huge success. That's the song that has the phrase "Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim" as the refrain with Francis of Assisi's Litany of Praise as the verses. I tell the whole story of Francis and the Sultan as a prelude. I had worked on my pronunication with Linda all day and apologized in advance to the audience. They were very forgiving and, in spite of the fact that Linda had warned me that this audience probably wouldn't sing well, they sang very well indeed! I felt like I heard the song for the first time, with the proper enthusiasm. What a gift. I'm glad that first event is over.

Today I have an event at Haigazian Armenian University. I met the campus minister last night at the concert. To my immense comfort he's a guy named Greg from the Bay Area in California, and a musician besides. Not to my credit, I never retain many details about an event until just before it, and when I finally read the itinerary that Agnete and Linda had set up I was surprised by the title. I knew I would be giving a talk at some point but I wasn't sure what it was going to be about. It's entitled "Music in Dialogue: the Ground We Share." I had come with some a my high falootin conferences, which again I was a bit nervous about delivering in a public lecture at a university in a foreign country, but instead I can fall back on this format that I have enjoyed in the past: sing a few songs and talk about them a lot. There is a lot of teaching that goes into just talking about the philosophy, spirituality, history that is the background of some of these pieces. The introductions in concert have gotten longer and longer (John P can quote them line for line...), so at some point I started writing them down without worrying about length and turned them into fodder for conferences. It winds up being a little more casual than either a lecture of a concert, and I hope that there will be some room for conversation with the students as well. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the dream of negligence

17-18 October 2010, Copenhagen, Denmark

We cannot alone lift ourselves spiritually.
We must be awakened from the dream of negligence
by one who is already awake.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

Last year when I was here in Copenhagen--the entire time I was here--it was heavily overcast and drizzly and cold every single day for a week. As I was leaving the tax driver told me, "You should come back in the summer. Copenhagen is beautiful in the sunshine!" He was right. As we landed this morning I could tell right away out the ariplane window that it was going to be a gorgeous day, and thus far it has been. After I arrived about 7AM local time, Agente and I sat in the airport and had a little snack 'til I got my land legs, talking about the trip ahead.

Agnete works for Danmission, specifically in dialogue, not just inter-religious, but inter-cultural and inter-racial, both in the Mideast and in India. We met in India some years back when she brought a group of folks from Denmark to Tiruvanamalai, and I was one of the people who engaged with them, both some music and some teaching. Based on that, Agnete invited me to come here last year for more of the same for the local Danmission folks, during which trip she also began planning on taking me with her to the Mideast to do some of the same there as well. We were orginally planning on going to Pakistan, Lebanon and Israel--which seems awfully ambitious to me now--and to do so with her friend the young imam Naveed Baig, who I met here last year as well. But as happens, plans changed and in the end she was able to set up events with their "partners" in Lebanon and Syria, and imam Naveed couldn't come. Tomorrow we fly off together for Lebanon where in two days time another small group of people from here in Denmark who belong to an interfaith group called IKON will meet us.

In a wonderful coincidence, John Pennington, my musical collaborator of many years, is also going to be in Lebanon at the same time. He and an acquaintance of his that works for the US Embassy have been trying to organize something in Lebanon for a few years now and it just worked out that way. John will mainly be doing classical music, guest soloist with the Beirut Symphony and some other recitals--quite an intense schedule, in fact--but he will also be able to play at least two concerts with me, one already two nights from now. My brother-in-law Steve and a friend of his named Ace are also going to be joining us. That is not mere fortuitous accident however. The three of us have talked for a few years now about making a pilgrimage to the Mideast together. Ace in a Muslim originally from Lebanon. He and I have met on a number of occasions and have had good conversations about his faith and my work.

Some of us went to hear the Dalai Lama speak up in San Jose last week (a wonderful teaching, by the way), and afterward there was an inter-religious panel with nearly a dozen well-known speakers. The first honored guest, though, was Huston Smith, who spoke about two things. First of all, prefacing his remarks by saying how much he loved China, having grown up their as the son of missionary parents, Huston vehemently decried China's policy toward Tibet. Like His Holiness himself, he too thinks that Tibet should be granted the opportunity to preserve it's cultural autonomy even if and while acquiescing to ultimate political rule by China. And the second issue he brought up was Islam. Noting with pleasure that there was also a Muslim on the panel (in this day and age how could it be otherwise?) he said, "Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the world." I keep saying that dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists thus far has been pretty easy for me, since so many of my friends practice one form or another of one or the other. But Islam in this day and age is of a different order. Lives are at stake, as is the future of civilization as we know it.

Misunderstood? Yes, I think many people I talk to simply don't even know the facts about Islam, either the history or the practical aspects of the religion. But even more deadly is the perhaps culpable ignorance involved in separating the essence of the religion from its cultural abberations. No doubt this is a tedious process, one I am not equipped to speak of at length, though I can at least recognize the problem. The same issue applies to some extent in separating the Jewish religion from the Jewish people, Hinduism from Indian culture, and maybe even Christianity from Western Europeanism. In other words: what comes from the religion and what's cultural? Case in point: last week Roman Catholics celebrated the minor feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The priest at Mass that morning informed the congregation that the original name of the feast was Our Lady of Victory, named thus because the pope had urged the faithful to pray the rosary to win the war against the invading Muslims, which, he added, made that feast particularly relevant in our day and age. I found that to be an inflammatory (and therefore dangerous) thing to say in public in a conservative town in a conservative parish in this day and age. I went home and checked, and on the official Catholic website it said that the victory was over the invading Turks. When pressed on this point later, the priest said, "But they were all Muslims." Isn't that akin to saying that the Christians were responsible for the concentration camps? And are we looking for victory over Muslim invaders?

One of the books I brought along with me for this trip is one that Agnete recommended called "On Identity" by the French Lebanese scholar Amin Maalouf. It is an enquiry into the concept of identity--personal, religious, ethnic, national--and its inherent dangers. He hopes to lay out what kind of shift in thinking will be necessary in this millennium. And he explained my problem with the above mentioned situation. He thinks that too much emphasis has been laid on the influence of religion on people, and not enough on the influence of people, and their cultures, on religion. What he specifically objects to is the habit that people have gotten into of "classifying everything that happens in a Muslim country as related to Islam." I know this is the Franklin Graham, Newt Gingrich line of thinking as well. But please don't believe them. They're wrong. "There are many other factors that are much more relevant," Dr. Maalouf writes. Algeria and its relationship to France was the issue at the time he wrote this book, but you could say Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran today when he states that, "You could read a dozen large tomes on the history of Islam from its very beginning and you still wouldn't understand what is going on in Algeria [or Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iran]. But read 30 pages on colinialism and decolonisation and then you'll understand quite a lot." He's not a Muslim, by the way. And the same applies to Lebanon and Syria, where I am heading now. The more I have read about these regions as I was preparing for this trip, the less I understood, but I do know that the influence of the British, the French and the League of Nations, and the repercussions of their actions in "dividing and conquering" this region are still felt, perhaps in a similar way to the 1947 division of India and Pakistan.

This is already over my head, mind you. My job is to try to get to know the essence of the religion in a new way. And that is done more by relationships and encounters than anywhere. Agnete and her friend Leif, the head pastor of Helligandskirken (Holy Ghost Church) who hosted two events when I was here last year, kept me busy and awake yesterday afternoon, on a beautiful boat tour of the canals of Copenhagen, tea and then dinner at an Indian restaurant. There we were joined by another Pakistani Muslim friend of Agnete's named Adam. If the chilly breezes on the boat and the extremely spicy Indian food didn't keep me awake, my conversation with Adam did. We discussed, of all things, monasticism (specifically why there was none in Islam), its relation to Sufism, the influence of Syrian monasticism on the Muhammad, celibacy and chastity, asceticism in general. And that was just the first fifteen minutes or so. (For some reason, we ended up talking about the cult movie "Harold and Maude.") Toward the end of the meal our friend Suheil who had hosted us last year at his Moroccan restaurant also appeared. I feel so fortunate to make these acquantances and share heart to heart from out of our experience rather than out of abstract theory.

After a pretty good night's sleep at the Danmission guesthouse, an early morning taxi back to the airport and breakfast in Frankfurt, I'm typing this on a Lufthansa flight bound for Lebanon.

Monday, October 11, 2010

outside the visible boundaries

The root salama in Arabic, from which Islam is derived, has two meanings, one peace and the other surrender. Those who surrender themselves to the Divine Will gain peace. The central idea of Islam is that one should come to surrender to the will of the Absolute. (Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

We read two great stories from Scripture this week, one from the 2nd Book of Kings and the other from the Gospel of Luke, that both had a similar theme: faith, devotion, gratitude being found outside of the visible boundaries of the community of faith. In the story from 2nd Kings the main character Naaman. He had leprosy and someone sent him to the prophet Elisha to get cleansed of his leprosy. Naaman was from Syria, which was poignant to me since I am on my way there in a week. When he is told to go and plunge in the River Jordan he balks at first and asks why he couldn’t just have bathed in the waters of the Abana or Pharpar rivers back in Damascus! He was the commander of the army of the king of Aram; in other words not only was he a Gentile, he was a sworn enemy of the Israelites. So this is kind of a shocking story in its own day, that the great prophet Elisha is reaching out to someone outside of the bloodline, outside of the covenant, outside the “chosen people.” The other story we heard was about the ten lepers in the Gospel of Luke who were cured by Jesus, but only one came back to say thank you, and he was a Samaritan, a “foreigner,” Jesus says.

I always find it fascinating when we hear Jesus commentary on something in the Hebrew scriptures, and Jesus himself brings this story up early in the Gospel of Luke, right after his inaugural sermon in Nazareth. He opens the scroll to the prophet Isaiah and reads from it, and then proceeds to preach to his hometown people, telling them that the scriptures “are fulfilled in your hearing.” He then tells them that, unfortunately, prophets are never accepted in the prophet’s hometown, and he mentions this story of Naaman along with the story of the widow that Elijah had cured. At which point the good people of Nazareth, his hometown, proceed to throw him out of town and try to kill him, as if to prove his point. This must have some foundational importance for Jesus’ message, because we see him later, as in the reading today, praising someone outside of the fold for their faith (as he will do quite often––the centurion, the “good” Samaritan, etc.): “None but this foreigner”––you can almost hear Jesus spit the word out––“returned to give thanks to God.” So, we had better pay attention.

It makes me wonder: isn’t this ultimately partly what got Jesus killed? The fact that he was relativising the Law, the fact that he was relativising the bloodline of the chosen people, the fact that he was opening the doors so wide that anyone could get in, showing that faith is not a container for the chosen few who have memorized the right words or who happen to have been born in the right country to the right parents, but that faith rather is a thing of the heart, an openness, a broken-openness, a surrender and an act of worship.

“Only one thing is necessary,” Jesus says about Martha’s sister Mary; she showed it when she sat at his feet. What is it? The guy who turns back to say thank you in the story today had it too. What is it? It’s the wedding garment that has to be worn, but what is it? The easy answer is plain ol’ “faith,” but it’s a specific dense kind of faith. Note how Jesus says here, as he says very often, “Your faith has saved you.” Not just your faith, but your faith––not my power, or even God’s power, but your faith. Your own openness of heart.

We should be on the lookout for this kind of faith, I think it’s the kind of faith that the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard calls “the leap of faith.” And I think we should be looking for it in two different places. First of all, we should look for it in ourselves, and if it’s not there, we ought to challenge ourselves to leap, to trust, to surrender, and to turn back in gratitude. I think that gratitude is actually retroactive, it’s already working even before we say thank you. It’s a disposition of heart. The openness that allows us to say “thank you” is the same openness that allows us to say “Please,” and “take pity on me” as the ten lepers did, the same openness that allows us to worship, to trust, and to believe that there is a power greater than us, and that that Power is Benevolent. “Look at the birds of the air, learn from the flowers of the field.”

And the other place we ought to look for it is all around us, and especially we are challenged today to look for it outside of the visible boundaries of our own communities of faith, outside of the places we might expect it. Again, I want to stress that this must have some foundational importance for Jesus’ message. Jesus has not come bringing new rules, but like all the prophets before him he is uncovering a new law that is not a new law at all. It has been there all the time, written on the heart, and all the laws and doctrines and dogmas that get written down are only reasonable facsimiles of that eternal law––what India calls the sanatana dharma. And, as Fr Bede asks in Return to the Center, where is this eternal religion––the sanatana dharma––to be found?
It is to be found in every religion as its ground or source, but it is beyond all formulation. It is the reality behind all rites, the truth behind all dogmas, the justice behind all laws. But it is also to be found in the heart of every [person]. It is the law ‘written on their hearts.’ It is not known by sense or reason but by the experience of the soul in its depths.

Faith in that kind of law was found outside the bloodlines and the covenant of the circumcised people of Israel, before Jesus’ time, during the time of Jesus, and certainly after Jesus as we see in the teachings of both Peter and Paul. And Christians ought to believe that that kind of faith is also even to be found among people who do not profess Jesus as Lord even today, people who are not nominally Christians. This is what the eminent theologian Karl Rahner calls the “anonymous Christian.” (To be fair, I also think it’s why various Islamic teachers have referred to Jesus as a “hidden Sufi”!) It’s similar to St Paul’s famous teaching from the letter to the Romans where he says that when Gentiles do what the law requires, they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts. Because, Paul says, it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous, but the doers of the law. (That winds up being the basis for the Catholic teaching on natural law, by the way.)

So we should look for and celebrate all the leaps of faith that go on in the world around us. They may not look like us, or anyone we know, but it is amazing how often we see such great faith being made manifest in people who are outside the visible bounds of our own religious traditions, people who instinctively do what is in the “law” without perhaps ever having heard or without having accepted it as it was presented to them. If we open our eyes it’s amazing how often we see wisdom and understanding in unexpected places, how often we see a humble kind of piety outside of church folks, how often we experience an amazing deep knowledge manifested in the most surprising places. And how often we see charity and joy, peace, patience and kindness being carried out by folks that are not religious at all, startling acts of generosity and gentleness, self-donation and sacrifice even on the part of so-called atheists. We should celebrate it wherever we see it, even and maybe especially if we see it in someone outside of what we think of as our covenant, outside whom we consider to be the “chosen people.” And we should imitate them, too, because those things are the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, the spirit of faith, devotion, surrender and gratitude, the fruits and gifts of fearless abandon to the benevolence Source of the Universe that Jesus calls his Abba.

I saw it manifest again yesterday as we gathered for our fifth annual Tent of Abraham in Santa Cruz. This is a gathering of Jews, Christians and Muslims once a year, all the children of Abraham, a practice started by a rabbi in New York after the terrorist attacks in 2001. A wonderful crew of folks put together the environment––a big pavilion in the middle of the hall of Holy Cross parish––and then we had the lighting of a candle from each tradition, then a reading or chanting of a piece of Scripture from each tradition, some songs, and then a good discussion in small groups, mainly centered around the role of women in our various traditions. Then finally we had a period of blessing, sang a little more and then ate a great meal. With the world going crazy out there and people tearing each other apart over politics and land and power, I still believe that it is these “well-worn paths between huts” that are going to be our salvation as a race.

I'm preparing for this big trip, leaving Saturday first to the mideast and then through Europe and plan on sending posts from there.