I was baptized as an infant into the Catholic Church. I have also participated in the sacraments of the Eucharist, reconciliation, and confirmation. While those sacraments are vital in my faith formation, I can point to other places and times in my life that have felt equally sacramental: singing “Unnamed child of Bojaya, Choco, Colombia” over and over again during a School of the Americas vigil and hearing “Presente” sung as response by the thousands of people there; placing prayers for its destruction and transformation into the cracks of security wall in Bethlehem, much like I had placed prayers in the Western Wall in Jerusalem; singing in St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem; being welcomed into homes of strangers in El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, welcomed as a member of the family. My path called “becoming a Christian” is about a lot more than the sacraments; it’s about recognizing the sacramental in the ordinary, allowing what I often see as ordinary to reveal itself as extraordinary.
Please understand that in no way, shape, or form am I trying to say that I’ve got this figured out or that I’ve developed an impeccable practice of recognizing God in the ordinary. I haven’t. I got a long way to go. I was talking to a friend a few days ago about my plans: to go on a delegation to Iraq, to sell my house, to go back to Palestine as a human rights observer. His comment was this: “You’re becoming a Christian.” He’s right. I’m working on trying to be like Christ, my particular path to be closer to God. I’m on the right track (for now) to get there. I’m not even remotely close to being there yet.
Yesterday I was reminded that my path is not the only one, that there are many paths to God. I think I’m supposed to believe that Christianity, or more particularly Catholicism, is the only way to get to God. It feels both naïve and arrogant to say that.
When I think and talk about the idea of “one true religion,” I make a comparison to “staying healthy.” Certainly, there are some general practices that we must do to stay healthy: eat fresh fruits and veggies, exercise, get sufficient sleep. But when speaking of eating well, should we only eat sweet potatoes and nothing else? Or when we talk of exercise, should we only play baseball to the exclusion of other sports? No. To say so is ridiculous. When considering “staying healthy” within such severe limitations, we recognize the folly of those limitations.
We could same the same about the work we pursue. There is no one work that must be done by everyone.
In trying to contribute to the functioning of the world, people must walk their own paths. My path will soon lead me to Iraq for a brief period. A friend’s path led her to dedicate herself to campus ministry. Another friend’s path took her to a non-profit agency where she works in human resources. Another friend is doing emergency relief work in the Philippines. Each of these works is an attempt to live authentically, to use gifts and talents for the benefit of others. The same could be said for those who grow our food, pick up our trash, patrol our streets, and put roofs on our house. We need all of these people for our world to operate smoothly (or closer to smoothly). Our world would fall apart if we were all bestowed with the same knowledge and the same gifts.
This is also true of our spiritual paths, our paths to God, Yahweh, Allah, Being, the Father, our Mother, All That Is, whatever name we choose to use. If we all understood God in the same way and responded to God in the same way, our understanding would be shallow and lacking in color. Instead, we have a diversity of spiritual traditions and diversity within spiritual traditions from which to deepen and shade our understanding of God. We need the mystics and the activists and everyone in between to help us reach a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the vastness of our Creator. We need a multiplicity of expressions of faith, so that each of us can seek Being in a way that feels right to us.
While we each have our own path, learning from the paths of others, recognizing and validating their value, and integrating what we might into our own understanding can only enrich the journey. Ignoring the worth of others’ paths, denying their significance, and rejecting what we might learn from them only limits the dimensions of our insight into God and makes our vision paler.
My thoughts turned to this topic because the Muslim holy days of Ramadan have just begun. I know there is a lot of hatred for and criticism of the Muslim faith and the way we see it being practiced today. Most of us only see it in its fundamentalist strains, its most radical and most violent manifestations. There are reasons to be critical. I could say the same of the most radical fundamentalist Christians. However, most of us, at least here in the U.S., don’t have daily interactions with Muslims and only know them through what appears on the news. We don’t get to see ordinary Muslim life. I had the opportunity to be among Muslims when I was in Palestine, Jordan, and Turkey. The day-to-day life I saw looked a lot like my own: getting up, going to work, eating 3 meals, kids playing, visiting with friends, just normal life.
Yes, there are practices in the Muslim faith I cannot accept (the way many women are treated in the name of Islam at the top of the list), but there are others that I find beautiful. I think the practice of stopping 5 times a day to pray is beautiful. We could all benefit from making more time to acknowledge that Presence greater than ourselves. I am also intrigued by the practice of fasting during Ramadan. Yes, I’ve heard the stories about people obeying the laws in name but not in spirit, but come on, many of us Catholics haven’t exactly pushed our spiritual limits in our Lenten practices, have we?
I know how I was treated by my Muslim friends and students. I felt the love they had for me. I knew my presence was welcomed, rejoiced, and honored in a way that was humbling and embarrassing to acknowledge. This was the norm, but it felt like something special. I learned a lot about “welcoming the stranger,” one of the things my Christian faith mandates, from hanging out with my Muslim friends. I learned about generosity and kindness. Ordinary and extraordinary. No, Muslims are not perfect, but there are many Muslims, as there are many Christians, trying to faithfully walk a path towards God who they call Allah, stumbling in grand ways sometimes, but getting up and trying again.
I am a follower of Jesus. My Muslim friends are followers of Mohammad. I also have friends who are Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic. My prayer for us, all of us followers of a belief system (we all have one, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not), is that we see the light within each others’ traditions. My prayer is that we may add their light to our own, acknowledging that our recognition of ignorance and our openness to others’ wisdom may only enhance the journey on our own particular path. Accepting what we can learn from other spiritual traditions will help us see new hues in our spiritual spectrums, allowing us to see, ever more clearly, the extraordinary that exists within the ordinary, God within all.