Ramadan: Remembering Our Utter Dependence on the Unutterable One

by Khaleelullah Chemnad

Our Muslim cousins are in the season of Ramadan, from the first glimpse of the new moon on July 19 until the next new moon on August 18. A chance for all of us to remember our creaturliness and our utter dependence on the Unknowable and Unutterable One.

During this season consider reading The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis by Coleman Barks and Michael Green or The Heart of the Qu’ran by Lex Hixon to explore the beauty and grandeur of Islamic spirituality.

Below is an excerpt from Rabia Harris’ excellent short essay on Islamic Nonviolence. Rabia is the founder of the Muslim Peace Fellowship at the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

“… The Arabic term for that which is truly in charge in the world, upon which nonviolence depends, is ALLAH. You can hear that name in your heartbeat. In English, we generally refer to God. There’s only one.

The Muslim Peace Fellowship holds that nonviolence is the core social teaching of all the great religious traditions, and has been carried by all of the Messengers of God.

An Islamic approach to nonviolence will, however, differ in important ways from other understandings. Every religious community takes its distinctive quality from the Messenger who founded it. It follows that the community of Muhammad is perfumed with the perfume of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. And Muhammad {peace and blessings be upon him: PBBUH}, like all of us, possesses both a worldly and a spiritual dimension.

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“Thou Shalt Not Live for Punishment or Reward”

Isa ibn Maryam

“Love God and do what you will,” John of the Cross wrote. It’s only when I got old enough, experienced enough and wise enough in the ways of mystics that I knew what John really meant. It’s not what we do that makes us holy. It’s what we love that makes the difference between being simply a spiritual virtuoso and being a saint.

The Sufi understood the paradox very well. They tell a story about Isa ibn Maryam: Jesus, Son of Mary. One day Isa saw a group of people sitting miserably on a wall, moaning out loud and full of fear. “What is your affliction?” he asked. “It is our fear of hell,” the people complained.

Then Isa came upon a second group. They were emaciated and wan and full of anxiety. “What is your affliction?” Isa asked them. “Desire for Paradise has made us like this,” the people cried.

Finally, Isa came upon a third group. They were scarred and bruised, wounded and tired but their faces were radiant with joy. “What has made you like this?” Isa asked. And the people answered, “We have seen the Spirit of Truth. We have seen Reality,” they sighed. “And this has made us oblivious of lesser goals.”

And Isa said, “These are the ones who attain. On the Last Day, they will be in the Presence of God.”

If we live our spiritual lives only in fear of punishment or in hope of reward, rather than in the awareness of the One because of whom all life is worthwhile, we can be religious people but we will never be holy people. Then life is simply a series of tests and trials and scores, not the moment by moment revelation of God who is present in everything that happens to us, in everything we do.

Sanctity is about how we view life. It is not about spiritual exercises designed to evaluate our spiritual athleticism or a kind of spiritual bribery designed to win us spiritual prizes we do not deserve.

Coming to know the sacred — the energy of air, the possibility in children, the beauty of regret, the value of life — is what makes us holy. –Joan Chittister

From Becoming Fully Human by Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister: From Spiritual Heroics to Wisdom

The Sufi tell stories that say all I think I’ll ever know about finding God.  The first story is a disarming and compelling one. It is also, I think, a troublesome one, a fascinating one, a chastening one: “Help us to find God,” the seeker begged the Elder. “No one can help you there,” the Elder answered. “But why not?” the seeker insisted. “For the same reason that no one can help a fish to find the ocean.” The answer is clear: There is no one who can help us find what we already have.

The second story is even more challenging. “Once upon a time,” the Sufi say, “a seeker ran through the streets shouting over and over again, ‘We must put God into our lives. We must put God into our lives.’”  “Ah, poor soul,” an Elder smiled wanly. “If only we realized the truth: God is always in our lives. The spiritual task is simply to recognize that.”

As a Benedictine, a disciple of an order historically devoted to the Sacrament of the Ordinary, I know how disappointing, how exhilarating that kind of advice can be. The neophyte seeks to pass the test of spiritual heroics; the wise seek to accomplish only the testimony of integrity. The young think the task is to buy God by their good efforts; the insightful know that the task is to want God beyond the lure of lesser ends, including even the trappings of spirituality.

For my own part, I entered religious life intent on being spiritually intrepid. I wanted something far more romantic than the Sacrament of the Ordinary. I expected to find formulas tried and true, ideas that were esoteric, a life that was mystical, a regimen that was at least duly demanding, if not momentously ascetic. What I found were spiritual manuals that were convoluted and academic, at best, and a community that was simple and centered in God always. The writers had missed the mark; the women were living the life. It was very disappointing. And it was very right.

God is not in the whirlwind, not in blustering and show, Scripture teaches us. God is in the breeze, in the very atmosphere around us, in the little things that shape our lives. God is in the contradictions that assail us, in the circumstances that challenge us, in the attitudes that impel us, in the motives that drive us, in the life goals that demonstrate our real aspirations, in the burdens that wear us down, in the actions that give witness to the values in our hearts. God is in the stuff of life, not in the airy-fairy of fertile imaginations bent on the pursuit of the preternatural. God is where we are, including in the very weaknesses that vie for our souls.

God is not a mystery to be sought in strange places and arcane ways. God is a mystery to be discovered within us and around us. And savored. —Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

–from “O Wonder of Wonders,” by Joan Chittister in How Can I Find God? (Triumph Books)

Joan Chittister: ‘Mercy Is What God Does for Us’

Sr. Joan Chittister and the folks at Benetvision have just released a new book on forgiveness. As we seem to live in a culture that promotes “mercilessness,” rather than a “quality of mercy [that] is not strained” (as Shakespeare put it), this book is a good one to use with small groups and for summer meditation. (Also listen to the podcast with Sr. Joan below.)

Mercy is what God does for us. Mercy discounts the economic sense of love and faith and care for a person and lives out of a divine sense of love instead. Mercy gives a human being who does not “deserve” love, love. And why? Because, the Scriptures answer, God knows of what we are made.

The fact is that we are all made of the same thing: clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return some day. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will “reach out a hand and lift us up.”

Mercy is the trait of those who realize their own weakness enough to be kind to those who are struggling with theirs. It is, as well, the measure of the God-life in us.

Beware those who show no mercy. They are dangerous people because they have either not faced themselves or are lying to themselves about what they find there. “We are all sinners,” we say, and then smile the words away. But the essayist Montaigne was clear about it: “There is no one so good,” he wrote, “who, were they to submit all their thoughts and actions to the laws, would not deserve hanging ten times in life.”

It is our very weaknesses that enable us to understand the power, the necessity of mercy.

The Sufi mystic Mishkat al-Masabaih reminds us, when we are overwhelmed by our own inadequacies, our own diversions from the straight paths of life, that the mercy of God is always greater than the sin of being too humanly human. He writes: She who approaches near to Me one span, I will approach near to her one cubit; and she who approaches near to Me one cubit, I will approach near to her one fathom; and whoever approaches Me walking, I will come to her running; and she who meets Me with sins equivalent to the whole world, I will greet her with forgiveness equal to it.”

The mercy we show to others is what assures us that we do not need to worry about being perfect ourselves. All we really need to do is to make the effort to be the best we can be, knowing we will often fail. Then, the mercy of others, the mercy of God is certain for us, as well. “The only thing we can offer to God of value,” St. Catherine of Siena said, “is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.” –Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpt from God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness by Joan Chittister

Listen to a podcast with Sr. Joan on forgiveness and the conversation about the controversy about the Cordoba Center at Ground Zero in New York.