Perspectives

  • Issue 68 / March - April 2009



    Holy Migration

    Robert Lentz

    Most human beings feel a strong loyalty to the place of their birth. Sometimes this loyalty can be transferred to another place, but there are few people who do not treasure some place they consider “home.” This sense of belonging is so strong that sacrificing our home is always painful. Sometimes it is war, famine, or disease that drives us into exile. My own grandparents left tsarist Russia in the early 1900s in the hope of finding a better life in America. America is full of millions of families with similar stories. On September 1, the first night of Ramadan 2007, I had dinner with a philosophy professor from Turkey who had come to America for a different reason. Rather than migrate to improve his own life, this man had left homeland and loved ones for the sake of human beings he had never met.

    We live in a world filled with stereotypes that lead to misunderstanding and violence. People across the earth, from every culture and religion, rely on hearsay as they form opinions about others. Where this once might have been of small consequence, today, as the world shrinks ever smaller because of technical advances in communication and other fields, the results can be disastrous. Christians in the West hear outlandish things about Muslims in the Middle East. The tendency of news media to focus on sensational stories about terrorists is responsible for much of the fear and hostility Christians feel towards Muslims, but some Christian prejudice dates from the Middle Ages. At the same time, too many Muslims continue to judge all Christians by the atrocities of crusading armies many centuries ago, or the colonial policies of European governments that no longer exist. Most Muslims have never read the Christian Bible or studied what Christians really believe, but rely on what others have told them about these things; and the same can be said of what Christians know about Islam. God has blessed us with intelligence. In our modern time we are blessed with so many educational opportunities. In spite of these blessings, we prefer to take the lazy way of ignorance and prejudice.

    The English word prejudice comes from two Latin words that together mean judging beforehand. Life comes at us so fast that we naturally rely on our experience of predictable patterns we have observed in the past. If everything we experienced was a radically new piece of information, as it is for a newborn child, we could not make the rapid decisions necessary to function in daily life. No matter how useful these “pre-judgments” might often be, however, when it comes to dealing with our fellow human beings, our “pre-judgments”-our prejudices-can seriously limit new, creative ways of social interaction. Because God has blessed human beings with free will, we are amazing creatures potentially full of surprises. The most selfish person can suddenly act generously. Violent people can show compassion. Cowards can become heroes. When we pigeonhole people into convenient categories, and then expect nothing more from them, it may make our decisions in life simpler, but we end up impoverishing our relationships. When we do this to entire groups of people, we end up fighting wars, committing injustice, diminishing our human potential.
    The man I met in Ramadan 2007 left his homeland so that he can show Christians another face of Islam by teaching Islamic thought in our universities. Most Christians have never had an opportunity to explore the beauties of Islam, whether philosophical or theological. There is a great difference between learning about Islam from a believing Muslim or from an outsider, however sympathetic such a person might be. If the West is filled with misconceptions about Islam, this is in part the fault of Muslims. My new friend, the philosophy professor from Istanbul, has left his homeland to teach Christians the truth.

    At the time of the Crusades, a heroic Christian holy man journeyed to the Middle East for the same reason. Fully expecting to die at the hands of Muslims, he traveled to meet Sultan Malik al-Kamil so that the two might speak the truth about matters of faith. His name was Francis of Assisi, and he has become one of the most beloved religious heroes of the human race. After a disastrous battle at Damietta, Egypt, Francis found his way to the sultan’s court, where he spent up to two weeks. When he left, he carried a horn the sultan had given him, the only gift he accepted from the many the sultan tried to shower on him. He also brought a new awareness of Islam that was radically opposed to the prejudices rampant in Europe. He was especially impressed by the daily public prayer of Muslims, announced by the call of the muezzin in every mosque. He wrote letters to the crowned heads of Europe, urging them to begin the practice of calling Christians to prayer in such a way each day. To his own brothers, for he had founded a religious order very similar to the Sufi brotherhoods, he urged the practice of going to Muslim lands to live peacefully, in submission to Muslim rulers, and without preaching Christianity, to show Christianity’s true face by the lives they led. Unfortunately, his own followers were not made from the same heroic stuff as he, and in the following centuries they usually traveled to Muslim lands with the intention of converting Muslim people by whatever means possible, courting martyrdom in the process.

    In the early twentieth century, a member of the French Foreign Legion found his faith once again, after years of sinful living, thanks to the good example of Muslims in North Africa. His name was Charles de Foucauld. Having again become a fervent Christian, he chose to remain in North Africa, rather than return to France. He lived as a hermit among Tuareg tribesmen until his violent death in 1916. Decades later, a religious brotherhood and sisterhood gathered to follow his simple lifestyle. They are called the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, and they are now scattered across the globe. Their rule was to live the most ordinary of lives, preaching only by their example, not by words. Some joined circuses and traveled as ordinary laborers among the circus people. Others lived in huts in African jungles, tenements in Mexico City, or apartments in the slums of New York. They wore no distinctive garb outside their homes. At home they lived like monks and nuns. One Little Brother even volunteered to live as a prisoner in a penitentiary, in order to share the life of convicted criminals. Everywhere they went, they relied solely on their good example to teach. They could answer questions about their faith, if they were asked, but they could never initiate religious teaching.

    There is a Catholic priest in Pakistan, named Father Bob McCahill, who travels from one Muslim center of population to another, spending three years in each, but no longer. He rents a shack or hut with a dirt floor in the poorest part of town, large enough for a sleeping mat, a kerosene stove, and a bicycle. He spends his time carrying destitute sick people to doctors or hospitals. In every new place, he encounters suspicion and hostility the first year, growing curiosity and general acceptance the second year, and deepening affection the third. Once the people have come to love and esteem him, he quietly leaves to find a new home. His intention is to embody the compassion of Jesus. He begins each day at 4.00 am, before his neighbors are awake, so that he can spend a few hours in silent prayer. The rest of his day he is surrounded by teeming humanity. When he is challenged by Muslims who suspect he has ulterior motives, he answers them very simply. “Why do you think I want to convert you? Do you think I want you to be a Christian? I do not. I want you to be what you want to be. I want you to be the very person whom you think God wants you to be. You want to be a good Muslim, no? I also want you to be that. You should be a good Muslim, and I should be a good Christian. Is it not so?” He believes it is more important to imitate Jesus than to talk about him.
    Four years ago, when my religious superiors transferred me to Houston, Texas, I was blessed to meet followers of Fethullah Gulen. Unlike most Americans, I had studied Islam for a number of years. Like most of my countrymen, I had met very few Muslims. My experience among the followers of Gulen has transformed my life. Like Francis of Assisi, the founder of my religious order, and like Charles de Foucauld, one of my great heroes, the good example of Muslims has taught me much about God and deepened my faith. Never has one of my Muslim friends, whether here or in Turkey, tried to convert me to Islam. They have answered all of my questions about their faith, but they have respected my beliefs and my right to be a Christian. I have found that they have been well informed about Islam intellectually, but the impact they have had on my life has been the good example of their lives.

    Faith is something that is “caught” more than learned. It is a question of the mind dwelling in the heart, listening well for the quiet voice of God. Both Christian and Muslim philosophers and theologians have devised beautiful proofs for God’s existence, but ultimately these are very weak when compared to what we see when we gaze into the eyes of a believer. The simplest old grandmother in the back of a mosque or church can often teach us much more about God than a university professor. When the professor can combine knowledge with living faith, his impact is so much the greater. During my last trip to Istanbul, a dear friend gave me a framed calligraphic rendition of a hadith that summarizes this truth: “A believer is a mirror to a believer.” True preaching is not a question of haranguing a group of non-believers, as some radical Christians or Muslims love to do. True preaching is living in such a way that we become mirrors of God for one another.

    In English we have an expression, “Words are cheap.” In this twenty-first century we are drowning in words because of the televisions and radios that fill our world with noise. Many people have reached a point where they hear but no longer listen. They are numb. While hypocrisy has always undermined religious teaching, now it is a question of even honest words losing their strength. What will turn the world back to God today is humble men and women who embody what they believe in their daily lives. Only their lives will speak loudly enough to rise above the din of the secular world.

    In June of 2006, I took two carloads of Muslim men from Houston to the Trappist monastery in Ava, Missouri, as many as the guesthouse could hold. The abbot of the monastery, Father Mark Scott, has been my friend for thirty years. We once lived together in a monastery in New Mexico. With the approval of his monks, he turned a major room in the harem or private part of the monastery over to the Muslims for use as a mosque. The monks removed all their Christian images and as much of the furniture as was necessary. The Muslims brought carpets and prayer rugs and a few pieces of religious calligraphy for the walls. For eight days the muezzin’s call rang through the cloister, announcing the time for Muslim public prayer. Seven times a day the monastery bells announced the Divine Office and Mass. Barefoot monks attended the Muslim prayer and Muslims sat in the back of the monastic church for the Office. Three times during the week, the monks and Muslims spent an hour together in the evening without conversation, simply reading for one another favorite passages of the Qur’an, the Bible, or mystical poetry. At the end of the eight days, both monks and Muslims were in tears when it was time to leave. Each had discovered brothers in the other. Each had learned something new about God. All had been done in silence and had been possible because of the quality of their individual lives.

    In May of that year, I traveled the length of Turkey once again, from Istanbul to Urfa. I wore my religious robes the entire time and frequently entered mosques with my Muslim friends when it was time for public prayer. Many people greeted me warmly and pressed small gifts into my hands. In Urfa I purchased a portrait of Said Nursi. The next day, as I was rushing through the airport in Gaziantep to catch a plane which was about to take off for Ankara, a guard saw the portrait of Nursi in my arms and escorted me to a chair in the security office. As precious minutes ticked away, the room filled with other guards and their superior. I wondered if they were arresting me for a crime. Someone brought me a Styrofoam cup filled with scalding hot Turkish tea. Baffled, I sat there with Nursi on my lap, while they all smiled and waited for me to drink the tea. Because of the language barrier, conversation was impossible. Finally, at the last possible moment, the original guard ran with me through the security gate, oblivious to all the alarms my luggage set off, and waved as I ran across the tarmac to the waiting plane. The whole episode turned out to be an expression of affection for a Christian monk who had shown honor to a Muslim saint. I learned something about Muslims, and the Muslims saw a different face of Christianity. The healing that occurred that day could never have happened through words. Hundreds of Christians have now heard me repeat this story, and I suspect that the story also spread through Muslim Gaziantep. What occurred there could not fit into any of our prejudices, and we parted, no longer strangers suspicious of one another, but as brothers.

    If we are to find peace as Muslims and Christians, we have no choice but to assume the responsibility of showing one another what is true about ourselves. This is not something we can expect from political leaders. Nor is it something we can assume our religious leaders are capable of doing. Ordinary men and women, Muslim and Christian, must come together today as brothers and sisters. Through our simple goodness and faith, we will silence the screams of terrorists that now dominate the global stage. Sometimes we will accomplish this by traveling in one another’s lands. Others of us will choose to leave our homelands in order to bear more permanent witness to the truth. Those who migrate will become pilgrims and strangers. They will know a form of poverty more painful than doing without bread. Whatever their pain, they will be following the advice of the saints who teach us, in both our religions, to die before we die. Ultimately, we are all pilgrims and strangers on this earth, even those who never leave home. How blessed are those who leave their homes, for the love of God, to bear witness to the truth. Surely they will know something of paradise, even in this lifetime.

    Robert Lentz is a Franciscan friar from Holy Name Province, soon to become part of the academic community at St. Bonaventure University

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