Prayer and Fasting

It rained cats and dogs this morning when Bernie and I went up to Little Falls to park cars at the Boys & Girls Club. We went over to Reality Roasters and schmoozed with Mark Nygren for a while. He gave me one  shot of the strongest coffee I have ever had. No nap this afternoon even though it would be lovely given the rain and all.

Yesterday, Sept. 7, was proclaimed by the new Franciscan Pope Francis to be a day of prayer and fasting for Syria. I thought I would try the fasting , ala Muslim Ramadan. My granddaughter, visiting from Turkey informed me of a couple of things about how Muslims make it through their very difficult days of Ramadan. They fast from sunrise to sunset each day. But here is the secret: they sleep through half of it. She told me that while she was over there, they would get up before sunset, eat, and go back to bed until later which shortened the actual awake fasting time. She also told me that every few hours, a prayer would come over the loud speakers all over town. I asked if that made them remember how long it had been since they ate. She said, no, it helped them remember how much shorter the time was before  they could eat again. Here in America, we couldn’t do the prayer over the loud speaker thing, but we do have church bells…that would certainly work for some who wanted to fast during their work time. People could make up their own prayers when the bells ring…I like that idea.

Anyway, I got up early and ate some boiled eggs and whole wheat toast before sunrise. Protein, I have learned, satisfies my hunger way longer than other foods. As Bernie and I were driving out of the yard, we spotted a white dove on the roof of our shed. Doves, you know, represent peace (remember Noah) and white doves represent the divine (remember Jesus’ baptism). I felt encouraged by the bird, as though I weren’t doing this sacrifice alone.

All went well until we got home from doing our task. I drank water, which apparently Muslims don’t. My granddaughter told me I am exempt because I am old. I decided to take a nap, which I’d hoped would shorten the fasting time. Unfortunately, there were a series of phone calls coming in that made me keep hopping out of bed, so that didn’t work well. I was aware of the time exactly half way between sunrise and sunset: 1:15 pm. When that struck, I thought, “That was easy.” But I was wrong. The second half of the fast was way more difficult than the first. My stomach began to growl. I spent a good part of the afternoon thinking about what I would fix for my sunset supper. I thought about fried tomatoes, but decided I wanted something that didn’t take so much attention to fix. I knew it would be difficult to stand in front of the stove for any length of time. I settled on fried zucchini, tomato and basil over pasta. Then I did some needle work and watched TV to keep me occupied. Bernie ate his supper on the porch so I would not have to watch him while I waited for the sun to go down. I thanked him for that.

Well, I made it. I broke my fast at the exact minute that the sun sunk into the horizon. I was very proud of myself. I have to say, food tastes really terrific when one is really hungry.

One more thing: the prayer part. I reflected on what it might be like to be an adult living with children who are hungry. Would I be able to let my portion go to the children? I thought my fasting would help toughen me up. My growling stomach reminded me of those who go hungry each day all over the world. Whenever I felt slightly weak, I thought about the people in the Middle East who are suffering right now and prayed for wisdom for our world leaders.

Now, if you are tempted to in any way to make fun of Middle East Muslims for their fasting habits, let me remind you of the Catholics who are known to eat shrimp and lobster on Fridays during Lent. No stone casting!

Muslims and Mysticism

A few days ago I wrote a few blogs on Islam based on what I have been learning in Karen Armstrong’s book, The History of God, about the three religions of the book, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I want to add what I have learned after reading her chapter on mysticism. I realize that nowhere are these religions more closely linked than in their mystic traditions. This makes total sense to me. The mystic’s experience of the divine is even one step further from doctrinal ideas about God than those of the philosophers. “The mystical experience of God has certain characteristics that are common to all faiths,” Armstrong writes. As she tells of mystic beliefs and practices, the similarities are striking among these three as well as other religions such as Buddhists and Hindus.

The aim of all mystics is to experience the divine in some way. They believed that God is beyond all human ideas of God which sets them apart from the theologians who spend lots of verbiage on explaining God. God is incomprehensible so the search is a journey into the unknown and the searcher will never arrive. The Prophet Muhammed, though primarily concerned with the establishment of a just society, had mystical leanings. But the mystic tradition in Islam was carried out primarily by the Sufis. As Islam started to see itself as the one, true faith (sound familiar?), Sufis remained true to the Koranic vision of the unity of all rightly guided religion. Interestingly, many revered Jesus as the prophet of the interior life. An appreciation for the “many roads to God” typifies mystics, but this was true of Sufis in particular.

Sufis used techniques and disciplines to achieve consciousness not unlike mystics of other faiths. To the basic ritual requirements of Muslim law they added practices of fasting, night vigils and chanting the Divine Names as a mantra. Armstrong said that this “sometimes resulted in behavior which seemed bizarre and unrestrained, and such mystics were known as ‘drunken Sufis’.” But the practices had a core intent – to destroy the ego, which stood in the way of finding one’s true self and to achieve a sense of God, which is only that…a sense.

Beginning this chapter, I was looking forward to reading about Rumi, a mystic whose poetry I have come across and find wonderful. He was one of the “bizarre” Sufis referred to above. Jabal ad-Din Rumi was the founder of the “whirling dervishes”. I am not sure I ever took these spinning tops seriously, but now I may take up spinning myself. Maybe little three-year-olds know some secret about finding God in their dizzy exuberance. Did Jesus not say to come to him like the little children?

Rumi taught that the mystic is “engaged in a ceaseless struggle to distinguish the compassion, love and beauty of God in all things and to strip away everything else.” This fits perfectly with what I have read of his poetry. What is interesting is that the word for this inner struggle is jihad, the word that we who look at the Muslim world from the outside, associate with terrorists who find glory in military struggle with their enemies. Muslim mystics perceive jihad much like those in the Christian tradition who see scriptures about the end times as an allegory for the believer’s inner victory over the evil within themselves.

As I continue to read this very interesting and intelligent book, I am becoming more and more aware that religious extremists who seem to dominate the news, are only one faction of something much bigger. If only more of us, regardless of our religious affiliation, could realize the unity realized by our mystics. Perhaps we don’t have to throw away our doctrines, for they may help us to sort things out, but we do need to hold them loosely and humbly. After all, as Paul told the Corinthians, love is the most important thing. Some might even suggest that love is the only thing.

On the Run

A quick post today – Have to run to town and then Bernie and I get started on painting our bedroom.

I will probably do one more post on Islam. I just completed a chapter in A History of God entitled “The God of the Philosophers”. Armstrong spent lots of pages on Muslim philosophers, then crammed in the Greeks and Latins in the last few. Bernard of Claivaux was one of these. This is my husband’s patron saint. E-gads! He was a really egotistical bad guy in my estimation. A man of power, he dragged a philosopher, Abelard (poor man had Parkinson’s) to court just because he had a different idea about God than he did. “Bernard attacked him with such eloquence that Abelard simply collapsed and died the following year.” Then Bernard, great orator and persuader roused up “the Crusaders to show their love for Christ by killing the infidels and driving them out of the Holy Land.” It seems that Bernard was all head and no heart and under the control of a massive ego. Why does Adolf Hitler come to mind?

Anyway, I will probably write one more blog on Islam. The next chapter in Armstrong’s book is about the mystics. I am a fan of Rumi who was an Islamic mystic and I note that he will be discussed. I can’t wait.

Muslims and Thinkers

As I learn more about Islam in Karen Armstrong’s book, A History of God, I realize more and more the parallels between the history of Islam and that of Christianity. This morning I read about various Muslim thinkers who were pondering the same questions about God as their Christian and Jewish counterparts. In fact, these were aware of each other in their readings and associations. I love the idea that the way we struggle to understand the divine is universal, not just in the struggle itself, but even in the specific questions we ask. Fascinating.

I also learned about a similarity that has a dark side this morning. I read about the teachings of Abu al-Walid ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd (1126-1198). Yes that is really his name. (I am thinking the idea of using nicknames originated in Islam). Ibn Rushd was a really deep thinker and at some point he must have realized that most people didn’t know what the heck he was talking about. He concluded that his level of thinking about God was unique. For those who couldn’t reach this level of understanding, ibn Rushd determined that they needed to just believe a few basic truths in order to be saved. These truths he listed. They were basically summary statements about God. Among the beliefs that these lesser intellegents needed to believe were the existence of God as Creator and Sustainer of the world, the validity of prophecy, and the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. There were 8 concepts listed. Another list was formulated later that had 13 concepts.

Reading this I thought about the Nicene and the Apostle’s Creeds in the Christian Church. I actually had a discussion about the creed with people on the retreat I attended this past weekend and again when I sat around with a bunch of my women friends yesterday. Being expressed was the fact that as these people listened to the creed being recited in their churches, they became aware of the fact that they didn’t necessarily believe all of the statements they were reciting. One man told me he simply remains silent during the recitation of the creed when he worships on Sunday.

Ibn Rushd said of his creedal list: “These doctrines about God must be accepted in toto” in order to be saved.

Yikes! This sounded to me precisely like the arrogance of Church leadership in which only the clergy are able to understand God while the laity just have to trust them. They were designated to follow without question like sheep following their shepherd. This is the Church I grew up in. Vatican II poked a hole in this elitist attitude but the shift to an enabled, empowered, and spirit-filled laity is still struggling to become a reality. The powers that be won’t go down without a fight, it seems. And there are those among the laity that really like being sheep and prefer this metaphor of sheep and shepherd.

My conclusion: history of religion is a story of human beings being human. There will always be people who consider themselves more “in the know” than others. Believing themselves to be smarter, they decide they need to exert some kind of power over those less endowed than themselves – for their own good, of course. I think this is true of the history of religion, politics, of business…of any human institution. It is about arrogance, an ego trait for which we all have a capacity.

I have to add a bit of a disclaimer. As a Christian, I can’t assume to grasp Islamic concepts. To those who revere ibn Rushd, I apologize. Even Karen Armstrong doesn’t make any judgmental statement about his ideas such as my calling them “dark”. I just had this moment of recognition this morning.  In a positive sense, though, seeing what I perceive to be flaws in another’s religion as similar to the flaws in my own actually makes me feel more connected to that religion’s followers.

Muslims and Women

In her book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong doesn’t spend a lot of language on the topic of women in the Muslim tradition. I know that much has been written on this topic, however, so I can certainly check it out if I want more enlightenment…and I do. But Armstrong does address it:

“Today it is common in the West to depict Islam as inherently a misogynistic* religion, but, like Christianity, the religion of al-lah was originally positive for women.”

I note that Armstrong does what I like to do when learning about religions and cultures other than my own. I like to find common threads whether negative or positive. It deepens my understanding when I try to stand in someone else’s shoes…or rather, when I realize that we may already be sharing shoes. It also waters down any judgments I might have and fosters empathy.

“Unfortunately, as in Christianity,” she goes on, “the religion was later hijacked by the men, who interpreted texts in a way that was negative for Muslim women.”

I believe that once we step away from our texts, we tend to interpret them according to our own prejudices, even in accordance with our own egoic desires. It goes back to the idea of creating God in one’s own image.  Yet people will defend to the death that their interpretation is “what it says” and not just their own interpretation. It is pointless to get into a discussion with those who take this stance.. It always ends up in a battle and no one learns much of anything.

I found this statement very interesting: “The Koran does not prescribe the veil for all women but only for Muhammad’s wives, as a mark of their status.” The veil later became a symbol of exclusion and marginalization. “Today, Muslim feminists urge their men folk to return to the original spirit of the Koran.”

This reminded me of something I learned  back in my Bible studying days. Those of you who are readers of the New Testament might recall a passage in Paul’s letters (I Corinthians 11:6) where he instructed the women of the community to keep their heads covered out of respect for their husbands. I’d heard this applied as an admonishment that women are to be submissive to their husbands. The exegesis (analysis based on history, language, culture, etc) said that the loose women of Corinth would advertize their sexual availability by letting down their veils. Paul was suggesting to Christian women to wear veils rather than give a message they don’t really intend. He was suggesting modesty. Today, in our time and culture, we might say “cover your cleavage”, instead of “cover your hair”.

Interesting stuff.

* Misogyny is the hatred of women.

Muslims and Tolerance

I want to share something more of what Karen Armstrong, in her book The History of God, teaches about Islam. It is easy to form one’s opinion of a particular religion based on what one hears in the media. I am as guilty as anyone to imagine Muslims as being intolerant of other religions believing that their way is the only way. As a Christian, I know that a particular religion can have many faces. The Christian community has a wide range of expressions including one like this face of Islam, believers who insist that our way is the only way. So even after 9-11, when Islam came into the news, I sensed that this picture of a bigoted, violent Islam was distorted. It sure didn’t match the meek, kind Muslims that were moving into our area.

Armstrong wrote that the intolerance that many people condemn in Islam today does not really reflect early Islam. “Muslims are intolerant of injustice,” she writes, “Whether committed by rulers of their own or by the powerful Western countries (but) the Koran does not condemn other religious traditions as false or incomplete but shows each new prophet as confirming and continuing the insights of his predecessors. The Koran teaches that God had sent messengers to every people on the face of the earth…(and) points out that (the message they bring) is (not) essentially new…Muslims must emphasize their kinship with the older religions. They should say to other religions:

“We believe in that which has been bestowed upon us,
as well as that which has been bestowed on you:
for our God and your God is one and the same,
and it is unto him that we (all) surrender ourselves.”
Koran 88:20-22

Among the messengers or prophets that the Koran mentions are Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus. Muslims today insist that if Muhammad had known about Hindus and Buddhists, he would have included their religious sages.

Christians, for the most part, would take issue with placing Jesus on the same plane with these others. but I would like to suggest that that posture hasn’t been helpful in history. Thinking our way is the only way or our prophet is the only one truly of God, or in the case of Jesus, is God, has caused nothing but trouble. We could use a little humility. We don’t know, really, the nature of Jesus or any other prophet. We can only attest to our own experience of God and how our prophet seems to play a part in that.

This open face of Islam is not what we see in the news here in the U.S. I have heard criticism that Muslims have made within their own ranks of their failure to show this other, tolerant face to the world.  I am thankful for Armstrong’s presentation. It gives me hope.

Muslims and Politics

The book I am currently reading is one lent to me by a friend: A History of God, by Karen Armstrong. I wrote about her in an earlier blog ( ) and the book appeared to me after a my friend read the blog. It is a pretty scholarly piece, with big words and all. But it isn’t the vocabulary that I find difficult, it is the foreign words, Hebrew, Greek or Muslim words, for example, for various beliefs or sects. I am no sooner introduced to a term then forget what it means when I come across it again. If I were a student in college, I would be writing these down on index cards so I could refer back to them as needed.

In spite of my handicap, I am learning a lot. Of the three religions of the book, which is the focus of Armstrong’s book, I am least familiar with Islam. But Islam has become important to me because of our American attention on the Middle east in the last decade and also because of the fact that my granddaughter recently married a Muslim man. Understanding Islam is one way for me to get acquainted with my new grandson-in-law.

I’d like to share with you a few things I have learned thus far. Now, mind you, if I am going to proceed in my lazy manner not taking notes or cross-referencing, it is likely that some of my understanding is askew. In fact, I would expect that. But ignorance has never stopped me from flapping at the mouth before. In my defense, I am usually looking for common threads between my religious tradition and that of others and my intention is always toward peace and understanding. In other words, I rely on intuition and it usually serves me quite well.

I won’t try to do this in one blog. I will present one or two ideas at a time.

One idea that Armstrong presents has to do with Muslims and politics. As I watch the democracies forming in the Middle East, it seems to me that there are these fundamentalist Muslims trying to intertwine their religion with their politics, which is foreign to us in this country where we work so hard at keeping the two separate. But Armstrong suggests that for many, Islam offers a model and direction for a just society. She writes: “Politics is not extrinsic to a Muslim’s personal religious life, as in Christianity…Muslims regard themselves as committed to implementing a just society in accordance with God’s will…Its political health holds much the same place in a Muslim spirituality as a particular theological option in the life of a Christian. If Christians find the Muslims’ regard for politics strange, they should reflect that their passion for abstruse theological debate seems equally bizarre to Jews and Muslims.”

It never occurred to me that maybe Muslims who insist that Islam be an integral part of their newly forming governments are really wanting to be sure these are just societies according to God’s teaching, which is  spelled out in the Koran. It seems, as I read, that the Koran is as variously interpreted by Muslims as is the Bible by Christians. Maybe this is what their arguments are about…whose interpretation of the Koran are we to use in the forming of our new society?

I have been aware of the Biblical sense of social justice for years. I am one of those folks who thinks that we ought to do what the Bible actually says about justice instead of what we are actually doing in our country. I go a little crazy when I hear Christians who think we ought to be more Christian in our politics espouse practices that seem to me to be contrary to the teachings of Jesus.  This is when I cry for the separation of Church and state. Yet, I am just as guilty as my foes for quoting the Scriptures when talking about how I think the government should be run.

I am not sure what is the right thing to do. Teachings about justice are pretty common among all of the lasting religions of the world. They all have their version of the Golden Rule, for example. I am not sure we need to give any one religion credit as we formulate a just society. You might say that a real sense of justice is innate in our humanness and the written words of the various scriptures are reflections of what people know in their hearts to be true. When we give one religion over another credit, we are in danger of setting one above the others which is one of the seeds of unjust attitude and behavior.

In reading Armstrong, I have a deeper appreciation for the struggle that people of faith have as they try to create a democracy. We in America have to realize that the question of how faith plays a part in politics is one we ourselves have not been able to answer.