Wednesday, February 22, 2017

bright eyes: wise guy, wise man

The reading at Mass today is (in part) about identifying people. Jesus asks for some polling data: who do “people” say I am? Maybe a prophet, or Elijah, or John the Baptist returned from the dead. Okay, forget the polling data; here’s a different question: who do YOU say I am? Peter responds, explaining who he believes Jesus to be. And promptly, Jesus re-names Peter, and clarifies his – Peter’s – identity and role.

We don’t know who we are in a vacuum. We figure out who we are in a context, in some social matrix or other. I would argue that we know ourselves best when we see ourselves in a social context that includes the Person who created all Contexts.

But still – with or without a personal relationship with God, a relationship in which we know somebody and sense that this person knows us – we fill in details about our identity by moving in and out of a variety of social contexts.

Me: I like bright eyes. Bright, lively, dancing. I’m not always able to tell the difference between the brightness of mischief (say, Eddie Murphy) and the brightness of holiness (say, Mother Teresa). I have to watch what people do for a while to distinguish. At first appearance, the delight in their eyes attracts me. I like wise guys and wise men, and I’m slow to figure out which is which. That’s what I see, and I think that that’s a large part of what shapes me.

When we were six or seven, walking along, my friend Grant Mallett got in front of me and stopped to inspect my face. “You have wrinkles already,” he announced. I did. I had lines across my brow. He didn’t. His face was smooth and tranquil. I decided right then that if I was going to get wrinkles, I should get the right wrinkles. I wanted smile lines, out from my eyes, and around my mouth. That was 60 years ago; today, in general, I think I got what I wanted.

During the war in Vietnam, I did alternative service, working in hospitals, and I loved it. I remember going into the room of an old guy with a list of new and dangerous infections. They had put him in solitary confinement, with red warning signs all over the place. You had to put on masks and gloves and gowns and – I don’t recall what all, maybe you had to carry a flame-thrower to purify the air you breathed. I went in there, and the guy looked depressed and lonely. And I said, “God damn, man, there’s a lot of stuff between you and the rest of the world. Are you still a human being over there?” He looked up and met me eye to eye, and half-grinned: “You got that right! Shit!” Score.

In 2000, I went to a party with Pope John Paul II and 2.3 million of his closest friends – World Youth Day in Rome. Many wonderful things happened that week. But a detail from the vigil at a university outside Rome. 2.3 million kids and chaperones were camping all over the rolling hills there, and the Pope flew in by helicopter. We sang a while and prayed a while, then the Pope (his staff) set off fireworks for a while. There were jumbo screens all over the hills, so everyone could see the center stage. And there was this old guy with Parkinson’s, hunched over. When the fireworks were done, he looked up – Parkinson’s freezes your face and you couldn’t read expressions there, but his voice was clear – and he asked, “Vot should ve do now?” Well, 2.3 million kids wanted to laugh and scream and dance, so that’s vot ve did. The old guy didn’t dance, but he knew how to party. He couldn’t dance, but he could create a “ve” who could. Joy is stronger than old age.

I don’t feel good about laughter when others are suffering. Well, so what? Who cares whether John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe “feels good”? Fair question. Maybe not a lot of people, but I care. And I admit freely that that’s a part of the reason I want to visit some of the Syrian refugees who live in Baltimore. I want their permission to laugh. Ammar Jafar, the imam at the Germantown masjid and a friend, has bright bright eyes. Maybe he fasts until he’s crazy with bright eyes. Maybe he’s an accomplished liar with bright eyes. But I think he knows who he is because he knows his relationship with God, and he is happy with radiant bright eyes. His community serves a dozen refugee families. One day, when Ammar goes to Baltimore, I’ll go with, and maybe help a little. Maybe I can bring some bread; my bread is some of the best in the world. These refugees – their lives have encroached on my life; I’m not sure how or why, but I recognize the flat fact. I have tasted their pain, second hand, through Ammar. I need to see their hope and vitality and courage and joy, first hand. I know which is stronger, but I need to see it.

Joy. Find it in God. Find it in friends. And test its limits confidently, because there aren’t any.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wrestling to adapt and adopt

Wrestling to adapt and adopt

I follow the teaching of the Catholic Church – like Walker Percy, another bad Catholic. I’m working on how to incorporate parts of Muslim prayer into my own prayer. So: thoughts on a phrase and gesture.

The phrase

Allahu Akbar. To the Western ear, that’s a war cry, and in fact it’s usually the violent shriek of a terrorist. But to a Muslim, it’s the most common phrase in prayer, repeated over and over all though all the five prayers of the day.

At Mass in the Maronite Rite (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), God is addressed in Arabic, as “Allah.”

So we can (and I do) incorporate the words that are precious to our Muslim brothers and sisters into our Christian prayer. It’s really pretty urgent that Christians stop associating Muslim prayer with terror. So TRY! Consider, for example, the refrain in the great Swedish hymn, “How Great Thou Art:

Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art.

“How great thou art” can be translated “Allahu akbar.” If you’re going to replace the line from the Christian hymn with the Arabic words, you have to pay attention to how it scans. The “u” in “Allahu” is not a complete syllable, more like half a syllable. It’s like the “ur” in Saturday: you can make it a separate syllable – SA-TUR-DAY – or not – SAT-[eh]-DAY. Or the “r” in “where” in New England: it can be two syllables if you think that “r” is a vowel – WHAY-UH – or one – WHAIR. ALLAH is two syllables, for sure. AKBAR is two syllables, for sure. But the “u” can be a clear syllable, or a transitional sound more like a “w” attached to “AKBAR.” If you make it a transitional half-syllable, then the hymn scans properly, with four strong syllables in the Arabic line:

Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee,

The gesture

I was thinking about Muslim gestures over the weekend. I have had a strong negative visceral reaction to a detail in Muslim prayer. I’m troubled by a position in prayer – not quite prostrate, but on my knees with my head on the ground – and with my butt above my head. Parts of it I understand: it is certainly true in both Muslim and Christian prayer and behavior that bowing to God is often tied tightly and causally to a sense of equality in relationships between men – eye to eye with great dignity and calm. Still, the posture bothered me. So I sat there Sunday, fussing at the Lord: “It’s undignified.”  I sat there in church and looked at a crucifix – Jesus scourged, mocked, nailed, crowned. The figure on the cross has spit running down his face, although it’s not obvious because it’s overlaid with sweat and grime and blood. I looked, and thought, “That Muslim position is undignified.” And (it seemed to me, I imagined) Jesus’ grime-encrusted eyes popped open, and he looked at me, and he said … Well, he didn’t say anything, but the expression on his spit-spotted face seemed to say, “You’re kidding me, right?” (Actually, I’m censoring what I thought his face said.)

Got it. I’m still going to tuck my fanny as well as I can. But butt me no buts. When I’m praying with my Muslim brothers, I’m putting my forehead on the floor, regardless.