A. The anniversary of 9/11 is upon us. Ten years ago, yet who can forget that horrifying and tragic day? The sadness and darkness of that day is not only in all the lives that were lost in that attack, but actually even more in the truly tragic and insane response it provoked from us. Right after the attack, the next day, most of the world was actually with us in sympathy and in solidarity. There were actually huge demonstrations, for example, in Tehran in support of the U.S. There was a moment, an opportunity when we could have transcended the usual “eye for an eye” approach to policy and foeign relations, and we could have called the world together and said, “Ok, what can we do, what should we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” Trust the goodness of people, of all people, to help us find a way to bring reparation, restoral, healing and peace. Instead we began to bomb. Incidentally, we call ourselves a “Christian nation,” or some people do, but after 9/11 the spirit of revenge and retaliation was stalking through the land—NOT the Spirit of Christ. Consider this: Jesus was tortured and murdered, but on the cross he seeks forgiveness for his killers. More importantly, in the Resurrection, his first words are, “Peace be with you, MY peace…..” The Risen Christ does not speak the language of revenge, retaliation, “pay back,” etc. Who can sanely claim that we are a “Christian nation”? On September 12, 2001, the Gospel for the day was Jesus’s command to “love your enemy”!
But there was also another deep wound inflicted that day—a deep wounding of Muslim/non-Muslim relations, in particular Western Christian/Muslim relations, understanding, respect for one another, and even a nourishing of each other. Not that there was great mutual understanding or interest in each other before 9/11, but now the distinterest on the part of so many Western Christians has a tinge of hostility or at least suspicion of everything Muslim. Ignorance, irresponsible mass media, and even more irresponsible politicians and leaders have all contributed to this.
Fifty years ago Thomas Merton wrote to a Pakistani Sufi friend of his: “It seems to me that mutual comprehension between Christianity and Moslems is something of very real importance today, and unfortunately it is rare and uncertain, or else subjected to the vagaries of politics.” Alas, that statement is even more true today. But if we look at the deep past there are some flickers of hope. St. Francis with the Sultan–a well-known story. Then, in the 14th Century, before the fall of Constantinople, the great Orthodox spiritual theologian St. Gregory Palamas was captured by the Turks and held prisoner for quite a while. During that time Palamas had many discussions with the Emir and his son. The Emir had a great respect for this Christian theologian and mystic, and Palamas himself became good friends with the Emir’s son. Later when he was released, he wrote a letter to the Emir’s son and said that he hoped that “a day will soon come when we shall be able to understand each other.” Indeed. Then, the anonymous Christian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, is quite explicit in teaching that in the absence of a starets or spiritual father, the Christian seeker may receive spiritual instruction “even from a Saracen.” The reverse relationship can be found in the spiritual friendship of the Sufi Ibrahim ibn Adham and the Orthodox monk Symeon. All this points us in the right direction. Finally there is this iconic image: the oldest continuously existing Christian monastery in the world, St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai, contains a mosque within its precincts. This was built by the monks for their workers who are Muslim Bedouins. This should remind us if we have a dominant role in a given society to give our minority brethren the freedom and ability to worship as they feel called.
B. Merton wrote this about one of the great Sufi holy men of our time, Shaikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi of Morocco: “With Shaikh Ahmad, I speak the
same language and indeed have a great deal more in common than I do with the majority of my contemporaries in this country. In listening to him I seem to be hearing a familiar voice from my ‘own country’ so to speak. I regret that the Muslim world is so distant from where I am, and wish I had more contact with people who think along these lines.”
C. Speaking of Sufis, their connection to the events going on in Libya are not well known. It appears that the rebels have overthrown Gaddafi, and this is another one of those events that is percolating in the Arab world. No one knows for sure the outcome of this revolution or the exact make-up of these rebels, but something very interesting about them: they are fighting under the old Libyan flag, the flag of the pre-Gaddafi state of King Idris who was Libya’s king from 1951, when Libya gained its independence from colonial rule, until 1969 when he was overthrown by Gaddafi. What is especially interesting is that King Idris was a Sufi, in fact he was head of the Senussi Sufi Order—he was in fact a “Sufi king,” like Plato’s “philosopher king.” He governed a constitutional state that was aligned with the West. He built a modern Western-style university in Libya. There was also a very good religious university run by the Senussi Sufis which Gaddafi closed in 1984. Gaddafi rose to power in the 1960s when it was very “in” and popular in the Third World to be anti-Western, and so he was against the Sufis who were able to get along with Westerners who would not exploit their country.
Libya had been a hotbed of Sufi life for centuries, as in fact a lot of North Africa. King Idris’s grandfather was a founder of the Senussi Sufi Order as a branch of the Idrisi Sufis founded by the Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn Idris(1760-1837). This religious leader was noted for his reforming concepts. He called for the abandonment of the traditional sharia schools of Islamic law, and he was a critic of the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhibi movement(from which Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorists spring and whose roots are actually in Saudi Arabia, from where we get so much oil and with whom we are such good friends!) What is not generally known is that while Sufis are very peaceful they are not pacifists in the strict sense—they will fight against someone who invades their home. Thus Libyan Sufis were prominent in the fight against the colonialism of France and Italy. Many were executed by Mussolini. Let us see if the present Libyan freedom fighters live up to the high standards of their distinguished ancestors. For more information about these Sufis in Lbya here are a few websites:
D. India. What can you say? There are so many different Indias! Let us consider some examples. First there is the India which has been in the international news lately because of a hunger strike conducted by a Gandhi-like figure, Anna Hazare, against widespread government corruption. Sounds pretty straightforward, and how could you not support that! But things are never simple in India(or here either!). Consider this op-ed piece in a major Indian newspaer by Arundhati Roy:
Roy is a major novelist, a social activist, and what we would call a “progressive.” Reading her piece as an outsider, it is almost impossible to follow in its myriad details, but you get a sense of the complexity and enormity of India’s social problems. But there is another India, the India of sannyasis and sadhus, the India of our Abhishiktananda. Here is an amazing story illustrating the fact that this India is still there—barely maybe—but still there:
Now in what other country could this story have unfolded? I think only in India. However modernity is eating away at India’s body and soul and heart, and what of this India will survive remains to be seen. It is really ironic that Catholic Indian monasteries and ashrams used to want to “do it in an Indian way” when now young Indians want to live like this:
Just a sample of tons of such housing developments going up in India all over the place. With “six lane highways” close by!! It looks just like here! Exactly. That’s one of the effects of modernity: homogenization
And a final note on this: a real physical symbol of what is taking place in India—the greatest and most holy river in India, the River Ganga, is dying. Not only from the human corpses which have been dumped there for ages, but more from the sewage and industrial effluents going into the river now in unprecedented amounts. Around Karpur over 200 tanneries discharge chromium-rich effluents and 80% of the city’s sewage is dumped untreated into the river. Around Kolkata some 150 factories pour untreated waste into the brown water of the Hugli, a tributary of the Ganga. Fish die and river water laced with toxins irrigates farmland, eventually seeping into food and village borewells to cause untold diseases. Once the only liquid thought fit for an orthodox Brahmin, now is undrinkable. But a radical “solution” of sorts is in store. The Gangotri Glacier, which feeds the Ganga is melting and retreating at a pace of about 600-700 meters per year. Eventually the Ganga will be waterless. Will India be thoroughly modern then?
E. One more note about 9/11. The New York firemen who were the first responders to the attacked buildings had a Catholic chaplain. His name: Fr. Mychal Judge. He was a Franciscan priest of many years. He went into the buildings with his firemen to minister to anyone in need and to be “with his parishioners.” He died with them when the buildings collapsed. One more thing about Fr. Mychal: he was a gay priest. He was a gay Franciscan priest who lived faithful to his vows and his calling. Many New York firemen were later surprised to find out that their chaplain had been gay.