This weekend I attended a retreat in Santa Fe led by Father Richard Rohr, a world- renowned Franciscan priest, called Awakening Identity. It gathered a dynamic group of people to discuss all manner of challenging spiritual and theological topics and invited us to sit in Contemplative Practices. Contemplative Practice is the act of sitting in silence, quieting the mind and awakening consciousness to the whole of existence. It is the act of being instead of doing.
Contemplative practice has been a part of my path for many years now. Muslims call it “fikr” and Buddhists call it meditation. I believe it was an integral part of the life and message of Muhammad, upon him be prayers and peace.
What a contemplative practice like fikr does is that is moves the center of understanding to somewhere between the mind and the heart. The eye (or third eye) of true sight opens when this happens. Muhammad became the prophet after hermitage which he spent in meditation and contemplation in the cave of Hiraa. Father Richard says in his book, The Naked Now, “Jesus was the first non-dual religious teacher of the West, and much of the reason we have failed to understand his teaching, much less follow it, is because we tried to understand it with a dualistic mind.” Father Richard spoke about the moment when Jesus became the Christ and on to the Cosmic Christ and Christ Consciousness. This type of consciousness is what Muslims call “taqwa.”
Throughout the weekend, there was nothing that he said that I disagreed with as a Muslim. It crystalized and polished the understanding that Muhammad and Jesus were brothers who carried the same message. Father Richard’s message was that it is non-dualistic thinking that can help us to all make this same discovery.
On the first day, at the very first session, I wondered what my presence at this retreat would do to and for the others in attendance. What did it look like to them that a devout, practicing Muslim woman stepped out of her comfort zone and was attending a very Christian retreat? What did it feel like for them? What were their perceptions of me? Were they made uncomfortable by my presence? What opportunities did they see brought by my presence and what challenges were felt? I wondered about all these questions that first evening at dinner. These thoughts were swirling around in me like the fancy wine in their glasses.
Something snapped me out of my inner monologue and a conversation started about my husband, Sebastian and my #AskAMuslim project. The banter soon turned to more lighthearted topics and eventually we were all laughing deep belly laughs as we finished our entrees. We got to talking about music, health, relationships and a story of the prophet Muhammad came to mind. Someone asked the prophet what his favorite dish was and he said, “the one with the most hands extended towards it.” He loved people and enjoyed food because he enjoyed those who were dining with him. The breaking of bread which breaks down false barriers that we build up in our minds was a sort of transcendence for me.
It is indeed the very same message that I carry with me whenever I speak and teach. It is the grounding Earth that I am planted in, that which has grown me into what I am now. I have roots that grow into the depths of the Earth of my tradition and even beyond into the Earth of the unknown where labels, lines and divisions become muddied and in some cases nonexistent. Like the tree, I have branches that stretch out into the sky, begging me to see beyond what my eyes can, calling on me to use my heart’s imaginative power to know the beyond. And so the idea of being small isn’t worrisome. Non-duality through contemplative practice connects me to everything, the micro and the macro.
At one point Father Richard went around the room and pointed a finger at each one of us and said, “There lives the face of God,” and moved to the next person, “There lives the face of God.” He said when we stop thinking with our binary minds we can truly live and that is when we could never even imagine hurting another. My cells contain the very micro the sky calls for me to witness and which only my heart’s imagination can comprehend. The micro is inside me. The macro is inside me. I know the sky calls me to see that which is beyond my physical sight and yet, I can visit the multiverse and see it and know it because it exists inside of me.
Like Ali (the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and 4rd Caliph) said, “You think you are a small entity, but within you is enfolded the entire Universe”. When I comprehend that I am both the micro and the macro, when my heart rests in that truth, I know I am truly present and alive. It is that truth that allows me to feel the pain of another. to feel the pain and cries of the Earth and what we have done to it.
Father Richard was born to German, Catholic parents and so he is Catholic. And I was born to Syrian Muslim parents, and so I am Muslim. Are these differences meaningful? I truly feel that we are humans with morphic fields for souls that intermingle and interconnect always. It it our minds that grapple with our essence and our interconnectedness. That first evening of the retreat, my questions were quieted when my heart opened and I became present to the others around me - when I opened myself to more than myself. Contemplative practice makes this a way of life instead of just moments of connection and minor enlightenment.
The inability to see the face of God in another or even in your enemy is what keeps us divided and is a major contributing factor for the existence of groups like Daesh (/ISIS, but please let’s stop using this ludicrous name for them.) I cannot unpack all of what happened at this retreat, but it should suffice to say that it was mind bending and heart opening to be a Muslim sitting in a room with devout Christians, drinking from the same well of wisdom.