Our Muslim Brothers and Sisters


This is not a good time to be a Muslim in the Western world. As the violence perpetrated by radical Islamic groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram becomes more and more prevalent, huge numbers of people are becoming paranoid about and even openly hostile towards the Islam religion, seeing all Muslims as a threat. Popular opinion more and more blames the Moslem religion itself for that violence, suggesting that there is something inherent in Islam itself that’s responsible for this kind of violence.  That equation needs to be challenged, both in the name of truth and in the name of what’s best in us as Christians.

First of all, it’s untrue: Painting all Muslims with the same brush is like painting all Christians with the same brush, akin to looking at most the depraved man who calls himself a Christian and saying: “That’s Christians for you! They’re all the same!”  Second, it’s also unfair: Islamic militants no more speak for Islam than Hitler speaks for Christianity (and that comparison isn’t idly chosen). Finally, such an equation misleads our sympathy: The first victim of Islamic terrorism is Islam itself, namely, authentic God-fearing Muslims are the first victims of this violence.

When we look at the history of any terrorist Islamic group such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda, we see that it first establishes itself by terrorizing and killing thousands of its own people, honest, God-fearing Muslims. And it goes on killing them. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram have killed thousands more Muslims than they have killed Christians or persons of any other religion. While their ultimate target may well be the secularized, Christian West, but more immediately their real war is against true Islam.

Moreover the victims of Islamic terrorists are not just the thousands of moderate Muslims who have been direct victims of their violence and killings, but also all other Muslims who are now painted with the same brush and negatively judged in both their religiosity and their sincerity. Whenever Islamic terrorists perpetrate an act of violence, its victims are not just those who die, are injured, or who lose loved ones, it’s also all true Muslims, particularly those living in the West because they are now viewed through the eyes of suspicion, fear, and hatred.

But the Muslim religion is not to blame here. There is nothing inherent in either the Koran or in Islam itself that morally or religiously undergirds this kind of violence.  We would holler “unfair” if someone were to say that what happened during the Inquisition is inherent in the Gospels. We owe Islam the same judgement. One of the great students of World Religions, the renowned Houston Smith, submits that we should always judge a religion by its best expressions, by its saints and graced-history rather than by its psychopaths and aberrations. I hope that others offer us, Christians, this courtesy. Hitler was somehow a product of the Christian West, as was Mother Teresa. Houston Smith’s point is that the latter, not the former, is a truer basis for judging Christianity.  We owe our Islamic brothers and sisters the same courtesy.

And that’s more a recognition of the truth than a courtesy. The word “Islam/Muslim” has its origins in the word “peace”, and that connotation, along with the concept of “surrender to God”, constitutes the essence of what it means to be a Muslim. And for more than 90% of Muslims in the world, that is exactly what it means to be a Muslim, namely, to be a man or woman of peace who has surrendered to God and who now tries to live a life that is centered on faith, prayer, responsibility, and hospitality.  Any interpretation of Islam by a radicalized group that gives divine sanction to terrorist violence is false and belies Islam. Islamic extremists don’t speak for God, Mohammed, Islam, or for what it means to surrender in faith, but only for a self-serving ideology, and true Muslims are, in the end, the real victims of that.

Terrorist attacks, like the recent ones in Paris and Mali, call for more, not less, sympathy for true Muslims. It’s time to establish a greater solidarity with Islam, notwithstanding extremist terrorism. We are both part of the same family: We have the same God, suffer the same anxieties, are subject to the same mortality, and will share the same heaven. Muslims more than ever need our understanding, sympathy, support, and fellowship in faith.

Christian de Cherge, the Trappist monk who was martyred by Islamic terrorists in Algeria in 1996, wrote a remarkable letter to his family on France shortly before he died. Well aware that he had a good chance of being killed by Islamic terrorists, he shared with his family that, should this happen, they should know that he had already forgiven his killers and that he foresaw himself and them, his killers, in the same heaven, playing together under God’s gaze, a gaze that lovingly takes in all of God’s children, Muslims no less than Christians.


Lacking the Self-Confidence for Greatness


We all have our own images of greatness as these pertain to virtue and saintliness. We picture, for instance, St. Francis of Assisi, kissing a leper; or Mother Teresa, publicly hugging a dying beggar; or John Paul II, standing before a crowd of millions and telling them how much he loves them; or Therese of Lisieux, telling a fellow community member who has been deliberately cruel to her how much she loves her; or even of the iconic, Veronica, in the crucifixion scene, who amidst all the fear and brutality of the crucifixion rushes forward and wipes the face of Jesus.

There are a number of common features within these pictures that speak of exceptional character; but there’s another common denominator here that speaks of exceptionality in a different way, that is, each of these people had an exceptionally strong self-image and an exceptionally strong self-confidence.

It takes more than just a big heart to reach across what separates you from a leper; it also takes a strong self-confidence. It takes more than an empathic heart to publicly hug a dying beggar; it also takes a very robust self-image. It takes more than mere compassion to stand before millions of people and announce that you love them and that it’s important for them to hear this from you; it also takes the rare inner-confidence. It takes more than a saintly soul to meet deliberate cruelty with warm affection; it also requires that first you yourself have experienced deep love in your life.  And it takes more than simple courage to ignore the threat and hysteria of a lynch mob so as to rush into an intoxicated crowd and lovingly dry the face of the one they hate; it takes someone who has herself first experienced a strong love from someone else. We must first be loved in order to love.  We can’t give what we haven’t got.

Great men and women like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, John Paul II, and Therese of Lisieux are also people with a stunning self-confidence. They have no doubt that God has specially gifted them and they have the confidence to publicly display those gifts.  The sad fact is that many of us, perhaps most of us, simply lack sufficient self-image and self-confidence to do what they did. Perhaps our hearts are just as loving as theirs and our empathy just as deep, but, for all kinds of reasons, not least because of how we have been wounded and the shame and reticence that are born from that, it is existentially impossible for us to, like these spiritual giants, stand up in front of the world and say: “I love you – and it’s important that you hear this from me!”  Our tongues would surely break off as an inner voice would be saying: “Who do you think you are? Who are you to think the world needs to hear of your special love?”

Truth be told, too often it isn’t virtue that’s our problem; it’s self-confidence. Mostly we aren’t bad, we’re just wounded. William Wordsworth once said something to the effect that we often judge a person to be cold when he or she is only wounded. How true.

Thankfully God doesn’t judge by appearances. God reads the heart and discerns between malice and wound, between coldness and lack of self-confidence. God knows that no one can love unless he or she has first been loved, and that very few, perhaps no one, can publicly display the heart of a giant, the courage of a hero, and the love of saint when that big heart, courage, and love haven’t, first, been felt in an affective and effective way inside of that person’s own life.

So what’s helpful in knowing this? A deeper self-understanding is always helpful and there can be a consolation, though hopefully not a rationalization, in knowing that our hesitancy to step out publicly and do things like Mother Teresa is perhaps more rooted in our lack of a healthy ego than in some kind of selfishness and egoism. But of course, after that consolation comes the challenge to throw away the crutches we have been using to cope with our wounds and our crippled self-image so as to begin to let our heart, courage, and love manifest themselves more publicly. Our tongues won’t break off if we speak out loud about our love and concern, but we will only know that once we actually do it. But, to do that, we will have to first step through a paralyzing shame to a self-abandon that up to now we haven’t mastered.

And there’s a lesson in this too for our understanding of ego within spirituality. We’ve invariably seen ego as bad and identified it with egotism; but that’s over-simplistic because spiritual giants generally have strong egos, though without being egotists. Ironically too many of us are crippled by too-little ego and that’s why we never do great things like spiritual giants do. Egoism is bad, but a healthy, robust ego is not.

Faith, Doubt, Dark Nights, and Maturity


In one of his books on contemplative prayer, Thomas Keating shares with us a line that he occasionally uses in spiritual direction. People come to him, sharing how they used to have a warm and solid sense of God in their lives but now complain that all that warmth and confidence have disappeared and they’re left struggling with belief and struggling to pray as they used to. They feel a deep sense of loss and invariably this is their question: “What’s wrong with me?” Keating’s answer: God is wrong with you!

His answer, in essence, says this: Despite your pain, there is something very right with you. You have moved past being a religious neophyte, past an initiatory stage of religious growth, which was right for you for its time, and are now being led into a deeper, not lesser, faith. Moreover, that loss of fervor has brought you to a deeper maturity. So, in effect, what you’re asking is this: I used to be quite sure of myself religiously and, no doubt, probably somewhat arrogant and judgmental. I felt I understood God and religion and I looked with some disdain at the world. Then the bottom fell out of my faith and my certainty and I’m now finding myself a lot less sure of myself, considerably more humble, more empathetic, and less judgmental. What’s wrong with me?

Asked in this way, the question answers itself. Clearly that person is growing, not regressing.

Lost is a place too! Christina Crawford wrote those words, describing her own painful journey through darkness into a deeper maturity. To be saved, we have to first realize that we’re lost, and usually some kind of bottom has to fall out of our lives for us to come to that realization. Sometimes there’s no other cure for arrogance and presumption than a painful loss of certitude about our own ideas about God, faith, and religion. John of the Cross suggests that a deeper religious faith begins when, as he puts it, we forced to understand more by not understanding than by understanding. But that can be a very confusing and painful experience that precisely prompts the feeling: What’s wrong with me?

A curious, paradoxical dynamic lies behind this: We tend to confuse faith with our capacity on any given day to conjure up a concept of God and imagine God’s existence. Moreover we think our faith is strongest at those times when we have affective and emotive feelings attached to our imaginations about God. Our faith feels strongest when bolstered by and inflamed by feelings of fervor. Great spiritual writers will tell us that this stage of fervor is a good stage in our faith, but an initiatory one, one more commonly experienced when we are neophytes. Experience tends to support this. In the earlier stages of a religious journey it is common to possess strong, affective images and feelings about God. At this stage, our relationship with God parallels the relationship between a couple on their honeymoon. On your honeymoon you have strong emotions and possess a certain certainty about your love, but it’s a place you come home from. A honeymoon is an initiatory stage in love, a valuable gift, but something that disappears after it has done its work. A honeymoon is not a marriage, though often confused with one. It’s the same with faith; strong imaginative images of God are not faith, though they’re often confused with it.

Strong imaginative images and strong feelings about God are, in the end, just that, images. Wonderful, but images nonetheless, icons. An image is not the reality. An icon can be beautiful and helpful and point us in the right direction, but when mistaken for the reality it becomes an idol. For this reason, the great spiritual writers tell us that God at certain moments of our spiritual journey “takes away” our certainty and deprives us of all warm, felt feelings in faith. God does this precisely so that we cannot turn our icons into idols, so that we cannot let the experience of faith get in the way of the end of faith itself, namely, an encounter the reality and person of God.

Mystics such as John of the Cross call this experience of seemingly losing our faith, “a dark night of the soul”. This describes the experience where we used to feel God’s presence with a certain warmth and solidity, but now we feel like God is non-existent and we are left in doubt. This is what Jesus experienced on the cross and this is what Mother Teresa wrote about in her journals.

And while that darkness can be confusing, it can also be maturing: It can help move us from being arrogant, judgmental, religious neophytes to being humble, empathic men and women, living inside a cloud of unknowing, understanding more by not understanding than by understanding, helpfully lost in a darkness we cannot manipulate or control, so as to finally be pushed into genuine faith, hope, and charity.