Resist your temptation to lie
By speaking of separation from God
We might have to medicate
In the ocean
A lot goes on beneath your eyes
They have clinics there too
For the insane
Who persist in saying things like:
"I am independent from the
God is not always around
- Hafiz (tr. Daniel Ladinsky)
O guiding light!
O night lovelier than the dawn!
O night that has united the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
- John of the Cross
As we excitedly begin springtime preparations for the holy embodied work of growing food, I have also been holding in my heart the ancient relationship between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In light of last week’s white nationalist terrorist attack in New Zealand and in light of developing news in Syria, and recent excruciating violence in Gaza, I have been allowing myself to go through the roller coaster of emotions that come up, and letting them be what they are before I let them go. First as a mother, because children are dying at the hands of extremism, then as a Christian, and then beyond my emotional tendencies, as someone drawn to the teachers from these traditions who graced this world with a unifying vision.
Fundamentalism loves the front page, and it would seem, most of us do too. Or as I heard Scilla Ellworthy say on the podcast Cracks of Light, “if it bleeds, it leads”.
Not that we should be silent in the face of ideological violence, but there are also remarkable stories taking place everyday where folks from these traditions share space, share heritage and even share monuments and saints, but we’re addicted to the drama of extremes, so we often fail to broadcast the beautiful connections.
Last week in my reflection on Christchurch, New Zealand, I was clear that it is important to name white nationalism and islamophobia and the roots of Christian fundamentalism in the West. This week, I want to highlight some of the shared beauty of Islam and Christianity. So I am including two films, and a song from my album Behold, I Make All Things New, called Every Breath is Yours, that was written by Michael Scott, of the Waterboys.
The films are each in their own way, utterly remarkable. In Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, when they’re standing by the cave of St Anthony, I could feel the history there through the screen. And in the film Sufi Soul - the music of Islam, the music consoles and ignites and connects. To see the Eastern Orthodox Christian convent of Saidnaya, as a shared pilgrimage point for both Muslims and Christians, with the Mary icon, named Shaguoura, as a shared saint, is profound to witness. (This convent has since suffered damage from the Syrian civil war, as have so many UNESCO sites dating back to the 2nd century BC.)
Let's get back to connections. The medieval Christian mystic poets had the rich, highly developed Islamic poets to thank for inspiring romantic, erotic metaphor, in relation to spiritual love with God. And the early European troubadours/bards were inspired by the various themes of Arabic poetry, including satire, eulogies, lampoon/insult poems, war poetry, hunting poetry, and so on.
John of the Cross’s famous metaphors of eros love in God, may have never been, had it not been for this kind of metaphor developing first in Islamic poetry. The poetry of being utterly, willingly overtaken by God in body and soul. The Canticle of Canticles, or Song of Songs may have influenced both, but there was something remarkable happening in those years between the 12th and 17th century that were often overlooked by "enlightenment era" eyes. The Hindu poet Mirabai penned her love songs within this time period too. But my favourite is Rabia al-Basri, who preceded both Rumi and Hafiz by 700 years, and who also went into the desert in her homeland Iraq, to become an ascetic, around the time Sufis were populating the Syrian desert after the Muslim Conquest of Levant. Remember, Syria had been under Roman rule for 7 centuries, before this conquest, so there is so much more going on than one religion vs another.
Likewise, in the film Sufi Soul, they show how the repetition of the Jesus Prayer chanted in the Syrian desert by the early desert Abbas and Ammas, inspired Sufi music and in part, the channel held open through embodied repetition of the Whirling Dervish. And when it comes to the roots of chanting itself, all indigenous traditions have some form of it, and chanting the Psalms, especially the Hallel, would have been a custom practiced by Jesus. It is thought by some, that he chanted the Psalms from the cross. But this particular repetition found in the Syrian desert, was developed by the Christians who fled the corruption of civilization and sought to find a prayer practice that could aid them to "will the one thing".
So, we know that Christianity and Islam have a shared history of the crusades and that the ramifications of this reverberate in very painful ways today. We all know about that. But what about these lesser known details about what we have shared, and the alchemical richness we have developed together?
In 2015, when I recorded the song Every Breath is Yours, I stood in front of the microphone in the tradition of the Islamic and Christian mystic poets, along with the author of the Song of Songs, whose fearless intimate metaphors, brought God closer to us.
Closer than we are to ourselves.
When we are at a loss for what to do about fundamentalism, may we move to the connections, the shared metaphors and elements - Silence. Music. Art. Poetry. Story. Movement. Taste. Chant. Love. Fire. Water. Earth. Wind. This is where we have our kinship in and through our shared Creator.
PS- additionally, I sort of assumed most of you reading this would have an understanding of the Abrahamic connection all three traditions share, but someone shared a wonderful, far more scholarly but very heartfelt lecture by professor Robert Baum speaking on Children of Abraham: The Shared Traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Click here to watch that lecture!
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on a regenerative farm on the Canadian prairies.