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!
In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?
- 8th century Muslim poet Rabia al-Basri
Your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself
that you have built against it.
We are connected now, not just by the invisible lines of the energy at the heart of all things. This "heart of all things" connection has always been, even as groups encountered each other, clashed, made war or peace, and lived in their place and time which shaped their cultural and spiritual expressions. Today, we are now connected by the internet, and the global summit of the world of ideas, and… ideologies… is available to anyone who is able to log in.
On March 15th, 2019, the very same day that 15-year-old Greta Thunberg led a worldwide skip school protest for climate justice, a 28-year-old man chose to enact a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, claiming his actions were anti-immigration in intent.
I have never had the honour of visiting New Zealand, but I have had the honour of knowing a number of folks from New Zealand, and I have always felt there is an innocence and beauty carried in the culture, that is palpable in the presence of the people I have known.
Today, as I held my youngest, who is nearing his 3rd birthday, I longed for little 3-year-old Mucad Ibrahim to be okay. To be safe and with his family. My heart stretched all the way to the families in Christchurch, grieving and in shock, and then, to the Ummah around the world.
Words are powerful. The energy behind our words are powerful. It is clear that a grassroots movement for the things that make this world beautiful is growing. But it is also clear that an alt-right neo white supremacy movement is growing. And I’m going to be clear about something: the degree to which we can suffer and mourn with our Muslim brothers and sisters about this massacre, is the exact degree to which we have faced the brunt of our own addiction to overconsumption, fundamentalism, power, and white privilege. Now is not the time to say “what about” anything. As Saint Francis wrote, "O Master, let me not seek as much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love." We must put the parable of the Good Samaritan to work now more than ever ... to see the highest and the good in the "other", and to look at our own corruption. Let's not kid ourselves... and as Christians, let's call it out... this white nationalist terrorism rearing its hideous head has its roots in slaveholder Christianity, and in an Islamophobia forged in great part by Christian fundamentalism.
The song I want to share today, Heart and Heart, comes from the new Meditation With Children album (to be released April 27th, 2019). There is a beautiful line I worked with, from a poem called Reality, by one of my favourite poets, the 8th Century Sufi mystic Rabia al-Basri.
The line I used from her poem is:
In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
This line brings us back to the heart of all things, that I mentioned at the beginning of this reflection.
But here’s the tricky bit. Unitive or nondual consciousness is not uniformity. It is not homogeneous. We don’t get to skip innocently over this line of Rabia al-Basri’s, this week of all weeks, and begin to feel good about how we’re all connected and how there’s no separation between us and God and the world. While that is true, we are also in the physical realm and we walk around in the skin we’re in.
We must plant Rabia’s line in the most diverse, symbiotic garden you could ever dream of.
As the global summit of online ideologies continues to embolden entitlement, there is a Oneness that is not superficial, that is not cheaply relativistic, and it is in-building an awareness and a love here in our corporeal state, for far-off places and people who are different from ourselves. As more and more awaken to inborn delusions of entitlement and the lie of exceptionalism... that diverse garden has a chance to grow into a beautiful, cacophonous, balance.
PS- Lastly, there is a petition speaking out against the white nationalism behind this shooting, and it is being organized to gather names and messages that will be bound into books and delivered to the families effected by the massacres in Christchurch.
To sign the petition and send your message, click here.
PPS- And men... all of you... go and get initiated through either the Mankind Project or Illuman and then start a men's group in your area when you get home. Love needs all hands on deck, so if it is your tendency to sleep your way through these violent events caused by angry young men, arise and be counted, Elders. The world needs you.
Last year, Ash Wednesday landed on a day many of us consider to be the most saccharine and the least “ashy”of all feast days, Valentine's Day.
Like most songwriters, I see paradox as a great cowriting partner, so I wrote a song sitting in the tension between such apparently contrasting days, called When Love Meets Dust. Then at the end of the 40 days of Lent, somehow magically, Easter Sunday landed on April Fool’s Day, so I wrote a song called Holy Fool.
2018 was a lot of things, but those serendipitous expressions in the calendar were fun to play with.
Having entered into Lent now in 2019, I thought I would share the song When Love Meets Dust, which in part was influenced by Fr Ron Rolheiser’s book Holy Longing.
Holy Longing suggests that there really is only one flame and that in the spiritual journey, “getting burned” is really what happens when aspects of our false selves fall away through life’s descents.
Belden Lane has called this a "misplaced yearning".
The verses in the song When Love Meets Dust are really just different aspects of each one of us, although they are also respectively inspired by: Janis Joplin, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who Ron Rolheiser illustrates with, in his book.
I hope it is clear that when I wrote the verses, I wasn’t using Janis, Diana and Mother Teresa as some cheap polemic for chastity and “being good” (and neither was Fr Ron in his book!). It is about seeing the immensely beautiful, heart-wrenching, holy longing in the rebel, in the noble princess and in the “nobody”.
If I’m honest, I relate most to Janis.
There is a story from the teachings of the desert Abbas and Ammas, that Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Along the journey of descent, there is a point where the flame doesn’t burn you anymore, because you have realized that your own fire, and the great Flame, are one.
This idea that all fire comes from the same place, but only burns us or others if we are in our ego state, or false self state, is a remarkable way to reconstruct our idea of hell. In the chorus, the line “it can destroy or it can trust, but it’s what happens when love meets dust” is to say that the literal energy, the building blocks of life, can also be inverted to destroy life (think of atomic energy).
Finally, because I’ve been speaking mostly about flame, or love, it is important to also mark our earthiness. We airy “spirituals” don’t do that enough. We don’t often willingly go into the bear cave and feel the damp womb of earthly discomfort. We don't lie naked in the soil, with the sun greening us like nettles, because we feel safer in the esoteric, or at the very least, in the theologic.
But don't worry! Cosmos is tied to dust. You and I, all of this, originated in the heart of a star. So it comes full circle, anyway.
It is at this point, where stardust meets soil, that I want to make a very special mention to the very recent death of Australian Eco-theologian Fr Denis Edwards, whose book Jesus and the Cosmos deeply influenced my album Behold, I Make All Things New. His ability to hold the earth and the cosmos in balance through seeing the whole of reality as incarnate, was remarkable. I mentioned him briefly last week in the final paragraph of my reflection and just a few days later, I saw it announced that he had passed.
Denis and I communicated a few times via email, when Behold, I Make All Things New came out, and I was honoured to know he heard the level at which I wanted to deliver that project, because he said:
"Behold, I Make all Things New sings of the Love that is at the heart of everything. The galaxies and stars, the animals and trees of Earth. The album tells of the Love come to us in an unthinkable way in Jesus, and celebrates the transformation already at work in new creation. I have always loved those words: "behold, I make all things new", now I hear them in your voice."
His life and work will always mean a great deal to me. His fidelity to seeing the incarnation in Earth and the Cosmos changed me forever. It is my prayer that folks who write down books I mention will spend time with Denis Edward’s work. He truly was a man who saw Christ in all things… he had the eyes to see… where love meets dust.
This one's for you, Denis.
I’ve thought for some time now, that the text “be wise as serpents and soft as doves” is very similar to saying “be active and be contemplative”.
Although much more cerebral and less contemplative statement, Karl Barth said it this way: “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper.”
This little chant, Eyes Open, Heart Open, recorded for the upcoming Meditation With Children album, (to be released on my son Francis’ 3rd birthday, April 27th, 2019), was written in the context of... chanting into balance, being street smart and being vulnerable enough to be kind.
I believe this fits into the world children live in, too.
As a songwriter and as a writer, sitting at that meeting point of “eyes open, heart open” is a lovely tension for creative energy to surge forth, and for imagining the "impossible", as all paradoxes tend to allow for.
We all struggle most, however, with keeping our eyes open and heart open, when looking at our own selves. Often what comes with the work of deconstruction, is a failure to see that what we are deconstructing is a part of how we too are programmed. We may have changed our political perspectives, or are working out how to name something wrong, but as Einstein famously said, "no problem can be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it". If we haven't begun to hang out in our own paradoxes, we can be pretty self-righteous. Or, as I've heard James Finley say many times, "it's true that all prophets are a pain in the neck, but it's also true that not everyone who is a pain in the neck is a prophet."
As we shift our perspective that God is not “out there”, we must also shift our perspective that the shadow is also not “out there”. In Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 4 is about “taking a moral inventory” of one’s own life, which is to say: look at your own shadow. So, this would be keeping our eyes open toward our own selves. And if anyone is familiar with those steps, as you spend time with them, there comes a moment of serenity, that moment when the heart opens in tenderness, even after facing powerlessness (which is not the same thing as disempowerment) and our own shadow.
Here is a sample track from the brand new master finalized this week from the Meditation With Children album. My collaborator Noel Keating, the author of the book Meditation With Children , did such a wonderful job speaking on this album. We both very intentionally sang and spoke, sort of holding mysteriously, the heart of each person who might hear it. It felt very precious and I look forward to sharing more of it with you.
And finally, many of you will be aware that Richard Rohr's new book The Universal Christ comes out on March 5th. I have been LOVING the podcast, Another Name for Every Thing, and all the wonderful content on the site built for the book. Watch all the videos. They're so wonderful. The video where Fr. Rohr is speaking to a group of young evangelicals reminded me of when I first heard him speak about Christ. Along with Denis Edward's wonderful book Jesus and the Cosmos, (which is chock-full of Karl Rahner's insights), Richard's insights inspired me to write the album Behold, I Make All Things New and to seek out great poets to collaborate with, as I put music to that hymn he mentions in Colossians. I am anticipating this book!
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.