High tides; A love story.

I used to believe that we shared things–
Like the moon.

And I trusted that a current would instinctually bring us together
The same way in which birds flock to the South in the Winter.
We were part of natural order.

I used to believe that all things were written in a large, unalterable Book;
but I learned that God never paid attention to the details.
We write those ourselves.

When I learned you were back, I was in traffic–
waiting for the light to change.
I knew I would not call, so I rolled down my window–
taking a deep breath.

I still believe that we share things–
like the salty, coastline wind;
and that the tides reconcile our differences.

As time dissipates and waves wear at our spirits,
I search for a trinket–
a manifestation of a good memory; my good story.
It makes me feel juvenile.

I believe we share things–
like recollections of springtide.

[A draft, always].

The Intersection of Faith and Intellectualism

Since returning to Miami and seeing many of the folks back home, I started to think about the relationship between God, religion, and intellectualism.

I have been wondering about the fact that the majority of those who claim a faith (e.g. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikhs, and so on) are mostly lay followers. By lay, I mean that many people of faith have not learned about God and their religion through books, but rather through word of mouth (i.e. families, school, friends). Oral knowledge falls under “conventional (or folk) wisdom” and is often undervalued. The reality, however, is that the majority of believers are not religious intellectuals*.  In this post, I refer to bookish scholars of any faith as “religious intellectuals” and the rest as “lay believers”.

I wonder how much we gain and lose spiritually with intellectualism. By intellectualism, I am referring to what we call “intellectual masturbation” in the academia (I think this phrase gets my point across the best). That is, an illogical and unhealthy obsession with arbitrary details and categories.

What I am noticing is that people (regardless of faith) who learn through oral tradition tend to show more wisdom and tolerance, while intellectuals tend to display arrogance and a sense of righteousness and entitlement.

This brings me to a concern about my generation and those of the future. Many of us today are doing things that previous generations could not do. Regular ol’ folks are reading information online, accessing scholarly books, and using technology to share knowledge about their individual faiths. Regular ol’ folks have access to a lot of information available through the internet and participating in the larger conversations (i.e. religious debates).

What are the benefits to quick and feasible accessibility to information in religion? Are there consequence in virtualizing the most personal part of our lives: our faith?  On the one hand, the access to and distribution of information widen our minds. On the other hand, getting lost in intellectualism can give us the false sense that the “smarter” we are, the better we are. When does theory take over practice and debilitate our connection with ourselves and God?

I have begun to believe that categories destroy most things; one of these things being human relationships. Categories forces us to focus on differences. I wonder about this a lot. How does my visibility (or invisibility) as a believing Muslim translate? How do I categorize myself as belonging to a particular faith without becoming part of the masses? Does this category (visibility) debilitate my ability to be seen as a Person? Does it define me in ways that I do not wish to be defined by others?

Two days ago, I was in the waiting room of a hospital. A middle-aged Cuban women sat next to me and began talking about her husband who was critically ill. Then, she began to talk about God. She was Catholic and assumed I was too. She talked about God in a natural and unpretentious way. I had begun to forget how simple it is to believe in God (regardless of religion). I had also begun to forget that God is simple despite the fact that we always try to attach human weaknesses to God (e.g. jealously, anger, fickleness, and so on). I feel that God is greater than our minds can imagine. I am wondering if intellectualism is what prevents so many people to continually bicker about “who” God is as if it is something at which we can arrive.

Can we arrive at our own sense of God through our particular faiths without discrediting valuable knowledge of other faiths? Can we work towards a common goal for humanity through categorizations? Do knowledge and faith depend on one another? Does religious intellectualism trap us in theory and make us impractical?

A Catholic Priest: My Friend & Brother

Just found this note in my room at my parent’s house. I wrote this letter to a friend, Santi, who was at the seminary at that time….and on his way to becoming a Catholic priest. I have recently gotten in touch with him again, and I revealed to him that I was a Muslim now. I will admit that I was completely afraid he would judge me (I’ve always been scared of priests and nuns judging me). To my surprise, I was reminded that sometimes a strong faith in a Creator, God/Allah is what makes people fundamentally the same.

I had written this letter to him during highschool (around 2003, I think) when my faith was completely crashing. He responded to my e-mail and gave me beautiful words of advice. Until this day, I thank him for it. I have retyped the letter below (his responses are in bold–as he replied within the text).

Cristi,

Thank you for your email. Thank you for the trust. Thank you for the friendship. Let me start by saying ‘peace be with you.’ Not only do I share my own peace, but I share God’s peace and his mercy. I want you to know that I am here for you, although far physically. I am praying for you and I know that God has a beautiful purpose for you. I hope it is alright if I reply to your message by commenting in it as it unfolds.

“Hey Santiago,

Well, this may sound like a strange question but believe it or not, you are one of the only real Catholics I know…(I am glad we got to know each other through our work at the library. Yet, I think the issue at hand is in the midst of diversity, it is good to have friends who share our values, dreams and goals in life). So I guess it does not hurt asking you for some advice. Well, I will tell you my story and hope for your religious perspective (I believe the religious perspective must always embrace and reflect all other aspects of life). If you can’t help, don’t worry about it, but I’m basically a little bit confused about my faith, I am Catholic too, as you know (I think I remember you went to St. ******…lol. You know, it is quite alright to be confused. Actually, it is good that you are. Being confused shows that you are thinking, that you are meditating and pondering. It shows you are alive). Well, since I began college, there are people of many faiths that I am friends with such as Buddhists, Christians, Agnostics, even atheists (It is good to have many friends, who have many different views and perspectives. In a way, looking into the diversity of life helps us to understand the beauty of our own beliefs and values). I have learned many things from these faiths and have come to respect them. For example, I have come to really respect Buddhists’ spiritually disciplined lifestyle and peaceful meditations (Our Catholic faith also has a very long and powerful tradition of prayer life, meditation and discipline. It’s called asceticism. Just think of the monks and nuns, of priests and religious men and women. Now think that it is not only limited or restricted to them. We are all called to be holy, to love, to meditate and to ponder on the Word of God). While observing people of other faiths, I realize that there are things about Catholicism that I don’t agree with (Think about why is it that you do not agree with them. Then, reflect about what you believe…and why is it that you believe it. Do not only see the beliefs and traditions of the Church only from the point that the Bible and Pope tells us. Search and research about the reason behind these beliefs. Be assured, that any question you have about any topic you can share it with me). I feel that my faith in God is very shaky now (Shaky is a good beginning. At least there is movement. Otherwise, it would be dead. Do not be ashamed to recognize your own confusion. Confusion makes people beautiful and honest. Be honest with yourself and with others). I know I believe in God, but I am not so sure I believe everything in my faith. I have not gone to Church in a long time and I would feel like a hypocrite if I started going now. I also don’t pray that often anymore…I only turn to God when I feel completely hopeless, not because I am a devoted Catholic (Do not think of yourself as a hypocrite. Think of yourself as the Prodigal Daughter. Remember the parable? Coming back home is the greatest feeling and sensation there is. Returning is not only about physical journey, but a spiritual awakening as well. Let God move you and guide you. Do not be afraid to ask God for help, for He is always listening and loving you. He loves you very much and wishes nothing but to overflow you with blessings and graces. God is merciful and forgiving: know that He is always waiting for you and carrying you through it all…always!!!). I think I was happier when I had faith and believed strongly rather than now, but I am afraid I will never go back (Do not give up on God…you are an amazing person and God wants to grow and experience Him always more strongly and more fully. He can do it all. Don’t be afraid). I hope I didn’t confuse you with my story (There is nothing confusing. It is beautiful to read your story. It is honest and humbling). Well, basically I just try to handle all of lives’ tasks on my own without help from others and without prayer, and it isn’t working out too well for me (Realizing that we cannot do anything without God is called humility, for it allows us to see our lives in the perspective of God’s love and purpose for us). I do not know myself anymore nor what my faith is (Sure you know yourself kiddo…Do not beat yourself too badly. Let God speak to you. Do not rush anything. Pray for wisdom, patience and understanding. I shall pray for them too).

I hope you don’t judge me by this, but it has gotten to the point where I am seeing myself ‘falling apart’. I do not know to whom to turn without feeling that they will judge me (I don’t judge you and never would. You are cute and fluffy Cristy. God loves you. Very much so and you deserve the best. My prayer for you is that you may experience God’s mercy and light. His truth. Know that you are not alone in this journey. We are all flawed and need God’s mercy and forgiveness. I make mistakes everyday and I also humbly ask you to pray for me, too).

I wrote this letter at a point in my life where everything I had ever known had been shaken. I was raised in Catholic school and the Catholic faith was the center of my universe. I remember very clearly when I wrote this desperate letter to Santi. I had written it after reading on a site a post by an atheist who argued that God didn’t exist. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone flirt with such a notion, that I cried for a long time afterward. You can say I was naive, but my whole world was really falling apart. I was in dire need of spiritual guidance, and Santi came to my aid.

My spiritual journey took a long while. After this letter, I considered myself agnostic–a belief in God, but no particular religion. It took me 6 years to arrive “home”— in my case, Islam. I am not sure this is a decision that pleases my Catholic friends and family, but it is the state in which I am sure I belong. Islam is the state in which I can feel God’s mercy, forgiveness, blessings. I didn’t become a Muslim out of desperation nor out of a need to find a spiritual path. In fact, I was quite satisfied as an agnostic–but knowledge of God was absent. I chose Islam first and foremost because of conviction in its pure and healthy lifestyle, and because I believe the Quran is the unaltered message to mankind from the Creator. More so, I feel that  Islam does not conflict with human curiosity; with our natural inclination to ask questions.

When I read messages like the letter above, I can begin to see how my prayers to God were eventually answered. I had asked for guidance, faith, mercy and it is now that I can really see how I have always been receiving them.

When I got in contact with Santi after many years (3?), I feared that he would be disappointed with the fact that I am a Muslim. But when I looked back at his letter, I did exactly what he encouraged me to do:  to never give up on God. And I was relieved to find that he kept his words: “I will never judge you”.

I did not leave Catholicism because I thought it was “wrong” or because it contradicts principles in Islam. My family is Christian, I was raised Christian and Christian values have shaped me into who I am today. In no way do I look down on Christianity. I received schooling under Catholic nuns, received spiritual advice, friendship and support from Catholic priests, and grew up under a very spiritually healthy environment. As you can see in the letter, the fundamentals are the same: a merciful and forgiving God; a goal towards jannah (heaven); asceticism–a simple lifestyle aimed at pleasing God; giving to the needy/poor; devotion through good actions and prayer. As odd as it may sound, Islam reinforced the beliefs and values with which I was raised: monotheism and a devotion to God.  I became a Muslim because I felt it has sealed what I have believed all along and eliminated the things in which I never believed. And this has given me a sense of peace.

Insh’Allah (God willingly), more people will begin to look past the difference between religions  and focus on the commonalities…Read the letter again. Santi’s God and my God are the same. It isn’t by coincidence that he began with letter with “peace be with you”–the same greetings with which Muslims greet one another, salaamu alaykum. We can leave arguments about the differences for another time, but we have come to realize that we are both human beings with a Creator and we need His mercy. We both seek His mercy through different means, but with the same goal in mind, jannah (or Heaven/Paradise).