How to find light in the darkness

There are conversation that are hard to forget; hard to forgive.

A few years ago, a conversation with a friend turned awry. During our conversation, she brought up the topic of religion. She started with the question: “What does Allah mean?” I explained that the word was an Arabic term for the word God or dios.

I thought that was the end of her curiosity, until she responded with “Allah is not God. My God is not your God.” I was confused my her remark, so I responded with, “Well, there is only one God.” She went on to explain that her God is one of love, mine was one of war. I was deeply hurt by her comment, but I approached it gently. I told her that she may have misunderstood from the media what the meaning of Islam was (I reminded myself that she had never been exposed to another religion).

She was physically worked up; angry that I did not accept her explanation. I began to realize that she was purposely trying to provoke a reaction.

I remember feeling my throat closing and a sharp pain in my gut. The same reaction I feel when I am about to cry and cannot run away.

Then, she said to me, “Everyone knows the evil in your religion; how you have to deceive and befriend Christians in order to “get by” in the world. I don’t know why you are the only one blind to it.”

My friend, whom I treated as part of my family. One of the only people I trusted to care for my children. I felt like collapsing. It is so different when a keyboard warrior attacks you, but when it is a person that you hold in high regard turns on you, how do you respond? I wanted to physically collapse.

I ended the conversation by calling her an “ignorant person” and asked her to leave my home. After she left, I cried a lot.

The details of the conversation are much worse than I can write.

One week after the confrontation, she called to apologize. I accepted her apology and have since tried to repair my relationship with her. We have become friends again, but it has been almost a year and I still feel very hurt when I remember that conversation. The words that hurt the most were “everyone knows about the evil in your religion”. For the past year, I accepted those words from her. I have second guessed many things; the sincerity of my friendships, my Muslim community, among many other things. I have found myself avoiding talks of religion and any conversation that may reveal that I am a firm believer. For the past year, I have been truly afraid that another person I trusted would turn on me, like the comment section of a social media post gone incarnate.

I have become very nervous when people around me bring up topics surrounding Islam. The words, “everyone knows about the evil in your religion” has made me second guess my family and friends, feelings that they are simply to scared to lash out at me in the same way my friend did at my home.

It has been really hard to forget this particular incident, although I have chosen to forgive her. I hold no ill will towards my friend. Although she was wrong, she is not completely at fault. I have accepted to believe that there are many other factors at hand that have influenced the way she reacted that day.

I try to have hope that forgiveness, especially with your loved ones, can start a process of healing for oneself and the world at large. I try to hold on to this idea.

Today, a friend announced that he would give his first sermon at his Methodist Church. He asked the social world for prayers. A prayer that always makes me surrender myself to God on important days came to mind, the Prayer of Light, also known as the prayer of the prophet Muhammed (pbuh). I hesitated to send it to him, but I went ahead and did so in support of his calling to spread the word of God. I had not shared anything Islam-related with anyone in a very long time, so was a little bit afraid of his response. He responded with gratitude and went on to say how beautiful he found Islam. He further explained that he enjoyed the Quran and recitations. His response made me cry. A Christian, a pastor, validating my beliefs as ones that are good.

It took me a few hours to respond emotionally to the message. Tonight, I have cried a lot. I remembered the scar that my friend left a year ago. That feeling of invalidation and spite towards the path that I hold dearest to my heart; that path through which has penetrated every part of my being with Light.

I am recovering from an encounter that has greatly affected the way I express myself religiously, because I am afraid to do so. Today, my pastor-friend’s message has started the healing process.

There are so many other things going through my mind. How are people able to find common ground despite their religious differences? How do we use framework of our chosen religion to better love others? How do we transcend the human limitations of our chosen religion to connect with people from all walks of life? Is that still possible in today’s world? I know it is possible and I need to hold on to this thread of hope to continue to heal emotionally and grow spiritually.

Finding Oneness

When I am praying–truly praying–I lose myself

to my Self.

I become centered.

My husband once told me that he knows when I really pray–

When I really pray, I am hypnotized. When I don’t really pray, I fidget.

He is right.

(Once, I couldn’t control my laughter while praying and kicked and giggled on my prayer rug while my husband turned red trying to control his own outburst)–

He blamed Shaytan, I blamed the towel that was slipping off his hips exposing him.

I stare blankly in the direction of the kaaba

the corner of the room that is piled with dirty laundry

(I don’t know where to begin to clean up that mess)–

I imagine the way home,

again.

I am lost,

self within Self.

Searching and seeking,

dreaming of finding–

something I am sure I once had. Or imagined I had.

Lost.

Prostrating, I relinquish myself to a world I cannot hold.

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).

Praying on Wheels

So, I had this dream last night.

I don’t remember “where” I was, but I was at some sort of house party. I knew some people who were there, though I cannot remember who they are now. All I remember is that an old friend was there. And somehow, we got separated at the party. I kept messaging him and he didn’t respond.

Strangely enough, the Islamic “call to prayer” (adhan) goes off at the party. (by the way, I think that was my cell phone adhan alarm making its way into my dream)…

I start praying in the middle of the party when I look down and notice that I am wearing a T-shirt and jeans. No proper covering for prayer. I kept praying because I had already started, but when I went down to prostrate, I couldn’t keep my balance and I fell on my face. My hands broke my fall, so I didn’t hurt my head/face.

But I kept praying….

When I tried getting up again, I couldn’t keep my balance. When I looked down at my feet, I realized that I had on a pair of roller skates. I somehow managed to stand up again and begin a second rakat (set).

Out of nowhere, my friend appears and is watching me fall while praying. And he watches me finished 4 rakats falling all over the place.

All I remember is feeling really embarrassed the entire time. And I can’t believe I never actually thought of taking off my skates to finish praying at least partially dignified!

I always like to think that my dreams are my subconscious speaking to me, and I have a strong feeling that this dream has to do with my faith right now.

I have been having trouble praying lately. I am keeping salaat, but I feel that they are empty. I feel that I am going through the motions, but without my heart. It is only when I pray in my own way that I can put my heart into it.

Last night, I shuffled through my evening prayer, and asked God “why am I here?” I guess since I’ve been feeling lonely lately, I am having a hard time finding meaning in life. Don’t get me wrong, I am not depressed/suicidal or anything.

Just bored.

It’s been hard trying to find meaning.