Peace, one and all…
I was asked to give a short reflection at St Michaels Theological College yesterday. And so, here is the text of that reflection. Anything in it that is right and true comes from God. Anything that is wrong comes from my own shortcomings.
May God make it beneficial in some way, and may He make it solely for His sake.
‘Did I Come to Unite, or Did I Come to Sever?’ Some Reflections on Chaplaincy
The aim of this brief paper is to offer a few reflections on the practice of chaplaincy, in a broadly multi-faith context. I have cast these reflections into a form resembling the basic structure of a traditional jumu’ah khutba (or Friday prayer sermon). The aim here was simply to present this information in a broadly traditional format. Also, as you will notice, there are some areas of confessional belief. I have presented them in the traditional manner, without significant alteration.
Whatever I have said or written that is right and true comes from God, the Sustainer of All Being. Whatever is wrong, misunderstood and confused comes from me and the shortcomings of my own soul.
And God knows better
Al salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
May the peace, mercy and blessings of God be with you all.
Indeed, all praise is due to God. We praise Him, we seek His aid and His forgiveness. We believe in Him and rely upon His grace. We seek refuge in Him from the evil of our selves and from the evil results of our own actions.
I testify that none has the right to be worshipped except God alone, having no partners, and I testify that Muhammad is His chosen Servant and Messenger .
To proceed …
I would like to being this short early evening reflection by quoting from the opening section of the Masnavi-yi Ma’navi of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (may God sanctify his soul). As many may perhaps know, Mevlana Rumi was an important Sufi master of the 13th century, in what is now Turkey. The Masnavi, his most famous work, could be described as a vast commentary on the Quran, cast into verse form. Indeed, it is often referred to within the Islamic tradition as ‘the Quran in the Persian tongue’.
Mevlana Rumi (whom I shall henceforth refer to simply as Mevlana – literally ‘our master’) was the ultimate founder of the Mevlevi Sufi order, more popularly known to the world as the ‘whirling dervishes’. It may perhaps surprise many to know that Mevlana is today one of the most popular poets in the West (and in America in particular): indeed, selections from his writings now often outsell other better known western poets.
At any rate, I am digressing somewhat. The Masnavi begins in the following manner:
‘Listen to the reed,
How it tells a tale
Complaining of separation:
Ever since I was parted
From the reed-bed,
My lament has made
Men and women weep.
I search for a heart
Smitten by separation
That I may tell the pain
Everyone who has got far from his source
Harks back for the time
When he was one with it’
(Masnavi Book I.ii.1-4)
In haunting, evocative terms Mevlana speaks of the essential fact of our existence as believing Christians and Muslims: separation from our divine source, from God. On the one hand, this separation is a cause for sorrow because we are separated from what is ultimately most precious to us. On the other hand, this very separation has given rise to beauty. Our very separation is, in a sense, what has brought the world into existence. It has also given our longings for God a beautifully poignant quality. We long to return to the God Who gave us life, and from Whom we came and yet, our very journeying forth from that radiant centre has brought great beauty into being.
Mevlana goes on to talk of his attempts to find others to whom he can speak of these longings. He refers to his ongoing search for other hearts who might speak and thus reflect, this life of separation and longing for reunion: ‘I search for a heart smitten by separation that I may tell the pain of love-desire’, as he so evocatively puts it. Searching for God and searching for the right words to express this desire, or this experience, are key themes throughout the Masnavi.
This search, for meaning and conversation, seems to me to be an absolutely fundamental aspect of chaplaincy. If I have learnt anything during my involvement in pastoral care it is simply this: real conversations can only emerge where there is real trust, and trust can only be built upon the solid foundation of respect. Thus, it is necessary to let others speak their owns truths, in their own terms, in their own words. I have learnt, through bitter experience, of the dangers of trying (whether consciously or unconsciously) to impose my own thoughts and notions, my own definitions on the lives and experiences of others. It strikes me that the all too common urge to place limitations and definitions upon others lies beneath many of our human prejudices – such as racism, sexism and particularly for us as chaplains, religious differences. If we, as chaplains to those within and beyond our respective traditions, are to help others ground themselves in relationships with others and with God, we must first let them speak. That is, we must offer them the space in which they can do that freely and openly.
I find this idea reflected within my own tradition of Islam in the Muslim name I chose to adopt when I became a Muslim some 10 years ago (not that name changes are compulsory – mine is purely aspirational): Abd al-Rahman. Literally, this means ‘servant of the All-Merciful’. For me, it means this: to be a true servant of God, I must honour the truth wherever it is found: I must honour it as it is seen through another’s eyes; I must honour it as it is expressed through another’s thoughts, ideas and feelings.
This does not mean that we must accept or agree with all that others say. Rather, it means that we must strive always to allow others the space to speak for and as themselves. This is no easy task. Indeed, it is a struggle and one I freely admit to myself. But, it seems to me that the quest for true service to God was never going to be an easy one.
In other words, to be a chaplain (and to be an authentic human being) we must realise the limits of our own understandings, just as we strive to honour the understandings of others. That is, we need to walk upon the earth with humility; after all, for my own part, in all truth, it is God Who guides, not me. Although there are many verses to this effect in the Quran, I wanted to offer this one in support of this idea:
’It is not required of thee (O Messenger), to set them on the right path, but Allah sets on the right path whom He pleases’ (2:272)
I would like to offer another quote from the Masnavi. It is a much longer quote, cast into the form of a story. In this story, the Prophet Musa/Moses (alaihi al-salam) encounters someone speaking to God in the course of his travels. I have chosen it because it speaks directly to some of the themes I have tried to briefly explore. The immediate setting of this story is a desert.
‘On the way Moses saw a shepherd
Saying: O God who chooses,
Where are You
That I may serve You?
That I may mend Your shoes
And comb Your head.
That I may wash Your clothes
And kill the lice on You
And serve You milk,
O revered One!
That I may kiss Your hand
And massage Your little foot.
And come night-time,
Sweep Your sleeping-place.
All my goats to You.
In Your remembrance
Are all my cries and sighs.
In this way the shepherd talked
Moses said: For Whom is this meant, fellow?
He said: He who made us. He due to whom
This earth and sky came into our view.
Moses said: You have backslided,
It is not a Muslim you have come to be
But an infidel.
What idle chatter is this?
Stuff your mouth!
The smell of your blasphemy
Has made the world stink.
It has torn the robe of faith.
Shoes and stockings are good for you.
How can they be right for the Sun?
If you don’t stop these words in your throat
A fire will come to scorch the land.
If there is no fire here,
What then is this smoke?
Why has your soul gone black?
Why are you spurned?
If God knows all, why
This doting talk and familiarity?
A fool’s friendship is enmity:
The great Lord is not in need of this prayer.
To whom do you say this –
Your uncle, you think?
Are body and its needs attributes of the Glorious One?
Only he who is growing drinks milk.
He who needs feet is the one
Who puts on shoes.
Hand and foot are fitting to us –
To the Holy God, a blemish
He did not beget nor was He begotten –
This is for Him. He is the Creator
Of begetter and begotten.
Birth belongs to whatever has a body,
Whatever is born on this side of the river,
It is of the becoming and the decaying and the despicable.
The shepherd said: O Moses, you have shut my mouth
And with remorse scorched my soul.
He tore his clothes and heaved a sigh,
Turned to the desert
And went his way.
There was a revelation from God to Moses.
You have parted my servant from Me.
Did you come to unite, or did you come to sever?
Step not into severance, so far as you can.
Of all the things the most loathsome to me is divorce.
To each I have given a way of acting,
To each a way of speaking.
To him it is a praise: to you a fault.
To him it is honey: to you poison.
I care not for purity or pollution,
Dullness or cleverness.
Among Hindus, the idiom of Hind is right;
Among Sindhis, the idiom of Sindh is right.
I am not made holy by their praise.
It is they who turn pure and pearl-scattering.
I look not to tongue and speech
Rather to the inward state.
I look into the heart, whether it is humble,
No matter if the words be un-humble.
For the heart is the essence; speech an accident.
Well then, the accident is secondary,
The essence is the point’
Thus, the question I must ask myself as a Muslim Chaplain, indeed as a human being, is simply this one: ‘Did I come to unite, or did I come to sever?’
And my last prayer is in praise of God, the Sustainer of All Being.