A Love Affair
(The above image is two of the three panels of Christina Varga's beautiful The Triptych.)
Contemplating my vocation as an Episcopal priest—and that vocation's relationship to my wider spiritual journey—I was struck recently by words a friend, The Rev. Kristin Saylor, posted on facebook:
Lately, I have been struggling mightily to integrate my Christianity and my priesthood with my growing interest in, for lack of a better term, new age healing practices like reiki and breathwork. I am terrified that church people will judge me for being too new-agey and that new-agey people will judge me for being too churchy. So I have been more silent than is typical for me about the stunning breakthroughs and unimaginable spiritual growth these practices have brought me. I was well aware that silence was an unsustainable and completely counterproductive plan, but speaking out scared the shit out of me, so I stalled.
Her words hit close to home. All of us, of course, are more than any specific roles or functions we hold down in the world—but sometimes a certain role can become so central and all-encompassing that there’s room for little else.
For those of us in positions of public ministry—representing a religious tradition to and for a community—it can feel that our explorations beyond the accepted bounds of our traditions have to be kept hidden, private. Publicly we must be bearers of the tradition—and we must not corrupt or pollute it! Well, certainly a pulpit is not the place to air your personal life or document your every spiritual whim and fancy. But I’m also beginning to realize that religious leadership can sometimes lead to unhealthy over-compartmentalization.
Most of you who know or follow me are aware of my connection to Sufism, the mystical tradition within Islam. It’s been an important part of my spiritual path and practice for eight years now, starting a few years before my ordination to the priesthood in 2012. I haven't always known how, or how openly, to talk about this, but walking a dual Christian-Sufi path has been one of the most joyful and life-giving gifts God has given me. The tension between these two traditions has often been creative, sometimes unbearable, and many times over I’ve felt the need to collapse one into the other (which one depends on the day!) and just be done with the whole thing.
It’s been clear to me that my pulpit is not the appropriate place to share this journey. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure that I could or even should share a journey like this. But the healing, understanding, and reconciliation that’s come from this work has made every bit of the confusion along the way worthwhile. And it’s become such a part of who I am that I feel I can't not share it more openly and still be honest about my spiritual journey. And so, to the backstory…
During the summer of 2003, I first began falling in love with the Episcopal Church—an earthy, ordered, beautiful expression of the Christian faith that was open to both intellect and contemplation (in many ways, the mirror image of the Pentecostalism of my childhood). I was quickly at home in the “incarnational” spirituality of Anglicanism—a path that honored nature, embodiment, and life in the world, anchored deeply in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I fell in love with the Eucharist, and was thrilled to gain access to the voices of the Christian saints and mystics bypassed by my Protestant upbringing. Confirmed in the Church in 2004, I became active in Episcopal Campus Ministry and began the discernment process for priesthood in 2006.
In 2007, I attended my first Sufi zikr; zikr is the Arabic word for “remembrance” and names a ceremony of chanting the names of God, often accompanied by dance and movement. Islam had first begun to creep into my life in high school, where it became the focus of my “senior exit project,” and later, several classes for my bachelor’s degree. But the night of that first zikr, Islam moved out of my head and into my heart. Looking back, it was a key turning point in my life. Until that moment, contemplation had looked to me like the image of the seated Buddha—silent, still, and from the neck up. My experience with contemplative practices was limited to the cooler-natured techniques of zazen and Centering Prayer. But here was fire, heart, warmth, embodiment—and a deep recognition in my soul.
As we danced in a circle, holding hands and chanting La ilaha illallah (“There is no god; only God”)—the first half of the Islamic shahada, or statement of faith—the chanting suddenly dropped simply to illallah, “only God, only God, only God”—and I looked around the faces in our circle and saw just that—only God. While Christianity talked about incarnation and embodying the Divine, this expression of Islam did it. And I knew, once again, that I was home.
In 2009 I began studies at Virginia Theological Seminary, having spent two years in discernment for priesthood. My first year in seminary, still hungry to explore Islamic mysticism, I found a local circle connected to the Mevlevi Order—the Sufi lineage that descends from the renowned mystic-poet Jalaluddin Rumi. The group shared monthly study and practice, and the shaikh, or spiritual guide of the community, Kabir Helminski, was based in California but available by phone and e-mail for guidance.
Later that year, Shaikh Kabir invited me to come to Santa Barbara for a week with the Spiritual Paths Institute—a program that brought together contemplative teachers from the major world religions. While there, I met Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest who served as the Christian faculty member. Cynthia was working to creatively renew the Christian Wisdom tradition and quickly became an ongoing mentor and encouragement (“Don’t drop out of seminary!” she told me more than once). Since then, Kabir and Cynthia have been my principle spiritual teachers, and my inner life has become an intertwining of Sufi and Christian mysticism. The fact that Cynthia herself draws many insights from Sufism has proved a helpful bridge.
The summer of 2010, while on pilgrimage to Konya, Turkey (and after much prayer and inner-wrangling), I was initiated by Kabir into the Mevlevi Order and took on daily practices from that tradition. I knew then that I was setting up a tension in my soul, but I felt guided to take it on. At the same time, Kabir made it clear that while the Mevlevi Order was a path within Islam, it was the practice of Mevlana (“Our Master”) Rumi to accept other “People of the Book”—Christians and Jews—as students. And so, with some degree of fear and trembling, I formally set foot on the Sufi path.
My path of Christian discipleship continued simultaneously, and during the summer of 2012, I was ordained to the Christian priesthood. My five years of priesthood have been spent living alongside Christian monastic community and serving parish churches that couldn’t afford a full-time priest. Shortly after ordination, Cynthia began encouraging me to lead retreats rooted in the Christian Wisdom tradition, which has made up the second half of my ministry.
And that brings me to where I am today: a parish priest, rooted in a Benedictine expression of the Christian life (Holy Cross Monastery, the community my wife and I live alongside, is a community of Anglican Benedictine monks), and a Sufi dervish, rooted in a Mevlevi expression of Islamic spirituality. How, you might ask, does this impact my religious leadership as a Christian priest? The first thing worth stating is that I’m a better priest, and a better human being, because of the practices and spiritual understanding I’ve received from Islam—simply because they've taught me how to love more.
That said, it’s clear to me that as a leader in the Christian tradition, I’m called to serve from a place centered in the Gospel. While I may pepper a sermon with wisdom from other traditions, Jesus is always at the heart of what I offer. I feel strongly that while a priest may gain insights from other spiritual traditions or practices, and while these may inform the way they present the Gospel, it must always be the Gospel they are presenting, and not something else because it has nourished them personally.
And so while my priesthood has a single center—the Gospel of Jesus Christ—my personal spiritual life draws from two deep wells: Christianity and Islam, or perhaps better, Christian mysticism and Sufism, the mystical path of Islam. As a priest, I teach the Christian path. And yet, I am more than my priesthood—I'm also a public speaker, teacher, and retreat leader. In these other areas of my life, I hope to begin sharing more about this dual journey.
I realize that it might be simpler if I spoke of “Sufism” without ever mentioning “Islam”—and indeed, many Westerners do just that, attempting to divorce Sufism from Islam entirely. But just as the Eucharist flows to me from the living heart of Jesus, so too salaat, zikr, and the entire lineage of Sufi saints flow to me from the living heart of Muhammad. I have no desire to distance myself from the beautiful roots of this wisdom, and in fact, I think it’s critical that I do not.
The Islam I've come to know and love is not the Islam of the nightly news. The beautiful Muhammad I fell in love with is not the prophet of terrorism. The sweet surrender, humility, and love I have learned from Islamic prayer, Qur’an study, and the fast of Ramadan is not a path to hatred or violence. And this is an Islam the world needs to know. Why would I want to hide the blessings I've received from it?
Over the last eight years, living into this spiritual reality, I’ve passed through quite a bit of inner struggle regarding religious identity. Does exploring Islamic practices (praying salaat, fasting for Ramadan, offering daily zikr), and feeling love and respect for Muhammad, mean that I’m a Muslim? Or that I’m not a Christian (I have an intimate relationship with Jesus, receive and/or celebrate the Eucharist daily, and guide a Christian community)? Can someone legitimately draw from two traditions? Do I need to leave one for the other?
On the surface, it certainly may seem that Christianity and Islam are in direct contradiction or violation of each other. But after years of working within both traditions, the apparent doctrinal conflicts and quandaries have, for me at least, been reconciled or dissolved—but not without intellectual effort and struggle. (Perhaps I’ll tackle some of these issues in later posts; you can find a start to this work in my article Dealing with Doctrine). More significantly, my own practice across these traditions has confirmed that their mystical teachings dovetail beautifully in the heart.
I also believe it’s important to note that if my “second tradition” was Buddhism or Hindu yoga, I’d feel much freer to discuss it (an Episcopal priest with a Zen ordination was even up for bishop a few years back). The dharma traditions have evolved, by-and-large, apart from Christianity (and, significantly, appeared before Jesus walked the planet), and so they’ve not defined themselves over or against Christian tradition. When we come to Islam, however, it’s a different story; historically, there's been much more suspicion and animosity between the two (and Islam’s emergence after Christianity has proved much more threatening)—and so to claim both creates a much greater degree of doctrinal and cognitive dissonance.
But maybe that’s exactly why we need more souls living at this intersection. Certainly the divide between Islam and Christianity today is one of the greatest wounds inflicting our collective heart. A friend of mine who lives at this same intersection, but as a lay person within the Roman Catholic Church, wears two pendants on a single chain—a cross and a “double Hu” (the Arabic pronoun of Divine Presence)—a symbol of each tradition. He says that Christianity and Islam make love there on his chest—and that sometimes they get so loud he has to shout “Keep it down!” After you’ve laughed, take note of how amazing it is for two traditions, so long divided and opposed, to make love on the ground of a single heart. This, indeed, is hope for the world.
The other day, Br. Bernard, OHC said to someone across the table at lunch, “I think Matthew’s called to be a bridge-person. But he’s resisting it.” His words struck me, and have stayed with me. The truth is, I’ve worried that the work of “bridge-people” is not respectable; they do, after all, risk being disowned by both sides. Isn’t it better to have a clear identity and then simply show respect for another tradition?
That is, publicly at least, what I’ve done. But it's taken a toll on my inner life. And the occasionally overwhelming sense that I must “choose,” I now realize, comes from the fact that part of my soul has remained hidden. Is it possible that, fully expressed, no choice may be necessary? I’m willing to try to find out. And so, I admit it: my soul is a bridge; two traditions meet and make love on the ground of my heart. And in my heart, I know this admission does not weaken or betray my Christian commitment or my love of Jesus (in fact, I have a hunch that the Holy Spirit just may have designed Christianity in such a way that interspirituality develops naturally within it).
So what, then, is my identity? The longer I walk the Christian path, the more I believe Jesus came not to propagate the identity marker “Christian” so much as he did to awaken hearts and initiate the unfolding marriage of heaven and earth that he called “the kingdom of God.” In a similar way, Muhammad came first and foremost not to establish “Islam” but islam—surrender to the Divine—and the Qur’an recognizes as “muslim” (“one surrendered to God”) people and prophets from all faith traditions. Could it be that the spiritual life has never really been about the labels?
In a sermon preached at St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem during an interfaith pilgrimage made up of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Katharine Jefferts-Schori offered these words:
The distinctions of our traditions—rote and ritual, habit and custom, theological formulations—those are guideposts, laws, and patterns that shape us for holiness [...] but those distinctions are not the fullness of our created nature. If we have the courage to look beyond those fences and guardrails, we can catch a glimpse of the Holy One already creating new possibility in our hearts. Those roads all flow from the same Source. Slow down. Rest in the truth of God's oneness. God's creation reflects its Source, and no part of it can be diminished by that oneness. Slow down. Breathe in God's creative, loving breath. Fear and suspicion cannot long survive that kind of slowing down.
With Bishop Katharine, I'm ready for the new possibility the Holy One is creating. I’m not as interested in identities and labels (although I believe they're helpful tools in building shared community and vision) as I am in the education of the heart—in cultivating soul, in growing compassion, gentleness, love, and mercy, and in learning more and more to see from interconnection and oneness. My own growth in those respects has happened by-and-large through the teachings of two spiritual lineages, two streams of practice, two great love affairs that are ultimately one. And boy, do I feel lucky for it.