[First published on May 9, 2010]
Sometime in 2000, when I was new to the experience of meeting people of other faiths and getting to know them as friends, I invited a small group of Vajrayana Buddhist monks and some Catholic, Muslim and Hindu friends to my home for a simple get-together. I was eager to share with them (especially the monks!) my “sacred sanctuary” in the attic where, in my half-asleep state, I would bring myself to visit at the crack of dawn everyday for prayer and meditation.
I called that corner in my attic Little Tibet for I had deep purple and magenta meditation pillows on the floor before an altar that I lit with tea-lights in multicolored glass holders. I filled my sacred sanctuary with the scent of burning incense, giving it a mystical feel–the way I imagined Tibet would be–and settled in the comfort of silence that nestled deep in the heart of my Christian faith.
In the fading darkness of dawn or the dimming light of dusk the flickering tea-lights would cast an ethereal glow on the huge portrait of Jesus Christ that I hung on the wall. It figured largely at the center of the altar, and Christ would gaze at me with eyes that seemed to pierce through my soul and, as I fixed my gaze back, magic would happen: the collection of various sized crucifixes on the wall, the symbolic images of the Trinity, the pink and alabaster statuette of the Mother and Child, and the fine stone carving of the image of St. Francis of Assisi decorating the mosaic tapestry on my altar table would melt into the backdrop of fading darkness. I would awaken my spirit to the sound of the Tibetan singing bowl; there was something about the sound echoing in the stillness that struck a chord deep within me, and I would snuggle well into the embrace of peace that would rise to greet me.
I took my friends of different faiths there one day ten years ago, along with Lama Kunsang and his company of saffron robed Buddhist monks. They chanted a mantra while the others stood respectfully by partaking in silence or waiting to share a blessing from their own faith traditions. The solemn ritual, though brief, was special and deeply meaningful to me. It marked another milestone in my spiritual journey, although its significance was to unfold before me only in the years that followed.
On our way down from the attic, Ali, my Muslim brother, teased me about the “man in the picture” whom he initially thought was my “husband.” I understood where he was coming from and smiled back. But what struck me most was the expression on the face of Bro. Paulin Batairwa, a Xavierian Missionary from Congo. He kept looking at me with an odd expression on his face. He seemed to have difficulty expressing what he felt when I asked, and then only managed to muster a few words. He said, “It was an unveiling, Marites…”
I did not understand, so I asked Paulin what he meant. He explained by saying that it was as though he was seeing a woman take off her veil for the first time in front of his very eyes, and it was fascinating. He said that although he knew that I was Catholic (like him), being in my prayer sanctuary made him see me in the light of my Christian faith as though for the first time, and what he saw was startling, he said.
That struck me, and I wondered how other Catholics perceived me and my interfaith dialogue endeavors. Somehow I sensed some reluctance in them whenever I asked for help, or when I sent out invitations to them to participate in one interfaith activity or another. Perhaps my engagement with people of different faiths made my own faith seem suspect? Perhaps I came across to them as a marginal Catholic Christian, flaky, or “new age-y”?
While I understand the apprehension, I am saddened by it. Truly, building relationships with people of other faiths can be daunting! But if one engages in it out of love, then what is there to fear? Fear and love are two opposing forces that cannot co-exist at the same time and in the same space, I believe. Fear contracts, and love expands. Fear–of losing control of one’s life, or of death (in any form!)–dwells in the mind, and it arises when something does not make sense, when something does not subscribe to logic and reason and is therefore hidden in the darkness of the unknown. But fear cannot survive in the endeavor of interfaith dialogue and relationship-building because, if the endeavor is true and sincere, then it is love made manifest in action!
Love is at the heart of the Christian faith, and “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). In this light, loving truly as Christ loves calls for what my Muslim friends would call jihad al-nafs, my favorite Arabic term which means “struggle with the enemy within one’s self.” I realize that this “enemy” within us is fear. It plagues our human condition and debilitates our spirit so that we are unable to go beyond the boundaries of tolerance and see and appreciate the richness the “other” brings to our shared existence on Earth. If our faith is strong, how can fear prevail and get in the way of our love?
In 1998, when I was first humbled by the realization that not everyone I met was Catholic, I was struck by something that did not make sense, and I grew restless inside. It was the thought of people of faith fighting each other in the name of God. In my restlessness I began to reflect on the meaning of my faith, and asked myself: Who is Christ for me? What does it mean to be Christian today? What am I called to do?