Several Saturdays ago some friends and I went to a retreat center in my town called Wisdom House. It belongs to the Daughters of Wisdom and was once a thriving community of Catholic sisters. Now it is an interfaith retreat and conference center which offers courses in a variety of spiritual paths.
They have a labyrinth on their beautiful fifty-plus acres and I go up and walk it fairly often—it somehow quiets the mind and opens the heart.
Now the labyrinth is covered with snow but we were there to open our hearts in another way. We were taking a course on an Introduction to Islam taught by Sohaib N. Sultan, a Muslim Chaplain and a contributing writer for the www.onedialog.com website.
Living most of my life on Long Island I was raised in the “Catholic, Protestant, Jewish” melting pot of east coast middle America. I was considered radical when I took up Theravadan Buddhism in the 70's. When I traveled in India (a trip of a lifetime in May 2006), I visited my first Mosque but I really only knew a smattering about the religion.
Here was a chance to learn. The course covered a lot in a short six hours—including history, theology, ethics, and spirituality of the world’s second largest religion. Sohaib was a wonderful teacher. He took the twenty of us on a spiritual journey into a strange yet familiar land. (Islam is one of the Abrahamic religions; it shares similarities with Judaism and Christianity.)
Sohaib’s story about making his Hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslim's once in their lifetime. I do not pretend to know any more about it than Sohaib's personal story and admit my interpretation of that story comes through my own filters.
He said that while making the pilgrimage there is a prohibition against anger, even against annoyance, when you walk between the mountains as Muhammad did on his journey nearly 1400 years ago. If someone steps on your foot and you feel angry and want to step on his—you have lost your pilgrimage. If you kill a mosquito in anger, you have lost your pilgrimage. So here you have to walk most of the day with millions of other pilgrims (approximately 2 million people made the trek in 2007—which has caused its own problems) in the hot sun and keep your focus on turning your will over to Allah. No easy task.
I could only think of my days at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts in the seventies when I spent two weeks in total silence learning the Theravadan Buddhist practice of Vipassana meditation. The center was in an old monastery that previously housed Benedictine brothers.
At the beginning of the course we were asked to embrace the five precepts (codes of conduct) which included “To refrain from harming any living, sentient beings — not to kill or intentionally hurt any person or creature, even an insect.” And I had arrived at the mosquito capital of the world “in season.”
I lost my meditataion retreat at least twice a day. I blamed it on the mosquito. I blamed it on being there in June. Others blamed it on the food, or their meditation cushions and some even blamed it on the stained glass window of Jesus and Mary in the anteroom to the meditation hall. They pointed out the offending window and the staff covered it with a black cloth closing off the cheerful colored light that filtered through the window in the early morning. When others complained about the offending black cloth, it was taken down and another cloth was hung down the center of the anteroom so that you could choose to enter the hall on one side or another—seeing the window or not. How easy it was to divide people—even people who had come seeking peace.
My good friend, Tai Chi Teacher and Zen master (although he would deny the honorific title, I present it to him anyway), Roger Sencer, once told me—when I was struggling with focus in my meditation practice—that it didn’t matter what I thought the problem was, in the end it was me struggling against myself.
All in all, it seems to me we are more alike than we are different. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether we are walking to Mecca, sitting on meditation cushions, or kneeling in church. Maybe is it in the reaching out for something larger than ourselves, something that holds a greater meaning, something that will bring us peace—maybe that will bring us together and let us keep our pilgrimage.
“Man need only divert his attention from searching for the solution to external questions and pose the one, true inner question of how he should lead his life, and all the external questions will be resolved in the best possible way.”