As a devout Muslim woman who is founded in Islamic education, I feel pleasantly surprised when I enjoy a spiritual experience just by listening to non-Muslim faith experiences. Often, interfaith participants say that one of the benefits of interfaith dialog is a strengthening of one’s own faith. This is true for me; not only my own faith increases when I am speaking about Islam but when I hear other people describe their own spiritual experiences as well.
Last week I surge in spirituality during an event that I attended for the second year. The Multicultural Alliance’s annual Interfaith Retreat for Seminarians is a program prepared by MCA Texas to gather seminarian students and faculty from the three faith traditions, Judaism/Christianity/Islam, for four days of dialog, learning, and compassion. This year’s theme was “Tell Me a Story” where students and faculty from eleven seminaries in Texas, California, Connecticut and Maryland listened to presentations from resource scholars who shared about what telling stories meant in each of the three faith traditions.
After each presentation the group of seminarians dispersed in pre-assigned smaller groups of five to six where they spent time discussing their reflections on the topic. Through these meetings, several people expressed deep personal experiences of faith that evoked echoes of awe throughout the room. Personally, I felt visions of God and His blessings upon His creation as I listened to each story and reinforced my own faith and hope in a better future. As a Christian woman described how her daughter one day surprised her by speaking eloquently about issues of faith, I thought about my own daughter who currently does not show any interest in religious devotion and wondered: “Could she one day grow up from the seed I had planted and surprise me by an indulgence into leaps of faith?” I also listened to a another woman’s story with her husband who was not rooted in faith, yet he was the main spiritual support system in her career as a chaplain and seminarian. She and I had lengthy discussions about how our husbands have been the major tools that God used in order to facilitate our religious missions by making them generate energy, power, and aspiration into our spirits.
Some insightful talks inspired me as a guide of how I may react if put in a similar situation in the future, of how to deal with calamity and life’s trials, or of how to deal with any kind of loss. The young Rabbi’s story of how he was hit by a truck four months before his wedding and how he meanwhile spent his time with pain and temporary disability while tending to an herb indoor garden was mesmerizing. Each one of us has at some point faced hardship and struggled with putting things on hold until one was able to get oneself together. The Rabbi’s experience is a reminder that sometimes you cannot wait for the storm to pass but you need to learn how to dance in the rain. Pain and loss are parts of life but life doesn’t stop at their doorsteps. A Christian woman who lost her husband recently was another example of how life must go on because the Giver of this life is alive. She is attending her first seminary semester and looks forward in a pastoral future despite her severe personal loss. These are examples that I personally value when I wake up every morning from now on, whether the morning is shiny or gloomy.
I shared personal stories and experiences of hope, love and peace that I felt God bestowed upon me during my journey in religious studies. I was surprised that my stories touched the hearts of the Jewish and Christian participants who found them inspiring. I received a lot of confirmation and thumbs up, encouraging me to keep going forward. All this came from people who were total strangers but who in four days became very close. So close that I realized that what they gave me could not have been given by many people who exist in my personal life and shared my Muslim faith. They gave me the spiritual and intellectual support that only people who study religion know about. Living in a secular world with a strong faith is not always easy. People don’t understand why I am keeping up with religious dietary restrictions or prayer or practices. Friends wonder why I seem so distant and unwilling to sacrifice my study time to keep a high profiled social lifestyle. Some family members complain that I don’t spend enough time with them or that I don’t give them enough attention…
Interfaith dialogs are like a savings account: the more you put in them the more you will end up with. And if you sincerely bring God to these conversations you will discover God in new ways. Very few people realize this theology of interfaith but for those of us who know it we can’t live without it. It is our support system. This seminarian retreat has become my spiritual treat and refuge thanks to my Jewish, Christian and Muslim interlocutors who gift me with finding God by listening to their stories.