A friend of mine who is a Muslim has just returned from a pilgrimage. I spoke to him on the phone the day after he returned, to find that his journey had made a profound impact on him. A hard working professional man he sometimes has a tendency to over work, despite my constant reminders that work is a means to an end and that “real life” should always come first. He is close to the top of his profession, yet he is always striving to prove himself, although he has nothing to prove to his peers – because he has done it all.
The man I spoke to on the phone on Monday was changed. He has absorbed a new found wisdom, a calmness and a clear spiritual perspective. It is quite some time since I have been on a spiritual retreat, but I too recall the sudden clarity that can be achieved by taking time out to frame ones own life against the bigger context of a faith – a time when we acknowledge God as being more important than anything else. And when we do that, it can be life changing. However, by the very nature of our flawed humanity we will slip up in our improved behaviours, our more enlightened perspectives, and drop back into old insecurities and bad habits; until the next pilgrimage or retreat, or the next temple or church sermon that really strikes a chord in our hearts.
Pilgrimages and retreats can often lead to reflection on the nature of our maker. But that reflection can occur at any time – my friend and I have regular conversations about the differences and similarities between our faiths (I am a Christian) and the nature of God. We rarely disagree, with each other, rather we say “my faith believes this”. More often than not we will both take an interest in the different theological interpretations behind a specific belief. We have discussed how history and scriptural interpretations portray key figures differently; Jesus, Abraham, Mohammed and so on. We have explored the evidence of a common ancestry through great religious figures such as Moses. Invariably, a fact or belief, will be revealed by one of us that opens our minds up to why one faith believes one thing and the other faith something else. Neither has ever felt that the other person is wrong; we are both too respectful of each others beliefs to be that patronising. Yet I recall a talk I heard from Ann Graham Lotz, the daughter of the evangelist preacher Billy Graham, some years ago in which she said that her Christian faith was so strong that she had to believe that “Muslims were wrong”; the only basis she had for that was that she believed her faith was right, she offered no real theology, no multi faith perspective, and no shared biblical ancestry. I knew from my own bible studies that I believed that Jesus is Lord, and the way to salvation is through Him resurrected. I still believe that. But do Christians have a monopoly over the truth? Does any one faith have a monopoly over the truth? Can there only be one truth or many? Are there more versions of the same great truth than our simple human minds can comprehend? Theologians and scholars with much greater wisdom and learnedness than I have debated this for centuries, but there are no evidenced based answers. So if I believe that my truth is right, why and how could my friends pilgrimage have such a profound effect on him and his truth be wrong?
I had a dream only the other night, I won’t presume to call it a vision as that sounds way too grand, but it was a dream of some clarity, and really that’s the reason I chose to write a post on this particular topic. It was a pretty simple scene, myself and a group of other men and women of different faiths were gathered in heaven, sharing a meal around a large table in a room that I can only describe as “cloud like”. We were joined by God himself. In a moment he stopped our chatter as we debated the nature of Him. He spoke and said “None of you got it one hundred per cent right, and none of you got it one hundred per cent wrong, this..”, he swept his hand in front of him to reveal a scene of interwoven moving images that all at once unraveled the complexity of what we believed were our truths into something beautifully simple…”is how it was, is and always shall be”. We all looked at each other and laughed, cried, and embraced – and then we danced . The music was “The Only Way Is Up” by Yazz – probably because I had listened to it earlier in day, but it seemed to fit the occasion, particularly these words:
‘….things may be a little hard now
but we’ll find a brighter day…
..The only way is up, baby
For you and me, baby
The only way is up
For you and me’
You might like to listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtSTqGiZnMg
My interpretation of my dream is that, just as we know God by many names; Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah, and so on, so perhaps we know the same truth in different ways and by different names. And that truth is partly revealed to us each time we open our hearts and minds to listening to Him, through pilgrimage, prayer or worship. One day we will know.