Archive for February, 2020

Waves of Mercy (Radical Love Journal #1)

This year I committed to several Lenten practices. Two were fasts, and two were acts of worship. The fasts are from tea and jewelry, the latter of which I’ve revisited several times.

The first of the two acts of worship is a nightly recitation of al-Fatiha, the first surah (chapter) of the Qur’an. This passage, labeled by some scholars as “the entirely of the Qur’an in one chapter,” is a prayer my Sufi friends say without effort. I hope to memorize it by the time Lent is over so I can say with them. I will expand upon it in a moment.

Omid Safi
Source: Twitter

The second act of worship is this journal, containing my reflections on Omid Safi’s brilliant book, Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition, a collection of translated poetry, hadith, prayers, and Qur’an passages. I was most privileged to meet Omid a year or two ago at his launch of this book, and was so taken by his playful, gentle demeanour and quick sense of humour.

Ash Wednesday evening, I cracked the book and got to work.

It says a lot about Omid-jan that I was already scribbling quotations just from his introduction!

“The very mystery of existence is explained through divine love in a first person saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad:

I was a Hidden treasure

and I loved to be intimately known

so I created the heavens and the earth

that you may know Me

Intimately.

Here love is spoken of not as an emotion, not as a feeling or sentiment… Rather, love is seen as nothing but short of the very unleashing of God onto this realm of being. It is through love that God brings the cosmos into being, it is through love that we are sustained, it is by merging with the cosmic current of love that we are led back home.”                        p. xxiii

Can we stop and contemplate how amazing it is that God, Source of Creation, should want to be known intimately by something so small, fragile, impermanent, and often disappointing? The Abrahamic religions say that God created angels that worship endlessly, but that was not enough. God then created the universe, the planet, plants and animals and oceans and mountains, but that was not enough as well, for in their very DNA, they follow the will of God. They live the lives they’ve been given without much questioning.

No, God wanted to make a creature that could choose, despite all things, to love. God wanted something which could choose love and fidelity and devotion, with varying degrees of success. And indeed God made us like Godself, for while we do not always act our best when we are in groups, it is in groups, alongside each other, that humankind truly succeeds.

We do better together, just as God does alongside creation. If you are a Christian, you would add, just as God does in the One Undivided Trinity, the Three which moves as and is fully One.

Omid-jan goes on, leaning into this beautiful desire:

“God doesn’t want to be known discursively, merely rationally in the cool and distant intellect. God wants to be tasted and known in our bones. God is whispering to humanity, “I yearn to be tasted.””          p. xxiv-xxv

God did not want to be known merely by stars, planets, and their dust. God wants to be known in the breathing of trees, in the feathers of birds, in the salt of the ocean filling a fish’s body – but God takes an absolute and utter delight in being known not merely through taste, but being shared.

Who among us would not want our presence, our love, to be so joyfully shared by our friends? Who among us is not buoyed up by praise and excitement at our arrival?

In the Eucharist, this concept comes alive in a totally new way. It is not merely that we accept the soft warm bread of the Body, or the fiery beauty of the wine. We not only physically share these material things with one another, but we share the experience with one another, with our words and our bodies. We do this through Eucharist and in daily life.

This contradicts so effortlessly the notion of God as a thunder-browed tyrant, or a domineering parent, or an avenging spirit of justified rage. We’ll underline it more by coming back to the al-Fatiha.

Omid-jan’s translation runs as follows:

“We begin in the Name of God

Everlasting Mercy, Infinite Compassion

Praise be to God

Loving Lord of all the worlds

Everlasting Mercy

Infinite Compassion” (p. 6)

Take a moment to note the holy symmetry! Following the beautiful, almost erotic murmurs of Bismillāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm, we have this verse, al-ḥamdu lillāhi rabbi l-‘ālamīn. And then what follows?

Again, the prophet insists: ar raḥmāni r-raḥīm.

“Lord of all the worlds,” the title which might give some of us pause, which would normally assert hierarchy and domination, is held within the loving arms of ar raḥmāni r-raḥīm, “the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

It is only within a literal womb of compassion that true lordship, true sovereignty, is known. It is within the gentle perichoretic dance of Three living fully as One that true leadership is modeled.

Here Allah can be said unequivocally to be the birth-giver of mercy.

It is mercy that I must therefore pursue this season. Omid-jan translates the following from the Hadith Qudsi, a collection of holy sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad:

“Adorn yourself with divine qualities.” (p. 33)

How appropriate that I’ve put off my jewelry for a time in honour of these far more precious adornments! But how should I proceed?

Again, from the Hadith Qudsi:

“Indeed My mercy comes before, goes after, and takes over My wrath.” (p. 20)

When I read this, I imagine a great wave. Wrath is drowned in mercy, even in these days of environmental degradation, widespread abuse, sexism, racism, homophobia, white supremacy, terror attacks, and capitalist greed. We who hold power must allow ourselves to be overtaken by the wave – not to accept or bless these behaviours, but to understand that they come from broken beings who need to be shown the right way to live by the ones they would be more likely to trust and listen to.

If I allow myself to be caught up God’s mercy, to ride that wave – hopefully howling with laughter at its capriciousness and inability to be controlled by a creature as tiny as me – I allow myself to become like God.

For yet again, we read in the Hadith Qudsi:

“My Heaven cannot contain Me,

neither can My Earth

But the heart of my faithful devotee

suffices Me (p.25)

Thanks for reading! Updates to the Radical Love Journal will be on Fridays.

Fasting from Self-Hatred (Letters from the Coast)

Instead of fat jokes during the homily or bulletin announcements for the parish weight loss program, can we grieve the fact that Lent is a great time for an eating disorder to parade as a spiritual discipline?

“Why Lent can be a dangerous time when you’re recovering from an eating disorder,” Amanda Martinez Beck, www.americanmagazine.org, February 25th 2020.

CW: Body shame

I sat in my therapist’s office, hands clasped tight, refusing to look at her. There’s so often a point in the session where I can no longer meet her kind brown eyes.

“I need to tell you,” she said in her endlessly gentle voice, “that in over a decade of doing this work, every woman who has sat where you’re sitting – every single one – has said that she’s unhappy with her body. I need you to know that. It’s not just you.”

I do remember having a lightning bolt moment when I first got onto Facebook and started posting – and then looking through – old photographs of myself.

My eyes widened as I explored my shape, my angles, my curves. I was…hot!

Of course what I really meant was that I was thin. Or at least, thinner than I was now.

And as I stared, I felt profoundly cheated.

It wasn’t that I had always thought I was gross-looking, although I often did think that. But back then, when my friends and I would go swimming before bedtime at the UVic pool five days a week, I was in probably the best shape of my life, and still I would stand before the mirror and suck my stomach in and think, “Oh, if only I could just lose five or ten more pounds.”

I realized right then and there that I had never been happy with how I looked.

My mother, who I love so much it hurts, did not help. She struggled with her weight all my life and imparted that body anxiety to me, along with the turning to food as a comfort, and the lack of solid cooking skills. Although I always had enough to eat and never went hungry, I can see now that we didn’t eat the healthiest diet, and that might have had to do with the fact that the frozen chicken pot pies that I utterly loathed and the macaroni and cheese that Mum would fix on the stovetop (never Kraft Dinner, just plain macaroni with grated cheese on top) were not expensive, and about the amount of work Mum was capable of committing to after a 6am-6pm workday.

Mum also tried plenty of fad diets and fad exercise programs. She did a step class at her work. She did Pilates. She went running in the morning. She tried an absolutely bizarre diet when I was about 16 that involved eating certain foods in combination on a fixed schedule. There were a lot of plain hot dogs and canned tuna and toast. One day she ate a bad can and spent the night being loudly sick in the bathroom while I was trying to talk to my girlfriend on the phone. 

She also did Weight Watchers, and lost a significant amount of weight. I didn’t follow the program itself, but I did eat what she ate and lost quite a bit of weight myself. My heart breaks a little thinking about 16-year-old Clare so proud to have lost weight without even following the program itself, 16-year-old Clare who was, despite not giving the program any money, on fucking Weight Watchers.

I gained a little bit back in college but got into truly great shape after all of that swimming. Then I went to the UK and stopped exercising, as well as started eating like crap. I never really did particularly well at eating healthy after that, and I gained a significant amount of weight, about fifty to seventy pounds.

I cycled back and forth between sticking to an exercise regimen and having it fall apart. When I’m stressed out, I eat, and I cocoon myself. I just want to sit for hours and make things, or read. 2007 and onward was a new era of stress and anxiety. No wonder.

In university, I remember embarking on Lenten fasts for no particular reason. I wasn’t Christian then, but friends and I would do it anyway, because it was a good excuse to give up the things we “knew we shouldn’t eat,” like chocolate or pop.

Once I came back to church I resumed some Lenten fasting, including two years where I went vegetarian. But almost none of the food-based ones spoke to me much. And I think it was because, finally, after all these years, I realized that my relationship to God was not supposed to mirror the nasty, judgmental relationship I had with my body.

I am still trying to find myself, physically. I am still trying to love “the soft animal” of my body.

Lent is about fasting, but fasting is not about stripping the skin off our bones and offer the quivering mass to God. The season of Christmas and Epiphany is an important corrective: the body has been made holy by God’s having walked around within one.

It is a new fast we are called to, a fast from injustice, from self-hatred, from anxiety and fear.

My prayer is that you may find some love within yourself for the beautiful, fragile thing God has given you to walk around inside. Don’t punish it – it’s only trying to live, and in so many ways, it’s smarter than you.

It knows so much more than we give it credit for, if we would only listen.

And unlike my brain, which is endlessly arrogant, my body knows we need each other to live.

Ashes and All (Lenten Music Reflection #1)

This year I decided to forego my traditional offering of a new Lenten album, but it seemed weird to leave folks without any musical resource at all. So I thought it made sense to share pieces from the albums I’ve already put out, as some may not have had a chance to hear them!

Tracks will drop Wednesdays, accompanied by a short reflection. If you’d like to know the deeper meaning behind the compositions, just visit my Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/clarityharp to see full track descriptions.

The first track, shared in honour of Ash Wednesday, is called “Ashes and All.” On this day, which can often feel a bit heavy and gloomy, we are called not only to remember our frailty and the weight of our sin, but God’s deep, deep love for us, in all of our impermanence and imperfection. Everything that makes us who we are is held lovingly in the palm of God’s hand, who wouldn’t have us any other way.

The Easy Ones (Letters from the Coast)

You can’t just love the easy ones

You can’t just love the easy ones

You gotta let ‘em in when you’d rather just run

You can’t just love the easy ones

Glenn Phillips, “The Easy Ones”



There’s a parishioner in one of my communities who is… difficult to handle. They have the worst emotional regulation I’ve ever seen, and no understanding of social cues to speak of. They are needy and clingy and must be the centre of every conversation.
We’re not saints for allowing this person to find a home with our parish. No one would be.
Because everyone deserves a home in God’s family. Providing it just means we’re doing the bare minimum.


You can’t just play the simple songs

You can’t just play the simple songs

You gotta knuckle down ‘til your fingers are raw

You can’t just play the simple songs

Ibid.


My father, who, before I was born, used to shut himself in the bathroom for hours to practice a beautiful arrangement of “Greensleeves,” shared his talents with me in the most frustrating way – or at least it was frustrating when I was a child.


“Daddy, will you teach me to play guitar?”
He gave me an old guitar of his, and a book of chords. “Learn these.”
The damn thing sat in my closet for a year.

 
“Daddy, will you teach me to whittle?”
He took me to Canadian Tire and bought me a good knife. Then we gathered sticks.
He put them in my hands. “Hack away at it until it looks like something.”
I got a fat blister between my index finger and thumb and gave up. The end of the branch looked vaguely like a snake’s head…if you squinted and had a forgiving heart.

But how can I fault him when eventually I learned that this dogged determination was exactly what it took to get good at Celtic harp, or make sculptures from twigs and stones and old guitar strings, or knit a blanket for a friend’s baby?


When I can face the ones I fear

It’ll all become clear

Oh, when I embrace the ones I fear

It’ll all become clear

Ibid.



Dad was sometimes judgemental and made fun of people, although never to their faces. He had a dry sense of humour and could be endlessly critical. But when I think of what he and my mother taught me, it’s love and acceptance. My dad even gave me a gentle lecture on cultural appropriation in the late 90s – not because he knew what that was, or why it was important for any reason other than it might hurt people when we try to mess with languages and cultures we don’t understand.
He also taught me to be humble, and to listen deeply. He would let me talk about my day until the silence spun out, but I knew he wasn’t just tuned out. He was listening.


You can’t just walk the shortest road

You can’t just walk the shortest road

You gotta straighten your back ‘neath the heaviest load

You can’t just walk the shortest road

Ibid.


My father’s mother Phyllis left my grandfather when their three children were little. She went home to Ontario – a gay woman in 1956 desperate and weary and struggling with alcoholism. After Dad died, Phyllis’s sister Betty told me that when Phyllis arrived at her place in Ottawa, Betty had made her phone my grandfather back in Princeton and promise Dad she would go home.

Dad was seven years old.

“He went to the Princeton bus depot every day for a while to wait for her,” Betty said sadly. “But she never came back.”

My grandfather eventually remarried. That woman, Nora, who ran the very same Princeton bus depot and let my dad empty the Coke machines in exchange for a piece of pie, became the person he would always see as his mother, and the person I knew as my grandmother.
When she began to succumb to dementia, he moved her into his house and cared for her with my stepmother’s help.
She died there.
I didn’t even know she wasn’t related to me until I was 21.

My dad had never mentioned it, and indeed he never did. My mother told me.



My dad walked with the burden of abandonment for over fifty years. He was the oldest of the three children, and the only one who came out kinder. His sister and I are estranged because she is a vicious and deeply manipulative Fundamentalist Christian. I’ve never even met Dad’s brother, who suffered not only from this trauma but a childhood injury that had him struggle with addiction for years. I don’t even know where he is.
My dad’s back was always straight, and he was deeply loved by his chosen community. He did all right for himself, but he still didn’t make it past 70.
One day the load gets too heavy.
We don’t get to choose when, and it can bring us down no matter how many people are around us to help carry it.


For all the suffering souls beside me

I pray love will guide me

I pray love will guide me home

Ibid.


My father taught me how to be an open ocean for hearts to sail upon.


He taught me that music gives everyone a voice. Later in life, he finally started to write his own music after years of telling me he couldn’t. He also spent hundreds of dollars of his own money to refurbish old guitars he found in thrift shops and second hand stores and give them away to people who wanted to learn to play. It was worth helping people find their own voices.


He taught me the self had to be slowly whittled with great care, and that the knife is painful, but it’s worth enduring, because what emerges from that work is something entirely new and beautiful.


He taught me we couldn’t just love the easy ones.

Dad and me at Gelato Carina, Squamish, 2009

When anger gives life (Letters from the Coast)

I just wanted it to stop.

The kid, a boy from a large and troubled family, had been harassing me since day 1 of grade 7. I don’t remember the content of his taunts specifically, only that they were annoying and relentless.

In my classroom, he had been talking at me nonstop for what felt like hours. What really galled me was that it wasn’t in whispers. It was quite audible, but my teacher ignored it, like she ignored most of the things that happened in class. This was nothing new. I had never received any helpful advice from adults, who told me to “just ignore it,” who belittled me for being a baby or a tattletale or “too sensitive.”

It didn’t occur to me until I was an adult that the whole notion of “tattletales” is deeply abusive and fucked up. There was no nuance to it when I was a kid, no sense of the term referring to kids who report on others to garner favour. In my experience, it was only ever used to shame kids who spoke out about being bullied.

How long could I possibly ignore it? This was only one incident in a series of constant bullying for my entire childhood.

I realized in that moment that no-one was going to stick up for me.

So finally I shouted, “Can you just shut up for once?!”

The kid was shocked for just a minute, and then continued on, this time with help from some of his friends.

And, of course, the teacher scolded me for talking.

I couldn’t take it. The chatter was so constant I felt like I was going crazy.

I ran out of the room in tears.

For the rest of that year and two of the following, one of the kid’s friends, the one I grew to despise the most, called me “Crazy Clare.”

Adult authorities never helped me.

Even my own mother couldn’t be trusted. I remember tearfully telling her later that year about the disgusting abuse these same boys had hurled at a substitute teacher, about how they had told her to stick a popsicle stick up her ass.

My mother was livid. “Well why the hell didn’t you say something?!”

I stared at her, flabbergasted. Seriously? Did she not know what would have happened if I had?

It became clear over time that all official systems of justice that I had encountered were fundamentally broken. Authorities could not be trusted to protect the weak. The weak shouldn’t even trust the strong to care about their problems.

It’s taken me thirty-five years to realize one uncomfortable but honest truth.

If I had punched that kid, he would have shut up.

Sure, my hand would’ve hurt, and I would’ve gotten in trouble.

But honestly, comparing that imagined future to the possibility of the abuse ending? Worth it, and more.

And I only would have had to do it once.

This is how I feel as I watch the live Twitter and Facebook feeds of a small group of Wet’suwet’en people and their hereditary chiefs, facing off against the RCMP at Unist’ot’en camp, on the shores of the Wedzin Kwah (colonial name Morice River), about 130 kilometres from Smithers, BC.

The issue is a complicated one. Twenty Indigenous nations along the route of the proposed pipeline (the source of the blockades) are in support of the project. Some members have told media that they need the jobs, that they feel they have been adequately consulted by Coastal Gas, and that they trust their elected band councils. Some feel that the land and water defenders are a minority trying to hold them hostage, and that they have leveraged support from people who don’t know anything about the situation or Wet’suwet’en culture. The conversation is anything but simple, and I’m aware of my own privilege as an urban white kid.

I’m also aware that for centuries, Indigenous Peoples have been subjugated by the RCMP, which supposedly keeps our country safe and “in good order.” This institution, rather than protecting the most vulnerable among us, too often spends its time at the beck and call of corporations, willing to do their dirty work of forcing people off the land so that it can be put into the service of the state’s greed.

Is this what our tax dollars are for? For empowering armed thugs to terrorize hereditary chiefs, elders, and unarmed civilians? For paying them in order that the rich may become richer and ravage the planet which gives us life and is already groaning under the weight of our excesses?

It has been proven beyond doubt that, in the wake of the Delgamuukw victory establishing Aboriginal title, the resource industry has been actively suppressing any Indigenous resistance to development. They weaponize rhetoric and say that environmental activists and land and water protectors don’t care about jobs. They act like no possible alternative to ongoing colonialism, corporate deception, and mass planetary genocide exists.

When people speak out, they gaslight and abuse them, and empower others to do it for them.

On Friday evening, I went and stood with others blocking the intersection at Hastings and Clark near the port with Indigenous and settler activists. We chanted, listened to speeches, and danced to the music from a speaker as we passed the time.

We were flanked by cops blocking the road to traffic along Hastings, fine to allow us to protest on stolen land without sustained harassment, because so many of us were white, and because we were in the city where press could easily find us and watch the actions of the police – unlike at Unist’ot’en camp itself, where the RCMP act with impunity, expanding exclusion zones without regard for appropriate legal channels, busting into homes without warrants, and employing K9 units against unarmed matriarchs in ceremony.

I watched as a truck passing through a back alley aggressively fishtailed in front of some kids holding the line facing north toward Powell Street. They jeered at him.

This was the second time a similar incident had occurred in the last couple of days.

I bobbed along to A Tribe Called Red, Rage Against the Machine, and “F*** the Police” by N.W.A., trying to keep warm.

As a Christian, I am committed to embodying an ethic of nonviolence in my personal life. I still believe in the one who saved me, an innocent victim of state violence.

But I will never enforce that rhetoric on anyone else.

Jesus went willingly to the Cross to make a point.

I cannot, under any circumstances, insist that the oppressed hold onto perceived righteousness by lying down for the state to run over. I will not demand innocent blood from the abused.

Civility has never saved us. Wishing that the abuse would stop will never save us. Praying for the abuser to feel shame for their abuse will never save us.

Anger can and will give life.

And yet, somehow (Letters from the Coast)

Their focus is on the universal values of love and service, deserting the illusions of the ego to reach God. Dervishes try to approach God by virtues and individual experience, rather than religious scholarship.

“Dervish,” Wikipedia

“Knife knows only to
Cut, not its long sleep as ore
Nor rust’s slow embrace”

Hamza Peter Weismiller

The year dawned gloomy for me.

New Year’s Eve rained buckets and I had such a scintillating conversation with a colleague about his ministry plans, and yet by the time night fell I was frustrated and tired by so many things.

The regular gig at St. Paul’s labyrinth was lackluster and I felt my performance was embarrassing. I returned home and went to a party in my apartment complex and felt like I dragged the whole thing down.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I went into the living room, crushed by the weight of mortality, climate crisis, and fascism. My husband came and we talked at length, which helped, but I still didn’t get to bed until about 3am.

I arrived late for work feeling like a black and white image moving through a coloured world. Thankfully the day was quiet.

I told myself that I was being held up by the conviction that human beings are resilient, and can weather any storm. And it was mostly true.

Everything seemed muted and insignificant.

And yet, somehow, God remains.

Recently I’ve been noticing her more among my dervish family – among these poets and mystics and musicians, among those who pierce me with their lingering, loving gazes and beatific smiles, their giggling and unabashed cuddles, their ecstasy in zhikr.

Ten days after my long night, I sat in on the strangest and most fascinating labyrinth gig. We called it “Boundless Love,” and it was a blend of traditional illahis (the sacred prayer songs of zhikr) and meditations on surf songs from the ‘60s, some of which have a definite Middle Eastern vibe, like the classic “Miserlou.” I sat in with Rafi (oud and guitar), Latif (guitar, oud, and bass), and Eda (daf), and Masa and Hamide walked.

In between woven braids of melody, Rafi would play several seconds of surf sounds, which crashed over my soul, slowly eroding the hard shell of fear.

We kept giving each other furtive smiles – can you believe we’re doing this? People would be entranced by the illahis, but then look over, confused, when we slipped into the familiar chords of the type of music you’d play around a fire with a couple of hits of LSD in your pocket and beers in a cooler. It was glorious.

Afterward, Seemi, Masa, Eda, and I adjourned to Seemi’s house, stopping at a Middle Eastern market for food along the way. The mood was reflective, loving, a bit heavy – two of Seemi’s students had been victims of the Iranian plane crash a few days before. She spoke with the woman behind the counter at the market, who had small paper cups of sweets available that had been prayed over, a traditional practice during times of tragedy.

We brought the mountain of food back to Seemi’s house and ate and talked and laughed and sang. We told stories of romance and love, of terror and flight and strength.

In the small single-room row house erected in the backyard for guests, I picked through the bookshelf as Masa set out her things.

“Oh!” I said, pulling out a book.

“What?”

“My mum used to read this to me,” I said, probably a bit wistfully. I had given her a copy some time ago, hoping I could read it to her as she wandered farther into the thicket of her illness. At Christmas, she gifted it back to me, still with the dedication I had written to her on the front page. I have no idea if she realized I had given it to her.

“Read it to me,” Masa said, and pulled me over to the couch, snuggling against me like a little girl.

Eda joined us on my other side.

I grinned. Okay. The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown.”

My friends laughed in delight at the pictures. Rabbit as rock climber. Rabbit as sailboat, with one huge ear steering it through a choppy ocean. Rabbit as little boy in striped Tshirt and shorts running into a house. Rabbit as stamen in a crocus.

“What is a crocus?” asked Masa. Her English is excellent, but her first language is Arabic, and there are many words she is still discovering.

I pointed. “This flower. You’ll see them poking their heads out in the spring, inshallah.”

We came to the end. I talked about how this book had always reminded me of the persistence of Allah in seeking our hearts, despite all our best attempts at fleeing it. We shared and compared the story of Jonah, Yunus in the Qur’an, who has always been such an inspiring figure to me in his reticence.

Masa, Eda, Seemi, and I stayed up all night talking. Finally, Seemi went back across the yard and the rest of us all fell asleep in the same bed.

The sky was already getting light.

So was my heart.