On the Path

I am often asked why I volunteer so much of my time at Park51 – why, in essence, I would ever want to help them.

Them.  The alienation, the awful distancing accomplished by the use of that pronoun always chills me, and sometimes I can only summon the most meager of explanations in response: “It’s a good cause,” or, if I’m feeling particularly intimidated, “The people there are so nice.”

I like to believe that I have trouble answering such questions because it would be too difficult to state so briefly why I believe our work is important.  Yes, it is a good cause. And yes, the people there are so nice.  But surely a passing conversation could never do my thoughts on the matter justice.

Still, if truth be told, I fear my reticence has more to do with a deeply personal conflict, one that relates less to the public value of Park51 than it does to my very private struggle with religious truth.

Allow me to explain myself.

It may surprise those who refer to Park51 as the “Ground Zero Mosque” that I am Roman Catholic – or, at least, that I was baptized, raised and educated in the Church.  As a child born to an Italian-immigrant family in New York City, I received the usual number of sacraments and was fortunate enough to attend Catholic school from kindergarten to college.  But as others who have spent their formative years so close to Church could tell you, such a relationship is oftentimes as fulfilling as it is fatiguing.  Sadly and famously, many leave the faith never to return, and those that do seldom stay for long.  By the time I reached high school I too began to sense this ritual estrangement in myself.  Frightened, I elected to enter the world of religious education, stifling my disillusionment with Church teaching by serving as its defender inside the classroom.  I spent my senior year teaching the catechism at a local parish and counseling teens at a Jesuit retreat house.  It was a sincere effort, but I departed my adolescence with still greater doubt, unsure as to whether doctrine or dogma could encompass anything close to the truth.

Upon graduation I resolved to abandon what I deemed the futile study of religion, weighing the costs and benefits of seeking a university degree in a foreign language.  Even that passion, I must admit, was owed to the Church; my French and Latin still bear the colorful inflections of the Christian Brother who first introduced me to Proust and the Aeneid.  But for all my desire to be done with religion, religion was far from being done with me.  To my chagrin I soon learned that as a student at Fordham University I was expected to complete a series of theology seminars for my course of study in the liberal arts.  And, what was more disconcerting, these courses were led by truly gifted scholars of religion – each of whom, it seemed, proved more unwilling than the last to concede my disbelief.

It was a difficult few semesters.  My instructors pushed me to revisit the texts and teachings of my erstwhile faith, familiar nuisances now cast in an uncomfortably new light.  Under their guidance I sampled other beliefs and philosophies as well, with each novel insight undermining the certitude with which I upheld my incertitude. In time I was confronted by the usual theological giants: Tillich with his ultimate concern, Cone with his liberation theology, Gutiérrez with his Christian poverty and Daly with her revolutionary defiance.  It wasn’t a fair fight.  Placed alongside their lives’ work my crisis of faith seemed so small and ridiculous.  There was something utterly authentic about each author’s struggle with God, and now that I had glimpsed their hard-won truth I wondered if I could go on ignoring it.  Could I really remain so secure in my faithlessness without answering their unspoken challenge – me, with my mere nineteen years of religious insecurity?

Foreign languages could wait.  By year’s end I declared my theology major.

It was around the same time I came to this restless decision that another remarkable event transpired, an event I consider the turning point of my religious education.  I had been taking one of my required seminars on sacred texts of the Mid East for some months when we finally came to the Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam.  An unfortunate consequence of having attended Catholic school my entire life had been a clear lack of diversity in the religious curriculum.  I therefore knew little about Islam and its adherents, apart, of course, from the one-sided tales of jihad and terror that enjoyed such purchase after 9/11.  I was understandably eager to learn more.

Our initial perusal of the Qur’an and its exegesis was duly fascinating, but nothing has nor ever will again affect me so greatly than did my first experience of tajwid, or expert Qur’anic recitation.  It was just a recorded reading of the holy book amplified by classroom speakers, but as soon as the Qari’ gave voice to that revealed text I was swept away.  Though there was no image to accompany the cadence of his voice, I witnessed his face wonder at the beauty of those borrowed words.  I heard, and somehow I saw his belief that they emanated from eternity, from a source that knew no beginning or end.  And then, as he began another verse, I first sensed the crowd gathered there to hear him speak.  I felt the tension rise among them, I listened to them hang on every delicately crafted word.  The Qari’ would raise them high with his practiced speech and there they would hover, breaths held fast in unspeakable joy, until the final syllable broke and brought them trembling back to earth.

Sitting in my classroom with eyes closed, I hadn’t the faintest idea what was being said so beautifully and with so much awe.  Whatever it was, I had not heard it before.  And whatever it was, from somewhere deep and hidden inside me, I knew it to be true.

It was following that singular experience that I decided to devote my private and professional life to the study of religion.  As far as my faith was concerned I was less assured than ever, but that lack of security no longer informed a prohibitive sense of doubt.  It instead moved me to learn and know more.  I began to study Islamic theology, complementing courses in its Catholic counterpart.  I struggled to master Arabic.  I sought conversation with my Muslim friends as well as my coreligionists.  With the opening of each new dialogue came humbling moments of self-revelation, an awareness of the narcissism that dwells within, always threatening to divide the children of Abraham.  Muslim, Christian, or Jew – I finally saw that while we were indeed different, that difference only lights the many paths toward a shared and sacred truth.

Past uncertainties were illuminated against that truth as well.  I viewed my concern over the quality of my convictions for what it truly was, a childish exercise in artificial piety.  And the more I studied the more fully I grasped the extent of my error.  I came to see religion as more than a mere set of doctrines to be disputed until one was certain of the truth.  Religion, I learned, is not certainty – it is not even the search for certainty.  It is, rather, a deliberate battle fought against such empty simplicity, against the notion that real understanding is an end rather than a means of living one’s life as a decent human being.

This is the grander reality with which I have come to terms as a student of religion, and one that I argue is recognized by peoples of all faiths and creeds.  But when I speak to Muslims in particular of my personal discovery, and when I reveal that I am a Catholic, and that I have struggled, and that I have found great solace within mosques and the pages of the Qur’an, their eyes widen with pleasure and surprise.  Their lips often form the familiar and pious refrain: Masha’Allah.  God’s will is as mysterious as it is sublime.

Call it fate, design or mere coincidence, but perhaps it was that very will that has led me here, by twists and turns, to Park51.  There certainly comfort to the proposition that our triumphs and tragedies are arranged by a higher power, the rhyme and reason of which we can never know.  On that account I remain undecided, but I would not trade a single relationship forged in that uncertainty for all the confidence in the world.  And I can say now, with absolute assurance, that the friendships I have formed at Park51 are no exception.  Here I have sat with Sufis and secularists, spoken with Christians and Jews, debated with scholars and laymen.  Each of us realizes that we are on similar journeys, and each of us is eager to share the story of our own.

This, sadly, is not the portrait of Park51 that many know.  So much of conversation surrounding our work is not of this uplifting kind, focusing instead on the petty differences that serve to keep us apart.  But at its heart Park51 is not about those differences. Park51 is about the honest and urgent need to celebrate our common ground.  It is about the longing to worship something that transcends the walls we fearfully build around our neighbors, and around ourselves.  I hope one day our critics realize that there is nothing foreign about that aspiration, nothing so alien about the wish to build a community dedicated to our own beliefs, as well as to their highest realization in this world.  I hope they realize that, in the end, Park51 isn’t about their deepest fears or even our own worldly hopes.  It isn’t about the specter of a mosque at Ground Zero or the plan for a center on Park Place.  It is about taking the time in our lives to pause and marvel at the unexpected unity of all things, at the unforeseeably happy accidents that take us all to where we are going.

I do not think you have to be a Muslim or a Catholic, or even a believer at all, to know so intimately that underlying truth.

Joseph Vignone graduated from Fordham University in 2011 with a BA in History and Theology, and holds a Professional Certificate in Arabic from New York University.  In 2010, he was awarded the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics for an essay examining the depiction of Satan in the work of Islamic mystic Mansur al-Hallaj.  Joseph is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Islam at Harvard Divinity School as a Dean’s and Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Fellow.  He has been volunteering at Park51 since May 2011.

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