Sound and Silence

when necessary, use words


September 2016

Friday prayers, Shabbat and Church…

Listening up: Jewish, Islamic, Dutch Reformed and Catholic lend their ears.

It’s now after the fact. My previous musings about intentions and hopes have been put to the test, and I have spent 3 days with a group of Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Open Mosque inaugural Interfaith Retreat at Oewerzicht, Greyton, Western Cape, South Africa.

Many have expressed interest as to the outcome of this bold experiment. Some have been encouraging, some cautious, and others disparaging. The idea of spiritual intimacy with those of faiths that are often portrayed as the “enemy” has been and remains a taboo in many circles. Non-monotheists or liberal pluralists will probably not appreciate the gravities of the situation, it is no trivial thing to “risk your faith” developing closer ties with the “other”.

Friday Prayers

Dr Taj Hargey, The Open Mosque

In Friday’s introduction we heard a passionate and erudite message from Dr Taj Hargey, the Open Mosques founder, in which he appealed to Muslims to heed the Qur’an – the original text revealed to Muhammad, rather than the traditions based upon the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet which were gathered some 300 years after his passing.

Rev. Natalie and Dominee Alwyn then presented the “Mission of Christianity” to a receptive and intelligent audience who were somewhat bewildered by the notion of the Trinity. To be honest, the more I reflected on it from the Jewish / Muslim point of view, the more I empathised with them!

Shabbat with temple Israel

In the evening Rabbi Greg Alexander of Temple Israel and his contingent led us in the Shabbat service. This felt comfortable, despite it being in Hebrew, with the sung service with guitar and djembe. This form of worship revealed an inner cohesion, relevance and inclusivity, the famed “familyhood” of Jewish culture and religion.

In the cold of the evening we continued singing as a broad community around the fire, led by Rabbi Greg and his musicians, and introduced more improvisation with flutes and clarinets as well as the shofar (rams horn) and dumbek (Arabic drum).

I tried to complete the full daily cycle of 5 salat/prayers, (and scored a moderate 3). I also took part in a dawn Hatha yoga session. It was good to have this more eastern practice in our midst to remind us that even if we could unite our middle eastern faith families, they still formed only a part of the greater whole.

Saturday Sabbath

Day 2 started with views on food in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, covering the ideas Halal and Kosher, and the vision of Peter in the Christian tradition to eat without restriction.

Dr Taj gave an important and in depth talk on the notion of jihad, in which he categorically decried suicide and random killing on strict Qur’anic terms. He taught that the jihad refers first and foremost to the inner struggle of the believer to submit to God. Its meaning has been distorted by the teaching and traditions of Hadith and the culture of fear, blind conformity, and wilful ignorance too often perpetrated in the name of Islam.

Interfaith marriage was the next topic, with several such unions in attendance.


After dinner, closing Shabbat and Maghreb prayers, we settled down once again around a roaring fire, to do Christian worship. This come predominantly from the Taize tradition, with cheeky additions of Arabic and Hebrew translations to well-loved hymns like “Da Pacem”  in which we sang Da Pacem Cordium/Give Peace to every heart/Salaam al Qaloob/Shalom la le vot.

At this time after 2 days of trust building and frank conversation, we were graced with an important moment when brother Ismael, somewhat overcome with the love of God, improvised a song on the guitar, and then began to sing a few verses from the Qur’an. I think this spontaneous use of the holy text in music making might have been quite novel to those who had been taught that it can only be recited by a qualified Imam or Muezzin and that instruments were not compatible with Islamic worship. At some point, with many taking part in its creation, a full “Alla-hu” chant, Sufi style “Zikr” (remembrance) emerged. People swayed and danced, and as the chanting subsided, an inspired, improvised song of sanctuary emerged from Rachel.

As a (post-)charismatic, I was really proud to have taken part in a Taize Christian worship session that liberated the Muslims to sing their Qur’an and then Sufi chants which gave way to a song out of the of the Old Testament tradition. Most agreed after this that music was to play a crucial role in this emerging integral spirituality.

Time for Church

Reverend Natalie Simons-Arendse, Anglican Communion

On Sunday, we had an Anglican Eucharist led by Rev. Natalie and Lay preacher / stand-up comedian Brother Derek. Of course its “open” nature meant that the identifying in the work and message of Christ was freely given to all in the bread and “wine” (meaning grape juice, of course 😉 ).

The rest of the day consisted of 3 workshops on the most challenging issues:  gender and female participation, Zionism, and same sex unions.

The quality of input was astounding; Rabbi-in-training Sofia led with her exposition of the book of Genesis and explained the biblical background to the issues. Rev. Natalie and lay person Zanele spoke eloquently about the state of women in the Anglican and Catholic Churches, with some lamentation. Dominee Alwyn also illuminated from a Reformed point of view. Dr Taj’s partner Jackie Woodman topped it all with a clear perspective on the 14 rights afforded to women in the Qur’an, and an insightful and indeed scientific view on the experience of masculinity and femininity within all of us.

Rabbi Greg Alexander, Temple Israel

For most, the real test was Zionism, Israel and Palestine. Rabbi Greg was thrown to the lions, and his opening statement was “I am a Zionist and let me tell you what I mean”. Oy Vey!

What transpired was a grilling from some very sharp Islamic angles, where Greg managed to keep his cool, create a safe space, answer in humility, and retain the trust that had been building all weekend. Chutzpah meets al-Rahman. Mazel Tov to Rabbi Greg.


The retreat with those of other faiths was an unqualified success. It exceeded expectations and was every bit as spiritually inspiring as any other retreat I have experienced. I felt the same exhilaration and closeness to others as I did when I went away with fellow Christians over many decades to renew and reaffirm our faith and community.

Once again, we risked ourselves and pressed into new spaces that might have been difficult, but because of the sheer force of love and acceptance from all participants, was welcoming and bathed us in the light of the Divine. Jesus, Mohammed and Moses (and Buddha and Lao-Tzu not to mention a host of others) would I am quite sure, have found delight in these simple acts of sharing, learning and listening.

In retreating together, we have the potential of a revivified pluralistic spirituality that is deeply rooted in the world’s most enduring faith traditions. We have, as a diverse and outlying, bob-tag and rag-tail group of integral prophets, incarnated something with real potential, a foretaste of the messianic age of tawhid /unity. It was an honour and a rare privilege to have experienced this, long may it grow in our hearts, city, nation and world.

Chill-dren of Adam: Natalie, Rachel, Cassim, and kitty.

5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 5

Reason 5: Pluralism gives us breadth, faith traditions offer depth.

Emerging integral culture and spirituality, including integral monotheism, must move from shallow breadth (everything is right, all are welcome, anything goes) to depth. But mere modernism, as well as post-modernism, has lost the depth offered by the older traditions in their rejection of traditional faith.

In general, so-called “New Age” spirituality of the last 50 years has been deeply affected by a lowest common denominator approach which has packaged easily consumable aspects of world traditions and left us undernourished.

Rabbi David Rosen of Jerusalem, said recently in Cape Town that we had to distinguish between pluralism and relativism. Our monotheist religious traditions are largely scornful of the relativism of our times, but have not sufficiently differentiated this from a positive, celebratory, pluralistic engagement.

Those from different traditions have held wisdom not accessible their our own traditions, and often the oldest have held this wisdom best and deepest.

treeKen Wilbur, who has pioneered the study of the Integral worldview, points out that we need to rediscover what our older traditions can offer. We have to “transcend and include” these traditions;  if we merely “discard” them, we will be far worse off. The real challenge is to include them as we outgrow them, as a tree includes all its previous seasons’ growth to be what it is.

“Transcend and include” is in fact a worthy mantra for emerging integral spirituality in a pluralistic age.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.

5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 4

Reason 4: We can no longer ignore “the other” in our pluralist world.diversityinclusion

We are more in contact with a wider range of people than ever before. If we deny this reality our religions will wither and die. And more than that, like Bede Griffiths, we begin to sense the call of the “other half of our souls” which often lies beyond our tradition.

One of the major themes of the consciousness emerging at this time is that we come to terms with our “shadow” selves. We can no longer hide from Life by projecting onto and then rejecting the “Other”, that which we do not accept about ourselves. We can no longer justify this lack of responsibility, this willing ignorance,  via our traditional moralities which create and maintain an evil or enemy “out there”.

We need to decommission words like “heathen”, “heretic”, “kafir”, “infidel” and “unbeliever”, words which institutionalize our denial. As Koos Kombuis, Afrikaner bard sings,

“Ons is almal kaffirs (We are all infidels)”.

If we don’t whole heatedly engage this “heart” work, this painful humbling, this acknowledgement of our addiction, denial and darkness, mutual destruction is guaranteed.

There is no choice in a pluralist world to but to face ourselves and our others with a new story. And I believe that our religious traditions can give us this story, if we read them intelligently, humbly and with fresh eyes, especially those of another.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.

5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 3

Reason 3: We are all called to be more open, curious and generous.

curious-childRegardless of our specific beliefs, spiritual people really ought to at the very least be cultivating the virtues of curiosity and generosity, becoming more selfless, compassionate, and childlike.

Religious scholar and “freelance monotheist” Karen Armstrong has shown us that every major religious tradition teaches at its heart, the “Golden Rule”. For example, Leviticus 19.18, the Hebrew book of law, and Matthew 22.36-40, the Christian gospel, say

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

Is Islam, the Hadith of an-Nawawi states

“Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself”.

Of course, let us remember that Confucius was a very early teacher of this truth – Analects 15:23 states

“Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.”

There is always something to learn, but our dogmas can blind us to this. We are called to be open, but are often closed. We are called to be generous, but sadly the most religious can become the most mean hearted, closed minded, and judgmental, of all.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape. Still places open, especially to Christians. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.

5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 2

Reason 2: It’s time to move from interfaith dialog to inter-spiritual practice.

Interfaith dialog is viewed by many as a political necessity in today’s interconnected world. And so we often let our respective leaders do the talking, and just get on with our own traditions without taking on the radical challenges of loving and living with those with “opposing” views.

The great treasure that interreligious dialogue among the world religions could unlock is to enable people to get to know and love other religions and the people who practice them.
― Thomas Keating, Consenting to God As God Is

But while dialog is always good, it cannot be the end goal. It can become a game of comparing your ideas and my ideas, without sharing life. It can get stuck in the head, and focus on difference and dogma, and the lowest common denominator. Mere talking even risks devolving into conflict. Compared to talking, practice is more of a challenge; talk is cheap, but experience is costly.

interspiritual-meditation-sideInter-spiritual practice is about doing things with those different to you, openly and non- judgmentally. It is about encounter, hearing the heart, feeling the pain, and deepening experiential knowledge. There are inevitably aspects of other religions we find hard to accept. But if we focus on what is common, we might be surprised. Take the “petals” of the flower from the book “InterSpiritual Meditation” (right) – even the most traditional religious people would agree on most of these. We might even find that we are in denial about things the “others” can offer.

In fact, inter-spiritual practice is an exciting, cutting-edge creative act. It means we are all in the same “boat of unknowing”, it levels the playing field to a space with no “experts”. Every religious tradition started somewhere, with a great deal of unknowing, and this fact, this “genesis”, gets forgotten, lost in the mist of myth, where we start developing attachments to some supposed and certain past.

We are called, like Abram, to be ever beginning, and the participation in a “third space”, neither wholly yours nor mine, is profoundly creative.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.

5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 1

Reason 1: We all come from a common root.

Christianity and Islam, despite their general claims to exclusivity, both emerge from the Jewish faith. Jesus was not a Christian, and Abraham was not a Jew. The traditions we tend to hold as absolute always have roots that precede the traditions.

Actually, all religion stems from earlier practices that have changed via the process of “civilising”, by agricultural, industrial, technical and cultural progress.

And less obvious is that mankind has emerged from a very much longer tradition – the natural evolution of Earth, itself part of an even more immense cosmic drama over billions of years.

It would be great if we were awed and humbled by this, accepting that “We are the universe made conscious of itself” as Thomas Berry observed. But many religious people hold stubbornly to stories which keep them inside small boxes, driven by pride and fear.

Any progress always requires us to gain fresh insights into our roots.printofahand Bede Griffiths tells us that the religions are like the fingers. To the quick observer, they appear as separate. But as we deepen we find they are all part of the hand.

There is a path of deepening in every tradition. In Christianity it might be called the contemplative, in the Jewish traditions, the Kabbalah, and in Islam, Sufism. If one studies these mystical traditions, their similarities become clear. But if we insist on adhering to the outer, obvious orthodoxies, we will get caught up surface differences.

We must never forget our root. Remembering will allow us to move forwards.

Why I am “retreating” with, not from, Muslims and Jews.

In the Christian tradition I come from, the “retreat” was considered a high point of the spiritual life. To retreat was to withdraw from busyness and normality and seek God wholeheartedly, either alone or together with others, with the purpose of refocusing on what was important and redefining my identity as a Christian disciple.

A big part of this re-definition was to create a strengthened distinction between “us” and “them”. The more “Christian” I became, the less “worldly”. This move called “sanctification” is important for growth, but eventually presents it shadow side – exclusion. Words like “unbeliever”, “Gentile”, “heathen”, “heretic”, “infidel” and “kafir” testify to monotheism’s darker undersides.

And so I am rising to the challenge and joining the Open Mosque’s Interfaith Retreat for Christians, Muslims and Jews. The “retreat” is being radically revamped, and no longer retains its exalted and often excluding position. Instead, in a bold move, we are invited to a “third space”, the exact meaning of which is unknown. This, at least to me, is exciting.

And to my dear not-monotheists friends, don’t feel left out, you have a huge role to play; please bear with a bit of Abrahamic housekeeping.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape, South Africa. Still places open, especially to Christians. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.


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