Monday, 7 October 2013

99 Beautiful Names

This Saturday Ray and I went to Lichfield, leading a morning on engaging with other faiths, for a Christian gathering. My contribution was a workshop on the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Islamic tradition, what they have meant to me in my own spiritual journey, and inviting participants to enter into spiritual engagement with some of the names themselves.
door of the great hall, Stokesay castle
We began the hour with an intentional prayer to God the Opener, Ya Fatah, to open our hearts and minds. Al Fatah is the 19th name, one that, to me, evokes the idea of a door being unlocked, a blocked path cleared, so that we can move on, or invite a guest in.

the spring at Chalice Well, Glastonbury

The next name we reflected on was the 48th, al Wadood, the  Loving.  I described how remembrance of the name through repetition by chanting, seems to me like water trickling onto a stone, gradually eroding it.

We invoked God, 'O Loving one', Ya Wadood, softly repeating the name over and over, imagining the presence of God softening our hearts.

Ar Rahmaan, Ar Raheem, the compassionate, the merciful,  led us into a fuller chant, standing in a circle of about 30 people, passing a prayer rope of 99 knots between our hands to count the repetitions as our voices grew stronger. To me, it means a great deal that these two names share a root (as in Hebrew) with the word for womb. The mercy and compassion invoked by Ya Rahman Ya Raheem seems to me to be the powerful, self-giving, unconditional, deep compassion of a mother, who can see all people, all creatures, as somebody's daughter, somebody's son, each, a beloved being of intrinsic worth.

We closed the session with the 6th name, As Salaam, a name invoking deep peace, perfect peace, a name which shares a root with its sister in the Hebrew language, Shalom. Ya Salaam, Ya Salaam, Ya Salaam, O Perfect Peace, O Perfect Peace, O Perfect Peace.

I didn't have time during the workshop to talk about one of the underlying reasons for my interest in the names, and engaging with Islam more generally. Ray describes in his book, A Heart Broken Open - Radical faith in an age of fear, how St Francis went to Egypt to meet with a Sultan at the time of the crusades, crossing a battle field to get to him.

detail from an icon by Br Robert Lentz OFM

The encounter was rich and it seems both the Sultan and Francis earned one anothers' respect, and in the process a deeper respect for their respective faiths. Although Francis had gone with the intention of bringing Christ to the Sultan (or vice versa), he came away inspired by ways to deepen his own Christian faith practise. On his return he wrote advice for friars on going humbly among 'the Saracens', or Muslims, and said that as the name of God was called out, all should fall down on their knees in prayer. One particular prayer that he wrote seems very much to be inspired by the 99 beautiful names of God which he must surely have heard and perhaps reflected on, as the Sultan's guest.

You are holy, Lord, the only God,
and Your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong.
You are great.
You are the Most High.
You are Almighty.
You, Holy Father are King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God, all Good.
You are Good, all Good, supreme Good,
Lord God, living and true.
You are love. You are wisdom.
You are humility. You are endurance.
You are rest. You are peace.
You are joy and gladness.
You are justice and moderation.
You are all our riches, and You suffice for us.
You are beauty.
You are gentleness.
You are our protector.
You are our guardian and defender.
You are our courage. You are our haven and our hope.
You are our faith, our great consolation.
You are our eternal life, Great and Wonderful Lord,
God Almighty, Merciful Saviour.

St Francis of Assisi

This peaceable connection so long ago, at a time of such terrible conflict, has so much to say to us today in our mutual trust-building. The Franciscan Tertiary website has an article by Hugh Beach on the story, 'on those going among the Saracens' as a starting place for further exploration.

To me, this story is not only one of the reasons why I feel it appropriate to meditate on the 99 names as part of my own spiritual practise, but at the same time, why I also feel it appropriate to follow St Francis's very humble lead, who in his simple woolen tunic and his ecstatic love, must have seemed to the Sultan, not unlike  the Sufi mystics of his own tradition.

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