IT IS DAY THREE of the very first Muslim for a Month program. I’m with a group of 10 in Istanbul for a pioneering journey into Islam. I don’t know the little details of many of my companions’ lives, but they’ve certainly shown me something below the surface. They have shown their fears and hopes, and I have shared my own.
We’ve talked together at length, and with several lecturers who have braved both the chilly weather and a wide range of questions, to share with us knowledge, passion, and openness.
One afternoon we were discussing the nature of religion and God. I said that I know what God means to me, but not what religion means to me. Thinking this was very smart of me, I expected the conversation to move in this direction. But then I was challenged. “What does God mean to you?” I went silent. Darn it.
I pondered the question for the day. I thought about all sorts of examples of that special feeling that I call “God.” What is it? Why is it? When is it? How is it? Telling a story about a great energy that surrounded me, of a horse and the herd nearby during a training session of staggering immensity, is all very well and good, but it does nothing to explain how I truly feel in a relatable way.
That is important; I didn’t want my explanation to be as wishy-washy as those who blindly believe some inherited, diluted version of what they call a faith. Coming up with nothing better, I resolved to sleep on it. Then, the Universe — or God — gave me the answer. Sometimes we have to be careful what we ask for.
News from home brought death. I felt it strongly, and also how my friend, directly affected, must be feeling. I cried a little more for her than myself. I felt that something had occurred that required a pause. What I did not feel, I might add, was that God was to blame, nor for any blame to be laid.
Yet, at the same time, I did not feel comforted by the notion that “God has a plan”, because we haven’t reached the conclusion of that ongoing debate just yet and I don’t want to say something I don’t understand, nor necessarily believe.
The answer to the question “what does God mean to me?” is this: God is whatever it is that allowed me to feel that pain. It connects me to the life of another. It connects me to myself.
Because I am in this body and of these experiences, my God feeling is not wholly the same as your God feeling, but we can be sure that we share this God, because we share ourselves in times of great joy and times of great sorrow. God is the thought that causes you to raise your hands to clasp mine and share this moment with me.
That was my humble answer. I shared this with the group members throughout the following day. There was something in the eyes of them all that made this easy. I was really baring my soul. It was as if, through our shared exploration of God, through the medium of Islam, we were sharing explorations of ourselves.