“When we pray, or are faced with a difficult decision, how can we know if the words or thoughts that enter our mind are from the Holy Spirit, or just our own thoughts? In other words, how can we recognize when it is the Holy Spirit present, speaking to us,...
Jeannette Cooperman interviews Prof. Lamin Sanneh, author of Summoned From the Margin about his conversion from Muslim to Catholicism.
A little boy grows up Muslim, falls in love with Catholicism, and winds up one of the world’s foremost scholars on both traditions.
Lamin Sanneh grew up in Gambia, where years were measured by the number of rains you’d seen. He carried the blood of the nyanchos, an ancient African royal line. His grandfather was an Islamic scholar. His father had many wives. Lonely, thoughtful, restless in a way he didn’t understand, Sanneh discovered Christianity and asked to convert, to his family’s chagrin, when he was a teenager. The Methodists stalled; the Catholics were initially reluctant. Finally, just before he left Africa to study in the U.S., he persuaded a minister to baptize him. Years later, he was accepted into the Catholic Church.
Today, Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and professor of history at Yale Divinity School. Pope John Paul II appointed him to the Pontifical Commission of the Historical Sciences; Pope Benedict XVI asked him to serve on the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with Muslims. He’s written a long list of acclaimed books and articles about Islam and Christianity.
Sanneh writes easily, his prose mixing formal elegance with a dry sense of humor. But only recently, at the urging of his children, did he write a more personal book, a memoir titled Summoned From the Margin. It’s the story of his conversion.—Jeannette Cooperman
Praying With Eyes Wide Open
What many Catholics may not know is that Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an icon and comes to us from the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. The Greek word for icon originally meant an image of a person, especially a royal person, that was painted or made of mosaic. Over time, however, icon came to refer to the sacred images of Christ, Mary, and the saints used in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, as well as for prayer and devotion in the homes of its members.
Until recently, with the exception of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, it was unusual to see icons in Catholic churches and those of other Christian denominations such as Episcopalian and Lutheran. But today it is common for Western Christians to see icons of the Holy Trinity, Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints in their churches and to have them in their homes. Even so, icons remain somewhat of a mystery to most Christians of the Western Church.
So is there a difference between an icon and the other religious statues and pictures that are more common in Catholic and other Christian churches? The answer is yes. In fact, there are three main differences between icons and the religious art of the Western Church: the purpose of icons, the way icons are made, and most important, how they are used in prayer and worship.
God’s Grace at Work in Us
When it comes to living a Christian life, we often hear the phrase, “Making a life around virtues and values.” And though we hear it, we still tend to ask, What does it mean to “make a life”? Doesn’t life just happen?
In reality, with each and every conscious decision, we make ourselves to be certain kinds of people. Every honest word spoken and every resisted temptation to lie make us honest people. Every unkindness—in word or in act—makes us unkind people. In that sense, we are the architects, the builders, of who we are and what we will become. We make ourselves to be one kind of people as opposed to other kinds: honest rather than dishonest, kind rather than unkind, generous rather than selfish, caring rather than cold.
Of course, as Christians, we expect and we hope more and more that these individual decisions and this work of constructing ourselves will be guided by that divine Architect, according to his plan and with the help of his gracious presence. But even according to his plan and with his divine help, we ourselves must decide and act—thus making a life for ourselves, making a life of ourselves.
Spiritual Maturity | Part 5 of 6
“I’m spiritual but not religious.”
What do people mean by that statement? Some are probably avoiding official—organized—religion. Others may reject the faith they once belonged to because they are uncomfortable with particular teachings. Still others may have been hurt by Church leaders, teachers, friends, or family members who are religious.
It is true that some religious folks have harmed people. When those connected with God and with the Church hurt others, their actions reflect upon the Church and God. This reality is the subject of one of Jesus’ hardest sayings: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt 18:6).
Part Four of Six
Jesus sees Jerusalem in front of him. One can hear his heart breaking in his simple, earthy words, “How many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling!” (Mt 23:37). Jesus has walked long, hot days to get here. He wants to put his arms around these people and embrace them. And yet he knows this is the city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it.
Spiritual Maturity | Part 3 of 6
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). Saint Paul offers first-century Philippians—and us—a dramatic challenge: Rejoice!
But what if we can’t? What if our road is difficult or dangerous? Would Saint Paul understand what our lives are like today? Won’t we look foolish if we “rejoice in the Lord always”? With problems like earthquakes and wars, trouble close to home, and deception and distrust at work and even among friends and family—will we look like we’re missing something if we rejoice?
Watch TV talk shows, listen to call-in radio programs, or sample blogs on the Internet. Clearly not everyone is rejoicing. We complain. We point fingers. We easily identify trouble all around us. What can we do about real problems?
Spiritual Maturity | Part 2 of 6
At some point on our spiritual journey, the steps get steeper, the passages get narrower, and we run into roadblocks. Jesus, the one who called us to this journey, warned us this would happen: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate” (Lk 13:24a). Growth into spiritual maturity requires serious effort on our behalf. But if we are genuine and spiritual maturity is our goal, can we expect to do anything less?
After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis reflected on his feelings of grief. “No one ever told me,” he wrote, “that grief felt so like fear.”
It is a frightening turn in life when someone we love is no longer present. When a person with whom we shared a significant loving relationship dies, we miss the security that person gave us—whether as spouse, parent, sibling, or friend—and we miss his or her love. We try to cope and go on, but it can be overwhelming. We can feel stuck, rooted in the time and place when everything altered too quickly.
Note: The articles in this six-part series will explore the traits of spiritual maturity described by Mathew Kessler, CSsR, in his reflection “A Reliable Compass” ("From the Publisher," December 2010).
Spiritual Maturity | Part 1 of 6
In the middle of the night, a man named Nicodemus visited Jesus. Nicodemus was a public leader, a Pharisee, whose world was swirling around him. He told Jesus, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God”—a bold claim on the heels of Jesus’ recent actions in the Temple. Jesus had just thrown out the merchants with the message, The Kingdom of God is at hand.
In these days of high unemployment, almost no one feels really safe in his or her job. Along with job insecurity, we can feel the vulnerability of what a job loss might mean to our ability to make our mortgage or car payment and ultimately to have financial control over our lives.
The Way of the Cross is one of the oldest and most beautiful devotions of our Catholic Faith. How did it begin, and why do we still practice this ancient custom today?
We cannot help but live and think in the context and concept of time. Our language is laced with it, our days are organized by it. We might even feel harassed or oppressed by it. The clock tells us when to get up, when to go to work, to church, or to some social event. It imposes limits on what we can do. Time steadily continues, tick-tick-tick, never missing a beat. The next day or week or year arrives right on schedule.
As I was sitting in prayer one Tuesday morning after spending the previous evening in Urgent Care, I began to wonder what God was trying to tell me. Here I was at home when I should have been attending a three-day meeting with personnel from different retreat centers. It only took me a few seconds to hear God’s message. “Slow down!” God was shouting in that quiet voice only God can use.