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October 29, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 140




Pat Marrin Entering by the narrow gate

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

Today's gospel, Luke 13:22 ff. Enter by the narrow gate.

I am on the third day of my third Ramadan. I would make a reluctant, half-hearted Muslim. The hardest part is getting up early to force down toast, cereal and a glass of juice on top of my regular two cups of black coffee, racing the clock to sunrise.

I started doing Ramadan after 9-11, 2001, for several reasons. I was horrified at my ignorance of a world religion that has 1.3 billion members; there are 300 million more Muslims in the world than there are Catholics. I see it as a matter of survival to find common ground with people who are capable of this kind of discipline and faith. I feel the need to pray more deeply about my own role in our volatile world. It makes me feel better spiritually and physically to fast, perhaps to shed a few pounds. A small start for a lifelong Catholic who has barely observed Lent over the years. I live my life on the sidelines, which is why I need these rituals more than most.

The dawn to dusk fast gets me to think about the world through Muslim eyes. Dangerous caricatures abound in the news from the Middle East, of suicide bombers, terrorists who are, some say, using Ramadan, a holy month of purification and prayer, as a time and justification for killing scores of fellow Muslims, aid workers, as well as the daily quota of young American soldiers we have put in harm's way for reasons I don't like to think about.

Islam does not countenance violence any more than Christianity does, which is to say that both faiths have dark corners where some can avoid the gospel's clear message about nonviolence and still argue that holy wars, just wars, are allowable under certain conditions. When an American general mounts a pulpit to speak of Satan and of apocalyptic battles to come, it sends chills down my spine. And when an American president uses the word "crusade" to underpin his decision to take us to war, I have a gut-wrenching feeling that we are opening doors that will not be easily shut again. Potent religious symbols are being loaded like weapons, tremors are coming from the very tectonic plates of the geopolitical order. This is big liturgy in full swing, a dangerous brandishing of absolute beliefs about God and reality.

Fasting has confronted me with this question: Just what do I hunger and thirst for? If it is for justice, then what am I willing to do to change the world order whose inequities and injustices are the cause of so much violence? There are young Muslims in the Middle East who are willing to die, and to kill, for their beliefs. At the same time, there are others, including those who staff international agencies like the Red Cross and Crescent, the United Nations, Doctors Without Borders, who, by their presence in Iraq, risk their lives for others.

I think it is easier to die for something than to live for it, to go into situations of great confusion and hostility, to work day by day to meet the immediate needs of those who are suffering most. This is dangerous work Those who do it are "entering by the narrow gate."

My thoughts have been with Sarah Chayes, former reporter for National Public Radio who stayed in Afghanistan after covering the U.S. invasion to drive out the Taliban, and is now working with Afghan women and children as a field officer in Kandahar for Afghan's for Civil Society. She was interviewed in a segment of last week's Bill Moyer's program on PBS. Chayes has the look of someone who began fasting the moment she decided to leave behind her relatively safe, short-term role as a journalist (relatively safe for a profession that has lost 186 people to violence since 1996), to stay on the ground with the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan.

Her face is lean, her eyes glow with intensity and purpose. Her decision seems to have clarified her life by taking her across the threshold of fear we all confront in accepting our own death. I fear for beautiful Sarah Chayes, because she has chosen to be in a very dangerous place for the sake of others. I fear for her the way family and friends feared for Veronica Guerin, the Irish journalist who would not cease her pursuit of the drug lords who were destroying the lives of Irish children in the slums of Dublin.

Jesus entered by the narrow gate when he accepted the possibility -- the inevitability -- of his own death as a servant of the poor. From that moment he was a "dead man walking." The mystery was and is that those who can make this same decision come alive. I could see it in Sarah Chayes' face. She was awake, alive, alert to the depths of her soul. It is this paradox that will hold and haunt me during my third Ramadan.

Pat Marrin's email addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. To preview Celebration, follow this link: Celebration.
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