The Dance of the Cross and the Crescent: Egregious Twaddle on Pilgrimage

Our bags are . . . well, not actually packed yet, but close. We’re . . . well, not exactly ready to go, but with a flurry of last minute chores (sync the iPad, stock up on protein bars, don’t forget the European plug adapters) we’ll be leaving on a jet plane tomorrow afternoon, after Mass at the Cathedral of St Peter in Chains in Cincinnati.

Tomorrow, of course, is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and there could hardly be a better day to set off on pilgrimage. It was as a pilgrim (and an amateur archaeologist, which endears her to my heart) that Constantine’s mother, Helena, traveled to the Holy Land and led the expedition that, according to tradition, unearthed the remains of the True Cross. Fragments of that cross, like the endlessly proliferating relics of other holy objects and later of holy people, have drawn the veneration (and, unapologetically, the tourist drachmas and dollars) of pilgrims ever since. This is not me being cynical. Pilgrimages have always served many important needs, and the support of the local economy is one of them.

Taking up our pilgrim badges on Holy Cross Day is a reminder of another kind of pilgrimage, one with a darker and more complicated history. It was ostensibly to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land from harassment by Jerusalem’s Muslim rulers that the first Europeans “took up the cross” and became, literally, crusaders. I say ostensibly because this is not the first week in the history of the world that religious conflicts have been exploited for earthly politics. But more on that later.

First, for those of you plotting our pilgrimage with pins on maps, here’s the general itinerary—subject, of course, to the whims of the world and the wind of the Spirit:

Saturday, September 15: Change planes in Paris, then bus from Lisbon to Fatima by way of Santarem (Eucharistic miracle)
Sunday, September 16: Fatima (Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of the Rosary)
Monday, September 17: Fatima, Portugal, to Salamanca, Spain, with a stop in Coimbra, Portugal
Tuesday, September 18: Salamanca to Madrid, with stops in Alba de Tormes, Avila, and Segovia (sites associated with Saints Teresa and John of the Cross)
Wednesday, September 19: Madrid (Nuestra Senora de la Almudena)
Thursday, September 20: Madrid to Zaragoza, Spain (Nuestra Senora del Pilar, Santiago Mayor)
Friday, September 21: Zaragoza, Spain, to Lourdes, France (Our Lady of Lourdes, the Immaculate Conception)
Saturday, September 22: Lourdes
Sunday, September 23: Lourdes to Paris, France (Notre Dame de Paris)
Monday, September 24: Paris to Cincinnati

There will be more detail on each of these stops as we make them, and as my ability to master the limitations of blogging from the road allows. (I’m already needing to apologize for my inability to supply diacritical marks.) But there’s one striking feature to this trip, one that comes into even sharper focus this week with the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks and the ensuing (and possibly connected) acts of violence and unrest in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. If you know any medieval history at all, you will recognize that our pilgrim path lies almost entirely within a part of Europe where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were long engaged in a complicated dance of cultural flowering and conquest, tolerance and torture. The events that occurred in that part of the world, the currents set in motion there, echo and re-echo in today’s headlines.

I have written before about my fascination with the pagan (Celt, Iberian, Roman) and Islamic threads that weave through the great Marian apparition sites, and it has always been my intention to explore those more deeply on this journey. But in light of this week, it seems more important than ever to look to Mary (Queen of Heaven, Jewish woman of faith, Mother of Christ, honored by name more often in the Holy Qur’an than in the New Testament) and what she is saying to us today, here and now, about how we are to live the dance of the cross and the crescent.

This is where I part company, respectfully, with many of my sister and brother Catholics, including lots of my blog family at the Patheos Catholic Channel—and maybe where I part company with you, too, though I hope not. I have nothing but deep respect for Islam as I understand it, and for those I know who practice it. I refuse to call Muslims by the sneering Fox News epithet Islamists, as I refuse to call Jews Yids or Catholics papists. I know Allah to be one of the infinite number of God’s names, no less than Yahweh or Abba, and not a demon. I accord Muhammad (peace be upon him) the same respect I do to any faith’s prophets and founders, and I do not take it upon myself to tell Muslims what their sacred scriptures mean.

I do all this knowing full well that violence is committed daily in the name of Allah, and that it—like the violence committed daily in the name of Jesus or Yahweh or any holy name—is a sin and a sacrilege and must be condemned and repudiated by all people of peace. And I know full well that people, especially women, are oppressed daily in the name of Allah—as they are in the name of Jesus and of Yahweh. The violence and the oppression are no more inherent in any one faith than in any other, or in lack of faith. They are inherent in our broken humanity, from which God delivers us if we allow it by freely submitting to his will.

Free speech, and calling a sin a sin, is of high value, as Rebecca Cusey argues passionately. But we have to be clear that deploring hate speech and repairing the damage it does is also an obligation, one that Jesus laid on his followers in Matthew 5:21-26. The Vatican, in repeating this message yesterday, was not being soft on terrorists, as some Catholic writers implied. It was modeling the witness we are called to, most especially in times when we have been assaulted.

There was a time (as brief and shining as Camelot) when the land to which we are traveling tomorrow, extending across the Iberian peninsula and northward over the Pyrenees into southern France, was a country of peace, religious tolerance, diversity in truth and not only in lip service, and rare equality of women—a land of poetry and song, of gardens and tiled terraces, of education and medicine and science, of commerce and prosperity. Its North African rulers, Muslims known as Moors, called this land al-Andalus, and Jews and Christians lived and flourished there, too, with freedom of religion (though they were taxed at a higher rate). It didn’t last, because empires shift and politics and money and power have their way.

My Church takes credit for the destruction of that fairytale kingdom, with Their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella setting aside their traditional provincial wars to unite Spain, under the banner of St James (known in Spanish as Santiago Matamoros, St James the Moor-Killer), in what is celebrated as the Reconquest. In 1492, the year Isabella helped Columbus sail the ocean blue, the last of the Moors were expelled from the Iberian peninsula. The Jews were given the boot along with them, and any that remained and refused conversion to Christianity (or relapsed after it) were tortured and executed by the Spanish Inquisition—which, Monty Python aside, is not all that unexpected a pattern in human history. Like Muslims today reacting to the events of this week in Libya, claiming my faith means acknowledging that terrible things have been done in its name, but the terrible things are not my faith. This post by Patheos Muslim Channel blogger Nancy Shehata says that best. Read it, even if you stop reading me here.

The culture of al-Andalus remains, in the architecture and gardens of Spain and in the language itself, which cannot rid itself of Allah. And Mary remains, and returns again and again, under Arabic titles, in a town named for Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, by springs and wells and trees holy to the first peoples of the place. She is trying to tell us something, and unless we listen with ears that hear all the songs of the soul in that part of the world I am not sure we will hear it correctly.

I don’t go on this pilgrimage to glorify any one side of this tangled dance, but to glorify God, and to seek an understanding heart. Let us leave our prejudices and our rage and our politics at home, and carry only peace—la paz, shalom, salaam. Soon enough we will be back to our real lives and the headlines and the consequences of our brokenness. Al-Mu’tamid (d. 1085), the poet and Muslim ruler of Seville sent into banishment by  Catholic forces, wrote about that brokenness this way:

All things come to an end,
Even death itself dies the death of things.
Destiny is chameleon-colored,
Its very essence is transformation.
In its hands we are like a game of chess,
And the king may be lost for the sake of a pawn.
So shake off the world, and find repose . . .

Let’s go find repose and listen to Mary, in whose banner the cross and the crescent moon combine. God willing—or, as even the Catholics say in Spain, Ojala (“O Allah”)—we will hear and share her message of peace and healing with this broken world.

  • Ted Seeber

    The problem with Islam, as I see it, is it is nearly as fragmented as Christianity. They have their own version of the Protestants, and it is quite literally 1390 by the year of the Prophet- which in Christianity, began the mess and wars of the reformation.

    Made even worse is the fact that at least three sub-sects have adopted “Sixth Pillar” theology, in which *individualistic Jihad* is added to the traditional Five Pillars of what makes a good Muslim. Individual Jihad scares me as much as sola scriptura does in Christianity- it means that my neighbor, due to a slight insult, may declare a fatwah on me and my family and cut off our heads or blow us up in the name of making war for just cause.

    Note, however, that NONE of the major sects or schools of Islam accept this novel theology, but a war is coming between those who do and those who do not- a war that might already be here, that 9-11 is mere collateral damage in.

    And that is what scares me about Islam. Not the way it was originally designed. Not even it’s theology where Allah isn’t rational. But the theology where one man can declare, at the calling of a much darker spirit and his understanding of what Allah wants, war on the rest of the world.

    Now here’s the good part. Suicide attacks, as the Japanese found out in WWII, are simply not a sustainable method of warfare. Merely contemplating that method of warfare means your side has already lost.

    • joannemcportland

      Approving the comment, Ted, but I’d ask that the combox not become a place to debate notions of Islam. There are lots of those spaces available on the net. For the next 10 days, I’m concentrating on the pilgrimage itself and not the politics, though I did want to set the context. Many of the pilgrims’ families will be following the blog to be with us virtually, so let’s be hospitable. I may not have time to monitor comments as closely as usual, so don’t be surprised if there’s a delay in publishing. Thanks!

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    Ojalá que le vaya bien, Ms. McPortland. And speaking of cultural traits associated with Islam remaining in Iberia, I remember seeing in a National Geographic article several decades back, a current photo of a Catholic lady in southern Portugal whose face was veiled below her eyes.

    • J. H. M. Ortiz

      It occurred to me after I pressed the “Post Comment” button, that I should have provided a translation of the Spanish as I meant it: “God grant that things go well for you.”

      • joannemcportland

        Thank you. I did understand. Seven years of Spanish and I can read fluently, but I still can’t put enough syntax together to form a sentence in speech or writing.

  • Jenkins Minor

    Bless you, girl.
    Give our love to Our Mother in all her lovely names and guises, and come home safe, OK?

  • B Y

    Right on, Joanne! May God be with you on your pilgrimage and may the Holy Spirit open the heart, minds, and eyes of you & your fellow pilgrims.

  • Manny

    I’m surprised there’s a non-stop from Cincinati to Paris. I can’t seem to get a non-stop from New York to San Diego.

    I have great respect for Muslims too. Living in NYC I’ve worked and related with a substantial number and I’m always impressed wit their piety and kindness. Actuallynow that I think of it, an exboss, who looked out for my career, was a Muslim. However I must point out that Islamists is not a Fox News term (lol). It does’t so much refer to the religion but to the ideology of those who want to return to a caliphate form of government and spread that government across the world. Here:

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