- Created on Wednesday, 07 October 2015
Inspired by last year’s sponsored walks for the Forum (#pedallingpilgrim2 and #romanpilgrim), my friend Qaisra Khan suggested a British Christian-Muslim pilgrimage beginning and ending at holy sites. Through our inter faith journeying and contacts we know some great people and places. Thus we came up with the idea of a walk from St George’s Coptic Cathedral in Stevenage (http://britishorthodox.org/tag/st-georges-cathedral-stevenage/) to Palmer’s Green mosque (http://www.mcec.org.uk/)
On 19 September, after walking from Stevenage railway station, we began our pilgrimage from the Coptic Cathedral. Bishop Angaelos prayed a prayer of blessing for us in the beautiful surroundings of the Cathedral. We asked him our first dialogue question on the journey – was there anything in Coptic devotions that was similar to the practice in Islam of chanting (or remembering) the names of God? He told us about the ‘Jesus prayer’ – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. He also mentioned other liturgical prayers and private devotions focusing on the attributes of God. Our similarities are not surprising.
Our focus on our walk was not highlighting our differences or seeking to bridge any divide but a lived, or walked, example of unity. The experience of being in church and mosque was a familiar one to both of us, we feel equally at home in both, though I have a language barrier in the mosque. Our other commonality is that we both studied Christian theology at universities in Wales, so we have much in common. Similarities in the background and religious formation between British Christians and Muslims are commonplace but apparently not widely known or remarked on.
We visited one church in the middle of our route – Datchworth, well worth a visit [http://www.amca.co.uk/allsaints/allsaints2.html] – and sat together inside praying and admiring the stained glass windows, including the message of ‘I am the vine’ (John 15). Muslims love going to church! The gap in our life together in this country is that not enough Christians have visited a mosque. The unusual thing wasn’t that a Christian and a Muslim sat side by side in the church but the vicar asking me to help with a little gravedigging!
Spending so much time together – how many of our encounters are rushed? – gave me the opportunity to ask Qaisra to recite Al-Fatiha (the first chapter of the Qur’an and the Islamic equivalent of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’) slowly so that I could repeat it after her. She then recited it many, many times as we walked, a peaceful comfort for sore feet and veering off the straight path.
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy!
Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy, Master of the day of judgement. It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path; the path of those You have blessed; those who incur no anger and those who have not gone astray.
Journey’s end was a warm welcome at Palmers Green mosque [add hyperlink]. I felt at home (not my first visit) at the mosque as the congregation prayed Maghrib. What could be better than starting and finishing with prayer, though I missed sharing the moment with Qaisra, as we had at the beginning, as the women prayed upstairs.
The Lord of Mercy was surely with us as we walked because despite walking over 23 miles we were able to finish our journey by walking together to a tube station for our journeys home. In addition when we needed water a “Good Samaritan” appeared (at Cuffley) and graciously gave us some. That and the offer of hospitality at the places of worship we entered made us reflect on the tradition of hospitality within faiths and how in places such as Turkey memorials tend to be fountains that can continue to provide sustenance long after a death. In addition wherever we walked the Abundance and Mercy of creation was evident and at time took our breath away.
As Julian mentions above, we both studied theology etc so were familiar and therefore comfortable with each others faiths, but learning never stops. There is something special about being on a journey together, sharing basic human needs and what is important to us.
Our first dialogue question arose after I started reciting the names of God because we had already walked over a mile and the official pilgrimage had yet to begin! The thoughtful response and blessing by Bishop Angaelos was very reflective and inspiring because it gave us an opportunity to draw closer to the Divine as we started our journey. It was always great to hear the football tournament taking place in the background: a real community spirit.
We were reminded that our pilgrimage was taking place at the same time as the Hajj which made me recall my trip to some of the most sacred sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism including some Coptic monasteries in Egypt. It is a pity that non-Muslims cannot enter Mecca or Medina because I would like to do that journey with a group of interfaith pilgrims. It is also a pity that the world al-Haram, the sacred in Arabic is mostly confused with other more negative ones, particularly on the Internet.
The church at Datchworth provided us with a perfect mid day stop: it is beautiful and set in a beautiful village particularly when the sun is shinning. The vicar was very welcoming and gave us an opportunity to reflect on our mortality by providing Julian with the opportunity to demonstrate his grave digging skills whilst I looked on. We spoke about death and how it is seen in our traditions, particularly the hat of the whirling dervish which resembles a tombstone.
I found it interesting to note the difference once the vicar had changed for the service which was to follow. When we entered the church she was in her digging clothes but whilst Julian was digging she returned in her vestments which brought the solemnity of the occasion home to us so we said a prayer at the graveside before we left. The family of the deceased were coming in as we left the church and I felt a clear connection with them because we dug the grave etc but also because we are on the journey of life together.
The dialogue regarding the Names/Attributes of God continued as I was able to ask Julian about my understanding of the commandment thou shall not take the Lord thy God’s name in vain” which always appeared to me as the complete opposite of the tradition I was brought up in where the names of God are often recited and used.
We had various conversations including family which is important in all our traditions and lives. One of my younger brothers, for instance, lives in Kuwait and is married to a Christian from Syria. They were having particular issues with trying to get a British passport for their baby daughter a situation which made me reflect on how British we were or are perceived to be: http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/longsight-baby-passport-battle-kuwait-10149631. In addition this brother’s name is Ikram Ullah which translates as Bounty of God so led us to another meditation on the names/attributes of God. I have two brothers who have been given names which remind me of the divine but who also I am reminded of each time God’s names are recited. My meditation for the month had also been on Dhū-l-Jalāl wa-l-Ikrām meaning Lord of Majesty and Bounty/Generosity.
Our whole journey was undertaken with God in our thoughts, words and deeds but we had particular moments of prayer: the blessing at the beginning and the prayer at the mosque at the end. It was great to be greeted as we entered the mosque and given some refreshment before we went on to do the penultimate prayer of the day at Sunset! At the mosque they spent some time welcoming us and reflecting on the journey and even suggested that we make the pilgrimage an annual event before the Imam went to lead the congregational prayers. I also did Salah on the side of a public path for the first time in my life: we had a bit of a discussion about direction but agreed that God is everywhere so ultimately it is our intention and faith that counts.
To date we have raised £400. You can still make a donation here http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=thepilgrims1&isTeam=true
 The Quran; a new translation by Abdel Haleem, Oxford University Press 2005.