It was the flowers that initially
I have to admit that I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The last attention I had paid to the man he was still “Gaseous Cassius” and, not having an interest in boxing, when he converted to Islam I turned my back on all the braggadocio and invested my brain cells other where. You couldn’t escape him entirely of course, not if you read the newspapers or watched Walter Cronkite, but he was only a name from those part of the headlines that came from worlds which I, for the most part, did not inhabit. He was enough older than me that during the years he made his mark I still had grades and college admissions to preoccupy me. And I was slow in coming to my more liberal views—Viet Nam in particular was not a quick conversion for me but a long agonizing interior search for a moral compass that transcended the glib and easy slogans being yelled by crowds outside my college dorm. And more important yet, my life already was the Church. It was the heady years immediately after Vatican II, and I was taken up with the Liturgy and Ecumenics and outreach to the poor. So who gave a second thought to a come-lately Muslim of questionable sharia orthodoxy from Louisville Kentucky? And that is pretty much where I had left it. So what was the fuss about?
I had no intention of watching the memorial service but sometimes circumstances conspire to the unplanned. I had been in hospital for a few days with an infection in my lower intestinal tract and was being discharged. I was waiting for my ride home. The television was on. And to be honest I was captivated by the gorgeous arrangements of hydrangea, tulips, orchids, roses and fern. I have always had a “thing” for flowers and was struck by the incredible garden that surrounded the speakers.
The first of the speakers I heard was the Reverend Kevin Cosby, pastor of Saint Stephen’s Baptist Church in Louisville and President of Simmons College. It was the best of African-American preaching—solid, biblical, and yet pulling on the heart-strings for personal conversion. And, unlike other Christian speakers, he honored the commission to bring Jesus into the conversation, the Jesus of Matthew 25 who shuffles with the lame and the tired through the hardships of Louisville’s (or Chicago’s, or Los Angeles’ or Nairobi’s West End. Every city has a West End and like the mythical “liturgical east” it isn’t limited to one point of the compass.)
The second speaker to snap me to attention was Rabbi Michael Lerner. I wasn’t impressed by his mourning prayer—just a little too post-orthodox for me—but the talk was powerful and, like Reverend Cosby’s—was a call for the personal commitment and conversion of the listener.
I didn’t get to hear all the speakers. My ride came and there was a stop at the drugstore to drop off prescriptions, but as soon as I was back in my suite of rooms, my television was snapped on.
I loved Billy Crystal’s talk. I expected more from President Clinton but he didn’t do badly. He was warm and personal towards Mrs. Ali and the family and I suppose a more low-key approach was fitting for the end of the service to usher us back to the everyday world and the promise of a tomorrow in which I –and I hope others—would have a different perspective on our mission in the world. I was somewhat embarrassed by the blandness of Monsignor Kriegel. I am not sure what to make of the Buddhist chant; it seemed incongruous. The Quranic verses were certainly appropriate to the occasion. And the flowers were magnificent.
The entire event confirmed in me my conviction and commitment to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration found in Nostra Aetate
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.
Secondly I learned that I need to pay more attention to those whom I often dismiss as being culturally, socially and historically marginal because I disagree with their foundational religious, intellectual, or cultural principles. It is not my role to grade others—public figures or private individuals—for importance but rather to see the results they produce in their lives that effect change on either the global or the individual levels.
Thirdly, I need to see that Islam—like the other religions, great and small of our world—produces people of wide vision, great tolerance, peace builders and reconcilers and not fall into the trap that only Christian trees bear good fruit. While I have always defended those who faith follows different doctrines than mine, I do have a strong streak of Christian chauvinism that Friday’s service proved needs rethinking. And I need to acknowledge that there are those for whom religious faith of any sort is not central to, or even part of, their lives but whose contribution to the betterment of our world far surpasses my own.
And finally I think—I hope—that I have learned that the future requires people of any and all religious beliefs to work together in mutual respect with all people of good will in taking responsibility for making our world better.