The Chaplain

Back at the Office of the Chaplain, as I waited, I was still thinking about what the priest had said. It struck me as radical: the idea that faith leaders would cater to the spiritual needs of people regardless of religious affiliation. Chaplains in the military are working with young people whose job description includes not just an ability to kill, but a willingness to die. In the task of war, the differences that exist within the group become secondary to the goal of defeating a common enemy. These factors create an atmosphere in which inter-faith cooperation seems to thrive—but it’s unity forged in the context of a greater disunity.

The Pentagon Chaplain announced that he was free to meet. I sat opposite him in his office. Out in the waiting area, his mood had seemed jovial and light. Now a storm cloud had rolled in. Even his posture looked to be curving in as if he were a kid about to be punished. He appeared unhappy enough that I considered telling him we didn’t have to do this. I hadn’t expected a private conversation. I was still amazed I made it through the front door. I had gotten so much, now all I really wanted was to see the chapel.

Neither of us spoke for a moment and then he apologized. He explained that writers made him nervous. Since the chapel’s official dedication, journalists had come in to do stories that, when printed, never failed to generate a firestorm of criticism. Always, representatives from the general public were outraged that Muslims were allowed to worship in that space. Or someone else was fuming because their particular  denomination didn’t appear to have its own seat at the table. Or another person thought the entire endeavor was a joke and a travesty.

I tried to assure him that I wasn’t THAT kind of writer. I wasn’t a reporter, and the story I was working on wasn’t exactly journalism—it was personal, more like memoir. At the very least, whatever I was writing was unlikely to appear online in some national news publication with an open-access comments section. I told him I sympathized: those comments can be brutal.

He said part of the problem was that people didn’t understand the logistics of how faith groups came to worship in the chapel. It wasn’t determined by him—or any other Pentagon official, for that matter. The groups are formed by Pentagon employees, and not just military personnel. Anyone who works in the building is eligible: secretaries, cashiers, janitors. Islamic prayers are held in the chapel not for the purpose of making a political or social statement, whatever it might be, but because the Pentagon has Muslim employees who have the same rights as every other employee. Groups that hold weekly prayer services also include Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Episcopal, Hindu, and Jewish. And those are just the ones that gather in the chapel. Other faith groups meet throughout the building. To be given permission to form, the members must agree to certain ground rules. They cannot speak ill of any other faith or faith group, even in private. They sign a contract agreeing to this. Once a year, all the groups are asked to come together to participate in a multi-faith service.

The Chaplain’s demeanor had changed completely—he was back to being relaxed and friendly. He seemed to be thinking out loud: yes, the problem was also one of perception. The chapel had been designed as a space to serve Pentagon employees and, technically, that’s how it operated but this did not account for its symbolic function. The violent events that took place to create the chapel had been a very traumatizing, public experience. The plane crashed into the building at that exact spot. For this reason, people have a sense that the space itself, and all that takes place within it, belongs to everyone.

All Saints

Inside the Pentagon, we finally arrived at the Office of the Chaplain directly across the hall from the Pentagon Chapel. My escort introduced me to the head chaplain, a friendly Protestant minister, whose job is to oversee the spiritual needs of Pentagon employees. Each branch of the military also has a head chaplain who leads a squadron of chaplains that provide spiritual guidance to troops in the field. One of the deputies from the Chaplain’s office agreed to take charge of me, so my original escort handed responsibility for me over and said he’d come back later. I thanked him and bade him farewell.

My new escort asked if I was ready. I didn’t know for what—but I said I was. We set off again, walking briskly up and down more hallways. As we went, he explained that today’s Catholic service would be especially large and would take place in an auditorium, not the chapel. I tried to hide my disappointment. I thought wouldn’t that be something to have made it this far and fail to even lay eyes on the Pentagon Chapel.

By the time we got to the auditorium, almost every seat was filled. The Pentagon is said to have roughly 30,000 employees; several hundred had come to honor the individuals throughout history who, according to the Catholic Church, represent the highest embodiment of the Christian faith. The front of the room was transformed into a make-shift altar: a priest in robes, candles, a table set with a chalice. This space was not really a church and the people present weren’t congregants in the traditional sense—presumably they were tithe-paying members elsewhere—yet it was as authentic a place of worship as any I had visited. I marveled at the distance I had come that elements of the ceremony could feel familiar to me: calls and responses, readings from the Bible, communion. I remember agonizing in the beginning over whether to partake in the sacrament. Today, I didn’t hesitate. I believed I could approach it with the understanding and intention it deserved. I had earned my stripes.

The service concluded and my escort introduced me to the priest. A fresh haircut made him look as bare as a new recruit. He agreed to speak with me and my escort gave him the job of returning me to the office; I was a baton in a chaplain relay.

We sat in the now-empty auditorium and he told me about his years ministering on the front lines in the Middle East. He explained that “ministering” in the military was not necessarily what it sounded like. His job wasn’t to preach his beliefs to soldiers, but to support their spiritual needs regardless of their religious identifications. Within every large group of soldiers, a spectrum of affiliations might be represented including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists—not to mention the variations within those categories. Given certain constraints—particularly those in war—only one chaplain may be available for all those soldiers. So the situation is likely to arise that a Christian chaplain will make sure that Jewish soldiers have the necessary accommodations to celebrate Passover or that Buddhists soldiers have time to meditate or that Muslim soldiers are given a chance to perform daily prayers or that an Atheist soldier be permitted to avoid it all. In one particularly memorable instance, the Catholic priest explained, he had even ministered to a soldier who identified as Wiccan.

The Pentagon

In the months of communicating with various individuals within the Department of Defense, a specific mental picture had taken shape in my imagination: it was of me participating in Jummah prayers at the Pentagon Chapel. I couldn’t shake the thought, even as I recognized that almost nothing in this journey had played out as I envisioned it. Instead, some variation or twist I hadn’t seen coming unfolded, and I would come to accept the discrepancy even when it struck me initially as a disappoint—like in the very beginning when I ordered my tome on Martin Luther, only to receive a children’s book. I had learned to maintain as light a grip on my expectations as possible. But this particular hope—that I could perform Jummah at the Pentagon—refused to be dismissed. For this reason, I feared a dramatic deviation. I thought even if I managed to get through security and my escort showed up, then something else would go wrong: services would be cancelled or, if not that, I wouldn’t be invited to witness them much less participate.

Cautiously optimistic, if a little nervous, I approached the first check point at the Pentagon. The man scrutinized my IDs and then turned his laser focus on me. He asked the purpose of my visit. I explained and he let me through. I waited again for the next probe—this one by x-ray machine. Once again I passed muster. I was permitted to leave the little security building and make my way through the entrance to the actual Pentagon. Just beyond the doors, I came to a large waiting area that had yet another counter, this one offering the final clearance once a visitor had been united with his or her escort. My contact had explained that he would meet me here.

I joined dozens of other individuals sitting in the chairs provided. I thought, perhaps, this was as far as I would make it; in fact, I was surprised to have made it this far. I took in all the details. The people waiting appeared to be others like me with meetings or perhaps some were family members of an employee who had come for lunch or an event. We sat adjacent to a small gift shop. Some of the items on sale included Pentagon-shaped refrigerator magnets and ball caps with military logos and pink camouflage t-shirts for the ladies. The mood in the room felt light, almost festive. I had to remind myself I was standing in what was probably the planet’s most powerful killing command center. Lest anyone forget, a huge emblem on the wall reminded us of our location.

I was genuinely shocked when my Pentagon escort showed up not just on time but several minutes early. He was a smiley guy who laughed between sentences. We made our way to the last counter. He vouched for me and they took my picture for a computer-printed badge that I attached to the collar of my jacket. We went through one last checkpoint and then I was officially inside.

We began to walk and only then did I get a first-hand sense of the enormity of the Pentagon. We walked up corridors lined with offices and down corridors lined with offices. We strode passed cafeterias, a drug store, and even a florist. We came to a big open atrium that was like a busy intersection with pedestrians going this way and that. We kept going. Even when I thought our destination must be just around the corner, we had further still to go. Now I saw that an escort was not just a security precaution, but a navigational necessity.

Clearance

When I was almost finished with the Dallas portion of my trip, my email request to the Pentagon was still traveling in circles. I tried to imagine what being denied access to the Pentagon was meant to teach me. Certainly, it was a powerful statement about religion and war. I understood that many people use religion as a means to create divisions between themselves and others, but I had come to see that the absence of such divisions was the one truth to which each religion pointed. The very notion of an “us versus them”—of enemies—is unity’s opposite. What could be more emblematic of enemies than the Pentagon? As if to confirm this point, the building itself would not open to my inquiries. Maybe I would go, shake my fist at the Pentagon, and be done with it.

I was reaching a place of gratitude for being given this powerful message when the email arrived: I had been granted clearance to visit the Pentagon Chapel.

The person who contacted me with news that my request had been approved was a military spokesman who said he would be my escort. We settled on my first Friday in D.C. as the ideal date. He said that would allow me to sit in for a Catholic service in honor of All Saint’s Day and the afternoon Islamic Jummah Prayers. He told me to allow an extra hour to make my way through security.

In all my years of using the Metro system when I lived and worked in D.C., I had never once disembarked at the Pentagon. On several occasions, I passed that station and went on to the Pentagon City stop, which leads to a shopping mall. But the Pentagon stop had only the military complex above it with nothing but parking lots and freeways beyond. There was no draw for anyone not associated with armed forces. When I was riding that line, I always wondered about the passengers who got off there, many of whom wore crisp military uniforms. Perhaps they had just flown in from front lines or lonely outposts to make reports to higher-ups. Their fresh-scrubbed facades seemed to invite speculation. What sorrows sights did those stern expressions conceal?

Now I was joining them. As I exited the subway train, I could sense fellow passengers wondering about me. What was I doing getting off here? I was not dressed the part: neither military nor typical Washington business attire. I had debated whether to revert to my old pantsuit style for the occasion, but decided against it. I had entered a new chapter, so I opted for clothes appropriate to the present. I dressed as I had for the more traditional religious services on this journey, with a patterned skirt to my ankles and a long sleeve jacket. I was at once too conservative and too casual to fit in.

The Metro exit deposited me above ground just feet from one of the Pentagon’s outer walls, too close to gain a sense of the building’s size or shape. From this perspective, it looked like any other government building: pale stone adorned with decorative flourishes. I followed signs for visitors, which led to a small structure near one of the main entrances. Inside, a line snaked back and forth, feeding into various checkpoints.

Even as I inched forward with everyone else, I maintained my doubts. I was convinced something would go wrong. I worried that the forms of identification I brought would prove insufficient or my spokesman/escort would fail to meet me.

Jihad

I pictured the Pentagon and me standing near it. I formed this mental image before I even began making my way through Islam, and it grew clearer the further I got. I knew that the building’s gaping hole from 9/11 had been patched up and a memorial to the victims had been built. I thought I needed to see these things with my own eyes and that somehow the proximity would help me work through lingering issues. Time and experience had given me a new perspective on certain terms that I once found troubling. In the aftermath of 9/11, I heard people say that the word “Islam” itself means “to submit,” implying that the faith is designed to make servants of us all—perhaps with Muslims as our overlords. Now I understood differently. I saw that the submission in question wasn’t vis-à-vis another person, but something entirely private: a shift in perspective. Islam would have me remember that we are pieces of a vast creation, not the creation itself.

I hoped for a similar realization about the word “jihad.” It translated roughly as “holy war,” but I had heard two interpretations. The first, the “greater jihad,” is an inner struggle. I understood this as the effort each of us must put forth to make peace with the human condition—the “one-two punch” of life: granted and revoked. Exertion of this kind tends to grow one’s capacity to contribute to the greater good. But I’d also heard jihad used to refer to “violence waged on behalf of Islam.” Perhaps this was the “lesser” of the two jihads, but it certainly garnered more media attention; in the news, Muslim terrorists are often called “Jihadists.” I wanted this second version to be a misinterpretation, the result of twisted logic used to justify a selfish agenda.

While digging around for information on the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial, I happened upon an article about the multi-faith chapel that had been constructed when the building was repaired. Apparently, the Pentagon has accommodated a variety of religious services for many years, but never before had a space been specially designated for the purpose. Now the location had been chosen by the nose of an airplane commandeered in the name of religion; the chapel itself was presumably a peaceful pocket within a giant monument to war. The juxtapositions were striking. I knew immediately that I needed to attempt to visit the chapel. Perhaps being there would help me make sense of it. But what were the chances I would be allowed in? Unlike most other places of worship, this one is not open to the public. It’s for Pentagon employees, military personnel, and those granted special authorization.

Several weeks after Ramadan, I sent my first email message to the Pentagon. I had no special contacts. On the Department of Defense website, I found the email address to the Communications Department. I sent my note to “whom it may concern.” Briefly, I explained my situation: I had been a D.C.-based employee for the federal government on September 11, 2001; I was now a writer exploring religion; I hoped to be given permission to visit the Pentagon Chapel. For more than a month, my request bounced around. Public Relations forwarded it to the Office of the Chaplain. Each new contact scooted me along. When my plea came back to the original Communications Department, I had to admit that my chances did not look good. I started again at the beginning, realizing my appeal may never reach a person who could give me the official green light.

So I made my travel plans anyway: Dallas to Austin to D.C. At the very least I’d see that the Pentagon building had been sealed back up and I’d walk around the memorial that looked from pictures like an outdoor sculpture garden. That had been the plan before I knew of the chapel. I told myself it would be okay if my request was denied, that whatever happened was meant to be. The story is that which occurs, after all. You can do your best to sway an outcome, but forces greater than oneself are at play; individual and collective karmas bump and swirl. The future unfolds with a message that might not be easy or fair. I was learning from religion itself: faith is greeting even the most unwelcome events with a level of acceptance.

Dhikr

I arrived at the appointed time. The Sufi Center was in a tidy little building near a school that was quiet on a Sunday. The area would have been free from all noise if not for a flock of black birds cawing loudly in the trees. I had learned online that today’s dhikr would be of the vocal variety. The description said we would be joining our hearts, souls, and voices in an ancient Sufi chanting practice.

Inside, the woman I had spoken with on the phone greeted me. Thin and tall, her blond hair was parted in the middle to let her face through. She had two names: the American one her parents had given her and the one she had given herself as an adult, Hayati, which means “life” in Arabic. Hayati explained that first we’d complete the evening prayers and then she would lead the group in repeating names of God. I knew that in Islam Allah is said to have 99 names, some known and some hidden. Each is a noun or an adjective (like “Nourisher” or “All-Wise”) that might help a person conceive of the attributes of God. Would we run through the entire list or pick a few? Whatever the case, I planned to just go with it.

More people arrived. They looked to me like a small cross-section of average middle-aged Austinites: open-minded creative-types. Maybe they had once been dope-smoking youths, but that was a phase on a long path of soul searching, the twists and turns of which had somehow landed them here. We gathered in a large room that appeared to take up the majority of the building. It had few furnishings and a beautiful woven rug covered all but the perimeter. Hayati retrieved a small stack of prayer rugs from a closet. I followed her lead, helping her spread them across the larger rug diagonally to face Mecca. The worshippers arranged themselves with men in front. The women pulled scarves out of their bags or lifted them from around their shoulders and draped them over their heads. I grabbed the one I had brought just in case. I was surprised at how conventional this seemed. One of the men played the part of the imam, reciting passages in Arabic. We went through the evening prayers just as we would have in a typical mosque.

After the prayers, we gathered into a circle. Hayati whispered to me that she had selected three names of God. We would focus on one at a time and I should follow her lead. She began. I think she was saying “Allah” but it sounded like “Ya…a…la,” each syllable a burst of breath from her belly. Soon the others joined her. Their eyes were shut tight, and they swayed back and forth. Together, their voices sounded like a train leaving the station, “Ya…a…la…Ya…a…la…Ya…a…la…” I was embarrassed, but I didn’t know what else to do. I closed my eyes and swayed. I was The Little Engine That Could chugging up a hill.

Hayati changed our chant to “Eh…la…la.” Around and around we went with these new sounds, each an exhalation. Time was not ticking at a steady pace. The bright dots against my eye lids formed patterns that shimmied with my breath. Our chant morphed again. “Hey…coo-a…la.” This one sounded hilarious and I wanted to laugh. It made no sense what we were doing. How was this different from the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues? Our mouths were making sounds our minds didn’t recognize. Then it was like Muhammad whispering across generations, telling me to just go with it. Hey…coo-a…la. Surrender. Hey…coo-a…la. Make peace with the bigger picture. Hey…coo-a…la. You are not in charge. The patterns behind my lids exploded into chaos, a million points of light shooting in all directions; the entire universe in my eyes.

Sufism

Little details of Sufism reminded me of bits and pieces from other faiths. I read that the name “Sufi” was derived from the Arabic word “suf,” meaning “wool,” for the simple garments these individuals preferred to fancier options. This made me think of early Protestants who believed opulent attire was inconsistent with true Christianity and insisted on plain, unadorned clothing. In both cases, it was meant as a way to voice concern about the larger society’s preoccupation with wealth, which felt to them like a departure from the core message of faith.

I instantly recognized Sufi worship practices like chanting and visualizations as similar to those in Kabbalah and Buddhism, particularly Tantric methods, and ditto on the insistence that new students must learn from more experienced guides or risk crossing over into dangerous territory. Even significant symbols in Kabbalah and Buddhism like the circle and the ocean made appearances in Sufism. But Sufis also did certain things that struck me as entirely unique. Their chanting might be accompanied by strenuous breathing or thrashing of the head and torso to induce a trance-like state to help separate them from the false reality of the material world. Of course, who hasn’t heard at least some mention of the “Whirling Dervishes,” those one-of-a-kind Sufis who spin around and around to represent the movement of the cosmos?

Somehow, my inclination to find Sufis in Austin with whom I could worship felt appropriate. Maybe it was Austin’s distance from the glitz of Dallas, or its reputation for not quite fitting with the rest of Texas. Both Sufis and Austinites specialize in nonconformity so, in that way at least, the two seem to go hand-in-hand. But perhaps this gets closer to the truth: by exploring Sufism, some part of me felt like I was betraying Fatima. I thought if I did it spur-of-the-moment and in a location I never imagined as relevant, then it might exist outside the narrative. I see now that in the telling it becomes the story and, at every turn, I’ve let down somebody.

It wasn’t hard to locate a Sufi Center in Austin. The website’s pages implied a connection to Islam, invoking Arabic terms and concepts, but nowhere was the relationship overtly stated. It called Sufism “an ancient, practical, and effective school of mysticism based on the teachings of the Prophets.” I had assumed that orthodox Muslims were the ones distancing themselves from Sufis. Now I wondered if the feeling was mutual.

The woman who answered the phone sounded surprisingly ordinary as she confirmed the time I should show up Sunday evening. I would be joining a weekly event called a “Dhikr Circle.” I wasn’t sure what we would do in this circle. “Dhikr” means “to remember” and, among mainstream Muslims, generally refers to a silent reflection or recitation that focuses a person’s thoughts on God. With Sufism, dhikr takes on a greater range of activity. Depending on the order, dhikr may be singing or dancing. It might require feats of stamina and strength. When the Dervishes whirl, that’s dhikr. I searched the Sufi Center’s website to try to determine what kind of dhikr was in store for me.