Letter from the Road #31

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Walking with Abraham


It feels like the middle of nowhere – a rainy night, a poor neighborhood of scattered mud-brick and cement-block houses, puddles forming in the unpaved streets – but it was here in Harran, in what is now southeastern Turkey, that the religions of half of humanity had their beginning. In this place some 4,000 years ago Abraham heeded God’s call to “Go forth unto a land I will show thee,” an act of singular faith that is at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So it’s appropriate a small group of us – Muslims, Christians and Jews – have made our way through these muddy streets to pray in concord with groups around the world, making a first prayerful gesture to begin what is called “The Abraham Path.” This is a decades-long, international effort to open a pilgrimage route in the legendary footsteps of Abraham, from Harran southward through Syria, Jordan, Israel, and ending in the divided city of Hebron, Palestine, where Abraham and Sarah’s burial shrine is venerated.

The vision is to establish a path on which people of the three religions of Abraham, as well as people from all over the world, may travel freely and safely, honoring the spirit of oneness, hospitality, open-heartedness, and faith that Abraham signifies.

Partially modeled on the Camino de Campostela pilgrimage route across northern Spain, the Abraham Path is distinct in that it runs through a landscape of international tensions. While not the largest or bloodiest war on the planet, the conflict in the Middle East has become an icon for all the world of human distrust and reciprocal violence. Within this context the Abraham Path makes possible a different kind of encounter – people of many nations and faiths walking side by side along a common path, and in that commonality reaching across the memories of woundedness that divide one from another.

But the initiative of the Abraham Path does not pretend to offer political solutions or take one side over another. Its partisanship is with the human spirit and our longing for intimacy with the divine and for peace on earth. For this Path is not located only in the Middle East – one day televised images of imams, priests, and rabbis walking together on the Abraham Path will help inspire the imagination of millions around the planet with new possibilities for mutual respect. Even now plans are being made for parallel events in communities around the world in the form of local “Abraham Walks” from churches to mosques to synagogues, sharing religious services and festivals, and organizing educational events on religious coexistence.

Rabia and I have been working with a small team holding this vision for the past two years. Organized and researched through a center at Harvard University, the initiative is carefully forming a network of partnerships both in the Middle East and the West. (See www.abrahampath.org .) I’ve been working with this initiative primarily in Syria but also in Jordan and Turkey, helping to establish a consultation process with religious, political, and community leaders in the region. Host Committees are being set up in each country hosting the Path, and these national groups will help coordinate the many elements of the Path’s creation – establishing way stations, guides, signposts, places of prayer and meeting, the cooperation of national and local authorities, and so on. Ultimately, the Abraham Path will have no central organizing body but will function chaordically through a dedicated web of local and international groups. As with other well-known trails, pilgrims will self-organize their journeys, choosing to travel part or all of the route, and will go by foot, donkey, car, bus, or a combination. Soon small surveying teams will be sent out to find possible walking trails for the Path, and an evolving guidebook and interactive website created so that those who begin traveling it will be able to take part in its creation. As the proverb says – a path is made by walking.

This particular path is also made by praying, since at its heart it is a pilgrimage. We pray when we express or act from our most sincere intention, and the effort to do this in itself purifies that intention. Pilgrims pray their way onward, and welcome the ordeals and surprises that may come as part of the healing and awakening they seek. Recognizing this, the initial team of us organizing the Abraham Path wanted to stop organizing for a moment and accept the ordeal of a night of prayer in this place where Abraham took the first step on his path. At the suggestion of Emran Akhtar, a member of our group from Pakistan, we chose the Muslim “Night of Destiny” near the end of Ramadan for this moment, a night during which it is said one’s prayers are “worth the prayers of a 1,000 nights.”

In Harran we take turns praying through the night – first in a mud-brick house, later in the small mosque of a Sufi saint, and at dawn under the great arch in the ruins of the ancient city. And we feel the presence of others around the world praying with us to bless this initiation of the Abraham Path – individuals and groups in 18 countries, from Brazil to Palestine, from the Netherlands to Russia.

The prayers flow freely, spontaneously, from one to the other of us – now a Christian prayer in Arabic, now a prayer sent by a venerable rabbi for this moment, now a rhythmic zikr, now a prayer from the heart.

“…Oh Father Abraham, you who once raised a knife to sacrifice your own son but stopped, the blade falling from your hand at the word of God – hear our prayer! Over the world, even at this moment, as hands are raised in anger and violence, as fingers pull against triggers – help us! Help us to hear what you heard, this merciful word of God. Teach us your faithfulness to put down fist, knife, and gun, that we may receive the love that comes when we let go…”

Through the night this theme keeps repeating in our prayers – this Abrahmic symbol of letting go, of going forth into the unknown, of leaving the known country, the known ideas, the known beliefs. The legend tells that Abraham’s act of leaving determined the course of history. Why? What does his leaving signify?

I think it comes down to something like this: the new world we long for will only be born by letting go of our attachments to the past. Yes, it is good to honor our ancestors and their gifts of
wisdom and tradition, but these gifts become prisons of self-righteousness if they obstruct our encountering each moment with freshness, compassion, and curiosity. Abraham held his identity lightly enough to heed the divine call to step into the unknown. This act is the heart of faithfulness.

Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Americans, Syrians, Turks, British – all of us without exception receive this same call again and again throughout our lives – at large moments that shape our destiny and at small moments that shape the texture of our relationships. The call asks: can we step free of our insistence on things remaining the same and open ourselves to the living moment where living human beings encounter the living world? Then the weight of the past is lifted and judgment, distrust, and violence have no motive. By letting go of who we think we are the whole world is released from its grim determinism and we step, with Abraham, into the unknown.

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