The Words of the Schellen Family
During his inaugural Sunday service at the growth-stage Cheon Bok Gung, Rev. Moon Hyung-jin referred to the paintings of the founders of the major religions, saying, "Now in the growth-stage Cheon Bok Gung, we have the four great religious founders...you can feel the outpouring of such incredible spiritual energy."
He explained that the returning resurrection mobilizes "the spirits and saints in the spirit world not only from our families, but also from Christianity, from Buddhism, from Islam -- all the major religions. Saints and spirits will have to come and help us if we are to bring victory, and they will do it."'
In the context of returning resurrection, Rev. Moon also mentioned meeting a lady from Lebanon who told him of a deep spiritual experience she had had: "As I listened to what you said about the seven deaths and resurrections, I could feel my spirit leaving my body. I felt great peace in my heart, with tears and praise welling up naturally. I wanted to offer a bow before God and worship him. I never knew that God's love was this kind of love. I didn't know True Parents had gone through such a course."
There is a connection between the lady's experience and the painting representing Islam in the growth-stage Cheon Bok Gung. This is the story behind the story -- or rather, a section of the story known to me through direct participation.
This small tale of a freely given offering or art with a heart of sincere faith begins in a remote mountain area, the Shouf region of Lebanon. It leads from a town called Baakleen (a community known for its traditional limestone houses and the unbendable independence of its people as well as their kindness and hospitality) to the center of Seoul and the heart of the quest for world peace based upon religious harmony.
The improbability of an event or situation can be understood as indication of its spiritual entwinement into a larger providential process. In this sense, it was a good hint for my wife and me to sit in the living room of a family in Baakleen on wintry January 17, 2010. We had been driven for a bit over an hour by taxi in substantial Sunday afternoon traffic out of Beirut and up to the mountains to visit the family of Lebanese artist Imad Bu Ajram whom we had never met before.
While we were making introductions to one another -- with the artist's son providing translation between Arabic and English -- I could see, behind our host's head, two commemorative medals hanging informally from a living room cabinet. There was evidence of what had been said to me and my nerve ends tingled with a ten-millisecond-but-feels-eternal rush of excitement.
How improbable was it that this Lebanese gentleman had been awarded two shiny medals for his participation as speaker in an international youth and culture festival -- hosted in 1989 in Pyongyang by the government of North Korea? And what was the statistical probability that we had been directed to him as the person who was willing to offer a painting representing Islam to the World Peace Temple, which we were here to discuss?
Dr. Bu Ajram did not ask what was in it for him when my wife Hermine and I explained that we were asking him on behalf of our Middle East region to produce this work of art as a donation to a sanctuary in Korea dedicated to world peace and the harmony of religions. He agreed immediately to create the painting, a representation of Islam and Prophet Mohammed, and offer it from his heart, freely.
How were we able to meet this artist? Thanks to the spirit of two mothers -- Mrs. Siham Khodr, a prominent Lebanese lady, also at home in Baakleen, and my wife, Hermine.
We had been introduced to Mrs. Khodr through one of our ambassadors for peace in March 2009 when we were inviting speakers for a Global Peace Tour event in Beirut. She told my wife that Dr. Bu Ajram was a man we should meet and told him about the work of UPF in the Middle East.
The pivotal parental asset was Hermine, with her mobile phone, her faith, and her wealth of relationships cultivated over thirteen years of serving and loving the country and people of Lebanon with the spirit and heart of a mother. According to Middle East regional point person for this project, David Fraser Harris, Hermine was the "secret weapon" for this emergency. She went to work on her mobile phone the moment she heard in mid-January that attempts to find an artist to paint a "portrait of Islam" in other parts of the region or in Europe did not seem to be blessed with results.
I want to inject here that this task was not in the range of our expectations for 2010. We had heard about the request for submission of oil paintings portraying the four great saints some time in late 2009, but we did not have any inclination to take a role in this. One reason the project did not present itself strongly to us was that it addressed nations in the Islamic sphere. While belonging to the Arab nations, Lebanon is the home of many religious communities, whereas other countries in the Middle East have more explicitly Muslim identities.
Another factor was that I had no doubt pursuing this project would require considerable spiritual, mental and physical efforts for something I perceived as a fanciful idea. Much of what was going on in preparation for a new Unificationist affirmation in Korea seemed at great remove from anything of concern for our mission in what is basically a one-family operation in a place where propagation of new religions to members of existing communities risks more than loss of social status.
On a personal level, I conceive of myself as someone with great affinity to the refusenik son in the parable recorded in Matthew 21:29 -- I feel comfortable with my views and decisions and just don't jump because I get a memo.
But this story is not about a Cain guy's attitudes to institutional partners but about the quest of connecting the religious sphere of one of the world's leading faiths on a new level with True Parents. No religion has more potential for fruitful collaboration than Islam when it comes to submission to God and His sovereignty.
However, like most of us, I am painfully aware of tensions between Christians and Muslims in many locations and experience has taught me that one often encounters substantial barriers when building bridges of spiritual, heart-to-heart connections between the existing, concrete religious spheres that are as distinct as Islam and Unificationism. In my perception, bridging what I sometimes think of as the Barabbas gap has been a repeated experience of encountering intangible hardships, stretching into the incalculable.
This is the backdrop against which my wife and I learned in January that Lebanon had this historic chance to rise to a providential need. Available time for completion of the task was about three weeks (if we stretched it to the real limit), and the task was to be accomplished without having extra financial resources for necessities such as paint, canvas and shipping.
The artist's curriculum vitae and his readiness to donate the work of art representing Islam to the world peace temple were communicated to the key stakeholders. The artist went to work with their approval and by February 3, the oil painting was on its way from the painter's studio in Baakleen to Seoul, where it was unveiled along with the paintings of Jesus Christ, Confucius, and Buddha in the February 21 opening of the growth- stage Cheon Bok Gung.
That, as they say, is the big picture. The small miracles in between were the details of dedication and the challenges that made the process complete.
First, of course, we were amazed that Dr. Bu Ajram was perfectly willing to offer this painting, accept the requests on the content and message and ask for no reimbursement even for materials.
The greater surprise was spiritual. Of her experience, Hermine said, "In the moment when we received the approval for the painter to go ahead, I felt a very special atmosphere. It was a brief time during which it was as if the whole Muslim world, their martyrs and saints, patriots and wise people, centering on the will of the Prophet, directed their focus on this painting." She added, "I never thought of this painting as a project we were doing for Lebanon but rather as something that represented the entire Muslim world."
That day, she was sitting down and as is her habit pressing a few numbers randomly on her mobile phone without actually dialing. To her surprise, she noticed a fourteen-digit international number, which she did not recognize, come up on the screen. "This had never happened before. Out of more than two hundred numbers in my phone, this one appeared and I did not know whose number it was," she said.
Intrigued, she called the number. The person who answered was our friend of twelve years who back then was the first Muslim university student in Beirut to respond with tremendous interest to my wife's invitation for discussing matters of faith. Now a highly qualified computer engineer, he has been working in Dubai for the past four years and stays in touch via internet. He deeply respects and cherishes True Parents and is a devout Muslim believer whose dedication to the Prophet was noticed quickly by Hermine in their first discussions.
She grabbed the unexpected opportunity. "I felt that someone with a strong Islamic faith and love for Prophet Mohammed should support the artist through sincere prayer," she explained the project of dedicating a painting representing Islam at the world peace temple and asked if he would pray for the artist seven minutes a day for the next seven days.
"I love it, and I will do it at 7 AM every morning," was his response.
Once we had received approval from the Family Federation in Korea and confirmation of his work from the artist, the matter of composing the painting provided the next set of details. Portraits are a thorny issue in the context of religious depictions in the Islamic world. Islam is a living community where open minds and strong beliefs often go hand in hand.
It also is a faith with more diversity of traditions than commonly known. In some Muslim communities, such as the Alawite tradition, one encounters images of revered persons in meeting halls. On the whole, however, tradition and ruling practice in Islam is that Prophet Mohammed is not to be depicted. This is an enormously strong spiritual and cultural prohibition against portraying the founder of Islam that is rooted in the faith's strict monotheism and refusal of idolatry. Hadith, reports of the statements and deeds of Mohammed, convey that the Prophet rejected images of living creatures, saying that the makers of them would be confronted on judgment day.
Calligraphy is the time-honored method of decoration and visual expression of artistry in the Islamic religious context. This was determined to be a central element in the painting. The artist, Dr. Bu Ajram, selected the verse that is present everywhere in prayers and worship, "In the name of God, most merciful, most gracious."
A work of art and beauty in its own right, great calligraphy delivers a stunning visual expression and generates, to this writer's mind, a mystical impression of its message. Dr. Bu Ajram chose to integrate this calligraphy into a setting and composition that visualized accomplishments of the faith and dedication to godly peace.
We saw the painting reach completion at the end of January and arranged for shipping. This was a task of some interest due to its cost element. I had inquired about cost of express transport of a large painting and a custom-made wooden container and was presented with a price quote of close to $1,000. I contacted the responsible country manager for the shipping company, explained to him the purpose of the shipment as a gift by the artist in Lebanon and its contribution to a world peace temple, and asked for the possibility of a discount.
He answered, "We don't have an NCO rate but call me when the painting is ready for pickup and we will see." This was a man I had met as a journalist and interviewed more than ten years ago, so I had some hope for a reduction in the $1,000 price tag.
When the painting had been picked up and all shipping formalities and air way bill information collected, I asked for the final price and was flabbergasted when the desk clerk at the shipping office told me, "It is free of charge."
To my mind, this totally unexpected generosity and magnanimity was more than a financial windfall. I sensed it was another sign of important internal and substantial support for this offering from the Islamic world; the company that gave this support is a leading international brand and in the Middle East is a joint venture whose main investor is in the highest echelon in a royal family whose proudest title is that of custodians of the holiest sites in Islam.
The donation reaffirmed in me the feeling of how intensely the original spirit of Islam is characterized by compassion and generosity. In learning of this donation, moreover, I felt the same exuberance of enjoying the backing by the saints of Islam as my wife whose sense of support from the Prophet was very strong during the entire process of this religious offering.
When the painting was on its way to Korea, my main thought was whether it would be accepted, which I understand is the main concern when giving one's offering without any condition from the Cain position. I associate with this responsibility an inherent concern about whether the offering is going to find acceptance or if more is going to be needed. It wasn't entirely unexpected then, that Middle East Continental Director Lee Sang-jin wrote from Korea to inform us that the international president was asking for a change to the picture. The name Prophet Mohammed, which was included, in calligraphy, on the painting, should be modified to be written with greater prominence and length as the main Muslim confession of faith, "There is no deity but God and Mohammed is the messenger of God."
Again an unexpected rush occurred to manage a tiny miracle. How were we to get a painting changed in Seoul by a painter in Lebanon in less than ten days? Thanks to the good spirit of all involved, especially the artist's, and many friends in Lebanon including in the Korean embassy, we obtained an invitation and sponsorship for Dr. Ajram to attend the International Leadership Conference in Seoul. He got his passport, ticket and visa, and departed for Seoul, his brushes in hand, where he was able to extend the calligraphic message, as requested, on site.
Hearing of a good response to the artwork in Korea, we felt immensely happy that the painting representing Islam and the central heart of this religion and its founder has been received and now resides in Cheon Bok Gung.
For someone who resides in a small place on the rim of the Unificationist map, life is not resplendent with daily connections to the mainstream of new initiatives. This is not to say that it is uneventful, not in the least. Living in the Arab world has many rewards and Lebanon specifically offers opportunities for grassroots peace building that are based on collaboration of the religious communities here. But the invisible nerve fibers that link this region and its potential to today's centers of providential thrust, from my perspective, still appear thin.
Thus, after living thirteen years in the Middle East and having been granted many good experiences of interaction with Muslim believers, being able to assist in an offering representing Prophet Mohammed and Islam was a definite highlight and a liberating moment of knowing God's love to the marrow of our bones. It gave me, from my distant outpost, a sense of Cheon Bok Gung's historic dimension for reconciliation of religions and for the joining of the good fortunes of faiths for God's sovereignty and for ushering in Cheon II Guk.
The crowning moment of this joy came for me personally by internet in mid-March. I opened the iUnificationist web site and read the sermon transcripts of the first Sunday service that Hyung-jin nim delivered in Cheon Bok Gung on February 28.
He said, "Everywhere that I look in this building, in this place, I am just so moved. I personally have had my deepest experience praying in the first floor, in the Prayer and Devotion Room, which has all the major saints from the major religions. We are honoring all of them together...and we have their pictures there, and we can offer them our respect."
To my wife, this was an affirmation of the love for the saints and the religious traditions that she had sensed as the motivating power behind the painting project. This spirit is a compelling testimony to True Parents and completely convincing to those whose eyes can perceive, according to Mrs. Khodr who was the woman who shook the young Rev. Moon's hand in Korea.
On my side, it provided me with another strong affirmation of the great synergetic capacities in the Islamic realm to read how Rev. Moon retold a pivotal story of Prophet Mohammed's life when the angel Gabriel impressed upon Mohammed the mandate to read a book even as the Prophet said he did not know how to read, and the affirmation of this revelation and divine calling by Mohammed's wife, Khadija.
Whatever other avenues and gates to the realm of Cheon Il Guk appeal to this writer and appear needed when working in the Middle East's tender and risky circumstances, it is clear and evident in studying this region that the global road to peace and social ideals has to be rooted in the heart of filial submission to True Parents and the simple confession of faith.