Umma means Nation / thoughts on violence and freedom

By Maya Kriem

We named our daughter Umma, hoping that she, along with all our loved ones and ourselves will all become an Umma, gaining the ability to get in touch with our human essence…

I seldom share personal thoughts online, but today I feel compelled to do so. I feel so saddened by yesterday’s attacks on the mosques in New Zealand. So many deaths, so much grief! I have been particularly affected by the events, imagining the terror that children who were there must have felt. A father shielding his sons and being shot to death, Women and children screaming. So much loss in an instant. Perhaps I have been affected so because I had planned on taking my three kidlets to our local mosque for Friday prayer, but got caught up in a visit with a friend and decided not to go. Perhaps because it happened in a mosque, a place of worship that is supposed to be a safe space. It’s a unique feeling to be barefoot, in a room stripped from all furniture, where you stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers and pray to a common God. The energy during a communal prayer is indescribable. My mother called me as soon as she heard the news to beg that I never take my children to the mosque. “Who will you leave your children to if you are killed? What if they are killed?” Perhaps it’s because these acts of madness target a religion, my religion, that for me represents a precious gem. And I feel so privileged that I hold claim to such a gem.

My daughter’s name Umma means mother or grandmother in many different cultures and languages (in the Arab/Islamic world, India, Germany, Scandinavian countries). And most people assume that it is the reason we named our daughter Umma. A feminine name that represents motherhood; but it has another, related meaning. It is from a Qur’anic verse that speaks of how Abraham (considered the father of all three monotheistic religions) through his unwavering devotion to God became an Umma. And here Umma means Nation. Many understand this verse to mean that Abraham produced a nation of devout people, as many of his descendants were messengers and prophets, their stories often told in the old and new testaments and in Qur’an (Isaac, Ismael, Jacob, Joseph, Benjamin, and many more). But I always understood it to mean that Abraham became a nation onto himself, referring to Abraham’s unique ability to shed all the cultural and social layers of his identity and get to the core of what it is to be a human being; the human essence; that divine spirit that animates us all; that part of us that we all share; the common human denominator.

Abraham was a nation onto himself because he let his human essence shine above all else, and he did so by staying true to his beliefs, by submitting utterly and completely to his Creator, a God of light and love. Abraham became an Umma by free falling into love. And in so doing he gained unprecedented freedom. Freedom we glimpse when we are young children immersed in play, with no limitations on our imagination. Freedom we touch when we are out in nature and experience that indescribable feeling of peace and contentment, momentarily unburdened from our daily worries. Freedom that comes with that feeling of utter joy when we have done an act of genuine kindness for a stranger. Freedom that I always feel every time I step into a mosque.

We named our daughter Umma, hoping that she, along with all our loved ones and ourselves will all become an Umma, gaining the ability to get in touch with our human essence, that which links us all and makes us one, that which underlays our collective memory as a species. I am a Muslim Moroccan Australian woman raising my children in the Muslim faith in a country where I migrated as an adult. I find anchor in my cultural identity, my traditions and teach them to my children so they may serve as anchors for them too. I also attempt every day to teach myself and my children how to readily access and stay close to that human essence within us all; to reach beyond cultural difference and touch the Other’s soul. It is my attempt to counter the violence and terror we live with everyday.

Violence comes in many forms: A mad man wearing a GoPro camera storming a mosque in New Zealand and killing people, perpetuating a discourse of violence and discrimination against those who are deemed ‘Other.’ Harsh daily schedules and daily stresses in sterile urban jungles are impacting our mental health and wellbeing, disconnecting us from each other, from nature, from tradition, from ancestral knowledge. Industrial production and transportation systems that have affected our climate and are destroying our planet. A medical system that fails to uphold its own oath, that tells us time and again that our bodies are unable to stay healthy or heal themselves and so we need to medicate them. A food production and consumption system that is killing us and the planet. An educational system that strips us of innate knowledge and our natural ability to learn, analyze, question and replaces them with sterile information. An educational system that takes our children away from us everyday and turns these gentle, kind, empathetic human beings into stressed out, competitive ones. An educational system that is demanding that our children behave in unnatural ways (spending most of their daylight hours with same age kids, sitting still, letting the bell punctuate and dictate their needs and desires to play, study, even eat) and slaps labels on them when they fail to comply (ADHD, disruptive).

I pray that those who lost loved ones yesterday have beautiful memories to hold on to, prayers to soothe their souls, and arms to hug their pain away. I pray that the souls of those who were killed find peace in the highest heavens. I pray that my children only ever encounter kindness and gentleness. I pray that they continue to trust and free fall into love and light. I pray that we all do. With much love.


Word Made Flesh / Lives We Touch

An opening prayer from the last iteration of the Roman missal…

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
our glory is to stand before the world
as your own sons and daughters.

May the simple beauty of Jesus’ birth
summon us always to love what is most deeply human
and to see your Word made flesh
reflected in those whose lives we touch…

Image distributed to participants in the international   Societas Liturgica  gathering in Sydney, 2009   .

Image distributed to participants in the international Societas Liturgica gathering in Sydney, 2009.

"Give Beauty Back": Tarrawarra Abbey

Photos in this post by Ngun T. Lian—to whom, thanks.

Photos in this post by Ngun T. Lian—to whom, thanks.

Yesterday I made a brief visit to Tarrawarra Abbey, a Cisterician monastery about an hour and a half away from Melbourne’s city centre. See the photo above of the “noble simplicity”—and arresting heft—of the abbey’s altar and ambo.

At the bookshop I bought the recent Festschrift for the Abbey’s member Michael Casey, a much published writer and much travelled speaker on prayer in the Christian tradition, and the Benedictine and Cistercian traditions in particular. I confess I know more about some of the writers in the Festschrift than its honouree, so I started with two chapters in the middle of the book. Mary Collins, a Benedictine sister from Kansas, USA, wrote Worship: Renewal to Practice (Portland, Ore.: OCP, 1987), a book I loved from my first encounter with it twenty five years ago. She also presided over the brilliant ICEL Psalter (Chicago, Ill.: LTP, 1995) which in an ecumenical irony after being suppressed by the Vatican for its “inclusive” renderings was picked up by other churches—the Uniting Church in Australia, a case in point—for their liturgical materials, and which endures among many folks I know as the preferred version of the psalms for daily prayer. Collins writes in the Casey Festschrift A Not-so-Unexciting Life about crafting rituals for the dissolution of a praying community, invoking to moving effect portions of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”:

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s
self and beauty’s giver—

with this line used in refrain as sisters in turn gave testimony to “memories of great beauty—fragments given them in their shared monastic life” (p. 106).

Katharine Massam is my esteemed colleague at Pilgrim Theological College. She contributes a chapter on connections between cloister and community, playing with the Foucauldian notion of “heterotropia”—that is, how one real location “represents several locations at once.” As Katharine discusses “reading the cloister as Christ” she focuses on the strange and wonderful experience of the thirteenth-century Benedictine Gertrude of Helfta (1256-1302), who whilst singing vespers (evening prayer) in her community experienced Christ saying to her: “Behold my heart; now it will be your temple,” and asking her to “look among the other parts of my body and choose for yourself other places in which you can lead a monastic life.” To this unusual command, Gertrude responded by asking for “the Lord’s feet for a hall or ambulatory; his hands for a workshop; his mouth for parlour and chapter house; his eyes for a library where she might read; and his ears for a confessional” (p. 309)!


Carmel Posa, SGS, ed., A Not-so-Unexciting Life: Essays on Benedictine History and Spirituality in Honor of Michael Casey, OCSO (Athens, Ohio/Collegeville, Minn.: Cisterician Publications/Liturgical Press, 2017).

See here for the Liturgical Press page on the book, where, it turns out, Mary Collins’ chapter is included in the sample pages.