US Catholic Faith in Real Life

‘Song of a Christian Sufi’ and the many paths to God

The greatest gift of ‘Song of a Christian Sufi’ is the way it weaves together the commonalities of the two faith traditions.

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Song of a Christian Sufi
By Marietta Bahri Della Penna (Anamchara Books, 2014)

Is it possible to be both Christian and Sufi? Marietta Bahri Della Penna proves so in her spiritual memoir, Song of a Christian Sufi. Born Catholic, Della Penna struggles with feelings of unworthiness her entire life. Years of physical and spiritual abuse leave Della Penna feeling voiceless. She stumbles upon solace in the Muslim contemplative way of Sufism, a spiritual path rooted in love of God the Beloved. 

A spiritual guide assures Della Penna that Sufism is “not a religion.” Rather, it is a pathway that invites believers to grow in union with God. Sufism encourages listening with the Beloved in mind, heart, and body. Della Penna is hooked. She jumps into Sufi community life, taking spiritual formation classes and even a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Eventually Della Penna returns to the Catholic Church, but only after some major inner transformation. The Sufis teach her the possibilities hidden in silence. They teach her to honor each feeling as sacred. Perhaps most important, Sufism teaches Della Penna the value of her own creative voice. 

Hopefully these don’t sound like foreign concepts to Catholics. The greatest gift of Song of a Christian Sufi is the way it weaves together the commonalities of the two faith traditions. The vocabulary varies, but both Christianity and Sufism are vehicles for encountering the living God. Della Penna learns to become aware of God’s presence in the silence of contemplative prayer. She expresses feelings to God that range from jubilation to despair. By the end, Della Penna uses her creative voice to write a book for prisoners on the freedom of prayer. She reflects, “If I were not a Sufi, I would not be rediscovering Christianity.” 

Song of a Christian Sufi offers an honest look at one woman’s spiritual journey. The writing is solid. The message is hopeful. Maybe our songs aren’t so different after all.

This article appears in the February 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 2, page 41).

Friday, February 19, 2016