B is for ‘A Heart Broken Open’ – a Book review

I like to read, but I’m quite a slow reader and find little time these days to read actual books from cover to cover. I’ve a tall pile of ‘to be read’ volumes. Recently I picked one out of the pile that had been there since Feb 2014 – I know, because it was a gift and had a note inside. Almost immediately I started to read I was grabbed by it, and as I continued my enthusiasm just grew. A friend hearing my enthusiasm suggested I review it for our local Interfaith Association newsletter – which I did. Since others may be interested, I thought I’d post the review here too.

A Heart Broken Open – Radical faith in an age of fear by Ray Gaston

This book is very much based in the author’s personal experiences in inner-city parish ministry, on a visit to Iraq in 2004 and a desire to be alongside the Muslims in his parish in a time of rising Islamophobia and the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’.

Ray relates his experiences in the anti-war movement in 2003, including his trial for ‘obstructing the public highway without lawful authority or excuse’; his experiences visiting Iraq in 2004 on a pilgrimage with a Shi’a Muslim friend which he describes as ‘beautiful and humbling’; his experiences fasting during Ramadan alongside his Muslim neighbours and his reflections on what he learns. It was at the shrine of Lady Zaynab near Damascus where he ‘felt a real sense of the presence of God’ and ‘… I wept. I felt my heart being broken open by God for the people of Iraq – this was the preparation I had needed …’

He remains grounded in his Christian faith which he finds strengthened by the insights and challenges of learning and experiencing more about Islam. He admits that his actions at times led some to leave his congregation. The way was not always easy, but he clearly felt led.

His account of fasting during Ramadan is almost entirely recounted by reproducing the journal he kept at the time, without editing it. I found this immensely powerful in helping me enter into the experience. The book also includes short chapters from some of those who shared parts of the journey with him. One of these recounts another person’s experience of sharing the Ramadan fast which she found very different to Ray, but a valuable experience none the less.

I was also particularly moved by his court appearance where, when called to stand, he knelt and said ‘Rather than stand before you, I prefer to kneel, not to the authority of this court, but to the authority of God …’ and proceeded to call on all present to join him in prayer for the ‘people of Iraq’ and for ‘our nation’ taking part in such a ‘blasphemous, immoral and criminal war.’ Equally moving, in a much more private scene, Ray speaks of visiting his dad during Ramadan: ‘I also want to give the time … over to him and when we are together make it a space where I focus on him, without my mind being elsewhere. Honouring him, which I so often fail to do.’

A Muslim contributor recommends that this book ‘primarily aimed at a Christian audience’, ‘be read by Muslims, as it is a beautifully written spiritual adventure that will resonate with all those who are seekers of a spiritual path”.

I would endorse that but extend the recommendation to all ‘seekers of a spiritual path’ of whatever religion and to all those who seek to apply their spiritual insights in their daily lives. This book is very much about how one person has responded to God’s call to action to make the world a better place for everyone. I am inspired and humbled.

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