"It's not a spectator sport!"

  I remember my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Knudsen. She was a grouchy old gal, constantly amazed at how us students could be so dull and dense. But that amazement was just a drop in the bucket compared to her aghast feelings towards humanity in general. Was there anybody out there paying attention!

This was a point that she drove home to us very effectively in the third week of Latin 101. For those first three weeks she had pounded vocabulary and syntax into our heads. Most important was the fact that, in Latin, syllable endings on words would denote possessiveness or other subtleties of sentence. On this fatal day she was hoping that we had retained enough of these important clues to withstand the proof of mankind's folly, and she slapped a test paper on our desks. On the paper was one sentence in Latin. "Translate this!" She demanded of the fools sitting in front of her, and stood by her desk, glaring, arms crossed over her drooping chest.

I clutched my pencil, squinting at my paper, and slowly worked through the foreign words. I didn't recognize them as a sentence as they came out. -Peace- yes, that's an easy start. -on earth- not too bad, I remembered to get that ending right. Wait, here was another ending, yes, yes, I know it -to men- Uh oh! Another ending. But I remembered how to put it together -of good will. I put down my pencil, and looked up. Clueless of what I had just done.

As the majority of the class finished, Mrs. Knudsen turned to the blackboard and attacked it with chalk, scrawling big letters, "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace TO men OF good will." Mrs. Knudsen's white hair, caught in the electricity of the moment, stood up from her head. "This is not!" She said, "Peace on earth, good will towards men." And she proceeded to diagram the sentence, in Latin, across the blackboard, taking it apart into its finest detail until every dumb head in the class could understand, not only how the grammar in this particular sentence worked, but how a first year Latin class, in its third week of study could translate this sentence right, when apparently nobody since the publication of the King James version of the Bible had managed to catch the error.

We were left with the horror of mankind's folly, and the delight of being smarter than almost everyone else alive. A grand tribute to Mrs. Knudson.

Mrs. Knudsen's passion on that day has stayed with me my whole life. I am on the edge of my seat, always on guard for how subtle mistranslations, and misinterpretations can make horrendous changes to time-honored truths.

Does it matter? Yes! There is a big difference between the angels coming down from heaven and declaring, "Peace on earth, good will towards men," which gives the idea that everyone gets good will no matter how they might behave. To the declaration of "Peace on earth towards men of good will," which means that only the ones who deserve peace will get it. The first statement feeds right into our modern narcissistic minds since we think we are entitled to everything. We shun the idea that we might actually have to deserve peace, that we might even have to do something in order to attain it. A subtle, but very big difference.

So, I can just imagine Mrs. Knudsen, today as a Arabic scholar watching the Dances of Universal Peace as we translate Allah. That would be a scary moment!

Fortunately for us, Sufis are of a sweeter nature. I recently had the pleasure of hearing a vrey kind and laughing gentleman speaking about the wazifas and our misinterpretations of Allah. He was shaking his head with a smile, but this sweetness doesn't alleviate the seriousness of the error. More important is how this error speaks to our habitual stance towards life.

When we are viewing eastern understandings with a western mind, we are really good at turning everything into a commodity, because we have consumer backgrounds. It is subtle, but it is big. This is what we've done with the word Allah.

The syntax of the word shows that the first part, "Al," is the everything. The second part, "Lah," is the nothing. To us, "Lah" is the prize because that is the peaceful ground of being out of which everything flows. So, as consumers we want to jump straight to the Lah. We want the good feelings that come from the experience of oneness. We want to jump right past the Al, the relative world because that is where all our problems lie.

Not so to the Sufis! The Al, the real world, if faced squarely the way that spiritual insight demands, must be lived with commitment, risk, honesty and passion. And we don't want that! We want to jump straight to non-attachment without first learning honor. We want to know non-judgment without first learning discrimination. We want peace on earth, good will towards all men and women. We don't want the work that we would have to do to qualify for "Peace on earth towards men of good will!" By golly! We can't have anyone judging whether we have good will or not! That is unheard of in our spiritual shopping mall. The customer is always right and we demand satisfaction!

Unfortunately, this stance towards life leaves us hollow and weak inside. We aren't all that happy. We don't like being untrustworthy and ambivalent. Anyone who takes the time to look in their heart will know without a doubt that they WANT to be honorable, trustworthy and true!

In our best metaphor . . . When we get to the pearly gates of heaven, and Saint Peter looks at us and says, "How did you do with your life?" Do we want to say, "Well, I lived a life of non-attachment. I managed to go from relationship to relationship without ever feeling bad about it. I spent hours in meditation and spiritual dance, which felt pretty good. I was ambivelant about being alive at all, so I was a vegetarian and tried to consume as little as possible." Is that what we really want to say!

I can just see Saint Peter's face as he scowls at us, hair on end, saying. "And what about everybody else? Were you any good for anybody!"

Wouldn't we rather be able to look Saint Peter square in the face and say, "Thank you all so much for this opportunity of life. I grabbed hold of the Al, the relative world, the real world, and lived with full passion. I was absolutely committed to all my relationships even though I suffered grave disappointments and heartbreak many times. I worked like crazy trying to make a contribution. Many things I did were a total disaster and failure, but I learned a lot of hard lessons and kept on trying. I think, perhaps, I managed a few things that were of some use to others and the world is a better place for me having been there. I can now look forward to the peace of the ground of being, of the Lah. And by the way, is there anything I can do around here to help out?"

Isn't that what we really want to do? Grab a hold of life and give it a good go! That's how children live, that's how geniuses live. Always ready for the new exploration, for the next adventure, to find the latest secret. That is the Al from the word "Allah." When we grab hold of this gift which we have been given, and embrace it with our full passion, then suddenly we are faced with one of those mysterious subtleties of the mystic world. Embracing the Al, brings us naturally to the Lah. As fully committed actors on the stage of life we find it easy to look behind the curtains and see the magic that makes the play happen. All the sudden we are able to hear the director, and remember our lines.

Allah, Allah. Everything-Nothing. Everything-Nothing. When taken as a whole it puts us in a place that stops our consumer minds from conspiring. The mystery at play suddenly makes enormous sense. We wouldn't have it any other way than to know that peace on earth comes to men of good will, because we know, absolutely, that we are capable of good will. We will strive for it every day of our lives, and when we fail, we'll try again. That is Allah.