Christianity

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Virtual Pilgrimages

By Anthony MacIsaac

During the difficulties imposed by Covid-19 many of our religious habits have necessarily changed. Among these are habits of prayer, personal and collective. One especially profound form of prayer is the pilgrimage, which has been affected extraordinarily. At its root, the concept of pilgrimage involves leaving one’s normal space, to enter into sacred space. To leave oneself (along with any notions of selfishness) and to be embraced by a living and selfless whole. When we make pilgrimage to a particular site, we indeed walk the paths on which countless others have trod, living and dead. We enter into communion with them, even if an unseen communion, and we focalise that onto a particular space. We might call this focal-point a kind of Divine presence in the world around us. It is indeed a kind of deep communion with God.

pic_1518594231It is impossible to conceive of any religion that doesn’t include some concept of pilgrimage. Islam makes it one of the Five Pillars to its religion – the Hajj. Every adult Muslim is expected to make this journey at some point in their life, even if only by great difficulty. The Holy site of Mecca is itself rather illusive, despite being at the centre of this rite. It’s Ka’bah is popularly considered to have been built by Adam, and to have been re-built by Abraham. These legendary associations transform this figurative “House of God” into a focal-point for all Humanity, in the first instance, and then into an Abrahamic shrine. Pilgrimage to Mecca thereby accomplishes, for Muslims, a return to their source (Allah) and to the foundation of His relationship with Humanity. They fulfil religious obligation in making a journey of prayer to this site, and return home uplifted. For Jews and Christians both, Jerusalem is the central space by contrast (Muslims make a secondary pilgrimage there nonetheless). By Biblical narrative, this city was the site upon which God blessed Abraham – through Melchizedek, its King – and upon which His Chosen Nation was founded centuries later. In the New Testament, it was the city in which Jesus Christ was to be suffer His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. It was also the city in which Pentecost was to come, and from which the Gospel would leave to reach the ends of the earth. So that, in making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there are again the two key notions of returning to a Divine source and leaving rejuvenated by that source, to bring its joy to others.

article-2059042-0EB7BDCD00000578-46_634x416In the tradition of Hinduism, the ancient city of Varanasi holds especial significance for pilgrimage. Within its boundaries is the sacred river Ganges, which is of great importance to most Hindus, as a river in which they might wash away their sins. The city itself was reputedly founded by Shiva, who beheaded his rival Brahma. Brahma’s head was lost by Shiva, and fell into the ground, therefore making the land encompassed by Varanasi absolutely sacred in Hindu belief. Varanasi is crucial also to many Buddhists – the Gautama Buddha having given his first sermons not far from the centre of the city, at Sarnath. For Sikhs, there is the city of Amritsar, which hosts the Golden Temple. The city’s name translates as “Pool of the Nectar of Immortality” – returning us to the theme of a space’s power to transform us from within – and it was founded alongside the temple by Guru Arjan.

The above sites are just some of myriad different locations venerated in religions around the world. Each religious tradition will usually have a plurality of sacred spaces. This returns us to the effects of Covid-19. In the first instance, we have found that making great pilgrimages to great places has been an impossibility. Yet, what some of us might have recovered is a sense of the Holy in Nature around us – which is an even more fundamental source of the Divine than any Holy city, we might say. Whether we walk in a nearby park, or look to the night sky – we are able to sense something greater than ourselves within Nature. Granted, many of us live in busy cities and it is difficult to recover any of this sense. Parks might be closed, the night skies covered in artificial light. However, we still might have so many other little spaces of prayer around us – if we are fortunate. Our local Church, Masjid or Synagogue can become that source of the Divine in our life – we can make pilgrimage to it. Of course it is clear that the imagination becomes important with all of this. We are perhaps re-thinking our space around us. Seeing beauty in Nature, even when hard to spot, and appreciating the Holy in everyday religious life. The Catholic Church has certainly encouraged virtual pilgrimage throughout the pandemic, and perhaps other religious groups have also done so. In November, the Holy See even declared that a virtual visit made to a cemetery would allow us to obtain a Plenary Indulgence – which we would be free to offer to anyone buried there, or perhaps to anyone buried anywhere. Such a virtual pilgrimage as this didn’t presuppose the Internet – it went beyond that. We were told that even the act of imagining a visit made to the graveside, perhaps just the act of imagining our loved one, would bring this Indulgence. The emphasis on individual spirituality has taken centre-stage in this declaration. Through our own personal contemplative life, we can access the full bounties of God despite being so very confined in this difficult pandemic. For this winter season, the Christians among us (but others too if they desire) might stop to make a virtual pilgrimage – a pilgrimage of the heart – to Bethlehem. This has been the idea of the Christmas crib, for so long, and it would surely bring great benefits to us – even equalling those we would gain by making a physical visit to Bethlehem itself. There are no distances in God. 2539739a446a5da1756d7d6e39867554

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Fratelli Tutti

From the blog of Sr Isabel Smyth  SND – Interfaith Journeys  –

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An Interfaith Encyclical

Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, is an example of what Jonathan Sacks would call side by side interfaith dialogue as distinguished from face to face dialogue.  An encyclical is traditionally a letter to the Bishops of the Catholic world but this one, as with some others, is addressed to the whole of humanity because it deals with issues that are relevant for all.

Relations with Islam frame the document. It begins with the story of St Francis of Assisi’s meeting with Sultan Malek al-Kamil of Egypt in the 13thcy during the fifth crusade.  While the story is true – there is the gift of an ivory horn from the Sultan preserved in St Francis’ Baslica in Asissi as proof – it has become the stuff of legend. In some versions Francis, accompanied by Brother Illuminato, was on a peace mission, in others his desire was to preach Christianity and perhaps die as a martyr. Whatever was the truth of the situation the two were men of peace. The Sultan had offered peace to the Christian army five times and sought peaceful coexistence with Christians.  Francis urged the crusader not to attack the Muslims during the siege of Damietta. When they met each recognised the other as a man of God. The story is that they spent time conversing with one another about the things of God. As a result of this encounter Francis encouraged his brothers not to engage in arguments or disputes with Muslims and non- believers while using opportunities to witness to their own faith by actions rather than words.

The encyclical ends with another Christian’s encounter with Islam. This one is Charles de Foucauld who lived as a hermit in the Sahara desert in Algeria among the Tuareg, a substantial Berber ethnic group in North Africa. He was murdered there and is considered to be a Christian martyr. His approach was like that of St Francis, living close to and sharing the life of the people. He preached, not through sermons but through the example of his life, studying the language and culture of the Tuareg and publishing the first Tuareg-French dictionary.  He was challenged and impressed by the Tuareg’s  faith.  He wrote “The sight of their faith, of these people living in God’s constant presence, afforded me a glimpse into something greater and truer than earthly preoccupations”.   In Fratelli Tutti  Pope Francis describes him as one who “made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all ….. he wanted to be in the end a brother to all”.  The very last words of the encyclical are that God might inspire that dream in each one of us”.

An example of this brotherhood is seen in the friendship between the Pope and Ahmed el- Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo.  Both men signed a document entitled Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together at an interfaith gathering in Abu Dhabi in February 2019.  Pope Francis explicitly acknowledges the encouragement of the Grand Imam in the writing of Fratelli Tutti which he says takes up and develops some of the great themes raised in the Human Fraternity document where together the two religious leaders declared “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters”.

The Pope and Imam stood side by side in Abu Dhabi, so we can imagine them standing side by side spiritually and intentionally   in the reading and the writing of this encyclical. To underline this point a representative of the Grand Imam was at the launch of the encyclical – the first time a Muslim has ever presented a papal document. The Muslim was Judge Mohammed Mahmoud Abdel Salem, secretary general to the Higher Committee  on Human Fraternity established to promote the Abu Dhabi document.  Commenting after that event he said” I was really very moved when I first read Pope Francis’ message. I felt that the Pope is representing me in every word, in everything he said.”  The Grand Imam also publicly welcomed the encyclical calling Pope Francis his brother and agreeing that  “ Pope Francis’s message, Fratelli Tutti, is an extension of the Document on Human Fraternity, and reveals a global reality in which the vulnerable and marginalized pay the price for unstable positions and decisions… It is a message that is directed to people of good will, whose consciences are alive and restores conscience to humanity.”

The final interfaith moment for me are the prayers which conclude the encyclical. As with the Pope’s previous encyclical Laudato Si there are two of them. One of them is an ecumenical Christian prayer and the other is a prayer to the Creator which can be said standing side by side with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, particularly the Abrahamic faiths. To have a prayer like this in a papal document cuts across face to face dialogues that examine and debate the validity of interfaith prayers. In the face of the crises that face all of humanity why would we not want to pray

May our hearts be open to all the peoples and nations of the earth.
 May we recognise the goodness and beauty that you have sown in each of us,
and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects and shared dreams. Amen

 

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High Holy Days

While the Jewish community are celebrating the High Holy Days Fr Charles Coyle of our committee reports on a meeting of Christian and Jewish clergy.

Fr Charles CoyleIn March this year I was due to attend a Rabbi-Clergy Conference in London, that would have addressed issues facing Christian and Jewish communities today, and, of course, the conference was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In its place the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) organised a zoom meeting for Jewish and Christian leaders where participants could hear from pastoral leaders and academics and reflect together on the creative ways Jewish and Christian communities are responding to these unprecedented times. We were welcomed to the zoom meeting by Bishop Michael Ipgrave, who is the Anglican Bishop of Lichfield and chair of the CCJ.

The first speaker of the meeting was Rabbi David Mason of the Muswell Synagogue in London. He began his presentation by reiterating that in the Jewish faith all Jews are responsible one to the other, and in the other, which can otherwise be called the feeling of continuity. Rabbi Mason reminded us that we live by being social, and certainly during the lockdown we had to learn how to continue to be a community online. For our communities though we will be seen, by some, as someone to be annoyed at, but during these difficult days we must remind ourselves that we are only human, and in need for care as well. Rabbi Mason believed every faith leader should have some form of supervision, such as regular meetings where we can discuss our current situation, any enriching or difficult experiences, he himself told us that he has therapy every week.

How do we now come out of lockdown? He suggested we have review meetings in our communities, to continue the sense of connection, where a whole range of contributions are sought and encouraged, this will give the review meetings a sense of authenticity.

Reflections can also be posted out to people who do not use the internet, so that they feel included as important members of the community.
We really need to learn from this experience, one of the steepest learning curves for most people has been the use of social media, including the plethora of meeting apps; how can we continue to use these platforms in the post covid world? We have to release that there is simply no alternative, that these platforms have become necessary parts of our work. It is encouraging to see how many people are adapting to them and using them successfully.

We next heard from Dr Alana Vincent an Associate Professor of Jewish Philosophy Religion and Imagination at the University of Chester, who reminded us that communities have been through these experiences before and where a need arises there is always a response. She highlighted the First World War prayer for the dead, which was reintroduced to the Church of England prayer Book during those extraordinary times.
Dr Joshua Edelman of Manchester Metropolitan University was the final main speaker of the meeting, and he pointed out that ritual change happens, but it is not often controlled, and innovations are not being developed as well as they could be, and in order to best effect these innovations constant dialogue is essential.

the CCJ met once again in July for another meeting, this time the title was: Living with Lament: Resources for faith leaders in time of reconstruction. The chair of the meeting Rev Nathan Eddy a Deputy Director of CCJ, pointed us to a website which may be of use: https://tragedyandcongregations.org.uk/
One of the speakers, Revd Dr Carla Grosch-Miller of the United Reformed Church, talked about trauma as a whole-body experience, and underlined the necessity of being present to what is going on in our body. We also need to remember and be sensitive to the fact that the same experience will not affect people in the same way. Many members of our community will be experiencing the effects of trauma, and she pointed out that trauma breaks the connection with our thinking processes, leading to anxiety and stress. An important way to deal with this is to name our griefs, and thus allow ourselves to recover.
One of the things we are all going through presently, not just faith communities, is what she called collective trauma. This can cause a sense of helplessness, powerlessness and shattered assumptions, which may take us two to five years to recover from and is based upon research work done with communities who have suffered natural disaster.
She then described the phases of collective trauma
• Disillusionment phase
This phase leaves us feeling tired and low
• Rebuilding and Restoration phase
This phase can not be made to happen, we really need to allow ourselves to grieve first.

One of the most interesting points made is that western culture has forgotten how to lament, and we really need to regain a capacity to lament. Western civilisation was motoring along accomplishment after accomplishment, thinking we no longer needed a sense of lamentation; well we are now realising that we need it after all. It’s important also to note that lamenting is a primary emotion, and is processional, moaning is a secondary emotion, and we can find ourselves stuck in this emotion. Its better to lament, to have a sense of proceeding.

One of the last speakers Rabbi Barry Lerer who is based in London then spoke to us about burn out and warned us not to underestimate the effects of stress; we need to set boundaries in our work. Rabbi Alexandra Wright also based in London, spoke about the process of grief, which follows is own rules and there are no short cuts. She spoke of the three weeks in Jewish culture of Lament, which helps us to move from one emotion to another, which is an important and healthy process.

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Dialogue and International Aid

Inter-religious Action and Aid and Development Agencies

by Dr Duncan MacLaren: Former Executive Director of SCIAF and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, and member of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for Inter-religious Dialogue. He is an Adjunct Professor at Australian Catholic University and completed a PhD on Integral Human Development in 2019. He was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great by Pope Francis in 2016.

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One neglected part of inter-religious dialogue is the talk and action between the Catholic aid and development agencies (for example, SCIAF in Scotland) and those from the Islamic faith tradition (such as Islamic Relief). My introduction to this topic was stark.

In my early thirties, I was looking at projects supported by SCIAF in the Islamic City of Marawi in the Philippines. One of them consisted of advocating for free water supplies for the poor. The clean water was supplied by standpipes throughout the town but they had been taken over by local warlords who were charging what was a fortune for the poor. Many people then bathed their children and themselves in Lake Marawi, and took drinking water from the lake with cows defecating just along from them. There was, obviously, a spike in waterborne diseases for all the family.

I was being accommodated by a young, activist Muslim family in their modest flat. They asked me about Catholic Social Teaching and, since they had a blackboard in their living room, I illustrated the principles, where they came from and how they helped us discern the common good. The couple said ‘But we have the same principles in the Qur’an and they told me about them. The trip was cut short when a policeman came to the door and said the ‘American’ would have to leave as his life had been threatened. I was bundled into a car while protesting I was Scottish, and taken down the mountain to a safe house in an Islamic Centre in Iligan City.

Many years later, when I was Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis in the Vatican, this informal ‘dialogue’ led to a partnership between Catholic aid agencies and Islamic Relief, a Muslim aid and development agency founded in 1984 by an Egyptian doctor, Dr Hany El-Banna, and his fellow students at the University of Birmingham. Dr El-Banna came to the Vatican twice to enquire about setting up an international network of Islamic Relief and he established what is now called Islamic Relief Worldwide, partly based on the Caritas model. Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 165 official Catholic aid, development and social service agencies, SCIAF being the Scottish representative. They are part of the Church not an adjunct to it and work together throughout the world bringing the option for the poor to life. Given that Islamic Relief put its own religious values at its heart, just as SCIAF does, we were also a natural partner for them. SCIAF and other Caritas agencies have worked together with Islamic Relief in humanitarian programmes for earthquake survivors in El Salvador where the Catholic agencies took the lead and in a similar programme in Bam, Iran where Islamic Relief took the lead.

In Christianity, a special place is accorded the poor throughout the Old and New Testaments and becomes solidified in Jesus’ proclamation in the Last Judgement (Matthew 25) that those who stood in solidarity with the poor were ‘Blessed’ while those who did not were condemned. Similarly, in Islam, help for the poor is regarded as a central part of the faith. People who deny religion are even equated with those who neglect the poor. The Qur’an (107: 1-3) says, “Have you observed him who denies religion? That is he who repels the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy”.

The values of both faiths are the wellspring for Catholic and Islamic aid agencies to move from orthodoxy to orthopraxis (*), as agencies do on the ground in programmes. Increased sharing of those values would enrich both. For Catholics, it would also be fulfilling what the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) encouraged the faithful to do, urging “that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding [between Catholicism and Islam] for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values”(par. 3). Catholic and Islamic aid agencies are blazing the trail.

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(*) Leonardo Boff defines orthopraxis in Christological terms as “correct acting in the light of Christ” as opposed to the “correct thinking about Christ” of orthodoxy. (In Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology of Our Time, (London: SPCK, 1990, seventh impression). 46)

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Why We Dialogue

A personal reflection on why we engage in interreligious dialogue – by John Stoer, Member of the Bishops’ Committee For Interreligious Dialogue

After some years of academic study on how the Catholic Church understands other religions and how, as Catholics, we should engage in dialogue with others, I have recently had the opportunity to practise what I have studied. Over the last few months, as a member of the Scottish Bishops’ Interreligious Committee, I have been privileged to engage in discussions with representatives of the Shi’a Muslim community in Glasgow and take part in two prayer services via Zoom when we came together to pray. What follows is a reflection on that experience and my study.

For me, one of the most helpful explanations as to why we should engage in dialogue is found in Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris missio (1990), henceforth referred to as RM. The Pope explains that the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit can be found “not only in individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions” (RM 28). In the next paragraph he repeats his well-known but not uncontroversial statement that the interreligious meeting held in Assisi in 1986 confirms his conviction that “every authentic prayer is prompted by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in every human heart” (RM 29). Later, in the same encyclical, he gives a wonderful explanation of both the way dialogue should be conducted and its purpose. We should begin with our own tradition and convictions but should be open to understanding others “without pretense or close-mindedness, … with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each side. There must be no abandonment of principles nor false irenicism, but instead a witness given and received for mutual advancement … and the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstandings. Dialogue leads to inner purification and conversion” (RM 56).

These words of the Pope have guided my involvement in the dialogue and prayer, and their value and insight have been confirmed by my experience. I have come away with an enhanced respect for our Muslim brothers and sisters. Their quiet dignity, wonderful courtesy and the strength of their religious convictions has had a real impact on me. I have no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit is present and active in them and in their religion. This does not diminish my faith in Christ, on the contrary, it encourages it. Their example has led to think about how I should change, how I should be converted, how I can be more faithful to Christ.

The firmness of their commitment puts mine to shame. The strength of their community binds them together and bridges the generational gap in a way that is not found in ours. Whilst they are keen to engage with the secular world, they are not willing to compromise on their convictions. Whilst some of these strengths, if over emphasised, can become weaknesses and even cause harm, their example should encourage us, as individuals and as a community, to reconsider how we live and even change our ways. I am not sure what I have to offer the Muslim men and women who have engaged with us. I do not know whether this dialogue has led to “mutual advancement” but I do know that it has made me more humble and has led me to question whether I am too willing to compromise with the demands of my own faith and with the secular world in which we live. My experience has confirmed Pope St John Paul II’s understanding that the ultimate aim of dialogue is “inner purification and conversion”.

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Some participants in the time of prayer
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Sharing Scripture – a Bahai and a Christian encounter the Gospel of John

A Guest Blog by Allan Forsyth

640px-Gospel_of_johnIf you want to build understanding between faiths then you have to build understanding
between hearts. I’ve often thought that the best way to describe faith is as a love affair.
Beyond their own particular theology, people of faith, it seems to me, are primarily motivated
by a deep love for something which is ultimately transcendent and indescribable. Over the
past few weeks I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to share in a dialogue with someone from
a different faith background to explore this.

Margaret is a neighbour of mine who moved in across the road a few years ago. As we got
to know each other better we discovered that we had a shared interest in the Divine and our
friendship has flourished. Margaret’s faith background is Christian and mine is Baha’i. It
became apparent to me that Margaret was an independent thinker with a deep knowledge of
and love for the Bible and she described her relationship with Christ in a way that intrigued
me. I had some knowledge of the Bible but had never studied it. I was conscious that if there
was one book that speaks directly to the meaning of Jesus’ life, it was probably the Gospel
of John and so I asked Margaret if we could study it together. She was delighted to do so
and so for the past 7 or 8 weeks we have been meeting together for an hour on
Wednesdays and Saturdays. The first few weeks were on Skype but then we were able to
move to the garden (on good days and with social distancing).

The experience of reading sacred scripture and then reflecting together on it has been very
powerful for both of us. Progress through the book has been slow but I now realise that that
was unavoidable as we have no deadline and almost every verse of the text generates
substantial comment. The study is largely led by Margaret because she has a much more
extensive knowledge of the text and the context of the whole Bible. After reading 2 or 3
verses she will generally make comments and I will then ask questions and contribute
comment. The conversation then often develops in exploring the implications of what we
have read in our understanding and our reading of the world today.

So what have I learned and what questions are still unfolding? I have learned that John is
direct and unambiguous about who Jesus is – his uniqueness, divinity and his eternal nature
;that his call to his contemporaries was rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and that he points
towards a fulfilment yet to come. An example of this and a passage that really struck me is
John 3:14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be
lifted up..”. I was fascinated to learn that this is both a reference to Numbers 21:9 and a
pointer to Jesus’ crucifixion and the healing and new life to humanity that that would bring. I
would not have been able to glean this from a study by myself. A profound moment during
the study occurred when we shared the well-known verse from Matthew – “For where two or
three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – and realised that that was exactly what we
were doing.

My own perspective on the text is greatly influenced by the Baha’i commentaries on the
Bible which are unequivocal in their recognition of Jesus but which point to a more spiritual
rather than literal interpretation of many key passages. This has presented a challenge to us
reaching a common understanding at times. However, our dialogue is based on a strong
friendship and a mutual respect for each other’s faiths and this has allowed both of us to
gain new insights. It seems we have reached a stage beyond “agreeing to differ” into
“agreeing to continue to explore”.

Currently in the middle of chapter 7, I find our studies refreshing, challenging and
invigorating and I look forward to every meeting. We have tentatively planned to move next
to the Revelation of St. John which probably shows a confidence verging on the foolhardy. It
has stimulated my own wish to deepen more on the sacred scriptures of all faiths. However
rather than just picking up the Qu’ran or the Guru Granth Sahib, I now might seek out a
Muslim or Sikh to study it with.

In over 27 years of stimulating and varied interfaith activity, this has been the most profound
and exciting experience I have taken part in. I think it points to the next stage that is required
if faith communities are to fulfil their potential to contribute to the real peace that humanity
cries out for – to work together to understand each other and find the common threads that
can be woven together in common purpose.

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Solitude

From the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

This week I went to an online interfaith meeting on solitude, something that has been a reality for some people during the self- isolation of this coronavirus period.  For everyone it’s been a difficult time. For some it’s been the separation from friends and family that’s been hard while for others it’s the juggling of working from home with home schooling and entertaining children that’s been stressful and exhausting. For others it’s been keeping alive their businesses and organisations. That has been true of the interfaith world. There have been so many possibilities to join in interfaith dialogues, not just at home but all over the world.  Sometimes it has felt that there have been just too many invitations and I’ve resisted a lot of them because I’ve appreciated the space and time for solitude away from diaries and meetings. I’ve resisted filling up my time with too much busyness. Of course there have been zoom and skype contacts so that I’ve not been at all lonely.

Solitude has a place in the Christian tradition. The celibate life of nuns and priests is seen as a legitimate calling which frees a person from the responsibilities of family to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation as well as service to the community. Being without a lifelong partner means there is a certain solitude about religious life, an aloneness even when living in community though that doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. We have probably all experienced a feeling of loneliness in the middle of a crowd and a feeling of connectedness when alone by ourselves. But not all faiths value solitude.

Judaism is a religion that focuses very strongly on the family and community. Private, individual prayer is not as important as community prayer or living according to a tradition that re-members the past and reinforces membership of a people in a particular relationship with God. The text chosen for our recent scriptural reasoning event on solitude was the story from the book of Exodus of Moses spending 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai in conversation with God and in preparation for the gift of the Torah. The interpreter on the passage asked: was Moses truly alone if he were in the presence of God and since this time of solitude was a preparation for the giving of Torah then it was directed towards community which is at the heart of Judaism.

The Muslim presenter talked about three kinds of solitude in Islam which connects well with the Jewish view: preparatory solitude, whispering solitude and forbidden solitude. All the prophets including Mohammed, Moses, Jesus spent some time in solitude, in prayer and fasting, as a preparation for revelation. For Moses this revelation was the giving of the Torah, for Mohammed it was the revelation of the Qur’an and for Jesus it was the revelation of his mission to preach the presence of the Kingdom of God amongst us.  Prophets are spokespersons, mirrors that reflect the greatness of God. To be effective they need to be purified, emptied of self and totally open to God’s voice and for this, a time of intense prayer and solitude is necessary. Whispering solitude occurs at moments when we can withdraw and disconnect from all around us to enter into the inner silence of our hearts to pray, listen to God, to remember that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. Forbidden solitude is the kind of solitude that leads us to withdraw totally from family, community or society responsibilities. It’s the kind of solitude that stops us engaging with the reality of the world around us, rather than preparing us to enter into it and serve it.

The Christian presenter was from the reformed tradition which, he pointed out, didn’t, until recently, value solitude in the way that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions did. The text he commented on was the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the desert after his baptism in the River Jordan.  We are told in Mark that is was the Holy Spirit, the One who is said to have descended on Jesus at his baptism who drove him into the desert where he remained for 40 days and 40 nights without eating, living among the wild beasts and ministered to by angels. In the other gospels there is an account of how Jesus was tempted during that time as to his identity and mission. This side of solitude shows the reality of having to face ourselves, our fears, compromises, our masks, our desire for ease and approval. Solitude is not just about communing with God or discerning His will. It is also about facing the wild beasts within all of us – wild beasts that we happily ignore or suppress in the busyness of life. But wild beasts that we need to face and even befriend if we are to be free and loving human beings.

For people of faith solitude is important but it has to be understood correctly. We’re never alone because we are in the presence of God and interconnected to all of creation; it’s good for us to face up to and be honest with ourselves; it’s important that our solitude does not lead us to disregard the world in which we live but becomes a preparation for honest and loving service, even if that be mainly through prayer. It’s an opportunity to see things afresh. Coronavirus has offered us that opportunity. I hope we haven’t squandered it.

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Jewish Christian Pilgrimage

By The Revd Dr Nathan Eddy, taken From the Newsletter of CCJ.

This week the Presidents of CCJ, the leaders of the major Jewish and Christian communities in the UK, started a pilgrimage together. Not physically together, of course; each will use a period of daily exercise to visit the ‘frontline’ of the Covid-19 crisis: a hospital, school, care home, or any place where people are putting themselves at risk. The pilgrimage hit the national press, with coverage in the Guardian..

What struck me about our first pilgrimages was the ordinariness of the hospital entrances at which the CCJ Presidents prayed. Rt Revd Colin Sinclair, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, offered a prayer outside a hospital near his home, which he visited often as a minister. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK, gave thanks outside several hospitals, including one where his children were born, and prayed that a ‘deepened awareness of one another and a deepened loving kindness’ would be ‘part of our new normal’. As the government considers easing lockdown measures, the ‘new normal’ is on all our minds. What will ordinary life feel like and look like in the months to come? What will it be like to return to it?

Rabbi Lord Sacks, in a talk he gave on Yom HaShoah last month, discussed how the word for ‘crisis’ in Hebrew is ‘mashber’, a word which is also used for ‘birthing stool’ in rabbinical literature. A crisis, that is, is also a time of birth. The Targum, the ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, sometimes puns on this by translating the related word ‘mishbar’, breaker or wave, as ‘birthing stool’, as in 2 Sam 22:5.

We hope the current crisis, painful as it is, can be a time of new life and rebirth; a ‘new normal’ that is compassionate, generous, and innovative. There are signs of this already. It is inspiring to hear about churches and synagogues experimenting with services online and food delivery schemes on the ground. It is heartening to see CCJ branches taking advantage of Zoom, and members’ availability, and trying out different ways of meeting online. Our Yad Vashem alumni, Israel-Palestine trip alumni and Student Leaders are all meeting online, as well, in some cases in greater numbers than ever before. Next week we look forward to an event for over 60 rabbis and clergy about pastoral care and ritual innovation in lockdown. And we are now able to easily trial a new resource on Jewish-Christian dialogue with students from around the country. Please see below for more national and local events.

A crisis can indeed be a time of new birth. The hospitals that care for the sick and dying are also the places where children are coming into the world. May the current crisis also be a time of renewal, the birth of a caring and compassionate ‘new normal’, indeed.

The Revd Dr Nathan Eddy
Deputy Director 

coronavirus

Friend or Foe?

Friend or Foe?

From Interfaith Journeys – The Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth SND

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”; so begins Charles Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.  It feels a bit like that today as the world grapples with a deadly virus that is causing havoc to a way of life that we’ve come to take for granted.  We see businesses closing, people fearing for their livelihood, families cooped up together, not being able to celebrate with their wider family the great feasts of Easter and Pesach that are taking place this week. Others stranded far from home unable to get flights back from abroad. Some glad to be safe at home but lonely and fearful, not being able to cope while others are afraid to be at home as domestic abuse incidents increase.  Some are wise and keep to government guidelines set out for our safety, others are foolish and break them, some are generous in helping others while others stockpile out of fear and insecurity. And for many families there is the pain of bereavement made worse by their inability to accompany their loved ones into death or be at their funerals.

The world is in crisis and it is a global crisis with shows us so clearly how interconnected we all are and vulnerable to hidden threats such as Covid19. It’s not the first virus to cause havoc. We’ve had viruses such as SARS and Ebola before and we’ve been warned that a pandemic was likely at some point.  And yet it seems to have taken us by surprise. Yes, we are in crisis. We are at a critical point, a turning point for our race if we are able to learn the lessons that this virus affords us. Many of us talk about getting back to normal, back to business as usual.  But it is business as usual that has in a way introduced this virus into our societies.

Covid- 19 may have begun in Wuhan, in the ‘wet’ markets that sell live rare and exotic animals and have little concern for health and safety. But this is only one instance of how we as a race have not lived in harmony with nature. Before corona there was real talk of our extinction if we didn’t heed the instances of climate change. Now the universe has shown us how well it will survive without us. There are blue skies in Beijing, clear canals in Venice and the ozone layer is healing. Scientists tell us that the universe will always seek equilibrium and it’s sobering to see it doing that without our interference. And what if we don’t heed this warning?  Well the effects of climate change could be even more deadly than the virus we’re tackling at present.

Joanna Macy talks of three approaches to our world – business as usual, the Great Unravelling and the Great Turning.  We know business as usual will not work nor will we in the west be able to return to our materialistic and consumerist cultures which often sustained themselves at the expense of those in developing countries.  We have known for some time that this way of life is unsustainable. We see clearly the Great Unravelling as the death toll rises, as equipment and protective clothing are in short supply, as businesses and companies go into liquidation, as our usual way of socialising is disrupted, as we are separated from our families etc – an unravelling that was already happening but not heeded and in some instances not even noticed.

But corona also shows us that in the midst of this Great Unravelling is the Great Turning. We have so many examples of people volunteering to help, nurses and doctors exhausting themselves in caring for patients, emergency hospitals being built, neighbours showing a concern and looking out for one another, contacting friends and family by telephone and through the internet, finding ways of working from home, enjoying time with our children. All this shows that when the chips are down we care about one another; that our common humanity is core and that together we can respond to a common threat; that in the face of a common crisis other identities and rivalries take second place.  In places like Israel and Palestine there has even been a secession of hostilities replaced by cooperation in tackling the virus.

We have discovered a new way of working. Will we learn its lessons? When all this is over will we remember our common humanity and seek to dialogue rather than wage war, will we recognise that material possessions are not what matter in life and simplify our way of living, will we transform polluting industries and have a care for the environment in future economic growth, will we use global relations for cooperation rather than competition?   The future is ours, what will we do with it?

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A Lent Reflection – Jewish-Christian Relations during Holy Week

Guest Blog by Dr Clare Amos, Taken from the April Newsletter of the Council of Christians and Jews
A Lent Reflection – Jewish-Christian Relations during Holy Week

In 2020 both the Christian Holy Week/Easter and the Jewish festival of Passover fall very close in time together.  It has, at least in past centuries, been a season marked by hostility, and sometimes violence on the part of Christians towards their Jewish neighbours. This was partly generated by the reading of the Passion narrative – the version in Matthew’s Gospel, which is this year’s lectionary Gospel, is especially difficult because of its suggestion that the crowd present at Jesus’ trial had willingly accepted blood guilt for Jesus’ death (Matthew 27.25). Notably that reference is not in any of the other three Gospels, and its inclusion in Matthew may owe more to Jewish-Christian tensions at the time Matthew’s Gospel was written than to historicity. The highly charged atmosphere of Holy Week led also to several instances of the ‘blood libel’ – the accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in the making of the matzot (unleaven bread) for Passover. Ridiculous as this libel may now seem, in the Middle Ages it led to several instances of deadly attacks against Jewish communities.

Of course things have now changed. At least we hope so, although recent attacks on Jewish groups have made it clear that violence is never far beneath the surface. But with such a fraught history of relationships Christians need to be very aware of Jewish sensitivities, and acknowledge that the passion provoked by the Passion can be very dangerous.  Most churches have revised the traditional prayers used especially on Good Friday – so that (thankfully) we are no longer asked to pray for ‘perfidious Jews’. One of the most important steps Christianity has taken in the last 75 years is an institutional willingness to be self-critical, a step which is a prerequisite if a religion is not going to allow itself to be used as a tool in religiously motivated violence.

Nevertheless there is still ‘room for improvement’. The vexed question of Christianity’s theological relationship to Judaism rears its head during Holy Week. It is expressed most visibly in the increasingly popular practice in some Christian circles of holding what might be called a ‘Christian Seder’. This is a celebration on Maundy Thursday, or a day very close to it, normally by a church, of elements of the Jewish Passover Seder, but with Christian additions drawing on the account of Jesus’ Last Supper. Whether intentionally or not such celebrations often end up conveying to the participants a sense that Christianity has ‘superseded’ and replaced Judaism. For Jews, very conscious of being a small minority, the practice has elements of what some call ‘theological genocide’ about it, a sharp term, but one which reflects the fear among the Jewish community of the damage that well-meaning but clumsy Christians can inflict.

Dr Clare Amos
Until her recent retirement Dr Clare Amos was head of the interreligious office at the World Council of Churches, Geneva, and currently Hon Director of Lay Discipleship of the Church of England Diocese in Europe

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