Interfaith Dialogue

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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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Lord Jonathan Sacks

From the blog of Sr Isabel Smyth  SND – Interfaith Journeys  –  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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Last week Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks died at the age of 74 which is not so old in this day and age.  Although it was known that he was ill his death came as a shock to everyone who knew him, either in person or through his writings.  He was a highly respected leader within his community and a great champion for Judaism but was also a towering public figure in national and civic life. He was a regular contributor to the BBC’s Thought for the Day; he sat in the House of Lords; he wrote over thirty books; he was a popular public speaker who affirmed the spiritual dimension of life and the place of religion in public life. He had a message for us all. But he was also a human being, a man who dearly loved his wife and family and perhaps the most moving tribute of all was that of his youngest daughter spoken with heartfelt sorrow and love at his funeral which had to be small because of Covid restrictions.

Two books in particular that I found helpful and inspiring were the Dignity of Difference and The Home We Build Together, both of which were a reflection on civic life and a call to face up to our responsibility for the future of the world and the society in which we live. They taught us to appreciate diversity and our unique identities within the context of a common civic identity. They taught us how to hold the tensions between the values and beliefs of our individual faiths and a secular world, all the time seeking and working for the common good.    Rabbi Sacks was unashamedly and proudly Jewish. The platform from which he spoke was that of Jewish wisdom and theology but he communicated it in such a way that it spoke to the human condition and was seen as relevant to national and civic life. This is a gift I think. Religion has a lot to offer the public sphere but is often dismissed or ignored because its relevance is not obvious or understood. Those of us, like myself, who are not Jewish heard echoes of what he said in our own faith and were encouraged to reflect on how we too could speak about our faith and values in a meaningful and relevant way. This is necessary if we are to show the world that religion, which is considered by many to be problematic, can indeed by part of the solution.

The Dignity of Difference was first published in 2002 and republished twice that same year – a sign of how popular it was. Coming as it did in the aftermath of 9/11 and the talk of a clash of civilisations it was “a plea for tolerance in an age of extremism” and suggests that “One belief, more than any other…is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. It is the belief that those who do not share my faith—or my race or my ideology—do not share my humanity.”

The answer to this, Rabbi Sacks suggest in many of this talks, is to extend our understanding of the ‘we’ to include the ‘them’ and to recognise our common humanity -but not at the expense of denying difference. Diversity is a gift of God that can expand our horizons and enrich both our personal and social life.  However if we are to live together in peace and harmony we have to make space for one another. We have to recognise one another, learn from one another and above all engage in dialogue with one another.

 The Home We Build Together gives us a vision of how to do this. We cannot live in society as though the dominant culture is like a country house into which others are welcome as long as they conform to the host’s ways nor in a culture that is like a hotel in which we might recognise one another in passing but each living in its own silo, separated from all the others. Rather we should recognise our common home in that we are citizens of both a nation and a world that supports the future and wellbeing of us all. The very last statement in the book says it all:  “What then is society? It is where we set aside all considerations of wealth and power and value people for what they are and what they give. It is where Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh, can come together, bound by their commonalities, enlarged by their differences. It is where we join in civil conversations about the kind of society we wish to create for the sake of our grandchildren not yet born. It is where we share an overarching identity, a first language of citizenship, despite our different second languages of ethnicity or faith. It is where strangers can become friends. It is not a vehicle of salvation, but it is the most effective form yet devised for respectful coexistence. Society is the home we build together when we bring our several gifts to the common good.”

If the coronavirus and the threat of climate change have taught us anything it is that we surely share a common density, are facing common problems – problems that will only be solved if we work together to change our ways and thus  safeguard this precious home we share together. Rabbi Sacks remains a living inspiration to us all.

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The Future of Faith…

A Guest Blog by Niamh Margaret Dillon. Niamh is a parishioner of St Augustine’s Church, Milton, and wrote an earlier blog about her experience of lockdown on Holy Isle. Niamh now studies law at Edinburgh University.

The Future of Faith feature was produced by the Edinburgh Interfaith Association, in partnership with the Coexistence Initiative, as part of the organisation’s coronavirus resilience response: Interfaith Insights & A Spotlight on Faith. Both programmes explore various topics pertinent to faith groups during the pandemic- ranging from uplifting musical performances, to discussions on mental health and wellbeing throughout lockdown, giving a platform to spiritual perspectives on dealing with isolation, and, ultimately, demonstrating how faith can strengthen communities, and push individuals within those communities to do great things. This instalment was particularly engaging, due to it being led by activists aged 25 and under- all only kick starting their careers and embarking on their life missions now, but doing so under circumstances that no one could have predicted. Despite this unprecedented adversity, what was palpable in each young person was a true belief in the causes they advocate for, each demonstrating equal measures of infectious enthusiasm and compassion when sharing their views.

The word that unintentionally became the heart of this dialogue was “community.” Inadvertently, each panellist centred their own testimonies and ideas for moving forward in a post-COVID society around this word. It quickly became clear how instrumental a sense of community is in shaping a person’s faith, and, no matter where you come from or what you believe, how fundamental a driving force it is within all human beings. The nature of the virus has certainly tested this principle, pushing everyone to consider new ways of approaching both how we practice our faith, and how we reach out to create bonds with our neighbours. JoAnn, a young Christian woman from Northern Ireland whose first experiences with cross-religious dialogue were informed by her country’s marred past in the Troubles, spoke on how she’s witnessed the pandemic mobilise people to tangibly live out the principles of their faith, and, instead of failing to practice what they preach, many churches- both Catholic and Protestant- have once more become hubs emblematic of goodwill and charity in a time where the virus has left many struggling to make ends meet.

In my view, stories like these are a moving display of the good that can be achieved when we bring our values beyond the pulpit, and apply them to cultivate change in our own lives and the lives of those around us. It’s evident that, through the pandemic, community has emerged as a stronghold of connectivity, reliability, and source of joy in people’s lives, and it is my sincere hope that we have all been inspired to continue to live out these principles, even when the virus and memories of lockdown seem far behind us. The voices of people like JoAnn, who grew up in a place like Northern Ireland, are invaluable in reminding us of how crucial it is to not only engage in dialogue, but to actively work alongside other religious groups in aims of producing outcomes informed by each individual’s truth and beneficial to everyone, so that we can substantially prevent a conflict like The Troubles from ever happening again.

Moreover, for Zain, who is Muslim, attending a Catholic school was his first contact with a different religion, compelling him to begin thinking about his own relationship to faith and finding common ground with others at a young age. Indeed, while there is a great amount of work still to be done, it’s evidence of great progress and should be a source of pride for Scottish Catholics that our schools serve as a safe space for people from a variety of backgrounds to have their first encounter with other beliefs, while still having their own spiritual boundaries respected. This shows there is ample opportunity for Catholic schools, specifically, to continually nurture these interpersonal cross-community bonds, and encourage children to approach something that, on the surface, may appear different, with curiosity and compassion.

I was particularly moved by the words of Sydney, an inspiring young Jewish woman from Calgary, Canada, who has lived in many small Jewish communities around the world and is now working through Scotland, and, moreover, within whom the pure joy of living out her faith and using what she’s learned to help others is abundantly clear. Currently volunteering on a Highland farm, she is immersing herself in a culture different from her own, but finding within this new climate how her own religious practices fit into this lifestyle. Her two contrasting experiences- one with interfaith projects across world, in places like Mumbai, and the other where the majority of her personal and professional endeavours are deeply rooted in her own faith and customs, work in tandem to inform one another. These experiences facilitate this deeper understanding she evidently holds, of the threads that bind humans from all backgrounds together, and that our differences should be celebrated, and cause for unity – an understanding which, in these times, is a great gift. You can read more of Sydney’s reflections here: https://www.sydneyswitzer.com

The aforementioned ubiquitous appeal of community makes it ripe with opportunities for diversity and inclusion; how powerful it is when people from all different backgrounds can come together, united in the goal of making their communities more representative, prosperous safe spaces. These young people represent shared values that can actively serve to improve our country, all while giving the sense of being firmly rooted in and proud of their own faith systems and traditions.  It’s clear that the future of faith in Scotland is in the very best of hands.

This instalment was such a success that it has now been commissioned as a monthly feature, where in a panel of incredible young people dialogue on how their faith has inspired them to make change in the world. You can find more details on the Edinburgh Coexistence Initiative and Edinburgh Interfaith Association Facebook pages.

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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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Lockdown on Holy Isle

A Guest Blog by Niamh Margaret Dillon. Niamh is a parishioner of St Augustine’s Church, Milton, and has spent lockdown on Holy Isle during her gap year. Niamh will soon go to study law at Edinburgh University.

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Volunteers on a pilgrimage to St Molaise’ cave in celebration of his feast day. Photo courtesy of Kevin Curtis. www.kevintjcurtis.com

The Holy Isle lies across from Arran, spanning only two miles in length but 1000 ft high, and is, at certain times of the year, almost totally obscured by the mist and rain typical to this climate. Unassuming as it may sound, the small island is home to something very big: a vibrant spiritual community, with a remarkably rich history that marks it as having long been a sacred space, and a place where people – irrespective of background or faith – gather together on retreat, or to work in service of the land.

When I first arrived here in early March, expecting to stay for just three weeks, talk of coronavirus was barely on the radar. My thoughts were more directed on how I was feeling to be embarking on this new and wholly unfamiliar adventure. Yet not for a moment did I expect to love and be moved by it quite so much in the way I have, nor to still be living here two months on.

Upon reflection, as someone who had only known city life till this point, it was a much bigger transition than I even realised at the time- but an apt and welcome one. The island is populated more by animals – goats, soay sheep, and Eriskay ponies – than by people and, during March, the winter retreat was ongoing; meaning, for the most part, the centre and its inhabitants were in silence. So stirring was trying to process a completely new perspective on living, it’s easy to miss how this environment gradually moulds you over just a short space of time.

There’s a concept in Buddhism of ‘voidness’- the closest English translation from the original Tibetan phrase- fully explained to me by 80-year-old Yeshe Sid, long-time resident, as well as my only fellow Glaswegian on the island.

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80-year-old Yeshe Sid, originally from Glasgow, in the mandala flower garden

The best mediation is awareness,” he says. “[The principle of] voidness is recognising the empty space that exists within everything. The space that fills us is the same as the space that is in nature.

This relates to why many choose to spend their time on Holy Isle in silence.

By choosing not to speak, you become more mindful of your words and what you’re filling the empty space with. By not putting energy into filling this space, you allow yourself to direct your energy to your mind.

It allows you to look within, and is rooted in mindfulness in all you do- reflecting on the question of ‘Is it meaningful?‘ It’s easy to practice this when in meditation or prayer, but exercising these principles in everyday life is the real task for all of us. I feel, without even being fully aware of this development as it was happening, I’ve gained more clarity; a heightened awareness of my own habits and thought processes.

That sense of meaningfulness is palpable in all aspects of life here. One realises the gravity of even the smallest tasks when rooted in the value of service, and carried out in honour of the island. It’s been a real lesson observing the mindfulness and heart that volunteers apply to duties such as preparing meals, cleaning, and harvesting – to name a few. It’s a special way of making everyone feel involved and part of the holistic body of the land, showing us how powerful what we do and say can be; an expression of working together towards similar, yet simple, outcomes.

I’ve delighted so much in learning from the wonderful residents of the island, exploring with them skills that are as fulfilling as they are practical, but that seem to be dying out in modern-day life. There’s something spiritually significant and rewarding about relearning trades that would have been commonplace for our ancestors. Being able to source a material back to its origins in the earth – a hat made from gathering wool the sheep begin to shed at this time of year, or planting something you know will eventually end up on your plate – is a gratifying, significant process. It is fruit of the hard work and devotion of the Holy Islanders, and now, an important aspect of living I had never before considered. Lockdown aside, so greatly was I revelling in exploring all these new practices, and in the joy of the company, I had already begun thinking about extending my stay.

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“May peace prevail on earth.”

The coronavirus has brought the world to a halt. It’s further exposed the fragilities and unsustainability of an already-ailing system, and brought into focus what we really value. In amongst the inevitable fear and confusion have arisen heartening stories that speak to the resilience of communities. There’s a special synchronicity apparent to me here – both on Holy Isle and ‘the outside world’, communities were the thing that came to the forefront. Whilst it seemed like everything else our society knows was crumbling, community was the thing that demonstrated both effectiveness in dealing with an unprecedented challenge, and the staying power to match. It’s been uplifting hearing stories from my own area of Glasgow, about the generosity among neighbours, and to see the endless dedication of our local food initiative and similar projects in ensuring no one falls through the cracks during lockdown.

Many people have commented how glad I must be I didn’t opt to spend my gap year in Thailand, or some similar quintessential destination, and they’re right. However, this isn’t just because of the uncanny timing in relation to the pandemic. How fortunate we on Holy Isle are to be some of the only people in Europe who can be close to one another, share meals together, and be in nature as we please is not lost on me for a moment. But, moreover, because connecting with the communities and cultures on my doorstep, in my own country, has been infinitely more fulfilling and fruitful than travelling to a far-flung destination ever could have been. Sitting so close to home just off the west coast of Ayrshire, to me this enchanting island is an exciting hub of interfaith work in Scotland. Both an accumulation and inspiring vision of all our nation can be and has to offer, epitomised in the warmth of the community – devised of residents, notably, from all walks of life and parts of the world-, the enigmatic energies that have been recurrently and inexplicably drawn to it throughout the ages, and the story of St Molaise himself – the son of Scottish and Irish royalty – who spent ten years here in solitude.

Until 1992, Holy Isle was in possession of a devoted Catholic woman who, following visions from the Virgin Mary, handed it over to the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. These origins are, in themselves, magical. The co-operation and unspoken understanding between two different faiths has led to the development of a project as wonderfully blessed, healing, and steadfast as this one.

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Volunteers working in Lama Yeshe’s garden

I have been so impacted by this little island. I think often of how loud life will seem when I step off the train at Glasgow Central Station- whenever that day may come- into a changed post-coronavirus world that I have been so removed from. Yet I’m assured in the knowledge that the lessons and stillness of this precious time on Holy Isle during lockdown is something I’ll carry with me always.

Sheik Hassan Fr Dalrymple

Dialogue in Edinburgh

Fr Jock Dalrymple is the parish priest of the the sister Catholic parishes of St John the Evangelist, Portobello and St Mary Magdalene, Bingham, both in Edinburgh. In our guest blog he reflects on recent events in his busy life…

One thing leads to another…on Thursday 28 November, two and a half weeks after ‘First Spring’, the Moslem cultural celebration in the Carmichael Hall in Giffnock in Glasgow, I was also invited to speak at the first ever reception for Islamophobia Awareness Month, held in one of the committee rooms in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

The co-ordinator of the event was the Muslim Council of Scotland along with the Cross Party Group on Islamophobia: among those present and speaking were Anas Sarwar MSP and Humza Yousaf, Justice Secretary, as well as representatives of different civic organizations and bodies such as Police Scotland. Edinburgh East’s Westminster MP Tommy Shepherd was one of those who popped in to listen.

The statistic that has remained with me from others’ presentations was that while Moslems in 2011 (the most recent census) are only 1.4% of the Scottish population, 38% of Scots think they make up over 20% of the population.

When it came to my turn to speak, I repeated much of what I had said at the Carmichael Hall, stressing the value of encounters such as our two evenings with Imam Hassan Rabbani in Portobello, since bigotry is effectively countered when we meet together to listen with respect and learn from and about each other. I also referred again to the recent meetings of Pope Francis with one of the great figures of the Moslem world, the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and how in February 2019 in the United Arab Emirates – the first time a Pope had visited the Arabian Peninsula, site of Islam’s holiest shrines  –  they had (another first) co-signed a document ‘On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’.

I concluded by describing what Pope Francis called the golden thread of his vision, namely encounter and dialogue, in his native Spanish,  ‘caminar juntos’ – walking together; and how such dialogue was only possible if three basic elements were present and interlinked, namely ‘the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others’; ‘the courage to accept differences’;and ‘sincerity of intentions.’

The response was gracious – and the event highlighted for me and I think for all of us present the need to continue to work together to fight against the further fragmentation of society on lines of hate and division, and more positively, to benefit from the fruitfulness of encounters with open minds and hearts between people of  different faiths and cultures.

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Click here to see and listen to Fr Dalrymple’s conversation with Imam Hassan Rabbani.

Click here for Fr Dalrymple’s blog reflecting on his dialogue encounters.

 

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