Religious Practice

Interfaith Insights B

Interfaith Insights 3

Interfaith Insights 3 – Zen Buddhism

Welcome to our third “Interfaith Insights” conversation.
In this interview Anthony MacIsaac learns more about Zen Buddhism from long time friend, theoretical physicist, and Bruce Lee admirer, Neil Warrack, a Zen Buddhist living in Glasgow.

Anthony Macisaac

Anthony: As I understand it, you are Zen Buddhist. Perhaps you could give me a rundown of what drew you to this, and of where Zen stands in relation to other forms of Buddhism?

Neil: My first interest in Eastern traditions and philosophies probably came via martial arts and, in particular, Bruce Lee movies. A good friend introduced me to Bruce Lee via the film “Enter The Dragon”, which certainly left an impression. I ended up videotaping “Way of The Dragon” which was on TV late one night; in that film – which I watched endlessly – I saw clearly in his character what all Buddhists would recognise as ‘right thought’ and ‘right speech’, two aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path.

I read about the martial art he developed, Jeet Kune Do, and was very interested in the underlying philosophy which was one of ‘no form’, which is like developing a selection-box of techniques from different formalised martial arts which would allow a fighter to respond without thought or constraint. I guess there is an advantage to being less predictable in a fight, but his approach also had a notion of ‘this is all you need’.

As a person he seemed content – I was attracted to that. There was also something about his disciplined nature that I loved. The idea that discipline ‘in the right direction’ can produce, eventually, unconstrained action is something that still attracts me. It reminds me of a jazz musician using a repetitious practice just so they can get up on stage and play something they have never played before. It seemed like a nice form of freedom.

Years later, whilst studying abroad in Hong Kong, a Zen Monk who was living at the halls of residence with us taught a group of us some very basic meditation techniques. I loved the apparent simplicity of it and the feeling that everyone was welcome and equally ready to start Zen meditation. When I moved back home to Glasgow, I looked up a local Zen group and headed along, not long after that, I guess I had the thought of, “OK – so, I’m a Zen Buddhist now.”

Compared to other forms of Buddhism, I think Zen is characterised by its emphasis on meditation practice. Zen is a word derived from another word meaning ‘meditation’. Certainly, as I’ve experienced it, meditation is an extremely important part of Zen that is probably central in the life of anyone who calls themself a ‘Zen Buddhist’.

Anthony: If we had to speak of God, how would you approach this?

Neil: You and I have often spoken of God and, although I don’t believe in a being who created the universe at some other time before I existed, I think we are often talking about the same thing and I certainly think we understand and agree with each other a lot of the time, despite the differences in the way we use language. I think we are both often verbally dancing around the fact that we see ourselves as being a part of something much, much bigger.

I find monotheistic religions often speak of a God who wants us to be a certain way, and non-theistic religions, like Taoism for example, speak of a ‘way’ that is natural or preferable in some sense. I find these two ideas are often in agreement when it comes to some of the big-picture things. It’s perhaps a bit funny to put it like this, but I believe that God is the thing that doesn’t require my belief. God is that thing which persists, regardless of my personal opinions. God is love, yes, and kindness and compassion, of course. But for me God is also hate, frustration and sadness as well. These things arise despite our beliefs!  To follow that logic, I believe God is also sandwiches and traffic lights and all those other, less-dramatic, things.

I find conversations about faith so fascinating when I feel a deep agreement between two people who may seem to have very different ways of looking at the world. You and I studied physics together and, at its core, physics is the process of asking the question, “What can we, as individual humans, agree upon?” We call those agreeable notions ‘facts’ and say they point to some larger, more fundamental, truth; a truth that doesn’t care about our differing private opinions. Physics and Buddhism agree that we are part of a very big ‘whole’, the universe, but I think we can go even further and say that not only are we part of something bigger but that there really isn’t a very good notion of ourselves at all. That’s because it isn’t needed by Buddhism or by physics, and it can often be detrimental to our realisation of what is true.

The ‘self’ doesn’t really exist in Buddhism in any sort of fundamental way, and in the physics of quantum theory we also have no notion of ‘self’, although physicists don’t really use that word. In our currently popular form of quantum theory, we have the notion of ‘measurement’, to put this another way, we have the mathematical description of an observation, but there is no real ‘observer’ in the maths. There is no bit of the calculations that you can point to and say, “That’s the thing that is observing!” Most quantum theorists probably agree that this is slightly unsatisfactory or maybe just that it is a little non-intuitive, but the theory doesn’t require an observer at all. Our assumption that someone must be the observer leads us directly to logical paradoxes. We get into confused thinking just by imposing our own opinions and ideas onto that which is in front of our eyes. I love the phrase in the American declaration of independence that goes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. For me physics and religion, and all life, is about exploring that which is truly “self-evident”, I think when I speak of God, I’m speaking about something which, hopefully one day, we can all agree is clear and self-evident.

Anthony: To move away from pure theology, how is your community organised? You told me before that you have a Roshi (master), and perhaps you can tell me more about this relationship. It sounds similar to the role of a Spiritual Director in Catholic Christianity.

Neil: We have, in our Glasgow ‘Sangha’ a ‘Sensei’. The Sangha is just the Buddhist community. The whole world is a Sangha really, but in our own local one we have a qualified teacher who we call Sensei. This is a person who has had their insight verified by someone who has had their insight verified by some who has had their insight verified by…. you get the idea. We have Roshis and other Senseis in our larger Sangha; connected groups in Sweden, Finland, the U.S.A, and elsewhere. Roshi means ‘old master’ or ‘old teacher’ and it is usually honorific, at least in our tradition. Besides Senseis and Roshis, which you might call ‘teachers’, we have Priests and Abbots who are trained in the wider areas of Buddhist tradition, philosophy and ritual. It is common for a teacher to be a Priest or an Abbot, but it is not essential. Likewise, we have Priests who are not teachers. I think it would be reasonable to think of a Roshi as a spiritual director, although I’m not 100% what that means in Catholicism!

Anthony: You have spoken before about the idea of illusion and enlightenment. As we move away from maya (illusion) towards the ‘real’, what might we experience? In other words, what might enlightenment feel like? If I understand correctly, it will certainly mean that our language becomes somewhat redundant, and that we may enter into a form of experience that can’t quite be expressed. I’d also ask here about the role of Buddhist scriptures – to what extent do these help?

Neil: I think words are powerful, but they have a slippery dynamic nature, I think that’s apparent whenever people take something the wrong way, which seems to happen all the time! But, to go a bit further than that, words are often used as a way to communicate, and we are often communicating ideas like, for example, ‘murder is wrong’ or ‘I need to catch my train before lunch’. I think Buddhism is a tradition of exploring something which is not an idea. Of course, reality can be conceptualised, but it is obviously more than just a concept and Buddhism is a framework of sorts to explore reality in a way which moves away from conceptualisation. The term often used is ‘direct experience’. My teacher often says, ‘we have a lot of ideas – we probably don’t need any more’.

So, if I can talk of enlightenment at all then it is perhaps best to say that it’s about directly experiencing our world in a way that is a little bit more aware of our very human preoccupation with conceptualising everything. We believe our conceptualisations very readily and this belief is an attachment that is not required by nature. I think of ideas as being sticky; some ideas are a bit sticky; others are really sticky. Buddhism says that our ideas, and any associated ‘stickiness’ they may have, are essentially a form of delusion and enlightenment is about becoming unstuck, or realising that there is, in fact, nothing for ideas to even stick to. The whole thing gets difficult (even sticky itself) when we talk about it, but I guess that’s part of the fun?

Anthony: Finally, you have a masters in theoretical physics and are currently completing a research masters in experimental particle physics, what impact do your physics studies have on your Buddhism and vice-versa? I’m also interested in whether there is an interplay between your Buddhism and your work as a musician.

Neil: In truth, my Buddhist practice cannot be separated from any other aspect of my life, be that studying physics, playing music, or eating breakfast. So it’s everywhere.

If the benefits of meditation practice, for example, didn’t extend outside the realm of those moments of meditation, why would I bother?

This must be true of all religious practice; it changes the way you move around in the world and the way you experience things. I suspect most Christians aren’t playing a gamble of ‘if I am good now, then I get heaven later’. That would be hard to maintain for a lifetime without any real daily payoff, we all like to see returns in the short term, right?

To be a bit less vague, my Buddhist practice allows me to deal with the emotional bits of life in a more complete and fulfilling way. This way, I feel like I feel more, it’s good. I believe that meditation can also help with concentration. Before I developed a regular meditation practice, playing music seems to have been my meditation. It puts you right there in the moment and you learn to lean on something that requires no thought, especially when playing with others; there is a wordless communication that never ceases, if you care to tap into it, and you can sort of sit back and watch it all happen. And when it’s flowing and you are ‘in the zone’, there really are no wrong answers, there’s just the music, calling and responding to itself, and sometimes it’s really enjoyable… and sometimes it’s really not.

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Interfaith Insights B

Interfaith Insights 2

Anthony Macisaac
Anthony MacIsaac

Welcome to our second “Interfaith Insights” conversation.
Here Anthony MacIsaac is in conversation with fellow Yazidi students…

The Yazidis are an ethno-religious group found in Kurdistan (northern Iraq), Armenia, Georgia, and Iran. Their religion is founded upon ancient beliefs and practices, and was informed by the medieval Sufis, especially by one of their major religious figures: Shaykh Adi ibn Musafir.

Yazidis have been persecuted over the centuries and most recently were targeted by Islamic State (ISIS). As a result, many Yazidis no longer live in their traditional homeland area but now form a diaspora in several countries across the globe.

Dialogue between Anthony MacIsaac and two Yazidis – Kalash Tamoyan, and Samo Bakoyan. Many thanks to the Institut Kurde for helping facilitate this initial dialogue:

Anthony: It’s great to meet with you! Are you from Kurdistan, or elsewhere?
Samo: We are both from Armenia. There are also Yazidis in Georgia.

Kalash: There are 11-13 villages with Yazidis in Armenia, they are concentrated in these areas.

Anthony: I read that Lalash (Kurdistan) is the most sacred place for Yazidis, have you been?
Samo: Of course! We try to go when we can, usually once a year, but the situation with getting the necessary visas is complicated.

Kalash showed us video footage and photographs of Lalash. 

Anthony: So, you go there on pilgrimage? Are there many feasts among the Yazidis?

Samo: Yes. There are three major feasts, and also many others. Of course, we also celebrate our birthdays and our marriages. Marriage is the most important celebration for us, it is something sacred.

With another video, Kalash showed us a traditional Yazidi marriage, in which a green branch must be prepared, symbolising life. This branch is central to the ceremony, without it the marriage cannot be accomplished. 

Anthony: What about initiation? Is there something analogous to Baptism, with Christianity, or to circumcision?
Samo: Initiation is important. There are no ritual requirements for girls, but for boys their hair must be cut ceremonially. This can only be performed by a Shaykh, each family has a Shaykh, who is like their family patriarch.

Kalash: The boys’ hair must be cut at the age of one, we try not to wait longer than that.

Anthony: What happens if you are in the diaspora, and can’t access the Shaykh? I imagine there aren’t many Shaykhs in France?

Samo: That’s right, there aren’t many here. Many live in Lalash, dedicating their lives to prayer, and they are our religious authorities. If they are not here to cut the boys’ hair, for initiation, we cut it ourselves, but we must send it to them in the post.

Anthony: That’s very interesting!

Samo: The Shaykh treats the hair ceremonially, when he receives it, and this validates the initiation of our sons.

Anthony: On the level of belief, how do you understand God and His work? I read that you believe in seven major Angels?

Samo: Yes, there are seven. The most important is Melek Taus.

Anthony: Am I right in thinking he is represented as a peacock?

Samo: This is just representation! It shows his beauty, he is not a bird himself, but angels have wings…

Anthony: The other six angels – what is their function?

Samo: We’d need to ask one of the Shaykhs, our faith is passed on by oral tradition!

Anthony: And God always speaks via Melek Taus, or can God speak in His own ways?

Kalash: Oh yes, God can speak for Himself! But Melek Taus is very important in our faith.

Samo: Melek Taus was with Adam and Eva in the Garden of Eden.

Anthony: What of people? Are the Judeo-Christian Patriarchs and Prophets considered significant by the Yazidis? What of Jesus Christ and Mary?

Samo: They are certainly important, and we have heard their names. There are many stories, which our Shaykhs know better. For us, they are all people of God, but we also venerate Shaykh Adi ibn Musafir, whose tomb is in Lalash.

Anthony: What about Muhammad, as Shaykh Musafir was Sufi? There must be some Islamic influence.

Samo: The simple answer is no, for us Muhammad is not considered one of God’s chosen prophets. We have been very persecuted over the years. In 2015 we suffered from a genocide, and many of our people were kidnapped by Daesh (ISIS). The Ottoman Empire also persecuted our people. Islam and the Yazidis struggle to exist together.

Kalash: But the Christians in Armenia have been excellent to us, they have helped us, and made us very welcome. We live side-by-side, in peace.

Kalash showed us another video, of a new Yazidi place of worship, in Armenia. The building looked impressive, and had seven towers, with the central tower being the largest. On each spire was one of the seven Angels of God. God is known as Xwedê . 

Anthony: What about more spiritual questions? How do you pray? And what do you believe about death and the meaning of life?

Samo: We can pray three times a day (sunrise, noon, sundown) and we usually wash our hands, and our faces before prayer. Life is a mystery, and I can’t say what happens after death! For funeral services, we do pray, and we always insist on burial, never cremation.

Anthony: How do you understand the presence of evil, especially in the context of suffering, which seems to have really affected your own community, tragically?

Samo: It is tragic, but we can’t understand it completely. All is good. We don’t believe in any devil. God is good, the world is good.

Anthony: I suppose the only other thing I was going to ask was whether you have any prohibitions in your religious beliefs?

Samo: Yes, Yazidis can only marry Yazidis. But the Yazidi identity is always passed by the girls – which is why we must initiate the boys by cutting their hair.

Anthony: That parallels with the Jewish belief, of identity passing via the mother?

Samo: Yes, it does! And we don’t eat pork. We do drink alcohol however.

Kalash: In Armenia we like to drink vodka. Sometimes we drink vodka in ritual celebrations, with two hands, and saying a prayer of thanksgiving. In Scotland, you have good whisky?

Anthony: Yes, we do! Thank you so much for your time, and it has been remarkably interesting for me.

Kalash: You must visit Lalash, it is very welcoming to everyone.
Samo: I hope we can meet again, and we can discuss more of your questions. Until next time, and I hope you have a nice Christmas. We celebrate it by giving presents to the children, but we don’t have any religious dimension attached to it.

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Interfaith Insights B

Interfaith Insights 1

Anthony Macisaac
Anthony MacIsaac

Welcome to our first “Interfaith Insights” conversation. Over the coming weeks Anthony MacIsaac will have conversations with fellow students of different faiths.

Catholic Theology Student Anthony MacIsaac interviews fellow students of other faiths.

Interview 1 Abigaëlle Chalom – Jewish student

Anthony: Hello Abigaelle, thanks for agreeing to discuss some elements of your faith with me. It’s good to have the chance to talk about your faith and theology. To begin with let me ask… Is belief in God important for you? What is God in your opinion? I know that is a big question to start off with!

Abigaëlle: Belief just isn’t Jewish core material. God is self-evident, the very starting point of any thought, sensation, emotion or perception. It’s in the very Name, the Tetragrammaton,(YHWH) which is related to the verb “to be”. So if something “is”, it’s God, period. So, believing or not believing isn’t really the question, ever. Life, and how to conduct one’s life, that’s the central matter of Judaism, to me. Furthermore, by definition, no person could embrace God’s point-of-view, so to speak. This means that God isn’t a theory or an addition of principles. Instead, God is the very essence of being. For us, being is not only mere action, but also questioning our own acts and motivations, our desires and needs. Not once and for all, not when so inclined, but as a way of life.

Anthony: What impact does Scripture have on your faith?

Abigaëlle: Since Judaism is not dependent on faith, as far as I am concerned, the Scriptures impact me as would a machine that could travel in Space and Time. Scriptures are a millennia-old writing process, enacted through so many civilisations – all of them born, all of them grown, and all of them eventually lost – sharing the tales of God’s unending diversity, and at the same time God’s breath of constancy.

Anthony: Do you consider Scripture as literature, or as something more?

Abigaëlle: I consider the Scriptures as a powerful generator of symbolism, and as one of the oldest relays of one simple but essential fact, life is hard and confusing, it has been, it will be. Beyond literature, it is the most ancient testimony of our shared struggle and responsibility.

Anthony: What about rituals? Are these important for you?

Abigaëlle: I do believe rituals are at the essence of Judaism, creating a bridge between spirituality and life. Like bridges, we must worry if everybody walks on them at the same pace, and all at the same time, for the bridge will collapse. A Jew remains a Jew, but his identity in Judaism intrinsically demands that he question everything about Judaism. Some Jews will study exclusively, some will maintain a few traditions, some will do both, there are as many variations of Judaism as there are Jews, even an Jewish atheist is still Jewish.

Anthony: In Catholicism, we have the Sacraments. These are centred on worshipping God, but also on our relationship with God. They tend to touch each person emotionally, as they associate all of this with music, art, and even theatre. Do the rituals of Judaism have a similar impact? Do they touch the individual in the same way?

Abigaëlle: I think they do in a way that has been progressively enhanced by successive diasporas. First things first, Judaism excludes images of God, this extends to a complex definition of idolatry. As we said before, God is “to be” but experiencing being – this is human. The depiction of God’s interactions with humanity has always been focused on the human point-of-view in the Jewish Scriptures, and the Jewish arts play with that limitation.

Anthony: Perhaps we can also talk about prayer? One form of prayer is contemplation. In the Church, this is often accomplished by asceticism, the monastic life, and even hermitage. This can also be achieved to a degree in the ordinary devotion of a life well-lived. Is contemplation important for you?

Abigaëlle: Judaic prayer tends to put each thing in its place, to actively celebrate life. Even the austere aspect of some Jewish Orthodox communities contains a constant flow of feasts and celebrations squared by prayer as a conscious rest and focus. So, as a consequence of having no proper eschatology (theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind), Judaism does not seem really “contemplative” to me.

Anthony: As I understand more traditional forms of Judaism, I thought there was some eschatology, even if not well defined. Within the Kabbalah, is there not the idea of Tikkun Olam, that is of repairing and restoring the world to what it should be? Is there not also a world to come in Jewish prayer?

Abigaëlle: One of the most structural ideas in Judaism revolves around the end of times as an undefined and undefinable perspective. The end of time marks a partition between the Olam Hazeh and the Olam Haba – Olam Haba as the continuous here and now, the strictly absolute future. Since potential and realisation are mutually exclusive, human expectations are paradoxical, as shown in the few pages of the Talmud’s Sanhedrin that debate these issues. To act or to wait is the messianic question with the most discrepancy in Judaism.

Moreover, since the end of time is an absolute, nothing is to be humanly said about it and the very question of trying to put a date on it is rejected: “let their breath be taken away, those who try calculating the end of time” say the masters. However, those masters had to manage expectations raised by fears and hopes. To this end, the Talmud refers to the “messianic time”, as a transitional era between our world and the one to come, an era we can discuss to drive our expectations forward. During this era, changes are to occur, but once more, nothing can legitimately be said about the world that is to come because it is within God’s plan and as such, an absolute.

“All the prophets, without exception, prophesied only for the messianic times, but as for the world to come, the reward is not quantifiable, as it states: no eye has seen it except You, Elohim, who will act for him who awaits You.” (Sanhedrin) 

As to Tikkun Olam, I understand it as a goal to target, but not to reach. To me, the idea of a perfect world or a perfect experience is contradictory with humanity. Instead, it is God’s field of existence, while ours is relative, complex and imperfect.

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An Extraordinary Life

In The Scottish Catholic this month, our outgoing Bishops’ Committee Secretary Sr Isabel featured in the ‘Ordinary Catholics – Extraordinary Lives” section. We’re delighted to reproduce the article here.

Ordinary Catholics  –  EXTRAORDINARY LIVES

The Scottish Catholic Edition 31 web


Sr Isabel Smyth is a Sister of Notre Dame who has led the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland Committee for Inter-Religious Dialogue for many years. Soon to retire from the position, she reflects on her life of building ecumenical relations and inter-religious understanding.



Growing up, we were all Catholic. I went to a Catholic primary school and then to Catholic secondary, going to church meant a lot – it was part of the fabric of growing up. I think I always had some sense of a religious vocation. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother reading me the lives of the saints, many of whom were religious. Often at First Communion, family ask: “And what do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember saying, ‘I’m going to be a nun.’ It was there in the atmosphere.

When I went to school, there were nuns around. Religious life was always a possibility for young people in my day. It’s not the case anymore. We’re losing a lot because of that: strong intelligent women who are committed and give a service that is second to none. They offer a commitment to the Church that is unique. Others might do the work, but for a religious it’s seen as ministry, not work. I do think the Church is going to miss us if we all die off. For me, religious life has been a great adventure in my own inner journey as well as my own outer journey of ministry. I would say to young people to listen to their heart and respond to what God is calling them to, that religious life could be a legitimate way of life for them.

After high school I trained for primary teaching at Notre Dame College, where I met the Sisters of Notre Dame. I felt very at home with them, and I was eventually ready to join them. Not long after my final vows I went to Lancaster University and stayed at the campus on weekdays. That was the first time I had lived in a secular environment, believe it or not. I studied other faiths and got to know people who practised them. This was quite a challenge for me: I had never previously given any thought to any other faiths except for how to convert them. I knew that when I returned to Glasgow I wanted to retain that experience. When I took up a post at the Notre Dame College of Education, the law had changed so that world religions had to be taught in the curriculum. It was a blessing: I had to visit other places of worship and introduce students to the writings of other faiths.

I also met an amazing woman named Stella Reekie, a Church of Scotland deaconess who worked with people from Asia who had just come to Scotland. She believed that people would be accepted in society and understood if people understood their religion. And so she set up the very first interfaith group in Scotland: The Glasgow Sharing of Faiths Group. When I first went to meet her, she pulled me into the flat by the hand and said, ‘you’ll be on my committee, won’t you?’ And I’ve been on this committee ever since.

Sometimes, you only understand yourself in relationship to others, and it can be the same with faith. One of the many things that I value was that I was invited to do a week of interfaith dialogue at Samye Ling Monastery with a Buddhist nun. For about 10 years, we would set up things on Buddhist-Christian dialogue. She too was a nun, and I think it was quite a surprise to me, in the beginning, just how much we had in common. I got to know her very well. We became good friends.

We now have the Committee for Inter-Religious Dialogue. Before Covid, every year Archbishop Mario Conti – who was the president of that committee – would have receptions for faith communities. We would give talks in parishes and work with young people to put on a school conference. As I give up the office, I look forward to this being sustained after me: I can’t go on until I die! But I will still continue to work, particularly with the Council of Christians and Jews and work on interfaith at a local level with my parish, St Aloysius’. It’s in my blood. 

As told to Corrie Young

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Advent Reflection

A guest blog by Jenny Ramsden
For Christians, it is the season of Advent – a period of expectation and reflective preparation in which churches make themselves ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, which many Christians would call the ‘incarnation’. The incarnation is the Christian belief that God took human form by becoming Jesus and became fully immersed in our world, with all its joys and challenges. Advent, and the incarnation, will hold different meanings to different Christians, but I particularly love this interpretation: “Advent invites us to pause amidst the bustle, to look at the challenges of our world, or our lives, full in the face; and then open ourselves to the possibility of a better, more compassionate, more equal and just world, and how that might be born in us this Christmas”.

This Advent, I am remembering my recent visit to Israel and Palestine as one of a group of Jews, Christians and Muslims participating in the CCJ Study Tour, and I’m finding myself reflecting on the quote above in light of our visit. One of the holy sites we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which has been venerated for centuries by Christians of many denominations as the birthplace of Jesus. During our tour of the church, our guide, a member of the Syriac Orthodox church, recited the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic. From a personal faith perspective, hearing that prayer said in that place in the language in which Jesus would have spoken was profoundly moving.

And yet …

The overall purpose of our Study Tour was to look at the deep and complex challenges facing Israel-Palestine “full in the face”. There were times when for all of us that felt overwhelming.

Were there signs, then, of “the possibility of a better, more compassionate, more equal and just world”? Yes.

They were there in my fellow participants, who were willing to put themselves into spaces in which they felt physically and emotionally vulnerable to truly listen to a perspective they might not have had the opportunity to hear before. They were there in the inspirational teachers we met at the Hand in Hand ‘shared school’, educating Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian children together in a safe and nurturing space. They were there in the Jewish and Palestinian fathers we met, both of whom had lost teenage daughters in the conflict, and yet who had formed a deep friendship that enabled them to share with others their heartfelt desire that the conflict will end. They were there in all the Israelis and Palestinians we met who were determined to find a shared humanity that transcended any religious or political difference.

My hope, this Advent, is that all that we heard and learned, and the relationships we formed, in some small way, will bear fruit for the work that we are each called to do in our own communities – towards building that compassionate, equal, just and peaceful world.


Jenny is Inter Faith Adviser for the Bishop of Leeds. Alongside this role Jenny works as a ‘Women’s Project Coordinator’ for the Religions for Peace UK Women of Faith Network, with a particular focus on challenging gender based religious violence

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Spiritual lessons from Hajj

Beautiful spiritual lessons from Hajj: The journey of a lifetime!
Joseph Victor Edwin SJ
Jul 11th, 2022 (Updated Jul 12th, 2022)

Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters:

Eid Mubarak!

You must be wondering what am I saying to you. I am wishing you a happy feast. I am wishing you a happy feast of sacrifice. Muslims all over the world celebrate a feast called Eid ul Adha which is commonly called Bakrid.You must have heard from your Muslim friends about this feast. Some of you might have even been invited for a meal at their home. One of the five pillars of Muslim spirituality is Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca. Many of the rights of the pilgrimage are associated with the Biblical patriarch Abraham and Hajj is the heart of the Islamic way of life. You will find a beautiful description of Hajj in the Quran (Q. 22: 26-38).The Quran teaches that a Muslim who has sufficient money and good health must make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

Every year, during the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah, five days of the month are designated for Hajj. Before entering into the premises of the Kaaba, Muslims who are performing the Hajj, put on a simple white dress called Ihram, which comprises two pieces of unstitched cloth, one that covers the hip and one that covers the upper part of the body. Women also wear a scarf. This white garment signifies the absolute equality of all men and women before God.

The rites of the pilgrimage are associated with Abraham and the first important rite is called the Tawaf. This means going around the Kaaba seven times in an anti-clockwise direction in remembrance of Abraham and his son Ismael.

The second ritual is called Sayee where the pilgrims run between two hills, Al Safa and Al Marwah. This is to remember Hagar who was shown a spring of water by an angel as she was running up and down the hills to find some water for her child Ismael who was crying out of thirst. The pilgrims then progress towards Mina where they stay the night and next day at sunrise proceed towards the plains of Arafat. This is a very important day as the pilgrims enter into the heart of the Hajj. This is the place where Muslims believe that Adam and Eve were reconciled with God, and where Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) delivered his final sermon.

Muslims believe that God imposed upon himself the law of mercy (Q. 6: 12) and so pilgrims take advantage of God’s mercy and ask for pardon and forgiveness. This is an intense moment as the pilgrims stand on the plain of Arafat and pray for forgiveness. As they humbly acknowledge and recognise their sins before God, they resolve that, with God’s help, they will not sin again and make right the wrong they have done. In doing this Muslims stand as if they are anticipating the Day of Judgement (Q. 6: 21-31).

Then the pilgrims move to Muzdalifa and spend the night there. After collecting some pebbles, the pilgrims proceed to Mina where they throw the stones at three pillars which symbolically representing satan and so they reject their inner satanic, negative traits and temptations. .

As a Christian reflecting on this Muslim practice of Hajj, my heart is drawn to the Biblical figure of Abraham. Muslims identify their God as the God of Abraham. The Catholic Church in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium 16 clearly stated: ” … Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” it’s a very significant point. The fact that both traditions see themselves as worshipping the God of Abraham shouldn’t be ignored (Paul Hedges).

St Paul in his letter to Galatians (3:6-9) reflects on the quality of the faith of Abraham. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Abraham is the father of all those who believe, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Why is he our father in faith? Abraham’s faith consists in obedience and trust. God asks Abraham to leave his home and go to a land that He showed him (Genesis 12). Away from his community, away from his people, clan and culture, he trusted God and left everything to do God’s will. God said that “I will make your descendants a great nation.” This promise from God was made when Abraham was childless. But Abraham trusted God. His son Ismael is sent to the wilderness and God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham was obedient and trusted him. God can raise the dead to life (Romans 4, 24). So, what do we learn from Abraham’s life? He allowed God to be God in his life. Millions of Muslims who perform Hajj every year allow God to be God in their lives. They have tremendous trust in God and His mercy.

Dear brothers and sisters, so Bakrid or the day of Eidul Adha is a beautiful day to reflect on the presence of God in our lives and communities, to reflect on our own sinfulness and our own limitations and seek God’s forgiveness in our lives.

Yours sincerely

2020.07.Victor-Edwin-SJJoseph Victor Edwin SJ
Vidyajyoti College of Theology
Delhi 110 054


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Dialogue on Mary the Mother of Jesus in the Catholic and Muslim traditions

by Sr Isabel Smyth SND

I’ve taken part in some interesting interfaith dialogues this last weekend. The first dialogue which didn’t quite turn out to be a dialogue was focussed on Mary the mother of Jesus from both a Catholic and a Shia Muslim perspective. Why it wasn’t quite a dialogue was that the input was intense and full so that there wasn’t much time for dialogue or questions. The input however was a basis, I hope, for future dialogues when it might be possible to bring the four women who participated together simply to respond to one another and reflect on the questions posed by their talks. The meeting was on zoom which had the great advantage of including women from Argentina, Michigan, Catalonia as well as Scotland and allowed attendees to put questions into chat. But zoom also has disadvantages in that it’s more difficult to regulate the time and allow for more personal responses.

The format of the event was that two speakers from each religion would talk about what we learn of Mary from their tradition and what Mary has meant to them as a woman of faith.  Sr Teresa Forcades, described by the BBC as Europe’s most radical nun, gave the more academic contribution. She is very busy, and it has been said that she always seems to be in two places at once. This was borne out by the fact that she spoke to us from a hotel lounge where she was in the middle of a conference that she was organising. It was enlightening. For Teresa Mary is a model of Christian discipleship for both men and women. A surprise to me was the knowledge that in the New Testament Mary speaks more than any other disciple. In fact, suggests Teresa she is the most active and talkative of the disciples, not a traditional view of the Virgin Mary. The first word that Mary speaks in the Gospel of Luke is “how will this be?” in response to the announcement that she has found favour with God and will bear a child. For Sr Teresa this is not a sign of disbelief as happened with Zachariah when he heard that his wife was pregnant but rather showed her as a dialogue partner with God. Throughout the gospels Mary’s words confirm her as a confident woman who takes responsibility for her faith, is a channel of grace, has taken a radical option for life, shouts out with joy, complains and suffers.

Sr Teresa’s contribution was well supported and illustrated by Mary Cullen, well known in Catholic circles in Scotland, in her reflection on the place of Mary in her own life of faith using a picture, a poem, a prayer and a book. Fra Angelica’s painting of the Annunciation was the picture which, for Mary, showed an idealised, submissive and silent Mary, an image that she had grown up with. Experience, however, has taught her that this was the unrealistic, fanciful and even romanticised vision of patriarchy. Throughout her life and through her friendship with other women of faith she came to know Mary as a woman of strength, illustrated well in the poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe” and the work of Anne Johnson in her book “Myriam of Nazareth, Women of Strength and Wisdom” as well as the work of theologian Elizabeth Johnson who in her book “Truly Our Sister”  ‘… invites Mary to come down from the pedestal where she has been honoured for centuries and rejoin us in the community of grace and struggle in history’.

The two Muslim women, Sameia Younes and Israa Safieddine took a different approach, basing their contributions on the text of the Qur’an where Myriam is mentioned 34 times and the only one to be addressed by her personal name, even having a chapter devoted to her and her life. According to the Prophet Mohammed Mary is one of the best women of the world, standing alongside Asiyah, the wife of Pharaoh who rescued Moses from death in the Nile; Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad who supported him in his call to be a prophet, and Fatimah, the daughter of Khadijah and the Prophet who was greatly loved by him and seen as an example of an outstanding woman. The details of the life of Mary, particularly the virginal conception and birth of Jesus are very different from that found in the Gospels. Mary, as a young child, lives a life of seclusion and dedication to God, looked after by her uncle Zechariah, when she is visited by an angel who tells her of God’s choice that she should be the mother of the Messiah, Jesus. Jesus is born in the desert where Mary is miraculously sustained by a date tree and spring of water. Afraid of what will be said about her having given birth to a son, “carrying him she brought him to her people. They said, ‘O Mary, you have certainly come up with an odd thing! ….Thereat she pointed to him. They said, ‘How can we speak to one who is yet a baby in the cradle?”  But Jesus does speak to confirm that he is of God.

It’s easy in a dialogue such as this one to focus on the differences in the accounts but despite these there was a lot in common. In both traditions it was obvious that Mary is seen as an example of a faithful and discerning servant of God for both men and women. She is not mild and meek but strong and courageous and for us engaged in interfaith work she is above all a partner in dialogue.


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8128 Ashes On Table And In Bowl Cross Of Palms Len


By Anthony MacIsaac 

Austerity is a marker of most religious life in some fashion. Sometimes it is part and parcel of penance, making up for one’s faults or sins. Sometimes it simply delineates pilgrimage, a journey towards God, a turning towards God. Perhaps it is best seen in the light of commitment in faith, a sign of character. By adopting the austere, in lieu of easier expressions of faith, people may show the extent of their conviction. 

Religious austerity expresses itself in various specific ways. Fasting from food and drink might be integral to it, in certain contexts. In other contexts, a period of poverty, without access to the luxuries of modern life, might be more descriptive. Celibacy – temporary or lifelong – may even become a factor. Monastic life is perhaps one of the best examples of a life dedicated to God, in the extremities of austerity. This is witnessed equally among the Buddhists of Tibet and elsewhere, and those Orthodox and Catholic Monasteries dotted across Europe. Pluscarden Abbey remains an example in our own Scotland. 

We further find that the austere is marked out in certain seasons, across the world religions. In Islam we have Ramadan, which incorporates strict fasting and a renewed sense of prayer. Such commitment often wins the admiration of people the world over. In Christianity, the season of Lent provides a similar example. Fasting is likewise present, even if not always so intense as in Ramadan, and prayer is emphasised alongside good works. Penance is certainly a major aspect of the season, and as we have entered into its first week, perhaps this merits some further reflection. 

Looking at the world today, we may consider the value of penance, and indeed the value of some austerity in our own lives. Materialism surely cannot have the final word. Looking at Ukraine, and also at Afghanistan, we see people thrust into poverty and hardship. Often this brings out the best in them, as tragic as the circumstances are. Looking at climate change, we are reminded by the Earth herself that we must curb our consumption. Some simplicity might be essential for the future, if we are to have a future. Pope Francis called for Ash Wednesday to be a day of special fasting and prayer concerning the situation in the Ukraine. He has also called for similar days of fasting previously, for those tragedies and problems that continue to beset the world at large. Perhaps this is one of the greatest points which we can reflect on concerning this Lenten season: how does it bring us to that life in God that leavens the world around us? 

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Cop 26

By Sr Isabel Smyth SND

COP 26 has started, and thousands of people have landed on Glasgow. Today is the day for world leaders and significant individuals to address the conference. Listening to them they all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Environmentalists and young people from developing countries face the conference participants with the reality of climate change and its consequence for the world and their generation with strong, honest and challenging words. ‘You do not need to see my tears or pain to know what is at stake’, said one of them. Thousands of protesters have proved their commitment by walking in pilgrimage to Glasgow, demonstrating across the River Clyde from the conference venue to remind negotiators of what is at stake and how the world is depending on them for a just and constructive agreement.  A lot of their concerns and hopes for the future were echoed by the world leaders themselves. There is no need to doubt that presidents and prime ministers are unaware of the urgency of the climate crisis, of the greed and selfishness that needs to be challenged, of the solution that is in their hands. But will the worlds translate into action? – that’s the rub.

In ‘The Home We Build TogetherLord Jonathan Sacks maintained that people will only work together for the common good if they are faced with the same problem, a problem that requires cooperation for a solution. Now we have such a problem. It’s hard to think of any other issue that affects every human being, rich or poor and, beyond humanity, all sentient beings, and the very planet itself. We are in danger of making this beautiful blue planet of ours inhospitable and uninhabitable. And many of us know it and feel the pain of it.

This was very obvious yesterday at an interfaith vigil to pray for the success of this COP. It was simple and showed a great unity of purpose. It began with the reading of what has come to be known as the Glasgow Multifaith Declaration by a Catholic and Episcopalian Bishop, an Imam and a representative from the Sikh faith. The declaration follows on from the 2015 interfaith Lambeth Declaration and the Scottish Religious Leaders’ Forum’s Statement of Commitment of 2020. It has been signed by religious leaders in Scotland and the UK and acknowledges the unity among faith communities ‘in caring for human life and the natural world’ and how people of faith ‘share a belief in a hopeful future, as well as an obligation to be responsible in caring for our common home, the Earth’. It includes the commitment to reflect deeply in prayer and meditation to discern how to care for the earth and one other, to make transformational change personally and communally through individual and collective action and to be advocates for justice for the earth and the poor who suffer most from climate change.

The other element in the vigil was a prayer for the environment from each of nine faiths – Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Brahma Kumari, Sikh, Hindu, Baha’i, Pagan and Muslim. What struck so many of the attendees was how similar the sentiments of the prayer were even if expressed differently. For some people new to interfaith this was a revelation but others like me, who have been involved for some time, know there is a unity among people of faith and some of us feel closer to people of other faiths than we do to people in our own. One of the joys for me was to meet friends whom I have known and worked with over the years but have not seen for some time. One of them mentioned that it was her visit to the International Flat in Glasgow and meeting Stella Reekie that started her on her interfaith journey, which is my story too. Stella began the first interfaith group in Scotland, and I consider her the pioneer of interfaith in Scotland which now has a national interfaith body and twenty local interfaith groups. My friend said, ‘you can feel her presence here’ and so you could.

It is wonderful to know so many people who share a love and concern for the planet and it can be easy to forget that others might feel differently. Some people have too many survival concerns to be thinking of climate change, others are just not interested and don’t recognise the problem, but others are quite cynical about conferences such as COP. This is COP 26 – why, if the other COPS did not produce a result, will this one?  Climate change has always been with us, human beings will eventually become extinct just as the dinosaurs did, how can politicians speak about climate change and fly all over the world to these meetings, the suggestion for combatting climate change are just not possible – all arguments put to me in a recent conversation. There’s no answering these statements. A desire to care for our planet cannot be developed through argument, I suspect, but only by a new vision that appreciates the interconnectedness of all life and our place in the great story of the universe – a story that we don’t hear enough of but one which might help us see with new eyes.  

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Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year Holiday, Honey, Apple, Pomegranate, Hala

Rosh Hashanah: In the Presence of the King

Guest Blog by Rabba Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

Rabba Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts in the evening of 6 September this year, and lasts till the evening of 8 September. It ushers in the Ten ‘Days of Awe’, which continue until the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and constitute the high point of the Jewish year. They are a time of reflection, of soul-searching, and repentance, when even the least observant Jews try to get to synagogue for part of the long, elaborate services with their evocative music and solemn atmosphere.

Rosh Hashanah itself marks ‘the birthday of the world’, the anniversary of Creation (whether understood literally or metaphorically), and is thus a universal festival that celebrates God’s absolute sovereignty and power. The liturgy for the day speaks of God as Monarch, and imagines the Jewish people standing in the heavenly court, paying homage to God and enacting a ‘coronation’, with our prayers serving as a crown. Though the services are lengthy and intricate (a traditional Rosh Hashanah morning service can take five hours!), the magnificence of the mediaeval poem-prayers and the special melodies that are only sung at this time of year combine to create a sense of awe and solemn celebration, culminating in the piercing call of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown as part of the service. Its raucous shriek summons us to repentance, to consciousness of the urgency of the day, and simultaneously recalls Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, cancelled at the last moment by God’s mercy, and replaced by a ram.

At the other end of the Days of Awe stands Yom Kippur. Though closely linked to Rosh Hashanah, it is also its exact opposite: where Rosh Hashanah is universal and combines solemn joy and awe, Yom Kippur is intensely individual: each person stands alone in front of God, and tries to repair their relationship with the divine, conscious of their failings. Where Rosh Hashanah includes festive meals, starting off with apples and honey to express our wishes for a sweet new year, Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast, freeing us to focus on the most intense and important aspects of our lives. Together, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the twin poles of our spiritual lives—God and our individual souls—tying them together in love, majesty, and intimacy.

With thanks to CCJ – 

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