Religious Practice

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A Holy Land?

By Sr Isabel Smyth SND, Secretary of the Bishops’ Committee For Interfaith Relations

Since my last blog two weeks ago a war has raged in Israel-Palestine. It’s not the only part of the world that’s at war but it is a conflict which affects interfaith relations here in Scotland in a way that no other conflict does. This is because for four of the world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith the land is regarded as holy and often referred to as ‘The Holy Land’.  For Jews it is the land that God gave them and offered them a place of safety after the Holocaust and hundreds of years of antisemitism in Christian Europe. For Christianity it is the land where Jesus was born, lived, preached, died and rose again. For Islam it is the place where Mohammed undertook his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then ascended through the seven heavens to encounter the various prophets and meet God face to face.  For Bahai’s it is the land where the three central figures of their faith, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha are buried and where the Baha’i’s global spiritual and administrative centre is to be found.

For all four faiths it’s a place of pilgrimage and many believers have an investment in and concern for this part of the world that’s not always recognised. I’ve often heard Jews question why people seem to be more interested and critical of Israel than any other area of conflict, even suggesting such interest could in fact be antisemitic. I’ve also been in a situation at a Council of Christians and Jews where someone from the Jewish community was disturbed that we Christians might think of Israel as our Holy Land while Jews obviously think of it as theirs.

This is a challenge and often the elephant in the room during dialogues between followers of the four faiths who see themselves as descendants of Abraham, which in fact makes them brothers and sisters. However, while we all agree that Abraham is our father, and hold that the land is holy there is much not to agree on. For Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the spot from which Mohammed travelled to the highest heaven during his night journey and received the revelation of the Qur’an. The Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and the one to which the early Muslim community turned when praying until God directed them to pray in the direction of the Kabaa in Mecca instead. Towards the end of Ramadan this journey of the Prophet is celebrated as the Night of Power and devout Muslims will spend the whole night in prayer and recitation of the Qur’an.

The Mosque is built on the Temple Mount and, within the shrine of the Dome of the Rock beside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, lies the place where Abraham was sent to sacrifice his son Isaac and the site of the First and Second Jewish Temple including the Holy of Holies, the most sacred site in Judaism.  This was the innermost and most sacred area of the Temple, accessible only to the High Priest who once a year, on the Day of Atonement, was permitted to enter the sanctuary to offer sacrifice to atone for his own sins and those of the priesthood. Within the Holy of Holies was kept the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of Israel’s special relationship with God. And for many orthodox Jews it is the place where the third and final Temple will be built when the Messiah comes. So sacred is this place that many Jews will not walk on the Mount itself in case they unintentionally enter the area where the Holy of Holies stood, since according to rabbinical law, there is still some aspect of the divine presence at the site. What is left to Jews is what remains of the Western wall of the Temple which for them is a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

So, here we have, in a land troubled by concerns about nationhood and land boundaries, a holy site which is claimed by both Judaism and Islam. It’s one of the most contested religious sites in the world and a focal point for the Israeli – Arab conflict as we have seen in this most recent war. It’s not the cause of the conflict, which is much more political than directly religious, but it does reflect a little bit the different loyalties, narratives, histories, allegiances that come in to play when reflecting on Israel-Palestine – loyalties, narratives, histories and allegiances that can affect relations here in Scotland. Most attempts to speak about the situation leads to polarisation, a desire of both Israelis and Palestinians to tell their story, believing very often that the ‘other’ side’s story is heard more than theirs. I’ve stopped listening to these stories unless balanced by the story of the ‘other’ side. Perhaps what we need is for those of us who call this land holy to reflect with one another on what that means, to feel the pain of division, to recognise the right of all to justice and statehood and above all pray for a peace which shows that it is not ownership or even history that makes a place holy but a recognition of a common humanity under God that recognises all others as our sisters and brothers.

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A Letter for Ramadan

A Guest Blog from Fr Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

Dear Muslim sisters and brothers,

Assalam Aleikum!

In the month of April this year we will celebrate the advent of the month of Ramadan. I consciously use the word ‘celebrate’, because I have personally experienced and seen Muslim friends-sisters and brothers-really looking forward to the fasting month of Ramadan.

Let me begin with an anecdote from my days in Aligarh. On the day before the advent of the month of Ramadan in the year 2003, a Muslim journalist friend of mine, Shafi, and I went for an evening stroll. There was a lot of expectation in the air. There were people in the streets and on rooftops trying to spot the crescent moon, waiting for the announcement of the commencement of the month of Ramadan. The thought came to my mind how intently these people were looking forward to seeing a sign of God-the crescent moon. It was really beautiful! I felt very happy for that great awareness-looking for a sign of God in Nature.

God is the Creator of all things, and, using the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”. God’s signs are everywhere. One needs to pay attention to them to realise their significance.

I heard an announcement saying that the crescent moon had been sighted. Shafi and I looked in the direction of the moon. An elderly gentleman was before us. Two little children-a boy and a girl-were holding his hands. They were perhaps his grandchildren. The gentleman raised his hands in prayer. He said something, facing the crescent moon. I was moved to see the two little children also raise their hands in prayer. How wonderful it was that this grandfather was teaching, through his own example, these two little children to recognise a sign of God! Even these little children were aware of God! I felt very happy for that.

Dear friends, the Holy Quran says that fasting is prescribed for you. It is a means for developing God-consciousness. This is something very attractive for me. The month of Ramadan is about focussing on God-consciousness. To experience a deep experience of God-consciousness, fasting, prayer and charity are a means. They help us in awareness of the presence of God in the world.
So, God-consciousness is something that the Muslim tradition teaches me, including through the significance of the month of Ramadan in the lives of Muslims. The way Muslim brothers and sisters celebrate the month of Ramadan helps me grow in God-consciousness as a Christian.

Dear sisters and brothers, as a student of Christian-Muslim relations I have asked a number of Muslim sisters and brothers, ‘Why do you fast?’ Many of you have said that fasting is for purification, fasting is to please God, fasting is an act of obedience to God. Everything that you have said I know you are saying it from your own experience, because I know my Muslim friends and their deep faith in God and their commitment to God. For me, this is a very beautiful experience. What you have said is from the heart of your experience. It inspires me to become God-oriented in my own life. It is an invitation to lead a life that is based on God-consciousness.

As a Christian, something else strikes me very much. The Bible says, in the Gospel of Matthew (6:17-18):
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Dear friends, many years ago, I was a student at the Department of Islamic Studies at the Aligarh Muslim University. There was a professor in the Department who was a wonderful teacher and a very pious person. During the month of Ramadan I would notice that he would be extra careful to look fresh, with oiled and neatly-combed hair and well-ironed clothes. In the other months, he would sit and teach, while in the month of Ramadan he would teach while standing. He would not show any signs of tiredness on account of fasting. He would be fully ready to spend enough time especially with me to explain things. And he would never make any reference to his tiredness or about the time the fast would end. On some occasions I would say to him, ‘You must be tired, Sir’, but he would reply, ‘Victor, it is important that I should explain things to you.’

How beautiful is the message of the Gospel (referred to above) in a way it comes to me through the life of a Muslim! I was able to see the meaning and depth of those Bible verses through my Muslim professor. This was something really amazing, a beautiful experience for me.

Dear sisters and brothers, I pray with you as a Christian brother that this month of Ramadan be a blessing for all of us who desire to grow in God-consciousness, all of us who thirst for God in their lives. May all of us put our heart and soul, hands and feet, together and worship the One God according to our faith traditions. And together as brothers and sisters may we all spread peace, joy and harmony.

Ameen! Amen!

May God bless us all.

Khuda Hafiz,

Your brother,

Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

2020.07.Victor-Edwin-SJFr Victor Edwin is a Jesuit priest who teaches Christian-Muslim Relations at Vidyajyoti, a Catholic centre for higher theological learning in Delhi. He is deeply engaged in seeking to promote understanding and goodwill between Christians and Muslims. He has a PhD in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and has written widely on issues related to interfaith relations.

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Virtual Pilgrimages

By Anthony MacIsaac

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

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

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

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

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New Year Resolutions

From the blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

Christmas has been different and difficult for many of us this year but we’ve survived it and we’re now in a period of recovering from card writing, parcel posting, shopping and cooking  – all of which somehow became more insistent this year.  Now we’re back to lockdown and, for some perhaps, a feeling of isolation, even with skype and zoom possibilities. It feels rather flat and quiet with no new year celebration to look forward to. It’s so different from last new year when I was invited to bring in the new year at a 1920’s themed party. We put together clothes that somehow expressed the spirit of the 20s and even attempted to dance the Charleston. There was a sense of excitement and hope as there often is at new year as we entered what might turn out to be another roaring twenties decade.  This was the  decade which followed on from the Spanish flu of 1918 and was a time of economic growth and prosperity after the devastation of the First World War. It was not to be.

Unknown to us (but not to everyone) there was lurking a tiny, deadly virus which would disrupt the economy, cause chaos and reveal to us all the vulnerability of humanity and the cracks in our societies with the widening  gap between rich and poor.  The Coronavirus has been the topic of conversations, a motivation for social action, given us a recognition of our dependence on key workers and a growing sense of thankfulness and neighbourliness.  Now as we move into another calendar year there’s much to reflect on and hope for as we dream of a better world which will demand a change in all of us if that dream is to become a reality.

New Year is a time for resolutions and new perspectives. So what might they be?

For me one of them is to try to stand in the shoes of my brothers and sisters who are suffering because of poverty, war, abuse, discrimination, neglect, isolation. I was very aware in writing the first paragraph of this blog that the reality I described of Christmas cards and presents, family and celebrations was not everyone’s reality. Any flatness I might feel is a consequence of not having the opportunity to meet friends and family as would normally happen at Christmas. In itself that’s a sign these things are a reality for me but they’re not for everyone. There are people with whom I live cheek by jowl who have no family, no home, no money, no possibility of the kind of family and community relationships that I have. Life is flat for them all the time. There are neighbours who are lonely, friends for whom Christmas evokes sad and not happy memories and for whom all the razzmatazz around Christmas is painful. This is as true of the reality of Christmas as the joy.  Others for whom the virus has exacerbated mental health issues and the many who in this year are grieving because of the death of loved ones, made even more painful by their inability to be there as their family member died of be consoled by the presence of family and friends at funerals.

Another is to deepen my understanding of ecology. Covid 19 and its restrictions have shown us how much we humans pollute our atmosphere. We heard bird song more than we have done for a long time, we saw blue skies. Some in India saw the Himalayas for the first time in years. We rejoiced in cleaner air as airplanes were grounded and cars were left at home. But now as restrictions are easing we can see the pollution creep back again. Can I feel the pain of this world on which I depend and to which I am intimately related? Can I walk on this earth with reverence and respect doing my little bit to overcome pollution and waste?  Can I cut down my consumption to live a more simple lifestyle?

There is so much that needs done that it can seem overwhelming. At my age and stage I can do little but I can pray a prayer that feels the pain of the world, offers compassion and hope  to a world and society that I hold in my heart, believing that this  good energy can have a positive and transforming effect. Tibetan Buddhism has a name for this kind of meditation. It’s called Tonglen and is a practice in which we breathe in the pain of others and our world, perhaps visualising this pain as a dark ribbon and breathe out compassion and love, again perhaps visualising this as a light coloured ribbon.

Tonglen and similar  meditations  make tangible the reality that we can never pray or meditate as isolated individuals, that we approach God or that Reality in which we live and move and have our very being united to our sisters and brothers and indeed the whole cosmos. It also reminds us that our desire for justice, love and compassion is united to that of many, many good people whose kindness and generosity have been so visible during this past year.  We are part of a great movement towards wholeness and reconciliation. We can have confidence that “the love, courtesy, generosity and beauty that is put into to the world will never vanish from the world. And when it’s time it will restore itself instantly” a quotation from Cynthia Bourgeault that can give us hope as we let go of one year and welcome another.

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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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Simchat Torah – an affair of the heart

Why Simchat Torah is an affair of the heart

By Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

This blog has been taken from an article written in 2012, published by The Jewish Chronicle. Simchat Torah is the Jewish holiday that celebrates and marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Its Hebrew name translates as “rejoicing with/of the Torah”

At Simchat Torah, death and life are linked by just two beats of the heart. Our Torah reading cycle reaches its final episode, the death of Moses. A single heartbeat later, we are once again “In the beginning”, as we restart the cycle, affirming life through Bereshit, the Creation of the world.

This beating of the heart is the seam that welds together the end and the beginning: our tradition points out that the final letter of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is lamed and the first letter of Bereshit (Genesis) is bet, which in Hebrew together spell lev, meaning heart.

We celebrate the Torah cycle by re-enacting circles in our customary rituals. We carry the Torah, dancing and singing, circling our synagogues seven times in hakafot, processions .[1] Our circling is reminiscent of the seven circles at a wedding, the joining together of a couple which continues the work of Creation, completed in seven days.

The symbols of Simchat Torah are direct and free of distraction. We cast aside the intense inward focus of the High Holy Days. Our focus is joy, fasting rescinding into the past. We also leave behind the trappings of Succot that were our companions for a week — no lulav, no fragrant etrog.[2]

We suspend the yearning for Zion and lavish no attention on the Land of Israel. Our focus is unashamedly narrow: only one subject, only one symbol — arteries scribed in black ink on parchment, forming our Torah.

The emphatic change of mood contrasts sharply with the intensity of the Days of Repentance and with the sense of vulnerability engendered by sitting in makeshift shacks during Succot. It is a moment of release: we face the magnificence of taking all the Torah scrolls out of the ark at the same time, the parading of the Torah scrolls to sing and dance with them.

Simchat Torah affirms that our introspection surrounding the Days of Repentance leads us to joy rather than to melancholy. Sometimes we may need to draw on hidden resources of strength to be so upbeat and to dance and sing but this is the command: to be joyous.

We parade our Torah scrolls, which are our real riches, and proudly place them on show. It is the Torah that is honoured, that is kissed, turned to, passed lovingly round. The rabbis and synagogue dignitaries mostly play second or third fiddle.

The interwoven moment of endings and beginnings, the heartbeat between death and life ends this period of the year and shoves us forward: we may have looked inwards, repented, made our peace with ourselves and with our own understanding of our Creator, but that is not enough.

Moses’s journey may have ended just short of entering the Promised Land but the shove towards creation and re-creation (not recreation) means that we cannot rest. We have prayed, fasted, sung, but that isn’t it. We aren’t let off the hook. Let us celebrate: our circle is still turning.

Until this month, Laura Janner-Klausner was the Senior Rabbi for Reform Judaism

[1] A ritual in which people walk or dance around a specific object, generally in a religious setting. The word literally translates as “to circle” or “going around”.

[2] The Lulav and Etrog are the four species of plants which are held together and waved in ritual of Sukkot.

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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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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.

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Jewish Christian Pilgrimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revd Dr Nathan Eddy
Deputy Director 

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