Scotland

Solitude

From the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

arrupe-at-prayer_origThis 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.

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.

Friend or Foe?

Friend or Foe?

From Interfaith Journeys – The Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth SND

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethiopian Community in Glasgow

By Anthony MacIsaac

During my last trip to Glasgow, a few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to visit a thriving Christian community from Ethiopia. Their Church is one of the most ancient in all Christianity, having split from mainstream Catholicism in AD 451. To most Christians, they often seem forgotten about – indeed, it seems true that while people often know about the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches are virtually unknown. The same might be said for the Assyrian Church of the East, but that’s another community altogether. For many centuries the Oriental Orthodox were known as the “Monophysites”, but they prefer to be known as “Miaphysites”. This nomenclature and theological differences over Christ’s Nature are too complex to detail here, but it is interesting to note that over the past 20 years or so, movements towards full Communion with Rome are underway. Pope Francis seems to have been leading some of the most recent efforts, in 2015 creating a Catholic Church for Eritrea, in close dialogue with the Eritrean Tewahedo Orthodox Church. Eritrea and Ethiopia share the same patronage, and while their Church has two branches for each country their core is one.

Ecclesial background asides, the community in Glasgow is vibrant indeed but still finding its feet. For a few years, the Kinning Park Church of Scotland have very generously given over their premises to the Tewahedo congregation, who celebrate their Liturgy in the afternoon. St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Hyndland has likewise kindly provided Eucharistic services, around once a month, for the same group. Worship on most Sundays is thereby at Kinning Park, but Eucharist is celebrated at St. Peter’s through the year too. During the Liturgy at the Church of Scotland building, there are a variety of striking points.

My friend Kevin and I were immediately welcomed with open arms by the presiding Deacon and other members of the congregation. Each man wore a white robe, loosely wrapped around the shoulders, with a Cross imprinted on the back. The women wore long dresses, also in white, with veils on their heads too. Within minutes of our arrival, we were impressed in that the Deacon immediately offered us robes for the service, which we gladly wore in a spirit of fraternity. We would wear these for prostration, the Orthodox equivalent to kneeling. As we sat awaiting the start of worship, various Holy paintings (or Icons) – some inspired by the Catholic “L’Art Saint Sulpice” – were erected on chairs at the front of the Church. In the middle of these was a special chair, laden with blue velvet covering, upon which rested a painting of the Holy Trinity. This was to serve as a kind of throne for this Holiest of images. The Church congregation kindly explained the origin of each piece of Sacred artwork, and their pride was an Icon of St. Hripseme. Though being an Armenian Martyr, from the 3rd century, she holds a very special place for the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches. The official patronage for the Glasgow Ethiopian Church is under her name.

The service (which we expected to last 45 minutes) took about 3 hours to end! Afterwards we were encouraged to take tea and banana cake with the community, which we felt we couldn’t refuse. We were invited to return again, and I’m sure we shall. Indeed, generally the whole experience was very uplifting, and in the service especially. Dancing and liturgical singing took up at least half of the time – all in the praises of God, but a chance also for the people to enjoy themselves. Turns were taken in playing the drum, and people practiced their singing. Children were accorded a first place in the whole Liturgy – it was they who read the Scripture, they who intoned the prayers of the Faithful. Moreover, they were free to run about and play through the whole three hours, even if they had to keep relatively quiet! Overall, the spirit of Christian Joy was clear in the whole experience.

Dialogue in Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Celebrating 20 Years of Interfaith Scotland

Taken from the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – www.interfaithjourneys.net

Interfaith Scotland is preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary. It began life as the Scottish Interfaith Council. It was accepted as a Scottish charity by OSCR, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, on 10th October – the date chosen for the 20th anniversary celebrations. But as you might expect this was not the launch of the Council but rather the end point of many years of discussion and dialogue which had grown in importance after Scotland had voted to have its own Parliament.

It was on 1st July 1999 that the Scottish Parliament was opened by the Queen. It was, in the words of Ian Crichton Smith “the beginning of a new song for Scotland”. It was a day of rejoicing, redolent with possibilities and hope. There was a new sense of what it meant to be Scottish and a desire to make the Parliament work. There was a desire on the part of the new government to be inclusive of all faiths and none, indicated by the fact that the chair of the newly formed Council was present in Holyrood that day and took part in the joyful procession up the Royal Mile past the Queen and beaming new First Minister Donald Dewar.

Discussions about a national interfaith body had been taking place since 1992, encouraged by Brian Pearce of the UK Interfaith Network who probably foresaw the implications of devolution for interfaith relations in Scotland in a way that those of us engaged in interfaith at the time didn’t. The Interfaith Network had been launched in 1987 and as part of its work had occasionally held networking meetings of local interfaith groups in Scotland, of which at the time there were only four – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

In 1994 I undertook to explore the idea a Scottish Network. I met with whole range of people from faith communities as well as a number of interfaith practitioners the length and breadth of the country.  There was a lot of interest in this but a certain hesitancy because of a concern that a new structure might divert time and energy away from existing interfaith initiatives and faith community commitments, some of whom were setting up new initiatives to interact with the Parliament. It was about this time that the Churches Parliamentary Office, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities and the Muslim Council of Scotland were established.

What emerged as a result of this research was a Scottish Interfaith Consultative Group located within the framework of the UK Network and formed by representatives of bodies that had membership in Scotland and were already affiliated to the Network. This was expanded to make sure there was a fair representation of all the major faiths in Scotland.  Conversations tended to focus on the kind of Scotland we wanted to live in and what the new Parliament would mean for faith communities. One meeting I particularly remember showed that, apart from the Christians,  religious freedom was a real concern among people of the other faiths  – something that had never entered the head of the majority faith.

It was these discussions and the recognition that others were planning some kind of relationship with the Parliament that led in the end to a more formal organisation – called the Scottish Interfaith Council with representative membership from the major faiths and the established interfaith groups.  Although it was formally recognised as a Scottish charity on 10th October 1999 it had actually been launched weeks before that in St Mungo’s Museum by Patricia Ferguson the deputy Presiding Officer of the Parliament. The link with Government was important and its support helped establish us. As happens so often things happen by chance. It was an encounter with Jack McConnell MSP and his wife Bridget, Head of Glasgow Museums, at a Royal Garden Party that  we got the promise of a senior politician to launch the Council and  a desk at St Mungo’s Museum from which to work.  In the beginning we had to learn how to work together and how to develop this burgeoning organisation.  Almost immediately problems of membership and identity arose – something that we in our naiveté had not foreseen.

Immediately after the launch of the Council we received a letter from the First Minister’s office saying that he would like to meet with the Council on an annual basis – an extension of the traditional meeting that the Secretary of State for Scotland had had with Church leaders. It was at the second of these meetings that the then First Minister, Henry McLeish, offered us funding which allowed us to employ a secretary and development worker. This meeting with the First Minister continues until today.  Another significant moment was the request from the Moderator, the Cardinal and Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh to organise a gathering of religious leaders as a response to the attacks of 9/11 2001. It took place in Scottish Churches House, Dunblane, and included a reflection on the values on the Scottish Mace: wisdom, justice, integrity and compassion as values that united us in our common concern for the future of Scotland.  This meeting also continues until today.

There never was a master plan for the Scottish Interfaith Council – it grew gradually, eventually changing its name to Interfaith Scotland. But it has continued to flourish thanks to the involvement and commitment of so many people who participated in its development and continue to work for it today.  It has made a significant contribution to interfaith relations in Scotland and to the well – being of our country. Long may it flourish!

The Home We Build Together

From Sr Isabel Smyth SND – Interfaith Journeys

The school summer holidays are over in Scotland and there’s a sense of purpose and industry around. After a quiet few months our interfaith committee has become very busy. In the last week or two there has been an Eid dinner hosted by the Scottish Ahl-alBayt Society, a day with Church students, taking them to places of worship and introducing them to the work of interfaith in Scotland, a meeting with young people from three Catholic schools, working with St Mungo’s Museum to plan a programme which they will organise in their schools during interfaith week and a 24 hour colloquium on faith in public life.

This colloquium has become an annual event but this year it was special. For one thing we planned it in partnership with the Justice and Peace Commission and the Bishops’ Parliamentary Office and we had a Sunni and Shia Muslim and a Baha’i participating. This meant the majority of people attending were Christian but even this small number of people from other faiths made a tangible and significant difference. It was important to have an interfaith dimension, even if small, as we were reflecting on our common civic identity. The inspiration for the event and the title of the colloquium came from Lord Jonathan Sack’s book ‘The Home We Build Together’.  In that book Lord Sacks suggests that the image of a home could be a powerful motivation for people of all faiths and none to work together to bring about the kind of society we would all like to live in – in other words to work for the common good.

The key note speaker, who set the scene for subsequent reflections and discussions, was Lord John Mcfall, a person of faith with long experience in politics. He reflected on the relationship between faith and politics, suggesting that both have the same intention in that they are working for a better world. He had some interesting and challenging things to say. Change, he said was the only reality in life and not to be afraid of it. While we lived in a time of instability and insecurity, people were yearning for answers to the big questions of life, something religion had to offer. It could be that religion might be the only architecture to hold society together – quite a challenge!

Cardinal Newman has a famous saying ‘to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often’. But on the whole religions are conservative institutions and not often in the forefront of change. Religious founders were certainly innovators, often challenging the inflexibility of the conservatism of the faith and culture from which they sprung. But the developing tradition has a tendency to institutionalise the charisma and put its energies into maintaining the tradition. Religion, like nations, can look back with nostalgia to a golden age when all was well, stable and secure. But there was, of course, no such thing. Such thinking is a refuge from a world that is frightening in its insecurity and instablitiy. It’s this kind of thinking that has given rise, I think, to what we call identity politics, an attitude which also influences religions. There’s real evidence of a battening down the hatches in both religion and politics – a fear of the other, a sense that others are out to get us and we must look after ourselves and our own interests or ‘they’ will take over and deprive us of our livelihood and identity. In so far as this is the case, religions are in danger of setting themselves against society, rather than being the architecture that holds it together. This is only possible by embracing society, looking for the positive and good and speaking truth in love while inspiring fellow citizens to commit to accepting the human dignity of all and working for the common good.

To do this religion needs to learn a new language – the language of citizenship which Rabbi Sacks suggests should be the first language of us all, despite our second languages of ethnicity or faith. Someone at our colloquium suggested we needed to be bi-lingual. This may well be true but perhaps faith communities need to reflect on how far their language, especially in the area of morals and values, reflects the reality of today and is expressed in language that is positive and meaningful. In my own Church much of the language of faith and morals uses medieval concepts which are no longer relevant and suggest a cosmology and reality that is outdated. No wonder young people cannot take it seriously and are ahead of us in meeting some of the issues facing our planet and its future.

There was much more of course and in due time a report will be published on our website. Recently Pope Francis encouraged us to avoid unproductive discussions. In interfaith no meeting is unproductive if it establishes a  bond of friendship and understanding but it was good to have discourse over matters that are important to all of us. The intention is that this should be the start of many more productive dialogues.

Farewell to Mary Catherine

In early July we said goodbye to our intern Mary Catherine O’Reilly Gindhart who has worked with us for the past two and a half years.

Mary Catherine has been an enthusiastic addition to our team and has enjoyed all she has learned about interfaith relations. She continues with her PhD work and will teach a course on interfaith for Cabrini University, Pennsylvania  in the autumn. We wish her well and thank her very much for all she has done for us.

         

 

Holidays

By Sr Isabel Smyth

The holiday period has come to Scotland and with it some sunshine which is a welcome change.  Everything and everyone looks so much brighter, happier and friendlier.  Holidays are important in our lives.  Originally they would have been associated with holy days –  festivals which would have given a break from work to allow families and communities to come together to celebrate and remember significant moments in their community’s life.  This was a way of reconnecting, of enjoying a change of routine and often diet, of taking time for fun and laughter away from the drudgery of normal living.

Today holidays are often an opportunity to visit new places and meet new friends.  But they have not lost their sacred significance as moments to renew and refresh our spirit as well as our bodies.  Today life is so hectic that people find it difficult to switch off even on holiday or their holidays themselves become a frantic pursuit of new experiences and new challenges. The Jewish community can teach us something  about switching off.  Every week Jews observe the Sabbath, a day on which they rest from normal work to spend time with their family and, for those who are religious,  to give time to prayer and study of the scriptures.  They do this in imitation of God who, according to the scriptures, rested on the seventh day of creation and commanded His people to do likewise.

Resting for the Jewish community, and for all those who follow the Judaeo-Christian tradition,  is a divine act, an act of worship, an act of renewal and celebration.  This celebration of Sabbath tells me that often there is a deeply human truth hidden in what seems to be a religious belief or ritual. We all need Sabbath times, holidays and holy days to renew and refresh our spirit, to savour and enjoy life. Without these our work will be ineffective and we will be in danger of suffering burn-out or some other illness.  But we also need Sabbath moments—moments when we can be quiet, still the mind and return to the space within us to restore our spirit and get in touch with our inner wisdom. And Buddhism offers a practice for doing just this. Mindfulness, focusing on the present moment is now used by the NHS to help people who are depressed or have a mental illness.

It is something we could all do with practising.

Thoughts and Perspectives

A blog by Anthony MacIsaac

Events of the past few months have only highlighted how very important inter-religious dialogue is for our society, and for ourselves in the end. Not all of these events have been pleasant, some indeed have been shocking and tragic.

From my own Catholic perspective events in the institution of the Church, regarding sexual abuse and it’s cover-up, have rocked and made vulnerable trust, hope and even faith in the whole project. I have heard this from many of my friends committed to the faith, and have felt something of it myself recently. Such problems that can present themselves from within the heart of a community of faith, raise perhaps the deepest spiritual questions to us.

They also reveal how we can never truly be certain in our journey – organised religion tends to provide frameworks, and frameworks on occasion make it hard to find our way. It is my view that we can only hold fast to that which we find to be life-giving. If we believe in a living God, as I do, then this is essential. With time, certainly if we are people of hope, the community may transform and might remedy the mistakes of its members – however high ranking or low ranking they may be. We may be needed in this very task!

It is helpful to consider that similar divisions within other communities also exist. To take an example, in contemporary Islam, there is this tension between the life of faith in a secularising world and the rigid interpretations applied to the code of Shari’ah Law. The recent legalisation of stoning to death in the Sultanate of Brunei conveys precisely this contradiction, and indeed points out the problem. Reading this development, we can and should only feel outrage.

For many Muslims, this is also the prevailing feeling. Yet among my own friends who happen to be Muslim, despite these feelings, there is also a reluctance to condemn the Sultanate and certainly a reluctance to question the Law in its ideal. Is this similar to what we see among those Christians who wish to avoid the subject of child abuse? Maybe. Criticising the frameworks of one’s religion presents natural difficulties, and is a delicate matter indeed.

It might well be rare also to find Jewish people ready to condemn some of Israel’s actions. Even although it remains a state apart from the religion, the cultural connections are so strong that to many it too is part of the broader Jewish identity. They may well feel that in critiquing it, they would thus be critiquing their own faith. Yet this is still a controversy generating headlines each year, and causing untold misery on all sides. So how is cooperation between the different faiths in Israel and Palestine, without some honest discussion on the hard issues, going to be possible?

This hard dialogue – interior and exterior – is absolutely vital in my eyes. The desires in the Abrahamic faiths are noble – we each seek to lead good and Holy lives, shining with hope, love and peace. We are even after the same God. This gives all of us, who are of good will, a great starting point. For when we are of good will, we are also committed to a common Humanism. This sharing of our simple Humanity; augmented by our beliefs, and anchored in God, helps us work together.

Prhaps taking our institutions a little less seriously, and focusing instead on the spiritual bounties that they offer, would help in resolving any discomfort or even shame we feel when confronted by scandal and abuse. Of whatever stripe, in whatever community.

Should we truly desire change, and the promotion of all that is just and humane, we need to be strong and brave. Moreover, we ought not to “go it alone”. The role of the Prophet “crying out in the wilderness” is that of a hero, often beyond that of which we may be capable. It is very often also unnecessary. Indeed, finding like-minded people within our tradition is significant for helping us resolve the interior conflicts we may feel. Finding also like-minded people outwith our tradition helps in dealing with the exterior world – and once more, in not taking it all too seriously! This is where inter-religious dialogue as such comes in.

The solidarity shown by various people of faith around the world, including in Scotland, with our mosques was inspiring – after the horrifying terror attacks in New Zealand a few weeks ago. Charity breeds charity, and I know of many who were touched deeply by these gestures – however small.

We can only hope that as crises erupt throughout the religious landscape, the quiet and good willed spirit of compassion and Holiness continues to prevail in the end. Much of this starts with how we interact as individuals, with all the people we meet. To avoid the poison of “cultural war”, it is vital we have our say and make our mark in the lives of others, in a positive way. The alternative is beneath the aspirations shared among the great world religions, and one of only yet more pain. 

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