I’m an Episcopal priest. From childhood I’ve loved church, particularly the music, the incense, and the Eucharistic ritual. When I stand at the altar Sunday after Sunday, chanting words of prayer I’ve known since childhood, I transcend for a moment the boundaries of space and time and feel the presence of the Holy in the gathered community and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. No matter how busy or stressed I may be, walking into a church on a Sunday morning feels like “coming home” and my spiritual center returns as I prepare the elements, don the vestments, check the gospel book and get ready to lead the community in worship, prayer and the celebration of the sacred mysteries. The hymns, the prayers and the ritual of the Eucharist make Christ present and real in that holy “thin place” whether it be a large, well appointed city church or a small country chapel with just a few folks.
Interfaith dialogue is very much alive in our land these days, and certainly here in Rochester. For many of us raised in a particular religious tradition, simply walking into the sacred space of our tradition can conjure up the sense of the transcendent as we are enveloped in the symbols and ritual of that tradition. When we enter someone else’s sacred space, however, we might feel like a stranger in a strange land, as if we have crossed a border into foreign territory far from the God we know and worship. In my years of interfaith dialogue and education, I have come to appreciate how spiritually significant it is for those of us who want to know our interfaith neighbors better, to overcome shyness and awkwardness, fear and suspicion, and enter their sacred space with an equally open heart, expecting to hear the voice of God and to see the face of God in new ways through rituals and prayers not our own.
Paul Knitter in his book, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian describes his experience of becoming immersed in the Buddhist tradition as an experience of “passing over” and “passing back” as he practices Buddhist meditation and then returns to his Roman Catholic roots when attending church. Interreligious encounter is often structured as an intellectual exercise, where we gather folks together for discussion of sacred texts or beliefs, but often we leave out a most important piece of the genuine interfaith encounter, which is prayer. And when I say prayer, I do not mean a carefully crafted “interfaith prayer”, something written or prepared specifically for an interfaith gathering so that it will be acceptable to anyone, but prayer that is rooted in the particularity of a specific religious tradition, with the images, symbols, language and cadence of that tradition. I have come to believe that sharing in the worship of my interreligious neighbors is a profoundly moving spiritual experience through which I come to know the God I first met in my Episcopal church tradition, more deeply than I can within the confines of my own tradition. I have become an advocate of interfaith “crossing over,” including participation in the rituals of others, where such participation is acceptable to one’s hosts and does not violate one’s own sense of religious propriety.
Recently I attended a portion of the ceremonies at the Hindu Temple of Rochester during which the image of the deity Ganesha was consecrated and installed at the Hindu temple. Those rituals took place over four full days so I only experienced part of the extensive ritual. I took off my shoes, entered the temple and sat on the floor with the devotees, taking in the scent of the incense and the sounds of the chanting by several Hindu priests. I watched the flames of the fire ceremonies and the offerings of food, water, grains, flowers and other items as they were given to the murti. Even though I do not understand Sanskrit nor Hindi, the sound, rhythm and cadence of the chants washed over me and I could feel the presence of the holy in all of the rituals as the devotees participated with the priests in the prayers and offerings that would imbue the granite likeness of Ganesha with the divine spirit. I joined the line and poured rice over the image during one of the puja ceremonies, sensing the sacred just as I do when I consecrate the bread and wine on Sunday mornings in my church. Not knowing the words to the chants, I nonetheless hummed along, the sonorous quality of the chanting taking me to a quiet and contemplative place. When I go to the Temple now, I like to go visit Ganesha for prayer, sensing the presence of God in that odd elephant-headed deity who gazes impishly and lovingly from his pedestal adorned in beautiful garments and surrounded by offerings of food, flowers and incense.
Then this week, after our second of three Muslim Christian dialogue events at the Islamic Center, I went, as I often do, to the balcony, where the women pray, for Isha prayers, the final night prayers in the Muslim roster of five times a day prayer. Again, I removed my shoes, and this time I chose to stand in line, shoulder to shoulder with my Muslim sisters to experience the prayer as they experience it, no longer an observer, but a participant. I do not understand Arabic, although I can understand the phrase Allah-u- Akbar, (God is Great) and I have read English translations of the prayers and know there is nothing prayed there to which I cannot assent. I felt strongly the presence of the holy as we stood together in the masjid, the sound of the recitation of verses from the Qur’an soaring in the prayer space as the imam recited them beautifully. The sound of those Arabic words recited in a sacred chant invokes the sense of God’s presence. I understand why Muslims believe the words of the Qur’an to be holy words as the very sound of them brings God into the room. I was profoundly moved by the practice of prostrating myself as part of the prayer ritual. Christians have, for the most part, lost touch with the importance of using the body in prayer. Muslims have something to teach us about what it means to surrender to God, and that sense of surrender becomes palpable as the forehead touches the floor. And the sense of being part of a praying community is deepened as you stand shoulder to shoulder with others bowing, prostrating and standing in a sacred dance that incarnates the reality that we are all connected one with another and ultimately with God.
Carl Jung had a sign over his door, a replica of which I keep in my office, which declares, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” Thanks to the hospitality of my interfaith neighbors I have been blessed to experience God’s presence in a variety of distinct and different sacred spaces and rituals. I do not feel fear or estrangement when I enter a holy place, rather I feel like a child playing hide and seek, waiting to discover God in some unexpected way as I take in the details of that space, the sounds of the prayers, the movements of the practitioners, and the smells of incense or rugs or candles. God has many faces and many voices and the people with whom I pray in these holy places become fellow pilgrims on the sacred journey as I join with them in prayer. By crossing over and passing back I have discovered that truly, there is nowhere in the world where God is not.