By Ken Trainor
Our religion writer, Tom Holmes, a retired Lutheran minister, wrote last week that he doesn't attend the annual Thanksgiving Interfaith Service because he can't pray with people of other faiths.
His blog (see OakPark.com) surprised more than a few of us because no one is more open-minded and eager to explore other faiths and faith communities. His point seemed to be that while we can all learn something from other faiths, praying together is another matter altogether. Though God is more than likely multilingual, Tom can only pray in one "language."
Essentially, he's arguing for a kind of "spiritual sovereignty." Or to employ a scientific metaphor, if we are cellular organisms (proportional to God), then we all have membranes, of which there are two kinds: permeable and impermeable. Impermeable means we can bump up against each other, ecumenically speaking, but still retain firm denominational boundaries and identities.
With a permeable membrane, on the other hand, influences flow freely in and out without violating, diluting, dissolving or compromising our identity as spiritual organisms.
Tom has an impermeable membrane. Mine is permeable.
I thought about him as I prayed the "Our Father" at Ascension last Sunday. By coincidence, Ascension is the location of the Community of Congregations' Interfaith Service this Sunday at 7 p.m. (held each year the Sunday before Thanksgiving).
I'm fond of this prayer for a variety of reasons, but I would change the words — starting with "Father." I don't think of God as a male. If it were up to me, the prayer would begin: "Great Mystery [or Great Spirit], who art within us and beyond us, hallowed be your names."
I'll spare you the rest of the rewrite because people get cranky when you mess with the traditional wording of prayers, which gets back to Tom's point — except it's not just about other faith communities. Even within my own, I often feel I'm praying to a different God. At the very least, I would use different terminology. I can choose my own words when I'm alone, but this is communal prayer, so unless you want to re-enact the Tower of Babel, you have to come to terms with agreed-upon terms.
On the other hand, I don't pray to a God who makes bad things happen to good people because it's part of some mysterious plan. I don't sing praises to the "God of power and might." God is a pacifist, Jesus said, so the "power and might" thing seems obsolete to say the least. Neither do I pray to the Great Promise-Keeper, because that's not the basis for our relationship.
Though I'm a lifelong Catholic, sitting in the pew alongside other lifelong Catholics, I never assume any of us are praying to the same deity. We all seek the same God, but our imaginations range widely.
To be sure, I'm an idiosyncratic church-goer, but so is everyone else. Our permeable membranes allow us to come together and, if all goes well, achieve a spiritual state known as "communion," i.e. unity amid diversity. The agreed-upon wording is a convenience, deeply flawed and always in need of revision.
As it happens, Catholics are about to start using a new missal, a new translation, and they are anything but unified in their reception of it. Thanks to our permeable membranes, we'll probably find a way to make it work — while maintaining our idiosyncracies and our spiritual sovereignty.
The same principle applies to the upcoming interfaith service. Different wording may not send everyone to the same spiritual place, but it doesn't compromise us either.
This year's service, at a Catholic church, will be led by a rabbi. The Hebrew blessing over the bread and wine happens to be one of my favorite public prayers. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ho-olam ... Blessed are you, ruler of the universe, who gives us bread to eat and fruit of the vine.
Then again, I'm not a fan of "ruler" references because it sets the divine in a milieu of temporal, worldly power, and the "king" metaphor, popular among Christians, doesn't fit the non-imperial God I pray to. But we're stuck with words, the inadequate instruments we use to apprehend a reality our limited minds can't begin to encompass. I have begun to refer to that reality as "whatever it is we call God." A bit wordy, I admit, but it comes closer to capturing the inescapable mystery at the core of religious experience.
In general, I believe we should pray and let pray — with pretty much anyone. This Sunday night at Ascension, the assembled interfaith family will have three things (at least) in common:
- the search for truth,
- a profound sense of mystery, and
- an irrepressible urge to say "thanks" to whatever it is we call God.
Sunday, 7 o'clock. Bring your permeable membrane.