During October 2005--and then again in the fall of 2006 and 2007--a confluence of sacred moments in several different traditions invites us to pray with or alongside each other and to work together for peace, justice, human rights, and the healing of our wounded earth.
To begin with, two strands of time that are celebrated in two communities now often at odds with one another are this fall woven together in a way not seen for three decades: The sacred Muslim lunar month of Ramadan and the sacred Jewish lunar month of Tishrei, which includes the High Holy Days and Sukkot, both begin Oct. 3-4.
But there is more: Oct. 4 is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi; October 2 is Mahatma Gandhi's birthday and Worldwide (Protestant/Orthodox) Communion Sunday. And in mid-October, parallel to Sukkot, there are major Sikh, Buddhist, and Hindu festivals.
Remembering Francis of Assisi is more to the point today than many may realize. For at the very moment when almost all of Christian Europe was calling for Crusades, Francis was one of the few Christians of his day who opposed the Crusades, who learned in a serious way from Muslim teachers, and who was deeply dedicated to kinship with the earth and all living creatures.
The spiritual depth of "God's October surprise" stems from making a coherent whole of the medium--interwoven celebration and learning--with the explicit message--peace and reconciliation. Together we can face down the blood-stained, intolerant practices that some adherents in each of our traditions have mistakenly identified with God's will, and together we can work out ways to transcend them through action as well as learning.
Learning from Isaiah
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First, there is the process used by 15 Jews, Muslims, and Christians who have come to call themselves The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah. Meeting in a retreat setting for four days each time, the Tent has gone beyond intellectual "interfaith dialogue" to the spaces of heart and soul.
Participants began by sharing with each other some important parts of their spiritual journeys. They worked out ways of sharing prayer that respected the boundaries of certain prayers within each of the three communities, while creating authentic prayer forms open to all the participants though clearly rooted in each one of the traditions. Not till then did they explore what common action they might take in the world.
As a result of these meetings, the Tent reached out to persuade a broad religious spectrum to call for all Americans to set aside the time from sunrise to sunset on Oct. 13--which for Muslims is one of the Ramadan fast days and for Jews is the fast day of Yom Kippur--as a nationwide fast for Reflection, Repentance, Reconciliation and Renewal. The National Council of Churches; the Islamic Society of North America; Pax Christi; ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and its rabbinical affiliate Ohalah; and the Jewish Committee for Isaiah's Vision (more than 100 rabbis and other Jewish leaders from all religious branches) have joined in this call.
They have also urged that the participants affirm through their fast that together, later in the month, they will support public multi-religious action to "Seek Peace, Feed the Poor, Heal the Earth."
In this way, all three traditions could learn from the passage of Isaiah--whom all three join in revering as a Prophet--that in Jewish tradition is read on Yom Kippur morning. God, speaking through Isaiah, says, "Do you think the fast that I demand this day is to bow down your head like a bulrush? No! The fast I demand is that you feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and break off the handcuffs on your prisoners."
In some communities, trust among the three traditions is being newly built through sharing a fast and food; in some, it is already strong enough to shape joint public action in the world. On this spectrum, groups might choose different possible actions: -- Perhaps in groups of congregations--a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple--each congregation could host one meal for members of the others, after nightfall on any of the evenings of Ramadan, and share a reflective conversation and learning during the meal: What does fasting mean in each tradition? How can we teach beyond what might seem the violent passages in each of the sacred wisdoms?
Jews could invite Muslims, Christians, and others into the Sukkah, a leafy hut, open to the wind and rain, in which Jews are commanded to dwell during Sukkot. Traditionally, "sacred guests" are invited in and the ancient rabbis taught that during Sukkot, blessings are invoked upon "the 70 nations" of the world. Traditional prayers implore God to "spread the sukkah of shalom" over us. These are perfect rubrics for peacemaking among the children of Abraham and all humanity with each other and with all the earth.
Muslims could invite other communities to join in celebrating some aspects of Eid el-Fitr (the feast at the end of Ramadan), and Jews and Christians could (as Jews have long done in Morocco) bring food to the celebration of the end of Ramadan's fasting. Eid el-Fitr marks and underlines the month-long commitment to fast that for Muslims is a way of offering food and life-abundance to God as a sacrifice, and focusing on devotion to God instead of on material success.
Blessings from a miracle of time
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Synagogues could invite Muslim scholars and spiritual leaders to teach on Rosh Hashanah--when Jews are reading Torah passages from the saga of Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael, Sarah, and Isaac--how it is that Muslims understand that family story. Then there could be open discussion of the differences, the similarities, the wisdom in each of the versions of the story.
Synagogues could set aside a time during Yom Kippur or the Shabbat just before, or another special time during the month, to read and discuss the Torah's story (Gen. 25: 7-11) of the coming together of the estranged brothers Isaac and Ishmael to bury their father Abraham, and then to achieve reconciliation at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. They could invite Muslims to join in some part of that day or in the break-fast (by Muslims called Iftar) at the end of the day.
Some communities could together take public action during the month--
Since the confluence of sacred dates will continue in the fall of 2006 and 2007, we have three years to seal the connections that flow from this miracle of time--so as to last when we are again on our own, no longer surprised by God. May it be sufficient to surprise each other in the aura of God's caring!