Have you ever tried to write a joint prayer with a Southern Baptist? Or a Seventh-Day Adventist? How about a Jewish Rabbi? A Zoroastrian chaplain? Or perhaps a “humanist chaplain” (whatever that means…)
It’s not an easy task. But when I served in Campus Ministry at MIT, the Catholic students at the university asked for my help in putting together a totally interfaith prayer card for our community. I can’t go into details surrounding this request, but it boils down to the simple fact that this campus — like so many other college campuses, workplaces, churches, and homes– needed healing.
In response to this request, I composed a prayer. After many rounds of back-and-forth among the chaplains we, we finally agreed on something:
I was really proud of the political accomplishment this card represents, but I’ve frequently wondered whether something like this truly makes a difference.
I’m not someone who likes to spend a lot of time working towards Interfaith Dialogue– there are just too many intra-faith dialogues yet to be had! I admitted to a Jesuit friend once that I sometimes have a very hard time speaking to people outside of the Catholic faith about religious things; he was rightfully taken aback, since that’s supposed to be a Dominican “thing.” But in light of all the horrible vitriol being spewed at unfortunate parents on the internet, the despicable state of affairs in American politics and all sorts of other issues that have just been making my head spin lately, my thoughts have wandered back to that prayer card. I find myself wondering if trying to unite people of faith and good will (no matter what their creed) in common “prayer” is a good way to enact change, even if at the small level of a college campus. (I say “prayer” in quotes because the humanists unsurprisingly didn’t like that term– but I use it because that’s what it is! Whether they like it or not…)
This doesn’t diminish the fact that other religions are desperately in need of the Truth, but I’m reminded of a chapter in CS Lewis’ “The Last Battle.” Here, we read the account of a Calormene, a young man named Emeth, who faithfully served the evil god Tash all his days, then at his death came face to face with Aslan. Emeth tells us:
“He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, it it then true…that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.” – from the chapter Further Up and Further In (emphasis added)
This is not unlike a couple of paragraphs from the Catechism:
843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”332
844 In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them:
Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.333
The key for both Emeth and for these “other religions that search” is their honest “desire for wisdom and understanding,” which is God Himself. Any action done that is Good and True cannot possibly be done for an evil, or false, god. Conversely, anything done in the name of God that is evil or false cannot truly be done In His Name (Mt 7:21, anyone?)
We, as baptized persons with a commitment to making Jesus’ name known, are aware of the fact that other religions are incomplete. They are wrong. Some of them are very, very wrong. We can’t retreat to universalism because it makes us feel happy and relieves us of the challenging duty to evangelize…
…But God is merciful and just and if any prayer is offered with a sincere and upright human heart, no matter to whom the person thinks it is directed, it cannot fail to reach the loving heart of our God.
So it makes me wonder if there is any value in a little prayer card like that. What would a truly universal, interfaith prayer look like? Could it be done? If a Catholic priest, a Jewish Rabbi, a humanist and a Zoroastrian…priest (right?) can agree on this little prayer card, maybe that’s a tiny start…
…or maybe the first step is teaching every one to say “thank you.” Ευχαριστώ,“Eucharisto.”