Cambridge, MA. Each year in January I head out to Los Angeles — or, more precisely, Culver City, within LA — to be with the Jesuit novices of the West Coast for a few days of conversation on interreligious dialogue. I wrote about this last year in this space, so need not describe again the experience, except to emphasize once more how good it was for me to be with the novices – a wonderful and interesting group of twelve young men — for a few days, to learn from them as I taught. This year, as before, we visited different religious sites to learn and to prayer. On Friday, we went to the Islamic Center of Southern California for conversation with some of the very hospitable members of the staff of the Center, and for noonday prayer.
Most memorable, this year, was the sermon at the time of prayer. A distinguished elder member of the community spoke on the suffering of Gaza. Although his remarks were pointed at times — on the disproportionate nature of the Israeli use of force, the disproportionate coverage in our media of the crisis from the Israeli perspective — his basic theme was the enormity of the human suffering in Gaza, the tendency of human beings — on both sides — to treat other human beings as animals or worse. He lamented the violence, and how easy it is for us to pass it by, to ignore it or to run quickly to the larger political issues, never stopping for a moment (or hour) to meditate on the ruin of Gaza and the endlessness of the cycle of violence that is so tragically put before us these weeks, if we are willing to look. And yet, he reminded us, all this is in God’s hands.
The sermon maintained its prayerful, spiritual tone, even if it did on occasion come near to political opinion (as might be natural, almost irresistible, in the presence of a very diverse international gathering of one thousand or more Muslims for this time of prayer). After the sermon everyone, including myself and those of the novices who felt comfortable participating joined in the worship that concludes the service, everyone packed together, shoulder to shoulder, praying, as our leader reminded us, to the God of Abraham who is our God even today.
This was the remarkable and memorable feature of the event: the sad events in Gaza were brought before us in a truly prayerful context, in which people like me — who has so little regular contact with the Muslim community — could reflect on the violence and pray for peace amidst a great gathering of faithful Muslims of all backgrounds. While we sometimes neglect to take seriously enough the plight of Israel and the ongoing struggle of that nation for its security and freedom, we at least live in a culture where Jewish culture and faith are known to all of us, and thankfully held in great respect; again and again, we Christians think of Israel and our own beginnings as deeply intertwined, and we have learned to see our long and difficult, even tragic history, as interconnected, now for peace and in solidarity. We try at least to see Israel’s struggle today mindful of our past and with eyes of faith.
It is so easy not to see Muslims and their struggle for security and freedom with the same sympathy, with the eyes of our faith open. It is easy to see Islam as simply something else, later, after us, foreign, as if we are not in a deep way too connected with this great community of faith, that deeply honors Abraham and Moses, Mary and (in their own way) Jesus as so very great a prophet.
While praying in a mosque on one Friday does not wash away the endemic problems facing Gaza today nor simplify the political issues, there is a great power in being able, even for a short while, to be as it were on the inside, shoulder to shoulder with Muslims at prayer, grieving for those who have died, for the homeless and suffering and yet, in the end, still leaving all in God’s hands. It was a great gift that day, and an invitation to share more in the lives and prayer of our Muslim sisters and brothers.
Never been to a mosque on a Friday at noon? Please try it, you will not regret it:
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praised be to God, Sustainer of the Worlds; Most gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, And Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, Those whose portion Is not wrath, And who go not astray. (1st sura of the Holy Qur’an, A. Yusuf Ali translation)