Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A Coptic Mass, Quakers, and Milestones

In about 12 hours, I'll be on the plane flying home, and I'm really ready. I feel like my camera's memory card--full up! It has been the most amazing experience all around, really, I can hardly put it into words, but now it's time to come home. First, I really want to be back with my husband and my dog [even if until the end of the semester, "back" with John means being in the same time zone--a 16 hour time difference has been ridiculous to try and navigate!] Second, being a pretty strong "J," I find that variation in my daily rituals [of which there are many!], is mildly stressful, even when the reason for that variation is wonderful. It wears on me, a bit. I'm ready to get back to my routine. Finally, I'm also really ready to get back to my seminary community, and our worship life. As much as I have loved [and gloated about!] the sunshine and warmth here, it has not felt one bit like Advent, which has been really weird to me. One of the Aborigine presenters said that "a child is part of the land where she is born"--your spirit comes from the land; and I think there is something to that. I have a deep appreciation of the spiritual connection we have to specific places; and for me, Colorado in my blood and heart, winter means cold weather and snow--it simply isn't Advent in 75 degree weather! That said, it still was a great day today.

I started my morning with a Catholic Mass, Coptic rite. I'm sure that typically, they do not practice an open table, but today, in the spirit of the Parliament they did, and it was nice to receive the Eucharist. The rite itself was both familiar and strange--we said the Lord's Prayer twice, once before the Words of Institution and once after; and during The Great Thanksgiving liturgy, explicit emphasis was given to stressing the two natures of Christ. At one point, the priest said something like, "At no time was his divinity apart from his humanity, not for one blink of an eye." I'm sure if I knew more about the history and development of the Coptic church, I would understand why such references have persisted.

The first presentation I attended was called, "Introducing Quakers: What Canst Thou Say?" This was very interesting, and I found out that when it comes to the Quaker faith, the extent of my knowledge could be summed up in one word--"silence." Turns out, there's lots more of interest! [I should say that all the presenters were from the Australian Society of Friends. One presenter noted that in the US, some Quaker branches are more evangelical in constitution, and some have much more structured meetings than they do here, where they consider themselves following more closely George Fox's English model of predominantly silent meetings with no formal structure or liturgy.]

The first thing that surprised me was Quakers don't seem to consider themselves a Christian denomination--assuming that "Christian" actually has something to do with Jesus Christ. [And if they do, I want more information about why and how. And, along those same lines, I'm pretty sure they would fail Martin Luther's definition of a church, too--Scripture plays no part in their regular corporate worship life, to say nothing of the other marks, except maybe suffering…] None of the four presenters even mentioned Jesus, nor did any of the 4 pieces of informative literature that were handed out--there were no Scripture quotes, either. [Of course, this explains why Quakers don't have Sacraments!] Quaker faith is all about the personal, unmediated experience of God--and "God" is more accurately thought of along the lines of Tillich's Ground of Being: some of the presenters used works like Ultimate Spirit, Source of Being, Inner Light, etc. This personal experience leads to testimony, which leads to action in the world. Frankly, this was a connection I couldn't quite make: if what is really central is the "inward listening," which forms the core of the corporate worship experience, how does that lead to such a strong commitment to service in society? I mean, I'm glad it does--the Quakers do great work in the world, but I can't quite connect the dots. What does being a Quaker add to a simple humanist belief in peace and justice? The quote in their literature from William Penn is "True godliness does not turn men [sic] out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excite their endeavours to mend it." I'm all for it, I just don't see how: the basic principles of the Quaker faith are peace, truth, integrity, equality and simplicity. Can't you get there just as easily from the Golden Rule? I'm sounding more critical than I mean--it really is just a question.

The last session I sat in on today was on "Milestones and Signposts in Interfaith Relations: the View from Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism." This was a fun, uplifting session, with both the presenters and the audience offering positive examples of interreligious dialogue in their own traditions. The stated purpose of the panel was to "seek to establish that the milestones are actually signposts, beckoning each of us to take courageous and imaginative steps in the service of human rights, justice, and peace." It was really heartening to hear the examples from the three faith traditions of those visionaries past and present who have worked so hard to build bridges across faith lines. I especially appreciated the two Muslim presenters and their passionate insistence that both the Medinan Charter and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad himself are "concrete manifestations of the pluralistic nature of the Qur'an." That is a strong rebuke of what Christians typically assume about Islam, so I was quite happy to hear it!

My favorite quote of the day came from this session, too. The Hindu presenter, Dr. Anita Ray quoted Gandhi, who said, "To swim in the waters of tradition is good; to drown in them is suicide." Get it?

The sessions ended early for the closing plenary, which was just as you'd imagine: all sorts of different people getting up and making all sorts of meaningful pronouncement; several good music performances; and prayers from several different traditions. Well and good, but now it's time to pack & head to bed!

See you all soon!

Kristin Johnston Largen

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