We drown in historic moments. A truly historic moment is not simply a moment that takes place for the first time but rather one that will continue to resound and bear fruit long after the moment. Such was the prayer convocation in the gardens of the Vatican earlier this week. The media coverage focused on what was said, and consequently on the political message of the moment. Granted the prayer encounter took place because there are unresolved or unresolvable political problems on the ground, the import of the event goes beyond the political dimension of this gathering.
I followed the event with the eyes of someone who is working in the field of interfaith relations, and who is currently engaged in setting up an interreligious center in Jerusalem, where, amongst many other activities, members of different religions will pray for peace alongside one another (respecting their differences, and in parallel). For some time I have felt that if we can’t resolve the political situation, we can at least pray together, thereby creating a different dynamic, spiritually and in hearts, which could eventually lead to breakthrough on the ground. Pope Francis’ initiative goes to the heart of my work, and my own lessons are therefore more in line with the emphasis on prayer than with political interests. They are indeed lessons I learned from observing this breakthrough moment, and (except for no. 12 below) should be taken as lessons from a foundational moment, rather than as criticism of it. The lessons I draw are important ones for my own work and for anyone who seeks to cultivate prayer as a dimension of the spiritual life and of relations between religions. They will be meaningless for those who seek a political message and for whom prayer is not significant.
1. It is legitimate to be religious without trying to solve a political problem. Even if the prayer sought to serve a political reality and even if it was a result of despair of political negotiations (following the failure of John Kerry’s initiative), identifying prayer as a self-standing dimension is a great novelty. Thanks to Francis we have a precedent, moreover – permission, to bring our spiritual selves to the table, without seeking to translate our religious reality into immediate political results. Prayer and our recognition of each other as praying individuals have value in and of themselves.
2. Prayer repositions us in relation to the other. In negotiations, we face one another, trying to obtain the best for ourselves. In prayer, we face God, ultimately seeking the best for all. There is something gratuitous in prayer, that frees us from the need to protect our agenda. It creates a special kind of openness, the very openness that may be lacking in negotiations. It is a cultivation of heart that may have long term impact, but which in the present simply frees us from arguing our case in the face of the other.
3. To attain the full benefits of prayer, we must come to it as prayer, and not as something else, somehow less than prayer. This is a challenge for some of our traditions and one that must be overcome. Fear of “common prayer” led to some unclarity as to the nature of the event. Was it prayer, readings, invocation, sermons, speeches? Was it some of all of the above? Note: the event was called “invocation”, rather than “prayer”, while both terms were applied by spokespersons. This ambiguity played itself out in the event, where some prayed, some didn’t (notably President Peres, who in fact was the only person speaking who offered a vision of peace, citing Jewish sources, but who avoided turning to God directly, as did the others).
4. Prayer with the other is founded in relationship. Prayer can also create relationships. But prayer cannot replace relationships. If joint prayer is set apart from relationships it will remain flat. I make this observation after watching the lead-up moments to the prayer service, when delegations were milling in the garden. I was struck by the fact that each of the delegations only spoke to its own members. The camera did not show a single instance of Jews talking to Christians (even though most of them know each other from other frameworks), or of either of the two groups talking to Muslims. What a wasted moment. And how much more powerful the message of the event, and even prayer itself, could have been had there been small moments of relationship-building leading up to prayer, grounding it in real relationships. Granting the context may have not invited going to the zone of the other, it is still a relief that the entire event concluded by personal embraces of the leading protagonists (who had also spent time together prior to the prayer event), suggesting that prayer does lead to a more open embrace of the other.
5. Someone must be praying in earnest, setting an example and providing inspiration. God sees to the heart, the viewer only sees through the lens of the camera. Through that lens one person stuck out in the depth of presence he brought to the event. Not looking around, not appearing half present, he was absorbed in deep attention, giving an example of the kind of attentiveness, care and openness of heart that such moments call for. I refer to Patriach Bartholomew. Seeing him on that occasion was, for me, the most inspiring aspect of the entire event, suggesting the importance of a genuine prayerful presence in any (common) (public) prayer event.
6. Good prayer requires leadership. So it is with any of our prayers, practiced in the privacy of our individual communities. Yet, this prayer lacked leadership. It was mc’d, rather than directed. Francis, who called for the event, did not animate it. A word of invitation or welcome, setting the mood, providing inspiration, might have made the event more prayerful than it was.
7. Interesting theological concepts do not always generate successful prayer ceremonies. The Times of Israel described the event as tedious, reminding one of a carefully choreographed but lengthy wedding ceremony. But wedding ceremonies have moments of spontaneous joy, climaxes, audience participation. This ceremony, breaking new ground as it did, lacked all of these. It attempted to follow a theological order – creation, repentance, peace. I don’t know how much of the message embedded in this structure came across, but it certainly made the ceremony very long and heavy, and one often lost sight of the focus on peace. One must consider a more direct approach to prayer that requires less theological unpacking.
8. Prayers must address the moment. While we have our traditions and our liturgies, for an effective moment of public prayer for a cause, we require prayers that address the moment, in the here and now. Jewish prayers particularly rang hollow in view of the absence of any prayer that was direct and relevant to the moment. The Christians did much to include such prayers, and President Abbas excelled in delivering his message in the form of prayer. The Times of Israel reported that Rabbi Razon Arusi had composed a prayer but was not allowed to deliver it for fear of spontaneity. If so, this is a great shame, and quite unfair, considering that the other traditions did just that.
9. Song has more power than speech. Note the faces of participants when Rabbi David Rosen and the Imam chanted or sang, as compared to their faces when readings were read out. They came alive. Strangely, no Christian song was offered. A string quartet is not an adequate substitute for the power of song in prayer. If song is important, thought must be given to the quality of artistic expression as a way of opening hearts in prayer. More is involved in a successful public prayer performance than simply bringing participants to the event. One touches hearts through songs, well performed.
10. Common prayer requires a good common moment. Sunday’s event lacked a common moment. The only commonality was the fact that participants of different faiths were there together. For the rest, everyone did their own thing, seriatim. Listening to music together was probably designed to achieve that, but in my view it did not achieve this goal. Music functioned more as a filler, a poor substitute to common silence, or common song. Silence was not possible under the conditions, but there was certainly room for a concluding common song, a show of solidarity and commonality.
11. The great outdoors? An outdoor ceremony may have been unavoidable given rabbinic concerns about praying in Churches. But in terms of designing a moment of prayer, an outdoor prayer is not a great idea. An outdoor environment, even if one is hedged in by greenery, leads to dispersed attention and diffuse energy. Within a closed space there is the possibility for buildup of attention, focus and energy that are much harder to create outdoors. The garden location ended up also determining the seating arrangement which was not conducive to prayer. In some way, people gathered in prayer form a community of prayer, for the moment. One didn’t get the sense this was happening, and the external circumstances certainly contributed to that.
12. Public prayer must be inclusive, going beyond the politics of representation. This was an official event, and so officialdom called the shots in terms of who gets to pray, or who gets to voice a prayer publicly. But if we open to the other in prayer, we must seek to be as inclusive as possible in giving voice to all. Beginning with the issue of gender, I note that only the Christians included a woman in a praying capacity. Is there no Jewish or Muslim woman who was worthy of reciting a psalm for peace? And why were the delegations only conceived in terms of official male leaders? Are presidents Abbas and Peres not presidents of people, that include praying communities, in need of peace, among whom women are at least fifty percent?
And, one asks oneself, whatever happened to the “Pope’s Rabbi” Avraham Skorka? He got to give a hug to the Pope at the end, but was not given the honor of reciting a prayer? Why? Because he is not Orthodox and the Jewish delegation was composed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. But this event took place on Francis’ turf and making room for Francis’ friend would have been courteous, quite apart from signalling a more inclusive approach to the Jewish people. Prayer is opening the heart, and such opening should ultimately take us beyond the politics of representation. The constituencies of the Chief Rabbinate, let alone the ultra Orthodox, could not care less about this ceremony. They paid no attention to it and did not report it in their media. If one could make some argument for the representative role of the Chief Rabbinate, to the (needless) exclusion of others, in public settings associated with the President in Israel itself, when this logic is extended to Francis’ backyard, it is really a slap in the face.
13. This must be a beginning, not the end, of a process. Francis mobilized the entire Catholic world to pray for this event. The event was felt far and wide beyond the Vatican gardens. But it must also be felt long after the echoes of that moment of prayer have subsided. This moment is meaningful because it sets a precedent, it opens doors. Now others must walk in those doors and follow the precedent. Pundits have reflected on the success of the event and how it can be measured. Surely, one does not expect peace to be ushered in this week. Perhaps the most meaningful measure of success lies not in the event itself but in the possibilities it opens for following up on the event, drawing lessons from it and making prayer a more visible part of our public life, and of our relationship with others, even and especially those relationships that require most prayer.