Mohja Kahf wrote in The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf that “[prostration prayer] . . . is not a hundred yard dash. You want to do everything with your nia—your purpose and intent.” Although I grew up making the sign of the cross, I was taught how to make it – with “nia— purpose and intent” by my parish pastor. “I don’t want some quick race through the motions,” he said. “I don’t want your hand to be barely touching your body. I want you to think of what you are saying as your hand touches each part of your flesh. Do everything with intent.”
I have thought a lot about the little things that make big differences. I went to an Episcopalian service one week because I agree with them on several pieces of social doctrine. But it’s as my priest says, “I’m Catholic! Nothing could change that, despite what I believe about social justice.” The Episcopalians, God bless ‘em, just didn’t get the little things right. But that doesn’t mean I think they’re any less in the family of God – ooh, just because our debates about remembrance vs. actual presence have killed some people. But in the long run, I’m a masochist with a heart for Catholic traditions. And relics. But, as hard as it is for me to admit sometimes, it doesn’t make the beliefs of the Episcopalians any less valid.
Which brings me to my next point. Thankfully, the Pope has begun creating alliances with Jewish people. But believe it or not, guys, the same goes for Muslims – as much as the Pope wouldn’t like us to admit that. Didn’t think the 2008 Easter Vigil Baptism counted as Islamophobia? Put down the Ayaan Hirsi Ali and look around. Baptizing Magdi Allam, an outspoken critic of Islam and all of the so-called ‘Asiatic horde stuff’ to the more civilized (peaceful, pacifist?) religion of Christianity at the Easter Vigil, broadcasted world-wide, was another way to make the ‘War on Terror’ less about politics and economics and more about religion. Another way to think about ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’ And if you think that Madgi Allam represents Islam well, let’s see, it’s like if you went to Carrie from Sex and the City to learn about healthy relationships. You don’t learn about Islam from Magdi Allam, and you don’t learn about creating healthy relationships with Islam from Pope Benedict XVI. Because the Easter Vigil Baptism was nothing less than a power trip – a power trip to say, here – here is refuge from the so-called savage, violent, misrepresentations of Islam. Try on Catholicism.
So what DO you do as a lay Catholic? You have interfaith dialogue with intent. Interfaith conversations are not easy, peasy, lemon squeezy things – where you just make nice and then flowers emerge and Kumbaya begins to play. There are limitations to what I can describe with this blog post, but let’s just say, in the words of Mohja Kahf: “It is spiritual work. It digs deep. It can be painful.” I am here to say that it is possible to have interfaith dialogue while maintaining tradition – including much-loved practices of eating fish on Fridays and mandatory head covering. In fact, I am also here to say that talking about a highly-valued tradition with someone of a different religion is something you must do with intent. The same kind of intent with which you make the Sign of the Cross. And in these conversations, you might find pearls from the other’s traditions. Some of these pearls may not be far from your own – or what you thought was your own, exclusively. And you might just find yourself, imbedded in the other, as you begin to pray in a different way that is actually your own (the key here is that you do NOT lose your own traditions, but as Kahf writes, “Bodily to pray, in the posture of the other, not as dilettantism but as genuine spiritual guesting, being a gracious guest to the Other tradition.”) You do it as a part of yourself, and it becomes no longer an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ thing. (AGAIN: this is the time to BANISH the ‘flowers-bloom-from-your-armpit-into-the-cosmos’ approach.) But doing these things would be going to the source, the horse, instead of Carrie Bradshaw. I implore you, Catholicism – stop converting, and start conversing. You’ll find people just as passionate about faith as you are, just as much a part of the city of God. Those foot-in-the-mouth Papal acts should have been over in the 14th century. It’s time to focus on the sweet interfaith moments.