On learning from difference while sharing similarities.

Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

“Would you like to pray together?” the young Muslim man asked me as I entered the small multi-faith chapel at Heathrow Airport last week. I felt puzzled, thinking that he must not have noticed the yarmulke on my head. He repeated the question. “No, thank you,” I replied. “I’ll pray on my own.” He nodded silently, and continued his devotions. So I prayed on my own. He knelt, and I stood nearby. Both of us recited our quiet supplications to the One who is addressed by many names. We worshiped in close proximity, and yet alone. He got up and left. A few minutes later I finished minhah, the afternoon service, and reentered the frenzied crush of the international airport.

As I walked to my gate I began to feel that I had missed a special opportunity. Might we have been able to pray together, instead of two individuals worshiping close to one another? Could we have spoken to one another about our experiences in prayer? I longed to tell him about how deeply I admire his religious tradition for their embrace of loving submission, total obeisance, physically expressed in bowing before God. But I also wanted to tell him of the beauty of our tradition as well. We stand in the presence of God. And, I wondered, does he know that we both wash our hands before praying, rinsing away our ordinary consciousness and entering into a new contemplative space? Does he know that we both direct our prayers, physically and spiritually, to some holy place far away where heaven and earth kiss? I wanted to ask him if it is love or awe that inspires him to serve. And how does he overcome the feelings of rote that accompany the obligation to worship several times each day?

The two of us held a sacred silence of mutual respect for those few moments. But perhaps we could have created more. The Hasidic mystical tradition reminds us that every event holds some important lesson for our spiritual and intellectual growth. I lacked the presence of mind to seize the moment, but reflecting upon what happened has opened something up within me. It has helped me articulate something for which I’ve yearned for a very long time: inclusive dialogue in which religious people can acknowledge (and learn from) points of difference, while appreciating and sharing our similarities. As an undergraduate I often felt that my friends from different faith traditions were truly kindred spirits, seekers with whom I shared a quest for devotion and authenticity. Now, after years of intense study in my own spiritual tradition, I look forward to new possibilities for inter-religious communication. We all have an opportunity to work together to heal our fractured world, speaking out together against local and global threats like international poverty, wars without clear borders, and climate change. Perhaps we might even learn to pray together.

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2 thoughts on “On learning from difference while sharing similarities.

  1. Ariel,

    Last year I attended an event for alums who graduated from the Interfaith Seminary I went to a short while ago. As we all shared and connected with each other, I remembered how powerful seminary was. We said prayers from different traditions and had various multi-faith experiences i.e) Native American Sacred Pipe ceremony, Zikr with Sufi Muslims, etc.

    Your story reminds me of the lesson I took from seminary which was, “There is more that unites us than divides us.” I have a feeling you’ll have more great opportunities to pray with other spiritually open souls and I look forward to reading about it.


  2. It takes a lot of courage to turn one’s face toward the “other” and acknowledge the things we hold in common. But once we pass this obstacle, interfaith takes a whole new dimension where we feel connected to the “other,” sometimes in no way that we ever felt connected to the people from our own faith.

    I had a similar experience of praying with a Christian (I am Muslim) aboard a plane, over the clouds. She held my hands and started praying to God, asking Him to make my journey into seminary easier and to bless me and my family. It was an experience where I felt so much connected to God with a person from a different faith, and I thought, “wouldn’t He be happy with us right now?”

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