Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Angels All Around Me

In the name of Adonai, God of Israel, to my right is Michael, and to my left is Gabriel; before me is Uriel and behind me is Raphael; and above my head is the Shekhinah, God's presence.


Yasmina, when we were speaking last week you mentioned angels and I haven't been able to stop thinking about them!  In discussing the need to praise God very day, you said, "When a person is absorbed with her daily routines, an angel comes to remind her to remember God.” And I had this image of an angel tapping me on the shoulder! I love that Muslims understand the sudden occurrence of a thought into one’s head or heart as an encounter with an angel.  Often, Jews resist discussing the presence of angels in the world, claiming that angels are Christian, when in fact Jewish literature and liturgy is filled with mentions of angels.  I sing “The Angel Song” (arranged by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach) every night to my son before he goes to sleep. Each of the angels mentioned in the song plays a specific role in protecting humans in the world. It comforts me to think that God sends us angels to help us in our times of need and to remind us that God is present in our daily lives.  

Similar to the nightly song of angels that you sing to your son, Tziporah, is the bedtime blessing in my family: “May all God’s holy angels watch over you as you sleep.” While the Christian gospels recount significant appearances by angels as God’s messengers or as heralds of good news, the concept of a Guardian Angel from Catholic Christianity is not universally shared among non-Catholics. Even so, the motif of supernatural angel with wings and halo is pervasive in Christian art, iconography and verse.  While these images abound in art and artifact, deeply ingrained in Christian teaching is this verse from Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb 13:2) Thus, angels may also be viewed as spiritual beings who take embodied form. I wonder if it is this teaching that gives rise to a popular exclamation expressed toward someone who has demonstrated a deep kindness, “You are an angel!”

Yes, the thought of angels protecting, helping and recording our deeds is inherent to Islamic teachings and gives me ample room for contemplation about the unseen world. Coincidentally, reciting the verse known as the “Verse of the Throne”[1] grants a Muslim a peaceful night-watch from an angel. One of my favorite Hadiths about angels that relates to the remembrance of God is: “When any group of men remembers God, angels surround them and mercy covers them, tranquility descends upon them, and God mentions them to those who are with Him.”[2] What a humbling and wondrous thing it is to be the subject of God’s mention! To me, this is a magnificently gentle and loving sign of generosity from my Lord.

[1] Ayatul Qursi 2:255
[2] from Fiqh-us-Sunnah by Sayyid Saabiq, Vol. 4, p.102

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pray Without Ceasing

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 
(I Thessalonians 5: 16-18)

Although each phrase in this text is fertile ground for sacred conversation, the admonition to pray without ceasing gives me particular pause.  With the exception of those traditions within Christianity that preserve forms of The Daily Office—including Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer/Vespers, and Compline—fixed times of day for prayer are not prescribed for most Christians. Pray without ceasing, then, is understood by most to mean “be steadfast or constant in prayer.” By observing an ancient Christian practice of a breath prayer, I have found a particularly lovely way to enjoy the fruits of praying without ceasing quite literally.  In meditation, I attach to my inhalation an invocation of God and to my exhalation an affirmation or petition important to my spiritual growth.  The very act of breathing thus becomes an act of prayer, its fruits revealed in subtle changes within me over time.  My current breath prayer: “Light of God, illumine me.”

Grace, I also engage in daily remembrance of God—during my ritual ablutions, while performing my daily prayers, and, of course, when I first wake up and just before going to bed. Part of my daily practice is to recite the phrase “Glory, praise and thanks be to God” 100 times every morning; then I make a conscious effort throughout my day to be aware of God’s presence. There are numerous verses in the Quran which are in tune with your biblical call to pray without ceasing. One of my favorite examples is “The seven heavens and the earth and all beings therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare His Glory!”(17:44) This verse reminds me that when I utter words of thanks and praise to God I am joining all of God’s creatures in celebration. I seek to nourish my soul by praising God when I marvel at the nature around me, prepare a meal for my family, reflect on events and make new discoveries. As I go about my daily activities, I try to maintain a state of constant awareness and remembrance of God which humbles both my soul and intellect.

Friends, your personal reflections inspired by these texts remind me of the inherent tension of Jewish prayer: there is a requirement to recite specific prayers of the liturgy at fixed times and a rabbinic imperative to pray with kavannah, “intention.” As you imply, Grace, to pray without ceasing in a literal sense is not practical, and the rabbis were quite practical when establishing the norms of Jewish prayer nearly 2,000 years ago. At the same time, they suggested two modalities of spiritual expression that could be employed without limitations. First, they recommended the recitation of 100 blessings each day.  Blessings—which have a prescribed formula—serve to elevate our quotidian acts of eating, drinking and even using the bathroom.  Yasmina, I was delighted to learn from you that Muslims also include 100 praises of God in daily practice—our traditions share many common rituals designed to help us reach beyond ourselves. The early rabbis also connected with God through the study of Torah, which they considered to be a form of prayer.  This inspired one twentieth century rabbi to explain his daily practice: “When I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me.” I, too, strive to pray without ceasing by reciting prayers, blessings and Psalms—and by studying Torah—every day.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Your Comment Awaits Moderation

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "How to Join the Conversation."

Christians are taught to "go make disciples” or “followers of Jesus." They want to get in that "jab" to make a point. I was raised around them all my life and that is what they are taught to do. Their way is the ONLY way just like most fanatics- and you will be damned to hell if you don't believe like them. When I became Jewish I felt like such a "load" was lifted off of me with all that condemnation crap….

Although this comment from Anonymous was not left at the bottom of the post, I believe it is a response to my description of a pastor’s prayer at an interfaith luncheon, in which I wrote: “I don’t think that he intended to exclude anyone from his prayers—he must have been unaware of the presence of those who do not accept Jesus’ divinity….”  How do you want to respond to Anonymous?

I ache for those who, like Anonymous, have had a terrible experience in the name of any religion, most especially the Christian faith I profess. Ironically, the “Christians” described by Anonymous failed to be Christ-like. My hope and prayer for you, Anonymous, is that you will find true shalom in your new faith and that, over time, you will be able to forgive those who clearly wronged you.  I pray, too, that those who offended in the name of Christianity will come to understand and live the commandments that Jesus said summed up all religious teaching: Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.

Unfortunately, there are individuals or groups in every tradition who are capable of scaring away followers of their faith. Sadly enough, it only takes one person to misrepresent a religion and send the wrong message. The better way for anyone to express their love for God is by having a beautiful character towards all people. I find this notion touchingly expressed in the Quran. Addressing the prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him], God says: “So by mercy from God, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude in speech and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon God. Indeed, God loves those who rely upon Him.” (3:159)

At first, as you both know, I was not inclined to approve this comment, because our mission is to publish productive, interfaith conversations in cyberspace and to avoid augmenting the hostility already residing there.  That is precisely why we agreed that all comments would be moderated.  Yet you convinced me to allow Anonymous to have a voice in our conversation and you inspired me to join you in responding to this reader’s concerns. I encourage Anonymous and all readers to engage in dialogue—not diatribe—in this space.  We do not shy away from difficult conversations here, but we insist that participants in our conversation maintain a respectful tone.  Please write your comments in the first-person singular, from a position of openness and desire to learn.  Strive to approach the texts with curiosity and to question one another without judging. As the great 1st century sage Hillel taught: “Do not judge your friends until you are in their place.” (Mishnah Avot 2:4)