world council of churches

Parameters for Interreligious Prayer: Some Considerations
Douglas Pratt

Since the mid 1990's the Office for Interreligious Relations of the World Council of Churches (OIRR) and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue of the Vatican (PCID) have been engaged in co-operative reflection on the question of interreligious prayer. Following a preliminary exploratory survey of a number of churches, study centres, and theological institutions around the world, a joint consultation on the subject was convened in Bangalore, India, in July 1996. Some two dozen participants representing different Christian traditions, and coming from different parts of the globe, shared their experiences and understandings of interreligious prayer and related events. In a yet-to-be published report reference is made to the perception that engagement in this phenomenon "is not an optional activity restricted to an elite group but an urgent call for a growing number of Christians today". There are many examples of everyday-life situations wherein Christians find themselves necessarily encountering, at some depth, people of other faiths. These range from the more personal level of, for example, interfaith marriages - with concomitant religious diversity impacting upon the extended family; to communal co-operation in some common cause, such as human rights violations; to shared responses to community tragedy and disaster, or occasions of national celebration.

Following the Bangalore consultation the PCID and the OIRR convened a further and smaller consultation drawing upon theological expertise from Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox perspectives. This group was charged with formulating conclusions on the basis of the earlier research and findings, together with the further theological reflection that the group itself engaged in. As a contributor to this process, I am in full sympathy with the results of our intensive long weekend held at the Communita di Bose, Magnano, Italy, at the end of September 1997. Although not envisaged as an officially sanctioned outcome, the final document will nonetheless be an authoritatively reflective offering to the Churches for information and pastoral guidance, issued jointly by recognised official sources within both the WCC and the Vatican.

Reports and findings of such a consultation are, appropriately, a group product reflecting consensus and compromise, the melding of individual input with corporate concern and the wisdom of the group mind. But the task of theological reflection and exploration is never ending. Alongside the carefully considered corporate product may stand the complementary work of the individual theologian. It is in the spirit of complementarity, the positive juxtaposition of individual with corporate endeavour, that I offer this paper, born of the stimulus of the group work I participated in.

Theological Explorations
As the Findings report of the earlier Bangalore consultation pointed out, there are often occasions when "the experience of working together on a social project leads to a desire to pray together". This was no less true of the Bose consultation itself, and indeed is the crux of the issue that faces us on the interreligious front. When the natural human response is to pray, and the context of that response is multi-religious, what can we do together? How can we do it? Ought we to do it? Why ought we? What justification can we give in respect of our own faith? What are the issues to be addressed, and, if not resolved, then at least adequately responded to? My own reflections on such issues has led me to juxtapose an exploration of some theological considerations. First, I shall delineate three options of what might be meant by the term 'interreligious' as it is applied to the context of prayer or some such allied experiential event - by which I mean an interreligious occasion which may embrace more than elements of prayer per se, where prayer as such forms but a part of an overall experience of interreligious engagement. Second, I shall explore what the term 'prayer' means to religion in general. Third, I shall sketch a case for Christian engagement in interreligious prayer.

A preliminary reflection identifies three possible modes of meaning for the term 'interreligious'. First, and most simply, it can refer to a multi-religious act wherein there is presentation, in some sort of serial or simultaneous fashion, from a number of religious traditions or groups, without presupposing any depth of co-ordination nor implying any particular level of mutual acceptance or agreement: the diverse offerings are simply allowed to be, they are 'observed' rather than received, or inwardly apprehended, by others participating in the event. There may be a common theme or occasion to which the various contributions are oriented, but no attempt made to co-ordinate thematically, critically, and intentionally, the contributions so offered as components cohering together to make up a whole. It is a matter simply of spiritual or liturgical 'pot-luck' as to the smorgasbord-like spread of differently sourced religious items contributed to the event.

Second, and potentially the most problematic, 'interreligious' can be taken as the intention to have a united act, where the liturgical aim is integrative: the intent is to mould a single act of prayer, a blended unitary content that may be deemed to reflect each of the participating groups, or religious representatives, by being constructed out of the resources of the multiplicity of religions involved. Inevitably the only way this can be achieved is by utilising the lowest common denominator approach: the distinctive and particular is shorn in order that a base-line of harmony and acceptability may prevail. The outcome is a blend belonging to no particular tradition: it sits outside the orbit of the religions concerned; it is a liturgical orphan, a spiritual hybrid. Were this the only mode of interreligious prayer it would be justly criticised as a reductionist enterprise. Indeed, I suspect it is often the case that, for many people, this is the assumption as to what the term 'interreligious prayer' means in practice.

Third, and reflecting the best of reported experiences of interreligious prayer, is the occasion of prayer that has been carefully co-ordinated and sensitively constructed. This we might call coherent interreligious prayer wherein there is a thematic and critical conjoining of prayers, or other appropriate input, from the contributing religions. The contributions are carefully rendered congruent around a particular event or need or common communal point of reference. The intention is one of attaining a sense of coherence, of mutuality and reciprocal complementarity, to the outcome; an internal coherence to the prayer-event itself through careful interweaving of the contributing components. The real differences and unique dimensions and contexts, as well as the different content, of the contributions are mutually respected and upheld: there is no sense, through the event, of uniting the religions as such, or subsuming them under some inclusive umbrella of any one of them, let alone advocating the notion of a supra-religious identity embracing them all in and through the prayer-event. There is no attempt to blend the diversity into a kind of spiritual porridge; nor is the outcome marked by the happy randomness of a smorgasbord. No religious tradition is compromised, no reduction of essence or denial of the religious self-identity of the participating traditions occurs. Yet, some sense of greater wholeness may emerge nonetheless; an intuition of a larger context, a wider or deeper sphere wherein a unifying spirit is at work, may be discerned; again without prejudice to the particular sensibilities of any of the contributing religions, yet acknowledged and affirmed by all as authentic to the occasion.

If the term 'interreligious' may be interpreted in three modes, what may we say about 'prayer'? Keeping in mind the context of interreligious engagement, how may we understand the phenomenon of prayer? What might the term mean for us in respect of the recognition of the plurality of religions? Prayer is universal. That is to say, 'prayer' is a phenomenon of religion: all religions may be said to include some kind of activity - address-to-the-Other; ritual utterance; reflection; meditative act; postural action; etc etc - that could be classified as prayer. There would be no religion which, arguably, does not have some act and/or utterance that could be viewed as 'prayer'. However, although the phenomenon of prayer as such is universal, all actual prayers are particular and unique to the religion in which they are located. Prayers found in any one religious tradition cannot be regarded as variants of a species that holds across all religions, in the sense of a common spiritual datum, either in terms of content or form. Yet the occasion of unique and particular prayer is nonetheless an instance of a universal phenomenon.

Prayer, as a category of religious phenomena, may also be seen as basic to all religions insofar as it manifests a variety of common elements, not necessarily all together, but certainly encompassed within the broad range of the prayers of a given tradition. Furthermore, the phenomenon of prayer can be analysed as having two modalities: personal and communal. In any given event of prayer both modalities may be operative. In some situations one or other may predominate, or be the only operative mode. In the communal mode, prayer gives evidence of religious identity: prayer is always the prayer of a particular religion, and indeed it may be a form of prayer belonging to an identifiable tradition from within a particular community, or sub-set, of a religion. Communal prayer is a means both by which the adherent of the religion engages in public spiritual participation, and whereby the religion itself perpetuates and sustains its unique identity. However, not all communal prayer carries the same spiritual value so far as religion is concerned. Communal prayer can have a multiplicity of levels, from the relatively general and superficial, to that of expressing treasured depths of spirituality or mystic encounter. This range alludes to the sense in which communal prayer may be a vehicle for plumbing the resources of a religion for the enhancement of the religious life appropriate to it.

In the personal mode prayer is a private and intimate phenomenon. Personal religious identity and allegiance is expressed; the act of prayer gives evidence of commitment and choice. Therefore the person at prayer is vulnerable; the act of prayer in this mode is the spiritual corollary of intimate interpersonal relation. The one at prayer may be likened to the attentive lover; the object or focus of prayer the beloved. Hence the context of prayer as sacral intimacy needs always and everywhere to be respected. Yet, as with communal prayer, there is a great variation in spiritual depth and range of religious value, from the relatively pedestrian or lightweight, to the deeply personal, meditative and self-dispossessing reflection or engagement in which the soul best makes its journey alone. Some forms of personal prayer are such that they can only be engaged in solitude; others can easily occur in the public domain, in company with fellow spiritual travellers, or even in a non-religious setting, in the midst of life's daily demands and pressures.

This brief analysis of prayer as a religious phenomenon enables us to see something of the dynamics and dimensions that are inherent to the phenomenon when considered abstractly from any particular religious tradition. What can we draw from this?

A Case for Interreligious Prayer:
A Christian perspective on prayer may view commonality of aim as a criterion for theological legitimacy and a guide to pastoral practice: prayer is, broadly and theologically speaking, situated in the quest for redemptive transformation of the oikumene. Wholeness for all is affirmed and sought for in prayer, as, for example, in the paradigmatic Lord's Prayer. In prayer may be discerned the affirmation of diversity in unity, the promotion of acceptance through active forgiveness and reconciliation. From a Christian perspective prayer is a means to deeper understanding of the mystery of the Divine Other, as well as a moment in which there can be a deepening of self-understanding. Prayer embraces a dimension of self-encounter and also the transcending of self in order to go beyond self. The radical challenge of prayer is to listen at depth to that which is within, around, and beyond; to empty oneself of self; to then be open to receive and be filled with 'the Other'.

Prayer can provide a meeting point, an opportunity for significant religious interconnection. Such prayer can be a sign of hope. In many contexts a sense of redeeming hopefulness may be found for a particular disquieting situation in the possibility of interreligious prayer and what that might portend for improved communal relationships. On the other hand, the absence or denial of such possibility is an occasion of despair: if the prospect of appropriate combined prayer is precluded, there is little chance of meaningful reconciliation and relational healing to occur. If prayer can be thought of as a moment of 'dwelling-in' one's faith, then interreligious prayer may be viewed as an occasion of 'dwelling-with' the religiously other in the context of their own 'dwelling-in' of faith. Thus interreligious prayer can constitute a bridge connecting peoples, faith communities, and even religions. In the interreligious context, prayer acknowledges the sacredness that is presented in and by the other; it affirms and honours that sacredness; it may even evoke an overarching sense of sacredness in which the particular moment of interreligious prayer is situated.

It is possible, I suggest, to identify four modes of encounter and engagement wherein interreligious prayer may occur. These include two modes of responsiveness-type and two modes of hospitality-type of interactions. These types could be thought of as models for interreligious prayer: the one based on situations that evoke response, the other based on a parallelism with universally experienced acts of hospitality. These basic models, or types, in their various modes, feature as common human experiences. Yet through the mundane and familiar can be conveyed spiritual insight and novel understanding.

The responsive type has to do with the 'outward facing' situation of human reaction to an external situation or event. On the one hand it is in the nature of human being to respond, to react as appropriate to the nature of an event; to provide succour and aid; to respond with sympathetic grieving; to respond in whatever manner the occasion demands. On the other hand the responsive mode may provide the occasion for discerning a pneumatological impulse: the Spirit at work in and through the human reaction; the response itself giving evidence of more than the merely humanly empathetic dimension at work. The two modes, broadly speaking, of this type are: a) occasions of communal crisis or other significant events calling for a specifically religious response; and b) appropriate occasions of civic celebration offering opportunity for a religious contribution, dimension, and witness. Christians participate in the religious response - as in an act of interreligious prayer - by virtue of the gospel imperatives to love neighbour and serve others with empathy and sacrificial giving. The exercise of compassion and the enacting of a standing-with the other in their time of need, together with those occasions when all stand together co-equally in the face of a shared event, are the legitimate contexts for the expression of Christian values of co-operative praxis and sympathetic spirituality.

By contrast, the hospitality type signifies events that are 'inner facing', in the sense of an hospitable communal ingathering of persons of different religions, on occasions wherein the reciprocal roles of host and guest set the parameters for interaction. Thus the respective roles of host and guest provide the two modes of this type. As host, a Christian community invites members of another religious community to join with it in a specific event wherein the model and intent is that of offering hospitality, whether materially, spiritually, or both. The act of hosting a guest is the practical guide to the structure of the event: invitation, reception and welcome; reassurance of acceptance and situational security, solicitation of comfort; sharing and interacting appropriate to the occasion; closure and farewell. The motif of God being found in the Christ who both goes before us among our neighbours, and comes to us in the guise of the stranger in our midst, provides in part a theological rationale for this model. And there are many biblical examples of the exercise of hospitality to stranger and neighbour, with the clear message that in so doing an appropriate response and relationship to the Divine is being enacted. In the life of the Church there may be moments of eucharistic hospitality when the Christian companion of another tradition is admitted to the intimate and tradition-specific enactment of the ritual because, in the prevailing context, for whatever reason, they have no other means of accessing this means of grace. The discharge of hospitality is not just a duty, it is also itself a moment of grace infused with deeper spiritual significance.

As guest, the Christian individual or community, in humility, receives and experiences that which the host offers, and in return shares the gift of the euangelion: the life of discipleship, the witness of Christian grace, which may be offered as a contribution to be added to that which the host presents. Here the biblical reference to disciples being sent to seek, and respond to, the invitation to enter the house of the other, to receive in gratitude and with thanksgiving that which is offered, and to respond with the offer of 'good news', provides us with a scriptural warrant to place alongside other examples of hosting. And, as with the host model, there is always risk and vulnerability: the prospect of insight gained, or the possibility of indigestion resulting, are equally potential outcomes for which there are spiritual equivalents to the physical.

Furthermore, as a modality of interreligious engagement, the hospitality model provides an inherently assymetrical pattern of interaction, a correlation of role and responsibility. As the draft Bose report states: "Neither host nor guest are required to deny themselves; each is taking risk and allowing vulnerability; there are expected and accepted limits and parameters within which authentic engagement can occur; if the rules are respected mutual integrity is maintained." Hospitality, given and received, offers an opportunity to learn something of, to get to understand better, to sample the cuisine of, another. And just as with cuisine, when the act of appreciation of the other implies no necessary or profound change to one's own culinary customs, so with other aspects of hospitable engagement: the interchange and sampling is for the purposes of mutual enrichment, not conversion. Of course, culinary openness may well lead, indeed often does, to an expansion of cuisine, to modifications of eating patterns and the acquiring of new tastes. Generally, however, this is so in the context of retaining one's fundamental cuisine pattern: remaining with the foods that are known to nourish, which are palatable in consumption; adding to that an increased range of options, an expansion of flavours, a wider appreciation of a diversity of nourishment and enrichment. We are broadly familiar with this culinary experience as a cultural phenomenon: the realm of the spiritual or religious may be viewed as analogous.

Interreligious prayer provides an opportunity, on the hospitality model, to enhance our spiritual being through exposure to a wider diversity of enrichment. There is no need to treat the religiously other as proffering an inherently threatening cuisine: the notion of a host forcing the guest to eat that which is clearly unpalatable vitiates the principles of good hospitality, as does the idea that when someone brings their contribution to a shared meal they would expect the table to be cleared of all other offerings. Such exclusivisms would be unacceptable in the culinary realm: they are no less so in the realm of interreligious engagement.

Prayer as a phenomenon is suggestive of an ultimate coherence and congruence in the sense that, whatever the perspective of the religious foreground, the background, or underlying conceptuality, is invariably that of an ultimate coherence to the universe, a fundamental congruence between the experience of life as lived, and the spiritual context in which life is set. Christians may appropriately join with people of other religions in prayer, through sharing in a specific prayer event, in particular one that is 'coherent' or thematically co-ordinated.

The author, Dr Douglas Pratt, is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies, The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.

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