Duke University and the Heart of the Matter

heart with thornsI asked her to look into her heart. What question was it asking?

She was silent for a short time.

“Oh,” she said, “that’s unexpected.”

“Can you tell me?” I asked.

“I saw something I haven’t seen in many years,” she said. “I saw a heart, crowned with thorns.”

The image she evoked was uncomfortable for me, at least initially. Silently, I prayed to stay open. I needed to meet her, as all spiritual directors must, on her territory.

“You see a heart crowned with thorns,” I repeated, giving myself time to look at the image. “Can you tell me more about what it means, what it might be telling you?”

For almost a year, I have been working with a devout Christian. We have explored her spiritual path. I have asked who her guides were and sometimes invoked them: Jesus, of course, the Virgin Mary, and God, the Father.

In every encounter, I enter her devotional and sacred space. I learn how to look through her eyes, if not with them. I must see and honor her spiritual constellations; they sparkle with life and faith. They are her life and her hope.

They are not mine. But they are as true as mine.

Last Wednesday, I returned home from an annual conference held under the auspices of Ohalah, a transdenominational association of rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic chaplains. The conference is heavily populated by Jewish Renewal clergy and students. But representatives from a wide spectrum of Jewish denomination settings also attend, as well as clergy from other faith realms. This was my tenth such conference.

As usual, the conference included plentiful opportunities to discuss the work of deep ecumenism, including an entire session led by Rabbi Dr. Victor Gross on the subject.

Our minds were populated with images from Paris. We also discussed the ramifications of a rising tide of antisemitism in Europe as well as continued threats of terror in Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere.

But look up terrorism in the dictionary. Do you find the word “Islam” there?

Duke BelfryThe day after I returned, North Carolina’s Duke University reversed its decision to allow a Muslim call to prayer from its iconic chapel. The newspaper quoted Franklin Graham, the heir to Billy Graham’s throne.

Muslims should not be allowed to use the chapel for the call to prayer, Graham insisted, “because it’s a different god.” Using the bell tower is for worship of Jesus Christ, he explained, and added: “Islam is not a religion of peace.”

Clearly, there are people in the world who are writing their own dictionary – without enough regard to veracity or accuracy.

Graham called for people to cease funding Duke University until the decision was reversed. Duke caved.

I should have been enraged, I suppose. Instead, I cried.

Our task is to enter each other’s devotional space, not to condemn it. If we can’t do that work with other systems of faith and philosophy, then none of us can claim to be representing peace.

Deep ecumenism is hard work. I admit: I find it challenging to see images of Jesus on the cross. I may respond viscerally; I may find myself reminded of the millions of Jews who have died at the hands of others. But this is not what a Christian sees. It is my job to understand that Jesus on the Cross can be – and is for many – an image of hope, not an image of despair.

The adhan, the call to prayer, nearly came forth from Duke Chapel’s belfry. Adhan is derived from a root that means “to listen, to hear, be informed about.”

“Shema, Yisrael,” I imagine saying. “Listen, Israel.”

I hope I would have tried to listen to that prayer the way I tried to understand a sacred heart crowned with a cross. These are neither my words nor my image for the divine.

But they are as true as mine.