Thursday, August 14, 2014

Prayer and Ritual

Sr. Sharon Dillon

 Prayer in the Franciscan Life
(Adapted from Franciscan Morning and Evening Prayer)

We know that neither Clare nor Francis offered a complicated method of prayer. They called their followers to prayer with a decidedly contemplative dimension: to be present to God who is present to all creatures. They required that all prayer be Trinitarian. Prayer is to always be addressed to God in the Son (Christ) by the power of the Spirit. That prayer is focused as an incarnational action. A person becomes alive to God’s deeds in the greatest gift of God, the incarnation, the word made flesh, in which God becomes one with us in the bodily person of Jesus, the Christ. The purpose of all Franciscan prayer then, is to give God ceaseless praise and thanksgiving for all God has done and does in creation and in our re-creation (relation) in the Christ.

Prayer is a way of life for me—it is requested that we pray all the time and everywhere. My simple reflection on “HOW” to pray came very early and is what I still live by: Prayer lets out self and lets in God. In action, I ought to be so filled with God that adoration flows from the depth of my inner life, with joy and thanksgiving…and I reflect the overflowing goodness of God. This is the holiness to which I believe each of us is called. Every day ought to thus be sanctified. In Francis’ time, this sanctification of the day was given clear expression in the prayer of the divine office, a ritual as religious we continue to practice to this day. This time of prayer is the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding and practice of the Liturgy of the Hours. We pray with Christ through the mystical Body celebrating God’s gift of incarnation throughout the hours of the day. For St. Francis, praying the Office was also a sign of fidelity to the Church’s tradition of daily praise and intercession. It still is for many of us. But this rich tradition also personally provides for me a time in the day of solidarity with others throughout the world, praying and practicing the same ritual. It offers me personal solace, and a practiced time of space and quiet with consistent words that help me to let out self, and let in the spirit.

In the Third Order Rule of Life, the rule I follow, the motivation for the Franciscan way of life of ceaseless prayer is described: “the created world is the expression of God’s goodness and the theater of God’s redemptive love for us. Because we are made in God’s image, it is possible for us to seek union with God as we do God’s will.” Thus the Franciscan does not flee from the world in order to “escape” to God, but seeks immersion in its sacramental reality, and tries to live the incarnational presence of the goodness and love of God.

FROM: Margaret Carney, OSF and Thaddeus Horgan SA, The Rule and Life of the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis and Commentary. (Washington DC, Franciscan Federation, 1997)

Richard Lederman

Since I am writing this in the month of July, I can’t help but return to ideas that I expressed on my blog The Religious Humanist ( last summer in a blog post titled “Lights and the Sacredness of Time.” At the same time, much of what I’m contemplating at this moment is influenced by a very recent experience I enjoyed at the American Turkish Friendship Association in Rockville, Maryland. Over an end-of-Ramadan-fast Iftar dinner, about 15 or 20 of us shared religious insights from what turned out to be a panoply of Muslim, Christian and Jewish perspectives (check it out at

What strikes me as especially remarkable is that this Iftar/Ramadan experience occurred just before the onset of a similar period on the Jewish liturgical calendar. I had never before made the connection between Ramadan and the three weeks leading up to the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth (day) of (the Hebrew month) of Av. Observed as a full-day fast, the Ninth of Av marks the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It then becomes an emblem of many other tragic moments in Jewish history. More than that, however, the three weeks leading up to the Ninth of Av involve readings from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah that express the complicity of the covenant community in its own demise, a result of the people’s failure to carry out their obligations to God. It is, therefore, also about human accountability.

The three-week period begins and ends with a fast. Thus, in the midst of Ramadan this year, Jews begin this three-week period with a sunrise-to-sunset Jewish fast known as the Fast of the 17th (day) of (the month of) Tammuz, when, according to Jewish tradition, the Babylonian army made the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem that eventually led to the destruction of the Temple on the Ninth of Av. So there I was, observing the end of a sunrise-to-sunset fast with Muslims while contemplating a sunrise-to-sunset Jewish fast that was scheduled for three days hence. Like Ramadan, which challenges Muslims to eschew their physical natures in order to raise their spiritual awareness and sense of personal obligation, the three-week Jewish observance may be a kind of prelude to the High Holiday season in early fall, which also is designed to heighten spiritual awareness and personal accountability.

While there are parallels between Ramadan and the three-week Jewish observance, there are obviously some significant differences. Among these differences is one that is purely calendrical. Since the Jewish calendar intercalates as a way of keeping the lunar and solar calendars in sync, this three-week period always occurs in the heat of summer (at least in the northern hemisphere). Since Muslims do not intercalate, Ramadan occurs 11 days earlier each year and kind of wanders through the solar cycle. Nonetheless, as a Jew, I experience this three-week period consistently in the summer months, and it strikes me as a quintessentially summer observance. So what has this to do with ritual?

As I wrote in my Religious Humanist blog post, ritual seems to relate largely to the human perception of the cyclical nature of time as this cycle is revealed in the apparent movement of celestial bodies, what one might call the celestial cycle of time. The calendar was invented to record the observation of this celestial cycle, particularly the solar and lunar cycles—days, months and years. Ritual calendars involve holidays and festivals observed according to the phases of the moon and the occurrence of solstices and equinoxes. 

But the religious person does not simply want to observe these cycles of time. The religious person sees the cycle of time—and, indeed, the entire celestial landscape of planets, stars and constellations—as expressing or reflecting a divine drama, and the religious person wishes to be a significant part of that divine drama. The religious person understands that the well-being of the human community is tied to the consistent, well balanced ordering of this divine drama and understands that the consistent, well-balanced ordering depends in some mysterious way on human participation in it. That is ritual; the necessary human component—the necessary human participation—in the divine drama of the consistent, well-balanced cycle of time.

Yet there is a corollary cycle with which the human consciousness resonates, the cycle of birth and death. This cycle perhaps presents the first real challenge within human consciousness to a sense of order and well-being. It is the quintessential encounter with disorder, destruction, fear and the awesome unpredictability of human existence. The celestial cycle also reflects the cycle of birth and death, most especially as the celestial cycle accompanies the change of seasons and the cycle of vegetation.

So of course the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av takes place in the summer. It is about death and destruction, and in the land of Israel where this observance was invented, the heat and drought of the summer provide the perfect backdrop for this particular drama of death and destruction. But what of the connection to the destruction of the Temple?

The monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—emerged in a stage of human intellectual development when the linear nature of historical time was being observed and examined. The celestial bodies and the change of seasons reveal a cycle of time, but eventually humans came to understand that human events flow along a continuous timeline. So these three religions tend to associate these cyclical observances with specific moments in historical, linear time. Thus, Ramadan, a lunar festival, is associated with a moment in historical time when the Qur’an was revealed. The three-week Jewish observance of death and destruction observed during the deadly heat and drought of summer is connected to the destruction of the Temple. In these instances, the drama is not only associated with the celestial cycle and the cycle of vegetation, but also with the drama of human events. Again, however, it is not simply a matter of marking this historical moment. It is a matter of participating in it, through fasting and mourning.

So ritual is the human participation in the drama of the celestial cycle of time, the cycle of birth and death as revealed in the seasonal cycle of vegetation, and in the linear flow of human events. In ritual, the inner religious consciousness seeks connection to the divine in the cosmos, in nature, and as revealed in history.

As for prayer, I am always struck by the fact that in Hebrew, the verb “to pray” is reflexive—it is something that one does to oneself. We might say that ritual is a performance meant to connect the human to the divine drama revealed in the cosmos, while prayer is the human expression meant to connect to the divine within.

Richard's Response to Sr. Sharon

Perhaps it is fortuitous that I focused more on ritual in my piece, while Sr. Sharon focused on prayer. At least between the two of us, we covered both topics. Yet, what is amazing to me is how similarly we think about prayer while using vocabulary that is so divergent. As someone who abides within the Jewish tradition, I would never find myself using words like,

“A person becomes alive to God’s deeds in the greatest gift of God, the incarnation, the word made flesh, in which God becomes one with us in the bodily person of Jesus, the Christ.”

What I did say, however, is that “prayer is a human expression meant to connect to the divine within.” I suppose the question that Sr. Sharon raises for me—one which I may never be able to answer—is the extent to which the idea of humanity created in the image of God and imbued with the divine breath could be construed as incarnation. Is humanity generally a manifestation of “the word made flesh”? Is it the Christ within me—the breath of God incarnated in me—that reaches out to connect to the transcendent God in the act of prayer? Can I, in the act of prayer, vivify that divine incarnation by “let[ing] out self, and let[ting] in the spirit”?

The words vary and the images may seem at odds, but the basic human religious consciousness seems to prevail: the awareness of a realm of the sacred that is both imminent and transcendent, and the quest to connect those two through prayer and ritual.

Sr. Sharon's Response to Richard's

I have never fully understood the need or reason to “Fast.” I have always struggled with any church or religious institute exercising control of food or of for that matter over an individual’s body. It seems, obtusely to me, a way of controlling women…since we tend to be the ones connected with food prep and serving, etc. I hear that it is about heightening sensitivity to one’s needs, and spirituality, but the few times I have fasted, all I could focus on was food. Maybe I am the exception. So, sorry to say, I am at a loss of the connection Richard made between the three week Jewish observance and Ramadan. What I did glean from the input is that the divine drama is present in the human community, or better stated in Richard’s words: “The Religious person understands that the well-being of the human community is tied to the consistent, well balanced ordering of this divine drama and understands that the consistent, well-balanced ordering depends in some mysterious way on the human participation in it. That is ritual…” and “So ritual is the human participation in the drama of the celestial cycle of time, the cycle of birth and death…”  For me personally, it is the ritual of the Eucharistic celebration (daily) that enhances for me the divine drama of this cycle.

To fully participate in the remembering, the life and death of Christ, so appropriately named the Passion, assists me in deepening my participation in the celestial cycle of the whole world. I am one person, in a set time in the world, who at this time in history can be-come…incarnate, the divine drama, by the way I am and the person I try to be. To live is to be a human expression of a loving Spirit. It is my task to do and participate in those actions that help me to remember that task and affirm my beliefs without offense to others in order to be a living expression of the loving spirit alive in our world.

1 comment:

  1. Sister Sharon's comments reminded me of our need to express our sense of gratitude, found in so many of our prayers (particularly, but not exclusively Pesukey D'zimrah).

    Richard, your comments reminded me of our need to make sense of the rhythms of our days (individually and collectively) through practices that connect us with the cycles of our lives. Just my take on it!

    BTW - I'm not much for fasting, either, I'd much sooner we engaged in active work to feed hungry people as a means of acknowledging both our gratitude AND the cycles of our days. Again - just my take!

    Thanks for sharing.