This summer in New Mexico, I learned how to pray with two-year-olds.
At Ghost Ranch, our worship services often included “embodied prayers,” rituals that would allow us to act out our thanksgiving and gratitude with bodily motions. Our preschoolers were the best at creating these dances. We thanked God for hugs as we hugged each other, for running as we ran in place, and for bread as we pretended to eat with our hands. Embodied prayers were, by far, my favorite part of the service.
This weekend, I learned an embodied prayer of a different sort – a pilgrimage. This weekend I went with ten amazing Davidson students to Washington, D.C. where we visited eight houses of worship and several other communities in D.C. Our pilgrimage began a few weeks ago as we formed a group covenant with one another, and it led us to form authentic relationships through a packed journey. In four days, we drove fourteen hours, went to a Sikh Gurdwara, Hindu Temple, Orthodox Cathedral, Quaker meeting, African American Catholic Church, Reformed Synagogue, Jewish Cultural Center, Islamic Center, Christian L’Arche community, participated in an educational event with the DC Rape Crisis Assistance Center, toured the monuments, went thrift shopping, and also managed to sleep and make pancakes. We ate well, especially thanks to the generosity of the Hindu and Sikh communities.
The more we worshiped this weekend, the more I felt swept away by prayer. The rhythm of Sikh drums became my breath. Everywhere we went, prayer came through music – by singing out to God from the depths. As we prayed and uttered the many names of the Holy, I felt myself sinking deeper to drink from, as my friend Will says, “the stream of beauty that runs through all religions.”
This weekend quenched my thirst for my heart to be known and loved in community. We met strangers who immediately welcomed us into their homes, exchanged stories with us, and invited us to pray and eat with them. I found that prayer united us at a level that we could never fully understand, and that sharing bread and tea and curry embodied our unity. Prayer required us to touch and be touched, to hold and be held. I will always remember when I walked in late to the St. Augustine Mass and I found myself drawn into saying the Lord’s prayer with three African American women whom I had never met. When they saw me beside them, they placed their hands upon mine and we spoke the words together in perfect unison. Our voices were made one as our hands were molded together, and there, I felt home.
The connection of prayer is not limited to speaking joyful words – it can also come in the form of lament. This weekend, we lamented with communities suffering from the government shutdown as the marginalized in our society suffer from lack of services. We lamented nuclear warfare while talking with activists at a standing peace vigil outside of the White House. We lamented sexual violence as we learned about gender-based oppression at the Rape Crisis Assistance Center of D.C. The prayers of lament allowed us to see into the world’s suffering and become empowered to work for justice as a collective body. Prayer became a powerful form of entering in solidarity, of uniting our hearts with those whose voices are too often silenced by systematic oppression and, in the faith world, white Christian privilege.
What does it mean to pray across lines of faith? Does it mean to speak God’s name in a new way, repeat a creed, follow a pattern of drumbeats? Is it valuable to repeat the prayer without belief? This weekend we prayed in innumerable languages to many beings – to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, to Allah, to Adonai, to Jesus, and to Akal Murat, the Eternal Being in Sikhism. No matter which name we used, prayer became an invocation of the Divine to work in our lives and our communities. Sharing meals, songs, heartbreaking reflections, and long walks of the city, this weekend taught me that prayer is not just an utterance of words, but a way of being in the world. Prayer is how we make eye contact with neighbors on the streets. Prayer is ritual, it is collective, it is powerfully uniting. Prayer is our expression of our deepest sorrows and ecstasies, lamentations and joyful celebrations. Prayer is a relationship put into words, and spoken into being.
As a Muslim sister, Noha, from the Mosque shared with me me yesterday: prayer burns a purifying flame in our hearts so that we may exist to love God and our neighbor. As we bow and touch our foreheads to the Earth together, we are humbled and returned to God together.
As our group returns to Davidson, I pray that interfaith will come alive here, on this campus, in this community. It’s not always easy to take time for interfaith and prayer when demanding academics are an important priority. Yet I still hope to see the beauty of every soul around me and spark conversations on prayer and belief. I hope to continue singing, worshiping, and sharing communion always, in all ways – with people of many philosophies, faiths, non-faiths, and languages.
A moment and poem in focus: The city is bursting into a melody of women playing banjos on a street corner, car horns, men shouting across the way. The gurdwara’s chanting is the bass line of harmony; the Russian Orthodox chamber choir reverberates in the chambers of the Cathedral. In the name of Jesus and Krishna, voices vibrate through the city. Out of silence emerges song – the soul longing to express what is beyond words, a reverence for the inexplicable, the connections striking meaning – the eyes that gaze back as we wake in the morning. So sing to the crickets and the baby carriages, the tides and the traffic and the evening racket. Sing to the tombstones and the broken homes and sing in the churches, mosques, and synagogues. Get lost in the song until your voice is one note in the millions, join to improvise, believe you can harmonize through the clashing of words and cacophony, discover the beauty of non-conformity –
Do not believe for a moment your life is ordinary.
May your life be a line of harmony in this Divine symphony.
I leave you with a prayer from Mishkan T’Filah, a Jewish Reform Siddur:
“Prayer is not purely an act; all things pray and all things pour forth their souls.
The heavens pray, the earth prays,
every creature and living thing.
Creation is itself but a longing, a kind of prayer to the Almighty.
What are the clouds, the rising and the setting of the sun,
the soft radiance of the moon and the gentleness of the night?
What are the flashes of the human mind and the storms of the human heart?
They are all prayers – the wordless outpouring of boundless longing for God.
Praise the Light that shines before us, through us, after us.”