Last year during Lent I attended a Novena service, part of an ancient tradition of praying for grace for nine successive days, at the Chapel of St. Ignatius on the campus of Seattle University. “But you’re a Jew!” a friend said. “Why would you do that?”
“All journeys,” says Martin Buber, “have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” This proved true for me that day. I thought I knew why I was going to a Catholic service—my intentions were clear—but an unexpected encounter during the Eucharist showed me otherwise.
Intention #1. To hear my longtime friend Victoria deliver the homily. Victoria, a Catholic laywoman with a PhD in systematic theology, has been active in ministry since 1981, serving as a pastoral life director, caring for several congregations over the years. Her velvet revolution tactics—the Roman Catholic Church limits women’s leadership roles, especially when it comes to worship— include faithfully guiding congregations, delivering homilies, and steadfastly explaining to the authorities and their spies why canon law does not prohibit her from delivering the homily at services. She’s a stealth reformer—never screaming, never condemning, just quietly going about the business of her Lord, as a woman. She makes a way out of no way. She’s also a person who lives a life of deep prayer and theological reflection. She’s one of my heroes, and hearing a homily from her is always soul-stirring and soul-soothing.
Intention #2. To dwell in the beauty of the Chapel of St. Ignatius, where I often go to sit in silence. The chapel was designed by architect Steven Holl as “A Gathering of Different Lights.” Vessels of light, windows of solid color fields—white, green, red, yellow, blue, orange, and purple—create an ever-changing kaleidoscope as the sun moves across the sky, as if God were saying, “This too is beautiful. And this.” Standing to the right of the altar, on the same level as the congregation, is a larger-than-life Carrera marble sculpture of Mary created by Steven Heilmer called Gratia Plena, Full of Grace. From a golden bowl resting on her shoulders, a white river of milk cascades down to her feet. A mother nourishing her children, abundantly. Above the altar, a corpus from the Austrian Alps hangs on a newly-carved cross of Alaskan cedar—stark suffering on a tree of life. It’s easy to pray in this place of constantly moving light and darkness, consolation and desolation.
Intention #3. To pray. I daven (pray) at home in the morning, and with other Jews in synagogues, at shabbat and holiday dinners, and at shiva minyans in houses of mourning. But there are times when I need a different kind of prayer, prayer without words, a cry of the heart, and often that comes more easily when I am hidden in a sea of strangers.
With these intentions I walked to the chapel at the appointed hour. The pews were overflowing, but I squeezed into the last row on the left. I chose a seat in back to respect the Christians who were there “legitimately” and to respect the boundary of my religious identity. As a person of faith, I was not a spectator, true, but I could not be a full participant either. Some Jews won’t step foot inside a church, for religious and historical reasons. I honor that decision, but as a Calvinist-turned-Jew who once taught in a Christian seminary and preached in Christian churches, I enter churches more as a fellow traveler than an outsider. For me, churches are both home and the house of a stranger.
Victoria’s homily was moving, but all memory of it—the scriptural text and her interpretation—was eclipsed by what happened next. After a priest consecrated the bread and the wine for the Eucharist, two priests and Victoria stationed themselves before the congregation to offer the host and the cup to all who came forward. As everyone prepared to file out of their pews and line up to receive the body and blood, I settled into my seat. I was content to be present without partaking, to appreciate their sacred ritual without desiring it for myself, to engage in parallel play of faiths—I would pray while they prayed, each of us according to our lights. But then, after one of the priests had issued the invitation for all to come and receive the body and blood, he added words I had never heard before, in any church or gathering.
“All are welcome,” he said. “If you wish to come to receive a blessing from one of us, instead of the Eucharist, place your hand over your heart when you approach.”
These words pierced my heart. I, too, could participate in this sacred ritual? As myself, as a Jew? Without subterfuge? With integrity—mine and theirs? I was welcome, as I was. There was no theological or moral need to keep my distance from this community intentionally praying to receive special grace. I could be apart and yet a part, distincto non divise as the Chalcedonian formula has it.
For me it was a shock. A brilliant shock. I knew immediately I needed to be blessed.
Perhaps, as Victoria told me later, this was old ritual hat for her and her people, but for me it was a shock. A brilliant shock. Yes, I knew immediately, I wanted, I needed to be blessed, and by a woman, this woman, a friend who knew and loved me, a friend I knew and loved, a friend with whom I had shared consolations and desolations, a person whose devotion to God anchored her life. I stood up and joined the line snaking toward Victoria, who was standing near Mary Overflowing with Milk. As I approached her, I placed my hand over my heart, then stood, trembling, as she smiled and blessed me. With what words? I do not remember. I do not need to. For as she spoke, her eyes meeting mine, my heart spilled over with tears of sorrow, tears of gratitude, tears of joy. What the language of words would hide, the poet Haim Bialik writes, the “languages” of “song, tears, and laughter” reveal.
A gathering of different lights. A gesture of welcome. An act of grace. An invitation to meeting, to presence. Here in such living moments, moments of surprise that outstrip our intentions, is the heart of interfaith, a word far too abstract and tepid to evoke the simple fact of people traveling different paths toward the One encountering one another along the way. “The You encounters me by grace,” Buber says in I and Thou, “it cannot be found by seeking.” We can, though, and must “go forth” toward grace and await its presence, each of us in our way. Our paths are the radii of a circle, all intersecting the One. “Extended,” Buber says, “the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You.” The way the colored rays of light in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, extended, intersect in the sun.
Rabbis, ministers, priests, and imams convening to discuss their traditions’ rituals and ideas on conference panels or at interfaith breakfasts can be helpful. Communities and individuals inviting others to share in Passover, Christmas, or Eid celebrations is lovely. But we need more. We need to make room in our traditions for others without sacrificing our identity or disrespecting theirs. We need to make room in our practice for others to be fully present, not as spectators, not as honorary members, but as fellow travelers who are welcome. As the gathered St. Ignatius community did that day by welcoming all to receive blessing, each in our own way. Simple. Profound. A gathering of different lights. Full of grace.