The size of God

In the wake of the brutal killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and multiple horrific acts of violence and hatred against police and against men of color by police in several American cities, I cry out with so many of you who yearn for a change of heart, individually and collectively. 

In my own personal prayer, I return often to some valuable faith and life lessons, gleaned from an interfaith retreat, of which I was a part this June. The lessons focus on our image and understanding of God across traditions; they stir in me ever deeper convictions about the size and humility of God "who loves this world so much" (John 3:16). Sharing our spiritual practices from each particular faith opened us to understand the Divine as One, who is too inclusively loving to ever condone or promote violence against another human being. Those who hate, denigrate or commit violence against another, often in the name of religion or with what they think is its validation, have simply lost the plot of their faith story. It defies comprehension to speak about our country as "one nation under God" in the face of such divisive and hateful acts.

For the past three years, I have been privileged to participate in this interfaith gathering entitled "Cultivating Character: Conversation across Communities." The retreat, hosted by the Sisters of Mercy at Cranaleith Spiritual Center in Northeast Philadelphia, received funding from the Henry Luce Foundation for the purpose of calling forth a group of emerging faith leaders committed to developing strong interfaith relationships. Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College of Philadelphia was awarded the grant and assumed oversight of designing a three-year process to promote this goal. I was privileged to be a core member of the planning group, which consisted of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist women.

This June 2016 retreat was the culmination of a three-year process; one which brought a group together each June for several days. We brought together 10 women during the first year; quite intentionally all women. We invited 10 men to join us in the second year, and finally 10 emerging interfaith leaders in the third. As retreat planners, we asked them to share core spiritual practices that have deepened their personal faith and their desire to help make our world a better place.

From the beginning, we committed ourselves to speak from the heart rather than abstract theory, to listen to each other humbly and reverently, and to engage each other honestly and with curiosity. This created an environment of deep trust and care that grew over time, even as numbers in our group expanded.

Our commitment to enter into the spiritual practices of one another rather than debate dogmatic certainties has proven to be life-changing. Now, at the culmination of our 2016 interfaith retreat, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and awe for the relationships so meaningfully woven together, creating a profound awareness of the values we hold in common and reverent appreciation for what distinguishes us. 

The most important lesson I learned from our latest retreat was about the size of God. In listening to people of different faiths share their experience of being embraced by a Loving and Compassionate Presence that held and impelled them, I felt my heart expand. The One we call "God" is so big, wears so many faces, speaks so many languages, loves this earth so unconditionally, seeks us out so uniquely and longs for all of us so relentlessly!

This expansiveness defies all our definitions of the Holy One. Our concepts of the Divine and words we use to name the Source of all Loving are simply too limiting. If only we could see something of the One in whose image we have all been created more generously, our world too might become more spacious and inclusive of differences! We are indeed shaped by the image of some God. Our spiritual practices say something about that God/that ultimate principle; they hold the power to help us become who we are  reflections of that God.  If the God we experience in our spiritual rituals welcomes all without exception, forgives and heals sinners and outcasts, then, we have work to do to shape a world that this God can recognize and delight in.

The Source of Love that I experienced in my Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and Humanist co-retreatants during our interfaith retreat is so magnanimous and counts on us unreservedly to work together to reshape the structures of society, globally and locally. We are called to grow large, like our God, and make room for the ultimate meanings and values cherished by others. 

A Sufi Muslim prayer practice that we Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims experienced stays with me and serves as an example of how we learned to reverence one another. One of our Sufi Muslim sisters explained and then facilitated a meditative, communal litany, which is simply a chanted repetition of many beautiful names by which Allah (meaning "the only God" in Arabic) is addressed. We non-Muslims were moved by the rhythmic chanting. Our minds, bodies and spirits harmonized with the beauty and power of this practice. We learned that the prayer's intention is to reconnect us in that primordial place, where we are eternally in Allah’s very presence  the space from which we’ve come and toward which we journey.

Invoking so many beautiful names of God together over and over felt like a profound gift to our world at this time. It was such a contrast! All too often, all around us, we hear voices rise in hateful, violent language that hurts and divides. As we prayed together, not as strangers, but sisters and brothers, I felt as though the very universe was tilting in the direction of love and peace.

As people of faith, we achieved together the prayer’s intention  we knew experientially the One who holds us all eternally in Love. We did not make it happen  it was pure gift! Nothing about the Islamic prayer practice was watered down or altered. It was offered to us in its very particularity and experienced by us in its universality. Wow! If only this could happen more often for more people, I know this could make a difference.

How can we provide similar spaces of mutual trust and openness to others? I left this retreat resolved to work at promoting diverse interfaith experiences/spiritual practices for more people, especially future generations. This is imperative in light of a culture where hatred and violence threaten to tear us apart, shut us off from others, whose diversity is meant to enrich and expand us.

The process relational theologian, Bernard Loomer defines size as "the stature of [your] soul, the range and depth of [your] love, [your] capacity for relationships. (By size,) I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity . . . the variety of outlook you can sustain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature." (Loomer, Criterion 13, no. 3, Spring 1974, 5-8, 6.)

We need to expand our outlook on the earth we share, this world we shape and inhabit, the diverse people who surround us. Everything we encounter calls forth some response from us. Will that response be loving or fearful?

Coming to know others through learning about some of their core values opens up interior space, frees us from the fears that make us defensive and insecure. As the size of the God we’ve come to know grows, so do we, as God's beloved children, grow in size. The space we inhabit together on this one, beautiful planet holds room for all  all of us already One, bound together in the merciful embrace of the One who loves us all without condition, without exception.

I've come to cherish the remarkable ways that interfaith conversations remind us that until we open ourselves to one another more trustingly, our God is simply too small. New interfaith experiences invite us to meet this Big God, who is humble enough to come to us in our particular, historical faith stories and to speak directly to our hearts in our lovely but limited ways of worship.

What I learned about the humility of God seems particularly timely and urgent for us North Americans and Roman Catholics today. Our God is continuously willing to grow smaller to fit into our limited vision so that we may grow bigger and see further. Humility opens room in us to learn from others, to doubt our own absolute claims on the Truth. 

Keep calling to us, O Wisdom of God: You, whose "magnanimity of concern provides countless conditions that enable us to increase in stature." Your untiring hope for us is that we may grow ever more into the size of you, the Merciful, Compassionate One, whom we have been created to resemble.

[Catherine Nerney, a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, is a systematic theologian, teaching at Chestnut Hill College, where she also serves as director of the college's Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. The Institute's goal to help heal divisions wherever they exist includes the overcoming of separations promoted by religious intolerance.]