A house of prayer for all people

I seem to recall a time when the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, aka the Washington National Cathedral, called itself “a house of prayer for all people.”  These days they see their calling as “a spiritual home for the nation,” welcoming people of all faiths.  This is a good and noble vision, but as the Nones continue to grow, now comprising nearly 1 in 5 Americans, I wonder how it is that the National Cathedral or the Church she represents, can claim a space for those seeking for spirituality without religion.

Certainly, the prophet Isaiah didn’t have Nones in mind when he wrote of the great restoration of all people in the Old Testament lesson appointed for Sunday.  Not having faith in something wasn’t really an option until the last 100 years or so.  Prior to that, human beings were so dependent upon nature and the God (or gods, depending on one’s faith) that created it, that the risk of not having faith and not taking your part in the religious activities of the era were entirely too great.  It is only with the rise of science and the advent of industrialization that human beings are able to, in theory at least, rely on themselves, their own physical and cognitive abilities.

How is it then, in the growing post-religious society (at least in the West), are we called to meet the needs of those who are seeking a relationship with God, or as Isaiah puts it those “who join themselves to the LORD” outside of the traditional structures of laws, prophets, holy writ, and ritual?  This is, in some way, the crux of the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Jesus has the role of the tradition in this story, arguing, rather impolitely, “this is the way things are supposed to be done.”  In response, the Canaanite woman argues the side of the Nones, suggesting that perhaps there is another way.  A better way.  I don’t have any answers as to if the Church can meet the needs of the rising Nones, let alone how we might do it, but I do know that the starting place isn’t entrenchment.  “This is how we do it,” should not, in fact must not, be our answer.  Instead, this week’s Gospel lesson seems to suggest that a certain openness to the other, seeing them not so much as someone to be converted or treated with suspicion, but rather as one who, like every human being ever made, was created to be in relationship with God and is seeking that out, just a way that is very different than my own.

I’m not sure how God is going to create a Kingdom that is a house of prayer for all people.  I just know I hope I’m a part of it, and I hope my actions haven’t pissed off those who will likely be standing right beside me on that great and glorious day.

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4 thoughts on “A house of prayer for all people

  1. The tendency to double down is amplified as secular norms, particularly our roles in the world, change. It is hard to be open to the ideas of the other, particularly the dreamers. (See Jospeh)

  2. During an interview on July 29, Pope Francis listed his “Top Ten Tips” for bringing greater joy in one’s life. His wise counsel includes:
    • Live and let live.
    • Be giving of yourself to others.
    • Proceed calmly in life.
    • Stop being negative.
    • Work for peace.
    And most significantly for this particular discussion:
    • Don’t proselytize; respect others’ beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes: ‘I am talking with you in order to persuade you,’ No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytizing,” the pope said.

    Perhaps the Pope’s guidance can help all of us to help God create “a Kingdom that is a house of prayer for all people.”

  3. Father, thank you for this. Very insightful application of the passage. Two things that are maybe implicit in your post that I thought while reading it:

    – First, “Nones” is really a misnomer. It isn’t that one in five of us are without a set of religious beliefs; it is more than those beliefs go unacknowledged and don’t conform neatly to any established pattern or object of believing. More often, they are a bricolage of sentiments, convictions, rituals, and taken-for-granted assumptions that are held as religious but not identified as such. It isn’t as if folks are without a cosmology; they are without (perhaps often intentionally) a coherent cosmology tied to institutions and traditions that are thought of as “religious.” These unacknowledged but deeply held convictions strikes me as a great challenge for interacting with “Nones” that in some way mirror the position of interacting with the Canaanite woman (a syrophoenician woman who acknowledges a son of David as having power over demons?).

    – Second, the temptation is always to read stories like this as a challenge to the tradition rather than a creative engagement with it. We often and wrongly think that new challenges mean scrapping the tradition and looking for new ways forward. The interestingly thing about this passage is how the tradition of Israel is marshaled in creative and unexpected ways by unlikely actors so that it is capacious enough to address a new challenge. This strikes me as far more difficult and far more interesting work than the reductive, misguided abandoning of tradition on the assumption that it can’t possibly contain the resources necessary to address the present circumstances and challenges. But if we believe that the tradition of the Church is not only accident but also conditioned by the presence of the Holy Spirit, we might well resist the temptation to something simplistic.

    Anyway, thanks for post; very helpful in thinking through the passage and some very pressing application.

  4. Those who like dressing up and pretending there’s somebody out there will find this place and hang out there for a while, if only for a short while.
    The rest of us will ignore it.
    Problem solved. So long as those of us who aren’t members don’t have to subsidize it through tax dollars, there’s no problem.

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