In a world where religion and fanaticism are often mentioned in the same breath, the Princeton-based organization Fellowship in Prayer has been exploring whether religion has a beneficial role to play in healing the breaches between people. Since its founding in 1949 by Carl Allison Evans and his colleague, Kathryn G. Brown, the organization has been using prayer to bring people together and serve the world.
A conference titled “Prayer: An Answer for the 21st Century”celebrating Fellowship in Prayer’s 60th anniversary and making the connection between spiritual practice and social justice, will take place Thursday through Sunday, June 24 to 27, on the campus of Princeton University. Plenary speakers are Joan Chittister, Ursa Mysorekar, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Daisy Kahn, Zen Master Bernie Glassman, Rev. James Forbes, and Fr. Edward Beck. At the conference Representative Rush Holt will receive the organization’s Luminary Award, recognizing his efforts to build understanding among people of different faiths, especially through the “Three Faiths Walks” he inspired in Mercer, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties.
Two of the conference’s teachers, Miriam Therese MacGillis of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey, and John Makransky, a Buddhist and professor of religion at Boston College, come from very different personal and communal prayer traditions, which propel them in unique ways to transform the world into a better place.
MacGillis lived in Bayonne until she was seven, when her working-class parents bought a piece of wilderness land outside of Hackettstown. “We wanted to find a place to get away from the city,” she says. “We cleared a piece of land and built a house as a family, and we had no water or electricity for years.” MacGillis’s mother was a homemaker and licensed as an insurance agent, and her father worked at the Standard Oil refinery and was active in the union.
Influenced by her upbringing in a traditional Catholic culture and her Scotch-Irish family, MacGillis decided to enter a religious community and joined the Dominicans, who had a long history of scholarly engagement in the community.
MacGillis’s sense of what prayer means is a very personal one, flowing from her understanding of God. “I have faith in some divine mystery or source being,” she says, “and I take the universe and earth as revealing that mystery. The way I pray is to try to hold myself in reverence to that and in faithfulness to being part of it and wanting to align myself with what is the mystery of life.”
To achieve this harmony, though, demands a perpetual struggle against what she terms Western society’s addiction to consumerism and materialism. “It turns natural life into goods to be used, and it is destructive, like any substance abuse,” she says, pointing out the oil currently flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
As MacGillis was preparing to become a nun, she studied about the Dominican order at Caldwell College, where she also prepared to become an elementary-school teacher. When the leaders of MacGillis’s congregation became aware of her artistic ability, they asked her to study art, and she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in art at the University of Notre Dame, then taught art in a high school and at Caldwell College during the 1960s and early ’70s.
MacGillis’s life took a new direction during the Vietnam War, when one of her students challenged her to explore militarism, violence, and war; as a result, she left teaching and joined an office in the archdiocese of Newark that focused on social justice, nonviolence, and peacemaking. As she explored the global system of economics and politics, both its validation of war as a means of solving conflicts and the injustices it left in its wake, she became particularly interested in food and agriculture.
In 1977 MacGillis attended a lecture by Thomas Berry, whose work combined ecology and theology, which set the stage for another major life shift. Then in 1978, an opportunity came her way. Out of the blue, MacGillis’s Dominican congregation inherited a 140-acre farm in Blairstown, and the order sought proposals for how to use it. With some friends, MacGillis proposed to create at the farm a learning system combining ecology, sustainable agriculture, and renewable energy. “We were trying to create a place where it was possible for people to question the injustices in the world and the terrible environmental damage being done,” she says. Genesis Farm was founded in 1980, and MacGillis has lived and worked there for 30 years.
Through Genesis Farm, MacGillis and her colleagues came to understand that the roots of Western civilization’s destruction of the environment lay in the biblical creation story and other ancient myths. “The assumption that comes through is that the human being is separate from nature because we have a soul and spirit, and the rocks and waters and everything nonhuman doesn’t,” she says. “The logical conclusion is an industrial process where we take what we want from what isn’t human and use if for our own purposes.”
Genesis Farm’s counter-theology assumes that in fact the universe is alive, and the galaxies and our solar system are part of a continuing process in which the earth possessed extraordinary conditions making possible the development of life. Human beings are both a phase in that process and at the same time aware and conscious of it.
The implications for social action are subtle but obvious to MacGillis. “If we are part of the earth and the earth is a living being in its own right, we have to come back to places where we can live and join in communities of life and being, and make our activities in harmony with what is going on rather than destroying it,” she says. Because the idea of a human-centered universe is so endemic to our thinking, moving beyond it requires transforming our addiction to acquisition and consumption into a process of recovering deeper meanings and living in alignment with the divine presence in the created world.
John Makransky grew up in a largely secular Jewish family in Philadelphia, where his father was an insurance salesman and his mother a homemaker and a horticulturalist. While at Yale University, his fascination with the human mind and its potential led him to a major in molecular biochemistry with a generous sprinkling of courses in religion and psychology as well as pre-med courses. He became particularly interested in Buddhist models of the human mind and the potential of human beings to be transformed by Buddhist practice.
After college, in 1976, Makransky joined the Peace Corps, where he worked in a public health program in the Philippines. Then in 1978, he traveled to Thailand and then to Nepal and India, where he spent a year connecting with Tibetan lamas as well as associates of the Dalai Lama.
When he returned to the United States he wanted to learn the languages of Buddhism and be able to read Buddhist texts, and he started a doctoral program in Buddhist studies at the University of Wisconsin. He also continued to practice Buddhism in connection with Tibetan lamas in the United States.
Makransky then spent several years on a research fellowship in Asia with his wife, a nurse and also a practicing Buddhist. He completed his doctorate in 1990, taught for a year at Middlebury College, then moved to Boston College. He still returns to Nepal nearly every year to connect personally and to create bridges between students in the United States and programs of study in Nepal.
Buddhist prayer is a way of bringing oneself into alignment with the Buddhist qualities of enlightenment — deepest freedom, tranquility, love, compassion, and the spiritual power to help awaken others. One type of prayer focuses on linking to one’s own potential for enlightenment rather than to one’s own ego needs; it consists of “offering up” oneself to the buddhas, who have actualized the qualities of enlightenment, and to the bodhisattva, those who are on the path to enlightenment.
Makransky distinguishes between “offering up” oneself to qualities already achieved by the buddhas and bodhisattvas and being offered up to one’s ego-centered reactions. “If you are in any situation with another person and you are trying to figure out in your mind how to make yourself impressive to the other or to get something out of the other like money, respect, or connections, you would be offering up your experience with the other to ego centeredness,” he says. By contrast, a person may offer himself up to the awakening ability to be more connected, compassionate, and present to others and themselves.
Buddhist prayer practices have a logical connection to acting in the world. “You can be doing things driven by the conditioned patterns of ego-centeredness — to get, have, and hold on to things for your own racial, ethnic, or religious group,” he says. “Or the power behind any doing can be the power of your very being, your natural capacity of connection, compassion, wisdom, discernment, and care as the motivating power. If they begin to awaken and begin to actualize themselves, then they become the force of doing.”
Effectively pursuing social justice, suggests Makransky, requires a daily discipline of some kind. “We can’t just think our way to those possibilities of greater healing,” he says. “It needs to be through some kind of discipline that becomes regular, probably daily, through which we are brought back to our deepest being or self. That kind of discipline can be worked out in different ways through different traditions, deep prayer, contemplation, ritual, and meditation.”
Prayer: An Answer for the 21st Century, Fellowship in Prayer, Princeton University. Thursday, June 24, 7 p.m. Four-day conference includes spiritual practice and politics, spiritual foundations of food justice, centering prayer and social engagement, and spiritual resources for racial healing. Register. $250. Through Sunday, June 27. 609-924-6863, www.fellowshipinprayer.org, or E-mail email@example.com..