Book Review: Hearing the Call Across Traditions: Readings on Faith and Service,
Adam Davis, ed. SkyLight Paths, Woodstock, Vermont, 2009. 337pp. $29.99 www.skylightpaths.com
Reviewed by Thomas Ryan, CSP
This book seeks to examine the call to service in the context of the call to faith. It’s first premise is that it is good for people within and across religious traditions to reflect on and discuss the connections between the two. The second premise is that such reflection and discussion are deepened when they revolve around rich readings and carefully crafted questions.
Hearing the Call Across Traditions is a collection of readings—poetry, short stories, essays—each of which carries a message within it relating to service. They are thematically organized to provoke reflection on three key questions: Why do I serve? Whom do I serve? How do I serve? The conviction underlying the responses to these questions is that reflecting on their underlying principles strengthens our capacity to embody them. Because the readings are drawn from the different faith traditions, they cultivate understanding and respect for the particular identities of different persons or communities.
The editors of the anthology clearly intend that it be not only read, but discussed. The discussion questions provided are meant to assist both discussion leaders and participants in thinking in fresh ways about the theme and in making connections between the reading and their own lives.
And there is a further desired outcome of the reading and discussion: that we become more likely to engage in service, not just within our own religious or cultural group, but in diverse settings with the people and traditions we have come to understand better. In so doing, it is hoped, the trust and understanding between individuals and across communities will be strengthened.
The selections in the first section—Why Do I Serve?—include a sermon given by Martin Luther King, Jr., two months before his assassination; excerpts from the writing of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; a teaching on compassion by the Dalai Lama; an excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita on selfless service; and a short story by Flannery O’Connor.
The readings underscore how, even if we agree that serving others is good, we may have different reasons for finding it so. Some may consider service to be worthwhile because of convictions about the afterlife. Others may be motivated to it out of a perception of the other as part of the self, and still others may have learned from personal experience that serving others’ needs is the surest road to happiness.
A couple of my favorites in the second section of the book—Whom Do I Serve?—in addition to pieces by Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez, was a 10 page excerpt from Valerie Martin’s Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis and a poem from the 6th century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching entitled “A Good Traveler Has No Fixed Plans”:
A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.
Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn’t reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn’t waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.
What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man’s job?
If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.
In Part III—How Do I Serve?—an article by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah entitled “Mercy: The Stamp of Creation” provides an important “take” on Islamic self-understanding. There is also a passage from a letter written by Mahatma Gandhi--who, when he was asked if he could summarize his life in 25 words or less, replied “I can do it in 3! Renounce and Enjoy!”—in which he explains why the spirit of renunciation should rule all the activities of life. And a thought-provoking story by the Irish fiction writer William Trevor entitled “Sitting with the Dead” underlines the importance of making those whom we seek to serve feel safe and secure.
The book is designed with a few broad audiences in mind: faith-based communities (volunteer and discussion groups at churches, mosques, temples); service-based communities (campus chaplains, student-run interfaith youth groups, service organizations), and learning-based communities (high school and college classes, adult ed programs).
Appendix I, Toward Action, sets forth the Interfaith Youth Core Model for Interfaith Reflection and Service (“dialogue should always lead to action”) with some valuable “heads-up” advice about interfaith logistical challenges when organizing a project or event. The questions for reflection/discussion contained in Appendix II for each selection in all three sections of the book have been astutely honed to bring to light aspects of the piece that might otherwise escape notice. In Appendix III, the readings in the book are organized by faith tradition and genre to facilitate the selection of specific types of texts for certain gatherings or conversations.
All in all, this carefully assembled book represents a rich and valuable resource both within and among communities on the important themes of faith and service. Its finest fruit will be realized when the dialogue it espouses leads the participants to join hands in service and respond to the needs around them.