Marking Thomas Merton’s 100th Birthday

20th Festival of Faiths Offered Spiritual Journey

One of the things in which the city of Louisville takes pride is its rich diversity of skills, talents, interests, national backgrounds and religious faiths. In fact, Louisville celebrates its diversity in many different ways.

For the past 20 years, the Center for Interfaith Relations has organized the Festival of Faiths providing a showcase for the rich tapestry of religions in our community and a forum for open discussion and spiritual exploration.

Always informed by the wide-ranging work of Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani who sought an understanding of the faiths of others to appreciate and understand his own faith more deeply, this year’s Festival of Faiths, was held May 12-17 at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Through its theme, “Sacred Journeys and the Legacy of Thomas Merton,” the five-day gathering offered lectures, discussions, performances and prayer opportunities that celebrated both the Festival’s 20th anniversary and Merton’s 100th birthday.

The journey began with an interfaith prayer service, “Sacred Journeys: Our Stories, Together” at the Cathedral of the Assumption. The stories of a variety of faith traditions were told through music, dance, text and the spoken word.

While I was unable to attend most of the sessions, I was able to attend “Art and the Sacred: Sacred Journeys through Music” curated by Teddy Abrams. The Festival also made its programming available through live streaming, and I was able to hear Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ presentation during the “Sacred World: Secular and Sacred” panel discussion.

As silence can be a vehicle of both communication and understanding, each 2015 Festival of Faiths session began with a period of silence. For Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams and his friends this was a natural lead-in to a performance of John Cage’s work 4’33”. As he described it, Cage turned how we think about music upside down. The piece is for any number of musicians and any combination of instruments. The score instructs them to go to the instruments and sit in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds. Since any sound can constitute music Cage’s piece uses ambient sound and reflects the influence of Zen Buddhism.

From the music of silence, Abrams and his friends took the audience on a spiritual journey that wound its way

through the powerful gospel music Jason Clayborn regularly presents at St. Stephen’s Church through a contemporary rap presentation with excursions into Guyana traditions with Indian origins and Brazilian music.

Audience participation was encouraged in several places, and the crowd was eager to join in.

During the Friday session on Secular and Sacred, a panel moderated by Dr. William F. Vendley, explored how issues of rising inequality, war, the climate crisis, nationalism and extremism are diverting us from sustainable development. The panelists were Prof. Jeffrey D. Sachs, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Fr. Michael F. Czerny and Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

All agreed that global warming is a major issue and the world is quickly approaching the red line, which if surpassed, may mean permanent climate change and damage to the world. The goals have to be sustainability and pulling back from the edge of destruction.

“Some believe we can pray our way out of this mess,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “Prayer can awaken us to issues, but it is not a substitute for action.” His message: it is incumbent upon all of us to act.

Rabbi Jacobs is the president of he Union for Reform Judaism.

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