My sister was in Montana recently and visited a Catholic Church on a Native American reservation that had this amazing Tabernacle for reserving the Holy Eucharist. As I looked at it, I recalled my visit to a Native American reservation whenthe tour guide mentioned to us that the signature Native American home, the tipi (or teepee), is built to facilitate community conversations around a central fire. He said that these circle conversations followed fairly elaborate ritual patterns organized around a higly structured social hierarchy. “So different from those fragmented cocktail party conversations we think of as Americans, these circular dwellings were meant to forge among community members a profound sense of unity and identity.”
The Latin word for tabernacle, tabernaculum, means something like “tent of dwelling” and, as a liturgical furnishing, draws its meaning from the “tent of meeting” (mishkan in Hebrew) God instructed Moses to build in the Sinai desert as a portable dwelling place in which He, enthroned on the Ark of the Covenant, might converse with Moses “face to face” and sojourn through the wilderness with the Israelites (see Exodus 25–27; 35–40).
This combination of meditations on Native American tipi and the Tabernacle reminds me of a lecture I heard back in 1999 given by Presbyterian biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey. I wrote down some notes the day he spoke, though some of what I will share here I am cobbling together from memory. Some of what I will write is, no doubt, an amalgam of my own insights glossed into his.
He was talking about how rabbis around the time of Jesus would form around themselves “circles” of disciples established to serve as close-knit communities of life and learning. These pedagogical circles, so-called because learning often took place in circle-groups with the disciples seated around a rabbi, were animated by lively exchanges of questions and response, rigorous memorization and recitation of Torah and a thorough schooling in the rabbi’s interpretation of the Torah.
At the time of Jesus, he said, rabbinic teaching was — if you were a “mover and a shaker” — passed on almost entirely orally and rarely set down in writing. Orality would help guard the sacred character of the teaching, ensure that handing on the Master’s teaching was only done by “authorized” reciters of his tradition, and promote the disciples’ common (and unifying) internalization of a “living word.” A rabbi would walk his disciples through the vast tradition of rabbinic opinions (midrash) on the meaning of Torah, offering them his own halakhah (interpretations of the Law) and aggadah (illustrative stories). Jesus, of course, employed both with his disciples.
These engaging learning-gatherings of disciples with their rabbi (cf Mark 8:27-30) were regular features of daily life, Bailey said, as stories were told and provocative questions were posed and debated, touching on such things as theology, law, politics or ethics. In fact, he said, among the rabbis theology (which was a word never used in that period) would make sense only in the context of vigorous, face to face debate among the haborim, the “companions” whose lives were dedicated to the study of Torah. This, he said, is very much like the traditional medieval disputatio, “disputation” that Luther called for in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. “The idea of the theologian alone in a study,” Bailey contended, “engaging in critical thinking surrounded by many books, would be utterly foreign to the theological world of Jesus. For Jesus theology meant face to face exchanges, full of emotion and passion, and truth would only appear when men had struggled together to receive it.”
An aside: There were called also, Bailey said, within these rabbinic groups what were called haflat samar, “parties to preserve tradition.” They were casual, entertaining and largely informal conversations within the circle, filled with various stories of the day, witty proverbs, songs or well known stories from the community’s history. It’s hard to imagine a wilder party! I often try to imagine in my prayer Jesus having such “parties” with his disciples at the end of a long day.
Jesus entered this rabbinic “theological” world at age twelve (remember his disputatio in Luke 2:41-52?) and developed it fully with his disciples. He also invited Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers, scribes, and even tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners into these dynamic Torah-seeking conversations. “And,” Bailey argued, “he also did something that was either unprecedented or lost to history – he, a rabbi, engaged women in these theological debates. The woman at the well, the Syro-Phoenician woman and Mary of Bethany to name three. Remember when the disciples were astonished at Jesus’ public theological debate with the Samaritan woman (John 4:27)? Or when Jesus “bought into” the pagan Syro-Phoenician woman’s theological argument and only then began his trek into Gentile territory (Mark 7:24-30)? Or again, recall Martha’s being verklemmt, as they say in Yiddish, at Mary’s engaging in a man’s theological work and ignoring what was properly women’s work (Luke 10:40)?” Jesus, he said, even continued to employ this rabbinic debate style after the Resurrection as he joined the debating disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Okay, remember, Tom, this is a Blog post and not my journal. I have already rambled too much. These insights above coalesced for me in something Dr. Bailey said at the end of his lecture:
It seems to me that if we think of Jesus’ manner of revealing the Father to his disciples before and after the Resurrection, the seriousness and the levity of their relationships, we should allow it to influence our approach to him in prayer and theological study. Too often we think of prayer as either too passive or of Jesus as too porcelain. Or we remove the living person of Jesus from our theological quests and lock ourselves in our heads or in our journals. No!…How often have we allowed ourselves, when reading the Gospels, to get into it with Jesus? To wrangle with his questions and pose questions to him? The Bible is clear: Jesus wants our relationship with him to be full of fire and passion. He wants to do theology with us in the here and now. Think of how he assaulted St. Paul on the road to Damascus and posed a rabbi’s question to him: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Or when Paul begs Jesus to take the “thorn” from his life, and Jesus says: “No!”…Jesus wants us to be daring and to ask him the tough questions and, of course, to hear his tough answers. He wants us to tell him the stories of our day, laugh and sing with him. God can become so wooden for us. He’s alive and ready to debate theology with us so we can “own” what he has to say; really make it ours. He wants our prayer to be real, relational. And, even though he’s the eternal Word — that’s always clear — clearly he also wants to enrich what he has to say with what we have to say. Add our words to his.
That, finally, reminds me of this famed story of St. Teresa of Avila. Teresa had Jewish blood, and it showed in the way she prayed! As the story goes, during one of her many convent-founding travels throughout Spain, she was riding during a torrential rainstorm. Her horse-drawn cart hit a huge pothole and collapsed, throwing her head-first into the mud. She at once complained to Jesus at being treated in this manner in the midst of trying to serve him. The voice of Jesus then came to her from the heavens, “Daughter, this is how I treat my friends.” Wiping the mud from her face, she replied, “No wonder you have so few.”
Teresa said on another occasion, “prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends.”
We can carry on that conversation within the cosmic Tent of creation which Christ fills (cf John 1:14; Psalm 104:2; Ephesians 1:23), before the Eucharistic Tabernacle or, most amazingly, within the Tent of our baptized body in which God has chosen to dwell (cf John 14:23; 1 Corinthians 6:19).