When tragedy strikes, as in Newtown, Conn., prayer resides mostly in the shadows of those personally affected. The public ritual requires politicians to assure survivors of their thoughts and prayers -- what one cynical commentator calls "political T&P." The media is saturated with discussions of what to do about guns and how to put more money in mental health programs. These are appropriate for a secular society in search of public solutions. Solace is harder to find.
If we look to a larger world picture, we focus mainly on the divisions between the three major religions. They're easy to find. The Internet, with its speedy technology, animates conflicts in the Middle East in real time, and we all become witnesses to the different ways the Arab Spring skipped summer and soured into Arab Autumn. It's hard to avoid the fear that accompanies the knowledge that Iran continues to develop a bomb to animate the rhetoric of its leaders to wipe Israel off the map.
In Middle East history, where Judaism, Christianity and Islam identify their roots, current events focus on conflict not harmony. Although Pope Benedict XVI now twitters and writes a book about the ways the holiness of love encompasses universality, that we're all related in God's image, we're increasingly aware of the shifting relationships between the three major religions. The shifts cloud the image.
The three religions have rarely enjoyed true love for long in the other's company, but now the Jewish Museum in New York City offers an oasis for the contemplation of beauty in the Middle Ages, when a conversation could be conducted through sacred texts.
The exhibition is called "Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting Place of Culture," and its website of digital images could usefully be required reading for high school students and adults, or anyone eager to see both the medium and the sacred messages of another time, another place, before the invention of the printing press revolutionized communication.
Style and substance are both important in the manuscripts, which were inscribed in the period from the end of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages up to the beginning of the Renaissance.