Murshid Samuel Lewis 1896-1971
The originator of the Dances of Universal Peace was a spiritual renaissance man whose life and teachings were a testimony to truth, originality and embodied spirituality. Though rejected by polite society and even his own family because of his spiritual leanings, Samuel Lewis remained true to the penetrating spiritual vision of human liberation at the core of his being. His life, often difficult, bore much fruit for his students and for the world.
The Dances of Univeral Peace
The Dances of Universal Peace are a form of community prayer done by participants moving together in a circle while chanting sacred phrases gleaned from a rich diversity of religions and spiritual paths of the peoples of the world. One's own faith tradition and spiritual path is deepened and enriched by the sacred paths of others as pronunciations, chants and simple dance steps are taught for the newcomer to this form of prayer. This prayer is participatory and not a performance, therefore no audience is there to observe it.
The word, “dance” terrifies some people no matter what their age. I have at times changed it to “prayerful sacred movement” and claim our origins as Christians who live out of an incarnational (embodied) theology and spirituality. For Catholics, and for others who gather to pray, worship or come together in spiritual practice, there is no liturgy or practice without embodied sacred movement. Stand, sit, sing, reach out in greeting, use gestures, hold hands, walk in procession together, carry gifts to the altar, even prostrate on the floor at times as in ordination and religious profession of vows ceremonies. it’s all dance really. Oops, if I call it "sacred movement” does it then make the liturgy we love OK to participate in? The trouble is we don’t call it anything so the “terror” continues as we follow Jesus who had a body that moved among us, walked dusty roads to where he preached and healed people, sang and yes, surely danced as Jews have always done, and has had his life so sanitized by us so as to omit or at least not notice that his body and ours are part of the journey. So sacred are our bodies that Catholics honor them one last time with incense at our funeral liturgy, but rarely if ever say that’s what we are doing.
Over many years, I have done the Dances of Universal Peace with experienced professional liturgical dancers, children, young people, adults of different ages including people who use walkers or are in wheel chairs. What makes it work is not only my way of accommodating everyone but the trust in me given by the participants. I do not permit observers to stand back, watch, and make the courageous ones feel self-conscious.
I have noticed that ideas and concepts, those we read about or hear spoken about can change our minds, but experiences such as dance can change our hearts. One can learn about the Dances of Universal Peace by reading about them, watching a video of them being done, or hearing someone describe them. But it is only in actually experiencing them oneself that one really knows what they are and how one can feel when participating in them.
We now know that “touch deprivation” can cause death in babies. Recall the story of discovering this when infants orphaned during the Second World War began to thrive only after volunteers came daily to simply hold them while sitting in rocking chars. Holding hands within a circle of people who have not been able to gather, touch each other or even sing together for over two years during the pandemic would surely benefit from doing so again, perhaps with the plentiful use of hand sanitizer.
— Br. Joseph Kilikevice, OP, Director, Shem Center for Interfaith Spirituality