Oct 25, 2013

Reflections on Reading the First Seventy Issues of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Bulletin

Fr. Philip, of St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC, is one of the newest members of the MID board. He recently read through all issues of the bulletin published during the past twenty-five years and offers these personal reflections drawn from his reading.
All organizations are urged to revise their mission statements from time to time. The members of the MID board did so at the turn to the new millennium and introduced their revised statement with the following words:

We have learned from happy experience since 1978 that this dialogue, while increasing our understanding and appreciation of other religious traditions, also helps us to come to a richer understanding and full appreciation of our own spiritual and theological heritage. So, as of October 2000 we state our mission as:

Monastic interreligious dialogue is made up of Christian monastics who, at the request of the Apostolic See, engage in interreligious dialogue as a way of giving expression to the monastic charisms of listening and hospitality. We foster dialogue on the level of spiritual practice and experience between North American monastics and contemplative practitioners from other religious traditions for the purpose of mutual spiritual benefit and communion.

All of the above and much, much more is the fruit of 25 years of joyful labor, sacrifice, prayer, and commitment on the part of countless men and women who have given themselves to the task of acceptance and understanding, that is, to genuine dedication to dialogue. In the little journey you are about to take through the last 25 years, be aware that every handshake and smile, greeting and goodbye, word and gesture, as brief and fleeting as each may have been, had at its source that Ground of Being, that Absolute, that nudges us to come together to express the inexpressible, to be Love and Compassion, to bring Justice and Hope.

The North American Board for East-West Dialogue, later renamed Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, came to life in a timely fashion, in 1978. Society had been experiencing growing pains from the early 60s in response to the overwhelming destruction of the Second World War. Over 50 million had died, and the survivors couldn’t once again put faith in authority and institutions as they had known them before the two World Wars. After all, look at what the world as we made it had brought! It was time to rethink ourselves and our institutions.

Part of this personal and societal analysis and transition came about through the churches, other parts came through popular culture and experimentation with newly emerging lifestyles, such as the “hippie” lifestyle with its drop-out, free-love, and drug orientation, and the New Age movements that embraced less traditional but not necessarily new ways of living, a turn to the self as the place to find God. As the Catholic Church began hammering out its future during the Second Vatican Council, the Beatles sang their way into our cultural heart with a new beat, Haight-Ashbury got its name on the map, and the Psychedelic Age was about to light-up and inhale with Timothy Leary. It was the Beatles’ visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India that brought the East and Eastern philosophy and religion into my life (I was 11 years old and living in Brooklyn) and into the average middle-class American living room.

Certainly, academics and specialized groups in the churches had long been aware of the East and its religions as something to be studied and evangelized; the Parliament of World Religions in 1893 attested to that interest. But now even “Joe” at the corner bar began to know something about meditation and the exotic Guru, and he began to meditate (after paying his $60 bucks to learn his mantra). Transcendental Meditation (TM) was here to stay, even after the Beatles denounced the Maharishi for less-than-transcendental behavior involving an accompanying devotee, and with him came a flood of gurus and Eastern forms of meditation and practice. Some were frauds who extorted money like Rajneesh, some were very esoteric, others used brainwashing techniques that put permanent smiles on their followers’ faces, but most, such as Muktananda and Paramahansa Yogananda, Prabhupad and Aurobindo, were and still are, through their devotees, honestly trying to forge bonds between East and West with the highest intentions and ideals. Everything began to reflect this interchange, this new interest in the Transcendent: our popular music, our clothing (remember the Nehru jacket?), our speech and religion, and our psychotherapy. Remember EST?

By 1978, the year the MID began and the year I graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a BA in Comparative Religion, everything about the East in America and Europe was coming into full flower. Things became far more esoteric. Astral travel, angelology, auras, Kabbala with Rabbi Zalman Schacter, Edgar Cayce, Seth Speaks, Children of God, the Moonies, Campus Crusade for Christ, Jews for Jesus . . . and many more. I was friends with them all, and the give-and-take was tremendously exciting. Five years after Thomas Merton had died at an intermonastic conference in Bangkok, a follow-up conference was held in Bangalore in 1973, followed by Cardinal Pignedoli’s request the next year that monks promote and develop this work of dialogue with non-Christians: “The existence of monasticism at the heart of the Catholic Church is, in itself, a bridge connecting all religions.” American and European monastics were about to dive into their own traditions and faith more deeply, to swim at depths of similarity and convergence with their brothers and sisters of all religions. By then our society had been swimming in the uncharted waters of various disciplines for about 20 years, with new discoveries about psychology and religion, Native American spirituality, science and medicine, evolution and the complexities of the human brain. With the technological revolution and secular life speeding along like a runaway train, it was the perfect time to contemplate and experience with monks, nuns, and laypersons of all religions the basis of all this newness, this movement of greater awareness of ourselves and the earth we call home. With the world shrinking and communication expanding, it became imperative to see Christ in our brothers and sisters of all faiths in order to help bring peace and stability to a world that for too long had known only strife and bloodshed, hardship, war, and division.

In 1978, Fr. Armand Veilleux, with pioneers such as Sr. Pascaline Coff, Sr. Donald Corcoran, Abbot Jerome Hanus, Abbot Martin Burne and others on the first board, decided on an aim: to assist in the development of dialogue within North American monastic houses, alerting monks and monastic women to available resources and stimulating and sensitizing all to the need for and the value of East-West dialogue. These men and women would, in turn, help sensitize the East to Western spirituality and traditions, thereby awakening both East and West to various riches and possibilities.

The meeting held from June 4-13, 1977, at Petersham, Massachusetts, had gotten this ideal off to a good start. Sr. Denyse Lavigne, OSB, enthusiastically embraced the possibilities for dialogue to bring about real and needed structural change in monasteries, such as allowing for temporary lay vocations and re-thinking monastic life and structure in reflection on the East, the Desert Fathers, and other early sources of monasticism. It is important, as Merton had pointed out, that an authentic contact with the past of your own tradition and religious community be present if authentic contact is to be made with others. From the beginning, as through all of the last 25 years, it was understood that a long habit of meditation disciplined by silence is an essential starting point for fruitful dialogue. The early participants knew this well, and their conviction has been strengthened and developed through the years.

Three men who understood this from experience and who have been pillars of the dialogue tradition are Fr. Mayeul de Dreuille, Fr. Bede Griffiths, and Fr. Raimon Panikkar. Fr. Mayeul expressed an aspect of their life and work when he said that if you wish to commune with others you must first have a sincere wish to learn from others, with a strong belief that they have something to give. Secondly, you must have respect for categories of thought in the interlocutor, leaving the other to express his thoughts in his own way with all the time he needs to express himself. And thirdly, you must be ready to exchange something real. There is an urgent need for us to have a better knowledge of the Christian mystical tradition.

Fr. Bede—a man of prayer, a learned man steeped in the riches of the mystics and doctors of the Church, a man of adventure and risk—contributed to the dialogue by living it wholeheartedly and shaping it through his life and work at Shantivanam. Through lectures and workshops, writing and visiting, prayer and sacramental worship, he offered himself completely to the Christ who lives in each person he met. With Abhishiktananda and Abbé Jules Monchanin he helped bridge the gap between peoples, regardless of their real or imagined differences. Meditation and contemplation is the key: “Unless you meditate on and then realize the text and the doctrine in your life, there is no sense in listening to it.” The goal is union with the Divine. From that spring social justice, compassion and love, freedom and peace. The goal for dialogue is realization through experience and practice.

I see Raimon Panikkar as another giant. He has given so much over the years because he has so much to give. Not only has he helped bring the East and West together through his many fine books and lectures, but he is another living example of the “mysticism of integration” As he put it so well in 1980, “We live under the very sign of multiplicity… and through this the monk ‘sails through the stream’ in a simplicity that is holy because it reveres the real in a harmonious respect. The mysticism of transcendence (West) and immanence (East) is being supplanted by the mysticism of integration.” His book Blessed Simplicity beautifully expounds on the “monastic dimension as one constituent which every human being has, and must cultivate in one way or another.” This has shown itself to be a supremely important point as those involved in the dialogue have come to realize, over time, the necessity of including the larger population in dialogue for the sake of peace and justice. No one should be left out when such gross misunderstanding between nations and religions is gaining ground and threatening life and peace.

I will conclude this piece by reflecting back on the three points that Fr. Mayeul raises. First, he said we should ask the question: Have the monastic participants in the dialogue shown a sincere wish to learn from others, with a strong belief that they have something to give? In 1980, Abbot Simon Tonini of the European DIM strongly encouraged individual monastics from the West “to live for two or three months with non-Christian monks in their own Eastern milieu, for a time more at the level of experience than of study….This would be far more effective with more striking results for interreligious dialogue than any courses or congresses in one’s own milieu.” As his own experience in India taught him, “there are two things one has to admire [in the religious men and women of India]: their quest for the Absolute and their poverty, an almost heroic detachment.” There is no doubt that over the past 25 years participants have been eager to visit and learn from monastics of the East. The many exchanges show clearly that both sides in dialogue have something to give, especially through shared experience in prayer and meditation. The visits of the Tibetan Buddhists to Western monasteries since the early 1980s not only brought a knowledge of their plight as a people and their struggle to be free, but also provided many opportunities for dialogue with the Dalai Lama himself, culminating in the Gethsemani Encounter in 1996.

There was also the invaluable prayer of the Assisi event, when the Holy Father spoke of the Holy Spirit as operative in all religions. Visits of mostly European monastics to Zen monasteries in Japan, of North American Benedictines and Cistercians to Tibetan monasteries in India and Tibet, and of many from both Europe and North America to Christian ashrams in India, have been invaluable cultural experiences, helping to press the point the Dalai Lama made at Gethsemani: “The differences between religions are very good, for each religion serves the unique needs of a group of people, but at the same time it is important that people of different faiths recognize their common ground and from this place mutually serve humanity…. At times religion, instead of helping, is blamed for conflicts throughout the world. For this very reason it is imperative that religions have awareness of their differences and their common ground.” Let us take these words to heart. In the next 25 years, we should try to have more frequent chances to live in the East not only to better understand the rise of Hindu nationalism and the tensions with Islam but also to allow for more intensive study of the religions precisely as religions. The numerous meetings, seminars, and congresses have provided an invaluable exchange of ideas and practice here in the States, Europe and India, but they are no match for an actual immersion into a place, a people. Do we have enough interested monastics for such a future with our shrinking numbers?

Secondly, Fr. Mayeul points out, the person coming to dialogue must have respect for the categories of thought in the interlocutor, leaving the other to express her thoughts in her own way at whatever pace she needs. This, it seems, has been the most challenging part for the dialogue throughout its lifetime, not only for the monastics who are wholeheartedly seeking understanding between religions but also and especially for the Holy See and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Throughout the dialogue with all its transitions and changes, the N.A.B.E.W.D. and the contact persons working in the field have been diligently laboring to come to a greater understanding of their own tradition’s riches. This is well illustrated by the example of Abbot Thomas Keating’s development and exposition of Centering Prayer. Not only did he bring to the fore The Cloud of Unknowing and call for a re-examination of the apophatic tradition, but he also re-enkindled this prayer in light of our new contact with Eastern forms of prayer and meditation. Here we see a jumping-off point not only for practice but also for conceptual and verbal dialogue. Do we both share similar categories when it comes to articulating that which is beyond forms? To find categories in common, to re-interpret or rightly interpret doctrine and content in order to find similarities, sameness, and real differences is what Abbot Thomas’ work has done, enhancing in its detail some of the broader strokes of Bede Griffiths and Raimundo Pannikar.

In December 1989 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter on meditation to the bishops of the world. The Vatican, which had been encouraging dialogue with other religions for 25 years, was here showing concern about meditation. The issuing of the letter also showed that the Congregation was trying to learn more about and trying to understand, not dismiss, other religions as serious contributors to our growth as Christians. Up until this point in time, it was easy and comfortable enough for the Church to encourage dialogue focused on and justice issues, but now that dialogue was mingling practice and doctrine, the Congregation stood up and took notice. The responses to the “Instruction on Aspects of Christian Meditation” showed that more homework needed to be done on the part of all involved if greater misunderstanding was to be avoided. To learn whether that homework was done by the time of the release of the Congregation’s document Dominus Jesus we can only turn to the responses of those who we know did do their homework, such as Fr. Jacques Dupuis, Fr. Pierre de Béthune, Sr. Meg Funk, Sr. Pascaline Coff, and many others who have devoted their entire lives to this work. Fr. William Skudlarek spoke well for the MID in issue 66 of the bulletin when he discussed our monastic charisms of “listening and hospitality” as ones that “we especially wish to bring to the evangelizing mission of the Church.” If dialogue is to continue with respect, we as dialogue partners must show a continuous deepening of understanding through study, along with practice and experience, so as to avoid merely guessing at what things mean.

Fr. Mayeul’s third and last point is that we should exchange something real. After reading through all 70 issues of the MID-DIM Bulletin from 1978 to the present, I must say that if what has happened in dialogue wasn’t real, nothing is. It is outstanding and heartening to see how much good has come about through grace, and to know that I will have a small part in a giant endeavor. In reading about so many wonderful people and events—the congresses, the retreats, the meetings, the trips, the books, and the saints—you don’t have to worry that there isn’t something real here. After all, “Samsara is Nirvana.” Keep up the good work, all of you who dialogue!!! And congratulations on your 25th birthday.