Focusing on Practice and Experience

I just read a piece on America’s website written by a Jesuit who was asked by a Buddhist group in San Francisco to sit with them and then give them a talk about Thomas Merton and his dialogue with Buddhism. Early in the column, the author, John Coleman, S.J., observed that “Merton who early on in his career showed a keen interest in dialogue with the religions of Asia ( Hinduism, Sufism as well as Buddhism) tended to think such dialogue should, primarily, focus on practice and experience and less on doctrine or beliefs, as such.” (The column is well-worth reading in its entirety.)

I would not advance the proposition that doctrine and belief are unimportant. But, as a meditator and as a retreat leader, I agree with Merton’s conclusion that there is richer fruit when inter-faith dialogue focuses more on practice and experience.

That is the thought behind my forthcoming book, Growing in Love and Wisdom, which presents adaptations of meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition for Christian prayer. (The book will be out the end of October and can be pre-ordered at the links on the sidebar.)

Like Merton, I believe there is much drawn from the Buddhist tradition that can benefit Christians. As then Cardinal Ratzinger recognized in a 1989 letter to Catholic bishops issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “genuine practices of non-Christian meditation” may “constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God.” Similarly, the 2000 letter Dominus Iesus acknowledges that prayers and rituals from other faith religious traditions may be “occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God.”

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be posting dates and locations of book talks/signings. I hope to meet some of you at them!


World Religion Day

In 1950, the Baha’i community in the United States initiated World Religion Day, to be observed on the third Sunday in January. The purpose of observing the day is to foster interfaith communication, understanding and harmony by hosting interfaith discussions, conferences and other events. It is now celebrated not only by Bahai’s in the United States, but increasingly be people around the world.

The World religion day website aims “to foster the establishment of interfaith understanding and harmony by emphasizing the common denominators underlying all religions.”

This is a laudible goal (one I seek to contribute to through the book I am currently writing that adapts Tibetan Buddhist meditations for Christians). In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton wrote

the more I am able to affirm others, to say “yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.

I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still further.

So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say yes where one really can.

If I affirm myself as Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.

Merton is obviously speaking from his own standpoint as a Catholic. But there is truth to his observation that, whatever one’s own faith tradition happens to be, there is danger in affirming ourselves by negating all that is of other religions. It is true that there are differences among the world religions and it would be folly to pretend otherwise. But there is also much truth in faith traditions other than our own that we can affirm and, to use a line I loved the first time I heard it, any truth belongs to the Holy Spirit.

We could all benefit by making greater efforts to understand and appreciate that which unites us across religions, the truths that we all share.

Fast and Feasting

Last night I attended the Sixth Annual Dialogue Iftar Dinner, hosted by the Niagara Foundation and the Bosphorus Dialogue Association, the latter of which is a student run group of the University of Minnesota. The evening included prayer – both an invocation by the University of Minnesota Lutheran pastor and an Adhan – an Islamic call to prayer, a slideshow of activities of the Niagara Foundation, three keynote speeches on the theme of Spiritual Reflections on Fasting – one each by a Jewish, a Christian and an Islamic speaker, and a delightful meal of Turkish food.

I suppose one could say that the new information I gained from the evening was fairly minor. I had not before been aware, for example, that it is traditional to break the Ramadan fast with a date, based on the belief that that is how the Prophet Mohammad used to break his fast. Thus, the first plate to be passed around the table at which I was sitting after sunset was a plate of dates. Additionally, despite growing up in New York with many Jewish friends, I had not before heard of the Jewish feast of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for various disasters that have befallen the Jewish people. Neither of these pieces of information are likely to shake my world.

Nonetheless, it was a wonderful evening. After reading so much in the last couple of weeks about the uproar about the proposed mosque near ground zero, and after seeing a report earlier in the day yesterday of a Muslim cabdriver who was attacked by a passenger simply because he was a Muslim, there was something good and peaceful about being in a room of Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrating together and sharing stories about their respective traditions.

The woman from the University of St. Thomas history department, who delivered the keynote talking about fasting from a Christian perspective, ended her talk with a poem I have heard in various forms, Fast From – Feast On. The poem, for example, speaks of fasting from words that pollute and feasting on phrases that purify, fasting from anger and feasting on patience, fasting from pessimism and feasting on optimism and fasting from complaining and feasting from appreciation.

What I most appreciated last night was the line that speaks of fasting from emphasis on differences and feasting on the unity of life. There are differences and I don’t minimize them. But there is also unity of life, and it is good to remember and celebrate that.

Spirituality Across Faith Traditions

On Thursday, I gave a Mid-Day Reflection at the University of St. Thomas law school on Spirituality Across Faith Traditions. Athough it is true that there are real differences among religions, there is also much truth in faith traditions other than our own. My purpose was to explore some universal dynamics that operate across faith traditions.

My talk Thursday, which drew on a couple of full day programs I offered on this topic this past winter, addressed three dynamics that operate across various faith traditions: (1) the importance of affective prayer experience; (2) the interrelationship of all humans with each other and with God; and (3) the relationship of the individual to the world.

You can access a podcast of the talk I gave here . (The podcast runs for 32:45). Toward the end of that talk I refer to several handouts of prayer material that I encouraged the participants to pray with during the week. Two were meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition and one contained poetry from several faith traditions. You can access the handouts here.

Spirituality Across Faith Traditions

Yesterday I gave a retreat on the topic of Spirituality Across Faith Traditions. It was a very positive and powerful experience for all of the participants and for myself.

While it is true that there are real differences among the world’s major religions, it is also the case that there is much truth in faith traditions other than our own that we can affirm. In the words of Thomas Merton, if we embrace our own tradition merely by denying all that belongs to others, we will find that there is not much left for us to affirm in our own tradition, and “no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” Both for the sake of our own spiritual growth and (for those of us engaged in spiritual ministry of one sort or another) for the sake of those to whom we minister, there is value in exploring universal dynamics that operate across faith traditions.

In the course of our day, we engaged in prayer and meditation drawn from several different faith traditions and talked about some core truths and core experiences that are common to all of the major world religions. Of central importance in my view are the common understanding among world religions of the importance of affective prayer experience, a shared vision of the communion and interrelationship of each of us to God (whether one uses the term God or not) and to each other, and a common understanding of the need to appreciate the impermanence of human existence and to develop an attitude of renunciation toward the world.

For both the opening prayer and the closing inter-faith prayer service, I took prayers, readings and/or poems from various faith traditions. One that I included in our opening prayer was a poem by Hafiz, titled The God Who Only Knows Four Words. It is quite simple, but also simply lovely. It reads:

Every child has known God.
Not the God of names.
Not the God of “don’t”s.
Not the God who ever does anything weird.
But the God who only knows four words,
And keeps repeating them, saying,
“Come Dance With Me, Come Dance.”

(Ultimately, I’ll create some podcasts drawn from my talks during the day…but it will probably take some time to get them recorded and posted.)