Spirituality of Action

Last night was the final gathering of the Buddhist-Christian Interspirituality Group I have been faciliatating. Our discussion centered on one of the chapters of Wayne Teasdale’s The Mystic Heart. (It may have been Teasdale who first used the term “interspirituality.”)

The chapter I had asked participants to read was titled Out in the World: The Spirituality of Action. In it, Teasdale discusses what he identifies as the three important elements of the social dimension that is found in all traditions of spirituality: simplicity of life, selfless service, and the prophetic or moral value.

Simplicity of life concerns our relationship with everything and everyone in this world – other human beings, other species, the natural world, the planet. Teasdale calls simplicity of life “an inner focus on what is necessary. As we grow in mystical consciousness and become inwardly integrated, our life naturally becomes simplified, uncluttered by property and money…Simplicity has a way of focusing our attention on what is absolutely essential; it goest to the core of our being and strips away all the distractions that compete for our attention.”

One of the questions we discussed last night was what does simplicity of life look like in a culture like the United States for non-monastics. It is worth reflecting on. I sometimes feel that, despite my best efforts at giving away possessions and refraining from purchases, I still have way more than I need. Experiences like the Camino, where I lived easily out of a backpack, help remind me of how little we actually need.

The second important element – selfless service and compassionate action – are clearly central to all faith traditions. Yet, as Teasdale observes, one can find examples in all faith traditions of the “problem of inaction,” of the failure to respond to the needs of others in a loving compassionate way. I suspect this “total availability” is something most of us have to work on.

The same is true for the third. “A further vital component in a universal spirituality, and so in an interspirituality, is the awakened and utterly necessary function of leadership in the area of justice.” Teasdale calls this the operation of the prophetic voice – the voice that “vigorously acknowledges the unjust events and policies that cause enormous tension, misery, and dislocation in the lives or countless numbers of people.” We have a responsibility to witness and to respond.

There is too much to say on this subject than I can say in this single post. So let me here say simply this. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the injustice that exists in so many areas, to say what can I possibly do in the face of so many large problems. But it is not overwhelming to pick one thing to be your focus. We can’t each respond to every need in the world. But we can each do something. What is the issue that most tugs at your soul? Is it homelessness? Trafficking? Treatment of those with mental illness? Pick one and investigate what you can do in that area.


Contemplative in Action

Knowing of my interest in interspirituality and interfaith dialogue, my friend Richard gave me a wonderful book titled Monks and Muslims: Monastic and Shi’a Spirituality in Dialogue. The book contains papers from a 2011 conference during which Christian monastics and Iranian Shi’a Muslims shared thoughts on the subjects of revelation, prayer and witness.

I’ve benefitted from reading a number of the paired papers I’ve read thus far – and will doubtless share some thoughts about them in a future post.

However, I didn’t need to read past the introduction to the book to find something that struck me powerfully, something that helps explain the value of Christian/Muslim dialogue. The introduction quotes an excerpt from Frithjof Schuon attempting to answer the question of why monasticism is not part of the Islamic tradition, a tradition that “possesses mysticism, ascetic discipline, and a cult of saints?”

His answer to that question will resonate deeply with those who, like myself, are possessed of an Ignatian spirituality, which emphasizes being “contemplative in action.” He writes

One of the raisons d’etre of Islam is precisely the possibility of a “monastery-society,” if the expression is allowable: that is to say that Islam aims to carry the contemplative life into the very framework of society as a whole; it succeeds in realizing within that framework conditions of structure and of behavior that permit of contemplative isolation in the very midst of the activities of the world. …The famous “no monasticism in Islam”…really means, not that contemplatives must not withdraw from the world, but on the contrary that the world must not be withdrawn from contemplatives; the intrinsic ideal of monasticism or of eremitism, namely asceticism and the mystical life, is in no way affected.

Ignatius envisioned his followers as “contemplatives in action,” alert to the presence of God in all aspect of their lives, in constant relation to God wherever they were. This ideal is no different for Muslims than it is for Christians.