Dilatato Corde 5:2
July - December, 2015
Sister Lucy and Ajahn Amaro
Sister Lucy and Ajahn Amaro
Religious Experience in Dialogue
Over the last few years Catholic and Anglican monks and nuns in England have had annual meetings with monks and nuns from Amaravati Buddhist Monastery for a day of dialogue. This year, representatives from seven Anglican and Catholic monasteries, plus two Western Rinzai Zen teachers—one, a priest and an oblate of New Camaldoli in Big Sur, California, the other a Benedictine oblate—came together at Amaravati on July 7, 2015, to reflect on “Conquest of Death: Resurrection . . . Enlightenment.” The day’s program was prepared by Amaravati and Turvey Abbey.
It has become quite common to say that the interreligious dialogue of monks and nuns is especially focused on the “dialogue of religious experience.”[1] This year I became much more aware of how important it is to speak out of and about our own experience, even though we may be very hesitant to do so—and that for any number of reasons: it’s too insignificant, too personal, too self-serving. . . . While it is true that we need to take care that interreligious dialogue not turn into a group therapy session, the greater danger may be that it will become little more than an abstract and arid discussion of religious theory and practice that has little value for our spiritual life. One way to keep monastic dialogue true to its calling is to be willing to speak of those experiences that for us have had religious/spiritual significance.
When Brother John and I were preparing the dialogue, I mentioned an early childhood experience I had, which I later came to see as a kind of “deathless” or resurrection experience. (“Amaravati” means “Deathless Realm.”) Brother John urged me to share the story, telling me that dialogue only becomes real if people take risks. Even though I felt rather reluctant to do so, I did speak about my experience during the initial session, and Brother John also shared one of his own “resurrection” experiences. When we came together again after lunch for a group discussion, our reflection on the day’s topic was especially engaging and rich, all the more so in that several other members of the group shared their own personal experiences.
The experience I narrated happened shortly before my First Holy Communion, when I was six years old. I already knew the catechism by heart and—being a bright, gabby little thing—could answer all the questions when asked. At the same time, I was well aware that I had no idea what it all meant. I was especially bothered by the Trinity. If we believed there was only one God, how could Father, Son and Holy Spirit each be God? My mother used to stave off my repeated questions with “Listen! It’s a mystery and we are not meant to understand mysteries!”—a response that didn’t satisfy me at all.
One night, shortly before receiving Holy Communion for the first time (it must have been November 1946), I determined to get to the bottom of it. I sat in the dark at the top of our stairs, struggling with all my childish might to understand and work it out. After what seemed like ages, suddenly there was a bright flash of light that seemed to cut me in two from head to foot—and I just knew. It was extraordinary. I jumped up and was going to rush downstairs and tell my mother I’d solved it all . . . and then it was all gone. I still “knew,” even though I didn’t know what it was I knew.
That experience is as real to me today as it was then, nearly 70 years ago. I am still unable to articulate what I know. There was even a period of time when I didn’t remember the experience. The first time I mentioned it was 30 years later when I was living in Kenya and revealed it to my Jesuit spiritual director. However, looking back now, I can see that all my spiritual practices—in fact, all my life—have somehow been focussed on the Trinity. I also believe that experience was and is at the root of my passion for interreligious dialogue.
There was a point in our discussion of the religious experience of resurrection and/or enlightenment when things did, in fact, begin to get a bit “heady,” at which point someone in the group commented, “But what about Love? If all this is not about love, it is not worth anything.”
In response, Ajahn Amaro, the Abbot of Amaravati, recalled a meeting of Buddhist teachers from all over the world whose task was to come up with and agree on ten objectives for bringing Buddhism to the West. When the time came to show the Dalai Lama what they had produced and get his “imprimatur,” the leader read out, “The first objective is to extend the teaching of Buddhism throughout the West.” The Dalai Lama interrupted and said, “Wait! Wait! Stop there! That’s quite wrong! The first objective is not to spread Buddhism throughout the world; it is to spread loving kindness.”
One again, as has so often been my experience at these gatherings, that comment reinforced my sense that somehow we are on the same Way, even if our paths are different.



[1]“The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.” Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Dialogue And Proclamation, 42d.

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