Dilatato Corde 2:1
January - June, 2012

On the Dialogue of Religious Experience
And Monastic Interreligious Dialogue

ABSTRACT: This article, using the example of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, argues for the validity and indispensability of the dialogue of religious experience as a form of communicatio in sacris.  It is divided into essentially two main parts.  The first places the dialogue of religious experience in the context of Nostra ætate and the four forms of dialogue identified by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, before examining its contours and significance in the light of a number of key thinkers.   The second part examines the history and significance of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue as a movement that distances itself from mission as normatively understood, seeking to engage with rather than distance itself from the religious experience of ‘the other.’  Some of the implications of this movement are then explored.  The article closes with three conclusions that highlight Monastic Interreligious Dialogue’s contribution to the dialogical movement as a whole.

 RÉSUMÉ: En utilisant l'exemple du dialogue interreligieux monastique, cet article plaide en faveur de la validité et du caractère indispensable du dialogue de l'expérience religieuse comme une forme de la communicatio in sacris. L’article est divisé en deux parties principales. Avant d'examiner les contours et la signification du dialogue de l'expérience religieuse à la lumière d'un certain nombre de grands penseurs, la première partie met cette forme de dialogue dans le contexte de Nostra ætate et des quatre formes de dialogue identifiées par le Conseil Pontifical pour le Dialogue Interreligieux.  La deuxième partie examine l'histoire et la signification du dialogue interreligieux monastique comme un mouvement qui se distancie de la mission comme elle est normativement comprise, cherchant à s'engager avec l'expérience religieuse de «l'autre» plutôt qu’à se distancier d’elle. Certaines des répercussions de ce mouvement sont ensuite explorées. L'article se termine avec trois conclusions qui mettent l’accent sur la contribution du dialogue interreligieux monastique au mouvement dialogique dans son ensemble.


               . . . the garden is the only place there is,
              but you will not find it
              Until you have looked for it everywhere
              and found nowhere that is not a desert.[1]

What is the dialogue of religious experience?  What is Monastic Interreligious Dialogue?  How are the two related?  Of what significance are they?  These are the questions that I will try to answer in this essay, which is divided into several parts.  The first part will touch upon the importance of the conciliar decree Nostra Aetate relative to interreligious dialogue and the need “to be religious interreligiously.”  The second part will briefly consider the four primary ways by which one can enter into dialogical relationship with those of other religious traditions, according to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, with special emphasis being placed on the dialogue of religious experience or “intrareligious” dialogue.  The third part will address two of the questions that are raised by the claims that are made for the significance of this particular form of dialogue.  The fourth part will be a lengthy excursus on the history of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) and the role it has played in the dialogical movement as a whole.  In this part, after briefly situating MID within the broader context of the post-conciliar Church, I will treat of MID’s beginnings; the new understanding of monastic dialogue to which the establishment of MID gave rise; the constitutive elements of monastic dialogue and its impact on the dialogical movement; the fear and questioning in some circles that resulted from MID’s promotion of its broadened understanding of monastic dialogue; and some of the characteristic features of the Christian monastic tradition that give warrant to this new-old understanding of dialogue.  I will then bring this essay to a close by drawing three basic but important conclusions that highlight MID’s contribution to the dialogical movement as a whole.  My hope is that this paper provides not only an argument for the validity and significance of the dialogue of religious experience in general, but also a collection of scholarly resources for those interested in exploring or pursuing monastic interreligious dialogue in particular.

 Nostra ætate and Being Religious Interreligiously

It is commonly known that the ratification of Nostra ætate (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) in October of 1965 by the bishops of the Second Vatican Council was a watershed moment in the history of dialogue in general and of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the world’s religions in particular.  Indeed, there is no denying that Nostra Aetate, although the briefest of Vatican II’s conciliar decrees, marked a significant evolution – some would argue, revolution – in the Church’s understanding of its relationship to the followers of other religions.  Similarly, it is undeniable that since the landmark event of Nostra ætate an immense and incomparable amount of theological reflection has been done throughout the Christian world on the subject of interreligious dialogue.  Yet more than forty-six years after the ratification of this decree, and despite all of the progress that has been made in thinking about and fostering an endeavor that is of great importance for the entire human family, the idea of dialogue between religions has become as perplexing as it is familiar.  Why?  Because, simply stated, interreligious dialogue has been and continues to be a challenge for most religious traditions (including our own) that, it must be admitted, are not by nature inclined to engage in constructive communication and exchange.  For

As the history of religions amply bears out, the encounter between members of different religions leads to tension and violence more often than to peaceful coexistence and collaboration, and the existence of other religious traditions is often regarded as a source of religious disturbance or at best indifference rather than as an occasion for mutual enrichment.  Most religions tend to self-sufficiency rather than to mutual dependency and to something approaching inner complacency rather than to active interest in the other.  To the degree that this is so, it stands to reason – if one needs a reason for what is everywhere evident – that the relationship between individuals belonging to different religions is thus often governed by mutual fear and aversion rather than by friendship and attraction, and by feelings of superiority and condescension rather than by mutual respect.[2]

This being the case, the significance of Nostra ætate stands out in even sharper relief.  For by it the ancient and triumphal tradition of Roman Catholicism irrevocably set in motion the development of an understanding of the Church in which dialogue with other religions is now recognized as an intrinsic part of Christianity.  And make no mistake: this development was something new.  But it is unfinished, and it probably always will be; for it is hard to imagine how there could be an end to the process of dialogical engagement which the Church has set for itself and which it has entered into for the benefit of all.[3]

So within the relatively brief space of roughly five decades the dominant Catholic attitude toward other religions has progressed from a fearful and exclusivist regard – captured in the saying “outside the Church, no salvation” – to one that is more respectful and inclusive.  Accordingly, it is an attitude that is firmly rooted in the awareness that – to paraphrase Pope John Paul II’s concluding words at the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi on October 27, 1986 (another landmark event in the history of religion) – the path our human family is on can be trod either in hostility, if we fail to accept one another in love, or in hope as a common journey to our lofty destiny, if we realize that all people truly are our brothers and sisters; that we must learn to walk together in peace and harmony lest we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others;[4] the awareness that pluralism in general and religious pluralism in particular is an unquestionable reality which has to be contended with constructively if a future worth having is to be ours; that in today’s world we as Christians are especially called to have “‘hearts as large as the world’; we need to imagine, think, empathize, pray across all the geographical and psychological distances and barriers which divide our world into parts”[5] so as to listen more attentively to the ongoing dialogue which the triune God sustains with humanity in every time and place.  Thus, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, especially since Vatican II and the pontificates of Paul VI and John Paul II, religious pluralism is to be regarded as the privileged locus of “an invitation to humanity to be reconciled to the divine mystery,” and the dialogue with other religions is to be considered “as fundamental a dimension of Christian action and salvation as evangelization or the preferential option for the poor.”[6]  It was therefore natural for the participants in the thirteenth annual congress of the Theological Association of India, which was held in December of 1989 in Tiruchirapalli in the state of Tamil Nadu, to declare in their concluding statement that

No religion can exist in isolation; nay more, a religion that is not open to the other becomes irreligious as exemplified in fundamentalism and religious fanaticism.  In a pluralistic society like ours, genuine religion essentially entails a relationship to other religions and should be lived as such.  In short, to be religious is to be inter-religious.[7]

Four Types of Dialogue and Dialogue’s Ultimate Task

But this naturally raises the question of how.  How, as Christians, are we to go about being religious interreligiously?  We can do so in several ways, but the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has indentified four primary ones by which we enter into relationship with those of other religions: the dialogue of life, the dialogue of works or action, the dialogue of theological discussion or exchange, and the dialogue of religious experience.[8]  The dialogue of life takes place when people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit of care and concern, sharing the typical joys and sorrows, problems and preoccupations of daily human existence.  The dialogue of works or action occurs when Christians and others collaborate to attain goals of a humanitarian, social, economic, or political nature for the integral development and liberation of people.  The dialogue of theological exchange is where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values, in an effort to determine what they have in common and in what ways they differ.  These first three ways or forms of dialogue are easy to remember inasmuch as their meaning is clear.  But the last one, the dialogue of religious experience, is a bit more difficult since its meaning is not as readily apparent.  Indeed, some dismiss it all together on the grounds that it is impractical and even irrelevant, given the huge challenges and seemingly intractable problems that face us and that imperil the world on a daily basis.  Nevertheless, this fourth form of dialogue is extremely important and of great relevance, for the communion it fosters “defines dialogue’s ultimate task.”[9]  Therefore, it can justifiably be said that this fourth form of dialogue is essential for the development of interreligious dialogue as a whole insofar as it ever remains “at the horizon of all dialogue.”[10]

In order to understand how this can be one must first know to what the dialogue of religious experience refers.  The document Dialogue and Proclamation (Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ), which the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples published in 1991, defines the dialogue of religious experience as one “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.”  Now this is a perfectly serviceable definition of the dialogue of religious experience, and it is good so far as it goes.  It is just that it does not go far enough, in my estimation.  For upon first reading one might get the impression that the dialogue of religious experience occurs whenever two or more people get together to simply talk about their experiences of prayer or their search for God or the Absolute.  But in reality what this formulation describes is “a type of dialogue that goes beyond speaking of one’s spiritual journey or listening to that of the other, much less simply studying the beliefs of someone else in a purely intellectual way.”[11]  Rather, it implies or points to the fact that,

While the sincerity and the honesty of interreligious dialogue with members of other religious traditions presupposes that one enters into it with the integrity of one’s personal faith, it also requires openness to the faith of the other, in its difference.  Each partner in the dialogue must enter into the experience of the other, in an effort to grasp that experience from within.  In order to do this, he or she must rise above the level of the concepts in which this experience is imperfectly expressed, to attain, insofar as possible, through and beyond the concepts, to the experience itself.[12]

Implicit, then, in the PCID’s definition of the dialogue of religious experience is the recognition that this particular form of dialogue requires of those engaged in it that, insofar as possible, they enter into the religious experience of the other, or, to put it differently, offer the other a sacred space of welcome within themselves.  From this we can see that the dialogue of religious experience is much more than a discussion of some particular theme.

Above all it is a praxis, a practice and a process built on internalizing our relationship to the other, who is welcomed along with everything that makes the other different from a spiritual and religious point of view.  By its very nature such a relationship raises existential questions and makes dialogue a rich spiritual act founded on an expression of hospitality that affects the very existence of those who engage in it.[13]

We can also see why this kind of dialogue – which the late Raimon Panikkar referred to as inner- or “intrareligious”[14] dialogue – is both especially challenging and enriching.  Challenging because the humility, maturity, integrity, courage, openness, detachment, and freedom required by such dialogue is enormous; enriching because, by helping us discover the “other” in ourselves, this practice, this religious act – “an act that neither unifies nor stifles but re-links us (in all directions)”[15] – makes real fellowship and communion between persons possible.  And the dialogue of religious experience makes this possible because it is, like dialogue in general, “both a mode of human life and a manifestation of the dialogical reality of all human life.”[16]  That is to say, as a religious act that “takes place in the core of our being in our quest for salvific truth”[17] – that “originates from a sincere and insatiable desire to know the truth more and more, to be more and more alive to the truth in our depth, to make our thoughts, desires and actions more and more expressive of the unique truth”[18] – the dialogue of religious experience is a practice that bears witness to the fact that we are social beings by nature; that ontologically we always and already are communion, relationship, fellowship with others; that koinonia is an intrinsic dimension of the person; that there is no “person” apart from communion with others; that I discover myself, realize myself, only in meeting with others; and that the deeper the meeting, the more I find myself and blossom into a “person.”[19]

Thus when we talk about the dialogue of religious experience we are talking about something that reflects or mirrors the depth-dimension of human life; that originates in the depth of our mind and spirit; that “reaches levels to which no mere philosophical dialogue (at least in the Western sense) can attain”; that aims at the ultimate existential concern of humanity, the point where we are always already related to the beyond – whatever name may be given to it – not, however, “to a beyond turned into an object of speculative contemplation and brought into discussion,”[20] but the beyond that is greater than anything we can understand and imagine.  More than a mere reflection, however, such an intimate practice actually aims at awakening and cultivating this level of human experience which defines the ultimate spiritual task and religious horizon of all authentic dialogue in depth. 

This means that when it comes to interreligious dialogue we must say that, at its best and most profound, it is a spiritual exercise and an open process by which we realize that in deeply learning from the other we come more fully home to ourselves; that in entering profoundly into the religious experience of the other, in meeting the other at the level of ultimate existential concern, in the depth of our mind and spirit, we discover ourselves anew in the mutual indwelling of radical communion and thereby blossom more fully into the unique persons we are called to be.  In the words of Thomas Merton, we recover “our original unity”[21] – or, more precisely, our original unity-in-diversity.  We are gathered together in the intimate awareness that

The more we come to know the religions of the world, the more we are sensitive to the religiousness of our neighbor, all the more do we begin to surmise that in every one of us the other is somehow implied, and vice versa, that the other is not so independent from us and is somehow touched by our own beliefs.  We begin to realize that our neighbor’s religion not only challenges and may even enrich our own, but that ultimately the very differences that separate us are somewhat potentially within the world of my own religious convictions.  We begin to accept that . . . we are . . . all intertwined and that without these particular religious links my own religion would be incomprehensible for me and even impossible . . . . In a word, [we begin to realize and accept ever more fully that] the relation between religions is neither of the type of exclusivism (only mine), or inclusivism (mine embraces all the others), or parallelism (we are running independently toward the same goal), but one of a sui generis perichôrêsis or circumincessio, that is, of mutual interpenetration without the loss of the proper peculiarities of each religiousness.[22]

 Two Questions

 We can and must say therefore that intrareligious dialogue, or the dialogue of religious experience, is the very heart and horizon of interreligious dialogue as such.  But here two questions need to be asked.  First, does this mean that the dialogue of religious experience is a higher form of dialogue?  And second, if so, does it not follow that the intrareligious dialogue is some esoteric activity reserved for a spiritual elite and, hence, of little importance?

The answer to the first question, in my estimation, is yes; for we are “in dialogue at all sorts of levels.  There are levels of external activities, of techniques, of mental exchange and sharing; but above all these, there is [the level of intrareligious dialogue or the dialogue of religious experience] which reaches in [us] a depth of interiority and personal commitment beyond the reach of any other dialogue.”[23]  Indeed, one could say that the recognition of this is implicit in the distinction that the PCID makes between the four primary types of dialogue or ways by which we enter into relationship with those of other religions. 

As for the second question, I believe the answer is no.  For even though it is true that the level of intrareligious dialogue reaches in us a depth of interiority and personal commitment that is beyond the reach of other forms of dialogue, it does not follow that the dialogue of religious experience is an esoteric activity reserved for a spiritual elite and, hence, of little or no importance to the vast majority of people.  In fact, the exact opposite is true.  For, as I have tried to suggest, the dialogue of religious experience or intrareligious dialogue is by its very nature concerned with an experience of mutual fecundation or enrichment that takes place in the core of our being, an experience that exists in everyone, at least in an initial or latent stage.  Thus, while it may be true that relatively few people are likely to travel this spiritually demanding path, this does not mean that it is the preserve of monastics or other so-called spiritual elites.  Indeed, in the words of Pierre de Béthune, “ . . . monastics are not alone in endeavoring to pursue this ‘dialogue of spiritual experience’ . . . .  All Christians are called to reach this level in their meetings with believers of other religions.”[24]  Granted, monastics may be the best prepared for this path, but it is open to everyone.

Moreover, the fact that many are called but few are chosen to be religious interreligiously in this way says something about just how important and even indispensible this form of dialogue is in our postmodern, religiously pluralistic, and post-9/11 world.  Indeed, the dialogue of religious experience is many things but it is not a minor affair; neither is it “a strategy for peace nor even a method for better understanding.”  In truth it is all of these things and more because it implies, first of all, a vision of reality that is both ever ancient and ever new; “a vision of reality that is neither monistic nor dualistic or atomistic” but, rather, trinitarian or nondualistic; that is, a vision of reality through, with, and in which I perceive that “I am not the other, nor is the other I, but we are [always already] together because we are all sharers of the word,” as the Rig Veda and the Gospel of John both assert, because “[w]e are in dialogue.”[25]  Hence, intrareligious dialogue is anything but a minor affair because it gives us the eyes to see and the ears to hear – it teaches us to seek our salvation by “not only looking above, toward a transcendent reality, or behind, toward an original tradition, but also horizontally, toward the world of other people who may believe they have found other paths leading to the realization of human destiny.”[26]   In this, such a dialogue of depth should be seen for what it essentially is: “an authentic prayer, a prayer open in all directions” because it is no longer “locked in the jail of egotism”[27] but, rather, is free to embrace the religiousness of our neighbors with the freedom of the children of God.  From this perspective therefore it is correct to say that, as Christians,

Our companionship with Jesus always keeps giving us new neighbors, even in many religions; he sends us to meet our brothers and sisters, to dwell among them, to share their bread and wine, to be healed and brought back to life by them.  In the end, we just keep trying to know God more deeply, within our tradition and memory, even as God keeps coming to us from beyond everything we have imagined until now.  We keep trying to cross the boundaries we necessarily set for ourselves, and then to see, love and serve God in ten thousand places, in every blade of grass: Deus semper maior [God always greater], God over there, just ahead of us, right now.[28]   

Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and the Dialogical Movement

Furthermore, it is precisely this fundamental realization that serves as the cornerstone of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID).  But what exactly is Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and how does it serve the dialogical movement?  Perhaps the simplest way to answer this question is to say that MID is an international organization of Catholic monastics that fosters dialogue at the level of spiritual experience with the monastic and contemplative practitioners of diverse religious traditions in order to promote the unity of the human family and mutual understanding among the world’s religions.  But, while simple and accurate, such an answer is not sufficient; more is needed.  And what is needed is an overview of the history of the monastic interreligious venture that will allow us to adequately appreciate what makes MID unique, the conditions that have made and continue to make it possible, and what meaning MID has for both Christianity and the dialogical movement as a whole.

Thus, to begin to properly answer the above question, we first need to situate MID within the broader historical context of the last fifty years since the last half century has witnessed a dramatic evolution in the way Christians generally but Catholic Christians particularly think about other religions.  In fact, I think we really must speak here of a revolution rather than an evolution, so dramatic has been the change in the Church’s attitude toward the various religions of the world since the Second Vatican Council and its Declaration Nostra Aetate.

To illustrate how different the thinking was prior to Vatican II, I want to share with you an anecdote that the first secretary general of MID, Fr. Pierre-François de Béthune, a Benedictine originally of St. André monastery in Belgium but now of Clerlande, recounted in a talk that he gave in London in 2002 at a colloquium entitled “Monasticism and Interreligious Dialogue: Theological and Mystical Encounters.”  Here is what he said:

In 1928 my monastery of Saint André, in Belgium, founded a monastery in China.  The initiator of this new monastery was Father Jehan Jolliet, a monk of Solesmes, a great admirer of Chinese culture.  Very soon young Chinese men asked to join the community and one day, during recreation, a novice who had been previously in a Buddhist monastery told about his life there.  He commented especially on some remarkable similarities between the two monastic traditions.  Father Jolliet was extremely irritated when he heard of this comparison of Christian monasticism with a heathen way of life.  The same day he threw the novice out of the monastery.[29]

Commenting on the conflicted nature of such an attitude, de Béthune goes on to observe that “One could thus have a great esteem for Chinese culture and at the same time a great fear of any contact with Chinese religion.  There was a fundamental fear of the so-called communicatio in sacris, because the other spiritual traditions were considered devilish.  If some element seemed nonetheless beautiful it was explained as a manifestation of Satan disguised as an angel of light.”[30]  He adds:

This attitude had been firmly established for many centuries and yet it was totally changed in a few years.  The role of monks . . . has been important for this achievement.  We think here of some pioneers like Swami Abhishiktananda [Henri Le Saux], Bede Griffiths, Louis Massignon, Thomas Merton . . . [who] performed this revolution in ways of thinking, not without great difficulties . . . . They were very isolated and even suspect, but their experience and their intuition were slowly accepted in the new context of the Second Vatican Council.[31]

And it was in this new context that the various MID commissions were created.  So let us now consider exactly how this new organization was established.


At the beginning of the 1960s, as a result of having founded numerous communities in Africa, Latin America and Asia following World War II, the Benedictine and Cistercian Congregations recognized that they needed to collaborate in order to better help their new and often struggling monastic foundations.  In response to this need, a special Secretariat was set up that was originally called Aide à l’Implantation Monastique (AIM), but is now known as Alliance Inter Monastères.[32]  One of the significant ways that AIM sought to help these new foundations was by holding various conferences where their most pressing concerns could be discussed with experts.  One such concern was that of how best to foster greater inculturation on the part of these new monastic foundations, which more often than not – and for good reason – were viewed as colonial bastions of western culture by those whom they sought to serve.  To begin to address this concern, the first pan-Asian congress of monastic superiors was held in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand.[33]  It was during this conference that Thomas Merton, the well-known Trappist monk and pioneer of interreligious dialogue, met his untimely death by accidental electrocution during a break between sessions.

It was also during this meeting that Jean Leclercq, a highly respected Benedictine scholar of Western monastic history and culture, discovered the richness of Buddhist monasticism and became convinced of the importance of cultivating intermonastic ties.  Indeed, so convinced was he of this that he organized the next pan-Asian conference in 1973 inBangalore,Indiawhich focused on the search for God in every religion.  Experts from all over the world came to speak on this topic, and only a small number of them were monks or nuns.  This was a fact that did not sit well with some, including the then-Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Rembert Weakland, who in his final speech to the participants expressed his wish that the study begun in Bangalore would be continued in the monasteries represented there so that they themselves could eventually take the lead in offering advice on interreligious dialogue to the AIM Secretariat.

One year later, on June 12, 1974, Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, at the time the president of what was then known as the Secretariat for Non-Christians and is now called the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, sent Rembert Weakland a letter that was co-signed by his secretary, Pietro Rossano and with the advice of the Dutch Benedictine instrumental in the creation of AIM, Cornelius Tholens.  This letter gave official encouragement to monks and nuns to engage in interreligious dialogue, particularly at the level of religious or spiritual experience, recognizing that what had been accomplished up to then in this regard was promising of future success.  That this was so was due in large part to the fact that, according to Cardinal Pignedoli,

the monk represents a point of contact and of mutual comprehension between Christians and Non-Christians.  The presence of monastics in the Catholic Church is therefore, in itself, a bridge that joins us to all other religions.[34]

This letter, therefore, marked an important step forward in the development of monastic interreligious dialogue, “not only because it exhorted monks [and nuns] to continue working in this area but also because it spoke of dialogue in terms of mutual understanding and enrichment rather than as a missionary activity.”[35]

 A New Understanding of Monastic Dialogue

Following this official invitation and in response to it, contact was made with various monks and nuns in Europe and North America in order to bring them together so that they might better reflect on and develop a distinctively monastic way of interreligious dialogue.  As a result, two meetings were eventually planned for the summer of 1977, one in June in Petersham, Massachusetts and another in August in Loppem, Belgium.  It was at these meetings that two sub-commissions of AIM were created for the specific purpose of fostering monastic interreligious dialogue: the North American Board for East-West Dialogue (NABEWD), now known as Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID), and Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique (DIM), respectively.  With these institutional structures in place, a shift began to occur in how monastic interreligious dialogue was understood.  In the words of Fabrice Blée, who serves as an advisor to MID’s board of directors, “monastic interreligious dialogue soon evolved into an activity at the service of [the entire] human community and thus moved away from what had been its original link with the establishment of the church in Asia.”[36]    To be sure, this original link with the strictly missionary objectives of AIM was not severed entirely.  Yet, even so, by the end of the 1970s, it was clear that a new understanding of monastic dialogue had emerged, one that the two new sub-commissions of MID and DIM were intent on evolving on their own “in response to concerns that were more global and spiritual and against the background of an uncertain future for humanity.”[37]    

Much more could be said in terms of the chronological development of MID and DIM as organizations, but suffice it to say here that they are no longer sub-commissions of AIM.  For in 1994, at a meeting in Göttweig, Austria, the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine confederation at the time, Jerome Theisen (who recognized that dialogue is a specific attitude that should not be confused with the concern of founding monasteries throughout the world), together with the head of AIM, and the general coordinator of the interreligious sub-commissions, decided that it was time to grant monastic dialogue its autonomy.  The restructuring that would make this possible was subsequently worked out in consultation with the Abbot Primate, the synod of abbot presidents of the Benedictine confederation and the Cistercian Abbots General.  The result was the creation of a general secretariat to supervise all activities in the area of interreligious dialogue.  Within this new structure, the American MID and European DIM were no longer sub-commissions of AIM but extensions of the general secretariat for dialogue and, hence, full commissions in their own right.  Thus since 1994 the American MID and European DIM (which henceforth I will simply refer to as MID) have been independent of and yet complementary to AIM.  The same is true of the various other continental commissions to which MID has given rise since obtaining its autonomy in 1994: the Indian/Sri Lankan commission, known as Benedictine Interfaith Dialogue (BID), was officially approved in 1995; the Australian commission, which began in 1991 but was reconstituted in 1995 after experiencing some difficulties, and is now known as the East-West Meditation Foundation; and work has begun to create commissions in Japan, Africa, and South America.[38] 

What unites all of these regional commissions of course is the new understanding of monastic dialogue that emerged at the meetings in Petersham, Massachusetts and Loppem, Belgium.  This new vision was rooted in the fundamental realization that, in the words of Cornelius Tholens, “As we move away from apologetics and missionary activity as it is commonly understood, new possibilities are open to us – not those of a new way of doing mission, but those of living together with the members of other religions and sharing what we have in common!”[39]  But in exactly what did this changed understanding consist?  What was it that motivated the monastics involved to look beyond the founding of their own Benedictine and Cistercian communities abroad, beyond the traditional framework of mission, to make dialogue the primary expression of their concern for the human race?  And how, if at all, did such a change impact the dialogical movement as a whole?  To answer these questions, we need to look more closely at the constitutive elements of monastic interreligious dialogue.

The Constitutive Elements of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue

As suggested by the name of the organization that promotes it, monastic interreligious dialogue is “a three-tiered phenomenon.”[40]  In the first place, it is monastic insofar as it is sustained and nourished by the experience of humanity’s quest for the Absolute, or God by any other name.  Second, given this intrinsic orientation toward the Absolute and humanity’s experience of the same, it is interreligious in that it is primarily concerned with exploring and being mutually enriched by the religious experience of the other, with “religious experience” being specifically defined here as “participation in any event in which a wholeness is realized that gives identity and orientation in the search for meaning by an individual and/or a group.”[41]  Finally, it is quite simply dialogue which, as the Greek etymology of the word indicates, is a word (logos) or some thought which keeps moving to and fro (dia) between persons.  But it is more than this too.  For in the most ancient meaning of the word, logos meant “to gather together,” and suggested an intimate awareness of the relationships that constitute reality as we know it.  Hence, if logos may be best rendered in English as “relationship,” we do well to understand the word dialogue to mean an encounter that is characterized by an intimate awareness of the relationship(s) that bind two or more people together in a life-giving flow of meaning.  In this sense, dialogue essentially points to and is communion, which is the deepest level of communication that is “beyond words . . . beyond speech . . .and . . . beyond concept.”[42]

It was in the light of this expanded understanding of what dialogue essentially is, then, that the founders of MID “distanced themselves from their missionary activities in Asia as they became increasingly aware of the specific role they were capable of playing in the area of dialogue.”[43]  Indeed, the first pan-Asian meeting of Catholic monastic superiors at Bangkok, Thailand in 1968 (where specialists with extensive experience of the various non-Christian monasticisms of the East challenged the participants to reevaluate Catholic monasticism’s relationship to those living in Asia) and the pan-Asian congresses at Bangalore, India in 1973 (when “Christian and non-Christian monastics came together for the first time in history to talk with one another about the most basic issue of the monastic life, namely, the experience of God”[44]) and Kandy, Sri Lanka in 1980 demonstrated that Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu monks had an amazing ability to communicate with one another at a profound level precisely because the dialogue in which they were engaged participated in or was directly related to the very nature of the monastic quest itself – a quest that ultimately is sustained not by theoretical considerations but by the actual experience of the Absolute.  What the founders of MID thus discovered was that,  over and above their real differences of opinion and experience, monks of all traditions are basically searching for the Absolute, God, that which transcends and includes all things, that which is greater than anything we can understand, feel, or imagine.  Moreover, they gained a deeper appreciation for the fact that this is why monastic interreligious dialogue is – like monasticism itself – “of an intuitive rather than theoretical nature: it emphasizes the things to be done rather than such things that need first to be clarified; and it projects a transparent simplicity, an immediate availability to all who care to answer its call.”[45]  Or, to put it differently, they realized that, like the monastic life,

This dialogue takes its bearings from the manifestation of the Absolute in the universe, from the presence of the Sacred pervading every aspect of life, and from that sense of existential urgency the finite being inevitably experiences in the face of the Infinite.  Monastic dialogue is transcendent in its aspirations and oriented toward the sacred in its essential structure.  Its logic is not that of the philosophers (nor is it, for that matter, that of the theologians) but, rather, the non-logic of the lovers who, as Pascal remarked, follow such “reasons of the heart” that stubbornly elude the human mind. This is already evident in the fact that monastic dialogue is about an attempt to reach the Absolute, and that, furthermore, it finds justification in the reality of a quest and not in its necessary attainment.  The intuitive, experiential, and always problematic character of monastic dialogue is both its strength and its weakness: its strength is that this dialogue can never be defeated by arguments, and its weakness is that it can never prove its success through some final demonstration.[46]

Simply stated, therefore, it was from their own happy experience of the aforementioned pan-Asian congresses (especially at Bangalore and Kandy) and the meetings of Petersham and Loppem that the founders of MID discovered irrefutably that, as monks, they have “an almost natural predisposition” to find common ground with monks and contemplative practitioners of other faith traditions in their search for truth, in their quest “for the one thing necessary that lies beyond doctrinal differences and theological disputes.”[47]  Furthermore, because of this, it was abundantly clear to them that while all Christians ought to participate in dialogue, Christian monks and nuns are called to take part in it in a way that is specific to them, that is made possible by their monastic way of life.

Fear and Questioning

But, then as now, this broadened understanding of dialogue and the monastic life caused fear and questioning on the part those in monastic circles who subscribed to a more conventional notion of what Christian monasticism is or should be, who felt that what is characteristic of the monk is silence and rejection of the world rather than dialogue and engagement with it.  This being so, we do well to take such fear and questioning seriously, and to ask ourselves the following:  Exactly how does the Christian monastic life serve as a vehicle for monastic interreligious dialogue?  And is the practice of monastic interreligious dialogue really consistent with the Christian monastic life?  In order to try to answer these questions, we need to briefly reflect on some characteristic features of the Christian monastic tradition.  And the best way to do this is to begin at the beginning.  That is to say, we need to turn to the deserts of third- and fourth-century Egypt, Syria and Palestine.

Characteristic Features of the Christian Monastic Tradition:
The Desert and Hospitality

Tradition has it that “Christian monasticism began on a Sunday morning in the year 270 or 271 in a small Egyptian village”[48] when a young man by the name of Antony heard the following Gospel passage being read in church: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me (Mat. 19.21).”  For shortly after hearing these words, Antony “sought a life not merely of relative poverty but of radical solitude”[49] by taking up residence in ever more remote regions of the desert.  He did this at least in part – to paraphrase Thoreau – because he wanted to live both deliberately and fully, to front only the essential facts of life and to learn what it had to teach.  At the time, Antony’s move to the desert went relatively unnoticed by anyone in his village or beyond.  But, “when he died at the age of 106, his friend and biographer Athanasius of Alexandria informs us that the ‘desert had become a city,’ meaning that thousands had regularly flocked to Antony to be taught by him and had made the desert their home,”[50] and in effect made him the father and founder of a motley desert movement that came to be known as Christian monasticism.

Now these first “monastic oddballs,”[51] also known as the desert fathers and mothers, gave birth to a Scripture-based wisdom that taught rather than preached, that derived its authority from experience rather than theory.  Indeed, theirs was a strange yet compelling way of life, both to the contemporary secular society of the fourth century and to other Christians at the time.  For here was a religious group that was clearly grasped by “the absolute experience of God and [was] uncompromising in its desire to be one with that experience while remaining humorous, humble and, above all, not condemning of those of other beliefs or practice.”[52]  Here was a group of striking individuals who loved and sought solitude but who were also persons “held in realistic relationships”[53] in desert communities that were “not meant to be . . . alternative[s] to human solidarity but . . . radical version[s] of it.”[54]  Here were liminal men and women who “renounced the socioeconomic world and family life as completely as Indian sannyasis” but whose burning desire to become means of reconciliation and healing for others purified their hearts to such a degree that their lives radiated a hard-won “authenticity and simplicity . . . that still touches our hearts and wins our admiration”[55] today.[56]

It should be added that these early monks and nuns moved off into the various communities of the desert to retrieve, reclaim, and re-appropriate the radically countercultural spirit of the early church.  This was done in silent protest against the church of their day that was becoming an increasingly institutionalized, complacent, and corrupt part of the establishment.  Indeed, following the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 that allowed Christians to practice their religion openly without persecution and that paved the way for Christianity to become the official religion of the empire by the end of the century, these first Christian monastics felt that the church in its “official” manifestations failed to show with any clarity what the church was supposed to be about. They therefore “wanted to find out what the church really was – which is another way of saying that they wanted to find out what humanity really was when it was in touch with God through Jesus Christ”;[57] that they “sought aggressively to understand the deeper meaning and the fuller measure of human existence.”[58]

For these first Christian hermits, cenobites, and semi-cenobites, then, the desert “became the laboratory for exploring hidden truths about Heaven and earth and a forging ground for drawing connections between the two”; it was where they “tested and studied what it means to be human – with all the tensions and temptations, all of the struggle beyond survival, all of the contacts with good and the conflicts with evil.”[59]  And in the process, no matter how far into the desert they plunged like their legendary pioneer Saint Antony, people heard of their experiments and sought them out.  Some were pilgrims, some were mere tourists, but others were serious seekers who wanted nothing more than to sit at the feet of these unconventional “anarchists”[60] and so to “continue the lineage.”[61]  One of these serious seekers was a young man from present-day Romania named John Cassian.  After spending twenty years in the desert learning everything that he could from the “old men” there, he returned to Europe in the early fifth century to found a monastic community for men and women in Gaul, in what is today Marseille, France.  It was Cassian who more than anyone else helped to preserve the ideal of desert monasticism, which by the end of the fourth century was in decline in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.  By the time Cassian had returned to Europe, though, this same desert ideal had reached as far as the west coast of Ireland.  But in Cassian’s day the influence of the desert mothers and fathers was “largely dependent on the already famous collections of the ‘sound bites’ of the [elders’] sayings, with their striking similarity at times to Zen stories, and what there was of direct personal experience.”[62]  Because of this, and in response to a request by a local bishop who was “anxious about the unruliness of the monastic movement,” which at that time was still “an untamed lay movement,” Cassian composed a more methodical presentation of the wisdom of the desert.[63]  His classic three-part work the Conferences was the result.  A generation later Saint Benedict, who had himself begun his monastic life on the desert model inspired by Saint Antony, recommended in his Rule for Monasteries that Cassian’s Conferences be read every day at mealtimes.  Thus it was by these stages and connections that the desert, which gave birth to the Christian monastic tradition, became as much a physical location as an ideal, as much a place as a state of being.  Or put another way, it was by these stages and connections that the desert “morphed into something monks carried with them wherever they found themselves,”[64] with the result that it and the spiritual pioneers of the Christian monastic movement it inspired “entered deeply into the mind and culture of Western society.”[65]

In this sense, then, we can say that the physical setting of the desert that inspired Christian monasticism was gradually spiritualized or interiorized; that the eremos or desert became a deep-seated myth or symbol that emphasized “inhabiting the wasteland of the heart on the road to perfection”[66] and was a major shaping force in European civilization.  The desert thus basically became “a powerful reminder of a spiritual space that is within us all.”[67]  When we seek to better understand what Monastic Interreligious Dialogue is about, therefore, this is the proper context within which it must be situated.  For essentially MID is a continuation of the paradoxical process by which the eremos is at once interiorized and more widely disseminated.   In this, it is both a manifestation of the ancient desert ideal and a powerful contemporary reminder of the demands and advantages of desert existence in our postmodern, pluralistic, and multireligious world – of living in what the philosopher Jacques Derrida called the “desert in the desert,”[68] which is “the religious place of uncertainty and the possibility of goodness”[69]: the place of “faith’s radical openness”[70] to “the excessive goodness and alterity of God,”[71] which makes possible the impossible flowering of a fierce but compassionate freedom that is bound by the limitless responsibility of love to do justice to the sacredness or alterity of the other.  Or, as Fabrice Blée puts it, MID witness to the fact that

[The desert] is undoubtedly a part of the monastic ideal.  Monks set out to reach the place where they can engage in the struggle for unity and simplicity, a place that cannot be reached without the renunciation of familiar landmarks.  Initially the [actual physical] desert was that privileged place.  Later, in Europe, it took the form of a monastery in the forest, on a mountaintop, or in a valley.  Today the desert is not a geographical place or a structure.  The monk [or nun] engaged in dialogue withdraws into the heart of religious otherness.  After the desert of sand and the desert of stones, we come to the third desert.  Today more than ever, a relationship with other believers becomes this deserted place that is filled with trials, temptations, and union with the divine.  This desert has no particular form and does not separate the monk from human activities.  It is, quite simply, the axis of the kingdom to come, that reality where all communication becomes communion.  What is taking place within [an admittedly small and marginal group of contemporary monastics, therefore,] is an exceptionally creative [and prophetic] development that owes its existence to an unusual alliance between dialogue and silence, openness to the other and interiority.[72]

From this it is clear that MID bears the unmistakable imprint of its monastic origins and therefore serves (in however unusual a manner) “as a means toward establishing new, or deepening already established, ways of monastic communication.”  Indeed, in the varied exchanges among Eastern and Western monastics in recent times – in the Spiritual and Educational Exchange programs between Tibetan Buddhist and Christian monastics in the U.S. or between Japanese Buddhist and Christian monastics in Europe; in the various Gethsemani Encounters, and Nuns and Monks in the West conferences, for example – this fact “has become increasingly evident and has borne much fruit.”  Again, from all that has been said thus far, this should not be surprising.  For when monks of different religious traditions pray, work, recreate, dialogue, or keep silent together, they express by doing so “their common valuation of these activities, and their conviction, as well, that through the common practice of such exercises they also reinforce in one another the sense of monastic vocation.”  But it is worth noting that, “even if all such activities are apt to initiate some kind of a silent monastic dialogue among the participants, they do so . . . only indirectly.”  The practice of hospitality, however, especially in its Benedictine form, accomplishes this more directly; for it is “by its very nature dialogue-oriented, and it is, indeed, the primary context within which monastic [interreligious] dialogue can gently unfold and silently grow.”[73]  Hence, before we conclude, it is worth briefly considering how this is so.

In chapter fifty-three of his Rule, Benedict instructs that all guests are to be received as Christ.  In practical terms, this meant – and continues to mean – that guests who arrive at the monastery must be shown every consideration and be treated with respect, honor, courtesy, and love.  To be sure, says Benedict, proper honor should be given especially to those who share our faith and to pilgrims, but it must be shown to all.  Thus “the virtue of hospitality cannot be exclusive; it must be all-embracing.”[74]

This is so because Benedict’s understanding of hospitality is rooted in the desert tradition of Christian monasticism and, hence, in the biblical tradition of Scripture which abounds with examples of men and women who had “found the center of their lives in their own hearts” and so were able to “invite others in and share with them the rest and silence” which they had found for themselves; who, despite their faults and failings – or perhaps because of them – were able to “create a friendly empty space where no hostility or suspicion [needed] to exist and where the guest [could] reveal his own best self to his host.”[75]  Men like Abraham who received the three strangers at Mamre and offered them the best of what he had before they revealed themselves as the messengers of God who were sent to announce that Sarah his wife would give birth to a son (Gen.18.1-15).  Women like the widow of Zarephath who offered food and shelter to the prophet Elijah, who subsequently revealed himself as a man of God and offered her a wealth of oil and meal and raised her son from the dead (I Kings 17.9-24).  And the two travelers to Emmaus who invited the stranger who had joined them on the road to stay with them for the night, the stranger whom they eventually recognized as the risen Jesus (Luke 24.13-35).  Indeed, these and similar biblical stories helped Benedict realize not just that hospitality is an important virtue, but that it is in the context of authentic hospitality that “guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other”[76]; that it is within the context of humble and prayerful hospitality that guest and host each become whole by letting the other in.

It is worth mentioning that this Benedictine notion of hospitality is also firmly grounded in the radical understanding that, for Christians, “Jesus Christ is not only the paradigmatic host representing and offering the redemptive hospitality of God, but he does so as the exemplary guest who went out into the far country.”[77]  Indeed, for Benedict and his followers, Jesus was and is the exemplar of “guest transformed into host who always remains guest,”[78] who always remains a stranger in a strange land.  Thus it is hardly surprising that Benedict called always for an open mind and an open heart.  For, as Benedict and the desert fathers and mothers before him knew, the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth “was an assault on every closed mind and heart in Israel.  To those who thought that illness was a punishment for sin, Jesus called for openness.  To those who considered tax collectors incapable of salvation, Jesus called for openness.  To those who believed that the Messiah had to be a military figure, Jesus was a call to openness.”[79]  In other words, Benedict knew that it is impossible for sincere Christians to attend to the gospels and not recognize that they are called to the same radical hospitality of mind and heart as characterized Jesus, who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) .

And so, according to Benedict, the authentic Christian is one who is truly and radically hospitable in both mind and heart.  The heart of one who practices monastic hospitality in the Benedictine way, therefore, is to be a place without fixed boundaries, a place where the truth of our original unity-in-diversity shatters all barriers, a virginal point of impossible fullness where all the differences of the world meet and embrace, where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, woman and man all come together as equals to know as they are known in faith, hope, and love.  It is for this reason that, at its best, Benedictine hospitality is characterized by “a warmth and joy which has often been noted, not without surprise, by many a guest, whether Christian or non-Christian, at Benedictine or Cistercian monasteries.”[80]  This, coupled with the nature of the monastic quest for the Absolute, allows the tradition of monastic hospitality to serve directly as the experiential matrix of interreligious dialogue.

Now such an approach may seem rather odd, Utopian, or even troubling to some.  But in reality it simply extends and gives new life to the ancient tradition of hospitality – of “welcoming the stranger, and by extension, the other (any other) and the unknown” – that lies at the very heart of not only Christianity but of Judaism and Islam as well.  In this, Benedictine hospitality – and the practice of monastic interreligious dialogue that it fosters – can be regarded as a variation on the theme of what Louis Massignon called “sacred hospitality,” which may be defined as ‘the experiential discovery of the sacred in others and, in response, of holiness in oneself.’[81]  And, as Massignon notes, “This experiential knowledge is not a ready-made science; it is an understanding, an interiorization,” an inner acceptance “through the transfer to ourselves of the [existential truths] of others”[82]; and as such it is a recognition of the fact that,

Since truth is not produced but acknowledged, honoring the truth cannot be anything else than inviting others into the same acknowledgement . . .  [Accordingly, in] the most fundamental way, the practice of hospitality is itself a significant way to honor the truth; we tell the truth by giving ourselves as persons to other persons and by receiving others as persons.  The practice of hospitality thus also points to the fact that the truth is something in which we mutually participate as persons.[83]

Benedictine hospitality, then, like sacred hospitality, is “a call to go out of ourselves toward others, to love outside our own milieu and relationships,”[84] to thus honor the truth by giving ourselves as persons to other persons in acts of mutual enrichment that are at once ever ancient and ever new.


In closing, therefore, we can say that reflection on the dialogue of religious experience and the history and specific nature of monastic interreligious dialogue has yielded three basic but important conclusions that highlight MID’s contribution to the dialogical movement as a whole.  The first is that just as Monastic Interreligious Dialogue extends and gives new life to the ancient desert ideal of Christian monasticism, so too does it extend and give new life to the ancient concept of hospitality.  It consequently puts both the desert and hospitality at the center of the spiritual lives of Christians who wish to be religious interreligiously, that is, who are intent on living responsibly and creatively with the fact of religious diversity in our postmodern, pluralistic, and post-9/11 world.

The second is that MID has consistently shown that the monastic interreligious venture is an unusually powerful tool for uncovering both the dialogical reality of all human life and the experiential taproot of humanity’s religious quest for the Absolute.  That is, one of the great lessons of monastic interreligious dialogue is the humble recognition that “before the Absolute, all human words fail; affirmations make sense only insofar as they express the impossibility of saying what the Infinite is.  It is this insight that keeps monastic dialogue alive.”  Indeed, insofar as the subject spoken of is quite literally ineffable, monastic dialogue at its depth necessarily is and ultimately always will be a silent witnessing to the reality of that Mystery which is beyond the powers of human expression but which humanity forever strives to more adequately name.  Hence, at its best and truest, MID points to, fosters, and epitomizes “this [experiential] dimension of the dialogue of infinite quest” where Nicholas of Cusa’s coincidentia oppositorum or coincidence of opposites “becomes palpably real”: where “there is nothing to be negated, for nothing can be affirmed that does not fall short of its infinite goal”; where, when all is said and done, when everything has been discussed and debated, “what remains is human wonder and divine grace.”  Thus monastic interreligious dialogue, like the monastic quest and “the religious fact of which it is the paradigm, brings to us both wonder and grace.”  In other words, in its blessed simplicity, “it encompasses both the wonder of the mystery and the grace of its communication.”[85]

The third and final conclusion is that while MID has emerged from and contributed to a remarkable (r)evolution in the way the Catholic Church thinks about the world’s religions, while it now finds itself on “a vast field of spiritual and religious discovery,”[86] it has only just begun to take the first steps “in the direction of an encounter in which the act of believing (faith) interlocks with the act of searching into, experiencing, and agreeing or disagreeing with the beliefs of another.”[87]  Monastic Interreligious Dialogue therefore is only a beginning, but it is a remarkable one that has made significant inroads into the field of interreligious encounter and so has deepened our understanding of other faith traditions.

The challenge, of course, is to continue exploring this field of interreligious encounter – this “desert of otherness”[88] – and to carry forward the project of monastic dialogue to its fruitful end.  To meet this challenge is admittedly not an easy matter.  For what we are talking about here is a journey of faith, and faith always involves risks.  But for those Christians in the dialogical movement with eyes to see and ears to hear, MID can serve as an indispensible and trustworthy guide on this journey of naked fidelity.  For by dwelling in the heart of the desert, this organization bears eloquent testimony to the fact that it is by making more room for the religious other that we as Christians are able to find our own identity “as witnesses to unconditional Love and manifest that essential self-emptying which characterizes all religious experience.”[89]  In this, MID serves as a voice crying out in the wilderness; a voice calling us to have no fear and to go forward in this way of putting into practice the radical hospitality of the Gospel; a voice reminding us all that

We are invited, in our time, on a voyage of discovery stripped of colonizing pretension: an invitation to explore the other on the way to discovering ourselves.  The world into which we have been thrust asks nothing less of us; those of us intent on discovering our individual vocations cannot proceed except as partners in such a variegated community.  And as that journey enters the domain of faith, our community must needs assume interfaith dimension.  What once were boundaries have become frontiers which beckon to be broached, as we seek to understand where we stand by expanding our minds and hearts to embrace the other.  Put in this fashion, our inner journey can neither be syncretic nor procrustean: assimilating or appropriating.  What is rather called for is a mutuality of understanding and of appreciation, a critical perception which is already incipiently self-critical.  Rather than reach for [an undifferentiated] commonality, we are invited to expand our horizons in the face of diversity.  The goal is not an expanded scheme, but an enriched inquirer: discovery of one’s own faith in encountering the faith of another.[90]

Such, then, is the essential message that MID offers the dialogical movement today.  It is ultimately a hopeful message of unconditional love: a message born of monastic hearts that have been purified and expanded in the desert of otherness on the way to becoming “as large as the world.”[91] 

[1] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being (London: Faber and Faber, 1945), p. 66.

[2] Catherine Cornille, The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue (New York: Crossroad Publishing, Co., 2008), p. 2.

[3] See John McDade’s article “Nostra ætate and Interfaith Dialogue,” in The Pastoral Review November 2005 (at www.thepastoralreview.org/cgi-bin/archive_db.cgi?priestsppl-00113), p. 3.

[4] See the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s Interreligious Dialogue: The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church from the Second Vatican Council to John Paul II (1963-2005), ed. Francesco Gioia (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), pp.388-389.

[5] Francis X. Clooney, Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children (Eugene,OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), p. ix.

[6] Fabrice Blée, The Third Desert: the Story of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, trans. William Skudlarek (Collegeville,MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), p. 3.

[7] Religious Pluralism: An Indian Christian Perspective, ed. Kuncheria Pathil (Delhi: I.S.P.C.K., 1991), p. 348.

[8] See Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, op. cit., The Attitude of the Church toward Followers of Other Religions: Reflection and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission, pp. 1125-1126 and Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 1171. It is worth noting that, in the words of Fabrice Blée, “It was, in fact, after the 1983 Spiritual Exchange Program, in which European Benedictine monks offered hospitality to Japanese Zen monks, that the dialogue of religious experience was added to the three other types in the pontifical document The Attitude of the Church toward the Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission, which was published the following year” (op. cit., p. 5).

[9] Pierre-François de Béthune, preface to The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics, eds. Donald W. Mitchell and James Wiseman (New York: Continuum, 1999), p. xv.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Blée, op. cit., p. 4.

[12] Jacques Dupuis, “Renewal of Christianity Through Interreligious Dialogue,” Bijdragen, International Journal in Philosophy and Theology 65 (2004), p. 132.

[13] Blée, op. cit., p. 4.

[14] Raimon Panikkar, The Intrareligious Dialogue, rev. ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), especially pp. xvi and xvii:

When the [interreligious] dialogue catches hold of our entire person and removes our many masks, because something stirs within us, we begin the ‘intrareligious dialogue’.  This is the internal dialogue triggered by the thou who is not in-different to the I.  Something stirs in the inmost recesses of our being that we do not often dare to verbalize too loudly.  That movement can lead to a purifying individual solitude or to a destructive individualistic isolation.  The walls of “microdoxies” tumble down, and we can be buried under the rubble unless we succeed in clearing away the stones to build our house anew.  The temptation may be twofold.  For the powerful, it is to build a tower of Babel for the sake of unity – be it called one God, religion, or culture, or one world government, democracy, or market.  The human scale is lost.  For the powerless the temptation is to construct for oneself an isolated shell instead of a home open to community.  Again, the human scale is lost.


The intrareligious dialogue is an internal dialogue in which one struggles with the angel, the daimôn, and oneself.  How can we have access to the whole of a liberating truth if our neighbors seem to have other beliefs, which are sometimes totally incompatible with our own convictions?

This internal dialogue is neither a monologue nor a simple soliloquy with “God”; nor a meditation on the partner’s belief or on another religion.  It is not research into a different worldview out of curiosity, or with a sympathetic mind.  In this dialogue, we are in search of salvation, and we accept being taught by others, not only by our own clan.  We thus transcend the more or less unconscious attitude of private property in the religious realm.  Intrareligious dialogue is, of its very nature, an assimilation – which I would call eucharistic.  It tries to assimilate the transcendent into our immanence.

[15] Ibid., p. xvii.

[16] David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 28.

[17] Panikkar, op. cit., p. xvii.

[18] Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda), “The Depth-Dimension of Religious Dialogue,” in the Bulletin of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, issue 13 (January 1982) at http://monasticdialog.com/a.php?id=28&t=p; p. 5; originally published in Vidyajyoti 45:5 (1981), pp. 202-221.

[19] See ibid., p. 1.

[20] Ibid., p. 2.

[21] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, eds. Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart, James Laughlin and Amiya Chakravarty (New York: New Directions, 1975), p. 308

[22] Raimon Panikkar, op. cit., p. 9.

[23] Le Saux, op. cit., p. 2.

[24] de Béthune, op. cit., p. xiv.

[25] Panikkar, op. cit., p. xix.

[26] Ibid., p. xvii.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Francis X. Clooney, “In Ten Thousand Places, in Every Blade of Grass: Uneventful but True Confessions about Finding God in India, and Here Too,” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 28:3 (May 1996), p. 42.

[29] Pierre-François de Béthune, “Monastic Interreligious Dialogue: A History,” in Catholics in Interreligious Dialogue: Monasticism, Theology and Spirituality, eds. Anthony O’Mahony and Peter Bowe (Herefordshire,UK: Gracewing, 2006), p. 3. 

[30] Ibid., pp. 3-4.

[31] Ibid., p. 4.

[32] This organization is presently responsible for four hundred and eleven monasteries throughout the world (see http://www.aim-usa.org/missions.asp).

[33] The proceedings of this meeting are to be found in A New Charter for Monasticism: Proceedings of the Meeting of Monastic Superiors in the Far East, Bangkok, December 9 to 15, 1968, ed. John Moffitt (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970).

[34] AIM, Bulletin of the AIM, no. 29 (1980), p. 25.  As cited in The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics, eds. Donald W. Mitchell and James Wiseman (New York: Continuum, 1999), p. xii.

[35] Blée, op. cit., p. 58.

[36] Ibid., p. 50.

[37] Ibid., p. 51.

[38] Ibid., pp. 106-108.

[39] Ibid., p. 50.

[40] Gilbert G. Hardy, Monastic Quest and Inter-Religious Dialogue (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), p. 243. 

[41] Michael von Brück, “Sharing Religious Experience in Hindu-Christian Encounter,” in On Sharing Religious Experience: Possibilities of Interfaith Mutuality, eds. Jerald D. Gort, Hendrik M. Vroom, Rein Fernhout, and Anton Wessels (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), p. 139.

[42] Thomas Merton, op. cit., p. 308.

[43] Blée, op. cit., p. 57.

[44] “History and Theological Background [of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue]” at http://www.monasticdialog.com/mid.php?id=10.

[45] Hardy, op. cit., p. 250.

[46] Ibid.; emphasis in original.

[47] Blée, op. cit., pp. 57-58.

[48] John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Bloomington,IN: World Wisdom, Inc., 2003), p. 15.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Laurence Freeman, in his introduction to Rowan Williams’ Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (Boston: New Seeds Books, 2005), p. 1.

[52] Ibid., p. 2.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (Boston: New Seeds Books, 2005), p. 33. 

[55] Freeman, op. cit., pp. 2, 3.  See also Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960), p.9.

[56] Here it is perhaps worth mentioning that over the years  a number of scholars have posited Hindu or Buddhist influence on early Christianity in general (e.g., Zacharias Thundy) and early Christian monasticism in particular.  However, while the hypothesis of Hindu or Buddhist influence on early Christian monasticism is intriguing, the preponderance of evidence to date does not support this.  See William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (New York:OxfordUniversity Press, 2004), pp. 435-439.

[57] Williams, op. cit., p. 12.

[58] Chryssavgis, op. cit., p. 1.

[59] Ibid., pp. 1-2.

[60] See Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 5.

[61] Freeman, op. cit., p. 4

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Christopher Kelly, “The Myth of the Desert in Western Monasticism: Eucherius of Lyon’s In Praise of the Desert, in Cistercian Studies Quarterly 46.2 (2011), p. 130.

[65] Freeman, op. cit., p. 4.

[66] Kelly, op. cit., p. 140.

[67] Chryssavgis, op. cit., p. 36.

[68] Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: the Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York: Routledge, 2002); p. 47.

[69] Lori Branch, “The Desert in the Desert: Faith and the Aporias of Law and Knowledge in Derrida and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 71, No. 4 (December 2003); p. 814.

[70] Ibid., p. 821.

[71] Ibid., p. 825.

[72] Blée, op. cit., p. 9.

[73] Hardy, op. cit., p. 251.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Henri Nouwen, “Hospitality,” in Monastic Studies,No. 10 (Easter 1974), p. 7.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Amos Yong, Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor (Maryknoll,NY: Orbis Books, 2008), p. 126.  See also ibid., p. 101-102:

We begin with Jesus as the paradigm of hospitality because he represents and embodies the hospitality of God . . . .

First, Jesus characterizes the hospitality of God in part as the exemplary recipient of hospitality.  From his conception in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit to his birth in a manger through his burial (in a tomb of Joseph of Arimathea), Jesus was dependent on the welcome of others.  As “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), he relied on the goodwill of many, staying in their homes and receiving whatever they served (10:5-7).  Thus during his public ministry, he is a guest of Simon Peter (4:38-39), Levi (5:29), Martha (10:38), Zacchaeus (19:5), and [many others].

But it is precisely in his role as guest that Jesus also announces and enacts, through the Holy Spirit, the hospitality of God.  As evidenced in one of the last scenes in the Gospel [of Luke], for example, Jesus is invited by two disciples to stay with them because the night was at hand (24:29).  Yet rather than they serving him, it is he who “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:30), at which moment they recognized that it was they who had been guests in the presence of the divine all along.  Similarly, throughout his public ministry, Jesus as the recipient of hospitality is at the same time the one who heralds and personifies the redemptive hospitality of God.  He is the “journeying prophet” of the Spirit who eats at the tables of others but at the same time proclaims and brings to pass the eschatological banquet of God for all those who are willing to receive it.  Those who welcome Jesus into their homes become, in turn, guests of the redemptive hospitality of God.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper & Row, 1990; p. 127.

[80] Hardy, op. cit., p. 252.

[81] Christopher Bamford, “Sacred Hospitality: Badaliya: The Way of Mystic Substitution,” in the Bulletin of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, No. 73 (October 2004), at http://monasticdialog.com/a.php?id=85&t=p; p. 1.

[82] As quoted in ibid.

[83] Reinhard Hütter, “Hospitality and Truth: The Disclosure of Practices in Worship and Doctrine,” as cited in Amos Yong, op. cit., p. 158.

[84] Bamford, op. cit., p. 1.

[85] Hardy, op. cit., p. 260.

[86] De Béthune, op. cit., p. 9.

[87] Hardy, op. cit., pp. 260-261.

[88] Le desert de l’altérité (The Desert of Otherness) was the original title of Fabrice Blée’s The Third Desert.  See Pierre-François de Béthune’s preface to Blée, op. cit., p. xv.

[89] de Béthune, By Faith and Hospitality, op. cit., p. 37.

[90] David B. Burrell, in his preface to Roger Arnaldez’s Three Messengers for One God, trans. Gerald W. Schlabach, Mary Louise Gude, and David B. Burrell (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p.vii.

[91] Clooney, “In Ten Thousand . . . ,” loc. cit., p. 5.

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