Volume XII:1 January - June 2022
Ivan Meštrović – Contemplation (1924)
Ivan Meštrović – Contemplation (1924)

 

Meditation:
New Spaces for Our Path of Dialogue

Contemplation and Mystery

More than any other, the theme of contemplation/meditation sends us back to the “heart” of our respective religious traditions in which we brush up against the unspeakable and inscrutable Mystery that envelops us all and contains everything. The “Mystery” before which we, like Moses at Sinai, are asked to take off our shoes because “the place on which [we] are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5); the  “Mystery” whose Presence is revealed to us, as it was to Elijah on the mountain, not in wind, earthquake, or fire but in “a sound of sheer silence” that  makes us cover our faces (1 Kings 19:11-13).

The very echo of this “sound of sheer silence” that resonates in the great religious traditions is living testimony of, as Nostra Aetate  states, the “ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?” (NA 1). That Mystery does not cease to manifest itself “in a manner known only to God” (GS 22), according to the “the marvelous ‘condescension’ of eternal wisdom” (DV 13). Hence the inescapable duty of dia-logos, of listening and talking to each other, in order to grow in our understanding of this great Mystery and our respective experiences of it.

Various meditative and contemplative experiences can lead us to different perceptions and interpretations of the Mystery itself. While these differences testify to the inexhaustible multiformity of the Mystery, they also demand the courage of serious discernment. Indeed, the humble awareness that what can be said and communicated of the “Ineffable” is inevitably mediated by categories and conveyed by particular human languages and religious symbols does not allow us to take for granted that the Reality spoken of or experienced is the same. Hence the duty of careful discernment of terms and concepts as a prelimary to sincere dialogue. I am reminded here of what French Tibetologist Jacques Bacot (1877-1965) wrote in his Milarepa: “Nothing is as deceptive as the transposition of terms from one religion to another.”[1]

Similarly, scholars of Eastern religions such as Heinrich Dumoulin, Rudolph Otto, and others have shown how it is not possible to “adequately separate experiences (be they meditative, mystical, or contemplative) from their interpretations”[2] because “mysticism does not fumble about in a vacuum; it is based on a foundation that it may try to deny, but from which it still receives that which makes it unique and differentiates it from what other mystics have developed elsewhere.”[3] 

For example, with regard to the personal or impersonal character of Ultimate Reality—an issue on which West and East seem to differ profoundly—Dumoulin states that the interpretation of experiences alone does not seem to allow “an objectively valid judgment, either on the arising of Being or on the personal or impersonal character of Ultimate Reality.”[4] There must therefore be other criteria that allow us to recognize the authenticity of different mystical experiences and their possible convergences. These criteria have to go beyond interpretation and articulation, which are inevitably conditioned by linguistic and cultural factors.

Authoritative Christian mystics such as Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, among others, teach that the decisive proof of the authenticity of a mystical experience is the “effects” and “fruits” of the contemplative journey itself. As the Gospel says, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:16).  Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan, in his best-selling book Method in Theology, reminds us that “Religious experience manifests itself spontaneously in a change of attitude, in those fruits of the Spirit that are joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness, meekness, temperance.”[5]

In interreligious terms, we can say that the incontrovertible criterion of the authenticity of a mystical-contemplative experience—and thus of its “shareability”—is that it gives rise to agápe, charity, karuṇā, maitrī, jihi, upekṣā, ahiṃsā, benevolence, compassion, mercy. Indeed, “You will know them by their fruits”!

These brief preliminary comments allow us to focus on two essential elements of the “dialogue of religious experience” (Dialogue and Mission 35; Dialogue and Proclamation 42) that are of particular interest to us today:

  • a deep understanding of the contexts, languages and religious symbols of the respective mystical/contemplative experiences;
  • a realistic verification of the “effects/fruits” resulting from such experiences.

By recourse to these criteria, we can jointly identify new spaces for our path of dialogue.

The Catholic Point of View

There are two Catholic documents—one more theological-doctrinal, the other more experiential—that complement each other and can help us in our reflection, both on a theoretical and practical level. I refer to the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on October 15, 1989, and to the Document entitled Contemplation and Interreligious Dialogue. Orientations and Perspectives Drawn from the Experience of Monks, prepared by the Commissions for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue in 1993.[6] 

Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation

This document was issued to meet the “need for sure criteria of a doctrinal and pastoral character which might allow [bishops] to instruct others in prayer, in its numerous manifestations, while remaining faithful to the truth revealed in Jesus, by means of the genuine tradition of the Church” (no. 1). In noting that

The ever more frequent contact with other religions and with their different styles and methods of prayer has, in recent decades, led many of the faithful to ask themselves what value non-Christian forms of meditation might have for Christians (no. 2),

the Letter aims to emphasize “the theological and spiritual implications of the question.”

After analyzing the intimate nature of Christian prayer to see “if and how it might be enriched by meditation methods which have been developed in other religions and cultures” and after recalling that “Christian prayer is always determined by the structure of the Christian faith,” understood as “personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God” and as “the meeting of two freedoms, the infinite freedom of God with the finite freedom of man,” (no. 3), the Letter analyzes prayer in the Old and New Testaments to conclude that there is th“a strict relationship between Revelation and prayer” (no. 6).

After warning against some erroneous ways of praying that crept in as early as the first Christian centuries (pseudo-Gnosticism and Messialianism) and are present even today, the Letter, while insiting that “These and similar proposals to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism” (no. 12), recalls that:

The majority of the great religions which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve it. Just as “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions”(NA 2), neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured. It is within the context of all of this that these bits and pieces should be taken up and expressed anew (no. 16).

The Letter then goes on to review other particularly neuralgic points:

  • the importance of having “their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism” (no. 12);
  • the need for personal purification and self-denial to arrive at that state of inner freedom (apátheia, impassibilitas, indiferencia) necessary to participate in the freedom of God’s Spirit (no. 18);
  • the recognition of the special grace of mysticism as a free gift of God and not the fruit of techniques (no. 23).

Finally, the Letter ends with a mention of the “fruits” that must flow from prayer and contemplative experience. Prominent among these is “ardent charity which moves him to collaborate in the mission of the Church and to serve his brothers for the greater glory of God” (no. 28), without which there is no true prayer and contemplation.

We are thus referred back to those “criteria,” mentioned earlier, which allow us to verify the authenticity of contemplative experience. For by their very nature, prayer, meditation, and contemplation must foster fraternal agápe and service; they must generate compassion and mercy, solidarity, harmony and peace toward all, indiscriminately.

Contemplation and Interreligious Dialogue. Orientations and Perspectives Drawn from the Experience of Monks

The value and literary genre of this second document is quite different from that issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As its title indicates, it is based on experience and thus can be said to complement the predominantly theological-doctrinal approach of the curial Letter to Bishops.

Contemplation and Interreligious Dialogue is based mainly on lived experiences and is the result of a survey done among monks and nuns from Europe and the United States who mainly give testimony about their encounters with Buddhism and Hinduism. As such, is intended to respond to some questions posed by the Secretariat for Non-Christians first and then by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

On the doctrinal side, this document makes constant reference to Nostra Aetate, the documents of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Dialogue and Mission, Dialogue and Proclamation), and to the Letter on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It then presents some practical advice inspired by monastic wisdom, especially regarding the spiritual dispositions required of those who venture on the path of dialogue. Noteworthy among these dispositions are

  • the trust and support of the monastic community as a decisive condition for embarking on the path of dialogue;
  • a solid human maturity characterized by realism and psychological balance;
  • a solid monastic formation rooted in years of silence and a long practice of meditation; 
  • deep communion with the Christian tradition;
  • spiritual accompaniment;
  • monastic conversion understood as rootedness in Jesus Christ and His Word.

The document then also warns against certain dangers such as:

  • syncretism, by which is meant a subtle mixing of different traditions on the basis of personal preferences rather than from serious theological study;
  • the “dreaded problem” of insufficient knowledge of the original languages of the various traditions;
  • the difficulty in distinguishing what is cultural from what is properly religious;
  • the ever re-emerging danger of concordism.

Purity of intention, patience, competence, hospitality, simplicity but above all humility and respect before the Mystery of each individual are then indicated as indispensable factors for a respectful and fruitful dialogue that can only take place “between people who maintain their own identity and are eager to secure a mutual exchange.”

Conclusion 

Of course, both the Letter of the Congregation of the Faith and the document of the Commissions for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue deserve to be plumbed more deeply. It seems to me, however, that these documents show us the way forward. For a “way” is involved, that is, a “path.”  Both of these metaphors have an ancient, indeed an “original” religious symbolism, both in Christianity—Jesus himself calls himself the “way” (John 14:6)—and in Eastern religions (道dao; 神道Shintō, “way of the gods”; 仏道Butsudō, “way of the Buddha”). Each “path” presupposes a starting point and tends toward a goal; it conveys a history, an experience in which it is rooted and of which it is an ever new continuation. As a “step forward,” a new stage in this journey, I would hope that Monastic Interreligious Dialogue would be willing to undertake a new inquiry to help to assess the progress and direction of the ongoing journey. Sometimes the “paths”—especially the uphill ones—involve turns, apparent returns, made necessary by unforeseen obstacles or the nature of the terrain, but the heart and gaze of the traveler, the pilgrim, always remain turned toward the goal. This may sometimes appear uncertain or disappear from view, but is not walking together, seeking together, already an important stage, if not the goal itself, of interreligious dialogue?

 

Notes

[1] Milarépa. Ses méfaits, ses épreuves, son illumination, trans. J. Bacot), Fayard, Paris 1971, p. 19.

[2] H. Dumoulin, Buddhismo, Queriniana, Brescia 1981, p. 158.

[3] Cited in H. Dumoulin, Buddhismo, p. 159.

[4] H. Dumoulin, Buddhismo, p. 160.

[5] B. J. F. Lonergan, Il metodo in teologia, Queriniana, Brescia 1975, p. 128.

[6] The text was published by the Secretariatus pro non christianis (as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was formerly known) in its Bulletin 84 (1993, XXVII/3), pp. 250-270, and later translated into English, Italian, Dutch, Catalan, Polish, and German. The forty-three reflections from European and American monks and nuns on which the document was based were published in a special issue (E. 14) of the International Bulletin of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue in 2003.

 
 
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