|Interfaith mural at Case Western Reserve University: "The mural depicts the spiritual |
meaning of water as an expression of peace between our faith communities."
In my previous post, I explored insights gained by attending Louisville's Festival of Faiths as part of my Religious Unity Tour. I looked at how the very structure of the Festival is set up as an encounter between people of faith and how the vision of the interconnectedness of all people that Thomas Merton had in 1958 continues to set a course for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue today.
This post will take it a step further to explore the personal testimonies of three impressive spiritual leaders and how those personal journeys unfold into our relationships with others.
"I Carry It With Me"
Roman Catholic Cardinal John Onaiyekan had a multicultural experience growing up in Nigeria. Members of his family practiced different faith traditions, including Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and African tribal religions. He remembers good will and harmony between people, as "different religious affiliations did not affect our unity as a family, and we celebrated each other's festivals."
Still, Catholic teaching taught there was an exclusivity to the Christian Catholic message. It was not easy to reconcile what he grew up intuitively knowing with formal Catholic teaching.
Cardinal Onaiyekan remembers the Church Council at Vatican II in the early 1960s. For he first time, the Catholic Church released a statement on interfaith understanding. Nostra Aetate opened up doors of possibility for him. It affirmed--and even celebrated--the hand of God in the practices of other religions. Catholics were free to trust that all people searching for truth and meaning will find that same God reaching back to them. The one, true God speaks to people in their own language and culture. Catholics do not need to feel threatened if they find truth outside of the Catholic sphere, nor do they need to live in perpetual anxiety over those who have never met a Christian missionary or made a Christian confession. This was all extremely freeing for the young future Cardinal: "Vatican II reconciled the faith of my ancestors, who worshipped the true God in their own images and symbols."
These teachings have been a giant leap forward when it comes to interfaith understanding. The anxiety over the fate of unbaptized people has been eased in favor of trust for the all loving God from whom all good things come. Catholics can rest easy knowing God will never leave His people. In addition, the Catholic Church can say this without needing to diminish any of its unique claims. In fact, it can be argued that this document only enhances the vision of the Church by showing more awesome, amazing dimensions of God.
The zeal to convert others over fear for their eternal fate propelled Christianity to become a worldwide religion. It may also have stunted its maturity by not respecting the freedom of all people nor trusting more fully in God. Nostra Aetate has helped the Catholic Church express a more mature faith in God who is even bigger and greater than previously imagined.
While the numbers of people practicing traditional African religion has been diminishing lately, it has left its mark: "If someone asks what happened to traditional African religion, I say I carry it with me," remarked Cardinal John Onaiyekan.
Letting Go Leads to Coming Back
Dr. William F. Vendley has spent his life championing peace within religions, between religions and through religion. He has so far had a long and amazing career. At the Festival, however, he talked of the poetry of his own life journey.
He was raised a Roman Catholic, but as a young man found himself searching for something else. Youthful rebellion and personal tragedy led him to leave the religion of his past behind. Trying to cope with the emptiness he felt, his searches led him to Japan where he pursued Zen Buddhism intensively for years.
He recounted a time when a Zen master recommended he read Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, in particular his writings on the experience of God. "We Zen people find it very interesting," said the Zen teacher. That was a key moment that set in motion a path back to Catholicism for Vendley. The themes and symbols of his Catholic youth were suddenly coming to life for him while immersed in Zen Buddhism in this distant land of Japan.
"These Zen Buddhists midwifed for me the open space into which the Holy Spirit descends," Vendley shared. "They taught me not only by contrast of the two traditions but also the way to open my heart, and open my soul ... to celebrate the gift of what is given."
Vendley has since become a distinguished Catholic theologian and has worked extensively promoting interfaith cooperation and peace. His own journey along with decades of experience facilitating other interfaith encounters has led him to make the following three statements:
When faith traditions work together, people have consistently reported afterwards . . .
. . . they do not want to go back to being isolated from each other.
. . . they have fallen more in love with their own tradition through the experience.
. . . they report increased regard for each other.
The fear of losing religious identify through dialogue with other religious traditions creates a lot of resistance to opening that door. Many want to stay behind closed doors with members of their particular groups for this reason. That fear seems to be unfounded when compared with the lived experience of Dr. William F. Vendley as well as the hundreds of interfaith encounters he has witnessed all over the world.
A Nun's Tale: Beauty
The above two stories show how an interfaith understanding helped two men gain a stronger relationship with the faith tradition of their youth. Like a tree that bends rather than breaks in a storm, that flexibility allowed them to remain rooted while also open to embrace differences in others and to personally explore.
However, that does not always happen. Sometimes spiritual growth happens in spite of a tradition. In that case, ecumenical and interfaith encounters can help make up for something that may be missing (or hard to find) in a tradition.
Hindu nun Pravrajika Vrajaprana grew up with one parent a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran and another a Baptist. The impression she got of God was unsettling to her: "Not only was God a man, but he was a scary dude. You did not want cross this guy," she remembered. "I did not like him. How can you love someone you are so totally afraid of, no matter what you did?"
That impression of God was more repulsive than captivating. It turns out that beauty was her draw. In fact, her spiritual journey has been punctuated with key moments all marked by a profound experience of beauty, and this beauty has been the doorway to love and goodness for Vrajaprana.
The contemplative life appealed to her even as a child, and the best examples she could find in the near vicinity were Catholic nuns. She used to "stalk" nuns, following them around, thinking that the rosaries they held and their lifestyle of prayerful silence were so beautiful and appealing. She remembers sneaking out of her parents house as a child and going into Catholic churches and just sitting in front of statues of Mary, praying, "You are so beautiful!"
Despite the Catholic nuns, something in her instinct led her eastward. She used to take off the family drapes and wrap them around her like a sari. Years later, the smile and radiant energy of a Hindu monk in a chance encounter gave her an experience of holiness she had never previously experienced. She was stunned when she met him. All she could say through a sudden burst of tears was, "You are so beautiful!" That impression continued to speak to her for many years. His "radiant holiness transformed me in a second," she recounted.
The angry God of her youth continued to stalk her in subconscious ways as she became an anti-war activist, promoting peace but cloaked in self-righteousness. She finally left the violence of her childhood behind when a conversation with that same Hindu monk made her realize that she was never going to bring peace or change anyone by "shoving something down their throat with anger."
Her deep attraction to being a nun was put on hold for many years as she fell in love with a man and set out plans to become a literature professor and perhaps raise a family. That itching to be a nun just would not let go of her, though. It was her husband of several years (* see comment at bottom), perhaps the person with the most to lose by this decision, who encouraged her to follow her calling and give it a try. She felt as if she were jumping over a giant crevice to make this change, but she owed it to herself to try. She has been a nun ever since.
As her spiritual journey continues to unfold, today she has come to a deeper realization that becoming a nun requires a more thorough transformation than she had previously thought. It was not just the external lifestyle trappings but rather the change of her heart and her relationship with the rest of the world that ultimately has come to define the spiritual walk for her.
A swami she respects greatly would carry on his head buckets of water to help clean and care for the poor on the streets of India. Another swami once mocked him, jeering, "Are those your worship vessels?" The first swami replied, "As a matter of fact, they are!" This left a profound impression on Vrajaprana. She described it this way:
"To live a spiritual journey, it is not always about changing our lives and becoming a nun or living a certain way. Whatever we are doing, that is our worship. That is what I failed to realize all these years, and that is my journey now... that wherever we are, whatever we are doing, you do not have to change your whole life, you do not have to jump over a crevice--that crevice presents itself every time you look at another being, every time you see "other", every time you see difference. Every time you see, 'that person is different from me, I do not want to be like them, and they should not try to be like me,' we're crossing over that crevice."
The life of Hindu nun Pravrajika Vrajaprana is one of crossing boundaries. Led by a spiritual instinct she found encapsulated within and expressed by beauty, she crossed the faith traditions of her youth into Hinduism. She later crossed a deep crevice from the secular world into her life as a nun. She is currently crossing the boundaries of her mind by finding spiritual connection wherever she is and with whomever she encounters regardless of the external circumstances of her life.
This is a perfect place to segue into the next post, which will talks about how the spiritual journey tends to unfold into a different relationship with other people, with society and with the world. Stay tuned!
Part 1: Interfaith is a Verb
Part 3: All Others
Part 4: Merton's Vision: Transfiguration, Transformation and Transcendence
I highly recommend watching these talks in their entirety. You can view videos on the Festival of Faiths YouTube Channel!
* - At the request of the Vrajaprana, the original wording of "lover of many years" was clarified to "husband of several years."