August 2012 – Contemplative Prayer VIII

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

August 2012

Contemplation and Prayer VIII©

Dear Friend of Saint Francis,

In March, I had the pleasure of staying at the friary of Santa Maria Draperis in the historically fascinating and culturally vibrant city of Istanbul, Turkey. It is home to an International Franciscan Fraternity that serves to encourage encounter and dialogue with other religions present in the region, especially Islam and Judaism, but also the other Christian Churches, particularly the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Armenian Orthodox community.

Four friars from four different continents animate the centre in the spirit of Saint Francis’ own experience of inter-religious dialogue at Damietta where he met sultan Kamil-al-Malik in 1219, at the height of the fifth Christian Crusade.

I realized while I was there how important the link is between inter-religious dialogue and contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer provides a ground of authentic and intuitive exploration of the great mysteries of our faith that is often blocked by theoretical models, conventional theologies and socio-political categories.

I refer to contemplative prayer here as the direct intuition of reality, what some call “pure awareness,” which is sometimes erroneously limited to mysticism. In fact, insights are much more accessible via contemplative prayer than many imagine. The contemplative state is not a void, nor is it an illusory form of purity or silence or serenity. These are just as enslaving as other kinds of addictions. Rather, it is a balanced regard for what is neither filtered by bias nor embellished by fantasizing a false reality outside of what simply is. So it serves as a guard against making idols out of our own ideas about God and our relationship with God and others.

Meanwhile, I write about inter-religious dialogue as something other than the lazy path that leads to the blurring of established traditions. Such ambiguities fail to deepen understanding.

To see things differently, it helps to stand in a different place. Sometimes, seeing something from the outside is seeing it for the first time; as with understanding Christianity in a new way by considering its similarities with other religious traditions. Contemplative dialogue is authentic listening, without preconceptions or preconditions. It takes wisdom to walk in the garden of another person and leave no footprint yet still savour the sweet fragrances.

To go beyond the limits of each religion and realize the transcendent mystery which is manifest in all of them…we`re all pilgrims on a journey to the beyond…
(Bede Griffiths, interview, August 1992)

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In 1986, Pope John Paul II stated unequivocally during the landmark day of inter-religious prayer for peace at Assisi, every authentic prayer is brought about by the Holy Spirit who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person.

Indeed, all that is true, good and noble in religious traditions can be attributed to the action of the spirit of God. Such was the declaration of the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, made in Assisi in 2005. He added that when followers of different religions contemplate the actions of God, they begin to recognize that all that is good in any religion is the work of the spirit of God: “A contemplative attitude is at the basis of inter-religious dialogue.”

The example of Saint Francis is striking; it is also timely. Many people today are repelled by established religious because of our failure to pursue common objectives and model fraternal behaviour that is so clearly prescribed by sacred texts.

Inter-religious dialogue, to be truly authentic, must meet certain conditions. A paper prepared in 1994 by Pierre-Francois de Béthune, OSB, refers to the need to assure a solid foundation by creating a harmonious environment; engaging in dialogue with maturity (common sense, realism, humor, solid human maturity, psychological balance and without anxiety); a deep sense of personal rootedness in the community and the Church, in the Christian tradition and in a program of spiritual maintenance that aids discernment. Moreover, the spiritual movement must be verified by examining the intensity of the desire and the purity of motivation.

The dialogue itself, he adds, must be evaluated according to criteria for discernment, including those related to authenticity and authority. For example, New Age representations of ancient traditions are often lacking vital elements of context and content; and some purveyors of such spiritual information write with more knowledge and insight than others.

In all circumstances, the dialogue must be marked not only by competence but also pertinence, universality, incarnation and interiority. Caution must be exercised regarding the temptation to overstate similarities when considering elements of teaching or practice; to gloss over various views of the relationship between body and spirit; action and contemplation; as well the proper roles of nature and grace.

Dom Bede Griffiths reflected deeply on contemplative prayer and inter-religious dialogue during his life. He observed that the image that favored these is that of pilgrimage. Such a perspective predisposed participants to ongoing change in the hope of encounter with the sacred and spiritual transformation. He pointed out that the sacred writings of Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity are filled with accounts of physical movement in association with pivotal events.

Pilgrimage, according to Griffiths, can be understood as movement along a series of horizons with the passing from horizon to horizon as stages of self-transcendence. The energy for this sometimes arduous journey comes from an intrinsic need to keep going beyond where we are: the One beyond all…beyond thought altogether…beyond concepts is revealed through the power of the non-rational mind, always conveyed symbolically.

Some people fear contemplative prayer, especially when associated with inter-faith dialogue because, they assume contemplative traditions to be anti-intellectual. That is a label that is sometimes ascribed to Zen Buddhists as well as Franciscans and Cistercians. On the contrary, we run a great risk of missing the point when we place our whole trust in books and in learning, and neglect to grasp life in its existential reality.

Griffiths would not have denied the value of dialogue that is informed and rational. But he probably would have suggested that it is inadequate and probably limiting. Rather, an encounter that is hospitable to the mystery of another is most penetrating and insightful when it also embraces elements that cannot be conceptualized and verbalized. Faced with growing dangers related to racial and religious violence, eco degradation and a growing threat of nuclear annihilation, Griffiths placed increasing confidence in the contemplative experience and personal integration. He believed that the key to the impasse was to be found in lay contemplative communities¸ not at the expense of one`s own tradition but to the benefit of all traditions.

At each stage of discovery of another tradition there should be a corresponding rediscovery of one’s own.
(Pierre-François de Béthune, OSB, Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue)

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Inter-religious dialogue that is authentic and respectful, and is rooted in contemplative prayer may well be the tonic that is required for the ailments that afflict our times. Beyond its capacity to unite and celebrate the mystery of divinity in the human condition, it may serve as the clarion call to people who yearn for another way of living that is less stressful, less polarizing and less cynical. Perhaps it is in the irony of fewer words achieving more dialogue that the salvation of our world exists. Maybe purity of heart is best evidenced by faith, hope and love in one another in the light of a universalizing and integrating God, at once within and beyond.

May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.
John 17: 21)

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May God who created all things unite us all in the contemplation of these wonders and the mysteries that surpass human understanding. May prayer draw us always beyond ourselves to encounter others and the Ultimate Other in peace, hope and joy.

Richard Boileau

Crib and Cross
Franciscan Ministries