Readers of this blog know that my love and commitment to the Christian contemplative tradition is balanced by a heartfelt desire to learn more about other faiths, particularly the contemplative dimension of other traditions. Naturally, Buddhism, as a school of wisdom with many rich resources in the practice of meditation, is a particularly appealing tradition to me. I live only about three miles from the Atlanta Shambhala Center, so I’ve taken several classes there and have gotten to know some of the good folks in that tradition. Shambhala Buddhists are very open to inter-religious dialogue, so it’s been a fruitful connection.
So I was excited to discover that next Sunday, March 24, a Catholic author will be speaking at the Shambhala Center! Yes, it’s Palm Sunday, but I think this event would be worth the effort to attend. Go to church early and then come to the Shambala Center at 11:30. Susan J. Stabile, author of Growing in Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation will be speaking and signing books at the Center that day.
Stabile is a Catholic laywoman from Minnesota, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. She was raised a Catholic, but then spent twenty years practicing Buddhism and was ordained a Tibetan Buddhist nun. But in 2001 she returned to Catholicism. She’s now a Catholic blogger (Creo en Dios!), retreat leader, and spiritual director. And the author of this wonderful book which, I believe, sets a new standard for the possibilities in authentic, deeply rooted inter-religious dialogue.
A number of individuals who have explored the possibilities of integrating Buddhist wisdom with Christian faith have, in essence, become what Roger Corless called “dual practitioners” — with a more-or-less equal commitment to both paths. In addition to Corless, Paul F. Knitter, Ross Thompson, and Willigis Jäger would exemplify this kind of approach to interfaith exploration. When I heard Knitter speak at the Wild Goose Festival in 2011, he described his path like a catamaran — both hulls are necessary for the boat, and likewise, both Buddhism and Christianity remain necessary for the dual practitioner.
It’s an intriguing approach, but it’s not the only possible model for respectful, creative inter religious-dialogue. Stabile offers another model, one that I find quite appealing. She is clear that her “home” faith is Catholicism. She expresses anxiety with what she calls “hyphenated” labels, such as “Buddhist-Christian” or “Christian-Buddhist”; she notes that no less a luminary than the Dalai Lama has said that once a student reaches a certain level of commitment and practice, that making a choice to follow one specific tradition is necessary. “It is one thing to draw from another faith tradition and to examine underlying dynamics and shared values and principles which operate across faith traditions,” notes Stabile. “It is another to ignore places where Christianity and Buddhism differ in fundamental respects or where they possess a shared underlying reality… yet offer different ways of expressing that shared reality.” She compares dual-practice with being “spiritual but not religious,” noting the temptation to pick and choose elements of faiths because of a desire to find inner peace or serenity, which can all too easily turn into an exercise of spiritual narcissism. She concludes, “‘Double-belonging’ doesn’t fit for me. Thus, I tend to describe myself as a Christian whose Christianity is very much informed by my years as a Buddhist.” This sets the stage for the heart of the book: a series of meditations, all based on practices Stabile learned as a Buddhist, but adapted to fit within Christian cosmology and using Christian language and symbolism.
Now, let me confess that I generally am not a big fan of books filled with guided meditations. So exercises like this typically leave me cold. But I find Growing in Love and Wisdom to be a rare exception, for several reasons. First, the book is beautifully written, in a simple yet clear style, making its deft navigation of interfaith ideas ring with clarity. So it is a delight to read, simply as a work of literature. But the meditations are also richly devotional in their content. While my experience with Buddhism is far more limited than Stabile’s, nevertheless I recognized a few of the meditations she presents, so I can vouch for their authenticity. But she has so seamlessly grafted Christian terminology into these Buddhist meditations that someone who did not know these exercises came from a Buddhist source would probably accept them as thoroughly Christian. But to anyone with some experience of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, even as limited as mine, these meditations shed light on both faiths. By looking at Buddhist exercises presented in Christian language, I am invited to see Buddhism in a newer, deeper light. But I am also invited to consider some of the riches of Christianity, newly illumined by their presentation within a framework of Buddhist practice. So merely reading these meditations is, in itself, a rewarding experience. Of course, making the effort to actually “work” the meditations offers not only a rich devotional experience, but a genuine opportunity to put into practice the desire to integrate the wisdom of two faiths: to take inter-religious exploration beyond just reading books about other faiths, and actually seeking to embody it in practice.
So I highly recommend this book, not only to interfaith explorers but to anyone seeking a new set of exercises to deepen your faith. And if you live in Atlanta, come to the Shambhala Center on Sunday, March 24, at 11:30 PM, to meet Susan J. Stabile and to get an autographed book.