Digging Deep to Holy Water

Thoughts on Interspirituality

Recently I’ve been doing independent study at my seminary on individuals (or communities) who find themselves called to stand in more than one religious tradition.  The depth of this kind of multiple engagement runs a spectrum, from the Christian who flirts with Hindu yoga, to the Jew who has taken refuge in the Buddha and practices deeply in both traditions (or any of the countless other scenarios you can imagine!).  I’ve been doing this work, in part, because it’s a reality into which I’ve found myself called.

As a seminarian on track for priesthood in the Episcopal Church, I have also practiced within Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Hindu Vedanta.  Sufism and Vedanta continue to be active parts of my personal spiritual life, in addition to my ongoing commitment to Christianity.  I have never “left” one faith for another.  I have, with all of the intellectual and spiritual integrity I can muster, engaged the practices and worldviews of, as well as the tensions and sometimes outright contradictions between, these different faiths.  I have welcomed them all into my soul-wisdom and beauty as well as wounds inflicted one on the other.  This has been my deep delight, as well as a source of pain.  But it is a calling, an act of faith, and something that I couldn’t not do.  I imagine that some of you have been similarly called.  I offer that this type of multiple belonging is an emerging spiritual vocation-a needed adventure of discovery, healing, and transformation for the world.

In the last several years, we have seen a profusion of “interfaith” dialogue and events – a trend set in motion by people from the various traditions who seek to “get to know their neighbor.”  In my experience, this dialogue focuses on learning “the basics” of your neighbor’s religion, finding common ground, and working together for the benefit of society.  It often takes place around interfaith dinners and shared service projects and has been very important foundational work.

At the same time, another conversation has been emerging. Related, but approaching the question of religious diversity from a different angle, this dialogue has been titled interspiritual.  The interspiritual approach enters the conversation at the level of the contemplative traditions of the world’s religions and is concerned much more with spiritual practice and experience than dogmatic formulation.  “How do you pray?” would be a more common question than “What do you believe?” And it would not be unusual if it were then followed by an attempt to experience the prayer for oneself-at which point the dialogue has become internalized.

Historically, the dialogue between religions has happened mostly between individuals-you the Buddhist, and I the Christian, sit down to have a conversation.  Today, however, it is not uncommon to find it happening withinindividuals.  Buddhist and Christian, Hindu and Jew, are realities that converge on the ground of a single soul.  For those of us who are contemplatives, the interspiritual approach offers a helpful language for understanding our encounters with other faiths-especially when we find ourselves being called into one!  

This approach is also the one that requires the more vulnerable stance-as it not only involves sharing socially or intellectually but opening oneself experientially to the practice (and vision and community) of another tradition.  This requires a deep heart and soul opening-you have to really get naked with another tradition.  It’s about making love.

Roman Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale, who originally coined the term “interspirituality,” intended it in this interiorized and intimate sense.  In his last book, A Monk in the World, he says: “Interspirituality is not a new form of spirituality, or an overarching synthesis of what exists, but a willingness and determination to taste the depth of mystical life in other traditions.”  Interspirituality is not about intellectual learning, but rather experientially tasting the depth.

Deeper religious understanding and reconciliation is much needed in the global society that we are rapidly becoming, and contemplatives are particularly primed to do this work at the deepest level.  But it requires a profound vulnerability and a letting go of old and entrenched dividing lines.  A friend once said to me, “What if we defined our religious identities based on our roots, rather than our boundaries?”  In an emerging spiritual world with no boundaries, we can honor and celebrate our differences, while freely sharing our riches and seeking to touch the depth across old lines.

As many who have found themselves called to a second (or even third) tradition know, this work often grows out of the discovery of a spiritual resonance that doesn’t seem as readily available in one’s original tradition.  Traditional spiritual teachers, however, have often cautioned those who attempt to engage more than one path.  The warning has generally gone something like this: “Other paths may be valid, but if you truly want God, you have to dig one well deep to the water.”  The fear is that multiple belonging will only result in shallow skimming.  Undoubtedly, this can be the case.  But I find myself returning more often to the words a Hindu swami once shared with me: “Matthew, there’s a difference between digging fifteen shallow wells and using fifteen tools to dig one.”  Wherever God is guiding us in this new future, may we all dig deep to holy water.

January 01, 2009 by Matthew Wright
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