Joan Chittister OSB
While Sunnis were fighting Shi’as and Arab Palestinians were fighting Jewish Israelis and US Christians were fighting Iraqi Muslims, I was sitting in a Buddhist monastery on the top of a mountain in Taiwan. From the mountain top, the city in the distant valley below was barely a memory, a phantom of another kind of life.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? A hiding place from life. Think again.
Here, on the top of this mountain, I heard something that made me think. ‘Nowadays,’ I heard a young woman say, ‘People take on religion just to hurt one another.’
Clearly, on the top of this mountain something new was happening that was, in its own way, completely in touch. If anything, it was a sliver of the world to come, not a retreat to the past.
Ecumenical gatherings have been a feature of the ecclesiastical landscape for over 40 years, since Vatican II ushered Catholicism into the 20th century.
But we are now perhaps on the verge of a new kind of more global religious conversation.
The one in Taipei last month, for instance, was both fresh in content and new in composition.
The Woman’s Global Peace Initiative, a UN Partnership Organisation, at the invitation of Dharma Drum Mountain and its charismatic abbot, Master Sheng Yen, launched an interfaith conversation among Buddhist, Hindu and Catholic nuns. The conversations included adult lay practitioners and members of the local youth group. Most important of all, perhaps, is that all the participants this time were women.
The theme of the meeting, The Rising Great Compassion, aimed at determining the role of women’s monastic communities in the world today.
Three days of joint discussion dealt with the problems facing women monastics in relation to their own formation, the balance between tradition and contemporary needs, the value of monastic-lay integration, and the challenge of balancing contemplation and compassion in action in a world full of pain, awash in injustice, and starved for equality.
The reports of the individual groups were even more striking.
First, the group called for international outreach programmes for their young people. These young people assumed that getting to know young people in the rest of the world was the key to the future.
Second, the monastics, rather than converting the rest of the world to their own spiritual practices, called for interfaith dialogue for monastics themselves. They are seeking to understand how God works with the rest of the world and to link hands to bring the Great Compassion that is needed now.
Third, lay practitioners begged women monastics to devote themselves to providing spiritual development in contemplations and action for adults.
Religion, the women said, is not just about rules. ‘You don’t give people direction,’ they said. ‘You give people light so they can find their own path.’
And then they said what struck me most deeply. ‘Nowadays, people take on religion just to hurt one another.’
It was clear to see that the young people are really confused about the role of religion in society. It was clear what they are not seeing in us: the Rising Great Compassion.
From where I stand, the question is: would they see it in us as we make the bombs now dropping in the Middle East? Would they see it in the way we’ve run Guantanamo Bay? Would they see it in our minimum wage legislation? Would they see it in our churches when we define other religions as spiritually lesser, theologically inferior – and maybe, therefore, the God who made them, too?
Maybe a conference like this in the United States would be impossible. After all, we – whoever we are – already know all the answers.
Sr Joan Chittister writes in the American weekly, National Catholic Reporter. This column appeared on 30 June 2006.