As AIM became more aware of the problems facing these new monasteries, it set up meetings for superiors. The first took place in Africa (Bouaké 1964) and was followed by a meeting in Asia (Bangkok 1968). The Buddhist setting of the meeting in Bangkok helped the monastics who gathered there come to a deeper understanding of the necessity of dialogue with monastics of other religions. The message that Paul VI sent them confirmed their conviction and encouraged them to engage in this pursuit. In October 1973, in Bangalore, India, Christian and non-Christian monastics came together for the first time in history to talk with one another about the most basic issue of the monastic life, namely, the experience of God. The success of this meeting prompted Cardinal Pignedoli, who was then Prefect of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, to ask Abbot Primate Rembert Weakland to encourage Benedictines to become involved in interreligious dialogue because, as he put it, “monasticism is the bridge between religions.”
As a result, AIM organized two meetings between monks and specialists in 1977, one in the United States (Petersham), and the other in Europe (Loppem). These meetings led to the creation, in 1978, of two sub-committees: NABEWD (North American Board for East-West Dialogue), now known as MID (Monastic Interreligious Dialogue), for North America; DIM/MID for Europe (Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique, MID for German-speaking countries). Thus, what had been the work of individuals like Jules Monchanin, Henri Le Saux, Bede Giffiths and Thomas Merton was now given institutional status within the monastic world.
DIM/MID and NABEWD-MID established contacts between Christian monasteries of the West and those in Asia, especially with Hindus and Tibetan and Japanese Zen Buddhists. With the latter a program of “Spiritual Exchanges” has been taking place ever since 1979.
The gathering which took place in Assisi in 1986 provided a great stimulus for dialogue, and the work of the European DIM and the American NABEWD became too important for them to remain mere sub-committees within AIM. Thus, in 1994 they were established as a Secretariat similar to AIM, and, like it, common to both the Benedictines and the Cistercians. As the movement of dialogue continued to spread, national and regional centers were created, whose activity is coordinated on the international level by a General Secretary.
A broadening of perspectives has accompanied this organic development. In the beginning the only dialogue envisaged was that between monastics of different religions. However, even though Judaism and Islam do not have any monastic institution, they are in dialogue with Christian monastics. The dialogue of our brothers in Atlas with Islam is a case in point. On the other hand, the Asian religions are increasingly present in the West where they have many devoted followers and a notable presence on university faculties. Those Westerners who have been influenced by Asian religions seek out Christian monastics and invite them to take part in their colloquies. On various continents DIM/MID also collaborates with other groups involved in interreligious dialogue.
This change of perspective led to the idea that monastic interreligious dialogue can also mean engaging in dialogue “as monastics”—that is to say, as people searching for God—with other searchers, no matter what their status or their religion. Dialogue thought of in this way strives to become a dialogue of religious experience. Such dialogue takes place primarily in “spiritual exchanges,” but it also includes others forms of dialogue that are in some ways preliminary and preparatory.
The Basic Elements of a Theology of Interreligious Dialogue
Monastic interreligious Dialogue is part of the ecclesial movement of interreligious dialogue and adheres to the theology of interreligious dialogue, as expressed in the following points:
Because of its origin and ultimate end, the human family is united in a profound communion. Having created man and woman in his image, God calls all people to work together towards a common destiny (see Genesis 1; Nostra Aetate 1). This unity is more fundamental and more important than all our differences. God the Father has always worked to bring about the salvation of all creation, but especially the salvation of all humanity (Genesis 9:9-18). God’s will to save all people is centered in his Son, Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2:5-6; Lumen Gentium 16, Dei Verbum 3-4; Nostra Aetate 2).
God’s mercy is incarnated in Jesus Christ, in whom God has assumed once and for all the whole of humanity. Through the incarnation God has finished the work of salvation in Jesus Christ and is fully reconciled with humanity (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). By his obedience to God and by the offering of himself for all, Jesus Christ has become the Savior of the world. No one is outside the pale of salvation (Nostra Aetate 2; Ad Gentes 3). Jesus Christ has united himself to every human being, and through the Holy Spirit a bond with the paschal mystery is offered to every human being (see Mark 10:45; Gaudium et Spes 22; Redemptor Hominis 13).
The Holy Spirit, who dwells in the heart of every human being, is the origin of our search for the meaning of our existence. This same Holy Spirit inspires our every noble thought, our every good action (see Redemptoris Missio 28-29). Because the Church recognizes this activity of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, it respects and encourages everything that is holy and true in other religions (see Romans 8:26; Lumen Gentium 16; Nostra Aetate 2).
The differences among religions reflect the spiritual richness that God has poured out upon the human race (see Ad Gentes 11). At times, however, these differences can also be a sign of the human limitation and division (see Genesis 11; Romans 7:21-14; Lumen Gentium 16).
Given the human situation and God’s plan for universal salvation, the meaning and role of the Church is to be a sign and instrument of the unity between God and humans and of the unity among persons (see Lumen Gentium 13; Gaudium et Spes 1-3; Ad Gentes 11; RB 4:8. Proselytism, however, is to be avoided.
The Specific Place of Monasticism in Interreligious Dialogue
The monastic archetype is common to all humanity. That is to say, every human being has a monastic predisposition. For this reason, even though monastic practices may differ, monasticism is a bridge by which different religions can meet. Monastics—those people who strive for interior unity and openness to the absolute—easily recognize one another and spontaneously enter into a dialogue of life.
Christian monastics who engage in interreligious dialogue discover there an authentic realization of their monastic vocation: to be united with God (see 1 John 3:2) and to manifest this union in their daily lives in order, as monastics, to promote the unity of all humanity (see John 17:21). To delight in the other as other, as an expression of the manifold wisdom of God, and to cherish the uniqueness of the other are components of a contemplative outlook.
As we become more and more involved in grasping and deepening our own tradition, dialogue helps us to become more discriminating. To enter into relationship is also to relativize. Questioning can lead to a deepening of our faith and be a source of spiritual enrichment.
DIM/MID encourages monasteries of the Benedictine tradition to open their doors and their hearts to monastics of other religious traditions. In this era of globalization, it invites monasteries to enter into contact with monastics of other religions who have now become our next-door neighbors.
In responding to this invitation, three points should be kept in mind:
1. The first concerns hospitality. Interreligious dialogue expands the ancient practice of monastic hospitality. It is no longer just a matter of welcoming guests to the monastery, sharing our prayer and table with them, conversing with them. Hospitality involves welcoming the spirituality of the other as a valid path to God, seeing in its charism and practices an expression of a monastic intuition common to all humanity, and allowing this encounter to lead us to a deeper understanding of the place of Christianity in the plan of salvation.
2. The second concerns contemplation. Spiritual exchanges and interreligious prayer with contemplatives of other religions provide Christian monastics with the possibility of becoming familiar with and adopting certain of their methods of prayer and meditation (for example, Vipassana, Zazen, Yoga), provided they are integrated into the Christian faith. Intermonastic dialogue can be a way of enriching our understanding and appreciation of contemplation, and also of recovering parts of our own tradition, for example, attention to the details of daily life, openness to the cosmos, the importance of the body.
3. The third concerns ethical, social, and political involvement: Spiritual exchanges strengthen the bonds between believers of different religious traditions and promote their collaboration in the initiatives that religions have undertaken to bring about peace and to protect the environment.
How to Engage in Dialogue
The practice of dialogue in our community can be approached from three different perspectives.
1. Personal Requirements
Ideally, the person who engages in dialogue should
- be firmly rooted and centered in the Christian tradition;
- be personally mature and experienced in the monastic life;
- be well integrated in the community;
- be eager for a deep knowledge of other religions and ready to rethink the ways we have given expression to the Christian faith;(1)
- be open to strangers and persons of different backgrounds and status;
- be attentive to the infinite number of ways in which the Holy Spirit is made manifest.
All this constitutes what can be called interreligious dialogue.
2. Personal Practice
When monastics courageously and joyfully embrace interreligious dialogue they discover a number of different ways in which familiarity with another religious tradition helps them grow in their own vocation. For example: They make use of other traditions in their own monastic life by using the Scriptures and writings of other traditions in their lectio and by practicing Eastern forms of meditation. They meet and make friends with monastics of other traditions. In collaboration with DIM/MID, they assess their experience and share their knowledge of other traditions by:
- telling other members of their community about their experience of interreligious dialogue and the knowledge they have gained;
- reading articles—and preparing articles for publication on the DIM/MID website;
- participating in and organizing monastic interreligious gatherings and conferences;
- participating in non-monastic interreligious events;
- belonging to or creating a local interreligious or multireligious group.
3. Community Practice
Responding to the call of the Spirit and the Church, monastic communities can grow in its interreligious awareness by:
- sharing the daily monastic life of a non-Christian monastic community and inviting monastics of another religious tradition to live with them for a time;
- reading the DIM/MID Bulletin and other documents in the refectory; reading the Scriptures of other religious traditions in choir;
- frequent prayers and intercessions in the Divine Office;
- sending greetings to the members of other religions on the occasion of their principal celebrations;
- providing special training in interreligious work for certain members of the community.
(1.) Every step we take to enter into the path of another should be accompanied by an effort to come to a deeper understanding our own tradition.