Dear Donagh,
A set of your CDs came to me recently.  “Meister Eckhart: the man from whom God hid nothing”. It has fascinated me.  I would normally move away from the whole Roman Catholic stuff'!  I was brought up very strict RC and eventually found solace in the Vipassana meditation. Having explored lots and been open to all, I have often thought that we need to not stay stuck in the intricacies of specific doctrines. Rather to take the core precepts from all and make that Big Blancmange that you seemed to recoil from!!?  You said something like, "Oh no, we don’t want that big blancmange.  We know what we mean."  I don't know what you mean.  Why please tell me do we need to stay adhered to one 'club'?  Is it to do with fearing loss of identity? Isn’t that the point?
Thank You,
Yours Sincerely,
Mary K.

Dear Mary,
Thank you for your question and your interest.  It’s a question that is always there, and it’s also one of the most difficult.  Someone sent a similar question in 2001 (‘Between Ourselves’, 2001, Eastern religions); I'm glad you raise it again. 

To real questions I think there’s no final answer.  I remember an old man in hospital, years ago, who kept producing a photo of his wife and saying to everyone, “Why did she marry me?”  When I enquired, he told me she was dead for 19 years.  He had no answer to his question, nor did he want an answer!  If someone were to give him an answer in financial or social terms or the like, he would reject it instantly.  He wanted to stay with his question because it was a question about love. 

To judge by our performance, religion, sadly, is often about hatred and a tribal spirit; but it is meant to be about love.  It is love alone that raises it above sectarianism.  In the earliest days of the Christian faith, some members of the Pharisee sect had become followers of Jesus, and they wanted to bring their practices with them (Acts 15:5).  They were thwarted then, but they have had many successors over the centuries.  There are many Catholics who have the words of Christ on their lips but not his spirit of love in their hearts.  The status before God of such persons should be a much more agonising question for Catholics than the status of non-Catholics and non-Christians.  Everything comes back to one astonishing brief sentence: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).  When there is no love there is no knowledge of God, and it is then that all the tribalism and all the brazen assertions of identity flood in to fill the vacuum. 

Love is a great paradox: it is a perfectly general force, but it is in love with the particular.  A man falls in love with a particular woman, not all women.  He may be attracted to very many of them, but he is really in love with only one.  And vice versa.  He doesn’t really mind if other people fail to understand his choice or fail to find that woman beautiful.  If he tells her she is the most beautiful woman in the world, they both know that he is not a disinterested judge; what he is expressing is his love, not the results of a beauty competition. His declaration of love, though it appears subjective, has a deeper truth in it than the result of any beauty competition.  The beauty competition may appear objective, but is it?  And even if physical beauty were measurable, such a thing is very shallow compared to the so-called ‘subjective’ choice of a person in love. 

I think it makes more sense to think of religion in this way, rather than as membership of a ‘club’.  Our initial choice of metaphor will shape everything we go on to say about religion.  Membership of a club is a rather passionless affair, but love is passionate.  If there’s no passion everything is equal because everything is neutral and boring.  Then the only recourse is to pick out a few bits that are not as bad as the rest, add them to some bits from other religions, and there’s your blancmange!  But a passionate attachment to one religion by no means prevents a person from appreciating the depth of another religion.  On the contrary I think it helps.  A man who is incapable of loving one woman is incapable of loving any woman.   The genius of the Christian faith is its concreteness: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, all the sacraments, all its rituals….

I'm glad to hear that you have found something you are passionate about in Vipassana.  Anyone who has ever practised Vipassana or followed a Zen sesshin will know that this is not an easy option.  The prospect of ten hours (or more) of meditation a day would frighten the wits out of most people.  I have sat many sesshin myself and I know how challenging they are.  I couldn’t imagine for a moment that the smallest part of that work and goodwill is wasted, no matter who does it.  The normal path for a Catholic is the Catholic faith, but God is not restricted to what we call normal.  “God is greater than our hearts,” St John said; and St Paul said, “No one comprehends what is truly God's except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11). 

I read the sacred books of many religions and I learn something very precious from them – sometimes just because their angle of view is different.  It was through Zen that I discovered Meister Eckhart, for example, even though I am a member of the same religious Order as he!  I don't think Catholics have to put their own faith in brackets in order to study other religions.  It often happens that they discover something of their own faith by seeing it through very different eyes.  No need to pick and choose.  If there are parts of my faith that I am unable to fathom at present, there is no need to deny their meaning or value; just let me be patient.  God is greater than my heart and mind. 

This reply is already too long for here, but not long enough for the topic.  See the ‘Gospel commentary’ for May 21.  I hope these thoughts may be of some help to you, Mary. 

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