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Fr. Pierre de Bethune, director of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue in Europe, at the monastery of Saint-André de Clerlande in Belgium
Br. Bartomeu Ubach at the 1,000-year-old Abbey of Montserrat, perched on a mountain top near Barcelona, which has hosted Zen monks from Japan
Alberto Quattrucci of the Community of St. Egidio, headquartered in the heart of Rome.
Fr. Pierre de Bethune: We are here in the monastery of Saint-André de Clerlande in Belgium. This monastery is 55 years old, and I have been here 20 years, and Prior for 7 years. It is rather small. We are 25 monks and we try to have a very simple life because we wear no habits, we are not old-fashioned, but we try to live according to the rule of St. Benedict. We work and we pray, and people visit us.
I think the beginning of my real interest in dialogue came with an experience of prayer. Most important for me was the experience of when I meditated in the way of Zen meditation, I experienced something very deep, very important for my spiritual life, and as a monk, a Christian, who always had the habit to pray I believe prayer is very important for the Christian life when I encountered this kind of, not prayer, but meditation or contemplation, it was for me a great shock because I could do this very profound thing more profound than my prayer life. My prayer life was at the most intelligent, sentimental, or affective level, and when I could practice this Zen meditation I recognized that this experience was deeper. I felt this was my prayer at this level, so I continued to practice Zen meditation as a Christian so I could see that the dialogue was really at this point. The dialogue must go down to this depth. I think for many years since Fr. Le Saux was in India since 1950 some pioneers began to have this deep kind of dialogue. There are those like Fr. Thomas Merton, but until the Vatican Council they were alone, and they walked for their own sake, and the Christian was without very great sympathy. After the decree of the Second Vatican Council it was more open, but there was a big fear among Christians, and only very slowly they recognized people like those great pioneers were great Christians and they opened some new ways, and I think one most important date was the date of Assisi just 10 years ago, 1986, because there for the first time we could see people praying together, not only talking very gently, but being together as religious people, not only as political, social persons, but religious persons, and I think this was the biggest step because from this day on it was known to everybody that there was a possibility to encounter people of other faiths at this level of prayer.
To encounter this experience, this individual experience, Benedictine monks, Trappist monks, organized a committee. We began in 1978. Then they organized the North American Board for East-West Dialogue. Now they call it Monastic Interfaith Dialogue Committee, and in Europe we call it Dialog Inter-religieux Monastique. This is an official organization with the Benedictine prior as head, and this organization helps to reach every monastery because I think we need some involvement, not only individuals, but involvement like we have the big movement of ecumenism for more than 50 years. This experience is not just one or two separated individuals, but with a whole community who network. With such a big experience we can make some real progress. So I am working with this Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue Committee to help monks and nuns to have good contact with some other monks Buddhists or Hindus and to have contact with various possibilities to meet with other religious traditions.
I remember mostly the first encounter with monks. There were 17 European monks who lived with monks in Japan, and when this experience was finished and we had to say farewell to other Japanese monks who lived with us, we were very moved, and I asked why are we so moved? Because we were good friends, of course, but it was a very profound experience on both sides, and I think it was because we recognized really that the encounter brought us like lost brothers we could find after so many years, and we could recognize that we had the same aspirations, the same thirst of the absolute, and that monks of every kind of religion have something essential together. This was this thirst for the absolute. Also, that day they used the same ways silence, meditation, work, contact with the Master all those monastic things. This was a really profound experience to recognize that we have the essential in common although our religion was so different. But at the anthropological level it was so similar. We were very moved by this experience. Some said it was like if we are doing some new monastery because during our novice days we had a rather harsh life very silent and very essential and for those old monks, mature monks, in this month in the Zen monastery it was kind of like novices because we had this fervor which is central in our life. We could see how fervent the Japanese monks were also, so eager to go on their way. So for us it was a kind of reminder to be good monks. When we came back we were really encouraged to be better Christian monks.
Last year I could participate in some important Vatican business because I am consultor for the Pontifical Council for Dialogue among religions. I was invited to attend the plenary assembly of this council more or less 50 bishops and cardinals met to think and to have this kind of assembly every 4 or 5 years, and this time it was really to think about this experience which could begin in Assisi I mean this experience of shared prayer, although in Assisi they tried to assist the prayer of other religions, but practically the prayer was done by all the faithful of every kind of religion together for peace. So 10 years after Assisi we wanted to rethink it and have perhaps some deeper thoughts about what is happening in this kind of dialogue, and there I have to think about the dialogue between spiritualities and use this very good expression of Raimond Pannikar about intra-religious dialogue, not only inter-religious because it is important and very beautiful that we can meet and listen to each other, but if we really want to go further in this encounter we have to let the other penetrate in ourselves. Dialogue, dia-logue dia means two so I think a good definition of dialogue is one world which travels through another world. This is really an inter-religious experience because it happens inside my religious life. It is not only outside, but in my inner spiritual life.
This kind of intra-religious dialogue is also something dangerous because it is like letting come inside some things in my own home, but this experience of hospitality can be a very good experience because it is an experience where you receive something very important from this stranger. Sometimes the stranger can be a messenger of God. I am mostly working in order to reach other monasteries not only monasteries because we try to reach other kinds of people but I believe that we must have a very large platform if we want to have this movement to meet many people because it is the question of changing the mentality in the Church. I am very hopeful that if experiences of dialogue can go on in good situations, in a good mood, not outside, not seen as something very dangerous, but inside the Church like we did in the Vatican, really at the heart of the Church. If we an have that good reflection, I am very hopeful that this kind of thing we need very much in the Church, and be much more faithful to the Gospel.
Now seeing and admiring other religions, we become humbler, and this is a very important sign, I think. I believe that the biggest grace of dialogue is the experience of evangelical poverty. We are too rich. We are too sure that we have everything. If we become more poor, according tot he Gospel, we will also be able to listen, we will also be able to be enriched by others, and then there will be a very good meeting, and I think the experience of dialogue can make us more poor. It is essential.
Br. Bartomeu Ubach: Montserrat came into history some 1,000 years ago. It began in the late 9th century, beginning of the 10th century when the mountains with some chapels were given to our important Benedictine monastery at the time in the northern part of Catalonia. At that time the northern part of Catalonia was Christian, and the rest of it was in the hands of the Muslims. Now we are about 90 monks. Then not only the community grew up, but also the pilgrims the other important side of Montserrat. Very early the little chapel was small and a Romanesque church was built, and 400 years ago the present-day church, so both the community and the pilgrims were growing in number. People who come to Montserrat are almost 2 million a year. Many tourists, but so many pilgrims. Local students because Montserrat is a shrine which is very important for the Church in Catalonia, but also real pilgrims from many other countries. Often we have in the worship readings in English, French, Japanese, Czech, whatever, all kinds of languages.
I had never thought of this dialogue with non-Christian monasticism, and it came to be by obedience when in 1987 we were invited to welcome 2 Japanese Buddhist monks there were other Japanese monks going to several monasteries in Europe and the Abbot asked me to take care of them. When he told me, I was so afraid that he thought maybe I was not the right person, but I said just tell me what I should do. I had been interested in Christian ecumenism for 13 years with other monks in Montserrat in Jerusalem at the Ecumenical Institute there, living as a monastic community next to the Institute for Theological Studies, but the world of Eastern religions was unknown to me. Then it was very interesting because I tried to prepare myself by reading things about the experience of the Church in inter-religious dialogue, but when they came here, things just happened. We were fortunate, I think, to have here Hosemi Roshi and Sugimoto Kai who were two excellent persons. Our community as a whole is not at all inclined to exotic things, I could say, but they made themselves so friendly, so interested in our own life, that the two weeks that they spent here were just excellent. We had reserved for them a time every morning to have their zazen in the oldest chapel in Montserrat. We chose it just because it was a quiet place, but the fact that it was the oldest place in the monastery impressed them very much. At the beginning we were only 3 or 4 doing zazen with them, but by the end of their stay we were 12 or 15, and I think that was a special moment of communication with them through silence, of course.
One very nice thing that happened here, since it was during the summertime that they were here in Montserrat the time that we have for lectio divina spiritual reading after Vespers it was still daylight and some monks will come out here in the garden to just read while walking. They saw this from the window, and Hosimo Roshi came out to the garden, doing also his own lectio divina. He said that he was very impressed by this moment of quiet reading. The Abbot, also, was walking there, and he was very much impressed with the depth of this moment at the end of the day, and as a spiritual reality of our community life, and also the role of the Abbot, how the Abbot should be thinking about his community and thanking God for the life of the community at this time.
On the other side, about the role of the Abbot, Sugimoto pointed out something. At breakfast we have self-service, so everyone takes whatever he has to eat, and the Abbot, too, as another one. He was very impressed by this because among them the Roshi, or superior, is somebody who is served by the others, and revered very much. Of course, we have respect for our Abbot, but on the other side he is just one more of the community, so there is another style of relationship.
Jim: During this day they went to visit the hermit of Montserrat, Fr. Basil, who has lived high above the monastery for many years, and to get there they had to climb up flights of steep stone stairs. Fr. Basil has had a deep interest in Eastern religions for a long time, and they were surprised and delighted to see on his wall the 10 ox-herding pictures which meant so much to them as Buddhists.
Br. Ubach: Three years later a group of monks and nuns in Europe went to Japan. If after the experience of having them here, I was already in this world of inter-religious dialogue, and knew them in some way, on the other side the question I put to myself was here we were receiving them as the Christian community and offering them our Christian love, you could say, and they would do the reverse because in their monastery there would just be a couple of us, and how would this relationship work? This was my question. In the end it was rather easy, even if they in their modern Zen monastery are very different from ours, because it was just a spiritual formation. They spend only one year there, or 3, 4, 5 years, and then they go to serve in their temples, so there were a lot of young people, and we were in a monastery that had been in existence for over 30 years. They had not been given any special preparation. They had done this on purpose to make it just happen. Of course, we tried to do everything they were doing, not only the zazen, but working, cleaning the garden, and their worship in the monastery I was in had a special Chinese tradition and had a special stress on what we could call worship in the morning and the evening, sharing in their life very simply, and putting all our interest in discovering the soul. But immediately among a few of them, 4, 5, there was a very deep interest in our Christian monastic life. So this created a deep relationship. Since then 6 years have elapsed. I think it very difficult that we even meet again, but for me the personal relationship with these persons I remember some words of one or the other it is something very important, especially after having been in Japan in their own ambiance. I had the feeling that we should take our spiritual life and experience, and their spiritual life and experience as a whole, not just to single out one aspect. In that respect I think that their spiritual experience is zazen, but it is other things also. Our life also has many aspects. Actually, what came to my mind, it is two different things. Their experience in zazen with our experience in the Divine Office. St. Benedict says that when we pray the Divine Office, our minds should be one thing with our voice, which is very interesting because it is not the other way. It is not that we say what is in our minds, but that we make our mind agree with the words of the Psalms, etc., and this is an experience of unity in ourselves. It came to me that this was a similar experience to the experience of unity that they seek and find through zazen and other practices of their lives. So I think we should discover and deepen the similarities in our two ways of life, not necessarily in the same form. Then their experience of zazen helps me in my experience of the Divine Office, and I think that maybe it could be the other way around.
Each time I came into relationship to them, exposed to them, both here and in Japan, I was asking myself how I should live my spiritual experience so that it may mean something for them, and in the same way, thinking of the experience I was doing with them in zazen, I thought about the experience of prayer worship with the mind made one with the words an experience of unity. Another element of Christian monastic tradition came to my mind when I was in Japan. There is a saying of one of the desert Fathers that says: our main work was the spiritual work, and hand work was something secondary, whereas now we have reversed the order, and the secondary thing has taken the first place, and the main thing has taken the secondary place.
In the oriental tradition very early in the morning we were awakened by a monk running around and singing of course we couldnt understand the Japanese, but we could get a translation afterwards saying that life and death were important. We should wake up and get our attention on important things and let other things just pass. So I think our centering all our lives in the spiritual experience is very important. And there is something they taught me: My responsibility is to make my own life also respond to this intent that I can talk to them.
Alberto Quattrucci: My name is Alberto Quattrucci, and I belong to the Community of St. Egidio, since the beginning of the community itself. The Community of St. Egidio was born in Rome in 1968. We have just celebrated the 28th anniversary of the Community. It started with a few people. It was a small group of students from high school 17, 18, no more and then it started with three pillars: 1. the Gospel which was discovered again after the Second Vatican Council. We started our meetings reading the Gospel, and living the Gospel, and trying to put the Gospel into practice through the fraternal life, the communion, together, and then through the commitments to the poor. This was the second pillar of the community this commitment to the poor. In Rome the poverty was very large and deep. Rome has changed a lot, but back then there were a lot of suburbs around the city full of immigrant people from the south. They came to a large city like Rome to find a job. They were a sort of barracks, a sort of group where the children did not get far in the schools because they spoke a dialect.
We started helping the children in the barracks around Rome, and to visit these people every week. On Saturday afternoon we spent our free time. We were students and we were distracted by students, but our Saturday afternoon was for the poor people. This was the second pillar service to the poor and over the years it increased more and more.
The third was a sort of friendship, not a friendship in the superficial meaning, but a deep friendship a sort of challenge to the individualism of our society. This friendship meant to us an open house for the people who knocked on the door, and then we realized this pillar of friendship mostly since 1973 5 years after the start of the community. When we arrived at St. Egidio in the beginning it was known only as "the community" among us, but since 1973 we took the name of San Egidio from the church where the diocese let us gather for evening prayer. We are a small church in the very heart of Rome, and from that time we reopened the church and started evening prayer at 8:30. We gather together and pray and sing together the Psalms, and reading the Gospels.
We got a house, and this was important because it was our identity. If we dont have a house with a door you cant open the door. We had our identity not only in Rome, but in Italy, in Europe, in Africa and Latin America, etc. Our identity is spread out through the meetings, the encounter with other people coming to Rome. This means that the other centers of the community in other parts of the world began through the encounters in Rome. This was also the case with meetings with some poor people from the third world Africa, Middle East, and from the eastern countries, as well. That means that we met not only the necessities of these people, what the body needs, but also spiritual needs, a sense of values, and then meeting with other religions. This was 20 years ago, more or less. From these meetings started our interest to know other religions. We started a dialogue not only theoretical, but also practical, and full of friendship, full of interest for the others. We started to link up with 20-25 countries, and using the summertime to spend our time visiting these communities of other religions. Our important moment was in 1986 when the Holy Father promoted the meeting in Assisi the first inter-religious meeting to be together to pray, and not to pray together. That was the difference because every religion was appreciated. At this time we decided to continue in this spirit of dialogue and friendship. We founded in 1988 an international association people and religions both from the Community of St. Egidio and to have a meeting every year for peace. When we arrived in 87-88 in Rome, then in 89 in Warsaw during a difficult but important political situation, then in 1990 in Bari, Italy again, then Malta, then Brussels, then 1993 Milan, Assisi again, and then the last one in Florence (1995). Here we are going to organize the 10th anniversary of these meetings in Rome between Oct. 7-10.
Sometimes we use to think, OK, if we, as Christians, as Catholic, are so open to others, who are they not the same to us? But we have to understand that after many centuries of division, it is not possible to have a deep dialogue in just 40-50 years. In the Catholic Church you can consider the Second Vatican Council as a start of a new age. It is too short a time. We have to work again, we have to go home together again, we have to talk about it in 100 years, or something like that. Then we can arrive at a good point.
But there is a sort of progression in the dialogue this year. We have to recognize it. In the beginning we didnt know each other well. The best results were tolerance to others. It was a good result because think of the past when it was impossible to tolerate the other. Our first teacher in some sense was the Second World War, teaching in a negative sense, but we have to learn from it. Around the central moments of these meetings 4 days is the day of peace. It started as a sort of study conference where the religious leaders were to sit around the table, and to face the problems of the contemporary world. But in the beginning we had to recognize it was just introducing and presenting their religions. "In my faith peace means so and so and so." "I am a Christian, etc." It was like a parallel picture. But going through these meetings, and on this pilgrimage, we discovered it was possible to discover a common language. This was very important. We started with 9 in Bari, and then we discovered it was possible to discover this common language, and form a bridge to understand each other. The prayer was one. The most important was the decision to face the real problems of the world. In facing the world it was possible to find many points in common in the religions. Last year, just to give you another example, in Florence we had a very interesting study conference. There were more than 120, 130 speeches, very interesting, on the most pressing problems of the contemporary world. The problems in Africa, in Latin America, whole areas of the world in poverty. The problem of ecumenism, as well as the inter-religious dialogue, is very important in these meetings between the Catholic and Protestant churches. Normally in these meetings we discovered that the differences are really, really small between the Christians. There is only a historical difference. During the day of prayer, itself, we used to spend one hour for the prayer for peace in different places according to each religion, and the Christian advocated to stay together for the ecumenical prayer. When the Christians faced the other religions, they discovered that they are the same religion. In a sense they added a sense of richness to the different traditions together.
Sometimes some people felt this kind of dialogue is not a scientific dialogue, it is not a social dialogue, it is not a theoretical dialogue, it is not a sociological dialogue. We studied theology, of course, and we studied the theology of other religions, but the problem is that the theology, without friendship, with human interest, is nothing. You can have differences in theology for 10, 20, 30 years. The interest starts from the friendship, from the common work in the world. In the meetings for peace we started a lot of initiatives on different levels: local, international, so we considered these meetings as a sort of laboratory for peace.
Ill give you just two examples among many. 8 years ago we opened a large place for teaching immigrants. We had about 1,800, 1,900 people coming each day to the soup kitchen until 10 pm. Without this collaboration it was not just the collaboration of Catholic people there were lay people and also people from other religions it would be impossible to realize this in the full sense. So we discovered the good and interesting collaboration in helping the poor. That means not only to realize the project, but also to get to know each other, working together.
Another more international example is Mocambique in Africa. After 17 years of war we realized in 1992 the peace talk, and the negotiation for peace, and then signing for peace in San Egidio in October, 1992 in Mocambique. It was a very, very hard war. It was also possible to have an inter-religious dialogue there, and a collaboration for peace. It was possible to overcome all the barriers, and to realize a sort of trust in the pace.
We started a community in San Salvador after the killing of Msgr. Romero because after the killing of Msgr. Romero we decided to realize something because some people had come to us to ask us to do something. It is very different there compared to the community in Rome. Here in Rome, for example, the gypsy children lack support. They realized here a real school because they dont have a school.
It is a different situation I each society. It is not a model of San Egidio. It is one spirit of San Egidio so everyone can belong to the Community of San Egidio.
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