While relations between Buddhists and Christians are not always of the best, I had the chance this past week to have two lovely encounters with quite disparate Christian groups.
On Tuesday, Ajahn Brahm lead a group of us monks up to New Norcia to meet the Benedictine monks there. This has become a regular exchange; they come to Bodhinyana once a year or so, too. We had an interesting discussion. Two texts were chosen, on the theme of suffering and faith. It was fascinating to see how these two topics were central to each of us, while approached from quite different angles.
The idea of ‘blind faith’ came up, and someone made the interesting point that faith must always be, to some degree, blind, otherwise it is knowledge. The point—and here we all agreed—was that faith was valuable, not because it was blind, but because it leads to deeper understanding.
The visit was also interesting to me on a personal level, because my father attended the school at New Norcia run by the monks. We went into the school, now long closed of course, and found his name on the enrolment register for 1954!
Later in the week a few monks went to another Christian event, this time a ceremony for the instalment of a new, female, parish priest for the local Anglican church. Lots of clergy were present, and they very kindly invited us to walk and sit with them through the mass. Front row seats! The service was similar in many ways to the Catholic Mass I remember from my childhood; I found myself automatically coming out with the responses.
It was a warm and happy community, and I was reminded of how central the performance of religion is. When I listened to the words, there were many that were beautiful (“Peace be with you!” — “And also with you.”) and many that I found alien or strange. It seemed as if the most obvious and central of human impulses were mixed with the, to me, completely incomprehensible and wilfully obscure. They talked, for example, of a intimate, loving relationship with God; I have no idea what that means. In the Bible readings, a bizarre prophetic hallucination was followed by Paul’s inspiring words on love.
Yet somehow in the living of the ritual, none of that mattered. It was not about dogma, not even about faith (according to the Bishop) but about love. The very incongruity, the acceptance of such different ideas and inspirations within one house, in some way captures the irrational and arbitrary reality of life better than any coherent worked out doctrine.
Obviously this does not mean that reason and doctrine are unimportant; since they too live in that same house. It is just a reminder to me that we cannot reduce religion, in any of its manifestations, to a set of principles and ideas. The measure of the spirit is not in reason, but in life.