Interreligious Learning in Culver City

Cambridge, MA. Last week I was in Culver City, California -- the famed movie town in the midst of Los Angeles. I was there to visit the Jesuit Novitiate of the California Province, to give a 3-day seminar on interreligious dialogue and related issues to the first year novices of the California and Oregon Provinces. I have been doing this annually for the past five years or so, and am glad both to help my West coast brother Jesuits, and be in touch with the newest members of our Society. Given the limits of time, I had to carefully find room for a variety of issues and approaches. First, we spent some of our time watching documentaries: a first was entitled "One," and in it the film-makers, with great verve and creativity, ask a range of people, from the famous to people on the street, some of the great questions: What are you most afraid of? What is the greatest distraction for a spiritual person? What is the meaning of life? If you could wish one thing for the world, what would it be? As people of all religious backgrounds (and none) struggle to answer such questions, we are given a wonderful glimpse of religious and spiritual diversity in today’s America. We also watched an older film, "Swamiji," on the life of Henri Le Saux, a French Benedictine who went to Indian in the late 1940s to help start a Catholic ashram -- a kind of monastic enclave -- but who found, over some thirty years, that he was learning and receiving far more than he could give in return. As he turned to a renunciant life, taking the name Abhishiktananda ("He whose bliss is in the Christ"), he struggled to reconcile Christian Trinitarian thought with a radical Nondualism, and lost and found himself in the process. He is an example not many can follow, but certainly makes us think about how far we can go in interreligious learning. (Time ran out, so we did not get to see "Xavier Missionary and Saint," the recent documentary narrated by Liam Neeson, though I’d hoped to show it in-between "One" and "Swamiji.") Second, and again within the limits of a short seminar and the days leading up to it, we read together a variety of documents, in full or in part: Church documents, beginning with Vatican II’s "Nostra Aetate," which opened the way to much of today’s Catholic encounter with other religions, all the way to the December, 2007 "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization," another effort by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to clarify how dialogue and evangelization go together. While I have not been a fan of every word coming from the CDF, I am happy to say that I welcome this particular document; while stubborn issues remain, it nonetheless captures the spirit of dialogue and the spirit of total commitment to Christ, and in Christian hope points out a way they might be kept together. We also read excerpts from Jesuit documents, such as "Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue" (1995) and, by way of an article of my own, we tapped into the 450 year history of Jesuits in interreligious encounter and, often enough, in dialogue. If we Jesuits attempt to live in accord with St. Ignatius’ view of the world, we can also try to appropriate, for our time, the insights of Xavier and Ricci, de Nobili and Brebeuf, and a host of other pioneering Jesuit missionary scholars. Third, and perhaps most memorably, we went to three religious sites: an evening session in Buddhist meditation; noonday worship as an Islamic Center; and morning worship at a Hindu temple. In each of the three instances, we were warmly received by the respective Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu communities, offered hospitality, invited to ask any questions easy or difficulty, and welcomed to visit, and share insofar as we could, the meditation/worship that was undertaken while we were there. Around all three of these visits, we talked -- about what we saw, what we read, where we visited -- and discussed both their implications and how interreligious learning might affect how a Jesuit -- of my age or just beginning -- prays, discerns the Spirit, worships God, and deepens his relationship to Christ. Meeting Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims of deep faith is surely a good experience. Reflecting on all these things in Culver City did not push us to extremes -- we did not venture to try to become Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim, nor did we try to imagine a perfect, 100% pure Catholicism -- but it did (I think; the novices would have to speak for themselves!) give us a way to reflect on where we are as Catholics and Jesuits today, how we choose to live out the Catholic faith amidst the many religious possibilities around us, and how we can best make interreligious openness and learning features essential to who we are. That novices in their first year as Jesuits, and myself in my fortieth, can discern this together is a splendid reminder that being-spiritual and being-Catholic are life-long ventures, enacted in faith and experiments that never quite end. My guess, too, is that they will figure out ways to live interreligiously as Jesuits that I’ve never imagined! Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
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