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Features

Multi-faith healing

Shirley du Boulay

Some claim that 'pick-and-mix religion' is worthless without a deep rooting in a single faith. Shirley du Boulay disagrees, having found solace after her husband's death in a rich array of spiritual traditions.

 

In 1993, the year I began to draw my pension, my spiritual world opened up in most exciting ways. I was neither properly Catholic, like my late husband, nor properly Anglican - nor properly anything else. I was a melting pot of unformed beliefs in which ideas I came across and phrases I read resonated, moving me at a mysterious depth about which I was mostly inarticulate. They came from many sources yet they seemed to speak of one thing, and it was ultimately the same thing - that was my only certainty - though I was hard pressed to find a word for that one thing.

So when, two years after John's death, I was invited to join a small group on a trip to India for a conference called 'Visions of an Interfaith Future', I accepted eagerly. The opening ceremony set the scene. We sat outside, just a few minutes' walk from our hotel in Bangalore, under a great awning. Behind the speakers the words Sarva-Dharma-Sammelana - 'Religious people meeting together' - were written in roses on a backdrop of marigolds. A group of Sufi musicians was playing as we assembled. There were welcomes, greetings and prayers from many traditions - Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, the indigenous spirituality of Costa Rica, Shintoism and Baha'i. The spirit was of respect and love. We came from many traditions, but we honoured one God.

The main part of each day was spent meeting representatives of all the faiths to be found in and around Bangalore. We meditated with Jains and learnt about their doctrine of Ahimsa - non-violence. We met Buddhists from the Maha Bodhi Society, who greeted us with: 'So beautiful to see you, from so many religions - like decorating a temple with different flowers'. We worshipped with Sikhs and listened to Muslims from the Arabic College. Christianity was beautifully represented by the Bangalore National Biblical Catechetical and Liturgical Centre1, who blend Christian liturgy with Indian music and symbolism. Never have I seen the Gospel more reverently honoured than by the blue-robed nuns, as they carried the flower-strewn Bible in a gently swaying, dancing procession.

 

MANY GODS, MANY QUESTIONS

But I was left with many questions. On the one hand I knew, more clearly than I had ever known before, that it is easier to aspire to a universal spirituality if one is firmly anchored in one's own tradition. This time in India made me realise that all religions are both particular and universal: particular in dogma, doctrine and custom; universal in their ultimate aspirations and mystical dimensions. We need to find - and try to live - the universal truth contained in our own tradition.

On the other hand, I wondered how I could give myself wholeheartedly to a Christianity that insists that it alone is the full revelation of God, that wishes to make converts from other religions, even while claiming respect for them. It does not seem possible simultaneously to honour other religions, yet to put them in second place in a league table of faiths. I became increasingly confused as I wondered how I could call myself a Christian if that meant believing that my faith was 'better' than Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. The Christian revelation has its own uniqueness - that God is in Christ - but that raises profound questions about how it relates to different cultures. How can a way be found to worship this Christ who said, 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man cometh to the Father except through me', while acknowledging the truth contained in other faiths?

The desire for people of different faiths to live together, to understand each other, even sometimes to worship together, is fraught with problems. No religion wants its faith watered down by unthinking sharing with others, however well meant. All religions want to preserve their purity, their traditions and their organic relationship to their source. Yet, from the Christian perspective, there are many who long for the Church to accept that there is a depth of wisdom in the East that can enrich our lives and bring us more deeply into our own faith. I was one of many who were discovering that the practice of eastern meditation and the reading of ancient texts like the Upanishads, written years before the Gospels, can help us to glimpse one blazing, transcendent truth - a truth beyond all religious division.

 

SHAMANIC JOURNEYS

Around the same time, I had been making some very different journeys, in which I travelled only inwardly, but during which I had some experiences that I will never forget. Shamanism is the earliest known spiritual practice, originally a religious phenomenon of Siberia, Central Asia, the Americas and the Indo- European and Oceanic peoples. The shamanic journey is found in indigenous peoples the world over, in surprisingly similar forms, even where cultures differ in other respects. There are shamans among the Navajo medicine people and Zulu healers, in Inuit, Celtic and Nepalese cultures as well as in much of Europe.

At first sight it seems a bit far-fetched - that one should travel mentally and spiritually from our normal world, known in shamanism as the Middle World, to the Upper World, the home of teachers and ancestors, and the Lower World, where the seeker can meet power animals and spirit guides.

But I was lucky in having a sensitive westerner, living in Oxford, to introduce me to this ancient practice: someone to guide, witness and assess. Caitlin Matthews is an experienced shaman, who writes and lectures widely. She emphasised that the key to moving aroundthese worlds is love: all shamanic travel is rooted in love. As I lay on the divan bed in the little hut in her garden, she guided me wisely through a dozen or so memorable journeys which I've written about in more detail elsewhere2.

Suffice to say here that my shamanic journeys have changed me like my first visit to Greece changed me, like falling in love, like meditation or beautiful liturgy, like bereavement, like going on pilgrimage, like hearing Mozart or looking at the work of Chagall. For better or worse, they are part of what I now am and I am grateful beyond words.

But once again the question: where do they fit in with a Christian faith which claims to be a full and unique revelation of God?

 

ONE MOUNTAIN

The main differences between people's religious beliefs are not only between religions, but inside each religion. It is possible to be a Christian of a fundamentalist persuasion, with a strong adherence to biblical texts, or to be drawn more to Christianity's mystical expression in the writings of such as Meister Eckhart or St John of the Cross. It is possible to be a fundamentalist Muslim, even to the extent of the Islamists, who lean towards politics rather than prayer, or to be a Sufi, widely regarded as the mystical branch of Islam. The same gradations can be found in Buddhism, Hinduism - indeed in every religion. But there is a meeting point at the heart of all religions and that is, of course, the transcendent point, the top of the mountain.

The Benedictine Bede Griffiths, who spent many years in India, had a simple way of expressing this. He would hold up one hand and, with a finger from his other hand point to the thumb and each finger - Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism (he must have wished he had more fingers at this point) - then draw his finger into the palm of his hand, pointing out that though there were five different digits they all meet in the middle of the hand, just as all religions meet in God.

So, after the Indian conference, the Shamanic journeys, what was the most direct way to God? It seemed that the best thing my friends and I could do was to put renewed effort into the meditation group with which we were involved. We had been meeting for some time, each practising our own meditation and, at the end, taking turns to choose and read a text which we would then discuss over a drink. I kept a record of the texts we chose and looking back find they cover a wide range of sources while focussing on the transcendent point. They come from the Upanishads, from the Christian Bible, from Rumi, Zen, St Augustine, the Desert Fathers, Taoism, Tagore, the Tao Te Ching, Meister Eckhart, Wordsworth, Ramana Maharshi and others.

Christian William Law, from the 18th century, had a huge influence on John Wesley - and a particular resonance for me: 'There is but one salvation for all mankind, and that is the life of God in the soul … There isn't one for Jew, another for Christian, and a third for heathen. No, God is one, human nature is one, salvation is one, and the way to it is one: and that is the desire of the soul turned to God.'3

 

CLASHING SYMBOLS?

The meditation group also helped me to rethink my attitude to symbols, of which I have a collection from different religions and journeys. I have several Buddhas, from China, Japan and Thailand, while Hinduism is represented by a Nataraja, the dancing form of the God Shiva (bought in the market in Bangalore), and Ganesha, the Elephant God. I also have a bronze and resin triple spiral dating from the Stone Age, copied from New Grange in Ireland, and sometimes seen as a symbol of the Christian Trinity as well as singing of Celtic roots. There are several crucifixes, one a replica of the St Cuthbert's Cross from Lindisfarne and another, with the figure of the dying Christ, which had belonged to my husband. I also treasure the gift of a small stone from Morocco, 380 million years old, which speaks of no specific religion but resonates timelessness. And finally there are my OM signs.

I love all these symbols, but wondered: were they private, for me alone, or to be proclaimed to anyone who came to my home? In the end I put them on the central table in my flat, and I get the impression that most of my friends feel nourished by them. But one friend, looking at the symbols, suddenly exploded in anger. She criticised me for my beliefs, the fact that I was not totally committed to one particular religion or one particular branch of any religion, the fact that I am drawn to eastern religions. She laid into me until my hands were shaking like aspen leaves and I was on the verge of tears.

What is so interesting is that she is one of my few friends who claims to have no faith, no religious commitment, no particular interest in religion or spirituality. Such is the power of the symbol.

 

MULTIPLE BELONGING

But in my attraction to what religions share, rather than how they differ, I find I am in good company. Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk, had symbols from many religions in his hut in Shantivanam monastery in India. In 1976 he wrote: 'I have to be a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Parsee, a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Jew, as well as a Christian, if I am to know the Truth and find the point of reconciliation in all religion.'4

By the end of the 20th century, this was a common position. In its further outreaches where attraction and interest led to commitment and practice, it even had a name - double belonging.

The phrase 'double belonging' emerged from the US 'process theology' of the 1930s and, in its literal sense, means to belong simultaneously to two religions at once. Yet the phrase is capable of various levels of interpretation, and some degree of double belonging is so common a part of today's religious climate, that we cannot ignore it. There is a further category known as 'multiple religious belonging' where the same issues become even more complex.

On its mildest level, double belonging might simply mean dipping a toe into another religion and returning to one's own faith with some new insight. I remember the first time this happened to me and how grateful I was. I had just started meditating in the 1960s when I came across the word 'nirvana' in its use by the Mahayana school of Buddhism, where it means 'oneness with the Absolute'. Somehow it was fresh and wonderful, yet as familiar as my breath - the state of being free from suffering, the goal of life, the eradication of craving, a state of peace. Immediately St John's Gospel, to which I had been especially drawn for years, took on a new significance of mind-blowing dimensions: 'And you now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.' (John 16:22). At a deep level I was changed.

 

NAMASTE

Many people today find themselves enriched beyond telling by the rituals, symbols and thoughts and, perhaps most of all, the sacred texts of other religions. It could hardly be otherwise, now that there is so much interaction between people of different nationalities. We wear each other's clothes, we eat each other's food, we visit each other's countries and we intermarry: how could we not take an interest in each other's religions?

In the West we have, however, become accustomed to belonging to one religion at a time. We may be attracted to another religion and rejoice in its symbols, but to belong to it involves the sort of commitment that few of us are prepared to make. I was aware that when I first practised a ritual from another religion - for instance greeting someone with the hands joined and saying 'Namaste'5, or honouring the symbol of another tradition by putting an OM sign in a position where any visitor could see it - that I could not respond with the confidence and habit that I would in reacting to more familiar practices.

I found, almost involuntarily, that I was asking myself how it fitted in with the Christian tradition which, like it or not, is deep in my bones. Now that I have been following these practices for some time I am less self-conscious, recognising the significance of such symbols, marking their own relationship to the oneness to which we all belong.

 

SOUL OR SUPERMARKET?

However, many approach the idea of 'multiple religious belonging' with uncompromising disapproval. Michael Amaladoss, a distinguished Indian professor of theology has written:

'I would like to exclude a superficial approach which looks on the religious world as a supermarket in which one goes round picking up the best methods and elements that one finds useful for one's own purposes. I would also exclude people who claim to use the symbols of different religious traditions, freely moving from one to another. This is syncretism. These people do not know what religion means. Probably they are not rooted in any religion. They treat symbols as discarnate shells that can be filled with any meaning which one wants. They move from guru to guru, from cult to cult, from practice to practice. With such an attitude they will not find anything permanently satisfying anywhere.'6

He does later acknowledge that there are people who seek to experience other traditions seriously 'without seeking to integrate them too quickly, but living rather in tension.'7 And I hope he would have included people like me in this group, for I cannot deny that I am drawn inexorably to the wisdom of other religions.

Nor do I see any reason to resist it, even though conventional bits of me, the bits that long to be safe, sometimes urge me to stay with the familiar. Perhaps it would be good to be whole heartedly committed to Christianity - apart from anything else it would be so much simpler. Yet rarely does a day pass when I am not surprised and delighted by some shaft of light shed by the teaching of another faith. From Taoism, for instance: 'Tao can be talked about, but not the eternal Tao. Names can be named, but not the eternal name.' Or this, from the great book of Hinduism, the Upanishads: 'He moves and he moves not. He is far and he is near. He is within all, and he is outside all. Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.'8 That last line has an astonishing effect, giving me solace when anxiety becomes too much to bear.

I love the Hindu scriptures, but I am not a Hindu. I am attracted to meditation in almost any tradition. I love the mystical texts of all religions. The die is cast: as Prince Charles said of his love for Camilla, 'It is non-negotiable.' I cannot cease to be drawn to aspects of other religious traditions any more than I can change the colour of my skin.

 

A Silent Melody: An Experience of Contemporary Spiritual Life by Shirley du Boulay is published by DLT (www. darton-longman-todd.co.uk)

NOTES

1 N.B.C.L.C. is an all-India institution set up in Bangalore to promote and co-ordinate the renewal of Christian life in the Church according to the principles outlined by Vatican II Council.

2 Du Boulay, Shirley: A Silent Melody (DLT 2013) chapter 7

3 Selected Mystical Writings of William Law, ed. Stephen Hobhouse (Rockliff, 1948), p.102.

4 Bede Griffiths, Return to the Centre (Collins, 1976), p.71.

5 'The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you.'

6 Michael Amaladoss SJ, 'Double Religious Belonging and Liminality: an anthropological reflection' (Vidyajyoti, Journal of Theological Reflection), January 2002.

7 Ibid.

8 Isa Upanishad, tr. Mascaro (Penguin, 1965), p.49.