In recognition of the Interfaith “National Day of Prayer,” celebrated on May 2 in the United States, Brent Smith shares his reflections on the connection between his own faith of Roman Catholicism and his recent studies and experiences with Buddhism.
A few weeks ago I went to the Vajrayana Kadampa Buddhist Center in Oak Park, as part of a course assignment. As a practicing Catholic, the experience was quite – but not entirely – unusual. Upon entering the small, homey-building, I was immediately welcomed by a woman who prompted a donation and then asked that I remove my shoes and jacket. I was then shown the prayer space, found off to the right, on the other side of the small gift shop. I chose a chair behind the few zazen pillow seats in the front of the room. I was curious about the dozen or so large figurines placed upon shelves in the front. These shelves flank a big, square couch. I correctly assumed that the guru would sit atop this simple couch. The guru was an American, which I wasn’t surprised about at all because of prior coursework that introduced me to Buddhism in American. He had an upbeat and light-hearted personality. As he entered the room I followed the regulars who stood and held their hands together, fingers calmly pointed toward the guru.
The sermon he gave was rather simple and highly relatable. One theme was the acknowledgment and removal of suffering. A solution proposed by the guru is to smile more often, wherever you are. He told a story of when he was closing up another nearby Buddhist center. As a woman passed by him, he warmly smiled at her. She reacted with a look of concern and disgust. The guru said he thought to himself, “May this woman find peace in her life; may she suffer less in life.” Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, says, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” He also says, “Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s reflection mirrors the words of the guru at the Buddhist center.
Another part of this interfaith experience was the time spent in intentional meditation. I love this aspect of Buddhism. I have always had an affinity for silence and nonverbal prayer. While in meditation I tried to follow the insight of the guru, to let my thoughts come and go, without holding onto them at all. In the back of my mind I longed to participate in this meditation as a Buddhist, with a longing for Buddha-hood, focusing on care for all creatures. I sought mindfulness through mindlessness. Somewhat to my dismay I naturally used this time for focused prayer within the Christian tradition. By first freeing my mind of thoughts, I experienced clarified communion with the Body of Christ. I wanted to be Buddhist in this moment but could not let go of my Catholic roots.
Thich Nhat Hanh would reassure me that the meditation was a success, especially through the interfaith lens. He is noted for saying that he “always [encourages others] to practice [faith] in a way that will help them go back to their own tradition and get re-rooted. If they succeed at becoming reintegrated [into their original faith], they will be an important instrument in transforming and renewing [that] tradition.”
The guru at the Buddhist center in Oak Park told me that Dominican groups have visited other times as well. I first came across Buddhism in high school through the book Siddhartha, and even more so this past fall through a course taught by Dr. Hugh McElwain, and also through the documentary They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain. My visit to the Buddhist center has given me an even deeper understanding of the global reality of Buddhism in the 21st century.
I would like to conclude with a reflection on a similarity between Buddhism & Christianity, by Thich Nhat Hanh:
“In Buddhism, we speak of touching Nirvana with our own body. In Christianity, you can also touch the Kingdom of God with your body, right here and now. It is much safer than placing our hope in the future. If we cling to the idea of hope in the future, we might not notice the peace and joy that are available in the present moment. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.”
Brent Smith, Class of 2014, is double-majoring in Theology and Corporate Communication, and a student representative on the Dominican University Interfaith Cooperation Committee.
Holy Week Reflection
By Fr. Mike DeTemple, O.P., University Chaplain
Luke 19:28-40; 22:14-23:56 – Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem and the Passion
Every year, Holy Week begins with the double proclamation of Jesus’ joyful entry into Jerusalem, coupled with one of the Gospel narratives which recount the story of his Passion and death. It is difficult to comprehend such contrasting events, taking place as they do within such a short span of time. At the beginning of the week, Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem with jubilation and five days later he is publicly executed as a criminal.
This week is the high point of the Church’s liturgical year: a time set aside for prayer and reflection – to think about all that happened during the final days of Jesus’ life on earth. We do this – we remember and relive these events – so that we can draw closer to the Lord; grow in our love for him and in our desire to serve him. There is much to meditate upon: a conspiracy among religious leaders; the agony he experienced in the face of suffering and death and the perfect prayer he uttered there: “thy will be done;” the false accusations, perjury and injustice at his trial; the betrayal, denial and abandonment he experienced from his closest friends; the faithfulness of the women who followed him; his torture and abuse at the hands of civil authorities; his sense of abandonment on the cross; his harrowing death; his burial in a borrowed tomb.
Throughout this narrative there are striking contrasts:
• Between the humility, courage and compassion of Jesus and the arrogance, cowardice and hatred of those who killed him.
• Between Jesus who prays, forgives and speaks the truth and those who curse, lie and condemn.
• Between Jesus who is betrayed, deserted and denied by his closest friends and those who band together to destroy him.
• Between the powerful Insiders who focused upon themselves and their selfish ends and the humble Outsiders: his mother, the other women at the cross, the Beloved Disciple, Simon of Cyrene, the Good Thief and Joseph of Arimathea, who focused on Jesus, who know who is and who are faithful to him to the end.
All of this is brought to the Cross, where heaven is joined to earth and where all the evil within us is forgiven and redeemed; to the Cross, a scandal to the Insiders, but salvation to the Outsiders; to the Cross, the moment when Jesus was most powerless and yet saved the world.
Throughout it all Jesus gives us an example to follow. This week we are invited to put on the mind of Christ as St. Paul describes it: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at; rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in human likeness . . . he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross!”
He poured out his life and humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, for us and for our salvation. As we reflect upon his passion and death, we may be moved by God’s grace to grow in humility and obedience in our relationship with God; to pray for our enemies; to embrace our powerlessness, to forgive and to seek forgiveness. We may be inspired to respond more fully and with gratitude for all that Jesus has done for us and to imitate his self-giving, sacrificial love.
Even in his suffering and death, Jesus has shown us how to respond to life with faith and love. He was an Outsider who became our Servant, even unto death. This week we can join Jesus among the Outsiders, the ones who were faithful to him and loved him to the end. For it is to them that the Kingdom of God belongs.
5th Sunday of Lent Reflection
By Hugh McElwain, Professor of Theology
John 8:1-11 – The Woman About to Be Stoned
Early in my years as a seminarian, our daily meditation or reflection sessions generally opened with a reading offered by the Rector. Ordinarily this reading was either from Scripture or from some spiritual work, to which we were expected to listen attentively. Following the reading we were first instructed to focus on the scene/story presented in the reading, and to try intently to imagine in our minds the precise details described there. The second phase of our meditation invited us to think deeply about possible lessons to be gleaned from the narrative. As a third concluding experience we were to form a concrete resolution which would aid us to apply this challenging lesson to our daily lives.
Now, one of the readings I still remember so vividly from those days was the story presented in today’s Gospel reading – the woman about to be stoned. As you read through this gospel, what feelings and emotions or images are strong for you?
Attempting to keep the scene present in my consciousness, I found myself grasped by the image of Jesus sitting in the temple teaching the people gathered around him. Noisily into this scene came the angry, self-righteous group of Scribes and Pharisees. In their midst was the defenseless woman, accused of adultery, whom they dragged before Jesus, demanding that he acknowledge the punishment for her “crime,” namely that she be stoned. Jesus, hearing all this, bent over from his chair and started writing in the sand, paying little or no attention meanwhile to the woman or her accusers. Eventually, as they insisted on hearing his judgment, Jesus raised up and addressed the woman’s accusers with these words, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” Then again he bent over. At the same time the accusers one by one, caught in their own web of guilt, slunk out of the room. Jesus is left alone with the woman standing before him. He asks gently of the woman: “Where are they? Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go in peace and sin no more.”
What might Jesus be trying to tell you through this reading?
For me, the lesson becomes obviously compelling: Who am I with all my failings to presume to accuse others? Indeed, judge not, for you shall be judged.
4th Sunday of Lent Reflection
By Dianne Costanzo, LAS Seminars Faculty
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 – The Prodigal Son
The story of the prodigal son, a favorite among preachers, often is interpreted as an exercise in forgiveness and taking a loved one back. We all know how the younger son wastes what he is given and we can often identify with his callow indiscretion. We get it—we have all been there. Yet I am more interested in the “good” son, the one who never strays, the one who feels that he has done all the right things and never received so much as a goat, let alone the fatted calf. In a profound way, I find him much more “prodigal” or wasteful. He is too busy eating his self-righteousness, so even if he did receive the fatted calf, he cannot enjoy it because he has filled himself with condemnation.
In Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, Thomas a Becket muses, “The last temptation is the greatest treason:/To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” The elder son has “done everything right,” so why is he so bitter? Perhaps he is angry because his baby brother did not get punished enough. Perhaps he is irritated with himself because he never had the guts to ask for something, be given it, and then have to accept the consequences for his actions. He never does anything wrong—he just does not do anything, period.
While I am not excusing the younger son’s transgressions, I have to confess I admire him. He takes a shot and magnificently blows it and “when he comes to his senses,” (15:17), he has the humility to return without any expectation that his father will take him back as a son, but as a laborer. The “good” son has never lost his place with his father yet feels like a slave. So we might ask who is really prodigal. Who wastes time by not recognizing the goodness that has been there all along? Who squanders all that is at hand so that he defers joy? Who chooses to be bitter rather than better?
Could it be that the story calls us to examine not just our actions, but the motivations that drive our actions? Is it possible that Jesus is less concerned with whether we make mistakes than he is about our “coming to our senses” and having the humility and courage to return home and place ourselves at another’s mercy? This is a radical story, one that calls us beyond the too easy juxtaposition between what we think is good and bad. Jesus is simply waiting for us to come to our senses and accept God’s inscrutable mercy and non-negotiable love. Makes sense to me.
2nd Sunday of Lent Reflection
By Tory Nogle, Class of 2013
Luke 9:28-36 – The Transfiguration
As a college student, becoming tired is a common occurrence. We wake up every day, go to classes, get our work done, and inevitably stay up well into the morning. In this gospel, we see that Peter, John, and James become sleepy and only when they were fully awake could they see the glorious splendor of Jesus and his companions. All too often, we are too busy working towards the end result to be fully present and awake in the moment and we get tired of the journey. Lent is not just 40 days before Easter, but rather 40 days of prayer, community, and contemplation, that culminates in the Easter season.
This is my last semester at Dominican. I am completing my clinical practice, also known as student teaching, this semester. I have never been so tired and overwhelmed in my whole life. I wake up every morning, pull myself together, get to school, teach, plan, sleep, and do it all over again. I normally think to myself, “just get through this week Tory, you can rest this weekend.” Just like Peter, John, and James, I became sleepy. Then, all of a sudden, I have one of those amazing teaching moments, a moment that makes me so excited to be teaching and reminds me why I love what I am doing. I am able to see how awesome this is and how much passion I have for teaching despite the workload. When I was reading this gospel, I realized it relates to something we all go through. We need to be open to beauty and the glory that is our faith.
We can miss so much if we let ourselves fall asleep spiritually. Our lives are full of things that allow us to do so. Things like stress, technology, temptations, and unhealthy relationships all find ways to sneak into our lives and take over. We do not like silence because we think we can be using this time more wisely. When there is a silent moment in class or a conversation, giggling normally follows or people awkwardly looking around. You know they are thinking, “Please someone say something,” and, guess what, you are thinking the same thing. In the March issue of Sojourners magazine there is an article called, “Finding God in the Depths of Silence” which addresses our busy and distracting society. In this article by Richard Rohr, he states that, “The ego gets what it wants with words. The soul finds what it needs in silence.” Though we may sometimes find ourselves becoming sleepy in our faith or our relationships, when we are able to wake up and be fully present we can see the gifts that we are given through our faith.
This Lent, I want to be able to make room in my heart and have those silent moments to let God speak to me like he spoke to Peter, John, and James. We may fall asleep along the way, but it is important to remember that when we are fully awake and present to the moment, that is when grace speaks to us and we are able to listen to God’s message.
First Sunday of Lent Reflection by Shannon Green, University Ministry
Gospel: Luke 4:1-13
As a kid I took Lent pretty seriously. I gave up the usual items like candy and fighting with my sisters, and I felt I was doing what my faith required. When I would hear this gospel at the start of Lent each year, I understood the story as Jesus being tempted in the desert for 40 days. So I prepared for Lent as a period of being tempted, and I knew the devil would be after me to go back on my fasting, to either forget – or worse – purposely break the rules. 40 days was a long time to keep up being good with the devil tempting me at every turn. I was set up for failure every time. I inevitably gave in, and was ashamed that the devil had won.
Thankfully I now see in this gospel that this is not a time of temptation but a time of retreat. Jesus had just been publicly baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit. He was claimed and named as beloved Son of God. Jesus’ response to his baptism is to go where the Spirit leads: into the wilderness for retreat. In this vast space there was plenty of room to pray and fast for 40 days. I imagine this time allowed Jesus to reflect deeply on what just happened to him in his baptism, to root himself steadfastly in his identity as the Son of God, and to strengthen his communion with his Father.
The temptations Jesus faced are not the temptations I thought were important as child, but they are very familiar to me today: using the power of my position for short-term gain, satisfying a physical or emotional hunger; worshiping the false gods of material possessions and prestige; making demands of God that are not mine to make. These temptations lead only to dissatisfaction and separation, not communion.
The devil resorts to every deception, even using the Scriptures of Jesus’ own tradition to disrupt his relationship with God. But after 40 days of fasting and prayer, after being claimed through his baptism as the beloved Son of God, Jesus knows who he is and Whose he is. Jesus’ life was one of forgoing material and political and personal power, and embracing the creative power of God freely.Mary Jo Leddy writes in Radical Gratitude, “Because [Jesus] knew he was from God, he also lived in the realization that he was with God, that his identity was constituted through this most fundamental relationship. This was the source of his power. . . It was not a controlling power, not a power achieved by wealth, might or position. It was the power of love unleashed through active gratitude.”
We go into the desert these forty days to remember who we are and Whose we are, that by our baptism we have been declared beloved daughters and sons of God. By taking this time to fast and pray, we can deepen our relationship with the true Source of creative power in our lives. We need this time, and I believe if we stop for a moment to reflect we will find that we crave this time with our God.
The devil will return to us in the very ordinary temptations of life, using all at his disposal to sever our ties with God. But just as with Jesus, the Spirit leads us and is with us always. If we remember where we came from and to whom we belong, and make room for love instead of the things that do not last, the devil will not succeed.
Looking for an opportunity to pray these 40 days? Sign up for the Busy Student Retreat, February 25 – 28. dom.edu/ministry