A dear friend of mine, a lawyer and educator with immaculate and far ranging Catholic credentials was just forbidden by superiors to teach his students Zen.
His obedient response provides a rare, first hand treat for lovers of interfaith. Enjoy.
Out of consideration for your wishes, I will not teach Zen Meditation in your classroom. However, I feel compelled to provide you with some background and my perspective on the subject.
I was introduced to Zen by the abbot in my Trappist abbey in 1972 at the age of 20. I have meditated continuously for 42 years and it has proven to be a spiritually fruitful discipline. When I first began meditating, one of the priests at the abbey, Fr. M., approached me and warned me that, if I continued to practice Zen, I would surely be possessed. Fr. M. had close ties to the fundamentalist community and was quite suspicious of the Vatican II reforms. His fear, and it was profound, was contagious and I began to wrestle with doubt. I suspended my Zen practice. As I have always done in my life of faith, I brought my doubt and anxiety to prayer. As I prayed, the fear communicated to me by Fr. M. gradually evaporated. I realized, though incompletely at the time, that what my abbot had taught me was true: Zen meditation was a physical and mental discipline easily transferable to any religion. So I renewed my practice with fresh enthusiasm.
As a rule, I do not share my inner life with others but, since you have raised the issue, I will make an exception.
My practice of Zen led me to deeper realms of contemplative experience. I came to understand that meditation is external, and contemplation, internal. I began to experience, in the stillness of my heart, a deepening relationship with the heart of Jesus that became increasingly intimate. In Lectio Divina, as I ruminated on scripture, the Word of God would come to life for me. As I prayed over scripture, I often felt a profound sorrow and understood the heart of God. Throughout my stay in the abbey, I reported my mystical experiences to both the abbot and the prior.
Through their guidance, I learned not to seek after these experiences but to focus on the love of God and charity to others–or caritas the great Cistercian virtue. Often, the prior and I would meet at his hermitage for morning Mass. During those moments, meditating after the eucharist, we would have a shared mystical experience with Jesus. I cannot explain it but to say, in the stillness of that moment, the world of heart would open up and Jesus, the prior and I would dwell there.
Years later, I was meditating one morning, and I had the experience once again of the prior’s presence. I later called the abbey and learned that he had passed on. From this, I learned that the bond of heart we form in Christ transcends death. In the stillness of the early morning, I know the reality of the communion of saints.
Most importantly, though, my practice of meditation has taught me empathy and led me to compassion and Christian love. As promised by John in his first letter, perfect love casts out fear. I have learned to follow that love and to be suspicious of impulses arising from fear.
Throughout my life, I have been challenged to make that choice: do I erect boundaries between myself and others, rooted in fear, or do I follow the course of radical openness to the Holy Spirit as I experience the presence of God in others? Over the last several years, I have experienced that challenge in ways I could never have anticipated. I know that, till the moment I stop breathing, that challenge will remain before me.
Thomas Merton addresses this in his Seeds of Contemplation, he cautions us regarding the “theology of the devil.” If I had listened to Fr. M., 42 years ago, I would have succumbed to that ersatz theology and deprived myself of a rich course of spiritual growth and experience.