A very interesting article, though mistaken in seeing the death of Communism, from New Oxford Review—written in 1993—about the relationship and what it means.
Hans Urs von Balthasar maintained that there have been two main competitors to the Catholic Church’s claims to universality in the contemporary world: Communism and Asian meditative religion, notably Buddhism. He saw the former’s appeal as biblical in origin: Marx was more Hebrew prophet than German philosopher (for his concern was not with “Being,” or its being forgotten, but with social justice); he was a prophet gone astray, but one who could remind Christians of much they had tended to forget.
A relative of mine who had been at one time a high-ranking official in Communist Poland smiled wryly at me when I saw him in 1984: The Catholic Church as personified in the Pope, he held, had stolen the Communists’ thunder. Indeed, in much of the world the Church has become the voice for human rights and a just economic order. Although this is no novel situation for the Church, the “prophetic” side has clearly come to the fore in ways older Catholics could not have imagined when their lives tended to revolve around novenas. Perhaps the struggle over a truly Catholic vision of social justice represents the birth pains of a very important reassimilation of biblical truths to which the tradition itself had become somewhat blind and which it was goaded to remember by an ostensibly anti-Christian movement. Certainly Communism was not the monolithic monster, the anti-Church, it had appeared to be earlier in this century.
As Communism dies, the second alternative vision remains. We have been reminded of the prophetic in our religion, but the contemplative (the spiritual, the mystical) has languished for decades. The atrocities of the post-Vatican II iconoclasts may not have been stopped, let alone repaired, but there are powerful voices in the Church today that are trying to remind us that the Church did not begin in 1968. Moreover, there has been no dearth of interest in matters spiritual in the surrounding culture.
At the pop level, things like astrology, the New Age movement, and the occult surround us. The most important and respectable element here is the Buddhist tradition, particularly Zen. Once the stuff of Beat poets, versions of Zen have found a place in Catholic spiritual writing and retreat work. Of course, it is unfortunate that a tradition as profound as Buddhism should be lumped together with such things as the occult, though one need only go to an American bookstore to find all manner of solid spiritual reading lumped together with the bizarre. No less a figure than the late Jesuit Cardinal Henri de Lubac held Buddhism to be the highest mysticism created by man.
Zen is the essence of Buddhism, which the Church, most notably in the Second Vatican Council, urges her children to respect. At the same time, in the encounter of East and West there is great danger that the discussion will be surrendered to “experts” so aware of detail and nuance that the fact that we are considering different forests is lost in the study of similar trees.
With that in mind, I want to ask: Why would Catholics look East? In particular, what could orthodox Catholics in America legitimately seek to assimilate in these meditative traditions? Three possibilities suggest themselves: first, a traditional wisdom, near the heart of which is a traditional discipline; second, experience, especially silence; third, a technique, one which is nonpersonal. Let’s look at each of these separately.
Not too long ago I listened to a large group of women retreatants singing a modern religious song of the sort one hears endlessly these days. Written, no doubt, within the past 20 years, it is a piece of that resigned sentimentality that is characteristic of “easy-listening music.” Although pleasant enough, it is spiritual Wonder Bread: It utterly lacks roots, depth, sustenance. It is all right as a starter, to open the heart to prayer. But unless fed by some solid food, say Gregorian Chant, serious seekers will turn elsewhere. At the same retreat house, I entered a chapel to see other retreatants praying. One was on the floor, another poured onto a chair; the spirit was one of slouch. In contrast, Zen offers something that has been around for centuries, and it does so in a disciplined way.
Secondly, meditative religion offers silence. The practice of exterior silence penetrates inwardly. Given the overwhelming proliferation of words today, and the noise which Thomas Merton has called the “demon of our age,” silence, while free, is no cheap commodity. Moreover, the stance of silence, of reverent attention without self-assertion, is inherently ennobling.
Thirdly, a technique, a method, is offered. Although some teachers would no doubt hold that technique, in its highest reaches, might be discarded, it is very much at the heart of the practice of meditation. As such, it would seem to be perfectly adapted to modern, technical consciousness. That Asian meditation is impersonal and technical is crucial for its appeal to Westerners, who are often fleeing the personal into the impersonal and who know no way of being in the world other than through technique.
Thus, the hunger for traditional wisdom and discipline, the weariness with chatter and the longing for silence, and the need for a technique that is nonpersonal are met in meditation, notably Buddhist. As for the first two basic elements, we must seriously ask if today’s Church adequately addresses these needs of the heart. Is it not precisely these elements — traditional wisdom combined with a prayerful, reverent atmosphere (silence) — that those serious Catholics heartbroken by the revolution in the Church find most missing? If so, then perhaps it is understandable that the “wisdom of Asia” has been filling our modern gap. God works in strange ways. (Remember that the Church from her earliest period engaged the wisdom of the gentiles — what the Fathers called the “treasures of the Egyptians.”) The third element, technique, is more problematic for the Christian, but its resolution could eventually lead to a correct assimilation of the first two.