The very fact that the World’s religions gathered together for a Parliament must make us wonder. Their variety is bewildering. Do all these religions have anything in common? And, if so, what is it? Can one hope ever to understand a religious tradition that seems so vastly different from one’s own? What can be expected from a gathering of this kind? We know of religious wars throughout history. Can we envisage a relationship between the world’s religions that may serve as a basis for peace?

In an effort to tackle these questions, I must appeal to your personal experience. The subject matter demands this. One cannot talk about spiritual matters from an outsider’s point of view and hope to say anything worthwhile. In what follows here I shall speak from my own experience; please check it against yours. If it doesn’t correspond to what you know from experience, it won’t be of use to you, no matter how true it may be objectively. Try to let what I am saying speak to your heart, not only to your head. It is my conviction that at the core of every religious tradition lies an experience that is accessible to all of us, if we open our hearts to it. The heart of every religion is the religion of the heart.

At this point it will help us to distinguish between Religion and the religions. Religions are the different sociological entities we find, for instance, represented at this Parliament. They are shaped by history, by economics, by politics, even by geography, and they define themselves largely by what makes them different from one another. Religion, in contrast, unites. I spell it with a capital “R” and we’ll use the term in the sense of “spirituality.” Religion unites, because it is the homing instinct of the human heart.

“Heart” stands here for that core of our being where we are one with ourselves, one with all, one even with the divine ground of our being. “Belonging” is therefore a key word for understanding the heart—the oneness of limitless belonging. A second key word is “meaning,” for the heart is the organ for meaning. As the eye perceives light and the ear sound, the heart perceives meaning. Not in the sense of the “meaning” of a word that we might look up in a dictionary. Rather, “meaning” as that which we have in mind when we call an experience deeply meaningful. Meaning in this sense is that within which we find rest.

Every religious tradition starts from the mystical insight of its (known or unknown) founder. Every one of them has for its highest goal to lead its followers to mystical oneness with the Ultimate.

The great teacher concerning the heart in the Christian tradition is St. Augustine. That he was an African may well have something to do with his awareness of soul and heart. Living during the collapse of the Roman Empire from the fourth to the fifth century — the collapse in fact of the known world of his time — he turned inward and discovered the heart. His Confessions have been called the first psychological autobiography. In Christian art he is depicted as lifting up a heart in his hand.

“In my heart of hearts,” St. Augustine wrote, “God is closer to me than I am to myself.” Paradoxically, he also wrote, “restless is our heart until it rests in you, O God.” The first of these two quotations expresses our deepest belonging, the second our restless longing for ultimate meaning. T.S. Eliot touches the same paradox when he writes “home is where we start from,” but also,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

What we know at the end of our quest is the meaning of belonging. And the driving force of the spiritual quest is our longing to belong.

In order to check this out more concretely against your own experience, please try to remember now one of your most alive, most awake, most meaningful moments. Psychologists call these moments peak experiences; religious parlance speaks of mystical moments. The mystic experience is an (often sudden) awareness of being one with the Ultimate — a sense of limitless belonging — to God, if you wish to use this term. Suddenly, for a brief moment, you feel no longer “left out,” as we so often do, no longer orphaned in the universe. It feels like a homecoming to where you belong.

[quote text=”Rightly understood, the mystic is not a special kind of human being; rather, every human being is a special kind of mystic.”]

We all have had these moments even if we shy away from calling them mystical. Rightly understood, the mystic is not a special kind of human being; rather, every human being is a special kind of mystic. At least, this is our calling. In peak experiences we glimpse what life could be like if humans were relating to one another and to all there is, not in an atmosphere of alienation, but out of a deep sense of belonging. All of us are challenged by the glimpses we catch in our best moments. Those who rise to that challenge become mystics.

Remember how these glimpses surprise us, when we least expect them? Thomas Merton suddenly felt one with all on a street corner in Louisville/Kentucky, when he had merely set out to go to the dentist. You may have felt this limitless belonging on a mountaintop, or when listening to music. But you may just as likely have been surprised by it when you were stuck in rush-hour traffic or changing your baby’s diapers. Whenever it hits us, we know: this is it! This is the answer, as it were, to a question we keep carrying around with us, unable to put it into words and unable to drop it. We may not be able to put the answer into words either — who can put the meaning of a sunrise into words? — but we can rest in it. We have come home. We have found meaning.

If this description rings true to you from experience, we have found a launching pad for our exploration into the vast universe of religions. We have found our personal access to what all religions have in common. For, by their own testimony, the mystic experience lies at the core of every one of them. Every religious tradition starts from the mystical insight of its (known or unknown) founder. Every one of them has for its highest goal to lead its followers to mystical oneness with the Ultimate.

Attention to our moments of meaning, no matter how fleeting they might be, can lead us even further. They provide us with a brief taste of the nectar, the sweetness in the chalice of all the different religions blossoming like so many flowers in the garden of this world. Our moments of meaning also provide us with a pattern for understanding the differences — and the mutual relationships — between the world’s religions. In order to explore this pattern we must look deeper. We need to look carefully at some subtle aspects of your experience to which you may not yet have paid attention.

[quote text=”In a genuine conversation we share something that goes deeper than words: we allow the silence of the heart to come to word.”]

Whenever we experience meaning in which our restlessness finds rest (at least for the moment), three aspects can be singled out, which I shall call Word, Silence, and Understanding. Let’s start with the most obvious. When we have a meaningful encounter, read or see something deeply meaningful to us, we are apt to say, “This speaks to me.” Whatever it is that has meaning for us tells us something, has a message for us, and under this aspect; I call it Word. Obviously, we are not talking here about a word from a vocabulary list. Word stands here in the widest sense for anything that embodies its meaning — for the candle, for instance, that you light on a festive table for a meal you share with a friend.

It is not difficult for us to see that there must be something that “has” meaning whenever we “find” meaning. Nor should it be too difficult to agree on calling this something Word. It gets a little more difficult when we turn to a second aspect of every meaningful experience, one to which we tend to pay less attention. I call this aspect Silence. An example may help us. We can quite readily distinguish between a mere exchange of words and a meaningful conversation. In a genuine conversation we share something that goes deeper than words: we allow the silence of the heart to come to word. In contrast to an exchange of words, a true dialogue between friends is rather an exchange of silence with silence by means of words.

[quote text=”It is by doing that we understand.”]

We have experienced Word and Silence in this sense. By focusing our attention we are able to distinguish them as essential aspects of anything that is meaningful. But there is a third aspect to be explored: Understanding. To call something meaningful implies understanding. Without Understanding neither Word nor Silence have meaning. What then is Understanding? We may think of it as a process, by which Silence comes to word and Word, by being understood, returns into Silence.

There is a curious idiom in American vernacular: when something, say a piece of music or a moving event (Word, that is,) becomes profoundly meaningful to us, we might say, “This really sends me.” Language gives us a hint here. When Word deeply touches us, it sends us, sends us into action. Paradoxically both are true: Word, when it is understood comes to rest in Silence; yet, this rest is not inactivity, rather it is a most dynamic doing. Thus, Understanding happens when we listen so readily to the Word that it moves us to action and so leads us back into the Silence out of which it came and into which it returns. It is by doing that we understand.

Since every religious tradition is an expression of the human heart’s perennial quest for meaning, the three characteristic aspects of meaning, Word, Silence, and Understanding will also characterize the world’s religions. All three will be present in every tradition, for they are essential for meaning, yet we might expect differences of emphasis. In the primal religions — African or Native American, for instance — our three aspects of meaning are still quite equally emphasized and interwoven with one another as myth, ritual, and right living. But as the Western traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Buddhism and Hinduism grow out of the primal religious matrix, emphasis falls more strongly on Word, Silence, or Understanding respectively, although all three will always play their role in each tradition.

In Christianity — indeed in the whole biblical tradition — the emphasis falls on the Word.

Allow me to start with my own — the Christian tradition — to sketch a (necessarily rough) scheme that might help us to appreciate the diversity of religious traditions and to understand their relationships to each other. It doesn’t take much to see how heavily in Christianity — indeed in the whole biblical tradition — the emphasis falls on the Word. God spoke and the world was created. This is a mythical way of expressing the worldview of the Bible: everything that exists can be understood as Word of God. So central is this notion that one might rightly see Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all three of them, contained as in a seed in the statement “God speaks.”

One of the Hasidic tales told by Martin Buber clearly brings out the preeminence of Word in Western religious tradition. Of Rabbi Susya, one of the great Hasidic mystics, it is said that he was unable to quote the sermons of his teacher. The story explains this serious shortcoming in the following way. Rabbi Susya’s teacher was in the habit of beginning his sermons by first reading a passage from Holy Scripture. He would start by unrolling the Torah scroll, saying “God spoke:” …and then begin to read. But at this point poor Rabbi Susya had already heard more than he could bear. He would carry on so wildly that they had to lead him out of the synagogue. There he would stand in the hallway or in the woodshed beating the walls and shouting, “God spoke! God spoke!” that was enough for him. Martin Buber suggests that Rabbi Susya understood the meaning of God’s Word more deeply than all those who could quote their teacher’s sermons. “For with one word the world is created,” he says, “and with one word the world is redeemed.”

Since every thing, every person, every situation comes from the God who speaks, the whole world is Word by which we can live.

Where Word is so central, response will be given a high priority: hence, the emphasis on responding to God in the Western tradition of spirituality. “Living by the Word” is a whole world of prayer that springs typically from the biblical faith in God who speaks. And “Living by the Word” implies far more than the idea that God gives the word in the sense of a command and the faithful carry it out. That is merely the moral dimension of it. The full religious dimension implies that we are nourished “by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” But let us take Word in its widest sense, here too.

Since every thing, every person, every situation comes from the God who speaks, the whole world is Word by which we can live. We need only “taste and see how good God is.” We do this with all our senses. Through whatever we taste or touch, smell, hear, or see God’s love can nourish us. For the one creating and redeeming Word is spelled out to us in ever new ways. God who is love, has nothing else to say in all eternity but “I love you!” And God says this in ever new ways through everything that comes into being. And we “eat it all up;” as we might say of a book, “I devoured it, cover to cover.” We assimilate this food and it becomes our life. We live in its strength. We become Word.

[quote text=”Those who can hear God’s Word can also hear God’s Silence.”]

So strong is this emphasis on Word in Christian spirituality that even some faithful Christians are hardly aware that there are within their own tradition other worlds of prayer to be explored. One of them is known as “Prayer of Silence.” Here the Silence itself becomes our prayer. C.S. Lewis, is in accord with ancient Christian tradition when he speaks of God as a Abyss of Silence into which we can throw down our minds for ever and ever, never will we hear an echo coming back. Yet, this silent abyss is paradoxically also the divine womb from which the eternal Word comes forth. As an early Christian saying puts it: “those who can hear God’s Word can also hear God’s Silence.” The two are inseparable. There are more and more Christians today who spontaneously discover the Prayer of Silence. Sometimes they cannot account for their hunger for Silence, their deep desire simply to let themselves down into the quiet depth of God. Unaware that they have found their way into an ancient, timelessly valid realm of Christian prayer, they would be all the more surprised to learn that this could rightly be called the Buddhist dimension of the biblical tradition. Word and Silence are inseparable, as we have said. Just as Word is the core of Western tradition, however, Silence is the core of Buddhism.

Nowhere does this become more obvious than in the account of the Buddha’s great wordless sermon. How can there be a sermon without words? The Buddha simply holds up a flower. Only one of his disciples understands, it is said. But how can that one prove without a word that he understood? He smiled, the story tells us. The Buddha smiles back and in the silence between them the tradition is passed on from the Buddha to his first successor, the disciple with the understanding smile. Ever since, we are told, the tradition of Buddhism is passed on in silence. To put it more correctly: What is handed on is Silence.

If you meet the Buddha, kill him!

Not that Buddhists have no sacred Word, but the emphasis is all on the Silence. Their sacred Scriptures are so voluminous, in fact, that it takes a whole day merely to page through them. This is done ritually and with great reverence at least once a year in Buddhist monasteries. And yet, a good Buddhist will say of these Scriptures, “Burn them all!” No one will burn them, of course. That’s also quite significant. But just the suggestion to burn them expresses the deep conviction that words must not get in the way of Silence. For the same reason Buddhists will even say, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!” A Catholic Priest I knew caught on to the universal validity of the Buddhist insight and tried to tell his parishioners, “If you meet the Christ, kill him!” His sermon wasn’t a complete success — understandably — although the same insight, less emphasized can also be found in the Gospel according to John, for instance. We simply have to respect the fact that in their quest for meaning Christians are as tenaciously committed to the Word as Buddhists are to the Silence.

the Word the Prayer of Silence is equally close to the heart of Christian spirituality and gives Christians—from within, as it were—access to the very core of Buddhism.

Yet, Word and Silence are not opposed to each other. We cannot say this too often. They are two inseparable aspects of Religion, of the human quest for meaning. That is why in spite of all the emphasis on Living by the Word the Prayer of Silence is equally close to the heart of Christian spirituality and gives Christians — from within, as it were — access to the very core of Buddhism. And since we discovered that, together with Word and Silence, Understanding is another dimension of meaning, we should not be surprised to find a whole other world of Christian prayer focused on Understanding. The technical term for it is “Contemplation in Action,” but it could as appropriately be named Prayer of Understanding.

Contemplation is in the biblical tradition exemplified in Moses. Moses ascends the mountain to spend forty days and forty nights in the presence of God. There he is shown the vision of the temple. Coming down from the mountain, he brings with him not only the tablets of the Law, the plan according to which the people will be built into a temple of living stones; he brings also the design for the physical temple, the tabernacle, which is to be built exactly “according to the pattern” that was shown to him on the mountain. These two phases of contemplation belong inseparably together: the vision of the pattern and the action of building according to that pattern.

[quote text=”I heard and I forgot; I saw and I remembered; I did and I understood.”]

What distinguishes Contemplation in Action is that vision and action take place simultaneously. A teacher who lavishes love on a child understands God who is love simply by loving. The vision of God is given to her in and through her action. How else do we ever understand except by doing? As the saying goes: “I heard and I forgot; I saw and I remembered; I did and I understood.” This is why we could call Contemplation in Action the Prayer of Understanding.

“Yoga is Understanding,” says Swami Venkatesananda with deep insight into what makes Hinduism tick. Just as Jews, Christians, and Muslims in their quest for meaning focus on Word and Buddhists on Silence, so Hindus focus on Understanding. Remember what we said about Understanding as the process by which Silence comes to Word and Word finds home into Silence. This gives us a clue to the central intuition of Hinduism: Atman is Brahman — God manifest (Word) is God un-manifest (Silence) — and Brahman is Atman—the divine un-manifest (Silence) is the manifest divine (Word). To know that Word is Silence and Silence is Word — distinct without separation, and inseparable, yet without confusion — this is Understanding.

We may read all the books ever written on the love of God and never understand loving unless we love.

The Sanskrit word “Yoga” and the English word “yoke” come from the same linguistic root, meaning “to join.” Yoga in all its different forms — service, insight, devotion, etc. — is the action that yokes together Word and Silence by Understanding. And Hinduism knows that this Understanding comes only through doing. In the Bhagavad-Gita Prince Arjuna is confronted with a conundrum he cannot possibly unravel. Fate has placed him in a position where it is his duty to fight a just but cruel battle against his kinsmen and friends. How can a peace-loving prince make sense of this situation? The god Vishnu, disguised as Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, can give him only this advice: do your duty and in the doing you will understand.

We may read volumes and volumes on the art of swimming, yet we’ll never understand what swimming is like unless we get wet. So we may read all the books ever written on the love of God and never understand loving unless we love. Countless loving people practice Contemplation in Action without having ever come across its name. What does it matter? By loving they understand God’s love from within. Just as the Prayer of Silence may be called the Buddhist dimension of Christian spirituality, so Contemplation in Action is its Hindu dimension.

[quote text=”There is nothing wrong with speaking from inside of one tradition, as long as we do not absolutize our particular perspective, but see it in its relationship to all others.”]

Admittedly, all this is presented from my own perspective, which is the Christian one. But what other option do I have? If I try to be completely detached from the religious quest for meaning, I have lost touch with the very reality I want to investigate. I would be like the boy who takes his tooth, after the dentist pulled it out, puts some sugar on it and wants to watch how it hurts. One cannot understand pain from the outside, nor joy, nor life, nor live Religion. There is nothing wrong with speaking from inside of one tradition, as long as we do not absolutize our particular perspective, but see it in its relationship to all others.

Remember what we said earlier about our peak moments, our glimpses of meaning, and our spontaneous exclamation, “This is it!” The Christian perspective betrays itself by emphasizing the first word of this little sentence: THIS is it! Enthusiasm for the discovery that “God speaks” that everything is Word of God, makes us exclaim again and again, “THIS is it!” and “This is it, “ whenever we are struck by another Word that reveals meaning. Not so Buddhism. Buddhism in turn is struck by the one Silence that comes to Word in so great a multitude and variety of words. “This is IT,” Buddhism exclaims; and this and this and this, every one of all these words, is always IT, is always the one Silence. We need Hinduism to remind us that what really matters is that this IS it—that Word IS Silence and Silence IS Word—therein lies true Understanding. The perspectives complement one another.

By appreciating other perspectives, we learn to broaden our own, without losing it. In fact, our understanding of our own tradition is likely to deepen through contact with others. Christians, for instance, may see the mystery of the triune God reflected in the pattern of Word, Silence, and Understanding. God, whom Jesus calls, “Father” can also be understood as that motherly womb of Silence from which the eternal Word is born, before all time, as by God’s Self-Understanding, the Silence comes to Word. The Word, the Son, in turn, obediently carries out the Father’s will and in doing so returns to God through that Understanding which is perfect love, the Holy Spirit.

From the Cappadocian Fathers, the great theologians of the fourth century to the Shakers in the nineteenth, Christian tradition has conceived these inner-trinitarian relationships as a great circle-dance. Christ, the great leader of the cosmic dance, leapt from the heavenly throne, “when all things were in deep silence,” and, dancing, leads all creation in the power of the Holy Spirit back to God. One way of looking at the interrelationship of the world’s religions from a Christian point of view sees them as mirroring on earth God’s own great circle-dance of Silence, Word, and Understanding.

Religion is not only the quest for meaning; it is also the celebration of meaning. We can think of this celebration as a great dance in which those who live by the Word hold hands with those who dive into the Silence and with those whose path is Understanding. There is something intriguing about the image of a circle-dance. Just visualize it for a moment. As long as you stand outside of the circle, it will always seem to you that those nearest to you are going in one direction, those furthest away in exactly the opposite one. There is no way of overcoming this illusion except by getting into the circle. As soon as you hold hands and become one of the dancers, you realize that all are going in the same direction. We made a beginning of this at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. My wish for all of us is that we may fully enter into this Great Circle-Dance and dance on into the third millennium, celebrating in the midst of our precious diversity our unity.

From: Teasdale, Wayne and Cairns, George (editors). The Community of Religions: Voices and Images of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Chicago: Continuum Publishing Group, 1996.

Br. David Steindl-Rast Trust
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.