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The Interspiritual Age
Practical Mysticism for the Third Millennium

by Wayne Teasdale

In the following article Wayne Teasdale proposes his view of a unitive spirituality which transcends tradition.
Copyright © by 1999 Wayne Teasdale
Used by CSP with permission of the author.
All rights reserved.


Global spirituality or Interspiritual wisdom has become possible because of a tangible sense of community among the religions and the real necessity for the religions to collaborate on the serious challenges to the world, notably the ecological crisis. Only spirituality can move us from within to change and become more responsible for the Earth and one another. Global spirituality is basically a consensus on the practical values, practices, and Insights found In all traditions of spirituality including moral life, deep nonviolence, solidarity with all life and with the Earth, spiritual practice and self-knowledge, simplicity, selfless service, and prophetic action. Mature spirituality also grants us a number of gifts or capacities that enhance our relations with others and our work: openness, presence, listening, being, seeing, spontaneity, and joy. Finally, spirituality is a resource for building a universal and enlightened civilization.

We are at the threshold of a new age, a Second Axial Age, a decisive period that will be characterized by a deep sense of community among the religions – of interspiritual wisdom – and a profound commitment to environmental justice. The Second Axial Age will thus also be the Interspiritual Age and the Ecological Age, as Thomas Berry calls it.1 These terms are actually interchangeable, for the Second Axial Age names these two fundamental shifts in consciousness that imply one another: the emergence of interspiritual wisdom from the discovery of community among members of the various religions, and the serious focus on the ultimate value of and concern for the Earth. Interspiritual wisdom includes a healthy eco-spirituality that, as a new form of nature-mysticism, emphasizes this new value and concern for the planet as part of mystical life and understanding. Whatever term we may use to describe this new, formative historical time, it seems undeniable that a new age is upon us.2

I would like to explore these insights, and suggest that they require a multifaith understanding of spirituality that is universal while preserving the rich diversity. This global or multifaith spirituality is the basis of speaking about interspiritual wisdom. I will develop the elements of such an understanding then reflect on the capacities they awaken. What is essentially being addressed is the deeper foundation of a new universal society and what the religions can contribute to it. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the nature, role, and extent of spirituality as it functions in a global context, contributing toward substantial change.

Some Important Trends

The world is evolving into a planetary civilization, and this evolution includes the spiritual dimension of life. The religions thus have a central role in this process. Three developments involving the religions are acquiring explicit form: the discovery and expansion of deep bonds of community among the religions themselves, the phenomenon of interspiritual wisdom, and the sober recognition that the environmental crisis is a concern and a responsibility that we all share.

The growing awareness of community among the religions – ushering in a new paradigm of relationship between and among the religions – has been steadily unfolding since the first great World's Parliament of Religions of 1893.3 This historic event introduced the Asian religions into the West and greatly expanded interest in the study of comparative religion. The gathering was also concerned with promoting peace around the world through the religions by encouraging them to understand that they had to accept one another.4 This recognition and willingness to listen to one another gave birth to the interfaith movement with its focus on dialogue at several levels, including academic or theoretical, the dialogue of the head; shared prayer and meditation, the dialogue of the heart; and, through these two forms of reaching out, genuine collaboration among the faiths, the dialogue of the hands.

Over the century since the first Parliament, many organizations have carried forth the vision of interfaith harmony and its promise of community: the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the International Association for Religious Freedom, the Temple of Understanding, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the World Congress of Faiths, the North American Interfaith Network, and the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, to mention the most visible ones.5 As the religions embrace the new relationship, come out of their isolation, shed their exclusiveness, meet one another in their common vulnerabilities, and admit their mistakes (including those made toward one another), they are then able to know and experience that genuine community out of which we all come and in which we are all sustained. The whole interfaith movement – in its origins, its unfolding, and now its expansion – introduces us into an axial process that takes us into the new period: the Second Axial time, the Ecological, Interspiritual Age, and a global transformation of culture.

All this understanding is gradually becoming explicit in our time, and the second Parliament of the World's Religions6 (August 28-September 5, 1993) was an axial event of great historical significance in being an occasion for us to envision the possibility of the future age that is fast assuming form now. The second Parliament brought 9,000 people together, representing some 125 traditions – the most diverse group in historical memory – in a profound atmosphere of mutual openness, deep listening, and growing understanding. A new paradigm or model of relationship was clearly discerned during and after this fascinating planetary meeting.

The Parliament called together a 250-member Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, who debated the Parliament's statement, "Towards a Global Ethic,"7 which occasioned much controversy because of its content, language, methodology, and process. It was regarded as too Western, First World, even too Christian; essentially, it disenfranchised the Assembly, since it gave it no role in the formation and refinement of the document.8 The existence of this declaration, however, and numerous others – such as the "Universal Declaration on Nonviolence," the "Declaration of Human responsibilities for Peace and Sustainable Development,"9 and the more recent "Riva del Garda" document of the World Conference on Religion and Peace10 – are possible only because of the reality of community emerging around the world among members of the religions, as well as persons with no religion who have a keen interest in and commitment to the Earth. This vision of community on the horizon of history is a major – indeed, axial change – so much so as to propel us into the new age. This particular change and the new age it announces present an opportunity for a real culture of peace and gradually carefully to be erected from the ashes of countless conflicts of the past.

The second revolutionary trend is, in many ways, the fruit of community among the religions. It is so important as also to be axial, since it helps to create great age of unity-in-diversity of global spirituality and culture: the Interspiritual Age. This trend can be called interspiritual wisdom. By "interspiritual" is not meant the mixing of the various traditions but the possibility and actuality that we can learn and be nourished from more than our own mystical tradition. The note of interspiritual wisdom suggests that there is an underpinning, universal metaphysics. Traditionally, this is known as the philosophia perennis, – or perennial philosophy, the primordial tradition, the universal metaphysical tradition from which all particular religions are derived. It often been referred to as "the transcendental unity of religions." Interspiritual wisdom is the practical part of the perennial philosophy, the inner, experiential core of it. It is the universal heritage of each one of us, and it becomes accessible to everyone based on our individual generosity to explore and our capacity to grow and be refined through the spiritual insights and practices of these various forms of spirituality: hence, the term "interspiritual wisdom."

That this trend is substantial can be seen in the large amount of cross-cultural spirituality that exists in this last decade of the twentieth century. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Taoists, Confucians, and members of indigenous faiths are all learning from one another. It is common, for example, for a Christian to practice Zen while remaining a Christian – and a better Christian at that – or a Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain to follow a Christian form of prayer or socially engaged action. In India it is common to find Hinduswho are devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and of course they filter this image through their own cultural experience. Mahatma Gandhi absorbed the deep social teaching of the gospel and had a profound understanding of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. He lived by them, along with the Bhagavad Gita. Socially engaged Buddhism is now a commonplace in Asia, and this movement has been directly influenced by Christianity. The reality of interspiritual wisdom and of its actualization in one's life is eloquently expressed in the profound, informed conviction of Raimon Panikkar, who has often remarked that he is "a Christian-Hindu-Buddhist." Anyone can be all or one of these simultaneously without compromise of these traditions, with real consistency and inner harmony among them within oneself. It can also be said that all the religions – if they are true – are somehow internally related and relatable in a way that is mutually enhancing of each tradition in their deepest core truth/experience. Basically, in this view called complementarity, the religions complete one another.

The third revolutionary trend has also been gaining all around the world in different degrees of acceptance by governments, nations, religious traditions, organizations, other institutions, and individual persons. This trend is based on the deep awareness of the ecological crisis of our planet and on the responsibility each of us (individually, collectively, and as a species) bears for this festering crisis. We are called upon to implement those changes in our cultures and in how we live, so as to allow new, more responsible, or ecologically harmonious patterns of human life to become established everywhere. This trend is no less revolutionary than the preceding two and perhaps even more so because of the comprehensive threat that we and other species face if we do not change radically how we live and use resources. This trend has taken root among the religions as a common concern, a critical issue that is increasingly distressing and pressing. It also will result in a new age, since our focus is shifting from an exclusively anthropocentric or human view to a cosmogeocentric culture. This latter approach includes a clear understanding of our species in relationship with all others and with the Earth itself; it emphasizes harmony and a relationship to the Earth that is an environmentally enhancing one. This shift in consciousness is as profound as the development of the great religions in the First Axial Age.

At the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions this became a solemn commitment of all the religions, an urgent collective realization. Thus, it has a prominent place in the document, "Towards a Global Ethic." The final sentence commits the signatories to "nature-friendly ways of life."11 The ecological issue and its importance to our survival make it the most pressing priority of humankind, the primary moral issue of our time. Thus, on a purely practical level of collaboration among the religions, it is really the matrix of interfaith encounter, the abiding preoccupation of all responsible beings.

This Crisis is also defining the new age as essentially the ecological one. The religions contain certain inner resources of a psychological, moral, and contemplative nature that can bring about an inward transformation of human motives that would then be consistent with a needed sensitivity toward the Earth, other species, and how we live and use technology. It would be totally shortsighted to assume that changes in motivation could be achieved without these resources of the religions, for surely the political, economic, social, educational, and scientific realms have failed to move the masses in this regard.

These three trends have become explicit paths on the horizon of the religious and spiritual history of the human family. This point was clear at the historic Parliament but has been equally so at numerous other interreligious encounters. Now the global ethic strives to be a consensus on the general norms of behavior agreed upon by all the religions, but it is unable to guarantee implementation in our lives. Ethics and morality alone are insufficient to generate change. We need an inner source to form a new motivation; again, the last paragraph of "Towards a Global Ethic" implies this insight. It proclaims: Earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of individuals is changed first. We pledge to increase our awareness by disciplining our minds, by meditation, by prayer, or by positive thinking."12 These statements reflect the role of spirituality, a role that is deeper and more ultimate than ethics and the moral life of individuals and societies. More fundamentally, given today's context, we require a multifaith understanding of spirituality that includes the insights outlined above, the trends that have evolved over time and have been assumed into a higher sense of priority for the dawning age. This multifaith view of spirituality is thus a universal or global approach, a fresh understanding of its nature and role as a resource for transformation of persons and societies within an interfaith commitment.

Global Spirituality

These terms, "global ... .. universal," or "multifaith" spirituality, do not signify or imply a notion of a super-spirituality, an overarching new form that is a creation of syncretism, a forced, unreflective synthesis of all the types of spirituality present in the various religions and part of a larger, perennial tradition. Although this perennial tradition probably exists in a metaphysical sense, there is no all-embracing spirituality that represents it and actualizes it in human life. To detail the nature and scope of a global spirituality is a much more modest enterprise. It aims at a consensus of experience on the common elements present in every viable form of spiritual life, regardless of the tradition. Here, of course, what is referred to as spirituality in this sense is not the lowest common denominator; it is, rather, the most mature form in the lives of truly enlightened, fully aware, vitally conscious persons.

Global spirituality in the development of individuals inspires them to be genuinely cross-cultural in their outlook. It gives them a universal perspective that puts the entire planet before the interests of their own tradition. It allows them to appreciate and assimilate the moral, psychological, mystical, and cultural values of the world's religions. They are able to make these insights their own. Thomas Merton was a good example of this kind of individual who has an expanded integration. Perhaps his most eloquent discussion of this universal person is found in his book, Contemplation in a World of Action.13 Bede Griffiths is another example of final integration or a universal perspective.14 His absorption of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, related to Christian contemplation , is a case in point. Further examples in our time might include Beatrice Bruteau and Thomas Keating.

Global spirituality is a fundamental component of a culture of peace or a culture of awareness as far as the religions are concerned because it is a profoundly useful inner resource for creating and sustaining the inner conditions to support such a nonviolent, wise culture. Religion cannot be content simply to contribute a moral dimension to such a culture. Again, that is not enough. It has so much more that it can offer from its hidden treasures of the Spirit. These gifts of religious consciousness in its most advanced form can and will strengthen the foundation, widen the scope, and extend the horizon of the dawning global culture and universal civilization. Spirituality can offer deep roots to this new world society that will ensure its endurance through the coming millennia.

Mysticism as Ultimate Ground of Spirituality

Concerning the mystical nature or origin of all spirituality, it can be said to be a direct, immediate, experiential awareness of Ultimate Reality, however that is known and conceived. This definition is quite general, so should be relevant in characterizing every form of mysticism, regardless of the tradition. Mysticism generates religion, since all religion springs from some kind of encounter with or inner realization of the Absolute. It is an experiential awareness of this reality, a knowledge or a knowing that comes from tasting it directly and immediately, that is, by experiencing it.

All mysticism is either personal or impersonal; or relational, intimate, and loving; or nonrelational, purely unitive, nonemotional, and nonaffective. Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta (nonduality) in the Hindu tradition are instances of impersonal mysticism because there is no "object" to which the mystic could be objectively related. there is only an absolute subject or pure subjectivity. It is an impersonal "relationship" or a nonrelational kind of mystical union. Christian, Sufi, Jewish, certain Hindu schools, and indigenous forms of mysticism are personalist because they emphasize the reality of the Divine and an intimacy of relationship with God. Some forms may have both the personal and impersonal aspects, but they are very rare and constitute a more total type that possesses greater understanding. Meister Eckhart and John Ruysbroeck would be examples of this latter kind of mystical spirituality. All mysticism is also either – or both – transcendent and immanent, apophatic and kataphatic. A nonrelational mysticism – that is, a Buddhist form, etc. – is essentially transcendent, while the personalist mysticism of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc., is both immanent, because of God's nearness to the human, and transcendent, that is, beyond us, beyond our grasp. At the same time, the experience of Ultimate Reality is profoundly apophatic, that is, experienced in an ineffable way that transcends the capacities of reason, intellect, memory, imagination, and the senses. Aphophatic mysticism is the result of the Divine's transcendence to the human. To be apophatic means to be beyond our understanding or to be unknowable in our present conditions of knowing. It suggests, instead, intuitive or indirect ways of knowing that seem radically different from what we have been accustomed to call knowledge. Where the faculties are employed in our conceptions of Ultimate Reality, the kataphatic approach is at play, because it draws its terms from their operations and applies its concepts to the Ultimate by way of analogy.

Analogy itself can only give us an imperfect kind of knowledge, an indication of how things are with God by way of implied comparison. Thus, God is "good," but our understanding of goodness is drawn from our limited experience and from biblical accounts, then predicated of God. It is not based - even remotely - on a genuine understanding of God's own goodness as it functions in the Divine Reality itself.

Perhaps we can acquire a clearer, more definite knowledge from the immanence of the Divine Mystery, and it might even lend greater weight to our kataphatic theology and the statements that derive from it. We should keep in mind, however, that divine immanence can be just as incomprehensible as divine transcendence. In the end – whether East or West, North or South – apophatic theology is always focused on the Ultimate as rationally unknowable, while kataphatic theology presupposes a certain degree of rational knowledge derived from the Ultimate's manifesting itself in the finite cosmos.

It is necessary to clarify further by making a distinction between theoretical and practical spirituality. I am not referring to the former. That is the conceptual dimension of the enterprise, a highly complex matter fraught with numerous difficulties. Suffice it to say that the theoretical dimension would have to include and build on the perennial philosophy, the primordial universal tradition, adding many insights from more than a century of comparative studies, interfaith encounters, and common approaches to understanding the feasibility of such a multifaith view of spiritual life. It would also have its ultimate origin in immediate religious experience or mystical consciousness. The theoretical part of spirituality has three sources: original revelation, mysticism, and reflection. That much should be clear.

The concern here is essentially with the practical dimension of spirituality: spirituality as a universal property of religious consciousness that expresses itself in many ways, for example, through prayer, liturgy, chanting and other forms of music, meditation, yoga, diet, ascetical discipline, self-control, contemplation, art, and service, all of which engage one's inner being, how one is, and, indeed, what one is because of the exercise of this how.

Spirituality, in its most basic sense, originates from an inner movement of the heart, with the assistance of the mind and affecting the total consciousness of the individual. The heart or will, the mind, intelligence or intellect, and the awareness or understanding work together in the deep stirring of desire that is always seeking relationship with Ultimate Reality or with the Divine, regardless of how it or they are known or conceived. In this general sense, spirituality is also the fundamental essence of all genuine religion, so it is the animating core of human life and experience. Many passages from various texts across the traditions could be adduced to characterize this impulse of the soul, but St. Augustine gave it precise and eloquent expression in his prayer at the beginning of his Confessions, the great autobiography that articulates the inner nature of us all: "Our hearts, O Lord, are restless until they rest in you, because, O God, they were made for you."15

The Elements of Global Spirituality

Every mature or fully realized form of spirituality has seven elements in common with every other type, although in varying degrees of emphasis. These elements include: (1) a capacity to live morally, (2) deep nonviolence, (3) solidarity with all life and the Earth itself, (4) a spiritual practice and a mature self-knowledge, (5) simplicity of life, (6) selfless service, and (7) prophetic action. The first three are foundational dispositions, compelling attitudes, and enduring commitments; number four is the means of spiritual living, while the last three are the fruits.

The capacity to live morally becomes a solid foundation for spirituality when this capacity is actualized in practice, in one's daily life. When we live morally in our concrete situations, then the moral capacity is actualized. It is an indispensable first and enduring condition. Each religion and spirituality emphasizes this insight. We see it in the Ten Commandments and in Jesus' two great commandments or conditions for salvation, "to love God" and on's neighbor."16 It is present in the yogic tradition of Hinduism in the notion of yama (restraint) and niyama (discipline)17 and the Eight-Fold Path of the Buddha. The global ethic draws on this foundational role of the moral part of human being and appeals to it. Spiritual life is not possible without moral character, but it is only the beginning. We see examples of this moral capacity at work in Christ, the prophets, the saints of all traditions, the Buddha, Mahavira, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama.

Second, genuine spirituality – one that accounts for the new multifaith context in which we now find ourselves – requires a commitment to deep nonviolence. This sort of nonviolence is similar to the ahimsa of the Indian tradition as it is found in its Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu types. This kind of nonharming extends to all sentient beings and to the planet itself; it is not simply a focus on the human species. Deep nonviolence is clearly necessary to the successful growth and development of spirituality and to the emerging global society, because it adjusts our outer actions and inner attitudes to the consistency of compassion and the demands of love. As one grows in holiness, one also becomes more sensitive to the rights of others, including other species, etc. This is clearly also a necessity and a foundational consideration. Again, each tradition has had many figures who have exemplified the value of nonviolence – such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton – and it is most dramatically present in the Jains.

Third, this commitment to such a profound nonviolence is based on a tangible sense of spiritual and even moral solidarity and connectedness with all others in the human species, as well as with all other species and the whole world. It is this realization of interdependence that gives rise to the insight of solidarity and incarnates our attempts to live nonviolently, an urgent need for spiritual life and the new global culture. All of us at one time or another feel our unity or connectedness with everyone and everything else. It is a more common mystical realization. Thomas Berry, Brian Swimm, and Matthew Fox have constantly emphasized this insight.

The fourth element of every spirituality, and thus of a multifaith approach to spirituality, concerns the way of spiritual practice. No spirituality is vitally authentic and effective without some kind of spiritual discipline that is the means of inner growth in the attitudes, dispositions, habits, and commitments of the life of meaning, depth, and human maturity that is glimpsed in the best of religious experience. This point goes to the heart of the matter, since spiritual practice is the area of human effort in the work of our transformation. It is the living, transformative power of the inner reality taking form in a disciplined habit of relating to the Divine or Ultimate Reality. Without a spiritual practice, spirituality is a hollow affair; it has no substance and is reduced to the formalism of external religiosity.

Spiritual practice(s) – notably contemplative forms of prayer, meditation, sacred reading, or what is called lectio divina in the Christian tradition, which literally means "divine reading," a restful, awake presence at liturgy and ritual, an active participation in them, music, chanting, yoga, even walking – are all transformative. They change us within and make this change consistent with our actions in the world in our daily lives. All the seekers and saints of every tradition have cultivated a spiritual practice and have maintained a profound self-knowledge.

Transformation happens slowly as we gain self-knowledge and uncover the hidden motives that lie deep within us, perhaps even in the unconscious part of ourselves. This self-knowledge is salutatory and greatly useful to us in our process of inner growth. It is also seen as a gift of divine grace and contains the wisdom to guide us in our contemplative development. In some traditions, for instance, certain Hindu and Buddhist sects, this grace can be mediated through a guru or spiritual master, but it represents a significant factor in our growth to wholeness in most – if not all – traditions.

Self-knowledge, when it reaches maturity, when we go beyond denial and projections – denial of our limitations and faults; buried motives; "projection" by judging others rather than working on overcoming the obstacles in us to spiritual/human wholeness, hence, "projecting" on others this need for inner work – becomes the basis for very deep changes within us. This quality of inner change is what I mean by the term "transformation." It is a radical alteration of our inner "form," our character, and all our old habits of thought and action.

This possibility of transformation is what gives evidence of authenticity and maturity in the spiritual journey itself; indeed, it is difficult to regard a spirituality, as it functions within a person's life, to be either authentic or mature unless it contains a self-knowledge that leads to actual changes within the person. Thus, spirituality is meant to make us better – considerably better – by unlocking our potential for divinity in a sense, to be like God in some participatory way, or, as the Christian theologians of the Greek Orthodox Church called it in the early centuries of the gospel, theosis or deification, becoming like God. Another way of saying this is that it awakens the Buddha-nature in us. If spirituality does not offer access to actualizing our potential for this higher form of life, which is what we are made for to begin with, then what uItimate value can it possibly have?

The transformation to which spirituality summons us has four basic levels to it – I say "basic" because it involves more of the faculties, such as imagination, memory, intellect, and reason, the emotions, and the senses - but for our purposes here, they can be identified primarily as consciousness, will, character, and action or behavior.

Consciousness affects our understanding of reality and life. Our awareness grows and expands, takes in more, and, the more it expands, the greater becomes our capacity to understand, to change, to actualize what we are potentially: images and likenesses of the Divine Reality. As our understanding increases, ignorance is dissipated, and we can then modify or alter our motives, outgrowing the selfish ones. Our will knows an inner change, a purification that effects a radical transformation in our character and action or behavior.

The will becomes stable in desiring the Good, in transcending self-concern, so that we can respond to others in love and compassion. The will seeks less the goods that are mutable but desires ones that do not change, for example, wisdom, spiritual knowledge, the virtues, mystical awareness, and unitive vision/life. This change gradually habituates the character to be informed by these values and spiritual treasures – to be formed in them – and to make the shift from self-preoccupation to love, from hypocrisy to sincerity, from sin to holiness, from human limitations to the power of grace. The character takes on the form and substance of virtue, slowly becoming deified. Finally, a living, mature, effective spiritual life transforms our action or behavior, making it conform to grace and the requirements of love. All these levels of transformation happen in tandem as we grow into our ultimate nature and identity.

The existence of spiritual masters in each tradition attests to the perennial, universal validity and effectiveness of spiritual practices as an aid to genuine self-understanding and radical inner change. All spiritual practice is about this inner development that reaches fruition in selfless love and compassion. Such spiritual practices as chanting the names of God, etc, the numerous types of meditation, spiritual reading or lectio divina in the Catholic tradition, reflection, affective prayer, sacred music, art, dance, walking, and drumming all evidence profoundly positive results that cannot be ignored.

Spiritual practice, which of course includes and demands self-knowledge, manifests a transformed being, or nature in the latter three aspects of spirituality, that is, in simplicity of life, selfless service and prophetic action. These are some of the fruits of transformation in the domain of action, and no genuine spirituality today would be without them. They represent inner resources needed for changing the direction of the human family so that it can accept its universal responsibility, as the Dalai Lama puts it, for the Earth, etc.18

One of these inner resources that advances this common responsibility – and could effect a decisive change in humankind's relationship to the environment and the issues of social justice, poverty, etc. – is simplicity of life. spirituality has always espoused this value and practice in every form it has assumed, especially in its monastic expressions and other forms of religious life, whether in community or in the solitary life of a hermit. Simplicity of life has a very contemporary relevance, for it can have a major impact on altering how we relate to the Earth, other species, and the poor. This point of global spirituality has a subtle necessity to it, because – let us face the fact – we have to simplify our lives if the Ecological Age is really to take root. Simplicity of life reveals itself concretely in the great generosity of embracing a more simple lifestyle that does not require using up so many precious resources, a use that degrades the environment, oppresses other species, and deprives the poor.

The adage, "Live simply so others may simply live," wisely sums up the whole point and demonstrates the practical efficacy of true spirituality. To "live simply so others may simply live" applies to the planet itself. It is the chief "other" for all of us, but it also applies to our relationship with other species as well as with the poor. This dictum is a way to concentrate our minds and our efforts on changing how we live. It is not enough merely to talk about the need to change. We must change. We have to embrace a more simple way of life, or we have no right to speak. It has to begin with each one of us, or else our words are meaningless. A spirituality that ignores simplicity is bogus. Furthermore, there is no "upper class," "middle class," or "lower class" spirituality. There is only the dimension of spirituality itself as part of human experience, and its requirements are universal.

Simplicity has largely disappeared in the Roman Catholic Church and in most other Christian communions. Priests have become very attached to their material comforts with no spirit of sacrifice in how they use resources. Most religious communities have lost any real sense of poverty. Simplicity of heart and life requires an appreciation of insecurity, vulnerability, marginality, and detachment, which a certain experience of material poverty facilitates. An example of a gross failure in this regard occurred when, in July, 1995, more than 550 people died from a heat wave in Chicago, but, less than twenty-five miles away, a monastery has an air-conditioning system operating twenty-four hours a day from early June to September. There are, however, many heroic examples of simplicity of lifestyle: Mother Teresa and her communities, sannyasis (renunciates, monastics) in India, Buddhist monks and nuns, hermits, holy men and women living in our cities, etc.

Similarly, true spirituality is always open to service; it never evades it, especially as need arises, but the spiritual life summons us to a selfless kind of service, a form of action that, as the Bhagavad Gita so powerfully emphasizes, does not seek a result: that is, it is not attached to the possible fruits of any action, so it is not performed with any result or purpose in mind other than to respond to the perceived need.

Selfless service – indeed, service itself – does not come easily. It is something one must learn through education, other kinds of training or formation, and much practical experience. Let me elucidate this difficulty by way of two recent examples. At the Parliament of the World's Religions there was a very telling incident involving three Christian monks and a homeless person who was prostrate on the sidewalk. These monks – each wearing his religious habit – were walking together from the Parliament toward their car. As they possed this homeless gentleman, he cried out plaintively for their ear, just for a moment, but they ignored him and kept walking. He continued to call after them, and the younger of the three wanted to respond. He turned, looked at the man, but did not quite know what to do or say. He did not know how to respond, so he looked to his seniors for a cue, an example. They continued to ignore the homeless one as they walked, engrossed in their conversation. What makes this incident more pointed and ironic is that these monks were discussing the need to reach out to the homeless poor. Reality then gladly obliged them with an opportunity, a challenge. While each of these monks was a good person, none of them had received any formation in service. This situation became a very painful reminder of the deficiency in their monastic training.

The second example is from Dharamsala, India, in a Buddhist context. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said on a number of occasions that Buddhists learn from Christians the active, compassionate service to others in need. He has this attitude himself; it is clearly discernable from his presence to others, and it shines out in his inspiring example. In Dharamsala, the "Little Tibet" of North India, there are some 2,000 monastics, the majority of whom are monks, and yet there are about twenty lepers who roam the streets of upper Dharamsala at McLeod Ganj, finding strategic locations on the road in order to beg from foreigners, and perhaps get a little attention from them as well. The Tibetan monks and nuns have no contact with the lepers, who, incidentally, are all Hindus, except for a few Christians. This phenomenon should not exist where there are so many monastics who could reach out to them and affirm them as persons. This is what they actually are seeking more than the money. The Dalai Lama is keenly aware of this situation, and there may be some center established for the lepers where Tibetans, Indians, and Westerners could together care for them.

The further point has to be made that this phenomenon exists in every part of the world, and failures of response are a problem in every religion. Each tradition could offer many similar examples. The homeless poor are everywhere; elderly bag ladies can be seen at the doorstep of the Vatican. Whether they are homeless, persons with AIDS, or lepers, the appropriate response is always compassionate attention and loving action toward them. The ability to respond and follow through tests the mettle of all spirituality.

The seventh aspect of global spirituality is prophetic action: the necessity to speak out when injustice, oppression, the abuse of human rights, and the rights of other species and the Earth itself occur. This is a very critical function of all spirituality, particularly through the collective voice of religious and spiritual leaders, and it is desperately needed in our time – at the very dawn of the Interspiritual Age – because often most religious and spiritual leaders are curiously silent before these kinds of challenges. For example, although much has been said about Bosnia and Rwanda, where the cost of speaking out prophetically is rather low, virtually nothing has been uttered by any religious spiritual leader about the systematic violation of the human rights of Tibetans by the Chinese colonial government in Tibet. Personally, I find this silence quite disturbing; it illustrates a lack of courage and moral strength that hides behind considerations of prudence and discretion, but it appears as weakness in the face of worldly powers.

Tibet is an important test case and an opportunity for the religions in their evolution into becoming the Community of Religions; it presents to them an opportunity to contribute to the emerging global culture and new civilization in a very substantial way. There will never be a true culture of peace or a universal society unless the religions can speak out and act collectively when confronted with such a challenge as China's arrogant and shameful behavior in Tibet. Intense spiritual life grants the moral clarity and the courage to confront evil with the truth. Again, Gandhi is a striking model here, as are Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu.

Genuine spirituality – and certainly this is true a fortiori of a multifaith approach to spiritual life, culture, and action – is willing to engage in moral and political action when justice is at stake. If it cannot, it then vitiates the potentially effective and prophetically incisive contribution of religion in encouraging the establishment of an enlightened global community. An attitude of business as usual simply will not do, and such an attitude reveals a vacuousness of moral and spiritual authority that is following such a bankrupt policy in the face of grave moral evil, such as, for instance, exists in the Tibetan situation.

Spiritual leadership, guided by a deeply alive spirituality or a mystical life, is always ready to take a stand when required by the demands of justice. The religions, all contemplatively aware persons, and all decent people must stand unambiguously with Tibet in its consistently nonviolent moral struggle with China. We should avail ourselves of the inherent lessons to be learned in endorsing the Tibetan People's approach and identifying with their higher moral position vis-a-vis the People's Republic of China. Supporting Tibet in this way would educate us in nonviolence, habituating us to this way of peaceful action, while allowing us slowly to emerge with an enhanced identity as the Community of Religions because we have learned and exercised the prophetic function together. This is the kind of action required of those who are working toward a universal civilization; such a society itself can never be based on a silent acquiescence in injustice. The point of prophetic action is that an effective and mature spirituality always produces the fortitude necessary to rise to the exercise of the prophetic voice in relation to the actions of governments, nations, cultures, religions, and persons.

The Interspiritual Age will focus this prophetic function as a collective responsibility of the religions, and it will be uncompromised in its operations. It should be remembered, however, that the wisdom, clarity, and courage of this function are themselves the fruits of the spiritual life and its unwavering discipline. Again, we see this connection emphatically demonstrated in the lives of Gandhi, Merton, and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The Capacities of a Universal Spirituality

Mystical life, contemplative interiority, or mature spirituality awakens and develops a number of gifts. These can be called the capacities of contemplation or spirituality. The reason why they are capacities is simply that they facilitate our sensitive, loving, compassionate relationship to the other, whatever this other is: human beings, different species, the natural world, the Earth as a whole, or the Divine. The capacities are very beneficial in the area of interreligious dialogue and cooperation, so are quite useful in the task of building the new civilization. They are really indispensable skills for the works of dialogue, collaboration, peacemaking, and prophetic action. These capacities are: openness, presence, listening, being, seeing, spontaneity, and joy.

Briefly, openness is a receptivity to everyone and everything. It is, quite fundamentally, an other-centeredness, a disposition of availability to others. Spirituality opens us up more and more in this way. Someone once observed to me in this respect: "We are really only ready for Heaven when we are completely open." This openness is what characterizes the Divine itself, and the Trinity is itself the very mystery and archetype of total openness. So, we must also be open: to God or Ultimate Reality, to others, to nature, to the cosmos, and to ourselves. Thomas Keating, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Maha Ghosananda of Cambodia are significant examples of this quality of openness in our time.

Similarly, the inner life gives us the ability to be present to others in all senses. By being present we meet them in the eternal Now where everything is already and always happening. Through the gift of presence we fashion ourselves as a home for the Divine, for creation, for all others. The present moment is thus sacramental because it is filled with the reality of the Ultimate, with God, as Pierre de Caussade reminds us in his little masterpiece, Abandonment to Divine Providence.19 To express it another way, presence is the path of mindfulness that Buddhism (especially Zen), Hinduism, and all the other spiritual traditions recommend in some form or another. One of the signs of enlightenment and spiritual maturity is the ability to be present to others.

Deep spirituality also grants us the capacity to listen, but the quality of this listening is much more subtle and comprehensive than ordinary listening; it is a complete inner attention, a listening with the heart. Here, again, we are listening to the Divine or the Absolute, to nature, the Earth, persons, members of other species, and ourselves. God or Ultimate Reality is accessible in these ways, speaking in all things in each moment through a continuous process of natural revelation. We all love a good listener, and it tells us something about the depth of a person's spiritual attainment.

People who are mystically awake, or spiritually enlightened also have the ability to just be, and are vitally conscious of the importance of this capacity for simply being. We are very much part of a technological society that stresses doing, and so many of us are always rushing around doing so many things – all of them good, no doubt. Contemplative spirituality is a call to being: to just be who we are in the deepest sense of our nature, something we have in common with everyone else. This is our contemplative being. We all have this by virtue of our humanity, and every thing else we do only adds onto what we already are. This ability just to be is actually the method of contemplation or spirituality itself, and it can be illustrated by a flower, say a rose or lily. The flower does not do anything; it simply is. The flower does not race around the planet, talk on the telephone, or go to a movie; it does not have to read books or answer letters, give speeches, or attend school. It just is. Of course, we humans have to do many of these things, and others besides, but we can also learn a lesson from the flower; we can learn how to be. Like the flower that grows and opens up before the light and warmth of the sun, we must grow by opening up to the light and truth of the Divine, allowing it to transform us. Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, when they are in their own milieu, exemplify this ability to just be. Children and spiritual teachers also have this quality.

Closely associated with the ability to be is the capacity to see: to see reality as it is, to see ourselves as we are. This seeing arises from the depths of contemplative interiority, from spiritual discipline; it is a seeing with the heart. Contemplative, mystical seeing, which also requires and is self-knowledge, is actually the gift of perspective, of seeing everything in its proper place, or having a sufficiently large enough understanding to rise above the pettiness of life and community. This perspective thus allows us to have balance in our awareness of reality and as persons.

Spiritual life, as it advances into its fullness, also awakens in us the capacity for real spontaneity in our actions and responses to others. This spontaneity leads us into appropriate actions in all the situations of life. It inspires us to spontaneous acts of compassion, kindness, mercy, charity, love, patience, and gentleness, and is ultimately a very well developed and subtle sensitivity to all beings, including the Earth and the cosmos. This spontaneity highlights an other-centered focus, often to a heroic degree of selflessness, and is a very significant part of spirituality in its social dimension. Again, children, spiritual masters, and saints exhibit this spontaneity, but of course it is more developed in the latter two.

The crown of all these capacities of global spirituality, of all spirituality, is joy, unitive joy. Joy is an unmistakable sign of the deeper life in a person. In the mystical process, it comes to be an abiding gift when the individual has reached – in the ultimate state of mystical consciousness in the unitive experience – union with God or Ultimate Reality. Joy is the presence of the Divine in us or the completion of our goal in the earthly pilgrimage. It is eloquently summed up in a saying from the Christian tradition: Joy is the echo God's life in us. Joy is the plenitude of spirituality. A sense of humor is a real indication of this spiritual fullness or maturity. This joy and all these other capacities culminate in a mystical kind of peace that is very deep and abiding; it is a supernatural peace, the peace that is the possession of the Ultimate, the Divine, or that is rest in the Absolute. Joy, a sense of humor, and peace are all hallmarks of spiritual attainment, and they can be clearly discerned in the lives of the saints in all the world's religions.

Spirituality is the very breath of the inner life, the interior awareness of contemplative mysticism. It is a greatly needed resource in the transformation of consciousness on our planet. It is useful in implementing the global ethic by stirring the motivation within, and it will be enormously beneficial in our attempts to build a new universal society. Spirituality can clear a path for a return of the sacred to the realm of culture after it had been banished by the Enlightenment. This return is necessary if we are to create an alternative to what now exists. I believe there is a real possibility for a renaissance of the sacred, and with its dawning comes the hope of a new culture and global society, a universal civilization with a compassionate, loving heart. If that compassionate, loving heart is cultivated in a large number of people, then the universal age will be born. It all depends on spirituality. Spirituality, finally, is ultimately awareness and sensitivity, and sensitivity is itself awareness-in-action. It is this quality of awareness-in-action that we most require in our time and in the ages to come.

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