Susan's Mailbox

From time to time, I get e-mails, blog comments or Facebook notes from people asking me to recommend books or websites, or raising questions about things I’ve written or about their own spiritual journey. I’ve collected some of those questions and my responses here:

Hello Ms. Stabile, I read a bit about you on the OUPblog related to your book and I had some questions, which, if you are not too busy, I would appreciate your responding to. I grew up Roman Catholic and I became a Tibetan Buddhist in the early ’70s. Lately I have been making my way back to Catholicism and a number of issues have come up for me. I wonder how you have dealt with them. How have you dealt with tantric vows? What are your feelings about “vajra hell”? Catholic response to yidams seems to be to regard them as “false idols” whereas I still see them as meditational devices for focussing on various virtues. Currently I think of Tara as a manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The approach of Professor Paul Williams who converted from Tibetan Buddhism to Catholicism seems to be to completely turn his back on all things Buddhist and embrace all things Catholic, and this doesn’t sit comfortably with me. Thomas Merton was planning to do ngondro before he so tragically died but he in no way rejected Catholicism. If you have time it would be helpful to me if you could tell me how you approach these issues.

My response

Thank you for writing. Here are a couple of thoughts about the questions you raise.

First, as the subtitle of my book Growing in Love and Wisdom suggests (Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation), I do not think returning to Christianity requires one to completely turn one¹s back to all things Buddhist. My own Christian prayer/meditation life is greatly enriched by the meditation practices I learned as a Buddhist. Indeed, it was finding some of the meditations I learned as a Buddhist almost spontaneously arising in my prayer after returning to Christianity that prompted me to write the book that I did. In addition, some of Buddhist teachings have analogues in Christianity and I found the one helpful in deepening my understanding of the other.

Second, with respect to yidams, I think what you describe as the “Catholic response” (and I’m not sure which Catholics you are talking to) depends on how you view it. Certainly if you viewed the deity forms as themselves something you worshipped, I would understand their concern. But if you see them as meditational devices, how are they any different than reading or meditating about saints who embody virtues we desire to emulate. When I visualize the communion of saints (which always reminds me of visualization as part of the 35 Buddhas practice), front and center are those saints who are the most meaningful to me. So to me it is an issue of motive and purpose. I have never thought of Tara as a manifestation of Mary, but I remember a time I was reflecting on a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins that made me Thousand Armed Chenrezig as a way of thinking of Jesus. The bottom line seems to me – does it help you in developing in Christian discipleship?

Third, with respect to tantric vows, I no longer keep those vows (and I don’t believe that puts me in vajra hell or any other kind of hell). I ultimately did not find the requirements of those vows helpful to even my Buddhist practice and so never considered bringing them into my Christian one. Having said that, one of the meditations in Growing in Love and Wisdom is based on tantric practice.

I hope this is helpful. If you want to discuss any of this further, I’d be happy to. And you might find it useful to take a look at my book. It gives you some sense of how I have resolved some of these issues for myself.

May I ask for further thoughts about being a good model for young people. I am sometimes haunted by having not set a good enough example for my kids. Does it matter to my kids or for my kids what I do now? Does it matter the attitude I bring to the day when the kids are grown? I know it matters to the new young people in my life–but does it matter to my young adult children? How does a person be cheerful in the face of known failings that clearly have impacted their children? How to accept these failings and cheerfully proceed with confidence or happiness that at least today I am a good model?

My response

Absolutely I think it matters to your kids what you do now.  I didn’t mean to exclude our impact on adults by focusing on young people in my post.  The way you behave now will continue to have meaning to your children.

To the extent you feel that your past failings have impacted them, is that something you can talk about with them?  I think that in itself would be a great learning: to say, there are ways I messed up, things I could have done better.  You might think about whether there are conversations that it would be good to have with them.

The reality is that we make mistakes.  There are many things I wish were different about my past – ways I behaved that I don’t think were admirable.  But I can’t change that.  All I can do is be the best person I can be from this moment on.  I’ll still make mistakes, and we can regret those mistakes.  But we need to dust ourselves off and moe forward and not allow what we did or didn’t do in the past to paralyze us.

My response

I think Pope Benedict’s three volumes on Jesus of Nazareth are very good and quite approachable. (The chapter in the first volume on the temptations is very powerful.) I found the last volume (the infancy narratives) less compelling than the other, but that is not a reason not to read it. On my blog you will find several posts about these books.

I also think Pope Benedict’s book St. Paul, which is a collection of his general audiences about Paul is quite good, and also very approachable.

Finally, while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote a book with Hans Urs von Balthasar on Mary, titled Mary, Church at the Source. I thought Benedict’s portion of that book was very good and accessible. (The portion written by von Balthasar is less accessible.)

I have a number of others on my bookshelves, but haven’t looked at them in long enough time to be able to evaluate their approachability.

I just read a study on the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer showing that intercessory prayer had no effect on complication-free recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery. What do you think or feel when you read stuff like this?

My response

I have never believed that prayer works in a direct cause and effect manner studies like that seek to prove of disprove. That is, I don’t believe that praying for a specific result (whether it is a good result on a school test, that someone’s team will win, or that a particular medical procedure will do well) will necessarily produce that result, so I am not disturbed by studies like this.

The studies do not change my view of the value of prayer for both the pray-er or the object of the prayer; they show only that one cannot effectively command a particular result.

What do you think of the Dalai Lama’s statement that religion ”is no longer adequate?”

My response

Quoting from his book, Beyond Religions: Ethics for the Whole World, the Dalai Lama said, “Any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.”

The Dalai Lama was not downplaying the role of faith or suggesting that religion is not important. (In fact, he thinks it is important to respect all religions.) Rather, he was saying we need to ground ethics in an approach that can be acceptable to all people, regardless of their religious tradition.

I recently read an article stating that ”Under church law, baptism makes you a Catholic, and you remain a Catholic until you’re excommunicated or formally repudiate the faith.” My two-part question, then is 1) did you ever formally ”renounce” Catholicism? and 2) if not, is it possible that you were, in fact, still Catholic even during the years during which you were close to Buddhism?

My response

I stopped practicing Catholicism when I was a senior in high school. There was no formal renunciation; I simply woke up one morning and realized I no longer had faith in God or in Catholicism.

The answer to the second question depends on what it means to be Catholic. I didn’t self-identify as Catholic for 20 years I was a Buddhist, so if self-identification is what defines one as Catholic, then no, I was not. However, from a Catholic sacramental understanding, Baptism creates an indelible seal and so from a sacramental standpoint, I suppose one could say I was never not a Catholic.

You wrote a blog post about Richard Rohr’s discussion of the ”Cosmic Christ.” How does the cosmic Christ fit in with Ignatius’s idea that we get to know Jesus? This is particularly interesting in the 3rd week (of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius) when we are to consider the suffering of ”Jesus Christ.” If it is Jesus, do we focus on the physical suffering, which of course, is transient? Or, do we focus on the suffering of the cosmic Christ.?

My response

My immediate short answer (which probably won’t make any sense to anyone who has not read Rohr’s work) is that I think it is both/and rather than either/or. That we are meant in the Spiritual Exercises to travel both with the microcosm and the macrocosm – the historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ.

I am a college student going through a very difficult time in my spiritual life, and I don’t know what to do! I have missed Mass for a few weeks now and am in need of a confession; which I hope to get tomorrow at Mass! The thing is, I will go to church on Sunday and go to confession usually and feel great; but once I start the week and am away from that influence I tend to lose sight of what I need to do and end up doing something sinful and just feel like I ”go downhill” until the next time I reach confession! I know that we all sin, but sometimes I think I am a very bad person and I feel like my connection with God gets cut off! What is your advice?

My response

Let me offer a couple of thoughts. First, are you sure you are not being too hard on yourself when you talk about “doing something sinful”? It is easy, when we desire to follow God closely to get in a situation where we are overly scrupulous, demanding impossibly pure behavior from ourselves. It may very well be that you are “slipping” during the week, but be sure not to judge yourself too harshly.
Second, I find trying to get to Mass during the week helpful in centering my day. When I lived in NY, I was able to go most days. Here in the Twin Cities, I only manage a few weekdays. I don’t know if that is possible for you, but perhaps you could pick one day during the week where you can go.

Third, and related to the second, a habit of daily prayer is very important. I know it is difficult to find the time – for me it means getting up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning to have an undisturbed time. But like going to Mass, it centers me – I start the day reminded of who I am with God. Even if it is not a long period – even if you can only manage 10-15 quiet minutes with God, that would be a help. I don’t know what your prayer practice is like. I can make some suggestions for daily prayer if you like – including a daily examen, which is part of my daily prayer.
Fourth, I think that “reminders” are useful. One thing you might consider doing during the week is carrying your pocket a small cross or a stone that has significance. Almost doesn’t matter what it is so long as it has an association with God for you. Then, every time you put your hand in your pocket it is there….just as a reminder. just something to bring you back to God.

Finally, it is very difficult not to have a community of people to support you. Even if not in your own church, it would be great if you could find some way to get some communal support – in the form of occasional youth group meetings or some service project of something like that. Hopefully when you go off to college you will find some group to be part of.

Can you recommend some books that would help me learn something about Ignatian Spirituality?

My response

Pretty much anything by William A. Barry, S.J., whose books include “Finding God in All Things,” “Letting God Come Close,” and “Paying Attention to God,” provide a good grounding in Ignatian Spirituality. I am also a big fan of James Martin’s, A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”

How do you hold onto faith in the face of a young mother with two young children dying of brain cancer?

My response

The harder question is how to deal with the illness/death of a young mother without faith, specifically faith in Resurrection. It is precisely because of my conviction that this life represents only a small piece of the totality of our lives that great suffering seems bearable.

I recently gave a brief reflection on “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” in light of my experience of 9/11. You might find it helpful to listen to that podcast; it offers perhaps the best answer I can give to your question. You can listen to the podcast here: http://susanjoan.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/blessed-are-they-who-mourn/

I want to vote for {Candidate A}, but the Church has basically said that its a sin to vote for him. I want to vote, but I don’t know what the answer is. What do you think?

My response

The Church cannot tell you it is a sin to vote for {Candidate A}. If you were voting for him BECAUSE of his pro-life position, that would be against the teachings of the Church. If, however, you believe based on evaluating all of the issues, that there are sufficient reasons to vote for him notwithstanding that he expresses less opposition to abortion than does {Candidate B}, it is not a sin to vote for him. The question is which candidate do you believe – based on your careful consideration – better upholds Christian values.

I encourage you to read the USCCB’s Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship, which you can access here: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship-document.cfm.

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