(RNS) – In a dimly lit Roman Catholic church in Manhattan, a dozen worshipers sit as the Reverend Michael Holleran leads them in contemplative prayer. There are songs and prayers said aloud throughout the hour-and-a-half-long worship service. From time to time, Holleran rings a bell three times, intended to awaken the faithful from “sleep and become aware of the presence of God”.
But the heart of the session is the repetition of a word chosen by each participant – many choose ‘peace’, ‘love’ or ‘truth’. If their mind wanders, they are asked to return to the word.
This form of prayer is often compared to meditation, due to the silent repetition and concentration required. Although contemplative prayer has ancient roots in Christianity, Holleran draws from the longest tradition of Buddhism – rightly so, as in addition to being a Catholic priest, Holleran is a Buddhist sensei.
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Holleran, pastor of Our Lady Church in Morningside Heights, practices “dual membership,” a term coined by Paul Knitter in his 2009 book “Without Buddha, I Couldn’t Be a Christian.” Knitter, a former Catholic priest and a major influence on many Catholics who subscribe to Buddhist ideology, insists the two religions are not in conflict.
The two have been compared favorably at least since 1870, when Lydia Maria Child, writing in The Atlantic magazine, reported: “The Tibetan lama listened respectfully to the Jesuit priest and replied, ‘Your religion is the same as ours. ‘”
As Holleran explored his religious identity, he too found a “vibrant synthesis” between Buddhism and Catholicism.
“I don’t see any conflict between these traditions,” he said. “If you really delve into what they really are, which is finding union with God, making the world a better place, transforming your own consciousness, et cetera.”
Holleran said his unifying approach to Catholicism and Buddhism does not necessarily extend to other combinations of religions such as Judaism and Christianity. A joint practice of these religions might be more difficult to fit into the theme of dual membership, he said.
Raised a Roman Catholic on Long Island, Holleran, 72, joined the Jesuits at Fordham University, where he also learned about Buddhism in a course on world religions. Eventually he became a Carthusian, a contemplative order of monks, spending a decade in monasteries in Europe and 12 in Vermont before returning to New York in 1994 to serve as pastor.
In the services at Notre-Dame Church, he does not mention Buddhism, keeping the two religions separate. But on Wednesdays, he leads the Dragon’s Eye Zendo, or meditation room, via Zoom, where he often brings Christian scriptures or tells stories of prominent Catholic figures.
Chad Thralls, a lecturer at Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution in New Jersey, attends both Holleran’s contemplative prayer sessions and his meditations and teaches Buddhism in his classes.
In a recent lecture, Thralls explained the first chapter of Knitter’s book to a classroom full of undergraduate students, all raised in the Catholic faith, then offered a prompt: “In the book, Knitter notes that one of his students wondered if he was “sleeping spiritually” by practicing both Christianity and Buddhism. Is Knitter deceiving Jesus?
Knitter, 83, doesn’t think so. When he began preparing for ordination in Rome during the Second Vatican Council, a major reexamination of Catholicism that took place in the 1960s, the Church encouraged Catholics to learn about other religions. Knitter’s interest in other religions eventually led him to question Christianity’s status as the “higher religion” he had grown up hearing. He began to understand Christianity from a Buddhist point of view.
“It was like wearing Buddhist glasses while reading Christian texts,” said Knitter, who has since left the priesthood to become a professor of comparative theology. He is now retired from the Union Theological Seminary in New York and is a member of both a Christian parish and a Buddhist community in Wisconsin.
Knitter said he was rebuffed little by Christians or Buddhists. In the university community, however, his religious identity has proven controversial. Many religious scholars think you can’t be both.
Knitter disagrees. “Religions need each other to understand each other,” he said.
Knitter’s Catholic critics say it is impossible to practice two religions wholeheartedly. In an article for Catholic.com, Reverend John D. Dreher, a pastor from Rhode Island, argued that the two are incompatible.
“In Catholic teaching, all men are creatures, called from nothingness to know God. All men are also sinners, cut off from God and destined for death,” he wrote. “Eastern religions, on the other hand, lack the revelation of God as a personal Creator who radically transcends his creatures. Although possessing many praiseworthy elements, they nevertheless seek God as if he were part of the universe, rather than its Creator.
Holleran said, “Mystics have been crucified in all traditions, not just Christian, Jewish, Muslim. They are always a problem, a danger because they challenge the limits of the institution.
The Archdiocese of New York did not respond to requests for comment on whether dual membership is something it supports among its priests.
In April, Knitter helped organize a retreat with the University of Wisconsin-Madison in which two dozen “interfaith fellows” from the university’s Center for Religion and Global Citizenship practiced various religions to better understand them. . During the retreat, held at Holy Wisdom Monastery, they experienced contemplative prayer and Zen and Tibetan meditation, among other practices.
Although none of the students said they would practice dual membership after the retreat, many said it was a rewarding experience.
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“Through contemplative practice, we discover a greater self,” Knitter said. “We find ourselves as part of a larger reality, which has different names. God, Nirvana, Allah, Yahweh.
Knitter doesn’t expect people to ever become completely pluralistic in their faith, but he hopes they, like students in Wisconsin, can become more open to the simple idea that, he said , “people might be more open to learning from others.”
A version of this story originally appeared on FaithWire.