Nun speaks of spiritual exchange between East, West

GREENVILLE — A student and teacher of interreligious dialogue shared some of her experiences at Furman University Feb. 4.

Benedictine Sister Mary Margaret Funk told nearly 100 students and other audience members that dialogue between the religions of the East and those of the Western world is “fascinating, because in the West we’ve become very efficient in technology and business, and very proficient at interaction, at conversation.”

But Sister Funk, who has conversed on a number of occasions with the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders from the Eastern world, said that part of the globe is where “traditionally they have been very proficient at the inner life — meditation, thought, various levels on consciousness.”

Sister Funk said the monks and nuns trained in the interior life in the West have developed a fascination with that same life of the East through interreligious dialogue.

“In the work of dialogue, oddly enough it’s in the silence that we communicate the best,” said Sister Funk. She is executive director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, which since the late 1970s has developed a program of spiritual exchanges between Christian monasteries of the West and those in Asia.

Sister Funk is a member of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beach Grove, Ind., where she’s lived since 1961.

During her hour-long appearance at Furman’s Johns Hall, Sister Funk talked about the theory and practice of dealing with mindless thoughts, drawing from her book “Thoughts Matter” and the teachings of the great fourth-century monk John Cassian.

She said that to reach the Christian tradition of contemplation, one must first renounce his or her former way of life through baptism.

“You take refuge in Christ,” Sister Funk said. “Christ becomes your savior; Christ becomes your way.”

She said the former way of life is a life of sin, or “just living mindlessly without God. Going God’s way is the basic Christian life.”

The Benedictine nun said Christians do a good job of following God’s way in the external.

“You keep to the commandments; you follow the laws of the church; you’re good to your neighbor; you’re loving and kind. Most of the Catholic training, most of the Protestant training is about this.

“Unfortunately, that isn’t training in contemplation,” Sister Funk said.

Sister Funk said that people must separate their thoughts from their selves.

“You are not your thoughts,” she said.

“The contemplative life — to come to that still place — first involves training in what to do with your thoughts,” Sister Funk said.

As Cassian taught 17 centuries ago, thoughts typically move between different levels, starting with feelings, which lead to emotions, and if one acts on those emotions they become passions.

Passions that are good are called virtues, and those that are bad are sins, Sister Funk said.

Cassian identified what he called eight classic thoughts that grow into afflictions that must be removed before one can reach that place of stillness. They are food/drink, sex, things, anger, depression, or weariness of soul, vainglory and pride.

Young people often turn to the eastern traditions when faced with these afflictions, Sister Funk said.

“They’re looking for this place of silence, this place of peace, this place of a higher state of consciousness,” she said.

But those tools are also part of the Christian traditions.

Sister Funk said there are spiritual tools, spiritual ways to effectively deal with afflictions.

“You can break this chain of the thought through ceaseless prayer practice, which means in my heart I have a mantra going at all times.”

She said the idea is that a person becomes aware of his thoughts and can return to that ceaseless prayer when needed.

“You really do need to have something there that is your default,” she said.

Another way to break the thought chain is simply to be aware of them.

“If we let our thoughts go unattended, what happens is our true self is covered over by our false self,” she said. “We no longer know who we truly are, and we act out in a way that is not our true self.”

By renouncing thoughts, “you receive purity in Christ; you receive the presence of God,” she said.

Sister Funk was invited to speak at Furman by the school’s Newman Catholic Fellowship. Its president, Joe Waters, said the group was interested in learning more about the relationship between Christian spirituality and the Far East.

“We had some really great conversation with her, and she’s very interested in what the students are doing,” Waters said. “She’s so full of hope and so inspiring because she speaks from within our traditions. She doesn’t seek to blend traditions. She has brought hope and light to the Catholic community here just by her presence.”

Waters said there are currently around 200 active Catholic students at Furman.