Finding the Benedictine Spirit Abroad

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March 2, 2018

Most professors use their summers to catch up on their research, update their syllabi, and prepare for the upcoming school year. One Saint John’s theology professor, Christopher Conway, took a different approach to his school year preparation. Conway’s summer office was mobile, traveling across India for most of July.

Conway teaches comparative theology, which is the study of Christianity alongside other religious traditions. In Conway’s case, he primarily studies Hinduism. He wants to share his experience with students, so he visited the Hinduism hub – India – to scout out a potential study abroad trip for College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s students.

 “The students would be encouraged to step outside their own religious tradition, to encounter what is true and holy, beautiful, good, in other religious traditions and then come back to their own tradition with new insights and questions generated by the study of another religious tradition,” Conway said.

Essentially, the trip gives students the opportunity to experience comparative theology on the ground.

“The Church has a teaching called Nostra Aetate that it rejects nothing that is true and holy and other religious traditions. If something is true and something is holy, then there is probably something to learn from it,” Conway explained.

His ideal program would be centered around Saccidananda Ashram, a Camaldolese Benedictine community in south India. Monks Henri le Saux and Jules Monchanin started this center for Christian spirituality almost 70 years ago. The name “saccidananda” translates to “being, consciousness, bliss”, which for Indian Christian theologians reflects the Holy Trinity. This site is a religious hermitage that draws upon the treasures of Indian spirituality.

The monastics at this site embody comparative theology. They have a routine prayer life where they pray the liturgy of the hours and incorporate local spiritual texts.

This wasn’t Conway’s first time in the country. In his doctoral program, Conway researched Dalit Christian theology at United Theological College in Bengaluru. Dalit theology comes from the former “untouchables” and other outcast groups in India.

His trip had another purpose. One of Conway’s goals for the trip was to join a pilgrimage to Pandharpur in western India. On his bus trip to the site, Conway was fortunate enough to sit next to someone who allowed him to join his larger religious community as they made their trip. Around 1.2 million pilgrims visited the site over the course of two weeks, so Conway felt lucky to have the support of a religious community around him.

“It was one of those things where I would’ve had an alright experience had he not shown me this sense of hospitality and outreach, but because he did that, I had a much deeper and much more powerful experience. This is something you ought to do in community. As an individual, I would’ve been much more of an observer than what I had with him, which was much more participatory,” said Conway.

This stranger’s kindness shows the scope of hospitality extending beyond religious borders. Not only do those in the Catholic tradition exemplify the Benedictine value of welcoming the stranger, but a similar call can be found in other religious traditions as well.

Conway is excited to bring students here. “It gives students an opportunity to encounter comparative theology both in theory and also in practice, because it’s really only in doing that you can understand,” Conway said.