“Christian” came to have new meaning during my years of seminary study.
The word “Christian” came to have new meaning for me during my years of seminary study. The Paulist Seminary was St. Paul’s College in Washington, DC, and the various theological colleges in the area were linked together through the Washington Theological Consortium, which enabled seminarians or students in any one college to take courses in another. Some of the students at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA, wanted to come to DC and benefit from this rich coalition of theological schools, but they needed a place to live. We had some available rooms at St. Paul’s College and told them they were welcome to come live with us.
Although I grew up in Minnesota — what Garrison Keillor liked to call "Lutherland" — I had never really had much contact with Lutherans. And now, we lived on common corridors, enjoyed social time together in the communal living room before supper, shared 3 meals a day at common tables, used the same in-house library, shared resources with one another in our academic work, and occasionally had common prayer services as well. Needless to say, relationships developed. We got to know one another.
The experience of interdenominational life at St. Paul’s College motivated me to extend my own range of ecumenical experience further through the Washington Theological Consortium. I went and lived and took a trimester of biblical studies at the Episcopal Seminary in Virginia, which gave me an opportunity not only to get to know some Episcopalian seminarians, but to experience their prayer life with the Book of Common Prayer and other communal liturgies.
Getting to know brothers and sisters from other traditions of Christian faith, becoming familiar with and developing an experiential appreciation for both our liturgical commonalities and distinctiveness felt right and good.
So after my ordination in 1975 when I was assigned to campus ministry at the Newman Center at The Ohio State University in Columbus, I was delighted to discover that there was a Campus Ministers Association that provided opportunities to ministers from different denominations to live their unity through ecumenical shared ministry.
One of the things I began doing each month was to invite students and their chaplain from other campus ministry centers to the Newman Center for an evening of getting to know one another. One month it would be students from the Lutheran Center. The next month students from the Episcopalian Center. The following month from the Methodist Center, then from the Presbyterian Center, and so on.
After three years at Ohio State, I had the opportunity in 1977 to live in another country and culture and learn another language, and decided to “go for it.” The opportunity was to direct the Newman Centre at McGill University in Montreal, QC. When I arrived at the Centre, I was surprised and pleased to discover that it wasn’t just occupied by Catholic chaplains. On one side of my office was the office of the Presbyterian chaplain, on the other side was the office of the Christian Scientist chaplain, and the receptionist was Romanian Orthodox! As you might surmise, this facilitated regular communication amongst us and provided yet another opportunity to live our unity through ecumenical shared ministries on campus.
After just three years at McGill, I was offered a position at the Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Ecumenism. The Director wanted to give me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge experientially of other traditions in the Christian faith, and gave me a year for preparatory studies and encounters.
I began with a study program entitled “The Servants of God” at the Canterbury Ecumenical Summer School in England. There were 162 participants from 9 different countries. Our common interdenominational study of the Servants of God gave all of us the sense that our community is the Christian Church. One of the things I enjoyed the most about the summer school was the opportunity for informal exchanges outside of the lectures. Such opportunities took place daily at what might be called the Anglican “holy hour”—afternoon tea with shortbread—or in the evening over a drink.
From Canterbury I traveled to Bossey, the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches located about 12 miles outside of Geneva, Switzerland. The centerpiece of its offerings at the time was a semester-long program called the Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies. There, I found myself in a group of 53 students from 35 different countries and 21 different Christian denominations. And I was the only Roman Catholic! It was clear this was going to be for me an intense experience of “living unity”. Over the next 5 months we would endeavor to live, study, pray, work and play our way into an ecumenical community.
Growing up in the Western world, I had no experience of the Christian East. So, following the Bossey experience of “living unity,” I journeyed from Western Europe to Egypt for some up-close experience of life in Orthodox and Oriental monasteries and parishes. And from there I went to Jerusalem for Holy Week to experience the liturgical richness contained within the church universal. Our shared core identity as followers of Christ is, yes, Christian.
When I returned to the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal, after three years the Director retired and handed me the baton to lead the Centre’s work in the ten provinces of Canada. After my tenth year, observing that North America was becoming increasingly more pluralistic religiously, I felt the need to learn more about other world religions and took a three-month study-sabbatical to do so.
I decided to go to India where, while Hindus are the majority, there are a significant number of Buddhists and Muslims as well. I began at the Christian ashram of Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) directed by the Benedictine monk Fr. Bede Griffiths. Each day there was a session of hatha yoga, followed by a period of raja yoga (quiet sitting in meditation).
I had begun the practice of daily meditation 15 years earlier, and had never forgotten a question posed to me by a friend who asked, “Have you ever practiced yoga? I’ve heard that it was originally developed to help people meditate better.”
“No, I haven’t,” I responded, “but I’ll watch for an opportunity to check that out.” I was now at an ashram in India, and the opportunity had come. Within a few days I was amazed at how, during the periods of meditation following hatha yoga, my body was more settled and relaxed, and my mind quieter and more focused.
To make a long story short, as time went on I was motivated to undertake a serious study of yoga to better understand the dynamics at work in what I was experiencing. And my study motivated me to give further development to my practice and to eventually become a yoga instructor.
After 14 years at the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, I founded an ecumenical center for spirituality and Christian meditation co-sponsored by eight different denominations. I began teaching (among other things as well) weekly sessions called Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice, and wrote a book by the same title.
In 2000, I offered a retreat for Christian teachers of yoga from around the country, and they found it so generative for both their teaching and practice that they joined their voices at the end to request “Can we do this again?”
And the Christians Practicing Yoga teachers’ network was born, eventually giving birth itself to this website!