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Buddhist-Catholic ethicist thinks God must change

NCR Staff
Springfield, Mo.

“I am profoundly Buddhist.” Tobias Meeker made that statement about himself more than once in a series of discussions about his faith and life.

To be “profoundly Buddhist,” in Meeker’s terms, means a number of things. For one, it means letting experience be experience; not insisting that it be given a name.

For another, it means believing that God, as love, must change.

Meeker’s description of himself as “profoundly Buddhist” doesn’t diminish the rest of the reality: that he is also Christian (although he was a Buddhist first), also Catholic, also a former Trappist monk, an active member of a parish, and finishing his 13th year as director of the ethics program at St. John’s Health Center in Springfield, Mo.

The four hospitals and fifty-some clinics under St. John’s umbrella serve Springfield, a city of some 150,000, but also reach deep into the Ozark hills, providing direct service to people in a 20,000-square-mile area of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

“My story is more a story of solitude” than of religion, Meeker said. He was raised in a family that held membership in no church but visited many, “almost as tourists,” he said. Meeker read widely in religion but had no personal connection to any tradition. “As a kid, I read the scriptures of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and the Book of Mormon,” he said.

Study “was my way of coping,” Meeker said. “I was fascinated by the formative power of religion, its power to mold societies and institutions. My interest was purely intellectual. I was a bit of a child prodigy in this stuff.”

As a teenager, during a long illness that continued into his 20s, Meeker began to practice Buddhist meditation. “I just practiced the very simple techniques, the meditation of clearing the mind, of sitting in total silence,” he said. He lived with an ever-present fear of death.

Then when he was only 17 he had a powerful, transcendent experience that left him deeply humbled. Though he treasured it, he knew he should not try to speak about it, or to name it, but only strive “to be utterly conformed to it,” Meeker said.

The experience, he said, brought “the alleviation of all my fears and a great peace. I felt I needed some understanding of how to live in relation to this. I also knew enough to know that Hinduism, Christianity and Islam would rush to tell me what had occurred and what it meant.” Only Buddhism, it seemed, would simply let the experience be.

“I didn’t talk about this experience to anyone for 10 years,” he said, not until 1973, a year after he had become a Trappist at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Mo. A Jesuit retreat master told Meeker that, in the language of Christian contemplatives, he had had “a unitive experience of God.”

Around the time he had that experience, Meeker was preparing to go to college. He inadvertently triggered a bidding war between the University of Chicago and Harvard by telling Chicago (truthfully, he said) that Harvard had offered him more. It was scholarship money he needed, and Harvard eventually won.

At Harvard, he took every course available on India, because, he said, “It was the only culture with an unbroken link to its ancient past.” He graduated cum laude, but his health had continued to deteriorate, and he thought he had only a short time to live. Passing up graduate school, he got a dispensation that allowed him to enter the Peace Corps despite his poor health, and he went to India for a year.

Around that time, Meeker found himself drawn to conversion, first “teetering on the brink” of becoming a Buddhist. But then, he said, he began to look more closely at Jesus, in whom he’d previously had little interest. While writing an honors thesis at Harvard, Meeker learned that Mahatma Gandhi, the deeply spiritual Hindu who became India’s nonviolent revolutionary leader, had teetered on the brink of conversion to Christianity.

“I began to see Jesus through Gandhi’s eyes,” Meeker said. “I saw his humanity as the incarnation of what I was called to do.”

Ultimately, though, Meeker said, the final plank in his decision to become a Christian, and then a Catholic, was the Vatican II documents that affirmed that non-Christian religions contain salvific truth: Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and Nostra Aetate. Those documents are so important to his own sense of truth, he said, that he could no longer remain a Catholic if the Vatican repudiated its position on non-Christian religions.

A year after Meeker became a Christian, he was “miraculously healed,” he said. A few years later, in 1972, he entered the monastery. Suddenly, he said, “shutters slammed down” on his spiritual life: “God withdrew from me.”

What kept him going, he said, was “a whisper of a memory.” Meeker worked at learning to pray conceptually, though he says he remained “profoundly a Buddhist.”

Although a 1989 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith implies a fundamental conflict between Buddhism and Christianity, Meeker believes the religions integrate well. Buddhism is basically a metaphysic, whereas Christianity has no metaphysic (although, he said, it adopts one from time to time).

After several years in the monastery, serving as infirmarian -- the monk who cares for monks who are sick -- Meeker began to hear a call: “Come away and be alone with me.” At first he regarded the call as “temptation,” but the community released him to go to a hermitage for an indefinite period of time. He had no electricity, no running water, but he had the luxury of silence and time -- 13 months. During that period, he said, he began again to experience “the continual presence of God.”

Unimpeded by daily distractions, repressed feelings -- resentments, anger -- surfaced. In the way of a Buddhist, he acknowledged his negative emotions and let them go. In the way of a Christian, he learned not to be conformed to those emotions, but to live “by will.”

“I felt as if I emerged from a dark tunnel” -- all those years of illness and dryness -- “into life,” he said. Meeker left the monastery in 1980, convinced that God was leading him out. In 1983 he earned a master’s degree at Yale Divinity School while working as a chaplain intern at a hospital and a hospice. He returned to the Ozarks, began working as a chaplain at St. John’s, met a nurse, Marie, who became his wife and adopted a daughter, Madonna, who is now 11. He founded the ethics program at St. John’s in 1987.

Meeker’s job goes much further than implementing the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, published by the U.S. bishops in 1995. Rebecca Pruitt, who worked with Meeker in Springfield, said he is able to empower people who consult with him, sometimes about the hardest decisions of their lives, so that, with a little coaching, they are able to apply their own values and make decisions that feel right to them.

“He doesn’t work out of an ethicist-as-expert model,” said Pruitt, who is ethicist for Mercy Health System of Oklahoma. “He believes the Holy Spirit is alive in every person.”

Meeker is often consulted -- called in on cases by physicians to a degree that amazes his peers around the country -- to help people make end-of-life decisions. He averages about 300 consultations a year, a third of them from outside St. John’s, he said. He also works with five ethics committees and, when invited, speaks around the country.

Meeker doesn’t worry about what Buddha called “the non-essential questions”: the existence of God, the existence of the soul, whether creation is of God. Such questions have led to a speculative Christian metaphysics that he finds discomfiting: the Scholastic model, for example, which describes God as unchanging and all-powerful, in control of everything to the point that he willed his son to die.

“How could you worship a monster like that?” Meeker wonders.

He finds the concept of God as unchanging to be absurd, preferring contemporary process theology’s concept of a God who suffers and changes. “If you love, you change,” he said, adding: “I believe that God, in God’s great love, is pouring himself out to us at every moment,” he said, “in every conceivable way.”

The Buddha said that speculation about the nature of God reminded him of a man who was shot by a poison arrow, and, rather than pulling it out, asked a hundred questions about it, Meeker said -- questions like what kind of wood is the arrow made of. While asking all the questions, the wounded man dies.

Meeker is also troubled by Christianity’s “triumphalism,” an attitude that resists recognizing “the fruits of the Spirit” in other religions -- “a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” Meeker believes.

Rather than speculation, he prefers the sayings of the Desert Fathers, finding them often similar to a Zen koan, or riddle for meditation. One of his favorites is a message St. Anthony of Egypt, a third-century hermit, often used in bidding people farewell. “Rejoice always,” he would say, “as one who is being saved.”

At times during his workday, Meeker sits. In silence. Usually he sits with a straight back, on the edge of a chair, sometimes with his hands together, his thumbs and forefingers arranged like a figure eight -- a symbol of infinity.

At other times he walks, focusing on his senses, “opening them as broadly as possible, being aware. It so often gives rise to wonder and praise and gratitude,” he said.

“It’s odd,” he mused. “People used to ask me if I missed the monastery. My reply was, and remains, ‘I never left.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999