Last summer my friend Paul told me about The Snowmass Agreement, which I hadn’t heard of. I checked it out on-line and found that this is what it is:
“In 1984 Father Thomas Keating invited a small group of contemplatives from eight different religious traditions—Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, Native American, Russian Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic—to gather at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, to engage in what he called “a big experiment.”
The experiment was to see what would happen when meditators from different traditions meditated together and shared the spiritual insights they gleaned from their meditation. Within a few days it became clear to the attendees that while their religious vocabularies were different, their experiences were not. [my highlighting]
During the first few years of the Snowmass Conference, a series of agreements arose among the attendees. Father Thomas compiled the first eight and brought them to the group for consideration. With lots of conversation and some editing, the Snowmass Conference Eight Points of Agreement came into being.
They are a way of sharing a contemporary expression of perennial wisdom arising not from ancient texts but from the lived experience of contemporary mystics – women and men who, while coming from specific traditions, dare to step beyond them to see what is on its own terms.
The Eight Points of Agreement
1 The world religions bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality, to which they give various names.
2 Ultimate Reality cannot be limited by any name or concept.
3 Ultimate Reality is the ground of infinite potentiality and actualisation.
4 Faith is opening, accepting, and responding to Ultimate Reality. Faith in this sense precedes every belief system.
5 The potential for human wholeness – or, in other frames of reference, enlightenment, salvation, transcendence, transformation, blessedness – is present in every human being.
6 Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service to others.
7 As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it is subject to ignorance and illusion, weakness and suffering.
8 Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment is not the result of one’s own efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness with Ultimate Reality.
It took us until the late 20th century to say such things, and now we almost see them as obvious. There is indeed an evolution of consciousness and a convergence of consciousness that does not need to dismiss or dilute any one tradition.”
I wasn’t surprised to read this, my intuition had been telling me that this must be true, for some time. But I was delighted and excited, and still am, to read that it had been experientially tested. It reminds me of two things: a similar but smaller experiment that with hindsight I can see that I have been carrying out for the past 25 years, and a story.
I can illustrate my smaller experiment with an account of the experience of being invited, some years ago, to lead a Consultation on spiritual direction in Ely Diocese. There was a good number of men and women present. The Bishop of Ely was in the building and blessed the gathering at the beginning with a few friendly words. As he was leaving he said to me, very quietly, ‘You’ve got a complete cross section of the Diocese here, if you can get this lot to work together it will be a miracle.” Perhaps he was having a bad day. I guess that Diocesan Bishops must often feel like that!
I began the Consultation with an exercise that ends up by inviting people to recall a moment in their lives when God was real for them, and to take time to remember it in as much detail as they can. And then, in pairs, I invited them to share their experience with their partner, and to listen respectfully to their partner’s story. I was paired with a man who told about his experience in a Toronto Blessing service. I don’t remember the story I told him, but it couldn’t have been more different from the one he shared with me. Yet we each recognised both the authenticity of the others experience, and the fact that the experiences while very different, were essentially the same. The other pairs all clearly came to a similar conclusion, and as a result the group bonded quickly and well, and we enjoyed our time together. Just like those involved in the Snowmass Agreement he and I, and seemingly all of us there, discovered that “while their religious vocabularies were different their experiences were not.” It was a miracle, because we had connected with God and each other at a deep level. I’ve used this exercise many times over the years and always seemingly with the same result.
The story is one that I think Anthony de Mello tells in one of his wonderful books of stories. He told of an inter-faith conference in Canada, where the contemplative monastics all got on wonderfully well, and the clergy of the different faiths fought like cats.
I’ll write next about the conclusions that I draw from this.