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This may sound like the beginning of bad joke. In reality, it is the beginning of a relationship at the heart of Rabbi Howard Addison's new book on interfaith spiritual direction. A Catholic guided by Sufi Muslim Sheiks, a Jewish chaplain advising gay Christian soldiers, a Hindu woman seeking spiritual advice from a Unitarian--Addison recounts these stories, and many others. Addison himself is the rabbi who has been "in spiritual direction" with an order of nuns, for many years now. This competent book describes the phenomenon of interfaith spiritual direction, with all of its attendant risks and benefits.
As the world seems to shrink, people of different faiths in America are starting to feel secure enough to open up to each other on many levels. One result of this increased interaction is more interfaith marriages. A parallel, but very different, result is that spiritual seekers find themselves looking for guidance from clergy of all stripes. Addison's new book describes how cultivating a relationship with a spiritual director from another religion can lead to a new and deeper perspective on one's own religion.
Addison, whose previous book was on the Kabbalah, is obviously attracted to mysticism. He has a longstanding interest in Eastern religions, and in Catholic mysticism. In this book, he traces the roots of Western spiritual direction to Christianity's Desert Fathers, who left the established urban church to wander the desert in search of spiritual revelations in the third to the fifth centuries of the Common Era. More recently, starting in the 1960's, Christians and Jews have flocked to Eastern religions for inspiration.
In a helpful section summarizing the work of others, Addison draws a grid defining four different types of spirituality: speculative versus emotional, and Revealed God versus God as Mystery. Different individuals may have a preference for different types of spirituality. And at the same time, different religious institutions emphasize different forms of spirituality. Judaism in twentieth-century America has stressed the speculative, or that which engages the mind, while deemphasizing the emotional. In explaining the extraordinary preponderance of Jews in the American Buddhist movement, Addison writes, "...if seekers are experiencing an imbalance or even a void in their spiritual lives, it is understandable that they would search for fulfillment in traditions that stress the spirituality of the quadrant diagonally opposite of where their own faith stands." In other words, Jews brought up analyzing religious texts and doing good works in the world, are naturally drawn to the spiritual inwardness and mystery of Buddhism.
This book is a practical guide to finding and developing a spiritual director from another faith. It would have been a richer and more satisfying book if Addison had written more extensively about his own journey with his spiritual directors, who are members of the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of the Cenacle, in Florida and New Jersey. Although we read that Addison has met with these sisters once a month for years, we learn little about the actual content of their conversations. What specific problems did the Sisters help Addison to address? How exactly has his Judaism flourished through contact with their Catholicism? What does his congregation make of all this? Because this book is written to a large extent as a how-to manual, rather than as a chronicle of a spiritual journey, it lacks this sort of compelling detail.