At first, when hound-dogging the groves and hollows of religion or spiritual life or whatever you want to call it, I think there is a period when it is important that the beliefs and longings in one time or place be strikingly similar -- or perhaps exactly similar -- to the beliefs and longings in another.
That touchstone of similarity brings encouragement where there may be some secret and not so secret doubts. If men and women in India or China harbored ideas and revelations similar to those of men and women in Europe or Africa, well then, my quest takes on a wider agreement. I am supported in what is, in part, a quite wobbly adventure: I may be crazy, but at least I have company and one of my ways of judging validity and certainty is to check out and find comfort in what others think or believe.
Ecumenism: If everyone agrees, then it must be so ... or anyway the truth takes on a more concrete validity. Says the Vedas, "Truth is one. Wise men call it by many names." Sometimes I think spiritual life amounts to little more than overcoming the recognition that following a spiritual path is a crapshoot: There simply is no way to know if it's true without practicing and finding out if it's true.
OK, it's nice to have people to hug and be hugged by. Were Jesus' "lost years" spent soaking up the spiritual understandings in India? Did Buddhist monks travel to the Middle East and leave their imprint behind? Was Idea XYZ-271 that rose up in Australia replicated in Tierra del Fuego? Connecting the dots is something that supports and encourages and, when the truth be told, is what individuals know how to do and do it because, as yet, there is no better proof in the pudding. A nice intellectual or emotional snuggle may not be exactly the kind of overarching comfort and ease that spiritual life can seem to promise, but it's better than nothing.
What saves the day in this world of connecting the dots and imaging that connecting dots is what religion offers is practice. Bit by wobbly bit ... just practice. In the middle of your prayer or meditation or disciplined focus, where is India or Tierra del Fuego or even the most delicious hug festival? This is not a critique. Just take a look.
And a bit at a time, I think the need to connect dots falls away. When you stop and think about it, what man or woman is not perfectly capable of reaching understandings that have nothing to do with group-huggery and everything to do with paying attention and simply being human? Instead of marveling that individuals in India or Europe should reach similar understandings, wouldn't it be more astounding if they didn't? People are people. The longing for surcease and peace knows no geographical or cultural boundary. It also knows no time lines: There is nothing saying that what the Chinese discovered and enunciated in 237 BC won't be discovered in Europe in 1521: And the time lapse does not prove that the discovery is any less profound or that Europeans are somehow more backward or the Chinese more advanced.
The connect-the-dots efforts of ecumenism do not deserve to be derided or snarked. It's entirely understandable in the early going. Very human. But what practice shows is that what is understandable is not entirely effective over the long term. And if it doesn't work, why use it?
A little at a time, practice takes hold, even as connecting the dots loses its allure. Do the dots connect? Sure, if you like. Do they not connect? Sure, if you like. But the hug festival of ecumenism deserves a closer look, a look that sets aside the doubts implicit in ecumenism. Practice: See what happens. Try not to be too assured or too doubtful. Whether the dots connect or don't -- well, if spiritual life rested on intellectual and emotional cornerstones, how satisfying could that possibly be?
On the one hand it may sound a bit silly -- learning what you already know.
On the other, what other choice is there?
Oh well ... just noodling.