An Unplanned Pilgrimage
One beautiful spring day many years ago, when I was just fourteen, I was unexpectedly and forcefully struck by the realization that I would one day die. I realized that the universe would go on without me, and it would not matter that I or anyone I knew and loved had ever lived. I still have no idea where this thought came from. I had no religious upbringing, and so I did not yet know that my obscure hunger to make sense of life, to find an ultimate meaning and transcendent fulfillment, was a completely natural human desire, echoed in virtually all cultures across time. By the time I reached my senior year of high school I had dropped most math and science courses, as they did not address ultimate questions. And I had no intention of ever going to college. Instead of the classroom, I would go out into the world to see what life would teach me.
At eighteen I left home in upstate New York and drove across America to Arizona, hoping to avoid another cold dreary winter. I thought I would be back in four months, but it would be almost three years before I returned home. In retrospect the journey was providential. While working eighty hours a week as a dishwasher in Phoenix I came across the writings of Thomas Merton. What he wrote spoke powerfully to me. He understood the shallowness and materialism of modern American culture and the emptiness of life without transcendence, and he spoke joyfully about God’s mercy and love. He gave witness to the Church’s mystical life and to its promotion of social justice. At nineteen I was baptized. It seemed like the most obvious and natural thing to do.
A year later a planned one-week visit to the Monastery of Christ-in-the-Desert in the mountains of New Mexico turned into a one-year stay. I loved the silence and rhythm of monastic life and the attention given to the great questions of life and death and God. That winter the monks (only five at the time) and I studied world religions by listening to tapes of famous spiritual masters from around the world. As a fresh convert to Catholicism I was both enthralled and distressed by all this new information. How did all these religions relate to God, Christ, and the Catholic Church? I was so confused!
After two years of philosophy and German studies at St. John’s University in Minnesota and intense practice of hatha yoga with Hindus (my first exposure to Hinduism and to Swami Veda, a real holy man), I ended up going to West Germany for a semester abroad. I could not afford to continue my studies in the U.S., and so I ended up living in Germany for eight years. By then I had begun to understand that I needed the guidance of theology – in this case Catholic theology – to come to a deeper understanding of the meaning and significance of the great mysteries of Christian faith centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
I supported myself in Germany by working in factories that produced auto parts. My fellow factory workers were from many countries. Working alongside Turks was my first exposure to Islam.
I studied in three places in Germany, but mostly at the University of Tübingen. I took courses with great theologians like Hans Küng, Walter Kasper, and Gerhard Lohfink, working with Kasper for three years as a research aide. I also took courses from Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel. As a student I went on pilgrimage with two Protestant students to Mt. Athos in Greece and discovered the beauty of Eastern Orthodoxy. All this broadened my appreciation of Christian ecumenism. But what about those other religions that had so bewildered me years before? It was time to investigate them.
After earning a degree in Catholic theology I flew to India to study Hinduism and do research for a PhD in Tübingen. I thought I would stay only one year, but I ended up living five years in the city of Pune. I studied Sanskrit and the works of Shankara (ca. 700 CE), Hinduism’s most famous theologian, learning about non-duality and comparing Shankara’s teaching on divine grace with Christian teachings. I also lived for a time with Bede Griffiths at his ashram in south India. Father Bede was a Catholic holy man of great openness to other faith traditions. His theology and that of Jacques Dupuis come closest to my own way of thinking about God’s activity in other religions. In Pune Catholic and Anglican sisters convinced me to do a Buddhist vipassana retreat with Goenkaji, the well-known meditation teacher, promising me it would change my life, which in fact it did. I also fell in love with a Muslim woman. Mariam and I married a year and a half after my arrival in India. She converted to Catholicism, primarily because of her exposure to the Catholic faith growing up (her father was a Catholic convert to Islam), not because of any urging on my part. She is my guru, my “wise woman from the East,” as I playfully call her (she does not like the title). Even today I still have so many wonderful Muslim relatives and friends in India, and I love visiting Muslim shrines of saints. So my original intention to study Hindu thought in India has expanded to include first-hand experience with Buddhism and Islam. All of this has enlarged my sense of the mystery and presence of the divine and of my own mystery, and it has irrevocably altered the way I view Christian theology and spirituality.
Though I have never considered myself to be a real academic like my famous and immensely talented colleagues, somehow I am about to begin my twenty-fifth year teaching comparative theology at Notre Dame. I am grateful to God for leading me down this unexpected path into Christian discipleship and into the exploration of other religions. Though many of my original questions about life have been answered, many important ones remain. I look forward to whatever God will teach me next. I see it as my vocation to awaken in my students these same ultimate questions, to guide them in the wisdom of Catholic faith and the wisdom of other faith traditions, and to leave the rest to God. My overall message is this: be ready to discover God in all the religions and people you encounter, but do not lose sight of the significance of Jesus in God’s universal plan of salvation. I very much agree with the words of the great Christian scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, who is one of my heroes: “God is defined by Jesus, but God is not confined to Jesus.”
Bradley Malkovsky, Bradley.J.Malkovsky.email@example.com
University of Notre Dame