This all began to change when I was a novice and something monumental happened in the Catholic Church. That was the Second Vatican Council which turned the Church upside down including religious life. The Council produced sixteen documents and one of the most important was the one on the Church - possibly the first time the Catholic Church had reflected on itself without being on the defensive. One of the most important chapters of that document was entitled 'The Universal Call to Holiness' which suggested that there was only one vocation within the christian community and that was the call to holiness. This stemmed from our baptism and no-one was called to be holier than anyone else. Christians live out that call in different ways - through marriage, the single life, their chosen profession, religious life or whatever. Religious life was not special or better, just different. In a sense religious fell from their pedestals at that moment.
Another document from the Council was about religious life and we were asked to go back to our foundations and to reflect on how to live out that original vision in the contemporary world. We realised there was no need to separate ourselves from our neighbours, live in large institutions, have a name different from that given at baptism, wear clothes that were more medieval than modern. We started to dress normally, live in ordinary neighbourhoods, be part of society. What didn't change were the vows we lived by - poverty, chastity and obedience and our commitment to prayer and meditation, living a spiritual life and community support - and our ministries by which we served the world and tried to make it a better place to live, though these became less institutionalised.
Not all religions have a tradition of religious or monastic life or even understand it. I have found that Muslims, in particular, have often asked me about it but they can understand making God the centre of one's life. While Islam doesn't have the institution of religious life, Sufi brotherhoods traditionally took vows of poverty and celibacy. There have also been individual mystics like Rabi'a al- 'Adawiyya al- Qaysiyya who refused marriage to devote herself completely to God. Buddhism is perhaps the religion that is most associated with monasticism. When Siddartha Gautama the Buddha set up his sangha he set it up as a monastic community though lay people could be associated with it. Most Buddhists I know are attached to a monastic community and have a monk as their teacher. Buddhists and Catholic monastics have a lot in common and for decades now there has been a very fruitful intermonastic dialogue with monks and nuns visiting and following the way of life in eachother's monasteries. In fact this intermonastic dialogue is the foundation for the interreligious dialogue now carried out by the Catholic Church and significant figures such as Thomas Merton have been part of it. This kind of dialogue allows for a sharing of experience and I've had a little taste of it in the years I've spent in dialogue with my good friend Ani Lhamo of Samye Ling Tibetan Monastery here in Scotland. Our dialogue was not as formal as some others but for over ten years we brought together Buddhists and Christians to share our faith at a more personal level than some dialogues are able to do. One of my happiest memories is of a week spent with Ani Lhamo on Iona where the sun shone and we spent hours sharing our story with eachother. In spite of differences in belief we both felt the same attraction to the spiritual life which motivated us to make a full time commitment to it. It felt as though we were in touch with the same reality even though we used a different religious language.
There are many religious involved in dialogue - not just the formal monastic kind but the dialogue of living and serving people of all faiths and none. Some of them like the monks of Tibhirine have done so at the cost of their lives and