Buddhist-Catholic Ethicist Thinks God Must Change

By Schaeffer, Pamela | National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Buddhist-Catholic Ethicist Thinks God Must Change


Schaeffer, Pamela, National Catholic Reporter


"I am profoundly Buddhist." Tobias Meeker made that statement about himself more than once in a series of discussions about his faith and life.

To be "profoundly Buddhist," in Meeker's terms, means a number of things. For one, it means letting experience be experience; not insisting that it be given a name.

For another, it means believing that God, as love, must change.

Meeker's description of himself as "profoundly Buddhist" doesn't diminish the rest of the reality: that he is also Christian (although he was a Buddhist first), also Catholic, also a former Trappist monk, an active member of a parish, and finishing his 13th year as director of the ethics program at St. John's Health Center in Springfield, Mo.

The four hospitals and fifty-some clinics under St. John's umbrella serve Springfield, a city of some 150,000, but also reach deep into the Ozark hills, providing direct service to people in a 20,000-square-mile area of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

"My story is more a story of solitude" than of religion, Meeker said. He was raised in a family that held membership in no church but visited many, "almost as tourist," he said. Meeker read widely in religion but had no personal connection to any tradition. "As a kid, I read the scriptures of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and the Book of Mormon," he said.

Study "was my way of coping," Meeker said. "I was fascinated by the formative power of religion, its power to mold societies and institutions. My interest was purely intellectual. I was a bit of a child prodigy in this stuff."

As a teenager, during a long illness that continued into his 20s, Meeker began to practice Buddhist meditation. "I just practiced the very simple techniques, the meditation of clearing the mind, of sitting in total silence," he said. He lived with an ever-present fear of death.

Then when he was only 17 he had a powerful, transcendent experience that left him deeply humbled. Though he treasured it, he knew he should not try to speak about it, or to name it, but only strive "to be utterly conformed to it," Meeker said.

The experienced, he said, brought "the alleviation of all my fears and a great peace. I felt I needed some understanding of how to live in relation to this. I also knew enough to know that Hinduism, Christianity and Islam would rush to tell me what had occurred and what it meant." Only Buddhism, it seemed, would simply let the experience be.

"I didn't talk about this experience to anyone for 10 years," he said, not until 1973, a year after he had become a Trappist at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Mo. A Jesuit retreat master, told Meeker that, in the language of Christian contemplatives, he had had "a unitive experience of God."

Around the time he had that experience, Meeker was preparing to go to college. He inadvertently triggered a bidding war between the University of Chicago and Harvard by telling Chicago (truthfully, he said) that Harvard had offered him more. It was scholarship money he needed, and Harvard eventually won.

At Harvard, he took every course available on India, because, he said, "It was the only culture with an unbroken link to its ancient past." He graduated cum laude, but his health had continued to deteriorate, and he thought he had only a short time to live. Passing up graduate school, he got a dispensation that allowed him to enter the Peace Corps despite his poor health, and he went to India for a year.

Around that time, Meeker found himself drawn to conversion, first "teetering on the brink" of becoming a Buddhist. But then, he said, he began to look more closely at Jesus, in whom he'd previously had little interest. While writing an honors thesis at Harvard, Meeker learned that Mahatma Gandhi, the deeply spiritual Hindu who became India's nonviolent revolutionary leader, had teetered on the brink of conversion to Christianity. …

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