We asked Adam Bucko to join the network of contributing writers here at Living City because his life and work resonate with Focolare values. We asked him, have you had an experience with someone of another religious tradition in which that person made you a better Christian? He wrote this essay in response.
Without exposure to other traditions, I may have not remained a Christian. Also, as it happened, only some of my significant mentors were Christians.
I grew up in Poland during the years of the totalitarian regime. This reality was characterized by large monuments and statues of Lenin and other party leaders, and it had its own logic, culture, and way of speaking about things. Violence was used to ensure that we were compliant, and all aspects of public life were governed by this reality. People would use words like “society” instead of “nation” and call each other “comrades” to signal their consent.
However, at home, things were different. Photos of communist leaders were replaced with icons of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, whose scared face was said to represent her empathy for our pain. She was our mother, and we were encouraged to look for signs of her presence all around us.
For me, the church became a sign of that presence of divine love. When I saw courageous priests speaking truth to power and advocating for a nonviolent revolution, I assembled a little altar at my home and tried to imitate what I saw them do during mass. I too wanted to be in touch with the freedom and courage they embodied.
However, the church was not the only sign of that presence. As an only child who spent the first few years of life in a small village surrounded by a lake and forests, I spent much time walking alone in the woods, observing the trees, smelling the uniqueness of each season, and feeling like both the lake and those forests mediated something of that motherly presence of the Divine as well.
This sense of meeting God in the woods made it so that I never felt that the church had any exclusive claims on God. Perhaps I was intuiting what Archbishop Desmond Tutu later expressed often, that while we may be Christian, our God is not.
So, these early experiences in my youth inspired me to seek wisdom wherever it was available. Some of my most significant mentors were spiritual masters from other traditions. I think of the gift of Indian monastics who helped me to understand the importance of daily practice of silent prayer. I remember Sr. Vandana Mataji, who was both a Catholic nun and a Hindu Swamini. When I stayed at her hermitage in the Himalayas every Friday, she would take me by the River Ganges, and we would sit and listen to the sacred sounds of the river; then she would offer me spiritual direction.
I also think of Rabbi Yehuda Fine, who studied in the Holy Land with some of the most profound Hasidic masters who survived the Holocaust. After returning to New York, he continued their legacy by working on the streets of Times Square, rescuing abandoned and runaway teenagers from homelessness, prostitution, and other dangers. I learned so much from him in my own work with homeless youth about what it means to look for God in the ashes and not just on mountain tops.
All of my mentors, Christian or not, cared more about passing on to me their sense of God’s presence rather than their religion. There was this trust, this understanding, that what mattered most was a sense that God is here and now, and that somehow we can wake up to that. They felt that religion would sort itself out on its own in me. It did just that, and I eventually found my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church where I became a priest.
Today, I see my involvement in interfaith (or interspirituality) as a big part of my commitment to God.
I function as a priest in my community, and my role there is to help people enter this beautiful tradition, to be initiated into the experience of God that our tradition offers, and then develop a life of daily practice that can center and recenter them every day in the presence of love, so all of their commitments can flow from that.
Additionally, many young people who identify as spiritual but not religious come to me. They often have no interest in religious institutions, but in many ways are more committed to the search for the Divine than are many church-goers. My goal with these young people is to be present to them in such a way where they can touch something of God in them, that spark of light that Meister Eckhart talked about, and then to figure out where they fit in the religious landscape. This way, they can live their spiritual commitments within a context of a healthy community where there is mutual support and accountability. They can learn how to be vulnerable with others; their friends can speak truth in love to them; where together they can figure out how to confess their shortcomings to each other; and also how to offer and receive forgiveness. Finally, together, they can discern how they are meant to become the hands and microphones of God’s transforming care in the world.
I think that for Christians, it is very tempting to put the questions of Christian identity and institutional well-being at the center of our lives. For so long, we have been a dominant voice in the religious landscape. But times are changing, and perhaps it is time to reexamine who we are and come to terms with the life, teachings, and living presence of our master Jesus, who seemed to care more about self-spending love than institutional self-preservation. My hope is that we will indeed learn from and embody that love because the future of our world depends on it.
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“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love,” said the Christian medieval mystic Meister Eckhart.
An interview with Christopher White, Vatican correspondent for NCR