Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we feature 2018-19 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink interviewed Martin Dojčár, short-term Resident Scholar who is Professor of Religious Studies at Trnava University in Trnava, Slovakia. During his residency, he worked on his project titled “How is Christian Yoga Possible?” To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Could you tell us a bit about your project, particularly what you mean by “Christian Yoga”?
Christian yoga is not new. Even though it has been discussed for decades, notably in the pioneering book Christian Yoga (1956) by Benedictine monk Jean-Marie Déchanet, the hermeneutics are still unsatisfying. The very idea of Christian yoga raises various questions because it is necessarily related to the concept of interspirituality – a concept that is itself problematic. I would rather call this idea a “vision,” meaning an “interspiritual vision” that incorporates or even merges and unifies elements of different Christian and yoga spiritualities into one organic view of the spiritual life.
My project is therefore an in-depth study of the “Christian yoga vision” and, at the same time, an attempt to build a “bridge” between spiritualities, connecting not through doctrines, but rather through human experience and lived spirituality. As such, this project can be placed in the context of my previous research in self-transcendence, which culminated in my recent book Self-Transcendence and Prosociality (2017). This project is a continuation of that book as a sort of case study.
Slovakia seems like a very interesting place for an intersection of Eastern and Western ideas about spirituality. What is the nature of this tension or symbiosis in Slovakia or your Christian tradition?
The region of Central Europe with Slovakia in its middle was traditionally a crossroads – an economic, cultural, and religious juncture. Christianity was brought there from the East and West at almost the same time. Throughout history, the two oldest branches of Christianity coexisted side by side – Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism (from 1646 in the Byzantine, not only the Latin rite) – and were, later on, followed by its Reformed branch. Sure, challenges had to emerge, and they manifested themselves in violence, wars, and persecutions, while on the other hand, history gives us plenty of examples of peaceful coexistence of diverse religious communities, their prosperity, and their shared interest in the common good.
The rise of ecumenism in the region after the fall of the communist regime in 1989 might have been a result of the specific genius loci of Central Europe along with the cultural sensitivity of its people. By the way, this hypothesis can also be supported by the “doctrine of breathing with two lungs,” which was a favorite phrase of the Polish Pope John Paul II. In short, the doctrine says: The Church has two lungs, the Eastern and the Western one, and therefore she must breathe with both of them (John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint 54, 1995). The Slavonic pope embraced the “two lungs metaphor” – introduced by the Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov and popularized by Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík, SJ, a prominent Roman Catholic expert on Eastern Orthodox spirituality – and promoted it throughout his papacy.
There are two main ideas implicit in the given example: a deep Slavonic sense for integrity or wholeness, and Slavonic personalism – the human being matters more than anything else.
Hand in hand with growing awareness of religious and spiritual diversity nowadays, expressions of “religiophobia” are becoming more visible. By “religiophobia” I mean various forms of xenophobia as related to religion or spirituality including “yogaphobia.” This observation brings me back to my consideration on the nature and causes of a specifically central European approach to religious and/or spiritual diversity. Let me put it this way: If the constructivists are right and we all as humans are influenced, or even determined in our behavior and in our perception of reality (which includes self-perception as well) by a set of biological, cultural, and psychological factors, then a long tradition of cultural and religious intersection in Central Europe matters. Consequently, it is quite possible that I am also preconditioned by the heritage of cultural and religious diversity in my country to be sensitive to the kind of interspiritual interactions I deal with in my projects.
On the other hand, one is always capable of self-transcendence – in a way. I propose a couple of arguments for this “post-constructivist claim,” as I prefer to call it, in my book Self-Transcendence and Prosociality. Ultimately, the message of self-transcendence undergirds every authentic spirituality; it is at the heart of every religion.
What other writers, thinkers, and/or practitioners have had an influence on you?
Other sources of influence have pushed my interest in spirituality and in interspirituality in particular – my personal inclinations and interests, my Jesuit education, my international travels along with my contacts with spiritual teachers and practitioners around the globe. I was lucky to have excellent professors during my theological studies who were supportive in my spiritual quest, such as Fr. Vladimír Šatura, SJ, and others. Fr. Šatura influenced me mainly by his pioneering psychological study in meditation, Meditation aus der Sicht der Psychologie und der Christlichen Tradition (1981).
Among many, let me mention three spiritual teachers who had a huge impact on my academic work as well: the anonymous medieval Christian author of The Cloud of Unknowing, the Indian saint Ramana Maharshi, and a contemporary spiritual author acting within the popular trend of “spirituality without religiosity,” Eckhart Tolle. Moreover, twentieth century Czechoslovakia gave the world several spiritual authors whose extraordinary spiritual qualities have not yet found appropriate international recognition, including Míla Tomášová, František Drtikol, and Květoslav Minařík. These three have also had a great impact on me.
What is your own practice like?
My interspirituality research wouldn’t be possible without my own intense spiritual practice into which elements of Christian and yoga spiritualities are incorporated in a dynamic synthesis that I have developed throughout more than three decades of spiritual quest. My practice combines formal sitting and walking meditations with an informal practice of awareness aimed at connecting everyday “profane” activities with the “sacred,” spiritual ones. Physical exercise is an integral part of my daily routine. It consists of meditative movements and a series of asanas blended with conscious breathing and a receptive attitude based on surrender. The so-called “postural yoga,” which is currently enjoying enormous popularity in the West, is only a small part of it.
On your website, you mention the several times you have stayed at the Collegeville Institute as a Resident Scholar. What has the Collegeville Institute meant to you in terms of inter-religious dialogue and development of your work?
The Collegeville Institute has become a special place to me. The Institute has been “building bridges” for 50 years and I have learned that from my own first-hand experience here. Is it not a blessing to find a place, or better, colleagues, who are concerned with the same aim of building bridges?
Have you had any particular interactions with other scholars or with people at the Abbey or University that have been meaningful to you in your work?
Actually, my first trip to the Collegeville Institute in 2012 was motivated mostly by the intention to meet Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB, a Saint John’s Abbey monk and the secretary general of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIMMID), the world’s leading institutional interfaith dialogue promoter. I visited again later and established a professional relationship with Don Ottenhoff, the executive director of the Collegeville Institute, and other colleagues and friends. In the meantime, the Spirituality Studies Journal was established in partnership with the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue as another example of the possibility of building bridges across continents, nations, institutions, and spiritualities.