FRANCIS BENNETT has accomplished the remarkable feat of being both a Trappist and a Buddhist monk.
A particularly deeply felt religious experience at a monastery in Montreal in 2010 began the next phase of Bennett’s personal odyssey, prompting her to become a spiritual teacher.
From 2016-2017 Bennett transitioned from male to female. She regards her transgender identity as just one part of her own journey, which she describes as more of a quest of the spirit than of earthly politics:
“In that journey and process we do not necessarily need to reject spirituality or religion altogether,” she writes. “But we do need to reject the patriarchal, misogyny and sexism that has defined virtually all religious hierarchies and structures, both in the East and the West from time immemorial.”
Bennett brings her wealth of teachings and experience to Savannah this weekend in a special two-afternoon appearance at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah.
Her 2013 book, ‘I Am That I Am: Discovering the Love, Peace, Joy and Stability of the True Self’ boasts some of the most genuinely glowing and appreciative reviews you will find. It is a chronicle of her expansive vision of the awakening of the spirit, a vision melding the world’s great traditions.
She is currently heavily involved with outreach to the LGBTQI community as well as anyone interested in an inclusive, reflective study of what various mystical forms of Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism have to offer the quests of the soul.
We spoke with Bennett last week.
On religious epiphanies:
I’d say I’ve had many epiphanies of that nature. Probably at least a dozen over the years. Of course I’ve been at it since I was a kid. I was always thinking spiritually.
The one I’ve written about the most came in the middle of mass in Montreal. I was receiving the Eucharist. I remember I looked down and I saw the Eucharist as filled with light. It spread all through my body, and all through the church.
As a Catholic, you believe that Christ is truly present at all times. I never doubted it. But that experience showed me that His presence actually filled all things.
I not only was in the presence of God, I was the presence of God, as is everything.
One attribute of God is always said to be His omnipresence. Well, if God is omnipresent, how can there be anything that isn’t God?
On comparisons of Eastern religions and Western religions:
Eastern religions can every bit as authoritarian as in the West, sometimes moreso. Even now, the Buddhism of southeast Asia is much more authoritarian than the Buddhism practiced in the West.
The truth is that Christianity has come a long way. There’s a stereotype of Christians as always being Evangelical, intolerant Bible-thumpers, but the majority of Christians aren’t like that. Even the Catholic Church has dialed back a lot of its more extreme stances.
In the West we tend to idealize the religions of the East. We tend not to see them warts and all.
On the nature of her activism and the divide between politics and religion:
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an activist. I have marched a few times. But I see that as part of what I do in standing up against any kind of injustice.
Each person is utterly unique. Each person embodies their spirit in their own personal way. Transgender people are an illustration of this.
You look at Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. You see people who were certainly spiritually motivated in their own attempts to fight injustice. Each of us is called to service in some way. One of our missions is to find out who we were created to be.
What to expect:
I have three prime teachings: Meditation, Surrender, and Service. They’re all equally important.
It’s similar to a fitness regimen. For example, you might watch your diet, you might do anaerobic exercise, and you might also do aerobic, cardio exercise. All three factors are needed for the goal of being truly physically fit.
You have to do it all to get a real balance. It’s the same thing with the spirit.