This fall, I had the pleasure of visiting the Holy Land with friends during an Ananda pilgrimage. I had been looking forward to the trip. As a child, I’d wanted to go to Israel because I was raised Jewish, and when I became a devotee of Jesus, I wanted to go because of Christ.
As an Ananda minister, I’ve told the story of Jesus so many times that I can effortlessly visualize the streets where he walked. The story of Jesus life is alive to me, and for a long time the word “Jerusalem” has been powerful to my mind. Before the pilgrimage, I rarely told people I was going to the Holy Land or to Israel – I always said that I was going to Jerusalem.
At the start of the trip, God played a game with me. Setting out for Jerusalem, I ended up being diverted to three separate locations, including flying to India to spend several days with a friend who was seriously ill. So it happened that twice on the way to Jerusalem I had to fly through Rome, and each time my connections got thoroughly messed up. On one occasion I missed my plane because the battery in my watch ran down. So my great message to you from the pulpit today is to always buy travelers’ insurance. Because I didn’t, and on the day that the tour started in Jerusalem, I found myself stuck in Rome and feeling not terribly cheerful about it. But in the end I accepted it as God’s will, and that He had other plans.
I finally ended up in Jerusalem, complete with my presumption that I would love the place, even though, after leading pilgrimages for some twenty years, I knew that it’s not terribly wise to hold high expectations of the places you’ll visit. But I expected that I would at least have something like an ancient personal memory of Jerusalem from former lives.
I’m not given to visions, or seeing myself wearing ancient dress in my dreams. But I expected that there might at least be a sense of familiarity with the streets of Jerusalem. And instead there was nothing – nada, zero. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of a feeling that I had ever been part of that world.
So Jerusalem for me was kind of a bust. But the Sea of Galilee was glorious, and all in all, it was a wonderful pilgrimage, but just not in the way I expected. And here’s the part that was most interesting to me. The spiritual feeling that I had throughout the pilgrimage was deeply impersonal, including my sense of Jesus’ presence in the land.
People sometimes interpret the word “impersonal” to mean “cold.” But that wasn’t the feeling that I had, at all. It was a presence that was so much more vast than my little heart and mind could encompass, that the thought of my own past experiences was simply washed away. It was a sense of a timeless consciousness that could never be confined to a specific physical place or historical era.
In a sense, it reminded me of the day I first set eyes on Swami Kriyananda. It was on the campus of Stanford University, in 1969. Swamiji was living in San Francisco at the time and giving classes in the Bay Area, and Lakshmi, a good friend who still lives at Ananda Village, had met him and recommended him to me. Her beautiful words were, “I’ve met a true teacher, and I think you’ll like him.”
So I went to hear him speak. The talk took place in a tent that had been set up on the grounds of a fraternity house, and when I arrived I went and sat in the last row. And then Swami walked in and stood in the middle of the big tent, and I became aware of an enormous space opening up around him – just an infinite space in his consciousness.
For all my life I had felt an agonizing sense of confinement. As a child, I didn’t have words to describe it, but years later I realized that I was agonized by the identification of my Infinite Self with this tiny body and personality and their limited experiences.
While I was growing up, people had held all sorts of expectations for me, and what they thought I would accomplish in my life. I was talented and had lots of will power, and it looked as if I would do great things that would reflect well on them. But everything they wanted me to achieve seemed terribly confining to me even as a child, because it was all about seeking my happiness in external things, where I was absolutely certain that happiness couldn’t be found.
I had read a number of books about the spiritual path and God-consciousness, and I was familiar with the concept of Self-realization. But it was all just words. And when Swamiji walked into the room, I realized that he had no boundaries. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I sensed that there was no edge to his consciousness.
He walked in, and I was sitting in the last row, about as far as I could be and still be in the same space. And I knew that he was just as present where I was as he was present where he was standing. And I articulated the feeling within myself, without saying it aloud: “He has what I want.” And what he had was a freedom, a tremendous freedom from the limitations of what we think of as our normal lives.
Paramhansa Yogananda spoke of the “anguishing monotony” of reincarnation, of having to return and pick up the thread and do it all over again, time after time, accompanied by a sense of harrowing vulnerability, because we’re forever clinging to these little things that are so easily threatened. And we’re terribly careless about the dependencies that we build up.
“I require that this person treat me this way, and that person treat me this other way, and I need to have this little comfort, and my own little house, my own little bed, my own little cushions, and my own little so and so.” And although we imagine that these things will set us free, it’s all ultimately about just finding endless new ways to deepen our confinement. And whenever one of these fulfillments inevitably disappoints us, there’s a terrible underlying emptiness and fear.
But, you see, the masters are afraid of nothing, because they aren’t confined or defined by anything in this world.
Now, at Christmastime we ponder the various aspects of the life of Jesus Christ. We love the stage of his life that is the little baby Jesus who is, oh, so full of sweetness for us. We celebrate with the children on Christmas Day, with a pageant of kings and wise men and angels and shepherds, and the story of his birth is so touching to our hearts. But it isn’t the whole story of Jesus. His story isn’t about how tiny and little we can become, and how we can set up our little families and celebrate our little cozy life, with our little children, and you love me and I love you, and we have our little home together, and it’s all just so.
Swamiji told us that he was sitting with Master after lunch at Mt. Washington one day, and Master said, “God eats people.” And then Swami described how Master mimicked the act of picking up human beings and gobbling them down with suitable noises.
It’s not a comforting image – because how many of us want to be eaten? And we certainly don’t want our loved ones to be eaten by God.
But it touches on an important aspect of the story of Jesus. We hear about the star of Bethlehem, and the three wise men who came from the East to worship the baby, guided by the heavenly star. And in our modern ignorance we try to sort out which comet it might have been that they followed, and so forth. But it was nothing like that. The Star of the East has always been a symbol for the point of intuitive perception in our own forehead, which is the star of Christ Consciousness. And the wise men, who Master said were our own gurus Sri Yukteswar, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Babaji, came to unite their consciousness with the great consciousness that was in the Christ child.
When we take a physical birth, we start out as babies. But Paramhansa Yogananda tells us in Autobiography of a Yogi that even when he was an infant in the cradle, his consciousness was simultaneously aware of Infinity.
In The New Path, Swamiji tells how as a young child he would go to sleep at night and see a great light in front of him, and how the light would expand and envelop him, and he thought it was how everybody went to sleep.
So we need to remember that as sweet and heart-touching as Jesus’ infancy is to us, his consciousness was completely united with the Infinite Spirit.
There are certain contradictions in how Master talked about the events of Jesus’ birth. For example, he said that Sri Yukteswar was John the Baptist, yet he also said that Sri Yukteswar was one of the sages who came from the East to celebrate Jesus’ birth. And the question naturally arises whether they could have been the same person in two bodies. But when we asked Swami about it, he said, “A master can do anything,” and simply waved his hand.
But the point is that in the story of the Nativity we aren’t dealing with something small. And what the Christ consciousness is asking of us is not small. What’s being asked of us is infinite in scope. And as I sat at the Mount of Transfiguration, and at Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee, it was both amusing to me and appalling, because I could never quite settle on the best way to understand what I was experiencing. On the one hand, there were these interesting physical remnants of Christ’s life, and on the other hand there was this tremendous feeling of his infinite, impersonal consciousness.
At Capernaum, there’s a house that they say was the disciple Peter’s, and it was very interesting to see the physical look of the place where that great disciple lived, so long ago.
Many times, these pilgrimage places have been built over again and again through the centuries, so that now they are underground. And at Capernaum you find that they’ve built an enormous church over the site, where you can go in and look down into Peter’s house. It’s massive, very impressive, and oddly shaped like a flying saucer. And, well, the symbolism is just too obvious. But it’s not just about the contrast between what Paramhansa Yogananda called “churchianity” and the true, inner teachings of Jesus. It’s about looking for the true, inner freedom that Jesus is offering us, and the challenge that he poses, to discover for ourselves what that freedom is like, and to decide whether we’ll take just a little piece, or if we’re going to take the whole.
Swamiji’s song “The Christmas Mystery” has a lovely refrain:
Who’ll tell to me this mystery,
How a tiny babe, in a manger laid,
Could so many hearts to love persuade,
This holy son of Mary?
I love the phrase, “to love persuade.” You might think that we would positively want to be persuaded. Because the one thing we’re all seeking is to be loved and to be understood. Swamiji spoke of how everyone longs to be loved, but he added, “loved for yourself, not loved abstractly.” And in a different context he said, “Every desire given to us must be fulfilled.” And because that deep longing to be loved has been implanted in us by God, God must eventually fulfill it.
Now, we discover the experience of being loved by practicing it with one another. We practice it in our romances, and with our children, and with our siblings. And I say we “practice” it, in the sense that this is how we learn to feel what love is like. We learn the joy of giving ourselves completely, and of being completely unafraid to give our love.
And here we come again to the question of fear, and how unsatisfactory this life is until we can be completely unconfined by our worries and expectations, and our subconscious memories of countless lifetimes of disappointments. And then we have to be persuaded to love. Because before we can love selflessly and completely, we have to be persuaded, time and again, to take the risk of giving our love.
But what we actually want to be persuaded to isn’t just another experience of the same old thing. “Well, this relationship didn’t work with you, but I’m sure it will work out with this other one. And, all right, those children were a disappointment, but you’ll be the son who fulfills my dreams.”
And so it goes, on and on. But the love that we’re trying to be persuaded to is a love that’s inherent in us. And we discover it through one another, but not from one another. And even the love that we give is not ours, because it’s a force of love that can flow through us when we learn to open our hearts fearlessly and completely.
I lived all those years with Swami Kriyananda, and what came through him, I think, is difficult to describe with words. Because how can you define a person’s greatness? You can talk about his personality, and indeed he was charming and funny and brilliant. But, really, it was not something that we can define as part of his personality, because it was something that he had opened his heart to, so that it could come through him. And what came through him was this tremendous constancy of love for everyone, which was staggering in its constancy, and never wavered.
I remember being with him at a time when he was feeling particularly exasperated with his brother and sister disciples who were causing him so much trouble. And despite their years of rejection and abuse, and their endless attempts to destroy his reputation, practically the worst thing I ever heard him say about them was when he wryly joked, “If I weren’t more evolved, I would bop her one.” Meaning that the temptation was there, but how would it serve me? And how would it serve those I love?
What came through him was a breathtaking constancy of love, and the only way we can manifest that kind of constancy is if we are inwardly connected with a great, impersonal Spirit, and if we have gone far away from all of this, into the spiritual eye.
This is how the tiny babe could so many hearts to love persuade. Because as Swamiji wrote in another song, “The Christ Child’s Asleep,”
The freedom we would know
Christ offered long ago,
And even from his slumber flows peace.
All creatures here on earth,
Alive to their own worth,
Can welcome love, and win their release.
“And even from his slumber flows peace.” What came through that tiny babe, and the magnificent man that he would become, was the constancy of his awareness of the Divine in all. And our celebration of the baby Jesus at Christmastime is very useful to us spiritually, because we’re less afraid to love a little baby. And what we can take from this, and meditate on, you see, is an experience of the freedom to love. And then what we will eventually become persuaded to is that the freedom to love is where we really want to be.
And so we practice. We practice on each other, and on our husbands, our wives, our fathers and mothers, our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and friends. We practice being persuaded to love. “Oh, what needs to be done here?” And always the answer is to give our love.
Now, bear in mind that the love we’re ultimately bound to develop is powerful. It’s a power that is strong enough to move the world. It’s not a mild fluttering of the heart. “Oh, let’s all be loving toward each other and make everyone happy.” In fact, the constancy of that love very often makes people quite unhappy. Quite profoundly unhappy, because if we turn in the wrong direction and decide that we want to live in confinement, God’s love means that He will be determined to break our chains. And that’s the nature of real love. The mother who spoils her child isn’t acting from love, because that isn’t love – it’s selfishness. The mother who loves her child enough to discipline him is raising a child who may become a spiritual giant, with the power to express real love, and that’s a mother whose love is unselfish and true.
That’s the love that God is always trying to persuade us to. That’s the love that the little baby is persuading us to.
On the one hand, that love is deeply impersonal, like the vast consciousness of Jesus that I was surprised to experience in Israel. But, on the other hand, we begin to learn about Infinity in the smallness of each moment. And loving the baby Jesus in his glory, with our whole hearts, is the beginning of our becoming like Him. And for this reason, and for this reason alone, do we live, were we born, and do we love.
God bless you.
(From a talk by Asha at Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on December 13, 2015.)