I’ve been reading a book for children about the lives of saints which I borrowed from Helen, our school director. As Helen remarked, by reading these books I’m reliving her childhood, because she grew up Catholic, and these stories were intimately familiar to her from a very young age.
I’ve found it an enjoyable way to learn about the lives of various saints in the Christian tradition. I’ve read about St. Rose of Lima, St. Martin de Porres, and many others whose names I can’t remember.
Not surprisingly, many of these saints had a very Catholic way of expressing themselves, and of going about the business of achieving their own liberation. For example, St. Therèse of Lisieux was deeply engaged with doing penance for souls that are trapped in purgatory.
On one hand, it’s easy to understand why she would want to do that, because of her great compassion. And Therèse is just one of many Catholic saints who’ve felt guided to perform this particular work.
There are many stories of the Virgin Mary coming to souls who loved her and had great purity of heart. And very often the instruction she gave them was to pray for souls that had fallen. She would tell them that because so many people were turning their backs on God, they must be especially attentive, and they must make up for their inattention. They would need to make up for the – as the Catholic saints called it – “sinfulness” of people by being extra pious, and they must perform spiritual discipline for the sake of those souls. And finally, you need to be extra indifferent to this world of illusion, in order to give power to the world of truth.
Now, our path is not one of mortification. It’s not the old Catholic tradition where, as a monk or nun, you might take a whip and beat yourself in an effort to become more purified.
In the Festival of Light, we hear, “Whereas, in the past, suffering and sorrow were the coin of man’s redemption, for us now the payment has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy.”
What we’re trying to learn through our karmic tests is to find perfect joy. And on the path of Self-realization, our role is to respond to our life’s trials “with calm acceptance and joy.” Which is tantamount to understanding that God’s love and joy are greater than every test.
There was an enormously touching exchange between two Christian women who were imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Second World War.
When the Nazis took over Holland, the Ten Boom sisters saved many Jews. They were finally arrested, and they found themselves suddenly in horrible circumstances, and the older sister, Betsie, eventually died there. Then, after Corrie was freed, she undertook a great spiritual mission.
The sisters were deeply devoted to Jesus, and before Betsie passed away she said to Corrie, “I’m going to die here, but you are not, and you’re going to go on and carry the message.”
She said, “You must tell people that no matter how deep the darkness, God’s love is deeper still.” And then, in the midst of this terrible concentration camp, she said, “And they will believe you, because you were here.”
In other words, if you can pass through this terrible test and not lose your inner connection to God, and if you can not merely have faith but an actual connection with God’s unfailing love, thousands and perhaps millions will be helped to find the faith to face their tests with trust in the Lord.
In fact, millions have read Corrie Ten Boom’s books and believed her, because she had the spiritual power of having passed through that terrible test, and proving that she could stand firm in her faith through it all. Not every minute. In fact, she had moments of doubt, at times when her faith was sorely tested. It’s not as if there was an unbroken ascent to perfect trust and faith, or that it will ever be so for us. But in the end, she was able to stand unshaken.
Now, while reading these children’s books, I found that many of these Catholic saints actively sought that kind of testing. Instead of waiting to see what tests God would bring, they sought them eagerly, because they wanted to challenge their faith and strengthen their ability to stand firm in God.
What if I don’t drink water when I’m thirsty? What if I don’t turn on the light when I want to read? What if I don’t complain when I’ve been mistreated? What if my bed is a hard piece of wood or a stone bench? What if I continue to love the person who is treating me in a hateful manner? Can I do it? And will I continue to do it when I suffer as a result? Can I always remember that God’s love is deeper than every test?
From one perspective, why would we want to go looking for our tests? But from another perspective, why would we not? If there’s an opportunity to make yourself so powerful that nothing will ever be able to touch you again, why would you not want to do that?
And then I read how these saints would add a further dimension, where they would make the sacrifice not for their own spiritual welfare and advancement but for the spiritual benefit of others.
Now, at a certain level I can understand what they’re saying. “I don’t value myself enough to do this for myself, but I will gladly do it for you.” And in loosening the bonds of self-concern, they became free.
Now, how many times have we found a strength that we didn’t know we had, just because we were in circumstances where we had to find it, and we really had no choice. And when we accepted the test, and let go of self-concern, and gave ourselves with complete energy to overcoming it, we found inner freedom and victory.
The love of parents for their children is one of the most dramatic, self-sacrificing kinds of love in this world. And it’s ultimately why people are drawn to raise children. It’s not because it will be as much fun as it might have seemed at the start.
I heard about a group of college students who followed new parents and studied them for a whole year. And eighteen of these twenty college undergraduate sociology students resolved never to have children, because it wasn’t at all what it seemed.
It isn’t about raising children who will fulfill our dreams. It’s that we get to give to others at a level that we didn’t realize we could. And for some people, it’s the making of them, because they discover the joy of loving without any expectation or hope of a reward.
Years ago, we met two Christian men who’d been in a concentration camp. Reverend Richard Wurmbrand was a great Christian saint who had been through absolute hell, as close to hell as you could imagine on earth, when he was imprisoned by the communists in his native Rumania for speaking openly about his Christian faith. And he was radiant, as powerful as a human being can be, but with the power of God’s love, not with anger.
He spoke at a local church, and we went with Swamiji to see him. There was another man who’d been with Reverend Wurmbrand in prison and had gone through the same tortures, but the love of God wasn’t as deep in him, and when he spoke, it was clear that he was broken.
It’s no shame to be broken. It’s how we often take the first step to becoming whole. Circumstances break us and humble us, and we discover our limitations so that we can start gathering the strength to overcome them. And it’s the only way I know to deal with the sufferings of this planet. The only way to final freedom from suffering is to find somewhere within ourselves the love of God that is deeper than any testing, and the faith that knows that this experience is not pointless, because it is bringing us closer to God.
This is why reincarnation is essential on the spiritual path. If you omit reincarnation from your understanding of the path, then the suffering of this world has no meaning. Why does God test us, if not to improve our understanding and bring us home to Him, through a series of lessons that will take many lives to complete?
I asked Gary and Helen, who were raised Catholic, to explain purgatory to me. Because, if there is no reincarnation in your theology, then you’re faced with the problem of how people can become free in just one lifetime, and what happens to them if they die before they can realize God.
Once you step away from an understanding that includes reincarnation and karma and a clear, scientific vision of the process of liberation, you’re left with these dangling pieces of abstract theology and superstition that people have knitted together over the centuries to smooth over the discrepancies in their understanding of the spiritual life.
Gary explained it to me very simply. “When my uncle died, he sure didn’t deserve to go to heaven, but hell would have been too great a punishment. So there had to be some kind of interim zone where you can hang out until you can somehow get into heaven. And the interim zone is purgatory.”
Of course, it’s not pleasant to contemplate your uncle or your sister or your child trapped in purgatory. And if you want to help them, you can try to expiate the wrongs they’ve done, by your sacrifice and prayers. And you can train yourself to be able to love God in all circumstances, and you can dedicate that effort to those who need it.
In a beautiful way, many of those saints dedicated their spiritual efforts to the suffering souls in purgatory, because it was their understanding that if you’re suffering, then I’m suffering, too, even though I may not know you.
Today we have the Internet, and we’re aware of all the suffering that’s going on in the world. We get to know in vivid detail how much they’re suffering, and it’s not easy to deal with. And what are we supposed to do about it?
Well, one of the things we’re doing on this path is to become instruments for peace. It was Jyotish and Devi’s inspiration for this year that we try to become better instruments of peace. So we’re saying an affirmation at our services, and it’s our way to do something to lift the vibration of the planet into peace and harmony.
The specter of world cataclysm has been part of Ananda’s understanding of the age in which we’re living since the beginning, because it was something that Master predicted.
He said that we’re transitioning from a materialistic age to an age of energy awareness. So things are looking better. And when I first heard these ideas, I thought, okay, maybe a couple of years of transition time, and then the transition will be done, and a new and glorious golden age will begin. In fact, Yogananda predicted that the period of cataclysm would be followed by a golden age that would last for two or three hundred years.
And then I went to a class led by someone who’s very knowledgeable about the yugas, and he said that there will be constant war throughout Dwapara Yuga. So we’re talking about 2400 years of war. And if there’s endless war, it means that peoples’ consciousness is still extremely gross. Because our consciousness has to be stunningly gross even to think of starting a war, compared to the infinite love and compassion of the saints. And if we’re living on a planet where people are still willing go to war, it’s not such a good place or age to be.
In fact, let’s make it worse. The person who taught the class said that because the technology will be so advanced in the age of energy, anyone will be able to get hold of these energy weapons and wage war, with far worse consequences than when you were just riding around on your horse, and you would sort of lumber up to each other and whack about a bit with your swords. The new age that we’re entering is called Dwapara Yuga in India’s ancient spiritual lore. And Master confirmed that Dwapara Yuga is, as he put it, the most insecure age.
But what we’re seeing now on this earth is that the darkness is rising, even as the light is also rising, and the battle is becoming more and more extreme. Each side is becoming more extreme, and this is what we’re seeing on the Internet and living through.
But Swamiji reassured us, “Don’t think that you’re responsible for the planet. You didn’t create it. You didn’t create the destiny of the souls here. Every single individual soul has its own destiny.”
This is so fascinating to me. Every single one of you is as real to yourself as I am to me. And each of us has our own destiny.
We were at Disneyland with Swamiji years ago, and he went into a very elevated spiritual state right there in the middle of Disneyland. He looked out at the hundreds of people, and thinking of Master’s consciousness, he said, “Imagine not merely loving all these people, which is a stretch in itself. Imagine being every one of these people.”
The consciousness, the reality, the karma, the hopes, the dreams and disappointments would be every bit as vivid to you as your own. It’s a state of consciousness that we can barely imagine, but it is who we are, and it’s the state of consciousness that we’re destined to realize.
It’s what caused Betsie Ten Boon to tell her sister Corrie, “We must pray for them.” And Corrie thought she meant all of the other people in the camp. But Betsie said, “No, no – the guards! The ones who are inflicting this on us. They are the ones who need our prayers.” Because their hopes and dreams, their heartaches and their suffering, were as real to Betsie as her own.
So this is where we’re going, even if we resist. And we will not know true contentment until we reach that state of selfless love. And this is why we have to practice it in the here and now.
Now, we don’t have to practice in the same way we did when we were living in those monasteries, doing these physical penances in our former lives. Because this isn’t the time and place for that kind of renunciation, and it’s not our destiny, and it’s not our path.
But we have to do something, as Swami was saying, about reconciling ourselves to the fact that world-shaking cataclysms are an unavoidable part of the story.
Swami was saying that even as we’re trying hard to absorb the reality of these world-shaking events, we have a certain responsibility for being dynamic instruments for the power of dharma – the power of righteousness, and of love, harmony, and peace. And at the same time he urged us not to make the mistake of thinking that we’re responsible for the planet. “You didn’t create the planet. You didn’t create these souls. You didn’t create their destinies.” He said, “It’s presumptuous of you to think that now you are going to redirect this.” You and I have absolutely no idea what is going on, do we? We really don’t. We have no clue at all.
There’s a touching story, I believe it’s in Swamiji’s book The Path, where Master went with some of the monks and nuns to a concert, and there was a little girl sitting a few rows in front of them who kept turning back and looking at them. And one of the nuns was completely entranced by this child.
Afterwards, Master said to her, “You were really attracted to that girl, weren’t you?” And she said, “Yes, sir, I just couldn’t take my eyes off her.” And Master, because he was as much in everyone as he was in himself, said, “That’s because she died in a concentration camp, but it made her a saint.”
Now, if you could die in a concentration camp and it would be your route to eternal freedom, would you take it? Would you want to let someone prevent it from happening? You see how complicated it is? And how difficult it would be to be able to accept your circumstances and say, “This is how the world should be!”
However, simultaneously, we have a great responsibility, and a great deal of what Swamiji did was driven by Master’s predictions of the hardships that would come to the world.
Now, fifty or sixty years have passed since Master was living, and a generation has been born and passed away, and we’re still living essentially in the normal way. But increasingly, many parts of the world that were formerly normal no longer are, and tens of thousands are being displaced and enduring horrible things. But at least we are living more or less as we always have. And a great deal of what Swami did in his life was motivated by the need to go deep in God, because if you aren’t stable in God, your circumstances are going to destabilize you when they suddenly change, in ways that you can’t even begin to imagine.
It’s not a pleasant thing to contemplate, but it was always in the back of our awareness, and Swami was always trying to move us to take responsibility for something that was intimately related to this world. And yet he told us, very simply, “You’re not responsible for the fate of those, but you are responsible for what you are able to channel.”
It’s very simple to grasp this, because, as he put it, “The channel is blessed by that which flows through it.” And the more deeply and profoundly we can stand in that place of light, and the more powerfully we can give that light to others, the more secure we ourselves will be.
We are engaged in a war of light and darkness. It may become a war of bombs and politics, and it’s certainly a war of greed and ambition. But who are we praying for? Is anybody else’s reality as real to us as our own? Are we motivated for the sake of others to rise to a higher level than we could if we were the only ones involved? Are we willing to do penance for the souls in purgatory?
In fact, let’s forget about theology, East or West – but just look at what it does for the individual soul who prays for others. Whether there’s a purgatory or not, and whether there are souls in it or not, to pray for others can make you a saint. Because what makes you a saint is not what you say or believe, but your capacity to love.
Your capacity to love is not expressed by just saying with your mind, “I love you,” but by your actions, and your capacity and willingness to give. And that’s where parenthood can become a path to sainthood. It’s why God compels you, either by desire, or by tricking you through lust, to become parents. And then He gives you lots and lots of babies. Master said that if a soul wants to be born and it sees parents that it thinks will work out well for it, it will, as Master said, “project lustful thoughts into the room.”
As a little child I assumed that all of us were born on purpose. And it was only when I was older that I realized, in the words of a phrase I heard recently, “what happy surprises there have been.” But the reason it happens to parents is that by discovering how much we can give, we discover who we truly are, and what we’re capable of. And this is what gives us power. This is our strength. Our strength grows by understanding, whatever our circumstances, that the love of God is deeper still.
How far can we go? Master said that evolution goes on “until you achieve endlessness.” And how much can we give? As he said, “How can there be humility, when there is no sense of self?” It isn’t merely that “I” am generous. Because there is no “I.” And in the end, there is no point on which our individuality can rest, because the wave has to become the ocean from which it came. And those who are still trying to paste on themselves endless self-definitions are still just little bubbles bobbing on the surface of the great ocean.
St. Augustine said. “We were made for Thee alone, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” That’s where we must go. And, whether quickly or slowly, we were given the free will to decide. But inevitably, we are God’s own and we will come to Him.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on January 24, 2016.)