Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Jesus, Our Sadguru

"All we need is Jesus," the woman said. "Why do we need anything else?" she asked at the final session of Father Cyprian Consiglio's four-day retreat last weekend in the redwood-covered hills above Santa Cruz.

Her question deserved an answer, and Cyprian, who always diplomatically walks the razor's edge between orthodoxy and heresy, did not respond, other than to gently praise her faith in Jesus as the alpha and omega. The woman had seemed confused about all the talk of Hinduism and meditation during the retreat on the theme of "Spirit, Soul and Body: The Univeral Call to Contemplation." Much of Cyprian's theology is rooted in the writings of Fr. Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk who lived in India for forty years. Another man at the retreat was clearly upset by the video shown the night before on the life of Abhishiktananda, the French monk who came to India and put on orange robes and a swami's name. "I didn't hear anything about Jesus," he complained. Some of the retreatants come annually to the late summer weekend at St. Clare's Retreat House and were more used to the orthodox Christianity of George Maloney who used to give the retreat but died last year.

For those unused to the Eastern perspective on Christianity which Cyprian has been offering in public talks for several years, the distinction between meditation, contemplation and prayer was blurry. The man who could not find Jesus in Abhishiktananda's Asia journey claimed to have been meditating for 35 years. But it turned it his meditation was a technique for visualizing Jesus in the Gospel stories and not a method for setting aside discursive thought, even orthodox and very beautiful religious thoughts. Cyprian's talks came between periods of meditation, and each day began with yoga designed to lead into contemplation. Once we even meditated for three periods in a row, interrupted only by stretching to straighten out the kinks, awaken numb legs and massage sore knees.

Why, indeed, do we need to see Jesus and his Gospel message through spectacles from the East? Cyprian did not say that all paths lead to God, even through the emptiness of Buddhism. He did not say that other revelations leading to the formation of other religions were equally valid, and that Moses, Krishna, Buddhai, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, and other gurus, avatars and spiritual leaders were the equivalent of Jesus. In fact, he disavowed a "soggy synchretism" in which we would say of religions: "It's all the same." As if to demonstrate his orthodoxy as a Catholic priest, Cyprian told of his practicing of chanting the Psalms daily and praying the rosary. But he also spoke of his one meeting 15 years ago with Bede Griffiths at the Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur when he sat across from the tall, thin white-haired man dressed in an orange robe, looked deeply into his eyes, and decided: I want what he has.

"Christians need to open their hearts to Christ within, experience Christ within as their guru. This is the function of the ashram," Griffiths wrote. Sadguru is the name for the supreme teacher of Hindu devotees, the teacher who inspires us from within the cave of our hearts. And the monk Abhishiktananda, whose place Griffiths took at Shantivanam Ashram in southern India, was reported to have said: "I have often written that Jesus is my Sadguru. It is through his mystery that I have discovered God and myself, that I have caught hold of my identity."

During the retreat, Cyprian talked of the many young people who had left Christianity for the spirituality of the East. Bede encountered them in his ashram. They were ignorant of the depths of their own Christian tradition, of techniques of meditation thousands of years old and mystical wisdom from the Middle Ages that mirrored teachings in the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads. It was to show them a bridge back to their roots, not an attempt to prove the superiority of the Christian revelation, that Bede and now Cyprian have dedicated their teaching.

I spoke up about my own experience. Raised in the Protestant faith, I drifted away from the church in my teens and explored a variety of philosophies and spiritual paths, including Theosophy, flying saucers, Subud and Transcendental Meditation, as well as Buddhism and Vedanta. The Christian God was too small, too culture bound, too locked into a language -- English -- that dogmatic followers claimed to be His (never her) words, the literal truth. Christians seemed to want to beat followers of other faiths into submission, into conversion. I wanted none of it.

In my middle years I discovered the writings of Thomas Merton, who led the way to a revitalization of Christian spirituality after the opening of Vatican II, and I decided that I wanted what that man had: I became a convert to Catholicism 20 years ago. But even then, I shuddered when one of my catechists said to me: "Buddhism and Hinduism, they're cults." Not long after my confirmation, unable to find kindred souls who shared my love of other spiritual faiths, I lapsed. It took a serious illness and a broken marriage to bring me back into the Church, and then I was able to find many who were on a journey similar to my own.

I could never believe in a God with a long white beard who lived in the sky, watching -- and judging -- our every deed. I could believe in a God who was the divine spirit indwelling within us all, and, indeed, in all creation. It is this Spirit which was the central topic of Fr. Cyprian's conferences in which he talked of the "anthropology" he borrowed from Bede, of spirit, soul and body. Soul and body are the ordinary dichotomy we think of as mind/body, the substances analyzed by Descarte. Soul, for Bede and Cyprian, however, is much more, and includes some of what is thought of as religious (visions, etc.). Cyprian's goal, along with the Apostle Paul, is the transformation of our minds so that we become receptive to the Spirit. But how to do this is the question. "God is in the details," a fellow monk told him, the "tremendous trifles" referred to by G.K. Chesterton.

Spirituality, Cyprian told us, is a practical science, and spiritual evolution is ongoing. He quoted Gandhi who said "my life is my message," and suggested that how we live is what we believe. Nelson Mandela said: "When we are liberated from our own fears, our very presence liberates others." A commitment to a spiritual life is what is important, not the constant monitoring of what progress we have made. Cyprian also talked about the solitude of contemplation and how in the depths of meditation we are "alone with the alone," no less a celibate monk than the nun or brother in a cloister.

Cyprian grew quite passionate when he talked of a Catholic who wanted him to be a gate keeper, to refuse the Eucharist to homosexuals and proponents of abortion. "I told him I wanted to be over there with the whores and tax collectors. I wouldn't make decisions to exclude anyone." And he was also passionate in discussing the environmental crisis. "Humans are the keystone species; we should be the priests of creation, taking care of it rather than desecrating it." How we treat our bodies, i.e. with junk food and TV, is how we care for the earth, he said. An individual transformation of consciousness, he believes, can lead to a social transformation, one person at a time. I don't totally share his faith in this gradual kind of change, thinking that it might already be too late for gradualism, but I agree that transforming our own consciousness may be all we can individually accomplish.

When I am alone with the alone, my soul talks incessantly, mostly of inane things, but sometimes it regurgitates memories and constructs imaginary scenarios that are disturbing. As a single older man, I find thoughts of sex an unwelcome and constant companion, and the vindictiveness I often feel towards a former spouse is an insurmountable barrier it seems to union with God. How can I experience the love of God if the preoccupations of my mind are so unseemly? I trust the words of Jesus, Cyprian, Bede, Merton and others: God's love is constant, the Spirit of God dwells in the cave of my heart (closer than our jugular vein, as the Muslims put it). But it is my stuff that gets in the way. I am not so much journeying to God as trying to find my way back.

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