15 April 2010

Discovering Christ in a Hindu Ashram

I. The Discovery of Spiritual Truth

I was raised in non-religious home. My parents were atheists when I was young and socially active in liberal-leftist politics. Becoming a Christian wasn’t a consideration. I knew no Christians and my Mother was an ex-Catholic who had turned her back on the Church and Christianity.

The playgrounds and streets of my hometown outside of New York City taught me to play hard ball. Life was for “getting”. Life was for “taking” if it wasn’t given. There was no purpose to life, so “having”, “getting”, “taking” and “keeping” was all there was. Everyone seemed to believe this and live this way, so I never questioned it. The problem was that my inner world was one of intense anxiety, insecurity, depression and despair. I had already begun smoking, drinking and using marijuana. At 15 I was using LSD. By 16 the “popular” recreation was heroin. Many of my friends became heroin addicts before they were 18.

When I was sixteen I was arrested for possession and sale of marijuana. My parents took a “tough love” approach and kicked me out of the house. I lived in abandoned cars, and apartment houses of other vagabond-kids I knew. There were actually quite a few of us who had become untethered from family and school. When I was arraigned in court my parents were out of the country on vacation and the judge released me on my own recognizance. I had to come back to court in four months or so. The next four months were a nightmare and a spiral down a black hole of despair.

Eventually I was reunited with my parents. Upon my return I found things had changed. My Mother had entered Alcoholics Anonymous and had a deep, life-changing spiritual awakening. She was reading Alan Watts and DT Suzuki and books like The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Her countenance and attitude changed. She was calmer and softer. I began reading some of the books when she finished them. I was immediately drawn to Zen Buddhism and to Hinduism, especially Vedanta. What appealed to me about Zen was the “Satori” experience, where – in a flash, but preceded by much spiritual work – one “sees”, one is “illumined”, one knows “the inner essence of things”. But I was ultimately drawn to Hinduism because while it offered a similar “enlightenment” experience (“Samadhi”) it also offered a personal “deity” (or more to the point, many deities). Zen Buddhism was a spiritual path that was like working on oneself in an orderly, clean, clinical laboratory. Hinduism was more chaotic, but with warmth and color and – most important to me – a personal god whom one could worship. I wasn’t sure why that mattered to me, but it did. I wanted to be “illumined”, but I needed to know and worship a Divine Person and Hinduism offered both. I have come to learn that we are made to worship the Personal God, Jesus Christ and our heart is not satisfied until we do!

I found my “home” at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York City. My life was radically altered. The discovery that “God” existed and that there was a “spiritual reality” beyond the pain and suffering of life (which I knew so well) was a totally liberating discovery for me. I left behind me all things I knew before and ran head long towards my new life. My “guru” (spiritual teacher) was a Hindu monk, the head and founder of The Center. Swami Nikhilananda was at the time in his mid seventies and in frail health. He had authored many definitive books on Vedanta, Hinduism and Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali (India) mystic who was the spiritual “master” of this movement in the United States, Europe and India. This was the time in the sixties when the hippies and the Beatles all had “gurus”. The Hare Krishna’s were chanting and dancing in the streets and “evangelizing” at the airports. The Vedanta movement was the elder spiritual brother of all of these sixties movements and we looked down on the more “dramatic” and “showy” of these groups. We saw ourselves as “orthodox” Hindus!

My guru was a wise and kind, grandfatherly man. He immediately drew me into his inner circle (which was a privilege as he kept most people at arm’s length) and I became his personal attendant. This is the highest privilege for a disciple in the Hindu guru-disciple relationship. There is no similar relationship that I know of in any other spiritual tradition (except the disciple-spiritual father relationship on Mt. Athos). The disciple is to see God in the guru and to serve him as if he were God, in obedience. Through such service and obedience – it is taught – one learns how to serve God, because if one can’t serve one’s spiritual father – who is flesh and blood – one cannot serve God, who is spirit.

During the summers at the Center’s “ashram” (monastery) in Thousand Island Park, New York, I was also Swami’s personal attendant. I slept on a coach in an attached room to help him during the night, to which I was summoned by a cowbell Swami had on his bed stand! He was old and frail and fell many times while going to the bath room; so I helped him in and out of bed several times during the night, or kept him company – usually in silence – when he had frequent bouts of insomnia.

Our summer days were filled with reading, private prayer and meditation, long walks, and puja (chanting and prayers and worship) in the afternoons, in a “puja hall”. I had been “initiated” by Swami my first summer at the ashram into the spiritual lineage of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi (his “consort”). Swami had been “initiated” by Sri Sarada Devi as a teenager and she predicted – long before he had come to the decision – that he would become a monk in The Ramakrishna Order. The “initiation” process is a private ceremony between guru and disciple, where one is dedicated to one’s guru, and the guru’s guru, and the guru’s – guru’s – guru, ad infinitum! One is essentially “initiated” into the spiritual lineage of the guru and his spiritual forebears. Offerings are made; chants are chanted (in Sanskrit) and one is taught how to meditate with a mantra (a Sanskrit word or the name of one’s deity, usually preceded by the word “OM”). Hindu meditation is visualization and mantra repetition. With bhakti yoga – worship of a personal deity – one looks at a picture or a photo of one’s deity, and then visualizes that image in the “lotus” of one’s heart with eyes closed, sitting in a lotus position, while repeating the mantra. It is taught that after such meditation, through purification, one cuts through the layers of “Maya” or ontological delusion and discovers one’s “true self”. This self is identified with one’s personal deity, with whom one is in spiritual and ontological unity (“all things are one”).

Vedanta Hinduism teaches that all religious traditions from the lowest to the highest forms are all pointing to the one God – “Brahman” – who is beyond name, form, description and knowledge. Deities are merely “forms” this formless “Brahman” assumes out of mercy for the worshipper who requires such a “form” to worship, due to his perceptive limitations! So no deity – or “incarnation of God” as they are called! – is ontologically superior to any other. Brahman-God takes the shape and form that one needs depending on his stage of spiritual advancement, culture, etc. Sri Ramakrishna had supposedly experienced this for himself, having seen the “oneness” of all deities in Brahman in his “Samadhi” experiences. It was taught Christ was “an” incarnation of God, as was Buddha, Krishna, Ramakrishna, Mohammed, etc. Of course we thought “our” deity and path – Sri Ramakrishna – was the most enlightened and the most direct way to achieve enlightenment. But Hinduism is essentially “ecumenical”, which also makes it difficult in terms of Christian evangelism (“Oh yes, Christ is a god, but so is my Krishna”.)

In our ashram’s “puja hall” – and in keeping with this “ecumenical” approach - there were pictures of various deities on the walls. I recall Buddha sitting in the lotus position; Krishna and Arjuna (Bhagavad-Gita) in their chariots on the battlefield; and Christ on the Cross. There were various pictures of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda on the altar and our puja was directed to them. Puja is a very colorful experience. There are candles, bells, incense, burning of ghee (butter), chanting and prostrating. The monks wear ochre colored robes. Each disciple is given a “prayer rope” one uses to say his mantra with and a fixed number of mantra repetitions are given by one’s guru. There is also a process of meditation that can continue for hours for the adept.

Puja usually takes one hour and the monks remain in meditation longer. They meditate this way several times during the day, with breaks for vegetarian meals, study and/or work.

You must remember that Hinduism was the only religion I knew. I knew nothing about Christianity except for what I read about it in Hindu books. These books taught a “Hinduized” version of Jesus Christ, equating him with being one of many “incarnations” of God and as a “fully realized being”. I was totally sold out to being a Hindu. I wanted to be a monk like my guru and become an American monk in The Ramakrishna Order. So what happened is certainly not anything I caused, or wanted to happen. But it happened anyway and like this.

As I began my meditation I began to visualize my deity in my heart. At times my heart was warm with love and devotion for my deity but more times it was cold or I was distracted. Eventually my mind would wander and I would open my eyes, trying to re-focus by looking at the altar and the photographs of Sri Ramakrishna. But strangely my eyes shifted to the picture on the wall of Christ on the cross. There was something about the picture that compelled me to look at it. It almost felt like I was being drawn into the scene depicted as if by a spiritual magnet. I felt like I was standing with the Blessed Virgin and the apostles at the foot of the cross. I got teary-eyed (why, I don’t even know). I felt an incredible sense of sadness and loss that I had not experienced before. I felt strangely connected to this man on the cross in a way I could not understand. I changed my position so that I could not see the picture. I refused to allow my mind to go back to that image I saw in my head. But it returned and I felt “warmth” in my heart and “peace” and a “sad-joy” in the very thought of Christ that I had never known before. I wanted to meditate on Christ and not on Ramakrishna!

This experience didn’t just happen once or twice but many times. In fact I got to the point where I spoke to Swami about it. I asked him “if Brahman takes many shapes and forms, is there any reason why one cannot accept Christ as one’s chosen deity?” He was very surprised by my question. After much silence, he answered, “Ramakrishna is your deity. One cannot make spiritual progress by switching from one to another”. This answer didn’t really satisfy me because he didn’t say Christ couldn’t be one’s deity; he just said he couldn’t be my deity!

I went on that summer in a state of confusion as the two images battled in me for supremacy. I was a Hindu. I was initiated by Swami Nikhilananda. But I was being drawn to Jesus Christ, without having read the scriptures, without ever stepping into a church, without knowing any doctrine or theology. I just loved Him and knew that He was calling me to follow Him. I thought (scandalously!) that while Ramakrishna was a highly evolved being, he was not really God. Somehow – don’t ask me how except for the grace and mercy of God by the Holy Spirit – I believed Jesus Christ was the Son of God. But I was formed as a Hindu and it took many years before I came to understand and accept the Biblical understanding of Christ. I had to unlearn what I had learned. This “unlearning” and “relearning” process took many years.

II. The long and winding road

My “journey” began with the “Jesus Prayer”. Here’s how it happened. After I graduated from college – where I fell away from religious faith and experimented again with all sorts of ungodly things – I went back to New York City to pursue graduate school in journalism. My heart and soul were unsettled and agitated to the core. I experienced panic attacks so severe they often landed me in the emergency room. There was a well-known metaphysical bookstore in Greenwich Village I frequented (and actually worked in for a short while). They had an enormous selection on metaphysics, mysticism, the occult, astrology, black magic and satanic rituals, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sufism and Christianity (all varieties). I was looking for books on “mystical” Christianity and came across (by the will of God, I am sure) “The Philokalia; Writings of early church Fathers on the Prayer of the Heart”. I had never been introduced to Eastern Christianity or ‘the prayer of the heart’ before. Most of the language and theological terminology was foreign to me, but nevertheless I connected with the prayer and its basic premise that one follow the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:17). I began praying the Prayer as soon as I read the first chapter, and continued praying the Prayer from that point forward. I am now convinced that Christ – through this especially sanctified Prayer – eventually led me to find Him in fullness in His Holy Orthodox Church. My “journey” to the Orthodox Church took two distinct phases, with Christ Himself drawing me ever closer.

The first phase was catechetical study of Roman Catholicism. I was inspired in this by Dom Thomas Merton (cf. “Seven Story Mountain”), who had also attended Columbia University, where I was attending graduate school (he had died by this time). He too lived a “wayward” life before becoming a Roman Catholic and eventually became a priest-monk in the Trappist Order (I thought perhaps that was my vocation). His Catholicism had been influenced by eastern spirituality (Buddhism and Hinduism). I thought this would be a good fit for me, since this was my orientation too. I began formal catechism in the same parish where Merton took his catechism years before (Corpus Christi Church). However, instead of drawing me closer to Christ through the Church, I found Catholic catechism to be rather dreary and, frankly, depressing. It seemed to focus on sin (they even have sins broken down into categories: ‘venial’ and ‘mortal’), and overcoming the wrath of God through the mediations of the Church. Roman Catholicism (and the west in general, I came to find out) is strongly influenced by Augustine (especially “Confessions”) and while I could certainly identify with his overwhelming shame and sense of personal sinfulness, I didn’t experience the counterbalancing “joy” in the Catholic Church. I just couldn’t connect with the picture of God the Father as an angry Judge (as Augustine portrays Him), a spiritual characterization that is absent from Hinduism. Catholicism seemed “medieval”, “dark”, and “legalistic”. The “layers” I experienced between the Church and a “direct” connection to Christ seemed insurmountable. My “heart” and “head” were in two separate “camps”. I stopped attending catechism one week before I was to be baptized a Roman Catholic.

The irony is that while I continued to pray ‘the prayer of the heart’ (the quintessential eastern Christian prayer) through this entire catechetical process I never connected with either of the two Orthodox parishes (Greek and Russian) that are in the City. Perhaps I wasn’t ready. Only God knows.

The second phase of my “journey” was as a charismatic Evangelical Protestant. This phase began with a weekend where I locked myself in my apartment to pray and fast. I decided I needed to “experience God directly” and ask God whether Christ was in fact “His only begotten Son”, not simply “one of many gods”. I still struggled with this question. Making matters even more complicated, I had been diagnosed with a serious case of hypoglycemia (and pre-diabetes) and was prone to nausea, headaches and worse when I didn’t eat regularly. But I figured finding the answer to this question (“is Christ the one and only true God”) was more important than my physical well being. So I fasted from food, read the Gospel of John, prayed and cried out to the then still “unknown God” for clarity and direction. Almost miraculously for me, I had no hypoglycemic episodes. I felt great peace. Most important, I received a clear answer in “my heart”. I came out of the weekend’s seclusion “knowing” Jesus Christ was God’s “only begotten” and that other “gods” were projections of man’s need for God, but were not truly God. This was a huge spiritual breakthrough for me. Now the question was, “what do I do with this information?”

Part of the “package” of information that seemed to come with this “personal revelation” (I didn’t know what else to call it) was an idea that had never occurred to me. It was a “still, small voice” that urged me to find a Church that is ‘spirit filled’”. I barely knew what “spirit filled” meant (weren’t all Christian churches “spirit filled”?).

I asked and called around and since this was the time when the “charismatic revival” was ramping up, “spirit filled” was associated with charismatic Protestant and Catholic churches. I was directed to a charismatic Presbyterian Church (soon excommunicated from the denomination). The pastor was a wonderful man as were the “elders” (one of whom continues to be one of my dearest friends). I was led through the “Sinner’s Prayer”, where I acknowledged my many sins and professed my desire for Christ to be Savior and Lord of my life, and accepted “Jesus Christ into my heart”. It was acknowledged I was “saved” then and there, and would reap all the rewards scripture recounted and which God had specifically in store for me. I was told the words in the Bible were written specifically for me (I assumed by God’s foreknowledge) and I was to read scripture that way. It was the “owner’s manual” for me, from God! I tried hard to accept all of this – largely because I didn’t want to “jinx” the salvation “formula” – but had doubts. “Is this all there is to it?”…“What happens to all the bad thoughts and behaviors I’m struggling with?”…“Will I just automatically become ‘like Christ’ by spiritual ‘osmosis’”?…”Don’t I have to do anything?”... “Can anything this important be this easy?” But I was assured by these fine men with theological degrees that this was essentially all there was to full, complete and final “salvation”. It had all been done for me and imputed to me by Christ’s righteousness. All I had to do was “stay in the Word”, which meant the written Bible. I was on my way to heaven as surely as the Sun would rise in the East. (they meant this sincerely and I mean no sarcasm).

However, the next step was to experience the “sign of the fullness of the spirit”, which was “speaking in tongues”. This happened during a service after I was “saved”. Others began to pray in babbling and stuttering diction and I was encouraged to join them. I did. Frankly I never “got” – in my 15 years as a charismatic – the “tongues thing” (why it mattered, how it “formed” you as a Christian, or what its purpose was, since no one else could understand it), but was told to just “go with it” nevertheless, because it was God’s will and purpose, like it was at Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts. I was told this was how God’s Holy Spirit manifested Himself through us and it transcended my rational thinking. It sounded sort of mystical, which was OK with me.

Physical healing and praying for physical healing was also a big thing. We were taught over and over that Christ’s redemption – the kingdom of God was already here and now and just had to be “claimed” – included healing of soul AND body. We prayed for the healing of everything, and for everyone – headaches, baldness, colds, sore throats, backaches. We “laid on hands”, prayed in tongues, and prayed in our own words, “Father God, just heal this or that, Father just bless this or that, Father just release our brother from this or that…” I was in (the kingdom) and now simply had to draw down from the infinite merits and power of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Somehow it seemed if you weren’t healed it was because your faith wasn’t strong enough.

By this time I married my beautiful wife, Colleen and her (my) young daughter Jennifer. We moved around a bit through business, but always attended charismatic Evangelical churches, which had an evangelical theology, but a Pentecostal experience. We eventually wound up in southern California where we put down roots. We also began to attend one of the “hottest” charismatic Evangelical churches in the area. It spawned a national and international movement and we attended the home “church” (actually in a high school auditorium) in Anaheim Hills, California. The Sr. Pastor wore a Hawaiian shirt and had once been a professional musician, having played piano for the sixties band “The Righteous Brothers”. The church’s worship was led by a “worship team” consisting of an electrified band and singers. The music was contemporary and some of it was very emotionally charged and moving. Unlike other services we went to, the worship time was very long and then came Bible teaching, and afterwards a chaotic post-preaching “ministry” time where people came up to the front and did everything from “re-dedicate” their lives to Christ (which we seemed to do over and over), to praying for each other, to giving “words of prophecy”. People sobbed, wept, shook, collapsed to the floor, spoke in “tongues” and this period often lasted for an hour after the formal service was over. Then everyone left and went to lunch.

We had become used to this sort of “church” and since I had never studied church history, I had no comparative reference point to use in determining whether this was the way the church was supposed to function. But during this time – when we became home fellowship hosts, Sunday School teachers, and involved in all sorts of other “ministries” – I felt as if my “inner life” was not consistent with my “outer life”. I continued to struggle with thoughts, urges and behaviors which I wanted to overcome, but didn’t seem able to. Who could I talk to? How did I get my inner life and my outer life “holy”? No one seemed to know. I knew Christ said, “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”, and I knew that wasn’t happening. I was “doing the stuff” we were told the “saved” do, but my inner life was still in a shambles. There was a disconnect somewhere.

The thing that finally got me thinking was the increasing “wackiness” of some of the things going on in our church movement. This phase culminated for me with a visit from a teacher who had a ministry described as “the laughing ministry”. He came up to the pulpit and began to speak like a stand up comedian (in the Sunday night service!). Loud and raucous belly laughing and guttural hysterics began around the church. When he would point somewhere and say “there it is” (the Holy Spirit!) this laughter would begin where he pointed and then move around the auditorium in waves. This would go on seemingly for hours and eventually people would fall to the ground and in the aisles in paroxysms of hysteria. They sputtered, shrieked and guffawed. Some growled. People around me seemed to think this was “spiritual”, but I didn’t. Frankly I was becoming disgusted with the whole movement, which I felt couldn’t be the “true Christianity” that was practiced in the “early Church” and for which people died as martyrs. I knew they hadn’t died for this craziness! But I had no idea where to find the “early Church”. Everyone seemed to be looking for it and modeling whatever they did based on their understanding and interpretations of what the “early Church” was, but if it led people to this sort of hysteria, then I knew it had to be somewhere else (the ‘early Church’) or nowhere at all.

The break through occurred when the church offered a weekend seminar with a visiting theological seminary professor from Fuller Theological Seminary on “early Church history”. We read Henry Chadwick’s “The Early Church”, which began with second temple Judaism and went through the fourth century of the Christian era. I discovered the “early Church” was liturgical, sacramental (feasting on the ‘very’ Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist) and clerical/hierarchical. There was “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” for the first thousand hundred years of Christianity, from Pentecost to 1054 A.D. It produced many sanctified men, women and children. It wasn’t a reinvented “early Church” model either; it looked more “Catholic”, but with a different “ethos”, less legalistic, more mystery. They fasted; they asked for the intercessions of the departed martyrs and those they called saints; they loved the Virgin Mary, and of course were totally dedicated to and worshipped Christ as the second Person of the Holy Trinity. They were under the oversight of Bishops, men of God who were in apostolic succession to the apostles directly. They were “biblical” (Old Testament first; then they complied the canon of scripture which we have today) but they also had “context” from which to truly understand the scriptures without error or heresy. They didn’t play rock music, or laugh in their services. In fact, these services were solemn and thought to be occurring in two “spiritual dimensions” at the same time: on earth and in heaven, joined by the cherubim, the seraphim and the saints, who were the “great cloud of witnesses”. I was, frankly, blown away. I had an “aha” experience. I knew this was the “church model” the Eastern Orthodox Church claimed they were the successor to (I had been reading!). I ran up to the good professor and asked him, “Is this ‘early Church’ you are describing the same Church the Eastern Orthodox claims to be their Church?” It was asked as a “yes” or “no” question. I wanted no equivocation, and to my pleasant surprise, I didn’t get it. He said, “yes” to my question, almost immediately, then added, “but the question you have to ask yourself is ‘does it matter’?” Well, that wasn’t a question I had to wrestle with. I had been through the Roman Catholic world, the charismatic-Evangelical maze and desperately wanted to discover what the “true Church” was – one that still believed as the early Church believed and formed their faithful as the early Church formed theirs. For me it mattered!

Well somehow or other (God knows) I found the book “Becoming Orthodox” by (then) Fr. Peter Gillquist, the story that chronicled the “journey” of a group of over 2,000 Evangelicals to the canonical Eastern Orthodox Church. It spoke to me in every fiber of my being. I found the name of a local parish in the same jurisdiction (Antiochian) and attended Matins and Liturgy. Frankly, I cried through both of them. With eyes closed I thought the choir behind me had to be angels, not men (or women!). The beauty and sacredness of the Liturgy (which I followed in a printed text just to make sure they didn’t say anything I considered “heretical” – imagine!) was overpowering. When I returned again for Great Vespers that Saturday night for evening prayers they prayed from the Book of Psalms (most of the liturgical texts are from the scriptures). They followed Vespers with the “healing prayers” for the sick, the priests and the deacons anointing the sick with blessed oil, as scripture and tradition calls for. I can honestly say that I experienced the Holy Spirit, perhaps for the first time. Christ, His angels, His saints and His Church were there – present all at once is some ineffable way. I knew then that I was finally “home”. I cried thankful tears all the way home.

It has been eleven years since that evening. My entire family – wife, daughters, son-in-law and three beautiful grandchildren have followed me into the Holy Orthodox Church. I have seen them all grow and mature despite hardships and struggles. We have all said time and again how grateful we are to God for protecting His Church and preserving it against the “gates of Hades” in its pristine form without dilution or corruption.
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