“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mt3:17 Baptism
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Mt 17: 5 Transfiguration
“You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Mark 1: 11 Baptism
“This is my Son, the Beloved.” Mark 9: 8 Transfiguration
“You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Luke 4: 22 Baptism
“This is my Son, my Chosen,…” Luke 9:35 Transfiguration
What to make of these profound words? Where to begin? From the standpoint of classic Christian Christology, these are words that point to Jesus’s identity. Church teaching and doctrine uses these texts as “proofs” of Jesus’s divinity. The classic language says that, yes, Jesus is fully human, but also he is fully divine. Thus he has two natures—whatever that means. And we “become divinized” “through grace.” Christian mystical experience always strained against this language for something deeper, but it lacked the courage and the language to express it in any other way. It was inevitably limited by the Hebraic and Greek namarupa of the early Church—this was the only language available to them. Abhishiktananda, who began his monastic journey with the classic language, broke out of these limitations in his encounters with the Advaita he learned and experienced in India. Christian theology as formulated in the West is inevitably dualistic, but Abhishiktananda pushed Christian mystical theology and spirituality toward a profound non-duality. Eventually his articulation became, at least in the eyes of some, “non-orthodox” if not downright heretical. If he had lived and published all his thoughts, he probably would have faced some kind of ecclesial censure given how the church has developed in recent decades. (See the discussion by an Indian Jesuit, George Gispert-Sauch, in an essay in the book “Witness to the Fullness of Light,” pp. 98-101 of a theological dissertation by an Indian priest, Santhosh Sebastian Cheruvally).
Abhishiktananda pushed at the boundaries of Christian language and formulations because his own experience compelled him to do so. Let us use an analogy from geology. The Himalayas are the product of enormous forces pushing against each other under the crust of the earth. This is called plate tectonics. Two huge plates, the Pacific Plate and the Eurasian Plate, are in collision and the point of contact produces this tremendous push upward that creates those mountains—but it does take millions of years. So it was with Abhishiktananda—within his heart there was a kind of spiritual plate tectonics taking place. The Christianity that he was formed in and the Advaita of the Upanishads in India collided in his heart and produced this enormous pressure that lifted him above everyone else so he could see farther than all others. Truly Merton’s influence is greater and very important, but I believe that Abhishiktananda is the deepest and most important religious figure of our time, but it may be a very long time before we see what he saw standing on that mountain of his heart. No matter….we shall try to see what we can through his eyes as much as possible….before our own eyes open up. So let us reflect on these incredible Gospel lines.
I still remember my 8th grade nun drawing on a blackboard with chalk a container and then “filling” that container with chalk dust. That was you, or rather “your soul,” and the white stuff was “grace.” She never explained really what grace was, but to be sure it was something good to have. To be in a state of grace was important for “salvation.” To have an empty container was to be in a state of sin, and so on. And you got this grace by going to Mass and keeping the commandments and so on. Of course this simplistic and really erroneous view is not what real Catholic theology taught. When I was older I learned from Karl Rahner that “grace” is not some kind of “stuff” but the Divine Reality itself. The language of grace is only another way of speaking of God’s Self-communication to us. Much better, but still basically dualistic. You still have this basic “human as container” notion where God “comes into” this “container.” The mystics always sought deeper expressions of what they experienced but Church doctrine always kept this fundamental dualistic fence around all such expressions. Abhishiktananda, toward the end of his life, totally transcended this limitation through the help of Advaita, which he saw as a Divinely given encounter which would eventually transform Christian theology and spirituality and recast it in terms beyond the limitations of the namarupa of its Hebraic and Greek origins.
For Abhishiktananda the human reality was not some kind of “container” to be “filled” with the divine reality—even if it is called “divinization.” All such language and those pesky little words like “in” are simply the fragments of namarupa pointing to the Ultimate Mystery. For Abhishiktananda the Ultimate Reality, which we call God, is also the Ultimate Mystery which can never be fully grasped in any language, in any set of concepts or in any set of symbols and it is always already THERE, or else you would not even exist. And human identity is lost in this selfsame Mystery. The human-divine reality is “neither one, nor two.” It is not “one” in the sense of “monism”—which is a caricature of much Asian religious thought—in which there is no “difference”—it is as if Jesus had said “I am the Father.” This would simply be another conceptual reductionism. But Jesus did say, “The Father and I are one.” This is not a numerical “one” but a pointer to a communion that is beyond all concepts and all understanding. Thus the Christian vision of advaita, in Abhishiktananda’s understanding, is the unspeakable mystery of non-duality within the Trinitarian Communion of the ultimate Christian namarupa of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” In other words, we do not enumerate 3 different entities in the Christian mystery of the Trinity; nor does the human being stand as still “another entity” in relation to these 3. The relationship is “not one, not two.”
For Abhishiktananda religion was not a matter of “keeping commandments,” of God rewarding you for being good, etc.; and then God rewards you by coming “into your heart” and favoring you with “various graces.” No, the fundamental dynamic of all religion for him can be summed up in one word: Awakening. This Awakening is a growing awareness of that Mystery of Presence of that Ultimate Reality in the presence of one’s own existence, not apart from it. As Augustine expressed it, “God is closer to me than I am to my own self.” It is an Awakening to an unspeakable intimacy that no words or concepts can comprehend and which is always there.
In his own Awakening, Jesus was limited in his expression of it by the namarupa of his Jewish culture and religion. He was, of course, like a devout Jew fully aware of what his scriptures pointed to: the utterly Absolute and Transcendent Mystery which is the source of everything and which no human lips could name. But Jesus has this Awakening, which Abhishiktananda characterizes as an “explosion”—which is depicted in the three of the Gospels as his “Baptism.” When Jesus comes out of the water “the heavens are torn open”(in Mark—in Matthew and Luke, it is the more gentle “opened” but in Mark you get the more radical nature of the event); “the Spirit descends on Jesus; and a voice is heard. All these are the namarupa of this Awakening within Jesus of his non-duality with that Absolute Transcendent Mystery which he now calls “Abba, Father.” A term of great intimacy. And this because he hears within himself, within his own being, that Absolute Transcendent Mystery calling him into being, “You are my son.” Indeed. “That you are,” Tat tvam asi, as the Upanishads would put it. And the Holy Spirit, then, is the Sign and instrument of this “impossible” and unspeakable non-duality within a Communion. In the Transfiguration pericope this is further confirmed and then tied to the Paschal Mystery, the death and Resurrection of Jesus. More about this in a later posting.
Toward the end of his life, Abhishiktananda saw this Awakening in Jesus as the paradigmatic event. Everything else in life leads up to it and comes out of it. There is no place and no time that is “not suitable” for this Awakening. You could be a hermit living in the desert or a person with responsibilities in the urban jungle—no matter, this Awakening is what your whole life is all about. Apart from it, it is as Shakespeare put it on the lips of Macbeth: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And this Awakening is not just a momentary thing, though there are “special moments” when one as it were steps into a new awareness. But once started this Awakening goes on into Eternity – the Ultimate Reality of God can never be grasped but our being will know more and more of this reality and this will be an endless and unspeakable bliss. It is this for which we exist, and this bliss is already there at our fingertips in our very being: “You are My Son.”
Now a question arises: how much does one “privilege” the Christian language and symbols expressing this Awakening—the language of the New Testament and Church doctrine? Catholic teaching privileges it “absolutely”; Abhishiktananda, in the later years of his life, “relatively.” Absolute privilege means that you take this language as being absolutely true for all people and all times and places, and all religious expressions that “fall short” of this language are fundamentally inadequate and need to “convert.” Put more positively, all other religious expressions are incomplete and inadequate expressions of precisely what this language says, and the whole point of the Church is to “evangelize”—in other words to lead all people toward this “fuller” expression of the Mystery. In the last years of his life, Abhishiktananda no longer held that position. The experience and language of the Upanishadic rishis led him to see a “fullness” there, not an “inadequacy” in the manifestation in them of that Absolute Transcendent Mystery which we call God. I would certainly agree with him in that regard, only adding that my own convictions in this are also bolstered by the unspeakably profound experience and language of the Sufi mystics. For Abhishiktananda then, the role of the Church is precisely to point to that Awakening in all human beings, to be a witness of that Awakening, and, yes, to express it in terms of Jesus Christ but not exclusively. To be sure, for a Christian, the namarupa, the symbols and the language of Christianity should be maintained. One does not go deeper, one does not effect Awakening, by treating this language in a haphazard way, a kind of willy-nilly slave to linguistic fashion. Thus, a Christian mystic will still pray “to the Father, in the name of the Son, and through the Holy Spirit.” But he/she will understand this through his/her experience of non-duality within that Trinitarian Communion and thus in a completely new way. We shall return to this in another posting.