Monthly Archives: November 2015

Advaita and Christianity

The word “advaita” is a little Sanskrit word that means “not two.”  Very simple, very little words, right?  Well, not exactly.  These words point to the most profound, most mystery-laden, most mystical of all realities.  They refer, of course, to our own identity in relationship to the Ultimate Absolute Reality which we call God.  In English terms these words are often termed “non duality.”  A perfectly good term, which I don’t particularly care for (but it’s very popular)  because I think it is just a bit abstract, a very typical Western move to translate something that sounds very concrete, “not two,” into a more abstract-sounding notion or concept, “non duality.”

“Advaita” comes, of course, from India, from one branch of Hinduism.  It does not represent all of Indian religious consciousness; there is a large segment of Hinduism that is quite dualist.  So Advaita does not necessarily represent the “majority opinion” even in Hinduism. It does however have an ancient pedigree going all the way back to the Upanishads.  And it does have some very profound proponents, like Shankara.   Dualism means that the Divine Reality and your personal reality are two separate and distinct realities.   God is the Ultimate Other.  Advaita says, no, they are one Reality.  BUT in what way can they be said to be one? What is this “oneness” all about?  Those are very big questions and no answers on the level of concepts or notions are apparent. This presents all kinds of problems even within Hinduism, and then when we get to Christianity we find what seem like insurmountable obstacles in order to affirm a kind of Christian Advaita.  Let’s take a look at some of these problems and some of the possibilities.

The first thing is that we need to emphatically assert that no conceptual analysis of Advaita will ever reveal its reality.  No amount of metaphysics, philosophy, or theology will ever unfold this reality to your heart.  Learned folk are often enticed to dwell within their clever words, or else even mistake their interesting analyses for the very reality that they are talking about.  In some cases a good analysis can be truly helpful in sorting out what is true and what is ersatz and getting a handle on some aspect of the spiritual life. (Of course there are numerous books out there about Advaita that are totally bogus and written solely to make money for their authors, but about these we are not speaking.)  But with Advaita nothing, not even the most profound reflections and the deepest presentations, nothing can touch it, either positive or negative–all words, notions, concepts merely circle around this reality and perhaps in a way that can be helpful in getting a sense for it, but it will mostly be through a kind of symbolic and mythic language that barely recognizes itself as symbolic.  With Advaita only deep mystical experience can guarantee any kind of grasp of it–and even to put it that way is misleading. There is simply an awakening to it and then you no longer know it in terms of any words.  And if one awakens to this reality then no demonstration of its “incompatibility” with Christianity will be able to stand–and this is key.   Or as Abhishiktananda put it, all vanishes in a Consuming Fire.

Our goal here is not to reflect on Advaita in any general way or within its proper Hindu context but to ponder the possibilities of Advaita within the Christian mystical tradition. (My favorite guide in all this, Abhishiktananda, has of course gone the furthest in all this, but there is always more to address.)  And just to “open the door” a bit more we will consider two seemingly major problems, but closely related, that are most obvious but keep needing to be dealt with.  The first one can be called the “problem of pantheism” or “monism.”  This kind of problem arises when we depend too much on an intellectual/philosophical analysis of Advaita.  And it is also the kind of problem that is alarming to both Christian theologians and spiritual seekers alike.  Both begin to see this mirage of pantheism/monism.   After all Advaita does mean “not two,” and the inference then is that what we have is “one,” a oneness of the Ultimate Reality and me in my “I-ness” (or perhaps for some in my consciousness). So for Christian thinkers (in the negative) and for certain Hindu thinkers (in the positive) this oneness equates to something like “I am God,” or “God is me.” (By the way, my dear and favorite al-Hallaj, that most holy of holy men, did not fall into this mistake when he famously said while crucified “I am the Truth”–here meaning that he at that point was a totally transparent manifestation of the Divine Reality.)  So this is a crude way of putting it, but there are lots of representatives of Hinduism who would put it in some such way and there are many Christian thinkers and church people who believe that’s what Advaita leads to.  Both camps are wrong. Yes, “not two” does point to a kind of oneness, but this “oneness” is beyond conceptualization and properly speaking Advaita would be best expressed in another phrase: “not two, not one.” 

 Pantheism (or in another context “monism”) is really an intellectual abstraction, a mind game that the mind plays when it cannot affirm duality.  Duality after all is the very structure through which the mind perceives the world–everything is in a subject-object relationship seemingly including even the Divine Reality.  But that of course is seen as false as soon as we grow out of a superficial piety into a deeper sense of the Divine Reality, so in the negation of the dualism it reverts to another conceptualization: pantheism: everything is God.  Now certain Hindu figures and certain Hindu-oriented Westerners try to get around this dilemma in another form of rational trickery: the appeal to consciousness.  Basically the Divine Reality and your “I” are reduced to one transpersonal consciousness.  A lot of consciousness language by these folks!  But it all amounts still to pantheism, though in a more subtle form.  (And here we are not being critical of a legitimate use of the word “consciousness” as in Abhishiktananda’s “awakening” to Advaita.)

Can’t speak for the Hindus on this, but from the standpoint of Christianity this leaves a lot to be desired as a solution.  Christianity upholds the irreducible value of personhood–what Merton called Christian Personalism.   But this is not the modern focus on individuality and the self; it is more what Merton called the True Self, the person you are in God, not the creation of swirling images and illusions of selfhood within the social construct of our reality; the faces you make in the mirror of the world.  Furthermore, your true self, the true subject before every encounter, and the deep down reality of self that only God knows is not and cannot be the object of your apprehension or comprehension.  And why is this?  Well,  what if the Divine Reality is really the Subject within the subject of every subject-object encounter.  As Augustine put it, God is closer to me than I am to my own self.  Or as Paul hints at that:  I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.  So to borrow and adapt from the Sufis, and as I have quoted this borrowed Sufi vision often in this blog, then upon realization, then we can say it is the Risen Christ who walks with my feet, it is the Risen Christ who sees with my eyes, it is the Risen Christ who hears with my ears, it is the Risen Christ who touches the world with my hands, etc. Or as Eckhart put it: the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. When that superficial “I” is effaced (again a Sufi way of speaking), that “I” that is a psychological and social construct is dissolved in a new vision–  we no longer have “two” realities; but yet it is not one in the abstract sense of one substance, monism.  This Advaita is way beyond any such formulations and the mind cannot grasp it.   All it can utter truly is: “not two, not one.” Neti, Neti, not this, not that.

But we have not gotten out of our dilemma or solved anything about the possibility of Advaita in Christianity.  We have merely hinted at one way of looking at this seemingly impossible possibility.  There is one deep-down problem which probably illustrates best the hurdle facing us–at least in conceptual terms.  As an introduction to all this let me begin with a couple of quotes.  The first one is from Monchanin, co-founder of Shantivanam with Abhishiktananda, deeply learned in Christian thought and deeply interested in Indian spirituality and monastic expression with Abhishiktananda but who later has a falling out with him precisely over such issues as we are pondering.  Here is Monchanin writing to a friend and criticizing Abhishiktananda:

“It seems to me more and more doubtful that one could recover the essence of Christianity beyond advaita (Shankara’s non-duality).  Advaita, like yoga, and more so than it, is an abyss.  He who immerses himself in it with a feeling that he has lost his balance (vertigo) cannot know what he will find at the bottom.  I fear that it may be himself rather than the living Trinitarian God.”

And here is a quote from Abhishiktananda that illustrates at least in part the problem we face if we want to uphold BOTH traditional Christianity and Advaita:

“Truly speaking, there is no such thing as advaitic prayer.  Advaita is the central teaching of the Upanishads, and no prayer remains possible for him who has realized the truth of the Upanishads.  The equivalent of what is called in monotheistic religions the ‘experience of God’ has here nothing to do with any notion of God whatsoever, for the duality which makes it possible for man to think of himself as standing in front of God has disappeared in the burning encounter with the Real, sat.

And so there was this real anguish that Abhishiktananda wrestled with for over a decade and which really never subsided, due to the “twin loyalties” he now found pulling at him: the new-found and profoundly unexplainable experience of advaita, and his traditional Christian experience of prayer, of sacraments, of theology.  The irreconcilability of these two cannot be overstated–it is a serious problem.  Bede Griffiths, who followed Abhishiktananda at Shantivanam, thought that Abhishiktananda had gone perhaps “too far” in this direction and proposed a kind of modified non-duality, a kind of qualified advaita for Christians.  I am not so sure about this; I feel he is playing some games with some words in order to salvage some aspects of advaita and still maintain a Christian theology and a Christology that is recognizable in terms of Christian tradition.  Personally, I am more with Abhishiktananda and want my advaita straight, no dilutions!  But let us face the problem head on.

There are basically two very different paths, two different visions, two radically different views of that most profound fundamental experience of the Absolute Divine Reality, the Infinite Mystery.  A number of theological and spiritual writers have commented on this situation, but here I will follow mostly the work of an Indian Jesuit, Sebastian Painadath.  I will quote extensively from one of his essays: “The Spiritual Encounter of East and West.”  To be sure, Abhishiktananda knew about this kind of analysis and wrote of it himself–you can find an example of this line of thinking in his collection The Eyes of Light, an essay called, “The Experience of God in the Religions of the Far East,” written in 1973, toward the end of his life.  In any case, we will follow Fr. Painadath first just to have a different voice on this issue.  He begins by basically labeling these two different approaches as “the interpersonal approach” and the “the transpersonal approach” (by using this term I suspect Fr. Painadath is trying to save that western emphasis on the person and not lose it).  He begins with laying out a map of the interpersonal approach:

“In the interpersonal approach the Divine is experienced as a personal God.  As a result an interpersonal relationship between the human person and God evolves; this is a relationship in the pattern of I-Thou.  God, who is I, encounters the human thou in love; the human person, who thus becomes aware of his/her subjectivity, responds to the divine Thou in surrender.  Encounter with the divine Thou is expressed through personalistic symbols like father, mother, lord, king, friend, and bridegroom.  The primary medium of communication between I and thou is the word: when one speaks the other listens.  There is a constant dialectic between revelation and response, between  the demanding word and obedient surrender.  Disobedience to God’s Word and Will is sin.

“The I-Thou relationship between the human person and God finds articulation in doings: God enters the lives of human persons through events which are considered to be salvific events.  Human persons respond to God’s demands through acts of “doing God’s Will.”  Thus the relationship between the human person and God gives rise to a spirituality with ethical overtones and a dominant sin-consciousness.  Justice becomes the central concern of religious existence.  Interpersonal relationship with God creates human communities with a keen spiritual sensitivity to interpersonal human relationships.  Religion thus inevitably promotes social responsibility and creates salvific communities.  Believers feel themselves bound together in a spiritual community in and through which they experience the demanding and saving presence of God.  In the community a history-consciousness evolves, because of the salvific doings of God in the world.  History thus becomes salvation history.  This communitarian and historical understanding of the salvation process is the consequence of an interpersonal relationship between human persons and God.  God’s revelation is understood to be taking place in history and through the community.”

So….you begin to see the ramifications and consequences of this line of thought and this path toward the Divine Reality.  It is of course very much characteristic of the Christian path. And you can see that this is tailor made for a dualistic spirituality.  I mean it is really hard to see it as anything else, though I think some Christian mystics in their experience pushed into the arena of advaita without even being aware of it in those terms.  Folks like the Flemish mystics go way beyond any I-Thou piety of traditional Chrisitianity.

  Abhishiktananda has a slightly different take on this path, and he also lays out its dualistic tendencies but in a more mystical sense;  so let us listen to a small part of his account:

“There is the specifically religious approach called prophetic, also called ‘monotheistic’:  Man lays himself bare before Another, of an All-Other, so completely other that this other defies any definition of otherness that man can ever devise.  The presence of this Other is shattering, it is pure ‘Transcendence.’  He is Yahweh of the Bible, the Allah of the Koran.  I depend totally on him.  It is He who created me, he alone who maintains me in being.  I depend on him totally…he alone can bridge this abyss which my sin has placed between Him and me.  The dependence is total and the distance between us is infinite.  It is on the base of such an experience of God that the revelation received by Abraham is founded, the base of the entire Old Testament.  Only divine love can bridge this distance between man and God……..  At the time of the Gospels, however…there was no longer to be a simple external covenant, a Law…the word of God transmitted through intermediaries.  The Word of Yahweh, who created the world, who spoke through the prophets, itself becomes flesh, man, a member of the chosen people.  This infinite distance, this yawning chasm that stood between man and God is now bridged.  God sends to earth His own Son,…uniting the mystery of God and the mystery of man, at one and the same time, in his theandric nature…….  The whole biblical and Christian tradition of the experience of God leans upon this intuition of the God-Other; of a God who must needs bridge the abyss between Him and us and who,…calls us to Him, permits us to become His own children in His only begotten Son, who invites us to a union with Him in a similar fashion, and thus to participate in the mystery of his intimate life that the Spirit bequeathes to us in his very interiority.”

So here we have a very clear exposition of what you might call the “two-ness” of traditional Christian theology and spirituality, which expresses an authentic experience of the Divine Reality—but is it the only “way”?  No, there is still another path, also expressing an authentic experience of the Divine Reality, and here we will turn again to Fr. Painadath:

“In the transpersonal approach the Divine is experienced as absolute mystery.  No personalistic symbol can truly express the ineffable mystery of the Divine.  Hence the seeker goes beyond all names and forms in search of the God-beyond-God. {Important to note: Fr. Painadath is echoing Eckhart here}  Transpersonal symbols–like ground of being, depth of existence, ineffable silence,…and the ultimate Self of all–may surface in the course of this inner pursuit.  The medium in which one awakens to this awareness of the Mystery is contemplative silence.  In silence one enters into the deeper levels of consciousness and even into the experience of oneness with the Ground of being.  Transparency to the divine reality is the basic dynamic of this apophatic spirituality.  Opaqueness to the Divine Light is sin; it is ignorance: not realizing what one truly is….  Here spirituality assumes cosmic dimension.  When the divine Light within shines forth, one ‘sees the Divine in all things and all things in the Divine.’  This gnosis (jnana) recreates the life of the human individual.  Such an outlook on reality has mystical underpinnings.  A holistic vision of reality is the fruit of enlightenment.  Integration and harmony with all beings becomes the central concern of religious existence.  Alienation of the individual from the totality of reality is considered to be the cause of all suffering; it is the possessive attitude of the mind that causes this alienation.  Spirituality, therefore, means progressive liberation from egoism and insertion into the totality of reality….  Hermitages, spirituality centers, monasteries, and ashrams attract those who seek spiritual integration.”

So it is fairly clear that this approach to the Divine is much more amenable to the experience of Advaita, but it is also clear that this approach is not central in traditional Christianity but rather marginal if not totally absent in many instances.  Now let us listen to Abhishiktananda’s even more radical presentation of this approach and now within the experience of advaita:

“Over against this experience of God-Other, there is the experience that does not even allow for the possibility of recognizing this Other, either by name or by a distinguishing feature.  So crushing was this experience that it brings about the feeling of an emptiness in being.  Here one can recall the words of the Bible: ‘God is a consuming fire, none can behold him and live.’  And here it is not first and foremost a question of the life of the flesh.  What has been consumed by the flame and what has disappeared, as it were, is its thought, its selfhood, its consciousness of being, the ‘I’ that man thinks and pronounces throughout the day.  It is no longer a question of merely saying: ‘Thou art all, my God, I am but naught.’  For as long as this naught, this presumed nothingness still says that he is nothing he still considers himself something by virtue of this very utterance.  No, here there is place for naught else but silence.  Not, however, the silence of someone who would have ceased to speak.  Rather it is pure and absolute silence, as a matter of fact, there is no longer a person to speak…. In this experience man is no longer able to project anyone or anything opposite to himself, or to place in any part of the Real another pole to which he would conform himself and call God.  Having arrived, in effect, at the center of his inmost self, man is seized by the mystery that thenceforth it is beyond his power to pronounce either a Thou or an I.  The mystery has so engulfed him in the depths of his selfhood that it is as though he has vanished from his own sight.”

So…..Abhishiktananda has taken us to the furthest edge of what words can do here, and we are more than ever left with Monchanin’s question:  do we perhaps at the end of this journey meet only our own self and not the Living Triune God?  And what of these two very distinctive paths or approaches within Christianity?  This is an important question because it is only in the second approach that we find the fullest possibility of Advaita.  To repeat myself, no conceptual analysis, philosophical or theological, can solve these problems.  To be sure, a certain kind of integration of the two approaches is needed if one is to follow the path of Christian mysticism and contemplation, and this is what Fr. Painadath proposes:

“These two approaches to the experience of the Divine are not mutually exclusive paths of spirituality; rather, they are the two poles that are dialectically related in the evolution of an integrated spirituality.  The dialectics between the transpersonal and the interpersonal, silence and word, wisdom and love, being and doing, transparency and surrender, contemplation and devotion, harmony and justice is the constitutive dynamics of a liberating spirituality.  In the concrete cultural evolution of spiritual experience in a particular religion, one dimension may eventually dominate the other.  In general, the religions of Semitic origin tend to uphold an interpersonal relationship between the human person/community and God, while the religions of Indian origin move towards a transpersonal experience of the Divine.  Though mystical streams have always been present in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the dominant powers of theology and authority hold them in check for fear of disruption in the community of believers.  Devotional forms of surrender to the divine Lord and prophetic movements of protest are found in Hinduism and Buddhism; but they have been subordinated to an overarching world view that is evidently cosmic and mystical.  A creative dialogue between these spiritual hemispheres would promote the integration of these dynamic elements of spirituality.”

I like what Fr. Painadath says and I basically agree with him, but I think he is being a bit too sanguine about the possibilities of these two approaches “living together.”  We shall see.  It was very difficult for Abhishiktananda, and we see him toward the end of his life abandoning a lot of traditional theology for a radical reinterpretation of the very foundations of Christianity–if Advaita is to be considered within the Christian sphere.  Maybe that is what is called for, but until some of his other unpublished papers are published we won’t be able to say how far he was willing to go down this road.

One last thing.  It surely seems that the Advaita perspective is badly needed within the Christian perspective if we are to make any sense of the writings and sayings of the many Christian mystics. And I think many ordinary people practicing ordinary piety sometimes slip into this experience and of course they are not able to name it.   But beyond that, a Christian who feels truly at home in Advaita, a true Christian Advaitin will also have the highest respect for and truly engage in all the symbols, devotions, rites and rituals of his community.  It will be an exceptionally rare Advaitin who is called beyond all these into a world of awareness that we cannot describe.  Most of us live in time and history and within a certain loka and a community of faith and these are a part of the Divine Manifestation in our lives.  So the little old lady praying the rosary (like my grandmother)who begins with the ordinary piety of I-Thou but who then becomes immersed  in a Great Silence that becomes One with her and in which she loses her self, well, perhaps this is a good exemplar of what Fr. Painadath is pointing to.

Spirituality Outside the Line

There is a spirituality that lies within well-established and well-recognized boundaries, and this is good and normal and to be heeded–like Jesuit spirituality, like Franciscan spirituality, like monastic spirituality, etc. etc. (but many times I wonder about these neat designations and how really superficial they are). However there is also a spirituality whose elements, at least some of them, lie “outside the lines.” These are not elements you learn about in spiritual books or spiritual daydreams or in imitation of anyone or anything or through any practice or method or discipline or by becoming a member of some group. These elements may be “outside the lines” because they are truly hidden and nameless, lost in a mystery that one is unable to articulate and so hidden from all except those whose hearts have been duly prepared; or they may simply be very “unneat,” like in a messed up life that suddenly finds itself unaccountably in the Presence of Absolute Reality(like the thief crucified next to Jesus). Or it may be something that is completely overlooked but right in front of one’s nose. You could put your finger on it but you will never understand its significance. Like the wilderness. Or it may be something that is distasteful, distressful, painful, or just plain ugly–not at any rate part of any respectable spirituality that allows us to be respectable while plumbing the depths of the Infinite within our hearts. At any rate these are some of the parameters; there are many more. What I hope to do here is just bring to your attention some of the “markers” of this spirituality “outside the lines” because in many ways this spirituality is more important and more critical to us than the straightforward one. And these are “markers” that are in fact “no-markers” because they merely delineate some of the shadows of this spirituality “outside the lines”–its essence is way beyond all formulations. Also, this spirituality “outside the lines” is very ecumenical–it can be found in all the major religious traditions in one form or another; and it may signal a more profound encounter with another religious tradition than any discussion or sharing or conference. All of us at one time or another touch base with this spirituality “outside the lines” simply because that’s where we really plunge into the depths–some, very few actually, live there most of the time, not because of some choosing on their part but because that is their own special gift. That we cannot explain. We won’t even be discussing this spirituality directly–partly because that is beyond our language and partly because it doesn’t seem right to want to “nail it down” as it were even if we could. No, we will simply lay out some “markers” and perhaps some comments and leave you to connect the dots. So let us proceed.

*“Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem. That is why human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory is as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Comment: So apart from the more obvious significance of this statement, it also points to that poisoned use of spirituality and religion in order to gain self-esteem and a feeling of self-worth. This mechanism is deeply ingrained in us and it takes quite a bit of spiritual maturity to recognize its workings and not to be discouraged at the same time. That self we want to prop up is so ephemeral, just like a little wisp of smoke, so much like a phantasm, that one day we discover that there is nothing there to prop up….perhaps a key insight in every religious tradition. But maybe for that to happen we may need to step “outside the lines.”

 *A donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey.

                           Sufi saying.

*“On the fourth day of sesshin as we sat with our painful legs, aching backs, hopes and doubts about whether it was worth it, Suzuki Roshi began his talk by slowly saying. ‘The problems you are now experiencing [will go away, right? we were thinking] will….continue….for….the….rest….of….your….life.’

The way he said it, everyone laughed.”

                               Ed Brown in Essential Zen

Comment: True spirituality and religion are not there for solving problems in your life–at least not in any way that we usually think of these things–“stuff” that happens to you. So if you want health and wealth and good relationships and success, etc. you go to Jesus or whatever your path….so goes the pitch of this kind of spirituality. The false promises and gimmicks of ersatz spirituality and religion promote this view that religion has this “usefulness.” Of course the only real problem in the deepest sense of the word is simply the self itself! That cannot be “solved.” It is not a knot that can be untied. Religion can even make that knot tighter! But once you touch base with the spirituality “outside the lines” you may discover how the knot dissolves–so then who is having all these problems….?

 *Rags and again rags,

Wearing rags all my life–

I somehow get food at the side of the road;

My hut is left to overgrown mugwort.

Gazing at the moon all night I chant poems.

Getting lost in the flowers I don’t come home.

Since leaving my nourishing community,

Mistakenly I’ve become this hobbled old horse.

                        Ryokan (as translated in Essential Zen)


*”And if He closes before you all the ways and passes,

   He will show a hidden way which nobody knows.”

                        Sufi saying.

*Dongshan asked a monk, “What is the most painful thing in the world?”

The monk said, “Hell is the most painful.”

Dongshan said, “Not so. If you wear monk’s robes, and underneath, you have not clarified the great matter, that’s the most painful thing.”

                        From Essential Zen

 *The Fool for Christ. Among the various markers of this spirituality “outside the lines, the most obvious, the most direct, the most uncompromising, the most unmistakable is the Fool for Christ. This type, without reference to Christ of course, can be found in practically all the great religious traditions, but here I want to refer only to the most intense and most visible manifestation of this character: within the Russian Orthodox “culture of the heart.” From about the 14th Century to the beginnings of the 20th Century the Russian Fool for Christ, the iurodivyi, was a remarkable presence in the religious consciousness of the Russian people. I don’t know the situation today, but I would be surprised if he/she is not present even today. Not much has been written about this character, partly because he is so unusual and we Westerners especially have little sensitivity to his significance (and so it is with the spirituality outside the lines). We like our well mapped-out institutionally-approved religious paths, so someone who goes “outside the lines” becomes invisible as it were. Anyway, the best short write-up of this phenomenon is by the Orthodox Bishop and monk, Kallistos Ware, although John Saward has also written quite well on this topic and there’s a few others. For our purposes here we will rely on Bishop Ware and his sources.

Ware quotes from a remarkable Russian author, Iulia de Beausobre, who has written about the Fool from a Russian perspective:

“He is nobody’s son, nobody’s brother, nobody’s father, and has no home… From a practical point of view, no useful purpose is served by anything that the iurodivyi does. He achieves nothing.”

Here we might add that this figure sounds strikingly similar to the Indian sannyasi as described by Abhishiktananda (though with obvious differences).

And then Ware quotes a certain Cecil Collins:

“The fool is the symbol of the lost ones of this world who are destined to inherit eternal life. The fool is not a philosophy, but a quality of consciousness of life, an endless regard for human identity…not the product of intellectual achievement, but a creation of the culture of the heart.”

 And then there is Tolstoy with his remembrance of his boyhood days when a Fool by the name of Grisha came into his wealthy family’s house:

“The door opened and there stood a figure totally unknown to me. Into the room walked a man of about fifty with a long pale pock-marked face, long gray hair and a scanty reddish beard… He wore a tattered garment, something between a peasant tunic and a cassock; in his hand he carried a huge staff. As he entered the room he used the staff to strike the floor with all his might and then wrinkling his brow and opening his mouth extremely wide, he burst into a terrible and unnatural laugh. He was blind in one eye, and the white iris of that eye darted about incessantly and imparted to his face, already ill-favored, a still more repellent expression… His voice was rough and hoarse, his movements hasty and jerky, his speech devoid of sense and incoherent… He was the saintly fool and pilgrim Grisha.

“Where had he come from? Who were his parents? What had induced him to adopt the wandering life he led? No one knew. All I know is that from the age of fifteen he had been one of ‘God’s fools,’ who went barefoot in winter and summer, visited monasteries, gave little icons to those he took a fancy to, and uttered enigmatic sayings….”

All over Russia, at various times, there were numerous such figures. Significantly enough these figures did not always elicit a positive response and a real discernment was necessary. Ware:

“Tolstoy speaks of the sharply conflicting opinions that others held about Grisha: ‘Some said he was the unfortunate son of wealthy parents, a pure soul, while others held that he was simply a lazy peasant.’ The fool is equivocal, enigmatic, always a disturbing question mark. When dealing with the vocation of folly for Christ’s sake, it is an exceptionally delicate task to distinguish genuine from counterfeit, the holy innocent from the unholy fraud, the man of God from the drop-out…. How are we to ‘test the spirits’? The frontier between breakdown and breakthrough is not clearly marked.”

 Interestingly enough one of the earliest examples of this “Fool” is found in Palladius’ account of early Christian monasticism, and what makes it even more interesting is that this “Fool for Christ” was a woman. Ware:

“Feigning madness, she worked in the kitchen, with rags wrapped round her head instead of the monastic cowl. She undertook all the most menial tasks and was treated with general contempt, kicked and insulted by the other nuns. One day the renowned ascetic Pitiroum visited the community. To the consternation of everyone he knelt at her feet and asked her for a blessing. ‘She is mad,’ the nuns said. ‘It’s you who are mad,’ retorted Pitiroum. ‘She is our amma {spiritual mother}–mine and yours.’”

Well, the account goes on to say that this holy figure, once “unmasked,” left with no one knowing where to or who she was. Along this same line and back in Russia there were figures like St. Xenia in 18th Century St. Petersburg and Pelagia who was a disciple of St. Seraphim and who rebuked a bishop by slapping him in the face; and then there was Pasha of Sarov who around 1900 prophetically pointed to the demise of Czar Nicholas II. So women have had a place at this table over the centuries, unlike the priesthood!! It is fitting that the marginalized would fit as icons of a marginal spirituality! But whoever they were the point is that these characters were all pointers to this “spirituality outside the lines.” What is striking is that at certain times and in certain places there was so much “room” you might say for this spirituality to unfold; and I should add that it seems also connected in some mysterious way with a healthy and vigorous monasticism, like the hermit life–the two flower together and wilt together–and we have not even touched upon the many other manifestations of this “foolishness.” 

*”Thus it is said:

     The path into the light seems dark,

     the path forward seems to go back,

     the direct path seems long,

     true power seems weak,

     true purity seems tarnished,

     true steadfastness seems changeable,

       true clarity seems obscure,

       the greatest art seems unsophisticated,

       the greatest love seems indifferent,

       the greatest wisdom seems childish.


       The Tao is nowhere to be found,

         Yet it nourishes and completes all things.”

                        From the Tao Te Ching as translated by Stephen Mitchell

*”In a sense all the virtues are contained in spiritual poverty (al-faqr), and the term, al-faqr, is commonly used to designate spirituality as a whole. This poverty is nothing other than a vacare Deo, emptiness for God; it begins with the rejection of passions and its crown is the effacement of the ‘I’ before the Divinity.”

            From Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, by Titus Burckhardt

Comment: While it is absolutely true that the highest realization of all mysticism manifests itself as love, mercy, compassion, it is also important to note that existentially speaking the most important aspect of the path is poverty…especially spiritual poverty. My Jesuit classmates in the seminary used to joke around when they produced their credit cards to pay for something: “a gift from Our Lady of Visa!” Ok, very funny, but I wish more religious people would recognize that simple material poverty is a true gateway (but only a gateway) to the deeper and more essential reality of inner poverty. It is not until this poverty reaches the level of the “effacement of the ‘I’” that we begin to love with the very love of God, with a love that has no trace of self-centered motivations. This has to go pretty deep to get to that point, and perhaps only when one touches the spirituality “outside the lines” does this happen. Here is another Sufi saying that points in the same direction.

 *”My servant draws near to Me…. Then…I am his hearing through which he hears, his sight through which he sees, his hand through which he grasps, and his foot through which he walks.”

                                               Sufi saying.

*”The returners to God are destitute of everything other than God.”

                                             Sufi saying. 


We will let Lao Tzu have the last word. With words like these we can begin to perceive where the spirituality “outside the lines” and perhaps only that spirituality can take us.

*“The tao that can be told

   is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

   is not the eternal name.

   The unnamable is the eternally real.

   Naming is the origin

   of all particular things.

   Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

     Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

     Yet mystery and manifestations

     arise from the same source.

     This source is called darkness.

     Darkness within darkness.

     The gateway to all understanding.

The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu as translated by Stephen Mitchell