Two Paradigms of Encounter With Ultimate Reality

At times this blog seems to have become an “Abhishiktananda Blog” but that is not the case. It’s only that I consider this person the most significant religious figure of our time, and his lived experience and his words beckon us to a journey that most of us never heard of in any theology classroom, in any religious community, or in any standard Catholic teaching. Or if we did “hear” of it, it was almost a “whisper” expressed in very disguised language. Yes, there was Merton, a relief for most of us, but he was only a “beginning”—read his meditation in Asian Journal on Christ as the Door and you will see hints of a radical rethinking going on in his own mind. But Abhishiktananda probably went further. That does not mean he does not have his limitations—he does, and plenty of them. That also means we need other voices, other lights also, to focus on this path, on this journey. That’s why we often turn to our Sufi friends and sometimes to our Buddhist friends. Among other things, Abhishiktananda tells us that it is no longer wise to journey in an isolated tradition. So this is what this blog is all about, this path, this journey, with an occasional foray into “current events.”

In the last posting I gave a quote, advice from De Lubac to Monchanin when the latter was leaving for India. I discovered that quote was a redacted one, so here is the complete quote, and even more interesting: “Rethink everything in the light of theology, and rethink theology through mysticism, freeing it from everything incidental, regaining, through spirituality alone, everything essential.” Very, very important words. And it was not Monchanin who followed this advice but his partner, Abhishiktananda—and De Lubac could never guess, I think, how deep his own words could go.

I am glad for that reference by De Lubac to “mysticism”—a word that has been badly corrupted and misused and thoroughly misunderstood. This blog has been an attempt to recapture this word for some “ordinary” religious usage, to salvage it from what our culture considers as weird or exotic or special. In fact many religious people themselves tend to criticize all mentions of all such terms as “elitism,” or impractical and not having to do with people’s real problems. I am especially bewildered by the charge of “elitism” at any talk of mysticism. You will recall Karl Rahner’s famous statement: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not be.” Indeed! This is what Abhishiktananda was seeking—the uncovering, the awakening of this mysticism in all its fullness within Christianity. He had discovered through his encounter with Arunachala and Ramana Maharshi and the Advaita of the Upanishads the radical accessibility of this Ultimate Reality we call God, the radical closeness of this Ultimate Reality—closer to him than he was to himself (in Augustine’s words). The one thing that Abhishiktananda was NOT was an elitist. For him mysticism was just as basic to life and everyday living as breathing. The Presence of that Reality was always and everywhere THERE where you were doing whatever you were engaged in. To say that he was not sensitive to simple human problems in pursuit of the mystical depths is a serious mistake. And to claim that the radical contemplative/mystical journey is something that is a luxury for those fighting for social justice or simply trying to make it in life is a tragic and profound mistake.

True, Abhishiktananda wanted the Christian community to recognize the importance and significance of those who are drawn into this Mystery in a kind of exclusive way—these folk are also very much in great need within the Christian community for its own self-understanding. But that did not mean that the mystical depths were only accessible by these “few”—but rather the mystical depths are in their radical simplicity at your fingertips wherever you are, whoever you are—that was Abhishiktananda’s teaching. Listen to this letter he writes to a housewife:

“I would not know how to give a good answer to the question whether Christ is necessary for Hindus. I only know that plenty of people who do not know his person have access to his ‘mystery’(not to his ‘concept’) in their inner deepening and also in transcending themselves in the love of their brothers. The mystery of the Heart of Christ is present in the mystery of every human heart. You have found fulfillment through music, through painting. Art is also a way of access to the mystery, and perhaps—in poetry, painting, music—it reveals him better than any technical formula. And in the end it is this mystery—at once of oneself and of each person, of Christ and of God—that alone counts. The Awakening of the Resurrection is the awakening to this mystery! …Joy to you, to your husband, to your children. May it shed its rays on all! And don’t worry about those who love the esoteric, who run around to ashrams and ‘saints’. The discovery of the mystery is so much simpler than that. It is right beside you, in the opening of a flower, the song of a bird, the smile of a child!”

This was written in 1972 about a year before his death. Abhishiktananda’s teaching was about the radical accessibility, the radical simplicity, the radical closeness of this Ultimate Reality which we call God. Anywhere, anyplace, anytime. There is only the Awakening to that Reality in whatever way that our life unfolds. If we are drawn to live in silence with the abiding Presence, we are doing something very important for the Church and for all humanity. If we are drawn to feed and clothe the poor in a Catholic Worker community, for example, we are still to “know, love and serve the Lord” within a non-dualistic framework and in a non-dualistic realization of profound depth which rightly can be called “mysticism.” “Whenever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me”—words that are not taken seriously enough, profoundly enough by all of us. Somewhere Abhishiktananda says that we cannot be speaking of “one” when in our lives and activities we are acting as “two.” True advaita, real non-duality means that we live this advaita with our fellow human beings—perhaps this is an emphasis not found in Hinduism per se. (Recall Merton’s famous “awakening” episode that he writes about in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, his realization on a downtown street corner in Louisville that he and all those other people, “strangers,” were really and truly “one.” This was a real experience of Advaita, and it is interesting that he speaks of it as an awakening. Such is also the language he uses in that famous moment depicted in the Asian Journal before the great Buddha statues. Awakening is the language we use as the Real opens before our eyes.) And if we are married and raising a family, the sexual love between husband and wife are true and actualizing symbols of our non-dual relationship with this Ultimate Reality. That’s why so much mysticism borrows erotic language to express that non-dual state.

Christian mysticism gives all kinds of indications of non-dualistic realizations and not just in Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics but also in so many other varied personages. (You can interpret St. Francis along these lines—the mythic stigmata, his “brother, sister” language, etc.) Usually the non-dualistic language is expressed through a whole matrix of symbology and a layer of bhakti-like expressions which suit ordinary everyday human psychology. “I turn to you;” “I turn to God”—in everyday human psychology these two “turns” seem to indicate a very similar “motion” and structure. It is only when we begin to Awaken that we begin to discover that the second “turn” is of a profoundly different nature, but we may still use the same language.

All kinds of diversifications are significant as long as we are “on earth” and “in history,” but once we are “in heaven,” that is once we awaken to this Reality and our constant abiding within its loving Presence, the particulars of our life really will not matter in the same way as Scripture itself seems to hint—recall, there is “no marriage in heaven, no male or female, nor Jew or Gentile.” In fact ultimately there will be no “heaven” and no “earth” (and dare I say it, “no hell”—like St. Isaac the Syrian seemed to indicate when he prayed for those “in hell” that hell might be emptied out—and Dostoyevsky’s “onion skin” that reclaims a person from “hell”, is that not an incredible symbol of the non-dual character of Christian realization)–there will be no “heaven” and no “earth,” there will be only God—if we want to use a name.

So now we proceed to take a look at this interesting essay by an Indian Jesuit, Sebastian Painadath: “The Spiritual Encounter of East and West.” Normally I run away from such titles! But Fr. Painadath has written a thoughtful essay on a serious issue of this thing called “mysticism.” There seems to be two distinctly different patterns of the human experience of the Divine, and one pattern seems to dominate in the West and the other in the East. He calls it the “Interpersonal” and the “Transpersonal” paradigms of religious experience, but really only the “transpersonal” (not to be confused with transpersonal psychology) seems to fit the name of “mysticism” in the classic sense. (Everything I wrote above would belong more in the Transpersonal Paradigm.) Also, both patterns can be found in every great religion, but one will be dominant here and the other dominant there. This can create some problems in understanding what each is saying if they are in fact speaking from these different paradigms. But this is not only an obstacle in interreligious dialogue but actually quite a problem for two different people within the same tradition. For example, a person who is focused on having a “personal relationship with Jesus” will have a hard time appreciating what a disciple of Eckhart is all about, and I am sure that an “Eckhartian” would not be very engaged by the “personal relationship” stuff. In any case, let us listen to Fr. Painadath’s presentation of the Interpersonal Paradigm:

“ …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, 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…is sin…. 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…. Since God is experienced as a personal Thou, devotional practices, vocal prayers, and structured rituals play significant roles in the practical religious life of the believers. Hence houses of worship, like temples and churches, exert a great influence in shaping the religious life of the believing community. Consequently a certain domination of cult officers like priests sets in…. Laws and regulations, norms and customs, well defined dogmas and precise rubrics play a decisive role in shaping the religious life of the believers.”

And now for a look at the Transpersonal Paradigm—very different:

“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. Transpersonal symbols—like ground of being, depth of existence, ineffable silence, within, 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 knowing what one truly is…. Transparency to the divine Ground is ultimately a matter of being: the transformation of consciousness that leads to a holistic perception of reality. Here spirituality assumes a cosmic dimension. When the divine Light within shines forth, one ‘sees the Divine in all things and all things in the Divine.’ This gnosis 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…. In so far as the emphasis is placed on the individual seeker’s relentless quest for oneness with the Divine and consequently with all beings, external structures and practices of religion are not considered normative here.”

Now for a few comments:

a. Needless to say Fr. Painadath has a lot more to say about each paradigm. Both paradigms can be found in every religion in some fashion and even in the same spiritual seeker—even as they are in a tense relationship with one another, almost working against each other in some cases.
b. There are extreme examples of the Transpersonal Paradigm that just about totally exclude the Interpersonal. Consider the example of Ramana Maharshi.
c. Within Christianity it is obvious that the Interpersonal Paradigm dominates, but once you discover the Transpersonal experience, like Abhishiktananda, you try and find the Christian language for it and that is very difficult. There are a number of saints that indicate a profound mixture of both kinds of language, but you have to know how to read their language, like in St. Francis as I alluded to earlier. Or consider now the example of the great Russian saint and mystic, St. Seraphim. His whole teaching can be summed up in one sentence: the whole point of the Christian life is the possession of the Holy Spirit. And when in that famous scene of him and his lay disciple he describes the warmth and light of the Presence of the Holy Spirit it is a more Transpersonal depiction than an Interpersonal one and a true expression of Christian advaita. (Orthodox theologians probably would scream at me because the notion of “personhood” in the Divine is extremely important for them, but I think they would also agree that the modern use and understanding of the word “person” is totally inadequate and misleading as a designation for the reality of God.)
d. But now consider the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament. Certainly the Interpersonal Paradigm is there, but underneath the Semitic and Hellenistic language and symbology you can sense the thoroughly Transpersonal. This is especially true in the Gospel of John. This is what Abhishiktananda found and tried to communicate. His whole Christology became focused on this “I AM” experience of Jesus and his advaita with the “Father.” The whole point of being a Christian and the whole mission of the Church was to lead people to this awakening in Christ. It is a transcending of all I-Thou views of God.
e. If we are going to have a true Christian mysticism we need to rethink, revise, and re-interpret all of Christian theology. So De Lubac’s advice quoted above is really a call to rethink it all within the Transpersonal Paradigm without losing the Interpersonal Paradigm. But this will also mean a full “injesting of Asia” and a relativizing of Europe. Nothing less will do.
f. One final, personal note: When I was a little boy, I sometimes saw my grandmother go into her room and pray. She prayed the rosary everyday. She would sit on the edge of her bed and start murmuring the Our Fathers and the Hail Marys and pretty soon she would become very silent, eyes closed and be in a deep peace. Even as a little boy I could see that she was “somewhere else” even though her fingers kept slowly moving over the beads. She was very uneducated and I am sure all this talk of paradigms would confuse her, but I think I am still trying to get to that place where she was every day.

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