Les ponts qui mènent à Dieu sont la foi, l’amour, la joie et la prière. (The bridges that lead to God are faith, love, joy and prayer.) Rufus Jones.
I cannot say that faith is the central pillar of my life, because that would imply that there are other things which are in relation to it, and not of it. Faith infuses my life entirely, or it does so when I allow it, when I am awake and aware. God, on the other hand, permeates my life and the world every moment, regardless of whether I am aware of it or not. God is in everything. In Rumi’s words: everything dances around God like motes of dust in sunlight. Our souls are of the same stuff as God, and He draws them to himself like a magnet.
Both the outer and inner forms of my faith have changed over the course of my life. Nowadays there is less praying to a magical helper, less emphasis on the loving, reliable and supportive father figure. I hope that my faith will continue to evolve until my dying breath, that it will become less and less “my” faith, and simply be God pulsing through my veins.
In this brief sketch I can only describe what my faith is today. I know it will change again: sometimes from the corner of my eye I catch frightening glimpses of realisations to come, like the bends of a mountain road. God allows us to see what we are ready to see. His magnitude, numinosity is so great that most of us can only view it through so many veils. Those veils grow lesser in number as we pray and breathe our way through life.
Growing in faith is psychologically painful: as in any other area of life, it is unpleasant to give up certainties which give us comfort. In fact, in matters of faith it’s even worse – it shakes the very fundament of our being. It can even make us fear for our faith altogether. But it is crucial – religions, art, philosophy have intermingled and become enriched through contact with each other, and the same process we should allow in our own lives, though always retaining the core that God, hiding in our heart, gives us.
Faith and religious experience is always cloaked in a personality and influenced by the time and place we are born. My own faith is shaped by living at an early age among all the major religions, and by reading. Sufism, Christian mysticism, yoga philosophy, New Age writers too have had their turn. Even if the outer garments of my faith are the evolving product of a time and a place, they are true to me. Saints and great teachers are fairly reliable guides and ideals. They are God’s gifts of grace to all of us.
Travel plays an important part in the life of our family: it is a way of celebrating God’s endless variation, of the beauty of His creation and the (at best) delightful ways humans have played with it. It is an opportunity to share views with others of different faiths and backgrounds, find common ground and learn.
It is a bit dangerous to try and describe too minutely what faith looks like, what one’s worldview is, for it limits and hems in the ineffable. At the end of the day, all we know is that we do not know, and the more minutely we attempt to describe our theoretical frameworks, the more surely we get lost in a maze of sophistry. As Birgit Tapaninen says, we Westerners must be very careful about our tendency to rationalise and explain things to death – even reading sacred texts or writing this text may be a symptom of that tendency. When we are busy spilling out words and organising concepts into convenient boxes, we lose the immediacy of experience, the truth of our heart. Despite this, I will have a go here. It is not meant as advice or a recommendation, it is a pale reflection of what many have said better, but perhaps it is useful as one testimony among many.
This world is a game, a lila, a school. There are others, more real than this one, and they are all part of God’s limitless consciousness, and imperfectly reflect it. They were built for a purpose: to teach us and to guide us. The worlds reflect God as we reflect God: our souls are emanations of God, and what is around them – body, personality, culture – is there to be used and enjoyed, also created by God. As Hämeen-Anttila puts it, the world we see is a cloth that shows the shape of the worlds beyond it, it is a symbol of those worlds. I do not know why or how these worlds were created and I don’t really even care. God, in His universal love, wisdom and creative power knows, and that is enough for me.
I believe these worlds are not only separate spheres, they are also concentric spheres, layers of consciousness which are enveloped in each other. Sometimes they overlap. One of the most important tasks of man is to try and become aware of these worlds, feel their presence in daily life. This is one of the ways that God speaks to us.
Since all is God-created, and reflects God, animals, plants and the entire universe equally sing His praises. From this it follows that they are as deserving of our love and respect as any human. The worlds’ creatures and phenomena are equally valuable and inextricably intertwined. We understand those connections as little as we understand God and his more spiritual manifestations, and though the world is there for us to use, it is also to be learned from, nurtured and revered.
What is important in a life of faith is the internal process: prayer and an attempt at constant awareness of God. I believe that a life in faith is essentially anamnesis: the wisdom is in every heart and has always been. We just have to re-remember it, uncover it. The only difference between us and those who are more spiritually advanced, is how much one can read of that wisdom. What makes the internal process real is how it is reflected in our way of life and our dealings with other living creatures. The only thing that matters is how much we love God, each other and ourselves, and how that shows in every breath we take, in every look, movement and act. I believe in active altruism.
Outer practices, such as public worship, meditation, fasting and giving alms, are important as well, because they give us a thread to follow. They can be especially helpful in times of grief and turbulence: a yoga teacher once described how he recovers from the shock of injury: ”There is always something I know, even if I have lost faith in my abilities. I can always go back and stand as well as I am able in tadasana”.
Ritual distils age-old knowledge, it is infused with symbols which the heart recognises. Ritual gives rhythm to our lives. How much of it we need depends on our stage of life. In any case, many things, or all things, can be seen as worship, an active love of God: dance, art, or making love connects us to the Life Source. The only thing we cannot forego if we are in search of understanding is silence.
God loves all beings, and invites all to Him. Some, and I don’t know why, hear Him better than others. I have never believed in the Original Sin, in a decisive schism which cut off humanity from Him. I cannot explain why so many turn away from Him. I can understand where atheism springs from, it is an active choice, but I have trouble understanding the torpor and indifference of contemporary agnosticism. There is often a phase of wakening in a human life, and it normally comes through suffering. How we respond to calamity is a measure of our humanity. Calamity is the dawn.
I do believe that there is evil, that it can appear personified. I do not have an explanation for its existence. But I do not believe in a separate Hell, purgatory or judgment day. All those can be found here, on earth, in war and in suffering, in indifference and in disease. There is no “need” for the deterrent of a Hell, for living in loving deed is a natural necessity. I believe that after death, we all, regardless of whether we had faith or not during our lives, travel back to Him, move through the spheres and merge with Him in the universal soul. Then, after a certain period, we continue on our journey of growth and love and helping others, in this world or in another. This cycle repeats, as long as God deems it so.
The Great Unknown is present in every religion, though always in muddied form. I do not believe in missionary work: what we gain by transposing a more developed view in one area of a religion, we lose by destroying treasures in another. But I do believe in a respectful dialogue, letting religions fuse and learn from each other. This is well-reflected in the influence of the Silk Road on the art of say, the Gandhara culture, or the way that Neo-Platonism provided the base for Christian mysticism, or how Yogic pranayama was incorporated into Sufic ritual.
Ascetism and abnegation are not always necessary or even useful, if they stem from an exterior fear of God, a willingness to please and conform to rules. This has been one of the hardest parts for me – how to reconcile a love of earthly beauty and the love for God. Now I think that living in denial does not help or take us forward. What is repressed will always rise up again, in some other form or moment. Mortifying the flesh leads to focussing on the flesh. Releasing, observing our appetites, enjoying them but at a certain distance seems fruitful. In the end the various rivers of our nature will find a balanced flow.
God is in everything that is done and created with love and respect. If love of the good life is balanced with other pursuits and shared with others generously, it is love of God’s manifestations. This, too, is a question of personality: others are better off living a very simple life, others can live in a palace, as long as they are not attached to it. Perhaps the latter is harder. In any case, I believe that the personality has a role, it has a right to exist, we do not need to destroy it in order to love God. Perhaps it will disappear bit by bit, naturally, through growth in faith, but I am not there yet. For now, as faith expands, the totality of “me” expands. As there is more room for God within me, the personality clamours less.
In the end, we are utterly dependent on God’s mercy. All that we do is a pale reflection of what He does. We can prepare ourselves and attempt to live in proximity, but only He decides when and how to reveal Himself to us in our lives. We live surrounded constantly by symbols and signs of His presence, but moments of pure revelation are rare, stupendous, and precious. They change the course of our lives definitively when they do come.
That said, the many stages of contemplation described by desert fathers and others are not things that are achieved once and that’s that. There is a long period of movement back and forth: sometimes we attain understanding and then fall back again. What most describes a life in faith is actually movement in all directions: from solitude to faith in the middle of society, ascetism to celebration of beauty, private worship to common prayer. A life in faith means that all things remain fresh and interesting, because they keep gaining new meanings.
For Sofia, on her twentieth birthday on November 9th, 2016:
Sweet, dear Lord of our lives,
Open our eyes so that we may see your moving feast
Each child, ship, scent, bird a momentary celebration.
Give us the perseverance to turn our weak minds, again and again, to the altar, the flame, the mihrab
Bend our ears to your sweet voice and Silence
Burst the floodgates of our hearts with your Love, and
let it pour out of our fingertips to all who surround us.
The right books come to us when we need them. The following three have been important to me and remain so:
- Dom André Louf’s Initiation à la vie spirituelle (Éditions Points). Much of his writing is available also in English.
- Mestari Eckhart: Sielun syvyys (Basam Books). A similar compilation of Meister Eckhardt’s texts is this one: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Selected-Writings-Penguin-Classics-Meister/dp/0140433430/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1479031562&sr=1-1&keywords=master+eckhart
- Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila: Jumalasta juopuneet (Basam Books). Though not as scholarly and wide-ranging, a short introduction to Sufism through texts by its masters is this one: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Essential-Sufism-James-Fadiman/dp/006251475X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1479031691&sr=1-1&keywords=sufism+books