Of Gatherings and Gurus

The important thing is not to think much, but to love much; and so, do that which best stirs you to love.

Saint Teresa of Avila


  It’s quite chilly this morning, and thunderstorms are predicted.  I’ve lived in many places over the years, and loved many Springtimes, but I think I love these Piedmont Springs best, because after they are over, we have the usual hot, steamy Southern summers I knew as a child in Southern West Virginia and, much later, in Tennessee.  Our Springs, however, last right up to the end of May, and are generally quite temperate.  I remember years back, when I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, we spoke of the long, hot Springs….and they were, cherry blossoms notwithstanding.  Here, the Spring is usually cool, and sometimes even cold, before the relentless heat and humidity of June through August set in.  I am not a hot weather person.  Today, I had to get up and turn on the heat for awhile, at least, in order to stand staying up.   I am thankful for down comforters. Thunderstorms are predicted for today.  I like those, too, and I love to look out my office window and watch my “Ents” swaying shoulder to shoulder in the high winds.

Last night, we went to a “Gathering of the Peacemakers” at the Oasis (http://oasisincarrmill.com), our local “New Age/Metaphysical/Interreligious/All of the Above” cafe, presided over by my new/old dear friend Robert (one of those relationships where, upon meeting, you have the strangest idea that this is someone you’ve always known), a delightful Bob Marley-type mystic, who conceived the idea of his cafe as a place for like-minded people to meet and share wisdom and friendship.  It seems to work quite well, and I always enjoy going there, whether it’s for a film or a talk or just a cup of excellent coffee served with panache and Zen-like ceremony.  The “Gathering,” I think, was meant to be an occasion for the exchange of high-minded ideas and ideals, and many interesting people came, but what they talked about, mostly, was…themselves.  There are a lot of idealistic people out there looking for community and craving support and friendship, and my feeling was that this gathering ended up being more about that than anything else.  I also noticed that although many of them seemed to know each other, there was a minimum of mingling afterwards, although living in the country, we departed fairly promptly.

I “grew up” in this movement during the late sixties and through the 80s, during what I’d call the “Baba Ram Dass Era,” when communities of this kind were more defined and cohesive.  I believe that this was because it was the era of the “guru,” and most of us had them, because that’s the idea we woke up to upon emerging in our spiritual adolescence, and there were Krishna Consiousness communities and Hindu/Yoga communities of various sorts, and Buddhist Communities, Sufi communities, and numerous others.  But now, many people don’t seem very interested in having spiritual teachers.  They don’t want to be initiated or make any kind of commitment that is at all formal, and they are suspicious of people who call themselves teachers, and so they should be.  They have good reason to be, given some of the bad and even scandalous behavior we have heard about among the various “gurus.”  My own teacher–I wouldn’t call him a guru, and I doubt that he wanted to think of himself that way–Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan–always said that the way to know if a teacher was false was if that person tried in any way to impose on your independence and autonomy.  If they did, he said, they weren’t the real thing.  But I believed then in the idea of having someone to show me the ropes on this path, and I believe in it now.  And my initiation was the most precious and important event of my life, because, as Pir Vilayat said, it was the reiteration of the promise we made in pre-eternity, our commitment to the awakening of God in humanity.  Inayat Khan, his father, said that initiations come in many forms, both inner and outer, and that the outer initiation is only the confirmation of what has already happened inside.  Even so, my “outer” initiations were very meaningful and sacred to me, and they always had the effect of galvanizing me and moving me forward in ways that were often painful and confusing, yet ultimately very rewarding.  And my relationship with my teacher(s) was the ultimate in relationship, because here was a person who was saying “I am with you for the duration, and I will not let you down,” and accepting everything that went with that promise, also often painful and confusing… yet leading, finally, to what I longed for most.  The need of the time was such that it wasn’t long  before I too became a teacher of sorts, more of a guide, really, but certainly not a guru, more of a representative of my teacher, an intermediary as it were, in the connection of souls in this particular caravan now called the Sufi Order International.  That was and is hard, because it also entails making a permanent commitment to the person I promise to do my best to help on their way, but without giving advice or impinging on their free will in any way, as mentioned above.

There are different kinds of initiation that souls experience. One is natural initiation, a kind of natural unfoldment for which the soul cannot give any cause or reason. It comes to the soul although no effort or attempt is made by the soul to experience it. Sometimes this initiation comes after great illness, pain or suffering. It comes as an opening up of the horizon, it comes as a flash of light, and in a moment the world seems transformed. It is not that the world has changed; it is that the person has become tuned to a different pitch. He begins to think differently, feel differently, see and act differently; his whole condition begins to change. One might say of him that from that moment on, he begins to live. It may come as a vision, as a dream, as a phenomenon – in any of these forms – one cannot determine the manner in which it will manifest. –Inayat Khan

As for the person who becomes initiated, that is a tall order, and I can see why many in this day sort of dance around the edge of that, attracted by the ideals of these various paths, but not entirely comfortable with making that ultimate commitment.  Initiation, said Inayat Khan, is taking a step forward on a path one does not know, and it is.  And there are many false prophets, and if one hasn’t developed the art of listening to the direction coming from within, it is a rather frightening decision to contemplate.  Many people impulsively take initiation and fall away rather quickly, but the eternal nature of it still plants a seed of realization, and no one remains unchanged by the experience.

Another initiation known to the mystics is the initiation that one receives from a person living on the earth. Every mystical school has its own initiation. In the Orient, where mystical ideas are prevalent and are regarded as most sacred, any person who wishes to tread the spiritual path considers initiation to be the most important thing. If a soul such as Jesus Christ had to be baptized by John the Baptist, then no soul on earth can say, ‘I have risen above initiation.’ Is that then impossible? Nothing is impossible. It may be possible for a person to jump into the water with the intention of swimming to the port of New York, but his life will be more secure if he books his passage with the normal shipping lines. And the difference between these two souls is the same, or even greater – between the one who wishes to journey on the spiritual path by taking initiation, and the other who refuses to do so. –Inayat Khan

Initiation seems to be one of those relationships that are of an ultimate nature.  We have relationships with our parents, with our siblings, with friends, with children . . . and the list goes on.  Each of these relationships changes us, for better or for worse, but none of them are entirely without self-interest.  The relationship we have with our spiritual teacher is supposed to be exactly that, however, on the part of the teacher:  entirely without self-interest of any kind.   We seem to long for such a relationship, which is why people go to church, or take a guru, or attend metaphysical seminars and retreats, in whatever form and on whatever path they  are attracted to.  Or they attend gathering such as the one last night, and speak of the books they have read, and the teachers they are discovering,  But a teacher whose book you read is not the same as a teacher who gives you what they have to offer “chest to chest” as the Sufis say.   This relationship(s) we have with teachers, these books we read and lectures we attend, all remind us of the deepest longing of our souls for the source of our beings, which some of us call God.

Initiation by a spiritual teacher means both a trust given by the teacher to the pupil, and a trust given by the pupil to the teacher. And the progress of the one who is initiated depends upon how much he gives himself to the teacher’s guidance. One might give only a finger, another even a part of a finger, while a third would give his whole hand. That makes a great difference. A pupil says, ‘Well, I will give a certain amount of my time and thought to your guidance, will that be enough?’ Then the teacher says, ‘Yes, if you think it is enough.’ In reality, however, it is never enough. Then one might wonder if one would not be giving up one’s own point of view in order to follow someone else’s point of view; but actually, if one has a point of view, one never loses it. The point of view that one loses is not one’s own. By looking at a thing from another person’s point of view, one only enlarges one’s own. Then, one has two points of view instead of one. If the thought of the pupil happens to be different from that of the teacher, then by taking the teacher’s thought, his own is doubled. The pupil keeps his own point of view just the same, only now he has something for his vision from which to make his choice. The horizon of his thought is expanded. But the pupil who closes himself and says, ‘I will guard my point of view or it will escape me,’ will never derive any benefit from this attitude.  –Inayat Khan

I wonder if this observed tendency to go it alone, while seeking such guidance as won’t break down the barriers of time and distance, is a symptom of the times we live in, when Facebook stands in for friendship and e-books stand in for teachers.  Are we so afraid of true connection that we have seized on these shadows of it in order to meet our deeper needs?

The teacher, therefore, tests his pupil continually. He tells him and he does not tell him, for everything must come in its right time. Divine knowledge has never been taught in words, nor will it ever be so taught. The work of a mystical teacher is not to teach, but to tune, to tune the pupil so that he may become the instrument of God. For the mystical teacher is not the player of the instrument; he is the tuner. When he has tuned it, he gives it into the hands of the Player whose instrument it is to play. The duty of the mystical teacher is his service as a tuner.  –Inayat Khan

Last night, we heard about philosophers, theologians, indigenous tribal elders, teachers, shamans, and gurus… yet it seemed that many people there were struggling with what to do with these ideas, how to put them into practice.  Some seemed lonely. It is true that loneliness is a requisite feature of the path to wholeness, but I wonder if the determined loneliness one gains from this distancing that the age of technology makes possible is necessary or even helpful.  I honestly don’t know, but I think I will be glad and grateful to the end of this life that I took the path of initiation, of relationship and community.  It is, for me, the path to true love.  And because I see that this way is not chosen by everyone–and need not be!–I would like to explore this topic more.  Stay tuned, if this topic interests you.

Also, there are no fixed rules to follow on this path. For every person there is a special rule. But there is one law which applies to everything in life: sincerity, which is the only thing that is asked by a teacher of a pupil, for truth is not the portion of the insincere.  –Inayat Khan



20-499I never really intended to write book reviews when I started this blog…  In fact, I wasn’t sure what I intended to do, and so it has turned out to contain a bit of everything.  And I wouldn’t be very good at writing just book reviews, because my reading tastes are so broad, and I am prone to read what falls off a shelf in a bookstore and bonks me on the head, or a good novel I’ve read numerous times before… or just about anything.  I was a grad student for so long that I’ve avoided anything too scholarly for quite some years, although I suppose that could change eventually.  Yet there are some books that I read specifically for inspiration, and Illuminations by Mary Sharratt comes under that heading.

Many years ago, my dear friend and university professor, Allan Combs,  gave me a book of Hildegard von Bingen’s writings and illuminations, and it could have been a comic book for all the notice I gave it:  do you find, as I do, that it has to be the right time to read a book, otherwise it’s a waste?  Evidently I simply was not ready for Hildegard to come into my life at that point.  But I thought of the book–and my old friend Allan–when I read Illuminations, because now it is the right time, and I was deeply inspired by Hildegard’s life and words on so many levels.  One could find use in her work for so many reasons:  she was a feminist–for her time–and a scholar, a composer  and an artist.  She was, of course, first and foremost, a mystic–and this book, while clearly a novelized version of her life, purports to have stayed as close to what is actually known about her as possible, and the writer subtly explores her tendency toward visions and mystical prophecy, although I was unable to avoid the impression that she did not take them seriously.

I, the fiery life of divine wisdom,

I ignite the beauty of the plains,

I sparkle the waters,

I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.

The book is a love story, too, perhaps first and foremost:  but having said that, I suppose what it is about most of all is the life of a woman.  Just that.  A woman in a time when women were little more than property in a man’s world, yet a Catholic woman who was not only in a man’s world, but a world that worshipped the Christian image of the mother of its Christ, Mary.  I suppose it is for this reason that her mystical visions of God, depicting God in the image of a woman, were tolerated…and if the author’s research is accurate, she knew her place in the world in which she lived, which was that of the lowest of the low, inherently unclean from the flow of menstrual blood, inferior, and incapable of competing with any man, at any level.  How interesting that most of the male figures around her are long forgotten by the centuries, while she herself has continued to shine the light of her realization on the past, the present and, no doubt, the future.

O Holy Wisdom, Soaring Power,

encompass us with wings unfurled, and carry us,

encircling all,

above, below, and through the world.–O Holy Spirit, Root of Life

The book begins with some description of life in the 12th century in Germany, a time when women were first the property of their families and then of whatever man they were given to (or in her case, of the Church to which she was given, as was common in that time).  Hers was a family of some status, and it was typical to “tithe” at least one child to the Church, if not more.  Her father and older brothers, at the time she entered postulancy, were off fighting the Crusades, so for her mother, it was probably a time of some personal power.  However, the family was all, and if it was impossible to make a suitable marriage for her daughter, then the Church was the next choice, and so Hildegard was given as handmaiden to the daughter of the family to which Hildegard’s family gave fealty:  Jutta von Sponheim, either a saint or a madwoman, depending on perspective.  Both were then given as postulants to the monastery at Disibodenberg, a monastery that had no nuns, only monks.  Therefore, Hildegard and Jutta were given as Anchorites so that, in theory, their prayers and meditations would support the monks in their work.  Hildegard only realized what this actually meant when her own mother pushed her face-down into the dirt of the two tiny rooms into which they were to be walled off from the world permanently–that to be an Anchorite meant just that:  she was to spend her life with Jutta and no other person, in that space where there was only one small room and a tiny courtyard to which no other human being had access, and which neither she nor Jutta could ever leave.  She was eight years old at the time, and she would only be allowed to leave her living tomb when Jutta died from her saintly ambitions, having fasted, prayed and physically tormented herself into an early death years later.

Underneath all the texts,

all the sacred psalms and canticles,

these watery varieties of sounds and silences,

terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me.

My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.

It was at this time of utter loneliness and deprivation that Hildegard’s visions began in earnest, and during the time in which she was incarcerated, she became a scholar, an artist and a healer, raising the herb cuttings provided by the kindly young monk, Brother Volmar, who became her lifelong champion.  He intervened in the sparse diet and the wearing of a hairshirt upon which Jutta insisted, providing the child with a habit and increased rations, as well as education and emotional support, all through the small turnstyle allowed the nuns for food and provisions.  Jutta, determined to achieve sainthood and the worship of the monks, tormented herself increasingly, fasting and praying and flagellating herself… but Hildegard, somehow, managed to keep her personhood and grew into a relatively healthy woman until, when Jutta finally died, the wall quite literally came down out of necessity.  Hildegard was able to negotiate the freedom not just of herself but of the other two postulants Hildegard had been raising in that tiny space, Jutta having taken in and subsequently rejected them.

God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else.

The story after that is about Hildegard’s rise to the position of much famed and well-loved abbess, despite the constant opposition of the largely male Church, and about her development as an artist, writer, composer and mystic.  It also outlines her very human struggles with herself, particularly her desperate need for human love in the relationships around her.  One wonders how much of it is true to her actual life and personhood, but perhaps, given the words and music she left behind, the essence of the life of this remarkable woman that persists to this day continues and even grows as an inspiration to those who come across her in their inner searches.  It is interesting, too, that while the ambitious male figures of the Church who surrounded her are largely forgotten, she not only continues to be a beacon of guidance and inspiration, but one that grows brighter as the years pass.

O Eternal God, now may it please you

to burn in love

so that we become the limbs

fashioned in the love you felt

when you begot your Son

at the first dawn

before all creation.

And consider this need which falls upon us,

take it from us for the sake of your Son,and lead us to the joy of your salvation.