During our Christmas all-day meditation this year, we listened to a talk by Swami Kriyananda in which he repeated Paramhansa Yogananda’s statement that the three wise men who visited Jesus in the manger were Sri Yukteswar, Lahiri, and Babaji.
Later, someone who’s a relative newcomer to our congregation asked me if I thought it’s true.
I said, “How would I know?” How could I declare, based on my own experience, who the three wise men were?
Having said that, I’ve been blessed to have experienced the power of this path over the years, and the power of Paramhansa Yogananda as it was manifested by Swami Kriyananda. And because of those experiences, I feel I have little reason to doubt.
On the other hand, I had conversation recently with someone who’s been on this path for a long time, and who’s facing some serious challenges in his life, the outcome of which is far from certain.
He told me that someone asked him, quite bluntly, “Do you have faith in God?”
He replied, “Well, I’m trying.”
He mentioned the exchange in our conversation, thought he wasn’t really asking for my thoughts. He was just relating what was said. But it raised some questions for me, because if someone challenges your faith, especially when there’s a lot on the line, you might not have the confidence to say “I believe.”
And, in any case, what does belief really mean? There are churches that base their entire teaching on insisting that their members believe blindly. “Do you believe?” Yes, I believe!” But on our path we take a more down-to-earth stance – we believe our faith is proved less by our words than by the way we live.
We believe you aren’t really proving your faith when somebody pins you against the wall and demands to know what words you’re willing to say. Because what you say may be unrelated to what you’ll do. Our minds can play tricks on us, feeding us lovely ideas about how we’ll react in various situations. But when it comes down to real life, we may not be able to predict our behavior so easily.
The U.S. military has invested enormous energy, money, and time in trying to figure out how to predict who’ll be a hero. Because if they know which ones will behave heroically, they can make the appropriate assignments. But they’ve found that it’s absolutely unpredictable, because what a person says in the context of an interview or a multiple-choice test or a video simulation has very little to do with how they’ll behave when the mask of their self-image is stripped away, and all that’s left is the pure bare essence of their consciousness.
When my friend and I talked about the challenges he’s facing, I said, jokingly, “Has it ever occurred to you to turn your back on the spiritual path and blame God and the gurus for what’s happening to you? Have you ever thought of looking for another path? Have you ever thought, ‘Enough is enough – if this is what’s going to happen, I’m out of here.’”
I wasn’t being serious, because we were both very aware that he’d never harbored such thoughts. Completely apart from how he might answer the question, I knew that he has deep faith in God, which he’s demonstrated by the way he has devoted his life to the spiritual path. And the fact that there may have been obstacles along the way has nothing at all to do with his love for God.
So now we come to the Christmas story, and what message it might have to tell us about our spiritual life.
Although Christ was born in the most humble circumstances, he was a fully self-realized being. The divine love that radiated from him drew the wise men and the angels to attend his humble birth, and many miracles are associated with his coming. But should we believe them blindly?
The Bible tells us that Jesus’ coming was a virgin birth, and that Mary remained a maiden after her child was born.
I don’t know whether I believe it or not. Someone recently sent me an article on the theological niceties of the immaculate conception, and the writer described the tremendous effort that he imagined it had taken to ensure that Mary was pure. The writer was earnest, but the means of investigation seemed a little misguided to me, because we can’t really know truth by juggling words with the rational mind. After glancing at the article briefly, I wrote back, “Thank God, I don’t have to get my faith from these theological hair-splittings.” Because, really, who cares?
What can we base our faith on? Should we base it on somebody’s carefully reasoned dogmas – in this case, the assertion that we must blindly accept that this or that miracle occurred? Or will we base our faith on what we’ve actually experienced, and how our lives have been changed by having an inner relationship with God?
What price are you willing to put on that relationship? What would it take to make you give it up? Would you ever be willing to consider turning your back on your spiritual practices? The measure of your faith is determined by how you answer these kinds of questions that relate to your actual practice of the spiritual path.
Swamiji pointed out how ironic it is that the innocent episode of the birth of this adorable child was so extremely short-lived. Jesus was scarcely born, when King Herod began to feel threatened by the announcement that this child would become the king of the Jews. The king felt that it was a terrible omen for his worldly power, and because he feared that the people would rise up and declare Jesus their king, he decided to eliminate the threat by killing all the babies in the land under the age of two, simply because he had the power, and the ignorance to carry it out. But it marked the beginning of the great battle between light and darkness that would characterize Jesus’ life.
An angel had come to Joseph in a dream and warned him, “Take your wife and child, and go to Egypt.” So they fled, but the other families in the land had to endure the slaughter of the babies by the king’s soldiers.
People always ask why God would allow such things to happen. And it’s because He wants to draw us closer to Him. So He’s always asking us, “In the presence of darkness, will you turn to the light, or will you panic and grasp at some lesser way to try to ensure your safety?” Will you cling to the delusion that there is a more “practical” way to find your safety? Because, you see, this is the true measure of your faith.
When Herod died, Joseph and his family returned to Israel, but they didn’t come all the way. They stopped in Nazareth, because Joseph wasn’t sure that they would be safe if they continued.
Jesus was born with God’s power, and with a destiny to liberate countless souls. Yet the immediate effect of his coming was tremendous suffering. And we may feel the irony of it, but it is simply the nature of this world.
When the light begins to expand and assert itself in this world, there will always be a counterforce. And if we’re willing to draw boundaries around our spiritual life, to the extent that we want to avoid having to confront the counterforce, we will have a short spiritual life indeed.
If we measure our faith by our ability to repeat the right words in the right order, or by the theology and dogmas that we can recite word for word, we’ll have a very tenuous hold on our spirituality.
We need to build our spiritual life on a solid foundation of inner knowing that is so deep and unshakeable that none of these trivial details matter.
Many of the things Master and Swami said, I have no way to understand from my own experience. Probably fifty times, I heard Swami explain the illusory nature of time, yet I’m still bewildered by it. I heard him say that time is an illusion, but you could fool me, because I still don’t know what it means.
A friend who assumed that I have a scholarly bent because I stand up here and talk about all sorts of topics asked me about the difference between certain Sanskrit words, and I had no idea, because it’s not where my spiritual life comes from.
Faith for me comes down to this: realizing that I simply wouldn’t know what to do if I couldn’t turn to God. What will I do when the darkness is growing all around me, and the counterforce is growing strong? My faith is that I won’t be able to do anything if I don’t have that thread of light to hold onto.
We celebrate Christmas in the most beautiful way we can, to inspire ourselves with a glimpse of what our lives are meant to be.
In Whispers from Eternity, Paramhansa Yogananda teaches us how to pray. In our prayers, as he bluntly puts it, we too often ask God to break His divine laws. We set in motion certain actions that are inexorably bound to have their due results, now or later. We’ve committed ourselves by our actions to a certain amount of misery, and when the bill comes due, we plead with God, “Oh, but there must be a mistake! How can this suffering be mine?” We beg Him to spare us the consequences of our own deeds.
In the introduction to Whispers, Master strongly urges us to get away from slavish pleading. He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “We are God’s children. We must not pray to Him as beggars. We must demand our divine birthright.”
When you read Master’s divinely inspired prayers, you find they are of the nature of “prayer demands,” as he called them. His intention, in Whispers, is to teach us to demand that God give us the strength to feel joy in every circumstance. You won’t find any prayers to God in that book that He out our life and make it easier. You won’t find prayers for a new car, a better job, a wonderful relationship, or a cure to disease. All of the prayers are demands that God raise our consciousness so that we will be able to feel His presence no matter what happens.
This is how we build our faith – by having the direct experience of God’s grace in all kinds of circumstances. And this is the power that Jesus and the masters want to offer us, if we will but insist that He give it to us, and be open to receive.
The mirror image of Christmas is Easter, when the savior has fulfilled the promise of his birth and stands before the worst horrors the human mind can imagine, including torture, humiliation, betrayal, gruesome death, and abandonment. At the end of his life, he finds his disciples fleeing in droves, and his life’s work seemingly fading to nothing. But, of course, it did not fade.
How did he face it? Not by running away. He faced it head-on, with the consciousness of a blazing light that was untouched by these terrible circumstances.
This is why God sent Joseph an angel who told him that his son’s life was in danger. The voice of Spirit told Joseph, “Flee! This is not your destiny. Go away!” And because they had faith, they fled, even though it meant that they had to turn their backs on the families to whom these terrible things would happen according to their karma.
Even so, we too are saved when we give ourselves to the light. No matter how cruelly our hearts may be buffeted by sadness, disappointment, loneliness, and the everyday wear and tear of this life, we must prove our faith by dueling with the counterforce that wants to put out the light. “I will not bend. I am God’s child.”
This is what Master wants us to know – by turning to God in our tests, he wants us to realize that we are the actual children of God, and that the divine consciousness is ours.
Losing a job, losing a home, losing a family – our tests can be very hard to bear. But if in the midst of them we never slacken our grip on our relationship with God, we will find that however the waves may rise and fall, our consciousness of the great healing ocean of Spirit will be unaffected and unchanged.
This is the promise of Jesus’ birth, and the promise of the masters: “Lo, I am with you.” Not in a hairsplitting theological way, but as a form with which we can commune in the core of our being. It is the same presence that takes visible human form in the masters. As the Festival says, “Many times has that light descended, drawn to earth by the call of aspiring love.” And we must continually aspire to send forth that loving call.
When God walks among us, He takes on the burdens of this human life. When God makes His consciousness visible to us in the saints, He shows us how to deal with our trials while remaining inwardly untouched in the Spirit.
The saints overcome their tests by their awareness that they are God’s own. They overcome their tests with the same power of divinity that is born in us. And even as we rejoice in the birth of Jesus, let us not forget the inner message of that wonderful story.
Believe whatever you like. Call it whatever you like. Take the Master’s words as gospel, or confess your inability to receive them with the proper depth of understanding. But always make the connection with that great force in your heart, and recognize it for what it is. For as we sing in the Festival, “Our human griefs, Your love alone can mend.”
When we sing those words, I think, “What a promise!” This is what we celebrate at Christmas: the descent of Spirit to show us that we can know that the same Spirit is within us.
This is the inner meaning of the birth of the baby Jesus. We are given the opportunity to experience a rebirth in Spirit, time after time, in the beautiful drama of God’s creation that is forever turning from the darkness to the light. Even as we think, “I can’t live for another moment in this darkness!” we find the light expanding in us and driving the darkness away.
The story of Jesus’ birth is the beautiful story of our own inner lives. And how could it be more obvious that Christ has descended, and that as we receive him in our hearts, the light grows within us.
“Do you have faith in God?” The words you say don’t matter, if you know where to turn when human griefs descend. Turn to the light. Turn to the Divine. Turn to the Christ within.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on December 24, 2015.)