Rev. Richard Wurmbrand was a Romanian Baptist pastor for whom Swami Kriyananda had very high regard. Speaking of Rev. Wurmbrand, he said, “My admiration for such a man is boundless!”
When the Nazis invaded Romania during World War II, Rev. Wurmbrand was persecuted as a Jew, and when the war ended he got to be persecuted again as a converted Christian, after the communists took over the country.
Religion is the enemy of communism, because communism disregards the value of human life, while spirituality values all people as children of God, regardless of their politics or theology.
Because the communists viewed Christianity as the enemy, they began removing legitimate priests and pastors from their pulpits and putting communist stooges in their place.
At one point, the communist leaders called a public meeting that all of the Christian pastors and priests were required to attend. And whether by threat or by appealing to their selfishness, they managed to get some priests and pastors to stand up and speak in favor of communism and against Christianity.
When Wurmbrand’s wife Sabina saw this happening, she turned to her husband and said with great urgency, “Somebody must wipe this stain from the face of Jesus!” Because Jesus’ own pastors were declaring against him, and somebody needed to say otherwise.
Richard turned to Sabina and said, “If I stand up, you will no longer have a husband.” Because he knew that the consequences would be absolute. And Sabina replied, in her extraordinary courage, “If you do not stand up, I will no longer have a husband.”
So he did. And, as expected, tremendous persecution followed, and they were imprisoned for many years. Rev. Wurmbrand tells the story in his book Tortured for Christ.
Sabina wrote her own book, The Pastor’s Wife, and if you have a very stiff spine, and you’re inspired by extreme examples, I recommend both books.
Rev. Wurmbrand tells how he survived in the direst circumstances imaginable. He tells how, to keep himself going, he would conduct a complete church service each night. Alone in his cell, he would whisper the sermon and the prayers and songs. And in this way he gradually memorized his sermons, and he was able to publish them years later.
When Ananda was severely persecuted through the legal profession, the other side hired a fanatically driven attorney who had made it his life’s mission to destroy Ananda and Swamiji. He spent years relentlessly working toward that end, and he was not stupid. He was evil, but he was intelligent, because evil can be very clever.
During one of the legal depositions in the case, Swami confronted the lawyer very directly. Speaking forcefully, he said, “I don’t know what you’re like in your personal life, but in your professional life you’re a sadist.” He said, “You became a lawyer because it would give you the opportunity to hurt people, which is what you really want to do.”
It was a powerful denunciation, and Swami later said, “God compelled me to say it. I couldn’t have stopped myself if I had tried.”
I mention these people because they illustrate an important spiritual truth: that we need to have many, many experiences before we can fully learn our spiritual lessons. It’s only through our own experiences that we find the answers to life’s most important questions: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What is eternally real?” “Where does suffering come from?” “What is it that will give me happiness?”
We pass in and out of these physical bodies, one after another, and in between we go into the astral world. And then we’re born again as little babies so that we can continue to act out our qualities and learn our lessons.
Paramhansa Yogananda said, “If you define life entirely in physical terms, and if you believe that consciousness is the result of brain activity, when you begin to die and your brain begins to die, you feel obligated to go unconscious.”
I love the way he put it – “you feel obligated to go unconscious.” If I no longer have a physical brain, and if I’m convinced that the material world is all there is, I won’t be able to believe that I can be aware of anything when my brain dies.
Master said that many people don’t really wake up at all in the astral world. They basically just go to sleep, and for them the life after death is like a misty-gray dream. They can’t actually see the astral world because the vibrations are too subtle and their consciousness isn’t sufficiently refined. So they rest for a time and they get a break from earthly life. Master said that they don’t really become conscious again until they’re reborn in a physical body, and then they can wake up and start over.
But if we’re more aware, and especially if we’ve meditated and we’ve discovered that there are levels of consciousness beyond our everyday experience, we are able to move into that realm when the physical body is gone. And even if we haven’t had much experience of those realms, but if we have powerful faith, God will let us be aware of the astral world.
This is true even if we weren’t overtly spiritual. Many artists and other creative people have lived in contact with non-physical realms, and when they die they can awaken in the astral world, even if it’s only to learn more about what they can bring back to this world.
We have many unresolved longings and regrets, and when we come into the astral world, it’s not as if we are suddenly free of them, because those unfulfilled desires are stored in our energy-body, and they will require a physical body to be experienced so that we can learn from them.
Whether they concern sensual desires, intoxicants, romantic love, athleticism, artistic ability, material success, or whatever it might be, it’s those desires that draw us back to this world.
If we’re so inclined, we may need the opportunity to express our evil intentions, and to have power over people. We may need to test the idea that if we can inflict pain on others it will give us power and security.
The events that are happening on the planet today can be immensely confusing and completely inexplicable, if you’re only looking at them through the lens of your own understanding. If I’m trying to make the world fit the template of what I understand to be true, and if I’m trying to paste my template onto the people around me, I will never be able to understand why they’re behaving as they do. Because most of them will be working with a wholly different template, and the experiences they need to find out what’s true will be very different from my own.
We are living on a planet where there is increasingly a great deal of good, but also an increasingly great expression of evil, and every so often the two come together, as in the case of Richard Wurmbrand.
When Rev. Wurmbrand was imprisoned, he was under the control of people who had incarnated to have power over others, and to act against their own best interests by severely persecuting spiritual people. And Wurmbrand was there to test himself to the absolute limit, and to find out, “What are the limits of my own ability?”
That was the question his soul had asked before he was born. What are the limits of my human power, and what are the limits of my ability to feel and rejoice in the presence of God in the face of the most severe challenges?
Now, considering it in the abstract, that’s a very good thing to be working on, isn’t it? Because we may believe that we’ve attained a certain degree of spiritual strength and freedom, but we won’t know for certain until we’re tested.
This is why, when we’re educating our children, the important thing is to bring them to the edge of their abilities and help them move through those challenges. Because the most satisfying victory isn’t when you’re given a medal for showing up, but when you’re stuck and you have to work hard to overcome the challenge and learn from it.
The satisfaction of earned success is much more exhilarating. And what is the limit of that deeply fulfilling experience? That’s what Richard Wurmbrand’s soul wanted to experience.
Everything in this world is directional. And when you see a direction that will take you toward victory, you will only be able to know the actual joy of victory by experiencing it, and not by merely imagining it.
People take on the most unbelievable challenges. I’ve read many books on mountain climbing. I no longer read them, but I found it absolutely thrilling to read about people dragging themselves to the top of Mt. Everest or Annapurna or K2, and the unbelievable sacrifices they made to experience the exhilaration of victory.
The universal human desire for joy is what drives professional athletes and great artists, and all those who undertake profound challenges. And the ultimate challenge is when we ask ourselves, “What is my capacity for constant attunement to God, and what could He throw at me that could take it away?”
When Richard Wurmbrand was in his cell, the guards didn’t have anything to do but persecute the prisoners, so they decided to torment him by making him walk around and around his small cell. They forced him to walk for hours, and he relates how he faced many levels of inner resistance and rebellion. It was a very basic, stripped-down kind of challenge, because there was nothing in the circumstance except himself and his mind, and the force that was making him do what he didn’t want to do.
He thought about his wife. He thought about all that he’d sacrificed for Jesus. He thought about his church, and the people he’d helped. He thought about his conversion, and on and on. And all of it was against, and resisting, and asking why, why, why. And then it occurred to him that, if Jesus was who he had always felt and known that he was, namely his best friend and his teacher and Savior, how could this be happening unless Jesus himself had willed it for him?
And he said that the circumstances were exactly the same, and he was still being forced in this impossible way, but it was no longer the sadistic guards who were making him do it, but it was his Savior who was asking it of him. And he described how nothing had changed, but absolutely everything changed. Because every time he completed the circuit, he felt Jesus enjoying it and delighting in it with him. And instead of being reluctant, he became eager.
Master talks about the tremendous difference between willpower and willingness, and how many things are possible if we have the willpower to accomplish them. But when we’re accomplishing something by our own will, there’s always a little bit of resistance, and the thought that, well, darn it, if I have to do it, I will. And look at me, I’m strong enough, and I can do it.
But the implication is that if things were different I wouldn’t be doing this thing that I don’t really want to do.
But anything that you do with deep willingness takes on a very different flavor – “Oh boy, this is such a wonderful challenge that we’re being blessed to be able to do!”
Swami often asked us to imagine coming home from work and falling on the couch exhausted. And then the phone rings and it’s an old friend who’s in town for the night, and he invites you out, and you’re out the door, and it’s two in the morning before you remember how tired you were.
We’ve all had those experiences, where a tiny shift in our thinking completely changed our energy.
Thank God, we’re rarely put in circumstances such as Richard Wurmbrand had to face, where our natural inclinations are so different from what God is asking.
The Bhagavad Gita tells us that it’s our own desires that are confusing us. And it isn’t those desires that are born of the purity of the heart that confuse us, such as the desire to give; it’s when we lock ourselves into the thought that this is how it has to be, or else I won’t be happy.
Richard Wurmbrand resisted the idea of standing up and speaking out for Jesus, until Sabina pointed out that what was happening was so evil that there would never again be joy in their lives if they allowed it to stand unopposed. And, fully aware of what they would be sacrificing, they took the step that would demand great spiritual heroism.
Many years later, Richard Wurmbrand was released and ransomed to the West. He was bought out of Romania, and at one point he and his wife came to Grass Valley to give a program at a local church. And because we were very eager to see him in person, Swamiji and about forty of us from Ananda went to the program.
The room where he spoke was unusual in its arrangement. It was actually two separate rooms with a divider in the middle, where they had set up a lectern. There were so many of us from Ananda that we filled one of the rooms, and the church members filled the other. So Rev. Wurmbrand had to stand in the middle and alternately turn to talk to one side, then turn and talk to the other.
It was wonderful to see how he would turn to the church members and speak of the Bible, and then he would turn to our side and talk about the infinite Spirit and how God resides in us all. And then he would turn and talk about the need to accept Jesus as our personal Savior.
It was not a conscious decision, but he could feel what Jesus wanted him to say, because even though he was outwardly dedicated to a particular path, he had transcended all paths.
He had brought another man with him who had endured similar tests. Rev. Wurmbrand had been crippled by the tortures he’d endured, but he was a stalwart and powerful man, while the other man was dark and shriveled and small, because Rev. Wurmbrand had seen the tests as coming from Jesus, whereas the other man had fought against the experience.
This is the desire that the Bhagavad Gita warns us about. It isn’t the desire for two slices of cake that binds us, or the wish to have a comfortable home. It’s the thought that I know better than God what’s good for me.
It’s a subtle difference, and it can be confusing to sort it out. There are true inspirations that come from superconsciousness, and there are false inspirations that are engendered by our emotional preferences, and we cannot always navigate the two without making mistakes. But there are some simple guidelines, and one is that if God has sent it to you, it’s probably something you need.
It doesn’t mean that we must passively endure without trying to find creative solutions. Sometimes God sends us tests so that we will be forced to summon the energy and nerve to stand up and say “I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m going to do something else.”
It’s not as if we need to be passive. But we must always be guided by the simple desire to know, Lord, what is it that you want from me? And our emotional biases are the tools that God uses to teach us that discipline.
Think of how people will gladly discipline themselves for the sake of their children. Think of how people will discipline themselves for their husbands and wives and siblings, and for a dear friend who’s ill. Think how powerfully we transcend ourselves when there’s a heartfelt willingness to do it. And on the spiritual path, we’re practicing in every small arena, “Lord, how can I serve?”
Swamiji says, “Creativity is essential on the spiritual path.” To be successful as disciples, we must be very creative. It doesn’t mean that we must paint or sing, although those things can help us enormously because they get our energy flowing. But the ultimate spiritual creativity is always to ask: “Lord, how can I serve you?”
In whatever circumstance you find yourself, just practice that simple prayer. Next time you’re somewhere you really don’t want to be, just ask, “How can I serve?”
I’ve spent most of the summer in a little town in northeastern Washington, writing Swami Kriyananda: Lightbearer. There are many people living in the area who are struggling to survive, and you might instinctively want to pull back from their vibration. But you can always ask the simple question, “How can I serve? What can I do to help?” There was a woman in the Internet cafe who was struggling and very crabby. And you can always ask, “How can I serve? What can I give?”
How many people will have truly seen that woman today and given her something of their heart? Is there ever a time when it isn’t possible?
There was a time when very close friends of mine were suffering terribly, and I was trying to hold it together for everybody. But I found that I wasn’t capable, and I had to absent myself and give vent to my tears. I was weeping and unbearably upset, and the thought came, and it annoyed me at the time: “Do you think this would be happening outside the will of God?”
I didn’t like that thought, because I was in the mood to be rebellious, and I was not of a mind to be lectured to. But I had to say, very impersonally, “No, of course it couldn’t.”
And then the voice said, “Then why are you weeping?”
I said, “Well, because I think this is terrible. These people are suffering, and I’m suffering. This is a ghastly situation, and something needs to be done.”
But to demand of God that He respond to your prayer is very different than telling Him that His plan is somehow off-base.
So I took all of the emotion and I put it into a prayer. “Okay, if we’re going to have to deal with this, You will have to get into the game and start helping us, and You have to give me more strength than everyone.” And that was the turning point where the energy began to shift.
There is a lot more power when you’re saying “Okay, if we’re going to do this, we’re really going to jump in and do it,” than if you’re simply chanting, “Why? Why? Why?”
It’s the same question but with a very different kind of force behind it – when you’re saying “Why are you doing this to me?” versus “Why are you doing this to me?”
What good things are You trying to accomplish through these circumstances that seem so terrible and frightening and confusing?
Paramhansa Yogananda said that God likes it when you express yourself openly and honestly with Him. And Jesus gave us the keys. The Bible tells us what happened in the garden of Gethsemane: “And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:39)
You see, that’s the open relationship that you must have with God. “I’m weak, I’m terrified, and I really don’t know how I’m going to be able to handle this. I’m sad, I’m scared, but if this is what You want, I presume You have a plan, and You must help me.”
Life is kind to us most of the time, but even when it’s kind we have to keep practicing, and then when it isn’t kind, we’ll be ready. It’s why we were born, and we might as well get on with it, don’t you think?
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 27, 2017.)