Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023
Devotion Beyond the Darkness
Christ is the faithful mirror who reflects the truth not only of creatures and objects,
but also of the Self that is no longer an undifferentiated abyss,
but the interior expression of a face.
Olivier Clement[1]
I once heard the late great scholar of World Religions Huston Smith offer a very useful framing device for interreligious encounter. He suggested that every spiritual tradition has three different levels of study, dialogue and immersion: philosophical, practical, and devotional.
The philosophical approach, though perhaps the driest, is perhaps also the safest because it can remain at the academic, intellectual level. Broadly speaking in the Indian tradition this is known as the jñāna mārga–the way of knowledge. With the opening of the Catholic Church to other religions at the Second Vatican Council, beginning with Nostra Aetate (the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions”), this level was encouraged. I love to quote Pope John Paul II at length from his encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”) in this regard. In that document he writes that though Christianity first encountered Greek philosophy in preaching the Gospel, that does not mean that other philosophies are precluded. And in our time, “as the Gospel gradually comes into contact with cultural worlds which once lay beyond Christian influence, there are new tasks of inculturation, which means that our generation faces problems not unlike those faced by the Church in the first centuries.” And then he says that his thoughts turn immediately to the lands of Asia, “so rich in religious and philosophical traditions of great antiquity.” Furthermore, among these lands, John Paul thought that “India has a special place.” He goes on to assert that “it is the duty of Christians now to draw from this rich heritage the elements compatible with their faith, in order to enrich Christian thought.”[2] Certainly Catholics can be consoled by a long line of fine thinkers who have immersed themselves in this ambit, with pioneers such as Abhishiktānanda, Bede Griffiths, and Raimondo Panikkar all the way up to, in more recent times, Michael Amaladoss, Francis Clooney, and Paul Knitter, to name but a few.
As for the practical aspect, I would mainly point to the popularity of both the Yoga tradition of India and the various meditation schools particularly of southeast Asia. (Among them perhaps the Japanese Zen and Theravadan Vipassana influence is the greatest.) Broadly speaking again, in India this would be the karma-marga–the way of action. Here too we find encouragement from such a stalwartly orthodox voice as Pope Benedict. When he was still head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” In chapter V on “Questions of Method” the letter points out that the majority of the great religions which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve that union. He then quotes Nostra Aetate itself, pointing out that just as the Catholic Church “‘rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions,’ neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian.” On the contrary, as long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements, are never obscured, whatever is useful in these methods can be taken up and expressed anew.[3]
As for the last, the devotional path, the bhakti-marga, this is an area more fraught with difficulty. Specifically regarding India, for instance, there are obviously people who sing the praises of the deities of Hinduism, including non-Hindu Western Christians, albeit perhaps at times unwittingly, innocently, unthinkingly, or unconsciously. Personally, as a Christian monk and Catholic priest, I make it a point never to do anything in public that would appear as if I were doing so, and I never encourage it. In fact, I discourage Christians from it. Even when I visit India, I do not take part in temple services and pujas. Then I would certainly be in danger of what monotheists in general think of as idolatry.
In 2018, in a book called In the Bosom of the Father: The Collected Poems of a Benedictine Mystic, the medieval scholar and translator Jacob Riyeff published a collection of Abhishiktānanda’s poetry, culled from his many journals and letters. This poetry obviously comes from the bhakti element of Abhishiktānanda’s spiritual life. Of course, it is not startling that there would still be a devotional element in his spirituality. The startling aspect of it is to whom his devotion is sometimes addressed. At one point, we read that Abhishiktānanda suspects Christians would become angry and cry “Sacrilege!” when they hear India’s sages and rishis being venerated like Job and Melchizedek were.[4] How much more would they be if they were to hear of this Christian monk and Catholic priest singing in praise of Shiva! And what about this strange concept of the Purusha?
One of the elements that Abhishiktānanda and his peers such as Griffiths and Panikkar brought into high relief for us, and in a new way through their encounter with the traditions of Asia, is the apophatic dimension of spirituality in general and of Christianity in particular. That is, the recognition that the Divine is anamarupa–beyond name and form, the via negativa the negative way. As Pope Benedict described it, the apophatic way is “marked by the conviction that it is impossible to say who God is, that only negative expressions can be used to speak of [God]; that God can only be spoken of with ‘no,’ and that it is only possible to reach [God] by entering into this experience of ‘no.’”[5] In Christianity an apophatic strain traces its way all the way back to Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius (about whom Benedict was writing the above words), The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, and especially John of the Cross, whom Abhishiktānanda often quoted. Abhishiktānanda wrote fervently about this mystical awareness beyond name and form, the awareness that gave him a sense of ever-increasing internal peace. 
One might be tempted to think, however, that this experience of the Divine beyond name and form is so iconoclastic as to be impersonal, as if God were just a nameless force of some sort, or solely the Ground of Being (brahman) and/or the Ground of Consciousness (atman). There is a famous story told by John Cassian in his Conferences about an “old man” of the desert whom Abba Paphnutius was able to convince that God was beyond all anthropomorphic images and could not be “circumscribed in a human form and likeness . . . that could be apprehended by the eye or seized by the mind.” But later he met that same old man breaking into the “bitterest tears and heavy sobbing and, throwing himself to the ground with a loud groan [as he] cried out: ‘Woe is me, wretch that I am! They have taken my God from me, and I have no one to lay hold of, nor do I know whom I should adore or address!”[6]
The opposite was true for Abhishiktānanda: the encounter with this Ground anamarupabeyond all name and form, sparked in him a new strain of devotion, of bhakti. 
There are those (the scholar of Indian religion Bettina Baümer, for instance) who suggest that Abhishiktānanda would have greatly appreciated Kashmir Shaivism, or indeed might naturally and spontaneously have discovered it and become a Shaivite. They may not be far from the truth when one notes how many times Shiva appears in Abhishiktānanda’s writings. A cursory understanding might accuse this Catholic monk of idolatry, worshipping another god besides the Judeo-Christian one. Indeed, at the level of popular devotion Shiva is worshipped as one of the trimurti – the trinity of Hindu gods along with Brahma and Vishnu - represented as a yogi wearing a tiger skin holding a trident with snakes coiled around his neck and arms.
However, a deeper understanding is that Shiva is simply a name for the all-pervasive supreme reality that/who is beyond all name and form but is manifest in functions, qualities, and  principles. Here, for example, are the first and last verses of the famous hymn of Shiva attributed to Shankara, the great eighth-century sage of advaita-Vedanta:
I am not mind, intellect, ego and the memory.
I am not the sense organs.
I am not the five elements.
I am Shiva in the form of bliss consciousness.
I am formless and devoid of all dualities.
I exist everywhere and pervade all senses.
Always I am the same,
I am neither free nor bonded.
I am Shiva in the form of bliss consciousness.[7]
As we witness in his poetry, Abhishiktānanda shows himself to be a devotee, a bhakti, of this Ground of Being who is formless and devoid of all dualities and a lover of this fathomless abyss of the godhead, almost as if this were a new way to sing about the First Person of the Trinity. There is a beautiful compound word in Sanskrit that describes Abhishiktānanda well––bhakti-rūpāpanna-jñāna: not just love of God, but “knowledge-that-has-become-devotion.” Abhishiktānanda entered into this experience of “no” and came out of it a lover of the Divine in a whole new way.
There is a well-known passage in Abhishiktānanda’s journals that seems to capture his conviction as well as the energy behind his quest to reconcile his Christianity with this experience of the spiritual genius of India. He wrote, “The experience of the Upanishads is true, I know it!”[8] And then he immediately quotes this famous “hymn” from the Svetasvatara Upanishad.
Vedāham etam purusham mahāntam
ādityavarnam tamasah parastāt
tameva viditvāti mrityum eti
nānyah panthā vidyate’yanāya.
I know the Great Person [Purusha]
of the color of the sun beyond the darkness.
Only by knowing that one do we overcome death.
There is no other way to go.
Perhaps the main significance of this little hymn is that it is part of the sannyasa diksha, the initiation into the life of renunciation. As Abhishiktānanda describes it in The Further Shore,
The new sannyasa plunges into the water. Then the guru raises him like the Purusha of the Aitareya Upanishad:
Arise, O Man! Arise, wake up, you who have received the boons; keep awake!
Both of them then face the rising sun and sing the song to the [Purusha] from the Uttara-Nārāyana:
I know him, that supreme Purusha, sun-coloured, beyond all darkness; only in knowing him one overcomes death; no other way exists.[9]
As I understand it, there are multiple uses of the term purusha. At a mundane level, it can refer to an individual, akin to our English word “man,” the non-inclusive word for human beings. (In Hindi, closely related to Sanskrit, indeed it is the word specifically for the male.) As Samkhya philosophy and classical Yoga use the term, purusha is the soul, the Self, pure consciousness, and the only source of consciousness. It is pure and distant, beyond subject and object. The term purusha can also, as we see in this hymn, designate the Cosmic Person, the Great Person, the original Self from which all else comes.
The Upanishads, which Abhishiktānanda loved so much, are known for little mention of the deities or of sacrifice and rituals. They concern themselves mainly with the journey to the cave of the heart, where the Ground of Consciousness (atman) realizes its identity with the Ground of Being (brahman). Yet the notion of the purusha as a personal god is not entirely missing from the Upanishads either. The Upanishads begin with brahman, the mystery of being; and then they come to the realization that this mystery of being is not different from atman, the inner Self, and that the human self is one with the Supreme Self, the Being of the whole creation. But then, as thought develops further in the Upanishads, this atman, this brahman, comes to be seen as Purusha, who is not, however, just an impersonal ground of being nor an impersonal ground of consciousness, pure and distant, beyond subject and object. Rather, Purusha is Person again, even an object of devotion.
There are already hints of this personal god even in early Upanishads, in the Brihadranyaka and the Isha, for example. But this strain is more fully developed in the Svetasvatara Upanishad, which is a rather late one. In chapter 1:7-9, we hear of the triad, “the perishable, the imperishable and that which is beyond the two.”[10] This third aspect, beyond perishable and imperishable, beyond that which is immanent in nature and consciousness, beyond the impersonal ground of being and ground of consciousness, is the Purusha, to whom Abhishiktānanda reveals his devotion in that same sannyasa hymn from the Svetāshvatara Upanishad: “I know that Great Person of the color of the sun beyond darkness...”
In his spiritual diary Abhishiktānanda writes, “God is invisible, non-manifested, a-vyakta. This God is the Father, the Source, the First [Prathama].” In another place Abhishiktānanda says of this passage that Christ himself is “the Purusha who looks on, while the ‘other’ purusha enjoys the world and lives in anxiety.”[11] It is not that he has forsaken the Trinity nor the “persons” (whatever that word may mean) in the Trinity, but has instead found a new way to express his experience of them and It (the Trinity), with a new language and even a new ardor.
This is vitally important in our day and age when so many have grown jaded about and tired of the ponderous, limited, and exclusive language that often seems to be enforced on us. Someone like our pioneering wandering French poet-monk strikes an attractive figure, not only fearlessly delving into the depth experience but ecstatically expressing it by writing it down and leaving us a permanent record.
In his essay on Dionysius the Areopagite, Benedict XVI says that a mystic such as Dionysius (and by extension the apophatic way itself) has a new relevance today. Just as in his own day Dionysius was a mediator between the spirit of Greek philosophy and the Gospel, today these mystics who can speak of God beyond name and form can function as great mediators in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia because there is “a similarity between the thought of the Areopagite and that of the Asian religions.” And here Pope Benedict, who at first glance might seem an odd bedfellow for our intrepid Breton, says something that Abhishiktānanda could hardly disagree with: we can begin to understand “that dialogue does not accept superficiality” because:
Precisely when one enters into the depths of the encounter with Christ, an ample space for dialogue also opens.  When one finds the light of truth, one realizes that it is a light for everyone; polemics disappear and it is possible to understand one another, or at least, speak to one another, draw closer together. . . . In the end, [Dionysius] tells us: Take the path of experience, of the humble experience of faith, every day.[12]
Today, as the Gospel has come into new kinds of contact with cultural worlds that once lay beyond Christian influence, Abhishiktānanda continues to aid us in the new tasks of inculturation and helps our generation face problems not unlike those faced by the Church in the first centuries. By entering into this experience of “no,” by entering into the depths of encounter with Christ, Abhishiktānanda, our modern Dionysius, serves as a mediator in our ongoing dialogue with the mystical theology of Asia in general and with the spiritual genius of India in particular, and opens for us a new language for articulating the Christian religious experience, as well as, and most importantly, an invitation into a new depth experience of Christianity.
[1] Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, 226.
[2] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, #72.
[3] Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter,” #16.
[4] Jacob Riyeff, In the Bosom of the Father: The Collected Poems of a Benedictine Mystic, 27.
[5] Benedict XVI, Great Christian Thinkers, 132-133.
[6] John Cassian, Conferences, XII.3
[7] Adi Shankara, Ātmashatkam.
[8] Swami Abhishiktānanda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart, 348-349.
[9] Swāmi Abhishiktānanda, The Further Shore, 54.
[10] Valerie Roebuck, The Upanishads, 296.
In song it has been called the supreme brahman.
           In it are the triad, the good support and the imperishable.
Knowing it and merging into brahman,
           knowers of brahman, intent on it, are freed from the womb.
The powerful one bears the whole, united,
           Perishable and imperishable, manifest and unmanifest.
The self, powerless, is bound through its being an enjoyer.
           Once it knows the god, it is freed from all bonds.
There are two billy goats, knower and unknowing, powerful and powerless;                                              
           One nanny goat, yoked to the enjoyer and the objects of enjoyment;
And the infinite self, possessing all forms, not an actor.
           When one finds the triad, this is brahman.
[11] Ascent to the Depths of the Heart, 284.
[12] Benedict XVI, Great Christian Thinkers, 132-133.
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