Sri Ramakrishna and Prayer

What is the way?

Let me start by asking a question: Sri Ramakrishna has said so many things in the Gospel pertaining to spiritual life. If we ask, what is the one spiritual practice that he has emphasized again and again for all of us, what would be your answer?

Let us take a look at the Gospel to get the answer. By far the most common question asked of Sri Ramakrishna was ‘Sir, what is the way?’ I give below a sample list of Sri Ramakrishna’s answer to this question. Let us look at the following 12 instances recorded in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and analyze the answers that Sri Ramakrishna gave to different people who asked him this momentous question:

  1. A Devotee: “Then what is the way, sir?”

Master : “Prayer and the company of holy men.[1]

  1. A Marwari Devotee: “Sir, what is the way?”

 Master: “There are two ways. One is the path of discrimination; the other is that of love. Discrimination means to know the distinction between the Real and the unreal. God alone is the real and permanent Substance; all else is illusory and impermanent. The magician alone is real; his magic is illusory. This is discrimination.

Marwari Devotee: “Revered sir, you just mentioned two paths. What is the other path?”

Master: “The path of bhakti, or zealous love of God. Weep for God in solitude, with a restless soul, and ask Him to reveal Himself to you. Cry to your Mother Syama with a real cry, O mind! And how can She hold Herself from you? “[2]

  1. A Vaishnava goswami was seated in the room. The Master said to him: “Well, what do you say? What is the way?”

Goswami: “Sir, the chanting of God’s name is enough. The scriptures emphasize the sanctity of God’s name for the Kaliyuga.”

Master: “Yes, there is no doubt about the sanctity of God’s name. But can a mere name achieve anything, without the yearning love of the devotee behind it? One should feel great restlessness of soul for the vision of God. Suppose a man repeats the name of God mechanically, while his mind is absorbed in ‘woman and gold’. Can he achieve anything? Mere muttering of magic words doesn’t cure one of the pain of a spider or scorpion sting. One must also apply the smoke of burning cow-dung.”[3]

  1. A Brahmo Devotee: “Sir, what is the way?”

Master: “Attachment to God, or, in other words, love for Him. And secondly, prayer.”

Brahmo Devotee: “Which one is the way— love or prayer?”

Master: “First love, and then prayer.”[4]

  1. Devotee: “Now, sir, what is the way?”

Master: “It is extremely difficult to practise spiritual discipline and at the same time lead a householder’s life. There are many handicaps: disease, grief, poverty, misunderstanding with one’s wife, and disobedient, stupid, and stubborn children. I don’t have to give you a list of them. But still there is a way out. One should pray to God, going now and then into solitude, and make efforts to realize Him.” [5]

  1. A Devotee: “Then what is the way for those who have not seen God? Must they give up all the duties of the world?”

Master: “The best path for this age is bhaktiyoga, the path of bhakti prescribed by Narada : to sing the name and glories of God and pray to Him with a longing heart, ‘O God, give me knowledge, give me devotion, and reveal Thyself to me!’ The path of karma is extremely difficult. Therefore one should pray: ‘O God, make my duties fewer and fewer; and may I, through Thy grace, do the few duties that Thou givest me without any attachment to their results! May I have no desire to be involved in many activities!’ It is not possible to give up work altogether. Even to think or to meditate is a kind of work. As you develop love for God, your worldly activities become fewer and fewer of themselves. And you lose all interest in them. Can one who has tasted a drink made of sugar candy enjoy a drink made of ordinary molasses?”[6]

  1. A Devotee: “Sir, what is the way?”

Master: “Discrimination between the Real and the unreal. One should always discriminate to the effect that God alone is real and the world unreal. And one should pray with sincere longing[7]

  1. Mahendra: “Then what is the way?”

Master: “No salvation is possible for a man as long as he has desire, as long as he hankers for worldly things. Therefore fulfil all your desires regarding food, clothes, and sex. (Smiling) What do you say about the last one? Legitimate or illegitimate? (M. and Mahendra laugh.)

        Prior to this conversation, Sri Ramakrishna had answered Mahendra’s question, “Why does one slip from the path of Yoga?” as follows: While thinking of God the aspirant may feel a craving for material enjoyment. It is this craving that makes him slip from the path…”[8]

While Sri Ramakrishna goes on to tell Mahendra and M that the smaller, harmless desires for enjoyment can be fulfilled by the devotee, elsewhere, in other conversations, he instructs that the bigger ones, the really fundamental desires should be eliminated by prayer to God. For instance: Say to God with a guileless heart, ‘O God, reveal thyself to me.’ And weep. Pray to God, ‘O God, keep my mind away from “woman and gold”.’ And dive deep.[9] The obstacle to Yoga is “woman and gold”. Yoga is possible when the mind becomes pure…what are the spiritual disciplines that give the mind its upward direction? One learns all this by constantly living in holy company…In order to renounce, one must pray to God for the will-power to do so.[10]

  1. Trailokya: “What is the way to dry up the craving for worldly pleasure?”

Master: “Pray to the Divine Mother with a longing heart. Her vision dries up all craving for the world and completely destroys all attachment to ‘woman and gold’. It happens instantly if you think of Her as your own mother. She is by no means a godmother. She is your own mother. With a yearning heart persist in your demands on Her. The child holds to the skirt of its mother and begs a penny of her to buy a kite. Perhaps the mother is gossiping with her friends. At first she refuses to give the penny and says to the child: ‘No, you can’t have it. Your daddy has asked me not to give you money. When he comes home I’ll ask him about it. You will get into trouble if you play with a kite now.’ The child begins to cry and will not give up his demand. Then the mother says to her friends: ‘Excuse me a moment. Let me pacify this child.’ Immediately she unlocks the cash-box with a click and throws the child a penny.  “You too must force your demand on the Divine Mother. She will come to you without fail.[11]

  1. Host: “Revered sir, what is the way for us?”

Master: “Chanting the name and glories of God, living in the company of holy men, and earnestly praying to God.”[12]

  1. Musician: “Sir, what is the way to realize God?”

Master: ” Bhakti is the one essential thing…It is enough to have yearning for God. It is enough to love Him and feel attracted to Him: Don’t you know that God is the Inner Guide? He sees the longing of our heart and the yearning of our soul. Suppose a man has several sons. The older boys address him distinctly as ‘Baba’ or ‘Papa’, but the babies can at best call him ‘Ba’ or ‘Pa’. Now, will the father be angry with those who address him in this indistinct way? The father knows that they too are calling him, only they cannot pronounce his name well. All children are the same to the father. Likewise, the devotees call on God alone, though by different names. They call on one Person only. God is one, but His names are many.”[13]

  1. Girish: “What is the way for people like us?”

Master: “Bhakti is the only essential thing. Bhakti has different aspects: the sattvic, the rajasic, and the tamasic. One who has sattvic bhakti is very modest and humble. But a man with tamasic bhakti is like a highwayman in his attitude toward God. He says: ‘O God, I am chanting. Your name; how can I be a sinner? O God, You are my own Mother; You must reveal your-self to me.'”[14]

Notice how, in each case, Sri Ramakrishna adds that prayer is essential for us to achieve our spiritual goal.

There is a very interesting conversation recorded on 15th June 1884. There was a major celebration in Surendra’s house and many devotees had gathered. Sri Ramakrishna stayed there for the whole day. Around 2pm, Pratap Chandra Mazumdar, a co-worker of Keshab Chandra Sen in the Brahmo Samaj arrived and joined the celebrations. He asks Sri Ramakrishna a most interesting question: “Revered Sir, are those living with you making progress in spiritual life?” Sri Ramakrishna gives a wonderful reply, words which form the credo of all devotees of Ramakrishna Mission, so to say. He says, “I tell people that there is nothing wrong in the life of the world. But they must live in the world as a maidservant lives in her master’s house.  Referring to her master’s house, she says, ‘That is our house.’ But her real home is perhaps in a far-away village. Pointing out her master’s house to others, she says, no doubt, ‘This is our house’, but in her heart she knows very well that it doesn’t belong to her and that her own house is in a faraway village. She brings up her master’s son and says, ‘My Hari has grown very naughty’, or ‘My Hari doesn’t like sweets.’ Though she repeats, ‘My Hari’ with her lips, yet she knows in her heart that Hari doesn’t belong to her, that he is her master’s son.  Thus I say to those who visit me: ‘Why don’t you live in the world? There is no harm in that. But always keep your mind on God. Know for certain that house, family and property are not yours. They are God’s. Your real home is in God.’ Also I ask them to pray always with a longing heart for love of God’s Lotus Feet.[15]

We must refer to the authoritative book by Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play to understand the value of this most interesting conversation. Swami Saradananda writes:[16]

After he had attained perfection in various Sadhanas, the Master had many unique intuitive perceptions. Some of them were related to himself and others to spirituality in general:

  1. He is an incarnation of God.
  2. There is no liberation for him.
  3. He knew the time of his death.
  4. All religions are true: as many faiths, so many paths.
  5. Human beings adopt dualism, qualified non-dualism and non-dualism according to their temperaments.
  6. Ordinary people will progress through karma yoga
  7. A religious organization based on this catholic attitude should be founded.

Regarding the 6th perception, Swami Saradananda elaborates: The Master indicated the limits of action when he said, “The action of a sattvic person drops off automatically. He cannot work even if he tries to; the Lord does not allow him to work. It is just as when a young wife advances in pregnancy. She is given less and less work to do; and when the child is born, she gives up household work altogether and is busied exclusively with the infant. But an ordinary person must try to do his duties with detachment, depending on the Lord, like the maidservant who does everything for her master, knowing in her heart that her home is elsewhere. This is known as karma yoga. As far as possible one should take the name of the Lord and meditate on Him while discharging one’s everyday duties in an unattached way.”[17]

Prayer is thus an integral part of karma yoga, the path for the present age, as revealed by the Divine Mother of the Universe to Sri Ramakrishna. Prayer is therefore an integral part of Sri Ramakrishna’s Mission on earth. Everyone works in this world. What distinguishes work from karma yoga is prayer.

Further, there are instances in the Gospel where Sri Ramakrishna most emphatically states that prayer alone is enough for achieving one’s spiritual goal. He also very forcefully states that prayer done under certain conditions will certainly be heard by God. For instance: “Let me assure you that a man can realize his Inner Self through sincere prayer.”[18] “One should pray to God with a longing heart. God certainly listens to prayer if it is sincere. There is no doubt about it.”[19] “You will attain God if you sing His name and glories and pray to Him with a longing heart. There is not the least doubt about it.”[20]

Is this prescription of prayer only for married people? For, all the instances mentioned above seem to pertain only to householders. Well, look at what Sri Ramakrishna himself said while speaking with Pandit Shashadhar Tarkachudamani, “A devotee who can call on God while living a householder’s life is a hero indeed. God thinks: ‘He who has renounced the world for My sake will surely pray to Me. He must serve Me. Is there anything very remarkable about it? People will cry shame on him if he fails to do so. But he is blessed indeed who prays to Me in the midst of his worldly duties. He is trying to find Me, overcoming a great obstacle – pushing away, as it were, a huge block of stone weighing a ton. Such a man is a real hero.’”[21] Again while speaking with Nanda Bose, Sri Ramakrishna said, “Though you are a householder, still you have kept your mind on God. Is that a small thing? The man who has renounced the world will pray to Him as a matter of course. Is there any credit in that? But blessed indeed is he who, while leading a householder’s life, prays to God. He is like a man who finds an object after removing a stone weighing twenty maunds.”[22] So, prayer is meant for all spiritual aspirants, monastic or married.

In fact, the tremendous feeling Sri Ramakrishna had for the married devotees is simply amazing! Just look at this particular prayer he once offered to the Divine Mother on behalf of the married devotees. It is unparalleled in all religious history! I quote from the Gospel entry for 5th Jan 1884:

The Master was weeping and praying to the Mother in a voice choked with emotion. He prayed to Her with tearful eyes for the welfare of the devotees: “Mother, may those who come to You have all their desires fulfilled! But please don’t make them give up everything at once, Mother. Well, You may do whatever You like in the end. If You keep them in the world, Mother, then please reveal Yourself to them now and then. Otherwise, how will they live? How will they be encouraged if they don’t see You once in a while? But You may do whatever You like in the end.”[23]

It seems logical to conclude that prayer is indeed the universal spiritual practice that Sri Ramakrishna prescribed for all of us. Of course, he also prescribes many other spiritual practices – meditation, discrimination, chanting the names of God, Japa, singing His glories, holy company, austerity, even purascharana, etc. But the common feature in all his prescriptions is ‘Prayer’. Sri Ramakrishna seems to hold that prayer is alone necessary and sufficient means for achieving one’s goal in spiritual life. Of course, ‘conditions apply’! But let us first of all convince ourselves of the fact that prayer has been given utmost importance by Sri Ramakrishna as a spiritual practice.

He says, “It is enough to know that everything depends on the grace of God. But one must pray to God; it will not do to remain inactive. The lawyer gives all the arguments and finishes his pleading by saying to the judge: ‘I have said all I have to say. Now the decision rests with Your Honor.’”[24]

We need not complicate this simple advice of Sri Ramakrishna by analyzing further what prayer is and how to perform it. That is what scholars and philosophers do.[25] They take a simple statement or idea and complicate it so badly that people lose interest in it. Everyone knows how to pray. Everyone knows what prayer is. Sri Ramakrishna however describes some of his own prayers, which are unique in their content.[26] It is surprising to learn that he prayed for all sorts of things. We find him praying for bodily strength even! Every now and then, he would discover some habit of thought or behavior in himself, which he wanted to get rid of. What would he do? Pray to the Divine Mother! That was his method. Again, he would develop a fancy for a particular spiritual state. His method would be to pray to the Divine Mother. For anything and everything, we find Sri Ramakrishna praying to the Divine Mother. I point this out because, in most places in the Gospel, we find Sri Ramakrishna exhorting that we must pray for knowledge, devotion and Love. But he himself had prayed for anything that he wanted, not just for knowledge, devotion and Love. So, basically, prayer is the default state of mind of a spiritual aspirant; that is what we learn from Sri Ramakrishna.

How to pray?

Everyone prays. In fact, anyone who has passed through the modern education system will automatically learn how to pray! But prayer is an art that can be developed to great heights. It is a skill in which we can become better and better. Sri Ramakrishna shows the way how this can be done. He lists out a whole set of qualities of mind and heart that embellish prayer. With each of these qualities, the efficacy of our prayer increases.

  1. Spontaneous, earnest and sincere: Prayer has to be from the heart, spontaneous. Prayer cannot be tutored. You cannot copy prayer. It has to be earnest. Earnest prayer is real prayer. Sri Ramakrishna says, “There is another way: earnestly praying to God. God is our very own. We should say to Him: ‘O God, what is Thy nature? Reveal Thyself to me. Thou must show Thyself to me; for why else hast Thou created me?’[27] “One must pray earnestly. It is said that one can realize God by directing to Him the combined intensity of three attractions, namely, the child’s attraction for the mother, the husband’s attraction for the chaste wife, and the attraction of worldly possessions for the worldly man.”[28] “(The way is) chanting the names & glories of God, living in the company of holy men, and earnestly praying to God…Pray to Rama. Meditate on Him. He will certainly provide you with everything.”[29] “He who is a real devotee of God seeks nothing but God. If he finds himself entangled in too much work, he earnestly prays, ‘Lord, be gracious and reduce my work; my mind, which should think of Thee day and night, has been wasting its power; it thinks of worldly things alone.’”[30]

Prayer has to be sincere. There has to be longing in the heart that prays. That is when prayer becomes efficacious. Sri Ramakrishna says, “A man may call on God by any name; if he is sincere in his prayer he will certainly reach Him. He will succeed if he has longing.”[31] “Let me assure you that a man can realize his Inner Self through sincere prayer.”[32] “One should pray to God with a longing heart. God certainly listens to prayer if it is sincere. There is no doubt about it.”[33] “A man can realize God by following his own path if his prayer is sincere.”[34] “One should pray to God with sincere longing. God cannot but listen to prayer if it is sincere.”[35] “What will you gain by merely repeating ‘Siddhi’[36]? You will not be intoxicated even by gargling with a solution of siddhi. It must go into your stomach; not until then will you be intoxicated. One cannot comprehend what I am saying unless one prays to God in solitude, all by oneself, with a longing heart.”[37] “You will attain God if you sing His name and glories and pray to Him with a longing heart. There is not the least doubt about it.”[38] “(The way is) one should pray with sincere longing.”[39] “The best path for this age is bhakti yoga, the path of Bhakti prescribed by Narada. To sing the name and glories of God and pray to Him with a longing heart, ‘O God, give me knowledge, give me devotion, and reveal Thyself to me!’”[40] “…with love and longing in your heart pray to God, ‘O God, grant me devotion at Thy lotus feet and reduce my worldly duties. Please grant me the boon that the few duties I must do may be done in a detached spirit.’”[41]

“One must pray to God without any selfish desire. But selfish worship, if practiced with perseverance, is gradually turned into selfless worship. Dhruva practiced tapasya to obtain his kingdom, but at last he realized God. He said, ‘Why should a man give up gold if he gets it while searching for glass beads?’”[42] “You are no doubt in the world. What if you are? You must surrender the fruit of your action to God. You must not seek any result for yourself. But mark one thing. The desire for bhakti cannot be called a desire. You may desire bhakti and pray for it.”[43] “Pray to Him with a yearning heart, and weep. That will purify your heart…Pray to Brahman with attributes, who listens to your prayers, and He Himself will give you full Knowledge of Brahman; for that which is Brahman with attributes is verily Brahman without attributes, that which is Brahman is verily Sakti. One realizes this non-duality after the attainment of Perfect Knowledge. The Divine Mother gives Her devotee Brahmajnana too…God is our Inner Controller. Pray to Him with a pure and guileless heart. He will explain everything to you. Give up egotism and take refuge in Him. You will realize everything.”[44] “Whatever path you may follow, you must pray to God with a restless heart. He is the Ruler of the soul within. He will surely listen to your prayer if it is sincere. Whether you follow the ideal of the Personal God or that of the Impersonal Truth, you will realize God alone, provided you are restless for Him. A cake with icing tastes sweet whether you eat it straight or sidewise.”[45] “Why shouldn’t one realize God while living in the world? But…one must live in holy company, pray to God, weeping for His grace, and now and then go into solitude. Unless the plants on a foot-path are protected at first by fences, they are destroyed by cattle.”[46] “Can one know God through reasoning? Be His servant, surrender yourself to Him, and then pray to Him.”[47]

Once when Sri Ramakrishna had visited the house of a devotee called Devendra, the following conversation occurred: Sri Ramakrishna said, “The mother of a certain Mallick, who belonged to a very noble family, asked me if prostitutes would ever be saved. She herself had led that kind of life; that is why she asked the question. I said: ‘Yes, they too will be saved, if only they cry to God with a yearning heart and promise not to repeat their sins.’ What will the mere chanting of Hari’s name accomplish? One must weep sincerely.”[48]

Notice three things in the series of quotations made here: first, how emphatically Sri Ramakrishna insists that God does listen to prayer, if it is sincere, direct from the heart. Second, repeatedly Sri Ramakrishna points out that God can be realized while leading a married life; well, he goes much further and includes even the morally depraved! Third, he hints at a certain order regarding prayer – first of all become the Lord’s servant, then surrender to Him, and only then pray to Him. This gradation in the practice of prayer is important to note. This takes us to the next set of instructions that Sri Ramakrishna gave on prayer.

 

  1. A definite relationship with God: Sri Ramakrishna reveals a great secret regarding prayer. We need to develop a definite relationship with God for our prayers to become efficacious. There is a wonderful conversation between Pandit Shashadhar Tarkachudamani and Sri Ramakrishna recorded in the Gospel, from which I quote:

Pandit: Does God listen to our prayers?

Master: God is the Kalpataru, the Wish-fulfilling Tree. You will certainly get whatever you ask of Him. But you must pray standing near the Kalpataru. Only then will your prayer be fulfilled. (The conversation continues and then again, Sri Ramakrishna reiterates) God is the Kalpataru. One should pray standing near It. Then one will get whatever one desires.[49]

Again, during his meeting with the aristocrat of Baghbazar Nanda Bose, Sri Ramakrishna made the same statement:

Nanda: Is there no after-life? What about punishment for our sins?

Master: Why not enjoy your mangoes? What need have you to calculate about the after-life and what happens then, and things like that? Eat your mangoes. You need mangoes. You need devotion to God.

Nanda: But where is the mango-tree? Where do I get mangoes?

Master: Tree? God is the eternal and infinite Brahman. He does exist; there is no doubt about it. He is eternal. But you must remember this, that He is the Kalpataru. ‘Come, let us go for a walk, O mind, to Kali, the Wish-fulfilling Tree, and there beneath It gather the four fruits of life.’ You must go to the Kalpataru and pray. Only then will you obtain the fruits. Only then will the fruits fall from the tree. Only then will you be able to gather them.[50]

Look at this condition that Sri Ramakrishna puts for efficacy of our prayers; we need to stand near the Kalpataru; which means we need to place ourselves near God and then pray. What does this ‘standing near’ mean? Elsewhere, Sri Ramakrishna explains to M:

One should assume a particular attitude toward God while praying to Him – the attitude of friend or servant or son or hero. I assume the attitude of a child. To me every woman is my mother. The divine Maya, seeing this attitude in an aspirant, moves away from his path out of sheer shame. The attitude of hero is extremely difficult. The Saktas and the Bauls among the Vaishnavas follow it, but it is very hard to keep one’s spiritual life pure in that attitude. One can assume other attitudes toward God as well the attitude in which the devotee serenely contemplates God as the Creator, the attitude of service to Him, the attitude of friendship, the attitude of motherly affection, or the attitude of conjugal love. The conjugal relationship, the attitude of a woman to her husband or sweetheart, contains all the rest – serenity, service, friendship, and motherly affection. (Then he asks M) Which one of these appeals to your mind?[51]

This assuming a particular attitude towards God is what is meant by ‘standing near the Kalpataru’.

  1. Unceasing, and in secret: Sri Ramakrishna now ups the ante regarding prayer and goes one step further and exhorts that prayer ought to become continuous. Sporadic praying is but the beginning[52]. Gradually, the prayerful attitude ought to become constant in us. He uses words such as ‘always’ and ‘unceasing’ with regard to prayer. I quoted a conversation between a Brahmo devotee and Sri Ramakrishna in the beginning of this article. Let us look at that particular conversation in detail now.

A Brahmo Devotee: Sir, what is the way?

Master: Attachment to God, or, in other words, love for Him. And secondly, prayer.

Brahmo Devotee: Which one is the way – love or prayer?

Master: First love, and then prayer.

The Master sang:  Cry to your Mother Syama with a real cry, O mind! And how can She hold Herself from you? How can Syama stay away?

Continuing, the Master said: And one must always chant the name and glories of God and pray to Him. An old metal pot must be scrubbed every day. What is the use of cleaning it only once? Further, one must practice discrimination and renunciation; one must be conscious of the unreality of the world.

Brahmo: Is it good to renounce the world?

Master: Not for all. Those who have not yet come to the end of their enjoyments should not renounce the world. Can one get drunk on two annas’ worth of wine?

Brahmo: Then should they lead a worldly life?

Master: Yes, they should try to perform their duties in a detached way. Before you break the jack-fruit open, rub your hands with oil, so that the sticky milk will not smear them. The maidservant in a rich man’s house performs all her duties, but her mind dwells on her home in the country. This is an example of doing duty in a detached way. You should renounce the world only in mind. But a Sanyasi should renounce the world both inwardly and outwardly.[53]

When Sri Ramakrishna was returning to Dakshineswar after what was to be his last visit to Keshab Sen, he stopped at Jaygopal Sen’s house. Many people had gathered there. There was one neighbor of Jaygopal Sen who had an interesting conversation with Sri Ramakrishna, from which I quote:

Neighbor: You ask us, sir, to live in the world after knowing God. Can God really be known?

Master: God cannot be known by the sense-organs or by this mind, but He can be known by the pure mind, the mind that is free from worldly desires.

Neighbor: Who can know God?

Master: Right. Who can really know Him? But as for us, it is enough to know as much of Him as we need. What need have I of a whole well of water? One jar is more than enough for me. An ant went to a sugar hill. Did it need the entire hill? A grain or two of sugar was more than enough.

Neighbor: Sir, we are like typhoid patients. How can we be satisfied with one jar of water? We feel like knowing, the whole of God.

Master: That’s true. But there is also medicine for typhoid.

Neighbor: What is that medicine, sir?

Master: The company of holy men, repeating the name of God and singing His glories, and unceasing prayer. I prayed to the Divine Mother: ‘Mother, I don’t seek knowledge. Here, take Thy knowledge, take Thy ignorance. Give me only pure love for Thy Lotus Feet.’ I didn’t ask for anything else. As is the disease, so must the remedy be. The Lord says in the Gita: ‘O Arjuna, take refuge in Me. I shall deliver you from all sins.’ Take shelter at His feet: He will give you right understanding. He will take entire responsibility for you. Then you will get rid of the typhoid. Can one ever know God with such a mind as this? Can one pour four seers of milk into a one-seer pot? Can we ever know God unless He lets us know Him? Therefore I say, take shelter in God. Let Him do whatever He likes. He is self-willed. What power is there in a man?[54]

There is a marvelous conversation between some Marwari devotees and Sri Ramakrishna from which I quote:

You are merchants. You know how to improve your business gradually. Some of you start with a castor-oil factory. After making some money at that, you open a cloth shop. In the same way, one makes progress toward God. It may be that you go into solitude, now and then, and devote more time to prayer…One should always chant His name. Even while one is performing one’s duties, the mind should be left with God. Suppose I have a carbuncle on my back. I perform my duties, but the mind is drawn to the carbuncle.[55]

A closely related, but equally interesting quality Sri Ramakrishna specifies regarding prayer is secrecy! He says, “Pray to God in secret and with yearning, that you may have that passionate attachment and devotion to Him. Shed tears for Him. A man sheds a jugful of tears because his wife is sick or because he is losing money or because he is worrying about getting a job. But tell me, whoever weeps for God?’[56]

Notice how Sri Ramakrishna advices going into solitude every now and then, so that we could devote more time to prayer. This is apart from developing the habit of continuous, unceasing prayer even in the midst of our daily activities.

The reason Sri Ramakrishna exhorts us for praying unceasingly is this: If a man practices spiritual discipline before his death and if he gives up his body praying to God and meditating on Him, when will sin touch him? It is no doubt the elephant’s nature to smear his body with dust and mud, even after his bath. But he cannot do so if the mahout takes him into the stable immediately after his bath.[57] Death can catch up on us at any time. We need to face death with the Lord’s name on the top of our conscious mind. That is possible only if we have made a habit of praying ceaselessly.

What to pray for:

Again, we all know what to pray for; this knowledge is inherent in us. Or is it? There is no end to our desires. For all kinds of things, we pray. When we study the Gospel, we find that Sri Ramakrishna also has prayed for all kinds of things. But what is noteworthy is how Sri Ramakrishna emphasized that prayer is a powerful tool that should not be wasted on obtaining sundry things for ourselves. It is like using a powerful computer for only typing letters! The computer can do so much more. It can, in fact, manage the working of the entire company; while we end up only typing letters on it!

The question that comes up is this: Often we feel helpless and completely pressurized by the turn of events in our life. For instance, we have an illness, or one of our loved ones has a serious illness. We feel like praying for a cure. Or, we need a job; or need to pass an exam. Under such situations we automatically feel like praying. It might come as a surprise to you that Sri Ramakrishna endorses each of these cases!

When Sri Ramakrishna had visited Keshab Sen during his illness, Keshab’s mother had asked Sri Ramakrishna to pray for Keshab’s improvement of health. Sri Ramakrishna’s answer was quite uncharacteristic of his usual replies to such requests. He had said to Keshab’s mother, “Please pray to the Divine Mother, who is the Bestower of all bliss. She will take away your troubles.”[58] It is noteworthy that he asked Keshab’s mother to pray to God for such a mundane thing as her son’s health. There is a lesson in this for all of us. Quite often, the pressures of existence press down upon us and we feel lost. In such circumstances, it is perfectly alright to pray to God for even mundane things. Once during a conversation with Dr Mahendralal Sarkar, Sri Ramakrishna made the following observation: “Ah, what a splendid thing you said the other day! ‘We lie in the lap of God. To whom shall we speak about our illness if not to Him?’ If I must pray, I shall certainly pray to Him.” The Gospel mentions that as Sri Ramakrishna said these words, his eyes filled with tears.[59] We do not find Sri Ramakrishna castigating Dr Sarkar for making such a statement as ‘To whom shall we speak about our illness if not to Him?’ In fact, Sri Ramakrishna himself supports Dr Sarkar’s sentiment by adding “If I must pray (about curing my illness), I shall certainly pray to Him.”

A few days before shifting to Shyampukur, Dr Rakhal had come to treat Sri Ramakrishna. A conversation started in Sri Ramakrishna’s Dakshineswar room and M makes the following entry in the Gospel:

A Devotee: You will soon be cured if only you say to the Divine Mother, ‘Mother, please make me well.’

Master: I cannot ask God to cure my disease. The attitude of the servant-master relationship is nowadays less strong in me. Once in a while, I say, ‘O Mother, please mend the sheath of the sword a little.’ But such prayers are also becoming less frequent. Nowadays I do not find my ‘I’; I see that it is God alone who resides in this sheath.[60]

Most of us pray for personal things such as a job. What is Sri Ramakrishna’s instruction regarding such prayers? Although, in general, Sri Ramakrishna discouraged us from praying for jobs and such things, it is not that he was totally against such prayers. If the prayer were sincere, even if it was for such a mundane thing as a job, Sri Ramakrishna approved of it! Yes, this may sound a little off-color, but there is a reference to exactly such a thing in the Gospel.

One day, Sri Ramakrishna asks Adhar Sen, “Didn’t you get the job?” Adhar held the post of deputy magistrate, a government post that carried with it great prestige. He earned three hundred rupees a month. He had applied for the office of Vice-Chairman of the Calcutta Municipality. The salary attached to this office was one thousand rupees. In order to secure it, Adhar had interviewed many influential people in Calcutta.

Master (to M. and Niranjan ): Hazra said to me, ‘Please pray to the Divine Mother for Adhar, that he may secure the job.’ Adhar made the same request to me. I said to the Mother: ‘O Mother, Adhar has been visiting You. May he get the job if it pleases You.’ But at the same time I said to Her, ‘How small-minded he is! He is praying to You for things like that and not for Knowledge and Devotion.’ [61]

What a wonderful incident this is! Just observe the details and try to read between the lines here. How sympathetic to human weakness, Sri Ramakrishna is! Sri Ramakrishna says Hazra asked me to pray to the Divine Mother for Adhar’s promotion; later on, Adhar Sen himself asked for Sri Ramakrishna’s intervention; in both these cases, Sri Ramakrishna didn’t scold them away. He did pray to the Divine Mother for Adhar’s job! What an amazing thing! And then, an even more wonderful thing is – Sri Ramakrishna asks Adhar, “Didn’t you get the job?” You see, Sri Ramakrishna had prayed to the Mother for Adhar’s job; that prayer is certain to bear fruit; that is why he is inquiring!

But, the power of prayer would be wasted if these were all we prayed for. It is common knowledge that this world doesn’t change. We may pray for these things – good health, end of our present troubles – but soon, something new will crop up. It is an endless cycle. Hence, Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly exhorted us to pray for more lasting things. Thus we find Sri Ramakrishna generally discouraging us from praying for cure of illnesses, for a job, or for money.

So, we come back to our main question: What should we pray for? Sri Ramakrishna held prayer to be a powerful tool meant to assist us in our spiritual journey. Rest everything was important only insofar as they helped in this main objective. Look at this conversation from the Gospel:

Mahimacharan: By what kind of work can one realize God?

Master: It is not that God can be realized by this work and not by that. The vision of God depends on His grace. Still a man must work a little with longing for God in his heart. If he has longing he will receive the grace of God. To attain God a man must have certain favorable conditions: the company of holy men, discrimination, and the blessings of a real teacher. Perhaps his elder brother takes the responsibility for the family; perhaps his wife has spiritual qualities and is very virtuous; perhaps he is not married at all or entangled in worldly life. He succeeds when conditions like these are fulfilled.[62]

A study of the statements made by Sri Ramakrishna as recorded in the Gospel show us that there are two categories of things for which we should pray to God. One set of things is what we need removed from our personality. God’s intervention is needed there. The other set of things is what we need to develop in our personality. Again, God’s intervention is needed there. Both these negative and positive achievements lead to establishing the ‘favorable’ conditions that Sri Ramakrishna mentions.[63] Let us look at these two categories for which we need to pray.

Pratap Chandra Hazra is a strange character in the Gospel. He and Sri Ramakrishna had many differences of opinion. There is an interesting record in the Gospel in this regard, which clarifies our question, as to what is the aim of prayer:

Hazra entered the room and sat with the devotees on the floor. Hazra repeated now and then, “Soham! Soham!” (I am He! I am He!) To Latu and other devotees he often said, “What does one gain by worshipping God with offerings? That is merely giving Him things that are His already.” He had said this once to Narendra. The Master spoke to him about this.

Master: I explained to Latu, who the object of the devotee’s worship is.

Hazra: The devotee really prays to his own Self.

Master: What you say is a very lofty thought. The aim of spiritual discipline, of chanting God’s name and glories, is to realize just that. A man attains everything when he discovers his true Self in himself. The object of Sadhana is to realize that. That also is the purpose of assuming a human body. One needs the clay mould as long as the gold image has not been cast; but when the image is made, the mould is thrown away. The body may be given up after the realization of God. God is not only inside us; He is both inside and outside. The Divine Mother showed me in the Kali temple that everything is Chinmaya, the Embodiment of Spirit; that it is She who has become all this the image, myself, the utensils of worship, the door-sill, the marble floor. Everything is indeed Chinmaya. The aim of prayer, of spiritual discipline, of chanting the name and glories of God, is to realize just that.[64]

Thus, the one aim of prayer is to realize the divine inside and outside us.

While the overarching aim of prayer is realization of Self, Sri Ramakrishna instructs us to pray for getting rid of animal feelings and worldly attachments, for not being born again in this world, and for reducing our duties in our life so that our prayers become really efficacious.

Addressing Bankim Chandra, Sri Ramakrishna said, “…Like the swan are those who think of God, who pray day and night to get rid of their attachment to worldly things and their love for ‘woman and gold’, who do not enjoy anything except the nectar of the Lotus Feet of the Lord, and to whom worldly pleasures taste bitter…After the birth of one or two children, husband and wife should live as brother and sister and talk only of God. Then both their minds will be drawn to God, and the wife will be a help to the husband on the path of spirituality. None can taste divine bliss without giving up his animal feeling. A devotee should pray to God to help him get rid of this feeling.”[65] Elsewhere, Sri Ramakrishna says, “Do you know the significance of the Siva emblem? It is the worship of the symbols of fatherhood and motherhood. The devotee worshipping the image prays, ‘O Lord, please grant that I may not be born into this world again; that I may not have to pass again through a mother’s womb.’”[66] Another unique theme Sri Ramakrishna introduced is prayer for reducing our duties. For instance, “Now you should pray to God that your worldly duties may be reduced.”[67]

Now, this sense of duty is a bugbear with all of us; we can’t live with it, nor can we live without it. For most of us, a sense of duty is indispensable for our personal growth. Society prescribes two kinds of duty for all of us: duty that arises from our innate tendencies, and duty that entails upon us from our social obligations. Both of these have to be reduced so that more and more time can be devoted to spiritual practices prescribed by the Guru. To Shambhu Charan Mallik, Sri Ramakrishna famously said, “When you realize God, will you pray to Him, ‘O God, please grant that I may dig reservoirs, build roads, and found hospitals and dispensaries’? …Then mustn’t one perform acts of compassion, such as charity to the poor? I do not forbid it. If a man has money, he should give it to remove the sorrows and sufferings that come to his notice. In such an event the wise man says, ‘Give the poor something.’ But inwardly he feels, ‘What can I do? God alone is the Doer. I am nothing.’” [68]

Just observe the nuance here! The attitude we entertain towards the social obligations we have is most important. This prayer for reducing our worldly duties is meant to awaken this attitude in us.

Closely associated with this sense of worldly duties is the bond of marriage. Sri Ramakrishna’s advice in this regard is extremely valuable, and it is something that the present society stands direly in need of. Listen to Sri Ramakrishna’s words addressed to Dr Mahendralal Sarkar:

Master (To the doctor): The renunciation of ‘woman and gold’ is meant for the Sannyasin. He must not look even at the picture of a woman. Do you know what a woman is to a man? She is like spiced pickle. The very thought of pickle brings water to the tongue; it doesn’t have to be brought near the tongue. But this renunciation is not meant for householders like you. It is meant only for Sannyasins. You may live among women, as far as possible in a spirit of detachment. Now and then you must retire into solitude and think of God. Women must not be allowed there. You can lead an unattached life to a great extent if you have faith in God and love for Him. After the birth of one or two children a married couple should live as brother and sister. They should then constantly pray to God that their minds may not run after sense pleasures anymore and that they may not have any more children.[69]

Simultaneously with praying for removing these negatives traits from our personality, we ought to pray for bhakti, devotion, faith, pure love and discrimination. The references in the Gospel for such prayers or instructions for such prayers are really numerous.[70] In fact, the main strain of Sri Ramakrishna’s instructions on prayer is to obtain these things – Bhakti, devotion, faith, pure love and Discrimination.

Whom to pray to?

The last portion of our discussion concerns whom we have to address our prayers to. The obvious answer is – God. But, we who are devotees of the Ramakrishna Mission have a much more specific mandate. We can pray to Sri Ramakrishna. When Swami Vivekananda dictated the ‘Math Rules’ to Swami Shuddhananda, he included the following observation there: The Lord has not yet given up the Ramakrishna form…this Form will last until He comes again in another gross Body. Though He is not visible to all – that He is in this Sangha and is guiding it is a fact of everybody’s experience. Otherwise such a world-wide movement could never have been set on foot in so short a time by this handful of insignificant, helpless and persecuted boys. This truth forms the basis of our assertion that as devotees of Ramakrishna Sangha, we can pray to Sri Ramakrishna. Furthermore, there are recorded instances in Sri Ramakrishna’s life which lend credence to this assertion of ours. Let us look at the following three instances to understand this:

1st incident: I quote from the Gospel:

Evening worship was over in the temples…It was now late in the evening and time for M.’s departure; but he felt reluctant to go and instead went in search of Sri Ramakrishna. He had been fascinated by the Master’s singing and wanted to hear more. At last he found the Master pacing alone in the natmandir in front of the Kali temple. A lamp was burning in the temple on either side of the image of the Divine Mother. The single lamp in the spacious natmandir blended light and darkness into a kind of mystic twilight, in which the figure of the Master could be dimly seen. M. had been enchanted by the Master’s sweet music. With some hesitation he asked him whether there would be any more singing that evening. “No, not tonight”, said Sri Ramakrishna after a little reflection. Then, as if remembering something, he added: “But I’m going soon to Balaram Bose’s house in Calcutta. Come there and you’ll hear me sing.” M. agreed to go.

Master: Do you know Balaram Bose?

M: No, sir. I don’t.

Master : He lives in Bosepara.

M: Well, sir, I shall find him.

As Sri Ramakrishna walked up and down the hall with M., he said to him: “Let me ask you something. What do you think of me?” M. remained silent. Again Sri Ramakrishna asked: “What do you think of me? How many annas of knowledge of God have I?”  M: “I don’t understand what you mean by ‘annas’. But of this I am sure: I have never before seen such knowledge, ecstatic love, faith in God, renunciation, and catholicity anywhere.”  The Master laughed. M. bowed low before him and took his leave. He had gone as far as the main gate of the temple garden when he suddenly remembered something and came back to Sri Ramakrishna, who was still in the natmandir. In the dim light the Master, all alone, was pacing the hall, rejoicing in the Self — as the lion lives and roams alone in the forest.  In silent wonder M. surveyed that great soul.

Master (to M.): What makes you come back?

M: Perhaps the house you asked me to go to belongs to a rich man. They may not let me in. I think I had better not go. I would rather meet you here.

Master : Oh, no! Why should you think that? Just mention my name. Say that you want to see me; then someone will take you to me.[71]

Although this is a simple statement made by Sri Ramakrishna to M, in the context of a very particular situation, we can indeed read a whole lot of meaning into it. In fact, Swami Chetanananda makes the following observation in this regard:

‘Just mention my name – then someone will take you to me,’ is a significant, hopeful statement. He is telling not only M, but all lost and confused people of the world how to reach him. Doors will open in all directions for anyone who repeats his name – whether it is a wealthy man’s mansion, or a poor man’s cottage, or the labyrinth of the world. As a prince has free access to any room in the palace and the gatekeepers open the door for him with a salute, so Mahamaya opens the door of liberation for the disciples and devotees of an Avatar. The Avatar is the ruler of Maya.[72]

2nd incident:

On 1st January 1886 Sri Ramakrishna became the Kalpataru and blessed his devotees saying “Be illumined”. Navagopal Ghosh was not there at that time. When he came to Cossipore later on that day, Ram Chandra Dutta told him, “Hello, Sir, what are you doing? The Master has become a Kalpataru today. Please go to him right now. If you have anything to ask for, this is the right time.” Navagopal rushed to the Master and, bowing down to him, asked, “Master, what will happen to me?”

After a little pause, the Master asked, “Will you be able to practice a little Japa and Meditation?”

Navagopal replied, “I am a family man with several children. Moreover, I am very busy with my various household duties and taking care of my family members. Where is the time to practice spiritual disciplines?”

The Master kept quiet for a while and then said, “Can’t you even repeat the Lord’s name a few times regularly?”

“I don’t have time, Master.”

“All right! Will you be able to repeat my name a few times?”

“Yes, that I can do.”

Then the Master said, “That will do. You will not have to do anything else.”[73]

3rd incident:

In the life of Mathurnath Biswas, we find yet another totally unexpected aspect regarding prayer and Sri Ramakrishna. I quote from Swami Chetanananda’s book ‘They lived with God’:

Whenever Mathur was in trouble, he would go straight to Sri Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar for help. Once he ordered his guards to take part in a brutal gang fight with the guards of a rival landlord. When the news reached him that a man had been killed, Mathur came to his senses and realized that he would be prosecuted. He pleaded with the Master to save him. Sri Ramakrishna rebuked him, saying, “Rascal, you will create a row every day and come and cry, ‘Save me!’ What can I do? Go and suffer the consequences.” But at last, seeing Mathur’s deep anguish, the Master said, “Well, it will be as Mother wills.” Mathur escaped arrest.[74]

This is an amazing incident, indeed! Sri Ramakrishna is almost telling us, as it were, ‘Why don’t you inform me? Why don’t you just drop in a word? I can set things right for you!’

In this connection, we find the following observation of Swami Saradananda in Sri Ramakrishna and his Divine Play: (Mathur) also noticed that when faced with the Master’s keen insight, insincerity could not remain hidden behind its façade. If a person, after committing any sinful act – even murder – frankly and sincerely took refuge in the Master, he lovingly accepted that person and forgave all misdeeds. He endowed that person with the power to recognize and realize the higher ideal. The impossible became possible by virtue of the mysterious power that worked though the Master.[75]

We see a vivid example of this observation by Swami Saradananda in the following extract from the Gospel:

Gradually he came down to the consciousness of the outer world. Still in a spiritual mood, he began to talk, sometimes addressing the devotees, sometimes the Divine Mother.

Master: Mother, please attract him to Thee. I can’t worry about him anymore.

(To M) My mind is inclined a little to your brother-in-law.

(To Girish) You utter many abusive and vulgar words; but that doesn’t matter. It is better for these things to come out. There are some people who fall ill on account of blood-poisoning; the more the poisoned blood finds an outlet, the better it is for them. At the time when the upadhi of a man is being destroyed, it makes a loud noise, as it were. Wood crackles when it burns; there is no more noise when the burning is over.  You will be purer day by day. You will improve very much day by day. People will marvel at you. I may not come many more times; but that doesn’t matter. You will succeed by yourself.

The Master’s spiritual mood became very intense. Again he talked to the Divine Mother.

Master: Mother, what credit is there in making a man good who is already good? O Mother, what wilt Thou accomplish by killing one who is already dead? Only if Thou canst kill a person who is still standing erect wilt Thou show Thy glory.[76]

Just look at these words of Sri Ramakrishna! This is the power that he has unleashed amongst us by his unique life. He has unleashed the infinite power of God to work wonders in our lives! Let us have faith in this fact. Swami Vivekananda asks us pointedly to have faith in this unique achievement of Sri Ramakrishna. In an undated letter to his brother disciples written from USA in 1894, he writes: It won’t do merely to call Shri Ramakrishna an Incarnation, you must manifest power. This is also what Swami Shivanandaji meant when he said that Sri Ramakrishna had awakened the Brahma-Kundalini by his Sadhana.

Although Sri Ramakrishna has indeed unleashed this unprecedented power, there is one little thing we ought to do. And that is pray. I end this discussion by quoting a poignant extract from the Gospel, which reveals the innermost feelings of Sri Ramakrishna in this regard:

Master: That is why I say that work is necessary. It will not do to say that God exists and then idle away your time. You must reach God somehow or other. Call on Him in solitude and pray to Him, ‘O Lord! reveal Thyself to me.’ Weep for Him with a longing heart. You roam about in search of ‘woman and gold’ like a madman; now be a little mad for God. Let people say, ‘This man has lost his head for God.’ Why not renounce everything for a few days and call on God in solitude? What will you achieve by simply saying that God exists and doing nothing about it? There are big fish in the Haldarpukur; but can you catch them by merely sitting idly on the bank? Prepare some spiced bait and throw it into the lake. Then the fish will come from the deep water and you will see ripples. That will make you happy. Perhaps a fish will jump with a splash and you will get a glimpse of it. Then you will be so glad!  Milk must be turned to curd and the curd must be churned. Only then will you get butter. (To Mahima) What a nuisance! Someone must show God to a man, while he himself sits idly by all the while! Someone must extract the butter and hold it in front of his mouth! (All laugh.) What a bother! Someone else must catch the fish and give it to him! A man wanted to see the king. The king lived in the inner court of the palace, beyond seven gates. No sooner did the man pass the first gate than he exclaimed, ‘Oh, where is the king?’ But there were seven gates, and he must pass them one after another before he could see the king.[77]

 

***************

[1] Cf: The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Tr. Swami Nikhilananda: 2002: Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras: Pg.: 96

[2] Ibid: Pg.: 179

[3] Ibid: Pg.: 190

[4] Ibid: Pg.: 215

[5] Ibid: Pg.: 326

[6] Ibid: Pg.: 452-53

[7] Ibid: Pg.: 385

[8] Ibid: Pg.: 534

[9] Ibid: Pg.: 291-292

[10] Ibid: Pg.: 401

[11] Ibid: Pg.: 629

[12] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[13] Ibid: Pg.: 111

[14] Ibid: Pg.: 702

[15] Ibid: Pg.: 456-57

[16] Cf: Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play; Swami Saradananda; 2003; Vedanta Society of St. Louis: Pg.:361

[17] Ibid: Pg.: 362

[18] Cf: The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Tr. Swami Nikhilananda: 2002: Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras: Pg.: 256

[19] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[20] Ibid: Pg.: 171

[21] Ibid: Pg.: 471

[22] Ibid: Pg.: 821

[23] Ibid: Pg.: 381

[24] Ibid: Pg.: 599

[25] Sri Ramakrishna tells M: You have no need of many opinions and discussions. You have come to the orchard to eat mangoes. Enjoy them to your heart’s content. You don’t need to count the branches and leaves on the trees. Ibid: Pg.: 506

[26] There are innumerable instances in the Gospel where Sri Ramakrishna mentions how he used to pray. These prayers are unique in their content. A separate article dealing with them will be published shortly on http://www.scribd.com & https://wordpress.com/posts/vedatitananda.wordpress.com

[27] Ibid: Pg.: 96

[28] Ibid: Pg.: 244

[29] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[30] Ibid: Pg.: 671

[31] Ibid: Pg.: 306

[32] Ibid: Pg.: 256

[33] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[34] Ibid: Pg.: 596

[35] Ibid: Pg.: 703

[36] Siddhi: It is the colloquial name for Marijuana or Hemp, an intoxicant used liberally by Tantric spiritual aspirants.

[37] Ibid: Pg.:844

[38] Ibid: Pg.:171

[39] Ibid: Pg.:385

[40] Ibid: Pg.:452

[41] Ibid: Pg.:454

[42] Ibid: Pg.:379

[43] Ibid: Pg.:612

[44] Ibid: Pg.:636

[45] Ibid: Pg.:867

[46] Ibid: Pg.:98

[47] Ibid: Pg.:106: This was Sri Ramakrishna’s advice to Vidyasagar.

[48] Ibid: Pg.:740

[49] Ibid: Pg.:481

[50] Ibid: Pg.:820

[51] Ibid: Pg.:377

[52] Cf for instance Sri Ramakrishna’s advice: At dusk put aside all duties and pray to God. One is reminded of Him by darkness. At the approach of darkness one thinks: ‘I could see everything a moment ago. Who has brought about this change?’ The Mussalmans put aside all activities and say their prayers at the appointed times. Ibid: Pg.:588

[53] Ibid: Pg.:215

[54] Ibid: Pg.:328-29

[55] Ibid: Pg.:162

[56] Ibid: Pg.:627-28

[57] Ibid: Pg.:912

[58] Ibid: Pg.:323

[59] Ibid: Pg.:923

[60] Ibid: Pg.:846

[61] Ibid: Pg.:518

[62] Ibid: Pg.:646

[63] In this connection, please see the article A Devotee’s Contract on http://www.scribd.com, which is a translation of a Saturday evening Kannada lecture (sometime in the 1980s) at Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore by Rev Swami Purushottamanandaji Maharaj, titled ‘Yenagu Aane, ninagu aane’ on a wonderful song by Purandara Dasa.

[64] Ibid: Pg.:521

[65] Ibid: Pg.:670

[66] Ibid: Pg.:603

[67] Ibid: Pg.:506

[68] Ibid: Pg.:379

[69] Ibid: Pg.: 866

[70] Ibid: Pp: 612; 186; 542; 670; 190; 453; 454; 902; 299; 682; 138; 308; 324; 329; 371; 614; 547; 87; & 748

[71] Ibid: Pg.: 92

[72] How to live with God; Swami Chetanananda; 2008; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata: Pg.: 110

[73] They lived with God; Swami Chetanananda; 2006; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata: Pg.: 245-46

[74] Ibid: Pg.: 44; Also Cf: Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play; Swami Saradananda; 2003; Vedanta Society of St. Louis: Pg.: 518

[75] Cf: Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play; Swami Saradananda; 2003; Vedanta Society of St. Louis: Pg.: 508

[76] Cf: The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Tr. Swami Nikhilananda: 2002: Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras: Pg.: 741

[77] Ibid: Pg.: 646

Advertisements

IS GOD LISTENING?

IS GOD LISTENING?

By Kenneth L. Woodward[1] On 3/30/97 At 7:00 Pm

Mimi Rumpp stopped praying for a winning lottery ticket years ago. With a husband, two kids and a full – time job, she didn’t have time for trivial pursuits. But after a doctor told her sister Miki last year that she needed a kidney transplant, the family began praying for a donor. This, Mimi thought, was a prize worth praying for. Less than a year later, Miki has a new kidney, courtesy of a bank teller in Napa, Calif., to whom she had told her story. The teller was the donor; she was so moved by Miki’s plight she had herself tested and discovered she was a perfect match.

Coincidence? Luck? Divine intervention? Rumpp is sure: “It was a miracle.”

It was almost 20 years ago, but the woman, now a Los Angeles journalist, still trembles when she describes the scene. Late on a black, noiseless night in upstate New York, she decided to take a shortcut home, up a steep, unlit path. Then she heard steps behind her, faster than her own. An instant later the man was upon her, tightening her new striped scarf around her neck, then ripping at her pants. At home, her mother woke from a deep sleep, seized with fear that something terrible was about to happen to her eldest daughter. The mother immediately knelt down beside her bed and prayed. For 15 minutes she begged God to protect her daughter from the nameless but real threat she felt her daughter faced. Convinced she had won God’s attention – and protection – the mother returned to bed and a sound sleep. Back on the stony path, the would – be rapist suddenly ceased his assault. He cocked his head, almost beastlike, the woman recalls, and fled down the hill.

Coincidence? Luck? Or divine intervention? Were prayers answered or were prayers irrelevant? The devoted mother and her daughter, a professional skeptic, are certain in their belief. That was the Devil on the hill, and it was God who led him away.

Such are the mysteries of prayer. For those blessed with faith, of course, there is no doubt: these are answered prayers, pure and simple. And Americans are a praying people. In a new Newsweek Poll, a majority of American adults – 54 percent – report praying on a daily basis, and 29 percent say they pray more than once a day. For them, it is not an unrequited relationship: 87 percent say they believe that God answers their prayers at least some of the time.

And when he doesn’t, what then? Gary Habermas is chairman of the philosophy department at Liberty University, the institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist televangelist. By belief and by habit, Habermas is a praying man. In the 1980s, he kept a prayer list, with hundreds of names, often of people he didn’t know. He prayed for their jobs, their health, their children, and, after watching a remarkable set of healings, concluded that personal prayer works. So, when his 87 – years old grandmother fell deathly ill, he sat at her bedside in ‘serious prayer’. To his delight, she recovered. And then, in May 1995, his wife of 23 years was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Once again he prayed, more anxiously than ever, to his trustworthy God. He didn’t mean to be selfish, he prayed. “If it’s not your will that she be spared, then your will be done.” But he didn’t want to be judged indifferent, either. “But you understand, I really want her back.”

By one measure, he failed. Debbie died. But before she did, she told her husband that “God spoke to me. Three words: I love you.” Habermas was torn between grief and gratitude for a power he could no more master than understand. “She had doubted God’s love all her life, yet now she was as sure of his love as she was of mine,” he says today. “I trust him to have a good answer to my prayers. That’s not the same as knowing what that answer is.” Habermas is in the mainstream. According to the Newsweek Poll, 85 percent of Americans say they accept God’s failure to grant their prayers. Only 13 percent say they have lost faith – at any time – because their prayers went unanswered.

It is remarkable that in millennial America, where public cynicism seemingly knows no bounds and the coin of the mass – culture realm is cheap, ironic detachment, trust in God persists. The prayers keep coming – for health, safety, love and, to a remarkable degree, for others. At her Roman Catholic parish in Newton, Mass., Dorothy Reece runs a prayer line in which 50 congregants pray for a long list of needy people. Her current prayer registry reveals a Job – like list of human miseries: a heart attack, a spleen removed, stomach cancer, drug addiction, infertility, a husband’s desertion, a job interview. “We really do believe that God can take care of more than one person at a time,” says Reece.

Pentecostals are firm believers that God works miracles all the time. At Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., students run a round – the – clock prayer ministry, taking requests by phone, fax and e – mail. For those who prefer the Web, there’s the Praise & Prayer Center site. If you’re Jewish and can’t make it to Jerusalem, an Israeli company offers e – mail service with direct delivery of prayer requests to the Wailing Wall. At Foundary Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., where the Clintons usually worship, there are Thursday evening healing services for the sick in body, mind or soul. Although the president has never attended one of those sessions, congregants prayed last week for a quick healing of his damaged knee.

This ubiquity of prayer came as a surprise to Foundary Memorial’s pastor, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman. He had spent most of his career teaching seminary students before he took Foundary’s pulpit five years ago. And, as he said last week, “I had no idea people were doing these things.” This is a subject that frankly embarrasses some religious intellectuals. “If you look at formal liturgies,” says Robert Bruce Mullin, author of ‘Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination’, and a religion professor at North Carolina State University, “they come right to the point of talking about the power of intercessory prayer. But they don’t want to cross the line saying, ‘Yes, God can intervene in the world’.”

Many of the nation’s leading theological schools have become obsessed with liberation theology, feminist theology, all forms of serious icon – shattering postmodern theology. But the people in the pews never forgot that they had come to pray. When Roberta Bondi, now a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was herself a Methodist seminarian, asking God for personal favors was considered “an exercise in narcissism and dishonesty: prayer was a way of bucking us all up to be socially responsible.” Today, for her, it is something much more personal and direct. “If I want a real relationship with God, I have to tell him what’s going on,” she says. “As with any relationship, you don’t know in advance how it’s going to turn out. You just do it, you make yourself accessible so you’re prepared to receive grace when it comes.”

Jesus, of course, repeatedly urged his followers to petition the Father for their needs. Many of his own miraculous cures occurred only after others begged him to heal their afflictions. “Ask and you shall receive,” he said, “seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” By that measure, millions of Americans are finders as well as seekers.

How do the faithful know that God really answers prayers? More than any other issue in religion, the response depends on point of view. If you believe, no proof is necessary; if you don’t, no proof is sufficient. For nonbelievers, prayer of any kind is folly, and relying on God for favors is the worst form that folly can take. In his final book, “The Demon – Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” the late Carl Sagan included prayer along with astrology, spoon – bending, witches, ESP, spiritualism and repressed memories as examples of the persistence of irrationality (next story). The fact that most Americans both pray and believe that Earth has been visited by odd – shaped extraterrestrials, he pointed out, does not offer much confidence that faith in God – the Supreme Extraterrestrial – is rationally warranted.

The challenge Sagan raises is one that bothers many theologians and other religious intellectuals. The issues involved are particularly acute for Christian faith and practice. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught his disciples specifically to ask the Father for their ‘daily bread’ and for deliverance from ‘evil’. That covers a lot of ground, and pious Christians have been filling in the details ever since. But while ordinary believers continue asking God for favors, an international group of Christian scientists, philosophers and theologians has been grappling with the implications of this old and seemingly innocuous habit. Although their arguments are often abstruse, participants believe they are necessary for the coherence and integrity of religious faith. Given what science tells us about the laws of nature, what does it mean to say that God intervenes to answer individual prayers? What do answered prayers say about God? Since many prayers go unanswered, does this mean that God plays favorites? And what kind of prayer is it that tries to manipulate God for personal benefit? Doesn’t all petitionary prayer treat God as a kind of divine vending machine? In short, what does the simple act of begging for this or that presuppose about our understanding of God, the world of nature and ourselves?

For some theologians, the basic issue is simple. Modern science presents an increasingly compelling model of how the world works to which religion, if it is to remain intellectually honest, must adjust its ideas about God. For these theologians, prayers of petition are understandable but intellectually outdated. “It’s not very helpful to think of God as an old man in the sky waiting for communication and answering it,” says Gordon Kaufman, emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School. “We have to think of God much more in accordance with the general picture of the world.” According to that picture, Kaufman argues, the universe is an ecological system where scientific laws govern the course of events, making the idea of a transcendent personal God untenable. “I prefer to think of God as creativity, rather than as creator,” he says. In this reconfigured world, therefore, praying to a personal God, as he once did, makes no sense. Instead, says Kaufman, the only kind of prayer that works is “meditation – trying to understand faults, mistakes, where I’ve gone wrong.”

But there are a number of academics who think that Kaufman’s view claims too much for science, too little for God. Several of them are both scientists and Anglican priests, members of a group called The Society of Ordained Scientists, who believe faith and science share a common ground of intellectual inquiry. “Twentieth – century science has seen the death of a nicely mechanical view of the world,” says the Rev. John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist and currently a visiting professor at New York’s General Theological Seminary. Nor is the world, he believes, a place where laws of nature determine and explain everything that happens. Modern physics alone reveals a world shot through with uncertainty and indeterminacy. “The causes that bring about the future are not just the causes that physics processes in bits and pieces,” says Polkinghorne. “They also include what I call active information from human beings and from God.” In his model of the world, there is room for nature to be itself, human beings to make choices and God to influence history through Divine Providence. “The world isn’t God’s puppet theater,” he observes.

If there is ample room for God in the perspective of these theologian – scientists, there still isn’t much space for miracles. To scientists who look for universal laws and work with repeatable experiments, a single inexplicable event can only be described as nature’s ‘misbehavior’, says physicist Paul Davies of the University of Adelaide in Australia, who has written numerous popular books on the philosophical dimensions of modern science. A miracle by definition is a direct act of God – and that, often enough, is what ordinary people say has been the answer to their prayers. According to the Bible, miracles are signs and wonders that point to the reality and power of God.

But all miracles are in the eyes of the beholder, and can be recognized only if those eyes are open to faith. “Healings are certainly healings, but if you take them as just the restoration of somatic health, then you’ve missed the point,” says Episcopal theologian Charles Hefling of Boston College. If one is sick, prays for healing, gets better and then forgets about what’s happened, that’s not a miracle, says Hefling. “Even if the doctors can’t explain why it happened, it’s not a sign and wonder in the Biblical sense because it hasn’t opened one’s eyes to that Something Else.”

There is, in sum, no way to prove empirically that even the most inexplicable event is an act of God. His ways are indeed mysterious. But many doctors are convinced that prayers can significantly improve a patient’s health. And several of them are designing tests to try to prove the power of prayer.

The most intriguing experiment involves 60 patients at the Arthritis Treatment Center in Clearwater, Fla. Because rheumatoid arthritis has clear manifestations – including swollen joints and crippling pain – relief of these symptoms can be easily measured. The study is under the general direction of Dr. Dale Matthews, an associate professor of medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Matthews is also a Presbyterian who has been praying for and with patients for years and now wants to find out if science can confirm that prayer really has healing effects.

He has divided the participants into two general groups. All patients will receive four days of healing prayer through the traditional Christian practice of laying on of hands by members of the Christian Healing Ministry. In addition, half the patients will receive six months of long – distance intercessory prayer. Both groups will be examined by the same clinician before the experiment, immediately afterward and again at one, three, six and twelve months. Throughout, Matthews is using strict scientific protocols and standards set by the American College of Rheumatology. By the end of this year, after an outside physician has scrutinized the data, Matthews and his team hope to show what difference, if any, prayer has made.

Already, a videotape of the early phase of the study shows that some individual patients have experienced extraordinary short – term results from prayer. “There’s something weird going on here, and I love it,” says one patient. At the beginning of the experiment he had 49 tender joints. After four sessions with a hands – on praying minister, he had only eight. Six months later, he says he has no pain at all and no need of medication.

Matthews doesn’t expect that all the patients will turn out so well. He’s mainly interested in discovering whether prayer has long – term benefits. But what is being tested here, the power of prayer or God’s willingness to take part in scientific experiments? “That’s a fair question,” Matthews acknowledges. “God can bless or not bless this study.”

Indeed, one of the great problems in asking God for any favor is that he often does not grant it. And when he favors some and not others, it appears that he does indeed play favorites. Is God unjust or is it that he only appears that way?

The question is as old as the book of job, and believers have been wrestling ever since with the answer God gives there: “Who has a claim against me that I must pay?” Deists take the view that God set the universe in motion and then withdrew from intervention in its unfolding: that is why bad things often happen to good people. But that makes God a remote and unapproachable being. Protestant theologian Ronald Goetz of Elmhurst College in Illinois doesn’t see how a God worthy of the title has any choice but to interact with the people he has created. “I don’t think a deistic god, who doesn’t involve himself, is any less innocent than the God of Scriptures who says he is committed,” Goetz argues. “If a creator is uninvolved, then I shall be uninvolved with him.”

A vision of God who can act but won’t – who sits back paring his nails, in James Joyce’s famous phrase – can be unsettling. The Jewish community in the West continues to ask how an event so horrific as the Holocaust could have happened, and this can generate skepticism about the power of prayer. Petitionary prayer is not foreign to Judaism; healing centers have opened recently in New York and San Francisco. But most rabbis prefer to pray for wisdom, not relief. The master of this view is Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’ was just the first in a series of best sellers. “I don’t like the notion that when we pray and don’t get answers, God has considered our request and said, ‘No’,” Kushner says. “I’d get very angry if I felt God had the power and chose not to. I don’t know anything about the nature of God. But I know prayer makes life better and richer for me.”

Prayer can certainly be manipulative and trivial. Must God choose between a boxer who thanks Allah for victory and his opponent who prays to Jesus? When Notre Dame played Texas Christian University in basketball last week, was the Irish victory a sign of divine preference? In fact, coaches today use prayer as a form of team bonding, asking only that players perform up to their full potential. On professional teams like the New York Knicks, athletes who want to pray, sometimes do it together with members of the opposition. Serious athletes – if not passionate fans – know that God does not provide a competitive edge.

Still, prayers of petition can be the beginning of a lifelong relationship. “We go to God with dirty hands and ambiguous motives,” observes theologian Goetz. But with repetition, elementary prayer can develop into more refined, less self – centered habits. “If you’re learning to play the piano, do the exercise first,” advises theologian Hefling. “Chopin comes later.”

At Easter time, all Christians are reminded that Jesus himself did not always get his own prayers answered. At least not the way he wanted. As the liturgy of Good Friday recalls, Jesus pleaded with the Father, just before his arrest by Roman soldiers, that ‘the cup’ of suffering he was about to drink be taken from him. He literally sweated blood, the Gospels say, while thinking of the hideous death that lay before him. Yet his supplication was refused, and he went to the cross in obedience to the Father’s will. Mark’s Gospel records that his last words were dark indeed: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It was the Father’s will that, Christians believe, Jesus should be crucified for others. And the purpose, the Gospels also tell us, was that all might enjoy everlasting life. Such are the mysteries of prayer.

In this Newsweek Poll, 82% say they ask for health or success for a child or family member when they pray; 75% ask for strength to overcome personal weakness; 87% say that God answers prayers; 51% think God doesn’t answer prayers to win sporting events; 36% never pray for financial or career success; 29% say they pray to God more than once a day; 25% pray once a day; 82% say they believe that God does not play favorites in answering prayers; 79% say God answers prayers for healing someone with an incurable disease; 73% think prayers for help in finding a job are answered; 54% say that when God doesn’t answer their prayers, it means it wasn’t God’s will to answer; 82% don’t turn away from God when prayers go unanswered.

*******************

Citation Details : Is God listening?

Article Abstract:

Skeptics and believers argue over the observation that prayer is a powerful tool to ward away evil. A Newsweek survey reveals that a majority of Americans still believe in the power of prayer and can attest that most of the unexplainable events in their lives are due to divine intervention.

Author : Woodward, Kenneth L.

Publisher : Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.

Publication Name : Reader’s Digest

Subject : General interest

ISSN : 0034-0375

Year : 1997

Topic Tags : Analysis, Personal narratives, Psychology, Religious, Psychology and religion, Transcendence of God, Divine transcendence

***************

[1] Cf: http://www.newsweek.com/god-listening-170460; Also see the colophon to this article for citation.

The Desert Fathers

One of the finest expressions of Christian monasticism was in the deserts of Egypt in the 4th Century AD. Actually it encompassed the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia. Here, every form of monasticism, every kind of experiment, every kind of extreme asceticism was tried and documented. This document called Apothegmata Patrum or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is a valuable handbook for spiritual life, not just for Christian monks, but for all genuine seekers of spirituality. Some of the lives of the Desert Fathers too were recorded as the Vitae Patrum or Lives of the Desert Fathers, important of them being the Life of Father Anthony.

By 400 AD, Egypt was a land of hermits & monks. There were three main types of monastic experiments there, corresponding roughly to three geographical locations.

  1. Lower Egypt – the Hermit Life: Anthony the Great is generally considered the founder of this monastic lifestyle. He was a Coptic Christian[1] and a layman. He was unlettered and the son of a well-to-do peasant. One day in Church, he heard the saying of Jesus Christ, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and come and follow me”, as a commandant addressed to himself. He withdrew himself from society and went further & further into the deserts of Egypt seeking solitude. It is said he lived up to a ripe age of 105 years. He started a tradition of eremitic monks that created a rich repertoire of sayings of the Apothegmata Patrum.

 

  1. Upper Egypt – Coenobitic monasticism: At Tabennisi in the Thebaid, Pachomius started an organized monasticism. These were not hermits. They were communities of brothers united to each other in work & prayer. Although Pachomius’ experiment was vital for the development of Christian monasticism, there are not many sayings available from this tradition.

 

  1. Nitrea & Scetis – groups of ascetics: A third form of monastic life evolved at Nitria & Scetis. Several monks lived together in a ‘Lavra’ or ‘Skete’, often as disciples of an Abba. This is something similar to the Akhada form of monastic life of the Hindu monks. Nitria was on the western side of the Nile delta, nearer to Alexandria and therefore formed a natural gateway to Scetis. It was place of confluence between the world and the desert, where visitors could meet the Fathers and benefit from their interactions. John Cassian, the most important historian whose work actually brought the marvelous lives of these wonderful monks to the light of the world, too met with the Desert Tradition here at Nitria. Since Nitria was nearer to Alexandria, there was perceptible Greek influence on the monks of this tradition, which resulted in these monks developing the culture of knowledge along with their regular monastic practices of work & prayer. A large number of the entries of the Apothegmata Patrum come from this tradition.

 

Apart from these three broad classifications, there was a fourth kind too. It comprised of a most extreme form of ascetic life, led by monks who were assiduously reclusive, not meeting with anyone at all. The monks maintained relentless prayer and hard labor, apart from some forbidding forms of physical austerities such as the famous Simeon Stylites. Father Simeon lived on top of a 50 foot pillar for forty years, outside Antioch! These monks lived naked and went about in chains; they lived unsettled lives, eating whatever they found in the woods.

Yet another important figure of this period was St. Basil of Cappadocia, Asia Minor. He and his followers were theologians and writers, who followed a more learned and liturgical monasticism compared to the simple ascetic life of the other Egyptian Desert Fathers.

The Sayings:

The essence of the spirituality of the desert is that it was not taught, but caught. It was a whole way of life. It was not a doctrine or a pre-determined plan of ascetic practice that could be learned and applied. The Father or ‘Abba’ was not the equivalent of the Diksha Guru of the Hindus. This distinction becomes important because, we have to realize that there was no systematic way in the teachings of these desert fathers. They worked hard and lived an entire life striving to re-direct every aspect of their body, mind and consciousness to God, and that is what they talked about.

In this sense, the Apothegmata Patrum is very similar to the Upanishads of the Hindus. While the Upanishads extant today note the important discoveries of the Hindu sages in the realm of consciousness, the exact paths they followed to achieve those discoveries are no longer available in the texts. Some argue that the Vidyas in the Upanishads are actually those paths, but the language is so archaic that the context is now all but lost. The Apothegmata Patrum, on the other hand, does not speak in much detail about the discoveries of the monks, as it does in great detail about the struggles and techniques to overcome those struggles in the lives of those pioneer monks. Therein lies its importance to the spiritual aspirant of the present day.

Yet another point of similarity between the Apothegmata & the Upanishad is that both are basically journals of the spiritual endeavor of genuine seekers of Truth. Both have no author to whom the extant works may be ascribed. While the Apothegmata consists solely of the sayings of monks & nuns, the Upanishads contain references to many Kings & married persons too, apart from monastic recluses.

The tradition of early desert monasticism reached the West chiefly through the writings of John Cassian[2]. The writings of Jerome, Rufinus and Palladius too contributed in no small way. These men knew the desert, and they knew, at first-hand, the oral tradition of the Apothegmata. They systematized it, interpreted it, and presented it as they understood it. The Apothegmata however is invaluable because it is the unabridged collection of the sayings, without any theological corrections or dialectical editing.

The Apothegmata Patrum comprises short sayings originally delivered to individuals on specific occasions and written down later. Groups of monks would preserve the sayings of their founder or of some monks especially remembered by them, and this nucleus would be enlarged and rearranged as time passed. The original form of the sayings was presumably Coptic or Greek. The extant records are in Coptic, Greek, Armenian, Latin and also the Slavonic languages.

These sayings preserve the unstructured wisdom of the desert in simple language. These are records of practical advice given out of a long life of experience in monastic discipline. For this reason, they are not always consistent with one another and they always need to be read within the context in which they are given.

A note of warning is needed here. These are not abstract ideas to be applied indiscriminately, but are instances of what was said in particular situations.

Before we begin a study of the Apothegmata, we must study some important terms that are repeatedly used in the Sayings. These terms have specific meaning, without grasping which, we may not understand the real import of the Sayings.

The Father:

Indians can truly appreciate the role of the Father as presented in the Apothegmata. The Father was vital, in the literal sense, ‘the Giver of Life’ to the young recluse novitiate-monks. However, there was no known tradition of the Diksha in the Desert. The Father, thus, presents himself more as a facilitator, a spiritual mentor, rather than as a Guru. The Father however was an acclaimed knower of God, and not just a learned person, well versed in the scriptures.

The Father is generally called ‘Abba’ in the Apothegmata. But there are many instances where he is also called ‘The Old Man’. There are even instances where he is referred to merely as ‘The Monk’ or as ‘Brother’. But in any case, he had to be a man of genuine spiritual achievements, and not just a man old in years. Moreover, the Father did not consider himself as someone hierarchically above the other monks in the Desert. He considered himself at least par with everyone else, if not inferior to others.

The key phrase in the Apothegmata is ‘Speak a word, Abba.’ This recurs again and again, and the ‘word’ that was sought was not a theological explanation, nor was it ‘counseling’, nor a mantra, nor even any kind of dialogue in which one argued the point. It was a statement from the Abba that was representative of a relationship, something that would give life to the disciple if it were received. The relationship between the Abba and his novice was that of a real father and his begotten son. Only, in the Desert, this Father would beget his son in spirit. A monk had only one Abba. And again, with his Abba, he would not go on discussing his spiritual state with him. There is a great economy of words about the Desert.

There was also visible a great discernment on the part of the Fathers. Many came to them for hearing the ‘word’. But they were very selective in speaking to those who approached them. The Fathers were shrewd enough to know that some of those who came to them were moved by curiosity rather than devotion, and they discerned the genuine ‘hearers’ of the word, whom they called ‘visitors from Jerusalem’, from the superficial and curious, whom they called ‘visitors from Babylon’. The latter were given a bowl of soup and sent away. The former were welcome to stay all night in conversation.

This record in the Apothegmata will clarify the extremely high level of integrity of the Father-monk relationship. A monk once came to Basil of Caesarea and said, ‘Speak a word, Father’. Basil replied, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.’ The monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back and said, ‘Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me.’ Now the Father said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Again the monk returned in obedience to his cell to keep that also.

The Cell:

The cell was of central importance in their asceticism. They said, ‘Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.’ The point was that unless a man could find God here, in this one place, his cell, he would not find him by going somewhere else. But they had no illusions about what it meant to stay in the cell. It meant to stay there in mind as well as in body. To stay there in body, but to think about the outside world, was already to have left it! The cell was therefore the pivot around which the monk would come to terms with reality.

A cell was a hut or a cave. Generally a single monk occupied a cell, but there are instances when a cell was shared by two brothers too. These buildings were scattered about the desert out of ear-shot of each other. A group of such cells constituted a ‘Lavra’. Even in a monastery [or a coenobium, as it was then called], it was the cell that was the dwelling place of the monks and nuns.

Ascesis:

This is a technical term we often find in the Apothegmata. It means ‘the hard work of being a monk’. The Fathers had a deep understanding of the connection between man’s spiritual and natural life. This gave them a concern for the body which was part of their life of prayer. Much of their advice was concerned with what to eat, where to sleep, where to live, what to do with gifts, and what to do about the passions. The passions were personalized as the handiwork of demons, in their simplistic terms. This aspect of warfare with the passions was the major concern in the Desert. The desert itself was the place of final warfare with the passions. The monks were considered as ‘sentries who keep watch on the walls of the city’. The entries in the Apothegmata show that the monks were always meeting the demons face to face.

Once Abba Macarius asked the Devil as to why he looked so depressed. The Devil replied, ‘You have defeated me because of your humility.’ Macarius put his hands over his ears and fled.

But, most of the advice given was not about objective, personalized demons, nor was it about holy thoughts, or the patterns of the spiritual life, or the dark night of the soul. While the major portion of the sayings in the Apothegmata concern the ordinary Christian Charity [which is again a technical term, which will be explained below], an equally good amount of the sayings deal with the vices. The knowledge of how to deal with the passions was learnt slowly, by long, hard living, but it was the invaluable treasure for which men came to the Fathers in the Desert. This aspect of warfare with the demons was called ‘Ascesis’.


 

Work:

In the Apothegmata, it is used in two senses. It refers to the manual labor that all monks were engaged in. it more importantly also meant the spiritual exertion of the monks. The desert fathers saw both these aspects as one. There was actually no distinction between these two aspects in their mind. However, for a monk, the idea of ‘interior’ work predominates.

Charity:

This is a vital term in understanding the sayings of the Desert fathers. Charity is a term that includes innumerable ideas and therefore has innumerable colors. The goal of all the practices that the desert monks performed was realization of the spirit. The way to that realization was called ‘Charity’. In Hindu terms, this was something similar to ‘Sadhana’, although the Hindu term would encompass the concept of ascesis too. Charity implied wholeheartedness and personal integrity. Charity implied complete absorption in the job at hand. Charity implied complete self-abnegation and total involvement in the person before us at the moment. The present day equivalence between the word charity and helping a person in need actually derives from this aspect of self-abnegation and total involvement in the other person. We shall give four examples from the Apothegmata to elaborate this concept of Charity according to the Desert fathers:

The old men received guests as Christ would receive them. They might live austerely themselves, but when visitors came they hid their austerity and welcomed them. A brother said, ‘Forgive me, father, for I have made you break your rule.’ The old man said, ‘My rule is to receive you with hospitality and send you on your way in peace.’

One monk was moved to question the difference between the monk who received visitors and the one who did not. He was actually vexed with the totally differing behaviors of two fathers Arsenius and Moses. Arsenius had received him and sat down again to pray in silence, until the brother felt uncomfortable and left. Moses came out to greet him with open arms, and they talked all day with joy. That night the monk had a vision. He saw Arsenius in a boat with the Holy Spirit, sailing quietly along the river of life. He saw Moses in a similar boat with an Angel, and they were eating honey-cakes. So he knew that both ways were acceptable to God. [What we have to note here is that it was the inner sincerity that counted and not the superficial behavior of the monks.]

The monks said that Macarius was like God, ‘who shields the world and bears the sin of all’. So he shielded the brethren. When someone sinned he would not hear or see it.

Moses, the black man who had been a robber in his pre-monastic life, heard one day that a brother was to be brought before a council and judged. So he came also, carrying a basket full of sand. When his turn came, he said, ‘How shall I judge my brother when my sins run out behind me like the sand in this basket?’

Prayer:

When the term Prayer is used in the Apothegmata, we must not understand it to mean a particular prayer. It refers to a life geared towards God-realization[3]. Again, there was no fixed method of prayer either. Arsenius prayed on Saturday evening with his hands stretched out to the setting sun, and he stayed there until the sun shone on his face on Sunday.

Prayer, with the Desert Fathers, was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day. It was a life continually turned towards God. Abba Agathon said, “Prayer is hard work and a great struggle to one’s last breath.” When he was dying, Abba Pambo said, “From the time that I came into this solitude and built my cell and dwelt in it, I cannot remember eating any food that I had not earned with my own hands, nor speaking any word that I have been sorry for until now. And so I go to the Lord, as one who has not yet begun to serve God.” For Abba Arsenius, this was a rule for the whole of life, “Be solitary, be silent, and be at peace.”

The usual pattern however was to say the Psalms, one after another, during the week, and to intersperse this with weaving ropes, sometimes saying ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.’ This was aimed at establishing a true relationship with God. This was aimed at standing before God in every situation. Such a state was considered ‘spiritual life’ or ‘monastic life’ by the Fathers. An entry in the Apothegmata puts it very clearly: Unless a man can say, ‘I alone & God are here’, he will not find the prayer of quiet.’ It is the other side of St. Anthony’s word, ‘My life is with my brother.’

Hesychia:

Hesychia literally means ‘Quiet’. It is the calm in the entire person that is like a still pool of water. It is the exact equivalent of the Sanskrit term ‘Shanti’. It was because the ancient Hindus too valued this quiet so greatly that the lake Mansarovar in Tibet came to be revered in its tradition as the abode of Lord Shiva. This lake is situated at such a high altitude in the Himalayas that there is absolutely no wind to disturb the waters and the surface of the lake is perfectly placid. Such a still, quiet body of water is capable of reflecting the sun very clearly.

Hesychia was the aim of prayer according to the Desert Fathers. It was the central consideration in the prayer of the desert monks. On the external level, it signifies an individual living as a solitary. On a deeper level, it is not merely separation from noise and speaking with other people, but the possession of interior peace and quiet. More specifically, it means guarding the mind, constant remembrance of God, and the possession of inner prayer.

Apatheia:

It is the state of being unmoved by passion. Hindu spiritual aspirants will understand this as similar to the state called ‘Shama-sukha’. Apatheia is the immediate goal of the spiritual practices of the Desert Fathers.

Apatheia involves control over the passions rather than their destruction. Thus, it is a state of sublimation rather than emasculation. Complete annihilation of temptations occurs only when one has the beatific vision of God. Until that blessed moment, the Sadhana of the monk is however capable of attenuate the temptations to such an extent that for all practical purposes, they are absent. This state of attenuation is what is meant by Apatheia.

The Desert way of Life:

Before we proceed with our study of the Apothegmata Patrum, we would do well to get briefly acquainted with the way of life of the Desert Monks.

Seeking solitude in the desert, by completely cutting themselves off from society was the first step in the monastic life of the Desert Monks. Then, they placed themselves under old, experienced fathers. After that, the daily life was their prayer, and it was a radically simple life. A stone hut with a roof of branches, a reed mat for a bed, a sheep-skin [it was the cloak of a desert monk; it also doubled up as a blanket for sleeping & could be used to bundle up the belongings of the monk!], a lamp, a vessel for oil, and some potable water. This was all.

Food was reduced to a minimum. So was sleep. They said, ‘One hour’s night sleep is sufficient for a monk if he is a fighter.’ They had a horror of extra possessions. Look at this entry from the Apothegmata: A disciple saw a few peas lying on the road and said to his Father, “Shall I pick them up?” The old man said in amazement, “Why? Did you put them there?” He replied, “No.” “Then why would you pick them up?”

They tried many experiments, especially with fasting. But their final conclusion was, ‘For a man of prayer, one meal a day is sufficient.’ When a young man boasted of fasting longer, they asked him searching questions about the rest of his life.

The ideal was indeed very high, but it was interpreted in the most practical and common-sensical way. There is the story of John the Dwarf who announced to his brother that he was going off into the desert to live as an Angel would. After several days, he was tormented by acute hunger. So he returned and knocked on his brother’s door. His brother asked who was there. He replied, “It is me, John and I am suffering from hunger.” The brother replied, “John is now an Angel and has no need for food and shelter.” But at last he took in the humbled John and set him to work again.

It was a life of continual striving, but not of taut effort the whole time! It was said of Anthony that one day he was relaxing with the brothers outside his cell when a hunter came by and rebuked him. Anthony said, “Bend your bow and shoot an arrow.” He did. Anthony asked him to do so again, and again, and yet again. The hunter said, “Father, if I keep my bow always stretched, it will break.” “So it is with the monk”, replied Anthony, “if we push ourselves beyond measure, we will break; it is right for us from time to time to relax our efforts.”

We will now begin a study of the sayings of the Desert Fathers. This study will be useful to all genuine spiritual aspirants, more so for those who follow the monastic path to spiritual unfoldment.

How can the monastic life be made vibrant? This was the one thought that dominated the minds of the Desert Fathers. The sincerity with which they lived their monastic vocation is astounding. Most of their sayings pertain to the subtle nuances of monastic life. They conceived of a life rooted in prayer and humility. “A monk ought not to trust in his own righteousness, nor worry about the past, but should control his tongue and his stomach” says Abba Pambo. Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, “This is the great work of a monk – always to take blame for his own sins before God, and to expect temptations to his last breath.” It was said of Abba Theodore of Pherme that the three things he held to be fundamental were: Poverty, asceticism, flight from men.

  • The scheme of monastic life:

They dealt with spiritual life in a very systematic way. Just as a blacksmith decides clearly what shape he wants to hammer out of a lump of iron before it is heated, even so a monk should decide what virtue he wants to forge before he embarks on his spiritual practise. If he doesn’t do this, he labours in vain. If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it. Although this seems a bit of an exaggeration, it does give us the idea of how seriously they took the monastic vocation. Nothing was to be left to instinct. Every moment was a conscious moment in a monk’s life. They depended heavily on the experiments done by their predecessors in the Desert so that they wouldn’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. Thus, great importance was attached to the Scripture. We must remember that for these great monks, Scripture didn’t mean just the Bible, much less the New Testament alone. The Scripture was a generic term used to denote any and all recording of the spiritual effort of the people. Therefore Abba Epiphanius said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.” But, great premium was placed in those monks whose efforts had led to definite spiritual success and palpable spiritual attainments. Abba Poemen said, “The distinctive mark of the monk is made clear through temptations.”

It was an invaluable tradition of Guru-Shishya that was nurtured over the ages in the Desert that led to the unprecedented flourishing of the monastic achievements in the arid Deserts of Egypt. Abba Isaiah said to those who were making a good beginning by putting themselves under the direction of the holy Fathers, ‘As with purple dye, the first coloring is never lost.’ And ‘just as young shoots are easily trained back and bent, so it is with beginners who live in submission.

  • Glorification of Self-Effort:

Abba Isidore the Priest said, “If you desire salvation, do everything that leads you to it.”A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.” A brother questioned Abba Arsenius to hear a word from him and the old man said to him, “Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God and you will overcome exterior passions.” This idea of interior activity and overcoming exterior passions is a constant motif with the Fathers. One father said, “If the spirit does not sing with the body, labor is in vain. Whoever loves tribulation will obtain joy and peace later on.” One of the fathers asked Abba John the Dwarf, “What is a monk?” He said, “He is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what a monk is.” Abba James said, “We do not need words only. At present there are many words among men, but we need works, for this is what is required. Not words, which do not bear fruit.” Abba Poemen said, “A monk who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drink to everyone but is not able to purify itself.” Although the unmistakable emphasis was on manly effort, they had no confusion regarding the aims in view. All work was but a means to spiritual unfoldment. Abba John the Cilician said, “Let us imitate our fathers. They lived in this place with much austerity and peace. Let us not make this place dirty, for our fathers cleansed it from the demons. This is a place for asceticism, not for worldly business.” Abba Moses was very forceful when he said, “The monk must die to everything before leaving the body. A monk whose deeds are not in harmony with his prayer labors in vain. We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.” Abba Theodore said, “In these days, many monks take their rest before God gives it to them.”

  • Vision of God – The central goal:

They were so focused in the crux of monastic life that they were able to achieve scientific precision in their monastic practices. Abba John said to his disciple, “Let us honor one only, and everyone will honor us. For if we despise one, that is God, everyone will despise us, and we will be lost.”Again, look at the words Abba Arsenius said towards the end of his life: “If we seek God, he will show himself to us. And if we keep him, he will remain close to us.” God is thus no more a belief with them. God was a perception, clear as any of the other sense-perceptions that we are accustomed with.

Abba Amoun of Nitria came to see Abba Anthony and said to him, “Since my rule is stricter than yours, how is it that your name is better known amongst monks than mine is?” Abba Anthony answered, “It is because I love God more than you.” Although this reply by Abba Anthony seems to be haughty, we must understand that he was making this statement as a matter of fact. He was just being logical about it. Monks in the Desert were accustomed to discern who among them had perceived God. Rules of external life did not fool any of them. And the wave of actual realization of God was an unprecedented phenomenon. Many monks there were who had genuine spiritual vision. One day Abba Daniel and Abba Ammoes went on a journey together. Abba Ammoes said, “When shall we too, settle down in a cell, Father?” Abba Daniel replied, “Who shall separate us henceforth from God? God is in the cell, and, on the other hand, he is outside too.”

  • The Inner Life:

The hall mark of a monk was the quality and intensity of his inner life. For instance look at this entry: The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults. Seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, “You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers!” Abba Agathon said, “Under no circumstance should the monk let his conscience accuse him of anything.” Personal integrity is the crowning glory of a monk. He remains true to the ideals he has vowed to realize in his life. He doesn’t need any external supervision to judge and monitor his life. His own inner voice is strong enough to supervise and guide him along his monastic path.

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba, how is it that you with such good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” Abba Arsenius replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek. But I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.” The desert monks never confused academic learning and scholarship with real knowledge of oneself that arises from years of intense inner struggles.

Abba Isaac said that Abba Pambo used to say, “The monk’s garment should be such that he could throw it out of his cell for three days and no one would take it.” Since the real personality of a monk is his inner personality, the true monk will naturally pay all attention to his inner life and look upon his external personality merely from a utilitarian point of view. The body needs to be protected against the ravages of the climate, hence a wrapper is needed. And there ends the subject of the cloth to be worn. No further attention needs be given on the cloth. This is the drift of the thoughts of these wonderful Desert monks.

Food, sleep and work are important issues in a monk’s life. The Desert monks made extensive observations on these vital subjects. Abba Arsenius used to say that one hour’s sleep is enough for a monk if he is a good fighter. Someone asked Abba Biare, “What shall I do to be saved?” He replied, “Go, reduce your appetite and your manual work, dwell without care in your cell, and you will be saved.” Abba Gregory said, “The whole life of a monk is but one single day, if he is working hard with longing.” Abba Daniel said, “The body prospers in the measure in which the soul is weakened and the soul prospers in the measure in which the body is weakened.” Abba Doulas said, “If the enemy induces us to give up our inner peace, we must not listen to him, for nothing is equal to this peace and the privation of food. The one and the other join together to fight the enemy. For they make interior vision keen.”

Maintaining silence was highly appreciated in the lives of the Desert monks. It was said of Abba Arsenius and Abba Theodore of Pherme that more than any of the others, they hated the esteem of other men. Abba Arsenius would not readily meet people, while Abba Theodore was like steel when he met anyone. It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he lived with a stone in his mouth, until he had learnt to keep silence. Whenever his thoughts urged him to pass judgment on something which he saw, he would say to himself, “Agathon, it is not your business to do that.” Thus his spirit was always recollected. Abba Andrew said, “These three things are appropriate for a monk: Exile, poverty and endurance in silence.” A brother who shared lodging with other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, “What should I do?” the old man replied, “Keep silence and do not compare yourself with others.” He also said, “Detach yourself from the love of the multitude lest your enemy question your spirit and trouble your inner peace.” It was said of Abba Helladius that he spent twenty years in the Cells, without ever raising his eyes to see the roof of the church. He also said, “Restrain yourself from affection towards many people, for fear your spirit be distracted, so that your interior peace may not be disturbed.” Abba Theodore said, “The man who has learnt the sweetness of the cell flees from his neighbor, but not as though he despised him.” Abba Theophilus, the Archbishop of Alexandria came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.” Abba Pambo said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.” Abba John gave this advice: “Watching means to sit in the cell and be always mindful of God. That is what is meant by, ‘I was on the watch and God came to me.’ (Matt. 25, 36).” The same Abba John was very fervent. Now someone who came to see him, praised his work. But he remained silent, for he was weaving a rope. Once again the visitor began to speak and once again he kept silence. The third time he said to the visitor, “Since you came here, you have driven away God from me.” It was said of Abba John that when he returned from the harvest or when he had been with some old men, he gave himself to prayer, meditation and psalmody until his thoughts were established in their previous order. Abba John said, “If a monk has in his soul the tools of God, he will be able to stay in his cell, even if he has none of the tools of this world. If a monk has the tools of this world, but lacks those of God, he can still use those tools to stay in his cell. But if a monk has neither the tools of God nor of this world, it is absolutely impossible for him to stay in his cell.” Abba Isidore said, “When I was younger and remained in my cell, I set no limit to prayer. The night was for me as much the time for prayer as the day.” A brother questioned Abba Hierax, “Give me a word.” The old man said to him, “Sit in your cell. If you are hungry, eat. If you are thirsty, drink. Only, do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.” Abba Aio said to Abba Macarius, “Give me a word.” The old man said, “Flee from men, stay in your cell, weep for your sins, do not take pleasure in the conversation of men, and you will be saved.” A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” A brother said to Abba Matoes, “Give me a word.” He said, “Restrain the spirit of controversy in yourself in everything, and weep, have compunction, for the time is drawing near.” He also said, “Just as the king’s body-guard stands always on guard at his side, so the monk’s soul should always be on guard against the demon of fornication.

Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, “The monk ought to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim; all eye!” What does this mean? A monk must be eternally vigilant. He must be always awake to the workings of his own mind. He must observe himself at every step, every moment of his life. Abba Evagrius said, “Always keep your death in mind and do not forget the eternal judgment. Then there will be no fault in your soul.” Going to Egypt one day, Abba Poemen saw a woman who was sitting on a tomb and weeping bitterly. He said, “If all the delights of the world were to come, they could not drive sorrow away from the soul of this woman. Even so the monk would always have compunction in himself.”

It would be wrong to conclude however that these Desert monks were long-faced, killjoys. True monastic profession is always attended by intense joy. It is a joy that is un-caused, and hence spontaneous. And it finds expression in the daily life of a monk established in his monastic practices. As he was dying, Abba Benjamin said to his sons, “If you observe the following, you can be saved: Be joyful at all times, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for all things.

  • Humility – the crowning glory:

They placed the highest premium on humility. They held that humility was the crowning glory of a monk. Humility alone it was that was a monk’s greatest safeguard against any sort of fall. Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility’.” The same Abba said, “A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.” Anger is the soul’s violent reaction to the annihilation of its existence before it is ready to abdicate the throne it has usurped. Abba Ammonas said, “I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” Abba Euprepius said, “May fear, humility, lack of food and compunction be with you.” And how was one to conquer anger, and thereby his arrogant individuality? The Desert monks found that Jesus had shown the way. Abba Zeno said, “If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks.

Another expedient in taming the arrogant self was forbearance of insults from others. Abba Isaiah said, “Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults. The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day.” We have already quoted Abba Isaiah’s words above; he said to those who were making a good beginning by putting themselves under the direction of the holy Fathers, ‘As with purple dye, the first coloring is never lost.’ And ‘just as young shoots are easily trained back and bent, so it is with beginners who live in submission.’ The same Abba Isaiah, when someone asked him what avarice was, replied, “Not to believe that God cares for you, to despair of the promises of God and to love boasting.” He was also asked what anger is and he replied, “Quarrelling, lying and ignorance.” Abba Theodore said, “There is no other virtue than that of not being scornful.” A brother said to Abba Theodore, “Speak a word to me, for I am perishing.” Sorrowfully, he said to him, “I am myself in danger, so what can I say to you?” This may sound like a bit trite, serving no purpose. But we must understand that the wise Fathers addressed the mind that asked the question rather than just answer the question as it was worded. The question came out of a subtle sense of self-worth! That illusive sense of self-worth was detrimental to the monk. So, Abba Theodore answered that he, even he, the acclaimed Abba Theodore, was in danger! She also said, “Neither asceticism nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons. He asked them, “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ they replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?” Abba John also said, “We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one, that is to say, self-justification.” He also said, “Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.” Abba John was sitting in church one day and he gave a sigh, unaware that there was someone behind him. When he noticed it, he lay prostrate before him, saying, “Forgive me, Abba, for I have not yet made a beginning.” A monk has to be considerate to those around him. Abba John felt compunction that he did not maintain silence in the Church, as a result of which his brother’s contemplation might have been disturbed! That is the reason why he prostrated before him and asked his forgiveness. A brother asked Abba Isidore the Priest, “Why are the demons so frightened of you?” The old man said, “Because I have done my practices since the day I became a monk, and not allowed anger to reach my lips.” Note the subtlety of the expression here. Abba Isidore says, ‘I have not allowed anger to reach my lips.’ He doesn’t say he did not allow anger to rise in him at all. Why was that? External manifestation has to be avoided at all costs. Temptations do arise in the mind for a long, long time, until the full blast of divine light burns bright in the inner consciousness. It is only the beatific vision that can annihilate the demons once and for all. For a long time until that beatific vision occurs, the monk has to be extremely careful, eternally vigilant to avoid external manifestations of the inner struggles.

Abba John of the Thebaid said, “First of all the monk must gain humility, for it is the first commandment of the Lord who said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’” Abba Nilus said, “Happy is the monk who thinks he is the outcast of all. The monk who loves interior peace will remain invulnerable to the shafts of the enemy, but he who mixes with crowds constantly receives blows. The servant who neglects his master’s work should expect a beating.” Abba Xanthias said, “A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.

  • Abstinence & Obedience:

Next to humility, they valued abstinence and obedience to their Abba. Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot, “You cannot become a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.” The monks of the Ramakrishna Order were directed by Swami Vivekananda thus: ‘Brahmacharya must be like a burning fire tingling in your veins!’ Abba Anthony said, “Obedience with abstinence gives a monk power over wild beasts.” Compare this with the words of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi who once said, “It is sufficient if you stay in this Order. You will gain everything. Of course, stay in this Order and practice strict Brahmacharya, and you will gain everything.” Abba Anthony also said, “He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech and sight. There is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.” He also said, “Unless he keeps the commandments of God, a man cannot make progress, not even in a single virtue.” A brother asked Abba Agathon about fornication. He answered, “Go, cast your weakness before God and you shall find rest.” Abba Anoub said, “Since the day when the name of Christ was invoked upon me, no lie has come out of my mouth.” The same Abba said, “For fourteen years I have never lain down, but have slept sitting or standing.” Imagine the sense of purpose these ancient monks for self-development! We must further remember that they were solitary dwellers; that means they had no one to keep a watch over what they did! Abba Gerontius of Petra said that many, tempted by the pleasures of the body, commit fornication, not in their body, but in their spirit, and while preserving their bodily virginity, commit prostitution in their soul. Abba Epiphanius said, “Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.

While these monks were very serious of conquering concupiscence, they were quite aware of the various perversions that a struggling soul has to face! Take for instance the stiff fight against homosexuality. Abba Eudemon said this about Abba Paphnutius, the Father of Scetis, “I went down there while I was still young. He would not let me stay, saying to me, ‘I do not allow the face of a woman to dwell in Scetis, because of the conflict with the enemy.’” Abba Isaac said, “Do not bring young boys here. Four churches in Scetis are deserted because of boys.” Abba Carion said, “A monk who lives with a boy, falls, if he is not stable. But even if he is stable and does not fall, he still does not make progress.” Abba John the Dwarf said, “He who gorges himself and talks to a boy has already in his thoughts committed fornication with him.” These might seem like too inflexible a rule for monastic life, but considering the innumerable falls that are being reported now-a-days, we cannot but appreciate the wisdom behind these strictures of the ancient Desert monks.

It was an established fact among the monks that one who wished to rein in his senses had to stay in one place for a protracted period of time. Inability to settle in one place was recognized for its true cause – mind’s violent reaction to the attempts of controlling it! Abba Eudemon said, “A beginner who goes from one monastery to another is like an animal that jumps this way and that, for fear of the halter.” Amma Theodora said, “There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, ‘I will go away from here.’ As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, ‘Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.’” Abba Eudemon also said, “When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will, he then allows it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again.” The wise monks realized that there was an urgent need to sublimate the urge to flee constantly from a place in search of a new place. Abba John the Cilician said to the brethren, “My sons, in the same way that we have fled from the world, let us equally flee from the desires of the flesh.” Wanderlust had to be internalized and a region had to be reached in the inner realms of one’s own consciousness where there was no more trouble from the inner demons.

Abba Theodore said, “If I do not cut myself off from these feelings of compassion, they will not let me be a monk.” Compare this with the training that Swami Vivekananda gave to his monastic disciples, as recorded by Sister Nivedita – the monastic training [or Brahmacharya] entails complete emotional solitude. Abba Theodore said, “Do not sleep in a place where there is a woman.” Notice that the advice is not to meet her, nor is it not to see her. A monk is asked not to sleep in a place where a woman resides! If we think deeply over this strange advice, we will appreciate the wisdom that uttered this invaluable advice. The mind of a struggling monk is extremely sharp, extremely volatile, extremely impressionable. The mind would have clearly noted the presence of a woman in the vicinity. While awake, the mind may seem subdued. But when the mind sleeps, the monk will certainly have a fall. It is against such an eventuality that the saying already quoted above has to be understood: One of the fathers asked Abba John the Dwarf, “What is a monk?” He said, “He is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what a monk is.

Abba Theodore of Eleutheropolis said, “Privation of food mortifies the body of the monk.” Another old man said, “Vigils mortify it still more.” Although physical privations have their sure advantages in the general scheme of monastic life, the wonderful Desert monks never lost sight of the central theme of prayer and love of God that gave their life real meaning! Abba Theonas said, “When we turn our spirit from the contemplation of God, we become the slaves of carnal passions.” Abba John also said, “Who is as strong as the lion? And yet, because of his greed he falls into the net, and all his strength is brought low.” Abba John also said, “The Fathers of Scetis ate bread and salt and said, ‘We do not regard bread and salt as indispensable.’ So they were strong for the work of God.” Abba Isidore said that for forty years he had been tempted to sin in thought but that he had never consented either to covetousness or to anger.

Abba Isidore the Priest said, “It is impossible for you to live according to God if you love pleasures and money. If you truly desire the kingdom of heaven, despise riches and respond to divine favors.” What was the justification for leading a disciplined life? It was quite simple. Common sense provided the answer! Abba Mius of Belos said, “Obedience responds to obedience. When someone obeys God, God obeys his request.” Abba Nilus said, “Do not always want everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases. Then you will be undisturbed and thank full in your prayer.

  • Brotherly Love:

The virtue next in order of value to monastic life was brotherly love. Abba Anthony said, “Our life and our death are with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God. But if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” He also said, “I have never gone to sleep with a grievance against anyone, and, as far as I could, I have never let anyone go to sleep with a grievance against me.” A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went with him saying, “I too am a sinner.” Abba Isaac said, “I have never allowed a thought against my brother who has grieved me to enter my cell. I have seen to it that no brother should return to his cell with a thought against me.” Abba Poemen said about Abba Isidore that wherever he addressed the brothers in church he said only one thing, “Forgive your brother so that you may also be forgiven.”

  • Common Sense:

But the overarching feature of the Desert Monks was their common sense! Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenius “Is it good to have nothing extra in the cell? I know a brother who had some vegetables and he has pulled them up.” Abba Arsenius replied, “Undoubtedly that is good. But it must be done according to a man’s capacity. For, if he does not have the strength for such a practice, he will soon plant new ones.” Abba Arsenius used to say that a monk travelling abroad should not get involved in anything. Thus he will remain in peace. This is a wonderful advice that can be appreciated only if one has sufficient experience in life. Abba Epiphanius said, “The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” He also said that one of the Fathers used to say, ‘Eat a little without irregularity; if charity is joined to this, it leads the monk rapidly to the threshold of Apatheia.’ A brother came to Abba Theodore and began to converse with him about things which he had never yet put into practice. So the old man said to him, “You have not yet found a ship nor put your cargo aboard it and before you have sailed, you have already arrived at the city. Do the work first; then you will have the speed you are making now.” Abba Theodore also said, “If you are temperate, do not judge the fornicator, for you would then transgress the law just as much. And he who said, ‘Do not commit fornication’ also said, “Do not judge.’” Abba Isidore the Priest said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride, but if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and to glorify himself.” Abba Isidore the Priest said, “Disciples must love as their fathers those who are truly their masters and fear them as their leaders. They should not lose their fear because of love, nor because of fear should love be obscured.” Abba Cassian said, “There was a monk living in a cave in the desert. His relations according to the flesh let him know, ‘Your father is very ill, at the point of death. Come and receive his inheritance.’ He replied to them, ‘I died to the world before he did and the dead do not inherit from the living.’” Abba Matoes said, “I prefer a light and steady activity, to one that is painful at the beginning but is soon broken off.

The greatest outcome of nurturing common sense as a trait in the Desert monks was the broadening of the vision. Fanaticism can be overcome mainly by common sense. It is quite well known that even genuine spiritual realization does not remove fanaticism. That is the reason why we find even great saints with genuine spiritual unfoldment still entertaining stifling ideas of fanaticism. Since the Desert monks nurtured ‘discernment’ as a requisite virtue, we find the cool breeze of expansiveness in these ancient monks. Take for instance this saying of Abba John. He said, “The saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruits, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same spirit that works in all of them.

Although they were all monks in the Desert, keyed to the highest ideals of monastic life, they however knew very well that excellence could be achieved as a secular too. This revelation too was a direct outcome of cultivation of ‘discernment’ or common sense among the monks. It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his Desert that there was one who was his equal in the City. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the Angels. However, the ideals of one were not to be confused with the ideals of the other. It was said of Abba Arsenius that, just as none in the palace had worn more splendid garments than he when he lived there, so no one in the Church wore such poor clothing as he did. Two father asked God to reveal to them how far they had advanced. A voice came which said, “In a certain village in Egypt, there is a man called Eucharistus and his wife who is called Mary. You have not yet reached their degree of virtue.” The two old men set out and went to the village. Having enquired, they found his house and his wife. They said to her, “Where is your husband?” She replied, “He is a shepherd and is feeding the sheep.” Then she made them come into the house. When evening came, Eucharistus returned with the sheep. Seeing the old men, he set the table and brought water to wash their feet. The old men said to him, “We shall eat nothing until you have told us about your way of life.” Eucharistus replied with humility, “I am a shepherd, and this is my wife.” The old men insisted but he did not want to say more. Then they said, “God has sent us to you.” At these words, Eucharistus was afraid and said, “Here are these sheep. We received them from our parents and if, by God’s help we make a little profit, we divide it into three parts: one for the poor, the second for hospitality and the third for our personal needs. Since I married my wife, we have not had intercourse with one another, for she is a virgin; we each live alone. At night we wear hair-shirts and our ordinary clothes by day. No one has known of this till now.” At these words, they were filled with admiration and went away giving glory to God.

  • Conclusion:

It is the belief of the Eastern Orthodox monks even today that these ancient Fathers are not just historical persons, but living powers. Their sayings have sufficient power to shape our lives if only we open ourselves to their benign influence. May the spirit that guided these Desert Fathers shape our lives too.

**************

[1] Coptic Christianity is the oldest Christian community in the Middle East. They are even today a distinct ethno-religious community. They pride themselves on the apostolicity of the Egyptian Church whose founder was the first in an unbroken chain of Patriarchs. The main body of the Coptic Church [or the Egyptian Christianity] has been out of communion with both the Roman Catholic Church in Rome and the various Eastern Orthodox Church.

[2] One of the chief exponents of the tradition of Desert Monasticism was John Cassian [c. 360 – 435]. He was a native of Scythia. As a young man he joined a monastery in Bethlehem, but soon left it and went to study monasticism in Egypt. Here he was greatly influenced by Evagrius Ponticus. Later on Cassian became Deacon of the church in Constantinople. From there he was sent by St. John Chrysostom on a mission to Pope Innocent I at Rome. He seems to have remained in the West thereafter and by 415 AD he had established two monasteries near Marseilles. He authored two books, the Institutes and the Conferences, in which he presented what he learned from the great old men of the desert in a series of sermons. Though they crystallised much that he heard in the desert, he presents it in his own style, and with a consistency which is his rather than theirs. His writings are the work of a sophisticated writer, reflecting on his experiences and interpreting them in the light of other influences. These two books became classics in the West. Quotations from them abound in Rule of St. Benedict. Conferences was compulsory reading before Compline each night in Benedictine monasteries. The Rule of St. Benedict recommends his works as ‘tools of virtue for good-living and obedient monks’, thus ensuring that the tradition passed on by Cassian would become one of the most potent and formative influences in western monasticism.

[3] In Christian spiritual literature, this emphasis on actual realization of God can be seen mainly in the Orthodox tradition. The mainstream traditions of Roman Catholicism & Protestantism do not emphasize this actual realization. With these mainstream traditions, a spiritual life means arranging to live according to the advices mentioned in the Bible, while the actual spiritual achievements were to be had post-mortem. The Orthodox Church claims its direct descent from the traditions of the Desert Fathers.