Part II. Chapter 5
The Spiritual Master and Meditation
Neither religious communities, nor treatises, nor even pastoral letters can teach meditation and prayer. At best, they can only provide a general preparation, a sort of preliminary experience. The role of the spiritual master is to guide his disciple to meditation, provided the latter has an open mind; indeed, this teaching is largely through silent communication. In Catholicism today, little importance is given to spiritual masters; indeed they hardly manifest themselves. There seems to be neither much supply nor much demand for them. Mystical evolution is therefore considered to be a kind of accident, an adventure which is not only purely individual and subjective, but which has also come about by chance. At the end of this study on spiritual experience and institutional authority, it seems appropriate to consider the similarities and differences between Christian and Eastern meditation. We will take the letter of Cardinal Ratzinger on Some aspects of Christian meditation37 as the basis for discussion.
A great deal could be said about this letter. I will only take up some points, trying to put myself in the place of a Hindu and imagining the effect the letter would have on him should he read it.
The first question that he would ask could be: Why has this Cardinal written such a text? It seems clear that it was written to defend Christian meditation; but why the need to defend it? Is it so weak that it cannot stand up to competition from other types of meditation?
The discussion would then centre around the issue of techniques. The Hindu will willingly accept that no strictly codified technique can lead to the Ultimate. In this, the two great paths of devotion and knowledge in Hindu spiritual tradition, agree with Christianity. The techniques are, however, very useful for the beginners, the beginner-stage lasting, according to Hindu definition, some years, decades or even lifetimes since Hindus believe in reincarnation. Even from the Christian point of view techniques were really contrary to the spirit of the church, why would it accept Jesus' prayer, the Gregorian hymns or the Exercises of Saint Ignatius? Cardinal Ratzinger suggests that the techniques contradict the spirit of childhood; but the spirit of childhood is very difficult to find. It is necessary to know oneÆs own mind perfectly in order to discover it, and the techniques can only help. Otherwise the spirit of childhood seriously risks being confused with childishness.
In an effort to minimise the importance of spiritual techniques, he quotes Saint Teresa of Avila; but she writes: If the souls knew how, they would all reach God. She thus suggests, like the majority of people from the East, that there are methods to improve meditation, methods which can be learnt from someone else, or which are discovered in the course of oneÆs own practice. Besides, bearing in mind the time in which she lived - it was the period of the Inquisition - her writings cannot be used in support of a strict orthodoxy. She would not have risked ruining her work as a reformer of Carmel by talking of experiences which were not in keeping with the dogma. She had before her the example of Saint John of the Cross, who was imprisoned for nine months and flogged every week for having displayed a slight spirit of independence. Saint Teresa could allow herself psychological audacity, but she could not possibly indulge in doctrinal audacity. Her writings were first banned by some inquisitors before being authorised by others. With this background of tight police control, her orthodox declarations can only be taken with a pinch of salt. In any case, she had no choice but to declare herself to be an orthodox Catholic if she wanted to be allowed to do anything for the spiritual upliftment of her fellow citizens.
We now come to the central point of the discussion, which has, in fact, been avoided by Cardinal Ratzinger: those who practice traditional techniques of meditation for a sufficient length of time, develop a real maturity in their relationship with the divine, and, sooner or later, can do without the cumbersome intermediary of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Those who rely exclusively on grace, on the other hand, very often live in a state of dependence : dependence on the divine, which is fine because the divine is also within them, and dependence on a heavy organisation, which rather complicates the matter. A Hindu would not contest the fact that a complete concentration on the person of Christ can lead to a high level of spiritual development; the practice of the majority of Hindus also consists in concentrating their devotion on a man-God (Rama, Krishna or others who are considered to be æavatarsÆ) or on a woman-Goddess. He would, however, perceive the risk of the sectarian deviation of such a practice, especially keeping in mind the extent to which the hierarchy insisted, throughout the course of its history on the person of Christ being associated with the collective person of the Church. It even became a Church dogma. The two are sought to be presented as being united, like bride and bridegroom, so that no one can think of concentrating on Christ while forgetting the Church. A Hindu would find this personalisation of the community very surprising. Besides, one of the characteristic traits of Christianity in India seems to be the dissociation of the person of Christ (to which a great deal of importance is given) from a centralised organisation (which is put aside.)
Cardinal Ratzinger also tries to marginalize the influence of negative theology on the church (p.11). This path of negative theology seeks to reject all ideas of God to which one is accustomed as subtle forms of idolatry, and through this dynamic, to attain a purified experience of the divine. This method corresponds to the not this, not this (neti, neti) of the Upanishads, and to the Madhyamika school of Buddhism as expounded by Nagarjuna; but the Cardinal forgets to mention the considerable influence that The Celestial Hierarchies of Denys the Areopagite (or Pseudo-Denys) had on medieval mysticism. This work develops the theme of 'via negativa'. Within the official Church itself, the 'nada, nada'(nothing, nothing) of Saint John of the Cross is a typical example of the 'via negativa'. Of course, the Cardinal is right when he says that Christians do not know their own mystical tradition well, and that they ought to study it more, however, he should be careful not to neglect mentioning an essential element of this tradition, i.e., apophatical or negative theology.
Cardinal Ratzinger then comes to a criticism of the Christians of the East saying that their psycho-physiological techniques of prayer could lead to an idolatry of the body. To a Hindu, especially to a follower of the Yoga of Knowledge, it is obvious that it is the ordinary man who would consider the body as an idol. He is not aware that his basic mental activity is constantly being conditioned by his body. This activity seems to be aimed only at assuaging his fears and satisfying his desires. The only real means of putting an end to this idolatry is not to deny it, but on the contrary, to recognize and face up to it. Studying the mind is to study the way in which one's awareness of the body casts a net on pure consciousness and to learn how to get disentangled from it. By following the path of devotion, as well, an intense concentration on Christ leads to a no less intense awakening of physical sensations, and the necessity to view them from a distance. Whether it is the path of knowledge or of devotion, the basic phenomena are the same, only the vocabulary differs.
One may seek God in different sects or Churches, but finally it is within oneself that He will be found.. In his fear of Eastern immanentism, the Cardinal seems to have impoverished and let wither his own Catholic tradition. He even seems to have forgotten the famous passage from the Confessions of Saint Augustine in which this idea: I sought God outside, and here he was within me.... is developed.
Although the Cardinal has said, at the beginning of his letter, that he would not encroach upon the therapeutic domain, at the end he suggests that giving his experience of meditation a symbolic meaning which is typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such a experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbances and sometimes to moral deviations.
Here I must speak as a psychiatrist. Even though what Cardinal Ratzinger says in his typically Roman style is not wrong, nevertheless I think that the opposite is closer to the truth. In short, if a patient becomes schizophrenic, it is not because he is too close to corporal sensations, but on the contrary, because he is dissociated from them. He feels his body is dead, that it is like a stone or a void and tries thus to contain his anguish which manifests itself in the body as well. If things go wrong for him, it is not because he tries to meditate, but rather because no one has taught him to meditate correctly, with a concrete, positive rapport with the body, and respecting the rules of mental concentration. Attaching great mystical value to transitory inner experiences, the risk is not as much as that of schizophrenia as that of hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is a major obstacle to spiritual development, besides because of it many people outside the tradition do not take religion seriously.
No Hindu will criticize Cardinal Ratzinger's conclusion which says that the ideal state is in the union of prayer and action, provided that two specifications are added to it: first, if this union is to be perfect, it happens only in a very elevated state of consciousness, which requires a great deal of preparatory meditation. Even if this union is considered to have occurred through grace, it must be acknowledged that prayer and meditation are necessary to be ready when grace is granted, and even more meditation is necessary for the blossoming of this state of union, for by itself it would have a tendency to subside. Saint Teresa of Avila seems to have spent eighteen years fighting visions and headaches in her convent cell before attaining the unitive life that allowed her considerable amount of work which was pure (devoid of attachment). Secondly, when speaking of action, automatically associating the service of the brothers with the 'mission of the Church' will be seen by a Hindu as an attempt to use inner experience for the benefit of a sect with expansionist ambitions. With these two specifications, it could be said that a Hindu will agree with a Christian when he says that the ultimate stage consists of a real union between meditation and action. In Vedanta, one speaks of sahaja-samadhi, spontaneous unitive experience.
Christians often caricature Hinduism as being a mysticism of renunciation of action as well as one of fusion in the impersonal Absolute; but a great deal of stress is laid on action in the Bhagvad-Gita, and a majority of Hindus worship a personal God, even if they do not call him the Father. They generally strive for a state in which their every daily activity is worthy as an offering to their God.
I talked to one of the teachers of a great Catholic institutions in Delhi about Cardinal Ratzinger's letter. In conclusion, it seems useful to give a summary of what he thinks about it: The Cardinal's letter is unwelcome. It is disrespectful of Indian Christianity and its specificity. One would have expected a greater degree of discretion from a responsible figure of the Catholic Church. His tone is bitter. He disregards the importance of the heart's prayer and of silence. Here in Delhi, some people use the hatha-yoga and Indian methods of meditation for calming the body and the mind, and they know that these practices help them; they continue following them despite this letter from Rome. As for the others, let us not delude ourselves, they practice no meditation at all, neither Hindu nor Christian. The letter, thus has no relevance for them either ..... Why should the Church be on the defensive? According to the indications that I have received from Rome, this letter seems to be the first of a series of reactionary measures aimed at making Indian Christianity fall into line. These measures have been suggested by an influential group of Germanic theologians who, sitting in their offices, legislate on the statute of Eastern religions, while always avoiding a real contact with these religions. Indian Christians have no reason to agree to set their watches to German time.
Even from a strictly Orthodox point of view, how can bodily practices, respiratory practices, or simple concentration for calming the mind, be harmful? Very often the would-be mystic oscillates on a horizontal axis, between the intellectual and the emotional. The return to the body allows him to rest on a firm vertical axis, going directly from the physical to the spiritual. I talked to the Father Master of Novices in the Convent of La Grande Chartreuse, the headquarters of the Carthusian Order, situated high in the Alps near Grenoble. (This monastery is not usually associated with a great zeal for reforms or an opening towards the world at large. Indeed, the motto of the Order is 'nunquam reformata' never reformed....). He told me that a number of novices prayed the Eastern way sitting with their legs crossed. They had learnt these postures of meditation during different workshops, before entering the Convent. They found them good, and the Father Master saw no reason to discourage these practices or fear them. In fact, fear and authentic spirituality cannot co-exist: a spirituality undermined by fear is like a body without legs.
A delicate question, at least from the point of view of the Church, is whether the teacher of meditation should necessarily be of the same persuasion as the disciple. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his letter, says, Yes, but in the history of spirituality there are numerous allusions to the master being an outsider. Diotime, the woman whom Socrates regarded as his master, was sometimes called the foreigner from Mantinea. Mantinea was not too far from Athens, but the priestess was still considered as a foreigner. At the very beginning of æthe ApologyÆ, Socrates is seen defining himself as a foreigner before the judges, while legally he was a citizen of Athens in every sense of the term. It is said that Plato and Pythagoras went to the Egyptians to imbibe some of their knowledge. A Gnostic master was called Allogenes, someone who is born elsewhere, i.e., a foreigner. A spiritual master is a person important enough to motivate a seeker to move from one place to another, literally as well as figuratively, in order to meet him.
Abraham began by leaving his town of Ur in Chaldea; Yahve insisted upon the necessity of departure by repeating three times the same kind of ideas: Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, until a land that I will show yee. Only then did he become the Father of the believers. In the early centuries, Christianity existed as a foreign religion in the Roman Empire. We have already mentioned above than when Saint John says, 'the Word lived amongst us', he uses the word 'eskenosen', 'he pitched his tent'. The spiritual master is a nomad of the soul. He is not easily acknowledged as a prophet in his own country; he is in our world, but not of our world. In this context there is a story in the East, about a lion-cub who was brought up with sheep. It was necessary for him to meet a lion, a master, to realize his true nature, through a kind of mirror effect.
This situation where the master is an outsider becomes increasingly frequent in our era. We no longer live in the Middle Ages and spiritual teachings from all over the world are relatively more accessible circulating and being available to us even at our door-step. Those Christians who are oriented primarily towards social service, would probably not be concerned with such teachings, but those who wish to follow a more mystical path will, sooner or later be faced with this matter of practical import. Whatever the place of origin of the spiritual master, one of his essential qualities is his spirit of independence. Even if he belongs to an institution, within himself he has to be completely independent of it. 'The just judges, but is not judged'. (I Cor. 2,15). For justifying a complete obedience to the institution, the following words from the Hymn of the Virgin Mary (the Magnificat) are often invoked: He watched his humble servant, but it must be remembered that Mary said these words, while being fully aware of becoming the Mother of God.
It may be that a time comes when all that a seeker has read, heard and practiced with great stamina in the spiritual domain, suddenly seems unreal to him. It is at this moment that the presence of the spiritual master proves most useful. His mere existence is enough to confirm the validity and significance of the inner search. Beyond the hierarchical Church and its dissensions, beyond the Church of the spirit and its uncertainties, will we know how to discover the Church of the spiritual master? It is sometimes said that there is no dearth of true masters; there is only a lack of true disciples.... The disciple concentrates his attention on the master over a long period of time, the latter becoming second nature to him, but in reality, the masterÆs nature is one with that of his disciple. In his inner journey, when the disciple is faced with a cloud of ignorance or a darkness of the senses and the intelligence, it is to the spiritual master that he can say, as the pilgrims walking with Christ said to him, Abide with us, for it is evening, and the day is far spent (Lc 24, 29).