Language and beyond in the Christian master-disciple relationship
Partially published in "Shabda Shakti Sangam", edited by Vandana Mataji, NBCLC Bangalore (souvenir of the twentieth anniversary of Swami Abhishiktananda's death.)
In the tradition of the Desert, the would-be disciple used to approach a spiritual master by asking him: 'Give me a word of life'. Afterwards, he used to meditate this word of life in solitude for a long time. This reminds of the famous formula quoted in the Guru-Gita mantra mulam guruvakya 'guru's word is the root of the mantra'.
The spiritual master can transmit the Spirit, the divine Energy not only through the words, but through a look, a gesture, an expression of the face, a way of being...But who is this spiritual master who has the capacity to impart energy (shakti) through his words and beyond them? I have reflected on this question in my first book The Indian Teaching Tradition, BRPC, Delhi, 1997. I had prepared a chapter on master and disciple in Christianity to give a comparative dimension to my work, but it would have been too big a book for the publisher. I will present in this paper the gist of this unpublished chapter, (which is nevertheless available in French on this very website) as well as a few ideas presented in my second book Indian Wisdom, Christianity and Modern Psychology BRPC Delhi 1997 which deals for one third of it with the spiritual transmission in Christianity compared to Hinduism and for another third on hesychasm and vedanta, and more generally the tendency towards non-duality among the Fathers of the Desert.
Frequenting a spiritual master is useful for each and everyone, but it is really instrumental in helping those who want to devote most of their time to the inner quest. In the Antiquity, they used to say that the spiritual master know the 'Art of arts' and the 'Science of sciences' i.e, guiding other people in the discovery of themselves. In every civilization, he or she embodies the fulfillment of the Sacred books; sometimes, he is said to be the fifth Gospel. He represents the blossoming flower of Tradition, but remains as beautiful as he is rare. One can not find orchids growing in every meadow, one can not find lions moving around in flocks. There is no real need being a master to give sound advice inspired by one's own experience, but this does not mean that one can take the responsibility of people in the long run. A Desert Father says: When your house is half ruined, better not to welcome guests in it, lest it collapses on them'; (I.Hausherr La direction spirituelle en Orient autrefois Orientalia Christiana Analecta, n 144, Rome, p161)
Meeting a competent spiritual master is a decisive step in the itinerary of a resolute seeker. At first, he may get some relief, some reward by expressing his own feelings in the reassuring fold of a given community; he may found there a familial warmth which lacks in the modern world, especially in the West. This beginner's stage is that of emotional transparence, which is not devoid of therapeutical value. The following stage is that of spiritual transparence, which is more subtle, in fact more transparent if one can say. This stage is reached only in front of a spiritual master who has an ego small enough to be able to look at others' transparence without trying to exploit them. One can not expect a community as such to do so. They always have a collective ego.
The concept of spiritual master is less developed in Christianity than in Hinduism. It may be due to the suspicion of the Church hierarchy, who sees the master as a potential rival. There was a time where the people could choose its bishop freely, as in the case of St Ambrosius in Milan, or choose its saints. It was about this free choice in the cult of the saints that it was said as a proverb: 'Vox populi, vox Dei'. Theoretically, the opposition between the two powers is not insuperable: the Church, or the churches educate the masses, and the spiritual master guides individuals on the path of inner experience; but in practice things have not been and still are not so simple, as we will see below.
In the Gospels, Jesus warns
his disciples not to let themselves be called 'Rabbi', yet he underlines,
in a less quoted utterance, the benefits of the devotion to a spiritually
more advanced person: Who welcomes you welcomes me and the One who sent
me. Who welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet reward,
and who welcomes a just as a just will receive a just reward." (Mt X, 41
The Fathers of the Desert, and the power to give a word of life
The fundamental advice of the Fathers is simple: 'Sit in your cell, and it will teach you all you need to know'. It seems to suggest that we do not need any spiritual master; but one will readily understand that this piece of advice, easy to tell, will impart all its energy to the listener only if it is given by one who practised it over a period of years and has fully succeeded in his attempt, in other terms by a master. In the Desert (from the 4th century, mainly in Egypt) these masters were not only Fathers Abbas, but could be Mothers as well Ammas, strange enough, the same term which is applied to Mother-Gurus in Kerala (South-India). When the disciple requests the Father for a word of life, it is not an ordinary word, but a word in the full sense of the term, told in the right context at the right moment and which takes a value of eternity. The Hindu would say it has a 'mantric value'. For instance, master's experience of eremitic life in the desert gives a great weight to the word: There is no obstacle that silence can't overcome.' Merton Th. La Sagesse du Désert Albin Michel, Paris, p.92)
A master has no capacity to do his disciple's work, but he can impart him an energy. One day, a visitor explained to an Elder his daily routine, and every pratice he used to do conscientiously. At last, he asked him which other excercices he could do; the Elder stood up, stretched his hands towards the sky; his fingers were looking like ten lighted lamps and he said:'Why do you not completely transform yourself into flame?' (Hausherr, op.cit. p. 134)
Even when expressed with discretion, this transmission is no less real for that: Saint Macarius, Saint Anthony's disciple used to say to the crowds coming to visit him:'As for me, I am not a monk but I have seen monks'. In the Christian context, this transmission of energy may take the aspect of a passionate prayer to the Almighty; a disciple was complaining about serious inner obstacle. The Abba bluntly talked to God :'Father, you may want it or not, but I won't leave you until my disciple is cured!' And the disciple was freed.
Through their veneration for the Elder, the visitors and disciples could learn a science beyond words. To a certain person who used to come regularly but never asked questions, Saint Anthony once asked the reasons of his visits. He replied:'Father, this is enough for me to see you!' In another anecdote, people were wondering why Arsen could have come to take advice of a desert ascetic who could hardly read and write; Arsen replied:'I am a master of the Roman and Hellenic science, but the alphabet of this boor, I ignore it'. (Hausherr, op.cit. p.89) The veneration of a master, when pushed to the point of divinization as it were, allows one to overcome the biggest obstacles:'I can not do anything against you, said Satan to Macarius, Anthony's disciple, because you took advice from this Anthony and you made him a god through your genuine love and humility.' (Silburn Lilian Le Maitre spirituel Hérmès n.3, Paris 1983. See the discussion between Saint Seraphim of Sarov and his disciple Molotov as an example of the transmission of the Spirit-Energy, p.184-188)
After his death, the master
is honoured by his disciple as a saint. 'From the first year following
his spiritual Father's death, Saint Symeon the New Theologian magnificently
celebrated his memory as the memory of all other saints, and that according
to the apostolic tradition.' This devotion attracted to Symeon -who at
that time was not yet canonized- the crushing criticism of the bishop of
the place. But he hold good to his position and at last won his case by
showing that the cult of his late master was in line with a genuine tradition.
He used to say: 'If you don't see God in this world, you won't see him
in the next'.The relationship between master and disciple will continue
in the next world: at the Last Judgement, the master himself will introduce
his disciples' group to God, and with him, they will be saved; this come
to the Indian notion according to which the master will be reborn again
and again to lead his disciple up to moksha. With his help, the
disciple reaches a state of apatheia, which does not mean insensitivity
but more absence of interfering emotions, clarity of being. He achieves
the 'deifyng quietude' and the joy without cause or attachment. They say
in Greek : 'I rejoyce in joy itself' chaira chairo
The Saint's figure in the Middle Ages and after
To summarize what I have studied in a more detailed text directly published in the French part of this
Website, we may distinguish two periods in the Middle Ages: before the XIIIth century, there is a relative freedom in the cult of saints, and in the enthusiasm of people for living mystics; this seems close to the Hindu tradition. The founder of an Order and the disciples around him reproduce the model of Christ qith his disciples. St Benedict installed about twelve disciples as head of twelve small communities. St Francis of Assisi wqs surrounded by his twelve disciples, as it is said in the 'Fioretti' As with the Hindu Sadguru, the medieval saint has a power of attraction; he can say: 'Come and follow me.' and really be followed. The master can say, as the bridegroom in the Song of Songs 'Arise, my beloved, for see, winter is past, the rains are over and gone' After the 13h century, this freedom was much restricted, the cult of saints come centuries after their demise, through a lengthy legal process which seem to be the opposite of the living teaching relationship. And yet, this relationship seems to be the best a saint can give. The lineage which could have evolved from an intense relationship between master and disciple either disappeared, or were dissolved in the huge organization of a successful religious Order, and in the mandatory intrigues to be recognized by the central authority. The prime impetus, elan of the founder is damped by the inertia of his community, even more if there is a congregation of communities. Of course, this phenomenon is observed in every tradition, but is heavier in Catholicism, due to the Roman love for well defined legal structures, and its misgivings of an intensely personal teaching relationship which could escape the control of the community at large and of the hierarchy in particular. This Roman tendency to centralization was aggravated by the 13th century heresies and the fears they had induced in the clergy.
The Protestant Reformers
clearly saw the possible collusion of the two powers: the Church and the
spiritual director, but instead of advocating more independence for the
director, they rejected both and threw the baby with the water of the bath
if I can say. But the relative freedom to start a new church again focussed
the attention on the charisma of a given leader. The 17th century was a
great century regarding spiritual direction, with the examples of St Francis
of Sales the confessor of Jeanne de Chantal. He said in the language of
his time:'You should listen to the director as an angel come from the sky
to lead you to the sky.'; There was the example of Madame Guyon, Fénelon
and others as well. Monsieur Ollier, the soul of St Sulpice, had a high
idea of the spiritual director: 'The directors are the father of people,
but they are also the real mothers and nourishers.' He was used to silent
communion with his penitents, as were the Desert Fathers, ans as are the
Indian gurus of today. However, the interference of the confessors with
the political power reached a climax which lead later, as a reaction, to
the exile of the Jesuit Order from France. Moreover, they were a powerful
instrument of control to check the mystics who could be tempted by the
The Tradition of the Staretz
During the XIXth century,
the master-disciple relationship was particularly active in Orthodox Christianity
with the blossoming of the staretz tradition in Russia, for instance
Seraphim of Sarov. This tradition was revived in the end of the 18th century
and continued into the 19th century. The staretz is an icon of the absolute.
Just seeing him transforms a person. He acts only by generating in the
devotee the desire to be what the icon is. 'Acquire peace' St Seraphim
used to say, and thousand will be saved around you' He remained popular
in Russia because of his joy. He used to greet people by telling them 'My
joy'. He liked to show Christ's icon saying 'he is my joy' and Mary's one
adding:'Here is the joy of my joy'.
Jesus in Sanskrit terms: Sadguru or Ishta-devata
If we respect the common meaning of the terms, Jesus was clearly a Sadguru (perfect guru) for his direct disciples, but an Ishta-devata (chosen divinity) for the Christians onward, including Saint Paul. A Guru is an embodied person with whom we can talk, have questions and receive clear answers. Here lies his or her usefulness. After many years with him, the new questions which arise in disciple's mind can be solved with the help of answers given before, sometimes years ago. Moreover, guru's image within is a continuous reminder of what really Shakti, Energy is. In this way, the inner Guru is slowly awaken. The tendency among Indian Christians to consider Christ as their sole guru was described for instance in Catherine Cornille's book (The Guru in Indian Catholicism Peters Press Louvain, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, p.94 to 202.) But to be coherent with their Indian cultural context, they should rather speak of Christ as their Ishta-devata. By a gradual process, one certainly can learn to see the unity between one's physical guru and Christ; but saying out of the blue that one has suddenly realized that Christ was his own Sadguru is too easy. How will one know if imagination is not working when telling this? Ishta-devata and Sadguru become one only at a very high level, in fact this represents the culmination of the relationship with an embodied guru. On this level, there is no need of an outer guru, nor of any community anymore, since everything is one. This level of the living liberated being (jivan mukta) which is seldom reached is not recognized by the Church, although the experience of quite a few saint tend to it. For the ordinary spiritual seeker, although this is true that Christ gave a list of spiritual medicine for inner health, nevertheless he needs a doctor to tell him which exact medicine will be beneficial for him at this given moment.
A mission of the Indian
Christianity in our times is to emphasize the importance of the master-disciple
relationship as a way of imparting its full Energy to the transmission
of the Word and of giving full intensity to spiritual life. Thus could
be realized Swami Abhishiktananda's wishes: "Christ must be studied not
from the mythos, but from an approachable reality, the Jnani, the
Guru.' (Swami Abhishiktananda [Henri Le Saux] La montée du fond
du coeur - Journal, Oeil, Paris, 1986, p.420) He says also'The Truth is
hidden is the depth of the heart. The real master is the one who draws
attention towards the heart. The only real disciple is the one who listen
within, and this even more when master and disciple don't belong to the
same religious tradition.. No matter the differences: we must admit that
maybe the real masters are not missing, rather the real disciples.'