Over the course of my spiritual journey from my Episcopal childhood through some kind of atheism to Vaishnav Hinduism I’ve learned a lot about appreciating truths in many faiths, and appreciating the beauty of practice and worship. One of the main messages that has guided me through the rollercoaster ride of my own journey towards faith is the message of God’s love and protection. My initial forays into faith have been based on this love and protection, but internalizing it – really believing it – can only happen when one is in a totally helpless and weak position.
This winter, I had a deep experience of my own weakness. Over the course of few days, the knowledge of my own total failure in all my endeavors and my inability to improve, to move towards God, dragged me deeper and deeper into a weak and dark state. I saw the mass of my own failings, revealed to me by teachers, by some texts I was studying, and by the simple failure of so many of my endeavors at the time. The delusion and image that I had built up of being capable, self-aware, and thinking in the right ways was broken and I was left with nothing. I was nothing. Worse, I couldn’t feel God’s guidance anymore. His Presence was gone, and I was like a little bird fallen out of its nest with no mother bird to catch me. It was terrifying. One afternoon in the depths of my suffering a dear friend told me over and over in sweet and gentle terms that God’s love is there, that He just wants me to turn to Him – but even though the words were nourishment to my parched heart I couldn’t take them in. I considered myself unacceptable for God’s service and unworthy to seek His love.
The message that she told me – and, when I’m looking, I find in so many places in sacred texts and in the world around – is that God’s love is always there. In the Bhagavad Gita, a dialogical teaching of God in the Hindu tradition, the Lord says, “I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who perfectly know this engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts. … To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.”
That day, when I was immersed in the pride of my failings, I walked in the Vermont woods with my friend. We both saw God’s love expressed in the sunshine through the fog. The sunshine that day was an outpouring and overflowing of His love that staggered us both and enveloped us in a deep sense of care.
In those moments of weakness, when we cannot care for ourselves any longer, accepting God’s care is the most we can do. So often, though, we stay in the pride of our own failings: seeing all the blame and responsibility as resting upon ourselves and refusing to let grace in. Feelings of failure and low self-esteem are just another side of pride, as we greedily desire the qualities and things that we feel we have lost. Humility is when we hand over our sorrows and suffering to the hands of God, our dearmost Beloved, the only One who can truly hold them.
If you ask a child where he gets his food, he will say he goes to the fridge and takes what he wants. He doesn’t have any conception of the toil his parents put in to earn the money and buy the food – or the toil of the farmers or, for most of us, factory workers. As children we have so little conception of how much our parents really care for us and of all they are doing to help us grow. But their love is still there beyond what we can ever imagine. A mother loves her child no matter what. If he hurts her feelings the love is still there. If he turns to her with a need or desire, she fulfills it in the best way – though that may not be what he wants. If he even expresses love and gratitude with a little kiss she is so happy and her love increases. This is God’s love for us.
God’s love is present and real for all of us, and because of this He takes on our sufferings and guides us through life. But it can be very difficult to see His love working in our lives. Scripture gives the example of so many saints and incarnations who express a deep love, joy, and gratitude for the Lord in every core of their being. They sing and dance; they act in the world in charity as an expression of that love. They see God’s presence filling every single moment. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Supreme Lord says, “He who sees Me in all things and all things in Me is never lost to Me, nor am I ever lost to Him.” For those who see God’s presence filling the world with grace, the awareness of His protection and guidance is also there. For most of us, this is a lovely idea, a nice theological concept – and not much more. Seeing God in everything? All the time? Yet it might not be so distant from our experience. This verse simply asks for moments of true vision, however fleeting. This is a state of being given by God’s grace, not a mood we can adopt; and He gives it when we least expect it.
When we can’t quite do that, however, we can express gratitude for all that God gives us. We may not see His presence filling every moment, but we can try to understand that our experiences, large and small, are given by God as an opportunity to serve Him and to learn. In the Muslim community people say Alhamdulillah. How are you? Alhamdulillah. Thanks be to God. I may be having a great day, it may be mediocre, or I may be really suffering – but thanks be to God! This is all part of His plan for me.
Even if we aren’t grateful for – or aren’t aware of – God’s work in the world and His plan for us, it’s still there. God’s guidance can be expressed in the inner voice, the intuition, the words of the heart calling us to service and compassion. In the most tangible ways, what we receive or don’t receive – like results of applications, as we students know all too well – shape our path. In less tangible ways, God’s guidance can be expressed in mundane experiences and interactions. It can be expressed in moments of witness when a mother’s love, a holy place, or sunlight in the fog makes us pause and see with Divine eyes. Even if we’re not aware or not looking, God’s guidance is acted out in the tangible and intangible ways by which he guides our path. These experiences are all given by God to shape our path in the world and call us to grow closer to Him. In these experiences and tests he asks us to act in our highest potential. These moments aren’t necessarily feel-good either; they can be moments of deep humility when we realize the illusions of ego we have built up. The lesson may be a bitter pill, or we may not accept it at all.
This awareness too is hard to maintain. If we can’t do that, we can at least pray that we can be able to do what God asks of us, have compassion, and care for others. We will make mistakes. We will have times of being too self-absorbed to notice another’s pain; of choosing the easy option over the right one; to punting on morals and turning away from what we need to see the most. Often this is the most we can do, and perhaps exactly what we should. We are poorly trained servants, cracked pots. God is asking us to love and to serve our brothers and sisters and Him; and we can pray for His help to do so. Even though we are very lowly – because we are – we are not ineligible for His love. 16th-century English poet George Herbert expressed this realization very beautifully in the poem Love, which we members of the Glee Club had the great pleasure of singing recently in a Vaughan Williams setting. There were more than a few damp eyes in the house – and on stage.
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin. But quick-eyed Love… drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning if I lack’d any thing. “A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here.” Love said, “You shall be he.” “I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.” Love took my hand, and smilingly did reply, “Who made the eyes but I?”
The truth is, given God’s infinite love for us, how can we not place our suffering in Him? How can we meet His love with pride? A true relationship with Him is an exchange of love, an acceptance of the care and guidance He gives us just as a mother cares for her child. The mother wants the child to ask her for all his needs because she can meet them like no one else can. She wants him to bring his tears and bruises to her. Like the mother, God doesn’t love any body less for our flaws and self-absorption. He never gets frustrated with us, even if we reject Him like a petulant child. God’s love calls us to respond with gratitude, reverence, and love. He doesn’t expect us to repay His love, or reciprocate as an equal. He only wants our love and service, and service in compassion for all our brothers and sisters.