Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

A Living Faith

By Eknath Easwaran

I was always capable of hard, sustained work, and in the early years of my own spiritual practice I drew heavily on that capacity. I changed all my ways, reversing long-standing patterns of living, and I took great joy in doing so. As I worked my way down to the more stubborn attachments, I found it harder going, but I kept at it anyway. Finally, however, I reached a point when I felt I could go no further. What I was attempting to do appeared now to be quite literally impossible. The rest of the journey seemed completely beyond me – beyond any human being. I was plunged into grief.

 Since then I have come to understand that every man or woman who has sought God-realization has undergone this anguish, that it comes at a certain stage in the spiritual journey.

 For a long time, you see, you are just struggling across the foothills of the spiritual Himalayas, longing for at least a glimpse of one of those snowy peaks. A mantle of early morning frost on a good-sized hill sets your heart racing, and that night you can hardly bear to stop and camp. You forge on, and at last before you beckons a snowcapped peak – the real thing this time – and everything in you is bent on scaling it. You want with all your heart to get there, but right in front of you yawns a chasm that is miles across. “What do I do now?” you ask. “There is no road! There isn’t even a track for a mountain goat. Even if I have tremendous willpower and energy, how can I travel if there is no path?” You see the peak and the chasm at just the same moment. Intense restlessness seizes you, and wild optimism alternating with despair.

Devotion Carries You Across the Chasm

People who depend on their own sheer willpower can get into trouble at this stage. But if from the earliest days of your spiritual life you have tried, like Brother Lawrence, to keep yourself in the presence of God through meditation and repetition of the Holy Name, you know what to do. With the trust and affection of a small child, you turn to the Lord of Love within and ask, “Why don’t you just take me up in your arms and deposit me on the other side? I’ll close my eyes and repeat your name, and leave the rest to you!”

And this is what takes place. It happened to me, and it can happen to you. Love wells up in your heart if you surrender your self-will, and devotion carries you across the chasm. You don’t even feel the motion. You think you’re still on the frost-bitten lower slopes; then after a while you open your eyes and find yourself on the snowcapped peak. Finally it dawns on you, “I don’t have to do any leaping. Whenever there is a great leap to be made, the Lord is there to take me in his arms, cradle me against his chest, and deposit me safely.”

Years later, looking back on all this, I have realized that I am a very blessed creature. I am still lost in wonder at what happened to me, for I know that I could never have completed the journey under my own power. It was grace alone that enabled me to continue until the end.

A Mother’s Protective Love

This mystery has been recorded again and again in the lives of the mystics. Teresa of Avila writes in her commentary on the Song of Songs:

An infant doesn’t understand how it grows, nor does it know how it gets its milk; for without its sucking or doing anything, often the milk is put into its mouth. Likewise, here, the soul is completely ignorant. It knows neither how nor from where that great blessing came to it, nor can it understand . . . it sees that it is nourished and made better and doesn’t know when it deserved this. It is instructed in great truths without seeing the Master who teaches it; fortified in virtues and favored by One who knows it well. . . . It doesn’t know what to compare his grace to, unless to the great love a mother has for her child in nourishing and caressing it. 

In playful language we can never forget, Sri Ramakrishna, the great Bengali saint of the nineteenth century, speaks of the same experience. He says that in the first half of our spiritual endeavors, we are like baby monkeys. The little monkey holds on to its mother while she jumps from branch to branch, and he has to hold tight because if he loosens his grip, down he’ll fall. But during the second half, Ramakrishna says, we are like kittens. The mother cat doesn’t expect her kitten to hold on to her; she picks him up by the scruff of the neck. You would think she is being cruel to hold him like that; but in fact she is being very protective. The kitten just goes limp and lets the mother cat do the traveling. And when the kitten is set down on his feet again, the mother’s protective love continues to surround him. He can be right on the verge of making what the feline world sees as a serious mistake, but the mother won’t let him. Have you seen a mother cat reach out and slap the kitten with her paw? It hurts, and the kitten doesn’t make that mistake again!

 A Living Faith

This is how faith takes root in our heart and grows. Sometimes people speak of faith as something we should cultivate on principle – no matter how the intellect balks, no matter what our own experience has taught us. My own attitude is stubbornly practical. I’ve never taken anything on faith that I could not test against my own experience. Today, I would say freely that I am a man of profound faith in God. But mine is a living faith. It began as the most tentative proposition: “I shall move in this direction, even when it doesn’t look pleasant, and let us see what happens.” As my meditation deepened, great difficulties did come my way, but over and over I have been rescued – sometimes at the eleventh hour. I could never have told you why, but my path would be cleared; courage, insight, and resourcefulness would come to me. Today, after many years of validation in my personal experience, I can claim that my faith in God has become unshakable. But that faith is the fruit of a long period of effort and clear observation – and, I would add, an open mind.

The poet Robert Browning uses a geometrical simile: all the Lord expects us to do is to draw the arc; the Lord himself will complete the circle. Have I done everything possible to train my senses, to subdue my passions, to liquidate my self-will? If I have, even if I have not been completely successful, he will augment my strivings and reward my efforts a hundredfold.

This article is from the Fall/Winter 2023 Blue Mountain Journal