To frame this notion in ways that may make it understandable, if not entirely palatable, to Western sensibilities, it should be noted that much Indian devotional poetry borrows from models of human relationships, perhaps most strikingly as lover and Beloved; however, another significant model is that of master and servant. Indeed, the title of Vidya Dehija's scholarly study of Tamil devotional poets is illustrative—Slaves of the Lord. To be a slave in this case speaks to a dependence on the sacred that is both ontological and ultimate; we come from God, we belong to God. Poets of various religious traditions are unapologetic about this, affirming it with eyes wide open.

The Christian beatitude states, Blessed are those who know their need of God. We are fundamentally incomplete, and that space of incompletion—no matter how much we try to fill it with success or relationship or power or pleasure—remains the space of God in our lives, our "secret tattoo." We are marked for God. "That Pattern upon your soul/Has the signature of God," writes the Sufi poet Hafiz. And this is the case whether we realize it or not. And yet, driven by a longing that we can't seem to consummate with pleasure or success, we may roam about, perhaps unconsciously, trying to fill this space or, conversely, fleeing it, fearing its darkness and supposed abyss. But we may not realize that hidden in the darkness is love, hidden in the darkness is God. We may avoid the darkness or flee it, but life—and even our unconscious—has a way of sometimes propelling us into it, not, in the end, to destroy us but to lead us to life.

Sometimes we encounter our broken heart, our need for God, and we surrender. Indeed, a key spiritual development in Sri Vaishnavism, a south Indian Hindu tradition dedicated to the god Vishnu and goddess Lakshmi (Sri), appears to transcend devotion, bhakti, itself. Instead, the ultimate state was prapatti, surrender, an abject, utter trust in God's power to deliver, much as, in the great metaphor of one particular school, the mother cat carries the kitten in her mouth. The kitten's task is simply to let herself be carried. One sees the spiritual value of surrender or submission encoded in the very name Islam, as well. The word is also linked to salaam (Hebrew, shalom), and therefore also implies the peace gained through submission. In the Hindu devotional tradition, this humble submission is called vinaya, a complex mood that also points to an intimate, heartfelt pleading to the divine in the awareness of one's limitation and need.

All too often we know and feel our flaws. We are aware of our tendency to sin, which here should not be regarded moralistically, but as the painful and disappointing fact that we sometimes hurt others and ourselves by self-centered behavior. Yet, we should also remember that any notion of sin, if not contextualized by the unconditional love of God, is itself destructive and alienating. Ultimately, however, sin underscores the potential for freedom, for the awareness of one's own inner poverty opens to the restorative grace of God. And grace, as one of my teachers in college once said, is not some metaphysical fluid that comes in quarts, but simply love. Unconditional love. The great hymn, "Amazing Grace"—whose author, John Newton, was a slave-ship captain—intimates both the ontological poverty of the subject and the saving power of God: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me." The realization of one's brokenness issues in a profound humility; the direct experience of being loved in spite of one's brokenness is a catalytic and potent transformative experience. Being met with such restorative love can catapult one into unalloyed joy and burgeoning generosity: I will do anything for you.

When we encounter a poverty at the heart of our being, may we always recognize our ultimate existential context: that we always and everywhere live in the presence of the divine, and that our neuroses, flaws, and self-centered behaviors are contextualized in that presence. And that presence, finally, is love and mercy, not judgment. Most of us already know plenty about judgment—and anger and blame and criticism. But it seems peculiar and misguided to imagine a divine presence that is merely a projection of human small-heartedness and ego. If I, who am limited, understand the call to unconditional love and try, however imperfectly, to put that into practice in the most difficult cruxes of my experience, it is hard imagine the holy presence settling for a pedestrian and conventional approach to harmful actions: anger, withdrawal of love, punishment. If anything, the divine love is the purification. Love overcomes. Love heals. When we encounter our own broken heart, may we see in it a call to the open heart, a willingness to receive the love that transforms, a willingness to encounter an amazing grace.

Author's Note: This article is taken from my forthcoming book, Praying with the Poets: Poetry of the Sacred in the World's Traditions.


1) Nammalvar was one of twelve poet-saints revered in Sri Vaishnavism, a form of Hinduism in South India devoted to the god Vishnu and the goddess Sri. Among these saints ('alvars'), foremost is Nammalvar ('our alvar') who lived in the 10th century. His poetic and spiritual masterpiece is the Tiruvaymoli. [Norman Cutler, Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 144.]

2) Tulsidas was a poet-saint from North India living in the 16th-17th centuries and dedicated to the god Rama. He re-wrote the Sanskrit epic Ramayana in a regional vernacular, a dialect of Hindi. The poem, above, was also written in a Hindi dialect. [John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer, Songs of the Saints of India (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 168-169.]

3) Adapted from Stephan Beyer, Buddhist Experience: Sources and Interpretations (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1974).

4) John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Open Secret (Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1984), 16.

5) Psalm 51.1-2. Adapted from The New Jerusalem Bible: Standard Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 638-639.

6) Ibid., 639.

7) Moyne and Barks, 26.

8) Edward C. Dimock, Jr., and Denise Levertov, trans., In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 57.

9) A.J. Alston, trans., The Devotional Poems of Mirabai (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980), 59.

10) Daniel Ladinsky, I Heard God Laughing: Renderings of Hafiz (Walnut Creek, CA: Sufism Reoriented, 1996), 35.