Naked Before the Sacred
Note: This is Part Two of a three-part series. Read Part One here.
one will hunger.
one will lie.
O you, don't you rib
and taunt me
for having a body:
body Thyself for once
like me and see
O Ramanatha. ~ Devara Dasimayya
Tara, You are 'Cintamayi', Full of Thought,
but do You ever give me a thought?
In name You worry for the World,
but Your behavior is something else!
At dawn You make me think of the day's troubles,
at mid-day I concentrate on my stomach,
at night, on my bed,
I worry about everything.
Speak to me, Ma; I'm always calling You:
at first I thought I had You --
the One Who Becomes What One Thinks
Who Surpasses All Thought
But then You lost all thought for Sambhucandra,
and gave him the slip. ~ Kumar Sambhucandra Ray
Years ago, on the first eight-day silent retreat I had made in many years, as I was processing difficult experiences of loss and transition, my director said, "God is not a china doll. He won't break." That is, he won't break if you speak candidly or even harshly to him. Many years earlier, another director wrote to me while I was on summer experiment as a Jesuit novice, "Tell him everything."
The counsel of both directors suggested a stance of openness, honesty, and transparency before the Divine, to stand naked before God in one's deepest, most authentic human experience. And this can mean feeling—and expressing—terrible grief, sadness, anger, or confusion at times. We don't need to intellectualize or spiritualize or ultimately neutralize our lived, felt, real experience, as we cry out, "Where are you?" with pious platitudes or vapid maxims of faith. No, instead, we can, as in certain psalms attributed to David, baldly express our anguish and simply, naturally cry out. God can take it. Even Jesus, approaching his death, modeled this frank, soul-searing honesty—drawing from one of psalms himself—"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Sometimes, strange or even amusing things may happen in an authentic expression in crisis. One time, driving back to Erie from Philly for the hundredth time, bereft by my failed marriage and by a long-distance separation from my children, and burdened by mountainous debt, broken wheel joints, and an increasing financial desperation, I blurted out frantically, "God, please, I need help! I can't do this! I need some money!"
It felt strange and deeply uncomfortable to pray for money, perhaps viewing it as ultimately insignificant compared to the grand questions of liberation and certainly vastly less important than the needs of billions of persons suffering in far worse circumstances. I'm sure there was some sort of residual and misguided Platonism there for me, too, as though the real world is somehow inferior to an ideal world, or that the economies of liberation in the world's religious traditions rightly seem to minimize or diminish real-world needs or pressures. Nevertheless, it was as if those pressures twisted my arm into a half-nelson, and I finally pleaded for help. The next day, returning to my office, I received a letter from the publisher of my first book, a scholarly study of Indian philosophy. It was a royalty check. I was overjoyed as I opened the envelope. Yes! I thought, Thank you!
Thomas A. Forsthoefel, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of Religious Studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. He served as poet laureate of northwestern Pennsylvania (Erie County) 2010-2012. His work focuses on the religions and philosophies of India, and he has published numerous articles and has written or collaborated on several books, including, Knowing Beyond Knowledge: Epistemologies of Religious Experience in Classical and Modern Advaita, a study of cognitive dimension of religious experience in Hindu non-dualism; Gurus in America, an edited volume; Soulsong: Seeking Holiness, Coming Home, a cross cultural exploration of holiness; and Dalai Lama: Essential Writings.