This is the second installment of excerpts from a small book I wrote last year titled Monk of All Faiths. I based the format on Kahlil Gibran’s classic The Prophet. I’ve added subtitles for online readability. If you like what you read, the book is available in hardcover and ebook editions on Amazon. Enjoy.
An older man said: “My faith is shaken. Tell me, do you still believe in God?”
The monk replied gently: “God. That is such an interesting word for the Great Mystery. God. A word derived from ancient English, meaning good. Many words have been used to describe the Divine throughout the ages, yet every attempt to finish the sentence “God is…” has put human limitations on the indescribable. We cannot possibly define that which lies beyond our senses, thoughts, and emotions with a single label.
Swamis and Sufis
The Hindu swamis taught me that their gods and goddesses are merely reflections of Brahman, the One without a Second. My Sufi brothers describe Allah—which literally means The God—with a multitude of different adjectives in their prayers, each signifying an important aspect of the Divine. This practice is common in Islam. In one Muslim household where I stayed, they had a picture on the wall with the ninety-nine names of God in Arabic. Granted, not all religions have gone down that path. Most Buddhist traditions, for instance, simply refuse to speculate about God.
Philosophers at Heart
Yet, we humans are philosophers at heart. We speculate. Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is our purpose? Who created us? Why? These questions are at the heart of every religion.”
The monk smiled as if he had just thought of a funny joke.
“Now ponder this paradox. I’ve described my religion to you as founded on the principles of oneness and goodness. Yet, I find that I enter into a realm of spiritual poverty when I try to define God as either One or Love or both. In one way or another, God is the answer to every single ‘why’ question that human beings have failed to answer throughout the ages and have still not resolved despite technological advances.
Why does the sun shine? we ask.
Because it is a planet of molten lava that produces warmth through volcanic action, the scientist answers. Yet, even if he thinks otherwise, he has not answered a ‘why’ question but rather a ‘how’ question. He has explained ‘how’ the sun shines, not ‘why’ it shines.
Looking closely, the scientist’s dilemma represents the truth about all ‘why’ questions. In fact, we can answer ‘how’ questions all the way back to the Big Bang, but we cannot answer a single ‘why’ question. We can answer ‘how’ a baby is born but not ‘why,’ ‘how’ the stars align but not ‘why,’ ‘how’ coffee is made but not ‘why’ there exists such a thing as coffee.
As I understand it, God is the why. The Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end. We could use every word from every language to describe God, yet we would still fail.
The prophets who’ve contemplated God deeply have marveled at the sheer majesty of what they have discovered. All of them would admit that they have seen but a fragment.”
The excitement in his voice grew.
“In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna recoils when God tries to reveal his entire majesty. The same thing happens in the Bible. One great Islamic scholar said: “Whatever you think God is, know he is more than that.”
The human mind is too feeble to comprehend the totality of God. We are like a flea on a dog’s body, thinking that the dog is the entire universe. We are like a fish that longs to know the ocean. The ocean is its habitat. It flows through the fish, and the fish flows through it. Yet, the fish can never rise above the ocean and observe it. We are thirsty fish swimming in the ocean of God.”
The monk took a sip of his water, as if to underline what he had just said, then continued in a soft voice.
God is More Than That
“And so, because we cannot know the entirety of God, we latch onto aspects that we can relate to. A heart gives us an insight into how a human body works. Yet, the heart, however necessary, is not the entire body. We can connect to the heart of God, but let us never reduce God to a mere heart. God is more than that.
I believe in God in the same way that a fish believes in the ocean. God is the very reason for my existence, the hidden order of things in the universe. God is part of me, and I am part of God. That is the definition I have come to embrace. And in my commitment to all faiths, I accept every word that attempts to convey the Great Mystery.”
A young woman said: “I am not very religious. In fact, I belong to the fastest-growing group in the world, people who are spiritual but not religious. Could you talk to us about Spirit?”
The monk responded with enthusiasm: “Yes. What you call Spirit has been called many names. Self. Soul. Atman. Essence. The Witness. Pure Awareness. But, as with God, these are only words. The word jasmine does not discharge an aroma. It labels a flower that emits a pleasing fragrance. Similarly, the term Spirit is meaningless unless it points to something real. Yet, when we look around, we cannot find Spirit.
Is it inside?
Is it outside?
Is it everywhere?
Is it nowhere?
In many ways, Spirit is like electricity. We do not see it, and yet it powers the world around us. The mystics understood this. They saw beyond the world of light and shadows.
In the Upanishads, Spirit is described as that which makes the tongue speak but cannot be spoken by the tongue; that which makes the mind think but cannot be thought by the mind; that which makes the eye see but cannot be seen by the eye; that which makes the ear hear but cannot be heard by the ear; that which makes you draw breath but cannot be drawn by your breath.
We cannot see it. We cannot speak it. We cannot hear it. We cannot think it. But we can experience it. All the faiths have devised religious practices to that end, to help us unveil the unseen. From Christian mystics to Yoga masters, Sufi saints, Jewish Kabbalists, Zen Buddhists, and beyond, all have devised techniques. Their methods may vary, but they all agree on one thing. For Spirit to be realized, the body, emotions, and intellect must be transcended.
Transcendence is that most beautiful of spiritual concepts. It means to go beyond. Beyond the mind and body. Beyond duality, time, and space. Beyond language, shapes, and forms. Transcending means letting go of all preconceived notions. We have to stop thinking that Spirit is either ‘in here’ or ‘out there.’ Spirit cannot be reduced to a location or an idea.
Masters of all ages have tried to tell us this.
Follow our methods, they have said, but don’t focus on our methods.
Listen to our words, they have said, but don’t take our words literally.
See where we are pointing, they have said, but don’t look at our fingers.
Without going anywhere, they have said, go beyond your limitations.
Transcend while you remain.
Always Present and Does Not Change
For those who persist, it truly is a beautiful experience. The essence is unborn, undying, everlasting. Fire does not burn it, and water does not wet it. It is always present. It does not change.”
The monk paused to reminisce.
“I can testify that after a direct experience of Spirit, life will never be the same. It is like the spiritual seeker has been living in a darkened room until that point, afraid of a snake curled up in the corner. When the lights are turned on, there is an immediate realization that the snake was really a rope. Even if the lights are turned off after that, the seeker will never again be afraid that the rope is a snake.
Turning on the light for a moment.
That is temporary enlightenment.
Permanent enlightenment is trickier. Only those who repeatedly turn on the light will reach a state of enduring illumination.
Mystics Have Shown the Way
Thankfully, all faiths have produced mystics who have shown us the way. If we truly want to know Spirit, we must take the road less traveled and follow in their footsteps. The pathway may be overgrown in places, and sometimes we may stumble around, but every step will be richly rewarded. As we inch closer to our destination, a direct transcendental perception will serve as our scent. And just like the smell of jasmine, even if we cannot see it, our experience will tell us that it is real.”
Excerpt from Monk of All Faiths © Gudjon Bergmann 2021
All rights reserved.
- Monk of All Faiths: Inspired by The Prophet (fiction)
- Spiritual in My Own Way (memoir)
- Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides (nonfiction)
- Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion (nonfiction)
- Premature Holiness: Five Weeks at the Ashram (novel)
- The Meditating Psychiatrist Who Tried to Kill Himself (novel)
Picture: CC0 License