The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 33: Abide in Me

 
V0033382 Christ as the vine; the Apostles and Evangelists as branches

Christ as the vine; the Apostles and Evangelists as branches: Wellcome Library, London.  images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature. Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me. They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me. Wherever they may live, they abide in me.  (BG, 6:30-31) 

Compare it to these words of Jesus:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, NRSV).

There are three big ideas here: 1) that the Incarnate One is always with you, inside of you, 2) that you can abide, or dwell in the Lord of Life, and 3) that what you do, the fruit you bear, is the life and activity of God being expressed in you.  

Sure, we say, “God is everywhere,” but omnipresence is something we sort of take for granted. That God is in my neighbor, I can imagine with a little effort. That God is in my dog, or a fruit fly, or a piece of rotting fruit is another. In everyday life, we come to regard the world as disposable. It is far from sacred because it is so ordinary.

I think that’s why Jesus uses the vine metaphor. There is nothing “ordinary” about life or existence itself, about the fact that this strange divine energy is being pumped into us all the time, without our even being aware of it. There is only awareness and unawareness of this ceaseless miracle.

Becoming aware, mindful, is what is meant by “abiding.” Once you become aware, stay in this space. Cultivate awe. Linger over beauty. Allow yourself to be amazed by human beings. Stay curious about God’s infinite diversity in the world. The fruit fly and the rotting fruit both have something to say. So does your dog. So does your neighbor, even if he is kind of a jerk.

If you stay in this space of constant wonder, viewing each moment as a miracle from God, then your action cannot help but become divine. You’re not just going through the motions of living—you are an expression of God’s limitless love. Washing dishes? Miraculous. Writing a paper? Miraculous. Disciplining a child? Miraculous. Holding the hand of a loved one? Awe-inspiring.

Abiding is not a passive thing. We have the capacity for so much more wonder and awe. With attention, the sages say, we could walk around through life totally gob-smacked with the goodness of God. Wouldn’t that be a great way to live?  

Prayer:
Abide in me abiding in You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 32: Meditation Posture

 

Amitabha, Tibet, 145 CE. Photo by David Barnhart, taken at the Encountering the Buddha exhibit at the Smithsonian

 

Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass. Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts. Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified. Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering. With all fears dissolved in the peace of the Self… sit in meditiaon with me as your only goal. (BG, 6:11-14

Krishna shifts to telling Arjuna some specific steps in meditation.

I share this section because there are two truths about meditation posture: the first is that your exact physical posture isn’t important. The second is that your physical posture is very important.

If you go to a meditation class or speak to people who have practiced for years, you’ll learn that most practitioners have options: cushion, bench, or chair; walking meditation or lying on the floor; hands clasped, open, or in mudras; eyes open or closed. It was in watching a video of an old woman meditating near a stupa that I finally realized: just do whatever works. She was sitting on the ground, leaning on one arm. The other rested across one raised knee. Her eyes were fixed at a middle distance on the ground. She was smiling softly. She looked comfortable but alert, something I rarely achieved in my own meditation posture. But she wasn’t hung up on having her legs in the lotus position or her arms just so.

There’s a balance here. Once you understand the purpose of meditation, posture may not be so important. But for the novice unlearning a lifetime of bad posture habits, physical position can be a hang-up. We are physical beings and how we orient out bodies in space can help or hinder our mental and spiritual experience. If our attention becomes fixated on our comfort, seeking the least distracting position can become a distraction itself. This is part of what hatha yoga is intended to do: prepare you for meditation. You move and stretch your body because sitting still in meditation is hard work!

Yesterday I said Easwaran’s translation in this chapter feels a bit too focused on willpower. Listen to the active verbs he uses in the above passage: strive, hold, keep. I think these verbs reinforce “achievement” spirituality. Compare it to the Feuerstein translation, which has only one active verb, sit:

Holding trunk, head, and neck even, motionless, and steady, gazing [relaxedly] at the tip of his nose and without looking round about, [with] tranquil self, devoid of fear… he should sit, intent on Me. (6:13-14).

The trick in meditation, as with life, is to find the balance between effort and relaxation, active attention and passive noticing. For me, it’s not so much stilling my thoughts as letting them play, like active toddlers, until they come to rest naturally. It’s not helpful when my achievement-oriented brain is yelling at them, “RELAX!”

And the same is true with the body. I begin with an awareness of my body, because until I become intentionally aware of my body and appreciate its posture, it will become a persistent distraction.

Prayer:
Embodied, Incarnate One, you made, for me, a body; You made me as a body;
You made me more than a body.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 31: The Will and the Self

 
530-520 BC

Hydria with Depiction of Quadriga, Charioteer and Hoplite, Workshop of Lysippides Painter, 530-520 BC. From Wikimedia Commons. The Bhagavad-Gita describes the human person as a chariot, with the will as the driver and the Self as the lord who rides along.

 

Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will. The will is the only friend of the Self; and the will is the only enemy of the Self. (BG, 6:5

This is a place where it’s worth doing some language study. The above translation is from Easwaran, which I have used for most of these devotionals. But I think it’s important here to compare it to the Feuerstein translation:

He should raise the self by the Self; he should not let the self sink; for, [as] the self is indeed the friend of the Self, [so also] is the self indeed Self’s enemy. 

As I’ve said, I don’t know Sanskrit at all. My Hebrew is pretty thin, and my Greek is only slightly better. I rely on language experts and multiple translations to help me wrestle with ancient scriptures. The issue in this passage is the various creative ways atman is used.

Easwaran chooses to make this a distinction between the will and the Self. Feuerstein instead goes with “lower self” and “higher Self.” Either way, the notion is that the part of us that is truly divine and eternal, that aspect of our consciousness that retains a connection to the Lord of Life, is the real higher Self. But in our confusion, we often think of the part of us that decides and has agency as who we really are. This is the lower self, or as Easwaran interprets it, our will.

The reason I prefer the Feuerstein translation in this instance is that in the next few verses, Krishna is going to talk about meditation, and I think our Western way of thinking about the will, and willpower, and self-control, and achievement often poison our understanding of meditation. People will say, “I’m no good at meditation,” because they’ve been taught that it’s about controlling your thoughts. It’s a paradox present in so much spiritual growth, that we have to learn how to relax. People sit down to meditation with the idea that they are going to grit their teeth and really focus. Through effort and intense concentration they are going to still their thoughts.

It’s like trying to pick up a towel while you are standing on it.  

We will look more, eventually, at the different components of the self, this thing I think of as I. But for now, let’s rest with this truth: There is part of me that is pure consciousness (Self), and there is part of me that has agency and makes decisions (lower self, or will). The part of me that has agency can facilitate my knowing my Self, or it can obscure it. Deciding to decide in favor of my Self is one of the most important decisions I can make, and yet I often choose distraction. I procrastinate on enlightenment. Paul expresses something similar: “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate” (Romans 7:15, CEB).

My self can be an ally of my Self, or it can be an enemy. Do I have the courage to explore why?

Prayer:
Master of my Self, help me master my self.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 30: Pleasures and Treasures

 
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Detail of a botched “restoration” of a painting of Mary by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. News story here.

 

Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (BG, 5:22-24)  

Yesterday I pointed out that like the Sermon on the Mount, the above quote singles out the passions of anger and lust as particular traps. It also connects to Jesus’s words in another way:

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them.  Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, CEB)

Earthly treasures have this in common: they end. We value them for a time because they bring pleasure to the senses, but when they end we feel sad, or angry, and we long for more.

My mind goes to news of the recent botched painting restoration in Spain. Of course we want things of beauty to be preserved, and we want great works of art to last so that they can be seen by future generations. But nothing lasts forever, and sometimes our efforts to preserve our pleasure actually lead to ruin. This particular amateur “restoration” left the Virgin Mary looking hideous and goofy.

Yes, the ruin of a beautiful work of art is sad and outrageous, but I can’t help laughing when I see these photographs. Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. Sometimes we try to “hold on” to an aesthetic experience of great art by possessing a painting, as if owning it will let us own the feeling of it. We put art in museums (to visit occasionally) or on our walls (where they become simply more furniture). Sometimes artists, like Banksy, try to draw our attention to the strange relationship between art, temporality, money, and ownership by destroying their own art.

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Banksy released a video of the “rehearsal” of his prank. Excellent in-depth news here.

Our desire to possess, to keep, to hold on, all of this is attachment. We get angry because our attachment is threatened. We covet and lust because we want to own. We want to preserve this moment of pleasure or comfort and carry it into the next one, and the next, which is an impossible task.

Jesus says our real treasure is “in the heavens,” or the skies. Krishna says it is within ourselves. I think there is little difference between the two.

Prayer:
God of Time and Timelessness, of the Eternal and the Finite, help me to find my treasure in you,
in the sky, in myself.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 29: Anger and Lust

 
Jheronimus_Bosch_Table_of_the_Mortal_Sins_(Luxuria)2

Detail of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, by Heironymus Bosch, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (5:22-24)  

We’ll pause on this text for a couple of days, because there are some important parallels to the Sermon on the Mount. Anger and lust also feature in some of the most memorable parts of Jesus’s dialogue. They are the first two sins in what I call his Commandments for the Heart:

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22, CEB)

“You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28, CEB)

(You can read my commentary on these passages here and here.)

I think warnings against anger and lust feature in so many religious traditions because they are passionate feelings in which we lose ourselves and our perspective. They are some of our most primal emotions, and they can distort not only individuals and personal relationships, but also communities and policies.

I am quick to point out that there is both righteous anger and holy sexual desire. Anger can be a gift that alerts us to a healthy boundary being violated or to the presence of injustice. Sexual desire can bring more life into the world, both in terms of babies and in terms of pleasure and fruitful relationships.

But anger is more often a fragile ego’s response to being disrespected: someone cuts in line, or says something mean about me, or twists my words. Lust is likewise often a desire to possess, or an evaluative gaze that measures human bodies as objects of relative value: this one is an “8,” and that one is a “10.” This is why Jesus advises gouging out your eye or chopping off your hand to avoid it.

For primitive creatures, these emotions are about survival—this is why Krishna says “they arise in the body.” For humans in community, though, they are more about social status. We react so strongly because we feel our very survival is at stake, which is usually not true. They distract us from who we really are. We become attached to things that have no lasting value: getting revenge or satisfying our craving. 

We have even come to institutionalize these passions. We can look at the news and see white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism as anger (violence) and lust (greed) embodied in police brutality, mass incarceration, wealth inequality, and environmental destruction. Many fragile egos, struggling like crabs in a bucket, create harmful systems in which people and the planet cannot thrive.

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
God of Abundance, you fill our every need. Grant us the wisdom to know the things that make for lasting happiness.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 28: Service and Non-Attachment

 
V0033382 Christ as the vine; the Apostles and Evangelists as branches

Christ as the vine; the Apostles and Evangelists as branches, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Those who follow the path of service, who have completely purified themselves and conquered their senses and self-will, see the Self in all creatures and are untouched by any action they perform. Those who know this truth, whose consciousness is unified, think always, “I am not the doer.” (BG, 5:7-8)

Arjuna has asked Krishna to finally tell him which is better: the way of the contemplation [renunciation] or the way of action [karma-yoga]? Krishna has answered—sort of—by saying that selfless service is “better” in that it is more practical and accessible. But that service should not be performed with the notion that one is earning anything. Krishna concludes by saying “I am not the doer” should be the mantra of someone who is truly serving.

I reflected a couple of weeks ago on this enigmatic statement:

The process of offering is Brahman; that which is offered is Brahman. Brahman offers the sacrifice in the fire of Brahman. Brahman is obtained by those who see Brahman in every action. (BG, 4: 24)

Rather than participating in the realm of karma, of anticipating reward or punishment, success or failure, wise people act with a sense of non-attachment to the results. It is really God who acts; my job is to simply get out of the way, to be an instrument. This is Hinduism at its most transcendent: those who are united with ultimate reality become simply instruments of God. Karma, like a childhood disciplinarian, is left behind for a more mature spiritual life. 

Christianity has a parallel to this union with the divine. After all, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and “apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But Christianity has still been plagued with a theology of ego and deserving. I’ve heard Christians talk about “earning another jewel in your crown” for good deeds. Heaven and hell are often described as places of reward and punishment.

This isn’t official doctrine, of course: Protestant evangelism tries to free people from this cosmic ledger by proclaiming that Jesus settles accounts for us, freeing us from trying to earn God’s favor. Jesus extends to us the free gift of God’s grace. We are invited into a relationship of love, and no longer have to sacrifice to appease God, because God has already performed the ultimate sacrifice by God’s own self. Yet we are invited to deny ourselves (renounce) and “take up our cross” (act) and join Jesus in this cosmic sacrificial act. By doing so, we find eternal life.

But the theology of deserving keeps creeping in through the back door. The fatal flaw of evangelicalism is that as long as we only see self-sacrifice as an act of appeasement, instead of an act of creative love, of birth, of the artist’s ultimate commitment to their work, of resistance in the face of injustice, of liberation, or as God’s own sacrifice to God’s own Divine Self, we are stuck in a reward/punishment scheme. Grace is still subservient to karma. This is why people experience some forms of Christian evangelicalism as abusive, and why it has made such a cozy partner for patriarchy and white supremacy.

This is why we cannot separate renunciation and action, contemplation and service. When we serve, we are not scoring points in the cosmic ledger: we are joining God in God’s action.

Prayer:
God Who Acts, act in me; act through me; and let me be still.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 27: Spirituality and Materiality

 
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Photo by Moyan Brenn, from Wikimedia Commons. License info: https://www.flickr.com/people/28145073@N08/

While I’ve been going slowly through the Bhagavad-Gita, I’ve also been reading Walter Brueggemann’s Materiality as Resistance.

At first glance, Brueggemann’s thesis is almost the opposite of the Gita. He argues that the church has been far too focused on “spirituality,” and should pay more attention to “materiality,” to the things that make a neighborhood: time, place, food, money, and the body. Focusing on the spiritual and the hereafter has allowed the church neglect the importance of the materiality of human existence. The Law, the prophets, and Jesus all return our attention to what is front of us: God is in our neighbor, in the poor, in the community. Something as mundane as managing and sharing physical resources (like food or money) is the activity of God. God reminds us over and over again that scarcity is a myth: God has more than enough for ALL of us to survive.

Brueggemann also reminds us of the way abstract ideas like “systemic racism” are played out in material ways. I think of time wasted because Birmingham doesn’t have adequate public transportation, or time valued only if it is producing consumer goods in our capitalist economy. Place colonized, gentrified, or devalued because of redlining. Food deserts. Money refused in a loan, or confiscated by civil asset forfeiture. The body incarcerated, or subject to police violence, or tokenized, or fetishized.

When Paul says that “We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12), we should remember this spiritual struggle still has a material aspect. The most spiritual among us will be intensely focused on the now. They may be able to experience bliss and unity with God, but they will also feel the suffering of the least and lost.  

The point of the Gita’s metaphysics is not simply to have us attending to “the music of the spheres,” but attending to the breath in meditation, being fully present in the now, and seeing what is truly in front of us. I keep reminding myself as I read that all of Arjuna and Krishna’s dialogue is supposed to be happening in the moments before a great battle.

I think this is why the principle of non-dualism is so important. More than one thing can be true at a time, and the most important truths are almost all paradox: we are separate but one. Sinners yet saints. Alone but never alone. Finite yet infinite, bound by time yet eternal.

And the Kin-dom of God is already here, but not yet present.

It is easy to fall into binary, dualistic perspectives, but spirituality and materiality are two equally important aspects of our existence. Each points to the importance of the other.

Prayer:
Lord of Love, who poured—and continues to pour—yourself into Your Creation: may we never be so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good


NOTE: Because of the protests around the murder of George Floyd and the heightened consciousness of systemic racism, I’m going to take a brief intermission from the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita next week. I will spend a few days talking about Drug policy and the Church. Drug policy and criminal justice are some of the main vectors of systemic racism in the United States.

I hope you will stick with these devotionals for this intermission. We’ll return to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita on June 15.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 26: The City of Nine Gates

 
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Thessaloniki, by Berthold Werner. From Wikimedia Commons

Those who renounce attachment in all their deeds live content in the “city of nine gates,” the body, as its master. They are not driven to act, nor do they involve others in action.  (BG, 5:13)

Krishna has been talking about the way the wise person, by understanding and identifying with the Self, can act without being attached to the results. Today I want to spend a moment on this descriptive metaphor for the human body: “the city of nine gates.” There is a fascinating allegory in another scripture, the Srimad Bhagavatam, that goes along with this metaphor, about a king (the Self), his queen (intelligence), their many bodyguards (the senses), and all the bodyguards’ wives (the desires) who inhabit the city of nine gates (the body).

There’s some ambiguity in how humans understand the body and our relationship to it. Are we a soul in a body, like a ghost in a machine? Are we our body, with our consciousness created simply by chemical reactions in our brains? Are we a “psychosomatic unity,” with body and consciousness intertwined?

I love the notion of the body as a city, with traffic constantly coming and going, with many symbiotic and competing processes going on inside. The “gates” are the places traffic comes and goes: sensory data, food, waste, reproduction. It is so much different than the “machine” metaphor which arose during the European Enlightenment, that looks at the body as simply a collection of parts. A city, by contrast, is only a city because there are many living creatures in it. It is hub of ceaseless activity, even when it appears to be still.

Compare the idea to this Proverb from the Bible: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28).

I’m reminded of another metaphor used in the Bible: “…don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you? Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves?” (1 Corinthians 6:19, CEB). We who never saw the Temple in Jerusalem might think of the temple as a simply a beautiful place of worship, but it was likewise a hub of activity, with gates, a courtyard, and different kinds of holy spaces for different kinds of tasks.

In both the Gita and the Bible, the question is this: do we really inhabit our bodies and treat them appropriately, or do we allow our desires and passions to rule us? Do we mis-identify the Self with the body, ruled by the notion that every desire must be gratified, allowing just any traffic in and out of its gates? Or do we manage our bodies as if they are whole ecosystems, treating them with reverence and love?

I have to note that the phrase “your body is a temple” is often used to shame people. There is enough body dysphoria in the world! Fat-shaming and slut-shaming are two particularly pernicious ways this metaphor gets used in our society. But there are so many different kinds of temples and cities in the world, and if they were all the same there would be no point in tourism! The metaphor is intended to help us: you get to live in this city, with all its quirks and beautiful spaces, its unique characters and particular spirit. Learning to love our city and manage it well is part of becoming a mature and wise human.

Revering the body as a temple, or a city, also means that we must do justice to other bodies. Incarceration, police brutality, violence enacted against other bodies is violence against God.

Prayer: This body is the container, the vehicle, the temple, and the city of my human experience. God bless my body!


NOTE: Because of the protests around the murder of George Floyd and the heightened consciousness of systemic racism, I’m going to take a brief intermission from the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita next week. I will spend a few days talking about Drug policy and the Church. Drug policy and criminal justice are some of the main vectors of systemic racism in the United States.

I hope you will stick with these devotionals for this intermission. We’ll return to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita on June 15.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 25: Interlude: Non-dualism, Non-attachment, and Social Justic

 
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As we go through this study on the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible, I’m struck by how applicable some of the lessons are to our current moment. We are living during a mass extinction due to climate change, in a global pandemic, in Depression-era unemployment, with non-existent federal leadership, in the midst of civil unrest over systemic racism, police brutality, and surging racial and economic inequality.

An exploration of consciousness may seem abstract and metaphysical, but remember: all of the dialogue in the Bhagavad-Gita takes place in the moments before a great battle. This is all preparation for a fight. Awakening and enlightenment are not about escape from the world, but about engagement with it. Krishna tells Arjuna to “act without attachment to the results,” to practice “non-duality and non-attachment.”

When we feel helpless and don’t know what to do, this is what the Bhagavad-Gita says to return to: see the Lord of Love present in every creature; recognize that we all come from God and all return to God; marvel at the mystery of life; reject simplistic binaries of right and wrong or black and white; understand that even your enemies are on a journey; and finally, without selfish desire, act courageously for the sake of life and the world.

For me, that means standing up to bullies and showing up for the oppressed. It means addressing white supremacy and systemic injustice. I may lose the fight. I may win, but at enormous cost. I may win, and still do harm I regret. I may make mistakes. I may sometimes feel that no good deed goes unpunished. I may be criticized and publicly shamed. I may get accolades and feel hollow.

None of that is the point. Overcoming our timidity about love and justice is. We need not act with a divided mind if we are not attached to the outcomes. Winning or losing is not the point. We shouldn’t even be too attached to “being right!”

Martin Luther, in his letter to Philip Melanchthon, wrote “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.” He was not exhorting people to sin, but to recognize that we do not earn rewards by picking the “right” behaviors. We may sin, intentionally or unintentionally, but it is better to own it and trust God’s mercy than to tiptoe through life.

In the movie Princess Mononoke, the main character, Ashitaka, is cursed and forced to leave his home. He can only be cured by finding the source of the pollution, a war with many competing factions that is destroying the forest. In order to discover the cure, he has to “see with eyes unclouded by hate.” He stoically accepts his fate and wades into the conflict, showing all the virtues of a Buddhist warrior-monk.

Knowing the “Self” helps us to act. And by acting, we come to know the “Self.”

Prayer:
Let my contemplation lead to action. Let my action lead to contemplation.


NOTE: Because of the protests around the murder of George Floyd and the heightened consciousness of systemic racism, I’m going to take a brief intermission from the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita next week. I will spend a few days talking about Drug policy and the Church. Drug policy and criminal justice are some of the main vectors of systemic racism in the United States.

I hope you will stick with these devotionals for this intermission. We’ll return to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita on June 15.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 24: Divine Worship

 
Notre-Dame de de la Daurade - Chapelle des anges adorateurs

Chapel of the worship angels, Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse. From Wikimedia Commons

The process of offering is Brahman; that which is offered is Brahman. Brahman offers the sacrifice in the fire of Brahman. Brahman is obtained by those who see Brahman in every action. (BG, 4: 24)

Krishna has been telling Arjuna that one can reach God [Brahman] by several paths. He has been explaining two paths, contemplation and action, though neither are as unlike each other as we often suppose. He will go on to say there are many sacrifices, besides material sacrifice, that we can offer in true worship.

Here we need to pause again. I’ve been using the word “God” rather loosely. I am fond of saying, “The word ‘God’ is a placeholder.” God is a role, not a name. When pushed to tell God’s name to Moses, God simply says, “I AM,” and one of the first commandments given to God’s chosen people is to rarely use God’s name! God resists being defined and hemmed in.

In the Hebrew Bible, God is very much a personal character—speaking to people, making promises, getting angry, changing God’s mind. In Greek philosophy, all this activity seems a bit barbaric. For the Greeks, God is the unmoved mover, unchanging and untouched by human concerns. Christianity holds these two perspectives in tension: God is both active in history, whose mercies are “new every day,” but simultaneously the creator of time and “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God won’t be restricted by time and space, nor boxed out of it!

Hinduism explores the same tension. Brahman can mean both the uncreated Ultimate Reality, and the “world-ground” [Feuerstein], the foundation of the universe. Theologian Paul Tillich called God “Being Itself” who incorporates both being and non-being, who is both changeless and ceaselessly changing. Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler wrote, “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

What Krishna describes above is an archetype: Brahman is the ritual, the sacrifice, the one offering, and the fire itself. The creation of the universe itself is a ritual offering of God to God. Like a fractal, this action is repeated by all the Creator’s creatures: A monk sitting alone in meditation is sacrificing her time and attention. The prince (like Arjuna) charging into an epic battle against overwhelming oppressive forces is making a sacrifice. The student sitting at the feet of a master is making a sacrifice. The person giving alms to a beggar is making a sacrifice. All replicate the sacrificial action of God.

Christians refer to Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” The whole world exists for the sake of this one historical event, an expression of God’s self-sacrificial love. We also often say that when we serve others, “we are being the hands and feet of Christ.” Yet Christ also claims the place of those being served, the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). When we take part in such simple acts of love, we are participating in God’s own action, returning self-sacrificial love to its Source.

Prayer:
God Who Will Not Be Constrained, may my life and vocation reflect your self-sacrificial, creating, redeeming love; may all our actions and lives be worship.