The Hunger of the Soul
By Nancy Pope Mayorga
Publisher: Studio City, CA: Inner Quest Publishing, 2009.
From 1948 to 1980 Nancy Pope Mayorga, a Vedantist and a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda, kept a spiritual diary of her inner experiences, her struggles, and her ecstasies, sometimes describing “such ecstatic joy as to be almost unbearable to my body.”
She had no intention to publish this record of her inner life. But in 1980 a friend visiting her house discovered it “wedged in a corner, its manila cover dusty.” The friend recalls, “Curiosity prevailed over my respect for privacy. As I turned the pages, I found myself deeply moved by the marvellous revelations it contained. Could the author of this remarkable spiritual diary, who recorded living so many days in spiritual bliss, be the same woman now engrossed in a crossword puzzle (she was an expert) in the next room?”
At the urging of many friends, Mayorga finally agreed to let the diary be published, giving it a title from one of her favourite quotations, from William Law: “The hunger of the soul is the first necessity. All else will follow.” She added one note after the last diary entry:
I have never been, and am not now, a recluse. During the thirty years covered by these notes, I kept house for my family, nursed my mother and father through their last illnesses, and after my husband died, ran a fair-sized business for my son. The outer, worldly life is by no means incompatible with the inner spiritual life.
In 1948, in her first attempts at meditation, she followed the instructions in Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms. She sat down, “determined to make my mind a still lake.” She records, “I concentrated my whole attention, with all the strength of my being…. I was at once grabbed, swept upward, completely out of myself … beyond space, beyond time, into an unlocated, timeless, inexpressible bliss.” A few months later she wrote:
The soul stands steady in front of God, bathed in His radiance, rendered motionless with bliss … I see a luminous darkness, and if I hold that sight in a spirit of resignation, expectancy but total self-surrender, intense self-surrender, then my whole being loses itself to burn in that luminous darkness with a sweetness and delight that brings me near to fainting…. St. John says the soul is being burned free of its impurities. I believe that.
Throughout the diary Mayorga quotes liberally from mystics and great thinkers as varied as Lao-Tsu, William James, Saint Augustine, Plotinus, Ramakrishna, St. Francis de Sales, and Shankara, finding a mirror of her own experience in their words. For example, she quotes Thomas Merton: “And we long for the place He has destined for us and weep with desire.” Then she exclaims: “Do you think this is rhetoric? Figurative language? No, no, no! Out of the soul’s extremity when it is abandoned, out of its sick loneliness, real, physical, hot, salt tears are wrung. I have felt them roll down my cheeks. I have been - just recently - on my knees before God. Begging.”
The diary often dwells on her interactions with Swami Prabhavananda. One time, with great trepidation, she tells him that after years of making steady progress, it all seemed to have stopped. He replied, speaking slowly, “In the first place, you have to realize that no person can judge his own progress. It is like a man walking up a gradual incline. He himself cannot see how far up he has gone.” Reflecting later on this conversation, she wrote:
Probably I could not have come to Swami Prabhavananda any sooner than now. If I had come earlier, I would have come with lots of little conceits and my mind not fully made up. After a year and a half of wandering in a desert land, I dumped many of my conceits and found out with all sureness what it was I wanted above all.
Then, in a later entry, she joyfully writes:
Now, now I am coming to the goal toward which I have been struggling for 10 years - a constant remembrance of God. Almost uninterrupted, day and night, day in and day out, that bliss courses through me. I never really believed it could be achieved, not by me anyway. But it is here, it is here, ever since God took my heart. There He lives, filling it completely. Oh how is it possible that there should be such joy? Joy that never grows less, never palls, but increases and expands.
On another occasion Swami Prabhavananda encouraged her, saying “You have to make efforts, yes, tremendous efforts, but ultimately everything depends on the grace of God. You’ve heard me tell about raising your sail to catch the breeze. So go on doing what you’re doing and be patient.”
Her interviews with her guru are lively, a blend of reverence, intimacy, and humour. She writes, “The last time, I was complaining to him that he had not given me enough instruction. He said, ‘You have been initiated.’ ‘Yes.’ He burst forth explosively, ‘Well then, what more do you want? You have been killed already!’ We both burst out laughing.”
The diary alternates between such accounts of learning from her guru and descriptions of her inner experiences. Attempting to relate an inner experience, she writes:
Let me see if I can describe it. There is a beautiful, clear, all-pervading light, tranquil yet pregnant with promise; still, yet very much alive. It has to be held by the inner eye with the utmost care and yet without tension…. Then comes the most tempting distraction - bliss, glowing and increasing with the intensity of the attention, as the glow of an ember is increased by blowing on it. This has to be ignored. This too is a distraction. And here faith must be strong, faith to believe that what is to come is far greater than the bliss of the moment. And yet it is not a matter of mere intellectual belief. There is something deep that says, “Go on, go on! Don’t let yourself be side-tracked.” Dear God! I must go through. Take me!
Another entry reads:
In all my life I have never known such a morning. When I controlled my inclination to make efforts of my own, I was invaded by God, purified, comforted, encouraged, reassured, in a way I could not have invented nor dreamed. The miracle is this; that you not only believe in God, but you feel that He has a very personal and special interest in you and your progress.
As the years passed, Mayorga feels increasingly detached:
I feel less and less interest in this world. I feel like someone staying at a motel. Very little of me is here and it’s only overnight, and I’m not interested in fixing it up because I’ll be gone in the morning and nothing of me will be left in that impersonal room. Nothing to get attached to in a motel room, nothing to miss, and no regrets on leaving.
As the book nears its end, she writes:
At the deeper level of ecstasy, the body has no part. It is soul to Soul. It is, as John of the Cross says, “the deep and soft voice of God, Who speaks to the heart in solitude; it is in profound peace and tranquillity that the soul is to listen to God.” That tranquillity is fathomless, and the joy indescribable. Just one tranquil sea of joy.
The final entry in the diary, dated October 28, 1980, three years before her death, reads:
The journey is not ended yet. Perhaps it will not end, even with death. So my final comment may not be final at all. But here it is: My conclusions, my deductions, even my intuitions can be argued with. But my experiences, no. I have tasted sugar and found it to be sweet. You may say to me, “You might be mistaken. It may be sour. It may be salty.” And I will say to you, “It is sweet.” I have been in the water; it is wet. The stuff of the universe is consciousness, and the nature of consciousness is bliss.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.