There was once an old monk who set out on a pilgrimage to the top of a great mountain, for it was said that there the enlightened Being of Wisdom lived. When after many long months the majestic mountain finally appeared before him, he approached an old woman by the roadside and asked if she knew how much longer he would have to walk before attaining his goal.
The woman just looked up, said nothing, and returned to her work. He repeated the question a second and then a third time, but still she did not answer. Thinking she was unable to hear, he walked on. However, after just a few dozen steps he heard her suddenly call out to him: “Holy One, it’s going to take you two more days to reach the top of the mountain.”
Somewhat surprised, the old monk called back, “Why didn't you answer my question before?”
“Well,” she replied, “you asked the question while you were standing still. I had to first see how determined your walk and how fast your pace!”
And herein lies the secret of the inner spiritual journey. How determined and committed we are in walking the inner path and how fast our pace is dependent on our innermost desire to succeed in our quest to climb that greatest mountain of all, that of God realization. You see, commitment is the foundation on which our meditation and spiritual life is built; commitment drives us deeper into developing love and devotion for the Father and enhances our desire to merge in him.
But for those of us who struggle with commitment, how can we build on it and sustain it? How can we grasp that invisible quality and allow it to grow in our spiritual life? Well, the Masters say that the best way to build and sustain commitment is through our daily meditation – simran, dhyan and bhajan – because the benefit of our daily meditation is that it creates within us the motivation and drive that propel us towards a stronger, more all-encompassing commitment to our spiritual goal.
And it’s also through commitment and constancy in our daily meditation that we cultivate the three precious virtues of faith, hope and love, each of which drives us deeper into the essential nature of our soul. So the question now arises: What is so unique about these three virtues of faith, hope, and love, and why are they such an important part of our spiritual development?
Well, let’s examine them one by one, beginning with faith. In the Old Testament, faith is described as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”1 What exactly does this mean? Perhaps this can be illustrated by the following short story.
When a traveller in the early days of the American West came to the great Mississippi River, he discovered there was no bridge. Fortunately it was winter and the river was covered over with ice. But the man was deeply afraid to trust himself to the ice, not knowing how thick it was and if it would hold his weight. Finally, with infinite caution he nervously crept across the ice on his hands and knees until he managed to get halfway across. But then, quite suddenly from out of the blue, he heard a loud crack behind him. Shocked and fearful, he swung around and there, to his absolute amazement, came a fellow traveller cracking his whip and confidently singing at the top of his voice while driving a team of four horses who were pulling a large load of coal over the ice!
Now, not every disciple has the faith and confidence of the man driving his team of horses across the ice. Most of us probably resemble the man crawling on his hands and knees, overly cautious and unable to establish a footing of faith and trust in our Master. And why is this? It’s because we are fearful of the unseen and the unknown.
Let’s take the African Impala, a type of deer, as an example of what this means. The African Impala is able jump to a height of over ten feet and also jump a distance of thirty feet if it wants to. Yet these magnificent animals allow themselves to be kept in a walled enclosure in any zoo, even if their enclosure is only three feet off the ground, which they can’t see. The reason for this is that these animals have an inherent fear of jumping if they cannot see where their feet will land, and therefore they remain trapped in their prison house in the zoo.
Similarly, as disciples, even with the support and reassurance of the living perfect Master, we still find it difficult to trust and have faith in what we cannot see or tangibly experience in our spiritual life. If we truly realized that escaping from the prison house of this creation was simply a matter of surrendering our body, mind and soul into the care of our Master – who is always there to guide us into the unseen and unknown – all fear and lack of trust would immediately disappear from our mind.
Jesus extolled the power of faith when he said to his disciples:
Truly I tell you, if you have faith even as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you.2
Julian Johnson in The Path of the Masters wrote about the process of developing faith:
Having now found the Master, what next? Follow him with unwavering faith and determination. In other words, after you have accepted a man as a Master, accept his formula also and work it out with absolute fidelity. If you run up against many problems which cause your boat to rock, hold a steady hand upon the oars of self-mastery and wait while you work. At first there will be puzzling questions. At times you may be inclined to say outright, “I cannot believe it.” But just hold such things in reserve and wait. Do not jump at conclusions. Let them come to you. Wait and work. By and by, your questions will answer themselves; you will be surprised how very easily. When the light becomes strong, the darkness vanishes.3
From faith we now turn to hope. And again a question arises: What is hope? Well, we could say that hope begins in the silence of the darkest moments in our lives. It’s just like a very small candle that, when lit, suddenly illuminates a dark room, allowing us to believe again when life has come to seem utterly hopeless.
An example of hope is that of a twenty-one-week-old fetus who was diagnosed in the mother’s womb with Spina Bifida. The mother was told that it would not survive the birth process. In desperation she approached a surgeon who, she was told, undertook remarkable surgical procedures on babies in the womb, and asked him to try and save her precious child. He agreed to try.
On the day of the operation, just after the surgeon had managed to perform the procedure successfully and was about to close the mother’s womb, a magical thing happened: in front of the entire surgical team, the baby suddenly stretched out its tiny but fully developed hand and firmly grasped the surgeon's finger, as if thanking him for the gift of life.
The surgeon found himself utterly spellbound and riveted to the spot, for he’d never experienced anything quite like this before. A photograph taken during the operation remarkably captured this amazing event with perfect clarity, and was duly handed to the editors of a local newspaper who printed the story and entitled the photograph, “The Hand of Hope.”
You see, where there is life there is always hope. The beauty that arises from hope allows us the courage and confidence as disciples to believe in our own salvation, even when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness of impossibility. It is hope that summons our light, hope that increases our light, and it’s hope that eventually allows us to become the light itself.
For satsangis, confidence in the final outcome of our life, our escape from the wheel of transmigration – from the coming and going of our soul for countless lifetimes in this lower creation – is what gives us immeasurable hope for the future of our soul. And, through the gift of Nam, of initiation into the great Shabd stream, finally, and by the grace of the Master, that wondrous experience of joy, freedom and hope is now available to all of us.
From faith and hope we now arrive at that third precious virtue of love. In the Bible we read:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.4
Thomas à Kempis, a medieval Christian monk and author of The Imitation of Christ wrote:
Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller nor better in heaven or earth; for love is born of God, and can rest only in God, above all created things.
Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil, attempts things beyond its strength; love sees nothing as impossible, for it feels able to achieve all things.5
Real love, which the Masters explain is divine love, is the most natural impulse within human beings and is reawakened through the Master’s gift of Nam. This gift empowers the disciple to soar within to those spiritual heights that enable us to surrender all – body, mind and soul – to love.
For once the floodgates of love for the Master open, there is no stopping inner progress, because divine love has us then very tightly in its grip. And this is a love that deeply caresses our soul and allows the light of our soul to merge into the light of the Master. This love is that great power within all of us that illuminates our way forward on the inner path and eventually delivers us back into the hands of God.
Evelyn Underhill quotes Jan Van Ruysbroeck:
When love has carried us above and beyond all things … we receive in peace the Incomprehensible Light, enfolding us and penetrating us. What is this Light, if it be not a contemplation of the Infinite, and an intuition of Eternity?6
Perhaps at this level it may seem impossible for us to achieve the perfection of this kind of love in all its divinity. However, we can always chase excellence by finding positive actions that complement our spiritual life and enable us to grow towards the perfection of this divine quality.
And the finest action for any disciple is through the four sevas or services to God, these being of body, wealth, mind and soul, carried out selflessly in the name of the Master. Outer seva, the saints and mystics say, is the greatest equalizer and leveller for any disciple, because through seva we learn to work side by side with one another, bending to the opinions and ideas of others, thereby learning submission and humility.
The Great Master, Maharaj Sawan Singh, said:
The reward of selfless service is great indeed. The saying goes: “Render service and reap the fruit thereof.” Human beings can even become saints and swamis through service.
If we render service with an ulterior motive or with pride and arrogance, we are deprived of its real reward. But if we perform service without any desire for reward we can attain great heights.7
So, service to the Master integrates the essence of spirituality within the activities of our daily life. It enables us to give of ourselves selflessly, promoting the very highest and best interest of everyone involved. And it is achieved by cultivating discrimination – learning to act in ways that sustain and support our spiritual life. Living a life of seva is the natural extension of our love for our Master, and we can serve our Master really well by always bringing the four ways of service to all our endeavours and encounters.
Bahauddin, the father of the great mystic Rumi, said:
When I was sick, it came to me that there are two approaches to work. One is bold and quick, fearless in action. The other is worried and constricted with concern about things that could possibly go wrong. If action flows from anxiety, the outcome is murky and disturbed. But if action moves with a swift joy and courage, the world begins to resolve its difficulties and grow whole.8
It’s through this kind of seva, bold and fearless, that we can constantly strive to perfect ourselves, to grow whole. And if we undertake our inner and outer service with deepest humility and the sincere desire to grow spiritually, all life’s impossibilities begin to vanish. Through seva our soul becomes fired with love and devotion for the Master, and this fire fuels our determination and commitment to travel the mystic path one-pointedly – to soar to those wondrous heights that bring us closer to God.
The Sufi mystic Hafiz said:
No one can keep us from carrying God
Wherever we go.
No one can rob His Name
From our hearts as we try to relinquish our fears
And at last stand — Victorious.
We do not have to leave Him in the mosque
Or church alone at night …
Our yearning eyes, our warm-needing bodies,
Can all be drenched in contentment
No one anywhere can keep us
From carrying the Beloved wherever we go.
No one can rob His precious Name
From the rhythm of my heart –
Steps and breath.9
So. How do we carry God, as Hafiz says? We carry him through our daily meditation of simran, dhyan and bhajan, the greatest seva of all, which attaches our mind and soul to the divine unstruck melody within at the eye centre. For it’s this process that guides us gradually towards the perfection of the self and our merging into divine love.
Thomas à Kempis, once again, says:
A life without a purpose is a languid, drifting thing; every day we ought to renew our purpose, saying to ourselves: This day let me make a sound beginning, for what we have hitherto done is naught!10
But, of course, as we all know, hand and hand with that sound beginning every day goes our commitment to and constancy in spiritual practice.
Walking the spiritual path does not mean a gloomy or pessimistic approach to life. It just takes a heart filled with love and devotion for the Master, empathy and tolerance for one another, and a quiet calm that enables us to press forward in all our daily endeavours with faith in our Master, hope that each new day brings us closer to Him, and a love that draws him ever closer to ourselves.
Perhaps for most of us still finding our way, the three divine virtues seem somewhat unattainable. But once we are able to settle into the commitment and discipline of daily meditation, faith, hope and love become a natural part of our life, and the slow transformation into the deepest essence of our nature takes hold. And that is when the quiet and silent joy of discipleship gradually encircles and finally enfolds us.
As we have all likely heard before, one of the most enduring metaphors for spiritual progression is the transformation of the lowly caterpillar into a butterfly, because quite remarkably and quite spectacularly the ground-hugging grub – from out of its very own substance – weaves its metamorphosis. The chrysalis within finally evolves into a beautiful creature with wings.
Similarly, the spiritual path transfigures the very nature of our being because we undergo an equally dramatic transformation, eventually emerging irradiated by the full light of our soul, after great struggle and unfailing love and devotion for the Lord.
But what makes this all possible, ultimately, is the grace, mercy and love of the living perfect Master, who on initiating us into the path of the most sacred and divine Shabd, remains with us throughout the entire spiritual journey, fuelling our desire to evolve and transform and finally transfigure into a God-realized soul.
- Hebrews 11:1 (American King James Version),
- Matthew 17:20 (English Standard Version)
- Julian Johnson, The Path of the Masters, 17th ed., p.192
- 1 Corinthians 13:13 (Gateway NIV)
- Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, tr. Leo Sherley-Price, p.98
- Jan Van Ruysbroeck in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness, p.vi
- Maharaj Sawan Singh, Philosophy of the Masters, Vol. I, 6th ed., p.1
- Coleman Barks, John Moyne, The Drowned Book: Ecstatic and Earthy Reflections of Bahauddin, the Father of Rumi, p.92
- Daniel Ladinski, The Subject Tonight Is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, p.53
- Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice, edited by William Safir, Leonard Safir, p.309