Recently I was asked to read a book… on yoga, but in many ways its teaching corresponds with commonly accepted notions of the spiritual life. It revealed in a startling way the cleavage between it and Christian mysticism, and also the enormous difficulties it creates for God.
There is no question of my discussing yoga in itself. It would be sheer presumption as I do not know enough about it. My concern is only with what is thought to be the mystical experience or awareness. It is quite clear that what is sought [there] is what man can achieve with no transcendence of his own nature.
The yogist, so this book claims, strives by self-discipline and especially by an effort to empty the mind, to free the psyche for an experience of the self. All along it is a question of making oneself perfect, becoming the perfect man, removed from the weaknesses and wearinesses of human life.
This is a most subtle form of pride and a most effective block to God’s love. Christian mysticism is essentially God’s work, and progressively the soul must abandon its own striving, abandon even its own desire for perfection, which in biblical terms is the law.
Incidentally, another point of cleavage with the Christian tradition is the emphasis on the mind, the emptying of the mind. It seems all the energy of the soul is employed in emptying the mind. Is there any left to love with?
Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, 18-19
Reflection – Well, back into controversy I go. But I don’t want to. People often ask me what my opinion of ‘yoga’ is, and should a Christian do yoga. My response so far has been simple: I am not an expert on the subject, but as far as I can see the mere act of arranging ones limbs and torso into various physical postures that seem to have health benefits cannot logically in and of itself be spiritually injurious. But if the physical movements are accompanied by interior movements of the mind and the heart that derive from some other religious or spiritual tradition, that is where the trouble arises. I may be wrong, and there are Christian voices that insist yoga is intrinsically evil, but I am not persuaded by the arguments I have heard on that subject.
But anyhow that’s not what Burrows is talking about—she clearly takes the same line as I do on this, and confines her remarks here to this one book she read, and does not intend to pass judgment on yoga per se—and it really isn’t what I want to talk about, either. I chose this excerpt, not because she refers to yoga and this is something of a ‘hot topic’ in some circles, but because of the connection she draws to a much bigger and broader topic. Namely, what is our vision of human perfection?
Yoga or no yoga, I think many people have an idea of what being a truly ‘spiritual’ person is, or what being a fully realized human being is, that is more or less what she describes here. Someone removed from the weakness and weariness of life. Someone serene, untroubled, wrapped in some kind of impenetrable armor made of equal parts of tranquility, self-sufficiency, and smugness. Someone who has the answers. Someone who is above the fray, and wafts along on a cloud far above the stinking mass of humanity.
Well, maybe I exaggerate a bit. But I think something like this lurks in the minds of many people as the general idea of what a spiritual person is to be. And I thank God (and Ruth Burrows) that I got exposed to this other vision of perfection and true spiritual life at such a young age.
True spiritual perfection is one thing and one thing only: the perfection of love. And love does not remove us from the fray, send us up on a cloud away from people and their messy problems and pains. Love plunges us right down into the heart of the world, into the anguish of our brothers and sisters, into the passion of the world lived out in the passion of this one, and that one, and that one, and the next one.
I am not even slightly interested in being the proverbial guru popular in Western pop culture, living up on a mountain top and receiving supplicants seeking words of wisdom. Jesus went up on the mountain top and was transfigured there… and came right back down that mountain and plunged into the sufferings of his people, to heal, deliver, console, exhort, teach, and soon enough climbed another kind of mountain to suffer and die for them and rise again.
There is indeed a purification of the mind that goes on in this, but it does not consist in an emptying of the mind, but its right ordering in the order of charity, of love. It is all about love, all about being in such a communion with the Trinity that the love of God becomes the active principle of our life, both the pattern and the source of all our actions, words, thoughts.
That, and that alone is Christian perfection, and that is something so far beyond our capacity that no spiritual exercise, no ascetical practice, no ‘yoga’, no prayer, no nothin’ will get us there. But God will, and God does, and God wants to get us there. And that is our great hope in all this.
P.S. I write this aware that I have readers all over the world, including a substantial number in India. I should clarify that what goes by the name ‘yoga’ in North America, and indeed many of the practices and terminologies of the great Eastern religions, is often quite remote from the original meaning, discipline, and full context in which it arose. I write, as I must, for my largely North American audience, but wish to be clear that the reference here is to the North American appropriation of Eastern religious concepts, and not to those concepts and practices as they actually exist in their proper milieu.