Sunday, 14 October 2012

Spiritual Groups

A spiritual group needs the inspiration of a living person. Mere rules and printed instructions are no substitutes for it. Without such inspiration, no matter how inspired a group was at its inception, time will draw it down into a mire of mediocrity. The real strength of every group is power emanating from its source. In the case of Christianity, that power derives ultimately from Jesus Christ. It also depends on people’s devotional attunement with him. Finally, however, it depends on the living presence of at least one inspired individual. This person need not be the leader. Even the cook, or the gardener, if he or she is filled with love for God, can function as the actual inspiration for an entire community.

The living memory only of a saint can help to keep devotion alive through those disciples for whom that memory is still fresh. If the disciples themselves lose the immediacy of that memory, however, and assuming no one is left to carry forward the baton of inspiration, the group’s devotion will wither in time like a plant without water.

That religious institutions should contain members of the “scribe and Pharisee” type is inevitable. Most people are satisfied with relative goodness, for their own aspiration soars no higher than the attainment after death of an existence in surroundings of astral beauty. Religious institutionalism is better, certainly, than blatant materialism. A problem religious institutions face, however, is the general tendency of every living thing toward either self-expansion or contraction. It is usually easier to maintain the spirituality of a small group than of a large one, provided that the group has someone of genuine charisma to inspire it. St. Teresa of Avila sought to combat spiritual mediocrity in her monasteries by limiting the number of their residents to eighteen.

As spiritual groups increase in size, they become not only organized, but institutionalized. Their leaders often reason that, since God is the Supreme Good, any increase in membership will benefit humanity itself. Once proselytizing zeal sets in like concrete, it is easy for one to be diverted from his spiritual goals. Mass conversion becomes a general ambition, and fervor for inner communion with God becomes increasingly viewed as, at best, a threat to group spirit.

To inspire thousands is no doubt better than to inspire only a handful, provided those thousands truly are inspired. The sheer effort involved in reaching them, however, cannot but affect one’s own devotion. The attempt to satisfy mass expectations is one way of diluting high aspiration. In the very effort to transform those expectations into love for God, one’s own devotion becomes compromised. The point is finally reached where worldly alternatives—the sale of “indulgences” in Martin Luther’s day; the emotional rallies and “revivals” in our own—become acceptable as a proper means of attracting people to their “higher good.”

Treading at first softly, then arrogantly, on the heels of such compromise comes the desire for worldly power, money, and fame. Justification for these ambitions is sought in the claim that power makes it possible to be more influential for good; that money makes it easier to achieve that end; and that fame can focus people’s enthusiasm and make it possible to draw them to God.

Many religious leaders find this reasoning persuasive, indeed irresistible. Unfortunately, compromise always ends up compromising the compromisers. Power, money, and fame are snares set for the unwary by Delusion. No matter how cleverly one rationalizes these roundabout means to spiritual ends, they become ends, at last, in themselves. A zealous servant of God may feel that he is working for the Lord, but if his activities inspire no devotion in his own heart, how can they inspire it in the hearts of others? If once he recognizes his spiritual dryness, he should ask himself, “What am I really accomplishing?”

Often, even a service that began in a spirit of deep sincerity develops gradually into a tendency—reluctant at first, then accepted with a shrug as a regrettable necessity—to lie, cheat, and treat with ruthless indifference the needs of other people, whose well-being is perceived as being secondary in importance to the greater good. Resignation gradually develops toward destroying people’s reputations for the sake of that “greater good.” In extreme cases, even murder is countenanced—again, always, for the “greater good.” In time, it becomes glaringly evident that the person they serve is not God, but the one we’ll call “that other fellow.”

(pgs. 267-269, The Promise of Immortality by Swami Kriyananda)

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