What Is That Light? Touching the Spirit of Christian Art

St. Maximos the Greek, 1475-1556

When I came on the path I was dedicated to Jesus. I wore a Catholic cross and carried everywhere my heavily underlined copy of Thomas a Kempis’s wonderful book, Of the Imitation of Christ. When I joined SRF in 1967, I lost the cross while swimming in the ocean. I replaced it with the golden lotus cross that Paramhansa Yogananda had designed. (SRF no longer sells the “Lotus Cross,” apparently for fear that it might offend devotees in India.)

I had felt such a deep devotional yearning through my contact with Christian mysticism that it seemed a bit dry to come onto this path, with its relatively stark buildings and ceremonies. Where was the incense? Where were the wonderful icons and the murals and statues? Where was the long tradition of saints? The rich devotional music?

In time, I realized that when Master spoke of the great Christian mystics as being part of our spiritual family, he was not talking rhetorically or sentimentally, but that it was literally true. In my mind, I cobbled together a picture that satisfied my yearning to recover a connection with the Christian world. My intuition told me that Swami Kriyananda had indeed been Alfonso El Sabio (The Wise) of Spain and Henry I of England, who in those lives had helped Master as Fernando X (El Santo – The Saint) and William the Conqueror to defend Christianity against the encroachments of the Moors in Spain and the Scandinavian hordes in England.

Privately, I feel that Swamiji was St. Thomas, who carried Christ’s original message to India, and who was instrumental in the formation of Eastern Orthodoxy, which has preserved the practices of inner communion. Where the Roman Catholic Church followed the path of the intellect, Eastern Orthodoxy took the path of the heart. (For an exposition of Thomas’s life, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Swamiji’s repeated lives, see www.ocoy.org.)

And yet, when Jyotish casually remarked, at a time when many of us at Ananda were feeling inspired by the film, Unmistaken Child, about a reincarnated Tibetan teacher, “Oh, that’s Kali Yuga religion,” I couldn’t help but feel a bit annoyed. However rigid and blockheaded it may have been, Kali Yuga Christianity also had great beauty in it – in the paintings of Fra Angelico, the music of Hildegard of Bingen and countless others, and of course in the lives of the saints.

But it was my own experiences that helped me to feel that Christ has not receded into the background of our line of Masters, but that he is present with us every day. Let me share three simple stories:

For many years after I came onto the path, I stubbornly clung to the path of fervent prayer. I dared not let myself relax in meditation lest the Devil use my empty mind to work his mischief. I remember one Christmas meditation at the SRF India Center temple in Los Angeles. After battering the Infinite for hours with words, words, words! I felt my eyes open to a slit and glance to my right where I saw a shadowy presence standing in the center aisle, a being, barely glimpsed, dressed in a white robe. I knew that someone, seated next to the aisle, was having a vision of Christ. I told no one about the experience.

A year later, Brother Bhaktananda, the monastic who had been with Master the longest, said in a talk, “You can really experience Christ if you dive deeply during the Christmas All-Day Meditation. Last year at our Hollywood Temple, someone was meditating and felt a presence standing in the aisle next to his seat. When he opened his eyes he saw Christ standing there beside him, dressed in a white robe.”

If there is one experience that, above all, has given me a feeling of connection to our Christian roots, it has been singing Swamiji’s Oratorio, Christ Lives.

I remember an evening when a long rehearsal was scheduled, before a Christmas performance of the Oratorio. I felt vaguely ill and less than eager to attend. But I thought, “I’ll make the experiment. I’ll go to the rehearsal, and I’ll know for sure if it was the right thing.” As I walked into the temple, an image appeared in my forehead – it was Christ. He looked similar to the image on our altar, but alive. I knew that it was Christ’s way of expressing his pleasure that I had made the right choice. The rehearsal was rich with devotional feeling.

Not long ago, I was working in my office at home when there was a knock and I opened the door to find three black ladies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, greeting me with smiles. In the past I would have made a polite excuse, anything to avoid having to listen to their efforts to save the heathen yogi. But I thought, “Lord Jesus, the last thing I want to do is to hurt their feelings by dismissing them rudely. These people are your children. Please show me how to behave.” To my quiet delight, I found myself listening to the leader’s words with riveted, silent attention, not understanding a word but appreciating the fervor of her calling. I said, “I consider myself a disciple of Christ. I thank you for spreading Jesus’ message of love and redemption. It is desperately needed in these times. Christianity is under attack from so-called ‘scientific’ atheism, and we urgently need to tell people that Christianity is scientific. We need to tell them that they can find communion with Jesus in the laboratory of their own being, with the scientific instruments of prayer and meditation.”

Later, I told them a story. I asked them, “Are you familiar with the popular singer Smokey Robinson?” They nodded, and I told them how Smokey Robinson was freed from drugs.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

For two and a half years, at a time when his career was soaring, Smokey Robinson withdrew from the world, holed up in his home, thoroughly addicted to cocaine. Finally, a close friend, Leon Kennedy, came to his house, concerned, and pleaded that he change his ways. He then prayed for Smokey for five hours straight. Later, he dragged his friend to a church service where they sat in the front row. Smokey tells the story:

Smokey Robinson at age 76

Then I’m sitting in the front row – thank God, because she looked at me and she said, “You come here.” So I get up and I walk up there and she’s standing on the steps, she takes me in her arms and she’s like she’s my mom or something. She takes me in her arms and she says “I didn’t call your name.” She was whispering. “I didn’t call your name ‘cause most people probably won’t recognize you, you look so bad. So I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, okay, fine, I look bad.” And then she said, “The Lord sent you here. I knew you were coming.” She said, “Yeah, I was in prayer about a year ago and your name came out of my mouth and I said to the Lord, ‘I don’t know him,’ and the Lord said, you know, ‘You need to pray for him, because if you don’t he’s gonna OD on cocaine and weed, so you pray.’ So I’ve been praying for you for a year.” And she prayed for me and she passed out. (laughs) And she told me, she said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on you. I don’t ever pass out. I pray for people in this church all the time and I don’t pass out. They pass out.” She said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on you, and you should do some work for Him. You don’t have to be a minister, but with your job you go all over the world and you could spread the news of what He’s done for you.” And when I walked in their church that night I was an addict but when I came out I was free.

As I told the story I could feel that these kind, devoted women and I were united in Christ’s love. I told them, “I have some things I need to attend to, but I’m very happy that you came by because I feel that Jesus is pleased with you for sharing his love and joy. I wish you blessings on your mission and your lives.” They left, smiling, and I returned to my office with a wonderful memory and much to ponder.

Christ is as available and eager to help us as our next thought of him. Let’s remember this not only during the spiritual season of his birth but on other days as well – on April 4th and September 17th and February 8th – and anytime we need his help and to feel his loving presence.

Rambhakta