Finding God Outside Christianity

Raised in Louisiana as a Methodist, with a very sincere and humble pastor, I nonetheless felt as a child that something was missing. I didn’t know its name. But with a vague, nameless longing, I used to sit alone in the empty church. Doves flew in and out through the open windows as I sat on a hard pew and contemplated the simple wooden cross. What I was longing for, I now feel, was to experience the presence of God. Naturally, I looked for it in the church.

I also searched for God by sitting in trees. There was one tree in particular, a huge old magnolia tree in a nearby horse pasture. Her branches reached down to the ground so that a small person like myself could easily climb into Her great embrace. Hour after hour I would sit there, just being, listening, waiting. There was no particularly dramatic spiritual experience that I can remember, but just to be in Her presence was always to feel surrounded by love and permeated with a great peace. Her presence drew me back again and again, like a magnet whose attraction is love. I far preferred being alone in Her presence to playing with the other kids.

When I was a teenager, my family moved from Louisiana to Connecticut, to an area of lovely homes and woods, but my Mother tree was not there. I wandered through the woods from tree to tree, crying in desolation. Even then, I didn’t know why I was crying, why I felt so forlorn. We joined the local Methodist church and went through the motions of church-going, but I found no consolation or spiritual depth there. In the summers, I volunteered as a secretary, but only encountered routine business matters. I was eventually married in the same church, but it might as well have been a civil ceremony.

Let me say here that there is surely nothing lacking in Jesus or in John Wesley’s experience of Jesus, but I did not have the good fortune of meeting them in the institutional church. Thus after I married, I stopped going to church for about ten years. Busy with family and social work, I didn’t notice the old unfulfilled longing. But it reappeared with tremendous intensity when I had a near-death experience.

After an operation, alone in my hospital room, I developed a life-threatening post-operative infection. My fever was so high that I was helpless. The bed seemed to move back and forth with each beat of my heart, as it struggled to cool my body. The nurses were busy and no doctors were available. Contrary to hospital protocol, the nurses turned off my call bell and closed my curtain. What to do? Being a writer, I was concerned that if my brain cells were affected by the fever but I survived nonetheless, my main tool as a writer—the brain—could be damaged. I did the only two things I could think to do at the time: I prayed, and I became very still so that my body could try to heal itself.

I had never really prayed before, because I never knew that Someone was listening. But sufferings make our prayers very sincere, and in the great stillness, I discovered that I was not alone in the room. The room, I discovered, was filled with a presence, an invisible Being, whose nature was absolute, unconditional love. I had known much human love in my life, but this was Love itself. It seemed to be the underlying structure, the underlying force by which the cosmos had been created and sustained. It spread everywhere, and yet at the same time, it was almost physically present with me, just to the left of my bed, but yet invisible. For hours I basked in that great Love. I said to the Presence, “This body is Yours now. You may take it away or keep it alive as You like. But please always keep me with You. Please allow me to serve You. But just one request: Please don’t take me away from my children.”

By God’s will, I did not die then. I remembered that I had taken birth in order to serve, and I began looking for ways to serve God and to always remain in communion with that Love. Having been raised as a Christian, I began looking in the Christian church. I joined a small Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation, and in my amateurish way led the choir and played the organ. The pastor was a brilliant man whose intelligence and theological knowledge were far beyond us, but he was also a family man whose wife and eight children were like our own family members. Stirred by his sermons, I joined his Bible class but found myself like a fish out of water. We were studying the gospel of John, which is profoundly mystical. But when I innocently suggested mystical interpretations which differed from those of the pastor, which were based on scholarly study, he inevitably disagreed with me. Not enjoying arguing with him over sacred matters, I quit the class. Eventually he was forcibly removed from our church, to our tremendous dismay, by a hierarchy which found even his interpretations too radical.

Then began years of encountering God through traditions other than Christianity. First I discovered something of God’s presence through the teachings of a Native American leader. In particular, he had us hugging trees to become more intimate with them. Although I had been raised by a Mother tree, I had nonetheless forgotten that trees are sentient, healing beings. It was with great relief that I rediscovered God in trees.

Then I came across writings of the Findhorn community in Scotland, where certain visionary people had learned to communicate with the spirits of the plants. One of those visionaries, Dorothy McLean, came to Boston to lead a workshop. It was a great revelation to learn that we, too, could communicate with and learn from the plant spirits. In her presence, I had an experience of God’s Power which wracked my body with uncontrollable convulsions. When it came my turn to speak, still in a profoundly altered state of consciousness, somehow I managed to say that there is a tremendous Force in the universe which flows through us as well, if we surrender fully to it.

It also speaks to us and through us, as I discovered. I taught myself to meditate from a book whose name was something like “Heal Yourself through Mind Control.” Or at least I thought I was meditating, Actually, the techniques were those of self-hypnotism. I was an easy subject. I so happily put myself into beautiful trance states that it was very difficult for me to come out of them. In those trance states, I found that if I asked any spiritual question, I would receive a wise answer which did not come from my own thinking. I learned how to write with my eyes shut, in order to keep track of the guidance that was given. The guidance always came from an intelligence higher than my own, but I never knew its name. Some of those spiritual teachings which I received at that time I eventually published in a little book entitled Heart of Gold: The Light within Life, based on its first chapter, “The Golden Heart of God.” In this chapter, the inner voice said,

The golden heart of God encompasses all beings, all galaxies, and yet is contained within a single atom. It gathers all unto itself, and at the same time expresses itself in the smallest divisions of form. God is love—love saturates our entire existence. And the way to discover it is through the heart—through opening our hearts to love. As we do, we will see love shining from the face of every person we meet, for they respond to and mirror the love radiating from within ourselves. . . . With this love also comes a great peace. . . . Gathered under that Sun, we know our Oneness, melting and flowing together in eternal harmony. The blessings showered upon us all by This Sun at the heart of Life are never-ending.

Having found inner ways of communion with that Love, that Light, I found myself always inwardly blissful. Nonetheless, I continued the outer search for teachings to deepen that connection. For a time, I sat with a Zen Buddhist group under the direction of an excellent and famous teacher. However, much of the discipline was antagonistic to the inner joy I typically felt. For instance, we were to sit in a particular way for 45 minutes at a time with our eyes slightly open, cast downward at a particular angle. I preferred sitting in a more relaxed way with my eyes closed, lost in the Beloved One, whereas Buddhism does not even refer overtly to the One I love. However, its teachings are full of wisdom and lead to very clear self-understanding. In Buddhist meditation of various kinds, we can watch the mind at work, discover how it distorts our perception of Reality, and choose to relinquish these distortions for the sake of direct awareness of Truth. Nonetheless, I began to question the value for me of sitting motionless, in pain, without concentrating on the Beloved. One day I picked up my meditation cushion, left the class, and never went back.

Still longing for ways to stay in continual communion with the One I love, I spent time under the guidance of one teacher after another, from many different spiritual traditions, and undoubtedly drew benefits from each one. I studied yoga and thus learned something about physical relaxation, subtle energy flows within the body, and control of the breath for higher states of consciousness and inner peace. I attended classes with liberal Jewish teachers who introduced us to God’s joy, and to the richness of ritual and community. From another Native American teacher, I discovered sounds which awaken powerful but hidden parts of the inner self. From a Taoist master, I learned to build physical and spiritual power in the abdominal region, through techniques whose ultimate goal was to transcend bodily existence for eternity. However, this was not my goal. Whether in or out of the body, I simply wanted to be near to God.

The closest I came to God in those days was through Sufi practices. For many years, I meditated and took retreats according to the teachings of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, whose father Hazrat Inayat Khan had brought Indian Sufi practices to the West. I was initiated as a Sufi leader and also as a minister in the Universal Worship, trained to lead worship services drawing spiritual inspiration from all religions. In addition to the universality of the Sufi Order’s spiritual understanding, it was Pir Vilayat’s ecstasy which attracted me, and in doing the esoteric practices which he taught us, I also often experienced an ecstatic awareness of the Beloved. In fact, I became so attached to God and so detached from the world that I could not function very well on the worldly plane. I lost interest in my work and slept under the stars at night, for I could tolerate only their refined light.

At last I met my true Teacher, His Holiness Baba Virsa Singh. By that time, I was producing a global radio program on environmental solutions and was author of a textbook on the world’s religions, Living Religions. In this context, I was invited to meet His Holiness when he was travelling from India to the United States. When I met him, I recognized him as the one who had been invisibly present with me in the hospital room seventeen years before; the atmosphere of his presence was exactly the same. The truth of his words was also quite familiar to me, for he had been guiding me inwardly all the intervening years. Now that our youngest child had just left the nest, I met my Teacher in person, and my whole life has changed. It is through Babaji that I have met God, and with Him, Jesus.

Babaji comes from Sikh background, but his blessings and guidance are for people of all religions. He never went to a gurdwara (Sikh temple) as a child, nor did he learn to read and write. Instead, from a young age, he had the same nameless inner longing as I did, but far, far stronger. Once when he was sent to cut the forage crops for the family cattle, he saw the sap oozing from the cut stem and at once thought, “I have committed a great sin.” He prayed that his father might release him from this duty, and at once great sores appeared on the soles of his feet. Unable to walk or work, he had the opportunity to sit for hours and hours at a time in meditation. The tree under which he sat is now so imbued with spiritual blessings that its fruits and leaves and even the dirt around its roots are prized for their healing power.

Babaji sat without eating, calling out again and again, “Come, come, wherever You are!” At last someone appeared to him in vision—a powerful figure with long matted locks.  The young boy was terrified, but when the figure disappeared, he kept calling for him to return. He did return repeatedly, giving strict spiritual instruction. Eventually Babaji learned that this was Baba Siri Chand, eldest son of Guru Nanak.

Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh path to God, a universal spiritual approach which emphasizes the oneness of God and the oneness of religions. Guru Nanak undertook long wanderings, speaking to leaders of various religions about inner spiritual communion with God versus outer religious rituals. He himself taught a straightforward and practical path to God: work hard to support yourself by honest means (rather than begging from others), share from your earnings with those in need, and always remember God as the only Doer, the only Giver. The chief spiritual practice which he recommended was Nam—continual inner repetition of the Name of God. Guru Nanak’s teachings and life, and those of his son, Baba Siri Chand, combine deep attachment to God with commitment to staying in the world, helping the people.

As a youth, Babaji also began receiving visionary guidance and blessings from Guru Gobind Singh, the powerful Tenth Sikh Guru. Babaji himself became renowned as a healer and teacher, and his blessings and guidance were sought by people of all religions and all walks of life.

When I met His Holiness Baba Virsa Singh, he invited me to be one of his guests at an international interfaith conference in his New Delhi community. The community is called Gobind Sadan, “The House of God.” Arriving here, I found myself entirely at home with the intense and open devotion to God displayed by people here, and very happy with the round-the-clock devotions that have been carried on here for decades. Before I left, I asked Babaji to give me Nam. I knew the words: “Ik Onkar Sat Nam Siri Wahe Guru,” meaning “God is One, God is the Truth, revered and unspeakably wondrous Bringer of Light, Dispeller of Darkness.” I had tried reciting the words on my own, but with no particular effect. But several hours after Babaji blessed me with Nam, its light and power struck me like a great tidal wave. Of all spiritual practices I have been given, Nam is by far the most transformational, the most powerful. Nam connects us with the One who is named, it ends our fears, it detaches us from worldly concerns and attachments, it gives us spontaneous and unselfish willingness to serve, and it makes us constant and steady in the face of any difficulties. This is the same effect, I believe, as that of the radical teachings of Jesus, if one were truly to live by them.

With Babaji’s permission, I returned to Gobind Sadan in order to write about him and his practical work of bringing people closer to God and giving physical and spiritual assistance to the poor, the weak, and the sick. His work, true to Guru Nanak’s teachings, is self-supporting, based on large-scale land reclamation farming projects. Babaji has continually gone into barren and hostile wastelands, transforming them into flourishing farms by very hard work and tremendous faith in God. He has the visionary ability to communicate with the crops and the land itself, and they guide his farming practices.

When I returned to Gobind Sadan, I was told that I could ask Babaji for anything and he would grant my wish. What did I most want? “Please connect me with God,” I asked him. “You should know that you are never separate from God,” he replied. Then he continued, as I have recorded in a small book of his teachings, Loving God:

God is the Power that runs everything. When saints or prophets have seen or heard this Power through the divine wisdom of enlightenment, they then spoke of the Power in words that have become the divine Names for God. All are referring to the same One.

One enlightened person saw that there is One Power giving light to everyone. He said, “Ik Onkar” (“You are One.”) Another saw that Somebody is controlling all waters—waves, rivers, oceans of water. He called that controller “Narayan” (The One who is present in water).

Another person saw that One Light is giving life to everything. When he looked within himself, he found the same light there. He said, “Sohang,” which means “That which You are, the same am I.”

. . . Another person who saw this Power found it so wondrous that he had no words for it. All he could say was “Wah!” (“Wonderful!”)

When another person saw that the Power is infinite, beyond description, he said, “Neti, neti, neti” (“beyond this, beyond this, beyond this”).

Such descriptions from the light of enlightenment are not contradictory. They are all describing the same thing, whether in Sanskrit, Arabic, Punjabi, Urdu, Latin or English. There are differences in the words, but not in the Being.

God is one Light. It comes in the person who meditates and who loves. Only this person can perceive the Power. First look within yourself, and then you will see God everywhere.

Babaji teaches us that prophets and messengers of God have come to us again and again in different cultural and historical contexts, and speaking different languages, but giving the same message from the same divine Source. He thus respects all prophets and their teachings, and celebrates their holy days on a large scale at his farm and devotional communities in India and the United States. He seems to be in personal communication with many prophets and deities. Jesus, for instance, seems to appear to him often. Once Jesus came in vision to stand for a long time behind the dairy, conferring blessings upon Gobind Sadan with outstretched arms. This was such a memorable experience that Babaji has had a statue of Jesus in that position erected there. Now a lovely garden has been developed around it, and people of all religions spontaneously visit that place daily to bow before Jesus. I have been living at Gobind Sadan now for many years, and when I take our Christian guests to “Jesus’s Place,” they are quite surprised to see the sincere love with which Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims come to pay their respects. They touch his feet, light candles and incense, lovingly place flowers before him, and sit before him in holy rapture. They are not worshipping the statue; they are worshipping the presence of God which was made tangible to humans through the body of Jesus.

In somewhat the same way, we feel that our beloved teacher, Baba Virsa Singh, gives us concrete proof of God’s existence. The miracles which occur around him daily—miracles of healing, of transformation, of rescue from problems and disasters—continually build our faith in God. We cannot see God, but by Babaji’s blessings, we can see God at work and know that God is ever present with us. God is always aware of our needs, always blessing our attempts to serve. My great desire is that people of all religions, around the world, should have the opportunity to come closer to God which has been granted to us here in the House of God, by God’s own grace.

[Written for Nancy O’Meara’s book, The Richness of Diversity,  in October 1999]