Earlier this month I heard from a New Zealand woman, Elizabeth Wagner, who has come to embrace faith after a lengthy period of faithlessness. I liked how honestly she spoke about her spiritual journey, so with her permission I’ve shared her email message below (mildly edited for clarity and to Americanize those weird British spellings like “endeavour”).
Her thoughts are sort of a counter point to the “More criticism of Radha Soami Satsang Beas” post that similarly included a guest opinion from a person who, like me and Elizabeth, has had a long-time connection with RSSB, a.k.a. Sant Mat.
As I said in that post, this Church of the Churchless blog is concerned with churchlessness in general. But since my personal evolution from faith to faithlessness has occurred in a Sant Mat context, that’s the faith I often focus on, since it’s the one I know best.
Likewise, Elizabeth speaks of returning to the Sant Mat fold. However, her description of moving from faithlessness to faith to faithlessness to faith could have been written by a Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or whoever. If we’re honest, most of us would admit to being torn between the poles of unbelief and belief. Elizabeth simply is more honest and self-aware than most.
The past few days my wife and I enjoyed talking about all sorts of subjects, spirituality included, with good friends who were visiting, Ron and Rita Morey (Ron’s special interest is the mystical glory of golf; I have my own attitude toward this crazy sport—see “Golf’s essential insanity” on my other weblog).
One morning Rita and I discussed the meaning of a movie we both found deeply moving, the European version of “The Vanishing.” I won’t give away the ending, but basically it involves the choice a husband is given by the man who kidnapped his wife: “Take these pills,” the man says, “and when you wake up you’ll know what happened to her.”
Always open to borrowing a powerful idea, I’ll admit that this scene was in the back of my mind when I wrote my “Just have faith” post. There I talked about a similar, but less dramatic, choice: being able to walk either through a door of Belief or a door of Reality. Would you prefer to hold onto your cherished beliefs—such as that your wife is still alive, or God loves you—or do you want to know what is truly real?
Elizabeth says, “The need to believe is so strong it overwhelms the ability to believe in nothing.” Yes, it is. I agree that we need to believe in something. The question is, What is the nature of that something?
Elizabeth is struggling to find her answer, as am I. I admire how she’s going about her search. Here’s her message to me:
Greetings. To say how refreshing it is to read criticism and analytical views of RSSB [Radha Soami Satsang Beas] on the net. I give a huge sigh of relief.
Yes, after some years on the path it became to me somewhat infuriating to hear that this is the only path; that we don't know how lucky we are, etc. etc. ad nauseum. I found every fault I could with Sant Mat, the mind never ceasing in this regard.
I would like to have this opportunity to state my own little "story.” I visited Dera [Indian headquarters of RSSB] in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1991. My first visit was in a depressed and miserable state (family reasons).
I came away from that visit in a state of bliss which remained with me for about six weeks—an altered state of consciousness. Whatever the trigger, even the grossest and ugliest was beautiful, composed of love and only love. I knew without the slightest doubt that the path was real, knew with solid certitude. I could not work, watch TV or radio and, from being a voracious reader I wondered how anyone could possibly look at a printed word. Yes, Charan Singh [the RSSB guru] gave.
My nature and temperament is that of an existentialist. From a young age I followed closely the works of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Genet, and others, which correlated exactly with my own trend of thought. Part of my mind still exists at that level, the existential absurdity always around.
My next three visits were just that, visits to see the guru, ordinary but interesting and nothing more than that. Years passed and slowly the mind began to find fault with the teachings and I came to believe Sant Mat was just another path, one of many, just a little up from Catholicism, fundamentalism, Buddhism or whatever, just a fraction more believable.
For some considerable time I mentally left Sant Mat, wanting nothing to do with it, calling myself an atheist who understood and believed nothing; that life is absurd; that we exist in a mechanistic world; that the brain can produce anything it wants to, meaning good (and bad) effects from meditation, that the [inner mystic] Sound was an auditory, natural sound, audible to anyone if they listened. That the whole thing was nothing but a sham, a so-called valid justification for the horror and terror of existence with extinction at the end, giving meaningless hope where there is no hope, made up by possibly well-meaning persons whose lives were so ghastly they had to invent an elaborate and sophisticated system based on light and sound techniques in an endeavor to justify an otherwise pointless existence.
And I stayed at that level, for a long, long time.
However, and there's always a 'however'!, now things have swung around again as they do. Relatives become absolutes which, in turn, become relatives again, ad infinitum. I now realize that Sant Mat is the highest path that one can find on this planet (relative to my particular intelligence and knowledge). Having traveled widely on this globe investigating many religions, philosophies, etc. I can find nothing higher than Sant Mat.
If the whole thing is a fraud, so be it; it's the greatest and biggest fraud I know of and I don't care if it is just that—in a sense that doesn't matter. I believe that everything is an illusion anyway, absurd in its context, so I choose now to go along with the "you don't know how lucky you are" statement and on my deathbed trust that I have the opportunity to think and concentrate only on Him because it suits me to do so.
The need to believe is so strong it overwhelms the ability to believe in nothing. And if there's nothing, I shall not know. And if there is something in it all I will have wasted much of my life believing in nothing but that's how I'm shaped.
So I'm now back in Sant Mat (in my mind anyway); there's nowhere else to go. Sant Mat can well be called a cult, which it probably is, but again, that simply doesn't matter.
Whew! How great that all feels to express. Thank you, Brian, for this chance to speak and I look forward to reading more of your columns.
Elizabeth Wagner, New Zealand