By Pravrajika Bhavaprana
Pravrajika Bhavaprana is a nun in the Santa Barbara Convent. This article was first published in Living wisdom: Vedanta in the West, and later given as a lecture in Santa Barbara in December, 2010.
Faith. We cannot live a day without it. We cross a street corner with the faith that the stopped cars will not run over us; we submit ourselves to the surgeon’s knife with the faith that he will cure our disease; we rely on our friends with the faith that they will help us in our time of need. The examples of faith as a dynamic and constructive force in our lives are limitless and they demonstrate the truth of Tolstoy’s statement, “Faith is the force of life.”
Yet, ironically, when it comes to having faith in God, a multitude of doubts surface. We question the validity of having faith in the unseen and the unknown. When the same faith that moves our everyday life is directed toward God, it is called “blind faith”. But is not all faith blind? “Has Faith an eye?” asked Sri Ramakrishna. “Speak either of faith or of direct knowledge.”
Nevertheless, the label of “blind faith” remains and certainly denial can masquerade as faith. The classic example of a person with blind faith is the individual who accepts, without question, every word in the scriptures as the literal truth, even though it may directly contradict scientifically proven facts. With the mind closed to doubt and reason, faith becomes rigid, unyielding, and easily demolished. Such faith is usually a product of laziness, ignorance or fear. This faith is indeed “blind” and is worthy of the scorn it often receives.
But to smear all faith in God with the charge of irrationality and rigidity, is unjust. The implication is that reason and faith in God do not and cannot co-exist, when in fact one must first open the door to doubt and reason before genuine faith in God can be cultivated. Albert Einstein once said, “True religion does not come through blind belief, but through an extension of our rational knowledge.”
We are fools to accept whatever we read or hear as the truth without first subjecting it to critical scrutiny in the light of reason. If it passes this test, if it satisfies reason, it should be accepted and held onto with unswerving faith. If not, it should be discarded as mere superstition.
Swami Vivekananda once said, “Be an atheist if you want, but do not believe in anything unquestioningly.” Vivekananda himself, who had a tremendous capacity as a doubter, continually tested Sri Ramakrishna and questioned his teachings and visions with open skepticism. And Sri Ramakrishna encouraged him to do so. Great doubts precede a great conversion and once that conversion occurred, no one had greater faith than Vivekananda. Even through countless trials and misfortunes, his burning faith in God was unswerving.
Although real faith is founded upon reason, it does not stop there. Faith generally means belief in something reason cannot penetrate, such as the belief in the existence of God. How can we attempt to understand the lofty spiritual truths with our rational mind, which is encased by limitations? The finite cannot comprehend the infinite.
Reason can lead us to a certain point, after which faith must take over and carry us to the final realization of God. Swami Vivekananda said, “All religion is going beyond reason, but reason is the only guide to get there. …Stick to reason until you reach something higher, and you will know it to be higher because it will not jar with reason.”
Intellectual conviction is essential, but this in itself is not faith. It is merely rational belief. When conviction in the mind is followed by a response in the heart, when our beliefs touch our hearts and change our lives, only then do we begin to have true faith.
Most of us have been told since childhood that God exists and that we can commune with Him. And most of us believe it. Why then do we continually allow ourselves to be caught in the clutches of the world, to be consumed by our desires, to be sucked in by the materialism in our society? Why? Because we lack faith in God.
Our conviction of the existence of God is only in the mind and has not yet reached the heart. If we really had faith that the very source of all love, knowledge and joy was within us and was attainable, we would go mad to get it. Our longing would be unbearable and know no bounds.
The story is told of a thief who knows there is gold in the next room and he stays up all night thinking of nothing else but how to get it. His entire mind is riveted to the gold. So it is with faith, having which our only one desire would be to see God face to face, to experience and become one with that Infinite Reality.
Faith in God develops gradually. It may begin with a feeling of interest in an aspect of God or in a spiritual teaching we have heard or read. The idea intrigues us at first, and we delve deeper into its meaning and import.
After discovering that it satisfies reason, we reach the stage of intellectual acceptance. But this is not enough. We still feel unfulfilled and restless. When we begin to feel intuitively that the Lord is present within us, the seed of faith is beginning to mature.
This intuitive knowledge is very interesting in that it goes beyond intellectual knowledge. For example, someone has told you that your friend is in the next room. But when you walk into the room, you find it completely dark and not a sound is heard. Since you were told your friend was there, you intellectually believed it. Yet doubt comes finding the room dark and silent.
But then you begin to feel the presence of someone else in the room. The feeling is an intuitive one, since you cannot see or hear anything. Yet it is strong enough to eliminate many of your doubts. Then at last, the light is turned on, and you find yourself face to face with your friend. All doubts vanish with this direct perception.
Likewise, we are told by the scriptures and men and women of God that the Lord dwells within. We may believe this, but doubts continually arise. Through meditation and spiritual discipline, we begin to intuitively feel the truth of this great teaching.
It may come even at the times we least expect. We may be walking down the street and suddenly a strong feeling overpowers us that the Lord is walking alongside us. Somehow His presence is sensed, is felt, though not yet verified.
We may get glimpses of the beauty and majesty of God in nature, and every now and then, we may feel a particle of His tremendous love for us.
With each glimpse, the doubts gradually diminish and real faith begins to grow in the heart. Divine longing becomes more and more intense as we feel the Lord coming nearer and nearer. Once we see and experience the Ultimate Reality, nothing can shake our faith. If I see a table before me, nothing or no one can convince me that the table does not exist. My faith in the existence of the table is unshakable because I directly perceive it. This is the epitome of faith—belief based on direct perception.
Complete faith in God comes only after one has directly perceived and experienced Him or Her. It is this supreme faith that Swami Brahmananda was referring to when he said, in an ecstatic state, “On the ocean of Brahman, I am floating on the leaf of faith”.
But until that high state of faith comes, we need a working faith, a faith in the unseen. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who have not seen Me but have faith in Me”. This faith, this firm belief in the living presence of God, is the essence of spiritual life.
Faith is something which, on the surface, appears so easy to obtain. Yet as we strive to acquire it, we realize how difficult and how rare it is, to have real faith in God, having never seen Him. For years we have conditioned to measures intelligence by cynicism about belief in anything outside direct sense-perception. As a result, acquiring the simple, child-like faith in the unseen seems all the more arduous.
Sri Ramakrishna once said, “Unless a man is guileless, he cannot so easily have faith in God. God is far, far away from the mind steeped in worldliness. Worldly intelligence creates many doubts and many forms of pride—pride of learning, wealth and the rest”.
We find ourselves faced with the task of getting rid of all this intellectual jargon in our minds—which only serves as a breeding ground for doubts—and replacing it with guileless, child-like faith in God.
It is important to differentiate between childlike faith and blind faith. The faith of the child is open, spontaneous and receptive, without motive or thought of self. In contrast, the faith of a fanatic is closed, willed and unsympathetic. Blind faith is usually motivated by fear, a need for security, or a desire for acceptance.
The faith of a child is such that if his mother says there is a ghost, there IS one. And there is no doubt in his mind that the ghost exists.
Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly emphasized the importance of such faith by saying, “God cannot be realized without child-like faith” and “God bestows His grace on the devotee who has this faith of a child”. He was fond of telling the story of a young boy who was asked by his father to offer food to the Lord in his absence. “See that God is fed”, he told his son.
The child took the food into the shrine when the time came and placed it in front of the image saying, “Lord, here’s your food. Come and eat.” He waited and waited for the image to move toward the food, but it remained silent and motionless. The boy firmly believed that the image would have to come down from the altar, in order to eat.
At last he said, “It is already very late. I cannot sit here any longer”. Still the image remained silent. The boy began to cry saying, “O Lord, my father asked me to feed you. Why don’t you come down and eat?” He wept and wept until at last the deity came down in human form from the altar and ate the food. The boy had faith—simple, guileless trust in the Lord. He had no doubt that the image was living, and would therefore come down and eat. And the Lord, seeing such faith, could not resist.
Absolute faith makes the impossible possible. Sri Ramakrishna tells a story about a milkmaid who was responsible for bringing milk to a priest every day. Often she was late because the ferry was late. The priest, a little perturbed at her reason for being late said, “They cross the ocean of existence by the name of God, and can you not, by the same means, cross this little river?” From then on, she was never late with the milk. The priest was surprised, and finally asked her the reason for her promptness. She said she now crosses the river by uttering the name of God, as he had instructed, rather than by relying on the ferry.
The priest wanted to see this for himself, so he followed her down to the river. Seeing her walk on the water, he tried the feat himself, but soon found himself sinking. The milkmaid turned around and said, “How is this, sir? You are uttering the name of God, but at the same time you are taking every care to save your clothes from getting wet! You do not fully rely on the Lord!” So it is that complete trust in God that lies at the root of all seemingly impossible occurrences.
Jesus often said, “If ye have faith, ye shall say unto this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place’; and it shall remove, and nothing shall be impossible unto you”.
We read in the Bible about many instances of miraculous deeds.
There is a particularly touching incident in the life of Jesus, as told by St. Matthew: “And behold, a woman, who was diseased, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment. She said within herself, ‘If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.’
Jesus turned around, and when he saw her, he said, ‘Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole’. And the woman was made whole from that hour”. It is this burning faith that is responsible for most of the miracles that are related in the Bible.
But the power and importance of faith is far greater than that of performing miracles. A medieval monk once asked, “Lord, what is the clue to the knowledge of God?” Whereupon He replied, “Faith is the only clue to it. You cannot know God unless you have implicit and firm faith”.
Sri Ramakrishna used to say, “God can be attained through faith alone. He who has faith has all and he who lacks faith lacks all. …It is faith that works wonders, for faith is life and doubt is death”. And Swami Brahmananda said, “Faith? Without it none can attain God.”
In one of the most stirring passages in the Bible, Lord Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life; and he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever lived and believeth in me shall never die.”
Through the words of these spiritual giants, we are made aware of the paramount importance of faith in our spiritual life. These great men and women of God emphasize certain forms or directions of faith that are to be cultivated.
A strong belief in the reality of the teaching of the Holy Scriptures is necessary, as is firm faith in the power of the mantra or the name of God.
We must wholeheartedly believe that the Lord is showering his grace on us whenever we repeat His name. Sri Ramakrishna used to praise the tremendous faith of Krishnakishore who would say, “I have spoken the name of God once. That is enough. How can I remain a sinner? I have become pure and stainless.”
Unswerving trust in the spiritual teacher or guru is also repeatedly stressed. According to Sri Ramakrishna, an aspirant does not have to work as hard at spiritual disciplines if he has complete faith in his guru. He tells a story to illustrate the degree of faith we should strive for: Once a guru told his disciple that Rama alone has become everything. Later, when a dog came along and snatched the disciple’s bread, the man ran after it crying, “O Rama, wait a minute. I shall butter your bread for you.” Such was his faith in the words of his guru.
Faith in one’s self and one’s capacity and ability to realize God, is the foundation for the other forms of faith. As Swami Vivekananda said, “The man who cannot believe in himself cannot believe in anything else. …We are the children of the Almighty, we are sparks of the infinite, divine love. How can we be nothings? …Do you know how much energy, how many powers, how many forces, are still lurking behind that frame of yours? What scientist has known all that is in man? Millions of years have passed since man first came here, and yet one infinitesimal part of his powers has been manifested. …You know but little of that which is within you. For behind you is the ocean of infinite power and blessedness.”
Which brings us to the point that, in actuality, faith in one’s self is synonymous with faith in the Lord dwelling within. We are urged to have faith not in our small self—the ego—but in that divine perfection that is within.
Firm faith and absolute trust in God within is necessary before surrender to Him is possible. Would you think of resigning yourself to the will of someone you did not trust wholeheartedly? Our faith in the Lord must be so great that we are ready and willing to entrust our body, mind and soul to Him. When we reach this acceptance in spiritual life, self-surrender will follow naturally.
To have faith when everything is going well is not too difficult. But the true test of genuine faith is to have complete trust in God in the midst of trials, troubles and temptations. In the words of Sri Ramakrishna, “The stone may remain in the water for numerous years, and yet the water will never penetrate it. But clay is soon softened into mud by coming in contact with water. So the strong heart of the faithful does not despair in the midst of trials and persecutions, but the man of weak faith is shaken, even by the most trifling cause”.
Obstructions, disappointments and dry periods are bound to come and with them doubts creep into the mind. But in the midst of these trials, we should try to recall the glimpses of God that we have had, and try to feel again that faith and love that accompanied them. By regaining this faith through recollection, one is able to overcome, or at least endure, the hard blows in life. By exercising patience and a sense of perspective, we are able to ride out the turbulent tide without being capsized.
And, of course, the power of prayer is not to be overlooked. Swami Brahmananda once said, “Pour out your whole heart in prayer to Him. Ask to see and to know Him. He will take away all your doubts and show you His true nature”.
The ideal attitude to strive for is beautifully put into words by the medieval monk Thomas a Kempis, a medieval monk: “There is none whom I can fully trust to, none that can seasonably help me in my necessities, but only thou, my God. Thou art my hope, thou my confidence; thou art my comforter, and in all things most faithful unto me.”