At the beginning of last month, Byron between Grant Line and Lammers (Tracy, CA) was closed due to maintenance work. I had to take a detour to get back to Byron and it took me twenty minutes to reach my destination which normally would have taken me just five minutes. However long it took I knew that eventually I would reach my destination. As I was taking the detour it dawned on me that at times we not only have to make physical detours to reach our destination but some of us take detours in our spiritual life as well. I have come to accept and am at peace with the thought that it is alright if we have taken or have to take a detour in our spiritual life. My consolation is based on the biographies of spiritual people that outline two different paths that they have taken to come to God.
In the first group are those who have been on the spiritual path right from a young age and have stayed on course till the end.
Dominic Savio (1842-1857) who died at the age of 14 was known for his piety and devotion to his Catholic faith. Even as a child he loved the Lord and had a filial devotion to Mary. Often he was found in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. On the day of his First Communion he wrote four promises for himself:
I will go to Confession often, and as frequently to Holy Communion as my confessor allows. I wish to sanctify the Sundays and festivals in a special manner.
My friends shall be Jesus and Mary.
Death rather than sin.
In a speech to his friends he said, “It is God's will that we all become saints, it is easy to become a saint, and there are great rewards in heaven for saints.” Does age matter for sanctity?
St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) at the tender age of 11 decided to love God and to share that love with others by loving and serving them selflessly. Challenges and difficulties did not make her to take a detour from her commitment to pursue the path of holiness.
St. John Bosco (1815-1888) through his Preventive System dedicated his life to the betterment and education of street children, juvenile delinquents, and other disadvantaged youth. At the age of nine, through a series of dreams, Jesus and his Mother guided him to his mission. He remained faithful to them till the end.
St. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) cultivated a love for souls from the day of her First Holy Communion (at the age of five). The desire to love God was further strengthened by her vibrant Sacred Heart parish in which she was much involved. At the age of eighteen she joined the Sisters of Loreto, in Ireland. In 1946 she said ‘yes’ to ‘call within the call’ and the rest is history.
Sri Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950) left his home for Tiruvannamalai at the age of 16 after he went through a "death-experience" where he realized his true self, which for him, was the personal God. He remained in Tiruvannamalai for the rest of his life teaching self-enquiry as the direct path to self-realization.
Rabia Al Basri (714 CE-801 CE), the Sufi mystic is known for her path of mysticism which placed love over fear in our relationship with God. From a young age her heart was burning with love for God. She lived a life of asceticism, self-denial, and total loving surrender to God. More than her life of asceticism, it is her concept of Divine Love that she is known for. Her beautiful prayer says it all:
If I adore You out of fear of Hell, burn me in Hell! If I adore you out of desire for Paradise, Lock me out of Paradise. But if I adore you for Yourself alone, Do not deny to me Your eternal beauty.
In the second group are those whose spiritual path included a detour in their relationship with God.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) abandoned his Christian upbringing and joined the Manichean sect and embraced a hedonist approach to life. It was in 386 while listening to the homilies and lectures of St. Ambrose and reading the life of St. Anthony of the Desert that he re-discovered Christianity. At the age of 31 he formally converted to Christianity and went on to become one of the great figures of Christianity.
Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was renowned for drinking and partying in his youth. At 14, he left school and was known as a rebellious teenager who frequently drank, partied, and broke the city curfew. He was also known for his charm and vanity. It was during his time in prison that he received visions from God asking him to repair the Church and live a life of poverty. He abandoned the life of luxury and devoted the rest of his life to Christ and his Church.
The first phase of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s (1491–1566) life was given to the vanities of the world. It was only in June 1521, after he read the life of Christ and the lives of the saints that he turned his life around to live and to do everything for the greater glory of God.
Thomas Merton’s (1915-1968) life is a journey from a life of self-indulgence to a life of monastic silence and solitude. He went on to become a great Christian Monk who influenced the lives of many and continues to do so.
Siddhartha Gautama (400 BCE) dissatisfied with the passing nature of life left the palace and its life at the age of twenty-nine to seek the true nature of Reality. He sat under the Bodhi tree with the resolve not to arise unless he was enlightened. Even to this day he is a force to be reckoned with in spiritual life.
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) left behind the world of politics to pursue his spiritual calling. In 1908 he was implicated in the Alipore bomb plot and while awaiting his trial in prison he underwent a profound and life-changing spiritual experience which led him to devout the rest of his life to spiritual sadhana.
It doesn’t matter whether we are early or late bloomers in spiritual life. Time is our mental construct. For God there is no time; God is always in the ‘now.’ Some of us may be on the spiritual path from a young age, others probably after a long detour, and a few others may be still searching for a meaningful and fulfilling spiritual path. God waits. What matters is that we remain true to our conscience and keep ‘seeking.’ Isn’t the saying true, “When the student is ready the master appears?”
Sometimes detours in spiritual life become necessary to comprehend our need for God at a personal and a deeper level. Isn’t this what the parable of the Prodigal Son portrays? The son had to leave his father and go on a long journey before he returns home to his father. In a way, it was his time away from his father and the various experiences he was exposed to, that created the need in him to return home. It doesn’t matter what really sets us on our journey back to God. For a sincere seeker every experience along the way is a powerful teacher that has the potency to lead us back to God. It can be a liturgical service, a sacramental celebration, a hymn, a sermon, a spiritual discourse, listening to a non-Christian discourse, satsang, inspiring audio talks, joyful sad events, a fulfilling or a broken relationship, birth of a child, sickness and death of a loved one, intellectual pursuit for truth, pure grace, an intimate experience of love, successes, tragedies, and failures, absence of God, spiritual dryness, fall from grace, scandals in the church, solitude, a retreat, a walk in nature…
Every experience, however painful or fulfilling, shameful or praiseworthy has an arrow pointing to the Truth. Hence, there is no place for shame or unhealthy guilt. Look back upon each experience with a smile. Very fast categorize an experience as good or bad but the real truth is it is about the experiencer who is unwilling to learn from varied experiences of life. What matters is not where we started or where we get stuck but where we finish. Isn’t the saying true, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future?”
The Good Thief and John the Baptist both enjoy the same loving presence of God. Whether we are early or late spiritual bloomers doesn’t matter as long as we bloom in God.
Rejoice. There is always hope.
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