The Function of Devotion

Conversion of the Heart

Some spiritual seekers today consider themselves too sophisticated to engage in practices of devotion. To them such practices seem to be predicated on a dualistic error, common to exoteric religion, which conceives of the Absolute in terms of a distinction between'!, and 'other', 'self' and 'God'. If, they ask, the Absolute is (as the mystics of all traditions teach) that Reality or Consciousness which transcends all forms of distinction, how can it possibly appear in any form that might serve as a suitable object for devotion? But seekers who hold this view have, themselves, fallen into the far more serious dualistic error of ignoring the teaching's indispensable complement—namely that the Absolute is also and simultaneously immanent in all forms of distinction. Consequently, any form—whether it be a gross object (like the stone Lingas worshipped by the devotees of Shiva) or a highly subtle one (such as the Idea of the Good, so ardently pursued by the Greek Platonists)—is potentially a window through which the Divine can manifest to seekers during certain stages of their paths. [1]

When such theophanies do occur, they automatically call forth a devotional response in the heart of the seeker—a response which, in fact, is essential to the successful completion of any spiritual quest. This is because, unlike purely philosophical pursuits, a spiritual path ultimately entails something far more profound than a mere modification of a person's ideas. What is required is a metamorphosis of the whole psyche, a revolution in the deepest recesses of the soul, capable of bringing about an emotional as well as an intellectual reorientation of one's entire life. In short, the spiritual seeker must undergo a conversion not only of the mind, but also of the heart. And it is this "conversion of the heart" which devotion alone can accomplish, because devotion pre-eminently embodies and expresses that most fundamental of all spiritual principles, self-surrender. Thus, whether or not a particular seeker engages in formal devotional practices, if the cultivation of heart-felt devotion to the Absolute is neglected, no true transformation can occur and the way to liberation will be blocked.

Encounter with the Divine

Formal devotional practices can be distinguished from the other types of spiritual practices (at least, in their initial stages) by the kinds of experiences they are designed to produce. Whereas practices like inquiry, meditation, and morality are aimed primarily at yielding insights into the fundamental causes of suffering (such as the impermanence of phenomena, the insatiability of desire, and the futility of attachments), practices of devotion function to provide the seeker with an immediate (albeit partial) apprehension of the Divine. This is not to say, of course, that such glimpses can only be gained in practices of devotion. Any practice, if pursued with sufficient ardor, will eventually generate the same result. But the other practices of the path usually take a much longer time to bear this fruit. In the meantime, the seeker must exercise a relentless self-discipline, often accompanied by strong internal resistance, which can turn the whole quest into a discouraging and joyless ordeal.

The great advantage of devotional practices, then, is that they tend to make possible a direct encounter with the Divine during the earliest stages of the path. Once having gotten a foretaste of that indescribable happiness to which the whole quest leads, the seeker will have a strong incentive for enduring future hardships. Instead of being driven to seek transcendence solely out of a negative desire to escape the suffering endemic to all deluded life, the seeker will now be positively drawn towards the Divine by a powerful longing for another experience of that bliss which he or she has already savored firsthand.

In shamanic cultures those who sought an encounter with the Divine went alone into the forest, or to the desert, or climbed a mountain, and "cried for a vision." Although perhaps the most ancient of spiritual disciplines, this "vision quest" has continued to form the basis for devotional practices in all the Great Mystical Traditions down to the present day. Here, for example, is how a nineteenth-century Russian mystic, Theophan the Recluse, describes it for Christians: "To raise up the mind towards the Lord, and to say with contrition: 'Lord, have mercy! Lord grant thy blessing! Lord, help! '—this is to cry out in prayer to God." [2] The only external condition necessary for such a direct approach to the Divine is solitude. Nor is it mandatory to climb a mountain, or go to the desert, or find a forest. As the great Hasidic Master, Nahman of Bratslav, writes, all that is really necessary is for the seeker to "set aside at least an hour or more during which he is alone in a room or in a field so that he can converse with the Maker in secret, entreating and pleading in many ways of grace and supplication, begging God to bring him near to his service in truth."[3]

To modem ears, this kind of simple appeal to God may sound hopelessly naive. Surely establishing contact with that Consciousness which informs the entire cosmos cannot be so easy! Yet, anyone who actually tries this practice will find that truly opening oneself to the Divine is far more difficult than might at first be imagined. Most seekers will discover that a host of obstacles arises—embarrassment, doubt, humiliation, fear. These feelings constitute what in many traditions is called a "hardened heart"—i.e., that sense of an isolated 'I' which is what perpetually stands between ourselves and the Divine. In order to overcome this painful self-consciousness, many renowned devotees of the past initially prayed for a "piercing" or "wounding of the heart." Simply to be able to let go of one's defenses long enough to confess one's own suffering, fear, sorrow, grief, and impotence is already to have taken a major step towards freedom. It means that at least some small crack has been opened in the prison-house of self through which the Light of Consciousness can now start to shine, if only intermittently.

Passion for the Divine

The next step in the practice of devotion is to widen this crack into a permanent portal by cultivating a constant remembrance of the Absolute, for as Theophan explains: "The essence of the whole thing is to be established in the remembrance of God, and to walk in His presence." [4] The Hindu sage, Shankara, goes even farther: "Do not waste a moment in concern for worldly affairs or attraction to sense objects. Remember Brahman even while you are asleep. Meditate upon the Atman within your own heart. " [5] But is such a thing really possible? Can a person literally maintain a constant remembrance of God in the midst of all the activities of daily life, and even while sleeping?

The answer testified to by the mystics of all traditions is an emphatic yes. What's more, there are specific disciplines for cultivating this constant "remembrance of God," the most universal of which is unceasing prayer. The Christian version of this discipline is described by Theophan as follows: "In order to make their thought hold to one thing, the Fathers used to accustom themselves to the continual repetition of a short prayer, and from this habit of constant repetition this small prayer clung to the tongue in such a way that it repeated itself of its own accord. In this manner their thought clung to the prayer and, through the prayer, to the constant remembrance of God. "[6]

In India the technique is known as japa and usually involves the continual reiteration of one of God's numerous names. "While attending to your work with your hands," says the twentieth century Hindu saint, Anandamayi Ma, "keep yourself bound to Him [God] by sustaining japa, the constant remembrance of Him in your heart and mind." [7] Practicing the remembrance of God is also a fundamental discipline in Sufism. Called dhikr ( literally "remembrance"), its most common form is the repetition of the phrase, "La ilaha illa 'llah" ("there is nothing but God") over and over until (as the Sufis put it) "the heart steals the dhikr from the tongue"—meaning that the phrase starts to resound effortlessly within the seeker all by itself.

The important point in all these different variations of unceasing prayer is not the actual words, but that the constant remembrance of God (which the prayer inspires) should awaken in the devotee an unbroken awareness of the Divine Presence. As a result of basking in this Presence, feelings of spiritual longing and love will begin to stir. At times, this love may be felt only as a smoldering ache in the heart. At others times, however, it will blaze forth into a kind of spiritual bonfire so beautifully described by the Christian mystic, Catherine of Genoa: "As the soul feels itself being drawn upwards, the soul feels itself melting in the fire of that love of its sweet God." [8]

What makes devotional practices unique is just this power to ignite the kind of ecstatic passion which, when fully enkindled, can (as Catherine goes on to say) "extinguish all other loves in me and will annihilate me and busy me so much with you that I will have no time or place for anything else." [9] In other words, once the seeker's normally scattered attention and desires have been freed from all rival attractions, they will coalesce into a single yearning, become riveted on a solitary hope, which is for a complete and indissoluble Union with the Absolute. conceived as a "Divine Lover".

In order to convey something of the intensity of this feeling, many mystics have compared it to the experience of "falling in love" that happens between human beings. This analogy, however, is not to be confused with our modem "democratic" notions of love as a sort of emotional contract entered into by "equals," trying to work out a balance between their own self-interests and desires and the desires and interests of their partners. Instead, what the mystics have in mind is Unconditional Love, or Amor (as the Medieval troubadours called it), exemplified by the love affairs of the heroes and heroines of such classics as Tales of King Arthur or Arabian Nights. In this type of all-consuming love there is no room for negotiation based on self-interest or personal desire. On the contrary, what is required is a total submission to the interest and desires of the Beloved—a submission, moreover, which must be proven by deeds and tested by sacrifices.

Surrender of the Self

For the lovers of God, of course, the "deeds" and "sacrifices" which must be performed are precisely those required by the other disciplines of the spiritual path—for the practice of devotion in no way obviates the necessity for engaging in inquiry, meditation, and moral conduct. However, if devotion has been successfully cultivated, the seeker's attitude towards these practices will itself have been dramatically transformed. Self-inquiry, for example, will take on new urgency as the seeker realizes that the more quickly attachments can be exposed and abandoned, the nearer he or she will come to God. Likewise, meditation, which can so easily bog down into a seemingly interminable war against endless distractions, will become for the practitioner of devotion a series of lovers' trysts in which the most intimate communions with the Divine take place. As for the virtues and precepts, instead of viewing them as exercises in austerity, true devotees will start to welcome them as precious opportunities for proving their love through acts of self-surrender, offered at the Beloved's feet.

Yet despite the fact that practitioners of devotion usually exhibit an enthusiasm for spiritual exercises that other seekers lack, this does not mean that the practice itself is free from sorrows and woe. As with human love, the love of God can result in periods of intense anguish as well as joy. Listen, for example, to Mira Bai, who, after surrendering herself to Krishna, laments: "Why do You torment me? For Your sake I abandoned the world, and my family. Why do you now forget me? You lit the fire of the pain of absence, but You have not returned to put it out." [10]

The reason such lacunas occur in the seeker's relationship with the Beloved is that, in reality, all forms of experience—even spiritual ones—are by nature transitory. And just because spiritual communion brings such supernal happiness, when it is interrupted, the heart-broken devotee becomes immersed in the deepest despair. It is, however, this very despair that in the end proves to be devotion's greatest blessing. For, as in the case of human lovers, it is this unbearable pain of separation that makes the spiritual lover increasingly willing to submit to any ordeal—even that of death itself—if by so doing permanent union with the Beloved can at last be attained. The onslaught of this psycho-spiritual crisis represents a crucial turning point for the seeker precisely because death is just what is called for if the quest is ever to be concluded—not the physical death of the body, to be sure, but a spiritual death of the self. This is why the Sufi poets sing: "Do not escape being slain, if thou art a true lover. He who is not slaughtered is just dead meat." [11]

The reason the 'death of self' constitutes the inescapable denouement of the spiritual path is, of course, that it is this very delusion of a 'self' separate from some 'God' which has all along prevented a full Gnosis or Realization of the Absolute's Ultimate Mode of Being which does, indeed, transcend all forms of distinction-including and especially the distinction between the devotee and the Divine. Consequently, as long as there exists the slightest shadow of an 'I', capable of desiring union with some 'other', then even though that other be the Transcendent Reality Itself, this desire will form an impenetrable boundary between them. But then, what is the poor seeker to do? For even if he or she desires not to desire in the hope of attaining this final Realization, there will still be present a 'self' who desires not-to-desire.

Now as anyone who has ever endured the torment of unrequited love knows, the hardest thing for any lover to accept is that there is nothing more to be done—that no additional effort no matter how strenuous, no further gesture no matter how grand, will ever succeed in winning the Beloved. Yet this is precisely what must be accepted by the spiritual lover. For, in the final analysis, Unconditional Love does not mean surrendering to the hope that union with the Beloved will one day be achieved, but rather to the certainty that it will not. Thus, when the seeker is deprived of every last trace of hope and desire—and if all other hopes and desires have been truly surrendered during the course of the path—then the self simply dries up like an old autumn leaf and vanishes into the world forever.

This is the real end of the path, not because anything has been attained, but simply because the delusion of separation has ceased. Here no "union" is possible for here there are no 'lovers' nor any 'Beloved' to be united. Here there is only that Boundless and Unconditioned Consciousness, and the Divine Play of all Its infinite forms, which is Love Itself.

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Spring 1994. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. The exoteric error here consists not in taking a particular form to be a manifestation of the Divine, but in seizing on that form as the Divine's only mode of manifestation.
2. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, ed. Timothy Ware (1985; reprint, London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 80.
3. Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Thought, (New York:Behrman House, Inc., 1976), 63-64.
4. Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer, 98—his italics.
5. Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, 3rd ed. (Hollywood, California: Vedanta Press, 1978), 80.
6. Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer, 86.
7. Anandamayi Ma, Matri Vani: Vol II, 2nd ed. (Calcutta: Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society, 1982), 64.
8. Catherine of Genoa: Purgation and Purgatory, trans. Serge Hughes (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 79.
9. Ibid., 119.
10. The Devotional Poems of Mirabai, trans. A. J. Alston (Jawahar Nagar, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1980), 76-77.
11. Dr. Mir Valiuddin, Contemplative Disciplines in Sufism, ed. Dr. Gulshan Khakee (London: East-West Publications, 1980), xxiv.

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