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Words Are Not Wisdom

words of wisdom“Even if he is fond of quoting appropriate texts, the thoughtless man who does not put them into practice himself is like a cowherd counting other people’s cows, not a partner in the Holy Life” (Dhammapada 19).

These pungent words of Buddha immediately bring to mind a part of Chapter Twelve of Autobiography of a Yogi. Swami Yukteswar, the guru of Paramhansa Yogananda, was the very embodiment of jnana–divine wisdom. He often encountered the braying of jackasses–donkeys carrying the scriptures and words of the wise while dinning them into others’ ears like overbearing parrots. One of these squawkers received a real jolt from him in this way:

“With ostentatious zeal, the scholar shook the ashram rafters with scriptural lore. Resounding passages poured from the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, the bhasyas [commentaries] of Shankara.

“‘I am waiting to hear you.’ Sri Yukteswar’s tone was inquiring, as though utter silence had reigned. The pundit was puzzled.

“‘Quotations there have been, in superabundance.’ Master’s words convulsed me with mirth, as I squatted in my corner, at a respectful distance from the visitor. ‘But what original commentary can you supply, from the uniqueness of your particular life? What holy text have you absorbed and made your own? In what ways have these timeless truths renovated your nature? Are you content to be a hollow victrola, mechanically repeating the words of other men?’

“‘I give up!’ The scholar’s chagrin was comical. ‘I have no inner realization.’

“For the first time, perhaps, he understood that discerning placement of the comma does not atone for a spiritual coma.

“‘These bloodless pedants smell unduly of the lamp,’ my guru remarked after the departure of the chastened one. ‘They prefer philosophy to be a gentle intellectual setting-up exercise. Their elevated thoughts are carefully unrelated either to the crudity of outward action or to any scourging inner discipline!’”

In spiritual matters, theory is vastly preferred to practical experience, perhaps because experience entails change and responsibility. In religion many “experts” on externals are completely ignorant of spiritual matters–including many “experts” on mysticism.

Informed ignorance

Hilda Graf, for example, who wrote volumes on mysticism and “mystical theology” only met one actual mystic in her life–Teresa Neuman the stigmatist–and hated her virulently and wrote slanderous denunciations of her. One of the more tragic figures of the American stage and screen–alcoholic, drug addict and sexual addict–was perhaps the foremost expert in this country on the lives of Christian saints.

I knew an Eastern Orthodox priest who was considered the world’s expert on the mystical theology of Saint Gregory Palamas, one of the major figures in Orthodox mysticism. When questioned as to whether he practiced Hesychia (the main subject of Saint Gregory’s writings), he indignantly avowed that he certainly did not(!). Fr. Herbert Thurston, the twentieth century’s self-elected expert on mystical phenomena, had neither experience of mystical phenomena nor even much belief in it, often discounting or deriding it in the lives of saints and blesseds.

Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word was the difference between lightning and lightning-bug. The same may be said about those who know spiritual principles and those who put them into practice.

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