Ascent to the depths

“Ascent to the depths of the heart”: this phrase is the title of the published diaries of the monk Henri Le Saux, who in India was known as Swami Abhishiktananda. Actually, the English translation of the book says “depth” in the singular, because the translator saw the French word fond, which is singular and means “the bottom”. But in English we say, “depths” to mean the lowest point of a space, and also the innermost point of a cave, a well, or anything else that can be thought of as deep.

The phrase is of course paradoxical, in a way self-contradictory. You do not ascend when you enter some deep place and end up at the bottom of it. But the paradox is not only permissible but also necessary, since contemplation, like love, takes us both inwards and upwards. And of course, the movement is recursive, that is, it runs in both directions, as in the thought for the day: “Gratitude is an ascending reflection of a descending grace” (Beverly Novak).

Is there any real up or down, inside or outside, in contemplation or love? Even the idea of going up or going anywhere is paradoxical. Sometimes the important movement is downwards, as when we speak about “falling in love”. This metaphor ought to work just as well when we talk about contemplating God, and I’m sure some mystic has spoken about falling into God. I bet Swami Abhishiktananda said something like that.

Who was Abhishiktananda? He was born in France in 1910, and at age 19 he became a monk at the abbey of St. Anne in Brittany (northwestern coast of France); in 1947, after 18 years in the monastery, he went to India to join another French priest, Jules Monchanin, who was 15 years older than he and had been in India for 9 years. In 1950 Le Saux and Monchanin founded an ashram, like a hermitage, at a place called Shantivanam, “Forest of Peace” (actually, just a mango grove); and with the blessing of the local bishop, they took Indian names (Abhishiktananda and Paramarupyananda) and began wearing the orange robes of Hindu sannyasis, the original monks.

Many Hindu monks are also yogis, but most people who do yoga, whether in India or outside India, are not monks. If I want to call myself a yogi, I have to distinguish between Big Yoga and Little Yoga. Big Yoga is about postures and breath control; it is something that you do, something that brings together your body and mind under your will. Big Yoga is like the big yoke an Indian farmer places on the necks of his two bullocks, to make them plow the field together and move as the farmer guides them. What I know about Little Yoga I learned from the writings of Yogananda and the teaching of his immediate disciples. I stay mostly with Little Yoga.

When I say “ascension” I am of course also thinking about the Bible story of Jesus ascending into heaven after his resurrection. A couple of weeks ago we celebrated a liturgy around this story; here are some words I said at that liturgy:

Mark declares his faith in the Risen Lord’s presence at God’s right hand in heaven; he affirms this using the passive verb, “he was taken,” to signify God’s action on Jesus, and the active verb, “he sat down,” to signify Jesus’ relationship to God. Mark does not describe the actual ascension, but Luke does, in the Acts of the Apostles: “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” We can set aside the details, like levitation and the cloud, because Luke and Mark both convey the same meaning: both wanted to reassure the coming generations that, even if Jesus is no longer appearing in bodily form, as he did to the twelve apostles and the five hundred disciples that Paul talks about, he is still with us, and he will be for ever.

Arthur, one of my fellow monks, said it right a few days ago: Jesus did not go back into some kind of ‘divine exclusion’, as if he had enough of our messy humanity and went back to being God. The God of Jesus remains the God in Jesus; the Word was made flesh for ever. Remember that his flesh is our flesh, and so his ascension means that we are included: we are seated at God’s right hand together with Jesus — Paul says this too. So we cannot say this too often: we have ascended with him.

However, we are also down here, and this is where we belong, during our physical lifetime, as we walk in faith. We are earthly, as Jesus was and is, but today we can add another expression: we are cosmic, as Jesus is and was. He makes us understand that we are not just skin-encapsulated egos, nor was he. The illusion of our separate individuality is just that: an illusion. The truth about us derives from the truth about Jesus: when God took him, Jesus took us along, and we are no longer separate, because with him we expand into a cosmic unity. The cosmic multiverse is his body, and now it is our body too.

What is the consequence of our cosmic inclusion in the ascended Jesus? Let us take the answer from what the two men in white robes said to the disciples: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This is what they call a rhetorical question, that is, a question that implies its own answer. The same as when the unrecognized Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping?” And when the angel said to the other women on their way to the tomb, “Why seek the living among the dead?” The answer is there in the question: “He is risen; he is not here.” Like, “You have no reason to weep, Mary!” And, “Stop looking at the sky! You will see him again.”

The two men meant that the disciples would see him at the end of time, but they also implied that there would be a seeing of Jesus in the community of faith and in the love that makes them reach out to the poor, the sick, the weak, as Jesus did. They remembered what he had said, while he walked with them on this earth: “When you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Jesus ascended, but first his God-nature descended into the depths of our humanity, and in this mystery, his descent and his ascension are one: he ascends into the poor who are always with us, and he ascends into the depths of our hearts. Now he descends into our bread and wine, to make them and us his true and abiding presence, his cosmic body in the here and now.

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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