A St. Francis-like figure from the early 20th century fascinated me like few others along the path that I traveled with my wife Martha. He still does.
Thomas Merton was the first writer to make me aware that an infinite, transcendent, and distant God also could be an intimate God. However, I didn’t start feeling much intimacy until I read about the life and teachings of Sundar Singh. If you’ve followed my posts, you may remember that the hardest thing for me to do was to feel God’s love in a deep way.
“There is no better way for a person to enter true spiritual life than by encountering God directly,” Sundar Singh says in Wisdom of the Sadhu.
“We can never fully comprehend the infinite, but we do have within us a spiritual sense that allows us to recognize and enjoy God’s presence. The ocean is vast beyond our imagining … But with the tip of our tongues we can recognize at once that the ocean is salty. We have not understood even a fraction of all there is to know about the ocean, but with our sense of taste we can experience its essence.”
Sundar Singh’s simplicity of language drew me in, along with the vivid images and depth of meaning in his stories. His teachings are conversational and devoid of the abstractions that you find so often in theological and spiritual writings. His stories, in fact, approach the brilliant simplicity displayed in Jesus’s parables.
For example, he says of a spiritual life: “Our spirits live and grow in our human bodies much like the chick develops inside the egg … Even if one explained that its feathers and wings and eyes were developing so that it could fly and see, still it would not believe it … until it broke through its shell.
“There are many people who cannot comprehend the spiritual life or the existence of God because they cannot see beyond the confines of their bodily sense. Their thoughts—like delicate wings—cannot yet carry them beyond the narrow confines of logic.
“The only condition necessary for us to break out of our material limitations and attain spiritual life is that we accept the life-giving warmth of God’s Spirit, just as the chick receives its mother’s warmth. Without that warmth, we will not take on the nature of the Spirit and we may die without ever hatching out of this material body.”
You may remember that after Martha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1997 I went looking for a way out of our dreadful dilemma. I read books by the score—medical and spiritual, orthodox and alternative. I also was searching desperately for stability in our lives, for something far more secure than this disease’s insidious symptoms.
Sundar Singh’s teachings and life pointed me toward that kind of stability. What transpired in his short-lived life is the stuff of legend. A Sikh priest described the young man this way to his father: “Your son is not like the others. Either he will become a great man of God, or he will disgrace us all by going insane.”
In his mid-teens, Sundar Singh experienced something akin to the apostle Paul’s “Damascus road conversion.” That occurred just days after he led a public Bible-burning in protest of the colonial values being forced on him and his fellow students at the missionary school they attended.
This man of the East also intrigued me because he lived and died in the same century as mine. In fact, Sundar Singh and my grandfather were born in the same year, in 1889. Others I’d been reading about lived in the distant past—from the desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries to St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross of the 16th century.
Sundar Singh was born into a wealthy industrialist family in northern India, of the Sikh faith. He left home at age 16, disowned by his father and siblings, his mother dead. He disappeared into the jungle. Thirty-three days later, he emerged from that jungle no longer an adolescent. He was wearing the saffron robe of a sadhu, a wandering beggar-monk. Not too unlike St. Francis of Assisi 700 years earlier.
“We must live in this world, and we can do so without losing our true spiritual nature,” Sundar Singh wrote. “The things of the world need not harm us. Indeed, they can help us to grow spiritually. But this is only possible if we continually turn our hearts to the sun of righteousness.
“We all know that we cannot live without water. But while we need and use water, we must also watch that we do not slip beneath the surface. In the same way, we need the things of this material world, but we must exercise caution. God created earthly things for people to use. But we must not immerse ourselves in them or we will drown the breath of prayer and die.”
I don’t remember how I stumbled onto Wisdom of the Sadhu, but it showed up at the right time—when I was sinking fast after Martha’s diagnosis. My search for a solution was deep, wide, and desperate. And I began to see that the faith I’d built over a lifetime was quite conventional. I was left wondering, If my faith is no good in a crisis like this, then what good is my faith?
Wisdom of the Sadhu opens with a story in which Sundar Singh describes faith clearly and simply without even mentioning the word. “This is the best description of faith that I’ve seen,” our mentor and friend Rev. Lacy Harwell told me after reading the copy I gave him. “In fact, I shared it recently in a sermon. It’s profound in its simplicity.”
Sorry, but I don’t have space to share the story here.
Sundar Singh died penniless at the age of 40, lost in the Himalayas on an annual trek into Tibet, his loss mourned by millions throughout India and the Far East, and in Europe and the U.S.
My Next Book Giveaway
Wrapping up, I’m offering Wisdom of the Sadhu: Teachings of Sundar Singh for my next book giveaway. For those of you recently signing on to my blog, every fourth post or so I give away a book that I’ve found meaningful over the course of our family’s journey with Alzheimer’s.
Anyone is eligible, whether you subscribe to my newsletter or not. Simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org between this Thursday, July 7th, and next Tuesday, July 12th, by 11:59 PM EDT. Indicate that you would like to be included in this month’s book giveaway. It will help me if you put in the subject line: BOOK GIVEAWAY. One person—maybe you!—will be selected at random from those entering. I’ll send you a confirmation email by Thursday, July 14th. You’ll have 48 hours to respond to my email. If I don’t hear back from you by then, someone else will be selected at random. For more details, click Book Giveaway.
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