What is Truth by Brother John Martin Sahajananda. Delhi: The Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2012. xix + 200 pp.

    What is Truth is a collection of essays, stories, poems and reflections written by Brother John Martin Sahajananda, a Camaldolese monk in the Order of Saint Benedict. Brother Martin is one of the spiritual directors of the well-known Christian Ashram, Shantivanam in South India, founded in 1950 by the two French priests Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux, and further developed by Father Bede Griffiths OSB, Cam. Father Griffiths made the ashram famous with his many books and articles on the mystical dimensions of the Christian and Hindu traditions. Brother Martin writes in similar vein, with clarity, penetrating insight and considerable provocation to any one-sided rational spiritual orthodoxy.

    The Temenos Academy was fortunate in hosting a lecture in the summer of 2012 in which Brother Martin spoke movingly of these themes as he has come to live and experience them. For those who heard that lecture these essays, developed over some years, are an expansion and continuation of his thoughts

    The book’s compelling nature arises from Brother Martin’s firm grounding in a mystical faith, and above all from his own experience of his Christian faith as it emerges with all its attendant challenges into the twenty-first century. This sadly is not an experience we find so easily in the west where the mystical dimension has tragically all but disappeared to our general impoverishment.  These are not essays for the faint-hearted or the ungenerous. Their power and essential generosity spring from a deep spiritual and psychological insight that seeks to reveal the central Truth, not only of the Christian tradition but of spiritual realities more generally. This is a view which members of Temenos, who treasure the Perennial Philosophy as an idea, will have no difficulty in applauding. As Michael Amaladoss SJ suggests in his introduction, this book ‘must be read, not conceptually, but with a symbolic imagination rooted in life experience of the divine’. This is the clear refreshing spring water that our tired and flagging faith needs so badly, not only to revive it, but in order for it to evolve.

    The collection is divided into two sections. The theme of the first, ‘The Truth of Jesus’, is addressed in a poem ‘Blessed Are Those Who Are Led by Wisdom’, together with five essays including ‘From Authority to Freedom’, which charts the development from the God of authority to the God of freedom. There is a chapter on ‘The Prodigal Son’, which examines the case for a developing spiritual evolution.

    There are in addition some excellent short homilies on the Virgin Mary, the meaning of the Inner Jerusalem, and the reality of Transformation. It is these essays in which we find the provocative and visionary ideas that make this little book so valuable.

The second section is titled ‘Truth in Dialogue’, and comprises ten chapters, some very short, covering a range of subjects. Notable among these is ‘Beyond Theism and Atheism’, in which the case for an intelligent dialogue with atheists is made, carrying a hope that there is something both sides can learn and profit from in such an exchange. In ‘Diversity – Uniqueness and Unity’ Brother Martin seeks to show the common experience of the spiritual journey in Christianity, Buddhism and the Hindu tradition. In ‘Bearing Witness to the Truth’ he considers the different levels of revelation in the prophetic and wisdom traditions. And there is much more.

The backdrop against which much of Brother Martin’s thinking and writing takes place is his perception of a general evolution, over millennia, of human consciousness. He sees such development reflected in the changing state of man’s relationship to the Divine, and of the institutions and beliefs through which this relationship is sought. Brother Martin conceives this essentially spiritual evolution of consciousness as a phenomenon that applies to the whole human species. Again we will find echoes of the Perennial Philosophy in these ideas, and it is this approach that allows him to escape the sometime narrow, exclusive and prejudicial confines of some Christian thought. It is also in this all-embracing vision of a spiritual development for mankind that Brother Martin’s essential generosity and openness shine forth, creating a broad open space for fruitful and generous dialogue with other traditions.

    This view of a gradually evolving and developing spiritual and psychological consciousness allows Brother Martin to interpret afresh the question of the New Covenant within the Christian tradition, and to make it central to his vision. In ‘From Authority to Freedom’, he recounts how, in the first covenant, God gave, through Moses, the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people: a way of external laws that was to guide the spiritual wellbeing of the people and their relationship to God. He goes on to describe how this covenant, with all its rules and regulations, never really worked due to the intransigence and faithlessness of the people. It was for this reason that God promised a ‘new covenant’, perhaps an eternal covenant, which was to be written ‘in the hearts of the people’ and revealed in perfection in the life of Christ.

   Brother Martin sees this ‘Way of the New Covenant’ as a path that moves away from external rules and regulations towards an essential and much-longed-for spiritual freedom to be. This is a freedom for the development of the individual through personal experiment, inevitably through much personal suffering but ultimately a way that leads to the essential quality of increased self-knowledge.

    From this growing self-knowledge may come the realization that Christ’s saying ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ is also intended as a goal for each human being. As Brother Martin says: ‘A person who lives according to the first covenant says that the Law is the way, the truth and the life. A person who lives according to the New Covenant says I am the way, the truth and the life’ - and lives his life accordingly. He goes on to say that this development “was a revolution because it was the birth of a human being or human consciousness that was greater than religion”.

    Surely, as we witness in the West the collapse of much of the structure and authority of the great religions this is a timely reminder of our spiritual destiny and a pointer to a compelling personal vision of the future.

    I have heard Brother Martin say that perhaps the Christian Church has never really been Christian. That statement will upset some, but it is hard to disagree with him. I have also heard him say that a secular age is perhaps the necessary precondition for weaning individuals from the structure of the old covenant with its rules and regulations and encouraging individuals to seek their own freedom in an authentic, experiential spiritual reality that will inevitably be paradoxically unique and common to all. It is this brave adventure into the new, as taught by Christ and mystics of all traditions, that makes Brother Martin’s views so apposite. His approach to spirituality includes a powerful psychological viewpoint, and it this dimension that makes these pages feels so refreshingly authentic.

    Perhaps many of us are still stuck in the old covenant, where we seek to take some comfort from feeling we have at least not actually broken too many of the ten commandments, that we are in a spiritual sense, hopefully, not doing too badly.

    It is however Brother Martin’s intention to shake us from that complacency towards a comprehension of what the life of Christ actually means, beyond religion, and in then having the courage to journey on so that we may see specifically what blocks us from loving, trusting and seeing more deeply. There are many questions I found myself asking myself, having read this excellent collection of Brother Martin’s reflections - many questions, and some clear true compass points towards a new way of seeing and hearing a very old message.








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