In Jonathan Ellerby’s book Return to the Sacred, he writes about twelve paths to the divine. The seventh path in his list, which is the first of the “heart-centered” practices, is what he calls “the path of devotion.” This path is one in which people do things to help them feel closer to the Divine – closer in a personal sort of way. For example, one may take a pilgrimage to a holy place in order to feel close to Spirit. One may fast in order to cleanse one’s body and feel more connected to the Sacred. In Native American tribes, the Vision Quest, the sweat lodge, or various sacred dances (that last all day and all night) are good examples of this path.
The path is one in which we use self-discipline to take ourselves outside of our ordinary, everyday patterns in order to see our lives with greater clarity and hopefully to see the Divine with more closeness. Our everyday patterns are practical and efficient, but one does not hope for a vision of the Buddha while one is brushing one’s teeth. Taking a sacred journey to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand, however, might put one in a more receptive, contemplative frame of mind. You undergo the path of devotion to get outside of your everyday expectations and see your life and the world with new eyes. The journey itself changes you – and you return with a newer, humbler perspective.
Though many commit to some form of the path of devotion on a regular basis (fasting, pilgrimages, sweat lodges, etc.), the first journey onto the path is often sparked by a crisis in one’s life. Perhaps a loved one has died and you feel as if you cannot live fully without him or her. Perhaps you have gone through a heart-wrenching breakup. Perhaps you have lost your job and all sense of stability. At these times, we may instinctively move out of the site of the pain and into something new, some place that we hope will help us feel something greater in our lives, some greatness of spirit, some holy love that can fill what has been broken. We seek a place that may give us hope, courage, and some semblance of peace. In our broken-hearted state, we plead to the divine for fullness again.
The sense of Spirit as some nebulous, timeless, distant form and force is often not enough for those on the heart-centered paths. As Ellerby says, “To engage the deep sense of adoration and intimacy that is the hallmark of the path of devotion, it’s necessary to hold an image or feeling of The Sacred that is finite and can be conceived in time and space” (147). Those truly on the path may fall in love with the Sacred in a profound, personal way. Mystics throughout the centuries have done just that – passionately calling the Sacred “My Beloved,” and living just for the opportunity to connect, whenever and however the Beloved chooses.
The great mystical truth is that divine love is all-encompassing and unconditional – one which most of us understand best by our simple loves for those significant to us. The love of a child, a partner, a pet – this feeling approximates the divine love which sends that type of powerful energy to all living beings. Hence in the path of devotion, one may seek to find a face and a site to the Sacred, in order to feel that simple, personal love for this presence that in other ways seems so removed. We know that the Sacred is beyond time and space, yet to see and touch a statue that represents divinity, to drink from a sacred fountain, to immerse oneself in prayer in a sacred cave – in doing these things, we are seeking the powerful feeling of connection with a more tangible representation of Divine love.
In the path of devotion, we are seeking, through willpower and physical sacrifice, to lose the ego and surrender to the Divine. In her book Entering the Castle, Caroline Myss quotes Sri Gyanamata, the “Mother of Wisdom,” in an apt description of this desire:
No outward trial really matters. We should become stronger and stronger through our experiences, until we are able to stand among those of whom it may be said that their conquest of self has been final, needing no further testing. (209)
In other words, one undergoes the outward trials until the outward trials no longer matter – all that matters is that the conquest of self has been final.
Myss discusses St. Teresa of Avila’s treatise, The Interior Castle, a sort of guide for the soul. In Avila’s metaphorical third mansion, Myss explains, one reaches “the archetypal desert in the soul.”
An arid God is associated with the desert, where Jesus wandered for forty days and the Jews for forty years. The archetypal struggle of those sent to the desert is simple: Not my will, but thine. You are left to wander for as long as is necessary until you finally are able to relinquish control over the path of your life. (Myss 234)
Those of us who purposefully enter upon the path of devotion, who purposefully sacrifice, leave our comfortable habits and paths, and surrender to what will be (what already is), we are consciously entering the desert of the soul. We are attempting to regain some kind of clarity about our lives, some kind of sense of a soul-guided path. In truth we all know when we have lost our way, when we are being guided by the false icons of money, power, greed, and selfishness, and in undergoing the path of devotion, we are taking action to try to right ourselves.
It is not easy.
Teresa would tell you, as she told her nuns, to go further. Do not rest. This journey is inevitable. There comes a point where resting becomes more difficult than keeping on the journey itself, for you know what you are giving up. Cross the mystical Rubicon. surrender and let God reorder the flow of your life. You aren’t leaving your life; you are reentering your life…soul first. (Myss 235)
So, even though your family and friends will question you when you explain that you need to fast for a week, that you need to travel to a tiny village in Africa, that you need to hike the Appalachian Trail for forty days, trust your inner guidance. Do these things that you know you need to do. For enduring a blurry life is unacceptable when all it takes is one courageous step to start on this path, this path where devotion will bring you to clarity, the clarity of seeing from the soul level, past the viewpoint of the ego, as close to divine love as you can be in this life.
Ellerby, Jonathan. Return to the Sacred. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2009.
Myss, Caroline. Entering the Castle: An Inner Path fo God and Your Soul. NY: Free Press, 2007.