From Death to the World #XXVI
By Deacon Joseph Magnus Frangipani
By the time I arrive in New Delhi, leaping pockets of green slime lining the bus terminals, sailing through smoke of burning bodies, backpacking dog-infested cobblestone streets of Tibetan refugee camps; before happening upon remote caves at the source of the Ganges, and discovering the wonders of the Prayer of the Heart; long before studying black magic in ashrams through Rishikesh and forking roasted vegetables smeared with butter and rose petal; before shooting back and forth across sage deserts of Idaho by astral projection and offering fruit, fire and rice before Krishna, Shiva and the goddess of death I will, periodically, disappear through the veil of shamanism.
I will appear on Spirit Mountain outside Eugene, Oregon, coated in rain and rags barefoot with a stick of incense behind my ear, offering our dog as sacrifice. With a handful of yak-bone beads and bright feathers, I chalk the occult patterns of yantras and sit inside them. Yantra, in Sanskrit, literally means “machine, contraption.” They adorn temple floors associated with specific demons and summon occult powers based primarily, but not exclusively, on Hindu astrology and numerology. Anything placed inside a yantra sits upon a spiritual trapdoor. Seated inside one of these “machines,” or yantras, you blast off – spiritually, mentally, sometimes physically – a willing conduit of demonic flight.
Mantras, the Sanskrit syllables inscribed on yantras, are similar to GPS coordinates for the practitioner, or phone numbers yoking us to whoever – or whatever – is on the other end. Similarly, diving into the black cauldrons of cartomancy, unfolding my Tarot deck summoning Thoth, the Egyptian god, I assumed knowledge of the future. So-and-so will meet you here on such-and-such date. This or that will happen. The astrological association for the pointer finger is Jupiter. This symbolizes power and authority, so wear a tin ring on that finger, and never gold. I concocted remedial tonics and teas from temples on moonlit nights. Sprinkle this on the forehead, rub that behind his ear. To strangers and friends it appeared I knew intimate patterns and cycles of desire, thought, auspicious dates and providential occurrences. The extraordinary becomes ordinary.
Holy Orthodoxy offers countless examples of demons appearing as angels. Determined as I am for direct experience, trusting without discernment everything ‘spiritual’ and seemingly non-material is good, I acted on my freedom without accountability. In Orthodoxy, we trust the prescribed medicine of Holy Tradition coming from Christ’s Body, the one and apostolic Church. We hold ourselves accountable before a spiritual father and confessor, distrusting so-called ‘spiritual experiences’ regarding ourselves unworthy.
In the spiritual life, especially when conditioned to accept strictly materialistic, ‘scientific’ and rational explanations for everything, you either embrace what amounts to atheism, or leap in the opposite direction. Reading hundreds of books on far-eastern mysticism and experiencing first-hand supernatural phenomenon in thousand-year Hindu temples and ashrams, it is hard, as Elder Sophrony admits in We Shall See Him As He Is, to rid oneself of aberrations of this kind. A practitioner of eastern traditions before returning to Christ, he says, “you are persistently haunted by the suspicion that the experiment was a failure because you were unable to strip yourself of all the transitory phenomena of cosmical experience. You ought to have ‘put off’ your personality, considering it merely a temporary form of existence that restricts at every level.”
This is to say, as according to Buddhism, if the cause of suffering is desire, and we must extinguish desire in ourselves, from an Orthodox perspective, we must commit spiritual suicide. We have to destroy the soul because her God-given energies yearn for union with the Divine. I could not do this. Meditation and yoga cleared and calmed the mind but it never healed the heart, and never unified me with Christ. It cannot, because the goal of yoga is self-divination, the opening of chakras so the 7th chakra, the crown chakra, blossoms and you realize that you and God are identical, and that truly, neither ultimately exist. The awakening of kundalini energy instrumental in Hinduism is depicted in yoga as awakening the serpent.
This is preciously the delusion satan, in the form of a serpent, cast around our forefather and foremother Adam and Eve. They chose self-deification, apart from God, choosing their will, their path, and rejecting the uncreated path Who is Christ. I have no doubt many leap off the rusted, sinking boat of western Christianity in search of bright and colorful fish. But the most colorful fish often are the most dangerous, the most poisonous.
It is early October. I find myself inexplicably drawn to Kalkaji Temple where the fearsome Kali – brandishing severed heads and hands, tongue lapping blood from a corpse – manifests inside a rock garlanded with tinfoil and smoke. Hinduism is a seemingly unending umbrella of many colors encompassing complementary and opposing ideas, personalities, enthusiastic rituals, the boundaries between the material and spiritual fluid and fleeting.
I splash barefoot through split coconuts, streams of water, flower petals and broken candies. Swamis appear and disappear before my eyes, children filed away in cages are draped in curtains of yoghurt, statues bleed. Outside, in a festival of lights, cows smeared with excrement and paint drink puddles of brown slime. The closer we draw near Kali’s throne in the garlanded rock, eyes roll upward and away. Tongues wag pink from mouths and the mind confuses and twirls like a blender. A leprous claw grabs me, spins a web of red string around my wrist, pushes me backward. It is late and I’m disoriented.
I disappear from the temple and board the nearest bus fifteen hours north for Dharamsala to the Dali Lama’s monastery. The abbot greets me with Tibetan yak butter tea and cookies. We discuss my work for the Tibetan National Library. The following week, I’m given astrological charts from the Dali Lama’s oracles living in Kangra valley. You see their lights roaming red over the evening hills. We don’t specify how or where, but you will suffer grave illness buried under your thirtieth year. Carts drag goat bones through the forest. Someone – or something – gathers cycles and patterns from my life. Yes, so-and-so greeted me here on such-and-such day with fire. Smear this across your abdomen, swallow those roots, never look with your left eye at someone in yellow.
All my life I wondered not whether a spiritual world exists, because I knew it existed – and not how it exists, but how I might enter that other world. I will disappear from the Pacific Northwest and return to India and discover Christ in the Himalayas. Kali shrieks and falls like lightning when the Prayer of the Heart erupts spontaneously, the red wrapping around my wrist cut away with a knife melting into campfire. The devil has power over those who hand their will over to him. This period was of extreme calm and focus. My personal, direct experience of Truth as someone who entered into human history, lived among us, and remains fully human but also fully God, now everywhere and entering personally into our lives, this experience and the Faith soon discovered in the pre-eternal Church is true enlightenment. Life in Christ is not only enlightenment, it surpasses the created states of mind and offers purification, illumination of heart and mind, and growing in likeness and union in God.
My journey into ancient Christianity amounts to thirty-eight years, continues like the migratory pattern of swifts, swallows and nightjars. I have long been interested why we struggle to escape the country of our birth and, not knowing any other language or culture, cast off into uncharted territory. I’ve noticed we tend to spiritually migrate in regular, seasonal movements, often east and west, between the conceptual and non-conceptual, along a flyway, between breeding and wintering grounds. But I am no longer fascinated by eastern traditions such as yoga and meditation, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the occult. I continue rejecting western Christianity as a paling shadow, embracing the constant light of Christ revealed through the ascetic and scriptural life peppered throughout Mount Athos, Romania, Serbia, Georgia and Russia, Greece, and all over the world, especially here, in North America where shadows fall day and night.
After backpacking frozen beaver ponds over Spruce Island, in Alaska, created lights gradually dimming and fading, warming myself against icons of the Mother of God, mind sharpening and pointing like a knife into bread; after discovering my spiritual father and confessor at seaside glaciers pouring incense at dawn, and losing the Prayer of the Heart, and falling and getting up, and falling and standing up; long after touching vestments of a Serbian bishop who suddenly removed from my eyes a kind of spiritual curtain, and I saw things of which I am unworthy to speak and write about; and spooning yoghurt with walnut and honey; after marrying a wonderful woman, raising children, graduating seminary, and periodically sailing across deserts to a monastery, I will, periodically, emerge from the Divine Liturgy carrying Christ on the altar of my heart.
What can I say? Behind every crucifixion is a resurrection.
It is necessary for us to suffer, not that we seek it out but that we don’t always run away, voluntarily following Christ to His crucifixion, studying not the minds and ideas of men but hearts of saints struggling to conform to God’s revelation.
Suppose we fast from everything, emptying clutter. The unquenchable desire remains, with our whole being we thirst to know and be made known by God. The Lord stands at the chamber of the heart, never forcing Himself, always waiting for us. He leaves when we say leave, and returns as soon as we lean inward, hear Him, and answer the Door. Then our Christ holds out His robe of divine grace, drapes it over the heart, and places a ring on the finger, and dines with us. In the Old Testament we hear His voice, My son, give Me thy heart. Fed from this mystical honeycomb, the soul is no longer distressed or curious of far away places because she experiences Christ everywhere. She at last reaches the great river, the fountain of immortality.
Within the womb of Holy Tradition, you’ll uncover great joy and suffering. You’ll taste Christ the healer and physician of souls and bodies, and a gentle warming in the heart will arrive, or it won’t. Our experiences in the Church are allowed and given by God for our repentance, so that wandering the far country we come to ourselves, body and soul together, preparing us so that we see the Light that illumines the saints of ancient Christianity walking in our midst. In this great cloud of witnesses, it is not a question of whether we see God, but whether Christ is the healing Light and not darkening fire sailing through the smoke of this world.