Regular readers will know that, in addition to worshipping God through recitation of His holy names, devotees also worship the form of the Lord manifested in elements such as metal, wood, stone, fire, or a painted image. All religious traditions have such sacred images – of one kind or another – according to the reasoning of their particular theology.
Many years ago, when I was a questioning Christian, I was very attracted to the Old Testament story of Moses and the Burning Bush. Moses was the soon-to-be leader of the Hebrew slaves and was to be used by God as an instrument to take his people out of slavery. Moses was quite reluctant to pit himself against the might of Egypt and so the Lord had to show Moses a special sign to let him know that he was being chosen for the service.
One day, Moses was tending his goats and saw a strange light. When he went to see what it was he saw that a bush in flames was not being consumed. A voice then told him to take off his shoes for he was standing on holy ground. He came towards the flames and was given instructions by God.
Since I heard that story, maybe when I was six or seven, I was convinced of a few things:
1. That God can do anything, and can appear anywhere He likes, to whomever He likes.
2. That if God wants to appear in a fire, and talk to us from a fire, He can.
3. That being in God’s presence means that you are standing on holy ground and that means you have to take your shoes off.
4. My local Methodist chapel Sunday school teachers did not explain to me if God still appeared in fire these days, or why we didn’t take our shoes off when we entered the chapel. So I figured that God also speaks to other people who do know about these things, and that one day I might meet them.
I must have been about nine when I read a story of a poor street entertainer who had fallen on hard times. He became a monk and one day, noticed that the Virgin Mary in the Notre Dame Cathedral appeared to be sad. So wanting to offer something to her, he waited until no-one was around and began juggling before her. He juggled and he juggled until he reached the point of exhaustion. Just then the Abbot came in and was about to scold him for such an offense, but then they both noticed that the face of the Virgin was smiling. The offering had been accepted.
Now, I was a little Methodist boy in Cornwall, and didn’t know any Catholics. All I knew was they were ‘mostly foreigners’ and that the religion was followed by ‘a lot of Italians.’ As such, it really wasn’t something for us. But I really liked that story. Like the story of the Burning Bush, it made a deep impression on me, and I have remembered it all these years.
So when I first met the devotees of Krishna, and learned that they ‘bowed down before idols’ – I was initially resistant. I didn’t see the need for image worship in addition to the very atttractive practise of chanting the maha-mantra. I thought of images as something cultural, ‘Indian,’ and therefore superfluous to the essence of spiritual life. Then one thoughtful day, as I was struggling with it all, I remembered those two stories I’d heard as a little boy. As I processed those stories I somehow felt that the God I’d prayed to long ago was quietly helping me understand a higher truth. The God who I’d asked, on my knees at bedtime, to ‘please bless Mummy and Daddy’ – the God of the Bible who didn’t like ‘graven images’ – was gently prompting me to accept that, really, it was alright.
That was the day when the God of Moses, the Father of Jesus, and the Beautiful Speaker of the Gita became One for me. And the fact that this one Supreme Person could appear in a statue of stone, wood, metal, a burning bush or a quiet heart, or indeed, anywhere at all, seemed to make the most sense of anything I’d ever learned.