* * * * 

Yogananda stressed that it was possible to know God experientially, not just metaphorically. I had seen this in tracts handed out by missionaries of various stripe (which I’d dismissed as so much self-delusion on their part). Perhaps what was different about Yogananda’s message was that he was telling the story of his own life, not threatening me with eternal damnation. In all events, my circumstances now allowed me the time and energy for some spiritual experimentation.

One day, after an hour or so of yoga postures and deep breathing, I felt particularly alert and focused. “Why not give it a try?” I asked myself. “Give what a try?” I answered. “You know, the talking toGod thing.”

Since no one was looking, I allowed myself, just barely, to continue along these lines. I did some more deep breathing and found my attention gathered at the spot between the eyebrows sometimes called the “third eye.” I fancied myself putting out a signal-beam to God’s 1-800 number: “Okay, I’m here. I’m skeptical. (In fact if ever asked, I’ll probably deny we had this conversation.) But if You’re there and willing to make contact, I’d welcome some response.”

Yogananda, I remembered, had a guru to help him make the divine connection. Indeed, he had seen the face of his spiritual teacher in meditation before meeting him in the flesh. Willing to settle for such a sign, I began conjuring up visages of current day holy people whose names I’d seen on placards or in books.

“What if asking for this kind of thing (or even ‘being open to it’) means I’ve already half lost my mind?” I panicked. “Oh, give it a rest,” some more adventuresome part of me prodded. “You’ll either get some kind of response or you won’t.” Pressing ahead, I tried to visualize someone walking toward me, an item of clothing or some unique ornament by which I might later recognize my spiritual teacher. The image came to mind of a large red flower.

After half an hour or so, it occurred to me that this was the first real praying I had done since my childhood, in the sense of directing a message to God while entertaining the possibility, however remote, that He might actually hear and respond. I was skeptical, but I was doing it. Not as a ritual and not for public consumption. As some Christians might have put it, I was “knocking.”

But it also seemed clear that the images passing through my mind during this prayer and meditation were products of my own invention. In fact, I got up from the exercise rather disappointed that nothing whatever had been accomplished.

That evening, I stopped by a relative’s house where a distant cousin was visiting from England. I had no other information about him and no particular expectations for the encounter. But I soon learned it was no mere holiday that had brought Cousin Jeff to America. He’d come all this way to attend a “festival,” at the Houston Astrodome … with a 14-year-old guru named Deva Ji!

I had seen this kid’s picture on posters near the Loyola campus. In fact, he was one of the guru candidates who had come to mind during my meditation, six hours earlier. And here was my hitherto unknown cousin commending him to me now, in terms Yogananda himself might have used: as the current Satguru (true teacher), whose very job was to open my inner eye … so that I might know God for myself“I’m not proposing you believe in Gurudeva Ji,” Jeff pitched me almost irresistibly. “Just give him a chance to show you what he can do. He’ll either deliver or he won’t.”

With the benefit of a few decades’ hindsight, I can picture God (or an administrative assistant) fielding my call: “What are we going to do for this poor guy?” They may have looked quickly around the neighborhood, spotting Gurudeva Ji in Houston and Cousin Jeff with his layover in Chicago. “This is the best we can come up with on short notice; let’s just see what he’ll do with it.”

Though more than a little intrigued, I never mentioned my meditation earlier in the day nor gave Jeff any inkling what a hot prospect he had stumbled upon. As I was leaving, he handed me a magazine about the guru to take home.

I know I wasn’t meditating or otherwise spiritually exerting myself as I sat there in my living room a few days later. But I felt my head begin to rotate, slightly and to the left. Mechanically, in slow motion; inexorably – of its own accord. Then downward just a bit, toward the coffee table ... onto which I’d tossed that magazine from Cousin Jeff the other night.

And from its glossy cover, a portly, tuxedo clad young man was staring up at me, mischievously. Sporting the gaudiest, most audacious RED CARNATION ever to have graced a guru’s lapel.

Now in 20 some years of attending religious services and reciting rote prayers, I had never had such an experience. Word of other people’s cosmic encounters with Gurudeva Ji added fuel to my fire, and in short order, I too was singing his praises.

But the notion of an exalted Satguru troubled me. This was the early ’70s, and the Jesus freaks, “est”-people and followers of myriadbabas and anandas (often themselves former Epsteins and Moskowitzes) all had signs and wonders of their own. It was as though there were three types of people in the world: skeptics, those who had found God and those who only thought that they had found Him. (And of course, the latter only made it harder for those of us in the middle category to get through to those in the first.)

Nevertheless, I continued to have extraordinary experiences that reinforced my allegiance to the guru. For example, while practicing a meditation technique called “listening to the music,” strains of a Renaissance motet wafted ethereally through my right ear! The sound was so vivid, I barely made it through the first stanza before jumping up to make certain no one had a radio on in the adjacent room. (There was no radio, but after the unscheduled intermission, no more motet either.)

Another time, I became immersed in something I can only relate to the phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I called my wife Diane into the little, darkened hallway I used for meditation and tried to describe what I was feeling. But the sensation only quickened, outstripping any thought of running commentary. This time, it seemed right to give the experience my undivided attention, and Diane (assessing me no danger to myself or others) graciously excused me to whatever I was in the throes of.

This meditation had the feel of a tutorial – some precognitive colloquy that rose, as I tuned in, to an inspired height. I exulted there some inchoate while. And then, like the parting kiss of a spiritual lover, my reverie came into more prosaic focus.

I was working as a public defender by this time, and the upshot was a new perspective on my clients (indigent criminal defendants), on one hand, and those presiding over their due process, on the other. Years later, I tried to capture the idea part of this in a poem:

Paragons and Miscreants

Our paragons and miscreants were cut from selfsame cloth.

And equally enfranchised in the only mortal business –

that of getting (or of staying)

just as comfortable as circumstance permits.

By dint of jurisprudence drafted by my well placed peers,

our livelihood seems honest and secure.

My clients, though, must answer

for desires we can satisfy but they can ill afford.

And for us, a nonpecuniary perk:

We’re seen all the more upstanding for our salutary work.

Our pride and joy; their due process . . .

All men are berated equal.

Whatever the above evokes, there was no trace of cynicism or self-reproach in the experience itself. No polemic against lawyers or some power elite, the essence of the epiphany was its very objectivity. Crowning of a bright, non-verbal piece, it was awareness, not thought – a beholding: of the ultimate innocence of every human being, however derelict his behavior.

I’m sure many people can look back on their lives and recall singular moments they felt in touch with the Divine. These may be associated with the early stage of one spiritual path or another. I once read an article by a priest, reflecting on the visitations that had called him to the priesthood. Now nearer the end of his vocation, he shared a wise hindsight that went something like this:

Our spiritual life cannot subsist on exotic visions we may be graced to see or feel. So should you chance upon a burning bush, receive it as a sacramental boon. But then, as Moses did, get on about your Father’s work. Lest uncalled for mystic pining obscure, rather than illumine your earthly path.

Lacking all such maturity, I started ranking my meditations. Then, just as fast as enlightenment had struck, I seemed to lose the meditative knack. For a while, I thought this must be some kind of test – why else would God have just stopped showing up? In my youthful ardor, it seemed only reasonable that the extraordinary, now that I’d validated its existence, should consign itself to my meditative beck and call.

Eventually, I made grudging peace with the inconsistency of my meditational experience, taking my spiritual pleasures where I found them. For example, I was told during my initiation ceremony that if I ever got near enough to Gurudeva Ji, I should cup my right ear and ask him for “holy breath.” With that in mind, I positioned myself outside the rear entrance of a hall where the guru was speaking, hoping to catch him on his way out.

“Gurudeva Ji, could I have holy breath?” I petitioned as he came bounding toward me. With his left arm, the guru grabbed me affectionately around the shoulders. Then, curling the fingers of his right hand to form a tube, he gave a quick blow into my right ear. At that instant, I felt a corkscrew like penetration – not of air, but of some unknown medium. It was strangely nonphysical, though it did seem to enter through the ear.

Once again, the sensation was so vivid, it seems pointless to quibble over its reality (whatever I may now make of its significance). Certainly I’d been “programmed” to expect something cosmic, but what does that really explain? If a faith healer exhorts someone into a suggestible state, does that make the ensuing experience any less “real”? Looking back with this perspective, I’ve no good explanation for holy breath (or other phenomena we experienced as devotees of Gurudeva Ji).

Nor for a similar episode with Diane, long before I’d begun testing any spiritual waters. When she first told me she loved me, the very word had the same kind of penetrating effect – that time a slicing, not spiraling, into the center of my chest. As with holy breath, it was not at all uncomfortable; just vivid and completely out of the ordinary.

Our young marriage was severely tested, however, when I became a devotee of Gurudeva Ji. For though I’ve focused here on a few rather exotic experiences, it was the subtler but more consistent quality of devotion emanating from the guru’s followers (but not my wife) that was winning my spiritual heart. These were people of all ages, some children and some in their eighties. At nightly gatherings called satsang, they would step to the front of the room and extemporaneously express their love for God in the most personal and eloquent ways. There were no agendas, scripts or cue cards at these sessions. Only those who felt moved to speak came forward, and no one rushed to fill the occasional meditative hiatus.

I found the inspiration and sense of well-being at satsang so intoxicating, I soon was taking pains to get there for my nightly fix. Needless to say, our home life was profoundly affected by this dependency; and by my absence.

Diane had just completed her masters in social work and taken a job as a family and child therapist. She had also started into her own psychoanalysis. Her personal and professional lives were thus orienting her 180 degrees from the direction life was taking me.

I don’t recall the exchange that finally brought things to a head, but I ended up packing my bags and taking an apartment not far from my office. I shared this space with a “blissed-out” but utterly derelict devotee whose previous address had been the woods across from Deva Ji’s ashram. My separation from Diane didn’t last more than a few weeks, however, and our reconciliation was triggered by another cosmic intervention I credited to the guru.

My car was in the shop and I was sitting in the customers’ lounge, reading The Aquarian Gospel. This book was popular among the devotees but I couldn’t seem to concentrate on it. Diane and I hadn’t spoken for about a week and my mind kept wandering to that situation. Should I call her? Should I wait for her to call me?

I paced a number of times to the pay phone on the wall. Then a rather authoritative thought occurred to me. “READ THE NEXT CHAPTER OF THE BOOK BEFORE YOU DECIDE.” I sat back down, opened to exactly where I had left off and this is what I found:

Chapter 77

Jesus in Hebron. Goes to Bethany.

Advises Ruth Regarding Certain

Family Troubles.

* * *

The evening came; the multitudes were gone, and Jesus, Lazarus and his sisters, Martha, Ruth and Mary, were alone. And Ruth was sore distressed. Her home was down in Jericho; her husband was the keeper of an inn; his name was Asher-ben.

Now, Asher was a Pharisee of strictest mien and thought, and he regarded Jesus with disdain.

And when his wife confessed her faith in Christ, he drove her from his home.

But Ruth resisted not; she said, “If Jesus is the Christ, He knows the way, and I am sure he is the Christ.”

“My husband may become enraged and slay my human form; he cannot kill the soul, and in the many mansions of my Fatherland, I have a dwelling-place.”

And Ruth told Jesus all; and then she said, “What

shall I do?

And Jesus said: “ Your husband is not willingly at fault; he is devout. He prays to God, our Father-God.

He feels assured that he has done the will of God in driving you away.

Intolerance is ignorance matured.

The light will come to him someday, and then he will repay for all your heartaches, griefs and tears.

And Ruth, you must not think that you are free from blame.

If you had walked in wisdom’s ways and been content to hold your peace, this grief would not have come to you.

It takes a long, long time for light to break into the shell of prejudice, and patience is the lesson you have need to learn.

The constant dropping of the water wears away the hardest stone.

The sweet and holy incense of a godly life will melt intolerance much quicker than the hottest flame or hardest blow.

Just wait a little time and then go home, with sympathy and love. Talk not of Christ nor of the kingdom of the Holy One.

Just live a godly life, refrain from harshness in your speech, and you will lead your husband to the light.”

And it was so.*

*Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, by Levi (reprinted by permission of De Vorss Publications)

Decades later, I can hardly read this text without getting a lump in my throat. Diane was as ensconced as any Pharisee in her psychoanalytic religion. Her concern for my well-being was sincere. But like Ruth’s husband, she had grown intolerant of my heresy.

However skeptical any reader may be about this incident, convinced that having subliminally glimpsed the next chapter heading, I used it as a means of resolving my ambivalence about calling Diane, I ask you to give at least my sincerity (or naivete) the benefit of the doubt. Can you imagine what it meant to me to think the guru was now interceding in my marital behalf?

I did phone Diane and we got together about an hour later. But quite contrary to the counsel Jesus had given Ruth, I heard myself extolling Deva Ji yet again to my long suffering wife. For five seamless minutes, some trance-like satsang poured out of me. Only this time, Diane was taken, not turned off, by the onslaught. When I finally stopped speaking, she declared she could no longer deny her attraction to whatever was so moving me … or her desire to experience it herself!

I’m reminded here of the scene in When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in the restaurant to prove to Billy Crystal she’s not sexually repressed. (A woman at the next table tells the waitress, “I’ll have whatever she’s having.”)

So was this all some kind of spiritual masturbation? Was any part of it real? Or was it, like Meg Ryan’s performance, an audacious prank? (And if so, who was the prankster?)

Diane did let me “lead her to the light” and she too had some memorable experiences as a devotee. But whatever spell Gurudeva Ji and I had cast on her soon began to wear off. As our relationship again deteriorated, that reversal added inexorably to my own growing doubts about the guru.

These had to do with the increasingly unrealistic burden of daily meditation (two hours for serious devotees) and nightly satsang of equal length; additional gatherings, wherever and whenever Deva Ji called them (like the one Cousin Jeff had come all the way from England to attend); and incessant appeals to buy the guru another car, house or helicopter!

Then at satsang one evening, they rolled out Deva Ji’s new look. Our erstwhile satguru would continue to make occasional public appearances (and presumably to accept donations). But no longer was he on a mission from God. There would be no more holy breath; no more pilgrimages to his “lotus feet”; and no more nightly satsang. It was time for us devotees, in short, to get a life.

Overnight, Deva Ji was rebranded as a fairly ordinary young man with some meditation techniques. All the cosmic pretensions, the whole personality cult had been imposed on him (come to find out) by his now too parochial Indian flock. And apparently his own mother … at whose urging, back in the old country, the faithful were now flocking to the lotus feet of her more doting son Megaditto Ji.

On hearing the above, I felt called to address my fellow devotees in a manner more lawyer-like than trance-like: "As far as I'm concerned," I declared, "Deva Ji can carry on as Satguru and let the world keep right on calling him a con artist. Or he can retire comfortably and prove the world right! Satguru or con artist -- he surely doesn't qualify for anything in between."