Spiritual Companionship

“I find it hard to describe the joy that we experienced in those days…

“Day after day, as though overpowered by a strange, spiritual fervour, we kept on doing our meditation and experiencing intense joy…day and night we had no talk between us other than about spiritual life – about renunciation, devotion and how to acquire the knowledge of God…Sometimes we were not even aware of how the days were passing.” – Reminiscences of a monk in the Ramakrishna Order[1]

Psalm 133 declares, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” There is a great joy in being with others who love God. It is like being in the next world, where we are with those who love us unconditionally and know who we really are, who fully resonate with our soul.

When spiritual brothers and sisters meet, they treat each other with the utmost respect and sensitivity. They work together in harmony and mutual support. They feel great happiness just to be in each other’s presence.

Spiritual companionship is hard to understand for someone who has not experienced it. It is an all-encompassing and totally transforming camaraderie. It is like a lost soul who after many years of lonely wandering is greeted by his family on his return back home.

Saint Teresa of Avila uses the following analogy to try and explain the nature of spiritual companionship:

“It is a wonderful thing when a sick person finds another wounded with the same sickness; how great the consolation to find you are not alone. The two become a powerful help to each other in suffering and meriting. What excellent backing they give to one another” [2]

A spiritual seeker is lovesick for God. Like a person who is hopelessly in love, the spiritual seeker thinks only of his Beloved and cannot focus his mind on anything else. It is a state of “intoxication” that most people find hard to relate to. This makes many seekers feel that he or she is alone in what they are feeling and experiencing. The company of other seekers can provide enormous comfort and relief.

The Baal Shem tells a parable about a group of people listening to the playing of a superb musician. Inspired by the beauty of his music they jump for joy, and weep or laugh out loud. A deaf man suddenly happens on the scene and sees them dancing in this wild abandon. Unable to hear the music himself, he comes to the conclusion that they must all be stark raving mad.

With this parable, the Baal Shem is underlining the importance of keeping the company of those who “hear the music.” In such company, we can let down our guard and drop all pretense and facade. We can be ourselves and speak as we truly believe without fear of misunderstanding or condemnation. With our spiritual companions, we can explore ideas and share experiences that we could not or would not dare to talk about outside our circle.

This is especially true in today’s world, where the spiritual life is not considered a legitimate path to follow in life. If someone decides to make the spiritual life his focus, all those around him will immediately try to undermine his decision, and will use every means at their disposal to try and convince him to abandon his plans and return to the path of “normalcy.”

Therefore, it is vital for us to spend time in the company of other spiritual seekers. Especially at the beginning of our journey, we need the support and encouragement of like-minded people. They will help us to firm up our resolve and strengthen our conviction. Otherwise, the pressure to conform to the expectations of others will swiftly overwhelm us.

There is another reason for spending time in holy company. Everyone leaves spiritual vibrations wherever they have been. More evolved souls will leave positive vibrations; while less developed souls will leave a negative residue. This is a fundamental law of spiritual science.

Without knowing it or necessarily desiring it, we are always absorbing the energy and thoughtforms of those around us. Therefore, it is essential that we choose carefully the company that we keep. If we spend our time with people who do not share our views about life, gradually their influence will change the way in which we view the world. Eventually, we will find that we are taking a path that we never intended to follow, and living a life that is not our own.

Sri Ramakrishna used a visit to the museum to illustrate this point to his devotees:

“I visited the museum once. I was shown fossils. A whole animal has become stone! Just see what an effect has been produced by company! Likewise, by constantly living in the company of a holy man one verily becomes holy.” [3]

Spiritual companions are the antidote to this problem. Holy company will not only make sure that we are placed in the emanation of positive spiritual vibrations; it will also counteract the negative effects of the materialistic society in which we live.

Holy company is an indispensable part of the spiritual life. It is a priceless treasure for all those who are striving on the path.

 

All of the great teachers of humanity have spoken about the great value of spiritual companionship.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav urged his hasidim to share with each other their spiritual experiences and Torah insights. He commanded them to gather together on a regular basis to speak about their love for God and their love for their teacher.

Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk advised his hasidim to share not only their insights and spiritual experiences with each other, but also their faults and imperfections: the strange thoughts that come into their hearts during prayer and learning, the images and desires that arise as they are lying in their beds, the temptations that they have fallen into while going about the business of their daily life. “Hold back nothing from each other”, he told them, “do not let fear or shame keep you from sharing your struggles.”

Swami Brahmananda of the Ramakrishna Order told his disciples:

“It benefits an aspirant if he talks about spiritual life with a person of a similar nature. Fellow pilgrims can help each other. A person can escape danger on his journey if he gets acquainted with a traveler who already has followed that path and knows its problems. If you have a good guide, he will show you important things on the way and you will not have to face any troubles. Morever, you will be able to accomplish your objective in a short time and reach your destination quickly.” [4]

Swami Chidananda of the Divine Life Society asserted to his devotees:

“That fraternity [of spiritual companions] is your greatest protection and is your greatest guarantee of always being in the light and attaining the goal… In such company, faith becomes confirmed, questions become answered, and weakness is replaced by strength…

“Gurudev [Swami Shivananda of Rishikesh], used to say that one hour in the company of holy people, seekers and lovers of God is equal to a hundred baths in the holy river Ganges or pilgrimages to all the holy places of the world.” [5]

Unfortunately, we cannot always locate suitable spiritual companions in our life situation, but there are other directions that we can turn to for help. Where there are no appropriate physical companions for our journey, we can find holy company in spiritual books. A good spiritual book conveys the joy and yearning of the person who wrote it. It transports us into the living presence of the holy men and women portrayed in its pages.

Uplifting spiritual photos and videos can also be a useful aid in the spiritual life. A great many individuals have received help and strength through looking at a photo of the Lubavitch Rebbe. Thousands have found inner peace by gazing at a picture of Sri Ramana Maharshi. One devotee of Sri Ramana used to meditate in front of a picture of the Maharshi on a daily basis. One day, a light suddenly began radiating out from the Maharshi’s eyes. It soon engulfed the devotee and immersed him in a state of great bliss and peace, where all sense of time and space dissolved. [6]

 

There is yet another level of purpose behind the gathering of spiritual seekers beyond all those mentioned above. This aspect of its purpose is made clear to us in a story that is told about the Baal Shem Tov.

The Baal Shem was known for his states of deep prayer that could last for hours. On one occasion, the Baal Shem continued on with his prayers for such a long time that his hasidim got up and left. Later in the day, they all returned to the House of Prayer. When all the hasidim were present, the Baal Shem admonished them for leaving the House of Prayer while he was still praying. Then he recounted the following parable.

There once was a rare and magnificent bird that perched on the top of an incredibly high tree in a certain kingdom. The tree was so high, that nobody could climb to the top. When word of this extraordinary creature was brought to the king, he gathered thousands of his subjects at the foot of the tree and then commanded them to stand one on top of the other to form a human ladder. In this manner, they reached to the top of the tree, captured the bird and brought it to the royal court.

When the Baal Shem finished telling the parable, he turned to the hasidim and declared: “When we join together in prayer, we become a single chain of spiritual longing that reaches up into the highest heaven. When you abandoned me during my prayers, however, the cosmic ladder that we were building collapsed and the precious gift that we might have brought the King of Kings was lost.”

 

Holy company is about more than mutual support and encouragement. When spiritual brothers and sisters join together, they create something that is greater than the sum of their parts. They build a spiritual edifice that reaches far into the higher planes. They become part of the network of souls emanating God’s infinite light into the world. Holy company strengthens our yearning for God and puts us in touch with our supernal source. A gathering of spiritual companions nurtures the seekers on earth and brings joy to the souls in heaven.

copyright © 2009, by Yoel Glick

 

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Reminiscences of Swami Brahmananda,  translated by Swami Bhaskarananda
  2. Tessa Bielecki, Ecstasy and Common Sense
  3. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda
  4. A Guide to Spiritual Life, the Spiritual Teachings of Swami Brahmananda, translated by Swami Chetanananda
  5. Swami Chidananda, An Instrument of Thy Peace: Swami Chidananda in the West
  6. Annamalai Swami, Final Talks