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How Big Is Your God?: The Freedom to Experience the Divine

How Big Is Your God?: The Freedom to Experience the Divine

by Paul Coutinho

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Do you have a relationship with God, or do you just have a religion? Do you know God, or do you just know about God? Do you believe in a God without limits, or have you placed God in a box and sealed the lid? In How Big Is Your God? Indian Jesuit priest Paul Coutinho asks each of us to carefully consider questions such as these. With his warm sense of humor and a


Do you have a relationship with God, or do you just have a religion? Do you know God, or do you just know about God? Do you believe in a God without limits, or have you placed God in a box and sealed the lid? In How Big Is Your God? Indian Jesuit priest Paul Coutinho asks each of us to carefully consider questions such as these. With his warm sense of humor and a talent for telling just the right story to drive home a point, Coutinho guides us to reconsider who God is and how we can have fellowship with God beyond anything we have imagined. The immensely powerful yet eminently readable wisdom in How Big Is Your God? will move us past religion as we know it and toward a relationship with God that can change the way we think, love, and live!

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Coutinho, a Jesuit priest who has lived much of his life in India, once was told by a theology teacher at an American university that he was a heretic. He had merely posed a "what if," asking what the man would do if scripture scholars should determine that Jesus never existed as a historical figure. The teacher said he would have to abandon his work as a priest because he could never base his life on a myth, but Coutinho countered that he would still die for the myth. Conversant with India's Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Coutinho effectively uses this story to illustrate the differences between the Western and Eastern understandings of truth (one, he writes, sees truth as a set of beliefs while the other views it as an experience). Throughout this volume of short essays, Coutinho draws on Eastern religious traditions, blending them with his own Catholic practice to challenge and deepen readers' understandings of God. Besides asking questions like "Can you be religious without knowing God?" and "Are you running for fun or for your life?" he offers practical advice as well, including a PQR (Pause Question Respond) formula for handling difficult situations and BAD (Basement Attic Disposal) days for helping Westerners get rid of consuming possessions. Readers who favor "spirituality" over religion will most enjoy this book. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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Loyola Press
Publication date:
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First Edition
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt


Organized religion appears to be coming to a significant impasse in many parts of the world. It amounts to “a new reformation,” but, more important, a new kind of reformation. No one seems too interested in forming yet another Christian break-off group or new denomination. That would be too easy, too old, and too futile. Whether we fully realize it or not, we are learning from many of our past mistakes, and our spiritual desire is moving deeper. You are surely about to experience that here!
What I see emerging is quite simply a desire for authentic God experience—instead of mere external belief systems, about which we can be right or wrong. People do not feel they have to leave their existing group, call its beliefs into question, or overreact to any particular part that they do not yet understand or agree with. They just quietly move toward a much deeper renewal of encounter at levels of prayer, inner experience, spiritual disciplines, and various kinds of contemplative practice.
This marvelous book by Fr. Paul Coutinho is an excellent example of this new and Spirit-led direction. He does not allow you to hide in your head behind any preexisting conclusions but instead invites you on a journey where you know something for yourself. The something that you come to know is so good, broad, and deep that it keeps you from wasting time on anything negative, self-­protective, or reactionary. Finally, what one discovers is not something at all, but Somebody.
After three different preaching tours in India over the years, I have come to agree with the common refrain that “no Westerner visits India and comes back without being changed at a deep level.” It is almost like meeting not just another hemisphere, but also another hemisphere of your brain and your soul. Fr. Paul is able to bridge these different worlds by his own Western education, his Jesuit and Christian spirituality, and his simple faithfulness to that uniquely Indian mind. I am convinced that the Asian mind is less dualistic than ours and is often able to present profound truths in a disarmingly clear, humble, and truthful way. We Westerners saw it in Anthony de Mello, Bede Griffiths, and Mother Teresa. You will see it here for yourself in Paul Coutinho.
The human ego hates a genuinely new experience. It hates to change and is preoccupied with control. We prefer ideas. We can do anything we want with a new idea, including agreeing with it too quickly. But a genuinely new experience does something with you! It leaves you out of control for a while and forces you to reassess your terrain, find new emotions, and realign your life coordinates. It is often a bit of a humiliation, because it upsets your old coordinates. We prefer to stay inside our small comfort zones and actually avoid any genuinely new experiences. The ego almost does not allow them to happen.
Now, if that is true in general, and I think it is, then imagine how much more so if we speak of God experiences! Talk about being out of control. We tend to be well-­armored against authentic God experience, because it always leads us into the unfamiliar, that new terrain where we are not in control and God is. St. Augustine said, “Si comprehenderis, non est Deus”: “If you can understand it, it is not God.” I guess that is why God usually has to break in or break us down to break through to us. We try to pull God into our little minds and worlds, when this big God is trying to pull us into a much bigger world, which we, almost by nature, resist. Jesus called it “the kingdom of God.”
So I encourage you to trust this fine teacher and let him lead you to some very big and new places so that you too can experience what “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived . . . what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
You are in for a treat, and a treat that will last!


—Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM Center for Action and Contemplation Albuquerque, New Mexico



Author’s Note

I’d like to begin with a brief introduction. There are three important things you need to know about me: I am Catholic, I am a Jesuit, and I come from India. My last name is Coutinho, which is Portuguese. You may be wondering how my Indian family got a Portuguese name and became Catholic. Well, let me tell you.
About four hundred years ago, the Jesuits came to India, traveling with Portuguese military explorers. They came to colonize us, baptize us, and bring us the Good News. They had a simple program for us. While young Jesuit ­scholastics-in-­training were stationed on the outskirts of our village, the soldiers herded all the people into the center of the village, where they had to make a choice between being baptized and being killed. If you chose to be baptized, a Portuguese official would claim your soul for God and give you his last name. The Jesuits held mass baptisms and got rid of those who refused to be baptized, because at that time they firmly believed that there was no salvation outside the church. The Portuguese, on the other hand, found baptism to be an effective means of social and political control.
So, generations ago, my family and many Indians were baptized as Christians. But, of course, we Indians already had a rich and highly developed religious tradition that stretched back over two thousand years, and that tradition and its influences continue in India today. We were baptized but not really converted. This is why many Catholic Indians, like me, express our Christianity a little differently from others.
I am also a Jesuit priest, and most of what I believe about spirituality comes from my living exposure to Eastern religions and, above all, from holy Scripture and the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola—especially The Spiritual Exercises, a small book written by St. Ignatius that is regarded as a great classic of Western spirituality. St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, writes in the beginning of The Spiritual Exercises that the Exercises are all about using any means to experience God and deepen our relationship with the Divine. Find your way to experience God, St. Ignatius would say, and grow in your relationship with your God. He believed that our experience of and relationship with God is unique, and so your God is not my God, and my God is no one else’s God. Now, St. Ignatius, being a Catholic saint, obviously believed in one God—one God, but infinite possibilities. Ignatius’s point is don’t deepen your relationship with the God your theology professor talks about; don’t deepen your relationship with the God your mom talks about; don’t deepen your relationship with the God society or even the church talks about. Deepen your relationship with the God you know, right now—the God who is constantly calling you into deeper union and communion. God is personal. God is unique. God is an experience of the divine.
One of my students once told me that her parents were “religious,” but she did not see a personal relationship with God in their lives. That’s a sad statement to make, and perhaps all too common for many of us. Do we have a ­relationship with God—or just a comfortable religion empty of divine experience?
While St. Ignatius was not particularly interested in teaching religion or doctrine, he did want us to have an experience of the Divine. After a life-­shattering spiritual experience of God on the banks of the river Cardoner in Manresa, Spain, he wrote that even if there were no Scriptures to teach us, he would be resolved to die for what he had experienced at Manresa. Ignatius was ready to die for his experience of the Divine, and this experience became the absolute criterion for all the decisions he made for the rest of his life. Manresa also became his foundational experience, through which all the rest of his graces would deepen until he found himself in the divine being and essence.
Now, there are some smart, nice, and holy people who choose never to seek to experience the Divine. Why? Maybe it is because they do not know about these experiences, or, worse still, they have been told that such experiences are available only to a chosen few, like John of the Cross or Teresa of Ávila, and not to sinners like us. Or, deep down, they are held back by the false fear that if they become mystics, they will have to stop enjoying life: The only way to meet God is through a kind of dying to self and letting God be God so that I can live the fullness of this life. Or, if they do seek to experience God, they seek only a small God, a God manageable by their own standards. This is a limited God that the self—the clingy ego—won’t feel threatened by. Unfortunately, with a small God, the response of these nice people to the world often becomes one of fear, anxiety, and helplessness, because when they are in need, their small God can do very little for them.
I invite you now to ask yourself: Am I looking to meet a big God, a God without limits? Do I have the will to experience the Divine—in all its wondrous and infinite possibilities?
If so—or if you’re at least curious about meeting a big God—let’s start our journey together where St. Ignatius would start: by questioning our lives, questioning the world around us, questioning our relationships, questioning our family life, questioning our work, and questioning our passions. Let’s also question our relationship with God.
My hope is that this small book will inspire your desire for a greater and greater experience of the Divine, and that it will help you ask the right questions—the really important, life-and-death questions. Some things in this book might immediately make a lot of sense to you; other things might immediately confuse you. Still other things might make you feel uncomfortable or even cause you to recoil. And that’s okay. My hope is that, over time, this book will also point you toward experiencing the Divine through experiencing your personal God. Such a journey takes courage, patience, and a good degree of surrender. Are you ready for such a quest? This is a big journey; it’s the biggest journey we can make. But we can do this together—in fact, we can only do it together.
Are you ready?




How Big Is Your God?

Do you know God? Have you seen the face of the Divine? I like to tell people that the sum of life is our journey to find our identity in the Divine. But I think sometimes the only way to really say what I mean is to tell it in a story:
With Christmas coming, Grandma was out shopping for gifts for her grandchildren. While she was at the toy store going through her list and carefully selecting gifts, she noticed a small homeless girl outside wistfully looking into the store. Grandma’s heart went out to this little girl. She invited her into the store and asked her to pick out a gift for herself. As they walked out of the store, the little girl held Grandma’s hand and looked into her kind eyes and asked, “Are you God?” Grandma, somewhat embarrassed and somewhat touched, said, “No, my dear, I am not God.” “Then who are you?” continued the little girl. Grandma thought for a moment and said, “I am a child of God.” The little girl, fully satisfied and smiling, said, “I knew there was a connection.”
When people come into your life, do they see a divine connection in you?
The little girl in the story had given Grandma a wonderful Christmas gift that day—a gift better than any gift Grandma would ever give or receive for the rest of her life. She realized her true identity as a child of God.
St. Paul tells us that when we believe that we are children of God, we become divine heirs (Romans 8:16–17), and the gifts of God are not our privilege—they become our right.
How big is our inheritance? It will depend on how big our God is—it will depend on how big and infinite a God we allow ourselves to experience and come to know. “When [God] appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). As our God becomes bigger, so do we.



Do You Have the Will to Experience a Big God?

Once when I lived in the United States and was working as a chaplain at a hospital, I was called to the bedside of a man who was afraid of dying. When I got there, I saw his family around him and thought, He must be afraid of dying because he’s afraid of leaving his family behind to fend for themselves. But this was not the case. And I would have understood if he was afraid of dying because he had things to do and places to go, but that was not the case either. This man was afraid of dying because he was afraid of meeting God. And do you know what? This man had made forty-five spiritual retreats. I have often wondered since then what kind of God was talked about in those retreats if after forty-five of them this man was afraid of dying because he was afraid of meeting God! How big was his God?
That same week, I was called to the bedside of a woman who had been given three days to live. When I went to visit her at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, she said, “Thank you for coming, Father. I was waiting for you. You know, before you came to visit me at the retirement home, I was afraid of God. I was afraid of his judgment and his punishment. After you came, I developed such a wonderful experience of and relationship with God that I cannot wait to die. I cannot wait to die, so that I can be with God.” I realized at that moment that I was in the presence of a true mystic. A simple, faithful, everyday Catholic now turned genuine mystic.
Now, it’s one thing to preach about dying and meeting God, but it’s quite another to meet a person who is living out what is preached. And so, to break the tension of the moment, I said, “You know, when you go up there, just put in a good word for me.” “Oh, Father,” she said, “I am waiting to tell God everything about you.” “Well,” I said meekly, “please, not everything.”
So we joked a little and I prayed with her, thanking God for such a beautiful life, for all the gifts that she had received and the opportunities God had given her to share those gifts with others, bringing peace, joy, love, and meaning to the lives of so many. We thanked God for the people who had come into her life, made a difference, and helped her feel worthwhile and happy. I know the world is a better place just because she lived in it. That night she died peacefully—not afraid of dying, because she wanted to be with God. A simple woman whose faith and devotion to Jesus and Mary opened her heart and brought her to the feet of a merciful God, who was waiting to celebrate her when she arrived in the divine presence.
When I share these two experiences with priests and religious across the globe, it is amazing to me how many of the senior men and women tell me that they belong to the first category. They are afraid of dying because they are afraid of meeting God. They are afraid of God’s judgment and punishment. They are afraid because they are nearing the end of their lives and they hardly know God. They seem stuck with a belief in a small God that keeps them confined to a Good Friday Jesus and does not allow them to explore the God who rose on Easter Sunday. And they cry desperately for help!
More recently, two prominent retreatants at one of our Jesuit retreat houses complained, saying, “We came to the retreat house to be spiritually nourished, not to be spiritually challenged.”
This is something we need to consider: Do we go to retreats, go to church, attend seminars and conferences, pray, and read books on faith to be spiritually nourished? Or do we do these things to be spiritually challenged?
The people of Israel understood this challenge of faith well. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls them saying, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die” (18:16). They knew that listening to the voice of God meant death. Seeing his holy face (the “great fire”) is an invitation to die to our selfishness. It is a challenge to transcend the 1 percent of the world that is physical and move toward the 99 percent that is spiritual.
Then there is the rather humorous passage in Exodus where the people of Israel come to Moses and say, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (20:19).
So we go to our religious services and make sure we read the latest popular inspirational books and attend all kinds of psychospiritual wellness retreats and conferences. And we come away feeling good. But without the willingness to be spiritually challenged, we cannot and will not change. Without the will to give up whatever is asked of us in order to meet a bigger God, we find that our understanding and experience of the Divine cannot and will not grow.
Try taking that to your prayer and meditation time, and see what happens. Take this kind of willingness into the prayers you pray in the stillness and silence of your heart, and you will be seduced by God, just like Abraham was. Abraham was asked to leave behind everything he knew—his country, his kindred, his culture, and his belief in many gods—and was promised “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8) and progeny that would be “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). God invited Abraham to follow him through the desert to this new land. In this land, Abraham would experience a new way of living and would discover a bigger God. With this new relationship with God, Abraham would become a blessing wherever he went.
God took Abraham through the desert, and if you have the will to follow, he’ll take you through the desert too. The desert represents a place of purification and pure encounter with God, with no obstacles or distractions. The desert is the place where you will experience the naked truth of who you are—the image and likeness of God, the divine breath. While you’re in the desert, God may come for your beloved Isaac and ask you to sacrifice him. Isaac was Abraham’s son and God’s own gift and promise to him.
Do you still want to know God? Do you still want to see the face of the Divine? Do you have the will to experience your own spiritual and divine identity and become a channel of divine blessing?



Are You Ready?

One Sunday while watching television, I happened on a gospel channel and heard a preacher tell his listeners that he had an important question for them. Now, I may not always agree with all that television preachers say, but I find them to be animated speakers, and I was curious to hear his question. The question was three words: “Are you ready?” He continued, “Are you ready when the Lord comes? Because when the Lord comes, he will not ask you whether you were in church today or not. When the Lord comes, he will not ask you whether you are a good Christian. He will not ask you about the great and admirable things you did in life. When the Lord comes, he will ask, ‘Did you know me?’” And instead of changing the channel, I had to stop and reflect a moment, because this is something that I might have said—or would like to have said.
“Are you ready?” “Did you know me?” Do you know God? Have you seen the face of the Divine?
These are scary questions, because for many of us, religion is going to church. Many of us will want to answer, “I am ready, because I attend church every Sunday and keep all the commandments . . . well, except a few.” But that is not the question that the Lord will ask. He will ask, “Did you know me?” “Have you seen the face of God?” “Have you experienced the Divine?”
Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, believed that everyone needs religion as a well to take them to the river of God’s love and divine life. This is a wonderful analogy. Wells are fed by rivers of life-­giving water, but how often the well—and not the water it can provide—becomes the goal of our lives. Since we are seeking a big God, let’s ask ourselves: has the well become the goal of our lives?
It often does. We fortify our well; we decorate it and adorn it with elaborate and beautiful liturgies; we say, “Look at our well. Look at what we’ve done and how wonderful it is.” And we are never taken to the river. The purpose of the well is to take us to the river. The river gives us freedom and salvation. Everyone needs religion, yes. Religion is a means to freedom, but it is not an end in itself. Religion helps us find the river of life and the river of freedom, and it’s in the river that we experience the love of God and divine life. A question we must ask ourselves is once we find the river, once we are experiencing the divine love, do we still need the well? Once Paul found the river in his Damascus experience, did he still need the Mosaic law?
Many of us settle for the comfort and security of the well without realizing that the river exists. One of my students once told me that her parents are good people—they go to Mass every Sunday and live by the laws of the church. Their well runs deep. It is more beautiful to them than any other well. They are so comfortable in their well that they will very likely never search for the river. They do not know what they are missing, or even that they are missing anything at all. My student’s father was present when a man who had recently been baptized was giving witness to his faith. The man was so overcome with his experience that he was brought to tears. My student’s father remarked afterward that he envied this man’s experience. He felt that he would be forever deprived of such an experience because, having been baptized as a baby he was not in need of conversion. Rather than sensing that his envy might be a sign of something incomplete or missing in his life, he saw his baptismal experience as over, done, in the past; he would therefore never allow himself to have the mystical experience of being initiated into the river of God’s love.
The man who was giving witness was baptized in the river. My student’s father was baptized in the well.
Why would we want to seek the river? Those who are baptized in the river will have an ever-­deepening experience similar to the one Jesus had when the heavens opened and God’s voice was heard: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The river is the same living water that Jesus described to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well when he said, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13–14).
When the Lord comes, he will ask, “Did you know me?” “Have you seen the face of God?” “Have you experienced the Divine?” Did you see the river, or were you so lost in the well that it became an obstacle rather than a pathway to the river? Once you have seen the face of God, going to church becomes meaningful, being a Christian makes sense, and all your good works will be fruitful. The well will no longer be a barrier between you and God but will open up to the river and will flow into the river, and the river into it.



The River of Life Is Free

Psychologist Carl Jung told us that the river of life, the river of divine love, springs forth in different places. Each time this spring is discovered, people immediately build a shrine to protect the life-­giving water and make it the property of the guardians of religion. Soon there is a fee, and, of course, some groups of people are kept away from the life-­giving spring. The water is not happy and so disappears from there and springs forth in another place, and another place, each time it is enshrined.
Jung believed that the spring of life-­giving water now flows in what he called our shadow, that dark side of our personality that surprises us at times. Our shadow is made of the repressed aspects of our conscious self, the things the conscious person does not wish to accept within him- or herself. For instance, someone who identifies with being generous has a shadow that is stingy or selfish. Jung believed that the spring of life-­giving water is more readily found in our shadow than in our limiting ego. No one thinks of building a shrine at those times when our shadow reigns, and so the waters that spring up there remain free and happy. It is here that we more easily experience the presence of the Divine. Remember, the demons always recognized who Jesus was before the religious folks of his time did. And religion can sometimes become an obstacle to experiencing the river of life and relating with the Divine.
Consider this story:
There was once a very religious man. One day he heard the voice of God in his prayer inviting him to come to a certain mountain where he would be able to see the face of the Divine and experience God’s loving embrace.
The man came out of his prayer and could not contain himself. He thought of this day when he would see God face-to-face, and he just could not wait. But then he thought to himself, I have to offer God something in return for such a wonderful gift and to commemorate this once-in-a-­lifetime occasion. He thought of gold, silver, precious stones—but nothing in the material world seemed to suffice. Finally, he decided to fill a jar with tiny pebbles. Each one of these pebbles would represent one of his prayers, sacrifices, or good works. When the jar was finally full of his little pebbles, he ran up the mountain. He got to the top, and his heart was ready to explode in anticipation. But to his surprise, he could not see or feel anything divine. He began to think that he was deluded, a victim of a divine prank. Holding his jar, he broke down and began to weep. Just then, he heard God’s voice once again, saying, “I am waiting to show myself to you and wanting so much to take you into my loving arms, but you have put an obstacle between us. If you want to see my divine face and experience my love, break that jar!”
The divine gifts cannot be earned. If we truly believe, with Paul, that we are children of God and therefore heirs to the Divine (Romans 8:17), then the gifts of God are not our privilege but our right. They are ours to be experienced freely.



God—an Experience, Not a Theology

A holy man sitting atop the Himalayas put up a big sign that read, “For two cents, I will give you an experience of God.” People came from all around to see him. He told them to place their money in a little bowl beside him, and then he gave them a few grains of sugar. He told them to eat the sugar. He did not ask them to describe its taste or talk about its sweetness. He had them eat the sugar and experience the sugar. What is sweetness? It can be analyzed in a chemist’s laboratory. It can be described and talked about. But the more you talk about sweetness, the less you know what sweetness is in your mouth. Sweetness is an experience. God is an experience.
How can you prove the reality of God or the existence of God? Can you prove the existence of God? I like Carl Jung’s definition of reality. Reality is that which affects you. Whatever affects you is real. God affects my life, so God is real for me. God motivates me, so God is real for me. God touches me; therefore, he is real for me. God opens up infinite possibilities for me, and so I am alive, and God becomes ever more real for me.
In India, there is a group of tribals who are living signs that God is an experience. They are the original inhabitants of the country. They are also the group that has been the most exploited. In the part of the country where they live, the feudal system still exists. The feudal lord owns land as far as the eye can see and owns everything on that land: the trees, the cattle, the men, the women, the children. He can do whatever he wants with whatever and whoever is on that land. He can treat all within his land with respect and reverence, but he can also beat the men, rape the women, and starve the children to death, and this is what happens—and there is no law that will prosecute him.
Each morning, these tribal people go to work in the landlord’s fields, and they are happy and laughing. Their chatter can be heard across the fields, and it is free and light. At night, if the weather is good, they get their drums out and sing and dance the night away. They have very little in their homes. Their typical house is two rooms: the cattle stay in one room, and the family lives in the other. A bamboo partition separates the family from the cattle. These people have little, and yet they are happy and they celebrate life.
What gives them this freedom when they are in the midst of such pain and suffering, when their men are beaten for no reason, their women are raped, and their children are starved to death? Despite this suffering, they live fully. This does not mean that when their men are beaten, they feel no pain. They feel anger when their women are raped. When their children die, they mourn. Yet all this evil, which is part of their personal daily experience, does not stop them from living fully. When asked, “What gives you the freedom to sing and dance, to laugh, to live life so fully?” they will show you their tattoos. They are tattooed on their foreheads, their temples, their wrists, and their ankles. Each tattoo is a symbol of the Divine.
These tribals are not Catholic; they are not Christian; they are not Hindu or Buddhist. They are not part of any religion. They are nature worshippers, but they have the experience of truth, and they have the freedom that religion does not give. They believe that while they are alive, their men can be beaten, their women can be raped, their children can be starved to death, but no one can touch the Divine who is rooted in their lives. They know that when they die, friends and relatives will come and take away the few belongings that they have. Everything can be taken from them, but no one on earth can touch the Divine who is tattooed on them. All they take with them is the Divine tattooed upon them. This is their reality, their experience, and their truth.



Seeking Truth and Freedom

I was born in Goa, and I have lived most of my life in India. However, I earned my PhD and have spent the past fifteen summers teaching students of all ages at Saint Louis University, in the heartland of America. I can tell you with confidence that there is a difference between the Eastern and the Western understanding of truth. The Western understanding of truth is a philosophy. It is a set of beliefs that you can think about and know. The Eastern understanding of truth is an experience. It is an experience that can contradict philosophy, defy science, challenge the Scriptures and yet, in the Eastern view, be truth.
During my first semester as a theology student at St. Louis University, I was told by one of my teachers that I was a heretic and was going to hell. I had said to him, “I know that Jesus is a historical figure—I know that. But what if Scripture scholars suddenly were to tell us irrefutably that Jesus never existed, that it was all a myth, a story that had been made up?” I asked him, “What would happen to you?” My teacher, a priest who had been teaching theology for many years, replied, “If they told me irrefutably that Jesus did not exist, I would give up being a priest, being a religious, being a Christian.” He said he could not base his life on a myth. Then he asked me, “What about you?” I responded that I would still die for the myth. My teacher had answered from his Western understanding of truth, and I had answered from my Eastern understanding. In the East, experience that affects life is truth. Truth is that which touches one’s heart and changes one’s life.
Truth in the Eastern perspective is often known and experienced in pain and suffering, whereas the truth that is experienced in comfort, luxury, and good times is sometimes an illusion. When we are confronted with pain, with suffering, with sickness and death, we know what truth is—truth becomes an experience. For some groups in India, the threat of death is a daily experience. Truth, for them, is not an idea or a philosophy. Because these people experience death every day, they fully live their lives. Because they are oppressed by evil, they know what freedom is. When we are protected from pain, we don’t know what freedom is—freedom stays only an idea; it is not an experience. When our health is protected, when we believe that we will never die, we do not know the truth of being alive. The advertisements tell us that there is always tomorrow: You have time. Years and years. For those groups in India, every day is a gift, because they do not know if they will be alive tomorrow. So they live as fully as they can every day, because there might not be a tomorrow to live.
The Buddha tells a story about freedom that goes something like this: A man is walking on a road through a wooded area. Suddenly he is struck down by an arrow. The arrow lodges in his chest. He is lying bleeding beside the road when another man comes along and attempts to help him. As the second man tries to remove the arrow without hurting the first man further, the wounded man struggles to sit up and says, “Wait, wait . . . first tell me: did you see who shot the arrow? Which direction did it come from? Was the archer a Hindu, a Christian, a Buddhist, or a Muslim? Was the person male or female, rich or poor, friend or foe, progressive or conservative? Was it an accident, or was it deliberately aimed at me? What kind of punishment will the shooter receive after he dies? Do you believe in hell? And you—are you a believer? Does the arrow look like it’s made of wood or of steel? Did you see anything—anything at all?” The second man says, “What I can see is that you are in pain, that you are suffering, and that you will die if we can’t remove this arrow. So please stop asking useless questions and let me help you.” He gives a yank on the arrow’s shaft, and once it is removed the pain ceases—and so do the man’s useless questions.
Freedom is an experience best understood in the living, but first you must remove the arrow of your bondage without causing yourself mortal suffering. Like the injured man in the story who is distracted from what must be done, you are distracted from living fully by the pain of your own internal arrow. Most founders of religions teach us how to live life effectively and freely in this world. Only when we begin to experience inner freedom does the path to an infinite God open up to us.

Meet the Author

Paul Coutinho, SJ, divides his time between India and the United States. He currently conducts an international ministry of speaking, retreat work, and spiritual direction from a base at St. Louis University, where he received his doctorate in historical theology. He is the author of How Big Is Your God?

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