The phrase spiritual warrior seems a paradox, for how can a warrior be spiritual? And yet when we consider how warriors fight and often sacrifice their lives to preserve what they believe is right and to protect their family and country, we can understand why those who would advance spiritually are often portrayed as warriors. In India's epic Mahabharata, for example, Arjuna was urged by his spiritual preceptor to take up arms against the forces of ignorance and fear. In the West, adventures of knights in shining armor still inspire us, as does the heroism of courageous men and women who, armed with virtue and high resolve, set out to vanquish oppression, protect the weak, and restore righteousness. Their "weapons" — charity, patience, an indomitable will, and an unfailing zeal not only to win their high purpose but to rescue others no matter the risks to themselves — had to be earned by conquering their own weaknesses and by developing their spiritual faculties.
How did they, and how can we, do this? Every religion sets out various rules: abstaining from slander and gossip, from lying, stealing, killing, and from wrong belief — in other words, by filling our minds and hearts with ennobling thoughts, and our days with deeds of kindness and love. Reginald Machell incorporated these ideas in his large (6' x 7-1/2') painting of The Path (reproduced below). In it he portrays with symbolic figures the conflicts and triumphs by which we can attain full spiritual self-consciousness. This condition is suggested by the Christlike figure whose head, in the upper triangle, is lost in the glory of the sun, and whose feet in the Waters of Space, in the lower triangle, indicate the unity of spirit and matter. His wings, filling the middle region, represent the motion or pulsation of cosmic life through which each individual advances to perfect humanhood. Encircling the whole picture, a great serpent of wisdom depicts the continuum of life and life's renewal during vast cycles of time.
Examining the painting in detail, we see that just above the lower triangle a child, standing beneath the wings of its foster mother (material nature), receives the equipment of knighthood: the sword of power, the spear of will, the helmet of knowledge, and the coat of mail whose links are forged of past experience. Near the top of the painting is winged Isis, the Mother or Oversoul of all life. Her outspread wings veil the Supreme from all below. Dimly seen beneath her is a circle of golden figures who welcome with joy the triumph of a pilgrim who reaches the Supreme and then turns back to aid those wandering below. Beneath him is the red ring of Guardians who strike down those who do not have the "password," symbolized by the white flame rising from the heads of purified aspirants. Two children, representing purity, pass up unchallenged. In the center of the painting we see a warrior who has slain the dragon of illusion, or the lower self, advancing by treading upon its body — for we rise on the steps of weaknesses conquered.
On one side two women climb, the one whose robe is white and whose flame burns bright helping her weaker sister. Near them a man ascends from the darkness; moneybags hang from his belt but there is no flame above his head, and already the spear of a Guardian is poised to strike the unworthy in his hour of "success." Not far off a bard, whose flame is veiled by the red cloud of passion, lies prone, struck down by a Guardian's spear; but as he lies dying, a ray from the heart of the Supreme reaches him as a promise of success in a future life.
On the other side of the painting a student of magic, clasping his book of rituals, follows the light from the crown of ambition held aloft by a floating figure who has led him to the edge of a precipice. He thinks the crown's dazzling light comes from the Supreme, but the chasm awaits its victim. By his side his faithful follower falls unnoticed, but a ray from Above shines upon her, the reward of selfless devotion even in a mistaken cause. Summing up his intent, Machell concludes: "It is said in an ancient book: 'The Path is one, the means to reach the goal must vary with the pilgrims.'''
We can understand the distinction between the spiritual path of the average seeker and that of the spiritual warrior by considering these words of G. de Purucker:
There is a path, a sublime pathway of wisdom and illumination which begins, for each human being, in any one incarnation on this earth . . . it is the pathway of consciousness and spiritual realization leading ever inward, more inward, still more inward, toward the mystic East, which is the heart of the universe, and it is the core of you — the rising sun of spiritually divine consciousness within you. — Golden Precepts of Esotericism, p. 4
All will eventually reach their inner self through the slow process of evolution, but
there is another road, steep and thorny, difficult to follow, but which the Great Ones of the human race have trodden. It is the quick road, but the difficult one. It is the road of self-conquest, the road of the giving up of self for the All, the road by which the personal man becomes the impersonal Buddha, the impersonal Christ; the road by which the love for your own is abandoned, and your whole being becomes filled with love for all things both great and small. It is a difficult road to follow, for it is the road of initiation; it is the steep and thorny pathway to the gods; . . . —Ibid., pp. 5-6
Many others have written of these pathways. It is the theme of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, in which Everyman makes his way to the "City of God." On a deeper level Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross tells of it in his "Dark Night of the Soul." Translator Allison Peers considers this poem, written in 1577 while John was imprisoned, to be "the most grandiose and the most melodious spiritual canticle." For the intuitive this Dark Night and its commentary describe the conquest of love. Written in amorous language like the Sufis', it speaks of a lover (the human soul) pursuing and surrendering to the Beloved (God or the divine Self):
Stanzas of the Soul
On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings — oh, happy chance!
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised — oh, happy chance!
In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday,
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me —
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies. — pp. 33-4
The phrase "Dark Night of the Soul" is used today with such a variety of meanings, we need to decide what it means to us. Is the night dark because it lacks light? Or because we are unable to see the Light that would guide us? For many of us, darkness is that unknown land of dreams and imaginings where our pain and anxieties are so intense that we are not able even to glimpse the light that would illumine our problems. But to those whose souls seek that silence which is beyond thought, beyond feeling, who would know that peace which is beyond understanding, darkness is a refuge from daily trauma, a time when shadows dissolve. It is a time, no matter the hour, when they are renewed and suffused with the peace, joy, and love that is Light. This may have been what St. John had in mind when he wrote: "Oh night more lovely than the dawn." In his comments he reminds us that the shadows we create with our minds and senses must melt away, for they cannot contain the Light. Explaining that the brighter the light the darker the shadows, he says: "the brighter and more manifest in themselves are supernatural things the darker are they to our understanding" (p. 117).
If we would behold the Light that dwells in our Darkness (the light of our inner god), we must clear away the shadows our mind and senses create — "leaving our cares forgotten among the lilies," lilies here symbolizing purity and renewal. This is true in the cosmos also, as the ancient Laws of Manu (I, 4-6) explain:
This universe existed only in the first divine idea, yet unexpanded, as if involved in darkness, imperceptible, indefinable, undiscoverable by reason, and undiscovered by revelation, as if it were wholly immersed in sleep; then the sole self-existing Power himself undiscerned, appeared with undiminished glory, expanding his idea, or dispelling the gloom.
From this divine Light then emanates the visible, material light with which we are familiar. It is the same thought expressed in Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 1:1-4
St. John of the Cross
Returning to St. John: his poem, written in the first person, begins when
On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearning — oh, happy chance!
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
Here our warrior/lover, with faculties, passions, and desires put to sleep, stole forth to find the Beloved — to unite with his divine Self. How closely this language parallels the Buddhist account of Prince Siddhartha leaving his royal palace in the darkness of night when his family, guards, even the animals — that is, his every thought and desire — were sound asleep. Only his spirit was awake. Having recently beheld the three awakening sights — old age, disease, and death — he was torn with anguish and determined to find a way to end the world's pain. He could think of nothing else: all the splendors of his past had ceased to exist, had vanished in the night.
In our poem, the lover crept forth "by secret ladder, disguised." Ladders and stairs signify progress, and "secret ladders" implies stages of spiritual growth by which the soul ascends through the conflicts, temptations, and affections of this sensuous world and then of the mind, stripping off the "clothes" of worldly life to stand pure and radiant before its source. As H. P. Blavatsky explains:
A man cannot perceive, touch, and converse with pure spirit through any of his bodily senses. Only spirit alone can talk to and see spirit; and even our astral soul . . . is too gross, too much tainted yet with earthly matter to trust entirely to its perceptions and insinuations. — Isis Unveiled 2:117
The dangers are great for the untrained and impure, hence the emphasis on cleansing body, mind, and soul, leaving behind all that is earthly.
Those who make progress on the spiritual path may at times be blinded by a light that is "brighter than the midday sun," as Saul was for three days (Acts 9:9). Similarly, Arjuna was blinded when Krishna revealed to him the terrible wonders of his Divinity. After the visions passed, however, their eyes and minds adjusted and they gradually became secure and at peace in their new world. The wisdom that once was hidden and secret became an open book.
I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
All worldly desires, affections, and imperfect knowledge have been cast aside, even the memory of their existence has been absorbed or annihilated. The transformation complete, the lover, united with the Beloved, is now more divine than human. Again Blavatsky's words are informative:
Whenever man (the ethereal, inner man) reaches that point when he becomes utterly spiritual, hence, formless, he has reached a state of perfect bliss. Man as an objective being becomes annihilated, but the spiritual entity with its subjective life, will live for ever, for spirit is incorruptible and immortal.
. . . throughout the interminable series of ages we find now and then men who more or less succeed in uniting themselves "with God," as the expression goes, with their own spirit . . . The Buddhists call such men Arhat. . . . and none is equal to him either in infused science, or miraculous powers. — Isis Unveiled 1:291
This union is the climax of lifetimes of conquests, and at the same time it is a complete surrender to divine Love. If this is the goal we seek, what better guidance can we follow than the words Reginald Machell inscribed on his painting of The Path?
If Wisdom thou wouldst gain,
Be Strong, be Bold, be Merciful.
But when thou hast attained
Then let Compassion speak.
Renounce the Goal,
Return to Earth
A Savior of mankind.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)