Hazrat Inayat Khan told the following story: once, a westerner approached someone from the east, and asked him if he could teach him something about ‘esoteric mysteries.’ The person from the east looked doubtfully at the westerner, and then said, “Excuse me, but missionaries from your country come regularly to our land to teach us about God. Why do you ask me about this knowledge?”
“Oh,” said the westerner, “we know all about God, but I want to know about esoteric secrets.”
“If you know about God,” said the easterner, “you don’t need anything more, That is all there is.”
It is true that the word ‘God’ is widely used, but it obviously means different things to different people. Some, reacting against religious concepts and imagery that they don’t understand, (and believing, in this reaction, that they are free from that which they reject) proclaim the whole idea a myth. Others, also shaping their thought according to a religious teaching, say that ‘God’ is far away from the human level – that perhaps we will meet Him when we leave this world, but for now we are on our own. Still others, perhaps of a more philosophical turn, say, “Yes, I can believe in a higher power, but not a ‘person’ that I can talk to. God should be abstract.” Still others, not so many perhaps, know Him as their constant Companion, an unfailing Friend with Whom they are privileged to share everything.
The question of a ‘personal’ God has puzzled many thinkers for centuries. The word ‘personal’ in English can have several meanings; it can mean ‘belonging or relating particularly to a person,’ as when we say, for example, I have a personal trainer, or a personal supply of something. In thinking about God, though, it means ‘having a personal nature,’ with Whom one could speak, for example, and from Whom one could hope to receive an answer to one’s questions or requests.
When the philosopher says, ‘God is all, beyond name and form, so how could one say that God is a person? Does he prefer coffee or tea?’ – there is reason behind this, certainly, but it is reason that does not serve us. It is true that God is beyond all limitations, and can never be described; description depends upon comparison, and there is nothing outside of the Divine Presence with which to compare. Nevertheless, if one seeks to have direct experience of the Presence, one must begin from some point that is comprehensible. As Hazrat Inayat Khan pointed out, the Chinese images of Buddha have Chinese eyes. That may be historically inaccurate, but the images have enabled Chinese devotees to come closer to the peace and compassion of the Tathagata’s teaching.
There are countless wonders in this world of creation, but the finest and subtlest, the most appealing and that which approaches most closely to perfection, is the developed personality. The great teachers did not change the world so much by what they said as by what they were; it is the magic and charm of their personality that resounds through the ages. Jesus is often credited with the Golden Rule (‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’) but this principle can be found in many traditions. The Master did not invent the principle (did Jesus himself not say, ‘I have not come to give a new law’?) but by living the principle and showing it in the beauty of a perfected Personality, breathed into it life that continues vibrating to this day.
One of the charms of the developed personality is, that it can relate to all. One may say that he sees beauty in nature, in the creatures and the plants and the insects, and that is true, there is indeed beauty there. But the plants and creatures do not look beyond their sphere, while the perfected personality sympathies with the humblest and reaches to the highest heavens.
And, if we admire the Creator for His handiwork, for the mystery of the flower and the beauty of the birdsong, should we not also admire Him for the beauty of personality? If we see the immensity of the night sky, and ascribe that majesty to Him, if we see the benevolent effect of the sunlight, and the grace of rain, and ascribe those qualities to their Maker, should we not also accord Him the beauty of Personality?
The task of the seeker, therefore, is to shape, from his or her own understanding, the most perfect personality imaginable, and place that personality before him or herself as the face of God to Whom one offers one’s prayers and petitions. In that way, God becomes very personal, in both senses of the word. When saying the opening words of the prayer Saum, ‘Praise be to Thee, most supreme God,’ what are we praising? Do we have some qualities in mind and heart? If not, then ‘praise’ is only an empty word.
Plainly speaking, this making of the personal God is the making of the Divine Ideal about which Hazrat Inayat so often speaks. Some people, perhaps, might hesitate, thinking, would not my creation limit the Divine? But that is to miss the point; the purpose of the ideal is not to give an ultimate description of the Divine, we know that is not possible, but to help us grow – and our ideal will grow as we grow, so long as we take the first step of making one, however imperfect our view of personal perfection may be.