SEVA – SERVICE
BY: SADHU SUNDAR SINGH
Excerpted from Wisdom of the Sadhu
Seeker: Sadhu-ji, your call to prayer and contemplation is compelling. Should everyone then abandon the distractions of the world to live the life of a hermit?
Sadhu: It is true that prayer is the means by which we experience the reality of God. But once God has become a living reality for us, we simply have to love our fellow men. We cannot do otherwise. Once we receive the new life of the Spirit, we begin to live in love. And living in love, we are moved quite naturally and joyfully to serve others. God is love and if we live in union with God, we have the strength and longing to love others. Service is a spiritual activity, the natural fruit of love. God, who is love, is ever serving and caring for Creation. Human beings are made to be like God and so they too should never tire of serving others.
Prayer without work is as bad as work without prayer. A broody hen satisfies its instinct by continuing to sit in some dark corner even after its eggs have been removed. So it is with those who remove themselves from the tasks of life and spend their time wholly in prayer. Such a life is as fruitless as the hen that sits on an empty nest.
Remember, there is a great difference between those who worship God with their lips only and those who do so with their hearts and lives. All too often, people pray to God in the name of the Master, but they do not really know him. They take God’s name into their mouths and onto their lips but not into their hearts and lives. The Master guides us to recognize what will glorify God and benefit others. If we live in the Master and the Master lives in us, then our prayers bear fruit.
Once a man served his king with great faithfulness and courage and thus enjoyed the king’s favor. But this man’s son led a corrupt and selfish life. So when the son appeared before the king asking for some favor in the name of his father, the king replied, “Do not appeal to me in your father’s name until you first go and live a life worthy of his example. Carry your father’s honor in your heart, not only on your lips, and then I, too, will honor your request.”
Anyone who has received help from another and yet is unwilling to offer help in turn is ungrateful and undeserving of any further help. Unless we offer all our gifts and abilities in service to God, who has given us life and breath and all we have, then we cannot expect to receive the spiritual help that God alone can give.
Seeker: We are weak and sinful – mere mortals. What help or service can we possibly render to God who is eternal and almighty?
Sadhu: God has no need of help from us. Our very existence is entirely dependent on God’s constant help. However, if we offer ourselves in service, God blesses our efforts and adds his help.
When the Master approached Lazarus’ tomb, his power and help was not needed to move the stone away. That was a task for others. Once they obeyed and removed the stone, however, then the Master did what was beyond human power: he called the dead man back to life. Afterward, there was still work left for others: they removed the burial clothes so that Lazarus could walk about in perfect freedom.
It is the same with those who are spiritually dead. We can roll away the tombstones of doubt and ignorance, but only God can breathe new life into them. Even then, they may still carry the burdens of bad habits and evil company, so we have the continuing duty to help free them from these entanglements. For this task, we must remain ever alert in heart and soul.
God often uses the least gifted people when some great service is needed. Why? Because people who know their own weakness are fully open to the power that God offers. When the Master fed the five thousand, he did not use his disciples. They were too full of doubt and worry, wanting to send the crowds away to fend for themselves. Instead, he turned to a small boy who had barely enough to feed himself. His mother had wrapped some barley cakes and dried fish for him, but he was completely willing to give all that he had in perfect trust that the Master would supply the rest. There may even have been wealthier people there with dried fruit and cakes of wheat, but they were not ready to give them up in such simple faith. So the Master fed the multitude with the simple food of a peasant boy.
Seeker: It requires such dedication to maintain an active prayer life. I do not see how one can find the strength to serve others as well.
Sadhu: The great gift of service is that it also helps the one who serves. Once when traveling in Tibet, I was crossing a high mountain pass with my Tibetan guide. The weather had suddenly turned bitterly cold, and my companion and I feared that we might not make it to the next village – still several miles away –before succumbing to the frost.
Suddenly, we stumbled upon a man who had slipped from the path and was lying in the snow. Looking more closely, I discovered that the man was still alive, though barely. “Come,” I said to my companion, “help me try to bring this unfortunate man to safety.” But my companion was upset and frightened for his life. He answered: “If we try to carry that man, none of us will ever reach the village. We will all freeze. Our only hope is to go on as quickly as possible, and that is what I intend to do. You will come with me if you value your life.” Without another word and without looking back, he set off down the path.
I could not bring myself to abandon the helpless traveler while life remained in him, so I lifted him on my back and threw my blanket around us both as best I could. Slowly and painstakingly, I picked my way along the steep, slippery path with my heavy load. Soon it began to snow, and I could make out the way forward only with great difficulty.
How we made it, I do not know. But just as daylight was beginning to fade, the snow cleared and I could see houses a few hundred yards ahead. Near me, on the ground, I saw the frozen body of my guide. Nearly within shouting distance of the village, he had succumbed to the cold and died, while the unfortunate traveler and I made it to safety. The exertion of carrying him and the contact of our bodies had created enough heat to save us both. This is the way of service. No one can live without the help of others, and in helping others, we receive help ourselves.
Once two women appeared before the wise king Solomon. The first said: “Your Majesty! This woman and I live in the same house. I gave birth to a son, and three days later she also gave birth to a baby boy. But in that same night, her son died. So she sneaked up to my bed while I was still asleep, took my child from my side and left the body of her dead son in his place. In the morning, I could see that it was her baby not mine.”
At that, the second woman interrupted, saying it was not so. Then the two women began arguing in the presence of the king. The king called for silence and, to the astonishment of all present, he called for a guard to come with a sword, cut the living child in two, and give each woman half of the child’s body. The second woman said, “So be it then!” But the first woman fell on her knees before the king and cried: “No, Your Majesty! Have mercy and spare the child’s life. Rather give him to the other woman.” In those words, King Soloman recognized the true mother’s heart and so ordered that the child be given to her.
Seeker: Your examples are full of hope, beloved Sadhu, but I am too selfish and sinful to be of any service.
Sadhu: There was once a convicted murderer who, instead of being hanged, was sent into battle with the armies of the king. He was gravely wounded, but he fought with bravery and valor and returned from the war a hero. The king, seeing his wounds and hearing the reports of his valor, not only pardoned him for his previous crime, but also rewarded him richly and gave him a position of honor in the kingdom. So it is in our spiritual lives. If we fight to save the lives of those oppressed under the weight of sin and selfishness, we will not only find forgiveness, but we will also enjoy spiritual bliss.
Some people are held back from serving others because they doubt their own abilities. They are like those recovering from a long illness. They receive nourishing food and rest and are no longer sick, but they remain weak and lethargic because they have not worked or exercised their muscles. We must simply set out in trust to bring the message of hope and faith to others. It is useless to take swimming lessons unless we are willing to enter the water and practice – first in the shallow water and then in the deep. In this way, we can gain strength and improve our technique. In order to help those who are struggling and sinking in the dark waters of inner need, we must enter the practical school of theology – prayer and spiritual union with God.
Seeker: Why share our spiritual blessings with others, when so often people only mock and ridicule us?
Sadhu: The Master said, “Resist not evil.” Once there was a devoted Indian Christian who was praying in his house alone, when three thieves stealthily entered and took away all they could get. When the man had finished his prayers he noticed that all his goods were gone, except for the box over which he had been bowing in prayer. This box contained all his money and valuables. He immediately took the contents and ran after the thieves calling: “Wait! Wait! You have left some valuables behind. Perhaps you need these things more than I.” When the thieves heard this, they thought it was a trap. But when they saw that he had no weapon and that he was alone, they came back to him. The man said to them: “Why didn’t you tell me you needed these things? I would have gladly given you whatever you needed. Now, come home with me, and whatever you need you may have.” The thieves, seeing the strange life of this man of prayer, were so struck that their lives changed forever.
If a blind man comes groping along the road, it is only right that we who can see should step aside and avoid bumping into him. And if he, by accident, bumps into us, we should not take offense, but rather help him find his way. If we get annoyed about it, it only proves that we are blinder than the blind man himself, completely lacking both common sense and human sympathy. Similarly, if anyone persecutes us because we follow the truth, we should – instead of being offended – forgive and pray for that person in love. If we continue to experience opposition, we lose nothing, since we experience for the sake of the Master, the Truth, which is our reward
If we serve in love, then our service will eventually bear fruit. If some people speak evil of us or hurl abuse and criticism, then we should love them all the more. They may yet taste the sweet fruits of our love.
When naughty boys see a tree with delicious fruit hanging heavy from its branches, they sometimes throw stones. But the tree does not respond by hurling stones back. Instead, it drops its delicious fruit for them to enjoy. The tree does not have stones to hurl, but it freely shares what it does have – the sweet fruit – without murmur or complaint. So do not be discouraged if some hurl abuse and criticism at you for following the spiritual life. It is a sign that they actually long for the fruit God has given you. And even if they attack you out of malice and spite, still you can offer spiritual fruits and reveal God’s love.
A rebellious son once left his father’s house and joined a band of robbers living along the road through the jungle. In time, he forgot his happy childhood and became as cruel and ruthless as the others. But his father never gave up hoping that one day he would abandon his evil ways and return home. In time, the father called his servants and asked them to go into the jungle, find his son, and tell him that his father was waiting to welcome him home and forgive him, if only he would abandon his evil ways. But the servants refused to go. They were afraid of the wild country and the fierce robbers.
Now, the man’s older son loved his younger brother just as much as his father did. So, when no servant could be found to go, he set out himself into the jungle to find his brother and deliver his father’s message. As he wandered through the jungle, the robbers spied him, attacked him, and wounded him to the point of death. Only then did his younger brother recognize him. Filled with grief and remorse at what he and his band had done, he embraced his dying brother and kissed him. With his last breath, the older brother was able to pass on the father’s message: “Now my life’s task and love’s duty is done.” So saying, he died in his brother’s arms.
The young man was so moved by the loving sacrifice of his brother, that his heart was instantly changed. He abandoned his life as a robber, asked forgiveness of his father, and from that day on lived a new and upright life. When we think of how the Master died in agony to pass on to us God’s message of love, should we then not also be ready to give our lives in bringing this message of hope to others?
Often, we can share the message of God’s love more effectively by prayer than by preaching. Spiritual power emanates silently and unnoticed from those who pray and reveal spiritual truths to others, just as unseen radio waves from a powerful transmitter can convey messages to those attuned to them. In this way, a seeking person may receive the greatest help from someone praying alone.
The firefly with its flickering light and certain small plants in the Himalayas brighten the dark jungle as best they can. There are also tiny fish in the depths of the ocean that give light into that gloomy darkness. All the more should we be lights for all those souls wandering in the darkness of this world. Even if it involves risk or danger to ourselves, we should be eager to share our God-given light with those who are stumbling and in danger of losing their way.
Seeker: But if we give all our strength in serving others, how will we ever find time or energy to praise God?
Sadhu: God has no need of our praise. Does God lack anything that we mortals could provide? Those who seek to follow the spiritual life are like salt in the world. Salt crystals cannot give flavor to food unless they dissolve. If we dissolve the salt in a pot, it disappears but it does not cease to exist. Indeed, it can then give flavor to thousands of grains of rice.
It is the same with us. If we are not melted in the fire of love and spirit, if we do not sacrifice ourselves completely, then we cannot pass on to even a single soul the blissful experience of the spiritual life. If we do not sacrifice ourselves, then we are rather like Lot’s wife who was turned to a lifeless pillar of salt. Yesu was melted in the Garden of Gethsemane and gave his life on the cross to open the gate of heaven for all. In the same spirit, we must be prepared to give up our own lives for the spiritual welfare of others. This is what will bring praise to God.
The sword of justice hangs threateningly even now over many souls. We must be willing to sacrifice our own desires – even our lives – for the benefit of those in danger of spiritual death. Then the world will recognize that true love abides in us and that we are children of the God who sacrifices himself for us.
Seeker: What happens if we fail to serve others?
Sadhu: If we repeat the same thought or word or deed over and over, then it becomes a habit. Habits determine our character. So we should carefully consider the consequences and implications of our habits. If we become indifferent to doing good, our capacity to do good will diminish. It is difficult to do something well. It is still more difficult to put right something we have done wrong. But it is altogether easy to destroy something. It takes great time and effort to grow a tree, but it is easy to cut it down. When it is dry and dead, it is impossible to bring it back to life.
If we do not make use of the spiritual faculties we have been given, then we will lose them. This has happened to certain fishes living in the deep waters of dark caves. They have lived so long in darkness that they have become completely blind. The same thing has happened to certain hermits I have met in the caves of Tibet. Therefore, do not let your spiritual sight grow dull, but make full use of all your spiritual faculties and strengthen them so that you are able to sense God’s presence.
The pipe that carries fresh water is itself kept clean by the clear water that flows through it. In the same way, we are kept clean and pure if we allow God’s spirit to constantly flow through us for the benefit of others.
There are many people who waste precious chances to serve God and their fellow human beings. They should rouse themselves and make full use of the time that is given to them. Once a hunter picked up some pretty stones by a river in the jungle. He used them to shoot at birds with his slingshot, and so one by one they disappeared into the water and were lost. Some time later, he was in a city and wandered through the market absent-mindedly tossing and catching the one stone he still had left. A jeweler caught sight of it, marveled at such a precious gem and offered to buy it for several thousand rupees. When the hunter recognized the value of his stone, he cried out: “Woe is me! I have been carelessly shooting gems into the river. I could have been a millionaire. But thank God I have saved at least this one.”
Every day of our lives is like a precious diamond. We may have wasted countless days already in idle and selfish pursuits, so that they are now lost in the depths of the past. But let us at least awake now, see the value of the days that remain and use them to acquire spiritual wealth. If we use them in selfless service to God and if we use them to warn others who are still frivolously throwing away their days in pursuit of fleeting pleasures, then we will gain the boundless treasure of heavenly bliss.
SERVICE [Sadhu Sundar Singh] 1