POSTCARD: Priestly Lessons
MUMBAI, India—I’d been dreaming of swimming through a vast black sea, and in the morning my bed was an island. Water from the night’s rains had ruptured the ceiling, miraculously leaving me untouched. At the same time, not a drop of water flowed from the pipes.
Monsoon weather could make this summer in my Bombay flat difficult. Luckily, despite my not being a priest, a male, or even a believer, Societas Verbi Divini—an international organization of missionaries—opened its residence to me.
As the cook brought out tea and jackfruit in bite-size slices, salmon-pink and sweet to taste, one of the priests, a family friend, would talk about his work in Munich. He had not liked Germany; it had been a bureaucratic country, with weather (and relationships) that seemed cold. His heart belonged to India. He especially loved the villages, to which he would return immediately if the church would let him. Everyone took things into their own hands there—once he’d illegally blasted open rocks to extract water; another time he’d realized 35 motorbikes had materialized in the impoverished village because some enterprising young men had stolen them from town. There’d been a police round-up of the thieves (with whom he clearly sympathized) and an escape from the single-room, four-barred jail, the men racing through the forest in pitch darkness. No policeman had ever returned to the area for fear of being killed.
The good and the bad mingled crazily in these stories, in which morality seemed so prey to circumstance. Who is to say that innate moral qualities exist at all? I ventured. But he was adamant: “A source exists outside us that fills us with goodness.”
Occasionally we sidled toward the void of theodicy, which fascinated and troubled us both. I brought in Augustine, Nietzsche, Descartes, other Western thinkers. But they were a tired arsenal and crumbled like dust in my hands, for he never answered my arguments with counter-arguments. “See,” he would say, then draw a metaphor, transforming a question into images or some kind of symbol. When I asked what he meant by goodness apart from good actions, he replied: “In each of us there is a diamond.”
As an alternative to what he flatteringly called “my” philosophers, he handed me Tagore’s Gitanjali, with its introduction by Yeats, and a book of discourses by the Swami Vivekananda. But don’t read too much, he warned—it wasn’t necessarily good for the mind without experience. While he was speaking I opened the Swami’s book at random and immediately fell upon this: “You have first to throw books overboard. The less you read of books, the better for you; do one thing at a time. It is a tendency in Western countries, in these modern times, to make a hotchpotch of the brain; all sorts of unassimilated ideas run riot and form a chaos without ever obtaining a chance to settle down and crystallise into a definite shape.”
Trying to keep an open mind, I went to a yoga center he recommended, where a woman swathed in the complicated, womblike folds of a white sheet took questions. The lights were then switched off and soft music piped in; all those present were asked to stare at a point of light in the center of a red egg radiating green rays, reading “SUPREME BEING” in English and Hindi. Within the dimness the pinpoint appeared to pulse and the rays to undulate. “Do you know what is meant by the pinpoint of light,” the lady’s voice floated around—or through—us. “What is meant is—God.”
This was not Christianity at all; nor did it convince me. But it was one of the many dogma-transcending beliefs I found the priests could hold, including Marxism (at the SVD ashram in the Goan jungle where I stayed) and faith in the guru Sai Baba.
Coming back to America, and Harvard, will mean returning to a different kind of island. Events will operate according to an analytical verbal logic; practically, things will probably work. But that does not mean there will not still always exist this place—where, though there is a God, though there are many gods, all things are still permitted.
Jessica A. Sequeira ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor and columnist, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.