Kathryn Spink
Author and Translator

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Following my mother’s recent funeral I was asked to make my tribute to her accessible on line so here, for those interested, it is:

Two images of my mother from my early childhood remain with me still, perhaps because they speak so eloquently about her character:

The first is of her kneeling in the vegetable plot of our large, newly built vicarage in Leicestershire to draw my attention to a rabbit eating the seedlings she had not long planted, then, alerted by the clip-clop of hooves, suddenly leaping up, grabbing a dustpan and broom, and heading off down the road to gather up the dung left by a passing rag and bone man’s horse. A still-warm pile of less-than-fragrant manure was the occasion of, to me at the age of four, inexplicable joy, but she was a farmer’s daughter and never happier than when she had her hands in the soil, quietly in communion with nature, encouraging things to grow.

After my mother’s death I discovered that, while I was tucked away in my office, she too had been writing. I found notebooks of her memories, and quotations from her reading, meticulously copied out in the handwriting of which she was justifiably proud, and frequently illustrated with her delicate watercolour paintings of flowers. Outside our breakfast room here in Holmwood we often have an abundance of cobnuts:

"Only to see the catkins waving in the wind takes me back to my childhood," she wrote in her eighties, "and my quest for the tightly-bound hazel catkins and the silvery white kittens climbing the pussy willow stems... The tiny red starry female flower was incredibly shy. Perhaps that is why the cob nuts were not forthcoming in our area in the autumn, and I have had to wait so many years to find them."

She grew up on a Leicestershire farm, the eldest of three girls. Childhood memories were of hot summers, the annual advent of the village fair, Empire Day, cricket matches, meals taken outside, the joy of running across a twenty acre field with the wind whistling in her hair, and cloudscapes that looked like "the waves of the sea". They were also of walking long miles to school through the snow, chilblains, having her hands caned for talking in class, homework done by lamplight in the absence of electricity, washing up in cold sculleries and looking after her invalid mother who was to die when she was just fifteen.   From the age of five onwards she had to scrub and polish, blacken the grate and help with the cooking. Certain aspects of farming her father considered unsuitable for a young lady. Milking was one of them, but she liked to peer over the cowshed door, only to be squirted with milk by her uncles.  She preserved her love of milk and cream to the end, but none of it tasted as good, apparently, as that issuing straight from her father’s cows.

Her uncles pronounced her a survivor in a family substantially depleted by the Great War. In fact she managed not merely to survive but to excel, winning a scholarship to grammar school and subsequently a place to train as a teacher in Loughborough.

Which brings me to the second abiding image: my mother playing and pedalling away at the church organ in my father’s first parish whilst simultaneously encouraging me to sit quietly on the seat beside her and copy out the letters of the alphabet. It is an image, which speaks to me of her lifetime’s dedication to the Church and worship, and her love of teaching and children.

In her early school life the vicar had played a prominent part. Pupils were regularly tested on their knowledge of Scripture. The foundations of her faith were firmly laid. Later she ran a youth club, taught Sunday school and sang in the church choir. She and her bicycle were, according to my grandfather, into everything. In 1937, at the age of twenty-one, following a period of such an acute sense of personal sin that she was afraid to go to bed in case she died and went to Hell, she underwent a profound spiritual experience, after which she never doubted the active involvement of Jesus Christ in her life. In her diary she wrote of how:

"For three days afterwards I walked in a higher consciousness. The scenery was the same but the colours were heightened and vivid and all was joy and light. Gradually it faded and I became a very puritanical Christian, wearing very sober clothing but carrying on with my Christian service with more enthusiasm."

A gifted young speaker, Peter Spink, came to the local Methodist chapel. He preached, she played the organ, and together they dreamed of spreading the word of God to those who had not heard it.  When the Second World War broke out my mother was teaching as a deputy headmistress. War brought extra work on the farm but she enjoyed driving tractors and the company of handsome POWs. In 1948 she married my father. He trained at Bible College and the Missionary School of Medicine, and they set sail for India, with no real idea of what lay ahead and little money on which to live. Not a natural linguist, my mother struggled with intensive language training, before heading off into the villages of North India to provide rudimentary medical care, teach women about hygiene and the Gospel, and sing bhajans, devotional songs, to the accompaniment of her small portable organ.

Her description of a visit to a Muslim rajah’s palace with its stall-like rooms arranged so that the womenfolk were invisible to outsiders and the equally stall-like smells issuing from them, gives a glimpse of what living conditions were like:

"As I was by this time used to the ’un-fairytale book’ appearance of Indian rajahs, to see His Highness clad in a thin vest and dhoti did not shock me. Neither was I perturbed by the morning after the night before look of his tousled head... On the floor of the room in which we were to stay was what had doubtless once been a carpet fit for royal feet but which had long since given way to the assaults of moths, the habits of which are apparently the same the world over. There was nothing else in the room but a large bed which, having had previous experience of the permanent occupants of such items of furniture, I carefully avoided."

One night they were sitting on the roof singing Christian bhajans with the household ladies listening from the rajah’s apartment, when he himself appeared and sat down on the parapet to sing along:

"After his departure two of his daughters crept shyly up the steps to meet these strange choristers. We were able to give them books about the way of Salvation and retired to bed that night, thanking God for his use of our crow’s voices as a means of witness."

The deprivations of Indian life brought my mother two miscarriages, thyroid problems and TB whilst pregnant with me. And yet she fell in love with the subcontinent. The return to England in 1954 was to be temporary. My mother resumed teaching to finance my father’s studies prior to ordination in the Church of England. As it transpired, however, after he had served as a curate in the Leicestershire housing estate (the one with the rabbit and the rag and bone man!) and shortly before they were due to leave again for India, he accepted an invitation to go to Bonn as Embassy chaplain. His decision broke my mother’s heart. She had left part of her soul behind with Kim, a fiercely faithful Pekingese dog, and the smiling multitudes of India’s poor.

Embassy life in Bonn was a far cry from missionary work in India or the spiritual challenges of a Leicestershire housing estate.  This was the era of the Cold War and the British Embassy’s upper floor was occupied by men engaged in mysterious activities, about which nothing must be said, men such as John le Carré, whom we knew by a different name. But it was also a world of cocktail parties, diplomatic speak and strict etiquette. Services were ordered according to the Ambassador’s wishes, and when my mother and I were invited at intervals to take tea with the Ambassadress, the chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce would be sent to collect us. My mother rose to such occasions, discovering a most un-puritanical liking for Champagne and caviar, whilst still maintaining her commitment to the Biblically poor.

I learned the meaning of "nervous breakdown" at an early age. There was always some unfortunate guest in the spare bedroom of our flat, to whom my mother brought trays and sympathy at regular intervals. The portly mother of a Greek Orthodox priest needing an eye operation not available in Greece and her equally portly daughter occupied that room for some time. We had transported them back from Thessaloniki in our aged Volkswagen beetle. The only thing that reassured the apparently terrified and nearly blind elderly lady during those thousands of cramped kilometres was a loaf of bread, which she kept constantly pressed to her capacious bosom. In Bonn my mother sent me out daily to fetch a loaf exclusively for "mamma’s" consolation.

In our dining-room, Muz - I’m going to call her Muz (a quirky derivative of the German word "Mutti" or "mummy") from now on, because that was how she became known to many closest to her - was also teaching a dozen embassy children too young to travel to the English school in Cologne. There are a number of people in prominent positions today who have her to thank for their entry into English prep schools. She was a strict disciplinarian who managed somehow to bring even the naughtiest children into line, perhaps because they sensed her underlying affection. I once asked her why it was she loved babies so much. Her answer was: "Because they have so recently come from God."

She was honest almost to a fault. It was never a good idea to ask her opinion unless you were prepared to take the bad with the good. I well remember her agony when on the one and only occasion she did my homework for me, the poem she wrote was printed in a magazine circulated half way round the world. She had fewer qualms about stepping in to write my father’s sermons when from time to time he found himself spiritually dry.

In 1964 we had moved to Vienna, a city ostensibly even more gracious than Bonn. The church there - and indeed our living room - was filled with future performers in the world’s major opera houses and concert halls. Muz became the adopted mother of numerous lonely students, in need of home cooking and, in the case of several old Etonians, instruction on how to do their own laundry.

Vienna represented a crucial frontier with Communist Eastern Europe. Beneath the veneer of Strauss waltzes and exaggerated courtesy, tension was rife. As part of his duties, my father was required to take monthly services for the Anglican communities in both Prague and Budapest. Muz often accompanied him on these hazardous journeys into a drab world of empty shops and food shortages, bugged conversations, imprisonment and even torture. Diplomatic visas were surreptitiously changed to tourist ones, rendering the holder more vulnerable to arrest for visiting Christians behind the Iron Curtain. Our flat in Vienna was the first port-of-call for numerous refugees, among them the British ambassador’s butler in Budapest who escaped with his wife and one suitcase rather than provide damaging information to the Communist authorities. Muz spent that tragically memorable Easter trying to distract the couple, knowing that if they were refused political asylum and sent back to Hungary, they would be shot.

By contrast being wife to a residentiary canon of Coventry Cathedral some ten years after its inauguration was less eventful, but nonetheless exacting. In Vienna Muz had hosted the Women’s World Day of Prayer for some fifty women from eleven countries, and run regular prayer groups. In Coventry she continued leading prayer groups with a particular focus on healing, and when in 1979 my father became Warden of Burrswood, she assumed an active and often practical role in tending the sick in the centre of health care and healing founded by Dorothy Kerrin.

When my father’s pursuit of his personal star took him where she could no longer follow, characteristically Muz picked herself up and joined the Samaritans. Her years here in Holmwood were in some respects a return to the village life of her childhood. Essentially a home-lover, she was nonetheless energized by company and game for most things even in her nineties: beach-holidays in Egypt, cruising, communing with the apes on the Rock of Gibralter.

Physically she found it hard in her old age to smile but her sense of humour found its way unmistakeably into her eyes, and she kept a special twinkle for members of the opposite sex! I think many here today will remember her for the strength of her handshake. She was also, as one kind friend wrote, "the world’s greatest hugger".

It was undoubtedly hard for one whose willpower had long been so indomitable - not to say controlling - and for whom sport and physical activity had always been so important, to accept the limitations of an aging body. Her notebooks reflect this struggle but they also show how as her physical horizons shrank her spiritual ones assumed ever greater significance.

It had been a long spiritual as well as physical journey - a journey inwards into greater stillness and silence but simultaneously one that recognised increasingly, in the words of a Chinese Zen Master, "the interconnectedness of everything", "the hidden harmony that is mightier than what is revealed", "the Love that binds together the scattered leaves of all the universe".    

She had studied Islam and Hinduism whilst in India, at that stage only really to highlight their deficiencies in relation to the Christian faith. Sixty years later she was drawing her spiritual nourishment from the wisdom of the Sufis, the Buddha and Swami Vivekananda, as well as Meister Eckhart and Mother Teresa, among numerous others. Whilst remaining totally faithful to the Christianity of her origins - never a day went by without her having her "morning quiet time" with her Bible - she had reached a point where she could say with India’s "Great Soul", Gandhi: "Temples or mosques or churches... I make no distinction between these different abodes of God. They are what faith has made them. They are an answer to man’s craving somehow to reach the unseen."

Among the tributes I have received from people of different denominations, faiths and none, and from the far corners of the globe, one phrase occurs as a leitmotiv: "She was like a second mother to me".  There is mention too of her discreet generosity - moral and financial  - when it was most needed. Not one to push herself forward, for those prepared to engage with her, she remained, one person wrote, both interested and interesting.  She was a quietly shrewd observer of people. Yet she would have been surprised to know the impact she appears to have had on so many lives, or perhaps not: squeezed in between a poem by Rumi and some words of St Clement of Alexandria in one notebook, is this quotation from the Dalai Lama: "If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito." 

27th February 2018



A troubadour in a small boat

He was a gambler who, in his youth, lost everything he had on racehorses, a gentle, prayer-filled man whom Mother Teresa described as "very, very holy". As a priest he was later instrumental in founding a community of Brothers devoted to the service of the poorest of the poor. He shared their lives in Saigon, Cambodia and many other places of violence and suffering, and wrote sublimely of the "beautiful" unsung people he met along the way, whom he believed to be the hope of the world. With fear and trepidation he appeared on prime time television. The interviewer and the audience were manifestly touched. A public platform beckoned from which he could have spoken powerfully on behalf of the voiceless of the world, until some of those close to him called him to account. There had been times when he had drunk too much and set a bad example. They wanted him to go into a clinic. Acknowledging with characteristic humility his frailty, he nonetheless declined. For him to do so would, he said, be a denial of the truth of his being. I have never met anyone whose being was so truthful. He opted to relinquish the leadership of his Brothers to become instead a "troubadour in a small boat". Possessing nothing, leaving God alone to arrange his life, he journeyed with the wind and tide, took retreats and wrote small booklets and letters. We met only a handful of times; we corresponded for some twenty years. His words increased in beauty, wisdom and light in a way that surprised him most: it could only, he was sure, be the Spirit at work through his weakening humanity. He died of stomach cancer, opting not to have expensive treatment but to end his life as he had lived it: in communion with the poorest of the poor. His voice still sings to me with richness, love and compassion from the pages of his letters.

When spirits are low, pain appears to rule and even the incarnated deity seems inattentive and distant, it is you, my friend, who are the tangible sign of God.


Another Way


With the possibility of Mother Teresa’s canonisation later this year, journalists and commentators throughout the world are poised "objectively" to assess the rights and wrongs of her life, of the process of canonisation in the Roman Catholic Church, and of her being made officially a saint. I know because a number of them have made contact with me.

Personally, I subscribe to the view expressed by Brother Andrew, co-founder with Mother Teresa of the Missionary Brothers of Charity, that: "Unless my life comes anywhere near hers in its effective concern for the poor and suffering, then I can only look very stupid in making my relatively petty negative points." Moreover it is the effectiveness of that concern which is for me the real miracle of her life, which truly bespeaks her sanctity. I will not go into the statistics here but the scope of what was achieved through one extraordinary only for her faith is breath taking. "Ye shall know them by their fruits" was a biblical text Mother Teresa regularly quoted and one on which I believe ultimately her case rests.

There are no doubt valid criticisms to be raised from the relative comfort of an office chair, but at the heart of many of them is the failure to comprehend the miracle that can occur when one human being touches, really touches another.

Mother Teresa believed in forgiving endlessly; she believed in the presence of the divine life in every human being; she believed that everyone should be given the opportunity to do good; and a lifetime of "living and diving into" poverty (as she used to advocate that those who really sought to comprehend should) had shown her that it was not something that could be fully understood by intellect alone. Only holding the hand of a dying destitute or the ravaged face of a leper teaches the unlimited, grace-filled value of that tiny, sometimes momentary gesture. Only entering into the life of the poor person teaches us our own inadequacy, our own brand of poverty, and so brings about communion and a very different, but somehow more hopeful and more joyous perspective.

There is a way that seeks to judge and to condemn, to diminish others in order to inflate our own sense of superiority, to resolve "issues", a way that demands a return on every investment and results at the end of every effort. And then there is another way...

8th March 2016



An ugly incident in a dreary police cell?


She was probably in her seventies, Afro-Caribbean, with watering eyes and a limp so pronounced that she could scarcely walk without her stick. She had been arrested for shoplifting, and I, as a Woman Police Constable, had been called to escort her to a cell and strip-search her. The rules on how the search should be conducted were very clear. Under no circumstances should I have let her keep her stick. Nor should I have helped her with the removal of her clothing. Rather I should have kept my distance and verbally required her systematically to strip. But my heart went out to this suffering grandmother alleged to have stolen a few groceries, and as she struggled to undo her shoes, I stooped to help her with her laces. The stick, she should never have been allowed to keep, cracked down upon my head and I saw stars.  In my surprise and pain I wrested the weapon from the old lady and found myself barking orders at her as we went through the remainder of one of the most undignified procedures to which one human being can subject another.


The next time I was required to strip-search someone I did it by the book. Never again did I suffer a physical assault but I did wonder about the injury to my humanity. The awareness that, for all my good intentions, at some level a change was occurring in me that I did not like became one factor in my leaving the police. I ran from my own inability to forgive.


Every Easter I marvel at the account of how Jesus chooses to lose his battle with the political and religious authorities of his day and, on the eve of his death, removes his outer clothing, thus making himself vulnerable, and kneels before each of his disciples in turn. Knowing they are about to betray, deny and abandon him, he nonetheless washes their feet. ’I have given you an example so that you can copy what I have done to you...’ The message is clear: ’Make yourself the least among those about you and, in the words of Mother Teresa, ’Forgive endlessly’.


It is all in the viewing. I can dwell upon the hurt the elderly shoplifter occasioned in me, resent the brutal injustice of her action and feel guilty about its effect, or, with greater maturity, I can see that, but for that feisty Afro-Caribbean lady, the washing of the feet would never have resonated so powerfully with me. Nor would I have changed career and been led to Mother Teresa and so many other extraordinary souls. Was our encounter an ugly incident in a dreary police cell or a luminous moment by which my life’s story was transfigured?


2nd April 2015




Seeing God in the darkness


An old man with flowing beard and hair, wearing the saffron robes of a sannyasi, sat cross-legged, silently gazing into the darkness of a cold mountain cave.

His earnest disciple waited patiently beside him. Many hours passed, during which the younger man felt the chilled darkness seep into his being and a growing sorrow. His heart longed for the sun rising over the waters of the Ganges that habitually brought joy to his meditations. Finally he could not resist speaking:

"Master, why are we here in the pitch darkness and not outside where the sunlight illuminates all creation, beside the waters that bring life and vigour to all things?"

"Can you not see?"

"I see nothing but the blackness of despair, the empty lifelessness of the void," replied the disciple.

"Then we shall sit here for a while longer."

Unable to detach his mind from his discomfort, the younger man began to while away the hours by running through the events of his life to date. Such was the darkness of his mood that he saw only the troubles, the suffering, the unreciprocated kindness, the painful injustices to which he had been subject, and all the good works he had performed which had apparently come to nothing.

As they sat, the cold of the cave intensified for winter was setting in, and the elderly sannyasi began to cough. Eventually it became apparent that he was close to death.

"Can you not see?" The sannyasi asked again.

"Can YOU not see the futility of sitting here?" The younger man protested.

"My son, look harder and with time you will see that nothing is futile. The cruel thing, the unfair thing may not be prevented. Yet still you are, and all is well."

With those words, the old man closed the eyes, which even in the cave had reflected the sparkle of the stars, and died. His younger companion wept then, as much because he recognized that the old man had sat in the dank darkness for the sake of his disciple’s illumination as for the loss of his beloved teacher.

But even as the tears flowed from his eyes, he felt the life assert itself within him. An unaccountable peace and warmth came upon him, and as he gazed into the darkness he saw an all-enveloping love.

19th February 2015




Finding the light

I have long been intrigued by the magi, those men from the east, where the daylight dawns, who had the insight, the vision, to spot in the darkness a previously unidentified star of exceptional luminosity. Having spotted it, they resolved to leave the security of what they knew and embark upon a journey into the unknown, drawn only by an intuition, a deep inner conviction, that the star was of extraordinary significance.

Their journey was long and arduous. There must have been times when their conviction was on the verge of being shattered, when wisdom appeared like utter folly. Perhaps it was important then that there was more than one of them (in fact an unspecified number), so that when one or another was overcome with weariness or a sense of the rational ridiculousness of what they were doing, there were others to carry those things with which they were heavily laden, and to reinforce the unaccountable sense of the rightness of their quest.

Apparently there were times when the star, which it would seem the magi believed to be the indication of a royal presence, was not so clearly visible. They were obliged to ask the location of the child born to be king of the Jews, of Herod, who was to meet what they revealed to him with violence.

And when finally they arrived where the star came to rest, they entered that humble place and found there a vulnerable child. In that helpless infant there were no obvious signs of royalty, power or the divine. Nonetheless the magi offered him gold, frankincense and myrh, gifts with which a king or deity was traditionally honoured. And having found the luminous object of their long search and clearly demonstrated their feilty to it, they left for their own country, in some way changed: "by another path".

In another Eastern tradition, the Sufi Mullah Nasruddin, who is sometimes the wise man and sometimes the fool, loses his keys inside the familiar security of his house. He knows very well where the light is and so persists in looking for them outside.


17th December 2014



Happy continuation! 


“I thirst”: in every form of human suffering Mother Teresa heard the words spoken by the crucified Christ. The vision which she held out to us was of Christ crying out for love in the broken bodies of the poor (whatever form that poverty might take) and of Christ simultaneously offering himself as spiritual sustenance in the broken bread of the Eucharist in order that that cry might not go without response. Deep in the hearts and bodies of humanity Christ was actual and real. In touching the poor she was touching Christ. Christ continued to suffer in Kolkata, New York, Paris and London. Christ continued to save there too, and Christ continued to rise to new life.


“See Christ in everyone you meet,” was Mother Teresa’s unrelenting directive, and the necessary condition of doing so was prayer: looking contemplatively. But what does it really mean to see Christ in those we encounter? Most obviously ideally it determines the quality of our approach to and relationship with others. But with the awakening of the years, for me the implications of Mother Teresa’s vision have grown.


The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh uses very different vocabulary. He talks, for example, about looking deeply (meditatively) into a sheet of paper which was there previously in the form of a tree, in the form of the sunshine, the form of a cloud, and the rain, in the form of minerals and the earth, all of which were necessary in order for that paper to become manifest. For Thich Nhat Hanh that piece of paper speaks: “I have come from the cosmos. I have been a tree. I have been a cloud. I have been sunshine and so on.” If one of these elements were to be returned to its origin, the sheet of paper would no longer be there. All these conditions lie in the paper.  If the sunshine were returned to the sun, there would be no sheet of paper. So it is that the sunshine is in the paper and when we touch the sheet of paper, we touch the sunshine, we touch the cloud, the rain, the earth, the whole of the cosmos. When we can be in touch with the paper in a state of awakened understanding, we are in touch with the whole of existence. The sheet of paper has no birthday and nor do we. We were not manifest without the satisfaction of numerous conditions, from nothing, independently of the inheritance that made up our ancestry. If we look with the eyes of a meditator, we will see those we meet and our own bodies as sacred homes of all that has gone before and the source of future generations. Thich Nath Hanh speaks of birthdays as “Continuation Days” and if it is true that a birthday is a continuation day then so too is the day of our death. “If your practice is strong, at the moment of dying you will sing a song of happy continuation.”


4th July 2014



The headmaster

The two-storey school building and deserted courtyard sparkled white in the Bengal mid-day sun. Suddenly from one of its entrances emerged a bespectacled figure, his kurta and pyjama also pristine white. With arms outstretched, he beamed from ear to ear and introduced himself as the headmaster. His pupils, he explained, had already gone home. With solicitous enthusiasm he ushered my two companions and me into a large, empty room at the far end of which stood a solitary desk and chair. Three additional chairs appeared without any apparent prompting and were placed in a row before the desk. Three glasses of lemonade made a similar mysterious appearance. Our generous host assumed his position on the other side of the desk, moved the paraphernalia on it about until it was apparently where he wanted it, polished his spectacles, rolled his eyes to the heavens, fixed me with an extraordinarily intense gaze, and began: The educational situation in Bengal was "most unsatisfactory".

At this point I made the mistake of venturing to suggest that I had always thought of Bengal as having a very high proportion of India’s poets and intellectuals. For the next forty minutes his dark brown eyes never shifted their focus from mine. Verbally he roamed purposefully from ancient Greece to the British Isles to the Bay of Bengal, taking in along his way Socrates, Jesus Christ, the Buddha, the Vedanta, Rabindranath Tagore, Shakespeare and Her Majesty the Queen. The unifying factor in this impressive monologue was love and duty and their expression. The room was humid. In the shadow of the headmaster’s desk insects were biting my bare ankles. Still subject to his unrelenting gaze, I tried surreptitiously to apply repellent to my legs and as I bent to do so, became aware that the room had silently filled up behind me with row upon row of chairs on which sat some one hundred schoolmasters. Startled, I turned to have a closer look, whereupon all, without exception, nodded and smiled.

The headmaster came to the climax of his speech: I and my companions had made a journey - an Odyssey no less - all the way from Europe to his school to see the work he and his staff were doing. What an act of love that was! Embarrassed by his effusiveness, my companions and I wondered what kind of response was expected of us. We need not have worried, for like something out of "Alice through the Looking Glass" the room had emptied of its nodding, smiling occupants as silently and swiftly as it had filled. We were once again alone with our host, who ushered us back to the school gates, pumped my hand and informed us: "I shall sleep happily tonight. I shall think of this day filled with love when I am in bed. What a gift!"

At the time it was all my companions and I could do to contain our nervous laughter at this surreal experience, but with the passage of the months I have come to realise that it was indeed a gift, for I never think about it without a chuckle, a raising of my spirits and a warm glow of affection for that kind and learned soul; and I think about it often.

30th May 2014



The nature of presence


With his shoulder-length hair, grey beard, flowing robes and fervent eyes, he had the air of the popular idea of an Old Testament prophet. The group of young people sat about him on the bare floor and listened as I had never seen them listen before. When I motioned to one to draw nearer because I sensed he could not hear the words, he gave me to understand that he did not need to. It was enough, he implied, just to be in this man’s presence: “It would not matter if he were reading a telephone directory.”

          There are some people who simply by their presence point to something greater than themselves, to the transcendent, the numinous. Unwittingly even in the briefest of encounters they convey a sense of beatitude. Mother Teresa was one such person. The man I am privileged to call my older Indian brother is another. The attention such people bring to the present moment and the person or persons they address is extraordinary. Not for them the token, half-listening interest of the social gathering with one eye roaming the room for someone potentially more interesting. In Mother Teresa’s case she saw the thirsting Christ in every human being and this in itself determined the quality of her attention. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh includes among his most important mantras “Darling, I am here for you.” Those who met Mother invariably came away with the conviction that, out of love, she had been totally there for them. The same is true of Dada, my Indian brother.

Yet paradoxically – or perhaps not so – it is the absence of the “I”, the “death” of the self, which makes the quality of this presence possible. Mother Teresa saw herself only as the imperfect instrument with which God was “writing his love letter to the world”. Her most painful “death” may well have been a sense of alienation from God in the dryness of prayer. Marthe Robin, the French stigmatist who spent more than fifty years paralysed and confined to bed, shared weekly in Christ’s crucifixion. With the passage of the years her physical presence was virtually obliterated. Yet the over 100,000 people who visited Marthe in the darkness of her remote farmhouse sickroom spoke of how in touch she was with the world and with them. “I will be going with you,” she would tell members of her communities leaving on missions and they had no doubt that she was indeed in some very real sense present to them.

My Indian brother has given his life to the poorest of the poor and shares daily and whole-heartedly in their suffering. So it is that when the students who have just visited the wonders of the subcontinent for the first time are asked what it is that has left the greatest impression on them, they mention not the Taj Mahal or the Golden Temple of Amritsar but Dada, the man whose presence to them became a temple in the truest sense.

28th February 2014









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