Kathryn Spink
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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

 

 

 

 

***


 

I had only been sent to Taizé because the French writer, Dominique Lapierre was in the throes of writing “The City of Joy”. I had been staying with him in France when the phone rang. “Here am I,” he had said in response to the Taizé Brothers’ invitation to come and write about their founder. “I’m sending her!” The Brothers’ welcome was warm. They were, however, quick to point out that other writers had preceded me and Brother Roger had found himself unable to talk about himself or his life. I braced myself for rejection. Yet when I met the founder of Taizé he opened wide his arms and with a broad, illuminating smile of apparent acceptance, exclaimed “Vous êtes venue et vous êtes jeune!”  (“You have come and you are young!” – This was in 1984.)

 

True, he began by explaining his difficulty in speaking in the first person but after a brief internal struggle began his narrative and proceeded to talk almost unprompted for several hours. This pattern was repeated for the next two days. Brother Roger drew his ideas out of the air and left them suspended, uncompleted, in the atmosphere. Seldom did he finish a sentence but would simply look across at me for confirmation that I was following and, having satisfied himself I was, continue with a characteristic little sigh. In this way he sketched the reliefs and contours of what he described as “the immeasurable mystery that is God”, and the equally immeasurable mystery of how the pot of clay that he was had been used to build the community at Taizé. My French was inadequate. I could never have interpreted the individual words. Tired by the effort of concentration, profoundly at a loss, I was reduced in the fullest sense of the word to listening to the ebb and flow of Brother Roger’s voice, taking in his presence and what it exuded, and was content to remain open and pick up and encourage what I could.

 

At the end of those three days he thanked me for listening so attentively and told me he felt that he had been understood. And at some non-verbal level, I felt that he was right. I have often since wondered whether what occurred at Pentecost: the understanding granted by the Spirit between the apostles and the bewildered people who “heard” them “speak” in their own native languages, was not something, obviously much greater, but nonetheless of this nature.

 

The writer and philosopher, Iris Murdoch, whom I remember with awe from my Oxford days, maintained that as soon as we open our mouths to articulate a thought we are already initiating a lie, a departure from the truth. The moment we attempt to express an idea, the words we are obliged to use diminish it, and the message that others receive is further filtered by each one’s culture, education, experience etc. For her this meant the impossibility of perfect communication. Brother Roger too, battled to find the words in which to express the inexpressible. When words came it was as if it were he who was, to use his own expression, “most challenged and surprised by them” and often understanding came more readily in a grace-filled silence. The imperfections of verbal communication were made up for by “communion”.

 

 

 

 

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                                                                    Kathryn Spink

 

                                          

 

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