November 20, 2017
"Mes de los Muertos"

 

Anchorite

 
 
 

The bishop's residence, just down the block from the old cathedral, was a classic Queen Anne structure with its three-story round brick tower topped with a copper spire in the shape of a cross, a prominent cantilevered gable over the door, and an L-shaped porch that ran across the front and down the right side of the house. There were wood panels with intricate designs about the windows and doors, and scalloped siding graced the walls on the second story. No doubt it was an elegant structure in its day, but it was like the cathedral itself, well over a hundred years old and showing its age. The current bishop was understandably less diligent than his predecessors with maintenance of the building, as it, along with all the other structures on the cathedral property, were sooner or later to be torn down to make way for the new cathedral complex that would include a new rectory for the bishop and the pastor of the cathedral's parish. The bishop was heavily invested in the project; it was something that the diocese needed to do, but it was also personal. The new cathedral could well be the legacy for which he would be remembered, and to that end he wanted it to be remarkable. The problem was that the diocese was not wealthy. It covered tens of thousands of square miles of farmland and nearly an equal amount of National Forest lands. The population was widely scattered, and the Catholic population included significant numbers of migrant farm workers. Even the town in which the cathedral sat, although the largest in the diocese, had a population of barely over fifteen thousand. It would be a long and challenging process to raise the kind of money to match the bishop's vision. It would take a miracle, in fact, if his financial advisors were to be believed.

Miracles were not something the bishop readily believed in. Yes, there were times when God entered into history and suspended the laws of nature to produce a specific, supernatural event, but not everything we could not understand or for which we could see no cause was a miracle. The existence of the universe and the fact of the presence of life are miraculous as there is no precedence, indeed no logical reason for either, but having established both, there is little in the churning energy of each that is miraculous, no matter how inexplicable it may seem. That rain exists at all is miraculous; that rain falls on drought parched fields is not, even if it falls after the earnest and desperate prayers of the faithful.

The universe is volatile and infinitely complex, so that even were the drought to be broken by a bombardment of water-bearing comets, it would certainly be exotic and spectacular, but not supernatural, not miraculous. Creation was the miracle, and the bishop saw creation as not a distant once-and-done event of the past but as the ongoing action of God. The universe, life, had been brought into existence by God, but more importantly, continued in existence by the will of God, held in place by His will, like we might bring into existence the image of an apple in our mind. The image of that apple will remain in our mind only as long as we continue to think about it, and when it is forgotten, it disappears completely, leaving neither dust nor vapor, just as if it had never existed.

So it is with the universe and all of its machinations, made manifest for only as long as God cares to ponder it. The bishop, as one of the faithful, would pray earnestly to God, but not desperately, and he would pray not that God suspend natural law but rather that he, the bishop, would understand what part it was that he personally was supposed to play in this grand act of creation. He did not pray for the money to build a cathedral; he prayed rather for a sense of confirmation that the raising of the funds was his charge.

It would follow then that the bishop would have attached no particular supernatural significance to the taxicab that pulled up in front of the rectory, nor to the man that emerged, although had the bishop been spying through the window of the rectory, he might well have raised an eyebrow at the exotic (but not spectacular) appearance of the man. His features and dark skin suggested that he was from the Indian subcontinent, and his clothes, an elegantly tailored Punjabi pyjama of silk; the kameez, a tunic-like upper garment, cut just at the knees, added an air of sophistication. He carried with him a leather tube in which he had a roll papers, blueprints perhaps. The man approached the rectory door and rang the doorbell.

"May I help you?" came a woman's voice from a speaker.

The man squinted a bit in irritation. "Pravin Tamboli to see His Excellency." After a moment, a woman opened the door.

"Oh," she said, and her hand immediately covered her mouth. "I'm sorry ... your name ... I thought you were Italian."

"I apologize if I disappoint." Pravin's appearance may have been very foreign, but his English was very American, although if you listened carefully there were hints of his mother tongue in the cadence and the roundness of vowels.

"Oh no, really, I ..." The woman was obviously flustered. She cleared her throat and stiffened her back in an attempt to regain her composure. "Please come in Mr. Tamboli." When she pronounced Pravin's name in her white, Middle American accent, Tamboli did sound rather like an Italian name. "This way."

The front door had opened onto a vestibule that ran toward the back of the home. There was a room to the left that had a desk and filing cabinets, and to the right was a sitting room with chairs along the wall. Pravin was led to the room at the far end of the vestibule, an office heavy with wood, from the oak paneling on the walls to the thick wooden desk and the hand carved mahogany chairs. A large fireplace with an ornate wooden mantel dominated one wall, and on the opposite side of the room, oak bookshelves ran wall to wall and floor to ceiling. The only softness in room was the Oriental rug with its elaborate designs in now faded red and gold and blue.

"Please have a seat, Mr. Tamboli. Bishop Thomas will be with you in just a moment."

"Thank you," said Pravin, although he had no desire to sit. Instead, he walked to the window and looked out over the garden in the rear of the building. There was nothing remarkable with the landscaping -- a bit of grass, a few shrubs around the perimeter, and in the center of the yard, a large, old eucalyptus tree quite similar to a tree in the courtyard of the ashram which he frequented. The tree was the only plant that was familiar to Pravin, and although it was no more native in his homeland than it was here, it was a welcome sight. The grounds outside seemed to be succumbing to the same benign neglect as the buildings -- this Pravin also found familiar. There were modern structures in his homeland, in the cities with their steel and glass buildings and gaudy shopping malls, and there were Hindu temples of breathtaking beauty with elaborately carved stone and marble, but if you went just outside the city centers or just beyond the temple grounds, the burden of a large population and the abrasion of a thousand years of use left the land tired and frayed. The ashram, or monastery as those in the West would call it, to which Pravin associated himself was a collection of old buildings in a small town not far from his estate. The neighborhood outside the ashram compound was a patchwork of simply constructed buildings of either block or adobe, many with wood and corrugated metal additions. The first floor of some of the buildings opened directly onto the streets and vendors sold various goods and services, their businesses spilling onto roughly constructed tables and stands outside. Wealth was hard to come by in these neighborhoods and capital improvement projects were almost always given short shrift. To a Westerner, the area might have had more the feel of a flea market than that of a town, but Pravin had felt more comfortable there than in the privilege of his own home.

"Mr. Tamboli." It would have been thought that the bishop, dressed in his black suit over a gilet (a clerical vest incorporating the Roman collar), with the rather obvious gold pectoral cross that was a sign of his office, speaking in a practiced voice that comes from years in a position of authority, standing as he was in his own office in his own diocese, it would have been thought that his presence would warrant the immediate attention of an outsider, yet Pravin remained with his gazed fixed out the window and his hands clasped behind his back.

"Interesting, isn't it," Pravin said, "that God's gifts are so often unappreciated?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Do you know why I am here?"

"Frankly, no. Bishop Kumar, whom I had the occasion to meet when I was last in Rome, called and asked that I meet with you as a favor to him."

"Did he say anything else?"

"We talked about the weather."

"Then we must talk. Please be seated."

"Shall I use my chair, or will you be using that?"

Pravin turned from the window to look at the bishop. It took a moment for him to speak as he considered how to proceed.

"My apologies, Your Excellency. I've been told that I am lacking in the social graces." Pravin walked to the chair in front of the bishop's desk as the bishop walked behind to his own seat. He placed the leather tube he had been carrying beside him on the floor. "Please clear your desk," he said. He began to withdraw the rolls of paper from the tube.

There was a great sigh from the bishop. He rubbed his eyes with both hands and the looked up at the ceiling; he was obviously irritated.

"Mr. Tamboli, let's slow down a bit, and start this over, shall we?"

"Sorry?"

"How was your flight, Mr. Tamboli? I understand there is a lot of construction going on in the International Terminal."

"I wouldn't know. We landed at your county airport here in town."

"I don't understand."

"I have my own transportation."

"Your own plane?"

"A corporate jet, actually. At my disposal."

"Most of the people who sit in that chair drive Chevys or Fords. Frank Elmhurst who owns a trucking company on the other side of town, now he drives a Mercedes. His wife has a BMW. Both good people. Do a lot for the Church. But I don't know of a single corporate jet in the entire diocese."

"May we continue?"

The bishop laughed and leaned back in his chair. "Okay; seems I've no choice. Let's do it your way. Kumar said you were a bit of an odd bird."

"He said that of me?"

"Not in so many words, but yes. So what is it that you want to talk to me about, Mr. Tamboli?"

"I wish to be consecrated to the eremitic life."

"Why tell me? That's an issue between yourself and your local bishop."

"I wish to be a diocesan hermit here, under your direction."

"Why here?"

"You told Bishop Kumar that you are building a cathedral, yes?"

"Considering a cathedral, and that may have come up in conversation. Kumar and I had dinner, and we talked of many things."

"Clear your desk." Pravin quickly took the paper rolls from the tube and spread them on the bishop's desk. "Here is an architectural rendering of what you are proposing for your cathedral."

"These haven't been made public. How did you get them?"

"My father's firm has many connections. I assure you that it was all done in the strictest confidence." Pravin pulled the top drawing off the desk and dropped it to the floor. "Here is the same building with modifications that I require. As you can see, the changes would not in any way detract from the original concept."

The bishop looked at the new drawing. He cocked his head to one side, then leaned down for a closer examination. "What is this?" He pointed to an alteration that had been made. On the East End of the building was the apse, the semi-circular structure that from the inside of the church formed the recessed area of the sanctuary where the altar was placed. In the new rendering, a wall had been added to the north side of the apse that enclosed a small garden and a structure attached to the building. There would have been nothing but the wall visible to anyone walking outside the church.

"That is a reclusory. The eremitic life to which I desire to be consecrated is that of an anchorite."

"You want to be walled up in a cell in my cathedral?"

Pravin simply nodded.

"I'm sure there's not going to any groundswell of support for the added costs associated with this kind of addition."

"The costs will be covered."

"Even if you pay for this cell, it would just complicate fundraising for the cathedral itself."

"I will pay for your cathedral."

"What did you say?"

"I will cover the cost of the entire cathedral."

"That's a lot of money."

"Thirty-six million, plus or minus, depending on how many changes are made."

There were no professed hermits in the diocese. There were no hermitages. Hermits, like miracles, were something the bishop thought were often more wishful thinking than reality. There are those, the Catechism says, who "devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance." While he recognized the possibility of such a calling, his own experience with so-called hermits was that their circumstances were more the result of neurosis or the unfortunate manifestation of religiosity, and admittedly, he had had no experience with such an extreme expression of the eremitical life as that of an anchorite. For that matter, as far as Bishop Thomas knew, no American bishop had ever had any experience with anchorites. He reached for the intercom button on his phone console and buzzed his secretary.

"Mrs. Wilson, please bring Mr. Tamboli and me a drink. Whiskey, with ice."

"I don't drink, Your Excellency."

"There. See? I now know a tiny bit about you, Mr. Tamboli -- you don't drink whiskey."

"This is important to you?"

"Well it appears that you've made it important to me, eh?"

"By offering you money?"

"No," the bishop laughed. "No, by presenting me with an interesting challenge: if we decide to move forward with this, I must determine whether you are cut out to be a hermit, so anything I learn about you is important. The money, on the other hand, made the whiskey important, indeed, perhaps even necessary."

"Then we are agreed?"

The bishop did not immediately reply. He took some time and looked at Pravin, who from the bishop's perspective, had been delivered without any kind of instruction booklet, and there was not much about him that was intuitive. "You know, Mr. Tamboli, there was a convent of cloistered nuns associated with the very first parish I was assigned to. The priests of my parish said Mass daily in the convent, heard their confessions, that sort of thing. I was a shiny new priest and I thought it would be a great opportunity to observe a spirituality that I had never encountered. One of the first things the pastor said to me was 'watch out for Sr. Gwendoline.' He also said I would know immediately which nun was Gwendoline.

"So I go for the first time to say Mass in the convent chapel. The Chapel is built in an L-shape, with the altar sitting at an angle where the two sides meet. To the right were the pews for visitors, and to the left, behind an eight foot high fancy wrought iron fence, were the pews for the nuns. They entered from the back somewhere, and the only opening in the fence was a window through which the nuns could receive communion. There were about twenty women in there, all dressed in old-fashioned wool habits with their veils and starched wimples, all very angelic looking, except one. In the last pew, by herself, was a bulldog of a woman, with floppy jowls and mean expression, very severe red rimmed eyes peering out from behind thick-lensed glasses, and large worn and gnarled hands clutching a rosary like it might at any moment be used as a weapon. And she lived up to her reputation -- quarrelsome, petulant, and more foul-mouthed than you'd ever expect from a nun. As I got to know them all, I was of the opinion that all the other women were troubled, fragile, or weak enough that had they not been in a cloister, they would not be able to cope in the world and would still need to be in some sort of sheltered environment. Gwendoline, however, I was sure would have been incarcerated. Yet she had a gift: it was impossible to lie to Sr. Gwendoline. The smallest of deliberate lies would elicit a scorching rebuke, but it was that inability to allow a lie to go uncontested that was also her gift.

"The worst words you could ever hear from Gwendoline were, 'How are you, Father?' It was never a banal pleasantry; it was always an incision, the beginning of a kind of exploratory surgery aimed at exposing that issue that was troubling you the most, and when she had prised it out of you, she would say, 'There we have it -- I will pray for you, Father,' and off she would go. She would have made a fine confessor, that one, a regular John Vianney."

There was a knock on the door, and Mrs. Wilson entered with a tray on which were two glasses with ice and a decanter of whisky. She placed the tray on the bishop's desk and left without a word.

"She doesn't like me to drink in the office and will probably scold me after you've gone." The bishop took the decanter and poured a shot into each glass, paused, then made his own glass a double. He pushed one glass toward Pravin, who of course did not take it, and held the other up. "To Sister Gwendoline."

"Is the nun relevant to our conversation?"

"Only in as much as I didn't like Gwendoline, and I must be honest with you, Mr. Tamboli, I'm finding it hard to like you."

"I see."

"Now the good news is that I did come to respect Sister Gwendoline. Of all the nuns in that order, I found she was the one being consumed by the need to pray -- it burned and roiled inside her. I've been told that she would spend hours in private, on her knees, sweat rolling down her face, groaning as if she was in great discomfort, and then, she would fall deadly still, barely breathing, and the room would fill with the perfume of roses. Of course I was never admitted into the cloister, so I don't know how much of what I heard was apocryphal, but I do know that she was a powerful personality with an intense spirituality."

"Then we are agreed?"

"Are you going to drink that?" The bishop pointed at the glass of whisky sitting in front of Pravin.

"No."

"Good. May I?"

Pravin nodded.

"Mr. Tamboli ..."

"You may call me Pravin."

"Maybe in time, but for now, Mr. Tamboli, understand that I don't know where you are from ..."

"Punjab, not far from Amritsar."

"... know nothing of your family ..."

"All dead."

"... or why you are so damned intent on living in the walls of a cathedral on the other side of the world from where you live?"

"I'm not."

The difficulty in serving an infinite God is trying to discern the legitimacy of the infinite variety of ways God enters the world, and to be able to differentiate them from the infinite manifestations of human delusion. In a secular Western society, this dilemma routinely is only addressed when deciding whether or not to answer the door if Jehovah's Witnesses are in the neighborhood. For the religious professional, however, it is a daily and personal endeavor. The bishop claimed and believed in the authenticity and legitimacy of his office. It was an ancient cultural institution; there was a clear, unbroken line of succession that could be traced from him to the apostles themselves, a line that anyone could see, even if they attributed no more significance to it than that of a chain letter proclaiming some fanciful legend. His was an authority that people sought out, for guidance, for confirmation, and at times for confrontation. Not everyone seeking confirmation found it, and not every confrontation was without merit. Usually Bishop Thomas was able to sort it all out, and there would have been few that would have considered him anything but patient and fair, but Pravin was proving to be a difficult read.

"You're not?"

"I will find my cell, if not here then elsewhere, if not elsewhere then in the desert."

"Then why are you here?"

"In obedience to my bishop."

"Kumar?"

Pravin nodded.

"So you don't really care if my cathedral gets built?"

"Listen carefully, Your Excellency, for I have been given to know: there is no justice in what you seek."

The bishop drew a deep breath, turned his gaze to the ceiling, and exhaled in a long, slow deliberate manner before returning his gaze at the man before him. He leaned back in his chair, he clasped his hands together with the forefingers extended, and let his head bow enough that his lips came to rest on those fingertips.

The Jesuits, of which the bishop was not, following the example of their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, have as a part of their daily prayer a technique call the Examen. Twice each day, every Jesuit will take time to review all that has happened since the last Examen. It is a time to consider the consequences, good or ill, of the events of the day, and it is a time to understand one's own part in them. It is a time to look for God's hand in the narrative; a time to be thankful for that which might have been taken for granted. It is a time to own one's failure, whether that is an inadvertent stumble or a rebellious refusal. And in accepting what the day has been, it is a time to consider how tomorrow will, with the help of God, be better. Although not a Jesuit, Bishop Thomas had been attracted to this aspect of Ignatian Spirituality, and each night before he went to sleep, he prayed the Examen. Tonight, if the bishop cared to honest with himself, he would no doubt be considering the nature of his reaction to Pravin's prophesy, for when confronted with a message from God, he, a man of God, felt resentment. On one hand, having been offered the gift of the resources to accomplish the most ambitious project of his career, he was now, on the other hand, warned not to accept it. It would seem understandable if the bishop felt as if he were being played.

"Please, Mr. Tamboli, enlighten me."

"I have a gift, unbidden and unwelcome: at times I am permitted to see that a soul is in danger. Before I came to your office, I stopped in your cathedral. I wanted to spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament to pray for guidance. Except for needing some routine maintenance, your church is structurally very sound, and despite what you Americans may think, even at a hundred years, is quite serviceable. It is less than a third of the age of many of the buildings in use by the Catholic community in my country. With proper care it could admirably serve its purpose for many generations to come."

"By your gift you know this?"

"Of course not. I have a Master's in architecture from Notre Dame that permitted the assessment, but neither did I need a gift to observe that while I was in the church, I was alone -- not even the presence of Christ in the tabernacle in the bishop's own church is enough to attract a single soul. Yet in that solitude, I was permitted to see you, frustrated and embittered to the point of despair. The demands of this endeavor will overwhelm you; it will sap you of the strength you need to perform your rightful obligations to care for the faithful. You will come to see the cathedral as a temple to your own cult, and come to believe that God can not forgive your vanity."

"And you are here to help save me from that fate?"

"No."

"No?"

"No. My attempts at intervention have always ended in disaster."

"Then why, Mr. Tamboli, I ask again, are you doing this?"

For a long moment, Pravin looked deeply into the bishop's eyes, then he rose slowly from his chair and walked back to the window. He assumed the posture that he had had when the bishop first entered the room: his gaze fixed out the window and his hands clasped behind his back.

"I was born in India, the only child of an uncommon couple. My parents were Catholic, and they were extremely wealthy. My father was the source of our good fortune. He was an industrious man and worked hard to nurture an architectural firm that was started by his father, and he was very good at it. He expanded into construction, then into building supplies, and in the end, he not only had a substantial business empire, but he had also become one of the wealthiest men in India. He was by all accounts a fair and honorable man, and I know that he hoped that I would carry on his legacy, something that I was fully prepared to do. Our spirituality came from my mother. She was a kind and gentle woman, much loved in the community. The Hindus would say that she exhibited Sattva Guna, where the predominance of energy within her was light, kindness and peace. The Christians would say she was grace-filled. She was the most loving person I've ever met, devoted to the Church, and it was she that taught me how to pray.

"When I was young, I would launch my prayers into the sky like so many sky lanterns, colorful paper balloons flickering with the light of a tiny flame, carrying my prayer off to an unseen God. It was an innocent fascination, one in which I was perhaps too concerned with the magic than the mystery, thinking that my prayer caused God to listen rather appreciating the merciful opportunity to be heard, yet I spoke from the heart and I knew to whom I spoke. As I grew older, I began to put on correctness. I began to assume more the posture of heir to my family legacy with an interest in the building of India, appropriately so, as my mother would remind me, since St. Thomas, the Apostle of India, is the patron saint of architects and builders. I gained the affections of a beautiful young woman, of whom I was exceedingly fond, and who I saw as the future matriarch of the family. It was all as it should be.

"It was at this time in my life that I developed an appreciation for liturgical prayer. I admired the order and orthodoxy of the Divine Office; I marveled at how the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Mass filled the senses, and how in the Words of Institution, time folds in upon itself and we respond again as if for the first time to the command 'Do this in memory of me.' I believed that I was coming to understand my relationship with God. But as my appreciation grew, so did my dependence on ritual. There were many demands on my time; there was so much to do. The Mass became my primary prayer, and even my private prayer became formulaic -- proper in form and content, but soulless. It was prayer as incantation." Pravin paused. He drew a deep breath, and as he exhaled, he emitted a brief, barely audible melancholy sigh. He was remembering.

There are different ways of remembering. Useful information is stored in memory -- names, where one's socks are kept, passwords -- and retrieving such information is effortless, a nearly unconscious act. When we remember a lover, however, it is not unusual to become distracted, to smile, to delight in the memory. If we permit, we may pruriently indulge our memory, not only to remember the sensations but to own them once again, and the experience can be vivid enough to arouse us -- a remembered past stirring our present. It is this kind of remembering, this anamnesis that Jews practice every year at Seder, gathering together to remember God's saving action in freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt; and stirring the desire for freedom the reason that the Fourth of July is a national holiday. It is these memories that give us meaning and direction, actions of the past brought forward to shape the present. And while there are those memories we must work to keep alive, there are some memories that simply never leave us, memories that we cannot get past. Pravin was remembering because he could not do otherwise.

"Some years ago, the world that I thought I knew, the one for which I had been preparing for all my life, was taken from me. In the summer of 2004, my father was diagnosed with cancer, and not expected to live long. In September of that year, my mother, whom I loved dearly, suffered a stroke and died. Her passing sapped any strength my father had, and six weeks after my mother, he succumbed. My fianceé and her family were a great comfort to me in this time. They worried over me, and after the funerals thought that I should take some time to simply get away. They were going to vacation for the holidays, and insisted that I join them. Although I could not imagine myself being in any state of mind to engage in holiday revelry, I did not wish to be alone. I told them that I had business that I needed to conduct that would prevent me from being with them at Christmas, but that I would love to avail myself of their hospitality for the New Year. Accordingly, I made arrangements to join them at a beautiful seaside resort near Banda Aceh, Indonesia."

The bishop, who had been watching Pravin intently to this point, averted his gaze. His fist instinctively went to strike his breast, and his lips silently formed the words. "Miserere nobis."

"Jaina was her name, my fianceé." A tear formed and rolled down his cheek, but because Pravin maintained his attention on the eucalyptus tree in the rectory garden, the bishop would not have noticed it. "I talked to her last on Christmas Day. I called and we talked about things we might do when I joined her there. She had been taking daily walks on the beach, she said, and while it was beautiful, she knew she wouldn't truly enjoy it until we could walk there hand in hand. She told me her parents were anxious for me to arrive because they were worried about me. She also said that even if we were nearly seven thousand miles apart, she wanted me to feel her love. I assured her that I did," he said. "I did."

"I am so sorry for your loss," the bishop said after a painfully long silence.

"After a few months I began to visit the ashram, the monastery near my home for no other reason than my mother had often gone there. I was looking for a direction, a purpose. I could find no interest in the prospects I had had before. Perhaps if I had had to work to feed myself or to preclude being cast into the streets I could have found some occupation, but my family's wealth allowed me to indulge my self pity. For the longest time thereafter, if I prayed at all, my prayer consisted of yelling into the darkness hoping God would hear, fearing that he might because none of what I had to say was at all complimentary. One day as I was seated under the eucalyptus tree in the ashram courtyard, mourning as usual, I was approached by Fr. Shankar, an Indian priest. 'Your soul is lost,' he said, 'a prisoner in a cell of your own devise.'

"I protested that I was hardly responsible for death and natural disasters, but he insisted. 'You think yourself a victim and hide from the role you must play in these events.' Fr. Shankar had been my mother's confessor, so perhaps he knew more about me than he was permitted to say, but I think his insight was born of his nationality. The Indians are a more spiritual people than most, don't you think? You in the West have a more carefully reasoned relationship with God, but in India, mystery, that which can not be learned but must be revealed, seems more accessible and more desirable. Then again, perhaps anyone who had seen me then would have said the same things. I was disordered and confused.

"My first task, according to Fr. Shankar, was to reestablish my place in creation. He wanted me to spend time each day observing nature. I would sit under the eucalyptus tree, and each day he would examine me. What temperature had it been? Was it warmer or cooler than the previous day? How could I tell? Were there insects present? What kind? How many? What were the sounds I heard outside the ashram walls? At first I was irritated. I was too protective of my sorrow to wish anyone to interfere. Yet, I began to realize that for months I had not looked further than the walls of the room I was in, and if I walked, I saw no more perhaps than the two meters of ground in front of my feet. I had glanced neither left nor right. I had not looked to the horizon. I had not gazed upon the clouds, let alone the blue of the sky. The good priest was correct, I was hiding."

"Realizing that you were not alone helped you deal with your grief?"

Pravin turned from the window and looked at the bishop. Although Pravin's features did little to betray his emotions, it would have been understandable for the bishop to interpret the look that he was given as contempt, something to which the bishop was more than a little accustomed. By his office he represented authority, the Church, the Apostles, and by his ordination, Christ -- it was not unusual at all for those he encountered to have issues with at least one of these. He had learned long ago not to take it too personally.

"No," said Pravin, then turned and resumed his gaze out the window. "No, if by that you mean that it lessened my anguish. My pain was still as sharp, still as enduring. However, the meditations had the effect of reminding me that I was part of a larger narrative. Much of creation, indeed most of it, was unaffected by my pain, but I had, as Fr. Shankar put it, 'reestablished contact with my senses,' and my second task was to use those senses to reclaim my soul. I was to turn my gaze inward, to use my senses, as they were intended, to inform my spirit. Each day I was to concentrate on a sensation and follow it into a place within me that was aware of the sensation, but did not feel it. I had to find within myself that which knew heat but did not feel warm, that which recognized hunger but did not need food. I needed to find the place inside that encountered loss but was not diminished. I once again protested, saying that I was no mystic and telling me to do such a thing provided no direction regarding how it might be done. 'Then we shall ask God for assistance,' Fr. Shankar said. He donned his stole, we read from Scripture, although to be honest, I do not recall the passage, and then he approached me and placed his hands on my head and prayed in silence. The touch of his skin, the warmth of his hands, the pressure on my head, were a startling encounter. When I closed my eyes, the sensations pushed past my skin and intruded into my thoughts. He removed his hands from my head, only to return to anoint my forehead. 'Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit,' he said. I remember those words."

"A sacramental anointing," the bishop said.

"In that moment, I felt at once calmed and emboldened, a feeling that lingered for the rest of that day and made such an impression that the memory of it encouraged me in the weeks thereafter as I tried unsuccessfully to understand what Fr. Shankar was asking of me. I would try, as he suggested, to close my eyes, empty my thoughts, and listen, but the darkness was a barrier to me, something I could not see through or around, and my sorrow a ubiquitous distraction."

"What you sought is difficult to achieve, even for those religious who devote their lives to it."

Pravin turned and looked at the bishop, a quizzical expression on his face. Then he smiled, and walked slowly back to his chair and sat down.

"You are a rational man, Your Excellency. Your faith is a reasoned choice."

"I'm no mystic, if that's what you mean. While I accept that God is an infinite being, certainly not limited by my imagination, I believe that there is a great deal less mystery to Him than people imagine. Like a child with untied shoes who refuses instruction and who unwilling to practice, tying knots remains a mystery, as does God to many. Neither am I a Gnostic who thinks that knowledge of God, or knots for that matter, are accessible in the ether, divined rather than learned. While there is much about God that we can not know, I believe that God has gone out His way to be very clear about who He is and what He wants, that the information is sufficient, and that what is required of us is readily enough achieved through instruction and practice."

"Does your faith allow for mystics?"

"There are more who are mystified than mystics, but yes, God may act extraordinarily in a person's life."

"Permit me then to share with you what I have kept from all save Fr. Shankar. Instruction and practice, as you put it, failed me, though not from lack of trying. After many months, I was no closer to understanding what I was to accomplish from Fr. Shankar's earnest attempts to help me than I was in the beginning. I was past frustrated, indeed, I had fallen into despair. I began to believe that God had abandoned me.

"I woke early on Christmas Day, one year after the events that so changed my life had begun. Even though I had slept for nearly twelve hours, I already felt weary. My limbs were leaden, my body still pooled into the mattress. I opened my eyes to look out the window. The sky was lightening, but the sun had not yet risen above the horizon. There was no wind, and even the birds were still. I closed my eyes again and looked at the black wall that I had been staring at for months, and I did not want to face another day. I wanted to hide. I sunk into the rhythm of my breathing, still slow and shallow from sleep, and I wondered what it might feel like if it simply slowed to a stop. After each time I exhaled, I would slip deeper into that stillness before the next inhalation. I can not say how long this continued, I know only that a one point, while my mind lingered on that briefest of moments between breaths, I was suddenly enveloped by the darkness at which I had spent months staring. What had always been a solid black door had become a passageway, and while any words that I employ will always be inadequate representations of what I experienced, it was not as if I entered the darkness as much as it was the darkness that approached and surrounded me. I was detached from any physical sensation -- from my breathing, from the coolness of the morning air, the weight of my body against the bed. Those things were are there, but they existed away from the darkness. The only sensation that remained was my pain, flowing through my awareness like bands of molten lava. It all may have a disconcerting if not frightening experience, but there in the darkness, I was not alone. Another was there as well."

"You believe that you saw God?"

"Saw? No. The feeling of being seen washed over me, and in that moment, for the first time in my life, I knew what it was to pray."

"I'm sorry, I don't follow."

"Do you remember the first time you saw the Pope, Your Excellency?"

"Yes. It was when I was still in seminary. I had occasion to go to Rome with a group of friends, and we got tickets for a general audience with the pope. It was held in the Pope Paul VI Hall, and there had to be at least five thousand people there, maybe more. It had the air of a circus, really, people talking, fussing, and then a huge cheer erupted when the Pope entered the building. It was truly remarkable, and I remember telling my friend, shouting actually to be heard above the din, that there was a totally surreal feeling of being in the ancient Imperial Court of Rome."

"And you've been bishop long enough to have made an ad limina visit?"

"Several, actually, the last one two years ago."

"Then you've met privately with the pope?"

The bishop nodded.

"Do you remember when he first greeted you?"

Again the bishop nodded. "At that moment, could you envision a reason why you might divert your attention to make any kind of comment to someone who was with you?"

"No. I was transfixed by the man standing in front of me."

"Transfixed. Indeed. All my life I had prayed to God so that he would hear me, but at the moment that I became aware of God's gaze, there was nothing as important as praising God for the graciousness of His attention."

"Did you then ask for healing?"

"There was no need. Fr. Sankar, it appears, was correct. I was thinking myself a victim, and therefore saw the pain as inflicted upon me, but my pain was not really so different as the features of my face -- a part of my being. And yet, God is merciful, for in the darkness, there was something else. As I remained there, praising God for His being, a scent arose and passed slowly through me, mingling with my pain. It was the delicate and unmistakable scent of Jaina."

Tears once again fell on Pravin's cheeks, and this time the bishop was able to see them. Dealing with the grieving had been part and parcel of his ministry since his ordination thirty-five years ago. He had seen it take many shapes. Some dealt well, others not. Grief could scar a person, or in some cases, it could even kill them. The bishop would have to determine if Pravin had been deranged by his grief, and there were thirty-six million reasons why he had to be certain that he was not simply going to exploit a grieving man for his own gain.

"Mr. Tamboli, I have many questions."

"Indeed you must," Pravin said and rose to his feet. "But not today. I have taken more that enough of your time, and to be honest, I am weary. It has been a long day of travel, and I need to spend time in prayer before I sleep."

"Will you be staying in the area?"

"Yes, arrangements have been made. I will be here and available to you for the next week, then I will have to return home for a time. I would hope that in that time we could at least reach the point of know if you wish to entertain my proposal."

"There is a lot to consider."

"For you, yes. My path is clear."

"Tomorrow, then. Same time. I wish to hear more about this gift of yours. It is a sort of Sword of Damocles, isn't it? But I can't tell yet if it is above my head or yours."

"Until tomorrow, Excellency."

"Until tomorrow, Mr Tamboli."






Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-06-19
Image(s) are public domain.


1 Reader Comments

Ralph Bland
06/20/2017
01:52:47 PM

Whew! I guess I was so deeply in thought I submitted before writing anything down, which may be just as well. I was raised a Southern Baptist and know fairly little about Catholicism; most of my experience comes from watching The Exorcist or Bing Crosby in Going My Way or Ward Bond in The Quiet Man--cinema versions of the outside gloss of the religion. I know nothing about Anchorites or hermitism or anything very specefic, but I was interested in the interaction between the bishop from America and the strange Pravin from India and what two men want in their secret hearts and the fine line of understanding that must come to exist before such a sharing trust can come to be. I found myself thinking of Joyce's The Dead and the protagonist coming to understand that within every person is a world of emotions and experiences that no one else has. The description of Mysticism seemed to me something that has been a part of l'il ole Southern Baptist me all my life, and it was good to see it is out there in others too. I don't know if this is a part of a larger work or not, but I liked it. We must chat and hopefully meet someday, Bernie. I'll be reading more of your work in the future.

Add your own comments!
The Piker Press moderates all comments. The commenting policy can be found
here.
Name

Email

Comments




By Bernie Pilarski: