As I prepare to set off for India and the conference on Consecrated Life at DVK in Bangalore please find below some of my talk. I think Tagore's joyful experience of the awakening of the heart is a good one to contemplate at the opening of the New Year.
A Happy 2016 to you all!
All good wishes
The Young Person Steps Out
In late 1882, a young 21 year old Bengali man was trying to find his way in the world and his own voice. Born into a rich and impressive family there were high expectations of what he should achieve and after several false starts he really was not sure what path lay open to him in life. At this time, staying in a rented house in the European quarter of Calcutta at Sudder St with his brother, a remarkable event overtook him one morning. He described it thus thirty years later:
The end of Sudder St, and the trees on the Free School grounds opposite, were visible from our Sudder St house. One morning I happened to be standing on the verandah looking that way. The sun was just rising through the leafy tops of the trees. As I gazed, all of a sudden a lid seemed to fall from my eyes, and I found the world bathed in a wonderful radiance, with waves of beauty and joy swelling on every side. The radiance pierced the folds of sadness and despondency which had accumulated over my heart, and flooded it with universal light.
This account, from Rabindranath Tagore’s autobiographical collection, ‘My Reminiscences’ (‘Jibansmriti’) was written by the 50 year-old poet in 1911. Almost 20 years later, as he approached 70 in 1930 he reflected again on the experience for an audience at Oxford University. By now it was nearly 50 years after the event but it had clearly lost none of its youthful vigour and power:
One day while I stood watching at early dawn the sun sending out its rays from behind the trees, I suddenly felt as if some ancient mist had in a moment lifted from my sight, and the morning light on the face of the world revealed an inner radiance of joy. The invisible screen of the commonplace was removed from all things and all men, and their ultimate significance was intensified in my mind; and this is the definition of beauty
The event, whatever it was, was clearly the point at which the young poet’s life was consecrated. The two accounts, separated by 20 years, still speak of the urgency and power of this encounter. As Tagore himself acknowledged it was the beginning of his adult life as a poet and from it one of his early great poems emerged: The awakening of the Spring (‘Nirjharer Swapnabhanga’):
How have the sun’s rays in my heart
Entered this morning! How have the songs
Of morning birds into the dark cave broken!
Who knows why, after long, my soul has woken!
The soul awakes, the waters stir:
I cannot stem my heart’s passion, my heart’s desire...
So much of words, so much of song, so much of life have I.
So much delight, so much desire – a heart in ecstasy.
What can it mean? My soul today has woken after long...
What song have the birds sung today, what sunshine do I see.
The poet seems as surprised as anyone by what is happening and this leads me to the first point I want to make in this paper – which is regarding how consecrated life begins. My contention is that All of us, whether we admit it or not, in our late teens/early twenties like Tagore encounter the numinous for the first time. This can be a moment of beauty and ecstasy as it was for Tagore (as evidenced by the long and fruitful artistic life he managed to live) or, as is normally the case today, certainly in the West, it can be a moment of terror and trauma, sometimes even leading to psychosis, breakdown, drug addiction or worse. Why should this be so? In India you have the Vedas, the Upanishads and the great tradition of Eastern wisdom to which I will return shortly. Where I come from – the Celtic fringes of Europe – we have something similar (you didn’t know that did you!) – we call them the Celtic-Christian myths and they arise at that point in the 12th and 13th centuries when Europe as we know it is first emerging from the period of collapse after the end of the Roman Empire sometimes called the Dark Ages. At this time we have the first written examples of old stories that have clearly existed in oral form long before they were written down. One such story is the legend of Perceval – the young lad who runs away from his mother into the dark woods and encounters the Grail Castle. I mention this story for it directly mirrors the encounter with the ‘Awakening Fountain’ that we all must touch if we are to embark upon a consecrated life.
Rudolf Otto writing in the Idea of the Holy (1917) described one of the key attributes of the divine as the fascinans, - that which draws us to it - the others being the tremendum and numen. The young Perceval wandering in the forest encounters five noble knights who appear to him like beings from another realm. This correctly describes the young person’s encounter with the transcendent. As in the case of Tagore, it can literally blow our minds. The tragedy of human life, however, is only in a very few cases can the young person hold the experience and build on it. I think you in India today are at an advantage to us in Europe. Here respect is still given to the transcendental realities of life – which is one of the reasons why I love to visit so often. In the West today the transcendental is too often masked or perverted by gross consumerism into strange twisted ends. Young people still receive the transcendental encounter in the West today (as they always have and presumably always will) but they have no categories with which to process it. So many times, as a psychologist, I receive cases of young people with drug, relationship and depressive problems which at heart are psycho-spiritual issues rather than psychological or somatic issues alone. Like the young Perceval, they stumble into the Grail Castle – usually by accident - but they don’t know what to do once they are in there.