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ARUNDHATI SANYAL

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 6/15/2016 |




It is a June afternoon in 2014 and I am sitting in an empty chapel with beautiful stained glass etchings on the campus of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.  I am frantically looking for a hymn in the Common Prayer book that is usually found in church pews in Catholic institutions. At this point in time it is urgent that I find this hymn, as I have nothing else but this hymn in mind; in fact, my entire mind is a blank but for the lyrics and tune of this hymn:

There are numerous strings in Your lute;
Let me add my own among them.
Then when You smite Your chords,
My heart will break in silence,
And my heart will be one with Your song

Let me give a context to this moment.  That summer day is part of a Retreat that I have come to with a bunch of other academics and colleagues.  I teach at a Catholic institution and this is routine practice almost as common as going to annual staff picnics at more secular work places.  What has happened in this particular one is my strangely personal interaction with a Trappist/Franciscan monk who is “leading” our little group for the retreat. I have met him for the first time that morning. He is part of an order of monks who take vows of poverty and live off of the labor of their working hands even as they practice meditation and reflection that is part of the Catholic Christianity he belongs to.  A tall gentleman with blue/grey serge gown of a priest and deeply aquiline features with sharp eyes that pierce through with intensity and candor, he has clearly gained our attention.  He has introduced the retreat and its purpose in quite broad and secular terms.  He has addressed the roomful of academics pretty cocksure of their own religious and philosophical bearings (yours truly included), and made a curious request (almost a challenge?): “You are constantly striving to be perfectionists, and some of you may well be on your way to getting there. But this afternoon, I want you to look for your broken self and find it, confront it, live with it in your own way for the next few hours. Then come back to me. Should you need an intervention, please find me right here”.    My response is one of pleasant surprise that there is so much leeway here to bring in our own meditation practices from different traditions that we, as a group, represent.  I mention to him that I may chant my own hymns and mantras in the process, and his eyes soften in warm appreciation. I am pretty certain what I will do: a round of meditation beginning with “adyastotram”; followed by “Vishnu” and “Durga” strotram all of which I have confidently memorized in the last two decades of my life as a truly practicing Hindu.  I almost laugh at the suggestion of an “intervention”; certain that this would be redundant in my case, as I have spent too many years preparing and nurturing a confident, prayerful self. 

I chose to be in an empty chapel because that is where my childhood school-girl-self found such comfort: the empty chapels of Carmel convent and Loreto in Durgapur and Middleton Row were witness to my personal musings and angst as a young person coming to terms with a quick-changing family and personal life.  So, here I was in this deserted chapel where even my breath seemed to echo through the vaulted ceiling and back to me.  I sat there for the first few minutes soaking in the damp air and stillness of the silence. Then, I decided to begin my prepared regimen of chanting. This is when I noticed that I could not recall the first lines, the second, third, middle, end, nothing, absolutely nothing of my adyastotram that I have been in the habit of reciting every day of my life in the recent past. To say that this was an anomaly and a bitterly disturbing occurrence would be an understatement.  Please note that I did not have my mobile, my handbag (which would have a copy of the mantra), so whether I desired or not, I was left with my mind and nothing else.   I had been witness to dementia and alzheimer’s both with a dear friend and my mother, and always was acutely aware of the loss of control that comes with an inability to recall. But this was different, because even as I tried to recall the verses, a completely different set of words and tune, that of the hymn, came wafting into my mind and literally took over my solitary self, so much so that I had to find its origins in the hymnal in front of me. Helplessly, I accepted that my “retreat” into a broken self would have to be mediated through this hymn which had possessed me for the moment. I hummed it out and the chapel echoed it back to me. I realized there was nothing really “spooky” about this; that it was a part of my young self in assembly prayers at school, and somehow, urged by the ambience of the church, had re-emerged in my psyche. Along with this realization came the understanding of the reality of my past, its innocence, its comfort that had been cruelly lost in a sibling’s loss of mental stability that I had to live with for two decades. So, I did confront my “broken self” and, in a moment of learned humility realized I clearly needed an intervention.  When I went back to Monsignor Joseph’s office, he seemed to be expecting me and without any preamble I found myself narrating my long lost life in India to an American priest I had met three hours ago that morning. I was emotional, limp with the relief of narrating my sense of loss and resentment at the world and its creator, but also honest in laying out places where I ceased to be a perfectionist and was clear in recognizing a less than ideal self. I had never felt such relief in his quiet acceptance of all of my passionate rantings.

I don’t know what to make of this incident. I realize that our belief system is created by an alchemy between our individual psyche and the socio-religious environment we find ourselves in from childhood.  In certain ways, our faith “shores” up or is used as scaffolding to sustain us through the trauma of real life.  Faith in this sense is very much a necessary construct that crystallizes all that we understand to be noble, uplifting, sustaining in ourselves and that we like to see as a collective and objectified principle that we can comprehend and accept. To that extent, the nitty gritty of rituals and fractious discussions of different religions and their varying paths became moot in my example above.  I needed to figure out a way to accost my second self that I had carefully hidden behind a self-confident, all-knowing façade.    As a student of 19th century thought, I tend to agree with James Frazer who says in his book, The Golden Bough (1890) that “after all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best” (212).  For me the hymn that acknowledged my difference yet asserted my right to participate in some kind of cathartic self-revelation worked best that day, and as it seems now, in retrospect, for quite a sustainable future, and I remain thankful for it.  And yes, I have come back to my rituals of Adya and Durga stotram, comforting me through the familiarity of remembered grace. But, I know, when I need to I can recall one of those strings of the lute in my own hymn.  I have claimed it as mine.


[ARUNDHATI SANYAL]

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