Almost twenty years ago I attended a week-long retreat at a religious centre in Kerala. A few circumstances in my life had conspired together to throw my inner life into absolute chaos. When you are going through a protracted ordeal, you are quite sure to attract a lot of well-wishers. Though many of these well-wishers are actually people who derive a secret delight by peeping into your agony, a few of them are genuinely interested in putting into practise all their pastoral skills. A universal verdict was passed by all those who claimed to have diagnosed the condition of my soul: that I should attend a retreat.
A Catholic retreat usually consists of a series of sermons or religious lectures interspersed with prayer services culminating in the purgation of one’s sins through the confession. Like the drowning man clutching at the floating straw, I embraced the retreat as fanatically as I could.
The preacher, the retreat guru, was informed by some of my well-wishers much before I enlisted about all the cardinal sins that had eaten into my soul like a pernicious cancer. So I was the particular focus of the preacher’s devout attention throughout the retreat. When the week was finally over – what a relief it was to be liberated! – I packed my bag and went to bid goodbye to the preacher. There he was standing just at the gate of the retreat centre looking eager to ensure that I left the place. As soon as he saw me approaching he joined his palms in a fervent Namaste. His demeanour reminded me of Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Karamazov Brothers.
Dmitri Karamazov is a very troubled soul in the novel. He is passionate, headstrong and reckless. He goes to Father Zosima’s monastery to settle his quarrel with his father with the help of the monk. Far from coming to an amicable resolution of their problem, the father and the son shout at each other in the presence of the monk. Father Zosima suddenly kneels and bows his head to the ground at Dmitri’s feet.
Father Zosima later attributed his gesture to his foresight of the great suffering that awaited Dmitri.
My retreat preacher’s demeanour has remained in my memory like a vignette. I abandoned religion altogether a little after the retreat. Religion failed to dispel the darkness that was apparently smothering my soul. But there was no way of extricating my soul from my religious well-wishers. Hence I quit my job and left the place once and for all.
A new place. A new beginning. Many years passed in peace since there were no altruistic well-wishers in the new place. Nevertheless, the vignette continues to remain in my mind with undaunted tenacity. Looking back at those days, I sometimes miss those well-wishers who gifted me the vignette.
PS. This post was provoked by the latest theme at Indispire: #Missme