The night was far advanced. I closed the book with a bang and flung it on the table. Then I blew out the lamp with the idea of turning into bed. No sooner had I done so than, through the open windows, the moonlight burst into the room, with a shock of surprise. That little bit of a lamp had been sneering drily at me, like some Mephistopheles: and that tiniest sneer had screened off this infinite light of joy issuing forth from the deep love which is in all the world.
What, forsooth, had I been looking for in the empty wordiness of the book? There was the very thing itself, filling the skies, silently waiting for me outside, all these hours! If I had gone off to bed leaving the shutters closed, and thus missed this vision, it would have stayed there all the same without any protest against the mocking lamp inside.
Even if I had remained blind to it all my life,—letting the lamp triumph to the end,—till for the last time I went darkling to bed,—even then the moon would have still been there, sweetly smiling, unperturbed and unobtrusive, waiting for me as she has throughout the ages.
From Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore
And we conceal the stars and dim the moon with our wasteful lighting of homes, workplaces and streets. Once again Tagore’s reflections chime in with my Christian sensibilities. I was first introduced to him by my mother, who heard of him from a Cistercian monk.
We at Agnellus Mirror do not claim to agree totally with everything we publish, but we hope that somebody out there finds it interesting. We questioned, no, disagreed with Tagore at the beginning of the month, and today we find him interesting but writing from a privileged point of view. Perhaps we should, each of us, stand outside the current of time, occasionally. But who stands beside us and shares our inner world? We offer a response to Tagore at the end of the post. What are your feelings?
SHELIDAH, 24th June 1894.
I have been only four days here, but, having lost count of the hours, it seems such a long while, I feel that if I were to return to Calcutta to-day I should find much of it changed—as if I alone had been standing still outside the current of time, unconscious of the gradually changing position of the rest of the world. The fact is that here, away from Calcutta, I live in my own inner world, where the clocks do not keep ordinary time; where duration is measured only by the intensity of the feelings; where, as the outside world does not count the minutes, moments change into hours and hours into moments. So it seems to me that the subdivisions of time and space are only mental illusions. Every atom is immeasurable and every moment infinite.
There is a Persian story which I was greatly taken with when I read it as a boy—I think I understood, even then, something of the underlying idea, though I was a mere child. To show the illusory character of time, a faquir put some magic water into a tub and asked the King to take a dip. The King no sooner dipped his head in than he found himself in a strange country by the sea, where he spent a good long time going through a variety of happenings and doings. He married, had children, his wife and children died, he lost all his wealth, and as he writhed under his sufferings he suddenly found himself back in the room, surrounded by his courtiers. On his proceeding to revile the faquir for his misfortunes, they said: “But, Sire, you have only just dipped your head in, and raised it out of the water!”
The whole of our life with its pleasures and pains is in the same way enclosed in one moment of time. However long or intense we may feel it to be while it lasts, as soon as we have finished our dip in the tub of the world, we shall find how like a slight, momentary dream the whole thing has been.
Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore
We are not simply writhing under our sufferings in this life, dipping into the rub of the world. Eighty years of life are indeed as nothing compared to the light years of the Universe’s existence, but they are years of responsibility to each other, to creation, and to the Creator.
Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.
Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee?
And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.
Tagore is writing in the last years of the XIX Centuryfrom Bengal, a region today split between India and Bangladesh.
Why is there always this deep shade of melancholy over the fields and river banks, the sky and the sunshine of our country? I came to the conclusion that it is because with us Nature is obviously the more important thing. The sky is free, the fields limitless; and the sun merges them into one blazing whole.
In the midst of this, man seems so trivial. He comes and goes, like the ferry-boat, from this shore to the other; the babbling hum of his talk, the fitful echo of his song, is heard; the slight movement of his pursuit of his own petty desires is seen in the world’s market-places: but how feeble, how temporary, how tragically meaningless it all seems amidst the immense aloofness of the Universe! The contrast between the beautiful, broad, unalloyed peace of Nature—calm, passive, silent, unfathomable,—and our own everyday worries—paltry, sorrow-laden, strife-tormented, puts me beside myself as I keep staring at the hazy, distant, blue line of trees which fringe the fields across the river.
Where Nature is ever hidden, and cowers under mist and cloud, snow and darkness, there man feels himself master; he regards his desires, his works, as permanent; he wants to perpetuate them, he looks towards posterity, he raises monuments, he writes biographies; he even goes the length of erecting tombstones over the dead. So busy is he that he has not time to consider how many monuments crumble, how often names are forgotten!
From Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore.
The war in Ukraine should remind us that monuments do crumble and most names are forgotten. So are we and our desires tragically meaningless? We are certainly strife-tormented, but is the Universe aloof, or is it just that so much of our works look trivial set against Creation? Christians assert that behind ‘Nature’ or the ‘Universe’ is a loving Creator whose Spirit hovered over the Deep and will fill our hearts with Love, if we allow it to happen.
The Spirit may inspire some to study and contemplate the stars and galaxies which do make our works look trivial, but it is these very works – the telescopes, the computer-driven maths – that give us that sense of wonder, of littleness, and please God, of humility. The Spirit inspires others to practical love of fellow human beings or to revive and restore our living but damaged planet. We are given the power of reason to use as humble, fellow creators, not to despait, nor to amass a personal fortune, because there is nothing better to be done in a melancholy world. We are people of hope!
Come, Holy Spirit and kindle in us the power of your Love.
This life is short, and we are not important. Art by Saint Dunstan, philosophising by Tagore.
What a to-do there is over this tiny bit of life! To think of the quantity of land and trade and commerce which go to furnish its commissariat* alone, the amount of space occupied by each individual throughout the world, though one little chair is large enough to hold the whole of him! Yet, after all is over and done, there remains only material for two hours’ thought, some pages of writing!
What a negligible fraction of my few pages would this one lazy day of mine occupy! But then, will not this peaceful day, on the desolate sands by the placid river, leave nevertheless a distinct little gold mark even upon the scroll of my eternal past and eternal future?
Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore.
*Commisariat ia a military term for the supplies of food and equipment.
Did Saint Dunstan count it a lazy day when he spent his time engrossed in drawing this picture? It is a peaceful picture, with the saint content to be close to his Lord, touching the hem of his garment. (Luke 8.44) Against the events in history that he was involved with as abbot and archbishop, he chooses to show himself as a stocky, insignificant monk, seeking the grace of God to sustain him in all his works.
May we value the quiet moments that come our way, and find time to put ourselves in the presence of God when they arise … not that He is ever absent when life is hectic.
Saint Kevin lived an ascetic life, close to nature and animals, but a man of joy rather than the melancholy set before us tomorrow by Rabindranath Tagore. A good saint when we are trying to set our priorities aright regarding the world God has created us to care for. Only a man of Hope would live as ultra frugally as Kevin did. There is more to us than our petty desires that can never satisfy for long.
Let us pray for a generous, merciful heart, inspired by the Spirit to be loving to our fellow creatures, and to find ways to help them thrive, and in so doing be partners in God’s Creation.
A prayer to Saint Kevin of Glendalough
A Chaoimhín le caoineas do mhéine Fuair an-chion ainmhithe is éanlaith; I do láthair ba ghnáth leo go léir a bheith Gan scá romhat I bhfásach an fhéir ghlais. Bímisne, a Chaoimhín na féile, Dea-iompair le dúile gan éirim: Dia a chruthaigh is a chuir ar an soal iad Is cúiteoidh Sé linn an croí truamhéile.
Kevin, with your kind nature, you were loved by animals and birds; they stayed in your presence without fear in the green grassy growth. Let us all, O generous Kevin, behave well towards dumb creatures: God created them and put them into this world and he will reward us for a merciful heart.
Donla uí Bhraonáin (ed.), Paidreacha na Gaeilge: Prayers in Irish (Dublin: Cois Life, 2009), 122–3.
Saint Augustine, as we heard the other day, was insensitive to the dignity of the Welsh bishops who came to visit him. This was hurtful. I imagine this set back Christian unity in these Islands when mutual respect would have healed many rifts. And Augustine was a saint; we lesser mortals need to be vigilant not to be careless in dealing with each other.
Nationality and race are not the only stumbling blocks to the unity of Christians or the unity of all people, but they matter. If they are not respected, especially by those in authority or power, people will feel hurt and insulted and will be disinclined to co-operate. Here is an eloquent example from 19th Century India. Tagore was by no means intemperate, unlike the man he describes.
Let us pray for the grace to see other people as fellow-children of God, brothers and sisters to be respected and loved as equals.
CUTTACK, 10th February 1893. He was a fully developed John Bull of the outrageous type—with a huge beak of a nose, cunning eyes, and a yard-long chin.
The curtailment of our right to be tried by jury is now under consideration by the Government. The fellow dragged in the subject by the ears and insisted on arguing it out with our host, poor B—— Babu. He said the moral standard of the people of this country was low; that they had no real belief in the sacredness of life; so that they were unfit to serve on juries. The utter contempt with which we are regarded by these people was brought home to me when I saw how they can accept a Bengali’s hospitality and talk thus, seated at his table, without a quiver of compunction.
As I sat in a corner of the drawing-room after dinner, everything round me looked blurred to my eyes. I seemed to be seated by the head of my great, insulted Motherland, who lay there in the dust before me, disconsolate, shorn of her glory. I cannot tell what a profound distress overpowered my heart. How incongruous seemed the mem-sahibs there, in their evening-dresses, the hum of English conversation, and the ripples of laughter! How richly true for us is our India of the ages; how cheap and false the hollow courtesies of an English dinner-party!”
From Glimpses of Bengal, Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore“.
listening to the dance-music of the tide in the evening.
from “Stray Birds” by Rabindranath Tagore
And very gentle music it was, this winter’s evening in Margate. At the turn of the year, let’s pray that we may enjoy such evenings in this life, with a warm home to return to.
And may He support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.
John Henry Cardinal Newman
Apologies that the Tagore’s numbering has got out of sequence.
God loves man’s lamp lights better than his own great stars.
from “Stray Birds” by Rabindranath Tagore
Do you agree? Can God love something more than another thing? Which of men’s lamp lights does he love so much – those lit in love, perhaps, like these. Hardly a burglar’s torch or flashlight! And Tagore was writing before city dwellers were isolated from the skies by light pollution.
We cannot see the Light of the World for the world’s lights. We cannot see the Wise Men’s Star for the world’s lights.
But it is almost Christmas, four candles lit, let the fifth be in my heart as I go out to meet him!
Why all these arguments? Worthiness cannot be earned merely by disputing about it. And I am unworthy, unworthy, unworthy.
What if I am unworthy? The true value of love is this, that it can ever bless the unworthy with its own prodigality. For the worthy there are many rewards on God’s earth, but God has specially reserved love for the unworthy.
from “The Home and the World” by Rabindranath Tagore.
It is good to take note of when different traditions come close to Christianity. We Catholics at Mass use the prayer of the Roman Centurion: I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ Matthew 8:8.
Specially reserved love for the centurion was his son’s healing. But what good things have I received this day that I did not deserve? All is gift.
May we show forth God’s love to our neighbours this Christmas time, however fearful, resentful, or depressed they may be. Christmas is not just for good children, but for unworthy children – and unworthy adults.
‘When I stand before thee at the day’s end thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.’ Tagore
Pere Hamel had worked hard, networked hard, to help his local Muslims integrate and feel welcome in the neighbourhood of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. But on this morning in 2016 he was cut down while celebrating early morning Mass. Two men of the Islamic State terror group wanted to keep hold of the differences between people rather than celebrate our unity before the God who made us.
May those who bring violence to our streets, homes, churches and schools, have their scars anointed and healed.