The Mastery of Life's Meaning
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About the author
Winifred Gallagher is the author of The Power of Place, Just the Way You Are (a New York Times Notable Book), and, most recently, Working on God. She has also written for numerous journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. She lives in Manhattan and Long Eddy, New York.
In Spiritual Genius, journalist Winifred Gallagher, the acclaimed author of Working on God, asks Rabbi Lawrence Kushner to define holiness. "Standing in the presence of God," he says. "Everyone has it, but some people seem to have more of a knack for accessing it." Like holiness, the gift that Gallagher calls "spiritual genius"--which she defines as "the uniquely human ability to search for and find life’s meaning, then express it in our lives as only each of us can"--is one we all possess but don’t necessarily recognize.
Whether they are called saints, gurus, tzaddiks, or shamans, there have always been people who possess exceptional insight, altruism, and charisma. In this disarmingly inspirational book, Gallagher investigates what ordinary people trying to live decent, meaningful lives can learn from such extraordinary men and women, who are specially attuned to the deepest truths, and who exemplify-and radiate-spiritual genius.
In a clear-eyed, ecumenical approach that's free of dogma and bias and suffused with profound respect, Winifred Gallagher highlights the common wisdom-and down-to-earth good humor-of these religious leaders, revels in their differences, and identifies the capacity for spiritual genius that all of us share with them. On an island in the Arabian Sea, Gallagher visits Mata Amritanandamayi, regarded by devotees as a Hindu goddess, who transmits divine love through hugs and charities. She travels through America's inner cities with Tony Campolo, an Evangelical preacher who counsels national leaders and serves the poor. She learns how Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani theologian, uses the Qur’an to defend the rights of her Muslim sisters. She journeys to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas to understand how an exiled minority has enchanted the world with their deep, resilient spirituality. In these diverse lives, Gallagher argues, we can glimpse our own potential for spiritual genius writ large. Each story testifies to the profound good in the world, even during a troubled time, and to Gallagher’s groundbreaking theory of a human capacity for finding life’s meaning that is nothing less than genius.
It’s immediately clear that waiting is an agony to Brother James Kimpton, a restless, rangy Englishman uniformed in what look like blue surgical scrubs. His long, lanky frame and fidgetiness give him an adolescent air that belies his seventy-six years. It’s barely ten in the morning, but the sun has already turned the flat Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu, one of India’s poorest states, into a griddle. Car troubles of a complexity perhaps unique to India have stretched a two-hour trip into four, making me late for our meeting. Having written me off, Brother James is just about to depart in his Jeep to visit a “children’s village” for orphans recently built by Reaching the Unreached. This nonsectarian antipoverty organization, which he founded and directs, serves some sixty small villages in the district of Periyakulam.
Brother, as he is called, bids me welcome but clearly wants to get on with it. He beckons me toward the Jeep, but after hours on the road I’m desperate for a washroom. Perhaps offering up this small torment to God, Brother white-knuckles it and leads me to the guest quarters.
James Kimpton belongs to the De La Salle Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order founded by a seventeenth-century French aristocrat to educate the poor. Brother James, who began his career as a teacher, has spent forty years in India, which is home to a full quarter of the world’s poor. The country’s average per capita income is $350 per year, half of its children are malnourished, and half of its rural students, particularly girls, drop out of school. Brother is no longer simply an educator, however, any more than he is a traditional missionary who trades goods and services for conversions. He is a pioneer in the ongoing transformation of the whole concept of charity.
Reaching the Unreached, which is supported by both secular and religious sources, neither provides handouts nor proselytizes. Its purpose is to help poor rural communities develop the housing, schools, medical facilities, and employment they need to become self-sufficient. The organization serves and is almost entirely staffed by Hindus, and the only Christian teaching Brother James offers is that of example.
From RTU’s headquarters Brother guides me next door to Ambu Illam, or Place of Love. The organization’s first children’s village is an oasis of trees and gardens that’s a stark contrast to the baked barrenness beyond its gates. As we speed-walk down neat paths bordered with flowers, Brother observes that this natural beauty is good for the children, of course, but also demonstrates what elbow grease can do with the area’s surprisingly good soil. When I say that Ambu Illam’s abundant water, spraying from garden hoses and gushing from faucets, must help, too, Brother explains that he’s a diviner. Assisted by donations from the American Society of Dowsers, he has sited and drilled safe deep wells in all RTU’s villages. This effort has eliminated not only an enormous amount of disease, he says, but much backbreaking drudgery for women, the poorest of whom often walk miles daily for water.
Orchestrating such benign “twofers” seems to be Brother’s specialty. As we tear past some of the thirty whitewashed masonry cottages that house “families” of five or six children, he explains that each is headed by a foster mother, who’s usually a widow, abused wife, or other woman who would otherwise be homeless and destitute. This particular twofer illustrates Brother’s theory that when a poor community does good by, say, helping orphans and other disadvantaged members, it will also do well, notably by creating much-needed jobs. In addition to the foster mothers, teachers, and health aides who serve RTU’s children directly, many others work at producing the textiles, food, building materials, and other goods the organization’s programs require. According to Brother’s brand of economics, compassion is a growth industry.
Visitors to RTU of necessity experience the ancient Christian monastic tradition of hospitality. There’s simply no other place to go. I gratefully make a pit stop in one of Ambu Illam’s guest rooms, attractively furnished with a hanging mosquito net, ceiling fan, and hand-loomed bedding made here. Brother himself lives in just such a room across the way.
As soon as I reappear, Brother herds me and some visiting Indian nuns into his Jeep, slams it into reverse, and stomps on the gas. “You learn patience in India,” he says, “or you go mad!”
Giggling at her old friend as he jounces us over the dirt road’s granitic ruts, one of the nuns adjusts her skirt and says that she, too, works among the poor. She explains her busman’s holiday: “I always like to see what Brother is up to!”
From a little distance Miriam Children’s Village might be a nicely landscaped, tile-roofed retirement community in Arizona. As soon as the Jeep halts, however, children come running from all directions, squealing, “Tata-ji!” Actually, many Indians of all ages call Brother “Honored Grandfather.” As the children struggle to attach themselves to his fortunately long limbs, he greets and jokes with them in rapid-fire Tamil, patting the little girls’ heads and playfully swatting at the boys bottoms. “That one is so naughty!” he says, pointing gleefully to one small, mirthful fellow who seems especially delighted by Tata-ji. Brother’s teasing British humor apparently translates well. After a particularly noisy chorus of laughing protests, he explains that he has just said that MCV stands for Mental Children’s Village. Pleased by the response, he repeats his jest to renewed hilarity.
The “orphans” of Reaching the Unreached defy ready classification. Some are foundlings in the literal sense, having simply been abandoned in a public place. Others are not strictly alone in the world, but their existing relatives are too poor, sick, or old to care for them. Some arrive as infants, or even in the bellies of their unwed mothers, and others later in childhood. All have been subject to adversity, but some have experienced nearly unimaginable trauma. Three children were orphaned when their father, in a rage, set fire to their mother. As the children watched helplessly, she grabbed him and held on until both were immolated. One child seems to be coping, says Brother, but another has tried to burn herself to death, and the third is in a psychiatric hospital.
To describe the RTU children simply as variously disadvantaged, however, is not to do them justice. Laughing with Tata-ji in the sunshine, they are joyful and, oddly, all beautiful. In their lively, lovely company, it’s especially sobering when Brother says that his next project is a similar village for abandoned HIV-positive children. The gravity of India’s looming AIDS crisis has been hushed up, he says, and partly because of this secrecy he predicts an epidemic worse than Africa’s.
Like a benign Pied Piper, Brother leads a tour past MCV’s well-appointed playground—“our psychiatric clinic”—the residential cottages, and the airy community center. Its rear wall features a mural of an Indian-looking Christ painted by a Hindu artist; in this religiously inclusive nation, many non-Christians revere Jesus as one of the world’s great spiritual masters. The painting neatly expresses the balance between Brother’s pride in his own faith and his deep respect for the people he serves.
In forty years in India Brother has not made a single convert. His nonevangelical stance is partly political, in that it allows him to continue his work despite the Indian government’s attitude about foreign missionaries, clearly expressed in its prohibition of new ones. Regarding this policy, Brother says only, “We wouldn’t want Indians telling us how to run things in our Western countries.” His aversion to proselytizing, however, runs deeper than mere pragmatism. “Our philosophy is Christian,” he says, “and the people know that. They know, too, that we don’t try to change anyone’s religion. God converts people, not us. We just hope to make people better Hindus, Muslims, or Christians.”
The next stops on the MCV tour are the day-care center and kindergarten. Illustrating twoferism, both are open to the local community’s children. For them attendance means not only an educational advantage but high-protein meals in a region where some children’s black hair is streaked with malnutrition’s orange. The MCV kids, too, benefit from this integration with the larger community, which they come to feel is theirs.
On a shady porch some foster mothers offer us the chai—spiced tea with milk and sugar seemingly boiled all day—that’s inevitably given to guests in India. In the wilting heat hydration is essential, and the ubiquitous steel cups of caffeine and sugar quickly become addictive. Several little girls busy themselves grooming Brother. First they comb his scanty locks, which have the reddish cast his temperament suggests; then they adorn him with a plastic headband. While my forehead is being painted with a bindi, or ritual dot, I try to estimate aloud how many millions it would cost in America to build a campus that houses and educates 112 children, accommodates their adult caretakers, and also serves the local community. Brother makes some rapid calculations and announces that MCV cost about $80,000. A dollar goes a long way at RTU, where a child can be maintained on $20 per month and 1,000 sponsors pledging $240 per year would cover the children’s entire annual budget. When the subject of adoptions comes up, he says kindly, “I hope you don’t mind, but I don’t believe in foreign adoptions. We only place our children with Indian couples.”
The kids are thrilled by my reporter’s notebook and insist on putting down their names—R. Nandini, S. Gomathi, M. Ramya—so that they will be famous. Those too young to write sound out their names emphatically so that they can be recorded as well. One tiny, silent child of about two stays glued to Tata’s knee. “She has no one at all,” he says, gently stroking her shiny curls. “She was just . . . found.”
As I watch Brother with the little foundling, it strikes me that the wonder is not the multitude of orphans he has raised and educated over the decades but his regard for this one, right here and now. The sight of this odd couple detonates a culture shock that has nothing to do with being a Westerner in India. Back home religion—or, more often, spirituality—is increasingly an aspect of “personal fulfillment,” but to Brother, it’s a literal response to Jesus statement “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.” For Brother, whatever means not just food, clothing, and shelter but a deep, personal, one-on-one concern that must be called love. This little girl may be just one of thousands of Brother’s children, but she clearly knows that he loves her, just as she loves him.
While Brother searches for a video of Home Alone, a favorite for the children’s weekly movie nights, the visiting nun and I enthuse over the pretty, cheerful village. Her far subtler understanding of poverty shows when she commends the thoughtful way in which the doors and windows of MCV’s cottages have been positioned to maximize privacy. When children are raised in a crowded single room, she explains, they grow up with no sense of the human right to solitude—their own or others’. Like Brother James, who provides not just houses and schools but also flowers and fountains, Sister knows that poverty can be a spiritual as well as a material affliction.
We return to the Jeep to bump our way back to Ambu Illam for lunch, passing through villages of the sort that constitute the “real India”: the small settlements of one- or two-room thatched or masonry houses, connected by dirt roads and paths, where 75 percent of the population lives. Like many dynamos, Brother James is easiest to interview when he’s allowed to do something else at the same time, even if it’s only driving. Behind the wheel he recounts a little of his history in the region. It began with drilling wells, which allowed him to meet the villages’ elders and discuss their priorities, which he found highly sensible. Brother grins, recollecting how the old men told him, “Don’t think you’re doing anything so grand, after the way you British oppressed us!”
In the press
Praise for Winifred Gallagher's Working on God
"Working on God is one of the greatest spiritual works this decade, as delightful as it is wise."
"A fascinating mosaic of contemporary religious thought . . . A rich and beautifully written harvest for the reader."
-The New York Times Book Review
"Rich and intelligent . . . An outstanding piece of writing that shows the strength and beauty of America’s beating religious heart."
-The Boston Globe
Praise for Winifred Gallagher's Just the Way You Are:How Heredity and Experience Create the Individual
"Gallagher has taken a difficult, contentious and often poorly reported body of research material and rendered it intriguing and understandable. After reading it, the next genetic headline will make a lot more sense."
-The Washington Post Book World
"In introducing us to the groundbreaking research on why we are the way we are, as well as its personal, moral, political and social implications, Ms. Gallagher’s fascinating book has broadened our capacity to wonder."
-The New York Times Book Review
"Authoritative and immensely readable."
-John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Praise for Winifred Gallagher's The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions
"Bold and fascinatin."
-Los Angeles Times Book Review
"First-rate and alarmingly fresh . . . A brand-new vision of how we are affected by how and where we live. A wonderful book."
-Jim Harrison, author of The Road Home