The Dedicated – 5. Meeting

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5. Meeting

She resumed her activities as if nothing had happened.

No one around her suspected the profound spiritual loneliness into which she had suddenly been plunged. In spite of her old friend’s solace, her faith forsook her when she needed it most. The mild and reassuring convictions of her earlier belief gave place now to a stem and implacable resolve to find the Truth at all costs. But what Truth? Margaret was too strong to remain for long in a state of religious despair, although she had no practical means at her disposal for guiding her tired will. As once before, she was going through an obscure phase of indecision which allowed no adjustment between her intrepid faith and her daily life. She accepted the situation. Her exterior life – her profession, the social and political friendships of which at twenty-nine she might well be proud – could not fill the gulf in her soul: a temple forsaken by God.

But Margaret could not live without religion. That was a heritage she had received, a part of life she could not do without The same question which she had raised at Halifax as to the fundamental “wherefore” of things – and to which no one had ever been able to give a satisfactory answer – remained the central aim of her inquiries. For Margaret the answer to this question was the secret of God’s existence. Of this die was convinced by her intuition, which, however, was constantly shaken by the compromises necessary between the law of Jesus and the law of men, and the innumerable adjustments which had to be made between Church and Society. Margaret could not escape these, for she herself was part of Society. But with a relentless honesty she sifted her ideals and her way of life through the sieve of the faith. The experience had often been difficult, and had led her to reject successively each of the religious attitudes she had so deeply espoused. She had never been assailed by doubts, however, even at the critical moment when it became impossible for her to worship her Creator in the expression of life itself. Her prayer was extremely simple: she followed Thomas k Kempis, in The Imitation of Christ: “Be what thou prayest to be made/’ She believed in God, in the Truth which palpitates in everything, even if man knows not how to perceive it

Doubtless, in following this difficult path, Margaret had experienced many disappointments that had gradually awakened in her a kind of skepticism, which, however, bore no trace of negation. The reason was that she always sensed, in the vision she was seeking to grasp, something more absolute which escaped her and which became unconsciously the objective of her struggle to reach the Truth. Thus her innate faith carried her forward in spite of all the storms through which she had to pass. One moment she thought she had reached her goal when she was approached by the open-minded group within the Church of England, including the celebrated preacher, Canon Scott Holland. But there again she came up against the wall of intolerance which obscured the vision of the Truth.

Only a few of her friends knew the importance Margaret gave to her spiritual life. Ebenezer Cook was one of these. One day when he came to give his drawing lessons, he said to her, “Lady Isabel Margesson is inviting a few friends to her house to hear a Hindu Swami speak. Will you come?”

Margaret’s curiosity made her accept this unforeseen invitation. Much had been spoken of this monk. Who was he? Certain members of the Sesame Club – among others Mr. E. T. Sturdy and Miss Henrietta Muller – told of his extraordinary success in the United States, with so many details (including his reputation as a fakir) that it was difficult to form an opinion. Only Mr. Sturdy could have thrown more light on the subject, for he had traveled extensively in India, but he remained silent. It was known, however, that the Swami would stay at his home.

On the day in question, Margaret arranged to be free. As she entered Lady Isabel’s drawing room, which had the blinds drawn for the occasion, she felt somewhat nervous. She was one of the last to arrive, and imagined that all eyes were turned on her as she took the first vacant chair, quickly gathering up her broad silk skirt to avoid making a noise. No one spoke; yet at least fifteen people were in the room. The air was full of spiraling waves of heavily scented incense. Swami Viveka-nanda sat facing Margaret. He wore a full-cut robe of saffron yellow with a bright red cummerbund. She noticed that he was tall and well built and had an air of deep serenity. He was perfectly calm, self-absorbed, and indifferent to what was going on around him. A coal fire burned on the hearth behind him. He looked at Lady Isabel with a curiously sweet smile as she leaned across and said, “Swamiji, all our friends are here.” A door closed, a curtain fell. In complete silence, the chanting voice of the Swami prayed, “Shiva, Shiva, namah Shivaya {I prostrate before you, Shiva}.”

He spoke at great length, in a calm, well-modulated voice. From time to time he chanted a line of Sanskrit and translated it into perfect English, obviously taking an immense delight in communicating the words of light When asked a question he replied in simple language, using poetic images which reflected all the beauty of the East and brought warmth to that foggy autumn Sunday. The whole of his talk exuded an all-pervading intimacy.

Margaret listened with rapt attention. A feeling of complete emptiness had come over her, annihilating her will power and her critical sense. She was subjugated by a strange new force and felt her mind reaching out to broader and vaster regions. This man was a powerful magician of faith! He knew the language in which God could be invoked. Was he one of those beings who had achieved complete self-realization? Was he one of those ascetic yogis who were said to live in forests in perfect harmony with wild animals?

“Man imagines that God cannot do without him,” he said, “but who can help the Infinite? Even the hand that comes to us through the darkness will have to be our own . . . we, infinite dreamers who dream finite dreams. . . .” And again,

“All our struggle is for Freedom, we seek neither misery nor happiness but Freedom, Freedom alone.” Magnificent phrases strung themselves together in perfect harmony. They were not ideas thrown up haphazard, as part of an intellectual game; they lifted the hearts of his hearers into eternities. They saw their personalities in a new light, as astonished as spoilt children, who, while possessing the costliest toys, still stretch out their hands to seize the sun and the moon.

Carried away in spite of herself, Margaret experienced a profound peace, a moment of respite in the midst of her intellectual anxiety. Yet when Swami Vivekananda finished speaking, her instinctive reaction was to ally herself with several ladies who were criticizing the Swami’s doctrines as lacking in originality. She had not asked any question; now she remained silent She felt that she must be alone, to ponder over that message brought from a foreign land.

Within a few days, all the London newspapers were speaking of the “Hindu yogi,” comparing him to a new Buddha come to heal the wounds of the Western world. He was described as meek and gentle, pure and innocent as a child, yet possessed of a sage’s learned wisdom. Three weeks after his arrival sightseers were thronging around his door, he was besieged with invitations, people tried to lionize him. Such publicity left him completely unmoved.

Swami Vivekananda had left India two years before. With his burning faith as his sole guide, with the wealth of wisdom drawn from the lips of his master, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (the Hindu spiritual saint was bom in Bengal about 1836, and died in August, 1886, in Calcutta), he had gone to the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, in 1893, with, the message of Hinduism, “the mother of religions,” and had been hailed there as a great orator. Now, during this three-months stay in London, in 1895, the story of his triumphal progress through the United States was on everybody’s lips.

At Chicago, he had spoken first to an audience of several thousand people: extemporaneously, looking into the eyes of his audience and seeing there thousands as his brothers and sisters eager for the living knowledge of the one Divine Being, worshiped under a thousand different forms. As he spoke to them of God, of the single Truth revealed by a thousand symbols, of the identical aim of all religions, his own emotion was instilled into his hearers. They heard in him a yogi; a non-Christian, who, instead of dwelling on the divisions between men and their rights and wrongs among their fellows, felt only the aspiration of souls toward tenderness and peace, and lived again with them his own experience of love. By his breadth of conception and his effort to surmount every obstacle he had literally stunned his audience.

After his Chicago visit he had passed through a period of real hardship, for he had no church or association to support him, and the little money he possessed had quickly disappeared. But suddenly the way had opened up before him – the public had made an idol of him and dragged him from town to town to speak. Swami Vivekananda had concurred, while allowing nothing in this rapid change of affairs to shackle his liberty, compromise his poverty, or dim the brightness of his message. His spiritual mission had made him trumph over all the snares laid for hjm by a young, intolerant, and materialist society. To it he brought not a new religion, nor the teaching of any particular master, but the secret of individual liberation – the unassailable treasure of that India where spirituality is a tangible mode of life and inseparable from poverty.

Swami Vivekananda had made both friends and enemies, but what was more important, he had gathered about him a handful of immediate disciples. After having achieved his youthful ambition of making himself a great orator in the service of God, he had become a meticulous instructor of those souls who had entrusted themselves to him, the guru communicating to his pupils not only the desire for renunciation but also the very taste of the sacrifice they had made of their lives. Swami Vive-kananda was no longer working alone. In this summer of 1895, before coming to London, he had conferred the major initiation of sannyasa – the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience – on two of his disciples – one woman and one man, Swami Abhaya-nanda and Swami Kripananda – and had initiated five others as novices, they formed the group of future workers to help him.

After this first meeting at Lady Isabel’s, Margaret heard two more of Swami Vivekananda’s lectures. But her real interest lay in the informal meetings which Lady Isabel organized. She changed her schedule completely so as not to miss a single one. To hear the Swami speak was for her a gradual means of escape from the lethargy which had choked her and from the skepticism which she had advertised too openly to be able to deny it

Swami Vivekananda found that he had a select, but difficult audience. If Margaret, who had studied the writings of Frederick Denison Maurice, was quick to adopt a stubborn attitude of mind, her friends were even more inclined to base their belief on psychological problems only. The Swami found the game difficult but was ready to play it. Having measured the intellectual capacity of his opponents, he began his exposition of the Vedantic attitude by examining its intrinsic scientific qualities to a point where the limits of each individual school of thought were transcended. Every discussion had its roots in the analytical psychology of the Western world. Margaret excelled in keeping the Swami along these lines by asking precise questions, and by using the very philosophical arguments which he contributed himself.

Swami Vivekananda was well aware of Margaret’s state of mind. He knew by personal experience how difficult was the upward path of escape from that pessimism he had suffered himself, from those agonies of ddubt which enclose the soul in darkness and seem to shut out all hope. Each painful step along that path constituted an additional element in the building of character. The intellect compares all facts, seizes each new argument, seeks analogies. Swami Vivekananda had experienced all these backslidings before falling at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna, overwhelmed with love of the saint. Margaret was still struggling, still feeling her way. With a sure touch, he directed her newly awakened sensibility; for practical purposes, he substituted the word “self-realization” for “faith,” and described in detail all the stages of spiritual life, from the faithful worshiper protected by the rites of his church or sect, to the worshiper projected into the freedom of the realized soul. “It is well to be bom in a church, but it is terrible to die there.” Thus he described the joy of him who casts off his chains and goes forward along the glorious path of renunciation, of him who loves with a love which excludes all possession, of him who becomes the patient instrument of God’s will – jnana, bhakti, karma,, the three great paths of knowledge, love, and disinterested work, which lead the human soul to the intimate knowledge of God.

Margaret could only guess how great was the freedom to be obtained; she would never have thought this could have been reached by the imposition of a self-discipline which was harsher than any she had known. In the discussions she found herself in unfamiliar regions where no landmarks were yet visible. Gathering together the divergent views of his hearers, Swami Vive-kananda reduced them to the words of Sri Krishna in the Gita, “All these are threads upon Me, as pearls upon a string.” One day, he suggested a subject of meditation for each of his hearers: “Both the mind and the body are dominated by a third element called Self.” What was this Self that was neither soul nor ego? Margaret could not give the answer. Swami Vivekananda let her for a certain period search for it alone, for he knew that she was relying merely on her powers of reason. But, although she retained her independence of mind with regard to the Swami, her positivist ideas were already seriously shaken.

The success of these study groups was such that those who attended them begged the Swami to deliver a public lecture before leaving to return to America. He accepted. The elite of London gathered that evening at Princes’ Hall. The monk established contact with his audience with these cutting sentences: “Have not a few words of Christ or Buddha done more for humanity than the invention of machinery or printing? Do you believe that the peace-loving Hindu would think of paying the price required to gain a knowledge of Western civilization, with its unbridled intolerance, its bloody wars, and its commercial prosperity?” Lost in the crowd, Margaret closely followed the Swami’s thesis. Several days later he explained to an inquisitive journalist, “I am the exponent of no occult society . . . nor do I believe that good can come of such bodies. Truth stands on its own authority, and Truth can bear the light of day. . . This was the very Truth which Margaret had sought for so long. Was he going to reveal it to her there and then? Several times during the philosophical discussions she had foreseen the moment when her logic would declare itself satisfied, although she maintained her defensive position, so as always to reserve the right of dissecting her own religious experience.

This questing soul, the teacher Margaret Noble, realized that Swami Vivekananda had provided her with a series of springboards from which to plunge within and ask herself searching questions. She had at last discovered a religion whose foundations, classification of elements, and forms of worship could be discussed scientifically; a religion which constantly maintained contact between spiritual and practical life through the medium of experience. Such a religion relied exclusively on what was noblest and best in mankind – that quality of spiritually progressive freedom as opposed to sin-entangled slavery. As Margaret analyzed these reasons, with considerable luddity, she declared herself the Swami’s disdple by addressing him as “Master.”

This word, on her lips, proclaimed the submission of her intelligence. She had understood that Swami Vivekananda lived for the Truth, and that he would serve It wherever It was to be found.

Recalling those first meetings and their dedsive influence on her life, Margaret was to write later, from Calcutta, in 1904, in a letter to a friend: “Suppose he had not come to London that time! Life would have been like a headless dream, for I always knew that I was waiting for something. I always said that a cadi would come. And it did. But if I had known more of life I should perhaps have doubted whether when the time came I should certainly recognize it. Fortunately, I knew little, and was *Life of the Swami Vivekananda, 1st edition, vol IX, p 404.

spared that torture… . Always I had this burning voice within, but nothing to utter. How often and often I have sat down pen in hand to speak, and there was no speech! And now there is no end to it! As surely as I am fitted to my world, so surely is my world in need of me, waiting – ready. The arrow has found its place in the bow. But if he had not come! If he had meditated on the Himalayan peaks! . . . I, for one, had never been here. . .

Margaret Noble, Sister Nivedita, was always to acknowledge her debt to this Master who had now come into her life.

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