Today I am thinking very much about a dear friend and inspiration who passed away yesterday morning. Her name was Keshava, and she was one of the most spirited and deeply caring people I know.
For most of her adult life, she was completely dedicated to sharing the rich teachings and experiences of bhakti yoga with countless people, and she did so joyfully and sincerely. She was the kind of person that left an impression on you in a quiet way; her thoughtful, deep nature balanced by a voice that bubbled with laughter beneath the surface. I often felt that she belonged in another age, or another world. She loved refined and beautiful things – poetry and music and profound words.
My exchanges with her were few – starting in 2008 when she and her dear husband Shaunaka invited me to come and lead kirtan at the gathering she organised each month in Oxford. It was an experience that acted as a catalyst for me, forcing me to step outside of my comfort zone and begin to do something that I am still trying to do properly to this day. Her love of kirtan was evident in her enthusiasm to share it with others. Over the last seven years, through dedicated, consistent organisation, she and her helpers nurtured a beautiful community based around sacred song. I will never forget the sight of her at the back of the small Friends’ Meeting House hall, eyes closed and singing with such absorption. Though she struggled with her health, and over the years, was often not present for the gatherings, I could feel the current of her enthusiasm and would always see her at the back of the room in my mind’s eye.
I am forever grateful for her encouragement, the little cards she occasionally sent, the books she gave me – carefully selected through her avid reading of spiritual authors. With her passing I am reminded how much these small gestures make a difference – how they live on long past the moment that you receive a physical object. This morning I took a book down from the shelf that she had lent me about reading sacred texts. I flipped through it and found her blue underlined passages, emphasising the words that really resonated with her. One that I noticed spoke of the long, difficult road of spiritual practise – something that she knew very well.
Water can wear away rock, but it needs time as its ally. God’s word will certainly refashion our lives, but not overnight. The process begins from the centre and works outward; its results will not be apparent on the surface for a very long time. Meanwhile, we have to accept and submit to the vagaries of this invisible process without losing heart or abandoning our sense of purpose.
–Michael Casey, from ‘Sacred Reading: The Art of Lectio Divina’
She exemplified this determination, never losing heart despite great challenges that would test even the strongest faith.
In my last blog I reflected on the broad perspective on life and death that one can experience by studying the Bhagavad Gita. As I sit to write this, I realise that this forms a part two to that piece of writing. Knowledge about death is one thing, but to experience it at close hand is another. We all get different opportunities to experience both in the course of a lifetime, and each bring different lessons.
Right now I am simply appreciating the honesty of expression that comes in these times. Last night we gathered in a small living room in Oxford, sitting knee to knee on the floor, with people standing at the edges and spilling out of the door. We sang for several hours. Every face was marked with emotion. We prayed and cried for our dear friend who touched all of our lives in different ways. Even the silence in between the sessions of singing was full. Tonight we will gather again.
“Gratitude does not abolish grief; it completes it. ‘We must heal our
misfortunes by the grateful recollection of what has been and by the
recognition that it is impossible to make undone what has been done’
[Epicurus]. Is there any more beautiful formulation of the mourning
process? Mourning is about accepting what is, hence also what no
longer is, and loving it as such, in its truth, in its eternity, so
that we can go from the unbearable pain of loss to the sweetness of
remembrance, from unfinished mourning to its completion (‘the grateful
recollection of what has been’), from amputation to acceptance, from
suffering to joy, from love rent apart to love appeased. ‘Sweet is the
memory of the departed friend,’ says Epicurus: gratitude is this
sweetness itself, when it becomes joyous. Yet suffering at first is
the stronger: ‘How awful that he should have died!’ How can we ever
accept it? That is why mourning is necessary, and so difficult and so
painful. But joy returns in spite of everything: ‘How fortunate that
he should have lived!’ The process of mourning is a process of
gratitude.” (from A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, by Andre Comte-Sponville)