India Experience Enchanting, Inspiring

India Experience Enchanting, Inspiring

By the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ

As a graduate student of Jesuit higher learning, I first visited India nearly 20 years ago. I stayed in the Muslim quarter of the city, where I was haunted by the early morning adhan — the call-to-prayer — and was at once hustled off to Morning Prayer with Mother Teresa’s sisters a few blocks away.  

The daily routine for my four weeks was simple — psalms with the sisters at the Mother House, followed by Mass, followed by fellowship with volunteers from around the world. We enjoyed bread and hot tea, and then dispersed to the local hospices, care centers, and orphanages of the Missionaries of Charity.  

St. Teresa of Kolkata’s global workforce began in a dilapidated dormitory for Hindu devotees of the adjacent Kali Temple. Named Nirmal Hriday, literally, “pure heart,” it was always her favorite place, and this is where I spent each of my days. We bathed patrons, laundered linens and bedclothes, and served lunch. Early in the afternoon, the sisters sent us away, to let serenity and slowness reclaim the home of the dying.

India gripped me. The emotional connection to Kolkata was swift, and the impact of Pure Heart long. Too, British Raj architecture, the colors and sounds of temples and mosques, sharp flavors and pungent smells, and an uncanny friendliness in a city storied by desperation and destitution, enchanted me. I stayed engaged, and it led me to the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Kolkata is more essentially a place of the arts and inquiry, and Bengali poets, philosophers, playwrights, and pundits have cultivated over the centuries a city notable for intellectual and artistic expression. Tagore personifies an elegant cultural reality.

I was honored to be able to visit Sari Bari recently. I also retraced routes I used two decades ago, and with the Sisters of Charity, I was grateful to concelebrate the morning Mass. But I sought out Tagore this time, visiting the 18th century family mansion as well as a countryside school he founded on distant family land — north about three hours by train. There, Tagore established an ashram and a corresponding pedagogy that reveled in rural ideals, the natural environment, and the organic instincts and interests of young students. He also fashioned a philosophy imbued with a spiritual humanism and cosmopolitan ideals. The ashram, Shantiniketan — the “abode of peace” — is now a university, and I strolled its gravel pathways.

Tagore’s greatest legacy is his Gitanjali, his love poems to God. They remain for me a source of inspiration, and they remind me that how we live and learn at a place like Creighton — that is, the transformative effect of Jesuit higher education — is likewise poetic.

When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful, come with thy light and thy thunder.