The Spirit, friends, not the letter
The capacity to penetrate to the spirit of the matter instead of staying with the letter of it, is what distinguishes evolution, says Suma Varughese
I have been reading Lust for Life, the beautiful book based on the life of legendary painter Vincent Van Gogh. It is the lot of most artists and visionaries to be misunderstood and even reviled by their fellow human beings, but even so, the opposition, hostility, and subsequent misery and poverty that Van Gogh was subject to is exceptional.
Particularly dark is the phase that he went through when he decided to sign up as an evangelist (before he discovered his true métier as an artist). He even did a course on the subject with his characteristic passion and sincerity, but ignoring his deep and powerful sermons, two of his examiners rejected him because they felt he was not facile with his speech. It was left to the third to insist on giving him a berth as an evangelist to Borinage, a coal mining region, whose residents worked in inhuman conditions for negligible wages.
Van Gogh boarded with a baker called Denis initially. One day, he was invited to go down with the miners to see the condition they worked in. Witnessing their hardships—which included crawling on their legs to dig coal (so narrow and low were the passages), enduring unbearable heat while breathing in coal dust,
and working for 13 hours with one meal break—affected him so much that he felt that unless he shared their lives and their poverty, he would be a humbug who had no business preaching to them.
Forthwith, he left his comfortable room and bed at the baker’s house and went to stay in an abandoned hut with no window but enough cracks in the wooden wall to let the wind in. He no longer washed off his coal-grimed face because it made him one of them. Retaining the bare minimum, he gave away most of his warm clothes to those who had less. When calamity struck the mine and one of the passages collapsed, trapping and killing 57 coal miners, Van Gogh worked like a maniac looking after the injured, tearing up his own clothes, even his underwear, to form bandages.
He was holding a funeral service in honour of the dead miners when in walked his two examiners to see how he was doing. Horrified at what they felt was his utter degradation, they denounced him and dismissed his services, declaring that they had never been so humiliated by anyone’s conduct as they were by his.
Thus is Christ crucified again and again and again!
Sadly, all they could see was the dilapidated stable in which he held his services, and Van Gogh’s gaunt, coal-grimed appearance. They were unable to perceive the love he bore the miners nor his supreme selflessness and compassion.
Too many of us are unable to penetrate to the spirit of the thing and get trapped in the letter of it instead, slaves to the external, the superficial, the form.
I remember a beautiful story about a labourer who would do his utmost to attend the evening aarti (devotional ceremony) at a temple. One day, he hastened as usual, but alas, the priest told him he was too late. He let out a heartbroken sigh. The canny priest told him that he would give him the merit of all the aartis he had done for God in exchange for the merit of his sigh. The man joyously agreed. That night, Lord Krishna visited him in his dream. “You made a bad bargain,” he told him. “Your grief-stricken heartfelt sigh was much more valuable than a lifetime of doing aartis for me. Sincere devotion from a pure heart is precious. Outward practices cannot be compared with it.”
Suma Varughese is a thinker, writer, and former Editor-in-Chief of Life Positive. She also holds writer’s workshops. Write to her at email@example.com.
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