A Different Kind Of Courage.
I was jolted by an email I received a few days ago announcing the death of Fr.Pierre Ceyrac. I had never met anybody quite like him, with his boundless love for human beings. He was almost ninety-nine when he died, an age which many of us will never live to see.
Even in his younger days he had a wrinkled grin on a weather beaten and unattractive face. Everything about him was gauche. I am doubtful if a pretty woman ever fell for his looks. He had a goofy smile, disarming in its own way. If you did not know him you could take him to be a simpleton. In fact one foreigner referred to him as a 'ga-ga priest', meaning that he got excited about everything and everybody in a naive sort of way.
But all this is besides the point. Let me explain.
When I was sixteen, and a pre-university student in Chennai, I happened to walk down Chetpet bridge on a sweltering hot summer afternoon. In those days I was extremely self-conscious and did my best to walk elegantly, which often produced the opposite effect. People even embarrassed me by asking if I limped. In any case it was rather hot that day and there was nobody watching for me to affect any elegance. There was little traffic on the bridge and only a few ambassador and fiat cars were to be seen. I remember hurrying so that I could get out of the heat and find a tree lined road. When I was almost at the bottom of the bridge I found a foreigner on his bullet motorcycle stopping and parking on the side. From the tucked up cassock I knew he was a priest.
Why had he stopped, I wondered. There was nobody at the foot of the bridge. It was an unlikely spot for a pee-stop. He walked up the bridge, which seemed an odd thing to do, considering he had a motorcycle. And then, to my utter surprise he began helping an old man who was struggling to pull a hand cart up the bridge.
I had not noticed the old man. A man pulling a cart is such a common sight that nobody pays any attention. In fact I suspect that some people might even subconsciously put up their defenses, preferring to turn a blind eye to anything that reinforced the notion of India as a backward nation.
Fr.Ceyrac was now pulling the cart alongside the old man, who was still getting over the initial surprise and discomfiture of a foreigner coming to his assistance. White men ruled over us for a couple of centuries, and we considered them superior to us. How could a white man become the equal of a sweating, dark-skinned old man, a no-body in his own society? I don't think that any of these thoughts crossed the old man's mind; he was too embarrassed by what was happening. The old man would not have expected a local to have come to his aid, let alone a foreign apparition.
It took several minutes to get the cart up the bridge and then down the other side. It was probably as unusual an event for me as it was for the old man, for I watched with utter curiosity. Even today, forty-five years later, the images of that afternoon are still etched in my mind.
Over the years I got to know Fr.Ceyrac fairly well. I remember accompanying him to several colleges where he addressed students. He would stand before a hundred students, sometimes five hundred, and say, " This is an extraordinary country. Extraordinary people!". And then with a choked voice and watery eyes he would remind us that we had five hundred and fifty million brothers and sisters in the country, and we had to think of them. To all those who listened it was an unforgettable experience. No one else had stood before them and cried for the millions of people who had difficulty feeding themselves. Hardly any Indian would cry for the poor, unless it was in a movie theatre; poverty is taken for granted.
I was myself a student then, and Fr.Ceyrac's words made me take notice of two middle aged women who came and picked cooked-rice grains from a drain next to our hostel dining hall. These were grains that clung to our fingers after lunch, which we washed away at the row of taps, which in turn flowed down the drain to the two squatting women. They would carry these drain-soaked rice grains back to feed their families.
Many years later I heard an economist saying that India had moved from mass starvation to mass hunger.
Inspired by Fr.Ceyrac a few dozen young people took to working with the poor. Some worked sincerely, others cut corners to eventually secure a middle class life-style. But even the most compromised among them didn't lack compassion. After having encountered such a man there was no way they could be indifferent and uncaring.
Even today, so many years later, I still wonder if this man's compassion had to do with his Christian commitment or whether he was innately endowed. There are so many others I know who see themselves as believing Christians, but not a single one would measure up to him. Compassion was a gift he was born with. Perhaps Christianity deepened his compassion somewhat, but even this I am not sure.
In the mid-seventies I had moved to Paris, where I met Fr.Ceyrac's niece, Veronique, from time to time. I was also aware of Fr.Ceyrac's brother Francois, a leading corporate personality in France, who was then the president of the French business association. His photograph appeared in the newspapers fairly frequently. In May 1981 the socialist candidate Francois Mitterand got elected the president of France, the first ever socialist to be elected president in the Fifth Republic. It was a time of hope for the French left. Shortly after the elections I spoke to Veronique and asked her how her uncle Francois had taken the results. "Oh, he was badly shaken," was her reply. " As soon as he knew the results he went to his terrace and chopped off all his rose bushes".
The symbol of the socialist party was a red rose and Francois Ceyrac had vented his anger on his poor rose bushes.
I laughed at the moment, but couldn't help comparing the two brothers. Fr.Ceyrac often worked on a piece of land in one of the driest parts of Tamilnadu, a semi-desert region called Manamadurai. He tilled with the workers, who he hoped would inherit the land one day, as a cooperative. Francois Ceyrac, on the other hand, had known only luxury. Socialism, which promised a degree of equality, was anathema to him. I am sure he admired his brother toiling beside poor, lower caste, agricultural workers. But Francois wouldn't have survived an hour with a spade in his hand, in that terrible heat
I repeated the story of the rose cutting spree to Fr.Ceyrac on one of my visits to India. He was deeply embarrassed. But I knew that he loved his brother dearly and he was not going to let the incident get in the way of the deep bond that existed between them. In any case Fr.Ceyrac did not understand ideology too well. He was not the kind who would let the ideological override the human. At the time many of us saw this as a major weakness in him. Today, in hindsight, that was perhaps a significant strength.
Fr.Ceyrac was a simple bhakta. Greatness and simplicity often go together. Christ himself was no complex philosopher. I do not remember Fr.Ceyrac articulating any sophisticated theology, although he did admire a few Liberation theologians like Kappen and Rayan, who combined Marxist analysis with Christian compassion. At the time Liberation Theology was the spirit of the age within radical social action circles, and Fr.Ceyrac, I suspect, just went with the tide. Ideologies would come and go but what was non-negotiable for him was a total commitment to the poor.
Over the years I have wondered why India is such an uncaring society. I must confess that I don't have a clear answer. Perhaps caste was such an ingrained value in our consciousness that we could only think of being of some assistance to members of our own community, but even this concern was never pressing. The decades ahead will be even bleaker for the poor, as climate change kicks in.
Those of us who were smitten by Fr.Ceyrac's spirit know that we are condemned to act, come hell or high water. We are called to act, not await the fruits of our action, as the Bhagvad Gita reminds us.