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Jerry Katz
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seemingly insignificant acts may ultimately make a great difference in the world

Silk Activism


Meher Baba, the great Indian saint of the mid-twentieth century, made working with the "poor," marginalized and mentally ill one of the central points of his spiritual endeavors. A book published a number of years ago called _The Wayfarers_ explores in painstaking detail this great enlightened being's travels all over the Indian subcontinent, counselling and spiritually assisting other wandering men and women known as "masts" -- the "god-intoxicated," or individuals so wrapped up in inward ecstasies that they are unable to function in ordinary society and maintain their accepted (sanctioned) social roles. Meher Baba saw that these individuals were not merely mentally ill, though some fell into that category, but were so overwhelmed by their inner experiences that they tended to break off contact with the outside world. He made it one of his duties to help bring these people out of their cocoons and teach them (through subtle, intuitive, and often silent means) how to give back something to society as a way of paying back the Absolute for the great blisses they had experienced.

Of course not every person encountered by Meher Baba was a "mast," and perhaps the majority were simply marginalized for one social reason or another, or perhaps suffered from mental illnesses that in that time (the 1940s) were barely treatable, especially in an economically deprived area such as India, with its masses of people and limited resources to help even a fraction of them.

The devotion of great Saints throughout history is not anything new, either; the story of the life of Jesus is certainly the archetypal story of an enlightened sage devoting his life to working with society's outcasts. Whether one wants to give credence to the orthodox Gospel accounts as written, or simply accept them with a grain of salt as highly embellished stories that possess some kernel of truth, they provide superb material for inspiration and imitation. Modern scholars, who tend to dismiss most of the miracle stories and supernaturalism of the life of Jesus as related in the New Testament, see his working with and living with society's outcasts and marginalized people as the central focus of his mission. For Jesus, according to today's scholars, the act of "healing" someone of leprosy (symbolic of a whole range of socially marginalizing diseases) was less a supernatural cure than the simple act of befriending such people, associating with them even to the point of sharing meals and living space with them. This was a social and psychological healing, and most importantly, a spiritual healing. That such association was very controversial both in Jesus' day and in our own is attested to by the persecution and misunderstanding that seems to accompany prophets such as he. To the power elite (both ecclesiastical and secular), any act of welcoming the marginalized into society is inherently challenging to the status quo.

All the saints understood this. In 13th-century Europe, a wealthy Italian cloth-merchant known to us as Francis of Assisi had a powerful awakening to the reality of suffering in his own society which compelled him to literally discard everything he had -- his money, his inherited business and lands, and ultimately even his clothing -- and turn his back on comfortable society to go out into the rural and waste lands to live among society's outcasts, lepers and the destitute. For his pains, Francis was persecuted, disinherited by his father, and came close to excommunication from the church and perhaps even (as with Jesus) martyrdom. As it happened, some grace was with him; he was permitted to found an Order of monks which continues to this day, and he is revered as one of Christianity's greatest saints. In my own time of trials and suffering, not so long ago, I found reading about the life of St. Francis, and watching modern depictions of his life in such movies as the 1970s "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" to be a source of great strength and inspiration, and many others have benefited likewise.

The longer I live in the "big city" the more I find myself fascinated by those whom the larger society has cast off, or who have cast themselves off. This fascination does not derive from some sentimental attachment or pity. Rather, it is the recognition that these individuals on the margins of society share a universality, a timelessness that comes to those who for some reason find themselves "de-conditioned" from social and cultural norms, reduced to the bare facts of existence. In this they share their essence with realizers or "enlightened" types the world over, and in traditional societies (such as India) realizers and the homeless are still accorded a level of respect that neither are given in the West. If one has the misfortune of living where there are no realizers to be found, one would do well to spend time associating with local street people to gain a feel for the rawness of a life lived with minimal cultural "insulation." Unlike the case of enlightened beings, one will still witness ego at work among such people; but it is usually an ego stretched very thin, almost to the breaking point; and one can see its clinging desperation, and (hopefully) see a reflection of our own patterns too.

One of the acts that Meher Baba performed, ritualistically, for the street people that he worked with was distributing small coins to them that he had specially "empowered" with his blessing energy. Whether one believes in this ability or not, such an act of kindness cannot help but have a vivifying effect on the recipients. This was not mere monetary charity, but rather an act that formed a subtle bond between Baba and the recipient of the coin. I found this simple act so inspiring that I have tried to duplicate it my own daily encounters with street people. I keep a small silk bag filled with dollar coins especially for this purpose, and during my wanderings will give one to a person that I encounter, more or less at random. The important part of the giving in these encounters is always the connection that is formed by it, and the subtle interplay of energy in relationship that is created at the time. The value of the money itself is overshadowed in these cases, and (if you try this yourselves) you may find that the recipient is, to some small extent, "healed" of a certain degree of his or her marginalization. Such seemingly insignificant acts may ultimately make a great difference in the world. It's a good idea not to get too sentimental about this work, however. Notice how I have tried to avoid using the word "charity," for instance. One thing that has kept me in a right frame of mind is the recognition that the giver gains as much from the transaction as the receiver.