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Father Ellwood Kieser's Passage to India

Father Ellwood Kieser
Father Ellwood Kieser

Excerpts taken from his autobiography:
Hollywood Priest: A Spiritual Struggle, New York: Doubleday Press, 1991, pp. 229-32

The trip had been rigorous and demanding. I returned 20 pounds lighter, with a head full of impressions and a heart full of feelings. There was much to think about, reflect upon, assimilate. I did not as yet realize that I had gotten in India what I went for. More than that, I had gotten what I needed.

What was that? If I had been asked that question in 1979, I do not think I could have given an accurate answer. As I write this a decade later, I am still not sure I can give the whole answer. But I am willing to hazard an attempt.

Part has to do with those two great religious geniuses of India - Buddha and Mother Teresa. The Buddha's assertion that the pathway to spiritual fulfillment involves the renunciation not only of possessions, pleasure, and the ego itself but also the very desire for these things; and Mother Teresa's assertion that God lives in a special way in the poorest of the poor - these spiritual teachings strike American ears as strange, radical, revolutionary. Our whole way of life is predicated on the expansion and deepening of desire - whence our prosperity and inner emptiness - and we lionize the rich and the powerful and ignore the hungry and homeless on our own doorsteps.

But when viewed from an Indian perspective, through the eyes of 650 million impoverished people, these teachings do not seem strange at all. In fact, given the size of their population and the paucity of their resources, these insights seem more like an extension of common sense than anything revolutionary. This is not to minimize the genius of their articulators. These insights spring from profound spiritual intuitions. But they are completely of a piece with the fabric of Indian life and are the authentic response of these two sensitive and enlightened souls to it. Yet, if they arose quite naturally from Indian life, they remain universally true and relevant to American life.

Which is to say they had much to say to me.

From Buddha I learned to limit my desires. I did not cut back on my desire for God. (Although I had to be careful not to desire something I had created and labeled “God.”) He is absolute, so I tried to desire Him absolutely. But I did cut back on my desire for everything but God. All else is relative and can be authentically desired only in a relative fashion. I began to see that not to desire something can be better than to have it. I also began to understand St. John of the Cross's cryptic statement, “If you would have everything, desire to have nothing.”

… This cutting back on what I desired extended to my own fulfillment. Fulfillment is not a bad thing to desire, especially since God desires it, too. But the fact of the matter is you don't achieve it by desiring it. You don't find yourself by seeking yourself. You find yourself - and joy - by forgetting all about yourself in seeking the welfare of other people.

This limiting of desire also extended to what I expected from other people. I tried to be more realistic, to assume responsibility for my own needs, to treat as a gift whatever other people decided to give me. I had no right to make any demands.

So I became very discerning about what I desired. I had to be careful not to expect a created thing to fill the emptiness within me, for that is idolatry. Succumbing to it, I enter a world of illusion and become alienated. But once the idol shows me its clay feet, I am forced to let go of these desires. Once I do the illusions evaporate, and I am able to return to the real world. I find this process of disillusionment to be chastening, freeing, and integrating. It enables me to go deep into the center of myself and enter into a more vital relationship with the God who lives there.

This cutting back on desire - focusing on what is essential for a human being, pulling back from that which is not essential - was facilitated by what I learned from Mother Teresa. She helped me understand the tremendous reality I experienced in these impoverished yet beautiful people on that first walk through the streets of Bombay, an experience that was to be repeated with only slightly diminished intensity in every city we visited. God was there, the Realest of the Real, in them. There was no escaping that mysterious, transcendent presence.

In fact the compressed humanity of these lovely people, the density of God's presence in them, the God they caused to surface in me when I reached out in love to them - these were so real that everything else seemed unreal. So many of the concerns I invested such energy in seemed so insignificant by comparison. When a child is hungry or sick, nothing else is important but to get that child what it needs. Nothing. Not network time slots or laudatory reviews or the affirmation of my peers. Not my personal fulfillment or professional success or clerical celibacy or the ordination of women or the language of the liturgy. Nothing.

In the light of that experience, some of the dogmas of American life - that producing and consuming is what human life is all about, that happiness comes from things, that the good life means taking care of No. 1 - were exposed as the lies they are. The poor shatter our illusions and help us see the truth - the truth that people are what's important, God in people, nothing else. Nothing. And this truth makes us free - free to give ourselves to the poor, free to dedicate our energies to their service, free to join them in their struggle for justice and dignity. And the fruits of that freedom - the unselfish gift, the wholehearted dedication, the self-sacrificing enlistment in the common struggle - break the stultifying grip of narcissism, propel us beyond our egos, and enable us to transcend ourselves.

The joy I so often found on the faces of Mother Teresa's nuns had such ego transcendence at its base.

All of this brought me back to the fact of tragedy. Pain, frustration, and defeat are part of human life; they cannot be escaped, yet authentically responded to, they can enrich it. It also brought me back to where I started: to the call of heroism, to the challenge of self-forgetfulness, to the realization that to live fully, I must be ready to die; to find myself, I have to be willing to give myself without counting the cost.

… Somewhere Gandhi said, “When facing a decision, ask yourself, ‘What will be best for the poor?'”

The more I thought and prayed about it, the more I realized the best thing I could do for the world's poor was to return to Hollywood and be a voice for the voiceless Third World in the entertainment community. “Reverse mission,” Maryknoll calls it.

Upon returning I decided to spend at least one month each year working in or for the Third World. This was for their sake. But it was also for my own. “The rich need the poor so badly,” Mother Teresa says. “Where else can they find God?”

When my mother died, I inherited some money. When my father died, I inherited some more. Now I felt burdened by this money, as if it were weighing me down, complicating my life, distracting me from what is truly important. So I gave it away - to Mother Teresa, to the Hindu doctor with the clinic for destitute mothers outside of Calcutta, to Jack Finucane's Concern operation, and to a nun I had met trying to build a school in a Bogota slum. Given the security a religious community affords its members, this involved no great sacrifice on my part. But it did give me a great sense of freedom and a measure of joy. And it did keep me in touch with that poor and hungry, insecure and needy man inside myself.

These six weeks in India involved a conversion experience for me; a radical change in my way of thinking and feeling.

I went to India an alienated and burned-out human being. I came back healed and energized, in love with those impoverished people and in love with the God to whom they were transparent. Those beautiful people gave me so much more than I could possibly give them.