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The Perfect Master
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C. B. Purdom's 1937 book
The Perfect Master - Shri Meher Baba
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Account of holiday in Italy, July/August, 1932
[The notes are from the diary of two unnamed members of the party]
Baba's room led out on to a private balcony. When we swam before breakfast we would see his white-clad figure watching us from the balcony. Often at night we would sit there listening to music on the gramophone; Baba's favourites were Indian and Persian spiritual songs which he would explain to us, Spanish dances and Paul Robeson's negro spirituals. On the terrace we would act charades, or get up entertainments. Under the name of Thomas, Baba would also take dancing lessons with one of us who was a skilled dancing instructor. Thus, and in innumerable ways, Baba entered into our lives as playmate, friend, child, and father. Actually he worked hard while outwardly playing.
Some nights we would watch his working; he would ask to play Loris, a card game, while or before he worked. The apparent holiday was interspersed with sudden conflicts of temperament, of jealousies, of difficult moods that temporarily obscured the sun. Many lessons were quietly and unobtrusively taught.
There were from eleven to thirteen of us in the party; we looked forward to days of rest and pleasure.
The second day Baba said that he had a great spiritual work to perform. A special cave, connected if possible with Saint Francis, was to be found at Assisi. There he would fast undisturbed for twenty-four hours. I was told to leave on the first of August to make arrangements.
It was my first stay in Italy and I was ignorant of the Italian language. I took a heavy rucksack because a mountain cave would be cold, and after a tiresome journey via Florence and Perugia, I arrived at 3.30 p.m. on August the second, at Assisi.
I felt like some travel-strained pilgrim; for many years I had studied and meditated on the life of Saint Francis. The rucksack like a heavy burden weighed on my back, but my heart was lightened by the object of my journey.
The station is in the valley and one and a half miles from the walled city. On the left flank is a massive stone fortress rising steeply from the plain supported on rows of tall stone arches. To the right rose the gaunt curve of Mount Subasio, meeting on the lower slopes the terraced houses, the many churches and towers built of a creamy or golden-coloured stone. Behind the long triangular-shaped town rises the castle-crowned spur (Rocca Maggiore). The fortress (I found later to be the basilica built by Fra Elias over the body of St. Francis) constitutes the westernmost point of the triangle. The city walls run eastwards and upwards, and widen to enclose at the eastern flank below the church of St. Clare, then the cathedral of St. Rufino, a college, and above in the angle of the city wall the smaller castle of Rocca Minore. The eastern end of the city (the broad base of the triangle) has two gates pierced through the wall; one at the lower corner (Porta Nuova) leads to Sano Damiano and to Foligno, from the other (Porta Cappuccini) a road, bordered by terrace olive trees, climbs up Mount Subasio to the Carceri monastery, about four miles distant.
On my arrival I knew nothing about Assisi or the district. I discovered the names of buildings and places later.
I took a room. I visited the great church, found a Roman Catholic priest who could speak English, and explained that I wished to meditate in a cave associated with St. Francis. He seemed surprised and when he found that I was a Protestant could not see his way to help me.
Practically all the places known to be associated with St. Francis, and many apocryphal places, have been covered by churches, monasteries, and monuments. Like other places of pilgrimage, Assisi has been commercialized.
I had not foreseen this difficulty and was rather depressed.
Bearing in mind the plan of the city, I walked through its entire length until I came out of the Porta Nuova. I decided to cut across country and up the steep mountain slopes. It was already 5 p.m. I struck the Carceri road, it was steep and dusty and I was tired. I did not know of the monastery's existence.
The beautiful Umbrian landscape unfolded. To the right lay the valley of Spoleto. Cornfields, and the rows of gnarled olive trees were left behind, the mountain slopes became steeper and wilder. I looked for caves along the route and could see none. I turned into a narrow, thickly-wooded gorge, passed beneath an arch decorated with religious paintings, and, deciding to trespass further, came to a group of small stone buildings and rang a bell. A monk in a brown habit let me in. A minute monastery in a grove of ilex trees clung like a swallow's nest to the side of a narrow ravine. In the small courtyard stood a well; on two sides were buildings - a refectory, and a chapel built over the cave of St. Francis. On the other side ran a low stone parapet still warm from the setting sun. It commanded a beautiful view of the distant valley framed by the dark sides of the ravine. I talked in French to the guide-monk - it was no longer a monastery but a show place for tourists and pilgrims too.
Deep in the rock was a little cave (small because St. Francis was very small in stature) where he used to meditate, with a coffin-shaped hollow in which he slept.
It could be of no use to Baba because tourists might come to look round at any moment; another cave nearby was worse, it was by the road and even more exposed.
I felt disappointed and tired. It seemed as if I should fail Baba. I walked back as it was now getting dark.
Talking to a lady in the hotel in English, and to the Carceri guide-monk in French, I familiarized them with my interest in St. Francis and gleaned information. There was a police regulation about strangers having to sleep in a recognized hotel to be considered; the monk expostulated with me when I said I wanted to meditate for four hours. "It was dangerous even for monks to meditate so long, and you might become insane." I was able to convince him of my sincere interest. Then I learnt that when St. Francis longed to draw apart from the multitude, he and four companions would meditate separately on the slopes of Mount Subasio. He loved trees, birds, and flowers, and the Carceri cave was his favourite place for meditation. And although this was now enclosed and built over, there were other caves, perhaps even those same caves in which his companions meditated seven hundred years ago.
I explored the neighbourhood and found a ruined shelter - an overhanging eave of rock on the side of a hill. In front of this indented rock was a rough stone wall, but the roof timbers and tiles had fallen down long ago; above, the gnarled roots of a tree clung to the rock, but there was no protection from the rain.
Tall trees growing at a lower level also hid it from passers-by in the opposite side of the gorge. It was dirty, full of broken tiles, damp rubbish, and leaves. I had to excavate it, tear down bushes to hide its entrance, and finally find a new path down the hillside so that none could see us enter it.
My instructions were to meditate in the selected place for four hours each day, to fast partially, and on the day preceding Baba's arrival to meditate for eight hours. I was thus able to test whether it was so far off the beaten track as to be secure from interruption for the twenty-four hours required for Baba, and also by my daily visits to the Monastery to prepare the way. It was not ideal, but I could find no other.
The hotel became accustomed to my long absences. I lit a small fire to drive away insects and to make it drier, but had to be careful.
Never have I found it quite so difficult to meditate as during these daily periods - contrary thoughts, the darkening hours, the encircling trees, dampness, cold, and depression. What should I do if the police or some stranger found me seated like an Indian yogi on an Italian hillside ?
All Franciscan caves were incorporated in churches. Should I look for a more comfortable cave ? Would Baba disapprove and blame me for not having found a better cave ? And then despite all the associations of St. Francis to be unable to meditate ?
I always find it hard to remember very clearly Baba's instructions, my eye and my mind are so busy following his fingers on the board. At the time they may seem clear, but they usually lack detail or provision for the miscarriage of plans. The picture is outlined in a few swift strokes, and it is taken for granted that there will be no obstacles.
I felt quite ill and very depressed as the time drew near on Friday, when I had to meditate in the cave for eight hours. I trudged up the dirty road in the heat of the sun, carrying in my rucksack the various articles required, water-bottles, a raincoat, blankets, matches, paper candles, flashlight, sticks of incense to drive away insects, a meta stove to make tea for Baba during his fast, an umbrella in case of rain. I borrowed a thick rug from the monk. I pulled down some green saplings to block the path, to close the entrance, and to put in place of the roof.
On Saturday, the fifth day of my stay in Assisi, Baba was due to arrive by car at 2 p.m. This would enable him to finish his fast by 4 p.m. on Sunday.
I felt ill and depressed. I stood at my window to watch the car come up the road from the station. Every sound seemed to herald his arrival in the hot sleepy afternoon. Three p.m. and no car came. I felt disheartened, because he is nearly always punctual, and I had received none of the customary wires.
On August 5th, before his departure by car for Assisi, Baba told his disciples to sit in the room with him. He was not due to leave until about midnight. Baba lay down for an hour, not asleep because his hands continually made signs and motions in the air; there was a stillness in the room. Baba had said previously that before he could do his work in Assisi one of two things would happen, either there would be a storm or he would be ill. He asked one of them to come nearer to him, gradually his pains increased. His illness was so severe that he was unable to start at the time arranged. Two hours later, at 2.30 a.m. they started. During the long drive Baba's pains decreased, but at La Spezia Quentin became ill, and Kaka at Pisa. It would almost seem as if the illness has been transferred to another.
The driver of the car was unsteady and at times careless. Once they were nearly run into by another car from behind, and an accident was narrowly averted.
They arrived in Assisi three hours late, at 5 p.m.
I had explained both at the hotel and to the monk that on my last day I would like to meditate for a longer period. After a wash and a meal at 6.30 p.m. our programme was arranged.
We motored part of the way up the hill to save time. I then led the party down a hidden path to the cave, which we reached at 7.30 p.m. Baba would rest in the cave during the entire fast, and none was to go near him or to look. At all costs we were to keep intruders away. If he required anything to drink it was to be put just outside the entrance. Chanji and I were to sit outside and guard the cave all night till 10 a.m., and then Kaka and Quentin would relieve them. But at 4.30 we were to return and at 5.30 p.m. eat together, when Baba's fast was concluded. The leafy saplings hid the entrance to the cave, and blocked the path leading to it.
At 8.40 p.m. Kaka and Quentin left us to walk back to the hotel. Chanji and I shivered and sat at a little distance from the cave. He told me of the watching at a cave at Panchgani in India. Strange thoughts and questions - how little we really understood the nature of Baba's work. His body was there in the cave, but where was he ? Sleep weighed so heavy on our eyelids. Could we not keep watch for a little time ? Surely Saint Francis must be present too. Might not his meditations seven hundred years ago have prepared this holy place ?
Cold, so sleepy, tired. About midnight we made a cup of tea on the meta stove and put it beside the entrance. Colder, and then light filtered gradually through the trees. At 9 a.m. we were relieved by the others, and walked home to sleep.
At 4.30 p.m. we returned carrying food with us. Baba came out, as his work was accomplished sooner than he expected. At 6.30 p.m. we had a very happy meal, seated round a wooden plank on the ground like children at a picnic. At 5.30 p.m. Baba had called us into the cave and explained some further plans to us; we still felt rather awed. We carefully collected some mementoes, cleared up all traces of our occupation, burned paper and rubbish, returned the blanket and some bottles for water to the monk who had been so kind.
Baba, though content with his work accomplished, was in great pain; we had to support him during our descent from the mountain, one on either side of Baba we would run together down the steep path. It seemed as if the jolting and physical exercise helped to bring him down to earth. He looked like someone dazed, suffering from a severe headache.
Climbing up through the dark ilex trees, we came on to the road. We stood on a quarry mound and looked across the valley, purple shadows and distant lights twinkling, and above the line of hills the afterglow of a golden sunset. Baba, despite his pain (once we had to lay him down by the roadside), was entranced by the beauty of the Umbrian landscape. St. Francis must have often walked this road and enjoyed this scene. The feeling that we had assisted at a great spiritual work (though we did not understand it), Baba's presence and suffering, and the setting made our descent from the mountain memorable.
Leaving the bare hillside, we walked down. The stars came out. Baba had often to stop and rest. Passing through olive groves and cornfields, a sudden turn in the road brought a view of the city which cannot have changed much. Fireflies hovered among the trees. The battlemented walls, the ruined castle, the dusty road and the city gate with its high archway lit by an oil lamp seemed legendary.
Sunday night about 8.30 p.m. the narrow streets and the old Stone buildings were dimly lit. We passed the main places associated with St. Francis. Through the market-place, and past the former home of Bernard of Quintavalle; Baba pointed to a stone where, he said, St. Francis had sat and wept the whole night through for love of Christ.
[The next part of the account is from the notes of one of the watchers who relieved the first at 9 a.m.]
We went to hear Mass in the crypt of the San Francisco which was a wonderful and impressive beginning to a memorable day.
Afterwards we shouldered our rucksacks and toiled up the hill toward Carceri. As the sun rose it grew hotter and hotter and we were glad to reach the shade of the woods where we found the other two. They returned to Assisi and we settled down to our vigil. The woods were now alive with birds whose song was deafening - as if in memory of St. Francis they seemed to throng around us - butterflies and moths lit on our hands. The sun rose higher and even in the deep shade the heat was great.
At midday I heard sounds from inside the cave, and forgetting not to look I saw through the leaves of the saplings Baba standing with his eyes shut and facing the sun - he made strange humming sounds; not daring to look again I lay quiet. At one o'clock he clapped his hands, we lifted the branches from the entrance - taking the board he spelt out directions, telling Kaka to go to Assisi and telling the other two to be with him at 5.30 p.m.; I was to call him at 5.30 p.m.: Baba had a dazed look in his eyes and there was no sign of recognition. No one disturbed the peace of the woods, but from time to time peasants called to each other or sang snatches of song.
The others arrived, and at 5.30 I called Baba without touching him. He spelt out on the board, "How fortunate you are to be the first to speak to me after all this." He seemed to have great difficulty in coming down from his recent state of consciousness, and it was a great struggle for him to return to the normal. He called us all into the cave and we sat around him. (He would pause from time to time to pass his hand over his forehead as if he suffered from a severe headache, and then continue.) He began to give us certain instructions and tell us what plans had been decided on for future work. After nearly an hour's talk, we broke our fast at 6.30 p.m.
[The remainder of the account comes from the first teller.]
At 10.30 p.m. we all squeezed into a small car and started for Florence. Tired yet happy, we travelled through the Italian night with Baba - not in the world, but sailing through the stars - and passers-by knew not. The driver was rash, and we nearly collided with a fast touring car on the top of a steep rise. Reaching Florence we went to a hotel to wash and eat and stretch our cramped limbs. We saw the Duomo and had coffee in the Square.
Baba became suddenly impatient.
He said that we must find a hill outside Florence where St. Francis had, unknown to legend and history, a vision of Jesus beside a spring. We had two hours in which to find it. Florence has changed much, and we could not locate the hill. Q., who knew Florence well, showed a photograph to Baba, who pointed to a hill near Fiesole. The car could not go all the way. We got down and walked to a bare slope where Baba began to run like a nimble goat up the rocky hill. At the top we halted, but could not see the spring, yet Baba was positive that this was the spot. We had to return quickly to Florence, so he told Z. to find rooms and to arrange to return there in two weeks' time, and explore until he found the spring. (The top of the hill had been quarried away and no spring could be found - after a long search and much trespassing, Z. found in a private estate, and behind a high wall, a spring.)
We motored back to Florence.
In the cave Baba had explained that two of his followers were curiously linked, for a time they would be spiritually, to put it shortly, like Siamese twins. While we were in Florence the one felt as if a ring was encircling his hair, and continually tried to brush it away or to take off his cap, though he was bareheaded. But he felt extraordinarily happy and uplifted. The other felt tired, depressed, and ill. This seesaw between the two followers still persists, one is up and the other is down alternately.
At 10.30 a.m. we squeezed ourselves into the car
- we stopped and had lunch in a "pineta," a forest by the roadside
near Viareggio. We passed through Pisa, Spezia, Rapallo, through magnificent
scenery to Santa Margherita; but we were so cramped and so tired and in
such a hurry to rejoin the others that we hardly appreciated the drive.