The summer before my final year of philosophy studies in Chicago I was sent to the far northeastern region of India, to a state called Nagaland. I was to live at Eden Gardens, a Jesuit run boarding home with about 215 children in a village named Khuzama.
I boarded the plane for India haunted by the words of a homily given by a former spiritual director of mine. “Two of St. Ignatius’ favorite questions,” he said, “the two questions at the heart of our Jesuit spirituality, are simply ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘why?’ ”
As I look back on my time in Nagaland, it is clear that I had little idea about where I was going and even less of an idea about why.
At the end of the summer when I left India, my plane lifted off from the Guwahati International Airport and followed the Brahmaputra River across the state of Assam toward the Himalayas on the way to my layover in Delhi. As I looked out of the window and down to the land below my heart ached in wonderment. The sun, high in the afternoon sky, reflected up underneath the airplane off of the flooded fields and rice paddies far below; the wide valley sparkled in flood like a vast and broken mirror.
At times our memories are not unlike a broken mirror, our experiences refracted through shards of memory, and the very brokenness of the glass becomes a mysterious player in the marvel of our contemplation. As I think back on my time in India it seems I’m still on that plane, still gazing at the shards of memory, at the reflected faces of the many people I came to love and the many places I was able to see.
There certainly is a broken beauty about India. It is a land of incredible promise and of poverty, a place and a people of seeming endless diversity, and a befuddling collection of human realities frailly held together by an unlikely conception of national unity, moved along by a young and active democracy.
It seemed to me that there was an almost intrinsic spirituality in the land. It is a spirituality evoked everywhere you turn, in the presence of life and death, birth and decay, creativity and corruption, newness and antiquity. In India even the gods seem disposable, with statues and temples lying everywhere in various states of ruin and neglect, devotion and celebration. It is this broken beauty, I think, that enamors so many of India, a place remembered most frequently for its deep poverty, its many people, and its plurality of prayer.
There is a style of embroidery in India called shisha; this technique, originally Persian, is practiced in the northwestern states, and involves stitching small pieces of glass and mirrors onto the surface of fabric in elaborate patterns of color and light. Traditionally, glass would be blown into bubbles only to be smashed, intentionally broken into small pieces, and subsequently used to adorn clothing, wall hangings, and other domestic textiles. I only traveled in the far northeast of India, a land of other crafts and other patterns of color and light, but in my prayerful reflections, something meaningful is woven out of the broken pieces of my own recollections, my own shards of memory.
Nagaland is just about exactly on the opposite side of the globe from my home in Chicago, quite literally the other side of the world. And I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t feel like that from time to time, but I’d also be lying if I said that I didn’t feel very much at home there, that I didn’t find myself in love there.
When the sun sets in Chicago it is just rising in Nagaland and it seems, even now, that my time at Eden Gardens illuminated corners in me that had been dark for far too long; it seems now, as I gaze into the broken mirror of my memory, that I went to the other side of the world to see how light can shine in the darkness.