The Village Maestro

A handful of my heroes have no idea how much I adore them. I doubt that any of them would even recognise me. Some I may have met casually, just once or so; others have lived and passed on well before my time, even centuries ago.

The remarkable man I recall for this moment was a retired music teacher, four foot five or so, of an Indian village. Dark skinned and toothless, he went about with a harmonium, singing old hymns wherever the opportunity occurred. He neither sought nor received an invitation to perform; after all, how many bookings could you expect for a 65-year-old, sans teeth?

I saw him at a small cottage gathering where he showed up unexpectedly. People were respectful of him, calling him “Aasaan,” meaning “Maestro.” He spoke with no persuasive charm, nor made any effort to create new friendships. He sang a little hymn and played his instrument. He never expected, nor took, a gift from anyone.

The Maestro owned a small house on a half-acre rural lot. Land was pricy where he lived. People made sure that their property boundaries were inviolable, but not this man. One of his neighbors was in the habit of readjusting the fence for slight outward expansion every spring. The old man knew it, but never bothered. One particular year, this neighbor moved the fence a good three feet into the Maestro’s property. It was a move outrageous enough for all of the neighbors to notice. They waited for the man’s return from his regular itinerant trip.

Back home within a week, the man set down his instrument on the porch wall and gave himself a little stretch in his canvas recliner. The neighbors seemed far too eager to deliver the news to him. “Maestro,” said one, “The man next door has moved the fence three feet into your property, the whole stretch.” The old man said nothing. They were expecting a showdown between him and the encroacher. They tried the juicy line again. “Aasaan, didn’t you hear what we said? The guy next door has seized more of your land, sir.”

Ever so calmly, the Maestro answered. “My friends, you have been so kind as to bring me this news. Do me yet another favor, if you will. Tell him to help himself to the rest of what I have, too. If you think I would fight over this clod, you must be all wet.”

Here, I thought, was a prince of heaven, one whom even an outright land grab could not provoke. An emperor could not despoil him, for his wealth was indexed far too high.

The Slow-Witted Saint

At the age of 20, the peasant youth Jean-Marie Vianney enrolled for clerical training in a French seminary. Barely average at best, his study skills impressed none. He had the unflattering privilege of sitting with the little teens for his classes, where he ranked as the last and the least. Latin was a core subject, which was dreadfully difficult for him. Mathias Loras, a 12-year old but the brightest classmate, was assigned to help him, but to no avail. One day, frustrated by the doltish peer’s slowness, Mathias boxed his ears in front of all the rest. Rather than return the blow to defend his honor, Vianney fell at the feet of Mathias Loras, asking for forgiveness. Instantly in their tearful embrace, the two bonded for life from that moment on.

Vianney still struggled in learning. In fact, the school had to let him switch his readings from Latin to French. His teachers agreed that his zeal offset his weakness in learning. At age 29, Vianney was ordained with understandable reservation and given charge of the rural parish of Ars in France as an assistant to the vicar. The superiors debated if he should ever be given the duties of hearing confession. The French Revolution had just run its course, so religion was nearly wiped out from the nation, it seemed. So, Vianney and the people who sent him to Ars had little worry.

Well, surprises come as they always do. Few knew that Vianney was a lightning rod, the kind you can’t advertise for. Deep, inner fires of purity and prayer were his signature strengths since childhood. Strong emotional intelligence drew people toward him. He counseled people one by one to right living and wholeness. Within a few years of his charge as Cure d’Ars, the entire city reversed its manner of thinking and living. As a confessor, he attracted penitents every day from all over France, the wider Europe, and even the US, with hundreds willing to wait their turn for a few minutes with him. Often a casual word of his or a moment of prayer with him would result in miraculous outcomes.

He had a supernatural understanding of people, often revealing their past and their future. At least 20,000 people visited him per year personally, while the audiences of his sermons rose to 100,000 in his latter days – all this in a place that had been cleansed of religion. The world came to hear a man who owned nothing and sought nothing except the power of deeper prayer life. A century and a half later, the very man thought to be of mulish wit, stands canonised as St John Vianney, and declared the model for clergy, even for the learned.

So much for screening and rating.

Two Windows

Few kings had a prime minister of Daniel’s caliber.

Nebuchadnezzar brought him away from Jerusalem as a captive teen to Babylon. Himself of royal descent, Daniel was born to govern, and he excelled all his foreign peers, fully free of the lure of wealth, sex or fame. The palace found Daniel to be the crown jewel of the emperor’s campaign. He served four monarchs back-to-back.

Daniel’s merits did not, however, shield him from workplace politics. Cliques of disgruntled men got busy against him, possibly because of his disapproval of their ways. They hoodwinked the emperor into signing off on a new law binding all his subjects to emperor worship. Many kings in history have been touched by the “I am God” syndrome. Poor Darius also was now up for his turn.

The worship decree was the satraps’ scheme to frame Daniel, whose life of personal faith was transparent. Three times a day, like any observant Jew, he would go into his upper chamber to pray. One could tell when he was in because while he prayed, he would open the window toward Jerusalem.

Daniel’s chamber was at least 600 miles northeast of Jerusalem. The Psalmist calls Jerusalem the City of God. Vast deserts lie between Persia and Jerusalem. Yet Daniel had a window that opened toward Jerusalem, his true home and the site of the Temple of God. Could it not be said that each person is born equipped with two sets of windows: one that opens to the everyday world, and the other toward the City of God? No matter where we stand, God’s city is closer to us than the zip code city under our feet. A man bound to the celestial city is the prime treasure of any empire.

Excerpted with permission from The Village Maestro and 100 Other Stories, Varghese Mathai, Pippa Rann Books & Media.