We all have “special people” in our lives, people we look towards because their lives carry some critical significance for us. Now, of course, I am using the word “special” in a very special way! Certainly not in the terms of our pop culture. You will recall that famous quip by Andy Warhol decades ago, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Truly a prophet of our consumer culture where absolutely everything, even nature, becomes a commodity for our exploitation and “consumption” and self-enhancement. For this pop culture “fame” is the main constitutive ingredient of “specialness,” and it is truly insane how this shallow fame is so worshipped and is so much a part of our social existence.
Another kind of “specialness” is one that people acquire by some extraordinary activity or accomplishment. This is not unconnected to the above shallowness because “fame” is still the “name of the game.” No matter the accomplishments, they are merely adornments for that insubstantial façade known as the ego self. It is amazing how much effort and energy (and also talent) can get expended in pursuit of this kind of “specialness.”
Now the “special people” I am referring to are the ones who manifest the Divine Reality in one way or another. You might say that actually every person is “special” in this sense, and of course you would be right. But occasionally you run into someone whose life speaks of that divine reality with extraordinary clarity or very urgently or in a very mysterious way. And this “specialness” is truly noteworthy when it is unselfconscious, when the person himself/herself is not aware how the Divine Presence radiates from their being. It is not the person who says “mirror, mirror on the wall, how holy will I be when I do such-and-such….”–no, it is not such a one who becomes “special” in this sense. That’s why most of my favorite “special people” are hardly religious folk in religious orders. With a few important exceptions most are either on the fringe of the religious/monastic path or people who even do not recognize the reality of religion in its formal, social sense at all. For a lot of folk “specialness” is manifest when they affix the word “saint” to your name, and I grant there’s a few of those that are very special. But mostly, for me personally, like I said most of my “special people” with a few exceptions will not be found “in church.” Even if they become “well-known” what makes them special in this sense is something often concealed in pain and suffering, confusion and chaos, bewilderment and frustration, failure and darkness,—as Merton was fond of pointing out about that famous icon of a bedraggled desert hermit, “Kissed By God”—are you sure you want to be “kissed by God”?! This is the true hidden life!
Over the years of doing this blog I have written about my “special people” at one time or another–or at least some of them: from Han-shan to Abhishiktananda. I think I have four more possible candidates to join the list. To say they are “different” is quite an understatement, and I don’t expect anyone else to agree, but I see what I see….
A. First Candidate: Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014)
Grothendieck, who died just a few months ago, was probably the greatest mathematician of our time and one of the greatest of all time. His achievements in the field of mathematics are almost beyond description except to those who inhabit the realms of the highest and most sublime areas of mathematics. What Einstein was to physics, Grothendieck was to math; but he is a total unknown except to high level mathematicians working in this field. A decent obituary can be found at this link to the New York Times:
But this is not at all what is important or significant about him for our purposes. He was a man who had a passion not only for mathematics but also for justice and truth and someone who could not tolerate the “social lie” in which we all live and participate in. Long before it was fashionable he worked to found a radical environmental group to bring European attention to the trashing of our natural world. He opposed the war in Vietnam and in protest went to Hanoi to teach mathematics to North Vietnamese students while American bombs rained down on Hanoi. He refused to receive a medal and cash award from the Soviet Mathematical Society in protest what the Soviet government was doing to dissidents. But all this was only the beginning. Around 1970 he discovered that the French institute in which he was teaching was receiving funding from the French Ministry of Defense, from the military basically. (This is standard fare in the United States where the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Agency fund and support all kinds of scientific research and if it has any kind of military applicability it is immediately appropriated. Thus even the so-called “pure sciences” are part of the war machine.) Grothendieck walked out of the Institute (In which he was the preeminent figure), and he was hoping his colleagues would join him in protest. But absolutely not one joined him in the boycott–after all they have to pay for their nice homes and cars and support the nice lives of their families…. So, to the astonishment of all, at the height of his mathematical powers, at age 42, Grothendieck dropped out! Dropped out of the academic world, and then dropped out of the whole social world, living a reclusive life in a small village in the Pyrenees.
One has to stop a moment and think to realize how staggering a gesture this was. We are not talking about someone doing a “career change,” or a young person who hasn’t done much but “drop out.” Grothendieck was at the height of his powers and at the top of his profession–even other great mathematicians stood in awe of him. This is a man who if he had come to the U. S. would have gotten some endowed chair in some prestigious university paying him a million dollars a year and who would have been solicited by every major corporation and the Defense Establishment with rewards and perks that boggle the mind. He would have been “SOMEBODY!” But no, Grothendieck became a nobody so to speak. He apparently still filled thousands of pages with mathematical work–it was after all in his blood to do math–but he published nothing in the usual manner. Like the Desert Father who burned the baskets he wove, Grothendieck on his deathbed asked that all his papers be burned. Fortunately that was not done!
So Grothendieck refused to participate in the “social lie”(or the “noble lie” as Plato might have put it), and he was willing to pay the price. He was willing to give all up–it is amusing to think how really very little the rest of us “give up” when we enter monastic/religious life. Needless to say this was not warmly received by the rest of the intellectual establishment. There’s a lot of nasty things about him on the internet–that he went mad, etc. Living in a hut in that village in the mountains, he refused to see people who came to visit him–his only contacts were with a very few of his close former students and some former associates by mail. One of them, a German mathematician, Winfried Scharlau, has written a biography of him and it is being translated into English. She says, “Don’t believe most of the things you read on the internet about him!” Some want to make his actions look like the work of a madman. The fact that he slept on a wooden floor, ate only vegetables, studied Buddhism, searched his dreams for a proof of God’s existence, thought that the whole scientific world was totally corrupt…..I guess that seems like sheer madness to some….. No matter. I have no difficulty believing that in fact he might have been mentally affected toward the end of his life….like a number of saints and holy people…. Someone with as sensitive a heart as his, with a mind as keen as his, is bound to experience some kind of “inner rupture” from the pain of living within the “social lie.” He is certainly not the classic “saint” or “holy man” but then those are not always my favorite kind of people; the “church approved” people are not necessarily the ones most truly manifesting the Divine Reality. In any case here’s a few more elaborate links about him:
B. William Rivers Pitt
This one is a lot less dramatic! William Rivers Pitt is a writer about whom I know very little. But there is a special quality about his cogent observations pertaining to that strange concoction of distorted religiosity and perverse national ideology, producing a most toxic brew–but this poison is covered over with all kinds of sweet stuff and promises of all kinds of secular paradises and heavenly rewards. Again, only a person with a truly sensitive heart can see what he sees. He has been writing against these distortions all along over the years, like some Old Testament prophet, railing against our sick patriotism and our fake religiosity. And like with the words of those Old Testament prophets, there is a Presence behind their words that demands we hear them… Here was Mr. Pitt’s Christmas message:
C. Rory Fanning
Another very unusual person. Rory was an Army Ranger, a top-notch soldier who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. He came back finally as a conscientious objector and a war-resister. He experienced war; he saw war with a clarity few soldiers seem to have. There are many soldiers who experience the horrors of war but they internalize the horror and it eats them up psychologically. Most soldiers seem incapable of admitting the wrongness of what they are involved in. They are not capable of saying simply: This is wrong. I was lied to. Our policy, our country is wrong. I was wrong. I was manipulated into this nightmare. I was fooled into doing horrible things. Etc. That kind of vision is actually quite rare. So there is a special quality about Mr. Fanning’s war resistance and his words about that whole experience. They come from a deep place.
Rory wrote a book detailing his conversion to a wholly different view of life, but the book is also about a trek he took across the country, on foot, on behalf of a dead friend, a fellow-soldier in Afghanistan, Pat Tillman–that’s quite a story in itself. Here is a good review of his book in the Chicago Tribune:
D. Vyacheslav Korotki
This one is my favorite. A truly haunting figure. Vyacheslav spent over three decades in a solitude that would make a Carthusian monk seem like a “party animal”(hey, they do have a recreational walk every week). Vyacheslav was sent by the Russian government to a remote Artic post where his job was to monitor weather conditions and report them via radio. He has been there for decades, all alone except for periodic trips “to town”-about a 100 miles away- –for supplies. Not too long ago a Russian journalist and photographer went out to visit him thinking there is an interesting story there. You can tell that what she found was beyond her words but she managed to capture some of it in her photographs. Here is a link to her original presentation:
I love her concluding words:
“I came with the idea of a lonely hermit who ran away from the world because of some heavy drama, but it wasn’t true. He doesn’t get lonely at all. He kind of disappears into tundra, into the snowstorms. He doesn’t have a sense of self the way most people do. It’s as if he were the wind, or the weather itself.”
This sounds to me that he’s more like a Chinese Taoist hermit rather than your classic Christian hermit, but no matter, I like what I see! Speaking of which, the photographs on the above link did not load for me properly for some reason, so here is another site with the same photos, and they are truly haunting in a way that is impossible to formulate: