February l4th, 1894, stands out in my memory as a day apart, a sacred, holy day; for it was then that I first saw the form and listened to the voice of that great soul, that spiritual giant, the Swami Vivekananda, who, two years later, to my great joy and never-ceasing wonder, accepted me as a disciple.
He had been lecturing in the large cities of this country, and on the above date gave the first of a series of lectures in Detroit , in the Unitarian church. The large edifice wag literally packed and the Swami received an ovation. I can see him yet as he stepped upon the platform, a regal, majestic figure, vital, forceful, dominant, and at the first sound of the wonderful voice, a voice all music-now like the plaintive minor strain of an Eolian harp, again, deep, vibrant, resonant-there was a hush, a stillness that could almost be felt, and the vast audience breathed as one man.
The Swami gave five public lectures and he held his audiences, for his was the grasp of the “master hand”, and he spoke as one with authority. His arguments were logical, convincing and in his most brilliant oratorical flights never once did he lose sight of the main issue-the truth he wished to drive home.
SUCH a beautiful spot! There is a large class-room and a kitchen on the ground floor and a number of bedrooms on the second floor. The Swami has a private suite with a separate entrance by an outside stairway. There is a small veranda attached to his room to which he invites us every evening. The view is lovely, as we are higher up than any of the other cottages. We gaze over the tree tops and for miles the beautiful St. Lawrence River winds its way.
We are deeply touched by the very cordial reception given to us who were strangers. Even the Swami had never met us personally, although we had attended all his lectures given in Detroit during the winter of 1894. The joy of it to be so sweetly received by him!
We were nearly frightened to death when we finally reached the cottage, for neither the Swami nor his followers at Thousand Island Park had the remotest idea of our existence and it seemed rather an impertinent thing for us to do, to travel seven hundred miles, follow him up, as it were, and ask him to accept us. But he did accept us — he did — the Blessed One!
It was a dark rainy night, but we could not wait. Every moment was precious, and our imagination was stirred up to the nth degree. We did not know a soul in the place, but finally we hit upon the plan of making inquiries at the various shops and thus find out where Miss Dutcher lived. At one place we were told that there was a cottage occupied by a Miss Dutcher and that a “foreign looking man who dressed queerly” was staying there.
Then we knew our quest was ended, and we found a man with a lantern who went ahead of us.
Up, up the wet and slippery path! It seemed as if we were taking one step up and two back. it was so slippery. The first thing we heard when we reached the house was the rich, beautiful voice of the Swami who was talking to those who had gathered on his porch. Our heartbeats could have beenheard, I truly believe. His hostess asked him to come downstairs to see us as “two ladies from Detroit”, and he greeted us so sweetly! It was like a benediction. “I like Detroit.” he said, “I have many friends there, isn’t it?” And what do you think? Instead of our slaying at a hotel or boarding house, as we had expected, those dear people insisted upon our becoming members of the household. Our heart? sang paeans of praise.
So here we are — in the very house with Vivekananda, listening to him from 8 o’clock in the morning until late at night. Even in my wildest dreams I could not imagine anything so wonderful, so perfect. To be with Vivekananda! To be accepted by him! Surely we shall wake up and find it all a dream. For in our dreams we have sought the Swami, now, Reality! Are we “such stuff as dreams are made on?”
Oh, the sublime teaching of Vivekananda! No nonsense, no talk of “astrals””, “imps”, etc., but God, Jesus, Buddha, I feel that I shall never be quite the same again for I have caught a glimpse of the Real.
Just think what it means to listen to a Vivekananda at every meal, lessons each morning and the nights on the porch, the eternal stars shining like “patinas of bright gold”! In the afternoon, we take long walks and the Swami literally, and so simply, finds “books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good (God) in every thing”. And this same Swami is so merry and fun-loving. We just go mad at times.
Later: We have been soaring on the Heights, since I last wrote you. Swami tells us to forget that there is any Detroit for the present — that is, to allow no personal thoughts to occupy our minds while taking this instruction. We are taught to see God in everything from the blade of grass to man — “even in the diabolical man”.
Really, it is almost impossible to find time to write here. We put up with some inconveniences, as it is so crowded. There is no time to relax, to rest, for we led the time is all too short, as the Swami leaves soon for England. We scarcely lake time to array ourselves properly, so afraid are we of losing some of the precious jewels. His words are like jewels, and all that he says fits together like a wonderfully beautiful mosaic. In his talks he may go ever so far afield, but always he comes back to the one fundamental, vital thing — “Find God! Nothing else matters”.
I especially like Miss Waldo and Miss Ellis. although the whole household is interesting. Some unique characters. One, a Dr. Wright of Cambridge, a very cultured man, creates much merriment at times. He becomes so absorbed in the teaching that he, invariably, at the end of each discourse ends up with asking Swamiji, “Well, Swamiji all amounts to this in the end, doesn’t it? I am Brahman, I amthe Absolute.” If you could only see Swami’s indulgent smile and hear him answer so gently. “Yes Dokie, you are Brahman, you are the Absolute, in the real essence of your being.” Later, when the learned doctor comes to the table a trifle late, Swami, with the utmost gravity but with a merry twinkle in his eyes, will say. “Here comes Brahman” or “Here is the Absolute”.
Swamiji’s fun-making is of the merry type. Sometimes he will say, “Now I am going to cook for you!” He is a wonderful cook and delights in serving the “brithrin”. The food he prepares is delicious but for “yours truly” too hot with various spices; but I made up my mind to eat it if it strangled me, which it nearly did. If a Vivekananda can cook for me, I guess the least I can do is to eat it. Bless him!
At such times we have whirlwind of fun. Swamiji will stand on the floor with a white napkin draped over his arm, a la the waiters on the dining cars, and will in tone in perfect imitation their call for dinner — “Last call fo’ the dining cah. Dinner served”. — Irresistibly funny! And then, at table, such gales of laughter over some quip or jest, for he unfailingly discovers. the little idiosyncrasies of each one — but never sarcasm or malice — just fun.
Since my last letter to you when I told you of Swamiji’s capacity for merriment, so many little things have occurred to make one see how varied are the aspects of Vivekananda. We are trying to take notes of all that he says but I find myself lost in listening and forget the notes. Hisvoice is wondrously beautiful. One might well lose oneself in its divine music. However, dear Miss Waldo is taking very full notes of the lessons and in that way they will be preserved.
Some good fairy must have presided at our birth — C’s and mine. We do not. as yet, know much of karma and reincarnation but we are beginning to see that both are involved in our being brought into touch with Swamiji.
Sometimes I ask him rather daring questions, for I am so anxious to know just how he would react under certain conditions. He takes it so kindly when I in my impulsive way sometimes “rush in where angels fear to tread”. Once he said to some one, “Mrs. Funke rests me, she is so naive”. Wasn’t that dear of him?
One evening, when it was raining and we were all sitting in the living room, the Swami was talking about pure womanhood and told us the story of Sita. How he can tell a story! You see it, and all the characters become real. I found myself wondering just how some of the beautiful society queens of the West would appear to him — especially those versed in the art of allurement — and before I took time to think, out popped the question, and immediately I was covered with confusion. The Swami, however, looked at me calmly with his big, serious eyes and gravely replied, “If the most beautiful woman in the world were to look at me in an immodest or unwomanly way she would immediately turn into a hideous, green frog, and one does not, of course, admire frogs!”
Apropos of my name, something so funny happened. One day, we all walked down to the village and passed a glass-blower’s tent. Swami was much interested in this and held a whispered conversation with the glass-blower. Then he asked us to take a walk through the main street of the village and upon our return the glass-blower handed him sundry mysterious packages which proved to contain a gift for each of us, a large crystal ball, each one different with our names blown in the glass “With the love of Vivekananda”. Upon reaching the house, we opened our packages. My name was spelled — Phunkey”. We were convulsed with laughter but not where he could hear us. He never having seen my name written, “Phunkey” was the result.
And he was so sweet, so gentle and benign all that evening. just like an indulgent father who had given his children beautiful gifts, although many of us were much older than he.
The Swami has accepted C, as one fitted for his work in India. She is so happy. I was very disappointed, because he would not encourage me to go to India. I had a vague idea that to live in a cave and wear a yellow robe would be the proper thing to do if one wished to develop spiritually. How foolish of me and how wise Swamiji was! He said, “You are a householder. Go back to Detroit, find God in your husband and family. That is your path at present.”
Later: This morning we went to the village and Swami had tin-types taken of himself at our request. He was so full of fun, so merry. I am trying to write you in class as there is literally no other time. I am sitting near the Swami, and he is saying these very words. “The guru is like a crystal. He reflects perfectly the consciousness of all who come to him, He thus understands how and in what way to help.” He means by this that a guru must be able to see what each person needs and he must meet them on their own plane of consciousness.
Now he has closed the class for the morning, and he has turned to me, “Mrs. Funke, tell me a funny story. We are going to part soon, and we must talk funny things, isn’t it?”…
We take long walks every afternoon, and our favourite walk is back of the cottage down a hill and then a rustic path to the river. One day there was olfactory evidence of a polecat in the vicinity, and ever since Swami will say, “Shall we walk down Skunk Avenue?”
Sometimes we stop several times and sit around on the grass and listen to Swami’s wonderful talks. A bird, a flower, a butterfly, will start him off, and he will tell us stories from the Vedas or recite Indian poetry. I recall that one poem started with the line, “Her eyes are like the black bee on the lotus.” He considered must of our poetry to be obvious, banal, without the delicacy of that of his own country.
Wednesday, August 7th: Alas, he has departed! Swamiji left this evening at 9 o’clock on the steamer for Clayton where he will take the train for New York and from there sail for England.
The last day has been a very wonderful and precious one. This morning there was no class. He asked C. and me to take a walk, as he wished to be alone with us. (The others had been with him all summer, and he felt we, should have a last talk.) We went up a hill about half a mile away. All was woods and solitude. Finally he selected a low-branched tree, and we sat under the low spreading branches. Instead of the expected talk, he suddenly said, “Now we will meditate. We shall be like Buddha under the Bo tree.” He seemed to turn to bronze, so still was he. Then a thunderstorm came up, and it poured. He never noticed it. 1I raised my umbrella and protected him as much as possible. Completely absorbed in his meditation, he was oblivious of everything. Soon we heard shouts in the distance. The others had come out after us with raincoats and umbrellas. Swamiji looked around regretfully. for we had to go, and said, “Once more am I in Calcutta in the rains.”
He was so tender and sweet all this last day. As the steamer rounded the bend in the river, he boyishly and joyously waved his hat to us in farewell, and he had departed indeed!
As I finish these brief reminiscences, the calendar tells me that it is February 14, 1925 — just thirty-one years almost to the very hour I first saw and heard Swamiji at the Unitarian Church.
Ah, those blessed, halcyon days at Thousand Island Park! The nights all glowing with the soft mystery of moonlight or golden starlight. And yet the Swami’s arrival amongst us held no mystery, apparently. He came in simple guise.
We found later that anything which smacked of the mystery-monger was abhorrent to him. He came to make manifest the Glory and Radiance of the Self. Man’s limitations are of his own making. “Thine only is the hand that holds the rope that drags thee on.” This was the motif running through the Swami’s teaching.
With infinite pains he tried to show us the path he himself had trod. After thirty-one years Swamiji stands out in my consciousness a colossal figure — a cleaver of bondage, knowing when and where not to spare. With his two-edged flaming sword came this Man “out of the East” — this Man of Fire and Flame, and some there were who received him, and to those who received him he gave Power.
Such was Vivekananda!
(Prabuddha Bharata, February 1927)