My nephew, who just turned 17, recently responded to my birthday greeting by saying, “It’s crazy being 17. It definitely hasn’t sunk in yet.”
That’s a bit how we “spiritual pioneers” felt in helping to found an Ananda World Brotherhood Colony, even though we were slightly older back then than my nephew is now. It was the mid-eighties, though we were nowhere near mid-life. We’d come to Italy under the guidance of Swami Kriyananda. Some of us were official staff members while others, myself included, showed up in the right place at the right time and offered to serve where we were needed.
We settled in the charming rural town of Veglio, several hours southwest of the idyllic Lake Como. At first it was as though the huge prospect of what we’d set out to accomplish hadn’t sunk in yet. Now some decades later, our Ananda Assisi community is considered one of the most thriving spiritual retreats in all of Europe.
Was it crazy of us to begin this work by braving a harsh winter in a summer villa with no central heating? Probably. But our Guru Paramhansa Yogananda had said to “be crazy for God,” and we were doing just that, all the while our hearts focused ever so silently on Him.
Swamiji would sometimes stay with us at the villa’s guesthouse. He’d suggested that, after our daily practice of Kriya Yoga, learning Italian was our next highest priority. So I befriended Kirtani’s monumental Italian dictionary the size of a small village, to study verbs, nouns, and especially figures of speech. Little did I know how they would backfire on me – giving the listener the impression that I understood more of the operatic romance language than I actually did! Sophisticated phrases like, “for me, it’s all the same,” per me fa lo stesso, often would draw someone’s response that raced past me at 40 kilometres per hour.
We gave energy to our guests; taught classes as best we could in our broken Italian; feasted, sang, and connected with our European family on levels of the heart, enjoying the bounty of the Bel Paese/beautiful country. We felt the historic richness of the land and the welcoming receptivity of those souls who came to our retreat for spiritual nurturance, along with a good plate of lasagna.
We spent our time on those frozen Italian nights in a different form of isolation than the kind now faced in a pandemic. We would meditate, chant, socialize, and study. And for a brief time, we passed the evenings with rehearsals followed by a performance (solely for our own entertainment, thank heavens!) of my original comedic play entitled “Karmasmoke”: An Eastern Western Where the Path Meets the Dusty Trail. Its wild-west theme portrayed a different kind of pioneering, in which a mail-order bride named Polenta Cornflower arrived late due to insufficient postage. Our laughter rang like the Sunday morning church bells that pealed through the frosty hillsides of Veglio.
And we remained undefeated. The plausible impossibility of what we’d set out to do had not, as my nephew would say, “sunk in yet.” It would be some years until Swamiji wrote these song lyrics to “I Will Always Think of Thee,” that arrived first in Italian, entitled “Quando Mi Sveglio/When I Awake”:
“When I’m working and when in earned repose,
Let come victory or low defeat.”
How brutal that first winter was! Snow in meters piled alongside the narrow winding lanes. Yet in good spirits, we made light of our daily struggles. We burned the old wooden furniture in the sitting room’s fireplace to keep warm. We joked about how the holy water on our temple’s altar would turn to a block of ice overnight. And those who lead the morning chants before meditation learned to play the harmonium wearing their gloves.
Yet we look back upon those times as “the good old days.” The most striking features in the photographs from that era were our radiant smiles. Not that we moved mountains on our own; but we know now that Master was able to accomplish much through our willingness to remain committed to our mission by acting as channels for greater and greater flows of energy. He gave us the strength to overcome the cold, the language barrier, and the unwieldy bread rolls that served a dual purpose as doorstops.
Then as now, we were Master’s pioneers who lived, and still strive to live, the words of Swamiji’s song:
“In my heart, Lord, ever so silently,
I will always think of Thee.”