Roy Herndon Smith: Mourning Serendip: Part I–Mourning Serendip: Chapter 1– Mourning

Mourning Serendip

Roy Herndon Smith

I Mourning Serendip

The “complete,” the legitimately religious existence of [humanity], does not stand in a continuity but in the genuine acceptance and mastery of a discontinuity  (Martin Buber, “Replies to My Critics,” The Philosophy of Martin Buber, 1967, p. 742).

1 Mourning


For me, love of religion was first love
of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). I moved there
when I was nine, and lived there for two years
with my mother and diplomat father.

Ceylon was a revelation to me.
It was extravagantly beautiful
and small enough that my awakening
mind could comprehend its geography,
history, and culture. It was a home.

Three memories reveal Ceylon’s impact.
The first is of a small and ancient “tank,”
in Anuradhapura, a center
of Buddhism and capital of much
of the island for fifteen hundred years,
ending in the eleventh century.
The rectangular reservoir is sunk
into the ground and lined with rough stone blocks.
Steps lead down to the pool. I remember
standing by the water, stunned by stillness,
but not as a negation of movement
or sound; fish churning the water for bread
I threw to them and the breeze were brush strokes
in a Chinese landscape painting that draw
the eyes to the emptiness of the page;
each splash and touch enfolded
me in the reverberating quiet.
Over a decade later, the stillness
sounded again when I meditated
for the first time; since then, it has infused
my life with spacious rhythms of home.

The second memory is of standing
in a church in Nuwara Eliya,
a town in hills covered with tea bushes.
The sanctuary was gothic and filled
with light and shadows and musty grandeur.
The organ played. The congregation sang.
The British colonial world, the past,
familiar, alien, engulfed me.
My parents and I, as English-speaking
whites, were assumed, supposed, to be at home
in this world, but I did not feel at home.

The third recollection is of watching
a fire-walking ritual. It was night,
far away from anything familiar.
My parents, other visitors, and I
sat on a raised set of seats looking
down on a world lit by torches and red
embers in a trench, dense black surrounding
the walkers stepping through the fiery pit.
The memory remains as of Ceylon
as other—not me, not home–uncanny;
yet, from within, it enraptures, makes, me.

These memories are of different worlds,
but they are also of the single world
that remains under the name, Ceylon.
When I was eleven, we moved away,
to New Delhi, India, and I mourned
Ceylon as I have mourned no other home.

Throughout my life I have sought to return
to what I associate with Ceylon,
living as vital participation
in reality. In my freshman year
of college, as I read Martin Buber’s
I and Thou, I connected this sense
of living as loving to what he calls
“religion.” I realized that each event
I remembered—the stillness by the tank,
the service in the church, the ritual—
organized around what he writes is the
heart and source of religion, a “meeting”
with “the Thou,”1 in which reality comes
into being as a unique, new whole.
Buber overlaid longing for Ceylon
with fascination with the religious.
Ceylon and religion move into and
out of each other. When I explore one,
I continually find the other.


The first Christmas after leaving Ceylon,
I woke up with a fever. My parents
and I opened presents and ate breakfast.
Then I fell asleep. Later, I awoke
and wandered out into the living room,
strewn with boxes and torn wrapping paper.
I saw a torn-apart world. I cried out,
“It’s wrecked! It’s wrecked!” When, a short time later,
I recovered, my parents ascribed this spell
to the fever. I sensed then, and know now,
that something else was happening. The move
away from Ceylon had racked me with grief.
I’d lost my home. In New Delhi, I plunged
into a viciously competitive
world of diplomatic, military,
and other “brats.” My mother was withdrawn.
Her marriage to my father had become
a nightmare; she was drinking. She and I
fell, often, into different wrecked worlds.


My mourning of Ceylon was violent
partly because the loss of it recalled
previous losses. When I was six, my
family and I moved from Karachi,
our home for two years, back to our “Stateside”
home in Chevy Chase. There, an “eye doctor”
diagnosed me with a “lazy” left eye,
for which the standard treatment was to patch
the “good eye” so that the “bad eye” would have
to do all the seeing and would strengthen.
Over the next three years I wore the patch
almost all the time when I was awake.
My vision in the left eye did improve,
but, with the patch on, details were still hard
to see; and I struggled to find my way—
in classrooms, where, from the front row, I peered
at the blackboard; on playgrounds, where I found
it hard to catch or hit a ball; and with
my father, who had been an athlete and
who withdrew from me because poor vision
made me physically inelegant.

During those three years, my happiest times
were frequently ones in which I first saw.
I remember spending hours at a time
reading, nose close to the page, and losing
myself in imagined visual worlds.
On the edge of the playground, a friend and
I used large rocks to crack open small ones
to find sparkling crystals. The only time
I was routinely allowed to take off
the patch, other than at night, was during
art classes; and I thrilled as I played with
the visual elements of light, line,
color, and form. And each night, my mother
would sit on the side of my bed and read
to me; and I would melt into the glow
of the lamp and the warmth of her body.

Dread was, in these years, first a matter
of not seeing clearly—a ball flying
toward me, a vague movement at night
when I got up to go to the bathroom
(my mother realized, after my yells woke her
over and over, that I was seeing
my ghostly reflection in the mirror
at the other end of the dark hallway).

The patch thus transformed the visual world
into what Rudolph Otto calls “the holy,”
that which both terrifies and fascinates.2

During those years, the fascinating times
were lush islands in terrifying seas.
When the patch came off, just before we left
for Ceylon, fascination was the sea
and terror shattered into bleak islands.
During the flights from Washington, D.C.,
to my mother’s hometown in Montana,
and from there to San Francisco, where we
boarded the ship for Colombo, I spent
much of the time looking out plane windows
and drawing clouds. From the deck of the ship,
I gazed over the ocean—the dances
of waves, sky, clouds, shadows, sunlight, flying
fish and dolphins, and, at night, the glory
of stars and, during a storm, thick darkness.

When we arrived in Ceylon, it flooded
my vision. In each of the three events,
I first saw—the open space, old rocks, and
still water by the tank; the high arches
and the rays of dusty light in the church;
fire and darkness before the ritual.

In Chevy Chase and Ceylon, vision led,
but was not separated from, the rest
of sensing, feeling, knowing, and acting.
Even in the art classes, during which
I focused on visual elements,
the joy I felt lay in learning I could
feel and make curved, straight, and sharp lines and forms,
soft, intense, warm, and cool colors, and plays
of light and shade. Visual elements
were embedded in what Daniel Stern calls
“global” perceptions of reality.3


Because my life in Chevy Chase was hard
and I was excited about moving,
because Ceylon was a fascinating
world, and because loss pervaded my life
in New Delhi, for a long time, I did
not think about what I lost in Ceylon.

In Chevy Chase, my mother made our home
a refuge from the terrifying world.
The woods I explored with fascination
were behind the house, close to her. She found
and enrolled me in the art classes where
the visual world filled me with wonder.
I read first with her. She introduced me
to Rosemary Elementary School,
where I read in the library and cracked
open stones on the playground. She banished
my night terrors by turning on the light
and reading the twenty-third psalm to me.

For my mother, traveling to Ceylon
was traveling into loss. In Ceylon,
she could not easily see her mother,
who was in a Montana nursing home.
When my father accepted the posting
to Ceylon, he broke the promise he made
to her when we returned from Karachi,
not to accept another overseas
assignment. She lost trust in him. She was
grieving and withdrawn during the trip to,
and while we were in, Ceylon; and I lost
the ongoing closeness with her I had
known before the move. My memories of
her in Ceylon are few; in most of these,
she is preoccupied, not wholly there.

In Ceylon, I felt this loss most at night.
In my large, dark bedroom, a loneliness
tinged with terror sometimes overcame me;
often she was not there to comfort me.

During the days, I fled from the large house
filled with fears, into a Ceylon I found
to be a refuge, a magical home.

My father guided me into Ceylon.
The removal of the patch allowed him
to see me as a protégé who mirrored
his most pleasing images of himself,
as a lover of sensuous, active
life, a skilled, wise teacher, an explorer
of new places, and a collector of
new experiences. He made me his
companion in his explorations and
enjoyment of Ceylon. He taught me how
to body surf, to find and bargain for
beautiful things in markets, and to eat,
with great enjoyment, almost anything.
However, while he introduced me to
Ceylon, my fascination with Ceylon,
my love for it, and my sense of it as
a trustworthy home existed apart
from him. My father thought of Ceylon as
an exotic source of fascinating
experiences. For me, Ceylon was
the world that held, nurtured, filled, and thrilled me.


In New Delhi, no trustworthy refuge
took the place of Ceylon. The lonely wrecked
worlds inside and outside the house were not
the only ones in which I dwelt. I had
close friends. I learned to dance; and I loved it.
My father and I went horseback riding
almost every day. I loved exploring
New Delhi and Old Delhi and other
places in India. As with Ceylon,
some of my most vivid memories are
of religious events–for example,
Holi, when everyone sprayed everyone
with colored water; and the muezzin’s
call to prayer echoing across a lake
in the evening in Srinagar, Kashmir.
In these times, reality and I came
together to form fascinating wholes.
But these events did not cohere into
an overall sense of reality
as trustworthy. In India, the world
and I fell, with Patsy Cline,4 to pieces.


A rhythm of overlapping movements
emerges. I follow Peter Homans
when I call this moving matrix “mourning.”
It begins with an assumed sense of what is
as a trusted and fascinating home.
Then this secure world shatters and is lost.
The drama closes with a return to,
which is also a making and finding
of, a home, a refuge, in reality.

In Chevy Chase, my mother made the space
around her a trusted and trustworthy
home. However, loss of vision led to
to loss of what Erik Erikson calls
“basic trust” in the world away from her.
This trust returned when I returned to her
and to the trustworthy islands she formed.
When we moved to Ceylon, her withdrawal
resulted in my losing trust in her
power to hold and protect me; and thus
I also lost trust in the house in which
we lived; but my restored vision allowed
me to find and make, in Ceylon, a new
trustworthy home, to which I could return.
In New Delhi, loss of Ceylon, combined
with terrors of social life and tensions
between my parents, shattered my trust in
reality as a whole; I returned
to island homes—friendships, horseback rides with
my father, exploring parks and markets,
and religious events—like, but also
more fragile than the ones in Chevy Chase.


When I lived in Ceylon, religion was
not separable from reality.
I only named the events that molded
my sense of Ceylon “religious” ten years
after I left. The dissociation
of the “religious” from “reality”
was one way reality broke apart
after the move from and loss of Ceylon.

After the move, I started going to
the youth group of a Congregational
Church that mainly served Americans living
in New Delhi. I liked the group and so
decided to attend confirmation
classes. I remember almost nothing
about the classes, except a sermon
by an American evangelist
who spoke about his visits to Christian
missions and churches throughout Asia.
He didn’t talk about anything else.
It was as if anything outside of
the Christian world did not exist. I left
the talk angry and appalled. I dropped out
of the confirmation class. I chose not
to be a member of a “religion”
that blinded members to the other worlds,
peoples, and cultures I loved in Ceylon
and India. For the first time, I named
a “religion”—”Christianity”—as
something that existed over against
the rest of reality. I began
to locate certain events and people
in differentiated “religions.”
The call of the muezzin was “Muslim,”
the Holi festival was “Hindu,” and
the young monks in shaved heads and saffron robes
who visited us one time were “Buddhist.”

This separation of “religion” from
the rest of reality was another
manifestation of losing my sense
of being at home in reality.
The preacher shattered my trust in the church.
This betrayal led to my rejection
of Christianity. But when I placed
myself outside of Christianity,
I tacitly accepted the preacher’s
division of reality into
mutually exclusive, Christian and
non-Christian, spheres. In this dualistic
world, I could be at home in only one,
not in both, and thus not in the whole world.

In fact, in the evangelist’s split world,
I had no home. I implicitly knew
something the evangelist did not know.
I knew that “Christian,” “Buddhist,” “Muslim,”
and “Hindu,” were not fixed identities
I, or anyone else, could change at will.
In Pakistan, Ceylon, and India,
I had learned that “Western” and “Christian” were
synonyms; “Christianity” was where
I was from, my home town; I could leave it,
I could reject it, I could feel estranged
from it, but I could not not be “Christian.”
Until I heard the evangelist’s talk,
being “Christian” did not separate me
from others and myself. Just as I was
an “American” in India and
Ceylon, I was a “Christian” in “Hindu,”
“Muslim,” and “Buddhist” worlds; everyone was
from someplace–a home town, a home country.
The evangelist convinced me that what
I knew was false, that to be a true “Christian,”
I had to live in a “Christian,” opposed
to a “non-Christian,” world. But when I chose
not to live in his “Christian” world, I did
not thereby find a home in a “Buddhist,”
“Muslim,” “Hindu,” or any other world;
when I rejected “Christianity,”
I became “not Christian,” but I did not
become anything else. As he implied,
in his tacit denial of what was
“not Christian,” I became nothing—a “not”
in a lost reality, a not-world;
reality and loss were the same whole.

The identification—the naming—
of “religion” as something existing
apart from anything else both stemmed from
and articulated the loss of home—
in the world, with others, and with myself.
But the word religion also pointed
to what was lost as in the “religious”—
the “Christian,” “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” and “Muslim”—
worlds in which I was no longer at home.

My rejection of Christianity
thus resulted in a global loss, but
this rejection hid an affirmation
of religion and Christianity
as homes, albeit lost homes, and also
as holding possible ways to return
to these homes. Repeatedly in my life,
the movements of home and return, hidden
in times of rejection and loss, have come
into full view. In India, after
my rejection of Christianity,
I continued to find myself at home
in explicitly religious events,
such as the muezzin’s call and Holi,
and in a nascent sense of religion
itself as a home to which I returned.


In the above discussion, I begin to
associate the described events with,
at first, an inchoate but vivid, and,
then, a more articulate, but still more
gestural than definitional, sense
of religion as mourning. This sense
of religion forms around what Buber
calls a “discontinuity.” For me,
to name religion or a religion
is to lose it as a home, to remember
it as a lost home, and to construct it
as a home to which I return. Naming
and knowing religion as home revolves
around losing religion, as well as
reality, as home. I have described
this paradox as emerging in my
personal and particular mourning
of Ceylon. The rest of this book is an
exploration of how this paradox
or mourning, this framing of loss with home,
this continual finding and making
in, of, and by reality around
discontinuity–concrete, broken
particularity—this religion—
continually reappears not just
throughout my life, but also in human
existence. This book is a gesture at,
a pointing to, the relations between
reality, religion, and mourning.