This may seem hard to believe, but I swear every word is true.
Back in the 1970s when I was new to Ananda, I lived in the lower half of the monastery, down the hill from Swami’s dome. I worked in the dairy, milking cows and running the kitchen, and in the evenings I hiked over the hill to spend nights in my tipi. Sometimes, when Swami was out of town, I took advantage of his generosity and borrowed books and tapes from his library. There were many on the subject of saints and mystics, but Swami also had a near-complete collection of the works of his favorite humorist; P.G. Wodehouse.
It took me a while to appreciate Wodehouse, but I eventually found him uproariously funny. His wordplay was exquisite, and his situations were absurd. To me, his funniest short story was “The Smile That Wins,” about a morose detective who received a “smile prescription” from his offbeat doctor. The sleuth’s painful grimaces made people believe he could glimpse their guilty secrets, and the results were hilarious. I don’t think I laughed so hard in my life.
Sometime after reading that story, I was walking on the deck of the common dome after Sunday Service when I noticed Swami greeting people. Having appreciated his talk and wanting to linger in that inspiration, I went over and leaned against the deck railing next to him. Being young and shy, I chose that part of the railing that Swami was turned away from.
I stood there without saying a word, and was surprised therefore when Swami immediately turned around and said “hi” to me. After I returned his salutation, Swami turned back to the man he had been talking with and asked him which story he should choose for his yearly Christmas Wodehouse reading for the community. The man said that “Honeysuckle Cottage” was very funny. “Oh no, Swami!” I thought, “You should read ‘The Smile That Wins!’ That is his funniest story!” But I was too timid to say it out loud.
Swami paused for a moment before replying, “No, I’ve done ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’ quite recently. It’s a good story, but this year I’m going to read ‘The Smile That Wins.’ I think that is Wodehouse’s best.”
He then turned and gave me the sweetest smile.
I was happy with the turn of events, and couldn’t wait for Christmas Day to arrive. However, although I anticipated Swami’s reading, I felt saddened by the knowledge that I would probably miss much of it. Every Christmas evening, all the dairymen gathered to share the evening chores. After milking like the dickens and racing up the hill in our beat-up truck to the Seclusion Retreat, we typically arrived a third of the way through the reading.
That night I worked with frenetic energy; yet in the end, when I looked at my watch, I could not hide my dismay. We were late, as usual. What was my surprise then, when I entered the temple dome and found Swami leading the community in Master’s chant: “Ever new joy!” At first, I couldn’t understand what was happening. He had never done this before. But I found a seat and joined in.
Swami had noted our entrance. A short minute later he put the harmonium aside, pulled out the Wodehouse book, and began reading. Although I always enjoy Swami’s Wodehouse renditions — so sensitively done — that night I had a hard time following the story. I felt overwhelmed with love and blessings. Swami had given me a beautiful Christmas gift. He had responded to the unspoken wish of my heart, and he had waited so that I could enjoy every minute of it. As was my wont, I thanked him inwardly.
To me, Swami’s kindness beautifully expressed the Christ Consciousness present during that holy season. As I reflect on this experience, I am reminded of a story that Swami relates in his autobiography, The Path, where Paramhansa Yogananda abruptly halted the car he was riding in, in order to buy some useless items from a merchant who was badly needing exactly that much money just then. Master had caught the merchant’s stray thought and reacted with compassion — just as Swami had done for me.
Years later, I was able to return the favor. When Swami was ill, I brought him laughter by performing in a reader’s theater production of “The Smile That Wins.” I played the lead role of the grimacing detective, and Swami kindly wrote me an appreciative note. Since that time, it has been my great pleasure to bring Swami a little joy by performing Wodehouse for him on his birthday and other occasions.