Life with Murshida Sharifa
Memorial of Murshida Sharifa Goodenough
Elise Schamhart et Michel Guillaume
One can say that all of life is like fabric and has
its warp and its welt. The warp consists of events which are generally
not dependent on our will, briefly, we say, they are from "Destiny". And
the welt completes the fabric we weave onto the warp. If one is not
master of one's warp, anyone can weave the welt and push the shuttle
across the warp of one's destiny, using the thread he or she chooses. We
have seen something of Murshida Sharifa's warp, and the extent to which
it was prickly and hard. And we have seen the colour and the fineness of
the threads she chose to weave her welt to refine the pattern of her
life. We have seen the quality of her thread. It was "Beauty, truth,
and rarity, grace in all simplicity", as one who knew her would
later write, borrowing words from Shakespeare. And the effect of the
complete fabric remains fascinating.
“The work for Murshid and the Message was her only aim in life. She also once said : ’When a person by his love becomes absorbed in his ideal it is never out of his mind, but in everything he does it is before him’. And so indeed it was for her”.
This was the dominant note behind all her conduct and which, added to her great sensitivity, explains the precautions she took, the things she tried to avoid in daily life.
"Then," adds Feizi, "sensitive by nature, she had become still more so by this seclusion. To receive letters often I think, was felt by her as a burden; to her it meant a call from the outer world which she had to answer. Once it struck me so much when during a lecture she said that the eyes of grown-up people are always hurting, not the eyes of a child.
She was very particular in all kinds of things and often gave instructions in the smallest details. At a certain time there was a plague of wasps and I had to catch and destroy them. After catching them, I thought it the easiest way to let them disappear in the W.C., but then she told me not to do so as a wasp had such a fine sense of smell. Also once I bought an ink fish (ocopus) as food for the cat, but I had to throw it away. This cat did not really belong to Murshida, it belonged to poor people in the neighbourhood. But in a cat’s way it had insisted so much to come in that she could not resist any longer and from then it became a regular visitor. Murshida told me that it could see and avoided things most people did not see. This cat, during her illness, when she felt how her knees got quite cold and rigid, jumped on her bed, first put itself on one knee until it got warm and then on the other. In this she saw a sign that she had to live on.
"Murshida Sharifa gave names to the rooms. The drawing-room was called ‘daftar’, the room where lectures were given, ‘durbari’ and upstairs was a room which she called ‘khankah’. When I asked what 'khankah' meant she said ‘library’, and I laughed because there was not one book in all the room. But Murshida did not want me to laugh. Surely there was another meaning behind it, which she did not tell.
Later on, when I had to rent a room or hall to give lectures in Paris, there were certain numbers I should avoid. Also the room should not be in the basement so that one had to go downstairs. When there was an assembly at her house of which she was to be the chairman I noticed how careful she was in the in the placing of the persons. Those from whom she expected help were put at one side, the others at the other side.. Though she was not influenced by them, she observed omens. Once, when going to give a lecture in Paris, a small tree on the Sufi-field which she passed, was broken. That evening there was a revolt of royalists and hardly any-one came to the lecture.
As it is mentioned already in her sister’s letter, she had a great talent for languages. With the char-woman, who was Italian, she always spoke in that language. (Someone told me that sometimes she spoke Persian with her in the presence of a mureed who could not stand it very well, just to tease him a little). Once she was asked how many languages she spoke and answered: ’It would be a good thing if one could speak one language well’. I think she meant the language of the soul."
Daftar, Durbari, Khankah – We don't know the meaning of "daftar". "Durbari" has the sense of an opportunity to meet with a certain purpose, and "Khankah" generally means the residence of a master, where he receives and teaches his disciples. For Murshida Sharifa, external things could signify a related but rather different reality.
((We open a parenthesis here. Murshid explained once
that each soul possesses, so to speak, its own language. He who can
understand this language can communicate fully with the soul. He gave
the example of the twelve apostles who spoke "all the languages" after
receiving, at Pentecost, the gift of "languages of fire". By "all
languages" was meant that they understood and could speak the language
of each soul.)
"It was a habit of Murshida not to speak during a great part of the day, only when she especially wished for this, there was a conversation. If some shopping or something else had to be done she wrote it on a scrap of paper. These scraps always were more long than wide. Often these messages came with a small humoristic drawing, sometimes also she said things in a little rhyme.
"Murshida most time was dressed in old dresses and wore a clean white apron. She once said, ‘I either want to be dressed very well, or I don’t care at all’. Yet, in whatever way she was dressed, she always remained ‘la grande dame’.
"She had a slow and even pace, and took notice of her breath and what foot she used first. Her posture in sitting or walking always was very erect, however tired she might be. She was tall and slender. She did not gesticulate much during the lectures, her movements were quiet but very expressive, often she made a movement with her hand pointing inwardly.
"As a child she had brown eyes and fair hair,
later on her hair grew dark. Sometimes I noticed how her eyes, though
brown, had a smoky colour.
'I died as a mineral and arose as a plant.
"Murshida very often quoted Rumi, and also
Shakespeare. Once when she went a few days to Chantilly for repose, I
notice how she took with her the ‘Masnavi’ and a copy of the works of
In her always candid style, the devoted Feizi comes to other memories, more personal, under the heading :
"My relationship with Murshida"
“I should have liked very much to look after Murshida and cherish her, but never had the opportunity to do so. One day she told me she would make me a murshida – for one day only – (‘for one day’ she repeated and though I understood quite well this was in order to teach me the right attitude of a mureed, my first thought was ‘that day I’ll put you in your bed, all day long’. Once complaining that she needed me so little I got the answer: ’Do you not think there is a difference between needing and valuing; and that the diamond that is valued, is held higher than the stone 'meulière' (a kind of brick) that is needed?’ A beautiful answer to get, but the situation remained the same. Yet this tendency in me was difficult to suppress and I was not always quite submissive. Once therefore she called me a ‘Haus-Tyrann’ (a house- tyrant) and not quite without reason. Yet there surely was not the slightest possibility to develop this quality vis à vis Murshida.
"This was during a time Murshida Sharifa gave all the money she had to help someone who always had been kind and helpful to Murshid. This person was a Russian princess, one of the first Russian mureeds, a refugee, who had lost everything during the revolution, and now had fallen into the hands of what I called a cheat, though I was not at all allowed to say such a thing. For a long time Murshida believed this man was really going to help this lady (something which surely may have been his intention) but I had not the slightest confidence, and in my opinion Murshida became a victim of herown generosity. She not only did not pay the rent of the house in time, which brought her into difficulties, but often there was no money left for food and then she fasted, giving me a meal just the same. Of course I protested. However, after a long time she saw herself it could not go on in this way and stopped providing him with money. When some time later this man died and I said I thought it a good thing for this lady, Murshida did not at all want me to say such a thing of some-one who had passed on.
"It must have been also during this time that I said to her that though she of course was much more spiritual than I, I surely had more common sense. The answer I got was: ‘A good use for your common senses would be to find my common sense. You know that like attracts like’.
"Yet, there remained always a certain distance, and it would never come into my mind to be with her as with an ordinary person – though sometimes I should have wished this to be otherwise. However this distance was more in appearance than in reality, and surely not because she wished this to be so”.
“… A spiritual person will feel a link uniting him to all other beings, and at the same time will feel himself far from all, raised above the earth into another sphere, aware of life and of nature, and happy in himself, without needing external circumstances to bring him happiness…” (Extract from a lecture given by Murshida Sharifa in 1934 on Happiness, at a time of great turmoil in her life).
Again Feizi: “The only cause of the distance I felt was the great difference there was in evolution. Once after a misunderstanding, on my part, Murshida said: ‘The thing is, Feizi, that it is not nearly so bad as you think it is. Then, there are things in which I agreed with you. There is no need for you to give up any idea you have and there is, at bottom, not so much difference in what I see and what you see. If there is a difference, it is momentary. There is no disagreement, on the other hand there is a oneness'.”.
Feizi van der Scheer's thoughts on Murshida Sharifa, and other memories
The observations and opinions of someone who lived in Murshida Sharifa's daily company for the last eight years of her life, is self-evident. To visit an eccentric personality (and no one can deny that Murshida Sharifa was such a one) on a daily basis one sees them, so to speak, with a very narrow view. One comes across their shortcomings and their pettinesses. Many writers of memorials and biographers have taken a malicious pleasure in this and used it to bring great men down from their pedestal and sully their stature. For example, one great philosopher was said to be stingy, another scholar with an international reputation pinched the ideas of his colleagues and made them his own , a great artist was a drunkard in private, etc. There seems to be something reassuring for the readers (and also for the authors) of biographies to be able to say to themselves: "In the end, he was a person like us. He just had a touch of genius."
This is why a personality such as Murshida Goodenough is disturbing. And so she was for those who did not approach her, or who did not understand the level she had attained. They were not able to place her in the catalogue of human beings they knew, either from their own experience or from hearsay.
Feizi van der Scheer's opinion which we bring here is not one which belittles the person being described. And Feizi's opinion has particular authenticity because she was a very positive person, often critical, whose natural generosity in no way prevented her from seeing clearly and speaking plainly.
“Murshida Sharifa", she writes, was "very typically was a jinn-soul." And she explains further on: "Of this kind of soul, it is said in ‘The Inner Life’ of Inayat Khan that :‘They are less absorbed in the life of this world, so more attracted to the inner life. It does not mean that they do not take interest in this world; in fact it is the interest in the external life which brings the soul towards it’
“Also the description of the ‘Vairâghi’ and how this soul develops, in the same book, gives a typical image of the life and spiritual development of Murshida Sharifa. As a matter of fact I often marvelled at the great interest she had for every aspect of life, and when sometimes I complained, she always said: ‘It is interesting’.
« "She had a mystical temperament, and the very fact that she lived on another level than most people, often caused them hurt, which surely was the last thing she ever wanted to do; even if others did hurt her, it was not in her nature to hurt back. On the other hand I noticed how she had consideration for others in a way most people would not think of. So she told me never to speak unnecessarily of someone’s illness or poverty, and when I said ‘But it is not a shame to be ill or poor’, she said, ‘You may not consider it as such, but in a way it diminishes them’."
"A very small thing by which she often hurt others was by forgetting to greet them. Of this she said, ‘It is not because I do not see them, but because they are so much in my mind, that I think quite natural when they are there’.
“'Opinions clash when two people of different stages of evolution express themselves. Therefore the wise are reluctant to express their opinion', says Murshid.
"This I noticed very much in connection with
Murshida, who because of the Message often had to express herself. But
even if she kept silent, this in itself often became a reason for
misunderstanding. It was her principle, if she had to accomplish a
certain thing, only to tell it to those directly concerned with it. So,
for example when she was ill she went to a physician and started a cure
without telling me, which made me feel sore, though I might have known
this was not a lack of confidence”.
"Sometimes it happens that a human being reaches a stage where he becomes a little indifferent. It is not everyone who arrives at that degree, but it is a natural development; there comes a time when a person says, ‘But I wish for nothing more. I have no great desire for this or that’. And it is then that he can turn his attention towards others, for whom he can surely be something – whom he can help, and with whom he can sympathise").
" This indifference was also the reason why she never strove for personal devotion….
….“It is written on a note she left:
“Once she said to me, ‘You see the reason why I have not given much explanation is that in a general way I do not burden myself by speaking or thinking much on such matters of daily life, which make life very heavy."
And Feizi, in support of this, quotes further fragments of a lecture by Murshida:
“He who knows the life of the spirit feels free from matter, which for him does not constitute a burden weighing him down and crushing him. It seems that he is above all that, that he has a life apart from it all, and that this life apart is his true life. He feels that he is essentially detached from material life which is only a phase of his experience; that he lives somewhere else, and has only to waken the consciousness of this other life to be freed from the constant preoccupation with accumulating material things, which are the condition of life…The more one cultivates consciousness of the spiritual life, the more it becomes a part of us. Thus it is very easy for those who know how to take refuge in this consciousness to turn their back upon the material world and face the life of the spirit…And in this way life becomes complete, and also balanced, because one lives in contact with the spirit and also with matter…”
“I remember, one day I felt hurt about something Murshida had said or done and had talked it over with her. Some minutes later she called me back, looking very happy and wishing to impart her happiness to me. Yet, though I felt this quite well, it was impossible for me to partake of it, still being in a rather sorrowful mood. This was not the first time that I noticed that Murshida in a moment’s time could live in a quite another sphere. To her it only meant a changing of sides.
"For her, it was not always easy to pay attention to time and to think of a certain date. Once I remember, during a Summer School, she went to the Hall and gave a lecture at the time somebody else was meant to do so. I saw the comical side of it and laughed when I heard it, but she took it very seriously. And right she was; it was said she had done in on purpose and it was explained in a very unpleasant way. At another time she forgot the date she had to speak, and when someone came to remind her, she went and gave a splendid lecture.
“Her suffering was a means to spiritual perfection. Outwardly Murshida Goodenough’s life ended in a complete failure, inwardly it ended in the ‘resurrection’ of which she wrote in her letter. Of this resurrection, I have been the eyewitness, though it was only several years after her passing that I could see all that has happened with a heart and a mind no longer upset by the dreadful experiences she had to go through during her lifetime. The humiliations - small and great - she had to suffer were innumerable, but worst of all to her was that the work for which she felt responsible was taken out of her hands. At the end of her life her hands and feet were nailed down. A few weeks before she passed, she told me, ‘That I have fallen ill is not because of what has happened to myself but because what is happening to my friends and because of the corruption there is, now already, in the Movement’.
"As I can see now, all these experiences she took as a means towards spiritual perfection. I have seen how she took the path of ‘no resistance’. Once, when I proposed to say or do something in defence, she answered, ‘I have chosen another way’. Often the suffering she had to go through made me revolt, and so, when in a lecture she had been speaking of the saintly attitude - a lecture in which I saw so much of her own life reflected – my reaction was, ‘I will never be a saint’, and her answer, ‘It is no profession, Feizi’. In one of her lectures she said that saints never sought suffering; they sought for a happiness which caused them to pass through suffering. In order to impart happiness to others and to create that which was the happiness of the soul, the saint had to pass through many sufferings inflicted upon him by others …”.
“And in another lecture, she says: ‘Shakespeare in his plays shows us the suffering hearts which are cured by love, not by the love which others pour upon them, but by that little spark of love which we can find in our own heart and which, if we pay attention to it and do not stifle it, will become a flame, a brazier warming our whole being and doing good to all those who feel its warmth in everyday life…’
“To help others is the central theme of her life. She left a poem in which this also can be seen so clearly:
‘The ego: ‘people push me and hustle me
The soul: ‘My self, do not suffer,
Last memories of Feizi van der Scheer.
We will summarise some of her memories. In 1935 the owner of the house let to Murshida Sharifa, next to the Sufi field, gave her notice, for obscure reasons. It proved impossible to find a suitable house as close to the field, or with the same view, conditions which to Murshida were of major importance. This area had been specially blessed by Pir-o-Murshid, and for Sharifa, his presence there was palpable. In order to stay in the area she had to move to the other side of the field, to a place which formed part of a series of brick buildings named the "Haras" (stables). This space was unhealthy and heated only by a coal stove of which the chimney passed through a window. It was humid and smoky, with a persistent bad smell. Murshida's fragile health could not endure these conditions.
Nevertheless, in February 1936, she went to Vienna. Here, in two months, she gave 23 lectures and multiple interviews to mureeds and to people interested in Sufism. She returned via Zurich where she gave more lectures and interviews...
She returned to Suresnes exhausted.
" In 1936, after the Summer School, Murshida Sharifa resumed classes and lectures in Paris, but on the way home she sometimes had to stop walking for a moment. Yet she would not say a word of feeling tired or ill. (During this time she once said, ‘Now I can understand my sister – (a sister who died young) – who always wanted tea, when we were not thinking of it’). However after some time she became too ill to go on. Then she went to a specialist and began a cure, but, though she did all her best to recover, it soon became evident that no hope was left.
"Three weeks before her passing she gave me some instructions of what I had to say or to do in case she might not recover, messages to her family and to some mureeds. To the mureeds of the French group she told me to say: 'Ask them if they will forgive me', and she also asked this of me. Murshida did not want me to warn her mother or sisters. Also she did not want to see any mureed. She said the best thing for an ill person is to have only one person around him. Yet, the last weeks a devoted French mureed helped me to nurse her, but being an elderly person she got tired in the end and when I asked Murshida whom she wanted to replace her, Murshida told me to ask Wazir van Essen – who had come from Holland – if he could give some help. She then also received another Dutch mureed who had especially come to Suresnes to see her.
"Three days before her passing, Vilayat came to bring her something, and when he had gone and I told her so, she told me to call him back and tell him that though she would not speak, he could come and see her. He stayed for some time and this evening she said, ‘This has been a good day – a very good day’ – And Feizi adds in a note her personal opinion – 'If ever the ‘Sufi Silsila’ was transmitted in silence, I think it was during this evening, when Vilayat was still too young to receive it openly'.
"The day before her passing she told me to put her in a certain posture for prayer. Though this caused oedema in her face, she remained for a very long time in this position and did not want me to change it. Murshida Sharifa suffered very much, but never would complain. Once she said, when Murshid was ill and suffered very much he said, ’These are glimpses of His mercy’. Though the respiratory channels were quite blocked up, her mastery of the breath was such that it always remained regular. Often she has a high fever, yet until the end she held the reins in hand. At the very last, when there was the change in her eyes which announces death, Wazir and I began to say a Wazifa for healing. She then, while the life in her eyes returned – said to me, ‘Who told you to do so?’ and gave another Wazifa, which we repeated till the end. For a long time I held her hands, and when in order to fetch something, I loosened them, there was again this change in the eyes, and then very quietly and peacefully she passed away.
“The last words she spoke were:
“Everyone is good, they don’t always see it in the right way, yet they are good”.
And also: “Life is difficult and it needs more than a life-time to know how to live it” – “Yet one can be happy, and I am getting happier every day."
Memories of Wazir van Essen
"Never will I forget the first time she went out, after her years of seclusion, to give a lecture in the Hall. Dressed all in white, as in the well-known photo of her , she was partly still estranged from the world, yet already transparent.
"Soon after this she started going to Paris again, to give lectures. This must have been very difficult for her, especially the rides in the noisy little old tram, and then the metro! One day she asked me to accompany her on one of her trips to Paris. For years she had not done anything about her passport and other identity papers. On the way to Paris I wanted to walk up the Rue de la Tuilerie to take the tram, as this would spare her the crossing of the busy Boulevard de Versailles (now Boulevard Henri Sellier). Bt this would have meant walking away from her destination, and this Murshida did not want: 'The psychology of going in a direction opposite to your goal is not right', she said. At the British Consulate she was given a reprimand because she had so neglected everything. She said very humbly: 'I am sorry I have neglected the matter for so long', and the way she said this immediately took the wind out of the sails of the official who was helping her.
"Once Murshida was going out again she started to take an interest in the problems of the mureeds who visited her and whom she always received lovingly. The letters she wrote also spoke of her attitude to Murshid and the Message, among others to Shanavaz van Spengler, who was at times inclined to negativity. Murshida always replied in a positive note, ignoring the negativity....
A small illustration of how much Murshida felt connected to Murshid , and saw in him the Rasul (Messenger)was when I once said, 'in Murshid's time...'. She interrupted me with these words: 'Wazir, it is always Murshid's time'.
These memories of Murshida Goodenough would be
incomplete without recounting the following incidents.
When it arrived at the Saint-Cloud bridge a fatal accident nearly occurred: a heavy truck's brakes failed and it headed straight for the taxi - and the driver did not see it. At the last second the truck driver, acting out of some unconscious automatism, executed the only possible manoeuvre to avoid the taxi, and there was no accident.
Yvonne did not tell Murshida about this. Some time later Murshida gave a lecture entitled "The spiritual being". At a certain point in the lecture, she said, looking Yvonne straight in the eye: "The influence of a spiritual person may prevent a serious accident ...". Yvonne remembered the incident at Saint-Cloud and Murshida's unusual behaviour of walking around the taxi, and now she understood the reason behind it.