Wednesday, September 10, 2014

nacht und nebel

After World War II, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross for her valor, but during her training with the Special Operations Executive, she was described as “clumsy”, “pretty scared of weapons”, “not over-burdened with brains” and with “an unstable and temperamental personality.” 

Noor Inayat Khan
Whatever the truth was, Noor Inayat Khan was able to transmit vital information to the British during her brief underground life in occupied France. She outlasted many of her radio-transmitter colleagues, whose shelf-life was usually no more than six weeks before being rounded up by the Germans. Records would later show that she never gave information to her interrogators. 

Sold out by one of her own compatriots, she was eventually sent to a concentration camp in Germany, consigned to what he captors referred to as "nacht und nebel," (night and fog) Hitler's decree that aimed to ferret out those who resisted in conquored lands: "The decree was meant to intimidate local populations into submission by denying friends and families of the missing any knowledge of their whereabouts or their fate. The prisoners were secretly transported to Germany, vanishing without a trace." 

All of this and more like it was depicted more clearly on a public television program I watched last night. And a part of what I found interesting was that this 100-pound woman was the offspring of an American mother and a Sufi father, the latter of whom imbued her with pacifist tendencies, an encompassing view of human beings, and a vision of spiritual life that brought all persuasions together. Her spiritual life was not just an afterthought.

Noor Inayat Khan was, perhaps, deeply spiritual ... and became a spy.

And how true is that progression for anyone committed to spiritual practice -- a deep personal conviction and practice that leads the devotee not to being a monk or nun or other spiritual functionary but rather to expressing themselves according to time and circumstance and personal persuasion? It occurs to me that spiritual devotion is like the joker in a deck of cards ... it goes with any other card and redoubles or fulfills its meaning. Standing alone, a joker shows potential, but it is only in tandem that its light grows bright.

For a long time, I used to think that the only way to express an understanding of Zen Buddhism was to become a monk. Spiritual practice was the most important thing in the world and being sidetracked by other adventures was frivolous by comparison. How could anything hope to outshine the importance and clarity and universality of spiritual adventure? I was pretty damned serious....

Serious enough to sign up at an American monastery with an eye to becoming a monk. I was lucky enough to recognize within a couple of months that I was wrong: Whatever 'spy' lurked within began to clamor for a reality check. I was no monk. I might be less certain of what card I did want to attach this joker to, but monk-dom, while a perfectly understandable direction, was not for me.

Maybe there's a generalization in all this ... or maybe not. Maybe one thing to remember in serious spiritual practice -- the kind that grimaces at feather-merchant lip service -- is that the objective is to be who you are; to stop trying to be who you're not.

Easier said than done, perhaps. But ... do it anyway. Why consign a perfectly good joker to a world of night and fog?


  1. Wow, i'm encouraged. You're offering some wiggle room for the likes of myself, who find being me difficult enough, much less trying to be someone else. Sometimes i worry about the fire on my head, but then other things come up to worry about. My hair has yet to burn away.

  2. Thank you. I love the joker analogy. I will be carrying that with me while playing and facing all of the infinite hands I hold and confront, on tables in all manner of places.