I had the pleasure and the privilege of spending extended time with this gentlemanly priest and family friend. Most frequently it was while sitting in traffic, driving him to or from Chicago airports or to see friends in the area during his many visits.
I know next to nothing about his subjects of expertise – Indian philosophies and religions, Sanskrit, Pali, and at least nine other languages – but our in-car conversations always fascinated me. They usually started with me saying something semi-ignorant like, “It’s interesting how Buddhism started in India but caught on much more in other countries.”
He’d respectfully ask a few questions to see how much I did – or really DIDN’T – know and then he’d enter a zone: calmly weaving together various reflections on culture and myth and faith and language and human development. Each of these was like a private graduate-level session with one of the most learned people I knew – not only learned but profoundly generous with his learning.
As we got to know each other better, Fr. Noel would share more personal observations, especially related to my wife’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Durairaj. He often expressed his deep admiration for both of them and, very touchingly, he wanted to make sure that I understood and appreciated who they were and what they represented. They have long been pillars of the tight-knit Catholic community in Pune and they and he and the institutions he was part of have had strong mutual relationships of loving hospitality and generosity.
My wife Manju recalled how, among many other loving gestures, he faithfully remembered her mother’s birthday. “Every year, if he was in town on 9 July,” she wrote in a social media tribute, “Fr. Noel Sheth S.J. would pick a few fragrant roses from the Papal Seminary rose garden and bring them to our house, usually at breakfast time. He would present them to my mom with birthday wishes and a Sanskrit shloka or two that he would then translate with a detailed explanation in English. These are some of the most vivid memories I have of him since my childhood.”
My favorite memory of Fr. Noel came from the first time he and I met a dozen years ago. I was at Midway Airport with a very hungry and cranky baby son in the non-existent “waiting area” they have there. My wife had sent me to pick up this esteemed Jesuit with only the vaguest description of who he was or even what he looked like. (“He’s very tall and kindhearted.”)
When his late flight finally arrived and we hit the expressway, I realized the baby in the back seat was not going to sleep or even stop crying until he had something in his stomach. But we had to be somewhere and had no time to stop. I was busy driving so as a last resort I offered the baby bottle to Fr. Noel in the passenger seat and asked, “Would you mind helping Joseph with his feeding?”
He looked at me blankly for a second, realized I was serious, and bravely took the bottle from me. “Just put it in front of his face,” I said, “he’ll take it from there. But you’ll have to help him hold it.”
So this great professor, author, former Papal Seminary rector and university president, well-traveled speaker, Harvard PhD, Jesuit priest stretched his long arm over the seat, stuck the bottle in the baby’s mouth, and proceeded to hold it there for the next 15 minutes. All the while we continued talking and he never once lost his signature poise and calm dignity.
Joseph fell sound asleep.
Twelve years later I took the photo shown above. We were in India last summer for my wife’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and on the day of the main celebration the first person to greet us, waiting for us in the parking lot at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Pune, was Fr. Noel. I’ve always nurtured the bond between him and Joseph since that first bottle-feeding and that was on my mind when I asked them to pose for this picture.
Just a few days ago we called India to greet my mother-in-law on the eve of her birthday, the day he always marked with the gift of a flower and a poem. After the exchange of happy greetings she shared the sad news: Fr. Noel Sheth had died. We were stunned. He was in South America for a conference and lecture and collapsed without warning and was gone.
After our last trip to Pune, I regretted not spending more time with Fr. Noel and I often found myself brainstorming our next visit: how could I get myself invited to a lecture or workshop or just tag along with him for a day?
Now that won’t be happening.
In spite of that, I am grateful for the privilege of the times we had together and what he meant to so many people, including my family and me. He was a reflexively generous man, dedicated to feeding us all: intellectually, spiritually, socially, and one day outside a Chicago airport, physically.
Most Illinoisans drive to Wisconsin for lakes and woods but Rock Cut State Park just north of Rockford provides a fine experience of both without even leaving the Prairie State.
My family – from both sides of the state line – celebrated an early Mother’s Day at the park today with a picnic, hiking, games, an unauthorized swim, and lots of nature sightings including a pair of loons, bald eagles, and a very large frog.
I’ve taken my holiday greeting cue from my friendly next-door neighbor, who happens to be Jewish and who never fails to greet my family and me with a warm “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Easter!” on these special days.
When it comes to greetings it’s best to be fluid, flexible, and cast a wide net.
In my beloved Wisconsin hometown, which happens to be almost universally Christian, the “happy holidays” crowd tends to be viewed with suspicion (at best). If almost all of us believe in (or at least pay lip-service to) the religious dimensions of Christmas anyway why not just say it: “Merry Christmas!”
I’m not judging myself or my people; much of this comes from an admirable desire to stand up for what we believe in, to embrace our tradition and make it mean something. It’s also a very healthy reaction to the rampant commercialism of Christmas.
My sons have grown up in a very different world. They have been blessed with classmates in school who are from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and a variety of Christian backgrounds – not to mention those families that are intentionally non-religious. For them, a homogenous community is something almost foreign.
My views on holiday greetings also developed further after I met my wife Manju. She grew up in India as a Christian, part of a religious minority of less than 3%. Her home city of Pune has a relatively high level of tolerance for religious diversity but the subtle and sometimes not so subtle biases and prejudices against Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and others were definitely part of her life.
Growing up in this environment, she developed a great appreciation for the religious traditions of her friends, classmates, and neighbors. She knows which friends are celebrating Diwali, Eid, or Vaisakhi. She knows what they’re celebrating and how to talk to them about it. Her own Christian faith is not diminished in the process.
My wife also has made me realize why a secular government and society are so important. They are key when you’re one of the 2.7% of Christians in a country that is 80% Hindu.
Perspective is everything. So the cashier at Walgreen’s greets me with a “Happy Holidays!” on December 24? That’s really a very small price to pay for true religious freedom.
May the true spirit of Christmas transform all of us!