Lucy Cornelssen

by Joan Greenblatt

A True Mystic

Lucy with JoanThere are a few individuals who come into this world, live a remote, almost obscure life, yet radiate a special presence. They are like a little lantern on a worn path that, if one stumbles across, lights one’s way. Lucy Cornelssen was one such lantern. She was a true mystic, born with an intense inner calling, the gift of compassion, and a smile that melted one’s heart.

We met her when she was in her mid-eighties and knew her well into her nineties. Lucy spent her last decade living in a small, one-room, thatched-roofed cottage at the foot of the sacred hill, Arunachala, in the South Indian town of Tiruvannamalai. She possessed the rare quality of grace and resignation and permeated the space around her with the magic of inner silence.

Her outer life was nondescript. In her later years she rarely left the cottage, yet she was always an inspiration to be with. At least once a week over a period of several years, my husband and I would visit her modest cottage. Often we would simply sit quietly together, with the silence broken by stories from Indian lore or pieces from the colorful quilt of her life. The most memorable scenes were of her young days as a German mother taking refuge from World War II in the depths of the Black Forest of Southern Germany. It was during these years, living like Thoreau, that awakened her sense of “living in the moment,” of becoming truly quiet. It was here that she listened to the sounds of nature and the rain tapping on the roof—she simply became one with nature. In the forest, Lucy learned the art of waiting without expectation and living one day at a time.

Through her mother, she came to learn of Indian art and philosophy. One day when entering a room in her Mother’s house, her eyes fell upon a bronze figure of Nataraja, the Hindu diety Shiva, in its dancing aspect. Immediately she felt a previous or karmic connection and became unconscious to the outer world. From that time on, she lived as one who felt the presence of Shiva in her heart.

As a trained journalist, Lucy Ma (as she was affectionately called) translated the Talks with Ramana Maharshi into German. Her translation became widely read by those interested in the teachings of this great sage. This attraction to Ramana grew into a deep mystical relationship with the Arunachala Hill, for this sacred hill is considered to be the physical manifestation of Shiva himself. To Lucy Ma, Arunachala was not merely a hill of red boulder and stone but the living presence of Shiva, a place that radiates silence and peace, turning one’s mind toward the Self.

While her philosophical outlook was resolutely non-dualistic, her devotion to Shiva was deeply interwoven into her nature, revealing a beautiful balance of head and heart. Lucy Ma loved stories, especially allegorical ones, and would always see the teachings within them rather than the theory. Often she would entertain us from her endless source of stories, and each story seemed to be appropriate for us at that moment. When she sensed we were taking events around us too seriously, she would often tell us a story to put us back on track. One of her favorites was about a King who asked the spiritual teachers of his land to give him something which would make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. After much deliberation they presented him with a ring on which was inscribed the saying: “This too shall pass.”

The last time we saw her we knew it would be our last. She was eating very little then, and we knew she would effortlessly slip away in a silent, graceful manner like a butterfly whose purpose has been fulfilled through metamorphosis. She stood at the entrance to her small cottage waving and smiling radiantly. I turned to look just before entering the main road and saw her gazing at the peak of her beloved Arunachala.

For a number of years, while living in the United States, we had a regular correspondence. Even though she became frailer and found writing difficult, she continued. Lucy Ma’s last letter to us was written a few weeks before her passing, in 1990, and contained a very pointed and strong admonition to be at peace with whatever life brings, that the secret of true peace lies in acceptance and letting go. For Lucy Ma these were not mere words but a living testimony of her life.

Excerpts from Hunting the “I”

Lucy’s understanding of Truth was always deep and original. She translated, into German, a number of books on Ramana Maharshi, learning the Tamil language to better facilitate the translation. But there was one book that she wrote directly in English, and it remains her special contribution: Hunting the ‘I’. Excerpts below are from the chapter entitled “Obstacles on the Path.” It is both personal and practical, offering excellent tips for the spiritual seeker.

Hunting the ‘I’ means trying to overcome obstacles before Awakening to the Truth . . . but how many faces it has! The one which soon betrays itself as a great deposit of obstacles is the so-called mind, with its main qualities of restlessness and dullness. The cardinal remedy that has been mentioned is to develop an attitude of unconcerned witnessing—watch the restless thoughts, and the rushing torrent of the mind will slow down.

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Looking for other obstacles, we meet another one which may trouble us a lot, our changing moods. We are aware that they change; much to our annoyance. Sometimes we are restless or inclined to flare up, at other times we feel dull or even depressed, and sometimes we seem to be the very embodiment of harmony, peace and happiness itself. Of course, there always seems to be some reason for it. And this idea is wrong. For in respect to changing moods, we are merely a biological phenomenon, an organism, simply reacting to some cosmic influence. Sattva, corresponding to light, peace, and harmony; rajas, communicating heat, movement, passion, and wrath; and tamas, relating to dullness, ignorance, stagnation, and depression are three gunas (qualities), of nature itself, which are in perfect balance among each other during the unmanifested period of the dormant universe. Their manifestation into activity is prompted by a disturbance in the balance and is kept in motion by them. They cause the rhythm in which the universe is swinging, and there is absolutely nothing which can withdraw from their influence. Beyond the gunas is Absolute Consciousness, because It is beyond nature.

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The understanding of the true nature of our moods unfolds great insight in our spiritual practice, insofar as it effectively undermines our long cherished feeling of individuality. Aren’t joy and sorrow, happiness and misery, suffering and high elation the very ‘stuff’ of our souls? Where is our individuality, if all this is superimposed on some quite impersonal changes, caused regularly by the rhythmic change in the balance of nature? How can we get control over the amazing mystery, which reveals itself as a cosmic power far beyond the reach of our personal ‘I’? . . . We can renounce the desire to seek and find and even invent reasons for changes in our conditions- bodily, mentality and spiritually. We can simply watch the coming and going of our moods and each time make the best of them.

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There is another rather harmless mistake which happens regularly to beginners. Many are blessed with various glimpses- spiritual experiences. These experiences carry the stamp of a genuine change of consciousness, and of course the seeker is happy and convinced that he has made real progress. There is no harm in it, but soon he faces the reality that these ‘experiences’ fade away. When this happens again and again, he learns to understand these sparks for what they are, glimpses that propel him forward in his spiritual endeavor. They only become a pitfall when he, by vanity of impatience, gets stuck in one of them, taking it for final Realization. Then further progress is blocked.

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The duty of the seeker is to watch himself ceaselessly; he has to know what is going on within himself. When he looks at others, his personal ‘I’ at once makes comparisons, and the result will be: ‘I am holier than thou.’ With this idea he gives his ‘personal I’ a strong chance to develop into a ‘spiritual I’, which is much worse than his original, quite ordinary ‘I’. The result is a spiritual pride, made worse the more advanced the seeker has become, because his attainments serve only to confirm his ‘right’ to be proud of his success. But even if he perceives the gentle voice from within, warning him against this trend going on and reminding him of the secret of real ‘attainment’, silent humility, and even if he is quite prepared to accept the warning, there is still the risk of the cunning ego concealing itself in the pride of his humility!

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Luckily the sadhaka (seeker) is not left alone in his secret struggle against himself on his lonesome inner journey. How could he ever reach it, were it not already within himself? And It never fails to send signals of warning when the traveler is nearing a pitfall or has ever been caught by one due to inadvertence.

From Hunting the “I”, by Lucy Cornelssen. Copyright © 1979, 2003 by Sri Ramanasramam. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai, South India.

www.sriramanamaharshi.org