In Memoriam: Father Ceyrac (1914-2012), a man with a great heart

By Matthieu Ricard on July 01, 2012

Father Pierre Ceyrac passed away in India on May 30th 2012 at 98 years old. He died peacefully on a tranquil Indian morning, ‟without pain, relaxed, and serene” according to those who were with him. He lived the greater part of his life in the Tamil Nadu countryside, in southern India, and used to go around on a motorbike, even at an advanced age, in order to spend time with those he used to call ‟my children” and to whom he gave such help and such love.

Father Ceyrac had little financial means but was very rich in compassion, and the love he gave others knew no bounds. He had come to live in the Indian sub-continent in 1937, and over the years thanks to the help of Indian but also French student volunteers, built entire villages that welcomed 47,000 poverty-stricken children. He fed these ‟cast-outs” who were all too often rejected by Indian society, and supported their education, to help them become adults ‟standing tall”. He also built dispensaries for the destitute, lepers, and outcasts. For 13 years, he also served in Cambodian refugee camps, along the Thai border.

Father Ceyrac, who in India had become almost as famous as Mother Teresa, chose to spend the remainder of his life humble amongst the humble and poor amongst the poor, because ‟at my age”, he said, ‟to love is what I can still do”.

A few years ago I had the joy to meet with him several times. Here are a few of his words:

‟In love, if there is no respect, we do not truly love. If there is no tenderness, we do not truly love. In India, I never address a poor person in a colloquial manner. Colonists, the rich, and high caste members are the ones who speak down to the poor. Poverty and destitution are two different things. Destitution (just like wealth) can dehumanize. Poverty never does. Jesus Christ, the apostles, the Virgin Mary, were poor. Our mission is to help our Indian friends to be more, rather than to have more. ‘The great development,' said Gandhi, ‘is to be more.'”

‟I am always struck by the lack of kindheartedness found on the Parisian streets and subway. People avoid contact and do not smile at each other. If you display a gesture of friendliness, often people will find it odd. A smile can sometimes be seen as intrusive. However, in India, if you do not speak to someone who has been standing next to you within thirty seconds, it is because you are either deaf or mute. On the trains in India, we share everything we have. We are all together; we speak from car to car. We participate in the conversation of the traveler on in the upper bench; we offer our bananas to our neighbor below. In night trains, everyone is in pajamas after five minutes, and they all talk together as if they were kin.”

‟In spite of everything, even in France, I am struck by the immense kindness of people, even coming from those who seem to keep their heart and eyes closed. Others, all others, are the ones who weave the fabric of our lives and shape the substance of our existence. Each person is a ‘note in the great symphony of the universe,' as the poet Tagore once said. And no one can resist the call of love. After a while, we all succumb to it. I really believe that man is intrinsically good. We must always see the good, the beautiful in another person; we must never destroy, but always seek the best of man ‘standing tall with his head held high,' with no distinction of religion, caste, or thought.”

‟Once, in Cambodia, I crossed paths with elderly women who were completely toothless. Their noses had also been broken during torture. They must have been between 75 and 80 years old, and their skin was all wrinkled. I told them, ‘You are so beautiful!' They were so happy, telling me ‘no one tells us this!', that they tried to carry me in triumph. As they were quite weak, they crumbled under my weight. Also in Cambodia, Buddhist monks would often invite me to their monastery and have me sit in the Abbot's usual place. We would pray together; it was impressive. Our prayer was a universal prayer, one of universal love. We need to love in order to live, just as we need to breathe in order to live”.

‟Some men have influenced me for life, such as Mahatma Gandhi. Sometimes, we just need to meet someone for a few seconds for that person to determine the rest of our existence. It's like when two trains cross one another. Of course, nowadays in the West, trains go too fast, and we no longer have the time to look. In trains in India, I sometimes blow a kiss to someone who is in a train that is crossing mine, and I get a response.”

On the occasion of one of our meetings, Father Ceyrac, who was coming out of the subway, told me: ‟People are so beautiful. But they don't know it.”