In my youth, I stuttered terribly. I hated both the children who laughed at my disability and the elders who pitied me. I disliked the teacher who tried to correct me. Answering a question in the class horrified me, and even private conversations filled me with dread. Unable to express my feelings and thoughts clearly, I hated myself, too. Increasingly, I grew anxious, angry with all and horribly fearful of talking to others. I preferred to listen and keep my thoughts to myself.
The moments of bitterness and shame are seared in my memory. I went to the shop to buy milk. On the way, I kept on repeating, “milk carton, milk carton, milk carton.” But at the counter, I mumbled, “M-m-m-me.” I was not referring to my miserable self. The customers looked at me and giggled. I tried again, “M-mi.” I pointed at the milk carton. I paid for it and ran home, eyes brimming with tears.
The school instructor asked the class, “Who was the Greek invader of India?” After repeating the question, he waited for a long time. Though I knew the answer, I avoided his eyes. A minute passed and no one answered. I started to reply, “Ah-ah-l-e-le-xa-xa....” Self-conscious and ashamed, I stopped. My neighbor shouted, “Alexander the Great.”
“That is correct,” said the instructor. The class teacher pitied me. I hated him for that and was angry and restless for the rest of the day.
After my studies, I worked for five years. My parents started arranging for my marriage. As soon as I got wind of it, I rushed to my only friend, the parish priest. Nervously, I fumbled, “I want to be a priest.” Having known me for many years, he took me immediately to the Jesuits. Four of them interviewed me, separately. They met in private, and then the rector conveyed the conclusion, “Priests preach and teach.”
I pleaded, tearfully, “I wa-wa-want to-to be pr-pr-prie-st.” My pitiful insistence was futile. Crestfallen, I returned home. Hoping against hope, I joined the novitiate anyway. My sincerity and often-repeated pleading moved my novice master. He told me, “Demosthenes, the Greek orator, stammered too.” That same evening, I went to the football field, I put five marbles in my mouth and shouted for an hour, a folk cure for stuttering. The result? I suffered with a sore throat for many days.
I was older than most of the novices and yet felt humiliated in the classes on voice training and public speaking. Their criticism of my frightful performance discouraged me, doubling my fears and diffidence.
The novice director sent me to Dr. Hafiz, who declared, “Physically, there is nothing wrong with you.” I looked for a second opinion. In the summer, I went to the Nair Hospital in Mumbai. Dr. Ozha, a speech therapist, suggested that I relax my facial muscles and breathe deeply. I could speak fluently, but only in his benevolent presence.
By the end of theological studies, my speech had improved considerably. I received a letter of approval for ordination. Singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, I danced in my room, but not for long. Many fears and doubts rose up to jeer at me, “You stammer. How can you be a priest?”
Facing My Fear
Unable to resolve the doubts, I ran to my spiritual guide. He, too, said, “Your trouble is not physical.” The implications of that statement hit me like a ton of bricks. I had refused to see or accept the truth for nearly 40 years. My world consisted only of the painful past or negative imaginings about the future. When faced with any human interaction, I instantly recalled the boys of my childhood laughing at my stammer. Every interaction with others carved into my heart the fear and terrible pain of rejection.
Stung by the remark of my spiritual guide, I decided to get out of this hell. I learned to sit erect and still and to be in the presence of God, who is the ocean of compassion. I watched every feeling that arose in my heart and every thought that passed through my mind. I owned them as mine and placed them before God. My spiritual guide advised, “Be compassionate to all that comes up, just as the heavenly Father is. ‘He makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good and gives rain to both the just and the unjust’” (Mt 5:45).
At the beginning, the river of painful experiences began to rise and inundate me. I had to make a concerted effort to stand in the strong currents of feelings and thoughts like a tree. The river was nothing but my fears, anger and brokenness seeking attention and healing. In the presence of God and with his help, I learned to see those who had hurt me through the eyes of Jesus, the compassion of God made visible. I perceived my own self and others sailing in the same boat. Regular practice of remaining in the compassionate presence made me compassionate to my own self and others. It doubled my self-confidence and reduced my fears.
Often during teaching or preaching, unaware, I would stutter a few words and begin to feel discouraged and hopeless. To get over this old habit, I place myself in the compassionate presence of the Crucified One. Those for whom he came shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” After vividly imagining the scene, I compare my plight with his. Out of a thousand words, I might have stuttered a few! And no one laughed at me, at least not openly. At this moment, instead of condemning myself and others, I gaze at my suffering self compassionately and smile at my foolishness. At once my fears subside and speech flows.
Cleansing My Heart
What about my accumulated anger and sadness? I found a cure in meditating on the last days of Jesus—the journey to Jerusalem, the agony, the betrayal, the insults, the suffering and the death. Jesus lived the compassion he taught. In great humility, he washed the feet of Peter, who would reject him, and even of Judas, who would betray him. Hanging on the cruel cross and in horrible agony, he had prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Inspired and enabled by Jesus, I forgive others. It was not easy at first. I had to make deliberate efforts to forgive those who had repeatedly mocked me. I wash their feet with compassionate love until all the bitterness and pain are removed from my heart.
Do I stammer today? Yes, sometimes I do. But, when I feel the stutter coming, I attend to the presence of God and his unconditional love. Immediately, my fears vanish and peace fills my heart. I face others calmly and talk without fear.