by Kendra Crossen Burroughs
In May 2002, Meher Center celebrated
the fiftieth anniversary of Avatar Meher Baba’s first visit to Meher Center in Myrtle Beach, which was founded for him in the 1940s by Elizabeth Patterson and Norina Matchabelli. Arriving at
the Center on 20 April 1952, He remained until 21 May, when He and His companions left with the intention of visiting Meher Mount in Ojai, California; the journey was interrupted by the
momentous event of His car acccident in Oklahoma on 24 May.
As part of the celebration, some of
those who saw Baba during that 1952 visit have been coming to the Center to share their memories. On the evening of 17 May, Ella Marks—one of the dancers who came to Baba through Margaret
Craske—recalled her meeting and life with Baba.
Ella’s lovely face appeared lit from
within as she beamed at the large audience. “Where to begin?” Today was the exact fiftieth anniversary of her
first meeting with Meher Baba. Ella said she had formulated a wish for herself today. Usually when she wishes, it is for someone else—her children or people at work—but what would she wish
just for herself? “To see Baba again. To have Him present in form.”
Born into an old Episcopalian family,
Ella grew up on a farm in Virginia with four rowdy brothers. Her parents directed her toward studying dance, and it was her dream as well; after high school she went to the School at Jacob’s
Pillow in New York State She had heard about “a wonderful teacher from England” there, and placed herself, believing rather pridefully that she belonged there, in one of
her advanced classes. Ella was quite pleased when Miss Craske came up to her at the barre. Miss Craske looked at her and ordered her out of the class: “You are not ready.” The next day, Ella
swallowed her pride and with some trepidation went to a much less advanced class. Miss Craske again approached her at the barre and corrected her placement. Ella turned and looked into her
eyes and was flooded with a sense of bottomless love and compassion. Although with her loving parents she had experienced love, that one glance opened up a new dimension of Reality. Being
taught by Miss Craske’s and being in her presence made it the happiest summer of Ella’s life. Her parents afterward allowed her to continue her studies in New York City, where Miss Craske
There was an intriguing air of mystery
about Margaret Craske. It was said that she’d been to India and had a guru there, and once a year she disappeared and didn’t speak for a day. The first time Ella heard her talk about Baba was
in the fall of 1947. Miss Craske’s generosity in sharing stories of Baba with her students was extraordinary—after teaching twenty to thirty students two to three times a day, she would give
an hour or two to those who wanted to hear about Baba.
Ella, who fancied herself an
intellectual, decided to prepare for these discussions by reading Thomas Aquinas. She laughed as she recalled the quizzical look on Miss Craske’s face in response to this. Ella later
understood that what is important with Baba is not what is in the mind—it is the experience of love.
Miss Craske did not lecture or make
pronouncements about spiritual truths; she simply shared stories of Baba. She also spoke about how ego stands in the way of perceiving His Reality—and Ella admitted that she had more than her
share of ego. Another value that Miss Craske impressed upon Ella was that “small things are important”—don’t be late, don’t be careless, be clear.
“Miss Craske was so beautiful to me,” Ella said, teaching her that people come to Baba in different ways—some immediately, others more slowly—and that
it’s OK to come more slowly or be more questioning. There was a centeredness about her, an inner space of quietness and integrity that you could hold on to, even if you didn’t yet know what
Ella received from Miss Craske a book
about Baba—by Charles Purdom, perhaps—and was filled with a dread of entering alien territory that her family would not approve of. However, Ella says she never read much in the beginning,
since Miss Craske taught them that Baba’s way is experiential, not cognitive or intellectual. But there is nothing wrong with using the mind, and “my understanding is that Baba expects us to use our mind.” Today she can read Baba’s books, and it comes together more meaningfully for her
When the students were informed that
Baba was coming to Myrtle Beach, Ella wanted to go. ( Miss Craske never tried to convince anyone to come to Baba, but simply said, in effect, “Here it is—it’s up to you.”) She was living on very little in New York and didn’t want to ask her father for money to see someone who was said to be the
Christ, so she scrimped and saved and bought the ticket herself.
Ella flew in to Wilmington the night of
May 16, 1952, with two other young women. The next day was her first meeting with Baba, in the Barn. “I only remember
seeing His form and His eyes—that’s all.” Wistfully Ella said, “I did not see who Baba was”—something
that has always been a great loss to her. She stumbled out of the Barn and had to be alone. Being a country girl, and not realizing that one was not supposed to stray off the paths, she
walked for a while through the woods.
After she returned, she learned that
she and her friend Myrna were invited to tea with the women mandali. Being the only girl in a family of boys, Ella was used to a certain toughness, and so what struck her very strongly about
Mehera and the other women was their incredible gentleness and their genuine interest in each individual.
After Ella met Baba, several
significant things happened. The love of her life had been dance, but she now realized that she did not have the qualities necessary to become the dancer she wanted to be. At that time she
also underwent “a rough surgery.” Soon after, she met her husband-to-be, Peter, who was studying to be an Episcopal priest. After marriage, they lived in the inner city, where Peter served an
impoverished community of recent Puerto Rican immigrants. Miss Craske was very patient with Peter, never speaking about Baba to him unless he asked. ( Eventually he did become desirous of
speaking with Miss Craske alone.)
In 1956, when Ella was expecting her
first child ( Wyatt, later known as Viola), Baba came to New York, where she saw Him at the Hotel Delmonico. He touched her once, very quickly—an event she connects with the great
transcendent joy she experienced in giving birth. Peter, a very reserved man, came to the hotel in his clerical collar to meet Baba. Ella joked that when Peter saw Baba sitting flanked by
Eruch and Adi in their dark suits and with arms crossed over their chests, he had the impression that he was meeting mafiosi.
In 1958, when Baba returned to the
U.S., Ella was pregnant again. Tex Hightower and her other dancer friends would be going to Myrtle Beach, but since Ella was eight or nine months along, she decided she had better not go.
There was a sadness upon hearing how beautifully the dancers had performed for Baba, but it was special knowing that her second daughter, Alex, had been born while Baba was at Myrtle Beach. (
Ella had four children in all—Viola, Alex, Susan, and Peter—and each was special, but the first two children had the distinction of being associated with Baba’s
The life of a clergy wife was
difficult, and Ella went through times of depression. Part of being with Baba, she reflected, is relinquishing things, letting go of illusion. When she first heard about “illusion,” she had
no idea what it meant—but “you learn what illusion is.” Ella had to let go of the persona of a dancer (she later became a psychotherapist). There was much grinding down of the ego and facing
of harsh realities. Miss Craske’s stories had helped prepare her for some of the rough times when “you think you’re over something and then—bang! —you get another
After Baba dropped the body, Ella had
planned to go to the 1969 Darshan, but that did not come to pass. And so her first pilgrimage to India was in the fall of 1980. It was a great joy to be at the Tomb with Mansari. Ella’s
mother had died that spring, but she had not truly mourned her. On the last day of her trip, Ella was at the Tomb and visualized her mother’s funeral cortege; she was living it again, and for
the first time in her life she experienced her mother’s true goodness and love—something she had not been able to see because of the powerful personality that her mother was. She was able to
grieve, weeping copiously on Mansari’s shoulder while Mansari looked on with compassion and a quizzical expression.
On a subsequent trip to India, Peter
agreed to go along. While walking up Meherabad Hill to the Tomb, he was suddenly flooded with a beautiful Easter hymn (“Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed”). At Arti, he was surprised
and said to Ella, “You didn’t tell me they have a liturgy here!” The mandali were so beautiful to him—Eruch even asked Peter for his blessing, and then Mani came running: “Me too, me too!”
Peter just melted. Being with the mandali reminded him of the early days of the Christian era.
A young man Peter met in India told him
in the course of conversation, “If you’re ever in trouble, call on Baba’s Name.” Peter was to remember this advice at a crucial moment. He and Ella—along with their daughter Susan, an Indian
girl, and a Canadian woman—had gone up Seclusion Hill. It was very windy and the climb was a bit of a struggle (especially for Ella, who feared heights). The little girl’s hat blew off and
over the side, and though Peter wanted to try to retrieve it, Susan insisted it should not be attempted. When the others were ready to go back down, Peter wanted to stay on the hill alone
near the area of Baba’s seclusion. He spent some time in quiet and then again wanted to recover the hat. Wearing a pair of loose sandals, he went over the side and lost his footing. As he
began to slide, he was filled with terror at the sheer drop (the goatherds below were the size of specks). He remembered what the young man had said and cried out Baba’s Name—and all of a
sudden he felt perfectly calm and relaxed, and slowly climbed back to safety—with the child’s hat in his hand!
In conclusion, Ella remarked again on
the grinding-down process she had undergone over the years. She’d had to learn to come down to earth and face life (in her youth she had done things like walk out of a theater barefoot,
having forgotten her shoes inside). She feels tremendous gratitude for having met Baba and for coming closer to Him in many small ways. “All day, truly, I thought: ‘Oh, if I could meet You
now—because so much has been cleansed away.’”
Following the talk we saw a brief film
of Baba in Switzerland in 1952 (after His accident), which ended with a shot of Him spelling out this message on the alphabet board: