by Diane Crafford and Susan Salm
Remembering Courtenaye Olden (1917-2015), a devoted disciple of Swami Pavitrananda and actively selfless member of the Vedanta Society of New York.
+Swami Pavitranandaji. She was the personification of “guru bhakti”— every action, every moment of her day was related to the thoughts and ideas of the swami. She lived her life and behaved according to what he taught.
In February of 1951, Courtenaye and her husband attended the first lecture that Swami Pavitrananda gave in the West as the new minister of the New York Vedanta Society. In 1954 they became members and intimate devotees and workers at the Center. In 1964, Courtenaye moved from her palatial suburban home in Westchester to a modest studio apartment in New York City, a two-minute walk from the Vedanta Center. Thereafter she was at the Center every day of the week, serving and cooking for Swami Pavitrananda daily. She helped with much of the swami’s extensive correspondence and was one of the designated drivers for him as well as for visiting swamis and devotees.
Courtenaye attended every class Swami Pavitrananda gave. She had a formidable memory and was able to quote his teachings verbatim. She was an incessant note-taker, recording the wonderful tidbits of wisdom he would utter. The swami entrusted her with transcribing and editing his lectures for publication.
Her duties at the Center ran the gamut from cooking and serving meals, to serving as board member and holding the post of treasurer, with its many great responsibilities. Whatever Courtenaye did was her worship, and she was ready to do it joyfully. When Swami Pavitrananda requested her to instruct some of the new workers in the Center’s kitchen, she did so, giving openly, lovingly, and unstintingly. One devotee stated, “It was a joy to work under her and with her.”
She was motherly and protective of everyone she cared about. She was disciplined, planning activities and details down to the minute. She could be quite strict, while always loving, open-minded, and generous. She had a nickname for each person. With an affectionate comment she made everyone feel welcome and a close part of the work. Her genuine warmth and natural dignity made her a source of comfort to many, and they came to her often seeking conversation, advice, consolation, or the pleasure of her company. Because of these qualities the swami often requested her to speak to those in distress.
She was fearless in standing her ground, as much for others as for herself, and uncompromising with regard to what was right. As has been said of her: “She was incorruptible.” Her judgment was fine-tuned and her alertness like a laser. Everything she said and did was honest to the core. She was a devotee who understood the practical application of spiritual thinking in daily life. The strength she gained from Vedanta was internalized, she lived it. She had endured many personal tragedies in life by always surrendering herself to Swami Pavitrananda’s care and guidance and she had found safety at the Vedanta Society of New York. She knew that her inner world, her inner center as well as her Vedanta Center, were right there, and that her swami and her friends would always stand by her as she herself had done for them.
The following incident from Courtenaye’s last days was told us by her devoted healthcare aide. Courtenaye was receiving hospice care at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. She had not spoken since arriving at the hospital and it was believed she had lost that ability. A nurse came to tend to her. Courtenaye looked up at the nurse and said in a clear, strong voice, “I love you.” It stopped the woman in her tracks. She had been caring for her for days and these were the first and only words she heard from her. That was the final statement of Courtenaye’s life: All the years of study of Vedanta, of caring for others, and following to the letter the instructions of her guru—Love. At the most difficult and painful point of her life: “I love you.” And she really did love everyone around her.