It is a very great honour and privilege to share a little bit about a very Great man, a humble servant of God, a little bit of what we saw of him in his latter days and how he challenged us as a teacher to live as godly human beings. Time does not allow me to share lots of things I need to share about him. I choose to share just a bit of his greatness and ask pardon for the things I have left out due to time restrictions. But after all, all time is relative and his answer when we asked him about the relativity of time he said quoting Einstein “When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour!” I pray that this time for you would be like the first part of that quote.
In an era when knowledge is stripped of Ethics, where even the great tutors of mathematics, do not know how they could integrate ethics with mathematics this great man, Prof. Valentine Joseph, not only taught ethics with his subject but lived it. In the aftermath of the July 1983 during which he and his family were affected, this great man at his first lecture when he returned to the university with great sadness said “This catastrophe has come upon us because of us teachers – teachers who have not taught Ethics with their teaching. Especially the truth that all human beings are made in the image and the likeness of the Creator God and that we all are given a great responsibility to care and protect this earth we live in.”
In an era when we are frightened to face uncertainties, and the fear of the unknown drives us to demean ourselves and prostrate ourselves in front of man-made edifices, he never wavered in presenting especially to the mathematical community the wonder and the depth of mathematics, which even his tutors could not comprehend. I especially remember when his assistant had to teach the Professor’s course when he was absent in the aftermath of July 1983, the assistant after reading out the notes told us – “if you have any questions please do not come to me; you will have to wait for the professor to come and explain!”
In an era when parents push their children to achieve what as children they could not achieve using them as pawns in their bid to achieve recognition, social class, reflected glory, and are never available to their children since they are in the pursuit of making filthy lucre, never letting their children learn the great lesson of facing failures, not reprimanding their children for the fear of being seen as unkind parents, the professor never pushed his children so that he could attain temporary greatness greatness and recognition through them. He was a good husband and a father to his children, accepting them as they are and willing to accept what God would want for them. His children can only remember just one time when his son was pulled up for eating pineapples from the street vendor and then vehemently denying that he had eaten– not knowing the tell-tale salt and chilli powder around his lips!! In his quiet ways he led the family to who they are now.
In an era when you can write your own biographies to show how great or godly or how important you are, covering your warts and all, to impress the ignorant hoi polloi he never prostituted his great self to acquire such recognition; in fact, we felt sad and ashamed when one day after a few delightful hours of chatting to him the great man said “ I never knew that I was appreciated this much.” How sad we should be and ashamed when we do not appreciate the great human beings amongst us still alive and never show how much they mean to us.
In an era when men and women in their capacities of leaders of nations, of religious communities, in the academic worlds, in business circles etc., love to walk in their robes to impress the people around them, remembered his Teachers words – “Beware of these people. For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the assembly of men and the head table at banquets.” The professor shunned public accolade. He saw greatness in every soul, respected each human being and listened and cared for them as they are, made in the image and the likeness of God Himself.
In an era when money can buy you Knighthoods, gold plated plastics, greatness measured by the trinkets collected, he preferred in his quiet way,(I heard) refusing to receive any parting gifts from the university when he retired, and with the greatest reluctance accepting only a small token of appreciation.
In an era when the so called great men make great speeches about protecting the environment, but never walk the talk, he walked the talk; he peddled his rickety bicycle to campus, and almost never polluted the atmosphere by jet fuel by travelling from one land to another. He would talk animatedly about the concepts in Chinese culture where the code of behaviour was in harmony with the natural order and was ingrained in the people. He was passionate about acquiring knowledge with the intention of making others more human – not just clever.
This great man laughed at himself, a great quality that the so called great arrogant men of today lack and therefore drive them to become Tyrants. He laughed at his mistakes. He laughed at his lack of understanding truth; he laughed at things he could not do, he said especially singing, but one day we forced him to sing a few lines of his favourite song by Jim reeves –Across the bridge, the words he believed passionately, a song, he said lifted up his soul. He never forced his family to share this belief; never forced his way of life on them- but they saw that he walked the talk’ so they followed, I hope continuing across the bridge.
In an era when you can hear repetitions of a song “Who let the dogs out?” he excelled and marvelled at the great musicians. When the late Pundith Amaradeva was invited to a Maths Olympiad to sing, he had asked this great man what the relationship is between mathematics and music, and without pulling out his latest model of apple hand-held (which he did not have) where most of the world’s brains are stored today, he quoted Leibnitz –In music the soul counts without knowing it is counting and Pundith Amaradeva had smiled and bowed in appreciation. This great man lamented the passing away of this great singer, and wondered whether people have time to listen to soul uplifting music- music that uplifts the soul,
In an era when ones enjoyment is counted by pursuits of high pressure leisure in theme parks or ones taste buds are tickled with months old bread and meats he enjoyed the piece of butter cake which his beloved wife gave him with his tea and would encourage us to devour the fantastic murukku which she made for everybody – even frozen and taken abroad, his son said.
In an era when technology has enslaved all of us, he lamented the lack of face to face encounters in families, in societies; he wanted people to control technology and not let technology control them as we find in this era. In fact he bemoaned the lack of the ability of the teachers of science and technology to integrate the world around us, the peoples, the environment with it. He lamented at the way technology has raped our beloved earth and how governments for a pittance, goes in for short term gains, with leaders who have no clue whatsoever about the God given mandate to look after the earth and replenish it, but have destroyed the earth – we remember these days, the tragedy at Meethotamulla, brought about by the godless leaders of this land. He must be weeping.
He laughed at – no, he never laughed at people, but mourned the lack of wisdom of the so called great scientists, He lamented seeing a full page article recently by a famous Sri Lankan Astro-physicist, a former student of his, for having forgotten basic mathematics – scientists who try to merge the questions of How? in science with the question of Why? in religion; he said how come they have forgotten Gödel’s incompleteness theorem; one cannot have both completeness and consistency;
In an era, where we pooh poohfy cartoons, pushing them aside as meant for little kids, he delighted at the depth of insight Calvin has in his beloved cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes. In an era when people love to flout their acquired knowledge willing to laud it over their peers and the rest of the society just to impress them – as if greatness could be measured by the type of books they read – this great man praised Calvin and Hobbes and marvelled at the depth of Calvin’s understanding of the real world and would tickle him to laughter and just to see the delightful smile on this great man’s face was a real treat for us who knew him even though for a very short time.
Or as Oliver Goldsmith would say of this great teacher one could gaze and wonder that his head could carry all he knew – about Plato, Galileo, Confucius, Newton, Goethe, Schweitzer, Immanuel Kant, De Chardin, Tagore, Nietzche, Marx, Heidigger, Tesla ,….and of course his idol Einstein….most of the world’s greatest thinkers and contributors to the worlds enrichment. The wonder of it all was at his age was the ability of his to bring their teachings to mind in an instant.
We are so glad that he lived to see his book on Dynamics translated and published. His dear wife, who he loved greatly (we heard it in his tones) needs to be acknowledged for having been instrumental in seeing it completed, and we thank you.
Yet, above everything he followed his Greatest Teacher, the teacher even Einstein referred to as the Transcendental God. He followed the teachings of God, walking in the footsteps of Jesus whose resurrection we celebrated a few weeks ago. He exemplified him in thought word and deed. He knew Jesus’ teaching that any man who wants to be the master has to be a servant and he who wants to be the lord has to become a slave, He knew that to enter into heaven one must become like a little child. He knew to be content in plenty and content in want. He knew what it meant to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for orphans and widows, honour all men and women. He knew that the First in this fleeting world will be Last in the Eternal Kingdom. He knew that his identity did not lie in what he did but what he was in the sight of God; an adopted son of the ruler of the Universe; a prince, not exemplified as the earthly kings and queens, but in the example of a naked man hung on the cross who died to rise again giving all humankind Hope and meaning to all what they strive to achieve on earth, to look after the earth and replenish it, to the Glory of its Creator.
As William Blake would have written of this great man Professor Joseph saw a World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a wild flower; held Infinity in the palm of his hand; and Eternity in an hour.
Auf Wiedersehen, sir, till we meet again!
Rohan Wickramaratne @ the Memorial Service
25th April 2017