The texts of Carlos G. Vallés
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Year 2001
1st
I tell you

Experience

I’ve been to the WORLD JAINA CONVENTION in Chicago, and, from the many beautiful memories I’ve brought with me from there, I’m going to chose a particularly telling one.

In the huge dining hall of the Rosemont Centre ten thousand people took their meals in perfect order and record time. The food was delicately vegetarian, without any trace of meat, fish, eggs or anything that grows under the earth, in the noble effort of avoiding violence in the food we take and which consequently affects what we are.

There were in the assembly a few Jain nuns, dressed in pure white, and with a little piece of cloth before their mouths to prevent violence done to the air with their breath, since the air too is alive and sensitive to the way we pronounce our “b’s” or “p’s” that hurt its delicate invisible texture. (The veil is not, as naive tourists are told in India, to avoid swallowing insects, as nobody there is so silly as to go on swallowing insects in their path.) They did remove the veil while they eat, but of course they eat in silence, preferably standing in a corner and taking the food delicately with their right hand.

They always beg for their food, wherever they may be, only making sure that they beg from Jain families about whose dietetic purity they may be sure. On those days their begging task was made easier by the fact that they had only to present their begging bowl to the waiters to get the food they needed.

I was passing their way in search of a place to seat and eat myself, when one of the nuns saw me, recognised me and told me by gestures something I immediately understood. She was asking me that I would put the food in her bowl instead of the waiter. This had its meaning. The fact of giving food to a begging nun or a monk (which even has its special name, “vahorvum”) is considered an act of great religious merit for the one who gives and for the one who receives. She thus, in a beautiful gesture, wanted to offer me such merit while she felt honoured at being served by me.

That gesture touched my heart. It was for me a blessed moment; perhaps the most intimate in all those days. I served her, though very little quantity as she indicated by gestures she eat only a little. I looked at her eyes as she too looked at mine while she smiled behind her white veil, we bowed to each other in unity, and she went for her light meal to a corner.

I looked for an empty place and sat down for my vegetarian meal with greater joy than if I had before me the most sophisticated menu in the world. We, westernised people, were even supplied with a little plastic spoon in case we would not like to eat with our hands. But the food felt much more tasty eating with our fingers. I even put on weight those days.

Long quotation

[This is what the horse in Tolstoy’s famous “The Story of a Horse” thinks about the humans it is getting to know:]

“It was perfectly dark to me what humans meant by the words “my” horse, “his” horse, which seemed to indicate some sort of bond between me and the groom that looked after me. Wherein consisted this bond I could not tell. I could not understand at all that it meant that they considered “me” the “property” of a man. To say “my” horse in reference to me, a live horse, seemed to me as strange as to say, “my earth”, “my atmosphere”, “my water”.

But these words had a monstrous influence on me. I pondered on them ceaselessly; and only after long and varied relations with men did I come at last to comprehend the meaning that men find in these strange words.

The meaning is this: Men rule in life, not by deeds, but by words. They love not so much the possibility of doing or not doing anything, as the possibility of talking about different objects in words agreed on between them. Such words, considered very important among them, are the words, “my”, “mine”, “ours”, which they employ for various things, beings, and objects; even for the earth, people, and horses. In regard to any particular thing, they agree that only one person shall say, “It is mine”.

And he who in this play, which they engage in, can say “mine” in regard to the greatest number of things, is considered the most fortunate among them. Why this is so, I know not; but it is so.

Many of the men who, for instance, called me their horse, did not ride on me, but entirely different men rode on me. They themselves did not feed me, but entirely different people fed me.

Afterward, as I widened the sphere of my experiences, I became convinced that the concept “my” as applied not only to us horses, but to other things, has no other foundation than a low and animal, human instinct, which they call the sentiment or “right of property”. Man says “my house”, and never lives in it, but is only cumbered with the building and maintenance of it. The merchant says, “my shop” – my clothing shop, for example – and he does not even wear clothes made of the best cloth in his shop.

There are people who call land theirs, and have never seen their land, and have never been on it. There are men who call other people theirs, but have never seen these people; and the whole relationship of these owners to these people, consists in doing them harm.

I am convinced now that herein lies the substantial difference between men and us, horses. And, therefore, not speaking of other things where we are superior to men, we are able boldly to say that in this one aspect at least we stand, in the scale of living beings, higher than men. The activity of men – at all events, of those with whom I have had to do – is guided by words; ours, by deeds.”

Brief quotation

[José Saramago ends with these words his famous novel, “Essay on Blindness”]

“We all are blind people. Blind people who see. Blind people who, seeing, don’t see.”

Story

[In the Chicago meeting I told the first part of this story, the only one I had learned in India, and then after my talk someone told me the second part that I did not know. I’m telling both parts here now:]

[First part:] A scorpion wanted to pass to the other side or the river, but could not swim. So he asked a frog to take him on her back and swim with him to the other side. The frog refused, fearing that the scorpion would sting her in midstream, but the scorpion argued that he would do no such thing, as then he would drown and die himself. The frog understood, took the scorpion piggyback and started swimming. When the had reached the middle of the waters the scorpion lifted his deadly tail and stung the frog. The frog plaintively complained: “Why did you do that? Now we’re going to die both of us.” The scorpion excused himself: “I’m very sorry, dear frog…, but you see, that’s the way I am.”

[Second part:] The frog died, but the scorpion manages to approach the other shore with great effort. A man saw him, took pity on him, lifted him from the water and took him in his hand to save his life. The scorpion then stung him in his hand. The man shook his hand in pain, and the scorpion fell again in the waters. The man picked him up again…, and the scorpion stung his hand again. When this was going to happen for the third time, a passer-by who had watched the whole scene asked the man: “Why do you that if the scorpion stings you again every time?” And the man answered: “Yes, I understand. But you see…, that’s the way I am.”

Any moral to the story?

Anecdote

When the French composer Bizet was composing his opera “Carmen”, which is easily the most popular of all times among all musical theatre works, and whose characters, plot and locale are all set in Spain, his friends proposed to him to tour Spain in order to feel the direct touch of its music, its people and its atmosphere. But he answered: “Never! That would ruin my work.” [Don’t we say that the map is not the territory? Someone, here, did not want to look at the territory in order not to have to change his map.]

Chinese proverb

“The bird that fell without an arrow.”

Geng Lei was a famous archer of the state of Wei. One day while he was on an excursion outside the city with the King of Wei, he saw a bird circling in the sky. The King asked him to down the goose with an arrow. He answered: “I don’t have to use an arrow. I can just make the bird fall down from the sky with my arch.” “Do you have that marvellous skill?” asked the King. Presently they saw the wild goose flying from the east. Geng Ying twanged the string of his bow and indeed the wild goose at once dropped to the ground in front of them. “You’re really a wonderful archer”, said the King with approval. Geng Lei said, “This is a wounded wild goose. From its desolate cry and tired flight you can see its wound has not yet healed. When it heard the twang of my bow-string, it thought it was again hit by an arrow and fell from the sky.”

[Best Chinese Idioms, p.292]

You tell me

[Guillermo Rodríguez from Argentina has told me this beautiful story of a great violinist. I only feel the itch to know which piece was he performing at that moment.]

On November 18th, 1995, Itzhak Perlman went on the stage to give a concert in the Avery Fisher Hall of the Lincoln Center en New York. To climb the stage is no small feat for him. He was afflicted by polio when he was a child, wears braces on both legs, and can walk only with the help of crutches. To watch him walk on the stage, from one end to the other, step by step, slowly and painfully, is a moving experience. He walks carefully but majestically to his chair. Then he sits down, slowly places his crutches on the floor, opens the braces of his legs, puts back one foot and extends the other forward. Finally he bends down, collects violin and arc, straightens himself up, places the violin under his chin and makes a sign to the conductor to tell him he is ready.

All that he did on that day. The audience knew the ritual and followed it with reverence. But then something happened. As he had just finished playing his first bars, a string in his violin snapped loose, and all heard the loud twang that had spoiled his instrument. All present thought: “Now he’ll have to get up again, lock the braces, collect the crutches and limp outside the stage to repair the accident.” But it was not so. Instead, he paused for an instant, closed his eyes, and signalled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra started again, and he entered right on cue when it came. He played with such a passion, such strength and such clarity as never before.

Anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work on the violin with only three strings. But that precisely was what he did that night. He rearranged instantly in his head the fingering, the changes of string, the jumps and combinations, and he played the whole piece as though nothing had happened.

When he finished, an impressive silence hushed the whole hall. Then the whole public stood up, gave him a standing ovation, shouted and clapped in full appreciation of what he had done. He smiled back, wiped the abundant perspiration from his forehead, lifted his arch to silence the applause, and said, without a trace of showing off but in a quiet, thoughtful and reverent tone: “Here you see; sometimes the work of the artist is to find out how much music we can perform with what we are left with.”

Could this not be the definition of life itself?

Psalm

Psalm 34: “I am your salvation”

“Let me hear you declare: I am your salvation.”I know that you are my salvation, Lord; but now I want to hear it from your own lips. I want the sound of your voice, the firmness of your gesture. Let me hear you directly and personally, addressing me in my own heart. Let me receive from you the message of hope and redemption for my life: “I am your salvation.”

And once I have received from you the message of salvation, I trust I will see it carried out in the trying vicissitudes of my daily life. You are always with me, and you are my salvation, so that now I can expect this salvation to work its wonders for me day to day as I need your help, your guidance and your strength. If you are truly my salvation, make me feel it so effectively in the daily difficulties that beset me.

In particular, Lord, save me from the people who wish me ill. There are such people round me, and the burden of their jealousy bears down heavily upon my powers of endurance. There are people who rejoice when I encounter misfortune, and laugh when I fall.

“When I stumbled they crowded round rejoicing,
they crowded about me;
nameless ruffians jeered at me
and nothing would stop them.
When I slipped, brutes who would mock even a hunchback
ground their teeth at me.
O Lord, how long will you look on
at those who hate me for no reason?
Let no treacherous enemy gloat over me
nor leer at me in triumph.”
I do not mean to complain about anybody, Lord; they know their intentions and they handle their consciences; but I do feel at times the friction, the tension, the enmity that harden faces and strain relationships. I want to look on everybody as a friend, and on every co-worker as a partner. But I find that difficult in a world of competition and backbiting and jealousy.

What I want is for me to accept personally everybody, so that by my accepting others, they may come in turn to soften their stand and to accept me. Remove all bitterness from my heart and make me kind and gently, to invite kindness and gentleness from others and to clear the air wherever I live and wherever I work.

Be my salvation by redeeming me and all those I live with and deal with from the blight of jealousy. Let us all rejoice at the good that each one does, let each one take as done by himself whatever his brother has achieved.

“Then I shall rejoice in the Lord
and delight in his salvation.”

1st
I tell you

ExperienceMy phone rings. An unknown feminine voice informs me: “I’m calling you on behalf of [such a firm]; my name is [so and so]; we are conducting a survey on [such and such a subject]. I would need to speak, if you agree, with a person between fourteen and fifty years of age. Is there any such person in your house who could answer my questions? It will not take more than three minutes.” I answer politely: “I’m sorry, but there is no one of that age here.” – “Sorry for the trouble, and thank you.” – “No trouble at all. You’re welcome.” And we both hang up.

We old people are not reckoned with. Our opinion, our attitude, our experience don’t count. We are not between ages fourteen and fifty. And fifty is generous. Other surveys stop at forty. Apparently we don’t buy, we don’t travel, we don’t struggle. We don’t live by night, we don’t dance, we don’t prance. We don’t know the last singer’s last best-selling record. We are no use at all, and they hang up on us quickly. They scratch out our name from their list and they dial the next number. In that other house, yes, there is a fifteen-year old girl who takes up the phone eagerly and probably keeps talking for more than three minutes. So the statistics grow. And those statistics define later the life style to be followed.

I go through several days’ e-mail and pick up a few messages. One is a reaction to an answer of mine to a delicate question. It says: “This is the first honest answer I’ve yet received in this matter.”

Another: “At last I’ve found someone I can trust. Please read on. Just writing to you I feel relief.”

Another: “Look well after yourself, Charlie, we need you.”

Another: “Here you are very much loved.”

Another: “Sonny, whatever you write is a joy to read.”

It would seem we are still of some use. Or is it that they have not asked me my age?

Short story[From “El Conde Lucanor”, abridged and modernised. Please, wait for the end for the moral of the story! It comes in verse.]

In a city there lived a poor man with a son who was the best young man in the whole country but could not marry for being so poor. In the same city there lived a rich man with an only girl child who, again, could not marry, not for not being rich but for being of an intolerable character known to all.
The son of the poor man asked his father to arrange his marriage with the rich man’s daughter. His father was shaken and reminded his son of the girl’s character, but the son insisted and his father went to see the rich man, who was a friend of his.

The rich man, on hearing the proposal answered at once: “For heavens’ sake, my friend, if I were to grant your wish I would be a false friend and do you an evil turn, as you have a good son, and, if he would marry my daughter he would soon be dead or wishing he were dead. And don’t think it is that I don’t want to honour our friendship, since I myself would be happy to get rid of her if anyone at all would have her.”

The wedding took place, and according to Arab custom the bride was taken to her husband’s house. The Arabs prepare supper for the newlyweds and lay the table for them, and then they are left alone till the next day. So they did. But the parents of both the bride and the bridegroom were in a great fright thinking the bridegroom would the next day appear dead or maimed.

When the newlyweds were left alone in the house they sat down at table, and before the wife could say anything, the husband looked under the table, saw the dog there and told him in a very aggressive manner: “Dog! Wash our hands!” As the dog did not move, the young man took his sword, run after the dog around the table, cut his head and legs and spread out the bloody mess on the floor.

He came back to the table full of anger and covered with blood, saw the cat and ordered it to bring water for him to wash his hands. The cat did not stir, and the man shouted at it: “You lazy brigand! Did you not see what I did to the dog because he did not do what I had commanded him to do? I swear by God that if you do not do as commanded by me I will deal with you as I dealt with the dog.” He got up in a fury, caught the cat by the hind legs and smashed it against the wall in an even greater rage.

Furious and swearing he went round looking everywhere till he saw his only horse in the stable, and he asked him wildly to give them water to wash their hands. The horse stood still, and the man reviled him: “You stupid horse! Do you think that because I don’t have another horse besides you I am going to forgive you if you don’t obey me? Forget that, because if you don’t obey me I’ll give you a worse death that I have given the dog and the cat. There is no living being on earth whom I would not treat in the same way if it would resist me.” As there was no answer from the horse, he chopped off his head and cut all his body to bits.

When the woman saw that he had killed the horse though he had not another and that he would do the same to whoever resisted him, she saw he was not talking in jest, and was mightily afraid.

Thus the man came back to the table, all fury and blood, and swore that he would kill a thousand horses and men and women if they would not obey his wishes. He kept the bloodied sword in his lap, looked around, and with a fierce look he asked his wife: “Bring water and wash my hands.”

The woman got up at once, brought the water and washed his hands. Then he asked for food, and she served him. They went to bed without the woman having said a word, and the man said: “As this trouble has tired me I want to sleep long. Make sure nobody wakes me up tomorrow, and have my meal ready for me.”

At dawn the next day, the parents of both came to the door, and hearing nothing thought the worse must have happened to the bridegroom. Then between the curtains they saw the wife, and not the husband, and so they feared even more.

When she saw them, she came out running and told them in great earnest: “Are you mad? What are you doing? Don’t make any noise at all, lest you wake him up and then count yourselves for dead and me too with you!” When they heard that they were astonished, and as they learned all that had happened they praised the wisdom of the young man who had known how to be the ruler in his own house.

A few days later, his father-in-law wanted to do the same, and he killed a cock. His wife told him: “By my word, dear husband, you woke up late, and it would be no use for you now to kill a hundred horses. You should have done it earlier, since now, as it is, I know you well.”

“If at the start you don’t fight,
you will remain in your plight.”

[From the book “MOBBING” by Iñaki Piñuel, Sal Terrae Editions.]

Chinese proverb“Just opening a book wins you heaven.”

[From Emperor Song Tai Zhong, who read a book a day just to make sure.]

Anecdote[Leslie Garret, Britain’s most popular soprano, tells this story in her autobiography, “Notes From a Small Soprano”, p.298.]

At my very first book signing, in Cheltenham, a woman only a little older than me came up to the desk. “I’ve been waiting to meet you for a very long time. I just wanted to thank you”, she said. She went on to tell me how she had cared for her elderly mother during her last, terminal illness. Near the end, the mother had been unconscious for much of the time until her daughter played her my recording of the Mozart ‘Alleluia’. “Suddenly, my mother opened her eyes and smiled at me. We talked and talked about music, about that piece and what happy memories it had for her – she had been a singer in her youth, you see – and about the past. It was as if the years, and the pain, had just melted away. Then she closed her eyes again and slept. Two hours later she passed peacefully away.”

[The good we do without knowing it is our greatest consolation. Let us keep singing.]

You tell me

Repeated questions. “It’s two years I’ve been talking marriage with him, but now I’m not sure I want to marry at all.” “I’m due for my last vows in the convent in a few months, but now I have doubts about my final commitment.” “My relationship with my wife is becoming impossible, and I’m beginning to contemplate a peaceful separation before this explodes.” “This year I’m due for priestly ordination, but now I feel afraid to take the step.”

Those who speak like that know very well that nobody is going to answer for them. Each person decides his or her life. But the insistent repetition of such consults prompts me a few considerations.

To question oneself in time is a sign of maturity.

To speak about one’s situation with another person with trust and delicacy can help the questioners clear their own mind.

Risk exists in all situations in life.

Young people today seem little inclined to take up options for life.

There are no general answers, and each person and each case is different.

In my recent visit to Chicago for the World Jain Convention, I was asked to give a talk on marriage. I accepted, and told them my best qualification was to be unmarried. They laughed. I told them the answer Socrates is supposed to have given to a young man who asked him about marriage: “If you marry, you’ll repent; and if you don’t marry, you’ll repent.” They laughed. I added: “Socrates’ quip, precisely for coming from Socrates and for being so general, can also be interpreted in the opposite way: “If you marry, you’ll rejoice; and if you don’t marry, you’ll rejoice.” Here they did not laugh. Maybe it was because this was something deeper and something truer.

Note: It is known that Socrates had a difficult wife. Most probably Xantippa said she had a difficult husband.

Psalm

Psalm 35: The fountain of life

“You are the fountain of life;
and in your light we see the light.”
I want to be alive, to feel alive, to sense the energies of creation surge through all the cells of my body and all the tissues of my soul. Life is the essence of all blessings from God to man, the touch of God’s right hand that makes a lump of clay into a living being, and converts a dormant shape into the king of creation. Life is the glory of God made movement and growth, the divine Word translated into laughter and speech, the eternal love throbbing in the heart of women and men. Life is all that is good and vibrant and joyful. Life is the blessing of blessings.

I want that life for me. For my thoughts and for my feelings, for my encounters and my conversations, for my friendship and for my love. I want the spark of life to kindle all that I do and think and am. I want my step to be quickened, my thought to be sharpened, my smile to be lit by the breaking through of the life from within me. I want to be alive.

And you are the fountain of life. The closer I am to you, the fuller I am with life. The only life is the one that comes from you, and the only way to share it is to be close to you. Let me drink from that fountain, let me sink my hands in it to feel its freshness and its purity and its strength. Let the living waters of that fountain flow through me to vivify me with the play of its waves upon my heart.

You are also the light. In a world of darkness, of doubt and uncertainty, you are the pointed ray, the welcome dawn, the revealing noon. Again, to see I have only to be close to you.

“In your light we see light.”

I want your light, your vision, your point of view. I want to see things the way you see them, I want your perspective, your horizon, your angle on persons and events and the history of man and the vicissitudes of my life. I want to see things in your light.

Your light is the gift of faith. Your life is the gift of grace. Give me your grace and your faith that I may see and live the fullness of your creation with the fullness of my being.

“Your unfailing love, O Lord, reaches to heaven,
your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the lofty mountains,
Your judgements are like the great abyss.
O Lord, who saves man and beast,
how precious is your unfailing love!
The sons of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings;
They are filled with the rich plenty of your house,
And you give them water from the flowing stream of your delights.”
Lord, give me to drink.

 

15th
I tell you

ExperienceIt was only after a continuous stay of twenty years in India that I came back to Spain for the first time. I came out to attend the International Congress of Mathematicians in Moscow, and from there I came to Madrid where I spent some beautiful days with my mother. At the end of my stay I took leave of her again, and then I had an experience that literally shook me. As I boarded the plane that was going to take me back to India, the soft music on the aircraft’s inside address system was, unexpectedly, none other than the religious melody of the song “Abiding Grace” that was one of my favourites in the charismatic repertoire, and that sounded to me at that moment as a loving message from heaven blessing both my mother and me.

Thirty years later, that is last month, I had the opportunity to go to Jaca in the North of Spain near the Pyrinees. That was the place where my father was born and where he is buried. I went to the cemetery to visit his tomb. There I spoke with him and I reminded him of what I always say of him, namely that, though he died when I was only ten years old, he is the person who has exerted a greater influence in my life, and that to the good. I told him that the “Rioja Centre” of Madrid had presented me with “The Golden Chili”, as a distinguished member of that province famous for its capsicums, and that on that occasion I was introduced to an elderly person who told me he was a newspaper correspondent when my father was the engineer in charge of the Ortigosa Dam which he built and now bears his name, and that in the year 1935 he had interviewed my father about the dam on behalf of the daily “La Rioja” which published the interview. And this interview had just now been reprinted in the magazine of the “Rioja Centre” in memory of his. I felt happy telling him those things.

At length I left the cemetery, ready to walk back the two kilometres to Jaca, though the heat now was on. As I came out I was surprised to see a bus which had just arrived and plied every hour between the cemetery and the town. I climbed in gratefully. I sat down, and then I noticed the bus was equipped with a music system. I paid attention to the melody being played as I entered and sat down…, and it was the same that had welcomed me in the plane thirty years ago as I parted from my mother. And now it was replayed as I parted from my father. I came back to Jaca with moist eyes.

Quotation[From the first British Buddhist nun to receive full Bhikshuni ordination, Tenzin Palmo, in her book “Cave in the Snow” which gets its title from the cave in the Himalayas where she spent twelve years entirely alone in study and meditation. P.166]

“People say they have no time for meditation. It’s not true! You can meditate walking down the corridor, waiting for the computer to change, at the traffic lights, standing in a queue, going to the bathroom, combing your hair. Just be there in the present, without the mental commentary. Start by choosing one action during the day and decide to be entirely present for that one action. Drinking the tea in the morning. Shaving. Determine, for this action I will really be there. It’s all habit. At the moment we’ve got the habit of being unaware. We have to develop the habit of being present. Once we start to be present in the moment, everything opens up.”

Short Quotation“An evident truth is something nobody sees till someone expresses it in a simple way.” [Kahlil Gibran]

Wisdom StoryA wise dog passed one day near a group of cats. On approaching, he saw that they were engrossed in some discussion and they were paying no attention to him. So he drew close, stopped and listened to what the cats were saying. A large cat got up in the centre of the group, looked solemnly at all the others and said: “Pray, brethren, and when you do pray and pray and pray, I assure you without any hesitation that the heavens will rain down mice for us.” When the dog heard those words he smiled to himself and went away saying: “Oh foolish and blind cats! As though it were not written, as though I did not know, as though our fathers and forefathers did no know the very truth for all time: what rains down from heaven in answer to our prayers is not mice… it is bones!” [Kahlil Gibran]

Short story[“Naga” (The Cobra) by R.K. Narayan, shortened.] The boy took off the lid of the circular wicker basket and stood looking at the cobra coiled inside, and then said, “Naga, I hope you are dead, so that I may sell your skin to the purse-makers; at least that way you may become useful.” He poked it with a finger. Naga raised its head and looked about with a dull wonder. “You have become too lazy even to open your hood. You are no cobra. You are an earthworm. I am a snake charmer attempting to show you off and make a living. No wonder so often I have to stand at the bus stop pretending to be blind and beg. The trouble is, no one wants to see you, no one has any respect for you and no one is afraid of you; and do you know what that means? I starve, that is all.”

When a number of days passed without any earnings, he decided to rid himself of the snake, throw away the gourd pipe and do something else for a living. Perhaps catch a monkey and train it. A monkey on his shoulder would gain him admission anywhere, even into a palace. Later on, he would just keep it as a pet and look for some other profession. Start as a porter at the railway station – so many trains to watch every hour, and maybe get into one someday and out into the wide world. But the first step would be to get rid of the Naga. He couldn’t afford to find eggs and milk for him.

He carried the snake basket along to a lonely spot down the river course, away from human habitation, where a snake could move about in peace without getting killed at sight. In that lonely part of Nallappa´s grove, there were many mounds, crevasses and anthills. “You could make your home anywhere there, and your cousins will be happy to receive you back into their fold”, he said to the snake.

He opened the lid of the basket, lifted the snake and set it free. It lay inert for a while, then raised its head, looked at the outside world without interest, and started to move along tardily, without any aim. After a few yards of slow motion, it turned about, looking for its basket home.

At once the boy snatched up the basket and flung it far out of the snake’s range. “You will not go anywhere else as long as I am nearby.” He turned the snake round, to face an anthill, prodded it on and then began to run at full speed in the opposite direction. The snake crawled halfway up the hill, hesitated and then turned round and came along in his direction again.

The boy swore, “Oh, damned snake! Why don’t you go back to your world and stay there? You won’t find me again.” He ran through Nallappa’s grove and stopped to regain his breath. From where he stood, he saw his Naga glide along majestically across the ground, shining like a silver ribbon under the bright sun. It was looking for shelter in the basket for protection from the menacing flight of a Brahmany kite in the sky that threatened its life as it could dive with a swoop and carry it off for its dinner as kites do to snakes.

The Naga saw the basket, slithered back into it, as if coming home after a strenuous public performance. The boy reinstated the basket with the cobra in its corner at the hut beside the park wall. He said to the snake, “If you don’t grow wings soon enough, I hope you will be hit on the head with a bamboo staff, as it normally happens to any cobra. Know this: I will not be guarding you forever. I’ll be away at the railway station. No one can blame me afterward.”

[Moral: Do we want to be free?]

You tell me

Maria de las Flores (who has sent me Kahlil’s Gibran story) adds this charming anecdote:
When my sister was small, my mother taught her to pray:
“Dear Little Jesus
jump from the Host,
into my heart deep
as I like most.”
And my little sister asked: “If I say it twice, will he jump twice?”

And she comments: “When, in our life, do we become opaque?”

Psalm

Psalm 36: Wait for the Lord

“Trust in the Lord and do good;
settle in the land and find safe pasture.
Depend upon the Lord, and he will grant your heart’s desire.
Commit your life to the Lord; trust in him and he will act.
Wait quietly for the Lord,
Be patient till he comes;
Do not strive to outdo the successful
Nor envy him who gains his ends.
For evildoers will be destroyed,
But they who hope in the Lord shall possess the land.”
I need those words: “Wait patiently for the Lord”. I am all impatience and hurry and hustle and bustle, and I don’t any more know whether that is holy zeal or just ill temper with me. It is all for your Kingdom, to be sure, for the good of my soul and the service of my neighbour, but there is through it all a sense of inner pressure as though the welfare of mankind depended entirely on me and my efforts. I want to do, to achieve, to bless, to heal, to set right all the evils of the world, beginning, of course, with all the shortcomings of my humble person, and so I have to act, to pray, to plan, to organise, to conquer, to achieve. Too much activity in my little world; too many ideas in my head; too many projects in my hands. And in the middle of my mad rush I hear that single word from on high: Wait.

Wait.

Wait patiently for the Lord.

All my duties, all my obligations, all my plans, all my work in that simple word. Wait. Keep quiet. Don’t run about. Don’t fuss, don’t fret, don’t drive yourself hard and everybody else harder still. Don’t behave as though the whole delicate balance of the cosmos depended every moment on you. Wait and be still. Nature knows how to wait, and its fruits come in due season. The earth waits for the yearly rain, the fields wait for the seeds and the crops, the tree waits for the spring, the tides wait for their appointed time in the heavens, and the burning stars wait ages and ages for the eye of man to discover them and think of the hand that placed them in their orbits.

All creation knows how to wait for the fullness of time that gives it meaning and gathers the harvest of hope into handfuls of joy. Only man is impatient and burns his time. Only I am still to learn the heavenly patience that brings peace to the mind and lets God free to act at his own time and in his own way. The secret of Christian action is not to do but to let God do. “Trust in him and he will act.”

If I only would let you do in my life and in my world what you want to do! If I only would learn not to interfere, not to be anxious, not to fear that all will be lost if I don’t keep things tightly in hand! If I only had faith and trusted you and would let things to you and let you come when you want and do what you please! If only I would learn how to wait! Waiting is believing, and waiting is loving. Waiting for the coming of Christ is anticipating his coming in the private eschatology of one’s own heart.

Blessed are those who wait, because the joy of meeting will crown the faithfulness of waiting.

1st
I tell you

Experience

The twentieth century begun – unfortunately – on September 11th. On January 1st nothing had happened; it had been a day just like the 31st of December that had preceded it. But September 11th was not like September 10th. Something happened on that day that changed the course of history and marked the new century. It is under that sign that we are now called to live its days.

For me the basic question is how 19 young men, well educated and coming from good families, can commit suicide as a means to murder. And the answer is the mental conditioning to which they had been submitted since childhood. Those truly convinced that their country, their race, their religion, their group is the best in the world, and that they are suffering injustice and have to fight it with all possible means, become the deadliest instrument of destruction ever imagined.

The danger is that we all are conditioned. I have often quoted the sayings of Krishnamurti, “We are all second-hand people”, of Mark Twain, “We are a bundle of prejudices”, of Heidegger, “We all are born being many”. We are what we have been made. And some of those conditionings foster intolerance, intransigence, fanaticism and violence. To clean out all those conditionings is our prime responsibility. We have to learn how to be children of our days with all the seriousness that is coming to us.

On September 11 I was in Berlin when the news struck. Next day I went for a walk in the “Unter den Linden” avenue. I noticed a small group of people that had gathered in a corner before some flowers and candles on the pavement. I drew close. A poster announced solidarity with the victims. And then, unexpectedly, I found myself weeping uncontrollable and abundant tears. I am not so emotional as all that, and I was the first to be taken aback by the experience, but that is what happened. I tell it as it was.

Quotation

“During my first weeks in the new school, the English teacher, Jack Baldwin, gave us a writing assignment that was not very promising: “To strike a match.” I went to the library, looked up encyclopaedias, books on industrial history and chemistry manuals for all kind of information on matches. I summed it all up and wrote down more or less systematically all that I had found. Then, rather proud at my achievement, I submitted my essay. Almost immediately, Baldwin asked me to go and see him in his office hours. That was something totally new to me, and in my old school the teachers had no offices, let alone office hours.

Baldwin’s office was a homely little room with all postcards on the walls. We sat facing each other on two informal chairs and he congratulated me on my research. “But is that the most interesting way to examine what happens when someone strikes a match? What happens when the one who strikes it is trying to set fire to a forest, or to light a candle in a cave, or, metaphorically, to throw light on the darkness of a mystery like gravity, as Newton did?”

For the first time in my life, literally, a teacher was putting before me a topic in a way that it made me react with promptness and enthusiasm. All that had been repressed and stifled in my academic life – repressed in order to deliver long and proper answers to fit standard questions and routine examinations essentially designed to show retentive capacity instead skill in criticism and imagination – woke up in me suddenly, and the complex process of intellectual discovery (as well as self-discovery) has not stopped ever since.”

[Edward W. Said, “Out of Place”, p.315]

Short Quotation

Krishnamurti: “What can I do to end violence in Vietnam? Ending the violence I carry within me.”

Anecdote

The Zen master Taisen Deshimaru tells how the sculptor Kanyasu wanted to carve a life-size wooden statue of him in meditation posture to enter a prize-awarding competition, and he agreed. Those were war times, when the Chino-Japanese war was about to start in 1937, and yet in the midst of that tense atmosphere that peace-inspiring statue won the first prize. The sculptor was very poor, and, as he had not been able to pay Deshimaru anything for the trouble of sitting for him, he presented him with his own statue.

Short story

[“The Bound Man” by Ilse Aichinger, shortened]

Sunlight on his face woke him, but made him shut his eyes again. He discovered that he was bound. A thin rope cut into his arms. His legs were tied all the way up to his thighs; a single length of rope was tied round his ankles, criss-crossed all the way up his legs, and encircled his hips, his chest and his arms. He could not see where it was knotted. He showed no sign of fear or hurry, as he discovered that the rope allowed his legs some free play, and that round his body it was almost loose. This made him smile, and it occurred to him that perhaps children had been playing a practical joke on him.

He decided to stand up. He drew his knees up as far as he could, rested his hands on the fresh grass and jerked himself to his feet. He began to hop like a bird. He tried walking, and discovered that he could put one foot before another if he lifted each foot a definite distance from the ground and then put it down again before the rope tautened. In the same way he could actually swing his arms a little. He felt in control of himself again, and his impatience to reach the nearest village faded.

The animal-tamer who was camping with his circus in the field outside the village saw the bound man coming down the path. The bound man moved slowly, to avoid being cut by the rope, but to the circus proprietor what he did suggested the voluntary limitation of an enormous swiftness of movement. He was enchanted by its extraordinary gracefulness, and walked across the field to approach him. The first leaps of a young panther had never filled him with such delight.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the bound man!” His very first movements let loose a storm of applause in the circus. The bound man rose to his feet. He knelt, stood up, jumped, and turned cart-wheels. The spectators found it as astonishing as if they had seen a bird which voluntarily remained earthbound, and confined itself to hopping. The bound man became an enormous draw. His fame grew from village to village. “Ladies and gentlemen, the bound man!”

Many wanted a close-up view of how he was bound. So the circus proprietor announced after each performance that anyone who wanted to satisfy himself that the knots were real and the rope not made of rubber was at liberty to do so. The difference between him and the other performers was that when the show was over he did not take off his rope. The result was that every movement that he made was worth seeing, and the villagers used to hang about the camp for hours, just for the sake of seeing him get up from in front of the fire and roll himself in his blanket.

The circus proprietor often remarked that there was no reason why he should not be untied after the evening performance and tied up again next day. But the bound man’s fame rested on the fact that he was always bound, that whenever he washed himself he had to wash his clothes, and that his only way of doing so was to jump in the river just as he was every morning when the sun came out.

On one of those days a young wolf escaped from the circus. The circus proprietor kept quiet about it, to avoid spreading alarm, but the wolf soon started raiding cattle in the neighbourhood. The circus soon became suspect. Eventually the circus was openly blamed for the damage and the danger, and spectators stayed away.

The bound man was one day in one of the surrounding woods when he saw the gleam of two little green lights. He stopped. The animal came towards him through the thinning foliage. If he had not been bound, perhaps the man would have tried to run away, but as it was he did not even feel fear. He stood calmly with dangling arms and looked down at the wolf’s bristling coat, under which the muscles played like his own underneath the rope. He thought the evening wind was still between him and the wolf when the beast sprang. The man took care to obey his rope.

Moving with the deliberate care that he had so often put to the test, he seized the wolf by the throat. He flung himself at the animal and brought it to the ground. He felt his own grip almost effortlessly reaching its maximum. The wolf died.

The circus proprietor’s wife tried to persuade her husband to announce the death of the wolf without mentioning that it had been killed by the bound man. People would not believe it. But he was not to be dissuaded. He thought that the announcement of the bound man’s act would revive the triumphs of the summer.

People did not believe him. They challenged the bound man to repeat his battle with the wolf. The proprietor brought out another of his wolves, and the people watched. The bound man was ready. He had never felt so much at one with his rope. But as the wolf was let loose, he felt someone had cut the rope between his hands with a knife. The proprietor’s wife wanted by all means to save his life. The rope curled up in a tangle beside him while he struggled free. And he felt suddenly weak. The wolf crouched to spring. The man reeled, grabbed the pistol that hung ready at the side of the cage, and shot the wolf between the eyes. Then he flew.

[We don’t know how to be free. Am I repeating myself?]

You tell me

A Jesuit friend, a priest himself, tells me how he answers personal questions of a delicate kind. He tells me: “Traffic lights are essential for transportation in the city. They have to be obeyed. But the firemen do not obey them. They let their siren sound and launch ahead. Ambulances from hospitals do not obey them either. They jump them at full speed and full sound. Even the traffic policeman can signal me to jump a red light, and if I don’t obey him he can fine me. Well, the law is the traffic lights, and I am the traffic cop. Did you like it?” An my friend smiled.

Psalm

Psalm 37: Prayer of a Sick Man

Sickness has struck me, and I have lost my courage. So long as my body was feeling well, I took health for granted. I am a strong, healthy man, can eat anything and sleep any where, can put in any amount of hours of work, can rough it out, can brave the sun in summer, the snow in winter, and the sickly wetness of the long monsoon months. I may have a passing headache or a sneezing cold, but I spurn medicines and ignore doctors, and I know that my trustworthy body can pull me through any crisis and defy any microbes or bacteria in the interest of my work which cannot wait as it is work for people and for God. I am proud of my strength and count on it to keep on working without rest and living without care.

But now sickness has come and I am down. Down in my body between the burning sheets of a hospital bed, and down in my soul under the humiliation and the perplexity of my broken strength. My head is reeling, my temples are throbbing, my whole body is aching, my chest has to force itself to breathe. I have no appetite, no sleep, no desire to see anybody, and above all no desire to be seen by anybody in my hour of misery which looks as though it were to last for ever. If my body fails me, how can I go on living any more?

“My iniquities have poured over my head;
they are a load heavier than I can bear.
My wounds fester and stink because of my folly.
I am bowed down and utterly prostrate.
All day long I go about as if in mourning,
For my loins burn with fever,
And there is no wholesome flesh in me.”
But now, in the long hours of my enforced idleness, my thoughts turn of necessity to my body, and I begin to see it in a new light and to recover a relationship with it I should have never lost. My body’s sickness is its language, its way of telling me that I was misusing it, ignoring it, despising it, while it is very much part of me. As a child cries when no attention is paid to it, so my body cries because I have neglected it. Those cries are its fever and its weakness and its pain. And now I listen to them and grasp their meaning and accept their wisdom.

We’ll go together through life, my dear body, hand in hand and heart to heart, with the rhythms of your flesh giving expression to the tides of thought and feeling that swell and ebb inside my mind. Smile when I rejoice, and tremble when I fear; relax when I rest, and tense every nerve when I concentrate. Warn me of coming dangers, signal your fatigue before it is too late, and radiate your approval when you feel fine and like my doings and enjoy life with me.

Thank you, Lord, for my body, my faithful companion and trusty guide in the paths of life. And thanks even for this sickness that brings me closer to it and teaches me to take care of it with love and providence. Thank you for reminding me of my whole self, of reuniting me again, of making me whole. And as a sign of your blessing, as a recognition that this sickness came from you to awaken me to the totality of my being, heal now my body which you have created and restore to me the joy of health and strength to go on living with zest and confidence, to go on working for you mindful now that it is not only my mind and my soul that work, but my body with them in loving unity and faithful cooperation. When I pray is now the whole of me that prays to you.

“Lord, do not forsake me;
keep not far from me, my God.
Hasten to my help,
O Lord my salvation.”

 

15th
I tell you

Experience

Last summer I visited the city of Jaca in northern Spain, where I had lived for a time as a boy. I went to the Carmel Church where I used to serve Mass every day. I remember that sometimes, (not every day!) the priest would give us at the end as a tip five cents of a peseta… which was something at the time.

One day the bishop of the diocese came to our church, and my brother and I served his Mass. At the end he gave us twenty-five cents each. That was a capital in those days, and the fact is that I remember the event though I was only twelve at the time.

Now, in this visit, I was anonymously and lovingly attending Mass in that same church. The only changes were that the altar was now facing the people, and the Mass was in Spanish instead of Latin.

At the offertory the collection was made. I thought: “The gospel rule is the hundred per cent.” I took a twenty-five peseta coin, as one peseta is a hundred cents, and place it in the basket with a smile. Nobody realised the mischief.

Next time it’ll be in euros.

Quotation

A Chinese Zen master, Shu Chou, spoke of two great diseases of the mind which afflict contemplatives. He described these diseases in simple images as “Looking for the ass on which you are actually riding”, and “having realised that you are riding on the ass, being unwilling to get off”.

From the Zen point of view, looking for the ass is looking for some special secret of spiritual perfection, some hidden infallible method, some esoteric state of mind which is the property of initiates, making them superior to everyone else.

We are already riding on the ass; that is to say, the ordinary experience of everyday life is the “place” where enlightenment is to be sought. “I tell you”, says Shu Chou, “do not search for the ass.”

On the other hand: “Having found the ass, but being unwilling to dismount: this disease is the hardest to heal.” Here he means that one becomes attached to the special awareness that one’s everyday mind contains the secret one has been looking for. One is now secure that one possesses “the answer”, and therefore one clings to it, one puts one’s security in the fact of “having an answer”.

But one must get off the ass, one must forget even that one has the answer. “What I say to you is: do not ride. You yourself are the ass, and everything is the ass. Why do you go on riding? If you do, you cannot dispel your disease.

[“Thomas Merton on Zen”, p.56]

Short Quotation

“Learn the rules… if only to know how to break them properly.”

[Zen]

Humour

[This page in Martin Amis’ autobiography, “Experience” (p.3), made me laugh, as I hope will make parents of small children laugh.]

– Dad.
– Yes?
– How big’s the boat that’s taking us to Portugal?
– I don’t know really. Pretty big, I should think.
– As big as a killer whale?
– What? Oh yes, easily.
– As big as a blue whale?
– Yes, of course, as big as any kind of whale.
– Bigger?
– Yes, much bigger.
– Never you mind how much bigger. Just bigger is all I can tell you.

……….

– Dad.
– Yes? If two tigers jumped on a blue whale, could they kill it?
– Ah, but that couldn’t happen you see. If the whale was in the sea the tigers would drown straight away, and if the whale was…
– But supposing they did jump on the whale?
– Oh, God. Well, I suppose the tigers’d kill the whale eventually, but it’d take a long time.
– How long would it take one tiger?
– Even longer. Now I’m not answering any more questions about whales or tigers.

………

– Dad.
– Oh, what is it now?
– It two sea-serpents…

Wisdom story

There once was a man who, though he had been born in the State of Yen, he had always lived in the State of Chu, and only in his old age did he come back to his native country. In the journey, as the travellers were passing through the State of Chin, his travelling companions playing him a joke. They pointed at the city and told him: “This is the capital of the State of Yen.” At those words he was taken up with joy.

They showed him a temple and told him: “This is the temple of your village.” And he breathed piously.

They pointed to a house and added: “Your ancestors lived here.” And his eyes filled with tears.

Finally they took him to a parapet and told him: “Here are buried the remains of your forefathers.” The poor man broke down sobbing.

Then his travelling companions laughed at him loudly and they told him: “We are fooling you. We are still in the State of Chin.”

The poor man was mortified and, when they really reached the State of Yen and saw the true temple and his ancestors’ tomb, he was not so much moved.

You tell me

You have asked me about the story of the cats that prayed believing mice would rain, and dogs that believed bones would rain when they prayed. The point is that dogs gnaw bones whole cats eat mice, and each one imagines the answer to one’s prayers as what one fancies. Shall I explain further?

***

[Kalpana Patel, from New York, has sent me her experience on September 11th.]

We are three miles from WTC and when the first attack took place we could see WTC One in flames from the roof of our building. We had six consultants working in WTC and a few clients. Shalin was one of them. Nina called crying, frantic. What could I tell her? When I came back to the office I found out that Nina had called again to tell me that Shalin is OK but is trapped in the WTC lobby and will be rescued in two or three hours.

Meanwhile we watched WTC Two being hit and collapsing. Thousands of employees working in the city near our office crossed the bridge and walked in silence. Many of them crying, holding hands. Where do we go? What shall we do? We stayed calmed and collected for four hours.

I wanted to meet Shalin so badly. I hugged him and held him crying. Those ten minutes saved about 25.000 lives. If it was not for those fire fighters and rescuers the number would have been much larger.

The day after the attack Mayor Giulani requested all of us to return to work, pray, mourn but stay productive. Many of us listened to him and came to the office with red eyes, tears running down, wearing black clothes and US flag pins. We could not do any work but we all came and stayed together. Everytime you heard a story about a missing person or you saw ground zero, you cried. I was heartbroken for almost three days. Then came a sense to contribute and help. We registered ourselves to assist small business by providing our office space, computers, phones, staff and any other help they needed. It still did not feel enough.

We decided to take a walk to zero ground,, holding passes to see our clients. We walked two miles before approaching Church Street. All shops were open but empty. Business owners were sitting outside on chairs. Candles were lighted, flags were displayed and all was quiet. The atmosphere was very sad.

We all went to Union Square to be with other New Yorkers, families of those missing holding there pictures, posters, messages of missing. Messages were everywhere, on walls, in hands, on trunks of trees. I met a man in is late sixties holding a poster of his daughter saying, “Have you seen her?” I wished him and told him that our prayers are with him. He gave me a big hug with tears in his eyes and told me that he had lost his wife last year and his daughter left at seven in the morning from his house to be at work in time. There were thousands of families like him wishing to find someone when they were last seen. After the sight, I could not sleep for a few nights.

Paul Portacio, Chief Technical Officer at Guy Carpenter, called me after a week to describe how he lost 31 people in WTC One on the 84th floor, and how they were trying to reach him for help through pagers and cell phones, and how many funeral services he had attended. Paul who is six feet tall and always displays strength and leadership was crying.

It is true that USA was caught off guard.

Psalm

Psalm 38 – Prayer of a Tired Man

I am tired, Lord. I am fed up with life. People say that life is short. To me it now looks long, eternally long. I don’t know what to do with my life. I could still live double the years I’ve lived, maybe three times more, and I shudder at the thought of it. The burden, the routine, the boredom of it all. It is not so much the suffering I complain of now, but the sheer weariness of living. To walk the same streets again, to do the same chores again, to meet the same people, to say the same meaningless words. Is that life? And if that is life, is it worth living at all?

“Lord, let me know my end.”

It seems a dreadful prayer, and yet it is my only consolation now. Let me know my end. Let me know that this dreary existence will come to an end, that one day it will be over and there will be no more walking without aim, no more living without meaning. Let me at least know that this will not go on for ever, not for long, please; life is so painfully dull, so mercilessly repetitive.

I dread the chair on which I sit, I hate the table on which I write, I cannot bear the sight of these four walls that encompass my life and limit my existence. They speak of prisoners in jail. What does it matter whether the jail has high walls or low, so long as I don’t get out of them and they determine my daily routine with deadly efficiency! Tomorrow’s ways the same as today’s, just as today’s were the same as yesterday’s and so on as far as my memory goes. “Making a living”, that is what they call it. Has anybody yet thought of living a living?

I am tired, Lord, and you know it. Still I feel some relief in saying it before you, not as a complaint, not even as a prayer, if you understand me, but just as a confidence, a talk between friends, a letting off steam before one who understands and wants to listen in sympathy. Mine is the wayfarer’s fatigue, and I want to sit on a stone by the wayside and forget for a moment the weariness of walking on the dusty road. I’ll keep on walking, Lord, but let me rest for a while before starting again on the dull journey. The fact that you are near will give me the strength I need to continue.

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
listen to my cry,
hold not your peace at my tears;
for I find shelter with you,
I am your guest,
as all my fathers were.
Frown on me no more
and let me smile again,
before I go away and cease to be.

1st
I tell you

Three taxis

I was recently in Berlin, and I had to take taxis occasionally. In fact, only three times. My first taxi-driver was a German. He was precise, courteous, quick and serious. Everything went fine.
The second was an Arab. I gave him the address and he started. It was not necessary to know much about Berlin in order to realise that he was driving in a direction widely different from my destination. I waited, fretted, made sure, kept quiet. When we finally arrived I told him plainly: “You have not taken me straight, but along a roundabout way. You have driven me through the whole of Berlin.” He answered: “Well, not quite the whole of Berlin, but…”. Yes, not the whole to be sure, but certainly quite a bit. His attempt at humour did not placate me. I gave him the amount the meter marked, but I was annoyed. I don’t enjoy being cheated.
My third taxi-driver was an African. He was cheerful, smiling, obliging and charming. He took me straight to the airport, as that was my outgoing trip, and left me with a happy memory.
I accuse myself that for a moment I thought all Germans were serious, all Arabs were suspect and all Africans were charming.

Mysticism

A dweller of Linchiang captured once a fawn and decided to rear it. As soon as it entered his house, however, his dogs looked voraciously at it, showing their teeth and licking their lips. The man was angered and chased them away, but was worried about what his dogs could any day do to his fawn.
From that moment on he every day came before his dogs holding the fawn in his arms, thus teaching his dogs to respect and accept it. Little by little the fawn began to play with the dogs which, obeying their master’s will, became friendly with him.
The fawn grew up, and forgetting he was a deer, came to believe that dogs were his best friends. They romped around together with ever greater familiarity.
Three years passed by. The fawn, already now a grownup stag, saw one day in the street a pack of hounds. He came out immediately to play with them, but they saw him approach and felt in themselves a wild and murderous anticipation. They tore him to pieces and ate him up.
While breathing his last, the young stag kept wondering why was he dying so prematurely.

[The lesson to be drawn from the story is not the moral pessimism that the whole world is bad and one has to protect oneself and not trust anybody in life. That is not the point. The point is simply that everything has to be what it is, and not to pretend to be something else. The deer is a deer, it is made to graze and jump and romp…, and spring into flight on its agile legs as soon as its alert sense of smell brings to its nostrils the faintest whiff of beasts of prey over the horizon. Be what you are. It is a matter of life and death.]

Wisdom story

A dweller of Linchiang captured once a fawn and decided to rear it. As soon as it entered his house, however, his dogs looked voraciously at it, showing their teeth and licking their lips. The man was angered and chased them away, but was worried about what his dogs could any day do to his fawn.
From that moment on he every day came before his dogs holding the fawn in his arms, thus teaching his dogs to respect and accept it. Little by little the fawn began to play with the dogs which, obeying their master’s will, became friendly with him.
The fawn grew up, and forgetting he was a deer, came to believe that dogs were his best friends. They romped around together with ever greater familiarity.
Three years passed by. The fawn, already now a grownup stag, saw one day in the street a pack of hounds. He came out immediately to play with them, but they saw him approach and felt in themselves a wild and murderous anticipation. They tore him to pieces and ate him up.
While breathing his last, the young stag kept wondering why was he dying so prematurely.

[The lesson to be drawn from the story is not the moral pessimism that the whole world is bad and one has to protect oneself and not trust anybody in life. That is not the point. The point is simply that everything has to be what it is, and not to pretend to be something else. The deer is a deer, it is made to graze and jump and romp…, and spring into flight on its agile legs as soon as its alert sense of smell brings to its nostrils the faintest whiff of beasts of prey over the horizon. Be what you are. It is a matter of life and death.]

A New Bible

[Of all the books I’ve read about life in concentration camps in Germany, Russia or China, I’ve been most impressed by the one of Primo Levi, Italian Jew in Auschwitz, “Se questo è un uomo”. Maybe that is because of the following paragraph and its last sentence:]

My new sleeping-plank partner was Resnik. To have a bed companion of tall stature is a misfortune and means losing hours of sleep as the two cannot fit in the narrow strip. I always had tall companions as I am small and two tall ones cannot sleep together. But it could be seen that Resnik, despite everything, was not a bad companion. He spoke little and courteously, he was clean and did not snore. In the morning he offered to make the bed, which was a complicated and difficult operation given our weakness, and he did it quickly and well.
On the march to work, limping in our large wooden shoes on the icy snow, we exchanged a few words, and I found out that Resnyk was Polish. He had lived twenty years in Paris, but spoke an incredible French. He was thirty, but like all of us, could be taken for seventeen or fifty. He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel and moving story, because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity. We told them to each other in the evening, and they took place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and were simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible?
[p.71]

Short Story

WON’T YOU WRITE A STORY ABOUT ME? by the Telugu writer Buchchibabu (shortened).

“Won’t you write a story about me?” asked Kumudam. The question had surprised me a little. Because she had asked me the same question eight years earlier. That evening, trundling a metal hoop with a stick, Kumudam dashed around the backyard. I was twelve then. She was two years younger than me. I would tell her all kind of stories I had invented. The characters in these stories were our neighbourhood boys and girls. Then I would fall into an affected silence. In that silence was heard Kumudam’s voice: “Won’t you tell a story about me?” she said.

That she asked me now the same question surprised me. How in the first instance she had come to know that I wrote stories I could not understand. I was twenty years old then, and an incipient writer. Kumudam was the first woman I knew who, with her question, recognised her own individual identity. The other women I had seen, their lives all began with their marriage. Extend the husband, you have a woman; extended further, husband changes to children.

“What have you got that I should write a story about you?” I said. There was not one special trait in her capable of providing a theme. Kumudam was an ordinary woman. She looked at the ring on her finger, fiddled with it. I asked, “Why did you not invite me to your wedding?” “My mother said that she had sent you an invitation. If you had come, you would have observed everyone and written a story”, said Kumudam.

Born somewhere, sometime, marrying someone assigned by somebody, giving birth to children not knowing why, and somewhere, sometime, dying. What is there to tell a story about? Kumudam was not educated. She was an ordinary woman. You can write about good people, you can write about evil people; but to write about ordinary people is so difficult. What is there to write about?
“What is your husband?”
“Studying for his B.Ed.”
“Going to be a schoolmaster, that means. Is he a good fellow?” She laughed. “What do I know what is good? You should know. You are the one who writes stories.”
I laughed. She went on. “I feel like saying something. Only I don’t know how to say it. I am not educated. But… but… the sun and the moon, I see always. But every time, for some reason, they appear new to me. I drink water everyday, but every time it appears so new… Stars…”
. What story can I write about her?
………

It was four years since we had last met. Kumudam was sitting in the verandah. As I sat on a chair, the old chair cracked under me. Kumudam, suppressing her laughter, asked, “Won’t you write the story of this chair?”
A little girl came up.
“Our little girl. In two months she will be three”, Kumudam said with a little pride.
“You never told me.”
“What is so extraordinary in this? Isn’t this something that happens to everyone?”
“Does she resemble you of her father?”
“I don’t know. You should know. You write stories.”
What kind of story can I write about Kumudam?
………

Six years passed. In the backyard of Kumudam’s house there were so many new plants and trees I had not seen before. The coconut palms, sticking right into the sky, were swinging their crowns as if they were in agreement with the clouds. A baby boy came crawling. In the cluster of the trees moved Kumudam as a star among the clouds. I said, “I am not married yet. I don’t have a job. What is life without a woman and without a job?”
“What if you don’t have a job? Once you get into a job you will become a slave to somebody and will have forfeited your liberty. That women like me are not put to the trouble of doing jobs is a great blessing.”
A grey hair on Kumudam’s head gleamed. “A gray hair”, I said wagging my finger towards where it was. She said, “How long can the body continue to slave for youth?” My eyes were wet with an indescribable sadness.
……..

Four more years passed. I went to her street. In front of Kumudam’s house her eldest daughter was sitting with a baby in her lap.
“Where is your mother?”
“My mother is in the hospital.”
“What is the ailment?”
“Pneumonia.”
I went to the hospital. That pneumonia was a dangerous disease I did not know until then. Finding nothing to talk about, I sat rather worried. Kumudam tried feebly to smile.
“Won’t you write a story about me?”
What could I say.
“What are the doctors saying?”
“Illness is an ordinary thing. What is there so special in it? No need to worry, say the doctors – but what do they know?”
Involuntarily I put my hand over hers. That was the hand with the ring. She pulled back her hand immediately and hid it under the blanket. I was a man. She had recoiled delicately from the subconsciously adulterous gesture.
She closed her eyes and didn’t open them again. In this world they closed, and they opened in another world, those eyes of Kumudam. I walked into the dark night.
She had asked me to write a story about her. What kind of story can I write about Kumudam? She was a real person.

You tell me

A married couple in Chile tells me they have a daughter studying in New York, and they have asked her to leave New York and come back to Chile in view of terrorism danger. What do I think?
I fully respect parental care. But I don’t think this situation calls for any change of place. I already said in the Web that we must combat terrorism on one hand, and we must learn how to live with insecurity on the other. We must assume risks, even if they increase as they are doing now. Withdrawing is yielding to terrorism.
The newspapers carried yesterday the following news. Two young people, Simone and Viviana, got married in Milan on September 9th, two days before the New York tragedy. They had planned to go to Egypt for their honeymoon, but thoughts of racial insecurity at that moment made them change their plans and choose Scandinavia instead for greater safety. They boarded the SAS plane that collided with a light aircraft on the runway of the Milan airport, and died on the spot. If they had gone to Egypt, they would be alive today.
A Sufi story tells of a man in Bagdad who was informed he would die within three days. He immediately went on a long journey and reached Tiflis, to dwell there safely far from his own home. In Tiflis he met a stranger who welcomed him and told him: “I am Death. I was about to start for Bagdad to fetch you. You have saved me the journey. Thanks for coming on your own. Now, come along with me.”
We will not seek unnecessary risks, but we will accept rational ones.

Psalm

Psalm 39: Open my ears!

“You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings,
but an open ear.
In the scroll of the book it stands written
That I should do your will.”
Open my ears, Lord, that I may hear your word, obey your will and follow your law. Make me attentive to your voice, attuned to your accent, that I may at once recognise the messages of your love in the middle of the jungle of noise that surrounds my life.

Open my ears to your word, your scriptures, your revelation in human sound to mankind and to me. Make me love the reading of the pages of Scripture, rejoice in their sound and enjoy their repetition. Let them be music to my ears, rest to my mind and comfort to my heart. Let them awaken in me an instant echo of recognition, of familiarity, of friendship. Let me discover a new meaning in them every time I read them, because your voice is fresh and your message comes straight from you today. Let your word be revelation to me, be strength and joy in my journey through life. Give me ears to listen, to grasp, to understand. Make me sensitive to your word in your scriptures, Lord.

Open my ears to your word in nature, too, Lord. Your word in the skies and the clouds, in the wind and the rain, in the icy mountains and in the fiery depths of this earth you have created for me to live on. Your voice of power and of tenderness, your smile in a flower and your wrath in the tempest, your caress in the breeze and your warning in the peal of thunder. You speak through your works, Lord, and I want the ears and the faith to understand their meaning and live their message. Your whole creation speaks, and I want to be an eager listener to the intimate waves of your cosmic language. The grammar of the galaxies, the syntax of the stars. Your word that steadied the universe is to steady my heart now in blessing and in grace. Fill my ears with the sounds of creation and of your presence in it, Lord.

Open my ears also to your word in my heart. The secret message, the intimate touch, the presence without words. Divine fax of personal news. Let it sound, let it print, let it bring to me moment by moment the living remembrance of your permanent love. Let me hear your silence in my soul, let me guess when you smile and when you frown, let me sense your moods and respond to them with the ready sensitivity of deep faith and steady trust. Let us keep up the dialogue, Lord, without any break, without any blackouts, without any doubts, mistrust or misunderstanding. Your loving word in my willing heart.

And open my ears particularly, Lord, to your word in my brothers to me. You speak to me through them, through their presence, through their needs, through their sufferings and through their joys. Let me hear the human concert of my race around me, the notes I like and notes I dislike, the contrasting melodies, the valiant chords, the measured counterpoint. Let me hear every accent and pay attention to every voice. It is your voice, too, Lord. I want to be attuned to the global harmony of history and society, to join in it and let my life sound as part of it in meaningful accord.

Open my ears, Lord. Grace of graces in a word of sound.

 

15th
I tell you

Races

Today I did a good deed. I went to take the underground, and I saw on the platform a middle-aged black man with two old suitcases and four large bundles waiting for the same train. The train arrived, and I hesitated for a moment. The doors of the train opened, and I approached the man and asked him, “May I help you?” He said, “Yes”. I took his two suitcases while he shouldered his bundles, and I put them on the floor of the compartment by his side. He said, “Thank you, sir.” I smiled back. Both of us stood side by side, the doors closed and the train started.
We did not speak. The compartment was full, and I deemed it better not to trespass on his privacy. My destination arrived before his, the doors opened and I stepped out. As I was getting out I heard a loud voice from behind, “Thank you!” It was he again. I turned my head, smiled at him with my lips and with my eyes, and put up my hand in farewell. The door closed.
I understood. The first time he had thanked me for helping him with the suitcases. That in itself was not a great help. It was only a matter of taking them and putting them into the train which was only a few feet away. He himself was obviously used to do it by himself and would have done it without anybody’s help as he was doing daily. I guessed he was a street vendor who was carrying his bundles with the goods to be displayed on the street as many immigrants do in Madrid. But now he was thanking me for something else. I, a white and elderly man, had come forward to help him, a black man much younger than me, while no one else among the many people who thronged the platform had approached him to help him, although his burden was obvious and he was in the middle of the platform and there were many young people in the crowd. It was the gesture that had touched him. And I was touched when he acknowledged it.
He brightened up my day for me.
And I his day for him.
It is so easy.

Short quotation

“The more you realise, the more you realise there is nothing to realise.”
[Tenzin Palmo, Buddhist nun from England.]

Body and dignity

“I must confess it: after only one week in the concentration camp [Auschwitz] the instinct for cleanliness disappeared in me. I wander aimlessly around the washroom when I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude torso, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) but with great energy. Steinlauf sees me and greets me, and without preamble asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day, an hour longer? I would probably live a shorter time, because to wash is an effort, a waste of energy and warmth. Does not Steinlauf know that after half an hour with the coal sacks every difference between him and me will have disappeared? The more I think about it, the more washing one’s face in our condition seems a stupid feat, even frivolous: a mechanical habit, or worse, a dismal repetition of an extinct rite. We will all die, we are all about to die: if they give me ten minutes between the reveille and work, I want to dedicate them to something else, to draw into myself, to weigh up things, or merely to look at the sky and think that I am looking at it perhaps for the last time; or even to let myself live, to indulge myself in the luxury of an idle moment.
But Steinlauf interrupts me. He has finished washing and is now drying himself with his cloth jacket which he was holding before wrapped up between his knees and which he will soon put on. And without interrupting the operation he administers me a complete lesson.
Precisely because the Lager [concentration camp] was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last – the power to refuse our consent. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.
[“Se questo è un uomo” by Primo Levi, p.46]

Wisdom story

One day the king invited Mulla Naseruddin to a bear hunt, and the Mulla had to accept. After the hunt, a friend asked Naseruddin, “How did you fare in the hunt?” He answered, “Gloriously!” “But I’ve heard you have not even seen a bear between the whole of you!”, was his friend’s comment. “Precisely”, answered the Mulla, “When you are not interested in bears, as is the case with me, the best thing in a hunt is not to see any.”

[Any relation with the Short Quotation from Tenzin Palmo?]

You tell me

They ask me about Borges’ quotation in the Spanish section of my last Web [see “Back pages”, 1 November 2001, Spanish text], how we can call Borges a “mystic”. The question is timely for me, as I’ve just published a book in Spanish on the issue, and in it I defend that we all can have true “mystical” experiences without being “professional mystics” to put it that way. I quote in that book cases from Rabindranath Tagore to Anthony Hopkins with personal experiences that have changed their lives and which they recognise as God’s direct action on them. These experiences are true, personal and deep, and we all can have them as God’s hand reaches down to all of us. Curiously, by one of those synchronies that delight me, today itself in my electronic mail I have received a touching description of one such experience, and I have thanked from my heart the person that has shared it with me. To keep “mystic” prayer for saints like St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross has done us harm. God distributes his gifts generously, and they reach all of us in one way or another. The direct experience of God is a much more common occurrence than we generally believe. I for one believe it is quite common.

[Ricardo Ventura sends me from the Patagonia this inspiring story taken from the daily “La Nación” of 9 October 2001].

It happened last week in Astoria, Queens, New York. The owner of an Egyptian coffee shop, himself an Egyptian, was quietly attending to his customers when two men went it in a rage and kicked the whole place to pieces. They had broken almost everything when the police came and held them. But the owner of the place stoutly refused to see them taken into custody. He forgave them. “I understand their frustration and their anger. I do not justify them, but I forgive them, and that is my right.”
The policemen, against their own wishes, had to let the wrongdoers free. These two came back two hours later and began to put somehow in order all they had pulled down. They apologised and they offered to serve the customers at the bar and to act as bodyguards. The world is full of people like the Astoria’s barman.

Psalm

Psalm 40: Concern for the Poor

Happy the man who has a concern for the helpless!
The Lord will save him in time of trouble.
The Lord protects him and gives him life,
Making him secure in the land.
Thank you, Lord, for your gift to your Church in our days: the gift of concern for the poor, of awareness of injustice and oppression, of awakening to liberation in the souls of men and in the structures of society. Thank you for having shaken us out of our complacency with existing orders, out of acquiescence in inequality and temporising with exploitation. Thank you for the new light and the new courage that have surged through your Church today to denounce poverty and to fight oppression. Thank you for the Church of the poor.

You have moved our thinkers to think, and our men and women of action to act. In our days theology has become liberation theology, and pastors of souls have become martyrs. You have opened our eyes to see in the poor our suffering brothers, members in pain, together with us, of the one body of which you are the Head. You have ended the days in which we wrongly understood conformity with your will as acceptance of injustice, and exhorted the poor to remain poor as though that were your will for them. You don’t want injustice, Lord, you don’t want oppression, and we ask your pardon if we ever used the soothening of your will to justify an unjust order. You have spoken again through your prophets, and we respond in gratitude to the call and the challenge you have put before us. We want to liberate your people again.

You always listened to the plea of the orphan and the widow, and took any injustice done to them as done to you. Now, Lord, it is whole peoples that are orphaned, and entire sections of society that feel destitute as widows without support and without help. Their cry has reached you and you in return have raised a new conscience in us to make us feel solidarity with all those who suffer, and get to work to redress the wrongs that are inflicted on them. We feel privileged that our age has been chosen to be the age of liberation, and our Church to be the Church of the poor. We accept with joy the responsibility of working for a new order in your name, of bringing justice among your children upon earth, so that as all are equal in the love you bestow on them, so they may be equal in the use of the goods you have freely disposed for all your children.

We make this pursuit the goal of our efforts and the aim of our life. We are glad to sense a universal revival all around us, and want to contribute to it with our enthusiasm and our work. We feel strongly in our hearts a concern for the poor, and count ourselves fortunate to have been given that grace by you. Thanks for that contemporary blessing on our generation.

Blesses be the Lord, the God of Israel,
From everlasting to everlasting. Amen, Amen.

1st
I tell you

C-D-F-E

I’ve loved Mozart since I was young, and his music has gladdened my life. That’s why I can allow myself now a little criticism, not for criticism’s sake but in order to learn something from it.
After lightening up our lives with genial melodies, original motives, deep simplicity and playful cheerfulness, Mozart comes to the last symphony in his life, the 41st, so splendid that it was given the name of “Jupiter”, the father of gods and humans, by which it is commonly known. In this his last symphony, Mozart comes to its last movement, the fourth, “Molto allegro”, which closes down all his symphonic creation. And what theme does he build it on? On the trite and hackneyed “C-D-F-E”, which is only those four notes in equal measure, repeated as many times as necessary to end whenever desired.
To make matters worse, this motive does not even come from Mozart. It was, simply, common property of any musician of the time. It appears in a fuge of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, in a quartet by Haydn, and, to top it all, in an earlier Mass by Mozart himself, in which the word “Cre-e-e-do” is sung to the four notes “C-D-F-E”. It was something one had recourse to when one could think of nothing. And Mozart, in the last movement of his last symphony, could just think of nothing.
What does this teach us? It teaches us that even geniuses have lacunae…, or that even Mozart can run out of melodies. And so we are not any more surprised if we sometimes feel empty, spiritless, without inspiration, without melodies. Let us not wonder at our dryness. Life, at times, is a desert.
But the lesson is that Mozart, even with this borrowed and worn out theme, achieves a lively, joyful, attractive and pleasant – if not brilliant – fourth movement. We can liven up our lives…, even when we are down and low. Let us sing “C-D-F-E” full throat, and all will be well. I do it.

Inspiration

[From Rabindranath Tagore in his “Autobiography”, p.143]

“I began to use a slate for my writing. That helped in my emancipation. The manuscript books in which I had been indulging, now bothered me. To make an entry in them seemed to demand a supply of poetic fancy commensurate with that of poets of renown. But to write on slate was clearly a matter of the mood of the moment. ‘Fear not’, it seemed to say. ‘Write just what you please; one rub will wipe all away!’ I wrote a poem or two, thus unfettered, and felt a real joy well up within me. ‘At last’, said my heart, ‘what I write is my own!'”

[The computer’s screen can be wiped out as a slate. We can all write verse now!]

Short quote

“My certainties have doubts for breakfast.” [Eduardo Galeano]

The Cave and the Mind

[Osho, “The Dammapada, VI”, p.109]

I have moved in the Himalayas. Once I was in a deep part of the Himalayas with two of my friends. We entered an empty cave; it was so beautiful that we stayed the night there.

In the morning a monk came and he said, “Get out! This is my cave!” I said, “How can this cave be yours? I don’t see – this is a natural cave. You don’t claim it, you can’t claim it – you have not made it. And you have renounced the world, your house, your wife, your children, your money, and everything, and now you are claiming, ‘This is my cave – you get out of it!’ This is nobody’s cave!”
He was very angry. He said, “You don’t know me. I am a dangerous man! I can’t leave it to you. I have been living in this cave for thirteen years!”
We provoked him as much as we could and he was all fire, ready to fight, ready to kill! And then I said to him, “Wait – we will leave. We were just provoking you to show you that thirteen years have passed, but you have the same mind. Now this cave is ‘yours’, because you have lived here thirteen years so it is yours. You had not brought it with your birth and you will not take it away when you die. And we are not going to stay here forever, just an overnight stay. We are just travellers, we are not monks. I have just come to see how many stupid people are living in these parts – and you seem to be the tops!”
You can leave the world… you will be the same. You will again create the same world, because you carry the blueprint in your mind. It is not a question of leaving the world, it is a question of changing the mind, renouncing the mind. That is what meditation is.”

Shoes to Order

In the kingdom of Cheng a man decided to buy a new pair of shoes. He measured his foot, but forgot the measure at home and went to the market without it. There he went to the shoemaker’s. “Oh, I forgot to bring my measure with me”, he said, and returned hastily to his house. When he came back to the market, the fair was over and he could not but new shoes. “Why didn’t you try them on?”, one of his neighbours asked him. “I trust the measure better”, he answered.

Short Story

THE GAME
[Alberto Moravia, abridged]

My fiancé, Vittorio, and I have invented a game that is fully our own: the hunt of the stereotype, the topic, the cliché. Stop there!: petit bourgeois expression. Attention!: publicity slogan. There you are again: snobbish formula. Or: purely bureaucratic phrase. You there!: political slang. So his conversation with me dwindled down to: “Today is Thursday. The sky is blue. It is cold. It is five o’clock in the afternoon.”
Thus we went on for some time, till I realised that Vittorio – who so long as he was using commonplaces had shown he loved me dearly – now that he was on to rational language was somehow becoming colder and distant. So much so that one day I could not keep down any more the dark jealousy that was oppressing me, and I told him:

– I’m sorry. There is another woman in your heart.
– Who is now talking commonplaces?
– May be commonplace, but it is the truth.
– Which truth? The one of the songs of the St. Remo’s festival?
– Vittorio, I warn you: my love could turn to hatred.
– Trite language!
– Vittorio, answer this question: Are you still capable of human love, or is your heart truly made of ice?
– Poetic stuff!
– Vittorio, no jokes. For me it is question of life and death.
– Romantic!
– Vittorio, confess it: in your subconscious you hate me.
– Psychoanalytical sentimentalist!
– Vittorio, don’t drive me to despair.
– Melodramatic!
– I could I could do something rash.
– Black story journalist!

He was taking revenge. Since that day I find myself inferior to him. For several months I had hurt him chastising his trite language, and, lo and behold, I suddenly discovered that I, too, was dragged along towards the same commonplaces.
One of those nights, in full despair, I decided to bring things to a head. I would throw myself out of the window when he entered the room. We lived in a second storey, and if I fell on my feet, I would, at most, break a leg.
Vittorio knocked at the door. I decided to act. Then, precisely at the moment I was going to throw myself out of the window, I saw on the window sill a photo story in a magazine. Its cover showed the heroine standing on the window sill, and with these words coming out of her mouth: “Goodbye. Remember me sometime.” So – I thought – even the most felt and most sincere action, even at the most serious moment of death, was devoid of authenticity. I doubted for a second, and I opened the door for Vittorio, who, in his eagerness, almost fell on top of me. I told him:

– The game is over.
– Which game?
– The game of commonplaces. From now on, we’ll talk just as we please. And we’ll act, too, just as we please.

He was looking at me in astonishment. I embraced him. “We are two poor devils who have grown up between magazines, television, radio, cinema and cheap novels. Let us recognise it once and for all, let us resign ourselves, and let us not think more of it.”

You tell me

The story of Naseruddin and the bear [see “Back Pages”, 15 November] has left some people wondering. I explain. There are those who in life, and in their own spiritual lives, are only interested in big game. Great experiences, miracles, revelations. All that is fine. If the king wants to hunt bears, let him do so. But there are other ways to enjoy a royal hunt. Simply had a good time on the mountains of the soul. Trotting, galloping, scanning the horizon, filling up the lungs, hearing the horns, shouting at pleasure, talk to the trees, living fully with nature in simplicity and love. All that is joy and health and reality. All that is prayer and grace and surrender. All that is happily enjoying life. Even if we see no bears.

[A Personal Note: I always answer the e-mails I get, either directly or through this Web page, and I answer them to the “sender’s address”. Still, quite some times they are rejected by the Internet server. So that I cannot contact the sender in any way, and they will believe I have not answered them. Please, make sure your e-mail address is the right one, and if anyone has sent me an e-mail and has got no answer, please let them write again with the right address, and I’ll answer at once. Another thing: some write to me through the Web, but they do not put their own e-mail address. Now, it may happen that I may not want to answer them publicly in the Web, but privately to their personal address; but as I don’t have it, again I cannot answer them. This again happens fairly often. I do want to answer everybody. Please, make it easy for me.]

Psalm

Psalm 41: Longing for the Lord

As a hind longs for the running streams,
So do I long for you, O God.
With my whole being I thirst for God, the living God.
When shall I come to God and appear in his presence?
I long, I thirst, I yearn, Deep in my heart that is the vital thrust of my life, the motive force of my earthly existence. I live because I long for you, Lord; and in a way I die too because I long for you. Sweetest torture of loving at a distance, of seeing through a veil, of possessing in faith and waiting in impatience. I desire your presence as I desire nothing else on this world. I imagine your face, I hear your voice, I worship your divinity. I rest in the thought that if waiting for you is so sweet, what will it be meeting you!

I want to meet you in prayer, in your unmistakable touch during the moments in which my soul forgets everything around and is only in silence with you. You have a way of making yourself indubitably present to the soul that thinks of you in solitude. I prize those instants and treasure those visitations that anticipate heaven upon earth.

I want to meet you in your sacraments, in the reality of your pardon and in the hidden glory of your table with men. I come to you in faith, and you reward that faith with the fleeting whisper of the wings of your love. I will come again and again with the memory of those blessed encounters, the patience of waiting in darkness and the eagerness to feel your closeness anew.

I want to meet you in the faces of men, in the sudden revelation that all men and women are my brothers and sisters, in the need of the poor and in the love of my friends, in the smile of a child and in the noise of a crowd. You are in all men, Lord, and I want to recognise you in them.

And I want to meet you one day in the poverty of my being and nakedness of my soul, in the face of death and the gateway of eternity. I want to meet you face to face in the moment that will be bliss for ever, in the embrace of recognition after the night of life in this world.

I long to meet you Lord, and the vehemence of that longing upholds my life and steadies my step. In that hope life has a meaning and my earthly pilgrimage has a direction. I am coming to you, Lord.

As a hind longs for the running stream,
So do I long for you, O God.
With my whole being I thirst for God, the living God.
When shall I come to God and appear in his presence?

 

15th
I tell you

Personal

I’ve just been to India again, and feel like telling you about my trip. My flight landed in Ahmedabad at night, and when I reached the gate of the St Xavier’s College together with my friends who had come to fetch me at the airport, I found that small oil lamps on earthen bowls had been placed along the steps of the entrance in the traditional Indian welcome. I was touched by the beauty and the feelings of the small lights.

November 30th is the anniversary feast of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikhs and apostle of unity between religions, and on that day was to take place the function for which I had been called to India. The “Academy of the Gujarati Language” had granted me the “Sacchitananda Award 2000” for my contribution to Gujarati literature, and had organised a public seminar in which four writers were to analyse the influence of my style on modern Gujarati literature. You may understand I did not want to miss the occasion.

The speakers said about my writings that they combined French clarity, British wit and Spanish warmth. They specified my contribution to the language as the introduction of small sentences, of quick metaphors and of straight logic. Though some literary critics said that my being a mathematician showed clearly in the logic of my reasoning, others on the contrary said that the only thing they could not understand about me was how I, as a man of letters, could also be a professor of mathematics. There must always be opinions for all tastes. They particularly pointed out that I had achieved the difficult art of writing in first person singular, making all my works into a wide autobiography, and thus giving personality, unity and credibility to my writings, a fact that has been imitated by others after me and has become a favoured style among the new generation of writers. That make them grant me the award for the year.

In my acceptance speech I said that now, staying abroad after fifty years in India, I considered myself a goodwill ambassador of Indian culture in the West, and I gave many examples which I have told in my books and in my talks in Europe and America, particularly linguistic examples, as that was a group of academicians of the language. Here are some examples. Whatever is nominative in English (“I have a right to…”), goes into dative in Gujarati (“To me there is a right to…”). And there are thousands of examples like this one. The important consequence of this is that this way of speaking involves the fundamental devaluation of the “I” which is the nucleus of Indian philosophy, as it is not “I” that “have” or “do” things, but rather there is only “somebody” to whom things “happen”, thus changing the very concept of human morality. In English I am the “doer” of my actions, while in Gujarati I am only the “witness” of whatever happens to me. This is the fundamental difference in attitude between East and West, and many things are explained by this. Language both reveals and shapes behaviour.

In the Gujarati language there is (surprisingly!) no verb to say “to have”, while the English language is inconceivable without it. “I have money” translates into “near me there is money”. Things are not “possessed” but simply go around somewhere near us. This is the language of detachment.

David’s phrase in the Bible before Nathan the prophet, “I have sinned!” was translated by the Hindu Brahmin scholar who translated the Bible as “By me an error has occurred”. Our theologians had to correct the expression to fit better orthodoxy.

You can imagine we had a joyful time. At the end they told me they were going to keep giving me prizes so that I would have to come back and have a good time with them.

The only mishap was that the airline failed to deliver my suitcase, but fortunately it arrived later just in time for the date, as my formal suit for the ceremony was in it. It is the black “Nehru suit” that looks like a bishop’s outfit to western eyes, while in fact it is the official suit for an Indian representative in a formal function. I was able to wear it at last.

I left with joy for the stay and sadness for the parting, not without leaving there for my friends the rest of the contents of my lately arrived suitcase. Guess what that was: Christmas sweets of all types in western confectionery to enliven for them the coming holy feasts.

Bar code

I enjoyed the Book Fair. Books and publishers and booksellers and readers. The world in which I move, with all its magic, its known faces, its last publications, its proposals and its plans. The physical contact with my last book just out of the press with its fresh ink and its virgin pages exhibited before the public in multiple copies on the vertical shelf against the wall. A treat to the eyes and the hands and the mind and the soul.

Only a slight perturbation disturbed my sense of happiness: the little operation I was submitted to on entering the fair. I was given the usual card to be pinned on my lapel as identification and passport, and I attached it duly and visibly. It exhibited my complete name, my profession as a writer, the publishing house that answered for me…, and then a mysterious bar code with its thin and thick parallel vertical bars and its string of digits below that identified me. I looked at it for a moment. I saw myself reduced to bars and numbers. I, with all my history, my characteristics, my personality, was identified by a secret code at the hands an alien power.

I was afraid. My whole being was there, summed up for anyone to read and decipher with only the help of a little machine. It made me feel like an item of packed goods in a supermarket. They put me into the shopping trolley, they place me on the counter, they sweep me with the laser beam, and out comes my price in euros and my expire date.

I fear that even my most secret thoughts may appear on the screen when my bar code is activated, with all my weaknesses, my failures and all the burdens on my conscience. Public confession of my whole life. All than in the mysterious code. I cannot be at peace any more. My privacy has been unveiled before the world. I move on in the fair bending low to avoid all looks. I surreptitiously cover my lapel with my hand. I come out of the grounds on the sly, and, making sure nobody is looking, I throw my card into a garbage bin. Before I throw it, I note down in anxiety its secret number. 343009233475. That is me.

Fear

“I am convinced that fear is the worse enemy of humans. If they instil it into our souls when we are small, it settles itself for ever into the depths of our being and makes us unfailingly into submissive and castrated cowards, unable any more to react freely before the real and objective challenges and objectives of our lives, of which there are many. All my own life has been a constant struggle trying to overcome the fear that my people put into my heart, particularly the fear of death. Many times have I succumbed to its attacks, though at times I have come out the victor. But the fear has never left me. Those first years of my life with their repressions, fears and prohibitions have left their mark on me for life.”
[Ian Gibson, “Viento del Sur”, p.34]

The Frontiers of Art

“Julio Ama, soldier and photographer in many wars, was walking on the street. He carried his gun in his hand, and the camera round his neck, both gun and camera loaded and ready to shoot. Julio was walking through dusty streets looking for the twins. The twins were the only survivors of a village exterminated by the army. They were sixteen years old. They liked to fight next to Julio, and he taught them between wars how to read and how to take pictures. In the storm of the last battle he had lost track of them, and now he could not find them among the living nor among the dead.

He crossed the park. After a church corner he got into an alley. And there, at last, he found them. One of the twins was sitting on the ground, with his back to the wall. On his knees lay the other, covered with blood; and at his feet, forming a cross, were the two guns.

Julio drew close. Perhaps he said something. The twin that was alive did not speak, did not move. He was there, but he was not there. His eyes looked without seeing, lost somewhere, nowhere, and on his face without tears was depicted the whole war and the whole suffering.

Julio put down his gun and readied his camera. He rolled the film, measured in a moment light and distance, and focussed the image. The two brothers were in the middle of the viewfinder, without moving, perfectly etched against the wall bitten by the bullets.

Julio was going to take the photograph of a lifetime. But his finger refused to take it. Julio tried, and tried again, but his finger refused. Then he lowered the camera, without clicking, and went away in silence.

The camera, Minolta, died in another battle, drenched in the rain, one year later.”

[Eduardo Galeano: “El libro de los abrazos”, p.14]

Wisdom Story

The king was defeated in battle, and got ready to die. He was taken prisoner, and was waiting to be marched on to the gallows for his public execution. But since he was king after all, he was put in prison in a royal palace where he had all the amenities of court life, banquets, music, dances, feasts. Yet, he knew he was condemned to death, and did not enjoy any of those pleasures.

Weeks and months went by, and the prisoner king was getting more and more tense with the long waiting. At the end he could not stand it any longer, and sent a message to the victor king asking him to have him executed as soon as possible. The victor brought him then to his own palace where he arranged for a superb banquet and a magnificent show.

A giant of a man appeared among the dancing girls, brandishing a huge sabre, and began to approach the condemned king very slowly. The king got despaired and pleaded before his captor: “Please, have done with the dance and let them cut my head once for all. I want to die.” The victor answered: “Have you not realised that you are already dead?”

Birth Celebration

[Gujarati story by Suresh Joshi, abridged]

It was the feast of Janmashtami or Shri Krishna Jayanti. The birth of Krishna, the incarnation of the divinity most cherished in Indian popular devotion. The monsoon was in full force, and its rains flooded the city of Vadodara, where a devout family was getting ready to celebrate the feast with a fervour renewed year by year. The auspicious moment of the sacred birth was the stroke of midnight, but the preparation had taken up the whole day in happy anticipation of the solemn hour. Friends and neighbours were coming together for the feast, as the house was bigger and the number of the participants increased the joy of all.

***

Outside it was raining. In the outskirts of the city, in a small hut in the middle of the mud and the streams of water, a faint light announces the presence of life inside. A man, who tries to protect himself against the rain with a sack over his head, waits at the door without a movement. From time to time he looks towards the mud road that leads to his hut, and takes again his stand. The only sound is the splattering of the rain against the corrugated iron sheets that cover the hut.

***

The guests are arriving at the big house. All admire and praise the preparations for the feast. In the main room the whole scene of the birth has been reproduced. The villages of Shri Krishna’s early life, Mathura and Gokul, with the Vrindavan jungle where he lived the eventful and significant years of his youth. Gardens and trees, flowers and peacocks, fountains and rivers are reproduced in cardboard, wood, plastic and glass with innocent imagination. All the traditional scenes of Shri Krishna’s childhood have been faithfully depicted: the escape from Kansa, the tyrant, who wanted to kill him at his birth, the flight on the shoulders of Vasudeva and Devaki, his pranks as a child, his fight against demons, his protecting the people by holding the Govardhan mountain over their heads, his image as Shepherd of flocks and of men and women, his charming flute that attracts all that hear his voice. A whole display of homely art and sincere devotion.

***

The man at the door of his hut lifts his head. He has seen someone approach. The figure of someone who walks stealthily in the rain becomes clearer. He hesitates for a moment. He sees that they are waiting for him, and arrives slowly. The two men recognise each other. They do not great each other. They know what has brought them together, and stand facing each other a while without a word. Then, with a mutual nod of their heads, they decide to talk there itself, outside, without getting into the hut. Someone must be waiting inside, and they prefer to talk by themselves.

***

The tempo of the devout feast increases in the midst of the family and relatives and friends. Carols are sung and sweets are distributed. Shri Krishna’s favourite treat as a child, butter, is tasted by all. His name is chanted as summary and blessing of the sacred moment that quickens the earth with a promise of new life. All look at the clock in expectation of the midnight revered above all midnights. The feast approaches its climax.

***

Outside the hut the two men speak in low tones.

– Have you made up your mind?
– Yes. Just as we agreed.
– Is it going to be the two legs or only one?

***

– If we break one only, he’ll be able to walk with the help of a crutch. If we break both his legs, he will never walk, but he’ll move more the passers-by to compassion and they’ll give more alms. It’s up to you.
– Do you charge more for both?
– Yes, but not double. It’s only half the price for the second leg.
– All right. It’s both then. But see to it that it doesn’t hurt.
– It won’t hurt. Newborn babies feel nothing. I know my business.

The two men turn to go inside the hut.

***

In the big house the clock strikes midnight. The image of the newly born Shri Krishna is unveiled. Hands clap and hands join in reverent adoration. People embrace and smile to one another. Rockets and fireworks are heard from the celebration all over the city. Happy joy in the renewed tradition. God comes close to humankind, and in that closeness lies the hope of a better future and a happy afterlife. The enacted rite gives strength for another year with its hardships and its rewards. All sit down to share now in the special supper in union of friendship. Joy is everywhere.

***

The two men go inside the hut. A mother with a newborn child on her lap waits silently in a corner. At a sign from the man she places the child on the only cot and goes back to the corner. The visitor draws close. Two brief cracks are heard. Some coins change hands. The visitor goes away in the rain. Inside the hut a baby gently cries.

You tell me

It was a small village in India, near the main road of commerce and travel. Many people passed through that place. But the village had become famous due to a famous event: there was a man in it that had been sleeping uninterruptedly for a quarter of a century. Nobody knew the reason. What a strange fact! All those who passed through the village stopped to see the sleeping man. What can this strange fact be due to? – asked all visitors to the place.

Near the village lived a hermit. He was a withdrawn man, who spent all his day in deep contemplation and did not want to be disturbed. But he had a name for being able to read other people’s thoughts. So the mayor himself went to see him and asked him to come and see the sleeping man, in case he could find out the cause of such a long and deep sleep.

The hermit was a noble character, and, in spite of his outside roughness, became ready to collaborate in the effort to find out the answer to the riddle. He went to the village and sat by the side of the sleeping man. He concentrated deeply and began to direct his mind towards the deep regions of the man’s inner mind. He placed his own mental energy inside the brain of the sleeper and connected with it. Minutes later, the hermit came back to his usual state. The whole village had gathered to hear his verdict. He spoke out in a calm voice:

“Friends, I have truly reached the inner core of this man’s brain, and I have also entered into the sanctuary of his heart. I have sought the cause. And, for your own satisfaction, I can say that I have found it. This man is uninterruptedly dreaming he is awake, and, therefore, does not propose to wake up.”

The Master says: “Do not be like this man; do not remain spiritually asleep while thinking all the time that you are awake.”

[Lia, from Uruguay, sent it to me.]

Psalm

Psalm 42: The God of my Joy

Then shall I come to the altar of God,
the God of my joy.
Give me the gift of joy, Lord. I need it for myself and for my brothers and sisters. This is no selfish prayer for my own contentment, but a deep, social and religious need, to communicate to others your presence through the sacrament of your joy in the sincerity of my heart.

This world is a sad place for many with their worries and their misery, their drudgery and their routine. Hardly a genuine smile, hardly a spontaneous laugh. There is a pall of gloom over the lives of men. And it is only your presence, Lord, that can dispel that gloom and make the brightness of your joy shine, like the bursting of dawn, over the dreariness of life.

To communicate your joy to men and women, Lord, you want other men and women as channels and witnesses of the only true joy which is your grace and your love. That is why I offer you my heart and my life, Lord, for you to touch other humans by touching me. Make me rejoice with you, so that when I walk into a person’s life I may illumine their face in your name, when I enter the company of others I may brighten the place with your splendour.

Make my smile be sincere, and my laughter be genuine. Make my face shine with the reflection of your presence. Make my heart expand with the warmth of your grace. Let my step quicken and my body respond to the majesty of your glory. Bless me with joy so that I may bless in turn the persons I meet and the places I visit. Anoint me with happiness, that I may consecrate the world of men in the liturgy of rejoicing.

Men and women in this world want happiness, Lord, and if they see happiness in the people who follow you and profess your service, they will come to you to get for themselves what they have seen in your servants. If you want to save religion on earth, Lord, give joy to religious men and women. Your joy is our strength.

When I ask for joy, I do not shun trials and sufferings. I know man’s lot on earth and accept it with willing faith. But in the midst of those trials and sufferings that form part of the human condition, I ask for the serenity to face them and the steadfastness to go through them with confidence, so that even in my dark hours I may be a living witness to the power of your hand. When I cannot have the glowing brightness of outward joy, let me have at least the soothing clarity of resigned acceptance. In peace and in joy let me always be a serene witness of the glory to come, a citizen of heaven, on my way trough earth, to my final destination.

“God of my joy!” That is my boast, my credentials, my confidence. Your joy is my light, my guide and my strength.

Send forth your light and your truth to be my guide
and lead me to your holy hill, to your tabernacle;
then shall I come to the altar of God,
the God of my joy.

Fundación González Vallés

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