Zest to Live
[Martin Prechtel speaks thus of his Master, Nicolás Chiviliu Taxacoy, the most famous shaman in the history of the Zutuhiles and of the whole of the aboriginal Southwest in Guatemala:]
“Chiv’s laughter, which could be heard up to a distance of more than one kilometre over the waters, was his identity mark, his shield of protection over all of us, his friends. It was made up of an elephant’s trumpet call, an old man’s cough, an adolescent’s laughter at the moment of grasping the point of a joke, and the deep sigh of the old goddess, the Mother of Maize, when the whole maize crop has been harvested and she remains alone in the mountains. His laughter was all that and much more. Joy, power and sorrow, all that was in it. When his laughter descended upon a person, it overcame them, destroyed all useless thoughts in the troubled mind, liberated them from unhappiness, making them laugh with him, and leading them to concentrate on the question at issue.
The most important thing in that village [Santiago Atitlán] was laughter. At any moment, when at work or when playing, all loved laughter. They enjoyed being together, smiling, joking and laughing together at all things in life.
Persons who reflected in themselves that joy in living were called “Echo persons”, and they were identified by the fact that whoever met them came out with a greater zest for living.” [“Secrets of the Talking Jaguar”, pp. 118, 128, 142…, and may the New Year bring us a greater zest for living.]
I was walking meditatively, turning in my mind the talk I was due to give in a short time that same evening. The talk was going to be on assuming responsibility for our states of mind, that is, how most of the things that happen to us are not in our hands, but there is something that is always in our hands, and that is how we decide to react to what happens to us, with acceptance or with annoyance, and consequently how we feel and how we fare.
I was going to comment on Epictetus’ famous saying:
“T’is not things in themselves
that shake us with their tensions and their fears;
but the mislead opinions
that hold down in their sway our mind’s dominions.”
That is, that we should not blame our troubles on the events in themselves, but on our reaction to them. Not an easy lesson to learn.
I was walking along a street that gently sloped up, and was paved with solid cobblestones that made for a firm pavement but caused one’s step to be rather irregular. Coming down towards me was a woman pushing a pram on the uneven cobblestones, so that the child in it was shaken by the bumps and cried desperately with no uncertain displeasure. The mother tried to console the child: “Just a little bit, my child, and we’ll reach even ground and we’ll enjoy the ride.” And she tried to drive the carriage with all care, while the child continued to cry.
I went on with my walk, and a little farther up on the same street I met another mummy with another baby on another pushchair, bumping and jumping on the same cobblestones. The baby was jumping of itself in the carriage, smiling and singing in step with bumps: “Bumpeti bump, bumpeti bump…”, and both mother and child were laughing heartily and enjoying the ride.
I told myself: this is the perfect illustration for the point I want to make this evening. The cobblestones are the same, while one baby cries and the other sings over them. Epictetus, apparently, was right: “T’is not things in themselves…” That made for me the introduction to my talk. I simply told my recent experience on the cobbled street, the two babies and their opposite reactions to the same situation. All laughed with me. The cobblestones were quite a convincing lesson.
[The American woman writer Eudora Welty tells of phone calls before the handy mobile:]
That same lady used to phone my mother and talk hours on end. I knew who was calling when mother gave only short and far between answers, saying something like, “you need not swear for that”, or “don’t tell me!”, or “of course”. She would remain standing by the phone, listening reluctantly, while I sat on the stairs next to her. Our phone had a bar that had to be pressed throughout the conversation. When her friend finally took leave, my mother asked me to help her free her hand from the bar, as her fingers had frozen stiff.
– What has she told you? – I would ask her.
– She has said absolutely nothing – sighed my mother – she just wanted to talk, that’s all.
[“One Writer’s Beginnings”, p.17]
Hitting the Bull’s Eye
The disciple shot the arrow right on target, and he proudly reported to the Master. The Master asked him: “Do you know why you’ve hit the target?” The disciple explained: “Yes. I stretched the bow not one more notch more or one notch less than necessary, I aimed at the exact centre of the target, I took a deep breath, I waited three seconds in that position, I let go of the arrow as I breathed out and followed it with my mind. Thus I hit the bull’s eye.” The Master declared: “You have not learned anything yet.”
Time passed, and the disciple hit again the right target. He stood where he was contemplating the fixed arrow. The Master came up to him and asked him: “Do you know why you’ve hit the target?” The disciple answered: “No.” The Master declared: “Now you have learned it all.”
[The long training has to lead up to spontaneity in action.]
[A summed up narrative from Martin Pretchel’s autobiography quoted above.]
One evening, as I came back home, I found my hut occupied by five policemen in blue. They were not from our village, they were heavily armed and their faces were hostile. I sent all my clients out, and when they left, the police chief told his men to wait outside while he spoke with me.
– I have kept you under observation for two weeks.
– I know it.
– Really? – he said with surprise, and then continued:
– Then you must have realised that I have been sent here to find out something amiss, arrest you and drop you inside any volcano around here. Personally I’ve not been able to find anything objectionable. I only see sick people coming in and the same people coming out cured. Nobody speaks ill of you. So I set myself thinking. See, I feel a terrible pain in my back – he explained holding his kidneys – and I have visited doctors, witch doctors, chiropractors and hospitals. Now I am on codeine, Valium and Demerol, but nothing helps. I am in constant pain. Do you think you could help me?
A man that had been sent to arrest and kill me asked me to heal him while four white policemen were keeping watch outside during our “medical” talk.
– Of course, captain, I can try, but I cannot guarantee success. Remove your uniform, please, the guns, the clothing and everything, and lay down on that cot.
… Yes, I see what happens, my friend. You have killed somebody and that makes you feel bad. The soul of the dead man hurts you.
He tried to get up, but the pain did not allow him. I was able to hold him, calm him and persuade him to tell me all. There was no doubt that I had hit on the truth. He told me:
– A street vendor in the Mazatenango square sent an urgent message to the police saying he was being robbed at the point of a gun. We went in a hurry, and I saw a young man who was running away. The vendor said he was the thief. I shouted to the young man to stop, but he kept running; I took out my revolver and threatened to shoot. Then he turned round, and as I saw he was holding a gun, I shot him in the head and killed him. But he had only stolen three grapefruits, and his pistol was only a painted piece of wood. He was only fifteen years old…
He started weeping, he spoke between sobbings of his own children, one of whom was only fifteen, and repeated how bad he felt about that death. He had been promoted to his actual rank for killing enemies of the State.
I let him weep while I prepared the medicine for him in the fire. Then I made him drink it till he fell deeply asleep on the cot. He slept thirty-six hours at a stretch, and woke up feeling well. I told him:
– Quit the police job. It does not suit you. It’ll kill you in the end. You must drop it. About paying me, you have granted me my life, which is the highest pay. You have not killed me, so we are even.
He looked at me, burst our laughing and went away with his men.
One night, a few weeks later, while an old man in the village was walking, a huge dog that belonged to one of the few white families in the village attacked him and bit off a chunk of his leg. The man, who was alone and desperate in the dark, killed the dog with his knife and almost bled to death himself. The dog’s white owner sent him to jail for killing his dog. The wounds the man had sustained were not even mentioned. After spending only one day in jail, the man was sent back to the village, free of all charges. This kind of miraculous liberation had never happened before. Nobody had come out of prison before years of appeals, bribes and bureaucracy, and it was incredible that he was given even the bus fare back home. Indians were never treated in this way. Yet, the next two years, all my relatives or friends with problems with the government or the police were immediately exonerated or not even taken to court.
One day, while I was on an official mission outside our village, I had to change buses in Mazatenango. While we were waiting, we walked about in the marketplace. While we were looking at the stands, I was surprised and delighted to see the captain, twenty-five kilos fatter and dressed in blue coveralls, on a box behind heaps of pears and mangoes. Two handsome helpers were at his side, and he smiled widely under his straw hat. We shook hands while he loaded us with fruits.
– I took your hint as an advice, and I left the police. Still, I waited for two years. Did you realise it? I mean all those people who were not fined, beaten or put in jail. I saw to it they were left free, and many others with them. I tried to help as much as I could, without it being noticed, before I tendered my resignation. In that way I was able to repay you! Now I’ve made selling fruits my job.
In that very place, two years before, in that same marketplace, he had killed a young man. Now he was just sitting there selling fruits, in the midst of his own family, poor but at home. He had known how to turn pain into life by setting my people free.
[I give here the full passage I’ve quoted above from Epictetus, which is one of my favourite pages for its wisdom and its beauty.]
T’is not things in themselves
that shake us with their tensions and their fears;
but the mislead opinions
that hold down in their sway our mind’s dominions.
Think of death, and it’s clear:
if its true face appears
Ii does not lead to sorrow or to tears;
and Socrates faced it without despair.
What makes death full of terrors
is only the deceit of our errors.
And if this holds of death,
which is considered earth’s most dreadful passion,
the same will now apply to any occasion.
And so, when in your vision,
your brain is shaken by misled illusion,
put the blame on the weight of your opinion,
not on the stray event,
which by itself is meek and innocent.
Again, take care you observe this precept:
the one who takes upon himself the rule
to blame another, is nothing but a fool.
The one who blames himself and spares the rest
is just honest beginner in his quest.
Only he who, not even under pressure
blames himself or blames others,
is the wise and the prudent in full measure.
Elena Young, among others, has asked me: “Do your meditations reflect your health and state of mind at that moment, or do they come in a programmed order?”
I like the question, as it means that you notice that what I write reflects what I feel, and that is true. My “meditations”, on the psalms do reflect my state of mind and health… at the moment I wrote them. The psalms have accompanied me throughout my life, and soon I took their verses as expression of my own feelings in all the richness of Hebrew poetry and the humility of my personal experience. They encompass the whole rainbow of human reality from the highest joy to the deepest sorrow. In that way I wrote brief commentaries on the 150 psalms and published them as a book, “Praying Together”, that is, happily, the most popular among all my books. When I began my Web site I though of taking, in numerical order, one of these psalms in each update, and that is what I’ve been doing ever since. There are always some persons – and they tell me so themselves – that feel attuned to the psalm of the day. And all the psalms are so unfailingly human that we all recognise in them bits of our own existence. Thus I take them as they come, and I do not condition my choice to my mood of the moment. I’m doing fine now, in health and mood, thank you. And the question has been quite timely because today’s psalm, the 43rd, is also a universal one and has not been chosen for this particular moment. Its value comes precisely from its being of permanent value.
Psalm 43: Prayer for a Troubled Church
It is not that people attack us now, Lord, it is that they simply ignore us. The Church does not count any more in the minds of many. Its doctrine and its teaching, its rulings and its warnings are just set aside and politely passed over by most people. They don’t take even the trouble to oppose us, to answer our arguments or consider our reflections. They just take no notice and go their way as though we did not exist, as though your Church meant nothing to the modern world. They tell us we are not relevant, and that is the worst charge that can be made against us in today’s society. These are troubled times for your People, Lord.
We have been taken a little by surprise, because we were used to consideration and respect. The word of your Church was heard and obeyed, it ruled consciences and drew frontiers among peoples. Those were days of power and influence, and their memory is still with us.
“O God, we have heard for ourselves,
our fathers have told us all the deeds which you did in their days,
all the work of your hand in days of old.
You planted them in the land and drove the nations out,
you made them strike root, breaking up the peoples;
It was not our fathers’ swords won them the land,
nor their arm that gave them the victory,
but your right hand and your arm and the light of your presence;
such was your favour to them.”We don’t want to revert to an easy triumphalism by any means, but we feel we have been thrown from one extreme to the other. Formerly we were the centre of the world, and now suddenly we don’t seem to exist. In the military terms of your psalm, “Now you have rejected and humbled us, and you no longer lead our armies into battle.”
That is the sorrow of my heart; You don’t lead us now into battle. I don’t mean the battle of chariots and horses, the wars of bombs and missiles; I mean the battles of the spirit, the conquests of the mind, the upholding of human values and the victory of freedom over oppression. You don’t fight with us. We don’t feel the power of your right arm. We speak and nobody listens, we plead and nobody takes notice. Human dignity is insulted, and human rights are trampled upon. And you don’t seem to care.
“You have exposed us to the taunts of our neighbours,
to the mockery and contempt of all around.
You have made us a byword among the nations,
and the peoples shake their heads at us;
so my disgrace confronts me all day long,
and I am covered with shame
at the shouts of those who taunt and abuse me.”We don’t ask for external glory, but for inner conversion. We don’t want public attention but spiritual efficiency. We don’t want honour for us but love for all men. And you can do that as you did it in former days and can do it again.
“Bestir yourself, Lord; why do you sleep?
Awake, do not reject us for ever.
Why do you hide your face,
heedless of our misery and our sufferings?
For we sink down to the dust
and lie prone on the earth.
Arise and come to your help:
for your love’s sake set us free.”
The Helping Unconscious
We solve many problems while we are asleep, and here is a sample of what has just happened to me. Some old-time companions were talking together when one of them, to change the topic, said the words: “Paulo maiora canamus”. We all laughed. Those three Latin words mean “let us sing higher”, and they are the end of an hexameter in Virgil’s Aeneid which in our younger years we used to quote, as this man had done just now, to raise the tune of a conversation when it was becoming boring or risky.
We all laughed because it was ages since we had heard the expression. We all remembered it, and now by itself it lightened our faces and redeemed the conversation. Then someone said: “These are the end words of a Virgilian hexameter. Does anyone remember the other two Latin words that precede “paulo maiora canamus”, that is, the beginning of the hexameter? I know they are there, but I cannot recall them.”
Nobody could either, and nobody bothered. I myself forgot the incident, and went on with the conversation and with the rest of the day and went to sleep without giving a thought to the missing words. I emphasise this to make it clear that I dismissed the whole thing and was in no way trying to get the words. I just went to bed and slept soundly. No dreams.
And here comes the unconscious. On waking up next morning, before any other thought or gesture or prayer would come to my mind, before I put my foot on the floor and thought where I was, before anything else and in a clear and definite form two words sprung up in my memory: “Sicelides Musae”. What was that? Oh, yes. Now I recalled. They were the two missing words at the beginning of the hexameter in the Aeneid. Of course, that was it: “Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus.”
And together with the words, the whole context of the forgotten episode came now to mind. Aeneas, the Aeneid hero, is coming from Troy, lands in Carthage where Queen Dido falls in love with him and wants to keep him there, and finally wrests free from all allurements and, conscious of his destiny, steers his vessels towards Sicily on his way to Rome and to history. Thus the poet appeals now to “the Sicilian Muses” (who in Latin are the “Sicelides Musae” above) to put an end to the sordid Carthage episode and pave the glorious way of his hero towards Rome: “O Sicilian Muses, let us sing of higher things.”
Miracles of the unconscious. Miracles of sleep. Secret workings of the chip in my memory that was activated by the input of the “paulo maiora canamus”, searched in its integrated circuits through the night, and brought me the answer in a platter when I opened my mind’s computer first thing in the morning.
Our sleep solves our problems for us.
George Orwell, who obtained fame and wealth with his novel “1984”, knew poverty before, and knew how to go hungry. He lived in Paris as a beggar, and this is how he describes the beginning of his life in poverty, when he still had six (old and little valued) franks a day to live on, an income which he subsequently lost:
“You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it – you have to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it.
You discover the extreme precariousness of your six francs a day. Mean disasters happen and rob you of food. You have spent your last eighty centimes on half a litre of milk, and are boiling it over the spirit lamp. While it boils, a bug runs down your forearm; you give the bug a flick with nail, and it falls plop! Straight into the milk. There is nothing for it but to throw the milk away and go foodless.
You go to the baker’s to buy a pound of bread, and you wait while the girl cuts a pound for another customer. She is clumsy, and cuts more than a pound. “Pardon, monsieur”, she says, “I suppose you don’t mind paying two sous extra?” Bread is a franc a pound, and you have exactly a franc. When you think that you too might be asked to pay two sous extra, and would have to confess that you could not, you bolt in panic. It is hours before you dare venture into a baker’s shop again.
You go to the greengrocer’s to spend a franc on a kilogram of potatoes. But one of the pieces that make up the franc is a Belgian piece, and the shopman refuses it. You slink out of the shop, and can never go there again.
You have strayed into a respectable quarter, and you see a prosperous friend coming. To avoid him you dodge into the nearest café. Once in the café you must but something, so you spend your last fifty centimes on a glass of black coffee with a dead fly in it. One could multiply these disasters by the hundred. They are part of the process of being hard up.
You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyère cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk.
You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing. Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.
This is life on six franks a day. Thousands of people in Paris live it. It is the suburbs, as it were, of poverty.”
[“Down and Out in Paris and London”, p.14]
When you get a name of early rising, you may sleep till dinner-time.
A young man in old China wanted to become a jeweller. He presented himself before a master jeweller and asked to be taken as an apprentice. The master accepted him, put a jade stone in his hand and asked him to close his hand and keep it closed for a whole year.
The young apprentice did not find it easy to spend a whole year with the stone in his hand, never letting go by day or by night, and putting up with the teasing and the ridicule before friends and acquaintances. Still, he persevered for the whole year, went back to the master, opened his hand in his presence and gave him back the stone.
Fighting back the impulse to protest against such a long and useless trial, he respectfully told his master: “The first lesson was a hard one. Could you tell me now when can I start my real training?” The master took another stone and went to place it in his hand, but the apprentice drew back and protested: “It was bad enough to keep a stone for a year, and I’m not ready to repeat now with another stone!” But the master insisted, placed the stone on his open hand and made him close his fingers over it as he had done with the first stone.
Then the disciple exclaimed: “But this is not jade!” And the master answered: “Your training is over.”
This is how the architect of a new temple in the Himalayan heights instructed the sculptor who had to carve the image of the divinity for the main altar in the centre of the temple: “I want it to be the image of God as well as the image of every man and woman that have been or are or will be. Let all recognise themselves in it, and let all recognise in it the image of God who created them.”
The sculptor began his work. He took the marble block and went on carving on it the faces of the pilgrims that came to the temple. Not separately on the surface of the block, but taking each time the whole block and carving one face on top of the other over the whole block. A pilgrim would arrive and his image would be carved on the marble to perfection, and then another, whose image too would be wrought with the same perfection. And another and another and another.
The block was large for a start, but the carving on it of one face after another brought with itself some cutting of edges, polishing of surfaces, filing away at angles. The new face came out perfect each time, but the block was becoming smaller and smaller.
One day the sculptor called the architect and told him his work was over. They went to the temple, and there, in the middle of the sanctuary, on the main altar, stood the niche inside which the image of the divinity had to stand to preside over the whole temple. And the niche was empty.
The architect understood. The perfect image of God is the non-image. The fullness is found in the vacuum. Infinity touches zero. Totality is born in emptiness. And each pilgrim, as they arrived at the sacred temple and looked up at the altar, saw their own faces reflected on the background of polished marble in the empty niche.
Someone writes: “I’m under the weather. I feel bored, annoyed with myself, depressive. What can I do to get out of this mood?”
I answer: “There are no magic formulas. Life has its ups and downs. Be patient. Everything will pass.”
He writes again: “I’m sorry, but this mood does no go away. I’m just fed up with life and have felt so for quite a time now. What can I do?”
I answer: “The more you think of it the more it will hurt. I know it is not easy, but try to think of this as little as possible and follow a normal life. Keep busy and go ahead. We all have our bad stretches in life. And they all eventually pass away if we do not cling to them. Do write to me if you feel like it, but let not the writing reinforce your fixation.”
I did not quote to him the saying of St. Ignatius Loyola not to appear supercilious, but in his Spiritual Exercises he said centuries ago: “Those who are in desolation should strive to be patient, and think that consolation will soon arrive. Those who are in consolation should think how they will behave in the desolation that will come in turn.” We all need that piece of advice.
Psalm 44: A Song of Love
This is the song of a king and a queen, the wedding of a prince and a princess, the covenant between God and his People, the union between Christ and his Church. This is a poem of love between you and me, Lord; this is our private romance, our spiritual love feast, our mystical intimacy. No wonder “my heart is stirred and my pen runs fast.”
How beautiful you are, prince of my dreams!:
“You surpass all mankind in beauty,
your lips are moulded in grace,
so you are blessed by God for ever.
God has anointed you with oil,
the token of joy.
Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh
and powder of aloes,
and the music of strings greets you
from a palace panelled with ivory.”
And I hear you say of the bride:
“How beautiful you are,
the king’s daughter, the princess of Tyre,
arrayed in cloth-of-gold richly embroidered,
surrounded by virgins who follow you
with music and rejoicing!”The heart of religion is love. Studies and discussions and scholarship and research are wonderful, but they leave me cold, Lord. I like to know about you, but there are times when learning about you becomes pure learning, and I forget you. Today I want to put everything aside and tell you simply and directly how wonderful you are, how much you fill my life and how much I love you, more than I love anything or anybody on earth. You are loveable beyond description, Lord, and your beauty holds me fast with the infinite charm you alone possess.
I loved you from my childhood, I discovered your friendship in my youth, I fell in love with your gospels and I dreamt every day of the moment of meeting you in the Eucharist. If there was ever romance in a young man’s life, that was it! For me faith is falling in love, religious vocation is looking at your face, and heaven is you. That is my theology and that is my dogma. Your person, your voice, your smile. Prayer is being with you, and contemplation is looking at you. Religion is experience. “Come and see” is the summary of the four gospels and the whole of scripture. To see you is to love you, Lord, and to love you is bliss for ever in this life and in the next.
As I have grown, my love has matured. It does not have now the impetuousness of the first meeting, but it has gained the depths of wisdom and age. I have learned to be silent with you, to trust, to wait, to know that you are there in the length of my days and in the darkness of my nights, content to hold your hand in faith to seal the mutual trust that years of living together has built between us. I know you better and I love you more as I spend my life with you in faithful company.
You have spoken of a wedding, of espousals, of bride and bridegroom, of prince and princess; you yourself have chosen a terminology I would not have dared to use, and I thank you for that, and treasure the terms of our love in the boldness of your expressions. You have chosen the best words of human language, the more telling, the most intimate, to describe our relationship, and I now use those words with deep reverence and intimate joy. A lover knows how to select words, to nurse them, to fill them with meaning and to pronounce them with tenderness. I receive those words from you, Lord, lovingly, and return them to you with my own devotion and love. Prince of my dreams, may you be blessed for ever and ever!
I will declare your fame
to all generations;
therefore the nations will praise you,
for ever and ever.”
The Ahmedabad Tailors
Umashankar Joshi used to say that publishers where the great benefactors of writers, no only because they publish their works, but also because they urge them to write and they suggest themes for them to write about. This is true, and some of my books have been prompted by wise publishers. But this is not usually my case. To write a book I need a personal theme that touches me first, claims my attention and comes out almost by itself on the expectant page.
Once, in a public meeting to discuss present world problems, some proposed and insisted that I should write a book on globalisation. The theme was actual, wide and burning. Yet, I answered: “You are right; this is a very important, deep and urgent theme, and we meet it every day one way or another. But I don’t feel inspired by it. It does not appeal to me, it does not strike me, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I cannot write books on order. I’m no tailor to be given cloth and measurements and produce a suit. That’s not my way. Maybe some day that theme will surge from my insides, and then you’ll have the book. But definitely not now.”
The meeting got over, and next day the papers published a short report on it, including the words I had said. Soon after that, I received some unusual visitors. They were a delegation from the Ahmedabad Tailors Association. I couldn’t imagine what they wanted to see me about. I greeted them cordially, we sat down and I asked them what could I do for them.
The head of the delegation blurted out: “What grudge do you have against tailors that you attack us in public? Is not our trade as honourable as any other? What is wrong with being a tailor? Why did you say in public that you don’t want to be a tailor? Why on earth doing things like a tailor is doing things badly? You have hurt our pride and we are entitled to an explanation.”
I felt like laughing, but I realised I would make matters worse if I laughed. The good tailors had been hurt by my saying I was no tailor. Though that was not precisely the point. If I were a tailor, I would cut suits of clothes with all enthusiasm, only that writing books is something different from sewing clothes. The suit of clothes is made to order. The book is written under inspiration.
We talked, and the good tailors calmed down and took their leave in peace. But then it was my turn to do a bit of thinking. May it not be that good tailors, great tailors, master tailors in their trade work also under inspiration and sometimes achieve fittings that are a true wonder and are real works of art as a jewel or a poem? And is it not true also that the writer at times writes out of sheer routine, by force, by order, and their books are as routine products as the season clothes out of the same machine?
After all, the tailors were right.
Alec Guiness in his autobiography, “Positively Final Appearance” (p.200), tells with gusto a story of chivalry in sport. The world record in cricket was held by Don Bradman with a score of 334 runs not-out. And here comes the actor’s story:
“Today there is a news item to warm the heart. After so many years of accounts of ill-temper or sleaze or cheating in the sporting world there is the noble story of Mark Taylor, Australia’s cricket captain. Batting against Pakistan yesterday he scored 334, which equals Don Bradman’s record Test Match score against England in 1930, and Taylor refused to go beyond that point, which he could have done easily, so as not to outshine Bradman. That, it seems to me, deserves an Australian knighthood. Is there any hope that such reticence in triumph could be emulated all round the cricketing and football fields, the golf-links and tennis-courts?”
The hare met the lioness and boasted in her presence: “I’m greater than you, and here is the proof: every year I give birth to many children, while you can have only one.” To which the lioness answered: “Yes, but it is a lion.”
I was asked whether that was a “sin”. I answered it was not. He replied: “In Spain it may not be a sin, but in Nicaragua it is.” Local sin. And we both were talking with equal seriousness, responsibility, information and good faith. Don’t ask me what “sin” it was.
Psalm 45: Be Stil
“Be still and know that I am God.”How much I need that admonition, Lord! On hearing it from you I feel that all my spiritual welfare, my progress and my happiness are in it. If only I learn to keep quiet, to relax, to let be in faith and confidence, I shall find out that you are Lord and God, that the world is in your hands and I with it, and in that realisation I shall find joy and peace.
But that is, I confess, the one thing I don’t know: how to keep quiet. I must move around and busy myself and hurry and worry. I keep doing things and planning reforms and urging improvements and driving myself and everybody mad with all sorts of activities. Even in my prayer life I plan and control and examine and improve continually what I do with the urge to do tomorrow better than today and to ensure that I keep going up in my worthy endeavour. I am a compulsive perfectionist, and I want to make sure that whatever I do, whether in my profession or in my prayer, has to be without fail the best I can do. That upsets the balance of my mind, and ruins my chances of finding you in peace.
I want to run my own life, not to mention the future of society and the destinies of mankind. I want to be in control, to order, to rule. And so I am always on the move, both in the multiplicity of my thoughts and in the urgency of my activities. That very hurry blinds me to your presence and makes me miss the offer of your power and your grace. I don’t see you because I am too busy looking at myself. I fill my day with feverish activity, and I have no time for you. Then I feel empty without you, and pack even more activity into my day to cover up its emptiness. Futile endeavour! My dissatisfaction grows, and my distance from you increases. My life is in the deadly grip of that vicious circle.
And then I hear your voice: “Be still, and know that I am God.” You bid me to calm down, to reduce speed, to enter silence. You want me to ease my own grip on life, to take things gently, to invite quietness. You ask me to sit down and look at you. To see that life is in your hands, that you direct the course of creation, that you are Lord and God. It is only in the peace of my soul that I can recognise your glory and majesty. It is only in silence that I can worship.
I know the meaning of those words when you first addressed them to Israel: “Stop fighting, and you will see how I am God.” Put down your weapons, stop your wars, quit defending your interests and obtaining your victories. Leave it to me, and then you will see how I am God and protect you and defend you. I have fought a lot for your cause, Lord. Teach me to stop fighting.
Your extended arm calmed the storms on the sea, Lord. Extend now your mighty hand over my heart to calm the storms that brood in it as in the blackness of a winter sky. Soothe my emotions, heal my anxiety, allay my fears. Make the blessing of peace descend at your bidding over my troubled heart. Pronounce again the word of counsel and power over me: “Be still.” And in the silence of wonder and the stillness of faith, I shall know that you are God, the God of my life.
Sense of Life
I have just seen two films of Errol Flynn dating from my younger days, and both about India: “Kim of India” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which Tennyson immortalised in his poem. And also recently I had read, with great feeling and appreciation, Errol Flynn’s autobiography (“My Wicked, Wicked Ways”, 1959), which gave a deeper sense to the experience. The screen displayed a man full of joy and zest for life; while the autobiography revealed a dejected and distraught person. He had everything, but his was not an easy life. I’m going to quote his own words, his confusion before life (he even attempted suicide), and finally an episode that redeems the sadness.
“There I was, sitting on top of the world. I had wealth, friends, I was internationally known, I was sought after by women. I could have anything that money could buy. Yet I found that at the top of the world there was nothing. I was sitting on the pinnacle, with no mountain under me. I know that many who have a hard time making five thousand a year will find it strange when I say that I was indifferent to my income of $200.000 a picture, that it meant little, that I was filled with self-disgust. I was only “the playboy of the western world”.
One day I called my valet. “Alexandre”, I said, “I want you to put this monogram on each of my suits underneath the handkerchief pocket.”
“Why?”, he asked.
“That is a good question,” I said. “Why? That is what I want to know and I can’t find out why. So I want this monogram sewed on to all of my suits.”
I had drawn a squarish question mark, thus: “?”.
This, my own confusion, became my trademark. My own questioning of myself. Why? How does a man become what he becomes? Who does he become? I do not know. I didn’t know then. But it pressed on my thinking so much that I felt I must carry this symbolism to gratify my own curiosity or torment, or to make people think. I still wear a question mark beneath my handkerchief pocket on all of my suits. I am still wondering why.
I understood the complete irrelevance of the existence that we humans have while on earth.”
“One cold night, after acting in a play in Cincinnati, I left the theatre disgruntled. I disliked the play, wondered what I was doing out here, in this town, in this unconvincing drama.
I felt like a dog who has had his day – that is, was late in the afternoon professionally. Dejection had really set in.
As I walked out of the theatre a crippled old lady in a wheelchair blocked the stage entrance. I excused myself and tried to get by. She took me by the arm. Gently she said, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
What had I done? Maybe I had given her a couple of tickets to the show and didn’t remember, or what?
She said, “Thank you for all the wonderful hours of happiness. If you knew what my life had been you would know what I am saying.”
I was embarrassed. She kissed my hand and said, “Go home to bed now.”
I walked off, thinking, “Maybe I haven’t been such a loss after all.” Anybody who can bring a few moments of happiness to another human life certainly can’t be wasting his time in an otherwise fear-ridden and very often drab world. Maybe it hasn’t been so futile. Maybe it wasn’t all a waste.
Maybe all that I am in this world and all that I have been and done comes down to nothing more than being a touch of colour in a prosaic world. Even that is something.”
[My comment: What in the end brightens up the life of a person is to have given joy to others. And we all can do that.]
“My father could get me into any school, but nobody could make me study.”
Master and Disciple
In India a disciple had such a faith in his guru that he could cross even the deepest rivers just walking over the waters while unceasingly repeating his guru’s name.
His master saw him crossing thus one such river, and thought to himself, “My name is surely omnipotent, and I can do anything in the whole world.” Thus saying, he entered the river loudly repeating, “I, I, I…”.
He got drowned, because he did not know how to swim.
[“My Friend and His Conditioning” by Felipe Justo Cervera, Argentina, abridged.]
In the exploits of Baron Münchhausen it is told how once, during the war against the Turks, he charged wielding his sword right and left against the enemy with such indefatigable strength that at the end, even after the battle was over, his arm kept slashing the air up and down, and it has to be put in plaster for a week to forget its conditioning.
A similar thing happened to a friend of mine, with even worse consequences, as there was no plaster to fit his case.
He charged with similar enthusiasm in search of status and money, and consecrated his whole life to the acquisition of both. He was convinced that there was to other aim in life worth achieving, and he achieved this.
The days were so short for him that he never had time to watch a sunset. He never wasted his time to lie down on the lawn when spring comes to enliven the earth. He never could remain at home in a rainy afternoon to savour sweet cakes baked by himself.
I do know that at the end of each month he punctually sent cheques to the parish in his area, to the Sisters of Saint Lucy, to the SEPIC, the CEMIC and the MISEC, and that he asked for receipts to get tax relief.
As his life was so stressful, he died of a heart attack at forty six. But as he had planned everything so well, his soul reached heaven straight. Saint Peter held him and asked for his entrance certificate. My friend opened his file and showed the receipts of his charities.
Saint Peter gave them back to him coldly, and insisted, “Where is your entrance certificate?” My friend asked him what was that certificate, as it surely must be in his files. Saint Peter explained it to him. He had to bring: ten spontaneous smiles given without any selfish interest; a book of fairy tales worn out by his own use; fifty afternoons lost at home doing nothing; a proof of love towards his wife; a piece of bread given by him to a beggar personally, not through servants; a drawing of ships, pirates, witches and castles made by his children when they were small…”
My friend went away sad, and ever since I have not been able to trace him.
The question has amused me: “Have you read Harry Potter?” Yes, I’ve read it. The first volume, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. I had a good time with it, and I learned a good deal. I’m going to underline a point. Harry Potter was a great wizard, and he did not know it. We are worth much more than we believe. The child who could have grown up unknown and forgotten in drab house of a lost city, is rescued by circumstances, by the sense of adventure and the strength of life, y comes to be the centre of all action and the seed of our own imagination as we read his story and realise that we too have the power to put magic to work if only be become like children.
We all need a “Nimbus Two Thousand”. And if you don’t know what a “Nimbus Two Thousand” is, you can ask any child around you. A four-year old child was the first to tell me.
Just a touch of children’s wisdom. What is the difference between a stalagtite and a stalagmite? That the stalagtite has a ‘g’ in it, while the stalagmite has a ‘g’.
And then: “There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other and Harry was sure the coats of armour could walk.” (p.144) .
Psalm 46: You Chose our Land for Us
“The Lord chose our heritage for us.”You divided the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel, Lord, and you have chosen for me the circumstances of history and family and society in which I am to live. My promised land, my inheritance, my “vineyard” in Biblical terms. Today I want to thank you for my vineyard, to accept it from your hands, to tell you explicitly and openly that I like your choice of life for me, that I am proud of my age, at home in my culture and happy in my land. It is a wonderful time to be alive, Lord.
I hear people compare and complain and regret and wish they had lived in another age and in other lands. That, to me, is heresy and rebellion. All times are good and all lands are blessed, and the time and the place you chose for me are doubly blessed in my sight as your personal choice, your caring providence, your loving gift to me. I like my vineyard, Lord, and I would not change it for any other ever.
I love my body and my mind, my intelligence and my memory as you have given them to me. My vineyard. Many around me have healthier bodies and keener intellects, and I praise you for that, Lord, as you show glimpses of your beauty and your power in the living works of your creation. There are better vines and more luscious grapes in vineyards around mine. Still I value and treasure mine above all others, because that is your gift to me. You have chosen my patrimony for me, and I rejoice in it.
You choose for me the events that meet me during the day, the news I read and I hear, the weather that greets me and the moods that assail me. You choose my land for me. Teach me now how to till that land, how to handle those moods, how to meet those people, how to profit by those events. I am a child of my time, and, as I see times as given by you, I want to work in it with faith and with joy, never with despondency or despair. This world is lovely because you have created it for me. Thank you for this world, for this life, for this land. Thank you for my vineyard, Lord.
The printer of my computer has warned me to change the ink cartridge, as the ink is running out. I ignore the warning, because I know it to be an empty threat. I keep on printing, and after many pages the warning comes up again: “The ink in the cartridge is running out. Please, insert a new one.” I don’t. I keep printing without taking notice. A third threat comes up. Let it come. The computer gives me up and sends no more warnings. Finally, after I had printed double the amount of pages than I had printed before the first warning, I notice that a page comes out weakly printed, and then I change the cartridge at once. If I had changed it at the first warning, I would have lost half the ink.
And now comes the fun. The computer fights back. When I fit in the new ink cartridge into the printer, it displays on my screen one of its insulting windows: “Ink cartridge incompatible.” And it refuses to print. I take it out, put it in again carefully. No go. The same insolent banner. Incompatible. I take it out again, check its credentials, read out to myself: “Ink Cartridge for the HP Deskjet 950 printer.” That is mine. But it refuses to cooperate. We shall see. I switch off the computer. I switch it on again. I place the same ink cartridge exactly as before. It prints perfectly well. No questions asked.
I know it has done it out of sheer spite. Pure vengeance. I had ignored him for a start, and now it strikes back. It keeps the grudge, and it takes the first opportunity to annoy me. At that he is a master. He has been wrong twice, first when telling me there was no ink, and then when informing the cartridge was incompatible. And it sticks to its guns. The least he could do would be to put out one of those little windows of his saying: “Sorry, I was wrong. I apologise.” But nothing of the kind. He has not been taught good manners, and that is a pity, because they tell us computers will one day run our lives.
We could, al least, expect Bill Gates to apologise.
This story has made me laugh. It is told by Paul Theroux in his book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”, which is a kind of combined biography of the Nobel Price V.S. Naipaul (famous for his stern character) and the author’s own friendship with him.
“Ved Mehta is a distinguished Indian writer settled in New York. He is famously blind. A certain New Yorker doubted his blindness. Seeing Mehta at a New York party, speaking to a group of attentive people, holding court, the man decided to test it. He had always been skeptical that Mehta was totally blind, since in his writing he minutely described people’s faces and wrote about the nuances of colour and texture with elaborate subtlety, making precise distinctions.
The man crept over to where Mehta was sitting, and as the writer continued to speak, the doubting man began making faces at him. He leaned over and waved his hands at Ved Mehta’s eyes. He thumbed his nose at Ved Mehta. He wagged his fingers in Ved Mehta’s face.
Still, Mehta went on speaking, calmly and in perfectly enunciated sentences, never faltering in his expansive monologue.
The man made a last attempt: he put his own face a foot away and stuck his tongue out. But Mehta spoke without pause, as if the man did not exist.
Realising how wrong he had been, the man felt uncomfortable and wanted to go home. Leaving the party, he said to the hostess, “I had always though Ved Mehta was faking his blindness, or at least exaggerating. I am now convinced that Ved Mehta is blind.”
“That’s not Ved Mehta”, the hostess said. “It’s V.S. Naipaul.”
“I’m so superstitious that I mistrust good luck suspecting it will bring me bad luck.” [V.S. Naipaul]
Master Dogo had a disciple called Soshin. When Soshin was taken in as a novice, it was perhaps natural of him to expect lessons in Zen from his teacher the way a schoolboy is taught at school. But Dogo gave him no special lessons on the subject, and this bewildered and disappointed Soshin. One day he said to the master, “It is some time since I came here, but not a word has been given me regarding the essence of the Zen teaching.” Dogo replied, “Since your arrival I have ever been giving you lessons on the matter of Zen discipline.”
“What kind of lesson could it have been?”
“When you bring me a cup of tea in the morning, I take it; when you serve me a meal, I accept it; when you bow to me, I return it with a nod. How else do you expect to be taught in the mental discipline of Zen?”
Soshin hung his head for a while, pondering the puzzling words of the master. The master said, “If you want to see, see right at once. When you begin to think, you miss the point.”
[D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, p.13]
A Blessing in Disguise
“What drove me to write was the extreme manual clumsiness from which I have always suffered. I attribute it to a physical defect which my brother and I both inherit from our father; we have only one joint in the thumb. The upper joint (that farthest from the nail) is visible, but it is a mere sham; we cannot bend it. But whatever the cause, nature laid on me from birth an utter incapacity to make anything. With pencil and pen I was handy enough, and I can still tie as good a bow as ever lay on a man’s collar, but with a tool or a bat or a gun, a sleeve-link or a corkscrew, I have always been unteachable. It was this that forced me to write. I longed to make things, ships, houses, engines. Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled, only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears. As a last resource, as a “pis aller”, I was driven to write stories instead; little dreaming to what a world of happiness I was being admitted. You can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table.”[C.S. Lewis, “Surprised by Joy”, p.15]
The story of the piece of jade (see January 15) has brought me comments from people who enjoyed it immensely, as I did, as also from people who ask for it to be explained. The jade Master asks the new applicant to keep a jade stone in his hand for a full year. After one year the applicant comes back to begin his training. The Master gives him another stone to keep in his hand for another year. The applicant protests but takes the stone in his hand, and when taking it he exclaims, “But this is not jade!” The Master then tells him his apprenticeship is over.
The piece of jade is life, and life is not learned by precepts but by living it out. The art of discernment, which is the art of life, is learned by experience, by patience, by tact, by the feeling of things, by treasuring all circumstances, by holding in our hand whatever is placed in it. Thus we shall come to know what is to be accepted and what is to be rejected, what is helpful and what is harmful, what is jade and what is a vulgar stone. The touch of the soul is the sense of life.
Psalm 47 – The City of God
Zion for me means Jerusalem, the earthly and the heavenly, the home of the People of God, the Church, the Promised Land, the City of God. I rejoice when I hear its name. I like to pronounce it, to sing it, to fill it with my dreams of that heavenly homeland, with the landscapes of my imagination and the colours of my longing. All that is good and beautiful is projected into the skyline of that ultimate city on the eternal hills.
The city of you God upon his holy hill
fair and lofty,
the joy of the whole earth is Zion’s hill,
like the farthest reaches of the north,
the hill of the great King’s city.A city has foundations and monuments and gardens and avenues, and the city of my dreams has all that in the perfection of its design and the glory of its architecture. Symbol of order and planning, of men and women living together and of nature’s resources being harnessed for the welfare of its children. The city fits in the landscape, is part of it, is almost the horizon made geometry, the trees and the clouds blending in graceful harmony with the buildings and the towers of man’s habitation. The perfect city in an ideal world.
I cherish my dream of my fair city, and then I open my eyes and prepare my day and get ready to walk the streets of the very real, human, earthly city I live in. I see crooked alleys and dirty corners, I pass by gloomy buildings and reeking huts, I see traffic and squalor, I smell the unventilated presence of humanity, I hear the cries of beggars and the wailing of children, I suffer in the midst of this living mockery of the City, the “polis”, the “urbs”, that has transformed the dream into a nightmare, and the model of design into a blueprint of misery. I weep in the streets and squares of my tortured metropolis of today.
And then I open my eyes again, the eyes of faith, the eyes of wisdom and of knowledge, an I see my city… and in it, as figure and sign, I see the City of my dreams. There is only one city, and its appearance depends on the eyes that contemplate it. This city of mine with its twisted alleys and its pungent smells was also created by God, that is, created by humans who were created by God, which comes to the same thing. God also dwells in it, in the dignity of its temples and in the lives of its inhabitants. This city is also sacred with the smoke of sacrifices and the shouts of jubilation. This is also the City of God, because it is the city of man, and man is the child of God.
I rejoice now while I go through its streets, I mingle with its crowds and I am caught in its traffic jams. I sing hymns of praise and glory at the top of my voice. Yes, this is the City and the Temple and the Tent of the Presence and the abode of the great King. My earthly city shines with the splendour of the men and women who dwell in it, and as they are the image of God, so their city is the image of the heavenly City. I am glad at my discovery which opens my heart and redeems my sojourn on earth. Blessed be your City and my city, O Lord.
Make the round of Zion in procession,
count the number of her towers,
take good note of her ramparts,
pass her palaces in review,
that you may tell generations yet to come:
Such is God, our God for ever and ever;
he shall be our guide eternally.
Smile, breathe, walk
These are ideas from the monk Thich Nhat Hanh whom someone has described as “a cross between a cloud, a snail and a tractor”, the first monk who rode a bicycle in Vietnam, and of whom Thomas Merton said: “Just the way he has opened that door and entered this room shows his wisdom.”
“We can smile, breathe, walk…, in such a way that these activities will keep us in touch with the overflowing happiness that is within our reach.
Your smile makes you happy and makes all around you happy too. Nothing can make our relatives happier than the gift of our own happiness, of our smile. There is no expensive present that can compare with it. And this precious gift is ours for nothing.
How to remember to smile while you are awake? You can hang on your window or from your ceiling or over your bed something that reminds you – a twig, a leaf, a drawing, some inspiring words. When you have developed the technique of smiling, you won’t need to be reminded of it. You’ll smile as soon as you hear a bird’s song or you see the light of dawn filtering through your window. Smiling helps you to face your day with kindness and wisdom.
Breathing is for me an unforgettable pleasure. Just smiling and breathing we can be very happy, because when we breathe consciously we recover our own selves and find our life in the present.
It is good luck to be able to breathe consciously in our troubled society from time to time. There is no need for us to be seated in a meditation hall to practice this, we can do it while we are working in our office or at home, while driving or while sitting in a bus, wherever we are and whatever the time of the day.
To meditate while walking can be very pleasant. We walk slowly. To meditate while walking is to truly enjoy the walk, to walk not in order to arrive at any place, but for the simple pleasure of walking. The aim is to live in the present, and thus, concentrated on our breathing and our walking, to enjoy our every step.”
[“Peace Is Every Step”, pp. 8, 10, 17, 19, 20, 21, 41]
Smiling, breathing, walking.
It’s so useful.
It’s so simple.
It’s so hard. Just try it.
[I’ve been smiling while I wrote this. Does it show?]
[An amusing and instructive experience of the same monk.]
“When I was four years old my mother used to bring a biscuit for me when she came back from the market. I then would go to the courtyard in front and would eat it very slowly, at times I would take half an hour or forty-five minutes to eat the biscuit. I would take a small bit and look up to the sky. I touched the dog with my foot and would take another bit. I enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo bushes, the cat, the dog, the flowers. I could do that because I had not many worries. I did not think on the future, neither did I feel nostalgic for the past. I lived fully in the present moment, with my biscuit, my dog, the bamboo bushes, the cat and all the other things.
We can take our food as slowly and delightfully as I took that biscuit in my infancy. Maybe you have the sensation you have lost the biscuit of your childhood, but I am sure it is still there, in some corner of your heart. There is everything, and you can find it if you strongly desire it. To eat with awareness is one of the most important way of meditating. We can ear in such a way that we get back the biscuit of our childhood. The present moment is pregnant with joy and happiness. If you focus your attention on it, you will see it.”
“He who sticks it out, wins.” Camilo José Cela.
I’ve been told that St. Peter got together all the new arrivals at the door of eternity to organise the growing crowd and gave his orders: “Those who have committed only venial sins, to my right; those who have committed mortal sins, to my left; and who have committed no sin, in the centre.”
Two large groups gathered at the right and the left, and one lonely man was left in the centre.
Seeing the situation, St. Peter ordered: “Everybody to heaven!” There was an outburst of joy, but a loud cry was heard above all the other voices. It was the little man in the middle who shouted: “That is not fair! It is sheer injustice! If I had known this, I too would have enjoyed myself…”
[“The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” by Nadine Gordimer, abridged.]
Marais Van der Vyver shot one of his farm labourers, dead. An accident. But he knows the news will be reported all over the world. He knows that the story of the white farmer shooting a black man who worked for him will fit exactly the blacks’ version of South Africa. He and the black man will become those crudely-drawn figures on anti-apartheid banners, units in statistics of white brutality against the blacks.
People in the white farming community understand how he must feel. They know, reading the Sunday papers, that when Van der Vyver is quoted saying he is “terrible shocked”, and he will “look after the wife and children”, none of those people who want to destroy the white man’s power will believe him. And how they will sneer when he even says of the farm boy (according to one paper), “He was my friend. I always took him hunting with me.”
On that day he also had gone hunting with the black boy who had jumped onto the back of the truck as he always did. He liked to travel standing up there. He would lean forward, braced against the cab below him. Van der Vyver drove rather fast over a pot-hole. The jolt fired the rifle by his side. The bullet pierced the roof and entered the boy’s brain by way of his throat.
It is obvious from the quality and fittings of the coffin that the farmer has provided money for the funeral. And an elaborate funeral means a great deal to blacks. The dead man’s mother is a woman who can’t be more than in her late thirties. Her parents were already working for old Van der Vyver when Marais, like their daughter, was a child. She stares at the grave. Nothing will make her look up; there need be no fear that she will look up at him. He, too, stares at the grave.
How will they ever know, when they file newspaper clippings, evidence, proof, when they look at the photographs and see his face – guilty! guilty! they are right! – how will they know? How could they know that they do not know. Anything. The young black callously shot through the negligence of the white man was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.
[Jump and Other Stories, p.111]
Several of you have told me that my e-mails in answer to yours are too short. It is true. Time is scarce, and I shorten my messages. But maybe I’m wrong. Of course, there are problems I cannot solve, and sorrows I cannot relieve. But I certainly can take every message leisurely, establish contact, distant but real, with the people who write to me, watch the screen, feel the other person at their keyboard, let their communication reach me and then let myself answer it from the inside, quietly, softly, peacefully, intimately as my fingers convey my feelings and my love through the keys and through space. This is a new way to communicate. I propose to keep learning it.
Psalm 48 – The Eternal Riddle
Hear this, all you nations;
listen, all who inhabit this world,
all humankind, every living person,
rich and poor alike;
for the words that I speak are wise,
my thoughtful heatr is full of understanding.
I will set my ear to catch the moral of the story,
and tell on the harp how I read the riddle.The riddle is the eternal riddle of all ages and all men and women. Why do the just suffer while the wicked prosper? Is it to test our faith, to try out our patience, to enhance our merit? Is it to hide from our eyes the ways of God, to shake our complacency, to challenge our human calculations? Is it to tell us that God is God and will not be held to account by any human mind? Is it to remind us of the smallness of our minds and the meanness of our hearts?
Why do the just suffer and the wicked prosper? All philosophies have wrestled with the question, all wise man and women and all privileged minds have tackled the problem. Volumes upon volumes and discussion against discussion. Is God unfair? Are humans stupid? Is life without a meaning?
Men and women have approached the problem with their minds. The psalm sings it with the harp. And there is wisdom and depth in the gesture of the psalmist. The depths of the mysteries of man’s life on earth are not to be thought but to be sung; they cannot be expressed through equations but through mysticism they are not to be analysed but to be lived.
Yes, there are things I don’t grasp in life, many situations that pass my understanding, many problems beyond my ken. I can rack my brains trying to give an answer to questions that generations of wise men and women have not been able to answer… or I can simply in realism and humility take life as it comes and answer its questions by living them with sensitivity and commitment, with personal responsibility and social sense, with honesty in my actions and concern in my service. I prefer to handle riddles with my harp rather than at the point of the sword. I prefer to live my life than to spend it in reasoning out how I ought to live it. I prefer to sing rather than to argue.
I accept the riddle of life, Lord, I trust your understanding of it when my own fails, and I commit myself and all men and women into your hands with trust and with joy. That is my practical way of showing that you are Lord of all.
God will ransom my life,
and take me with himself.
I was talking of this and that with a twenty-three-year old young man when, between exchanges, he remarked: “I don’t understand young people.” It took me a little time to check my bearings. What had he said? He had said he didn’t understand young people. And who had said that? A twenty-three-year old. And is that not a young man? I was talking with him as with a young man. For me, I was an old man talking with a young man. But apparently for him that was not the case. He did not see himself as young. And he was twenty-three.
Time always passes fast, and in our days it increasing its speed. That is to say, things change faster and faster. The other day I phoned a friend at his home and a child’s voice answered me: “Henry senior is not at home. You can tell me your errand.” He was henry junior, of course, and he is hardly in his fourth year. When I was four years old I didn’t even know I existed. Now the smart kid handles the phone, the remote control for the TV, the joy stick of his electronic games and the keyboard of the toy computer he got on his last birthday. And I suppose he does not drive the car because his feet do not reach the pedals. This generation is riding fast. And my twenty-three-year old friend does not understand the young generation. For the new “young” he is an old man.
Change accelerates. Let us rejoice at that. And let us learn to catch up with it. Let us not waste our time discussing whether change is good or bad, or defending that “our times” where the real ones, never to come back. Each time is valid in itself. What is important for me, for my twenty-three-year old friend, and for Henry junior is that we understand each other.
And the first step to understand each other is to realise that we do not understand each other.
About “our times”
“Our Lady is miraculously watching over us in the midst of the plague. And don’t think we do not deserve the plague for our sins. All around here are murderers and robbers; and the sixth commandment is just ignored.”
This was written by the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián in a letter dated 21 March 1652, about three and a half centuries ago. He ends up with a flourish: “But, as I say, there is enough holy water for everybody.”
And Times Keep Changing
Allen Klein in his book “The Healing Power of Humour” quotes this letter from a newspaper:
Dear mummy and daddy,
I’m sorry I didn’t write earlier, but all my stationery was destroyed when the dorm caught fire. I’ve just been discharged from hospital, and the doctor says I’ll soon recover fully. I’m staying with a boy friend who rescued me, since all my things were destroyed in the fire.
Oh, yes! I know you always wanted a grandson, so you’ll be glad to know I’m pregnant and you’ll soon be grandparents.
P.S.: There has been no fire, my health is perfect and I’m not pregnant. In fact, I don’t even have a boy friend. The point is I’ve got an F in French and an E both in Maths and in Chemistry, and I wanted to make sure you could see it in the proper perspective.
This is a piece of almost black humour from the same book, p.243:
Mr Pinsky convinced his brother to keep his Siamese cat while he travelled abroad on business. Mr Pinsky loved his cat very much, but the same was not the case with his brother. As soon as he came back from his trip, he phoned his brother to enquire about the cat. His brother blurted out: “Your cat is dead.” And he hung up.
Pinsky was beyond himself with grief for days. Finally he plucked up courage to phone again his brother.
– It was unnecessarily cruel and inconsiderate on your part to tell me in such a brusque way that my cat had died.
– What did you expect me to do?
– You could have given me the news in a more gentle way. First, you could have told me the cat was playing on the roof. Later, you could have informed me she had fallen down from the roof. The next morning you could have called me to tell me she had broken a leg. Then, when I would come here you could have told me she had died during the night. But I suppose such thoughtfulness does not go with you. Well! By the way, how is mother?
The brother was silent from a moment and then began: “She is playing on the roof…”.
[This is not exactly a short story, but a teaching proposal by Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I quoted in my Web for his doctrine about “smiling and breathing consciously” as a remedy for our anxiety and tension; but I put here his proposal as a story because, although it may not be feasible in practice, it surely is inspiring in its fantasy. We can take it as a parable.]
I recommend to you to keep apart a room in your home and call it “The Breathing Room”. It must be a place where you can be by yourselves and gently practice breathing and smiling, particularly in difficult moments. This room has to be respected as the Embassy of the Kingdom of Peace, and cannot be polluted with anger, shouting or any negative feelings. The room is for the whole family.
The room is to be furnished with a small bell with a pleasant tinkle, a few pillows or chairs and some flowers to make Nature present. If you feel exhausted you will know that the best you can do is to go to that room, open its door gently, sit down, ring the bell and start breathing consciously. The bell will not only help the person in the Breathing Room but all the rest at home also.
Imagine your husband is angry. Since he has been learning the practice of meditation he knows that the best he can do is going to that room, sit down and meditate. Maybe you don’t even know where he’s gone, since you are busy peeling carrots in the kitchen. You suffer because you have quarrelled. You are peeling carrots in a fury because the quarrel expresses itself through our movements.
Suddenly you hear the little bell, and you remember what is it you have to do. While keeping with the carrots you start breathing in and out in full consciousness. You feel better, and now you are able to smile thinking of your husband. You think that he is at this moment sitting in the Breathing Room, breathing and smiling. And this is wonderful. Suddenly you feel seized with tenderness, and you feel much better. You breathe three times, keep on peeling carrots, although you do it now with quite a different feeling.
Your daughter, who has witnessed your quarrel, knows now that the storm is remitting. She had locked herself in her room and was just waiting in silence. Now the storm is over, and she has heard the bell and knows its meaning. She feels relieved and wants to show her parents how much she loves them. She goes slowly to the Breathing Room, opens the door, enters quietly and sits down by her father to show her support. This simple gesture strengthens her father greatly. He feels the crisis is over, he can smile again and rings the bell once more.
You hear this second bell from the kitchen where you are, you put down the knife and go to the meditation room. The door is open, your husband is waiting for you, you go inside. He rings the bell a third time. This is a beautiful scene.
Many of you ask me again and again about Yoga, Zen, Tao, Tai Chi, Sufism, and particularly whether a Catholic can take part in such practices. Apparently there is a lot of fear, scruples and suspicion. Such fears are unfounded. Have you felt suspicious about the tale of the little bell and the carrots? I hope not. Well, that is what these Oriental practices are like. They can do us all a lot of good. And they can teach us some humility when we realise that we can learn something from others.
Someone who writes often to me [sorry, Martha, I’ve tried to answer you directly but the server rejects your e-mail address; tell me how to reach you.] tells me now: “I’ve read your page of March 15, and for the first time I find no sense in it. TO SMILE? How can I smile when the world goes to pieces, the war, the recession, the economy ruined, the impotence of the human being before such calamities? Do you know that the Archbishop of Cali, Colombia, has been murdered? I do not want to smile! Why should I?
I answer that there have always been crises, and so we should never smile, which is absurd. Happily, on the same day I received another e-mail with the title ANTIVIRUS AGAINST SADNESS, with music, song and dance. It would seem there are moods for everything. I, for one, prefer the dance.
Psalm 49 – The Blood of Goats
This is my danger, Lord, in my prayer life, in my dealings with you: routine, repetition, formalism. I recite the prayers, I follow the rituals, I fulfil the requirements. But sometimes my heart is not in my prayers, and I say them out of habit; I go because everybody goes and I am supposed to go. I even feel some scruple and fear that if I omit my prayers you will be displeased with me and might even punish me; and so I go when I have to go and I say what I have to say and sing what I have to sing, but in a rather empty way, without devotion, without love.
What is worse, Lord, sometimes I am very careful with the rituals of the liturgy precisely because I have been negligent in the observance of your precepts. I pay attention to your service to make up for not having paid attention to my brother. And I fear you don’t look kindly on that type of service.
Shall I eat the flesh of your bulls
or drink the blood of your goats?You don’t need my sacrifices, my offerings, my money or my blood. What you want is the sincerity of my devotion and the love of my heart. And the manifestation of this love in my love to all men and women for your sake. That is the sacrifice you desire, and without it no other sacrifice will be pleasing to you. Your words are harsh, but they are true when you rebuke me, Lord:
You charge your mouth with wickedness
and harness your tongue to slander.
You are for ever talking against your brother,
stabbing your own mother’s son in the back.
All this you have done,
and shall I keep silence?
And once I serve my brother in your mane I want now to ask of you the blessing that when I come to you in prayer I may also find you, I may see meaning in what I say and may put feeling in what I sing. Free me, Lord, from the curse of routine, of formalism, of taking you for granted, of converting religious practices into meaningless rubrics. Let every prayer of mine be a psalm, and, like a psalm, have joy in it and confidence and love. Let me be true to myself and true to my brothers, that I may be true to you.
To him who follows my way
I will show the salvation of God.
The Foreign Body
A friend of mine has had a prosthesis fixed inside his knee, and he tells me how he now feels about walking. He walks pretty well without aids, but he still finds it hard to climb stairs, harder to come down stairs, and harder still to think he has some manufactured gadget inside his knee. The doctor has told him: “So long as you look at the prosthesis as a foreign body inside your own body, you’ll not walk properly. The only way to walk properly after an operation like this is to accept the prosthesis, take it as something of your own, as part of your leg, of your body, of your whole being, and then you’ll get back your facility and your naturalness in walking. That is the secret.”
That set me thinking. First about my body. It is part of my being, and yet I have been trained to consider it as an enemy, a temptation, a stranger. It is nothing of the kind. My knee is myself, and if it is unwell, it is the whole of me that is unwell. And now it is also my whole self that welcomes the help that comes to me from outside, but that I now accept and integrate and make a part of myself for my own good. To make it “feel at home” is the best way for my home to be a happy home.
Then I thought about nature. Nature is not “foreign” to me either. It is, in a way, part of myself as I am part of it. At times it troubles me, it makes me sweat with its heat or freeze with its cold, it drenches me with its rain or whips me with its wind. I suffer and feel unhappy. Perhaps the secret to feel happy will be to feel one with it.
Again I thought about the people I know. Nobody is a stranger. All are welcome to my life. Let us walk together, and then we’ll walk properly. We all are one body, aren’t we?
Rabindranath, one of the greatest poets of this country, was living on a small houseboat. He used to live for months together on that houseboat; he loved living on the houseboat. It was a full-moon night and he was reading in his room, a small cabin, just by a small candlelight, and he was reading about aesthetics – what is beauty? And the full moon outside, and the cuckoo calling from the distant shore, and the moon reflecting all over the lake, and the whole lake was silver…! It was a tremendously silent night, nobody around, except that cuckoo calling. Once in a while a bird would fly over the boat, or a fish would jump in the lake – and those sounds would deepen the silence even more. And he pondered over great books on aesthetics in search of the definition of what beauty is.
Tired, exhausted, in the middle of the night, he blew our the candle… and he was shocked, surprised. As he blew out the candle, the moon-rays entered through the window, through the door, inside the cabin. That pale light of the candle had been keeping the moon out. Suddenly, he heard the cuckoo calling from the distant shore. Suddenly he became aware of the tremendous silence, the depth of the silence surrounding the boat. A fish jumped, and it came out…. He had never seen such a beautiful night. A few white clouds floating in the sky, and the moon and the lake and the cuckoo calling… he was transported into another world.
He wrote in his diary, “I am foolish! I have been searching in books for what beauty is, and beauty was standing outside my door, knocking on my door! I was looking for beauty, searching for beauty, with a small candle, and the small candlelight was keeping the moonlight outside.” He wrote in his diary, “It seems my small ego is keeping God out – the small ego, like a pale small candlelight, keeping the light of God outside. And he is waiting outside. All that I need to do is to close the books, blow out the candle of the ego and go out – and see!
[“This is It”, p.141]
“Wisdom is pain transformed.” Rudolf Steiner.
[Now that we all speak several languages, this amusing experience of Judith Krantz in her autobiography can help us. She had been for a time in Paris without getting to master French, when an unexpected incident launched her into the conquest of the language.]
“In the late fall, I received a notice that my old winter clothes had finally arrived from New York. I had to go to customs to pick them up and there I discovered that the big suitcase my mother had sent was locked and I didn’t have a key. I tried to explain to the customs inspector that the suitcase contained only worn clothes, but he insisted on prying it open with a crowbar, breaking the lock and the frame and then proceeding to go through each and every item of my outdated, all-but-useless Wellesley wardrobe.
Suddenly, as I watched this vandalism, something exploded in my head, detonated by his pigheaded stubbornness and sheer meanness, and, from out of the blue, I began to berate him soundly in loud, furious and fairly fluent… French! I was so clearly in the right that I soared to heights of angry eloquence. All the way back to boulevard Lannes, I never stopped talking to the taxi driver, violently informing him of my misfortune, without even realising that I was speaking to him in French. After I’d lugged the suitcase upstairs – it was one of those days without electricity and the elevator didn’t work – I related my story all over again to everyone who would listen, in rapid, embellished, detailed, colourful French! They stood around listening to me in shock, disbelieving and delighted, for once at a lost for words.
It took me a while to realise why. Abruptly I understood that in the space of a few hours I had become a creature transformed. Everything had fallen together with that thunderclap of fury at the customs inspector. I knew how to tell a story in their language, I knew how to complain in their language, I knew how to describe an idiot in their language. I could speak their precious language. The French adore French with a passion and a ferocity that no American can understand. No one is truly human to them who doesn’t speak it. I’d fulfilled the promise I’d made to my mother, but, more important, I’d made the essential breakthrough without which I could never have become a real part of the life of the family or, indeed, of the life of France.
I never looked back. Every single day my French grew dramatically better and better. It turned out that I had a genuine ear for language, and now, as I dared to use it freely, all the lessons Mademoiselle Gaillrand had drilled into me for three years came flooding back; vocabulary, verbs, even the use of the subjunctive. Total immersion in French for less than three months had done the trick, something I could never have guessed in high school, more than four years earlies, where we had had only written drills. My accent became that of the Bouchet de Fareinses, a pure Parisian accent, since I had o other accent to lose.
When I could really speak French, i discovered that it wasn’t just knowing how to use the grammar or the vocabulary, it’s in the pitch of the vocal cords, the head movements, the shoulder and hand movements, the shape of the mouth, the tilt of the head, the width of the smile, the play of the eyes. It’s a strong verbal body language, as different from my normal way of communicating as a Kabuki play, and it transformed me into someone I couldn’t be in English. French gave me a second personality.”
[ A friend sends me this beautiful story, which I reproduced here abridged, together with my answer to him.]
This is the story of a blacksmith who was very honest with people and very pious with God. Throughout his life he worked hard and practised charity, still, in spite of all his dedication to good works, his life was not a happy one, on the contrary, he was beset by problems and worries, and his debts accumulated day by day.
A friend sympathised with his sufferings and expressed his surprise at the fact that, being such a devote person, he would suffer so much. The blacksmith answered him: “In my workshop I receive the rough iron and I must transform it into swords. Do you know how that is done? First I heat up the iron sheet to a hot hell till it becomes red hot; at once, I take the heaviest hammer and strike it without pity till it acquires the desired shape; then I plunge it into cold water, and the whole workshop is filled with the sizzling and the vapour, because the iron protests and shouts at the sudden change of temperature. And I have to repeat the whole process several times, as once is not enough.”
The blacksmith paused for a while and then continued: “I know that God is putting me into the fire of afflictions. I accept the hammering at the hands of life, and the only thing I think is, my God, do not give up till you get me into the shape you want for me.”
Now my answer.
It is a beautiful story. But many people write to me in their sufferings, and when the suffering is real and deep, stories do not help much. They object to the blacksmith’s story and to similar stories: If God wanted me to be a sword, why couldn’t he make me a sword from the start instead of tormenting me with his blows? Beautiful and well-meant stories like this one are good only for us to tell others when we ourselves are not suffering. But they do not explain suffering. True suffering – and there is a great lot of deep suffering in the world – has no explanation, and I eschew easy answers. Years ago I met a priest who had tried to console others with explanations and stories like the one of the blacksmith, and there are many such beautiful stories. Later in life, he himself met with great suffering, and he told me: “One thing I’ve learned from this trial: I’ll never again in my life speak glibly about suffering.” I’ve never forgotten that. [I’ve quoted earlier Rudolf Steiner, “Wisdom is suffering transformed.” It is true, but it is no explanation either.] The only help I know is to accompany the person who suffers. This is what Jesus did with us. He suffered with us. But the question remains: And why should we suffer, for a start? The mystery stands, and before the mystery we are left with acceptation, compassion and silence. I hope you’ll understand. Greetings.
Psalm 50 – My Sin and Your Mercy
Against you, you alone, have I sinned.That is my sorrow and my shame, Lord. I know how to be kind to others, I am a considerate person and like to be known and appreciated as such. I am polite and thoughtful, and pride myself on keeping good relations with all and being faithful to my friends. I never hurt anyone or put anybody to inconvenience; it is not my way to do harm to people or to give them pain. And yet to you, you alone, I have given pain, I have betrayed our friendship and hurt your feelings.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned.If you ask any of my friends, any of the people who live with me or work under me whether they have anything against me, they’ll say no, they’ll say I’m a nice person and, yes, I have my weak points (who hasn’t?), but I am pleasant to live with and never say a harsh word or play a mean trick or let anybody down; I am a dependable person and can be relied upon to stand by my friends if the need arises. Nobody has a complaint against me. Only you have. I have broken your law, I have ignored your wishes, I have disappointed you. In more serious matters I have trampled upon your blood and disowned your death. I, who never do that to anybody, have hurt you and let you down.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned.It was lust or it was pride, it was jealousy or it was spite, it was greed or it was selfishness…, in any case it was me before you and me against you, because it was me against your law and your will and your creation. I have been ungrateful and rebellious, I have spurned a Father’s love and a Creator’s orders. I have no defence before you.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned
and done what displeases you,
so that you may be proved right in your charge
and just in passing sentence.You can in all justice condemn me, Lord, I cannot refute your charge or reject your sentence.
n iniquity I was brought to birth
and my mother conceived me in sin.
Well I know my misdeeds
and my sins confront me all the day long.I confess my sin, and, deeper down, I accept the fact that I am a sinner. That is my birth, my status, my definition. I, the whole of me, my mind and heart and soul and body as they are today at this moment before you, make me up as a sinner in your eyes and in my own conscience. I know it well when I do the evil I don’t want and I miss the good I wish I could do. I am conceived in sin, and I bear the weight of my sinfulness through the uphill path of my existence.
But if I am a sinner, you are a Father. You forgive and forget and accept. To you I come with faith and confidence, knowing that you never send your children away when they come to you with sorrow and humility.
Be gracious to me, O God, in your true love;
in the fullness of your mercy blot out my misdeeds.
Wash away all my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.
Take hyssop and sprinkle me,
that I may be clean;
wash me, that I may become whiter than snow;
let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness,
let the bones dance which you have broken.
Turn away your face from my sins
and blot out all my guilt.Let me feel clean again. Let me feel forgiven, accepted and loved. If my sin was against you, my reconciliation must come from you. Give me your peace, your spirit and your strength.
Create a pure heart in me, O God,
and give me a new and steadfast spirit;
do not drive me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me;
revive in me the joy of your deliverance
and grant me a willing spirit to uphold me.Give me the joy of your pardon, that I may speak to others about you and your goodness and your mercy.
Open my lips, O Lord,
that my mouth may proclaim your praise.Make my fall an occasion of my rising up, my drifting from you an opportunity co come closer to you. I know myself better now, as I know my weakness and my misery; and I know you better in the experience of your pardon and your love. I want to share with others the bitterness of my sin and the blessedness of your pardon. I want to proclaim before everybody the greatness of your merciful love.
I will teach transgressors the ways that lead to you,
and sinners shall return to you again.Let the painful experience of my sin do good to myself and to others, and to your whole Church made up of people who want to come closer to each other and to you, and are hindered by the presence of sin upon the earth. Bless your People, O Lord.
Let it be your pleasure to do good to Zion,
To build anew the walls of Jerusalem.
[I’m allowing myself some letting off steam after the deep frustration I’m undergoing before so many illegible, incomplete, fuzzy, omitted addresses in letters I get by ordinary mail, which I want to answer but cannot, or I do answer but cannot send, or I do send them but without having any way to know whether they will arrive at their destination because the sender’s address is badly scribbled and I’m unable to decipher it. I’ve just now received one such letter, I’ve answered it, and then on the envelope containing my answer I’ve written whatever I could guess from the sender’s shabby handwriting on her envelope about her address, and I’ve added all the possible alternative readings of the hieroglyphic I could think of till my envelope looked more like an application form for an astronaut than an object for the simple mailbox. Then I’ve carefully stuck the stamp on and I’ve posted it. This is what I’ve written inside as an answer:]
Dear…, You’ve given me quite some trouble with your postal address as you write it on a corner in you envelope. It is hardly readable. And you have not written it inside. Now, I have to answer dozens of letters all by myself, and people apparently think their name and address are so obvious, so evident, so natural that anyone can easily read them. Well, I can’t. What I often do is to cut with scissors the sender’s address on the sender’s envelope, paste it as it is on the envelope with my answer, and post it. Of course, this only transfers the problem from me onto the postman. But he, at least, is paid for it. But in your case I’ve not been able to do even that, because your address, besides being written in very small and very irregular print, is partially covered up by the stamps themselves and their defacement, and so I’ve not been able to cut it away. That has happened to me so often that I hope you’ll understand my frustration.
Persons who have written to me several times also seem to think I know by heart all the addresses of all the persons that have written to me along my whole life, and they cheerfully omit any reference to their city, street or even their surnames. I love informality, but not when it leaves me helpless.
Even in the electronic mail it happens to me that I receive an e-mail, I sent my answer automatically by the “reply to sender” button which activates the address in the sender’s message…, and the server rejects the message because the address is not right, and tells me bluntly in a window without appeal: “This address has permanent fatal errors.” And I have no way of telling the sender that their life is full of fatal errors, as my message will never reach them.
I have a similar trouble with people who write to me through my Web page, but they do not send their electronic address hoping I’ll answer them through the Web page itself. But the page is public, and the question may not lend itself to a public answer; and I do want to answer the person, but privately, and I can’t do it because again there is no address.
The worst for me is that people in such cases think I have not answered them, when in fact I have, though the letter has been lost or the e-mail has not gone through.
And some times I’ve had a horrible experience. I receive a letter by ordinary mail. I answer it immediately with all interest and all cheer, I sign it with love, I turn to address the envelope… only to discover too late that, through the writer’s forgetfulness, there was no sender’s address on the letter or on the envelope. I am left with my answer in my hand, without being able to send it. Exasperating.
I don’t even know whether this letter will reach you, in spite of all the time I’ve taken to answer you and all the alternate readings I’ve written on the envelope wishing the postman good luck. Though now I feel it might be better if you don’t get this letter, because if you get it an read it, you’re going to curse me freely. Surely do it. But, please, write your address clearly in your next letter so that we can at least communicate.
With this I see I’ve filled up the whole page. Excuse me for not answering your questions. Maybe next time. Love.
[Christopher Reeve has written a candid and courageous autobiography full of lessons for life. Its title “Still Me” refers to the thrilling intervention of his wife, Dana, even against the lack of understanding on the part of his own mother.]
“The doctors had explained my condition [after his fall from the horse that had left him without any movement from his shoulders down, without even being able to breathe by himself], and now I understood how serious it was. Why not die and save everyone a lot of trouble?
Dana came into the room. She stood beside me, and we made eye contact. I mouthed my first lucid words to her, “Maybe we should let me go.” Dana started crying. She said, “I am only going to say this once: I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life, and your decision. But I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what.” Then she added the words that saved my life: “You’re still you. And I love you.”
If she had looked away or paused or hesitated even slightly, or if I had felt there was a sense of her being – being what? – “noble” or fulfilling some obligation to me, I don’t know if I could have pulled through. Because it had dawned on me that I was going to be a huge burden to everybody, that I had ruined my life and everybody else’s. Not fair to anybody. The best thing to do would be to slip away.
But what Dana said made living seem possible, because I felt the depth of her love and commitment. I knew then and there that she was going to be with me forever.
My mother had come down from Princeton and was immediately led into the ICU. She saw me unconscious and immobilised, and was told that I had only a slim chance of survival. She became distraught and began arguing strenuously that the doctors should pull the plug. They told her to calm down, to wait and see what would happen. Of course she didn’t want me to die, but she simply could not stand the thought of my living in such a terrible condition. She knew what an active life I’d always led – that for me being active and being alive were the same thing. In the past I would have agreed with her.
She kept insisting on this until a real fight erupted. She spoke to the chaplains in the hospital, and to the doctors. But she avoided confronting Dana, because she knew how strongly Dana felt that it was my decision, mine alone. At one point, in a moment of real despair, my mother told Dana’s father, “Tomorrow, we’re going to do it.” And he replied, “Wait a minute. You’re not doing anything.”
In my ICU room I was protected from the drama and controversy going on outside. Together they persuaded my mother to calm down and think things through.
One day most of the family was together in the mail-room, busily sorting through stacks of letters. My small son, Will, was on the floor playing. He looked up and said,
– “Mommy, Daddy can’t move his arms anymore.” Dana said,
– That’s right, Daddy can’t move his arms.
– And Daddy can’t run around anymore.
– That’s right; he can’t run around anymore.
– And Daddy can’t talk.
– That’s right; he can’t talk right now, but he will be able to.
Then Will paused, screwed up his face in concentration, and burst out happily, “But he can still smile.” Everyone put down what they were doing and just looked at one another.”
[pp. 28, 33]
Be Who You Are
A Hassidic story tells how Rabbi Zousya pronounced these words in his death bed: “In the world to come, I shall not be asked, Why were you not Moses?. No. I shall be asked, Why were you not Zousya?”
[“El círculo de los mentirosos” by Jean-Claude Carrière, p.108]
Andrés Borthagaray sends me a quotation from Thomas Keating, a Cistercian abbot in USA, that sums up thus the causes of the decline of contemplation in the West in favour of meditation.
– The unfortunate tendency to downgrade “spiritual exercises” to a method of discursive meditation. (Ignatius Loyola)
– The condemnation of Quietism by the established Church, that is the attitude of “letting go” and abandoning oneself to the guidance of grace. This let to fear of mysticism and its consequent discredit.
– Jansenism. It is close to Determinism, where humans can do little to change their condition.
– Exaggerate valuation of visions and private revelations, together with the downgrading of the liturgy.
– Mixing up authentic contemplation with phenomena like levitation, speaking in tongues, stigmata and visions.
– Mixing up mysticism with superstition.
– The increment of ecclesiastical legalism.
Keating concludes that the eradication of contemplation was made final when it was asserted that aspiring to contemplative prayer was a presumptuous temerity.
The point interests me. Contemplation is the secret of the pull the East exerts over the West today, as well as the key for the spiritual renewal of the West. I fell sorry to see my father St Ignatius mentioned at the head of the list. Ignatius was himself a contemplative and a mystic, but we, his children, have not inherited this trait from him. If this quotation had reached me earlier, I would have included it in my book, “We Have Seen the Lord”, which is all about this theme.
Psalm 51 – The Razor and the Tongue
A modern metaphor in an ancient psalm.
The tongue of the wicked is like a razor.It slashes, it cuts, it wounds. Calumny and insult and falsehood. Whenever it strikes, it hurts. A thing of danger and a tool of death. A deadly edge of spite, slander and scorn. The human tongue can cause more harm than any weapon in humans’ hands.
The psalm defines the evil: “cruel gossip”. And I awaken with a shock to the burden of my daily irresponsibility. The gossip that so easily leaves my lips, that I utter in jest and carelessness, that I think to be just universal practice and forgivable fun, is in fact something hurtful, inhuman, cruel. I am cruel when I speak ill of others. I am merciless when I indulge in backbiting. I am heartless when I gossip. I destroy reputations, I damage relationships, I smear characters. And the smear remains because men are prone to believe the evil and ignore the good. There is destruction in my tongue, and I did not know it.
Your slanderous tongue is sharp as a razor.
You love evil and not good,
falsehood, not speaking the truth;
cruel gossip you love
and slanderous talk.Purify my speech, Lord. Curb my language and tame my words. Remind me, when I open my mouth, of the harm I can do, and direct all that I say to profit and to goodness and to help. I don’t want to hurt anyone with the cutting edge of thoughtless words.
I’m in the allergist’s waiting room. On coming in, I’ve greeted all those waiting there, I’ve sat down and I’ve taken a look around. In front of me a young girl is sitting by her mother’s side. She has taken one of the many magazines piled up on a table in the centre of the room. She is turning its pages with ruthless fury in contrast to the quiet atmosphere of the hall. She grabs a page, and almost immediately, without as much as looking at it, she turns it violently, rudely, brutally, with the noise of angry paper that fills the whole room like an explosion. And another. And another. And another. She thus finishes up the whole magazine in a jiffy, she gets up, leaves it on the table, takes another, goes back to her seat and settles down to tear through its pages with the same speed and the same violence one by one till the last one. And now another magazine. And another. And another. At this rate she’s going to finish up with the whole table.
The girl is nervous. Well might she be. Allergy is a young person’s sickness. But it is not only the fear of the diagnose that shakes her; it is the fear of life. It is true that she already knows everything, but precisely because of that she does not know now what to do with whatever remains for her… which is still her whole life. She has seen everything, has tasted everything, has got everything, has been disappointed by everything… and she does not anymore know what to wish for the future. She turns the pages of the magazine at full speed because they tell her nothing new. She needs stronger emotions. Louder music, stronger drinks, quicker drugs. Spiral without end. And she knows that, she fears that, she lives that…, and she goes on turning the pages of the magazines with a mad gesture.
I’m allergic to the flower of the olive tree. The allergist is the one who has told me, perhaps to cheer me up, that allergy is a young person’s sickness. I do cheer up. Who will cure the young girl’s allergy?
For Those Who Love Books
“When I was eleven and my brother Kim was thirteen, our parents took us to Europe. At the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Copenhagen, as he had done virtually every night of his literate life, Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table. The next afternoon, he returned to find the book closed, a piece of paper inserted to mark the page, and the following note, signed by the chambermaid, resting on its cover: SIR, YOU MUST NEVER DO THAT TO A BOOK.
My brother was stunned. How could it have come to pass that he – a reader so devoted that he’d sneaked a book and a flashlight under the covers at his boarding school every night after lights-out, a crime punishable by a swat with a wooden paddle – had been branded as someone who didn’t love books? I shared his mortification. I could not imagine a more bibliolatrous family that the Fadimans. Yet, with the exception of my mother, in the eyes of the youg Danish maid we would all have been found guilty of rampant book abuse.
My husband loves books though he is an incorrigible book-splayer whose roommate once informed him, “George, if you ever break the spine of one of my books, I want you to know you might as well be breaking my own spine.”
[Anne Fadiman in “Ex Libris”, pp. 31, 33]
[I realise that while I opened the computer to copy this paragraph, I had kept the book spread-eagled on my table. I’m sorry.]
It’s easy to find a good master. It’s difficult to find a good disciple.
[“The Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy, abridged.]
A Bishop was sailing from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery, and on the same vessel were a number of pilgrims on their way to visit the shrines at that place. A fisherman was telling them about the three hermits. “There, in the distance, if you will please look along my hand you’ll see that little cloud. Below it, and a bit to the left, there is just a faint streak. That is the island. The three holy men live there. One is a small man and his back is bent. He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old. He is always smiling. The second is taller and is a strong man. He turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. The third is tall and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. They say they live there in order to save their souls.”
The Bishop spoke to the captain of the ship and asked him to steer the ship towards the island and let him disembark to visit the three hermits. The ship approached, the boat was lowered, the Bishop got into it and they rowed towards the three men who had come to the beach to welcome them.
– I have heard that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you also.
– We do not know how to serve God.
– But how do you pray to God?
– We pray in this way: Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.
– You have evidently heard something about the Holy Trinity. But you do not pray aright. That is not the way to pray; but listen to me, and I will teach you. I will teach you, not a way of my own, but the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him.
The Bishop taught them the Our Father. He repeated the words again and again, and the old men repeated them after him. All day long the Bishop laboured, saying a word twenty, thirty, a hundred times over, and the old men repeated it after him. They blundered, and he corrected them, and made them begin again. The Bishop did not leave off till he had taught them the whole of the Lord’s Prayer so that they could not only repeat it after him, but could say it by themselves.
It was getting dark, and the Bishop returned to the boat and the ship. As soon as the Bishop had reached the vessel and got on board, the anchor was weighed and the sails unfurled. The wind filled them and the ship sailed away. The pilgrims went down to sleep, but the Bishop remained on deck, thinking how pleased the good old men had been to learn the Lord” Prayer; and he thanked God for having sent him to teach and help such godly men.
Suddenly he saw something white and shining on the bright path which the moon cast across the sea. Was it a seagull, or some small boat? It could not be a boat for it had no sail and it was catching up with the ship. The Bishop told the helmsman, and he exclaimed, “Oh, Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!” The passengers, hearing him, jumped up and crowded to the stern. The three hermits were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet. Before the ship could be stopped, the hermits had reached it, and raising their heads, all three as with one voice began to say, “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”
The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said, “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”
And the Bishop bowed low before the old men, and they turned and went back across the sea. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.
Néstor Hugo Almagro sends me this story.
A king received the gift of two small falcons, and he sent them to the master falconer for their training.
After a few months, the master falconer informed the king that one of the falcons was perfectly ready, but the other had not moved from the branch he had let it on the day it arrived.
The next day the king announced publicly that he would give a reward to whoever would make the falcon fly.
Next morning, the king saw the falcon flying happily over the royal gardens. He asked his courtiers, “Bring me here the author of this miracle.” A humble peasant was brought before him. The king asked him, “Did you make the falcon fly? How did you do it? Are you a magician?” The peasant answered the king, “It was quite easy, my Lord; I only cut the branch on which he was perched, and he flew. He realised he had wings, and he just took flight.”
Psalm 52 – The Death of God
I thought atheism was a relatively modern fashion. The talk on the death of God was almost news in the morning papers. Atheists and agnostics boast of being the latest thinkers against obsolete believers. And yet now I find in your psalms, Lord, that there were atheists already in those days. Already then people denied your existence and tried to convince themselves and others that there is no God. The disease seems to be an old one.
The impious fool says in his heart:
There is no God!I note the single word to describe the atheist and dismiss his case: fool. The Biblical fool. The person that lacks wisdom, does not see far, does not perceive, does not understand. The absence of vision, of perspective, of sense. The incapacity to see what is before one’s eyes, to take in the reality that emerges all around. The fool misses the point of life and does harm to his own self.
Am I not a fool at times also, Lord? Don’t I behave as though you did not exist, blind to your presence and deaf to your warnings? I ignore you, I forget you, I bypass you. I live long hours and meet people and take decisions without ever a thought of you. I think and act at times as though you simply did not exist. I act on a purely human level, make my choices on human calculations and evaluate my results by sheer statistics. Am I not a practical atheist?
I want to fight atheism in the world today, and to do that I realise I have to begin by fighting it in my own life. I have to live and show a happy dependence on you in all that I do. I want to keep you before my mind when I think, to feel you in my heart while I love. I want to hear your voice and sense your presence, and I want to act always in such a way that your closeness to me appears and shines through my own actions. I want to be a believer not only in the recitation of my creed, but in the living out of each one of its words.
My answer to the “death of God” is that you, Lord, come truly alive in me.
The hairdresser told me, “You’re the only client that smiles while I cut his hair.” The hairdresser, of course, wants to talk about anything on earth, but the fact is true. I’m gently smiling while he’s cutting the little hair I’ve left. Don’t I have a large mirror in front of me, am I not absolutely idle while my hair is seen to, and is this not an ideal moment to practice what I preach and to smile because I’ve always said that smiling does one good?
It does good to the person who smiles, it relaxes the muscles on the face, it shapes muscles into structures of joy, it cheers up the eyes, it frees the forehead, and if it is done before a mirror it make one feel mischievous, amusing, surprising and ridiculous which is the best one can do to lighten up life and freshen up the environment. To laugh at oneself.
And smiling does also good to whoever sees an unexpected smile on the face of a person who should be serious, and even more so in public before a mirror while their hair is cut. It does even good to those who don’t see the smile but are around the place within range of its holy vibrations. A smile is always the centre of an invisible circle that spreads out joy and shares wellbeing. The hairdressing salon is looking up.
I laugh before the mirror at the stupid face I’m projecting, at the little hair I’ve left, at the baby’s bib they’ve put all around me, at the secret thought that I’ve cheated the hairdresser, since, instead of coming every month as I should, I’ve cut anyhow my whiskers by myself, which is what shows most and enables me to keep away from the shop for an extra month, thus saving myself trouble, time, money…, and the tip. I laugh at my own smile.
“Ready, Sir.” Now he too is smiling. See you next month. Sorry, after two months. Please, keep my smile for me.
Meditation of the Phone
[By the Thai monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, “Peace Is Every Step”, p.43]
“There is no doubt that the phone is necessary; yet, we must not allow it to rule over us. Its bell may disturb us, and its calls may interrupt us. When we are phoning we must remember that phoning takes up valuable time (and money). We often talk about things without any importance. How many times have you got a shock at receiving the phone bill? The phone bell causes vibrations, and at times even something like anxiety. “Who will be calling me? Will that be good or bad news?” And something draws us towards it; we cannot resist the pull. We are victims of our own phone.
I recommend to you that the next time your phone rings, you stay where you are, inspire and breathe in and out consciously, smile to yourself, and recite the following verses: “Listen, listen. This marvellous sound brings me back to my true self.” When it rings a second time, repeat the verse, and your smile will be broader. When you smile, the muscles of your face relax, and the tension quickly vanishes. In this way you’ll be able to practice breathing and smiling, since, if the caller has something important to say, they’ll wait at least till the third ring.
At the third ring, keep breathing and walk slowly towards the phone in all your majesty. You are your own master. You know that you don’t only smile for your own good, but for the good of all others. If you are angry or annoyed, the others will also receive your negativity. But, since you have breathed and smiled consciously, you are at peace, and when you take up the phone, the person who speaks will you will be lucky.
Before you make a phone call, while you are dialling, you can breathe in and out three times. It is not necessary for you to go to a meditation hall to learn this marvellous practice. You can do it in your office or at home. I don’t know how the telephone operators could manage this when several phones are ringing at the time. I hope they can find some way to do it. Yet, you, who are not telephone operators, will find the practice of the three breathings very easy. This meditation by phone reduces stress and depression, and it greatly helps to be conscious of our daily life.”
Prayer of the Internet addict. [Sent by Martha Alicia Jiménez García.]
Our Satellite that art in heaven,
speeded be thy link,
may your hypertext come,
may your connection be done in virtual land as in real one.
Give us today our daily download,
forgive our coffee on the keyboard,
as we forgive our servers.
Let our connection not fail us
and lead us not into any virus.
The Birth of Cabbage
[A short story by Rubén Darío.]
On Paradise, on the glorious day when flowers were created, and before Eve was tempted by the serpent, the evil spirit approached the most beautiful of all the roses on the moment she was spreading the red virginity of her petals to the warm rays of the sun in the sky.
– You are beautiful.
– I know I am.
– Beautiful and happy. You have colour, gracefulness, perfume; but…
– But what?
– You are not useful. Don’t you see those trees full of acorns? They, besides giving shade, give also food to many living beings that rest below their branches. Rose, to be beautiful is not enough…
The rose then – tempted as the woman would later be tempted – wished to become useful, and her glamour paled.
The next day God came her way.
– Father – said the flower princess, trembling in her perfumed beauty – will you make me useful?
– Be it so, my daughter – said the Lord and smiled.
And then the world saw the first cabbage.
José María Sarrionandía sends me this delightful commentary which I make mine… with all the suffering of an innocent cybernetic victim before the altar of Microsoft.
Twenty things that would be different if Microsoft manufactured automoviles.
1. The new model would come out at the end of the year instead of the beginning.
2. Whenever the roads were improved, you would have to buy a new car.
3. Every now and then the engine would stall, and you would have to start it again. Curiously, you would accept this as normal and would not go to repair your car.
4. In certain turns the engine would stop, and would not start again till you would dismount it entirely and put it together again.
5. You would not be able to take several persons in you car unless you bought a “Car 95” or “Car NT”. Even so, you would have to buy new seats separately.
6. The “Sun Motor Systems Company” would develop a solar car, twice as safe and five times as fast, but it would be able to run only on 5% of the roads.
7. The danger notices for oil, heat, battery, petrol, etc…., would be replaced by a single notice, “General car failure”.
8. The users would rejoice at the new advantages of “Car 95”, forgetting that those same advantages were already available in rival makes years before.
9. They could use only “Micropetrol”.
10. The government would receive subsidies from the car makers instead of paying them.
11. In case of accident, the airbag would ask, “Are you sure?” before being activated.
12. The steering wheel would be replaced by a mouse.
13. The driver would have to memorise a combination of keys in order to stop the car.
14. For a strange reason, the car would take five minutes to start.
15. There would be a much powerful “Star Car” which would be much more powerful, but which would go even more slowly on most of the roads.
16. While trying simple driving, on would come across warnings as “Cancel, Repeat, Ignore”.
17. Every 500 km a general overhauling would be needed.
18. The speedometer would mark 70 when the speed was only 40.
19. After starting, the engine would not work correctly, but would stop at pleasure to take in new “drivers”.
20. Every time a new passenger would come in, the car would have to be reshaped.
Psalm 53 – The Power of Your Name
Save me, O God, by the power of your name!I worship your name, Lord, which my lips dare not pronounce. Your name is your power, your essence, your person. Your name is you. I rejoice at the thought that you have a name, you can be called, can be addressed, can enter into dialogue with man and woman, can be dealt with as a person in confidence and familiarity. And I revere the silence of your anonymity in hiding your name from mortal knowledge and veiling your privacy with the mystery of your transcendence. Your name is above all names because your being is above all beings, the ground of all and the centre of all.
Your name is written in the clouds and uttered in the sky among peals of thunder. It is etched in the profiles of mountain ranges against the snow and whispered in the murmurs of the water in the ocean. Your name resounds in the name of every man and woman on earth, and is blessed every time a child is baptised. All creation pronounces your name because all creation comes from you and goes back to you.
In the power of that name I trust. Whatever I am is also an echo of that sacred name. Don’t permit that echo to die in barren silence.
Save me, O God, by the power of your name!
“If Luke is not looking, I won’t do it”
One day I was walking in the street, and this is what I saw when passing in front of a lawn in a Kindergarten. The small children were sitting on a plain bench without a back rest, all facing the centre of the lawn where one of them was standing. The teacher told him: “Come, do now your headstand, and all will see how well you do it.” The child seemed quite ready to bend down, place his hands and head on the grass and lift up his legs in what is in fact a Yoga posture called “shirsasana” or “headstand”.
The small yogi looked back at his companions on the bench, saw that one of them was seating the wrong way, with his back to him and facing the other way so as not to see the performance, and said in a decisive tone: “If Luke is not looking, I won’t do it”. And he stood with crossed hands.
Social relationships are complicated right from the start. The teacher intervened, and got Luke to come round and sit the right way facing the centre. The yogi then began his performance…, and Luke closed his eyes. He maintained his boycott and refused to see his enemy’s success.
The yogi was already putting his legs up when he lost his balance and fell on his side over the grass. Luke, who, in spite of having closed his eyes had kept them half open to spy on the results, opened them fully and began to laugh and to clap his hands.
The yogi, stretched out on the lawn, began to cry.
I just went on my way.
The crow alighted…
It is an Indian proverb: “The crow alighted, and the branch fell.” It can do with a little explaining. In the West we have the “principle of finality”, which means that each action has an aim, a goal, which is “the first to be conceived and the last to be achieved”, that is, we set ourselves a goal (like learning Spanish) and we take the means to obtain it (like joining a Language Academy). An then we have too the “principle of causality”, namely that “there is no effect without its cause”. These two principles are closely connected. We set up a goal, and we then take the necessary steps to obtain it. This is the basis of Western mentality.
These two principles are not accepted in the East. Lao Tzu: “For ever tarrying in purposelessness.” Krishnamurti: “To have an aim for an action, destroys the action.” Thus the principle of finality is rejected. As for the principle of causality, the Buddhist expression is that “one thing happens ‘after’ another, not ‘because’ of another”. This, by contrast, is the basis of Oriental mentality.
Now, here comes the saying. A crow alights on the branch of a tree, and at that moment the outer part of that branch breaks off and falls. We mistakenly believe that the coming of the crow has “caused” the falling of the branch, but in fact it is not like that. The branch was going to fall anyway at that very moment, as it had dried up and had reached breaking point; but the setting down of the crow coincided with that instant, and it appeared as though it had provoked the falling off of the branch. That was not the fact. It is not that “the branch fell ‘because’ the crow alighted”, but simply and independently that “the crow alighted, ‘and’ the branch fell”.
In classical philosophy there was always the fallacy referred to in Latin as “post hoc ergo propter hoc”, which takes the simple fact that “one thing happens ‘after’ another” for the false conclusion that “one thing happens ‘because’ of another”. The difference is that what is taken as an accidental fallacy in the West, is considered a universal truth in the East. To take things as happening simply one after another without any link of finality or causation between them is a source of confusion for the western mind (how can we have an effect without a cause, and action without intention?), while it is a source of peace and ease for the eastern mind (“happiness is letting the happenings happen”).
In Indian cities there are, even today, many crows. Maybe that is why the proverb is so popular there.
From 1 to 97
[Sidney Poitier begins his autobiography, “The Measure of a Man” with the following paragraph:]
“It’s late at night as I lie in bed in the blue glow of the television set. I have the clicker in my hand, the remote control, and I go from 1 to 97, scrolling through the channels. I find nothing that warrants my attention, nothing that amuses me, so I scroll up again, channel by channel, from bottom to top. But already I’ve given it the honour of going from 1 to 97, and already I’ve found nothing. This vast, sophisticated technology and… nothing. It’s given me not one smidgen of pleasure. It’s informed me of nothing beyond my own ignorance and my own frailties.
But then I have the audacity to go up again! And what do I find? Nothing, of course. So at last, filled with loathing and self-disgust, I punch the damn TV off and throw the clicker across the room, muttering to myself, “What am I doing with my time?”
Steeped in this foul, self-critical mood I lie back and close my eyes, trying to empty my head of all thought. It’s late, time to sleep, so I determine to focus on that empty space in my consciousness and try to drift off. But images begin to come to me, infiltrating that darkness. Soft, sensuous images of a time very early in my life when things were so much simpler, when my options for entertainment couldn’t be counted on a scale from 1 to 97.” [An he begins to tell the story of his life.]
A slap in the face
[In Sidney Poitier’s life the fact of being black and his dignity in his fight for justice played an important part. The film “In the Heat of the Night” was one of his first hits, and this is how he tells a key incident in his career:]
“When I looked over the script that became ‘In the Heat of the Night’, my primary issue was the character of a local businessman who had enormous influence in the life of that town. At one point the character I played, black detective Tibbs, found it necessary to question this man. The local police chief, played by Rod Steiger, accompanied me, and we drove up to the mansion on a hill. I was very respectful during our conversation, but in time I had to ask the inevitable question – ‘Where were you on the night of the murder?’ – and he hauled off and slapped me.
In the original script I looked at him with great disdain and walked out. That could have happened with another actor playing that part, but it couldn’t happen with me. I told the director that the script needed to be changed. He said, ‘Well, what do you suggest?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll insist upon. This gentleman of the Old South is acting out of his tradition, where his honour demands that he whack me across the face. But, you want a moment, you want a really wonderful, impressive moment on the screen? Shoot this scene so that without a nanosecond of hesitation, I whack him right back across the face with a backhand slap.’
The director said, ‘I like it.’
It turned out to be a very, very dramatic moment in the film.” [p.136]
Short, short story
[“The Pragmatic Milkmaid” by Irene Brea in “Por favor, sea breve”, p.166:]
On her way to the market, the milkmaid was only thinking about how much she would like to drink the fresh milk in the pitcher on her head. But she resisted her longing, and in the market she got a very high price for her milk. The result was that she now never dreamed the dream she would have dreamed if the pitcher had broken.
People who write for the first time ask me often: “Before I pose my question, I would like to know whether you answer your mail personally, or someone else does it for you? Please, answer me and I’ll write again.”
They have a right to ask the question. But when I get such questions, a rather ironical smile does come to my face. I have no secretary, and have never had any. I don’t say that as a virtue. Maybe it is a vice. I have never known how to delegate, to distribute work, to have a team. It is also true that my correspondence with most people is rather personal, and does not lend itself to prefabricated answers. “Give answer number 7 to letter number 4, please.” The fact is that I do all my work by myself, and I put myself fully into whatever I am doing, be it a talk to a thousand persons or an e-mail to an unknown correspondent. I never use made-up answers. I react spontaneously to each communication each time. I don’t reach everywhere, but whatever I do, I do it personally.
E-mail is a new way of relating. We all are learners. I’m beginning to fell, through such messages, friendship links with people I’ll never meet. Though in a way we do meet in a way even if we never know our faces. And this is valuable in itself. I also forget names, or mix up one name with a similar one. In any case, I am committed to communication, and determined to keep on learning.
Psalm 54 – Violence in the City
I have seen violence and strife in the city;
day and night they encircle it all along its walls;
it is filled with trouble and mischief,
alive with rumour and scandal,
and its public square is never free from violence and spite.
That is my city, Lord, and that is happening in my time. Violence in the city. Strikes and agitations and police sirens and military raids. Streets that look like a battlefield and buildings that look like besieged fortresses. The clattering of automatic weapons and the report of bombs in the neighbourhood. Houses on fire, markets deserted, and blood on the stones of the pavement. I have been in those buildings and I have walked those streets.
I know the anguish of a twentyfour-hour curfew, the stinging bitterness of tear gas, the Dyonisian frenzy of a crowd on wild rampage, the ominous news of violent death at a neighbour’s doorsteps. The insecurity of the dark hours, the fear and the tension of enforced confinement at home, the uncertainty of the future, the weight of the black curse of vengeance on the hearts of men.
This is my city, fair in its gardens and proud in its monuments. A city of long history and flourishing trade, of peaceful tradition and artistic design. A city built for men and women to dwell in it in harmony, to worship in its temples, learn in its schools and meet in the open spaces of its urban embrace. A city I love through many years of living in the midst of it, watching it grow and identifying with the many moods of its seasons, its feasts, its rains and its heat, its noises and its smells. A home to me, my address on earth, the resting place I come back to after every journey with the warmth of my friends and the familiarity of its surroundings.
And now my city burns with fire and runs with blood. I feel shame and sorrow, as I feel fear and disgust. I even feel the temptation to run away and find a safe refute, free from the hatred and violence that here sadden and threaten my existence.
Oh that I had the wings of a dove
to fly away and be at rest!
I should escape far away
and find a refuge in the wilderness;
soon I should find myself a sanctuary
from wind and storm.
But I will not go away. I will stay in my city, bear its scars in my flesh and its shame in my soul. I will stay in the midst of violence, a victim to the passions of men in the solidarity of a common sorrow. I will fight violence by suffering its effects. I will win peace by enduring war. I will stay like the stones, the buildings, the trees of the city in loyal fidelity to it through adversity as through prosperity. I will redeem the sufferings of the city I love by taking them upon myself. Let men of good will walk together through tension and strife, that peace may return to the troubled city.
Commit your fortunes to the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous be shaken.
The dog’s criticism
I was about to begin a talk to a small group of about twenty persons who were sitting in a circle in a room by the side of a garden. I hardly knew any of them. I greeted them as they came in and sat down. And then suddenly something startled me. A young couple came in with a big black dog on the leash. They sat down on two chairs, untied the dog, and he accommodated himself on the floor between them.
I have nothing against dogs, but I’m not used to have them as my audience, let alone as close as that. My first impulse was to ask them to leave the dog outside in the garden, as it was going to distract me and to interfere with the talk and the dialogue. What do I do if he starts barking?
Fortunately I checked myself in time. If the dog went out, his owners would most likely go out with him, or would feel uneasy if they remained, and the situation would become worse than if the dog remained. I reacted quickly and told the couple in the presence of everybody these very words: “Thank you for bringing in your dog. He’ll be the best critic of our talk. If all goes well, he’ll sense it and will feel well too; and if he becomes fidgety, that will mean that something is going wrong. Welcome, little dog.” And I began the talk.
The dog in question was an enormous specimen with shining black hair and a long tail, and was now silent and motionless before me. As I talked, I looked at everybody around, but I never lost sight of my special guest on the floor. His reactions mattered to me.
He was reacting well. When I told a joke and all laughed, he would wag his tail. When somebody put a question, he lifted his head and looked at the person. When I answered the question, he looked at me and placed his head between his front paws as though recognising that I was the one in charge there. It was true that he reflected well the mood of the group. Besides, he didn’t put questions.
Yet, after a while, he disappointed me. Without telling anybody anything, he got up, walked out at the door and disappeared. I honestly felt it. I, who at the beginning would have preferred that the dog would not come in, now I was sorry he had left. I realised he wasn’t interested any more in my talk, and, with a spontaneous freedom we educated humans lack, simply walked out before everybody and in front of my nose. He just left me high and dry without a nod. Quite a critic indeed!
But I was wrong. After a few minutes the same dog came back on his own… bringing another dog with him! Wasn’t it wonderful? The two dogs sat side by side on the floor, and there they remained till the end of the talk without budging. They did not clap at the end, but they were my best audience. It was a very ecological talk.
I learned how to read
[Nuala O’Faolain, the genial Irish writer, tells with gusto her fascination with books:]
“The most useful thing I brought out of my childhood was confidence in reading. Not long ago, I went on a weekend self-exploratory workshop, in the hope of getting a clue about how to live. One of the exercises we were given was to make a list of the ten most important events of our lives – the key moments that brought us from birth to wherever we are now. Number one was: ‘I was born’, and you could put whatever you liked after that. Without even thinking about it my hand wrote, at number two: ‘I learnt to read.’ ‘I was born and I learnt to read’ wouldn’t be a sequence that occurs to many people, I imagine. But I knew what I meant to say. Being born was something done to me, but my own life began – I began for myself – when I first made out the meaning of a sentence.
I remember everything about it. The page was a double-column, small-type account of someone’s verbatim evidence in a Scottish murder trial. I don’t know how it made its way to north County Dublin. But I was puzzling at a line when all of a sudden the meaning of one word I understood hopped across – like the ping-pong ball hopping along the line in a sing-along – to join the meaning of the next word I understood, until there were enough words that meant something to make sense of the sentence. I was overcome with delight. I was still small – not yet four. But I ran across the field and up the road, speeding along through the summer dust – I see it as if it were yesterday – to the shop, a long distance away. ‘I can read! I can read!’ I shouted up at the woman who ran the shop. She bent down. ‘Well, aren’t you the great little girl…'”
[And then the contrast:]
I was walking past O’Connell Bridge House the other day when this man stopped me. He showed me a piece of paper with ‘Driver Testing Centre, O’Connell Bridge House’ written on it. ‘Could you tell me where that is?’ he said. ‘You’re standing in front of it’, I said. ‘Look, it’s written on the door.? ‘Oh, is it?’ he said. ‘The thing is, I can’t read.’
I went on my way, idly wondering whether people who can’t read should be allowed to drive cars. And also wondering, as always, how anybody learns to read. How does the miracle work?
[Reading leads her to writing. She publishes her autobiography, “Are You Somebody?” which is an instant success, and people write to her telling her how they read her book:]
“Letters came from Trinidad and Australia and China and Chicago. And from Rome, from a Jesuit I’d once known, who’d read my book in between hearing Confessions. ‘I used every free minute from the talkative young Italians (who do like to confess and explore faith and other areas especially with a foreigner) to continue reading your story…”
And letters from people who painted pictures I sometimes found it hard to look at: ‘… I read a little of your book every night – it is part of my family ritual. My youngest daughter, five months old, goes to bed (on a good night) around 8.30 p.m. I curl her little body into mine, put the quilt over her so it is dark for her, breast-feed her, and I hold your book in my free hand and I read it…’.
I never envisaged such cherishing. When I called my memoir ‘Are You Somebody?’ it was largely to pre-empt the hostile people who’d say, at my writing anything about myself at all, ‘Who does she think she is?’ I never imagined awakening something a bit like love.”
[pp. 23, 257, 216]
“I am free. I can choose the bank that is going to squeeze me; the TV channel that will stultify me; the oil company that will fleece me; the food that will poison me; the phone company that will cheat me; the communication media that will not communicate, and the political option that will disappoint me. I insist: I’m free.” [Forges]
The saying I quoted last time, “The crow alighted, and the branch fell”, has brought me some comments; which, incidentally, were not unexpected. Contrasts always shake us. To do away with cause and effect saddens Aristotle. If everything just “happens” and “no one does anything”, where are we?
All systems are very attractive as they begin…, and very confusing as they go deep. Or very convincing when they are proposed, and very slippery when we try to put them into practice. We are very limited. Here comes the wisdom to hear other voices, watch other experiences, open other windows. There is no question of discussing or trying to convince anybody; there is only question of learning other languages that may help us the express the diversity of our own views.
Let us listen to all, in order to understand ourselves better.
Psalm 55 – To walk in your presence
You have rescued me from death, to walk in your presence.To live is to walk. To keep going, to move ahead, to open new paths, to scan new horizons. Standing still is not living. That is passivity, inactivity and death. And rushing is not living either. That is shooting through events without realising what they are.
Walking keeps my feet in touch with the earth, my eyes open to the changing landscape, my lungs filled with new air at each step, my skin alert to the presence of the wind. At each moment I am fully where I am, and fully moving to the next event in the gently course that is my life. Walking is the most enjoyable sport in life, because living is the most enjoyable thing on earth.
And my walking is with you, Lord; by your side, in your presence. Walking in the presence of the Lord: that is what I want my life to be. The precious luxury of the leisurely step, the lost tradition of walking for its own sake, the silent companionship, the common direction, the ultimate end. Walking with you. Hand in hand. Step by step. Breath by breath. Knowing that you are there all the time, that you walk with me, and that you are enjoying my life with me. When I feel that you are enjoying my life with me, how can I not enjoy it myself?
You have rescued me from death,
To walk in your presence in the light of life.
We’ll keep walking, Lord.
Some experience I do have of these occasions, and so a little suspicion did creep into my mind. There is always someone in these seminars who wants to talk with me privately to ask about some personal questions or to discuss some controversial point. I suspected this man wanted to consult me about something, and our way together and alone to the airport would be the ideal framework for the private consultation. He had full right to do so, and that was the least I could do for him to use up the hour that would take us to reach the airport on the highway.
But I was wrong. The seminar got over. The end arrived. We all took leave of each other. I sat in his car where only the two of us were travelling, side by side. We soon reached the highway in easily flowing traffic, and began to enjoy the green, open landscape. We exchange a couple of phrases about nothing in particular. Silence set in, and I was expecting him to tackle then the theme he no doubt wanted to consult me about.
But he did not speak. We dropped some occasional comment on the journey, but no serious theme, no rehearsed question, no deep consideration was broached. Just the road and the countryside and the miles that went by. Just a happily uneventful journey.
I almost felt disappointed to see he was not “profiting” by those moments when he had me at his mercy. But I soon understood his wisdom. His had been a totally disinterested offer. He was taking me to the airport as a favour, and expected nothing in return. Not my answer to a delicate question, not me opinion on a touchy point, not even my signature in one of my books for him. He was simply giving me a lift in his car. Period. I relaxed and enjoyed the landscape.
We arrived. And I told him. He answered that the thought of taking advantage of his privacy with my had not crossed his head. I told him he had done me a favour in giving me a lift, another favour in not making me talk, and a third favour in teaching me not to think ill of anybody. He took my leave and I didn’t see him again. He had been the true director of the seminar.
But when she linked my arm and took me – protesting – to meet the terrible ogre who had been the head nun in my time, I was even more amazed. ‘We’re so proud of all you’ve done, Nuala, and it’s wonderful to see you looking so well – you’d be – let’s see – you’ll be forty-seven soon now, won’t you…’ This person, in all the world, remembered my birthday!
They wove a little feeling of family around the tea they gave me in the nuns’ parlour. Afterwards, I helped Mother Dorothea – the then head nun, and now tiny and frail – to shuffle into the chapel, where she said a prayer and I stood transfixed. Then she kissed me, and I ran out and got into the car, and bent over the steering-wheel, crying too hard to drive.
When I got going, a mile or so down the road, I saw a phone-box. I rang my friend Marian who’d been at the same school ten years after me, and who knew the dread Mother Dorothea had evoked in generations of girls. ‘We were wrong, Marian,’ I sobbed down the phone at her. ‘They really liked us. They understood the girls: they just didn’t let it show!”
‘Our first revisionist,’ Marian said.
[“Are You Somebody?”, p.38]
One day I offered a basket of tangerines to a group of children. They passed on the basket, each on took one and kept it in their hands. Each one looked at their tangerine, and invited the children to meditate on its origin. They saw, not only the tangerine, but its origin, the tangerine tree. With some help, they also visualised the flowers in the sun or under the rain. Then they saw how the petals would drop and the small green fruit appeared. The rains continued, as did the sunshine, and at last a small tangerine appeared. Someone picked it and now it had reached us.
Then I invited the children to peel slowly the tangerine, to feel its touch and its fragrance, to take it to their mouth and to taste it in full concentration, conscious of the texture and the taste of the fruit, and of the juice they were enjoying. We eat very slowly.
You can reach the depths of a tangerine if you contemplate it. You can see the whole universe in a tangerine. To peel it and to smell it is a feast. Take your time to eat a tangerine, and be happy.
Each bit of food contains the life of the sun and the earth.”
[Thich Nhat Hahn, “Peace Is Every Step”, pp.34, 38]
The dervish answered: “Don’t worry. So long as a man does not grab a knife…” [Le cercle des menteurs, Jean-Claude Carriére, p.101.]
This short message has touched me. It reaches me through this Web page, without mentioning name of address of sender, and specifying that “I don’t want my name to appear in the answer”. As it comes through the Web, I cannot answer that person directly, since, there being no address, my only resource would be “Answer to sender” which would send the message automatically…, but in this case it would send it to the Web server, not to the sender of the message, and so I cannot answer the person. This person has done this out of delicacy, out of the desire not to put me under obligation to give him or her an answer, just to tell simply what has to be told without causing me any trouble. And the message is also the shortest possible one. It says only: “Your page is very good.”
I am grateful with all my soul for this sensitive, simple, touching message. It encourages me to keep on writing. “Thank you. Your message is very beautiful.”
Psalm 56 – Your purpose for me
I will call upon God most High,
On God who fulfils his purpose for me.How consoling it is for me, Lord, to know that you have a purpose for me! I am not useless in your sight. I am not a routine creation, an accidental afterthought, a disposable production. I am in your thoughts and in your plans from before the beginning of things, I am a thought in your mind before the stars shone and the planets found in obedience their orbits. I make sense to you before I ever made it to myself. There is a purpose for me in your heart, and that is enough for me to value my life and trust myself into existence. You see where I don’t see and you know what I don’t know. You know me and count on me for your dreams of the Kingdom. You have a purpose for me. To discover it by living it out along my days is my very definition as a person. I want to be myself in faith till I find myself in you. That is my life.
You not only have a purpose for me, you fulfil it. In spite of my ignorance, my weakness, my laziness, you carry out your plan and fulfil your purpose. You never force me, but gently lead me on with the mysteriously respectful and lovingly effective assistance of your grace. Your purpose will not fail and your plan will not be frustrated. My own life rests now in the cosmic perspective of your infinite providence. The speck of dust has become a shining star. I am part of a glorious firmament, and I let its beauty and its majesty be reflected in the smallness of my being. Then the power of creation flows through me, and I am filled with the joy and the boldness to sing my song in the concert of creation. I have found my place in the world because I have found my place in your heart. And this is my song:
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and raise a psalm;
awake, my spirit;
awake, lute and harp;
I will awake at dawn of day.
I will confess you, O Lord, among the peoples,
among the nations I will raise a psalm to you,
for your unfailing love is wide as the heavens,
and your truth reaches to the skies.
Show yourself, O God, high above the heavens;
let your glory shine over all the earth.
A swim in the lake
I was once on a lecture tour in a far-off land, when one day that was left free between talk and talk, the friend who had invited me and arranged the whole programme, proposed we should go swimming in a famous lake near-by. I was a little surprised by the proposal, but I like water, I needed a rest, I liked the company, and I accepted.
Those were tropical lands, and the swim was a feast. After the long swim, we two sat down for lunch in any of the many restaurants round the lake, we talked, we relaxed. Then my friend asked me with a mischievous smile on his lips: “Do you know why I insisted in your having a swim here?” – “???” – “Because here we have the belief that whoever enters the waters of this lake, comes back to them again; and we want you to come again here in the future.” I laughed happily and gratefully at the compliment, and we went on chatting.
Halfway through the afternoon it was I that proposed to go again for a swim. He agreed at once, and we went to the water. When we came out, it was I again that asked him with a mischievous smile: “Do you know why I’ve wanted to bathe again in the lake?” – “???” – “Because I had to fulfil the tradition to come again, as I had bathed one; now I’ve come again, and so I’m free.”
I explained. There is no question of my wanting to come back or not. The question is that, whichever of the two things I do, and want to do it in freedom. I don’t want to feel bound to come back, I don’t want to be tied down by promises, traditions or compulsions. If coming back happens to fit in with my work again, I’ll gladly come back, but I’ll come back because I want to come back, not because I’m bound to do it. I know you have done this out of love and appreciation for me, and I like your gesture in bringing my to the lake with a very noble intention. Now I hope you’ll like my gesture too, as you understand it perfectly.
Do you guess the end of the story? At dusk we had one more swim. That was the best of the three.
“We may not have seen each other face to face, but email is much more than just a dry exchange of information. Bonds of friendship and other social ties can form over email.”
[Linus Thorvalds, “Just for Fun”, p.249]
[The same Linus Thorvalds, creator of Linux as a parallel system to Microsoft, with the difference of being totally free and of “open source” to share all electronic developments round the world, explains thus his own motivation and that of the many people that work in this project:]
“One of the least understood pieces of the open source puzzle is how so many good programmers would deign to work for absolutely no money. A word about motivation is in order. In a society where survival is more or less assured, money is not the greatest of motivators. It’s been well established that folks do their best work when the are driven by a passion. When they are having fun. This is as true for playwrights and sculptors and entrepreneurs as it is for software engineers. The open source model gives people the opportunity to live their passion. To have fun. And to work with the world’s best programmers, not the few who happen to be employed by their company. Open source developers strive to earn the esteem of their peers. That’s got to be highly motivating. It seems that Bill Gates doesn’t understand this.” [“Just for Fun”, p.227]
[There is only a little shadow in this bright book. After insisting that he does not work for money and that money has never interested him, the author puts a price of 28,86 € to his 250 pages. Of course, he calls it “Just for Fun”. A little bit of “open source” would have been welcome. If only just to gain credibility.]
[William Barclay, writing about the role suffering can play in improving our lives, tells the story of a young soprano who scored success after success at the beginning of her career without quite reaching standards of real excellency, and of whom a music critic said: “She will be a great singer the day suffering enters her life.” And so it happened. A family sorrow came to give depth to her feeling, to her voice and to her art. I don’t remember the soprano’s name, but the anecdote did come to my mind when reading this episode in the autobiography of the Canadian soprano Celine Dion:]
“I had to begin the tour by doing four shows in a row for my wonderful Quebecois audience. The tragedy happened on the third night. My voice broke all of a sudden. It came apart like wet paper. It was like entering a vacuum, total darkness. I felt as if I were blowing into a punctured balloon. At that moment I believed my voice would never return. Or that it would come back completely undone, changed, unrecognisable. During a guitar solo, I gave a signal to the stage manager that I could not go on. René [her manager, and later husband] went onstage to tell the audience what had happened and to assure them that I” come back to the show later, in a few days or weeks, as soon as I could.
Then people began to applaud. They stood up to show me their sympathy and support. After that, I dissolved into tears. Everybody was crying or was silent.
René came into the room and took my head in his hands. In front of the musicians and technicians, but as if we were alone in the world, he kissed me, he took me into his arms very tenderly and rocked me. We were standing at the foot of the staircase that led to the stage. He wasn’t crying.
He said to me: “Stop crying, stop crying. It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
He was right. Everything was going to be okay, but actually, that experience would turn my whole life around, change all my habits, my body, my mind. And as a consequence, it changed my voice. I’m not exaggerating. They say there is some good in all evil. In this particular case, it turned out to be more than true. I was going to learn a great deal from the accident that happened to me on that fall evening in Sherbrooke. [“My Story, My Dream”, p.227]
[She had to keep long silence, undergo treatments, do daily exercises, maintain rigid discipline, and she recovered and improved her voice from stage to stage till her famous song in the “Titanic” film that brought her world fame.]
[The story of Isaac’s sacrifice has caused difficulties to Bible scholars. This is how a Hebrew woman writer solves them with feminine charm, humour and imagination. “Sarah’s Story” by Galilna Vromen in “With Signs and Wonders”, p.137, abridged.]
The mountains soaked in the oncoming darkness, turning black against the orange sky as I ground the grain for tomorrow’s bread. In the distance, Abraham approached, more slowly than usual, bent over his walking stick, his neck craning from side to side like a hungry bird. When he reached me, he bent and touched my shoulder in greeting and I tilted my cheek to met the knotty hand he had already withdrawn. I continued grinding while he went inside. He emerged to wash himself by the flat stone where we keep the water jugs.
– Isaac not back yet?, he asked.
– It will give us a chance to talk.
– What about?
– You must promise not to be upset.
– Why, what am I going to be upset about? Has Isaac gotten into some mischief?
– No, nothing like that. You must listen to what I have to say calmly to the end, without interrupting.
– Abraham, what is it?
– Last night I had a dream. More precisely, a vision – from God.
– What did God want?
– Well, He told me to take Isaac to a mountain in the region of Moriah and – sacrifice him.
– What?, I said incredulously.
– Sacrifice him, like a lamb.
– Are you mad?
– I don’t know, Sarah. But I am absolutely sure of the vision. And out of love of God, I must obey Him, just as you, out of love for me, are obliged to obey me. Oh Sarah!
My mind was racing. How can it be? I thought about Isaac, the miracle of my old age; my jealousy of Hagar with her son Ishmael; my joy day by day; the sense of my whole life. I imagined the scene. Abraham tying up Isaac. I envisioned the knife descending toward the vein in his neck. Then blood everywhere. No, I concluded. If this is God’s will, then He is an outrage. I, for one, will not do His will. But what could I do?
I heard the steps of Isaac approaching, and Abraham telling him: “I want to go look at some sheep in the Moriah region. I want you to come with me. We’ll leave at sunrise.”
No sooner had they left than I rose from the bedding. I grabbed a small bag of flour from the storage hut, filled a leather water flask, and strapped both on my back. I dug up money from the hole under our bedding. I took all there was. I followed them three days and three nights. I came across a caravan and I bought some white gossamer cloth and some brilliant blue fabric, both of which were intertwined with threads of the most delicate gold.
I found a young man, unusually tall, with red hair that curled and cascaded down his shoulders. “I wonder if you might help me”, I said. “You must do as I tell you, and you will be handsomely rewarded. You must help me up the mountain, after those two men. But they must not know of our presence. Catch a mountain goat or ram when you see one in the bush, and wait for my orders.”
I took the garments I had bought, and asked him to put them on. I explained to him what he had to do, and he understood. The white cloth was almost like a cloud, billowing around his face, and the gold threads made the blue cloth blinding as it caught the full sun of midday. Nothing could have looked more angel-like than that nomad, with his brilliant red hair. He called out from the rock where he stood:
– Abraham, Abraham.
– Here I am – answered Abraham.
– Do not lay a hand on the boy. Now I know you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.
My saviour said his lines in a marvellous sonorous voice, just as I had ordered him, then backed away and allowed himself to be hidden by the thicket. I then let the ram go. Its horns caught in the thicket. Abraham seized it and offered it as a sacrifice to God.
Whenever Abraham retells the events of that strangest of days, as he so likes to do, I remain silent and nod solemnly, particularly when he reminds all who will listen that God works in mysterious ways.
You ask me again whether a Christian can practice Zen. The Father Provincial of the Jesuits in Japan, Enomiya Lasalle, became a certified Zen Master and taught Zen to his Jesuits subjects and to many more in the world through his books, conferences and retreats, being much appreciated by both Christians and non-Christians. I myself heard him speak many years ago, as he was a survivor of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, and I was impressed by his western logic and his eastern peace. We all can profit by all that is good.
Psalm 57 – The Curse of Deafness
Evil men go wrong all their lives;
they tell lies from the day they are born.
They are full of poison, like snakes;
they stop their ears, like a deaf cobra,
which does not hear the voice of the snake charmer,
or the chant of the clever magician.I think of myself and of the evil that is in me. I sometimes tell myself that I just don’t hear your voice, so how can I proceed? Now I know that when I don’t hear your voice it is because I have stopped my ears. The deaf cobra. The wily snake. It keeps its poison by closing itself to the charms of the flute in the hands of the skilled magician. Poison to kill others. Poison to make itself cursed among the creatures of earth.
I stop my ears and refuse to hear. I close myself in my stubbornness, and the poison of selfishness brews within me. Then, when I speak, I hurt; when I touch, I burn; when I move among others, I am feared and avoided. Those who know me sense the curse within me, and keep away from me. I become the victim of my own poison, and I am left alone because I have proved myself dangerous.
Open my ears, Lord. Make me docile to your voice, open to your charms. Drain away the poison from inside me, that I may become and be recognised as harmless and friendly to all creatures and all men and women, may be admitted into their company and trusted in friendship.
Do not let me ever lose contact with you. Do not let me interrupt, be it only for a moment, my communication with you. Do not let me close my ears, turn my face, isolate my life. Even when I drift away from you, keep me always within hearing distance, call me, remind me. Do not give me up, Lord, and never permit that I may ignore you.
The opposite of deafness is sensitivity, and that is the grace I ask of you above any other grace. To be open, alert, sensitive to you, to your presence, to your voice. Let me hear, let me listen. Let me welcome always your word to me, that my life may be the incarnation of your Word through me.
I see a little child in its pram, being pushed along by someone who must have been its grandfather. I notice the contrast between the generation that comes and the generation that goes. Y see the vitality in the face of the child who seems to be taking in all that it sees and reacting before everything with a quickness and a swiftness that amaze us, who developed and grew up much more slowly in our times.
Grandfather stops for a while and steadies the carriage. He takes out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter, picks out a cigarette and is about to light it. The child, who suspects the trick, looks back, sees his grandfather’s action and shakes at him the index finger of its right hand to signal prohibition. Grandfather smiles and gestures helplessness. He lights the cigarette and pushes the pram. Maybe he is no more allowed to smoke at home.
I tell the story to some friends, and they tell me about a little girl of hardly speaking age, who is brought home by the maid after the morning stroll through the park in her pram too, and who, on seeing her mother, points at the maid and denounces the infraction: “She smoked.” She reveals the hidden smoke by the shy maid in the public park far from home, while the maid blushes. She is not supposed to smoke near the girl.
They are quick to wake up. Quick to know what is to be done and not to be done. The campaign against smoking reaches them early, and they grasp it with quick spontaneity. It is only sad to think that before long they themselves will be smoking with their companions.
Living the present
[According to Alice in “Trough the Looking Glass”.]
“It’s very good jam”, said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you did want it”, the Queen said. The rule is jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t”, said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day; to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you”, said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing.”
[Father Elias Chacour is a Melkite priest, a Palestinian residing in the occupied territories, who describes with feeling his heroic permanence in the land were he belongs, in a book he precisely calls “We Belong to the Land”, from which I quote the following episode, p.160:]
One afternoon in the fall of 1983 the nuns called to say that a military patrol was just outside the parish house. Then I heard heavy, running footsteps on the outside stairs leading to my apartment, followed by sharp knocks on the door.
“Yes, can I help you?” I asked the armed Israeli soldier.
“Abuna [Father] Chacour, I must talk to you quickly in case the other soldiers come up.” The young man with black, curly hair and alert brown eyes entered and closed the door. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“No, should I?” How would I have known this young Jewish man? Why did he call me Abuna?
“No, no, of course not”, he said, shaking his head. “I just thought maybe… well, when I was small you played with me. You and my father were classmates at Hebrew University.”
Of course! This strapping soldier was the tiny child I had so enjoyed in Jerusalem. Now he was in the army, carrying an Uzi submachine gun. “Oh, my dear boy, your name is Gideon, is it not?”
“Yes, it is Gideon, Abuna.” We embraced each other, and I thought I would weep. Here was this sweet child all grown up, and he remembered me.
“Abuna, my superior officer and other soldiers are downstairs and wish to speak with you. I volunteered to bring you down. We are on a routine patrol and soon will go into Lebanon. I was very excited when I realised we were coming to Ibillin. I remembered hearing your stories about the village. Suddenly I wanted desperately to see you, Abuna, and tell you of my feelings. I know from my father and from knowing you that Palestinians are good people, not the animals so many of my friends think they are. I am required to be in the army, Abuna, but it is so important to me that you know I do not hate you or any Palestinian person. Do you believe me?” The beseeching brown eyes were filled with tears. “Please believe me.”
“Yes, of course, Gideon. Of course I believe you. May God go with you and keep you safe.”
The young man again threw his arms around me, and his gun slapped me on the hip. Then he quickly released me, wiped his eyes, and opened the door. “Please, Abuna, you must come with me downstairs. It would be better if we did not know each other.”
“Yes, of course.” I walked ahead of him down the two flights of stairs. Waiting for us were several other soldiers. “Hello, sirs. What can I do for you today?” After visiting briefly, I learned that it was indeed a routine patrol as Gideon had said.
Short story. The Tower of Babel
[A modern version, not without humour, and with a telling touch at the end.]
In the beginning, humans had each their own tongue, and they managed comfortably with it. Each one did his or her work without troubling anybody nor being troubled by anybody, singing and talking just to themselves, and if anyone needed anything, he or she had only to signal a neighbour by gestures and that was fine.
One day, a man who had some imagination and initiative, drew on the open grounds the blueprint for a tall tower that would reach the very heavens, and began to work on it over week-ends. His neighbours saw him, signalled to him by their gestures that they wanted to join in the work, and so the tower went up week by week majestically towards the high heavens.
Yahweh saw the work from his high throne in heaven, and took alarm. He thought: “If they go on like that, they soon will reach heaven and will claim my own throne. Something must be done to stop them.”
After much thinking, he hit upon the best way of action. With his sovereign power he unified at one stroke all the languages of all men and women. Since that moment they all began to speak the same language. And since that moment they began also to disagree, to discuss, to argue, to quarrel, and that was the end of the big huge tower.
Agustín Villacorta sends me this mail, which an old student sent him, and which makes us think:
If we could reduce the Earth’s population to a small village with exactly 100 inhabitants, keeping the actual proportions, we would have something like this:
We would have 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 from the western hemisphere and 8 Africans.
52 would be women, and 48 men.
30 would be white, and 70 non-white.
70 non-Christians and 30 Christians.
89 heterosexuals and 11 homosexuals.
6 persons would possess 59% of the wealth of the whole village, and those 6 (yes, 6 out of 6) would be North Americans.
80 would live in subhuman conditions.
70 would not know how to read.
1 person would be about to die.
1 child would be about to be born.
Only 1 would have a university education.
Only 1 person would have a computer.
[And, I now ask, how many would efficiently worry about the situation of all the others?]
Psalm 58 – My tower of strength
O my strength, to you I turn in the night watches;
for you, O God, are my strong tower.On the horizontal landscape of the limitless plain there is a vertical shaft pointing to the heavens. Work of man between two works of God. Stone upon stone. Daring height over silent wastes. Safety from danger. Perpetual watch over unfriendly land. The watchtower. The timely warning. The trusty refuge.
I prize the symbol and make it mine. I need that tower. I need strength to face life, and I find none in me. I need firmness of thought, of will, of patient perseverance and living faith. I need courage to stand in the midst of a threatening world. I need steadfastness when everything around me shakes and wobbles and crumbles and falls. I need the comfort to know that there is a place where I can be safe, from which I can see far and watch the paths that lead to my heart. I need a tower in the topography of my surroundings.
You, Lord, are the tower of my life, my tower of strength. In you my doubts disappear, my fears vanish, my wavering ceases. I feel my own strength grow within me when you stand by me and lend me, by your very presence, confidence and faith. I thank you for putting that image in my mind, that reality in my life.
You are my strength, and I will raise a psalm to you,
for you, O God, are my strong tower.
“Thank you, chief”
I was about to go in when two young men were coming out. The door was narrow and we couldn’t pass at a time the three of us. I was closer to the door, and I even thought the young men would let me pass on account of my white hair. But I saw they were charging at full speed, and I stood aside to make room for them. The first of them passed through and went ahead unconcerned. The second young man also passed through and went ahead, but just before that he looked at me straight in the face, patted my shoulder in passing, smiled at me and told me, “Thank you, chief.” That was all. But it gladdened me.
There is no question of passing before o after, no question of comparing youth with old age, no question of hurrying up or going quietly. There is question of good manners. Tact, sensitivity, delicacy. That is the salt of the earth. It’s almost immaterial what we do, provided we do it with true sensitivity. I always say that anybody can tell me anything, provided they do it gently. As professor Higgins says of Frenchmen in “My Fair Lady”: “The French do not actually care what they say provided they pronounce it properly.” Something like that.
Love of neighbour is humankind’s foremost virtue. It is not likely that we should be called to perform heroic deeds for others. But we can always pat someone on the shoulder and say a good word.
Quality of life is not money, quality of life is good manners. Respect, modesty, realising that there are other people in the world besides ourselves. That there other persons who are trying to pass through the same door, in and out. And that all that matters is that we don’t collide with one another. Thank you, chief. Thank you, young man.
Work and humour on the stage
Michael Crawford titles his autobiography “Parcel Arrived Safely: Tied With Strings”. That was the message sent at his birth from the maternity home to his family, which had to be a coded message as his official father was not his actual father, and they had agreed that for a girl the message would be “Parcel Arrived Safely”, and for a boy they would add, “Tied With Strings”. It was a boy, who in his day became a cinema and theatre star, and is a source of healthy humour in all his shows. Here are some quotations from the book:
“As a good Catholic I went to Mass every day and was in and out of the confessional with all the regularity of a cuckoo clock. Sometimes I’d use a different accent, hoping the priest wouldn’t recognise me. “Bless me, Father…” I’d whisper. “Haven’t you just been in here, my son?” was the soft response from behind the dark screen. “Yes, Father”, I’d answer, “but I had another impure thought as I left the church…” It was spring, you see, and all the girls wore soft loose dresses.” [p.94]
“I first began to spend some time with John Lennon when we were on location at a site near Hamburg [shooting the film “How I Won the War”.] It was there that I had a first-hand view of that unimaginable world fame that people speak about. Lennon, his manager, my wife and I would make an occasional visit to a Hamburg store to buy jeans or a T-shirt. We drove in an ordinary Mercedes, but for most of the ride John was forced to lie out of sight on the car floor until we arrived. Then, in a kind of surreal marathon we opened the door and John would dash into the store; he had a maximum of five minutes to look around, see something, try it, buy it, and get out of that store before his fans descended on him. One person would spot him and suddenly, out of nowhere, a mob of people would totally envelop our car. It is something we all read about and see in newsreels, but unless you actually experience it, you cannot imagine how frightening it can be. Thousands of hands reached out to touch him, and I was quite sure we were all going to be overrun and completely torn apart.” [p.147]
“My wife was pregnant. I practised daily the route to the hospital with the car. The day arrived. I missed the way and landed in the wrong hospital. Back to the road. We arrived in time. The doctor asked me: “Would you like to stand by your wife’s head, Mr. Crawford? Why don’t you comfort your wife. Just speak to her.” “Hello darling”, I said to her. I then ran out of conversation. By the time the birth process was reaching its climax I was on top of the bed trying to see exactly what was going on. When the baby finally appeared, I was shouting at the top of my voice: “It’s a boy, it’s a boy!” The doctor glared at me. “It’s a girl, Mr. Crawford, it’s a girl” “It’s a girl?” I said. “Well what the hell is that?” “That”, he said, “is the umbilical cord.” “Oh, thank heaven for that”, I said. “Could you leave now, Mr Crawford!” the doctor said quietly.” [p.135]
“I had to learn dancing in order to act in Hello Dolly! Gillian’s lessons were a complete revelation. She was the first person to introduce me to the intense discipline of dance – stretching every day, learning to count to the music, tapping for hours to develop flexibility in my ankles. You have to do it continually, like a drummer. I improvised a system to help me, writing down all the step-hops and toe-slaps on charts and graphs, pasting them across my kitchen wall, practising up to five hours a day in my little flat. It was fortunate that the kitchen was over a small garage which was only used for storage, otherwise I would have driven my neighbours mad. Despite having logged hundred of hours learning the fundamentals, I felt as though I were at the very beginning. Hours and hours, days and days to master the simplest movement. And later, when I had to practice for the musical Barnum, I had to learn how to act in a real circus. My day commenced with a warm-up that had been unquestionably designed by a world-class sadist: forty-five minutes of bending, stretching and pounding, followed by forty press-ups on a cold concrete floor. Once the morning kinks had been ironed out, and provided my thirty-nine-year old body was still mobile, the actual circus training would begin. I worked on my own attempting to negotiate a wire that had been stretched two feet above the ground and twenty feet across that large room. Then the wire at a height of seven feet from the ground! I fell constantly, sometimes scuffing the wire and grazing an arm. Over time I gradually built up calluses on my hands and feet. All that to get on the stage as a circus athlete.” [p.226, 291]
“The doctors discovered a lump in my left breast, and an immediate biopsy was ordered. Breast tumour? I was totally shocked. I suddenly felt very much alone. It was after I entered hospital – in the midst of filling out the admission forms – when I was confronted by the line that asked for “Name of person to be notified in case of emergency”. How cold I put down my grandmother, aged 93? Or my wife, from whom I had divorced? Or my present companion, with whom I was involved but we were not living together? So I wrote in the name of my agent. Finally the report came. “There is no evidence of malignancy.” I was lucky. I was alive and I was healthy. I felt very fortunate.” [p.159]
[Rabindranath Tagore’s best known story, abridged.]
As soon as he took up employment, the postmaster found himself stationed at Ulapur. It was a village of no consequence. There was an indigo planter’s home nearby, and the sahib had made every effort to get a post office established in the environs. Our postmaster was a young man from Calcutta. Arriving in this village he felt very much alone and without much work. His salary was negligible. He had to cook himself, and a parentless girl from the village would do his household work, in exchange for a little food. The girl was Ratan.
– What is it, babu, why are you calling me?
– What are you doing?
– I have to go right now to light the stove in the kitchen.
– Oh you can do your kitchen work later. Would you first bring me my hookah?
One day, during the monsoons, a tender, slightly warm breeze was blowing on a cloudless afternoon; a sort of fragrance had risen from the wet grass and trees in the sunlight; it seemed as if the warm breath of the exhausted earth were falling against one’s skin. The postmaster sighed deeply and called:
– Dadababu, did you want me?
– I’m going to teach you to read a little every day.
And in this way, in only a few days, they had gone past the stage of the compound letters.
One day it was very cloudy at dawn. The postmaster’s student had been sitting expectantly for a long time at the door, but, not hearing the call, which on other days was punctual as could be, slowly entered the room with her small bundle of books. She saw the postmaster was lying on the string-bed. Supposing him to be resting she began again to leave the room while taking care not to make a sound. Suddenly she heard:
– Dadababu, were you asleep?
– I don’t feel well. Would you touch my forehead and see?
Here, in this quite companionless foreign place, in the heavy downpour, the afflicted body longed for a little looking after. What came to mind was the touch of a mother or an elder sister by one’s side; and this migrant’s desire didn’t remain unfulfilled. The little girl Ratan gave him the medicinal pills at the right times, remained awake all night by the bedside, cooked the sick man’s food by herself and would ask repeatedly, “Tell me, dadababu, are you beginning to feel a little better?”
Many days later the postmaster, much thinner, abandoned the sickbed. He’d decided, No more, I have to get a transfer out of here somehow. Citing a local illness, he immediately sent a formal request to the authorities in Calcutta for a transfer.
Her service at the sickbed having come to an end, Ratan returned to her old place outside the door to the room. But she wasn’t called in as before. Ratan sat waiting in hope of being summoned. She sat down by the door and reread her old textbook numberless times. What if she was suddenly called again and, on that day, found herself completely confused about the compound letters: this was the cause of some trepidation. In the end, there was a call for her one evening. Her heart brimming with excitement, Ratan entered the house and said,
– Dadababu, were you calling me?
– Ratan, I’m leaving tomorrow.
– Where are you going, dadababu?
– When will you come back again?
– I won’t come back.
No one spoke for a long while. After some time, Ratan rose slowly and began to knead some dough in the kitchen. Thoughts travelled in and out of her head. When the postmaster’s dinner was over, the girl asked him, “Dadababu, will you take me home with you?” The postmaster laughed and said, “How can I do that?” He didn’t think it necessary to explain to her the reasons that made it impossible for him to give any other answer.
– Ratan, I’ll tell the man who’s going to come in my place, he’ll take care of you just as I did; you don’t have to worry because I’m leaving.
– No, no you don’t have to say anything to anybody. I don’t want to stay here.
The postmaster had never seen Ratan behave in this way; he was astonished. Before leaving, he called Ratan and said, “Ratan, I’ve never been able to give you anything. Today, before going, I’m leaving something for you, you’ll find it’ll last you a few days.” He took out his salary from his pocket, all of it except what would be necessary for the expenses of the journey. Then Ratan fell to the dust and embracing his feet said, “Dadababu, I fall at your two feet, you don’t have to give me anything”, and then, in a burst of speed, fled from that place.
Carried by the river, the traveller found a sorrowful insight taking birth in his mind. There are so may such separations, such deaths, in life, what will come of turning back? Who belongs to whom in this world?
But no such insight came to Ratan’s mind. She, weeping unstoppably, was only wandering again and again about the building of the post office. Perhaps there was a tenuous hope in her heart, to do with dadababu coming back. She found herself unable to go far from where she was roaming. Alas, the mistaken human heart!
I’ve been asked once more about reincarnation. Much can be said, and I’ve written a whole book in Spanish about it. I briefly sum up.
The main reason for reincarnation is that it explains why a child is born in a good family with all the advantages and possibilities for a long and healthy life, while another child is born poor, suffers hunger and dies of Aids. The difference is the result of their actions, respectively good or bad, in their previous life. The one who behaved well in its previous life, deserves a good birth in this one; while the one who behaved badly has to pay for it with a low birth. Without a previous life, that is, without any guilt or merit on behalf of both children, as they would not have existed before this birth, their different births are difficult to explain. It only remains to say that such is God’s will, but that is a very hard thing to say.
The main reason against reincarnation is the great social injustice it entails. That is, those who are poor and sick without their fault are told that not only are they suffering, but that they deserve it as they were bad persons in their previous existence. For the same reason they must not be helped in their hunger or sickness, as these are only the proper punishment they have in any case to suffer for their sins in their previous life, and the sooner they pay up, the better. Any help now is only a postponement of the payment of the debt. That is, the downtrodden, besides their suffering, are insulted and told they are or were wicked, and any help to them is forbidden. This is intolerable.
Psalm 59 – The Fortified City
Who will take me into the fortified city?This has been my prayer for life, my daily longing, the aim of all my efforts and the crown of all my hopes. To enter the city. To penetrate its walls, to get past its fortresses, to reach its heart, yes, its heart, not only its heart of cobbled stones in the central square that rules its map and its life with the speed of its traffic and the efficiency of its business, but the heart of its culture, its history, the heart of its social life, its character, its personality. I want to enter the city. I want to reach its heart.
I live in the city, but, in a way, out of the city. Not quite a part of it, not quite identified with it, not quite belonging. Surely I pay taxes to the municipality and vote in its elections, I am a citizen in full right, I drink its water and board its buses. I can shop in its bazaars and relax in its gardens; I know the labyrinth of its streets and the design of its skyline. And yet I know I am not quite part of the city I call mine.
I feel a stranger in my city, or rather the city as a stranger to me. Alien, cold, remote. The city is secular, and I, because you are with me, am sacred. I bring your presence with me, Lord, whenever I walk into the city, and that makes my steps sound strange in the bustle of profane noise. I represent you, and you, Lord, have no place in the planned capitals of modern man.
The bulwarks and battlements of the modern city against you, Lord, and against me in so far as I represent you, are not masonry walls or crenelated towers; they are more subtle and more formidable. They are just materialism, secularism, indifference. People have no time; people don’t care. The things of the spirit find no place in the city of man. There is no question of vanquishing armies, but of winning attention; we don’t want to obtain a victory, just to obtain a hearing. And that is the most difficult thing to obtain in this busy would of indifferent people.
I want to walk into the city, not with the anonymous curiosity of a tourist, but with the message of a prophet and with the challenge of a believer. I want to make you present in it, Lord, with the urgency of your love and the totality of your truth. I want to enter the city in your name and with your grace to sanctify in public consecration the habitation of man.
Who will take me into the fortified city?
Only you can do it, Lord, as the city is yours by right. Your words proclaim your dominion over all cities in the land:
I will go up now and measure out Shechem;
I will divide the valley of Succoth into plots;
Gilead and Manasseh are mine;
Ephraim is my helmet,
Judah my sceptre;
Moab is my wash-bowl,
I fling my shoes at Edom;
Philistia is the target of my anger.
The city is yours, Lord. “Who can guide me to Edom?” Who will take me into the heart of the city where I live, who will make me present where I already am, who will bring down prejudice and ignorance and indifference to open the way for the light not only in the privacy of men’s hearts but in the meetings and groups of open ways and public squares? Who will pull down the walls of the fortified city?
Edom is yours, Lord. Make it mine in your name, that I may consecrate it back to you.
Goings and returns
In the autobiography of Nobel Prize V.S. Naipaul, “Finding the Center”, p.53, I read that at the beginning of last century a good number of Indians went from India to Trinidad in the Antilles (where he was born), with the right to be repatriated free to India at the end of their contract. This was not easy, but finally a ship arrived, the “Ganges”, and more than a thousand immigrants were repatriated and taken to Calcutta in a seven-week voyage, though many more remained still in Trinidad waiting for the next chance to go back to India. The next year, the “Ganges” went back to Trinidad, and thousand immigrants more boarded the ship to Calcutta. On arrival there they met with an unexpected view. On the very harbour of Calcutta were hundred of the emigrants who had come back the previous year from Trinidad, and were waiting for the ship to be taken to Trinidad again.
Won’t it be that we always think we’ll be better off where we are not?
[The amusing point in the following quotation is simply that it was written in 1877. It is found in Thomas Hardy’s novel “The Return of the Native”, p.125]
“Strange notions, has he? Ah, there’s too much of that sending to school in these days! It only does harm. Every gatepost and barn’s door you come to is sure to have some bad word or other chalked upon it by he young rascals: a woman can hardly pass for shame sometimes. If they’d never been taught how to write they wouldn’t have been able to scribble such villainy. Their fathers couldn’t do it, and the country was all the better for it.”
The fruit of immortality
After many efforts, king Bhratruhari had obtained the fruit of immortality: whoever would eat it, would never die; but only one person could eat it. The king, accordingly, gave the fruit to the person he loved most, his wife and queen Pingala, to make her immortal.
But the queen was secretly in love with the royal charioteer, and instead of taking the fruit herself, she gave it to her lover.
The royal charioteer, on his part, was courting one of the maids at the palace, and he presented her with the fruit to win her over.
The maidservant, in turn, hoping to obtain a substantial reward, offered the fruit of immortality to the king himself.
The king was highly surprised. He inquired about the turns of the fruit of immortality, and when he came to know the whole truth and the futility of human love, he left the throne and the capital, went to the forest and became a hermit there.
Who, in the end, eat the fruit, is not known.
Things Left Unsaid
[“The Condemned” by Kate Roberts, “Welsh Short Stories”, p.10, abridged.]
He had asked the doctor, and by now he was sorry. He didn’t know what had made him ask and insist on knowing. It wasn’t courage, certainly, because he loved life and feared dying. He was afraid of the nothingness of dying. When the doctor said he could leave the hospital ten days after coming there, through some perverse instinct, because he was afraid of knowing the worst, Dafydd Parri pressed him to know why. When he heard that his case was hopeless, that the growth inside him had become too bad – if only the doctor could have caught it two years earlier – an empty feeling crept down his body from head to foot. When he came to his senses, he regretted that he hadn’t died in that feeling.
The first longing that came to him afterwards was to go home to Laura. How much did she know? Dafydd came home like a guilty man coming from prison. He didn’t want to see anyone, and he didn’t want anyone to see him. Next morning, it was the sound of his two sons talking quietly to their mother as they ate their breakfast that woke him. He couldn’t define his feelings.
Laura poked her head in at the bedroom door. “Are you awake?” she said. “I was here before, but you were sleeping then. Did you sleep pretty well?” “Yes, quite well”, he said. “I’ll bring you a cup of tea now”, she said cheerfully; and in no time she was back with a cup of tea and a slice of toast on a tray. “Does it taste all right?” she said. “It’s very good”, he said, looking out through the window to the field.
He began thinking more about Laura. He wondered, did she know the doctor’s verdict? He didn’t want to ask her, for fear that by some sign she’d betray the fact that she knew. He wondered, how much did Laura know? She looked as if she didn’t know a thing. She went about her work cheerfully, as usual, and she talked to him about things on the farm and things in the district. Sometimes he’d catch her looking at his face and at his eyes in the light, as if she were examining his colour. Laura became closer to him and came to mean more to him than she had since their courting days. She was a pretty little lass, then, with her curly auburn hair, and indeed, she carried her age very well now, though she was fifty-five, the same age as himself.
After they were married, the small-holding and putting their lives in order had taken up their time altogether, and as is often customary with country people, they supposed there was no need to show love after marrying. Live was what people did after marrying, not love. Now, Dafydd was sorry that he hadn’t give more time to talking with Laura. How much better it would have been by now; that tenderness would have stayed with her after he’d gone, something to be remembered. In looking back at their life, what had they had? Only a could unruffled life, reaching the highpoint of pleasure when the end of the month was pretty good. Now, when he was on the brink of losing something, he’d begun to enjoy it. What he wanted was to be rid of a little bit of the pains so he could talk to Laura.
He had more need of Laura. He wanted to speak to her, wanted to talk about their courting days, about the time he first saw her at the fair. What a good time they’d had in returning from Preaching Meeting, when he’d been on fire from wanting the preacher to finish, and found himself looking more often at Laura than at the preacher! He wanted to tell her all those things. Why hadn’t he told them to her those afternoons when they’d have tea together? Why was his shyness lessening as his body weakened? The next time that Laura came to the bedroom, he’d insist on telling her.
When she came, the last meal was over. There was the smell of sickness on the bed, and an unpleasant taste in Dafydd’s mouth. He observed Laura, and he saw the trace of much crying on her tired face. He looked at her. “Laura”, he said, “what is it?” “Nothing”, she said, turning her face aside. He took hold of her, and he turned her towards him, and in her look he saw the knowledge the doctor had given him. He couldn’t put a sentence together. He couldn’t remember what he wanted to tell her.
[Moral of the story: If you love someone, tell them.]
“Our daughter, aged 17, wants to attend a course on Buddhism. We are a Catholic family and are worried about the impact on her faith.”
The first thing that occurs to me is that, from a merely psychological point of view, to forbid your daughter to go would be counterproductive. The prohibition would only sharpen her desire and create conflict. But there is more to it. The “hothouse faith” we were taught is neither proper nor actually possible. True faith does not consist in isolation but in openness. We don’t foster our faith by not looking through Galileo’s telescope, but by daring to look. The right attitude is not the refusal to study other religions, but the readiness to learn all the good they can teach us. “Taste everything, and keep what is good”, says St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:21). I, personally, believe Buddhism has enriched my own life, and I enjoy reading Zen literature. And, again from a psychological point of view, if I were you I think I would positively encourage her to go and to tell back all her experiences in the course. This is best, both for the family and for the faith.
Psalm 60 – My tent in the desert
Life is a desert, and you, Lord, are my tent in it. Always ready to shelter me from the rays of the sun and from the sands in the storm. Ready help and constant safety. Without the promise of the tent I would never venture into the hostility of the desert.
You teach me through images, Lord. You have called yourself my rock, my fortress, my tower of strength, and now my tent. If the rock and the tower spoke of power and strength, the tent speaks now of companionship, of closeness, of being together in the intimacy of a reduced space through the thousand vicissitudes of a desert journey.
Your temple is your official abode before all the people, and I come to it with joy and exultation with the crowds of feast days, singing with all your faithful the songs of praise in the majesty of your presence. But now your tent is the intimate rendezvous, the personal encounter, the secret tryst. I come to it with gratitude for your calling, with the thrill of expectation, with the hope of seeing your face and hearing your words. To the temple I can go at any moment, and on the yearly dates of your popular festivals. To your tent I can come only when you call me in the freedom of your friendship and the turning of my ways. Your temple is in the midst of the city. Your tent comes up by surprise at the turn of a dune in the desert when I thought I was lost in the sands of life. There you wait for me to give me strength, direction and love.
Blessed be the desert that brings me closer to you in the shadows of your tent!
Lift me up and set me upon a rock;
for you have been my shelter,
a tower of refuge from the enemy.
In your tent will I make my home for ever,
and find my shelter under the cover of your wings.
For you, God, will hear my vows
and grant the wish of those who revere your name.
We might, but we don’t want to
A mother of two little girls, whom she held by the hand, was waiting before the traffic lights. The girls looked identical twins in their height, their hair, their clothes. Short sleeves ending in white embroidery. It was cold, and a sharp wind was blowing. I felt the sudden shiver down my naked arms. At the same time, I heard the following dialogue between the mother and her twins:
– Are you feeling cold?
– You have been asked. You might as well answer.
– Yes, we might, but we don’t want.
The dialogue stayed with me. “We might, but we don’t want.” Quite a proclamation of independence. And at quite an early age. They were dutifully walking at her mother’s side; but their language showed already a personal temper. They chose to keep quiet rather than avoid the cold. Something must have happened that morning between them and their mother. Besides, they both had spoken together. Nothing less than a plot against the state.
Though, in fact, their mother had made it easy for them to revolt. An impersonal statement, “You have been asked”, instead of a direct approach, “I have asked you”. The passive voice weakens the appeal. And then the potential option, “You might answer”, instead of the actual request, “Please, answer”. The whole dialogue indicted repressed tension at both ends. If tensions begin at such a tender age, what will they become in later years? Language reveals attitudes and reinforces them. The girls’ grammar begins on a not very auspicious note.
To top it all, I was sure the girls were feeling cold. As I was. But they put up with it rather than beginning a friendly dialogue with their mother and letting her warm them up. Full declaration of war.
The traffic light turned green, and we all stepped forward. I lost sight of them.
Tomatoes and Divorce
Dr. Bernie Siegel tells how his wife complained again and again that he kept the tomatoes in the fridge. He then composed for her a poem which he called “Divorce”:
“Tomatoes are not for fridges.
But I stumbled once again.
Never will my wife forgive me;
Our marriage is at an end.
I snore at night, I eat too fast,
Put tomatoes in the fridge.
Our lawyer struggles hard now
How to keep us reconciled.
He suggests we talk together;
No tomatoes in the fridge.
I tell my wife and she laughs out,
And forgets my awful wiles.
I love her when she is laughing,
And forget the hardest times.
We have sent away the lawyer,
And the tomatoes are out.”
His wife reads the poem, laughs, and they take out the tomatoes from the fridge. [“Prescriptions for Living”, p.41]
Not Even for a Thousand Marks
[Isadora Duncan, who brought a revolution to dance in America at the beginning of last century, lived many years in poverty to the point of starving with all her family; but she never yielded in her fight for excellence, which took her to great personal satisfaction and world fame. This is an episode from her Autobiography, p.64]
“Although my dancing was known and appreciated by many notable people, my financial situation was precarious, and we often worried terribly how to pay the rent of the studio. And, as we often had no coal for the stove, we suffered from cold. Yet, in the midst of this poverty and deprivation, I can remember standing for hours, alone in our cold, bleak studio, waiting for the moment of inspiration to come to me to express myself in movement.
One day, as I was standing thus, there called on us a florid gentleman with an expensive fur collar on his coat, and a diamond ring. He said: “I am from Berlin. I have come from the largest music-hall to make an engagement with you at once.” He rubbed his hands and beamed as if he were bringing me a wonderful piece of luck, but I retired into my shell like a hurt snail and replied distantly, “Oh, thank you. I would never consent to take my Art into a music-hall.” “But you do not understand”, he exclaimed. “The greatest artists appear in our hall, and there will be much money. I already offer you five hundred marks a night. There will be more later. Of course you will accept.” “Certainly not”, I repeated, becoming angry. “Not on any terms.” “But this is impossible. I cannot take ‘No’ for an answer. I have the contract ready.” “No”, I said, “my Art is not for a music-hall. I bid you good day and adieu.”
He returned the next day, and the next, and finally offered me a thousand marks an evening for one month. “You refuse one thousand marks a night?” he gasped. “Certainly”, I replied sternly, “and I would refuse ten thousand, one hundred thousand. I am seeking something which you don’t understand. I have come to Europe to bring the Beauty and Holiness of the human body through its expression of movements, and not to dance for the amusement of overfed bourgeoisie after dinner.” And, as he left, I added, “I will come to Berlin one day. I will dance in a Temple of Music to your Philharmonic Orchestra, and probably for more than a thousand marks.”
My prophecy was fulfilled, for this same impresario had the grace to bring flowers to my lodge three years afterwards in the Krol’s Opera House, with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Berlin playing for me, when the house was sold out for more than twenty-five thousand marks. He acknowledged his error with a friendly, “You were right, gracious lady, I kiss your hand.”
But for the time being we were very pressed for funds. Neither the appreciation of princes, nor my growing fame, brought us enough to eat.”
“Whenever an old man dies in Africa, a library has burned down.”
The Jade Goddess
[A Chinese story of the twelve century, retold by Lin Yutang in “Famous Chinese Short Stories”, p.52, abridged.]
Melian was the only daughter of Commissioner Chang. A distant nephew, Chang Po, came to live with them. He did not know how to read or write, but he had an artistic touch and was creative with flowers, so he took care of the garden while he also went to a jade-worker’s shop to learn the trade.
Melian and Po fall unavoidably in love, although their marriage is impossible. “Since the heaven and earth were created, you were made for me and I was made for you”, they both declare. Melian’s parents suspect nothing, and chose for her one suitor after another, but she rejects them all.
One day the Commissioner decides to give a present to the Empress on her birthday. He wanted to find something special and located an extraordinary large piece of jade of very fine quality. He went to the shop were Po worked and explained what he wanted. He said to Po: “Son, here is a very special job for you. This is for the Empress, and if you do this job well, your fortune is made.” Po examines the jade, his hands travels slowly over the uncarved stone. He is delighted. It is agreed that he will make it inyo a Goddess of Mercy, and Chang Po knows that he will make one of such beauty as no man had set eyes upon before. It truly turns out to be an exquisite work of art. The Commissioner remarks: “The face is remarkably like Melian’s”. Po replies proudly: “Yes, she is the inspiration.” Chang Po’s name is made.
The two lovers decide to elope. They travel far, to the south of China where nobody will know them. But Po was also drawn by something else to that country.
– I have heard there is good jade in Kiangse, in the South.
– Do you think you should work at jade again?
– Why? I have made a name for myself with jade.
– You have. That is the whole trouble.
– I don’t think we have to worry. Kiangse is almost a thousand miles from the capital. Nobody will know us.
– Al least you must change your style. Don’t do those extraordinary things. Just do well enough to bring in customers.
– How can I do it? Should I destroy my art, or allow this art to destroy me?
– I know you’re not going to be able to do as I ask.
– We’ll escape from the police.
– But you have to escape from yourself first.
Melian tells him she is expecting a baby. Po sets up a shop making baked black clay figurines, but as he wanders along the streets and sees jadeware shops, he is shaken, comes back to his workshop and crushes all the clay figures between his fingers. A knowledgeable customer comes to him and shows him an imperfect figure of jade. Po is aroused and sells him his own masterpiece.
Six months later, the Commissioner’s soldiers come to arrest them. Po escapes, and Melian returns home with her child. One day the Canton Governor arrives at the capital. The Commissioner gives dinner in his honour, and the Governor reveals that he has brought a most precious statue which rivals the Goddess of Mercy the Commissioner had given to the Empress years before, and bore a remarkable resemblance to it. He shows the statuette, and Melian faints. The Governor explains how he had got it from an anonymous artist who worked three months at it, took no pay, said that that statue was his life story, and then disappeared. They all realise the face is Melian’s. The Governor gives the statue to her. She cuts off her hair and enters a convent taking along with her the Jade Goddess.
Do you believe we humans are capable of loving unconditionally? If so, can you give me an example?
I cannot give an example, because we humans, in my opinion, never quite come to love unconditionally. Love is mutual, and it always expects to receive something in return for itself. Even if it is only the satisfaction one obtains by loving someone, that is already something one gets by giving love. A mother’s love is the most unselfish one, and yet, even this, as I say, receives satisfaction in being able to sacrifice herself for her children. A mother would suffer more it she is not allowed to wake for the night at the side of her sick child, than she suffers by watching the whole night by the bedside. This in nothing against love, it is just its nature. What we mean when we speak of unconditional love is that we want to remove all the added or imposed conditions, which are artificial and extraneous to love, which certainly can be removed, and which unfortunately are very common. This we should certainly try to do.
A friend of mine, a priest who taught Holy Scripture, proposed as theme for the theme of his Ph.D. thesis in the Gregorian University of Rome “The Unconditional Love of God for Us”. But he had to change his subject, as it was not admitted. It is true that God says beautifully, “Even if a mother would forget the child of her womb, I will not forget you, Jerusalem”. (Isaiah, 49:15). But it is also true that God conditions his acceptance of us to our obeying his orders. Jesus himself expressed his divine friendship to us under a condition: “You are my friends, if you do what I tell you”. (John 15:14) It is practical reality that helps us more than impossible ideals.
Psalm 61 – True Love
True love. O Lord, is yours.There is no word we use more here on earth than the word “love”. Love is the highest aspiration, the noblest thought, the deepest pleasure of humans on earth. And yet there is no word more misused than “love”. It is made to stand for base passions and fleeting feelings, it is stained with infidelity and marred by violence. Good men and women have to refrain from using the word to avoid its unhappy connotations.
Even when I come to religion and prayer and my relationship with you, Lord, I do use the word “love”, I am emboldened by your grace and your benevolence to say “I love you”, and yet I realise how little I say when I say that, what an inconstant thing my love is, how unreliable, how superficial, how weak. I see the limitations and imperfections of my love, and I also feel inclined to abstain from using the word. I don’t find true love on earth, not even in my own heart.
That is why it now fills me with consolation to realise that somewhere at least I can find true love, and that is in you, Lord. “True love, O Lord, is yours”. In fact that is your very essence, your definition. You are love, you are the only true love, pure, firm, eternal. I can now pronounce the word and recover its value. I can now believe in love because I believe in you. I can renew my hope and regain my courage to love, because I know there is one true love, and that is close to me.
I now can love because I believe in your love. I know and I sense myself loved with the only true love that exists, your own eternal love. And that gives me the strength and the confidence to go out myself in love, to you first, and then in you and through you to all those you put close to me in my life. True love is yours Lord, and in faith and humility I make it now my own to love all in your name.
A Mercedes car was parked along the street in all its luxury. A great car to drive in the city. A stray dog approached the car, smelled it, lifted its hind leg and pissed on its tyre. It had passed judgement on the car.
That brought to my mind the anecdote that is told about the genial conductor Toscanini. His temper was as well-known as his art, and he showed it without inhibitions. He was once rehearsing Verdi’s Aïda in its dress rehearsal with all decorations and costumes, and even a live elephant that was part of the royal procession while the orchestra played the famous triumphal march.
The rehearsal was not proceeding quite well, but the conductor had restrained himself till then. The elephant came on stage, advanced majestically till the centre, stood there facing the public and with his back to the choir, lifted his tail and solemnly disgraced himself in full view of everybody. The stagehands hurried forward, cleaned up the mess, the giggles subsided and calm was restored.
Toscanini had remained unmoved during the whole incident. When all was over, he turned towards the singers and told them: “I apologise for the interruption; but I must assure you that the elephant is a great music critic.”
Aïda’s composer, Giuseppe Verdi, did not have it easy at the beginning of his musical life. His opera “Un giorno di regno” was a solemn failure, and he had fallen into a sullen depression. He decided never to compose any music again. His stage manager, Merelli, handed him then a libretto by Temistocle Solera on a biblical theme called Nebuchadnezzar”. Verdi pocketed it without any interest and went our. This is, in his own words, what happened afterwards:
“Walking on the street I felt an indefinable uneasiness, an absolute sadness, an anguish that burst my heart. I went home, and with an almost violent gesture, threw the manuscript on the table. It opened by itself as it fell on it. Then, without my knowing how, my eyes focus on the page before me, and this verse comes up before me: “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate.” I glance over the following verses and am greatly impressed. I read a paragraph, then another. Still, as I was unmoved in my decision never to write music any more, I force myself to close the manuscript and go to bed. But, alas!… Nabucco haunts my brains, sleep does not come; I get up and read the whole libretto, not once but two, three times, so many that by the morning I could say I knew it by heart. In spite of all that I don’t want to swerve from my resolution, and the next day I go back to the theatre and hand back his manuscript to Merelli. He tells me:
– Beautiful, isn’t it?
– Very beautiful indeed.
– Come on then! Set it to music.
– Don’t dream of it. I don’t want to have anything to do with this.
– Set it to music!! Set it to music!!
And, thus saying, he takes the libretto, pushes it into the pocket of my coat, catches me by my shoulders, pushes me out of the door and locks the door behind me. What was I to do? I went back home with Nabucco in my pocket. Little by little the whole opera took shape. When in the first rehearsal we came to the “Va pensiero”, the whole hall was hushed, and all the workers left their work. When the song was over, they broke into the biggest ovation I’ve ever heard and they shouted, “Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!” while they hammered on the stage with their tools. On that moment I knew what the future had in store for me.”
Ecological Responsibility and The Communion of Saints
“It is a mathematical fact that the casting of this pebble from my hand alters the centre of gravity of the universe.” (Carlyle)
And, I would say, it is a social fact that my anger and my sadness, or my smile and my joy alter the centre of gravity of humankind.
“It takes a whole village to raise a child.”
Africa, Praise the Lord!
[The students of “Kilakala Girls School” at Morogoro in Tanzania, have composed the following adaptation to Africa of the “Canticle of The Three Young Men in The Furnace” from the bible, Daniel, 2:51-90]
Africa, praise the Lord!
All you peoples and places,
From Cairo to Cape Town all,
From Dar es Salaam to Lagos all.
Here let all the works of the Lord, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you BIG things,
Mount Kilimanjaro and the River Nile,
The Rift Valley and the Serengeti Plain.
Fat baobabs and shady mango trees.
All eucalyptus and tamarind trees,
You hippos and giraffes and elephants, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you TINY things,
Busy black ants and hopping fleas,
Wriggling tadpoles and mosquito larvae,
Flying locusts and water drops,
Pollen dust and tsetse flies,
Millet seeds and wild figs, bless the Lord
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you SHARP things,
Sisal plant tips and tall lake reeds,
Maasai spears and Turkana hunting arrows.
A rhino’s horn and crocodile teeth, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you SOFT things
Sawdust and ashes and kapok wool,
Sponges and porridge and golden ripe mangoes, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you SWEET things,
Wild honey and pawpaws and coconut milk,
Pineapples and sugar-cane and sun-dried dates,
Slow-roasted yams and banana juice, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you BITTER things,
Quinine and blue soap,
Sour milk and maize beer, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you SWIFT things,
Wild goats and honking matatus,
Frightened centipedes and lightning flashes, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you SLOW things,
Curious giraffes and old bony cows,
Brown humped camels, grass-munching sheep, bless the Lord
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you LOUD things,
Monsoon rains on aluminium roofs,
Midnight hyenas and feast-days drums,
Train stations and busy bus stops, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
All you QUIET things,
Candle flames and just sown furrow,
Heaps of clouds and sunny libraries,
The Pyramids and Sahara Desert,
Land snails and crawling turtles,
Grazing zebras and stalking lions, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever end ever!
All you creatures that never talk
Still bless you the Lord.
Praise and extol Him forever and ever!
[TOWARDS AN AFRICAN NARRATIVE THEOLOGY, p.319]
Someone asks me whether, given all the amount I read, I have any time left to think of God. I answer with the girls in the African school:
Books and magazines,
periodicals and manuscripts, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Authors new or old,
known or unknown,
successful or ignored, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Cardboard and paper,
binding and pictures,
capitals and lower case letters,
page numbers and footnotes, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Words and phrases,
accents and comas,
underlinings and italics, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Dictionaries and grammars,
encyclopaedias and collections,
paperbacks and de luxe editions, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Catalogues and Book Fairs,
libraries and book shops,
shop windows and shelves, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
E-mail and Internet,
friends and acquaintances,
close or near,
glad or depressed, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Websites and webpages,
black and white or full colour,
silent or with music,
fixed or animated,
inspired or boring, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Whatever is printed and is read,
ink and screen,
presses and monitors,
keyboards and ballpoints, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Readers who read this,
known or unknown,
young or old,
serious or amused,
in a hurry or relaxed,
pious or sceptical,
cheerful or dejected, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
All those who read or write or print,
and all those who do not understand those who read or write or print, bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever!
Psalm 62 – Thirst
O God, you are my God,
I seek you early with a heart that thirsts for you
and a body wasted with longing for you,
like a dry and thirsty land that has no water.
So, longing, I come before you in the sanctuary
to look upon your power and your glory.That is the one word that defines the state of my soul, Lord; thirst. Bodily thirst, almost animal thirst that burns my body and parches my throat. The thirst of the desert, of the dry sands and the scorching sun, of dunes and mirages, of desolate wastes and merciless skies. The thirst that overcomes every other desire and overrules any other need. The thirst that needs the draught of water to live, to subsist, to restore sensing to the body and rest to the soul. The thirst that mobilises every cell and every sense and every thought to search for the nearest oasis and reach it before life itself is scorched to death in the body.
Such is my desire for you, Lord. Thirst in my body and in my soul. Thirst for your presence, your vision, your love. Thirst for you as you are. Thirst for the waters of life which alone can bring peace to my desolate mid. Running waters in the midst of the desert, miracle of light and freshness, streams of delight, play of singing speed and dancing currents through dry earth and rocky ground. Presence in the night, and melody in silence. I long for you. I trust in you. I rest in you.
Increase my thirst, Lord, that I may intensify my search for the fountain of life.
Vibrations of Violence
The bus was going to start when a car came from the front to park against the rules, got stuck in the process and obstructed the way of the bus. A pedestrian on the road, a rather elderly man who was going to board the bus, gestured politely the car driver just to indicate to him that he was obstructing the way for the bus. The car driver jumped out of his car insulting the pedestrian, got hold of his shirt and started striking him across the face without the elder man being able to defend himself. The passers-by saw the scene, got hold of the aggressor and took him to his car, from where he continued to abuse the pedestrian till at last he started his car and cleared the way for the bus. The pedestrian stood on the curb for a while, hurt and bewildered, till he slowly climbed on to the bus.
I was sitting in that bus and had seen the whole incident. Then I mused to myself: the man who has parked his car wrongly, and has insulted, attacked and beaten an innocent pedestrian, will then surely speak against terrorism, will condemn war and will emphatically say that violence must end in the world. Yet he carries in himself all the violence of was and terrorism and murder. Violence in the world will not end until we all suppress the violence hidden within us.
The bus went on its way. We, all the passengers, had seen what had happened on the street, and the victim of the assault was now in the midst of us. We were all silent, but the atmosphere had changed. Together with compassion towards the victim, we all felt indignation against the attacker. A moment before we were all quiet and relaxed; now we were all tense. Violence sends out deadly vibrations that poison the atmosphere.
It was already night, and shortly after reaching home I went to bed. But it took me some time to get sleep. I was full of the violent vibrations I had received at close quarters, and sleep did not come till they calmed down. At last I fell asleep.
Even now, when writing this, I feel those violent vibrations coming up again in my memory. We should talk as little as possible about violence, and then only to denounce it and reject it. And we speak about violence, let it be without violence. Let us speak of friendship and love.
Peace and reconciliation for all, always and in everything.
Relief in the Midst of Violence
[The great literary critic, Marcel Reich-Raniki, a Jewish Pole who suffered all the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, tells how in order to lighten the sadness and terror in the ghetto they organised a whole orchestra, at the risk of having to face their German persecutors, which gave public concerts of classical music. These were soon suppressed by the Nazis, but not before the following incident took place:]
“I recall a concert which was invaded by Germans. Mozart’s great G Minor Symphony was being played. During the first few bars of the fourth movement two or three Germans in uniform entered the hall. This had never happened before. Everyone froze. The conductor saw the but went on conducting. Never before had I heard the final movement of the symphony with such a marked tremolo in the violins and violas. This was due not to the conductor’s concept of the piece, but to the fear of the musicians. No one could be sure what the Germans would do. Would they yell: “Get out!”? Would they smash everything up? Would they consider it outrageous that Jews were making music and would they even make use of their weapons?
But they just stood there and, for the moment, did nothing. The orchestra played the symphony to its end. The audience applauded, hesitantly and nervously. And now something quite unexpected, something almost unbelievable, happened. The two or three men in uniform did not shout, nor did they shoot. Instead they clapped and amicable waved their hands. Then they withdrew without having done any harm to anybody. The were Germans, yet they behaved like civilised people. The incident was talked about in the ghetto for weeks.
This happiness was of short duration. Soon the symphony concerts were stopped by the German authorities. It was inadmissible – a letter to the Chairman of the Jews’ Council stated – that works by ‘Aryan’ composers like Mozart of Beethoven were performed in the ghetto.”
[“The Author of Himself”, p.158]
Who Killed the Countess?
The same author, Marcel Reich-Raniki, who was a voracious reader since his youth, as his later work as literary critic would show later, tells how he liked to read anything, but, his life being in daily danger in the ghetto, he did not dear to read long novels, for fear – as he humorously said – that if he was killed before reaching the end of the book, he would be miserable for the whole eternity not knowing how the novel ended… He happily lived to tell the tale.
This piece of humour reminded me of something that happened in a regular flight from Los Angeles to New York. A passenger used the long trip to read a novel he had brought with himself and on whose first page he had written his name, address and phone number, as was his custom. The novel was quite interesting, and it proved longer than the flight, so that he landed in New York before reaching the end of the story. In order not to miss it, and not to burden himself either with the volume which was heavy, he simply tore off the remaining pages, and left the volume without them in the seat pocket in front of him in the plane. He reached his home in New York, finished the novel, and went to bed.
He had been asleep for a while, when the phone woke him up. Someone spoke shyly on the phone: “Please, excuse me for the trouble. I am calling from Los Angeles. This afternoon I boarded in New York a flight for Los Angeles, I found in the seat pocked in front of me a novel, and I began to read it to spend the time. I found it very interesting, but when I reached the end I found that the last pages were missing, and I cannot sleep without knowing how the novel ends. Since I saw your phone number on the first page, I’ve taken the liberty to phone you. Could you please tell me, who killed the countess?”
East Embraces West
[By the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn, “Touching Peace”, p.74]
“The embrace meditation is something invented by me. The first time I learned how to embrace was in Atlanta, in 1966, when a poetess stopped me in the airport and asked me: “Is it proper to embrace a Buddhist monk?” In my country we do not express ourselves in that way in public, but I thought: “I am a Zen master. To do it should not be any problem for me.” So that I answered: “Why not?”, and she embraced me. But I felt somewhat tense. Already in the plane I decided that if I wanted to work with my western friends, I would have to learn western culture, and so I invented the embrace meditation.
The embrace meditation is a combination of East and West. The point is to really embrace the person you are embracing. You must feel the person truly in your arms, not just doing it for formality’s sake with a few strokes on their back to give the impression that you are there, but being aware of your breathing [which is the key to all eastern spirituality], and embracing them with all your body, your soul and your heart. ‘When I breathe in, I know that this person whom I love is alive in my arms. When I breathe our, I know that he or she is very valuable for me.’ While you are embracing them and you breathe in and out three times, the person you embrace becomes truly alive, and you too come alive. When you love somebody, you want them to be happy. If they are not happy, you cannot be happy either. Happiness is not an individual’s affair.”
“You end your e-mails greeting your correspondent with a hug, a warm, close hug. [This is, by the way, the usual Spanish ending for a letter between friends.] Have virtual embraces any meaning?
The question fits right in, as I have just now spoken of embraces, and as the topic of the e-mail fascinates me, since it is a great mean of communication, recently popularised and still little understood. We are discovering it between us all. Also ordinary letters, “snail mail” as against e-mail, ended with love and kisses, though the paper never conveyed the kisses. What is new now is that those who wrote to one another by ordinary mail, used to know one another, and sooner or later we would meet and kiss in reality; while in e-mail, I shall not meet, in all probability, most of the persons that write to me and I to them. And yet I feel closeness and affection as I write, and I want to express it, and a warm, big hug says it quite well.
I’ll tell you a recently surprise in my e-mail. I received a long report from the embassy of a Latin American country in a European country, as I indeed received a good deal of such formal reports since my e-mail address is in my books and in my website and is open to all. I usually answer such official reports with a kind request that my address may be deleted from their list of addresses, as the daily e-mail takes a good deal of my time and I cannot afford unwanted information. That is what I did in this case. The next day I received a personal answer from His Excellency the Ambassador. He wrote very kindly: “The Embassy has cancelled you address from its address list as you requested. I personally take up the occasion to thank you all the good you have done to my and keep doing to me with your books, particularly with… [and he proceeded to quote those of my books and chapters that had specially helped him in his life].” I blushed. I had not expected it. I immediately answered him with all respect and affection… and with a big, warm hug at the end. We must go on learning.
Psalm 63 – Arrows
Flying arrows are messengers of death. Silent, pointed, deadly. The weapon most feared by the warriors of Israel. They cannot be seen, they cannot be parried. They strike from far, unknown and undetected, with death on their wings, and find with cruel accuracy the human target in the shadows of the night. Sword can be fought with sword, and dagger with dagger, but the arrow comes single and treacherous from an anonymous hand in the distant safety of enemy land. Its sharpened swiftness strikes helpless human flesh, and its needle point instantly reddens into gushing blood. Arrows are fateful death on winds of hatred.
Man’s word is an arrow. It flies and it kills. It carries poison, destruction and death. A small word can ruin a life. A mere insult can build an enmity between two families for generations. Word can cause wars and plot murders. Words hit and wound man’s noblest depths, his honour, his dignity, the peace of his soul and the value of his name. Words threaten men in a world of blinding jealousy and ruthless competition. And then I pray.
Hide me from the factions of the wicked,
from the turbulent mob of evildoers,
who sharpen their tongues like swords
and wing their cruel words like arrows,
to shoot down the innocent from cover,
shooting suddenly, themselves unseen.I ask for protection against the words of man. And the protection that is given me is the Word of God. Against the arrows of men, the arrow of God.
But God with his arrow shoots them down,
and sudden is their overthrow.
One arrow against all. God’s Word against the words of men. God’s word in scripture, in prayer, in incarnation and Eucharist. His presence, his strength, his Word. It illumines my mind and steadies my heart. It gives me courage to live in a jungle of words without fear of evil. God’s Word gives me peace and joy for ever.
The righteous rejoice and seek refuge in the Lord,
and all the upright exult.
I’m walking in the evening and look up for a moment. The sky is clear with a few marvellous clouds, light, transparent, blurred, that caress the blue with their angel’s wings and paint eternity on human horizons. Open exhibition of cosmic art along the public avenue, for all those who have the time to stop and have not yet forgotten to look at the sky. But no one sees anything.
I stop and admire the beauty of the evening sky. When people see me standing in the middle of the street and looking up to something, they think something must be happening somewhere, and stop by my side and look where I look. But they see nothing. Someone asks another: “What’s happening?” The other answers: “There’s nothing.” And all to their way. I stay and keep looking. How can I tell them that all that’s happening is a cloud?
I slowly recite to myself Borges’ famous sonnet on clouds. In it he says that there’s nothing that is not a cloud. A huge cathedral is a cloud in history’s time that reduces it to dust; Homer’s Odyseey is a cloud that changes as we read it; we ourselves are clouds on the daily mirror of our fleeting lives. It ends majestically:
“You are a cloud, a wave, a speck nowhere;
you are, again, all that you never were.”
The sun has set below the horizon. The white wake of a plane crosses at this moment the skies as a signature to the picture. In a play of lights, the metal in the plane catches a ray from the setting sun and sends it to me as a farewell glimpse.
I still stay for a while. Then I walk on. There’s nothing, of course. Nothing has happened. But, how can they tell me life is not beautiful?
Conversation in the Desert
[Siân Phillips, Peter O’Toole’s wife, tells us some of the things she learned when his husband was shooting his famous picture “Lawrence of Arabia” in the Jordanian desert.]
“We were in Aqaba in rather primitive quarters. Someone brought us tea. The heat was stifling. My husband had been living with the Bedouin camel-patrol as they travelled around the desert and clearly he’d formed a great attachment to them and their way of life. It sounded wonderful to me. He described the nights sitting outside the black tents, grateful for the cooler air after the horrendous heat of the day. They would sit, leaning on their saddles, still holding the sticks they held in their right hands while riding. Total silence, except for the occasional noise made by a sleeping camel and no conversation, unless someone had something useful or amusing to say. I couldn’t quite imagine the absence of small-talk. Silence in society makes me feel uneasy. They would draw meaningless patterns in the sand with their sticks, and the patterns looked like exquisite Arab calligraphy.
Time came for me to share those desert meetings. Here’s the famous social silence I’ve been hearing about. We smile at each other, and we lapse into quiet. They draw patterns in the sand with their canes. I find I’m doing the same with my index finger. At first I have a real compulsion to fill in the pauses but once the pause is beyond help there’s scarcely any point. Once I’ve become accustomed to this I find a wonderful state, a state of wakeful relaxation. Nothing need happen, nothing needs to be said. Hours go by and we finally take our leave, return to the jeep and make for the long drive back to camp. I realise that we even we in the jeep are hardly talking to each other either.”
[“Public Places”, p.118, 125]
You Are Lucky
On a certain occasion Buddha was seated with about thirty monks in a forest close to the city of Vaisali. It was early in the afternoon, and when they were going to begin a discussion on dharma, a peasant arrived among them in a hurry. He told them his twelve cows had escaped, and wanted to know whether the Buddha or any of his disciples had seen them. He added that insects has eaten away all the crop in his fields and he was ruined. “Monks, I am the unhappiest person in the world, and I’m going to die.”
The Buddha answered him: “Sir, we have not seen your cows. You’d better look for them in another direction.”
When the farmer left, the Buddha addressed the monks and told them: “Friends, you are very lucky you own no cows.”
[Thich Nhat Hanh, “Touching Peace”, p.31]
E-mail lends itself to ask for things, be it prayers, money, employment, appeal for a cause or protest against another. And it also lends itself to asks us to relay to others the petition that has reached us. I’ve just got one such e-mail with about fifty addresses to which it has been send, in which I’m asked to forward it to three more addresses, as they will receive then 32 cents to help someone presumably in need. The petition ends with the sentence: “If you delete this appeal, you have no heart.”
I have answered: “I have deleted your appeal, and I do have a heart.” I don’t accept blackmail, particularly emotional blackmail. I begin by not believing the 32 cent’s scheme. And I reject any insult, judgement, pressure or contempt. If you want my help, please don’t begin by insulting me.
And there is more. The person who sends me this e-mail has done it fraudulently from another person’s computer, when nobody was watching, so that my negative answer has reached this other innocent person who knew nothing about the trap, and had only noticed that someone had manipulated her computer in her absence. Worse than a virus.
To cheer up things, here is another e-mail with a joke which made me laugh. I warn you it is a sex joke (so that you don’t fail to read it), but a good joke is always innocent.
A priest on his jeep sees a nun signalling for a hitchhike, takes her in and seats her by his side. The nun smoothes out her habit, crosses and uncrosses her legs, shows her knees, and the priest feels encouraged and places his hand on her knee. The nun tells him: “Please, father, remember psalm 129.” The priest quickly withdraws his hand and goes on driving.
After a while he tries again, and gets the same answer: “Please, remember psalm 129.” They reach their destination, the nun gets down and the priest hurries to his office, picks up his bible and looks up psalm 129. It says: “Go up, higher and higher up, and you will enter glory.” He laments: “Bad luck! To think what I’ve missed for not knowing my psalms!”
Don’t take the trouble to check psalm 129. It says nothing of the kind. But I’m sure you’ve had a good laugh.
Psalm 64 – The Rainy Season
It is raining today. With the Oriental fury of a heathen monsoon. I watch the curtain of water, the instant Niagara, the running streets, the leaden skies, the violent descent of heaven upon the naked earth with waters of creation and waters of destruction on the liquid horizon where sky, land and sea seem to be one with the primeval celebration of cosmic unity. The dance of the rain, of the children in the rain, rite of spring that seals the eternal covenant of humans with nature and renews it year by year to bless the earth and multiply its crops. Liturgy of showers in the open temple where all humankind is one.
I rejoice in the rain; it makes the earth fertile, the fields green and the air transparent. It brings out the perfume hidden in the dryness of the earth and fills with its humid delight the open spaces at the dawn of spring. It tames the heat, veils the sun, cools the air. It guarantees the fruits of the earth for the needs of the year, and renews the farmer’s faith that God will keep his word year by year and send the rains to give food to man and cattle as proof of his care and sign of his providence. The rain is God’s blessing on the earth he created, renewed contact of the Divinity with the material world, seasonal reminder of his presence, his power, his concern. The rains come from above and enter deep into the earth below. God’s touch on simple mud, which is the initial gesture of creation.
You visit the earth and give it abundance,
as often as you enrich it with the waters of heaven
brimming in their channels,
providing rain for men;
for this is your provision for it,
watering its furrows,
levelling its ridges,
softening it with showers
and blessing its growth.I also love the rain, the heavy, noisy, material rain, because it is figure and token of another rain which also comes down from heaven to earth, from God to man, from Divine Providence on the dry, barren fields of the heart of humans unprepared for the harvest of the spirit. Rain of grace, showers of blessing, water of life. I feel the helplessness of my untilled fields, clods of dry earth between ridges of indifference. What good can come out of them? What crop can grow here? How can my field become soft and green, and flower into harvest?
I need the rain of grace, I need the steady influx of God’s power and mercy to soften my heart, fill it with the fragrance of spring and make it fruitful. I depend on the grace of heaven as the farmer depends on its rains. And I trust in the coming of grace with the age-old trust the farmer has in the advent of the seasons and the faithfulness of nature.
I need torrential rains to wash away the prejudices, the bad habits, the conditionings, the addictions that beset me. I need the freshness of the falling rain to feel again the reality of my wet skin through all the artificiality of protective covers under which my real self hides. I want to play in the rain like a child, to recover the pristine innocence of my heart under grace.
That is why I like heavy, steady rain, and make every drop into a prayer, every downpour into a reminder, every storm into an anticipation of what my soul expects to happen to it as it happens to trees and flowers and fields. The green renewal of the season of rains.
Then my soul will sing for itself the psalm of the fields after the blessing of the yearly rains:
You crown the year with your good gifts,
and the palm-trees drip with sweet juice;
the pastures in the wild are rich with blessing,
and the hills wreathed in happiness;
the meadows are clothed with sheep
and the valleys mantled in corn,
so that they shout,
they break into song.
Come, blessed rain, and soak me to my heart!
Christmas in Africa
“In a church in Tubalange, an agricultural area on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia, during the Christmas Eucharist the priest explained how human dignity was elevated by God who became a little child. After the homily, he took into his hands and raised up in front of everyone the baby most recently born into the community: a baby girl called Tandike, a name which can be translated as “she who was desired and loved”. There were about eighty present for the celebration. The priest called the people up to the sanctuary to admire the little baby. This took about a quarter of an hour as old and young alike whispered a word or two of affection and welcome to the newly born child.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi offer the Christ Child old, frankincense and myrrh which are symbols of wealth and divine worship in Middle East culture. But what symbols would the African people choose? What would the “dynamic cultural equivalents” in African languages be?
A catechist in the Torit diocese, Sudan, said that the gifts would be a goat which is a symbol of royalty and wealth, a spear which is a symbol of defence and healing and a small flexible stick which is a symbol of power. The Ganda people in Uganda would give the Christ Child a drum which is a symbol of kingship and authority, a spear which is a symbol of protecting and defending the people, and barkcloth which is a symbol of royal investiture. The Kuria people in Tanzania and Kenya would give a goat for the mother, flour for food, and oil to shine up the baby. In the African tradition it is very important to give a special gift to the mother of Jesus.” [“Towards an African Narrative Theology”, p.97]
I’ve read somewhere this very short story, but I can’t quote the author because I don’t remember the name. The story was only the following sentence: “The shepherds didn’t know either what to do with the gold, frankincense and myrrh St Joseph gave them.”
Obviously, Africans are more practical. Though I wonder whether St Joseph would be very pleased with the gift of the drum, as the Child would make life impossible for everybody with it.
What gifts could we think of?
[A mother can best understand what another Mother feels. Ornella Accatino, author of the book “A Mother Called Mary”, and herself the mother of two children, imagines thus the moments of the birth of Jesus.]
“She did not shout or cried, no, Mary did not cry when the miracle happened. She was alone in the stable, sweating and panting. But she took the child in her hands to look at him, to know him, to love that part of herself that now was out of herself, and she kissed him.
Who can describe the first kiss a mother gives to her child? Who can decipher and reveal the storm of emotions, of feelings, of tenderness it unleashes? Such was Mary’s first kiss to Jesus, sweet and passionate. Her lips caressed the little face, the frail little body shaken by its first breathings and the fast beating of the heart under the taught skin.
Nothing would now ever come in between that secret and deep bond, made of tenderness and anxiety, of love and fear, that united Mother and Chhild, as it unites all mothers to all children above any difficulty, in spite of everything and for ever.
Did Mary think then that that small creature was very different from all other children, that God had supernatural projects for it? I think that in those first moments, in her first experiences as a mother, Mary did not think of any great events. She just must have yielded to the bliss of those first contacts, and must have looked with astonishment like any other mother at the tiny, perfect fingers, the brittle nails she would soon cut, just as any other mother would do in any corner of the world. She combed with her own hands the light hair, held the head that balanced itself on the frail neck, and observed with surprise that movement that lifted and lowered rhythmically the central part of the skull, just above the forehead.
And Mary discovered also the voice, the voice of her own Son. Weak and without strength, that voice came out of the Child’s throat in the very first instant after his birth, and filled all the corners of the stable. The ass and the ox turned slowly and sweetly their big, hairy heads. It was the most beautiful voice in the world, the sound that was left to make the world perfect. Mary drowned herself in that voice and let it penetrate all her being. Even a little sigh can be the bond of love.”(pp.14, 21)
“Our Lady and the Child Jesus”
[This is the title of a story of Spanish folklore by the famous writer Juan Valera, which I translate here slightly abridged.]
Paquita was neither ugly nor stupid. She was known in her village as a clever and graceful girl; but since she was poor no high-born would marry her, and since she had self-respect she would not marry any good-for-nothing. In conclusion, Paquita had reached thirty and she was unmarried.
Deep in her soul, Paquita greatly deplored having reached thirty and not being married; but since she was a good Christian and very pious, she sought and found solace in religion, and tried to make up with divine love for the lack of human love. Still, she didn’t quite reconcile herself to her state, in spite of all her mystical efforts.
Torn between those opposite feelings, she went daily to a beautiful chapel inside the parish church, where there was a devotion-inspiring image of Our Lady of The Rosary with a beautiful Child Jesus in her arms. Paquita, full of fervent devotion, would pray to Our Lady with many Hail Mary’s and Hail Holy Queen’s; sometimes, in her enthusiasm, she spoke aloud and asked Our Lady for a husband.
The altar-server was a mischievous boy, and when he heard Paquita’s prayers, he determined to play a joke on her. He climbed behind the image and hid there when Paquita went to the chapel. Paquita was that day in one of her exalted moods and prayed aloud to Our Lady not to leave her unmarried and alone in the world.
The altar-boy, hidden behind the image, said then: “You’ll remain unmarried all your life! You’ll remain unmarried!”
Paquita believed it was the Child Jesus that had answered her, and exclaimed in annoyment: “Shut up, you naughty Child! I’m talking to your Mother!”
[“Cuentos populares”, p.171]
They ask me: “How can we feel joy in today’s world? Latin America is suffering, Africa is sufferings, Asia is suffering, the whole world is suffering. All that is left for us is to grieve like Job. There is no place for joy in our lives. What can we do?
I answer: The world is suffering, but if I now add my own suffering to the world’s suffering, I’m only increasing the burden. Compassion is essential to life, but compassion does not mean sadness. On the contrary, I believe that my best contribution to the world, in all my smallness and in all my responsibility, is to keep my joy in the midst of so much sorrow. I’ve been reading an impressive book on the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, written by a Polish Jew, Marcel Reich-Raniki, who lived to tell the story, and who narrates how, in the midst of all the pain, the desperation, the daily killings and the unbelievable cruelty of the torturers at the ghetto, the Jews managed to organise a full orchestra with musicians, instruments, music scores and a good conductor, and they gave classical music concerts to find joy in the middle of all that misery. Even when the authorities dissolved the orchestra, they went on with concerts by solo players even without any accompaniment. A similar tale has been told by Wladyslaw Szpilman in his touching book, “A Pianist in the Warsaw Ghetto”, which is already a film, I understand. That is somehow what I would like to do. To keep up the music in the midst of the madness that envelops us. If the world is mad, I’ll try to keep sane; and there are others who think this way, and if we unite, communicate with one another and encourage each other, we can survive. The world has always been mad. And people like Reich-Raniki and Szpilman have always survived. We always have our music with us.
Psalm 65 – Come and See
Come and see all that God has done.Come and see. The invitation to experience. The chance to be present. The challenge to witness. Come and see. To me these three words are the essence of faith, the heart of mysticism, the core of religion. Come. Don’t sit down quietly waiting for things to happen to you. Get up and start and move and search. Come close, enter, face the reality you have been called to meet. And then see. Open your eyes, watch, see for yourself. Don’t just listen or read or study. You have spent all your life in readings and studies and discussions and abstractions. All that is good, but is only second-hand evidence. It has to be transcended in faith and courageous humility to seek the firsthand evidence of vision and presence. Come and see. Seek and find. Enter and enjoy. The Lord has summoned you to his court.
I now take those hallowed words as said by you, Lord, to me. Come and see. You invite me to be by your side and to see your face. Your words are unmistakable, and your invitation deliberate and serious. Yet I fight shy, I hold back, I find excuses. I am not worthy, I’ve been told it’s safer to walk in the darkness of faith. I’ll stick to the trodden path. I’ll keep my place and hold my peace. I leave to my betters the mystic claims of your face-to-face vision, and feel content with the life of routine that waits in patience for the plenitude to come. I am afraid, Lord, I don’t want to get into deep waters. I feel comfortable where I am, and beg to be left unmolested. The heights are not for me.
I am afraid that if I see you my life will have to change, my attachments will drop and my routine will be upset. I am afraid of your presence, and in that I feel one with the people of Israel who delegated to Moses the responsibility of meeting you because they were afraid to do it themselves. It is my laziness, my inertia, my cowardice. Ultimately, it is my lack of trust in you, and, maybe, in myself. I acknowledge my pusillanimity, and ask you not to withdraw your invitation from me.
I want to come and see your works, to come and see you at work, to contemplate you, to see the splendour of your face as you rule the vastness of your creation and the depths of the human soul. I want to see you, Lord, in the light of faith and the intimacy of prayer. I want the direct experience, the personal encounter, the effulgent vision. Devout people in all religions speak of the experience that changes their lives, the realisation that fulfils their aspirations, the illumination that gives meaning to their existence. I humbly want that illumination for me, and it is your face alone that can shed that light on my mortal eyes. I want to see, and by that I mean that I want to see you, who are the only reality worth seeing, you who with the light of your face give light to the whole of creation and to my own life. That is now my only desire and my ultimate hope.
Come and see.
I am coming, Lord. Give me the grace to see.