The texts of Carlos G. Vallés
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Year 2003
15th
I tell you

New section

Starting with this issue you’ll have the opportunity to send to a friend as an attached document the first three sections, “I Tell You”, “You Tell Me”, and “Meditation”, of the current page. A new section, “Send to…”, has been provided at the foot of the existing ones, and if you click on it, you’ll find the easy instructions to follow. This has been suggested by a reader, and I’ve accepted the suggestion at once, as that is the way to keep growing. I started, three years ago, with the site in Spanish every month; soon I made it every fifteen days; then it came in English too; lately I added the feature of keeping “old issues” available; and now comes this facility to send directly the page on screen to a friend. We keep on growing, and the growing brings joy.

Humour in high places

Once I was in the waiting hall of J F Kennedy Airport in New York for my flight to Madrid, when I saw the Father General of the Society of Jesus, Peter-Hans Kolwenbach, entering the hall for the same flight. I rose at once and introduced myself to him as a dutiful subject. He, practical man that he is in the midst of all his duties and responsibilities, turned to me, gave me his attaché case, and said solemnly: “Will you keep the secrets of the Society of Jesus while I go to the toilet?” I rose up to the occasion, pressed the case to my breast and said with equal solemnity: “I will give my life for them.” He reacted instantly and enjoined me: “Don’t do it. They are not worth it.” And went his way smiling. Humour is always welcome…, and the higher the better.

The “cellular generation”

A cellular phone rings. All the ladies present in the small group grab their purses and search for the sound. The phone happens to belong to the youngest girl, whose mother is also present, though the daughter, unavoidably, owns her own phone. She takes it out, connects, steps quickly away from the group and starts her conversation. She keeps on talking out of hearing distance. She laughs, gesticulates, shouts, frowns. Finally the call is over, she switches off the gadget and comes back to the group. Her mother asks her:

– Who was it?
– A friend.
– What have you spoken about?
– About our things. There is a brief silence in the group, and the very young girl understands it, interprets its meaning to perfection, and answers with the utmost clarity before everybody: “Now, get it clear once and for all. If anything happens to me, I’ll first tell my friends, first to the closest ones and then to the others. The last ones I’ll tell about it will be my parents.” Her parents have heard her; we all have heard her. Nothing more is said. She is a good girl. She belongs to a very good family. She is thirteen.

Heavenly lightning rod
[Gioconda Belli lived the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua as she then lived her literary vocation in California. This is how she describes the outburst of her poetic inspiration:]

“I never saw any merit in my poetry. It was like water that flowed from an inner spring and which I channelled towards the page of paper without any effort. It was given to me in a most natural way, as though it would come from an organ in my body, a kind of sensitive, emotional, literary aerial that got charged with electricity from time to time and sent a flash of lightning down my whole being. If I had at hand paper, pen and silence when the first verse burst into my conscience, the lightning generated the whole poem. I had only to let myself be carried away by the first intuition, knowing that the poem in its totality existed in that peculiar mood of the soul, in that instant of artistic possession.

If I could not write down the poem at the moment, if I was driving a car or was otherwise busy, the poem got lost. It went flying out of the window. The electricity in the lightning was dispersed, and I could not reconstruct it later, however much I tried. Even if I remembered the first verse, I could not reproduce the totality of the poem. Once the state of grace had been diluted, I could not experience it any more. The spontaneous quality of the magic act in which the poem was manifested to me prevented me from taking it as a meritorious product of a persistent labour. I simply let myself go in my function as heavenly lightning rod.”
[“El país bajo mi piel”, p.238]

The Spider’s Thread

Buddha Sakyamuni was one day walking in paradise, when, as he bent over the side of a pool, he saw the dreadful depths of hell. A cruel robber, by name of Kandata, had been captured by demons and was being tortured there.

But Buddha knew that once, while walking through a forest, that robber had saved a spider on which he inadvertently was about to step. Because of that single good act, Sakyamuni felt compassion for him and decided to save him from hell. A spider was weaving its web in paradise, and Buddha took the end of the thread and threw it into the abyss of hell.

Kandata saw the glowing thread and got hold of it. He started climbing towards the light and the heavenly perfumes. The effort was exhausting. Kandata felt tired, stopped for a while to rest and looked down.

Then he saw hundreds, thousands of the damned who had taken hold of his thread and were climbing with great difficulty after him. He got scared and furious, and shouted to them that the thread belonged to him alone, and all had to let go of it immediately. As soon as he pronounced those words, the thread broke.

Kandata and all the others fell again into the depths of night and of suffering.

Sakyamuni, who had been watching everything, took up his quiet walk along the fields of the beyond.
[“El círculo de los mentirosos” by Jean-Claude Carrière, p.398]

Chance

“If Beethoven had been born in Tacuarembó, he would have become the conductor of the music band in the village.” [Juan Carlos Onetti]

Fear

One morning someone presented me with a rabbit in a cage. At noon, I opened the door of the cage.
I came back home in the evening, and I found everything just as I had left it: the door was open, and the rabbit was in a corner, stuck against the metal bars, shivering with the fright of freedom.
[Eduardo Galeano, “El libro de los abrazos, p.99]

You tell me

Can one become a vegetarian?

Of course one can. It is healthy, ecological and fashionable. They say we are what we eat, and by eating animals we become animals, that is violent. Though there are also peaceful animals, and Hitler was a vegetarian. And I might then turn into a banana, as I eat bananas. Let us not exaggerate things.

I was a vegetarian for ten full years, when I was living from house to house in the city of Ahmedabad. I would go daily to St. Xavier’s College to teach, but I never once took a meal there during those years. My health was fine. But I learned something more important than diet. I’ll explain it.

Once it was my turn to lodge with a Parsi family. The Parsis eat meat. On the first day they asked me shyly: “What do you eat?” I answered: “I eat everything.” They breathed satisfaction and explained to me: “That is a relief for us. You see, we, too, eat anything, but we have to be very careful and find out beforehand what our guests eat. If they are Muslims, we can prepare meat but not pork; if they are Hindus, no meat at all. And if there is a mixture of guests, the menu gets complicated. And then, if we are the guests of a Hindu family, we have to do without meat, fish or eggs. Thank God you eat anything. We’ll have no problem.”

Since then I learned to answer when I was asked what I eat: “I eat whatever those with whom I eat eat.” It looks like a tongue twister, but it is a great rule. The vegetarian, while he eats only vegetables in the midst of people who are eating meat, seems to be a mute reproach saying, “I am holier that you”, even if they don’t think or say it, and even if they insist sincerely, “Please don’t worry about me; I am satisfied with anything.” Still, that complicates matters.

I knew in the United States an Indian couple in which the wife was a vegetarian, and the husband a meat eater. The wife was so accommodating that she cooked meat steaks for her husband, even though she never tasted them. Ideal couple. They divorced. Maybe she did not gave the steaks their proper taste.

Siân Phillips, Peter O’Toole’s wife, tells how the great comic Peter Sellers stayed for a few days in their house. For their first lunch she had prepared a magnificent Boeuf Bourguignon. Peter Sellers started back: “Were you not told I was a vegetarian?” She went down with her mother to the pantry, and came back with mountains of carrots, cabbages, potatoes and onions, and got down to peeling them while the guests upstairs were entertained with drinks. The Boeuf Bourguignon got a little cold, but Peter enjoyed his dish and asked to have it every day he was there. Siân says they consumed pyramids of vegetables. She also says they added some bones to the bottom of the cauldron for taste. That was what, without knowing it, Peter Sellers had found so tasty. “It won’t do him any harm”, she mused.

Psalm

Psalm 66- The Missionary’s Prayer

God grant us his blessing,
that all the ends of the earth may fear him.
That is my prayer, Lord. Simple and direct in your presence and in the midst of the people I live with. Bless me, that all people round me may know you and love you in me. Make me happy, that seeing me happy all those who seek happiness may be attracted to me, and in me to you who are the cause of my happiness. Show your power and your love in my life, that those who see my life may see you and praise you through me.

See, Lord: round me people worship each one their own god, and some worship none. Each one expects from their beliefs and from their rituals the divine blessings that will bring happiness to their life as a token of the eternal happiness that will be granted them later. They measure, not without human logic, the truth of their religion by the peace and joy it brings its followers. And they look at me to measure with expectant curiosity the peace and joy which I honestly and truthfully experience in my life and which I explicitly declare come only from you, Lord. They judge you by me, Lord, however awkward I feel when saying so, and so all I ask you is that you bless me in order that people around me may think better of you.

That was the situation of Israel. Each tribe around them had a different god, and each expected from its god to bless them more than their neighbours’ gods would be able to bless those neighbours, and in particular to give them better crops than their neighbours’ gods could give them. Israel prayed to you to give them the best crops in the region, to show that you were the true God in heaven. And that is what I pray for how. Give me an evident crop of virtues and righteousness and happiness and joy, that all around me may see your power and adore your majesty.

God be gracious to us and bless us,
God make his face shine upon us,
that his ways may be known on earth
and his saving power among all the nations.

I want people to praise you, and so I ask you to bless me. if I were a hermit in a cave you could ignore me; but I am a Christian in a non-Christian society, I represent you, I take your place down here. Your name is in me; your reputation almost depends on me, Lord, so far as these people are concerned. That gives me a right to ask with urgency, if not with any merit, that you may bless my life and direct my conduct in the face of all those who watch me and want to judge you by me and your sanctity by my behaviour.

Bless me, Lord, bless your people, bless your Church; give us an unfailing crop of deep holiness and generous service that all may see our works and praise you for them. Make green the fields of your Church, Lord, for the glory of your name.

The earth has given its increase,
and God, our God will bless us.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

1st
I tell you

Reminder

I remind you that since last month you have a new section, “Send to…”, in the menu, through which you can send the first three sections of this page, “I Tell You”, “You Tell Me”, and “Meditation”, to any friend in an easy way.

Competition

I phone a friend at his home. A small child’s voice answers me. I recognise the speaker, it is his smaller son. I try to make a little conversation with him, but he answers with monosyllables. He has already told me that his dad is not at home, and I try to speak at least a few lines with the boy out of good manners and out of friendship. I know he is quite talkative and cheerful, he knows me and we always chat amicably together when we meet. Why has he turned monosyllabic today?

I get it. He is watching television. No, he is playing at one of his many computer games. He is hooked on to the screen. There is nothing to be done. I cannot compete with Nintendo. The child’s total attention is at the moment monopolised by the latest game in the electronic market. If I keep trying to prolong the conversation, he’ll hate me. I hang up quickly. I wish him to win at the game. I’ll call again later.

Vegetarian Menu
[An anecdote of Shunryu Suzuki – different from that other great Zen Master, D.T. Suzuki, and of course from the Suzuki of motorcycles and motorcars.]

One of his American disciples, Bob Halpern, strove to sit Japanese style, to make all the proper gestures, to be fully vegetarian in the following of his master Suzuki. One day they went out together to walk in the city (this was in California). Suzuki told Bob, “Let’s eat something; I’m hungry.” Bob began to look for a restaurant where they could find vegetarian food. “We can eat here”, said Suzuki making for a small hamburger place, while Bob protested, “But, but…”

Bob was horrified on looking at the menu.
“It is a long time since you eat meat, isn’t it?”, asked Suzuki.
“It’s two years now since I don’t take any animal products, no meat, fish or eggs.”
“Very well, then”, said Suzuki while the waitress approached. “You order first.”
“I’ll take a hot cheese sandwich.” That was the nearest thing he could find in the menu.” “A hamburger for me, please”, ordered Suzuki, “with double meat in it.” The food arrived, and both bit into it.
“How is it?” asked Suzuki.
“Not bad.”
“I don’t like mine”, said Suzuki, “let us interchange.” He took Bob’s sandwich and gave him the double hamburger.
“Uum, very good. I like melting cheese.”

[“Crooked Cucumber” by David Chadwick, p.328]

Masters Meet
[Another episode from the same book, p.332]

“In the small world of American Zen, in the summer of 1968, a great event took place. A group of eight veteran Zen Masters gathered in Shunryu’s Suzuki Zen Centre in California. In Japan a Zen Master usually does not like other masters, particularly those of other sects, to give talks in his own centre. They don’t want their disciples to get confused, and the feel zealous. But this was America. The Masters arrived, visited the sauna and the warm water brook, practised some calligraphy in public, and chatted. Then they went on to the platform that had been raised along the wall at the end of the hall, which was full of guests, and the spoke by turn.

As the last act of their visit, all together, masters and disciples, did “zazen”, the group meditation where all sit in recollected silence, under the watch of the Master who wields a flat stick (the famous “kyôsaku”) to his over the shoulder anyone who would doze during the practice. Bob Halpern was the one wielding the kyôsaku. At the beginning he uttered a wild cry in the samurai style to show his old teachers, Maezumi and Yasutani, who were there present on the stage, that he had not gone soft and that the Zen spirit was not weakened.

He stood before a student who was dozing, placed the flat stick on his shoulder, and hit him once on each side. Both bowed to each other, and he walked on.

As he paced slowly the red carpeted corridor, he lifted his eyes to see, by the light of the kerosene lamps, the historic array of saints and doctors in the doctrine and practice of the different branches of Zen on the dais: Suzuki, Yasutani, Nakagawa, Shimano, Maezumi, Aitken, Richard, Kobun. All of them were with there heads down, all deeply asleep.”

Geometry

A saying of Shunryu Suzuki:
“If you want to be a circle, you have first to be a square.”
I have no idea what the saying means, but I find it delightful.

The Journey
[A short story by Cristina Fernández Cubas in “Por favor, sea breve”, number 8.]

One day the mother of a friend of mine told me a curious anecdote. We were in her house, in the old quarters of Palma de Mallorca, in a balcony from where one could see the façade of the old cloistered convent down the street. My friend’s mother used to visit the abbess in her convent and talk with her at the appointed hours through the enclosure grill. There were already times when the enclosure rules were not any more so strict as they had been in old days, and nothing would hinder the abbess to come out of the convent and see the world if she pleased.

But she bluntly refused to go out. She had been almost thirty years inside those four walls, and the call from outside had no interest at all for her.

That was why, the lady in the house thought she was dreaming when one day in the morning the bell rung and a dark figure stood at the door of her house. It was the abbess, who, after the usual greetings, said: “I would like to see my convent from the outside.” They went to the balcony, the same balcony in which this story was now being told, and the abbess stood there several minutes in silence. Then she said: “It is very beautiful.” And, with the same cheer with which she had come, she took her leave and returned to the convent.

I believe she has never come out again, but that is not the point. The abbess’ journey seems to me to have been one of the longest journeys of all the long journeys I’ve heard about in my whole life.”

You tell me

“Have you not taken vegetarianism too lightly in your last Web page of January 15, when in fact it is something both serious and important for many people?”

Of course it is serious and important. The fact that I treated the topic with a bit of humour does not diminish its importance. Humour is so scarce that when it comes up I nurse it as a delicate flower. And always with respect. The Suzuki’s story about the hamburger I quote today has helped me. He also brings in humour to the theme. My point, which is often overlooked, is the social aspect of vegetarianism. Among people who eat of everything, the vegetarian can engender perplexities. He comes for lunch to a friend’s house. They know he is a vegetarian. But some vegetarians eat eggs, and others don’t even take milk or cheese. Where does he stand?

I knew one vegetarian – and this, again, goes in all seriousness and all humour – who never took meat, but loved to soak his bread in meat sauce, in spite of its obvious contamination. He was an Englishman. I knew another who one day eat by mistake an egg sandwich without realising it. When, hours later, this was pointed out to him, the poor man vomited there and then out of sheer repugnance. He was a Brahmin. And still another who asked for a vegetarian menu in an intercontinental flight and was given chicken, since the vegetarian menu excluded only cattle meat. He was a Hindu.

The Jains do not eat vegetables or roots that grow underground, like potatoes, carrots or onions, although some have indeed reconciled themselves with the harmless potato which is almost unavoidable. I remember the trepidation with which the host of a dinner with different dishes for different guests approached a Jain couple who were sitting at table and asked them shyly: “Do you eat potatoes?” The husband answered: “I do; my wife doesn’t.” Not much help for the waiters. Another Jain asked for a vegetarian soup in a restaurant in Japan, the soup arrived, he smelled it (never mind table manners), he imagined it had some chicken substance, protested, the maître called the chef, the chef swore by all his gods that there was no chicken in the soup, they all went to the kitchen, examined the vessels, there were no gallinaceous traces in it, the client was convinced, admitted the purity of the soup, but still declared that he had lost his appetite, and left the restaurant without paying and creating quite a scandal in his wake. To make it worse, this punctilious vegetarian wrote later this experience of his in a book, taking pride in his strict and intact vegetarianism. You may now understand that I should take vegetables with a pinch of salt. Which is how they should be taken, in any case.

Another example in my experience how religious taboos can create practical complications. In the years I spent living with Hindu families home by home, which I also mentioned last time, I landed once in the house of a family that belonged to the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism, known for its strict standards in morality and customs. The man in the house wanted to take me one day somewhere by car, and I readily agreed. But he was still hesitating and somehow inhibited. Finally he asked me:

– May I ask you a question?
– Please, do.
– The point is, we’re going in my car, and my wife often comes with me in the car, and sits by my side. She is not coming today, but you’ll have to occupy that seat by my side…
– I see. But what is the problem?
– The problem is that our own priests are forbidden by rule to sit on a seat where any woman has sat any time before, and, well, I do not know whether you too have the same rule…
– No, we don’t.
– What a relief! You don’t imagine the amount of problems we have when we have to take any of our priests by car.
– I can imagine. And can I ask you now a question?
– Yes, of course.
– How do your priests manage when they have to travel by bus, train or plane?
– They have their own remedies. The bring some holy clothes and coverings which they place on the seat while they recite some prayers, and then they can seat.
– I see. The seats are thus decontaminated and the harmful vibrations are extinguished. But, does it not occur to you that your women could also object to sitting where a man had sat and proceed to exorcise the seat before themselves sitting there?

This goes also with a pinch of salt… and of humour.

Psalm

Psalm 66- The Missionary’s Prayer

God grant us his blessing,
that all the ends of the earth may fear him.
That is my prayer, Lord. Simple and direct in your presence and in the midst of the people I live with. Bless me, that all people round me may know you and love you in me. Make me happy, that seeing me happy all those who seek happiness may be attracted to me, and in me to you who are the cause of my happiness. Show your power and your love in my life, that those who see my life may see you and praise you through me.

See, Lord: round me people worship each one their own god, and some worship none. Each one expects from their beliefs and from their rituals the divine blessings that will bring happiness to their life as a token of the eternal happiness that will be granted them later. They measure, not without human logic, the truth of their religion by the peace and joy it brings its followers. And they look at me to measure with expectant curiosity the peace and joy which I honestly and truthfully experience in my life and which I explicitly declare come only from you, Lord. They judge you by me, Lord, however awkward I feel when saying so, and so all I ask you is that you bless me in order that people around me may think better of you.

That was the situation of Israel. Each tribe around them had a different god, and each expected from its god to bless them more than their neighbours’ gods would be able to bless those neighbours, and in particular to give them better crops than their neighbours’ gods could give them. Israel prayed to you to give them the best crops in the region, to show that you were the true God in heaven. And that is what I pray for how. Give me an evident crop of virtues and righteousness and happiness and joy, that all around me may see your power and adore your majesty.

God be gracious to us and bless us,
God make his face shine upon us,
that his ways may be known on earth
and his saving power among all the nations.

I want people to praise you, and so I ask you to bless me. if I were a hermit in a cave you could ignore me; but I am a Christian in a non-Christian society, I represent you, I take your place down here. Your name is in me; your reputation almost depends on me, Lord, so far as these people are concerned. That gives me a right to ask with urgency, if not with any merit, that you may bless my life and direct my conduct in the face of all those who watch me and want to judge you by me and your sanctity by my behaviour.

Bless me, Lord, bless your people, bless your Church; give us an unfailing crop of deep holiness and generous service that all may see our works and praise you for them. Make green the fields of your Church, Lord, for the glory of your name.

The earth has given its increase,
and God, our God will bless us.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

 

15th
I tell you

How to prepare an exam

A friend of mine was preparing a tough oral examination before a board of five examiners. He began to tell me how useless they all were and how very little they knew about the subject. I stopped him dead: “Don’t do that. Don’t think that way. If you go to your exam with those negative thoughts about your examiners, they will be written all over your forehead, and, however much you smile and greet them, they’ll read them in their subconscious, and they’ll despise you as you despise them. And you’ll be the loser. Do the opposite. Think that they are good and worthy teachers, that they know the subject, that they are doing their duty and want to do their best, that they are your friends, and you respect and appreciate them as such. Right from this moment till you walk into their presence, and always ever after, think well of them, and your thoughts will reach them and they will think well of you and everything will come our fine and we all will rejoice with you.” He thanked me and did as I had told him. He passed with flying colours. Of course, he deserved the honours because of his preparation and his worth. But I also think that a little bit of his success was due to me.

I learned that lesson when I was a mathematics teacher in the St Xavier’s College at Ahmedabad in India. There was a teacher that, as the bell went, would get up from his chair in the staff room, grab chalk and duster, make for the door, look back and tell the whole staff aloud: “Let’s go and teach those blooming idiots.”

Those “blooming idiots” hated him. They had never heard him say that, but there was no need either. The insult was written all over his face. The face, the eyes, the gestures give the thought away. “Blooming idiots.” And they pay him back in the same currency. “That prof is a blooming idiot.” The teacher knew his subject. But he knew no psychology. And he did not love his students.

It is not enough to speak well of others. We must think well too. And, above all, we must love all others. This, again, is to be done not as a tactic to pass an exam or to teach a class successfully, but as law of life. “Come, let us to and teach those splendid boys. I’m lucky to be their teacher.” And they are lucky to be your students. “Love each other as I have loved you.”

Noble gesture

Antonio Ruiz de Montoya was a Peruvian Jesuit of the XVI century who founded several of the famous Reductions in Paraguay. Here is one of his experiences:

“The key to the whole province was a village at a day’s journey. They assured me I would be welcome there. So I started in a canoe along the river.

I arrived in daytime. They gave signs of welcoming me, but they were faked. I told them my only desire was to bring their souls to the knowledge of their Creator and his Son and Redeemer of men, Jesus Christ, who had come down from heaven and taken human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary to save us from the torments of hell. When I mentioned the eternity of such suffering in hell, one of them cut me short and shouted: ‘This man is lying.’

I remained in my tent, happy to have announced the Gospel. One of the Indians who accompanied me came into my tent and asked me to get out and leave the place, because they were plotting against us. No sooner had we left that a shower of arrows fell on our shoulders. Seven Indians, my companions, fell dead by my side.

The Indian who had taken me out of my tent was next to me, and seeing the danger and the easy target my clerical dress was for their deadly arrows, with great delicacy and love decided to risk his own life to save my own. Without a word he took out my cassock and my broad hat, shouted to the others, “Take Father to the forest”, and dressed in my habit he flew through an open field within sight of our enemies, so that these, believing him to be me, would chase him and kill him with their arrows.

The tender love he had for me prompted the Indian that stratagem, which gave me time to reach with the others the protection of the nearby forest which was very thick. As I flew I heard my enemies shout when they saw the good Indian with my dress and my hat: “There goes the priest! Let us all follow him and kill him!” And it was a special providence that while our enemies, who were very skilful archers, charged against him and showered their arrows on him, not even one touched him. I was full of admiration at his loyalty, and even more at the work of Divine Providence.”

The Lord is with you

The Newsletter of the Gujarat Jesuits has reminded me of an incident that made us smile when we witnessed it years ago.

To begin the Eucharist, the bishop made the sign of the cross while pronouncing aloud the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, but he thought the words had not come out through the loudspeakers. The mike was in fact working perfectly and the words had been heard, though the bishop thought otherwise. Then, to restore the sound, he said, thinking only the sacristan by his side was hearing him while in fact all in the cathedral heard him: “There is something wrong with this mike.” To which everybody answered unanimously: “And also with you.” And the Mass continued.

The song of the bird

“Now and again a ‘tui’ bird called, [this was in New Zealand], always the same seven notes, although its song varies from district to district. This is one of the few songbirds in the world said to suffer from sound pollution. The ‘tui’ is a great mimic and over the years it has been said that its songs have become contaminated by noises of the modern world – car horns, sirens, railway whistles, the popping of gunfire and so on. One of the seven notes, among the flutelike others, was exactly like a cork being pulled from a bottle. It is said that the ‘tui’ changes his song every month, about the time of the new moon.”
[The Fox Boy, Peter Walker, p.43]

The pianist of the Warsaw ghetto

I first read Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography, and now I have seen Roman Polanski’s recent film on the book. What has struck me most has been to see the dates of the events of the Warsaw ghetto printed on the screen over the sad images, and to think: I was 15 when all that was happening… and I knew nothing about it. We have, at least, some more information now of what happens around us.

As is usually the case, the book was better than the picture. Just a glimpse. The film shows Szpilman’s father refusing to salute the German soldiers in the street, so that one of the soldiers actually hits him for that and he falls helpless on the pavement. The truth of the book is quite different, and much more instructive:

“Among the many annoying norms imposed on the Jews was one that was not written down but had to be observed in the strictest way: Jewish men had to bow before German soldiers. This stupid and humiliating imposition made us furious, both my brother and me. We did all we could to avoid the situation. We went round other streets only to avoid meeting a German, and if we couldn’t help it, we looked the other way and did as if we hadn’t seen him, even if that could earn us a thrashing.

My father’s attitude was the opposite. He would chose for his walks the longest streets, and would bow before the Germans with a grace and an irony beyond description, feeling happy when one of the soldiers, put off by his radiant smile, would answer him with a courteous salute and would smile at him as though they were good friends. When he came back home at night, he couldn’t help telling us with all naturalness about the large circle of his friends. He said he had only to set foot on the street for dozens of acquaintances to crowd round him. He could do nothing but to acknowledge such cordiality, and his hand was stiff after taking off his hat so often. He said all that with a mischievous smile, as he joyfully rubbed his hands.” [p.51]

Note
I remind you of the facility introduced here last month for sending the three first section of this website by clicking on “Send to…” in the menu.

You tell me

Susana Vázquez tells us this charming story:

“We are a Catholic family. Y always make the sign of the cross, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”, when I pass in front of a church as a sign of respect. Then my four-year-old daughter, wakes up to watch her strange mummy with her beliefs and her gestures and asks me: ‘Mummy, why do you do that?’ I, very proud to be teaching her, tell her: ‘Well, my daughter, what happens is that Dear God is inside there.’

When passing before another Catholic church she, good learner that she is, decides to imitate her mother, and crosses herself, though a little her own way, that is with the Holy Ghost nearer the Son and both close to her tiny navel.

Keeping up her practice, when we pass before an Evangelical church, she does the same; then later before a Mormon church, and then I, without thinking, tell her: ‘No, not here, because Dear…”; and I simply kept quiet when I saw her little face waiting for me to end my sentence. Now I simply let her cross herself before any church we come across. She taught me a great lesson.”

[A great lesson for all of us too.]

Psalm

Psalm 68 – The Burden of Living

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck!I’m tired of life. I’m wearied of the dismal business of living. I see no meaning in my life, no sense in going on living when there is nothing to live for. I have cheated myself long enough with false hopes. Nothing comes true, nothing makes sense, nothing fits in. Oh, you know I’ve tried all my life, I’ve been patient, I’ve hoped against hope…, and nothing has ever happened. There were glimpses at times, and I told myself that, yes, later on, some time, some day, light was sure to come and make everything clear and light up my way and show the final goal. But it never came. Finally I’ve been forced to be honest with myself and to admit the fact that all that was moonshine and make-believe, and I was in the dark as I’ve always been. I’m up against a wall, and the wall is dark granite that doesn’t yield. I’ve reached the end of everything. I’m tired of life. Let me go, Lord.

I sink in muddy depths and have no foothold;
I am swept into deep water, and the flood carries me away.
I am wearied with crying out,
my throat is sore, my eyes grow dim.

My failure weighs on me, Lord, but even more than my failure it is your own failure, Lord, if you allow me to speak so, that bears me down and crushes me. Yes, Lord, your failure. Because if human life is a failure, it is you who made it, and yours is the responsibility for its breakdown. So long as only my sorrow was concerned I found refuge in the thought that my suffering did not matter provided your glory was safe. But now I see that your glory is intimately wound up with my happiness, and it is your name that suffers when my life goes black. How can you, my Lord, keep your name unsullied when I, your servant, sink in the mud?

I have become a stranger to my brothers,
an alien to my own mother’s sons;
the zeal for your temple has eaten me up;
those who reproach you reproach me.

For you and for me, then, Lord, save me and don’t let my soul perish in despair. Bring me up, give me light, make life bearable for me if not understandable. Save me for the glory of your name.

Rescue me from the mire,
do not let me sink;
let me be rescued from the muddy depths,
so that no flood may carry me away,
no abyss swallow me up,
no deep close over me.

All I ask for is a glimpse, a word, a window in the darkness that envelops me. A ray of hope in the night of despair. A reassurance that you are there and the world is in your hand and all will be well. Let the clouds part, if only for an instant, that I may see blue above and be reminded that heavens exist and the way up is open for kind thoughts and fond hopes. Let me feel your power in the relief of my helplessness.

By your saving power, O God, lift me high
above my pain and my distress;
then I will praise God’s name in song
and glorify him with thanksgiving.

O Lord, reconcile me again with my life!

1st
I tell you

“I, too, am an Iraqi”

Yesterday, February 15th, I took part, one among the million and a half people in it, in the manifestation for peace in Madrid. I do not enter into politics, but I understand we live democratically, democracy means for the government to rule according to the will of the people, and the people have shown they do not want the war. From Cibeles Square it was just a sea of human heads and white flags of Peace all along the Prado Promenade, Castellana Avenue, Alcalá Street till The Sol Gate, historical centre of the city.

While slowly walking along in the peaceful crowd, I suddenly found myself behind a girl who had stuck on her back a poster with the words: “I, too, am an Iraqi”, and a bulls-eye below. A Spanish girl identified herself with a suffering people. My eyes went wet. I approached her, pointed to her poster and shook her hand. I said nothing, and she noticed my tears. We kissed, and each went along with the human tide. My eyes go wet again as I write this.

Smiles by phone

She identified herself as the Mother Superior of a convent and asked me to direct the annual Spiritual Exercises for her community. I couldn’t get so many free days in my agenda, and I had to answer her I would not be able to come. But I did notice she had a beautiful voice and she spoke in such a joyful and cheerful tone that she seemed to be sending smiles through the phone. I told her so at the end. I said: “I’m sorry I can’t come, but let me tell you one thing. I wonder if you have been told before, but you have a most pleasant and beautiful voice, one can clearly guess your smile while you are talking, and you do cheer up the person that is speaking with you.”

She laughed on the phone. She must have blushed a little too. We said goodbye. I suspect she was more pleased than if I had been able to come for her Exercises.

The use of languages

The waitress in the hotel asked me in three languages whether I wanted coffee or tea with my breakfast.
I answered in three languages I wanted only milk.
She asked me in three languages whether I wanted the milk hot or cold.
I answered in three languages I wanted it cold.
She brought me hot tea.
I smiled to her in three languages.
She smiled back in three languages.
I took the hot tea.
That was the perfect image of today’s world.
Plenty of languages and no understanding.
At least we can smile.
In three languages.

Lucky are those who’s work is their hobby

Marcel Reich-Raniki, a Polish Jew and an outstanding literary critic in German literature, writes about himself:

“I worked from early morning till late at night – partly at the newspaper’s office and partly at home. I practically never had a free weekend; I only reluctantly, and then not in full, took the leave I was entitled to. I worked hard, enormously hard. Why did I? No one expected me to, let alone asked me to. Much of what I was doing I did not have to do myself; I could have delegated it. So why this great effort, this ceaseless hard work? For the sake of literature? Yes, certainly. Was it my ambition to continue the tradition of Jews in the history of German literary criticism in a leading post before the eyes of the public? Certainly. Did my passion have anything to do with my longing for a home, the home that I lacked and that I believed I had found in German literature? Yes – and perhaps to a greater degree than I realised.

All these answers are correct, yet none of them quite hits the spot. If I am being honest, I must also admit that behind my workaholism, because that is what it was, there was nothing but the pleasure which my work on “Frankfurter Allgemeine” gave me from day to day. My hobby and my job, my passion and my profession, coincided completely.”
[“The Author of Himself”, p.349]

Did Shakespeare help to avoid any murders?

When violent riots broke out in Gujarat, where I have lived and worked and published books and articles most of my life, a writer in the region wrote this in a magazine: “In spite of all the writings of Carlos Vallés that have formed and shaped Gujarati society along so many years, violence has erupted in the midst of this very city and this very region.” About that time I read the book I’ve just quoted of Marcel Reich-Raniki, and I found in it the following reflections:

“Did I ever hope that literature could educate people or change the world? No one with even the most cursory knowledge of literary history is likely to fall for such illusions. Have Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories prevented a single murder? Did Lessing’s work at least curb the steadily growing anti-Semitism in the eighteenth century? Did Goethe’s ‘Ifigenia’ make human beings any more human? Did Gogol’s ‘Government Inspector’ reduce corruption in Tsarist Russia? Did Strindberg succeed in improving the marital life of Swedish citizens? Millions of spectators in innumerable countries have watched Bertolt Brecht’s plays. But Max Frisch doubted whether a single one had, as a result, changed his political views or even re-examined them.

I have never seriously believed in any appreciable pedagogical function of literature, but I do believe in the need for commitment. Even though writers cannot change anything, they should express their convictions.” [p.377]

I see there a lesson of literary humility, and at the same time an exhortation not to lose cheer and to communicate joy and hope, which we always can do and which is perhaps the best service we can render society.

Cherries’ Zen

A Japanese snail was slowly climbing up a cherry tree. That was in the month of February, maybe March. The snail met an insect that told him: “But, where are you going? It’s not the season now. There are no cherries on the tree.” – “There will be when I arrive”, said the snail and kept on climbing.
[“Le cercle des menteurs”, Jean-Claude Carrière, p.387]
The snail was a Japanese snail, of course.

A Seventeenth-Century tale: Out of Love of God

A scrounger of a student, short of money and pretty of face, was going back to his village, and on his way saw a barber’s shop with the owner sitting idle at the door, so he went in and asked to be shaved.

The barber called his wife, brought out a clean embroidered cloth and a golden case with his instruments, sharpened his cut-throat razor and readied his best pair of scissors. He showed his special chair for wealthy customers and made the student sit on it.

The student, who was not used to be treated with such courtesy, and thought those manners were too much ceremony for such a small fish as he was, did not want his benefactor to be ignorant of the real situation and told him in a humble voice: “Please, sir, let it be known to you that I don’t have a penny on me, that I am begging alms to reach my village, and that your work on my beard has to be solely done out of love of God.”

The barber heard him and, losing his temper and turning towards the young man gave vent to his anger: “To hell with the scrounger! So that was what you wanted? Rightly was I surprised to get a good client so early in the morning. Get up now from that chair and sit down here.”

The student got up quietly from the chair and went to sit on a stool they brought for him. They put a rough and dirty cloth on him, the barber withdrew and in his place came the apprentice to finish up what his master had begun. Of such was said, “The apprentice learns on the poor man’s beard.” The scissors and the blade were such that at each turn he was flaying half a cheek. But as he was being shaved for free, the student suffered in silence.

At that juncture, the barber’s dog in the house started howling in such a way that it was a nuisance for all; and the barber, who did not need much encouragement for his temper, began to shout to all: “Go in and see what is wrong with that dog and why is it barking.”

The student heard that, and turning towards the barber addressed him: “Let you not be surprised, sir. The dog is barking and howling because they must be shaving him our of love of God, as they are doing to me.”

[Jerónimo de Alcalá, in the anthology, “Todos los cuentos” by Ramón Menéndez Pidal, p.401]

You tell me

Query: “I am an aged religious man and I’m fine in every way; I only have a kind of nostalgic feeling to have lost the religious fervour and devotion I used to feel in prayer and in the sacraments when I was a young religious. Is there any remedy for that?”

Yes, there is. And that is to realise that each age is what it is, and each situation has its own characteristics. I once heard from an old priest an illustration which it may be fit to quote here. He explained: “A few days ago I celebrated a thanksgiving Eucharist for a married couple in their golden jubilee, and it did not occur to me to tell them they should have sex now with the same thrill as they had it in their honeymoon fifty years before. They are quite happy now in their seventies as they were then in their twenties. Everything has its own time.”

The honeymoon is one thing, and the golden jubilee is another. And one of them is not “better” than the other. Each one is valid in its own time if we know how to appreciate it, and ill-fitting if we take it out of its place. Longing for a honeymoon experience in the golden jubilee is as absurd as longing for a golden-jubilee experience in the honeymoon. The desire to repeat old experiences leads only to frustration. Youth has its riches, as maturity and old age have theirs. Let us not build artificial hothouses, but rather learn how to walk on with life. Each moment has its own beauty.

When I was ordained a priest in Pune, and I “discovered” the beauties of the breviary, I went and recited them all with full excitement to the spiritual director at the seminary, the English Jesuit Fr. Astbury. He cut me short and told me: “Come here after five years and tell me about it.” I felt displeased to hear that then, but today I understand he was teaching me a lesson and was preparing me for life. Let us treasure everything, but let us not feel nostalgic about anything. Turning to the past may block the future for us.

Another thing. Some people have not been pleased with the story I told last time of the little girl whom her mother allowed to cross herself, not only when passing before a Catholic church, but also before a Protestant one. They tell me that in the Catholic church there is the Blessed Sacrament, while such is not the case in a Protestant one, and we should mark the difference.

I stay with the girl and her mummy. When I was in India, I would join my hands and bow my head when passing before a Hindu temple, in the Indian way of showing reverence. Reverence before the House of God, house of prayer, house of meeting for those who believe in Him. There is only on God, and we do well to greet him when we pass in front of his house…, since we are in such a hurry that we cannot come inside.

Psalm

Psalm 75 – The scourge of war

As I begin my prayer, Lord, I am reminded that there are wars being waged at this very moment far and near on the face of the earth, and even worse new wars threatening us closely. Cruel, senseless, inhuman wars. Wars that have been going on for years, and wars which have flared up without notice and without reason.

There is never reason for a war. There is never reason to shed the blood of men and women who want to live. There is never reason to ruin nations and foster hatred and drag human history through the shame and the suffering of whole generations of men.

You alone can stop wars, Lord. You break the flashing arrows, shield and sword and weapons of war. You are terrible, O Lord, and mighty; men that lust for plunder stand aghast, the boldest swoon away, and the strongest cannot lift a hand. At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, rider and horse fall senseless. Terrible are you, O Lord; who can stand in your presence when you are angry? You gave sentence out of heaven; the earth was afraid and kept silence.

Make the earth be silent again, Lord. Let the earth with its silence acknowledge your dominion, Lord. Let bombs and missiles and mines and bullets cease to crease the face of the earth. Let the tumult of war subside in the hearts of man and on the fields of battle. Let the silence of peace envelope the earth. Let the songs of birds be heard again instead of the rattle of machine guns. Let weapons be destroyed that they may not destroy man’s civilisation in his own home.

Make silence in my own heart, Lord, because it is there that the sources of war are found. The passions that lead men to seek power, to hate each other, to kill and to destroy are all present in my heart. Silence violence in me, silence pride and silence hatred. When I read news of war, make me think of the secret wars of my own heart. When I decry violence, remind me of the seeds of violence within me. When I see blood, bring before my eyes the blood that I shed unseen in the spiteful encounters with inimical men. Silence the storm within that it may never rage outside, and the peace of my soul be sign and prayer of the peace I want for all men and women in all places and in all times.

O God, at your rising in judgement
to deliver all humble men on the earth,
for all her fury Edom shall confess you,
and the remnant left in Israel shall dance in worship.
Make the clamour of battle change into the music of dancing, Lord God of peace!
under stand aghast,
the boldest swoon away,
and the strongest cannot lift a hand.
At your rebuke, O God of Jacob,
rider and horse fall senseless.
Terrible are you, O Lord;
who can stand in your presence when you are angry?
You gave sentence out of heaven;
the earth was afraid and kept silence.
Make the earth be silent again, Lord. Let the earth with its silence acknowledge your dominion, Lord. Let bombs and missiles and mines and bullets cease to crease the face of the earth. Let the tumult of war subside in the hearts of man and on the fields of battle. Let the silence of peace envelope the earth. Let the songs of birds be heard again instead of the rattle of machine guns. Let weapons be destroyed that they may not destroy man’s civilisation in his own home.

Make silence in my own heart, Lord, because it is there that the sources of war are found. The passions that lead men to seek power, to hate each other, to kill and to destroy are all present in my heart. Silence violence in me, silence pride and silence hatred. When I read news of war, make me think of the secret wars of my own heart. When I decry violence, remind me of the seeds of violence within me. When I see blood, bring before my eyes the blood that I shed unseen in the spiteful encounters with inimical men. Silence the storm within that it may never rage outside, and the peace of my soul be sign and prayer of the peace I want for all men and women in all places and in all times.

O God, at your rising in judgement
to deliver all humble men on the earth,
for all her fury Edom shall confess you,
and the remnant left in Israel shall dance in worship.

Make the clamour of battle change into the music of dancing, Lord God of peace!

 

15th
I tell you

The Prayer of the Computer

When I switch on the computer every morning, I take advantage of its slow awakening. While it warms up, I join my hands before my face and greet it with a slow and deeply felt “namaste”, the sacred and intimate gesture I’ve brought with myself for ever from India.

Then I gently caress with both my hands the flat screen of my monitor, pride of my work table, touching lightly its rectangular edges, sliding down its sides symmetrically and resting at its steady, flat basis. I lower my hands to the wireless keyboard that rests on my knees for my own ergonomic comfort, and I feel the tickling of its keys on the tips of my fingers as they greet each other with the nervous giggling of their morning meet. I gently cradle the wireless mouse in the hollow of my hands, touch one by one the loudspeakers, the printer, the modem, the CPU. I join again my hands in front of my forehead, gently bow down my head and remain for a few moments in live communion with the instrument that is an extension of my senses, and through which I reach space and enter the cosmos. “Namaste.”

This is my daily ritual, object meditation, practical contemplation, computerised prayer. The Sanskrit word for it in ancient India was “Ayuddha-puja”. Literally, the “Blessing of the Weapons” practised by old-time warriors before going into battle, and now understood as “Worship of the Tools of the Trade”, practised by the farmer with their plough and his bullocks, the carpenter with their saw and their hammer, the sweeper with their broom, the cook with their pots, the student with their textbooks and the writer with their paper and pen. The gesture to love and to venerate all that accompanies us in our life, extends our faculties, feeds us and fills up our day. As simple and as deep as all that. I do it daily with my computer. “Namaste.”

What’s the time?

This is a word-by-word report of a dialogue between Walther Lechler and David Gilmore while I walked with them both through the gardens of Bad Herrenalb in Germany. Walter asks and David answers:

– What’s the time?
– I don’t know.
– Look at your watch. That’s why you carry it with you.
– [David checks his wristwatch and keeps quiet.]
– Come on, what’s the time?
– I’ve told you I don’t know.
– And I’ve told you to look at your watch.
– I’ve looked already. It’s a fine watch.
– Yes, but, what’s the time?
– I haven’t noticed that.
– You haven’t understood.
– I understand what I’m told.
– I tell you now: Please, notice the time your watch shows.
– I’ve noticed it.
– Can you now tell us what it is?
– Yes, of course, if you ask me.
– Tell us, please.
– It’s ten past five.
– Thank you.

Apart from telling us – at length – the time, David made us laugh and uncovered before us the many inconsistencies of our language. He did not always spoke like that, of course, but when he did, we had to get ready for anything. There was not a dull moment with him by the side. He gladdened my stay.

The unshed tear

These verses by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer made me think:

A tear shone on her repentant eyelid
And words of pardon trembled on my lips.
But pride held down us both, she wiped her moist eyes,
And my own pardon too remained unsaid.

I go my way; she goes hers, but we muse on,
And as I think of our wilted love
I keep saying, “Why did I keep my silence?”
And she must think, “And why didn’t I cry?”

They made me think that it is better to express feelings than to keep them down. Gently, lovingly, tactfully, it is better to talk… or to cry, rather than keeping quiet. The unshed tear hurts more than the flood of tears.

Silence also saves

Though, at times it may be better to keep silent, and here is an example of it. Fr. Antonio Ruiz de Montoya tells how going through the forest with his Indians in between the “Reducciones” in Paraguay, they got lost and walked several days at random, till they were in serious trouble for lack of water. Their situation became critical, when they decided to stop and pray for a while in silence, tired as they were, and prayer literally saved their lives. As they all stood and remained silent, they heard the gentle noise of a nearby brook which they had not been able to hear while they kept talking and walking. They rushed to the waters and quenched their thirst. Silence, too, has its advantages. Occasionally we get lost in life because we don’t know how to keep quiet.

Living the present

“After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present. Thus to plan for a future which is not going to become present is hardly more absurd than to plan for a future which, when it comes to me, will find me ‘absent’, looking fixedly over its shoulder instead of into its face.

This kind of living in the fantasy of expectation rather than the reality of the present is the special trouble of those businessmen who live entirely to make money. So many people of wealth understand much more about making and saving money than about using and enjoying it. They fail to live because they are always preparing to live. Instead of earning a living they are mostly earning an earning, and thus when the time comes to relax they are unable to do so. Many a ‘successful’ man is bored and miserable when he retires, and keeps working only to avoid boredom or to prevent a younger man from taking his place.”
[Alan Watts, “The Wisdom of Insecurity”, p.35]

Running water

“To ‘have’ running water you must let go of it and let it run. The same is true of life and of God.”
[Ib., p.24]

You tell me

Question: Are prayers for peace any use? Answer: Yes, they are. As they are too the manifestations in the cities, the protests in newspapers, the collecting of signatures, the audiences of the Pope to politicians, the vibrations that come from the heart and spread all over the world in search of brotherhood. Hope counts, walking together hand in hand counts, forming human chains of freedom counts, praying looking up to heaven counts. We may not change history, but we’ll bend it little by little for good. The world has to be revitalised, and that we are going to do. That is what prayer does.

Someone congratulates me on not having died yet. He writes: ” I’m writing these lines to you with great joy after discovering your e-mail address in one of your last books. I was doubting whether I could communicate with you, as I thought you had expired.”

He did well to doubt, of course, as my present e-mail address would not be valid if I had expired. I take note, and when I die I’ll remember to send him my new address to keep in touch. And I certainly would like to keep in touch with him, if only for a lovely thing he tells me: “My own spiritual itinerary in life could be summed up in the titles of the books by you that I’ve been reading along.” I’ll have to keep on writing.

Psalm

Psalm 74 – The cup of bitterness

This psalm frightens me, Lord. Your image as a strict judge with the cup of retribution in your hands, holding it forcibly to the lips of sinners to make them drink the dregs of damnation while no power on earth can save them from your wrath.

No power from the east nor from the west,
no power from the wilderness,
can raise a man up.
For God is judge;
he puts one man down and raises up another.
The Lord holds a cup in his hand,
and the wine foams in it, hot with spice;
he pours it,
and all the wicked on earth must drain it to the dregs.
Frightful image of judgement and punishment. Yet I don’t want to forget it, Lord. I don’t want to pass it by, to gloss it over. Your justice is also part of your being, and I accept it and worship it as I do with your mercy and your majesty. You are a just judge, and the cup of retribution is in your hands. Let me never forge that, Lord.

I don’t want to claim exemption for myself; in fact I don’t dare. I know my wrong deeds, and I know my lips have condemned themselves to touch the brink of the cup of malediction. I cannot hide in east or west or even in the wide wilderness or in the very ends of the earth. I don’t want to hide either. I dread the cup, but I trust the hand that holds it. I wait for the coming of the judge.

I wait in hope because I think of another cup, remote in time but not unrelated in content. A cup of bitterness, of sufferings and of death. And that cup was also in your hand in the solitude of a garden where the rays of the full moon filtered shyly through the clustered leaves of olive trees on to a figure that prayed in agony. The cup was full of the dregs of death, and the cup did not pass away. It was drunk to the full. Mystery of the cup in the garden which cancelled the cup destined for my lips.

This, O Lord, is the greatness of your mercy and the glory of your redemption. If I have praised you for the heavens and the earth, for the sun and for the moon, I praise you now much more for the greatness of your wonderful works, your redemption of man through the life, death and resurrection of your own Son.

We give you thanks, O God,
we give you thanks;
your name is brought very near to us
in the story of your wonderful deeds.

1st
I tell you

The clone generation.

A small girl listened, at my request, to the first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with its insiting “G-G-G-EEE”. She has a good ear, and she sang at once, “Ta-ta-ta-chuuung”. I told her this was classical music. Later she saw the collection of classical CD’s in my room, pointed at them with her finger and asked: “Is all this ta-ta-ta-chuuung?”

Young people tell me they do not distinguish Bach from Beethoven or Tchaickowski from Stravisnski. They are all the same for them. I feel sorry when I hear that. They seem to be missing something. But then I also realise that I don’t distinguish rock from pop, or the Beatles from the Rolling Stones for that matter. Maybe I’m missing something, too.

We distinguish what is familiar to us. When we Spaniards see a photo of a group of Japanese, they all look alike to us; and when the Japanese see a photo of Spaniards, we all look alike to them. This only means that we de not know each other.

A shepherd has a hundred sheep, and he knows them one by one. To us they all look the same. A horse dealer knew the several hundred horses in his keeping by the slight differences in the shade of their colour, which for us would be almost identical nuances.

When I see from behind a group of young people, boys or girls, they all look alike to me. All dress the same way, comb their hair the same way, walk the same way, talk the same way. One I saw a girl walking in from of me, and I was absolutely convinced she was a niece of mine. I was about to start her with a friendly touch on the shoulder from behind, when I stopped at the last moment and waited to see her profile from the side. Just as well. She was not my niece!

And then they have to be watched in a superconcert before their latest idol. They all laugh alike, shout alike, wave alike their arms held high in unison. Are they a generation of clones? Or is it that I do not know them?

Learning to fly

I’ve recently read several autobiographies by famous women singers, from Victoria Beckham (“Learning to Fly”) to Martine McCutcheon (“Who does she think she is?”). They all have several features in common. Hard beginnings, very hard work, mad rhythm of life, sudden success, change of partner, exuberant vitality, breakdown in health and work, come back as independent artists, vocation to entertain, commitment to their public and to their work. They write at a very young age, in their twenties. Their books read well, and I have enjoyed them, although I have never gone their concerts nor have I bought their records. They have given me a glimpse of that youth I’ve just said I find difficult to understand, and I think I understand them better after listening to them telling me their young lives.

The point that has caused me most thought is a feature they all have in common, and it is a feature by default. They do not mention religion at all. They do not even attack it. They simply and definitely ignore it. In their big volumes, because those girls have a lot to tell, there is no mention at all of God, religion, Church or after-life. These concepts do not seem to form part of their life. And these are the models and ideals of our youth.

Since they are so young, they could still write three or four autobiographies each, in the life that is ahead of them and that I wish it for them to be long and happy. Maybe in those new volumes they’ll tell us something about a point that certainly would interest some of us. If they keep “learning to fly”, I would love to see them fly higher.

Clone birds too

Naseruddin caught once a stork, cut short its legs and beak, and, proud of his work, exclaimed: “Now, there is a fine bird for you!”

Change of rhythm

Martha had a tortoise and sent her to fetch bread. She came the next day and asked, “Did you say loaf or baguette?”

Communication

“To talk to him I had to wait for the commercials on TV, as he disliked to be interrupted in his entertainment.” Gioconda Belli.

The power of (weak) faith

The lamb was afraid of wolves. He found a tiger skin and covered himself with it. But one day he saw a wolf from far and started trembling. He had forgotten he had the tiger skin on.

The power of thought

The master sent his disciple to meditate in the garden. He had to concentrate and avoid all distractions of noises or colours or people who passed by or birds that flew over, and to maintain his mind empty of all thought in order to enter into the mystery of being.

The disciple sat down in lotus posture, closed his eyes, felt his own breathing, and remained steady, in his body and in his mind, without allowing any distraction to shake his single-minded concentration. That was his training, and that was his sustained effort in the quest of illumination.

But suddenly a bird sang, and the disciple could not prevent a tremor of impatience in his body. The bird sang again. The disciple became uneasy and realised that his concentration had been broken. He opened his eyes, looked at the bird with rage… and in that instant the bird fell dead from its branch on the ground.

The disciple was frightened and run to his master for an explanation. The master told him: “This has happened to you that you may understand the power of thought. When you have conceived violence in your mind, you have killed the person again whom you raged. Even if nobody know it and the person remains alive, you have damaged a relationship and have hurt society. Never think ill of anybody, because the thought works itself out in secret and causes death.”

The master then went to the garden, took in his hands the dead bird, caressed it and sent it on its flight again. The disciple understood the lesson.

You tell me

You ask me: Why is it that Sunday School teaching is effective only till First Communion? After that, most of the young people forget all the religion they have learned, and the teachers feel frustrated in spite of all their best intentions.

We all know the problem. I have even heard of the couple who went to the Justice of the Peace to see if he could arrange a “lay First Communion” for their child. In this case the doctrine did not even last till First Communion.

I believe the difficulty comes in part from the fact that we present religious teaching in more or less the same way in which it was presented to us as children, which was alright for us, but not after so many things have changed so much. I know a small girl who, the day Original Sin was explained in Sunday School, came back home and told her mother: “Mummy, all that story of Adam and Eve is just nonsense, isn’t it?” It is not, and I would never have thought of that when I was taught as a child, but apparently young people today feel differently. We know that the Pope has declared Darwinism to be compatible with Catholic doctrine. But it has not been explained to us how to present Original Sin from that perspective. There is much theology to be worked out, or at least to be communicated to simple believers in our daily life. I admire and I encourage all those who work in Sunday Schools at this fundamental task. Their own faith is the best way to communicate it.

Psalm

Psalm 71 – Prayer for Justice

Israel’s prayer for its king was a prayer for justice, for right judgement and for the defence of the oppressed. My prayer for my country’s government and for the governments of all countries is also a prayer for justice, equity and liberation.

O God, endow the king with your own justice,
and give your righteousness to a king’s son,
that he may judge your people rightly
and deal out justice to the poor and the suffering.
May hills and mountains afford your people peace
and prosperity in righteousness.
He shall give judgement for the suffering,
and help those of the people that are needy.
He shall crush the oppressor.

I pray for just structures, for social awareness, for human concern between man and man, and therefore between group and group, between class and class, between nation and nation. I pray that the stark reality of poverty today may come to view before the conscience of every man and every organisation to shake every human heart and every ruling power into moral responsibility and efficient action to bring bread to every mouth, shelter to every family and dignity to every person on earth.

When I pray for others, I wake myself and translate into my own situation what I wish for others in prayer. I am no king, and the destinies of nations do not hang on the words of my lips nor can be changed by the stroke of my pen. But I am a man, a member of society, a cell in the body, and the currents of my feelings run through the nerves that sensitise the whole body into understanding and action. I pray that I may be so much alive with the need of reform that my thoughts and my words and the very look of my eyes and the spark of my step may kindly in others the same zeal and the same urgency to uproot inequality and establish justice. It is the task of all, and so for me it is my task, to be communicated in full conviction and enthusiasm to all those who in one way or another come into contact with me.

Israel will continue to pray for its king:

For he shall rescue the needy from their rich oppressors,
the distressed who have no protector.
May he have pity on the needy and the poor,
deliver the poor from death;
may he redeem them from oppression and violence,
and may their blood be precious in his eyes.

Then the Lord will bless the king and his people:

He shall live as long as the sun endures,
long as the moon age after age.
He shall be like rain falling on early crops,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days righteousness shall flourish,
prosperity until the moon is no more.

 

15th
I tell you

An opera and a tear

The opera “Turandot” by Puccini sings the story of a Chinese princess, Turandot, who did not want to marry, and when her father the king urged her to choose a husband, she came up with the trick that she would marry the prince who would solve the three riddles she would propose; with the proviso that those who failed would have their princely heads chopped off.

She had hoped that such a threat would discourage all suitors, but such was her beauty – and her wealth – that several princes literally lost their heads… first emotionally to her and then physically to themselves.

When all seemed lost, a prince without a name came up and solved the three riddles. The last one was:
“What is the ice
that fire lights?”
Answer: “Turandot.”
The frigid princess gets furious, but the generous prince gives her a chance. He it is that will now propose a riddle, and if she solves it before dawn the next day, she will be free from her obligation to marry him. The riddle was, “What is my name?”

The princess has a full night to find the answer. The night made famous by Puccini’s aria “Nessum dorma” (“Let no one sleep in Peking tonight…”) which all tenors in all ages have dutifully wept through. To make things more complicated, a slave girl declares she knows the prince’s name but refuses to say it. Tension mounts in the night.

The sun is about to show, when Turandot and the prince engage in a duet and things begin to warm up. Before the first sunray appears, the prince sings: “I don’t want you to marry me under obligation. I’m going to tell you my own name, and you will be free.” Faced with such generosity, the princess, who had been melting gradually during the duet, declares she loves him, hears his name from his lips (“Calaf”, although his true name is “Love”), faints in his arms, and all ends happily in a wedding.

I recently saw and heard “Nessum dorma” in a TV music programme for children (I’m a child too), and when the conductor, Fernando Argenta, was explaining to them the opera’s plot with all its romantic twists, the camera focussed on the children who filled up the whole auditorium and who freely gestured as though they were conducting the orchestra when it played. Then I saw a little girl at the climax of the story, her big, innocent face filling the whole screen, with a shy tear peering out of the corner of her eye, growing in its transparent glow, and sliding down her tender, rosy cheek, leaving a wet trace on it till it fell, trembling, on her hand.

It was that tear that made me write this.

The end of Turandot

By the way, Puccini died before he could finish his opera. Another composer, Franco Alfano, wrote the end, and that is how it is now staged. But when Toscanini conducted it, he stopped at the last bar written by Puccini and declared: “The work ends here, because the Maestro died here.”

Better a true cut than an artificial patch.

Mischief after death

When Viktor Frankl, famous for his book “Man in Search of Meaning” after his survival from Auschwitz, was going to undergo heart surgery at 95 with few probabilities of success, he told his beloved wife Elly: “Elly, I’ve dedicated to you one of my books, and I’ve hidden it somewhere in the house. There you can find it.”

He survived the operation, but did not recover consciousness, and died three days later. His biographer, Haddon Klingberg, tells what happened then in his book “When Life Calls Out to Us”, p.387)

“Elly told me the story of the book Viktor had hidden in their flat. Just after his death she combed the whole floor in search of it, again and again, trying to imagine any corner he may have hidden it. It was nowhere, and she was frustrated. Viktor had been perfectly lucid till the moment of the operation, and she was sure the book must be somewhere in the flat as he had indicated.

Finally Elly came upon the book when she least expected it. Viktor fully familiar with Elly’s routine in the home. Every few months, Elly took out the treasured books in the shelf next to Viktor’s desk, where he kept all the editions of his books in different languages. They were not catalogued in any systematic way, but Viktor knew each book and the place it was in, and he trusted Elly alone to touch them. Apparently, he assumed she would keep dusting them even when he would not be there any more. And this is what happened.

When Elly took out one by one the rows of books to dust them, at the back of a shelf with all the editions of “Man in Search of Meaning” there was a book out of place, though it could have been pushed in there unintentionally, but it was a copy of his “Homo Patiens” of 1950. In that book, as in any other, after the title page there was a blank page for the dedication. When she opened the book, the mystery was revealed. That was the book Viktor had specially left for her, dedicated to her on his last days.

The dedication read: “For Elly, who succeeded in converting a suffering man into a loving man. Viktor.”

The cotton crop

The young agriculturalist went to comment his projects for the new land he had bought with old Uncle Laureano, a Creole who lived in the next field.

– Have you seen my little new field, Uncle Laureano?
– Yes, of course. How could I fail to see it. You have levelled it well, my boss.
– Well, Uncle, I just wanted to ask you what you think about the possibility of growing cotton on the field. Do you think this land will give me a good cotton crop?
– Cotton, my boss? No, not cotton. You see, I’ve lived for so many years here and I’ve never seen this land yield any cotton. No, no cotton, my boss.
– And maize? Do you think the land can give me maize?
– Maize, my boss? No, no. I don’t think this land can give you any maize. So far as I know, it can give you some grass for the cattle, some firewood, shade for you cows at midday, and, with luck, some wild fruit from the trees. But maize? No, my boss, no maize.
– And soya, Uncle?
– Soya, my boss? I don’t want to mislead you. No soya on this ground, my boss. Never any soya.
– Well, Uncle. I thank you for all your advice. But, you know what? I would like to have a try at something. I’m going to sow cotton seeds on this field of mine and see what happens. In spite of what you have told me that you have never seen cotton grow on this land…
– Well, well, my boss. If you sow seeds…, if you sow seeds that’s another matter.

[Mamerto Menapace, “Cuentos desde la cruz del sur”, p.17 shortened]

The storyteller

They call him “the storyteller”, and that is what he is. He tells stories melodically, and they are read voraciously in twenty countries. I had read dozens of them, but I had never met the storyteller himself. Then I came to know that he was coming to Madrid, and I found out the time and place of his talk. Yesterday I attended it. At the end I approached him and told him my name. His face lit up with sudden joy, we embraced tightly and felt like brothers, as we had always been. He, too, had read my “stories”, as that is in fact all I write. We needed nothing more. Then he told me that the surprise at seeing me had left him wordless. I told him there was no need to say anything. Just to see his face as he saw me was a treat. We’ll keep telling stories. And I guess you have guessed who he is. Look at the last story. Mamerto Menapace, Benedictine abbot of the “Los Toldos” monastery in Argentina.

In the Laundry Room

Sit down, Marge, and act like you got nothing to do…. No, don’t make coffee, just sit…

Today was laundry day and I took Mrs. M…’s clothes to the basement to put them in the automatic machine. In a little while another house-worker comes down – a white woman. She dumps her clothes on the bench and since my bundle is already in the washer I go over to sit down on the bench and happen to brush against her dirty clothes. Well sir! She gives me a kind of sickly grin and snatched her clothes away quick.

My hand was just itching to pop her in the mouth, but I calmed myself and said, “Sister, why did you snatch those things and look so flustered?” She turned red and says, “I was just making room for you.” Still keeping calm, I says, “You are a liar.” And then she hung her head.

“Sister”, I said, “you are a house-worker and I am a house-worker – now will you favour me by answering some questions?” She nodded her head. The first thing I asked her was how much she made for a week’s work and, believe it or not, Marge, she earns less than I do and that is not easy. Then I asked her, “Does the woman you work for ask you in a friendly way to do extra things that ain’t in the bargain and then later on get demanding about it?” She nods, yes. “Tell me, young women,” I went on, “does she cram eight hours of work into five and call it ‘part time’?” She nods yes again.

Then, Marge, I added, “I am not your enemy, so don’t get mad with me just because you ain’t free!” Then she speaks up fast, “I am free!” “All right”, I said. “How about me going over to your house tonight for supper?” “Oh”, she says, “I room with people and I don’t think they…” I cut her off. “If you’re free”, I said, “you can pick your own friends without fear.”

Wait a minute, Marge, let me tell it now. “How come,” I asked her, “the folks I work for are willing to have me put my hands all over their chopped meat patties and yet ask me to hang my coat in the kitchen closet instead of in the hall with theirs?”. By this time, Marge, she looked pure bewildered. “Oh”, she said, “it’s all so mixed up I don’t understand!”

“Well, it’all get clearer as we go along”, I said. “Now when you got to plunge your hands in all them dirty clothes in order to put them in the machine…, how come you can’t see that it’s a whole lot safer and makes more sense to put your hand in mine and be friends?” Well, Marge, she took my hand and said, “I want to be friends.”

I was so glad I hadn’t popped her, Marge. The good Lord only knows how hard it is to do things the right way and made peace. All right now, let’s have the coffee, Marge.
[Alice Childress, “The Unforgetting Heart”, p.133, abridged.]

You tell me

Paul Claudel was one of the intellectual heroes in my youth with his deep faith, his poetry, his elegant and brilliant style. His phrase, “Tout ce qui arrive est adorable” (“Whatever happens is to be worshipped”), has been one of my favourite quotations for life. Someone who knew it sent me recently an article with several letters of the correspondence he kept, at the rate of a letter per week for twenty years, with a young woman, Françoise de Marcilly. The letters are deep and beautiful, but a paragraph in one of them hurt me:

“I’ve very much appreciated what you say about Bach, though I’ve never been able to love his music. It annoys me. Besides, he is a Protestant, and what good can you expect from a Protestant?

How can Claudel have said that? Of course, his own attitude was then reflected in that of his friends. Tit for tat. This is what he says in another letter:

“Ida Rubinstein and Strawinsky have asked me to write a new Oratorio for them, and I’ve written the first act on the theme ‘Tobias’, which has come our quite well. But then Strawinsky has changed his mind and has written to me that his religious principles prevent him from setting to music a theme taken from the Holy Scriptures!”

I like Strawinsky, I love Bach, and I’ll keep quoting Claudel. “Whatever happens, is to be worshipped.”

Psalm

Psalm 72 – The pangs of envy

When my heart was embittered
I felt the pangs of envy.
I feel ashamed of myself, but I cannot help it. Why should I burn when my brother triumphs? Why should I feel sad when he succeeds? Why cannot I rejoice when he is praised? Why have I to force myself to smile when I congratulate him? I want to be kind to him, I recognise that his work is different from mine and his success does me no harm.

On the contrary, he, in his own way, is also fostering the cause of your kingdom which is my own aim too, so that I should rejoice when he achieves something for your glory. But instead of seeing your glory in it, I see his glory and I chafe at it. There is no more dismal sadness in the heart of man than the sadness of grieving at the good of his brother.

And yet that sadness is in me. The seed of bitterness. The shame of jealousy. The pangs of envy. The most irrational suffering in the world, and yet the most real, actual and daily. Hardly a day goes by, hardly an hour without the misery of senseless pride gnawing at my unhappy heart.

Then I seek justification for my insanity and I cover with philosophical questioning the indefensibility of my complaints. Why do the good suffer? Why do the wicked prosper? Why does he, who hardly takes your name, get ahead of me who take it daily? Why do you suffer an irreligious man to do well while deeply religious people are left in misery? Why is the world upside down? Why is there no justice on earth? Why is it you don’t care?

Why is it I am left to suffer oblivion and failure while people, whom I don’t want to judge but who obviously neglect your rules and even your commandments, bask in the limelight and collect admiration? Why can I, who am your true servant, be left behind in life, while others who are your servants only in name (if at all!), enjoy popularity and thrive all round in society?

My feet had almost slipped,
my foothold had all but given way,
because the boasts of sinners roused my envy
when I saw how they prosper.
Their talk is all sneers and malice;
scornfully they spread their calumnies.

Their slanders reach up to heaven,
while their tongues ply to and fro on earth.
They say, “What does God know?
The Most High neither knows nor cares.”
So wicked men talk, yet still they prosper,
and rogues amass great wealth.

So it was all in vain that I kept my heart pure
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I suffer torment
and am punished every morning.

That is my temptation, Lord, and I lay it open now before you in the sincerity of my heart. I accept your judgement, I profess my ignorance, I worship the mystery. I know that you are just and you are merciful, and it is not for me to call you to account or to expect your views to conform to mine. You have time on your side, you love all men, and you know what is best for each at each moment, and what is best for me who watch all that and feel deeply and want to strengthen my faith through the contemplation of your action among men. You are free to bestow your graces on men, and the good of all is always enshrined in what you do for each one.

Soften in me that urge to compare myself to others, to feel threatened by their successes and belittled by their achievements. Teach me to rejoice with the joy of my brothers, to smile with their smile, to take as given to me the graces you give to them. Remind me to respect always your judgements, to wait for your time, to give you the benefit of eternity.

And above all, Lord, give me the special grace never to classify people into good and bad, to label them, to throw them with intemperate pride into categories which only my own mind has built. You alone know the hearts of men, you are Judge and you are Father. Let me love all men as brothers and free myself from the self-imposed burden of judging men’s consciences without knowing them. Let me stay by your side, happy and contented to be where you want me to be.

Having you I desire nothing else on earth.
I am always with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me by your counsel,
and afterwards will receive me with glory.

1st
I tell you

Walking backwards

This is the last trick my computer has played on me. I was writing a book and wanted to print the last three pages only to check on some data. I expressed my request: Print 273-275. I clicked the right spot, lights blinked, innards shook, noises yawned and the printed pages began to come out.

But they wouldn’t stop. I had only asked for three, 273, 274, and 275, but half a dozen pages had already been printed and there was no end to it. What had happened? I looked hard and noticed that the pages were being printed in descending order: 273-272-271-270… and so on indefinitely! I sounded all the alarms, thought quickly and saw the mischief. I had not marked the right numbers, and by not pressing properly a key, I had marked 273-75 instead of 273-275, and that explained why the computer was printing from page 273 down till page 75, that is one hundred and ninety-nine pages!

I jumped on the machine, pressed, shook, disconnected things till the printer stopped with a sigh. It does not like being interfered with. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it.

Yes, I know, I was to blame. I had given the wrong order. But, what the hell, couldn’t the computer have noticed it? Of course, for it it’s the same to go forward or backward, to print three pages or three hundred. But couldn’t it have suspected that I was not so mad as to want to walk backwards? Couldn’t it have brought out one of those banners he loves to wave insultingly, “Are you sure you want to…?” before it would print?

When I calmed down I realised the computer had done me a favour. It had taught me a very practical lesson. No, I don’t mean the lesson to pay attention when I am clicking an order, but something much more original which neither my teachers nor my electronic friends had ever thought of. That is that it is better to print backwards. Why? Because if I print ten pages the right way, from the first to the tenth, they come out second over first, third over second…, tenth over ninth, and then I have to place them in the right order with the risk to mix them up or to smudge the ink if I rush. Whereas, if I print backwards, from the tenth to the first, they stack themselves in the right order by themselves. The last to be printed is the first page that comes up on top, and all the others under it in the proper order. They save me work.

Thank you, dear computer. You are a charm.

Expect the unexpected

“The first rule of Zen Computer is ‘Expect the unexpected’. No one wants to be reminded at ten minutes to deadline, but the unexpected occurrence is what brings us back to the present moment. If we lose something we’ve taken for granted, we’re suddenly made aware of its value. If we’re presented with a crisis, we’re forced to act on it right now. Zen is what helps us to live in the present moment mindfully – to avoid panic and keep composure, to be thankful for what we have and maintain some perspective. The art of the computer.”
[Philip Toshio, “Zen Computer”, p.55]

The key to happiness

Lao Tzu used to go for a long walk each morning before sunrise through the hills of the reign of Su Wen together with a few disciples who respectfully accompanied him. The only condition to join the walk was that no word should be spoken. Not even the Master would speak. The only talk was nature’s language in its finest hour.

One day a new disciple joined in, accepted the condition to keep silent, admired nature as it woke up from night into day, scanned the horizon, breathed in the dawn, and as the first ray of the sun appeared he could not hold himself back any more and exclaimed, “How marvellous!”

The disciples held their breath in sorrow, knowing how annoyed the Master would be at someone having broken the rule. When they came back from the walk, the eldest disciple spoke in the name of all: “I apologise, Master, because the new disciple has spoiled your walk this morning. We’ll not allow him to come with us again.”

Lao Tzu answered: “I see he has spoiled your walk indeed, but not mine. I do not give to anybody the key to my happiness. I know how to enjoy my walk in silence, and I know how to enjoy it also when someone breaks my rules and speaks. My key to happiness is with myself, not with anyone else. It has been a beautiful walk. And the new disciple may join when he pleases.”

Some form of identification

Geoff Hurst, centre forward in England’s football team who scored a hat-trick in the World Cup finals against Germany in 1966, thus winning the Cup, was a national hero from that moment.

“You have to learn to handle celebrity and that takes time and patience. I received thousands of letters, most congratulating me, some asking for advice. One mother asked me to write to her young son, telling him that he would never be a professional footballer if he didn’t eat his cabbage. I wrote to the lad telling him the secret of my success was cabbage, which was untrue. I’ve never liked cabbage.

Around Christmas time I went into a famous department store in Ilford to buy a fountain pen. As I was talking to the young lady sales assistant it quickly became obvious that I” been spotted. Word spread through the store and within a few minutes an orderly queue of shoppers had formed around me. I patiently signed all the autographs and discovered that some were returning with a football book or magazine for a second signature. At this point I still hadn’t bought the pen. Finally, as the queue subsided, I said to the young lady sales assistant, ‘Sorry about that. I’ll take this Parker, please. Can I give you a cheque?’ ‘Only if you have some form of identification sir’, she replied.

On another occasion I bumped into three vagrants on Euston Station. One of them said to me, ‘You’re that Geoff Hurst. I remember, because when you got those three goals I was away at the time.’ ‘Somewhere nice?’ I asked, thinking he would say Portugal or the Costa Brava. ‘Yeah!’, he replied. ‘Pentonville jail’.”

The most significant point in his story is that one of those three goals that gave England its victory against Germany was not a goal. The ball grazed the line but did not go in. The Swiss referee and the Russian linesman gave it as good, but television replays showed the opposite, and even Hurst thinks it was no goal. He was not to blame, but he has never succeeded in making friends with any German.

[Geoff Hurst, “1966 and all that”, p.162]

I’ll explain you everything

The girl was sitting at a table on the terrace of the café over the sea. She was dressed in white, she was blond, and she was richly tanned by the sun. Near the table there was a large blue umbrella which the waiter was adjusting to keep off the sun. The waiter did not ask anything, he only bowed to the lady, and she asked for a cold drink.

The girl looked from time to time towards the door of the terrace, and then she looked at her watch. She then turned again to look at the sea and remained there without stirring. In one of those distracted moments, the boy came in. He stood for a moment at the door, took his bearings, spotted the girl under the blue umbrella and went to her.

– Sorry for being late.
– I only came just now. The waiter hasn’t even brought me what I ordered. But tell me. What did you want to tell me?
– The same thing.
– What did you want to tell me?
– That I like to see you. More than ever. I like to see the white dress you are wearing.
– You have seen it a number of times.
– But never like today. It must be the sun and the sea.
– But what did you want?
– It must be that my eyes are cleaner today.
– I don’t know what are you aiming at with so much mystery. You’d better tell me right away what is the matter.
– There is no mystery. There is only the problem how to say it.
– How come you don’t know how to say it?
– For many reasons. I just thought your dress sat well on you.
– You’ve seen it many times.
– Have you not realised that there are some things we’ve seen many times, and suddenly one day we get the impression we are seen them for the first time?
– No, I hadn’t noticed that. But, what are you trying to say? You asked me to be here at four. You phoned me twice. You’ve made me come to the beach for that. Why the hell have you come.
– I’ve been explaining to you all this time why I’ve come.
– But the main point is still missing. For instance, you’ve still to tell me that everything is over between us, that that other girl friend of yours has finally got what she wanted, that you cannot love me any more. All that is still missing in your words, but you have to prepare the way as courage has never been your strong point.
– Nothing of that is true. Don’t try to change the topic.
– There’s never the right time.

The sun had come down a little and it now spread a wake of light across the waters. A sailboat crossed it and for a moment it looked as though it had caught fire. The girl didn’t know what to ask any more. The boy remained silent, looking towards the sea. He had the exact answer, but he was afraid, as though he didn’t know it. Then he spoke:

– The doctor has been quite clear. There was a clock in the consulting room and I looked at the time. It was five o’clock sharp. I was quiet, and I noticed it. I have only two or three months left at most. My days are numbered. And it is extraordinary how everything looks now different to me. As your white dress. More beautiful perhaps. I think I’m going to live more intensely now. Day by day. Three months at the most.

– Wait, wait! How three months?

The girl suddenly saw the meaning, put her hand on his arm and looked straight at him. He looked at her too, and they tried to understand each other in silence. The sun filled the sky and flooded the table. The girl repeated:

– Say it again. Let me understand it. Say it again, that I may understand everything properly.
– You’ll say that all this is stupid, and I know well it is. But if we thing rightly, the stupidity is only ours.
– Yes. But please explain everything to me. Right from the beginning. And very slowly.
– The explanation is very simple. I’m going to explain to you everything. Just now.

The sun lighted up the afternoon. The waters shone up to their limit on the horizon. A sailboat crossed the light. The air was hot. The sea breeze hardly touched their bodies.

[“Una terraza sobre el mar” of Vergilio Ferreira in “Antología del cuento portugués” by Joâo de Melo, p.295. Abridged.]

You tell me

You’ve referred me to a Vatican information in Internet, which has come very timely as I thought of the psalm that had come up for today’s commentary. That is the Pope’s speech on 07.02.03 to a group of 37 Brazilian bishops who had gone to Rome for their five-yearly meeting. The heading was, “John Paul II asks for bureaucratisation to be avoided.” The report said: “John Paul II mentioned the excess of organisms and meetings which oblige many bishops to remain often outside their dioceses. This phenomenon has negative consequences, both in the closeness of the bishop to his priests and in other pastoral aspects, as could happen in the penetration of the sects. The Holy Father asked the bishops to avoid the excessive multiplication of organisms and the bureaucratisation of the organisms and subsidiary commissions.”

The Pope connects the bureaucratisation of Church organisms with the penetration of the sects. Maybe we are very efficient and not so very fervent. This may have something to do with the following psalm, with its lament that there are no prophets in Israel.

Psalm

Psalm 73 – There is no prophet!

This is the grief of Israel: There is no prophet!

We cannot see what lies before us,
we have no prophet now;
we have no one who knows
how long this is to last.
If we only had a leader, a religious leader like Moses, who would be in contact with God, could tell us his will, could interpret for us our own situation on earth which makes no sense to us, could make sense out of our sufferings and show with divine authority a direction of hope…, if we only had a prophet among us to point out own misdeeds and guide our lives into redemption, we would find resignation in our sorrow, light in our doubts and strength in our path.

But there is no prophet, there is no light, there is no hope, and the people of God suffers under the existential uncertainty of its own destiny. Sheep without a shepherd. The sight that brings tears to the eyes of those who love the people.

Why have you cast us off, O God?
Is it for ever?
Why are you so stern, so angry
with the sheep of your flock?
Remember the assembly of your people,
taken long since for your own,
and Mount Zion, which was your home.
Now at last restore what was ruined beyond repair,
the wreck that the foe has made of your sanctuary.

There is no prophet in your people today, Lord. That is our grief and our sorrow. Yes, there is no lack of well-meaning workers among us, there are organisers and ministers and administrators and officials, and all do their job conscientiously and effectively, and we need them and appreciate them, and all that is very fine and very proper. But we have no prophet.

We have no charismatic leadership, no original thinker, no bold pathfinder. We miss Isaiah, Elijah, and John the Baptist. We need them badly. We ourselves do our jobs with constancy and fidelity, yes, but rather routinely and dishearteningly. We plod along and we do our duty; but our eyes are down on the markings of the path instead of looking up to the shining of the stars.

The world needs your presence, Lord; your presence through people who may speak in your name and act with your power. Our youth looks up to new models of sanctity, our hearts long for new adventures of evangelical action. We want a place in the world, not just as respectable organisation but as a dynamic leaven in society. We want your hand to be shown in the deep crisis humanity is going through today. Why do you keep silent, Lord?

How long, O God, will the enemy taunt you?
Will the adversary pour scorn on your name for ever?
Why do you hold back your hand,
why keep your right hand within your bosom?

Act, Lord, through the men of your choice. Send prophets to your people, send leaders, send saints. Shake us through their voice into a new awareness of the needs of our world and the ways to meet them with a Christian presence. Your prophets came always from the ranks, from the fields, from the deep faith of humble believers, from the eternal anonymity of the quarries of hope. Sound your call and bring out your men, Lord. And give us the eyes to recognise them and the heart to follow them. Let your prophets revitalise your people again, Lord.

You, O God, are king from of old;
you are mighty conqueror all the world over.
The day is y ours, and yours is the night,
you ordained the light of moon and sun;
you have fixed all the regions of the earth;
summer and winter, you created them both.
Rise up, O God, maintain your own cause!
Remember how brutal men taunt you all day long.
Ignore no longer the cries of your assailants,
the mounting clamour of those who defy you.

You work through your prophets, Lord.
Thank you, Lord, for the prophets of old.
Send us, Lord, new prophets now!

 

15th
I tell you

On shooing cats away

Something funny has happened to my just now. I was coming back home at midday and the street was deserted. Only a middle-aged distinguished looking lady has walked towards me and has asked me politely: “Could you do me a favour?” I’ve found it so out of place to be thus approached by a perfect stranger that I’ve remained quiet. She has insisted: “Do you understand me if a speak in Spanish?” The fact is people who don’t know me don’t take me for a Spaniard, not even here in Spain; beggars address me as “Mister” in English, and if anybody asks me for directions they do it in English too. Apparently I look British to them. Anyway, I’ve told the lady, who was a Spaniard, that I could understand Spanish, and she had exposed her plight.

“See, please. My cat has run away from my house and has got into the garden of the house by the side with that tall iron fence through which she’s squeezed in, but I cannot. I’m worried, of course, about my cat being there. I’ve rung the bell, but there’s nobody there. Now, if I go near the cat from this side of the fence, she keeps where she is, as she knows me and does not get frightened. But if you approach her from the fence and shoo her shaking your hand between the bars, she’ll sure get frightened, will jump the fence and take refuge in my house where I’ve kept the door open. Would you mind getting near my cat and shooing her out?”

I’ve been asked all sorts of things in my life, but nobody has asked me yet to shoo away a cat. One has to be ready for anything. I’ve approached the fence, and there she was. A fine specimen of a cat. Pure Angora breed, with large, intense eyes that fixed me menacingly. Lacking experience in the matter, I’ve put my hand through the bars and I’ve shaken it at her. No result. I’ve pushed my hand farther inside through a rosebush, and I’ve pricked my finger with a thorn. The lady has almost swooned on seeing a drop of blood on my finger, but by now it was a matter of honour to me.

On my other hand I carried the last issue of THE TABLET with a lovely article by Cardinal König on Vatican II which a companion has just lent me; so I’ve rolled it tightly, I’ve pushed it through the bars and I’ve shaken in right in the Angora’s long moustaches. That’s done it! I don’t know whether it’s been the Cardinal, The Vatican Council, or the fear to have her moustaches twisted, but the fact is she’s jumped gracefully over the fence, has scurried through my legs and has got into her house just as the lady has said she would do. To top it all, the lady has said “Thank you” in English to me. Y have smiled, and hope you’ll smile with me too. And in case you have any unruly cat… will, you know whom to call for help.

Velazquez’s “Las Meninas”

“The Dames of Honour” is the most famous picture of the Spanish painter Velazquez. It represents a very trite scene. A princess with her ladies in waiting, a buffoon with an ugly face and a dog just as they were lying around in an informal way around the room. And then the painter has placed himself in a corner as he is drawing the picture. In itself the scene is trivial and commonplace, but the realism of the picture is such that it is rightly considered one of the world’s masterpieces, and certainly it is the jewel of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

A famous humorist, Mingote, has drawn a cartoon on it which he considers the best cartoon he’s ever drawn, and that is saying a lot. The drawing is only Velazquez’s picture, with the painter saying resignedly to hiself: “Well, the fact is some days one can’t think of anything.”

Velazquez has painted horses and battles, kings and Christs with stately majesty. But he also knows how to take a matter-of-situation and make it into a work of art. That is, to me, an example of what our life should be. To do simple things, but to do them with a touch of humour and art. Even when we can’t think of anything.

From picture to poetry

Something similar happens with the most famous sonnet of the most famous Spanish poet Lope de Vega. It also is a marvel, though in fact it says nothing at all. The poet only describes verse by verse how he is writing them, without any genial ideas or bright metaphors; but at the end the result is an exquisite poem because it, too, has converted a humdrum situation into a work of art. The sonnet, weakened by translation, is here:

Lady Violante bids me write a sonnet,
Which is the tallest order in the land.
Fourteen verses make up the awesome poem,
And here have I completed four off-hand.

I thought I couldn’t handle the two quatrains,
But I have reached the middle of the strand.
If I could reach the tercets without much pain,
Nothing would shake me then from my own stand.

I step now gingerly on the dreaded tercets,
Full of doubts as I get ready to start,
And of relief as I end the first one.

This is the second, and I think the next line
Is just the thirteenth verse in my hard task.
Please, count if it’s fourteen now, and I’m done.

In true fact, he’s said nothing. Nothing like many of his other famous sonnets full of deep ideas and flowery language. It’s almost a boring statement of facts, one after the other. Here, too, Lope de Vega could have said: “There are days when one can’t think of anything.” But by telling step by step what he’s doing, he gives sense to the process itself, and with it to the whole life. Life is to be lived verse by verse.

Maybe Lope de Vega, Velazquez and the Angora cat have after all something in common. I too loitered about this morning trying to begin the Web page and not quite knowing what to say. I could well have said: “There are days when one can’t just think of anything.” Then the cat has come along. Nothing big, of course, but we all have had a little laugh, isn’t it? Life is made up of irrelevant things. Joyfully lived through. That is the secret.

Zen on Forty-two Street

“Our first Zen centre in America was in Providence, Rhode Island. After some time, we moved to an apartment where just below the meditation hall was the practice room of a rock-and-roll band. The played full blast! Their daily practice disturbed many of our Zen students. ‘Master, their music is so loud that it disturbs my meditation. Couldn’t we tell them to stop?’ For me those musicians were great bothisattvas. I told my students: ‘Do not worry about them, all-right? To find tranquillity in the midst of tranquillity is not true tranquillity. True tranquillity is that found in the midst of noise.’ Yes, it can be desirable to have a quiet place to meditate in. But we mustn’t cling only to the experience of quietness, because life is not always that way. If our mind remains still, even Forty-two Street in New York can be a marvellous Zen Centre.”
[“The Compass of Zen”, Seung Sahn, p.126]

You tell me

“My grandparents always said that they felt cheated by life.” I’ve felt sorry when hearing that. I know life is hard, and their own life was full of suffering, misunderstanding, and hardships. And you do not want to be like that, now that you’re advancing in years. No, you won’t be so. See, I’ll tell you an experience of mine when I was living from house to house as wandering guest in India. In one of those families I saw an old man who could do nothing anymore in his very old age, and he spent the largest part of the day just sitting in a corner in the only large room in the house through which young and old passed the whole day in their goings and comings. He saw them all and smiled to them all.

I asked him tenderly: “Daddy, what do you do sitting in your corner the whole day?” And he answered me: “I see them all and I smile to them as they pass along. I want them to see me happy and satisfy just as I am. That is my way of telling them that life is worthwhile. I’ve pass through everything, have seen everything, have experienced everything, and now, with the authority of experience and the credibility that I’m not going to lie to them at the end of my life, I tell them that life is long and hard, yes, that there are highs and there are lows, but that in the end life is good, is good at the end, and it is certainly worth living. This is my mission now as an old man in the house, and I carry it out joyfully. Life is worthwhile. Let them all know it.”

There is nothing more beautiful that to hand on with a smile the message that life is worth living.

Psalm

Psalm 70 – Youth and old age

You are my hope, O Lord;
my trust, O Lord, since boyhood.
From birth I have leaned upon you,
my protector since I left my mother’s womb.
Do not cast me off when old age comes,
nor forsake me when my strength fails.
You have been in my life, Lord, for as far as my memory goes back. That is my joy and my boast. My childhood, my boyhood, my youth have all been under the shadow of your hand. I learned your name from my mother’s lips, I called you friend before I had any other friend, I uncovered my soul to you as I did to no one else. I look back on my life and I see it full of you, Lord, in my thoughts and in my joys and in my sorrows. I have walked with you through lights and shadows, and that is, in the smallness of my humility, the greatness of my call. Thanks for being with me through my life, Lord.

Now my years are beginning to get behind me, and I find myself thinking, almost against my will, of the years to come. Life is slowly climbing to its peak, and my eyes turn inevitably to the clouds that veil the end which looked so remote and now begins to appear so close. Age begins to tell, to feel uncomfortable, to bring the uneasy thought that the time left for life is already less than the time that has gone by. Hardly had I overcome the insecurity of youth when I find myself thinking of the insecurity of old age. My strength is not what it used to be, my memory is less reliable, my step is slower and my senses are losing something of their sharpness. I soon will need the help of others, and that thought makes me sad.

More yet than the weakening of my senses I feel the ominous increase of the shadow of loneliness on my soul. Friends have died, ties have been loosened, mentalities have changed, and I find myself protesting against the new generation only to realise that by doing that I am placing myself in the old. There are fewer and fewer people round me with whom I can freely share my views and air my feelings. I’ve grown suspicious, I don’t understand well, I don’t even hear well, and I take refuge in a corner seat when all sit round the table, and in silence when all talk. Loneliness is growing on me as the ghost of death on the stones of a cemetery. The sickness against which there is no remedy. The ebb of life. The burden of old age. The harbinger of death.

I feel fear when I think those thoughts and I realise that from now on the way only narrows and will never broaden again. I feel fear of sickness, of inability, of solitude, of death. And I turn to you, Lord, who are my only help in my fears, my only support in my infirmity. You have been with me in my youth, be also with me in my old age. You have ruled over the first part of my life, rule over the last too. Sustain me when all others fail me. Relieve my solitude when all abandon me. Give me comfort, give me strength, give me the grace to age well, to feel kindly till the end, to smile till the last moment, to make younger people feel with my example that life is friendly and age a blessing, that there is nothing to fear and everything to hope for when you are by my side and my life is in your hands.

Lord of my youth, be also the Lord of my old age!

O God, you have taught me from boyhood,
all my life I have proclaimed your marvellous works;
and now that I am old and my hairs are grey,
forsake me not, O God!

1st
I tell you

What God wants to know

In my books I’ve quoted Viktor Frankl, who so much good did to many with his book, “Man in Search of Meaning”, and his other books which many of you know. What is not so much known is a little poem by the German poet Julius Sturm, which Frankl himself quotes as the best summary of his own life and teaching. Here it is in translation:

“Night by night joy and pain do embrace us,
And before we advert it, they leave us.
And they go to tell God
How we dealt with them both as they held us.”

They come by night, when their presence is most felt in the loneliness of the spirit and the darkness of the senses. They come both, joy and sadness, as both are unavoidable visitors in the spaces of human life. And they take their leave soon without our hardly noticing it. The tide of enthusiasm subsides soon, and the cloud of sorrow fades away. And where do they go? They go to tell God how we’ve treated them. That’s all. When joy came, did we hold on to it desperately never to let it go? Or did we welcome it, for sure, but then left it free to come and go at will? Again, when sadness came, did we resist it with protests and complains trying to throw it out forcibly? Or did we gently open the door and left it ajar for it to come and go when it pleased? That is all God wants to know.

Every day
[From Viktor Frankl’s biography, “When Life Calls Out to Us”, by Haddon Klingberg, p.373]

How often did Viktor pray? After the Holocaust, at least every morning. At dawn, Viktor would lock himself in his office, put on the phylacteries and the black leather boxes with the sacred words, and recited his prayers. After his death, I asked Elly [his wife, who was a Catholic] whether he really said his prayers every day, and she answered me: “Of course. He never missed them for a single day. Every morning, throughout fifty years or more. But nobody knew it.”

Thirst of the heart

“Thirst is the proof that water exists.” [Viktor Frankl quoting Franz Werfel.]

“You made us, Lord, for you, and our heart is uneasy till it rests in you.” [St. Augustine]

Dynamite also helps

“During World War II it happened that I had to travel for forty-five days in a ship loaded with dynamite as part of a convoy of about fifty Japanese ships that were going to Indonesia. American submarines prowled around and torpedoed us systematically. I saw how, day by day, the ships in the convoy were disappearing one after another.

Soon there were only a few ships left. A great fear seized all around me. Some went mad and threw themselves into the sea, unable to live with death on their heads.

Yet, I continued to practice zazen [meditation] quietly on top of the dynamite. Only the practice of meditation could free me from that oppressive atmosphere.

One day our turn came, the long cigar-shaped torpedo hit our ship and it exploded. I was thrown bodily on to the sea. I found a log floating in the waters and held on to it. The next day I was rescued by a Japanese warship.

In the trenches in the battlefield I also practised zazen.

[Taisen Deshimaru in “Vrai Zen”, p.32]
[I was left with the curiosity to know whether he practised meditation also while holding on to the log in the sea.]

Comrades
[A story by Nadine Gordimer in “Jump”, p.91, shortened.]

As Mrs. Hattie Telford pressed the electronic gadget that deactivates the alarm deviCe in her car a group of youngsters came up behind her. Black. But no need to be afraid; this was not a city street. This was a non-racial enclave of learning. The youngsters, like her, were part of the crowd loosening into dispersion after a university conference on People’s Education. They were the people to be educated; she was one of the committee of white and black activists up on the platform.

“Comrade, are you going to town?” No, she was going in the opposite direction, but in the spirit of the hall where these young people had been somewhere, somehow present with her stamping and singing Freedom songs, she told them, “Climb aboard!”

The others got in the back, the spokesman beside her. She searched for talk to set them at ease. Questions, of course. Did they come from Soweto? How did they get here? Had they missed the free lunch?

At the back, no one seemed even to be breathing. “We are hungry.” She was silent in response, for the beat of a breath or two. “Look, I live nearby, come back to my house and have something to eat. Then I’ll run you into town.”

They followed her in through the gate, shrinking away from the dog, though she assured them he was harmless. She trooped them in through the kitchen because that was the way she always entered her house, something she would not have done if they had been adult, her black friends whose sophistication might lead them to believe the choice of entrance was an unthinking historical slight. She took them into her dining-room. It was a room with golden wooden ceiling, antique brass chandelier, reed blinds. An African wooden sculpture represented a lion marvellously carved. She pulled up the chairs and left the four young men while she went back to the kitchen to make coffee and see what there was in the refrigerator for sandwiches. They had greeted the maid, in the language she and they shared, on their way through the kitchen, but she suddenly did not want them to see that the maid waited on her. She herself carried the heavy tray into the dining-room.

They are sitting round the table, silent. She doles out plates, cups. “Just cold meat, I’m afraid, but there’s chutney if you like it. Milk everybody? Is the coffee too strong? I have a heavy hand, I know. Would anyone like to add some hot water?”

They eat. When she tries to talk to one of the others she realises he doesn’t understand English. The spokesman holds out the emptied sugar-bowl to her. “Please.” She hurries to the kitchen and brings it back refilled. They need carbohydrate, they are hungry, they are young, they need it, they burn it up. She notices the fruit bowl. “Have some fruit. Help yourselves.”

They are stacking their plates and cups, not knowing what they are expected to do with them in this room which is a room where apparently people only eat, do not cook, do not sleep. “Are you still at school?” Of course he is not at school, they are not at school. “So what have you been able to do with yourself all that time?” “I was inside. Detained from this June for six months.” “And you?” She should have known that youths of their colour are not going to be saying they’ve been selected for the 1st Eleven at cricket or that they’re off on a student tour to Europe in the school holidays.

The spokesman tells her he wants to study by correspondence, get his matric that he was preparing for two years ago. In the hesitations, the silences of the table, where there is nervously spilt coffee among plates of banana skins, there grows the certainty that he will never get the papers filled in for the correspondence College. She looks at them all and cannot believe what she already knows. None of them will go to university. They are wiping their fruit-sticky hands furtively palm against palm.

“How d’you like my lion? Isn’t it beautiful? He’s made by a Zimbabwean artist…” But the foolish interruption becomes revelation. The spokesman in his gaze – distant, lingering, speechless this time – reveals what has overwhelmed them. In this room, the space, the expensive antique chandelier, the consciously simple choice of reed blinds, the carved lion: all are on the same level of impact, phenomena undifferentiated, undecipherable. Only the food that fed their hunger was real.

You tell me

[Luz Hernáez sends us this lovely story.]

The owner of the shop was fixing on the door a notice that said: “Puppies on Sale”. This kind of notices always draws children, and soon a small child showed up in the shop and asked: “What is the price of the puppies?” The owner answered: “Between $30 and $50.” They child put his hand in his pocket and took out a few coins. “I have only $2.37. Can I see them?”

The man smiled and whistled. The bitch came out of the back followed by five puppies. One of the puppies limped up behind. The child pointed to the limping puppy left behind and asked: “What’s wrong with that puppy?” The man explained that when the puppy was born, the veterinary doctor told him he had a defective hip and would limp for the rest of his life.

The child was touched and exclaimed: “That’s the one I want to buy!” The man replied: “No, you’re not going to buy this one. If you really want it, I’ll make a gift of it to you.” The child was annoyed and, looking straight into the man’s eyes, told him: “I don’t want any gift. This puppy is as valuable as any of the others, and I’ll pay the full price. I’ll give you now the $2.37 I have, and then 50 cents every month till I’ve paid everything.”

The man answered him: “You really don’t want to buy this puppy, sonny. He’ll never be able to run, jump, and play as the other puppies.” The child then bent down, lifted his trousers’ leg to show his own left leg, which was twisted and useless, held up by a heavy metal frame. He looked again up to the man and told him: “Well, I can’t run very well either, and the puppy will need someone to understand him.”

The man was biting his lips, and his eyes went wet. He smiled and said: “Son, I only hope and pray that each one of these puppies may have an owner like you.”

In life it does not matter who you are; what matters is that someone appreciates you and accepts you and loves you unconditionally.

Psalm

Psalm 69 – Make no delay!

I know the virtue of waiting, Lord, but I also know times in my life when waiting is not possible and the urgency of desire overrides every patience and clamours for your presence and your help. My endurance is limited, Lord, very limited. I respect your time-table and worship your divine will; but I burn with impatience, Lord, and it is useless for me to try to hide the imperativeness of my need under the cloak of my conformity. I know that you are here, that you can do, that you will act…, and I cannot bear the delay of your action when I believe in the readiness of your love.

Show me favour, O God, and save me;
hasten to help me, O Lord!
I have noticed how the days shorten when winter comes. As the winter of life approaches, my days also feel shorter and shorter, and I fear life will ebb away before I do what I want to do and I reach where I want to reach, that is, before I reach you and achieve realisation in your presence. The fear that freezes my bones is the fear to think that soon may be too late, that when I wake up I may have missed the chance, that my life may be wasted and my ideals may be left unconquered. Yes, I trust that in your mercy you will not reject me, but the fullness of my life, the dreams of my faith, the longing of my hear may still be left unfulfilled in this brief existence of mine. That is why I pray:

Make haste, Lord: do not delay!

Have I not waited enough? Have you not counted my long years of training, my hours with you, my studies, my vigils, my unremitting efforts and my undefeated hopes? Is all that not enough? What more do I have to do to obtain your grace and change my life? Always the same miseries, the same shortcomings, the same temper, the same lust! I’ve put up with myself long enough. I want to change, to be a new person, to please you and to make life pleasant for those who live with me. I don’t expect miracles, but I claim some improvement.

I want to feel your influence, your power, your grace and your love. I want to be a witness in my life to the saving presence I acknowledge in you by faith. I want to do well, I want to be kind, I want to be faithful to you. With all my limitations, which I accept, I want to be loyal and true. For that I want your help, your blessing, your grace.

I am poor and needy;
O God, hasten to my aid.
You are my help, my salvation;
O Lord, make no delay!

 

15th
I tell you

“Our case is different.”

She was in love with him. He was in love with her. She could not live without him. He could not live without her. They wanted to marry, and to marry at once. Yet, such were the differences between them, the circumstances, the evidences, and they both were still so very young in life and in experience, that the least they could be asked was to wait a little and let matters settle a little. But they were not ready to wait. Matters had settled so far as they were concerned, and they had made up their minds. Their love was true and eternal. It could never fail. They were going to get married in the shortest while.
I told them their love could certainly be true, but that such a short relationship could not guarantee the life commitment matrimony requires. I quoted to them cases they knew of couples that had began very well and ended very badly. I explained to them that human nature is fickle, that feelings do subside and change, that even the strongest relationship can break, and that precisely that had happened to others and could happen to them, specially as there was such a short time since they had come to know each other. But then both answer me with a firm smile: “Yes, but our case is different.”

I told them very gently not to hurt their strong feelings, but very clearly too as I also strongly felt the need, that mine was already a long life, and I had seen many couples, and I had always heard that same answer, “Our case is different”, and that all feel they are different, that human nature has some universal traits and it is good to know that, and in their case they would do well to give themselves more time and know each other better and wait a little before an immature decision. But they answered me looking at each other: “Yes, but our case is different.

I was cruel. I showed them the cartoon that the genial Argentine humorist, Quino, puts first in one of his famous anthologies. He draws thirty six couples, girl and boy in chaste embrace, all identical, each an exact copy of all the others, thirty six times in the large page, and the boy and girl in one of the couples speaks out what all the couples feel and they clearly express while they simultaneously and absorbingly say: “How con we make the world understand that our case is marvellously different?”

The cartoon is clear, and the drawing is definite. They understood it. They laughed blissfully. And they repeated in unison: “Yes, but our case is different.”

Sorry, Quino.

Schizophrenia
[Janet Frame, a woman writer from New Zealand who spent several years confined in a mental hospital due to a wrong diagnosis, tells her crisis and her liberation. She was a teacher in a school when she first despaired of life: ]
At the end of my third week when school again loomed before me I was forced to realise that suicide was my only escape. On Saturday evening I tidied my room, arranged my possessions, and swallowing a packet of sleeping pills I lay down in bed to die, certain that I would die. My desperation was extreme.

The next morning, near noon, I woke with a roaring in my ears and my nose bleeding. My first thought was not even a thought, it was a feeling of wonder and delight and thankfulness that I was alive. I began to vomit, again and again. At last m y nose stopped bleeding but the roaring in my ears continued. I returned to bed and slept, waking at about ten o’clock that evening. I vomited again and went back to bed. The next morning, the dreaded Monday, I woke with only a slight headache. I was now so overjoyed that I was alive when my intention had been to die, that school seemed a minor problem. I felt that I would never again choose to kill myself.

[She published a book, “The Lagoon and Other Stories”, about which the press review said: “It is a waste of time to publish such a book.” She was admitted to a mental hospital because of a schizophrenia doctors diagnosed as very serious, and her mother signed for her the permission to undergo a leucotomy, which was a serious operation with doubtful results.]

Everybody felt that it was better for me to be “normal” and not have fancy intellectual notions about being a writer. But it was my writing that saved me. I had seen in the ward office the list of those “down for a leucotomy”, with my name on the list, and other names being crossed off as the operation was performed. My turn must have been very close when one evening the superintendent of the hospital. Dr. Blake Palmer, made an unusual visit to the ward. He spoke to me – to the amazement of everyone. He pointed to the newspaper in his hand. “I’ve decided that you should stay as your are. I don’t want you changed. Have you seen the Stop Press in tonight’s Star? You’ve won the Hubert Church Award for the best prose. Your book, ‘The Lagoon’.” I smiled, although I knew nothing about the Hubert Church Award. “Yes, and we’re moving you out of this ward. And no leucotomy.”

[Years later, better analyses revealed she had never suffered from schizophrenia, she should have not been taken to any hospital, and that her only present ills came from her stay at the hospital. She ends with a touch of humour:]

I was no longer dependent on my “schizophrenia” for comfort and attention and help, but with myself as myself, I again began my writing career.”

[Janet Frame, “An Angel at My Table”, pp. 188, 221, 375, 385.]

The Fruit of Heaven

There was once a woman who had heard of the Fruit of Heaven. She coveted it. She asked a certain dervish, whom we shall call Sabar: “How can I find this fruit, so that I may attain to immediate knowledge?” “You would be best advised to study with me,” said the dervish. “But if you will not do so, you will have to travel resolutely and at times restlessly throughout the world.”
She left him and sought another, Arif the Wise One, and then found Hakim, the Sage, then Majzub the Mad, then Alim the Scientist, and many more. She passed thirty years in her search. Finally she came to a garden. There stood the Tree of Heaven, and from its branches hung the bright Fruit of Heaven. Standing beside the Tree was Sabar, the First Dervish.

“Why did you not tell me when we first met that you were the Custodian of the Fruit of Heaven?” she asked him. “Because you had to find it for yourself”, answered the dervish. “Besides, the Tree produces fruit only once in thirty years.”

[“Wisdom of the Idiots”, Idries Shah, p.11]

Fidelity

Najmaini (“The Man of the Two Stars”) dismissed a student with the words:

– Your fidelity has been tested. I find it so unshakeable that you must go.

The student said:

– Go I shall, but I cannot understand how fidelity can be a ground for dismissal.

Najmaini said:

– For three years we have tested your fidelity. Your fidelity to useless knowledge and superficial judgements is complete. That is why you must go.

[Ib. p.155]

The Scholar and the Native

The students in the ethnolinguistics class were talking in low voices. That day Mrs. Dusseldorff, the German woman scholar specialist in the culture of the aboriginals was coming to give a lecture on “Language and Culture in the Argentinian Chaco”. She came escorted by the anthropologist, the professor who held the chair. A “Toba” Indian was expected too. He could not be late now. At ten and a half sharp he appeared at the door of the classroom. He was short, well built, with a typically inexpressive Indian face. He was very clean. He murmured a greeting and sat in his place. The lady scholar asked him:

– Please, sir, how do you say “to fish”?
– Sokoenagan.
– Very good. So, that is “to fish”.
– No. “I am going to fish.”
– Ah, good, first person singular. How do we say “he fishes”?
– Niemayé-rokoenagan.
– “He fishes” or “he is fishing”?
– He is a fisherman, but he is sitting now, he has not gone yet to fish. He is not fishing, but is going to fish.
– How do you say “fish”?

The Indian heaved a sigh and sat back in his chair; then he put his hands in his trousers pockets and crossed one leg over the other. Finally he said: “If the fish is there and I see it, it is said in one way; if I don’t see it, in another; and in yet another way if…”. The scholar interrupted him and said: “It seems our resource person is not ready today for the linguistic part. If you want, professor, we could go on with implements and weapons.”

The anthropologist went out to the Archeology section. When he came back he was bringing with himself two bows, several arrows, three spears of different sizes and a lasso made of vegetable fibres with complicated knots at its ends. Suddenly the Indian got up and approached the anthropologist. All were surprised. The anthropologist stepped back. The Indian spoke to him in a low voice. “Of course, of course”, said the anthropologist trying to smile; and he informed the class: “He is asking permission to remove his coat in order to feel more comfortable with the bow.”

There were a few, isolated giggles. The German scholar, quite serious in her chair, went on taking notes. The Indian placed carefully his coat on the back of his chair. Then he took the bow in his hands. In the hands of the Indian the bow ceased to be a museum piece and came alive. His wide and dark hands caressed it from end to end. There was no artificiality in that recognition. He looked like one who knew perfectly well what he was going to do. He held the bow with one hand, and took the arrows with the other. Paradoxically he looked much stronger without his coat. His neck and his shoulders were powerful. On his forehead a vein run from the middle of his eyebrows to his hairline. They all looked at him with curiosity. He did not seem to be the same person that was passively answering the scholar’s questions a few minutes ago.

The Indian, his legs firmly rooted on the floor, stretched the bow. A wave of energy, unsuspected till that moment, thrilled through his body, a force unifying his arm and the bow. Nobody was writing anymore. With an agility that astonished everybody he bent low and took the longest arrow with the bunch of feathers at its end. The anthropologist stood up. He was pale. The German scholar had left her notebook on the table.

The Indian had fitted the arrow on the bow and stretched it again. He was looking sideways, and in that pose it was easy to imagine his naked back as in a sculpture. The arrow filled up the vacuum of the tension. Its head, as he slowly lowered it, came level with the anthropologist’s forehead. The German scholar stood open-mouthed.

The Toba Indian slowly lowered his arm and loosened the bow. He delicately removed the arrow and placed it next to the others. He rested the bow against the back of the chair, took his coat back and folded it over his arm.

The hall, little by little, came back to life. There were coughs, people searching for their notes scattered on the floor. Quickly they pooled together the money to be given to the Indian. One of the students gave it to him without looking at it.

The anthropologist and the German scholar were the last to leave. The class had not been satisfactory. They were discussing the possibility of bringing in another resource person. A proper disposition is essential for scientific purposes.

[“El dueño del fuego” by Silvia Iparaguirre in “Cuentos literarios tradicionales”, p.83, shortened.]

You tell me

You often quote to me phrases from my own books to defend your own opinions against mine. That’s why this other story by Idries Shah comes in handy to me now.
A Sufi master was visited by a perplexed Seeker-after-Truth, who said to him: “I have only one question to ask. Why is it that, wherever I go, I always seem to get different pieces of advice from Sufis?”

The master answered: “Come with me for a walk through this town, and we shall see what we can discover about this mystery.”

They went into the market-place, and the Sufi asked a greengrocer: “Tell me, what time of prayer is it?” The greengrocer said: “The time for the morning prayer.”

They continued their walk. After some time the Sufi asked a tailor: “What prayer-time is it?” The tailor answered: “It is the time of the midday prayer.”

After spending more time in conversation and companionship with the Seeker, the Sufi approached another man, this time a bookbinder. He asked him: “What time of prayer is it?” The man replied: “It is now the time of the afternoon prayer.”

The Sufi turned to his companion and said: “Do you want to continue the experiment, or are you now satisfied that virtually the same question can elicit almost totally different answers, all of them corresponding to the current truth?”

[“Reflections” by Idries Shah, p.8]

Psalm

Psalm 76 – The Right Hand of God

Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in his anger withheld his mercies?
Has his right hand lost its grasp?
Does it hang powerless the arm of the Most High?/em>Forgive my vehemence, Lord, but when I think of your power and my miseries, of your promises and my failures, I feel that something is wrong, and I express the frustration of my heart in the despair of my words. Have you failed me, Lord? Have you let me down? Where are all my efforts, my prayers, my hopes? I am the same old wreck I always was, nothing has improved in me, my temper continues to hurt people, my intemperance continues to hurt me, my passions are stronger than ever and my failures multiply with age. Where is your power, your mercy, your grace? Where is the might of your hands? Has your right hand lost its grip? Does your arm hang powerless? Have you lost your influence in human affairs? Have you lost your interest?

I speak for me and I speak for the friends and companions with whom I share the work of the Kingdom, and with whom I speak of the disillusionment that chills us when we compare the earnestness of our efforts with the meagerness of our results.

Will the Lord reject us for evermore
and never again show favour?
Has his unfailing love now failed us utterly?
Must his promise time and again be unfulfilled?

When the cloud of disappointment sweeps over me I feel discouragement and despair. Dreams are not fulfilled, ideals not reached, the Kingdom does not arrive. I know my defects, and I know the failings of the human race. But I also know the firmness of your promises and the power of your hand. Don’t let your hand rest idle, Lord. The hand that created the world, that opened the sea, that brought down massive walls can now do much more that that, beyond the figure of those material events, in the reality of the lives of men and the welfare of their souls. There is where your marvellous works are to shine, where your right hand has to exert its power.

Lord, let it never be said of you, not even in the obedient question of a devoted friend, that your right hand has lost its grip.

1st
I tell you

Transparencies in plastic covers

Of course I was eager to attend a mathematics class. After having taught the subject all my life and having now retired, I did feel like seeing how a young teacher taught with all the modern devices of today. I accepted his invitation. I sat at the back end of the classroom, I looked and I listened.
The professor came in with all his files and instruments. A whole set of transparencies in their neat plastic covers. The machine was in place, and he went on displaying one by one as they detailed line by line the development of the whole theorem, and he added his own explanations, stressed difficult points, answered doubts, pointed out possible pitfalls. The final result came out neatly, properly underlined in the bright screen. And then another theorem and the corresponding problems. At the end he collected his transparencies in their plastic files, and we came out.

The class had been perfect. But I asked myself, ¿what am I missing here? I got it. When I used to give class, I had so shake my hands clean at the end. They were full of chalk. Of course. There were no transparencies in those days. Only a huge blackboard and plenty of chalks. I fill the board with equations, rubbed them off, filled it again, and so the whole time. There was physical work. And there were hands full of white chalk dust at the end.

And there was something else. As I didn’t carry my theorem printed in transparencies, I had to make it there and then, equation by equation on the blackboard, deducing each step from the previous one on the spur of the moment. I could go wrong. I did go wrong. My students would correct me. Sometimes they and I missed a wrong step and the theorem did not come out. I had to leave it for the next day. There were risks, and they were failures. And all that gave credibility and reality to the teaching. Those were live mathematics.

When the theorem was a long and difficult one, a tense expectation could grip the whole class and create real emotion. Will the theorem come out at the end? Will it all end well? Will I have made a mistake somewhere and that’ll spoil the whole thing? There was greater suspense than in an Agatha Christie mystery novel.

Sometimes, after a long and hard theorem that would take the whole hour and would end with its exact result just when the bell rung for the end of the class, the students would clap enthusiastically, and I would smile contentedly through the perspiration and the chalk. We lived through the live emotion of the great theorems of mathematics. Today the students do not clap. Who is going to clap before a transparency?

More plastic
[Gary Thorp tells an experience of his in “Sweeping Changes”, p.58]

“Some persons protect all the objects in their homes to such an extent that they cannot enjoy them. On a certain occasion I went with a friend of mine to visit his parents who lived in a very expensive six-room house in a fashionable area in Nob Hill, San Francisco. All the furniture and all the decorative objects had been made by chosen artists and were very valuable. And each one of them was shrouded in a plastic cover! The chandeliers were covered with plastic bags, the sofas and chairs were wrapped in transparent vinyl, and large sheets of plastic were spread over floor and carpets.

I innocently asked whether it was that they were about to paint the house, but my friend’s mother got impatient and looked offended while she explained to me that they were not painting the house, but they were simply protecting their belongings. I could hardly believe they could live like that. They sat on plastic, walked on plastic, eat on plastic.

The lady asked us whether we wanted to taste one of the delicious oranges the had just brought from the market. My friend, her son, said yes with his head, and then his mother asked him, please, not to eat it inside the house, so that my friend went out at the back door to go to the garden.”

[My comment: Of course, the plastic could not be stained, either.]

Haiku

“As we roll out
the old carpet,
it tells a thousand stories.”

[Ib. p.29]

Chinese proverb

“When we search for the Buddha on the mountain top, we miss the Buddha in the valley.”

The art of listening

“Listen”, said the man. “Listen. I just want you to get this thing clear…”

“Yeah”, she said. “Get things clear. That’s good. That gives me a big laugh. That’s laughable, a thing like that is. Say, if there’s anybody around here that’s going to get things clear, I’m going to be the one around here that’s going to get things clear. What you do, you go back to Jeannette, see, and you tell her I know what she’s saying about me. I don’t want to get you into this, but you tell her that from me. You can keep out of it. You don’t have to tell her you told me. You don’t even have to tell her you saw me…”

“Ah, listen”, he said. “Listen. Will you please listen just a minute?”

“Yeah, listen”, she said. “That’s fine. Listen. Well, I’m through with this listening stuff. You can tell them all from me, see, I’m going to be the one that’s going to do the talking from now on. You can tell Miss Jeannette she’s got a lot to do to make cracks about a person’s red dress. That’s pretty laughable, that is. Say, when I ask her to pay for anything I wear, that it will be time for her to crack. You can tell her that.”

“Will you do me a favour?” he said. “Will you do me a little favour? Will you? Will you listen just…?”

“Yeah, favours”, she said. “Nobody’s got to do me any favours. I make my own living, and I don’t have to ask any favours off of anybody. And if they don’t like it, they know what they can do. Tiffany’s window, see? Oh, did I break that glass? Isn’t that terrible. Hell with it. Hell with them all.”

“If you’d listen”, he said. “There isn’t anything for you to get sore about. Just listen…”

“Trouble with me is, I’m too kind-hearted. That’s what everybody always told me. ‘Trouble with you is, you’re too kind-hearted’, they said. And now look what she goes around and says about me. All right. You can go back to Jeannette and stay there.

“Now listen, sweetheart”, he said. “Wouldn’t you listen to your friend just for a…”

“Friends,” she said. “Friends. Fine lot of friends I got. Go around cutting your throat. That’s what you get for being kind-hearted. Just a big kind-hearted slob. That’s me. I make my own living, and go around not giving anybody any trouble. Work all day long, and don’t ask anything off of anybody. And here I am with a weak heart, besides. I’d just as soon I was dead. What’ve I got to live for, anyway. Kindly answer me that one question. What’ve I got to live for?”

“Ah, listen”, he said. “Listen.”

From the unknown, a waiter appeared. He chirped and fluttered about them.

[“Dialogue at Three in the Morning” by Dorothy Parker in “Complete Stories”, p.47, abridged.]

You tell me

You delicately asked me my phone number. I delicately explained to you that I don’t give it publicly because my time is limited, I have never had any secretary and have none now, I do all my work myself, and I enjoy doing it, but I wouldn’t possible do it with an open phone by my side. I told I expected you to understand. You understood. But still, at the end of my e-mail I did give you my phone number, anyhow. I like to be a gentleman. And you understood it too.

Next day you phoned me gently. You wanted to hear my voice. I also liked hearing your voice. Honestly. Your voice cheered me up. You told me you were calling only to greet me. We greeted each other. You were brief, gently, charming. Now it was I that was left wishing I could speak longer with you. You did it perfectly well.

Psalm

Psalm 77 – Salvation History

I know the history, Lord, and I know its lesson. I know that the journey of your chosen people from Egypt to Canaan is figure of my own life from birth to death, and I now relive that story in my heart while I see myself in my own crossing of the desert of life.

The story is a poem, and the poem has a theme and a refrain. The theme is your bounty and your power to help your people; and the refrain is the ingratitude of the people who, no sooner have they received a favour from you than they start a new complaint, doubt your power and shout rebellion. Will I learn the lesson at the end?

He did wonders in their fathers’ sight
in the land of Egypt, the country of Zoan;
he divided the sea and took them through it,
making the water stand up like banks on either side.
He led them with a cloud by day
and all night long with a glowing fire.
Those were wonders enough to establish a people’s faith for ever. Yet, their effect did not last long. Yes, God has taken us out of Egypt, but can he give us water in the desert?

He cleft the rock in the wilderness
and gave them water to drink,
abundant as the sea;
he brought streams out of the cliff
and made water run down like rivers.

New wonders to strengthen the faith. And yet new doubts and new complaints. Yes, he has given us water; but can he give us bread? Can he give us meat to eat in the desert?

They sinned against him yet again:
in the desert they defied the Most High;
they tried God’s patience wilfully,
demanding food to satisfy their hunger.

They vented their grievance against God and said,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”
When he struck a rock,
water gushed out until the gullies overflowed;
they said, “Can he give bread as well,
can he provide meat for his people?”

When he heard this,
the Lord was filled with fury;
because they put no trust in God
and had no faith in his power to save

Then he gave orders to the skies above
and threw open heaven’s door;
he rained down manna for them to eat
and gave them the grain of heaven.
So men ate the bread of angels;
he sent them food to their heart’s desire.

He let loose the west wind from heaven
and drove the south wind by his power;
he rained meat like a dust-storm upon them,
flying birds like the sand of the sea-shore,
which he made settle all over the camp
round the tents where they lived.
So the people ate and were well filled,
for he had given them what they craved.

Yet they did not abandon their complaints
even while the food was in their mouths.

That is the story of the fickleness of Israel. Wonder after wonder, and complaint after complaint. Short-lived faith which believed only for an instant in order to doubt the next. Stiff-necked people unwilling to accept the reality of God’s power and God’s protection daily shown to them and daily forgotten.

In spite of all, they persisted in their sin
and had no faith in his wonderful acts.
They were not loyal to him in their hearts
nor were they faithful to his covenant.

They rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the desert.
Again and again they tried God’s patience
and provoked the Holy One of Israel.

Dismal story of a stubborn people. And dismal story of my own soul. Have I not experienced enough your power, your protection, your providence? Have I not seen you act in my life, Lord, from the miracle of my birth through the wonders of my youth to the fullness of my maturity? Have you not rescued me from a thousand dangers, have you not fed me with grace in my soul and food in my body, have you not blessed me with the health of nature and the joy of life?
Have you not proved yourself abundantly to me as friend, protector, father and God?

And yet I doubt, I forget, I ignore, I chafe, I complain. You have given me freedom, but can you give me water? Can you give me bread? Can you give me meat? You have called me to the life of the spirit, but can you teach me to pray? Can you give me detachment? Can you raise me to contemplation? Can you control my temper? Can you lift up my moods? Can you give me true faith? Can you give me true happiness? Every grace of yours is followed by a complaint of mine. Every demonstration of your power lands me in a new doubt. Thus far you have done it, but will you be able to do it in the future? You have done much, but can you do everything? Can you make me truly loving, saintly, free, devoted, selfless, committed, healthy and happy? Can you? And if you can, why don’t you show it now and make me into the truly fine person I dream to be?

Yet he wiped out their guilt
and did not smother his own natural affection;
often he restrained his wrath
and did not rouse his anger to its height.

He remembered that they were only mortal men,
who pass by like a wind and never return.
He brought them to his holy mountain,
the hill which his right hand had won;
he drove out nations before them,
he allotted their lands to Israel as a possession
and settled his tribes in their dwellings.

Salvation history has a happy end. Let me anticipate that happiness in my life, Lord.

 

15th
I tell you

Five rackets

The pianist Listz is quoted as saying: “I am the concert.” A little presumptuous. And a lot of truth. Never mind the piece that is played or the piano it is played on. What matters is who plays it and how they play it and what is their mood while they are playing it. If the pianist enjoys the playing, I enjoy the listening.

I like Zubin Mehta specially among the several orchestra conductors I know. Not only for being very good and for being Indian, but for the way he visibly enjoys himself when he conducts, which contagiously make me enjoy myself too.

The Belgian juggler Serge Percelli repeatedly says that for a good show one must not only do things well, but has to be an artist while doing it. He says: “You have to be an artist when you appear in public. It is not enough to do a job well. I could have done the same things ten years ago, but I didn’t enjoy my performances as I do now. I know that the public comes to see something, but above all people come to see somebody who is enjoying himself on the stage.”

He juggled with five tennis rackets. He mastered the act fully. He felt encouraged and went up to six. The act came out perfect, but that night the public remained cold. Why? Because the six rackets in the air had caused him tension and he had not enjoyed the game. He went back to five.

When I taught mathematics I tried to enjoy myself in class. If I enjoyed myself, my students enjoyed themselves too. When I speak in public I try to enjoy myself. If I have a good time of it, they all have. When I write, I also enjoy myself. And if I have not enjoyed myself writing a page, I cross it out. I prefer to be left with five rackets.

Do enjoy yourselves. So that all who deal with you may enjoy themselves too. That is the best bit of service you can render in our troubled world.

Bananas can’t fly

Britain’s TV star, Des O’Connor, titles his biography rather mystifyingly “Bananas can’t fly”. That sounded strange to me as I was going to put the book back in its shelf in a bookshop; but then curiosity got the better of me, and I paged through to find the explanation of the title. I found it. As a very young child he was diagnosed with rickets, and fitted with leg callipers without which, doctors said, he would never be able to walk. But then something happened.

“One day, just after my sixth birthday, I managed to unbuckle the straps on the callipers. Then I held on to the arm of a chair and pulled myself to my feet. My father came into the room at that moment and saw me standing up on my own for the first time without the leg irons.

From then on Dad spent at least an hour every day trying to get me to walk unaided. More often than not I would end up on the lino floor. Sometimes Dad would pretend to fall down as well, and we would just lie there laughing like a couple of giggly kids, but on many occasions the failure of my efforts would leave me crying with frustration.

One evening Dad propped me up a chair, walked a few paces across the room and held out a banana, a rare luxury. I loved bananas. I managed a couple of wobble steps towards it before falling down. Again, he offered me the banana, and again, I forced my legs to carry me a short distance. Once more I ended upon the floor. Dad urged me:

– You can do this. You can walk if you really want to. You can have the banana if you come and get it.
– I can’t get it. Just throw it to me.
– No, no. Can’t do that.
– Why not?
– Because… because… well, because bananas can’t fly.”

After six months he could cross the room unaided. He came to be a good football player. And a most popular TV entertainer.

I bought the book.service you can render in our troubled world.}

The cybernetic generation

The little girl in the cartoon is on the floor drawing doodles on paper, all her fingers and face smeared with the colours of the rainbow; she looks up for a moment and invites her small friend: “Come on, get down and paint with me.” Her small friend answers her haughtily from the high chair on which he is perched, legs hanging down, before the computer: “I only paint with software.”
[“The New Yorker”]

Rice cakes

The Zen master lived in a hut on top of the mountain. In the valley there were two monasteries of Zen nuns, The East Monastery and the West Monastery. The difference between the East and the West nuns was that the East nuns pronounced the deity’s name as Kwan Seum, while the West nuns pronounced it as Kwan Seoon. And they fought about it.

They fought so much that in the end they decided to have recourse to the master on the mountain. He heard them and agreed to come down and tell them his verdict the next day in the morning.

That was the proper thing to do. But the nuns were uneasy. The Eastern nuns thought: “If we lose in spite of being right? Something must be done.” They knew the master on the mountain liked very much rice cakes. They can be prepared very quickly and are delicious. Said and done. The nuns cooked the cakes, put them on a large tray and took them to the master on the mountain. The master was delighted: “I like rice cakes so much! And I never get them here on the mountain. Thank you, thank you.” And there and then he began to eat them.

While he eat, the nuns told him: “We come from the East Monastery. We pronounce the deity’s name as Kwan Seum. That is the true pronunciation, isn’t it?” “Of course, of course”, answered the master between cake and cake. “Who could think otherwise?” The nuns left happy, and the master remained even happier.

The Western nuns were not idle either. They thought: “If we lose in spite of being right? Something must be done.” They knew the master on the mountain liked very much mixed noodles. They take long to prepare but they taste delicious. Said and done. They prepared them with great care, put them in a large bowl and, though it was late already, took them to the master on the mountain. The master was delighted. “I like mixed noodles so much! And I never get them here on the mountain. Thank you, thank you.” And he began to eat them there and then.

While he was eating, the nuns told him: “We come from the West Monastery. We pronounce the deity’s name as Kwan Soon. That is the true pronunciation, isn’t it?” “Of course, of course”, answered the master between bite and bite. “Who could think other wise?” The nuns left happy, and the master remained even happier.

The next day at eleven in the morning five hundred nuns gathered in the Central Hall of Buddha. The master sat on the throne, murmured some prayers, bowed repeatedly, looked at both sides and proclaimed: “The Book of the Rice Cakes” says that the right pronunciation is Kwan Seum; while the Book of the Mixed Noodles says it is Kwan Seoon.”

The nuns started to insult one another saying, “You gave him rice cakes!”, “You gave him mixed noodles!” The master calmed them down and said: “When you pray, pray. When you sing, sing. The pronunciation does not matter. The words do not matter. Do what you do. That is all that matters.” He got down from the throne and went back to the mountain.

[“The Compass of Zen”, Seung Sahn, p.178]

Haiku

“Without an aim
the lemon rind’s aroma
fills the air.”

[“Sweeping Changes”, Gary Thorp, p.85]

You tell me

Someone asks me delicately: “Why is it there are no conversions from Muslims to Christianity?” A Muslim friend enlightened me once on this point. He told me: “You Christians wear your religion in your head. Religion for you is a matter of faith, of believing, of accepting a doctrine. We Muslims wear our religion in our body. Our prayer is posture and sounds, our strength is the group united in prostration in the holy place, our discipline is the fasting during Ramadan, our charity is alms, our aim is Mecca, our ideal is to go there in pilgrimage. All our body in engaged in our religious practices. A change of religion would amount to a change of body. That is not done.” We both agreed that religion has to be first and foremost in our heart. And that there is no question of proselytism but of ecumenism. We want to learn from one another. I have been personally helped by the idea of my Muslim friend. The body is important.

Someone else asks me to define for him the word “delicacy” which he rightly has noticed I often use. I just can say: “To be delicate is to realise that other persons exist… and to act accordingly.” Would that we would always do so.

Psalm

Psalm 78 – The enemy within

O God, the heathen have set foot in your domain!I read a modern danger in the ancient alarm. The heathen have set foot in your domain. The secular mind has gained a foothold in religious circles. Rationalism has infiltrated your Church. Authority is played down, dogma is explained away, traditions are ignored, obedience is minimised. Everything is rationalised, secularised, demythologised. A pagan outlook on religious truth. Reason over faith. Man before God. That is the danger in the religious world today. That is the heathen foothold in the sanctuary of Jerusalem.

And that is the danger in my own life. I live in the midst of the sanctuary, but I am affected by the heathen winds that sweep through it. They all think that way, that is the modern trend, the latest theologians favour that outlook, all scholars take now the liberal interpretation. That is the danger. The assaults from outside the sanctuary are easily rejected because they are recognised for what they are. The cunning insinuations from inside are much more difficult to resist because they look friendly and harmless. Yet their harm is greater as they go unnoticed and strike in the dark.

I want the fullness of the faith, Lord. I want no compromise, no misgivings, no half truths. I want the sanctuary of my soul to be free from any pagan touch, any heathen influence. I want the integrity of your word and the totality of your revelation. I don’t want to jeopardise eternal truths with passing fashions. I want the purity of your sanctuary and the sanctity of your temple. I want the Holy City to remain holy for ever. I want my faith to shine without shadows and without flickers. I want to be modern by being eternal, to be actual by being traditional. I want to know the latest research from the firmness of my permanent convictions. I want fidelity to you, Lord, to rule my mind and my life for ever.

Restore in your Church the firmness of your revelation. Purify our thoughts and strengthen our beliefs. Cleanse your sanctuary and sanctify your city. Illumine the doctrine of your faithful with the brightness of your truth.

Then we your people,
the flock which you shepherd,
will give you thanks for ever
and repeat your praise to every generation.

1st
I tell you

Mass at eleven

The parish priest of Chiloé, the large and beautiful island at the south of Chile, told me his first adventures in his new parish. The mass on Sundays was at 11 o’clock in the morning, and he kept it at that time for the first few weeks. Then he called the community leaders and proposed to them:

– I see that till now, Sunday mass is at 11.
– Yes, Father.
– Would you have any difficulty in keeping mass at 10?
– No, Father.
– Then, next Sunday, will you all come at 10?
– Yes, Father.
– I’ll expect you at 10.
– Yes, Father.

He was ready at 10, but nobody turned up. Neither at 10’30. At 11 everybody was there as usual, and mass was held. The parish priest met with the community leaders at the end and told them:

– I see you prefer mass at 11, as you had before.
– Yes, Father.
– Then, why didn’t you tell me when I asked you?
– Not to annoy you, Father.

The Father was not annoyed. He was learning to know them.

Charlie’s Angels

The film is showing these days in Madrid. “Charlie’s Angels.” The streets are filled with publicity, three girls going full throttle on Star-Wars style motorcycles.

I was walking quietly in the midst of my morning constitutional at 7 o’clock this morning, when three girls on three motorcycles and three helmets have stopped just where I was passing at the moment, they’ve dismounted and have removed their helmets. I haven’t resisted my inner impulse, and looking at them I’ve told them joyfully: “Charlie’s Angels!”

They have laughed heartily while I went on my way, happy with my own mischief. But then I’ve been surprised to hear that they were calling after me: “Sir, wait a moment, please!” And they have told me giggling all the way: “You see, today we three or us are having an important interview for a job, and we’re nervous, and we’d told ourselves that if anything special would happen to us in the morning, that would bring us good luck; and this must be it, isn’t it?” – “Of course!” I’ve answered. “You know that nothing can resist Charlie’s Angels.” One kiss to each, and good luck to you.

I do hope their interview goes well for them. Although, in spite of everything, I’m not going to see the picture. They’ve told me it is not worthwhile. And then, I’ve already kissed the Angels.

Golden rules

Des O’Connor, who holds for forty years running his own TV show in prime time, reflects on his work. And his reflection can be applied to any work:

“I have tried always to abide by a few basic golden rules. When people sit down to watch a show, they don’t want to be insulted, they don’t want to be educated, and they certainly don’t want to be bombarded with bad language or smut. So don’t try to be too clever or too smart. Just be as relaxed as you can and enjoy it. Be yourself, and think of your audience as individuals, because that’s what they are. Think of each person as a friend, not a challenge. If those individuals think you like them, they are more likely to warm to you. I’ve always believed that affection lasts longer than admiration.”
[“Bananas Can’t Fly”, Des O’Connor, p.388]

I add that this holds good for a doctor in his consulting room, for a waiter in a café, for a shopkeeper in their shop, for a lawyer in their office, for a ticket seller at their window, for a writer at their keyboard. We all deal with people, one way or another, and we all can entertain them… or annoy them. The best is to relax and to enjoy. And to treat each person as a person. Everything follows from that.

His father’s son
[José Zorrilla, the most successful playwright in the Spanish language in the XIX century, was always in financial straits in spite of his popularity. Even so, he always showed the utmost honesty and generosity in his dealings, as the following episode in his autobiography shows.]

Father Nebreda was a tall, thin, vigorous priest. I understood he hesitated before he exposed to me the unpleasant matter he had come to settle with me. To spare him I placed all my cards on the table and told him: “I will accept, without any discussion or restriction, all the debts my late father incurred during his lifetime. Be then, pray, as clear as I am, and we’ll spare both time and words.”

The expression of his face clearly reflected the astonishment my frank declaration had caused him; and – may God forgive him! – fearing still some ambush from this bad pupil of the Jesuits, he told me:

– Allow me to let you know what it is all about.
– It is about my father’s good name, and I have no right, after his death no more than during his life, to judge his actions; I accept them all as good, and take upon myself whatever responsibilities may derive from them. About my father I only know that I am his son, and between me and my father I accept only God as a judge.

Tears appeared in Nebreda’s eyes, and my words turned the suspecting creditor into a sincere friend. Opening his arms towards me he said, deeply touched:

– I see I know more about your father and his affairs…
– How much does my father owe the Indiana of Covarrubias, whose administrator you are?
– So much…, and with the document that maybe…
– Your document is fine with me.
– It is ready with me.
– Since we are, then, no more creditor and debtor, let us talk as friends and, please, accept my hospitality for a few days.

The stalwart priest accepted my invitation, and we went into details.

[José Zorrilla, “Recuerdos del tiempo viejo”, p.231]

The theology of clay

“Archaeologists say that ancient Hindus made images of their gods only out of clay, never in stone or marble. The clay does not last long, and the image has to be replaced after some time by a new one. Maybe this conception survives in the yearly ceremony we can watch in Mumbai on the feast of Ganesh Chaturthi, when after worshipping the clay images of the god Ganpati, they are thrown into the sea in a solemn procession, and there they sink, dissolve and disappear. And then a new image is made for the next year.

The theology of clay has much to teach us. A single image, however beautiful it may be, cannot capture God’s infinite nature. It is good and proper to keep the image and to venerate it for a time, but it is equally good and proper to let it dissolve and give way to another image, another aspect, another face of the divinity that we never exhaust with our sketches. We have to let God change, to let him show within the bounds of our shapes something of the boundlessness of his divinity. We have to let ourselves advance in the worshipful understanding of God, that will lead us each time to a new vision and a fresh love.

The secret to advance in the knowledge of God is to be ready to take each year to the sea the image of the previous year.”

[From my book, “El tambor de la vida”, p.11]

A story for thought

– What do you want?
– I want to see the master. He’s called me.
– You are coming in answer to an advertisement, is that so?
– Yes, an advertisement that called for me.
– Whom shall I introduce?
– Tell him I am Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The woman went in leaving the door ajar. The man heard the steps on the corridor and the knocking on a door.

– There is a man here who wants to talk with you.
– Who is he?
– He says he is Our Lord Jesus Christ.
– I don’t know him… Yes, I know… wait… tell him to come in.
– Have you come in answer to the advertisement where I asked for a model for the Christ in my picture ‘Our Lord Has Come Back to the World’?
– Yes, sir.
– And do you think that you, with that crew-cut and that shaved face fit into my picture? Or do you think that it is enough to be hungry, to look emaciated, to have languid and dreamy eyes? Have you come here drawn only by your own need? Stupid man! Why have you cut your hair and shaved your beard?
– I didn’t do it. They did it.
– They? Who?
– My guardians. They caught me. They told me I was a vagrant. They shaved my head and cut my beard. And they told me that if they would catch me again, they would throw me I don’t know where. It was then that a companion told me you wanted to talk with Our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why I came.
– But why should you come?
– Because… you know?… I am he.
– What? You are Our Lord Jesus Christ in person?
– Yes, I am, even if you don’t believe it. The same thing happened the other time. In Judea very few believed in me too. That’s why they got hold of me and they crucified me. But I’ve already forgiven them. And I’ve asked My Father to let me come again.
– Please, go on…
– My Father did not want to allow me to come. He told me: “No, My Son, no. It is useless, as it was on the other occasion. And this time they’ll treat you worse. Instead of nailing you to the cross, you’ll have to drag it your whole life long. You’ll suffer torture, hunger, jail. No, no. I cannot allow that.” But I explained to him: “It was you fault, Father, because you made me be born without sin, did not allow me to run the common risks of men, and gave me the power to make miracles. If I did not feel to be equal to them, how could I redeem them?”
– And your Mother? Our Lady?
– Our Lady did weep as all mother do when their children depart on some dangerous adventure. But she did not try to discourage me, on the contrary, she told me: “Go, Son, it is your duty! A task has to be completed, and you left yours half way. I’ll always be by your side!”

The painter went slowly to his easel and began to paint. When he finished his work and he looked up from the picture, he saw nobody in the room.

[“Resurrección” by Domingos Monteiro in “Antología del cuento portugués”, p.247, abridged.]

You tell me

Someone asks me delicately: “Why is it there are no conversions from Muslims to Christianity?” A Muslim friend enlightened me once on this point. He told me: “You Christians wear your religion in your head. Religion for you is a matter of faith, of believing, of accepting a doctrine. We Muslims wear our religion in our body. Our prayer is posture and sounds, our strength is the group united in prostration in the holy place, our discipline is the fasting during Ramadan, our charity is alms, our aim is Mecca, our ideal is to go there in pilgrimage. All our body in engaged in our religious practices. A change of religion would amount to a change of body. That is not done.” We both agreed that religion has to be first and foremost in our heart. And that there is no question of proselytism but of ecumenism. We want to learn from one another. I have been personally helped by the idea of my Muslim friend. The body is important.

Someone else asks me to define for him the word “delicacy” which he rightly has noticed I often use. I just can say: “To be delicate is to realise that other persons exist… and to act accordingly.” Would that we would always do so.

Psalm

Psalm 79 – Prayer for the Church

I feel confidence, Lord, as I see I can address you today in the very words you inspired ages ago, and I can say for your Church today the prayer your psalmist said for your people when your word was made Scripture and every poet was a prophet.

I know the image of the vine and its branches and the wall round it and the damage done to that wall and its restoration at your hands. I identify with every word, with every mood, and I pray for your vine today in words which are familiar to you ever since your people was first called your people.

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out nations and planted it;
you cleared the ground before it
so that it made good roots and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
and its branches were like those of mighty cedars.
It put out boughs all the way to the Sea,
and its shoots as far as the River.

Why have you broken down the wall round it
so that every passer-by can pluck its fruit?
The wild boar from the thickets gnaws it,
and swarming insects from the fields feed on it.

O God of Hosts,
once more look down from heaven,
take thought of his vine and tend it,
this stock that your right hand has planted.
Let them that set fire to it or cut it down
perish before your angry face.
Let your hand rest upon the man at your right side,
the man whom you have made strong for your service.
We have not turned back from you,
so grant us new life,
and we will invoke you by name.The vine, the boughs, the mountains, the wall. The time of trial, and the man of your choice. Terms of yesterday for realities of today. You inspired the prayer, Lord, and you had it preserved that I could bring it before you today. You like to listen to those words because you inspired them, and if you like to listen it is because you want to act accordingly and do in effect what you move us to ask you in prayer. With that confidence I pray, and I enjoy doubly this prayer in which I can literally use inspired words of another age to urge vital needs of my present day.

Lord God of Hosts,
restore us;
make your face shine upon us
that we may be saved.

1st
I tell you

Three cellulars

He told me there were three cellular phones in his house. Three persons needed them wherever they could be during the day. What happens when there are three persons and three cellulars is that, at times, one takes up the wrong phone, so that any call to that person reaches the other person, which may create complications. It also can happen that some cellular owner has to leave the house and does not find anywhere there phone. This can happen in a large house with many rooms and many pieces of furniture. But in that house they have found a brilliant method to solve this problem at once. They ring the slippery phone from another phone, and then they carefully listen to hear where the missing phone is ringing from. It is enough to pinpoint the room, rush towards it, follow the sound, find the drawer, open it, grab the gadget, cancel the call and go out cheerfully holding the cellular in the hand. That is the usefulness of having three cellulars at home. There is always at least one from where to call.

The Zen flute

“I kept this frivolous lifestyle for a few years. High-paid job with company car, own flat in the city close to park and river, vintage Jaguar Mk.II, two top London nightclub memberships. Then one day my bulletproofing started to rail me. In retrospect, this was inevitable. The mind can only take so much abuse; then it starts distorting and hungering for something more meaningful.

The first clue that something was out of balance came when I began catching revealing glimpses of myself and my friends. Same script! Boring! Inauthentic! I was beginning to realise my life was a sham, but I hadn’t a clue what an “authentic” life was. How would I know authentic when I say it?

I started seeing that there wasn’t a shred of individuality among us. We’d become clones of one another. Our lives had been shaped by society, and by the culture we’d been brought up in. We never questioned it.

One night these unwanted feelings of dissociation became so strong that I had to leave a nightclub. I remember wading through the crowds in search of oxygen. Once outside, I began walking distractedly down Oxford Street. Walking always helped. Within an hour I entered the blackness of Hyde Park. I headed through the trees, and after a few minutes came to a familiar open area. The last time I’d been here was seven long years ago, on July 5, 1969. There were thousands of people here that day. It was hot and I was sprawled out on the grass along with my fiancée. We’d all gathered to see the Rolling Stones. The concert was a memorial to the recently drowned Brian Jones. Mick Jagger, dressed all in white, read a poem called Adonais by Shelley and released thousands of white butterflies. It was a brilliant day.

Now, very much alone in the eerie darkness, I stood and listened to the distant sounds of the traffic speeding down Park Lane and looked out at the surrounding crown of city lights.

Seeing the shallowness of my life, I felt choked by sadness and an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. There had to be more.

I had no great epiphany that night. Only the overflowing of years of repressed feelings, dammed up behind what I now saw as an artificial existence. Having spent years carefully filling every gap and hole in my life, I now found myself utterly and totally empty. It was time for change, but change to what?”

[Ray Brooks, who wrote that deep experience, found the “authenticity” he was looking for in learning to play the shakuhachi, which is the Japanese Zen flute. His teacher gave him the advice: “Learn to listen with your whole being. Listening is the gateway to liberation.” (p. 66) This is the summary of the whole lesson of life: “Zen is just another word for living everyday life in this moment.” (p. 57)]

To the summit

Monsoon winds and rains flayed the mountain summit. Nobody braved the ascent except an old woman precariously leaning on her walking stick. A shepherd saw her from her hut on the slope of the mountain and told her: “You will not be able to reach the summit in this storm.” She answered without slowing down: “My hear has been there all my life. Now I’m only bringing my body to join my hear. That is easy.”

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be too.” (Matthew 6, 21)

Swearing in a low voice

“In the office of the famous cinema director Samuel Goldwyn, the rows with his top director, William Wyler, were so noisy that Merritt Hulbert, the distinguished head of Goldwin” story department, asked to have his office moved to another floor. ‘Quiet story conferences make quiet pictures,’ retorted Goldwyn firmly, but eventually he and Wyler arranged a truce.

‘Look, Willie’, he said, ‘from now on when we meet, we each put a hundred-dollar bill on my desk and the first one to shout loses his money.’ ‘Okay’, said Wyler.

As a result, Hulbert stayed on in his office while, next door, appalling insults were traded in whispers.”
[David Niven, Bring on the Empty Horses, p. 136]

[Commentary: Word and voice should coincide. No “quiet” insults.]

Punctuality

“God winds up our sundials.” [Lichtemberg]

The blessing of the diamond

A poor man found some shining object on the road; he picked it up, washed it, showed it to everybody in the market place, and all told him he was now rich, he had found a valuable diamond, and if he sold it he could live the rest of his life on the sum he would get.

Yet he postponed the sale of the diamond, but he had no problem as everybody was ready to advance money to him or to sell to him any goods on credit, as all wanted to get a good client for the future. Thus he bought a house, started a business, grew richer and created a prosperous family.

He revealed his secret on his death bed. He had lost the diamond the very same they he found it, after he had shown it to everybody. But in fact it is the same to have a diamond or to get everybody to believe you have a diamond.

The disquieting thought is that anybody can behave as though they possessed a diamond.

Good business

A Jew goes to see a friend in his shop and asks him:

– Please, lend me just now twenty thousand francs in cash.
– Twenty thousand franks?
– Yes, twenty thousand. I’ll give them back to you within ten minutes plus five hundred franks as interest.
– In ten minutes you won’t be able to get too far. Why, you won’t even have time to go out of the shop.
– I don’t intend going out of the shop.

The shopkeeper agrees and lends his friend twenty thousand franks in banknotes. The friend puts the notes in his pocket and goes straight to the phone. He dials a number, talks for a few minutes with an acquaintance and, very pleased, sets down the phone.

– I’ve just now got a splendid contract! – he says while he gives back the twenty thousand franks with the interest.
– But, why did you need such an amount of money if you were just making a phone call? – asks the amazed shopkeeper.
– Because, when you are discussing a business deal, one feels different with money in one’s pocket.

[Alejandro Jodoroswsky, La alegría de los cuentos, p. 112]

[Which comes to the same as the diamond.]

Too bad

“My dear”, Mrs. Marshall said to Mrs. Ames, “I never was so surprised in my life. Never in my life. We were going to have dinner with them last Tuesday night, and then I got this letter from Grace from this little place up in Connecticut, saying she was going to be up there she didn’t know how long, and she thought, when she came back, she’d probably take just one big room with a kitchenette. Ernest was living down at the club, she said.”
“But what did they do about their apartment?” Mrs. Ames’s voice was high with anxiety.
“Why, it seems his sister took it, furnished and all.”
“Doesn’t she feel terribly about it?”
“Oh – terribly. My dear, think how everybody that knew them feels. Think how I feel. I don’t know when I’ve had a thing depress me more. If it had been anybody but the Weldons!”
“That’s what I say.”
“That’s what everybody says. To think of the Weldons separating! Why, I always used to say to Jim. ‘Well, there’s one happily married couple, anyway,’ I used to say, ‘so congenial, and with that nice apartment, and all.’ And then, right out of a clear sky, they go and separate. I simply can’t understand what on earth made them do it. It just seems too awful!”
“Yes, it always seems too bad, a thing like that does. It’s too bad.”

*

Mrs. Ernest Weldon wandered about the orderly living-room, giving it some of those little feminine touches. She felt suddenly weary. She lay down on the davenport, and pressed her thin hand against her dull brown hair.

Mr Weldon came down the street, bent almost double in his battle with the wind from the river. He did not much like their apartment, even when he reached it. As soon as he had seen that dining-room, he had realised that they must always breakfast by artificial light – a thing he hated. Mrs. Weldon opened the door at his ring.
“Well!” she said, cheerily.
They smiled brightly at each other.
“Hel-lo”, he said. “Well! You home?”
They kissed, slightly.
“Well, what have you been doing with yourself today?” he inquired.
She had been expecting the question. She had planned before he came it, how she would tell him all the little events of her day – how the woman in the grocer’s shop had had an argument with the cashier, and how Delia had tried out a new salad for lunch with but moderate success, and how Alice Marshall had come to tea and it was quite true that Norma Matthews was going to have another baby. But now, as she considered it, it seemed to her a long, dull story. She had not the energy to begin it. And he was already smoothing out his paper.
“Oh, nothing”, she said, with a gay little laugh. “Did you have a nice day?”
“Why – ” he began. He had had some idea of telling her how he had finally put through that Detroit thing, and how tickled J.G. had seemed to be about it. But his interest waned, even as he started to speak. Besides, she was engrossed in breaking off a loose thread from the wool fringe on one of the pillows beside her.
“Oh, pretty fair”, he said.
“Tired?” she asked.
“Not so much”, he answered. “Why – want to do anything tonight?”
“Why, not unless you do”, she said brightly. “Whatever you say.”
“Whatever you say”, he corrected her.
The subject closed. There was a third exchange of smiles, and then he hid most of himself behind his paper.

“Dinner, Ern”, cried Mrs. Weldon gaily, getting up.
“Oh, tomato soup, eh?” he said.
“Yes”, she answered. “You like it, don’t you?”
“Who – me?” he said. “Oh, yes. Yes, indeed.”
She smiled at him.
“Yes, I thought you liked it”, she said.
“You like it, too, don’t you?” he inquired.
“Oh, yes”, she assured him. “Yes, I like it ever so much. I’m awfully fond of tomato soup.”
“Yes”, he said, “there is nothing much better than tomato soup on a cold night.”
She nodded.
“I think it’s nice, too”, she confided.
They had had tomato soup for dinner probably three times a month during their married life. What did married people talk about, anyway, when they were alone together?

They returned to the living-room, and Mr. Weldon again eased himself down into his chair, reaching for the second paper.
“Quite sure there isn’t anything you’d like to do tonight?” he asked solicitously. “Like to go to the movies or anything?”
“Oh, no”, she said. “Unless there’s something you want to do.”
“No, no”, he answered. “I just thought maybe you wanted to.”
“Not unless you do”, she said.
In a year, three hundred of their evenings were like this. Seven times three hundred is more than two thousand.

*

“My dear”, Mrs. Ames said to Mrs. Marshall, “don’t you really think that there must have been some other woman?”
“Oh, I simply couldn’t think is was anything like that”, said Mrs. Marshall. “Not Ernest Weldon. So devoted…”
I don’t suppose”, began Mrs Ames, and hesitated. “I don’t suppose that Grace – that there was ever anyone – or anything like that?”
“Oh, Heavens, no”, cried Mrs. Marshall. “Grace Weldon just gave her whole life to that man. I simply can’t understand it. They got along so beautifully together – why, it just seems as if they must have been crazy to go and do a thing like this. Well, I can’t begin to tell you how blue it’s made me. It seems so awful!”
“Yes”, said Mrs. Ames, “it certainly is too bad.”

[Dorothy Parker, “Complete Stories”, p. 13. Abridged.]

You tell me

Anaines Rodriguez sends me this writing by Eduardo Galeano on a theme that touches all of us.

“Those who have a job are afraid of losing it; those who have no job are afraid of never having a job.

Those that are not afraid of hunger, are afraid of food.

Motorists are afraid to walk, and pedestrians are afraid to be run over by a car.

Democracy is afraid of remembering, and language is afraid of speaking out.

Civilians are afraid of the military; the military are afraid of there not being sufficient weapons; weapons are afraid of there not being sufficient wars.

This is the time of fear.

Fear of the woman before the violence of the man, and fear of the man before a fearless woman.

Fear of thieves, fear of the police.

Fear of a door without a lock, of time without watches, of a child without television.

Fear of the night without pills to sleep, and fear of the day without pills to wake up.

Fear of a crowd, fear of solitude, fear of what went before, fear of what may be ahead.

Fear of dying, fear of living.”

Psalm

Psalm 80 – Remember your liberation

“I am the Lord your God
who brought you up from Egypt.”
A people that forgets its origins, loses its identity. That is why God’s great commandment to Israel is: Remember Egypt! Only then will you remember the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and you will be his people and he will be your God.

What makes us a people is our common origin in Christ. Our liberation, our redemption. We too were slaves, though we do not like to remember that. We take for granted our independence and our freedom, our human progress and social welfare, we take all that as normal and natural and due to us, and in the process we lose the common bonds that bind us to each other and to God. We have forgotten Egypt, and we have ceased to be a people.

“This is a law for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob,
laid as a solemn charge on Joseph
when he came out of Egypt.”

Remember your past, remember your origins, remember your liberation. Remember Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Mount Calvary. Remember, deep in your personal history, your own bondage under passions and vices and sin. Personal slavery and universal captivity from which we were redeemed by the salvific action that made us one in Christ. That is our common root, our single history, our radical unity. Memory makes us one, while forgetfulness scatters us into separate groups and opposed factions. A person without a memory is no more a person. A people without a history is no more a people.

Give me the grace of memory, Lord, Make me recall, make me remember, make me be mindful. Let me have always before my eyes the poverty of my lowliness and the splendour of your redemption. You broke my chains, you tamed my vices you healed my wounds, you uplifted my spirits. You gave me new life, Lord, and in that new life is expressed my new identity as a member of your chosen people. I too have come out of Egypt, and I have not come out alone, but in the midst of a joyous crowd that felt the same liberation because they all had been under the same yoke.

To be truly myself I want to feel a member of your people. I accept your commandment to remember, and I ask for the grace to fulfil it so as to build the hopes of my future on the firmness of my past. I am one with your people, one in liberation, one in hope, and one in the end in fulfilment for ever.

Yes, you are the Lord my God who has brought me out of Egypt.

 

15th
I tell you

The paper was put to good use

I was walking along the street as a young boy who was distributing some propaganda leaflets offered me one of them. My first instinct was to ignore him and walk past. I was not interested in the gymnasium, the pizzeria, the school of languages advertised in those leaflets. Why, then, to take the leaflet?

But then I looked at his face. He looked emaciated, tired, sad. I felt pity on the boy. He must have come from a far-away country, must be looking for a job which he would not easily find as he was young, without experience, without papers, and someone must have given him a few euros to distribute those leaflets.

He was doing his job conscientiously. He did not throw away the leaflets, did not gave them to anyone, did not waste them. He paid attention, entreated, gave them out with care. His job was to give out the leaflets, and he did it well. Then I thought that if his job was to give out the leaflets, the way I could help him was to take one of them myself. I put out my hand and took one.

As I took it, I looked at his face. He also looked up at me and smiled. He said, “Thank you, sir”. Then he went on distributing leaflets, and I went my way. Before that, I stopped for a moment, and at the back of the paper he had given me I briefly jotted down this note before I cold forget it. The paper was put to good use, after all.

“I can see Mummy’s eye.”
[The British actor David Niven tells in his autobiography his sorrow at the death of his wife in the midst of all his Hollywood success. They were at a party in a friend’s house when she opened a door in the dark thinking it was a coat closet, but it was the door to a cellar where she fell down a dozen steps. She died in hospital. She was 25 and had given him two children.]

“Somehow the dreadful days dragged by – somehow into weeks and months. Friends tried valiantly to cushion the despair, and I was infinitely lucky to have them. I went back to work at Universal Studios. Even so, after work I walked for hours alone on the darkened beach, hoping, perhaps, that a merciful tidal wave might sweep out of the Pacific. Then I went to bed to toss in torment till dawn when exhaustion took over. A couple of hours of deep sleep would be brutally ended by an alarm clock, and smashing down once more came the awful realisation that it had not been a dream.

Christmas alone with the children was something I had dreaded. Although they never ceased asking others when their mother was coming back, some extraordinary radar system prevented them from ever mentioning her to me. I knew one day they would ask me the direct question, so until then I resolved not to broach the subject.

On Christmas Eve, with the lighted tree in the window behind me and a mountain of gaily wrapped presents from kind and even anxious friends beneath it, I was sitting on the patio steps swept suddenly by a wave of despair. A little arm went round my neck: they both stood there hand-in-hand.

‘Are you very lonely?’ asked the eldest, and when I just nodded, he said, ‘Mummy’s never coming back, is she?’
‘No, she’s not,’ I said.
‘Has she gone up to Heaven?’
‘Yes, that’s right… she’s gone to Heaven.’

The evening star was very bright over the distant ocean. He looked up.
‘I can see Mummy’s eye,’ he said.”

[David Niven, “The Moon’s a Balloon”, p. 269]

Learn to listen
[The same David Niven handles down the best advice he says he got in all his career as an actor. None other than Charles Chaplin gave it to him after seeing his first film. It is an advice for life, too.]

‘What did you think, Mr. Chaplin?’
His answer constituted the greatest advice to any beginner in my profession.
‘Don’t be like the majority of actors…, don’t just stand around waiting your turn to speak – learn to listen.’

Listening to incense
[“Listening to Incense” is the surprising title of a chapter in the book “Blowing Zen” by Ray Brooks. It happens to be an art by itself in Japan, the koh-do or “the way of incense”. This is how a Japanese friend explained to him the mysteries of incense:]

“The purifying smoke and fragrance of the incense have always been an important part of all Buddhist rituals. We Japanese believe that the fragrance will summon the Buddha within us, and that the smoke of the incense will carry our prayers to heaven.

Not surprisingly it was the nobility of Japan who first started using incense for non religious purposes. They started developing subtle new fragrances and searched for rare types of aromatic woods. They cleverly began scenting their clothes and homes with it, and even invented a game where several kinds of incense were burned and people gathered to enjoy the scents and see who could correctly guess the different fragrances.

My mother burned incense daily ever since I can remember, and she would ask me each day which type of incense was burning. It made my nose quite sensitive. By the time I entered my teenage years, I was able to distinguish the delicate differences of aromas. Incense has quite an interesting history.” (p. 122)

The Japanese and the French

“The eye listens; the voice sees.” (Paul Claudel)

Let him organise it
[Ray Brooks quotes also the following story, p. 130,]

The Devil and his advocate were walking aimlessly along the road, when, suddenly, they came across a man preaching to a crowd. The advocate turned to the Devil and said, “Listen to him. He’s telling them he’s found truth. Let’s get him!” “No, no, no”, replied the Devil laughing. “Leave him. Let him organise it.”

Safety in the home

“Crush down your pearls, and the thieves will disappear.” (Chuang Tzu)

Why haven’t you written?

That night he wrote a letter to his wife. I’m not coming back. I have gone too far away from you. Of course I am sorry, and you have been such a good wife. But these long journeys in these exacting winters have done away with everything between us.

It went on for two more pages. When he had finished he put it in an airmail envelope, stamped it, went out again and walked through the ringing of his own footsteps in the terrible cold to where he remembered there was a mail box. Like all the others in the post-office strike the mouth was sealed over by some kind of gummed tape. He slit it with a piece of broken bottle he found in the gutter, and pushed the letter in.

He was well aware of the chaos of the postal strike. His letter would never get to England. Why, he had broken into the mail box, and the boxes were not being cleared.

He received a letter from his wife in London a fortnight old. Why haven’t you written? Send at least a postcard to your mother! A few lines! How can I help getting worried? There must have been later letters that hadn’t turned up. He would like to leave by the end of the week, be home in England for the weekend, after all, after six weeks’ absence. He forced himself not to think about the letter.

He took the plane from Chicago late on Friday afternoon, and by midnight was in early-morning London. No school on Saturdays, and his wife was there with the children at Heathrow. The children were overcome with embarrassment by the eternal ten yards he had to walk towards them, and then flung themselves excitedly at him. His wife hugged his arm and pressed her cheek against that coat-sleeve a moment. No letter, of course; he saw that at once.

He watched for the postman; sometimes woke up at night in a state of alarm. He even arranged, that first week, to work at home – getting his reports into shape. But there was nothing. For the second week, when he was keeping normal office hours, he read her face every evening when he came home; again, nothing. Heaven knows how she interpreted the way he looked at her; he could catch her full in the eyes, by mistake, now and them, and she would have a special slow smile, colouring up to her scrubbed little ear-lobes, the sort of smile you get from a girl who catches you looking at her across a bar. He was so appalled by that smile that he came home with a bunch of flowers. She embraced him rocking gently back and forth with him as they had done years ago. He thought how she was still pretty, quite young.

His anxiety for the letter slowly began to be replaced by confidence: it would not come. Perhaps he had been very drunk after all; perhaps the mail box was a permanently disused one, or the letter hadn’t really gone through the slot but fallen into the snow, and the thin sheets of paper had turned to pulp. He was safe. It was a good thing he had never told the other woman. He took the children to the Motor Show, he got good seats for his wife, his mother and himself for a good play; then he felt terribly depressed now that he was no longer worried about the letter.

One morning just over a month after he had returned, his wife picked up the post from the floor and saw a letter in her husband’s handwriting. It had been date-stamped and re-date-stamped and was apparently about six weeks old. She read the letter through. And again. It was a perfectly calm and reasonable and factual letter saying that he would not return. She put it back in the creased and stained envelope and tore it up, and then she went out at the gate and wandered down to the bus stop, where there was lamp-post bin, and dropped the bits of paper into its square mouth among the used tickets.

[Nadine Gordimer, Why Haven’t You Written?, p. 220. Shortened.]

You tell me

Marta D. Ojeda sends me this anecdote.

A blind man was sitting on the street, a cap by his feet and a piece of wood with these words written on it in white chalk: HELP ME, PLEASE. I AM BLIND.

A creative publicist who passed by stopped for a moment and noticed that there were few coins in the cap. Without asking any permission he took the board, wiped it clean and wrote another wording in chalk. He replaced it at the feet of the blind man and left. In the evening the publicist passed again in from of the blind beggar and saw his cap filled with coins and bank-notes.

The blind man recognised his steps and asked him what had he written on his board. The publicist answered him: “Nothing that is not as true as your statement, but in different words.” Then he smiled and went his way.

The blind man never knew it, but his new board said: TODAY IS SPRING, AND I CANNOT SEE IT.

Creativity can change matters.

Psalm

Psalm 81 – Judge of judges

Justice on earth is not justice any more, Lord. Men and women have corrupted their ways, and those who had to take your place to settle disputes and bring peace among their fellow humans, have betrayed their trust and have yielded to the common tide of self-interest before impartial justice. The courts of liberation have at times become the quarters of oppression. The poor seek redress in the halls of justice, and their burden increases when they seek to be delivered from it. Humankind suffers from lack of honesty in those who should exhibit it most.

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show favour to the wicked?
You ought to give judgement for the weak and the orphan,
and see right done to the destitute and downtrodden;
you ought to rescue the weak and the poor,
and save them from the clutches of wicked men.
But you know nothing, you understand nothing,
you walk in the dark while earth’s foundations are giving way.”
For the sake of the oppressed I pray for justice, Lord. Give courage to your judges, make them recognise innocence and denounce guilt, and deliver their sentence without fear. Make them give confidence to your people and kindle a ray of hope in a society that has lost its sense of fairness an equity. Let there be justice on earth, as a sign and pledge of your divine justice in heaven.

“Arise, O God, and judge the earth;
for you pass all nations through your sieve.”

 1st
I tell you

Kidnapping the “I”

What have these expressions in common?
I don’t like to drive in the city, because if you are not careful, they fine you.
With so many options one doesn’t know what to do.
What did daddy tell you?
What do you know!

They have this in common, that, while it is the first person singular that speaks in all of them, it doesn’t appear in any. The first should say: “I don’t like to drive in the city, because if I’m not careful, they fine me.” But I don’t want to contemplate carelessness in my own case, and so I pass it on to my partner: “If you are not careful, they fine you.” The last sentence uses the same trick. It should say, “What do I know!”, but instead of confessing my own ignorance, I put it down to you: “What do you know!”

The second sentence escapes from the “I” to the “one”. Instead of confessing my own confusion and saying, “With so many options I don’t know what to do”, I dodge again and take refuge in the impersonal: “One doesn’t know what to do.”

In the third sentence it is the father that is talking to the son, but in order to reinforce his authority he doesn’t say, “What did I tell you?” but, “What did daddy tell you?” Kings and popes also have recourse to “the royal we” for a greater impression.

We believe all this weakens the I. The language one uses betrays one’s personality. If you are not careful, you can do harm to yourself.

The Great Lady of the Chimps
[Jane Goodall has received this year the Principe de Asturias Prize for her lifelong work with chimpanzees in Africa, which interests us all as our DNA is the same as theirs except for a barely one per cent. What is not so well-known is the mystical side of her personality. She speaks about it herself in her autobiography, “Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey”, where she intertwines her jungle adventures with her “spiritual journey”. Here is a taste of her experiences.]

“Many years ago, in the spring of 1974, I visited the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. There were not many people, and there was a great peace inside. I silently admired the great rose window which shone in the morning sun. Suddenly the whole cathedral was filled with music: the magnificent chords in an organ that was beginning to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. That overture had always fascinated me, and now in the cathedral, filling up all its vastness, I felt as though it were penetrating and taking possession of my whole being. The music itself seemed to be alive.

That moment, a moment of eternity captured in an instant, was perhaps the closest I’ve ever been to the experience of an ecstasy, the ecstasy of the mystic. It was hard to believe that that moment of time could be the result of the random dance of particles of primeval dust. Since I cannot believe that all that could be due to chance, I must admit anti-chance. And, consequently, I must admit the existence of a power that guides the universe, that is, I must believe in God. (p. 11)

It is possible that my Notre-Dame experience was a kind of a call to action. I believe that I heard, in a version adapted to mortal ears, God’s own voice. I did no hear any word, only the sound. Words or no words, the experience was overwhelming. When I look back, the Notre-Dame experience appears to me as a milestone along my way. (p. 103)

That moment of ecstasy in the cathedral has always been present within me, in the deepest part of my being. (p. 246)

Is it arrogant, perhaps presumptuous, to think that I may have heard God’s own Voice? Not at all. We all hear it, we all hear that little voice which we know so well, telling us what we should do. This is, I believe, the Voice of God. My experience in the Notre-Dame cathedral was overpowering and greatly revealing. It is that silent little voice that I now hear and that invites me to share my life with others through the writing of this book.” (p. 247)

Universal language

“I remember one day in particular – writes the Great Dame of the Chimps in the same book – and I do so with an almost reverential feeling. I was lying on my back, between the leaves and branches of the tropical forest. Up there, at a certain height, the chimpanzee I had called Greybeard was eating figs. One feels transported in time, maybe to the world of one’s own childhood, when everything around is natural and full of marvellous things.

What happened afterwards is even today, almost forty years later, as alive in my memory as it was when it happened. While Greybeard and I were sitting there, I saw on the ground the ripe read fruit of an oil palm tree. I stretched out my arm and offered it to him on the palm of my hand. He looked at me and stretched himself out to catch it. He then dropped it, but he held my hand softly. No words were needed to understand his quieting message: he did not want the fruit, but he had understood my motivation and knew that my intentions were good. Even today do I remember the gentle pressure of his fingers. We had communicated in a language much older than words, a language that united our respective worlds. A great emotion took hold of me. I remained silent, accompanied by the murmur of the waters, holding on to that experience that it might enter my heart for ever.” (p. 89)

The she-chimp expert in “human” relations
[This is the most amusing passage in the whole book:]

“A she chimp who lived in the midst of a large captive group in a Holland zoo came to be – to the astonishment of all and sundry – a real expert in reestablishing peaceful relationships. Whenever two adult males would sit down all tense after a conflict, and they avoided looking at one-another, an evident tension run through the whole group. This old female then would start to debug one of the two rivals, and very slowly would approach the other without letting go of the first. She then would stop debugging the first, and start her operation on the second. After a while the two males were so close to each other that both reacted and simultaneously started grooming and debugging the old female. When, at a given moment, she was all that stood in between them, she started to get away very gently, and then the two males, calmed down by the grooming and debugging session, and without any of the two having to be the first in breaking the ice, began to debug one another.” (p. 141)

[Bugs, after all, can be put to a good use.]

You tell me

You haven’t told me anything special, but there’s something rather amusing that has happened again. Someone has sent me a story for me to put up here. I began to read the story, and little by little – as the story was a long one – I began to notice something strange. The story sounded familiar. Suddenly I realised why: It was my own story! It was copied, word by word, from a book of mine. Someone had taken it bodily from there, had sent it to someone else without changing a word and without quoting the source, and this second person was resending it to me with love and innocence, hoping I would like it. Of course I liked it!

Psalm

Psalm 82 – God, don’t keep silent!

“God, don’t keep silent!
Don’t be still, God, don’t keep quiet!”
You are an active God, Lord, the way I know you from the days of creation to the care of your people and your walking with them on earth and inspiring them through your Spirit in the initiative of your directives and the power of your help. You were cloud and column of fire, you were storm and wind, you opened up seas and brought down walls, you led armies and won battles, you called prophets and ruled kingdoms, you inspired virtue and made martyrdom possible. Yours was the greatest power in the world, Lord, and men and women knew it and acknowledged it with awe.

Now, on the contrary, you seem to keep quiet. The world goes round by itself, and your presence is not felt. People do what they please, and nations go their own way without any reference to you. And you keep quiet. No bright cloud and no column of fire are to be seen now. No trumpets of Jericho and no winds of Pentecost. You do not count, you are ignored, you are silent. Have you given us up, Lord?

And when I think of my own life, I find the same situation. There was a time when I felt your presence and experienced your power. You spoke to me, you inspired me, you led me. It was the enthusiasm of my youth and the fervour of my growing years, but you were to me as real as my closest friend and you took part in my plans and my decisions, in my joys and in my sorrows, with a daily realism of faith and experience. Now for a long time you are silent. I don’t hear your voice, I don’t feel your presence. You are just absent from my life, and I go on, yes, doing the things I always did and believing the things I always believed, but out of habit, out of routine, without conviction and without zest. When I speak or experiencing you I speak of the past, when I extol your graces and your power, I speak from memory. You have faded from my experience, you are silent in my life.

Speak again, O Lord. Make yourself again actual and real to me and to all men and women who love your coming. Take your rightful place in the world you have created and in my heart which is still yours. Silence those who ignore you, discount you, neglect you. Break your silence and let the world know that you are here and you are in charge.

Let them learn that you alone are Lord,
God Most High over all the earth.

 

15th
I tell you

New year in India
[Some thoughts on the Indian New Year which this year falls on October 24th. I’ve written them for the Indian Jesuit magazine JIVAN.]

Diwali is five days. Dhanteras, Kalichaudas, Diwali, Bestu Varash, Bhaibij. That is, Rich Thirteenth, Dark Fourteenth, The Row of Lights, The New Year, Brother on the Second. The new year begins appropriately with the new moon after the monsoon blessings, to grow with it from darkness to light in joy and in hope.

The first day is in honour of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and of the tools with which we create it. The farmer worships their bullocks and plow, the carpenter their hammer and saw, the cook their pots, and the businessman their account books. For us this is the day to offer puja to our computer, to garland it, wave our arti in front of it, mark it with the tilak, and do a deep namaskar to it after caressing the monitor, the CPU, the keyboard and the mouse in loving and respectful gesture. It is the best antivirus for the whole year.

The second day remembers Yama, the god of death. It integrates the dark side of things into the totality of existence, obstacles into success, death into life, thus allaying suffering and softening setbacks. Any hostility, calumny, personal attack, or wilful opposition is accepted and softened as it is woven into the fabric of life. Yama is called Param Atithi or Supreme Guest, who, as a true guest, arrives without a date (a-tithi), and for whose unexpected coming we have been prepared by welcoming all the guests that arrived at our house without announcing themselves and all troubles of life in their unexpected occurrence. Hospitality to all people and to all things is the heart of Indian spirituality.

Diwali itself is the centre of the feast. The Row of Lights. The path through the forest that loving devotees lit up for Rama and Sita as they returned from exile to their people and their throne. A small earthen lamp can light up a whole continent when united to millions like it along the length and breath of the land. Dots of light that design the profile of India in the night of nights. The auspicious moment to look back on our past life to make sense of its trajectory, and to visualise the future to set our sights. All to the joyful accompaniment of the crackers and rockets that keep alive the night.

Then follows the New Year proper. The day of greetings. Everybody to meet everybody. Hands palm to palm together, head bowed and the New Year greeting on one’s joyful lips: Sal mubarak! Linguistically sal (year) is Farsi, and mubarak (blessed) is Arabic, and this is the formula used by all, Hindus and Muslims, Jains and Parsis, Sikhs or Christians in a practical show of verbal ecumenism that reminds us that we all are one before life’s events and nature’s cycles. The many years I lived in Ahmedabad I spent the whole of this day on my cycle going from house to house, greeting friends, smiling at faces, tasting sweets, drinking tea, renewing acquaintances, caressing streets and loving the city. It was a day of universal friendship and it should remain ever more so.

The last day, which is the second day of the new year, is Brother’s Day. It again has to do with Yama, the god of death. He went on that day to his twin sister, Yamuna’s house. She fed him an exquisite meal, and asked him the blessing she had a right to ask for after the feast: “Promise me that any brother who on this day may go to eat his meal in his sister’s house will not die an untimely death.” “Tathastu”, said Yama obligingly, and the custom was born. On this day any man with a sister will go to her house, eat the meal prepared by her, and receive the blessing of Yama’s protection. A feast to seal the loveliest of loves on earth, the love between brother and sister. Any Jesuit who has a sister would do well to go on this day to his sister’s home and to eat the meal prepared by her. And perhaps our beloved Sisters could on that day invite us for a meal at their Convents to make honour to their name and to make us feel humble and grateful brothers for their care and their blessing.

At the bus stop

The child was bent on getting into the bus. He cried and kicked and fought. The bus! The bus! The bus! He was walking on the street with his parents, they were passing in front of a bus stop, and a bus arrived at that moment, drew to the curb and opened its doors. The child made for it, and his mother had to use all her strength to keep him back. The bus! The bus! The bus!

– No, sonny, we’re not getting into the bus now.
– We’re just going home, quite close now from here.
– The bus is going very very far.
– Besides, it costs money.
– We’ll go some other day.
– We’ll go the three of us wherever you want.
– But not today.
– Come, come. They’re closing the door.

While daddy and mummy thus argued in turn, and the child kept up his struggle and pulled at his mother’s hand with all his strength, I began to muse quietly in my mind. A day will come, my dear child, when you won’t like at all getting into the bus, and yet you’ll have to. You’ll have to take a ticket, wait in a queue, get soaked in the rain, wait till your bus comes while all the other numbers come and go, curse all the public traffic system, climb as best you can when your bus arrives full to the wheels, hold on to the bar in order not to fall when it starts with a jerk, watch not to have your purse stolen from your pocket, count the stops, make way for yourself to the door and get out where you still have to walk a long way, as the bus does not leave you precisely at your doorstep.

But then I kept musing. The child was right, after all. If I take the bus as a toy, I enjoy it. If I take it in earnest, I suffer. Next time, I’m going to get into it as a child.

A true story of Father Brown
[Sir Alec Guiness tells about his first attraction to the Catholic Church before he joined it.]

“Then came the film of Father Brown, and on location in Burgundy I had a small experience the memory of which always gives me pleasure. Night shooting had been arranged to take place in a little hill-top village a few miles from Macon. Scaffolding, the rigging of lights and the general air of bustle caused some excitement among the villagers, and children gathered from all round. A room had been put at my disposal in the little station hotel three kilometres away. By the time dusk fell I was bored and, dressed in my priestly black as Father Brown, I climbed the gritty winding road to the village. In the square, children were squealing, having mock battles with sticks for swords and dustbin lids for shields; and in a café Peter Finch, Bernard Lee and Robert Hamer were sampling their first Pernod of the evening. I joined them for a modest Kir, then, discovering I wouldn’t be needed for at least four hours, turned back towards the station. By now it was dark.

I hadn’t gone far when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, ‘Mon père!’ My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it and kept up a non-stop prattle. He was full of excitement, hops, skips and jumps, but never let go of me. I didn’t dare speak in case my excruciating French should scare him. Although I was a total stranger he obviously took me for a priest and so to be trusted. Suddenly with a ‘Bonsoir, mon père’, and a hurried sideways sort of bow, he disappeared through a hole in a hedge. He had had a happy, reassuring walk home, and I was left with an odd calm sense of elation.

Continuing my walk I reflected that a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudice.”
[“Blessings in Disguise”, p. 36]

“The Bridge on the River Kwai”

“My son Matthew, then aged eleven, was stricken with polio and paralysed from the waist down. The future for Matthew looked doubtful, and in my anxiety I formed the habit of dropping in at a rather tawdry little Catholic church which lay on my route home. I didn’t go to pray, to plead or to worship – just to sit quietly for ten minutes and gather what peace of spirit I could. After I had done this several times I struck a negative bargain with God. ‘Let him recover’, I said, ‘and I will never put an obstacle in his way should he ever wish to become a Catholic.’ It sounded to me like a supreme sacrifice on my part.

About three months later he was able to walk in a stilted way. By Christmas he could play football. And not long afterwards I was taken up on the side of the bargain. We wanted to move out of London to the country, and we found only a Catholic school. The Rector explained to us: ‘We only have three non-Catholic boys, and if he comes here I have no doubt that by the time he is sixteen he will wish to conform. They all do. No pressure will be put on him, I assure you, but it is most likely he will express the wish to be received. Would you object?’ I hesitated, and then said, ‘No.’ Matthew went to Beaumont and at the age of fifteen announced that he was going to submit himself to the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I later went to spend some days in a Trappist monastery. The monk allocated to me explained to me their life and asked me what I thought the most difficult part of being a monk might be. ‘Other monks’, I replied promptly. He said with some solemnity, ‘Yes!’ I felt I had gone to the top of the class.

The life at the Abbey impressed me deeply. If this was the worst that Rome had to offer, it was pretty good. On March 24, 1956, Fr Clarke accepted my reconciliation with the Church, with tact and kindness, at St Lawrence’s, Petersfield. Like countless converts before and after me, I felt I had come home.

The only irritation I felt was on reading an article, in a French Catholic paper, saying that the Virgin Mary had appeared to me over a garden wall. The archbishop of Portsmouth confirmed me. Peter Glenville acted as my sponsor and, in the ritual of those days, was required to stand with one of his feet on one of mine. But he got it wrong and stepped on the archbishop’s foot. We had a good time.

Some months later, while I was in Ceylon making The Bridge on the River Kwai, Merula, my wife, without informing me until after the event, made her submission to Rome.”
(pp. 37-44)

Someone believes in you
[At the beginning of his career as an actor, Sir Alec Guiness had got a small part in a play in which the main actress was the great dame of the stage, Edith Sitwell. He suddenly was told that his contract was terminated, and found himself in the street again.]

“When I got down to the theatre that evening for my last performance, I was astonished to find Edith at the stage door. I assumed she must have been to a costume-fitting, though it seemed an early hour. I greeted her cheerfully enough, wondering if she knew of my dismissal. ‘I’ve come down to see you, Alec. They told me you always get in early. Come outside.’ She led me out to the Waterloo Road. ‘I’ve heard what happened this morning, and I’m sorry. But you know, it’s probably just as well. You are not quite right for the part. In another ten years perhaps, but not now. I came down to tell you that I believe in you; Tony Guthrie believes in you – and I know Johnny Gielgud does. In ten years’ time you won’t be playing parts like this unless you want to. By then you should have your name in lights but, more importantly, you will be a good actor. That’s all. Goodnight.’ She kissed me and got into the taxi which was waiting for her. To have someone believe in you, saves your life.”
(p. 162)

[By the way, Edith Sitwell too became a Catholic, and Time magazine wrote on the occasion: “Is this a case for ecclesiastical rejoicing or artistic distress?” She told then Alec Guiness: “Light a candle for me in Farm Street one day.” Farm Street is the famous church of the Jesuits in London.]

Military parade
[General Lance Perowne was military adviser for the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, and this is one of the things Alec Guiness tells about him:]

“When Lt. General Lance Perowne took charge of the army in Burma, the first thing he did was to inspect the military hospital – ramshackle, open-sided bamboo huts. He walked between the makeshift beds, where a few dozen wounded and ill men lay, and when he reached the end he turned to the medical officer and said, ‘Fine. Now I’m going away for half an hour; when I come back I want to see that every man here has had a shave.’ (The were all bearded.) When he returned he found all the men feeling their faces. ‘Good’, he said. ‘I am going away for another half-hour and while I’m gone each man is to have had his nails cut.’ When he returned they were all examining their fingers. ‘After all’, he said to me, ‘a man’s hands should be his pride; they should be taken care of, like good tools.’ Then I told the M O that when I next visited them, in half an hour, every man was to be standing at the foot of his bed. Of course he said it was impossible; some of them were in a pitiful condition. But they made the effort and I marched them out of there. Not Horse Guards’ Parade stuff, you understand. If I hadn’t done so I think most of them would have died’.”
(p. 224)

You tell me

You’ve told me several times the barber’s story. The barber is telling a customer that he is convinced God does not exist because there are many people who suffer in this world. The customer goes out on the street, comes back and tells the barber:

– Barbers don’t exist.
– How can you say that?
– Because I’ve gone out on the street and I’ve seen a man with a beard.
– But I, the barber, do exist. What happens is that that man does not come to me.
– God exists, too. What happens is that people don’t go to him.

The story does not help me. There are also people who do go to God, and they suffer all the same.

Or the blacksmith’s tale. He is shaping a sword hammering away at the iron, and he explains: “I hammer the iron to make it into a fine sword. In the same way God hammers us with suffering to give us a fine edge.”

This does not convince me, either. Couldn’t God make iron with the edge on it already? And things get worse when they tell me that a mother who lost her small child was consoled (?) by a holy man who revealed to her that if her son had grown up he would have been a drug addict.

Or, again, the friend who shows his friend under depression a new 100 $ banknote. What’s it worth? 100 $. Then he crumples it in his hand and tramples on it underfoot. What’s it worth? 100 $. He gives the crumpled note to his friend with the advice: “This is for you to remember when you get low and depressed. You are always worth the same.”

All these stories are good to be told by people who do not suffer to people who are not suffering. But they are useless before real suffering. I would never tell that mother that her son was to have led a bad life. I would never tell a depressed person that everything can be settled with a crumpled 100 $ note. Suffering is something deeper and more serious, and what it first requires is that we treat it with respect. I hate superficiality. I also thank from the heart those who have sent me those stories with the best of wills.

Psalm

Psalm 83 – Love of God’s Temple

“How dear is your dwelling-place,
Lord, God of Hosts!”
When I say these lovely words, Lord, I think of a number of things at once in my mind, and several images surge in happy confusion from the depths of my memory. I imagine the Temple of Jerusalem, stately cathedrals I have seen, small chapels I have prayed in. I think of the temple of my heart, of the visions of the Book of Revelation and of paintings of heaven. Whatever can be called your house, your temple, your dwelling-place. All that is dear to me, and becomes the aim of my desires and the focus of my longing.

“Happy are those who dwell in your house!”

I know that your house is the whole world, that you fill every space and are present in every heart. But I also like the symbol, the image, the sacrament of your holy temple where I feel almost physically near you, where I can visit you, worship you, kneel before you in the sacred intimacy of your own house.

“Better one day in your courts
than a thousand days at home.”

In the secret of my mind, in the freedom of my fantasy, in the reality of my pilgrimages, in the devotion of my visits I see myself kneeling before your altar, which is your presence, your throne, your home. I enjoy being there with my body whenever I can and with my imagination whenever I desire. A place for me in your home, a corner in your temple.

“Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow has her nest
where she rears her brood beside your altars,
O Lord of Hosts, my King and my God.”

Just to be there, to feel at home near you, to be surrounded by memories that speak of you, to be penetrated by the smell of incense, to sing sacred hymns that I know since childhood, to witness the majesty of your liturgy, to bow in unison with your people before the secret certainty of your presence. That is joy in my heart, and strength to live my life wherever it may be, with the thought of your temple always before me.

I feel at home in your house, Lord. Will you feel at home in my house too? Come to my heart. Let our visits be mutual, our contact renewed, our familiarity grow through frequent meetings in your place and in mine. Let my heart too become your temple in the glow of your presence and the permanence of your memory. And let your temple become my home in the length of my visits and the longing during my absences.

“I pine, I faint with longing for the courts of the Lord’s temple;
my whole being cries out with jot to the living God.

O lord of Hosts, happy the man who trusts in you!”

1st
I tell you

The earth is flat

Just now I’ve had a good time with a good friend. He was coming from India. He was a Jain. He’s brought me a Jain speciality, khakhada, those large thin circular crisp wafers without smell or taste and utterly delicious because they fill one’s mouth without tasting of anything and satisfy one’s hunger without thinking one has eaten. Pure Jainism. We’ve enjoyed them while we chatted.

First he’s asked me an old Jain question. The Jain Scriptures say that the earth is flat, while geographers say it is round. Jain Scriptures add that to deny the smallest part of them is to deny the whole, just as putting a drop of poison into a glass of milk poisons the whole milk. Thus a good Jain should defend that the earth is flat. What to think about it?

To the drop of poison in the glass of milk I offered the parallel of the Christian Scriptures. The Epistle of James the Apostle in the New Testament says: “He who observes the whole Law but fails in one precept, is guilty of them all. Because He who said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ is the same who said, ‘Thou shall not kill’.” (James 2, 10) One drop spoils everything. So we say the same. And then I explain to him my answer. If, when breaking one precept I break them all, I argue with my Jesuit logic that when keeping one precept, I keep them all, because He who made one, made all of them. I know the Latin, “Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu”, but Latin is no more in use, and I don’t translate. And if we want parables we also have that one drop of disinfectant (I have used “Dettol”) in a glass of doubtful water disinfects it all. Comparisons are always at hand.

To the flat earth we also have parallels. The Bible says that God made the world in six days, and rested on the seventh, while cosmologists say he took a little longer. We understand that “days” can mean “ages”, and that Holy Scripture is not a cosmology manual.

His second question is on reincarnation. He gives me another comparison. (He is an Indian.) A father with two sons will not, from the start, place one in a hut and the other in a palace. No father would do that. God cannot so such a thing either. Therefore, if one is born in a rich, pious and educated family, and another in a poor family with misery and aids, that is not because he places them there arbitrarily, but because one was good and the other bad in their previous lives, and consequently they receive now their reward or punishment. Belief in reincarnation fosters justice.

I answer him that this is the main argument for reincarnation. Then I give him the main argument against it, and on top of it I tell him that Hindu masters taught it to me in India. Before a person who has been born poor or sick or – what is worse – untouchable, those who believe in reincarnation say that that has happened to him or her because he or she was a bad person in their previous life. To say that is inhuman. It is bad enough that someone is born poor, sick and untouchable, if on top of that they come now and tell them that they deserved it because they had been bad. That is adding insult to injury. It cannot be tolerated. Belief in reincarnation fosters injustice.

His third question is about divisions in Jainism. There are Stanakvasis, Daheravasis, Digambars, Swetambars, Terapanthis, Murtipujaks. Couldn’t they all be one? I answer. And couldn’t we Catholic and Protestants and Lutherans and Anglicans and Adventists and Episcopalians… be all one? That was Jesus’s prayer. “May they all be one: as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so also may they be one in us, that the world may believe that you did send me.” (John 17:22) At least you and I, a Jain and a Christian, are one in affection and mutual understanding, aren’t we?

It has been a memorable dialogue. He was an Indian in the best sense of the word. Intelligent, respectful, peaceful. Nothing to discuss or to refute or to protest against. Only understanding and assimilating. And I, on my part, strove to be the same. We have parted brothers. With great joy. Maybe that’s the way to true ecumenism.

Listen with your nerves

“Is it possible that we are poisoning ourselves with music? Our lot, my contemporaries, from our adolescence on, we listened to dance music, day and night, and it was all of it romantic or sentimental. It yearned, it wanted, it longed, it needed – and expected, too, for somewhere, some time, a promise had been made. Someday I’ll find you… We were immersed in dreams.

But since then music has changed. Its rhythms no longer swoon or sway or linger, they beat and pound and drive and the sound is so loud you have to hear it with your nerves. I was once leaving a party in New York because the music was so loud it was literally making me sick, and a black woman coming in said, ‘What’s wrong with you, honey?’ and I told her. She said, ‘But you don’t listen to this kind of music with your ears, you hear it with your whole body, you listen with your nerves.’

Which nerves? So my question is, when some person goes out to kill or torture or maim, can one reason be that he or she has been set for the crime by music that has driven them mad? Shamans have used music for thousands of years to create special moods, young men are prepared for killing by stirring marches, churches use inspirational music to hold their flocks together, and it is known that real spiritual teachers use music to help meditation, but this is so delicate a thing that it is used carefully, by specialists, in special circumstances. But we deluge ourselves with music, of every kind, soak ourselves in it, often feed it direct into the brain with machines designed for this purpose – and we never even ask what effect it may be having. Well, I, for one – and I know there are others – think it is time we do ask.”

[Doris Lessing, “Under My Skin”, p. 378]

Letting go

A man got lost at night in a tall building, he didn’t know where he was, mistook a window for a door, was about to fall out from it, but he managed to get hold of the window-sill on the outside, and hung on for dear life so long as he could. In the end, his strength failed him, he had to let go and he fell down. He fell to the pavement… which was just one foot from his hanging feet.

Why do Zen masters like to tell this story?

Reading

“I read, I read, I read. I was reading to save my life.” [Doris Lessing]

The girl and the antelope
[The koodoo is one of the most beautiful animals in creation. I haven’t resisted the temptation to quote the description Doris Lessing makes of her first encounter with the antelope when she was nine.]

“This is a memory, a most particular and special memory of many years ago. My little brother and I knew that buck like to spend the hot daytime hours in the shade of antheaps where there is thick cover. We went together silently, making sure we did not tread on twigs or dry leaves, to an antheap where it could be seen animals had been. We found a high place on a rock, shielded by branches. We were careful as we climbed up, since this was a place a snake would choose. We waited. It was about six in the morning, and the sun had just got up. Not easy for a nine-year-old to sit absolutely still. My brother amused himself by making dove calls. They arrived in the branches just above us, and sat cocking their heads this way and that, peering at us – but not finding another dove, sped off again.

We heard small sounds, and then there he was, a male koodoo, slowly picking its way up through the boulders. He stopped and looked nervously about. He knew something was wrong, turned his great spiralling horns, looked back over his shoulder where the sun was glistening on his fur. We could see his liquid dark eyes, dark lashes… we sat scarcely breathing, stiff with the effort not to make a sound.

The beast stood there, nervous, unhappy, for a good minute or two. We had never been so close to a living koodoo. We were not making any mistakes, apart from being human children in the wrong place, and emitting, probably, signals we knew nothing about.

Meanwhile the koodoo stood, and turned itself about to look down the way it had come, turned back again to face us. We were seeing how the beast experienced its life, the constant threat, always on the watch for enemies, always wary, listening, turning its head this way and that. Yet here it was, full-grown in all its beauty, it had survived, and it was not in danger from us that day since we did not carry a gun. A long time went by, or so it seemed, while we waited, and the beast listened and looked. Was he looking at us? Yes, but what did he see? His gaze moved on. And then – but what? – a breath of wind from a different quarter? Or, in spite of ourselves, had we made a sound? The beast turned and rushed off down the anthill, not in the panic of urgency, for we knew that crashing run, when terror seizes a buck’s legs, but fast enough, to get away from this dangerous place, the anthill, where he suspected some kind of danger, though he never knew there hadn’t been any.”
(p. 115)

Theatre and life
[One more of Doris Lessing’s memories.]

“When Robert Shaw and Mary Ure played husband and wife in The Changeling, the moment came when he said about her on the stage: ‘I love that woman!’ He said it with such passion that life itself overthrew the play, and everyone applauded. The whole theatre knew that in real life they were husband and wife. And they loved each other dearly.” (p. 328)

You tell me

The question of suffering comes up again. As it will do again and again, since we all suffer. Today someone asks me how is it that in my books and in my Web I do appear happy and cheerful while, doubtlessly, I must also have my own share of suffering. Of course I have it. I’ve told in my books some of the trials and crises in my life, and I never hide them. But in the day-to-day life I foster good cheer, which is the mood I want to irradiate. There’s enough suffering in the world for me to go and add to it.

The most common complaint I hear is, How can God permit such a thing? We, good people, suffer, while the others have a good time. It is also the oldest complaint in humankind’s history. Job: “The just is a laughingstock!” (12, 12) The Psalms: “The wicked, smile.” (72, 8) The Gujarati poet Karsandas Manek wrote a well-known stanza:

“What injustices are framed
in the oceans You have built!
Stones ride happily on its waves,
While flowers helplessly sink.”

In India we learn of two different conceptions of God. Saguna Brahma and Nirguna Brahma. That is, “God with attributes” and “God without attributes”. The “God with attributes” is the familiar God of our devotion, concrete, close, anthropomorphic. We dialogue with him, we ask him favours, we thank him, we complain to him. The “God without attributes” is the conceptual God of our philosophy, abstract, distant, theological. Before him we keep silent, we bow down, we worship, we submit.

We are told that at the beginning of our spiritual life it helps to relate to the “God with attributes” as Father, Friend, Good Shepherd who is always by our side in our joys and our sorrows. On the other hand, as we advance in life it is advisable to shift gently towards the “God without attributes”, the Absolute, the Transcendent, the “One-without-a-second” (a-dvaita), the “Wholly Other”, closer to us in his remoteness and more real in his mystery. From dialogue to silence, from familiarity to reverence, from devotion to adoration. Complaints cease.

I can assure you that the “God without attributes” can also fill the soul. And he gives Peace and Joy. And this is my answer to the question I started with.

Psalm

Psalm 84 – Justice and peace

“Let me hear the words of the Lord:
are they not words of peace,
peace to his people and his loyal servants
and to all who turn and trust in him?”
Peace is your blessing, Lord, on the human heart and on the face of the earth. Man and woman at peace with themselves, with their fellow humans, with the whole of creation, and with you, their Master and Lord. Peace that is health in the mind and wholeness in the body, unity in the family and prosperity in society. Peace that unites, reconciles, heals and gives joy. Peace that is the greeting of men and women to each other in all languages of the world, the motto of their organisations and the slogan of their public meetings. Peace that is easy to invoke and hard to achieve. Peace that, in spite of an announcement by angels on the first Christmas night, has never quite arrived on earth, never quite settled in my heart.

“Love and fidelity have come together;
justice and peace join hands.”

The condition of peace is justice. Justice that gives each one their due between persons and institutions; and justice that justifies the failings of man and woman with the forgiving mercy of God. If I want peace in my soul, I must learn to be fair to all those with whom I live and about whom I speak; and if I want peace in society I must strive for social justice in the structures of society and in the relationships between classes and between people. It is only justice that will bring abiding peace to our troubled earth.

The Biblical word for the good man is “just”. In justice I fulfil my duty to God, to myself and to all men and women. The sensitivity to recognise all men and women as brothers and sisters and to give each one their due with joyful readiness and open generosity. Justice even in my words which tend to be unfair and disparaging when I speak of others, and justice even in my thoughts which only too easily condemn the behaviour of others in the private court of my own mind. Then will justice emerge in my conduct and my dealings with all, and I will be “just” as I desire to be.

Justice in my own life will then give me the right to proclaim justice for others in the public forum where injustices are fraught and oppression rears its head. Equality, openness, fairness for everybody and in everything. Awareness of the deep cleft between classes and peoples, with the awakening, both emotional and practical, to the urgency of the cause of justice for the very survival of humankind.

Justice then will bring peace. Peace in my soul to balance my emotions, my feelings, my joys and my sorrows in the equanimity of the heavenly perspective of things; and peace in the world to make reality the divine gift God brought with himself when he came to dwell among men. Justice and peace are the blessing that accompany the Lord wherever he goes.

“The Lord will add prosperity,
and our land shall yield its harvest.
Justice shall go in front of him,
and the path before his feet shall be peace.”

 

15th
I tell you

Obligation VS enjoyment

A friend has showed me the method to put an end to smoking, drinking, loud music in concerts and discos, and all drugs from marijuana to the last design drugs. It’s very simple. It’ll be quick and effective. It has only to be started, and our youth will be freed from all threats to its health and its very existence.

It’s only a question of making all that compulsory. Every young man or woman, from 15 to 20, will have to listen to rock, rap, pop and crack music at full volume with double the decibels tolerable to human ear four hours in the morning, from 10 to 2, and four in the evening, from 6 to 10 everyday, non-stop and while doing whatever they are doing, without ceasing for a single moment. In extreme cases, the practice will be extended to another four hours at night, from 2 to 6 in the morning.

They will have to chain-smoke those same hours, morning and evening, without interruption, cigarette after cigarette. They’ll also have to drink all that time, beer, whisky, gin and rum in succession. And they’ll have to take also the corresponding drug all the time, whether they like it or not, whether they are alone or with others.

Not only that, but each young person will have to prepare a detailed examination on all the singers since last century, groups, soloists, stars, idols, their names, their records, their songs with date, music and lyrics, the number of concerts they’ve given, records they’ve recorded, prizes they’ve won, their private life, favourite clothes, particular language, gestures, car make, motorcycle, spectacles, hat or cap, hair style and shoes.

My friend has told me he’s sure the plan will work. It’s enough to force them to do it, for them to give it up. I’m not so sure, though. Aren’t they not pushed and forced to do it already, one by the other and all by all?

The meaning of life
[Haddon Klinberg, Viktor Frankl’s biographer, tells how, when he came out of the concentration camp, Frankl felt the need of friendship, and the conviction that if he had been spared, that must have been for a purpose.]

“Viktor went to the house of his friends, Paul and Otti Pötzl. Weighed down by sorrow and despair, Viktor desperately needed someone on whom to unburden himself. After a short greeting, Viktor and Paul came out on the building’s balcony over a garden. There Viktor told Paul about the terrible deaths of his parents and his wife. Viktor, stoic as he was, wept and wept in the presence of his friend. Once he calmed down, he turned towards him and told him:

‘Paul, I have to tell you a few things, and I know that if there’s anyone that can understand me, that is you. When all this happens to someone, when a person undergoes such a trial, there must be a reason, there must be a meaning to it. I have the feeling, however hard it is for me to describe it, that something is waiting for me, that something is expected of me. I feel I am destined to something, to do something.’

His faith in the unconditional meaning of life, and in the need for a reason to exist beyond oneself, were no mere theoretical considerations with him but an intimate and personal conviction.”
[“When Life Calls Out to Us”, p. 179]

The meaning of dance

“The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music, also, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course. You do not play a sonata in order to reach the final chord, and if the meanings of things were simply in their end, composers would write nothing but finales. Bach and Mozart are good examples in this, as their compositions simply cease when they finish saying whatever they had to say. Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner were particularly guilty of working up to colossal climaxes and conclusions, and then blasting away at the same chord over and over again, ruining the moment by being reluctant to leave it.”
[Alan Watts, “The Wisdom of Insecurity”, p. 116]

Sexist error

“Aristotle could have spared himself the error of saying that women had fewer teeth than men by simply asking Mrs. Aristotle to open her mouth and counting her teeth.”
(Bertrand Russell)

My mother
[By André Guide, “Great Short Stories of the Masters”, p. 99. Abridged.]

When I had finished with school, my mother decided to take me into “the world”. But she had been uprooted from Rouen and brought to Paris, where she had never tried to get to know anyone, except some of our less distant cousins and the wives of a few of my father’s colleagues in the Faculty of Law. Moreover the world that seemed likely to interest me, the world of writers and artists, was not her world, and in it she would have felt out of place.

I have forgotten which salon it was that she took me to on this first occasion. It was an At Home Day. I was introduced to a number of persons, and the talk was, like almost all talk at such social gatherings, a tissue of trifles and affectations. I was impressed not so much by the other ladies as by my mother. I hardly recognised her. Usually so modest, so reserved and as it were frightened of her own opinions, in this drawing-room she seemed confident and, though not in the least self-assertive, absolutely at ease. It was as if she was throwing herself into a part, playing it exactly right, not indeed attaching any importance to it, but lending herself readily to the social comedy in which everything is pretence. It seemed to me even that among all the insipidities and sillinesses some particularly sensible comments of hers broke rather disturbingly into the general conversation, deflating instantly all the absurd remarks and making them vanish back into thin air like ghosts at cockcrow.

I was filled with astonishment and admiration; and I told my mother so, as soon as we were alone together, having escaped from this Vanity Fair. I was dining out that evening. But almost directly after dinner I came home, for I was impatient to see her. My mother was on the balcony. She had taken off her finery, and I found her in her simple, dull, every-day clothes. My mother seemed pensive; she never liked talking about herself.

“Was it true, what you said when we left?” she began with great difficulty. “Do you really think so? Did I, well, was I as ladylike as the others?”

And, as I began to protest, she went on sadly: “If only your father for once had told me so…. I never dared ask him, and it would have made all the difference to me to know, when we went out together, whether he….”

She paused a moment. I watched her trying to keep back her tears. In a lower voice, hardly audible, she went on: “Whether he was pleased with me.”

You tell me

You have asked me about the meaning of the Zen story last time in which a man falls at night through a window, hangs on as long as he can, finally lets go and falls down to the ground… which was only a couple of feet from his dangling feet. Why do Zen masters tell this story?

They tell it to teach us to let go. Let go of what? Of everything. What is everything? Everything. Nothing happens by letting go. You just land on earth. Detachment is the art of life.

Some of you were also mystified by the “God with attributes” and “God without attributes” of Indian theology. Maybe the terms Bhakti Marg (The Way of Devotion) and Gnana Marg (The Way of Knowledge) sound more familiar, and the also come from India. Devotion entails prayer, petition, trust, love. Knowledge leads to the “nothing, nothing” of St John of the Cross or to the “not this”, “not this” of Indian teachers. All help in due time.

Some others misinterpreted the word “anthropomorphic” when speaking of God as meaning “without a form”. That is not its meaning. “Without a form” is “amorphous”, while “anthropomorphic” means “man-shaped” (anthropos + morphe), that is a God in man’s shape. Voltaire said: “God made man in his image and likeness, and man retaliated by making God in his image and likeness.” Let us never forget that God is ever different, infinite, absolute, transcendent. That was the point of the “God without attributes”.

Psalm

Psalm 85 – Guide me, O Lord!

“Guide me, O Lord,
that I may be true to you
and follow your path.”
Today I ask for guidance, Lord. I feel so confused at times, so helpless when I have to make up my mind and put aside an option and take another, that I have come to realise it is my lack of contact with you that makes me lose clarity and feel perplexed when I come to take decisions in my life. I pray for the grace to be near you so that I may see with your light and be strengthened with your support when I make the choices that steer my life.

At times it is external factors that confuse me. What people say, the way they talk, pressure on me, prejudices, atmosphere, fashions and slogans. I don’t know where I stand and I find it impossible to define myself and see clear and go straight. Clear up the air round me, Lord, that I may see far and recognise my goals.

Deeper in me is the confusion I feel inside me, the fears, the attachments, the lack of freedom, the cloud of selfishness. It is there that I especially need your presence and your help, Lord. Free me from all complexes in me that prevent me from taking the right choices. Give me balance, give me wisdom, give me peace. Temper my moods and tame my instincts that I may be impartial in my own cause and chose the right way without impediment.

Guide me in the important choices of my life and in the passing options that make up the routine of the day, and which, step by step mark the direction in which my life moves. Train me in the small options that I may confidently tackle the big ones. Direct each step of mine that the whole way may be straight and may lead me where you want me to go.

“Guide me, O Lord,
that I may be true to you
and follow your path.”

1st
I tell you

Africa

I’ve been talking with a young man who has been working already several years as a voluntary in Africa and had come back to Spain for a month. I’ve asked him what was hardest for him. You won’t imagine what he’s told me. I thought it would be the work or the climate or poverty or language or heat or mosquitoes or solitude or insecurity. All that was there, to be sure, but when I asked him what was hardest for him in his already fairly long experience, he has focussed on the actual time of his visit to Spain and has told me: “What I find hardest is that I want to speak about Africa, and here nobody is interested.”

He explains. There are certainly people who are interested, of course, and people who, as he has done, have also gone to far-off lands, and people who help and people who want to know. But when he meets here friends and relatives and acquaintances and new contacts, and he says he’s coming from Africa, they say, “And how’s it down there? Pretty hot whether, isn’t it?” And that’s that.

There is question of personal interest, of belonging to the human race, of living out others’ experiences, of profiting by their contact, of looking with new eyes, of listening to life stories, of embracing ideas, of learning commitment. A unique chance to widen horizons and broadening the soul. And they answer, “Pretty hot, isn’t it?”

I let myself feel the contrasts between him and me. His life experience and mine, his newness and my tradition, his adventure and my routine, his insecurity and my security, his youth and my old age, his doubts and my certainties, his dreams and my memories, his enthusiasm and my enthusiasm, his smile and my smile. That was a treat.

Do you know what he’s told me had been what he’d liked best in our conversation? That I had asked him many questions.

A hacker is born

“He had to figure out a way to pass chemistry in his junior year. He was in the chemistry lab after school one day making up work, as usual, when his mind started to piece together the answer to his problem. It had been sitting right there in front of him the entire time. It was a Macintosh computer on his teacher’s desk. He realised then that this wasn’t a stand-alone system; it was part of the school’s network. Now he was looking at something he could understand. He stood at the brink of his first hack, and the pay-off would be huge. He’d get to graduate on time with the rest of his friends.

But he would have to time it just right. If he jumped up too soon, he would blow it. The teacher came into the classroom holding a stack of papers from the recent test that the class had taken. If school officials were concerned about the security of the network, they didn’t tell the chemistry teacher. She threw the tests down on the desk and sat down in front of the computer. The boy grabbed his notebook and his pencil and walked through the rows of lab tables toward the front of the class. Of course, nobody else in the class suspected anything.

The teacher glanced down at the keyboard and prepared to peck away at her password using, as she always did, her two index fingers. This took a lot of concentration. That’s when he hit her with a barrage of questions, feigning interest in chemical compounds and equations. “Is elemental hydrogen diatomic? In single replacement, is one reactant always an element? Does it matter if the element is written first or second on the reactant side of the equation?”

As always, his teacher remained focused. She preferred to do one thing at a time. He stared over the top of his notebook, peering down over her shoulder as she typed. He scribbled in his notebook. But instead of working on the equation, he was actually writing down the teacher’s login ID and password to the network. She turned around slowly, with a look on her face that said she hadn’t quite heard or understood what he had asked.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Did you have a question?”
“Yes. I wanted to know if hydrogen is diatomic.”
Yes, of course. Remember that,” she said.
“I’ll try. Thanks.”

The next day he arrived at school early and went into another classroom. There was a Mac in that classroom, too. He jumped on the computer and entered his chemistry teacher’s name and password and hit Enter. It was that simple. He found her personal directory on a restricted network drive. Then he scrolled down and found his name and double-clicked it. In less that 30 seconds, he pulled up his entire work history in chemistry. At the top of the list was his grade for the last exam. It was a 63. A click of the mouse, a tap on the Delete key, and bingo: he now had a 73. That was just enough to boost his average for the course into the low D range. Nobody noticed one digit. Graduation was no longer an issue for him. He’d be receiving a diploma next year with everybody else in his class.”

This boy was the later famous hacker Genocide, who chose that horrible name, not out of any sympathy for Hitler, but precisely to show how we have become immune to being shocked by the horrors of orchestrated murder in the world.”

[Dan Verton, “The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers, p. 5]

The Samurai’s sword

“Aside from assuming proper posture, Zen Computer asks you to physically acknowledge the machine. Before you start and after you finish working, make this one simple gesture toward your computer: Give it a nod.

In the art of Japanese swordsmanship, the samurai bow to their swords before and after training. These bows are a way of acknowledging the sword’s function and importance in life and a recognition that using this tool is fundamentally a spiritual endeavour.

Through hours and hours of perfecting their techniques, the samurai connect themselves with the principles that guide the universe – balance, harmony, the oneness of all things. They learn not only physical balance, but mental and emotional balance as well – when to fight, when not to fight, when to attack, when to turn the other cheek. They come to understand the fleetingness of life, knowing that a single sword stroke can fell a person, and so seek to maintain harmony by learning to resolve conflict without having to fight. They realise that, in battle, they and their opponents are not separate combatants so much as pairs of opposites linked in the dance of yin and yang that unites the universe. In samurai thinking, when the sword is in the hands, it houses the soul.

Zen Computer proposes that we regard the computer in the same way; to view work at the machine as part of spiritual training. In Zen thinking spiritual practice is not something confined to a place of worship; it is never ending. This practice must inform every part of the day, including all the hours we sit at the computer. Through Zen computer, we begin to integrate our computer work with our spiritual life.”

[Philip Toshio, “Zen Computer”, p. 41]

For the first time

This story is real, though the details in the narration may change. It teaches us an important lesson in our desire to help others.

A lady went to Mass daily, and daily gave the same alms to a beggar who sat at the door of the church. One day, she found she had not brought any money with her, and when coming out she told the beggar: “I’m sorry. Today I can give you nothing, as I did not bring any money with me.” The poor man answered: “Today you’ve given me more than any other day. Today you have spoken with me for the first time.”

Beggars are persons.

Ceremony

“Leopards break into the temple and drink water to the dregs from the vessels of the sacrifice. This happens again and again, till, at last, it is expected and anticipated. Then it becomes part of the ceremony.”
[Frank Kafka, “Parables and Paradoxes”, p. 65]

The lesson

“It was a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out. It was pathetic. She lifted the hat and set it down slowly on top of her head. The hat was new and had cost her seventy dollars.

‘The hat looked better on me than any of the others in the shop. Still I wasn’t decided till the shopgirl told me, “If you ask me, that hat does something for you and you do something for the hat.” And that convinced me. After all, we are noble people. Your great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves. And that hat has cost me seventy dollars.’

Thus she spoke to her son who was going to accompany her to the bus, and he protested at once: “There are no more slaves, and there should have never been any. And about the hat, you’d better go to the shop and give it back.”

Her son disliked her despising blacks, was annoyed at having to accompany her to the bus for her to go to her reducing class and to wait for her on her way back, and today he was fretting at that seventy-dollar hat she had put on. He wanted to teach his mother a lesson, but he didn’t know how. She was proud of her hat, proud of her slimming exercises, proud of her white race. Something had to be done.

They had reached the bus stop. The boy looked at his mother. There was in him an evil urge to break her spirit. He suddenly unloosened his tie and pulled it off and put it in his pocket. She stiffened:
‘Why must you deliberately embarrass me?’
‘If you’ll never learn where you are, you can at least learn where you are.’
‘You look like a thug.’
‘Then I must be one.’
‘I’ll just go home. I will not bother you. If you can’t do a little thing like that for me…’
‘Restored to my class’.

With that he put his tie back on and said,
‘Nobody in the damn bus cares who you are.’
‘I care who I am.’

The bus arrived and the boy deliberately went to sit by a black man. His mother sat apart, self-conscious. He began to imagine various unlikely ways by which he could teach her a lesson. He might make friends with some distinguished black professor or lawyer and bring him home to spend the evening. He imagined his mother lying desperately ill and his being able to secure only a black doctor for her. He then approached the ultimate horror. Prepare yourself, he said mentally. There is nothing you can do about it. This is the woman I’ve chosen to be my wife. A black woman.

The bus stopped, some passengers alighted, some climbed up, among them a black woman. She was a giant of a woman. Her bulging figure was encased in a green crepe dress and her feet overflowed in red shoes. She had on a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out. The boy saw it.

His eyes widened. The vision of the two hats, identical, broke upon him with the radiance of a brilliant sunrise. His face was suddenly lit with joy. He could not believe that Fate had thrust upon his mother such a lesson. Better than all the fantasies he had imagined. He drew close to his mother and told her in a low voice: “See, mum. That woman wears a hat just like yours.”

[Flannery O’Connor, “Great Short Stories of the Masters”, p. 538. Abridged.]

You tell me

You tell me I sometimes repeat myself. Quite right. I first saw it in others, how they repeated themselves. I one heard a wonderful talk by a well-known social worker in Gujarat. Speaking against tobacco, which is a favourite crop in the region due to its lucrative yieldings, he said with emphasis: “In Gujarat, farmers plant tobacco, and people reap cancer!” It was a felicitous sentence with an important message. Ten years later I heard the same speaker in another talk, and after a while he said: “In Gujarat, farmers plant tobacco and people reap cancer!” I smiled to myself. The first time the sentence struck me for its novelty. The second time for its continuity. One must keep on insisting. Because people go on farming.

The most persevering example I know in the matter is the one of the exemplary Spanish Jesuit, Francisco Zubeldia, who came over to India when no longer a young man, did learn English but could not quite master Gujarati. Yet, such was his zeal and his energy that he prepared a talk on Christ in Gujarati with the help of native catechists, learned it by heart, and went on repeating it in school after school, of non-Christian students of course, delivering always the same talk as though it were the first time. Along his whole life and across the whole state of Gujarat, he must have given the same talk several thousand times. That was his lifework. It is a good formula for variety. You change your theme or you change your audience. Easier to change the audience.

Good ideas, good phrases, good stories are few. My theology teacher used to say that God the Father has only one idea: the Verb. That is his unique, total, and definitive self-expression, and everything is in it. The simpler we are in our ideas, the closer we come to God. And my astronomy professor told us in class that when Kepler was studying the cosmos and would find several explanations of some stellar situation, he would always choose the simplest theory because, he said, that would doubtless be the closest to the truth. And Einstein, in his Relativity Theory, also chose the simplest equations and said that God would not have missed the chance to follow the simplest way when creating the world.

By the way, that bit about Kepler… I think I’ve put it already in some of my writings…

Psalm

Psalm 86 – Zion, Mother of Peoples

“Zion shall be called a mother
in whom people of every race are born.”
The boundaries of my heart are enlarged, Lord, when I say this prayer and I dream of that moment. Men and women of every race come together because all have become one in you. This is your own plan, and I embrace it with open faith and keen desire. All races are one. All men and women meet. All are children of the same mother. The moment of unity towards which we move. The seal of brotherhood and sisterhood. The supreme destiny of the human race.

“The Lord shall write against each in the roll of nations:
This one was born in her.”

All nations are born in the Holy City. All men and women are my countrymen and countrywomen. I look at their faces and I recognise in them the family traits under the joyful variety of features and colours. I project into each face the feeling of fellowship and recognition that grows over me while I look at the person. I feel brother to each man and woman, and I trust my own conviction to shine through my eyes and to vibrate in my words to carry the family message in the waves of my faith.

No frontiers, no boundaries, no exclusions. No man or woman is a stranger to another. Nature abhors bureaucracy. Bonds of birth transcend impositions of legislation. Unity is our birthright. Our smile is our passport. Freedom to travel, freedom to meet, freedom to face any human being and feel one with him or her. And courage to forget our differences and recognise our common destiny. We all are children of Zion.

Give me a true ecumenical heart, Lord. Let me love all men and women and respect all peoples.

“I will count Egypt and Babylon among my friends;
Philistine, Tyrian and Nubian shall be there.”

Let me feel at home in every culture, love to learn and grow to understand. Let me discover your presence in the hearts of all men and women, and learn your name in all languages. Let me strengthen my roots and deepen my sources, with the faith that in doing that I am coming closer to my fellow men and women because all our sources are in you.

“Singers and dancers alike say:
All my springs are in you!”

 

15th
I tell you

Guide our feet into the way of peace
(Luke 1:79)[An article I’ve written for the Christmas issue of JIVAN.]

I’ve often heard with reverence and gratitude these words which sound so well in any Indian language: “Let your footsteps fall on my threshold to sanctify my home.” The sacramental touch of the feet of a respected person on the floor of a house is enough to bless all those who live within. The Laws of Manu state that if a man of God enters a house and stays in it the time it takes to milk a cow, salvation is assured to all its inmates. Touch conveys blessing.

The feet are, or course, naked. Feet that travel lands, cross rivers, climb mountains, reach new peoples, proclaim with their step, their hardened soles, their thorns and their fatigue the Gospel of Peace to the end of the world. “How lovely over the mountains are the feet of those that bring the tidings of peace!” (Isaiah 52:7)

Pious people in our villages still have the custom of washing the feet of the visiting guru. The feet carry the load of evangelising. They deserve care, respect, nursing, worshipping. They are massaged with loving devotion and caressed with tender feeling. Then the bent forehead touches them and grace flows from heaven to earth through the presence of the human body. We know that is what the Magdalene did to Jesus.

The greeting to an elder also brings the person close to the revered feet to touch their dust, sacred from their mission, and bring it to the expectant forehead. The dust sanctifies. Preachers of the Gospel were instructed to shake off the dust of their feet when leaving a village that had not deserved their touch. Twin gestures in distant lands. Feet that bring blessings in their dust. Feet that are guided and guide into the way of peace.

When I studied years ago in Chennai, my “first church” in India (in Ignatius’s terminology who called Manresa his “first church” in preference to his native Loyola), one of the stalwarts of Loyola College, Fr. Amezcua, condescended to come for walks with us, lowly scholastics, on condition that we should wear full shoes… and socks! No one came then close to touch our feet, that is, our shoes, well polished though they were. Only later did we find our feet and came closer to the land and to the people.

When swimming one day in Trevor Tal in Mount Abu with fellow Jesuits, another stalwart companion, Fr. Carricas who left us early for heaven, told me looking at my naked feet: “Your feet are very ugly.” I remember answering him already at that time: “In India the feet are never ugly.” They bring peace.

Now we travel by car or train or plane. We’ve lost our dust. We’ve lost our touch. We’ve lost our feet. We’ll continue, by all means, to use all modern resources. And we’ll find ways to bring the old healing touch to the new situations. Like this one, in a train:

The other day in Madrid, where I now live, I boarded a train. The seats faced each other two by two. A young man sat by my side while the two seats in front of us remained empty. Soon the young man took both his feet, dirty shoes and all, and placed them irresponsibly on the upholstered seat in front of him. I fumed but kept quiet. Then I thought of something. I quietly, peacefully, daintily, put my two feet, also shoes and all, on the seat in front of me, parallel to the young man’s feet. He understood. He slowly turned his head towards me and smiled. I slowly turned my head towards him and smiled. Then simultaneously, rhythmically, playfully, we both lifted our feet from the seats, kept them for a moment in the air, and brought them slowly down together. And we laughed. Quite a ballet. Then the best thing: the young man was black, and I was white. Our feet had made us one. They had brought us good tidings. They had brought us peace. And joy.

To live other people’s lives

The phenomenon has already a name: “To live other people’s lives”. You’ve guessed what it is. Those TV programmes in which people can watch live the interaction of several characters with all their exchanges, circumstances, relationships and minutiae. That is, the practice of living other people’s lives. Borrowed existences.

I transcribe here the considerations of José María Rodríguez Olaizola, SJ, in “Sal Terrae”, June 2003, p. 447:

“How is it possible that we don’t know many aspects of persons with whom we deal daily, while we fully know minute and often private details of the daily life of people with whom we’ll never exchange a single word (Thank God!)? How is it possible that the private lives of strange characters can become something of interest for millions of persons? Why is it that the only names we all know are those shouted aloud by yelling crowds on the television platforms in programmes of doubtful quality?

We only require the patience to sit down before our TV, with the remote control in our hands to zap at pleasure. In the course of the day one can view morning programmes in which “Queens of the Morning” talk about house problems, daily quarrels or twisted loves with a wide range of strange characters. Before lunch comes “Hearts in Season”, with some better known characters who go on unfolding their loves, their divorces, their quarrels and their pregnancies. After lunch the “Queens of the Afternoon” present panels of fresh characters who lead the viewers on to such juicy situations as “My mother wants to be more attractive than me”, “I’ve fallen in love with my fiancée’s brother”, “For years I betrayed my wife with her sister”, “My children don’t want me to be a prostitute”, “My wife doesn’t understand that I like other women”, “I can’t stop eating”, “I like group sex” or similar attractions aired away in an intoxicated atmosphere where it is hard to say whether such people do exist in reality or they are only paid actors to put up a bizarre and incredible show. Then come the evening stars…, while the piece de resistance is reserved for the night…

Other peoples’ lives triumph over ours because our lives tend to be monotonous, because many men and women tend to be spectators rather than actors in their own lives, because we forget that there are causes for which it is worthwhile to fight, because at times all one wants is not to think, not to reason, not to see, just out of laziness or fear or impotence, because the lives of those screen characters do not affect me, do not involve me, do not question me, whereas my own life could certainly do all that.

We have to resist the lure of other peoples’ lives, not because they may be good or bad, but because our own life can be much richer, full of feeling, of passion and of risk. There are enough causes to give meaning to our dreams, our desires and our beliefs. One’s own life is so interesting, so full of possibilities, so rich in itself that it would be a pity to waste our time living only screen lives.”

Meat on Friday

I’ve recently met a relative of mine, of my own age. He was a doctor in his time, and now, already retired, suffers from a mental affliction that casts a shadow on his life. He keeps his keen mind and his powers of dialectics that tested my own verbal resources during the visit. We were four family members gathered together, and we tried to build up a family atmosphere between us. We were not ready for his abrupt beginning:

– What about hell…
– What do you mean?
– Whether there is a hell or not. You are a priest and ought to know. I knew you were coming, and I meant to ask you.
– Don’t worry about it. That doesn’t go with you. You have always been an excellent person and have always helped everybody. We all here know it well.
– But there are some commandments…, well you know… and in my youth I…
– Yes, I know. God knows everything and forgives everything. You’ve never done any harm to anybody, and that is what counts.
– But is there a hell or not? Do not escape and answer clearly.
– Well, if you put it that way, yes, there is. For a Catholic the existence of hell is a dogma of faith.
– So there is a hell, and you tell me not to worry. Thank you.
– You know that even serious theologians say that there is a hell, but it is empty. There’s nobody there.
– That’s not true! At least Satan and the devils are there, and they are fallen angels, and they’ll be there for all eternity. What do you say at that?
– That I’m sorry, of course, and that the theologians had not thought about that, it seems. But it is also true what the Church teaches, namely that we cannot say of anybody that they are in hell, not even of Judas.
– Besides, I argue that if God would on the one hand threaten us with hell as when Jesus says that “The gate is wide that leads to perdition, there is plenty of room on the road, and many go that way; but the gate that leads to life is small and the road is narrow, and those who find it are few”, and on the other hand it turns out that there is nobody in the hell of eternal perdition, then God would be cheating us with a false threat, as we threat children with the bogeyman which does not exist, and that would be unworthy of God.
– Look here, to go to hell you need a mortal sin, and do you know what the British theologian Ronal Knox used to say with anti-French humour? He said that a mortal sin requires such a refined mentality that only a Frenchman could commit it.
– …?
– And the Cardinal of Paris answered him, with the same sense of humour, that, well, yes, that was true, but that even for a Frenchman a mortal sin was something so complex that he calculated that in the whole of Paris, at most one mortal sin could be committed in the course of one full year.
– So that here we would have even fewer. Isn’t it?
– Right. Let’s say that none at all.
– But my sense of humour does not reach there. On the contrary, I would be afraid to laugh about hell.
– The I’ll tell you a joke to cheer you up. A man with a dubious past reaches the gates of heaven and asks St Peter: “May I come in?” – “Yes, my son, yes. Come right in.” – “But do you know who I am?” – “Yes, I do.” – “And do you know all that I did down there?” – “Yes, yes, I know everything.” – “Then…” – “See, here we admit everybody, so that you have nothing to fear about. Only you’ll have to promise one thing. Do you see that isolated building in the midst of the clouds? Do not go near it, do not look at people there, and, above all, do not let anyone from there see you.” – “And why all those precautions, if I may ask?” – “Because that is where the Opus Dei people are housed. They believe they are the only ones to come to heaven, and if they see you here…, well, you’ll spoil eternity for them.” Don’t you find it funny?
– Yes, but I cannot laugh at such a serious thing.
– When the Pope suppressed the laws of fast and abstinence, in particular when he did away with the prohibition to eat meat on Fridays, so that there was no sin any more in eating it, they say that Lucifer in hell called to consultation his most trusted demons and asked them, “What do we do now with those people who are here condemned for all eternity for having eaten meat on Friday?”

Here he smiled a little bit. But his face turned at once serious, tense, severe in the expression of his inner tension. Religious scruples had crippled him for life. At least I made him smile for a fleeting moment.

Easy and difficult

“To say that God is infinite is easy; but to see, respect and accept the consequences of that statement is hard and extremely painful.” (Juan Manuel Pérez Charlín)

To sing without a date

– How wise you are, my dear nightingale, that you have sung so beautifully on New Year’s Day.
– I didn’t know it was New Year’s Day, my dear owner, and I don’t know what the New Year is. I simply sung. It’s you that have put an interpretation on it.
– I appreciate your spontaneity. To sing without a date.
– To sing when I feel like singing.
– Happy New Year!
– Happy day always!

You tell me

What do you do when your computer stops working? – I phone the technical advice people and consult them. Today I’ve phoned. My mail wouldn’t open for days. I could neither send nor receive messages. And the pile would be growing. I’ve dialled the number, waited with the music on my ear, and finally have heard a weary voice, “Nuria at this end. What is your trouble?”

– My mail does not open.
– Yes, we know. That’s an emblematic problem.
– I’m sorry I don’t follow. Do you mean to say that this is happening to other users too?
– Yes, precisely.
– In other words, that the blame is yours.
– Well, yes, if you put it that way.
– Yes, I put it that way. Is the problem now solved?
– Yes, I mean, no. Keep on trying, and your mail will open in the course of the evening.

The evening is over and the mail stays put. But now I answer your question in earnest. What do I do after I’ve done all I have to do? How do I feel? What do I tell myself?

I renew my humility. I’m only dust and ashes, as Abraham before Yahweh. I admit my metaphysical levity. I recognise my dependence on other beings in creation. I sink in the consciousness of my ignorance. I accept that others may think evil of me when they see I don’t answer their mails as they don’t know I haven’t received them. A just penance for my sins. I quieten my soul before the impatience to imagine how many mails are piling up, when will I get them, how will I answer them. I keep wondering how I can survive without the daily mail, without the permanent addiction, without the infallible punctuality, without perishing before the uncertainty how long the crisis will last. I’m surprised I’ve not lost my appetite. I venture a smile, and I see with relief that I can still smile in spite of the sharp crisis of the credibility of being. I smile to my computer, sitting tight as it is quite satisfied on its secret and its mystery. And on my messages. Life goes on. The cosmos turns round. Eternity waits. In the course of my earthly existence my mail will open again. Nothing has happened.

Psalm

[A warning will be in place before the psalm that follows. It is a sad psalm, and as such I take it and comment on it, because we all know trials in our lives. But at this moment I myself am not sad. It has happened before to me in this column that as I comment on a sad psalm, some of you very kindly worry about me and ask me with tender care what is troubling me. I’m not in trouble. David is the one who is in trouble. I only identify with each one of his psalms as they come and as they remind me of the times of my life mirrored in them. We all have all sort of moods. And there will always be someone to whom this psalm will mean something special today.]

Psalm 87 – Loneliness, sickness, and death

“You have caused my friends to abandon me;
you have made me repulsive to them!
You have made even my closest friends abandon me;
darkness is the only companion I have left.”
The burden of loneliness is heavy upon me. I feel alone in the world. There is no one I can call mine, no one I can feel near. I see the crowds and I move among people, but they are all strangers in an unfriendly world. I see no faces, I hear no greetings. Humankind is in a hurry and person ignores person in a frenzied activity of meaningless hustle. I am surrounded by people, but I feel no warmth. I talk to others, but I made no contact. They say that in the future, robots will replace men and women. Haven’t they done so already?

“You have plunged me into the lowest abyss,
in dark places, in the depths.
Your wrath rises against me,
you have turned against me the full force of your anger.”

I feel abandoned, alone, let down. All my hopes have crushed into nothingness. All my dreams have turned into despair. I repeat prayers which always meant much to me, and today they sound hollow; I pronounce the sacred name of God, but it dies on my lips. Nothing helps, nothing makes sense. There is only darkness and emptiness. Passivity and apathy. Sickness and death.

“I am numbered with those who go down to the abyss,
and have become like a man beyond help,
like a man who lies dead
or the slain who sleep in the grave,
whom you remember no more
because they are cut off from your care.”

I have no will to live. And I have no courage to die. Death frightens me with the black unknown of what lies beyond the grave. When my faith shone bright I enjoyed life and braved death, because life with faith was walking towards you, Lord, and death in faith was finding you. Now my faith is under a cloud, and I resent life and fear death. What awaits me after that dreadful moment? If I am not sure of myself in this life, how can I be sure in the next? If my existence here has become a burden, what will it become in the Realm of Shadows?

“Do you work wonders for the dead?
Shall their company rise up and praise you?
Will they speak of your faithful love in the grave,
of your sure help in the Place of Destruction?
Will your wonders be known in the dark,
your victories in the Land of Oblivion?”

Where are you sending me, Lord, when I depart from the only existence I know, miserable through it is? Is it to the “Land of Oblivion”? Is my existence to be a transit from nothingness to nothingness? Am I less than the birds that entrust their wings to the sky, less than the flowers that have at least their day of glory in the gaiety of their colours? Do I count for nothing in your sight? Are you simply watching with indifference the anguish of my soul?

“Why have you cast me off, O Lord,
why do you hide your face from me?
I have suffered from boyhood and come near to death;
I have borne your terrors, I cower beneath your blows.
Your burning fury has swept over me,
your onslaughts have put me to silence;
all the day long they surge round me like a flood,
they engulf me in a moment.”

This is the story of my sufferings, Lord, and there is no one I would tell them except you. See my latent faith in my very complaints, my trust in you in the freedom with which I speak to you. I wouldn’t have dared to speak thus to you if you had not put the words in my mouth. Thank you for giving me that freedom, Lord. Thank you for your psalm, which is yours in the inspiration of your word, and mine in the agony of my experience. Shorten now my trial and restore me to life.

“Let my prayer come before you,
hear my loud lament;
for I have had my fill of woes,
and they have brought me to the threshold of Sheol.”

Fundación González Vallés

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