He’d invited me for lunch, and at the end I wanted to share the bill and motioned to do so, but he snatched the bill from the hand of the waiter, paid it in full and told me the simple formal phrase: “It’s my pleasure.”
The phrase may be formal, but when I heard it as told to myself, it struck me. “It is my pleasure.” To do someone a favour is a pleasure for me. And if it is not that, it is no favour either. When I present someone with something I enjoy more the giving of the gift than the other person enjoys the receiving. And if I don’t, it is not a gift. No obligation, no routine, no burden, no trouble. Just the joy of doing something for somebody. Let the joy ring in my voice, shine in my eyes, smile in my face. “It is my pleasure.”
The joy of doing good. The elegance of the invitation. The loveliness of friendship. The surprise of the gesture. The spontaneity of the formula. The firmness of the voice that leaves no room for doubt. “It is my pleasure.”
I enjoyed the meal. I enjoyed the last phrase even better.
This happened not so long ago, when the newspaper was sold in the streets by errand boys who run as they shouted the paper’s name from street to street while passers-by bought it from them.
– Give me a paper, boy.
– Sorry, sir, I can’t sell it to you.
– Why? You yourself where shouting for it here just now!
– Yes, on that corner, but not on this street.
– I don’t understand, and I’m in a hurry. Give me the paper and here is the money.
– I can’t, sir.
– Because this street is the Limper’s street.
– And who is the Limper and why this street is his?
– Because he is lame and cannot run as we all do to sell the paper. That’s why we’ve decided between us to keep this street for him alone. And we all respect the decision.
– I understand. That’s your trade union.
– No, sir. No trade union and no nonsense. Just our friendship and our arrangement. He is lame and we help him. That’s all. See, there he comes. You can buy the paper from him.
The man bought two newspapers.
The ogre threatens
The ogre caught a man and made him his slave. He made him slog all day without rest, and if the man complained, the ogre would threaten: “If you don’t do what I command you, I’ll eat you up.”
The man was frightened and kept working. Finally one day he got fed up and told the ogre: “I don’t work any more. You may eat me up if you want.” But the ogre didn’t eat him up. The man realised that the ogre could not eat him up, because if he did, he would lose his slave. Then he bargained: “If you now want me to work for you, I’ll work only in the morning, you’ll have to pay me well, I’ll have weekends free and a month holidays.” And the ogre agreed.
All fears are groundless.
Shashibhushan Bandhopadhyay was a well-known lawyer in Kolkatta. Once he had to send an urgent document to one of his clients. It was in May with all the sultry heat of summer, and it was at noon. He took the document and brought it himself to his client’s house, where he arrived covered in perspiration. His client was surprised, and he gently remonstrated that he could have sent the envelope with any servant in the office. The lawyer answered: “Yes, I thought of that, and in fact we do have an errand boy in our office for such cases. But when I saw how hot it was, I couldn’t bear to send anybody in that heat.”
To swear on the dictionary
[The British writer Andrea Ashworth lived her childhood in dire poverty, but she learned from her mother the proper use of words. Her mother played Scrabble with her daughters, and she never allowed a wrong word.]
“Our mother was a stickler, making us check every one of our dubious concoctions. ‘Fetch the dictionary!’ she would shout. We had to know how to use words properly, she insisted, if we hoped to get anywhere in life. She kept no other books in the house, but our battered old dictionary followed us wherever we went. We even used it for swearing the truth on, after our illustrated children’s bible got lost.”
[“Once in a House on Fire”, p. 171]
Peace in the home
I heard this first as a joke, and then as the explanation one man gave humorously of his own happiness in marriage.
– What is the secret of your happy marriage?
– Quite a simple one. All unimportant matters I leave to my wife to decide on, and I reserve to myself the important ones.
– For instance?
– She decides what to eat, what to buy, how much to spend, where to send the children for their studies, how each one in the family must dress, where to go for holidays, how to invest our savings, what make of car to have. All this she decides.
– And you?
– I decide the truly important matters. The ozone hole, the fight against terrorism, the poverty in the third world, the fishing of whales, the general elections, the value of the dollar, the resolutions of the United Nations… all that I keep for myself.
My car and I are one
“Twenty years ago I was the first monk that rode a bicycle in Vietnam. In those days it was not considered a very ‘monastic’ activity. Today we monks ride motorcycles and drive cars; we’ve had to adapt meditation to the present times and try to fit in with the actual situation of the world.
My car and I are one. We believe we are the owners and the car is only an instrument, but that is not true. When we use a tool or a machine, we ourselves change. A violinist becomes something very beautiful with their violin; a man with a gun becomes something dangerous. When we use a car, we are one with the car. We are the car.
When we drive, we think only of arriving, and so it is logical that when we come up against a red traffic light, we do not feel particularly happy. The red traffic light is rather an enemy which prevents us from reaching our destination. Yet, we can also consider that the red light is like a conscience bell that reminds us to come back to the present.
Next time you come across a red traffic light, smile to it, please, and come back to your conscious breathing. ‘Breathing in, I quiet my body; breathing out, I smile.’ It is easy to transform an annoying feeling into a pleasant feeling.
Next time you are caught in a traffic jam, do not fret. Fretting is useless. Sit down and smile to yourself, with a compassionate and loving smile. Enjoy the present, breathing and smiling, and make all those that are in the car with you feel happy. If you know how to breathe and how to smile, you’ve got happiness, because happiness is always within reach in the present. To practice breathing is to be one with the flowers, with the children, with heaven. We can all be happy.”
[Thich Nhat Hanh, “Peace Is Every Step”, p. 45]
Someone who knows I like Alan Watts has sent me this teasing paragraph from him:
“To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music’, you are not listening. You are thinking. To understand joy or fear, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it. So long as you are calling it names and saying, ‘I am happy’, or ‘I am afraid’, you are not being aware or it. Fear, pain, sorrow, and boredom must remain problems if we do not understand them, but understanding requires a single and undivided mind. This, surely, is the meaning of that strange saying from the Bible: ‘If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light’.”
Psalm 88 – The power and the promise
The Psalm is long, but the prayer is short. The long poem softens the sharpness of the pointed appeal. I feel enough confidence with you, Lord, to make first the appeal in all its bluntness, and then to go and lengthen it in the poetry of the psalm. Few psalms touch me more deeply than this one, Lord.
The appeal is clear and definite. You are powerful, Lord, powerful in the skies you have made and on the earth you gave created. No one can resist you, and if you choose not to do something, it is not for lack of power. You are also faithful, and keep the promises you have made. You made a promise to David that his descendants would rule Israel for ever, and you specified that your promise would stand even if the descendants proved not worthy. You declared that David’s throne would be firm in Israel as the sun and the moon in the sky. And I know well that Israel is your Church, and David is figure of Jesus. Well then, Lord: The sun and the moon are still there, but David’s throne is no more. Jerusalem is destroyed and Israel is defeated. You Church today is attacked by some, abandoned by many and ignored by most. Why is it so?
“I will sing the story of your love, O Lord, for ever;
I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
Your true love is firm as the ancient earth,
your faithfulness fixed as the heavens.”
Nice beginning for a frontal attack, isn’t it? Did you guess, Lord, what was coming in this psalm after this beautiful opening? Your love is firm, and your fidelity eternal. Surely you love to hear that. Sincere praise from the people who knew you best. And on a point you are sensitive about too: your faithfulness. Your truth that never fails, and your promises that never disappoint. But from this moment you are caught, Lord, by the very words you like to hear. You are faithful and you keep your promises. Why, then, have you not kept your solemn promise to your people and your king?
“The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord…;
in the skies who is there like the Lord?
O Lord God of Hosts, who is like you?
Your strength and faithfulness, O Lord, surround you.
You rule the surging sea, calming the turmoil of its waves.
Yours are the heavens and yours is the earth;
the world with all that is in it is of your foundation.
Strength of arm and valour are yours;
your hand is mighty, your right hand lifted high;
your throne is built upon righteousness and justice,
true love and faithfulness herald your coming.”
The rhythm of praise continues. Your power and your strength. Your dominion over land and sea. Everybody acknowledges it from the angels in heaven to the men and women on earth. Nothing can resist you. You are the Lord of history, the master of the human heart. You ordain events and dispose circumstances just as you establish mountains and orbit stars. All is the work of your hands. We have seen you at work and we recognise your sovereignty over all that is. We are proud of being your people, because the is no god like you, Lord.
“Happy the people who have learnt to acclaim you,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your presence!
You are yourself the strength in which they glory;
through your favour we hold our heads high.
The Lord, he is our shield;
the Holy One of Israel, he is our King.”
Your power is our guarantee. Your strength is our boast. We are happy to be the people whose God you are. We rejoice in your glory, and love to retell the story of your wonderful deeds. Your history is our history, and your Spirit is our life. Our destiny on earth as a people is the expression of your divine will, and so we extol your will and venerate your majesty. You are our God and we are your people. And now comes the promise. Wide and generous, firm and immovable. We like to remember every word, to savour every phrase, to witness your solemn oath and to treasure in our memory the charter of our future. Strength to our heart and music to our ears.
“I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your posterity for ever.
I will make your throne endure for all generations.’
I have discovered David my servant,
I have anointed him with my holy oil.
My hand shall be ready to help him,
and my arm to give him strength.
My faithfulness and true love shall be with him,
and through my name he shall hold his head high.
I will maintain my love for him for ever
and be faithful in my covenant with him.
I will establish his posterity for ever
and his throne as long as the heavens endure.”
Consoling words from one who is truth itself. Only the nagging doubt remains: If we fail you, if your people prevaricates, if the king proves unworthy of the throne, will that not invalidate the promise and rescind the covenant? And here come the reassuring words from your own mouth.
“If his sons forsake my law
and do not conform to my judgements,
if they renounce my statutes
and do not observe my commands,
I will punish their disobedience with the rod
and their iniquity with lashes.
Yet I will not deprive him of my true love
nor let my faithfulness prove false;
I will not renounce my covenant
nor change my promised purpose.
I have sworn by my holiness once and for all,
I will not break my word to David;
His posterity shall continue for ever,
his throne before me like the sun;
it shall be sure for ever as the moon’s return,
faithful so long as the skies remain.”
Divine words of infinite comfort. We may fail you, but you will never fail us. If we misbehave we shall bear the punishment, but God’s promise will never be broken, the throne will remain safe and David’s descendants on it. The oath is sacred and will remain firm for ever. The word of him who made heaven and earth has been pledged on our behalf. Our future is safe.
“Yet you have rejected your anointed king,
you have spurned him and raged against him;
you have denounced your covenant with your servant,
defiled his crown and flung it to the ground.
You have put an end to his glorious rule
and hurled his throne to the ground;
you have cut short the days of his youth and vigour,
and covered him with shame.”
Shame is all that is left to us. We are your people, your Anointed is your Son and our Lord, his throne is the place he holds in the hearts of men and women and in the ruling of society. And society is not very mindful of your Son today, Lord. There is distant respect and polite regard. But little obedience, scant reverence and limited acceptance. Humankind does not accept your King, Lord, and his throne is not universal. We suffer to see his law disregarded and his person ignored. We are pained to see that things do not seem to improve, on the contrary, men and women drift farther and farther away from your Kingdom, and we do not know how long this will last.
“How long, O Lord, will you hide yourself from sight?
How long must your wrath blaze like fire?
Where are those former acts of your love, O Lord,
those faithful promises given to David?
Remember, O Lord, the taunts hurled at your servant,
how I have borne in my heart the calumnies of the nations;
so have your enemies taunted us, O Lord,
taunted the successors of your anointed king.”
And there the psalm ends in abrupt eloquence. There is only a blessing and an Amen tagged on to the end, but that is only the rubric added to mark the end of the Third book of Psalms. The psalm as such ends in the sudden pain of the taunts that we bear. The next word is with you, Lord.
My niece tells me that his charming four-year old daughter has just told her: “Mummy, please buy me a pair of those tight jeans, that they have told me they’ll make me look younger.” Four years old.
The veteran waiter
We, four friends, sat in a café and asked for our choices. The waiter was an old man, with white hair and exquisite manners. He brought quickly and exactly the kind of coffee each one had ordered, left unobtrusively the bill, and withdrew. We all four looked at one another and said in unison: “Have you noticed how well this waiter has done his job? Unusual. Remarkable. Efficiency, delicacy and elegance. It’s a pleasure to see such a good professional.”
We took our coffees, talked, paid the bill and got up. I went up to the old waiter. He looked at me diffidently, since a client approaching usually means a complaint. I told him: “We all four have been struck by the way you have waited on us. Waiters like you are now hard to come by. Congratulations.” And I shook his hand.
His whole face lit up. His lips parted in the broadest of smiles. He mumbled, “Thank you, sir.” That was all. But he left me with a good feeling. I hope I gave him a good feeling too.
The value of a memoir
I watch little TV. I remember the serial that amused me most. The famous “Yes, Minister”, “Yes, Prime Minister”, of the BBC with Paul Eddington, Derek Fowlds and Nigel Hawthorne. That’s why Nigel Hawthorne’s autobiography has had a special interest for me. And then I’ve found another reason for my interest on the book, though this I found out only at the end. He was born in South Africa, went to London for his career on the stage, failed, went back to Africa, back to London, succeeded at long last, found happiness and made many people happy with his performances on the stage, cinema and television. He tells his story clearly, shyly, delicately, wittily. The book is a charm. It is “his best performance”, when he had given so many and so good ones.
At the end of the book Trevor Bentham, his friend, reveals the secret: “When Rowena Webb of Hodder & Stoughton approached Nigel to write this autobiography he was about to embark on King Lear. That – combined with a galloping reluctance to talk about himself – kept him stalling for weeks.
Only the onset of cancer provided the catalyst he needed to put pen to paper – or eventually type into laptop. Suddenly there was a purpose for writing; a fearful deadline he fought so hard to meet. Through major surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, jaundice, pneumonia and septicaemia, he wrote on, clinging to the best lifeline that he could have been thrown under the circumstances. He finished the last chapter in hospital the week before Christmas, checked it through when he got home, and sent it off to Rowena on Christmas Eve – two days before he died.”
An autobiography written face to face with death throbs with life. It touches, with the wings of a butterfly, the mystery of life and death. Just as the butterfly with whose story he begins his book:
“I came across a peacock butterfly battering its wings against the sitting room window. They’re always finding their way into the house and for some reason seem unable to get out again using the same route in reverse. I tried to catch it in my cupped hands but it kept avoiding me. Finally I snared it and, using words of encouragement which I was quite sure it understood, took it to an open window and released it. As it took off to freedom in the direction of the garden, a bird swooped down from nowhere and ate it. If I’ve learned anything in life it is that it’s never straightforward. Nothing works out quite as it should or as you’d like it to.”
The daily paper
[An enlightening incident from Nigel Hawthorne’s story]
“On my way back to South Africa I was in a bus going from Natal to Johannesburg. It had been six years since I had last been in Africa. Its poverty now haunted me. I suppose I’d forgotten what the poverty was like. As I was about to re-board the bus in a stop, a small, bare-footed boy of about six or seven, arms as thin as toothpicks, wearing a grubby shirt and a pair of ragged shorts which hung to just below his knees, held on by string braces, thrust a copy of the Johannesburg Sunday Times under my nose. It was an old friend. It would be fun sitting in the hotel leafing through the paper. I bought a copy and, keeping my hold-all beside me on the seat as the bus moved off, began to read it. I glanced idly at the social section in case I saw a face I recognised. It was then that I noticed the date. The paper was three weeks old.
I smiled on realising that our world is so repetitive that today’s paper is almost the same as yesterday’s, and this week’s paper the same as the one of three weeks ago. On the other hand I understood how the boy made a living by selling old newspapers to absentminded people like myself. I felt guilty, if you please. Oh, my new English conscience, how it hurt.
I searched for the boy, but he had disappeared. I went into a café for lunch. Half way through my meal, the door of the café opened and who should come in, still clutching most of the copies of the Sunday Times, but my boy. Without allowing him the opportunity of selling me yet another paper, I beckoned him over and, leaving only enough money to pay for my meal, emptied the contents of my pockets into his hands. He must have thought I was mad, and in a way I was. But at least I had eased my conscience.” (p. 8)
That incident has reminded me of a similar one many years ago in India. I was in Ahmedabad, my city, when a bus of German tourists who had come to see “Mahatma Gandhi’s city” and had been brought to visit our St. Xavier’s College where I was came in. They came upon me in a corridor, and they asked me whether I worked there and whether I could make some amount of money reach the poor of the place. On my showing my readiness for their mercy errand, they proceeded to empty their pockets and they filled my hands with their money telling me, one after another, how their conscience hurt them, wealthy tourists in a luxury trip, in the midst now of unexpected poverty. I assured them their money would reach its destination, and later made sure of it. As for myself, I realised once more the greatest problem in the world: the gap between poor and rich, increasing day by day. I know that the generosity of a few German tourists does not solve the problem; but the shock of our conscience is the first step towards a solution. A three-weeks old paper can wake up our soul. That is the best news of the day.
The way to keep, the way to live
“Giving away is keeping;
to have lived is to live.”
When a Dog is Worth Nine Children
[A short story by Albert Taïed, from Ivory Coast, in African Stories, p. 52, shortened.]
Scottie was a magnificent bulldog bitch. In good health, affectionate, lively. Our neighbours left her with us when they went abroad, and our watchman, Bourema, would look after her, though my four-year old son, Romain, who loves dogs, would also help in her care. She would have the best care in the world, food, cleanliness, medicines if required. We played with her at home and on the beach and everywhere.
One day, as I came home at lunch-time, I found our Scottie stretched out on the marble floor, panting heavily; my son was crying next to her. The watchman came up and said: “You must take her to the doctor. I don’t understand why she is sick. It started after she ate, half an hour ago.” I took Scottie to the young vet who had just opened a surgery nearby. He examined her very thoroughly. “I don’t know what is wrong with her. It may be a passing attack that will go away. Be careful what you feed her. I think it’s nothing to worry about. Make sure she has these tablets and bring her back if it starts up again.”
Our Scottie was soon her own cheerful self again and I forgot the incident. But, a fortnight later, once again I found her spreadeagled on the floor, panting and limp. The young vet was really puzzled. “I just don’t understand. All the tests are negative. You’ll have to watch what she eats. I’m giving her a much longer treatment against infections.”
Scottie was soon her cheerful self again, but as for myself, I had lost my peace of mind. I decided to report the matter to a more seasoned vet who had been recommended to me by some friends. “Look”, he said, “everything you tell me is rather odd. It is difficult for me to say what is wrong with her if I don’t see her, and preferably when she has an attack. Next time bring her as quickly as you can. I hope she is just upset and nothing more.” He said he had a hint of an idea about what was ailing Scottie, but he hoped he was wrong.
A few days later, as had already happened twice, Scottie collapsed. But this time things looked more serious. She was drooling profusely, she was spitting blood and moaned very loudly. Immediately I took her to the older vet who had a good look at her, examined her. “Just what I thought,” he said. “I’ll need a few tests to be absolutely sure. But there is no hope for your bitch and, in my opinion, you should put her down rather than leave her in such agony. There is nothing more we can do for her.”
I was sad. I was staggered. “But really, doctor, I do not understand what you are saying. Here is a magnificent animal, in perfect health, clean, well fed, well cared for. And all of a sudden, just like that, nothing can be done for her.” The vet interrupted me. “That’s just it. Forgive me for being so blunt, but you’ve made a big psychological mistake. If we add up what you spend every month to keep your bitch beautiful, well fed and healthy it comes out as fifty thousand francs [old francs]. How much do you pay your watchman, the one who was supposed to look after the dog?
– Fifty thousand a month.
– And how many children has he got?
– Nine, or ten, I think.
– Could anyone bear it for long feeding a dog at a cost which could practically support a whole family with ten children?
– So you think the watchman did it?
– He may have, or the garden boy or all of them. I am quite sure your dog was poisoned. Everyone in your household knows how much you like to spend on her. Your little white lad, they don’t mind you spoiling him, but the bitch they can’t understand. Don’t worry, you are not in the least likely to be poisoned yourself. Social inequality, that they can understand, they can accept. But if you want to keep a dog, then look after it yourself.”
The tests did show traces of poison. Scottie had taken several weeks to die because very small doses had been used to poison her. I had learnt my lesson in psychology, and I vowed to be more careful in future. I did not tell anybody about Scottie. I told Romain that Scottie could not really live in a house, so we had sent her out to the bush. Did he believe my explanation?
Scottie gave me the measure of poverty. We cannot treat an animal like a person. That is, a person like an animal.
Question: A woman friend of mind has lost her son. She wants to convince herself that his son lives, and she has read some books about people who were thought dead and came back to life saying that there is life beyond death. Can you recommend any such book?
Answer: There is no greater sorrow than for a mother to lose her son. Faith tells us we all live after death. Science knows nothing about it. There certainly are some worthy books on this matter, and I have read those of Elisabeth Kübler Ross and have liked them. But the solution does not lie that way. The problem in this case is a psychological one, and the point at issue is not to convince herself that her son is alive, but to accept that he has died. It is hard for a mother to see her son die, but it is harder still to try to prove to herself that he is alive, after he has died. Death has to be accepted. The news of the death opens a wound, a deep and painful wound, and this wound will heal with time, love and faith, once the death is accepted. If it is not accepted, the wound will fester and hurt. We must learn how to take leave from those who left us. This is the best way to prepare the new meeting in heaven. I hope you’ll be able to explain all this to your good friend.
Psalm 89 – Life is short
“Make us know the shortness of your life
That we may gain wisdom of heart.”I bring before my eyes a fact of life: life is short. Time passes swiftly. My days are numbered, and their number is not very high. Before I realise it, before I want it, before I can accept it my day will come and I shall inexorably depart. So soon? So early? In the flower of my life? When I had still so much to do? Death is always sudden because never expected. It always comes too soon, because it is never welcome.
And yet there is wisdom in the memory of death. When I learn that my days are counted, I am moved to use them well. When I accept that my time is limited, I begin to get the most of it. Life can be revalued by the memory of death.
“Our years die away like a murmur.
Seventy years is the span of our life,
eighty if our strength holds;
the hurrying years are labour and sorrow,
so quickly they pass and are forgotten.”
I accept the shortness of my life, Lord, and in the wisdom of that acceptance I find the strength and the urge to make the best in humility of whatever days will be mine. When suffering comes I will know that it’ll soon pass, and when pleasures beckon I will reflect that they too will be with me only for a short time. Thus I will bear suffering and enjoy pleasure with the light heart of one who knows that nothing lasts long. That will bring balance, detachment and wisdom to my life.
“Men are like a dream at daybreak,
they fade like grass
which springs up with the morning
but when evening comes is parched and withered.”
Let the grass behave like grass. In that lies its happiness. If it’s one day it’s one day, but let that day be green with the luscious glory of the smiling fields. If my life is to be like grass, let it be green, let it be fresh, let it live in the intensity of the unique morning all the fullness of nature and all the fullness of grace. Each moment now acquires value of eternity, each blade of grass shines with the tender dew under the rising sun. Each instant is revalued, each event is enhanced, each meeting is a surprise, each meal is a feast. The briefness of the experience brings to it the sharpness of pure awareness and free enjoyment. Life becomes precious precisely because it is short.
Give me, Lord, the wisdom to live the fullness of my life in every instant of it.
Prelude and fugue
It’s a little hard for me to explain this discovery. In my youth I played at the piano the forty eight preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach. Later in life I heard them countless times in various CD versions. They have always delighted me. They fill my soul with wonder, veneration, recollection, joy. But there was something in them I hadn’t discovered till today.
In the prelude-fugue bracket I considered the fugue to be the important part, while the prelude was only a previous warming up to loosen the hands and prepare the atmosphere for what was to come. The prelude did not count. It was only the frame for the picture. What really mattered was the fugue with its motif, its echoes, its hide-and-seek, its sudden turns, its four voices always separated and always together in their flowing mischief till the soothing end. That was the real thing. The prelude was only a brief preparation for the fugue that was to come. In itself it was nothing.
But today I was listening to Sviatoslav Richter’s version while I prepared this page, and then I’ve suddenly and feelingly realised that the prelude is as good as the fugue. Just like that. There is no preparation and execution, no introduction and performance, no simple bureaucratic formality to introduce the true show. The prelude is as beautiful, original, artistic and deep as the fugue itself. And I had not realised it till today.
The name had cheated me. The “pre” in the “prelude” lowers it to something that only “precedes” the game (ludus) which is what really matters. And this is the fallacy. From the moment we see something as merely leading up to something else, it loses its own value. And as we lose its value, we lose art, we lose music, we lose life.
That’s what happens with life itself. Everything seems to be a “preparation” for something else. And thus we are cheated out of life’s value. The whole of life is reduced to preludes. Everything is “for” something else. Life itself is “for” eternity. We miss the beauty of the prelude.
The secret of the “clavier” (clavichord) is that it should be “well tempered”. It must sound properly in each tone and semitone, in each key and each mode. That is the secret of life, too. It is found in everyone of Bach’s fugues… and preludes.
May years ago I read the book “In Quest of God” by Swami Ramdas. It was compulsory reading for those of us who made the Thirty Day Retreat under Tony de Mello’s guidance. I opened the book in its first page and read the first sentence of its first paragraph. It was this: “It was about two years ago that Ram first kindled in the heart of His humble slave, Ramdas, a keen desire to realise His Infinite Love.”
I remember I there and then closed the book out of sheer emotion. I told myself: “I don’t need any more. Everything is in that single sentence. I’ll read the book when I read it, but I don’t need it now. When God has kindled a keen desire in a human heart, everything else follows from that. He who gives the desire will show the way, give the strength, make reach the goal. Everything is there already. It only remains to know it, to feel it, to accept it, to share it. Keen desire. There follow three volumes of Ramdas’s life. And all three are in that brief sentence.
Very few days ago that book fell again unexpectedly into my hands. The three volumes. After so many years. I opened the first volume and read its first sentence. I smiled to myself while a thrill of sudden joy shook my whole body. “God kindled a keen desire.” Now these were my own desires. The desires of my youth and of my maturity made reality along all these years. Desires kindled by God and fulfilled by God in my life. Much have I desired and much have I received. Ramdas was right. Everything starts there. Keen desire. The three volumes will follow in time.
“It is God that gives both the will and the deed.” (Philippians 2:13)
God is everywhere
[Ramdas speaks of himself always in the third person, and refers to himself as “Ramdas”. This is how he tells one of his amusing and instructive adventures.]
Ramdas boarded the train for Kalahasti in Jagannath Puri. It was noon. A ticket inspector, a Christian, dressed in European fashion, stepped into the carriage at a small station and coming to Ramdas asked him for his ticket. “Sadhus carry no tickets, brother, for they neither possess nor care to possess any money”, said Ramdas in English. The ticket inspector replied: “You can speak English. Educated as you are, you cannot travel without a ticket. I have to ask you to get down.” Ramdas got down and said, “It is all Ram’s will.”
He was now on the platform and there was still some time for the train to start. The ticket inspector, meanwhile, felt an inclination to hold conversation with Ramdas who was waiting for the train to depart. He looked at Ramdas and began:
– Well, may I know with what purpose you are travelling in this manner?
– In quest of God.
– They say God is everywhere. Then, where is the fun of your knocking about in search of Him, while He is at the very place from which you started on this quest as you say?
– Right, brother. God is everywhere but Ramdas wants to have this fact actually proved by going to all places and realising His presence everywhere.
– Well then, if you are discovering God wherever you go, you must be seeing Him here, on this spot, where you stand.
– Certainly, brother. He is here at the very place where we stand.
– Can you tell me where he is?
– Behold, He is here, standing in front of me.
– Where, where?
– Here, here! In the tall figure standing in front, that is, in yourself, Ramdas clearly sees God who is everywhere.
Ramdas pointed and patted on the broad chest of the inspector himself. For a time, the inspector looked confused. Then he broke into a hearty fit of laughter. Opening the door of the compartment from which he had asked Ramdas to get down, he requested him to get in again, and he did so, followed by him. He sat in the train with him for some time, and he took leave of Ramdas with these words: “I cannot disturb you, friend. I wish you all success in your quest of God.”
To smoke in freedom
There is a small story in his life that, to my mind, is very telling. Ramdas was a textile engineer who one day had a direct experience of God, left everything and started on his religious quest through the whole of India right up to the Himalayas. He came back to South India, from where he hailed, and there he settled to share his faith, his experience, his quest of God. Before his “conversion” he was a chain smoker of cheap cigarettes. He dropped them totally under the impact of his religious experience. Years later, very occasionally, if someone would offer him a cigarette, he would take it an enjoy it. Then he said: “The make of cigarettes is the same, but there is all the difference between smoking from addiction and smoking in freedom.”
To me this is the best commentary of the famous Chinese saying: “Before conversion, valleys were valleys, and mountains were mountains. During conversion, valleys are mountains, and mountains are valleys. After conversion, valleys are valleys and mountains are mountains.”
One with God
And then, the mystic of this simple anecdote. His typical teaching was the ejaculatory prayer in Sanskrit that all understood, and that he sang, taught, repeated through the whole of India till the entire nation resounded with his prayer and his faith. He himself repeated it constantly, making it consistent with his breath, his conversation, his whole life. And all around it repeated it without a break.
Once he had settled in South India, his disciples noticed that while all repeated the prayer together, he remained silent and his lips did not move. They asked him the reason, and he answered: “Who is there to repeat the Name? He who used to repeat it has ceased to exist, having become one with God.”
Continuing to flow
“Our position is like the Ganges which, having reached the ocean and become one with it, still continues running towards it.” [Swami Ramdas]
[This letter has delighted me.]
“You have helped me to solve a problem.
I decided to write to you asking your advice in the matter of prayer.
As I was searching for the proper words to propose my problem, the solutions kept arriving…
Thank you, since if I hadn’t had the opportunity to write to you on the matter, maybe I would not have solved my problems.
Thank you just for being there, being as you are.
Maybe your Angel and mine have a faster Internet connection than we have.
Psalm 90- God’s daily care
He will cover you with his pinions,
and you shall find safety beneath his wings.All my day is under your care, Lord, and I want to be mindful of it minute by minute as I live my life by day and by night.
You shall not fear the hunter’s trap by night
or the arrow that flies by day,
the pestilence that stalks in darkness
or the plague raging at noonday.
By day and night, at noon and in darkness, you are with me, Lord. I need that confidence to brave the dangers that beset me. This world is an unsafe place for mind and for body, and I cannot venture alone into the constant threat. I want to hear again the words of reassurance as I start a new day or as I entrust my body to sleep, to feel safe in work and in rest under your loving and unfailing care.
No disaster shall befall you,
no calamity shall come upon your home,
for he has charged his angels to guard you
wherever you go,
to lift you on their hands
for fear you should strike your foot against a stone.
Lovely words for me. Lovely thought of angels watching my step and saving me from stumbling on a stone. Lovely image of your Providence made wings to flutter over me with the message of your love and your concern. Thank you for your angels, Lord. Thank you for your care of me. Thank you for your love.
Now I want to hear from your own lips the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard, with the message of your daily care as a sign of the fullness of salvation. Say them slowly, Lord, as I listen to them with all my heart.
Because his love is set on me, I will deliver him;
I will lift him beyond danger,
for he knows me by my name.
When he calls upon me, I will answer,
I will be with him in time of trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honour.
I will satisfy him with long life
to enjoy the fullness of my salvation.
Thank you, Lord.
The royal guru
There is a story of an old king in India who asked the royal guru in real concern: “Why is it that religion does not have in our days the strength and power we are told it had in older days?”
The guru brought into the court a vessel full of oil, and then distributed empty vessels to all the courtiers along the walls of the hall. Then he asked the first one to pour out the oil from the filled-up vessel into the empty vessel his neighbour held, and this one to do the same with his neighbour, all along the walls of the royal court. When it was the king’s turn at the end of the row, and he held out the last vessel for the oil to be poured into it, there were only a few drops left. And he understood, as the kings of old understood the acted-out parables of their priests and prophets.
Any substance, however noble, wears out and sticks on in transmission. Messages and ideas and experiences pass on from hand to hand and from mind to mind; and interpretations and distortions and additions and substractions go on affecting the original communication and weakening its strength. And if there are many steps in the ladder and many generations in history, we may get only a few drops of oil at the end in our eager vessels. And religion loses its strength.
Emptying the cup
“For most of us, turning on the computer is a routine act. Zen Computer asks that we make it a mindful one.
Each time we start the computer marks a new beginning. Even if we’re applying ourselves to tasks left over from the day before, today’s start is a new start – a chance to reminding ourselves that, in this moment, we embark down the path of spiritual growth with a fresh step and a beginner’s mind.
The beginner’s mind is a mind free of preconceptions, arrogance, and cynicism. It is like an empty cup, ready at all times to receive a drop of wisdom.
The image of the empty cup stems from a classic Zen parable, told and retold through the years, about the Zen master Nan-in. Nan-in was said to have received a university professor inquiring about Zen. As the meeting progressed, the host noticed that the professor spent most of the time talking instead of listening. Nan-in began pouring the visitor’s tea until it overflowed onto the table.
“What are you doing?” the professor exclaimed. “Like this cup, you are full of your own ideas”, the master said. “How can I teach if you don’t first empty your cup?”
Every time we start up the computer, we should remember to empty our cup. Whatever pressures we feel, whatever carries over from the previous day’s work, whatever challenges lie ahead, we must remember to empty our cup and start fresh. This is mindful thinking.”
[Zen Computer by Philip Toshio, p. 44]
The arrow and the illumination
“The story is told of the Buddha that he explained how a man hit by an arrow had, first of all and as soon as possible, see to it how he could be healed of the wound. The mistake would be to start asking where the arrow came from, who shot it, out of which kind of wood has it been shaped, etc.
Rumi, the Persian poet, has taken up almost word by word the same parable.
A soldier was wounded by an arrow in battle. They went to remove the arrow and heal him, but he demanded to be told first who the archer was, to which group did he belong, and where had he placed himself in order to shoot. He also wanted to know the exact shape of the bow and how many strings it had. While he was trying to find out all this, he died.”
[Le cercle des menteurs, by Jean-Claude Carrière, p. 422]
“Christ healed the blind, the lame, the palsied, and the leprous. But the fool… he could not cure.” [Kahlil Gibran]
The woman in the spangled black dress left the rest of the party, and made room on the sofa for the sunburned young man with the quiet eyes.
– Where have you been all this time? Nearly two years!
– Well, I was in Arabia, mostly.
– Arabia! Well, just imagine that. Tell me all about it. How did you like it?
– Well, I had a good time.
– I’ve often wondered about Arabia. Tell me some more about it. Isn’t there an awful lot of sand and everything?
– Well, there is, but, you see…
– Sand! Don’t tell me! After this summer down at Dune Harbour, I’ve had enough of sand, thank you. I could write a book about sand. Always in your shoes, no matter what you did, and the children tracking it into the house till I thought I’d go crazy. Ever been to Dune Harbour?
– Well, don’t. Nothing but sand, sand, sand. You can get all the sand you want right there, without going off to any Arabia.
– Well, you see, the way it is in Arabia…
– And my husband on that beach! You’d had died. The first day he got down there he just lay out there, and lay out there, and the first thing you knew, his shoulders! I thought about you, right away. I said if you could have seen those shoulders of his, you just simply would have died.
– It must have been awfully funny. You see, what I was going to say, in Arabia…
– Tell me about all these Arabs. What are they like, anyway?
– Why, there’s a lot of…
– You know, I’ve always been sure I could get along with people like that. Arabs and everything. I’m so interested in people, they just seem to know, and they let me see their inside selves. Oh, I’m always making friends with the darndest people! Arabs! Oh, I’d love anything like that. Well, go on, tell me about it. Where did you stay?
– I lived right with the natives. As soon as you got used to it, you…
– Oh, I could do it, I could do it in a minute. I don’t care what I have to put up with, just as long as I’m travelling and seeing new things. When we were in Milan, three years ago, we went to this little hotel – the place was so crowded, there was nothing but Americans, wherever you went. Guess what happened? We got fleas. Absolutely. Fleas. But I just said: “Well, that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to expect when you’re travelling.” Well, that’s the way I am. Nothing fazes me. But look, these Arabs. Don’t they all have a lot of wives or something?
– Why, lots of them have more than one wife…
– Aren’t they terrible? And don’t they all pretend to be terribly religious or something?
– No matter where a man goes, he always has his little mat, to…
– Yes I know. Prayer rugs. That’s what they call them. Prayer rugs. I’ll never forget, before I was married, we had this perfectly beautiful prayer rug in the living-room, right in front of the piano. We girls used to have a regular joke about it. We used to keep teasing father, which one of us he was going to give it to – oh, he thought the world and all of that prayer rug! So then father got married again, and of course, he kept the prayer rug right there. Oh, we often have a good laugh about that prayer rug! I suppose you’ve seen a lot of them.
– Yes, yes, I have.
– I’m crazy about their work. I’d love to see them doing it. I’ve often thought what I’d like to do. Oh, there’s my husband at the door. Will you come soon? Please, please.
– Thank you very much.
– And it was simply too wonderful to hear all about Arabia. My, you’ve made me feel as if I was in an awful rut, just living here. But I’m going to do it some day, I warn you. One of these days I’ll go to Arabia to see all you’ve told me about it. You needn’t think you’re done with Arabia yet, by any manner of means. You come soon!
– Good night.
– Good night.
[Short story by Dorothy Parker, “Complete Stories”, p. 57, abridged.]
I was congratulate on my not having a cellular phone, but now I’ve got it already, and I’m told I can say, “I have a cellular, therefore I exist”, that the size of the phone is in inverse proportion to the quality of existence, that the number of functions it has is in inverse proportion to the number of functions its owner needs, and that the level of the battery is always in inverse proportion to what I would need at the moment.
They told me how after an operation in the hospital, a cellular rang, and all the surgeons searched in their pockets… while the ringing phone was inside the patient where it had fallen from the surgeon’s breast pocket without anybody noticing.
Blacker still, the cellular rang from the dead man’s coat during the funeral, as it had been left there. Nobody dared take it up, fearing the call might come from the other world.
The Times of London published once by mistake the obituary of a person who was still alive. He read the news in the paper and phoned the editor: “I’m the man whose obituary you’ve published in your paper of today.” There was an ominous silence, and the editor asked with an awesome voice: “May I know where are you speaking from?”
I’m also told that in Silicon Valley they now organise “Retreats for technological disintoxication”. We’ll have to apply.
Psalm 91 – A song of optimism
I wish all days were like today, Lord. I feel light and happy; full of faith and full of energy. I feel sorry for all those complaints, remonstrances, and even accusations I made against you in moments of anger. I don’t understand how I can have been so blind to your presence and so forgetful of your graces. It is true that I pass through dark moments at times, but then I have also glorious days like this one in which the sun shines and the birds sing and I want to tell everybody about the happiness I have found in you, which is the greatest humans can ever find on earth.
O Lord, it is good to give you thanks,
to sing psalms to your name, O Most High;
to declare your love in the morning
and your constancy every night,
to the music of a ten-stringed lute,
to the sounding chords of the harp.
Your acts, O Lord, fill me with exultation;
I shout in triumph at your might deeds.
How great are your deeds, O Lord!
How fathomless your thoughts!Only song and music can do justice to my mood today, Lord. To sing of your greatness, to proclaim at the top of my voice how great you are and how loving you are and how wonderful it is to be at your service and to form part of your people. Oh, when will all men see what I see, when will all come to you and drink at the sources of your grace the happiness that you alone can give! If they only knew your sweetness and your power! How to tell them, Lord? How to make my happiness reach others? How to let all men and women know that you are the Lord and that in you we all find our rest?
I don’t want to preach, I don’t want to argue with any one. I just want to live the happiness you give me today, and to let others see the genuineness of my joy. My cheerfulness is my witness. My satisfaction is my messenger.
I lift my head high, like a wild ox tossing its horn;
I am anointed richly with oil.
The righteous flourish like a palm-tree,
they grow tall as a cedar on Lebanon;
planted as they are in the house of the Lord,
they flourish in the courts of our God,
vigorous in old age like trees full of sap,
luxuriant, wide spreading,
eager to declare that the Lord is just,
the Lord my rock
in whom there is no unrighteousness.This is my happy mood today. Thanks for it, Lord, long or short as it may prove to be; and be assured from now of my acceptance from your hands of whatever other mood you may be pleased to send me next.
You, Lord, reign on high eternally.
Tragedy closer home
My thanks to all of you who have called and written when you heard of the Madrid terrorist attack. Two days before, I had been in that same railway station at about the same hour. And a friend of mine was going to arrive there today, the 11th, in another train a few minutes before the explosion. He just escaped. This brings tragedy home. When I heard of it I went to watch TV, but I found myself weeping and left. I went back to work and to serenity. Tomorrow I’ll be going to the public demonstration, as I’ve always gone to the demonstrations for the great causes in our days. My thanks, too, to those of you who tried to phone me and could not get through as the lines were crowded, as I realised when the phone rang and, on taking it, it cut itself dead. We are together in suffering, and that gives us the right to be together in joy, too. Now I’ll understand you better when you share with me the sorrows of life. Love to all.
Faith of Our Fathers
I often sing while I walk. I sing aloud, without shouting, of course, but pronouncing each word of the song and sharpening each note. I hear it, my Guardian Angel hears it, the passers-by hear it as the cross me and pay no attention to my melodies. But I like to remember songs that shaped my life and nurtured my soul, I like to fill the air, to sanctify the streets, to proclaim my joy and to light up the face of the city. And I sing while I walk my own brisk way.
Sometimes I sing in English. The magnificent old hymns that accompanied my learning the language. One favourite, for instance:
“Faith of our fathers, living still
in spite of dungeon, fire and sword.
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word!
Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to thee till death.”
Sometimes I sing in Spanish, and the other day I was singing an old and beautiful hymn to Our Lady when I reached a red traffic light and I stopped while I went on quietly singing. An old lady was waiting by my side, and I saw a smile light up her face. I went on singing. When the light turned green, before we crossed the street she turned to me and said: “Weren’t those hymns beautiful!” Yes, they were. We went ahead on the hallowed street.
A good loser
[Jack Welch, president of General Electric for twenty years, narrates the lesson he learned from his mother, learned it for life.]
“That was the last hockey game in a fateful season. As vice-captain of the team I had scored a couple of goals and we had hopes of winning. It was a good game and we reached extra time two-all. Yet, our rivals scored at once and we lost for the seventh time in a row. In a fit of anger I threw the hockey stick and went into the changing room. The other players were already removing their skates and their shirts. Suddenly the door opened and my mother came it. She was Irish.
The hole room was hushed. All the eyes were fixed on that middle aged woman, dressed in a flowery dress, who was crossing the room in front of my fellow players who were already changing. She came straight to me and grabbed my shirt.
– This is not done! – She shouted at me. – If you don’t know how to lose, you will never know how to win. And if you don’t know how to win, don’t play.
She shamed me before all my friends, but I never forgot her words. My mother taught me the value of competition, as also the pleasure of victory and the need to assume failure.”
[Jack: Straight from the Gut, p. 23]
A beggar was sitting by the wayside, without moving and with his eyes closed.
A thief passed that way and thought: “This is a thief. He’s feigning sleep to attack anyone that goes near. That won’t be me.” And he walked off the path.
A drunkard came by and told to himself: “This one is properly drunk! Sleep, sleep, my man; you’ll wake at your own time.” And he went ahead.
A saint came and concluded: “This is a saint, absorbed in meditation.” He sat by his side and prayed.
They call that projection.
Ask and you shall receive
“If you call on the Lord long enough and sincerely enough, he cannot help responding. I saw a graphic illustration of this once when my wife and I were walking in Berkeley near the campus and chanced upon the final scene of a lover’s quarrel.
The young lady must have given the boyfriend his hat, told him that she never wanted to see him again, and pushed him out the door. He stood there on the sidewalk and began to call her name: “Cynthia, Cynthia.” He shouted it louder and louder and soon the whole block was echoing with “Cynthia! Chyntia! Cynthia!” Passers-by were staring, the neighbours were coming out of their houses to see what was going on, and dogs began to howl.
Finally Cynthia opened an upstairs window and told him, “All right, I’m coming down.” In just the same way, sincere and systematic use of the Holy Name can bring the power of the Lord to play in our own lives.”
[Eknath Easwaran, Mantram Handbook, p. 6]
Tales of Iblis [The Devil]
A Sufi saint went to sleep one day without remembering to say his night prayers. Suddenly he noticed that someone was shaking him in his sleep and was telling him, “Get up, get up at once and say your prayers before you sleep more.” He got up at once, got ready to pray, and before that he wanted to know who was the well-wisher that had so timely woken him up.
– Who are you to whom I’m indebted for the favour to avoid the sin of sleeping without prayer?
– I’m Iblis.
– Iblis. The Devil?
– Yes. In person. Always at your service.
– I don’t understand.
– It’s very simple. Do you remember what happened a few days ago when the same thing happened to you? You went to sleep without saying your prayers, and then the next morning when you woke up and remembered you had not said your prayers the previous night, you felt so sorry, undertook such penances, and said so many more prayers that you gained far greater merit before God than if you had simply said your night prayers. Do you remember?
– Yes, of course I do.
– Well then. I don’t want this to be repeated. It’s bad enough that you pray, but if on top of that you’re going to earn more merit with your repentance for not having prayed, I can’t stand it. So now, please, be a good boy, get up and pray all that you have to pray, but don’t come tomorrow with your repentance and your penance.
– Thank you, Iblis.
– Get down to your prayers, as I’m here watching till you finish.
– In the name of the Father…
Iblis was worried. His officers had told him about a man who was an atheist, but who, in spite of that, would say always his morning and night prayers regularly every day, and on top of that went to Mass every Sunday. That was dangerous. Wouldn’t he turn again to God in the long run? Iblis decided to find out by himself, and he appeared before the man when he was about to begin his night prayers in his home.
– Tell me, are you an atheist?
– Yes, by the grace of God.
– I don’t understand.
– I mean that I certainly am a convinced atheist, and I’m sure there is no such a thing as God and there never was.
– That’s fine with me. But then, why do you pray to God if you don’t believe in him, and why do you go to Mass on Sunday?
– Quite simple. I’m pretty sure God doesn’t exist. But you never know. Maybe he exists after all. And so, in order to make sure in any event, just in case he may exist – what God forbid – I want to square my account with him and so I pray morning and night and I go to Holy Mass on Sunday. Just in case. One has to make sure, you know.
– Yes, I understand. Do pray now whatever you have to pray. I don’t mind your doing so.
When Iblis went down to hell and told his followers about his visit to the atheist, they were shocked and asked him:
– Why did you tell him that you did not mind if he prayed? Isn’t always bad for us that a human may pray at all?
– By no means. If he prays honestly, yes, we are the losers. But if he prays a lie, we are the winners. God prefers an honest atheist to a false devotee. And, besides, there is the bad example for society of a man who goes to Mass and then is an atheist. There are many such, thank God. Leave him alone.
In a meeting of devils the discussion centred around a point that was worrying many. One of them exposed it like this:
– Religious preachers tell their faithful that they must always live under the fear of the Lord.
– What do they teach them?
– The teach them that they all are sinners, that they must fear God, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that God punishes sin, that they have to confess all their sins, and that if they die in sin they’ll suffer in hell fire for all eternity.
– That’s fine. They’re welcome here.
– But that’s the point. They won’t come here. If the fear of God once enters their soul and the fear of hell grips their consciences, they’ll not sin any more and they’ll go to heaven.
– Don’t you worry.
– You really do not mind if humans fear God?
– I don’t mind. Provided they don’t love him…
[This poem by Pablo Neruda has been sent to me, and I’ve liked it.]
“He dies a slow death who never travels, never reads, never listens to music, never finds grace in himself.
He dies a slow death who destroys his self-love, who never lets others help him.
He dies a slow death who becomes a slave to habit and walks every day the same way,
he who never changes a trade mark, does not risk dressing in a new colour, never speaks to someone he doesn’t know.
He dies a slow death who makes television his guru.
He dies a slow death who avoids a passion,
he who prefers to dot his i’s and cross his t’s rather than accepting the whirlwind of feelings, those that precisely give the eyes their glamour, change yawns into smiles, give life to the heart.
He dies a slow death who does not overturn his desk when his work makes him miserable, who does not trade certainties for uncertainties to follow a dream, who does not allow himself, at least once in life, to fly from all sensible advice offered to him.
He dies a slow death who spends his days complaining about his bad luck or about the constant rain.
He dies a slow death who abandons a project before he’s begun it, who does not ask about a point he does not know, or does not answer when they ask him about something he knows.
He dies a slow death who…”
Psalm 92 – The Lord of the sea
I watch in awe the eternal sight of the mighty waves of an enraged sea pounding away on the stubborn rocks of the haughty waterfront. The rumbling noise, the heaving tide, the head-on crash, the white fury, the unyielding stand, the foam, the spray, the waters receding to come charging again. I never tire of watching the might of the sea, the primeval abyss where life was formed, the secret depth, the untiring breath, the infinite expanse. Figure and mirror of the Lord who made it.
“O Lord, the ocean lifts up,
the ocean lifts up its clamour;
the ocean lifts up its pounding waves.
The Lord on high is mightier far
than the noise of great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea.”I worship your power, Lord, I bow in humility before your might. In my heart I rejoice to see glimpses of your omnipotence, to see you as unchallenged Master of sea and earth, because I fight on your side, and your victories are mine. I grow in confidence, I acquire courage, I experience joy. My King is the King of kings and Lord of lords. My daily life is easier because you are Lord. My future is safe because you rule all time. My salvation is assured, because you, almighty God, are my Redeemer.
I like to look at the sea because it reminds me of your majesty, Lord.
“The Lord is King;
he is clothed in majesty.”
That first cup of tea is not sold to any customer. Neither is it drunk by the owner of the stand. Nor, again, is it given free to anyone. The cha-wallah takes it carefully in his hands, advances till the middle of the street, pours out the tea on the asphalt, and goes back to his place. On the asphalt remains the ochre stain, wet with the running liquid and hot with its steam. The traffic soon wipes it out and mixes it away with all the human, vegetal, animal relics in the waking city. And the day’s life begins.
That first cup is the libation to the gods. When the ancient Romans drank their wine they first poured out a few drops on their hand and from the hand on to the ground as an offering to the gods so that they would not feel jealous at the good wine humans were drinking and would continue to bless them. That is the libation. And that is the meaning of that first cup of tea. It is an offering to the gods that they may share in the drink that gives life to India and may bless the business in the humble tea-stand.
Once I did see a different gesture. The tea vendor prepared the first cup, placed it on its saucer, filled it to the brim, brought it to the middle of the street and poured it duly out. But before doing that, however, he had poured out half of the contents on the saucer itself, and he drank that half directly from the saucer while he poured the other half on the street.
Was that selfishness? Meanness? Half-hearted faith? None of these. It was another beautiful costume. In the houses of the poor there aren’t many cups, and often they are not enough for all the guests. The etiquette then demands that the host should take the first cup and saucer, should pour out half the tea on the saucer and keep it for himself to drink directly from it after he has given the cup to the host for him to drink the other half. That way the tea reaches all and crockery is spared.
But there is something more important. The dividing out the tea between saucer and cup is also a sign of communion, closeness, hospitality, brotherhood. And that was what the cha-wallah had done with the first cup of the day. He had shared it with God. Half and half. There cannot be a better gesture to begin the day. Business will certainly look up.
Another Indian gesture
“During the monsoon season in Kerala, the South-Indian state from which I hail, the rice fields spread out like an emerald carpet far into the horizon. It is a time of growth and of rejoicing for all creatures. When I was a child I used to walk with my spiritual guide, my mother’s mother, across those rice fields till our ancestors’s temple.
As we walked, we often saw by the road the discarded slough of a snake wound up on itself. One day I asked my grandmother: “Why do snakes slough off their skin?” Her answer was full of wisdom. Now I realise that she was referring to many more things besides snakes. “If the snakes would not slough off their skin”, she answered, “they would not grow. They would stifle within their old sheath.”
I’ve often remembered her words. Actually, we too must grow. The lack of stimulus in our youth, the lack of satisfaction in many grown-ups seem to indicate that our society is ready to slough off the obsolete definition of who we are and what we can become.”
[Eknath Easwaran, Your Life is Your Message, p. 25]
[A story by Osho to examine ourselves about the services we render to others.]
The boys were told they had to perform a good deed every day. Big or small, important or trivial, public or private, but no day should pass without its good work. They were also given simple examples of such works. To help an old woman cross the street, to read out the day’s newspaper to grandfather, to pick up something that had fallen down and give it to its owner, to take the rubbish out. So many small things can be done to lighten the daily life of those with whom we live. At least once a day.
The next day the boys were asked which good deed they had done the previous day.
One answered: “I helped an old woman to cross the street.”
The second answered: “I helped an old woman to cross the street.”
The third answered: “I helped an old woman to cross the street.”
The teacher encouraged all to keep doing good works every day, but when he saw that the three boys had said the same thing, he grew suspicious and he asked them the place and time when they had helped the old woman. All the three coincided on the same place and time.
– Is it, then, that there were three old women to cross the street?
– No, sir. There was only one.
– Do you mean to say that the three of you helped the same woman?
– Yes, that’s right. We helped the same woman.
– But to cross the street one doesn’t need that much help. It is enough to take the person’s hand and lead her across. Was the lady so old or was she unable to walk?
– No, no. She was neither old nor weak. In fact she was quite active and strong. We had no end of trouble trying to get her across the street between the three of us.
– What do you mean trouble? What did you all three do?
– The point is, sir, that she did not want to cross the street, but we had our good deed to perform, and so we took hold of her between us three, pushed her and forced her and somehow succeeded in getting her to the other side in spite of all the screaming and kicking and cursing of the old lady. But we were determined in our good deed, and finally we got her across and we felt satisfied to have done our duty for the day.
[Osho, The Dammapada, vol. 4, p. 13]
[The pertinent question before any “good deed” is: Whose need is it? Is it their need or is it mine? Perhaps some “good deeds” would drop after this question.]
Tales of Iblis [The Devil]
Iblis’s messengers gathered before him to give an account of their undertakings. They had been entrusted with the task to cool down the fervour of some new converts who were beginning a new life of faith and prayer, helping one other and organising a common apostolic programme so that they would not succeed in their religious renewal.
The first worker explained: “I try to get them to lose their faith. Let them be discouraged, disappointed, dispirited, and they’ll soon stop.”
Iblis answered: “Well done. But they have been told of the trials of faith, and they’ll come out of them with greater faith. That will not work.”
The second worker reported: “I try to get them lose their joy. Let them quarrel among themselves, be saddened at their own shortcomings, and soon lose all their enthusiasm.”
Iblis commented: “Good work. But they can also be stubborn and plough ahead out of sheer duty even without joy. That will not do.”
The third hinted: “I encourage them to do all they had proposed to do, to pray, to organise, to preach, to act…, but I only tell them… not to be in a hurry.”
Iblis sentenced: “That’s perfect. They’ll do nothing. You get the prize.”
– I’m in charge of that couple, O Iblis, and I’m succeeding in getting them to live together without getting married.
– What do you get with that?
– We get that they’ll go on sinning, and each sin is a matter for rejoicing for us down here.
– I believe it would be better for them to marry.
– What do you mean? To really marry in the sacrament and get their union sanctified in the Church? God forbid!
– Yes. Let them marry in the Church with all solemnity. Let them be husband and wife till death do them part.
– And what good is that for us?
– That they’ll then divorce, by the devil, they’ll divorce!
– We’ve got a problem, Iblis, down here, and it’s a serious one.
– What’s the problem?
– You see, our traditional job has always been that of tempters. To tempt men and women to make them sin and come to hell.
– So it is, and we’ve never lacked work.
– Now we do.
– How’s that?
– Because now men and women tempt one another by themselves, they do it through television, through cinema, through the advertisements, through Internet. Sin is now within everybody’s reach, and they push one another towards it. We are left out. We are always late and useless. They have taken away our jobs, and our syndicate is doing nothing to get them back. What are we, devils, to do, since tempting humans is the only thing we know? We are tempters by profession, and nobody now needs a tempter. How are we going to make a living?
– I see you don’t understand our headquarters’ policy.
– Which policy?
– The plan for making humans lose their sense of sin.
– And how does that help us?
– It helps us because sin does exist, whether they admit it or not, and sin leads to hell, which is what we ultimately want.
– Do you mean to say that, even if they don’t know it, they’re going to land in our place for eternity?
– That’s the idea.
– In other words, from being tempters to sin we now become persuaders that there is no sin.
– That’s it. And do keep up the heat as we’re going to need it.
– Thank you, Lord.
What are we to think about petitionary prayer when God does not grant what we ask for in spite of all his promises in the gospel?
The problem of apparently unanswered prayer was already noticed by the evangelists, and solved by Luke. Matthew quotes Jesus thus:
“Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, those who seek find, and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Would any of you offer his son a stone when he asks for bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you, bad as you are, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!” (7:7-11)
These words seem to guarantee the success of any petition provided only we ask for good things. But this does not always happen. Luke realised that, and so when recording that saying of Christ he says almost the same as Matthew but significantly changes the last sentence: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (11:13) What God always does give with full certainty is the Holy Spirit, who gives us strength to undergo any trial. That is the best gift.
Psalm 93 – Teach me, Lord
“Happy the man whom you instruct, O Lord,
and teach out of your law.”I need your instruction, Lord. I want to be a docile pupil in your wide classroom. I want to observe, I want to assimilate, I want to learn. I know that the teaching goes on the whole day, only my learning fails because I do not pay attention, I do not recognise the situations, I do not hear your voice.
Teach me through the events of the day. You put them before me, therefore you know their meaning and their importance for me. Teach me how to read them, how to decipher your messages in a chance encounter, in a piece of news, in a sudden joy, in a threatening worry. You are there, Lord. Your hand is in those writings. Your face is behind those faces. Let me recognise it. Let me understand what you want to tell me through each one of those events and encounters along my day.
Teach me through the silence of my heart. You need no words and no actions. You are present in my moods and you read my innermost thoughts. Teach me to know myself. Teach me to understand this mess of feelings and this tangle of ideas that is inside me and that I myself don’t understand. Why do I react as I react? Why do I feel sad without motive? Why do I get angry with people I love? Why cannot I pray when I want to pray? Why do I doubt you when I swear by you? Why do I hate myself when I know you love me? Why am I such a riddle to myself that the more I reflect the less I understand my own mind?
Teach me trough others, teach me through experience, teach me through life. Free my instincts from routine and prejudice that they may guide me with nature’s wisdom through the jungle of decisions. Enliven my senses that they may give back to me the freshness of creation through the friendliness of my body. Still my mind that it may perceive in virginal innocence the unspoilt images of the world of thought. Cleanse my heart that it may beat with steady confidence to the eternal rhythms of friendship and love.
Teach me through your presence, your word, your grace. Make me see things as you see them, make me value what you value and reject what you reject. Make me trust your Providence and believe that men and women are good even when they hurt me or wish me ill. Make me have faith in your action among men and women, and rejoice with the hope of the coming of your Kingdom.
Teach me, Lord, teach me day by day, teach me trough my life that I may grow in understanding of myself, of life and of you, and the light in my mind may illumine for my steps the path that leads to you.
What’s the time?
I was walking on the street when someone stopped me and asked me the time. What’s the time, please? I must have quite an amenable look, as people often stop me in the street to ask me for the time or for any address in the neighbourhood. I looked at my watch and told him the exact time. Then I hinted to him to look to his right. There, quite close and quite big was a public clock with the time in large numbers. He smiled. He hadn’t seen it. He thanked me and went his way.
In computer class the girl at my side asked me the time. I pointed to the right lower corner in the screen of her own computer. There was the time before her own eyes. She laughed and kissed me.
Another day a friend was talking on his cellular phone, finished his conversation and, with the phone still in his hand, asked me for the time. I pointed to his phone. There, once more, on the little screen was the time.
Next time I’m asked, I’m going to point to the sun, to see whether they figure it out from its position.
The art of not seeing. To have the thing before our very nose and not to see it. We are losing our senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. To feel, to sense, to notice. To realise. To know where we are. To be aware. To live.
Where am I when I am not where I am?
The beautiful princess
Princess Sukanya, which is “the beautiful princess” in Sanskrit, and who lived in a time of fairies and gods and goddesses and saints in the kingdoms of India, was one day playing in the forest with her maids when she saw an anthill as tall as herself. It had only two little holes towards the top, and she put her fingers into them to get the ants to come out. She had not suspected what was inside. One hundred years before, the saint Chyavana had sat there in prayer and had not moved since, so that the termites had built their house all around him. The two little holes were over the saint’s eyes, and when the princess put her fingers through them, she, unwillingly and unwittingly, made him blind.
To make up for her thoughtlessness she married him, in spite of his being old and blind, and looked after him with great care in a little hut in the forest. One day the two Indian gods of medicine, the charming and mischievous Ashvini Kumars, approached her and told her:
– You are spoiling your life, just looking after that old man.
– He is my husband.
– You are young, you are beautiful, you are a princess. You deserve better.
– I’m contented as I am.
– Since you love your husband so much, we offer you a deal. We’ll cure your husband’s blindness, and you will marry one of us, whomever you choose, as you see we are young and handsome and charming.
– No deal.
– Sorry, we were saying that just in order to tempt you and to test your virtue. We are not only doctors, we are also gods. So now, as a recompense for your virtue and your fidelity to your husband, we are going to heal his blindness, and we’ll also restore him to his youth because of your merits.
– Very obliged.
– But you’ll still have to undergo a test.
– Which test?
– See. Your husband and we two are going to go into that lake; we’ll go under water, and when we come out, all the three of us will look absolutely identical. You’ll have to guess which of the three is your husband. If you guess wrongly, things will remain as they are. Agreed?
– Agreed. Off with you into the water!
The three men jumped into the waters of the lake, and when they came out they were indeed absolutely identical in good looks and youth and charm. All three stood there with their hands joined, smiling and waiting. Who was the husband?
The princess knew the three traits that marked a god that walked the earth: no footprints, no shadow, and no blinking of eyes. But the twin gods also knew them, and so when they came out of the lake they stepped strongly so as to leave footsteps, they stood for the test under a shady tree so that none of the shadows could be discerned, and they started to blink just as we humans do. In that way, all the three men were doing the same, and the princess was in a real fix.
But the saint Chyavana had not meditated for a hundred years just in vain. He noticed the trick, and so he did just the opposite of what he was supposed to do. He held on without blinking while the other two were blinking desperately. Now the princess thought quickly: “Two are blinking while one is not blinking, which is just the opposite of what it should be. I’ve got my man.” She winked at her husband. The twins laughed and blessed them. And they all blinked in fun. And they were happy ever after.
Did you get the lesson? Gods and goddesses go about in disguise. Just pay attention to someone who does not blink, casts no shadow and leaves no footprints. Or, again, notice anyone who does blink, cast a shadow and leave footprints. Treat them well as they may be gods or goddesses who are doing it just to put you off. If you now treat all men and women as possible gods and goddesses, they’ll heal you, they’ll bless you, they’ll solve all your problems, and you will be happy. So was princess Sukanya.
“There is all the difference in the world between the severity of our parents in our time and the permissiveness of the present parents with their children.”
Guess who said that? Chateaubriand, referring to his own childhood in his autobiography. He was born in 1768. Her parents belonged to the nobility, yet discipline in their home was severe.
“My shirts were all patches; I never had a pair of socks without holes; my shoes were so out of shape that they came out at my every step; my face was full of dirt and scars and bruises; I had never any money, and to avoid being looked down upon by others, I always avoided people. At night, things were no better for me at home. I could not stomach some foods, yet I was forced to eat them. I was never allowed to come near the fire in the hearth. There is all the difference in the world between the severity of our parents in our time and the permissiveness of the present parents with their children.
Both in summer and in winter my father got up at four in the morning. He had coffee at five, and remained working in his office till noon. I feigned studying in my room till midday. At half past eleven the bell went for lunch. After lunch the family remained together till two. Then I went again to my room, or went out on the fields. At eight was the dinner bell, and in fair weather we would then come out a while and sit on the outside steps. We spent the time watching the sky, the forest, the last rays of the sun and the first stars. At ten we entered the castle again and we retired to rest.”
[Watching the sky at night. Some television.]
A ship is safe in the harbour. But that’s hardly what ships were made for.
Many of you have seen Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of Christ” and have written to me about it. The film follows the Gospel. The deepest question you ask is, Why did Jesus have to suffer? I’m going to sum up for you here an article by the theologian Harald Schöndorf, S.J., which appeared recently under that very title in the magazine “Selecciones de teología”, nº 168, p. 243.
St Paul tells us that “Jesus died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15, 3), but gives no further explanation. These are the main Catholic explanations.
1. Anselmian theory. St Anselmus of Canterbury, XI century. Humans sinand their sin offends God; since God is infinite, finite humans cannot make reparation for the offence; then God becomes incarnate in Jesus, who being man represents us and being God gives infinite value to his acts, and so his death atones for our sins. This has been the traditional theory right down to our times, but the majority of present-day theologians reject it for three reasons: (1) It is unjust. In it, literally, “the just pays for the sinner”. (2) It is cruel. If Jesus had to die, why such a brutal kind of death? (3) It is unnecessary. Couldn’t God the Father simply forgive us as the Gospel itself says the father of the prodigal forgives his son immediately and without conditions?
2. Solidarity theory. God becomes man to be one with humans. He identifies with us to the end, even to the direst consequences of human existence. That takes him to his passion and his cross. This is the most appealing explanation, but many theologians do not accept it because it is based only in God’s solidarity with us, but does not include the aspect of redemption which is essential.
3. Kingdom theory. Jesus, in the Father’s plan, did not come to die but to convert us to the Kingdom. Humans refused to be converted. Here comes the parable of the murderous workers at the vineyard (Matthew 21,33) in which the owner of the vineyard sends his son, the workers kill him, and the owner condemns them to death. Now the end changes significantly to show that God’s love is greater than human malice, and instead of condemning us He forgives us. This theory presents the same difficulty as the previous one, as it does not include the redemptive aspect.
4. The Our Father theory. The petition “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us” makes us realise that God is the model of all forgiving, as though it said: “Forgive one another as I have forgiven you.” In order to be able to say that, God has to suffer, as only the one who suffers can forgive, and in order to suffer, God has to become man, as God himself cannot suffer. Thus the aspect of forgiveness is present at the incarnation and at Christ’s death. This theory does incorporate the aspect of redemption, but its interpretation of the Our Father is not the usual one.
The article ends with the words: “We could go on asking till the final question: Why is God as He is? This question has no answer, except our gratitude to God for being as He is and for having revealed Himself as love without limit and without end.”
We, humble readers, appreciate the efforts of our theologians, and, with them, faithfully accept the mystery. Here comes the film to present reality without attempting explanations. The actor, James Caviezel, who is a Catholic and notes that his initials are J.C. and that he is 33, says that he suffered in the shooting, “but Jesus suffered infinitely more for us.” Let the film draw us neared to Christ, and let us rejoice with his resurrection. Happy Easter!</>
Psalm 94 – God’s own rest
“They shall never enter my rest.”Those are among the most frightful words I have ever heard from you, Lord. The curse of curses. The rejection away from you. The prohibition to enter your rest. When I reflect on the depth and the beauty of the word “rest” as it becomes your own, I begin to understand what misery it must mean to be excluded from it.
Your rest is your satisfaction after completing the creation of heaven and earth and man and woman on it, your enforced Sabbath of joy and liturgy in the midst of a life of toil, your eternity in the blissful fruition of your being for ever. Your rest is the best in you, the leisure of life, the graciousness of mercy, the celebration of your essence in the midst of your creation. Your rest is your smile, your relaxation, your pardon. Your rest is your divine quality of doing everything while seeming to do nothing. Omnipotence without effort; action without fatigue. Your rest is your essence without change in the midst of a world that turns on change. Your rest is you.
And your rest now is open to me. I am called to the eternal holiday. Invited to your heaven. Destined to be with you for ever. That magic word “rest” has now become my favourite with its Biblical ring and its theological undertones. A rest so big that one “enters” into it. It envelops me, it grasps me, it fills me with its bliss. I see easily that such a rest is my final destiny, a homely yet divine word for the ultimate aim of my life; to rest with you.
I want to train myself in this life for my rest in the next. I want to enter already in promise and in spirit the heavenly rest that one day will be mine with you. I want to learn how to be relaxed, to feel at ease, to conquer hurry, to avoid tension, to be at peace. I ask for an anticipation of your blessing, for an earnest on earth of your eternal rest in heaven. I want to reflect in my behaviour, my speech, my countenance the hope of the essential rest that will give my soul and my body the ultimate fruition of perpetual peace.
What prevents me from entering your rest? What led you to swear in your anger, “They shall never enter my rest”?
“Do not grow stubborn, as you were at Meribah,
as at the time of Massah in the wilderness,
when your forefathers challenged me,
tested me and saw for themselves all I did.”
The incidents remained so sharp in your memory that you quote the very names of the places where they happened, unhappy stages of a spiritual geography which your people lived and we repeat in our lives. Your people tempted you, mistrusted you even after seeing your wonders, were stubborn in their complaints and unbelief. Your wrath was kindled and you closed the door to those who had so long refused to enter.
“For forty years I was indignant with that generation,
and I said: They are a people whose hears are astray,
and they will not discern my ways.
As I swore in my anger:
They shall never enter my rest.”
How many years for me, Lord? How many chances, how many doubts, how many Massahs and Meribahs? You know the names of my own private geography. You remember my infidelities and regret my stubbornness. Make me docile, Lord. Make me accept, make me believe. Make me see that the way to attain your rest is to trust in you, to rely on you, to put my whole life in your hands with confidence and joy. Then I can live without a care and die in your arms to enter your peace for ever. Make it so, Lord.
“You shall know his power today
if you will listen to his voice.”
I went into the lift to go down from street level to the underground to get the Metro. A small girl with a big rucksack got in behind me. She was Chinese. Almond eyes, a hint of a nose, joyful cheeks. She smiled at me. The door of the lift closed, and we started to go down. We were alone in the lift the two of us. The girl then turned, pointed at the back door in the lift and told me in her exotic accent: “We go out the othel way.” I knew it, but I liked her telling me. I smiled back to her. The lift stopped, and we went out at the back door.
She was very small and was alone in the night through the subway corridors. But she was not afraid. The train came and we sat opposite each other. I smiled to her. She smiled back. She had a broken tooth, which lent a special glint to her smile. My station came before hers, and I got up to leave. Y waved to her. She waved to me. And she smiled.
I stepped outside the door and looked back at her for the last time. There she was. So small and so lonely. Her big rucksack at her back. Her big smile and her broken tooth. Her short legs hanging from her seat between elder people. In the anonymity of the subway, in the cold of the night. I felt sadness and tenderness flowing on me. The loneliness of the immigrant. I consoled myself thinking she would tell this night her parents at home in Chinese that in the subway she had met an old man who had smiled to her. I hope she did.
The use of a turban
[I’m preparing a book for children, and I’ve been told to remove only one of the stories as it would not be understandable to them. It is the following:]
I’ll first tell you what a turban is, though I’m sure you know it already and you’ve seen pictures of people with turbans. It is a kind of hat the people in the desert wear. It is made up of a long piece of cloth that is folded and wound up around the head as a protection against the sun and the sand. It has other uses also, as you’ll soon see.
The camel is a peaceful animal. He walks slowly, steadily, regularly. He is very sober and very patient. But precisely because he is very patient, when he gets angry – and he does at times – he gets very very angry. He can kick and bite and spoil and destroy anything. He can even harm his own driver.
The camel-driver treats his camel well, but at times he also has to make him do things that are not very pleasing to the camel. He may turn him to one side when the camel wants to go to the other side, make him go fast to reach an oasis before it gets dark, or may give him only half a ration of food when he cannot afford a full one. The camel does not like all that, but he puts up with it as he is very patient; but he does keep all those things in his memory. Almost as if he were storing up all those resentments in his hump and the level of his anger were going up and up dangerously.
The camel-driver knows his camel and loves him, but he also knows the camel is getting angry at him for all those things; but, fortunately, he also knows the remedy. When he calculates that his camel’s hump is about to get full with resentment and bad temper, he takes him to a field and lets him lose there. Then he removes the turban he always wears on his head and shows it to the camel. The camel knows that turban well, its shape, its colour, its smell, and in a way the turban, for him, stands for his driver.
The driver knows that, and so, he takes the turban and throws it at the feet of the camel. And then the fun begins. It is as though the camel would do now to the turban all that in his anger he would like to do to his driver, only that he does not harm him. He jumps on the turban, tramples on it, bites it, chews it, pulls it to pieces. When only separate bits remain strewn away through all the floor, the camel rests, breathes, looks at the spoils and neighs with pleasure. His hump has been cleared up and his anger has subsided. He can go back to work, to take up loads, to walk on the roads. The camel-driver watches quietly the whole show, gives the camel a pat on the back, harnesses it again to his cart, and goes to buy a new turban for himself. All settled till next time.
It’s as though we, between friends, would tell one another occasionally, quietly and goodheartedly, the things we find unpleasant in others, instead of brooding over them and then quarrelling over them. We could well learn to clear up our humps in time.
[I do realise this story is for grown-ups. Once I told it to a group of nuns, and one of them asked me before all her sisters in public with a pious and mischievous smile: “Do you think we could in the same way take out our veil and throw it to the feet of Reverend Mother Superior?” This happened in Chile’s capital city, Santiago.]
“Decide first of all that you are going to enjoy doing this work!
Look calmly on the cups, plates, dishes and sauce-pans piled in the sink.
Deliberately see them not as a boring nuisance, but as an actual opportunity to focus mentally and to grow spiritually.
Having checked that the transistor radio is switched off, start by becoming aware of what you are doing – emptying out the remains of food or tea, opening the hot tap, inserting the stopper.
Feel the water as it changes from cool to warm to hot.
Note the sensation as you rub the cloth over each piece of crockery.
Be convinced that what you are doing now is the most important, the most absorbing, activity in the world. Do not think about how long the work is likely to take, or how many more items are left to be washed.
Be totally present to that saucer you are now drying with the tea-towel. Be totally content in what you are doing.
Forget about the past and the future. Instead be fully present and alive now, at the present moment – the only time that is truly real.”
[From the book “Body-Mind Meditation” by Louis Hughes, p. 39]
I presume to add: As an alternative, buy a dish-washer.
Every day is a good day. Every instant is a good instant.
When to pray?
“It behoves the lover to think of and cherish his beloved at all moments. Sorry state of affairs would it be if we could bring out our prayers only in dark corners.” (St Teresa of Avila)
The Master shows how to keep peace of mind
An earthquake shook the Zen monastery, the monks feared for their lives, rushed out to the garden, saw the walls crumble down and the earth yawn wide, and they lived through anxious moments till the tremors ceased and they could go back to their monastery and examine the ruins. They were all frightened and shaken by the unexpected experience.
The Master gathered them together and told them: “The material damage caused by the earthquake is not important. If a wall has fallen down, we’ll put it up again and all will be well. What is important is the damage the earthquake has done to your souls, the fear, the anguish, the fright you have felt. You must recover the peace of soul you had before the earthquake. Relax. I’ve remained calm throughout the whole test, and watch now my ease as I drink this glass of water before you, as you are still shivering and trembling from fright.” He took a big tumbler and drank it full.
The monks tried to hide their conspiratorial laughter, but the Master noticed it and asked them: “Why do you laugh?” The bravest among the disciples answered him: “That was not water, Master. That was a glass of turpentine which we keep for dissolving paint.”
“Aaaaaggggg!” That was another earthquake, this time in the Master’s body. And the monks relaxed.
A Chinese legend
The original Truth was a image made of jade, beautiful and transparent, and it had to be kept and preserved carefully so that all the animals could live in peace.
The wise animals decided that each one would keep the image of Truth for one year, with all care and love.
The first year, the tiger kept it in his den where nobody dared approach.
The second year, the panda bear kept it in the forest which was his own private domain.
The third year, the eagle kept it in her nest on the peak of the highest mountain.
The fourth year it was the turn of the monkey to keep the statue of Truth. To keep it safe, he took it to the top of a high tree where only he could climb. But the last branch was thin, the wind started blowing, and when the monkey tried to get hold of another branch, the image fell down, and when it struck the ground it broke into a thousand pieces.
The animals in the forest saw it, and they rushed to take bits of the image of Truth for themselves.
Since then nobody possesses the whole Truth, and each one possesses only one bit. Also, each one believes he possesses the whole Truth.
You’ve asked me once more the simple question which is so easy to answer in the affirmative, although we always would like to be able to prove our answer. “Did Jesus laugh?” Or course he did, as he was a healthy child and boy and man in body and soul, and there is no doubt he laughed and smiled and showed his enjoyment at all good and amusing things around him. What happens is that we cannot substantiate that from the gospels. We have only some hints. Children were attracted to Jesus, and that means Jesus must have had a smiling countenance. The gospels reflect the literary genre of their time, and they do not go into personal traits which they consider secondary, although these would have been of great interest to us.
The pity is that not a single great artist in all the history of Christian art has expressed in paint or in sculpture a laughing or even a smiling Christ. There are some smiling Christs on the Cross, as the one of the chapel in St. Francis Xavier’s Castle, which is very beautiful, but they are exceptions.
The question is even more delicate the way it has been put to me this time: “There are as many images of a smiling Buddha as there are of a suffering Christ. Why is that?” There it is possible that we may be a little to blame. We have underlined fear in our religion more than joy, and have consequently priced suffering above laughter. Popular devotion down the ages has given more importance to the Passion of Christ than to his Resurrection, and to sin rather than to grace. It is easier to make a film about the Passion than about the Resurrection. This has given us the wrong image. It is up to us to straighten it up.
The best answer to the question about Jesus’ smile is our own smile.
Psalm 95-A new song
“Sing a new song to the Lord.”This is at first sight the impossible precept. How can I sing a new song when all songs in all languages have already been sung time and time again to you, Lord? All themes are exhausted, all rhymes have been tried, all tunes have been explored. Prayer is essentially repetition, and I must struggle not to appear to say the same things every day, even when I know I am saying them. I am condemned to attempt variety even when I know well that all prayer reduces itself to the repetition of your name and the manifestation of my needs. How can you, then ask me to sing a new song?
I know the answer before I finish the question. The song may be the same, but the spirit with which I sing it must be fresh and new every time. The zest, the joy, the sound of each word and the flight of each note has to be different every time that note leaves my lips, every time that prayer leaves my heart.
This is the secret of newness in life, and in asking me to sing a new song you want to teach me to live a new life each day and each moment with all the freshness of dawn in every minute of my existence. A new song, a new life, a new dawn, a new breath, a new strength behind each step, a new hope behind each thought. Everything the same, and everything different, because the eyes that look at the same object of yesterday are new today.
This new sight renders me able to enjoy the blessings of nature in the fullness of their new reality. Heaven and earth and fields and trees become all new because my heart is new. They join me in my joy and sing with me the new song of praise.
“Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult,
let the sea roar and all the creatures in it,
let the fields exult and all that is in them;
then let all the trees of the forest shout for joy before the Lord
when he comes to judge the earth.”
This is the new song that fills my life and fills the world around me, the only song that is worthy of him whose essence is to be new each instant in the unrepeatable richness of his eternal being.
“Sing a new song to the Lord;
sing to the Lord, all men and women on earth.
Sing to the Lord and bless his name,
proclaim his triumph day by day.”
She stumbled down
The girl came out first. Angry and in a hurry. She closed the door of the car with a bang and started to walk in a haste down street. The boy came out at the other door, locked the car and shouted: “Where are you going? Wait a minute!” But she went ahead as fast as her tight skirt and her sharp heels allowed her. The boy followed her without losing sight of her but without hurrying too much either. They had quarrelled, and none of the two seemed eager to promote reconciliation.
Suddenly the girl stumbled and fell down. What with her running, her heels, her anger, and the rough road, she lost her balance and fell on the road. The boy flew to her side, helped her to get up, and the combined gestures of the boy bending down and the girl getting up melted into a tender embrace, which in turn became all caresses and kissed that made all the neighbouring trees blush in modesty.
The fall had been worth while. The thicker the love, the rougher the friction. The young couple was in any case more united than ever. They knew the ups and downs of intimate dealings, and they were sure all would be fine at the end.
Only a little doubt remained with me when I saw the girl get up so easily without any bruise or any hurt. Had she stumbled on purpose?
Ups and downs in life
David Beckham was playing with the England team against Argentina for the World Cup in 1998 at Saint-Etienne in France. He scored a goal which meant an essential victory for England, as England would be eliminated from the competition if they would lose the match. But then something happened:
“I think Diego Simeone is a good player. Good, but really annoying to play against: always round you, tapping your ankles, niggling away at you. It gets to opposition players and he knows it. Just after half-time, he clattered into me from behind. Then, while I was down on the ground, he made as if to ruffle my hair. And gave it a tug. I flicked my leg backwards towards him. It was instinctive, but the wrong thing to do. You just can’t allow yourself to retaliate. I was provoked, but, almost at the same moment I reacted, I knew I shouldn’t have done. Of course. Simeone went down as if he’d been shot.
I’ve mad a big mistake here. I’m going to be off. Why did I do that? At that moment – and to this day – I don’t know the answer to that. The referee didn’t say a word to me. He just pulled the red card out of his pocket. I’ll never forget the sight of it as long as I live. Look at the video now. Simeone acting like he’s in intensive care. It wasn’t as if I was angry. The look on my face tells you I was in a different world. Simeone had laid his trap and I’d jumped straight into it. Whatever else happens to me, those sixty seconds will always be with me. Argentina won the game. England was eliminated.
After the game there was a message on my mobile
– David. It’s Victoria. Please call me as quick as you can.
– Yes, Victoria?
– I’ve got some news for you.
– What is it?
– We’re pregnant.
She was in New York on tour with the Spice Girls. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. Although I was blamed for losing the World Cup for England. Photographers crowded me. “Do you realise what you’ve done? Do you see you’ve let your team down, your country down?” I had about two hundred yards to the lounge at the airport. I slung my bag over one shoulder, just stared in front of me and marched on, not saying a word. I must have looked mad, with all these people trailing after me. Maybe it looked bad in the newspapers or on television, like I was running away. But I knew I just had to keep going. I couldn’t afford to react in the wrong way now. I didn’t need people telling me how bad I should be feeling. I already felt all that and worse. I wanted to be able to shut my eyes and be with Victoria. What could I do but try and blank the cameras out?
I arrived at new York expecting relief. As I walked out through the doors into the arrivals hall, there was a crowd of photographers, camera crews, and press waiting for me. I jumped into the car and went to close the door, but there were people holding it open so I couldn’t. It was ridiculous. When I finally got that door shut, the door on the other side of the car was pulled open, and a female photographer started snapping away at me in the back seat. I couldn’t believe what was going on. I thought that, once I’d reach America, I’d be all right. Instead, I was in the middle of a scene from a movie. I’d never experienced anything like this back at home.
At the eye of the storm, I was crushed by what had happened. What I wasn’t ready for, at 23 years of age, was for all the blame for defeat against Argentine to be laid just on me. My life, like anybody else’s, has been full of lessons to be learnt. The difference that comes with a career as a high-profile footballer, with every move fixed in the public eye, is that I’ve had less margin for error and less time in which to come to terms with my mistakes.
That isn’t something I can complain about, because the same whirlwind that blew through my life as a result of me being sent off against Argentine, could also blow me across the Atlantic into the arms of the woman I loved. Twenty-four hours after the worst moment I could ever have imagined, I was at Madison Square Garden (where the Spice Girls were giving a fabulous concert), with a grainy hospital Polaroid in my pocket, as exited and as happy as any lad could ever be. One night, my life was falling to pieces on a football pitch in France. The next, despite that hurt, I was just letting the best feeling of all sink in: I was going to be a dad.
Back in London I was put under police protection. Papers headlined: ENGLAND’S DISGRACE. TEN HEROIC LIONS, ONE STUPID BOY. SHOULD BECKHAM PLAY FOR ENGLAND AGAIN? Angry crowds surrounded my house and shadowed my every move. I was threatened, despised, insulted. We had to be fitted with bullet-proof vests and crash helmets before leaving the house. I think it might be hard for people to understand what it was like living my life in those first months after the World Cup.
I played again. After a few matches it was Manchester United against Inter Milan in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. That meant the first meeting between David Beckham and Diego Simeone after the World Cup at Saint-Etienne. Never mind who was going to win the match. The only thing I made up my mind about in advance was that I’d try to get Simeone’s shirt in exchange for mine after the match. I did. It’s framed at home now, along with all the other from great players I’ve played against during my career. And there was something else. Just after the game, my mobile rung. Victoria was going to have our baby. Victoria laughed when I told her I’d got Simeone’s shirt and that he’d given me a peck on the cheek as we came off the pitch at the end.
I made it to the hospital. More nervous than before a penalty kick. It all went well. The nurse bundled up our son Brooklyn in a towel, and passed him over to me. Because Victoria was still being stitched up after her caesarian, I got to hold him first. I know it sounds selfish but it was such a privilege, such an amazing feeling. I’ve experienced it twice now, and nothing in my life, on a football pitch or anywhere else, comes close to the intensity of that moment; the thrill and the awe, holding your son in your arms for the very first time. I carried Brooklyn the few steps over to his mum and laid his head on the pillow next to hers: the two most precious people in the whole world, looking so much alike and so beautiful, too. That picture will be in my mind’s eye forever.”
[“My Side”, pp. 133-156 abridged]
Nerves and ease
Beckham continues: “There’s always pressure on the England players and I understand that: I am an England fan and I want us to do well as a country. But in World Cups and European Championships, I think that pressure sometimes makes players scared to try things, makes them nervous about taking risks and really expressing themselves. It’s a fear of failing and the memory of what happened to me in 1998, for example, is in the back of some players’ minds. I just have this sense that, in the really big games, a fear of failure sometimes stops us turning in the kind of performances we’re capable of and which the fans want to see.
Yet, look at Brazil: they’re relaxed whatever’s happening. I remember, during the World Cup quarter-final in 2002, looking across the pitch – this was while we were 1-0 up – and Ronaldo was having a laugh and a joke with the referee. He looked like this was him and a few mates enjoying a Wednesday night kickabout down at the local park, without a care in the world. How can you be doing that, 1-0 down at the World Cup?
If it had remained 1-0 at half-time, I genuinely believe England might have won the World Cup. But Brazil are some team. Never mind the ability: they’re completely fearless with it. Being a goal down didn’t throw them out of their stride at all. Nothing was going to change their approach to the game. With any team other than Brazil, if you get a lead, you expect it to force your opponents to push forwards and start taking risks. Not them, though: they’re the best in the world and they know it; and that’s the way they play every game anyway. If you let them get into their rhythm, they do it. The won the game.” (203-287)
Change of icons
A proud grandfather tells me that his four-year-old granddaughter keeps on her bedside table a photo of David Beckham, and kisses it every night before going to sleep. As a child I had on my bedside table the images of Our Lady and the Child Jesus. Something has changed between generations.
Mind your thoughts
Animals understand us better than we think. They know our feelings, our tempers, our moods. If you have a dog or a cat, you know what I mean. They know you better than you know them. Just see what happened to the man of the story.
“There was a man who lived with his family in a hut in the midst of the forest. He went every day for a walk along the same way. He knew all the turns, all the trees, all the birds, all the animals around, and they knew him. They were fearless and came close to him and let him come close to them, caress them, greet them. The rabbits jumped by his side, the squirrels waged their tails at him, the birds flew in circles round him, the partridges crossed his path. They were all friends and they all trusted one another.
One day the man got an idea. He thought he could get some food from the animals in the forest to bring some variety to his daily fare. A rabbit, a partridge, a few fledglings could make up a tasty dish at his table, and his mouth watered thinking of the coming meals. With so many animals around, it would be easy for him to get one for each day. Said and done. The next day he took his gun which had laid idle for a long time, cleaned it up, loaded it and went for his daily walk with his gun in his hand.
Do you guess what happened? That day he didn’t meet a single animal along all his way.
Mind your thoughts. They show.”
[“The Lion’s Book”, p. 30]
Someone has asked me to teach her the perfect prayer. That is like asking for the perfect medicine or the perfect diet. Depends on the person and on the moment. This is worth noticing, and it makes the question worthwhile. The same prayer is not valid for the whole life nor for every moment. If we change, our prayer also has to change with us. Bernard Shaw used to say that his tailor was the wisest person he knew, as he took his measurements anew each time he went to him for a new suit.
We begin with a rather vocal, repetitive, devotional prayer. Then we turn to method. Discursive meditation, the “method of the three powers of the soul”: memory, understanding, will; examinations of conscience and resolutions; rhythmical repetition of the sacred Name; biblical meditation of Word and Spirit; eucharistical meditation of the Presence; affective, contemplative, unitive, receptive meditation. The silences of the soul. The “cloud of unknowing” and the “nothing, nothing, nothing” of St. John of the Cross. Breathing, senses, contact with ourselves, awareness of Being. “The Body of Christ that is the Church” in each encounter, in each human face, in each look. The touch of the Creator in nature all around us. Living prayer. Every time more and more simple, organic, total. More spontaneous, integrated, real.
And now, yes, here is the perfect anecdote for the perfect prayer:
- Master, we’ve been observing you this last hour while you were in prayer.
- Which prayer?
Psalm 96 – Rejoice in the Lord!
“The Lord is King, let the earth be glad;
let coasts and islands all rejoice!”The great commandment: “Rejoice!” Sum and substance of all the other commandments. Love God and worship him, be fair and kind, help others and do good. In a word, rejoice and make others rejoice. Bring to your life and show on your face the happiness that comes from serving the Lord. Rejoice with all your heart in his service. Be sincere in your smile and genuine in your laughter. Achieve joy in your life, and that will be the sign and the proof that you are happy with God and with his creation, happy with society and with the world…, and that is the Law and the Prophets. Rejoice and be glad. The Lord is with you.
“Zion heard and rejoiced,
the cities of Juda were glad at your judgements, O Lord.”
That is the law of Zion and the rule of Judah. Rejoice and be glad. In that will you show that the Lord is your God and you are his people. Joy as persons and joy as a group. The way to grow, the secret to be strong, the call to all men and women to witness and reflect on the choice of Israel and the power of his God. The power to make his people rejoice.
Difficult virtue, this virtue of joy. Difficult because it has to be genuine and deep, and it is not easy to obtain genuine and deep joy in a world of sorrow. I need faith, Lord, I need a long view and a lasting patience, I need a sense of humour and a light mood, and above all I need the assurance that deep down in me, through all the trials and the sufferings in my private life and in the history of humankind, you are there in the fullness of your power and the tenderness of your love. With that faith I can live, and with that faith I can smile. The gift to rejoice is the flower of your grace in my willing heart.
Thank you for the joy you give me, Lord; thank you for the courage to smile, for the right to hope, for the privilege to look at the world and be glad. Thank you for your love, your power and your providence, which are the unshakeable foundations of my daily joy. Rejoice with me, all you who know and love the Lord.
“You that are righteous, rejoice in the Lord,
and praise his holy name”
Life is sweet
I gave the child a sweet. He removed the wrapper, threw it on the ground, put the sweet into his mouth and went on with his game at supersonic speed. After a while he came to my side again, and I asked him: “Did you like the sweet?” He answered instantly: “Why! I didn’t notice it! Give me another sweet, because I swallowed this one without realising it!” And he stretched out his hand again.
He hadn’t realised it. He was so much immersed in his game that he had not even noticed the taste of the sweet in his mouth. He swallowed it without tasting it. Nothing very important, of course. No tragedy. A sweet more or a sweet less does not change our life. And yet, yes, it was something. It was a sign and symbol of what happens to all of us throughout our lives. Life is dry, but it is also sweet. At times at least. It has its simple joys, its charming moments, its sparks of glory, its instant sweets. And simply its daily human experiences. But we don’t notice them. We are so much in a hurry to do what we don’t actually do and to enjoy what we don’t actually enjoy that we can’t stop to acknowledge a simple pleasure, a friendly contact, a passing smile. In a way, our whole life is a sweet. But we don’t taste it. It dissolves without our realising its presence.
I gave another sweet to the boy. And then I thought of something. I took another sweet, I removed the wrapper, folded it and kept it in my pocket to throw it away later. I looked at the sweet in my hand before putting it into my mouth. I took it between my teeth. I touched it with my tongue. I tasted it. I enjoyed it. It was only the cheap commercial taste of chemical sweetener with artificial colouring. But it tasted heavenly. Life is sweet after all.
Boys of thirteen and fourteen
[Keith Hellawell was chief of police in London, and here is an experience he himself tells:]
“At a meeting with the local officers and their commanders in West Yorkshire, seeking their suggestions as to how we ought to bring the streets back under our control, I found a strong movement in favour of reintroducing foot patrols, but reservations about the safety of those who undertook them. Again, I thought a personal example was needed, so when I left that meeting at around six o’clock in the evening, I asked my driver to take me into the centre of Chapeltown, where I left him in the car and walked off on my own.
I was wearing a pinstripe double-breasted suit, a fashionable silk tie, and had my usual, hand-bulled Oxford-fronted shoes on. I encountered several groups of the hooded young men I had seen on my previous visit, and this time, rather than melt away, they came and surrounded me, telling me they knew who I was and asking why I was there. I walked with them towards the Hayfield public house, a notorious meeting place for the criminal fraternity, which I entered. The pub was a seedy place, smelling strongly of stale cannabis, cigarettes and ale. I walked to the bar and asked for a half of bitter. The dozen or so people present stopped talking and watched my every move, as did the posse behind me. The licensee didn’t appear to know how to treat me, but a young black woman at the bar moved off her stool and sidled up to me.
– You’ve got some balls, cooper. I know who you are.
– I just wanted to see this place for myself. I’ve heard a lot about it.
The licensee interrupted us: “I don’t want any trouble with you. Why don’t you just leave, and you’ll be OK.” I replied: “I’d like a beer.”
By this time the occupants of the pub had got from their seats and come to the bar by my side. I could sense tension, but the young woman relieved it by saying: “I’ll buy him one.”
This drew some light-hearted banter from the other customers. I was given a glass of beer, and many of the people returned to their seats. The girl stayed where she was and said: “I like you. You’ve got bottle. Have you ever slept with a black girl?” – “I can’t say I have”, I told her, and added that, attractive as she was, this might not be the best moment to start. She smiled, and took my remarks in the right way.
The pub began to fill. Forty or fifty of the hooded young men drifted in and stood around looking at me. “He’s all right”, the girl told them, and they seemed to settle down – until a uniformed sergeant and two constables poked their faces round the door.
– You OK, Sir?
– I’m fine.
– The lads are outside if you need us, sir.
By the time I finished my drink, the hoods had been removed to reveal boys of thirteen and fourteen, who acted their age, asking me about my job and putting many of the other questions that young people usually do. When I left, I felt like the Pied Piper, as a group of them followed me to my Jaguar under the watchful eyes of my sergeant and the drivers of two police Transit vans, which I waved away, as I was afraid they would spoil the mood. The boys were fascinated by the secreted blue lights, emergency horns, built-in fax machine and telephone communications equipment in the car. Several asked to sit in it and play with the equipment, which I let them do.
I left to smiles and waves all round. These were the criminals who were terrorising their community – young men who considered that street crime gave them the status and rewards society could not offer. I felt they were wasting their lives.
Within weeks, foot patrol officers, albeit in pairs, were back on the streets of Chapeltown, where they were welcomed with open arms by the community at large. My hooded youths hated them, as their freedom of activity was constrained, but street crime began to fall, and robberies were almost halved within one year.”
[The Outsider, pp. 274-275]
The soup from a thousand homes
Zen poet Ryokan (1758-1831) dedicated a great part of his life to carrying out the ritual of begging rounds. He would walk in front of his neighbours’ doors with a wooden bowl in his hand. In that way he received his food from the community, as he offered them his own way of life in return. Once, after coming back to his hut, he wrote: “In this bowl there is rice from a thousand homes.”
Remember that. When you’re preparing a vegetable soup at home, you too are preparing a soup from a thousand homes. You are then one with the farmers who have grown those vegetables and with the workers who have built the roads to distribute them. Also with those who have manufactured the tools you cook with. The list is unending. And the soup will not only nourish you and your friends, but the whole world you have not yet known.
As Suzuki Roshi said: “To prepare food unites you, not only to yourself and to others, but to the whole universe.”
[Gary Thorp, Zen Moments, p.89]
“The universe is here.” [Zen saying] Eternity is now.
The car was second hand, but it was freshly painted, it looked like new, and all that was missing to start it and hit the road was the blessing of the parish priest. The priest put on his liturgical vestments, opened his ritual and recited the prayer for the blessing of cars.
The prayer mentioned the four thousand war chariots of King Solomon, the fire chariot that took the prophet Elijah to heaven, and the royal chariot of the eunuch of Queen Kandake of Ethiopia on the highway from Jerusalem to Gaza to whom Philip the Deacon was directed by the Holy Spirit to baptise him, and who “went on his way rejoicing” without any accident as told in the Acts of the Apostles, all biblical images of modern vehicles, and then the priest sprinkled generously holy water on the whole car, outside and inside, switching on and off all controls to make sure of the blessing.
When he finished and had removed his vestments, he told the happy owner of the car: “On the part of the Church your car is ready; but for what I’ve noticed I would recommend you to change the battery and to put in new plugs. And, yes, check the brakes just in case.”
I almost expected the reaction. More than one have asked me about the brief anecdote in my previous page:
– Master, we’ve been observing you this last hour while you were in prayer.
– Which prayer?
The best prayer is the one that has become so much second nature that it melts with one’s existence. Like the man who wondered when told that he spoke prose. Me, prose? Why, I just speak. Which prayer? Why, I just live. That is, I am fully alive, which means being in contact with everything and with God in everything. At the beginning we need a place, a time, a watch to measure the time, a posture, a piece of furniture to help the posture, a method, a spiritual director to explain the method, “points for meditation”, “prayer examination”, an account, a record, a diary. All that is fine…, provided all that is gently and little by little left by the wayside. There are more prayer manuals than prayer in the world. There is a question of making easy matters difficult.
The distinction between sacred and profane hurts us. Do you know what “profane” means? In Latin “pro-fanum” means “before the temple”. That is, the temple is good, holy, sacred, and all that is outside it is inferior, devalued, secularised. It is profane. It is outside the temple. According to that, we would only be good while we are in church, and would become profane as soon as we leave it. That’s a great pity, as most of the time we are outside the church. Walls divide.
The whole day is sacred, and every place is blessed. If only we know how to see it and feel it. All existence is prayer. If only we know how to live it. That’s why the Master, who was praying the whole day, didn’t anymore know he was praying.
Psalm 96 – A song of victory
“The Lord has made his victory known;
he has displayed his righteousness to all the nations.”I believe in your victory, Lord, as though it had arrived already…, and I fight for it on the battlefield as though it still had to be won by your might and my effort with it. That is the paradox of my life: tension at times and certitude always. You have proclaimed your victory in the face of the whole world, and I believe your word and I spread your proclamation with total confidence in the face of all doubts and all attacks. You are Lord, and victory is yours. Still, Lord, in all sincerity, your much announced victory does not appear yet, and my faith is on trial. That is my test.
I proclaim victory with my lips…, and fight for it with my hands. I celebrate the triumph…, and I labour to make it come. I believe in the future…, and I struggle in the present. I rejoice when I think of the final day…, and I shudder when I face the task of today. I know that I belong to a victorious army which in the end will defeat all opposition and conquer the whole world; but I fall in the field of battle with blood in my body and langour in my soul. I am a wounded soldier in a triumphant army. Mine is the triumph and mine are the wounds. Think of me, Lord, when you announce your victories.
Strengthen my faith and open my eyes to make me realise that your victory is already here, though hidden under the humble veil that hides the glory of all heavenly realities while we are on earth. Your victory is here because you are here, you have walked the earth and spoken the language of humans, you have experienced their plight and proclaimed and effected their redemption, you have tasted death and restored life. I know all that, and I now I want to make it all real in my life for me to realise and for all to witness. Make me taste your victory in my soul, that I may proclaim it with my lips.
Meanwhile I rejoice seeing in dream and prophecy the final victory that will give the earth back to you who created it. Then all will see and all will understand; mankind will be one, and all men and women will acknowledge your might and accept your love. In happy anticipation that day is mine already, Lord.
“All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.”
The flight arrived on time, and I with it. I walked through the huge airport till the exit where I hoped to meet my hosts for the visit. They had arranged everything for me and had reassured me that they would be there on my arrival. But no one was there. Flight number and arrival time were correct, and the arrival hall was also where I was now standing and where all travellers met their waiting friends and went away with them. Only I was stranded. No one had come to fetch me.
I don’t get lost in airports, yet I was surprised. I had not even worried to change money or to take down phone numbers, because I was sure my contact would not fail me. But it failed. I waited, expecting my hosts to appear any moment. And they did appear… two hours later.
I honestly was upset. But they were not. They did know their delay had caused me annoyance and anxiety as it lengthened into two hours. They did mention they were late by two hours, but there was no repentance in their words. They simply said that to have mistaken the time was their karma, just as having to wait two hours was my karma. And that was that.
I don’t discuss philosophies and I don’t justify breaches of punctuality. But I did learn something that day. Or at least I understood something. During those two hours of painful waiting I had rehearsed in my mind a number of times the speech I was going to give them to teach them punctuality and responsibility in their dealings with others. Complete with adjectives, gestures and intonation. But my speech remained undelivered. They disarmed me with their philosophical acceptance of the facts. They had arrived late. Period. I had had to wait. Period. Welcome now, and let’s go home. There was nothing else to do. They had not suffered. I had suffered. They were Oriental. I was a Westerner.
Indian philosophy does have a practical side to it. No doubt.
“I’ve lost your eyes”
There are quite a few detective novels under the name of P.D. James, whom many readers, and I among them, take for a man without suspecting that the P. in her name is not Peter or Patrick but Phyllis, which obviously is a woman’s name. In her autobiography she tells how the painter Michael Taylor painted her portrait while she sat for him during thirteen sessions in her own home. She says she had no problem keeping motionless, sitting before the artist, and she thought she could put to good use those periods of enforced physical inactivity by working out in her mind the plot of some new novel while the painter worked with his brushes.
But then something happened. The painter told her: “I don’t know what you are doing, but I’ve lost your eyes.” She wasn’t there. And if she wasn’t there, the painter could not paint her. She had to put aside all plots of future novels and come back to where she was and look at the painter and be present to her own picture. Then the artist went on with his work.
Once they were back in the here-and-now, she thought of livening up the session by chatting with the artist. She began to ask him questions. ¿What do you think of commercial art? ¿Is it very difficult for an unknown artist to find a gallery that may accept their work? ¿Is there pressure exerted on an artist to make them finish their work before a deadline? After a while the painter smiled and said: “Now it is I that have lost my own eyes. Don’t make me think of something else. If I am not where I am, there is no picture.”
Pure Zen. To be where I am. Secret of the fullness of human existence. Secret of a good painting. The portrait turned out to have “a great impact”.
Noise also makes us lose our eyes
“The dinner at the University Women’s Club has been quite a success, and it’s always a pleasure to spend the evening in such a lovely place, so comfortable and so well organised, in unpretentious atmosphere, quiet and womanly. Still, the function has exhausted me on account of the noise during dinner. Now I realise that I can’t stand any more a cacophony of high voices, but I don’t know what could be done about it.
The fact it that, of late, I’m upset by all loud noises, specially pop music. It jars in shops, attacks my ears in taxis, resounds in the piped in music of offices, and comes out of the earphones of the people who travel in the train and the underground.
Now, to top it all, we have the nuisance of the ubiquitous cellular phone to disturb the peace in the railway, which used to be so quiet before. Maybe the railways should think about creating silent compartments, as there are non-smoking ones.”
[P.D. James, “Time to be in earnest”, p. 119]
The squirrel finds herself
The squirrel climbed trees and caught fruits and hid nuts and played games and run about at pleasure. Everything was well with her, but she felt unsatisfied, and wanted to know more. So she went to the oldest and wisest man in the village and asked him:
– Give me a talisman that may make me the cleverest of all the animals.
– Look here, my dear squirrel. A talisman is a precious stone that you hang on your neck and then you’ll become the wisest of all the animals. But such a precious thing cannot be obtained just like that. I can give you the true talisman only if you pass the following tests.
– What am I to do?
– You have to bring me the tears of a lion, the milk of a she-buffalo, the antlers of a deer, and a live python.
– That is very hard.
– It’s the only way. And you must get all that all by yourself without anybody’s help. It’s up to you.
– I’ll see what I can do. Thanks, and see you soon.
The squirrel thought first about the lion. It was dangerous to get close to him, and besides, a lion does not weep. What to do? She went slowly to where the lion was sleeping under a tree, stood close to him and started panting as though she had been running a long distance. The lion opened one eye and asked her:
– What’s the matter, little squirrel?
– I’m… bringing… you… some… very bad… news, oh Great King Lion.
– What news?
– Some hunters have killed your wife the lioness while she was playing with you little cubs.
– And the cubs?
– The hunters took them away.
At that the lion started weeping, and the squirrel approached slowly, collected some of the lion’s tears in a cup, and went away slowly at first so as not to arouse suspicion, and then very fast to be far away when the lion would find out that he had been cheated because nothing had happened to the lioness and her cubs.
Then the squirrel went to the pastures where wild buffaloes grazed in the high grass, drew the attention of one of them and made fun of her with gestures and faces. The she-buffalo charged furiously against the squirrel, but then the squirrel ran fast right through the two branches in which a tree divided from its root so that she could pass in between but the she-buffalo could not as she was fat and heavy and got stuck between the two branches. The squirrel then went from behind, tied her hind feet so that she couldn’t kick, and milked it. With that she had also a she-buffalo’s milk with her.
To get a deer’s antlers she knew that in the new season the deer shed their old antlers and grew new ones, so that she waited till spring, followed a herd, and as soon as one of the deer dropped an antler, she took it and kept it.
The hardest task still remained. To get a live python. The squirrel had now to use all her skill. She approached a python who was very proud of her length and told her:
– You are very long indeed, but I’ve seen another python longer than you
– That cannot be. I am the longest python in the world.
– You are not.
– I am.
– How can you prove it?
– Measure my length and you’ll see.
The squirrel took a long stick and asked the python to lie down along it so as to measure its length. When the python lay against the stick, the squirrel tied it down to the stick with a rope she had ready at hand, and lifted it easily to carry it along. She now collected her four findings and went to the old man in the village.
– Here is all you asked me to bring. The lion’s tears, the wild she-buffalo’s milk, the deer’s antlers and a live python. Now give me the talisman that will make me the wisest of all the animals.
– You’ve the talisman already with you.
– What do you mean?
– You have it with you. The talisman is your intelligence. You have done the four hardest things in the world. You have got the lion’s tears, the wild she-buffalo’s milk, the deer’s antlers and a live python. You are, therefore, cleverer than the lion, the she-buffalo, the deer and the python. You are the cleverest of all the animals. Only you didn’t know it. That was the secret you had to learn. The talisman is to know your own talent. Now you know it. Go and use it well for your good and the good of all.
– I’ll do that. I’ll behave properly as the cleverest of all the animals. And thank you, oh wise man, for having made me realise my own power.
So the squirrel went and jumped for joy and was happy because she knew her own talent.
The secret of arriving is to know that one has arrived.
There is a second part to the secret, but I save it for another occasion.
The perfect meditation
A young lady called Tiew came to one of the monastery discussions and monopolised the conversation by talking endlessly about the wonders of meditation. “Do you know”, she gushed, “I flew from Bangkok to Hong Kong, and meditated so hard that I hardly noticed the length of the journey.” – “Yes”, replied the abbot, I always sleep on planes as well.”
[“365 Smiles from Buddha” by Robert Allen, p. 146]
[Nikhil Desai tells me an experience of his that fits with many of mine too, and brings out the need to be where we are and to do what we do… and to be aware of it.]
Once I had gone to a Vipassana meditation class in a local church in the evening. After the class, I went to my car in the church parking lot and realised I didn’t have the key: It was lying on the seat, and the car was locked. I’d locked myself out and couldn’t get in now.
I went back in the church, called the road emergency service of AAA, and waited inside. An hour passed. The church closed, and I waited outside, shivering. Another hour or so, and a locksmith drove up. Looking to see if he could use the old ‘wire hanger trick’ first, he went around the car and yelled out laughing, “The passenger side window is open, all the way down!”
This happened after a Vipassana class, in which we are taught the art of awareness, of being where we are and doing what we do. Experience can teach more than courses.
Psalm 98-Holy, holy, holy
I begin my prayer on my knees, I bow to the ground, I close my eyes and worship in silence the majesty of your infinite presence. Holiness is your name, Lord, and my lips are polluted with the dust of lies and the breath of conceit. I want to express with my prostration and my silence the feeling of total adoration that fills me when I appear before your holy presence. Accept the humble homage of my heart, O Lord.
I often deal with you in familiarity and friendship, and I treasure those moments and value that closeness. But I am conscious all the time that I belong down here in the dirt of the earth while your place is in heaven. I know the distance and that is why I appreciate all the more your coming close and dealing with me as a friend. I take full advantage of your offer, and my whole life is full of those intimate dialogues with you in freedom and confidence, daily witness to your generous condescension.
But today I want to revert to my stand as a creature, and offer you my silent worship in bodily reverence.
“Exalt the Lord our God,
bow down before his footstool;
he is holy.”You are holy, with a holiness that is above all my concepts and beyond all my experience. The purity of a mountain spring, the flight of a bird in the sky, the path of the clouds, the silent falling of immaculate snow. Images in my mind to portray the remoteness of your essence in the limits of my experience. Or maybe the flame of fire, the sheet of lightning, the eye of the storm, the centre of the earthquake. All that is great and awesome and pristine and pure.
I ask for the sense of your holiness to pervade my whole being, to be touched with a spark of your fire and a tremor of your storm. I want to learn reverence in my dealings with you, to temper the promptness of my feelings with the dignity of my respect. I want to be trained to the good manners of the heavenly court so as to practice heaven while still here on earth. I want to be your worshipper, Lord, as I am your companion and your friend. And I invite all men and women who know you to do the same.
“Exalt the Lord our God,
bow down towards his holy hill:
for the Lord our God is holy.”
The wise baby
Banks protect their doors. The client has to place all metal objects in the front drawers, press a button, step in, press another button, wait, curse when the red light comes out, press again, red light again, hands up to draw somebody’s attention inside, a secret device is activated, the client smiles, enters. Not an easy job.
While walking on the street I saw a woman go into a bank, and she had an even harder job of it. She was carrying her baby in a pram, and that made matters harder. She got stuck on the steps. She was doubting whether she had to put the pram in a drawer with the metal objects. Or maybe the baby too. She handled the buttons with one hand while with the other she held the pram. She couldn’t get in. By the time she pushed, the door closed again. Back to the buttons. Maybe sideways. Couldn’t either. Next move.
And the baby got fed up. He pointed his finger at the door of the bank and shouted unmistakably: “No, no, no!” He didn’t want to go into the bank. And he started crying. Wise baby that he was. He had learned his lesson early enough. Mummy, don’t go into the bank. They’ll make you cry. The baby was already guessing things from his pram. His own preservation instinct warned him and made him refuse to go in. His unspoilt senses made him feel uneasy in a bank. His innocence warned him of imminent danger.
But his mother persevered, pushed in and got it. The baby stopped crying. Maybe his mother told him in his ear that she was going to open a bank account to his name. The end of innocence.
“Attention is not the same thing as concentration. Concentration is exclusion; attention, which is total awareness, excludes nothing. It seems to me that most of us are not aware, not only of what we are talking about but of our environment, the colours around us, the people, the shape of the trees, the clouds, the movement of water. Perhaps it is because we are so concerned with ourselves, with our own petty little problems, our own ideas, our own pleasures, pursuits and ambitions that we are not objectively aware. And yet we talk a great deal about awareness.
Once in India I was travelling in a car. There was a chauffeur driving and I was sitting beside him. There were three gentlemen behind discussing awareness very intently and asking me questions about awareness, and unfortunately at that moment the driver was looking somewhere else and he ran over a goat, and the three gentlemen were still discussing awareness – totally unaware that they had run over a goat. When this lack of attention was pointed out to those gentlemen who were trying to be aware it was a great surprise to them.”
[Freedom from the Known, p. 31]
Dangers of globalisation
Jains and Buddhists have the beautiful custom of reciting a prayer for the welfare and happiness of all living beings, all “sentient” beings, for the whole of creation on earth unto the ends of the cosmos. A universal, ecumenical, cosmic, ecological blessing. Or global, as we would now say. Globalisation of prayer. The prayer greets first all sentient beings and receives their greetings, and then blesses all beings and receives their blessing in the unity of existence. A very beautiful practice indeed. In this context a devout Jain went to see a holy monk in his religion and asked him his blessing:
– I’ve come to ask you to pray for me, guru maharaj.
– I’ll do that.
– And for my family too.
– I’ll do that too.
– And then for my friends also.
– They’ll also be included in my prayer.
– Then you will pray for all?
– Of course I will. I every day pray and bless all living beings, and you and your family and your friends will come under that blessing, don’t doubt it.
– I don’t doubt it, but then there is a little problem.
– What problem?
– See, you say that you bless all beings every day, isn’t it?
– Yes, I do.
– Well, the fact is that in my own house and in my own storey, my next door neighbour is a rather unpleasant man and I don’t get on well with him.
– And what do you want me to do about it?
– Couldn’t you, please, couldn’t you exclude my next door neighbour from your prayer for all living beings?
The monk laughed. It’s either all or none. True globalisation.
Brahma, the supreme potter
A potter made clay objects for his clients. Pots and vessels and pitchers and dishes of all kinds. They were greatly appreciated and in great demand. But they were highly breakable as they were made of clay, and they broke easily. That saddened the potter. That a pot he had made so lovingly would break into pieces the first time it would fall to the ground broke his own heart. But there was nothing he could do about it.
The potter, besides being a good artisan, was a great devotee of Brahma too, and to him he finally addressed his heartfelt prayer, and this is the dialogue that ensued between the two:
– O Brahma, father of gods and humans, I thank you for all the gifts you have given me, particularly for the art of pottery which I master and which comes from you.
– I am the origin of all the arts and the creator of all worlds, and what you do in a small scale in your workshop, I do in a broader scale in the universe. I am the potter that has made and shaped the whole of creation.
– If you are pleased with my work, o Brahma, I ask you to grant me a grace to round up my art.
– Ask, and the grace is yours.
– I ask that all the clay objects I make would never break.
– Thank you, o Brahma, father of gods and humans.
The potter went back to his work with joy, said nothing about his interview with Brahma, did not raise the price of his pots, but secretly enjoyed when people began to tell him about the vessel that fell down by did not break, or the dish that had slipped a number of times to the ground without any harm done to it, or the house that had collapsed but all the clay vessels on the kitchen shelf were found intact under the ruins. His dream had become reality.
The other potters in the village were soon put out of business. All the people bought their pots from him, as they never broke. And he smiled to himself. But then it was not only that the other potters run out of business, but that he himself began to lose his clients. Since his pots never broke, they never had to be replaced, and once all the people in the village had their pots, nobody bought any more. And so our potter had to resort again to Brahma:
– O Lord, father of men and humans, I asked you a grace and you granted it to me.
– I remember it well, as your merits gave you the right to a grace and you asked for it.
– Now I need another grace.
– Well, no, not exactly another grace, but the cancelling of the grace you granted me.
– Doesn’t it please you any more?
– It has ruined my business.
– You mortals never know what you ask.
– This time I know it, Lord.
– Then so be it. Let all pots be breakable again.
– Thank you, Lord.
The joy of imperfection. Of all that is perishable, breakable, vulnerable. The joy of insecurity. The essence of mortality. The conscience of being imperfect. That is our nature, and in that should our joy be. That is Brahma’s true grace. I am happy because I can break.
The potter smiles again. And Brahma, too, smiles. He knows the wisdom of imperfection. He too made his own creation perishable and breakable, and made his people vulnerable. A generation of perfect human beings would be intolerable. Better for us to get a little chipped.
[A short story by R.K. Narayan. Shortened.]
I am not going to mention caste or community in this story. The newspapers of recent months have given us a tip which is handy – namely the designation: ‘One Community’ and ‘Another community’. In keeping with this practice I am giving the hero of this story no name. I want you to find out, if you like, to what community or section he belonged; I’m sure you will not be able to guess it. He worked in an office which was concerned with insurance business. He was middle aged now. He lived in a little house in a lane. The shops were nearby, the children’s school was quite close, and his wife had friends all around.
It was on the whole a peaceful, happy life – till the October of 1947 when he found that the people around had begun to speak and act like savages. Someone or a body of men killed a body of men a thousand miles away and the result was that they repeated the evil here and wreaked their vengeance on those around. Our friend saw the tempers of his neighbours rising as they read the newspaper each day. They spoke rashly. ‘We must smash those of them that are here’ – he heard people say. ‘They have not spared even women and children. We will teach those fellows a lesson. We will do the same here – the only language they will understand.’
He visualised his office colleague sitting on his right, his postman, the fellow at the betel-leaves shop, and his friend at the bank – all these belonged to another community. He had not bothered about their category all these days: they were just friends – people who smiled, obliged, and spoke agreeably. But now he saw them in a new light: they were of another community.
Everyone mentioned that the coming Wednesday, the twenty-ninth of the month, was a critical day. There was to be a complete showdown that day. In his office people spoke of nothing but the twenty-ninth. ‘Suppose nothing happens?’ he asked, and his uncle told him, ‘How can nothing happen? We know what they are doing. They hold secret assemblies almost every night. Why should they meet at midnight?’
On the twenty-ninth most of the shops were closed as a precaution. Children stayed away from school. His wife did not like the idea of his going to the office. He tried to laugh off the fears while setting out. At the office, his boss was there, of course, but most of his colleagues were absent. The few that came wasted their time discussing the frightful possibilities of the day. He hated to hear their talk. He plunged himself in work. It was past seven-thirty when he was able to put away the papers and leave the office.
Now he felt a sudden anxiety to reach home in the shortest time possible. God knows what is happening to my family, he wondered. He dashed through the alley in front of his office to go home by a short cut. He snatched a look at his watch and hurried along the dark alley. He had proceeded a few yards when a cyclist coming up halted his progress. The cyclist and the pedestrian had difficulty in judging each other’s moves, till the cyclist finally slipped off the saddle, and both found themselves in the road dust.
Our friend’s nerves snapped and he yelled out, ‘Why can’t you ride carefully?’
The other scrambled to his feet and cried, ‘Are you blind? Can’t you see a cycle coming?’
‘Where is your light?’
‘Who are you to question me?’ said the other, and shot out his arm and hit the face of our friend who lost his head and kicked the other in the belly. A crowd assembled. Somebody shouted, ‘He dares to attack us in our own place! Must teach these fellows a lesson. Do you think we are afraid?’ Shouts and screams increased. It was deafening. Somebody hit our friend with a staff, someone else with his fist; he saw a knife flashing out. Our friend felt his end had come.
He essayed to lecture to the crowd on the idiocy of the whole relationship, to tell them that they should stop it at once. But no sound issued from his voice box. His eyes dimmed. He mumbled to someone near, ‘I will never, never tell my uncle what has happened. I won’t be responsible for starting the trouble. This city must be saved. I won’t utter the word that will start the trouble, that will press the button, so to say. There is no such thing as your community or mine. We are all of this country. Let us not cut each other’s throats. I’ll tell my uncle that I fell down the office staircase and hurt myself. He’ll never know. He must not press the button.’
But the button did get pressed. The incident of that alley became known within a couple of hours all over the city. And his uncle and other uncles did press the button, with results that need not be described here. Had he been able to speak again, our friend would have spoken a lie and saved the city; but unfortunately that saving lie was not uttered. His body was found by the police late next afternoon in a ditch in that wretched alley, and identified through the kerosene ration coupon in his breast pocket.
I wrote last time that the secret of arriving is to know that you have arrived. Some have found the phrase mystifying and have asked me to explain it. There is no question of “pretending” to have arrived, but of knowing it. Like the fish that was in the ocean but didn’t know it. Or the answer Herbert von Karajan gave when he was asked who was the best living pianist: “The best living pianist is Maurizio Pollini, but he doesn’t know it.” Again when Buddha was asked, “You have ten thousand disciples. How many of them have obtained illumination?”, he answered, “All, but they don’t know it.”
If all this seems very Oriental to you, here is a text from St. Paul which is seldom quoted but is very dear to me: “God has raised us up with Christ Jesus and has made us sit down in heavens with him”. (Ephesians 2, 6) The tense of the Greek verbs is the past tense, “sunegeiren kai sunekathisen”. We have already risen and we are already in our places on high, quietly sitting down with Jesus in heaven… though some people don’t know it yet. That is the great secret.
Psalm 99 – The sheep of his flock
I am yours, Lord, in so far as I am a member of your flock. Give me that sense of belonging to your people on earth, and through it to you. I am no isolated individual, I have no claim to personal attention, I am not saved alone. It is true that you, Lord, love me for my own sake, and look after my welfare and direct my steps; but you have chosen to work among men and women through the groups you have formed, through the people you have shaped. You deal with us as a shepherd with his flock. He does pay attention to every sheep and tends with special care the one that needs it most at any moment; but he leads them together and grazes them together and shelters them together in the unity of the flock.
Make me feel a member of the flock, Lord. Make me feel responsible, sociable, amiable, brother to my brothers and to my sisters, and accountable to all human beings. Never for a moment allow me to think that I can go it alone, that I don’t need anybody, that the lives of others do not concern me. Don’t let me isolate myself in haughty pride or fallacious self-sufficiency. Don’t let me be a loner. Don’t let me be a stranger in my own land.
Make me feel proud of my brothers and sisters, appreciate their qualities and love their company. Make me feel at home in the flock, sense its support and value the strength that being together brings to the group and to me in it. Make me contribute to the life of the others, and allow them to contribute to mine. Make me enjoy going out together into common pastures, playing together, working together, living our life together. Make me be a community person in the full and blessed sense of the term. Make me do well in the group, that seeing myself appreciated I may also appreciate the others and contribute to the common unity.
I am a member of the flock because you are the Shepherd. You are the source of unity, and our dependence from you makes us happily seek our safety in you and thus meet each other under the shadow of your staff. Let my loyalty to you make me be loyal too to all the members of the flock. Let me trust others because I trust you. Make me love all because I love you. And may we all men and women under your care learn to stand together for your sake.
“Know that the Lord is God:
he has made us and we are his own,
his people, the flock which he shepherds.”
They tell me the night devotions of a small girl whom I know and love. Her last rites in the night before going to sleep. On her bedside table she has a picture in a frame. Every night she kisses it before getting into bed. Her last act in the day. Then she closes her eyes and dreams. What can her dreams be? The picture he has kissed is David Beckham’s photograph.
When the word had value
[Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), eyewitness of two World Wars, explains the difference between them in terms that can enlighten us today:]
“Here is, for good or evil, the difference between the First and Second World War: at the time of the First World War, the word had still authority. It had not yet been spoiled by organised lies, by ‘propaganda’. People still believed in the written word, expected it, respected it.
The world’s moral conscience was not yet so withered and discouraged as it is today, it still reacted vehemently, with a long inherited conviction, against any manifest lie and against any violation of international law and of human rights.
In those days, when the waves of the incessant babble on the radio did not yet fill up the ears and the soul of people, the writing of a French writer was not an idle exercise, on the contrary, the spontaneous sayings of a great writer had an effect a thousand times greater than any official speech by a politician. Today, a writer’s proclamation has no effect whatsoever.”
[“Die Welt von Gestern”, p.307]
History repeats itself
“The sacred promise [continues Zweig] made to millions of persons to the effect that the war [the Second World War] would be the last war, was cynically betrayed by the interest of the armament manufacturers and the games of the politicians. All those who kept their eyes open saw that they had been cheated. The politicians had cheated the mothers who had sacrificed their sons, they had cheated the soldiers that were returning as cripples, they had cheated all of us that had dreamt of a new and better world, and we now were seeing that the old players were just playing again their own game.
A whole generation of young people had ceased to believe in their parents, their politicians, and their teachers. The post-war generation emancipated itself suddenly, brutally, from all that it had held till then, and turned its back to any tradition, thus taking its own destiny in its own hands.
All the forms of expression boasted of being radical and revolutionary. The new painting closed down the whole work of Tembrandt, Holbein and Velazquez, and began the cubist and surrealist experiments. Articles were suppressed in speech, syntax was set upside down, people wrote in the split and shortened style of telegrams. [What would he have said now of the language in cellular phones?] Music searched for new tonalities, architecture turned houses inside out, the waltz disappeared from the dance to make room for Cuban and African rhythms, fashion invented new absurds and favoured nudes, while in the theatre Hamlet came on the stage dressed in a tailcoat. Old people rushed everywhere to embrace the latest fashion.
All of a sudden there was no other ambition than that of being young and of quickly inventing a new trend, more radical than the one of yesterday. What a mad, lawless and unlikely time that was! It was a time of raving delirium and free falsehood, a unique mixture of impatience and fanaticism. That was the golden age of all that was extravagant and beyond control. Horoscopes, graphology, Indian Yoga. Anything that promised new and extreme emotions captured the market: morphine, cocaine and heroine. That was the young people’s vengeance against their elders.”
[What can the time be he is speaking of?]
My own desire
“My joy is to bring joy to others.” [Stefan Zweig]
The view from the watchtower
“I used to commute to London by train. There was a man of about my age who always took the opposite seat and, eventually, we got into conversation. If you’re British, these things take time. He seemed to enjoy discussing “The Meaning of Life”, and that suited me very well. One day he said, “Shall I come clean?” and, without waiting for my reply, produced a copy of “The Watchtower”, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine. I delved in my briefcase and came up with a book about Buddhism. He looked a trifle disconcerted. “What’s the matter, haven’t you met a Buddhist before?” “It’s not just that,” he grinned ruefully, “I’m not at all sure what you believe, so I don’t know quite how I’m going to convince you that it isn’t true.”
[First comes the decision that whatever others believe is false. Then one has to prove its falsehood. Finally one could find out what it all was about.]
[Robert Allen, “364 Smiles from Buddha”, p. 310]
[A short story by Rabindranath Tagore, abridged. “The Prince”, p. 24]
In the town where Abhiram painted pictures of gods and goddesses, no one knew him or his past. Everyone knew him only as a stranger who had always painted pictures for a living.
He would think, “I was once wealthy, but it’s all gone now… and in a way, it’s for the better. I meditate on various forms of God all day long now, my bread and butter come from that, and I also place His image in all the houses. No one can take away from me the respect and goodwill this earns me.”
One day, the royal Minister passed away. The King invited and employed a new Minister from a foreign land. The whole town was abuzz with the news.
But that day Abhiram’s fingers and brush stilled to a halt. The new Minister – wasn’t this the same orphan boy whom Abhiram’s father had adopted, raised and trusted more than his own son, Abhiram? But the boy had turned traitor and betrayed the old man by stealing away his fortune from him. The very same man now came into the kingdom as the new Minister.
At the time of the annual fair many people from different lands thronged to buy Abhiram’s pictures. In that throng, there was a little boy, watched over by servants and guards. He picked out one picture and said, “I’ll take this.” Abhiram turned to the child’s attendant and asked, “Who is that boy?” He replied, “The only son of our royal Minister.” Abhiram covered his paintings with a cloth and said, “I will not sell my pictures.” But that only made the child want the picture even more. He came home and refused to eat and sulked in a corner.
The Minister sent a bagful of gold coins for Abhiram; but the bag came back to the Minister, untouched. The Minister said to himself, “What audacity!” The more he was pestered, the more dogged was Abhiram’s refusal and he thought, “This is my victory.”
Every morning, the first thing Abhiram did was to paint a picture of his own beloved deity. This was the only form of worship known to him. One day he realised the painting wasn’t to his satisfaction. Something looked different. It wasn’t looking right. He felt tormented.
As the days passed, the subtle difference became more patent until one day Abhiram looked up, startled by a realisation. “I know!” He could see it clearly now – the face of his God was beginning to look more and more like the Minister.
He hurled his brush to the ground and said, “So, the Minister wins!” The same day he took the original painting to the Minister and said, “Here is the picture, give it to your son.” The Minister asked, “How much?” Abhiram said, “You robbed me of my devotion to my God. I shall gain it back by gifting you this picture.”
The Minister had no idea what he was talking about.
You often share your sufferings with me. I appreciate with all my soul your trust, and I feel close to you with all the tenderness I can summon in myself. Sometimes you also ask me about the reasons why we suffer. That is harder to say. Suffering is the heart of the mystery of human existence. Here, anyway, I briefly sum up for you what the main ten religions of the world teach about the matter.
Hinduism: We suffer to make up for our errors in our previous incarnation.
Brahmanism: Suffering, like joy, is a pure illusion caused be the veil of Maya.
Buddhism: Suffering is the result of our craving that can be allayed by detachment.
Jainism: Suffering is the best way to free ourselves from the cycle of reincarnations and obtain our final liberation.
Taoism: Joy and pain are the two sides of the same coin, and as we take one, we must inevitably take the other.
Confucianism: Suffering is the test of our character and the crucible where our personality is moulded.
Animism: Suffering and joy come to us with the rhythm and the cycles of nature, of which we are part.
Islam: Suffering comes to us by the will of God which should not be questioned.
Judaism: Suffering is God’s punishment for the infidelities of his people.
Christianity: Suffering identifies us with Jesus. “I complete in my flesh what remains of the Passion of Christ.” (St Paul)
And, above all, humility, respect, delicacy and tenderness.
Psalm 100 – Resolutions
I bring before you, Lord, today the list of my resolutions. The end of a retreat, the beginning of a new year, or just a day of awakening in which I have looked at myself and at my life and I have noted down a few points to remind myself of and to ask you to bless them. Here they are.
“I will follow a wise and blameless course;
I will go about my house in purity of heart;
I will hate disloyalty;
I will reject all crooked thoughts;
I will silence those who spread tales behind men’s backs;
I will choose the most loyal for my companions.”I know I could have been more concrete, and in practice I’ll do it if you so desire, but for today I wanted to set myself guidelines that will focus my efforts and direct my day. I want to strive for purity and wisdom in my actions; I will watch my thoughts from which actions follow; I will stop backbiting; and I will prize loyalty. Bless my programme in your house, O Lord.
I know only too well that resolutions by themselves achieve nothing. I could show you whole lists which I have made year after year, with the sincerity of the fervent moment and the overconfidence of immature youth, which are only repeated records of naive goodwill and utter failure. Carefully written lists with measured hand-writing and numbered entries in order of importance. Written only to be forgotten. Recorded only to be filed away. My resolutions count for nothing, and experience has taught me that lesson with inescapable clarity.
That is why today I have just told you my thoughts, I have outlined before you the paths I would like my behaviour should follow. Today that list is not a record but a prayer, that is, it is a list for you, not for me. It is for you to remember, to keep in mind and to act. They are not successes for me to achieve but graces for you to grant. They are not my effort but your power. Or rather they are you and me together, working hand in hand for the good of my soul and the welfare of your household.
”I sing of loyalty and justice;
I will raise a psalm to you, O Lord.”
It was an ecumenical meeting between Catholics and Protestants. We were going to dialogue, to think, to pray together. Al least we were going to recite together the Our Father, as it is the prayer that has come to us directly from Christ and it unites all of us in his love. When preparing the meeting someone remarked that even in that there was a small difference. Protestants add at the end of the Our Father the clause, “For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever”, which is not precisely in the Gospels, but it comes from a very old tradition and is anyway a beautiful end for the prayer, and we, too, add it to the Our Father in the Mass, though we don’t do so in other uses of the prayer. We decided to add it on that occasion in deference to our Protestant brethren.
But there was still another little difference. Protestants in England pronounce the final “amen” as “Aamen”, while Catholics say “Eimen”. We realised it in time, and we all Catholics agreed to pronounce it in the meeting as “Aamen”, as a sign of ecumenical courtesy. We were not going to allows phonetics to divide us.
And so we did. Once we all met together, Catholics and Protestants, it was proposed we all recite the Our Father together, which we all did, and we added at the end, “For yours is the kingdom…” with due devotion. Then, at the end, we Catholics pronounced loudly our “Aamen” while looking out of the corner of our eye at our Protestants brothers to notice their reaction and appreciation. But then it so happened that they two had rehearsed the meeting and knew the difference, and so all of them said at the same time and with the same solemnity “Eimen”, and looked at us to see the effect of their gesture. The effect was that we all laughed together, and that was the best beginning for the meeting.
The will of God
The musical and the film “The Sound of Music” charmed all of us for a generation, but the real story is even more charming than the show on the stage and on the screen. Maria had temporarily left the noviciate to become the teacher of Captain Baron von Trapp. They soon realised that they loved each other, but the captain’s stiffness and the novice’s vocation stood in the way of any romantic rapprochement. When, at last, the captain’s children told him they wanted Maria to remain with them, and they pointed that the only way for that would be that he should marry her, he agreed at once, and they went and told Maria. That was when the real story began.
“Now I was out of gear. I absolutely did not know what to say or what to do; not at all. All I knew was that in a few days I would be received into my convent, and there stood a real, live man who wanted to marry me.
– But, Captain, you know that in a very short while I shall go back to my convent; and one cannot enter a convent and marry at the same time.
– Is this your very last word? Is there absolutely no hope?
– Well, I have an idea, you know? I have something that you don’t have. I have a Mistress of Novices. Whatever she says I’d consider as coming from God. It is the Will of God. Let me go and ask her.
In my eagerness to leave, I did not wait for an answer, but started right away. It was a short hour’s walk, and I was happy to have found an excuse to visit this beloved place in the middle of the week. I reached, and with a sigh of relief I dropped on one of the old oaken chairs in the community room where the postulants lived. At this the door opened, and Frau Rafaela, my Mistress of Novices, entered the room. “Maria, what are you doing here in the middle of the week?” I repeated to her the whole incident. “And you see, if you tell me now that I cannot marry him because I shall enter here, then the Will of God is made clear, and that must help him, too.” Frau Rafaela’s old, motherly eyes rested on me, but she didn’t say a word. Suddenly she got up and went out of the room. In an hour she returned to tell me that Reverend Mother was expecting me.
I felt quite honoured, and lightheartedly I walked through the open galleries, through the cloisters, and up the stone stairs, but this time with no bad conscience at all. With these thoughts I was already kneeling at Reverend Mother’s feet and kissing her ring. She took both my hands in hers and looked at me lovingly and long without saying a word, until I felt rather uncomfortable. Finally she spoke:
– Frau Rafaela has told me your story. As you came home to find out the Will of God in this most important moment of your life, I assembled the community in the Chapter Room. We prayed to the Holy Ghost, and we held council, and it became clear to us that it is the Will of God that you marry the Captain and be a good mother to his children.
Minutes had passed, and I was still kneeling, trying to understand. When, still dazed, I looked up, I saw her lips move soundlessly in prayer, and the beloved eyes were filled with tears of compassion. Slowly I wound my way home. The children must be in bed by now, I thought, when I opened the big house door as quietly as possible to slip in unnoticed. But there stood the Captain.
– Well, and…
– Th-they s-s-said I have to m-m-m-marry you-u…
Without a word he opened his arms wide. And, what else could I do – with a wrenching sob I buried my face on his shoulder. All of a sudden there came all the tears I hadn’t found before. That was the Will of God for me.”
[The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, p. 58]
The first sorrow
[Last time I spoke about suffering. Now I quote Rabindranth Tagore’s best answer.]
I was walking along a path overgrown with grass, when suddenly I heard from someone behind, “See if you know me?”
I turned round and looked at her and said, “I cannot remember your name.”
She said, “I am that first Great Sorrow whom you met when you were twenty-five years old.”
Her eyes looked like a morning whose dew is still in the air.
I stood silent for some time till I said, “Have you lost all the great burden of your tears?”
She smiled and said nothing. I felt that her tears had had time to learn the language of smiles.
“Once you said,” she whispered, “that you would cherish your grief for ever.”
I blushed and said, “Yes, but years have passed and I forgot.”
Then I took her hand in mine and said, “But you have changed.”
“What was sorrow once has now become peace,” she said.
You have surprised me with your reactions to my summing up of the answers to suffering in the main ten religions of the world. Someone says that all taken together can help somehow. In any case they are not “explanations”, as human suffering remains a mystery demanding reverence and tact. No logic can explain it away.
C.S. Lewis, one of my favourite lay theologians, wrote in his youth a book on suffering, “The Problem of Pain”, with highly intellectual explanations and justifications, and with many beautiful sayings to console the suffering. Later he married, his wife died of cancer, he suffered deeply with her death, and in the full agony of despair wrote another book on suffering, “A Grief Observed”, this time so hard that he did not dare reveal his name and published it under a nom-de-plume. In it he goes to the length of calling God almost blasphemously “a cosmic sadist”, only to add at once, “… and I keep on believing”. It is a great document of a great Christian on human suffering.
That’s why today I’ve chosen Rabindranath Tagore’s beautifull story-poem as the only practical answer to suffering. Time is the great healer. “What was sorrow once has now become peace.” Although many years may have passed since we were twenty-five. Here we can help time with our resignation, our patience, our peace. I feel close to all who suffer.
You tell me the text does not fit in your printer and you miss the ending of each line. This is the remedy:
File / Page Set up / In Margins set Left = 3, Right = 3 / OK
I hope it works.
Psalm 101 – I love my city
I love your very stones and the dust of your streets. You are my city, my Zion, my heavenly Jerusalem; you, the city where I live, whose streets I walk, whose corners I turn, whose air I breathe, whose buildings I love. You, the city given to me to be my home, my place on earth, my shelter in life, my urban link with humankind. You, figure and sign of the City of God, I love you, I am proud of you, I am happy to live in you, to show you to visitors, to give your name next to mine in my address, linking my name with yours in the topographical bond of residential marriage. You are my city, and I rejoice in you.
I love you as you are, dust and all. I could worship the stones in your streets and take them as altars to offer on them a sacrifice of praise. Your lanes are sacred, your crossroads are blessed, your houses are anointed with the presence of man and woman, the children of God. You are a temple, the whole of you, consecrating with the seal of working man and woman the virgin landscapes of planet earth.
I pray for you, for your beauty and for your glory, to that God whose temple you are and whose majesty you reflect, that he may repair the wounds inflicted on you by the thoughtlessness of humans and the ravages of time, and make you shine with the final perfection I dream for you, and he, as your Lord and King, wants for you.
“You, Lord, are enthroned for ever,
and your fame shall be known to all generations.
You will arise and have mercy on Zion;
for the time is come to pity her.
Her very stones are dear to your servants,
and even her dust moves them with pity.
Then shall the nations revere your name, O Lord;
and all the kings of the earth your glory,
when the Lord builds up Zion again
and shows himself in his glory.”Your wounds are my wounds, and your trials are my trials. In praying for you I pray for me, derelict as I feel at times before failures and sickness and death, and my hope for your restoration is my hope for my own immortality. I hang on to your walls and take courage in the firmness of your structures. My own life sometimes seems to crumble, and then I lean on you, hide in you, identify with you. When i suffer, I remember your sufferings, and when the shadows of my life lengthen I think of the shadows over your ruins. Then I also think of your foundations, firm and lasting from times immemorial, and I find faith for myself in the permanence of your history.
Modern city of strikes and protests, of bombs that explode and police sirens that wail in the night, of terrorism and blood. I suffer with you and live with you in the hope that our suffering will bring redemption and I will be able to sing in you the praises of the Lord who made you and made me.
“The Lord’s name shall be on men’s lips in Zion
and his praise shall be told in Jerusalem,
when peoples are assembled together,
peoples and kingdoms, to serve the Lord.”
Very religious, but not a believer
The taxi driver turned out talkative. Traffic, weather, football, dearness of life and the next elections came up for review while we crossed street after street, turned corners and obeyed traffic lights. There was still some distance left, and he, observing my Roman collar, ventured the question:
– You’re a priest, aren’t you?
– Yes, I am.
– Well, look here, I’m a Christian, of course, that is, I was baptised as a child, and that sticks for life; but then I’ve thought on my own, and, you know, it’s the times and what one hears and what one does, and I don’t go to Church any more. Though I’m second to none in loving Our Lady. I’ll tell you plainly: I’m very religious, but I don’t believe in God. Do you follow me?
– Yes, yes. I understand. Very religious but not a believer.
– That’s what I am.
– This is the place. Please, leave me in that corner.
– God bless you.
Very religious but not a believer. I don’t know whether the good taxi driver had read Bonhoeffer and his theological niceties about religion without God and Christianity without Christ. But I don’t think that was the gist of his talk. He rather was one of those, as indeed there are many in our troubled days, who believe in God and venerate Jesus, but do not go to Church and do not obey the rules of the Church. Maybe he should have said it the other way about: he was a believer but not religious. The situation of those who were born in the Church but they do not find themselves anymore at ease in it as they grow up. That is the trial of our days.
At any rate, I gave him a good tip. Though the real tip was the one he had given me. He had made me think.
The price of freedom
“Come to buy me”, I exclaimed while I walked on the stony path. The King arrived on his chariot with his sword in his hand. He took my hand and said: “I’ll buy you with my power.” But his power did not avail him, and he left without me in his chariot.
In the afternoon heat all houses had their doors shut. I walked on the tortuous streets. An old man with a sac of gold met me. He hesitated for a moment and said: “I’m rich; I’ll buy you with my money.” He weighed his coins, one by one, but I turned my back to him and went away.”
It was getting dark. The whole garden had flowered. A beautiful damsel crossed my path and said: “I’ll buy you with my smile.” But her smile withered away and turned to tears. She went back alone in the dark.
The sun shone on the sand, and the waves of the sea pounded whimsically on the shore. There was a child sitting down, playing with shells. He looked up and seemed to recognise me. He told me: “I’ll buy you for nothing.”
Since I made that deal and I began to play with the child, I became a free man.
[Rabindranath Tagore, Full Moon, 40]
Jesus wouldn’t lie
David Essex played the role of Jesus in the musical “Godspell”, which was nothing else than “The Gospel according to St Matthew”. The Sunday Times wrote about him:
“This inward happiness, this fragility, a joyous wine in a frail vessel is the mark of David Essex’s Jesus in “Godspell”. This Jesus is a man who has found a splendid treasure and is eager to share it with everyone he meets. There have been many Christs in the world of art; the tormented Christ of El Greco, the benign shepherd of Murillo, the bland Christ of Rubens, the soaring Christ in majesty of Epstein…. And now Mr Essex’s gentle and innocent figure on the stage, as capable of infinite and simple affection as it is incapable of seeing evil anywhere, is worthy to rank with them. It is my firm opinion that Mr Essex’s is the best performance in London, the least histrionic, the happiest, and the most moving.”
One day, after the show, he was told his wife had given birth to their daughter. He went strait to the hospital in his car, and this is what happened:
“Rushing back to the hospital after the show I went through a red light just as it changed and was pulled over by a policeman. I explained that I was sorry and had not seen the light, and I was just about to give him the reason why I was in a rush, when he replied, ‘Well, Jesus wouldn’t lie, would he? Off you go.’ He had recognised me from the pictures of my show. My fame was spreading.”
“Godspell” coincided with “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the London scene, and people spoke of competition between the two actors that acted as Jesus in the respective shows. BBC television organised a debate between the two stars, David Essex of “Godspell” and Tim Rice of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. They settled the debate from the start, as, without any previous arrangement between them, they came on the stage wearing, Tim Rice a “Godspell” T-shirt, and David Essex a “Jesus Christ Superstar” one, that is, each one wearing the shirt of his supposed rival. Very gospel-like. Why doesn’t that simple gesture occur to our politicians in their pre-election television debates?
He tells an experience of his in India which I proceed to quote here, as it exposes with humour the cancer of bureaucracy that eats up our society everywhere:
“I also noticed that some serious job creation goes on in India. One day I decided to go and see a museum in Bombay. I lined up for a ticket, and was given a ticket to go and get a ticket. I got the ticket and was sent to another bloke who looked at my ticket and then sent me to another chap who stamped my ticket and sent me to another bloke who tore off a bit of my stamped ticket and sent me to another line where they carefully logged the number of my ticket. The guy there sent me to another bloke who took my ticket, and in I went – as easy as that.”
And, then, the solitude of the artist:
“One of the weirdest things I have found when touring is the sudden change of mood after doing a show. You run the gauntlet to get out of the venue, there’s usually a mad car chase to beat the fans back to the hotel, and then it’s quickly into a lift and back to an empty room. It’s a strange sensation, and my ears would ring for hours from the volume of screaming. I’d be locked away and, although so much love seemed to be surrounding me, there I was, sitting in a quiet hotel room, purposefully cut off from the outside world. That reminded me of the American singer Lou Reed telling me he had decorated his New York apartment like a Holiday Inn hotel room so that when he was on tour he felt like he was at home.”
“A Charmed Life”, pp. 117, 115, 119, 227]
The gold of the pilgrim
A rich and devout man wanted to go on a long pilgrimage to the holy city of Benares to bathe in the waters of the Ganges, to listen to the sermons of the Brahmins, and to sanctify his soul in the temples. He prepared carefully the whole journey, but there was a problem. The money that had helped him to plan his trip with all comforts was precisely the obstacle that threatened the whole scheme. All in the village knew that he was rich, all knew that he was leaving behind in his house a sac with a thousand gold coins, and more than one were thinking how they could get hold of the treasure while the owner was bathing in the Ganges.
The pilgrim gave the matter thought and found a solution. The day before his departure he went to see the saint of the village, a holy man of God who spent his day in deep meditation squatting before his hut, lived on herbs and wild fruits, and dressed in a loin cloth. He would never think of stealing the gold, and he never left his hut, so he was the perfect keeper for the treasure. The rich man asked him, the holy man agreed, dug a whole in which he placed the sac with the gold, and sat over it with folded legs as he sank into heavenly contemplation. The pilgrim could depart in peace.
But on the next day, at dawn, when the rich pilgrim was going to start for Benares, the holy man came running with the sac of the thousand gold coins in his hand, gave it back to the pilgrim and manifested his inability to keep it.
Why couldn’t he? The saint explained: “Because I cannot meditate while sitting on gold. My mind does not concentrate, my soul finds no peace, my spirit does not soar. Texts of the holy books, prayers from the rituals or techniques of meditation are of no avail. Everything is gold, gold, gold. If I remain like this till you come back from Benares, I’ll go mad. Take back your gold and keep it where you please. I go back to my hut.”
The pilgrim understood that his pilgrimage had rendered its fruit. He understood that the point was not going to Benares but obtaining detachment from his treasure. The village’s holy man was truly a man of God.
A sure signal
And then there is the other rich man who wanted to hide his treasure where nobody would see it. He dug a hole in the exact spot where a cloud cast its shadow. Nobody could find it. Not even he himself was able to find it again.
I know it’s not easy to take decisions. You honour me when you share with me delicate moments in your lives. You know I’m never going to tell you what you have to do. Still, sharing may help self-understanding and self-assurance. Some of these queries have to do with sex. You know well what the Church teaches in the matter, some times you understand your honest personal decision would somehow deviate from that teaching, and you want me to reassure you. That’s not the way. The decision is personal, as it comes from one’s conscience. I do desire sex may not become an obsession in life. Maybe this Spanish ditty about the sixth (sex) and seventh (money) commandments may help with its humour. In translation:
“If no pardon wipes the sixth,
and no reprieve helps the seventh,
God will do well, in a fix,
to fill up with hay his heaven.”
Psalm 102 – Trust in God’s mercy
“Bless the Lord, my soul,
and forget none of his benefits.
He pardons all my guilt,
and heals all my suffering.”I want to sing your mercy, Lord, which I have experienced in my body and in my soul. You have forgiven my sins and you have healed my sicknesses. You have defeated evil in me, evil that showed itself as rebellion in my soul and corruption in my body. One leads to the other. I am one whole and united being, and the whole of me, body and soul, reacts to my choices and my actions in blessing or in darkness as I stumble along the way of life.
It is over that whole of me that you have extended your healing hand, Lord, in a gesture of pardon and of grace that restores my life and quickens my body. My very bones rejoice as I feel the blessing of your mercy in the depths of my being. Thank you, Lord, for your infinite goodness.
“As the heaven stands high above the earth,
so his strong love stands high above all who fear him.
Far as east is from west,
so far has he put our offences away from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so has the Lord compassion on all who fear him.
For he knows how we were made,
he knows full well that we are dust.”You know my weakness, because you made me. I have failed numberless times, and I know I shall fail again. And my body will reflect the failings of my soul in the breaking down of its functions. I expect your mercy to come on me again, Lord, as it has done now and will always do, because you never fail those who love you. Heal my body and my soul to renew my life once more.
“He surrounds me with constant love,
with tender affection;
he contents me with all good in the prime of life,
and my youth is ever new like an eagle’s.”Like an eagle’s flight is my life on the horizons of your grace. Strong and firm, high and majestic. I feel my youth renewed and my strength affirmed. The whole sky is mine, because it is yours, and you now give it to me in my flight. My youth surges through my veins as I survey the world with peaceful joy and gentle pride. How great are you, Lord, who have created all this and me with it! I bless you for ever in the gratefulness of my soul.
“Bless the Lord, my soul!”
Provided it isn’t easy!
Kakasaheb Kalelkar was Gandhiji’s right-hand man in education, and he honoured me with his friendship the thirty years our lives coincided in India. He died in 1981, close to his hundredth birthday. Once, recollecting his days with Gandhi, he told me this anecdote which marked his life.
Those were the days of India’s struggle for independence. Gandhi, together with a small group of his closest collaborators, was in South India launching a drive to promote Hindi as link language between the different regions of India in the coming freedom. The campaign had to be carefully planned, as Hindi was not very welcome in the South. Gandhi was in a corner of the room dictating letters to his secretary Mahadevbhai, while in the other corner eight or ten companions were shaping plans and choosing the names of those who would handle each activity. Kalelkar was in the group.
Gandhi was not taking part in the discussion, but his famous large ears that had won for him the endearing nickname of Mickey Mouse were quite alert and followed from corner to corner all tasks and names as they were coming up in the discussion. At a given moment someone said, “Well, and what work should we give Kalelkar?” Gandhi heard the question from his corner, and, without lifting his eyes from his papers, he said aloud and before anybody could answer the question: “Give Kalelkar any work… provided it is not easy.” And he went on dictating letters to his secretary.
Kalelkar told me that when he heard those words his heart just melted. Gandhi trusts me. Let them give me any work. Provided it is not easy. Gandhi appreciated me. Gandhi believed in me and was sure I could undertake any difficult task. He was telling me there itself and in front of everybody that he trusted me. How was I going to let him down? I grew taller before my own self. I’ll work to the end, heart and soul and body and mind, I’ll burn my candle at both ends, but I’ll never fail him. He appreciated me more than I did myself. And he was saying it in the simplest, most spontaneous, and most efficient way. All that I later did in all my life was due to Gandhi. And it was due to that phrase: “Provided it is not easy.” Those words shaped my life.
The secret of fidelity is the showing of trust.
André Weil, almost as famous as his sister Simone Weil, was a mathematician, co-founder of the Bourbaki group, author of several important theorems, and defender of a pacifist ideology that even landed him in jail. He describes thus the pure pleasure of mathematical research:
“Any mathematician worth their salt has experienced these stages of lucid exaltation in which ideas link together as though by miracle, and in which the subconscious seems also to play a part. Unlike sexual pleasure, this other pleasure can last several hours, even days. Whoever has known it desires it again but cannot summon it, unless it be through intense labour and as its true recompense.
I had known such moments of bliss when working at Diophantine equations in Göttingen, and I was asking myself with eagerness whether they would ever come again. They did come back, and I was filled with joy. I was in Aligarh, India, and my mathematical friend Vijayaraghavan was in Dacca. I sent him a wire: “New multiple complex variable function theory born today.” He wired back: “Congratulations. Please wire mother’s health.” Maybe that was a little excessive, but it gives the feeling. On my journey back I stopped in Rome to see Vito Volterra, and when I explained my formula to him, he jumped out from his armchair, and run to the end of the house shouting to his wife: “ Virginia! Virginia! Il signor Weil has proved a beautiful theorem!”
He wrote one of his best treatises while in jail. He writes in his diary:
“My mathematical work goes on better than expected. I even feel a bit uneasy, since, seeing how well I work in jail, should I manage to spend two or three months a year here? Meanwhile, I’m turning in my mind the idea of sending to the Research Centre a report whose beginning will run like this: ‘Dear Head of the Research Centre, I’ve recently had occasion to verify personally the remarkable advantages that the residences of your penitentiary institution offer for a pure and selfless research, I have the honour to propose, etc…’.”
During the war he had to teach the elements of algebra and analytical geometry to a group of officers in the army. To shake their inertia he would invite them to stand up at attention and to ask questions. The question that most annoyed him [and in that I identify with him when I think of my years as a mathematics teacher myself] was, “Does this come for the exam?” But he also records the deepest question an officer asked him at the end of the course: “Please, sir, could you tell me what is x? I don’t know what it means.” Algebra in a nutshell.
He even had a go at Zen:
“My stay in the States allowed me, during a visit to Harvard, to come to know in the Boston Museum the Chinese paintings of the Sung period, of which that museum has an admirable collection. A young curator of the museum insisted in accompanying me, and he assured me that only a knowledge of Zen enabled one fully to appreciate those paintings. I said to him, ‘You surely must have studied Zen’: He confessed to having tried it without success. Together with some friends he had invited a Japanese monk who lived in New York to come to Boston for their initiation. For the first session they had invited a rather large group that assembled in a private house. The monk arrived on time, sat in the lotus posture and said: ‘Today we’ll meditate on the sound of one hand clapping.’ Having said that, the monk prayed in silence for one hour, got up, bowed deeply and departed. He was not asked to come again.”
[André Weil, Souvenirs d’apprentissage, pp. 89, 114, 143, 179]
By the way, Diophantine equations are equations whose solutions are integers. They also have an x.
A young monk had been away from his monastery. When he returned he found that a flood had washed out the bridge and the river was too high to ford. Just then he caught sight of his master walking on the far bank. “Master!” he cried, “How do I get to the other side?” The Master paused for a moment and yelled back, “Fool! You’re already on the other side!” At that moment the disciple attained illumination.
[Robert Allen, 365 Smiles from Buddha, p. 12]
“The only way to understand dance is to dance.” Allan Watts.
The pensive swans
A hunter of swans had brought home a netful of them and had kept them in a cage till he could sell them. They were all sad and pensive, waiting for their fate and not knowing what to do meanwhile. The four sides of the cage were strong and solid, and the cage was solidly fixed to the ground. There was nothing to do except suffering and waiting, and that’s what they did with their long necks bent low and their eyes fixed on the floor.
One day one of them looked up and saw that the cage had no ceiling. It was totally open on the top. Since they were all so depressed, they had not looked up and had not realised the true situation. The enterprising young swan made sure of his observation, waited, and when it was already dark and he was sure the hunter was asleep and could not hear them, he began to tell all the others that the cage had no ceiling and they all could fly away as soon as they wanted.
But no one listened to him. They all thought it was an illusion, a trap, a deceit, as nobody had noticed it before. It just couldn’t be as easy as that. Their situation was bad, but it would turn worse it they tried to escape and the hunter caught them. They turned their heads again towards the ground and they remained sad and pensive as before.
The enterprising swan waited. When all the others were asleep, he remained awake, walked slowly away from the group, unfolded his wings, lifted himself gently, cleared the cage and flew.
The seeker of God
A Sufi story. A devout believer started on his search of God. He asked holy men, studied holy scriptures, visited temples, prayed in monasteries, and everywhere he was told, go ahead, go farther, go higher.
At last he reached the last holy place where God was going to reveal himself to him in the last cave of the last temple. He arrived, waited, knelt, looked up. Before his eyes was a large, even, golden wall, and just in front of him there was a curtain which, on being pulled open, would reveal to him the face he had so painstakingly looked for.
The moment arrived, the curtain was pulled aside, the pilgrim looked up eagerly, and he prostrated himself on the floor to worship the divine revelation. He then straightened himself up, lifted his eyes, looked up straight in front of him, let the lines and colours before his eyes take shape, and finally saw it. It was a mirror.
[A story by Rabindranath Tagore]
The lonely girl built an altar in a corner in the garden, and began to sketch a figure on it. She drew the profile of the man in her heart. She looked at it, placed it on the altar and wept.
The image in her own mind began then to fade and to be hidden as behind a veil. The petals of her memory closed slowly together one by one as the petals of a night lotus flower.
The girl was annoyed with herself and felt ashamed. She increased her sacrifices: she eat only fruits, drunk only water, and slept on a bed of leaves.
She decorated the image; she worshipped it with a tray of one hundred and one lotus flowers; at night she lit before it a lamp of perfumed oil. The lamp was made of gold, and the oil was precious.The day of the fair arrived. The old man of the village came and told her:
- My daughter, are you not coming to the fair?
- I’ll go nowhere.
- Come, let’s go to the fair.
- I have no time.
- Please, take me to the fair – pleaded a small child.
- I cannot go. My worship is here.
One night, in a dream, she thought she heard the thundering sound of the sea. Many men and women, from far and near, were passing in front of her, some on chariots, some on foot, some wearing a burden, some throwing it away.
The next morning, the song of the wayfarers did not allow her to hear the voices of the birds. She suddenly thought: “I too must go.” But she remembered at once: “I have to do my worship; I cannot go.”
She went back to the corner in the garden where she had placed the image. But it wasn’t there. Where the alter has stood there was only a path now. Men and women walked on it without ceasing.
- Where is the one I had installed here?
- He is among those who go ahead.
At the same moment the small child arrived.
- Take my hand and lead me there.
- To the fair. Are you not coming?
- Yes, I’m coming – she answered.
And so the altar, before which she used to sit in worship, became a highway, and, among all those wayfarers the girl found the man whose image she had lost.
[Rabindranath Tagore, Lipika, 28]
Question: Is breathing important as in Yoga?
Answer: Yes, it is. And even more as in Vipassana. Yoga tends to improve breathing, and that is important. Thérèse Bertherat in her beautiful book, “The Body Has Its Reasons”, states that our ordinary breathing is so shallow that we hardly use our lungs, and it is as though we were living in a five-floor house, keeping the five floors unoccupied and dwelling exclusively in the attic.
But breathing is, in my opinion, even more important in Vipassana, as it teaches conscious breathing, that is, paying attention to the action of breathing, and this is the basic tool in the East to obtain balance in feelings, contact with the present, and peace of mind.
It’s not I alone who say that. In a recent issue of the Indian Jesuits monthly, “Jeevan”, the editorial article itself was based on the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his basic recommendation, “breathing, smiling, walking”, as a summary of all his teaching, and the article recommended its appreciation, its study, and its practice. Conscious breathing is the great secret of the East.
I sum up the doctrine in three steps: conscious breathing is (1) important, (2) very easy, (3) extremely difficult.
It is important as it makes us conscious of ourselves, unifies all sensations at any given moment, establishes the right balance between rival feelings of sadness and joy, recovers the body-soul unity, sets the rhythm of life, immerses us in nature’s seasons, centres our being, enlivens our existence. It is the memory of the body, the pulse of the soul, the oneness of life.
It is very easy. We all breath all the time. We have only to realise the fact, to accompany the air that comes in and goes out, to appreciate oxygen, to love our own nose.
It is extremely difficult. Try it. I challenge you, you’ll not be able to keep up continuous conscious breathing while you are doing something else. Its very difficulty underlines its value. It is worth all decision, effort, beginning all over again and again. Breathe, smile, walk. It’s the Jesuits are telling you that.
Psalm 103 – Harmony in creation
I want to discover the beauty of your creation, Lord, by thinking of the hand that made it. You are behind each star and each blade of grass, and the unity of your power gives unity and light to all that you created.
“You have spread out the heavens like a tent,
and on their waters laid the beams of your pavilion;
you take the clouds for your chariot,
riding on the wings of the wind.”It is your presence that gives strength to the mountains and speed to the rivers; you give the ocean its depth and the sky its colour. You shepherd the clouds through the heavens and send down the timely gift of rain. You lead the birds in their flight and help the stork build her nest. You give the ox its strength and the gazelle its grace. You let the sea monsters play in the ocean and fish without number teem in its depths.
You care for all of them, you watch over their lives, you direct their path, and you give them food for strength and for joy.
“All of them look expectantly to you
to give them their food at the proper time;
what you give them they gather up;
when you open your hand they eat their fill.”And man and woman in the midst of it all. To see your work, to enjoy its blessings and to thank you for them. How much more will you care for them, heirs of your earth and owners of your creation. You feed them with the fruits of the earth to build their body and free their mind.
“You bring bread out of the earth
and wine to gladden people’s hearts,
oil to make their faces shine
and bread to sustain their strength.”And to watch over man and woman you send the moon and the stars, you order the days and the seasons for the rhythms of their life, you light their universe with the sun and cover their sleep with darkness.
“You have made the moon to measure the year,
and taught the sun where to set.
When you make darkness there is night,
all the beasts of the forest come forth.
When you make the sun rise they slink away
and go to rest in their lairs;
but man comes out to his work
and to his labours until evening.”Everything is in order, everything is in harmony. Countless creatures live together and they greet one another with the variety of their faces and the swiftness of their paths. Each one enhances the beauty of the other, and all together form the eternal marvel that is our universe.
There is only a discordant note in the concert of creation. That is sin. It is there as a blot on the landscape, as a cleft in the earth, as a rift in the sky. It disturbs the balance of the world, it blackens the history of humankind and endangers its future. Sin is the one thing out of place in the universe, out of place in the heart of man. When I look at creation I feel that violent trait that disfigures the work of the Creator, and my contemplation of the disturbed universe ends, as the psalm itself ends, with the poignant cry from my wounded heart:
“Away with sinners from the earth,
and may the wicked be no more!”
Smoke that kills
A woman writes: “I’m a smoker. I can’t help it. The whole day long. At home and at work. It’s years since I carry on. Non-stop. You ask me how much it costs me? Nothing. It’s free. I smoke other people’s smoke. I’m a passive smoker. I smoke the environment. I get poisoned with other people’s addiction. My lungs are spoiled. And I derive no pleasure from it. Is there any remedy?
There are other smokes, too. There are pessimist people all around. Nothing works. Nothing is right. Complaints and discouragement and depression. The world is wrong. The country is wrong. The Church is wrong. The galaxy is wrong. Deadly smokes. And they surround us the whole day long. We’re all passive pessimists. We’re exposed to the plague of disappointment. We’re poisoned by the discouragement of others. Is there any remedy?
We are surrounded by people’s temper. Smokes of anger, of fury, of bad temper. Hurtful words and jarring accents. We all are passively angry. We are attacked by the anger of half the world. Our lungs get filled with black smoke. And we derive no pleasure from it. Is there any remedy?
We are flayed by other people’s nerves. Impatience and intolerance and stress. Nerves on edge and drawn faces. Smokes of madness. We’re all passive neurotics. We’re assailed by social neurosis. We’re exposed to the tensions of the majority. And we’re not happy about it. Is there any remedy?
We are hemmed in by violence in our environment. Cinema and newspapers and home quarrels and world terrorism. And the repressed anger of many who do in their minds what others do with their weapons. Smokes of death. We are all passive terrorists. We are attacked by violence in the street and death on the screen. Just as tobacco attacks passive smokers. And we don’t like it. Is there any remedy?
It’s not enough to print on cigarette packs, “Smoking can kill”. Pessimism also kills, and bad temper kills, and nerves kill, and violence kills. And all those smokes surround us. Fortunately, by knowing it and reacting and fighting back we can rid ourselves of pessimism and bad temper and nerves and personal violence. More easily than of tobacco smoke. These are my personal reflections whenever I see the publicity on cigarette packs. I’m not a pessimist.
Posture and breathing
The Dalai Lama tells us his daily life:
“Regarding my actual daily practice, I spend, at the very least, five and a half hours daily in prayer, meditation and study. Over and above that, I also pray whenever I can during odd moments of the day, for example over meals and while travelling. As a Buddhist, I see no distinction between religious practice and daily life. Religious practice is a twenty-four-hour occupation.
However, for myself, early morning is the best time for practice. The mind is at its freshest and sharpest then. I therefore get up at around four o’clock. On waking, I begin the day with the recitation of mantras. I then drink hot water and take my medicine before making prostrations in salutation of the Buddhas for about half an hour. The purpose of this is twofold. Firstly, it increases one’s own merit (assuming proper motivation), and secondly, it is good exercise. After my prostration, I wash – saying prayers as I do so. Then I generally go outside for a walk, during which I make further recitations, until breakfast at around 5.15 am. I allow about half an hour for this meal (which is quite substantial) and whilst eating read scriptures.
From 5.45 am until around 8.00 am, I meditate, pausing only to listen to the 6.30 news bulletin of the BBC World Service. Then, from 8.00 until noon, I study Buddhist philosophy. Between then and lunch at 12.30, I might read either official papers or newspapers, but during the meal itself I again read scripture. At 1 pm I go to my office, where I deal with government and other matters and give audiences until 5.00 pm. This is followed by another short period of prayer and meditation as soon as I get back home. If there is anything worthwhile on television, I watch it now before having tea at 6.00 pm. Finally, after tea, during which I read scripture once more, I say prayers until 8.30 or 9.00 pm, when I go to bed. Then follows very sound sleep.”
The prostrations may sound a bit strange to us, but then he also finds it strange that we shouldn’t give importance to posture, as he narrates with the occasion of his meeting with the famous American Trappist monk Thomas Merton:
“Our meetings were conducted in a very pleasant atmosphere. Merton was both humorous and well informed. He told me a number of things that surprised me, notably that Christian practitioners of meditation do not adopt any particular physical position when they meditate. According to my understanding, position and even breathing are vital.”
He also met another Catholic monk in Spain:
“Another person whom I think of as a highly evolved spiritual master is a Catholic monk I met at his hermitage near Montserrat in Spain. He had spent a great many years there, just like an Eastern sage, surviving off nothing more than bread and water and a little tea. He spoke very little English – even less than me – but from his eyes I could see that I was in the presence of an extraordinary person, a true practitioner of religion. When I asked him what his meditations were about, he answered simply, ‘Love’. Since then, I have always thought of him as a modern Milarepa, after the Tibetan master of that name who spent much of his life hidden away in a cave, meditating and composing spiritual verses.”
The solitude of Western people in their great cities impressed him:
“Another observation is that there are a lot of people in the West who live very comfortably in large cities, but virtually isolated from the broad mass of humanity. I find this very strange – that under the circumstance of such material well-being and with thousands of brothers and sisters for neighbours, so many people appear able to show their true feelings only to their cats and dogs. This indicates a lack of spiritual values, I feel. Part of the problem here is perhaps the intense competitiveness of life in these countries, which seems to breed fear and a deep sense of insecurity.”
“In spite of being a monk and a supposed practitioner of the ‘Guide of conduct of Bodhisattva’, I too fall sometimes a pray to irritation and anger, and, as a consequence, I also use hard words before others. Soon after, once the anger has passed, I feel ashamed; but the hurting words have been uttered and there is no way to recall them. Though, even after the words vanish and its sound has been extinguished, the impact lasts. Hence all that remains in my hand is to go to the person in question and offer apologies. But, in the meantime, I feel ashamed and uneasy.”
And then an amusing experience:
“Once, when I was in Washington, I was asked to give a TV interview. The interviewer spoke to me from New York. I was told to look directly at a screen showing not his face, but my own. This completely unsettled me. I found it so disconcerting to be talking to myself that I was lost for words.”
He ends his autobiography with these words:
“Finally, I would like to share with my readers a short prayer which gives me great inspiration and determination:
For as long as space endures, and as living beings remain, until then may I abide to dispel sorrows and pain.”
[Freedom in Exile, pp. 208, 219, 221, 222, 314, The Compassionate Life, 70]
The great scare
The disciples were in awe of the Master, not because of his discipline or his learning, but because nothing ever seemed to upset or ruffle him. So they found him a bit unearthly and even frightening. One day they decided to put him to a test. They hung a skeleton high in a ceiling over the corridor through which he was due to pass, and the moment he reached the spot, they released the string and the skeleton dropped and danced just in front of the monk who was holding a cup of hot tea in his hands.
But he showed no reaction whatsoever, and not a drop of tea spilled from his cup. He peacefully made his way to a small table in the hall at the end of the corridor, gently placed the cup down, and then, leaning against the wall, he cried out with mock shock, “Oooh, what a scare!”
And that scared the disciples.
[I read this Gujarati story many years ago when I was studying the language, and it touched me. The other day I found it again in an anthology of modern Indian stories, and it has touched me again. It carries a very actual social message. It deals with those we now call “Dalits”, that is the oppressed, the outcaste, the untouchables, and brings to light their human dignity. I translate and shorten it here, together with my remembrance of it. The author is Ramnarayan Pathak, and the title is “Khemi”, that is the name of the woman in it.]
Khemi and Dhania, now newly wed, were pariahs. They were sweepers and kleeners of gutters. The lowest rung in society. But they loved each other. They had married out of love, although Dhania, the husband, tells Khemi that he would have paid any price to marry her. But he also remonstrates lovingly with her:
– You made it pretty hard for me!
– Because you said you would marry me only if I promised not to drink, not to use hard words with you and not to beat you. And if I would ever do that, you would leave me at once. How can you have said that?
– And how could I not have said it? Tell me, why do you drink? You yourself say that liquor is bitter.
– Yes, but when I just can’t help it any longer, I drink.
– I’ll help you never to have to drink again.
A high-caste man, the owner of the house in front of which they had both sat down, sees them and scolds them:
– Get out of here, you pigs! Don’t defile my house with your dirty presence! You, human vermin and curse of the earth!
They get up and go, and Khemi feels her husband’s sadness even more than her own. She knows what he needs. She unties the corner of her sari, takes a half-rupee coin and tells him gently: – Take this. How long are you going to be sad? Never mind if you drink a little. But only this time. Strictly this time.
– Only this time. I promise. But to hell with that man!
– That is our life
– Then it is not worthwhile.
One night Dhania comes home drunk. She nurses him, and he laughs away:
– And you said that if I drank again you would leave me!
– And I will leave you.
– Where will you go?
– Wherever it is.
– You will not go away. – We shall see.
That night Dhania beats Khemi, and the following morning Khemi goes away. She goes to another village where she bribes the municipality man in charge of the sweepers and gets a job there. But she keeps thinking of Dhania and hoping he’ll come to fetch her. She keeps her dignity and her independence.
One day someone comes. It is Dhania’s mother. She comes in her son’s name to ask Khemi to come back and she promises Dhania will not drink again. Khemi comes back happy, and their first days together are sheer bliss. Then, one day comes when they begin to talk seriously about their position:
– You are very strong, Khemi, and have a strong willpower. Even here I got reports of your exploits in that other village, how you stood your ground even before the municipality man, who was a high-caste and was throwing on the floor the coins of your pay so as not to touch your hand even when giving them to you and not to defile himself with your touch as they say.
– Yes, that’s what they do to us, sweepers, but I stood up and told the man before everybody that if he didn’t give me my pay in my hand, I would refuse to sign the receipt, that is, to print my thumb impression on his book.
– And he had to yield.
– He did.
– You are strong, Khemi, and I am proud of you. But tell me, how could you be quite happy there knowing that I was feeling so lonely here?
– I also was feeling lonely without you, but I had decided not to come back so long as you didn’t call me back. I have my dignity and my self-respect.
– But how could I call you? My mother kept telling me you would come back at once on your own. But she didn’t know your sense of honour and your strength of will. At the end I had to ask my mother to go and fetch you.
– Was it hard for you to do that?
– Yes. First I tried other remedies. I made vows and promises to the gods. First to Ramdey Pir. Then to Haraksha Mata, and ever later to Jhampadi Mata. But you didn’t come back.
– And then?
– My mother told me I was losing weight, and she was ready to get me another woman, but I told her I wanted only Khemi, and I would never marry another, even if you didn’t return.
– That’s exactly what I thought, too.
– Finally I promised a good offering to Bhadrakali Mata, and I sent my mother to fetch you.
– I too made vows and promises to the gods. First to Ramdey Pir, as you did, then to Santram Maharaj, and finally to Bhadrakali Mata, again as you did.
– How did you do all that? I must have spent fifty rupees in vows and promises, and you must have spent at least sixty. And I had spent two hundred rupees on our wedding, which I’ve still to repay, and for which they are pestering me. I don’t know what I’ll do.
– I’ve still with me my ornaments. We’ll sell them and pay.
Now comes the worst. The sweepers are all untouchables below any cast, but unfortunately there are casts also among the untouchables, and Khemi’s caste among the sweepers was even lower than that of Dhania, so that he had to pay a fine to the caste leaders for marrying Khemi, and that was their perdition. That night Dhania sleeps with his head on Khemi’s chest. After a few glorious days, they face utter misery.
Next day Khemi goes to sell her ornaments. She can’t bring herself to sell them, and so she pawns them, which gives them very little money. Meanwhile they have to pay the interest of their loans, a matter none of the two understands, but which does away with all their resources. Dhania’s mother dies. Khemi gives birth to a girl, so that she cannot work any more as a sweeper. And then, the inevitable happens. Dhania goes back to drink.
On a cold winter day, Dhania does not return home. Khemi leaves the baby home and goes out to find him. She finds him lying down unconscious on the sands of the river. She lifts him and takes him home. That night Dhania catches pneumonia. Khemi goes back to her gods, but Dhania dies.
What hurts Khemi most is that her husband has died without paying all he had promised the gods to pay. She knows he cannot be happy in the other life as he had not paid up in this life. But she doesn’t know what to do. One day, while sweeping the street, she sees a Brahmin, priest and astrologer, who was holding office right in the middle of the street. He had Shiva’s ashes on his forehead, and a large rosary of rudraksha hanging from his neck. He had extended on the floor some charts with astrological signs, and on them the dice to cast lots and a slate for calculations. Khemi approaches gingerly. The Brahmin knows her as untouchable on seeing her broom, and signals to her in contempt to go away quickly. She bows low, keeping her distance, and says with respect:
– Maharaj, I want to ask you one question.
– First put eight annas on the floor.
Khemi’s shadow was unholy to the Brahmin, but not her money. Khemi puts a half-rupee coin on the floor which the Brahmin takes up after sprinkling some water on it. Then he says:
– Now what do you want to ask me?
– Maharaj, if a woman’s husband dies without carrying out his promises to some gods and goddesses, can his widow carry out the vows?
– Yes, she can.
– And does he get the benefit and obtains liberation?
– Yes, he obtains liberation.
– Thank you very much, Maharaj.
Khemi stands up and makes to go, but the Brahmin counts something on his fingers and adds: “If you marry another man, he does not get the benefit of your worship.” She bows down and withdraws.
Now Khemi started saving money to worship the gods and goddesses on Dhania’s behalf. Khemi’s youthfulness had long worn out, but there was still some charm left in her. Many sweepers approached her for marriage, but she gave the same answer to everyone. She said: “I can’t think of marriage before I finish worshipping the gods and goddesses for Dhania. One sweeper even offered to give her the whole amount in cash. But, Khemi firmly declined the offer and said that only the money she had earned herself could do.
It took her seven years to fulfil the whole task. Yet again another sweeper sent her a message asking her to be his wife. She replied: “No, no, after so many years I don’t want to put a patch on my life!”
[I like Alan Watts, and I like this quotation from him someone has sent me:]
“It may seem both strange and unreasonable that strong and intelligent men should simply sit still for hours on end. The Western mentality feels that such things are not only unnatural but a great waste of valuable time, however useful as a discipline for inculcating patience and fortitude. Although the West has its own contemplative tradition in the Catholic Church, the life of ‘sitting and looking’ has lost its appeal, for no religion is valued which does not ‘improve the world…’. Yet it should be obvious that action without wisdom, without clear awareness of the world as it really is, can never improve anything. Furthermore, as muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone, it could be argued that those who sit quietly and do nothing are making one of the best contributions to a world in turmoil.”
Psalm 104 – Don’t touch my servants!
Few words from your lips have moved me more, Lord, than this declaration in your Psalm:
“Touch not my anointed servants; do my prophets no harm!”
Lord, I’m unworthy, but I am your servant, I represent you, I speak in your name. And you are warning the kings of earth along my way not to touch me, because your hand is upon me. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for your love, for your care, for your protection. Thank you for engaging your word and your power in my own cause, for standing by me, for fighting by my side. Thank you for your readiness to punish people who may do me harm. You have come into the open to show me favour, and I treasure your words and your gesture, Lord.
I had set about singing once more the history of the salvation of your people (and me with them) through desert and sea, out of bondage into the promise…, and I see it now summed up in that decisive admonition: “Don’t touch my servants!”. It resounds from Pharao’s palace to the sides of the Jordan, it opens up ways and wins battles, it refrains enemies and defeats armies. It marks the pilgrimage of the people of God day by day with the power of faith and the confidence of victory. It is itself the whole history of the chosen people. “Don’t touch my people.” And the people reaches the Promised Land.
Those words explain my own history too, Lord, and I see it now. How am I where I am, how have I reached here, how do I find myself in the safety of your Church and the blessing of your grace? How is it the world has not overcome me, temptation has not overpowered me? Because one day early in my life you pronounced the royal warning: “Don’t touch him; he is my servant.” Your word protected me. Your warning defended me. Your promise guided me. I am what I am today because your words have gone ahead of me clearing the way and removing the dangers. Your words are my history.
Consoling words that built your people and shaped my life. Words that give firmness of heart and confidence in trouble, because they come from you and declare the seriousness of your intent. I love to hear and to repeat those words: Promise, covenant, oath, decree. I rejoice to see them piled up in the verses of your Psalm:
“He called to mind his covenant of long ago,
the promise he extended to a thousand generations,
the covenant made with Abraham,
his oath given to Isaac,
the decree by which he bound himself for Jacob.”
All those beautiful words are summed up in that practical command from your lips: “Don’t touch my people!” That is your promise and your oath, the way to carry out your covenant and your decree. Your people will be protected and your word will be fulfilled. Those few decisive words will write the whole glorious history of your pilgrim people.
“A small company it was,
few in number, strangers in that land,
roaming from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another;
but he let no one ill-treat them,
for their sake he admonished kings:
‘Touch not my servants;
do my prophets no harm!'”
I take it the full import of your words: “Don’t touch him; because whoever touches him, touches me!” Isn’t that what you mean, Lord? And isn’t that enough to move my heart and open my chest in gratitude and love? You take as done to you what is done to me. You identify with me. You make me one with you. I don’t deserve the grace, but I fathom the privilege. I am grateful for the safety this word brings to me, but much more for the practical assurance of love and care from you it effects and signifies.
“Touch not my anointed servants;
do my prophets no harm!”
Thank you, Lord, in the name of your prophets and your servants.
Happen what may, all happy!
My brother has reminded me of the last sentence our father said before his death in the clinic when I was 10 years old: “Happen what may, all happy!” The memory touches me. I think this is the sentence that shaped my life. My mother used to say of me when I was small: “Carlos is easy to please.” Life is hard, the road is uphill, the night is dark. But, happen what may, we all are to go ahead and find our smile and live out our hope. All happy.
Someone, who had some influence on my life for a time, wanted to teach me that to be easy to please was no good. I had to become assertive, aggressive, forward, domineering. Fine, but that’s not me. That hurt me. I obeyed him for a while, and became for a time hard, unpleasant and insolent. But soon I reacted and found myself again. It’s true that nobody has to be anybody’s doormat. But then, nobody has to be overbearing either. I’m back to being easy to please. Happen what may, all happy. Blessed memory.
Vincent van Gogh
Henri Nouwen, the famous Dutch priest who wrote “The Wounded Healer” and “The Prodigal Son”, was much loved in his life, and continues to be read after his death for his originality, his depth, his sincerity, and his “remote intimacy”. He could also be at times a little absentminded, as his biographer, Michael Ford, tells in this amusing episode:
“In his days as a university professor in the United States, Henri Nouwen was something of a sensation due to his talks on the life of his countryman Vincent van Gogh. The listeners sat in a darkened hall, and then the lights gradually revealed the background, and Nouwen entered with an ear bandaged – a reminder that Van Gogh had cut his own ear. In his presentation – which, as can be seen did not lack special effects – he used stories and ideas from Van Gogh’s life and art to lead on to deep spiritual statements.
When Nouwen received a letter from a women’s religious order inviting him to speak about Vincent as the keynote speech in his anniversary celebrations, he put up his show once more. The hall was full with Sisters from many convents, thrilled at having Nouwen as the main speaker on their anniversary day. The great show included everything related to Vincent’s madness, and, although Henri’s eyesight was never too keen, he did notice that the nuns wore a rather strange expression on their faces. There were surprised looks, fascination and mirth, but there were also enough eyebrows raised and nervous giggles to make him suspect he was not getting his usual sweeping success.
After a two-hour talk and some clapping, more hesitant than was usual with his talks, Mother Superior thanked him and added: ‘But, father, when we asked you to come and give us the main talk about Vincent, we did not mean Vincent van Gogh but our founder, St Vincent de Paul.’
Nouwen – continues his biographer – was so much in demand as a speaker and preacher that he had to refuse each week fifty requests form numerous countries. Whether he preached to the guests at a wedding or to a meeting of the clergy, to a crowd of pacifists on the eve of the Gulf War or to an international audience via satellite, he put himself into it heart and soul.
Sometimes he prepared a few notes for a special occasion, but on other occasions he did not develop his homilies till about an hour before the celebration. A friend recalled having seen Nouwen open his missal at the established readings and needing only a few minutes to concentrate on their message. Then he would bend his head, close the book, and declare that he was ready to speak from the heart.
Nouwen himself made this commentary about Van Gogh: ‘This Dutchman, so deeply hurt and so widely gifted, has put me in contact with my own frailty and my own talents as no other person would have been capable of doing.’ There are many persons from all corners of the world that feel the same about Henri Nouwen.”
[The Wounded Prophet, p. 68]
The Protestant church in the neighbourhood threatened ruin, and a drive to collect funds for a new one in its place was in full progress. The Catholic parish priest in the same neighbourhood came to know about it, and, after giving the matter much thought, went to see the Protestant pastor and told him: “I’ve come to know that you are going to build a new church in the place of the old one. I would like to contribute to the project, but I’m afraid I’ll get into trouble with my own authorities if they come to know of my contribution towards building a Protestant church. On the other hand, I imagine that in order to build the new church, you’ll have to pull down the old one, and that involves some expenses, too. Accept then, please, this donation for the demolition of the present church, as my bishop surely will have no objection to my contributing to the pulling down of a Protestant church.” With that, he handed to him the collect of the previous Sunday in his own parish.
The man on the high hill
Once upon a time there was a man standing on a high hill. Three travellers, passing in the distance, noticed him and began to argue about him. One said: “He has probably lost his favourite animal.” Another said: “No, he is probably looking for his friend.” The third said: “He is up there only in order to enjoy the fresh air.”
The three travellers could not agree and continued to argue right up to the moment when they arrived at the top of the hill. One of them asked: “O friend, standing on this hill, have you not lost your favourite animal?” “No, Sir, I haven’t lost him.” The other asked: “Have you not lost your friend?” “No, Sir, I haven’t lost my friend either.” The third traveller asked: “Are you not here in order to enjoy the fresh air?” “No, Sir.” “What then are you doing here, since you answer ‘No’ to all our questions?” The man on the hill replied: “I am just standing.”
[Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, p. 252]
Sixto Martínez did his military service in a regiment in Seville. In the middle of a courtyard in the barracks there was a bench. By the side of the bench there was always a soldier at watch. Nobody knew why there should be a watch near the bench. The watch was kept because it was kept, day and night, every day, every night. From generation to generation the officers transmitted the orders and the soldiers executed them. Nobody ever doubted, nobody asked. If that was the way it was done, and it had always been that way, there must be a good reason to it.
And so it went on till one day someone, maybe a general or a colonel, wanted to check the original order. He had to search old files, and finally, after much searching, it was found. Exactly thirty one years, two months and four days before, an officer had ordered the watch near the bench, as the bench was freshly painted, so that nobody would sit on the wet paint.”
[Eduardo Galeano, El libro de los abrazos, p. 50]
“We were both Indian”
Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, gave once a talk, but his disciple and collaborator, Barry Stevens, did not attend it. The next day, the following short dialogue took place between the two, as she tells it:
– Yesterday you did not come to my talk.
– That’s right. I didn’t come.
And Barry comments: “We didn’t say more. We were both Indian.”
She refers to the American Indians, though the same would apply to Indians from India. They notice things as they happen and say them as they are, showing that they realise everything and need not ask or give explanations of anything. No complaints or protests or excuses or apologies. Knowing it and saying it, yes, as things must not be allowed to rotten inside us. So we take notice and we simply say that we have noticed it and we know it. But no questioning the other person nor justifying ourselves. That is the key of a good relationship. Yesterday you didn’t come to my talk. That’s right. I didn’t come. We were both Indian.
The use of the stars– That gives a total figure of five hundred and one million, six hundred and twenty two, seven hundred and thirty one.
– Five hundred million what?
– Five hundred million stars.
– And what do you do with five hundred million stars?
– What do I do?
– Nothing. I own them.
– You own the stars?
– And what’s the use of owning the stars?
– To be rich.
– And what’s the use of being rich?
– To be able to buy more stars.
[Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince, p. 56]
The man from Kabul
[Rabindranath Tagore’s famous short story, abridged.]
I was hard at work on the seventeenth chapter of my novel, when my five-year old daughter, Mini, left her play and ran to the window, crying: “A man from Kabul, a man from Kabul!” Sure enough, in the street below was a man from Kabul, passing slowly along. He wore the loose soiled clothing of his people, with a tall turban; there was a bag on his back, and he carried boxes of grapes in his hand. Mini run towards him, but when the man from Kabul turned and looked at her, she fled and disappeared. She had a blind belief that inside the bag, which the big man carried, there were perhaps two or three other children like herself.
The pedlar meanwhile entered my doorway, and greeted me with a smiling face. As he was about to leave, he asked: “And where is the little girl, sir?” And I, thinking that Mini must get rid of her false fear, had her brought out. She stood by my chair, and looked at the man from Kabul and his bag. He offered her nuts and raisins, but she would not be tempted, and only clung the closer to me, with all her doubts increased. This was their first meeting.
One morning, however, not many days later, as I was leaving the house, I was startled to find Mini, seated on a bench near the door, laughing and talking, with the great man from Kabul at her feet. In all her life, it appeared, my small daughter had never found so patient a listener. And already the corner of her little sari was stuffed with almonds and raisins, the gift of her visitor. “Why did you give her those?” I said, and taking out an eight-anna bit, I handed it to him. The man accepted the money without demur, and slipped it into his pocket. Alas, on my return an hour later, I found the unfortunate coin had made twice its own worth of trouble! For the man from Kabul had given it to Mini, and her mother was scolding her for taking it.
They became friends. Mini would ask, “O man of Kabul, man of Kabul, what have you got in your bag?” And he would reply, “An elephant!” And both laughed. Then the man from Kabul would take his turn to ask, “Well, little one, and when are you going to your father-in-law’s house?” She didn’t know yet the meaning of the bridegroom we one day would find for her and of her husband’s house where she would go to live when she married, and she answered back: “And when are you going to your father-in-law’s house?” She didn’t know either that those people referred to jail as their father-in-law’s house. And they both laughed together.
Once a year in the middle of January, the man from Kabul was in the habit of returning to his country, and as the time approached he would be very busy, going from house to house collecting his debts. This year, however, he could always find time to come and see Mini. So different in age, and yet such good friends. One day, all at once, I heard an uproar in the street, and, looking out I saw the man from Kabul being led away bound between two policemen. A certain neighbour had owned the pedlar something for a Rampuri shawl, but had falsely denied having bought it, and in the course of the quarrel the man from Kabul had stuck him with a knife. Now they were carrying him to jail. Mini too heard the noise, came out and saw her friend. “Man of Kabul, man of Kabul! Where are you going? Are you going to your father-in-law’s house?” The man looked at her, laughed and answered, “Yes, this time I’m truly going to my father-in-law’s house.” He was eight years in jail.
Time passed away, and he was not remembered. Years passed away, and we had made arrangements for our Mini’s marriage. The morning of the wedding was bright. I was sitting in my study when someone entered, saluting respectfully, and stood before me. It was the man from Kabul. At first I did not recognise him as he had no bag, nor the long hair, nor the same vigour that he used to have. But he smiled, and I knew him again. “When did you come?”, I asked him. “Last evening I was released from jail”, he answered. I felt that the day would have been better-omened had he not turned up. “There are ceremonies going on”, I said, “and I am busy. Could you perhaps come another day?”
At once he turned to go, but as he reached the door he hesitated, and said, “May I not see the little one, sir, for a moment?” It was his belief that Mini was still the same. I felt a little sorry, and would have called him back, but I found he was returning of his own accord. He gave me, carefully wrapped up in paper, a few almonds and raisins and grapes, obtained somehow from a countryman, for his own little fund was dispersed, and said: “I brought these few things, sir, for the little one. Will you give them to her? Do not give me money, please. You see, I too have one little girl like her in my own home, my only child. I think of her, and bring fruits to your child.”
Saying this, he put his hand inside his big loose robe, and brought out a small and dirty piece of paper. With great care he unfolded this, and smoothed it out with both hands on my table. It bore the impression of a little hand. Not a photograph. Not a drawing. The impression of an ink-smeared hand laid flat on the paper. This touch of his own little daughter had been always on his heart, as he had come year after year to Calcutta to sell his wares in the streets.
Tears came to my eyes. He also was a father. I sent for Mini immediately. Many difficulties were raised, but I would not listen. Clad in the red silk of her wedding-day, with the sandal paste on her forehead, and adorned as a young bride, Mini came, and stood bashfully before me. The man from Kabul looked a little staggered at the apparition. He could not revive their old friendship. At last he smiled and said: “Little one, are you going to your father-in-law’s house?”
The bride, on marrying, goes to live with her husband in his own house which is also his parents’ house, and Mini understood. It was her turn now to go to her father-in-law’s house. She flushed at the question, and stood before us with her bride-like face turned down. I remembered the day when the man from Kabul and Mini had first met, and I felt sad. When she had gone, the man from Kabul heaved a deep sigh, and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown in his long time, and that he would have to make friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her as he used to know her. And besides, what might have happened to her in these eight years?
I took out a bank-note and gave it to him, saying, “Go back to your own daughter in your own country, and may the happiness of your meeting bring good fortune to my child!”
Having made this present, I had to curtail some of the festivities. I could not have the electric lights I had intended, nor the military band, and the ladies of the house were disappointed. But to me the wedding-feast was all the brighter for the thought that in a distant land a long-lost father met again with his only child.
You ask me questions on moral behaviour, Can we or can’t we?, Is it a sin or not?, Mortal of venial?, and sometimes you insistently ask that I should answer with a bare yes or no. I’ve always needed all my patience not to lose my temper before such requests. We are not children to recite routine answers. Circumstances shape our decisions, and the responsibility of the choice rests always with the person. There are shades in colours, and niceties in life. Not everything is black and white. There is a whole rainbow with seven main colours and a thousand in between. Life is complex.
Chesterton, with his usual humour, thought of having a word between YES and NO as it would prove extremely useful. He proposed the word YO. Do you want to come for a walk?” “Yes…, no…, yo!” It would solve all problems. The next time you ask me for a yes or no answer, you know my answer: Yo!
In my first year as a priest I celebrated Holy Week in Calcutta [Kolkata], and on Maundy Thursday, after the service, a young boy came up to me and duly recited the piece his mother had taught him by heart: “My mummy has not been able to come because my grandfather is sick, and she has told me to ask you whether tomorrow, which is Good Friday and abstinence day, she come give him in his meal some juice she prepares from liver. She knows that meat cannot be eaten, but this is not solid meat, is only the juice she squeezes out of the liver and passes through a filter and gives him as soup, but if you say it cannot be taken she will not give it to him.”
I grew an inch when I heard the request. I had just finished my theological studies, I knew my Canon Law by heart, I was bursting with my newly-acquired knowledge, and was ready to lecture to the child with all authority. He was listening to me with rapt attention.
“Look here, my son. Strictly speaking it is not allowed, as Canon Law forbids meat and meat juices alike, and the liver is meat and his juice falls under the canonical prohibition. But let us now go into the circumstances. First of all there is your grandfather’s age to be considered. Abstinence is compulsory till sixty years of age, and sixty in Canon Law means the beginning of the count of sixty, that is, fifty-nine completed. Then there is your grandfather’s sickness. It may be a passing indisposition or a persistence illness under doctor’s treatment. And finally there is also the question of proper nourishment to be considered, that is, the possibility of other choices of food for Good Friday that would be substantial without being forbidden. Taken all these elements into the account, the final conclusion has to be reached and the decision correspondingly taken. You’ll explain all this to your mummy, will you?” I ended my lecture, fully satisfied with myself, and looked at the boy. He remained in his place looking at me steadfastly in the face. When I finished he said:
– Well, father, yes or no?
– Yes, of course, my son.
Psalm 105 – Israel’s short memory
That was the trouble with Israel, source and cause of all its troubles: it had a short memory. The people of Israel saw the greatest wonders a people has ever seen and experienced in its history. But they clean forgot. No sooner had they seen the miracle than they forgot about it. They experienced God’s protection in wonderful ways, but soon it was with them as though nothing had happened, and they fell to fearing new dangers and to displeasing the Lord who so faithfully had helped them, doubting that he could do it again. And so they suffered and they provoked God’s anger. That was the great weakness of Israel as a people: it had a short memory.
“Our fathers in Egypt took no account of your marvels,
they did not remember your many acts of faithful love.” God did wonders for them,
“But they quickly forgot all he had done.
They forgot God their deliverer,
who had done great deeds in Egypt.”I too have a short memory, Lord. I just forget. I don’t recall what you have done for me. Your wonderful acts of mercy and power for me in my life are just not present in my memory when I come to face the dangers of a new day. And I fear and suffer, and, what is worse, I irritate you who have done so much for me and are ready to do it again… if only I let you act by looking at you with gratitude and confidence.
I forget. I tremble again before difficulties I have surmounted before, I cow down before sufferings I have formerly endured with your grace. I feel diffident when your grace has shown me a hundred times that I will be successful, I run away from battles much less formidable than others you have made me win before.
It is not that I don’t know my past. I recall its events and I can write down my own history. I know, yes, the moments when you have intervened in my life in a special way to give it a new turn upwards, to save it from dangers, to lead it into glory. I know all that, to be sure, but I forget its significance, its importance, its message. I forget that every act of yours is not only an action but a message, it not only gives help now but promises delivery for ever, it not only does, it signifies. And it is that significance, that reassurance, that promise, that I miss and I forget.
Teach me, Lord, to understand, teach me to remember. Teach me to give to each of your actions in my life the value it has as a concrete assistance and as a permanent sign. Teach me to read into your actions the message of your love, that I may never forget and never doubt that you will always be with me in the future as you have been in the past.
“Then they believed his promises
and sang praises to him”With them I too will sing your praises, Lord.
“And let all the people say: Amen!”
“Out of the mouth of infants…”
Pragna was first in her maths class at College. She was intelligent, open, charming. One day she brought her small brother, Devendra, to see me. He was still at school. Conversation with a child is not easy, and I asked him the silly question we adults ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The child answered immediately: “I want to be a Jesuit father, like the fathers at my sister’s College.” His sister just smiled.
I was highly flattered. This child wanted to be one of us. He wasn’t even a Christian, he belonged to a Hindu, Brahmin, well-to-do family. He didn’t suspect that in order to become a Jesuit he had first to become a Christian, since we haven’t worked out a place for gentile vocations in our Order yet. But something in us had appealed to him, our way of life, our character, our work, and he wanted to be like us, and he was saying it clearly and quickly: “I want to be a Jesuit.”
If I had left it at that, it would have been a beautiful testimony on the appeal of our life and the nobility of our vocation, which I would be able to quote with genuine pride. But instead of leaving things as they were, I did the stupid thing of carrying on with the dialogue and asking the child: “And why do you want to be a Jesuit?” He answered with the same promptness and innocence as before: “Because when I’m a Jesuit I’ll live in a house with a garden, I’ll eat five times a day, I’ll have a car, and they’ll send me to study in America.” His sister just smiled.
“Out of the mouth of infants…”, is the psalm that Jesus quoted. (Psalm 8, 3; Matthew 21, 16)
[The five meals were breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, tea, supper.]
The voice of God
[Karen Armstrong was a nun during seven years, left the convent, and found it hard to fit in back in the life she had left. She begins her autobiography, “The Spiral Staircase”, with the following incident after she left the convent, which is amusing at the beginning, and touching at the end.]
“I was late. That in itself was a novelty. In the convent we had practised the most stringent punctuality. At the first sound of the convent bell announcing the next meal or a period of meditation in the chapel, we had to lay down our work immediately, stopping a conversation in the middle of a word or leaving the sentence we were writing half-finished. The Rule which governed our lives down to the smallest detail taught us that the bell should be regarded as the voice of God. So for years it had become second nature for me to jump to attention whenever the bell tolled, because it really was tolling for me.
Now I had left the Convent, I was studying at Oxford, and living in a University hostel. It was my first day in it. So that evening, when at 7.20 I heard the hostel bell summoning the students to dinner, I did not lay down my pen, close my books neatly and walk obediently to the dining hall. My essay had to be finished in time for my tutorial the following morning, and I was working on a crucial paragraph. There seemed no point in breaking my train of thought. This bell was not the voice of God, but simply a convenience.
As I hurried to the dining hall and pushed back the heavy glass door, I was confronted with a very different scene from the one I had just been imagining. The noise alone was an assault, as the unrestrained, babbling roar of four hundred students slapped me in the face. To make it worse, it was Ash Wednesday, and right now in the convent refectory, the nuns would be lining up to perform special public penances in reparation for their faults. But, whether I liked it or not, this was my world now.
I am not quite sure of the reason for what happened next. It may have been that part of my mind was absent, still grappling with my essay, or that I was disoriented by the contrast between the convent scene and the cheerful profanity of the spectacle in front of me. But instead of bowing briefly to the Principal in mute apology for my lateness, as College etiquette demanded, I found to my horror that I had knelt down and kissed the floor. We always kissed the floor when we entered a room late and disturbed a community duty.
As I rose to my feet, cold with embarrassment, I realised that my reactions were entirely different from those of most of my contemporaries in this strange new world. Perhaps they always would be.” (p. 19)
The book that made Karen Armstrong famous as a writer was her biography of Mohammed. I quote from the book, as we know so little about him. (p. 230)
“Muhammad refused to put a gulf of formality between himself and the other Muslims. He hated to be addressed with pompous, honorific titles, and was often seen sitting unaffectedly on the ground in the mosque, frequently choosing to sit with the poorest members of the community. Children were especially drawn to him. He was for ever picking them up and hugging and kissing them. When he had been away on an expedition, it was customary for the children of the community to go out to meet him when the raiding party returned, and they would lead him into the oasis in a triumphant procession. If he heard a baby crying in the mosque during Friday prayers, he nearly always brought the prayers to an end earlier that he had intended: he could not bear to think of the distress of the baby’s mother.
The laws formulated in the Quran sound ruthless to us today, but the Prophet himself was known to be lenient. One tradition recalls an occasion when Muhammad had passed sentence on a poor man who had committed a minor crime: for his penance he was told to give alms. The man replied that he had neither food nor goods to give away. Just at that moment a large basket of dates was carried into the mosque as a gift to the Prophet. ‘Here you are’, Muhammad said, and told the man to distribute the dates among the poor. The criminal replied that he honestly did not know of anyone in the settlement who was worse off than himself. Muhammad laughed and told him that to eat the dates would be his penance.
There is a tradition that one day he saw a freedman engaged in a particularly backbreaking task. He went up to him stealthily from behind and put his hands over his eyes, as children do. The freedman replied that it could only be the Prophet who would think of lightening his day with such an affectionate action.
The Prophet loved animals, an attitude that has always been considered as a proof of humanness. Another tradition tells how a cat had once fallen asleep on the edge of the Prophet’s cloak. When he went to get up, he first carefully cut the fringe of his cloak so that the cat could go on sleeping undisturbed.”
[These traits of the Prophet’s character can help us to relate better to our Muslim brethren today.]
The secret of the void
[A famous passage in Chuang Tzu’s works]
“Suppose a boat is crossing a river and another boat, an empty one, is about to collide with it. Even an irritable man would not lose his temper. But suppose there was someone in the second boat. Then the occupant of the first would shout to him to keep clear. And if he did not hear the first time, nor even when called to three times, bad language would inevitable follow. In the first case there was no anger, in the second there was – because in the first case the boat was empty, in the second it was occupied. And so it is with man. If he could only pass empty through life, who would be able to injure him?”
[Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, p. 254]
“Learning is finding out what you already know.
Doing is demonstrating that you know it.
Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you.
You are all learners, doers, teachers.”
[Richard Bach, Illusions, p. 46]
“Sometimes one man’s time-saving becomes another’s waste of time. One example is the way mobile phones allow other people’s time anxieties to invade the rail traveller’s ‘free’ stretch of time between stations. There is an argument for keeping mobile phone addicts in separate compartments, like smokers, as some train companies now do.
For the same reason I prefer post and e-mail to the telephone. Mail respects the time and space of the one who receives it. They can open and answer correspondence at their convenience. Mobile phones disrupt the connection between present time and present place. Formerly, the phone made reference to one’s home or one’s office, so that it respected time and place. Now the mobile phone invades time and profanes space. But there it is… in my purse or in my pocket.”
[Bodil Jönsson, Ten Thoughts About Time, p. 39, 85]
“May you live all the days of your life.” [Jonathan Swift]
– Hey, Dad, where is this Morocco?
– In Africa.
– Over there where there’re giraffes and hippos?
– No, higher up – in North Africa.
– So what’s there in Morocco?
– Yesterday when you were watching television, you complained that our dear France has been invaded by Arabs.
– Ah yes… I didn’t exactly mean that. There are quite nice Arabs, like Brahim the neighbourhood grocer.
– But only the day before yesterday you called him a thief because he capitalises on peak hours to hike his prices.
– I said that because I was a bit angry, that’s all.
– Do you know any Moroccans?
– Not really, but I do meet some in the street sometimes.
– How do you know they are Moroccans and not, for instance, Americans?
– Well, Americans are white.
– Like Miles Davis and Carl Lewis?
– No, those ones are from Africa.
– Now I’m getting all mixed up. Brahim is white like you and I, he is not black and yet you say he is an Arab.
– That’s because there are white Arabs, but Moroccans come in various colours. Some have a very dark skin, while some have skin as white as hay Dutchman, you see?
– But… well, on Sunday on the television I watched the Dutch football team. And half the team was black.
– But that’s not all the same. In the world of sport there are lots and lots of blacks.
– There is only one in tennis. In golf and in horse-riding I’ve never seen even one.
– That’s not my doing, is it? Go and ask your mother to explain.
– It’s Mum who told me to ask you these questions. I have one more question to ask you. My friend Anabelle is completely black and she swears she is
French. She’s a liar, isn’t she, Dad?
– But your little friend is from Martinique and that does make her French.
– So there are Frenchmen who are black and Moroccans who are white, is that it?
– Yes. Yes. Now let’s change the topic.
– Yes… but Anabelle has very curly hair, you know, like a sheep.
– Moroccans also have the same curly hair.
– Well, my pal Momo is Moroccan, but his hair is really very sleek.
– Some come like that.
– Once he told me that we, the French, were colonisers. Is there any truth in what he said?
– What utter rubbish!
– He said that long ago we actually invaded his country and that we treated them quite badly.
– We did go to his country and we settled there for a bit, that’s all.
– But the same with them, they come to us and settle a bit. Tomorrow I’m going to tell Momo that he, too, is a coloniser.
– No, it’s different again. To come to our country Moroccan have to have an entry visa.
– Didn’t we need one as well, when we went to them?
– No, in those days there weren’t any visas, and things were much more straightforward. All we had to have was a gunboat!
[Short story by the Moroccan writer Lotfi Akalay in “African Stories” edited by Stephen Gray, p. 36, abridged.]
A mother asks me: “How to forget fear after they kidnapped my son? Though they gave him back to me.”I feel in my own soul the sufferings of all, and when reading that question, my heart shrivels up. We’ve come to have to live with terrorism. This is sad, but we have to learn little by little how to live in the times that have befallen us. Insecurity shakes us. I was born and lived in places where we could walk on the streets without fear at any time of the day or the night, and the house was left open and nothing would happen. Now, even with locks and alarms one never knows what they’ll find when they come back, and we daily hear stories of people mugged on the street in full daylight. And we meet terrorism every day in the papers, and we see it come nearer and nearer without help. How to live in the neighbourhoods of fear?
Terrorism would succeed if it were to make us afraid. The anguish of a kidnapping in one’s own family is one of the greatest sufferings on earth, and to give easy advice before such deep pain would be intolerable presumption. On the contrary, I want to feel the pain of that family as my own. But, again, I don’t want to be crushed under the weight of that anguish. Come to think of it, life was never safe, and anyone can die any moment. Risk is part of human life.
The joy of a holiday is not spoiled by the possibility of an accident on the road. We do all in our power not to let it happen, and then we go on our way without embittering our day with the sad possibility that the worst can still happen. To live the present is the great remedy against fear. Fear is essentially a creature of the future, and to live the present moment takes its edge from it. To learn how to live in the present is the first defence against emotional insecurity. When the time comes, we’ll be ready.
When Jesus approached his Passion he was perturbed and told Andrew and Phillip: “Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (John 12:27) “Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18).
The following psalm may help us too.
Psalm 106 – The dangers of life
Danger and deliverance. That is the routine of life. It was so in antiquity and it is so with us. The dangers may vary in shape or in name, but the fear when they come is the same, and the relief when they go is the same. As the same is the hand of the Lord that delivers us from them.
Ancient peoples list their four dangers: desert, prison, sickness and storm at sea. And four deliverances: from the hunger and thirst of the desert to the straight road to a fortified city; from the darkness of the hidden dungeon to the light of freedom; from sickness to health; and from the stormy sea to the safety of the harbour.
In my life too, Lord, there is the dryness of the desert, the darkness of the dungeon, the weakness of the body and the uncertainty of sea and air and even land under threats of war and attacks of terrorists near home. Humankind has not improved in two thousand years. Human life is very much the same today in the traffic of the city as it was in the sands of the desert. I live with danger, I fear calamities, I fall a prey to suffering, I collapse in despair.
I too need the hand that delivers me from the dangers in my life. From my desert and my dungeon and my storm. I need your hand, Lord, I need your guidance and your light. I need your power and your strength. I need again and again in my day-to-day life the nearness of your presence and the healing of your touch. I need deliverance because I am not free.
I pray for freedom from sickness, but more than that I pray for freedom from the fear of sickness. That is the deliverance I pray for. Not so much the deliverance from the outside danger as from the inward fear. So long as the deliverance does not come, I shall never be free, because the danger is always there. I want to be free from fears, and then the desert and the sea and all the prisons and wars of the world will have no effect on my.
“Some lost their way in desert wastes;
they found no road to a city to live in;
hungry and thirsty,
their spirit sunk within them.
So they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he rescued them from their distress;
he led them by a straight and easy way
until they came to a city to live in.
Let them thank the Lord for his enduring love
and for the marvellous things he has done for all people on earth:
he has satisfied the thirsty
and filled the hungry with good things.”
Give me a fearless heart, Lord, a heart that believes and trusts in you, and in consequence fears nobody and is afraid of nothing. Bring the blessing of your deliverance down to the very depths of my soul to pluck out the roots of fear and sow the seeds of peace. Give me confidence in my heart that I may live with joy, Lord. Be close to me, Lord, so that the dangers of existence may turn into the bliss of living.
The philosopher musician
A street musician was playing the accordion on the steps to the Metro, with his accordion’s case wide open in front to collect coins from the hurried commuters. I saw a man who stopped by his side and I heard how he asked him: “What is that piece you are playing?” The musician answered: “Give me a euro and I’ll tell you.” The man turned back and went away.
I approached the musician and told him: “That piece is the aria in Donizetti’s opera ‘Lucia de Lammermoor’.” He answered me: “Thanks for telling me. Actually I didn’t know it.” When he saw the surprise on my face, he explained:
– I play by the ear. I must have heard that melody somewhere and it stuck and it comes out now. The accordion accompaniment I play on my own.
– And what would you have answered that man who asked you if he had given you a euro?
– Oh, I would have told him anything. If he didn’t know the music, he wasn’t going to find out whether what I told him was true.
And, before my bemused smile, he added: “It’s the same with life, isn’t it? We never quite know what we’re playing, do we? But it sounds well.” And he kept on playing.
I want to be a nun
[As a tribute, both loving and respectful, to all the religious women and men who one day in their lives lived through the experience of telling their parents they wanted to join the religious life, I transcribe here Karen Armstrong’s description of that moment in her life:]
“I want to be a nun.” Once more the words were out, after my talk with Mother Katherine. But this time they fell into no welcoming acceptance. My parents froze with horror.
It was the summer holidays. We were sitting in the living room waiting for supper. Outside, the hot sun blazed through the thin silvery curtains that softly muted its glare. My parents each had a drink.
“Have a sherry, Karen!” my father said. I refused emphatically. I could never be persuaded to drink.
I had not intended to broach the subject that evening. We had been discussing my future. I knew only too well how much my parents longed for me to go to Oxford. Nobody in my family had ever gone there before, and it seemed a paradise to them, a fairytale world of intellectual perfection. And I could do it.
“No”, I said slowly. It was no good allowing them to cling to this hope. I felt their disappointment sharply fill the room. “No, I don’t think I want to do that now.”
“But what do you want to do?” my father asked unhappily.
“I want to be a nun.”
In the silence that followed, I sat, trembling slightly, feeling sick and excited. I had dreaded telling my parents, but now, for good or ill, the die was cast.
“But why?” asked my mother. The question came out in a bewildered wail.
“I want to give my life to God”, I answered shakily. These answers had seemed quite in place in Mother Katherine’s study, but here they seemed thin and unreal.
“But you can do that quite as well in the world!” snapped my mother briskly. She had obviously decided on the no-nonsense approach.
“No, you can’t”, I said, “not really. I mean, honestly, how much time do we all have for God at the moment? Oh, I know we’re good Catholics and all that. We go to Mass every Sunday, we don’t eat meat on Friday, we go to Confession twice a month. But that’s not enough for me. We fit God into our lives but they’re crowded with other things.”
“But there’s nothing to stop you from going to Mass every morning if you want to”, my mother said. “You often do, anyway.” My father just sat there, turning his glass round and round.
“But even that’s not really enough”, I said. “Seeking God has got to be a full-time commitment. A profession, if you like. He’s too important for half-measures.”
“But why not think about it again after you have been to Oxford?” asked my father miserably. “You’ll be a bit older then, you’ll have had a chance to look around a bit and see…” he trailed off.
“See whether it is convenient for me to enter a convent”, I finished for him. “Put the world first and give God second option.” I was determined to counter this approach. It seemed so reasonable but was, I felt, quite wrong.
“If you’ve got a true vocation it will last a few years”, said my mother rather crossly. I could tell she was feeling that she was losing control of me. I had never really argued with her before. She was astonished and hurt, I could tell, by my obstinacy.
“Not necessarily”, I said. “You can throw a vocation away, you know, just like everything else. I might get to like the world too much to want to put God first.” I could see that happening. Once I was at Oxford the world would beckon with all its seductive wiles. I could not imagine what these might be. The world seemed futile and trivial now, but human nature was weak. I could easily persuade myself that the sacrifice I had decided on was not for me. “After all”, I added cunningly, “look what happened to Granny.”
It was a direct hit. My granny had wanted to be a nun, then never made it, and she ended an alcoholic. My mother gave a start and looked moodily at the fireplace. My father shifted in his chair, which squealed uncomfortably.
“But you can’t mean to go now”, my mother said despairingly. “You’re much too young. You’re only sixteen.”
“No, but I can go next year when I’m seventeen”, I replied firmly.
“It’s ridiculous”, said my mother hotly, “quite ridiculous. A child of seventeen – oh, I know you don’t think you’re still a child, but you are. Anyway, it’s quite out of the question. They’d never accept you as young as that.”
“Mother Katherine said they would”, I replied, watching them carefully. It was another hit. They both stiffened. They respected Mother Katherine. I knew that. They were also just a tiny bit in awe of her. Mother Katherine was the only person I knew who could put my mother in her place.
“You’ve already talked to her, then, have you?” asked my mother. I could tell that she was hurt. “How long have you been thinking about this, then?”
“Oh! Quite a time now”, I replied vaguely. It was true. The decision had been quietly growing for years, now that I looked back over my life.
“Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” asked my father. “Did you think that we’d be so much against it?” He sounded aggrieved.
“Well, you are against it, aren’t you?” I countered.
Impasse. My mother waved her empty glass at my father, who, glad of something to do, leaped up and busied himself with the ice; he poured out large measures of gin, I noticed. I was sorry for them. They seemed out of their depth.
“You don’t know what you’re doing”, my mother said impatiently. “What about all the things you’re going to miss – the theatre, books?. How the hell do you think you’re going to adapt to community life? You haven’t even been to boarding school. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. Life in the forces was hell. Endlessly cooped up with other people – all their annoying little habits get on your nerves till you could scream.” Her voice had risen now as the objections came tumbling out.
“Look”, I said quietly, amazed at my calm. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Of course it isn’t. Mother Katherine has told me how hard it will be sometimes. But if it’s God’s will for me to become a nun, then my whole life will be ruined if I don’t. God has a special plan for each one of us. You don’t want me to mess up my whole life, do you?”
There was another pause. My mother nervously lit a cigarette. My father kept silent. There was a special sadness in the fact that shortly before he had gone bankrupt in his business and was now staying the whole day at home as he had no work. Since the bankruptcy he had become more and more withdrawn. He had lost confidence in his ability to run his family life. I knew how much I was hurting them both, but there was no going back now.
“After all”, I said again into the dead silence, “you believe in God, don’t you? You believe that the religious life is the highest human vocation. Well then, how can you possibly refuse to allow me to enter?”
I could almost hear my parents’ thoughts crackling through the room. I could feel them struggling with the dilemma they were in.
“Or course we believe that”, my mother stubbed out her cigarette. Her voice was quieter now. “But that doesn’t mean that we can believe you are ready to take such a big step. I still think”, her voice rang out confidently now, “I still think”, she repeated, “that you are much too young. You don’t know anything about the world that you are going to give up. Don’t you think so, John?”
“Absolutely, dear, absolutely”, muttered my father gloomily. He was looking at me with astonishment. “Do you really want to give us up?” he asked, his voice trembling slightly. “Don’t you see how much we’ll miss you?”
I sat there, fighting a lump in my throat. I could barely trust myself to speak. Don’t let them turn on the emotion, I prayed silently. I can’t cope with that.
“Of course I’ll miss you”, I said huskily.
Once again we sat in silence. I wanted this to be over. Things would never be the same again.
“Look”, I said, “it’s pointless going on with this. I’ll never be able to convince you. To you I’m just a little girl. I always will be, as far as you’re concerned, even when I’m” – I paused, searching frantically for an age of suitable antiquity – “thirty! Why don’t you go and see Mother Katherine? She told me that she’d be very willing to talk to you about it. After all, she’s the professional. You know about life and the world. But she knows about life and the world and the convent. She’s known me ever since I was five – almost as long as you have. Why don’t you go and see her?”
“And if she doesn’t make us change our minds, then will you promise to go to Oxford before you think about becoming a nun?” asked my mother quickly. She was already setting her shoulders squarely, ready to do battle.
I had every confidence in Mother Katherine. “Yes, I promise”. I said.
[After a long interview, a few days later, Mother Katherine asked Karen’s parents: “Mr. Armstrong, Mrs. Armstrong, will you give your daughter to God?” They said yes.]
[And my own eyes went wet with tenderness when I read that.]
[Karen Armstrong, Through the Narrow Gate, p. 44]
Question: What is the healing of memories? Answer: There is a curative healing and a preventive healing. Curative healing is the cleansing of memories. Unwanted images reach us often and do us harm, and the are stored up in our memory. Violence, sadness, sex. Scenes that we see or words that we hear. Our memory does not forgive, and it stores up everything. We now want to clear it. It’s something like the unwanted propaganda or scam that gets into our computer and sticks in its insides. We know how to find those archives and eliminate them. To cleanse our memories we have the sacrament of reconciliation. Sacramental confession not only forgives the fault, but heals the wound, closes the scar, purifies the memory. The sacramental pardon is the reception of grace, that is, the coming of the author of all grace, the Holy Spirit, to whom we pray:
“Cleanse all stains,
water all dryness,
heal all sickness.”
(Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod es aridum,
sana quod es saucium.)
Preventive healing is avoiding the scars in our memory. I still close my eyes when an unpleasant image comes up in television. My father taught me that in the cinema when I was small. Let no rubbish enter the mind. Though, of course, now we would have to remain the whole time before the TV set with our eyes closed.
And there is still a third positive healing, and that is the harnessing of our memory in our effort to be increasingly good. At times we are not better, not because of a bad will but of a bad memory. We simply forget God along our day. Formerly he was brought to our repeated attention by the bells from the church, the sign of the cross when leaving home, the Angelus three times a day, the cassocks of the priests on the street, the Ignatian “particular examen” hour by hour and moment by moment, the saying “God bless you!” when one sneezed, or “God willing” when making plans. The positive sharpening of our memory is the grace of remembering God along the day. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of reconciliation also helps here if we know how to recognise it and maintain it. In the Orient conscious breathing is joined to the spiritual endeavour, so that as we do always breathe, we may always remember. Our memory is the great gap in our treatises on spirituality.
Psalm 107 – The wheel of life
You may get the impression at times, Lord, that I repeat myself in my prayers to you. Permit me to say, in recognition of a common situation, that you also repeat yourself in your Psalms, Lord. And in a way that is as it should be; it is proper that both you and I repeat ourselves when dealing with life, because life itself is repetition. Life is a cycle, a wheel, a routine. Life is day after nigh and night after day with the inevitability of the laws of the heavens and of the moods in the human heart. Don’t mind, then, my repetitions, Lord, as I don’t mind yours.
What I ask when the same prayers come to my hands and the same verses to my lips, when the same situations occur in my life and the same thoughts cross my mind, is to live the old situation with a new heart, to say the repeated prayer with a new faith, to love the routine of life with the newness of an open mind ready to take every day as new and every dawn as a surprise.
This Psalm is made up of parts of two other Psalms pieced together. My life also is made up of patches of old experiences lived again and again in the repeated framework of my own limitation. Give me the grace, Lord, to take each experience again as a new event, to find fresh every time the bread I receive from your hands at the beginning of each new day.
It is love that makes repetition pleasurable. Give me love, Lord, that every prayer may turn to joy in my lips.
“My heart is ready, O God;
I will sing, sing your praise.
Awake, my soul;
awake, lyre and harp.
I will awake the dawn.”
A few days ago, one Sunday morning at about 7 o’clock I was walking along the Castellana Promenade in Madrid. The streets were deserted in the cold of the morning hour. I was the only pedestrian at the moment. Suddenly a car appeared, turned fast towards the road and stopped with a jerk by my side. A glass was lowered and a young man looked out and called me. I came closer. Inside the car I saw five young men a bit under the weather after the night vigil. They must have spent the whole of the night from Saturday to Sunday shifting from disco to disco, from pub to pub, from one beer to another. Their eyes were sleepy, their faces were taut, their hair was dishevelled. But they were still together and they wanted something more.
As I came closer they all asked me with almost one voice: “Is there any bar around here open at this time?” I felt like telling them that I didn’t know about bars open at that time, but that close-by there was a church which definitely would be open for the 7 o’clock Sunday Mass. I didn’t do it, as I understand we must not preach to young people. It would have been counterproducing.
I told them I didn’t know about bars, but I did know of a stall in the street that served hot chocolate with pastry for an early breakfast in a near-by corner. They jumped at the suggestion, shouted for joy and made for the joint. Only, just before there was an ugly sight. They all came out of their car and pissed on the street. The beers.
I didn’t feel bad about them. I just felt tenderness and sympathy. I felt I understood their speed, their excesses, their madness. I knew their predilection for the kingdom of the night, their need to be together, their habit to fill in with drinks the voids they don’t know how to fill with conversation. All that came before me at that moment of my encounter with the night revellers. I just let myself feel the difference and the reality. I did not approve and I did not condemn. I just understood.
Muslims and Buddhists
“About the time Salman Rushdie gained notoriety with his Satanic Verses, I was running a small publishing company. A man approached me with a novel and I agreed to read the manuscript. It was a horrid tale in which a secret society of Tibetan lamas got up to all sorts of unlikely adventures. It wasn’t badly written but the story was just nonsense. I asked him why he’d come up with that particular plot.
“Well, you know about Salman Rushdie?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I thought if he could be famous for insulting Islam, I might get famous if I was persecuted by Buddhists.”
I pointed out that, while he might well hurt and offend many people, he didn’t stand a hope of being pursued by vengeful lamas. They are just non-violent.
“Oh, well”, he grinned ruefully, “it was worth a try.”
[Robert Allen, 365 Smiles from Buddha, p. 248.]
[Several of you have told me Karen Armstrong’s story of her telling her parents she wanted to be a nun has touched you. It also touched me. I now transcribe the first visit her parents, her small sister and a boy cousin paid her in the convent. It has reminded me of the first visit of my mother and brother to me in the Loyola noviciate. Many details are the same, as Karen’s congregation followed the rule of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, and things were done at the time as she tells them. There is pain, realism and commitment in the story.]
“As the world faded, the convent filled the whole horizon. But however alien the outside world with all its standards and values was becoming, I knew I’d have to collide with it when my parents came for their appointed visit. As the date crept nearer I found myself looking forward to it with a certain trepidation. Of course I was longing to see them. How much I’d missed them! Above all I missed that simple acceptance of me and all that I was. Here, in the convent, where my faults and idiosyncracies, my loud voice and laugh, my too expressive face, were constantly being criticised and corrected, family life seemed so easy and undemanding.
But really, I thought as I approached the parlour, was I the same person? Would they find me impossibly changed? I had no idea. I felt very much the same and was often miserable at any apparent lack of progress. After all, I’d come here to change myself radically. What would it be like for them to see me in these clothes, in this gloomy setting?
Nervously I pushed open the door and turned to close it carefully and silently as I had been taught to do, easing it into its position and releasing the handle gently. For the good nun, Mother Albert had said, even opening and shutting a door is an act of the love of God. Then I turned round to face my family.
There they were in the huge library parlour, looking rather lost and diminished by the heavy heights of books that loomed down over them. They looked so familiar, and a part of myself raced forward to them instinctively. But yet how strange to see them in these surroundings and how ill at ease they were. There was a moment’s awkwardness while we looked at one another silently, taking in the changed relationship. This was my place, not theirs, and the part of me that instinctively rushed toward them was the part I had to renounce. Then I went over to kiss my mother, taking care to walk smoothly and modestly.
“How are you, darling?” I heard the worry in her voice. “Gosh, you look well!” she turned to the others. “Doesn’t she? I’ve never seen you with such a healthy colour.”
“Are you happy, Karen?” asked my father dubiously as we all sat down.
“Oh yes!” I said emphatically. How could I convince them? And anyway what did the word ‘happiness’ mean? Mother Albert had redefined the concept for us: happiness, she had said, was doing God’s will. Already we were speaking in different languages. “I’m very happy”, I repeated. “I’ve never been happier in my life.”
There was a strained silence. What a conversation stopper, I thought. How could anybody follow that? The rules of modesty required us to look peaceful and contented at all times. Now, as I smiled at my family, I could feel myself looking at them blandly just as the nuns at school had smiled at me. It was a habit. In no way did it reflect what was going on inside. My sister, who was kicking the table leg, looked sulky and incredulous.
“But Karen”, she demanded. “What’s it like? I mean, what do you do all day?”
“Well, sewing and housework mainly.” It wasn’t a real answer.
“You! Sewing!” gasped my mother. “But you must hate that.”
Of course I did. On one level. But that was no longer the truth of the matter. If it was God’s will, then it made me happy. But how could I explain all this? “Yes, I was hopeless at it at first. But I’ve been learning. I’m ever so much better at it now. I don’t hate it now.” What a skeleton of the truth those words were. My family stared back astonished.
“But isn’t this an awful waste of time?” pressed my father. “After all, you’ve got three good A-levels.”
“Oh, well”, I said smoothly, “this is part of the training. Books and study would distract us from God. Later I’ll probably study again. But I wouldn’t want it any different.”
I saw my sister and my cousin make faces at one another. I didn’t blame them. I sounded such a prig. But the words did express the truth of the matter, however clumsily. And the tone, the manner? One part of me knew that I was putting on an act as I had to, behaving as a nun should behave. But it was also true that I couldn’t behave differently. It was odd. Like being two people at once.
“How much time do you spend in church?” my cousin asked.
I calculated. Mass, half an hour’s meditation, two examinations of conscience, a Rosary, half an hour’s evening prayer, spiritual reading, Office. “About five hours, not counting Office.”
“What!” my sister shrieked in horror. “How terrible! It must be so boring!”
I thought of the long hours. My knees two fireballs of pain and my mind a blank. Longing for the bell to ring. Then the guilt. Trying to get it together again. The sinking lethargy. But also those other times when my mind soared; I could feel God’s love. He was almost, almost there.
“It’s hard sometimes, of course”, I said. “Nobody feels like praying all the time. But then it doesn’t matter what you feel like. It’s trying that counts.” Mother had told us that often we were closest to God when we felt most empty, as long as we went on trying.
“I don’t know how you stick it out”, said my mother.
“What time do you get up?” asked my cousin.
“Sic o’clock this year. But after the postulantship it’s half-past five every morning.”
And so the questions went on. What was the food like? Was I allowed to have a bath? Did I have a lot of friends among the other nuns? My answers were getting more and more remote from the truth. I knew that I sounded too good to be true, but more and more I was aware that I had changed. I was beginning to think and speak and act like a nun naturally.
“Mother Albert will be coming in to see you for a moment. She’ll take you along to tea while I go and have mine separately. I’ll join you later.”
“Aren’t you allowed to have tea with us?” my mother demanded, shocked.
“No”, I said as gently as I could. “You know that nuns aren’t allowed to eat with – “ I was about to use the word ‘seculars’ but bit it back. It was such a distancing word, rubbing salt in their wounds. “With… people outside”. Oh, God. That was even worse. “We never eat outside the enclosure.”
“But we’re your own family, for heaven’s sake!” She sounded so hurt. This separation at teatime was only highlighting the real gulf between us that the afternoon had revealed so cruelly. “It’s ridiculous” she snapped. I no longer felt like a nun, serene and above human feelings. I felt the pull of my parents’ unhappiness tugging me back to my former self, unhappy and confused. I felt for them and my real sympathy for what they were going through.
There was a discreet tap on the door and Mother Albert strode in, all smiles. “Well, how do you think she’s looking?” she asked, beaming round the room. “Marvellous”, the chorus broke in and then fell away silently.
“How long are we allowed to stay this evening?” asked my father bluntly.
“Until seven or seven-thirty, I think, Mr. Armstrong.”
“And then”, unconsciously my mother moved nearer to me and her voice was slightly higher than usual. She edged up to me, wanting to touch me but somehow not quite daring to. “We can’t see her for another six months. Is that right?”
“I’m afraid that’s the rule”, Mother nodded. Sister, come with me to have tea inside.”
Please, I prayed silently, help me to be calm in spirit as a nun should be. I felt a huge relief.”
Through the Narrow Gate, p. 109]
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” (T. S. Eliot)
A Zen Master, on knowing that one of his disciples had not eaten anything for three days asked him about the reasons for his fast.
- I’m trying to fight my own Self – said the disciple.
- That is hard – said the Master shaking his head in disapproval. – And I guess it must be even harder on an empty stomach.
[Jean-Claude Carrière, Le cercle des menteurs, p. 106]
You’ve asked me:
What is fundamentalism?The name refers to the “five fundaments” of Christianity as the Evangelical Church fixed them about a century ago. They are the following:
Infalibility of the Bible.
Divinity of Jesus.
Resurrection of Jesus.
Second coming of Jesus.
The principles are right, but the interpretation of some of them by the “fundamentalists” tends to be exaggerated. The infallibility of the Bible is understood by them as a literal interpretation, as for instance that the cosmos was created literally in six days. That is not the interpretation most Christians give to it.
Now the term “fundamentalist” has extended to other religions, particularly the most conservatives. It has come to mean orthodox, exaggerated, fanatic, and it is particularly painful between Muslims and Jews. It is opposed to the ecumenism that most of us favour for the mutual understanding between religions. Religion should always bring peace.
Psalm 108 – The weapon of the poor
This is a difficult psalm, but it is important. People do not understand curses in the Bible, because people do not understand the poor. The helpless person who has nowhere to turn to, who suffers without remittance at the whim of the rich and the powerful, who knows in their bones that they are the victims of injustice and yet find no redress in the bitterness of their days and the agony of their life. What are they to do?
They have no power of their own, no money, no influence, no way to exert pressure or show strength the way men and women of the world do to force their way and get what they want. They have no weapons to fight in a world in which every other person is armed to the teeth. They have only the weapon of the word. As members of the People of God their word when they speak in self-defence is God’s word, because the defence of a member is the defence of the whole People, and the wellbeing of his People is the glory of God. And so they release the weapon, they charge each word with the ugliest calamities they can think of, and they utter the curse which is warning and notice and threat that God will do what the curse expresses if the enemy does not stop their attacks and withdraws. That is its strength.
The curse is the nuclear deterrent in a society that believed in the power of words.
The word is effective. It does what it say. It cannot be called back. The blessing will be a blessing and the curse will be a curse once it has left the lips of the poor person who alone has the right to utter it, and it will go and fly and wreck ruin on the head of the wicked who persecute the poor, restoring justice to a world where justice is not done.
The curse is the weapon used in self-defence by the person who has no weapons.
That is the meaning of this serious psalm, and in that sense I understand it and accept it. I too feel helpless before the reign of injustice in the world today, Lord, and so I can recite this psalm, use its petitions, invoke your justice and thank you because you protect me from the attacks of those who don’t wish me well, and from the physical and mental violence of the world where it has been my lot to live without human means to defend myself.
“I will lift up my voice to extol the Lord,
and before a great company I will praise him.
For he stands at the poor man’s side
to save him from his adversaries.”