The texts of Carlos G. Vallés
2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017
Year 2005
15th
I tell you

“Glibly”

I’ve deliberately waited some time to take up again the theme of suffering. I’ve been moved by the many and sincere reactions I’ve received and keep receiving after my Web of July 15. There, in the section “You tell me” I summed up what the ten chief religions in the world say about suffering. The hidden and respectful message – which few understood – was that if there are ten different explanations that is because none of them fully satisfies us. When suffering hits us, it strikes deep and challenges all logic. It is good to know what sages have said, but when our turn comes to suffer, no justification avails. Some of you, with perfect good will, have even added to my list your own personal ideas and ways to understand and justify suffering. I appreciate them, but I don’t share them. And some of you have taken it ill when I’ve told you so, though I’ve said it with all possible respect and softness. Nobody has the key to suffering. All our efforts to console ourselves and others are praiseworthy, but all fall short in their aim, and it is good to recognise it. However fitting an explanation may appear to you, try to give it to a person who is suffering greatly at the moment. Don’t you think it is better to keep quiet?

An old oriental proverb says: “It you understand them, things are what they are; and it you don’t understand them…, things are what they are.” There is no question of “understanding”. The more we turn things in our minds, the more we suffer. Why? Why to me? Why now? Why thus? It’s just scratching the wound.

Years ago I was conducting a month-long retreat on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, thirty days of silence, solitude, and prayer, for a group of young Jesuit priests in India. Among them there was one who suffered intensely the whole month on account of some personal and family problems that racked his soul. I accompanied him day by day with all the tenderness and closeness I could. I refused to give him ready-made answers, and simply stood by him in his trial. When he took leave of me at the end of the month, he told me: “One thing I’ve learned in this Retreat. I’ll never speak glibly of suffering.”

ears later, while visiting Jesuit friends in India, I met several of them together, and one of them came up to me joyfully, shook my hand effusively, and asked me: “Do you remember me?” I have given such Retreats many times, and I don’t remember the several hundreds of young Jesuits that have passed through my hands. But when I saw his face, something clicked inside me. I told him: “Yes, I remember you. And if you wait a moment I’ll tell you why.” I looked at his face, I let silence stand still for a moment between us two, and I said a single word: “Glibly.” His face suddenly brightened. His eyes went wet. He pressed me to himself. He had taught me.

Will I die?

I don’t like to speak of sad things. Life is sad enough by itself. Neither do I want to compare sufferings as though saying, “look, others suffer more than you”. That doesn’t help. But this time I’m going to tell a sad story, which has broken my heart on reading it, and I do it simply to bring to my pages the reality that is around us and inside us. The story is told by Lisa St Aubin de Terán from “La Hacienda” (which is the Spanish title of his English book and means “The Estate”) in Venezuela where she, having come at a young age from England, was the “Doña” (Lady in charge) as wife to the owner, Jaime de Terán. The narrative hurts.

One morning, my small servant Coromoto came early to the house. Instead of coming in, she hid by the corner of the workshop. “Doña, come here”, she said. “Come here, I’ve got something to show you.”

I wondered what she’d brought this time. A blind snake’s discarded skin, a stick insect, a wild orchid. I went to her. As I approached, she pulled El Capino, her youngest brother, forward and pushed him in front of me. He was green. As green as a sick lizard. Even the whites of his eyes were marbled green. He was three years old.

– Mama says do something.

I’d never seen a green boy before, I didn’t know what to do or what to think. I thought El Capino had been dipped in dye. I thought perhaps he had gangrene. I didn’t know what to think.

Coromoto was asking: – Will he die?

– What is it?
– El Capino, he’s taken a paper.

Medicines came in papers. People took fruit salts and Epsom salts and bicarbonate of soda. None of them were green.

– Loosen the wheel. Call your father.

Coromoto ran off, relieved to be doing something. The signal to call her father, the foreman Antonio Moreno, was to loosen the wheel of the sugarcane-crushing mill which sent a loud clatter down the whole valley and announced the emergency. Coromoto loosened the wheel.

El Capino was poisoned. I had a book on poisons. I rummaged through it; there was nothing as extreme as the child’s greenness. It offered egg white beaten with water as a general emetic.

– Drink this, El Capino, it will help you.
– Will I die?

The loosened wheel clanged and crashed, rumbling across the valley. Antonio Moreno arrived quickly, followed by a number of other workers. Antonio came up, but he wouldn’t look at me.

– Can you do something, Doña?
– I’m sorry, he’ll have to go to the hospital.

Antonio’s face tightened. He turned to fetch the old truck. More people gathered. They were whispering “hospital”. The word was like death itself to them.

Jaime, my husband, arrived, saw what was happening and climbed into the driver’s seat. “Get in, man”, he said to Antonio. Antonio climbed in with the child in his arms. The child kept on repeating, “Will I die?” His eyes were glazed now, as though he saw and heard nothing. Only the question, “Will I die?”, seemed to link him to his former life. I watched them drive away. Coromoto sidled up to me and said:

– They’ll keep coming until you tell someone to stop the wheel.
– Stop the wheel.

Coromoto stopped the wheel and the crowd dispersed. Everything in the valley seemed to be asking, “Will I die?” The Hacienda begged the question all afternoon. Jaime and Antonio returned at about four o’clock. El Capino was in the hospital; a doctor friend was looking out for him. The child would soon be all right. He would get well. Antonio sat heavily down on the old bench on my veranda. The Chief’s going to stay in town, he’ll be on call. I’m going up to get Zara, my wife to go to town. Coromoto will look after the other baby at home.” He spoke dully. His voice was completely flat. His sunken face had aged and caught up with him suddenly. He stood up to go and then slumped down again.

– I gave it to him, Doña. I poisoned my son.

I tried to say something to soothe him, but he had made up his mind to speak.

– El Camino had worms, bad worms. He was pining and I hated to see him lose all his strength. We tried everything, but he kept on being sick. So I took him to the ‘brujo’, the witchdoctor. The ‘brujo’ is my friend, I’ve known him for years and he’s famous for some of his cures. He has been a help to us many times. The ‘brujo’ used to be a simple man like me. I had faith in him. There is little left to have faith in.

Antonio was jabbing at the floor with his talon-like toe, marking time as he spoke.

Everything is changing here. Even the ‘brujo’ has changed. He’s grown too proud to speak his cures any more. He has to put on the airs of a hospital doctor. When he sent the medicine for El Capino’s stomach pains, he wrote it down on a scrap of paper. I can’t read, Doña. I didn’t know it said copper sulphate.

– Didn’t they ask what it was for at the chemist’s?
– Yes, they asked me for whom it was without telling me what it was, and I told them it was for La Hacienda. On La Hacienda it is used for baiting rats. So they didn’t ask more. Then, you see, you don’t expect medicine to taste nice. When El Capino wouldn’t take it, we held him down and I made him drink it. I made him drink death, Doña.
– But they’ve said he’ll be all right.
– Will he, though? I want my wife to see him. Who knows what things they do at the hospital? It’s another world. It’s not our world. Yesterday at home we thought he’d stop crying after a while, but he didn’t; he cried all night. The neighbours came. The women said it was the evil eye, but I knew it was the paper.

Antonio sighed, and his rheumy eyes scanned the cobbles, the bamboo, the ochre bushes with their untidy leaves.

– I have know shame, Doña. I have lived with it and chewed it in my food, and I’ve know loss, but I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d kill my own boy.”

The ‘brujo’, scarcely more literate than Antonio, had learnt the fancy names of certain drugs. These he copied out. He wanted to prescribe Epsom salts to El Capino: in the old days, he would have said ‘Sal daysom’, sal de Epsom, and everything would have been clear. But from a book he could scarcely decipher, he had discovered that ‘sal daysom’ had a longer name, ‘sulfato de magnesia’. From ‘sulfato de magnesia’ to ‘sulfato de cobre’ his memory must have slipped. Magnesium was not the stuff of every day, copper (cobre) was: the vats in La Hacienda were made of copper, and copper must have slipped into his mind, been written down to be passed from hand to hand by people who couldn’t read. Only the chemist would have known he was selling a paper of poison, chemists weren’t allowed to sell poison to just anyone, but Antonio Moreno wasn’t just anyone, he was the foreman of La Hacienda, so no one asked him what the poison was for.

The next day Antonio asked me to accompany him to the hospital. I went with him in my seven months’ pregnancy. I found the boy’s bed and greeted his mother. El Capino was barely conscious. He was whispering something. Went I leant closer, he was still repeating, “Will I die?” We didn’t know what they had done to him. In the afternoon, Jaime came up to the ward with his Compadre. They asked me what I knew. Nothing. The Compadre got furious.

– The bastards! Is that all they’ve done? Did you ask about a stomach pump? Have they given him blood?

The Compadre pushed and shoved and shouted until he had located the doctor.

– Did you give the green boy a stomach pump?
– Yes.
– When?
– I don’t know. I was off duty.
– Show me his chart.
– It’s upstairs. I’m busy. Can’t you see what hell it is in here?

Upstairs, the chart showed no stomach pump had actually been given. It had been recommended and forgotten. Treatment was ensuing as though the intestinal wash had occurred. We had to get blood urgently. The Compadre took Jaime to the local radio station to send out an appeal for the rhesus negative blood. The message requested the blood for a member of the Terán family, and the donors rallied. The Compadre brough in a team of crack doctors and El Capino was moved into intensive care. Plasma was flown in in frozen containers. In the morning his kidneys would be linked to a kidney machine if need be. At the last minute, someone organised a military plane to fly El Capino to the military hospital where a transplant surgeon was being found to replace his kidneys. The boy sank into a coma.

El Capino clung on to his life for five days. Twice he surfaced from his coma sufficiently to murmur something, each time it was, “Will I die?” No one had the courage to tell him, “Yes”. It was very early in the morning when a doctor came out and took Antonio gently by the shoulder, he said nothing, only jerking his head slightly towards the intensive care room behind him where El Capino had died. The doctor half-closed his eyes and opened his hands in a gesture of both apology and defeat. Zara rose to her feet and tried to get past the doctor but he held her firmly back. “I’m sorry. There’ll have to be an autopsy. I’m sorry. This is a poison case. We have no choice.”

Antonio drove us back to La Hacienda. He climbed down from the lorry to help me out. He opened the door and half-swung me to the ground. I was searching for something to say. Antonio touched my elbow and said, “I killed him”.

Antonio had indeed administered the poison, but he had tried everything he could to help his son. Antonio’s only fault was his ignorance and his poverty. I wasn’t poor and I wasn’t ignorant. I had the means to hold power. So if Antonio had killed his son, then just as surely I had let him die. If one-tenth of what had been done at the end had been done at the beginning of this treatment, El Capino might have lived.

The story of the green boy passed quickly into the popular myth. For me the death of El Capino was the spur that pushed me out of my dream in La Hacienda into reality. From that day I made myself responsible for the welfare of ‘la gente’ (the people).
(pp. 121-131 Shortened)

Trains in La Hacienda
[To lighten up the mood I’ll transcribe now the first cultural exchanges between the authoress and her faithful Coromoto.]I made tea for myself. Coromoto watched me, intrigued. She asked me what I was drinking , and I told her,

– Tea.
– Are you ill, Doña?

Nothing I could say would convince her that I was not. Tea was used only medicinally on La Hacienda. It was a cure for dysentery and lesser diarrhoeas. I drank tea every hour as in England. Coromoto ran back and spread the news. Two hours later her father, Antonio Moreno, came hurrying down the hill. Was I ill, did I need a doctor, should he walk to the village and get help? I reassured him, and he accepted my explanation He was a man of the world. Living among the Teráns for nearly eight decades he knew a lot about eccentricity, and if someone wanted to consume vast quantities of medicine for pleasure that was their prerogative.

Buses and trains had been a lot more difficult to explain. Coromoto loved to get me trying, and delighted in the stories that I told. Story-telling was a well-respected art. There was no television on La Hacienda and none of the workers could read or write. Stories were told and handed on, gathering momentum and detail like barnacles on a ship’s hull as they passed from mouth to mouth. She didn’t believe many of my stories, but she enjoyed hearing them retold; she learnt and repeated them, spreading news of technology to her family and friends.

She found the notion of trains particularly enchanting. Since travelling anywhere further than up and down the hill in La Hacienda was considered a pointless exercise, Coromoto could not understand the necessity for any form of public transport. Why would anyone want to go away? The only people to leave La Hacienda were the boys who were pressganged into the National Guard. No one in their right minds would choose to leave. And given that roads were made of tarmac, cobbles or dust, why would anyone waste good iron and lay in on the ground for the trains to run? My whole story was palpably a figment of my imagination, but it was one that Coromoto liked to probe.

She made me describe the carriages and the engine, the plush seats, the luggage racks, the steps and wheels. When I told her that people travelled on trains for days on end, she tried to catch me out with all sorts of trick questions. How did they eat? How did the pee? I told her about the bathrooms and the buffet cars. The logistics of running water on a train were the part that Coromoto loved best. She had never seen a lavatory or a wash-basin, but she knew what taps were and she knew that they ran on water piped from a stream. The transference of this natural phenomenon to an articulated metal snake filled her with admiration. When I came up with tales like the moving metal and the mobile taps, I carved a little niche for myself in her estimation. I was quite obviously useless at all normal pursuits, but I gained points for fantasy.
(pp. 38, 51)

You tell me

A cousin of mine – and I tell it here as it fits in with the suffering theme – has reminded me these days of something an auntie of us used to say in the last years of her life in the county town of Huesca in the north of Spain. I knew it, but the remembrance of it has made me smile. She suffered some discomfort towards the end of her life, and friends and relatives used to console her with the standard consideration, “Dear Juliet, God makes you suffer a little now on earth so that he can give you a better place later in heaven.” She would answer in her own charming provincial accent, “But in heaven I’ll be quite satisfied with any little corner!”

When people told her in her old age, “How well will you soon feel in heaven, dear Juliet!”, she also had her answer ready, “Well, I don’t feel bad in Huesca either.” May she rest in peace. And in joy.

The next frame is a help to communication. Any reaction, question, commentary or criticism is welcome. This is the dialogue that can do us all much good.

Psalm

Psalm 110 – Community prayer

“With all my heart will I praise the Lord
in the company of good men,
in the whole congregation.”
I do not pray alone, Lord. I pray with my brothers, I pray with my group, with the friends who in your name and with your grace live and work together for the coming of your kingdom. I pray in the group and with the group, I make mine the prayers of each one and I know that all make my prayers their own. This is not only multiplying the number of lips that praise your name, but giving the prayer a new meaning, a new dimension, a new depth, because the group, though small in itself, represents your whole People, and thus the prayer we make together is the prayer of your People before you. You love your People and you like to see it praying together. And we too like to pray together before you.

The very fact that we are together in your presence is a prayer. Our silence speaks, our posture prays, our awareness of each other is mute intercession. And our words, even when they are ordinary words and common expressions, are charged with feeling and care because we recognise each other’s accents and know each other’s histories. A short phrase may carry a whole life, and a simple expression may reveal a deep heart because we know the lips that have spoken and the background of that phrase. No word is lost in the intimacy of the group that knows why that word has been spoken today.

When our voices unite in a common prayer, that prayer, too, acquires a new urgency as the harmony of dissonant voices emphasises the universality of the need we lay open before you. When we pray, the whole world prays, because we know its needs and live its aspirations. Even the individual’s prayer for a personal need becomes universal in the group as it acquires the public resonance of all those we know to suffer the same evil and need the same blessing. There is no egoism in common prayer, because each concrete need, when pronounced in the group, becomes symbol and carrier of all such needs in us and in all men and women in the world.

The prayer we enjoy most together is the prayer of praise. Psalms were meant to be sung, and sung not in the exclusiveness of the soloist but in the roaring sound of a tumultuous choir. We like to praise you together in words which are all the richer on lour lips as they have been spoken by thousands of lips, and each time they are enriched with the memory of a new blessing and the recognition of a new grace. The praise of your People is precious to you, Lord, who receive it, as it is precious to us who in the joy of our hearts and the music of our voices offer it to you. Accept our petitions, our thanks, our worship and our praise. We know that to be our function as a people, and we do it most willingly in the daily comradeship of our group.

“With all my heart will I praise you, Lord,
in the company of good men,
in the whole congregation.”
Bless our group, Lord. We are few but we work hard; we are different but struggle for unity; we even make the others suffer at times, but our love is stronger than our jealousy, and our commitment to one another in you is stronger than our grievances. Bless us in the daily routine that brings us together hour by hour in moments of tension and of relaxation, in fun and in work, in consultations and in prayer. Bless our planning together, our efforts to back with the whole group whatever any one of us does. Bless our growth into unity through noble ideals and earthly realities. Make us truly a “company of good men” that our praise may be pleasing to you.

“With all my heart will I praise you, Lord,
in the company of good men,
in the whole congregation.”

1st
I tell you

“Trick 540”
[I’ve read the autobiography of the world’s skateboard champion, Tony Hawk. A work of youth. Early “vocation” to the board, full-hearted commitment, a professional at 13, championships and trophies, broken knees, broken teeth, broken ankles, constant invention of new tricks, the “ollie”, the “varial”, the “airwalk”, the “switch nollie heelflip indy”, each one with its name and number up to the mythical “900” which he gets very few times and costs him a broken rib, and then urgency and anxiety before the new wave of youngsters that push the “veterans” out, retirement at 25, and an autobiography when his whole life is still in front of him. I want to understand this world too. Some quotations:]

“I skated. That was my only aim. School never affected me much as I considered it a mere formality.”

“Apart from the 900, which is the summit, one of the hardest tricks I’ve had to learn in my life has been the 540 McTwist. It consists in one and a half turns with a flip in the middle. You climb the ramp, grip the board, lift and turn to bring it down looking in front. To learn the 540 became one of the most frustrating and exasperating experiences in my life. It was the trick of the decade. It opened new horizons in vertical skating. The strangest thing about a 540 is that you have to stand away from the wall of the ramp and do the flip while you turn. If you don’t do it correctly you may end up very badly. I was having problems with my 540. It became my obsession in a way I had never experienced in my own life. I would catch myself at school writing, and then I realised I had written, ’I must do the 540’. But I couldn’t get it. It seemed impossible to complete the twist. I chickened out every time. I was getting closer and closer. I was so close to getting it that all the other aspects of my life were cancelled so that I could concentrate on this one trick. Finally, after two months, I executed the worst 540 you can come across in your life. But I did it. I landed crouching like a frog, which is a shame, but I was the happiest gay in the world. Even if I had bounced on the wall and had broken my head, I would have kept a happy smile while I was dying.”

“When I began skating with my small fibreglass board, I never expected to get any profit from my hobby; skating fulfilled me and I had enough with it. At present one gets the impression that there are many skaters who seek a sponsor from the start and they forget to have a good time. They go about as though somebody owed something to them. I often see some boys skating who are very gifted, but do not seem happy. They manage to complete a very hard trick, and they don’t even smile. They don’t enjoy themselves. They fly to an incredibly height in an ‘aerial’ and yet, to judge from their faces they could just as well have been told they had terminal cancer. Even though I was number one in the world, I never thought I was the best skater. But I enjoyed myself. I never had a concrete plan for my life. I preferred to live day by day and blow by blow.”

“My daily routine during holidays consisted in waking up, eating, skating, eating, playing the fool, eating, skating, eating, skating, and perhaps going to a cinema or to a concert. When there was something in my life that did not turn around skating, it was very hard for me to decide what to do.”

“My skating style was getting outdated, and I was frightened to be left behind by the new wave. The new tricks were two modern for my style. I was burned out in my effort to modernise my skating.”

“I broke my ankle. We skaters always have a reason to avoid doctors: they usually tell us to quit skating. I couldn’t say the number of times that doctors, while examining a sore spot, were speaking to me as though I would never walk again. They do not share our point of view. For us, skating is pleasurable and it compensates pain. Chiropractors love us. In a few months, our spines looked liked to many corkscrews. Skating has made me the person I am today.”

[In the 360 crowded pages of the book the reader can see zest, enthusiasm, speed, life. Still, I missed some reference to moral or religious values. The only allusion to religion in the whole book is very short: “My wife and I are not very religious. We married in court.” Nothing else. I don’t say it as a criticism but as information. A piece of news. Young people today live their lives without a reference to values we consider essential to life.]

[A very happy feature is his relationship with his father. His father supported him from the beginning, which is not usual in such outlandish callings, and then he, for all his shyness and hesitation, found his way to tell him how much he loved him. That, for me, is the best page in the whole book. He comes to know his father has had a stroke, and he flies to help him.]

– Daddy. I want you to know I love you.
– Yes, I know it.
– Daddy, I love you.
– I’ve heard you. I know you love me.
– I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me.
– It’s OK.
– Daddy…
– Say, did you tell me the ambulance is on its way?

[His father survives the stroke. Years later, in his last sickness, a new attempt at expression between the not very communicative father and son takes place.]

“I went to see him every night. My father watches more television than any person I’ve ever known, and those days there was a commercial on Bud Light beer in which a son (of legal drinking age) and his father are sitting down close to the refrigerator in which there is only one beer left. The son plans how he’s going to get it: he’ll tell his father how much he loves him, and then the father, duly impressed, with handle him the beer. But the father is a clever guy, and he interrupts his son and says: ‘Don’t think you’re going to drink my Bud Light.’ One night I made up my mind to open up before my father. I told him how much I loved him and how much I appreciated all he had done for me, as I wouldn’t have reached where I reached but for his help. He answered me in a steady voice: ‘Thank you, Tony, but don’t think you’re going to drink my Bud Light.’ That was our moment. I cannot recall it without laughing, and this is the perfect way to remember my father. That was the last time I saw him alive. The next day I went on tour.”

Tony Hawk, Occupation Skateboarder)

A soul in torment

“I was taking a group of beginners through their first session of Zen meditation. It’s always quite interesting to see how people react. There were the usual sleepers and the inevitable man with an itch. Someone rather shamefacedly got up and tiptoed out to the restroom. Then there was a girl whose performance held me spellbound. She tossed and turned. Threw her long black hair back and forth, gasping and sighing all the time. A soul in torment would have made less fuss.

When it was over I encouraged them to talk about the experience. Some people had already decided that it was not for them; others were determined to persevere. But the girl who had made all the fuss amazed me. It was, she said, just what she’d hoped. She’d certainly be back for the next session.”

Robert Allen, 365 Smiles from Buddha, p. 10)

The devastating boys

Laura was always too early. She was pacing up and down the platform. The children were coming from London. It was Harold’s idea to have them when he read of a scheme to give London children a summer holiday in the country. ”Some of the children will be coloured.” Laura and Harold were grown-ups, but they wanted to help and applied for two children.

– What will they do the whole day?
– They’ll play in the garden.
– And if it rains?
– They’ll play at home.
– I hope they are girls.
– We shall see.

Laura wore a label pinned to her breast, so that the children’s escort would recognise her when the train drew in. She was a clumsy person. Flurried and anxious. She wasn’t good with children. Suppose they cry for their mothers and want to go home. The train came in and slowed up. Suppose I can’t find them. A tall authoritative woman, also wearing a label, leaned out of a window. Two children got out on to the platform, Sep and Benny. Benny was much lighter in complexion than Sep. “My name is Laura.” She kissed their cheeks. They did not speak. She put them both into the back of the car, so that there should be no favouritism, and drove off.

The boys clambered out of the car and followed her into the hall. Benny dropped his case and shot like an arrow towards Harold’s golf-bag and pulled out a club. Laura, carting forward to him, felt a stab of misery at having to begin the “No’s” so soon. ¡No! Sep had taken an antique coaching-horn and was blowing away on it. ¡No! “Let’s go upstairs and unpack.”

– Shall we toss up for who sleeps by the window?
– I don’t sleep by the window.
– I want to sleep by myself.
– I don’t like to sleep in the bed by myself. I’m scared to. I’m real scared to. I’m scared.
– I reckon I go and clean my teeth.
– Lunch is ready. Afterwards would be more sensible, surely?
– I’ll wash them now.
– I’m going to bathe all my skin and wash my head.

When would the fifteen days be over? The first was long enough. And Harold had not yet come from the office. When he comes, Laura tells him:

– The little Cockney one asked me just now if this were a private house. When I said “Yes”, he said, “I thought it was, because you’ve got the sleeping upstairs and the talking downstairs.”
– Pathetic.
– I suppose where they come from it’s all done in the same room.
– Pathetic.
– It makes me feel ashamed.
– Oh, come now.
– And wonder if we’re doing the right thing – perhaps unsettling them for what they have to go back to.
– My dear girl. Damn it, those people who organise these things know what they’re doing.
– I suppose so.
– They’ve been doing it for years.
– Well, it’s only fourteen days now.

The next day it rained from early morning. They played snakes-and-ladders, but they didn’t know how. Laura had to help Benny.

– You don’t want to play, Sep?
– I never win.
– It’s only luck.
– No, they don’t let me win.
– Because he is black.

Harold arrived again late and could not wait to complain that he had tried all day to telephone.

– I know, dear. I should have stopped them. One took the phone upstairs and the other downstairs and they kept at it the whole morning.
– If you let them do just what they like all the time you’ll spoil them.
– Only fifteen days.
– Thirteen.
– And they haven’t got telephones at home.
– But other people might want to ring you up.
– So few ever do, it’s not worth considering.
– Well, someone did today. Helena Western. She wants you to take the boys to tea. She says she has absolutely no feelings about coloured people.

Laura was terrified at the idea of taking the children to tea with Helena. Helena wrote novels. But there they go. Harold asks on their return:

– How did the tea-party go?
– They were good. They played at a fishing game with real water and magnetised tin fish, had eaten unfamiliar things, such as anchovies, without any expression of alarm or revulsion, they had helped carry the tea things indoors from the lawn. Sep said “You shake me rigid.”
– And what did Helena say?
– She said, “You shake me rigid too”.
– I can’t believe it. She using that language. Well, you shake me rigid.
– And she said they were devastating.
– That is more likely.

On Sunday they decided that they must go to church. They had a sudden curiosity about it, and a yearning to sing hymns. Harold was liberal-minded and agnostic. He told Laura:

– Take them to church.
– But it is almost time to put the sirloin into the oven. And we did sign that form that we would take them if they wanted to go.
– What time does it begin?
– At eleven o’clock.
– Isn’t there a kids’ service they can go to on their own?
– Not in August, I’m afraid.

She had a quiet morning in the kitchen. Not long after twelve o’clock they returned. The boys at once raced for the cricket-bat and fought over it, while Harold poured himself out a glass of beer.

– How did it go?
– Awful! Lord, I felt such a fool.
– Did they misbehave, them?
– Oh, no, they were perfectly good. But I knew so many people there. And the Vicar shook hands with me afterwards and said, “We are especially glad to see you.” The embarrassment!
– It must have shaken you entirely rigid…

They looked at each other as for the first time in years. Shook me rigid. So seldom did they tried to be amusing.

The fortnight was getting over. Soon she would be able to go to the hairdresser’s, attend to the garden, clean the house. She read out stories to them. They made her play the piano. They rested full length on the grass.

– Sep doesn’t move.
– Don’t you see he has rickets?
– I’m sorry.
– Do you think it has been a success? For them, I mean.
– For them I don’t know. For you and me, definitely yes. See, we’ve never spoken so much between us, you’ve never come back so early from word, we’ve never been so busy and so amused.
– I shan’t like saying good-bye. But you’ve carried the burden.
– I hope I don’t cry.

At the station, it was Benny who cried. Sep stared ahead. The train came in. She handed them over to the escort, and they sat down in the compartment without a word. When at last Laura moved away, her head and throat were aching, and she had such a sense of failure and fatigue that she hardly knew how to walk back to the car. Harold was waiting for her at home.

– Let’s drive out to Minster Lovell for lunch.
– We never go out.
– I’ve made a reservation.
– Good idea.
– Come one. Shall we make tracks?

Elizabeth Taylor, The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, p. 1, shortened.]

Three boysThree friends spent an afternoon collecting walnuts till they filled a sack with them. The problem was how to share them out now fairly. They went with their sack to Mulla Naseruddin, whom all respected for his wisdom and holiness, and asked him:

– Please, distribute these nuts to the three of us.
– How do you want me to do it? As a human judge would to it or as God himself would do it?
– As God himself!

The Mulla took some time dividing the contents of the sack. At the end he gave three fourths of the nuts to one, one fourth to the other, and nothing to the third boy.

– That’s unfair! We didn’t expect that from you! You’ve pulled our leg!
– Slowly, boys. If you had asked me to divide the nuts as a man would do it, I would have made three equal parts and given one to each. But you asked me to do as God does, and this is what God does. He gives much to one, little to another, and nothing to the third one. Now, off you go!

You tell me

You keep sending me your interpretations of the theme of suffering. It does concern us all. But I don’t find myself always in agreement. I quote you:

“Physical evils come from nature, and moral evils from humans. God has nothing to do there.” – God has everything to do everywhere.

“Suffering makes the person mature into a golden autumn.” – Would you tell that to a mother who has lost her son?

“Today’s suffering will be understood tomorrow.” – Tomorrow.

“The more the suffering, the more the glory.” Tomorrow.

“To each one their lot.” – Who has decided my lot?

Once I was an examiner in the final oral exam of the seminarians in the faculty of theology. To a student, of whom I had a high opinion, I asked the question of evil and suffering in the world, stressing the fact that it was the hardest question in the whole course. He answered briefly saying: “It’s quite simple. All good things come from God, and all bad things from humans.” That was all he said. On those days there had been a cyclone in the coastal region of Andhra Pradesh in the south of India which had killed thousands of persons and left a million people homeless. I repeated his answer that all bad things came from humans, and added: “The Andhra cyclone too?” He kept quiet. I failed him.

My intention in talking about suffering is insisting that we do not speak of it lightly.

Psalm

Psalm 111 – Portrait of a just person

I collect with reverent attention the traits that define the just person in the sight of God:

“They fear the Lord, they find great joy in his commandments,
they are gracious, compassionate, good,
they give freely to the poor,
righteousness shall be theirs for ever.”

The quest for perfection need not be complicated. Sanctity is within reach, and righteousness can be found at home. Joy to keep the law, and compassion to help the poor. Common sense holds its own even in the spiritual life, and the simplicity of a true heart will find the shortcuts to holiness. To be a good person. To be just. To be righteous. The heart knows the way, and to follow it is the elementary wisdom of all spiritual progress.

Sometimes I feel that we make the spiritual life too complicated. When I think of the many spiritual books I have read, the many courses I have followed, the many systems I have tried, the many practices I have adopted… I cannot help smiling good-heartedly to myself and asking myself whether I need to pass so many examinations in order to learn how to pray. And the answer I give myself is that all those religious studies are very fine in themselves, but they may well become a hindrance when bend my knee and want to pray.

To be a just person is easier than that. I don’t need the latest book in the spirituality market in order to find God in my life. I want to go back to simplicity of mind and humility of spirit. Back to loving God and loving my neighbour. Back to opening my lips and reciting prayers I learned as a child. Back to fearing the Lord and keeping his commandments with joy. Back to being a kind and simple person in the midst of a sophisticated world. Back to what God called simply and directly “a just person”.

Many are the blessings God piles up on the head of the just:
“Their descendants shall be the mightiest in the land,
their house shall be full of wealth and riches,
nothing shall ever shake them,
bad news shall have no terrors for them,
their goodness shall be remembered for all time.”

Again straightforward blessings for the straightforward person. Happiness in their home and security in their life. The blessings of the earth as anticipation of the blessings of heaven. The just person knows that God’s hand is on them in their life, and will simply and humbly let it be happily there for all eternity. The ripe fruit in heaven of his goodness on earth.

Happy is the person who fears the Lord!”

 

15th
I tell you

Adrenaline

They have climbed a sharp summit on a high mountain. After months of preparation and hours of climbing. A laborious climb. Once on top, they prepare themselves for the task that has taken them there. They have not gone up just to go up. They have gone up in order to come down. Only, in a rather special way. Not climbing down the way the climbed up, but just jumping clear of the peak. With a parachute? Not directly. In a glider? Not this time. With skies? Too dangerous. Then? With nothing. Just their bodies. Free fall. At least the first stage, of course. Then, at the last moment, just before it is too late, they’ll open their well folded parachutes and land uneventfully on the valley. Between the summit and the parachute they’ll have enjoyed the sharpest pleasure in the world: the pleasure of a free fall.

They have conquered the world record in free fall from a mountain peak. 27 seconds. Twenty-seven. To get that they’ve gone through months, toil, training, expenses, risks. But they’ve got it. The leader explains:

– This is the only thing that raises our adrenaline.
– All that for only twenty-seven seconds?
– They’re worthwhile.
– And then?
– We’re already planning the jump from a higher peak.
– For more adrenaline, of course.
– Yes, we need more each time to enjoy it.
– Twenty-eight seconds.
– At least.
– Good luck.

All sports are noble. Only, life is not adrenaline.

The “Bamboo” monk

During the reign of the emperor Ming Shi Zong there was a monk at Shaolin by the name of Yi Shan. There is something special about everyone, and with Yi Shan it was that, for his whole life, he loved painting bamboo. When he was not painting, he could be found totally absorbed, reading the work of some famous Song painter on the best ways to paint bamboo. And he would look at bamboo. All year round, in the dying rays of the setting sun, on a frosty morning or a moonlit night, in the mist of early morn or the subdued light of a rainy day, he loved to carefully observe the small changes in the leaves and stems of bamboo. It was said he could paint bamboo with his eyes closed.

Once, Yi Shan went to a bamboo grove just a short distance from the Shaolin Monastery. Beside the grove lay a large slab of bluish grey stone, intended to be a memorial but as yet uncarved. He rolled a sheet of paper onto the flat top of the stone, dipped his big writing brush in ink and then closed his eyes to think of how best to catch the charm of the bamboo in his painting. As he sat there, two large wolves came out of the thick forest of a nearby valley. Seeing a lone man by the bamboo grove, they quietly slipped forward, thinking to eat him. Yi Shan still sat on his rock, with his back straight, his left hand holding the paper down and his right relaxedly holding the writing brush soaked in ink. The wolves just couldn’t quite work out what was going on. Whenever they had come across men in the past, the men had stood and yelled at them, or thrown stones, or sometimes fled. But the attitude of this man was very strange and stopped them in their tracks. They just stood there, their eyes wide and staring, not daring to rush blindly into some trap.

All the while, Yi Shan was totally involved with his painting and was unaware that two very hungry, but somewhat confused, wolves were standing just behind him. When his picture was totally clear in his mind he started to paint. With a swish he drew his brush down the length of the paper, and on its white surface there suddenly appeared a thick bamboo pole. With a howl the wolves turned and fled, their tails tightly tucked between their legs. At the sound of the wolves howling right behind him, Yi Shan was scared out of his wits, and it was some time before he got over the shock and was able to get to his feet. Why did the wolves turn, you ask. Because a thick bamboo pole suddenly appeared right before their eyes and they thought they were going to get beaten. This frightened them as much as they had frightened the monk!

When the painting was finished, Yi Shan hang it from the wall of the courtyard. Just then two sparrows flew twittering over the top of the eastern wall of the courtyard and headed straight for the painted bamboo grove. There was the sound of two thuds as they flew straight into the wall and dropped in two little heaps to the ground. After a few seconds the two birds came back to their senses, and twittering once again, they flew over the wall and away.

The monk was called by all “Yi Shan Bamboo”.

[Narrated by Zhan Shude, a monk who outlived the destruction of the Shaolin Monastery by Mao Ze Dong. Tales of The Shaolin Monastery, p. 156]

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned

“In the year 1992, during the celebrations of the five centuries of something like the salvation of America, a Catholic priest reached once a community deep in the valleys of South-East Mexico.

Mass was preceded by confessions. The Indians confessed their sins in the tojolobal language. Carlos Lenkersdorf did his best translating their confessions, one after another, even though he well knew it was impossible to translate mysteries.

– He says he has abandoned the maize – Carlos translated. He says the crop is very sad. T’is many days since he went.
– He says he has abused fire. He wiped the embers as the flame was not shooting up.
– He says he’s desecrated the path in the forest. He cut branches right and left with his machete without care.
– He says he’s hurt the bull.
– He says he’s cut down the tree without first telling the tree why he was cutting it down.

The priest didn’t know what to make of those sins that were not in Moses’ catalogue.”

[Eduardo Galeano, Bocas del tiempo, p. 84]

Only God knows
[Taha Husein was blind, and a helper took him every day to the great courtyard of El Azhar in Cairo where groups of students sat down on the floor, each group with its teacher, reciting lessons and listening to lectures in the open air.]

“While the teachers were getting deeper and deeper into their dissertations with their respective audiences on the floor, the whole of El Azhar woke up little by little as though shaken by the voices of the teachers who explained their courses, and the dialogues – often violent – that took place between them and their students. As the students kept on coming the voices kept on rising till the din in the whole courtyard was unbearable. The teachers had to shout more and more to make themselves heard, and soon their throats ached. Eventually they had to pronounce the sacred words, ‘Only God knows the truth’, which signalled the end of the lesson. Those words, said solemnly by the teacher, ended the class and all the students jumped to their feet. Then Husein’s helper would come to fetch him and take him to another group for another lesson.”

[I was struck by the formula “Only God knows the truth.” Scholarly humility. I wish my teachers had had it.]

[Taha Husein, Los días, p. 136]

Efficiency

“A writer who wrote a novel on the computer wanted to change the hero’s name from David to Nigel before publishing it. He used his global search facility on his word processor to change the name throughout. When the book was published, he discovered that the hero now visited Florence and admired Michelangelo’s Nigel.”

I always enjoy getting one up on my computer.

[David Nobbs, I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today, p. 248]

Happiness

“How happy I feel when I don’t feel bound to be happy!” (Albert Camus)

Secret

“The birds on water
look heavy
and yet they float.”
(Onitsura)

Wrinkles. Beauty treatment
[David Nobbs describes thus his mother’s death which inspired his best novel, “Going Gently”.]

“I have only ever seen one person die. It was my mother. I found it a profoundly beautiful experience.

She was not far short of her 95th birthday when she was taken to hospital during hot August weather. Until that day she had remained mentally active, doing the Daily Telegraph crossword (and not their quick one) every day.

I flew to her side. I’d expected a bright if tired smile, a false alarm, a speedy recovery. I saw a spry, frail old lady, very lined, very tired. I knew immediately that she would not come home again.

She wasn’t speaking. I spent the whole day by her side with my cousin Susan, talking between ourselves and to her. We had no idea whether she knew who we were or could hear what we were saying.

The next day she seemed exactly the same, but suddenly we realised that she was going to speak. We leant forward. Her voice was weak but clear, as she spoke her last words to us. ‘Can you think of another word for “stateless”?’ she asked. I felt happy to know that, wherever she was, there were crosswords there. ‘Refugee?’ suggested Susan, and my mother gave a nod. I squeezed her hand. She squeezed mine. I hope she knew that it was mine.

Then everything changed. There was no more shaking of the head. Just quiet, gentle breathing, and peace. We sat in silence, watching her fade away. Her breathing grew slower, quieter, gentler. And then it began to happen, the phenomenon for which I was not at all prepared. The lines began to disappear from my mother’s face. If worrying had been an Olympic event my dear, dear mother would have represented Wales. Now all her worries had melted away, and with them went the lines on her face. She looked years younger… thirty, forty years at least. Her skin was smooth and fine. She looked, I thought, quite beautiful.

Her breathing grew slower, fainter, slower, fainter. I thought she had gone. Then she breathed again a barely detectable movement. And then she didn’t breathe at all ever again.

A nurse took us to a rest room and gave us a cup of tea. So British. So welcome. We went back to my aunt’s and were just in time for Sunday lunch. This was typical of my mother. She hated to be a nuisance.”

[I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today, p. 454]

You tell me

Someone, in connection with the theme of suffering in these pages, has sent me Borges’ famous poem that begins,

“Let no one manifest disharmony
over this declaration of God’s might
who, with a touch of subtle irony,
presented me with books and with dark night.”

Jorge Luis Borges was the best writer in the Spanish language in the XX century. He gradually became blind. When he could not read any more he was appointed Head Librarian of Buenos Aires State Library. The books and the night. Then he wrote the poem. No complaint, no regrets, no rebellion. Just clear awareness and gentle humour. He was a great soul.

I feel I cannot translate the whole poem. I’ll just try the last quatrain.

“Slowly and gently I can just surmise
that mute guests fill the corners and the nooks.
I, who had even thought of Paradise
as a supreme and glorious House of Books.”

Psalm

Psalm 112 – Strength in weakness

I know something of your ways of acting with humans on earth, Lord, and one of the norms you secretly follow and openly proclaim is that your strength is manifested in weakness. When humans lift their heads in pride, they will be humbled; but when they recognise their own weakness, own it, and accept it, you fill the empty vessel of their acknowledged humility with the fullness of your power. Humans’ weakness is God’s strength. It has always been so.

“The Lord lifts the weak out of the dust
and raises the poor from the dunghill,
giving them a place among princes,
among the princes of his people;
he makes the woman in a childless house
a happy mother of children.”
God brings fertility out of sterility, and crowns the poor as princes of his people. That is the Kingdom. Human values are upset, and earthly calculations discounted. The wisdom of the wise is confounded, and the cleverness of the clever is destroyed. The glory of God shines in the lowliness of man.

I want to experience your power, Lord. I want to feel the power of your Spirit when I speak in your name and when I act for your cause. And I am grateful to you for showing me now the way to release your power in my actions. I have to disappear that you may appear. I have to be shadow that you may be light, I have to humble myself that you may do your work. So long as I am full of my own importance, I am just obstructing the way for your power. The day I am nothing, you will be everything. I must diminish that you may increase, as someone said while preparing the way for you on earth. That is the law of prophets and apostles, of preachers of your word and workers of the Kingdom. Let me glory in my weakness that the fullness of your power may work through me.

“There is none like the Lord our God
in heaven or on earth,
who sets his throne so high
but deigns to look down so low.”

1st
I tell you

Prayer “by breathing”

Something funny has just happened to me. I was working on an essay about different methods of prayer, and I wanted to quote the method St Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises calls “prayer by breathing”. I knew about it what every Jesuit knows about it, but before writing my piece I wanted to research the topic and so I went to Internet. I entered Google, typed in Spanish “Ignacio Loyola oración anhélitos”, and clicked. A number of references on the Ignatian prayer by breathing appeared instantly on the screen. I clicked on the first one, without paying much attention to it, and I was in for a bit of a shock. I first wondered, and then I laughed wholeheartedly. I couldn’t believe my eyes. You can’t guess what had happened.

There, right in front of me, on my computer’s screen and before my astonished eyes was printed in full a whole chapter from a book of mine. Yes, a book of mine. Complete with its cover in colour and my name in full. There it was.

It was true that in a book of mine years ago I had made reference to Ignatius’ prayer by breathing. I did remember it. But, how the hell had it come to my screen now? That book was not in Internet, not even in my computer’s memory, as I had written it in my pre-cybernetic days when I used to type my books on a mechanical typewriter, striking key by key as hard as possible to get carbon copies. The book has been printed and reprinted, yes, but who the devil had got hold of it, scanned it, and placed it on the Web?

No doubt about it. It was my book. It was laughing at me from the screen. Do you want prayer by breathing? Well, there you have it. Quote it if you want. First authority on the matter.

I did draw a conclusion. Since I was, apparently, the first authority on the matter in electronic terms, there was no need to consult the others. I closed down the search and went on with my writing.

Thank you, Brin and Page, cofounders of Google.

By the way, if you want to know what “prayer by breathing” is, click on Google.

The importance of washing up

“In the United States I have a friend called Jim. Last winter he came to visit me. I always wash up after dinner before sitting down to a cup of tea. One night Jim asked me whether he could do the washing up, and I told him: ‘You may, but if you’re going to wash up you must know how to do it.’ Jim answered: ‘Do you think I don’t know how to wash dishes?’ I explained: ‘There are two ways of washing dishes. The first is to wash dishes in order to clean the dishes; the second is to wash dishes in order to wash dishes.’ Jim was delighted and said: ‘I chose the second way: to wash dishes in order to wash dishes.’

Since then Jim knew how to wash dishes properly, and so I entrusted the job to him for a week. He made quite a propaganda about washing up in order to wash up. Till finally a friend told him once: ‘Since you like so much washing dishes in order to wash dishes, there is a cupboard in the kitchen full of clean dishes. Why don’t you go and wash them?’

Thirty years ago, when I was a novice in the Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing dishes was not a pleasurable occupation. During the Retreat Season, when all the monks came back to the Monastery, two novices had to prepare meals and wash up for more than a hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut shells for the purpose. To wash such a pile of plates was an unpleasant task, particularly in winter, when the water froze. Then you had to warm up a huge cauldron of water before beginning. Nowadays there is a regular kitchen equipped with liquid soap, wire sponges and even hot water to make the task more endurable. Today it is easier to enjoy washing up. Anyone can do it at full speed, and then sit down to their cup of tea.

According to the Awareness Sutra, while one is washing up, one should be only washing up, that is, should be totally alert to the fact that one is washing up. This may look a little silly at first sight. Why to pay so much attention to such a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I’m here washing dishes is a wonderful thing. I’m being totally myself, following my breathing, conscious of my own presence here, and aware of all my thoughts and actions. I’m not being pushed around aimlessly by the waves like a shipwreck’s bottle, or a leaf swept by the wind.

If, while we’re washing the dishes, we think already of the cup of tea that awaits us at the end, or we are hurrying up to get rid of the nuisance of washing up, we’re not washing dishes in order to wash dishes, and, what is more, we are not aware, we are not conscious, we are not alive while we are washing up. We are not able to appreciate the miracle of life, there as we are, standing before the sink with our hands in soapy water.

That is the sad thing about it. If we don’t enjoy washing up, we don’t enjoy living. We always miss the present and we’re unable to live properly even a single moment in our lives.”

[Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Gently, p. 34]

One day, after taking lunch in a friend’s house, and when they were getting ready to wash the dishes, I gave them this whole treatment about washing up. They, inevitably, handed me the cloth saying: “Then you wash the dishes.” I answered Buddha-like: “I’m enjoying not washing the dishes.” Outsmarting Buddha.

Chocolate

“Trees the colour of cinnamon, golden fruits.
Ebony hands wrap the white seeds with large, green leaves.
The seeds ripe in the sun. Then, unpacked, the sun dries them up in the open air and slowly paints them the colour of copper.
Then, cocoa begins its journey along the blue sea.
From the hands of the farmer to the mouths of the buyer, cocoa is processed in the factories of Cadbury, Mars, Nestlé, or Hershey, and is sold in the supermarkets of the world: for every dollar that enters the till, three cents and a half reach the villages from where the cocoa came.

A newspaper man from Toronto, Richard Swift, was in one of those villages, in the mountains of Ghana.
He went through the plantations.
When he sat down to rest, he took from his haversack a few bars of chocolate. Before the first bite, he found himself surrounded by children and their curiosity.
They had never tasted that sweet. They found it delightful.”

[Eduardo Galeano, Bocas del tiempo, p. 275]

Of course

“It’s very hard to predict, particularly the future.” (Niels Bohr)

Identity

“I am the one to whom things happen.” (Montherlant)

Haiku

“The brook in the mountain
ground the rice for me
while I slept.”
(Issa)

“The kingdom of God is like this. A man scatters seed on the ground; he goes to bed at night and gets up in the morning, and meanwhile the seed sprouts and grows – how, he does not know.”
(Mark 4:26)

Thinking in Polish
[I’m allowing myself a mathematical excursus]”Mathematics are a language in which imprecise thoughts cannot be expressed”, said Poincaré; and as an example of the influence of language on thought, he described how different he felt when he used English instead of French.

I thing I agree with him. It’s topical to say that French possesses a clarity that no other language possesses, and I suppose this causes differences in mathematical and scientific literature. Thoughts are led along different directions. In French, generalisations come at once to my mind and they lead me to be concise and direct. In English we rather see the practical aspect of things, while German leads us to seek for a depth that is not always there.

Polish and Russian lend themselves to a kind of condensation, of brewing thought like a heavier and heavier tea. Slavic languages tend to be reflexive, soulful, outgoing, psychological rather than philosophical, but they are not cloudy neither do they let themselves be led by their own words as German does. In German, syllables telescope into words, and words into thought, not always felicitously. Latin, again, is something else. Latin creates order, breeds clarity, keeps the words separate, unlike German; it is rather like well cooked rice as against overcooked rice.

My own general impression about languages is the following: when I talk German, all that I say looks too big; when I talk English, on the contrary, it looks too small; in French it looks its true size, as also in Polish which is my mother tongue.”

[Stanislaw M. Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematicion, p. 262]

[From the same author:]

“Chen Ning Yang, the Physics Nobel Prize, tells a joke which illustrates an aspect of the intellectual relationship between physicists and mathematicians at present. One afternoon, a group of friends came to a city. They had to wash their clothes, so they searched the streets looking for a laundry. They found a place with the shop-sign on the window: WE WASH CLOTHES. One of them went in and asked: ‘Can we leave our clothes here for a wash?’ The owner answered: ‘We don’t wash clothes here.’ – ‘How’s that?’ asked the newcomer, ‘there is a sign on the window that says you do.’ – ‘We make shop-signs’, was the answer. Something similar happens here. We mathematicians make shop-signs for any trade. Physicists use them.
(p. 278)

The Fruit of the Sun

Harare in Zimbabwe is The Sunshine City. Whatever its other claims to the sun, there is this fruit which, were their citizens true artists and children of the sun, they would worship because it has drunk of the sun and is, therefore, a divine symbol of sunshine. This fruit is none other than the pineapple, born of the ananas, which makes the theme of this little story.

It happened at a disused parking lot, now overgrown since the beginning of the summer rains, just outside a suburban shopping centre in the month of December in 1989, a few days before Christmas. You may well have heard that December is pineapple time in Harare, being right in the heart of the sunshine months. On roadsides, in vegetable stalls and at the big Mbare Msika, you will see these huge orange-ripe grenade-shaped fruits that only explode juice and sweetness with each crunch, leaving an even sweeter aroma in your hands.

And so, you may now visualise in this disused park a young pineapple seller wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a shirt all red with earth including his hands and legs, feet buried deep in the pineapple load in the trailer of a green seven-ton lorry. The boy, who must be barely twelve, looks young and simple, though his hands and legs are taut with strength from regular and heavy work.

He and the lorry driver, servants of a hard taskmaster, have come all the way from Chirinda, near Chipinge, a tiring distance of some nearly five hundred kilometres away on a rickety old Albion truck. At first, there are very few customers, two or three feet below him, raising their hands to him as though they were praying, their fingers clutching their money. They hand him variously a blue two-dollar note, a red ten-dollar note and, in some inconsiderate cases as the crowd grows larger, a twenty-dollar bill. This, for a green and half-ripe or yellow or hard or soft pineapple, depending on size and quantity. As his customers swell in numbers, something of a frenzy seems to catch them.

Calmly the young pineapple boy obliges and sometimes looks slow and overwhelmed by the hands of these worshippers of pineapple below him. He is not trained in the crude bustle and tumble of the Sunshine City. He is careful not to make enemies of the citizens of Harare as, according to the City Fathers, selling pineapples from the roadside is a grave criminal act for which the whole lorry-load could be confiscated. So he is always on the look-out for the forces of Law; those violent men wielding vicious batons and handcuffs. He and the driver would, therefore, never park their seven-ton lorry in the heart of Harare. They were sure to be arrested and their pineapples would be ‘dumped’, which was a euphemism for wanton sharing of confiscated goods among the lucky relatives and friends of the forces of law. And besides, their master would shoot them if that ever happened again.

The pineapple boy knew the value of his fruit among the people of Harare. As the business became more brisk with more than ten customers lining up before the trailer at any moment, he also felt lighter, as though he had springs in his hands and legs. Money was coming like leaves.

All seemed to be going well until a short man with a stubbly moustache and a bald and shiny pate came along and started asking some awkward questions. The pineapple boy had received a twenty-dollar bill and was looking all over his pockets for change, with little progress. Nervously his hands moved from one shirt pocket to another, then to his trouser pockets, right and left, back and front and then all over again in great confusion. All this was made worse by the fact that from the top of the lorry he was also keeping a wary eye on the men of law and order. It wouldn’t do to be arrested now, just as he had sold so many pineapples. They would take his money as well. Meanwhile this newly arrived customer was yelling at him angrily, ‘I said, how much are they, or don’t you know?’

The boy was holding notes in both hands, with another stuck between his lips. He gave the citizen a simple pleading look which meant, ‘Take it easy, man, can’t you see I can’t open my mouth? Besides, I am serving another customer.’

At last the pineapple boy managed to remove the bill from his lips, and he answered the man: ‘Eighty cents for the big ones and sixty cents for the smaller ones.’

Unfortunately, by that time the irate citizen had already made up his mind to sort the boy out. He pulled a two-way radio out of the inner pocket of his jacket and started talking to his colleague, who was invisible, with great force and agitation. In no time a cream Peugeot 504 with unmistakable number plates pulled up and out emerged men who looked well-spruced up with jackets and ties. Each was wielding a walkie-talkie and speaking into it. They had arrived at the scene of the crime and had caught the criminals red-handed. The bald-headed man jumped up on the back of the truck and, after jostling the pineapple boy, he handcuffed his hands behind his back.

Then, in a gesture the boy will not find it easy to forget, he split a pineapple with the force of his bare hands, forcing a shower of juice on to his jacket, tie and face and, with both his lower and upper lips drawn to his gums, he sank his rusted dentures into the juicy fruit.”

[Musaemura Zimunya, A Pineapple Incident, abridged.]

You tell me

Question: Is attention the same as concentration?

Answer: No, it isn’t. Attention is seeing, noticing, being aware, taking conscience of things, and this is the important attitude always. Concentration is focussing on one single point to the exclusion of all others, which is required at times but is not by any means the usual or normal attitude. It can distract us from the circle by fixing on its centre. Buddhism explains the point in an ancient parable.

The master had ordered the disciple to take a bowl full of oil to the brim and walk with it in his hands through the whole village without spilling a drop. Attention test. It was a feast day in the village, with processions, shows, music, colourful dresses along all the streets. The disciple walked through the whole festival with the bowl in his hands.

The inevitable happened. The disciple looked up and saw the feast. And the bowl in his hands tipped a little and a few drops spilled out. There was no dissembling the fact. The level of the oil was a little lower, and the hands of the disciple were oily.

The master saw it and said: “I see a little oil has been spilt. That’s as it should be. If you had not lifted up your eyes and had not seen the feast, I would have dismissed you, as, wherever you are and whatever you do, you have to look around and notice your surroundings, whatever they are. And if you would have spilt the whole oil, I would have dismissed you too, as you have also to notice what you wear in your hands. It’s normal that a few drops should spill our, and that’s what you have done. You’ve passed the test.”

This is awareness, the precious word that spells a whole way of life. Fritz Perls sums up his whole Gestalt Therapy in the felicitous expression: “A continuum of awareness.” That is the point.

Psalm

Psalm 113 – Idols on my altar

There is a verse in this psalm that haunts me, Lord, and you will understand me if I put aside in my consideration all the many other beautiful verses this psalm, or rather the two psalms accidentally united to make up this psalm, have, and I fix the eye of my faith and the hopes for my spiritual growth on that single verse which you utter here and repeat again word by word in a later psalm. It sounds like a proverb coming from your mouth, a wisdom principle, a Biblical curse of long consequences for a People in search of a Promised Land, and for a heart in search of God. The proverb is:

“He who makes an idol will become like it.”I feel a chill down my spine when I hear those words. I know that idols are wood and stone, and so to wood and stone are condemned those who make them. There are idol makers in the outward sense of the word, craftsmen who fashion the images of the divinity as ordered by the variegated imagination of fanciful worshippers in all cultures and all ages. Against them goes the direct invective of the psalm to enforce the Lord’s commandment to his people not to make for themselves images of the divinity, and to deride the ridiculous efforts of misguided piety in lifeless figures.

Their idols are silver and gold,
made by the hands of men.
They have mouths that cannot speak
and eyes that cannot see;
they have ears that cannot hear,
nostrils that cannot smell;
with their hands they cannot feel,
with their feet they cannot walk,
and no sound comes from their throats.
Their makers grow to be like them,
and so do all who trust in them.”
And then there are idol makers in a more subtle sense of the term, all the more dangerous for being less obvious, and it is there that I see myself and feel on my head the weight of the Biblical indictment. I make idols in my mind, and I worship them with hidden fidelity and stubborn submission. Idols are my prejudices, my judgements, my tastes and distastes, my own ideas of how things should be, my values and principles however legitimate they may appear to me, my habits and customs, my own past experiences that now rule my present life, whatever I have assumed, taken for granted, fixed in my mind and made into an inflexible rule of conduct for myself and for all men and women for ever.

All those are idols. Idols of the mind. Wood and stone, or even gold and silver, but in any case dead metal unworthy of a living soul. Mental idols, ideological idols, cultural idols, even spiritual and religious idols. All the dead weight of a long life. All the unhappy baggage of the past. Burden and bondage. Slavery and chains. Sorry heritage of my heathen spirit.

What frightens me now is the penalty attached to the worship of idols. To be like them. To have eyes and not to see, to have ears and not to hear; to have hands that do not fell and feet that do not walk. To lose my sense, my contact with reality, my life. That is the punishment of sticking to an idol in my mind: to cease to be alive. I worship my old ideas, I hold on to my prejudices, I hang on to the past…, and I lose the capacity to see the present. I clog my memory with custom and routine, and cease to see and hear and sense and walk. I become wood and stone. I become dead. I have worshipped my past in search of security and comfort, and I find the black night of insensitivity and death. The idol is a fixed notion, and when I hold on to a fixed notion I become fixed like it in wood and stone.

You hated idols, Lord, throughout your recorded utterances to your chosen people. I ask you today to free me from all idols in my life… that I may walk again.

 

15th
I tell you

All I know is that nothing do I know

Unexpected things happen to me. And amusing too. This last one happened only the other day in the underground railway. I was sitting down on my seat, lost in my own thoughts. A station came, the doors opened, a group of young men came in, and they all remained standing in front of me. They had T-shirts on with their variegated colours and no less colourful messages. One of them had Greek letters on his breast. They tickled me. As a young man I had speed read Homer with ease, and something must have remained in my head. The print was in capital letters: EN OIDA OTI OUDEN OIDA.

I looked at them as one would look at Chinese characters. They looked nice in big white letters over a black background. They must have had some meaning, of course, but I was not going to try and unravel them. I just kept looking silently at them with an old kind feeling.

But all of a sudden my eyes opened. A flash of lightning. My heart missed a beat. I did understand that. Of course. Quite clear. EN OIDA OTI OUDEN OIDA. Concise Greek for “All I know is that nothing do I know.” Who said it? Why, Socrates, of course. His favourite answer to indiscreet questions. All I know is that I know nothing. I laughed heartily.

I couldn’t keep my discovery to myself, and then, pointing at his T-shirt and pronouncing separately each word I told the young man: “All I know is that nothing do I know.” And then came the next explosion. The young man lifted his hands to his head and told me before all his friends who had also seen my gesture and heard my words: “O, fuck it!” (That didn’t come in Greek.) “I knew it, but none of these knew it, and I had made a bet with them that I would stand them a treat if someone found out, and now you come along and discover it.” The choir of friends started jumping and singing in the train: “All I know is that nothing do I know! All I know is that nothing do I know!”

hey alighted at the next station. They greeted my profusely on their way out. Somebody profited by my knowledge of Greek as a boy. All I know is that nothing do I know. Socrates in the underground.

The importance of washing up
Camus redefined the Sisyphus myth. It may interest us.“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to roll continuously a rock till the summit of a mountain from where the stone would again roll down under its own weight. They had thought, not without reason, that there is no harder punishment than useless work without hope, the torture in which the whole person strives to do something that never ends.

We see the whole effort of a tense body to lift the heavy stone, make it roll up, push it up along a slope for the hundredth time. After much striving, without measure and beyond time, Sisyphus sees that when he is about the reach his goal, the rock slips back and rolls down to the valley below.

But then Sisyphus is higher that his own fate. After all, the workman of today works the whole day at the same task, and their fate is just as absurd. Their salvation is to do what they do. Sisyphus’s salvation is to think moment by moment of what he is doing. He thinks of the climb when he is climbing, and of the descent when he is descending. The realisation that was to be his torture, has become his victory. There is no fate that acceptance cannot defeat.”

[Albert Camus, The Sisyphus Myth, p. 129]

ore plainly, Sisyphus is not any more disturbed because he has learnt to live in the present, which is the great art of life. We all are pushing stones along, which is what we, after all, do in a more or less sophisticated matter throughout our earthly existence. Up and down, up and down. The workman in their factory and the clerk in their office, the driver in their car and the writer at their computer. Without irony or cynicism, but quietly and realistically and with a touch of humour, we can humbly say that we are just pushing stones around. That is, we are living the present. And Sisyphus laughs at the gods.

Sisyphus rests

“Every achievement entails slavery. It calls for a higher one.” (Camus)

Sisyphus’s children

“Thich Nhat Hanh, the contemporary Vietnamese Zen master, took once a group of children to a large hardware store in France where he resides. Before entering the shop he told them all they were going to buy was a box of nails for something he wanted to mend. Still, he told them they could look around in the shop all the time they wanted. So it was that the Zen master and his children spent hours looking at one shelf after another, one thing after another, almost one nail after another, taking in all the goods in the store. Then they went to the cash desk, paid for the nails, and went out. The wonder of this story for me is that the children did not put up a show of obedience and will power, but they simply went in knowing they were only going to buy some nails, and even so they had a good time seeing what they saw, asking all the asked, and learning all they learned. Each occupation is fine provided we know how to take it by itself.”

Gary Thorp, Sweeping Changes, p. 51]

Sisyphus in jail

I’m going to tell an extreme case of appreciation of life even in the worst of conditions. Reg Kray spent the greater part of his life in jail for acts of violence when he was young, and left the jail only when he was 67 as “compassionate leave” because of the terminal cancer he suffered and of which he died six months after regaining his freedom. In jail he wrote his autobiography, with the sincerity of the hardships endured and the perspective of a whole life. This is what he says clearly and simply:

“The greatest lesson I’ve learnt is to count my blessings and to remember that none of us are exempt from life’s problems. We should meet them each morning and treat both the problems and the day as an adventure; we should do out best to solve the problems and to enjoy the day.

Prison life is all a waiting game; we wait for the start of each day, we wait for the meals, we wait for visits, we wait for bang-up, and we wait for the termination of whatever sentence we are doing. My advice is to do your best not to play the waiting game. Look upon each jail as a cheap hotel until you get a better one! Keep yourself occupied and keep as fit as you can. Keep constant contact with your family and friends and use the phone as much as possible. Stay away from the use of Class A drugs. Remember that the distance of the mile has to be travelled, be it a short or a long journey. It is better to walk the path in a happy frame of mind as far as possible; it is negative and counter-productive to do otherwise. Try to live each of these days, that you might otherwise consider a loss to your life, to the full. Enjoy yourself in the gym or in doing whatever gives you most pleasure. By doing this you turn disadvantage to advantage – you will regain that day of your life. Last but not least, remember the words written by the philosopher Kahlil Gibran: ‘Cast off the shackles of self-imposed burdens.’ If your mind is free then you will be free.”

[Reg Kray, A Way of Life, p. 229, 217]

e has given us from jail the secret, which we already know, to live life as it comes and to enjoy it as it is. The secret to live our lives to the full is to live them moment by moment, step by step, day by day with all that day brings and all that day takes away. Not to play the waiting game. To live in the present.

There is still hope

“It was the fourth day of the sesshin, the meditation retreat in all the rigor of Zen under the direction of Master Shunryu Suzuki. We were sitting on our folded legs, Japanese style, with our legs and back hurting, and our mind boggled under the doubts whether all this labour was worthwhile or not.

Suzuki Roshi began speaking very slowly: ‘The conflicts you’re now experiencing at this moment…’

We were all sure he was going to continue: ‘… will disappear as we finish this retreat’; but instead of that, what he said was the following: ‘… will continue with you for the rest of your lives.’

The way he said it made us all laugh together.”

David Chadwick, To Shine One Corner of The World, p. 41]

The advantage of not complaining

“When the king can interpret all the languages of nature, he has to place that exceptional knowledge at the service of his subjects. A Persian story, of Sufi origin, gives us an example.

In the times of King Solomon, a man bought a nightingale whose song was exceptionally sweet. He placed it in a cage where the bird lacked nothing, and so it sang for hours and hours to the delight of all the neighbours.

On day, when the cage had been placed on a balcony, another bird came close, told the nightingale something, and flew away. Since that moment the gifted nightingale remained silent.

The man, in despair, took his bird to King Solomon, who knew the languages of all the animals, and requested him to ask the bird the reasons for his silence. The bird told the King:

‘In my early life I was innocent of hunters and cages. One day they showed me a tasty bait and, moved by my desire, I fell into the trap. The bird hunter took me, sold me in the market, far away from my own family, and I found myself in this cage you see. I began to lament day and night, and this man took my lamentations for songs of thanksgiving and joy. That was till the other day when another bird came and told me: “Stop lamenting, as it is because of your lamentations that you are kept in this cage.” Since then I am silent.’

Solomon translated these words to the owner of the bird. The man said: ‘Why do I want to keep a nightingale if it doesn’t sing?’ And he set it free. Then the bird sung again.”

Jean-Claude Carrière, Le circle des menteurs, p. 286]

You tell me

You’ve sent me this story:

“An American tourist visited El Cairo in Egypt with the idea to meet a famous sage. He was surprised to find that the sage lived in a small room full of books. The only pieces of furniture were a bed, a table, and a chair. ‘Where is your furniture?’ asked the tourist. The sage answered his question with another question: And where is your furniture?’ – ‘My furniture?’ said the tourist smiling, ‘But I’m here only in passing!’ – ‘Well, so am I’, countered the sage.”

The first time I received this story I liked it, and I put it on my Web. The second and third time I let it pass with my thanks. But now, the fourth time it comes, something has happened to me. This time I haven’t liked the story. That is, it has amused me as it is a good story, but I’ve noticed I’m not anymore in agreement with it. I’m more aware of the importance of living the present, and this story takes me away from it. Makes me feel I’m only a tourist, I’m here only in passing, I don’t belong here. It makes me lose contact with reality, projects me onto the future, does not allow me to be myself. I know my beloved St Teresa of Avila called this life “a sorry night in a poor lodging’, but as it is, it’s the only night and the only lodging I have, and I want to make the best of it. We don’t befriend life by insulting it. It’s true that everything passes away, but for the time being I am where I am, and I take it as my duty to feel well where I am. Earth is my home, this life is my life, and whatever I do today is all I can do today. I want some furniture.

Besides, I need some shelves for my books. In fact, even the Egyptian sage is said to keep many books in his room. A tourist in passing wouldn’t have them.

aybe when you sent me this story for the fifth time, I’ll like it again.

Psalm

Psalm 114 – Passion and resurrection

This psalm was prayed on the way to Gethsemane. Supper was over, the group was small, the final thanksgiving hymn, the Hallel, had to be recited, and they did so as they crossed the valley on the way to a garden with old olive trees where some rested, some slept, and a frail figure on his face under the full-moon shadow prayed to his Father for delivery from death. His words were an echo of one of the psalms of the Hallel he had just recited. The psalm, through its yearly recitation at the Paschal meal and this day through its timely memory on the way to death, was the final acceptance of the Father’s will by him whose purpose in coming to earth was to do that will.

“The cords of death bound me.
Sheol held me in its grip.
Anguish and torment held me fast;
so I invoked the Lord by name:
Deliver me, O Lord, I pray you:
for I am your slave.”
I approach this psalm with inward reverence knowing that lips holier than mine have prayed it in the face of death. But saving infinite distances I too have a right to say it, because I too in my human misery know the despair of life and the terror of death. The seal of death marks me from the moment of my birth, not only in the mortality of my body but also in the existential anguish of my soul. I know myself on my way to the tomb, and the shadow of that day falls on all the other days of my life. And when that final day approaches, everything within me revolts and protests and clamours for a postponement of the inevitable hour. I am mortal, and I bear the brunt of my mortal condition in the very essence of my being.
But then I also know that the loving Father who brought me to birth waits for me just as lovingly after death. I know that life continues, that my real existence will begin only then on the other side of eternity. I accept the fact that as I am mortal so I am also eternal, and life will be mine for ever in the final glory of my Father’s house.

I have faith in life after death, and I take heart with the thought that the words of the psalm that bring me comfort today brought comfort too on a bleak Thursday night to another troubled soul who said them in the solitude of a garden before the dawn of his last day on earth:

“I will walk in the presence of the Lord
in the land of the living.”

1st
I tell you

Throw away

A new phone had to be installed in the already existing line, and the technician came. Once he set it up, I pointed out to him the old phone on the wall, that was to be kept, and told him: “This phone has been here for more than thirty years. It is an old model, fixed, with dial, linked to the cable, only to listen and to talk without any of the modern amenities. Wouldn’t it be also time for it to be changed for a new one, once you are here?”

He answered me: “Change it if you want, and you will certainly have digital keys, redialling, mobility, lights and sounds, and anything you want. But I tell you that this old phone you have here on the wall for thirty years is far better than the one I’ve just now set up in your office, and that the old one will outlast the new one and give you a better service. We don’t make phones like that any more. Change it if you please, but you’ll soon have to call me to give you another one. Take that for a fact.”

Another phone, the cellular now peeping out of my shirt pocket. A few days after I acquired it, and after only a few calls, it beeped and informed me: “You have so many points. With so many euros now you can order the new model with Internet connection, weather report world wide, football results and real-time figures from the New York, London, and Tokyo stock exchanges.” I feel tempted to get the new one. Only that already the next one is threatening in the wings with additional information about the phases of the moon and solar eclipses. In any case, I know it will not last long and I’ll have to buy the latest again. It’s all figured out. Throw-away culture.

Formerly things were built to last. Now they are built to break down quickly. Formerly one married for life. Now, as a recent cartoon has it, the divorce lawyer is waiting at the door of the church to give bride and bridegroom their card with fees and discounts right after the wedding. Formerly you became an engineer and worked as an engineer for the rest of your life. Now you begin engineering, come out as the drummer in a jazz band before becoming a domestic appliances salesperson and ending up as an esoteric counsellor in an Oriental group. Throw-away culture.

Life values used to be life values. Now life values too are throw-away values. Be careful. When you bought your mobile phone you have entered the throw-away culture. Beware.

The teachable sense

The professor announces in class that he is going to be absent for some days, but that, thanks to the latest communication gadgets, the students will not miss his wise explanations as he has set up a large screen in the classroom itself where his face and figure will appear each day at the usual time and will explain the day’s lesson as usual. All agree.

The professor comes back from his trip a day earlier than planned, and goes to the classroom to see how the experiment is working. The screen shows his face and figure, and the speaker voices his voice. In front of the screen, a tape recorder sits on each desk turning silently its tape. There is nobody in class. Fair play.

It used to be said that teaching consisted in knowledge being transferred from the professor’s notes to the student’s notes without passing through the head of either. Now it is transferred from the latest gadget of the professor to the latest gadget of the student.

The Greeks used to say that hearing was “the teachable sense”. And, of course, when they heard, they saw. Teaching meant presence.

A good ear

I had read in the African memories of Leni Riefenstahl (about the Nubas) something that I now read again in those of Peter Matthiessen (about the Bisambe). It must be true. They tell that the natives walk in the jungle at a distance of even hundred and fifty feet from one another, and speaking in a very low voice they hear one another perfectly well and carry on a conversation quite coolly as the most natural thing in the world. They don’t need the cellular phone. Neither a video. They have a good ear. We have lost our original jungle ears.

(Leni Riefenstahl, Memoirs, p. 431. Peter Matthiessen, African Silences, p. 215)

You are divided

Bror Blixen, Karen Blixen’s light-headed husband (“Out of Africa”) who infected her with venereal disease, also tells his African experiences. He goes out to hire workers for his coffee plantation, and this is his story:

I rode till the village where Kinanjui was chief. I greeted him, offered him some gifts, and asked him whether he could help me to get two hundred day workers to cut down trees. He bad me sit down, gave me some ill-tasting beer, and we spoke about our different dresses. After a couple of hours under the shadow of a tree he seemed ready to fix the place and time when we could sit down to begin to negotiate. I was shocked by his roundabout ways, and came back at a gallop to find out from Holmbert, who knew the natives, whether such bargaining should take up several days. He laughed and said that he had never heard about days. They would take months, or even half a year.

I was furious, and went from chief to chief. I learned how to hide my own fear under a pleasing smile, and spoke of lands and crops while in my mind I was imagining long lines of workers waiting at the gates of my property. I had never been as mild-tempered as with those people, but my thoughts were always elsewhere.

Kinanjui told me once, as I was sitting near the fire at the gate of his hut: “Outsider: your thoughts are not where you are. You are split into two, and you will also split me and split my people.”

I asked him what he meant by that. He answered asking me in turn why should his men work for me and clear up my fields. They were living in their villages, and they did not want to cut the trees of a land that had been taken from them. I answered that I would give them money for them to buy what they wanted with it. He went on to say that they did not need anything; if they wanted anything they just got it from the Hindu shopkeepers in exchange for maize or meat. The only thing my money would be good for would be to pay the taxes we impose on them. “We did welcome you as visitors to our country. Now you repay our hospitality by asking us to work for you provided we pay the taxes you impose on us. My people have become a people of servants. Outsider, live among us by all means if you want, come to hunt with us, but do not make our thoughts split into two different worlds.” I felt uneasy at his words.

His coffee plantation was a failure. So was his marriage.

(Lennart Hagenfor, African Drums, p. 108)

The python and the lion

More aboriginal experiences. This time in Mali. From Lisa St Aubin de Terán’s fascinating narratives.

“Eventually, I fell asleep to the hum of air-conditioning and insects. Next morning I awoke late to the sound of voices outside my hotel room. It sounded as though two men in the corridor were about to fight but kept backing down as one cajoled and coaxed the other to be reasonable. I waited for it to end before exploring breakfast possibilities. Then, since it was obviously going to be a protracted affair, I ventured out. A teenage boy in a very new, very crisp beige uniform was talking to a vacuum cleaner in two voices. What had sounded like scuffling was him switching his machine on and then almost immediately switching it off again. He held the beringed plastic hose as though handling a giant python, and seemed to be both addressing and threatening the body of the machine itself as though it were a captured lion that kept behaving with unwonted savagery. Every morning this monologue was repeated, with a little more hoovering and a little less admonition.

After I had befriended one of the waiters, he told me the boy was new. Working at the hotel was like winning the lottery and a huge help to his entire family. The boy would be desperately proud of his new position as a cleaner at the prestigious establishment. But having been brought in from the bush he had never come across the likes of plumbing and electricity and had certainly never seen a vacuum cleaner before. He would have been given cursory instructions on how to use it, and was now going through the process of taming it in his own way, bringing to bear his tribal and huntsman’s skills as all African boys possessed from their initiation ceremonies.

“You can’t explain things like that Hoover,” the waiter said. “It’s too big a jump. He’ll have to work it out for himself, get used to it all by himself. We all had to when we started. This is another world for us. If you notice, in the evening, when the cleaner knocks off work, some of the children hanging onto the railings are his family who come to see their hero. We don’t make much money by your standards, but that boy is probably keeping about twenty people out of what he earns. We have big families here, with all the wives, and there isn’t much work about.”

Memory Maps, Lisa St Aubin de Terán, p. 268)

Thinking damages the brain
(By the same writer, this time from her experiences in La Hacienda in Venezuela.)

“Antonio Moreno, the foreman on the Hacienda, was always remonstrating with me for reading and thinking too much. He used to insist that thinking was very bad for you, that it damaged the brain. He had a theory that if you looked at things in a certain way, you would understand them. He was already an old man when he told me this, and although he could neither read nor write, he was wiser than I could ever hope to be. I heard recently that he is still alive, aged 107, and has thus survived almost every vagary and calamity that man and nature can combine to contrive. If he could see me now, I expect he’d still shake his grizzled head at me for my reading and writing, but at least after a quarter of a century I have begun to find my way into stillness. In the days since I have heard of him again, I feel myself inside his head, staring out through his cataracts to the green slopes of Tempé, behind the sugar mill of the Hacienda.”
(p. 285)/p>

You tell me

This was funny. Someone sent me a beautiful poem inviting me to publish it here. Of course I publish it. And it was very familiar to me when I read it. The original of the poem is English, by Sidney Carter, and I translated it into Spanish and published it in my book, and it is that translation of mine that is now quoted to me and that I am going to put here. That’s why I say it’s familiar to me, which is that someone has taken it from my book and happily passed it on to others without mentioning its origin, and they have passed it on to me without knowing that the origin was me. I’m glad they liked you. I like it, too. It is called “The Gospel in Present Indicative,” and it goes like this:

Your learned treatises are not evidence;
What I desire is Voice and Presence.
Twenty centuries ago, what do I know what happened?
What happens now I want to know.

I have no patience for your sermons:
I’m only interested in Life and Evidence.
Don’t say they say. . . , they said. . . , they will say. . . ;
show me the one who comes to break the bread.

I am who I am, and He is who He is:
Everything else is of no interest.
You were. . . , he was. . . , you will be. . . , he was. . . ,
we would be. . . Who knows? Maybe!

You speak in past pluscuamperfecto;
I want the present lived and direct.
You give me arguments from the past tense:
That’s all old, old, and forgotten.

I don’t want a secondhand baptism:
I want to be a witness, disciple, brother.
Old recordings are useless:
The live show is what I like.

Don’t talk to me about mind-boggling things:
I want the Gospel in the present tense!
Don’t come with appointments, speak without delay
and tell me yourself: Jesus lives now!

Isn’t she pretty? In the same book I took another English poem by 13-year-old Raymond Hearn, published in the book Psalms for Young People, and I also translated it myself and published it later. I’ll also put it here (before someone sends it to me!)

Who is God?
Is it one, three or two?
Is it real?
Or is it wood?
I wish I knew!

Is he in the moon and the sun?
Is he in rock and roll?
Is he in the green meadows?
Is it when you win and when you lose?
Is it real?
Or is it wood?
I wish I knew!

Was he born in a stable?
Can you hear me when I talk to you?
Do you know what it’s like to love?
Do you know what punishment is?
Is it real?
Or is it wood?
I wish I knew!

If you know, please tell me.
I want to give her my love.
If nobody tells me, I get depressed.
Pain of the heart.
I want to know from God the true truth!
I wish I knew it!!!

Psalm

Psalm 117 – Easter joy

Voices of Easter Sunday, cries of victory over death, confidence in the power of God, rejoicing in the common triumph and proclamation of this day as the greatest that the Lord has ever made. That is this psalm overflowing with glory and joy.

“Open to me the doors of triumph!
The Lord is with me and helps me;
He didn’t hand me over to my death.
The stone that the architects discarded
is now the cornerstone.
It is the Lord who has done it,
It’s been a glaring miracle.
This is the day in which the Lord acted;
be our joy and our joy. ”
This is the Easter liturgy at the heart of the year. But for the true Christian, every Sunday is Easter and every day is Sunday. That is why every day is Easter, it is “the day that the Lord has made, the day that the Lord has acted. ” Every day is a day of victory and praise, of joy and thanksgiving, a day of rehearsal of the final resurrection, conquering sin, which is death, and opening oneself to joy, which is eternity. Every day there is a stir of angels and a tumult of women around the empty tomb. Christ is risen!

“This is the day in which the Lord has acted. ” I wish I could say that about every day of my life! I know it is true, because if I am alive, it is because God is working in me with his infinite power and divine grace; but I want to feel it, touch it, see it in faith and experience, recognize the hand of God in the events of the day and feel his breath at every step. This is his day, glorious as the Passover and mighty as the dawn of creation; and I want to have faith to discern the figure of his glory in the humility of my comings and goings.

“The right hand of the Lord is exalted,
the right hand of the Lord is mighty.
I’m not going to die:
I will live to tell the deeds of the Lord. ”
May the truth of faith penetrate my mind and flourish in my actions: a Christian is he who lives the spirit of Easter. Spirit of struggle and victory, of faith and perseverance, of joy after suffering and life after death. No misfortune will bring me down and no defeat will discourage me. I live already in the day of days, and I know that the hand of the Lord will prevail in the end. “The Lord is with me, I fear not: what can man do to me?”

I just can’t get the spirit of Easter on my own. Just as on Easter Sunday I find myself among the faithful who proclaim their faith and strengthen mine with the union of their presence and the voice of their songs, so now too, day by day, I need the friendly group around me to affirm this same conviction and to confirm my faith with the gift of theirs. I invite the house of Israel, the house of Aaron and all the Lord’s faithful to sing with me the glory of Easter so that we may all be united in the close bond of faith and joy.

“Say the house of Israel:
eternal is his mercy.
Tell the house of Aaron;
eternal is his mercy.
Let the faithful of the Lord say:
eternal is his mercy.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever. ”

 

15th
I tell you

Memories of the underground railway

I often travel in the Metro, and things happen. I don’t mean accidents, but just little events that prompt simple reflections. The other day I entered the compartment and it was full. I stood. In front of me were seated three young people whom their speech and the letterings on their T-shirts made out to be Russian. I remained standing and clutched the railing for safety. Nowadays it is not any more common for a young man to yield his seat to an old man. That made it more of a surprise when one of the young Russians stood up and motioned me to his seat. I accepted, relieved. When my destination was announced, I stood up and told the man: “Spasibo.” It is the only Russian word I know. “Thanks.” The three of them smiled. I, too, smiled. They didn’t know I was preparing a book on emigrants. Simple gestures like this would further mutual understanding.

On another day the compartment was also full. In it there are always some seats clearly marked and reserved for women, old people, and handicapped. I pointed it out to a young man who was seating on one of those seats, and he saw the notice, but he shrugged his shoulders and remained seated. A girl by the side saw it, stood up at once and offered me her seat though it was not one of the reserved ones. I accepted it with thanks, and sat down. Then the boy stood up and offered his seat to the girl who had remained standing. She refused.

Smoking is forbidden throughout the Underground. A man seemed impatient, as he brought out his packet of cigarettes, took one out and put it in his mouth. The he prepared the lighter in the other hand and waited eagerly. He was respecting the rules and was not smoking while he was in, but he was getting ready to light his cigarette as soon as he got out. The train arrived at the station, but the door got stuck. For some technical hitch, it wouldn’t open. The man grew impatient and started pounding the door. He had calculated the time to the first puff, and it was hard for him to wait any longer. Al length the door opened, he rushed out and lit his cigarette. Once he had put his cigarette in his mouth, he couldn’t well stop.

During a long run of the train I started reading a book I’d brought with me for the trip. As I passed the page and looked up, I noticed that the woman in front of me was wiping a tear with her hand. I didn’t know what to do. She heaved a quiet sigh, took out a small handkerchief from her purse and dried her eyes. My station came up, and I stood up to go out. I looked at her and told my Guardian Angel to stand by her. What more could I do? There are so many tears in life…

How to teach a child
[From the life of Frank Sinatra’s daughter, Tina.]“Dad let me have it just once in my life, when I was fifteen years old and – unbeknownst to my parents – had agreed to ride a motorcycle with my boyfriend, Roger. He was inexperienced, and helmets were unknown. I knew I was wrong to go, but this was a taste of freedom. Roger moved slowly onto the shoulder of Sunset just as a car unexpectedly turned right onto Hillcrest, cutting us off. The bike crashed and Roger and I were airborne, flying over the car. Roger tore his groin, while I landed on the right side of my face and went skidding on the asphalt, passing out along the way. I wound up eighteen feet from the point of impact, in the middle of the intersection.

When I came to, as luck would have it, I saw Uncle Dean [Sinatra’s friend, the actor Dean Martin] standing over me. He’d been on his way home from a golf game, and stopped as a Good Samaritan for these two kids smashed on the street. When he saw it was me, he knelt down and said, ‘Oh, God’, which scared me.

I said, ‘I know you’re going to call somebody, but could you please make it my mother?’ Dean agreed, but we both knew that Dad would have to be told, and sooner rather than later.

Treated and released and back safe at home, I feared that the worse was yet to come. Dad drove straight from the studio and checked in with Mom; I remember hearing their muffled voices in the hallway. With the right side of my face one huge abrasion, I’d hoped that the sight of me might soften Dad. But by the time he’d entered my bedroom, Mom had convinced him there was no permanent damage. His fright and worry had boiled down into pure paternal wrath. He knew that I could have been maimed or even killed, and all for a stunt that I knew wasn’t safe from the start.

After kissing me hello, Dad distilled his anger into a few words: ‘Not smart, Tina. I thought you were brighter than that.’ I was feeling weepy and sorry for myself, but I had to concede his point. And I’ve never been on a motorcycle since.”

[Tina Sinatra, My Father’s Daughter, p. 127]

The Lone Ranger

“Then was the day that Dad took me for ice cream sodas at Rumpelmayer’s, off Central Park. As we sipped away, we saw a mother and small daughter at the toy counter, in heavy negotiations over an ornate Madame Alexander doll. (‘Mommy, please.’ – ‘I’m sorry, Sweetheart, but no, it’s too expensive.’)

As the two of them left the shop, Dad smiled at me and said, ‘C’mon.’ He paid for the doll and run along the sidewalk. As Dad caught up to them, he tapped the little girl on the shoulder and presented the doll in its opened box. With eyes large as saucers, she grabbed it. The mother was so startled that at first she didn’t see who it was.

Dad was the Lone Ranger; he didn’t wait around for thanks. We jumped into our car and were gone in a flash, though not before I caught the mother’s stunned book of recognition. And oh, the expression on that little girl!”
[p. 171]

Mulla Naseruddin’s stories

Mulla Naseruddin was pushing along his small child in his pram, and seeing the child cry and howl, he repeated again and again looking at him: “Keep quiet, Naseruddin; calm down, Naseruddin; don’t get excited, Naseruddin; this will soon pass, Naseruddin.” A woman was coming along and saw the father and the child, approached the pram, bent towards the child and said in appreciation: “What a loving daddy you have, little Naseruddin, and what a good care he takes of you.” The Mulla checked her: “Sorry, madam, the child’s name is Amir. I am Naseruddin.”

Naseruddin asks the policeman:

– Could you, please, tell me where am I?
– Yes, you are at the crossroads between Station Road and Freedom Avenue.
– Thank you, thank you. And could you tell me in which city?

Naseruddin is driving a huge cart loaded with hay, but the cart overturns when reaching the farm. The farmer tells him:

– Don’t worry. We’ll first have our supper, and then we’ll come and straighten up the cart.
– My father wouldn’t like that.
– Come on! You’re old enough to worry about what you father would say.
– But my father wouldn’t like it.
– And where is your father?
– In the cart, under the hay.

In spite of being well armed, Mulla Naseruddin was attacked by a robber who took all his possessions.

– Did he rob you?
– Yes.
– He took away all that you had?
– Yes.
– But had you no weapons with you?
– Yes, I had a sword and a spear.
– And you didn’t defend yourself?
– How could I when both my hands were already full!

A disciple asks Mulla Naseruddin:

– Master, what is the difference between enlightening and liberation?
– One lasts for ever, and the other is temporary.
– Which is the one that lasts for ever?
– That I don’t know.

[I love this story.]

The Advance
[Short story by Henri Lopès, abridged.]“No good”, the little girl said, screwing up her face.

“Yes, it is, Francoise. Look.” Carmen herself swallowed a mandarin section, the closed her eyes. The little girl looked at her, impassively: “Eat it all up yourself.” Like a priest proffering the host, Carmen offered her the orange quarter. Haughtily, the little girl turned her head away. “If you don’t eat, Francoise, I’m going to tell your mother.” Still the little girl did not relent.

Carmen was eager to finish up her work, especially since she had not yet asked the mistress about the matter in her mind. But she knew she was not to interrupt the mistress of the house when she was playing bridge with her friends. There was only one solution. Do as her own mother had done to get her to eat. With one hand she opened the child’s mouth and with the other shoved in the piece of fruit. As expected, Francoise howled. She cried and choked with rage. From the hallway came hammer-like sounds on the tile floor – the footsteps of Madam who came running.

– What’s going on in here?
– She doesn’t want to eat, Madam.
– Oh, don’t force her, poor little thing. Get her some grapes from the refrigerator. She likes grapes.

Carmen went to get the European-style dessert. As she was returning, she crossed Madam in the hall and almost broached the subject that was in her mind. But it did no seem like quite the right moment. While the little girl ate, Carmen wiped the tears from her cheeks. In her heart she cared a great deal for this child. Carmen had been with her since she was two months old and had practically brought her up. Francoise was as much her daughter as Madam’s. She changed her and put her to bed. By then it was 7:30. Night had fallen and she would still have to walk two hours to reach Makélékélé. But Francoise did not want her maid to leave. Carmen sung for her: Nguè kélé mwana ya mboré. Sleep, baby, sleep.

While Carmen sung, her thoughts were elsewhere. She thought about Francoise whom she loved as much as her son, a child of the same age yet so different. Francoise was the picture of health, while her son had come close to death several times already. Nothing intimidated Francoise, she was comfortable speaking with grown-ups, ordered about the servants and already showed a certain fussiness in her choice of clothes. Her Hector did not dare to speak. He was shy and withdrawn with strangers. His unhappiness already showed in his eyes. Yet both children were of the same generation. They spoke the same language, but would they be able to understand each other? Carmen did not think this jealously. No, she would like Hector to be ‘well brought up’, but how could that possibly be? Society and human nature would have to change.

That morning she had been very tempted to stay home from work. All night long the poor little fellow had cried. He complained of a stomach-ache. He had diarrhoea and vomited at least three times. The child was clearly in pain. His breathing was laboured. His forehead covered with sweat. She was very frightened and thought of the two children she had already lost. She even panicked. The dispensary was closed at night, at the hospital she was not received, and a visit to a private doctor cost money. Finally, at dawn, the child fell asleep and she had to go to work. She had to walk two hours from Makélékélé to Mipla. Her mistress wanted her to be there before 7:30. She thought of taking the child along but she had done that once, and Madam had made it plain that she was not being paid to care for her own son but for Francoise, and had threatened her with dismissal. So she entrusted the child to his grandmother, and went to work.

At noon she got a message from the grandmother with the medicine the doctor had prescribed. Now she had to buy it. Where to get the money?

When Francoise was finally asleep, Carmen remained in the kitchen waiting for Madam to finish her game of bridge. It was late when she came into the kitchen and asked:

– Haven’t you left yet, Carmen?
– Madam…, I…, I need some money…
– Again! But I paid you only ten days ago.
– My son is sick. He needs medicine.
– Listen to that, just listen to that! So I am now the public welfare fund. If you can’t afford children, why do you have them?
– Madam, the white people…
– So your child is sick? Well, it’s because you don’t listen to me. I’ve told you again and again that you must feed him properly.
– Only for this once…
– I don’t have any cash at home this evening. When will you natives understand that money doesn’t grow on trees? When will you learn to put money aside and save?

She gave Carmen some aspirin and promised her 500 francs the following day. So finally black Carmen left. She wanted to run, she felt so strongly that Hector needed her. But after not having slept the whole night, and eating nothing but a slice of manioc for lunch, she could not run. Cars passed by in the poorly lit streets. No one stopped to give her a lift. Tomorrow she would get the money and buy the medicine for Hector.

As she approached her house, the cry of women’s voices raised in the night reached her:

Mwana mounou mê kouenda hé!
Hector hé,
Mwana mounou mê kouenda hé!

Oh, my son has gone away!
Oh, my Hector,
Oh, my son has gone away!

She understood that it was too late for the medicine.

You tell me

You often tell me: “Pray for me, I have an exam coming up next Wednesday”, “pray for me to get the job”, “pray for me to make the right choice”, “pray for me, I’ll be operated next week”, “pray for me, it’s my birthday today”.

I always pray. And I do it my way. Jains and Buddhists have the custom to pray daily for all living beings, which I share:

“I bow to all living beings,
I share my energy with all living beings,
I receive the blessings of all living beings.”

All living beings come into that prayer, and so my prayer is cosmic, universal, ecumenical; but they come according to their nearness to me. Those closer to me in space and affection, those whom I know and who know me, those who tell me, those who form part of my life and my history and my dreams receive, naturally, more vibrations, and that gives sense to saying “pray for me” and answering “I pray for you”.

Saying in a letter – or an email – “I pray for you” is a gentle and sensitive way of saying “I love you”; and saying “pray for me” means “don’t forget me”.

Hadn’t you realised it? I pray for you.

Psalm

Psalm 116 – A short prayer

This is a great psalm with a long lesson to it. Because it is the shortest psalm. And, for it all, it has the strength and the beauty of the longest of all. It fits in with Jesus’s words: “In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them, for your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him.” (Matthew 6,7) That’s why the commentary should not be long either.

Prayers need not be long, and if I truly feel what I pray, the intensity of the feeling makes up with advantage for the length and the time of the recitation.

I put in my prayer a word of divine praise, the conscience of the group, and the universality of humankind, my faith in God’s love, and his faithfulness to his promise of salvation… and a perfect prayer is made.

“Praise the Lord, all nations,
extol him, all you peoples;
for his love protecting us is strong,
the Lord’s constancy is everlasting.”

1st
I tell you

The dove

From the several anecdotes I’ve heard about the new Pope, I choose the following. Bishop Casaldáliga was summoned to Rome by the then Cardinal Ratzinger to give explanations for some of his attitudes and expressions. The bishop went, explained, and added: “The dove has two wings. At this moment I am its left wing, and you are its right wing. In order to fly, the dove needs both wings.” We are all part of the dove. Even if only as a small feather.

The sugarcane dried up

Kalapi, prince and poet in rural India, sang love and beauty and royalty with unfailing art. One of his poems has stayed in my memory ever since I learned it when studying the Gujarati language. It has some relevance for taxpayers today.

The king had gone hunting. He rode incognito. He galloped, followed the game, shot, failed, brought down deer and boar. He was tired and dusty at the end of the day, saw the house of a humble peasant near his fields, and made for it in search of a shadow and a respite. He came down from his horse, knocked, entered the house.

The hospitality of the poor found its feast. The woman of the house made him sit in the shadow, went to the fields where sugarcane grew green and tall, cut with a clear blow the best cane and took in a glass the golden virgin juice which she offered her guest under its white foam. She didn’t know he was the king, but every guest was a king for the humble villagers.

The king drank. Never, in all his banquets at his palace, had he tasted such a delicious drink. His mouth filled up, his palate rejoiced, his whole body welcomed the gift of nature straight from its source. Slowly, deliberately, solemnly he drank the juice and he yielded to its sweetness. The king was happy.

But then a thought was shaped in the king’s mind. How rich these fields are! And how rich their owners! They look like poor people, but here they have a treasure. And yet I know they pay very low taxes. I know what I’ll do. When I get back to my palace, I’ll call the royal tax collector and will order him to double the taxes these people pay.

While the king was turning these thoughts in his mind, he had finished the glass, and the woman asked him whether he wanted another. He said yes. The woman, knife in hand, went to the field and cut the next cane. But nothing came out. She was astonished. She cut another cane, and not a drop. Again and again. Then the woman sighed and said: “Surely the king has lost his mercy, since the sugarcane has lost its juice.”

There was no other explanation. The king had turned merciless, and as his heart had dried up in his palace, so the sugarcane also had dried up in his fields.

The king was shocked. The woman did not know he was the king. He had not expressed his thoughts. But in some way his hidden decision had affected the fields around. Thought is part of nature, and waves act on fields. The woman sensed it without knowing it. The king confessed. The woman cut another cane. The juice flew in plenty.

The poet and prince wrote his most popular poem.

Another Indian poet

“A butterfly has been sitting on top of the blue shade over the electric lamp for the last few days. It sits quietly on the shade as long as I study at that table. It has been my sole companion in the evenings since my wife Asha’s death.

My friend Someshwar enters. He drops in quite frequently these days. I am petrified to see him as he can sense the weakness I nurture of late about his sister Bela. I have fallen into an awkward situation. But Someshwar starts off with the discussion straight away.

I keep mum. He starts: ‘Take some decision, brother, whatever it may be. In the end you will remarry, everyone does so; but if you marry Bela, I shall be relieved. Bela loves you too.’

Everything he said was right – still I kept quiet. When Asha was alive I had told her that I would never marry again – now I realise that I have to marry and have to marry Bela only, but by no means can I overcome this indecision.

‘Why are you keeping silent? If you are not agreeable I will not pressurise you. But tell me that frankly. Then I can try out with Dwijen. Of course, if you agree then I shall not go anywhere else. From Dwijen’s attitude I feel he won’t object…’

That bristly moustached Dwijen will marry Bela! I said:

– There is no need to go to Dwijen. I shall marry her. But give me some time.
– I don’t mind waiting if you promise.
– Well…
– Are you really giving your word?
– Yes, I am.
– Fine. Then I will go and give the good news to Bela.

Someshwar left. What happened after this was really unbelievable. Suddenly someone in Asha’s voice spoke: ‘Then my responsibility is over; I am leaving too!’

The butterfly flew out through the window.”

Banaphool, Neem Tree, p. 20]

Interior liberation

“When talking about the essence of Zen I’m reminded of an old story about a king who wanted the wisest man among his subjects to be his prime minister. When the search finally was narrowed to three men, the king put them to a supreme test: he placed them in a room in his palace and installed an ingenious lock in the door. The candidates were told that the first person to open the door would be appointed prime minister. So two of them started to work out complicated mathematical formulas to discover the proper lock combination. But the third man just sat in his chair for a time – and then, without bothering to put pen to paper, he got up, walked to the door, and turned the knob – and the door opened. It had been unlocked the whole time.

What is the point of that story? The prison cell we live and whose walls we are frantically redecorationg, is not a prison cell. In fact the door has never been locked. There is no lock. We don’t need to sit in our cells and struggle for freedom by frantically trying to change ourselves – because we are already free.”

Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen, p. 146]

Piano lesson

“Many years ago I was a piano major at Oberlin Conservatory. I was a very good student; not outstanding, but very good. And I very much wanted to study with one teacher who was undoubtedly the best. He’d take the ordinary students and turn them into fabulous pianists. Finally I got my chance to study with the great teacher.

When I went in for my lesson I found that he taught with two pianos. He didn’t even say hello. He just sat down at his piano and played five notes, and then he said, “You do it”. I was supposed to play it just the way he played it. I played it – and he said, “No”. He played it again, and I played it again. Again he said, “No.” Well, we had an hour of that. And each time he said, “No.”

In the next three months I played about three measures, perhaps half a minute of music. Now I had thought I was pretty good: I’d played soloist with little symphony orchestras. Yet we did this for three months, and I cried most of those three months. He had all the marks of a real teacher, that tremendous drive and determination to make the student see. That’s why he was so good. And at the end of three months, one day, he said, “Good.” What had happened? Finally, I had learned to listen. And as he said, if you can hear it, you can play it.

What had happened in those three months? I had the same set of ears I started with; nothing had happened to my ears. What I was playing was not technically difficult. What had happened was that I had learned to listen for the first time… and I’d been playing the piano for many years. I learned to pay attention. That was why he was such a great teacher: he taught his students to pay attention. After working with him they really heard, they really listened. When you can hear it, you can play it. And finished, beautiful pianists would finally come out of his studio.”

Ib. p. 9]

You tell me

Someone has told me he went to the psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist recommended him to learn a book of mine to help the treatment. Now you know it. We all are a little weak on top. I am no psychiatrist but I love life and I tray to share that love with all around me. That is all.

Psalm

Psalm 115 – Renewal of vows

“I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.”
I am happy, Lord, I took my vows. I am happy of the day in my youth when, with open generosity and blissful enthusiasm, I publicly consecrated my life to you in poverty, chastity, and obedience. I am proud of that moment and look back on it as a new birth in your service and in the service of humankind for your sake. I am glad I took my vows, and I want to renew them today, in thanksgiving for that day and in the clear determination that if I had not taken them then I would take them now. Accept again the consecration of my life, Lord, as you accepted it that day, and keep in me the joy this consecration has given me.

I know now more about poverty, chastity, and obedience than on the first day I pronounced those three words aloud and together in the presence of my brothers and on my knees before your altar. I have measured with my own failings the depth of my commitment, and I have learned with my mistakes the practical meaning of the lofty ideal.

Even today I have doubts at times, I am questioned by others and I don’t know how to answer, I hear about new interpretations and more meaningful approaches, and sometimes I fail to recognise my original notions under the new vocabulary. But I know well what I mean, what those three sacred words mean in my life and in my history, as in the history and tradition of the People of God whose portion and representatives and servants we are. I am committed to you, mind, body and soul, for the glory of your name and the service of all men and women. That is the strong and clear conviction of my heart. Now I ask for your grace to make that conviction my daily conduct, and to translate my verbal commitment into actual practice.

This is the meaning of my renewal of vows. It is not only a yearly custom but a daily privilege. I like to pronounce those three words again together, in the silence of my soul before you, and in the company of my brothers when we all renew our bonds by pledging our life. And with those words goes a prayer that the spirit those vows represent may become stronger and stronger in my life and in the group, that my commitment and my service may grow into wisdom and joy as my years increase and my initial consecration takes on new meanings without ever forgetting the old.

“I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the Lord’s house,
in the midst of you, Jerusalem.”

 

15th
I tell you

Baptism and Income Tax

I’ve baptised a baby. His parents had him called Xavier. I like the name, and I said it at the baptism. I studied at St Xavier’s College, Tudela (Spain) and taught at St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad (India). I visited the original Castle of Xavier with its ramparts, its towers, its moat, its crenellated walls. And, particularly, with its Smiling Christ.

That Crucifix is the wonder of the place. It is a twelve-century life-size carving of Christ on the Cross, with delicate features and sensitive art; a Christ who, in the midst of all his sufferings and agony, smiles with a genuine smile that conquers pain and death. The Smiling Christ. Symbol of what our life should be: a smile in the midst of all the trials it brings, and a help to do so with the example of one who suffered more than us all and found peace on the cross. I said all that in the short homily I was called to give.

Then I added something else. I said: “I’m going to allow myself to mention a bit of information which has not much to do with this holy place and this sacred rite, but which may have something to do with this new-born baby. I know very little about economics, and there are several people here who know much more than I do about it, but I’m going to quote a figure I’ve recently come across, which can be rather significant. The American Bureau of the Budget has calculated that for an American infant born at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the tax requirement to pay for existing programmes will be 82 percent of his lifetime earnings, which is obviously unsupportable. And it adds that the situation in Europe is even worse. This shows us that this dear baby is going to have a rather difficult time in his life, and will need all the support, the care and the tenderness we, who love him, can offer him.”

The whole congregation smiled. The baby started crying.

Xavier, I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Gandhi’s pencil

“One of Gandhi’s associates, Kaka Kalelkar, has noted that at an annual session in Bombay of the Indian National Congress, the preeminent body of nationalist opinion, he found Gandhi frantically searching for something one evening. When his inquiry revealed that it was no more than a pencil, he offered Gandhi his own pencil and pleaded with him not to waste his time. But Gandhi insisted that he could not have any other pencil, and added: ‘You don’t understand. I simply must not lose that little pencil! Do you know it was given to me in Madras by Natesan’s little boy? He brought it for me with such love! I cannot bear to lose it.’

Another one of Gandhi’s associates, Jehangir Patel, tells us, to evoke a yet more complex pencil story that one morning he found Gandhi examining the tiny stub of a pencil which had been put ready for his use. Gandhi commented that whoever had sharpened the pencil was very angry. ‘See how roughly and irregularly the wood has been scored and cut.’ Jehangir replied that he didn’t find much wrong with it, but if Gandhi was so particular about this matter, he could perhaps make an inquiry. At breakfast, Gandhi looked around the table, and as soon as his eyes fell on Manu, he asked her: ‘Manu, you sharpened my pencil this morning, didn’t you, and were feeling angry when you did it?’ ‘Yes, I was’, she replied. ‘Well’, said Gandhi, ‘please don’t sharpen my pencil while you are angry, it distresses me.’

Vibrations. Gandhi’s sensitivity noticed the anger, and his look detected the culprit. A man of peace senses violence.”
(Vinay Lal, Hinduism and Ecology, p. 192)

The power of a pair of sandals

C. Rajagopalachari was the first Indian General Governor in India after the last British one, Lord Mountbatten, and wielded a great influence over the whole of India through his wisdom, his writings, and the anecdotes of his life.

Rajaji (as he was commonly called) bought his own sandals from a cobbler called Veeran. Once the cobbler’s wife came to Rajaji to complain that her husband would get drunk and then would beat her. Rajaji called the man, but he stoutly denied both charges and swore by all the gods that they were false. Acting on a brainwave, Rajaji took off his sandals, placed them before the cobbler and asked him:

– You made these sandals, didn’t you?
– Yes, I made them.
– Then extend now your hand over them and swear on them that you have not got drunk and have not beaten your wife.

His defences broken, the cobbler fell at Rajaji’s feet, owned up and vowed never again to touch liquor. Not did he, as long as he lived. Veeran was given charge of the ashram’s footware unit.

When the police arrested Rajaji during the freedom struggle days and sent him to jail, he took with him four books: The Mahabharata, the Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, and the writings of Plato. Remarkable in his discipline, he washed his own clothes till he was ninety. When he died at 94, the doctor bent over him and asked him how he felt. Rajaji replied, “I am very happy.” These were his last words.

Another case of conscience

Once a bright student in my mathematics class at College showed me a geometrical construction of the transcendental number pi (3.14159…) he had found out for himself. It is well-known that pi, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle, cannot be expressed as the root of an equation with rational or even irrational coefficients. That’s why mathematicians in all ages have excogitated geometrical constructions that cleverly approximate the value of pi. The student’s construction was a very ingenuous one, surely beyond the capacity of an ordinary student, but he swore it was original. I showed it to the editor of our mathematics magazine in Gujarati Suganitam, to which I was a regular contributor, and as he also liked it we decided to publish it in our next number under the student’s name.

A few days later, while I was reading the last issue of the Mathematical Gazette, I found there the construction in question. Even the figure and the letters on it were the same. It was obvious that our student had read the magazine before me and had copied everything from there. I confronted him with the evidence, but he denied it. He insisted that his construction was original and declared that he had never read the magazine. Still, the evidence was such that in our next issue of Suganitam we just mentioned the information obtained.

Years passed by, and this good young man emigrated to America to continue his studies there. A few days after his arrival in New York he wrote to me a letter just to confess that he had in fact copied his construction of pi from that issue of the Mathematical Gazette years before. What goes on in the heart of the emigrant?

By the way, the Bible gives the value of pi as 3. (1 Kings 2, 23) Infallible approximation.

Forever

“We never grow by dreaming about a future wonderful state or by remembering past feats. We grow by being where we are and experiencing what our life is right now. We must experience our anger, our sorrow, our failure, our apprehension; they can all be our teachers, when we do not separate ourselves from them. When we escape from what is given, we cannot learn, we cannot grow. That’s not hard to understand, just hard to do. Those who persist, however, will be those who will grow in understanding and compassion.

How long is such practice required? Forever.”

[Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen, p. 132]

The Neem Tree

“Some people skin the bark and boil it.
Some tear off the leaves and crush them on a grindstone.
Some fry them in boiling oil.
They apply it to scabies, itches, and chilblains.
It is an unfailing medicine for skin diseases.
Many eat the tender leaves too. Just raw… or fried with brinjal.
It is very beneficial for the liver.
Many people split the young stems and chew them. Keeps teeth healthy.
The Ayurved experts are effusive in its praise.
The wise people are pleased if it grows near their house.
They say the Neem breeze is for health.

One day a new type of person arrives. He keeps on gazing at the Neem tree fascinated. He does not flay the bark, nor does he tear the leaves, or break the stems. He keeps on staring at the Neem tree with amazement. How beautiful the leaves are; how lovely are the flower bunches. They are like a shower of stars that have come down from the blue sky to the green below.

He gazes at the tree for some time, and leaves. He is not an expert in Ayurved.

He is simply a poet.”

[Banaphool, The Neem Tree, p. 1]

You tell me

I’ve been told an amusing family story. A young girl has beautiful hair, silky, shining, reaching down to her waist. Her pride and the whole family’s pride. But adolescence brings with itself friction, quarrels with parents, personality crisis, the urge to be different, the need to rebel. One day the girl goes to the hair-dresser, has her cascade of hair cut right from her ears down, and comes home in a defiant mood to enjoy the impact of her declaration of independence.

He mother sees her and tells her: “A good idea, my daughter. This hair style suits you better. Congratulations.” And turning towards the father asks him: “What do you think?” The father looks at the girl absentmindedly and answers: “I haven’t noticed anything.” The girl collapses.

I don’t know whether the story is true, but in any case it does show some fine points of family life. Those concerned can think them out. I do enjoy such stories and am grateful for them.

Psalm

Psalm 118 – A Young Person’s Prayer

“How shall a young man steer an honest course?
By holding to your word.”
Your word. This is a long meditation – as young persons are generous with their life and with their time – on the Law. To bring out its different aspects, different words are used for it in the drawn out study: law, statutes, commands, ordinances, decrees, precepts, promises, word. They are woven together in acrostic stanzas along the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with the loving repetition of a young scholar who wants to master the mystery and the practice of the divine Law.

“Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes.
I say them over, one by one,
the decrees that you have proclaimed.
I have found more joy along the path of your instruction
than in any kind of wealth.
I will meditate on your precepts
and keep your paths ever before my eyes.
In your statutes I find continual delight;
I will not forget your word.”
Your divine will, Lord, is the law of my life. I want to know it, to accept it, to practice it day by day and hour by hour. I want to understand the depth of your designs and rejoice in the execution of your desires.

“O how I love your law!
It is my study all day long.”
And all life long. The study that never ends because your law is your will, and your will is yourself, divine essence and infinite being. The study that is contemplation and worship in faith and in love. The study that brings wisdom and joy to the young person who makes it the love of their youth. Gives even courage and optimism to the young to place themselves before their teachers and their elders:

“I have more insight than all my teachers,
for your instruction is my study;
I have more wisdom that the old,
because I have kept your precepts.
Teach me, Lord. To see your will in the laws of nature and in the accidents of life, in the regulations that govern peoples and in the events that befall humans, in the orders from authority and in the promptings of my heart. Your will is all that happens, because you are in all things and your dominion is supreme. To see you in all things and your will in all events is the way to wisdom and happiness and peace. Let me learn that one lesson in the leisurely meditation of the depths o your law.

“Let my cry of joy reach you, O Lord;
give me understanding of your word.
Let your praise pour from my lips,
because you teach me your statutes;
let the music of your promises be on my tongue,
for your commandments are justice itself.
Your law is my continual delight.”
Let your Law be truly my continual delight, Lord.

1st
I tell you

I exist by default

The expression hurt me. “I exist by default.” A young man told me that. When you are given a form with several options to choose from, you can leave the entry blank and the first option comes automatically by default. You don’t do anything. No choice, no decision, no commitment. “I exist by default.”

It’s true that we don’t choose to be born. But once we’re here, we accept the fact, we welcome it, we rejoice at it. We’re lucky to be alive, to be human beings, to be.

To find a meaning to life is the only way to live it. There is no walking without a direction, no strength without an aim, no zest without an ideal.

Sigfried Sassoon in his “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” tells how, faced with the absurdity of the situation in World War I, as in all wars ever, the soldiers in the trenches sang between bomb and bomb a ditty they had themselves composed:

“We’re here because we’re here,
because we’re here because we’re here.
We’re here because we’re here,
because we’re here because we’re here.”

A touch of humour before the unbearable situation. War has no meaning. That holds true for war, but not for life. We’re here because Somebody has placed us here so that we may live and grow and be joyful and love one another. We’re here to welcome every new day, to wonder at each dawn, to take every chance, to grow with every trial. We’re here to live fully the life that has been given us, to share it with all, to treasure it in our hearts, to feel grateful for it, to make it bear fruit in joy and love. I exist with gratitude, with joy, with enthusiasm.

I told this to the young man. He smiled wanly. I hope he’ll think about it.

Timetable

“Which is the first thing you do in the morning? To open the window? To turn in your bed and snuggle against your partner? To hug the pillow? To jump out of bed and start pull-ups to get your blood flowing? No. The first thing you, and everyone like you in the world, does is to check the time. From its place on the bedside table, the watch rules our day, tells us where we are at each moment and how we are to react accordingly. If it’s still early, I close my eyes and try to go to sleep again. If it’s late, I get out of bed and rush for the bathroom.

From that first moment of our waking day, it’s the clock that rules. From one appointment to another, from one item in our timetable to another. Each moment forms part of a programme, and wherever we look, on the bedside tale, in the coffee shop near our office, on the lower right-hand corner of our computer’s screen, on our own wrist, the watch keeps ticking, counting our steps and keeping us always conscious of its presence. We can’t be late.”
(Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slow, p. 25)

The same author quotes Plautus, the Roman playwright of 200 B.C., who said: “May the gods confound the first man who invented the way to distinguish the hours, and may them curse also the man who placed here that sundial to cut our day into small pieces! I cannot even sit down to eat till the sun sets. The whole city is full with those accursed clocks…”. (p. 44)

Plautus had at least the relief that after sunset all sundials ceased to work, and he could rest peaceful at night.

Free time

“In Sokoyi, during question time with Suzuki Roshi, a young man asked him: ‘What should a Zen student to in their free time?’ Suzuki looked at him in amazement and repeated ‘Free time? Free time?’ He then burst into loud laughter.”
[Did he say that because a Zen practitioner never has free time, or because they always are in their free time?]
(Shunryu Suzuki, To Shine One Corner of the World, p. 24)

“Often, when he spoke, Suzuki Roshi would look around and ask: ‘Do you understand?’ I remember once he added: ‘If you think you’ve understood, you haven’t’.”
(p. 121)

Doing nothing

Years ago I knew in Mumbai Fr. Henry Heras, who was well-known in India for his historical and archaeological studies. Today I’ve come across this letter he wrote to a student of his shortly before his own death by cancer of the liver:

“You want to know what I am doing. I am doing what I have never done in my life, i.e. nothing. Contemplating the beautiful scenery of the mountains in Kodaikanal from the infirmary room of this marvellous SacredHeartCollege, saying a late mass whenever I can, nourishing myself with light food and meditating on Christ. He has sent me this illness in order to make me more like Himself and so to have a greater joy with Him in heaven. There is no question of going for walks; ten or twelve steps are for me good enough to be terribly exhausted. Maybe if you send me those Swiss chocolates I like so much I may be able to recover my old strength and go for walks again.”

Reader of clouds

“Back in the thirties in the twentieth century there lived in Damascus a humble Jewish cobbler who was sent to jail on account of a crime he had not committed. His name was Haim Anan, and he knew the Psalms and the Canticle of Canticles by heart, and used to recite them in the Synagogue as his voice was mellow and strong. He was thrown into prison without any judgement or even questioning, and from there he was taken to a labour camp outside the city.

Haim Anan asked for a book of prayers in Hebrew and paper and pencil to write, but nothing was granted him. Whenever he insisted that he was innocent, he was given the sarcastic answer: ‘Read the clouds, read the air. Just look at the bars on your window as vertical bars for a narrow page. You’ll never come out of here.’

At dawn, be it summer or winter, he was taken out with other convicts to the quarry. The explosions soon broke his eardrums. The day he forgot about himself, about where he was and why, that same day the clouds began to acquire shape before his eyes, and they formed letters, biblical landscapes, faces of legendary characters like Samson, Debora or Bathseva against the blue background that made them and dissolved them. It was enough for him to lift his eyes to the sky between blows in order to read in the travelling clouds messages of supreme happiness in eternal life.

His eyes were those of a mystic absorbed in the reading of the clouds, and they won for him everybody’s respect till he was liberated and returned to his cobbler’s workshop. We would say: ‘The Creator writes with clouds the messages of his love which the wind then scatters away and the rain brings down to earth. Half my life I’ve been cobbler, and half my life reader of clouds, and by walking steadfastly on earth I’ve been able to keep my head in the clouds. Blessed be God, who draws sunrises, blows breezes, creates clouds’.” (Mario Satz, Historias de la Kábala, p. 215)

The good king

Vishwajit was a virtuous and pious king, a shining example of love to the neighbour. He was taken to hell for a little while after his death on account of some minor fault he had committed during his life.

When Yama, god of death and hell, considered the king had already carried out his sentence, he went to take him out of that sombre place of punishment. But, once Vishwajit reached the door, all the other damned stopped him and entreated him to stay with them some time more, as his presence, his kindness and his love softened the torments the others had to suffer.

Vishwajit then stated that a man could not be happier in heaven or in Brahma’s own paradise than he was so long as he could mitigate the sufferings of others, and he refused to leave hell so that its inmates could find solace in his presence among them.

He then asked that, through his own merits, the condemned in hell would be liberated. Yama agreed, and so, when Vishwajit ascended to heaven, all his companions in hell went there with him.”
(Enrique Gallud Jardiel, Cuentos mitológicos de la India, p. 233)

You tell me

I’ve been told some mathematical jokes. I hope they make my colleagues smile.

What did the curve tell the asymptote?
Don’t touch me, please!

What is a complex child?
The son of a real mother and an imaginary father.

Do you like polynomials?
Well, up to a degree.

In a feast for mathematical functions one could see algebraic functions, trigonometric functions, complex variable functions, and even the exponential function, e raised to x, which was sitting alone in a corner. They asked her: “Why you do not integrate yourself?” She answered shrugging her shoulders: “It’s just the same to me!” [Remember the integral of e raised to x?]

Some have inquired about the Biblical value of pi mentioned in my last page. The quotation is in 1 Kings 7:23: “He made the Sea of cast metal; it was round in shape, the diameter from rim to rim being ten cubits; and it took a line thirty cubits long to go round it.” Now, 30 by 10 is 3. Biblical geometry.

Psalm

Psalm 119 – The emigrant’s prayer

“Hard is my lot, exiled in Meshech,
dwelling by the tents of Kedar!”
Strange names, Meshech and Kedar. Strange lands for the emigrant who loves their home and is forced to dwell in far-off places with people they don’t know and a language they don’t understand. The problem of our century, the crisis of our civilisation. The exile, the expatriate, the refugee. The immigrant. Whole groups of men and women uprooted from their land, in search of work, of justice, of life. Scars of our times on the face of humanity.

I pray for all those who have emigrated far from their homes, their friends and their families, their lands. For all those who have had to build a new home away from their true home and live in a culture alien to their own culture. For all those who come from one country while their children are born in another, who live in their own families the strain of uniting two traditions in one home. For all those who dream of a promised land while camping in the desert.

I pray for all emigrants on earth that they may preserve their roots while they give forth new flowers; that they may find friendship and give love; that their neighbours may become their brothers, and their wanderings may remind humankind that we are all one. I pray that they may not see themselves any more as emigrants, but may make themselves at home in mind and in body, and prosper where they are with the warmth of their hope and the strength of their faith.

As I pray for them I realise I am praying for myself, too. I, too, am an emigrant. I, too, live in Meshech and Kedar, away from home among people who do not speak my language. The language of the spirit is an unknown language over here. The society where I live speaks the language of money, of success, of power, of violence. I don’t understand that language, and I feel lost in my own world. I long for other landscapes and other fields. I know I am on my way, and I feel the complex of the exile and the impatience of the pilgrim.

I want for me now the synthesis I have desired for others. I want to keep my roots and give new flowers; to treasure my own culture while I assimilate those of others; to love my home and love my exile too, showing in my active resignation the hope that can convert the desert into a garden and earth into heaven.

I am an emigrant today to be a citizen of heaven for ever.

 

15th
I tell you

For your own good

It was beginning to rain and the father of the child who was lovingly pushing the pram along the busy street hurried to unfold the transparent plastic covering that would fit into the slots around the edge of the carriage and would protect the child from the falling rain. But the child was of a different opinion. He put out his legs and he kicked and pushed and struggled and pulled till he got the whole covering out of its moorings and shook himself free.

The father patiently put up again the whole tent against the increasing rain, but the child got rid of it with a sure kick, with a new attempt by the father and a new rejection by the child. The father declared: “I do it for your own good. You’re going to catch a cold. When you grow up you’ll understand.” But the child had another concept of what was good for him and settled for the rain. He’ll learn when he grows up.

I, in all humility, resolved in my mind never to tell anyone that whatever it was I was doing for them was for their own good. Maybe they prefer the rain. Or they prefer to catch a cold. When they grow up they’ll understand.

A good ear

Once, when going to the seashore to look at the waves, Suzuki Roshi said: “If you pay attention you can hear the changing of the tide.”

(David Chadwick, To Shine One Corner of the World, p. 101)

“The man who saved my soul”
[The British humorist Tony Hendra tells how when he was young he used to go to the house of his uncle Ben who would teach him Christian doctrine with great zeal.]“Ben had placed good and evil at the centre of my own conscience with an old Catholic tactic: fear. Or, as we postmodern people prefer to call it: guilt complex. I was never convinced by Uncle Ben’s doctrinal arguments, but I acquired an impressive load of Catholic guilt that would last me for life.”

[Then Ben’s wife tempts Tony, and when they are having sex together for the first time, Ben walks in.]

“He ordered me to say the rosary repeating fifty times that I was a sinner and I needed a divine intervention now and in the hour of my death. Ben accelerated till the last Glory Be, and sat down again: “We have to take this matter to a priest. And not any priest. There is a Benedictine monk in the south of England who knows how to handle these cases. Father Joseph Warrilow in Quarr Abbey in the Island of Wight.”

Father Joe was quite an institution, and his aspect was an Old Testament apparition. First his sandals. They were huge and they stuck out of the old, battered cassock at an angle of sixty degrees. His thick, black socks could not hide the flattest feet one could imagine. His hands, large, knotty and red like two rock lobsters, stuck out of black, frayed sleeves, and a fleshless neck rose up through the black habit with an enormous Adam’s apple in its midst.

A fleshy, triangular nose held in place his ancient shell spectacles. And then the crown of glory: A pair of gigantic ears with the cartilage of their wings, and a pointed skull with a close crop. His round lips stretched in a peaceful smile. Father Joe was the closest figure you could find to a character out of the comics.

I told him all. He seemed bored with my story. Unavoidably we came to the point I feared most, the point of no return, the shameful finale. To my surprise, the narrative did not elicit any special reaction. He kept on moving his lips, keeping his eyes closed. He didn’t wink any faster. Nothing seemed to deserve the shock and the horror I had anticipated.

– You haven’t done anything particularly evil, Tony. God’s love has brought you here before you could do something really wrong. The only sin you have committed is one of selfishness.

He muttered the words of absolution and made a small sign of the cross with his big thumb on my forehead.

– No penance. I think you’ve had enough of it, isn’t it?

He smiled conspiratorially at me. How did he know?

– We’ll meet again and we’ll talk and talk. May God bless you, dear friend.

Again an embrace, the whirlwind of his cassock, the creaking of his supersandals on the linoleum. Then silence, peace.

[Tony and Father Joe keep meeting. Tony first becomes pious, then loses his faith. Father Joe deals with him always in the same way. Tony contemplates suicide. “Not long before, my mother had told me that my paternal grandfather had committed suicide. I was horrified, as that meant my father’s father was in hell. Suddenly I understood. Suicide would be my damnation. But, anyhow, if I was already damned through my lack of faith, what difference would it make?” Father Joe’s patience brings him again closer to God. “Father Joe never grew tired of telling me we had to eradicate the fear of God from religion.” Tony goes to confession with Father Joe after many years.]

– How long since your last confession?
– Twenty-eight years.
– What would you like to confess?
– I’ve often got drunk, I’ve taken drugs, I’ve made love to many women, shall I tell the details?
– No. Have you hurt anybody? Have you stolen something valuable? Have you committed any crime?
– I’m unable to love.
– Dear Tony, you’ll be able to love only when you realise how much you are loved.

He murmured the words of absolution. I closed my eyes while he made the sign of the cross with his thumb on my forehead, thus bringing me back to that fourteen-year old boy on that same chair, in that same room, being absolved of the same sins by the same man with the same cross with the same thumb. I remained seated a long time feeling his peace flow to me along all those years.”

Father Joe dies. Tony attends his funeral, and then sees the large amount of people of all ages that had come to thank that man who had understood, loved, helped all. He titles his book: “Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul.”]

The view from the top

“The workman toils the whole day at his job in the huge factory where all kinds of machines for human use are designed, manufactured, assembled, packed, sent. There are many workmen in the workshop, and each one specialises in a concrete job which he knows and carries out to perfection. Then the several parts each one manufactures are put together till the final product emerges and is sent out to brighten and ease the lives of countless men and women in countries far and near.

The workman bends over his tools. He is manufacturing screws of a particular length and an exact width, and he carries out his job with absolute care and minute precision. Total concentration and technical skill. Screw after screw come out with the exact measurements and in the required quantity. The work goes on.

The day is long and the work is monotonous. The heat brings out perspiration, the grease sticks to the skin, the noise of the factory deafens the ears, the mechanical routine deadens the mind. But screw by screw the daily quota is duly completed.

The danger for the workman is that, working the whole day in the midst of machines, he too may become a machine. He does well what he does, but he has no idea what is the use of it, what is the importance of his work, what his screws are for. He just works mechanically day by day without vision, without aim, without zest.

Do one thing, please, dear workman in the workshop of the world. Do well your job, by all means, sharpen your tools, measure your cuts, verify each step. Work all the hours you have to work and produce all the screws you have to produce. But if you want to escape becoming a machine in the midst of machines, do one thing, please. When you finish your work, when the factory closes, when the day’s task is over, do one thing, please. Put aside your work clothes with all their stains and sweat, take a bath that may bring freshness to your body, put on clean clothes, comb your hear, lift up your face, and then, please, just do one thing.

Go to the upper story in the factory building. To the story with offices and phones and tables and files, the story where the lights are on even after you’ve closed your workshop, where engineers and secretaries work, where the boss sits in his own office from where he directs everything. Go and meet the boss. Find his office, knock at the door, enter without fear. Greet him respectfully, tell him who you are, ask leave to sit down and ask him one question. Tell your boss: ‘Sir, I’m a worker here in your factory, I’m here since many years, I do my job well, I’m satisfied with it and my overseers are satisfied with me. I manufacture screws according to specifications and in the required number. I’m proud of my work and of our firm. But I have one question to ask you. Could you tell me one thing? Could you tell me what the use of those screws I manufacture is? What are they meant for, where do they fit in, which machines or utensils they help to build? And where do those products go, who uses them, how do they help people to carry out their work and improve their lives? Tell me all that, please. Explain to me the plans of our factory, its workings, its channels of distribution, its exports, and so I’ll feel better when I know that my screws have a purpose, that they are a part of a large plan, that they have a meaning, that they are worthwhile.’

Life is a factory. We spend our lives manufacturing screws. We get bored, we become robots, we complain that all this has no meaning. We lose our first energies, we lose our enthusiasm, we lose life. Who is going to feel great about manufacturing screws! Our minds are in danger of becoming mechanical, and our lives in danger of being stifled. But the remedy is at hand. We have only to clean up, to wash, to dress up, and then go upstairs to meet the boss. In order to come alive, to be human, to be ourselves, we have to meet the boss. He will give us the vision, the perspective, the meaning of life. And then we can go back joyfully to our work as we know its secret and we are proud of our firm. We are building up the world.”

Rabindranath Tagore, Santiniketan)

Zen riddle

– Master, what is the first lesson in Zen?
– XYZ.
– And the last lesson?
– ABC.
– Thank you, Master.

You tell me

You’ve sent me the results of a survey made by the BBVA Bank Foundation among three thousand Spanish university students, with emphasis on its chapter about the trust they place in institutions. The last in their list, that is, the institution they trust and appreciate least is the Catholic Church. The comment is that the Church lost the intellectuals in the XIX century, the workers in the XX, and now is on the way to losing the young people in the XXI. The Church seems irrelevant to them. She has no authority, no reliability, no credibility. She does not shape criteria or fix values. She is just not taken into account. The bishop emeritus of Valencia, Rafael Sanus Abad, writes in the Vida Nueva magazine: “We are overtaken by a tide of religious indifference that is sweeping over all people and all things. For millions of Spaniards who call themselves Catholics in the census, God means nothing in their lives, he is just absent from them.”

Young men and women listen to their singers and look up to their cinema stars. In the Davos Forum this year, next to economists, capitalists and politicians, stood cinema actors and actresses, sports people and rock singers. A song like “Give peace a chance” of the Beatles or “Blowing in the wind” of Bob Dylan reaches more people than an encyclical from Rome. The film Hotel Rwanda, according to its director Don Cheadle, “can be transcendental in its social impact to make people more conscious of what is happening in the world. Unless people get involved and raise their voices before the authorities, these things will keep happening. We trust this film can have that effect.” Human values seem to take shape today in a different context.

On the other hand, as a compensation as it were, you’ve also sent me this paragraph from the pastoral letter of the bishops of País Vasco and Navarra who react to the same situation in this way:

The disrepute into which the ecclesiastical institution has fallen worries us, but it may have the effect of making us purify our love of the Church from our tendency to absolute submission. The diminution of the number of priests is a great evil, but it favours the formation and empowering of lay people and rids the Church of clericalism. Religious apathy may discourage many, but it can also motivate genuine believers to a greater commitment to the gospel. The increase in unbelief pains us, but it can lead us to purify the image we have of God. The difficulties of evangelisation frustrate us, but they can stimulate us to find new human experiences more significant for our listeners. In a word, our human experience of hopelessness can and must be the place in which, through the Holy Spirit, we may reach to the true experience of God.”

Psalm

Psalm 120 – My weak points

“The Lord is your guardian,
your defence at your right hand.”
I know the meaning, Lord, of that image of ancient warfare. I stand with the sword or the spear in my right hand, ready to strike, while my left hand holds the protecting shield over my body. That covers the front and left side of my body, but leaves my right side uncovered when I throw the spear or wield the sword. You, my guardian, know that, and that is why you stand at my right hand, to protect with your shield what I leave unprotected with mine, my vulnerable side at that moment, the weak point of my defence. Thank you, Lord, for your knowledge of the dangers of the world, your knowledge of my own weaknesses and your readiness to protect me where I need it most.

I have my weaknesses, Lord, and it is a comfort to me to realise that you know them better than I myself know them. I am well-meaning and faithful, but I have moods and tempers and passions and fits, and I never know what I may do before a sudden opposition or an unexpected test. My right side is naked, and any flying arrow may find its deadly way into my open body. Stand at my right hand, and cover me, Lord.

Make me aware of my weak points, of my blind spots, of my hidden dangers. Open my eyes to those flaws in me which all my friends know so well, and I alone seem to be unaware of. Make me see what everybody sees in me, what so often annoys them without my realising it, what they all comment among themselves about me without ever telling me. Make me notice my most common failings, remember them, and protect for the future those sides of my personality which I see weak and undefended. And keep your guard over me, Lord, as I always will have some exposed approaches left and will need your shield to cover me in moments of danger.

“The Lord will guard you against all evil;
he will guard you, body and soul.
The Lord will guard your going and your coming,
now and for evermore.”

1st
I tell you

The lion’s paw

Mathematicians have always enjoyed proposing new problems and publishing their solutions as they were being found. A famous problem in older time was the “brachistochrone”, or the curve along which a sphere can roll from a point to another point lower down and not vertically under it. It is not, by the way, the inclined plane between those two points, as in this case the straight line is not the fastest distance between two points even if it is the shortest.

An anonymous solution reached the hands of the mathematician who had proposed the problem, who was none other than Johann Bernoulli. The solution had no name attached to it, but it was so clear and so elegant that Bernoulli uttered at once the celebrated Latin phrase: “Ex ungue agnosco leonem” (I know the lion by its paw). The lion was Newton. The solution was the cycloid.

The example is significant. A job well done leaves its imprint. Even if it bears no signature, its author is known. Michaelangelo’s Pietà shows the sculptor’s name carved on the ribbon across Mary’s mantle. But there is no need for it. The work reveals the genius.

Prayer: May each work of mine, however small, bear the imprint of my personality.

Lesson: The straight line is not always the fastest way between two points. Neither in geometry nor in life. Straight lines are deceptive.

Imagination: Can you figure out how a fall along a curve can be faster than along a straight line? A little bit of imagination will do.

The name is the person

Queen Noor of Jordan, an American by birth, writes:

“The most precious gift the King ever gave me was my name. Several were proposed but no one seemed to fit. One day while sitting with me in Hashimya, the King suddenly said, ‘Noor’.

Noor. It means ‘light’ in Arabic. My name would be Noor Al Hussein, the ‘Light of Hussein’. Over the next few weeks and months, a transition gradually took place in my mind, in my dreams. I became Noor.

My family had much more trouble accepting my new name, especially my mother. That was understandable, of course. She had named me, after all, and for twenty-six years she had known me as Lisa. I gave her license for a while, but after several years I became quite adamant. I felt she was making a statement by continuing to call me Lisa, refusing in her way to accept my new identity and life. What she did not understand, until I explained it quite forcefully, was that I had made a lifelong commitment when I embarked on marrying King Hussein, and if she loved me and supported me, she had to recognise and accept that commitment as well. She never called me Lisa again.”

(Queen Noor, Leap of Faith, p. 97)

“Our first son was named Hamzah, after a favourite uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. He received his name at a religious ceremony at home officiated by the head religious Sheikh of Jordan. My husband handed the baby to the Sheikh who then whispered the call to prayer into each of the newborn’s ears so that it would be one of the first things the child heard, and then he would whisper the child’s name in both ears and give the baby back to the father. From the moment of Hamzah’s birth I spoke only Arabic to him, whatever I had mastered up to that point. Hamzah and I learned Arabic together.” (p. 186)

“On June 15, Hussein left a beautiful tenth anniversary letter on my pillow.

‘This is a very special time, this is a very special month and a very special year. We are ten years older and ten years old. We will never be ten again, but with God’s blessings we shall continue to grow and mature together all the more for many other years to come. Silver, gold, who can predict?

I thank God for our life of love and the children we are blessed to have. I thank you for so much. I know it is not all I would have wished for you or anything close to that. I know myself, I know my shortcomings, and I also know I am blessed to have you by my side, loving, caring, brave, and pure. All the finest things in life grow more valuable as they grow and mature. I hope the times to come will be better than those that have passed, and I treasure all the happiest of memories of our travel through time.

I am ever proud of you as you stand by my side. I pray for God to bless you through the years and give us strength and courage, happiness, contentment, and the comfort of sharing and giving of our best. God bless our family. And many thanks to you for being you. The One God blessed me by bringing us together ten years ago to start through life a loving husband and his beloved wife. With you by my side, I celebrate each day. Hapy 10th and with God’s blessings, many more to come. With all my love, Hussein’.” (p. 288)

Looking without seeing

Hasan was a rich and influential man, but he gave up his fortune and his rank to follow Master Abdul Effendi. The master decided to teach him a little lesson. He called him and told him: “Go to the market and bring us ten kilos of lamb’s entrails on your shoulders.”

Hasan did as he was commanded, got stained all over with his load and had to cross the whole city in that guise. As he was a well-known person he felt quite ashamed and troubled to see and to be seen by so many people.

When he arrived, the master sent him, all stained as he was, to borrow a cauldron in which to make soup with all he had brought. He again had to cross the whole city with the same feelings of shame. Then the master ordered him to wash and change clothes, and told him: “Go now the same way you’ve gone twice, and ask the passers-by whether they have seen a man carrying lamb’s entrails or a large cauldron.”

He went and repeated the question to all he came across, but all answered him in the negative. Nobody had noticed such a man and nobody had recognised him. He reported to the master, who told him: “As you see, no one has seen you. That is, they have seen you without seeing you. Nobody has recognised you. You were the one who projected your own look on the others. Learn to be who you are, and do not project your fears or your shame.”

(Alexandro Jodorowsky, La sagesse des contes, p. 15)

Education

“The central theme in maths books in Afganistan was war. Schoolboys – because the Taliban printed books solely for boys – did not calculate in apples and cakes, but in bullets and Kalashnikovs. Something like this: ‘Little Omar has a Kalashnikov with three magazines. There are twenty bullets in each magazine. He shoots two thirds of the bullets and kills twenty infidels. How many infidels will he be able to kill with the remaining bullets?'”

(Asne Seirstad, The Bookseller of Kabul, p. 62

Meditation on waiting

This is a particular kind of waiting: you can do nothing about it, because you know what the outcome will be, yet you don’t know how long it will take. The doctor’s waiting room, a government office, an airport or a train station – especially during a go-slow – are suitable places for this experiment. You know that the doctor will see you in the end, that you’ll be called to the window, that the plane will take off and the train will eventually arrive at the station. You can see it’s a very different kind of waiting from that in which the outcome is uncertain, and possibly disturbing. Moreover, you are forced to be passive: there’s nothing you can do to speed up the process. You are squarely confronted with duration, with the unavoidable passage of time, passing more or less slowly, more or less viscous.

A lot of people find this situation difficult to put up with. They contrive to avoid this head-on encounter with time by reading magazines, novels, essays, taking notes, consulting their filofax, using their cell-phone, working on their laptop or simply watching the world go by. In short, they keep busy, filling this given span of time with activities, with big or little ideas, with a variety of tasks.

You ought to experiment with exactly the reverse. Do nothing. Without becoming either irritated or bored. Let yourself float in time, knowing that it will pass, inexorably, in you and without you. You should merge without anxiety into this total passivity. Everything will happen, and nothing depends on you. You can be empty, amorphous, immobile, indifferent, dreamy, absent – time moves on regardless, and this interval will come to an end. You can thus make the discovery that there’s no need to kill time. It dies by itself.

(Roger-Pol Droit, 101 Expériences de philosophie quotidienne, p. 77)

Zen games

The mischievous disciples place a bucket of water in precarious balance over a half-open door so that it will fall on the first person who pushes the door fully open and all will laugh. Standard joke.

The first visitor arrives, fully aware and alert as a good Zen student, he passes through the door carefully without pushing it fully open, so that the bucket does not fall down. Good Zen.

The second visitor arrives, opens the door and simultaneously holds the bucket in both his raised hands before the water may spill down. Better Zen.

Now the Master arrives. He just enters, pushes the door, gets drenched all over and laughs wholeheartedly with everybody. Perfect Zen.

Two swords

The Master places two swords in the middle of the river with their edge towards the current.

The first sword is so sharp that all the leaves that come up against it dragged by the current are cut neatly into two. Marvellous.

The second sword is even sharper, but its curvature creates a little whirlpool round it so that the incoming leaves stay away and keep on floating unharmed. More marvellous.

Theme with variations

The disciple trains a full year and at the end he succeeds in cutting the bamboo into two with a single stroke of his sword while the bamboo is firmly rooted in the soil.

He trains for two years and cuts the bamboo into two while the bamboo is freely hanging from a string in the air.

He trains for three years and cuts the bamboo with his voice alone, with a savage shout that shakes the whole valley.

Then the Master comes and quietly cuts the bamboo into two striking at it repeatedly with an axe.

These are examples of a Theme with Variations, that is the monk that after many efforts and exercises succeeds in crossing the wide river walking over the waters without sinking, and the other monk who crosses it by paying the boatman his fare.

Simpler.

That is Zen.

You tell me

Thank you for sending me this letter by a young girl as it appeared in a magazine:

“I am sixteen and two weeks ago I put aside my books for a weekend, forgot the party, the group, the routine, and went for a living-in with some school friends. I’d never thought I would discover so many things over a weekend. Have you any time opened a parenthesis in your life? Have you stopped for a while to find out who you truly are? Have you any time placed your life aside to find out whether you are truly alive? Maybe you’ve never done it, maybe you’ll never do it, and that is not for lack of time, but out of fear. We are frightened to discover that our life has not much sense, that all we have done, said, cherished along the years… has been nothing. Let’s stop for a while, let’s look around and discover whether this is the life we want to live, if this is ourselves and who are we then. Let’sfind the blueprints of our dreams, and let’s build them without being lead astray by the current of life.”

That’s a sixteen-year old girl speaking.

Psalm

Psalm 121 – City of peace

Jerusalem, your name is “City of Peace”, yet you have never seen peace since your foundation. You are meant to be a city where people come together in unity, and yet throughout history they have come to you to fight. Your walls were built and demolished and built again, a new Temple was erected on the ruins of the old, you have seen many rulers sit on David’s throne, and today armed police patrol your narrow streets day and night.

Jerusalem, what has become of your peace? Was it a sin to proclaim it, was it a provocation to call yourself the City of Peace? Why is your history so torturing and your sky so darkened with hatred? Is your name City of Peace or City of Fear? Are you not the heart of all the tribes of Israel, the cradle of believing humankind, the home of all the children of God? Why are you news in the papers instead of being blessing in a prayer? Why have you to be protected, you whose aim and duty was to protect all men and women that came to you?

I always consider myself as on my way to you, Jerusalem. Perpetual pilgrim of your eternal charm. Always dreaming of your gates, walking towards your temple, scanning the horizon for the profile of your towers against the sky. For me your name means everything I have to reach in this life and in the next. Justice, holiness, salvation, peace. You are symbol and hope, fantasy and prayer, poetry and stone. I am always walking towards you and my heart rejoices when it exhorts my brothers: “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

I wish you well, Jerusalem! I wish your markets may prosper and your gardens may flower. I wish your people may mix and your towers may stand. And above all I wish that you may be true to your name, that you may have peace and give it to all that come to you in search of it from all corners of the world.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May those who love you prosper;
peace be within your ramparts
and prosperity in your palaces.’
For the sake of these my brothers and my friends I will say,
‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God
I will pray for your good.”

 

15th
I tell you

Is that it?

On the 2nd this month the multiconcert Live-8 took place in nine great cities of the world inspired by the Irish singer Bob Geldof against poverty and famine in Africa. Twenty years before the same Bob Geldof had organised the macroconcert Live Aid simultaneously in London and Philadelphia for famine relief. It all began one day when he was watching television and the news report was of famine in Ethiopia. He wrote in his autobiography:

From the first seconds it was clear that this was a horror on a monumental scale. The pictures were of people who were so shrunken by starvation that they looked like beings from another planet. Their arms and legs were as thin as sticks, their bodies spindly. Swollen veins and huge, blankly staring eyes protruded from their shrivelled heads. The camera wandered amidst them like a mesmerised observer, occasionally dwelling on one person so that he looked directly at me, sitting in my comfortable living room surrounded by the fripperies of modern living which we were pleased to regard as necessities. Their eyes looked into mine.

There was an emaciated woman too weak to do anything but limply hold her dying child. There was a skeletal man holding out a bundle wrapped in sacking so that it could be counted; it looked like a tightly wrapped package of old sticks, but it was the desiccated body of his child. And there were children, their bodies fragile and vulnerable as premature babies but with the consciousness of what was happening to them gleaming dully from their eyes. All around was the murmur of death, like a hoarse whisper, or the buzzing of flies.

Right from the first few seconds I was clear that this was a tragedy which the world had somehow contrived not to notice until it had reached a scale which constituted an international scandal. You could hear that in the tones of the reporter. It was not the usual dispassionate objectivity of the BBC. It was the voice of a man who was registering despair, grief and absolute disgust at what he was seeing. At the end the newscaster remained silent. My wife Paula burst into tears, and then rushed upstairs to check on our baby who was sleeping peacefully in her cot.

There were tens of thousands of people in the camp in Ethiopia where it had been filmed and where a handful of European aid workers were distributing a pitiful amount of food. One young nurse had the awesome task of selecting the few hundred individuals who were to be fed. They sat inside a compound enclosed by a low wall and waited for the food. Outside thousands of their fellows stood and watched. They had been condemned to death and now they stood to watch the few who had been offered a small chance of immediate survival. There was no anger in their faces, no bitterness, no clamouring. There was only the hollow dignity of waiting for death in silence.

I felt disgusted, enraged and outraged, but more than all those, I felt deep shame. A horror like this could not occur today without our consent. We had allowed this to happen and now we knew that it was happening, to allow it to continue would be tantamount to murder. I would send some money. I would send more money. But that was not enough. To expiate yourself truly of any complicity in this evil meant you had to give something of yourself.

I was only a pop singer. I could not help the tottering man to carry his burden. All I could give all the profits of my next record to Oxfam. What good would that do? It would be a pitiful amount. What if I could ask a few other singers to come in on a common record?’

He started calling the stars. He found that their managers were reluctant, while the singers themselves agreed when they were directly asked. Soon he saw himself thrown into a much bigger job than he had bargained for.

Not once did I stop to think, “Why am I doing this?” But I know that I often thought, “Why me?” Four weeks previously, I had sat with my head between my hands at some desk and almost cried with despair. Now as Life magazine wrote at the end of 1985, “When you meet this man you wonder, “‘Why?”’ Did God knock at the wrong door by mistake and when it was opened by this scruffy Irishman, think, “‘Oh, what the hell – he’ll do.”’

People called him Saint Bob, in spite of his rather rough language. He met Mother Theresa who held his hand and told him: ‘Remember this: I can do something you can’t do and you can do something I can’t do. But we both have to do it.’

He went to Africa and wrote on his way back: ‘The shock of returning to the world which I acknowledged as my own was startling. No one who has not made that transition from the horror of the African famine to the everyday profusion of riches in our Western world can fully appreciate it. Had I thought about it on the plane on the way back I would, I suppose, have said that I was returning to normality. But suddenly London did not seem normal. The things I had once taken for granted – the rich variety of food, the elaborate nature of even our most basic clothing, the sophistication of the houses we lived in with our electricity and hot and cold running water – all these now seemed like a wonderful and disproportionate blessing.’

Singers came, crowds gathered, companies donated, airlines offered planes, government gave permissions, voluntaries worked, media announced, VIPs joined in, more than a hundred million dollars were collected, food was bought, sent, distributed. Yet all the goodwill and all the care and all the efficiency in the world could not solve Africa’s problems, or rather the world’s problems as one person’s starving is another person’s neglect and we all are part of the situation and the global problem and the solution we desire for it.

Bob Geldof finishes his autobiography written twenty years ago with the realisation of the immense effort and the meagre results. Famine would strike again, and he knew it. Some people’s lives were saved and some people’s future was brightened, but suffering remained and death remained. Famine continued to haunt Africa. Walking one day with a friend and evaluating the huge effort and the meagre results, the mutual musing expressed itself in the phrase, ‘Is that it?’ He says that is the question he keeps asking himself. It’s also the title of his autobiography: ‘Is that it?’

Sometime after I had read his autobiography I was watching television one day, and apparently good things also happen at times on television. I was watching distractedly when suddenly I recognised the face that filled the screen. ‘But that’s Bob Geldof!’ I told myself. I had recognised him from the pictures in his book. He was being interviewed about his work in Africa and his concert, and this was the brief dialogue I heard:

– How do you value your whole work for Ethiopia?
– Total and dismal failure. – How do you feel now about it all?
– I feel angry and frustrated.
– Will you take up that kind of work again?
– … Yes! …

He did. Twenty years later he did in nine cities what he had done in two. There was a difference. This time the aim was not the collection of funds. All the concerts were free and no ‘telethon’ was organised. The aim was to create awareness of the problem, to shake consciences, to inspire youth, to draw the attention of the world, the governments, the political leaders and so to urge concrete measures and clear attitudes that may help Africa and all of us with it. Not that Geldof is St Bob, but a good shaking up is welcome.

We know that poverty cannot be eradicated by concerts. We know that corruption and inefficiency and vested interests and lack of solidarity are at the root of human suffering. We know that at times we sound naïve and we ourselves realise our good will is not going to take us far. We even suspect that some in the crowds of the large concerts ‘to make poverty past history’ maybe didn’t even know what the whole music was about. We know that twenty years from now there will be other concerts because there will still be famines on earth. Yet we are going to do all we can to somehow diminish the gap between rich and poor, in persons and in countries and in continents.

The question will keep hunting us: Is that it?

Karma Cola

“It is ironic that of all the terms from Hindu philosophy that have captured the American imagination, none has greater currency than “karma”. In the most popular dialogue on karma, read by all devout Hindus in The Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna begs his charioteer, the god Krishna, for a reason why he should go into battle. Krishna answers: “Because you are bound to act. Only action will save you from the bondage of action.”
That’s karma. Or what used to be. Not any longer. Karma is now “felt” as a sort of vibration. The terminology has accommodated itself to the needs of those who use it.

“I can’t visit London anymore. The Karma there is too heavy for me.”

“I crashed my car last night. I have bad Karma.”

“That dude’s dangerous. He has heavy Karma.”

“Craps – it’s a low Karma game.”

“My daughter is called Rani. The night she was born in Goa my friend and his lady had a daughter in Los Angeles and the called her Rani. We have such close Karma.”

Coincidence, chance, déjà vu, anything goes as karma.”

(Gita Mehta, Karma Cola, p. 99)

No getting away from karma

Ravana, king of Lanka, was a great devotee of Shiva, and had made him the solemn promise he would go daily to Mount Kailasha, abode of Shiva, to worship him there. But MountKailasha is in the Himalayas, which are pretty far from Lanka, and so the king soon felt tired of his daily pilgrimage and decided to shorten it. He had to go to Kailasha anyway, as Shiva, who is called “Easy to Please” (Asutosh) is also called “Easy to Rouse” (Rudra), and one has to be careful with his anger. But Ravana was very strong and powerful thanks to his ascetic life and the merits he had obtained with his many penances, so that he could lift mountains and shift them anywhere. That’s what he did. He went to MountKailasha, lifted it bodily, placed it on his shoulders, took it to his island, Lanka, and lowered it on a plain next to his own palace. His backyard, so to say. That would make his daily pilgrimage easier.

But a promise is a promise and karma is karma. No getting away from it. The king went happily to the now close-by mountain and started climbing. But the climb never ended. As he climbed, the mountain got taller and taller, and there was no end to the climb. Uphill all the way. He couldn’t reach the summit where Shiva’s abode stood. That was worse than before. Ravana had to lift the mountain again and put it back in its place. You cannot fool with karma.

Three wishes

The genie, on coming out of the bottle, tells his liberator:

– Ask for three wishes, and they will be fulfilled.
– My first wish is that I may choose my other two wishes properly.
– Granted. Now you can formulate your other two wishes.
– I have no more wishes.

You tell me

You ask me: What to do in order not to think of something one doesn’t want to think of?

I answer: Let yourself think of it. The more you reject the thought, the more it’ll come. Remember that guru who promised instant illumination after the simple exercise of spending five minutes without thinking of a monkey. Not wanting to think of a monkey is the best guarantee to think of it. You spend five minutes seeing monkeys all the time. On the other hand, if you allow the thought, it’ll soon go. Krishnamurti’s beautiful and telling phrase: “Listen to the desires of your heart… as you listen to the wind among the trees.” Listen to them. Do not reject them. Listen as you listen to the wind among the trees. At peace with nature. And with yourself. The monkey will soon get bored and go away.

Psalm

Psalm 122 – My eyes’ prayer

My eyes speak as they turn, and so today my eyes are praying as they turn to you, Lord.

“Ilift my eyes to you
whose throne is in heaven.”
My eyes are lifted up, as in figure and imagery you are in heaven, and heaven is on high. While I live the routine of my days my eyes are usually down to watch my own step, or looking ahead of me, not in order to see people but in order not to bump into them. I see people and traffic, then buildings and rooms, papers and books, flashing co­lours and printed words. I see a thousand images in a pass­ing instant. Only I don’t see you.

When I talk with people I am aware that my eyes speak too. They give me away. They express likes and dis­likes, interest and boredom, instant pleasure or flashing anger. A twinkle of the eye can be more expressive than a whole speech. A loving regard can convey more affection than a love poem. My eyes speak silently, tenderly, effec­tively.

Today my eyes are turned to you, Lord. And that is prayer. No words, no petitions, no praises. Just my eyes turned to heaven. I know that you can read their message and understand their language. A tender look of faith and devotion, of confidence and love. Just looking at you. Gently turning my eyes up. I feel it does good to me. My eyes tell me that they like to look up. I let them follow their liking, and I accompany the direction of their look with the longing of my soul.

“Asthe eyes of a slave follow hismaster’s hand,
orthe eyes of a slave-girl hermistress,
so our eyes are turned tothe Lord ourGod
waiting for kindness from him.”

1st
I tell you

The queen of the zebra crossing

The little girl is about to cross the street with all its mad traffic when her mother tells her:

– Give me your hand to cross.
– I want to cross by myself.
– Don’t. See the cars and the motorcycles. You may get hurt.
– I won’t get hurt. I know how to cross.

Her mother takes her hand and when the light turns green starts crossing the wide street in front of the line of waiting cars with wild, impatient engines fuming and fretting in the wind. When they reach the middle of the street, the mother gets distracted, the girls jumps free and crosses the rest of the street by herself running and dancing and waving her arms and looking to all sides with a joy that brings sudden life to the zebra crossing, to the cars, to the traffic lights and to all those who are waiting or crossing on the asphalt. The mother runs after the child, catches up with her when she is about to reach the other side and holds again her hand with anxiety. The girl laughs with joy.

I also felt a shudder when I saw the girl running madly between the cars. But I soon smiled with her. And I’m sure that all those who saw her smiled too. Nobody would ever think for a moment to hurt her. For a moment she was the queen of the zebra crossing. Soon she’ll grow up and will drive a car. Will she then remember how she danced before the cars as a child?

Memories of a young Rumanian Jew

“The war had engendered many strange children – and I was one of them. Amalia sang like a bird. She didn’t sing in any particular language, but in her own language, a mixture of words she remembers from home, sounds of the fields, voices of the forest and prayers of the monastery. People cried when they listened to her. It was difficult to know what she was singing about. She always seemed to sing a long story full of secret dealings. People were tired of war and of themselves, and listened with pleasure.

Nobody knew in those days what to do with the life they had saved. There were no words, and those left from home sounded empty. Only small children kept some freshness in their speech. I say small children because those of thirteen or fourteen were already corrupt, and they stole, cheated, looted and gambled just as the grown-up did.

At the time we didn’t know that the children’s language was a new language that found expression in their whole being, in their way to stand, to sit down, to sing or to dance. Their speech was direct, without pretension.

Shiko was a child whose memory knew no bounds. They taught him the Psalms and he recited them in the old style. His prayer was something different from what human ears had ever heard before. He gave people what they needed at the moment: a little bit of the faith they had lost and a connexion with their departed. People cried like children when he sang.

As for myself, it’s bodily sensations that all those years have left on me. Hunger for bread. Even today I suddenly get up at night with a deep hunger. Dreams of hunger come every week. All that happened on those days has been engraved on the cells of my body, not in my memory. The cells remember better than memory itself. For many years after the war I could not walk on the middle of the street: I had to go close to the wall, always in the shadow, always fast as though I were sneaking away. I do not cry easily, but a simple farewell causes me to cry desperately.

In the forest the fear of open spaces comes back to me. My legs tense up and I have to crouch and reach the outskirts of the forest as they are safer. I hurry up to save myself. Sometimes the smell of a meal, or of dampness in my shoes, or a sudden noise is enough to bring me back to the years of the war, and then I have the impression that the war is not over.

– The war is over!
– The war is not over. We are always at war.
– The torture is over!
– The torture is not over. He who has been tortured will always be tortured.

I’ve written more than twenty books about those years. Sometimes I feel I’ve not even begun. At other times I get the impression the complete memory is still hiding in me and will emerge suddenly in full strength. For instance, a punishing march I’m trying to describe for years without ever succeeding. They push us for many days along muddy roads. We are many prisoners who are pushed and whipped brutally by Rumanian and Ukrainian soldiers while they shoot their rifles in the air. My father holds my hand with a firm grip. My short legs do not reach the ground, but the cold water freezes my legs and my waist. There is darkness all around us, and I feel nothing except my father’s hand. In fact I don’t even feel his hand as my own hand is paralysed. I know it: a single wrong movement and I’ll be drowned in the mire, and not even my father will be able to rescue me. Many children have already perished that way.

At night, when the caravan stops, my father takes me out of the mud and dries up my legs with his coat. I’ve lost my shoes long ago, and I warm up my feet in its lining. This soft heat hurts so much that I take out my feet at once. This quick movement of mine, somehow, irritates my father. I feel afraid, but I still refuse to put my feet into the lining. I keep holding his hand and I fall asleep, but not for long.

When the sky is still dark, the soldiers make us get up whipping us and shooting in the air. My father holds my hand and pulls me up. The mud is deep and I don’t reach its bottom. I shout, ‘It hurts!’ It’s not only children that sink into the mud; tall men also fall and disappear in the mire.

Spring has melted the snow, and the mud gets deeper with every day. My father discards some of the few things he carries in his bag. Now his hand holds me with even greater force. At night he gives massage to my hands and feet and dries them with his coat. For a moment I feel that not only my father is with me but also my mother whom I loved so much.

Any old thing abandoned by the wayside is enough to trigger in my memory the image of hundreds of feet shuffling in a line on the endless mire, and whoever falls will never get up again. Grown-up people remember names and persons and dates. We, who were then children, remember sensations and emotions without a name and without a date. We carry them always in our bodies.

The Russians came back in 1944 and occupied Ukraine. I was then twelve. A survivor who saw me as I sat forsaken on the way knelt to ask me: ‘What has happened, my child?’ I answered: ‘Nothing’.”

(Aaron Appelfeld, Sipur Haim, p. 86)

Memories of a Spanish girl
[Irene Villa, who also was twelve when she lost both her legs in a terrorist attack, writes as follows:]“I remember a newspaper during my convalescence in hospital mentioned that I liked chocolate and wanted to go to Switzerland as soon as I got well. Then all the six months I was at the hospital and many months after that I was receiving from all kind of people Swiss chocolates. Even in Switzerland they came to know, and I received a formal invitation to visit the country. More and more chocolates. It was incredible. I felt I was the most pampered girl in Spain. In fact, even now I feel the same way.”

(Irene Villa, Saber que se puede, p. 97)

“In a short time I felt quite integrated again and I’ve kept very happy memories from those days. The only thing I felt uneasy about was that my companions in the university kept telling me that my situation would help me to get a job at once. That was partly true, but there was no need to remind me again and again. It is true that when I graduated I was flooded with offers for work. But, maybe because of that pressure along my college years, or because I saw myself too young yet for work, the fact is I rejected all those offers. Besides, I’ve always wanted to be evaluated as a professional, not as a terrorism victim deserving of pity.

I’ve always run the risk to have everything given to me in my hands, and I call it a risk, whatever others may feel about it, because in this life, what does not require effort has no value either. It may seem strange that a person who has suffered a cruel fate should say that, and it is true that I’ve had to overcome many obstacles that other people don’t have to face, but on the other hand to be a known person has made things easier for me. Yet, I’ve always known how to keep my place. Always on the same level with others, and never accepting favours for my handicap.

If there’s anything worth fighting for, that is equality. I keep fighting. That’s why I wanted no privileges. I could perfectly well have availed myself of the chances to get to a place I had not fought for. But I’ve always been quite clear in my mind that if I truly want something, I must get it myself. First of all because that is the only way to deserve it, and second because I don’t want anybody to tell me any day that things were given to me free. Success is only worthwhile when you fight for it.”(p. 137)

“My mother always reminds me of an anecdote that left the man in question without speech. We had gone out on one of those many journeys the doctors had allowed us during our convalescence in hospital (my mother had also been wounded together with me in the terrorist attack), and among many other people who showed us their love and concern, a grown-up man came and told me:

– O my little one! My poor little one is sick!

To which I couldn’t help answering:

– This little one is not sick. She just has no legs.

You can imagine the poor man’s face. I can still see it. My mother didn’t know where to hide herself.”(p.105)

You tell me

Thank you for the talk by Thich Nhat Hanh you’ve sent me where he tells the following things among many others:

“Today I had my breakfast with a novice monk, and we sat very still, looking out of a large window at the view outside. We sat very solidly, and I poured out the milk in a very mindful, very leisurely way. I saw the milk as real milk, coming from the cow, and I felt very grateful. I felt very happy that today I could drink a glass of milk. I only drink a little glass of milk, and I don’t put sugar in it. I break off a piece of bread, and I smell the bread, and I see that the bread is very fragrant, and then I bite it off, and I chew it. I know that I am chewing bread, and I know that outside the window there is the blue sky, there is the forest, there are the birds singing, and I dwell in the present moment, and I see that his piece of bread that’s in my mouth tastes so good. I don’t chew it twice and then swallow it; I chew it thirty, forty, fifty times, and this bread becomes very sweet and very tasty. When I dip the bread into my bowl of milk – this is just a bowl of milk, there ¡s no sugar in it, there ¡s no cocoa in it, there’s no chocolate in it – and when I put the bread in my mouth, I see the richness o the milk, the fragrance of the milk, and I chew the milk as well. Have you ever chewed milk? Or do you just know how to drink milk? Milk is to be chewed, and when you put the bread into the milk and then suck the milk out of it, you chew it thirty or forty times, and quite naturally it will be very, very tasty. A hundred or two hundred times more tasty than if you just put it in your mouth quickly and swallow it straight away. So I think I have to invite you children to come to my hut and eat the bread like this.”

Psalm

Psalm 123 – Deliverance

In my dark moments I think, Lord, that life is a trap. Forgive me for saying so before you who made life and are responsible for its working, but I sometimes feel I am just trapped in the mesh of a worthless and senseless existence like a bird in a fowler’s snare. No use flapping my wings, no use straining my legs. I am trapped in the iron grip of my own mortal doubt. I can go nowhere. Maybe there is nowhere to go.

Of all the depressions that come over me, this sense of helplessness is the most grievous one. I feel I can do noth­ing. I feel I am nothing. A lump of clay, an inert mass, an existential cipher. My life is of no account, if it can be called life at all. I mean nothing to anybody, least of all to myself. My coming into this world has made no difference to humankind, neither will my going from it do. The wind comes and goes, but it at least sways the flowers and makes the trees sing. I count for nothing. I feel nothing. I see life as a cruel game in which I am tossed to and fro without ever being asked where I want to go and what I want to do. Or, more deeply, the deadly fact is that I don’t know where I want to go and what I want to do: it is in my own bodily self that the roots of my helplessness are grounded. And that is my despair.

I am trapped, body and soul, in a trap of my own mak­ing. Maybe I expected too much from life, from myself, from you, Lord, if I may speak to you when even your exis­tence means nothing to me (and allow me to say so before you, if only to manifest to you the extent of my derelic­tion). I had hopes that never materialized, and dreams that never came true. Life has played me false with the ruthless indifference of a cruel game. I am stuck in the misery of a meaningless birth.

My only prayer today, Lord, (and even that I have to borrow word by word from your Psalm as I can frame no prayer on my own) is that you deliver me from my present darkness that I may soon make mine from the heart the words you have inspired:

“We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s trap:
The trap broke, and so we escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
maker of heaven and earth!”
Break my trap soon, Lord!

1st
I tell you

Noise on Sunday

Workmen are at work in the street. They’ve been there since early morning making all the noise they want. Hammers, drillers, engines, voices. No peace for the just. But I have to keep at my desk reading and writing and thinking and swearing. To top it all, today is Sunday, and I thought on Sundays we were free from urban noises, but that’s not the case today. They don’t spare us. They go on and on, and their drillers are drilling into my own ears. When will they stop?

They don’t. I finish my first lap of work in the morning, collect papers, switch off the computer and go out. On the street I have to pass just by the side of the noisy workers. Then I see what is happening. There has been an unexpected breakdown in the water pipeline and, if not promptly repaired, the whole area will be left without running water. And today is Sunday, so that we would all be without water in our homes till Monday. Those men, in fact, were doing me a favour without my knowing it.

I remain standing for a while looking at the busy workmen. The noise stops for a moment, and I take the opportunity to say aloud for all of them to hear: “Thank you for coming on a Sunday! Thank you for giving us water! And sorry for the trouble for all of you and your families!”

They look up at me in surprise. One of them tells me: “You’re thanking us, but others curse us. Someone has even come down from one of these houses to tell us to stop making noise as today is Sunday and he has a right to sleep till late. Thank you for thanking us.”I didn’t tell them I too had thought like that person. Sometimes we complain against the very people that are doing us a favour. Thank you for the noise.

How to prepare a talk

Suzuki Roshi was going to give a talk in some US city, and his disciples were preparing the hall where it was to take place. While they cleaned up and swept the floor and placed chairs and dusted tables they realised that Suzuki Roshi was among them working and cleaning up with them. They laughed out their surprise and they told him: “We’re getting the hall ready for your talk. What are you doing here?” The Master answered: “I’m preparing my talk.”

A taxi driver with a good ear

Maestro Rodrigo, author of the famous Aranjuez Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, tells the following anecdote of his life:

“Many years ago I took a taxi and the driver refused to charge me. ‘No, man, no. I cannot charge you. Actually, I should be paying you every time I hear the Aranjuez Concerto.’ It’s these small things that make one feel happy.”

The Maestro never knew that on his birth centenary the Aranjuez municipality decreed that the clock on the main square of the village would play the first bar of the Aranjuez Concerto when striking the hour, the quarter, the half-hour and the three quarters. All the villagers welcomed the novelty and all whistled the first bars with mirth when the clock struck the hour. But after a few days the melody began to sound stale, then annoying and finally irritating. However beautiful a melody may be, if it is played every quarter of an hour on the hour, it becomes unbearable. The municipality was duly informed that if the music was not suppressed, the clock would be stoned. That was the end of the concert.

Routine hurts.

Maestro Rodrigo was blind. Towards the end of his life he wrote: “Blindness has not discouraged me. Sometimes I do feel I lack a certain degree of independence, but that’s all. And then not to be able to see paintings, landscapes or the cinema brings about some uneasiness at times, particularly when one is young. But then one gets used to everything. Life has been good to me.”(Concierto de una vida, p. 220)

Mother and son

Kuki Gallmann is a courageous Italian woman who lives in Kenya with her husband, her son and her daughter, and loves the land and the animals under her care. Her children are brought up in genuine aboriginal freedom, but the day comes when the eldest, Emanuele, has to go to school. So he goes. His mother writes in her diary:

“You had gone; you, my little one, trussed in your new grey blazer, too big for you, your hair too short, your too-wide eyes full still of little boy’s dreams. By what right did I abandon you in that anonymous garden, in that strange world so new to you, so different?”

She then continues:

“Yet, seen finally in perspective, school gave Emanuele something which he could never possibly have achieved in the sheltered protection of our home and presence: the independence, the ability to cope, the sense of leadership and survival in a strange, indifferent and perhaps hostile world, and certainly the self-assurance which comes from managing alone and from being able to win friends and to make a mark in a totally new environment, on his own.

School rules were very strict in those days and parents were never allowed to visit, apart from Parents Day once every two months. But we devised an innocent trick to make life happier. I left messages and chocolates under a secret stone in the surroundings and he collected them with mischief and joy. He developed his love for animals and particularly for snakes.

– Mum, I know what I want for my birthday.
– Not a snake.
– Why not? You promised.
– They are not for sale.
– No harm in asking.

The SnakePark owner knew Emanuele. “Of course, selling snakes is my job. I will not give you one of the tame ones, though. Those are for visitors. I have a new young one I have just caught. Fifty shillings a foot. Quite a bargain. Non-poisonous.”

We called it Kaa as in Rudyard Kipling.

– Will you help me to tame him, Mum?
– Me?
– When I am back at school. You must handle him every day so he gets used to us. Please promise. See? It is easy. He is gentle.
– Not for me.
– One day you too will understand the hidden beauty of snakes.

Emanuele became a snake expert widely know in the land. Snakes were his life. His collection increased. Even in school he captured and tamed snakes. One day I got a letter from his Headmaster:

“Dear Mrs Gallman,
I would be grateful if you could persuade your son not to leave
bags containing dangerous reptiles in the classrooms.”

One day the inevitable happened. A poisonous snake was added to his collection, though I had forbidden it. Then many more. I spoke about it with his father and his sister. We decided that Emanuele was mature and competent, he knew what he was doing, he was a good professional in that matter and we could trust him. In the garden of our house he had a large pit with many kinds of snakes, all scientifically catalogued.

– Mum, I’m going to milk the snakes.
– I hate you doing that.
– You always worry. I have done it dozens of times.

He touched his sister’s cheek affectionately, and he was gone. He was young and strong and handsome… and no longer mine.

I was towelling my hair dry when Mapengo, his snake man, knocked insistently:

– What happens?
– Mama, there is a problem.
– A snake?
– Yes.
– A puff-adder?
– Yes.
– Where is he?
– In the kitchen.

I did not stop to think for a second. I could not afford hysterics, and I knew I could not lose time. I was alone, far from help, twenty minutes’ drive from our airstrip and eight kilometres from the closest doctor. I watched one part of me splitting from the other and taking over.

Emanuele sat rigid, legs spread out on the green cement, facing the window. The skin was grey, the eyes staring and glassy. I waved a hand in front of them and he did not flinch. He was blind. At that moment, I again became his mother. He was seventeen. He went.

The worst thing was the silence where there had been sound, the memory of a fading young voice, of balanced young steps along the passage. The worst thing was his useless motorbike, daily washed, the empty place at the table where a red hibiscus was placed at every meal, the empty chair in the sitting-room where he used to sit to write his diary. The worst thing was the letters addressed to him which kept arriving from the university in the States where he would no longer go; the mute grief in Mapengo’s face. The worst thing was the newly-printed photographs from Easter. The worst thing of all was the knowledge that he was dead forever.

Snakes were his passion. Would it have been better to deprive him of it to save his life? I had no right to impose on him my own norms to spare myself my own pain. He lived his life.

I told Mapengo we had to set all his snakes free. Hundreds of harmless or deadly snakes were put in bags and pillowcases. The children jumped in the back of my pick-up. We parked the cars near the river. Two female waterbuck watched with liquid eyes. Dragonflies darted from pond to puddle. White butterflies flew around, their trembling wings like fallen petals. One by one we let the snakes go. The cobra whose life Emanuele had saved when it was run over by a truck, the long python that had broken the record when he measured it, the green grass snakes, the white-lips, the egg-eaters, the house snakes. The last to go was the puff-adder that killed him.”

(Kuki Gallmann, I Dreamed of Africa.)

You tell me

Thank you for this quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh you’ve sent me:

“Now, let’s think how they eat their breakfast in the town. They eat it in such a rush. They don’t see the person sitting next to them, they don’t see the person in front of them, and they do not see the food either because their head is completely obscured by their ideas, by their worries, by their sadness, by their temper. We pick up our newspaper and we hold it in front of our faces so that we don’t have to look at anybody. In our breakfast we have an extra dish, that is the newspaper. We miss the chance to meet our own family at the beginning of the day.

I remember that when I was in New York, I was having my breakfast and somebody brought me a newspaper – the Sunday “New York Times”. It weighs two kilos. How can you eat your breakfast and deal with two kilos of newspaper at the same time? They say, ‘You don’t have to read it all, but it’s nice to know that it’s all there.’ That’s more of an indigestion than a breakfast. Not the best way to begin the day.”

Psalm

Psalm 124 – Endurance

“Those who trust in the Lord
are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be shaken
but stands fast for ever.”
The sight of a mountain brings always joy to my heart. I guess the reason is that a mountain speaks of per¬severance, solidity, endurance, and I need those virtues in my life. A mountain on the horizon is what I would like to be in my behaviour: steadfast and firm. That is why I like to sit on the rocks and look steadily at the mountain in front of me: that long look is a prayer that the steadfast¬ness of the mountains may come into my life. “Mount Zion cannot be shaken.”

I cannot say the same about myself. Any little wind of adversity shakes me to my foundations and pulls me to the ground. And, again, any breeze of empty flattery lifts me up above myself, only to dash me with greater violence on the rack of despair. I waver, I hesitate, I doubt. I lose courage and lack constan¬cy. I begin many plans and I drop them half way. I promise regular practice, and I interrupt it at the first obstacle. I cannot trust myself. And now you, Lord, point out to me the road to constancy: to trust in you.
“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion.”

Trust in you is my support and my strength. Teach me to trust you, Lord, that my life may be firm. Teach me to rely on you, since I cannot rely on myself. Teach me to climb Mount Zion in desire and in faith, to find in its summit what I lack in my valley. Teach me to lean on the eternal rock of your word, your promise, your love, that I may find in you what I have never been able to find in myself. Let me feel in my life the loveable words of your Psalm:

“As the hills enfold Jerusalem,
so the Lord enfolds his people,
now and evermore.”

 

15th
I tell you

Ecumenical gesture

An Indian Jesuit, friend of mine, tells me how he had to attend a meeting in the North of India. He is parish priest in a village in the South. It occurred to him to bring some souvenir from the North to his friends in the South. What could he bring? The majority of his neighbours in his village were Hindus, and they were many. Not an easy choice.

The river Ganges, sacred to Hindus as proceeding from heaven through Shiva’s hair, flows in the North. In fact the organisers of that meeting had planned for a picnic at the riverside for all the participants. My friend got his idea there. He bought a five-litre container, filled it himself with water from the Ganges, carried it with great care and not without some inconvenience all the way to the South, and once there he went from house to house distributing the holy water.

He tells me that all liked his gift, and that it has helped him to be accepted and appreciated in the village. He considers himself to be the parish priest of all, Christians and Hindus.

When I read his letter I was reminded of a Hindu friend of mine who, after reading a book of mine, summed up for me his impression thus: “I feel as though I had bathed in the Ganges.” My Jesuit friend has returned now the compliment.

“And God created man from the clay of the earth”

The title of the book caught my eye: “Zen and the Art of Pottery.” The hands and the clay. Primitive art and cottage industry. Meditation and concentration. Shape and space. En India I had watched the village potter turning his wheel, placing the wet lump of clay on its centre, making raise from it miraculous shapes at the touch of his fingers, then holding the fresh pot in his hands. and dashing it against the floor with a peal of laughter that accompanied his show to the tourists. Now I read in this book:

“The potter meditates with his hands on the nothingness of all forms; dies and is born again at each trial by flame. A pot’s a pot: Earth come to stand as world to man.

When something passes from hand to hand, we have the birth of ritual and sacrament. The pot of clay hands over the history of the family from generation to generation.

The still hub of the wheel is essential to motion.

Master Hisamatsu enumerates the rules of the Japanese art in Zen: No rule, no complexity, no rank, no mind, no bottom, no hindrance, no stirring. They do not explain, however, how the pot is made.

I learned early not to grieve over bad bowls, but it was some time before I learned not to rejoice over good ones.

From the pine tree
learn of the pine tree,
and from the bamboo
of the bamboo.

The person, according to times and cultures, has centred on understanding in the act of faith, on the heart in feelings, on the belly (hara) as the centre of gravity of the body. My small bowl contains the cosmos. Meditation in action.

I dig my own clay, refill the holes with earth and fallen branches so no scars are left behind, wrap and carry myself the material to my workshop, I never buy it readymade from a shop.

I wedge the clay on the wheel at its centre. My whole body-mind gets involved in the act. Even when I am teaching, I do not speak. I take the hands of the apprentice in mine so that he can feel the clay. I do not allow a radio in the studio nor chewing gum.

Our body-mind knows more than we can tell. It takes years before teachers learn to find equivalent words for their actions. As the blind man reads the world through his cane, so do we as potters read the world through the vibrations in our hands. We ‘see’ from the dark interior of the expanding sphere. I find that as the curve of a sphere swells from within and as I trace and have dialogue with that thrust through my outside hand, my entire body responds with an effortless exhalation which settles with the ripening thrust of the curve.

If the mass was mistreated in earlier stages, the ‘memory’ within the clay’s history will show up as a break in the bowl’s generous opening continuity. As with a parabola, the curve of a bowl is infinite, embracing the universe.

Motorised wheels are not the blessing an undisciplined and technological culture presumes them to be, for the wheel runs away with potter and clay, literally keeping one out of touch with the core and surface of the mound of clay.

Pots are containers. They affect their contents just as their contents affect them, and so they participate in the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of eating and drinking in such a way that holistic integration of body-mind is encouraged.

That the presence of pieces affects our very mood and being can be demonstrated when the pieces are gone. The empty space keeps reminding us of their existence.

A good pot creates, even demands or commands, place and space. It is to the indoors what rocks and ferns are to the outdoors.

All life is a gift, and when I make pots or they come to live in my home, that, too, is a gift.”

(Kenneth R. Beittel, Zen and the Art of Pottery.)

Sketch for a book

Albert Camus in his “Carnets” (II, 300) proposes to himself this sketch for a book:

“A lieutenant, pianist also in love with his music. He builds for himself a mute piano with pieces of wood from a drawer. He plays six to seven hours a day. He doesn’t miss a note. At some passages, his face lights up.”

It seems quite a harmless programme for a book. But it isn’t. After it, Camus adds:

“This is what we all (all!) do with our lives.”

He repeats the word “all”.

Pathetic.

Routine

The king and the queen were happy, but they had no children. The king decided to go away for a time to live incognito between his people so as to forget the pain of not having an issue. One night in a hut in the wilds, a gipsy woman comes to him and they sleep together.

He continues his wanderings for months, and one day he hears from the people in a village that the queen in her palace is with child. He comes back in a fury, because, though he wanted an heir to the throne, he didn’t want it from another man. He enters the palace and locks himself in his dormitory.

The queen comes to him dressed as a gipsy woman holding in her hand the royal coin the king had given her that night, a coin only the king could give. She had been the gipsy woman in disguise. They laugh and embrace. They had an heir. The surprise, the novelty, the night, the mischief, the adventure had opened the gates for life.

The moral of the story is not that kings can sleep with gipsies, but that routine is the greatest enemy of life, and a little imagination can brighten up that life.

Maybe this holds also for our spiritual life.

Without blinking an eye

The invading army swept into a town and took control. All the villagers surrendered, and one by one they all pledged obeisance to the proud and cruel general of the invading army. Only the Master in the old temple refused to come out and surrender. The general, on being told, sent his soldiers to bring him to his presence. He took out his sword, raised it in threat before his victim and exclaimed in anger:

– Don’t you realise you are standing before a man who can run you through without blinking an eye?
– And don’t you realise you are standing before a man who can allow himself to be run through without blinking an eye?

Guess what happened then.

The philosopher’s stone

He spent all his life in search of the philosopher’s stone. The stone that would change into gold whatever it touched, that would be found on the seashore in the sand between shells and pebbles and flotsam and jetsam, that was one and unique in the world, that could be used only by the person who found it, that would guarantee prosperity and happiness for a lifetime.

He searched and searched and searched and searched. Shore after shore, coastline after coastline, country after country. He walked, he looked, he bent, he took a stone in his hand, he examined it, he threw it into the sea, took another, threw it away, took another, threw it away, took another, threw it away. Away into the deep sea so that they would never show up again.

He threw so many stones that his arm grew accustomed to the gesture, and when he did find the philosopher’s stone, he looked at it and threw it instinctively into the sea. only to realise when it was too late that that was the one and only philosopher’s stone.

Routine again.

You tell me

Thanks for this song of Bob Dylan’s you’ve sent me, particularly for the last lines:

“Are you ready, are you ready?
Are you ready, are you ready?

Are you ready to meet Jesus?
Are you where you ought to be?
Will he know you when He sees you
Or will he say, ‘Depart from me’?

Are you ready, hope you’re ready,
Am I ready, am I ready?

Am I ready to lay down my life for the brethren
And to take up my cross?
Have I surrendered to the will of God
Or am I still acting like the boss?

Am I ready, hope I’m ready.
Are you ready?

Have you got some unfinished business?
Is there something holding you back?
Are you thinking for yourself
Or are you following the pack?

Are you ready, hope you’re ready.”

Psalm

Psalm 125 – The tides that turn

“When the Lord turned the tide of Zion’s fortune,
we were like men who had found new health.
Our mouths were full of laughter,
and our tongues sang aloud for joy.”
Life is a turning tide, and I have experienced its highs and lows in relentless rhythm along many years and changes and moods. I know how the barrenness of the desert can be turned overnight into fertility “As streams return in the dry south.” Sudden rains flood a dried up riverbed, and all the fields along its course smile a spontaneous green. That is the power of the Lord’s hand when it touches a parched land. or a human life.

Touch my life, Lord, release the streams of grace, turn the tide and make me smile for joy. And meanwhile give me the faith and the patience to wait for your time, with the certainty that the day will come and the streams will run again in the dry south.

I know the law of life: “Those who sow in tears, shall reap with joy.” Let me work and toil and struggle with the hope that one day the tide will turn and I will smile and sing. Let me realise that there is no success without hard work, no advancement without painstaking effort. For any progress in the life of my profession or of my spirit I must strain myself, bring out all my resources, do my best. The work of the sower is slow and taxing, but it becomes bearable with the promise of the future crop. I know that to reap I have to sow, and to sing I have to weep first.

Is not my whole life a field to be sown in tears? I don’t want to dramatise my existence, but there are enough tears in my life to justify the thought. Life is hard work, and sowing eternity is an uphill task. I pray that the certainty of the crop may bring already now a smile to my tired face; I ask to be allowed to borrow a song from the feast of heaven to practice if already with anticipated joy while I sow on earth.

“Sowers may go out weeping,
carrying their bags of seed;
but they will come back with songs of joy,
carrying home their sheaves.”

1st
I tell you

The beauty spot

There is a very popular Mexican song about a girl with a beauty spot on her face. And there are many Mexicans in Spain. The other day I was sitting in the underground when an obviously Mexican girl came in and stood quietly in front of me. She stood at right angles to me and looked straight ahead. She had a large beauty spot on her face.

The mischievous child in me took over and I launched on the adventure. Very slowly and very gently I began to hum the melody of the song in question. Only the melody. Not the words. I love risks, but not in excess, and so I only hummed the melody very gently with my mouth shut. But if you know the melody, the words spring at once to your mind inevitably.

I hummed the whole song and I waited. I thought that the girl would either slap me in the face of kiss me. She did neither. She just smiled ever so little. And she kept looking straight ahead. Then she very gently felt her spot with her index finger. Knowingly. Full conspiracy.

My station came up and I got down. She saw my vacant seat and sat on it. Once I was out on the street I did sing full throat with words and all the whole lovely song. Its last lines are:

“Singing is the art
of gladdening the heart.”

I hope when she reached her home she found someone to tell them about her experience in the underground. That’s the way to gladden the heart.

By the way, wouldn’t this count as an original contribution to the immigrants’ integration in a foreign country? I’m sure the girl felt fine that day. And so did I.

The tennis champion

Wolfgang Flür, of KRAFTWERK band, pioneer of electronic music at the end of last century, tells in his autobiography, “I Was a Robot”, an episode that led him to change his life from the robot band to a more personal approach to persons and to work:

“You will certainly remember the dreadful tragedy of a Swiss Air flight in 1998. While this plane was travelling over the North Atlantic, there was an electrical fire and smoke had started pouring into the cockpit during a night flight from New York to Paris. The pilots couldn’t see anything, and they lost control of the aeroplane, which was full of passengers. The machine fell into the sea at great speed and from a great height. Two hundred and twenty-six passengers died immediately, and they just lay on the sea bed.

One man, however, had not died, and had instead been lying comfortably in the bed of his New York hotel, watching the early news tell him where he would have been lying at that point if he had flown with the plane. The Swiss tennis ace in question told a television reporter that he had already lost his match and had actually wanted to catch the next flight home, but his manager had persuaded him to do a bit of shopping with him.

When he had understood how he had escaped death by a hair’s breadth, his notion of his life had changed in seconds. He said that he had suddenly realised that he was still alive, and also recognised the feelings that he lacked. He had been constantly jetting around the world, always hunting for victory on the tennis courts, always wanting to be the best, the first and the fastest. That had been what made him feel alive, what he had believed he had needed. He had thought that this made him happy – along with a lot of money, which he earned and spent extravagantly, always greedy for coarser stimuli.

On that morning, it had suddenly become clear to him what it really meant to be alive. He began to yearn for the simplest things, and was happy that he could do something ‘normal’ again. He had imagined that he had been sitting in the plane, and that the pilot had just announced the terrible news of the approaching disaster through the loudspeaker, and he realised just how much he would have fought, then, to cross the street one more time, and to hear everyday noises. Just to smell newly mown grass, or to watch a blue summer sky with white feathery clouds. To drink another cup of fresh coffee, and to take his beloved in his arms and smell the perfume of her hair. To hear the familiar noises of his house, which didn’t otherwise mean anything to him, let alone the laughter of a child.

In shock, he explained that he had wanted to change his whole life from that day forward, and that ‘to always want to win’ had suddenly become unimportant to him. He planed to lead a more modest life in the future, concentrating on what was really important, and enjoying the beauties of nature.

That man was really lucky that he was allowed to begin again from the beginning. I would like everyone who has lost the awareness of their lives to get it back, without such a drastic blow, of course. However, apparently some people need one before their dulled senses will become sensitive again.”

(Wolfgang Flür, Kraftwerk. I Was a Robot, p. 15)

Happy to exist
[An anecdote from the same source:]

“When my mother was still alive, she told me that once, when I was playing, I asked my five-year-old twin brother, ‘Winfried, are you actually happy that you exist?’ She said that my brother thought about this for a long time, and then answered sagely: ‘Yes, Wolfgang, I am actually happy that I exist.’ At this, she said that I had agreed with him, saying, ‘Me too, actually’. Even at an early age, it was important to me to know that those close to me were just as happy and contented. Nevertheless, Winfried did work a hesitant ‘actually’ into his answer; he was always a little more thoughtful and quieter than me.”
(p. 21)

Immortality

“There are millions of people yearning for immortality who don’t know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
(Maurice Chevalier)

Illumination

“Three things are needed to attain illumination:
A firm determination to obtain it,
A total faith that it will be obtained,
An absolute doubt about everything.”
(Hakuin)

A white carnation

While they were arranging a bouquet of flowers, the disciple took the opportunity to ask the master:

– How can liberation be obtained?
– Liberation can be obtained by placing here a white carnation among the red ones.
– You haven’t answered my question, master.
– Indeed I have.
– I don’t understand.
– Your question has to be answered according to each moment, and in this moment the answer is the white carnation.
– How?
– Liberation is obtained by doing at each moment whatever we are doing fully and attentively.
– And now we are working with the bunch of flowers.
– Which will come out perfect with the white carnation.
– Here it is, master.
– And by the way, my boy, if you think of liberation while you are arranging a bouquet of flowers, you’ll never attain liberation.

The secretaryI was in my office with Lucrecia, the young woman that had answered my ad for a secretary. She said she knew typewriting, shorthand, filing. and that, besides, she had the faculty of extra-sensory perception. She could read peoples’ thoughts.

– You truly can?
– Yes, I can.

I opened the window. I pointed to the milling crowd below and I asked her:

– Read their thoughts.
– I cannot read a single thought.
– I told you.
– But that’s not the cause you imagine. The cause is that not one of those people is thinking.

(P. García, Grandes minicuentos fantásticos, p. 245)

You tell me

Question: I’ve celebrated my golden jubilee as a religious sister and I’m happy with my vocation, but I’m troubled by a question: Why is it that I cannot feel as a jubilarian the devotion in prayer I felt as a novice?

Answer: Because you are a jubilarian and not a novice, my dear. You’re not going to ask a happily married couple to feel in their golden jubilee what they felt in their honeymoon fifty years before. There is a time for everything, and everything has a time to fit in.

I’m going to tell you something that’s not usually said, although it is true and can help you. Christianity is the only religion that is fully based on the love of God. It’s true that the Hebrew religion commanded in the Old Testament, “You will love Yahweh, your God, above all things”, but, for what we know about the Hebrews in the Old Testament they feared Yahweh more than they loved him. And the same holds for Allah and the Muslims. The Buddhists do not love Buddha, neither do the Confucionists love Confucius. Jains do not love Mahavir, and Parsis do not love Ahura Mazda. The Aztecs did not love Uitzilópochtli, and the Incas did not love the Sun and the Moon. We, on the other hand, love Jesus, and that is the centre of our religion.

This is our great strength, as it’s love that makes the world go round, and the love of Jesus has given us our martyrs and our virgins, virtue and sanctity, commitment and joy above everything in the world. But this is also our weak point, because love, though it must consist in deeds rather than words, includes feelings too, and feelings do not keep their first intensity and cool down with time. We were not told this in our novitiate, and so we are now ridden by our guilt complex when we find ourselves less fervent in prayer than we remember we were in our novitiate and even years later. Now you know it. On the other hand, fidelity, mutual trust, the memory of a long life together strengthen faith and inspire joy. The couple remains happily united in their golden jubilee. Even if they don’t feel now when holding hands the same they felt when they did it for the first time.

*

You tell me that in a survey recently conducted by Jesuits in Santiago de Chile among Catholic youth, only five young people out of the 650 interviewed were in agreement with the Church’s teaching in sexual and family morals. That is 0.8%. Not even one per cent. This has reminded me of that anecdote you also told me when I visited your country after Pope John Paul II’s visit to Santiago de Chile. In his meeting with the youth of the country, this dialogue took place between the Pope who asked the questions and the young people who answered multitudinously from the crowd:

– Do you want the world of power?
– NOOO!!!
– Do you want the world of money?
– NOOO!!!
– Do you want the world of sex?
– YEEES!!!

And that was the end of the dialogue for the time. Let the dialogue continue.

Psalm

Psalm 126 – Prayer of the compulsive worker

“In vain you rise up early
and go late to rest,
toiling for the bread you eat;
the Lord supplies the need of those he loves.”
Thank you, Lord, for this timely reminder. I work too much, I work because I believe myself to be indispensable, I work to achieve recognition, I work to escape from facing myself. And I cover up all that by saying that I work for you and your kingdom and my brothers and sisters in it. Hard work for me is an addiction, only that it has a respectable name and so I can be proud of it while I drug myself with its intoxication.

I feel glad, Lord, that you have found me out and have plainly denounced my vice and declared its futility. You have gently laughed at my long hours of work, and have with one word destroyed my reputation as a hard worker. Between you and me, Lord, I am happy you uncovered my plot, and I feel relieved of a burden I had uselessly put on my shoulders.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
its builders will have toiled in vain.
Unless the Lord keeps watch over a city,
in vain the watchman stands on guard.”

Not that I don’t have to work; I have to be somehow at my desk as the watchman has to be at his post if the city is to be guarded. But in reality, Lord, you are watching the city and you are building the house and you are doing the work at my desk, and your presence makes me feel lighter as we share responsibilities and I gently let the burden shift on to you.

I may still get up early, as a long habit is not easily broken, but I’ll surely approach my work now with a light heart and a knowing smile. Let’s pretend, let’s keep up the show, let’s play the game. Yes, work is only a game, and I now see it so and want to take it for what it is. No more slogging for results, but playing a friendly match without worrying about the score. I already feel lighter and relaxed, closer to you, Lord, and even happier with my very work.

Do you know what I guess? That now that I relax the grip on my work and reduce its time and its intensity. it’s going to go even better!

 

15th
I tell you

Breakdown

My computer broke down. It often does, with one excuse or another, and I think it does it to put on airs and draw attention to itself. We cannot live without it, and so it reminds us often of it to keep up its standing. It’s also true that the failures are often easily corrected hitting one key or another, and eventually switching the beast off and on again. They are just adolescent tantrums that pass soon and are promptly forgotten.

But this time it was different. No keys, no tickling, no switching off, no switching on. It just got stuck. I had to call the technician. I explained the problem and asked him about its cause and its remedy. He knows a great deal about computers and is very honest. He answered me: “I have no idea what is wrong with it. We’ll try and see.”

He clicked, displayed, opened, closed, chose options and more options. It didn’t work. Let’s try again. More keys and more windows. Again. More opening up the machine’s inwards. It’s unbelievable the things it has inside and the combinations that can be performed on them. But no success.

Suddenly there was light. The screen lit up, the lines straightened up, the keys responded, the programmes obeyed. Everything was fine. The technician smiled and let me try it all to make sure. It all worked to perfection. Problem over.

Then I asked him: “Could you now tell me what you’ve done and what steps have you followed to solve the problem so that, if it would come up again I could correct it myself?” He smiled and told me: “The trouble is I myself have no idea what it is I’ve done. It’s trial and error, and when it clicks, it clicks. I always find a solution, and I never know what it was when I’ve finished. Every situation is different.”

I thanked him for having set right my computer and for having taught me a good lesson in life. Every situation is different. Problems have no set answers. One has to try, fail, begin again, persevere, succeed. And nobody knows how it happened. Never to copy a procedure, never to repeat. At the end everything comes out right, and life goes on. Till next time.

Ecumenical menu

When Jacqueline du Pré, the greatest woman cellist in history, fell in love with the pianist Daniel Barenboim, there was a little problem in the family. Barenboim was Jewish, and Jacqueline Christian, and that gave rise to some tense moments. Jacqueline’s brother, Piers, tells one of them:

At the end of March, Jackie arranged to bring Danny for supper with Mum and Dad. The entire week was spent scrubbing and polishing, until the whole house was sparkling. We were all excited. Mum had telephoned Jackie to find out what Danny would like to eat and Jackie had told her that he liked all the things that she liked.

Mum had worked hard to make everything perfect. Jackie and Danny arrived in the early evening, with a large bottle of vodka. After some nervous introductions, Danny found Mum’s Blüthner grand piano (she was a music teacher) and music was soon filling the house. Mum was in her element. She flowed everywhere, singing. When the food was ready, we went into the dining room where she had lit the candles. After the hors-d’oeuvre, Mum proudly carried in the meat on a huge plate which she placed with ceremony on the table. To coos of anticipation she picked up the carving knife.

Now, she said. Who would like some…? – Her voice trailed off and her face changed from serenity to horror.
Oh, no! – she gasped. I’ve just realised. You don’t eat pork, do you? – She looked at Danny and then in disbelief at what she had spent all day preparing.
Of course I don’t eat pork, Iris, – said Daniel. What do you think you’re doing? Trying to make me commit a terrible sin?
Mum didn’t know what to say. Daniel held her stare, frowning. No one spoke or moved. The silence was deafening. Then, very slowly, a smile crept over his face.

Iris, of course I eat pork. Particularly when it’s been so well prepared. And I’m hungry, so don’t serve me short.
We all burst out laughing and the tension was dispelled.

Jacqueline converted to Judaism to marry Daniel. Mum and Dad began receiving awful letters from complete strangers. They made statements such as, “Jackie will be eternally damned because she will have to renounce Jesus Christ”, and “If you don’t stop it, you will have to answer to God.” They were cruel letters. Many of them were sent to them to forward to Jackie, but of course they never passed them on. They wanted, above all else, to protect Jackie and Danny. They needed to find answers. What is Judaism? Is it a cult? Is it occult? Dad announced at supper time: “Only one thing to do when in doubt. Call in the vicar.”

The Reverent Gordon Harrison, vicar of St James, duly came round for tea one Sunday to talk to us. When he was shown the letters, he sighed. Dad had his notepad ready to take down what was said. The tall, gentle minister explained that Judaism certainly was not a cult, but that the Jews are the chosen race, chosen by God and set apart from all others. If Jackie converted, she would be part of that chosen race and so would her children. He also pointed out that Jesus, of course, was a Jew. That was all it took to put Dad’s mind at rest.

Normally, to convert to Judaism, it is necessary to study for at least a year in order to experience all the festivals and holy days in the Jewish calendar. Some rabbis even require five years’ study and for the pupil to live with a Jewish family for the period. Even after conversion, it is usually six months before a wedding can take place. But in the case of Jackie and Danny, special dispensation was made. They had gone to Israel to cheer up the soldiers in the Six Day War, and they were given the benefit of the mood. Conversion and wedding took place in twenty-four hours. Jacqueline told how the conversion ceremony involved walking into a pool, immersing herself under the water, and climbing out the other side – totally naked. Normally, this would be witnessed by one or two rabbis. But, as Jackie said, “This time, there were dozens there!” She chose Shulamith as her Jewish name. Shulamith is the loved one in the Song of Songs. She arrived at the wedding with her hair wet.

(Hilary du Pré, A Genius in the Family, p. 193)

Ecumenical fast

The incident of the ecumenical menu has brought to my mind another similar incident in my life in India. One day, of an evening, I was walking along the streets of Ahmedabad when someone called me from a window. It was Gautam, a student of mine at College, who not only was outstanding in my mathematics class, but also had a marvellous voice with which he sung film songs or religious canticles with equal art. He lived in that house, saw me passing by, and called me in.

Hindus value the presence in their homes of a person who somehow represents God. “Let your footsteps sanctify my home”, is the loving invitation of the faithful with genuine feeling. I went in. Indian hospitality took over. I was invited for supper. Usually I don’t eat out at night, but I saw what the occasion meant to Gautam and I accepted the invitation. And here came the interesting part of it.

It was a Saturday, and on Saturdays Gautam fasted in the evenings. He never took supper. Such weekly fasts, one day or another, at noon or at night, are common among Hindus, and, once undertaken, are faithfully observed for life. Gautam’s family took supper on Saturdays, but he didn’t, and so he let me know. But then he added something that touched me: “I fast on Saturdays and never take supper. But today God has brought you to my house, you are my guest, and hospitality requires not only that I feed you but that I keep you company at table. So I’m going to take supper with you. God will forgive me for breaking my fast.”

I knew what that meant and appreciated the gesture. I’ve never forgotten it. I remember Gautam, his talent, his voice, his gesture. Let the menu never stand between us.

Wisdom

    • Is it many years since you got out of jail?
    • Yes, many years.
    • Do you remember them?
    • Hardly.
    • What about you, who were with him in jail?
    • I keep hating my jailers.
    • Then you’re still in jail.
    • The master taught me that the Buddha is my own mind.
    • I had the same master.
    • And what did he teach you?
    • He taught me that the Buddha is not my own mind.

The tree wanted to be eternal, and it flourished spring after spring with all its strength and all its life. Leaves and flowers and fruits and shadow. But it also saw that its leaves were less each time, its flowers wilted, its fruits were scarce. It dreaded mortality. One day the gardener told the tree:

      • I can teach you to be immortal.
      • How?
      • It’s rather hard but safe and sure.
      • I’m ready for everything.

The gardener cut down the tree. He handed over the trunk and branches to the carpenter. The carpenter cut it into planks and posts. A bridge was built over the river with those planks and those posts. And people still cross it every day.
“Unless the grain of wheat die…”

The animals were complaining against humans:
“They take my milk”, said the cow.
“They take my eggs”, said the hen.
“They take my body”, said the pig.

The only one not to complain was the snail. It walked slowly under its protecting shell and said: “Just as well I have well hidden what I have and no one will be able to take it away form me. I have time. Let no one find out.”

You tell me

A short time ago I quoted here a paragraph from the pastoral letter of some bishops in Spain earlier this year about the state of the Church, and now someone has sent me the whole text. I’m going to quote from it several paragraphs that make us think. It is an extraordinary ecclesiastical document for its sincerity and clarity.

“This document wants to be a believer’s reading of the night through which our Churches are passing. (5)

The weak presence of young people, as well as the generation between 30 and 50 years, in our churches is evident and is a cause of concern. (7)

Among the young, the habit of Sunday Mass has hardly existed in the history of their lives. (8)

There is a group of baptised people whose links with faith and Church are almost non-existing. Many of them state they believe in God, but his face has no defined features for them. It is a kind of twilight sun. The name of God is not familiar to them and does not motivate them. Rather than believing in God they believe that God exists. Such a belief has no influence on their daily life. The image they have of him is cloudy and hardly that of a person. ‘There must be Something’ is their favourite expression. Some of them come close to agnosticism: ‘I believe he exists, but I’m not sure.’ Jesus Christ is for them a highly moral and exemplary character, but they are not quite convinced he is the Son of God. Of the Gospel they appreciate almost exclusively its humanistic values. The whole of the Christian message appears to them as a mental construct woven, along the centuries, round the remembrance of Jesus. Prayer has no place in their lives, except for moments of great crisis or anguish. They are Catholics without a Church, without Christ the Saviour, without God the Father. (9)

Christian faith is inexorably weakening in the whole European West. This is a fact unanimously recognised by all observers. All these countries without exception show a remarkable weakening. In Europe we are going through a very severe religious and ecclesiastical winter. (15)

Many Christians, even practicing Christians, raise serious objections against Church principles relative to sex and family morals, as well as human life’s ethics. (15)

The giving up of the Sunday Eucharist on the part of many is obvious and quantifiable. Attendance to Sunday Mass has come down ten points along the last ten years. (18)

Surveys show that 24% of our youth accept this attitude: ‘I ignore God; I’m not interested in the topic; God does not exist.’ (19)

The danger that the link of faith transmission in the family may be broken is today real among us. (21)

The Church as an institution is undergoing a severe crisis. These are sad times for the credibility of the Church. In the last years the image of the hierarchy has suffered a great devaluation. (22)

The global perception of most of our Christians about the situation of our Church is overwhelmingly pessimistic. A large section of our people think the Church is not doing well. Their personal experience, the public opinion all around them, the image they get through the majority of the media confirm them in their view. The present is hard: the future is sombre. Pessimism prevails. Collective self-esteem is dwindling. (35)

Not so long ago we could see how ‘the stones were converted into children of Abraham’. Today we see how many children of Abraham are converted into stones.” (43)

Psalm

Psalm 127 – The family meal

It is a grace to take meals together, to sit at table with my brothers, to eat in common the fruit of our own la­bours, to feel like a family and talk and comment the events of the day with the informal intimacy of the happy group. It is a blessing to have meals together. Maybe the common dining room unites us as much as the common chapel does. We are body and soul, and if we learn to pray together and to eat together we’ll be half way towards learning the necessary art of living together.

I want to learn the art of conversation at table which frames a savoury dish in the elegant gesture of wit and pleasantry. No business meals, no hurried lunches, no makeshift sandwiches at the office while work goes on: that is insulting the mind and trespassing on the body. A meal has its liturgy too, and I want to follow its rubrics with the reverence due to my body, privileged part of God’s creation.

Good food is a Biblical blessing on a good man’s table. I appreciate good food with Christian thanksgiving to enliv­en the most earthly part of our existence with the simplest of pleasures in its daily recurrence. Has not heaven been compared to a banquet by people who knew about it? If heaven is a banquet, every meal is a rehearsal for heaven.

May the Psalm’s blessing descend on all our meals as we say grace at table:

“You shall eat the fruit of your own labours,
you shall be happy and you shall prosper.
May the Lord bless you from Zion;
may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.”

1st
I tell you

Ten million

That was quite a flattering e-mail. Someone had read my web site and meant to act on it. Good beginning. Then came the proposal. He was the secretary of the Catholic widow of a Muslim sheik in Afganistan who wanted to gift her heritage to works of charity in the Church. She thought I was the right person to distribute that money as my web site made me trustworthy. Ten million dollars for the very poor. I was to contact her secretary and follow instructions. The widow trusted me.

My friends and I had a good time of it. Another electronic swindle as though there were not too many already. This time with a personal touch of credibility worked out through the Web. My friends urged me to answer and follow the joke, as no risk was apparent so far. No clues. But the Sherlock Holmes in me woke up. The e-mail address was a “yahoo.com” that could have come from anywhere in the world. The language was polite, the gospel quotations were correct. Then there was a phone number for contact. That brought us luck. The international prefix led us to… Nigeria! Rather strange. A Catholic widow of an Afgan Muslim with a secretary in Nigeria to reach a contact in Spain. Follow the lead. They had supplied the secretary’s name and we entered it in Google. The first entry read: “Name used by Nigerian mafias for their international frauds via Internet.” Quite a widow! She must have missed my answer.

I’m only left with the curiosity to know what would have happened it I had said yes. Anybody wants ten million dollars?

If you love someone, tell them
[Piers du Pré, brother of the world-famous cellist Jacqueline du Pré, tells his last meeting with his mother when she was diagnosed terminal cancer:]

“I found it hard to pray for Mum. All I could do was ask that she should not suffer pain. As the end was drawing near, I knew that I must have some time with her on my own. I wanted to tell her that I loved her and that I would always appreciate everything she had ever done for me, everything she had given me, zest for life, enthusiasm, ability to be myself. But she was always surrounded by people. My private moment had to be soon.

But then my sister Hilary called to say that the doctors had given her an automatic diamorphine dispenser. Anguish engulfed me. The diamorphine would make her drowsy. She would not be herself any more. I needed to have my special time with her before the drug could take effect. I flew out of the office and drove furiously to her house. I ran into the sitting room, but was too late. There she was in bed with an unusual smile on her face, her eyes slightly glazed and wandering. I tried to talk to her, but there was no real understanding.

A few days later, Hilary called me during the night. Without hesitation, I dressed and drove over. Her nurse told me the time was near. Dad’s bed was next to Mum’s. He was holding her hand and looking into her eyes. I held her other hand. It was cold and felt awful but I didn’t want to let go. Eventually her breathing began to catch in the back of her throat. I prayed quietly. “Oh, please, dear Father God, let her die in peace.” Every breath seemed to be her last, but then there would be a pause before she suddenly took another. The only other sound within the room was the occasional buzz of the wretched morphine machine.

Mum died shortly after dawn on 27 September 1985. I never had my special time with her.

(Piers du Pré, A Genius in the Family, p. 354)

The mirror
[Another memory of Piers’, this time about his grandmother:]

We went backstage to see Jackie and Danny [the pianist Daniel Barenboim] in the artists’ Green Room. As we walked away I could see Mum, Dad, Gran, my girlfriend Lin and myself reflected in a full-size mirror at the other end of the corridor. On arriving at the mirror, we all turned the corner. Except Gran. Her eyesight was not good enough for her to realise that the person she could see straight in front of her was herself. She tried to move to the right and then to the left, and apologised to the mirror as her reflection moved with her. She dodged quickly back to the right again, stopped, put her hands on her hips defiantly and said: “Excuse me, please, I’m trying to get past.” She moved to the left. So did her reflection. Suddenly she was extremely cross. “I suppose you think this is clever!”

By now we were all helpless with laughter. “It’s not funny,” Said Gran, turning to face her opponent once again. “Now will you please move OUT OF MY WAY?”

“Gran”, I said. “It’s a mirror and you’re talking to yourself.” She looked carefully at her reflection looking carefully at her. Then she turned to us and snorted: “You did it on purpose, didn’t you?”

(p. 194)

An expensive shelf

A windy afternoon in December some friends invited me to their apartment where I’d never been before. After I was warmly received at the door, I entered the living room and I almost bumped against a large and imposing Grand Steinway piano. It rose, black and shining, filling by itself almost the whole space as though it were a powerful race horse outside its place. After passing carefully around the imposing instrument, we found some chairs against the farther wall and we sat on them to take our tea and chat together.

After twenty or thirty minutes I dared to ask about the piano. I had no idea my friends had a musical talent and I wanted to know who of the two played the piano. My question seemed to make them blush a little, and it turned out that none of the two had ever touched a keyboard. They knew no music. The only purpose of the huge instrument was to be an elegant shelf on which to exhibit a number of family photographs framed in silver frames. The piano was never opened.

(Gary Thorp, Sweeping Changes, p. 77)

Spilt milk

Persons and objects keep coming in and out of our lives. The flow of existence. When you spill the milk, you break a glass, you tear a cloth, you feel surprised and get angry with yourself. How can I be so clumsy? You would like it should not have happened. But, when you think of it, those accidents help you to appreciate more the things that go and to feel the fleetingness of this life.

Buddhism teaches that whatever we see or experience is impermanent and subject to the flux of existence. This is the first law of Buddhism. The only thing we can truly depend on is that all things are unstable and temporary, which is not exactly what the majority of the people would like to hear.

The poets in their haikus developed this fleeting aspect of our existence into a high form of art, trying to convey in seventeen syllables and three lines the essence of a brief moment in life and freeze it for ever so that we all can share in it.

When you clean up the milk you have spilt or collect the pieces of the broken glass or patch up the torn cloth, try to concentrate on the fact that things do not last for ever. Even when we say that we live in a “throw away” society, we recognise that some of the things in our lives are irreplaceable: cherished photographs, personal letters, an image, a picture.

Buddhism teaches us that in reality nothing is replaceable. That is, that all things are. Each thing in our existence is precious and unique, has its own nature and spirit. And each one will disappear at its right moment and in its own way. Learn to enjoy. And learn to give up. Only when you have appreciated something totally, can you give it up totally.”

(p. 73)

Haiku

“We are all haikus:
A life: seventeen syllables;
Three lines.” (p. 153)

(That’s fifteen syllables.)

The tortoise

All the people in the village revered the Master who had taught them the way of truth, the secret of life, the mystery of eternity. They all listened to his teaching and treasured his doctrine. He solved the problems of the entire village and ruled the consciences of all the villagers. They trusted him and praised his wisdom.

One day they felt a little curiosity and, since he had solved for them all the great riddles of life and death, they went to ask him about something simpler but which had them all a little mystified.

– Master, in the lake near our village there lives a tortoise which raises its head above water few times and very far between so that it must be very old. Can you tell us its age?
– Yes. The tortoise puts out its head once every five hundred years, and I have seen it put out its head four times, so that it is at least two thousand years old.
– How do you want us to believe such nonsense?
– If you believe me when I tell you much harder things about life and eternity, why don’t you believe me now that I’m telling you something much easier to believe?

I believe the Master was waiting for the occasion to open their eyes and have a good time with them. I don’t know whether they understood him. I find the little story delightful in its wisdom.

The Scarecrow

Hori’s land was in full bloom. The crop had ripened and was ready to be cut. It was like a festive day for Hori and his family. They were eager to reach their field with the least delay and get down to work. He had set up a Scarecrow in the middle of his fields to protect the crop from birds. But then, as he approached the fields he saw from the distance that someone was plying the scythe and cutting down the crop. He could distinctly hear the swishing sound of the scythe cutting through the crop at the other end of the field. A vague fear clutched his heart.

“Who are you, you bastard?” Hori cried mustering courage. “Why don’t you speak?” He threateningly waved his own scythe in the direction of his field. Suddenly a skeleton-like thing rose to view at the other end of the field. A faint smile appeared on its face as it stood there gazing at them. They heard its voice. “It’s I, the Scarecrow!” And it waived its scythe in the air. They all emitted a stifled cry and their faces turned pale. For sometime they stood in a daze. They seemed to have lost count of time. Till they heard Hori’s voice, they were not even aware whether they were alive or dead.

“You, Scarecrow, you! How do you dare to speak? I fabricated you with my own hands for the protection of my crops. I put together some bamboo sticks and attired you in the Englishman’s clothes, the clothes that he had discarded and given to my father as a parting gift. Your face was made with the discarded clay pot lying in my house. I put the Englishman’s hat over the pot which formed your head. You, lifeless bamboo frame, how dare you cut my crop?”

The Scarecrow kept smiling as if Hori’s hectoring tone had failed to create any impression on it. As Hori stalked nearer he found that the Scarecrow had already cut down one-fourth of his crop. It was standing over the cut crop, scythe in hand and smiling. Its sight almost drove Hori mad. Stepping forward, he gave the Scarecrow a violent push. But the Scarecrow did not budge from its place. On the other hand the push seemed to have recoiled against Hori and he fell at some distance from the Scarecrow.

“So you have become stronger than me, Scarecrow? You, whom I improvised with my own hands. For the sole purpose of guarding my crop. Who gave you this life?”

“I got it on my own. The day you slashed the bamboo pole in order to improvise my frame and brought the Englishman’s rotten clothes to attire me and sketched my eyes, nose, mouth and ears on that discarded clay pot of yours – on that very day life started struggling to break out through the sum total of these ingredients. I’m the sum and substance of the ingredients assembled by you in giving me shape. I stood here patiently waiting for the crop to ripen. I have not played foul with you in any manner. I just kept waiting for this day. Today when you came to gather your crop I cut my share of it. There’s nothing to be angry about.”

“No, this will not be allowed to happen. It’s a big conspiracy against me. I don’t take you to be alive. No, it’s nothing but some sort of illusion. I’ll not allow you to take away even a blade of grass from here. You’re just a useless and dead Scarecrow, nothing else.”

“Now listen to me. Who is the Scarecrow, you or I? In what way are you more alive than me? Your life is a life of boredom, of repetition, of conditioning, of routine. They have put on you habits and customs just as you put on me the old Englishman’s clothes, and they have set a smile on your lips as you painted a smile on my face. You are a Scarecrow shaped by society as much as I am a Scarecrow shaped by your hands. Let’s share our field.”

And the Scarecrow went on harvesting the crop in his part of the field while Hori smiled… the Scarecrow’s smile.

(The Scarecrow by Surendra Prakash, abridged.)

You tell me

I see some of you have been worried on account of the bishops’ pastoral letter I put up last time here. Your concern does you honour, but at the same time you can be strengthened and enlightened by the honesty and clarity with which they speak. The last quarter of a century has not gone well for the Church, but the fact that we now realise it and say it is also a sign that things can go better. That’s why I’ve put the Scarecrow’s tale. And the tortoise’s tale too. To see if we get a little shaken and get down to think.

Psalm

Psalm 128 – My enemies

It is hard for me to admit it even to myself, but it is a fact I can ignore no longer, and I’d better confess it to my¬se1f: I have enemies. There are people who dislike me, peo¬ple who oppose me, people who try to hinder my work and ruin my successes. There are people who speak ill of me be¬hind my back, who rejoice when I fail and feel sorry when I succeed. This is no persecution mania, but the clear and simple admission of unpleasant reality. I am not every¬body’s money, and it is good for me to know it.

“Often since I was young have men attacked me.
They scored my back with scourges,
like ploughmen driving long furrows.”
The image is brutal, but the reality is no less inhu¬man. They ploughed my back as a farmer ploughs his field with an iron blade. I wear the scars of enmity on the tis¬sues of my soul. I want to accept the reality of my suffer¬ings at other peoples’ hands without myself bearing enmi¬ty or feeling embittered by the behaviour against me of people I call my brothers.

My reflection today is not about them but about my¬self. The fact that I have enemies humbles me. I thought I was a fine person, attractive and loveable for all. I realize it is not so. I don’t blame anybody and don’t blame myself, but take notice of the blunt fact that chastens me. Not eve¬rybody likes me.

My reaction now is that I can learn more about my¬self from my enemies than from my friends. Those who like me flatter me with their affection and their apprecia¬tion, while those who dislike me discover my weak points to me with their criticism and their attacks. If I pay atten¬tion to the hidden messages behind the opposition I en¬counter, I can learn more about myself than in many hours of self-examination. Self-knowledge is precious, and my opposers are the best source I can get it from. With¬out seeking to justify a situation I have to endure, I want now to draw from it the benefit of a rare gift for my soul. I want to grow in self-knowledge by studying the reactions I provoke in others, not only favourable in my friends, but, and particularly so, unfavourable in my enemies.

Thank you for those who oppose me, Lord. They are helping me to uncover my own true self before myself.

 

15th
I tell you

One to eleven

I’ve read an interview in which a worker is asked, “How is your life?” and he answers, “Eleven months a year to slog in order to have one month of holidays to enjoy.” It hurt me. I understand that work may not be pleasant, that daily repeated toil can be tiring, and that it’s not easy for people who work comfortably seated at a table to realise the tension and frustration of the person who works on a scaffolding in the open.

All that is true. But to see life, from whatever perspective it may be, as a one to eleven ratio between joy and pain is very sad algebra. And the saddest thing is that even people who work comfortably at a table in their office find often their work irksome and suffer from the tension between the work they dislike and the leisure they like. Even in plush offices can work depression be felt. Six days against one Sunday, or five days against a weekend. That’s a weak ratio. It always hurts. We cannot polarise life.

The secret of life is to find oneself at home in it each moment, to accept reality as it is, to live in the present. Living only for the weekend destroys the week. If I don’t enjoy my Monday and Tuesday, I’m not going to enjoy Saturday and Sunday either. Do what you do. Live what you live. In and out.

Eleven months to dream of the holidays. Isn’t that also a danger that threatens to spoil the holidays?

Hebrew legend

Noah told his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, about his plans for the Flood. Shem had many trees in his fields, so he cut them down at once and sold the timber to his father to build the Ark. With the money he got he had a good time in his vineyards as we know he liked to do. Ham also cut down his trees and burnt the firewood to warm up his house in the days before the Flood. Japheth left his trees just as they were. He didn’t know what was going to happen, but he trusted nature would look after the trees as nature had given them birth. When the first rains came, they all went into the Ark.

When the Flood was over, Japheth went back to his fields. The trees looked a bit haggard, what with the mud and the muck, but the waters had fertilised the soil, and in a short time the trees took on a new look, a new life, shining leaves, blooming flowers, delightful fruits. Japheth sold the fruits to Shem and Ham and became a prosperous landowner. We must trust even the Flood.

Indian legend
Kannapa was a hunter in the mountainous regions of South India. He trusted in his own strength and his aim with his arrows, and he and all his family and his tribe lived on the preys he hunted day by day. He did not believe in God, never went into a temple, and trusted only his arm and his arrows.

As he advanced in age he was not so strong as in his youth, and sometimes he found it difficult to shoulder the animals he had shot. One day he shot so many animals that he could hardly carry them back on his shoulders. But then he noticed a strange thing. As he was passing in front of a high mountain along the way he felt that as he approached the mountain, the weight on his shoulders became lighter and he could walk easily, while as he left the mountain behind the load became again heavy and he could hardly advance on his way. Then he decided to leave his load on the ground and to examine the landscape.

He came to the foot of the mountain, climbed along its paths, crossed the jungle on its sides, reached the summit. There on the summit he found a Shiva’s temple in ruins and covered with bushes. The hunter understood. The strength he had experienced came from there. He cleaned the bushed, restored the temple, invoked the name of God. And his strength returned to him.

Believing and practicing
[Peter Ustinov relates:]

“No fish tastes like fish you catch yourself, and every day on your ship is a journey of discovery. My boat Nitchevo has been my inspiration in good times, my salvation in bad. The Captain who came with it, José Pérez Jiménez, is an integral part of his craft. He was aboard when I bought it, and we have aged together. His wife Carmen, a blonde girl with a gentle Spanish beauty, a little doll-like in repose, tinged with both melancholy and humour in animation, sails with us, and cooks the fish we catch.

José himself has the aquiline gravity of the bullfighter, and would have inspired confidence in any of the navigators of the golden age. Salvador Dali’s answer when asked whether he believed in God would suit his Spanish attitude to the ground, even to the sky. ‘I practise but I do not believe.’ Or, as others say and it probably comes to the same, ‘I believe but do not practice’.

Having read in his Baedeker that the island of Mikonos possessed something like three hundred churches and chapels for a population of two thousand, José turned to me like a grandee of Spain as an impenetrable fog swirled around us off the island, and said, ‘Three hundred churches, and so little light’.”

(Peter Ustinov, Dear Me, p. 290)

Question

– Master, how is it that you accept some people as disciples and give then spiritual knowledge, while you reject others?
– It’s they themselves that decide it.
– How’s that?
– You’ve already decided.

Youth

“Melany”, said my daughter Natasha to her little friend as they came in jumping into my library on their fourth birthday, “I want to introduce you to my father. He’s a hundred years old.” We grow old at a different pace.

(Carlos Fuentes, En esto creo, p. 117)

Children. and grown-ups

“As I finished my last year in the primary school of my village, my brother Pancho took me to La Plata to carry on my studies. Many times I wept at night in the city that later came to be so intimately woven into my own destiny. In the painful days that preceded the beginning of the classes, I experienced one of the deepest sorrows in my life. I had gone into the forest with a tin palette, a humble imitation of a painter’s palette my brother had bought for me in our village’s hardware store. I had water colours which were for me a treasure and with which I copied pictures from calendars. I remember a troika in the snow of far-away, mysterious Russia.

I asked my way to the famous La Plata forest and there I went with my water colours, a bottle of water, a couple of brushes and some white sheets of paper. I sat on the grass in the midst of some high eucalyptus trees and began to paint one of those rugged trunks with all its shades of green, ochre and brown. All mixed in a unique pattern that thrilled my soul. Everything was peaceful in the blessed morning, and the power of beauty had made me forget my own melancholy.

Suddenly disaster struck. I was less than twelve years old and was alone, when suddenly a group of ruffians of about fifteen years appeared, and they started laughing at me, took my palette away from me, stamped on my humble water colours, broke my brushes and threw away my bottle of water. They laughed and laughed till they went away.

For a time that looked to me like eternity I remained sitting on the grass and weeping. Finally I got up and went slowly towards my boarding, but I lost my way and I had to ask several times for my street.

When at last I arrived, I went to my room and remained the whole day in bed. I shuddered as though I had fever; or perhaps I had fever.”

(Ernesto Sabato, Antes del fin, p. 37)

More childhood memories
[A page from the diary of a Chinese girl. No fiction.]“This afternoon I want to write my diary, but I can’t find my ball-pen. I ask my brothers, but they don’t know where it is. I look for it in the place where I was writing my diary the previous day, but it does not appear. I ask my mother. She answers that yesterday she saw I had left my notebook and my ball-pen on my bed, and, being afraid I might lose them, she kept them in a drawer. But I cannot find my ball-pen. My heart hurts.

You may think: ‘What is the matter? It’s only a ball-pen! How can it cause such sadness?’ If you knew how much I had to suffer in order to get that ball-pen! I was saving from my pay for two semesters. Some of my friends had two or three ball-pens, but I had none and I could not resist the temptation to buy one.

My difficulties to get that ball-pen are just a reflection of all our difficulties. My mother gave me money to buy bread. We had been for days eating only yellow rice. I preferred to go hungry and save money, and so I could buy the ball-pen. How much did it make me suffer!

My dear ball-pen gave me a feeling of strength, made me understand the difference between a happy life and a sad life. But now I have disappointed my mother and I am a useless burden. My life at school is not worthwhile. I’ve not even got admission into the girls’ school. What’s the use of life?

But I now feel hope. I must succeed. I’ll find a good job and I’ll be happy.”

(Le Journal de Ma Yan, p. 109)

Till death

“There is a young man whom I always remember whenever I go back in my imagination to the days I was working in the Calcutta railway station. He was at one end of the platform, on the floor, naked. He must have been about thirteen. He was so thin that all his ribs stood out clearly. His lips were dry, faded; his mouth remained open as though he wanted to get as much air as possible. It was evident that he had TB, but in such an advanced stage that he wouldn’t easily recover.

I lifted him with the help of Concha, a Spanish girl volunteer. We put him on a stretcher and we took him to a taxi. I was in the rear seat by his side, holding his hand, and Concha was in front, next to the driver. As soon as the young man saw that someone was taking care of him, that he would not come to the end of his days alone, in between travellers, peddlers and stray dogs, he closed his eyes, smiled wanly and let himself die.”

(Hernán Zin, La libertad del compromiso, p. 107)

You tell me

You often ask me questions about prayer, and that does you honour. Prayer is the food of our life. The important thing is to grow in prayer as we grow in life. Never to get stuck in a particular way or “method” of prayer, however good it may be.

I was once going out to give a talk on prayer to a group of religious. I was coming down in the lift when it got stuck in a floor, would not go down or up and the door would not open. I pressed the emergency button, the alarm sounded and I was rescued. I told the person in charge:

– The lift got stuck when coming down.
– In what floor?
– The fourth.
– Right. It’s the fourth floor where it gets stuck.

I went out determined never to take the lift again, and I concentrated on how to begin my talk. Then I realised the lift had given me the idea. Do not get stuck in the fourth floor. We all begin, we all go ahead, we all reach the fourth floor., and we all get stuck there, not going neither up nor down. There are more floors in the building, more halls in the Interior Castle of St Teresa, more ways of dealing with God, more mysteries in life.

Prayer has to become something pleasant for us. I know that there are always lights and shadows, and St Ignatius speaks of “consolation” and “desolation”, and St John of the Cross of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. Prayer is a test, and life is long, and the bridegroom is often late to come.

All that is true and is well-known. But if someone thinks that prayer has to be hard and uphill, I don’t agree with them. On the contrary, I believe the first rule of prayer and its first principle is that, allowing for days or seasons of dryness or darkness, prayer has to be joyful and easy: and if it is not, it is not prayer and it will not last long. Prayer is friendship with God, and if friendship becomes a burden, it ceases to be friendship, and soon it will fade away. To have a good time in prayer is the secret to persevere in it.

Psalm

Psalm 129 – Out of the depths

“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord!”Whatever prayers I am making to you, Lord, I mean all of them to be preceded by this verse: “Out of the depth.” Whatever prayer I make to you I mean it, Lord, I make it from the depths of my humility and from the depths of my heart, I make it from the seriousness of my experience and from the urgency of my salvation. Whatever I pray, I pray with all my heart and all my soul, putting my whole life into each word, my whole being in every request. Every prayer I make is the breath of my soul, my hope of survival and my claim to eternal joy.

I am serious when I pray, Lord, and it is no routine, no habit, no need to conform to usage or keep appearances or give good example that drives me to your presence and sets me on my knees. It is the need to be myself, in all the poverty of my being and all the greatness of my hope; and I can be that only before you in prayer. That is why I pray, Lord.

I know my misery, I know my indignity, I know my sin. But I also know your pardon and your grace, and I wait for you eagerly to receive your visit in time of need. “Out of the depth.”

“I wait for the Lord with all my soul.
I hope for the ful¬filment of his word.
My soul waits for the Lord more eagerly
than watchmen for the morning.
Like men who watch for the morning,
O Israel, look for the Lord”.
Sense, Lord, my eagerness, and see my seriousness. I need you as the watchman needs the dawn. I need you as the earth needs the sun. When I pray, I pray in dead ear¬nest, knowing as I do that you are everything to me, and that prayer is my daily link with you.

So today I pray for my prayers. I remind myself be¬fore you of their meaning and their importance. I pray to continue to pray from the depth of my heart, and I pray for you to continue to see each prayer of mine as a prayer of my whole being for my whole life.

“Out of the depths have I called lo you, O Lord!”

1st
I tell you

Antiquities museum

I was visiting the largest museum of old objects in India. Vessels, cauldrons, lamps, images. Some of them, the guide told us, were a thousand years old. Simple tools of daily use. Kitchen implements, liturgical vessels, the sharpened pliers to cut the unavoidable areca nut, or the pots to bring water from the well with their sides anatomically adapted to the body of the woman who carries them. Different from the pots for the milk with their broader mouth to accommodate two udders of the cow when milking. Hundreds of them.

How much history in those curves, how many families in those frames, how many remembrances in those chests! How many hands must have held that knife, in how many mouths must that spoon have entered, how many corners must that oil lamp have lighted! A thousand years. One could feel the whole hall pulsating with the rumours of conversation, the warmth of encounters, the secret of confidences. Long history of a whole people.

What will remain of our plastic forks and spoons, of our paper cups, our silicone circuits? The long history, the living tradition, the footprints of time disappear. Now everything comes and everything goes. We live without history and die without heirs. Throw-away culture.

In the museum there was a unique object: a traditional monstrance for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in a Catholic church. Between dancing Shivas and raising Vishnus, between Buddhas and Krishnas, between lamps and candlesticks stood the Christian object with its sunrays emanating from its eucharistic centre to give light and love. Who knows from which church, which century, which looting, which ruin, which accident of history had the sacred object being brought here. But the ancient monstrance was there in all its dignity, nobility, art and faith in the strange and friendly surroundings. The guide pointed to it: “The Lord Jesus”, he said. He said it well.

The jade earrings

“My father had a fine pair of jade cufflinks which he had acquired in Singapore. One day I said to him,

– Daddy, you are not using those cufflinks, why don’t you give them to me?
– And what, pray, are you going to do with them?
– Make them into earrings.
– Don’t be silly, Suma. I don’t think they will look nice as earrings, and furthermore which goldsmith would waste his time undertaking such an assignment?
– I will find one.

I tried a couple of big jewellers in town, but drew a blank. They were not interested. Then, a friend suggested Mylapore, and one Saturday morning, I found an elderly goldsmith in a small lane in Mylapore, who agreed to convert the fade cufflinks into earrings for me.

He did a beautiful job and I was on cloud nine. Best of all, Daddy agreed with me that the cufflinks looked lovely as earrings.

Two years later, I was walking with a college mate in Mylapore and wearing the jade earrings. We had stopped to admire some silverware in a shop window, when suddenly I felt someone touch my left ear! I was startled and stepped back hastily to find the old goldsmith examining the earrings intently. When he saw the look on my face, he smiled and said in Tamil, ‘Don’t be angry, I am just checking that all is well with the earrings.’ That done, he went on his way.

That evening when I told Daddy what had transpired, he said, ‘Now, that’s what I call a perfectionist. I would like to meet him.’

The following Saturday we went and looked for him. His little place was locked and the man next door said he had gone away to his village.

In the evening Daddy called Romesh and me to his study. He told Romesh what the goldsmith had done and said, ‘I have been trying to inculcate in both of you the importance of striving for excellence in whatever you do. If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well’.”

(Sumangali Chettur, Tea with Pandit Nehru, p. 124)

The voice tells
[Ved Mehta is blind since childhood, and maybe that’s why the voice is especially important for him.]

“I tried to recall everything I had felt as a child about Auntie Rasil in order to conjure her up. I was probably the only one in the family who never took to her, and I think that that had to do with her harsh, nasal, almost grating voice. I said to my father:

– I don’t think I liked her. Her voice put me off. In my experience, there is always a correlation between voice and character – I would have said voice and looks, except that I know people said she was one of the most beautiful women in the Punjab.
– Her voice might have been a vestige of the poor hill girl she had once been that survived her transformation into a well-to-do Punjabin. But that was her only imperfection, and I thought it only succeeded in setting off her dazzling beauty.
– I remember that she had the voice of the witch on a children’s radio programme I used to listen to as a child.
– She must have made a great impression on you if you still remember what you thought of her as a child.
– How could she not? Somehow I must have got the sense that she was someone important to you. Now I wonder if she’d bewitched you… in another way.
– Well, well, well, son. Don’t be rush in judging your Auntie or me.
I felt I had been hasty and had overstepped the bounds of propriety, I had no right to make judgements like that; but I was curious and mortified at having been so naïve in spite of such evident sign. So I went on:

– I would like to know more, but it’s really up to you what you would like to tell or keep back.
– Yes, yes. You have guessed, and I cannot keep back from you the truth, but whatever confidences I make to you are only for your ears. They are to be locked up in your heart, never revealed to your mother or anyone else.
– Is that injunction permanent?
– At least until your dear mother and I are no longer alive.

My father and my auntie had been lovers. My father told me everything. My mother knew it too. But traditionally Hindus went to the cremation ground with their family secrets. I have told it to exorcise my memory. At least that explained my remembrance of my auntie’s voice. A witch’s voice. She was my father’s lover. The voice tells.

(Ved Mehta, The Red Letters, p. 44)

The blind man and the Master

A blind man spoke about Master Bankei (1622-1693) and said the best thing he could say:

“I am blind, and cannot see the face of the person with whom I speak. I must, in consequence, judge only his sincerity from his voice. My experience tells me that when I hear someone congratulate a friend on his success, I notice a ring of jealousy in his voice; and when I hear social condolences, I detect also a secret note of pleasure.

However, this does not happen to me with Bankei: when he expresses joy, there is only joy in his voice; and when he expresses sadness, it is only sadness that I hear in him.”

My comments:

“My voice takes birth in the inner recesses of my conscience, winds its way through nets of tissues, through lungs and diaphragm, through temper and volume, and becomes intelligible language in that throbbing miracle of vocal prowess that my throat is. All I am is in that voice, and it identifies me, with the exactness of a fingerprint, before the science-fiction machine, as before the keen ears of the sightless sage.

My voice betrays my mood. And I am glad to know that, so that I can now learn how to tune it to truth. When I hear my own voice, I realise how at times it sounds false, hollow, deceivingly flattering or stiffly formal. I say one thing while I feel another, and the words are proper, because they are censured in time, but the voice escapes censorship and shakes with the hidden lie of the jarring note.

I want to listen to my own voice, so that I can scrutinise my conscience, filter my feelings, tune my thought. I want to hear myself when I speak so that I may know how my voice sounds, how my vowels vibrate, how my phrases ride the wind. I want to spot the sensitive dissonances between what I feel and what I say. I want to do away with any hint of divergence between the convictions of my soul and the sound of my voice. I want to sing the song of my life with a full voice, leaving no trace of doubt, to myself or to any one, that I say what I mean and I mean what I say. My voice has to be truth, if my life is to be testimony.”

(And the Butterfly Said…” p. 83)

Without words

“Once, in the winter of 1981, while I was walking with my wife on the streets in Prague, we saw a boy drawing the buildings around him. I liked one of his drawings and decided to buy it. When I stretched out my hand with the money, I realised he had no gloves on, while the temperature was 5 degrees below zero.

“Why are you wearing no gloves?” I asked him. “So that I can hold well my pencil”, he answered. And he began telling me how he loved Prague in winter, as that was the best season to draw the city. He was so happy about selling his picture to us that he decided to make a portrait of my wife without charging anything.

While I was waiting for him to finish the portrait, I realised something very strange had taken place: we had been talking during almost five minutes, without either of us knowing the other’s language. We understood each other only through gestures, laughs, facial expression and the will to share something.

The simple will of sharing something made us enter into the world of language without words, where everything is clear and there is no risk of misunderstanding.”

(Paulo Coelho)

You tell me

You often ask me about the meaning of Zen stories which I so much like, and several of you had asked me about the one of the tortoise I told in November. I like these stories because they shake my mind, cancel my routine, open up for me new horizons I had never known, and they leave me – as they leave you – with the sensation that I’ve understood nothing and yet I’ve touched with my fingertips something very important that one day will be fully revealed to me. And in the meantime they leave me with the fun, the mystery, the tickling, the curiosity, the mischief, the adventure to enter realms I know nothing about and to get lost in labyrinths that lead to the light.

I’m going to tell three such tales that touch me deeply; the first two I’ve already told some time, not so the third one.

– The pilgrimage has been wonderful, Master.
– Why has it been so wonderful, my son?
– Because I have seen the largest image of the Buddha on earth.
– You must be very strong, my son.
– Why do you say that, Master?
– Because I see you are still carrying it on your shoulders.
– Master, which is the difference between illumination and liberation?
– That one is only temporal, while the other lasts for ever.
– And which is the one that lasts for ever?
– Oh, that I don’t know.
– Master, could you show me the direction of the way to Truth?
– Yes, surely. It’s North… or South.
– Could you be a little more specific, Master?
– Yes, yes, of course. It’s East… or West.
– Thank you, Master.

Questions are invited.

Psalm

Psalm 130 – The prayer of the intellectualToo many words, Lord, too many ideas, too many arguments. Even to my prayer have I brought the weight of my own reasoning, the irrational burden of my rationality. I am an addict of the syllogism, a slave of reason, a victim of enlightenment. I cloud my prayers with my sophistication, and blunt the edge of my needs with the verbosity of my expressions. I have seen my vice, and I want to return for once to the simplicity and the innocence of childhood. I feel happy to do so.

“Today, my heart is not proud,
nor are my eyes haughty;
I do not busy myself with great matters
or things too marvellous for me.
No, I submit myself, I account myself lowly,
as a weaned child clinging to its mother.”
I submit myself, Lord. I submit my intellect to you. I put aside my concepts, my knowledge, my theories, my lucubrations. I have thought so much that I have made the intellect you gave me to find you into an obstacle to see you. I resign, Lord. Tame my reason and chasten my thought. Still my intellect and pacify my mind. Suppress the noise within me that does not allow me to hear your voice in my heart.

Let me rest in your arms, O Lord, like a child in its mother’s arms. How much I love that image! I close my eyes, I relax my limbs, I feel the gentle touch, the warmth, the care. I fall asleep in the simplicity of my soul. This is the prayer that does me most good, Lord.

 

15th
I tell you

Glory to God in the highest!

They tell of an Angel who, the night of the first Christmas, was going to join the choir of angels who sang to the shepherds “Glory to God in the highest…!” on the fields at midnight, but he was late, and as time on earth runs fast if compared with the eternal leisure of heaven, by the time he reached Bethlehem he found that the Holy Family was not there any more, and his companions in the angelic choir were nowhere to be seen.

On the contrary, he found in Bethlehem a situation he had not expected. All the people were weeping, every family was in mourning, the streets were red with blood, the laughter of children had disappeared from the village. What could have happened? How could the place where he was coming to sing his joy was now plunged in deep sadness? Could he have mistaken the place?

The good Angel sat himself on a stone in the village square, and since the only words he had learned in a human language were “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth” he started singing them softly with the melody he had practiced with his companions in heaven for Christmas night in Bethlehem.

A man approached him and scolded him: “How can you sing with joy when we all are suffering? Don’t you see that Herod’s soldiers have murdered all our children?”

He kept quiet for a time, not understanding anything, but after a while he started his melody again, as that was all he knew. Another man heard him and was angry with him: “What are you singing? How can there be glory in heaven when there is no peace on earth?”

Then an old woman, all bent down, came close with a slow gait, kept looking at the Angel and listened to his song. Tears came to her eyes, she drew close and told him in his ear for fear others would protest if they heard what she was saying: “You are right, my son, you are right. I don’t know who you are, but you are right. Whatever happens and come what may, we have to keep our souls in peace, and in that consists the glory of God. Thank you, my son, for reminding us in the midst of our tribulation, here, in Bethlehem of Judah.”

Today, after so many Christmases, that same Angel has come to our earth, has found the same sights of blood in the streets, mourning in families and crying in the houses, he now knows everything, he understands everything, and he has kept singing slowly in a low voice, so that nobody may protest and someone may understand, the words he learned two thousand years ago in our language: “Glory to God in heaven, and peace on earth.”

My Guardian Angel has told me this story.

Did you like it?

Tears. of joy
[Piers du Pré, the charming brother of the cellist Jacqueline du Pré whom I have often quoted in my Web and in my books for her geniality and personality, tells an experience that changed his life:]

“In the summer, my wife and I invited two close friends, John and Gill Sandeman, to stay for the weekend. When they arrived, something was seriously different – they were carrying Bibles. During lunch, they went on and on about their new-found faith as Christians.

Over breakfast on Sunday, John suddenly asked: ‘Piers, why don’t you and your wife come to our fellowship meeting this morning?’ I had planned to spend the day installing more of our new central heating system, and in any case, if I was to go to church it would be to Hermitage. ‘No, John, I must get on with the house.’ I was not going to be drawn into this.

After breakfast John asked me again and I refused once more. Then, as they were packing the car he asked me a third time. To my astonishment, I found myself saying, ‘OK’. My wife looked at me in disbelief as I went to change.

An hour later, we arrived at a modern single-storey council building in Marlow and I immediately began to feel out of place. I had dressed in my Sunday best as if for church – everyone else was casually dressed. Church was always a beautiful building. This certainly wasn’t. Inside No. 1 Meeting Room, everything felt wrong. There were no hymn books or prayer books, only printed sheets with songs. The Pastor stood up and began the service. The Worship Leader picked up his guitar, played a few chords and everyone started singing. I tried to follow the tune, but didn’t manage very well. When it finished I sat down just as everyone else began singing again. The reading was about the sower and the seed which fell on stony ground. I felt as if it was directed at me. After the sermon and more singing, the service ended. This was my cue. I was off.

But you can never escape unnoticed. Bob Woollard, the pastor of the fellowship, was by the door and introduced himself. When I told him who I was he said, ‘Oh, yes we’ve been praying for you for months.’ My pride rose within me. How dare anyone even think I needed prayer? ‘How nice of you. Thank you,’ I replied through gritted teeth. After a few more moments of conversation he just looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we pray together, right now?’

And then it happened. I burst into tears. A chair was found for me but I couldn’t stop crying. A number of people were saying ‘Hallelujah’ and Praise the Lord’. Bob asked if I would like to give my life to Jesus. I said, ¡Yes’.

That night, on the way home in the car, I suddenly realised I was praying out loud, something I had never done before. The moment we returned to Birch House, I found Mum’s Bible. I began reading the New Testament. I couldn’t put it down. For the first time I could clearly understand what I was reading. What I previously knew as a religion was fast becoming a vibrant relationship with God through His Son, Jesus. I hardly slept that night. A few days later Mum and Dad returned from France and I couldn’t wait to share my excitement with them. I knew the best time would be once they had a cup of tea in their hands. The moment they were in the kitchen I said: ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’ I know you have’, said Mum. ‘It’s been obvious ever since I first saw you. Your face is all lit up. Tell me, monkey doodles.’

I told the full, unexpurgated version. Mum had caught the excitement. ‘I’ve prayed so much for you, you old scallywag,’ she said. Dad was not quite so certain, but after a look from Mum, agreed it was good.

Mum and I spent many wonderful hours reading and exploring the Scriptures together. I had never been able to take part in Mum’s music [she is a piano teacher], but now at last we had something which we could share and feel passionate about together.”

(Piers du Pré, A Genius in the Family, p. 336)

Frontiers of the faith
[Father Thierry Becker, a priest of the Oran diocese in Argelia, has gone back to a parish in Tiaret that had been abandoned for lack of a congregation, and he tells, with joy and insight, about his presence in the midst of a population of Arabs and Blacks with hardly any Christians:]

“What can a priest do in Tiaret? That’s what people who know about me here ask themselves. Well, I do nothing. I have no activities, no job, hardly any parish work. How could I start any parish activities when I am alone?

In the neighbourhood there are only three families of Christian origin, courageous people of advanced age and painful experiences. I try to keep that tradition alive, that memory of those old Christians, their origin and their beliefs, although they cannot express them clearly and they only know they are different from the rest. I’m here to listen to them, to let them talk from the heart about their lives. One of their children had to marry a Muslim girl, as there are no Christian girls any more, and so he had to convert to Islam as the law requires, but he keeps considering himself a Christian.

I find some pleasant surprises. While asking for a form in an office I mentioned I was a Christian priest, and the secretary exclaimed, ‘There is a priest in Tiaret! Isn’t it wonderful?’ Another day the chairman of a meeting I was attending and who knew me said aloud: ‘I thank father for having come. His presence does us honour.’ Sometimes Muslims wish me in the street, and then I remember the Gospel saying: ‘Is not the Kingdom of God already within you?’

The opposition also helps me. My presence as a kafir (infidel) in traditional religious gatherings is rejected, even if I’ve only gone to offer my condolences at a funeral, and I hear suras against the infidels being recited to purify the place I’ve just polluted with my presence. There are also some who with all their good will bring pressure on me that I may convert to Islam and find the true faith. These are challenges that help me to purify myself and to deepen my own convictions.

This is a good chance to get to know Islam far from any discussion or opposition, remembering the saying of the contemporary Muslim sage Amadou Hamparé Ba: ‘If the other person does not understand you, you have not understood them. The day you understand them, they will understand you’.”

(Selecciones de teología, Vol 44, nº 174, p. 110)

A mother speaks
[Since Christmas is the feast of a new-born child, I’m going to quote the first experiences of a mother in her diary:]

“She was born on Boxing Day. The best gift in the world. And then the wonder and the surprise and the tenderness and the charm of going on learning moment by moment how to be a mother, thinking that I knew everything, and having now to discover everything.

The first bath for my infant daughter. Incredible. I’ve dared. I’ve given her a bath. I thought about it for half an hour. Almost plucking the daisy’s petals. At the end I prepared all that the manual required, including a good dose of courage for myself, and with my birth scar still hurting I set down to the delicate and complicated task.

I prayed that she would not slip through my hands, that she would not hit the bathtub’s tap. I tried to prevent the soap from entering her eyes. She wouldn’t keep still! It would seem that this matter of the bath does not quite agree with her for now.

The magic of the moment after the bath! There she is lying down, all wet and warm, wrapped in a tight towel, she looks like baby Moses all right. What a pleasure to rub creams into her body! How well she smells! I was careful with her little navel, still hard to describe. A little on the ugly side. When I seemed to have everything under control and had put on her all her clothes, she surprised me with a generous jet of her piss. That looked like an oil well! What a flood! But it was impossible! She had hardly nursed! Maybe rests of the amniotic fluid. Though that is absurd. What nonsense am I talking! I’ll begin again with all patience and tenderness. Poor little thing, what does she know? It could happen to any one.

You’re now by my side, very close to me. You are sleeping. You’ve eaten and now you’re resting. Miracle of miracles!!! It seems incredible that you were inside me, and now you are on your own, quite a budding person. Than you, God, for so much!

How will my baby feel in this strange and different world where she’s just arrived? What does she like, what does she dislike? Does she love me, or is it that she doesn’t know yet what love is? How complicated it is to understand her when I don’t know yet how to distinguish her different kinds of crying as described in the manuals, when I doubt about everything and I must urgently find security and safety at any cost. My only reassurance comes when we go to the paediatrician and they tell me all is well, or when I weigh her in a weight they lent me at the chemist’s and I verify that she’s put on a few grams.

That peculiar baby flavour fills now the whole house and I can smell it in every corner. What is talcum powder made of? And all those creams for her little body? What are those colognes made of, so full of tenderness, of dreams, of love?

I need you so much! How much wasted time in my life, what a large void without you! Thank you for existing, my daughter!

Now my legs are still shaking!!! I almost fumbled it. I almost did irreparable harm. I feel I’ve been born again. Paediatricians recommend changing to a real bathtub after six months. I prepared the large tub, fitted the nonslip rug, lined up the talcum powder, the various creams, the towel, the pyjama, measured the depth of the water and its temperature and then…

You imagine it. The baby slipped from between my hands like a fish, and the blood drained out of my system all at once. I wanted to die. How clumsy of me! I reacted instantly. The baby was crying pitifully at the bottom of the tub. What an anguish I felt! It happened when I was holding her with one hand and trying to soap her with the other. The soap went into her eyes, and when trying to wipe them clean, I lost her. It happened this morning, but I’m still feeling guilty. Useless, hopeless, careless…

Sometimes I feel I don’t deserve being a mother. So many fears, so many mistakes! A baby is not a doll with which to play mothers. She is my daughter and I must care for her and protect her. I shudder at the thought that I may harm her, that I may not react at once when she needs me, that I may lack courage or wisdom to act. Nobody teaches how to be a mother. Nobody.

But now I repent of having felt so much fear. Fear to be a mother, to fail my daughter, to be incompetent, immature, unable to give her all that she needs. No more fears. I am her mother, and that’s enough.”

[Mary of Nazareth was a mother, too.]

(Belinda Washington, El placer de lo pequeño, p. 22)

A Christmas story (short)

The shepherds didn’t know either what to do with the gold, incense and myrrh St Joseph gave them.

You tell me

I see that the tale of the tortoise has exercised some brains. The tale simply means that we pretend to know too much, and a little theological humility would do us good. Once in a group we were talking about the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, full of reverence for its transcendence and our limitations in grasping it. A good Sister, in charge of formation in her congregation, addressed us in a somewhat patronising tone: “Why are you all fumbling about? The Blessed Trinity is something quite simple. One triangle, that is God, and three vertices, that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is only one triangle, and three independent vertices in it. Nothing more to it. Have they never explained that to you?”

Yes, dear Sister, yes. The triangle is an image of the Trinity and it appears in many of its images and pictures. But Euclid was not St Thomas Aquinas and geometry is not theology. Three angles and one triangle is not quite the same as three Persons and one God. The first disposition for theology is humility.

Hebrews and Muslims have much less dogmatic theology than we have. Allah is Allah and Yahweh is Yahweh, and his will is supreme and his kingdom absolute. And that’s the nutshell. We investigate much and at times feel a little lost.

When Fr Anthony de Mello gave in the seminary of Pune his final exam “de universa philosophia et theologia” on all the subjects studied along all the courses in preparation for the priesthood, he was asked the topic of the Holy Spirit. The Latin formula was, “Spiritus Sanctus procedit a Patre Filioque non per generationem sed per spirationem”. (The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son not through generation but through spiration.) For one full hour he brilliantly answered the battery of questions the five examiners were firing at him with professional competence. At the end they gave him the highest marks and congratulated him warmly. Everybody clapped. Tony came out and commented: “The exam has gone well and the examiners mastered the topic as I also did. At the end of it all neither they nor I had the slightest idea what we all had been talking about.”

Something of that humility and that humour would do us all a bit of good. And that is precisely what the wise tortoise wants to teach us. Let us let it, then, rest again under water. for another five hundred years.

“Unless you become like little children.”

Psalm

Psalm 131 – A dwelling for the Lord

David had a noble heart. He had his failings, too, but redeemed the impulses of his passion with the nobility of his reactions. He could not bear that the Ark of the Lord rested still under a tent while he had already a king’s palace in the newly conquered Jerusalem. His reaction when he realised this was typical of him:

“I will not enter my house
nor will I mount my bed,
I will not close my eyes in slumber,
until I find a sanctuary for the Lord,
a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”
Since then the obsession of Israel was to find a worthy “resting-place” for the Ark they had brought through the desert as witness and instrument of God’s presence with them.

“Arise, O Lord, and come to your resting-place,
you and the Ark of your power.”

The Lord accepted the invitation of his people, and chose Zion for his home:

“This is my resting-place for ever;
here will I make my home,
for such is my desire.”

A resting-place for the Lord. Glory and pride of Israel. If the first commandment is to love the Lord above all things, a practical consequence of it will be to prepare for him a building above all buildings. Such a faith has given rise to the most beautiful manifestations of the art and imaginations of humans, whose zeal and endeavour have covered with temples all the corners of inhabited earth. The most majestic dwellings today on earth are your temples, Lord, and we all who believe feel in our hearts the satisfaction David felt when he pronounced his oath. You have a worthy resting-place on earth, Lord.

Our uneasiness now is rather the opposite, Lord. You have now a resting-place, but many men and women have none. Many of your children do not have today a roof over their heads to protect them from heat and cold, from wind and rain. David’s oath hangs heavily over our heads in this new dimension which our consciences open for us. How can I sleep in a comfortable bed when my brother sleeps in the public street under a ruthless sky? How can I build for myself a house of cedar when the Ark of the Lord, the poor of the Lord, live in huts whose walls are newspapers and whose roofs are made of plastic bags heaped together?

Whatever we do to the smallest of men, we do it to you, Lord. To find habitable dwellings for these your children is to find them for you. I renew David’s oath in the name of all humankind and pray that you may not allow us to rest in sinful complacency while our brothers and sisters suffer the naked scourge of weather in a homeless existence.

“O Lord, remember David,
and the oath he swore to you.”

Fundación González Vallés

Contact us

12 + 9 =