The texts of Carlos G. Vallés
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Year 2006
15th
I tell you

The alarm clock

She was fast asleep. I saw her through the front glass in the car where her mother was taking her to school very early in the morning. The mother drove the car, and the small girl slept by her side. She was wearing the school uniform, her hair was freshly combed, and the school bag full of books rested on her lap. She went on sleeping.

The car stopped by the school gate. The mother came out, opened the door at the other side, took out her daughter in her arms and steadied her on the pavement. She had not yet opened her eyes. Her mother put the bag in her hand, caressed her gently, kissed her. She made sure she was awake and stepped slowly ahead. Her eyes followed her till she entered the school. Then she sighed and went back to the car. A new day had begun for both.

The girl has to go to school, of course. And, of course, she has to get up early in order to go to school. But I do feel sad to live in a society where small children have to get up at a very early hour in the morning in order to go to school. To wake up a child is almost a crime against nature. It is necessary, but it saddens the heart. The mother wakes up the child, and she does it for the child’s own good. And the child knows it and accepts it. But the fact remains that they have waken her up, and her tender body resents the hand that shakes it out of bed, pushes away the bed-sheets and pulls it up against gravity. Psychologists tell us we all have to “forgive” our parents, and maybe it is for trespasses like this. They make us do things we do not like, beginning with the early reveille. And the body keeps the unhappy memory.

In the several years I lived from house to house in the old city quarters of Ahmedabad I was often asked by my hosts to wake them up in the morning as I did get up early myself. I never accepted. To wake somebody up, even if they had asked for it as a favour, is always an offence against the body, and the body never forgets it. That is why I always refused to wake up people. I do not want anyone to keep a bad memory of me, and they’ll keep it, unknown even to themselves but hidden and filed behind sleepy eyelids.

To wake people up is the job of the alarm clock. Let it shoulder the odium. If the clock gets too annoying, one can always smash it against the wall.

The picture knows it
[A story inspired in “Autumn Mountain” by Akutagawa Ryunosuke.]

Art critics Yen-ko and Lien-chou succeeded at last in getting admission to contemplate the famous painting of Ta Chih, the original of his masterpiece, “Autumn Mountain”. It was not easy to see it, as it was in the private collection of a man, Wang Shih-ku, who lived in solitude and did not easily accept unknown visitors. But after many recommendations, efforts, petitions, the two art critics gained admission to the gallery and were able to contemplate at leisure the picture.

They already knew copies of it, as it was a really famous painting, but when they came to the original they were awestruck and dumbfounded before the unearthly beauty of the picture. The forest at the foot of the mountain was a dark green, while the river on the lower part of the painting was a deep, transparent blue over the rounded stones at the bottom and the little fish swimming in the current. Clouds rode the winds, and the whole canvas looked so fresh as though it had just rained, full of light and life. It was a masterpiece indeed, far beyond any other painting the two critics had seen in their whole life. The painting was alive.

Many years passed. Hen-ko and Lien-chou had grown old and wanted to contemplate once more Ta Chich’s painting. Wang Shih-ku was also still living and in possession of the star painting of Ta Chich. They renewed their contact, agreed to meet again, and the two critics were able to come again and stand before Ta Chich’s masterpiece.

But then they looked at each other in astonishment. There was a moment of silence before the painting, and then both simultaneously expressed, first in their looks and then in words the same feeling. There was no doubt that was the same painting. But it looked different. It had no life, no light, no shine. The lines were the same, as were the colours and the trees and the clouds and the river and the fish, but something was missing in the picture, and both critics noticed it while they were at a loss to explain the fact.

Old Wang Shih-ku smiled and said: “You are not mistaken. The picture is the same and no one has touched it. But it has no life any more. And I’ll tell you why. The Autumn Mountain is still where it ever was, but everything around it has been changed by human hand. Huge factories have been built at the foot of the Mountain, the trees have been cut, the sky is full of smoke, the river runs dirty. The whole landscape is totally different from what it was when Ta Chih painted its picture. And the picture knows it. The picture knows that it no more represents reality, that it is no more an image but a relic, that it is not a landscape but pure fancy. And that is what makes it lose its shine, its energy, its life. It is a still of the past instead of a vibration of the present. It has withered, it has faded, it has died. No one has touched it, but its aspect has changed. The picture is the same as before, but a picture is a living thing, and it has evolved. Or rather, it was a living thing but it isn’t any more. It has lost its life. It is not a painting any more but a dead stamp. It is not reality but history. The picture is not any more what it was because the Autumn Mountain is not any more what it was. When we lose Nature, we lose Art.”

The picture did not throb any more with life. The three old men bowed in reverence to one another, and the two critics never returned.

Not yet

“There is a way to know whether your mission in life has been accomplished. If you are still alive, it’s not accomplished.” (Paulo Coelho)

Desires

Secret dialogue between a human and a devil:

– I want pleasure, success, fame.
– Give me your soul in exchange, and you’ll have it all.
– What will you give me if I give you my soul?
– What do you want?
– I want money, luck, love, pleasures, to do well in everything, to be above everybody, to be obeyed by all. I want to succeed in life more than all, and to enjoy life more than all. Will you give me all that?
– No, I won’t.
– Then you’ll not have my soul
– I have it already.
– How?
– You are already mine, because you have desired all those things.

Refuge

“In the village of Itxalá, the Araguaia river flows gently between shrubs and long grass. Among the many dogs of all kinds gathered by the Indians there, there is a very thin one which belongs to nobody. It is trying to get into the house of the mission. The veteran Sister Genoveva reflects: ‘All sick or abandoned animals come to die here in front of our house. There they don’t feel any hostility or rejection. Rejected humans and animals always need a place of refuge, of asylum, a Franciscan enclave, a ‘celibate’ house perhaps, that can be a home to all, even to nobody’s children.

The men are fishing. The women weave mats. The birds sing.

Above all that sickness and poverty there hovers a free peace, still human. Much threatened, to be true, but present. I pray in the bare chapel of the Sisters. The Blessed Sacrament hangs in the hollow of a dark native cucumber blackened by incense. We all eat, almost eucharistically, from a single large basin; on the floor, over hay mats.”

(Pedro Casaldáliga, Cuando los días dan que pensar, p.79)

Sandals

“I used to walk with a pair of Indian wooden sandals. Indian monks have used them for centuries, maybe ages. Wooden sandals avoid the anti-ecological use of leather that comes from animals, and thus they save lives. That’s why monks always wear them.

But wooden sandals make such a noise that when one walks, you can hear them come from half a mile away. And on a concrete road or on a university corridor, everybody knows of your approaching.

When I came in the first day as a philosophy student, I met for the first time doctor Saxena, whom I later came to respect and love much as a teacher. He was a little surprised and asked me: ‘Why do you wear those sandals? They are very noisy.’ I answered him: ‘Only to keep my conscience awake.’

Everything helps.”

(Osho, Autobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic, p. 115)

Maybe the high, sharp heels in feminine fashion today serve the same purpose. Next time I hear the rhythmical hammering on the street and I begin to get annoyed, I’ll think that somebody is awakening her conscience. And I didn’t know it!

Chaplin

“Geraldine was shooting a film in some remote village on the mountains of Turkey. The first afternoon she went to walk alone. There was nobody, hardly anybody on the streets. A few men and no women. But then, on turning a corner, she suddenly met a crowd of children who surrounded her, and she felt frightened.

Geraldine looked right and left, looked behind, but she was surrounded and there was no escape. She wanted to shout for help, but her throat refused to utter a sound. Without a word she offered all she had: her watch, her money.

The kids laughed. No, it wasn’t that. With words that more or less meant to resemble English they asked her whether she was the daughter of Charlie Chaplin. Geraldine, astonished, assented. Only then did she realised that the boys had drawn black moustaches over their lips and each carried a tree branch as a walking stick.

And the function began.

Then all were ‘him’.”

(Eduardo Galeano, Bocas del tiempo, p. 176)

You tell me

“I’m about to finish my medical studies, and I’ve realised I don’t want to be a doctor. What am I to do?

This is not the first time I hear that complaint. Though it is rather a recent one. Formerly life was slow, the son usually followed the father’s trade, the trade was for life, and residence was permanent. Not so now. Life changes faster and lasts longer. And there are more roads and byroads. And we feel and express more clearly our likes and dislikes. What to do, then?

It is a blessing when one’s job coincides with one’s liking. I liked mathematics, and I taught mathematics. I like writing, and I write. I like communication with people, and I communicate with people. But I also realise this blessing is not common. Every time a take a taxi, I wonder how the driver feels the whole day at the wheel. Every time I speak with a phone girl, I wonder how the girl feels the whole day at the phone. Every time I wait before a window, I wonder how the clerk behind the window feels the whole day. And, at another level, I also wonder about the lawyer in their office, the expert at their computer, the dentist in their clinic feel the whole day. How do they feel the whole day between papers and software and teeth with cavities?

The important point is not what we do but how we do it. To make friends with one’s work is the art of life. Every work is worthy in itself, and it is for us to feel at home with it and with the places and persons in it. And then we can vary our interests and cultivate leisure. Life is generous, and varied tastes liven up our existence. We must not wait for a change of job, a new boss, our retirement. If we wait for the perfect moment in order to feel happy, we’ll never be happy.

Psalm

Psalm 132 – Family prayer

The greatest blessing in a home is that all brothers and sisters in it love one another. In the many years they live together they learn to play together, to fight together, to know one another as no one else ever will know them, to defend one another with a loyalty unequalled by any other loyalty on earth: the loyalty of members of one family. Blood speaks in the heart, and brothers and sisters have the same blood running in their veins.

How good it is and how pleasant
for brothers to live together!”
One may add, with the sadness of experience and the realism of history, “How good. and how rare!” The strongest bonds of nature can be loosened, and the very witness of the one blood can be silenced. Brother persecutes brother, and the pages of history are stained with the records of fratricidal wars. Peace in a home is no obvious atmosphere to be taken for granted, but noble achievement to be strived after with common determination by all.

A special blessing from the Lord awaits that happy family achievement.

“It is like the fragrant oil poured on the head
and falling over the beard,
Aaron’s beard, when the oil runs down
over the collar of his vestments.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling
on the mountains of Zion.”
The fragrance of oil and the freshness of dew will signify the smoothness and richness of life together. Unity is strength, and unity is happiness in the family where all members live together in harmony.

I pray for each family, I pray for mine, I pray for all brothers and sisters in the world, that fraternal love may fully occupy its beneficent place in the hearts of men and women.

There the Lord bestows his blessings:
life for ever more!”

Day 1
I tell you

Leonardo

I have something in common with Leonardo da Vinci. I don’t like my soup getting cold. The genius was writing down a geometrical theorem he had discovered when the servant brought him the soup, and he interrupted his writing and scribbled: Perche la minestra se fredda. Because the soup is getting cold. And he left us without his theorem. Soup comes first.

A Dominican novice in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Matteo Bandello, watched Leonardo while he painted on the wall of the refectory his famous Last Supper. This is what he later wrote:

“The master would arrive early, climb up on to the scaffolding, and set to work. Sometimes he stayed there from dawn to sunset, never once laying down his brush, forgetting to eat and drink, painting without pause. At other times he would go for two, three or four days without touching his brush, but spending several hours a day in front of the work, his arms folded, examining and criticising the figures to himself. I also saw him, driven by some sudden urge, at midday, when the sun was at its height, leaving the Corte Vecchia, where he was working on his marvellous clay horse, to come straight to Santa Maria delle Grazie, without seeking shade, and clamber up on to the scaffolding, pick up a brush, put in one or two strokes, and then go away again.”

This did not please the abbot of the monastery, who kept complaining of the delays in the work and teased the genius. Leonardo was finding it difficult to find a model for Judas’s head, for which he eagerly searched between the beggars and wrongdoers in the Borghetto, and would say in jest: “Well, if I don’t find a good model for Judas, I can always paint the prior in his place.” The artist always has the last word.

The genius in Leonardo shows in the fact that, while other painters of the Last Supper choose the moment of the consecration of the bread, with all the twelve looking respectfully and devotedly towards the centre, he paints the moment in which Jesus is saying, “One of you will betray me.” Thus the apostles are divided in groups of three, asking one another and showing distress with a truly dynamic and tragic result. The painting speaks out.

Glimpses
[The Chechen war surgeon Khassan Baiev was wounded in his operation theatre in Atagi, Chechnya, by a bomb that killed eight doctors and nurses in the hospital. He was operated upon and was four days in coma. He tells his story:]

“While in coma I had a strange and wonderful experience. Weightless, I seemed to float above my own body. This disembodied sensation was a relief. I felt euphoric. I looked down and there was my body lying on a stretcher in the snow near a building. A hospital, I thought. I had no idea where I was and I did not care. Why does everyone have to carry around such a heavy body? I thought. Below me the nurses and doctors pulled back my shirt and began examining the gash where the shrapnel grazed my side.

Suddenly, I felt myself whooshing down a tunnel at a very fast speed. It was pitch black. Then a beautiful landscape opened up. People came to meet me. I did not know them. They seemed to be from different nationalities, all communicating in a friendly way. I have no words to describe the beauty of the gardens, so many fruits and flowers. I had arrived in Heaven.

Then I heard voices, not human voices, and I felt my body being drawn back. I did not want to go. I tried to resist, but I was powerless. When I opened my eyes, I saw nurses and doctors leaning over patients lying on beds. I was in an intensive care unit. One of the doctors examined me and said, ‘This is not a man, this is a machine. Anyone else would have died by now.’ I realised that I had almost died, but that knowledge did not seem to affect me. The strange thing was that I was no longer frightened of death. I knew what paradise was like. That was to serve me well in my profession’.”

(Khassan Baiev, The Oath, p. 1114)

Two doctors
[The war surgeon continues:]

“On one night in March 1996, I had the opportunity to use all my skills as a plastic surgeon. Headlights shone suddenly against the hospital while men filled the street from end to end. From their uniforms I made out they were Chechen fighters. Their commander bade me get into his jeep. ‘Who is wounded?’ I asked. ‘You’ll see when we get there’, he answered.

The driver negotiated the precariously narrow mountain road at breakneck speed, and without headlights, so we would not draw Russian fire. Finally we arrived at one of the rebel hideouts, which turned out to be an underground chamber camouflaged with heavy branches. On one of the beds lay a heavily bearded figure, his face swathed in bloody bandages, his breathing heavy and laboured. The amount of blood oozing through the gauze told me his condition was critical. His skin had taken on that familiar ashen pallor – the colour of approaching death – I had seen so many times before. I walked over to him and lifted his wrist. His pulse was almost too weak to detect. A bullet had penetrated the area of the right cheekbone, shattering both right and left sinuses, ploughed through the nasal bones, and exited beneath the left eye. The upper jaw was broken in three places, and its fragments hung loosely in the oral cavity.

I turned to the commander that had brought me and told him. ‘You’ll have to shave his beard.’ He looked at me in disbelief, and went out to confer with his officers. I shouted at them, ‘Hurry up! We’re running out of time.’ He came back and told me, ‘We can’t shave him. Don’t you know who he is? This is Salman Raduyev. He’s our leader and we can’t remove his beard.’

The living legend. Who dared touch his image? I told him, ‘I don’t care if this man is Allah himself. If you don’t shave him, I can’t work on him, and if I can’t work on him he will die. He might die anyway. And, by the way, I’m going to need an assistant.’

They shaved his beard. Shortly after that the commander came with a tall man, flanked by two heavily armed guards. His blond hair and high cheekbones told me he was a Russian. He wore a padded jacket and military boots. I understood he was a Russian made prisoner by the Chechens. He held out his hand and told me, ‘My name is Sasha. I’m a doctor.’ I asked everyone to leave, but the armed guards refused to budge. It was obvious they did not trust the Russian. nor me.

During the eight hours we spent operating, Raduyev’s men badgered Sasha and me relentlessly. ‘What are his chances? Will you guarantee he’ll recover? You know your life will be in danger if he dies.’ I said each time they asked, ‘Only Allah can guarantee someone’s survival.’ The operation was successful, and Raduyev lived.

During the operation, Sasha and I hardly spoke, but I could tell he was a good doctor from the way he deftly separated the tissue while I fished for the torn blood vessels and tied them off. When it was all over, Sasha congratulated me on a job well done. I kept seeing his blond head bent over Raduyev, a look of total concentration in his eyes. Not once did he hesitate, even though the patient on the table was Russias’s number one enemy.

I soon learned that Sasha was a captain in the Russian Medical Corps and had been captured a few months ago. The Chechen rebels apparently planned to use him as a bargaining chip and exchange him for a brother of a high-ranking Chechen field commander who had been captured by the Russians. I spoke to the Chechen commander and he agreed to let Sasha help me until it was time for a prisoner exchange.

One day, after Sasha and I had been working together for a month, he told me excitedly that the exchange was set. Then a few days before the exchange, he called me apart and told me with a white face, ‘The Russians have killed the brother of the Chechen field commander, and the Chechen have decided to kill me in revenge. If you don’t save me, I’ll die. I have a wife and three children.’ I wanted to help him, but I knew that saving him was condemning myself. I could do nothing. I told him. I also had a wife and children. He understood.

That night I could not sleep. I knew I could not live with my conscience if I did not do what I could to save Sasha. I decided to take him on the sly to the Russian military headquarters at Alkhan Kala. I hid him in my car and took him to his people. I asked him, ‘Don’t ever tell anybody who helped you.’ If the Chechen would know it, I was a dead man.

Three days later armed Chechen fighters came and asked me, ‘Is the number of your car M 0009 NM?’ It was. They told me witnesses had seen it. I had helped the Russian doctor to escape. They took me. Far into the mountains. They lowered me into a deep, narrow pit, removed the ladder (I counted seventeen rungs to the bottom), closed the lid on top and left me in the darkness, the damp, the solitude.

I lost all notion of time, but based on the thickness of my beard, I guessed I had been at least a week when a guard lowered the ladder and ordered me to the surface. ‘Say your prayers and get ready to die. Here is a jug of water for your ablutions. Quick. Do you have any last wish?’ they asked me. ‘Take my body to the outskirts of my village and leave it there’, I said, knowing that someone would recognise me and give me a proper burial, which is essential for a Muslim.

The men stopped talking among themselves and began to intone prayers from the Koran. I was being prepared for death. I closed my eyes. I was conscious of the warmth of the sun on my back. I was ready. Then, in the distance I heard a car horn sounding. I opened my eyes. Everyone had turned to look at an approaching cloud of dust. A military vehicle careered around the corner, and a man in khaki fatigues leaned out of the window, waving his arms wildly. ‘Stop!’ he yelled. Stop! Don’t kill him! He’s not the one!’

Inexplicably, I had been spared. Minutes later, my captors pushed me into a car and drove me to the outskirts of Alkhan Kala. When I finally got home, I thanked Allah – and I thank Him again today – for letting me go on.”

(p. 136, shortened)

Free operations

“At the hospital in Grozny (Chechnya’s capital) I found a mayor problem. Doctors had to ask patients to bring themselves medicines painkillers, bandages, bed-sheets, even fuel for the emergency generator and heating. Sometimes the very nobility and dignity of simple people prevented them from accepting services without paying for them, and this caused us problems. Persuading patients to accept free help was difficult sometimes. Debts based on friendship are debts to be repaid. If you are not in a position to return a favour then you are reluctant to accept it – like the old man who entered my office with a fast growing tumour on his palate. The moment I saw him in his sheepskin hat, leather boots and buttoned tunic with circular collar, my heart went out to him. The way he held himself with such pride reminded me of the old men in my own old village.

‘We need to operate immediately’, I told him. He remained silent. ‘I don’t take money for my operations’. I said, sensing his embarrassment. ‘If you don´t believe me, go and ask the people waiting outside in the corridor. If you can’t afford the medicines, I have some in reserve.’ He rose to his feet, smoothed down his tunic and prepared to leave. ‘I cannot repay you.’ He gave me a toothless grin. ‘We always need your help’, I insisted, ‘because you are older and wiser. Young people need your help.’ He seemed to appreciate my words of respect and finally agreed to the operation.

I devised a scheme whereby people who had money helped those who did not. I handed a well-off patient a list of hospital supplies for his or her treatment, followed by a request to triple the amount. ‘What you don’t use I will give free to someone who can’t afford it in your name.’ It worked.”

(p. 86)

The oath

My acid test as a surgeon and as a human being came when a wounded man was brought to my hospital who was known to be a Russian mercenary, a terrorist under pay, sadly famous for his cruelty, his violence, his crimes. The Chechen fighter who accompanied him told me, ‘Let him die.’

For a moment, I was tempted. The world would be a better place without this monster. He would not rape any more women or children. But then I remembered the words of the Hippocratic Oath engraved on the wall at the medical school. If I started deciding who would live and who would die, where would it end? ‘I am a doctor’, I replied. ‘It is my job to treat whoever needs help. Allah will punish him.’

(p. 255)

You tell me

You ask me whether I always feel happy. Not exactly. If I were always happy, I would never feel happy. Monotony sets in. The legends tells about the Laughing Buddha that one day he met a physician who asked him:

– Are you always happy?
– No, but I always try to cheer up people.
– Is that not cheating?
– And don’t you do the same?
– How?
– When you have a medicine for a sickness, you give it to the sick person; and when you have no medicine, you prepare a herbal tea and tell the sick person that it is a very strong medicine for their sickness.
– That’s what I do, and the sick person believes in the fake medicine, takes it and gets cured.
– I do the same. I start laughing, even if I don’t quite feel like laughing – that is, I have no medicine – and so I myself cheer up and I feel like laughing and we all have a good time.
– Let’s have a good laugh together.

Psalm

Psalm 133 – Vigils in the night

You made the night for rest, Lord, but many men and women do not find rest in their nights. Some have to work at night, some travel, some study, some watch, some turn in their beds while sleep eludes their tired souls. I pray with all the victims of the night, with all those who are awake while darkness covers the earth and invites them to a rest which is not theirs to enjoy.

I remember you in the vigils of the night. I unite myself in sleepless brotherhood with those who stay awake to pronounce your name, to contemplate your truth, to watch your Temple. To continue during the night the sacrifice of praise others offer in the day, so that no hour may remain without the sweet odour of prayer in the presence of your ever watching majesty.

“Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
who stand night after night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary
and bless the Lord.”
Teach me, Lord, how to bless you during the day and during the night, in wakefulness and in slumber, in light and in darkness, in work and in leisure. Teach me to sanctify my nights with the memory of your name. Make me thus worthy to receive the blessing of the priests who keep vigil in your holy Temple proclaiming you with their presence Lord of the day and of the night.

“The Lord, maker of heaven and earth,
bless you from Zion!”

Bless my nights, O Lord, as you bless my days!

 

15th
I tell you

Reincarnation

I’ve taken part in a TV programme on reincarnation. I’ve begun by quoting our theology professor in Pune (India), the Austrian Jesuit Hans Staffner who began the treatment of this topic in class by saying: “One half of humankind (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains) believe in reincarnation, while the other half (Jews, Muslims, Christians) do not. Consequently, we’ll defend our point of view, while fully respecting the opposite view.”

The moderator of the programme asked me: “Why do those who in India believe in reincarnation believe in it?” I answered: “First of all to explain the diversity of births. One person, without any fault of theirs as they didn’t exist before, is born in a good family where they enjoy good health, have a good education, grows up in favourable surroundings, has all chances to lead a good life; while another child, also without any fault on its part as it didn’t exist before, is born in a poor family, suffers hunger, falls a victim to AIDS and dies young. Why? Why one is one born to abundance and welfare and a normal life and the other to pain and suffering and early death? It is hard to say that this happens through the will of God. That would seem arbitrary and unjust. On the other hand, reincarnation explains that different births are due to different conducts in a previous existence. A good conduct leads to a worthy birth, while a bad conduct results in a sad one. And this applies to all things in life, favourable or unfavourable. Reincarnation explains good and bad luck in all things. This is the great argument, at once theoretical and practical, intellectual and popular in favour of reincarnation. It does away with the standard complaint before suffering: Why should this happen to me? It happens simply because I have to pay in this life for my moral misbehaviour in the past one. And the sooner I pay off, the better. This argument furnishes an explanation and favours resignation, and that’s why it is generally accepted.”

I then continued when I could butt in again: “Just as you’ve asked me why those who believe, believe, I must now say why those in India who don’t believe in reincarnation, don’t believe. We must keep balance. I quote Kaka Kalelkar who was Mahatma Gandhi’s right hand in educational matters and was a fervent Hindu and a devout Brahmin. Yet, he wrote in one of his books the following: ‘Just as our new independent nation of India proposes to enact and enforce prohibition because of the harm alcohol causes in society, so it should also promulgate a law forbidding any mention of reincarnation because of the harm it does to society. We have among us the untouchables who suffer poverty, discrimination and rejection. If we accept reincarnation we are telling the untouchables that not only do they suffer poverty and rejection, but that they deserve it for having been wicked persons in their past life. This is unjust, unworthy and intolerable. It is adding insult to injury. The poor person has enough trouble with their suffering for us to go and call them criminals on top of it. Belief in reincarnation is totally inadmissible and should be forbidden for the good of society.’ This far Kalelkar. And even besides the matter of untouchability, the same argument applies to any poor, sick, suffering person who will be told their sufferings are right for them because of their wickedness. That goes against all fairness and decency. This is the great argument against reincarnation, although it is not often mentioned in the many books on the topic. I learnt it, as I say, from the mouth of a great Indian person.” I said all that, and I noticed the argument was quite unexpected for them.

One of the participants mentioned regressive hypnosis through which the hypnotised person remembers past lives. Another participant quoted in answer the amusing statement of an esoteric psychologist who, notwithstanding his profession, had written the following: “In the exercise of regressive hypnosis with my patients I’ve met 12 persons who had been Napoleon, 15 Mary Antoinettes, 8 Charlemagnes, several Ramsesses and Nefertitis…, but I’m still to meet someone who may have been John Smith in the past.” I for my part explained my understanding of regressive hypnosis as a Freudian dream which is not reality in itself but helps in self-knowledge as a projection of the subconscious.

Then they discussed whether a man or a woman could be reincarnated as an animal. Someone said they could, so as to learn the good qualities of that animal, and someone else said they couldn’t, as that would not be evolution but involution and regression. Here I came in again and told them a story I’d heard in India. I told it with a straight face (it was a live programme) though I was laughing inside.

A monk who was reaching the end of his life asked God to reveal to him who or what was he going to be in his next life. God answered him: “Do you see that sow in your neighbourhood? After you die she’ll give birth to sucklings. The third one will have a black spot on its forehead, and that will be you.”

The monk was saddened by the unexpected revelation, but soon found an escape. He called his favourite disciple and told him: “It has been revealed to me that I’m going to be the third suckling to be born to that sow, with a black spot on my forehead. When I die, you please watch that sow, mark her third suckling, make sure it has a black spot on its forehead, then take a knife and kill it. Yes, kill it, as that will end that sad phase of my existence, and the reincarnation that will follow for me after that one will never be so bad as that of the pig.”

The disciple understood and promised to do as told. Everything happened as planned. The monk died, the little pig was born, it had the black spot on its forehead, the disciple saw it, he took a knife, approached the victim when nobody was looking and was about to strike the blow when the suckling shouted:

– Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!
– How’s that? Didn’t you yourself asked me to kill you?
– Yes, but that was when I saw the pig’s life from man’s point of view; but now I see it from the pig’s point of view, and it’s splendid! Just doing nothing, eating what I want and wallowing in the mud. It’s wonderful! It was not a punishment, it was a reward!

At least they all laughed. At the end the moderator asked me. “Do you believe in reincarnation?” I asked with the story of the Zen master:

– Master, what happens after death?
– I don’t know.
– But you are a Zen Master.
– Yes, but I’m not a dead Zen Master.

Ask me when I’m dead, and I’ll tell you. Of course, I had written a whole book on reincarnation so that I had some advantage. We had a good time. That was, obviously, the result of our having been all good people in our previous incarnation.

The riddle

A man who had spent many years trying to decipher the meaning of riddles went to meet a Sufi to tell him about his achievements. He wanted that the master should recognise his ability and should give him new riffles to decipher, as he thought that was the way for him to grow in his spirit. The Sufi told him: “Go and work on this riddle: IHMN”.

The man left. Months went by, and, as he was not finding any satisfactory answer, he decided to have recourse again to the master to have the riddle solved. When he came back, the Sufi had died. The man was lamenting his bad luck as he could not now decipher the riddle that would open for him the door to illumination when the Sufi’s main disciple heard him and told him:

– If you are worried about the meaning of IHMN, I can give it to you. They are the initials of the Persian phrase “In huruf maani nadarand”, which means,

“These letters have no meaning”.

– Then, why did he give me this task? – shouted the man in his anger.
– Because so long as you look for the meaning of life with your logic, you will not find it. The meaning of life is found by living it out, not by thinking about it.

(Omar Kurdí, Sufi Tales, p. 28)

The locksmith

A locksmith was once falsely accused and sent to prison. After he had been in jail for some time, his wife, who loved him very much, went to the king and asked to be able to bring to her husband at least a prayer rug so that he could make his prostrations every day.

The king listened to the woman and granted her petition. She took the prayer rug to her husband in jail, and since them he faithfully did all his prostrations on it.

After many days of prayers on the rug and of asking God to deliver him from his captivity, he realised one day, when bending over the rug in his prostrations, that the instrument for his delivery was there literally under his nose. His wife had woven into the fabric of the prayer rug the design of all the locks of the prison that kept him in it.

When he realised that and he understood that he had now in his power all that he needed for his escape, he began to get friendly with his jailors. He convinced them that they all would lead happier lives if they all escaped together. They agreed, as they understood that, although they were guards, they were as much captive as the prisoners. They too wanted to escape, but they had not the means for it.

The guards brought then to the locksmith pieces of metal out of which he manufactured useful instruments to be sold in the market. They kept the money for their escape, and out of the hardest piece of metal they could get, the locksmith fashioned the keys for all the prison gates. One night, when everything was ready, the locksmith and the guards opened the doors and went outside where the loving wife was waiting.

The locksmith left his prayer rug in the prison, so that any other prisoner who could interpret the design on it, could win freedom.

You have the key to liberation under your nose. Do you see it?
(Ib. p. 48)

The master

A certain Dervish thought out a plan to establish himself as a master in a pilgrimage centre. He paid an actor to go to the city and pose as a religious teacher, which in fact he was not. He instructed him:

– Appear as a man of great holiness and penances, and get as many disciples as you can get. Then I will turn up and will unmask you publicly: you will admit your fraud before me, and so I’ll win the admiration of all and will become a great master.

Some months later the Dervish went into the city and sought the house of the false mystic. The actor was there surrounded by disciples who loaded him with presents and drank in every word from his lips. The Dervish spoke thus before the crowd:

– Listen, my good people. I have come to bring the true teaching to you. This man is a fake, an impostor, a cheat; he is no saint and no mystic. He will now confess to it before you all since I have unmasked him. Now let him go in peace, as I ask you to do, and listen to my sermon.

But the actor did not speak. He remained seating on his throne with a benevolent smile on his lips, giving them all to understand that the Dervish was a poor madman to be ignored. His disciples threw the Dervish out with sticks, and the actor remained as the sole master.

(Ib. 123)

Traffic lights

It happened overnight: some poles with three eyes appeared in the corners of the main street. Nothing like it had ever been seen in the village of Quaraí or in the whole of the region up to the frontier.

People came on horseback, came from far away, came out of curiosity. They tied down the horses in the outskirts, not to interfere with their goings and comings, and they sat down to watch the novelty. The bottle of “mate” in one hand and the thermos on the other, waiting for the night, as the lights were brighter at night and it was a pleasure to look at them as to stars in the sky. The lights went on and off at a set rhythm, always repeating their three colours, red, yellow and green, one after the other; but those men from the countryside, indifferent to cars and to people, never got tired of the show.

– That one on the corner is brighter – someone remarked.
– The other one lasts a little longer – commented another.

So far as we know, no one ever asked what those magic eyes were there for, those eyes that twinkled without ever getting tired of it.
(Eduardo Galeano, Bocas del Tiempo, p. 195)

You tell me

Can you tell me something personal about the pope’s encyclical “God is love”?

Yes, Clara. I was particularly touched by one of its paragraphs. It is very important, very clear, and very bold. Just think of my background in India and you will realise what I mean. This is what the pope says:

“Charity must never be a means to proselytise. Love is given free; it is never a means to obtain other ends. Whoever practices charity in the name of the Church will never try to impose on others the faith of the Church.” (31, c)

I would have liked to be able to quote that in India.

I also particularly appreciated the pope’s admission of the fact that the body has been devaluated in our tradition. His words: “Today Christianity is sometimes accused of having been opposed to the body and, in fact, there have always been tendencies to that effect.”

This admission opens the door for the integration of our bodies into our life. I welcome it as I have written quite a good deal on the matter.

Psalm

Psalm 134 – Og and Sihon

Names in the history of Israel – which is my own history. Og and Sihon. The kings who would not let Israel pass. Giants among men, conceited in their power that denied right of way to the Israelites even when they promised not to touch their vineyards nor drink from their wells. Obstacles on the way to the Promised Land. And God laid them low with all their people. The Lord will not tolerate that anything or anybody may try to stop the forward march of his People towards their destiny. Israel will remember those foreign names and make them symbol and memory of timely deliverance against impossible odds, a legend in its annuals and a verse in the Psalms of thanksgiving for help and victory. Obstacles on the way to the Promised Land.

Og and Sihon are also present in my memory. Dangers I have experienced, disappointments I have met, moments when it seemed all chances were over, mistakes that appeared to invalidate any effort to go ahead. My own way to spiritual progress seemed to blocked, more times than I care to remember, by unyielding obstacles that marked almost the end of the journey. Giant kings and proud armies. And, on my part, spiritual fatigue and lack of faith. How could I get by? How could I go ahead?

Yet those unsurmountable obstacles disappeared, the way was cleared and the journey continued. A mighty hand opened the way for me again and renewed hopes and bestowed courage. I have my own legends and my own names too, my own private memories and my own secret history. No more obstacles, however formidable, will now frighten me. So long as I remember Sihon and Og, my way will remain open till the end.

“He struck down mighty nations
and slew great kings.

Sihon king of the Amorites,
Og the king of Bashan,
and all the princes of Canaan,
and gave their land to Israel,
to Israel his people as their patrimony.

O Lord, your name endures for ever,
your renown, O Lord, shall last for all generations.”

1st
I tell you

XIV Century

Some friends had come from India to Spain and I took them to visit Toledo. City of tradition, of history, of paintings and legends, of synagogues and churches. A treat for eyes eager to see and minds open to understand.

The high point of our visit was the cathedral. A XIV century marvel of faith and stone, with a work of art in every altar and a prayer in every corner. It was Sunday and we attended mass. One of my friends understood Spanish, and he told me at the end: “Beautiful mass. But, one thing. You told us this cathedral comes from the XIV century, isn’t it? Well, the homily also came from the XIV century. It could have been preached on the day this cathedral was consecrated in the XIV century without changing a word. There was nothing in it to relate it to our days.”

As a keepsake they took marzipan with them. The best gift from Toledo. Made according to a XIV century recipe.

A visitor to India

“At the other side of the forest I begin to see a line of women with loads of firewood on their heads. I see them from the side and so I can appreciate the length of their load that is double the height of the woman who carries it. Sometimes the heads of their children show from a bundle at the back. God knows where they have had to go to get all that firewood.

Quite a few of them file past, and then, after a while, two more women come along, one with nothing on her head. I get the impression that they walk more slowly because of this woman. Right enough, she lags behind, stops and sits down by the way. She looks sick, or maybe she is pregnant. The other woman then lowers her load, leaves it prompted on a tree and comes back to look after her companion. She helps her to stand up and holds her along while the firewood slips to the ground.

This is my chance, I say to myself. What an opportunity to take up their load and follow them. I won’t find it easy to carry it as they do, but I’ll manage somehow. I approach the tree, I catch hold of the bundle and. good heavens! I’m not able even to lift it! How can it be so heavy? I try again. I can hardly lift it a few inches from the ground.

The woman has seen me, she leaves her companion to go ahead and turns back to where I am. By now it would be idle to try again, so I just remain standing by the load, looking ridiculous and ashamed. To make it worse, I see that another group of women are coming now from the forest with similar loads. And here I am with all my good will and my useless efforts.

I soon realise that the woman does not speak a word of English, and so I explain to her by signs my intention. and my failure. She says something insisting on some words which I repeat – as a manner of speaking – to which she assents with her head. Then she stoops down to lift from the ground something I had not seen, a kind of cloth ring to be placed on one’s head and so to balance and soften the burden. One of the women that were coming has now her load propped against a tree and helps her lift the huge bundle of firewood to a vertical position, when the other woman, without bending, places her head against the middle of the load and with a quick and careful move turns it slowly till it is horizontal (now I understand why the bundle is exactly double the height of a person). Then the second woman, without any help, does the same with her bundle, and so both of them go on their way, oblivious of me, while I remain looking silly, useless, clumsy.”

(José Eizaguirre, Señales de vida, p. 117)

Religious iconography
[Another observation of the same wise traveller:]

“The images of Buddha, apart from their typical postures, have all of them something striking in common: their expression of peace and serenity. The images of Hindu deities, on their part, have in common an unmistakeable expression of joy and happiness.

Peace and happiness. The archaeology section in the Indian Museum, Kolkata, is witness to the evident fact. Thus it is that deities are often represented dancing or, when they are couples, enjoying mutual embraces (sometimes in a way a Westerner would take as ‘indecent’). It is plain that Hindu deities – or the diverse manifestations of the one and only God if we look at it that way – are certainly happy and are a source of happiness for humans.”
(Ib. p. 157)

Peace and happiness

“Everything is perfect just as it is, in the sense of being complete. Take a china incense bowl. It’s perfect as it is. If I drop it and it breaks into a lot of pieces, each piece is perfect as it is – because that’s what it is. We may have the notion that all those pieces should be returned to their original condition as parts of a whole incense bowl so they can be perfect again, but that’s just a notion.”
(Bernie Glassman, Infinite Circle, p. 11)

“There is no past. It’s already gone. There is no future. It’s not yet here. But then, there is no present either. By the time I say it, it’s gone. Stay with nothingness.”
(p. 39)

“The Maha Prajnaparamita Hrdaya Sutra contains twelve chapters. The twelve chapters are contained in the first one. The first chapter is contained in its first verse. The first verse in summed up in its first word. The first word in its first letter. The first letter can then, of course, be dispensed with. Back to nothingness.”
(p. 66)

“In a famous koan, a monk went to Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen and asked, ‘What shall I do now that I’ve let go of everything?’ Chao-chou said, ‘Let go of that!’ The monk said, ‘What do you mean, let go of that? I’ve let go of everything.’ Chao-chou answered, ‘Fine, then continue carrying it with you.’ The monk failed to get the point. Holding on to letting go is not letting go. Nothingness again.”
(p. 67)

Dogen Zenji says in Genjokoan:

“Gaining enlightenment is like the moon reflecting in the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water disturbed.
Although its light is extensive and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch across.
The whole moon and the whole sky are reflected in the dew drops in the grass, in one drop of water.
Enlightenment does not disturb the person, just as the moon does not disturb the water.
A person does not hinder enlightenment, just as the dewdrop does not hinder the moon.
The depth of the drop is the height of the moon.”
(p. 94)

The barren woman

“This is the story of a woman in Sidon who had remained ten years with her husband but had no children. Her husband came before Rabbi Simon Bar Yohay with his wife to divorce her. He told them: ‘You may separate, if you so desire, and let the woman go to her father’s house; but before that celebrate a feast so that as you lived eating and drinking together so you may part eating and drinking together. And let the woman take with her to her father’s house any valuable object from her house.’

She made her husband get drunk in the feast, and once he was in deep sleep she signalled to her servants and told them: ‘Place him on his bed, then take the bed with him on it and carry it to my father’s house.’ At midnight the husband woke up as the effect of the wine had passed. He asked his wife, ‘Where have you brought me?’ She said to him, ‘To my father’s house.’ He said, ‘And what am I doing in your father’s house?’ She told him, ‘Did not the Rabbi say that I could take and valuable object from my house and bring it to my father’s house? In the whole world there is nothing as valuable to me as you.’ They went together to Rabbi Simon Bar Yohay who prayed for them and the woman was visited by God.”
(Leon Berman, Contes du Talmud, p. 24)

You tell me

Back to karma. On your request. “Karma” means “act” or “action”, and it means that our actions determine our future in this life and in the next, so that karma comes to mean my actions and their effect on my conscience and on my life.

St Paul said: “Everyone reaps what they sow.” (Galatians 6, 7) But the Eastern doctrine of karma is not quite that. In the West an action has to be free and intended if it is to bring reward or punishment. An action without intention does not count. In the East a “material” action counts even if it is not “formal”, that is, if it is performed without an intention. If I break a glass on purpose to cause damage, my action generates karma both in the East and in the West; if I break it accidentally, that generates karma in the East but not in the West. In the East it is the material action that counts, not the intention. In the West it is the formal action, complete with freedom to act and the intention to do so.

Walking one monsoon evening with Hindu friends I was about to step on the muddy ground when the one by my side caught me quickly by my arm and made me step aside. He told me: “I’ve just now saved you from committing a grave sin. See, you were going to step on a frog and you would have killed it. I have saved you from acquiring bad karma. Thank me for it.” It was a grievous sin to kill a frog. even unawares. I greeted the frog. It jumped away.

The other difference is whether God can change my karma or not, that is, whether he can forgive my sins. In Christianity he can, while in Hinduism he can according to some (Bhaktimarga) and cannot according to others (Karmamarga).

Jainism, confronted with the problem of suffering in this world argues: My suffering is the result of my karma. Can God change my karma, that is, free me from my sufferings? In fact he doesn’t. If he does not because he cannot, he is not omnipotent; and if he does not because he doesn’t want to, he is not good. The conclusion is that there is no God. Accumulated bad karma has to be “burnt” by penances and austerities. If it is not burnt in time, an unpleasant surprise may be waiting for us in our next life.

The word has entered our vocabulary and everybody uses it, but it’s good to advert to its shades of meaning.

Psalm

Psalm 135 – The great Hallel

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
for his love endures for ever.
Give thanks to the God of gods;
his love endures for ever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords;
his love endures for ever.”
Israel sings its thanksgiving in the feast of the Pasch, listing with loving memory all the great works of the Lord, from creation and deliverance to conquest and daily care, under the meaningful monotony of the single refrain: “His loves endures for ever.”

“In wisdom he made the heavens;
his love endures for ever.
He laid the earth upon the waters;
his love endures for ever.

He made the great lights,
his love endures for ever;
the sun to rule by day,
his love endures for ever;
the moon and the stars to rule by night,
his love endures for ever.”

To the official litany I add my own private verses.

He brought me to life; his love endures for ever. He placed me in a loving family; his love endures for ever. He taught me to pronounce his name; his love endures for ever. He opened his scriptures to me; his love endures for ever. He called me to his service; his love endures for ever. He sent me to help his people; his love endures for ever. He gives joy in my heart; his love endures for ever. He has called me his friend; his love endures for ever.

Now I go on in the silence of my heart, recounting those moments he alone and I know, moments of bliss and intimacy, moments of sorrow and repentance, moments of mercy and grace. His love endures for ever.

My life made into a prayer, my memories into a loving litany, my history into a psalm. And after every event, big or small, painful or delightful, hidden or manifest, comes the verse that gives meaning to all and unifies my life in the single thrust of God’s own providence: His love endures for ever.

“Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his love endures for ever.”

 

15th
I tell you

Ph.D. in living

A young Indian Jesuit who was a good friend of mine went to the United Status to get a Ph.D. in chemistry with a view to teaching the subject in our St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. A doctorate in the United States takes several years, and after two years the doctors examined him for the symptoms he showed and diagnosed terminal cancer. He might live a few months, perhaps a year, but the prognosis was definitive. There was no cure.

His friends advised him to leave his Ph.D. studies, as they now would be totally useless, and to devote himself instead to the exercise of his priesthood, which he hardly had done yet as he had been ordained shortly before going to The States. He could usefully give Spiritual Exercises and religious courses, administer the sacraments and preside at the Eucharist, counsel people and direct consciences, in a word, could minister to the faithful as their priest, and that would give him great satisfaction as that was the aim and dream of all his life. The advice was unanimous. To go on with the doctorate had no meaning as he could never finish it, much less use it for anything at all.

He answered: “I don’t know how long I’m still going to live, whether a month or a year, but I know I’m not going to live long. You all tell me to devote the rest of my time to something ‘useful’ that would help others and would give me the satisfaction of having exercised my priesthood for which I’ve been preparing myself all my life with great hopes and devotedness, while I’ve hardly been able to have any priestly ministries yet. But if I leave now my Ph.D. studies, that would mean that all that I’ve done so far in my life has been useless. That was only ‘preparation’ that had not yet turned into ‘action’, and so I would have done nothing. All the long years of my training would count for nothing, my studies before the doctorate and in the doctorate would be useless, all my life would have been a waste of time. But that’s not the way I see it. For me my studies were valid in themselves, every course counted and every examination contributed. Everything is life, whatever we may be doing. What does it matter whether later on I ‘make use’ of that knowledge or not? Life is not valued by results but by our living it as it is moment by moment. And I have lived my life as a student with full commitment and full joy. And so will I continue to live my life as a Ph.D. student.”

His name was George Madathani. He went on with his studies in the doctorate. He died of cancer six months later. That happened some years ago, but today, unexpectedly, I thought of him and I’ve been moved to render him homage. A noble soul.

A grown-up man tells what he lived trough as a child

– Don’t worry, everything is fine, I’m by your side.

The hand that caressed my cheek was my mother’s, and her face was very close to mine. I could hardly see her. She spoke in whispers and patted my head. It was dark. The walls were of wood. There was a strange smell. Some low rubbing noises indicated there were more people inside. My mother lifted my head and propped it on her arm. She held me close. She kissed me on my cheek.

I asked here where daddy was.

– There has been a mistake, son, but everything will be alright. We’ll soon go back home and daddy will be there waiting for us. But there has been a mistake and we’ll have to stay here a couple of days more, just as it happened some time back when we had to stay in Trude’s house, do you remember? Trude had prepared some cauliflower, but you didn’t eat it because you don’t like cauliflower. Yesterday your daddy had to leave early to go to his office. Then they came for us, but you were half asleep. Do you remember that? We had to walk a good while. I left a note for daddy explaining the mistake, because it should not have been necessary for us to go with those people who came. So daddy will find the note and in a few days he’ll come to fetch us. Meanwhile here there are many people and quite a few children, so that you’ll not be bored. We haven’t been able to bring with us many of your toys because we had to come in a hurry. We didn’t even have time to tell our neighbours. Just as well we later found quite a few people we knew. That fine gentleman who was playing with you, do you remember? He also promised to tell daddy. He must have done it by now. Maybe tomorrow we’ll get his letter. Here there are other people, so we must speak in a low voice. Otherwise we would wake them up. And here everybody is tired. You too are tired, aren’t you? In the train you slept all the time. Do you remember the train? Of course not, my darling, you were too fast asleep. It’s silly of them to have made such a mistake, but in a couple of days we’ll be back home.”

Someone said “shhh”. My mother whispered so close to my ear that it tickled.

– Now go to sleep. I’ll be by your side. Tomorrow we’ll go to have a look of the camp and in a couple of days we’ll be back home with daddy.

She kissed me. The air in my nose was cold. Under the blanket it was also cold. Every day I asked her when were we going home. She always said, in a couple of days.
(Jona Oberski, Kinderjaren, p. 9)

[They were in a concentration camp. His father was in the same camp in another barracks.]

The child goes on

My mother woke me up. She took her finger to her lips. In the barracks there was absolute silence. She spoke in a whisper. I had to dress up quickly. She told me it was a surprise. I had to put on my coat and my gloves. We went out on tiptoe. It was already dawn. We stood for a moment outside the door. All we could hear was the wind among the trees, which were like shadows on the other side of the road. My mother looked all round. She took my hand. I made to ask her something, but she silenced me and took me gently ahead. It was cold.

She was carrying a small parcel under her arm. She didn’t tell me what it was. Neither what were we going to do. She walked very fast.

We arrived at the door of another barracks and she knocked gently. There was silence all round. Someone asked something from inside, and my mother whispered something close to the door. The door opened and we went into the darkness. My mother handed over something to the man and he inspected it bringing it close to his face.

– This is not what was agreed upon.
– I’ll give you the rest later on.
– Nothing doing. Everything now, as arranged, or I’ll do nothing.
– But, if he doesn’t turn up?
– You are not the first. Do you not trust me?

Mother gave him something else. The man opened the door and took us inside. We waited. “How long is he taking!” exclaimed my mother. Suddenly the other door opened. Someone came in. I came close to my mother and held her coat. The man came close to us and embraced mother. I was behind my mother, and she was crying. Then she wiped out her tears and asked me, “Don’t you see it is daddy?” He said, “I’ve changed much, with a beard now and a shaven head. Do you recognise me now?” He held me softly. I recognised my father by his hand. I let myself by drawn closer to him. He embraced me tenderly. There was a thick coat and its hair between us.

Mother then announced we had brought a parcel for him and gave it to him. It was his birthday. He opened the parcel and a real round cake appeared. He asked mother how she had made it. She smiled. He took a bit with his fingers and tasted it. Then I saw it was not a true cake but a mixture of potatoes and bits of bread. For the last days my mother had not insisted too much on my eating all that I was served, on the contrary, she had been very lenient: she would ask me whether I didn’t want more and then she would quickly withdraw my dish. My father said, “You should not have done this”, and my mother answered, “You need it more than we do.”

We watched him while he ate. He offered me a bit, but I didn’t feel like eating. When he finished, they looked into each other’s eyes. She said something in a low voice and embraced him. Then he said:

– No, no, it’s impossible.
– Come on, I know perfectly well that you’re longing for it, so that it is possible.
– What about the child?
– He won’t realise anything.
– And don’t think it’s right.
– Then let him wait outside.
– Leave it, there is no need.
– Yes, yes, let him wait outside.

She asked the man outside whether I could remain a while with him and she went back inside. I sat on the ground, in the dark, next to the door. I could hear my parents’ voices from inside. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the seemed to be fighting. His grunts and her sighs were getting stronger and stronger. I got up and made to go in. The man told me, “Don’t. Sit down.” I started crying. He knocked on the door and insisted they took me inside, else we would be found out because of my crying. My mother came out and ordered me to keep quiet. My father asked her to let me in. My mother told me to remain looking at the door in case someone would come, and not to turn my head back. I promised. I heard them talk in whispers. Then my mother started breathing heavily. I turned my head. My father saw me over my mother’s shoulder while he embraced her, and said, “That way it’s impossible. Besides, it must be almost time. This can’t be done in a hurry.” My mother turned while she buttoned up her coat. She came to me, took me by the hand, took me outside and told the man to keep me there. She went back inside, and after a while came out. She was walking very quickly. I had to run not to be left back.

Next day was my birthday. I asked whether there would be a cake for me too. Mother answered that she had spent everything for the first cake. This time there would be nothing for me, but next year she would give me whatever I wanted. She asked me what I would like then. I answered I wanted a new clown and a toy car for me to drive. And to be allowed to drive it by myself.

(p. 57)

My whole life

“Let my every word be a prayer to Thee,
Every movement of my hands a ritual gesture to Thee,
Every step I take a circumambulation of Thy image,
Every morsel I eat a rite of sacrifice to Thee,
Every time I lay down a prostration at Thy feet;
Every act of personal pleasure and all else that I do,
Let it all be a form of worshiping Thee.”

(Shankaracharya, Saundaryalahari, stanza 27)

Searching for God

“Ijiel, the grandson of Rabi Baruj, was once playing hide-and-seek with another child. He hid very carefully and waited for his playmate to find him. He waited for a long time, till he finally left his hiding place. He looked around but he didn’t see his friend anywhere. Then he understood that the other child had not been searching for him in all the time. That made him cry, and he went to his grandfather to complain about his disloyal friend with tears in his eyes.

Then it was the turn of Rabi Baruj’s eyes to be filled with tears as he said: ‘God says exactly the same thing: ‘I hide, but no one searches for me’.”

(Martin Buber, Die Erzählungen der Chassidim, p. 151)

Happiness

“Be happy without waiting to be happy.” (Oriental saying)

You tell me

“How do you say we are second-hand people? I’ve been made by God and I am first-hand.” So asks a spirited young lady.

I read the phrase “we are second-hand people” in Krishnamurti, and it impressed me deeply. I’ve quoted it often. It did change my outlook on myself. I too had considered myself original. Independent, free, creative, personal. My opinions were mine and my beliefs were defined by myself. I always acted out of my own personal conviction. That was clear. But in reality it was not so. My “convictions” were the result of all I had seen, lived, learned, imitated, internalised from my parents in the first place, my surroundings, my school, my teachers, my spiritual directors. All that was very fine, but “my” convictions were not precisely “mine”. They were inherited. I, too, was made by God, but my way of thinking and reacting was conditioned from the start by those around me. And I hadn’t even realised it. That was the danger.

Sunday breakfast in the home of my childhood was a treat. My father prepared it for us, and it consisted in a fresh bun, opened and toasted, and on it a generous spread of Esbensen butter and Roquefort cheese. The taste stuck to my palate for life, even if I didn’t taste Roquefort cheese after my father died when I was 10 and almost forgot it after I reached India when I was 24. When I was 41 I left India for the first time to attend a Mathematics Congress in Europe. I wanted to bring something with me on my way back for my companions at St Xavier’s College and I could not think of anything better than… Roquefort cheese. I packed it carefully so that its powerful smell would not contaminate every other item in my suitcase, brought it successfully, opened it up hopefully and displayed it before my friends proudly. One of them ventured to taste a small portion, grimaced and gave up the trial. The cheese remained untouched, surrounded by its pungent small. I had to eat it alone day by day. But my childhood’s treat found no favour among my friends in India. I thought it was a universal taste, but it was only a childhood memory. An acquired taste. Second hand. As everything else.

Life is a Roquefort cheese.

Psalm

Psalm 136 – How can I sing?

“How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”
This is the cross and the paradox of my own life, Lord. How can I sing when others weep? How can I dance when others mourn? How can I eat when others starve? How can I sleep when others watch? How can I rest when others toil? How can I live when others die? This world is exile, trial and contradiction; how can I speak of happiness in it when I see misery all around me and in my own soul?

Rivers invite gaiety, but we weep by their side; trees wave their branches to music, but we have hung our mute harps on them; people ask for songs, but we answer with laments. How can we speak of Jerusalem while we are in Babylon!

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down
and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the willow-trees we hung up our harps,
for there those who carried us off demanded music and singing,
and our captors called on us to be merry:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”

Make me sensitive, Lord, to the pain around me. Do not allow me to forget the sufferings of men far and near, the trials of humankind in our age, the agony of millions in the face of hunger, destitution and death. Let me not grow callous, forgetful or deaf. Humans suffer and life is exile. Those who suffer are my brothers and sisters, and I suffer with them.

There is a time for joy in life; but there is also the serious tragic conscience of the plight of our age and our responsibility to alleviate suffering and restore peace.

I want to sing, Lord, to sing the praises of your name and the joys of life as you had taught me in the festivals of Zion. But I cannot sing now in the bitterness of exile. Thus my very negative, “How can I sing?” is a prayer to you that you may shorten the exile, redeem humankind, bring joy back to earth that I may sing again.

If you want to hear again the songs of Zion, Lord, bring the joy of Zion back on the face of the earth.

1st
I tell you

Blind

I walk on the street in the morning, contemplating, meditating, breathing. Everybody is going to work, everybody shifts from one place to another, everybody is in a hurry. Everybody looks at the public clocks in the bus stands and everybody’s step quickens. Everybody arrives late.

After a while I notice a woman that walks in front of me. She is blind. She is well dressed, with an elegant scarf round her neck and an attaché case under her arm. She is elderly. In her hand she holds the long white cane with which she sensitively sweeps the ground in front of her to direct her steps. I’m walking behind her and I adjust my step to hers in case she would need help.

She turns before a traffic light and asks nobody in particular: “Can one cross?” I come up to her and tell her: “No. It’s red. Wait. I can accompany you.” I take her gently by the arm. While we wait, we talk:

– I can accompany you wherever you want.
– Thank you.
– You see, I’m just taking a walk and I’m in no hurry.
– It’s enough if you leave me at the bus stand on the other side of the road.
– Yes, I see it.
– From there on I can manage.
– You manage very well.
– Not always.
– Come, it’s green now.
– I hear a bus arriving. Which number is it?
– Number 27.
– That’s not my bus. Mine is 147.
– I’ll tell you as soon as it shows.

I was ready to accompany her in the bus itself, but she was used to go by herself. The bus did not take long to arrive.

– Thank you, sir.
– May I kiss you, madam?
– Yes.
– Thank you for letting me kiss you.

She boarded the bus by herself. I waived goodbye to her from outside. Only then did I realise that she was not seeing me.

The poor speak out

Carolina María de Jesús, “favelada” in the “favelas” (shanty town) of Sâo Paulo begins her diary with these lines:

“Today is my daughter Vera Eunice’s birthday. I wanted to buy a pair of shoes for her, but the price of food keeps us from realising our desires. Actually we are slaves to the cost of living. I found a pair of shoes in the garbage, washed them, and patched them for her to wear.”

Then she goes on day by day with her heartrending experiences.

“I don’t have a cent to buy bread. I looked for empty bottles, washed them, bargained with Arnaldo. He kept them and gave me a loaf of bread. Then I went to pick paper. That is my trade. A neighbour woman taunts me: “All that you know is to collect dirty paper.” I answer: “And I do it well, and so I show I’m alive.” Some streets yield more paper and we fight for them. In the Alfredo Maia Street I can fill up two bags. I’m used to be dirty. I’ve been picking paper since I was eight. What an ordeal it is to search for paper. I have to carry my daughter. She is only two years old and doesn’t like to stay at home. I put the sack on my head and carried her in my arms. I bore the weight of the sack on my head and the weight of my daughter in my arms. Sometimes it makes me angry. Then I get a hold of myself. She’s not guilty because she’s in the world. One day a jealous woman set fire to five full sacks I had collected. I needed those sacks.

Today I felt very tired. I should have carried the two sacks in two trips, but I only took one because I wanted to arrive soon back at home where I had left Vera alone and sick. Vera weeps because she says she doesn’t want to be poor. She wants to live in a brick house.

I’ve lost the habit of smiling. I’m beginning to lose interest in life. Sometimes I think whether I am the only person leading this kind of life. Do the poor in other countries suffer as much as those of Brazil? I was so unhappy that I started to fight without reason with my boy José Carlos.

– Look, mum, that woman is riding in my car.
– What do you mean, your car?
– That is the car I want to have when I grow up.

How horrible it is to see a child eat and ask: ‘Is there more?’ This word ‘more’ keeps ringing in the mother’s head as she looks in the pot and doesn’t have any more. It is horrible to have only air in one’s stomach. The president of the country should be someone who has experienced hunger. It is horrible to get up in the morning and see that there is nothing to eat. Yesterday we ate little. Today less. The poor are happy only when they sleep.

I went to the Welfare Agency. They told me to bring my complaints to the governor. I went to his palace. They sent me to an office. From there to another office. I went back to the palace. I went in to see Senhor Alcides. He shouted: ‘Take her away!’ A soldier placed the tip of his bayonet against my breast. I looked at the soldier in the eye and I saw he was sorry for me. He did nothing. A false philanthropist called the police and they took me in their van to my place. They threatened me: ‘Next time you kick up a row in the Welfare Agency we’ll put you in jail.’ Welfare Agency? Whose welfare?

Brother Luiz came to show a film to the favelados. He is a priest who helps the favelados. He explained the film about the birth of Christ. When the Magi appeared he asked whether we knew their names. Someone said, ‘Pelé’, and all laughed. I thought that if Brother Luiz was married, had children and earned a minimum wage I would like to see if he would be so humble. He said that God blesses only those who suffer with resignation. If the Brother saw his children eating rotten food already attacked by vultures and rats, he would stoop talking about resignation and revel, because rebellion comes from bitterness. He said it was a pleasure for him to be with us. But if he were to live here he wouldn’t say it. The president of the Centre of the Spirit came to visit us, and a man he was with him saw how dirty we were and asked: ‘Is it possible that there are people in the world like these?’ I answered: ‘Yes, we are ugly and are poorly dressed, but we are of this world.’

I have lost eight kilos. I have no flesh on my bones. But I keep picking paper and selling it. When passing in front of a shop window I saw my reflection and I looked away because I thought I had seen a ghost.

Will God have mercy on me? I wonder if God knows the favelas exist and that the favelados are hungry?

(Carolina María de Jesús, Cuarto de Despejo, p. 21 ff.)

Oil in a spoon

A traditional story told by Paulo Coelho:

A merchant sent his son to learn the secret of happiness from the wisest of all men. The young man walked for forty days in the desert till he reached a beautiful castle on the top of a mountain: that was the abode of the sage.

The sage listened carefully to the young man’s request and said that he had no time at the moment to teach him the secret of happiness. He suggested that he would take a round along the many halls of the palace and would come in two hours’ time. He only added that all this time the young man should carry a spoon in his hand; the spoon was filled with oil and not a drop should spill over.

The young man went up and down stairways, passed through halls, walked along corridors keeping always his eyes on the spoon. After two hours he came back to the presence of the sage. The sage asked him: ‘Have you seen the Persian works of tapestry on the walls? Have you seen the garden that took ten gardeners ten years to build? Have you examined the precious manuscripts in my library?’

The young man confessed, ashamed, that he had seen none of those things; his only worry had been not to spill the oil in the spoon. The sage told him: ‘Then go now again and learn of the marvels of my world. You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house.’

Reassured with these words the young man took the spoon again and went back to palace paying attention to all the works of art on the walls and ceilings and gardens and shelves. He went back to the sage and gave a detailed account of all that he had seen. The sage asked him: ‘And where is the oil I entrusted to your care?’

The young man looked at the spoon in horror and it was empty. All the oil had spilled over. Then the sage spoke: ‘Do not worry about that. You came here in search of advice, and this is what I have to tell you: the secret of happiness lies in contemplating all the wonders of the world without for a moment forgetting the oil in the spoon’.

Chinese proverbs

“Great doubt: great awakening.
Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.”

“When you take the first step, You’ve already reached the goal.”

“The old masters were often mendicants without a home, but Zen works also for someone with two children, a mortgage on the house, and a loan on the car.”

“You can search for Zen all round the world, but you’ll find it only here and now.”

“If you finally find the way to Zen, you’re definitely in the wrong direction.”

“All persons, sooner or later, meet their own Zen, but most bury it before it can change their life.!

“My daughter cooks perfect Zen biscuits in out kitchen. I never tell her, because, if I would tell her, she would never be able to cook Zen biscuits again.”

You tell me

Can we free ourselves from all our conditionings?

Certainly not. They are many. And we don’t even suspect many of them. To admit that we are conditioned is humiliating, and as a consequence we don’t want to accept that we are conditioned, and further we refuse to accept that we don’t want to accept that we are conditioned, and so on and so forth. We say that we like what we don’t like, that we are amused when we are bored, that we find wonderful what we find awful. But we have to say it because all say it and we want to be like everybody else so as to be accepted by everybody.

A question in the disco in a pause between loudspeakers and exclamations and pushing and pulling:

– What are you doing here?
– They say we are amusing ourselves.

And something else. The desire to get free of conditionings can be the strongest conditioning. Whom did you learn it from? Someone has conditioned you to get free from your conditionings. Remember the prayer: ‘From our liberators liberate us, Lord.’

Psalm

Psalm 137 – Do not leave unfinished the work of your hands!

“The Lord will accomplish his purpose for me.
Your true love, O Lord, endures for ever;
leave not your work unfinished.”
I find those words most consoling for me at this moment, Lord. “The Lord will accomplish his purpose for me.” I know that you have a purpose for me. I know that you have begun your work in me, and I know that you bring to completion what you begin. In that thought I rest. I am in good hands. The work is on. It will not stop midway. You are sure to complete it. Thank you, Lord.

You yourself spoke with condemnation of the man who begins and does not end. Of the ploughman who looks back at the middle of the furrow, of the builder who stops building at the middle of the tower. That means that you are not like that, Lord. You drive the furrow till the end, you finish the tower, you complete your work. And I am your work. Your hands have made me, and your grace has brought me where I am. Don’t disclaim responsibility, Lord. Don’t leave me in the lurch. Don’t disown your work. Your own reputation is at stake. Let not people, when they see me, say of you: “He began to build and did not finish his work.” Bring to a happy ending what you have begun in me, Lord.

You have given me the desires; give me now the execution of those desires. You have invited me to take vows; give me now the strength to keep them. You have inspired me to start on my way to you; give me now the determination to arrive. Why did you call me, if you were not going to follow up your first call with consequent graces to ensure continuance and success? If you were going to drop me along the way, why did you in the first instance hold my hand?

I am in the midst of my way, and I feel the difficulty, the doubt, the fatigue. That is why today it is a great consolation to me to think of your seriousness, your commitment, your promise. “The Lord will accomplish his purpose for me.” That gives me hope when my strength fails, and courage when my faith begins to falter. I may fall, but you will not. You have committed yourself in me. And you will carry out your commitment to the end.

Allow me now to express my faith in a prayer, my firm conviction as a humble request in words you have given me and I love to pronounce:

“Lord! Do not leave unfinished the work of your hands!”

 

15th
I tell you

TV Contest

Sometimes it is amusing to watch a TV contest. Sometimes. On this occasion a name was given and the contenders had to say to which of two sets it belonged. For instance, a river was mentioned and it had to be said whether it was in France or in Germany. The Seine… in France. The Rhine… in Germany. Very intelligent indeed.

Then a book of the Bible was given and the question was asked whether it belonged to the Old Testament or to the New. That interested me more. Particularly when I began to hear the answers of the young players. They did place the Gospel of St Matthew in the New Testament, and the Book of Job in the Old, but they sent the Apocalypse to the Old and Isaiah to the New. And so on. Shooting without aim. The Book of Kings also landed in the New Testament (maybe they thought of the Three Kings in Bethlehem), and the Letter to the Hebrews went to the Hebrews in Egypt (maybe sent by Moses). Bible knowledge didn’t seem to be their strong point.

Their strong point came next. “We now are going to mention songs by their first line, and you have to say whether they are by The Beatles or by The Rolling Stones.” Here they didn’t miss a shot. They knew all the songs. They not only knew them, but they started singing them as soon as they heard the first word. They were quite up-to-date in modern musical knowledge.

I said the programme was amusing. Rather, unsettling.

Tennis champ

Ramanathan Krishnan, the tennis champ from Chennai, tells the famous anecdote of which he was the naïve protagonist.

“On first alighting at the Southfields underground station, from where you can walk to the All England Club in fifteen minutes, we did not know how to get to the Wimbledon courts. I asked a taxi driver outside the station, ‘How does one get to Wimbledon, sir?’ He gave me the once over and said earnestly, ‘Practice, sonny, practice!’”

Krishnan and I studied at the same time in the same College, though not in the same class. That was Loyola College, Chennai. He always said that the best tennis courts in the world were those of Loyola…, with their cow-dung ground. I’ve enjoyed the reference to Loyola College in his autobiography:

“My days at Loyola College were thoroughly enjoyable. We were a boisterous lot of friends who turned to books only when it was absolutely necessary. Much of the time was spent on eating out, watching movies and playing tennis. As an important member of the College team, I made sure matches would be scheduled on class test days. What is more, I made sure that my good friends could avoid the tests too as I sought permission for them to accompany me to matches as cheer leaders.

“College tennis was a lot of fun. I remember an intercollegiate match, played over the best of nineteen games, in which I was leading my opponent 7-0. While we were hanging sides, my opponent whispered into my ear: ‘Please give me a couple of games. My girlfriend is watching.’ I obliged. But when the score was 8-3 in my favour, the young man edged close to me during the changeover and whispered: ‘Please finish the match. My girlfriend and I are planning to go to a movie.’

“My father was a good tennis player and he formed me both with the care he took of me and with his example. In my own memory, what stands out as a monument to his iron-will and never-say-die spirit was a match he played in the Talkatora Club in Delhi. At that time my father was ranked No. 1 in Delhi and he was the defending champion at the Club’s annual tournament. His opponent in the final was an American called A. Leavens, a very good player. Things seemed to go on expected lined as the American took the first two sets 6-4, 6-4. A few dozen spectators were already leaving as the die seemed to be cast. Then came the remarkable turnaround as my father simply refused to go down. He battled back to take the third and fourth sets 6-4, 7-5 and finally outlasted the dazed American 6-2 in the fifth. I wondered how my father even had the energy to walk up and shake hands with his opponent after all the running he had to do. On the way home on my father’s bicycle, we stopped for a glass of lassi. But my father couldn’t ride the bicycle anymore and we stopped again. As my father took off his shoes and socks, I could see bloody blisters on his feet. I broke down in tears. Unmindful of his own agony, my father put his arm around me and said: ‘Don’t cry. This is my biggest moment on a tennis court. This victory means so much to me and to my career in the Government.’ Indeed it did. But what neither my father nor I realised that unforgettable evening was how much that single match meant to me. It left such an indelible impression on my young mind that I kept recalling it when I faced tough situations on the court. It was on that day I realised there was no pleasure without pain… in sports or in life.

“When my son Ramesh was just ten years old, I realised that the boy had what it takes to make a tennis player. I once sent him to Tiruchi with my office manager to play in a tournament there. Before his departure, I told him that he should check with the organisers about the schedule for the next day. The man who ran the tournament, Mr Thatham, was a friend of mine and I told Ramesh to be in touch with him with regard to the schedule. One evening, during the tournament, it so happened that Thatham was stuck at a meeting until well past dusk. And when he emerged from his room, he saw a chubby kid sitting alone in the makeshift stands, waiting to find out about the next day’s schedule. The kid, of course, was my son. Thatham called me on the phone and related the story to me. As a father, I was happy and I knew the boy had the discipline and sense of duty to do well in life – not just in tennis.”

(Ramanathan Krishnan, A Touch of Tennis, p. 7, 34, 81, 109)

I did not play tennis at Loyola, but I did play daily ring-tennis to ease out my own tensions from the mathematics honours course. I did have to keep textbooks in mind as the tests were tough and frequent. I always played singles against the same opponent (in the chemistry course), and being tall I always had the upper hand (literally!) in the game. My best stroke sent the ring grazing the net with a force that twisted the hand that pretended to catch it. When I had time I let him win and lengthened the game to have some more exercise which I sorely needed; but when I was in a hurry to prepare a test I would win fast, thank him and go back to my books.

My opponent never knew why some days he won so easily while other days he lost before he knew where he was. Only that here there was no girlfriend.

Registered mail
[Today’s newspaper shows a photograph of a rabbi placing letters in the cracks between the stones of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem along the following report:]

“Some years ago a Post Office worker found a letter addressed to God without a sender’s address. He opened it to find the address to which to return it and he found the request of a sick man who needed 5.000 shekels (about 1.000 dollars) to pay for a medical intervention. The worker was touched, made a collection among his fellow-workers that yielded 4.300 shekels and he send the money. Two weeks later the same man sent another letter to God to thank him for sending the money. There was a note: `Dear God, the next time you want to help me don’t send the money through the Post Office, because they have stolen 700 shekels.’

Today the Post Office staff in Jerusalem do not open the letters addressed to God. They store them up for six months and then bring them together, as happened last week, to the Wailing Wall (or the Western Wall as they now prefer to name it). There the Post Office chief, Yossi Sheli, handles them over to the rabbi of the Wall, Shmuel Rabinovith, who places them carefully in the cracks. About two or three thousand letters arrive each year. They are addressed to God, Abraham, Jesus, Our Lady or even Father Christmas, and they all are treated equally. Letters with acknowledgment due are not accepted.

Acknowledgment due
The story is told of a Muslim saint who every day asked God to grant him a particular grace he desired very much. But time passed and prayers went but the grace did not come. Still, he persevered in his prayers without fail, morning and evening, day after day with his repeated petition.

Finally one day an angel appeared to him and told him: “I’m coming from God. He has sent me to tell you he has decided not to grant your prayer.” And the angel went away.

The saint then went to the main square in the city, called people around and asked them to listen to him as he had something to tell them. When a crowd had gathered round him, he said: “I’ve been asking God for a particular grace for many years, and today an angel has come down to tell me that God has decided not to grant me that grace. I’ve called you so that you may rejoice with me and thank God with me.” People were surprised and told him: “How is it you are rejoicing and asking us to rejoice with you when God has refused your prayer?” He answered with joy in his face, in his hands, in his voice: “Don’t you see that now I know that my prayed reached God?”

Acknowledgment due.

What is a saint?

Charlie accompanied his mother in her shopping, got bored and looked at the windows of the cathedral from the street outside. They were artistic stained-glass windows, but from the outside they looked blurred, faded, grey, without light, only as dark stains on the walls of the cathedral. He didn’t like them, and so he told his mother when she finished her shopping.

His mother said, “Let’s go inside”, and so they went in, they crossed themselves with holy water, they knelt down, they prayed, they got up and they began to see the cathedral from the inside. “Look up there. That stained-glass window through which the sun filters down. Do you see it?”

Of course he saw it. It was the image of a saint in live colours brought out by the light which shone through the small pieces of glass making them shine and sketching the figure of the saint in its sharp profile and glorious surrounding. The child was delighted. His mother explained to him: “Do you see now? This is a saint, and that is why he is so joyful and beautiful.”

Next day during religion class at school the teacher spoke about saints and asked: “What is a saint?” Charlie put up his hand and answered: “A saint is somebody through whom the light shines.”

A parable of the Talmud

A marriage was arranged between a man and a woman who, as was the custom at the time, would know each other for the first time only on their wedding day. Unfortunately, when the great day arrived and the bridegroom saw the bride, he declared she was so ugly that he refused to marry her.

That was a scandal. That was never done. The bride had been humiliated and the two families stood dishonoured. No one knew what to do. The bridegroom understood he had to give some explanation and find a way out of the embarrassing situation, and he said before all the people that had gathered: “I will marry her if she can at last show one quality that may make up for all the rest.”

The rabbi who was to attend the wedding was Rabbi Ismael, one of the most respected judges at the time, and so the bridegroom said he would accept his decision after the inquiry had taken place. The rabbi agreed and he began to question the bridegroom:

– Tell me, is your bride’s head beautiful?
– No. In fact it is round as a watermelon.
– Is her hair beautiful?
– Certainly not! It looks like rough twisted strings.
– Well, maybe her eyes are beautiful.
– By no means! They are like turbid, dirty clouds.
– Could she have a beautiful nose?
– No. Her nose is long and twisted.
– What about her lips?
– Thick.
– Her neck?
– Bent.
– Her belly?
– Swollen.
– Maybe she has attractive feet.
– They are as flat as those of a duck.
– Then, finally, what is her name?
– Her name is “Momkenwoyud”.
– That’s enough. I can give my judgement. “Momkenwoyud” means “Imperfect Being”. You must marry her.
– How can you say that? Even her own mane proclaims that she is imperfect!
– Precisely.
– Precisely what?
– Precisely because her name is an honest reflection of her physical traits. If she had wanted she could have changed her name, and yet she never did it, and that shows that she is a truthful woman of excellent character. She will be a perfect companion for you in marriage.
– You are right, Rabbi. I am indebted to you for your wisdom. We marry just now.

The married and lived happily ever after.

(Rabbi Bradley R. Bleefeld, Saving the Word Entire, p. 46)

Sufi saying

“Sinners ask God’s forgiveness for their sins;
devotees ask God’s forgiveness for their devotion.”

You tell me

What has one to do to be creative? If you ask how to be creative, you’ll never be. Mozart was asked, “What has one to do to be a good musician?” He answered he’d never asked that. How does one know whether one has had a true experience of God? If you ask, you’ve never had it. In India this is explained very graphically: whoever doubts whether they have had an orgasm, has not had any.

The experience of God is the most vivifying event for a person. It is most precious for the person who receives it. On the other hand it can be frustrating because one’s own experience, by definition, cannot be imposed on anyone else. It does not hold for others. It proves nothing.

What to do to become a writer? Writing. Whatever is inside will come out. Whatever is expected will happen. Whatever we live out, we live out.

Psalm

Psalm 138 – You know me through and through

“Lord, you have examined me and know me.
You know all, whether I sit down or rise up;
you have discerned my thoughts from afar.
You have traced my journey and my resting places,
and are familiar with all my paths.
For there is not a word on my tongue
but you, Lord, know them all.

Such knowledge is beyond my understanding,
so high that I cannot reach it.”You know my thoughts, my words, my going and coming, my motives and passions, my loyalty and my failings, my character, my personality. You know me better than I know myself. You understand me when I don’t understand myself. I am relieved to know that there is at least someone who understands me!

I know that self-knowledge is the way to mental health and to spiritual realisation. I have striven for that self-knowledge without success, and now I realise that it is in you that I can find myself, in your mirror that I can see my face, in your knowledge of me that I can find self-knowledge. Dealing with you in prayer will lead me to know myself. I feel happy to have realised that.

You know even my body which, I begin to realise now, plays a much more important part in my life that I had ever suspected, united with my soul in intimate unity of mutual influence and integrated being.

“You fashioned my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
You know me through and through;
my body is no mystery to you,
how I was secretly kneaded into shape
and patterned in the depths of the earth.

You saw my limbs unformed in the womb,
and in your book they are all recorded;
day by day they were fashioned,
not one of them was late in growing.

How deep I find your thoughts, O God,
how inexhaustible their themes!”

Lead me day by day to understand my body as you understand it. Make me appreciate the wonder of your creation, and love the gift of matter in my being. Reconcile me with my materiality, and make me feel proud of my contact with earth through the clay of my body.

Make me love my senses, trust their wisdom, follow their insights. Make me feel one with nature through them, and establish a brotherhood of seeing, hearing, tasting with all the material world you have created to keep me company on my way to you.

And then lead me to understand the whole of me, soul and body, mind and sense, wisdom and folly, in the uniqueness of my character and the sacredness of my nature that bears your seal. Give me, Lord, the supreme grace of self-knowledge face to face with you in the context of your creation.

You know me through and through, Lord. Make me know myself!

1st
I tell you

The bargain of the month

My phone rings. I take it. It is an odd time and I’m annoyed to be disturbed in the middle of my work. But one never knows who may be calling. It’s a feminine voice, official, ritual. “Are you…? I am…, I’m calling you from…, do you know our product…? It is a last-generation apparatus with all the last improvements. If you buy it now you’ll get a discount… Are you sure you don’t want it? Will you not repent if you don’t take this opportunity? It’s the bargain of the month… May I call you when you think of it…? All right, all right, sir…, thank you, sir…, good day, sir…”.

I felt like hanging up on her from the start. I’m not interested in their product and I don’t shop by phone. Let them let me in peace. But I’ve thought for a moment on the girl at the other end of the phone. There she will be by a very small table, next to twenty other girls separated by soundproof panels like a beehive, with earphones around her head and a microphone hanging before her lips…, there she’ll be and there she’ll remain for eight hours a day dialling numbers, spinning out the yarn, spelling out bargains, softening vowels, smiling without joy and thanking for refusals. Poor girl. Not that I’m going to accept her offer just to please her, but at least I’m not going to shout at her or to hang up on her.

“Thank you, my girl…, I do appreciate what you are doing, my girl, and I imagine it is not very pleasant for you, but it’s your job and you need it to support yourself and your family…, No, please, don’t tell me the story of your life, as I know your bosses are watching your performance on the phone and you can’t afford personal unburdening during work time and you have to keep calling other numbers to fill up your daily quota; but be sure that I appreciate you and I thank you for your calling me and reminding me of the way many people have to work to earn a living. May you have a good day, my girl, may you sell many items, may you soon become head of your department so that you can take off your earphones, may you be very happy, my girl. Bye, and a kiss, my girl.”

She didn’t sell me her machine. But a least she smiled for a while that morning.

May I tell you a secret? That’s all I aspire to do in my life. To get someone to smile for a while on some morning.

The way fashion is fashioned

The singer Sting narrates his experience:

“It was still raining when we reached Manchester. Another car with another driver was waiting for me there to take me to the studio for a sound test. The performance would be a live performance and we had to do well. There was one hour to go, and, as I favoured my ‘cosmic’ image those days, I went into the makeup room and asked for a silver paint spray. The makeup girl brought out a canister. She asked me:

– Do you want me to do it?
– No, I’ll do it myself.

I took the spray and aimed at the crown of my head from about a ten-inch distance. Nothing came out. I tried again. Nothing. I shook the canister and verified that it was full. I pressed the top again. Nothing at all. I took a close look at the spray, a few inches from my eyes, and, as a perfect idiot, I pressed the release button and shot the metal paint straight on my eyes. I felt as though two razor blades had been violently thrust into my sockets, and I began to shout madly as a blond Count of Gloucester taken directly from King Lear.

By a kind of miracle there was an Eye Centre just by the side of the BBC studio. They applied an anaesthetic and they cheerfully told me I had burns caused by the chemicals. Steward lent me his sun glasses, which were enormous, but I couldn’t appear on television as though I were haemorrhaging on both eyes. As far as I could see myself on the mirror, I looked like a zombie.

There were just ten minutes left for the show to begin, and they were the longest ten minutes in my life to date. The heavy spectacles kept sliding down to the tip of my nose, and since I had to keep my hands down on my instrument and sing at the same time, I had to wrinkle my nose and shake my head up and down as through a nervous tic to prevent the spectacles from falling to the floor. Later they told me people thought I had done it on purpose, just as Elvis used to grimace with his lips or the Beatles shook back their hair between refrain and refrain. Apparently the next day docile adolescents in the whole country were sporting enormous sun glasses and wrinkled their noses and shook their heads as mental cases with face madness.”

(Sting, Broken Music, p. 324)

Fault finding

Sting goes on:

“They took us to one of the audition halls. At the other side of the glass there was another hall were we saw six ladies, all rather mature, with identical earphones and work gowns. They were sitting down like faithful devotees under a portrait of Elvis, with a lost look on their faces, not looking at anything in particular, isolated in their own world. Two of them were knitting, another was doing crotchet and the other three were reading magazines. Their job was to detect static noise in the records, one after another, hour after hour, day after day. They were quality controllers. It was the same for them to be listening to Puccini or to Ziggy Stardust. I felt as though I had treaded onto a totally lost region in hell, and I had to force myself not to look at them.”

Hell is fault finding.

(Ib. 282)

I love you

Sting had never got on well with his father. When his father, in his old age, was down with cancer, he went to visit him in the hospital. This was his last chance.

“I had not seen him for months, and I saw there a man I hardly recognised. For a moment I thought I had come to the wrong room, but the skeleton before me was my father who was looking at me with the penetrating look of a hungry child. The kind nurse that had accompanied me to the room motioned me to a chair. She told my father:

– Here is your son, the famous one, who has come to see you.
– Really?

I tried to get hold of myself. A part of me wanted to get out of that room like a frightened child.

– Hi, dad.
– I’ll leave you two alone. Surely you have a lot to tell to each other.

With that the nurse left. I had no idea what to say, so I took his hand and I lovingly started caressing the soft flesh triangle between the thumb and the index finger. I had not touched him thus since I was a child. He had big, rectangular hands with bulging knuckles, strong fingers and very marked lines. Dad did not have the delicate and expressive hands of an artist, but they did have a kind of elegance, and at that moment, so close to death, they shone with an honest and transparent beauty. They were the hands of a worker.

– Where are you coming from, son?
– I arrived yesterday from the United States, dad.
– So you’ve had to travel a lot in order to see your dad in this fix.
– A month ago you looked better.
– I haven’t looked up since your mother died.

I kept silent, conscious how hard that small confession had been for him. I took his other hand and caressed it too, but he shuddered. I didn’t know whether he was in pain. Maybe he needed another shot of morphine. He seemed to be a hundred years old.

I looked away and looked at the crucifix on the wall, and then at his two hands cradled in mine. At that moment I felt a jolt like an electric shock: apart from their colour, his hands and mine were identical. The shape of the palms, the lines on the folds of the skin, the large and wide knuckles, wrinkled like the knees of an elephant, the muscles fanning out from the wrist to the still strong and thick fingers were exactly the same in both of us. I kept looking at them for a good while, turning them again and again. How was it that I had never realised such an evident fact?

– We have the same hands, daddy, look.

I was again a child hankering desperately for his attention. He looked at our four hands.

– Yes, sonny, but you have used them better than I.

There was absolute silence in the room. I was trying to remember whether he had ever paid me a similar compliment, whether he had at least known who I was to the public, what had I accomplished and how much it had cost me. He had waited till then, till the very last moment when his words could have such a redeeming effect.

He closed his eyes as though the last minutes had shaken him. Outside it was dark already. I kissed him gently in the middle of his forehead and I muttered that he was a good man and that I loved him.”

(Ib. p. 334)

How wisdom comes

There was a man, the postman in the reservation, who had heard some of the Elders speak about objects that conferred a great power on those who possessed them. In particular, he heard the Elders say that the highest object a person could receive was an eagle’s feather. The eagle’s feather brought wisdom and power to whoever possessed it. But it could not be bought or acquired. It had to arrive directly through the Creator’s will.

Day by day he went out to look for the eagle’s feather. A moment came when he could think of nothing else. From dawn to dusk the eagle’s feather occupied all his thoughts. Weeks, months, years went by. The postman did deliver his post, but all the time he kept thinking of his only desire: the eagle’s feather.

He was now getting old, and one day he sat by the wayside and told God that he was giving up the search. He wanted to go back to his family and friends to spend with them whatever time was left for him to live.

Suddenly he felt a great peace. As he got up and started walking he saw a shadow cross his path. He looked up and saw a large eagle flying high in the sky. Then he noticed that something was coming down gently balancing its descent on the wings of the breeze. It was an eagle’s feather. He knew that it had appeared when he had given up all effort and had surrendered to the Creator’s will.

Now the postman is a different person. He doesn’t go round any more, but the people come to him and ask him questions and he gives them answers and they all admire him and revere him. He is a wise man.

Desiring, searching, giving up. And the feather comes.

(Hoh Leila Fisher, Cuentos que cuentan, Bernardo Ortín, p. 55)

From inside

“If you try to observe the precepts, that is not true observance of precepts. When you observe the precepts without trying to observe the precepts, that is true observance of the precepts. Our inmost nature can help us. Precepts are not rules set up by someone. When we understand the precepts as an expression of our inmost nature, that is the way as it is. Then there are no precepts. When we are expressing our inmost nature, no precepts are necessary, so we are not observing any precepts while we observe them all. So we have a choice of how to observe precepts, one negative and the other positive.”

(Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So, p. 86)

Sufi saying

“We are submerged in water, while we search for water;
we are submerged in Him, while we search for Him.”

Zen saying

“How long will you walk before admitting you are walking in the wrong direction?”

You tell me

Question: What did you mean by the Sufi quotation in your last Web,
“Sinners ask God’s forgiveness for their sins;
devotees ask God’s forgiveness for their devotions.”?

Answer: I mean to say that the true believer knows full well that all their beliefs are imperfect, limited, human, that they are just a reflection of the little we see and we know here below, that they do no justice to God, that they describe the undescribable and classify the unclassifiable, and that, in consequence, after praying and worshipping and offering to God all possible devotions, the true devotee asks pardon for having spoken of the divinity with human language, for having worshipped the Spirit with bodily gestures, for having defined God with earthly philosophies. This is the secret of the true devotion.

God prescribed rituals to the Hebrews: “In the shared-offering from the cattle: an animal without blemish. You must lay your hand on the head of the victim and slaughter it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 3, 1) And he asked them to accompany the offering with psalms: “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Psalm 149, 1) But them he himself rejected those very precepts: “I spurn with loathing your pilgrim-feasts; I pay no heed to your shared-offerings of stall-fed beasts. Spare me the sound of your songs; I shall not listen to the strumming of your lutes.” (Amos 5, 21)

Devotions are fine and even necessary as we have soul and body, feelings and fingers, thought and language, but let outside observance never take the place of inner worship, and let theology always give way to mystery.

Psalm

Psalm 139 -Justice to the downtrodden

“I know that the Lord will give their due to the needy
and justice to the downtrodden.”
I renew my faith in your justice, Lord, in the face of a world where justice seems to fail. I have tried prayers and action, I have tried words and writings, I have tried persuasion and revolution… and injustice continues to thrive on the face of the earth. What more can I do?

I cannot sit down in resignation and let things as they are. And I can do nothing to change them for all my efforts. I long for a just world with all my heart; and I see glaring injustice all around me. I believe in a just God; and I live in an unjust society. I suffer, Lord, and I want you to know it.

I know that your views are different from mine, that you see what I do not see, and my time is swallowed up in your eternity. But my life is finite, Lord, and I expect to get a glimpse of your justice while I still walk on earth.

I know that human happiness is deceptive, and riches may bring misery while poverty may bring joy. But my spirit revolts before inhuman degradation, and my heart cannot stand the look of hunger on the face of a child.

I don’t want to preach, I don’t want to argue, I don’t want to pray. I want to be one with the suffering of my brothers and sisters to remind you, in the unity of existence and faith, of the plight of your people on earth.

“The Lord will give their due to the needy
and justice to the downtrodden.”

 

15th
I tell you

The present moment

Teenagers. Both of them. Girls. There were vacant seats in the underground railway, but they preferred to sit on the floor. Legs crossed. One in front of the other. The train starts and they begin their game. The game of the hands. Palm against palm, up, down, left, right, one hand alone, both together. It their palms coincide and strike each other, both win, and if they miss, both lose. Ancestral game played most likely by Adam and Eve on their afternoons in Paradise before the apple when they didn’t have much to do. It is still played by young girls in the underground railway.

The train goes on stopping at each station, the doors open, people go out, people come in, the doors close, we start again. And their game goes on unabated from station to station. I had brought with me a book as I had a long way to travel, but I close the book. It is much more amusing to watch the two girls. They are not small girls, they are quite grown and their bags are full with notebooks and textbooks, but they play with childlike innocence. They laugh, they shout, they look, they shake their hair, they hit, they miss, they laugh again with loud and open laughter. A pleasure to watch.

There are other people on the train who are reading the paper, listening to music, minding children, doing nothing. Nobody pays attention to the playing girls. And they don’t care about anybody. They are playing. They are having a great time. Far better than reading the paper or listening to music. Their stop arrives. For all their fun, they have seen it, they get up, they laugh, they go to the door, they go out.

I see them go. They have taught me a lesson. After I’ve written so many books about how to live in the present moment!!!

Although, of course, I’ve also enjoyed the present moment.

Where’s my shoes? (The faulty grammar is intended)
[The woman writer Branda Avadian tells about the “unusual gift” she one day gave to her old father who suffered from Alzheimer in an advanced stage:]

“They were a few pages of the book I was writing. A book about him. I’ve not yet finished it, and he is still alive and I much desire he should see it. This is my tribute to him. Will he understand it? He still reads, but he does not understand all he reads. A few months ago he read an article about Africa and he thought he was living in Africa. When reading another book about World War Two he at once wanted to volunteer for the front. That’s why I don’t know whether he’ll understand my book and will realise that it is about him. I knew that if he would come to understand what he read, he would feel very, very proud.

I sat by his side and gave him the first page. I asked him, ‘Well what do you think about it?’ He answered: ‘It’s a nice story.’ And went on reading. Then he said, ‘It strikes me how this simple man could have earned so much money.’ He was reading it as though it were about another man! Still, he spoke to me in Armenian, which he rarely did. The book was in English.

I showed him the passage in which I describe the celebration of his birthday and I told him, ‘Daddy, this is about your eighty-seventh birthday, do you remember it?’ After a short while he answered, ‘The birthday of both of us, I suppose?’ My birthday fell on the same day as his.

My mother spent a good deal of her time ironing out clothes, and I had described that situation in my book. He read aloud what I had written, ‘I remember that my mother spent a lot of time each week ironing clothes. I remember her ironing in the main bedroom on the second storey, and some hot days in the summer he would come down to do her ironing in the dining room.’ He read aloud that far, and then continued to read silently as though concentrating on what he was reading.

If I sought direct recognition or explicit praise, I was not to get it; but if I, her daughter, wished to have the strange and intimate joy of seeing my father reading the tribute I had written for him before he died, I had got it! He read those pages.”
(Brenda Avadian, Where’s my shoes? P. 249)

[The ungrammatical title “Where’s my shoes?” comes from the repeated query of the father when he goes to live with his daughter. She asked him to remove his shoes while in the house, as the all in the family did not to spoil the carpets, but he forgot and kept putting them on so that they had to hide them, and hence his constant question, which he framed in the language he knew but he had never mastered, English: “Where’s my shoes?”]

– Where’s my shoes?
– We’ve kept them.
– Give them to me.
– No, daddy.
– Why don’t you give them to me?
– Because we don’t want you to wear them at home.
– Someone has stolen them
– Nobody has stolen them. We’re keeping them ourselves.
– Then, why do you hide them?
– So that you may not put them on.
– They are my shoes.
– I know it. I‘ll give them to you when you go out.
– I’m going out now.
– Daddy, it’s three in the morning.
– Never mind. I want my shoes. Where’s my shoes?

“While studying Alzheimer we learned that its patients usually develop some repetitive and insisting trait that, without their realising it, pulls to threads the caretaker’s nerves. Each case has a different tick. For us it was the innocent question, Where’s my shoes? Repeated a hundred times each day. They gave us a piece of advice which I here repeat for the benefit of those who look after Alzheimer patients: ‘Answer each time the repeated question as though it were the first time they ask it.’ For us it was, Where’s my shoes? In the end it became the title of this book.”

(p. 88)

Bowing before God

“Once a nurse came to me with a child and said, ‘This child asks wonderful questions, and I cannot answer them.’
I said, ‘What are the questions?’
She replied, ‘When the child was going to say its evening prayer before going to bed, it asked me, “‘If God is in heaven, up in heaven, then why must I bow low to the earth?’”
The nurse was very perplexed; she did not know how to answer. But if the child’s question had not been answered, from that moment its belief would have gone, because that is the time when the soul is beginning to enquire into life and its mystery.
I asked the child, ‘What did you say?’
The child explained it to me, and I said, ‘Yes, God is in heaven, but where are His feet? On the earth. By bending towards the earth, you are touching His feet.’
It was quite satisfied.”

(Hazrat Inayat Khan, Tales, p. 218)

Prayer

“There is a well-known story in India of a girl crossing a place where a Muslim was performing his prayers; and the law is that no one should cross where a person is praying.
When the girl returned, the man said to her, ‘How insolent! Do you know what you have done?’
‘What did I do?’ asked the girl. And the man told her.
‘I did not mean any harm’, said the girl. ‘But tell me, what do you mean by praying?’
‘For me, prayer is thinking of God’, said the man.
‘Oh!’, she said, ‘I was going to see my young man, and I was thinking of him and I did not see you; but if you wee thinking of God, how did you see me?’”

(Ib. p. 123)

Meditating

This is an even more amusing tale from the same source.

“A young man of humble origin and surroundings in the small village where he worked in the fields and looked after the only cow his family owned showed interest in learning the things of the spirit and went to a near-by monastery to observe the monks and imitate their practices. He sat in a corner of his hut, closed his eyes, stuck it out, came back to his practice day after day with the hope to reach the expected illumination, but nothing happened. While his body was motionless, his mind wondered about the whole world and the memories of his past and the dreams of the future. He made no progress. He decided he needed help and went to consult the master of the monks at the monastery.

– I want to learn how to meditate, but I don’t get it.
– What do you think about when you meditate?
– Anything, master.
– That is, you are distracted.
– Yes, master.
– Have you tried to concentrate on anything, on your breath, on the centre of your forehead, on your heart, on the image of God?
– I’ve tried everything.
– And nothing has worked?
– Nothing.
– Is there anything you really love?
– What do you mean?
– Any person or face or landscape or figure that may please you particularly?
– Yes, there is something I really love, though I don’t know whether that would serve the purpose.
– What is it you really love?
– I love the cow I look after every day with all my heart.
– Then think of your cow.
– How?
– When you sit down to pray, stay in your posture, close your eyes, and simply thing of your cow. You go into that hall where the monks are meditating, sit down in a corner, and when they come out, come out with them.
– Thank you, master.

The young man went into the hall, sat down quietly in a corner, closed his eyes and started thinking of his cow. After an hour the monks got up and went out of the hall, but the young man remained in his corner without moving. The master waited. After a while and seeing that he was not coming out, the master shouted from the corridor outside, ‘Come on, come out, it’s already time.’ There was a little noise from inside and the young man answered, ‘Sorry, master, I want to come out but my horns are too large to pass through the door.’

The master addressed his disciples: ‘Here are all of you thinking of God hours on end and you are not transformed into him however much you meditate. Because you don’t love him. This boy has identified himself so much with the thing he loves that he has horns on his head. He knows what meditation is’.”

Muuu”

(Ib. p. 130)

Chinese saying

“The silkworm produces silk; the bee produces honey.”

You tell me

Question: I’ve come to know that my wife sleeps with another man. I feel guilty because I realise I have neglected her badly and have been very cold to her, even in sex. What can I do?

Answer: I begin at the end, and it’s quite difficult to tell you what to do, but your confession honours you and that can lead us to somehow understand what has happened, and understanding can open ways to act. And the consideration can help others too. Your wife seeks another man because she finds no satisfaction in you. You have not given her time, leisure, care, tenderness, sex. And at the end she has sought in another man what she had a right to have found in you. There is no question of blaming anybody or of justifying anybody. The only question is trying to understand the situation.

When I was learning moral theology in the seminary, the professor who taught the treatise on matrimony told us among other things (always in Latin which made it more aseptic): “The husband should make sure that his wife derives as much pleasure from the act of mutual sex as he himself does, always relatively to the difference between the sexes.” Few husbands do that. The man is quick in his orgasm, feels satisfied, turns round and falls asleep. The wife often was only beginning with her own process, finds it interrupted half way and feels frustrated and abandoned, as she indeed is.

Our textbook of moral theology brought the following case of conscience (also in Latin): “Can a wife, who during the sex act with her husband has not reached her climax, complete the act by masturbating herself when the husband has withdrawn?” Sorry for the bluntness, but a little bit of bluntness would spare a good deal of suffering. Some moralists answered the question in the negative: it was not licit for the wife to masturbate because coitus was over and a separate masturbation was not licit. Still, already then the majority of moralists answered that the wife had a right to do it, as it was a legitimate continuation of the lawful act. An author added, with a touch of humour, that she should try to do it quietly so as not to disturb the husband. Thought there was not much danger of that, as the husband was snoring by then. You husbands should study a little moral theology – in Latin, of course.

The wife is even lead sometimes to feign her orgasm before her husband so as not to lose face in bed. This is as common as it is dangerous. It is common because she does not want to appear frigid before her husband; and it is dangerous because the sexual estrangement may lead to actual separation. If I have said that the husband should make sure that his wife enjoys sex as much as he does – keeping always the peculiarities proper to each sex – I now say that the wife should commit herself never to feign orgasm before her husband.

Sex is not everything, of course, but it is a strong element which in a way reflects all the other conflicts and can help to solve them.

Speak with her about all this. Maybe it’s not too late. And never blame one another in any way.

Allow me a joke I’ve just read in the Argentinian writer Bioy Casares:

“Wife, filling up a form for the judge:
Name: So and So.
Nationality: Argentinian.
Sex: Self-taught, since my husband didn’t teach me anything.

(Adolfo Bioy Casares, Descanso de caminantes, p. 154)

Psalm

Psalm 140 -The evening sacrifice

“Let my prayer be like incense duly set before you,
and my raised hands like the evening sacrifice.”
It is evening, Lord. The day has passed with its flurry of activity, meetings, work and people, listening and talking, papers and letters, decisions and doubts. I don’t even quite know what I have done and what I have said, but the day is over and I want to offer it to you, Lord, as it has been, before I close the account and pass the page.

Take this day as an incense stick that has burned before you hour by hour while it left in the ashes of the past the fragrance of its present. Take it as my raised hands, symbol and instrument of my actions to live my life and establish your Kingdom. Take it as an evening sacrifice that enacts on the altar of time the liturgy of eternity. Take it as my prayer, Lord, which is my faith, my commitment, my life. Accept at the end of the day the homage of my earthly existence.

I don’t justify my actions, I don’t defend my decisions, I don’t excuse my failings. I just place my day before you as it has been, as I have lived it, as you have seen it. Take it in your gaze and file it away in the folds of your mercy. Its memory is safe with you, and I can now let go of it with easy confidence. Relieve me of the burden of this day, that it may not haunt my memory or wound my thoughts. Wipe its regrets clean from my mind that no mental residue may hurt me, no remainder weigh on my conscience. Like the streak of incense it has burnt itself out and now dissolves into perfume, slowly vanishing into nothingness, filling the space around with the elusive touch of its invisible presence, while leaving no trace of guilt, worry, expectation or attachment on my open soul.

Accept my evening sacrifice, Lord. Heal my memories and close my past, that I may live in fullness the blessing of the present.

1st
I tell you

Learning how to study

A friend tells me he has found a way to keep his teenager son busy this summer. He is going to make him join a course in which he will learn how to learn. The lad is quite intelligent, but his teachers say he doesn’t yield according to his capacity, and that is not because he doesn’t study but because he doesn’t know how to study. So now he has to study how to study. Perfect summer task.

I’ve told him there’s something worries me there. If he doesn’t know how to study and has to do a course to learn how to study, will he not have to do first another course to learn how to learn how to study? And, of course, another course to learn beforehand how to learn the way to learn how to study. A course before attending the course that will prepare him for the course that will enable him to follow the course he has to do. There’s matter for a few summers there.

On my first day at school I was told the four things that were expected of me: preparation, class-notes, memory exercises, writing summaries.

Preparation meant that I was to read beforehand by myself every day the lesson the teacher was going to teach later in class. To anticipate with my reading the textbook what the teacher was going to explain next day. To read the lesson, to get familiar with the terms, to try to understand as much as possible, to foresee difficulties, to frame questions. Coming to class having read the text in advance makes the things the teacher says fall into place at once, clarifies hard points, settles down what was half understood, makes sense of the lesson as a whole. That was the key to understanding. A friend of mine in Chennai University, C.S. Seshadri, took the advice to extremes when he read by himself the whole textbook before beginning each subject.

Class-notes. Even if the professor would follow a textbook we had to write down whatever he said in class. Whatever he wrote on the blackboard had to be written on our notebooks. The process of learning included hearing, seeing, reading, writing, and one’s own notes thus become the surest instrument of learning as they come directly from the teacher who is the living and present authority in the matter, and they are personal, assimilated, integrated and therefore truly my own. Personal notebooks of encoded doodles which become my best help at the time of preparing an examination because they are mine and one line in them is enough to wake up a whole treatise in my mind.

Memory exercises. Before doing maths I had studied arts. Literature, authors, works, styles, criticism. Verses and paragraphs to be learned every day by heart. Even today I can recite Virgil’s verses and Cicero’s paragraphs. And later on in mathematics came the turn of formulae, results, sharp points and fundamental theorems. Memory is important not only to give an exam but also to understand, to encompass, to master a subject and make it part of our organism.

Writing summaries. Summaries of each subject. All in one’s hand with the art of extracting essences and compressing latitudes till wide extensions can be visualised in brief sketches. Art of arts. And another type of writing yet: to write down in full what one has understood to make sure one has understood it and to practise expression. It is not enough to understand a mathematics theorem. Once it has been understood one has to close down book and notebook, take paper and pen and write it in full without looking at any notes. This has three advantages: first, realising that some steps had not been understood; second, imprinting the lesson on the mind for the next exam; third, make the matter one’s own for ever.

This is no boasting, of course, but then we were helped by the fact that we had no television and no computer.

Shakespeare gladdens a life
[When Bob Smith was ten he came across Shakespeare’s verse in The Merchant of Venice, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” and he felt at last understood. Since then the study of Shakespeare lit up his life.]

“At the library I started to memorise little bits of Shakespeare, whatever caught my attention. Mostly I didn’t know what it meant. I’d thumb through the Complete Works inspecting the claustrophobic, infinitesimally packed type. If some passage caught my attention I’d copy it in my notebook, at first just a line here or there, but eventually whole speeches. I grossly misunderstood, wildly mispronounced, but what did it matter? It wasn’t for anyone but me, and I think those house saved my life.”

[His grandmother had given him a guilt complex because his mother had a very difficult delivery with him that crippled her for life, and this guilt complex never left him:]

“My grandmother thrust the big, used candle at me and said: ‘Look at this very carefully. I lit this and it stayed lit for all the time that you were being born. It took two days and two nights! Your mother was in violent pain and you wouldn’t be born. You were too big. You weighed too much. Your mother was in pain and you wouldn’t be born. You hurt her. When it came time for Carolyn to be born she couldn’t because you spoiled your mother.” My five-year-old’s mind tried to warp itself around the idea. I wouldn’t be born. And I had spoiled my mother.

“At Holy Rosary no student could cross the path of a nun without a full and respectful bow. If you even stepped into her line of vision, you had to bend deep from the waist; the little girls curtsied. In the depth of the bow you had to say, ‘Excuse me, Sister!’ The nuns taught this as if it were essential to salvation. In the mornings or just after school, the little slapdash hall that spanned the school and convent was mobbed with children bowing and shrieking childish choruses of ‘Please excuse me, Sister!’ ‘Please excuse me, Sister!’

“We could walk only on the right, never on the left side of the old wooden stairs or in the hallways, or even on the street. ‘If everyone, everywhere, always walked on the right no one would ever bump into anyone. And we’d all get where we’re going a lot faster and a lot safer!’ I’m sixty and I’ve been walking on the right for fifty-four years. I catch myself feeling bitter on a crowded New York street when it’s completely obvious that everyone else is ignoring what the nuns told them in primary school!

“We were doing Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream on alternate nights. On a Hamlet night a series of violent thunderstorms passed through. The deluge was flooding parts of the backstage. Fortibras was taking his huge ragtag army through Denmark. In reality the army was made up of anybody available – actors, dressers, stagehands, stage managers, assistants – each threw on an old cape and went round and round. The line marched across the stage from left to right, and as each soldier got out of sight he’d run like hell down the back stairs and out through the stage door. Dicken Waring, who was Fortibras in one play and Oberon in the other, roared in his theatrical voice when all was over, ‘Let’s visit Titania!’ Titania, his partner in Oberon was staying in an old fisherman’s cottage over the river. We arrived and Oberon roared out the text:

‘Dian’s bud o’er Cupid’s flower
Hath such force and blessed power.
Now, my Titania, wake you, my sweet queen.’

In the little house a light snapped on. A window flung open, then a door. Miss Havoc delicately stepped barefoot on to the rain-soaked porch. She was wearing a night gown. Through the rain she immediately joined the game,

‘My Oberon, want visions have I seen!
Trip away; make no stay;
Meet me all by break of day.’

Oberon leaped off the seawall and ran like a madman followed by all of us. Sheer magic. In the flashes of lightning I’d seen Oberon and Titania. For a kid what’s better than a grown-up who treasures imagination?

“In May the Shakespeare Festival came back to town. By August I knew all of Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well by heart.

‘And happy of our old acquaintance tell.’ (Shakespeare, Sonnet 89)

(Bob Smith, Hamlet’s Dresser, p. 22, 71, 121, 172, 196)

Medicine

“Ruben Omar Sosa learned this story in an intensive therapy course in Buenos Aires. He claimed that was the most important thing of all he learned as a student.

A professor told the story. Maximiliana was an old woman, ill used by life in a long life without Sundays, who had been for a few days in hospital and every day she would ask the same:

– Please, doctor, could you feel my pulse?

The doctor would take her wrist, gently press it with his fingers and say:
It’s very good. Seventy eight. Perfect.
Yes, doctor, thank you. Could you take my pulse again?

He would take it again and tell her again that everything was fine, very fine.

The scene took place day after day. When he passed by the side of her bed she called him and offered her withered arm again and again to have her pulse taken. The doctor pleased her because a good doctor has to be patient with their patients, but he thought: ‘This old woman is a nuisance. She is crazy.’

It took him years to realise that all the old woman wanted was to be touched by someone.”

(Eduardo Galeano, Bocas del tiempo, p. 226)

Zen sayings

You’ll never understand Zen the way you understand algebra; but you could understand it the way you understand your breathing.

The Buddha’s small statutes are essential in life. Where else would you find better paperweights?

Smile! Zen, as life, is too important to be taken seriously.

A sneeze. What a great Zen moment!

(Robert Allen, Mil Vías Hacia el Zen)

You tell me

Francisco Herrera sends me these WORDS FROM A CLOCK, which say many of the things I love to say:

“I work more than any human, but I do it lightly because I take it second to second. I have to tic out thousands of tic-tacs to make up a day, but I have a full second for each one of them. I don’t try to make them all at a time. I never worry about what I did yesterday or will have to do tomorrow. My business is with today, with the here and now. I know that if I do my job well today I don’t have to trouble myself about the past or worry about the future. Well, I do run a little late at times, but that does not matter. And sometimes I go fast, which does worry me a little. But let me go on with my tic-tac, tic-tac, tic-tac.”

Sounds almost like yin-yang, yin-yang, yin-yang.

Psalm

Psalm 141 – I cry aloud

I have prayed in my mind and I have prayed in a group; I have prayed in silence and I have prayed in a soft voice; I have prayed in a corner in the empty church and I have prayed in the crowd with gesture and song. But today I can hold it no longer and I raise my voice and break the rubrics and shout and cry in prayer. There is urgency and almost violence in my prayer because there is urgency and violence in my soul and in the world in which I live. Today I am inspired and urged by my own feelings and sufferings and those of my brothers and sisters. And in any case I am only using the words you put in my mouth, Lord.

“I cry aloud to the Lord;
to the Lord I plead aloud for mercy.”
Me cry speaks my urgency even without the meaning of words. I need not specify my petitions or spell out my expectations. You know my needs and I don’t want to worry you with the details. I only want attention. I want you to listen to my cry in the presence of your people. I want to remind you of my existence. I want to break the silence of complacency with the shamelessness of my cry. Let people turn their heads and wonder. I am in pain and I shout it out before you. Let my pain reach you in my cry.

My pain is not for me, but for my brothers and sisters, my friends, the poor and the oppressed, for all those who suffer and all those who toil under the pressure of injustice and the harshness of life. My cry is the cry of suffering humankind, all voices united in one, because suffering levels out high and low in the kinship of a common sorrow. For all of them I cry with the sharpness of my own agony and the echo of humankind’s sufferings in this valley of tears.

“I cry to you, O Lord.
Give me a hearing when I cry!”

 

15th
I tell you

Chopin

As I write this I am listening to music. Chopin’s first Nocturne in B Flat Minor played by Artur Rubinstein at the piano. I also played it as a young man. That’s why listening now to it I relive my feelings when my hands came on the piano keyboard to play Chopin for the first time.

Till then I’d followed the usual course consisting of sonatas by Clementi, Dussek, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven with the speed studies by Cramer and Czerny, the Songs without Words of Mendelssohn and the albums by Schuman, everything very classical, very well balanced, very well measured, very standardised. Melody and accompaniment, expected chords, three movements to a piece, related keys, fixed norms. Everything very beautiful and very touching, but everything well-known and well tried. And then came Chopin.

Chopin broke all rules. The Nocturne in B Flat Minor was a whirlwind. The theme was no theme and the repetition was no repetition. Each bar was different and each fingering unexpected. The fingers danced on the keys and they roamed all over the keyboard at the least provocation. They didn’t know what they were doing, but it was wonderful in any case. They dashed up and down, they landed where they wanted, they seemed to miss their aim but no, there was their note clearly on the whimsical score which in no way resembled the parallel and symmetrical inking of my classical sonatas. That was a cobweb of pentagrams. And the sound followed the stains. A sonata was a sonata, but nobody knew what a nocturne was. And it was the better for that.

For the first time I felt the keyboard like something alive beneath my fingers. If it was doing what it pleased, so could I. I speeded up at will, slowed down at pleasure, invented my own rhythm, marked pianissimos and fortissimos without a care in the world, enjoyed myself, improvised, created. That was a new experience. Till then I had been a piano player. Chopin made me a pianist.

There comes a moment in life when rules have to be transcended. If one wants to be a pianist.

A class by Maestro Rodrigo

I am in the classroom – narrates the Maestro in his autobiography. It is a rainy Thursday in November. I hear only the spluttering of the rain on the windowpanes. But I don’t hear the whispers of the students. It is strange. [Maestro Rodrigo, foremost Spanish composer in the last century, was totally blind.]
Last week they asked me to lecture to them about my own music. Maybe they’ve thought better of it. This looked like a mass exodus from my class.

Maestro Rodrigo.
That voice startled me and I left my musings for another moment.

Who are you? Where are all the others?
Sorry, Maestro, but there has been a last minute change and we’ve not been able to tell you in time. All the students from your class have gone this morning to Salamanca by bus to attend there a week course about Miguel de Unamuno.
Unamuno? He’s one of my favourite authors. Actually I composed and dedicated a piece to him. Well, but what are you doing here? Why are you not with your classmates?
I missed the bus. I overslept. Last night a group of friends were discussing about contemporary music and I’m full of doubts about it. I came to the classroom to fetch some notes I’d left here, and I bumped on you. I thought they would have informed you.
Nobody informed me. They tell everyone except the professor.
I’m sorry, Maestro.
Well now, and what were those doubts of yours about contemporary music?
Don’t worry, Maestro. For your period next Thursday we’ll all be here and I’ll ask my questions then.
Listen, I’ve come to take my class and I don’t mind at all dedicating this full hour to a single student instead of a hundred. What’s your name?
Juan Garcés.
Please, sit down and we start. Let’s see about those doubts…
(Memorias del Maestro Rodrigo, p. 201)

The teacher owes it to themselves. One student or many. It’s my class, my work, myself. I will give the whole of myself to the whole of the situation whichever it turns out to be. Every moment in life deserves my full commitment. Even if it is only to one student.

A lecture by Jorge Luis Borges

This story is told by Maestro Rodrigo and is similar to the previous one… with a twist to it. Borges was the best Spanish writer in the last century, was an Argentinian, and did not quite share his countrymen’s and countrywomen’s passion for football. When the World Cup was played in Argentina in 1976, Borges announced a public talk by himself on the same day and at the same time at which the Argentinian team was playing its first game. Hardly anyone attended his talk, but he made his point.
(Ib. p. 35)

Beethoven to the rescue
[One more of Maestro Rodrigo’s anecdotes:]

“In 1964, during a trip to Brussels my daughter and my son-in-law accompanied me to see Queen Elisabeth – King Balduino’s grandmother – in her palace at Stuyvenberg. The Queen was a great lover of music and deeply appreciated my work, particularly my Concierto de Aranjuez.

The Queen told us a funny anecdote. The violinist Philippe Newman, who was with us, had taught a parrot she kept in the palace to whistle the third movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. One morning the parrot fled from its cage and immediately the Queen, followed by her violinist, run after it. Still they couldn’t find the bird. The violinist then thought of whistling the first bars of Beethoven’s third movement. The parrot took up the melody and cackled away the classical piece from the top of a tall tree. The obliging violinist had no other go but to go and climb the tree to fetch the parrot.”
(Ib. p. 144)

A square inheritance

The only thing a Sufi sage possessed and left to his five disciples was a beautiful wide square prayer rug. When the mourning was over, the disciples decided to go each their own way to start new schools and to claim each to be the true disciple of the master. But they couldn’t agree how to divide the rug.

They thought and thought and measured and folded, but there was no way. They wanted to cut it into square pieces, as it was large enough. But they were five and there was no way to divide a square into five equal squares.

They remained together for a lengthening time while they tried to find a solution, till they realised that the master had done that on purpose to keep them praying together on the same prayer rug and living together and preaching together the same message instead of separating.

Praying together to give witness together.

(Omar Kurdi, Cuentos Sufís, p. 89)

Making things complicated

One good day Mulla Naseruddin wrapped an egg in a handkerchief, went to the public square in the middle of the village and called all passers-by to him.

Today we’re going to have an important competition! Whoever guesses what is wrapped inside this cloth will receive as a gift the egg that is inside!
But how can we know what is inside the bundle? We are not soothsayers, you know!
What is inside the handkerchief has a round yellow yolk in the centre which is surrounded by a whitish liquid which is itself contained in a shell that breaks easily. It is a symbol of fertility and reminds us of birds and their nests. Who can now tell me what is it?
All the people in the square were sure that what Naseruddin had in his hand was an egg, but the answer was so obvious that they thought it could not be so simple and was only a trap, and so nobody ventured to reveal their ignorance before the rest and feel ashamed. They asked themselves: And if where not an egg but something transcendental in the mystical tradition of the Sufi saints? A yellow centre could mean the sun, the whitish liquid round it could be a secret product from their alchemy. No, that madman is trying to make a fool out of somebody. They wouldn’t fall into the trap.
Naseruddín repeated his question twice but nobody risked falling into ridicule. Then he unfolded the handkerchief and showed the egg before all.

You all knew the answer, but nobody dared to put it into words. Such is life for those who do not have the courage to take risks. Life is simple and things are straightforward. But our scholarly theologians always find complicated explanations and end up by doing nothing. And not letting anybody do anything.
(Ib. p. 31)

The Emperor’s Clothes?

Inner freedom

Several innocent persons had been put in jail and their friends from outside were thinking how to get them out. This was their plan. One of them, a very resourceful man, was to make himself be condemned to jail, and once in it he would study from the inside the possibilities of an escape, frame the plan and work it out with all the other prisoners.

The plan was carried out, the man committed an (apparent) theft, was captured by the police, condemned by the judges and sent to the same jail. There he took charge of the situation and, thorough worker that he was, took pains to study exhaustively each detail before committing himself to the definitive plan.

He thus succeeded in working out the perfect escape plan that could not fail and would certainly bring freedom to him and to all the other innocent convicts with him.

There was only a setback. The man had spent so long a time in jail that he had got used to it, had forgotten freedom and had no notion of getting out.

And they all remained in jail.

(Ib. 44)

Who dares to draw the lesson of the parable?
Is it not the same as that of the last story?
And doesn’t it apply to all of us?
All the time?

You tell me

Question: I agree on the differences you point out between men and women, but are not psychological and emotional differences much more important that purely ideological or physiological ones? How to understand them?

Answer: A friend of mine says that women should come with an Instructions Manual to see whether we men would learn to truly know them and learn their reactions. It would seem women know us men better than we men know them. They have no need of an Instructions Manual to deal with us. They know us through and through. By heart. The best we men can do is to begin by realising that we have not yet learned to know them properly. I’m going to tell you a lovely story told by one of my best friends in India, the poet Umashankar Joshi. It is called The Jungle Maid, and it is as follows:

King Brahmadatta is wandering in the jungle, sees a young girl and falls in love with her. She turns out to be The Jungle Maid, that is, a foundling who was left in the forest, was found by a rishi, adopted by him and raised in his own cottage. The king asks for her hand and the rishi agrees with only one condition: he must guess her name.

The king bucks up and begins with his guesses. The poet sets all the dialogue in beautiful Sanskrit verses which I somehow try to reflect in English:

“He called her Jewel,
he called her Marvel,
he called her Rita,
he called her Gita.”

Quite a litany. But no luck. The girl, who by now is also in love with the king, cries, the rishi remains serious, the king is desperate.

“He called her Sundari,
he tried Rajeshwari,
he called her Radha,
and Anuradha.”

Nothing doing. Things look black. Suddenly news reach the king that the enemy’s army is attacking his kingdom and he has to rush to its rescue. He gives up all hope, turns away, takes his leave. Up to here he had been singing in a masculine kind of meter for his verse, while now the girl in her farewell changes to a feminine meter which is then taken up by the man in his response:

She:
“We reached the end of the rope.”
He:
“I now depart without hope.”

Upon which the girl utters a cry and faints. Her name was “Hope”. The rishi smiles and wedding bells ring.

I explain the trick in the verse. The original legend is written in Sanskrit, in which language there are short and long vowels, and the different verses have exact measures according to which the words can be fitted in if their sequence of long and short vowels agrees with the meter of the verse. The king was speaking out the names in his own masculine meter where the two consecutive long vowels of the word “hope” (Âshâ) could not be accommodated. So however many names he would pronounce, the true name could not come in. At the end, when he despairs and gives up, she pronounces her farewell in her feminine meter “we reached the end of the rope”, and the word “hope” did fit in this meter and could come in. “I now depart without hope.”

The lesson is that the woman’s name (which is her essence, her nature, her personality, her definition) does not fit into the man’s meter…, and so long as he does not realise it and changes the meter of his verse – and of his language and of his thought – there is no wedding.

Though, of course, the charming mischief of the clever girl does help too as she throws in the word “rope” to suggest the “hope” that will definitely solve the problem.

Poetic lesson. Did you like it?

Psalm

Psalm 142 – In the morning

“In the morning let me know your true love.
Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.”
I wake up and my eyes lift to you. My first thought flies to your side at the beginning of a new day. I don’t know what awaits me. I haven’t yet planned my day nor fixed my work. Before any other thought comes I want to contact you for your blessing and your smile as life opens again on the world and on me. Good morning, Lord, and may the day keep me close to you.

The morning is the time of prayer and worship, the renewal of the promise of life with the first ray of light, the propitious time when you, Lord, come to the help of your people. In the morning I stand before you to receive anew the gift of life from you in continued creation. Your gift is your way to let me experience your true love as I face life again. I will need always your love, Lord.

The one prayer I make to lead my day is:

“Teach me to do your will.”

I know the day will bring choices and decisions, doubts and temptations, darkness and trials. My one concern in all this as I begin the daily journey is to know your will and do it at each moment. My day will be truly mine when it is fully yours. My decisions will be correct when they carry out your will. My journey will be straight when you are its aim. Your will is the advance summary of my day, and to discover it step by step is my task and my joy.

Give me light, as the rays of the sun that begin to filter shyly through the curtains of my window.

Give me joy as the birds that begin to sing to wake up all nature on time.

Give me faith as the flowers that open their petals to the breeze with friendly trust.

Give me strength, give me love, give me life.

“In the morning let me know your true love.
I have put my trust in you.”

1st
I tell you

The mystery of the bell

The city of Pandharpur is famous for the cult of Vithoba, which is Kannada and Marathi spelling for Vishnu, and I was lucky to be able to visit it many years ago. I had been invited by some Hindu friends, and we all together went to the main temple while they explained to me history and places and images and traditions.

A large bell hang at the entrance of the temple for the devotees to ring as they went in, as is the custom in all temples, but this was a larger bell than usual and was also hung higher than usual. My friends explained to me: “Look at the bell. It is a special bell, as it is so large, it is artistically wrought and then there is a strange thing about it, and that is the inscription all round its base which no one can understand. We don’t even know which language it is, let alone what it means. The letters are those of the English alphabet, but nobody can decipher them. You know many languages and you perhaps could read it and tell us what it means.”

I was not so sure of my linguistic ability but I gamely tried. They brought a step ladder, I climbed it, held the bell with both my hands, brought it close to me, looked at the inscription on its base… and I almost fell backwards. The inscription stood out in beautiful relief capital letters all round and read: ADOREMOS IN AETERNUM SANCTISSIMUM SACRAMENTUM.

That was Latin. That was a sacred inscription. That was a Catholic bell. LET US ETERNALLY ADORE THE MOST BLESSED SACRAMENT. It was there at the entrance of a Hindu temple ringing in my ears as the call of worshipers to greet the divinity inside and announce their visit. I quietly said AMEN – which is Latin too – and stood for a while holding it in my hands.

My first impression was one of shock. What was this bell doing here? Was this not a sacrilege? Was it not my duty to get scandalised, to protest, to claim what obviously belonged to us, to kick up a row, to rescue the Catholic bell from the Hindu temple even if I had to lay down my life for it? To embrace it tight and not to let go of it whatever they did to me? Others have become martyrs for less. What had I to do?

I let go of the bell, climbed down the steps slowly, and by the time I stood firmly on the floor I had calmed down. I translated the inscription for my friends, I explained its meaning, I emphasised its importance. Then we conjectured together about its origin and the way it came to be here. It was an old temple and nobody knew the bell’s history. Could it be a loot from any of the Catholic churches in Goa, a trophy in regional skirmishes, a barter in foreign goods, a hidden smuggling? Who knows? But there it was and it resounded with its full, clear, musical sound. We contemplated it respectfully for a while. Then we all bent before it, hands joined at the breast, and continued our visit to the temple.

By then I was already thinking that Jesus did not mind. On the contrary, I thought he liked it. There are already many bells in many churches to ring the Angelus, to call the faithful to Mass, to accompany processions all round the world. And I thought Jesus liked to be here, in that Eucharistic bell, in a Hindu temple, caressed by loving hands, resounding, talking, belonging to a new setup, forming part of a whole that had always been his. Ecumenical bell.

I came back happy from my visit to Pandharpur. Before coming down from the ladder I had gently kissed the bell.

Quoting Genesis
[Jürgen Thorwald has used his grandfather Henry Steven Hartman’s memoirs to reconstruct in his book Das Jahrhundert der Chirurgen the history of surgery from the discovery of anaesthetics to Sauerbruch’s chambers. The curious thing about anaesthetics, whose benefits we all now enjoy, is that in its beginnings it met with great opposition even from the Church.]

“Hardly nine months later, the night of November 4th 1847, Simpson’s dream became reality. On that night he discovered the soothing effects of chloroform. The first news of the discovery reached me in Berlin. I came to know the details ten weeks later, when the discovery had already unleashed a violent fight between the defenders and the adversaries of chloroform. I reached Edinburgh for the second time at the beginning of January 1848. I went straight to see Simpson, but at the door of his house I met Duncan who told me everything. He told me:

– Simpson’s interest, obviously, centred itself first of all on the effect of chloroform on the pains of delivery. Eight weeks ago we were able to observe for the first time the effects of chloroform on the delivery of a woman who, in her previous delivery, had taken three days to give birth, and that was a cause for concern. We made a cone out of a handkerchief and poured into it half a spoonful of chloroform. We placed the handkerchief on the patient’s face so as to cover her nose and mouth. The patient fell into a deep narcosis. Twenty-five minutes later a girl was born without any problem and without any pain on the part of the mother. We called the girl “Anaesthesia”. It was a signal victory for chloroform, and it has already been repeated, without any doubt, dozens of times. Women in their delivery have been the first beneficiaries of this discovery.
– But then, how do you explain such an outcry against chloroform and its uses in delivery that I’ve heard of it even in Germany? Why this opposition? Is it they believe that chloroform gets into the foetus’s blood and poisons it before it can be born?
– No. Those arguments are only a cover-up. If you look carefully into this opposition against chloroform you will realise that it does not use medical arguments. It’s rather a question of morals and religion. The Churches, and the doctors that swear allegiance to them, fight with the same weapons. Their most deadly ammunition is the quotation form Genesis 3:16: “With labour you will bear children!” Do you understand? These words have to be understood in the literal sense that God has forbidden painless delivery, that is, chloroform. “With labour you will bear children!” That is what the Bible says, and that is the basis of all this uproar.
– But this cannot detain progress.
– It wouldn’t be the first time it does. You have only to revise the history of mediaeval medicine. Its poverty is a consequence of such orthodox interpretations of the Bible. And the fight has only begun. Highly placed churchmen speak of chloroform as “the Devil’s invention”, and others excommunicate the faithful who decide to make use of “Satan’s gas” for themselves or their relatives. The general feeling goes against its use in delivery and against removing all the other pains that the Almighty – no doubt with a very good reason – has foreseen for a natural delivery.
Simpson did not keep quiet either. He was always an optimist and had a great sense of humour which stood him in good stead to weather all that unpleasant controversy. He answered all the adversaries of chloroform opposing to the quotation from Genesis 3:16 another quotation from Genesis 2:21 about the creation of Eve: “The Lord God then put the man into a deep sleep and, while he slept, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the flesh over the place.” Simpson would tell them: “There you have it: God gives you permission to use chloroform since he himself used anaesthesia on Adam.” And to those who told him that the general feeling went against the use of chloroform he answered by saying: “We should not use carriages to take us from one place to another however distant. The general feeling goes against removing the pains the Almighty – no doubt with a very good reason – has foreseen for the pedestrian.”

The fight went on unabated, bursting from time to time into explosions of hatred and violence, till an extraordinary and sensational news arrived from London on the 7th April 1853. Queen Victoria, the great queen of the century, had given birth to her fourth son, prince Leopold, duke of Albany, in her Buckingham Palace. The birth itself was not the sensational part of the news. The sensational part came in an additional note which did not appear in all the reports, but which, in those days, was neither more nor less than an open victory of the smiling and optimistic Simpson over his adversaries.

The additional note said that John Snow, the first “anaesthetics specialist” in London, had administered chloroform to the Queen in her delivery by personal desired of the Queen and the Prince Consort. The delivery had been painless without any difficulty. Four weeks later I received a letter from Duncan in which he said that, overnight, chloroform in deliveries had become the fashion in Great Britain. Delivery “à la reine” had won the day, and John Snow became famous in the whole country.”

(Jürgen Thorwald, Das Jahrhundert der Chirurgen, p. 112)

The story is thought-provoking. That is not the only time when the Church begins by forbidding something and ends up by blessing it. And the Bible can be quoted in favour and against. Just as well that between the girl “Anaesthesia” and Queen Victoria they managed to make chloroform popular. Remember it the next time you go to your dentist. And do look up the quotations from Genesis. I don’t know whether you know the joke that tells how Eve every morning counted Adam’s ribs… just to make sure there was no other woman around.

“Whatever you do to any of these little ones.”
[Paulo Coelho narrates an episode that helped him in his life:]

“I remember how many years ago, in a period of deep rejection of all faith, I was one day with my wife and a friend in Bajo Leblon, Rio de Janeiro. We had drunk a little when an old companion who had lived with us in the mad sixties and seventies and had later joined a seminary came along. He began to speak about Jesus, and we joked on all that he said.

As we were coming out of the restaurant, one of the persons that was with us pointed to a child who was sleeping on the footpath and told that friend: ‘See how much Jesus cares for the world. He has abandoned this child as you well see.’

He answered, ‘By no means. He has not abandoned him. He has placed that child there and has made sure you saw him so that you may do something for him.’

That sentence was the beginning of my return to my spiritual quest.”

[I know this does not solve the problem of poverty in the world. But it does make us think.]

“I believed you”
[Another experience of Paulo Coelho:]

“This happened in Miami, a city I don’t like at all. I was doing a tour of the United States and from there I had to go to Japan. I wasn’t yet used to those international tours, and I did them the way publishers organised them. Now I plan them. I travel for a month and then, if I can, I rest for a month: if not, it’s exhausting. Normally the publisher doesn’t come with you for the whole tour, they usually send someone who has nothing to do with the publisher.

This time Harper’s representative came with me. I was going to do a reading at a bookshop, and we were on our way there. It was around eight o’clock in the evening. She said to me, ‘Wait, I’m going to kiss my boyfriend goodbye and I’ll be right back.’ I sat by myself waiting. The United States is a difficult country and I was tired from travelling so much. I felt angry there, sad, lonely, bitter. I sat there in the middle of Miami and said to myself, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t need to do all this, my books sell just fine on their own. I miss Brazil, I’m homesick. And I lit up a cigarette and thought, ‘That bitch just leaves me here on my own and goes off to kiss her boyfriend.’

Then something unusual happened. Three people walked past me with a twelve year-old girl. The girl turned to one of the people and said, ‘Have you read The Alchemist?’ I froze. The woman, who must’ve been the girl’s mother, said something I didn’t catch and the girl insisted, ‘You have to read that book, it’s really good.’ I couldn’t just sit there any longer so I stood up and said, ‘I’m the author of The Alchemist.’ The girl’s mother looked at me and said, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here, he’s crazy.’ Then I went to call the girl from the publisher who had gone to kiss her boyfriend to come over and tell them I wasn’t crazy, that I really was the author of the book.

We did manage to catch up with tem, though they’d run off. The girl told them, ‘I’m American and this gentleman is not a madman, he really is the author of The Alchemist.’ Then the little girl said very happily, ‘I believed you, but they didn’t.’ My escort said to her, ‘This is a great lesson for you. Follow your intuition, mothers aren’t always right.’

I invited the three people to the reading. I introduced the little girl, told the whole story and asked for a round of applause for them. This is what we mean when we talk about omens. One minute my energy level was an inch above ground, unenthusiastic, empty, then that child brought me a message from heaven, an angel made use of her to cheer me up and convince me of the importance of meeting my readers in person.”

(Juan Arias, Paulo Coelho, Confessions of a Pilgrim, p. 183)

You tell me

Question: Why does God does not listen to our prayers?

Answer: You at least are honest enough to say it. Others explain away the situation to no avail. They say that God does listen always to our prayers as he promised to do, but that what we asked for was not good for us, that God will certainly give us something better instead, that we had not prayed properly, that we had not persevered enough in our prayer, that he keeps us waiting only in order to increase our merit, that in heaven we’ll see how God truly did answer our prayers, that he wanted to test our faith in order to give us greater graces, that praying to God is in itself a God-given grace as it makes us think of him and trust him, and so prayer is a reward in itself even if the petition has not been granted, that everything is a mystery far beyond our understanding. Quite a lesson in theology. Milton said that he had written Paradise Lost “To justify God’s ways to men”, and he has many followers.

God doesn’t need anyone to justify him. I do think he would be grateful if we humans would respect him a little more, would not force him to adjust to what we in our limited understanding think of him, would not impose our rules on him, would free him from our expectations, would accept that he is above our imagination, would recognise his infinite and eternal freedom which is his own prerogative by his very definition, that we would let him free. That would be the best prayer.

It is true that Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive” (Matthew 7:7) and told the parable of the judge who finally did justice because the widow asked him again and again (Luke 18:1); but Jesus also said that we should not be longwinded in our prayers, “for your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

Psalm

Psalm 143 – What are human beings?

“Lord, what are human beings that you should care for them?
What are frail mortals that you should take thought for them?
They are no more than a puff of wind,
their days like a fleeting shadow.”
I am not saying this in a fit of depression, I am not voicing a complaint, much less disparaging myself and my fellow humans. I only want to put my own life in its proper perspective, reduce things to size, and learn to take myself lightly. I understand this to be a healthy approach to a happy life, and I want you to help me in it, Lord.

Yes, I am a puff of wind and a fleeting shadow. Such a thought reduces the volume of my problems, and takes away the ground from under the throne of my self-importance. What can be lighter and happier than a puff of wind and a fleeting shadow? I will enjoy things all the more when they don’t stick to me, and move more swiftly through life once its burden is made light.

It is not for me to solve all the world’s problems and to right all the wrongs of modern society. I will move on and will pass away doing my genuine best at each moment, but without the impossible seriousness of being the redeemer of all evils and the saviour of humankind. I am not that. I am a puff of wind and a passing shadow. Let me pass and let me fly, and let my fleeting presence bring a moment of relief to those it touches, a gesture of good will in a world heavy with sorrow.

Light and happy. I am a puff of wind, but that wind is the wind of your Spirit, Lord. I am a fleeting shadow, but that shadow is cast by the pillar of cloud that leads your People through the desert. I am your shadow, and I am your breeze. That is the happiest definition of my humble life. Thank you for it, Lord.

“Happy are the people in such a case as ours;
happy the people who have the Lord for their God.”

 

15th
I tell you

“It’s all over”

I was attending a wedding. Church and reception. Since the guests came till they departed. Prayers and ceremonies, greetings and congratulations, sweets and drinks, gifts and blessings. I stayed till the end and was close to the couple when the last guest left. Then I heard the bridegroom turn to the bride and say, “Well, it’s all over.”

It’s all over. I felt like telling him, “No, young man, no. It is not over. It is just beginning. Rites and programmes and preparations and invitations are over, yes, but the real thing is just beginning. Do not forget it, please.”

How long does a wedding take? The ceremony can last one hour. One day. But the real thing lasts a lifetime. It never ends. It is true that you already know each other and love each other and have spoken all that has to be spoken with each other. But you now have to live it out. And that begins today. However well you know one another, it is now that you begin to really know one another, and you have to be ready to grow in mutual knowledge and in mutual love. It’s not over. It’s just begun.

Isaac Asimov tells how one of the causes of his divorce was that his wife smoked. And he couldn’t stand it. The curious thing is that he of course knew perfectly well before their marriage that his fiancée smoked, but he then said and thought that he didn’t mind. And that was the way he truly felt at the time. She smoked in his presence and never hid her smoking habit from him, and he knew it and tolerated it because he was in love with her.

But then came reality. One thing is having someone to smoke occasionally by our side, which is something still unavoidable and somehow endurable in our culture, and quite another thing is to have a smoker in our own house full time. Ashtrays everywhere, butt ends, smoke, smell, walls and furniture and tables and beds and pillows and bed sheets reeking with the offensive, sticky, humid, cloggy smell. Nobody can stand that. Divorce.

I’m not telling you that to frighten you, but on the contrary, to cheer you up. And to make you realise – although you already have guessed it – that the parable of the tobacco smoke applies to many other smokes too. So that you may go on examining them. And all best wishes for the newly-wed. Your true adventure begins now. Congratulations and cheers. We’ll keep in touch.

Smoking is dangerous for health. It’s printed on the packet.

White and red
[We wouldn’t know this amusing and instructing anecdote of Marilyn Monroe if she had not told it to her husband, Arthur Miller, who narrates it in his autobiography:]

“Marilyn was only five or six years old when the Fundamentalist Church to which her foster family belonged held a vast open-air service in which hundreds of children, all dressed alike, the girls in white dresses and the boys in blue trousers and white shirts, stood ranged against the sides of a tremendous natural amphitheatre somewhere in the mountains in the Los Angeles area. Each girl and each boy had a cape, red on one side and white on the other, and at the start they wore the red side out. On signal during a revivalist hymn they were all to turn their capes inside out, from sinful red to the pure white of the saved.

Magically the mountainside turned white on the proper verse of the hymn, all except one red dot in the middle of the expanse. She would laugh with affection for the little girl, herself, caught there in the wrong. ‘I just clean forgot. It was all so interesting, everybody turning their capes inside out, and I was so glad that they all remembered to do it on cue that I just clean forgot to do mine!’

And she bent over laughing, as though it had been yesterday rather than twenty-five years before. But she was beaten for her failure and was condemned by Jesus himself, she was told, and it was only one instance of God’s irremediable dislike. ‘Jesus is supposed to be so forgiving, but they never mentioned that; he was basically out to smack you in the head if you did something wrong.’

Of course she could laugh about it, but something in the back of her eyes was not laughing even now.”

(Arthur Miller, Timebends, p. 371)

The oppressor and the oppressed
[This is another keen observation by Arthur Miller: the oppressor oppresses because often the oppressed do not react in time and let themselves be oppressed. This does not in any way justify oppression, but it does mean that the education and awakening of the oppressed is an essential part of their liberation, just as the admission of wrong and the stopping of the injustice on the part of the oppressor is also essential. Here is the story:]

“When I thought later about the problem with the British theatre it seemed to me more complicated; the class or caste system had to be involved. I recalled visiting the House of Commons one day in 1950, during the London production of my film Death of a Salesman. Winston Churchill sat on the front bench looking up with rather lordly condescension at the lone Communist in Commons, Willie Gallacher of Clyde, who was addressing the members with his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his unpressed trousers.

Just as Gallacher was reaching the climax of his speech, I heard Churchill growl sotto voce but audibly enough, without moving his cigar-distorted mouth, ‘Take you hand out of your pockets, man!’ And Gallacher instantaneously jerked out his thumbs – and no doubt hated himself for weeks after. That was class talking and being obeyed, an incredible command and an incredible reaction to it.”

(Ib. p. 432)

[This holds good for caste, for class, for man-woman relations, for office workers, for neighbours, for every situation between someone who is traditionally considered superior and someone who is taken as inferior even if he or she is not inferior in any way. One who oppresses and one who lets themselves be oppressed. It is important to fight for equality. And in order to fight for equality it is important that both the oppressor and the oppressed shed the prejudices that affect them both. We are all equal.]

Why wars
[Another remark from the same source. Not as subtle as the previous one, but definitely real and very timely:]

“The stillness in the room as Clifford Odets made ready to speak spread even to the anti-Communist contingent, which sat clustered in a group separated by empty chairs from the others. Now, in a voice very close to being inaudible, Odets asked, ‘Why is there this threat of war?’

Silence deepened and he lengthened the pause. Slight apprehension danced across my mind that he might overtheatricalise. But so far the audience was unquestionably held.

‘Why’, he went on in his near whisper, ‘are we so desperately reaching out, artist to artist, philosopher to philosopher, why have our politicians failed to insist that there cannot and must not be war between our countries? What is the cause? Why this threat of war?’

The question hung in silence, and the audience pressed forward, straining to hear his voice. Now, slowly, his hand rose above his head, and at the raging top of his voice he yelled, ‘MONEEY!’

Astonishment. There was another pause, and again a series of questions demanding the source of our danger, and once more the scream: ‘MONEEEY!’ And a third time: ‘MONEEEEY!’

It took courage to say that publicly in Hollywood. It was to no avail, to be sure. But it was true. Behind every war there is money.”

(Ib. p. 239)

Learning

“From the moles we learned to bore tunnels.
From beavers we learned to build dams.
From birds we learned to put up homes.
From spiders we learned how to weave.
From a log rolling down hill we derived the wheel.
From a log floating over the waters we carved a boat.
From the wind we found the sail.

From whom did we learn our evil ways?
From whom did we learn how to torture our neighbour and to afflict the world?”

(Eduardo Galeano, Bocas del tiempo, p. 117)

Love letter

“A play is always a love letter to the world.” (Arthur Miller)
So is a book.
So is a web site.

You tell me

Two parallel letters have met in my mail today. Two unknown, remote, sensitive correspondents. One wants to be a writer. The other wants to be a poet. I’m touched when you tell me your secret longings. Because I know how one feels. The tide raises, floods the soul, needs expansion, needs expression, promises heaven…, and leaves us on earth. It has nothing to do with money or with fame. It is not that. It is the “horsefly”, as the Greeks said, that stings and instils madness. You both have asked me how I took to writing.

Towards the middle of the last century, when I joined the Jesuit novitiate, Jesuits were said to be “wells of knowledge”. That had a double meaning. One complimentary, as deep wells full of wisdom, and one derogatory, as their isolation and lack of communication made it necessary to throw a bucket into the well if one wanted to get something out of it. Our generation decided to do away with the bucket. We had to learn how to speak and how to write. How to communicate. That was the beginning.

We formed groups to practice public speaking, and we devoted the first hours of every day to literary writing. I felt the horsefly and I threw myself into the task. I wore down pulpits and I filled up wastepaper baskets.

Then I was sent to study and to teach mathematics. Quite a turnabout. Enough to say goodbye to letters. But I did not. The sprout was genuine, and it grew. I went on writing. If you feel the magic, keep on writing.

The problem is not writing but publishing. My first prospective publisher took the typescript of my first book and threw it away. That’s why I understand you and feel with you. The publishing world is a jungle. Mickael Korda, present editorial director of Simon & Schuster, tells in his recent book “Another Life: A Memoir of Other People” his first interview to get a job in the publishing house of which he is now the director:

“The Editor in Chief, Henry Simon, tested me: ‘Take this manuscript. I’m not going to tell you whether we are going to publish it or not. Just read it and tell me your opinion. Write me a report, OK? There is no hurry. And, yes, a small detail you should know: there is another candidate for the same job and I have given the same manuscript to him. I’ll compare your two reports.’

The book seemed to me appalling. I wrote a bitter report recommending the firm not to publish it, and handed it over. I was summoned next morning. The chief was waiting for me. He was frowning and gave me a mean look as if he were annoyed or were smelling something foul. He blurted out: ‘You say this book is weak and unpublishable, isn’t it?’ I agreed. He went on: ‘Would your judgement change if I were to tell you that the author is the former editor of Time magazine and one of my closest friends? Or if I were to tell you that I have already bought the book and am going to publish it next spring?’ I answered that I stood by my opinion. He went on: ‘That’s curious! The other young man to whom I gave the manuscript is of the same opinion.’ I put in, ‘Then?’ He came down with his judgement, ‘This only shows that both of you have a lot to learn about the publishing world.’

Al least he got the job. And he wrote a book about it. Cheer up and go ahead.

Psalm

Psalm 144 – Generation to generation

I have often thought of the generation gap. Today, when I contemplate the history of your People, their traditions, their public prayer and their singing of Psalms together, I think rather of the generation link. One generation instructs the other, they hand down their beliefs and their practices, they pray together uniting young and old voices in a concert of continuity through the sands of the desert of life.

“One generation shall commend your works to another
and set forth your mighty deeds.”
The subject of Israel’s prayer is its own history, and thus while praying they preserve their heritage and learn it anew, shaping the mind of the young as they recite the common psalmody with the old. Chorus of unity in a world of discord.

That is why I love your Psalms, Lord, above any other prayer. I thank you for them, I treasure them, and by using them day after day I want to enter deeper into my own history as a member of your People, and to learn to communicate it to the younger brothers who come after me.

“Men shall declare your mighty acts with awe
and tell of your great deeds.
They shall recite the story of your abounding goodness
and sing of your righteousness with joy.”
Make the praying of your Psalms a bond of unity in your People, Lord!

1st
I tell you

The usual

I was sitting in the train next to an elderly couple. A long journey along the Castillian plains. I was reading a book on Our Lady. We, inevitable, fell into conversation, and the conversation, given the book I was reading, soon verged on religious themes. After a while I felt more at home with them, and at a given moment, to emphasise a point in the conversation, I told them, “I am a priest.”

There was a short pause, and the wife commented, “I hope you are one of the old ones; I mean, one of the usual ones, if you see what I mean.” Of course I knew. The usual ones. The old ones. My age, of course makes me old, and I have always striven to be what I am, that is young when I was young and old when I am old. Never to get stuck in life. But I understood the old lady. I told her not to worry. Melchizedek’s priesthood is for ever.

Then I told them about a cartoon that had appeared in a Catholic paper at the time of the Council. I let a little time pass so as not to make the connection too obvious, but I couldn’t hold back and I told the joke that had made us laugh when it appeared. One of the things that had drawn popular attention in the Gospel was its openness in the matter of salvation. Where Vatican I has said “outside the Church there is no salvation”, Vatican II declared that even an atheist can go to heaven if they act according to their conscience in good will. Some people found such explicit generosity a little surprising.

The cartoon showed two elderly ladies sitting on a bank in a park, and one of them was telling the other: “Whatever the Council may say, to heaven, I mean to say to heaven proper, will only go the usual people like ourselves.”

The usual people. The usual priests. The usual. Let’s try something unusual for a change.

No finish line

“I am running while I only see the track just in front of me. There are other feet that keep a constant rhythm by my side. I don’t know how many runners there are in front of me or behind me. The group of runners is a blurred spot that pants and shoves all around me, finding its way ahead. Speed increases and we approach the finishing line. Only then does the group dissolve, stretch out. I feel the gentle curve that marks the beginning of the 200 meters till the finishing line, and the sprint for the final stretch. Now I am competing against individual persons, but who are they? Who is that one who has just now overtaken me? Whom am I overtaking myself? I don’t see her. I tell myself, ‘It doesn’t matter. To see their faces is not going to help me win the race.’
I don’t see the finishing line.
I cross it.
I bend forward, panting. I feel that someone, one of the fellow runners, takes my hand. We jog along the track trying to regain our breathing, and we wait for the order of our arrival to be announced. I don’t see the electronic board with the names. Suddenly, above my accelerated breathing, I hear the crowd roar.
I ask, ‘Who has won?’
She answers me, ‘You’.

[Marla Runyan does not see the board with the names because she is blind. She has not seen the track either nor the finish line. But she has run and she has won. The occasion was the Panamerican Games in Winnipeg, 1999.]

“I am the first legally blind athlete who has participated in the Olympic Games [the Olympic Games proper, not the Paralympics] although I did not win the finals. I don’t even see the big ‘E’ in the oculist’s parlour, but I can run.

The problem is a question of perception: people mistake ‘handicapped’ for ‘useless’. I do have a handicap, but I’m not useless. I have a little side vision which, blurred as it is, is enough to allow me to run in the Olympics. I can see the feet of my rivals and the colour of their uniforms. I see the fluttering flags, but I cannot tell the countries they represent.

The one thing I don’t see at all is the finish line. When I take part in a race I don’t always know whether I have won or not. I don’t see the clocks nor the numbers counting the turns nor the scoring boards. All I know is that the finishing line is at the end of the last stretch. But let no one think that my lack of vision hinders my rhythm, as I am a 32 year old woman, I’m in this field since long, and I have come to understand that there is no finishing line.

In a way my lack of vision helps me. It forces me to run just for its own sake. I don’t run for medals, although I’ve won quite a few; I run because the very act of running is an aesthetical and kinetic experience for me. Running, for me, is getting rid of confusion and of obstacles. It means to forget all the medical technology that has burdened me ever since I was a child. To run is to escape from sedentary life, from isolation, from idleness. To run, for me, is to live.

Or course, sometimes funny things do happen to me. One of my former coaches, Mike Manley, shaved his beard and when he stood in front of me I didn’t recognise him. I always identified one of my running companions through her ponytail; but once she came and sat by my side and I didn’t recognise her… as she had cut her hair short.

I was determined never to use my lack of vision as an excuse. If I couldn’t do something, I never said, ‘It’s because I can’t see.’ I didn’t want to use my poor eyesight as an excuse, because I suspected that if I began to yield there, I would yield more and more in bigger things and throughout my life. I didn’t want to fall into the habit of yielding.

The worst came when someone, whose name I will not mention, told me my blindness was God’s punishment for my sins. ‘If you accept Jesus in your life and become a Christian, he will miraculously cure you. You must take this decision at once, so as to save your soul and avoid going to hell.’ I was then fourteen.

I often say, ‘I’m an athlete who has a handicap, not a handicapped athlete.’

I always keep in mind rule number one: ‘Remember that the person with whom you are speaking does not know you are blind.’

(Marla Runyan, No Finish Line.)

Learning Zen

“Some years ago there was in Japan a very skilful and intelligent thief. He could steal even from the Emperor’s Palace without being caught. One night he went into a nobleman’s mansion, and there he found the child of the family who was awake. The child was not frightened at his sight and asked the thief to play with him. The thief was surprised at the spontaneity and innocence of the child and began to play with him. They played the whole night, and at dawn, when the child got tired of playing and fell asleep, the thief remained there musing on the whole experience.

The guards found him there when patrolling through the palace in the morning and they asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’ He answered, ‘I am learning Zen.’”

(Norberto Tucci, Historias Zen, p. 57)

Samurai

“A skilled and experienced Samurai was admiring cherry trees in full flower at the beginning of spring. Suddenly he felt a menace at his back and turned quickly. But there was nothing there. He felt uneasy, as he had acquired the essential sense of detecting a menace before it would strike, and this time his sense had failed him.

He was worried, and asked the companion who at them moment was by his side what could be the meaning of it. His friend answered him: ‘While you were so engrossed watching the cherry trees I saw you and a thought crossed my mind. I said to myself, he is so intent in looking at the trees that if I or anybody would strike him now from the back he would be dead in a moment. It was this thought of mine that caused the ripple of alarm in your trained mind’.”

(Ib. p. 57)

Morning tea

“Years ago in Viet Nam people would take a small boat, row gently over waters with lotus flowers on them and place some tea leaves on an open lotus flower. During the night the flower perfumed the tea leaves. Then early next morning, when the dew was still on the flower, people would come with their friends to collect back the tea leaves.

On the little boat were all the necessary implements: fresh water, a little fire, tea cups and a kettle. Then, there itself, under the first blush of dawn, they prepared morning tea and drank it in the midst of flowers and water, enjoying its freshness and its beauty.

Now we still take our morning tea, but we don’t have the time to enjoy it in that way any more.”

(Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace, p. 72)

You tell me

Question: Have you read Harry Potter? Is it true that it is incompatible with Christianity?

Answer: Yes, I’ve read it. I want to know what young people read in order to understand young people. I want to know what kind of values are proposed in those books, openly or secretly, so as to know how minds and consciences in the new generation are shaped. Talking with my Jesuit companions one of these days I said that we should all read Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and they thought I was joking. I was quite serious. We are getting farther and farther away from our young people and are losing contact. Besides I’ve had a good time in Hogwart’s halls and I would enjoy playing quidditch.

The publication of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” coincided with pope Benedict XVI’s election, and this brought to light some declarations of the former cardinal Ratzinger warning of dangers in Harry Potter. There was also talking of Harry Potter’s books being withdrawn from the literacy campaign in Poland at the request of the Catholic Church.

No need to be afraid of Voldemort. But there is a point in the strictures. That’s not precisely the presence of magicians and witches who are forbidden in the Bible (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 27), although during my visit to the Holy Land I was shown the cave in which Saul himself consulted the witch at Endor (I Samuel 28:7). It’s rather question of two objections: the first is the lack of a clear distinction between good and evil, the confusion in characters and behaviour that seems to say that all is allowed provided it helps to get what one wants. Harry can lie and cheat and break all the rules, and all he does is fine. The second objection is the insinuation that getting ahead in life does not depend on one’s work and capacity and effort but only on magic. This can do serious harm to the young reader. A critic has written: “I wouldn’t like my son to take Harry Potter as a role model.” He is a cultural icon for today’s youth. In our days they were rather St Aloysius Gonzaga and St Stanislaus Kostka.

An anecdote: Joanne Rowling agreed to her publisher’s request not to appear with her full name as the writer of the book, since boys would not like to be seen reading a book written by a woman, and so she signed her first book as J. K. Rowling. Later, fortunately, she could uncover her identity and use her full name with all due honours.

Psalm

Psalm 145 – No subservience to humans

“Put no faith on princes.”Timely admonition which I adapt to my life and my circumstances: do not depend on others. I am not thinking of the healthy cooperation in which person helps person as we all need one another to stand together in the common task of living. I am thinking of inner dependence, of needing the approval of others, of being swayed by public opinion, of becoming a plaything of the likes and dislikes of those around us, of courting the favour of “princes”. No princes in my life. No dependence on the whims of others. No subservience to man.

I am accountable only to you, Lord. It is your judgement that matters to me, and no one else’s. I don’t give to any one the right to judge me. I am my own judge, as my conscience reflects in the capacity of my honesty the sentence of your supreme court. I am no better because anybody praises me and no worse when somebody derides me. I refuse to feel low when I hear people speak ill of me, and I decline to feel elated when they extol me to the skies. I know my worth and I know my smallness. No human judge will judge me.

This is my freedom, this is my right to be myself, this is my happiness as a person. My life is on my conscience, and my conscience is in your hands. You alone are my King, Lord.

“Happy are those whose helper is the God of Jacob,
whose hopes are in the Lord their God.”

1st
I tell you

Mathematics and mathematicians

The International Congress of Mathematicians is being held in Madrid. It convenes every four years, and four Field Medals (one for each year) are given in it, which are considered to be the Nobel Prize for mathematics. The Swede Alfred Nobel founded prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace, but – surprisingly – not for mathematics. The reason for it is sadly human. One of the greatest world mathematicians at the time was another Swede, Mittag Leffler, and Nobel knew that if he established a prize for mathematics, it sooner or later would go to him. And… Nobel didn’t quite get on well with Mittag Leffler. And there was no prize.

On the occasion of the Congress an exhibition on numbers has been arranged in the National Library. I had a good time going through it. But I found an unpleasant exhibit. There was a write-up on a wall explaining how the commercial use of mathematics for money lending and extortion had given a bad name to algebra at the beginning. It contained the following nonsense in insulting language: “Christian mythology (?), presenting as it does its leader (?) sending out with blows (?) the merchants at the temple in Jerusalem, contributed to the creation of a bad image for money exchange and money lenders in history.” Disgraceful exegesis. Neither Nobel nor the Exhibition on Numbers comes up to the mark in the Science of Sciences.

The year I attended this Congress in Moscow (1966) as a delegate of the mathematicians of India, the first Field Medal was given to Paul Cohen for proving about Cantor’s famous “continuum hypothesis” that “it is not known and it will never be possible to prove that it is true, and it is not known and it will never be possible to prove that it is false.” Mathematics can be amusing at times. We gave him a good clapping.

Here and now

“I was working as a voluntary helper in an Islington nursery. It was lunchtime and the children were having a cooked meal placed on their small tables. As the meal was served, the children began to sing spontaneously. Soon all the children, West Indian and English, were singing happily. The assistant in charge said kindly but firmly, ‘You can sing after lunch, children, but not now. All your dinners will get cold and uneatable.’ They ceased to sing.

Half an hour later, the same assistant began to sing children’s songs with the nursery group. She sang solo. The moment for the children had passed. Their attention had moved on to playing with bricks and dolls. She turned to me saying ‘Aren’t children contrary? They never do what you want them to do.’ I remained silent. Those small children, all under five, were thoroughly immersed in the here and now. They had wanted to sing when, to adults, it had seemed inconvenient. Half an hour later that desire had vanished completely.

David Brandon, who writes this in “The Art of Helping”, adds the following: “Is it actually possible to give help whilst intending to give it? Can effective help be given by those who are paid for the sole purpose of giving it? Frequently the clients are placed in a subordinate and uncomfortable position. The kind of help received from friends and relatives feels quite different from that given by professionals.

The same author quotes the Zen saying, “Thank you, Master, for teaching me nothing.” And the anecdote: “A monk asked Ma-tsu, ‘What was the mind of Bodhidharma when he came here from the West? Ma-tsu answered, ‘What is your mind at this moment?’”

(Penguin Books, London, 1976, pp. 69, 43, 24, 19)

Compassion

“When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the pupil be expelled. Bankei ignored the case.

Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body.

When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. ‘You are wise brothers, he told them. You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.’

A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.”

(Ib, p. 47)

The emperor’s show

Akbar the Great was the Emperor of India. He had a counsellor named Birbal whom he completely trusted. One day Akbar thought up a plan for manly entertainment. The river Yamuna flows down from the snowy Himalayas, it passed right by the Emperor’s palace in Agra and it was cold enough to chill your bones. So this was the plan that Akbar devised: all the heroes who accepted his challenge would wade into the Yamuna up to their chests clad only in loincloths, and the one who stayed in longest would win a hundred gold pieces.

The contest was announced throughout the Mughal Empire, and long streams of men flowed towards the palace from all directions. They lined up along the four miles of the riverside and each one began to get ready in their own way. Some had their servants rub ladle after ladle of sesame oil into them, same ate pints of almonds, others swallowed quantities of gold leaf. The Emperor sat on his throne and gave the sign for the immersion.

The warriors waded up to their shoulders, cheered on by their supporters. Some rubbed their bodies, others shook their arms, others tensed themselves, all shivered. The Emperor went for his lunch and came back. Many by then had left the river, were wrapped in blankets, came close to fires, had hot water poured over their bodies. Little by little the last ones came out with hesitant steps. Finally there was only one man left in the four miles, and he came out slowly from the Yamuna’s icy waters step by step, dried himself up and put on his clothes. He was a poor man, thin and frail. But he had stood the cold better than all the others. He was so chilled that he could not speak. Akbar gave him the hundred gold coins. Then he said to Birbal: “Go after him and find out what is this man’s secret that has made him win the contest.”

Birbal followed him. The man walked a long way that took him to a lonely hut. Birbal stood away and watched. Out of the hut came a woman with a girl child in her arms. The girl was sick. The man lifted his hand with the money purse. The woman shouted for joy. The baby girl smiled. Those gold coins were bringing her the remedies, the doctors, the health, the life she longed for. The three embraced closely and tenderly.

Birbal told Akbar: “Many came to your contest. Some came to make a show of their bodies. Other came to obtain fame. Others came to get money. This man came to save his daughter’s life. That’s why he won.”

Peace in the Middle East

“One night I went to a gathering for an organisation trying to come up with a solution for peace in the Middle East. It was started by an Israeli and a Palestinian and involved a grassroots effort to create peace by circumventing intractable leaders on both sides. About two hundred people showed up, and it was a great success.

Afterward, everybody left at once. As I waited with my friend in the car line to pay for the parking, I noticed we weren’t really moving ahead. What was happening? I observed and saw. Several cars had jumped the line. They had blocked the way out, people were shouting at them, they were fighting. Voices, gestures, horns. Nobody yielded and we were all stuck.

I thought: We want to bring peace to the world. Perhaps we should start with ourselves.”

(Arthur Jeon, City Dharma, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004, p. 244)

Ecological peace

“I have a friend I’ll call Charlie. He’s a vegan (he eats no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy) and is a very mellow guy who is into yoga and has done a lot of work on himself in therapy. One day we were having brunch at a vegetarian restaurant. We had just practiced yoga and were starved. He knew exactly what he wanted, the tofu scramble. But when the waiter arrived, he informed us that they were out of tofu. Charlie asked, incredulous and exasperated:

– Out of tofu?
– Yes sir.
– How can that be? It’s a vegetarian restaurant.
– No tofu, sir.
– Then what can I eat’
– How about a veggie burger?
– I don’t want anything else! What if I give you money and you run next door and buy some tofu? Can you cook that up?
– Next door?
– No. You’re busy, right? What if I go and buy some tofu and bring it back? Then can you make a tofu scramble?
– I don’t think so.
– Could you check?

The waiter went to check, and I asked Charlie:

– Sure you can’t find anything else on the menu?
– The point is, I can’t believe they don’t have tofu. I’m going to talk to the cooks and see.

He got up and began to talk to the head waiter stabbing his finger into his chest. Then he saw a tofu scramble being taken out to a table by another waiter. Charlie shouted: ‘What’s that? That’s tofu! I thought you were out of tofu!’ Other waiters separated them and he left in a huff. I apologised before everybody. I said with a smile, ‘You see, my friend takes tofu very seriously’, and they all laughed. One would expect a vegetarian not to be so violent. If we don’t trouble cows we should not trouble persons either.”

(Ib. p. 31)

Butterflies

“One time when I was hiking in Machu Picchu, Peru, I snuck over to the neighbouring mountain, Huayna Picchu, and climbed to the top with a friend, despite the fact that the mountain was closed to hikers due to erosion of the trails that made it a dangerous and difficult climb. But at the top we looked down on Machu Picchu from a new angle, with the ancient ruins on one side and the rain forest on the other. A rainbow emerged from the clouds, painting a bridge between the forest and the ruins.

It was a stunning view, but the best part was the two butterflies we saw. The rain forest produces huge butterflies, the size of birds. And out of the mist flew a pair of violet and red beauties that were straight out of a magical kingdom. They enchanted us for an hour, just by flying from tree to tree. It was definitely a ‘peak experience’.

Later that day, in the town of Aguas Calientes, which lies at the bottom of the mountain, I saw a man selling the same species of butterfly. They were dead, pinned in a square box, colourful but inert. I stared a long time at those dead butterflies, almost tempted to buy one to take back as a reminder of what I’d experienced. But I knew it was useless.

Trying to grasp past ecstatic experiences is like capturing butterflies, killing them with formaldehyde, and pinning them behind glass. It gives you a shadow of the real experience while deafening the vibrant silence that is animating this moment. So accept the mystical one moment and the ordinary the next. Accept annoying noise one moment and nourishing silence the next. Accept it all as it comes, because if you don’t, you miss your life. From ordinary noise to mystical silence, each moment brings its own gift, perfect exactly the way it is.”

(Ib. p. 101)

Robocop

“Three years ago I went to Machu Picchu in Peru. It was a stunning journey to the ancient spiritual city floating in the clouds above the western edge of the Amazon jungle. A couple of days later I found myself walking down the crooked streets of a tiny and very poor village of Peruvian Indians. It was dark, and except for an occasional dog the dusty streets were devoid of life. Once in a while I would see a kerosene lamp in a window. I though happily, I am truly in the middle of nowhere.

Then I looked in the open doorway of a small hut. Inside were three people huddled around a tiny television, which was playing the movie Robocop. I stared at the scene: the dirt floor, the kerosene lamp, and Robocop. It was a moment that slammed home the far-reaching effect of American pop culture. I wondered what vision of America was being taken from that movie. In a moment of history when globalisation is a foregone conclusion and our pop culture seeps into the oldest civilisations on the planet, watching them watch Robocop was positively surreal. As someone who sometimes wrote junky action movies, it made me deeply question my own role as a screenwriter.”

(Ib. p. 262)

It makes no difference

A child is struggling in the seashore where a strange tide has spilled thousands of starfish that are dying helpless on the sand. The child painstakingly takes one of them, carries it to the shore and puts it into the waters. A who man is looking at him shrugs his shoulders, smiles a cynical smile, points to the thousands of stranded starfish and tells the child: “You see, what you’ve done makes no difference.”

The child answers: “It has made a difference to that one.”

You tell me

“It is curious, Carlos. Sometimes one repeats prayers without thinking what one is saying, but a small child notices everything. I was praying with my three-year-old child the prayer that says that ‘I give my heart to Jesus…, Four Angels keep watch at the four corners of my bed…, Jesus, Joseph and Mary keep my soul in peace”, and he starred questioning me: “Where is the Child Jesus? Why have we to give our heart to him? Who are those four Angels? Who is St Joseph? Then he changes the prayer a little as he is not quite sure about that bit of giving his heart to Jesus, and just gives him kisses.”

That child will be a great theologian when he grows up.

Psalm

Psalm 146 – Of stars and hearts

“Put no faith on princes.”

“He heals the broken-hearted,
he binds up all their wounds.
He fixes the number of the stars;
he calls each one by its name.”Your power, O Lord, extends from the human heart to the stars in heaven. You are the Lord of humankind and the Lord of creation, and I like to proclaim the two realms of your majesty in a single verse, to encompass in one gesture the whole expanse of your vast domain. The beatings of the human heart and the orbits of heavenly bodies, human behaviour and heavenly trajectories, conscience and space. All is in your hand. And I rejoice when I think of it.

If you know how to handle the stars, will you not know also how to handle my heart? Please, Lord, take it in hand. Its orbit is rather crazy. It is not easy to know today what it will do tomorrow, when will it fly at a tangent and when will it refuse to move in stubborn emptiness. Ease it gently into regular orbit, Lord; watch its path and tend its course with heavenly care and calculated firmness. Let it be a star to enliven the night sky over the world of men and women.

I relax, Lord in your power and your wisdom. The sky is my home, and I roam happily in the vastness of your creation under your loving gaze. Call me by my name, Lord, as you call the stars in heaven and your children on earth. Call me by my name, as the shepherd calls their sheep and the astronomer their stars. I am happy to know that you know my name. Use it freely, Lord, to call me to order and to joy whenever you want. And one day, Lord, use my name to call me by it to your side for ever.

“Mighty is our Lord and great his power,
and his wisdom beyond all telling!”

 

15th
I tell you

Keep on walking

Someone who had to write something about me has asked me to express in writing what is it I consider to be my contribution to theology, to religion, to society, to life. I’ve just answered him as follows:

“Evangelically I’ve endeared Christianity to Hindus; conceptually I’ve explained the East to the West; theologically I’ve broadened outlooks against narrow conceptions; psychologically I’ve helped people to be more free, get rid of guilt complex, reconcile themselves with life; socially I’ve endeavoured to smile always and to get other to smile with me.”

I’ve always desired and intended that whoever came to see me, read my books, entered my web would go out with greater cheer than they came in with. I’m not going to solve any problem, settle any life, change the world; but I’m definitely going to try that for a while at least that person who meets me along the way, always in person and face to face even if it is only through a virtual page, may feel their burden lightened, my straighten up in trust, may brighten their face, may lift up their soul. And we’ll keep on walking.

I was travelling in the metro today, as I do almost daily. People look serious in the underground, and one cannot go about smiling to people without looking either mad or aggressive. But children are innocent. A child was just in front of me, holding his mother’s hand with his own. I’ve looked at him, have raised my forehead, and have smiled. He has smiled back. Then he has put his free hand into his pocket and has taken out a toy. A race-car model. I’ve put my hand into my pocket and have taken out my only toy…, a ball-pen. We both have felt happy. I’ve read somewhere that Mohammed said: “To smile before your brother’s face. That also is pleasing to Allah.”

Spilt milk

Richard Branson, the man behind the Virgin trademark from CD’s to an airline, tells in his autobiography an experience that changed his life. He began selling records, and soon went on to manufacture them.

“One thing I knew from everyone who came in to chat or work for us in our shops was that they spent a good deal of time listening to music, and a good deal of money buying records. We had the record player on constantly, and everyone rushed out to buy the latest Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or Jefferson Airplane album the day it was released. There was tremendous excitement about music: it was political; it was anarchic; it summed up the young generation’s dream of changing the world. And I also noticed that people who would never dream of spending as much as 40 shillings on a meal wouldn’t hesitate to spend 40 shillings buying the latest Bob Dylan album. The more obscure the albums were, the more they cost and the more they were treasured.”

[The emerging of the Virgin trademark was as follows:]

“[For records] ‘Slipped Disc’ was one of the favourite suggestions. We toyed with it for a while, until one of the girls leant forward: ‘I know’, she said. ‘What about “Virgin”? We’re complete virgins at business.’ ‘And there aren’t many virgins left around here’, laughed one of the other girls. ‘It would be nice to have one here in name if nothing else.’ ‘Great’, I decided on the spot. ‘It’s Virgin’.”

[He made much money with his records firm, and even went for a trick to avoid taxes faking foreign sales for records sold in England. But the customs police caught up with him and Richard was arrested.]

“I couldn’t believe it. I had always thought that only criminals were arrested: it hadn’t occurred to me that I had become one. I had been stealing money from Custom and Excise. It wasn’t some great game about my getting one up on the Customs and Excise office and getting off scot-free: I was guilty. At Dover I was charged under Section 301 of the Customs and Excise Act 1952: ‘That on 28 March 1971 at Eastern Docks, Dover, you caused to be delivered to an officer a ship’s manifest, being a document produced for the purpose of an assigned matter namely Customs, which was untrue in a material particular in that it purported to show the exportation of 10,000 gramophone records…’

And so on. I spent that night in a cell lying on a bare, black plastic mattress with one old blanket. That night was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. As I lay in the cell and stared at the ceiling I felt complete claustrophobia. I have never enjoyed being accountable to anyone else or not being in control of my own destiny. I have always enjoyed breaking the rules, whether they were school rules or accepted conventions, such as that no seventeen-year-old can edit a national magazine. As a twenty-year-old I had lived life entirely on my own terms, following my own instincts. But to be in prison meant that all that freedom was taken away.

I was locked in a cell and utterly dependent on somebody else to open the door. I vowed to myself that I would never again do anything that would cause me to be imprisoned, or indeed do any kind of business deal by which I would ever have cause to be embarrassed.

In the many different business worlds I have inhabited since that night in prison, there have been times when I could have succumbed to some form of bribe, or could have had my way by offering one. But ever since that night in Dover prison I have never been tempted to break my vow. My parents had always drummed into me that all you have in life is your reputation: you may be very rich, but if you lose your good name you’ll never be happy. The thought will always lurk at the back of your mind that people don’t trust you. I had never really focused on what a good name truly meant before, but that night in prison made me understand.

The next day Mum put up Tanyards Farm, her home, as security for a bail of 30,000 pounds. We stared at each other across the court and both started crying. She said as we took the train back up to London, ‘You don’t have to apologise, Ricky. I know that you’ve learnt a lesson. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Make sure you don’t spill it again.”

(Richard Branson, Losing my Virginity, Virgin Publishing, London, 2002, pp. 76, 100)

Alms

A touching anecdote of the Buddha’s life, not much known.

“One day while out begging in a poor hamlet, the Buddha met some children playing on a dirt path. They were building a city from dirt and sand, complete with a city wall, storehouse, dwellings, and even a river. When the children saw the Buddha approaching, one child said to the others, ‘The Buddha is travelling past our city. It is only proper for us to make an offering to him.’ The other children liked the idea, but said, ‘What do we have to offer the Buddha? We’re only children.’ The first child answered, ‘Listen, my friends, there are great reserves of harvested rice in the storehouse of our city of dirt and sand. We can offer some of it to the Buddha.’

The other children clapped their hands in delight. They dug out a handful of dirt from their storehouse and, pretending it was rice, placed it on a leaf. The first child lifted the leaf in his two hands and respectfully knelt before the Buddha. The other children knelt beside him. He said, ‘The people of our city respectfully offer this rice from our storehouse. We pray you will accept it.’

The Buddha smiled. He patted the boy on the head and said, ‘Thank you, children, for offering this precious rice to us. You are most thoughtful.’ Then he turned to Ananda and said, ‘Ananda, please take this offering and as soon as we return to the monastery, we can mix it with water and daub in on the earthen bricks of my hut.’ Then he sat down with the children and began to tell them stories.”

(Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path White Clouds, Full Circle, Delhi 1991, p. 391)

Missing one’s flight
[An anecdote of the Buddhist monk that has told us the preceding story.]

“Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher, will not speed his step to catch an airplane, even when he is thirty feet from the gate. He would rather miss the plane than rush. If he misses the plane, what is the problem? He is just as happy sitting and waiting for the next one because there is no such thing as a transition in life. No present moment is better than the next. How could it be?

But let’s say you’re not an enlightened Buddhist monk. It doesn’t matter. Even when you are going, let’s say really going, like running for a plane, you are awake to each step, the feel of the strap of your carry-on-bag, the slap of your shoes hitting the floor. You’re not thanking about the consequences of missing the plane, losing the account, or missing the wedding; even in going fast, you are being.

It is possible that ‘wherever you go, there you are’ – to have a feeling of always already being there rather than always going. Feel the relief and realisation of that recognition. The internal pressure and anxiety are instantly released, replaced by an endless stream of now.”

(Arthur Jeon, City Dharma, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004, p. 66)

The public cheers

A few scout frogs are jumping about on the fields when two of them fall into a deep well and begin to jump as high as they can trying to get out. But it is impossible. The other frogs that have remained on the field look over the edge, appraise the situation and inform the fallen frogs: “You will not be able to come out. It is too deep. Just remain quietly where you are. We are so sorry but we can do nothing. You can do nothing either. Just lie down and die in peace.”

One of the two frogs in the depth understands the truth of the message and lies down to die. The other keeps on desperately jumping and jumping in spite of all the discouraging messages that come from the top and tell her she’ll never be able to make it.

She keeps trying, and in one desperate jump she reaches the top and scrambles to safety beside the other frogs. They all cheer and jump and keep asking her questions:

– How did you manage? How did you do it? It was quite impossible! How did you do it?
– Well, all of you kept encouraging me so much…
– But we didn’t. On the contrary, we were all discouraging you as we saw it was quite impossible to get out.
– Maybe, but now it doesn’t matter. You see, I’m deaf, quite deaf, and only saw you gesticulating and could not make out what you were saying, and so I thought you were cheering me up with your shouts, and so thanks to you I was able to come out.

At the end, all are happy.

The castaway’s despair

A shipwrecked man in a desert island resigns himself to his lot, builds a hut with leaves and branches, hunts wild animals, manages to light a fire and cooks his meals. But one day the fire gets out of hand, sets the whole hut on fire and the hut is reduced to ashes after it had taken so much trouble to put it up. The man fells deep despair and laments aloud his bad luck. But then after a while he sees a ship on the horizon, the ship comes closer and closer, and he is rescued by the crew.

– How did you find me in the midst of the ocean?
– This small island was not on our map, to be sure, but we saw a column of smoke in the distance, thought it could be someone’s distress signal and came close to find out. You did well to light that great fire. It has saved your life.
– Yes, yes, I see. Thank you anyhow.

Comes to the same

The Zen Master is about to die. His disciples, gathered around his deathbed, ask him for a last message. The Master opens his mouth and, with some difficulty, utters his testament: “Truth is like a river.” The disciple who was to succeed him asks him: “In what way is Truth like a river, Master?” He answers softly: “Well, then Truth is not like a river”, and dies with a smile.

I smile.

Final wisdom.

Comes to the same.

The vulture’s lesson

The vulture was having a great time. He took saris that were spread out to dry along the shore of the Ganges and spread them out on the roofs of houses, took in his beak the dough steaming on the grill and placed it as a hut and the head of a Brahmin, kicked a bucket of water from the hand of the bathing maiden and left her without her bath, snatched in his flight the money purse of the merchant and emptied its contents on the floor of the temple. He left nobody alone. His wings gave him speed and he flew, appeared, swooped, snatched, dropped, laughed, disappeared. And nobody could take hold of him.

At long last the villagers hired the services of a professional vulture hunter. He asked for a lot of money but guaranteed the result. He knew all that could be known about vultures and could catch them, tame them, neutralise them, kill them. No vulture could escape from him. They all knew that, and so the left it to work as he pleased.

The hunter set up a snare to catch the vulture, but the bait in the trap was secret and it cannot be revealed. They all knew where it was but nobody looked towards it so that the vulture would not suspect anything. The vulture went on with his mischief stealing saris and dumping hats and upsetting buckets until one day…

One day a victory cry rose in the whole village. The vulture had fallen into the trap. There he was with his two feet in the vice-like teeth, his feathers rumpled and his beak twisted looking down and resigned to his lot. All the villagers surrounded him and began to make fun of him. “So you knew all the tricks, did you? You flew so fast that nobody could get hold of you! Now you’ll see what awaits you. Your mischief has come to an end… and your life too!” And the all sang together:

A vulture sees a corpse one hundred leagues away,
When thou alightest on a trap does thou not see it, pray?

Then the vulture spoke. They all were astonished that a vulture should speak, but he spoke. He opened his beak, cleared his throat, looked at the people round and spoke: “Let’s see if you finally learn the lesson. I am a wise vulture and have come to remind you of the most important lesson in your life. You all know it but you all forget it. When death comes, it is the end of everything. No eyes and no claws can deliver you. I’ve just come to remind you.” And he sang in turn:

“When life is coming to an end, and death’s hour draws nigh,
Though you may come up close, no trap or snare you spy.”

And we just don’t know what happened after that.

You tell me

Question (repeated): Is masturbation a sin?

Answer (shortened): St Paul does not mention it in his list of sexual sins. (I Corinthians 6, 9)

The Moral Theology Handbook by Arregui-Zalba (1954) which was our text book in the seminary declared that “it is always a sin, and always a grievous sin”. (p. 211)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992 decrees: “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” Then, however, it goes on to say: “To form an equitable judgement about the subject’s moral responsibility one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that diminish or attenuate moral culpability.” That eases guilt somehow.

On the other hand, the Spanish edition of the Catechism published at the same time had “annul” (anulan) instead of “attenuate”. Null culpability. That gave an edge to Spanish speaking offenders.

Seven years later, in 1999, the different versions of the Catechism were unified, and the English version came out as “other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability”, and the Spanish version said now the same as the English version. No more annulments. A “minimum” of culpability remains. And an uncertain “if”. The Spanish advantage was short-lived.

This is the official doctrine as it has evolved in our days. Don’t ask me, please, what happened with those who masturbated between 1992 and 1999 whether in English or in Spanish.

Psalm

Psalm 148 – Praise

“Praise the Lord out of heaven;
praise him in the heights.
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host.
Praise him, son and moon;
praise him all you shining stars;
praise him, heaven of heavens,
and you waters above the heavens.
Let them all praise the name of the Lord.”
Praise is the language of heaven.
Let us learn it on earth to practice for eternity.

Praise is the prayer of acceptance.
We praise the Lord for things as they are without presuming to improve them.

Praise is the prayer that makes contact.
We do not escape into petition or complaint, but assume reality into prayer.

Praise is the prayer of the present moment.
No pardon for the past nor protection for the future.

Praise is the prayer of the group.
The choir of many voices before God’s holy altar.

Praise is the prayer of joy.
I cannot say “Praise the Lord!” with a gloomy face.

Praise is the prayer of love.
Sincere praise rejoices because it loves the person it praises.

Praise is obedience.
My status as creature put into music and song.

Praise is power.
The walls of Jericho fall at the sound of the trumpets in the liturgy of the priests.

Praise is worship.
Praise is dealing with God as God in the majesty of his glory.

“Praise the Lord from the earth,
you water spouts and ocean depths;
fire and hail, snow and ice,
gales and wind obeying his voice;
all mountains and hills;
all fruit-trees and all cedars;
wild beasts and cattle,
creeping things and winged birds.

Kings and all earthly rulers,
princes and judges over the whole earth;
young men and maidens,
old men and young together.

Let all praise the name of the Lord.”

1st
I tell you

Delighted!

I thank God for making me an optimist. I readily get enthusiastic, cheer up, feel great about things and work and persons and life. I like most things, I always say yes unless it is necessary to say no, and when they ask me, ‘Are you coming for a walk?’, or ‘Shall we meet tomorrow?’, I burst out in answer, ‘Delighted!’, instead of simply saying ‘Yes, I’m coming’, or ‘We’ll meet tomorrow’. Some friends have taken objection to that, but, after thinking it over, I keep my ways. There is enough pessimism in the world to add long faces to it. Whatever lightens, be it for a moment, the burden of life, whatever refreshes the air around us, whatever opens up a smile and lifts our eyes, is welcome.

I think I’m indebted to St Paul for my optimism. When I left Spain to go to India at the age of 24 half way through my studies, a wise Jesuit, Father Ignacio Errandonea, advised me: “I don’t know what kind of professors will you have in India for your theology; but, happen what may, get hold of St Paul!”. I did. The teachers were good, but, anyway, I got hold of St Paul, I studied on my own all his epistles in their Greek original with all the best commentaries in the library, I enjoyed Philippians, delved in Romans, smarted with Galatians, fell in love with Ephesians. And St Paul infected me with his optimism. God loves me, he has chosen me, nobody can separate me from the love of Christ, with him I have overcome the world, I have risen with him for ever. Away with all kinds of pessimism!

The most amusing text of St Paul’s is Ephesians 2:6:

“He raised us up in union with Christ Jesus and made us sit down with him in the heavenly realms.”

There it is. He made us sit down. In Greek the verb is in the aorist which is past tense. “He sat us down.” A past action, complete and finished in itself. We already are comfortably sitting down in the high heavens. “He made us sit down with Christ in the heavenly realms.” The feast has begun. How can I not be delighted?

Mount Athos

“We approached the celebrated Vatopedi Monastery on a tender morning filled with God’s loving-kindness, a morning straight from heaven, as though this were the fifth day of the Creation and God still had not fashioned man to spoil His work. The east opened by degrees like a rose, and tiny rosy-cheeked clouds emerged like cherubs from behind the horizon, growing gradually larger, so that they appeared to be descending to earth. A blackbird landed in the middle of the road and looked at us, the dew still upon its wings. But as though it were not a blackbird, but instead a kindly spirit which recognised us, it neither grew frightened nor moved out of our way. A tiny little owl perched on a rock had already grown giddy from the light; it remained peaceful and motionless, waiting for darkness to return.

We did not speak. Both of us felt that the human voice, no matter how sweet and hushed, would reverberate shrill and discordant here, and that all the magic veil which enveloped us would be torn apart. Our faces and hands sprinkled with morning dew-drops as we pushed aside the low-hanging pine branches, we proceeded on our way.

My happiness was choking me. Turning to my friend, I was about to open my mouth to exclaim, What joy this is! But I did not dare. I knew that as soon as I spoke, the sorcery would be dispelled. I remember seeing a fox late one afternoon on Taygetus, above Sparta; it was advancing gingerly with craned neck, its bushy tail held stiffly erect, so that it cast a long purple shadow on the stones. I held my breath lest the animal catch scent of me and run off, but I was not quick enough in restraining my exultation; in spite of myself a tiny, tiny cry escaped me. This the fox heard, and before I even had a chance to see which direction it took, it had vanished. Happiness in man’s life, I felt, is always exactly the same.

When will my turn come to see God? I asked Father Philemon. It’s easy, very easy’, he answered. ‘Just open your eyes and you’ll see Him’.”

(Nikos Kazantkakis, Report to Greco, Faber and Faber, London, 1973, p. 203)

Crucified or resurrected?

“We set by rowboat early in the morning and proceeded to the Dionysiou Monastery. Father Benedict, our boatman, told us it was the strictest monastery on Mount Athos. No matter how merry you felt, you could not laugh; no matter how much wine you drank at this monastery, you could not become drunk. And there was a laurel they had planted in the yard, and if you looked at it carefully, you saw Christ crucified on every leaf.

We had a bishop with us. He was going to Daphne. He said: ‘The entire universe, Father Benedict, is a cross with Christ crucified upon it. Not just the laurel leaves, but you and I and the very stones of the ground.’

That was too much for me. I told him: ‘Begging your pardon, Bishop, I see Christ everywhere resurrected.’ The bishop shook his head. ‘You’re in a hurry, my child’, he answered me. ‘We shall see the risen Christ, but only after we die. This our earthly passage, now and as long as we live, is a crucifixion.’

A dolphin bounded out of the calm waters, very near to us, its firm supple back gleaning powerfully in the sun. It plunged again, reappeared, soared joyfully – the entire ocean was its province. Suddenly another dolphin appeared in the distance and each raced head-on toward the other. Meeting, they frolicked, then all at one swam off side by side with lifted tails, dancing.

I was overjoyed. Extending my arm, I indicated the two dolphins. ‘Is Christ crucified or resurrected?’ I asked triumphantly. ‘What do the two dolphins tell us?’ But we had arrived at Dionysiou, and the bishop did not have time to reply.

The moment we stepped into the courtyard, we halted in terror. We felt we were entering a damp, dark prison for life-termers. The columns around the periphery were squat and black, the arches between them painted a dark orange. Every inch of the walls was covered with savage painting of the Apocalypse: devils, hell-fire, hideous dragons with horns – all of the Church’s sadistic longing to intimidate men and bring them to heaven not by love but by fear.

The guest-master came, the monk who looked after visitors. Seeing us glaring in terror at the paintings, he parted his narrow, yellowish lips maliciously – he seemed overcome with hatred at the sight of two well-dressed, thriving men in the flower of youth. ‘Open wide your eyes’, he said. ‘Do not screw up your faces in a grimace. Look! Man’s body is full of fires, demons, and whores. The filth you see is not the inferno but the bowels of man.’

‘Man is created in the image of God,’ objected my friend. ‘He is not just this filth, he is something else.’

‘He was!’, shrieked the monk, ‘was, but isn’t any more. In the world you live in, the soul has becomes flesh too. Sin holds it to her breast and nurses it.’

‘What is to be done, then?’ I asked. ‘Is there no door to salvation?’ – ‘There is, there is. But it is a narrow, dark, and dangerous one. A person doesn’t enter easily.’ – ‘What do you mean?’ – ‘Behold!’ He extended his hand and indicated the entrance to the monastery. ‘We’re not ready yet’, said my friend, who had found the monk’s words irritating. ‘Later, when we’re old and feeble. The flesh is God’s work too.’ A venomous smile incised the monk’s lips. ‘The flesh is the work of the devil’, he shrieked. ‘It’s time you learned, you emissaries from the world, that God’s work is the soul.’ Wrapping himself tightly in his robe as though afraid we might touch him, he disappeared beneath a vault. We remained alone in the centre of the courtyard. ‘Let’s leave’, said my friend. ‘It’s obvious that Christ does not live here’.”

(Ib p. 218)

At the gates of heaven

“A Cretan once said to me: [Kazantzakis is a Cretan himself]

– When you appear before the heavenly gates and they fail to open, do not take hold of the knocker to knock. Unhitch the musket from your shoulder and fire.
– Do you actually believe God will be frightened into opening the gates?
– No, lad. He won’t be frightened. But He’ll open them because He’ll realise you are returning from battle.

(Ib. p. 306)

Zest for life

– I hear you’re a hundred years old, grandfather. Tell me, how has life seemed to you these hundred years? – It’s like a glass of cold water in the heat of the day, my child.
– And are you still thirsty, grandfather?
– Damned be whoever isn’t!!!

(Ib. 308)

The greater sacrifice

“There was once a great king who had three hundred and sixty-five wives in his harem. He was very handsome, and loved to eat and have a good time. One day he went to a monastery, where he saw an ascetic. He looked at him compassionately. ‘What a great sacrifice you are making!’ he said. ‘Your sacrifice is greater’, the ascetic replied. ‘How’s that?’ – ‘Because I have renounced the ephemeral world, while you have renounced the eternal’.”
(Ib. p. 199)

You tell me

I always enjoy your questions. The last web brought me several on sex. Someone asked, “What is masturbation?” There is still innocence in the world. Then an unusual question: “Which is your favourite animal?” Maybe I wouldn’t have known what to answer, but I’ve just returned from Australia, and now I can say that my favourite animal is the koala. It sleeps 18 hours a day, and eats 6 hours (only eucalyptus leaves). They presented me with the picture of a koala sleeping on a eucalyptus tree with the legend: “To eat or to sleep…; that is the question”, and the name William Shakesbear under it (not the “b” in place of the “p”). A good lesson from Down Under.

Psalm

Psalm 149 – Dance

“Let Israel rejoice in his maker,
and the sons of Zion exult in their king.
Let them praise his name in the dance,
and sing him psalms with tambourine and harp”
I want to dance, in my mind if not with my body, to express with the totality of my being the totality of my submission to God. I want to dance, as David danced before the Ark, as Israel danced before the Temple, as all peoples have danced in religious worship of the Lord of spirit and matter.

Dance is the body made prayer. A psalm of gestures. A liturgy of movements. The body speaks better than the mind, and one gracious bow is worth a thousand contemplations. If singing, according to St Augustine, is “praying twice”, what will dancing be?

Dancing commits the dancer in the presence of the people. It is public and open and evident. A dance is a profession of faith. The dancer has a claim to a solemn promise: “If anyone acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge him before my Father in heaven”

Dancing brings art into prayer, and that noble adventure deserves gratitude from all men and women who love prayer and love art. Why should religious pictures by ugly? Why should religious books be dull? Why should prayer be boring? Why should faith be abstract? Dance changes all that with a swaying of the body and a clapping of the hands. Art and religion. Beauty and truth. I want to learn to make my prayer lively and my worship artistic for the joy of my heart and the glory of my God.

“Let his faithful servants exult in triumph;
let them shout for joy as they kneel before him”

 

15th
I tell you

Heaven without tears

A girl who wanted to learn Spanish in India with a view to go for further studies in Spain showed me proudly the book she had just bought in a bookshop. Its title was, “To Spain Without Pain.” It was a handbook to learn Spanish in 15 days without an effort. I told her that if she wanted to learn Spanish, the first thing she had to do was to return the book, or, if the bookseller did not take it back, to throw it into the wastepaper basket. With it she would only learn a couple of sentences like, What is the time? Where is the Post Office? What is the price? May I sit down here?… with a bad pronunciation and a worse spelling, and once she had laid the wrong basis she would never be able to build on it the solid learning of the language so as to use it in the university. One has to begin at the beginning, learn grammar, use a good dictionary, do exercises, write, correct, listen, pronounce, improve, work systematically if one wants to master a foreign tongue. There is no “Spanish Without Tears”. No shortcuts.

In life there are no shortcuts either. We have to work it out. Life too has its own grammar and dictionary, its exercises and its training, its joys as we explore the inside of a new culture and its frustrations when we mispronounce it. No fifteen-day handbook is available. “Heaven Without Tears.” Yes, we do hope to get to heaven. But before that we’ll shed a few tears.

To save the child

“At a barbecue a two-year-old girl fell into a swimming pool. Everybody stood horrified for a moment as the girl struggled, not knowing how to swim. The mother jumped in and grabbed the girl, rescuing her before disaster struck. She pulled the toddler out of the water as everybody rushed forward with great concern. But before her daughter even had a chance to start crying or any of the people could open their mouths, the mother laughed and jumped back in the pool, still holding her daughter.

She turned the moment into a game, and the daughter, instead of crying, squealed with delight. Instead of the child being conditioned to fear the pool and fear the water, the fear of the moment was dissolved into play. This was brilliant and intuitive and happened without thinking. It was a releasing of the conditioning at its inception. It was a stroke of genius.”

(Arthur Jeon, City Dharma, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004, p. 278)

A demon in the shade

“One day the sage Milarepa went into a grotto. It was dark all around him and the obscurity caused him to think that a demon was crouching in the shadows. According to the story, at this precise moment a demon actually emerged. Intrigued, Milarepa asked him; ‘So you were in the cave, weren’t you?’ ‘No’, answered the demon. ‘I am born of your mind’.”

(Tenzin Choedrak, The Rainbow Palace, Bantam Books, London 2000, p. 145)

Murshid

“One day I was walking in the city and met a dervish with a beautiful personality. At that time I was very young in the pursuit of philosophy. Youth is a time when pride has full play. So, as we were walking along and he called me ‘Murshid’, I was very glad. He addressed me as murshid every time he spoke to me!

Presently we met another person who seemed to be without any education, without any knowledge of philosophy or religion or anything out of the way. But he called him ‘Murshid’ also! My pride was broken, for next he came across a policeman and called him ‘Murshid’ too!

I asked my teacher what could be the meaning of all this, and he said, ‘I am showing you the first step towards recognising God: to recognise all beings as your teacher. A foolish person can teach you, a wise person, a learned person, a student, a pious person, a wicked person, even a little child – everyone can teach you something. Therefore have that attitude towards everybody. Then it may be said that you recognise God’.”

(Hazrat Inayat Khan, Tales, Souvenir Press, London, 1993, p. 193)

All do the same

“Several rabbis gathered together were praising Rabbi Joshua and recognised that he had no equal. He answered, “There is someone equal to me and even greater than me. Once, on a journey, I noticed a path across a field. I was tired and I reckoned I would save time and energy by taking that path even though it was private property. But when I started crossing the field, a girl drew my attention to it: ‘Excuse me, sir, but you are trespassing on private property.’ I answered her: ‘Yes, it’s true, but I’m not stepping on any crop. See, my child, I’m carefully walking along this path through the field. Don’t you see the difference?’ She insisted: ‘Yes, there is a path along which you are walking, but that path has been made by the persons who, like yourself, cross the fields illegally.’ That child was greater than me.’ They all recognised the child’s wisdom. We justify our behaviour saying that all do the same. But wrong is never right even if all do it.”

(Rabí Bradley, Parábolas del Talmud, Obelisco, Barcelona, 2001, p. 64)

The bubble
[One of the titles the young generation has won for itself is “the post-bubble generation”. The allusion is meant as a compliment. Young people have pricked and burst bubbles of tradition, convention, repetition, repression, have questioned attitudes nobody dared question and have discarded positions no one dared discard even though we all knew those attitudes and those positions could not be maintained. Authenticity, sincerity, transparency, veracity have become front line values. The young have done away with many bubbles, and that is something to be grateful for. But no sooner have they go rid of a bubble that they have been trapped in another. So that the bubble civilisation continues. They all know the bubble is empty, but they cannot live without it. That’s why this famous story of Anatole France’s has permanent validity, and I’m giving it here shortened.]

– Do you remember Putois when we were children?
– Do I remember Putois! Why, of all the figures which pass before my childhood’s eyes, that of Putois remains the clearest in my memory. Not a single feature of his face or his character have I forgotten. He had a long head…
– A low forehead…
– Wall-eyed…
– Furtive looking…
– A crow’s foot on his temple…
– High cheek-bones…
– His ears were ragged…
– Blank face…
– Thin, rather bent…
– With a dirty blouse on…
– He was very strong…
– He could easily bend a five-frank piece between his thumb and forefinger…
– Wait, wait. We have forgotten his yellow hair and his scant beard. We must begin again.

The usual recital. We knew it by heart and we repeated it word by word and in the same order. It was the liturgy of the Bergeret Family, and it had been codified by the grandfather. But, who was Putois?

Putois was the gardener. He always existed. Though he never existed. We have only to understand the manner of his existence. Our parents led a quiet retired life until they were ‘discovered’ by an old lady, Madame Cornouiller, who turned out to be my mother’s great-aunt. She took advantage of the privilege of friendship to insist on our father and mother coming to dine with her every Sunday. They were bored to death. To my mother fell the task of finding decent pretexts and varying reasons for refusing; it was a task for which she was ill fitted, for she was incapable of dissimulation. I had the whooping-cough so they escaped for a few Sundays, but I got well again and the pretext did not work any more. Thus the day arrived when my mother told her great aunt:

– Next Sunday we won’t be able to come because on that day I expect the gardener.
– The gardener?
– Yes.
– Since when do you have a gardener?
– Since this week.
– And cannot he come on Monday?
– No. He is very busy and can come only on Sunday. I’m sorry.
– What is his name?
– Putois.

Putois had a name. Therefore he existed.

– Putois, Putois…, why, yes, I know him well enough. But I can’t recall him. Where does he live? He goes out to work by the day. Ah! Just as I thought; he is a loafer, a vagabond, a good-for-nothing. You should beware of him, my dear.

Putois had a character. He had a history. Therefore he existed. It is true that he existed only in imagination, but then an imaginary existence is also an existence. Are not mythical personages capable of influencing men? Besides, Putois has been dealt with unfairly. Madame Cornouiller said from the beginning that he was a loafer, a drunkard, a thief. She immediately suspected that since he was employed by my mother, who was not rich, he could not ask for high pay, and so she wondered whether it might not be to her advantage to engage him in the place of her own gardener. It would soon be the season for trimming the yew trees. She would see to it that he would work the whole the day for a small pay. She asked my mother.

– Send Putois to me, my dear. I will give him work at my place.
– But he is busy all days.
– Tell him all the same.
– One cannot trust him to come.
– I know him well. You just tell him.
– But he’s not come now for some time.
– Send word to his house.
– I don’t know his address.
– Others will know it.
– He seems to have gone into hiding. Sometimes he does it.
– What happens is that you are afraid to lose him because he will prefer to work for me. You are selfish.

Since then Madame Cornouiller started asking everybody about Putois. People answered her: “Putois, yes, I’ve heard the name, I think he works in that house over there, he passes through this street at times…”. One morning Madame Cornouiller rushed panting into my father’s study: “I have just seen Putois. Ah! Yes. I’ve just seen him. I am sure. He was creeping along by the wall. A man about thirty, thin, bent, looking like a loafer, wearing a dirty blouse. I called him and he turned round, then he disappeared. Didn’t I tell you? He is a thief and he’ll give you trouble.”

A few days later it happened that Madame Cornouiller had three melons stolen from her kitchen garden. As the thief was not discovered, she suspected Putois. The police confirmed her suspicions. His description was published in the papers: “The thief had a sly look, crow’s feet on his temples, high cheek-bones, ragged ears, walks with a bend and wears a dirty blouse.”

Everybody spoke about him. One day they said he had been arrested and was in prison, but then another theft was discovered and his name came up again. His hand was seen in every robbery. He was seen everywhere, even in two distant places at the same time. He became the terror of the people.

And then, the best stroke of all. How Putois seduced Madame Cornouiller’s cook. Do you remember? Her name was Gudule. She tried to hide her condition but a moment came when she could no longer keep it secret. Madame Cornouiller urged Gudule to utter the name of the man who betrayed her and then abandoned her to distress, but she burst into tears and refused to speak. She diplomatically questioned her neighbours, the tradesmen, the surveyor, and went back to question her: “It is Putois, isn’t it?” She burst into tears and that confirmed the suspicion. It was Putois. The news spread through the whole town and soon it was known that Putois was the father of countless illegitimate children in the neighbourhood. The monster!

One day the servant girl told mother that a man was at the gate asking for her. Mother asked her:

– What kind of a man is he?
– He looks like a country labourer.
– What is he wearing?
– A dirty blouse.
– Did he give his name?
– Yes, Madame.
– Well, what is it?
– It was…, it was…
– It was Putois, wasn’t it?
– Yes, yes. Putois, Putois. It was Putois.
– And he is at the door?
– Yes, he’s waiting there.
– What does he want?
– He did not say. He will only tell Madame.

My mother went to the door. When she reached, the visitor was no longer there. From that day on my mother began to believe that Putois might possibly exist after all, and that perhaps she had not invented him.

(Great Short Stories, Editor Milton Crane, Bantam Books, New York, 1975, p. 97)

More bubbles

The story of Putois reminds me of a story of the Mulla Naseruddin, patron saint of all professional preachers, which has its natural place here. One day a few children were teasing him in the street and he didn’t know how to shake them off. Finally he thought of a trick to get rid of them and invented a tale:

– Do you know which day is today?
– We don’t know and we don’t care.
– Well, so much the worse for you?
– Why, why?
– Because today is the king’s birthday.
– And what is that to us?
– That is for you to say, but you should know that today, just now, whoever goes to the palace of the king is given free as many sweets as they want.

To hear that and for all the children to run to the palace, which fortunately was quite far away, was one and the same thing. The Mulla was left in peace, laughed at the discomfiture or the children as no sweets were given and nobody’s birthday was celebrated, and kept looking at the corner round which the children were disappearing in their hurry. But then, when he saw the last of the children disappear round the corner, he got suddenly thoughtful and told himself: “Let me see, let me go and see. Perhaps it is true after all.” He tucked up his robes and started running after the children. He also liked sweets.

Patron saint of preachers.

Bubbles.

You tell me

I have read that in the prayer of silence it is recommended to repeat the word “maranatha” which means “The Lord comes”. I do so, but could you tell me which part of the word is “The Lord” and which part is “comes”? It’ll help my devotion to know.

It’s even more interesting than you think, Mercedes. If you divide the word as “marana tha”, it means “Our Lord, come”, and if you divide it as “maran atha” it means “Our Lord has come”. In the manuscripts it appears as a single word.

The expression is very telling, and it seems the first Christians used it to greet one another saying, “The Lord comes”, and answering “The Lord has come”, just as we say “Good morning”, “Good morning”. But do remember also, Mercedes, that every formula, however beautiful, fades in repetition. Love.

Another question. What is the latest about limbo?

You seem to be well informed about Church news, Consuelo. The commission named by the pope to examine the question has just now presented its report. The problem was that children who died without baptism could not go to heaven and so were kept in a state of natural happiness without the vision of God. That was limbo. Pope John Paul II once addressed in a sermon mothers who had aborted, and exhorted them to ask pardon from God as well as from their children, who were not allowed to be born but who, the pope added, “will surely forgive you from heaven”. Whether he said that intentionally or it was a spontaneous slip, is not know, but there he had said that those children, although having died without baptism, were in heaven, which was a great solace to all. After that, a commission of theologians was appointed to examine the question, and that was what Catholic press spoke about these days. We’ll know their report after a year. Meantime we happily wait in limbo.

Psalm

Psalm 150 – Music

“Praise the Lord with fanfares on the trumpet,
praise him upon lute and harp;
praise him with tabourines and dancing,
praise him with flute and strings;
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with triumphant cymbals;
let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
Every time I listen to Music, I think of you, Lord. Music is humans’ purest creation, and in it they come closest to you in the expression of their soul and the sublimity of their art. Pure sound, wordless harmony, air made beauty and space filled with joy. I wonder, while I listen to humankind’s masterpieces, what divine touch of unearthly inspiration can have produced the thrill of sheer perfection that lifts the mind to regions not quite of this world. You are present to me, Lord in the strings of a quartet or the chords o a symphony with a reality that touches sacramental grace in the uplifting consecration of my whole being. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of music in my life.

Praise the Lord with violins and violas, with cellos and double basses, with flutes and piccolos; praise him with pianos and harps, with harmoniums and organs, with mandolins and guitars; praise him with oboes and clarinets, with bassoons and tubas, with horns and trumpets; praise him with trombones and xylophones, with drums and kettledrums, with triangles and gongs.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”

1st
I tell you

Looking amenable

– Could you tell me where is Padre Damian Street, please?
– You are on it.
– Don’t tell me!
– Well, look up at the corner and you’ll see the name on the plaque.
– Padre Damian Street. That’s right.
– I told you.
– Thank you.

And he laughed heartily. He was a Latin American at 7 o’clock in the morning in Madrid and he had stopped me on the street and was asking me where Padre Damian Street was. He laughed with his white, open teeth. We parted ways gaily. I went my way musing along.

We are on Padre Damian Street, and we don’t know it. And we ask where it is. Just like the fish in the ocean that asks where the ocean is. Or the disciples of Buddha when he was asked, “You have 10.000 disciples. How many of them have attained illumination?”, and he answered, “All of them, but they don’t know it.” Or Karajan when he was asked, “Who is the best living pianist in the world?”, and he answered, “Mauritio Pollini, but he doesn’t know it.”

And then my favourite quote. St Paul. Ephesians, 2:6: “He has raised us and has made us sit down in heavens in Christ Jesus.” We are already quietly sitting down in heaven with Christ Jesus. And we don’t know it. And we keep on asking, Where is Padre Damian Street? Laugh a little at least.

I must be looking quite amenable as many people stop me and ask me for directions when I walk the streets in Madrid. Then many people also ask me for directions in other kind of itineraries also. I must be looking quite approachable. Look up, please. Yes, on that plaque. Padre Damian Street. Thank you. Goodbye. Goodbye.

The flower and the smile

“There is a story about flowers that is quite well-known in Zen circles. One day the Buddha raised a flower before an audience of 1.250 monks and nuns. He kept silence for a long time. The audience remained in perfect silence. All appeared to be thinking intensely, trying to understand the meaning of Buddha’s gesture.

Suddenly, the Buddha smiled. He smiled because among the public there was one person who had smiled to him and to the flower. The name of that monk was Mahakashyapa. He was the only one to smile, and the Buddha answered him with another smile and said: ‘I possessed the treasure of a revelation, and I have handed it over to Mahakashyapa.’

That story has been discussed by generation after generation of Zen students, and people keep asking themselves about its meaning. Personally, I find the meaning of the anecdote quite simple. When someone holds a flower to you, they are trying for you to see it. If you start thinking, you miss the flower. The person who does not think, who is its own self, can find the flower in all its beauty and smile. This is the only real problem.”

(Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step, Plaza & Janés, Barcelona, 2000, p. 58)

Peace in the airport

A similar, though more modern experience of the monk who has told us the preceding one, Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Once, waiting for a plane that was two hours late at Kennedy Airport, New York, I sat down comfortably on the floor of the waiting room with my legs crossed. The airport was crowded, and all seats were occupied, so that I got ready to wait. I made a bundle out of my sweater, placed it as a pillow and started to meditate. At the beginning people were looking at me with curiosity, but they soon ignored me and left me in peace. I even noticed the atmosphere was more peaceful around me. Maybe you don’t need to meditate in such a striking was, but breathing deep in any posture helps put yourself together in any circumstances.”

(Ib. p. 29)

The parable of the lettuce

“If you sow a lettuce and it does not grow, you will not think of blaming it for that; instead, you will try to find the real causes why it does not grow well. You will think that it needs manure, more water or less sun. You will never blame the lettuce. Yet, as soon as we have problems with a friend or a relative, we quickly blame the other person. If we really knew how to deal with those persons they would grow well like good lettuces. Blaming is never positive. I know that by experience. If we understand, then we show that understanding and are able to love. This changes the whole situation.

Once, in Paris, I gave a lecture on not blaming the lettuce. After my talk, I went out by myself to walk and meditate. When turning a corner I met an eight-year old child who was telling her mother: ‘Mummy, please remember to water me. I am your lettuce!’ I felt very happy to see how that little child had understood me. And then I heard how her mother replied: ‘Yes, my child, and remember that I, too, am your lettuce. So, please, don’t you forget either.’ Mother and daughter were putting in practice my doctrine. Beautiful image!”

(Ib. p. 98)

Beyond bureaucracy

“Fifteen years ago I collaborated from France in a committee in favour of orphans of victims of the Viet Nam war. The Vietnamese social workers sent us reports that included a photo of the child, a little drawing made by them, and a brief sketch of their situation. My work consisted in translating the reports into French so that the children might find a sponsor to pay for their food and schooling, and so could be accepted into the home of some relative of theirs. The French committee sent the money contributed by the sponsor to a member of the child’s family so that they would look after them.

I translated and evaluated each case, about twenty per day. I did it in the following way. I carefully and intently looked at the photo and the drawing, and, after ten or fifteen minutes, I felt transformed into the child. I felt that the child was in me, and they were translating the report as they had become one with me. Only then did I take up the pen and translated the report. We translated together, the child and me. It was very simple. There is no need of much meditation to do that. You just observe and accept, and you get lost in the child and the child gets lost in you.”

(Ib. p. 121)

An immigrant’s letter
[The book 50 cartas a Dios contains fifty letters written poetically to God by professional writers, philosophers, artists, religious who were asked by the editor to do so. Only one of the fifty touched me, and that was the following one, written by an immigrant from somewhere in Latin America to Spain:]

“I’m writing to you, God, though I don’t believe much in you, but my mother does believe and it is on her account that I am writing to you this letter. I’m writing to ask you the following favour: Please, God, allow my mother to remain in ignorance. Please. Keep on permitting that my mother may not get the money or the papers to come to Spain to visit me. Keep on permitting that she may continue to believe my lies about my doing fine, my having a good time as I always wanted, and my being surrounded by good people and good things.

I am ashamed, God. It is ten years now, maybe more, since I left my country. I was the fearless adventurer who was going to conquer the world, who was going to get his family out of its poverty. And now… I am dependent on the benevolence of a state that refuses to accept me as its citizen. Look here, God, I don’t know why you have victimised me. But I accept it. I took wrong decisions, let myself be obfuscated by the glamour of Europe. OK. But she has done no wrong. She lost a son when I came to find fortune, and she dreams of her son being accepted and respected in the country he has conquered thanks to his intelligence and his drive.

My mother would die if she would see how thin I am and would guess the sicknesses that daily threaten me. So, please, God, do keep feeding her ignorance and maintain my capacity to lie to her when I call her on the phone, once a month, and I feel transformed, if only for a few minutes, into the winner she wants me to be. This, at least, you owe me.”

(50 cartas a Dios, PPC, Madrid, 2005, p. 154)

The football referee

“Lord, you are offside.”

(Adela Cortina, philosopher, in the book 50 letters to God, p. 56)

You tell me

Please, pray for me, for my son, for my mother…, for healing of a cancer, for success in an examination, for coming out of a depression, for choosing well in a profession…, please, pray for me.

Pray for me. Sometimes they ask only one person to pray for them. Sometimes they ask many. Sometimes even, the request is added to share the petition with other friends via Internet so that the number of petitioners increases. It would seem that the more people pray for an intention, the more efficacious is the prayer. Hence such requests. I receive them daily by Internet.

Suffering always demands utmost respect and has to be dealt with tenderly. And such petitions of prayers come always from suffering. But precisely because of that respect and that tenderness, our reaction has to be fully truthful and fully sincere. Faking would only increase suffering.

I do not believe and cannot believe that someone, having access to Internet and thereby being able to increase the number of petitioners for their cause, has an advantage before God over someone else who does not have such means to increase their field of action. I do not believe and cannot believe that the more people pray, the more efficacious the prayer becomes. I do not believe and cannot believe that, being myself sick and having had recourse to all medical means at my disposal, if then I ask God, I get cured, and if I don’t ask him, I’m not cured. I do not believe either that atheists, who do not pray, have poorer health or die oftener of cancer than believers who pray and ask God to keep us in good health and shelter us from terminal cancer. With all due respect. But then, respect for reality too.

Jesus did say repeatedly, “Ask and you shall receive”. But when his apostles asked him for fire to come down from heaven to destroy a village of Samaritans who had not received them, he did not do so. When John and James asked him to be seated one at his right and one at his left on his kingdom, he told them, “You don’t know what you are asking”, and he did not grant their petition. And when his disciples asked him to tell them when he was going to establish the Kingdom of Israel, he told them that was not their business and did not answer them. More intimate still, Jesus himself in Gethsemane asked his Father, “Let this chalice pass me by”, and, it is true that he duly added, “Let not my will but yours be done”, but this delicate touch in Jesus’ prayer did not in any way take away the petition for the chalice to pass him by. It did not pass him by. He had to drink it. “Every white bed in a hospital and every untimely tomb in a cemetery is a monument to an unanswered prayer”, wrote the devout biblical scholar William Barclay.

The meaning of the prayer of petition cannot be “to inform” God of our need, as he knows it, neither “to convince” him to help us, since he is our Father and is ever willing to help us. What, then, is the meaning of the prayer of petition? Prayer of petition re-establishes our contact with God, acknowledges that all that we have comes from him, states our confidence in him, proclaims our love for him and our faith in his love for us, and so it places our life in his hands. When we pray for others, our prayer, besides, unites us to them in our memory, our care, our love. And when we pray with others, this prayer in common unites us all in a common faith, a common desire, a common love. Prayer is love. Love for God to whom we pray, love for those we pray for, love for those we pray with. This is the essence of the prayer of petition.

The model prayer, for me, is that of the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, to Jesus when he was at the other side of the Jordan. “Lord, the one you love is sick.” I would only add, “You know that the one you love is sick.” You know it. And it is enough for us to know that you know it. Everything is there. He is your friend. You love him. And thence will come Jesus’ reaction, his crossing back the Jordan, his tears before the tomb of his friend, and one of the most beautiful pages in the gospel.

“Lord, I know you love me, and you know that tomorrow I’m appearing for an examination on which my future depends.” “Lord, you love me and you are seeing me now as I am in this laboratory waiting for a biopsy.” “Lord, the sad news has just come: that intimate friend of mine whom you also love has met with an accident and is serious.” You know it. It is enough for me to know that you know it.”

And Jesus will cross the Jordan again.

Psalm

Psalm 147 – Winter song

“The Lord sends his command to the ends of the earth,
and his word runs swiftly.
He showers down snow, white as wool,
and sprinkles hoar-frost thick as ashes;
crystals of ice he scatters like bread-crumbs;
he sends the cold, and the water stands frozen,
he utters his word, and the ice is melted;
he blows with his wind and the waters flow.”
The soft snow speaks silence on the winter scene. White grace from heaven to cover the earth. The recess of winter to slow down the race of life. And the promise of water on the frozen fields when the snow melts with the early warmth of spring. Thanks for the snow, Lord.

Your power is hidden Lord, in the gentle flakes that land softly over trees and land. No sound, no pressure, no violence… and yet everything yields to the invisible hand of the master painter. Figure of your action, Lord, gently and powerful over the heart of man and woman.

Your power is universal, Lord. Nothing escapes your influence on the whole wide earth. The whole landscape is white. You reach the high mountains and the low valleys; you cover the closed cities and the open fields. You touch the heart of the wise and the simple; you love the saint and the sinner. Your grace reaches all.

Your coming is unexpected, Lord. I wake up one morning, and see from my window the earth suddenly turned white during the unsuspecting night. You know the time and the hour, you rule the seasons and the tides. You bring down at the right time the cooling blessing of your grace on the passions of my heart. Stop the fire, Lord, before I burn.

Lord of the sun and the stars, Lord of rain and storm, Lord of snow and ice, Lord of nature which is your creation and my home: I rejoice when I see your action on earth, and I welcome with joy the material messengers that visit me from heaven as reminders of your love and assurance of your help.

Lord of the four seasons! I worship you in the temple of nature.

 

15th
I tell you

Apple or banana?

We were at the desserts. The Jesuit friend by my side took an apple, and contemplating it solemnly in his hand declared: “God has decreed from all eternity that I may eat this apple today as my dessert.” And taking his knife in his hand got ready to peal it. Yet, before touching the apple with his knife he suddenly held back, put the apple back in the fruit basket, took a banana from it and recited with the same solemnity: “It was not the apple; it was this banana God from all eternity had decreed I should eat today.” And he proceeded to peal it and eat it.

Another friend was in front of us at table, and, no doubt encouraged by the metaphysics of the moment, lifted the index finger of his right hand and said: “Count a minute from now. God knows whether a minute from now I am going to bend my finger or not. Let us wait.” A minute went by and he bent his finger. He commented: “I couldn’t help it. God knew from all eternity that at this moment I was going to bend my finger. I couldn’t fail him.”

We then together remembered how in our seminary days we were taught in our philosophy class how God knew from all time and before time whatever we were going to do, but that even so we were fully free to do it or not to do it when the moment came. This was duly explained and demonstrated in chaste Latin with Aristotelian syllogisms. It was the star question for a brilliant exam. With a first class at the end, of course, if one answered well… decreed by God from all eternity.

Years later I had the occasion to read in a book of my favourite theologian, C.S. Lewis, the following witty and wise statement: “There are theologians who think they can imagine how we are free in spite of God knowing from all eternity what we are going to do. I cannot.” He was more sincere. And he said it in plain English. And without syllogisms. The mystery of human existence is still a mystery. We worship God’s majesty and acknowledge human freedom, while we accept the mystery that links them.

“If you want to be happy and to be wise,
don’t analyse, my lad, don’t analyse.”
(Unamuno)

The same happens in many other metaphysical riddles. And in domestic riddles too. C.S. Lewis was a great theologian. And he was a layman. Maybe that explains the common sense that marks his works. I quote here a typical paragraph: “People say, ‘The Church ought to give us a lead.’ This is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if they mean it in the wrong way. By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practising Christians, and when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians – those who happen to have the right talents – should be economists and statesmen, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting ‘Do as you would be done by’ into action. If that happened, and if we others were really ready to take it, then we should find the Christian solution for our own social problems pretty quickly. But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever; and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists – not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.”

(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Harper-Collins, London, 1977, p. 76)

The integration of laypeople is the great secret for the renovation of the Church.

And eat your banana, please, if you fancy it over the apple. Without more ado.

The last record

Amelia Earhart was the woman pilot who won record after record overflying the oceans of the planet. Her skill as a flyer was equalled by her charm as a person. She had only a last feat to achieve: to fly round the earth as close to the equator as possible and with as few stops as possible. The problem was that identifying the landing sites from the air was very difficult with the means then available. But she trusted in her command of the plane and her instinct as a pilot which had served her well in greater trials.

This was going to be her last risk flight. Before leaving she had told the press: “There are a number of reasons that have led me to the decision to retire from long distance exhibition flights after this flight. I feel I have done all I should and could in this matter, I’m getting old and ready to give way to the new generation before I feel too weak, and I’ve promised my husband to do so. He has always supported me in my flights, but I know he’ll be relieved when I retire from risk programs as I’m going to do after my flight round the equator.”

The flight would run West to East. She started from San Francisco, refuelled in Miami, came down to Brazil, flew over the Atlantic, crossed Africa by stages, reached Arabia, India, Singapore, Australia, Borneo, and aimed at Howland Island in the Pacific from where she would fly to San Francisco to complete the circle. The island was very small, only 5 kilometres in length and 1 in width. A landing strip had been build on it for the purpose, as that was the only spot in which to refuel given the limitations imposed by the distance and the weight of the plane. She had to zero in on the exact coordinates of the island.

She never arrived. She couldn’t make out the tiny island in the vast ocean. Her last radio message was that she was combing from south to north and north to south the area where the island should be according to her calculations. She run short of fuel. Her plane fell down on some spot in the Pacific Ocean, and nothing was known of her. She was going to complete 40 years.

She wrote: “Courage is the price that life exacts from us if we want to live it to the full.”

And to her husband: “Please, be sure I am conscious of the risks. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try new things just as men do. And when they fail, their failure should be only a challenge for the others.”

(Amelia Earhart, Last Flight, Grandes viajeros, Barcelona, 2004, p. 211)

Getting lost

“After I had been absent for one year from the Zen Centre of Master Shunryu Suzuki at San Francisco, my family and me came back to San Francisco. When I met Master Suzuki again, I told him: ‘I believe this year I’ve been rather lost.’ Suzuki answered me: ‘Getting lost is impossible. Life is everywhere’.”

(David Chadwick, Moments With Shunryu Suzuki, Estaciones, Buenos Aires, 2002, p. 47)

In San Francisco. Precisely.

The soup

“During a formal meal in silence at the Zen Centre, a young lady who was serving at table stopped with the soup-tureen in her hands before Suzuki Roshi, served him two ladle-full and unexpectedly said aloud: ‘Suzuki Roshi, what do you feel when I am serving you the soup?’

The Mater answered: “It is as though at this moment you were serving me the soup’.”

(Ib. p. 81)

Sex

“A young woman loaded with pearls put up her hand and asked: ‘Suzuki Roshi, what is sex?’

‘Once you say “sex”, everything is sex’, answered the Master.

Sermon

“Ryokan devoted his life to the study of Zen. One day he heard that his nephew, despite the admonitions of relatives, was spending his money on a courtesan. Inasmuch as the nephew had taken Ryokan’s place in managing the family estate, and the property was in danger of being dissipated, the relatives asked Ryokan to do something about it.

Ryokan had to travel a long way to visit his nephew, whom he had not seen for many years. The nephew seemed pleased to meet his uncle again and invited him to remain overnight.

All night Ryokan sat in meditation. As he was departing in the morning he said to the young man: ‘I must be getting old, my hand shakes so. Will you help me tie the string of my straw sandal?’

The nephew helped him willingly. ‘Thank you’, finished Ryokan, ‘you see, a man becomes older and feebler day by day. Take good care of yourself.’ Then Ryokan left, never mentioning a word about the courtesan or the complaints of the relatives.

From that morning on, the dissipations of the nephew ended.”

(Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, London, 1976, p. 69)

Silence

“I once went showshoeing in Idaho, deep in a 350-square-mile wilderness area, traipsing up a mountain in five feet of snow. Elk foraged among the trees; I was alone and miles from the nearest road. Crunch, crunch, crunch, I trudged up the mountain. When I paused to catch my breath, after the blood stopped pounding in my head, I was greeted by the most profound silence I’d ever experienced.

Not a sound came from the snow-muffled landscape.

It was so quiet, the silence felt as though it actually had a sound – like a whoosing or ringing in my ears. In a state of wonder, I stood in silence for twenty minutes and then resumed hiking, creating sound, crunch, crunch, crunch. It was then I realised I was walking through a perfect metaphor: most of the time we carry our noise with us: our mind.”

(Arthur Jeon, City Dharma, Three Rivers Press, New Your, 2004, p. 93)

You tell me

Thank you, Lía, for this quotation from Kent Neuburn:

“We Indians know about silence. We are not afraid of it. In fact, for us silence is more powerful than words. Our elders were trained in the ways of silence, and they handed over this knowledge to us. Observe, listen, and than act, they would tell us. That was the manner of living.

With you it is just the opposite. You learn by talking. You reward the children that talk the most at school. In your parties you all try to talk at the same time. In your work you are always having meetings in which everybody interrupts everybody and all talk five, ten or a hundred times. And you call that ‘solving a problem’. When you are in a room and there is silence, you get nervous. You must fill the space with sounds. So you talk compulsorily, even before you know what you are going to say.

White people love to discuss. They don’t even allow the other person to finish a sentence. They always interrupt. For us Indians this looks like bad manners or even stupidity. If you start talking, I’m not going to interrupt you. I will listen. Maybe I’ll stoop listening if I don’t like what you are saying, but I won’t interrupt you.

When you finish speaking, I’ll make up my mind about what you said, but I will not tell you I don’t agree unless it is important. Otherwise I’ll just keep quiet and I’ll go away. You have told me all I need to know. There is no more to be said. But this is not enough for the majority of white people.

People should regard their words as seeds. They should sow them, and then allow them to grow in silence. Our elders taught us that the earth is always talking to us, but we should keep silence in order to hear her.

There are many voices besides ours. Many voices…”

Psalm

Psalm 1 – Prayer of a lucky person

“Happy is the one
whose delight is in the Law of the Lord.
He is like a tree
planted beside water channels;
it yields its fruit in season
and its foliage never fades.
So they prosper in all they do.”
I am lucky, Lord, and I know it. I am lucky I know you, I know your ways, I know your will, I know your Law. Things make sense to me because I know you, because I know there is a purpose behind this difficult world, a loving hand behind my life, a gentle touch in all I do and a constant presence within me day and night. I know my way, because I know you, and you are the Way. And when I think of it, I realise the happiness that is mine for knowing you and living with you.

There is so much confusion all around me, Lord, so much darkness and doubt and sheer bewilderment with life in people I know and in writings I read, that I myself suffer with that suffering and go blind in that darkness. People speak their aimlessness, their lack of purpose, of direction, of certainty, their sense of drifting from nowhere to nowhere, their emptiness, their shadows, their void. All that touches me, and I too feel it in myself, brother to my brother (and deep down sister to my sisters) and member of my race.

“The wicked are not like this;
they are like straws driven by the wind.”

Many people indeed are like straws driven by the wind,painfully hanging on the whims of the breeze, on the demands of a competitive world and the sudden storms of their own desires. Unable to steer their own course and define their own lives. That is the disease of modern men and women, and I learn from your Word that it was also the disease of ancient men and women when the first Psalm was written. And I also know your remedy for it, which is your word, your will, your Law. Faith in you gives direction and purpose and firmness and strength. Only you can steady the heart of man and woman, only you can enlighten their mind and direct their course. Only you can give stability in a changing world.

It is you who give me roots for strength and for life. You make me feel like “a tree planted by the side of a stream”. I feel the current of your grace running through my soul and my very body, keeping ever green my power to think and my power to love, and turning my desires to fruit when the season comes and the sun of your presence blesses the crops in the fields you yourself have sown.

I need security in an insecure world, Lord, and your law, which is your will and your love and your presence, is my security. I thank you Lord, as the tree thanks the water and the earth.

Meditation

The Angel of Paradise

“When he drove man and woman out, God stationed the cherubim and a sword whirling and flashing to guard the way to the tree of life.”
(Genesis 3:24)The first angels in the Bible are cherubim, and they guard the way to the tree of life. They watch the gate of the earthly paradise. They bring to a close the first chapter of the history of humankind on earth. They begin to illustrate with their figure and their gesture the situations of our lives, and to give us light with their presence.

I look at the cherubim with his whirling and flashing sword at the gate of paradise, and I thank him for being there. He is teaching me an important lesson: there are no earthly paradises in this world, there are no shortcuts in our way, and no easy solutions to our problems, no magical incantations to obtain happiness, and no handy recipes to ensure success. Life is difficult and climbing is hard, and we men and women have to strive and fight to go ahead and open a path and find meaning to our lives and endeavour to make it into reality. The easy experiment of giving us readymade happiness is over – and rightly so. Life has to be lived out, and prizes have to be won. It is not enough to stretch one’s hand and pluck the fruit. We have to plough and to plant and to water and to collect the crop over a hardened land and under an uncertain sky. Then the fruit tastes sweet and our conscience rejoices. Life has to be deserved. Knowledge does not come by biting an apple. Humankind does not become humankind in a garden. We need paths and deserts and valleys and mountains and struggles and battles and sickness and death. We have to live in order to win life over. This is the lesson the angel with his sword of flame at the gate of paradise is reminding me of.

He also reminds me that paradise has only been closed; it has not been destroyed. It is still there, not as a deceitful start but as a promising aim. The Promised Land does exist, and we are called to it to walk by the side of God in the evening of all things, to see him face to face, to dwell there in final eternity with new innocence together with the whole of redeemed creation. This is the symbol of the angel who keeps, who defends, who waits. He has closed the easy door to guarantee us the eternal gate when we shall meet God at the end of our way towards the tree of life with its fruits that last for ever.

Thank you, good Angel of Paradise, for closing for me the door of my deceitful dreams and opening the door of eternal hope where I will meet you and your fellow angels in the company of all those I love and of God who loves us all.

1st
I tell you

Lotus hands

I’ve just been in India for the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, where I taught mathematics for many years. The General of the Jesuits was there, and they sat me at his side for supper in the midst of bishops and archbishops. As he is a linguist, y told him about our adventures when translating the liturgical texts into Gujarati, and we had a good time. When, after the Council, Latin gave way to the vernaculars in the liturgy, I translated the Ordinary of the Mass with its prefaces and Eucharistic prayers, and it is for my one of my greatest life satisfactions that all the priests who celebrate the Eucharist in Gujarati use my translation, even if they don’t know it any more, and so I pray through them in a way. A great consolation. Where the Latin said, “He took bread in his holy and venerable hands”, I translated with an oriental flavour, “in his lotus hands”, and similar turns of language that sound so well.
The problem was that my translation had to be approved by Rome. There it was duly sent, but in the Vatican nobody knew Gujarati. The text was sent back to India to be translated back into Latin and sent again to Rome. It was re-translated, sent, approved, printed… lotus hands and all.
Then the near mishap when, in spite of all proof readers, precautions and censors, the saying “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was almost printed as “an eye for a tooth, and a tooth for an eye”.
As a writer I made bold to give some advice to the General. I suggested to him that when he leaves office on 2008 as he has announced, he could write his memoirs. That would be the first autobiography of a Jesuit General, sure to top the best-sellers’ list. He smiled mischievously.

By the way, I risked my life when I went to India, and so did the General, as the province of Gujarat was still under the effects of an epidemic of African origin, Chikungunya, under the sting of the Aedes aegypti mosquito with dire consequences. I was stinking with mosquito repellent, but when a large bouquet of flowers was offered me, a mosquito came out of it and flew straight for me in a gesture that looked like a secretly planned terrorist arrack. By my side stood a Jain professor who, in spite of his commitment to respect for life and non-violence, reacted instantly and smashed the offender between his hands, thus saving my life – while he earned hell for having killed a living being. Well, not so much I hope. I’ve arrived back safe and sound. Only my bag has not arrived. Vagaries of air travel. Maybe it is only to remind me of the Indian virtue of detachment.

Baroque

When we were small we asked our mothers at mid-afternoon, What do we have for a snack today? I’ve recently heard a mother ask her daughter, What do you want for your snack today? Maybe the whole generation gap lurks behind those two questions. What do we have? What do you want? They make us think. Before, we were given. Now, the choice is yours. There is no question of judging, let alone condemning any attitude. There is only question of reflecting. To choose one’s snack for oneself has some advantages. Independence, responsibility, choice. We were given everything readymade – from the snack we had to take to the degree we had to study for – and that did not make for a building up of a character. On the other hand, the role of the parents is now being weakened, and this causes confusion in the young. Two sides to a question.

A young girl has explained to me the opinion of her history professor to understand the new generation. According to the teacher, we are now going through a kind of a neo-Baroque period, that is, a taste for an excessive working up of sensorial impressions that fill up all the senses at once, saturate our capacity to process information and block consciousness. This provides a kind of fleeting satisfaction, which passes away soon due to its very intensity, confuses with its multiplicity, and leaves behind a vacuum with its volubility. Every mega-event, every macro-concert, every happening, every night party, every drug event is neo-Baroque.

I have faith in the human race, and I’m longing for history to run and to turn page fast.

Thank you, Carol. You’ve helped me.

The Crusades in reverse

Conversions to Islam today are frequent in several countries, but Muslims don’t call their new brethren ‘converts’ but ‘reverts’, as, according to them, we all are Muslims by nature, even if we don’t know it, and whoever ‘converts’ to Islam, ‘reverts’ in fact to their original calling. This terminology indicates how strong the conviction behind it is. Though, on the other hand, Tertullian also spoke of the anima naturaliter Christiana, that is, ‘the soul is by nature Christian’. Parallel claims.

That is the terminology used by Naima B. Robert, daughter of a Scottish father and a Zulu mother, and ‘reverted’ to Islam, in her book ‘From My Sisters’ Lips’. Her faith is touching: ‘My book is a celebration of Islam!’ ‘My face glows every time I’m asked what I am, and I answer, “I’m a Muslim!”’ ‘In Times Square I saw a Muslim bent down to pray in the midst of the whole New York hustle and bustle, and I felt proud all over myself.’ She describes life in the West in rather disparaging terms: ‘The women are dressed to kill. The alcohol is flowing and all the guys are showing off. When they meet, hugs and kisses are exchanged. Maybe one hug between friends last a little longer than usual – is it the softness of her hair or the aftershave he is wearing? One woman, sparking and witty, has the men eating out of her hand. The men are loving it. And so the evening goes on. What will happen at the end of the night? Will the “good friends” go home together? Or maybe nothing will happen, nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe it will be just a regular night out. Or maybe not.’ (p. 154)

There is nothing in it that may not be real, but denouncing it all from Islam seems to indicate that the only remedy for it would be for the misguided West to do what she did: to revert. It is good to realise the strength of Islamic proselytising, given its religious conviction and its redeeming mission towards a wayward West. The Crusades in reverse. A little late in history. A firm faith is the best defence against attacks. And there is an attack. With all my love to my Muslim friends.

Detachment

For many years I conducted courses of the Thirty-Day Ignatian Exercises for young priests. They all knew that one of the points to be stressed in the experience would be detachment of earthly possessions. Encumbrances on the way to God.

At the beginning of the month, a retreatant handed over to a trusted friend a good camera and told him: ‘Keep it for me for the month, and, whatever I may tell you during all these days, don’t give it back to me till the month is over. I might weaken and give it away and later I would repent. I trust in you.’ When the month was over, he flew to his friend and asked for his camera. The friend handed it back to him and smiled thinking it was now safe. But the owner of the camera gave it back to him and said: ‘Now keep it for good or give it to whomever you want. I have decided to do without it.’ He had made a good Retreat.

Hospitality

I knocked on the priest’s door. I heard heavy steps in the yard. The door opened. Standing in front of me was an old man with a snow-white beard and long hair flowing down over his shoulders. Without asking me who I was or what I wanted, he extended his hand.

– Welcome. Are you a stranger? Come in.

I heard voices as I entered. Doors opened and closed, and several women slipped hastily into the adjoining room and vanished. The priest had me sit down on the couch.

– My wife is a little indisposed: you’ll have to excuse her. But I myself will cook for you, lay the table for your supper, and prepare a bed so that you can sleep.

His voice was heavy and afflicted. I looked at him. He was extremely pale, and his eyes were swollen and inflamed, as though from weeping. But no thought of a misfortune occurred to me. I ate, slept, and in the morning the priest came and brought me a tray of bread, cheese, and milk. I held out my hand, thanked him, and said goodbye.

– God bless you, my son. Christ be with you.

I left. At the edge of the village an old man appeared. Placing his hand over his breast, he greeted me.

– Where did you spend the night, son?
– At the priest’s house.
– Ah, the poor fellow. And you didn’t catch wind of anything?
– What was there to catch wind of?
– His son died yesterday morning. His only son. Didn’t you hear the women lamenting?
– I heard nothing. Nothing.
– They had him in the inner room. They must have muffled their laments to keep you from hearing and being disturbed. Have a pleasant journey!

My eyes had filled with tears. The old man added:

– What are you crying for? Oh, I see: you’re young, you haven’t got used to death yet. Pleasant journey!

(Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco, Faber and Faber, London 1073, p. 312)

The cherry blossoms

‘T. was a cancer patient who came to see me in Japan a few days before she was admitted to hospital for surgery. She wanted to prepare herself. We had fixed four o’clock in the afternoon for our meeting. Half an hour went by and she had not appeared. I was surprised because I knew she was a stickler for punctuality, was an efficient manager and a thoroughly dependable worker. When she finally turned up three quarters of an hour late she apologised and offered an explanation.

When coming out of the station, just at five to four, she crossed the park before the entrance to the university. She was struck by the cherry trees in full bloom. She sat down on a bench and was lost in their contemplation. When she came to herself it was more than half an hour late. She was shocked, but not at the cherry trees; she was shocked at herself. She told me:

“I’ve been crossing this park for twenty years on the way to my office. Till today I had never stopped.” She had had for twenty years a job in which, in spite of being a woman and a Japanese, she ruled over many men. She was efficient, quick, creative. Her agenda covered foreign air trips several times a month, she organised international conferences and uncountable business meetings. “But never once have I stopped – she said – to enjoy this park. How can I be a Japanese?”

That afternoon, on the eve of her been admitted to hospital, seeing life ebb away, she suddenly discovered that, while she seemed to be putting her life to good use, she was actually throwing it away. “Where was I going in such a hurry?” she mused.
(Juan Masiá, El Otro Oriente, Sal Terrae 2006, p. 52)

How to keep quiet in Japanese

‘The biggest scolding I got from my Japanese teacher was when I showed him a perfectly correct five-line sentence I had composed as a class exercise and recited it for him in one breath. Instead of congratulating me, he shook his head reproachfully. “Isn’t it correct?” I asked impatiently. “Yes, it is correct”, he answered, “but no Japanese would speak that way. Your sentence is grammatically faultless, in fact too perfect, but also too long and without pauses for breathing. You don’t breathe and you don’t leave the other person breathe. You Spaniards learn Japanese quickly, but then your talking speed defeats you. After having learned to speak Japanese you have to learn how to keep quiet in Japanese. You must leave gaps for breathing.’

At that moment I did not understand the connexion between language and breathing. Little by little I came to realise it. “If you want to understand the Japanese culture, you must first learn how to breathe”, a spiritual master told me. And, beyond that, the connexion between breathing and life.’
(Ib. p. 67)

Zen saying

I breathe, therefore I exist.

You tell me

I translate what a friend tells me:

“I was one day sitting in the open spaces of a mall without buying anything, just enjoying the air conditioning in a sultry day and reading the newspaper. I heard someone singing, but I didn’t pay attention. The melody came closer and closer, and I looked up. It was a strong, tall, handsome man. He was wielding a long, white cane. He was blind.

He was not singing to announce his coming or to make way for himself. His song was gentle, melodious, rhythmical, personal. It was plane he was just enjoying himself as he sung. He was in a good mood, and his song was his way to share his joy with the surroundings in the supermarket. I felt joyful with him.”

Psalm

Psalm 2 – I am your son

These are the words I most like to hear from your lips, Lord: ‘You are my son.’ It takes faith to proclaim them before my own misery and before a sceptical crowd, but I know they are true, and they are the root of my life and the core of my being. Daily I call you Father, and I call you Father because you have called me son. That is the dearest secret of my life, my most intimate joy and my deepest claim to happiness. The initiative of your love, the thrill of creation, the intimacy of fatherhood. The loving accent with which I hear you say the words, at once sacred and tender, ‘You are my son.’

And I love just as much your next word: ‘Today.’ ‘You are my son; today I have become your Father.’ I know that for you every moment is today, and every instant is eternity. That is the fullness of your being, the timelessness of your eternal present. And I want to reflect in my fragmented existence the never fading freshness of your permanent ‘now’. I want to feel that I am your son today, that you are giving me life at every instant, that with you every moment is new and every instant alive, that life begins anew whenever I think of you again, because at that moment you again become my Father.

Keep breathing into me, Father, the newness of the birth you give me day by day, that I may never get tired of living, may never get bored with life, may never get stuck in the dullness of earthly existence. That is a recurring temptation with me, and, I sadly guess, with many people around me too. Life is so repetitive, so monotonous, so grey, that each day looks similar to the previous one, all run to the same timetable, and the routine of a necessary job takes away the joy of living from a day which consists only in getting ready for the office, going there, slogging or idling at my desk, getting back home and wearily waiting the time out to go there again the next day. Even my prayers look alike, and, forgive me, but even my encounters with you in contemplation and sacrament are marred on my side by the shadow of previous ones and the formalism of repeated procedures. Teach me your ‘today’ to make every moment of my life come alive again.

Since you are my Father, you give me ‘the ends of the earth’ for my inheritance. I now know that all is mine because all is yours and you are my Father. Make me feel at home in every situation and in every circumstance, because you are its Master and I am your son. Make me enjoy the earth, explore its riches and brave its dangers. Make me feel stranger to no one and out of place nowhere. Make me ‘rule’ the earth, not in power and might, but in the joy of life and peace of heart that come from your presence and attract all your children and make for friendship and nearness and trust among men and women. Make me rule by serving others and loving all in your name. That is how I want to embrace the ends of the earth that you give me for my own.

Yes, I hear the cries and the protests and the turmoil. ‘The kings of the earth stand ready, and the rulers conspire together.’ People will not keep quiet when someone declares himself a son of God. There is the irony, the scorn, the veiled contempt and the open threats. There is a strange resentment all around when someone finds peace and proclaims joy. The hostile world against the free spirit, the group against the person, the storm against the flower. They vow destruction and plot my ruin. Shall I withstand the onslaught?

But then I hear another voice: your very own. Voice of thunder and power over the tides and fields. Voice which for me is strength and reassurance because it carries the heavy tone of your seriousness and your anger against the thoughtless mortal who dares to touch him on whom you have set your hand. I hear your laughter peal through the heavens, and your blessing riding on it. “The Lord in heaven laughs…”.I am safe in your protection, and happy in your keeping. Let the world rage. I am your son. I live now in Zion, your ‘holy mountain’, and the clouds and the storms cannot shake it and cannot shake me. I keep proclaiming your words, and I keep cherishing your sonship. I stand in the shadow of your hands.

‘Happy are all who find refuge in him.’

Meditation

The Angel and the Promise

‘The angel of the Lord came upon Hagar by a spring in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur, and he said, “Hagar, Sarai’s slave-girl, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:7-8)Hagar is running away from the harassment of Sarai, Abraham’s wife. Sarai ill-treats her because Hagar has conceived a child for Abraham, while she is barren. And Hagar runs away, with her child in her womb, over the merciless desert.

God at times tries us to the end, till we think we cannot hold any longer, till we run away through the desert of life without hope of survival for ourselves and for those we love.

The angel waits, and the angel comes. He has always watched us and he appears when our anguish reaches its limit. He asks us the question that prompts us to look again inside ourselves, to examine our life, to shake our conscience, to lift our eyes to the horizon, and to define our own being. ‘Where are you coming from and where are you going?’ The question for the lost wanderer, for every human being in the pathless desert that human life is. Where are you coming from and where are you going? The question of the sages, the mystics, the penitents, the seekers of truth. The question of faith, of doubt, of hope, of life. Where am I coming from and where am I going?

Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl of the Father of all Believers, answers that she is running away from Sarai. She doesn’t know where she is going. The angel points the way and gives her strength to follow it. She goes back to Abraham’s house and gives birth to Ishmael. The rivalry between the two women goes on, and Abraham sends Hagar away with her child and a loaf of bread and a water-skin. The trial continues.

‘She wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was finished, she thrust the child under a bush, then went and sat down some way off, about a bowshot distant. “How can I watch the child die?” she said, and sat there, weeping bitterly.’

As the trial repeats itself, the angel comes again. When we reach the end of our tether, God comes. When it is plain that it is not our own strength that saves us, when we confess our impotence and acknowledge our helplessness, the way for the angel is paved and the power of God appears. And the angel came again.

‘God heard the child crying, and the angel of God called from heaven to Hagar, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid: God has heard the child crying where you laid him. Go, lift the child and hold him in your arms, because I shall make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well full of water; she went to it, filled the water-skin, and gave the child a drink.’The angel of hope, of direction, of strength. He sends away all fears with his greeting, ‘Do not fear’. He opens up her eyes to see the well. And he pronounces the promise that will make the child into a great nation. Hagar has suffered, but she can now rest. She now knows where she is coming from and where she is going. The Egyptian slave-girl will now be the mother of a great people.

My humble life also has a meaning. The angel has promised.

 

15th
I tell you

The receptionist

The waiting room at the ENT specialist. I’m waiting my turn for a hearing test. Meanwhile I hear all that is being said at the front desk.

– I have an appointment with Dr F.
– Throat?
– Yes.
– That’s not here.
– Is this not his clinic?
– This is the clinic, but the door to Dr F.’s is in another place.
– Where?
– Just go out again. Right on to the street. Turn left. Go down the ramp. Then left again. First door is your door.
– The ramp on the left?
– Yes. And then again left?
– Yes.
– Thank you.
– You’re welcome.

A smile, and next patient.

Patients keep coming for the several doctors on the premises. Some sit down in the same waiting room where I am. ENT. But more throat patients also come, and the receptionist gives the same instructions to all.

– Go out again. Right on to the street. Turn left. Go down the ramp. Then left again. First door.
– Thank you.

Another throat patient. “Go out. On to the street again. The ramp…” I don’t know how many times the girl at the desk has said it. Always with the same calm, the same tone, the same smile. “Go out. The ramp on the left”. And again.

My name is called and I vanish into the hearing test. The usual verdict. “You are fine…, for your age.” That is 82. “Thank your, doctor.” I come out and listen for a moment. Again the same words from the receptionist. “Go out. The ramp on your left. The first door…”. I wait for a moment and, in a pause between clients I approach the girl at the desk and ask her with mischief in my eyes: “Dr F.?” – “Just go out again. Right on to the street…” I laugh and interrupt her: “Sorry, I was joking. I’m not looking for Dr F. It’s only that I’ve heard you give those directions a dozen of times and I want to congratulate you for saying it always with the same kindness and the same smile as though you were saying it for the first time. Congratulations!” She looks at me and laughs. “Well, it is my job.” – “But you liven it up.” Her companion next desk has heard everything and comments: “Quite a compliment!” We all three laugh.

I come out. I turn left. Right enough, there is a ramp and a door. Dr F. I’m glad to have livened up the morning for the receptionist. I was going to tell her to put up a notice for all the throat patients. But better leave it. A smile from the girl at the desk is better.

What are you deep down?

I’ve been working for a year now on the question of the identity crisis for the second-generation immigrant. I began almost in jest with some of my old students from India who emigrated to America, and I’m finding out that the nucleus of the problem that threatens the world is precisely there. The first-generation emigrant arrives at their new country straight from their native country, know clearly their identity in which they have been born, and work hard to establish themselves in their new country. The second-generation immigrant is born in one country from parents from another country. That may cause confusion. The third-generation immigrant, if all goes well, will be born there from parents born there, and will readily identify with the country to which their grandparents arrived. The danger is in the process and in the adaptation. Second generation. The bombs in the London underground were placed by people born in London. Personality crash. Identity crisis. Who am I?

Amin Maalouf, Lebanese and French, Arab-speaking Catholic, explains the conflict:

‘Ever since I left Lebanon in 1976 to settle in France, I’ve been asked many times, with the best intention in the world, whether I feel I am “more French” or “more Lebanese.” My answer is always the same: “Both!” Occasionally, when I have finished explaining in full detail the reasons why I fully claim to be all that I am, someone comes close to tell me in a low voice with a hand on my shoulder: “It’s true what you say, but what do you feel deep down?” This reveals a vision of people that is very common and very dangerous. When they ask me what am I “deep down”, that are supposing that “deep down” in every person there is only an allegiance that matters, their “deep truth” in a way, their “essence”, which is for ever determined since birth and which never will be modified. […] A young person born in France to Argelian parents carries in themselves two evident allegiances, and they should be allowed to assume both.’

(Amin Maalouf, Lés identités meurtrières, p. 10)

Society is jealous. It attacks those who enrich themselves –in money or in culture. Whoever has only one facet to their personality does not accept that others may have two or many. And they attack the immigrant. Who are you deep down? Instead of fostering diversity, they impose uniformity. Instead of favouring integration they foster separation. And then come the bombs.

The solution of the conflict that threatens the world consists in accepting, enjoying, respecting, fostering the multiple identities we all have with reverence, with gratitude, with joy. I was for many years an ‘immigrant’ in India, and that changed my life. Emigration, that can ruin our live, can also save it.

The colour of the skin

“Our parents instructed us, their four children, to say simply ‘We are Mexicans’ when we were asked about our country of origin, which was often. They made fun of those Mexican-Americans who had a fairer skin and passed themselves as Spaniards. My parents would have never denied their origin. I never denied it either, and I mechanically introduced myself as Mexican to all strangers.

My elder sister never spoke to me about the colour of her skin when she was a child. But I understood that her dark skin was a burden for her. She had suffered because she was ‘black’. When she came back home, while still at primary school, white children would run after her, push her and trip her. In secondary school she had to compete against the other girls for the attention of the boys, and her dark skin was a handicap. In the university she felt frightened and threatened when dark-skinned students form Turkey or India found her attractive. She only spoke to me of her dark-skin complex when she was married, and one day calmly told me her relief at the fact that her three children had fair skin.

This is the type of commentary women in my family would often make. When I was small, I often played in the kitchen and I remember hearing my aunties speak about their joy at having fair children. It was one of their favourite topics of conversation: the fear to have dark-skinned children. One of my aunties prescribed the remedy: large doses of castor oil during the last weeks of pregnancy. Infants born with a dark skin would be treated with a facial mixture of white of egg and concentrated lemon juice. In my case, the remedy did not work.

There was even a kind of black humour in this matter. One of my uncles called her wife ‘black’, but he did it with a loving smile and great tenderness. One of my aunties called her darkest child ‘my ugly one’ with the same love while she caressed and kissed him. And then they all at times spoke of white skinned people in a derogatory way, saying that the ‘gringos’ had a ‘dough’ face and should bask a little in the sun in order not to look like dead people.

In my own experience I felt shame and inferiority because of my dark skin. I grew up convinced that I was ugly. One night, when I must have been eleven or twelve, I locked myself in the bathing room and looked at my reflection in the mirror. I opened the tap, soaked my arms, soaped them, took my father’s razor and slowly, deliberately, firmly, placed the blade on my skin, pressed down as much as I could without cutting myself and waved it up and down my skin to see if I somehow could diminish the darkness of my skin. All that I got, of course, was that I shaved the hairs on my arms. That way I found out that the darkness would not disappear. It was there, firmly embedded in the cells of my own skin.

During my adolescence I felt like a marked man. I was obsessed by the colour of my skin. I must have been twelve or fourteen when in drawing class we were asked to draw our self-portrait. I just could not bring myself to colour my face as it was in reality. I identified myself in group photos at once by the colour of my skin. I was ashamed of my body. I wanted to forget I had a body because my body was black. I even felt grateful to my classmates for not mentioning it to me.”

(Ricardo Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, Megazul, Madrid 1994, p. 132, 142)

A matter of algebra

When Winston Churchill paid his first official visit as Prime Minister to the United States, a newspaper correspondent brought out the point that his maternal grandmother had been an American, and so Churchill himself was, the correspondent said, “25 per cent American”. Churchill answered instantly with his ready wit and unfailing repartee: “Yes, sir. I’m 25 per cent American…, and 100 per cent British!” And never mind the algebra.

I am many people

The actor Orson Welles, during an American tour, was giving solo performances in which he recited passages from Shakespeare for a full session. To one of those sessions only five people came. The actor came on the stage, took a good look at them and said: “Allow me to introduce myself. I am an actor, writer, cinema director, stage director, architect, painter, an excellent cook, an expert in the corrida, magician, connoisseur, enfant terrible, and an authority on art. How is it that there are so many of us and so few of you?” Having said that, he bowed to the audience and withdrew. He had personalities to spare!

I am a crowd

‘‘War in My Blood’ is the expressive title of Salvador de Madariaga’s best novel. Its hero, Rodrigo Manrique, is the son of a Spanish grandee and a native woman from a priestly family in the Mexico of Hernan Cortes. He is baptised a Catholic and brought up as a Spanish nobleman, but his Mexican blood surges in him, and he secretly returns to the Aztec cult and his priestly calling, and even performs human sacrifices. His Spanish ancestry also included Arab and Jewish blood, and when his father apprises him of that fact, he bursts into bewildered anger: “What am I then? Even an Arab? Even a Jew? So many people in my body? So many races in my blood? Aztecs, Spaniards, Goths, Jews, and Arabs. And does your honour still expect me to be in my senses and to behave myself? Who is going to rule so many people as your honour has put inside me? Shall I worship God or Allah or Yahweh or Uitzilopochtli? I just don’t know. I’m a crowd!”

We all are.
We all are a crowd.
Each one of us is many people at once.
Happily so.

If we understand it.

You tell me

Someone has asked me whether I can give her sacramental absolution via Internet. I’ve answered, with a touch of humour, “Not yet.” Who knows whether it’ll come some day? Virtual presence can at times feel very real, while real presence also fades at times. We keep evolving. But let’s not get ahead of our times.

Psalm

Psalm 3 – Daily prayer

‘I lie down and sleep…, and I wake up again.’That is my day, Lord, that is my life. The rhythm of my body in tune with the rhythm of your creation, with the stars at night, and with the splendour of your light during the day. I am yours when I work, and yours when I sleep: yours when I stand erect in the posture that makes me a human, ready to go and to move and to fight and to look up to heaven, and yours when I lie down in the weariness of my body and the confidence of my soul close to the earth you have created to hold me in my life and to cradle me in my death, giving shelter to my body as you receive my soul.

Teach me, Lord, the rhythms of your creation, the friendliness with nature, the intimacy with the earth that holds my step and with the air that fills my lungs. Teach me the wisdom of the seasons, the movements of the stars, the ultimate lesson you always teach me and I always miss, that in nature as in grace there is rise and fall, there is day and night, there is high tide and low tide, there is joy and there is despondency, there is enthusiasm and there is doubt, there is darkness and there is light.

It takes courage to stand up, and it takes courage to lie down. And, more than that, it takes courage to accept that the whole of life is a succession of getting up and lying down, that the trajectory of living is a wavy line, that I must be ready for the ups and for the downs as they come my way and I go through them with the sun and the moon and the heavens and the winds. Let me breathe at one with your creation, to fill my body with its life.

‘May your blessing rest upon your people.’

Meditation

The Angel of the last minute

‘Then the angel of Yahweh called from heaven saying, “Abraham! Abraham!”
(Genesis 22:11)This is the angel that stays our hand. Blessed angel. The angel that stops us in time, that saves us from doing irreparable harm, that opens up our eyes, that interprets for us the real meaning of what we thought God wanted of us. The angel that stayed Abraham’s knife and saved Isaac. The angel that intervenes so that we may not harm those we love most and, for obscure reasons unknown to ourselves, sometimes threaten most. The voice of the angel on Mount Moriah before the wood for the holocaust and the altar of sacrifice. ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And all ends well.

I call him ‘the angel of the last minute’. And I badly need him in my life. However much I may think and discern and believe that I know everything about it and say that it is God’s will for me… it is possible that it is not and that I may be ready to blunder and to lift a knife over somebody – with the best will in the world as did Abraham – and hurt someone with a word, a gesture, an action of which I would immediately repent as I would see the blood. Then the angel saves me, calls me by my name, has to repeat it twice because my strain makes me deaf, wakes me up, opens my eyes, makes me see the meanness and wickedness of the action I was about to perform, and makes me keep quiet when I was going to speak, makes me smile when I was going to sulk, makes me stretch out my hand when I was going to close my fist. I was about to suffer even more than the person whom I was going to make suffer. (Wouldn’t this have happened to Abraham?) And the angel saves both of us. Blessed angel.

I want to seek friendship and closeness with my angel of the last minute so that no harmful behaviour may escape me through negligence or thoughtlessness. I want to be in contact with him to recognise his presence, feel his hand, welcome his intervention. The hand of the angel stays the madness of humankind. Blessed angel.

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