The texts of Carlos G. Vallés
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Year 2007
15th
I tell you

Baptism

Last December, in full Christmas season, I baptised Carmela, granddaughter of a cousin of mine. For Scripture reading I took the passage of Jesus’ Nativity, and this is what I said after the reading:

I have chosen the Nativity Gospel because the best way to celebrate Christmas is a baptism. Christmas is a birth, and every birth brings joy to a family and life upon earth. These days there have been two deaths in our families. My brother died, and Carmela’s father’s grandfather died. In fact my cousin, Teresa, delicately asked me whether we should postpone the baptism, but she herself answered the question as she said: “Life renews itself.” In that spirit we welcome the newborn girl in our midst.

What is the meaning of baptism? We are in a very interesting theological moment to answer that question. I’m fascinated by theology and like to follow its advances in our days. Traditionally we are born under Adam’s “original sin” which prevents us from going to heaven, and baptism applies to us Christ’s merits on our behalf and opens up the gates of heaven again for us. That’s why children who died without baptism could not enter heaven, and were placed in limbo, a kind of natural happiness but without the vision of God. A kindergarten for eternity.

But something quite interesting is happening now. A couple of years ago, Pope John Paul II addressed himself to mothers who had aborted and told them: “Your fault is great, but your children are in heaven and they will intercede for you before God to obtain his pardon for you.” That set theologians scurrying for their notes. The Pope had said that children who had been victims of abortion were in heaven. But foetuses are not baptised. So that non-baptised children were in heaven. The Pope had said it. Nobody could tell whether it was a slip of the tongue or he said it on purpose to sound theologians, but it had been said. That led to the questioning of limbo, which had always been a little uncomfortable notion. The Pope himself named later a commission to examine the question. The commission has recently submitted its report, and the Pope will declare his decision along this year.

Limbo is expected to disappear. But our question stands. If baptism is not necessary to go to heaven, given that non-baptised children can go to heaven, what is its meaning? Baptism is the rite and sacrament for living people to belong to the church. To belong, to form part, to make up a body. Baptism seals us as members of the Body of Christ, and makes us share his life. And, as we are going to continue on this earth and forming part of a family and a society, it gives us a sign that marks us and defines us publicly before the others for ever. That sign is the name we are given at baptism. The name of a saint that identifies us for life as members of Jesus’ family.

The name had and has a greater importance in other peoples than among us today. The name represents the person and establishes its links to others. When I visited a factory in Nairobi and I congratulated a native worker for his skill and asked him for his name, I was pulled back by my friends who rebuked me. To posses the real name of a person gives power over it, and so it is given only to friends. In traditional India the husband can pronounce his wife’s name, but she cannot pronounce his. The name gives power over the person, and a macho society will not give that power to the wife while it gives it to the husband. We regret the injustice, but we recognise the power of the name. When God created the animals in Genesis, he told Adam to name them one by one, so that by giving them their names he would acquire power over them.

If I ask you what the name of Napoleon’s wife was, you’ll say Josephine. It was not Josephine. It was Rose. But Napoleon, on marrying her, ordered: “If you change your master, you change your name. You’ll be Josephine.”

The name defines the person. And you have chosen a very significant name for your child. Carmela. It links her to her family where both her grandfather and her uncle wear the name; to the Bible and the prophet Elijah in his fight on Mount Carmel with the 450 false prophets of Baal; and to the best of Spanish mystics in St Teresa of Jesus and St John of the Cross of the Carmelo reformation. We welcome a Carmelite in our family. Come, let’s baptise Carmela.

Courtesy

I am sitting in a travel agency to get an air ticket. Place, date, flight, timetable. The agent’s phone rings and he takes it. I hear him say: ‘Yes, I understand, I see it is urgent, but I’m with a client and I don’t want to interrupt him. Excuse me. I’ll ring you back in a few minutes.’ He signs off and hangs up.

I tell him: ‘Thank you.’ He is surprised: ‘What do you thank me for?’ I explain: ‘Because quite a few times, while I’m doing business with an employee at a desk and they receive a phone call, they take it, follow it, keep me waiting, finish business at the phone, come back to me, and I am left with the feeling of being unfairly treated, as I’m here in person while someone who just calls from the comfort of their home is given preference over me. Just jumping the queue. I’ve thanked you for giving me preference over the telephone.’

He smiles. Then adds: ‘I always do that, but nobody has ever thanked me for that.’ And goes on with the timetables.

The waiting does not matter. What matter is the recognition of a work well done. That employee had treated me well. I felt happy. He did too. Thank you. Why? Character certificate.

Zest for life

‘From the moment I met Frida [Kalho] I was fascinated because she had a gift to charm people. She was unique. She had enormous joy, humour and zest for life. She had invented her own language, her own way of speaking Spanish, full of vitality and accompanied by gestures, mimicry, laughter, jokes and a great sense of irony. She was a walking flower. She appeared that first day in class at La Esmeralda full of joy, kindness, charm. “Well, kids, they tell me I’m your teacher, but I’m nothing of the kind. I’m learning. I’ll tell you what I think of your drawings, and you’ll tell me what you think of mine. We’ll talk a lot.” Then she placed a chair before us. We understood we were to draw it. And there she was before us gravely, astonishingly quiet, keeping a silence so deep and so impressive that no one, none of us, dared to interrupt. She influenced us more by what she was than by how she painted, by her ability to see art in everything. She showed us the beauty of Mexico in a way we had never suspected before. She didn’t communicate all of this verbally, but spontaneously and livingly. We didn’t paint for her, we painted for ourselves. She burst into joy before any beautiful thing.’

And then Frida’s other side, her continuous physical suffering since the accident that smashed her spine as a child, carried her from operating theatre to operating theatre, kept her prisoner in one plaster corset after another (28 in her whole life) with untold pain. For three months she was almost continuously hanging from the ceiling and barely touching the floor, and once the plaster in the corset hardened before time so that she was almost chocked and had to be liberated in an emergency… only to laugh away when she was liberated. Then she drew the corset in a painting.

‘Every day I am worse. In the beginning it was hard for me to get accustomed to the corset since it is a hell of a thing to put up with this type of apparatus but you cannot imagine how badly I felt before putting it on. I could no longer really work because no matter how insignificant they were, all movements exhausted me. I cannot find anything to improve the condition of my spine. The doctors tell me that my meninges are inflamed, but I can’t understand what’s going on, because if the reason is that the spine should be immobilised to avoid irritation of the nerves, how is it that with all this corset I again feel the same pains? Tell me, please, whether this has any remedy or whether The Grim Reaper is going to come for me any day.’

The picture with her corset is exhibited in the Coyoacán Museum.

(Hayden Herrera, Frida, Blomsbury Publishing, London 1989, p. 329, 345)

Two brothers, one sister

‘One night my mom came into our room, just as we were getting ready for bed. Micah and I [Nicholas writes] had been in another fight earlier in the day, this time because I’d accidentally knocked his bike over. My mom hadn’t said anything about it over dinner, and I supposed she’d just chosen to ignore it this time. She helped us with our prayers as she always did, then as she turned the lights out, she sat beside Micah as he was crawling under the covers. I heard them whispering for what seemed like a long time and wondered what was going on. Then, surprising me, she came and sat beside me.

Leaning close, she ran her hand through my hair and smiled gently. Then she whispered: “Tell me three nice things that your sister Dana did for you today. Anything. It can be big or little.”

I was surprised by her question, but the answers came easily, “She played games with me, she let me watch my show on television, and she helped me clean up my toys.”

Mom smiled. “Now tell me three nice things that Micah did for you today.”
This, I had to admit, was a little harder.
“He didn’t do anything nice for me today.”
“Think about it. It can be anything.”
“He was mean all day.”
“Didn’t he walk with you to school?”
“Yes.”
“So there’s one. Now think of two more.”
“He didn’t punch me too hard when I knocked over his bike.”
She wasn’t sure to take that one, but finally nodded. “There’s two.”
“And…”
I was stumped. There was nothing, absolutely nothing else to say. It took a long time for me to come up with something – and I have no idea what I eventually came up with. I think I resorted to making up something, but my mom accepted it and kissed me good night before moving to my sister’s bed. It took my sister no more than ten seconds to answer the same questions, and then my mom crept from the room.

In the darkness, I was rolling over and closing my eyes when I heard Micah’s voice:
“Nicky?”
“What?”
“I’m sorry about punching you today.”
“It’s okay. And I’m sorry about knocking over your bike.”
For a moment there was silence, until Dana chimed in, “Now, don’t you both feel better?”

Night after night, my mom had us name three nice things our siblings had done for us, and each night we were somehow able to come up with something. And we fought less.’

(Nicholas and Micah Sparks, Three Weeks With My Brother, Time Warner Books 2005, London, p. 70)

‘Toward the end of my senior year, I remember hearing my sister crying in her bedroom. After knocking, I went in and found her sitting on the bed, her face in her hands.
“What’s wrong, Dana?” I asked, taking a seat beside her.
“Everything.”
“Now tell me. What happened?”
“I hate my life”, she said.
“Why?”
“Because I’m not like you or Micah.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You guys – both of you – you have everything. You’re good at everything. You have good friends, you’re good in sports, you get good grades. You’re popular and both have girlfriends. Everyone knows who you guys are, and they wish they could be more like you. I’m not like you two in any way. It’s like I came from different parents.”
“You’ve always been better. You’re the sweetest person I’ve ever met.”
“So what? No one cares about that.”
I took her hand.
“What’s really bothering you?”

She didn’t want to answer. In the silence I looked around the room; like most teenage girls, she had various magazine pictures lining the walls. A Bible sat on her end table next to a rosary, and above her bed was a crucifix. It took a long time for her to get the words out.
“Holly got asked to the junior prom.”
Holly was my sister’s best friend: they’d been inseparable for years.
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
When she didn’t answer, my heart sank as I suddenly realised why she was so upset.
“But you’re upset because no one asked you.”
She began to cry again and I slipped my arm around her. “You’ll get asked”, I said soothingly. “You’re a great girl. You’re beautiful and kind, and anyone who doesn’t ask you is too dumb to realise what they’re missing.”
“You don’t understand. You and Micah… well, all the girls think you’re both cute. They always tell me how lucky I am that you’re my brothers. But it’s hard… I mean, no one ever says that I’m pretty.”
“You are pretty.”
“No, I’m not. I’m average. And when I look in the mirror, I know that.”

She continued to cry, and refused to say anything more. When I finally left the room, I realised for the first time that my sister struggled with the same insecurities everyone had. She had simply been hiding them all along. But as I walked away, I was certain that she’d get asked; I’d meant what I said to her.

But as the days rolled on, and no boy rode up on a horse to be her knight in shining armour, I could see the pain in her disappointed, wounded expression. It killed me to think that no one seemed to realise how special she was, how much love she could offer to anyone who simply asked. I adored my sister, and I felt the need to protect her.

So one evening, about a week before the prom, I went into my sister’s room. If her friends thought I was handsome, if they thought I was popular, then I wanted nothing more than for them to see how much fun we could have together. To me, it made no difference that we were brother and sister. I would be proud to be seen with her and wanted the entire world to know it.
“Dana”, I said seriously, “would you go to the prom with me?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“We’ll have fun. I’ll take you out to a fancy dinner, I’ll rent a limousine, and we’ll dance the night away. It’ll be the best date you’ve ever had.”

She smiled but shook her head. “No, that’s okay. I don’t want to go, anyway. I’m over it now. It doesn’t matter.”
“Are you sure? It would mean a lot to me.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. But thank you for asking.”
You’re breaking my heart, you know.”
“That’s funny. It’s exactly the same thing Micah said.”
“And you’re not going with him either?”
“No.”

She wrapped her arms around me and gave me a hug. Then she kissed me on the cheek. “But I want you to know that you two are the best brothers that a sister could ever have. I get so proud when I think about you two. I’m the luckiest girl in the world, and I love you both so much.”
My throat constricted. “Oh, Dana. I love you, too.”
(p. 170)

You tell me

Some people are still stuck with The Da Vinci Code and its absurdities that deserve no answer. There’s still one point some of you have raised which may merit an answer. At the beginning of the Christian era there were several gospels in circulation, and that is well known. Together with Matthew, Marc, Luke, John, there were gospels by Phillip, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Judas. How was it decided that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were authentic and inspired by the Holy Spirit, and not the others? If the Gospel of Matthew receives its authority from the Church (which declares it to be authentic and inspired), and the Church receives her authority from the same Gospel of Matthew (“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”), it would seem that the one depends on the other, and the other on the one. Which came first?

The Holy Spirit comes first. He inspires the authors of the four canonical gospels, and then inspires the incipient Church to choose from among the several extant gospels at the time those that on account of their apostolicity, universality, and verity faithfully represented the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s enough to read any of the apocryphal gospels to see the difference. The four canonical gospels are the most beautiful scriptures of the world. Let us know how to appreciate them.

Psalm

Psalm 4 – Night prayer

My day comes to an end, a day of labour and joy, of moments of love and moments of anxiety, of impatience and of satisfaction. I am going to be myself again for the night, and the last prayer comes to my lips before I close my eyes.

‘I lie down with a quiet heart…,
and sleep will come to me.’
That is my prayer, because that is the wish of my whole being after a day of toil. Sleep is your blessing for the night, as peace is your blessing during the day, and sleep comes where there is peace. You have given me peace among the thousand pressures of the day, among the envy of people, the burden of work and the perplexity of decisions. ‘You have put happiness in my heart, greater than the happiness of food and wine’, and the care you have taken of me during the day has prepared me lovingly for the rest in the night.

I know the fears of the tribal in the desert when they laid themselves to sleep, the people who made these Psalms out of their life and their experience. The fear of the wild beast that may attack at night, of the personal foe who may seek vengeance in the dark, of the enemy tribe that may spring a surprise attack while all the people sleep. And I know my own fears too. The fear of a new day, the fear of meeting life again, of facing myself in the uncertain light of a new dawn. The fear of competition, the fear of failure, the fear of not being able to stand the strain to be what I daily have to be, to meet expectations, to play roles, or, harder still, the fear not to be able to ignore those expectations and reject those roles as I know I want to do and don’t have the strength to do.

I am afraid of falling asleep thinking that I shall never get up attain; and I am afraid of waking up and having to take up again the dreary business of existence. That is the visceral fear that weighs down my life. And its remedy is in you. You watch my sleep and you protect my steps. Your presence is my sanctuary, your company is my strength. And because I know that, I can now rest with confidence and joy.

‘I will lie down in peace, and sleep,
for you alone, Lord, make me live unafraid.’

Meditation

The Angel of the way

‘He will send his angel before you.’ (Genesis 24:7)
‘He will send his angel with you.’ (Genesis 24:49)
‘Behold I will send an angel before you.’ (Exodus 23:20)
‘My angel will walk before you.’ (Exodus 23:23)
‘Behold my angel will walk before you.’ (Exodus 32:34)
‘I will send an angel before you.’ (Exodus 33:2)The angel of the way. The angel of life, as living is walking. The angel that points out and directs and accompanies and protects. The angel that knows the desert and measures distances and finds oases and reaches destinations. The angel that takes us to the Promised Land and establishes us happily in the land of the milk and the honey. The angel of the People of God. And, in my life, my angel.

What I most need in life is direction. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know how to get there. I find it hard to take decisions. I don’t know how to be right. I have doubts about myself, my maps, my compass, my guides. I’m afraid to get lost, and I know that life there is only one and I have only one chance to walk and advance and reach where I have to reach and do what I have to do. I doubt, I go back, I delay, I retrace my steps. But now faith comes and changes my life. Someone goes before me with a steady step and a firm resolve. The walking is still mine, but now I have a direction, a new strength, company. A new way to walk.

The Lord of the angels has had to repeat to me many times that he has sent his angel before me, because I forget it and relapse into my fears and my doubts. He reminds me of it in almost every occasion in my life so that I may not be lost in solitude. And he also reminds me in order that I may realise that the presence of the angel is not only an exceptional gift for extraordinary occasions, but a constant company in every moment of my life. The Promised Land is the soil I am stepping on, and the time is today. The angel of the Lord stands before me here and now, watching this moment in my life, guiding my step, holding my hand. It’s up to me now to get used to his delicate presence, his loving touch, his winged inspiration that signals horizons and leads to their conquest. Each one of my steps is guided, and every adventure is shared. This conviction gladdens my step and lifts up my eyes. Just there, before me, is the guide of my pilgrimage, the angel God has sent to go before me. He knows the way. I shall never get lost.

1st
I tell you

My brother
[My brother died on Christmas Eve. This is the homily I have now preached in his funeral before friends.]
It is not without a mischievous smile that I have chosen the Bible readings you have just now heard. They are the banker’s readings. My brother was Vice-Governor of the Bank of Spain where he acted against tax fraud. In the first reading, Romans 13:6, you have heard: “That is why you pay taxes. The authorities are God’s civil servants and it is to this task they devote their energies. Discharge your obligations to everyone; pay tax and levy, to those to whom they are due.” This is the duty of the Income Tax Department, though not a very popular one. Then the gospel has been again the banker’s reading. The parable of the talents the master leaves to his three servants, five to one, two to the other, one to the third one, with the order to negotiate with them while he is away. On his return, the two first give him back his money with the increase they have negotiated, while the third one has buried the money for safety and just gives it back. The master rebukes him: “You should have given my money to the bankers so that on my return I would have got it back with interest.” (Matthew 25:27) The punishment for the negligent servant for not having taken the money to the bank is severe: eternal hell. “Throw him out in the dark, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” A banker could not ask for more.

That’s why I’ve read this gospel with a smile on my lips, as when I used to comment on it with my brother. He was a banker, an economist, a financial adviser, though he preferred to say he really was a stockbroker. Wall Street. The Stock Exchange. That was his special talent. Foreign currency, rates of exchange, trading. Ever since his tender years. Our father died when I was 10 and he 12. The next year the Spanish Civil War broke out while my mother and we two happened to be in one side of the fighting armies while our house had remained in the other. We lost absolutely all we had. My mother obtained from a friendly bank director what was then called “a face loan” for 200 pesetas. Then I would watch my brother scanning those pages in the daily newspaper full of small little numbers and telling mother what she had to do with her money. I understood nothing. I consoled myself thinking that he understood because he was two years older, and that in two years time I too would understand the little numbers. But neither in two years nor in all my life have I understood what they mean. I do know that some time later my mother went to the bank director to give him back the 200 pesetas hoping he would not take them back as he was a friend and the amount was trivial for him. But I also remember her sad words: “And he took them!”

My brother and I obtained scholarships for study and boarding in St Xavier’s High School, Tudela (Navarra), while our mother stayed with a sister of hers in the same town. School ended at the age of 17 at that time. My brother ended school with the highest prize in the state, and had already his name fixed on the door of a room in the Jesuit novitiate at Loyola where he would join at the end of summer. But he never got to that room. Opus Dei was just then beginning to spread in Spain, and friends of his diverted him towards it. Father Barcón, a Jesuit of Deusto’s famed Law School, tried to keep him back with an argument not without ingenuity. He would tell him: “If you, José María, would have to undergo a serious operation and would have to choose between a well-known and well experienced surgeon, and a young one who would just have opened his clinic, whom would you choose? Here is now the Society of Jesus with all her tradition and guarantee of centuries, and Opus Dei which has just now come on the scene. So, to whom are you going to entrust the salvation and sanctification of your soul which is the most important concern in all your life?” Almost like Ignatius repeating to Xavier: “What is the use of conquering the whole world if you lose your soul?” But it didn’t work.

What did not work for Opus Dei on the other hand was their attempt to get me after they got my brother, though they had planned their strategy well. I was then about to proceed to Tudela for my last year at school, after which I would join the Loyola noviciate. At the end of summer, with my bag already packed to go to school, I received out of the blue a surprising letter from our Spiritual Father, Jesús Lasa, in which he told me: “God has changed his plan. Instead of coming now to the Tudela boarding, go straight to the Loyola noviciate. Father Provincial has granted you the exceptional permission to join the noviciate at the minimum age, 15 years, and they are waiting for you there.”

I had never asked for such a permission, of course, but I didn’t suspect anything as I knew nothing yet about Opus Dei, given the absolute secrecy with which they proceeded, and I began practicing holy obedience before even I took the vow. I went to the noviciate with the bag I had packed for school, and I remained without finishing my High School studies. But Opus Dei missed its catch.

Twenty years later, when I, who was by then settled in India, came back for the first time to Spain and visited Tudela, Father Lasa told me: “I’m going to tell you now why God changed his plans on that day. Your brother José María was about to join the novitiate when the Opus people got hold of him. We at the school came to know about it and felt it very much because your brother was a very valuable vocation. Next year was your turn for the novitiate, and we felt sure that your brother, who had not told you yet anything about the Opus but was bidding his time, would definitely stalk you and get you into Opus Dei where he already was. So we decided to steal a march on him and I wrote to you to go to Loyola immediately, which you obediently did. The Jesuits thus outmanoeuvered Opus Dei. I always have felt a little guilty not to have told you of the reasons for our move as we should have done at the time, but we were afraid that if we told you about Opus Dei you too would have ended up there. Now, when you were a boarder here you often made your confession to me; so now it is my turn to confess to you my underhand dealing, and we are even.”

Escrivá appointed my brother to run the finances of Opus Dei, and he appreciated him so much that once, while travelling by car from Madrid to Bilbao, he deflected towards Oña (Burgos), where I was studying philosophy at the time, to visit me and bring me my brother’s greetings. We treated him to tea in the ancient monastery, and he wrote a letter to my brother describing how well he had been treated by the Jesuits. Footnote to history. In course of time my brother left Opus Dei, though he always kept a very cordial relationship with the Founder, in spite of a sentence Escrivá loved to repeat as my brother himself used to tell me: “I don’t give ten cents for the eternal salvation of those who leave Opus Dei!” I guess there are people laughing heartily up there now.

He graduated in law in Zaragoza, and in economics in the London School of Economics. He passed the competitive examinations for Sate Commerce Technician in Madrid, and his first job was Chief of the Technical Cabinet of the Commerce Ministry. The minister was Alberto Ullastres. In that post he masterminded the transition from postwar bankruptcy to economic aperture, currency liberalisation, suppression of visas. Alberto Ullastres came to India for an UNCTAD meeting (United Nations Commission for Trade and Development) and was kind enough to come to visit me. He told me plainly: “I am the minister and as such I attend meetings, conferences, functions…, I pronounce speeches and inaugurate projects; but as soon as a concrete document reaches my table such as, let’s say, what should the price of champals be, I pass it on to José María. In fact, it is he who runs the ministry.”

Then he added something significant: “I appreciate your brother immensely, as I’m telling you, but I also resent him a bit, if I may tell you. I often brief General Franco on economic matters and check with him all the important decisions for his approval. After I’ve exposed the matter before him, he always asks me:

– What does the Prime Minister say about it?
– He says to do so and so.
– What does the External Affairs Minister say?
– To do such and such.
– What does the Director of the Bank of Spain say?
– He recommends such and such a course.
– What do you say about it?
– To my mind this would be the best way.
– And what does Vallés say?
– He says the best would be to do such and such.
– Then do it!

The question about Vallés was always the last, and he could, of course, had saved himself all the others, but he wanted to know the minds of all his ministers, although in matters of economy he always did what your brother said.

There was only one occasion in which Franco scolded my brother as he himself would narrate. Morocco had asked Spain for a loan; my brother had examined the request and had rejected it. Franco called him, left him standing, and said severely: “Morocco gets what Morocco asks. They were our allies in the war. Grant the loan. And let this not happen again.”

I was once in Madrid when he came from a journey to Warsaw where he had negotiated and signed the first commercial treatise between Spain and Poland. He showed me the written and signed protocol he had to keep carefully that night to bring it the next day to the ministry. The text in each page was framed by a red line to prevent additions. I spontaneously told him: “You must have won, isn’t it?” He became serious and answered me: “Don’t say that. If you work out a treatise so that you win and the other loses, you’ll lose next time as they will not trust you any more. A good treatise is where both sides win, and that’s what I’ve just achieved. Spain wins and Poland wins.” A good lesson for life.

He had a great devotion to Our Lady, and when in Poland he asked to be taken to Our Lady of Chestokova. Before that, in France, he had visited the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes where he had an extraordinary experience. When he stood before the grotto with Our Lady’s image he noticed a slab on the floor with the inscription in French: “Here stood Bernardette the first time Our Lady appeared to her.” He then unobtrusively stood on the slab, and he suddenly was overpowered by a wave of intense feeling, devotion, tears and joy that kept him without himself for a while and remained in its effect for days with him. A few years later he had occasion to visit Lourdes again, sought the slab, stood quietly on it…, and nothing happened. He laughed commenting how God surprises and never repeats himself.

From the minister’s technical cabinet, my brother went to become the Vice-Governor of the Bank of Spain, and later on the Director of Mediterranean Highways where he liked to say that our father had been an engineer, and now he had a hundred engineers under him.

My brother always said that there had been two sad days in his life: the day I went to the noviciate, and the day I left for India. But he added that I luckily came back to Spain and so we could rebuild our relationship as brothers. In spite of the fact that India deprived him for years of his brother, he did something very beneficial for India. Those were the years of the establishment of the Gujarat Mission as an independent territory from Mumbai, with its rapid growth in works and in persons. Economic help was generously obtained in Spain, but the difficulty was to get the money to reach India, given the prevalent restrictions at the time. My brother, who at the time was the Vice-Governor of the Bank of Spain, called one day Father Damboriena, who was the treasurer in charge of the finances of the Gujarat Mission, asked him the amount of the contribution of Spain to our works in India, and granted him the official permission to sent it legitimately each year. I keep a letter of Father Lucio Damboriena in which he tells me that, and adds that because of that, my brother José María was one of the greatest benefactors of the Mission. As we honour the memory of a good man and an outstanding professional, we are also honouring the memory of a great benefactor of the Gujarat Mission of the Jesuits in India.

And then I personally honour the memory of my only brother, whom I loved and appreciated before all my friends and relatives. My brother knew Latin from his school days, and liked to repeat with me the Latin sentence of the Book of Proverbs in the Bible: “Frater qui adiuvatur a fratre, tamquam civitas firma.” (Proverbs 18:19) “A brother who is helped by his brother, is like a firm city.” Such was he for me, and I for him. Blessed be his memory.

How many more holocausts yet?

Paul Rusebagina is that ‘ordinary man’ (such is the title of the book) who saved the lives of 1.268 persons in the Mille Collines Hotel in Kigali (Rwanda) in the holocaust in which 800.000 Tutsis were brutally killed with machetes in three months (eight thousand per day!) at the hands of Hutus the year 1994 and whose story was told in the Oscar-nominated film ‘Hotel Rwanda’. As manager of the hotel he used all his influence and his skill to give shelter to refugees when even the churches were attacked and those who had sought safety in them were killed. His experience is heart-rending, and this is the climax of his story.

‘On May 3, the United Nations attempted to evacuate the Hotel Mille Collines. They had not been able to stop the killings, and now they were getting ready, however late, to avoid more deaths. My hotel was threatened, and they decided to act. They got Army and rebels to struck a deal to exchange Hutu and Tutsi captives, and negotiated that the refugees in my hotel would be taken to the airport and would leave the country.

There was a terrible catch for us, though. Only those refugees who could secure invitations from people living abroad would be allowed to leave the hotel. This seemed very unfair to me. As a practical matter those people most likely to have overseas contacts where the rich and the powerful. The Tutsi and moderate Hutu peasants we had with us had virtually no chance of leaving. But these were the conditions that had been negotiated by the armies and I was in no position to argue. By that point, however, my friends and I had become specialists in the art of forgery, and we created fake letters for a number of those who had no overseas friends.

This put me in an awkward position, for I happened to be one of those privileged few who could legitimately arrange for transport out of the country for me and my family. Out. There seemed to be no more seductive concept: out of this phantasmagoria of knives and blood, out of the dark rooms that smelled like faeces and sweat, out of this entire pointless conflict and the idiotic life-or-death ethnic definitions and away from the power-drunk fools with their empty smiles and machetes and into a safe place of clean sheets and warm baths and no worry about anything at all that mattered. Out.

I could have it. I could have it tomorrow.

But I could not. I really could not. I know that if I took this opportunity to leave, I would be removing one of the only remaining barriers in between the militias and the guests. Nobody here would be left to present themselves – however flimsily – as a middleman standing in between the killers and the refugees. Nobody else had those years of favours and free drinks to cash in. If I left and people were killed I would never be at peace. My food would never taste good again; I could never enjoy my freedom. It would be as though I had killed those people myself. The refugees had even came to me and said, “Listen, Paul. We are told you are leaving tomorrow. Please let us know so that we can go to the roof of the hotel and jump because we cannot bear to be tortured with machetes.”

But one thing I did for myself: I used my contacts with the Sabena Corporation, the Belgian airline that was the owner of the hotel, to secure invitations out for my whole family. I was not so courageous a man that I could bear to see my family in danger any longer. I sincerely hoped that I would not be depriving anybody more needy through this action, but this was what I felt was the best choice under terrible circumstances. If I saw my wife or children murdered when I knew I once had the chance to see them so safety, my life would be ruined. This was the most painful decision I have ever made in my life. I had decided to stay and face whatever would come.

I presented a list to the United Nations soldiers of all those refugees who had obtained invitations via my fax telephone. Handing over that list made me extremely uncomfortable. If the rebels got the list, they would kill all the people on it before they could get out. All I could do was hope that the UN would not let the list leak to the killers.

Around midnight, I found my wife and children awake in our room. I previously had not had the courage to tell them I would not be going with them in the evacuation, but the time had arrived. I pretended my children were asleep and not listening and I told my wife, “I have made a different decision. I am remaining with the refugees. You are leaving.” Everyone then raised their voices and talked as if they were one person.

– What about you?
– Listen. I am the only person here who can negotiate with these killers outside.
– But how can you stay?
– If people inside this hotel are killed, I will never be able to sleep again. I’ll be a prisoner of my own conscience.
– Come with us!
– Please, please, accept and go.

The next day at 5:30 p.m. approximately I saw my wife and children off at the roundabout in front of the hotel. They and the other fortunate guests were loaded into UN trucks while I watched from under the canopy near the door. My heart was breaking. In Rwandan culture it is never acceptable for a man to cry, but I came very close that evening. I made it through those awful minutes the same way I made it through the entire genocide: by losing myself in the details of work.

I was then forty years old. Everything I had in life was pulling away in those trucks, and it was my decision to stay and face probable execution. I knew that I was taking all the responsibility now. That gave me a little peace.

The rebel radio spoke. They had got the list and they read out all the names of those that were getting away. I listened to the names of my wife and my children: Tatiana, Tresor, Roger, Lys, Diane. Their beautiful names were a profanity in that announcer’s mouth. I felt as if he was raping them with his voice. I could not leave the hotel as it was surrounded. All I could do was frantically work the phones. Something horrible was happening. The first convoy of sixty-three refugees was stopped at a roadblock. All the evacuees in the trucks were ordered out onto the roadside dirt. Shots were fired and two people killed. They began to use their machetes. The UN soldiers were disorganised. The only thing that saved the caravan was the bitter argument between the army and the militia. They were beginning to open fire on each other. Some of the UN soldiers saw their chance. They picked up the refugees in the dirt, threw them into the trucks like lumber, and roared off back toward the hotel.

Mi wife, Tatiana, was hurt and she could barely move. We took the wounded off the trucks and doctors healed them. The Mille Collines Hotel was full of people screaming and crying and hugging one another. We were threatened from the outside, and a grenade opened a breach in the outer wall. The UN ordered another evacuation. I used my telephone, that had been our lifeline those days, to get an escort. All those who wanted to go could now go, and I and my family with them. The Mille Collines Hotel was the only public building in Kigali where no one was killed.’

(Paul Rusesabagina, An Ordinary Man, Bloomsbury, London 2006, p. 185)

An ordinary man

This is how the author describes himself at the beginning of the book:

‘My name is Paul Rusebagina. I am a hotel manager. In April 1994, when a wave of mass murder broke out in my country, I was able to hide 1,268 people inside the hotel where I worked.

When the militia and the Army came with orders to kill my guests, I took them into my office, treated them like friends, offered them beer and cognac, and then persuaded them to neglect their task that day. And when they came back, I poured more drinks and kept telling them they should leave in peace once again. It went on like this for seventy-six days. I was not particularly eloquent in these conversations. They were no different from the words I would have used in saner times to order a shipment of pillowcases, for example, or tell the shuttle van driver to pick up a guest at the airport. I still don’t understand why those men in the militias didn’t just put a bullet in my head and execute every last person in the rooms upstairs, but they didn’t. None of the refugees in my hotel were killed. Nobody was beaten. Nobody was taken away and made to disappear. People were being hacked to death with machetes all over Rwanda, but that five-story building became a refuge for anyone who could make it to our doors. The hotel could offer only an illusion of safety, but for whatever reason, the illusion prevailed and I survived to tell the story, along with those I sheltered. There was nothing particularly heroic about it. My only pride in the matter is that I stayed at my post and continued to do my job as manager when all other aspects of decent life vanished. I kept the Hotel Mille Collines open, even as the nation descended into chaos and eight hundred thousand people were butchered by their friends, neighbours, and countrymen.

It happened because of racial hatred. Most of the people hiding in my hotel were Tutsis, descendants of what had once been the ruling class of Rwanda, though a minority. The people who wanted to kill them were mostly Hutus, who were traditionally farmers and were in the majority.

I am the son of a Hutu farmer and his Tutsi wife. My family cared not the least bit about this, but since bloodlines are passed through the father in Rwanda, I am technically a Hutu. I married a Tutsi woman, whom I love with a fierce passion, and we had children of mixed descent together. This had never been a problem, and we can’t tell Hutus and Tutsis apart just by looking at one another. But the difference between Hutu and Tutsi meant the difference between life and death in the late spring and early summer of 1994.

I am not a politician or a poet. I built my career on words that are plain and ordinary and concerned with everyday details. I am nothing more or less than a hotel manager, trained to negotiate contracts and charged to give shelter to those who need it. My job did not change in the genocide, even though I was thrust into a sea of fire. I only spoke the words that seemed normal and same to me. I did what I believed to be the ordinary things that an ordinary man would do. I said no to outrageous actions the way I thought that anybody would, and it still mystifies me that so many others could say yes.’

(p. I)

You tell me

Carlos Abad of Medical Brokers in Buenos Aires leaves with me a DVD as a keepsake from his visit. I introduce it in my computer. A boy in school uniform appears, walking with uneasy step and showing a totally shaven head. He has leukaemia and is coming back to school after his treatment. He opens the classroom door with apprehension in some fear and shame that all his schoolmates will laugh at his shaven head. One’s schoolmates can be cruel without realising it.

In the classroom all are seating on their benches. Then a boy stands up. He wears a cap that covers his head. He removes it slowly. His head is fully shaven. The next boy, and the next, and the next, and all do the same, one after the other. All have shaven their heads in solidarity with their companion who suffers from leukaemia. They all smile, and the class begins. My eyes go wet at seeing it.

Psalm

Psalm 5 – Morning prayer

‘I set out my morning sacrifice,
and watch for you, O Lord.
I bow down toward your holy temple
in reverence of you.’
I begin my day facing your temple, facing the sacrament of your presence, the shadow of your throne. I want the first breath of my day to be a feeling of wonder and awe, an act of worship and acknowledgement of your majesty that fills all things and gives life to all beings.

Your temple sanctifies the earth, and the earth, on which you walked one day, sanctifies the entire cosmos of which it is a minimal and privileged part. That is why I want to face in its direction in the morning to set my bearings and fix my balance.

I know that during the day I am going to be engulfed in a tide of work and stress and suspicion and jealousy. I can trust no man and believe no word. Many want my downfall, and a single false step may cause my ruin. ‘People talk smoothly, but their mouth is an open grave.’ I am no match for their wiles, I am lost in the double-talk people use today: I want to trust all and believe what they say, but I have suffered too much in the past to be able to be naïve again. Make people straight with me, Lord. Make me carry with me the shadow of your temple, the sign of your presence, so that people may speak the truth with me, be honest in their dealings and direct in their speech. This is the blessing I ask for at the dawn of a new day: May all see you in me, that they may deal gently with me.

‘In the morning,
when I say my prayers,
you will hear me.’

Meditation

The Angels of the ladder

‘Jacob had a dream. In the dream he saw a ladder, which rested on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and angels of God were going up and down on it.’
(Genesis 28:12)Jacob himself explains the dream. ‘This place is the house of God and the gate of heaven.’ That is why angels go in and out, climb up and down on it. It is the door of their house. They come from it with their messages for us, and the go back to it with our prayers. Daily traffic between two worlds; constant communication that escapes our material sight and reveals itself in the shadows of the night to those who walk to their final destination in the House of God. It goes on day and night, though our blurred vision, our hurry, our lack of faith make us miss it. One has to go to sleep in the open with a stone for a pillow and a holy mission in one’s mind to see the angels constantly commuting between heaven and earth. ‘On the top of the ladder stood Yahweh.’

I imagine a traffic jam in the night ladder with all the coming and going of swift messengers. Just as good that angels have wings to fly over any obstacle and never to clash with one another. The image helps us to gauge the abundance of the angels’ help and the value of their protection. The way is crowded, the ladder does not sleep, the contact is not lost, the activity thrives. Jesus said in Gethsemane that the Father could send him more than twelve legions of angels in a moment. They are ready. There is no need of mine, no emergency, no danger they may not be ready to face and to resolve, since they never sleep and always watch under God’s sight and close to my steps. The ladder never rests.

Jacob was so much struck by his dream of angels that he did something very significant about the place where he had had the dream which he called Bethel. When God confirmed him as leader of his people he said to his household and all who were with him: ‘Get rid of the foreign gods which you have; then purify yourselves, and put on fresh clothes. We are to set off for Bethel, so that I can erect an altar there to the God who answered me when I was in distress; he has been with me wherever I have gone.’ (Genesis 35:2)

The place where he saw the angels had imprinted itself on his memory, and he now wanted it imprinted on the history of his people. He had marked the spot placing on it the stone that had been his head-rest and pouring oil over it; now he found the place, erected an altar and built a sanctuary. This was, indeed, the first church consecrated to the angels. The angels of the ladder.

Ever get lost.

 

15th
I tell you

Helmi

I’ve been playing for a while with Helmi. She is 5 and I’m 80. She throws to me the ball, I catch it, or I miss it, I throw it to her, she catches it, or she misses it, she catches it again, she keeps laughing, she is enjoying herself, I am enjoying myself. It is heaven to see her laugh.

I tire before her and I tell her, ‘That’s enough playing. I’m going to work.’ She tells me, ‘But everything is playing!’ She is right. What’s the difference between throwing a ball and writing books? It’s all the same. It’s all a question of happily passing the time. Entertaining the reader or entertaining Helmi. And, in both cases, entertaining myself. Everything is a game. We go on playing.

Helmi laughs equally when she catches the ball as when she misses it. She does not count goals. She does not look for results. She is not entering a championship. She is just enjoying herself. A big laughter each time. She even laughs more when she misses than when she catches. No complexes with her. Laughter is life.

Let me make it clear that it is not that she has explicitly told me, ‘But everything is playing!’ I don’t exactly know what she has said. She speaks only Finnish and I don’t understand Finnish. But I understand her and I have translated her gesture. I have interpreted her face. Life is a game. And it is the grown-up’s privilege to play it with Helmi. It sets life in perspective. There is no greater moment in life than playing with a child. And speaking in laughter. We understand each other perfectly.

In her class they have been asked to draw their fathers. To make children draw persons is well-known therapy, and their drawings reveal early impressions that will shape their lives. Children have drawn bombs and wars and blood and dead people. Pity on the world. Or volcanoes and earthquakes, which all is already in their eyes and in their minds. That’s why Helmi’s portrait is important. She has drawn her father as a tall person, smart, handsome, well dressed, with a flower on his lapel, holding her by the hand while a round sun (in Finland!) shines in bright yellow at the upper corner of the paper. And she herself is drawn with long hair, open hands and a big smile. The best compliment a girl can pay her father. No wonder she is so happy and so playful. We go on playing.

I’ll tell you all this when you grow up, Helmi. We’ll talk when you learn English. It’s not for nothing that I know you since you were born.

A small child as Father Christmas

The past Christmas, Lynn had taken her daughter Julie, aged 5, to Redding to the dollar store and told her she could have anything in the whole store that she wanted.

“Anything?” Julie’s eyes had gone round at the very thought. Lynn said it had taken Julie an hour and a half to pick out a dishtowel set, which Lynn found in her own stocking on Christmas morning.

(Kimberley Snow, In Buddha’s Kitchen, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2003, p. 91)

No compassion having

Nina was a child not easy to handle. She enjoyed playing the evil elf in the kitchen of the Buddhist Centre: switching labels on the spices, turning the oven dial to 500, putting a cupful of salt in the sugar bin, hiding the meat thermometer, the tops to the plastic bins, whatever we needed most. Then she’d blame what she’d done on someone else.

After one infuriating day when we made her leave the kitchen, she complained to Lama Tashi. “She crazy, you not”, the Lama said to the assembled kitchen staff in his quaint English, trying to tell us that she was a disturbed child while we were supposed to be normal people.

“But, Lama Tashi, how can we fix lunch for sixty-five people when she’s all over the kitchen getting into everything?”

“What studying?” he continued in his funny English, meaning to tell us we were not certainly studying Buddhism. Buddhism developed compassion for every living being. We hung our heads. He said we should thank Nina for showing us the limits of our patience. Most of us hadn’t developed what he called large patience, an ease of mind that could see the world like an old man on a park bench watching children at play. At most, he said, we practiced restraint, and while that was better than anger, it still wasn’t large patience. Some of us hadn’t even learned restraint.

“But Lama Tashi, I have a job to do. In a place this size I have to plan ahead, to have things organised, under control. Just yesterday I came into the kitchen to cook lasagna and she’s drying her boots in the oven and won’t take them out. What chef in her right mind can work under these conditions?” Lama Tashi turned to me: “No compassion having.”

“No-compassion-having” became my secret mantra, a constant rhythm in my head interrupting me whenever I was just about to launch myself. I dream of Lama Tashi.

(Ib. p. 21)

Mothers’ sorrow

In Japan, where abortion is very widespread, statues of Jizo are common. Jizo is the bodhisattva who guides unborn children through the underworld. A bodhisattava is dedicated to helping others and has vowed not to pass into nirvana until everyone is enlightened. At his shrines children’s clothing and toys are heaped high as prayers for unborn children. In the Jizo Ceremony for Aborted and Miscarried Children at the Buddhist Women’s Conference in San Francisco we sat in a circle and talked while we made bibs out of red cloth. The activity of cutting out the cloth, finding who had the spool of thread, an extra needle, helped to channel the nervous and sometimes fearful energy that kept building in the room. Sitting in a circle, sewing, this grounded us, sank us into a tradition we felt in our bodies even if we’d never experienced it directly in our busy modern lives before.

The teacher spoke for a while about abortion, then grew quiet. We sewed in silence. Then a woman near me began, in a flat voice.
“I’ve had three abortions.”
“Two”, another woman added.
“I’m still pro-choice”, a woman said a little defensively. “My abortion was the result of a rape.”
Pain – shared, visceral pain – swept the room.
“I had two abortions in my early twenties”. A slim, gray-haired woman spoke. “I didn’t know that those would be the only times I’d ever be pregnant.”
After a short silence an older woman spoke. “My oldest daughter had two abortions in her early twenties. I found out about them afterward, and not from her.”
“We were in Iran when I miscarried. Twin girls. If I’d come back to the States they might have had a chance. But I didn’t. They would have been thirty years old last week.”
Again a wave of pain. I felt my heart squeeze, my throat tighten, eyes blur. Such ancient pain carried by the motherline.
The older woman began speaking again. “I’d never thought of my daughter’s abortion as missing grandchildren before. Grandchildren I’ll never hold.”
“I am ashamed”, a beautiful Asian woman in the circle said, “that I didn’t ask permission from the foetus. Afterward I went to a healer and he said to do that. If you’re thinking of having an abortion, talk to the foetus, explain your situation. Ask the baby to come at another time. Now I counsel my patients to do this. Very often they report a spontaneous abortion.”
Again a palpable wave of pain rose in the room. We were united in something timeless. I had never felt such a sense of shared anguish, of a common physical experience that went too deep for words. Personal distress transmuted into group suffering. I no longer knew whose pain I was feeling.
“We wanted the baby so much. The miscarriage hurt so much. It still hurts. Physically I mean, as well as every other way. The pain never stops.” The room went silent except for the sounds of sobbing.

Late in the afternoon, the teacher rose, led us outside to stand in a circle around the statue of Jizo. One by one we went up to the statue, bowed, placed a bib around his neck, and bowed again. The last time, the whole group bowed.

“Thank you, Jizo”, I said silently when it was my turn. “Thank you for taking care of the little ones that we didn’t want, the ones we lost or threw away.”

As we bowed in unison, we acknowledged each woman’s act, each woman’s loss, guilt, pain. Each child seemed to be our own as we said goodbye and gave it over to the care of the bodhisattva.

(Ib. p. 78)

God’s mercy

A king who was guilty of the heinous sin of killing a Brahman went to the hermitage of a Rishi to learn what penance he must perform in order to be purified. The Rishi was absent, but his son was in the hermitage. Hearing the case of the king, he said, ‘Repeat the Name of God three times, and your sin will be expiated.’

When the Rishi came back and heard of the penance prescribed by his son, he remarked indignantly, ‘Sins committed in myriads of births are purged immediately by uttering the Name of the Almighty but once. How weak must be your faith, O fool, since you have ordered the holy Name to be repeated thrice!’

(Tales and Parables of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1992, Madras, p. 98)

You tell me

I missed the film “The Great Silence”, but someone who saw it has sent me her experience while seeing it.

“The other day I saw the film “The Great Silence”. That beautiful documentary on Trappist monks without words. It would have taken me to heaven but for the circumstance that just behind me were some seminarians who did not stop talking and eating popcorn throughout the session. It would seem that our future priests are not trained in silence, even if it were “A Little Silence”.

Psalm

Psalm 7 – God is my refuge

‘I call you “my refuge” and “my shield”, and so you are, and I want to understand the ways in which you protect me and shield me. When I call you my refuge, I don’t imagine you as a hidden cave on a high mountain range where I run to hide myself from my enemies so that nobody can find me and I feel safe andsecure; or again I don’t think that when I invoke your help you come to me and put your shield all around me so that nobody can hurt me and I escape unharmed.

You don’t protect me from the outside, but from inside me. You don’t run to my help, you are in me. You don’t shield me by wrapping me up, but by being me. You are not an astronaut’s suit to guarantee my subsistence in an un­friendly atmosphere, you are my very skin. You protect my body by giving me a healthy organism, and my soul by strengthening it in your grace. You protect me by being one with me, and that is my strength.

When I meet a difficulty in life and I think of you, that is not to ask you to remove the difficulty, but to give me the strength to face it; not to commit you to bring about a particular outcome, but to empower me to accept it what­ever it may be; not to impose on you my solution, but to make me take yours as mine. That is why you are my strength, because you are mybeing.

You understand me, and my cry to you in a sudden crisis may take any spontaneous shape. I may claim deliv­erance, I may protest, I may rebel. I may even sound at times exacting and insolent. But you know me well now, and you know how to translate into coherent language the elementary groanings of my troubled spirit under the weight of pain. What I want in every case is you and your presence and your comforting touch on my wounded soul.

You will even hear me at times, perhaps too often in these Psalms, refer to other men as my “enemies”. Here again I hope you understand my language and adapt my meaning. I live in a world ruled by competition, where the success of others is a threat to my advancement, where the very existence of millions around me crowds me out of the centre of living. Every man in a queue ahead of me is an “enemy”, every driver who by a split second steals the park­ing place from me is an “enemy”, every one of the candidates interviewed for the same job I badly want and sorely need is an “enemy”. Of course they are all my brothers, and I em­brace them and love them before you, and I am ready to help them if the need arises. I do not wish anybody ill, and will never hurt anybody knowingly. Even if I use the language of war, I am at peace with all men and women and accept them all in you.

My only fear is that the competition I suffer may turn unfair, that bribes and tricks and malpractices may rob me of the job or the prize or the advantage I justly deserved, and that context is where the word “enemy” arises and gets into my prayers. And so when I ask for your protection it is pre­cisely protection against the unfair means others may use to put me down, so that I may not fall a victim to them, and may not feel the temptation to hate anybody. Protect me in my life, so that the word “enemy” may never come to my lips. Do justice to me, that I may believe in man. Shelter me from jealousy that I may feel kindly towards all.

“I will praise you for your justice;
I will sing a psalm to the name of the Lord Most High.”

Meditation

The Angels of the ladder

“And the angel of God spoke to me in my dream.”
(Genesis 31:11)Now it is Jacob, and later will be Gideon and Elijah, and Old Testament Joseph and New Testament Joseph, and so many others who share in the same experience. The angels talk to us in our sleep. Night messages, glimpses through the darkness, wings in the night. Dreams have always been important to humans as presage, warning, as sudden illumination or as forthright messages. Dreams have become science, and they are interpreted in expensive sessions or in detailed manuals as therapy in life and guidance for behaviour. Dreams speak.

I have spent many hours in my life examining my conscience as daily practice, as preparation for the sacrament, as ascetical diagnosis, as training for self-knowledge. And all those hours were well spent. But I now wish that some of that time and a little of that science had been put to use in my life to teach me to interpret my dreams, to seek serious professional help to decipher my nights, to learn to recognise the angels in the dark.

If I had acquired the habit of remembering my dreams and taking down my night fantasies, if I had learned the science of translating blurred images into spoken language, if I had grown familiar with my dreams in the night as I am with my actions during the day, with my tastes, my instincts and my reactions, I would know myself today much better, I would understand myself much better, I would comprehend my secret motivations and my irrational desires, my enthusiasm and my depression, my complexes and my fears. If I would know myself night by night as I know myself day by day, I would be a better person with a better character, I could watch better my temper and soften my roughness, I could react better before life and would understand better in practice the riddle of human existence. I know that by losing the night dimension of my life I have lost something important in the totality of my being. I have taken responsibility of my waking time only, and I have lost the treasure of my dreams. I have rationalised too much, and so I have deprived myself of the guidance, the encouragement, the secret and the charm of the voices that speak to me in the night when my reason falls silent and my beloved unconscious unfolds its aerials to sense the secret and vital messages that I do not allow to reach it during the day. My sleep has been a rest to me, but never a learning.

Angel of my dreams! Come to me in the night, even if it is already late in my pilgrimage, and reveal to me the secrets of my life you know well and I should know better.

And forgive me for not having called you before.

1st
I tell you

Made in Spain

It has happened to me several times. And today it has happened again. In the middle of Madrid. I’m walking along the street in my cherished daily walk. Winter clothes, warm gloves, woollen cap covering my ears. It is cold in the early morning. Three young men come in the opposite direction facing me. The one in the centre, on coming close, points to my variegated cap and addresses me in English: “I like your hat.” I answered him in English: “In English we don’t call this a hat, we call it a cap.” And then I repeat the same in Spanish, as in Spanish too there are different words for hat and cap. The three young men stop and smile. I continue: “I come from Logroño (in the north of Spain). And this cap comes from El Corte Inglés (Madrid leading supermarket). We all laugh. Made in Spain.

A woman asked me in the street whether I knew Spanish, and on my answering in the affirmative, she asked me the way to Madrid Central Square. I told her in Spanish. She answered me in English: “Thank you.”

A beggar asked me for alms. He pleaded in English: “Mister, please.” If I had had a pound, I would have given it to him.

A compliment, I suppose.

Sunday service
A Presbiterian young woman tells her experience on Sunday mornings in church:“I would spend the Sunday service trying not to hear the dry drone of the preacher’s voice. Count the organ pipes, study my neighbour’s new outfit, examine the stained-glass picture of the Last Supper, daydream. Couldn’t remember once connecting with anything said from the pulpit. My father, sitting beside me, would note in his small neat hand how much time it took for the opening prayer (11:02-11:04), the first hymn, the sermon, the closing prayer. After church, he’d always report to the preacher, ‘You prayed two minutes longer today than last Sunday’ or ‘Right on the dot today’. The point of the service was to finish, to get out so we could get on with life. Church always meant waiting, never being there.”

(Kimberley Show, In Buddha’s Kitchen, Shambhala, Boston 2003, p. 15)

The last sentence hurts me. ‘Church always meant waiting, never being there.’ Waiting for the end. Waiting to get out. Waiting to die. Waiting for heaven. Waiting.

The Church is being in it, belonging, enjoying. For the congregation and for the preacher. The young woman in the story went over to Buddhism. Time for examination of conscience.

Gandhi and the little girl

‘My father was the town elder when Mahatma Gandhi visited our city of Udipi in South India, and as such was supervising the proceedings. The meeting was thrown open to people who wanted to give their gifts, such as they were. And they came, singly and in numbers, thrilled they could have a close darshan (view) of the Mahatma and even touch his feet, an event they were to remember for the rest of their lives.

Just then came a little girl in a white frock, the daughter of the local Congress leader, to make her own offering to the Mahatma, a pair of gold bangles. Gandhi accepted them gladly but then noting that the kid was wearing a necklace and earrings also of gold, told her mischievously: “I see you wear a necklace. Won’t you give it to me?’

Somewhat flustered the girl took the chain off her neck and gave it to the old man. Not content, the Mahatma now looked at the earrings she was wearing and said: “I see you have earrings, too. Don’t you want to give them to me?”

The dear child had not bargained for this but this was the Mahatma who was asking and she was too bowled over by his very presence to refuse his request. Slowly, in front of the assembled masses, she now took off her earrings and handed them over to her hero.

Gandhiji must have noticed the slight hesitation on the part of the girl and now he asked: “Tell me, what did your parents say you should give to me? Everything that you were wearing?”

Truthfully, the girl said: “No, I was told to give only my bangles!”

“Very well,” said the Mahatma, amused all the while, “tell you what. I’ll return your necklace and earrings to you. But will you make me a promise?”

“Yes”, said the girl, nodding her head, her eyes wet.
“You know” said the Mahatma, “this is a poor country where people often have something barely to eat. Will you promise that for the rest of your life you will not wear jewellery to remind you of their lot?”
“I will”, said the child bravely.

And she was to keep up the promise for the rest of her long life, during which she was to become a gynaecologist and distinguished professor at a medical college in Pondicherry.

Pleased at his “victory” Gandhi now decided that he would auction the gold bangles himself, instead of letting my father do the job. A thrill passed through the audience. The people had watched what was going on, obviously ignorant of the conversation between the girl and the Mahatma. But now that the Mahatma was acting as an auctioneer, the audience waited with bated breath for the bidding to start.

It started and the bids rose until not even a Mahatma could expect more. Enjoying the fun, Gandhi wound up but not before saying with a twinkle in his eye: “Is that all I get for my trouble?”

That was too much for my father who decided to accept Gandhi’s challenge. He took the bangles from Gandhi’s hands and turning towards the delighted audience said: “Fellow citizens, the Mahatma wonders whether that was all that he could get! Won’t one of you raise the bid even a little higher?”

My father had his own admirers and at that point they were not willing to let him down. Immediately came one voice that raised the bid substantially and to great cheers. My father was beside himself with joy. His people had not let him down. “See” he told the Mahatma, “we have got you a higher price rightaway!”

With a merry twinkle in his eyes, he patted my father and said: “I thought I was a big bania (business man). You are a bigger bania than I am!”

My father was to say that no higher praise could have been given to him by anyone, any time. And he received a great cheer.’

(M.V. Kamath, A Journalist at Large, Jaico, Mumbai 2006, p. 4)

Lessons in writing editorials

The same writer tells us the way he became an editor:

‘Sadanand, the editor of Free Press Journal, obviously had his own ideas on how to make the best use of me. But he was not telling me. He was ordering me. One morning when I was busy subediting copy for the Bulletin, I received summons from Sadanand to see him at once. With him everything was at once! He could never wait for an idea to mature. If he wanted the furniture to be re-arranged – and only the good Lord knows how often he did that! – action had to follow the thought, pronto! I ambled over to his room. He was brusque. Write an editorial for the Bulletin, he ordered and waved me away. My protestations that I was busy subediting copy fell on deaf ears. I returned to my desk and got down to writing. I must have taken about 45 minutes but I thought I had done a good job.

I took it to the Boss, as Sadanand was known. He bade me sit down and out came his blue pencil. (Actually it was a green-ink pen – green ink was his trade mark).

He read the piece carefully. Then he struck out the first sentence. Then the second. Then the third. Then the entire first paragraph. Then the first four paragraphs with me watching this editorial spree with a beating heart. Then he tore up the piece with a look of utter contempt. “Go and write another one”, he ordered.

I wrote the second piece, looking desperately at the clock to beat the deadline, not knowing that Sadanand had already sent the day’s editorial and was merely trying me out. Again he read it through, slowly, as if taking in every word. Then he asked:

“Who wrote this?”
“I did” I replied.
“All your own work?”
“Yes.”
“Poor stuff”, he said acidly, “do it again!”

This was not a suggestion. It was a command. Back to the desk, I sweated out a third piece, my heart sinking lower and lower by the minute. I took it to the Boss. Again he read it carefully, his fearsome pen poised precariously as if ready to assault me and finally, after what seemed like ages, he looked me in the eyes and said: “I had great hopes in you. I am shattered. You are no good. None at all. You just can’t write. It’s a shame. You can go back to subediting. I don’t know why I took you in the first place.”

The bullet-like sentences hit me hard. After four years of faithful service I had been found unfit to write an editorial. I swallowed my pride and went back to my desk, feeling miserable.

A week went by. Then another summons to the sanctum sanctorum. And a command. Write an editorial! I declined the honour. I reminded Sadanand what he told me only a week ago. But his orders were peremptory and not to be disobeyed. So I went back and wrote a piece as best as I could. This time I sent it through the office boy, not wishing a personal humiliation a second time. When I did not hear from Sadanand I took it that I had once again confirmed his evaluation of my literary talents and that my piece had inevitably landed in the waste paper basket. My astonishment was all the greater, therefore, to see the editorial printed without a single change.

It was only much later that I was to learn that the exercise of calling me and getting me to write an editorial three times was merely to put me in my place. Or, rather, to get me to strive harder. He had done that all right!

So it came to pass that I had the entire Bulletin as my full time job. I wrote the editorials, a gossip column, a carefully orchestrated question-answer column in which I assumed the role of a venerable, all-knowing grandfather, I re-wrote letters, occasionally inventing one to add spice to the page and I subedited copy, and brought out the evening paper almost single-handedly with occasional help from a trainee.’

(Ib. p. 199)

Watch your wishes

A certain traveller came to a large plain in the course of his travels. As he had been walking in the sun for many hours, he was thoroughly exhausted and heavily perspiring; so he sat down in the shade of a tree to rest a little. Presently he began to think what a comfort it would be if he could but get a soft bed there to sleep on. He was not aware that he was sitting under the celestial tree of wishes (Kalpataru) that instantly grants whatever is thought of.

As soon as the above thought rose in his mind, he found a nice bed by his side. He felt much astonished, but all the same stretched himself on it. Now he thought to himself how pleasant it would be were a young damsel to come there and gently stroke his legs. No sooner did the thought arise in his mind than he found a young damsel sitting at his feet and stroking his legs. The traveller felt supremely happy. Presently he felt hungry and thought: “I have got whatever I have wished for; could I not then get some food?” Instantly he found various kinds of delicious food spread before him. He at once fell to eating, and having helped himself to this heart’s content, stretched himself again on his bed.

He now began to revolve in his mind the events of the day. While thus occupied, he thought, “If a tiger should attack me all of a sudden!” In an instant a large tiger jumped on him and broke his neck and began to drink his blood. In this way the traveller lost his life.

Be careful what thoughts come to your mind. They may come true.

(Tales and Parables of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1992, Madras, p. 21.)

The most important thing

Disciple: “Master, what is the most important thing?”
Master: “The most important thing is to find out which is the most important thing.”

Discouragement

Disciple: “At times I get discouraged, and the whole doctrine and practice of Zen lose all their meaning for me.”
Master: “Good that you reached that stage. All have to go through it.”

Complaint

Disciple: “I am so tired that I have no energy left.”
Master: “You still have energy left to complain.”

You tell me

Question (or questions): I teach young people and I ask myself:
Why is it so difficult to find joy, hope, lust for living among today’s youth in our developed countries?
Why is it that the Church does not seem to be an answer today?
Why have we got stuck in rituals? Who can put us again in contact with God?
Are we in the last years of this culture that leaves us empty?

Answer: I am with you, Victor, and you are making me feel even more what I already see and feel for myself. The young are leaving us. You may know the survey made last year by the Santa María Foundation in Spain among Catholic young people from 17 to 25 years of age in which they asked them which values they held and which institutions they trusted. In values, the last they chose from a long list was religion, and in institutions the one they placed last was the Church. That hurts us. We have failed somewhere. We have discipline, authority, infallibility, censorship, rigidity, ceremonies, routine; but little life, joy, spontaneity, trust, freedom. Young people just ignore the Church. They don’t even attack her. They just don’t care. The only way I know to restore joy is to feel it ourselves and to let it shine quietly. Do it gently, lovingly, faithfully. We get into contact with God in our prayer, experience, trust, and faith. Do not let gloomy thoughts darken your life. If we are at the end of something, we are also at the beginning of something. Cheer and joy.

Psalm

Psalm 8 – The prayer of the heavens

‘I am in love with nature, I love the heavens and the earth, the rivers and the trees, the mountains and the clouds. I can sit outside time by the side of the sea and watch without end the play of the waters and the shore, eternal game of chess between white in the crest of the waves and black in the shadows of the rocks on the limit­less board of creation itself. I can contemplate the flow of a river and the dancing of the waters and the singing of the stones and the joy of the current as my own joy in the race to the sea. I can sit under a tree and feel its life as my own in the surging sap from hidden roots to waving leaves. I can wander with a cloud, fly with a bird, and just sit with a flower as it sits out its life contented in fragrance and co­lour in the unknown corner of the virgin forest where it grows and it dies.

I feel one with nature… because nature is You.

Nature is fresh with your touch, alive with your breath, trembling with the majesty of your presence, and serene with the blessing of your peace. I enjoy a sunrise because it is exclusively yours, and a sunset because no man can set his hand on it. It is your work alone, and its un­spoiled freshness brings ever to me the message of your presence. And when your sun goes down and a friendly darkness – which to me is sign and invitation to closeness and intimacy – spreads over your creation, you imprint on the parchment of your heavens the signature of your stars. Do you realize now why I like to look up to the heavens in the night and decipher in love the code of your exclusive handwriting?

“I see the heavens, the work of your hands;
the moon and the stars which you arranged”.
“How great is your name, O Lord our God, through all the earth.”
And in the centre of that wonder I see myself. “What is man that you care for him?” Spot of dust in a cosmos of light. But in that spot that is me there is another creation more wonderful than the sky and the stars. The marvel of my body, the secret of my cells, the lightning of my nerves, the throne of my heart. And the quickening of my soul, the spark of my understanding, the thrill of my feeling, and the pillar of my faith. The wonder inside me, and your sig­nature on it too. I smile in recognition when I see you have made me the king of creation, inferior only to yourself. I know my smallness and my greatness, my dignity and my nothingness. And knowing both I accept in simplicity the crown of king of creation, the one outside me and the one inside me, and I want to enjoy both fully, the rivers and the mountains as well as the feelings and the wit, the con­versation of men and the silence of the forest, the home and the sky, the friends and the trees, the books and the stars…, to enjoy everything as I know you want me to en­joy it to the happiness of your heart and the glory of your name.

“How great is your name, O Lord,
through all the earth!”

Meditation

The Angel and my senses

“When the donkey saw the angel, she lay down under Balaam. At that Balaam lost his temper and beat the donkey with his staff.”
(Numbers 22:23)Before Balaam could see the angel, his donkey had seen it. This makes me think, with due care not to extrapolate fantasies, but with boldness to anticipate novelties. They say animals foresee earthquakes, forecast storms, know whom they can trust and whom they cannot, sense the mood of their masters, know the herbs that heal them, find persons, and expect their own death with instincts far above anything we humans have or know. Now, it would seem, they also see angels before we see them. The limit.

The angel stood on the way of Balaam, and the donkey saw him, jumped out of the way and tried to run away; but Balaam had not seen the angel and beat the donkey to make her return to the path. The angel stood again in front, and the donkey went so close to the wall to avoid him that Balaam’s foot scratched the wall, and he beat the donkey again. The third time, the angel blocked the whole way, and the donkey lay down. And Balaam showered blows on her.

I believe Balaam did not see the angel because he was too worried about his own errand. It was not an easy errand. Balak, king of Moab and an enemy of the Israelites, had called him “with the fees for augury” that he should curse the people of Israel to destroy them; and Yahweh, naturally, had forbidden him to do such thing; but then, rather strangely, had asked him to follow the messengers that the king of Moab had sent to fetch him. Little wonder Balaam was a little mixed up. First he forbids me to go, and now he bids me go. The king of Moab wants me to curse Israel, and I know I cannot do that. What the hell is all this mess?

A good man with all those worries on his head is not likely to spot angels along his way. Will it be too much of an extrapolation to say that we don’t see angels on our way because we are always troubled by a thousand worries in our heads? The prophet’s wise donkey was only concerned with her physical safety at the moment, and she at once saw the angel with the drawn sword. And she got out of the way.

I apply all that to myself. If I had fewer worries on my head and more life in my senses… would I, perhaps, not see the angel along my way? Would I not feel his presence, guess his outline, recognise his voice? If my senses were awake, my eyes were keen, my hands were soft, my ears were tuned, and my skin were alive… would I not at once discover the mystery that transcends the mind – because it trusts the senses – the closeness in my way of someone who is also above my mind with his ethereal being and his transparent presence?

Balaam found the answer to his riddle. Yahweh was calling him that he would see from the mountain top the people of Israel, would begin to prophesy under order by the king of Moab… and then, instead of a curse, he would utter a blessing on Israel, which provokes the protests of the king, the attempt to bring him to another peak to see if from another height he can curse them, till the frustrated king says in despair: “Man, if you cannot curse them, at least do not bless them in my presence.” About the donkey we know no more.

Paradox of the spirit. If I come to my senses, I will see my Angel.

 

15th
I tell you

I went to the Dominican Republic, in the Caribean, as I told you here in the last issue, and had a lovely time there. The first surprise was the welcome. The ladies in charge of my visit had emailed me before, and I had imagined them as elderly ladies, very highbrow and very dignified, ready for their responsible task. I memorised their names so as to place them from the first, and so I tried to do on arrival. But placing them was not so simple. They introduced themselves. They gave me their names…, and I stood perplexed for a moment. These must be the ones, aren’t they? The problem was that the four women in front of me were not the solemn, robust, elderly shapes I had imagined, but they were four pleasant, lively, charming young women, and, yes, they were Zaida and Kim and Lily and Isabel Laura alright. No question about it. They were the ones who had sent me the emails. I had to change the script all at once. I told them how I had imagined them as old and fat ladies, and they laughed with me. Today, back in Madrid, I find an email signed by “Your fat old friend.” You have made me laugh again, Zaida.

Another surprise was the way I was introduced at the Catholic Book Fair. I have been introduced to audiences in many book fairs, but never so cordially, exactly, respectfully, and humorously. So much so that I asked for the script, and I’m going to put it here. That will be the best account of my visit. It is the work of Fr Martin Lenk, S.J., a German Jesuit of the island, and it has reminded me of things in my life which I myself had forgotten and I feel inclined to share with you. Thank you, Martin.

Presentation of the book of Fr Carlos G. Vallés, S.J. “Christian Self esteem”, Casa San Pablo, Santo Domingo, 7 March 2007, 7:30 p.m.

Dear brothers and sisters,

It is a great honour and a great joy to have Fr Carlos Vallés with us here today, and to be able to present his latest book, “Christian Self-esteem”.

Fr Vallés is not unknown to us. His books have made a great impact on our Church, on our country, on very many persons. Among them they have made an impact on me.

That’s why I would like to tell you a little anecdote of myself which marked deeply my own relation to Fr Vallés’ writings. About twelve years ago I was waiting for a delayed flight here in Las Américas airport. Carlos Vallés tells us in one of his books that he hates waiting in airports (I Am Colecting Rainbows 119). Well, I had a wonderful time once in an airport because I found a book from our guest here, one of his better known books, Unencumbered by Baggage, about the unforgettable Anthony de Mello. I spent several happy hours in the waiting room of the airport reading that book. It all changed a little when on arrival at the Santa Cruz de la Sierra airport in Bolivia, I started watching attentively the luggage conveyor belt. I saw any amount of bags, suitcases, rucksacks pass by… but my humble rucksack, faithful companion of so many journeys, did not show up. It was at the time going round at round helplessly by itself on the conveyor belts of American Airlines in Miami. That was how Carlos Vallés’ book became a prophetic word for me. I had to spend a whole week in Bolivia finding out the special blessing attending on a journey unencumbered by baggage. Though, evidently, it is easier reading a book called Unencumbered by Baggage than applying it to real life, as it is much more important living out a book than reading it. I think this also goes very specially for the recent book Fr Vallés has brought for us in his luggage from Spain and is now before us. Its title is: Christian Self-esteem.

Before presenting the book and listening to Fr Vallés himself, it will be fitting to share something about him as a person.

Who is Carlos González Vallés? He himself tells us that he is “many people”, and that’s why he calls his autobiography I Am Collecting Rainbows. Let us quickly focus on some of these rainbows in his life.

Fr Carlos was born on 4th November, feast of St Carlos Borromeo, in the year 1925 in Logroño, Spain. This was a good omen as – at least in Germany – St Carlos is the patron saint of Catholic libraries.

As a lad of 15 he joined the Jesuit noviciate at Loyola itself, the birthplace of the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. He describes himself in those days as a cheerful student, voracious reader, passionate friend, captain of the football team, in love with Mozart, and enjoying a good appetite. (I Am Collecting Rainbows 12)

He arrives in India at 24, and takes then a rather unusual vow, unknown in the Society of Jesus: the vow not to speak even a word of English while he was studying the Gujarati language (Living Together 85), one of the official languages in India, the native language of Mahatma Gandhi himself, and the language of the state where Fr Vallés was posted.

He mastered the language after much effort and practice, so much so that his Gujarati books have obtained the highest literary prizes. In 1978 he was awarded the Ranjitram Gold Medal, highest literary award in Gujarat, for the first and so far only time it was awarded to a foreigner. Before that he had been awarded the “Kumar Prize” for the best contribution to the best magazine. He wrote a weekly column in the main Gujarati daily, Gujarat Samachar. He won the government prize for the best book in the essay category on five consecutive years, so that a law was enacted that no writer could be awarded the prize more than five years.

We have seen one rainbow, that of the writer. We now turn to another, the mathematician. He graduated on 1953, introduced the “modern math” in the Gujarat University, wrote the first textbook on “Abstract Algebra”, and represented India at international mathematics congresses in Moscow, Exeter, Nice.

More rainbows. The priest, the Jesuit. He was ordained a priest on 1958, and is known since as Father Vallés. Once he refused permission to publish his articles to the editor of a magazine who was reluctant to print the word Father before his name (Rainbows 114).

Carlos Vallés, priest and Jesuit, expert on the Exercises he has directed countless times, master of discernment as we see in his book The Art of Choosing, defender of community life as we see in his first book in English and Spanish, Living Together, a book that has done so much good to so many religious. I looked up yesterday my copy of Living Together, and I realised how a Sister to whom I had lent it had filled it up with marginal notes which said: “How true!”, “Splendid!”, “Fantastic!”, and though she left my book much the worse for use, that gladdens me as a sign of how much good that book continues to do day by day.

His passion is to serve God and people, as the titles of his books proclaim: Sketches of God, Praying Together, Faith for Justice, Our Lady of Joy. About 20 books in English.

Something would be missing if we did not record the 10 years he spent living with families from house to house in his city of Ahmedabad. He writes: I took with me a bag with only essentials, got on my bike, and went to ask for hospitality from house to house in the old quarters of the city. The proverbial Indian hospitality opened for me the doors of family after family, and so I lived with them twenty-four hours a day, sharing their vegetarian meals, their floor to sleep at night, their closeness as a family member for a few days till I took my leave and knocked at another door. I went daily to the College to teach, but for the rest I fully stayed and lived with the family I lodged with for the week. Ten years that way. Maybe that is possible only in India.

That is what Fr Vallés did in his enthusiasm to promote mutual understanding, mutual appreciation and unity among people of different languages, cultures and religions. He also obtained several prizes for his work towards harmony among peoples, but I leave their names for another occasion as I find them impossible to pronounce.

Carlos Vallés, Spaniard in India, priest and Jesuit, writer and mathematician, has brought to us today his last book with the title: Christian Self-esteem We need that book. We need that medicine. We have to recognise our own value and the value of each human life. In his book Fr Vallés tells us about the value of the person, the importance to realise and accept one’s own value and uniqueness. Our faith helps our self esteem as it shows us coming from the hands of God in his image and likeness, but it also at times weakens it calling us sinners and inducing a guilt complex that threatens our self-esteem. The reaction against this complex in our days has lead many to ignore the concept of sin, and so the pendulum has swung from one end to the other. It is time to find the proper balance. (p. 100)

One of the chapters of the book is simply titled He loved me, quoting St Paul and establishing the principle that knowing and feeling ourselves to be loved by God is the basis of our self-esteem and our wellbeing.

Some years ago, Fr Vallés described in one of his books what the greatest happiness of the writer lies in. It is the thrill to nurse in mortal hands the printed miracle of a newborn book. There is no perfume in the world that can be compared for the writer with the deep fragrance of the printing ink on the first copy of his last book. (Rainbows, 102)

Let us then hope that many of you will share the perfume of the printed word in this book.

And now I ask Fr Carlos Vallés to speak to us all.

You tell me

Many of you have written to me about the “You Tell Me” of our last Web (March 1st) with Victor’s question about the growing gap between young people and the Church. How to bridge the gap, how to get them interested in religion, in the Bible, in the sacraments, how to come to Mass and not get bored in it. The question affects many of you, and not without reason.

The problem is complex and it concerns us all. Parents, teachers, catechists, religious. We all have to transmit, not with sermons but with our behaviour, with our interest, and with our joy the values of our faith, our liturgy, our doctrine, our Church.

When I was teaching mathematics at College I knew perfectly well that mathematics is not a popular subject and I tried to cheer up my students with examples, stories, applications, and above all with my own enthusiasm for the subject, as I have loved it and enjoyed it just as I love and enjoy putting up my Web now. Of course, that was not always easy (as the Web is not always easy to create either), and to do it I had to be convinced myself of the usefulness of what I taught, I had to prepare well my classes, and even so my classes went some times better than others. Some times the students came out of class jumping and dancing and telling me, “Today we had a grand time in class!” And other days when the bell went they just left the classroom without a word.

And soon I saw the equation, and this was truly a mathematical equation: when I enjoyed teaching, they enjoyed learning; and when I was bored in class, they were bored in class.

Understood?

Psalm

Psalm 9 – Prayer of the oppressed

“May the Lord be a tower of strength for the oppressed,
a tower of strength in time of need,
that those who acknowledge your name may trust in you;
for you, Lord, do not forsake those who seek you.”
I feel comforted when I read those words and I realize that the concern for the oppressed was already alive in the heart of those who first made and prayed the Psalms. The “cry of the poor” and “the hope of the destitute” ring in your ears ever since the verses of this Psalm first sounded in Israel. The prayer “do not forget the poor, O God, the poor commits himself to you” is the first prayer of your people, and your answer too is recorded in the same Psalm with prompt gratitude:

“You have heard the lament of the humble, O Lord,
and are attentive to their heart’s desire,
bringing justice to the orphan and the downtrodden,
that fear may never drive men from their homes again.”
And at the same time, Lord, I feel sad when I realize with unavoidable evidence that the situation that gave raise to that prayer obtains still today, that the oppression of human by human has not yet disappeared from the face of the earth, that there is still injustice and inequality and even slavery among the people you have created to be free. These are old words that are unfortunately all of them new:

“The wicked man in his pride hunts down the poor.
The wicked man is obsessed with his own desires,
and his greed gives wickedness his blessing;
arrogant as he is, he scorns the Lord
and leaves no place for God in all his schemes.
His mouth is full of lies and violence,
mischief and trouble lurk under his tongue.
He lies in ambush in the villages
and murders innocent men by stealth.”
Men and women are still murdered today, men and women are still driven from their homes, men and women still live in fear and in need. Your world is still marred by injustice, Lord, and your children suffer destitu­tion. And thoughtful mankind rises again with pain in its heart at the cry of the poor.

The urgency of the cry today is that “the wicked man” is no more an isolated individual. Oppression does not come from a single person whom authority could easily restrain. Oppression comes often from authority itself, from the group, from the system, from the vested and com­plex interests that greed and pride and power have woven into society today to the material advantage of a few and the abject dereliction of millions of your children. My prayer is deeper today as my anguish is wider, and I put a new heart into the words that you yourself inspired.

“Arise, Lord, set your hand to the task;
do not forget the poor.
The poor victim commits himself to you;
father­less, he finds in you his helper.
Break the power of wicked­ness and wrong;
hunt out all wickedness until you can find no more.”
Then I think deeper still, and I discover in myself the roots of wickedness. I too cause pain and suffering, I sense in myself the hapless brotherhood with the so called “wicked men”, and I recognize deep within me the same de­viations that when let loose bring about the misery the world deplores. I feel the tide of passions and greed and jealousy and lust, and I know I cause harm at times to people close to me. So when I pray for liberation I pray for myself too. Free me from the slavery of my impulses and the unfairness of my judgements. Remove from me the de­sire to dominate, to impose myself on others, to manipu­late and to rule. Still in me the craving for power, the in­stinct of ambition. Free me truly from all that harms others, that I may help them to be free. Remove the evil in me, and then through me in all those that come my way and I can influence in your name, so that we all may give you thanks and praise together.

“Have pity on me, O Lord,
Look upon my affliction,
You who have lifted me up
and caught me back from the gates of death;
that I may repeat all your praise
and exult at this deliverance in the gates of Zion’s city.”
in the gates of Zion’s city.”

Meditation

Angels in adoration

“Make a cover of pure gold two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. Make two gold cherubim of beaten work at the ends of the cover, one at each end; make each cherub of one piece with the cover. They are to be made with wings spread out and pointing upwards to screen the cover with their wings. They will be face to face, looking inwards over the cover. Place the cover on the Ark and put into the Ark the Testimony that I shall give you. It is there that I shall meet you; from above the cover, between the two cherubim over the Ark of the Testimony, I shall deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.”
(Exodus 25:17-22)Cherubim of solid gold. The best the earth has goes to represent the best the heavens give. Extended wings over the sacred Ark that is the symbol of Israel. Face to face in golden vigil of silent worship. That is the throne of the God of Israel, who will there appear to Moses to rule his people. “It is there that I shall meet you.”

Worship is the fundamental attitude of the human being before their Creator. Reverence, devotion, adoration. We feel familiarity, friendship, trust, closeness, of course, but without ever losing our attitude of radical respect, of utter submission, of unconditional surrender. Israel has its feasts and celebrations, its work and rest, its songs and dances, its wars and conquests; but in the midst of it all, as centre of its being and axis of its existence as a people, it has the Ark of the Testament in the Tent of the Presence. And over the Ark, the two gold Cherubim. There is its whole history.

In my life I also have multiple activities that fill up my day, and even in my spiritual life there are prayers and petitions and studies and readings and meetings and preachings, and all that is fine and it is necessary at its own time and in its due measure. But what I need most is the two gold Cherubim. The silence of the sanctuary, the mystery of the Presence, the value of gold, the posture of the Cherubim. The throne of the God of Israel in the midst of my heart. I need that throne because that is where he dwells, in the middle of the Cherubim he himself had drafted. Recollection, peace, worship. Inside me and for ever.

I need this inner sanctuary to receive in it, with the humility of my limitations and the poverty of my being, the blessing Moses received from God for his own life and for the leading of his people: “There I shall meet you.” The tryst among the gold Cherubim. Let me never miss it, Lord.

“When Moses entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking from above the cover over the Ark of the Testimony from between the two cherubim: the voice spoke to him.”
(Numbers 7:89)

1st
I tell you

This child is dying
[Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali young woman exiled in Kenya, accompanies a friend, Mahamud, to cross the frontier from Somalia to Kanya. Mahamud is going to fetch his family from Somalia to Kenya, and Ayaan accompanies him as she knows both Somali and Swahili, and is very skilful. They bribe a policeman at the frontier to let them go from Kenya to Somalia, with the promise to take them back in Kenia together with the other refugees.]

‘Mahamud urged me to move on, to find his family before sunset. We began to meet acquaintances who kept telling us: “Further back, they are further back.” Mahamud found Fadumo, his elder brother’s wife. She held Mahamud by the arm as though she wouldn’t let him go. The husband arrived running, barefoot. He still had his moustache and his thick eyebrows, but the rest of his body seemed to have disappeared in the hollows between his bones. He looked like a corpse. Mahamed and Fadumo with their four children looked at me as an angel from heaven.

Mahamed told us that Mahamud’s wife was close by, and that the children were well. He took hold of his brother’s arm and we began to walk. Mahamud’s wife saw him from far and started to run to meet him. When she reached him, she flung herself on his arms and began to cry.

That was the first time we were seeing a Somali couple express their affection in such a manner. They embraced tightly and caressed each other’s face without stopping crying. The children came running and held fast to them. It was a moment of real joy, intimate, and Mahamed and I turned round out of respect.

Si’eedo, Mahamud’s wife, still holding his arm, took us to the tree under which they were camping. Mahamud’s your sister, Marian, and her two children were sitting there. Marian’s elder daughter, just three years old, was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. But when I saw Marian’s small child, it looked as though there was nothing there, only a tiny human form, a few days old, hanging on to the dried up breast of her hungry mother. An undernourished baby has such physical proportions, his head much bigger than the rest of the body, that it is terrible to see. I thought that was the most horrible sight I had ever seen. At the same time I noticed in the child the pulse of life. It was fading away, but it was there. “We are going to save this baby; we have to cross the frontier with him”, I told Marian. She looked at me and told me: “Allah has given me this child, and if he so desires, Allah will take him away.”

She was a real follower of the Muslim Brotherhood, and seemed totally absent from whatever was happening. She thought Allah was testing her; she had to accept the child’s death if Allah willed it. To show bitterness or despair would be to fail the test. In fact it looked as though all were patiently waiting for the child to die in her bosom. And, why not? After all, all the other babies were also dying.

“We have to leave tomorrow”, – I told them. “We have to save this child.” They though I was purely sentimental, that I was stunned, and that this was my way of reacting before the death and the pain all around us. Maybe it was so. We boiled water to make tea, I let it cool down a little and gave Marian a glass for her child. When she brought it to his lips, these began to move. I proposed to Marian to give a name to the child, but she refused. She didn’t want to get attached to the child because she was ready to accept its death.

The night we slept on rugs and clothes spread out on the sand. Si’eedo made some kind of porridge out of sorghum with dirty water. They had nothing, not even salt. After that supper we slept under our shawls. In a way, it was quite comfortable; the sand was soft, and the air smelled as in Mogadiscio. Still, everybody had scabies and lice, and they warmed me I would get them too. There were lice all around the children’s necks, and there was I with my small sport bag, with a toothbrush and toothpaste, a change of underware and fresh clothes. It was a surrealistic situation.

We had to get back as fast as possible to the Kenya border before the police officer we had contacted on our way would forget us. We searched for him. We had told him we would come back with only another woman and four small children, but now we were herding a whole group of five women and twelve children, and maybe we hadn’t enough money to get all of them through.

We managed to pass and we reached Nairobi. The first thing I did was to take the child and his mother to the hospital. On arrival at reception I said: “This child is about to die.” The nurse looked up, saw him, and opened wide her eyes in fright. She took him and injected some serum into his arm, and very very slowly the slender figure seemed to unfold. After a while he opened his eyes. The nurse said: “The child will live.” But we had first to pay the bill at the reception desk. I asked where the director was, I found him – he was a middle aged Indian doctor – and I told him the story. I told him I could not pay the bill. The man took it and tore it. He said it didn’t matter. Then he explained me how I had to take care of the child and where to get serum, and we came back home.

In a few days the child began to put on weight, he changed from a living image of horror to a true child, alert, full of life. One night, at the time of supper, I said: “We must give the child a name.” He must have been about six weeks old. I had just said that when someone knocked at the door and a refugee came in, Mahamud’s small brother, a lad of eighteen whose name was Abbas. He shouted: “Let him have my name! Let him have my name!” So the child was called Abbas. He became everybody’s pet. A child without a father and without a future, who could have easily died, but who, by the grace of Allah, was now a treasure, joyful and charming, loved and protected by all of us. He must be an adolescent by now.”

(Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel, Galaxia Gutemberg, Barcelona 2006, p. 218)

The interpreter
[Ayaan found refuge in Holland, learned Dutch, and her first job was as interpreter from Somali to Dutch. She translated chiefly for Somali immigrants in search of asylum.]

‘I bought clothes to work as an interpreter, normal western clothes in place of the veils and kerchiefs I wore in Somalia. A black skirt down to my knees, a long fitting shirt, and shoes. My first assignment was interpreting for a Somali refugee seeking asylum in a police station. For me it was a transcendental occasion. I relived my own experience as seeking asylum, except that now, three years after, I was at the other end. The applicant was a man who gave me the once-over and asked me: “Are you the interpreter?” When I said yes, he laughed scornfully at me and said: “You are naked. I want a real interpreter.” I translated his words to the Dutch official, and he answered: “I decide who translates, not you.”

I was only a mechanical piece in the process, just as a typist. That quietened me. The Somali man’s contempt annoyed me, but I knew I had to learn to control my feelings if I wanted to become a professional. It was my work, a simple transaction, like packing goods in a factory. Later, the official handed me the form with the time I had worked and the amount to be paid to me. I went away touched.

For my second assignment I had to go to a welcome centre in Schalkhaar. I had to translate for a woman of the Galla ethnic group who had lived near Afgoye. The Hawiye fighters had captured her and had locked her up with other Galla women in a camp. They kept them there to rape them whenever they wanted, though they also forced them to cook, clean up, and gather firewood for the soldiers. When telling her story, the woman began to shake. She spoke in a very low voice, with short sentences, and when I tried to translate them I couldn’t keep back my tears.

That girl’s was a terrible story. She had become pregnant and had given birth to a child whom she always kept with her. One night, one of the Hawiye soldiers snatched the baby from her arms and threw it on the fire. He forced her to look while the child burned.

She was very thin. She said she was twenty-eight or twenty-nine, but she looked more than fifty. She spoke about the other Galla women with whom she had been kept. She could escape when a non-Hawiye group took charge of the camp. She did not know what had happened to the others.

I told the Dutch woman who conducted the interview: “Excuse me. I know I’m not doing it properly. I have begun this work only recently, and this shakes my heart. I need a minute to go and wash my face.” But when she looked up at me, I saw that she too was crying.

Two months later I went back to Schalkhaar for another assignment. The same officer, as soon as she saw me came close to me and told me that Galla woman had obtained refugee status. We smiled and congratulated each other. But by then I knew how many other had not obtained it.’

(p. 326)

Note: Ayaan Hirsi Ali became a deputy in the Dutch Parliament, lives now in America where she has received several international prizes, and is devoted to the cause of Muslim women. She has publicly rejected Islam, has harshly criticised her own people, and has even insulted the Prophet Mohammed in writing, which has not helped the cause of peace between religions. Another Somali immigrant in England, Rageh Omar, refers to his countrywoman in his book “Only Half of Me”, and says of her that “she has no right to represent a people she despises” (p. 209), and likens her, at the other end, to those who exploded the bombs in the London underground: “They represent the total rejection of the West, while she represents the total rejection of Islam.” (p. 60) Both stands are wrong. The future lies along mutual understanding, acceptation, appreciation, reconciliation. I quote a paragraph of Rageh Omar for balance:

“We, as a new generation of British Muslims, have to learn to speak about ourselves and our lives forcefully and honestly: to proclaim who we are. We need to explain how Islam as a living culture has changed from our parents’ generation to ours. We have to describe our lives, not just to non-Muslims, but to ourselves as well and to our parents who do not know the extent to which our outlook is different from theirs and how out sense of identity is being radically reshaped by forces they did not experience. We have to describe our lives to those who know next to nothing about Islam and yet are hungry for an honest and authentic representation of our faith and culture today and want to understand here we feel it belongs in the British experience. And, perhaps, most important of all, we need to explain why the many voices in national public life, in the news media, arts, parliament, the police forces, legal system and think tanks, who talk of ‘what is wrong with Islam’ so proprietorially, should stop speaking on our behalf. How strange that they would know the answer to the ‘Muslim problem’ when many Muslims are only now beginning to ask the right questions.” (p. 11)

Complaint

“Our Father in heaven,
why do you forget me?
My side too has been pierced,
but you don’t look at me!”

(Gabriela Mistral)

You tell me

You fairly often tell me your troubles and sufferings, and ask me for a kind word in your trial. A marriage partner dies, a son is in hospital, a marriage breaks down, depression sets in. I always read slowly, pause for a while, let myself feel close to the distant feeling, read the message again, remain looking at it on the screen, type my answer, and send it with a kiss and a prayer. Apart from personal details that are unique in each case, the main ideas I profess and express are the following. I summed them up here, not as a general answer for all, but as a personal reflection for each one. And I will go on answering every one.

1. Living the present. Here is where the much recommended practice yields its fruit. Living day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Awareness. Contact. Being present to life at each moment. Not getting stuck at the first ditch. Living the past to God’s mercy, the future to his providence, and living totally, definitely, committedly the present. Moving with life.

2. Getting busy. Work, office, study, home, family. Empty hands lead to an idle mind which is then besieged by the recent sorrow. A body and a mind on the move quickly recover life.

3. Seeking friends. Not precisely in order to speak about the pain, which once known and shared need not be talked about again and could even be counter-producing and reopen the wound, but simply to be with them, to feel their support, to open up to life with them, to keep the flow.

4. Not complaining to God. Why this? Why now? Why me? There is no why. Ask no explanations. From anyone. Do not compare yourself to anyone.

5. To acknowledge that life is hard. I have read autobiographies so full of pain that they have torn my soul. And I myself have suffered, both in young and in old age, family sorrows beyond description. I do not set myself up as a victim, but I assert my right to speak of suffering because I have suffered. Thus I have acquired the right to answer those who tell me: “Of course, everything has turned out right in your life, so that you can easily be joyful.” Much has turner out right in my life, yes, but much has turned out wrong, and I find consolation in thinking that my witnessing to joy in life has now a greater credibility precisely because it does not come from levity but from reality, quite hard at times.

6. Faith. To know that, through shadows and sorrows, there is Someone who knows I am suffering, and who loves me. To feel his hand holding mine, his eyes meeting mine in the darkness, his step accompanying my steps. As he has always done. Even if at this moment we are both silent. Dark night of the soul. That is the way for faith to grow.

7. Smiling. Gently to outline a smile, to lift up my eyes, to quieten my face. This is no oriental fad, no superficial trick, no psychological escape. It is plain wisdom. A smile in pain is worth a thousand prayers in easy days. It does good to the soul. And a smiling face lights up life.

8. Time. The great healer. Even if the person who has now been hit by suffering refuses to believe it and proclaims that their suffering is different and will never subside. The wound, if kept clean, heals. Before what we thought.

9. I have an idea for which I have no proof but of which I am fully convinced, that is that in this life, between birth and death, even before eternity, pleasant and unpleasant events balance out in the end. So, when I’m under the weather, I think that soon I’ll be under sunshine, and that helps me. Rhythms of life, day and night, the seasons of the year, the phases of the moon, the fat cows and the lean cows, the wheel of samsara as we say in India. Or the karma of our actions that levels out our behaviour and its consequences. Or maybe the cherished heritage of my father St Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises: “Let those who are under desolation think that consolation will come soon.” Though, of course, he adds: “Let those under consolation think how they will react to the desolation that will ensue.” Ups and owns. Patience and humour.

Smile, please.O

Psalm

Psalm 10 – The courage to live

“When foundations are undermined,
what can the good man do?”
Today I feel again that black mood that steals its way some times into my heart under cover of night. The desire to run away from it all, to give up on life, to resign from my job as a man in which I have been such a signal failure. I am just tired, Lord, tired in the inside of my bones, and my only desire is to lie down and let things be. I am tired of fighting, of dreaming, of hoping, of living. Allow me to sit in a corner, and let the world go its way, once I am free for ever from my responsibility to do anything about it. Your own Psalm says it: “When foundations are undermined, what can the good man do?”

I don’t even feel like praying, like saying anything, like thinking anything at all. Neither do I want today to argue with you, to protest, to get answers to my questions. I simply have no questions, or no heart to ask them or even to think what they are. I only know that my dreams have not worked, that the world has not changed, and that I myself have not changed into the right kind of man I wanted to be. Nothing has worked, and why should I care any more? I want to quit, I want to give up, I want to step aside and let things pass as they want to pass, and not a word from me.

And yet as I speak to you I know that my words mean exactly the opposite of what they say. I am speaking out my despair because I want to hope, I am tendering my resigna­tion because I want to keep working. I know I want to stay, and I know I want to fight. My words now are only the blowing up of the cover of my disappointment that had grown thick with overdrawn patience, and had to burst once for all to give way to cleaner feelings and kinder moods. I will not run away. My existence may or may not make any difference to the world, but my place is here and I mean to keep it and defend it and honour it. I will never run away. It is not in my nature, not in my ways, and if I have allowed that foul mood to come over me, and I have allowed myself to express it, that is precisely because I wanted to come out of it, and I knew that the best way to defeat it was to expose it. It takes courage to live, but that courage comes readily when I think of you and look at you by my side.

The Psalm begins with the cowardly advice, “Fly away to the mountains!” And it ends with the word of faith: “The face of the Lord is turned towards the upright man.” I will not fly away.

Meditation

Angels in adoration

You fairly often tell me your troubles and sufferings, and ask me for a kind word in your trial. A marriage partner dies, a son is in hospital, a marriage breaks down, depression sets in. I always read slowly, pause for a while, let myself feel close to the distant feeling, read the message again, remain looking at it on the screen, type my answer, and send it with a kiss and a prayer. Apart from personal details that are unique in each case, the main ideas I profess and express are the following. I summed them up here, not as a general answer for all, but as a personal reflection for each one. And I will go on answering every one.

1. Living the present. Here is where the much recommended practice yields its fruit. Living day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Awareness. Contact. Being present to life at each moment. Not getting stuck at the first ditch. Living the past to God’s mercy, the future to his providence, and living totally, definitely, committedly the present. Moving with life.

2. Getting busy. Work, office, study, home, family. Empty hands lead to an idle mind which is then besieged by the recent sorrow. A body and a mind on the move quickly recover life.

3. Seeking friends. Not precisely in order to speak about the pain, which once known and shared need not be talked about again and could even be counter-producing and reopen the wound, but simply to be with them, to feel their support, to open up to life with them, to keep the flow.

4. Not complaining to God. Why this? Why now? Why me? There is no why. Ask no explanations. From anyone. Do not compare yourself to anyone.

5. To acknowledge that life is hard. I have read autobiographies so full of pain that they have torn my soul. And I myself have suffered, both in young and in old age, family sorrows beyond description. I do not set myself up as a victim, but I assert my right to speak of suffering because I have suffered. Thus I have acquired the right to answer those who tell me: “Of course, everything has turned out right in your life, so that you can easily be joyful.” Much has turner out right in my life, yes, but much has turned out wrong, and I find consolation in thinking that my witnessing to joy in life has now a greater credibility precisely because it does not come from levity but from reality, quite hard at times.

6. Faith. To know that, through shadows and sorrows, there is Someone who knows I am suffering, and who loves me. To feel his hand holding mine, his eyes meeting mine in the darkness, his step accompanying my steps. As he has always done. Even if at this moment we are both silent. Dark night of the soul. That is the way for faith to grow.

7. Smiling. Gently to outline a smile, to lift up my eyes, to quieten my face. This is no oriental fad, no superficial trick, no psychological escape. It is plain wisdom. A smile in pain is worth a thousand prayers in easy days. It does good to the soul. And a smiling face lights up life.

8. Time. The great healer. Even if the person who has now been hit by suffering refuses to believe it and proclaims that their suffering is different and will never subside. The wound, if kept clean, heals. Before what we thought.

9. I have an idea for which I have no proof but of which I am fully convinced, that is that in this life, between birth and death, even before eternity, pleasant and unpleasant events balance out in the end. So, when I’m under the weather, I think that soon I’ll be under sunshine, and that helps me. Rhythms of life, day and night, the seasons of the year, the phases of the moon, the fat cows and the lean cows, the wheel of samsara as we say in India. Or the karma of our actions that levels out our behaviour and its consequences. Or maybe the cherished heritage of my father St Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises: “Let those who are under desolation think that consolation will come soon.” Though, of course, he adds: “Let those under consolation think how they will react to the desolation that will ensue.” Ups and owns. Patience and humour.

Smile, please.

 

15th
I tell you

Two brothers
[The Japanese writer Kiyohiro Miura describes in his book “He’s Living Home, My Young Son becomes a Zen Monk” the vocation of his son, Ryota, to become a Zen monk: his son’s first attraction towards the monastery and the life of the monks when still a small child, his own paternal reaction, “when you grow up”, the boy’s perseverance, his answer to his father’s efforts to dissuade him:]

– If you become a monk you’ll have to sweep, to mop, to wash up. That’s heavy work. Do you really want to become a monk?
– Aja, aja.

[That, apparently, means yes.]
“As the years at school went by – forth, fifth, sixth form – I kept asking him about the matter, but his answer never varied: ‘Aja, aja.’ No more” (p. 11)

“The strangest thing was to see how this son of mine, who was always restless and was even the leader of the troublesome group at school, became quite a different person in the temple. (12)

“When I observe him while he is sitting in the car by my side as though he were driving, listening all the time to his walkman, I ask myself what is it that prompted him to become a monk. Does he think they’ll allow him to drive a car listening to his walkman? Not likely” (29)
“I had thought much about what I wanted Ryota to be when he grew up. At the beginning I thought he would be an actor or a jazz musician, as he loved to twist his body and express rhythm. He enjoyed playing the drums on School Day. Then I fancied him working in a bank or a commercial firm, as a shop owner or a clerk, but none of the jobs seemed to me sufficiently good for him.” (29)

“I imagined him walking on our street with a monk’s dress and a shaven head. If any of the women in our neighbourhood sees him, she will be shocked. And gossip will begin. They will say: ‘Till now he was such a nice lad with his bright sport shirt, his white trousers and his blue sneakers! It must be that he had a bad karma and he has been forced to become a monk’.” (32)

“He’ll come to see us, will stand at the door of our house, and bowing down as a guest will say in a low voice as the monks are taught to speak: ‘Mother and father, please, forgive this temporary inconvenience.’ And when we’ll ask him about his health, all that we’ll get out of him will be manual answers like: ‘Fine.’ ‘Normal.’ And what to say of the strict discipline and the austere way of life that will be imposed upon him? Everything looks so impossible.” (32)

The young man enters the monastery. “Take good care of him, please.” (45)

– Father, you have looked after me for a long time. Thank you.
– Mother, you have looked after me for a long time. Thank you.

“My wife had red eyes. When I looked at him in his white robe, I felt he had gone to a world beyond our reach.” (49)
“Tears pushed to come out. I caught myself thinking I had not to worry about how things developed; bygones were bygones, what had been done had been well done and everything would be fine. That was my mind’s effort to still all remaining doubts and uncertainties. (63)

[The novice’s father resents the fact that they change his son’s surname. But he puts up with it.] (64)

“They even returned to us the money his grandparents had sent for him on the New Year. ‘Give it back to them, and tell them, please, that they must not do such a thing again.’ Well, I tried, but it is not easy to give back New Year money.” (73)
“Ever since he shaved his head in the ordination ceremony I knew his way would be different from ours. That’s why in the ceremony I just looked without saying a single word. Our feelings towards him would not change so long as we lived.” (79)
“The only thing that matters is that our son be a good human being. He will never come back home.” (93)

“Mi wife was by my side on the balcony. She told me: ‘We are not going to be depressed for life. I have decided to take my own life in hand. And, as you say, we’ll look ahead.’ She lifted her hands. For a moment I thought she was pointing at the future, since we were talking about it. Then, looking down, I saw a figure skirting the camphor trees in and out through the forest. It was Rie, dressed in a blue blouse and a white chequered skirt with matching socks. Rie, our daughter, all that was now left to us, our small daughter, though now not so small, joy of our life and hope for our future. She must have been coming back from school with her cloth bag full of books. My wife had gone to the balcony to wait for her, and it was to her that she was waiving with raised hands. Recently she seemed to dedicate herself more and more to look after Rie.
While she walked, our daughter looked up. She looked like my wife when she was young. Dark eyes and eyebrows, sharp features, quick step. From the conscious and formal way she moved her back I realised she had grown up. She has now the age our son had when he entered the monastery.
Standing there by my wife, and observing Rie’s movements, I began to think that it might just be the time had come for our daughter too to enter a monastery.” (104)

[This is the last line of the last paragraph in the last page of the book. It stunned me. It took me unawares. I was not ready for it. The whole book goes on describing slowly, delicately, painfully, all the sufferings of the parents who see their son leaving for the monastery for life…, and at the end it shakes us with the revelation that now they are wishing the same for their daughter. Was that just a fictionalised end for a nice story?]

The year 1949 I was at the Madrid airport about to take the plane that would take me to my appointment as a missionary to India. We were twenty-four companions, all young, enthusiastic, thrilled with our missionary vocation. Our parents had come to bid us farewell. In those days the Far East missionary went away for life, never to come back. We took leave of one another till heaven. Quite a feast of tears held back. One of my companions, José Javier Aizpún, a very bright and promising young man, was taking leave from his parents in the presence of the Father Provincial, Fernando Arellano, who was the one responsible for his appointment to India. Father Provincial asked the missionary’s father how he felt about his son leaving him. He answered: “Only I know what I feel when taking leave of my son José Javier. But I accept your decision and God’s will. And something more. My smaller son, Miguel, is also already with you in the Loyola Jesuit noviciate. If you want, you can also send him in the future to India. You have my acceptance.” Father Provincial rose to the occasion and answered at once: “From this moment he is appointed to India. You can tell your son Miguel that next year he will go to India.” That was how two great missionaries went to India.” No fiction.

Let his coming show

“In 1777, Master Reb Menajem of Vitebsk founded a Hasidic community in Tiberias where hopes for the coming of the Messiah were cherished. A few months later a joker went up to the Mount of Olives (from where, according to tradition, the Messiah will appear when he comes) and sounded loudly the shofar, the ram’s horn, what people at once interpreted as the announcement of the arrival of the Messiah. The news spread fast through the land, and the expectation grew everywhere. Everybody become obsessed with the news of the coming of the Messiah.

When the news reached Tiberias, Reb Menajem’s Hassidim run to give the news to their Master. ‘Master! The shofar has sounded on the Mount of Olives! The Messiah has come!” The disciples expected their Master to jump for joy, but they were surprised to see him keep his calm.

After a while he said: ‘If the Messiah has arrived, it will soon show.’ And he stayed where he was.”

(Rabi Rami Shapiro, Cuentos jasídicos anotados y explicados, Sal Térrea 2005, p. 93)

Let it show. In ouselves. In all.

You tell me

Many of you have written again about the way the young are going farther and farther away from the Church, particularly in the matter of receiving the sacraments. I like the way you have accepted and stressed what I, talking mathematics, called the “equation” between the professor who enjoys teaching and the students who enjoy learning… and just the same when the professor does not enjoy teaching! I quote three letters:

1. “The equation image is a good one. I have taught both adults and young children. When I am truly engaged in and animated by my subject matter, the students always respond. So it is in the church. I am a ‘convert’ to Christianity and finally to the Roman Catholic faith tradition. Sad to say, in the past 30 years of going to Mass, I can remember only a handful of priests who were truly animated by what was happening at the Table of the Lord. Too much seems to be taken for granted, as the worshipping community is a captive audience. I see this happening with young people in our school liturgies. They need to be animated.”

2. “I was a catechist with young people and encouraged them to go to Mass and to live it in the best possible way. I strived to give an example. Then many things happened. I hardly ever go now for Mass (I am 29). I don’t feel guilty, only a little nostalgic. If I have children I don’t know what I will teach them about devotions and sacraments.”

3. “I fully agree with your equation. I am a teacher of Economics in Argentina and my experience is the same as yours. When I began to link economics with ethics, politics, values behind our theories, the students took a much livelier interest in the classes. The same happens to our religion. There are priests…, and ‘priests’. Some bore you and some charm you. The curious thing is that they all preach the same gospel. The same thing happens with us, lay people, who are also responsible for whatever happens in the Church. If our children do not see us reading the Word, attending Mass with a will, pray, go for retreats, we’ll continue to be mediocre Catholics. Catholics of baptism, first communion, marriage, and anointing of the sick just in case. In Latin America we have miles and miles with one language and one religion, and it is sad to see the Church faring so badly.”

Yes, we are all in it. Whatever is repeated again and again, however sacred it may be, is open to routine, and we accept that in the humility of our human condition. What does vary at each Mass is the Word of God proclaimed in it. Listening to it in each Mass as addressed to us, putting away memories or interpretations of the past, thinking of the hours awaiting us, discerning the light it throws on them, following directions, marching ahead under the strength of the Bread for the Way…, that is the way to bring our daily Eucharist to life.

Psalm

Psalm 11 – Word of God and human wordsI live in a universe of words, and I feel the tedium and the disgust of listening the whole day to words that mean nothing or mean the opposite of what they say, to words that flatter and to words that threaten, to words that entice and to words that cheat. The compliment, the excuse, the simulation, and the plain lie. I never know whether I can trust what I hear or believe what I read. I feel always uneasy before the boast of deceitful people that your own psalm has recorded:

“Our tongue can win the day;
words are our ally; who can master us?”
And then I turn to your Word. Your Word, Lord, is one and firm and eternal and creative. In the pages of your Book, in the silence of my heart, in the songs of your liturgy and in the incarnation of your Son: your Word is one and true and alive. In the contemplation of your Word I rest and refresh myself from the weariness of cowing down under the words of human language.

“The words of the Lord are pure words;
silver refined in a crucible,
gold seven times purified.”

Thanks for the gold, Lord.

Meditation

The cheering angel

“The angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and said, ‘The Lord is with you, valiant fighter’.”
(Judges 6:12)Can I apply that passage to myself? Can I imagine my angel too calling me “valiant fighter”? I don’t think so, as I am no fighter and no brave person, and I don’t deserve that compliment from an angel’s lips. Gideon was a born leader and a strong warrior with the courage and the imagination to defeat with only three hundred men the Midianite army whose soldiers were “swarming like locusts, and their camels were past counting”. Nothing to do with me.

Though maybe a little bit could still be said of me. I keep on reading, I see Gideon’s feelings, and I do see myself reflected in them, while my love and my sorrow for the Church are also prefigured in his love and his sorrow for his people. Gideon answered the angel:

“Pray, Yahweh, if the Lord really is with us, why has all this happened to us? What has become of all those wonderful deeds of his, of which we have heard from our forefathers, when they told us how the Lord brought us up from Egypt? But now the Lord has cast us off and delivered us into the power of the Midianites.” (Judges 6:13)

Pray, my Lord, is now my turn to say. What has become of all those wonderful deeds you carried out in your people and in your Church, your deeds that made us great before the whole world and strong and united among ourselves? The Church is losing credibility, the distance between what we preach and we practice is increasing, vocations for the priesthood and for religious life are dwindling, holy teachings are ignored and cult and sacraments are abandoned, we now look more like clerks in an office than believers in a family. You have abandoned us, Lord, you have given us into the hands of Midian.

I feel that pain in my heart because I love the Church and I see her life weakening before my eyes. I am a child in the people of God as was Gideon, son of Joash the Abiezrite, who longed to destroy the altars of Baal in order to restore the cult of Yahweh. If I am not a “valiant fighter”, I try at least to be a humble witness and to speak of my sorrow and voice my affliction, thus contributing with the weak sound of my voice to wake up and to strengthen Christian conscience to build up conviction, reach up to structures of power and be heard. This too is a way to win battles and to continue salvation history. All of us who feel that pain give witness with it to our love of the Church. And we find consolation, in the darkness of our faith, in the summary of Gideon’s history we find in the Book of Judges: “Gideon did much good to Israel”.

Thanks to the angel who cheered him up. Cheer me up today, good angel.

1st
I tell you

Autobiographies teach us much – which is why I love them – and when a son (Jean Renoir) tells the life of his own father (simply Renoir), the book becomes his autobiography and his father’s biography, with enhanced value. Besides, he tells his story with charm and wit. Renoir was genial as a painter, and no less genial as a person. He has inspired me. Some strokes of the brush:

“My father confirmed to me the anecdote of the art critic who stood at his back when he was painting, observed carefully his sketches and would tell him: ‘You are very skilful and very gifted indeed, but it would seem that you only paint to enjoy yourself.’ ‘Of course – answered my father – If I didn’t enjoy myself, I wouldn’t paint!’
(Renoir, Mi Padre, Alba, Barcelona 2007, p. 103)

“Cèzzane had given up hopes to get the knowledgeable people interested in his work. He went on painting, relying on ‘posterity, which does not err’. One day he arrived in a glorious mood at the atelier my father shared with Monet. He burst out: ‘Someone likes me!’ Cèzzane was coming back on foot from Saint-Lazare railway station, after a search for models in Saint-Nom-la-Brètèche, with his umbrella under his arm. A young man stopped him and asked him to show him the picture. Cèzzane propped the frame against the wall of a house, at the shade to avoid reflections. The unknown young man burst into praise, particularly when he saw the green colour on the trees. ‘One can feel cool under their shadow!’ Cèzzane, on the spot: ‘If you like my trees, take them.’ ‘I cannot pay for them.’ Cèzzane insisted and the young man left with the picture under his arm, leaving the painter as happy as he himself was.” (111)

“My father and his painter friends were realising that the world, even under its most trivial aspects, is constant magic. ‘Give me an apple tree in a garden of our suburbs. It is enough and more than enough for me! Why do I need the Niagara Falls?’” (120)

“When my father painted, whatever he was painting took possession of him in such a way that he did not see or hear anything happening around him. Once Monet run out of cigarettes and asked him for some. As he was not answering, Monet searched in his pocket where he knew my father kept his tobacco. His beard tickled my father’s cheek, so he looked at the face so close to him without showing and kind of surprise. ‘Oh, that’s you’, he murmured and went on painting without the least interruption. The same happened in the Fontainebleau forest with animals. Deer and stags are as curious as human beings. They had got used to that quiet visitor, almost motionless before the easel and whose gestures seemed to caress the canvas. For a long time my father did not even suspect their presence. When he stood back to watch a detail, there was a stampede. The touch of their hoofs on the grass in one of those retreats alerted him to the company of those animals. They were literally on his back.” (122)

“One day he exclaimed: ‘We also paint for the unknown passer-by who stops before the shop-window of an art dealer and feels an instant of pleasure when looking at one of our paintings!’” (152)
[I smile. Renoir painted for me too.]

“Another companion for his evenings at Saint-Georges Street was Lhote. He worked at the Havas Agency, and would come to see my father because he loved paintings. My father felt a genuine friendship for that man so different from himself. Lhote paid him back with unstinting devotion. They travelled together several times, once to the Island of Jersey in England, where they stayed several weeks, the one of them painting, and the other looking at him while he painted and making advances to the pretty models at the atelier. They were staying at the house of an English pastor. Lhote was very short-sighted. One day, while he was teasing the pastor’s daughter, a lovely eighteen-year blonde, she pushed him in jest so that his spectacles fell off and he could not find them. He felt his way to the next room to ask my father for help in finding them. He was taking a cup of coffee with the pastor. The room was dark and Lhote was just purblind. The pastor stood up to help him. Lhote stumbled upon him, and thought he was his daughter. He pressed him tenderly against himself and started kissing him passionately thinking he was the daughter. The good man was taken aback and could only repeat: ‘Please, please, mister Lhote, in England we men do not kiss among ourselves.’ The next day, the pastor’s daughter took Lhote to a corner in the garden and kissed him straight on his lips telling him: ‘Don’t you think this is more pleasurable than with my father?’” (171)

“My father discovered the world again and again, each minute in his existence, every time his lungs were filled with fresh air. He could paint a hundred times the same girl, the same bunch of grapes; every new try was for him a revealed marvel. [He literally painted hundred of times his son Jean who writes the story.] The greater part of adults has ceased to discover the world. They believe they know it and they stick to appearances. But appearances are explored quickly. Hence that plague of modern societies, boredom. Children do live renewed wonders. An unexpected expression in their mother’s face suggests to them the existence of an infinity of mysterious thoughts, of hidden sensations. My father liked children so much because he shared with them that capacity for endless curiosity.” (189)

“One day I was drudgingly trying to play a Mozart sonata at first sight. My father interrupted me with some worry in his voice: ‘Whose is that piece?’ ‘Mozart’s.’ ‘That sets me at peace. I like it. But for a moment I thought it was by that idiot, Beethoven.’ When I showed him my surprise at his adjective, he explained: ‘Beethoven speaks of himself in an indecent way. He does not spare us his sentimental sorrows neither his bad digestions. I feel like telling him: “And what do I care if you are deaf?’” (204)

“My father told this anecdote in his notes: ‘One of my friends was presented with a picture of a well-known painter, and he was proud of possessing a masterpiece in his house and showed it to his friends with pleasure. One day he came to my house… bursting with joy. He just confessed that till that morning he had not understood why that picture was supposed to be a masterpiece, that he had only repeated what he had heard and just praise the picture. But that day he had suddenly seen its beauty. My friend at last began to enjoy it.” (225)

“Another note: ‘I will not leave a single day without painting. Or at least, drawing. The hand has to be kept in shape.’” (244)

“Another: ‘When you see Velázquez, you feel like not painting any more. You realise everything already has been said!’” (260)

“The idea of going to a clinic for delivery shocked Frenchmen at the time. The child had to be born surrounded by all the sensations, the smells, the noises of the family. Its brain, still tender, had to fit in with the habits or even the shortcomings and the superstition of its own. A child that would enter into contact with the world through the cold advantages of a clinic would run the risk to become an anonymous being without inheriting mummy’s headaches and daddy’s wanderlust. My father was in favour of births at home because the clinics seem to him ugly. ‘To open one’s eyes for the first time and to see a whitewashed wall, what a disaster!’” (263)

“He never punished me for behaving badly while I was sitting for a portrait. Though God knows I behaved very badly countless times! He used to say: ‘If I punish him he’ll feel bad about coming to the atelier. Don’t tell him anything!’ When I had behaved properly, and my father, thanks to my good behaviour, had advanced much in the portrait, he did not want me to get any reward for that. He hated the idea of converting a child’s life into a constant competition to get prizes for his endeavour. He didn’t want me to get money for having performed a task. To do someone a favour with the hope of getting a recompense looked infamous to him. ‘They come to know only too soon that money exists.’ He would have liked that we should never get it into our heads that things like help to one’s neighbour, friendship, love, could be sold. Later on, in the boarding, following the example of some of my companions who did ‘business’ I sold a pencil to one of them. I showed off about it at home as I felt proud to have understood that that was the rule the world followed. To my surprise, I barely escaped a beating. I had to give back the money to the buyer, and on top of that I had to give him a gun that my godfather Georges had just presented to me. This fear to see us turned into ‘businessmen’, added to what we knew about the generosity and the frugality of our father imprinted in our minds the decisive notion of the relativity of all values based on money.” (380)

“Another difference between me and my classmates was their attitude with respect to sexual matters. To see photographs of naked women placed them in a state of excitement that I could not understand. They loaned them to each other and they locked themselves up in the lavatories to contemplate them for long whiles. Some of them masturbated ferociously before those representations of a very earthly, though distant, paradise. The priests increased the interest for such pictures by searching for them, taking them away, and punishing their owners. I didn’t know what to think. Ever since I was born I had been seeing my father painting naked women, and that situation was totally natural for me. My indifference in the matter gained me the reputation of an expert in it, a reputation I did not deserve because I saw no mystery in that. Since very early childhood I knew that children were not born on cabbages. I was unspeakably innocent.” (400)

“My father knew corruption to be inherent to power; worse than that, stupidity to be inherent to power. Ever since I can remember, my father distanced himself from whatever was official, even from whatever was organised. He accepted the existence of governments, railway companies, newspapers and Academies of Art. He also accepted rain. But, apart from the raining soaking him, he preferred to forget its existence, as he forgot his rheumatism when it did not torment him. As soon as a committee would be formed and some gentlemen in hard collars gathered round a table with a green cloth for discussions, my father did not any more believe in the device.” (404)

“The more unbearable his suffering was in his last days, the more my father painted. His nights were terrible. He was so thin that the slightest rubbing of the sheets caused him bedsores. He could barely hold anything in his hand except the brush. ‘I can’t even scratch myself.’ He went on painting from his wheelchair. We had to handle him the brushes. ‘This one…, no…, that one…’. He came to paint with the brush tied to his arm. He stretched out his arm and damped the brush in turpentine essence. Even that little gesture hurt him. He waited for a few seconds, as though he were asking himself: ‘Is this not too much trouble? Why not to give up?’ A look at the scene of the painting would give him back his courage. He smiled and winked an eye to make us witnesses of his relationship to that grass, those olive trees, that model and his own person. In a moment he would be humming a tune while painting. Thus a happy day began again for him, as marvellous as the previous one or the next one.” (437)

“He could not leave the dormitory due to a lung infection. He asked for the colours and the brushes and painted some anemones Nénette, our charming maid, had fetched for him. During several hours he identified with those flowers and forgot his suffering. Then he made a sign as though to ask us to take his brush away and said: ‘I think I am beginning to understand something.’ That night he died.” (439)

You tell me

Jorge M. Alemán sends me this Decalogue for old people. I’ve answered him I do call myself an old man and I do it with pride, and I wouldn’t quite contemplate calling myself young… given the ways of our young people now… with apologies and love for all of them. I’m over eighty and feel happy about it. It has its advantages. (1) I can die at ease. (2) When I’m asked to do something that does not please me I can answer: “Leave me alone! I’m eighty!” (3) I can speak freely without jeopardising my future. Life begins at eighty!

1. Take care the way you look daily. Dress up, be spotless clean, put on your best clothes as though going to a feast. The Feast of Life!

2. Do not lock yourself up in your house or in your room. No question of playing the cloistered monk or the voluntary convict. Go out on to the street and walk in the park.

3. Though shalt love physical exercise as yourself. A time of exercising, a vigorous walk inside or outside the house. Never walk looking at the ground or in small steps.

4. Avoid the postures or gestures of a defeated old man. A hanging head, a bent back, shuffling feet, dirty clothes. Never! Let people compliment you as you pass along.

5. Never believe yourself to be older or weaker than you really are. Nobody wants to hear stories about sicknesses, maladies, hospitals. Stop calling yourself old and considering yourself sick. Take as few medicines as you can and trust Life.

6. Though shalt foster optimism above all things. Be positive in your judgements, good humoured in your words, smiling in your face, pleasing in your gestures. Age is not a matter of years, it is a state of mind.

7. Try to make yourself useful to yourself and to others. Even necessary. Help others with your example, with your joy, with your smile, with a piece of advice, with a pat of encouragement.

8. Work with your hands and with your mind. Work is the best medicine against boredom. Any activity, any hobby, any work lengthens out life.

9. Keep all your human relationships alive, in and out of your home. You have the chance to live with people of all ages, children, young people, adults, a perfect sample of life. Then you will listen to your friends talk, provided those friends are not exclusively old people as you. Fly antiquaries!

10. Thou shalt not think old times were better. Stop condemning the world around you and cursing the present times. Be happy to be your age!

Psalm

Psalm 12 – How long, O Lord?

“How long…, how long…, how long…?”The one cry of my thirsting soul. How long still to go, how long to wait, how long to strive? How long till I learn how to pray, how long till I master my temper, how long till I achieve peace, maturity and grace? I have been so many years at it, Lord, so many efforts, so many retreats, so many resolutions, so many timetables along the way to better myself, to become a genuine help to others, to be one with you…, so many dates have passed and so many occasions have gone by that you will understand if I grow impatient and wonder and question, how long still for me to go?

“How long, O Lord, how long?”I am longing for a future date, for a sizable gain, for a final breakthrough. I have heard of “conversion”, “illumination”, “samadhi”, or “satori”, which are words we use to describe the experience of finding you or finding ourselves, the decisive step that liberates us while on this earth, that opens our soul to you and our arms to all people, that makes us new and whole and free and true. I know that there is a moment of grace in the lives of men and women when heavens open and a voice is heard and the wings of a dove flutter above, and a whole life is changed, a new vision is open, and we go forward for ever in the strength of the Spirit. I am still in the queue by the side of the Jordan.

“How long, O Lord, how long?”And then I hear your answer. Why to ask, how long? Don’t you realise that I am already with you, that tomorrow is today, that the future is now, that your life is already working and grace is active in you, that the world is redeemed and the Kingdom has come? Grace is the present, and victory is here. Don’t dream of future days, enjoy the present morning. Appreciate what you possess and work with what you have. You are already free; show it to yourself and to the world, and you will have made your contribution today to the freedom of humankind. Learn the secret: to achieve liberation is to know that you are free. My Son has died for your freedom, and I have accepted his death raising him from the dead. If you believe in his death and resurrection, you believe in your own liberation: proclaim your faith by making it show in your life.

Yes, I believe. I have already received the Holy Spirit, and his gifts are with me. I see now that I have to combine in my heart the two living movements of longing and accepting, of thanking the Spirit for his presence and praying daily “Come Holy Spirit”, of prizing what I have and hoping for more, of living the present and welcoming the future, of rejoicing in the fullness I have and foreseeing the new fullness I am to receive, of earth and heaven, of promise and fulfilment, of time and eternity.

You understand my double mood, Lord, my longing and my resting, my satisfaction and my desire, my contentment and my impatience. Indeed, you cause them both, as you want me to ask and to thank, to feel happy with what I have, and to expect even more from you. You will have both my prayers, Lord, as I leave both my moods to play on me.

That is the living lesson I learn in a Psalm that begins by crying, “How long?”, and ends by proclaiming,

“My heart shall rejoice
for you have set me free.
I will sing to the Lord
who has granted all my desire.”

So will I too, Lord, with all my heart.

Meditation

The Angel and his name

“Manoah asked the angel of the Lord ‘What is your name? For we shall want to honour you when your words come true.’ The angel of the Lord said to him, ‘How can you ask my name? It is a name of wonder.’”
(Judges 13:17-18)Knowing someone’s name is having some power over them. The name reveals the person, the identity, the lineage. And the more we delve into the mystery of being and we approach God, source of all that is, the scarcer the names become. Silence in words accompanies the mystery of faith.

The angels do not reveal their names. Only Raphael and Gabriel do it when presenting due credentials as official ambassadors. All the other angels keep silent, and we will do well to honour their silence. I understand that respect before my angel is a condition for closeness. We want familiarity and trust and intimacy, but also reverence and distance and mystery. I never ask him his name. I study theological treatises on angels, I let loose my imagination, I draw sketches in my mind: but I do not entertain whims, air fantasies or indulge in levity. I feel sad when I see some people trespassing on this. Friendship with angels is not forced with overbearing cheek, but merited with respect and dignity. Our angel’s trust is not obtained by asking his name but by being sensitive and well-mannered enough not to ask him for it. The name keeps the mystery.

Wanting to know everything may land us at the end into knowing nothing. An initial curiosity opens us to knowledge, while an ill-mannered inquiry closes down its doors for us. The world of the spirit keeps zealously its mystery. The angels tell us what is necessary, and keep secret the details of their lives and the lists of their names. There is no angels’ directory in Internet. What we do not know is much more than what we know, as what we know is necessary for our growth, and what we do not know is equally necessary for our continued wonder. Let us keep the balance.

That’s why the angel of the Lord does not reveal his name to Manoah, and he only adds the explanation, “it is a name of wonder.” The charm of the angel lies in his wonder. He fascinates me because I never quite have done with knowing him. He always brings with himself surprise, novelty, the hidden trait, the unexpected sally. This makes every visit into a feast and every encounter into an adventure. I never know how what he begins will end, and that adds a thrill to his interventions. To respect the mysteries of heaven is the best way to begin living them on the earth.

 

15th
I tell you

Half

Today’s paper carries the headline: “The new education law will allow students to pass on to the next course even after failing in half of the subjects.” Other paper comments: “The government makes it easy for the boys.” A third one: “Graduates by half.”

When I was teaching mathematics at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad, I used to set a problem from time to time to my students in the class for them to work it out there and then and to comment on it. I would ask them: “Shall I give you an easy problem or a tough one?” They answered with one voice: “A tough one!” Only some stray voice from the back of the classroom would murmur shyly: “An easy one.” The students wanted a tough problem. And so did I.

When I gave my school leaving examination at seventeen, the examiner at the oral exam in mathematics asked me only one question: “The expansion of ‘a minus b’ raised to the cube.” That is a childish question. When differential an integral calculus were part of the curriculum and I had prepared them with care, it was ridiculous to insult the blackboard with such an elementary expansion. I shyly told the examiner: “Sir, I know more than that.” He answered: “Go, go, you’ve already passed.” I didn’t want just to pass. I wanted a class.

This morning during my daily constitutional I met a mother who was taking her two children to school. The mother was pulling along the two school roller cases full of the books and notebooks of her children, one with each hand, which was rather strenuous in the middle of the early morning school-going traffic, and even more because the handles were made for children while she was rather tall and had to bend to reach them and pull them along. The two boys jumped and danced happily in front. I felt sorry for the mother. And even more sorry for the boys.

The reasons why today’s young people do not come up to the best expectations of all of us who love them and wish the best for them are many and complex. One of them is that we are not exacting with them.

Will the government do the same one day with the technical degrees, with engineering, law, medicine studies? Will one day our doctors get their degrees after having failed half of their subjects? In a few years, before a visit to the operation theatre we’ll have to ask the young surgeon which operations he failed in the exam. Just in case.

The first commandment

Cecil B. de Mille, who directed the popular film The Ten Commandments titles his autobiography “My Ten Commandments”, and there he tells the following story:

“It was in that same church that I had one of the most remarkable experiences in my life. We didn’t have a permanent parish priest and I don’t know how they could find one for the Holy Week services. The fact is a tall man with a red beard whose name I never learned showed up for the occasion. One day in the early morning I found myself alone in the church before the service. The parishioners did not seem to appreciate much their pastor as nobody turned up. The empty church seemed to me enormous. I sat down and waited. At the exact hour the red-bearded minister came out, went up to the altar, and behaved just as though the church had been full to capacity. When the time for the collect came, I felt bad. I had only a penny with me, and I didn’t know how to drop it on the tray on the altar. He saw to it. Before the offertory, he came down to my bench and proffered the tray. I placed my penny on it, he went back to the altar and raised my offering in all solemnity as though it were solid gold. When the service was over he went away and I came back home.

Why did that event imprint itself on my memory and stay in it through so many years? It was not only the thoughtfulness with which that parish priest dealt with a child. He could have told me: “Go back home, little man, no service today.” Neither was it the importance he gave to my offering. What struck me was the living faith of that man. He was not going through the ceremony for my sake, nor for him own sake. Every movement, every gesture was meant for Him whose presence he knew to be more real than mine or even his own. I believe he would have done the same if I had not been there, if he had found himself alone with his God. That priest’s behaviour imprinted for ever on my young soul the conscience of God’s presence with us.”

Oriental paradoxes

A few quotations from the book “The Tao is Silent” of Raymond M. Smullyan, which I find amusing… and enlightening.

Disciple: “Master, what is the Tao?”
Master: “I will tell you when you drink at one gulp all the waters of the Western River.”
Disciple: “I have already drunk them.”
Master: “Then I have already told you.”
(p. 5)

Let us suppose that two persons, one a good musician and the other with a very bad ear and no musical training, are listening to the same piece of classical music. Both hear the same, but one is having a good time while the other is bored. Is not this what happens with life? We need a good ear. To find meaning for life.
(20)

The Tao never commands. It has not to be “obeyed”. One only has to “be in harmony” with it. There is no submission on one side and no rebellion on the other. We just flow with it.
(40)

In the holes of the Great Buddha’s nose
a pair of swallows has nested.
Do not burn incense. (Issa)
(51)

On the temple bell
a butterfly is sleeping.
Do not ring the bell. (Buson)
(52)

The Tao makes no resolutions,
that is why it fulfils in an admirable way
all its resolutions.
(57)

You tell me

I knew you were going to ask me. Limbo. And I’m happy you asked because the Pope’s recent decree suppressing limbo is a cause of great joy for us, and that for more reasons than one. We are first of all glad that non baptised children can go to heaven instead of spending the whole of eternity in limbo, which was defined as “a state of natural happiness but without the vision of God”, a kind of Kindergarten for eternity. A little boring.

And then we also feel happy because this has shown the vitality of the Church and its capacity to grow and to change. Limbo was not a dogma of faith, and that is why it has been possible to suppress it, but it was a very old, general, repeated article of Christian doctrine, and still the Church has changed it. St Agustin and St Thomas, the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent, innumerable documents of the magisterium down to our own Penny Catechism asserted the need of limbo, as baptism was an essential condition to enter heaven. Children who died without baptism were not going to hell as they had no personal sin, but they could not go to heaven either because of the original sin which only baptism can remove. That was the reason for limbo. It was binding doctrine for all Catholics till our days. When I studied theology in the seminary, the textbook said of the doctrine on limbo, “non est de fide sed proxima fidei”, that is, “it is not of faith, but it is near faith”.

The very word “limbo” passed into all European languages in its literal meaning of an eternal state which was neither heaven nor hell (“limbo” in Latin means “limit”, a neutral ground between heaven and hell), and its figurative meaning of halfway house or protracted waiting between two ends; and that linguistic fact stresses the antiquity, continuity, and depth of this teaching of the magisterium of the Church across the centuries. In spite of all that, the Pope has now reversed the teaching, which shows he is a great pope and a great theologian, and has had the clarity of vision and the courage of character to effect an important change in a traditional teaching. This gladdens us and encourages us. The Church has shown her vitality.

A Muslim friend of mine used to tell me that we, Christians, were lucky to have a pope, since the Pope can always make changes and all Catholics will obey him. Muslims do not have a central authority to interpret the Quran for them according to the times, and that can create difficulties. Let us, then, appreciate what we have. That is why I said that this bit of news was not a trivial episode but a cause of great joy. Changes can take place.TEXTO

Psalm

Psalm 13 – Here I am, O Lord!

“The Lord looks down from heaven on all humankind
to see if any act wisely, if any seek out God.
But all are disloyal, all are rotten to the core:
not one does anything good, no, not even one.”
This image of you, Lord, looking down on the men and women you have created and finding no one who sincerely seeks you, touches me. I sense your disappointment and your sadness. You seem to be looking for someone you can trust, someone you can call, someone you can entrust your work to. As humankind goes its godless ways, you want to have at least some people you can use as messengers, as prophets, as agents of your grace, to remind your people of your love, to repeat your promises and to proclaim your law. You are looking all around, and you find no one.

Once you said aloud in Isaiah’s hearing, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for me?” He spontaneously answered, “Here I am; send me.” And you said there and then, “Go then and tell my people…”. I am not Isaiah, Lord, but I love you. I have zeal for your glory, and I have heard your words. I take them as a personal invitation to me. I come forward and I offer myself to you. Here I am; send me. I am not worthy, I count for nothing, I can do little. But you are looking for volunteers, and I have stepped forward in confidence.

As you look down from heaven, I look up from earth, and our eyes have met. It is a blessed moment in my life. My mission has begun.

Meditation

Angels in disguise

“When the angel of the Lord disappeared from the sight of Manoah and his wife, Manoah realised that it had been the angel of the Lord.”
(Judges 13:21)Sometimes I find it hard to realise that it was the angel of the Lord that had visited me. He comes veiled in the circumstances of daily life, and it is hard for me to make him out. He disguises himself as other persons who advise me and encourage me, as books I read and words I hear, as an opportunity or an occasion, as a state of mind or a prophetic dream, as a crisis or a sickness, as a holy desire that is born in my soul without my knowing how or as a light that suddenly fills me up inside and all round and makes me see clearly life and faith and joy and love towards all and everything God has made from the beginning of the world to this day and for ever.

My angel is there in the perfume of a flower and in the magic of a sunset, in the face of a child and in the smile before a mirror, in the midst of silence and in the human tide that envelops me in my city today. My angel is waiting in every item of news I read and in every event that touches the world and my life in it. But sometimes I find it hard to recognise him, I miss his presence and I don’t realise it was him till he is gone.

My angel has as many faces as persons I meet through the day, as many messages as words reach my ears, as many gestures as there are hands that shake mine, as many colours as there are in a rainbow’s signature across the sky. He does not want to make a show of wings and feathers, and trusts I shall be able to unveil his presence in the daily events and the routine encounters with people and with life. I am getting used to his presence, always thoughtfully anonymous and always graciously fervent. I now guess his quick step, his sudden inspiration, his breath in prayer, his company by my side. And even when I have missed his presence, I realise it at once as soon as he is gone, and I feel the tide of love and joy and wellbeing he leaves in his wake.

The visit of the angel of the Lord is never in vain. Even when Manoah and his wife did not recognise him, they had a child after the visit of the angel in spite of having thought themselves barren. And they called their child Samson. No less.

1st
I tell you

[I’ve seen you liked Renoir’s stories last month (May 1), and that encourages me to give today a few more from the painter’s biography by his son, Jean Renoir.]

My auntie, Blanche, had a passion for auctions and sales. One day she came home with a bearer carrying fifty umbrellas. It had been a unique chance: ten cents for umbrella. She couldn’t resist. (p. 76)

Coming back to women, my father was well aware of their shortcomings. Chief among them was their subservience to fashion. The beginning of the slim-waist cult coincided with my father’s entry into life [Renoir was born in 1894!!!]. His sister, doubtlessly, would have asked him to tighten her bodice’s strings for her. To obtain a good result, one had to place one’s knee at the height of the victim’s buttocks, so that, thus propped, the woman’s husband or lover could pull with both hands with all his strength. Renoir rebelled at that torture. He would say: “Their ribs come together little by little till their whole chest is deformed. And what about when they are pregnant? I feel pity for them. It all goes to enrich the manufacturers of bodices, who actually should be all in jail!” He also felt much irritated at narrow shoes and high heels. But his greatest quarrel was with their hair. “Instead of leaving their hair alone, they twist it, burn it, pull it, tie it, they curl it like sheep or they pose as weeping willows with it!” He once stopped going out with a young woman because she spent all her time touching up the curls on her forehead. The point was to keep the wave’s design to a millimetre. As soon as the girl shook her head, that millimetre was lost, and she went back to her toilette. “I could have killed her!” (86) [This was a century ago. Fashion goes on.]

Some of his sayings:
“Leave your wife often alone, but for a short time. After a short absence, you like to see her again. After a long absence, you run the risk she will look ugly to you; and then the risk that you may look ugly to her. Those who age together, cease to see each other. Love is many things, and I’m not sufficiently intelligent to explain them, but part of it is habit.” (82)

“Millet famous picture The Angelus with its sugary romanticism has done more harm to Christianity than all the atheists’ speeches together.” (115)

“The ‘typical local colour’ is always the foreigners’ invention.” (115)

“We all are like the sheep in the legend. Panurge, during a voyage on board a ship, after a quarrel with the shepherd Dindeneault, to get his revenge buys a sheep from him and throws it into the sea. Immediately all the sheep dive into the see after their mate. The shepherd, holding tight his last sheep, falls also into the sea and is drowned. That’s what we all do, particularly we painters.” (141)

“Black people are lucky. They still know how to walk.” (181)

“In London there was no fog until Turner painted it.” (203)

“Aline [his mother] walks on the grass without hurting it.” (202)

“Can there be anything drabber than Paris’s outskirts? Yet, ever since Utrillo and other honest Sunday painters exist, we know that those god-forgotten streets are full of undeniable poetry.” (206)

“Paintings are not to be taken from one place to another; they are to be contemplated under the sky that hosted their authors.” (207)

“In Algiers I discovered white. Everything is white, the clothes, the walls, the minarets, the road. And on top of that white, the green of the orange trees and the grey of the fig trees.” He praised to the skies the dress and the gait of the women, “sharp enough to know the value of mystery. On a veiled face two peeping eyes can be fascinating.” (220)

My father never travelled alone, and he travelled third class. He was not stingy, just sober and austere. Third-class travellers are usually generous. They all vied with each other to invite my father to partake of their “basket” which everyone brought along. A nice woman would tell him, looking at the sandwich he had taken out from his pocket: “Is that all you’re going to eat? No wonder you are so thin!” Some people went on the train with provisions enough to last them in a journey round the world. As miles went by, my father would pass from boiled cabbage to country stew, from white wine from Côte d’Or to red wine from the Rhone, all seasoned with commentaries on the crop, family problems, taxes, the Tonkin war, and the torture of the bodice “when one is not used to it”. After the first bites it could happen that a stout lady could not resist any more, would excuse herself, unbutton her blouse and ask her neighbour to loosen the strings on her back. Thus freed, the flesh could expand and the rabbit pie could at last taste as it should. (210)

Once a retired official came with a false “Renoir” under his arm and a disarming smile on his face. “Sir”, he told my father, “I’ve just bought this picture of yours; but it is not signed! Could you sign it for me?” The picture was a clear forgery. My father told him: “Leave it with me, I’ll touch it up.” He painted the whole picture anew and signed it. He could just have bought a frame for the swindler for good measure. The man left with a fortune under his arm. (364)

The Russian ballets had fascinated Paris. One night, the Edwards, who were good friends of ours and had stayed for dinner, proposed to take all of us to the ballet. My father was in the midst of a rheumatic attack and walked with difficulty, but he left himself to be tempted. My mother dressed up in the twinkle of an eye. My father was in his work clothes, a close-neck shirt, a stained coat and the cap he always had on for fear of a cold. My mother wanted to make him put on a suit of clothes, but it was too much of an effort and he went out just as he was. At the theatre, Edwards took him in his arms and brought him to his balcony seat before the astonished look of all the spectators. The hall was splendid. The public that came to cheer or to boo those ballets that were going to revolutionise the art, boasted a luxury beyond imagination. Never in my life have I again seen anything like that. The black tail coats of the men who were standing behind the ladies in the boxes set out their splendour all the more. It was like a giant bouquet of naked shoulders emerging from soft coloured silks. On that flesh showed the white sparks of the diamonds, the wild glow of the rubies, the cold reflection of the emeralds, the soft touch of the pearls that caressed those breasts and bestowed on all those women, and vicariously on all of us, a transitory though evident nobility. Those were not flesh and blood creatures, they were figures on a painting. All those people had their binoculars trained on my father, who didn’t even notice it. My mother smiled in full amusement: “Look at our show! A coat stained with paint and a cyclist’s cap!” When we saw The Firebird with Nijinski crossing the stage at one leap, my father exclaimed: “Like a panther!” (389)

The Berheims, seeing how my father’s condition worsened, convinced him to go and see a great specialist. He was a very good doctor indeed. He promised that in a few weeks the paralytic would recover the use of his legs. My father smiled, not as an unbeliever but as a philosopher. He new the result beforehand. But it was a dream, and he promised blindly to follow all the doctor’s orders. After a month he felt much better. The doctor came to his atelier where he was painting sitting before the easel, and announced that the moment to walk had arrived. He grabbed my father from the shoulders and lifted him bodily up from his chair. He stood up for the first time in two years. He could look at things from the same angle as we did. He looked around with great satisfaction. The doctor released his grip. He took one step by himself. Then another. And another. Painfully. He went all round the easel and came back to his invalid’s chair. He told the doctor: “I give up. This requires all my strength of will, and I will have no will left for painting. The fact is – and he winked his eyes maliciously – if I have to choose between walking and painting, I prefer painting.” He sat down, and never again got up.” (426)

You tell me

Someone wrote that he had liked very much Renoir’s quotations last month (1 May), except the bit on Beethoven. If you remember, Renoir used to say that he did not like Beethoven because “he does not spare us his love disappointments neither his bad digestions, and I feel like telling him, What do I care if your are deaf?”

I now quote what Renoir says after that: “Besides, for a musician it is wonderful to be deaf. It is rather a help, as any other obstacle would be. Degas painted his best pictures when he was not able to see any more! Mozart had a much worse time than Beethoven in life, but he was considerate enough to hide his worries; he always tries to amuse us, and he touches me with melodies that seem to be quite detached from him. He tells me more about himself than Beethoven with all his scandalous whining. I feel like embracing and consoling Mozart. After a few minutes of his music he becomes my best friend, and our conversation becomes intimate.” (p. 204)

That is a painter speaking of two musicians. The three were geniuses.

Psalm

Psalm 14 – To stay close to God

“Who may lodge in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy mountain?”
I want to live close to you, Lord, and yet I lose again and again the sense of your presence. I just forget you and can live for hours on end as though you did not exist at all. Times of prayer remind me of your existence, but in between I lose you most of the time. I want to regain your contact, I want to “lodge in your tent”, to “Dwell on your holy mountain”. Tell me how I can achieve that.

I listen eagerly to your answer, and when you have finished the list of your conditions I realise that I already knew them all, and that they all are one, the one commandment of love and justice and fairness to my fellowmen and women. Your words:

“One of blameless life,
who does what is right
and speaks the truth from his heart;
who has no malice on his tongue,
who never wrongs his fellows,
and tells no tales against his neighbour.

He who never wrongs a friend,
he who does what is right,
he who leads a blameless life…”

he can dwell on your mountain and enjoy the happiness of your presence.

Once a young man asked you, “What have I to do..?” And you answered him, “You know the commandments…”. Your answer to my question “What I have to do?” is always, “You know it already”. Yes, I know; and I know that I know. And I remember your reaction before another inquirer who made the same admission about knowing the great commandment of the law: “Then go and do it; and you will have life.”

Let me go and do it. Let me love my neighbour and do justice and speak the truth. Let me be fair and loving and kind. Let me serve your people in your name, with the faith and the motive behind it that by serving your children I will obtain you. By doing good on earth, I will gain admission to your tent and “dwell on your holy mountain”. For ever.

Meditation

The angel of discernment

“I thought that the words of my lord the king would be a comfort to me: for your majesty is like the angel of God and can discern between right and wrong.”
(2 Samuel 14:17)That is what I most need in my life. To know how to discern between right and wrong, between good and evil. Delicate task that requires balance, intelligence, and wisdom. I don’t want to hurt anybody, and yet, at times, unwittingly, I provoke opposition and cause friction. I want to do good in all I do, and so I pause in my action and I doubt and examine and don’t quite see what it is that will undoubtedly do good, and what may perhaps unknowingly do harm. And inside myself I feel split at times between what I read in the rules and what my conscience says, and it is easy for me to lean on external authority, but I cannot ignore my own conscience with the risk of making a mistake while the whole responsibility lies on my shoulders. I cannot blindly follow written manuals, and I cannot forget my hidden prejudices either. I must listen to all the voices outside and inside me, and then decide. To discern between good and evil is a hard task.

It is an angel’s task. Because it is my angel that has perspective, is independent, knows me and knows all those whom my decision affects, knows all the rules and documents, and comes directly from God who is above all rules and documents. The angel knows how to draw with delicate and exact geometry the thin line that divides right from wrong, he knows the ways of human conduct, foresees the consequences of our actions, measures responsibilities and shapes reactions. The angel of the Lord is our guide in our discernment of right and wrong through life.

The secret of my decisions is to feel like an angel when I take them. To feel one with my angel, interested and detached, committed and free, personal and universal, just as he is at one time God’s messenger and partner of mine. To look with his eyes, scan his horizon, obtain his balance, listen to his advice. To feel in myself what, in faith and love, I believe he must be feeling; to sense his presence, to lift with his flight, to be filled with his light. An angel’s eyes to see the ways of life.

The best praise David ever got in his life was the one of that woman who told him: ”My lord the king is like the angel of God who can discern between right and wrong.” From this royal gift comes the welfare of the whole people because the word of him who knows how to discern between right and wrong is the word that brings peace. Peace in the kingdom. Peace in the soul.

 

15th
I tell you

[Karen Armstrong, whose life of Mahommed is the best book on Islam I have ever read, and who has written widely about religions and religious life, says about the recent book of John Cornwell, “Seminary Boy” that it was “almost compulsive reading” for her who was also a nun in her youth. The book is “an affectionate but unblinking evocation of the English Catholicism in the 1950s” which many of us lived through. The theme of sin, confession, scruples recurs in it, and as our generation, and largely the next one too, was affected by that guilt complex, and many of you ask me about it today, I’m going to quote a few pages, not to reopen old wounds, but to heal those that are still open.]

“The priest introduced himself as a member of the Passionist order, and was going to direct for us a four-day retreat in Holy Week. He explained how when Judas betrayed the Lord, the gospel ways that “Satan had entered his heart”, and that this “Father of Lies lay in wait especially for those young ones who were intending to be priests. There was a seminary in Rome, he went on, after a dramatic pause, where a demon had entered a young seminarian. He was an average, decent boy proceeding in his studies like any of us in our seminary. He had to be exorcised to cast out the demon inside him, and before the Devil left him, the boy chanced to put out his hand against the panelling of the seminary refectory and the shape of that hand was burnt indelibly into the wood. “That burn mask,” he said in a low voice, “remains to this day.” I could not eat a morsel that night, and I was not the only one. (118)

I had not remained at peace after my confession to Father Hemming on Christmas day. Had I been strictly truthful with him about the event in the early hours of Christmas morning? Had I not, in fact, deliberately indulged in impure thoughts? Had I tried to give Father Hemming the impression that I was only semiconscious? And did this not mean that all my Holy Communions had been sacrilegious ever since? Would not, with that, Satan have got into my soul? (121)

At the priest’s homily that afternoon he said nothing to allay my mental torment. He talked of the danger of being smug about the state of our souls, and of presuming that we were in a ‘state of grace’ when we might well be headed for hell. He told the story of Thomas à Kempis, the ‘supposedly saintly’ author of The Imitation of Christ. This man, said the priest, famous throughout the history of the Christian Church for his spiritual guidance, was considered for many years a candidate for sainthood. It was common, he went on, to exhume a candidate for sainthood in order to establish whether the corpse was incorrupt. To the dismay of the onlookers, Thomas à Kempis’s corpse was found to be contorted as if he had died in terrible agony. It was obvious that he had been buried alive and had died in a frenzied attempt to claw his way from the grave. ‘This supposedly holy man,’ he said, ‘most likely died in despair.’ His beatification process was dropped and had never been resumed. ‘If I tell you this, dear young brothers in Jesus Christ, it is to be ever mindful of the sin of presumption.’ (122)

After meditation, in which my brain raged with the certainty that I was damned and destined to spend eternity in Hell, I developed a sharp headache over my right eye. I hastened to confession. It all gushed out: the Christmas morning, my uncertainties, Father Hemming, my fear of being in a state of mortal sin. The confessor launched into a long lecture on sexual morals, and at the end he told me that to feel pleasure in any sex movement, even if not provoked, was a mortal sin, and that, besides, what happened to me at night could well have been provoked by something I had done or failed to do during waking hours. (122)

‘Let’s be practical’, he said cheerfully at last. He was going to presume that I had committed a mortal sin on Christmas morning, and that I had not been honest with Father Hemming, which amounted to a second mortal sin – making all my Communions sacrilegious ever since. He would now give me absolution for everything in so far as it was culpable. For the future, however, I should be extra vigilant for the causes of such ‘irregular motions of the flesh’. ‘Now in your youth is the time to become an athlete in purity.’ (124)

I had to seek out those ‘causes’ and eradicate them. At night, taking the cord from my pyjamas I tied my wrists and put the slack around the back of my neck to prevent my hands straying downwards while I slept. I awoke confused at first as to why my hands were tied. Then I remembered. Untying the knots, I prayed to my Guardian Angel. I tried to stop thinking about the priest’s terrible counsel. The salvation of my soul might now depend upon a monastic regime of silence, self-denial and constant prayer, for the rest of my life. Was this not my true vocation? (127)

Sexual temptations were demanding every iota of my embattled self-control. Images that had once been innocent now assumed wayward scope for eroticism. Turning the pages of an old Illustrated London News in the library, already purged of provocative female pictures by Father Doran’s scissors, I came upon a picture of our young Queen Elizabeth II. Even that provoked me. Back came the scruples. I was caught in a cycle of sin-confession-sin-confession sustained by our opportunity for daily confession. I had seen other boys, with haunted faces, queuing for confession day after day. Now I understood the impetus for such daily penitence. It was not just the terror of being taken unawares in sudden death, to be hurled down to hell for all eternity; more real and immediate was the shame of being observed to abstain from the Eucharist at Mass, for it was inconceivable that one should receive the sacrament in a state of mortal sin. So I became one of the frequent penitents: those boys with hunched shoulders and anguished faces who waited behind to confess after Rosary. (182)

One evening, after I had unburdened myself of the sullied laundry of my soul, Father Piercy, the confessor on duty said in his clipped nasal voice: ‘How can you expect the grace of Almighty God to be bestowed upon this house when you commit such grave sins?’ Fresh reasons for guilt and plummeting self-worth. He gave me a hefty penance – the entire Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary – and told me to go away and sin no more. Easier said than done. As I knelt in the Lady chapel I was in a state of shocked anxiety. Could my actions result in the college being burnt to the ground or devoured in a landslide from top field? (183)

Then it was Lent again; and with the penitential season the sexual demons were plaguing my soul and body as never before. My sole consolation was recognising in the depths of night the rhythmic groan of springs elsewhere in the dorm, confirming that I was hardly alone in my solitary afflictions. In my struggles to bring my body under subjection, I began to wear once again that rough woollen jersey next to my skin and I bound my upper arm with a piece of wire with a spike, hidden under my shirt. At night, after lights out, I tied my wrist with a pyjama cord to be bedhead, as I had done a year earlier. I gave up every item of food that I enjoyed, and I missed tea every day. I prayed and prayed for a miracle: that the temptations would subside. (186)

Mi spiritual father, Father Armishaw, gave me back some peace. ‘What’s all this?’ he asked me on seeing my face one day. ‘Come with me.’ As I tumbled out I told him everything about that Retreat and its consequences. I told him how miserable I was, how I was in a state of despair. When I had done, he took off his glasses and sucked one of the ear pieces. He was silent for what seemed an age. Replacing the glasses on his nose, he said: ‘To tell you the truth, I was not too happy with some of the things the retreat priest said. But as for his personal advice to you, you must ignore it. D’you hear?’ As he spoke, the tone of his voice, his kindness, calmed me. He said that God did not expect the impossible of us: he loves us and wants us to be happy and to flourish. He told me that I had been suffering from ‘scruples’, agonies of conscience, and that many boys in seminaries experienced this, especially if they became victims of irresponsible advice. At length he said softly: ‘Now bugger off. And for God’s sake give church a rest!’ As Father Armishaw spoke in these jaunty, vulgar tones he seemed fatherly and dependable. He soothed the turmoil in me. And he revealed something of crucial importance. It had never occurred to me throughout my boyhood that priests could disagree. I went down the stairs, my spirits soaring.” (130)

You tell me

Someone has sent me this story by John Powell in his book “Fully Human, Fully Alive”, which he in turn takes from another source he there quotes, and that has reminded me that Tony de Mello liked to repeat that story which he had read in Powell’s book. Here is the story:

The fully human fully alive person is someone who chooses action, not reaction. The writer Sydney Harris tells how he once accompanied a friend to buy the newspaper at a press stand. The friend greeted warmly the vendor, but was greeted back by a grunt and ill manners on the part of the vendor. He took the paper the man literally threw at him, and wished him a happy weekend. As they went along the street, the writer asked his friend:

– Does this man always treat you so discourteously?
– Yes, unfortunately he always does so.
– And why do you buy your newspaper from him when you could buy it at any other kiosk down the street?
– Because I don’t want him to decide where I should buy my paper.

Psalm

Psalm 15 – Sincerity with myself

I say to the Lord:

“You are my God;
my happiness lies in you alone.
Those who choose other gods
increase their sorrows;
never will I take their name upon my lips.”
I repeat those words, I tell you and tell people and tell myself that I am truly happy in your service, and that I feel sorry for those who follow “other gods”, those who make money or pleasure or fame or success their aim, those who care only for the goods of this world and want only to enjoy earthly pleasures and perishable gains. I will not worship their “gods”.

And yet, in moments of sincerity with myself, I know deep within me that I too secretly worship those gods. I also like pleasure and praise and success, and I even envy those who enjoy the “goods of this earth” that are forbidden me because of my vows. I renew my commitment to you, Lord, but I confess that together with it I still feel in my soul the attraction of material pleasures, the pull of the earth, the hidden regret not to be able to enjoy what others enjoy. I still share, darkly and shyly, in the idolatry of other gods, and worship unwittingly at their altars. I still try to find happiness some times outside you, however much I know that it can only be found in you.

And so my words today are not a boast, but a prayer, not a record of achievement, but an appeal for help. Make me truly find my happiness in you, make me be “content with my inheritance”, “happy with my portion”, “satisfied with my boundaries” as you have taught me to say.

“Lord, you are my allotted portion and my cup;
you maintain by boundaries:
the lines fall for me in pleasant places;
I am well content with my inheritance.”

Make me value the place you have allotted me in your Holy Land, and fill my heart and my life with your love and your service. And then make me experience the truth of the words you put in my mouth as I end this Psalm:

“In your presence is the fullness of joy,
in your right hand pleasures for evermore.”

So be it, Lord.

Meditation

The angel of the test

“The angel of the Lord came again and touched him a second time, saying, ‘Rise and eat; the journey is too much for you’.”
(1 Kings 19:7)The prophet Elijah fears for his life. The wicked queen Jezebel has sworn to get rid of him within a day, he has come to know of the plot in time, has fled in the dark and is now alone in his flight through the desert. The danger that threatens him, the fatigue and hunger and thirst have overwhelmed him, and he asks for his death: “Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers before me.” And he lies down to die.

In my life too there are moments of flight, of desert, of depression. Enough, Lord! What is the use of all that I have done? I am not better than my fathers, I have not been able to change anything, not even myself, I have lost my time, I have misused my energies, I have squandered my life. I am fed up with so much effort and struggle and knocking at closed doors and banging my head against stone walls. Life has seldom been pleasant, usually boring, and often unbearable. This is the sad summary of one more human existence. And I give up on it.

I have not gone so far as to ask God to end my life. But I have thought at times that I wouldn’t mind dying. I’ve had enough. I have done all I could do and I have seen all I could see. I cannot do more. Nobody will care about my death as nobody has cared about my life. I have been only a tiny bubble in a useless ocean, and I can disappear without a wave. Life hurts me with its dead weight, its lack of sense, its inner injustice. I have walked too much along the desert and my strength is ebbing away. I lie down in a last gesture of rest over the hostile sand. I hope never to wake up again.

Just then the angel comes and touches me on my shoulder. I wake up and see by my side “a cake baked on hot stones and a pitcher of water.” Food for life in the solitude of death. And the angel insists: “Rise and eat; there is a long way ahead of you.” I get up and eat and drink, with self-preservation instinct at the beginning, and soon with growing gratitude as life wakes up within me.

There is someone who cares for me. Someone to whom I mean something. He has taken the trouble of baking a cake on hot stones and filling a pitcher with water and finding me and waking me up and urging me to eat. The angel that watched over me and loved me and was by my side and shows his love for me when I most need it. An angel from heaven who is symbol and sign of angels on earth who, in spite of my own pessimism, do care for me and appreciate me and love me and keep loving me. People for whom I do mean something, who want me alive by their side, whatever I do or fail to do. Friends who love me for myself and who redeem with their love the dryness of the desert which is still a desert but is now bearable because I have company and I feel loved and cared for. I have by my side a hot cake and a pitcher of water. Someone has brought it and thus shows with his timely help that he honours our friendship and values my life. So I eat and drink. I get up and start walking. Sand is sand and the horizon is on fire, but now there is a new strength in my feet and light in my eyes because I feel the presence of the angel by my side and I know he will walk with me and show the way and reach the oasis and find peace. The angel of the test.

“Elijah rose and ate and drank and, sustained by this food, he went on for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.” (1 Kings 19:8)

1st
I tell you

The voice

I’m walking in the early morning when I notice a blind woman walking before me. She carries under her arm her attaché case, is well dressed, feels the ground with the long end or her white cane in her right hand. She walks freely, but she cannot see there is a car parked across the street, and she is going to bump against it. I come forward, touch her gently on her shoulder and tell her: “Be careful, there is a car across the street. I can accompany you if you allow me.”

She takes hold of my arm, we get round the parked car, she tells me she has to cross the avenue to the other side to get a bus there. I take her to the traffic lights and we wait for the red light to turn to green. She asks me:

– Will you not get late for my sake?
– No, I’m not going to any office now. I can adjust my time.
– Are you retired?
– Yes. I’m eighty-two.
– Eighty-two! But your voice is the voice of a young man!
– How do you know?
– I’ll tell you. I’m blind, and I get an idea of whom I’m talking to from her or his voice. The voice tells me whether there is question of a woman or a man, a young person or an old one, a person in a good mood or in a sad mood. And your voice is full of vitality.
– Thank you.
– Thanks to you too, you’ve done me a favour.
– And you’ve done me a greater favour.
– Is that bus that I hear my bus?
– Yes, number 27.
– Good bye. Good day.
– Good day.

Back at home and while I’m writing this, I’m reminded of something I myself once wrote about what a blind man had said of Master Bankei. I found the quote in my book “And the Butterfly Said…”, p. 83, and it is as follows:

A blind man spoke about Master Bankei (1622-1693) and said the best thing he could say: “I am blind, and cannot see the face of the person with whom I speak. I must, in consequence, judge only their sincerity from their voice. My experience tells me that when I hear someone congratulate a friend on his or her success, I notice a ring of jealousy in their voice; and when I hear social condolences, I detect also a secret not of indifference. However, this does not happen to me with Bankei: when he expresses joy, there is only joy in his voice; and when he expresses sadness, it is only sadness that I hear in him.”

[Now follows my commentary in the book:]
My voice is the messenger of my soul. Let it be firm, whole, sincere. Let it express in its vibration the totality of my being; let it reveal with its innocence the depth of my feeling; let it manifest with its right tune the transparency of my existence. Let there be not a single note out of tune in the melody of my life.

My voice takes birth in the inner recesses of my conscience, winds its way through nets of tissues, through lungs and diaphragm, through temper and volume, and becomes intelligible language in that throbbing miracle of vocal prowess that my throat is. All that I am is in that voice, and it identifies me, with the exactness of a fingerprint, before the science-fiction machine, as before the keen ears of the sightless sage. My voice betrays my mood. And I am glad to know that, so that I can now learn how to tune it to truth. When I hear my own voice, I realise how at times it sounds false, hollow, deceivingly flattering or stiffly formal. I say one thing while I feel another, and the words are proper, because they are censured in time, but the voice escapes censorship and shakes with the hidden lie of the jarring note.

I want to listen to my own voice, so that I can scrutinise my conscience, filter my feelings, tune my thought. I want to hear myself when I speak, so that I may know how my voice sounds, how my vowels vibrate, how my phrases ride the wind. I want to spot the sensitive dissonances between what I feel and what I say. I want to do away with any hint of divergence between the convictions of my soul and the sound of my voice. I want to sing the song of my life with a full voice, leaving no trace of doubt, to myself or to any one, that I say what I mean and I mean what I say. My voice has to be truth, if my life is to be testimony.

This is what I wrote in the book. Today a blind woman has reminded me of it. The voice is the person.

Parables of Shri Ramakrishna

Once a man went to a certain place to see a theatrical performance, carrying a mat under his arm. Hearing that it would be some time before the performance began, he spread the mat on the floor and fell asleep. When he woke up all was over. Then he returned home with the mat under his arm. That is life! For most people. We don’t realise what has happened. (p. iii)

The guru ordered his disciple to live alone under a shed thatched with leaves till he would come again to see him. The disciple obeyed. He had only a loin-cloth with which he covered himself. He washed it and spread it on a tree to dry at night. Mice came and nibbled at it. He asked his devotees to get him a cat to keep the mice away. The cat needed milk. He asked for a cow. The cow needed grass. He asked for a field. He asked for labourers, for implements, for barns. He became a landlord. After a time, his guru came to see him. Finding the farm where the shed had been he felt puzzled, approached the landlord without recognising him in his heavy dress and asked him: ‘An ascetic used to live here in a hut; can you tell me where he has removed himself?’ The disciple fell at his feet and asked his pardon: ‘I am your disciple… lost for a single piece of loin-cloth.’ (p. 18)

A barber who was passing under a haunted tree, heard a voice say, ‘Will you accept seven jars full of gold?’ The barber looked around, but could see no one. The offer of seven jars of gold, however, roused his cupidity, and he cried aloud, ‘Yes, I shall accept the seven jars.’ At once came the reply, ‘Go home, I have carried the jars to your house.’ The barber ran home in hot haste to verify the truth of this strange announcement. And when he entered the house, he saw the jars before him. He opened them and found them all full of gold, except the last one which was only half-full. A strong desire now arose in the barber’s mind to fill the seventh jar also; for without it his happiness was incomplete. He therefore converted all his ornaments into gold coins and put them into the jar; but the mysterious vessel was, as before, unfilled. This exasperated the barber. Starving himself and his family, he saved some amount more and tried to fill the jar; but the jar remained as before. So one day he humbly requested the king to increase his pay, as his income was not sufficient to maintain himself. Now the barber was a favourite of the king, and as soon as the request was made the king doubled his pay. All this pay he saved and put into the jar, but the greedy jar showed no signs of filling. At last he began to live by begging from door to door, and his professional income and income from begging – all went into the insatiable cavity of the mysterious jar. Months passed, and the condition of the miserable and miserly barber grew worse every day. Seeing his sad plight the king asked him one day: ‘Hallo! When your pay was half of what you now get, you were happy, cheerful and contented; but with double that pay I see you morose, care-worn and dejected. What is the matter with you? Have you got ‘the seven jars’? The barber was taken aback by this question and replied, ‘Your Majesty, who has informed you of this?’ The king said: ‘Don’t you know that these are the signs of the person to whom the Yaksha consigns the seven jars? He offered me also the same jars, but I asked him whether this money might be spent or was merely to be hoarded. No sooner had I asked this question than the Yaksha ran away without any reply. Don’t you know that no one can spend that money? It only brings with it the desire of hoarding. Go at once and return the money.’ The barber was brought to his senses by this advice, and he went to the haunted tree and said, ‘Take back your gold, O Yaksha.’ The Yaksha replied, ‘All right.’ When the barber returned home, he found that the seven jars had vanished as mysteriously as they were brought in, and with it also had vanished his life-long savings. (p. 26)

p.206 Once a long time ago, I was very ill. I was sitting in the Kali Temple. I felt like praying to the Divine Mother to cure my illness, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so directly in my own name. I said to her, ‘Mother, my nephew Hriday has asked me to tell you to heal his uncle.’ I felt better at once.

You tell me

Question: I liked the story of the seminarian in your last web, as I also went through similar scruples in my Christian youth. I feel curious to know the rest of his life.

Answer: The book covers only his life as a seminarian. At the end he left the seminary and lost his faith. Then he adds: “My marriage to a Catholic woman, and the birth of our children whom she brought up as Catholics, kept the spark of Faith alive in me by proxy and I came back to the Church after twenty years.” (326) About his spiritual father, Fr Armishaw, with whom he remained in contact till his death, he says: “He told me once: ‘I sit in that confessional box every Saturday, and hardly anyone comes. The absence of vocations for priests is due to all those boys who failed to be born through contraception and abortion.’ He told my wife and me that being late for Mass constituted a mortal sin. It was not said tongue-in-cheek. My wife and I stared at him across the dinner table. Stunned into silence.” (330) Perhaps the most serious paragraph of the whole book is the one about his professors in the seminary where he states: ‘Our priests appeared content to perform the externals of the religious life. As I watched them reading their breviaries, pacing up and down the gravel paths, flicking over the pages, adjusting the silk tags, there was no hint of fervour. Their Masses were said with almost perfunctory precision with no hint of devout interiority.’” (160) That is sad.

Psalm

Psalm 16 – Show me your love!

“Show me how marvellous your true love can be!”All my prayers are contained in that single prayer. Show me your love, your true love, and make me see how marvellous it can be. You have told me your love page by page, almost line by line in the words of your Book, and there is nothing I like more in this world than to hear you tell me that you love me. I believe your declaration and treasure your words. Keep telling me, as I want to hear again and again that you love me.

But then, Lord, I have to apply human standards, which are the only ones I know, to our relationship, and so I humbly and reverently inform you that down here among men and women we usually say that true love is shown not so much in words as in deeds. So when I ask you to show me your love, I am asking you to do things for me. Do keep telling me that you love me…, and at the same time keep doing things for me that show that you love me. Surprise me with your grace and bless me with your help. Bring sudden gifts and unexpected presents. Bring your own presence, which is the greatest gift, and the mysterious ways you have to make it felt, which is the highest blessing. Love is infinitely resourceful even among us, and knows always how to bring instant happiness with the spontaneous tenderness of a genuine gesture. I will say no more.

“I shall see your face,
and be blest with your vision when I awake.”

Meditation

The angel of God’s zeal

“The angel of the Lord ordered Elijah the Tishbite to go and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and say to them, ‘Is there no God in Israel, that you go to consult Baal-zebub the god of Ekron?’ With that Elijah departed.”
(2 Kings 1:3)This is the angel we need in our days in the Church, when there seem to be Christians who forget there is a God in Israel and go to consult and venerate and entreat other gods who are not such but who attract people who doubt the faith of centuries, and feign power and help when in fact they are nothing. Esoteric cults, dark sects, self-styled masters and empty prophecies. But there are people who seek new emotions, easy redemption, shared deception, guaranteed salvation. Clients of the soothsayer, of the visionary, of any method to know the will of the stars in place of the will of God. Followers of the latest guru and apostles of the newest sect. We are surrounded by such people everywhere. Is there no God in Israel that you go to consult Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?

The occasion of this rebuke surged before Elijah in the reign of king Ahaziah who ruled Israel from Samaria. “Ahaziah did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord, following in the footsteps of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who had led Israel into sin. He served Baal and worshipped him, and provoked the anger of the Lord the God of Israel.” (1 Kings 22:53-54) He had fallen from a window in his palace and had sustained injuries, and he sent messengers to Ekron to consult the oracle of Baal-zebub about his sufferings and to ask for help. The messengers depart, and the angel of the Lord wakes up Elijah to intercept them and to rebuke them with all his energy. And his words vibrate in the air till today: “Is there no God in Israel?”

Timely angel to wake us up in our days before the marketing of religion, the multiplication of sects, the abuse of the simple, the cheapening of faith. The angel who instructs the prophet to speak clearly and to denounce the proliferation of false ways against the only true one. Let the angel come again, and let the prophet speak again.

 

15th
I tell you

To Germany

Years ago I went to Germany to give some talks, and I’ve just now returned to meet the same group and renew friendships. Meeting after all that time we spontaneously asked each other: “How many years is now since I came here for the first time? Which was the first year I came?” Neither they nor I could fix the time. I then said: “The best thing that can be said about a friendship is that we don’t know when it began.” That was the best moment. There were also now some people in the group whom I was meeting for the first time. One of them told me after my talk: “When you spoke about India, your eyes shone, your voice rang, and your hands moved like those of an Indian.” I told him that was the best compliment he could pay me. I was glad it showed. In the programme of the talks they had printed a quotation from Tony de Mello: “The spiritual quest is a journey without distance. You travel from where you are right now to where you have always been. All you do is see for the first time what you have always been looking at.” We, Orientals, simply say: “The secret of arriving is knowing that you have arrived.” Everything is there. That was the theme of my talks. We had a good time.

More journeys

Another journey has taken me to Philadelphia where I attended the ceremony of the anniversary of a Jain temple, and the breaking of the fast of a good friend. The temple ceremony took up a whole morning. The temple was full of people, laypeople all, and they themselves conducted the whole ceremony. The anointing of the images and statues of the Tirthankaras, the reciting of prayers, the community singing, the silences and the bells and the gong that parcelled out the spaces of the spirit, the joining of the hands, the bending to the ground… all that was a joint prayer, a community worship, a visible witness of faith and devotion in the midst of a busy western city.

Even the anointing was done by laypeople with devout skill. A young engineer conducted the whole liturgy from the mike, explained each ceremony, intoned the songs, quoted Sanskrit by the yard, told each one at each moment what they had to do. At one moment he said: “After having thanked the actual president and office holders, I’m going to call now on the future leaders of our association: let all young men and women here come forward, as they are the future presidents and office holders to carry on the management of the temple.” The young people came willingly forward, future and promise of the ancient Indian religion in American lands.

The flag ceremony was particularly touching. It was brought out folded on a tray and placed in front of the altar. There it was unfolded in all its length. It was half a meter high and four meters long, so that it would ride the winds when placed on the flag-pole on top of the highest tower of the temple. It was white with golden edges, and religious symbols and prayers were embroidered along its length. It was blessed, anointed, consecrated, worshipped. Then we all went out to see it fixed on top of the pole on the tower. The MC explained how there it would remain as a permanent symbol, as a blessing on all the buildings around, as a constant prayer said by the wind that would unfold it and make it wave its contemplation over the daily landscape, as a sacred presence in the midst of an urban environment, as an eternal sacrament of ancestral rites. That is the essence of the temple: a place for prayer and worship in the inside, and a witness to the presence of God in the city on its outside. Jain temple of ancient India in the midst of modern America. Example of a live religion, and reminder of its open secret: the whole organisation and management of the sacred heritage is in hands of its laypeople. There are, to be sure, Jain monks and nuns of great virtue and knowledge, who devote themselves to leading an exemplary life with their five vows (truth, non-violence, non stealing, celibacy, detachment), to study, preach, publish, practice penances, counsel the faithful. But monks and nuns do not run the institution. Planning, financing, organising all that belongs to the faith is in the hands of laypeople. Hence its vitality. Good example to follow.

Another ceremony on the same day was the termination of a long fast a member of the congregation, and good friend of mine, had undertaken. I’ve always said that Jains are the Olympic champions of fasting. They practice it from the atthai at the Paryushan to the santharo or sanlekhna near death. One of the hardest practices is the varshitap, which consists in taking no food at all one day and normal food on the next, and so on alternatively and uninterruptedly for 13 months and 13 days with no food at all on the last three days, and, of course, keeping up throughout the long year one’s professional, personal, and social activities as usual. That was what my friend had done for a long year, and now had invited me to share in the ceremony at the end of his fast. He ended his fast by taking spoonfuls of sugar-cane juice at the hand of his friends in the temple.

They asked me to speak, and, among other things, I explained to them the difference between Jain and Christian fasting. A practical class of comparative religion. Jesus says in the gospel that when we fast we should wash our faces and anoint our hair so that nobody may notice that we are fasting. If we make our fast public, we lose all our merit for it, since we are doing it to be seen by others, and so God will not give us any recompense for it. On the other hand, if we do it without anybody noticing it, God will reward us (Matthew 6:16). This fosters humility and avoids showing off, and that is the value of this attitude. Maybe this has caused fasting to be almost forgotten among Christians. The only prescribed fasts for Catholics are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and even then the fast consist in making “a main meal at noon, and two other, morning and evening, such that when summed up they do not amount to the main meal”. No need of sugar-cane juice to come out of that “fast”. It is almost an abuse of the word, as fasting means not eating.

Something similar happens with the “abstinence” from meat. No meat on Friday. I once spent a summer in the Jesuit University of Georgetown in the US studying comparative linguistics, and when the date of our father and founder St Ignatius Loyola, which is July 31st, approached, my companions told me: “You are lucky. This year July 31st falls on a Friday.” Then they explained: on the day of St Ignatius the menu was turkey, as the most appreciated dish; but since that year the feast fell on a Friday, and meat is forbidden on Friday, the menu for the day would be… lobster! Liturgical gastronomy. We don’t get even a bronze medal in the Olympics of religious penance.

On the other hand the Jain (as well as the Muslim) approach to fasting is to make it known in order to give thus public witness of the observance of religion and to strengthen the faith of the community with the good example of its members. This is the value of this approach, and we should know and appreciate all approaches. The fast of Ramzan in the Muslim religion is considered one of the five pillars of Islam (together with the proclamation of the faith, prayer, almsgiving, and the pilgrimage to Mecca), and as such it is observed, and as such it strengthens the Muslim community in its faith as it is well-known.

Curiously, and just to complete this ecumenical overview, there is a religion that forbids fasting, and I also mentioned if before my Jain friends. These are the Parsees. Zoroaster forbad fast, celibacy, and any kind of penance, and his argument was that God has created the world and all good things in it, in particular food and sex so that human beings could live and propagate on earth, and so it would be a slight to God if we would not accept from his hands what he has so lovingly given us. To forgo food or sex is for them “anathema”. Parsees are well loved in India, and they have never quarrelled with any other religion.

My friend was surrounded on that day by other members of the Jain congregation who had performed the same fast on previous years. Not all do it, as it is only voluntary, but quite a few of the people present there had carried out the same kind of fast, and they stood up and bowed to us. This, again, strengthens the community. I ended my speech quoting a Gujarati saying we use when we have not actually performed the action in question, but have shared in its celebration: “I’ve not married; but I’ve attended wedding parties.” We have not fasted, but we have attended this celebration of fasting, and something of the merit of our friend’s penance will wash down on us. They all laughed.

By the way, I almost missed the festivities as I was in danger of not being admitted into the USA. Bureaucracy. On boarding the plane at Madrid airport I had to fill a form where, among many other things, I had to give the address of the place where I was going to spend my first three nights in the US. I told the officer I didn’t know it, as my friends would be waiting for me at the airport in Philadelphia to take me to their home, and I had only a phone number just in case. He explained: “I understand you and I believe you, but the computer does not. The computer is a robot and it requires that you fill in that line, and, if you don’t, it will mark your form as defective, it will be received there as such, and you’ll be barred from entry. You have to fill it.” I scratched my brains and wrote: Hilton Hotel, Philadelphia. I entered Philadelphia gloriously. I told my friends there about my experience. They told me there was no Hilton Hotel in Philadelphia. For once I beat the computer.

You tell me

Question: What is the origin of the expression “losing one’s virginity” and what is its importance?

Answer: It is a biased expression, and it generates misunderstanding. When I was studying mathematics at school, the teacher, Fr Olabarrieta, used to tell us that the important thing in mathematics was to frame properly the equation embodying the problem. If the equation is not properly framed, there is no solution; and if it is properly framed, the solution is already there. When I went up to university for more math studies, the professor, Fr Racine, when tackling a new problem, would take his time on the blackboard to frame the equation whose solution would be the answer to the problem. Once he had framed and written the equation with all its x, y, z, on the upper left corner of the board, he would turn to the class, smile, throw the piece of chalk to the floor, and solemnly announce: “Call the peon.” He meant to say that all that mattered was to frame the equation properly, and that solving it was mere routine. The peon who cleaned our classrooms could do it as well. In fact, that is done today by the computer. The difficult thing is to programme it.

So then, the expression “losing one’s virginity” is a faulty one. The equation is wrongly framed. Here are its faults:

1. “Losing” is a biased word, it has a derogatory sense, it condemns beforehand the fact as an evil, a defeat, a loss. If instead of “losing one’s virginity” we would impartially say “have sex for the first time”, which is what it simply means, the whole approach would change without changing its meaning.

2. Though the word “virgin” applies to both sexes, it is used more of women, as in the idiom “St Cecily, virgin and martyr”, which is not used for men saints. There is also bias here.

3. Bodily virginity can be checked only in the woman. Men have used it to verify whether the woman they are marrying has had sex with another man or not, which places woman in an unfair position as man’s virginity cannot be checked. This is pure sexism, and it has brought much suffering in history and down to our days.

4. In Catholic circles the word “virgin” calls to mind with loving reverence the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ. As a consequence, to be a virgin is to be like Mary, and that is an honour that is “lost” when one “loses one’s virginity”.

5. There is a text in the Bible which, at least at first sight, has exaggeratedly exalted virginity and has condemned the lack of it. This is the text: “I looked, and there on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him were a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads. They were singing a new song before the throne and the four living creatures and the elders, and no one could learn it except the hundred and forty-four thousand ransomed from the earth. These are men who have kept themselves virgin and have not defiled themselves with women; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been ransomed as the first-fruits of mankind for God and the Lamb.” (Revelation 14:1-4)

The words “these are men who have kept themselves virgin and have not defiled themselves with women” seem to imply that man, on having sex with a woman, is defiled by her, which is an insult to woman and which damns sex as something defiling. The text also seems to say that “virgin” people have a special and exclusive place near the Lamb, since only they can sing his song and follow him wherever he goes, as they are “the first-fruits” for the Lamb and have been “ransomed from humankind”. That is the way the text was explained to us when we were young, so that virginity was exalted, sex was degraded, and we were exhorted to join those “hundred and forty-four thousand” who remain virgin through life so that we could enjoy their privileges in heaven as not “having contaminated ourselves with women” while nothing was said about women “been contaminated” by men. They were not part of the “first-fruits for God and the Lamb”.

The text may have other readings, as Bible scholars tell us, since “being a virgin” could mean “not committing idolatry” (though even so it would not seem proper to equate “idolatry” with “non-virginity”), and abstention from sex is a preparation for battle and encouraged as such. In any case, the obvious and direct meaning of the text has caused harm, has overpriced virginity and has condemned the lack of it. So much so that some modern versions, instead of “virgin” have translated “have remained chaste” to soften the meaning, but this is a mistranslation, however well meant, as the Greek has “parthenoi”, which everybody who remembers the Parthenon in Athens knows means “virgins”.

For all these reasons I’ve said that the expression “losing one’s virginity” is biased and creates prejudices. If sex is good and is created by God, having sex for the first time, duly and properly, should not be a matter for reproach but for personal satisfaction and social congratulation. I’ve also met the expression “when I became sexually active” instead of “when I lost my virginity”, which is even more positive since in general “active” sounds better than “passive”. Isn’t it?

I can think of another example of the linguistic use of “losing” and “gaining” with its cultural consequences. Growing fat is still called “gaining weight”, and growing thin is “losing weight”. The expressions come from a time when the right thing to do was to be fat, and the wrong thing to be thin. To be fat was to be healthy, rich, elegant, attractive, and so it was great to “gain” weight, while being thin was synonymous of being sick, poor, negligent, unkempt, something to be ashamed of, and so “losing weight” was truly a loss. Now, on the contrary, losing weight is the right thing to do. Young people lose weight to improve their figure, and older people lose weight to improve their health. Now “losing” is good and “gaining” is bad because “weight”, which was formerly something desirable, is now undesirable. We congratulate our friends when they lose weight, and worry with them when they confess to having gained weight. A doubtful “gain”. Language has not kept pace with mentality, and the terminology has become self-contradictory.

The book “La primera vez” (The First Time) by Esther Porta professionally collects testimonies of young men and women about the first time they have had sex, be it before or after marriage, and there are many (more among girls) for whom the experience was not satisfactory, and quite a few (more among girls) for whom it was traumatic, due, among other things, to the idea of losing their virginity. Richard Branson, the founder of the “Virgin” trademark from records to airways, writes his autobiography, with true British humour, under the title “Losing My Virginity”. A sense of humour is the best approach.

We would have to consult our friends the Parsees about this matter of losing one’s virginity. They, too, have a good sense of humour, “Parsee humour”, that has enlivened Gujarati literature. Maybe the ones not to be consulted in this matter would be the Jains, in case their ideas of sex are similar to their ideas about food. Which they are. There are religions for every taste.

By the way, I forgot to warn that Parsees do not admit conversions.

Psalm

Psalm 17 – The Lord of thunder

I welcome this psalm, Lord, and what you tell me in it; in fact I needed the reminder, and I need it always as my very dealings with you bring familiarity, and closeness may overshadow reverence. I value that closeness and familiarity, but I realise the danger that I may slip into overfamiliarity and forget the respect I always owe your majesty. You are Father and friend, but you are also Lord and Master, and I want to keep your two faces before me always. That is why I accept in gratitude today the words that speak of you with majesty.

“The Lord thundered from the heavens,
and the voice of the Most High spoke out.
He loosed his arrows, he sped them far and wide,
he shot forth lightning shafts and sent them echoing.
The channels of the sea-bed were revealed,
the foundations of earth laid bare
at the Lord’s rebuke,
at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.”

The earth heaved and quaked,
the foundations of the mountains shook;
they heaved, because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils,
devouring fire came out of his mouth,
glowing coals and searing heat.
He swept the skies aside as he descended,
thick darkness lay under his feet.
He rode on a cherub, he flew through the air;
he swooped on the wings of the wind.
He made darkness around him his hiding-place,
and dense vapour his canopy.
Thick clouds came out of the radiance before him,
hailstones and glowing coals.”I bow before you as I accept the unfamiliar image of the lightning and the fire. You sit by my side, and you ride on the clouds; you speak softly, and you thunder away; you are loving companion, and you are King of kings. I want to learn reverence and distance to deserve and safeguard intimacy and closeness. I will not take advantage of the privilege you give me to be your friend, will never take you for granted, will not become rude or disrespectful. I worship you as I love you.

What I want is to fuse the two attitudes into one in my soul, and to approach you at the same time with intimacy and reverence, with tenderness and awe. Never in the closest moment forget that you are my God, and never in the stiffest dignity bypass the mutual informality of real friends. I want to be at home in your palace and in my hut, in your heavens and on my earth. I want to deal with you in dialogue and in silence, in commands and in laughter, in your court and on my playground. And, as more often we meet as lifelong friends, I am happy to meet you today as God and King.

And, from today on, another lesson. Whenever the skies over me are visited by a storm, I will think of you. The clouds and the darkness and the thunder and the lightning will draw again your image for me, and I will be silent and bow and worship.

Welcome to the storms in my life.

Meditation

The angel of the family

“When they rose to their feet, he was no longer to be seen. They sang hymns of praise to God, giving him thanks for the great deeds he had done when an angel of God appeared to them.”
(Tobit 12:21)They are Tobit, Anna, and Tobias, and the angel is Raphael who had healed Tobit of his blindness caused by the sparrows, had married Tobias with Sarah, his remote kinswoman whom the devil had deprived of seven bridegrooms, had collected the debts and had brought joy to a good family that had suffered much in exile due to its fidelity to the traditions of their people and to the honesty of their dealings. The presence of the angel is a blessing for the whole family, and all celebrate it praising the God of Israel with gratitude and faith. We all know their history.

The angel of the family. He understands everyone, knows the needs of everyone, attends to all, and heals the relationships between them all as he heals the weaknesses of all. Relationships were not easy in a family of three. There was friction between husband and wife due to the excessive moral righteousness of the husband who raised objection to the more practical dealings of his wife; and there was tension also between generations, as the son had to remain at home to look after the ageing parents when his own youth and inner urge were leading him to find his own family and his own life. The mother suffers and causes her son to suffer at the prospect of his absence abroad. All that is solved by the angel with his delicate touch, his sure efficiency, his heavenly skill. Raphael the Archangel, Guardian Angel of families.

The family recognises it and thanks him for it. They sing together, pray together, praise the Lord together for having seen an angel and having witnessed what an angel can do. The angel had told them when he unveiled his identity to them, “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand in attendance on the Lord and enter his glorious presence.” (12:15) God has given importance to this mission to teach us with that gesture that he protects the family, unites its members, heals the old, guides the young and leads them to the adventure, the joy, the blessing of a new family in the fold of the old. All this by the hand of an angel.

“And the angel went back to God”.

1st
I tell you

Mozart and the watchmaker

The discovery of beauty is the joy of life. So long as we keep on discovering beauty, we’ll keep on living. I’ve just now discovered a fugue by Mozart. And it has rejoiced my soul. We’ve always said that fugues have to be left to Bach. They flowed from his fingertips just as he sat at the keyboard. The mastery of “The Well-tempered Clavier”, which I studied as a young man, marked me for life with the flood of its preludes, the variety of its fugues, the innocence of its motives, the expectancy for its echo, the surprise of its reappearing, the wanderings of its excursus, the sonority of its harmony, the fullness of its ending. Nobody could imitate that. In music class we were officially told that Beethoven, for all his genius, never wrote a noteworthy fugue. He manfully tried in his Hammer-Klavier piano sonata, but in the score itself he calls it “Fuga a tre voci con alcune licenze” (Fugue at three voices with some licences), confessing that he himself was not very sure what he had written. Only three voices and with some licences. Fugues are not his cup of tea. And even less for Mozart. His playful and melodic nature does not seem to fit in with the seriousness, the rigidity, the formality, the inflexibility of a classical fugue. You have to leave that to John Sebastian. (One of the happiest memories of my life is having played in my youth John Sebastian Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue for Organ in A Minor” on a Cavaillé-Coll organ – which are to organs what Stradivarius is to violins – in the church of Our Lady of the Antigua in Orduña, Spain. Foretaste of heaven.)

And here comes the surprise. Listening carelessly one day to a CD with little known pieces by Mozart while I was working at my computer, suddenly my ears were pricked, my hair stood on edge, my thought stood still, every other object of my attention disappeared, and a revelation broke through my mind: But that is a fugue! A fugue by Mozart! And a beautiful fugue at that. Typical, canonical, original, magnificent, with its initial theme, its well-behaved development, its playing hide-and-seek between the voices, its laughter, its mischief, its humour, its wit, its coming back to the beginning as it approached its end, its sense of satisfaction when it has said all that it had to say and it ends when it just had to end. Bach’s depths in a Mozart’s score. Incredible beauty.

I looked up references to delve into the mystery. There is question of a strange work written by Mozart for a mechanical organ, that is a toy clock that was to repeat mechanically the piece at the stroke of each hour without any organist at the keyboard. Quite an order for a genius. Mozart was short of money, as it often happened with him, and to earn some money he accepted musical errands like this “Fantasy in F Minor” with K. 608 catalogue number. There is a letter from Mozart to his wife Constanze dated 3 October 1790 in Frankfurt in which he unburdens himself about this atypical piece: “I have made up my mind to write the Adagio for the clock-maker immediately, then to slip a few ducats into my dear little wife’s hand. And I did too, but it is such loathsome work I was most unhappy not to be able to finish it. Every day I work on it but always have to leave off, because it bores me. And I would quite certainly abandon it, if I did not have such an important reason for going on with it. But I hope to make myself finish it all the same, little by little.” A reluctant masterpiece. If that was Mozart when he was out of sorts, we can imagine what he was when he was inspired.

A historical curiosity. Beethoven was so fond of this little piece that he copied it out in his own hand. That much for a mechanical organ!

The hidden star

This meeting with Mozart has brought to my mind a story I myself wrote time ago, which follows. There is always something new to discover.

The stars were celebrating their own assembly, and each one was bringing to light, as only stars can bring things to light, its own merits in the life of humans, kings of creation. The pole star showed how it helped men and women on earth to fix the North in their maps and in their ways; the sun – which after all is also a star – described the warmth, the light, the life that it had engendered for all men and women on earth; a little known star revealed that it was the one that had confirmed Einstein’s theory when it passed in the nick of time behind the sun during an eclipse, which went to show how light bended under gravity, and with that it had rendered a signal service to science; and others mentioned the names they had made famous and the discoveries they had given rise to. Each one had something to say, and they all rivalled in fame and splendour.

Only a little star, hidden and remote, remained quiet in the celestial assembly. It had nothing to say. When its turn came and it had to say something, it confessed that it had done nothing for the cosmos or for the human race, and that men and women on earth did not even know of its existence, as they had not yet discovered it. The other stars laughed at it and reviled it as useless, lazy, and unworthy to occupy a place in the sky. The stars are there to brighten the heavens, and what is the use of a star of which not even its existence is known?

The little star was listening in silence to all the reproaches its companions were hurling at it, and then something occurred to it while the others spoke, and it said it at the end. “Who knows?”, it said twinkling softly, “maybe I too am contributing in my own way to the progress and welfare of men and women in that far-off earth. It is true that they do not know me, but they are no fools, and their calculations tell them that in order to explain the paths of other stars and heavenly bodies they know, there must still be some other star that with its own gravitational attraction may explain the observed deviations in their orbits. This keeps them studying and observing and searching, and that is the way their science advances and their interest is kept awake.”

The other stars had gradually fallen into silence as the little star spoke, and so it gathered courage and at the end said something that set all the other stars thinking: “Not that I want to push myself forward in any way or underestimate anybody else’s work, and indeed I am the first to recognise and proclaim all the many good things you have done for men and women on earth; but I also think that I am rendering them an important service: I am making them realise that there is still something left for them to discover.”

I am deeply indebted to the many stars that have appeared through the years in the skies of my life. But perhaps the one I owe most to is that little star, remote and hidden, joyful and mischievous, anonymous and beloved, which keeps on playing hide-and-seek with the lens of my telescope. And I keep searching.

(Tales of The City of God, p. 4)

Memories of a seeker
[Lucy Edge is a sharp British girl who, alter working ten years in a publicity firm in London, decided to go by herself to India in search of a guru, an experience, a doctrine, an association, a community, a scripture, a tradition that would lead her to find the meaning of life, her own identity, the perfection of her body, the liberation of the spirit, the illumination of the mind, and the ultimate cosmic bliss. She travelled north and south, east and west by train and by bus, she approached masters, joined courses, studied Yoga, meditated, contemplated, stretched out, squeezed in, twisted, coiled, opened up chakras, woke up kundalinis, performed asanas, practiced pranayam, breathed in, breathed out, closed her eyes, opened her eyes, sat in lotus posture, stood on her head, lied down, joined her hands, greeted the rising sun, dressed in orange…, and after all that drew the conclusion I’ll tell at the end, not without first relating some of her amusing and instructive experiences.]

“There was a bewildering array of yogic paths. Which way to go? It was very confusing. The royal and scientific path of Raja Yoga with Desikachar in Chennai? The path of self-knowledge – Jnana Yoga – at Tiruvanammalai? Bhakti Yoga – the path of love and devotion – with a Hugging Mother on the Keralan backwaters? Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga at Auroville? Tantra – worshipping the body as a temple of the Divine – with Osho in Pune? The precision of Iyengar Yoga, also in Pune? Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore or Sivananda Yoga in Kerala? These places occupied the four corners of India – should I go north, south, east or west? (Yoga School Dropout, p. 22)

[She eventually tries them all, beginning with Mysore:]

There before me were twenty or more beautiful people, draped over floor cushions, daybeds and each other. A harassed waiter, the only person showing any signs of movement, shuttled backwards and forwards through shuttered kitchen doors from which the smell of garlic and fresh coriander periodically escaped.

Smiling weakly, I surveyed the scene, nervously clutching my brand new copy of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to my chest. I suddenly felt overwhelmed. I had imagined this moment for a long time – my first encounter with the yoga students of Mysore – but where to sit? Everyone seemed so entwined. Unable to work out an immediate way to add myself to this human spaghetti, I hovered at the edge of a small splinter group sitting straight-backed at a low-slung table decorated with empty plates, bits of Naan bread and mint tea.

‘Would you like to join us?’ asked a husky voiced girl with golden skin and long, white-blonde hair.
‘Thank you, I’d love to’, I said gratefully.
I attempted to copy their ‘lotus’ position – ankles perched effortlessly on their thighs – but my hips and knees resisted at the crucial 45-degree point. I was forced to abandon the attempt and sit cross-legged – feet and ankles nailed firmly to the ground. I slid my shawl over the offending posture.

‘I’m Lisa, from Sweden’, said a blonde girl, with a perfect English accent and a warm smile.
‘I’m Lucy. I just arrived today, from London.’
‘Namaste, Lucy. Welcome to Mysore.’ Lisa raised her hands into prayer position and bowed her head.
I was eager to establish contact with these fellow spirits.
‘I love your shawl, where did you get it?’
‘Oh, thank you so much, Lucy. You know what, before I came here I was in Dharamshala and a holy man there read my aura – the shawl was a perfect match. The violet vibrations blow my crown chakra wide open, but it also keeps my energy field protected. And what brought you to India, Lucy?’
‘I think it was a Boeing seven-four-seven. It was a long journey – into Bombay and then on to Bangalore. What about you, Shanti?’
‘I am here to study Ashtanga Yoga with Guruji. My mom was here in seventy-five when she was pregnant with me, though she didn’t know it, doing all these inversions on her head and on one hand and on two and the peacock stand on one hand with her body horizontal. Pretty dangerous really – she could have lost me – but I must have loved it. It feels like Yoga is in my blood.’

Shanti smiled and, with a dancer’s poise, slowly unfurled her legs into an easy 180 degree stretch, keeping her back perfectly straight. She flexed her ankles and toes and came to rest with a small tinkle of the hand-carved bells on her antique ankle chains. (p. 2)

I could hardly wait. In less than a month I would have a pretzel like body, and all of its incumbent powers. Needless to say, things didn’t work out exactly as planned. The only time I did manage any degree of synchronicity was poolside. In the daily sunbathing line-up I found co-ordinating the laying down of my beach towel alongside those of others almost effortless.

Meanwhile, back on the yoga mat, my troubles continued. Try as I might, I couldn’t create enough yogic fire to raise the kundalini serpent of energy from the bottom of my spine, every single one of my chakras remained resolutely closed for business, and I couldn’t count more than three breaths without thinking about what was for dinner. I could not succeed in my Ha-Tha Yoga exercises to entwine and ultimately to merge the ha of the sun with the tha of the moon into the spinal energy of my sushnuma channel for instant enlightenment. I was reminded that in the Bhagavad Gita the Lord says that people only come to practice yoga in this life if they have already practised it in a previous life; but if that was the case, my body had forgotten all about it. And then, how could they have practised it in a previous life since that always presupposed to have practised it in another previous life? Where was a genuine beginner to start? (p. 15)

[This is now, among all her schools and all her teachers, the highest experience of all her yoga trip, and it coincides with my appreciation of Sri Raman Maharsi of Tiruvanammalai as a true saint and of his single-minded quest of the philosophical question ‘Who am I?’ as a true path:]

So in the presence of a Saint who had been dead for more than fifty years, I sat down to ask myself, ‘Who am I?’ I established I was not the tickle in my throat that I had noticed as soon as I was required to be silent. I was not the first grey hair I had noticed in the mirror that morning. I was not the age I am now, because in a second I would be older, and a second ago I was younger. I couldn’t be my body because, according to medical research, it had been completely renewed in the last seven years, and, if all went according to plan, it would be renewed again in the next seven. So, if I was not any of these things then who was I? Perhaps I was my thoughts? My hopes? But my hopes changed all the time, too. Perhaps I was my fears?

No, these had changed, too. It dawned on me that if my hopes and fears and body were constantly changing then so was the world around me. Nothing was the same, not even for a minute except – and this was the essence of Ramana Maharshi’s teaching, and in fact of all yoga – the Eternal Self which remains eternally still. And then I began to drop, leaving all behind, living my own self behind, into a stillness, a contentment, an awareness of a bigger reality, just pure existence, consciousness, and yes, bliss. It was funny that I hadn’t been sitting on a mountaintop, as I had always imagined I would be if I ever reached this state. Funny that, weird, and probably a bit mad.

As I surfaced, so too did my doubts. Was that really Gnana Yoga? I had been conscious of my breathing and that wasn’t supposed to happen. I had experienced a sense of timelessness but when I looked at my watch, no more than a few minutes had gone by. Oh well. Who cared? Whatever it was called, and however long it had lasted, I had felt something deep in a place where they didn’t charge a single rupee in registration fees and in the memory of a man who had been dead a very long time. (p. 265)

[And, after making the rounds of all the main yoga centres, she comes to her conclusion:]

It was time to call it a day. The quest was over. The turnaround I was looking for wasn’t going to be wrought by enrolling at another yoga school, the acquisition of more OM T-shirts, yoga books or laminated yellow certificates. I needed to change my perspective. Perhaps if I could just accept myself as I was and stop trying to be extraordinary, stop trying to be a Yoga Goddess, I would actually make some progress. It also struck me that the most inspirational people I had met in India were so-called ‘ordinary’ people, waiters, railway workers, government employees, tailors, masseurs, teachers.

In fact, it would seem that the closer people got to Self-Realisation the more ordinary they became. When I thought about these ‘ordinary’ people, the reason I found them so inspiring was because their yoga practice stretched way beyond their mat. They saw Yoga as a state of mind, an attitude to life, and the world as their school. Yoga was, for all of them, ‘a harmonious way of living’, not a one-off physical goal – they knew that all they had to do was look within. Enlightenment was not a trophy to be lifted high in one triumphant moment, it was about trying to increase the moments of seeing clearly and choosing wisely in daily life. None of them seemed to want a yoga calendar body. None of them seemed interested in balancing on a rock in handstand. For them yoga was not a huge topic of conversation, unless a Westerner asked about it. It was an unremarkable thing – breathing, meditation, and perhaps a few simple sun salutations. It was practised informally, not in a big class on the instructions of a big name teacher, but at home – quietly, without fuss. The thing that really distinguished these ‘ordinary’ people was their ability to celebrate the ordinary, to take pleasure in everyday life, to wonder at small things. Their happiness was right here, right now, in this place, wherever ‘this place’ happened to be.
If being this ‘ordinary’ could make you this happy, this content, I wanted in. It was time to ditch the big goals – they weren’t really getting me anywhere – and start with some small stuff. I would give up on trying to make headlines – the big merger with cosmic bliss, the quest for bodily perfection, the recruiting of a retinue of followers – and I would definitely stop trying to stand on my head, which hurt too much. Instead I would concentrate on the small print – trying to increase the moments of seeing clearly and choosing wisely in everyday life, just like my ‘ordinary’ gurus.

To all intents ad purposes I’d failed on my quest – but I didn’t feel like a failure. I actually felt happy and optimistic. Failure had set me free. I’d given up on perfection and I didn’t feel beholden to the demands of my ego any more. So I crossed the remaining yoga schools off my list – I had what I needed now, no need for any more shopping – and headed back to London. I was finally getting in touch with my inner guru. The one that says be content with what you have. The one that says happiness is always available to us, we just have to look inside ourselves. That one that says there is perfection in imperfection. The one that stays with you. (p. 309)

You tell me

You often consult me about trips to India, particularly with a view to find some contact with Indian spirituality in the midst of the tourist itinerary. That’s why I’ve told Lucy Edge’s story which has amused me no end and which may help your own search.

Psalm

Psalm 18 – Nature and grace
Nature is reliable. The rising of the sun and the coming of the seasons, the phases of the moon and the surging of the tides, the orbits of the planets and the stations of the stars. Cosmic clockwork of eternal precision. The heavens speak of order and regularity, of the right to expect today the same timetable as yesterday, and this year the spring of every year. The imprint of God is upon his creation, and he is a God of order and reliability, a God who can be trusted in all he does as we trust that the sun will rise tomorrow and the spring will follow the winter.

God can be trusted also in his creation of grace. In his law and in his will and in his love. As the sun rises and the rain falls, as the moon waxes and the pole star keeps it post, so the will of God runs with unerring care the universe of grace in the hearts of men and women on earth.

“His law is perfect,
his precepts are unfailing,
his decrees are righteous,
his commandments are firm.”
It is one and the same divine will that runs the stars of heaven and the hearts of humans. One creation mirrors the other so that when we see God fashioning his image in the sky we may allow him to fashion it also into our own hearts.

“One day speaks to another,
night with night shares its knowledge,
and this without speech or language
or sound of any voice.
Their music goes out through all the earth,
their words reach to the end of the world.”
That music, that message, that secret wisdom speaks to us too. God will never fail us. That is the secret of the stars. The hand that guides them eternally through their uncharted paths, guides us too through the impossible labyrinths of our earthly journey. Look at the heavens and take courage. God is behind his creation.

I listen now to that message, Lord, and take it to heart. Your Son taught us to pray that your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. I see all the heavenly bodies doing your will with ready perfection, and I want for me that readiness in following the paths of your grace. This is the prayer I pray daily as taught by your Son. I know I have the freedom, which the sun and the moon do not have, to choose my direction and stray from your path. So I ask you to handle me gently, to nudge me into position, to nurse me along my orbit. Let me have faith in your holy will, let me feel sure that by following its promptings I am taking my place in the total universe you have created, contributing with my freedom to the beauty of the whole. Let me love your commandments and rejoice at your precepts. Let me worship your law, the one law which is your wisdom and your power in running with single harmony your heavens and your earth. Let me think of you as I salute the rising sun, and thank you as I greet the shadows of the night. Make me feel close to your creation, close to the workings of nature, close to your law. Let me sing your glory in my life in living unison with the song of the heavens.

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God,
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.”

Meditation

The angel on guard

“The angel of the Lord is on guard round those who fear him, and he rescues them”
(Psalm 33:8)The angel is on guard. He stands by, he watches, he protects. He is the guardian by night and the companion by day. We are always surrounded by dangers, worried by threats, weakened by doubts. That is why he is always alert, always ready to raise the alarm, to wake up the camp, to stop the enemy. He watches. Now I can sleep in peace.

Sometimes I wake up under uneasy fears which grow longer with the shadows of the night. Am I doing well what I am doing? Will I finish my work in time? Will everything come out well? Should I not have accepted what I rejected, or rejected what I accepted? Did I do well to get into that? Am I in time to get out of it? Will I have the strength to finish it? Is this not time for me to put aside so many responsibilities and withdraw and rest? Since when will I have to worry about the whole world, which is lost without help, and which is worse now that when I entered it? Why should I keep answering questions I have no answer to and tackling problems I have no solution for? Is not all I have done useless and void? Is it not silly of me to keep bent on achieving what cannot be achieved? The rush of doubts preys easily on my helpless imagination in the night solitude. Terror in the midst of the silence of the camp.

During the day the very work and the succession of tasks one after another distract the mind, keep worries away, and prevent thought. But the vigil of the night leaves me defenceless before the combined attack of all my doubts and fears and complexes and shyness. The clever enemy attacks in the darkness when a noise sounds like a storm and a shadow looks like an army. Wedges of unrest to disturb the necessary rest. Who will help me?

The angel who is on guard by my side. Thinking of him, knowing he is close, feeling his presence is my best help. He keeps guard around my camp, and so I know that my fears are unfounded, my doubts are false, my worries are imaginary. There has been no enemy attack, no justified alarm. The fields are at peace. The angel keeps watch. It is true that life is dangerous, that the way is hard, that we have to face opposition and accept reality; but it is also true that today was not worse than yesterday, and tomorrow will not be worse than today. If I have come up to here, I will continue ahead, and if I have lived so many years, I will live all those that will come, and I will live them with joy and zest and energy and faith. Let the ghosts of the night depart. I turn in my bed and keep sleeping till the light of day. The angel of the Lord is on guard by my side.

1st
I tell you

Out of the mouth of children

Authentic quotations from small children:

David, 3: When his sister was going to be born, David was told a little sister was coming for him to play with. When she was born, David when to the maternity clinic and, seen the newborn baby in her cradle and pointing to her, asked: “And this is what I have to play with?”

Celia, 3: Celia wanted to play with her cousin to be prince and princess, but he did not want to be a prince or a knight or anything, so she walked away telling him: “All right, be yourself and get bored.”

Alejandro, 4: Alejandro doesn’t know how to read, but one day he went to the living room, took a copy of Don Quixote from the shelf and sat on the floor. After a while, his father went to see what was Alejandro doing as he was very quiet. The boy had kept the book open and was looking at it intently. He looked up to his father and asked him: “Daddy, how far have I reached?”

Kevin, 4: Kevin went daily to the school with his mother by bus. Since she carries him bodily, it seems unfair to her to pay for two, and so she instructed the child: “Kevin, if they ask you your age, say you’re three years old.” One day they met a neighbour who asked him: “How old are you, darling?” He turned to his mother and said: “Mummy, do I give my bus age, or my true age?”

Sergio, 5: Last year at Christmas Sergio’s mother asked him whether he wanted to leave something for Santa to eat for himself and for his reindeer. Sergio answered her: “No, mummy. If he feels hungry, he can go to the fridge.”

Paula, 4: Paula went with her mother to the hair-cutting saloon where everybody was playing with her. They asked her. “When did you begin your fourth year?” She answered readily: “When the first three run out.”

Moisés, 3: Moisés finds it hard to pronounce certain words. One day he told his father: “I want a stlawbelly yogurt.” His father replied: “I will not give it to you until you pronounce it properly.” He answered: “Then make it a banana one.”

Sofía, 5: One day her mother did not take holy communion at mass, and Sofía asked her: “Mummy, why didn’t you take today that pill that makes you keep quiet for a while?”

Marcos, 4: Marcos was shown a photograph of his cousin’s first communion in which Marcos’s parents, his cousin and a bishop appeared. They asked him who they were, and he answered: “My cousin José, you two daddy and mummy…”, and when he came to the bishop he said: “And this is uncle dressed as Batman.”

Pepe, 7: His mother was trying to get him to do his homework, but Pepe would not stop jumping about. Finally his mother got tired and told him: “Pepe, stop making noise or I’ll punish you.” Pepe rejoined: “But, mummy, if afterwards you feel so miserable…”.

Melisa, 5: Melisa was going in the car with her parents and she asked her mother: “Mummy, put on the radio.” Her mother answered: “I can’t, darling, I’ve got a headache.” Then Melisa went on: “Then you put it on, daddy, since you don’t have a headache.”

Perla, 6: Perla was in Disneyland with her parents. In one of the stands there was a height requirement, so that the usher told Perla: “You cannot come in as you are a child.” She answered: “I’m not a child, I’m a woman with a growth problem.”

Javier, 4: Javier and his grandmother went for mass on Palm Sunday. As the ceremony dragged on he wanted to leave, but his granny asked him: “Just a little more, Javier.” When the collection was taken, the grandmother gave some money, and Javier said: “We’ve paid already, can we go now?”

Javier, 8: His mother had given birth, and when Javier saw the baby at home, he asked: “And this one, is he going to stay with us?”

David, 3: One day he told his parents: “When I get a girl friend, where will you go to live?”

Alfredo, 2 years, 6 months: When the new year began at school, Alfredo’s father took him to the kindergarten and introduced him to the other children there. When he came to take him back home, he told him: “Come on, kiss your new friend María, we’re going home.” Alfredo answered: “Why should I kiss her? I haven’t beaten her yet.”

María, 3: María was out with her grandmother late in the evening when there was still sunlight but the moon could already be seen. María looked up to heaven and said: “See, granny, the moon has made a mistake.”

Unai, 8: One day, walking with her mother, he saw two nuns come and said quite serious: “Mummy, the nuns are a species in danger of extinction, aren’t they?”

Guillermo, 5: His mother was trying to wake him up on a Monday to go to school, and after many attempts, Guillermo said: “Wait, mummy, now there’s only one eye left to wake up.”

(Frases célebres de niños, Santillana, Madrid 2007)

Expensive grace
(Dietrich Bonhöffer, Nachfolge, 1937)“Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our Church. Today we’re fighting in favour of expensive grace. Cheap grace is the grace considered as goods to be disposed of, it is cheap pardon, cheap prayer, cheap sacraments; it is grace as the Church’s inexhaustible storehouse from where inconsiderate hands take it to distribute it without thinking and without limit; it is grace without a price, free grace, since, it is said, grace has been paid for already for all times. Since the bill has been paid, we can now have everything for free. The expenses covered by the bill are infinite, and so the possibilities to use and misuse them are also infinite.

Cheap grace is pardon without repentance, baptism without commitment, eucharist without confession of sins, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without following Christ, grace without cross, grace without the living Christ.

Expensive grace is the call of Christ to abandon one’s fishing nets and to follow him. It is expensive because it calls for a following, and it is grace because that following is the following of Christ; it is expensive because it costs man his life, and it is grace because it bestows him life; it is expensive because it condemns sin, it is grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is expensive because God has paid dearly for it, it has cost him his Son’s life.”

You tell me

I see from your reactions to previous pages that the guilt complex, which young people do not suffer any more from, was certainly important for earlier generations. I’ve quoted experiences taken from autobiographies I’ve read, and someone has sent me this one by a well-known actual Spanish writer:

“Sundays in the forties were long days, sad days with rain and bad cinema. On Sunday morning we remained in bed a little longer, without going to school, or they made us get up early to go to Church for confession and communion. It could also happen that we had gone to confession the previous day, Saturday evening, and then we would wake up on Sunday morning with a start, with the fear of having committed sin during the night in our dreams, or having drunk water, or having been rude to somebody.

Many hours had passed since confession, and it was not sure that the grace of absolution was still intact in us. Perhaps we were going to go to communion in a state of sin, so that even a small sin could become a serious one, because guilt has its own dialectics and always increases. The sin is always greater than the sinner, it weighs on them, envelops them, and the child who did not want to eat the soup can end up feeling a monster in hell because its lack of appetite has made its grandmother weep.

If one thought much on one’s sin – whatever sin, even a distraction in prayer or a blow to one’s friend – guilt increased only by thinking of it. It one forgot, one’s father, mother, confessor, teacher would one day remind one, and meanwhile the forgotten guilt had grown in our breast like a venomous and monstrous plant. So that Sunday, which was the Lord’s Day, was, precisely, because of that, a delicate day in which one ended up by feeling one was in sin for one reason or the other.”

(Francisco Umbral, Memorias de un chico de derechas, p. 28)

Psalm

Psalm 19 – On chariots and horses

I do not underestimate chariots and horses, Lord. I know that those who want to fight need weapons, and those who wants to succeed need means. I want to do something for you and for your kingdom, I want to spread your word and share out your grace, and for that too I need means, and I propose to use them to the best of my ability. I will harness the communication media, I will study techniques and learn methods, I will use the best of modern means to make you known and your message accepted. The best chariots and the best horses for your army, O Lord!

But while I appreciate human means and get ready to make the best of them, I also say clearly that my trust and my hope are not in them. I will seek efficiency, but efficiency by itself will accomplish nothing for your kingdom. This is a delicate balance I want to achieve in my soul: to be efficient for your sake, and then to admit that my efficiency counts for nothing. My horses and chariots will do nothing. It is not in them that I trust.

I trust in you Lord. You want my efforts, and you will have them, with all my weakness and all my good will in them. But success comes from you, from your power, from your grace, and I want to make that clear before you and before my own soul.

“Some boast of chariots and some of horses,
but our boast is in the name of the Lord our God.”

Meditation

Angels in my prayers

“I thank you, Lord, with all my heart; you have heard the words of my mouth. Before the angels I will bless you. I will adore before your holy temple.”
(Psalm 137:1)To pray before the angels. Just to think of it gives joy to my soul and life to my prayer. I like to pray in a group, to feel in my brothers and sisters our common faith, to hear their voice in order to join mine to theirs, to feel surrounded and supported and understood and accompanied by others who think as I do and who appreciate and seek my company in prayer as I seek theirs. To pray in a group, in a community, in the midst of the people of God, is the height of prayer where we all become one, and each one’s prayer is multiplied by the fervour of all. To pray before my brothers and sisters.

But often I find myself alone. There is only one voice, the singing subsides, the community becomes solitude. Even so I want to pray, as prayer is part of my life and flower of my being. But loneliness and isolation can stifle it as I am alone.

Then I think of the angels. I am not alone. Their very existence is a prayer, their presence, their wings, their splendour. They “see always the face of my Father who is in heaven” as Jesus said, and that is existential prayer in permanent vigil. They are prayer in themselves, and just by sensing their presence I feel I’m in prayer. There is where I find my constant fellowship, my open chapel, my own prayer group. They are always with me, and it is enough to evoke their presence for prayer to blossom. When I recite a psalm, I recite it with them; when I sing a canticle, I sing in a choir; when I utter a petition, I sign a manifesto. We are many even if I’m only one, there is a crowd even if I’m alone, it is a whole people even if I’m only an individual. How easy it is to pray in a group, particularly when all the others are better than me! Since now I know that I am never alone when I pray.

“Before the angels I will bless you.”

 

15th
I tell you

Pavarotti

I’m listening to Nessun dorma in the CD “Tutto Pavarotti”. “Let no one sleep in Peking tonight…”. Puccini’s Turandot. Pavarotti now sleeps. With his great Hermes scarf at his neck. Or hanging from his fingers. The record “Tutto Pavarotti” became so popular that some came to believe “Tutto” was Pavarotti’s name, when in fact he was called Luciano. He enjoyed life and helped many to enjoy it. He loved food, speaking of food, knowing about food, thinking of food, eating. He weighed up to 120 kilos and went on a diet now and again. When he was asked what was the best compliment he had received in his life, he answered: “When a man bumped against me in the street inadvertently, and excused himself saying: ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you’.” He always offered his fellow tenor José Carreras bread with tomato, which he knew was his favourite food. When Carreras contracted leukaemia, Pavarotti told him: “Do not die, because if you die, I’ll be left without a rival!” Conductor López Cobos says of him: “He was a grown-up child, and he always sang each song as for the first time.” In his funeral they have played the record in which he and his father had sung together Cesar Frank’s Panis Angelicus. A marvel in its words, its melody, its interpretation which has moved me to tears. Then they have played Nessun dorma. Sleep in peace.

(“Érase una vez en África”, Joseph G.Healy, Mensajero 2007)

Each morning, when the gazelles wake up in Africa, they know that they have to run faster than the fastest lion, or else they’ll never see the dawn again.
Each morning, when the lions wake up in Africa, they know that they have to run faster than the slowest gazelle, or else they’ll go hungry for the day.
It does not matter whether you are lion or gazelle. When the sun rises, you’d better buck up. (p. 43)

When signing for his first safari in a hunting park in Tanzania, the American tourist feels sure about how to act before any emergency. He tells the local guide: “I know that if you carry a torch you can keep the lions away.” The guide answers: “That is right, but it depends on how fast you can run with the torch in your hand.” (71)

African proverb: “It takes a whole village to rise a child.” (74) In Europe, it would seem, a kindergarten is enough.

When I was working as a parish priest in Tanzania, I spent a whole year preparing a Masai group for baptism. At the end of the year I had to decide who were ready for baptism and who would have to study some more time. Ndangoya, the eldest in the group, stopped me gently but firmly: “Father, why are you trying to divide us? We’ve been together for the whole year in this class. When you were absent we kept speaking on these things among ourselves at night before the fire. Yes, there are quite a few lazy people in the group, but we have helped them with full interest. There are slow people, but they have been helped by the bright ones. There are people with little faith in the village, but those whose faith is great have encouraged them. Do you want now to send away all the lazy people, the foolish ones, the ones with little faith? I have always spoken on their behalf from the first day, and now, after one year, I can bear witness to them and to all that we have reached a point in our life when we can say: We believe.”
I looked at the old man. I baptised them all. (101)

I took some photos of the children in the village. I developed them and showed them to all. Little Mohammed recognised each one of his friends in the photos and was showing them to his mother giving them their names, but he never named himself. Was that shyness? No. His mother pointed to a photo in which he appeared and told him: “Mohammed, this is you.” I then realised that little Mohammed had not recognised his own face because there are no mirrors in the village. Mohammed knew himself only through his mother, his friends, his neighbours. People in this village know themselves only through human mirrors. When they salute each other, How are you today? You’re looking fine. You’re not looking very well today. Why are you looking so happy? is when they learn who they are and how they look. That night I prayed to God: “If ever modern mirrors come to this village, let these good people not forget their human mirrors.” (109)

During the genocidal war between hutus and tutsis in Ruanda, in an area in Kigali neighbour attacked neighbour and many were killed. In a certain village, a hutu killed his tutsi neighbour. Some time later, when the Ruanda Patriotic Front won the war and had taken over the government, the crimes committed during that period came under investigation. The widow of that murdered tutsi was asked to identify her husband’s murderer. She knew who he was, but she refused to tell, as she knew that the hutu would be summarily executed. She chose pardon. (123)

Africa understands death. A young woman, married in another village, came once to our village and paid me her first visit in the parish. I knew she had aids, and was in fact far gone in the sickness. She had come so say farewell. She told me:

– I’ve come to see my mother here.
– Are you getting worse?
– Yes, it seems so.
– Are you afraid?
– No. I’ve done all I wanted to do. My children are grown up. I’ve made sure they’ll be looked after. I only need now to see my mother.

We took leave of each other and I kept looking at her as she went up the street. The young woman walked as a queen. The ground beneath her feet became hallowed ground. (125)

On 29th April 1994 twenty-two persons, mostly schoolgirls, were killed during an attack to a girls Catholic school in Muramba, Gisenyi region, Ruanda, close to the frontier with the Congo Democratic Republic. During the genocide war between hutus and tutsis, a group of armed men attacked the school and ordered the girls to split in ethnical groups, hutus to one side and tutsis to the other. The girls refused, protesting that they were all one community and they loved each other. The men opened fire on all of them killing seventeen girls and wounding other fourteen. Sister Margaret Bosmans, Belgian missionary, head of a near-by school, tried to stop the soldiers, and was also killed by them. (127)

Some foreigners in Africa are upset at the lack of competitive spirit in some Africans. Tanzanians seem to have chosen collaboration and camaraderie as their way of life instead of competition. The first inkling I had of that was when watching a sports competition for secondary school girls. There was no archery, no javelin throw, not even tug-of-war. Only races. After half-a-dozen eliminatory trials for the fifty yards dash, the Sister in charge realised that something strange was happening there. She found it hard to determine the winner at each race: they all arrived at the finishing line at exactly the same time. After seven trials, the Sister asked them: “What is happening here? Nobody wins!” The least shy among the girls answered: “Oh, Sister, isn’t it better if we all arrive together?” (185)

Fr Jack, as every other foreign missionary in Tanzania, felt very awkward at the difference between his own life standard and that of his neighbours. People lived in adobe cottages with thatch roofs while he was living in a concrete house with a tiles roof and a terrace. The natives had to carry water from a well at a great distance, while he collected water during the rainy season in tanks on his roof to last the whole year. And his food was richer and much more varied that what the people ate. Once, while travelling, the missionary confessed to Charles, his catechist, how uneasy he felt living as a rich man among the poor. Charles frowned as a sign of incredulity and then burst out: “But father, you are the poorest in the village. You have no grandchildren!” (189)

A missionary went to a remote area in Tanzania to preach the gospel to the Masai people, famous for their valiant warriors. One day the missionary was speaking before a group of adults about the salvation Jesus brings to us. He explained how Jesus was the Son of God, saviour and redeemer of humankind. When he was through with his sermon, an old Masai stood up slowly and told the missionary: “You have spoken well, but I would like to know more about that great chief Jesus Christ. I want to ask you three questions about him, and on your answer to them will depend our acceptance of him as our Supreme Chief. First, did he ever kill a lion? Second, how many cows did he have? Third, how many wives and children did he have?” (199)

You tell me

Question: St Augustine says that if God does not answer our prayers it is because we pray badly. Is that true?

Answer: Yes, it is true that St Augustine says that, but then that is not true, if I may say so. St Augustine says that there are three reasons why God at times does not answer our prayers, and he sums them up concisely in his typical Latin as “malum, male, mali”. Quite clear, isn’t it? Malum means that we ask for something bad, something which is not convenient for us, something that appears to us to be good but is not so in reality, and that is why God does not grant it, thus doing us a favour. Male means that we are asking badly, without the three conditions of every good prayer which are – always according to St Augustine – humility, trust, perseverance. If any of the three is missing, the prayer is not properly made, and so (always according to St Augustine) it fails. Malimeans that we ourselves are bad, that we do not behave properly, we do not deserve this favour from God, and so prayer fails once more. All this is what St Augustine says.

It is, I repeat, what St Augustine says; but it is not what Jesus says. Jesus said, without setting any conditions, in his great Sermon on The Mount, when, at the beginning of his ministry, he unfolded his programme before the crowd: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you; for everyone who asks receives, those who seek find, and to those who knock, the door will be opened.” He didn’t say “if you ask properly, if you behave, if you pray with humility, trust, and perseverance, if you deserve it”. His offer was unconditional. If we are to wait till we become totally good, to ask only for eternal blessings, to make the perfect prayer, we could spare ourselves the trouble. Jesus simply said, “ask and you will receive”. Though this may lead to other questions. But you haven’t asked them.

Psalm

Psalm 20 – My heart’s desire

“You have granted him his heart’s desire.”These are words that bring me joy, O Lord! I know that that is your work, your name, your very essence: You are the one who fulfils the desires of the human heart. You have made that heart, and you alone can satisfy it. What is now consoling for me is to know that you in fact do it.

“You have granted him his heart’s desire.”

In granting it to “him” you are telling me that you are ready to grant me too my heart’s desire. What you do for the king of Israel you do for your people, and what you do for your people you do for me. If you grant the king of Israel the victory he desires, you will also grant me what my heart truly desires.

This sets me thinking in the earnestness of your presence: What, in truth, is my heart’s desire? Which are the victories I truly want? Now that I see you ready to grant my desires, I want to search my heart and let the core of my being appear before you, that you may see my genuine longing and grant it in your bounty.

And when I do that I feel the shock of shame vibrate through my body. I look at my desires… and I find them so petty! How could I ask for them now in earnest before you? I want a cheap success, a cowardly escape, a personal gratification. I want security and comfort and respectability. Can I call that ”my heart’s desire” and place it before you as you lift your hand in gracious bestowal? Oh, no. I cannot do that; I keep my shame and delve deeper into my heart.

As I delve deeper into my heart I am in for another shock. I am formulating now “deeper” desires… and I realise that they are only formal, official, academic. I am asking for “your greater glory”, “the liberation of the poor”, “the welfare of humankind”, “the coming of the Kingdom”. All that is true and beautiful and necessary…, but these words are not mine, those expressions are borrowed; those desires are certainly mine, but only so in as much as they are everybody else’s. I understand that for “my heart’s desire” you expect and mean something personal, concrete, intimate. Something from me to you, from my heart to your Heart; something in mutual love, sincerity and trust. I want to search deeper still.

And now for a moment I feel happy. I have suddenly told you with a show of humility and a sense of relief at having found the perfect answer: Lord, I leave it to you. You know what is best for me, you love me and want my happiness, and I trust in you and in your wisdom, and so what you want for me is what I want for myself. That is my heart’s desire. Grant it, and that will make me happy.

Nice words. But hollow. Neat escape. Plain shirking of my responsibility. You have asked me what I want, and I, in cowardly compliment, return the question to you and place on you the burden of the choice. I am covering the shame of my indecision with the gesture of my surrender. Forgive me, Lord, I have not yet found my heart’s desire.

While I search, I will ask for a grace, as you are still waiting: Give me the grace to know what I really want. This is now my heart’s desire.

Or could it be, perhaps, that the true and final and definitive desire of my heart would be to have no desire?

Meditation

Angels of praise

“Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts.”
(Psalm 148; 1-2)Praise is my favourite prayer. Praising God is joy and good cheer, is faith and trust, is petition and thanksgiving, is promise and fulfilment, is heaven and earth together. And the angels are masters of praise. That is why they head the list of all the elements in the whole of creation which are going to be called upon to make up the choir of praise in the realm of the cosmos.

“Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars; praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens.”

All these are angels’ domains, and the angels translate the silent witness of all the creatures of the universe into the heavenly language of canticles of praise. Sun and moon praise the Lord because the angels of the sun and the moon admire their splendour and their majesty and their beauty, and so they present their wonder and their joy to the Lord of creation who made such marvels and maintains them in all their glory. The sun and the moon have no voice, but the angels who govern them and contemplate them do have voice, and their voice reaches the throne of God in the perpetual harmony of heartfelt praise.

It is not only the heavens that are the domains of angels, but the earth too with all that is on it, and so it also is the object of their thought, their care, their love. The list of the creatures of praise that was headed by the angels in heaven continues now with all beings on earth.

“Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and ocean depths; fire and hail, snow and ice, gales of wind that obey his voice; all mountains and hills; all fruit trees and cedars; wild animals and all cattle, creeping creatures and winged birds. Let kings and all commoners, princes and rulers over the whole earth, youths and girls, old and young together, let them praise the name of the Lord.”

The angels are in the wind and in the fog, in the snow and in the fire, in the sea and in the mountains, in the plants and in the animals, in the young and the old and princes and rulers, and in them all and through them all they preside and conduct the canticle of praise that the whole of creation sings before the Creator. We can praise the Creator because the angels praise him and we are with them. We can sing in harmony because they lead us. We reach the throne of God because they are in front of it and we join with them in the universal choir of cosmic praise. The music of the spheres.

I praise you, angels, because you praise God. Because you allow me and teach me to praise God with you, because you steady my voice and tune my song, because you vibrate with me and make me feel part of the heavenly host that sings with one voice the marvels of creation and of the Lord who created them. Thank you, dear angels, for having given me some of the happiest moments in my life in those symphony concerts that we practice here on earth to enjoy for ever with you in heaven.

Praise the Lord, you angels of the Lord!

1st
I tell you

[These are some excerpts from the autobiography of Dmitri Shostakovich (Testimony, Faber and Faber, London 1987). In it he writes mostly about other Russian musicians and little about himself. What he writes about Glazunov, composer and Director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire, is particularly inspiring.]

When Glazunov’s First Symphony was performed, it was a great success, and they called for the composer. The audience was stunned when the composer came out in a Gymnasium uniform. Glazunov was seventeen. That’s a record in Russian music. I didn’t beat it, even though I began early enough. (125)

Revolution Prime Minister Stolypin sent an enquiry to the Conservatoire: how many Jewish students were there? Glazunov replied with quiet satisfaction, “We don’t keep count.” And these were the years of pogroms against the Jews who were not permitted into institutions of higher learning. (127)

An anniversary concert in Glazunov’s honour was held in Moscow in 1922. He went, and after the gala, Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar of Education, gave a speech. He announced that the government had decided to give Glazunov living conditions that would facilitate his creativity and be commensurate with his achievements. What would any other man have done in the guest of honour’s place? He would have thanked him. The times were hard and lean. Glazunov, who had once been a substantial and handsome man, had lost a catastrophic amount of weight. His old clothes sagged on him as though he were a clothes hanger. His face was haggard and drawn. We knew that he didn’t even have music paper on which to write down his ideas. But Glazunov manifested an absolutely amazing sense of his own dignity. And honour. He said that he needed absolutely nothing and asked not to be put in circumstances that differed from those of other citizens. But if the government had turned its attention to musical life, Glazunov said, well then, let it rest on the Conservatoire, which was freezing. There was no firewood, nothing with which to heat the place. It caused a minor scandal, but at least the Conservatoire received firewood. (127)

Glazunov was always tormented by the awareness of the injustice of his personal well-being as against the poverty of most of the people around him. He was visited by many people who had been treated unfairly by life and he tried to help them: in response even more came to him. But he couldn’t help them all. He wasn’t a miracle worker after all, none of us is, and that is a source of constant torment.

Glazunov was also pestered by an enormous number of composers who sent their work to him from all over Russia. When they just send you music, it’s not so bad, I know that from my own experience. You can glance through a score rather quickly, particularly if you see straight away that it’s hopeless. Of course, if you want to experience the music fully, you must sightread it in the amount of time that it would take to perform, that’s the only way to derive real satisfaction from reading it. But that’s a method to be used only with good music. It’s torture to ‘listen’ with your eyes to bad music. You just glance through it. But what do you do when a talentless composer comes and plays his music from beginning to end? I feel that Glazunov chose the right behaviour for these situations. He praised such works moderately and quietly, looking at the music with thought. Sometimes he used his gold pencil on the second or fifteenth page to add a sharp or flat or make some other tiny change. ‘In general, this is all right, it’s good; but here, perhaps, the shift from triple to quadruple time isn’t very good…’. So that the composer wouldn’t think that Glazunov didn’t pay enough attention to the work. (130)

Once Glazunov listened to a friend and myself sightreading Brahms’ Second Symphony on the piano at four hands. We were playing badly, because we didn’t know the music. Glazunov asked whether we knew it, and I answered honestly, ‘No, we don’t.’ And he sighed and said, ‘You’re so lucky, young men, you’re so lucky. There are so many beautiful things for you to discover. And I already know it all. Unfortunately.’ (14)

Glazunov amazed us with his musical memory. Taneyev had come to Petersburg from Moscow to show his new symphony, and the host hid the young Glazunov in the next room behind a closed door. Taneyev played his symphony. When he finished, the host brought Glazunov from the next room. He sat at the piano, and played the whole symphony from beginning to end. Not even Stravinsky could have done that. (51)

Glazunov asked Sofronitsky to come and see him urgently. He came to his house and found him napping in his armchair, his head lolling on his fat stomach. Glazunov opened one eye and stared at Sofronitsky for a long time, and then, his tongue moving slowly, asked: ‘Tell me, please, do you like the Hammerklavier?’ [That is Beethoven’s 29th piano sonata.] Sofronitsky replied readily that of course, he liked it very much. Glazunov was silent for a long time. Sofronitsky stood and waited until Glazunov muttered softly, ‘You know, I can’t stand that sonata.’ And went back to sleep. (43) [I love this story, as I also had to learn Beethoven’s thirty-two sonatas at the piano in my youth, and I hated the Hammer-Klavier! But I could not say it then!]

Once Glazunov was in England, conducting his own works there. The British orchestra members were laughing at him. They thought he was a barbarian, and probably an ignoramus. And they began sabotaging him. The French horn player stood up at a rehearsal and said that he couldn’t play a certain note because it was impossible. The other orchestra players heartily supported him. Glazunov silently walked over to the horn player and took his instrument. The stunned musician didn’t object. Glazunov took aim for a while and then played the required note, the one that the British musician insisted was impossible. The orchestra applauded, the insurrection was quelled, and they continued the rehearsal. (56)

Once in my presence Sollertinsky [another of Shostakovich’s musical friends] cut a haughty and obnoxious woman down to size. She herself was nothing, but her husband was a Leningrad official. At a banquet for an opera première at the Maly Theatre, Sollertinsky came up to this woman. And wanting to compliment her, he said in his usual excited, spluttering manner, ‘How wonderful you look, you are absolutely ravishing today!’ And he was just getting ready to enlarge on his dithyramb when the lady interrupted. ‘Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for you.’ But Sollertinsky kept his wits about him and replied, ‘Why don’t you do what I did? Lie.’ Being rude is easy; being sharp is significantly harder. (18)

Once Stalin called the Radio Committee to ask for a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. ‘Played by Yudina’, he added. [Yudina was a very popular classical pianist in Russia though hardly known in the West.] They told Stalin that of course they would send it. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been broadcast live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. Stalin demanded that the record would be sent to him in his dacha. The committee panicked. They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally. She was a great pianist, a great woman, and a great Christian. Yudina told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy in a hurry and sent it to Stalin. Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand roubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter in which she said: “I thank you, Josif Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.” The letter was suicidal, and the order to arrest Yudina was prepared, but nothing happened. Her recording of the Mozart Concerto was on the record player when Stalin was found dead in his dacha. Yudina herself told me all this, and Yudina never lied. (148)

Once I was in Khrennikov’s office in the Composers’ Union when Stalin called him on the phone. He was so upset that he forgot to see me out of his office and I heard the entire conversation which was checking on accusations, scolding, raving, condemning for a long time. I knew how to keep a straight face when such things happened. I kept all the time looking intently at Tchaikovsky’s picture on the wall. I never mentioned anything about that phone call to anyone, but ever since that day I can reproduce Pyotr Ilyich’s beard faultlessly hair by hair. [Pyotr Ilych is, of course, Tchaikovsky.] (114)

Stalin was very fussy about portraits of himself. There’s a marvellous Oriental parable about a khan who called for an artist to do his portrait. That seemed to be a simple enough order, but the problem was that the khan was lame and squinted in one eye. The artist depicted him that way and was immediately executed. The khan said, ‘I don’t need slanderers.’ They brought a second artist. He decided to be smart and depicted the khan in perfect shape: eagle eyes and matching feet. He was immediately executed too. The khan said, ‘I don’t need flatterers.’ The wisest, as it should be in a parable, was the third artist. He painted the khan hunting. In the painting the khan was shooting a deer with a bow and arrow. His squinty eye was shut, and the lame foot rested on a rock. This artist was awarded a prize.

I have a suspicion that the parable doesn’t come from the East, but was written somewhere closer home, because this khan sounds just like Stalin. Stalin had several painters shot. They were called to the Kremlin to capture the leader and teacher for eternity, and, apparently they didn’t please him. Stalin wanted to be tall, with powerful hands, and he wanted the hands to be the same, though he had unequal hands and was short. Nalbandian fooled them all. In his portrait Stalin is walking straight at the viewer, his hands folded over his stomach so that one is hidden by the other. The view is from below, an angle that would make a Lilliputian look like a giant. Nalbandian followed Mayakovsky’s advice: the artist must look at his model like a duck at a balcony. And Nalbandian painted Stalin from the duck’s point of view. Stalin was very pleased, and reproductions of the painting hung in every office, even in barber shops and Turkish baths. All of you have seen that picture. (198)

You tell me

“I’ll tell you what happened to me in Kenya last December, since I know you like the idea of living in the present. One day the sky was clouded and I asked the native guide: “Will it rain today?” He answered me: “In Africa we do not ask, ‘Will it rain?’. We wait till it rains and then we say, ‘It is raining’.”

Thank you, Luis María. Delightful. Quite a lesson for life. Even if we get wet.

Psalm

Psalm 21 – When depression strikes

I am on my knees as I begin this psalm. It is your psalm, Lord. You said it on the cross, at the height of your agony, when the suffering of your soul climaxed the suffering of your body in utter dereliction.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”Those are your words. How can I make them mine? How can I equate my sufferings to yours? How can I climb your cross and utter your cry, forever consecrated by the uniqueness of your passion? I feel that this psalm is yours, and to you it should be left as memorial of your passion, as wounded expression of your personal anguish, as piercing witness of our encounter with death in your body and in your soul. These words belong to Good Friday, to your passion, to you.

And yet I feel that this psalm is also mine, that there are also moments in my life when I too have a right and a need to utter those words in humble echo to your own words. I also encounter death, once in my body at the end of my life, and many times in the desolation of my soul as I wander through the shadows of this world. I am not comparing myself to you, Lord, but I also know anguish and despair, I also feel loneliness and abandonment. I also have felt let down by the Father, and the words have formed in my parched lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When depression strikes, it makes all men and women equal. Life loses its meaning, nothing makes sense, every taste is bitter and every colour back. There is no point in living. The eye sees no way, and the feet are heavy with inertia. Why to eat, why to breathe, why to live? The bottom of the pit is the same for all men and women, and those who have reached it, know it. I know my depressions, and I know that they are death in a living body. Utter dereliction. Limit of endurance. Boundary of despair. Suffering makes all men and women equal, and suffering of the mind in its abjection is the worse suffering. I know its blackness.

Where are you then? Where are you when the black night descends upon my soul? “I cry in the day-time, but you do not answer; in the night I cry, but get no respite.” Indeed, it is your absence that makes up my suffering. If you were by my side, I could bear any hardship, brave any storm. But you have abandoned me, and that is my plight. The loneliness of the cross on Good Friday.

People speak to me then about you. They mean well, but they only sharpen my agony. If you are there, why do you not help me? If you have rescued my fathers in the past, why do you not rescue me now?

You are he whose praises Israel sings.
In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted in you, and you rescued them.
Unto you they cried and were delivered;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame. But I…”.

I seem to count for nothing before you. “I am a worm, not a man”, or so I feel just now.

“My strength drains away like water,
and all my bones are loose.
My heart has turned to wax and melts within me.
My mouth is dry as a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaw.
I am laid low in the dust of death.”

I had to reach the end of my misery in order to realise that my salvation is only in you. My complaint to you was in itself a hidden act of faith in you. I complained to you that you had abandoned me precisely because I knew you were there. Show now yourself, Lord. Extend your arm and dispel the darkness that envelops me. Bring back hope to my soul and strength to my body. Put an end to my depression and let me be a man with joy and faith and zest for life. Let me be myself again and feel your presence and sing your praise. This is passing from death to life, and I want to bear witness to your power to raise my soul from despair as a token of your power to raise me into eternal life. You have given me new life, Lord, and I will gladly proclaim your might before my brothers and sisters.

“This shall be told of the Lord to future generations;
and they shall justify him,
declaring to a people yet unborn
that this was his doing.”

Meditation

Angels and their bread

“In contrast to this, your own people were given angels’ bread. You sent to them from heaven, without labour on their part, bread ready to eat, rich in every kind of delight and suited to every taste. The sustenance you supplied showed the sweetness of your disposition towards your children, and the bread, serving the appetite of every person who ate it, was transformed into what each wished.”
(Wisdom 16: 20-21)The bread of angels in the Old Testament is the manna that fed the people of Israel in the desert. In the New Testament it becomes the figure of the Eucharist that nourishes our soul day by day from heaven while we are on earth. Then, in my humble imagination, it is every meal I eat with relish, for my body’s strength and my soul’s cheer if I take it together with the angels sharing my bread with them as they share their bread with me.

With this company at table every food tastes glorious and the tradition of the Hebrews comes alive again as this manna suits every taste and we enjoy in each simple dish the exquisite flavour of a gourmet cuisine. The bread of angels comes from their kitchen and it is as varied as they themselves are. The painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo painted his famous painting, “The Angels’ Kitchen” to be seen in the Louvre Museum. Heavenly gastronomy.

The secret to turn every meal into a banquet is to sit down to it with my angel. To remember him, to feel him by my side, to sit him at the head of the table, to place before him each dish for him to help himself, to savour every taste, to eat slowly, to enjoy each morsel, to feel the texture, the mellowness, the variety, the richness of each food, to sense gratitude in my whole body, to relax the mind, to honour the table. With my angel by my side every meal becomes a liturgy, every dish a prayer, every morsel a sacrament. Thus eaten, the bread nourishes the body and strengthens the soul. Thus enjoyed, the meal enlivens the day and enriches the mind. My angel is my best table fellow. He’s coming today for dinner. On the table, the usual menu. Bread of angels.

 

15th
I tell you

Dialogue

While getting out of the dining room this afternoon I briefly greeted a Jesuit companion I had not seen for a few days, and this is the exact dialogue that has taken place between us:

I: How are you, John?
John: Very fine. And you, Carlos?
I: Very fine indeed.
John: That makes two of us.

Would it were all of us.

A good professional

I was in search of a book, and I went to a large bookshop. I knew only the book’s title, neither the name of the author nor the publisher. I went straight to a shop assistant and asked him: “I’m looking for a book of which I know only the title: Wikinomics”. He bolted on hearing the name, went to the upper floor, run through corridors of books at such a speed that I could hardly follow him, stopped before a shelf, lifted his arm, pushed his hand in, took out the book and placed it before my eyes. All in a few seconds. I looked at the book. I looked at him. I smiled. I put out my hand. I told him: “Allow me to stretch the hand of a good professional.” Now it was his turn to smile. I felt like embracing him, but fought shy of it. I admire a good professional. If every person were a good professional, the world would run better.

Ecology

Sev (Severn) is the daughter of David Suzuki, the Japanese-Canadian ecologist famous for his TV programmes and his projects in Amazonia. When Sev was only 12, her father asked her to speak in the Earth Summit of Rio de Janeiro 1992. He began to give her ideas, but she stopped him: “Dad, I know what I want to say. Mommy will help me write it all down. Only train me a little how to say it.” Her little speech was the most appreciated in the whole summit. I felt touched when reading it. Here it is:

“Hello. I’m Severn Suzuki, speaking for ECO, the Environmental Children’s Organisation.

We are a group of twelve- and thirteen-year olds trying to make a difference – Vanessa, Morgan, Michelle, and me. We raised all the money to come five thousand miles to tell you adults you must change your ways. Coming up here today I am fighting for my future. Losing a future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market. I am here to speak for all generations to come; I am here to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard; I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go.

I am afraid to go out in the sun now because of the holes in the ozone; I am afraid to breathe the air because I don’t know what chemicals are in it; I used to go fishing in Vancouver, my hometown, with my dad, until just a few years ago when we found the fish full of cancers; and now we hear about animals and plants going extinct every day – vanishing for ever.

In my time, I have dreamed of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rain forests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see. Did you have to worry about these things when you were my age?

All this is happening before our eyes, and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realise, neither do you – you don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer; you don’t know how to bring the salmon back in a dead stream; you don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct, and you can’t bring back the forests that once grew where there is now a desert – if you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!

Here you may be delegates of your governments, businesspeople, organisers, reporters or politicians, but really you are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, and all of you are somebody’s children. I’m only a child yet I know we are part of a family, 5 billion strong; in fact, 30 million species strong, and borders and governments will never change that.

I’m only a child, yet I know we are all in this together and should act as one single world toward one single goal. In my anger I am not blind, and in my fear I’m not afraid to tell the world how I feel. In my country we make so much waste; we buy and throw away, buy and throw away; and yet northern countries will not share with the needy; even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to lose some of our wealth, afraid to let go. In Canada, we live the privileged life with plenty of food, water and shelter; we have watches, bicycles, computers, and television sets.

Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent time with some children living on the streets, and here is what one child told us: ‘I wish I was rich, and if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicine, shelter, love, and affection.’ If a child on the street who has nothing is willing to share, why are we who have everything still so greedy? I can’t stop thinking that these are children my own age, that it makes a tremendous difference where you are born. I could be one of those children living in the favelas of Río, I could be a child starving in Somalia, a victim of war in the Middle East, or a beggar in India.

I’m only a child yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty, developing projects, and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this Earth would be. At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world – you teach us not to fight with others; to work things out; to respect others; to clean up our mess; not to hurt other creatures; to share, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? Do not forget why you are attending these conferences, who you are doing this for – we are your own children.

You are deciding what kind of a world we will grow up in. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying, ‘Everything’s going to be all right’, ‘We’re doing the best we can’, and ‘It’s not the end of the world.’ But I don’t think you can say that to us anymore.

Are we even on your list of priorities? My dad always says, ‘You are what you do, not what you say’. Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us, but I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words.

Thank you.”

When Sev left the stage in the midst of a standing ovation by the whole audience, she went straight to her mother and asked her, “Mommy, could you hear my heart beating?”

(David Suzuki, The Autobiography, Allen & Unwin, Australia 2006, p. 281)

Immigrants

Sev’s father tells this story about his immigration in Canada. “Two Japanese immigrants arrive in Canada on a Sunday and take a stroll together along the street. One of them looks down and spots a twenty-dollar bill, which he bends to pick up. He’s stopped by his friend, who tells him, ‘Leave it there; we’ll start work tomorrow’.” (p. 4)

You tell me

Hugo Marroquín Rivera sends me a paragraph from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book on Flux, which pointedly says:

“Hinduism and Buddhism prescribe the elimination of any purpose as a condition for happiness. They state that it is only abandoning all desires and achieving a purpose-free existence that we can have a chance to avoid unhappiness. This way of thinking has influenced many European and American young people, leading them to reject any kind of aim and to think that the belief in a totally free and random behaviour will lead them to illumination.”

I had read the book, without ever having dared to pronounce the author’s algebraic name, and I agree that there is some danger in interpreting Buddhism that way; but in real fact, Buddhism does not say that. It does not reject desire (iccha) but anxiety in one’s desire (trishana) which is not the same. An aim helps at the beginning setting up a direction and motivating the march; but it later hinders the effort with the worry to reach the goal and the anxiety in doubts that can spoil the whole enterprise.

I knew a boy whose desire to become a doctor led him to get good marks and thus to secure admission into Medical College. But, once there, the anxiety to pass all the exams defeated him and made him drop out of College. Desire helps; anxiety hinders.

The important thing in Buddhism is living the present, which, when fully lived, will by itself lead to the future. The caterpillar does not become a butterfly by trying hard to become one, but by simply being a good caterpillar. If it tries, it’ll spoil everything. Let us be Oriental.

Lao Tzu: “For ever tarrying in purposelessness.” A great master.

Psalm

Psalm 21 – Joyful and carefree

“The Lord is my Shepherd.”I have watched flocks of sheep on green mountain sides. They romp about, they graze at will, they loiter in the shade. No sense of hurry, no agitation, no worry. They don’t even look at their shepherd; they know he is there and he cares. And so they are free to enjoy the green pastures and the running spring. Happiness under the sky.

Joyful and carefree. The sheep don’t calculate. How much time left? Where shall we go tomorrow? Will the rains be enough to provide pastures for next year? The sheep don’t care, because there is someone else who cares for them. They live from day to day, from hour to hour. And that is happiness.

“The Lord is my Shepherd.”

If only I believe in that, if I truly believe that the Lord is my Shepherd, my life will change. My anxiety will go, my complexes will dissolve, and peace will return to my troubled nerves. To live from day to day, from hour to hour, because he is there. The Lord of the birds in the sky and the lilies on the field. The Shepherd of his sheep. If I truly believe in him, I am free to move and to breathe and to live. Free to enjoy life. Every moment is precious because it is unstained with the worry of the next one. The shepherd knows, and that is enough for me. Happiness under grace.

The blessing of believing in Providence. The blessing of living under obedience. The blessing of following the promptings of the Spirit in the paths of life.

“The Lord is my Shepherd;

There is nothing I shall want.”

Meditation

Transportation angels

“He parted the heavens and came down; thick darkness lay under his feet. He flew on the back of a cherub; he swooped on the wings of the wind.”
(Psalm 17:10)In India it is said that each one of the Hindu gods and goddesses has their carrier. Vishnu has the eagle Garuda, Siva has the bull Nandi, Ganesh has the mouse, Kali the tiger, Yama the buffalo, Saraswati the peacock. That is why I venture an ecumenical smile when I find in a corner of the Bible that Yahweh also has his own carrier. And that is a cherub.

They are the cherubim of the Arc, golden witnesses before the throne of majesty, sanctuary of worship where Yahweh sits in solemn dignity before his royal court, and where all the prayers of Israel are directed:

“Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock. Shine forth, as you sit enthroned on the cherubim. Leading Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, rouse your might and come to our rescue.”
(Psalm 79: 2-3)

Yahweh sits between cherubim, and when he wants to move, in the limited but legitimate understanding of our imagination, he makes use of the cherubim throne as of a royal chariot. This is the majestic vision of the prophet Ezekiel:

“The glory of the Lord left the temple terrace and halted above the cherubim. They spread their wings and raised themselves from the ground; I watched them go with the wheels beside them. They halted at the eastern gateway of the Lord’s house, with the glory of the God of Israel over them.”
(Ezekiel 10:18-19)

God is everywhere. He knows everything and sees everything. He doesn’t need to move as he fills all space. We know that and he knows it too. But we like to let our imagination free, and apparently he likes us to do that too, and so we draw pictures and invent metaphors and sing verses and put a touch of colour to his revelations and wings to his presence. I thank the Lord for allowing me to imagine him flying on a cherub. The angels love it too. Transportation angels.

1st
I tell you

The bride’s dress

I laughed when they told me, and I retell it with innocence. There was a wedding in church, quite a few people had gathered, and two elderly nuns where watching the ceremony from the benches. One of them leans towards the other and tells her in her ear: “I don’t like criticising, but the bride’s dress is the ugliest I have seen in all my life.” The other Sister nods in agreement and the mass continues. Someone has heard it and smiles without malice. Then she tells the story after the mass. Anecdotes of the wedding.
And a mirror for all of us. I have nothing against her, but…. It is not that I want to meddle into what they are doing, but…. I don’t care at all what he does with his money, but…. I don’t want to criticise, but….
But we criticise. And we meddle with others and we backbite and we condemn. We know that something is wrong with what we are doing, and that’s why we head our commentary with the words, “Not that I mean to…”. But we meant it. Just as the word trick, “I’m not going to say anything about…”, and we go on to enumerate all that we “didn’t” want to say. If you don’t want to say it, don’t say it. “Far from me to say that…”, but I say it. Let us watch our language. Far from me to say anything against a nun. I worship them all. But…

And it is also true that there are some bridal dresses which are just horrible. I’m sure the good Sister was right. And let it be clear that I have nothing at all against bride’s dresses, but….

Histories of India
Dhan Gopal Mukerji was the first Indian writer to obtain fame in America at the beginning of last century. Here are some quotations from his book, Caste and Outcaste, Stanford University Press, 2002. I was tickled by the one about his geography textbook.134. Once at Benares I stopped to bathe in the Ganges and I saw an old priest who had taken his bath and was meditating. Two Americans, a man and a woman, came along rushing. The man pointed his camera at him, and said reassuringly, “Don’t be scared; it won’t bite!” Then snapping his picture, he hastily put a coin in the old man’s hand and disappeared as suddenly as he had come. The priest, who had been meditating upon the Lord, looked at the coin, then looked at the disappearing couple. In silence he threw the coin over his shoulder into the water.

118. One day I was waiting on the platform in a railway station in India. After three hours the train was heard. It stopped at a distance and whistled for the signal to come into the station. The man who gives the signals was eating his dinner and he grumbled:

– What does he want, the fool, screeching like that?
– He wants a signal to come to the platform – someone said.
– Then let him wait till I’ve finished my dinner – replied the man crossly.

141. The first American I met on landing was a man very quaintly dressed (later on I learned he was wearing “overalls”), who had been sent to me to take care of my trunk. I gave him my trunk, which he threw from the deck of the ship down to the wharf – a matter of some eight or ten feet. Not knowing enough colloquial English, I quoted to him the magnificent lines of Milton:
“Him the Almighty Power hurled headlong
flaming from the ethereal sky.”
The expressman looked at me very quizically and exclaimed: “Cut it out! You’re too fresh!” This was my initiation into America.

53. When I was about ten years old, my father sent me to a Scotch Presbyterian school. He said, “I have discovered a saint in the head of the school. I want you to learn Christianity. If you are convinced it is wrong, fight it; if you are convinced it is right, embrace it!”
When my training was over, I brought a picture of Christ to my mother while she was meditating and asked: “Why do you meditate in the presence of a false god? This is the real God I have found.”
She said, “I have heard of Him from others. He has no quarrel with my God. This is only another name.”
We pushed the image of Vishnu a little to one side, put the picture of Christ by his side in the sacred niche in the wall and burned incense and meditated before Him too. My mother said, “He who brings about a quarrel between God and God is a more dangerous sinner than he who causes war between man and man. God is one. We have given Him many names. Why should we quarrel about names?”

56. My grandfather taught me poetry. His memory was going when I was nine or ten, and in order to exercise it, he taught poetry to me. Now, in the Scotch school they gave me a book to study, called geography, and there was no end of talk about places. One day I was reading about Calcutta. I showed my geography to my grandfather and said to him, “We are reading about our own city”, and then I gave him a list of our export and import trade.
“But that is not geography,” said the old man, “I have it in an ancient book and I will show you.” So he went and got Kalidassa’s Cloud Messenger (Meghdhoot). He read and translated to me the following tale from the Sanskrit:
“A Titan was employed in the Himalayas by God to look after the treasury, but he defaulted and was exiled a whole year at the southern point of India. Being homesick, he wanted to send a message to his wife, but had no messenger. Suddenly he saw the July monsoon cloud rising from the Indian Ocean. ‘I’ll send a message through this cloud’.
So he said: ‘In the first flush of July the clouds rise; as the elephant charges the mountains with its tusks, so the cloud charges the sky with its tusks of lightning. O you born of the sun of the gods! O sun of the wandering heavens, take this message to my wife, and as you go, I will tell you how to reach my home!’
Then he gave his directions: ‘When you come to the blue mountains, you feel the breeze becoming different. The wind caresses you. The white cranes make eye-pleasing circles before you. Peacocks stand on branches of the trees, their fans outspread, dancing to the drumming of thunder. At last you reach the Himalayas. And you will see where the rainbow bends its glory to make an entrance for the gods. You will find a woman there whose bracelets are too big for her wrists, because she has grown thin, longing for me. She is my wife.’
‘That’, said my grandfather, ‘is geography, not exports and imports’.”

76. The holy man used to play with us children, and his favourite game was a sort of blind man’s buff. He would blindfold all the children and would walk around stealthily like a cat, jingling his trident with its rings from time to time. The children always failed to catch him. At the end he would say, ‘Thus we perceive God here and there, but we can never reach him.’

I asked him, “Why do good people suffer in this world?” He said, “When you pray for rain, you also pray for the thunderbolt.”

You tell me

Question: What is Wikinomics? Is it a book about Wikipedia? You mentioned it in your last Web and I was just curious.

Answer: Healthy curiosity. No, the book I sought and was found for me as efficiently as I narrated there is not about Wikipedia but simply about Wiki. That is, about the work method that Wikipedia has popularised with its team and its name, and which rules de field in many ways. The work between many people connected through Internet. For instance, the census of all the galaxies, which no astronomer and no observatory could carry out on their own is now being made globally through amateurs with home telescopes who go on taking down there findings and filing their results. Its four principles are: openness (as against secret), peering (as against authority), sharing (as against monopolising), and acting globally (as against being insular). I dream of the Church’s government being that way. It’s only a dream. Wikivatican.

Psalm

Psalm 23 – Lift up your heads!

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
The world and those who dwell therein.
Who may go up the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?”
Your majesty fills me with reverence, Lord, and when I think of it I sense my smallness and feel the burden of my unworthiness. Who am I to appear before you, to claim your attention, to engage your love? Let me keep my distance and know my place. Far from me your holy mountain, your sacred intimacy. Enough for me to contemplate from far the summit in the clouds, as your people in the desert contemplated Mount Sinai without daring to approach it.

But as I think of your people in the Old Testament, I think also of your people in the New. The memory of Sinai brings to my mind the reality of Bethlehem. The people who feared to approach their God find that their God has come to them. No more fire and lightning. No more clouds round the summit. A cave in the fields and a crib and a baby. And a mother’s smile as she cradles him in her arms. God has come to his people.

You have come to me. The supreme gift of personal intimacy. You walk by my side, you hold my hand, you let me recline my head on your breast. The miracle of closeness, the thrill of friendship, the consecration of unity. I cannot let my unworthiness, my shyness, my laziness come between you and me. I want to learn the delicate and privileged art of living close to you.

That is why I need faith, courage, magnanimity. I need the admonition of your psalm:

“Lift up your heads, you gates,
Lift yourselves up, you everlasting doors,
That the King of Glory may come in.”

I want to open wide the doors of my heart so that you may come in with the fullness of your presence. No more false humility, no hidden fears, no polite delays. The Prince of Glory is standing at the gate. The King is asking for friendship. God himself is knocking at my door. For me it is a call to generosity, to confidence, to surrender. To open the gates of my soul and receive the divine guest.

Teach me, Lord, how to deal with you. How to combine intimacy with reverence, friendship with worship and closeness with awe. Teach me how to lift my head and to open my heart, as I bend my knee and lower my sight. Teach me never to lose sight of your majesty, and never to underestimate your companionship. Teach me your Incarnation. God and man. Lord and friend. Prince and comrade.

Welcome to the King of glory!

Meditation

Holy, holy, holy!

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the skirt of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance on him. Each had six wings; with one pair of wings they covered their faces and with another their bodies, and with the third pair they flew. They were calling to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory’.”
(Isaiah 6:1-3)Isaiah’s Seraphim open up the prophet’s vision, sanctify his person, consecrate his mission. Solemn introduction to messianic prophecies that will prepare from of old the coming of Emmanuel, the sufferings of the Servant of Yahweh, the flowering of the root of Jesse. They show reverence before the throne of Yahweh as they cover their faces and their bodies with their wings while they sing together the hymn that is the centre of heaven’s liturgy and has come to be the centre too of our own Eucharistic prayer before the sovereign God who reigns over clouds and descends upon our altars. Holy, holy, holy!

God’s holiness is the very essence of his being. It is his own name, his essential attribute, his definition. God is The Holy One, and any other sanctity is told only in reference to him and as a partial sharing in his essence. The seraphim know Him whom they adore, and so they sing without ceasing the summary of their knowledge, their worship, their praise of him: Holy, holy, holy!

I quietly join in their song. Since I know the lyrics I can repeat them by their side. Holy, holy, holy! They have been singing the song from eternity, and I hope to reach eternity too with those same words on my lips and in my heart so that I can quickly get integrated into the life in heaven with those who are living it since its beginning.

While singing of God’s holiness I hope that some of it may stick to me in my lowliness too, that I may learn the tune, that I become familiar with its accent, that it keeps sounding in my ears and seeps into all the fibres of my body, deep into my mind and my soul, in preparation for the moment when I will approach that same holiness before which the Seraphim keep guard. I want to learn from the Seraphim to train myself for heaven.

 

15th
I tell you

I’ve received today this email that has brought me old memories. It’s been sent by a girl I met in India many years ago and whom I haven’t seen for years. She writes from America where she now lives, and this is what she says:

“I was home last night, reading our local Directory of Gujarati people in Columbus. Together with names and data they print also some nice articles in it, and I was reading one of them. The name of the article was Sapaati priya (Fondness of surfaces). When I was reading it, I felt some kind of familiarity, though I didn’t know that you had written that article. The whole time I felt some connection. At the end when I turned the page and saw the name of the writer of the article: ‘Father Vallés’. I told myself, no wonder, I knew, my heart felt it. Isn’t that something? I had to let you know that. It is 11:37 pm and I have to get up early for work tomorrow, I will talk to you later.
Love, Rupa.

A letter like that gladdens a writer’s heart. She recognises my style. She somehow connects not knowing why. Her heart knows. She discovers the name at the end. And she tells me. Blessed the day in which I wrote that article. The style is the man, say the French.

I myself had forgotten about that article. I have looked it up in an anthology of my Gujarati writings of twelve years ago from where someone in Columbus had taken it to reprint it without telling me any thing as is usually the case. “Fondness of surfaces.” I translate a paragraph.

“We are all superficial. We read a little, we understand a little, we know a little, we do a little. A little. Something has to be done, but the least of it the better. Nothing deep. Or, better, deep into the surface. No complaints. Here is the quotation, here is the date, here is the paper that says it. But nothing more. Superficial, trivial, frivolous. Never deep, serious, complete.

When we were beginning the second course of the paper on Statics and Dynamics in Madras University, which was a continuation of the previous year’s course, the teacher, Shri Narayanam, asked us: “What did you learn last year about this subject?” We answered him: “Something about everything.” He retorted: “I wish you knew everything about something.” The lesson stuck with me. More practical than the whole course on Statics and Dynamics we later learned. (Shri Narayanam was a great teacher.)

He who digs a little in many places will get no water. Experts on surfaces. No well.”

You’ve made me happy, Rupa.

Space liturgy

A Muslim astronaut has for the first time reached the International Space Station, and his experience can help us to understand Muslims and to understand ourselves not only in scientific matters but in religious matters too. There were difficulties in the mission. A Muslim prays five times a day from sunrise to sunset, but the Space Station in orbit goes round the earth 16 times in 24 hours, that is 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets, which would make it 80 times for prayer in 24 hours. Prayer has to be said facing Mecca… from a space ship that changes position every minute. Before prayer the devotee has to wash with water their hands, arms, face, head, feet; and water is scarce in space. And then the postures and gestures in prayer turn out complicated in zero gravity. What to do then?

Muslim religious authorities had studied the case and had adapted the traditional rules to the special occasion. The five daily prayers will be computed according to the time at the Kazajstan launching station from which the space ship was launched; to face Mecca it will be enough to look towards the earth from the distance; the ablutions will consist in gestures only, without water, as it is done in the desert when one has to pray without water; and the prayers can be said standing.

What has favourably impressed me here is the readiness to adapt themselves to the circumstances. Flexibility is always a sign of vitality. A good example. Congratulations. Sheik Muszafar Shukor can go round the earth without fear. Allah will protect him.

By sheer coincidence the mission commander this time is a woman, Peggy Whitson. The Muslim astronaut obeys her orders. Flexibility again. Mission accomplished. Congratulations.

Miaow, miaow

This is a traditional Zen koan which teases the mind to take it literally out of itself.

A live kitten has been placed inside a glass jar where it receives food and care. As it grows inside, it cannot go out any more through the neck of the jar. How to get it out without harm to it or to the jar?

The answer – after many failed attempts – is quite simple. The cat was never inside! It only looked that way. That is, our Self, which is the cat, was never locked inside our mind, which is the jar. Even though it looked it. Cats are mischievous and glass is transparent.

I love Zen.

Miaow, miaow.

More Zen

A Buddhist monk tells how when he was born there were two twins, but one of them died at birth. Now he wonders: “I don’t know whether I am I, or I am my brother.” Always the Self. Smile, please.

Cosmology

“A flower is made up of the whole cosmos.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Buddha

– Can you imagine the Buddha wearing jeans?
– Pretty hard, I should say.
– Have you noticed that girl there in front?
– The one in jeans?
– Yes, that is Buddha.

Petition

– My wife has died. Please, pray for her eternal death, revered monk.
– I always pray for all living beings.
– That’s why I’m asking you to leave out all the others for this once and concentrate on my wife so that the prayer may have a greater effect.
– Don’t you understand that the more beings are reached by my prayer the more efficacious it will be for each one?

You tell me

I didn’t expect so many answers. I mentioned last time my dream on the Church. I summed it up in the word WikiVatican. Openness, cooperation, peering (remember its meaning?), globalization. And you have joined cheerfully in your numbers. I have never got so many reactions in my Web.

The book I quoted there says: “Take heed. To succeed in this new world, it will not be enough – indeed it will be counterproductive – simply to intensify current policies, management strategies, and curricular approaches. We must collaborate – across borders, cultures, disciplines, and firms, and increasingly with masses of people at one time. Whereas previous generations value loyalty, seniority, security, and authority, the Net-Generation norms reflect a desire for creativity, social connectivity, freedom, speed, openness, innovation, mobility, authenticity, fun, playfulness, and diversity in their workplaces. Innovate or perish.”
(Wikinomics pp. 33, 248)

Psalm

Psalm 24 – Do not let me down

“In you I trust; do not put me to shame.”Do you realise, Lord, what will happen to you if you let me down and put me to shame? I am a believer, and as such I somehow bear your name and represent you before your people, so that if my name suffers… your name also will suffer together with mine. We are linked together. My shame, rightly or wrongly, will reflect on you. For the sake of your name, Lord, do not let me down.

I have told others that you are the one who never lets down. What will they say if they see now that you do that to me? I have proclaimed with confidence: Jesus never fails! And are you now going to fail me? That would silence my tongue and cancel my witness. That would try my faith and hurt my friends. That would hinder your kingdom in me. Do not let that happen, Lord,

I know that my sins come in the way. That is why I pray with the psalm:

“Do not remember the sins and offences of my youth,
but remember me in your unfailing love.
For the honour of your name, O Lord,
forgive my wickedness, great as it is.”
Don’t look at my wrongdoings but at my trust in you. On that trust I base my whole life. On that trust I speak and I act and I live. The trust that you will never fail me. That is my faith and that is my boast. You never fail. You will not make me lose face. You will not let me down.

It is hard to say that at times when I am under a cloud and see no light and can expect no deliverance. I know that you work at long range, and my short patience demands an immediate release when you rather contemplate a long-term plan. We follow different timetables and my calendar does not easily fit into your eternity. I am ready to wait, ready to keep your time and to follow your step.

But do not forget me in the end, Lord. Let my trust come through and my hope be redeemed. Give me signs of your favour that my faith may be strengthened and my boast be upheld. Show me in my life how you never let down those who trust in you, that I may continue to feel that confidence and to proclaim that joy. The Lord never lets down his people.

“Those who hope in you are never put to shame.”

Meditation

The Angel with the glowing coal

“One of the seraphim flew to me, carrying in his hand a glowing coal which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs, and he touched my mouth with it.”
(Isaiah 6:6-7)The glowing coal from the altar purifies the prophet’s lips. Consecration ceremony for him who is going to talk in the name of the Lord. Painful and meaningful introduction for prophecies, oracles, sermons, exhortations. Test by fire that comes from the altar and burns the lips of the prophet so that the prophet may speak the word of God to the people of God. Rite of seraphim whose task is to proclaim the sanctity of the Thrice Holy.

I’m humbly asking the seraph with the glowing coal in his hand to touch with it the tips of my fingers. I’m a writer and I write with those fingers words which I want to proceed straight from the altar without any personal interests, low selfishness, narrow opinions, or hidden vanity getting mixed with them. Let him burn my fingers with the fire from the altar so that they may never write a word that may hurt, a sentence that may do harm to anyone, a book that may discourage the reader. I want my pages to carry with them the message of faith and love, of cheer and joy, of zest for life and trust in eternity, of understanding and compassion, of brotherhood and solidarity, of humour and adventure to brighten the mood of whoever reads them, provoke a smile, lighten the heart, enliven life. I want the blessing of the seraph with the glowing coal in his hands for those pages to be white, clean, shining, even if my fingers hurt with the healing. A right mind, a loving heart, supple fingers. That is my wish as a writer for all my books and my writings and my letters and my emails, and it is for that gift from heaven, which only God can give, that I entreat the seraphim at the altar to do their duty as guardians of holiness with glowing embers of fire.

I can feel with Isaiah his anguish and his protest when he received the call from the Lord and recoiled at his own unworthiness: “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips!” I am full of complexes and ambition and jealousy and pride that often cloud my mind, twist my judgement, condition my expression, and reach through nerves and tissues down to the tips of my fingers as they strike the keys on the keyboard and print the text. They stain with the shadow of selfishness what should have been pure light of truth.

“Woe is me! I am a man of unclean fingers!” My fingers have refused work and have sought pleasure, have grasped gain and have let go of responsibilities, have caressed softness and have shunned rough touches, have welcomed vanity and have ignored duty. My fingers have been irresponsible dancers on the keyboard of life instead of being docile instruments of order and regularity and precision. I am a man of unclean fingers, and I know it in the bottom of my heart and in the depths of my conscience.

That is why I’m asking the seraph at the altar of fire to consecrate my fingers in his sacrifice, so that they may point to righteousness and, working though the channels of my body, may give back to my mind and my conscience the balance of justice and the seal of love that I wish may flower in my writings and my words.

The prophet’s lips have to taste first the glowing coal from the altar. Let the writer’s fingers taste it too.

Come, beloved seraph!

1st
I tell you

Black and white

Angela Nissel is the daughter of a white father and a black mother (semihappily married as she says, till they separated), and tells with feeling and humour the adventures her mixed colour has taken her through. The title of her autobiography is, appropriately, Mixed. Her mother blamed herself “for binging kids into the world who don’t know who they are”, while on the other hand she encouraged her small daughter telling her, “Being biracial is the best of both worlds! You’ve got two beautiful races in one package! As you get older, you’ll see the benefits of being from two worlds.”

The first benefit she found out by herself was when Sister Mary ordered at school: “Everyone against the wall in size order!” She lined up with the others, but Sister Mary told her, “Not you, Angela.” She then realised that only white girls had stood up while the black girls had remained in their seats. Why? It was a scalp inspection for lice. Sister Mary explained to her, “All God’s children have their gifts. Black children are blessed. They don’t get head lice.” So she went to seat down back with the black girls. They knew. “Only, I was afraid to remind Sister Mary that my father was white.”

The girls are asked to draw their self-portrait. They are given crayons for colour. The box carried the label: “The Crayola Company supplies 16 Multicultural Crayons to give the child a realistic palette to colour the people of the world.” She is almost white, as her photograph shows, with a slight tinted touch that defies definition. They call it “high yellow”. She draws her face, but lives it uncoloured.

“I raised my hand. ‘I’m done, Sister’, I called out. Sister Mary looked up at me in disbelief, like I was inconveniencing her by finishing so quickly. She slowly walked down my row, loomed silently over my desk for a second, and decreed, ‘Angela, you should colour in your face.’ She was rummaging through her box looking at various tan-hued crayons, and then squinting as she pressed them against my cheek. Giggles erupted from every desk. I felt like telling her she could use the Ash Wednesday leftovers to colour my face. Finally, Sister Mary found a crayon she thought best suited my complexion. ‘Here, Burnt Umber looks to be about right. Colour you face in, and then you’ll be done.’ Sister Mary held out a crayon that looked like it had never been used. In all the years that box existed, no one had ever used Burnt Umber. I flipped my hands so my palms faced the sky. ‘On this side, I’m white!’ I said.”

Her colour creates problems for her during street games. She goes out to play with white children who don’t keep back their curiosity. “Michael, a popular fourth-grade boy, asked me, ‘Are you black of white?’ We were around the corner from my house preparing to pick teams for a kickball game. I knew I should have played with the black kids today, I thought as I glanced longingly down the street at the three black girls jumping rope I wondered if it would be too obvious it I dashed away from the white kids and hopped into their rope. It seemed the kickball game was on hold until I answered Michael, so I gave the response I’d been trained to give, the sentence that was as much a part of my childhood as knowing my phone number and the proper way to sit when wearing a skirt.

‘My mom is black and dad is white’, I said.
‘So you’re a zebra!’ Michael said.

The kickball group gasped and giggled in amazement, like Michael was a comedic genius for calling someone who’s mixed with black and white a zebra. If he were truly witty, he would have called me a panda or a penguin, I thought. ‘Zebra!’ another boy shouted, and the virus spread, infecting two more boys until all took it up. Michelle and Heather, two girls from my class, were laughing at the chant. The five boys, pleased with the bit of attention, decided that playing ring-around-the-zebra was more fun than kickball. ‘I am not a zebra!’ I yelled as they circled around me. Unfortunately, no one could hear my great comeback over five male voices, so I expressed my anger by violently kicking their ball toward the sewer and then turned the other way and sprinted home.

Once inside the door, I tried to tell my parents what had happened but only one sound dropped out of my mouth.’ Zee-zee-zee-eee’, I said to my parents as, trying to hold back my tears and talk at the same time. Finally I spat it out. ‘Z-zebra! Zebra! They called me a zebra!’ As the words flew out, so did my tears. My mother shot my father a look, snatched my by one arm, and smushed my face into her overly powdered chest. I wheezed and cried while my father paced back and for the.

Once the last tear had flowed from my eye to he powdered cleavage, my mother and dad went into the kitchen for a Grown Folks Meeting as they used to do in such cases.

‘I’m going to kill those little sons of bitches’, my father said.
‘And you’ll go to jail!’ countered my mother.
‘They should be in jail!’
‘Where are you going now?’
‘To tell their parents. I won’t hit anybody.’ They came out of the kitchen and my father turned to me, ‘Show me where they live.’
‘I don’t know’, I said.
‘We’ll go to every door until we find them.’

Suddenly, every tear was worth it. We were going door-to-door to kick some racist ass. ‘Wait!’ my mother yelled as we pushed through the screen door. I was afraid she was going to stop our mission, but she wanted only to wipe some of her bosom’s baby powder off my nose. (That’s my mother – how will you get people to stop teasing your daughter if you send her outside looking a mess?). Once she had wiped my face it was ready to go racist-boy-hunting.

My father saw Michelle and asked her where the boys lived. We stomped up the first front steps and rang the bell. A man and a woman cautiously answered the door.

‘Can I help you?’ the man asked.
‘Yes, con can’, my father said. ‘Your son Jimmy called my daughter a zebra.’
‘Oh, God’, Jimmy’s mother said. She turned and shouted, ‘Jimmeee!’ Jimmy came running down the stairs, stopping short of the last step when he saw me and my father.

‘Did you call this girl a zebra?’ Jimmy’s father asked.
‘Yeah, but I wasn’t the only one –’
‘I don’t care who else did it. You apologise to her!’ his father screamed, veins bulging from his neck.
‘I’m sorry’. Jimmy said, more to the carpet than to me.
‘Are you okay with that?’ my father asked me.

Are you okay with that? Is one of the questions you shouldn’t ask kids. Kids don’t understand that some questions aren’t meant to be answered truthfully. I didn’t know I was supposed to say, ‘Yes, I’m okay with that’, and go back home.

‘No’, I said turning to Jimmy’s father. ‘Is he going to get a beating?’ I asked.
‘Please, Angela’, my father reproached me, but by then Jimmy’s mother replied, ‘Yes, he is most certainly getting a beating.’

Jimmy started crying and flew back up the stairs. My father and I went back home feeling proud.”

A touching admission later in life: “I was trying to make up for all the years I wasted hating white people in college.”

(Angela Nissel, Mixed, Villard, New York, 2006, p. 26ss, 177)

The proofs

Rabbi Isaq ibn’Ezra asked God to send him here on earth the sufferings he would have to undergo to atone for his sins. God accepted. The rabbi expected tribulations, sulphur and fire, angels with fire swords, thunder and lightning. But no such thing happened.

On the other hand, small inconveniences began to plague the rabbi. In the synagogue he mixed words or forgot what he had to say. When he started writing, his inkstand would tipple over. His soup stained his shirt. His cat died. One day he was with hiccups the whole day.

He also caught a cold. He lost his spectacles. One day he tripped and sprained an ankle.

Till Isaq ibn’Ezra knelt down, bowed to the ground, and told God he understood.

(Benito Arias García, Grandes Minicuentos Fantásticos, Alfaguara, Madrid 2004, p. 50)

Petrodollars

Don’t you think that when God arranged the oilfields under the earth’s surface he got a little mixed up with the countries?

You tell me

I’m still surprised at your persisting reaction to the WikiVatican of which I spoke a few webs ago. Particularly, you keep mentioning the “peering” principle, that is making authority horizontal instead of vertical, shared rather than imposed. No end of emails on the point. It seems to be a sensitive issue that has touched many.

There is no question of changing one thing for the other, vertical for horizontal, but of the desire to have one attitude to authority tempered by the other. The Church is not a democracy, but the People of God is the repository of the Word of God (vox populi, vox Dei: the voice of the People is the voice of God), or the expression sensus fidelium (the feeling of the faithful) as a locus theologicus (theological principle) which it truly is.

I already told you that I was highly elated by the pope’s decision to suppress limbo. Much theological courage is needed to withdraw a doctrine, which was never a dogma of faith, to be sure, but it certainly was permanent teaching of the whole magisterium of all times from St Augustin till this year. This shows the openness of the Church and its readiness to change. Faith dogmas are very few, and everything else, as we have seen in the case of limbo, can be changed. Let us keep our hopes high.

Psalm

Psalm 25 – Prayer of a good man

I would not have dared to pray this psalm, Lord, but I am grateful you offer it to me and invite me to make it my own. A psalm of innocence and sincerity; the prayer of an upright man and a blameless soul. That is not exactly me. I know my failings and regret my shortcomings; I hurt people, I court praise, I seek pleasure, I am not true to myself. There are black moments in my life and dark corners in my conscience. I am not innocent and pure. I cannot stand before you and claim righteousness.

And yet that is what you are inviting me to do, and I secretly rejoice, almost against myself, when I hear your invitation and get ready to answer it. I know I have done wrong things, but in my heart of hearts I worship truth and I wish all men well. I did not act out of malice, I do not wish to hurt, I do not mean to disobey. I am weak, yes, but not wicked. I love goodness and cherish honesty. I would like all men and women to be happy and the whole world at peace. There is goodness in me, and that is the deepest layer of my being. I want to feel good, and so I welcome your invitation to say the prayer of the just man.

“I have lived my life without reproach,
and put unfaltering trust in the Lord.
Test me, O Lord, and try me;
put my heart and mind to the proof.
For your constant love is before my eyes,
and I live in your truth.

I wash my hands in innocence
to join in procession round your altar, O Lord.
I live my life without reproach;
redeem me, O Lord, and show me your favour.”That is me at my best. And I feel happy to appear before you, Lord, for once in that light. To stand up with the confidence you have won for me, to lift up my face, to smile in innocence and to speak in freedom. Yes, I am your son, and in asking your blessings I am asking for justice. You have given me the right to speak so, and I claim it with simplicity. I ask for justice. I am asking for your blessing and my inheritance. I am asking for peace and for joy. I want to feel that I am a faithful son to you and a good person to all. This I call justice, and this is what I expect from you.

“Give me justice, O Lord,
for I have lived my life without reproach.”

Meditation

The angel of the furnace

“Now the king’s servants that had cast them in, ceased not to heat the furnace with brimstone and tow, and pitch, and dry sticks, and the flame mounted up above the furnace nine and forty cubits. And it broke forth, and burnt such of the Chaldeans as it found near the furnace. But the angel of the Lord went down with Azarias and his companions into the furnace and he drove the flame of the fire out of the furnace, and made the midst of the furnace like the blowing of a wind bringing dew, and the fire touched them not at all, nor troubled them, nor did them any harm.”
(Daniel 3:46-50)

I went to India as a young man and I found myself from the start at home with the people, fascinated by its traditions, charmed by the depth of its thought, dazzled by the variety of its riches. I discovered landscapes and enjoyed monsoons, I saw blue skies with shining stars at night as I had never seen in any part of the world, and I travelled through countless lands with desert dunes and date palms, with length of beaches and darkened forests, with crowded cities and people at peace. I enjoyed the exotic food of clay furnaces, the concupiscent tang of age-old spices. Everything was fine and everything lifted my life to new hights, and I was not harmed by snakes nor laid to bed by mosquitoes nor attacked by tigers nor crushed by elephants though I did see all of that in that blessed land. But there is one thing that never agreed with me in India. A heavy weight and a permanent trouble that taxed my strength and caused uneasiness. A penance in lands of joy, a suffering in the fields of enjoyment. The heat.

Dry heat and humid heat, desert heat and monsoon heat, noonday heat and evening heat and night heat. Heat that never ceases, never forgives, never stops. Heat that affects work and defeats sleep. Heat that drenches the clothes and melts the mind. Heat and heat and heat. My body was shaped near the Pyrenees Mountains and it never got used to the latitude of the tropics. My Nordic stature bent under the vertical sun. My skin got tired of sweating. Sometimes a thin layer of human salt covered my forehead as perspiration dried out on it. A Lenten season of heat.

Because of that, and because of all the heat I’ve had to go through in my life, I want to befriend the angel of the furnace in Babylon, to see whether his refreshing breath can bring me cold breeze and dew in the middle of the fire of heat upon earth. Let him teach me to be in the fire without burning, to live in the heat without suffering, to look at the thermometer without flinching, to turn in bed without waking up. I don’t ask that he should suppress the heat for me, as I’m not going to change meteorology for my own sake, but that he teaches me to stand in the midst of fire and tolerate it. He need not change the climate, but he may change my inner resistance, my rebellious complaint, my open protest, my frayed temper, my tragic self-pity. I know the problem lies with me, because I’ve known companions as sensible to climate as I am who easily put up with it, but I refuse to acknowledge it and take to blaming the thermometer for the heat wave at summer. The true blame is with me and my mind and my stubbornness.

That is why I need always the good angel with me. The angel of Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, young men of the people of Israel and servants to King Nebuchadnezzar, who refused to prostrate before the golden statue of the king and worship it. Their refusal kindled the king’s anger, and at his bidding the furnace was heated seven times stronger. The fire burned the king’s servants and circled menacingly the three young men. But the angel cooled the air around them and they burst into song.

It is in their song that I find their secret. I listen attentively to its verses, and my eyes open. This is what the three young men are saying:

“Bless the Lord, sun and moon;
sing his praise and exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord, you stars of heaven;
sing his praise and exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord, all rain and dew;
sing his praise and exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord, fire and heat;
sing his praise and exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord, searing blast and bitter cold;
sing his praise and exalt him for ever.”

(3:40-45)There it is! The secret is to thank God for everything. For the rain and the dew, for the fire and the heat. To praise the Lord for all he has done, for all that happens, for all that comes my way. The moment I start choosing, I sink. If I choose dew and reject fire, fear enters my soul, I become suspicious and I fly away, I avoid the very name of fire and I take refuge in the dew if I find it or in my desire and nostalgia if I don’t have it at hand. And that sets my soul out of balance. Desiring, longing, avoiding, refusing. Preferences enter my soul, and peace departs. My heat complex shakes my mind and jeopardises my peace. I have to learn how to take the weather as it comes, how to greet winds and clouds and frost and searing heat. To pray to the Lord for everything, as the Lord made all things and all climates, and it is in their variety and their succession that we find the value of creation, the meaning of change, the glory of life. Fire and heat, bless the Lord! Cold and heat, bless the Lord!

This change of attitude is the key towards reconciliation. It is not the temperature that makes me suffer, it is my mind. It is not perspiration, but my rebellion against perspiration. It is not the forty-eight degrees in the shadow but my fear to see them in the thermometer. It is not nature but my own complex. A cold drink does not relieve the heat, but it underlines its presence. External means are no help as they are artificial, costly, and uncertain. The true remedy is within ourselves.

The best cooling system in the heat is to praise aloud the Lord for it. Wholeheartedly, joyfully, generously. To accept reality and to praise him who made it. That is the way of peace and the source of satisfaction. This is what the angel of the furnace at Babylon is teaching me. Patron saint of refrigeration. Ask the three young men in the furnace of Babylon.

I keep singing with them:

“Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord!
All powers of the Lord, praise the Lord!”

 

15th
I tell you

Christmas

In The Simpsons, Homer complains: “People have completely forgotten the meaning of Christmas. Nobody remembers any more that it is the feast of the birth of Santa Claus.”

At the pace of children
I’ve found today a text in Scripture that has made me think and has given me joy. And it has to do with Christmas as it speaks of children.The differences between Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob, are well-known. Esau selling his firstborn rights to Jacob for a dish of porridge, Jacob cheating his father by putting on goatskins to look like his hairy brother and thus stealing his blessing, the ensuing enmity and the separation of the twins as Jacob had to fly from Esau’s threat to kill him.

Years go by and Jacob wants to make it up with Esau, and so he goes to meet him with all his family and with an offering of two hundred she-goats, twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch-camels with their young, forty cows and ten young bulls, twenty she-donkeys and ten donkeys to ensure friendship. The brothers meet, embrace, cry, and when they are going to part again Esau volunteers to accompany Jacob till Seir to protect him along the way, but Jacob gently rejects the offer and asks his brother to go ahead. This is his argument:

“You must know, my lord, that I have come with my two wives and my eleven children, and with flocks that multiply and nurse their little ones along the way. The children are small, the flocks and herds are suckling their young and I am concerned for them, and if they are overdriven for a single day, my beasts will die. I beg you, my lord, to go on ahead, and I shall move by easy stages at the pace of the livestock I am driving and the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.” (Genesis 33:13)

At the pace of the livestock, at the pace of the children. Is this not the pace of life itself? The pace of those who are new to life and see it without prejudices and without preoccupations? Of those who advance step by step, enjoying their way, singing and dancing, without any hurry to complete stages, without any anxiety to arrive? Esau was the warrior in a hurry. Jacob was the quiet peasant at rest. His was life at peace.

I now will advance in life gently, at the pace of children, at the pace of the livestock before me, at leisure, at peace. I will live happily without forcing marches or imposing dates. I will enjoy the journey. I will greet each tree, I will caress each rock, I will smile to each bird, I will great each sunrise. I will not count the days nor measure the stages. I will not burst the calendar nor wear out the watch. I will walk gently, slowly, contentedly, happily. I will live my life at the pace of nature and water and earth. At the pace of the Child of Bethlehem, of his donkey and his ox. That is the secret of life. Jacob knew it.

That was how Jacob earned for himself the name of “Israel”. (32:28)

Father Arrupe

Some anecdotes from Fr Arrupe’s life, taken from Hedwig Lewis, Pedro Arrupe Treasury, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash 2007.

“Do you believe I can succeed in learning the tea ceremony in three weeks?” Arrupe asked. Koto-an, a professor with a doctorate on the ceremony, answered him: “If you stay at it, you will get to know the essentials in three years.”

Jo Hayazoe, a novice, would assist Fr Arrupe with his catechism classes. Jo noticed an old man who had been present for the classes for over six months, and who would do nothing but stare at Fr Arrupe’s face. One day Hayazoe asked the old fellow: “Do you understand what the priest is saying?” The old man explained that he was deaf. “I’ve been looking at his eyes all the time. They don’t lie. What he believes in, I believe.”

“One secret of Fr Arrupe’s energy”, reveals one of his close associates, Fr Robert Rush SJ, “was his ability to catnap anytime, anywhere: in automobiles, and on airplanes. He would turn to his companion and say, ‘Excuse me, but I have to do my duty to the Society.’ Soon he would be sleeping peacefully and would arrive at his destination refreshed and ready to give himself completely.”

Fr Eduardo Briceño, the Regional Assistant for Latin America, once suggested to the General: “Why don’t you take a rest?” Fr Arrupe replied, in his characteristic manner: “I don’t need a rest. If I went to Villa Cavaletti (the Jesuit holiday house) I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Sanchez Coelho did an acrylic painting of Fr Arrupe from a photograph for the cover of Time magazine. It showed a lively face, young and smiling. The magazine issue’s appearance coincided with the death of Picasso. Two old ladies were passing a news-stand. One picked up a copy depicting the smiling face of Arrupe. “It doesn’t look at all like Picasso!” she commented.

In June 1978 at the airport of Rome he was suddenly surrounded by twelve policemen who were waiting for him in three cars. They told him that he was the only ‘Vatican Man’ on the blacklist of the Red Brigade which had killed Aldo Moro and warned him of the danger of being kidnapped. “If they demand ransom for me”, he replied, “don’t give them more than ten lire for me.”

“One of Fr Arrupe’s characteristics”, observed Fr Vincent O’Keefe SJ, “was an absorption in persons that contrasted sharply with his lack of interest in buildings and scenery. It is said that during a trip to Egypt he was caught up in a conversation about Jesuits and their apostolates there. As the car in which he was travelling moved along, one of his aides pointed excitedly to the pyramids. Pausing in mid-sentence, Don Pedro looked for a moment, murmured something and nodded his head in appreciation, and then plunged right back into the conversation.” He came several times to India but never asked to be taken to see the Taj Mahal. [There is a ‘karma belief’ in India that those who, being able to come and visit it, don’t, are condemned to be sweepers of the Taj Mahal in their next birth. We might search for Fr Arrupe somewhere in Agra.]

In a writing of his, quoted on p. 132 of the same book, Fr Arrupe described “by exclusion”, that is, defining what a Jesuit should not be, five types of Jesuits, as follows:

“I realise that none of the rough drafts I will offer actually exist as such. But in these ideal types I have conventionally grouped a variety of external traits that, in differing degrees and in a thousand different combinations, can be found in specific Jesuits.

The first type is the full-time protestor. No doubt, denunciation can be a prophetic and evangelical duty. But it is equally true that one must know how, when, about what and whom, and in what form to denounce, and in virtue of what principles, so that the protest will be truly evangelical and constructive.

The second type is the professionalist who lets himself be totally absorbed by the secular aspects of his profession, even though it may have an undoubted apostolic value. He should not let his work put him in a practically independent life, disconnected from any community and any dependence on a Superior. Excessive professionalisation can lead to a secularism that suffocates the spiritual life and all priestly work.

A third type is the irresponsible Jesuit who sees no real value in such things as order, keeping appointments, the value of money, moderation in his recreation, etc. Often he has an unjustified allergy toward any check on his output of work, whether in studies or any other activity.

A fourth type is the political activist, which is something quite different from the social apostle. He may have a sincere desire of being ‘incarnated’ among the poor and oppressed and of getting rid of unjust structures. But when the struggle for justice involves him, not in his legitimate field of Christian criticism and assistance and sharing, but in political and even party matters, sometimes with a total abandoning of his priestly mission, his political or labour-union activities is hardly evangelical and he is hardly living and acting as one sent by the Society.

Finally, there is the fanatically traditionalist type of Jesuit who builds his life around the symbols and practices of a bygone era: his mannerisms, the rigid schedule of his life, the formation of his personal and liturgical practices and spirituality. This Jesuit listens avidly to any pessimistic news; he acidly criticises the younger generations, whose values he is unable to accept and whose defects, real or imagined, he endlessly bemoans. He would never in the world have a bank account, but he quite possibly is well taken care of by like-minded and obsequious families. In his heart he has never accepted GC 31 and GC 32, nor even Vatican II.

All these models are, I repeat, only rough sketches that in real life will very likely have redeeming features in any particular case. None the less, even after making due allowances and admitting good will, these types are simply unacceptable because they do not at all reflect the Society’s way of proceeding.”

The Searcher

Disciple: “Master, I’m searching for the sense of life.
Master:“ Try Google.”

You tell me

I’ve been a bad boy.

Someone has asked me (without any malice on his part, simply because he had been asked the question in a exam and was consulting me before answering), “What is the difference between having sex five minutes before the wedding and five minutes after?”

I’ve answered him: “Ten minutes.”

What a bad boy am I, aren’t I?

Well, you understand me.

I hope.

I’ve then added to my answer to that fine boy that the question he had been asked had been wrongly asked. Nobody has sex five minutes before the wedding or five minutes after. Such a way of speaking is frivolous, cynical, irresponsible. And when the question is wrongly framed, no answer can be expected. Whoever asked that question failed in their duty to be respectful and delicate in everything, and particularly in the matter of sex. No fooling with consciences, and no setting sacred things to ridicule.

The proper way to ask the question would be, What to thing about sex before marriage? Once it is thus framed, the answer to the question is easy: The Church forbids it, and the majority of young people have it. God manifests us his will through the Church’s teaching and through the consensus of the faithful (sensus fidelium in Latin), so that Vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God, again in Latin). With those principles, each one of the faithful forms their own conscience in freedom and responsibility and in consultation with their partner, and acts accordingly. God accepts that behaviour. The same applies, proportionately, to other situations in sexual ethics (masturbation, the pill, condoms, homosexuality, married people divorced and remarried). Always with the condition never to hurt anybody, which is the fundamental commandment, both in the teaching of the Church and in the sense of the faithful.

Am I still that bad?

Psalm

Psalm 26 – I seek your face

This is the one longing of my life that sums up all my other longings: to see your face. Bold words which I would not presume to utter if you had not given them to me. Nobody could see your face in the old days and live. And now you remove the veil and uncover the presence. Once I know it, what else can I do but to seek that face and long for that presence? This is now my one desire, the aim of all my actions and the very meaning of my life.

“One thing I ask of the Lord,
one thing I seek:
that I may be constant in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.

I will seek your face, o Lord;
do not hide it from me.”I know your word and I know your precepts. I know what wise and holy men say about you, what your saints have taught and your friends have revealed of their dealings with you. I have read many beautiful books and taken part in fruitful discussions about who you are and what you do and why and when and in which way. I have even passed examinations with you as a subject (please, forgive me, Lord), though I some times wonder what marks you would have given me if you had been on the board of examiners. I know a good deal about you, and I even used to believe that that was enough, and all that could be expected of me in the darkness of this transitory existence.

But now I want more, because I know it is possible and you want it and are calling me to attain it. I want to see your face. I have knowledge, but I now want experience; I have your word, but I now want your face. I have second-hand references, and now I aspire to direct contact. It is your face, O Lord, that I seek. Nothing else will satisfy me.

You know your times and you know your ways. You have the power and you have the means. You are the Lord of the human heart, and you can enter it at will. Now you have my invitation and my petition. It is for me to wait with patience, with longing and with love. That I will do with all my heart.

“Wait for the Lord;
be strong, take courage…,
and wait for the Lord.”

Meditation

The angel in the lion-pit

“Daniel answered, ‘Long live the king! My God sent the angel to shut the lions’ mouth and they have not injured me; he judged me innocent, and moreover I had done your majesty no injury’.”
(Daniel 6:22-23)

Daniel seems to be just out of one trouble when he gets into the next one. From the burning furnace to the lion-pit. He didn’t get on quite well with kings, or rather with the king’s courtiers who burned with jealousy for him. As they could find no fault with him, they invented excuses, and this time they accused him of praying three times a day facing Jerusalem. This was a crime before King Darius, and the prophet had to be thrown to the lions. But the angel of the Lord was there ready to protect him. He shut the lions’ mouths, and Daniel spent the night in peace in their company.

“The king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no woman was brought to him, and sleep eluded him. He was greatly agitated and, at the first light of dawn, he rose and went to the lion-pit. When he came near he called anxiously, ‘Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you serve continually been able to save you from the lions?’ Daniel answered, ‘Long live the king! My God sent his angel to shut the lions’ mouths and they have not injured me; he judged me innocent, and moreover I had done your majesty no injury.’ The king was overjoyed and gave orders that Daniel should be taken up out of the pit. When this was done, no trace of injury was found on him, because he had put his faith in his God. By order of the king those who out of malice had accused Daniel were brought and flung into the lion-pit along with their children and their wives, and before they reached the bottom the lions were upon them and devoured them bones and all.
(Daniel 6:20-25)

We all have enemies. That is why we need angels. Lion-pits are ready, not in the crude torture of ancient barbarians, but in the veiled threat of calumnies and jealousy, of hurting criticism and poisoned irony, of talking behind our back and stealing our rights, of exaggerating real defects or inventing imaginary ones, of anonymous letters and secret denounces, of open opposition and direct insult.

No dearth of little lions in the king’s pits. And no dearth of angels who keep us safe in them. What I now desire is to learn for me the attitude Daniel achieved in this trial. He does not get angry at King Darius who personally had given the order for him to be thrown into the lion-pit. He does not protest against injustice, not even reproaches the king the cowardice with which he has acted. Quite the contrary, as soon as the king shows at the rim of the pit after the sleepless night without women, Daniel cheerfully greets him without a shadow of resentment: ‘Long live the king!’

Long live whoever does not think as I do, long live whoever misunderstands me, insults me, derides me. Let all of them live for ever, and let me greet them from the bottom of my heart without any bitterness, without judging, without setting myself above them, without hardening, without withdrawing. May the king live for ever!

I guess that Daniel learned his attitude from the angel who spent the night with him shutting the mouths of the lions. The angel not only protects us from the lions’ attack, but even more from the inner danger of our hurt feelings, from our growing desire of vengeance and feelings of spite and spirit of pride. Little use would it be my angel keeping me from the lions if he wouldn’t keep me from my own pride.

Angel of the lion-pit! Protect me from the lions that harm my body and the lions that harm my soul!

Fundación González Vallés

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