I got the wrong old man!
I boarded the subway. It was crowded. Full of young people. I’m old, but nobody got up to offer me a seat. I know I have the right to ask those seated on seats reserved for old people to rise, but I didn’t exert my right as there were only three stations to go. An old man got in after me. A girl who was seated in front of me and had first seen me got up at once when seen him and offered him her place. He certainly was not older than me. I instinctively thought it unfair and was tempted to show my identity card to compare our ages; but I thought better of it and, on the contrary, I felt good about it. Apparently I wasn’t looking so old after all. She saw me and didn’t get up. She saw the other man and she got up. That made me feel I was looking smart and there was no need to get up for me. I thanked her silently, more that if she had got up for me.
The girl got out at the same station I was getting out. I walked by her side and said: “Please, allow me to congratulate you for having yielded your place to that old man. How old do you think he was?” He was surprised at my question but took it well, laughed, and said: “At lest seventy.” “I’m eighty-two”, I said. She looked at me surprised and we both laughed. Then she added: “Well, I got the wrong old man!” That’s better than sitting down in the underground.
The Ultimate Safari
This is only a story by Nadine Gordimer, but it is so true to life, so well told, and so important that I summarise it here. The Kruger Park in South Africa is advertised as the Ultimate Safari, the highest experience in the wild-life tourism of our days. Here is another experience through the Park to open our eyes to the “ultimate problem” of our times.
That night our mother went to the shop and she didn’t come back. Ever. What happened? I don’t know. My father also had gone away one day and never came back; but he was fighting in the war. We didn’t know where to go. Then the people of the war, those the government calls bandits although here they say they are not that, came to our village. We heard people screaming and running. We were afraid even to run, without our mother to tell us where. I am the middle one, the girl, and my little brother clung against my stomach with his arms round my neck and his legs round my waist like a baby monkey to its mother. All night my first-born brother kept in his hand a broken piece of wood from one of our burnt house-poles. It was to save himself if the bandits found him.
The next day when the sun was going down, our grandmother and grandfather came. Someone from our village had told them we children were alone, our mother had not come back. They took us to their place. Our mother never came. While we were there our grandmother had no food for us, no food for our grandfather and herself. Our grandmother took us to look for wild spinach but everyone else in her village did the same and there wasn’t a leaf left. So they decided we would go away. We wanted to go where there were no bandits and there was food. We were glad to think there must be such a place; away.
To get there we had to go through the Kruger Park. We knew about the Kruger Park. A kind of whole country of animals – elephants, lions, jackals, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, all kinds of animals – where white people go to look at the animals. We went in a group and a man was leading us, but we were tired. He told us we had to take a long way to get round the fence, which he explained would kill you, roast off your skin the moment you touched it, like the wires high up on poles that give electric light in our towns. But in one place we had to cross the wires. He got us through and no one was hurt. We found a dead monkey and wanted to cook and eat it, but the man told us we were already inside the park and could not make a fire because the wardens would come and send us back. He said we must move like animals among the animals, away from the roads, away from the white people’s camps.
We saw the elephants curling their trunks round the red leaves of the Mopane trees and stuffing them into their mouths, with babies leaning against their mothers. They passed very slowly because elephants are too big to need to run from anyone. When it was very hot during the day we would find lions lying asleep. They were the colour of the dry grass and we didn’t see them at first but the man did, and he led us back a long way round. I wanted to lie down like the lions. My little brother was getting thin but he was very heavy on my back.
We walked at night as well as by day. We could see the fires where the white people were cooking in the camps and we could smell the smoke and the meat. The wind brought voices in our own language from the compounds where the people who work in the camps live. A woman among us wanted to go to them at night and ask them to help us. The man who led us had told us that we must keep out of the way of our people who worked at the Kruger Park; if they helped us they would lose their work. If they saw us, all they could do was pretend we were not there; they had seen only animals.
We stopped to sleep for a little while in the nights. We were tired, so tired. My first-born brother and the man had to lift our grandfather from stone to stone where we found places to cross the rivers. Our grandmother is strong but her feet were bleeding. We ate some wild fruit and our stomachs ran. Our grandfather went off into the elephant grass to be on his own. He was not coming back, and the man told us to hurry up. We had to keep up, the man who led us kept telling us, we must catch up, but we asked him to wait for our grandfather. So everybody waited for our grandfather to catch up. We went to look for him in the elephant grass, but he was so small and the grass so high, and we didn’t see him. We called him softly and stayed in the long grass all night and continued looking for him the next day. I saw those ugly birds with hooked beaks and plucked necks flying round and round above us. My grandmother was seeing them too. In the afternoon the man told us we must move on, or all would die.
Our grandmother said nothing. We watched the other people getting up to leave. Tears came out of my eyes onto my hands. My grandmother got up, she took my little brother and swung him onto her back, tied him in her cloth and said, Come. So we left the place with the long grass. Left behind. We went with the others and the man who led us. We started to go away, again.
There’s a very big tent, bigger than a church or a school, tied down to the ground. I didn’t understand that was what it would be, when we got there, away. I saw a thing like that the time our mother took us to the town because she heard some of our people were there and she wanted to ask them if they knew where our father was. In that tent, people were praying and singing. This one is blue and white like that one but it’s not for praying and singing, we live in it with other people who’ve come from our country. Sister from the clinic says we’re two hundred without counting the babies, and we have new babies, some were born on the way through the Kruger Park.
Inside, even when the sun is bright it’s dark and there’s a kind of whole village in there. Instead of houses each family has a little place closed off with sacks or cardboard from boxes. When it rains the small kids play in the mud. My little brother doesn’t play. Our grandmother takes him to the clinic when the doctor comes on Mondays. Sister says there’s something wrong with his head, she thinks it’s because we didn’t have enough food at home. Because of the war. Because our father wasn’t there. And then because he was so hungry in the Kruger Park. He likes just to lie about on our grandmother all day, on her lap or against her somewhere, and he looks at us and looks at us. He wants to ask something but you can see he can’t. If I tickle him he may just smiles.
When we arrived we were like him – my first-born brother and I. I can hardly remember. The people took us here where you have to sign when you’ve come through the Kruger Park. We sat on the grass and everything was muddled. One Sister came and brought us a special powder. She said we must mix it with water and drink it slowly. We tore the packets open with our teeth and licked it all up, it stuck round my mouth and I sucked it from my lips and fingers. Some children vomited. Another Sister took us by the arm and then stuck a needle in it. Every time my eyes dropped closed I thought I was walking, the grass was long, I saw the elephants, I didn’t know we were away.
Now that we’ve been in the tent so long – I have turned eleven and my little brother is nearly three although he is so small, only his head is big, he’s not come right in it yet. Some people have dug up the bare ground around the tent and planted beans and mealies and cabbage. No one is allowed to look for work in the towns but some of the women have found work in the village and can buy things. Our grandmother is still strong and carries bricks for people who build houses.
Some white people came to take photographs of our people living in the tent – they said they were making a film, I’ve never seen what that is though I know about it. A white woman squeezed into our space and asked our grandmother questions which were told to us in our language by someone who understands the white woman’s.
How long have you been living like this?
In this tent, two years and one month.
And what do you hope for the future?
Nothing. I’m here.
Do you hope to go back to Mozambique – to your own country?
I will not go back.
But when the war is over – don’t you want to go home?
Our grandmother looked away and spoke: There is nothing; no home.
Why does our grandmother say that? Why? I’ll go back through the Kruger Park. After the war, when there are no bandits any more, our mother will be waiting for us. And maybe when we left our grandfather, he was only left behind, he found his way somehow, slowly, through the Kruger Park, and he’ll be there waiting for us.
Nadine Gordimer, The Ultimate Safari, Telling Tales by Nadine Gordimer, Bloomsbury, London 2004, p. 269 (abridged).
(My eyes are wet.)
Many of you have smiled and agreed with my answer that the difference between having sex five minutes before the wedding and five minutes after is only ten minutes. A few have objected that the teaching of the Church has to be upheld in any case. I do know and respect the teaching of the Church, but I also keep abreast of Catholic opinion, and this is what the auxiliary Catholic bishop of Sydney, Australia, Geoffrey Robinson, says on the matter of the Church’s teaching of sex in his just-published book, “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church”, The Columba Press, Dublin 2007:
p. 166: “In July 1968 Pope Paul VI published an encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae in which he said that all artificial forms of birth regulation are morally wrong. This document marked a watershed in the teaching of the papacy for, leaving aside all questions of right and wrong, it is simple fact that over a period of time very large numbers of Catholic people made conscience decisions to reject the teaching of that encyclical. For most of these people their decisions fulfilled all the requirements of conscience that I have spoken about. The rejection eventually became a flood involving many moderate and even some rather conservative Catholics. Many of these people then began to say to themselves, ‘If the pope is wrong on this question, how can I be sure that he is right on other questions?’ The change has been profound and it is unlikely that the church will ever fully return to the situation that existed before this document was published.”
257. “Many Catholic bishops express a real uneasiness about the present teaching of their church on the subject of divorce and remarriage.
297. “There must be an open acknowledgement of the fact that the rejection of much the church did in the second millennium has considerable justification.
This is said by a Catholic bishop, recently, and in writing. I only quote. I suppose the bishop’s book has the bishop’s approval. At least one bishop’s.
Psalm 27 – Rock of Ages
“The Lord is my Rock.”You are my Rock. In a world where everything changes, where man is fickle and his moods are like feathers in the wind; where nothing is stable, nothing permanent, nothing reliable; in a world of insecurity and instability… you are my Rock
You stand while everything falters. You are firm, steady, eternal. You alone offer security and safety. In you alone can I rest and take refuge and feel at peace. You are my Rock
Round me there are quicksands and marshes and slippery paths and shaky ground. I must be slow and cautious. I cannot run and jump and dance at will. I must mind every step and test every stone. There is painful progress and constant apprehension on the grounds of life. No one I can really trust; nothing I can safely rely upon. Always doubt and suspicion and fear. When everything is unsteady, the mind itself is restless, and peace lies from the soul.
That is my greatest trial, that I myself am not steady. I am a bundle of doubts It is not only that I don’t trust anybody, but that I don’t trust myself. I waver and hesitate and stumble. I don’t know what I want, and am not sure where I want to go. Uncertainty is not only outside me but inside me, very much inside me, in my decisions and my opinions and my beliefs. I take a hundred resolutions and fulfil none; I start on a hundred journeys and reach the end of none. I am a reed shaken by the wind. I lack firmness, and I need desperately someone I can lean on.
And that is you, Lord. You are my Rock. The firmness of your word, the uniqueness of your truth, the permanence of hour eternity. The Rock jutting out in the midst of waves and sands and winds and storms. Just to look at you gives me repose. To know that you are there and I can rest in you. To feel the unshakeable presence of an incarnation in stone. To lean against your slope, safe and secure. In a world of changes, you are my Rock, Lord, and that very thought gives peace to my soul.
“The Lord is my strength and my shield,
In him my heart trusts;
So I am sustained, and my heart leaps for joy,
And I praise him with my whole body.
The Lord is strength to his people,
A safe refuge for his anointed king.”
The travelling angel
“The Babylonians threw Daniel into the lion-pit, and he was there for six days. In the pit were seven lions and every day two slaves and two sheep were fed to them; now, to make sure they would devour Daniel, they were given nothing.
The Prophet Habakkuk, who was in Judaea, had made a stew; he broke bread into the bowl, and he was on the way to his field, carrying it to the reapers, when an angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Habakkuk, carry that meal you have to Babylon for Daniel, who is in the lion-pit.’ ‘My lord’, replied Habakkuk, ‘I have never been to Babylon, and I do not know where the lion-pit is.’ The angel took the prophet by the head, and carrying him by his hair swept him to Babylon with the blast of his breath and set him down above the pit. Habakkuk called out, ‘Daniel, Daniel! Take the meal that God has sent you.’ Daniel said, ‘You do indeed remember me, God; you never abandon those who love you.’ He got up and ate; and at once God’s angel brought Habakkuk home again.”
(Daniel 14:31-39)Two prophets. Daniel and Habakkuk. And a heavenly travel agency. Run by angels. Instant travel. The angel takes Habakkuk by his hair and lowers him gently at the brim of the pit that held seven fasting lions and a hungry prophet. Door-to-door catering. Habakkuk’s spontaneous reaction to the angel’s optimistic orders endears him to us: “I’ve never been to Babylon, and I don’t know where the lion-pit is.” The angel takes prompt action. Conveyance is provided. To and fro. All that’s left for Habakkuk is to cook his stew again.
Dear angel of mine, I know you want to take me to many places and say many things and do many things. By all means. But don’t think that it’s enough to tell me about it. I’ve no idea where Babylon is, and less idea where the lion-pit lies. I don’t even have much hair left on my head for you to grab. But I know you’ll manage. Take me where you know I should be and make me do what you know I’ve to do. I, for my part, will just cook the stew I know how to cook, and I’ll be happy to take it to whomsoever needs it more than me. All the rest I leave to you. Please, see to it.
Dear travelling angel, be with me in all my travels through the world.
This is a new word. Anti-system. Attitude, rallies, riots. Anti-system. Anti-capitalism, anti-nuclear, anti-globalisation. Anti-anything. Anti means “against”, and system in Greek is “what stands together”. So declaring oneself anti-system is setting oneself against anything that stands together. An anti-system activist can take part in any demonstration against anything in any part of the world. Against this. Against that. Against the party that is against another party. Or against that other party against. Just being against… no matter what you are against. Against all that stands together. Down with it. Destroy. Attack. Demolish. Let nothing remain standing. And then we can demonstrate against those who have left nothing standing. We are anti-everything.
I prefer to say I am pro-everything. In favour of everything. Well, almost. It is understood. Provided no harm is caused to anyone. Up with everything! I am not in favour of any system, but I encourage all. I don’t want my life to consist in negations but in affirmations. I am pro-existence, pro-reality, pro-life, pro-joy, pro-everything.
To define oneself by defect is a vacuum. I’m afraid that is what those people do. A negative person. For what they do, and even more for what they think, for the way they see themselves, for the way they define their stand. Anti-system. Literature is not written by burning libraries, sculpture is not built up by destroying statues, architecture is not fostered by pulling down buildings. The system is not reformed by being anti-system. You are only harming yourselves.
By the way, “antibiotics” means “against life (bio)”, which is good to remember when we take the pills.
We don’t do that
In his autobiography, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, (Alfaguara, 2007, p.91) Günter Grass tells the following anecdote.
“Day after day a ceremony took place presided upon by the lieutenant in charge of the armoury who, on principle, bore always a serious countenance. He handed out the guns and we caught them one by one till all the men were armed. It would seem that every member of the Work Service should feel honoured when he felt the wood, the metal, the butt, the barrel of his rifle.
The exception was a tall young man, blond as wheat, with blue eyes and a classical profile that one would find only in an encyclopaedia of the Nordic Races. A Sigfried next to Baldur, the god of Light. He spoke clearly and precisely when answering a command. Nobody was stronger in the long race, nor bolder in the dangerous jumps. Nobody was quicker when it was question of climbing in seconds over a high wall. He could bend his knees fifty times without flinching. It would have been easy for him to win any championship. Nothing, no one defect stained his image. Yet that young man, whose name and surname have been erased from my memory, became for me a true exception because of his disobedience.
He just did no want to learn how to use a weapon. Even more, he refused to even touch its butt or its barrel. Even worse, when the deadly serious lieutenant put the gun in his hands, he dropped it to the ground. Was there any more grievous fault than for a soldier to drop on the dust his gun, his rifle, his ‘sweetheart’ as referred to in military slang? He would do anything with a shovel when he was ordered. In his dealings with his companions he was exemplary. He was always ready to help anyone, he was a fine character, always ready to oblige with a smile. He polished the boots of his roommates, cleaned up with brushes and clothes, and the only thing he refused to do was to hold the gun, the rifle, the 98 model whose use he had to learn as pre-military instruction.
He was punished in every possible way, but to no avail. We asked him questions, we tried to convince him for his own good because we liked him, ‘catch it!’, ‘handle it!’. His answer was only a few words which soon became a formula we murmured to each other. I cannot count the times the show was repeated, how the officers became irritated, but I try to remember how the lieutenant and the officers vituperated him:
– Why do you do that, Member of the Work Service?
– Why do you do that, you idiot?
His answer, which never changed, become a formula which has stuck in my mind and deserves being quoted:
– We don’t do that.
They punished him, they put him under arrest, they ‘dismissed’ him as they said. We never knew about him. We never knew who ‘we’ were, and it was not known that he belonged to any special group. But he never touched a weapon. He remained in my memory as someone worthy of admiration, as a model. We don’t do that.
The king and the vizier
Akbar was trying to unify the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religions for the welfare of the country, but was not succeeding in his effort. One day a foreign dignitary came to Akbar’s court and challenged Birbal in front of all. He asked him: “I have seen many crows in your city, and I know you have the means to ascertain in detail all that happens in your capital. Can you tell me the exact number of the crows that are today in Agra?”
All felt humbled and worried as there was no possible answer to that question. But Birbal simply said he would count them and give the exact number the following day.
Next day, in the midst of the general expectation and of the ironical smile of the foreign dignitary, Birbal stood in the midst of all and declared: “Yesterday there were 47,835 residing crows in Agra, and 618 in passing.”
“How do you know it?”, protested the visitor.
“If you have any doubt, you can verify the number on your own”, countered the vizier.
All bowed in approval and smiled in their moustaches. Birbal also bent his head towards Akbar and told him in his ear: “The same happens to the three religions. Who can verify their claims?”
Tansen was the musician at Akbar’s court, and Akbar praised him as the greatest musician alive. Birbal said, “Tansen does not think so. He insists that his guru Haridas is the greatest musician alive.”
Akbar asked for Haridas to be brought to the court, but he was informed that Haridas was a free man and would not obey orders. Akbar then decided to visit Haridas in Brindavan. Tansen went with Akbar and Birbal, and asked his guru to sing, but Haridas answered, “I cannot sing by order even if I try it. I can sing only when the inspiration comes out from within me.”
Akbar was disappointed and angry, but Birbal told him to take leave of Haridas and settle anonymously to spend the day and the night hidden behind a tree nearby. After a long night, when the first rays of the sun at dawn rose in the sky, Haridas began to sing softly and went on weaving a haunting melody through the morning.
When he finished, Akbar came again to Haridas and thanked him. Birbal explained, “Tansen sings when the king tells him to sing; while Haridas sings when God tells him to sing. That is the difference.”
You did show interest in the quotation from the Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson I gave in my Web of 15th January. Many of you have written, and most of you in favour. I’m going to enlarge on his opinion on sex. The bishop says:
“The four consecutive commandments (4th-5th-6th-7th) should be seen as a unity, for they demand respect for four complementary aspects of human life, namely:
– life and physical integrity (you shall not kill),
– family life and relationships (you shall not commit adultery),
– material goods (you shall not steal),
– a person’s good name (you shall not bear false witness).
I would, therefore see the sixth commandment referring to a world of sexual teaching only in so far as wrong sexual actions can harm relationships, and any discussion of sexual morality must be placed within that context. The placing of the sixth commandment in the context of the three that surround it would be a good first step towards the building up of a new sexual ethic.
The teaching of the church would say that the essence of sexual sin is that it is a direct ‘offence against God’ because, irrespective of whether harm is caused to any human being, it is a violation of the divine and natural order that God established. Sexual sin is said to be against ‘nature’ as established by God.
I must ask whether God will be offended by any sexual thought or action in an of itself alone, considered only as a direct offence against God before any question of its effect on other persons, oneself or the community is taken into account. Is God ‘offended’ by masturbation or sex before marriage?
Should we not look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct ‘offence against God’? Should we not move to an ethic based on the good or harm done to others, oneself and the community? Are we moving towards a genuinely Christian ethic if we place the sixth commandment in the context of the three that surround it and base ourselves on respect for the relationships that give meaning, purpose and direction to human life and on treating our neighbour as we would want our neighbour to treat us?”
Thus far the bishop. Pretty revolutionary, to be sure. He says all that in his book “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church”, The Columba Press, Dublin 2007, and he says it in writing, he says it very delicately (though also clearly and forcibly), and he says it as a bishop. I told you in my last Web how I wouldn’t dare say what he was saying; I only ventured to quote a book written by a bishop, which – I told you with my usual innocence – was approved by at least one bishop. Today I’ve entered Internet to see the last about Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in Australia, and after a description of his brilliant career in the episcopate, I’ve read this at the end: “The pope has accepted his resignation for reasons of health.” He is 70 years old.
Psalm 28 – Darkness in the Sky
The sky is dark, the storm is raging, the forces of evil seem to have taken hold of heaven and earth. The storm is confusion and destruction; in it there is danger and death. Man is afraid of the storm and runs for cover when lightning strikes. Man cowers under the powers of darkness.
And yet you teach me now, Lord, that you ride on the storm. You are in it, you make it, you direct it. You are the Lord of the storm. You are in the darkness as you are in the light; you reign on the clouds as you reign in the blue sky. Thunder is your voice, and lightning is the trace of your finger. I must see your presence in the thick of the storm as I see it in the brightness of sunshine. I worship your coming as the Lord of nature.
“The God of glory thunders;
the voice of the Lord echoes over the waters,
the Lord is over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is power,
the voice of the Lord is majesty,
the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars,
the Lord splinters the cedars of Lebanon.
The voice of the Lord makes flames of fire burst forth.”After I recognise you in the storms of nature, I learn to recognise you in the storms of my own soul. When my own sky grows dark and my horizons tremble and the lightning of despair strikes the wilderness of my heart. If blessings come from you, trials also do. If you are sun, you are also thunder, and if you bring peace you bring also the sword. You come alike in consolation and in temptation. Yours is the day and yours is the night, and I want to accept you now also as Lord of the night in my own life.
I even sense you closer now in the storm, Lord, than in the calm. When things go well and life is normal, I take you for granted, I minimise your role in my life, I forget you. When darkness comes and imposes on me the sense of my own frailness, I think of you and I take refuge in you. I accept the mystery of the storm, the trial by thunder and lightning. I feel close to you in my dark hours, and I bow before your majesty in the storms that rage through the landscape of my soul. You are the Lord of the storm; you are the Lord of my life.
“The Lord is king above the flood,
The Lord has taken his royal seat as king for ever.
The Lord will give strength to his people;
The Lord will bless his people with peace.”
The Angel of the night
“The angel who was speaking with me came back and woke me up as one wakes up a man in deep sleep. He told me: ‘What do you see?’”
(Zechariah 4:1-2)I wish I would sleep so tight that it would take an angel to wake me up. To put it another way: the secret of a sound sleep is knowing that I’m going to be waken up by an angel. He it is that does it always, though I don’t realise it. His is the touch that caresses my face, the twinkle that alerts my eyes, the voice that opens my ears… even if it is only the metallic sound of the rough alarm clock. It is my angel that wakes me up because it is he that has been watching my sleep the whole night and knows when I have to end it and get up to come to meet my day and my work and my life. He touches me with the tip of his wing, caresses me gently, tickles me in jest, and if there is need he shakes me and shouts till I come out of the night and greet the day. He wakes me up “as one wakes a man in deep sleep”. That was what the angels did to the prophets to tell them their prophecies. Let him do that to me too.
The prophet begins to see visions, and the angel asks him: “What do you see?” The prophet tells him, without himself understanding what he is seeing, and asks the angel to explain it to him:
“I told the angel who was speaking to me: What is this, my lord?’ The angel who was speaking with me answered and told me: ‘You don’t know what this is?’ I said: ‘No, my lord.’ He then went on and spoke thus to me.” (4:4-4a)
I dream dreams and see visions and make plans and programme my day. But I don’t quite know what all this means. I don’t know how things will turn out, how people will react, how my plans will develop. “I don’t know, my lord.” Then the angel explains and enlightens and encourages. I get up holding his hand, and he leads me along my path. He watches me in my sleep, and leads me in my day. And his prophecies mark my step. Each day has its own planning if I know how to learn it from my angel. “You don’t know what this is?” “No, my lord.” Please, explain it to me along the new day till the moment comes to rest the new night. And then you will wake me up again “as one wakes up a man in deep sleep”. I can sleep in peace.
Find your speed
A fortuneteller in Singapore told Vince Poscente when he was young that he would die at forty – and he believed him. He says: “I worried that I might only have a few years to do all of the living I wanted to do, so I developed a peculiar and profound need to do everything fast. On the other hand, the same prophecy convinced me that I could not possibly die before forty – and that led me to do what any immortal would: I went skydiving. I went gliding. I flew a sailplane. And then, when I was twenty-three, I indulged in a sport that I recommend to everyone – luge. Racing down an icy slope on your back on a minimal sleigh at speeds faster than seventy miles per hour. Does it get any better than that?”
He competed in the Olympics in that sport, and reached the gold medal round, though he didn’t win any medal. He then took to lecturing on his experience as a way to improve performance in any line in life, and wrote a book, “The Age of Speed” (Bard Press, Austin, Texas 2007). Some quotations.
“My daughter Alex had a hard time learning how to ride a bicycle. She insisted on doing it by herself, and the process was a long one with an impressive number of skinned knees. But I remember the day she finally had a breakthrough.
She was taking it slow so she wouldn’t crash and get hurt once again, but she couldn’t seem to keep her balance. The bike’s wheels wobbled and she swerved wildly to keep herself upright as she tilted first left, then right. I saw her starting to fall, and I tensed, ready to run to her rescue. Then, in a last-ditch effort to stay upright, she started pedalling faster.
Suddenly the bike was moving in a straight line, no more crazy swerves or wobbles. As soon as Alex sped up, everything got a lot simpler. She got into a rhythm, keeping a fast, steady pace. She easily avoided a rock in her path, and cruised down the sidewalk as if she’d been riding for years. Speed helped stabilise the bike.” (p. 85)
That is the point of the parable. Too slow, you fall; too fast, you crash. Find your speed in life.
“When I was a teenager, I camped out for tickets to see the Eagles in concert and stood in line for six hours. When I heard the first chord of ‘Hotel California’, all the anticipation that had been building since the moment I got into that line culminated in a thrilling experience. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the opening song even if I hadn’t stood in line for so long, but the anticipation contributed to the pleasure I felt. In this scenario, if I had sped up the time it took to acquire the tickets, I would have compromised the value of anticipation, so it was probably better not to pursue speed in that particular situation. Each activity has its own speed.” (51)
The silence of the mermaids
There is an instructive story by Frank Kafka, “The Silence of the Mermaids” which I sum up here:
“Ulysses stopped his ears with wax and had himself tied down to the mast to protect himself from the irresistible pull of the mermaids’ song over the rocks next to which his boat had to pass. But the mermaids had a weapon much more powerful than their song: their silence. A sailor may have sometime escaped their song, but nobody ever had escaped their silence. That is why the powerful seductresses did not sing when Ulysses came near them. Ulysses did not sense their silence, as he thought they were singing and he couldn’t hear them as his ears were stopped. So he escaped their song, as they did not sing, and their silence, as he thought they were singing.
I add a commentary to the story. Ulysses is said to have been cunning as a fox, so much so that the Goddess of Fate never got to know what he had in his heart. It is possible that Ulysses did realise the mermaids were keeping quiet, and he played the fool before them and before the gods, just to protect himself, let us say.”
(Norma, Buenos Aires 2006, p. 63)
To which I add my own commentary. Kafka is right in one point and wrong in another. He is right in saying that silence is more powerful than words, than melodies, than ideas. It is more attractive, enticing, seductive. This is a useful lesson for life, whether in order to seduce or to be – or not to be – seduced. Silence works better than words.
But Kafka made a mistake in his quotation from Homer. According to Homer, Ulysses stopped his sailors’ ears with wax so that they could keep on rowing when passing near the mermaids without swerving, and he asked them to tie him to the mast so that he would not move even when attracted by the song; but he did not stop his own ears, and kept them wide open precisely because he wanted to hear the mermaids’ song. If he had stopped his ears there would have been no need to tie him as he did not tie his sailors. He wanted to hear everything and see everything without danger while he kept directing the ship in her course. He did hear the mermaids’ song, was shaken, enthralled, seduced…, he strove to get free and to run and throw himself into their embrace…, but the ropes kept him tied to the mast, the boat kept her course, the danger was over, Ulysses stopped wriggling, his sailors untied him, they removed the wax from their own ears, and the voyage went on with one more episode for Ulysses to tell. And for Kafka to comment upon.
And for me and my further comment. One has to read the classics carefully in order to be able to quote them properly. Ulysses did not stop his ears. Kafka did not read Homer with care. Sorry, genius.
The truth stone
The father instructed his son: “Go out in search of the Truth Stone. Walk far, brace dangers, take time, but come back to your people and your family with the Truth Stone. Go now, and may God be with you in your search.”
The lad parted, walked for days on end without talking to anybody, crossed country after country without stopping, reached the sea, and there he asked the inhabitants of that last country to tell him where he could find the Truth Stone. They told him they all had Truth Stones there, and they gave him one of them. He kept it gratefully and carefully, and started on his way back.
When passing through another country on his way back, he stopped to talk with the people there, they asked him the reason for his journey, he answered he had come in search of the Truth Stone, had obtained it, and showed it to all. They laughed and told him that that was not the true stone, that the true stones were in their possession, and they gave him one of them. He kept it gratefully and carefully, kept also the first stone just in case, and went on his way.
The same thing happened to him in the next country, and in the next, and in the next. In every country he crossed on his way back, they gave him a new stone, always the true one. He kept them all, reached his father’s house, told him his tale, and showed him his collection of stones.
His father told him: “Now you know how the Truth Stone has led you to the truth. It is telling you that the people of each country believe they are the only ones that possess the true stone, and that all the others are false. Appreciate and keep what you have received in your people and in your family, and respect and understand what all the others have learnt in theirs. And keep all those stones carefully to remind you. This teaching did deserve that journey.”
The lad kept all the stones with care.
“God gives every bird its food, but He doesn’t throw it in the nest.” (Joshua Holland)
María Blanca Vela Segovia writes from Buenos Aires:
“I doubt whether the good bishop you mention [Web of 1 February] resigned for reasons of health. His doctrine is quite advanced and daring. Personally I find it wholly true. I suppose that, sooner or later, the Church will have to revise in depth her attitude on sex. I feel extremely happy that you touch upon these themes in your widely read and much appreciated Web page. I believe this is vital for many Catholics who are left with the feeling they are permanently living in mortal sin. What a great pity! I say I feel happy, particularly for my smaller brothers, for my nephews and nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces who have their whole life before them. I’m already ‘beyond that’ as I am happily 75… and I’m single! But in my youth those teachings tortured me morally in an incredible way.”
Thank you, María Blanca, and there are many people who have written to me in the same sense. Most of them women.
Psalm 29 – Moods of the soul
“Sing a psalm to the Lord, all you his loyal servants;
give thanks to his holy name.
In his anger is distress,
in his favour there is life.
Tears may linger at nightfall,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.”I want to uncover the moods of my soul before myself and before you, Lord. I want to know how to deal with myself when I am high and when I am low, to handle my optimism and my pessimism, to learn how to react to spiritual joy and to human dejection; and, above all, how to ride the tides of feelings, the changes of mood, the sudden storm and the unexpected bliss, the darkness and the light, and the uncertainty that never allows me to know how long a mood will last and when the opposite mood will strike.
I am at the mercy of my moods. When I feel joyful, everything looks easy, virtue is obvious, love is spontaneous, and a firm assurance grows on me that this is the way it will be with me from now on and for ever. Yes, I tell myself, I have finally arrived, I have matured in my spiritual life, I have myself well in hand. I have gone through ups and downs, and I know there will still be small changes and variations, but fundamentally I know now what to expect, I am well established and nothing will seriously shake me now. I am an old-timer in the ways of the spirit and I know perfectly well where I stand. Through God’s grace I am firm and steady.
You know me well, Lord, and you yourself put these words on my lips when you invite me to recite this Psalm to enlighten me. “Carefree as I was, I had said: I can never be shaken.” That was my unwarranted confidence, my immature boast. I really thought I could never now be shaken.
And then your Psalm continues as my life goes on:
“But, Lord, it was your will to shake my mountain refuge;
you hid your face, and I was struck with dismay.”I was shaken again to my very foundations, and then my despair was as total and absolute as my boast had been before. I am good for nothing, I shall never learn, I am now after so many years right where I was at the beginning of my spiritual life, I don’t know how to pray, how to keep peace in my soul, how to deal with God; I don’t know, and I’ll never learn now; I can just as well give up and resign myself to a low and humdrum existence. The stars are not for me.
When I am down, I forget that I ever was up, and think I shall never be up again; and when I am up and high…, I persuade myself that that is the way it’ll always be, and there’s nothing to fear any more. My memory is short…, and so my suffering is long. I am the slave of my moods, the plaything of the breeze that blows on my soul. Hot when it is hot, and cold when it is cold. I lack the persevering steadfastness of the seasoned worker, the proven seeker, the reliable follower. I waver and stumble and fall. I want a greater balance for my life, a larger perspective, a truer patience. I want for me the long-term view that experience in your ways gives to those who know you and trust you.
For this I pray: that when I am in high spirits, I may remember that I was low before; and that when I am low, I may trust that the high spirits will come again. Then truly “I will confess you for ever, O Lord my God.”
The angel of the covenant
“I am about to send my messenger to clear a path before me. Suddenly the Lord whom you seek will come to his temple; the angel of the covenant in whom you delight is here, here already, says the Lord of Hosts.”
(Malachi 3:1)This is the last angel of the Old Testament. Just a page before the Gospel of St Matthew. He speaks of the messenger who will clear a path before the Lord, an expression that Jesus himself will apply to his forerunner John the Baptist. “Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘He is the man of whom scripture says: Here is my herald, whom I send ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you. Truly I tell you: among all who have ever been born, no one has been greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:7, 10-11)
The prophet Malachi speaks of the coming of the Lord to his temple, a prophecy that Jesus fulfilled when he was taken as a child to Jerusalem and consecrated in word and blessing. And he speaks of “the angel of the covenant”, where the covenant is a term that covers the covenant of Israel with Yahweh in the Old Testament and the covenant Jesus brought to the whole of humankind in the New. The last book of the Old Testament is thus present in the first book of the New, sealing the unity of the word of God in the presence of the angels.
The angels inspired the prophets of Israel, and those same angels are waiting to appear before the shepherds of Bethlehem; the heavenly messengers that announced military victories to the kings of Israel are now eager to proclaim before men and women in the new people of God the decisive victory of Jesus’ resurrection over sin and evil. The history of salvation is one of a piece.
It is in that unity and continuity that the foundation of our trust and the firmness of our faith lie. God is the same. Jesus is the same “yesterday, today, and for ever.” (Hebrews 13:8) The prophecies of yesterday are the reality of today, and the promises of centuries ago come true in our days. The presence of angels is the link that gives unity to our race. They witness our history, watch our present, reach out to eternity. They give meaning to our efforts, direction to our steps, strength to our hope. The “angel of the covenant” is the guarantee of our faith. We continue on our pilgrimage in the company of angels. The angel of the covenant walks by our side.
The Iguazu waterfalls
When I visited the Iguazu Falls in Argentina I was shown round by an official guide who was very knowledgeable and very communicative. He was a mature man, had been guiding the waterfall tours for more than ten years as he told us, and was doing it with a zest and a fervour that added the effectiveness of his commentaries to the marvellous spectacle of the 275 falls along a two-mile water front.
“The Devil’s Throat” is one of the most marvellous views in the world, bringing the astonished spectator within a few feet of the falling waters in their strength, their volume, their deafening roar, their raining foam, their power, their majesty. Nature’s art in the wildness of the virgin forest.
As we had become quite friendly along the tour, I told our guide as we took our leave:
– I admire you for the enthusiasm with which you have shown us the falls.
– I say what I feel, sir.
– I can see it, but then you have told us that you have been showing the same sights day by day for over ten years.
– Yes, that’s true.
– And don’t you get bored some times? Repeating every day the same thing, however wonderful may the show be, doesn’t generate routine, even boredom?
– Yes, at times, but I try to cheer up the visitors and I appreciate my own luck as I can daily contemplate this wonder that you pay for seeing while I am paid for showing it to you.
– I congratulate you on it.
– And now, please allow me one question, sir. You’ve told me you are a priest, aren’t you?
– Yes, I am.
– So you say mass every day?
– Yes, I do.
– That is, you repeat more or less the same prayers every day?
– That’s what I do.
– And don’t you get bored some times?
– I too try to cheer up my parishioners and I appreciate my own luck to say mass daily.
– I see, but then I have an advantage over you: I change my audience every day, while you have always before you the same congregation. I too appreciate you and your work; and, please, remember always the waterfall.
I will remember it for life.
The jumping fish
The Iguazu Falls were for me one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen in my life. From a more pragmatic point of view they may seem just the right spot to build a power station. Rabindranath Tagore describes an experience he had on the Ganges.
“I was one day travelling on a small boat along the river Ganges. It was a perfect afternoon in autumn. The sun had just set, and a cosmic silence had descended upon the horizon. The surface of the waters, without a wrinkle, reflected the varied hues of the sunset. The sands on either sight shone as the iridescent scales of a sea monster.
While our boat advanced silently in the middle of the river, a huge fish suddenly jumped out of the water, disappeared again in its depths, and its flying scales painted for an instant on the air a heavenly rainbow of magic splendour. A living signature to wave goodbye to the setting sun.
I felt I had received a friendly greeting from another world, and my heart jumped at the unexpected messenger of joy. Then, suddenly, I heard the boat’s helmsman heave a sigh of resignation and say: ‘There goes a dish of fish!’
For him the jumping fish was the image of a cooked fish on a dining table. He had seen the fish only through his hunger. His appetite conditioned his sight. He missed the beauty of the moment…, and he didn’t eat the fish!
Isn’t that what happens, at time, with life itself?”
(Sadhana of the Spiritual Life, Afrodisio Aguado, Madrid 1957, p. 150)
An ecumenical saint
Tagore writes in the same book:
“Our work is not our rest. And yet, the river finds its rest in its flowing to the sea; the fire finds it in its burning; the flower in its wafting its perfume. Not so with us. For us our work is not our rest. Our work feels heavy on us because we do not take it up with zest, we do not embrace it, we do not welcome it.
Would that our souls would fly towards you as the flame, run to you like the river, give out their perfume as the flower!”
He gives another comparison:
“If a savage in his ignorance, on seeing the care and reverence with which white men treated and kept their banknotes, would think they had a magic power to grant any wishes, he would try to get as many of them as possible, would keep them, would hide them, would worship them in many ways…, till, at the end, tired of all his efforts he would sadly see that those papers had absolutely no value in themselves and were worth nothing.
Whatever we have received in this life is for us to use, to exchange, to give. Our heart has its value in our giving it out. If we keep it in hiding, it becomes useless.”
Then he tells us Kabir’s legend, the Benares saint in the XV century who worked and lived for the unity of Hindus and Muslims in the worship of the one God.
“When Kabir died, the Hindus wanted to incinerate his body, while the Muslims wanted to bury it, according to their different customs. When they were quarrelling among themselves, the saint appeared to them and told them: ‘Lift the shroud that covers my body, and see what is under it.’ They did so, and instead of the body they found a heap of white Champa flowers. The Muslims buried half of them in Maghar, in a place revered till our days as the saint’s tomb, and the Hindus cremated the other half in Benares.
Touching and fitting end of the life of a man who had spread the perfume of his poems over the beautiful teachings of two great faiths.”
This page was written as a preparation for the ongoing General Congregation of the Jesuits by the person who was to be elected in it as the new General, Fr Adolfo Nicolás.
CAN WE BE REALISTIC?
I can still remember GC34. They are fond, humorous and challenging memories. But we were not realistic.
Just imagine: 220 Jesuits decide to tackle 46 topics, work on them for three months, produce 26 documents and solemnly handle and approve 416 complementary norms. Thus, we were not surprised when crises emerged: crises of content, of management, and of hope. Next year we will be close to 230 members.
It is my ardent hope that we be realistic as to what a GC can do decently well, what it cannot, and what it should leave to the new Father-General and his team.
CAN WE BE TRANSPARENT?
Transparency has become more difficult in our small world. When was the last time that a great leader could confess substantial sins in public and continue leading the flock, the country, the Church?
And yet, our GCs have always started with an honest and frank acknowledgment of where we are going wrong, what is missing in our lives, what has been distorted or wounded of our spirit, what needs conversion, renewal or radical reform. It is my sincere hope that we can do that again.
CAN WE BE ACCOMPANIED?
The best of a General Congregation is the event itself, as an ‘event of the heart’. This is a time of intensive search and of exhilarating exchange, where questions and answers do not come lineally, but dance within us and around us, at the rhythm of fraternal and humble mutual openness.
My hope is that this happens to the whole Society of Jesus. I hope that we all take an active part in preparing the Congregation from inside our common issues. Prayer, reflection and exchange are the gift and the contribution.
I hope that those who do not go to Rome, will monitor and follow events closely, with the same hope, the same intensity of search, the same willingness to change and be led by the Spirit of our Lord. This will be our best accompaniment.
CAN WE BE CREATIVE?
I have a feeling, still imprecise and difficult to define, that there is something important in our religious life that needs attention and is not getting it. We have certainly been diligent in addressing our problems whenever we have seen them: Poverty (GC32 in 1974 and 34 in 1995), Chastity (GC34), Community (Provincials at Loyola)… But the uneasiness in the Society and in the Church has not disappeared.
The question for us is: Is it enough that we are happy with our life and are improving our service and ministry? Isn’t there also an important factor in the perception of people (Vox Populi) that should drive us to some deeper reflection on religious life today? How come we elicit so much admiration and so little following?
Thus, one of my hopes is that in GC35 we begin a process of dynamic and open reflection on our religious life that might begin a process of re-creation of the Society for our times, not only in the quality of our services, but also and mostly in the quality of our personal and community witness to the Church and the World.
CAN WE BE PRACTICAL?
The age in which we live and our younger Jesuits will live, is an age of very rapid change. New technologies and new communication possibilities can make a great difference. We are using some. We do not feel free to use others. Maybe a certain restraint in using new means might be good for us. Maybe not. It is so difficult to know what is going to happen seven, ten years from now.
It is my hope that the coming GC opens the way for future General Congregations, giving the new General and his Council the freedom to discern and choose the best means to prepare and to run the Congregations of the future.
CAN WE BE SHORT?
We would not like GC35 to become another exercise in patience. A General Congregation is not a “Panacea” for all the problems we might face. It is a help of great value, but basically oriented to the ongoing growth in the Spirit and the Apostolate of the whole Society.
Thus, my final hope is that we will be so clear as to the purposes, and so focused in our work, that we can do this service to the Society and the Church within a reasonably short time.
By Adolfo Nicolas SJ, Moderator of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania.
It’s not surprising that Fr Nicolás was elected general. A wise choice.
Psalm 30 – My Life in Your Hands
“You are my God; my fortunes are in your hand.”I feel happy while I say those words. Allow me to repeat them. “You are my God; my fortunes are in your hand.” A sense of relief sweeps over me, a feeling of satisfaction and safety in the midst of a troubled world. “My fortunes are in your hand.” Whatever happens to me, whatever life brings to me, whatever winds blow and waters flow on the fields of my life…, all that is in your loving hands. I need no more.
“My fortunes.” Good fortune, bad fortune; things I like and things I dislike; occasions I look forward to and occasions I fear; pleasure and pain; joy and sorrow. All that is in my life, and all that is in your hand. You know the time, you know the measure, you know my strength and my lack of it, you know my longings and my limitations, my dreams and my realities. All that is in your hand, and you love me and want the best for me. My best fortune is to know that my fortunes are in your hands.
Let that faith grow in me, Lord, and put an end to worry in my life. I surely will continue to work for my “fortune”, I am too much of an achiever and a compulsive worker to let go of things and lower my efforts; I will continue to work, but with a happy face and a light heart. Because those “fortunes” are in your hand. I can look up and smile and sing, because now the burden is light and the yoke is smooth. My effort will still be there, but the result is in your hand, and so out of my own hands and out of my mind. Peace has come to my heart because “You are my God, and my fortunes are in your hand.”
The Angel of the Incarnation
“There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense.”
(Luke 1:11)Gabriel opens up the New Testament. He turns history around, brings about the end of an era, ushers in redemption. There he is in the holy Temple that made Israel holy, in the sanctuary of the Lord, in front of Zechariah the priest who had entered alone, as the priced privilege of his yearly turn had come that day, to burn incense before the Holy of Holies while the devout crowd waited outside at the hour of the solemn prayer. There is Gabriel standing, as he later will go to Nazareth to complete his mission before a waiting maid to set in motion the plan God had thought out since the day Adam and Eve left Paradise, and had been taking shape prophet by prophet and king after king till the fullness of time had come and the branch of Jesse had flourished, and creation is in labour, and God is coming to visit his people in person. Gabriel opens up the new stage of history. All is ready for incarnation and redemption.
The angel of the beginnings. The preface to the narrative. The overture of the music. He knows how to give startling news, how to still growing fears, how to dispel doubts, explain plans, give name to children to be born, present proof, announce joy. He is the chief of heavenly diplomacy, the professional ambassador, the trusted messenger, the angel of the incarnation. He softens down the beginnings, establishes contact, expresses divine mysteries in human words. Tact and lucidity mark his interventions. If the word “angel” means “messenger”, Gabriel is the angel of angels.
I have much to learn from Gabriel. Public relations are not my strong point. I have no gift for diplomacy. I know nothing about the proper contacts, influences, etiquette, recommendations. I don’t attend meetings, I don’t know important people, I don’t flatter the powerful, I don’t seek influence. I say what I feel with naïve clarity, and I don’t prepare audiences or soften expressions. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and my words are always measured, but I don’t make special efforts either to win over the indifferent or to calm down the opponent if any show up in the multiple interpretations of doctrines and the variety of customs. I don’t know how to do it. It’s not my way. And perhaps I should learn it to win approval and widen acceptance. There is a praiseworthy diplomacy for the best causes to open up ways and speed up results. Its master is Gabriel.
Once Gabriel has come on to the stage, we know all will be well. Let him come also into my life to improve my diplomatic service.
All or nothing
Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, tells us some of his experiences:“I enjoyed working in the serial The Rebel Billionaire in the United States because I found it very amusing to put a group of young managers through several challenges, some of which were taken straight from James Bond films, though none of them was impossible. They were designed to go on reducing the group till only one person remained, the one with the strongest character and the best prepared to achieve their aims.
The final episode had a brutal twist to it. We all gathered on the terrace of my house in my private island of Necker, on the beach near the sea, for me to hand on to the winner, Shawn Nelson, the final prize, a cheque for a million dollars.
There was a snag. He could take the cheque or gamble for a bigger prize, heads or tails at the throw of a coin. If he missed, he would lose everything. I handed him the cheque. He took it, and when seeing the long line of cyphers I could see in his eyes how much that sum meant for him and for his business plans. Then I took the cheque back and put it in my back pocket. In its place I showed him a silver coin.
‘Which one do you choose? – I asked him – the coin or the cheque?’
Life is full of hard choices. What would he choose? Shawn looked bewildered. It was a huge risk. All or nothing. He asked me, ‘What would you do, Richard?’ I told him, ‘The choice is yours.’ I could have told him ‘I take risks, but only calculated risks. I measure the probabilities of all I do’, but I told him nothing. He had to decide.
The tension increased as Shawn kept pacing the terrace from one end to the other, unmindful of the idyllic view of the sea, immersed in his own struggle with himself to take a decision. To gamble was an appealing choice. He would prove himself ‘cool’. Besides, the unknown prize could be incredible. Even so I said nothing. I knew what I would do, but what would he do?
At the end he said, ‘I’m taking the cheque.’ He had a small business and could use the million dollars wisely to make it grow. He could change his life for the better and help the people who worked with him and believed in him. He chose the cheque.
I felt very glad, and while taking the cheque from my pocket and handing it over to him, I told him: ‘If you had chosen the throw of the coin, I would have lost my respect for you.’
He had made the correct choice by not gambling at something he could not control. He got the million dollars, to which we added the mysterious prize. The great prize was to become for three months the president of the more than 200 Virgin companies with their 50.000 employees. Shawn would learn much. It was a golden opportunity, and, by not risking everything at the throw of a coin, he had shown that my companies would be in good hands for those three months. He had earned the job.”
(Richard Branson, Hagámoslo, Arcopress 2008, p. 57)
Now or never
Another experience from the same source:“The first great challenge in my life came to me when I was four or five years old and our family had gone to Devon for two weeks in summer, together with two aunties and an uncle of mine. When we reached there I ran to the beach and stood there looking at the sea. I longed to go swimming, but I had not learned yet. My auntie Joyce, one of my father’s sisters, came and stood by my side while I was looking at the waves with melancholy eyes. She offered me ten shillings if I would learn to swim before the end of the holidays. She was very sharp, and she knew that already then I would take up any challenge. I took her up on her promise, feeling sure I would win.
We had a chopping sea almost every day and the waves were high; still I tried to swim for hours and hours. Day by day I would paddle away with one foot while keeping the other on the sand, I got blue with cold, I never minded the amount of water I swallowed…, but I did not learn.
‘Never mind, Ricky – my aunt Joyce told me kindly at the end – you’ll try again next year.’
I felt depressed for having lost the bet and because I was sure my auntie would forget it next year. We got into the car and started back home. It was a hot day and in the fifties the roads were very narrow, so that we were not going very fast. How would I have loved to learn swimming! How was I hating having lost!
Suddenly I looked out of the car window and I saw a river. ‘Stop the car!’ I shouted. My parents knew about the bet, and I think my father understood what I wanted, got out of the road and parked the car. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked me turning towards me.
‘Ricky wants to try again winning the ten shillings’, said my mother. Since the holidays were not over as we had not yet reached home, the bet still stood.
I jumped out of the car and undressed fast. I ran across the field to the river. When I reached the shore I felt afraid. The river looked deep and fast, and it ran between rocks. I turned my head and saw all standing and looking at me. My mother smiled and made signs for me to go ahead. ‘You can do it, Ricky!’ she cheered me up.
His encouragement and my auntie’s promise gave me strength, and I knew it was now or never. When I reached the middle of the water, the current suck me in, I sunk to the bottom, and I swallowed water. The current pulled me down the river. I managed to breathe and to relax, I stepped on a rock and I threw myself forward. Suddenly, almost without realising it, I was swimming. I paddled in circles, but I had won the bet. In spite of the noise of the waters on the rocks and of the noise I too was making with my splashing, I could hear my family cheering me up from the shore. I came back slowly, I was exhausted, but felt very proud. I crawled back on all fours through the slime and the nettles to where aunt Joyce was standing. With a great smile she took out the ten shilling and gave them to me.
‘I knew you could do it’, said my mother while she gave me a dry towel. I have always hated failure.”
The present moment
I didn’t know this anecdote of Salvador Dali told here by Richard Branson, but it can well be true.
“The Spanish painter Dali had a unique way to savour the present moment. When life bored him, he would walk on his gardens near the sea. He would take in his hands a perfect peach, tempered by the sun. He held it in his hands to admire its golden skin. He would close his eyes, smell it, breathe deeply as its perfume would fill up his senses. Then he would just bit it once. His mouth would fill with its exquisite juice. He would savour it deliberately. Then he would throw the peach into the sea. He would said that was a perfect moment, and he was getting more out of that unique morsel than if he had gorged himself on a full basket of peaches.
The three jewels
A Buddhist monk speaks:
“Buddhism consists in what it calls its Three Jewels: the Buddha, his Doctrine, the Congregation of his monks. The Buddhist prayer says as follows:
Buddham sharanam gacchami;
Dhammam sharanam gacchami;
Sangham sharanam gacchami.
‘I seek refuge in the Buddha;
I seek refuge in his Doctrine;
I seek refuge in his Congregation.’
The images of the Buddha do not allow us to see the Buddha.
The sermons on his doctrine do not allow us to hear his doctrine.
The monks do not allow us to find his congregation.”
(Ashin Janakabhivamsa, Autobiography, p. 192)
Only in Buddhism?
Someone has asked me which music I listen to while I work. I’ve answered him that these days I was listening to Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. He has bought it and played it. And he tells me he has been bored to death. I understand. As a young man I had to study in detail Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues at the piano, and they stuck to my soul for life. On the other hand, it they are listened to one after another without preparation, they annoy. That doesn’t make me better than anyone. Bach just fell to my lot and shaped me. Others are shaped by other melodies I don’t understand. So, my taste may not be yours. Without either of us being better than the other.
By the way, my opinion may not necessarily be yours. What goes for me may not go for you. You may not like Bach. Do not buy it.
Psalm 31 – Shadows in my soul
I have done wrong, and I have tried to forget it. To play it down, to hush it up, to put it out of my mind. I secretly justified myself before my own conscience: This is nothing big after all; they all do it anyway; I was helpless, and what else could I have done? Let us forget it, and the memory of it will pass away, the sooner the better.
But the memory did not pass away. I felt sad and disturbed. The more time passed, the sharper the pang in my conscience became. My attempt at hiding from myself my own wrongdoing succeeded only in making me feel unhappy and miserable.
“While I refused to speak my body wasted away…;
the sap in me dried up
as in summer drought.”I felt dissatisfied with myself and angry at my own weakness. There was something hanging in my past, an unhealed wound, an unfinished chapter, an unalloyed guilt. I had swallowed poison and it was still in me spreading its baleful influence to my whole organism in despondency and frustration. I could bear it no longer.
“Then I declared my sin,
I did not conceal my guilt.
I said: With sorrow I will confess
my disobedience to the Lord.”I made a clean breast of it before myself and before you, Lord, I accepted my responsibility, I owned up, I confessed. And at once I felt on me the favour of your countenance, the touch of your healing, the relief of your pardon. And I exclaimed in my new joy:
“Happy the man whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put away!
Happy is a man when the Lord lays no guilt to his account,
and in his spirit there is no deceit.”I want for me from you, Lord, the grace of transparency. To be transparent to myself and to you, and so to all men and women with whom I deal. To have nothing to hide, nothing to disguise, nothing to gloss over in my behaviour and in my thoughts. I want to put an end to the shadows in my soul, or rather to accept them as shadows, to own them, to take myself as I am, dark spots and all, and as such to appear before my own gaze and that of all men and that of your own majesty, my Judge and my Lord.
Let me know myself, and let others know me as I am. Let me be honest, sincere and candid. Let me be transparent in my lights and in my shadows. And the blessing of reality will offset in me the stain of fallibility.
“Happy is the man in whose spirit there is no deceit!”
The angel of the beginnings
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, with a message for a girl betrothed to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David; the girl’s name was Mary.”
(Luke 1:26-27)The angel and the maid. Heaven and earth. The proposal and the yes. And the Son of the Most High will reign on David’s throne over the house of Jacob for ages and his kingdom will have no end. A clear dialogue, a delicate expression, a gentle touch. The most sacred pact of human history is sealed in a few sentences with immediate accord. The angel says exactly what he has to say; the maid understands it and accepts it. And the angel takes his leave.
Gabriel, the angel of the beginnings, the advocate of every good work, the messenger of dawn, the ambassador from heaven. I am not going to perform any great deeds in my life, but I do desire that you inaugurate with your presence the little projects I may undertake. I want to feel that every work of mine, however small, comes from God, and so I want you to propose it to me, to explain it, to invite me. Come to me with your iniciatives, inspire me with your plans, make me realise that the ideas I conceive for a new book are not coming from myself but from on high, that whatever my mind thinks has been suggested to it by a flutter of wings from afar, that my little works are a small but real part of that master plan you one day revealed to that beloved maiden in her Nazareth home.
My efforts are a part of that mission, my activities flow from that current, my projects come from that vision. My own humble history is a chapter in that glorious narrative of the doings of God’s people on earth. Without your visit to Nazareth those thoughts would not have come to my mind, those feelings would not have filled my heart, those words would not have reached my pen. You are present at the beginning of every good work, dear archangel Gabriel, and I ask you and expect you to be present at the beginning of whatever I may do, say, or write. You knew where Nazareth was, and you know at every moment where I am and what I am about to do. I am waiting for you, dear angel of all happy beginnings. Come to me again.
Last Monday, 24 March, I completed fifty years as a priest. Golden Jubilee. Of the seven Jesuit companions that were ordained priests that day, three have died. I’ll tell an anecdote of one of them on that momentous day.
It came about through a Jesuit companion who died last year. Ignacio Zavala Alday. Our priestly ordination took place on the eave of the Feast of the Annunciation, 24 March 1958, in Anand, province of Gujarat, at the hands of Bishop Edwin Pinto. My mother had come from Spain to accompany me on that day, the most eagerly awaited date in her life and in mine. It was also the first time the priestly ordination was going to be held in a Mission Station, since up to then it had been always held in the Pune Theologate where we all studied, the reason being that the professors that had slogged preparing us for the priesthood would find some consolation in seeing us reach the altar after they had tutored us in the classroom and tested us (and occasionally failed us) in our examinations.
That year, however, it was thought that in order to foster vocations to the priesthood among the people of the land it would be good to hold the ordinations in a live parish, and so the church at Anand was chosen for us, and the new religious event was organised there with popular enthusiasm. A platform was erected on the football field of the adjoining school, and it was built in a rather peculiar way. Hundreds of large milk powder tins (rectangular and still full) were tightly packed and strongly tied together to make up the stage. They did creak and squeak under our liturgical steps during the holy rite, but they all bravely stuck together. Neither our weight nor our emotions shook them out of place, heavy though both were.
At the end of the ceremony we went aside to remove our vestments. Zavala was by my side. He took off his chasuble, stole, alb, amice, and folded them over the table. He stood for a moment looking at them. He then turned both his hands palms up, and looking at them alternatively he said in a low, awed, reverent voice: “How can this be?” And he kept looking at them. That was all. He just said it to himself, but I heard him. Those hands had just touched the sacred host for the first time. The sacred touch. The newly consecrated hands by the bishop’s anointing. A priest’s hands from now on and for ever. To bring God down from heaven and to forgive sins on earth. Hands of Christ. My own hands. I cannot believe it. How can this be? For sheer joy. Hands to bless and to be kissed. Hands to touch God.
All that feeling came from the fact that that was the first time in our lives we were touching the sacred host with our hands. The rule was strictly enforced at the time that we had to receive Holy Communion on our outstretched tongue without ever in any way allowing our fingers to touch it. We were even told that would be a sin. That was why the first touch of the white host on our fingers after the long way to the priesthood had the thrill of romance, the depth of mystery, the wonder of a miracle.
And hence I now reflect that younger priests today, who have been receiving Communion on the hand since their First Communion as children, are not likely to feel any special thrill when touching it again as priests. They are used to it. I am in favour of receiving Communion in the hand, but I admit that we have lost something in the way of respect, reverence, adoration. Thank you, Ignacio Zavala, for that thrilling moment.
I hope you too remember in heaven what I answered you at that moment. The gospel of the Annunciation had just been read at Mass, and I had preached the sermon. Gabriel and Mary. The divine messenger. Mary’s question “How can this be?” and the angel’s explanation. Mary’s yes to the angel. The mystery of the Incarnation. And so, when you asked yourself, “How can this be?”, the words sounded in my ears as Mary’s words to the angel, and I answered you, in a low voice too for you only to hear, with the words of the angel to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the virtue of the Most High will overshadow you.” Remember how we looked at each other. Our eyes were all wet. And we embraced tightly.
Three stories from India
A very pious married woman was sorry that her husband was not religious minded, and when a famous preacher came to their village to deliver sermons on the Bhagavata Purana, he persuaded her husband to go and listen to the sermons.
The first day he went, he sat down, and fell immediately asleep till the sermon was over and everybody got up and all went home.
The second day, his wife went with him, and he also fell asleep, but his wife could not touch her husband in public and could not wake him up till the end when all got up and left.
The third night was the last, and the man also fell asleep, but then a mosquito flew around him, bit him, and flew away. The man woke up for an instant, scratched himself, and fell asleep immediately again, but in the instant he was awake, the word of God entered his ears and his mind. He was converted to a devout life, went to a pilgrimage to Benares, left his wife, and became a monk.
Such is the power of the word of God when it enters our ear. A greater power than the wife ever thought.
Tenali Rama was invited to recite the story of the Ramayana. He began, “Rama and Sita went to the forest…”, and stopped there. They asked him to continue, but he answered: “Rama and Sita went to the forest. The rest will follow. Everything is there. Start on the path of God, and everything will follow. Just start. And the whole Ramayana will follow. But you must start.”
A king married a wife thinking she would bear him a son. When she didn’t, he married a second with the same hope. When she too turned out to be barren, he married a third, then a fourth, and then others up to seven. But no son and heir was born to gladden his heart and to sit on the throne after him.
Overwhelmed by grief, he was walking in a neighbouring wood one day when he saw a woman of supernatural beauty. He fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. He told her: “I don’t want a son or an heir from you, I just want your love.” She became his wife, and she bore him a son. Overjoyed, the king went back to visit his first seven wives… and all the seven of them became pregnant in turn.
The Buddha taught: “The keen desire to get results is the greatest obstacle to obtain them. Remove the desire, and the fruit will come.”
(A.K. Ramanujan, Folktales From India, Penguin New Delhi 1991. pp. 65, 68, 87.)
“The young person buys very expensive clothes that seem to have been made by their personal enemy, and they wear them inside out just in case. Their footwear comes from The Carnival of Venice, and their hairdo is a poem in colour and shape. They hate any kind of ‘regular’ dress, sedulously avoid anything resembling their parents’ style, but carefully copy what other young people wear. The more outlandish, the better. Boys will spend all their savings just to buy a pair of non-fitting pants or a sweater meant for a monkey, and girls specialise in exchanging dresses and shoes at will among friends. When they bring home a new outfit they don’t wear it immediately outdoors. First they lock themselves in their room, put on the new piece, look at themselves in the mirror, gesticulate, dance, grimace, and only when they feel they have satisfactorily passed all the tests will they dare to go out with the new outfit. If they find they’re attractive, they’ll wear it forever. They can wear the same blouse three months in a row, even if their wardrobe is full of other blouses.
– Mum, where are my trousers?
– They were torn, my girl. You bum was showing. I’ve mended them and they’re now in the washing machine.
– Are you mad? Mend them! Wash them! I’ll kill you! Nobody’s going to be so badly dressed as me. Nobody. Good Lord! What can I wear now?
Girls are prone to invade other people’s wardrobes, including their brothers, and that can enrich their language.
(Alejandra Vallejo-Nájera, La edad del pavo, Temas de hoy, Madrid 2006, p. 86)
Shorts from Rabindranath Tagore
“The bird wishes it were a cloud.
The cloud wishes it were a bird.”
“The sparrow is sorry for the peacock
at the burden of its tail.”
“The great earth makes herself hospitable
with the help of the grass.”
“Be still, my heart,
these great trees are prayers.”
Thank you, Francisco, for drawing my attention today to the Jesuit Juan Masiá’s article in the last issue of the Catholic weekly Vida Nueva on a theme that has always interested me as it fully engaged my attention in India. The translation of the Bible and the liturgical books into other languages. He speaks authoritatively about Japanese. I quote from his article:
“The Japanese version of the Mass has not been approved by the Roman Curia even after three decades, and is still in its provisional state. The negotiations have got stuck in such minor points as the following:
In Japan we just bow to the altar at the beginning of the Mass. To kiss the altar would be bad manners. We do not put our lips to the tablecloth at meals. Hands joined and bowed head show our respect better. But the Curia insists on the kiss.
The Latin answer “And with your spirit” to “The Lord be with you” sounds in Japanese as “with your ghost”, but again the Curia insists on the “spirit”.
In Japanese we say, “I recognise my faults”, and to say it once is enough, but the Curia insists on us saying “through my fault” three times, with “through my most grievous fault” at the end.
The Japanese expression “I believe in the resurrection of the body” refers by itself to the whole person; but the Curia insists in saying “the resurrection of the flesh”, which sounds vulgar in Japanese.
We can understand the perplexity of the Japanese Church before this attitude, and our worry at what seems going back from what had been achieved at the Vatican Council.”
My own experience was more amusing. The bishop of Ahmedabad entrusted to me the translation of the canon of the Mass from Latin into Gujarati when the first permission for translations came from Rome. I did it, not without inspiration. But translations of liturgical texts had to be approved by Rome. My translation was duly sent there. The problem was that nobody knew Gujarati in Rome. So they sent back my Gujarati translation to our bishop, requesting him to have it translated back into Latin by somebody in India. Father Pariza, known among us for his wisdom and his sanctity, accepted the task and did it painstakingly. His Latin translation of my Gujarati translation was sent to Rome, and my Gujarati translation was approved. Today it is devoutly said in the Gujarati Mass. I told the bishop that, when he was asked from Rome to send there the Latin translation of my Gujarati text, he should have sent them the original text from the Latin missal. He laughed, but he did not dare.
Psalm 32 – The Lord’s own plans
“The Lord brings the plans of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the counsel of the peoples.
But the Lord’s own plans shall stand for ever,
and his counsel endure for all generations.”These are words of reassurance to me, Lord, and to all those who wish humankind well and are concerned about its future. I read the papers and listen to the radio and watch television, and I see the news that darken humankind’s existence from day to day. “The plans of the nations.” All is violence and ambition and war. Nations plan how to conquer other nations, and humans plan how to murder other humans. Every new weapon produced in the armament race is present witness and potential instrument of the black thoughts that humans entertain today all over the world, of “the plans of the nations” to destroy each other. Mistrust, mutual threats, spying, blackmailing. The universal nightmare of the international power struggle that threatens the very existence and continuation of humankind.
Before that brutal evidence of world-wide violence, good men and women feel the frustration of their helplessness, the uselessness of their efforts, the defeat of good sense and the flight of sanity from the international scene. “The plans of the nations” spell misery and destruction for those very nations, and nothing and nobody seem to be able to stop that insane race to self-annihilation. More even than worry for the future, what harasses the mind of thinking people today is the sorrow and surprise at the foolishness of humans and the inability to make them see reason for their own good. When will that madness stop?
“The Lord brings the plans of the nations to nothing.”That is the assurance and that is the hope. You will not allow, Lord, humankind to destroy itself. When I think of it, those words, those “plans of nations” referred originally to a situation of many centuries ago, when the nations around the People of God plotted against it and against one another for mutual destruction. And those plans were brought to nothing. Humankind is still alive. History continues. In that history the plans of destruction still continue, but then the watch of the Lord also continues and holds back the hand of destruction from the face of the earth. The future of humankind is safe in his hands.
Against “the plans of the nations” stand now “the Lord’s own plans”, and that is the greatest consolation of the believing person in their thoughts and care for their own race. We don’t know those plans, and we don’t ask to be told about them, since we trust the Planner, and it is enough for us to know that the plans exist. Being the Lord’s plans they will be beneficent for the human race and they will be unfailing in their execution. Those plans will safeguard each nation and defend each individual in ways he or she does not know now, but will learn one day in the joy and the glory of the Lord’s salvation. The Lord’s victory will in the end be man’s victory and the victory of every nation that puts its trust in him. His plans are the beginning on earth of a blissful eternity.
“The Lord’s own plans shall stand for ever,
And his counsel endure for all generations.”Humankind’s history is in the hands of the Lord.
The angel of waiting
“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home with you to be your wife. It is through the Holy Spirit that she has conceived.”
(Matthew 1:20)I guess the angel that is now appearing to Joseph is no other than Gabriel. He has set in motion the process of the Incarnation with Zechariah and Mary, and he brings it now to a close with Joseph. He is thorough in his work and does not do things by half. I also guess that Gabriel was worried because he knew the difficult moment Mary was passing through, and felt a little responsible for her perplexity. To Mary and Elisabeth he had properly explained the virgin birth, which with them was a matter of unmixed joy and wonder as their faith was backed by the miracle, first announced and then fulfilled, of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. But Joseph knew nothing about it, while it all concerned him very closely. He was mystified before the tense situation, anguished by social pressure and inner doubt. What should he do?
The angel has waited, because that was God’s order, and he knows well that God sometimes tests those he loves to heighten their virtue and to increase their faith. But as soon as he is allowed, the angel flies to Joseph, explains the situation to him with his usual clarity and brevity, and can now go back to his kingdom with the satisfaction of a well accomplished mission. Joseph takes Mary home, and a child is born with the name the angel had given him: Jesus.
The angel of waiting. The angel of Advent. The angel of the test. The angel that will bring the good news, though he delays his coming, while I am burning with doubts and fears and conjectures. The angel of patience. I do need patience when I conceive projects and expect results, when I endure delays and long for things to move faster in institutions I love that need reformation while they measure the time by centuries, they lengthen periods, delay explanations, and put me to the test, knowing as I do that the angel will come, but having no inkling as to when he will come. Even for my waiting I need an angel. I need to know that he is longing to come as much as I am longing for him to arrive. In the bottom of my heart I know it, because I trust all angels. Let him come soon with his reassuring dream and speak to me of the Spirit that is bringing new life. How happy must Joseph have felt when waking up that morning!
I don’t tie myself down to a bloke
Language matters. Even if it is only in a street advertisement. There it was in big letters on the poster with the image of a young girl in the foreground and the inevitable wording in the background. The point was to draw the passer-by’s attention, and my attention was certainly drawn, not to buy the gadget in question but to realise the verbal indignity. The girl was saying on the billboard: “I don’t tie myself down to a bloke.” It was a rather brazen way of saying, “I don’t intending marrying anyone.” Each one has a right to do what they want with their life. But there are ways of doing it…, and of saying it. To call marriage “tying oneself down to a bloke” is an attack on culture, on society, on the family. It is despising the sacred, degrading life. It is insulting one’s partner and all those that pledge love in marriage. The partner is not a “bloke”, and marrying is not “tying oneself down”. More respect, please.
I went on reading. I don’t tie myself down to a bloke…, much less to a mobile phone company.” That was the point. To encourage the wary passer-by to change their cell phone contract. For a better one, of course, cheaper, broader, wider. Change your mobile. Quicker, thinner, slicker. Change your server. Change your partner. It’s all the same. Throw-away. I don’t tie myself down to anything. Or to anybody. Advertising agencies do strain their imagination to entice clients. Maybe a bit too much. But then it’s also true that they take their language and their expressions from the lips of consumers in order to identify with them and rule their options for them. Young people do speak like that. And think like that. And act like that. The phrase comes from the street. From young lips. Feminine lips. “I don’t tie myself down to a bloke.” That is the danger.
Language betrays thought. That expression on top of a billboard denounces an attitude. Lack of commitment. I don’t commit myself to anything. Ever. And I boast of it. The publicity person who urges us to change from other company to theirs does not realise that he is preparing the way for us to change later from their company to another one. Don’t tie yourself down. Don’t commit yourself. Don’t bind yourself. Don’t promise. Don’t guarantee. Sign of the times.
I’m not canvassing for any make of mobile phone, not even for sticking to the same make. Freedom first. But then, seriousness next. And, please, do not lower the image nor the reality of marriage.
“Hatch number twelve”
The father of the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo was a foreman in a coal mine, and he later wrote with great realism about the sadness of the coal mines and the problem of child miners in our days. Here is, in part, one of his touching narratives.
“Pablo instinctively got hold of his father’s legs. His ears were buzzing, and the floor of the lift that fell under his feet caused him to panic. He felt he was falling into that black hole he had seen when entering the cage, and his big eyes were looking with terror at the walls of the well into which they were sinking with frightening speed.
After about a minute the speed suddenly slowed down, his feet rested firmly on the floor, and the heavy iron cage came to rest at the entrance of the gallery with the noisy creaking of chains and hinges.
The man took the child by the hand, and together they entered the black tunnel. They were the first to arrive, and the mine was practically deserted. The gallery was high enough to allow for a man to walk with a bent, and it was crossed by heavy wooden beams overhead. The side walls were invisible in the deep darkness that filled the spaces.
After a while they stood before a kind of cave excavated in the sheer rock. From the rough ceiling hung a tin lamp whose yellowish reflection made the space look like a crypt in mourning under dark shadows. At the end, a small man, advanced in years, was sitting before a table and was writing something on a huge register. His black suit framed his pale face full of wrinkles. On hearing steps he lifted his head and fixed his stare on the old miner who approached him shyly and said in a submissive voice:
– Sir, I’ve brought the boy.
The foreman’s keen eyes took in the lad’s feeble body at a glance. His thin arms and legs, his childlike innocence was reflected in his two widely open eyes, at once charming and fearful, and that struck him favourably, so that his heart, hardened by the daily sight of human misery, felt a tender impulse at the sight of that small child pulled away from his toys and his games, and condemned, as so many unhappy children, to languish and waste away in the dark galleries of the coal mine. The hard lines on his face softened, and he addressed with feigned annoyance the standing miner who was uneasily waiting for the end of that pause:
– Man! This lad is still too weak for this work. Is he your son?
– Yes, sir.
– Then you should show pity on his tender age, and before burying him here for life you should send him to school for at least some time.
– Sir – stumbled the miner with a painful accent of sorrow and of request in his voice – we are six people at home and only one to work. Pablo is already eight and he has to earn his bread as a miner’s son. His trade will be the trade of his father and his grandfather who never saw any school other than the mine.
His deep, shaking voice suddenly stopped with a heavy cough, but his moist eyes pleaded with such earnestness that the foreman, yielding to his mute entreaty, took a whistle to his lips and sent a shrill sound that echoed all along the empty gallery. The sound of hasty steps came through the opening, and a dark silhouette stood framed at the entrance.
– Juan – said the little man addressing the newcomer – take this boy to hatch number twelve. He’ll take the place of Jose’s son, the wheelbarrow boy, who died yesterday when the ceiling gave way.
Then turning harshly towards the miner, who was beginning to stumble out his thanks, he told him in a severe voice:
– I’ve seen that this last week you haven’t completed the five boxes which is the daily minimum for every worker. Don’t forget that if this happens again, it will be necessary to lay you off so that someone stronger than you can take your place.
And he dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
The three people walked out in silence, and their footsteps died gradually away in the long gallery.”
[I find the second part of the story too hard to transcribe it in detail. The father has to tie his son, who is struggling to get free and run away, to a heavy nail on the wall “from which bits of string hung, showing that it was not the first time the nail had been put to that use”. Let images such as these shake us and motivate us to seek an end to the suffering of children all over the world.]
(Cuentos breves 2, Maximiliano Tomás, Norma, Buenos Aires 2006, p. 65)
“Man goes into the noisy crowd
his own clamour for silence.”
“If you shut your doors to all errors,
truth will be shut out.”
“Who is there to take up my duties?”
asked the setting sun.
“I shall do what I can, my Master,”
said the earthen lamp.
“By plucking her petals
you do not gather
the beauty of the flower.”
“The learned say that
your lights will one day be no more,
said the firefly to the star.”
I’ve been asked by a good Catholic whether he can have an image of Buddha on his table. I’ve answered him that I keep one. Should there be a need to ask such questions? Besides, the image I have in front of me is a very charming one. It is a sleeping Buddha. Sandal wood. Lying down as long as he is, his head leaning on his right hand, turned towards me, his eyes closed, his face serene, his lips curved in a smile, his feet parallel, his mantle folded over his horizontally relaxed body. About a palm long. He sleeps while I work. He inspires peace. I let him sleep. I do not pray to him, I do not recite his praises, I do not burn incense before him. I just let him sleep. I look at him from time to time. The image gives me peace. Do you think I can keep it?
Psalm 33 – Taste and seeI let the words sound in my ears:
“Taste and see that the Lord is good.”Taste and see. That is the most loving and the most serious invitation I have received in my life: to taste and see the Lord’s goodness. It goes beyond study and knowledge, beyond reasoning and discourse, beyond learned books and Holy Scriptures. It is personal and direct, concrete and intimate. It speaks of contact, presence, experience. Not just “read and reflect” or “listen and understand” or “meditate and contemplate”, but “taste and see”. Open your eyes and stretch out your hand, awaken your senses and sharpen your feelings, bring out the most intimate power of your soul in spontaneous reaction and personal depth, the power to sense, to feel, to “taste” what is good and beautiful and true. And let it play joyfully and lovingly on the ultimate goodness and beauty and truth, the goodness, beauty and truth of the Lord himself.
To “taste” is a mystical word. And now it is mine by right. I am a mystic by vocation. I am called to taste and see. No shyness will keep me back, no false humility will make me withdraw. I am grateful and courageous, and want to respond to the divine invitation with all my being and with all my joy. I will open myself to the intimate delights of the presence of God in my soul. I will treasure the secret exchange of trust and love beyond words and beyond description. I will enjoy without measure the final communion of my soul with its Creator. He knows how to make his presence felt and how to take in his close embrace the souls he has created. It is for me to accept and to surrender in grateful wonder and silent bliss, to welcome the touch of God upon my soul.
I know that in order to awaken my spiritual senses, I have to still my intellect. Too much reasoning blinds intuition, and human cleverness hinders divine wisdom. Let me learn to be quiet, to be humble, to be simple. Let me transcend for a while all that I have studied and all that I have learned, let me stand before God in the nakedness of my being and the humility of my ignorance. Only then will he fill my emptiness with his fullness, and redeem my nothingness with the totality of his being. To taste the sweetness of the divinity I must purify my senses from the encumbrance of past experience and inborn prejudice. The virgin slate before the new light. The soul before the Lord.
The object of the sense of taste is the fruits of the earth… or the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22). Divine harvest in human hearts. And that harvest we are called to reap and taste and enjoy and assimilate. So that joy may burst into our lives as the crops of the season ripen on the fields of men. And the praise of the Lord may resound till the ends of the earth.
I will bless the Lord continually;
his praise shall be always on my lips.
O glorify the Lord with me,
And let us exalt his name together.”
The angel of danger
“After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and escape with them to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him’.”
(Matthew 2:13)There are people who have an instinct that warns them of danger. There are people who know how to read treachery in the eyes of an opponent, danger in a gesture, threat in the air. There are people who at once sense insecurity in a voice, a look, a presence. Such an instinct stands them in good stead to survive in life where work is competition, success brings jealousy, and personal freedom breads suspicion.
Joseph, good and honest carpenter that he was, lacked that political instinct and trusted people, clients, government with the candid innocence of his innate goodness. That’s why he needed an angel to warn him of dangers to the Child. Herod was looking for him to kill him. Flight to Egypt at the dead of night.
I lack that protective instinct too. I’m ignorant of danger and innocent of contradiction. I harbour no suspicion and believe no malice. I trust everyone and let myself be convinced by everyone. I do not hear any rumours from Herod’s court, and I sleep peacefully on the eve of blood. More than once have I suffered because I had not foreseen envy, had not guessed a refusal, had not sensed hidden opposition. I lack a personal intelligence service. I live an open life.
That’s why I’m now asking the Angel of the Night for protection to warn me in my sleep and to point out dangers. Not that I’m going to doubt everything or mistrust everybody, but precisely that I want to know how to detect those minute dangers by myself so that I can enjoy the rest of the time with carefree joy. I want to be warned when I should not trust somebody so that I can entrust myself to all others without doubt. I want my sleep to be disturbed from time to time so that I can sleep undisturbed the rest of the nights. Wary as serpents and innocent as doves. That was Jesus’s advice. And angels do know about serpents in Paradise and doves after the deluge. Let them also warn me in my sleep.
As soon as the danger is over, the angel notifies Joseph again. And here we see the good man’s character. Joseph has learned by experience. On his way back from Egypt he was thinking to settle down in Judea, but he learns that Herod’s son Archelaus is king after his father, and fears for the Child. He is more cautious now. The angel comes again in his sleep and tells him to go to Galilee. Thus it came to pass that the Holy Family settled in Nazareth. I hope to go on learning like Joseph.
Once upon a time…
[From Isabel Allende’s book El oficio de contar, El Corte Inglés, 2007)“At the end of the seventies I was working in Venezuela in a school for problem children. One day the music teacher did not come and I was asked to watch the children for the period. I found myself locked in a classroom with twenty savages out of control who were jumping about and hitting each other with their flutes and violins. I was about to run away in a terror when the door opened and in came a fat, soap-smelling, pleasant-looking woman with a bucket and a broom. I suppose she was coming to wash, but on seeing the situation she decided to intervene, and, without raising her voice, in a quiet and kind way, she began to say: ‘Once upon a time…’. Suddenly the whole turmoil subsided and the air seemed to stand still. She repeated those four words: ‘Once upon a time…’, and she conquered them! The monsters sat down in absolute silence when she began to tell them a story. That woman had the gift of narrative. I don’t remember the story, but I do remember I was hanging on her words, caught up by the suspense, the rhythm, the characters, the plot. She charmed the twenty hyperactive children as well as myself. This is what I try to do with each of my books: to catch the reader by the neck and not to let them go till the last line.
‘One upon a time…’. These are magical words. Stories have accompanied humankind since the beginning of time. Some of them, repeated time and again, describe our journey through life and death and become myths; The Garden of Eden, The Mother Goddess, The Deluge all over the planet, the heroes in search of the Father, the fight between Good and Evil, de brave deeds, the impossible loves, the necessary sacrifices, the battles against dragons in our own souls. The great themes repeat themselves any number of times, we can only weave new versions, but a skilled narrator can recreate history with the charm of the first narrative.” (p. 12)
“When I was a child they punished me for telling lies; now that I live on those lies they call me a writer.” (20)
“I write much, I write always, because I feel that my life will not stretch out enough to cover all that I want to tell.” (23)
“I grew up in a house where the walls were covered with shelves full of books. The books multiplied themselves in a mysterious way creating a wonderful jungle of printed paper. At night I seemed to hear from my bed the characters of the stories that were escaping from the pages and wandered about the dark rooms. Knights, maidens, witches, pirates, bandits, saints, and courtesans filled the air with their adventures. One morning, during one of our famous earthquakes, the shelves came down with a terrible crash. In my terror I understood that the characters could not find their way back to their pages and would be compelled to find shelter in the first volume within reach. Can you imagine the confusion, the chaos, de undoing of time and space in their stories? The image of those characters, forever exiled from their own books, has haunted me since then. Sometimes I imagine those lost souls come to me to ask me to write a story where they can feel at home again.” (4)
“What is a book before someone opens it and reads it? Just a bundle of sheets sewed together at the side. It is the readers that instil into them the breath of life.” (5)
“I do not choose a theme. The theme chooses me.” (8)
“As my granddaughter says, I remember things that never happened.” (10)
From one side to the other
[Quotations from Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar… by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Planeta, Barcelona 2008.]“It was autumn and the Indians in the reservation asked their new chief whether the winter was going to be hard. He was a young man trained in modern methods but ignorant of the old secrets, and he had no way to know whether the coming winter was going to be particularly cold or not. To be on the safe side he advised his tribe to gather abundant firewood to face a cold winter.
A few days later, as an afterthought, it occurred to him to call the US national meteorological service and ask them what kind of winter, cold or mild, were they predicting for this year. The meteorologist answered him they believed the coming winter was going to be very cold. The chief then advised the members of his tribe to gather even more firewood.
A couple of weeks later the chief called again the meteorological service.
– Do you still think the winter is going to be hard? – asked the chief.
– Of course – answered the meteorologist – a very hard winter indeed.
The chief, accordingly, urged the members of the tribe to collect any piece of wood, however small, as they were facing a severe winter. After a couple of weeks he called the meteorological department and asked how they were now foreseeing the coming winter. The technician answered him:
– Our forecast is that this is going to be one of the coldest winters of all times.
– Really? – wondered the chief. – And how are you so sure?
– Because the Indians are collecting firewood like mad! – answered the meteorologist.” (p. 51)
“The sacristan of the Königsberg cathedral is known to have set the clock daily observing the moment Kant walked in front of the tower. But nobody knew that Kant was setting his own watch according to the clock in the tower as he passed in front of it.” (84)
“John Lennon: ‘In the beginning was Elvis…’.” (10)
“When the XX century novelist Isaak Bashevis Singer was asked whether he believed in free will, he answered somewhat ironically, “Yes, of course, I have no other choice’.” (29)
“Disciple: There are so many conflicting philosophies… How can I know which is the true one?
Master: Who has told you there is a true one” (35)
“Nietsche: ‘God is dead.’ Graffiti at the death of Nietsche: ‘Nietsche is dead’.” (99)
“An old Christian woman comes out of her door every morning and shouts in the street: ‘Praise the Lord!’ And every time her neighbour next door, who is an atheist, comes out by the side and shouts: ‘God does not exist!’
The scene is enacted day after day, week after week, with ‘Praise the Lord!’ on one side and ‘God does not exist’ on the other. A time comes when the lady falls into financial difficulties and she has hardly enough left to eat. She comes out and, after praising God, she asks him aloud to help her with her daily purchase of food in the market. Next day, as she comes out of her door, she finds a bag full with the food she had asked of God. Delighted, she shouts, ‘Praise the Lord!’, and at that moment the atheist comes out at his door and shouts, ‘Nonsense! It is me that has bought and brought you this food. God does not exist.’ The old woman looks at him and smiles. She shouts out, ‘Praise the Lord! He not only has brought me my food, but he has made Satan pay for it and bring it to my door!’” (111)
“An Irishman comes into a pub and straightaway asks for three tankards of Guinness. He places the three tankards in front of him and goes on drinking a draught at a time from each of the three in turn. He explains to the barman that they are three brothers, one in America, one in Australia, and himself, and the three had promised to drink always in this way, each one in his country, to keep their common bond. The barman was impressed by the exemplary love of the three brothers.
One day the Irishman turns up at the pub and asks for two beers only. The barman understands, and thoughtfully offers him his condolences and asks him which of his two brothers has died, the one in America or the one in Australia. He explains: ‘No, no. They are both fine, thank God. The thing is, I have become a Mormon, and I don’t drink any more’.” (37)
[This is what Carolina has written from Argentina as a reaction to what I wrote in my past Web (April 15) under the title “I don’t tie myself down to a bloke”. It has touched me, and here it is.]
“I don’t tie myself down to a bloke”: I felt moved when reading your piece. I’m 27, I live with a man though we haven’t married. It seemed safer to try and see how we got on together, to read between the lines, not to commit ourselves hundred per cent. It looks sad but it is true, and, even more, almost all young people my age take up the same attitude. Maybe that’s the reason why (I’m just thinking aloud) adolescence now lengthens, we don’t want responsibility nor anything that may tie us down, we simply adapt ourselves to the times in which we happen to live. It has to be noted that many of us, at least in my case, come from families where the parents have separated, we lived through their fights, we were their “luggage”, we understood them but we suffered at the same time with them. So we grow up thinking it is better not to commit ourselves too much. At times you have to get a degree in a hurry, since suddenly you are rated too old for some jobs and without experience for others. The little money you can get you use to hire a flat in which to go in for the “love test”. Hence the common attitude, Why should I marry if I’m fine as I am? Or rather, we don’t quite seem to fit in together, so it’s better to leave it at that and if it comes to that, I quit. I think that is our sad reality. It would be good to learn that what is most comfortable is not necessarily what is best, and even if we take our partner lightly, to give him at least the respect he deserves. Greetings to all!
I’ve been touched by your letter, Carolina. It is so clear and so sincere! And thank you for giving me permission to put it on my Web. I seldom do that, but your writing is exceptional and I’m going to put it. As you well say there is no question of condemning any attitude but of understanding all and of feeling and expressing respect for all. What hurt me when writing my article last time was the language of that advertisement on a billboard in the street (“I don’t tie myself down to a bloke”), and that prompted me to write what you read in my last Web (15 April). You show a deep respect for your partner and your life, and I admire you and stand by you. I’m impressed at seeing how fast your young years pass so that, in spite of having your whole life in front of you, you soon feel rejected from some jobs. That must be awful. I’m 82 and I’m fond of saying that life begins at 80. For you to cheer up. That is to say, life begins wherever you are, at 20, at 40, at 80. Each stage has to be lived out in full. One can have a very good time at my age. It helps to have a good hobby, as writing in my case, and close friends that cheer up my life. As you have cheered me up with your charm and your trust. Thank you, Carolina, in my name and in the name of all those that may read what you wrote. You are not alone. Kisses, Carlos.
Psalm 34 – “I am your salvation”
“Let me hear you declare: I am your salvation.”I know that you are my salvation, Lord; but now I want to hear it from your own lips. I want the sound of your voice, the firmness of your gesture. Let me hear you directly and personally, addressing me in my own heart. Let me receive from you the message of hope and redemption for my life: “I am your salvation.”
And once I have received from you the message of salvation, I trust I will see it carried out in the trying vicissitudes of my daily life. You are always with me, and you are my salvation, so that now I can expect this salvation to work its wonders for me day to day as I need your help, your guidance and your strength. If you are truly my salvation, make me feel it so effectively in the daily difficulties that beset me.
In particular, Lord, save me from the people who wish me ill. There are such people round me, and the burden of their jealousy bears down heavily upon my powers of endurance. There are people who rejoice when I encounter misfortune, and laugh when I fall.
“When I stumbled they crowded round rejoicing,
they crowded about me;
nameless ruffians jeered at me
and nothing would stop them.
When I slipped, brutes who would mock even a hunchback
ground their teeth at me.
O Lord, how long will you look on
at those who hate me for no reason?
Let no treacherous enemy gloat over me
nor leer at me in triumph.”I do not mean to complain about anybody, Lord; they know their intentions and they handle their consciences; but I do feel at times the friction, the tension, the enmity that harden faces and strain relationships. I want to look on everybody as a friend, and on every co-worker as a partner. But I find that difficult in a world of competition and backbiting and jealousy.
What I want is for me to accept personally everybody, so that by my accepting others, they may come in turn to soften their stand and to accept me. Remove all bitterness from my heart and make me kind and gently, to invite kindness and gentleness from others and to clear the air wherever I live and wherever I work.
Be my salvation by redeeming me and all those I live with and deal with from the blight of jealousy. Let us all rejoice at the good that each one does, let each one take as done by himself whatever his brother has achieved.
“Then I shall rejoice in the Lord
and delight in his salvation.”
Angels in the desert
“At once the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness, and there he remained for forty days tempted by Satan. He was among the wild beasts; and angels attended to his needs.”
(Mark 1:12-13)The angels were doing what they most like to do: serving Jesus. He is in the desert, is fasting, is among wild beasts, is tempted by Satan. But he is also surrounded by angels who attend to his needs. The angels contemplate Jesus, worship his majesty, follow his steps, take down his words, and, above all, they watch his days and his nights and look after his safety. They respect his fasting, but they protect his solitude.
Satan, who, after all, is also an angel to start with, knows these jobs and uses precisely this information to tempt Jesus:
“The devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the parapet of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God’, he said, ‘throw yourself down from here; for scripture says, He will put his angels in charge of you, and again, They will support you in their arms for fear you should strike your foot against a stone.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It has been said, You are not to put the Lord your God to the test’.”
The angels will take you in their hands. You can throw yourself down from the parapet without fear. Yes, but not quite as you say. The angels’ protection is guaranteed, but is not to be abused. We are not to tempt God. We are not to tempt his angels. Here I am learning an important principle to deal with angels. Never to misuse their friendship. It is written: You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.
The angels are by my side to help me fast forty days if there is need for it, not to turn the stones of the desert into bread. To know that they are by my side gives me strength to fast and to pray, to reject temptation and to stick to determination, to honour my responsibilities and to remain open in generosity. To know that they are watching me helps me behave; and to know they will defend me helps me enter the fight. Angels are watching me.
Life is a desert, and we know it. Desert of sand and aridity, of hunger and thirst, of immensity and solitude. Dunes of doubt and storms of temptation. Alone before life in all its dry extension all around us. Mirages of illusion. How can we face the test of the desert, how to find our way in the extended monotony of the sand, how to maintain hope in the repeated lengthening of its days and its nights?
We have the angels around us. We know they are here, they are near, they watch us, they are ready to come to our help, they silently help us in our endurance test. God has sent his angels. With them, the desert becomes a space of grace as it became for Jesus.
Thank you, dear angels, for having attended to Jesus in the desert.
[On the 2nd of May last I married a nephew of mine, and this is more or less what I said at the wedding Mass:]
Monica and Enrique: I’ll tell you what happened to me the other day when I had planned to think out what I was going to tell you on your wedding. I opened my e-mail, which is my first work every morning to attend to my Web mail, and one of the messages, from an unknown person as most of them are, said the following: “I’m writing to you from Montevideo in Uruguay. I’ve just attended a wedding, and at the Mass, instead of the usual readings from Holy Scripture, they have read a chapter from a book by Carlos G. Vallés on the meaning of YES. I’ve liked it very much, and as I’m going to get married soon I would like to have it. Could you help me get that book?”
I thought that if my book could serve as liturgical reading at a wedding, it could also be of use as a sermon. Here are some passages from it.
“It all began with a ‘Yes’. Mary’s ‘Yes’ in her Nazareth home to the waiting angel. There never was a higher enterprise or a bolder programme than the one proposed by a heavenly messenger to an earthly maiden in brief and simple words. First, a necessary question and a clear explanation. And then the ‘Yes’. No conditions, no negotiations, no reservations. Mary said ‘Yes’. Come what may. Total openness and final commitment. Be it pain of joy, meeting or parting, death or resurrection. Each event will come at its time and in its way because the door is open, the heart is ready, and heaven is waiting. This is the answer God likes, and this is the disposition he seeks in us to launch his plans of redemption. God does not like conditions, doubts, delays. He expects from us a clear and pointed and definitive ‘Yes’. Then he moves into action with all the might of his own power and all the wisdom of eternity. And redemption begins.
St Paul calls Jesus ‘Yes’. He does so as he begins his second letter to the Corinthians and defends himself from the accusation some had thrown at him that he had first promised to go to Corinth and then had changed his mind, as though he were irresponsibly toying with ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. The mere thought of such fickleness horrifies Paul. He wanted to be and to appear clear and clean and committed to his faith and his apostolate without a shade of doubt or hesitation of half truths or political dealings; and, annoyed as he was at the unfair accusation, he soars to theological heights and asserts that Jesus is the eternal ‘Yes’ to the promises and the plans of God. The best definition of Jesus. Jesus is all Yes.
The vows of religious men and women are also a ‘Yes’ at three voices. Poverty, chastity, obedience. A clear and resounding ‘Yes’ to the call that was strongly felt, wisely discerned, and enthusiastically accepted in gratefulness and joy. A lifelong ‘Yes’ to the ideals that seal the commitment, and to the service that enhances the offering.
And marriage is also a mutual and valiant ‘Yes’ before the tender responsibility of love and support, of life and family, of the good of the person and the welfare of society. Whatever is great in human life, whatever is noble and valuable and lasting, is the open and trustful ‘Yes’ to all that is to come. Every ‘Yes’ is an act of faith.
Our whole life is a long learning to say ‘Yes’. If we say ‘Yes’ to life with fullness and confidence, we can go on to say ‘Yes’ to all its moments, big and small, in common conversation and in daily events, and then our word acquires strength and our life has meaning. Without this fundamental ‘Yes’ of radical commitment, our life would be empty of meaning and devoid of strength. Life is affirmation.
I love the way you pronounce the word, my friend. I am fascinated to hear you say ‘Yes!’ I told you so. It is music on your lips, it is a burst of life, it is a generous and joyful expression of all that you are and you want us all to be with that courageous openness and that spontaneous originality that are your own life and your gift to us all. It is a swift syllable, a sharp note, a shooting spark. It is an act of faith. Have you realised it? Have you noticed that when you say ‘Yes’ you are asserting life, you are trusting God, you are invoking Providence to come and uphold your confidence and make true your word? When you say ‘Yes!’ with all the energy and vibration you put into it, you are making everybody around you believe in life, fall in love with the world and ensure eternity. Every ‘Yes!’ from your lips is a sermon, a testimony, a message of grace and joy for us who hear you. My ears are resounding now with the fullness of that ‘Yes!’ so clear, so valiant, so much your own. It helps me love life.
Our ‘Yes’ opens us to life, to grace, to the Spirit. When Mary said ‘Yes’ to the angel, the Spirit came upon her. When you say now your ‘Yes’ to each other, you are also opening yourselves to a new life, and we all look forward to seeing you flourish in a new family with all the blessings of all of us who love you.”
[I’ll add here something I did not say in my sermon.] After the Montevideo email about the ‘Yes’ chapter for a wedding, I received another email, this time from Mexico, in which another unknown correspondent tells me a good friend of hers had died, and at the funeral they had read out… a chapter from a book of mine. Well, no, it is not the same as here, but another one on “The Nimble Grasshopper” in my book “And the Butterfly Said…”, which, apparently, was the favourite one of the deceased as it described his own way of life. Well, if my books can be used at weddings as well as at funerals, I cannot wish for more.
A raven speaks
[Shortened stories from “Zen Master Raven” by Robert Aiken, Siruela, Madrid 2004]
34. Disciple: How to begin the quest of the spirit?
Master: By asking.
Disciple: And what should I ask?
Master: You’ve already asked.
85. Porcupine: I’ve realised my quills do not prick.
Rabbit: Then of what use are they to you?
Porcupine: They make people believe they prick.
Rabbit to Porcupine: I’m afraid your quills will prick me. What can I do?
Porcupine: Become a porcupine.
102. I asked my Master what was the meaning of the Scripture that says “the whole is in the void, and the void is in the whole”, and he told me he didn’t know. How can he have said that when he is a Master that knows the whole of Scripture to perfection?
– He must have said so because he also knows to perfection the art of teaching the Scriptures.
– What do you mean?
– I mean to say that the best teaching is telling you that you have to find the meaning of Scripture by yourself.
107. Disciple: Is it true that when we die we have to leave everything?
Master: Yes. Everything.
Disciple: Even the sun and the moon?
Master: Have you ever possessed the sun and the moon?
In my Web of April 1st I said here, in answer to a question, that I have an image of the sleeping Buddha on my table. I knew then that the next question was unavoidable, and it has come (Emiliano): Do I have a cross on my office table? I love indiscreet questions.
Yes. A rather special and well loved cross. My travels have their uses. I brought it with me from El Salvador. There I saw many like this and they charmed me. It is a flowery cross. A cross, of course, and the cross is Christianity. Two logs at an angle which speak by themselves and proclaim Christ and redemption for all to know and to see. But this cross has something special I had never seen anywhere else before. It is all full of colours, sharp, live, joyful colours of flowers and birds and houses and trees. It gladdens the sight and livens up the whole room. That is the cross I brought with me from El Salvador. The resurrection cross. The one I keep on my table. I’m seeing it now. I want my devotional images to cheer me up.
If there is a sleeping Buddha, a laughing Buddha (Ho Tien), a dancing Shiva (Nataraj), a Krishna playing the flute (in Vrindavan), a Rama flying with Sita on a flower airplane (Pushpaviman), a Apollo playing the lyre to his Greek devotees, and an Obatala from the Yoruba pantheon getting drunk while creating us…, wouldn’t it be time to think how to liven up a bit our own religious images?
Psalm 35 – The fountain of life
“You are the fountain of life;
and in your light we see the light.”I want to be alive, to feel alive, to sense the energies of creation surge through all the cells of my body and all the tissues of my soul. Life is the essence of all blessings from God to man, the touch of God’s right hand that makes a lump of clay into a living being, and converts a dormant shape into the king of creation. Life is the glory of God made movement and growth, the divine Word translated into laughter and speech, the eternal love throbbing in the heart of women and men. Life is all that is good and vibrant and joyful. Life is the blessing of blessings.
I want that life for me. For my thoughts and for my feelings, for my encounters and my conversations, for my friendship and for my love. I want the spark of life to kindle all that I do and think and am. I want my step to be quickened, my thought to be sharpened, my smile to be lit by the breaking through of the life from within me. I want to be alive.
And you are the fountain of life. The closer I am to you, the fuller I am with life. The only life is the one that comes from you, and the only way to share it is to be close to you. Let me drink from that fountain, let me sink my hands in it to feel its freshness and its purity and its strength. Let the living waters of that fountain flow through me to vivify me with the play of its waves upon my heart.
You are also the light. In a world of darkness, of doubt and uncertainty, you are the pointed ray, the welcome dawn, the revealing noon. Again, to see I have only to be close to you.
“In your light we see light.”
I want your light, your vision, your point of view. I want to see things the way you see them, I want your perspective, your horizon, your angle on persons and events and the history of man and the vicissitudes of my life. I want to see things in your light.
Your light is the gift of faith. Your life is the gift of grace. Give me your grace and your faith that I may see and live the fullness of your creation with the fullness of my being.
“Your unfailing love, O Lord, reaches to heaven,
your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the lofty mountains,
Your judgements are like the great abyss.
O Lord, who saves man and beast,
how precious is your unfailing love!
The sons of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings;
they are filled with the rich plenty of your house,
and you give them water from the flowing stream of your delights.”
Lord, give me to drink.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones; I tell you, they have their angels in heaven, who look continually on the face of my heavenly Father.”
(Matthew 18:10)Jesus speaks of angels. They are at his service, as they served him when he fasted forty days in the desert, and now he tells us that they are also at our service all our life. We have our own angels. Each one has their own. They are always by our side, and always looking on the face of our Father in heaven. Personal gift for life and into eternity. Company for ever.
All that all angels in the Bible stand for is now focussed and united on this angel by my side who shares my life with me. Strength and inspiration, defence and advice, hints and warnings, prayer and worship. Each angelic episode in the Bible is a facet of my own angel, since what one can do others can too, and all the stories of the past converge and unite in this close and dear person who represents for me all that each angel was and did for their wards in the people of God. My angel is my ambassador and my companion, cherub and seraph, wielder of a sword and focus of light, and he sums up in himself all that I know about angels and archangels and the whole heavenly court. He is my angel. Jesus told me so.
Maybe the fact that Jesus spoke of angels when speaking of children has prompted us to give children’s traits to our angels. Children are the best we have on earth, and we do well to imagine our angels with their innocence and their charm. But our angels are much more than that. They are children in their beauty and thee are warriors in their courage; they are attractive in their smile, and they are redoubtable in their power. That is why they accompany us as we grow up, and from our first mischief as children they protect us later under the threats of greater dangers in life. I try to imagine them in all possible ways to cover all their richness and their power far beyond what I can imagine or expect. My own angel is for me the representative of all angels in my life.
Thank you, my Guardian Angel, for all you have done for me even if I don’t know it, and all that I know you will keep doing for me, even if I don’t ask you for it. And, please, do greet in my name all the guardian angels of the persons I love, and thank them for me. You are all so charming!
Having lunch with a bishop
Lunch with a bishop is always an interesting experience. Today I’ve sat at table with an emeritus Caribbean bishop on his way through Madrid. I’ve realised he was a bishop by the golden mitre-shaped ring on his finger. He’s told us quite a few interesting things from his Cuban diocese.
A poor man who daily sold trinkets on a trolley for a living would every day attend the 5 o’clock Mass, but never took Communion. That went on for years. The bishop, who was then the parish priest, approached him gently and asked him about his life. He lived with his wife, had seven children, but had never married because his wife didn’t want. The parish priest understood and told him he could receive Holy Communion with a good conscience. The man answered him: “I know the rules. I know I’m not entitled, and I keep my place. But I know that God loves me and nourishes my soul in his own way.” That is faith.
One day the parish priest (now bishop) saw a barefoot man enter the church and offer and light a large candle before the altar. He approached the man, placed some money in his hand and told him: “Take these fifteen pesos. Jesus has accepted your candle and he is giving you back the money for you to buy shoes. You cannot go barefoot in this weather.” The man answered him: “I cannot take the money, father. What I have given Jesus is not a candle, it is a little golden tongue, the little flickering flame I’ve lit on it to tell him from me all that I don’t know how to tell him. Let it say it, father.” This is faith.
Once he had to leave his parish in an emergency in the morning, and he forgot he had to preside at a wedding that day. When he came back the next day, the assistant parish priest told him about the wedding and explained how, in the parish priest’s absence, they had asked him to marry the couple and he had done so to everybody’s satisfaction. He said it expecting the parish priest would thank him for it. But the parish priest threw up his hands in horror and exclaimed: “How can you have done that? Don’t you know that you need the parish priest’s delegation for a wedding to be valid? You had no faculties, and therefore the wedding is null and void. We have to settle this at once. Now I do delegate on you the faculty to marry them, so seek out the newly ‘weds’ as soon as possible and marry them privately to avoid a scandal.” The other man left at once, found out that the newly weds had left for their honeymoon at Varadero, a holiday resort a hundred miles from La Habana, and there he went. He explained the situation to the rather surprised couple and married them for the second time in two days. He returned satisfied and duly reported to the parish priest again. But the parish priest threw up his hands again in despair and shouted: “But don’t you know that Varadero is in another parish and my faculties are not valid there, so that my delegation to you is also invalid? They are still unmarried.” This was a little too much, and the assistant parish priest declared: “Well, let God arrange it. I’ve married them twice, and that’s enough. I’m not going to be marrying them again and again. What will they say if I tell them I have to marry them again? Let them remain in ignorance, and that will have to do.” And there the matter stood. In Canon Law class we called that situation one of “supplet Ecclesia”, that is, “let the Church make up for it”. There are many things the Church has to make up for. That was canon number 144. It was our favourite canon in our Canon Law exams. Many marriages surely hang on it.
I then told something that had happened in Spain years ago. The Roman nuncio in Madrid in those days had volunteered to marry couples from the Spanish nobility in his own chapel at the Nunciature. In that way he did marry a good many of them. But the nuncio did not know he had no faculties. He was the Vatican’s representative in Madrid, to be sure, but faculties for a wedding can only be given by the bishop of the diocese or the parish priest of bride or bridegroom. Hence, all the marriages presided over by the nuncio were null and void, though nobody knew it, least of all the nuncio himself. After some time one of the couples married by the nuncio decided to divorce. Their lawyer studied the case, suspected a “defect of form” as the nuncio by himself had no faculties, and won the case in the ecclesiastical court. There had been no wedding, and man and woman were free. All those couples were discretely traced down and privately remarried. Weddings at the Nunciature were discontinued.
Weddings went on being the topic for some time, and I told what had once happened to me. I clearly instructed bride and bridegroom at a wedding that I would gladly marry them but I needed a written delegation from their parish priest. We arrived at the church on the wedding day, but there was no parish priest and no delegation. The bride’s father got annoyed with me and said that since all the witnesses were present, that was enough. I replied that they were witnesses to what I did, and without delegation there was no wedding to be witness to, however loud they would profess their “I do”. Just as well, the envelope with the delegation appeared in a drawer at the last moment, and the wedding took place. The boy and the girl had carefully prepared and printed the whole ceremony with the rite, prayers, readings to be recited. They had chosen two Bible readings, one from the Old Testament and one from the Gospels. Fortunately I checked them in time. The Gospel was… a passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans! They were surprised when I told them that was no gospel. Wasn’t it in the Bible, right at the end of it, and did it not refer to Jesus? I had to explain to them that the Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and not St Paul, however beautiful his letters may be, and at the last moment we chose an authentic Gospel passage. Liturgical adventures.
Another anecdote I told, in connection with the bishop’s first story, was about someone in India who accused himself in confession of having eaten meat on Friday. It was already after the Council, and I delicately explained to the penitent that the pope had changed the rules of fast and abstinence, that the prohibition of meat on Fridays had been abolished, and that in consequence that was not a sin any more and there was no need to mention that in confession, at least in the future. The good man answered me with a tinge of annoyance: “The pope may say whatever he wants, but eating meat on Friday is a sin as it has always been and will always be, and I did wrongly, as on Friday I was eating with some non-Christians who were eating meat and I felt ashamed to refuse on religious grounds and ate with them, and now I am sorry and ask for God’s pardon and you must give me absolution and give me my penance so that I may receive Holy Communion.”
Clergy meals are by no means boring.
The following story was not told at table, but I’ve just read it in a book and it has made me laugh. I imagine it is made up, but the fact that such jokes are told makes us think a little. A boy is going to confession while his friends wait in the queue to see how he fares. After mentioning some harmless offences, the boy says with muddle words but sufficient clarity that he has had sex with a girl. The priest asks him:
– Was it with Bridget, the one in the pub at the corner?
– No, father, not with her.
– Then was it Margaret, the one of the vegetable market the other side of the street? Do you know who I mean?
– Yes, yes, I know, but no, father, it was not that one.
– I see. Was it then with Elizabeth, the gardener’s daughter?
– No, father, not Elizabeth.
– Well, well, never mind my son. It doesn’t matter. Now say ten Our Fathers and don’t do it again.
– No, father.
The boy receives absolution, crosses himself, gets up, goes back to his friends who are waiting impatiently in the queue and ask him:
– How was it? Has he scolded you heavy? Why have you been so long?
– It was fine. He didn’t scold me at all. You can all go to him if you wish. He has only set me ten Our Fathers for my penance… and he has given me three wonderful hints!
Alejandro: To your question in your last Web, father, “Should we not think of brightening up a little our own religious images?”, I answer in the affirmative. Yes. We have images that scare children – and adults. The image of Our Lady as Queen of Martyrs represents Mary with a sword through her heart. That is traumatic. And many images of the Passion of Jesus are shocking. True, all that happened, but it need not be represented before our eyes at all moments.
My comment to Alejandro’s comment: They say an extraterrestrial visitor landed once on earth, and representatives of different religions tried to bring him each to their own. As they did not understand his language, they showed him the symbols that represented their religions. A Muslim showed the crescent, as they forbid human images. The Hebrew brought the seven-branch candelabrum, the menorah. The Buddhist brought The Laughing Buddha. The Hindu brought Shri Krishna with his peacock feather, the garland of flowers round his neck, dancing and playing the flute. The Christian brought a crucifix with Christ on it, his five wounds open and the crown of thorns on his head, all full of blood. The question then was, not which religion would he choose, but which would he first discard? The Passion of Christ is our most sacred memory, but it certainly is not meant for us to have it bodily before our eyes at all times. I don’t even think Jesus likes us to think of him all the time as nailed to the cross, but walking by our side, telling us his parables, listening to our tales, and breaking bread with us. It is the risen Christ that is living in our midst today.
I find the image you mention of the Queen of Martyrs unacceptable, and not even true to history. Old Simeon in the gospel tells Mary that “a sword will pierce your soul” (Luke 2:35), not your heart; that is, it is a metaphor, and it never was a physical fact. The same has to be said of the seven swords that pierce Mary’s heart in some images, even if they are wrought in gold and silver as in the statue of Our Lady of Dolours in Salamanca. That is my opinion.
Psalm 36 – Wait for the Lord
“Trust in the Lord and do good;
settle in the land and find safe pasture.
Depend upon the Lord, and he will grant your heart’s desire.
Commit your life to the Lord; trust in him and he will act.
Wait quietly for the Lord,
be patient till he comes;
do not strive to outdo the successful
nor envy him who gains his ends.
For evildoers will be destroyed,
but they who hope in the Lord shall possess the land.”I need those words: “Wait patiently for the Lord”. I am all impatience and hurry and hustle and bustle, and I don’t any more know whether that is holy zeal or just ill temper with me. It is all for your Kingdom, to be sure, for the good of my soul and the service of my neighbour, but there is through it all a sense of inner pressure as though the welfare of mankind depended entirely on me and my efforts. I want to do, to achieve, to bless, to heal, to set right all the evils of the world, beginning, of course, with all the shortcomings of my humble person, and so I have to act, to pray, to plan, to organise, to conquer, to achieve. Too much activity in my little world; too many ideas in my head; too many projects in my hands. And in the middle of my mad rush I hear that single word from on high: Wait.
Wait patiently for the Lord.
All my duties, all my obligations, all my plans, all my work in that simple word. Wait. Keep quiet. Don’t run about. Don’t fuss, don’t fret, don’t drive yourself hard and everybody else harder still. Don’t behave as though the whole delicate balance of the cosmos depended every moment on you. Wait and be still. Nature knows how to wait, and its fruits come in due season. The earth waits for the yearly rain, the fields wait for the seeds and the crops, the tree waits for the spring, the tides wait for their appointed time in the heavens, and the burning stars wait ages and ages for the human eye to discover them and think of the hand that placed them in their orbits.
All creation knows how to wait for the fullness of time that gives it meaning and gathers the harvest of hope into handfuls of joy. Only humans are impatient and burn their time. Only I am still to learn the heavenly patience that brings peace to the mind and lets God free to act at his own time and in his own way. The secret of Christian action is not to do but to let God do. “Trust in him and he will act.”
If I only would let you do in my life and in my world what you want to do! If I only would learn not to interfere, not to be anxious, not to fear that all will be lost if I don’t keep things tightly in hand! If I only had faith and trusted you and would let things to you and let you come when you want and do what you please! If only I would learn how to wait! Waiting is believing, and waiting is loving. Waiting for the coming of Christ is anticipating his coming in the private eschatology of one’s own heart.
Blessed are those who wait, because the joy of meeting will crown the faithfulness of waiting.
Angels of the waters
“From time to time an angel came down into the pool and stirred up the water. The first to plunge in after this disturbance recovered from whatever disease had afflicted him.”
(John 5:4)Now I know why water heals. I know why I love swimming in open seas or in inland lakes. Why I have swum with zest on the shores of Mauritius and in the depths of Dal Lake in Shrinagar. Why I have felt the pleasure of plunging into huge waves at high tide in the Atlantic, and of floating motionless on the smooth endless ripples of the Pacific. Why water refreshes, relaxes, vivifies, renews us as no other element does. Why in my showers I enjoy my daily vertical baptism, and in the bathtub I lower myself into the humid pleasure of the horizontal hamam designed by pagan architects of Turkish Baths and Roman Thermae in times when the body was a god and water was a cult. Now I know the secret of water and the mystery of its healing.
The water heals because it is stirred by an angel. The angel of the waters. The angel that waits and watches by the side of the five-porticoed pool (are our bodily senses also not five?), observing the faith and the readiness of those that plunge into it to heal their bodies and their souls from the paralysis of lassitude and laziness and despondency and depression that chains them as they chain every mortal under the long infirmity of boredom and weariness.
The angel stirs the water and makes it come alive in its whirlpools. But we have to jump into it at once, with faith, with promptitude, with alacrity to catch the wave and to let us be carried and to come out healed. We have to be determined in order to revive. Doubts and hesitation and distractions and delays keep the angel away. For the daily water to cleanse my body and my soul, to purify my skin and lighten my mind, to refresh my members and strengthen my soul I must have faith in God and in his whole creation, must see God in all things and his angel in the waters, must live out his redemption in each moment of time and his sacrament in each drop of water. I must realise that nature is sacred and all creatures are God’s handicraft. I must perceive that there are angels in heaven and on earth, in the valley and on the mountains, on trees and birds, in the sky and the clouds, in the winds that greet my body and in the waters that kiss my skin. The presence of the angels in the elements of creation is the touch of God that heals and enlivens all that he has made. That is why water heals. And so do the winds and the air and the land and the sun. Nature returns us to life at the hands of the angels that wait for us in it. Let us not wait thirty-eight years as the paralytic of the gospel waited by the side of the pool till he was healed by Jesus.
Number 38 has its own mystery according to St Augustine. Shall I tell it? Agustin was a master of numerology and found reasons for every number in Holy Scripture. It’s not for nothing that the number is 38, and it could not be 39 or 37 (although I respectfully suspect that Agustin could have found a meaning to any figure to judge from what he did with this). But let me not run ahead of my tale.
What is thirty-eight? asks the sage. Forty minus two, is his own answer. Right, and what is forty? Forty is the number of perfection, of totality, of completion as in the forty years of Israel in the desert, forty days and forty nights for the prophet Elijah to reach Mount Horeb, forty days for the fall of Nineveh as foretold by the prophet Jonah, forty days of rain for the deluge on earth, forty days for Moses to spend on Mount Sinai waiting for God, forty days for Jesus in the desert fasting and praying, forty days between his resurrection and his ascension. Always forty. Always the fullness of things in the measure of history.
Fine. And, now, what about 2? That’s plain too. Two are the two commandments to which Jesus reduces the law and the prophets, that is, love God above all things, and your neighbour as yourself.
Now then, if from 40, which is perfection, we subtract 2, which is totality, nothing is left, as we remove the whole from the whole, and consequently the result of that subtraction – which is 38 – is a symbol of that which seems to be something when in fact it is nothing, seems to have strength when in fact is weak, is a paralytic who, in spite of waiting on his pallet by the pool, had not even strength to throw himself into it. In consequence, always according to Augustine in his chaste classical Latin, the paralytic at the pool had to be aged exactly 38, not one year more or one year less.
I’m eighty-three at this writing. I don’t know which future Augustine would draw for me. But I don’t want to lose the freshness of my senses, the energy of my body, the liveliness of my reactions, the electricity of my skin, the readiness of my members, the friendship of the environment. And for that I want to befriend more and more the angels that live in that environment and play in its waters. They renew my youth, they care for my body, they heal my weaknesses. They are always ready to renew my worn-out tissues when I have recourse to them in faith therapy. Angels who heal and strengthen, who cleanse and straighten, who adjust and enliven mind and body with their therapeutic knowledge and their tender love. Angels of the clouds and the winds, of the lands and the waters, of the rivers and the seas, friends of creation and custodians of men and women. Enter into my life to make it whole, to make it holy, to make it come alive.
Thank you, dear angel of the waters.
The homily I preached at the funeral mass of the mother of some friends
[This is the homily I preached at the funeral mass of the mother of some friends of mine on 30 May 2008.]
We’ve gathered here today with the daughters and the family of Carmen in their remembrance of their mother, as also in the memory and love for all our mothers, whether they are still with us or have already departed. They are the best life has given us, and they inspire our own life and help us in all our labours. My mother died on 31 May, that is tomorrow’s date, eleven years ago, and I unite her memory to your memory of your mother.
Margarita tells me how their mother looked after them in difficult days with total dedication, delicacy, efficiency in their home. She didn’t know any dress making, but for her daughters’ dresses she would make them lie down on the cloth, wind it round them and cut it accordingly to fashion a new dress. She ran the house as her full time job with love and care for all always.
St Paul, who knew well his Old Testament, reminds the Ephesians that the fourth commandment, honour your father and mother, has something special to it. It is the only one that has a promise attached to it. Other commandments are mere prohibitions, while the fourth commandment is positive and says: “Honour your father and mother, that you may be happy and your days may be lengthened on earth.” As you have so well looked after your mother, you have received that biblical blessing.
I lived fifty years in India and never wanted to come back to Spain. My mother, on turning 90 and remaining alone, asked me to come back, and I did so. When I would ask her, “Mother, how are you?”, she would always answer, “With you by my side I’m fine, my son.” Company in old age is the best possible service to the old. She lived to be 101. I’ve been left with the satisfaction to have fulfilled the fourth commandment with all my heart. You, all of Carmen’s family, are also entitled to that full satisfaction.
The apostle St James says something rather strong in his epistle: “He, who breaks a commandment, breaks all of them, as God who enjoined it, enjoined all the others as well.” I, with all respect and some Jesuitical logic, argue back: “And he, who keeps one commandment, keeps all, as God who enjoined one, enjoined all the others as well.” I tell you this that you may rejoice at the memory of all that you so well did for your mother, of which we all here are witnesses, and may feel proud and consoled by that thought. And now that same idea leads you to keep on dealing in the best possible way with all around you for the same blessing. That is life’s great lesson. And death’s great lesson too. Not to let anyone depart without having shown our love to them in full.
Today is the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was held in great esteem in our youth. Now the word has been devalued in the heart press and television. But its value remains. I remind you of its three thrusts: consecration, reparation, propagation. Consecration is what we now call commitment; reparation is the effort to make up for the violence and hatred all around us in the world; and propagation is the effort to bring love and joy to all.
May the memory of Carmen, your mother, keep this ideal alive in you and in all of us.
I see from your many and convergent messages that you keep on dwelling on the point of religious images; and I keep it still on my mind too. I’m going to tell you about a real situation I once found myself in, which I think was what set me thinking that our images should be joyful, while often they are not. Christian images are for the most part serious and sorrowful, and that does not inspire joy.
I had gone to give a Retreat to married couples in the Retreat House of the Jesuits in Mérida, Venezuela. The place was wonderful. In the middle of the Andes with all the wild beauty of the mountains and the clouds. Though the incident that gave rise to the Retreat House there had been a sorrowful tragedy. A plane full with students of St Ignatius High School in Caracas in their end-of-school excursion had crashed in that place and all died. The monument in their memory was the best possible one: the Retreat House with a lake by the side in the middle of which were preserved on an island the two propellers of the ill-fated plane, and a slab with the names of all the boys.
People kept arriving at the place along the afternoon, and I had settled in the director’s room, when a group of the men, just arrived, saw my door open, drifted in, and began to talk with me informally. I welcomed them, they sat down on chairs round my table, and we began to acquaint ourselves with one another, as that is the best way to begin a Retreat, and I knew it.
I plunged into the cheerful give-and-take, but soon I noticed an obvious problem. On my table, just by my side, was a religious image. It was a life-sized bust of the Ecce Homo, that is Christ in his Passion in Pilate’s court, with the crown of thorns, his face full of blood, the reed as sceptre in his hands, and the scarlet mantle the Roman soldiers have wrapped round his back in scorn. It was a very realistic image, full-size, and it occupied the whole left side on my table.
All very devout, to be sure. But I looked at the suffering Christ, looked at my friends all round, and I couldn’t miss the contrast. My friends were talking, laughing, telling jokes, fooling with each other; all had beer cans in their hands, and several were smoking. And just in front of them was Christ with his thorns and his blood. That did not fit. I tried to draw their attention away from the sight and joined their talk intently. I didn’t want to spoil for them that first contact that was greatly going to help the Retreat. I wasn’t going to tell them to put out their cigarettes, to throw away their beers, to kneel down, and to start saying the rosary before the Suffering Christ. There would be time enough for prayer the following days. So we talked and laughed and they drank and they smoked as much as they wanted. They finally left after that auspicious informal inauguration of the Retreat.
When they had left and the smoke of their cigarettes was dispersed, I closed the door of the room. I took in my hands the image of the Suffering Christ, I kissed him on the forehead, I lifted it carefully as it was heavy, and I lovingly placed it inside the large cupboard against the wall. I closed the cupboard, and there it remained hidden all the days of the Retreat while I received the retreatants in the room, listened to them, spoke with them, smiled to them, and encouraged them in their spiritual endeavour. The Suffering Christ surely blessed them from his hiding in the cupboard, but did not form part of the ornaments in the room so long as I stayed in it. I wanted joy, and joy is not possible before a head crowned with thorns.
Once the Retreat was over, I took out the Suffering Christ from his hiding, placed it back on the table, kissed him on his forehead, and left it there for the next Retreat director to deal with. This happened quite some years ago, and I suppose the bust is still there. The lesson I learned is also with me still.
Psalm 37 – Prayer of a Sick Man
Sickness has struck me, and I have lost my courage. So long as my body was feeling well, I took health for granted. I am a strong, healthy man, can eat anything and sleep anywhere, can put in any amount of hours of work, can rough it out, can brave the sun in summer, the snow in winter, and the sickly wetness of the long monsoon months. I may have a passing headache or a sneezing cold, but I spurn medicines and ignore doctors, and I know that my trustworthy body can pull me through any crisis and defy any microbes or bacteria in the interest of my work which cannot wait as it is work for people and for God. I am proud of my strength and count on it to keep on working without rest and living without care.
But now sickness has come and I am down. Down in my body between the burning sheets of a hospital bed, and down in my soul under the humiliation and the perplexity of my broken strength. My head is reeling, my temples are throbbing, my whole body is aching, my chest has to force itself to breathe. I have no appetite, no sleep, no desire to see anybody, and above all no desire to be seen by anybody in my hour of misery which looks as though it were to last for ever. If my body fails me, how can I go on living any more?
“My iniquities have poured over my head;
they are a load heavier than I can bear.
My wounds fester and stink because of my folly.
I am bowed down and utterly prostrate.
All day long I go about as if in mourning,
For my loins burn with fever,
And there is no wholesome flesh in me.”I now reflect, and in the long hours of my enforced idleness, my thoughts turn of necessity to my body, and I begin to see it in a new light and to recover a relationship with it I should have never lost. My body’s sickness is its language, its way of telling me that I was misusing it, ignoring it, despising it, while it is very much part of me. As a child cries when no attention is paid to it, so my body cries because I have neglected it. Those cries are its fever and its weakness and its pain. And now I listen to them and grasp their meaning and accept their wisdom.
We’ll go together through life, my dear body, hand in hand and heart to heart, with the rhythms of your flesh giving expression to the tides of thought and feeling that swell and ebb inside my mind. Smile when I rejoice, and tremble when I fear; relax when I rest, and tense every nerve when I concentrate. Warn me of coming dangers, signal your fatigue before it is too late, and radiate your approval when you feel fine and like my doings and enjoy life with me.
Thank you, Lord, for my body, my faithful companion and trusty guide in the paths of life. And thanks even for this sickness that brings me closer to it and teaches me to take care of it with love and providence. Thank you for reminding me of my whole self, of reuniting me again, of making me whole. And as a sign of your blessing, as a recognition that this sickness came from you to awaken me to the totality of my being, heal now my body which you have created and restore to me the joy of health and strength to go on living with zest and confidence, to go on working for you mindful now that it is not only my mind and my soul that work, but my body with them in loving unity and faithful cooperation. When I pray it is now the whole of me that prays to you.
Lord, do not forsake me;
keep not far from me, my God.
Hasten to my help,
O Lord, my salvation.”
The angels of the poor
“The poor man Lazarus died, and was taken away by the angels to be with Abraham.”
(Luke 16:22)The angels take care of the poor man. He has suffered in his life because in life there is injustice and oppression and inequality and distress. The angels do all they can to help all those who on earth suffer in their bodies and in their souls as persons, as groups, as nations. Angels in the past went as far as to punish with the sword public oppressors and cruel tyrants. The angels always defend those who suffer, and take side with the downtrodden on earth.
And when life comes to an end and the poor go on to their kingdom, the angels hasten to come to their side, take charge of them, accompany them to the mansions in eternity. The poor are in good hands. The angels take Lazarus to be with Abraham. His sufferings are over.
I feel comforted to know that angels are waiting for me when I die and I am looking for my way in a new world. But for that to happen, I must be poor. To have angels waiting at the other shore is the poor person’s privilege. Poor at least in simplicity, in detachment, in identification with the poor, in feeling in heart and soul the poverty that afflicts the larger part of humankind, in denouncing it before the world and doing my best in my measure to bring an end to it.
Poverty brings the angels down. They discovered it in Bethlehem, followed it up in Nazareth, heard it from the lips of the one who had nowhere to lay his head, worshipped it in the Redeemer who died naked on a cross. Now they know how to identify his followers. They are the poor, the humble, the oppressed. It is Lazarus who begs and goes hungry at the door of a rich man. I am not going to live by alms or to faint before a closed door, but I at least want to take conscience that there are people who live and die in that way, that there is hunger and misery, injustice and suffering, sickness and death. All this is happening around me, in my time and in my world, in the real facts and in the images of my television, in far-away countries and in my own neighbourhood.
I don’t want to be the disinterested and despiteful rich man in the gold and the wine of his feasts. I want to feel in myself the pain and the closeness of my brothers and sisters who suffer in all the countries of the world, and to create conscience and join action for their relief. I thank the angels who wait for them, I ask them to help them here already to lead a better life and to get themselves respected and dealt with justly in their dignity; and then I humbly ask them that even if I don’t quite fit into the gospel description of the poor who felt poverty in his flesh, they may wait for me too at the other side to take me to safe harbour before I get lost in the labyrinths of eternity.
Let them tell me at least where Abraham can be found. Though I understand his place was called Limbo, and the pope has recently suppressed Limbo. Let them take me straight to heaven.
Photos or no photos?
Some of you like to send photos of yourselves along with your emails in Internet. My photo is at the beginning of my Web, though it’s time I should change it as quite a few years have passed since that shot. But now there is question of cybernetic relationships, and this is a new type of relationship which we are learning to understand, and it will be good to try to define it. I appreciate and enjoy email, and at the same time I’m aware that I will never meet in my life most of the people who write to me. It is here that the photo question comes up. To send or not to send? I’m going to tell you an experience of mine years ago in India that has made me think, and can throw some light on the question at hand. Here it is.
Once I received in my own city of Ahmedabad in India a letter from a young girl unknown to me, who introduced herself as a young university student and was asking my opinion about something. Her name was Sonali. I answered immediately in the midst of all the mail of the day (the paper-and-pen mail of those days), and I forgot about her. After a few days I received an envelope with my name and address, and as there was no sender’s address on the front, I turned the envelope around and found that there were only these words written on it: “Open me gently.” That was some fun. The letter came from the same girl, and said the following:
“My very dear and rather brutish Father,
I got your answer. Clear, correct, to the point. Thank you very much. The efficient, quick, insensitive person. You may be very intelligent as they say, but you have no idea how to deal with those who write to you, particularly young people. I’m very shy. I thought a lot before writing to you, I doubted, I waited, I wrote the letter in awe as it was my first letter to someone important, I tore it, wrote it again, checked it, posted it, and remained shaking under the strain of the mischief and the adventure. And then you come on and answer me at once. With that, your answer has lost its value. You should have made me wait, should have left days and days pass so that I would keep thinking of you, wondering whether you had received my letter or not, whether you had liked it or not, whether you would answer it or not; you should have let me get impatient, angry, anxious, desperate. But no. You, with your ‘clean desk’ complex, had to answer me by return of post. Letter comes, letter goes. One to the waste-paper basket, and take the next to answer. How can I have any relationship with you in that way? How can I appreciate your answer? At the end of your letter you tell me very properly, ‘if I can help you in anything else, don’t hesitate to write again.’ You are the one who needs help. On top of it, you add: ‘You can also come and meet me in my residence at St Xavier’s College if you want.’ And if I don’t want? I’m not bound to come to you in person. Not that I’m not pretty, which I am, but I prefer you to imagine me as you please. I hope you are a good artist. Of course, you could also come to my home, as I have written my address on top and my house is not far from yours, and you can come if you wish. You will ring the bell, I will open the door for you, you will ask ‘Is Sonali at home?’, I will answer, ‘No, she is not at home’, and you’ll have to go back the way you came. For my part, yes, I’ve seen you. The other day in the talk you gave in the Town Hall I was in the first row. But don’t look for me. And, please, don’t answer me by return of post. Asking your blessing, Sonali.”
Thank you, Sonali. You made me laugh and you made me think. Spirited girl! And you say you are shy. I wonder what would happen if you weren’t. Mind your charms, Sonali, you’re full of them.
Today I have remembered Sonali. Nowadays Internet has created a new type of relationship between users, independent from physical presence. That’s why I prefer you don’t send me photographs of yourselves. I want to be a good artist.
[Sonali kept a happy correspondence with me several years. I never saw her.]
Boris Becker tells in his autobiography:
“What bothered me most of all was claustrophobia. I hated feeling hemmed in. I had to take a firm grip on myself not to lose it completely. It nearly happened once, after a concert by the three tenors Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras in the Munich Olympiahalle. Barbara and I met the singers backstage after the event. We were going to a huge restaurant afterwards, where there’d be thousands of guests of honour. There were about ten of us in the stadium’s lift: the conductor, Zubin Mehta, the singers, wives and girlfriends. The lift got stuck. Not for a couple of minutes, but for half an hour. Thanks to my height I had space and air. Domingo, my wife and Pavarotti all held hands, hoping it would be over soon. Then Pavarotti began to hum ‘Ave Maria’. I didn’t say anything. I was just thinking of my own little unimportant life, and trying to hold myself together, though the thought of what would happen if no one rescued us soon almost drove me mad. The tenors sang one song after another, and everyone hummed along. Anxious arias – what a scene that was. Then there was a jolt – the rescue. The concert in the lift was over.”
(Boris Becker, The Player, Bantam Books, London 2008, p. 107)
“You have to be acutely aware of your limits, physical and mental, in order to go beyond them.” (102)
“Sometimes I even felt real hatred for my opponent, but hatred gives bad advice. In these cases I never played particularly well.” (311)
“We are in Wimbledon waiting beneath the royal box for the signal to start. To enter the court we will pass under a board on which is famously written a couple of lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If.
‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
and treat those two impostors just the same.’ (25)
“Andre Agassi revealed to me why he was so often the victor in our encounters. It was a trivial thing, but rather incredible too. He’d noticed that during my serve I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue in the direction in which I was going to send the ball. My serve was rendered almost useless, while his return was his best shot. After that I kept my mouth shut.” (307)
Wangari Maathai, Nobel Prize for Peace 2004, tells this story of a Convent School in Africa.
“Once a girl wrote as follows in a letter to another African girl: ‘In Santa Cecilia we are well and keep eating fire.’ Sister Cristiana read that and was furious. She shouted: ‘Look at this girl! She is not ashamed to lie and say that we give you fire to eat!’ That night in the dining-room we all found our dish in from of us, except the girl who had written the letter. She had only a piece of coal on her dish. After the blessing we sat down to eat and Sister Cristiana told us how that girl had lied and had written to her friend that we were given fire to eat by the nuns. ‘Here you have your fire’, she shouted pushing the coal towards her, ‘eat it!’
We all had to strive to keep back our laughter, and even the girl in question was amused. Sister Cristiana had evidently missed an important detail. The girl had translated from Kikuyu to English literally. ‘Eating fire’ in Kikuyu means ‘We’re having a very good time’; only that since our knowledge of English was still elementary, the girl had not realised that the expression lost its meaning in English. Sister Cristiana knew no Kikuyu and had taken the words literally. Our companion remained without supper, and we all finished in a hurry to come out and laugh away at pleasure. I’m sure the Sisters’ conversation that night was also all about fire.”
(Wangari Maathai, Con la cabeza bien alta, Lumen, Barcelona 2007, p.81)
This is what a reader from Canada writes, and you now know that there is someone who prays for all of you who enter this “sacred space”, which I hope deserves to be so.
“May God continue to bless your words, your page, your key-board, your screen, the tips of your fingers and the mouse! May God continue to bless your unique story and may the Source of All through you bless all those who enter your sacred space.”
Psalm 38 – Prayer of a Tired Man
I am tired, Lord. I am fed up with life. People say that life is short. To me it now looks long, eternally long. I don’t know what to do with my life. I could still live many years ahead, and I shudder at the thought of it. The burden, the routine, the boredom of it all. It is not so much the suffering I complain of now, but the sheer weariness of living. To walk the same streets again, to do the same chores again, to meet the same people, to say the same meaningless words. Is that life? And if that is life, is it worth living at all?
“Lord, let me know my end.”It seems a dreadful prayer, and yet it is my only consolation now. Let me know my end. Let me know that this dreary existence will come to an end, that one day it will be over and there will be no more walking without aim, no more living without meaning. Let me at least know that this will not go on for ever, not for long, please; life is so painfully dull, so mercilessly repetitive.
I dread the chair on which I sit, I hate the table on which I write, I cannot bear the sight of these four walls that encompass my life and limit my existence. They speak of prisoners in jail. What does it matter whether the jail has high walls or low, so long as I don’t get out of them and they determine my daily routine with deadly efficiency! Tomorrow’s ways are the same as today’s, just as today’s were the same as yesterday’s and so on as far as my memory goes. “Making a living”, that is what they call it. Has anybody yet thought of living a living?
I am tired, Lord, and you know it. Still I feel some relief in saying it before you, not as a complaint, not even as a prayer, if you understand me, but just as a confidence, a talk between friends, a letting off steam before one who understands and wants to listen in sympathy. Mine is the wayfarer’s fatigue, and I want to sit on a stone by the wayside and forget for a moment the weariness of walking on the dusty road. I’ll keep on walking, Lord, but let me rest for a while before starting again on the dull journey. The fact that you are near will give me the strength I need to continue.
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
listen to my cry,
hold not your peace at my tears;
for I find shelter with you,
I am your guest,
as all my fathers were.
Frown on me no more
and let me smile again,
before I go away and cease to be.
“In the same way, I tell you, there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
(Luke 15:10)I wish to make angels rejoice. And now I come to know that a way to bring joy to them is for a sinner to be converted. The snag is that the only sinner I can convert would be myself, and I’m not sure I can be converted. Why, I’m not even sure I am a sinner. Let me see what I can do.
A sinner, what you’d call a sinner, well, I’m not that. And I don’t think there is anybody like that. I’m not a bad person, I do no harm to anybody on purpose, I have no pacts with the devil, and if it’s quite true that I often transgress God’s law and men’s injunctions, it is also true that I don’t do it out of malice but out of weakness, that there is that old matter of the new man and the old man, which is what I am in age, and so I have some right to old habits and weak behaviour; and then that other matter too of not doing the right I want but the wrong I don’t want, which someone more important than me said and so escaped responsibilities and punishments. All that lightens up my burden and makes me feel forgiven.
But then I also know that I could be doing something about it, something that would gladden angels as much as a public sinner’s resounding conversion. I can clean up my thoughts and soften my words, I can smooth out my roughness and hem in my ambitions, I can calm down my storms and level up my depressions, I can lift my mood and liven up my smile, I can shake hands with warmth and kiss cheeks with tenderness, I can share joy with those who see me and faith with those who read me, I can love life a little more and the Lord of life much more. And I know that if I do all that or at least a little bit of it all, or I try to do it and get something done, the angels in heaven will rejoice and sing and dance because someone down here has behaved a little better and has cheered people up.
The best way to give joy to angels in heaven is to give joy to men and women on earth.
Brenda Costa, from Brazil, introduces herself in her book as deaf-and-dumb from birth and international top model. Her portrait on the cover does justice to the introduction. “Silent Beauty” is the title of the book. But she soon tells us that physical beauty is not enough to become a model. (In mathematics we would say it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the theorem.) Once, in the waiting room for a casting, she finds other twenty candidates for the job, all of them real beauties. It is not only face and figure that count, but character and personality, firmness and security, the mind behind the face and the soul within the body, and here comes her handicap at being deaf-and-dumb, and her triumph through her energy and her moral strength. In that early casting she experienced the difficulty her condition brought her:
“They go on calling one by one the applicants for models in the waiting room. The casting comes to an end without me being called. I begin to ask myself whether I’ve mistaken the appointment, since, even though I don’t hear anything, I read lips fairly well, and I’d told me companions to tell me when my name was called. Finally a worker approaches me, places herself right before my face and tells me: ‘You’ve been called a short time ago.’ I then realise that the models have not told me. One applicant less is one rival less. The fun was that at the end they chose me.”
Her parents discover little by little her total deafness from birth, which prevents her from speaking. As she does not hear any sounds, she cannot reproduce them, and they painstakingly try to teach her to speak. Doctors, exercises, speech therapists. They try to get her to say “papa” and “mama” to break into speech. One day at long last,
“One morning, while mummy was in the kitchen, she hears Celeste’s voice in her excitement: ‘Dona Fatima! Dona Fatima! Come at once! Brenda has just pronounced her first word!’ My mother rushes to the room, sits down on the floor in front of me, looks at Celeste, looks at me, looks again at Celeste… My ayah has wet eyes, is smiling from ear to ear, but remains silent. I’m sitting on my little stool, my lips shaped as a heart to try to make sounds, cheerful as always. Nothing happens. My mother pronounces softly ‘papa’, ‘mama’ to help me. ‘Come on, my love, say it. I know you can do it. Mama… papa…’. And suddenly, after a truly superhuman effort, I let go in full strength: ‘Coca-Cola!’ Mummy, disconcerted, turns to Celeste who bursts out laughing while I turn to the audience and repeat like a broken record: ‘Coca-Cola! Coca-Cola!’ My mother weeps, Celeste weeps, and I rock with laughter. I’m speaking! Isn’t that wonderful! The next weeks, before every member of the family and friends assembled for the occasion, I become a living advertisement of the famous cold drink. Coca-Cola! Coca-Cola! This anecdote, which so much joy gives me whenever my mother or Celeste tell it, closes a first stage of my life, full of laughter and tears, but happy, and hopeful.”
“It’s all clear in my little head. I’m going to be a model. I’m only five years old and I want to be a model! I’m sure of it! I notice all those beauties that appear on the cover of fashion magazines, with photographs taken in Rome, in Paris, in New York. I travel in my imagination. I’ll be a model.”
When she grows up, and after many efforts, she gets an interview for a test in the Mega Agency for fashion models. She goes with her mother, the technician takes all the tests, and at the end he tells her mother, as Brenda doesn’t hear anything, and the technician knows it. This is the verdict: “It’s true, your daughter has the qualities to be a model, she is very beautiful, but I would have great difficulty in selling her. I would never be able to assure my clients that everything will go well with her. She does not hear anything at all, and in our work it is essential to be able to communicate with the photographers. She can hardly utter some strange sounds difficult to understand. Whether it be for magazines or for posters, there is much money involved. We cannot take such a big risk. I have no doubt about Brenda’s talents; she is breathtakingly beautiful. But she is stone deaf.”
“Mother and I get up. What had to be said, has been said. I wait till I am in the corridor to give rein to my tears. I lean on the wall and cry, and cry… Mother hugs me and rocks me like a child: ‘Brenda, please, calm down, this is not so important…’ Between breath and breath, with my own distorted sounds, I answer her, ‘Yes, yes, it is very important, very important.’ At that moment a man about fifty approaches us. He asks me, ‘Why do you cry, little one?’. I don’t answer him as I am unable to utter any sound. He turns towards my mother: ‘I know this is not for me to ask, but, please, can you tell my why your daughter is in such a state?’ Mother answers him: ‘She wants to be a model. The problem is that she is deaf-and-dumb from birth. The Mega Agency’s director has just told her she will never be able to hold that job.’ The man answers: ‘My name is Antonio Velásquez and I’m the president of the Mega Agency. I have a son who is deaf-and-dumb from birth. I understand your daughter’s suffering. Come with me.’ And Brenda signs her contract with the Mega Agency.”
New York, Paris. She learns lip reading, not only in Portuguese but in English and French. Quite a feat. She is in Paris with her mother. She sees something in the street, points it out to her mother and manages to shout, “Look there, mummy!” – “My mother, who is still under the jetlag from our flight from Brazil, has not noticed it. I shout as I can, ‘Mummy, it is me! There, on the publicity poster!’ Mother turns to look. I’ll never forget the expression on her face the moment she recognises me in the huge poster in the middle of the street. That is my photograph. Her little deaf one that one day, more than twenty years ago, managed to say ‘Coca-Cola!’ In Paris. As a model. We’ll now go shopping or we’ll seat down to a coffee on a terrace, full of joy. A dream come true.”
(Brenda Costa, Bella del Silencio,Styria, 2007, pp. 47, 67, 90, 102, 130, 217)
– Is it true that Berlusconi has asked the pope to allow him to receive Holy Communion in spite of being divorced and remarried? I’ve heard the news and I’d like to know whether it is true and what are its consequences.
– I’ve also read the news and I’m interested in this matter. Many of you have consulted me about the possibility for Catholics divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion. More particularly when there is question of parents of children who are going to make their First Communion: they accompany their children to the ceremony, and the children go to Communion but the parents cannot. This is very sad and is seriously hurting the Church. How can the parents bring up their children as Christians if they do not accompany them to Holy Communion? And who are we to judge consciences and circumstances and personal decisions in each case?
The Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson in his recent and courageous book “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church”, p. 257, writes: “Many Catholic bishops express a real uneasiness about the present teaching of their church on the subject of divorce and remarriage.” One of those bishops, it would appear, is the bishop of Sardinia, as the narrative tells us.
What happened, according to the press, was that Berlusconi, on the occasion of a religious ceremony in a church in Sardinia, asked the bishop of the place, monsignor Sebastiano Sanguinetti, when will the rules change for divorcees who remarry and cannot go to Communion as they are out of the fold. The bishop answered him: “You, who have power, ask the one who has power over me.” That is, Berlusconi has not asked the pope, but the message must have somehow reached the pope as the Italian gossip was all over the media.
That makes things difficult for the pope. If he does not grant Holy Communion to remarried divorcees, people will say that everybody (even bishops) wishes it to be granted; and, if he grants it, they will say that he grants it now (after having refused it all the time) because Berlusconi has asked for it. Hard dilemma. Although, properly speaking it is not Berlusconi that has had recourse to the pope, but, in a very witty and diplomatic way, the good bishop of Sardinia. The Vatican has not said anything yet.
Psalm 39 – Open my ears!
“You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings,
but an open ear.
In the scroll of the book it stands written
That I should do your will.”Open my ears, Lord, that I may hear your word, obey your will and follow your law. Make me attentive to your voice, attuned to your accent, that I may at once recognise the messages of your love in the middle of the jungle of noise that surrounds my life.
Open my ears to your word, your scriptures, your revelation in human sound to mankind and to me. Make me love the reading of the pages of Scripture, rejoice in their sound, and enjoy their repetition. Let them be music to my ears, rest to my mind, and comfort to my heart. Let them awaken in me an instant echo of recognition, of familiarity, of friendship. Let me discover a new meaning in them every time I read them, because your voice is fresh and your message comes straight from you today. Let your word be revelation to me, be strength and joy in my journey through life. Give me ears to listen, to grasp, to understand. Make me sensitive to your word in your scriptures, Lord.
Open my ears to your word in nature, too, Lord. Your word in the skies and the clouds, in the wind and the rain, in the icy mountains and in the fiery depths of this earth you have created for me to live on. Your voice of power and of tenderness, your smile in a flower and your wrath in the tempest, your caress in the breeze and your warning in the peal of thunder. You speak through your works, Lord, and I want for me the ears and the faith to understand their meaning and live their message. Your whole creation speaks, and I want to be an eager listener to the intimate waves of your cosmic language. The grammar of the galaxies, the syntax of the stars. Your word that steadied the universe is to steady my heart now in blessing and in grace. Fill my ears with the sounds of creation and of your presence in it, Lord.
Open my ears also to your word in my heart. The secret message, the intimate touch, the presence without words. Divine fax of personal news. Let it sound, let it print, let it bring to me moment by moment the living remembrance of your permanent love. Let me hear your silence in my soul, let me guess when you smile and when you frown, let me sense your moods and respond to them with the ready sensitivity of deep faith and steady trust. Let us keep up the dialogue, Lord, without any break, without any blackouts, without any doubts, mistrust or misunderstanding. Your loving word in my willing heart.
And open my ears particularly, Lord, to your word through my brothers and sisters to me. You speak to me through them, through their presence, through their needs, through their sufferings and through their joys. Let me hear the human concert of my race around me, the notes I like and notes I dislike, the contrasting melodies, the valiant chords, the measured counterpoint. Let me hear every accent and pay attention to every voice. It is your voice, too, Lord. I want to be attuned to the global harmony of history and society, to join in it and let my life sound as part of it in meaningful accord.
Open my ears, Lord. Grace of graces in a word of sound.
Angels in judgement
“That is how it will be at the end of time. The angels will go out, and the will separate the wicked from the good.”
(Matthew 13:49)Now it becomes clear why I am interested in making good friends with the angels. It is they that are in charge of the last sorting out. They will separate those who go to one side from those who go to the other. And I want to land on the right side. We have to make friends from now.
The angels separate. This has troubled me for a while, as I don’t want to classify people in my mind as “wicked” or “good”, I don’t want to judge anybody, I don’t want to print labels and stick them on to anyone. The world is not a movie with good guys and bad guys. Nobody is fully good and nobody is fully bad. That’s why I’ve thought for a while what is the point of angels separating people. It turns out that they do separate people, but they do it only at the end of time: “The harvest is the end of time: the angels will go out and they will separate the wicked from the good.”
That gives me some respite and shows me a direction. It is not for me to judge people or separate people or classify people. For me all are good. There are people who do things I don’t consider fair, and there is suffering in the world and there is madness and blood and wars and terrorism, and, once more, we have to do all we can to stop violence and end suffering and promote love; but it is not for me to judge consciences and to set the world right, although I’ll keep doing all I can in my surroundings to soften down friction and to gladden lives. There are pressures and prejudices, there are conditionings and false premises, there is blindness and madness and groups and clans and violence and hysteria. I do not justify anything, but I do not condemn anyone either. Let justice have its way with those who violate law and order. The angels will do that, but they will do it at the end of time. They know how they’ll do it and what is the meaning of separating one from another, of left and right, of good and bad. We’ll see it when it happens. The point for us at present is clear and simple: do not judge, do not condemn, do not separate anyone from anybody. Help all, understand all, love all. And let the angels do their job when their time comes. Leave it to them.
In any case I do want to make friends with the angels, for the joy it now gives me and for the safety it will mean for me on the last day. A meeting of friends. We know each other well. And let them take me along with the just.
Paul Erdös, a Hungarian mathematician, consecrated his whole life to mathematics to the exclusion of any other activity except eating and sleeping. Instead of greeting friends with a “Good morning”, his greeting was, “Is your brain open?”, and he went on, “Let k be the smallest integer that…”, and so on for hours, at any time of the day or night. His letters from any part of the world followed the same pattern: “I am in Australia. Tomorrow I leave for Hungary. Let f be a function of x such that…”
All small children were for him “epsilon”, which is the mathematical symbol for a small quantity.
Once he went for the bar mitzvah of a friend’s son, notebook in hand, and he proved several new theorems during the ceremony.
He used to say “Television is something the Russians invented to destroy American education.”
To a friend who asked him how often should he have sex with his wife in order to combine continuity with variety he gave this advice: “Do it on the days of the month that are prime numbers; thus you get more frequency at the beginning of the month, 2, 3, 5, 7, and wider intervals at the end, 21, 29.” (1 is not a prime number). About himself he candidly reported he never had had sex in his life. He had no time.
When teaching in Notre Dame in 1952 he was assigned an assistant who could take over on the spur of the moment should he have the urge to rush off and finish a proof with a collaborator.
His mathematical friend and fellow Hungarian Stanislaw Ulam was in danger of his life for a brain haemorrhage. Erdös visited him in hospital when recovering and greeted him: “Stan, I am so glad to see you are alive. I thought I would have to write alone now all our joint papers, and besides… I would have to write your obituary!”
His Memphis colleague, Chip Ordman, writes about him: “He began to lose sight in one eye, but didn’t want to take time out from mathematics to get the requisite care. Eventually he lost all vision and badly needed a corneal transplant. A suitable donor was hard to come by. They jumped the queue by pleading that surgery will advance all of mathematics. The transplant took about two hours. Before the operation, the doctor carefully explained to him the procedure. ‘Doctor’, Erdös said, ‘will I be able to read?’ ‘Yes’, said the doctor, ‘that is the whole point of the surgery.’ Erdös went into the operating room, and when the lights were dimmed, he immediately got agitated. ‘Why are you turning the lights down?’ ‘So we can do the surgery.’ ‘But you said I’d be able to read.’ He then had a huge argument with the surgeon since, he said, while one eye was being operated he could read a mathematics journal with the other eye. The surgeon made a series of frantic calls to the Memphis math department. ‘Can you send a mathematician over here at once so that Erdös can talk math during surgery?’ The department obliged, and the operation went smoothly.
He then carried on with mathematics in his hospital room. The room was a complete mess. There were journals piled up and papers everywhere. Erdös was lying there, holding three mathematical conversations at once, in Hungarian with a group in one corner, in German with a group in another corner, and in English with a third group. All this while talking to me and my wife. The doctors came in and he said, ‘Go away! Can’t you see I am busy? Come back in a few hours.’ That’s what they did.”
About halfway through his lecture in the International Symposium on Combinatorics, Graph Theory, and Computing in Boca Raton, Florida, 1996, he got up to write at the blackboard and suddenly fell down stiff as a board. His blood pressure was very low, his heart rate down to 37. He was lying there flat but with his microphone still attached. People were scared and anxious and security was trying to get them to file out. “Tell them not to leave”, he said, regaining consciousness, “I have two more problems to tell them.”
He was listening to Gerhart Ringel, a mathematician from Santa Cruz, deliver a talk at a conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan. As the talk ended and people were leaving, Erdös, who was sitting in the front row, quietly asked him a question. In the middle of his question he fell over and was out cold. By late that morning, surgeons had put in a pacemaker. Sure enough that very evening Paul attended the closing banquet. His two heart surgeons were sitting next to him. Erdös got up, took a little bow, introduced the surgeons, and then said, “Now I just want to finish asking Dr Ringel my question.”
Eye ailments and heart problems did not stop him from resuming his twenty-five-country lecture circuit. He observed that the audiences for his talks were growing to the point where to accommodate everybody he would need a larger lecture hall, but then his old and feeble voice would not carry. He speculated on the reason for his increased popularity: ‘Everyone wants to be able to say, “I remember Erdös. Why, I even attended his last lecture”.’
In perhaps the most famous speech in mathematics, at the Second International Congress of Mathematicians held in Paris in 1900, David Hilbert posed twenty-three problems that he said cried out for solution in the new century. First on his list was the proof of the Continuum Hypothesis. Georg Cantor (1845-1918) had investigated infinite sets, arriving at the conclusion that there are an infinite number of infinite sets infinitely different from one another. The first one is the arithmetical infinite of natural numbers which Cantor baptised as aleph-null. The next one is the geometrical infinite of the real numbers, aleph-one for the initiated. And from there on to the whole spontaneous generation of alephs of all colours and sizes. Quite a tribe.
Now here comes the question. A very simple question. Aleph-one is greater than aleph-null. Is there now another aleph between them, bigger than the first and smaller than the second? Something to lose one’s sleep about. Cantor had conjectured there was no such set in between, but he had no proof and nobody had found it. That is the famous Continuum Hypothesis. In 1963, Paul Cohen stunned the mathematics community with a proof that the Continuum Hypothesis could never be proved nor disproved. For that mathematical feat he was awarded the Fields Medal (which is the mathematical Nobel Prize) in the Congress of Mathematicians in Moscow, 1966. (I was there at the time as an Indian delegate to the Congress, and that’s why I now grow reminiscent as I think of it. My hands hurt from so much clapping.) And here comes Erdös.
Erdös was worried about the Continuum Hypothesis, and was not quite convinced that Cohen’s solution was right, or rather, he could not resign himself to admit that something in mathematics could not be proved nor disproved; that hurt his dignity as a mathematician. His way out was to tell the joke about the evangelist who is trying to convert people asking them on the street, “What would you say to Jesus if you saw him now on the street?” Erdös said he’d ask Jesus if the Continuum Hypothesis was true. “And there would be three possible answers for Jesus”, Erdös said. “He could say, ‘Paul Cohen already taught you everything which is to be known about it.’ The second answer would be, ‘Yes, there is an answer but unfortunately your brain isn’t sufficiently developed yet to know the answer.’ And Jesus could give a third answer: ‘The Father, the Holy Ghost, and I have been thinking about that long before creation, but we haven’t yet come to a conclusion’.” This would be the best answer, according to him, as it would assure us eternity in heaven was going to be mathematically enjoyable.
When he was 81, he said: “Probably I am a perfect square for the last time in my life.” He was referring to the fact that 81 is 9 square, while the next perfect square would be 10 square, that is 100. He died at 83 in 1996.
(Paul Hoffman, The man who loved only numbers, Hyperion, New York 1998, pp. 3, 6, 9, 16, 35, 104, 127, 176, 225, 242, 244, 245).
You’ve told me rather painful things which affect many of us. Your words: “Why does the Church follow a Dead Christ? Why do people go to Mass to fulfil a commandment and not to meet Jesus? Why do I listen to priests who look like mere ‘prayer wheels’ [rezanderos] repeating magic formulas without any meaning and without any devotion? Sunday after Sunday I listen to cold and empty sermons, pure formalities without life, and I see people with long faces and bored looks. What can I do to find the spiritual growth I long for and I do not in any way find in the Church?”
Let me tell you, first of all, in my answer, that your complaint has touched me. The word you use in Spanish, rezanderos, [which I have translated by “prayer wheels” in English] was new to me, and I’ve looked it up in a dictionary. I see it means “priests whose job it is reciting prayers for the dead at a funeral” and it is used in Mexico. Something like “dirge singers”. It’s sad to define a priest by a funeral. We have to do all we can to bring life to prayers and sacraments. But then you add that this lack of feeling hurts you all the more because you have experienced the fervour of the Charismatic Renewal, and so you miss in your parish what you’ve lived with the Charismatics. About that I’m going to tell you my experience.
In younger days (about forty years ago) I joined in India what we then called the “Pentecostal Movement”, and I did so lead by Fr Tony de Mello, who was the one who introduced the Pentecostal Movement in India after he’d found it in David Wilkerson’s book “The Cross and the Switchblade” (which was compulsory reading for all those of us who made the Spiritual Exercises under him in those days, together with its sequel, “Run, Baby, Run” by Nicky Cruz), and in the first group of Catholic Charismatics in Ann Arbour, Michigan in 1967, though he never wanted this role of his to appear in his writings, and so no one knows about it now except for the few of us who took part in it. When Fr Arrupe, the Jesuit General, came to Goa in India for a meeting with Indian Jesuit Provincials, he told Tony, whom he knew and whose work he closely followed, that he wanted to attend a charismatic prayer meeting, as he couldn’t do that in Rome where everybody would know about it at once, and so he wanted to have a discreet experience in Goa. Tony quietly organised the meeting with a charismatic group he himself presided, and I attended it together with a few others. This event has not been recorded in any of Fr Arrupe’s multiple biographies. I take the opportunity to say here that Arrupe joined the group in all simplicity and took part in all the proceedings, sitting down on the floor Japanese style while we sat Indian style, lifting his hands when we lifted ours, joining in our petitions, and praying himself aloud spontaneously with obvious fervour. A Jesuit parish priest of a church in Goa asked us to join him in asking the Lord to help him build a new parish church for which he needed… so many thousands of rupees. That almost spoiled the charisma, and Tony felt very bad about it, but all ended well, and Arrupe went back to Rome with his new experience.
I’ll tell you more. The Pentecostal Movement did me a lot of good. For many years I prayed daily for hours on end, formed part of prayer groups, lifted my hands, shouted alleluias, spoke and sang in “tongues”, laid my hand on peoples’ heads, healed the sick, “cut” the Bible for answers, pronounced and received prophecies. In Bandra, Mumbai, we once had a charismatic Mass “sung in tongues” between the whole group (and you know what that is) and it was one of the most beautiful Masses of my life which I remember with gratitude and awe. More than a hundred people singing each one in their “tongue” as they were inspired, hundred melodies in uncanny harmony of voice and feeling. Pity it wasn’t recorded, but we were not doing it for the public. My own experiences got published in the American charismatic magazine “The New Covenant”, and in a book published by the same magazine as an anthology of charismatic experiences, which I think was called “The Road to Damascus” but I’m not quite sure. Those were glorious years.
After about six years I noticed the interest for charismatic things was fading in me, and I got alarmed. Tony reassured me with his typical advice: “Carlos, when this came to you, you let it come, didn’t you? Well, not that it’s going away, let it go.” I’ve always said that the Pentecostal Movement did me a lot of good by coming into my life, and did me even more good when he left it. My life would have been poorer without it, and even poorer if I had remained in it. In the way of the spirit holding on to ways is losing the way. When St Peter wanted to remain on Mount Tabor after the transfiguration of Christ, Jesus told him gently they had to come down from the mountain. We cannot live for ever on Mount Tabor. We cannot be uttering alleluias and hosannas all our lives. It becomes artificial. It tires down; it bores stiff. If I had remained in those ways I would be now as much of a “dirge singer” as those you mention. Imagine that, had I continued in that way, it would be now more than forty years singing alleluias. With repetition an alleluia becomes as funereal as a dirge. The prayer wheel.
Where to go on to proceed ahead depends on the person’s situation. God will guide you. He directs each one according to circumstances and characters. The important point is to allow oneself to be led without fear of what is coming and without nostalgia for what remained behind. The best is still to follow. We live out the present just as it comes, remaining always open to newness and to change. If I can help you in any way, don’t hesitate to tell me. And thank you for having stirred all these thoughts in me. Kisses, Carlos.
Psalm 40 – Concern for the Poor
“Happy the man who has a concern for the helpless!
The Lord will save him in time of trouble.
The Lord protects him and gives him life,
making him secure in the land.”Thank you, Lord, for your gift to your Church in our days: the gift of concern for the poor, of awareness of injustice and oppression, of awakening to liberation in the souls of men and in the structures of society. Thank you for having shaken us out of our complacency with existing orders, out of acquiescence in inequality and temporising with exploitation. Thank you for the new light and the new courage that have surged through your Church today to denounce poverty and to fight oppression. Thank you for the Church of the poor.
You have moved our thinkers to think, and our men and women of action to act. In our days theology has become liberation theology, and pastors of souls have become martyrs. You have opened our eyes to see in the poor our suffering brothers, members in pain, together with us, of the one body of which you are the Head. You have ended the days in which we wrongly understood conformity with your will as acceptance of injustice, and exhorted the poor to remain poor as though that were your will for them. You don’t want injustice, Lord, you don’t want oppression, and we ask your pardon if we ever used the soothening of your will to justify an unjust order. You have spoken again through your prophets, and we respond in gratitude to the call and the challenge you have put before us. We want to liberate your people again.
You always listened to the plea of the orphan and the widow, and took any injustice done to them as done to you. Now, Lord, it is whole peoples that are orphaned, and entire sections of society that feel destitute as widows without support and without help. Their cry has reached you and you in return have raised a new conscience in us to make us feel solidarity with all those who suffer, and get to work to redress the wrongs that are inflicted on them. We feel privileged that our age has been chosen to be the age of liberation, and our Church to be the Church of the poor. We accept with joy the responsibility of working for a new order in your name, of bringing justice among your children upon earth, so that as all are equal in the love you bestow on them, so they may be equal in the use of the goods you have freely disposed for all your children.
We make this pursuit the goal of our efforts and the aim of our life. We are glad to sense a universal revival all around us, and want to contribute to it with our enthusiasm and our work. We feel strongly in our hearts a concern for the poor, and count ourselves fortunate to have been given that grace by you. Thanks for that contemporary blessing on our generation.
“Blesses be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
“Whoever acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.”
(Luke 12:8-9)Jesus thinks highly of the angels. He sets them before his Father at the Last Judgement as witnesses of the way men and women have reacted to him; and he says it even more clearly in another passage of the same gospel:
“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him, when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father.”
The proof that I belong to Jesus is that he tells his angels so. Jesus seals his friendship with me by telling his angels that he is my friend. My hope and certainty that Jesus will defend me on the last day comes from the fact that he has already told his angels about it. He will “acknowledge me before the angels”. There can be no higher joy for me.
Have you heard it, dear angels of mine? Jesus says I am his own. And he has told you, the people closest to him, his counsellors, his heavenly court. My name has been pronounced in the midst of secret meetings and eternal decrees. Jesus has pronounced it before you in full familiarity, as the name of someone near and dear. And you have welcomed my name with a flutter of wings. Haven’t you? I am one of you. Keep me in your company. Let me be always with Jesus to be always with you. And let me be always with you so that you may be witnesses for me before him. I trust in you.
You know I like to read autobiographies as they tell me real people’s stories and supply me with anecdotes and quotations for this my Web. So I was eagerly waiting for the announced publication of Mother Teresa’s letters. They are not strictly an autobiography, as saints are not prone to write autobiographies (although my father St Ignatius Loyola did write his, but it was in the third person), but it comes close to the gender. I’ve read the whole book with great interest and it has taught me many things. But it has also made me a little uneasy. She tells her correspondents about the revelations she had from Jesus which she reproduces in several letters, always with exactly the same words, and adding that “I know that all I have just written is true” (3 December 1947). And yet some of those words are not those one would expect from Jesus’s lips. I quote them first, and then add some comment.
“One day during Holy Communion I heard the same voice very clearly: ‘You have come to India for me. Are you now afraid to take one more step for me? Has your generosity cooled down? Am I only secondary for you? You did not die for souls; that’s why you don’t care what happens to them. Your heart was never drowned in sorrow as was my Mother’s heart. We both gave up ourselves totally for souls. What about you?
Give me the souls of the little children on the street. How much it hurts – if only you knew it! – to see those poor children stained with sin! If only you knew how many small children fall into sin every day! There are convents with numerous religious who look after the rich and those who can manage by themselves, but there is not a single one in India to look after my poor. It is the poor I hanker after. Will you refuse? I want religious that may be Indian victims for India. This will be the congregation you have to found. Ask His Excellency that he may grant me this in thanksgiving for the 25 years of grace I have given him.”
(Mother Teresa, Come, be my light, Planeta, Barcelona 2008, pp. 70, 72)
His Excellency was the Jesuit bishop (later archbishop) of Calcutta, Monsignor Périer, to whom this letter is addressed (13 January 1947). The good bishop was dutifully considering the unusual proposal by the Loreto nun who had asked his permission to leave her congregation and found a new one. He could not be rushed. She insisted with holy impatience. The “25 years of grace” are the twenty-five years monsignor Périer had completed as bishop of Calcutta. The bishop delicately expressed to father Van Exem, Mother Teresa’s spiritual director, his reaction to her letter to let her know: “His lord the bishop considers too personal the supposed petition by Jesus that monsignor Périer should approve the project in gratitude for his twenty five years as a bishop.” This had not pleased the bishop, and one can understand why. Jesus is not mean and does not charge for his graces. But Mother Teresa yields no ground and insists directly:
“With respect to the petition being too personal you cannot deny that Our Lord has done marvels for you these twenty five years. So that what He is asking is as natural as it is supernatural. It is up to you to say yes or no.” (25 January 1947) (pp. 81-82)
I don’t imagine Jesus sending the bill to the good bishop for the “twenty five years of grace”, neither rebuking Mother Teresa for “you don’t care for souls as you haven’t died for them”, nor saying that “the children in the street fall into sin every day”, or asking for “Indian victims for India”, or saying that “there is not a single religious to look after the poor in India”. All that was simply not true, and even if it were it would not be right to say it nor were the words proper. Are then these revelations not true?
They can be true, but they are always filtered down through the human element, through the mentality and the personality of the person that receives them. Mother Teresa unconsciously projected her own points of view on those communications, and coloured them with her own wishes and concepts and projects, and that explains the language and the insistence. At least that’s the way I see it.
If you allow me a touch of humour, I don’t imagine Jesus referring to the archbishop of Calcutta as “His Excellency”. It sounds ridiculous, and it has made me laugh. I’ve even imagined Jesus calling Peter “Your Holiness”. The one who called the archbishop “His Excellency” was Mother Teresa, and she lends her own words to Jesus in his revelation. That’s a clear example of what I’ve just said that Jesus’s words are filtered through Mother Teresa’s words. It is Mother Teresa who says that the children on the street sin every day, not Jesus; and it is Mother Teresa who says that there is absolutely not a single religious to look after the poor in India, not Jesus. She used to justify her new foundation for the poor saying (with exaggeration) that there was not a single religious in India to look after the poor, and she ends up by attributing to Jesus what she herself repeated before everybody every day. One would have to distinguish which expressions come from whom, somehow similarly as exegetes do with texts of the Bible.
The same letters reveal she was a woman with a strong character and a commanding manner that was felt from Calcutta to Rome. “Forgive me if I tire you with so many letters. You represent the Holy Father here. Please, Excellency, let me go at once.” (7 November 1947) The fruit of those revelations was excellent, as the whole world knows, and that stands for their truth.
The fact that we project our imagination on God should not surprise us, because we do it all the time. Voltaire said it in his rather Voltairean way: “God made man in his image and likeness; and man answered back making God in his own image and likeness.” Inevitable. We use the concepts of our own existence, which is the only one we know, we embellish them, we sublimate them, we worship them. We acknowledge in theory that God is above all our concepts, but in practice we limit him down to them. In Africa they say that crocodiles imagine the god of crocodiles as a hundred meter crocodile. Very amusing, and very instructive. We imagine God according to our concepts, however inadequate they may be. This also explains how in the case of personal revelations the person’s traits get mixed with the supernatural message. This may have happened here. If you have any comment you can tell me.
It was Monsignor Périer himself who eventually presented Mother Teresa’s case to the Loreto congregation and to the Vatican, got her the permission to leave and to found, and always helped Mother Teresa in her work. He, too, was later the first to receive the written confidences of Mother Teresa about her faith crisis.
“I want to tell you something, but I don’t know how to express it. Since about four years I find no help in Rev Fr C. Van Exem’s direction. I go to the confessional with the hope to talk, and yet nothing comes out. Father told me to tell you. It is a terrible emptiness, a feeling of the absence of God.” (February 1956) (p. 204)
“I am not loved by God. Rejected. Empty. No faith, no love, no fervour. Souls don’t attract me. Heaven means nothing to me. It looks to me like an empty place.” (15 April 1951) (p. 211)
“O Lord, my God, who am I that you abandon me? The child of your love – now converted into the most hatred one, the one you have rejected as contemptible, not loved. I call, I grasp, I log for…, and there is Nobody to answer, Nobody to Whom I may cling, no, Nothing. Alone. Darkness is so dark, and I am alone. Despised, abandoned. The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. Where is my faith? Even in the deepest part, all inside me, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. O my God, how painful this unknown pain is! It hurts without ceasing. I have no faith. I do not dare pronounce the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and that make me suffer this unspeakable agony. So many questions without answers are living within me. I am afraid to uncover them because they sound like blasphemies. When I try to lift my thoughts to Heaven there is such an accusing void that those same thoughts come back as sharp knives and wound my soul. Love – is a word that brings nothing to me. I am told that God loves me, and yet the reality of the darkness and the coldness and the emptiness is so great that nothing can move my soul. Before I began the work there was so much union, love, faith, trust, prayer, sacrifice. Did I go wrong when I blindly entrusted myself to the call of the Sacred Heart?”
(Letter of 3 July 1959 to father Picachy, p. 231)
“I don’t know what pleasure can He obtain from this darkness.” (To father Picachy, 23 January 1961, p. 254)
“My soul is a block of ice.”
(To father Neuner, 8 November 1961, p. 277)
“People say that seeing my great faith they feel closer to God. Is this not deceiving people? Every time I’ve wanted to tell the truth – that I have no faith – the words simply don’t come to me, my mouth remains shut.
(To father Picachy – by then a bishop – September 1962, p. 292)
The words are hard, but their sincerity is our consolation. We all go through ups and downs in our prayers and sacraments, and we often whip ourselves for our own carelessness, tepidity, guilt, unworthiness that bring on ourselves spiritual dryness. Maybe, but we also can apply to ourselves in our small crises what bishop Périer explained to Mother Teresa in her great crisis:
“As for this revelation of her soul’s desolation, the archbishop answered with a brief summary of the teachings of St John of the Cross about the ‘dark night of the soul’.” (205)
The “dark night of the soul” is meant for all of us in our personal ascent to Mount Carmel, and it is good to know it and to feel we are not alone when the way is clouded and the climbing is sharp. During her Spiritual Retreat from March 29 to April 12 in 1959, Mother Teresa had to answer a personal questionnaire for her self-examination of conscience. To the question, “Do I really consider Holy Mass to be the greatest act of my day?”, she answers: “I want it that way, but it is not so.” (p. 428) This humble confession brings her closer to us than her Peace Nobel Prize. We all have passed, in some moment or other, through this painful sacramental darkness. We are in good company. The dark night, in any of its manifestations, extreme or ordinary, does not mean negligence or guilt but test and merit. It does not pull us down but it brings us up. It is not sinners’ weakness but saints’ strength. Mother Teresa has shown it in her life. Maybe this is her greatest contribution.
There is a touching trait in the midst of so much darkness and so much mystery. Whenever she writes in her letters the word Smile, she does it with a capital S. (p. 27)
– The book father Pagola has written about Jesus has caused quite a stir, and I hear it has been condemned. Is that true? And what is the reason?
– No, it has not been exactly condemned. Fr Pagola is a well-known theologian in Spain, and his book “Jesus” has sold 50.000 copies in a few months. The Bishops Commission for the Doctrine of the Faith has taken objection to some of its tenets in a note dated 27.06.2008, but the bishop of San Sebastián has given his Imprimatur for a “revised edition”. What he says is nothing new in modern theological circles, but theology books and reviews do not reach the general public. I’ll just mention the central point in my own way. Bringing in the parable of the prodigal son is my own idea, but the conclusion is the same.
Jesus’s death is traditionally explained as the expiation needed for our sins, which we cannot provide in our unworthiness, and so Jesus comes to do it for us with his death on the cross. He pays for our sins, and we are forgiven by the Father. This is the so called Anselmian theory (after St Anselm, XI century). But that is not what the gospel says. When the prodigal son comes back to his father and asks for pardon, his father does not tell him: “Fine, my son, but you don’t deserve to be heard, so I must first have your elder brother killed, as he has remained faithful to me and is with me at home, and once his blood has appeased my justice you’ll be able to come back home.” The father of the prodigal does not say such a thing. He does not make the elder brother pay for the younger. And Jesus told this parable to tell us how his Father is and how he acts. The father in the parable embraces his son and straightaway arranges for the welcoming banquet. Making Jesus die for sinners is condemning the innocent to pay for the guilty, and that is a travesty of justice in any regime. Pace St Anselm.
Present-day theologians say Jesus came to identify with us, to share our lot, to be one of us; and he carried that identification to the very end of the greatest suffering and the cruellest death so that he would be one with those who most suffer on earth. He did not “pay” for us out of necessity, but he “became one” with us out of love, and that to its last consequences. This, as I’ve said, has been written in many theological books and reviews which few read, but as the topic has reached the general public, there has been some commotion about it. This will not be the last we hear about it.
Psalm 41 – Longing for the Lord
“As a hind longs for the running streams,
So do I long for you, O God.
With my whole being I thirst for God, the living God.
When shall I come to God and appear in his presence?”I long, I thirst, I yearn. Deep in my heart that is the vital thrust of my life, the motive force of my earthly existence. I live because I long for you, Lord; and in a way I die too because I long for you. Sweetest torture of loving at a distance, of seeing through a veil, of possessing in faith and waiting in impatience. I desire your presence as I desire nothing else on this world. I imagine your face, I hear your voice, I worship your divinity. I rest in the thought that if waiting for you is so sweet, what will it be meeting you!
I want to meet you in prayer, in your unmistakable touch during the moments in which my soul forgets everything around and is only in silence with you. You have a way of making yourself indubitably present to the soul that thinks of you in solitude. I prize those instants and treasure those visitations that anticipate heaven upon earth.
I want to meet you in your sacraments, in the reality of your pardon and in the hidden glory of your table with men and women. I come to you in faith, and you reward that faith with the fleeting whisper of the wings of your love. I will come again and again with the memory of those blessed encounters, the patience of waiting in darkness and the eagerness to feel your closeness anew.
I want to meet you in the faces of men and women, in the sudden revelation that all men and women are my brothers and sisters, in the need of the poor and in the love of my friends, in the smile of a child and in the noise of a crowd. You are in all men and women, Lord, and I want to recognise you in them.
And I want to meet you one day in the poverty of my being and nakedness of my soul, in the face of death and the gateway of eternity. I want to meet you face to face in the moment that will be bliss for ever, in the embrace of recognition after the night of life in this world.
I long to meet you Lord, and the vehemence of that longing upholds my life and steadies my step. In that hope life has a meaning and my earthly pilgrimage has a direction. I am coming to you, Lord.
“As a hind longs for the running stream,
So do I long for you, O God.
With my whole being I thirst for God, the living God.
When shall I come to God and appear in his presence?”
The strengthening angel
“And now there appeared to him an angel from heaven bringing him strength.”
(Luke 22:43)How did you do it, blessed angel of strength? You gave strength to the Lord of Strength in his hour of weakness. You are the witness at Gethsemane, the companion among the olive trees, the strength in weakness. There is suffering in the world, there are hidden pains, there are gardens of Gethsemane in the shadows of the night, there are men and women all around me who show in their bended gait the weight of being mortal beings in lost solitude. There is silent anguish and hidden tears, there are broken hearts and blood sweat, there is prostrate prayer and fear of death. There are people who pass my way with sadness in their eyes and tremor in their hands. What can I do for them?
I don’t like to give cheap advice or stale recipes. I don’t want to insult human suffering with light chat. Staid formulas and prefab condolences will not do for me. It’s not enough for me to tell the one who suffers that all will pass, because it has not yet passed for him; and I cannot tell the one who weeps that we all weep, because now it is she that is weeping. I do not want to give superficial consolation over deep pain. I want to respect suffering, which is the first condition to approach the sufferer.
I don’t know how you did it, angel of consolation, under the olive trees in Gethsemane. Maybe you said nothing, since often silence is best when the wound is fresh and it chafes at words. Maybe your presence was enough, your being near gently, lovingly, respectfully, to soften down with your presence the agony that could not be avoided. I don’t know what you did.
But I do know that your presence comforted Jesus. You gave him strength, you helped him to “pray more urgently”. You did what his disciples were unable to do. You watched while they slept; you came close when they withdrew “at a stone’s throw”.
I believe your being close is the secret. To be by the side, to watch, to keep company. And that is what I want to learn in order to console and give strength to people. To be close to the person who suffers, to watch their pain, to shake their hand, to meet their eyes. It is enough that they sense a figure by their side, a felt presence, a near-by silence. When words are no use, it is better not to say them. When theories do not fit, it is better to silence them. Just to be is the best way to heal. Sharing is healing.
Thank you, angel of strength, because you gave strength to Jesus in his suffering. Give me strength in my suffering, and teach me how to give strength to people who suffer and come to me for strength.
Throw-awayMy cell phone informs me I have so many points towards the purchase of a new one. Latest model. Cheap. Although points alone are not enough. I have to pay something. So many points and so many euros. With a further discount if before such a date. Almighty pressure. But I resist the pressure and stick to my phone.
Science is not neutral. The cell phone is a great advance, to be sure. I know it and I’ve benefited by it. But it is loaded. Loaded with advertisements. With points. With the temptation to change to the latest model. Which, in turn, will bring its points to entice the user to buy the next latest one. Throw-away culture. My cell phone makes some transactions in life easier for me, and I’m grateful for that, but then it waylays me with the consumerist temptation to buy the latest, the best, the most fashionable. The pressure to change. New. Fashion. Cheap. Nothing is made to last. From being a means of communication, the mobile phone has come to be an instrument of consumerism.
I am in the midst of a group of young people when my mobile rings. I hear it, take it out, put it to my ear with pride. Let these young people see that I too am up-to-date. I too have a cell phone. But they laugh. What an old model! they tell me laughing at it. To think that I was feeling proud of it! But I understand. It is too thick, too heavy, with a small screen in black and white. These people know all the models. They don’t make them like mine any more. I quickly wind up my phone conversation. I put the phone in my pocket again. Let’s talk about something else.
But the incident has made me pay attention to the points in my mobile. I have more than enough for a new one. Now I do yield to temptation. I too fall into consumerism. I’ve acquired it. It is much thinner, lighter, with a large colour screen. It even boasts an SMS 2.0 which is the latest at the moment. And which, soon, I suppose, will give way to 3.0. By then I’ll have more points. Though I don’t think they’ll be enough to get me an iPhone 3G.
And now please notice the following quotation from Isabel Allende:
“My invented country”
“If Romeo and Juliet had had a cell phone, their fate would have been different.” (Isabel Allende, My Invented Country, Harper Perennial, London, 2004)
That wouldn’t have satisfied Shakespeare, though. Technology versus tragedy. I’m going to quote from the same book by Isabel Allende a page about another point that affects all of us. And it threatens the whole of society. It threatens even the Church a little bit. Bureaucracy. Once, in my mother’s life, I had to take her to get a “life certificate”, a document to show that she was alive. I took her to an office where fifteen clerks sat behind fifteen windows, I went to the one with a shorter queue, I introduced my mother to the god behind the window, I told him to see how happy and cheerful she was, and I asked my mother to smile to him and to shake hands with him. But the god behind the window told me she had to go to window number 5 to get a form, fill it carefully in duplicate, sign it, then go to window number 6 to get it stamped, to number 7 to submit it, and come again the next day to fetch it. I understood. That is what is called creating jobs. Arranging for a salary for windows 5, 6, and 7, when a handshake would do. Bureaucracy. Isabel Allende writes:
“Love for regulations, however unworkable they may be, finds its best exponents in the enormous bureaucracy of our suffering country. That bureaucracy is the paradise of the people in their uniform gray suits. There such a person can vegetate to their pleasure, completely safe from the traps of imagination, perfectly secure in their post to the day he retires – unless that person is imprudent enough to try to change things. A public official must understand from his first day in office that any show of initiative will signal the end of his career because he isn’t there to be meritorious but to reach his level of incompetence with dignity. The point of moving papers with seals and stamps from one perusal to the next is not to resolve problems but to obstruct solutions. If the problems were resolved, bureaucracy would lose its power and many honest people would be left without employment; on the other hand, if things get worse, the state increases the budget and hires more people, and thus lowers the index of the unemployed. Everyone is happy. The official abuses every smidgen of his power, starting from the premise that the public is his enemy, a sentiment that is fully reciprocated. The clerk on duty demands that the poor petitioner produce proof that he was born, that he isn’t a criminal, that he paid his taxes, that he registered to vote, and that he’s still alive, because even if he throws a tantrum to prove that he hasn’t died, he is obliged to present a ‘certificate of survival’. The problem has reached such proportions that the government itself has created an office to combat bureaucracy. Citizens may now complain of being shabbily treated and may file charges against incompetent officials… on a form requiring a seal and three copies, of course. Recently, a busload of us tourists crossing the border between Chile and Argentina had to wait an hour and a half while our documents were checked. Getting through the Berlin Wall was easier. Kafka was Chilean.” (P. 93)
I now apply this, with due respect and love, to the Church. In the beginning of the Church, as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles, the twelve apostles found themselves too busy with the task of “keeping accounts” (which is the Greek word used in the text), and appointed seven deacons to look after the job so that the apostles would remain free for the service of The Word, that is to evangelise. We know two of those deacons, Stephen and Phillip, and both, instead of “keeping accounts” soon turned to “The Word”, which led Stephen to martyrdom, and took Phillip to evangelise Samaria. That is, those destined to bureaucracy went over to evangelising, and that made for the flourishing of the Church; whereas now, on the contrary, there are priests ordained for evangelisation who have to devout their time to bureaucracy. The result, too, is different.
Another thought from Isabel Allende, friendly irreverent to be sure, but expressing what many lay people feel and we priests should take into account. “Churches in Chile are filled on Sundays, and the pope is venerated, although no one pays any attention to his views on contraceptives because it’s thought that there’s no way an aged celibate who doesn’t have to work for a living can be an expert on that subject.” (p. 63)
One last quotation which I apply to myself and my life between Spain and India: “For the moment California is my home and Chile is the land of my nostalgia. My heart isn’t divided, it has merely grown larger.” (197) Thank you, India.
You keep asking me about Fr Pagola’s work “Jesus”, which has caused quite a stir among you, and I keep answering you. I repeat that there is nothing in that book which has not repeatedly appeared in scholarly theological books and reviews, but which, on reaching now a general public and being read by many (eight editions in six months) has caused a certain bewilderment. I’ve had to read the book now to answer you (it was out of stock in three bookshops I asked for it), and I’m going to give you just one example. This is what Pagola says about the washing of the feet of the apostles by Jesus on Maundy Thursday.
“St John’s gospel says that, at a given moment in the Last Supper, Jesus got up from the table and began to wash his disciples’ feet. The scene is probably an invention of the evangelist, but it admirable reflects Jesus’s thought. The passage is found only in John 13:1-16. Although there are some scholars who defend its authenticity, the majority tends to see the story as a late addition.” (p. 368)
Any normal Catholic who reads this will be scandalised. Every year on Maundy Thursday he or she remembers and relives in church the memorable and unforgettable scene of the washing of the feet, the reading of the gospel text, the gesture of Jesus, the wearing the towel, the charming dialogue with Peter, the hint that “not all of you are clean”, the commandment to do as he had done. And now they come and tell them that all this is “a late addition”, “an invention of the evangelist”. Jesus did not wash anybody’s feet, and Peter did not dialogue with him on the occasion. One can understand the wonderment. If this passage of the gospel is not true, how can be sure of any other?
This does not mean that whatever the theologians say is true, but it does mean that there is no contact between the theologians and the people. This is bad for the theologians and bad for the people. If the reactions to this book help a mutual rapprochement, it will have done its job.
Psalm 42 – The God of my Joy
“Then shall I come to the altar of God,
the God of my joy.”Give me the gift of joy, Lord. I need it for myself and for my brothers and sisters. This is no selfish prayer for my own contentment, but a deep, social and religious need, to communicate to others your presence through the sacrament of your joy in the sincerity of my heart.
This world is a sad place for many with their worries and their misery, their drudgery and their routine. Hardly a genuine smile, hardly a spontaneous laugh. There is a pall of gloom over the lives of men. And it is only your presence, Lord, that can dispel that gloom and make the brightness of your joy shine, like the bursting of dawn, over the dreariness of life.
To communicate your joy to men and women, Lord, you want other men and women as channels and witnesses of the only true joy which is your grace and your love. That is why I offer you my heart and my life, Lord, for you to touch other humans by touching me. Make me rejoice with you, so that when I walk into a person’s life I may illumine their face in your name, when I enter the company of others I may brighten the place with your splendour.
Make my smile be sincere, and my laughter be genuine. Make my face shine with the reflection of your presence. Make my heart expand with the warmth of your grace. Let my step quicken and my body respond to the majesty of your glory. Bless me with joy so that I may bless in turn the persons I meet and the places I visit. Anoint me with happiness, that I may consecrate the world of men and women in the liturgy of rejoicing.
Men and women in this world want happiness, Lord, and if they see happiness in the people who follow you and profess your service, they will come to you to get for themselves what they have seen in your servants. If you want to save religion on earth, Lord, give joy to religious men and women. Your joy is our strength.
When I ask for joy, I do not shun trials and sufferings. I know man’s lot on earth and accept it with willing faith. But in the midst of those trials and sufferings that form part of the human condition, I ask for the serenity to face them and the steadfastness to go through them with confidence, so that even in my dark hours I may be a living witness to the power of your hand. When I cannot have the glowing brightness of outward joy, let me have at least the soothing clarity of resigned acceptance. In peace and in joy let me always be a serene witness of the glory to come, a citizen of heaven, on my way trough earth, to my final destination.
“God of my joy!” That is my boast, my credentials, my confidence. Your joy is my light, my guide and my strength.
“Send forth your light and your truth to be my guide
and lead me to your holy hill, to your tabernacle;
then shall I come to the altar of God,
the God of my joy.”
The angel at the sepulchre
“Suddenly there was a violent earthquake; an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone, and sat down on it. His face shone like lightning; his garments were white as snow.”
(Matthew 28:2-3)The angel of the resurrection. Sitting on a stone. The wide, round stone rolled before the entrance to the sepulchre, sealed with the seals of authority, impossible to move. Now it is by the side of the open sepulchre, with the angel joyfully sitting on it. Bright as lightning and white as snow. Picture for Easter Sunday. And for all days of our life for ever.
The angels mark the milestones of the gospel. As they marked the stages of the people of God through its history. And as I would like them to mark my days and my ways in the ups and downs of my life. An angel for each stage. And, above all, an angel announcing life before the open door of what was supposed to be a closed tomb. Final triumph of faith at the end of life. O death, where is your sting?
The tombstone has become an angel’s throne. His presence there is a challenge to death. Let those who thought all was ended come now and see. This is not the end but the beginning. Jesus has accomplished his mission, and the “joy for all the people” the angel announced at Bethlehem at his coming, becomes reality for all times at his parting as the angel at Jerusalem announces. Once again the angel takes up his favourite mission to announce joy. Contagious joy that spreads the news through the witnesses of the resurrection on the glorious dawn of Easter Sunday. We have seen angels. We have seen the Lord. We have walked with him, we have eaten with him. The Lord is now constantly present for ever in his glory, and the angels stand by his side in worship. “When he presents the firstborn to the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels pay him homage’.” (Hebrews 1:6) And the angels who have followed him through his life, accompany him with all the more joy in his resurrection.
To preach the gospel is to announce the good news. The good news is the resurrection of Jesus. The angels announce it to us so that we may now announce it to one another. The mission of angels has become our mission. An empty tomb and a full hope. The angel at the sepulchre is proclaiming it with his standing. The guardians fled.
I was feeling quite happy and proud with my web site and my e-mail which keep me in contact with so many people in a fast and modern way, and, all of a sudden, I find the following sentence in a book about young people I was reading: “Young people hardly ever use e-mail any more, and they say e-mail is the means of communication for senior citizens.”
(Jeroen Boschma, The Einstein Generation, Gestión 2000, Barcelona 2008, p.61)
Out of date. Senior citizens. E-mail. It looked so modern! But apparently it isn’t any more. It is too slow. We insulted ordinary mail by calling it “snail mail”, and now the opprobrium is on us. One has to wait for the other person to receive it, to open their computer, to answer at their time, then for me to receive the answer, to open my computer, to open my mail, to select the message, to read it…, and by then the contact has been lost if there ever was any. No instant reading, no real time, no contact, and whatever is not instantaneous is no communication. Now we have Web 2.0, SMS 2.0, iPhone 3G. And more to come.
Contact as a way of life. My attention to things and persons is linear, that is, one thing after another. “Each thing at its time, and a time for each thing”, as we were told when we where children. The young person’s attention is lateral, many things and many people at a time. To be connected. To be in touch. That is the new way. I am not judging and I am not comparing; I am only striving to understand. Here is what the book says:
“Let’s take a piece of class work, for instance. Instead of sitting calmly and delve into the topic, young people open Internet, type key words they know by heart, surf about freely through site after site, search, find, cut and copy, and there it is ready. The printer spits out the pages in full colour. But, do you know the best? They keep simultaneously ten windows open in their webs, game portals, links, and God knows how many conversations by Messenger. Besides, their cell phone sounds with a new message, TV is on, and at the other side of the table a friend is sitting down and conversation flows. How can they concentrate with to many stimuli and so much distraction? You don’t understand it because you used to sit down alone to study, to write, to read, do you remember? With paper and pencil. You perhaps turned on the radio, but only for classical music and very low, and that was that.” (p. 9)
I work by myself. When I prepared my mathematics classes in college, and now when I write books and compose my web, I read, I think, I choose, I write. The young person works in a team. On line. In the net. They talk and check and contact and discuss. Group wisdom. For me, Internet is a way to get information. For the young people it is a way to be in contact. From the same book:
“This new generation is more sociable than any other, it has wide nets of friends, both online and offline, and they are used to learn and to work in a group. Everything has to be done in mutual collaboration, because it is only when we all get together that we can effectively change things.” (306)
“Group knowledge and collective wisdom is something our young people have sucked through Internet, and it reflects the way they have learned to carry out an exchange of knowledge. Learning in the net is based on the interchange of individual scholarship. All the individuals together make the group know more. Everyone is good at something, and so the group is significantly more intelligent than the most intelligent of its members.” (300)
I feel flooded by the amount of information in Internet, by the infinitude of Google, the multiplicity of publicity, the proliferation of data and figures. The young person finds quick way in the cybernetic jungle, they choose, discard, download, cut and stick, surf with speed and with pleasure. Here’s the book again:
“We feel there is too much information, and we cannot assimilate it. We grew up with the idea that we had to know everything about a topic before we could have an opinion on it, and so we get an inferiority complex before so much information we cannot handle. Young people are not troubled by that. They have grown in the midst of the electronic jungle, and they have developed a natural way of screening date according to their personal needs and interests, and to the recommendations by others without more ado.” (299)
To our eyes all young people look alike. Jeans, cellular, hair style. That is so, but then each young person later personalises his or her own image. They carefully choose the trademark for their jeans, their tassels, accessories, belts. No two jeans are the same. The cellular’s make, the model, the case, the hangings. The hair style not only varies from person to person but from mood to mood of the same person who changes image as life moves on. An iPod is as characteristic and individualising as its owner’s fingerprints. Common traits as earrings, tattoos, piercings are common to adults’ eyes, while for them they are essentially different as personal identification marks. “Young people add their own identifying seal to the market’s trademark.” (139)
“Our young people’s essential life values are authenticity, respect, self-realisation, and self-esteem.” (165)
“They learn very early in life to be critical and not to link automatically truth to authority.” (59)
My comment: They do not link truth to authority. Perhaps this could explain certain things we should think about from inside the Church.
– My husband has left me, and this is very hard for me. Could you send me a line to comfort me? God bless you. Thank you.
– I respect your pain. It must be very painful to see someone who has been so close break away. It’s hard to imagine. I know many cases and I know the statistics and I understand there are ways and ways of separating, but I see all that from a little far, as I am not married, and I’m not boasting of that neither saying it is in any way better or worse than any other option, but I’m just stating my inadequacy. The institution of marriage is changing fast, and it is not easy to assume the changes. We have upheld so strongly marriage for life that we don’t know how to react when in practice we find that it often is not so. It is late for us to know how to react in these cases, a thing that our young people, for good or for evil, are fast learning on their own. The important thing is for you not to break down, and to go on with your life. Do not close yourself in for this experience. Go ahead with your life, with your family, with your friendship with women and men, with all your social contacts at large; do not isolate yourself, do not become sceptical nor bitter, do not believe all men are the same, remain open to all things and to all persons, and learn little by little to live in a new way and to let life lead you where it will. Keep up all your activities, live day to day and hour by hour, and gently close the chapter inwardly, not forgetting it, which is neither possible nor desirable, but letting it form part of your past, not of your present. Open yourself to the future. You have all your life before you.
Thanks for your trust, and write whenever you want.
Psalm 43 – Prayer for a troubled Church
It is not that people attack us now, Lord, it is that they simply ignore us. The Church does not count any more in the minds of many. Its doctrine and its teaching, its rulings and its warnings are just set aside and politely passed over by most people. They don’t take even the trouble to oppose us, to answer our arguments or consider our reflections. They just take no notice and go their way as though we did not exist, as though your Church meant nothing to the modern world. They tell us we are not relevant, and that is the worst charge that can be made against us in today’s society. These are troubled times for your People, Lord.
We have been taken a little by surprise, because we were used to consideration and respect. The word of your Church was heard and obeyed, it ruled consciences and drew frontiers among peoples. Those were days of power and influence, and their memory is still with us.
“O God, we have heard for ourselves,
our fathers have told us all
the deeds which you did in their days,
all the work of your hand in days of old.
You planted them in the land and drove the nations out,
you made them strike root, breaking up the peoples;
It was not our fathers’ swords won them the land,
nor their arm that gave them the victory,
but your right hand and your arm and the light of your presence;
such was your favour to them.”
We don’t want to revert to an easy triumphalism by any means, but we feel we have been thrown from one extreme to the other. Formerly we were the centre of the world, and now suddenly we don’t seem to exist. In the military terms of your psalm, “Now you have rejected and humbled us, and you no longer lead our armies into battle.”That is the sorrow of my heart: You don’t lead us now into battle. I don’t mean the battle of chariots and horses, the wars of bombs and missiles; I mean the battles of the spirit, the conquests of the mind, the upholding of human values and the victory of freedom over oppression. You don’t fight with us. We don’t feel the power of your right arm. We speak and nobody listens, we plead and nobody takes notice. Human dignity is insulted, and human rights are trampled upon. And you don’t seem to care.
“You have exposed us to the taunts of our neighbours,
to the mockery and contempt of all around.
You have made us a byword among the nations,
and the peoples shake their heads at us;
so my disgrace confronts me all day long,
and I am covered with shame
at the shouts of those who taunt and abuse me.”We don’t ask for external glory, but for inner conversion. We don’t want public attention but spiritual efficiency. We don’t want honour for us but love for all men and women. And you can do that as you did it in former days and can do it again.
Although I understand that the blame is ours. The Church has lost influence because she has lost the living gospel. There is too much bureaucracy, immobility, conservatism, authoritarianism, rigidity, censorship within ourselves. That lack of flexibility makes us lose contact with reality around us and with the society we want to save. Save ourselves that we made save all.
“Bestir yourself, Lord; why do you sleep?
Awake, do not reject us for ever.
Why do you hide your face,
heedless of our misery and our sufferings?
For we sink down to the dust
and lie prone on the earth.
Arise and come to your help:
for your love’s sake set us free.”
The angel and the women
“The angel spoke to the women; ‘You’, he said, ‘have nothing to fear. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised, as he said he would be. Come and see the place where he was laid, and then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has been raised from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee; there you will see him”. That is what I came to tell you.’ They hurried away from the tomb in awe and great joy, and ran to bring the news to the disciples.”
(Matthew 28:5-8)I’m glad to see that the first to be spoken to by the angel are women. They had followed Jesus, had served him faithfully, had wept for him sorrowfully, had searched for him for a last greeting of perfumes and ointments. That’s why they are now the first to hear the great news, to see the empty tomb led by an angel, to rejoice and to run in the first lap of the race for the Good News that keeps till today going round the world with the message of resurrection and liberation for all and for ever. “He is not here! He has been raised!”
Messengers of joy, witnesses of light, first fruits of the gospel. That first dawn of Easter Sunday belongs to the women, as the dawn of each day in all homes on earth belongs to them in their loving care and their constant work. They have been thinking about it all, have planned it all, have thought of every detail, have the courage to come back on the early morning to the sealed sepulchre under guard, not knowing how they’ll reach it, push aside the stone, break the seals, and render to the sacred body the last service of the perfumes and the oils. For all that they deserve to be the first in the paschal joy and the messengers to the apostles themselves who later will take the news to the world.
They join tenderness and courage, haste and thoughtfulness, foresight and improvisation, temerity and shyness. All that is in their hearts as they run to the cold tomb as soon as the first lights of the day that follows the Sabbath’s rest loom over the horizon. They are in a hurry to honour Jesus’s dead body. And Jesus is no less anxious to surprise their innocence and to transform their lives. He himself comes now, not content with the message of the angel, shows himself to them, and fills their hearts with joy.
“Suddenly Jesus was there in their path, greeting them. They came up and clasped his fee, kneeling before him.’ Do not be afraid,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Go and take word to my brothers that they are to leave for Galilee. They will see me there’.”
No wonder Jesus, too, chooses them first. He recompenses them for their fidelity, their perseverance, their devotion, their love. And thereby he adds to his gospel and to his resurrection the feminine touch that is needed to communicate tenderness, to deepen affection, to strengthen the commitment, to seal the consecration. The women at the dawn of the resurrection proclaim with the witness of their presence the grateful need of their continued collaboration, their committed service, their sharp intelligence, their unfailing instinct, their virginal candour, their motherly dignity, their generous friendship in all the stages of the history of the people of God down to our very days. Jesus has come first of all to the women. And the angel had prepared them before.
Thank you, noble and chivalrous angel, for having thought first of them and having surprised them with the news of the risen Christ. Let them continue, with their joy, your work in the Church and in the world.
I’ll never know how that sensation came to me that day, but I’ll tell it as it happened. Those were the last years in my mother’s life, it was a Sunday at midmorning, I was alone with her at home working in my room while she was sleeping in hers, when I got a phone call from my brother. He lived very close by, and he was asking me to come with him and his wife to a bar to have some coffee as we used to do on Sundays. I told him I was coming right-away, I had a look at my mother who was peaceful in her sleep, came out and locked the door of the house.
I reached the coffee-shop where they were sitting already, sat by their side, asked for a coffee, and began to drink it. Then the strange thing happened. I felt uneasy. I sensed something was happening at home. It was an irrational feeling without any sensible basis, but it was so strong that I couldn’t resist it. I told my brother and my sister-in-law who told me to do as I pleased, though they must have thought I was crazy. I got up and came back home.
My room had a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that gave on to a small terrace with a wrought-iron grille to bar the entrance from outside. As I came in, the whole glass door was opened. I looked down and saw a man who had forcibly separated the two sides of the grille at floor level and was flat on the floor, squeezing in on the carpet, half of his body already inside with only his legs to follow. I made no noise. I quietly walked towards him till my shoes came right under his face that was close to the floor. If I had shouted he could have jumped in with danger to me. He had a large naked knife by his side. But the first thing he saw was my shoes under his nose, he looked up, saw me in all my height, squeezed back little by little till he was fully outside, stood up, shook the dust off his shirt and pants, and faced me full height at the other side of the grille.
He was a young man, tall, well dressed, well spoken. He said gently: “Sorry, I thought there was no one in the house.” Very kind of him. He had miscalculated and he duly apologised. Good manners. I saw he had climbed on to the terrace by a tree in the garden that grew just by the side, so I told him matter-of-factly: “Please go back the way you came.” But then he started pleading with me: “Please, sir, please, don’t make me climb down that damned tree; I had enough trouble climbing up though it. Open the grille for me, please, let me in so that I can go out at the door and down the staircase. I will not hurt you. I promise. Please let me in, sir.”
That was getting interesting. I took the risk. I told him to hand me his knife, he gave it to me, I opened the padlock, pulled the grille aside sideways, and let him in. We stood front to front inside the room, and none of us spoke for a while. He obviously came from a good family, looked confused and ashamed, kept his eyes down. I placed my hand on his shoulder (while with my other hand I still held his knife) and I noticed his eyes went wet.
– You can imagine it, sir. Drugs.
– Yes, I could imagine.
– I couldn’t get my dose and cannot stand it.
– I understand.
– I need the drug desperately and I thought I could get some money here to buy it.
– I see.
– Please don’t think I’m bad.
– You are not.
We stood for a while saying nothing. I handed him back his knife. I went to the door to let him out when he asked me: “Please, could you give me some money to buy the drug?” The boy surprised me at every turn. I remained hesitant for a moment not knowing what to do, pondering the unfamiliar situation. He spoke again: “Never mind, sir. I’ll manage. Please open the door for me, and sorry for all the trouble.” I opened the door and he left. I never saw him again. And I will never know what made me come back that morning from the coffee-shop to my house. My mother slept peacefully in her room all the while and had noticed nothing. I didn’t tell her anything.
I was left with a touch of sadness not to have given some money to the young man.
A classical quotation from Krishnamurti:
“What makes a problem to be a problem – please listen carefully – what makes it a problem? A problem exists only when you want to resolve it. Please listen to this carefully. I have a problem: I want to have a mind that is clear, unhurt, unpolluted, free, vital, full of beauty and energy. And I have examined, looked at it, and I see that psychological analysis, interpreting dreams, is not the way, nor is going off to someone and saying, ‘Please help me’, or following some guru who tells me, ‘Forget all that, think about God.’ I see all that is of no value. So I am left with this, and it has become a problem. And I say, Why has it become a problem? If I can’t do anything about it, it is not a problem. You are following all this? It is only when I think I can do something about it that it becomes a problem. I don’t know if you understand this.
If I actually know that I am confronted with a gigantic mountain, and I can’t do anything about it – it is there, with its great height, dignity, majesty, full stability, splendour – why should I make a problem of it? It is only when I want to climb it, go beyond it, that it becomes a problem. But when I see that I can’t do anything about this, is it a problem? If it is not a problem, then it is resolved, isn’t it? This is not a trick, please. It is a truth.
A river is flowing by, full, strong, heavy with water. It is only when I want to cross to the other side, where I think there is more freedom, more beauty, more loveliness, peace, and so forth, that crossing the river becomes a problem. But I see I can’t cross the river – I haven’t got a boat, I can’t swim, I don’t know what to do. Therefore what happens to my mind? It is not content with remaining on this side, you understand. But it has no problem. I wonder if you are getting all this? So my hurt is not a problem. Therefore I am not hurt. Oh, it is so simple if you see this! It is so simple that we refuse to see it.”
(Krishnamurti, Facing a World in Crisis, Krishnamurti Foundation India, Chennai 2007, p. 52)
I just find it all charming.
The problem is a problem if only I try to solve it.
The river becomes a problem only if I want to cross it.
The mountain becomes a problem only if I want to climb it.
The world becomes a problem only if I want to improve it.
The Church… well.
The end of all problems.
Thank you, Krishnaji.
“I am not allowed into the mosque because they tell me, ’You are drunk’.
“I am not allowed into the tavern because they tell me, ‘You are sober’.”
You ask me: “I bring my small child to mass on Sunday along with me as I cannot leave her alone at home, and I even think it is good for her to be present somehow at mass as they tell us small children record their first impressions on their memories and so this will help already her Christian formation. The problem is she gets lose, squeezes through the benches, shouts and runs, and people frown and I get nervous. What should I do?”
I’ll tell you something I read very recently. It’s from the book “He’s Living Home” by Kiyohiro Miura in which he narrates his smallest son’s vocation to become a Buddhist monk.
“When I asked my son if he wanted to come with me to the temple, he was delighted; maybe because he was wondering what sort of place his father was going every Sunday to. I thought he would soon get tired but, instead, he started waking me up on Sunday mornings. Though problems soon started to come up. One of the elders complained:
– This is not a kindergarten. The child is disturbing our prayer.
The priest then addressed the congregation and said:
– Who is here the master and who is the disciple? I have approved the child’s coming to the temple. I have something in mind for him and it is important he gets used to the surroundings from now on. In any case, what kind of prayer is this if the presence of a child stops it? If you cannot concentrate with a child around here, how will you concentrate at home with all your family around? Zen can be practiced in all places or circumstances, or it is not Zen. Let the child stay.”
(Kiyohiro Miura, He’s Leaving Home, p. 25)
I’ll tell you something more. As a young priest I began to give talks, workshops, courses to adults, and in them I exacted strict discipline, punctuality, silence, close doors, full attention, staying till the end for everybody. For the first time, and this happened in Instituto Senderos, Tres Arroyos, Argentina, when the audience gathered for the first talk, I found in the first row, just in front of me, a young couple with a very small child who sat on the floor between its parents and there it began its own cycle of parallel activities. I was horrified. Nowhere had I faced such a situation. And nobody had warned me about it. I needed full concentration to remember what I wanted to say, to hold the listeners’ attention, to move freely, to lower my voice or raise it, to hold long silences, to create and keep the right atmosphere throughout. And now everything was left to the mercy of the child in the first row. A sharp cry and my talk was over.
There were still a few minutes before starting. I quieted myself down. I breathed deep. I walked the length of the stage. I came down to the child. I said, ‘Hello.’ He ignored me. I proffered my hand. He was good enough to grab it. Contact was established. I lost my fear. I looked him in the eye. Have a good time. I smiled to his parents. I thought that if my talk went well, if I felt relaxed and my listeners felt relaxed too, the child also would relax and would not give trouble. Somehow he was going to be the thermometer to measure the level of the session. If I bored my listeners, the first to notice it would be the child, and he would be unsettled. It my listeners were happy and relaxed, the child would reflect their satisfaction. Welcome, my boy. “Let the small children come unto me.”
Much later I had even dogs in my talks. But don’t tell your parish priest about that.
Psalm 44 – A Song of Love
This is the song of a king and a queen, the wedding of a prince and a princess, the covenant between God and his People, the union between Christ and his Church. This is a poem of love between you and me, Lord; this is our private romance, our spiritual love feast, our mystical intimacy. No wonder “my heart is stirred and my pen runs fast.”
How beautiful you are, prince of my dreams!:
“You surpass all mankind in beauty,
your lips are moulded in grace,
so you are blessed by God for ever.
God has anointed you with oil,
the token of joy.
Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh
and powder of aloes,
and the music of strings greets you
from a palace panelled with ivory.”And I hear you say of the bride:
“How beautiful you are,
the king’s daughter, the princess of Tyre,
arrayed in cloth-of-gold richly embroidered,
surrounded by virgins who follow you
with music and rejoicing!”The heart of religion is love. Studies and discussions and scholarship and research are wonderful, but they leave me cold, Lord. I like to know about you, but there are times when learning about you becomes pure learning, and I forget you. Today I want to put everything aside and tell you simply and directly how wonderful you are, how much you fill my life and how much I love you, more than I love anything or anybody on earth. You are loveable beyond description, Lord, and your beauty holds me fast with the infinite charm you alone possess.
I loved you from my childhood, I discovered your friendship in my youth, I fell in love with your gospels and I dreamt every day of the moment of meeting you in the Eucharist. If there was ever romance in a young man’s life, that was it! For me faith is falling in love, religious vocation is looking at your face, and heaven is you. That is my theology and that is my dogma. Your person, your voice, your smile. Prayer is being with you, and contemplation is looking at you. Religion is experience. “Come and see” is the summary of the four gospels and the whole of scripture. To see you is to love you, Lord, and to love you is bliss for ever in this life and in the next.
As I have grown, my love has matured. It does not have now the impetuousness of the first meeting, but it has gained the depths of wisdom and age. I have learned to be silent with you, to trust, to wait, to know that you are there in the length of my days and in the darkness of my nights, content to hold your hand in faith to seal the mutual trust that years of living together has built between us. I know you better and I love you more as I spend my life with you in faithful company.
You have spoken of a wedding, of espousals, of bride and bridegroom, of prince and princess; you yourself have chosen a terminology I would not have dared to use, and I thank you for that, and treasure the terms of our love in the boldness of your expressions. You have chosen the best words of human language, the more telling, the most intimate, to describe our relationship, and I now use those words with deep reverence and intimate joy. A lover knows how to select words, to nurse them, to fill them with meaning and to pronounce them with tenderness. I receive those words from you, Lord, lovingly, and return them to you with my own devotion and love. Prince of my dreams, may you be blessed for ever and ever!
I will declare your fame
to all generations;
therefore the nations will praise you,
for ever and ever.”
Angels of the present moment
“They were gazing intently into the sky as he went, and all at once there stood beside them two men robed in white, who said, ‘Men of Galilee, why stand there looking up into the sky? This Jesus who has been taken from you up to heaven will come in the same way as you have seen him go.’ They then returned to Jerusalem.”
These two men robed in white seem to me to be a couple of angels in lay dress. They, who accompanied Jesus at the beginning of his life, could not be missing at the end. They know where Jesus is going and how he will come back in all his glory. And they disband the astounded Galileans with the practical gesture of the reality at hand. There is no use for ever looking up to heaven, however touching the farewell may have been. They have to come down from the mountain, return to the city, prepare themselves for the coming of the Spirit, and go forth to give witness of all they have seen and heard, from Judea and Samaria and unto the ends of the earth.
The angels call for action. Jesus has now to be found in our daily life. It’s fine to look up to heaven, but my angel is reminding me now that I must also look down to earth to see where I step, look at the people to see what face they show to me, at the trees to be reminded that green exists, to the crossroad to save my life from the shock of the ignored traffic light. The concrete reality of daily life.
The angel of the present moment. The angel of the here and now. The angel of each hour and each circumstance, of getting back to reality, close to my work, immersed in my task. Maybe that’s why they have taken the aspect of men – while keeping their official colour dressed in white – to return us to the daily human company we live with and work with, trimming a bit the edges of their wings which we love to see but which can distract us from our earthly reality. We’re back home. With angels in our kitchen. That is the lesson.
The angel never takes leave. He only changes his appearance. He puts on civvies. He hides behind a face, a flower, a song, a lightning. He is present in every circumstance, every encounter, every bit of business. Every moment has its angel, gently adapting himself to the situation at hand. Dealing with my angel places me back into the present moment after having had a glimpse of eternity, makes me look down on earth after having looked up to heaven, makes me practical after having made me mystical. I need his touch of realism.
The angel has remained on earth even after Jesus has disappeared from sight into heaven. I thank him for his gesture of solidarity with me. I thank him for his words that open my eyes. I take notice of his promise that Jesus will return. In fact he comes back every day and every moment, and that reminds me of his continual presence and prepares me for his last coming at the end of time. Even in his last coming he will come “in the company of all his angels” (Matthew 25:31), and so it is the angels that help us prepare it. The angels accompany us always as they accompanied Jesus while he walked on earth and when he reigns in heaven. They adapt their presence to every situation, every need, every moment. The angels know how to make themselves useful wherever they may be and whatever we may be doing.
The two angels of the ascension are the angels of daily work as they return us to our duties, our occupation, our city. Peter and James and John will go back first to fish, and then to preach, to travel, to die as witnesses of Jesus whom they have known in the company of his angels.
Angels that look up to heaven and stand firm on earth: guide me today and always from the silence of prayer to the activity of my work, from solitude to company, from thinking to sharing, from rest to activity, from the interrupted dealings with Jesus in Galilee to his divine presence every moment of my life.
Angles of the present moment: teach me how to live each moment with all my heart.
Yesterday we celebrated in our community the silver jubilee in the priesthood of four of us this year. My date had been in March, when I did mention it here. Now I celebrated it with the other jubilarians, and it fell to me to preach the homily at the jubilee mass yesterday. This is something of what I said:
I should have been ordained a priest in the year 1957, but I had to postpone my ordination for one year. I had arrived in India after finishing half of my Jesuit studies in Spain, for me to complete the other half in India. Before I could do this, I had to take my M.A. degree en mathematics in Madras University, and go through my language year to study Gujarati in Anand. This put me back six years. After the language year, all my Jesuit companions in it went on to Pune for their theological studies and priestly ordination, but I remained back one more year, which placed my ordination in 1958. Why this delay?
Gujarati is a difficult language for a foreigner, and one year is not enough to master it. For all my efforts and dedication, when I reached the end of the year and examined myself honestly, I had to admit that I had a fairly good grasp of grammar, but no command of the idiom, the vocabulary, the pronunciation, and I spoke halting Gujarati with few words and foreign accent, and was far from writing it with any kind of facility or even correctness. I knew the language by half, and was conscious of it. Now, my father since childhood had inculcated into my soul the principle of doing things well as a basis of life. Blessed be that insistence. A language learnt by half is no use at all. One more year would give me mastery to use it freely in speech and in writing. I saw it clearly and I decided to stay.
The problem was that Morarji Desai had just then become Chief Minister in the then Bombay State, and through the only Catholic member of his government, Violet Alva, proceed to give us official notice that we, foreign missionaries in training in India, would only be allowed to complete our studies there, and after that our visas would not be extended and we would have to return to our countries of origin, as free India did no want more foreign missionaries. This made my decision difficult. What use was my learning Gujarati properly if I was never going to go to Gujarat? It was a strong crisis. A turning point in my life.
All my companions had it clear and went on cheerfully to Pune to do their theological studies, which could be done equally well in India as in Spain, and would later return to Spain enriched by their Indian experience. Yet I remained firm and staid back. To make it harder for me, as they were leaving for Pune they burdened my conscience telling me that I would have to render an account to God for having said 365 masses less than they. They said it half seriously, half in jest, but they did say it, and they literally showed pity on me. I was crazy. But I stayed back. Together with my father’s welcome heritage, something else that helped me in the moment was the advice given me by a great Provincial Superior, Fernando Arellano, to whom I am happy to render tribute here. He knew nothing about India when he accompanied the twenty Jesuits he had destined on 1949 to the Ahmedabad Mission, and he told me on his departure back to Spain: “Don’t go to theology till you have achieved two things: the full mathematics degree, and the knowledge of Gujarati to your satisfaction. If you don’t do it before theology, you will never do it later.” He was a general-in-chief, and his vision helped me.
I stayed back. I went to Vidyanagar University and spent a whole year living in the University’s Students Hostel, attending all the classes of the degree course in Gujarati, being helped by obliging professors, spending the whole day with Gujarati students, religiously keeping my vow not to utter a single word in English the whole year to push myself into thinking, talking, dreaming in Gujarati in the exclusive atmosphere. That was how I learned the language to satisfaction, which was what later gave me closeness with the people, identification with India, success in my Gujarati books. That changed my life. Providentially, Bombay’s Chief Minister also was changed, his policy reversed, and we were allowed to remain in India. My companions did say 365 masses more than me, but they never mastered the language. It always pays to stand for excellence. Nobody in my whole life has asked me whether I took one year more in becoming a priest. What does it matter, anyway, at 84? What matters is doing things well.
That was the first year ordinations were allowed to be held at a mission station to help vocations. Ours took place in Anand. The problem was that the old church could not contain the expected crowd. The ceremony had to be held in the open air, and a large platform had to be built on the adjacent school playground. This is how it was built. India at that time was receiving from the United States by way of aid milk powder tins that were large, solid, rectangular, and there were many of them stored in our mission stations. They were collected in their hundreds, piled up, solidly tied together, a carpet was strewn over them, and the platform was ready. I will never forget I was ordained a priest over American milk powder tins that ominously cracked as we performed our liturgical motions over them. The tins held. They were sent back to their mission centres, and some would drink milk made with the milk powder that upheld us. We were six of us, of which three have died.
I had studied the Epistle to the Hebrews as a preparation for ordination, since its main theme is the priesthood of Christ. There are two particularly interesting things said in it. One, that our priesthood does not come from Levi, and the other that it comes from Melchizedek. What does it all mean? Melchizedek, curiously, was not a Hebrew, did not belong to the chosen people, was a “pagan” (I always rejoiced saying that in India), and yet he blessed Abraham, father of all the faithful, and, the Epistle argues, was consequently greater than Abraham, since he who blesses is greater than him whom he blesses. That is to say, our priesthood is not political, not national, not power-based. Jesus’s priesthood, and ours with his, is universal, and its blessings reach all. Melchizedek distributed bread and wine to Abraham and his people.
Now the bit about Levi. Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah, says the Epistle, and it makes much of it. Why? Since Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah, it is clear that he did not belong to the tribe of Levi, and that is the point the Epistle wants to stress. The descendants of Levi were the Levites, the priests of Israel, who carried out the services in the Temple, but in a purely ritual way of rubrics and ceremonies. The Temple bureaucrats. The kind of people who would think of the 365 masses less, the accountants, the administrators, the clerks. Such is not the priesthood of Christ. Jesus was not a Levitical priest. His priesthood was personal, real, sacrificial, universal. This is the way the Epistle to the Hebrews has to make it clear that our priesthood is spiritual, universal, personal, pastoral. We are pastors, not bureaucrats.
The Acts of the Apostles tell us how at the beginning the apostles devoted themselves to the ministry of the Word, but were soon distracted by the bureaucracy of organising charity meals for widows with the conflict between Jewish widows and Hellenistic widows, and the task of “serving at tables” in the Greek expression, which does not mean the apostles were waiters, as the “tables” were the moneylender’s tables, that is the keeping of accounts, and that was what distracted the apostles and took their time. Keeping accounts. So they decided to appoint seven deacons to look after the “tables”, thus freeing the apostles for the service of the Word. And here comes the point. We know nothing about the seven deacons, except for the first two, Stephen and Philip, but what we do know about them is most significant. Stephen preached all his time till his martyrdom, and Philip went forth to evangelise the eunuch of Queen Kandake and the whole of Samaria. That is to say, those appointed to the tables dedicated themselves to the Word. And that was how the Word grew: “The Word of God kept growing” (Acts 6:7).
Today we have the opposite situation. Instead of having those appointed to bureaucracy dedicate themselves to the Word, we have many priests and bishops consecrated to the Word spending most of their time in bureaucratic tasks. The result is also the opposite. The Word does not grow. Let us remember that we priests – all priests – are not bureaucrats but shepherds. We are not priests from Levi but from Judah, from Melchizedek, from Jesus. At the service of the Word. This is what we are meant to be and what we want to be.
Many of you have written to me on my page of September 1st. A bit of Christian theology. The Father does not send the Son to die on the cross to pay for our sins. I remind you: the father of the Prodigal Son in the gospel does not tell his son when he comes back, “Fine, my son, but you do not deserve pardon; so I will now have your elder brother killed, and once I am appeased by his blood, I will accept you back.” This would be sacrilegious nonsense, and of course is not what the gospel says, but they have told us that so often of the Father and the Son that we have believed it. A lady friend writes charmingly: “You are right that it makes no sense to say that Jesus died for our sins, but we have been told that so often that we can’t get it out of our minds.”
I’m only telling to many what theologians tell to a few. In the March issue of this year of the theological review Sal Terrae the Jesuit theologian Juan Manuel Martín-Moreno writes in an article titled precisely “Jesus died for our sins”:
“After St Anselm, medieval theology insisted upon its peculiar concept of redemption as the payment of a debt. We humans sin, cannot pay back our debt as we are finite and our debt is infinite, only a God-Man could pay for it as he was infinite while also a member of the human race. So Jesus’s death on the cross is the ‘vicarious satisfaction’ for our debt.
This theological construction is not intelligible to modern man or woman, it does not fit in with many New Testament texts, and presupposes a sorry image of God as a judge who demands reparation at any cost, to the extent of having the innocent pay for the guilty, which is even a bigger injustice. God could never be pleased with such a death, much less exact it.”
(Juan Manuel –Moreno, SJ, Sal Terrae, March 2008, p. 193)
And another theologian in another recent publication ends up with these words a similar treatment of the Anselmian theory: “How can this Anselmian idea of God as a fearful tyrant, a resentful victim, an unfair judge have been conceived and accepted for so long as a Christian doctrine?”
(Geraldo Luiz de Mori, Selecciones de Teología, October-December 2008, p. 314)
As you can see, my only fault is that I read much and come to know many things and like to enlarge my mind and come out of routine and talk with others even at the risk of being misinterpreted. It is time for the studies of theologians to reach the pulpit.
Psalm 35 – Be still!
“Be still and know that I am God.”How much I need that admonition, Lord! On hearing it from you I feel that all my spiritual welfare, my progress and my happiness are in it. If only I learn to keep quiet, to relax, to be still, to let be in faith and confidence, I shall find out that you are Lord and God, that the world is in your hands and I with it, and in that realisation I shall find joy and peace.
But that is, I confess, the one thing I don’t know: how to keep still. I must move around and busy myself and hurry and worry. I keep doing things and planning reforms and urging improvements and driving myself and everybody else mad with all sorts of activities. Even in my prayer life I plan and control and examine and improve continually what I do with the urge to do tomorrow better than today and to ensure that I keep going up in my worthy endeavour. I am a compulsive perfectionist, and I want to make sure that whatever I do, whether in my profession or in my prayer, has to be without fail the best I can do. That upsets the balance of my mind, and ruins my chances of finding you in peace.
I want to run my own life, not to mention the future of society and the destinies of humankind. I want to be in control, to order, to rule. And so I am always on the move, both in the multiplicity of my thoughts and in the urgency of my activities. That very hurry blinds me to your presence and makes me miss the offer of your power and your grace. I don’t see you because I am too busy looking at myself. I fill my day with feverish activity, and I have no time for you. Then I feel empty without you, and pack even more activity into my day to cover up its emptiness. Futile endeavour! My dissatisfaction grows, and my distance from you increases. My life is in the deadly grip of that vicious circle.
And then I hear your voice: “Be still, and know that I am God.” You bid me to calm down, to reduce speed, to enter silence. You want me to ease my own grip on life, to take things gently, to invite quietness. You ask me to sit down and look at you. To see that life is in your hands, that you direct the course of creation, that you are Lord and God. It is only in the peace of my soul that I can recognise your glory and majesty. It is only in silence that I can worship.
I know the meaning of those words when you first addressed them to Israel: “Stop fighting, and you will see how I am God.” Put down your weapons, stop your wars, quit defending your interests and obtaining your victories. Leave it to me, and then you will see how I am God and protect you and defend you. I have fought a lot for your cause, Lord. Teach me to stop fighting.
Your extended arm calmed the storms on the sea, Lord. Extend now your mighty hand over my heart to calm the storms that brood in it as in the blackness of a winter sky. Soothe my emotions, heal my anxiety, allay my fears. Make the blessing of peace descend at your bidding over my troubled heart. Pronounce again the word of counsel and power over me: “Be still.” And in the silence of wonder and the stillness of faith, I shall know that you are God, the God of my life.
The angel of the ways
“Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is the desert road.) He set out and went on his way.”(Acts: 8:26)The angel that marks out the roads for the gospel. Start out and go south. Philip, the deacon, started out and went his way. He reached the road, met the carriage of a high official of Kandake, queen of Ethiopia, was told again by the angel to get into it, instructed the official starting from the text of Isaiah he was reading, spoke of Jesus to him, baptised him on a pool of water near the road, and found himself back in Azotus, on the south coast, from where he went on preaching the gospel through all the coastal cities till Caesarea. Quite an apostolic journey. One of the first ‘foreign’ missions outside Jerusalem, prior even to Paul. And the whole trip was organised by an angel. It had to come out well.
I don’t know where to go. Jesus did say that the harvest was plentiful while the labourers were few. North, south, east, west, desert roads across sand and sun. Nobody on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza except the lone traveller that goes reading the Bible on his way. How can I know? How can I guess where my work will be more effective, where my word will echo wider, where my testimony will reach farther? How will I meet somebody who is asking about the sense of the Bible, who meditates on the prophets, who is open to Jesus? Who will show me the lonely carriage on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza?
I travel a lot, and sometimes I ask myself: Is it worthwhile? Did I choose the places properly? Will the fruit compensate for the fatigue and the time? Am I doing this out of zeal or out of vanity, as an apostle or as a tourist, for the spiritual profit of many or for the narrow satisfaction of myself? Who will help me in my own apostolic perplexities?
And not only in my professional options but also in the constant decisions of each day, whether small or big, in the family or with friends, in work or at leisure, about taking up this or leaving that, saying it or keeping quiet. How will I be right? Who will lead me? How will I know?
I know that there is an angel for that mission, and I want to engage him from now. Let him inspire me, direct me, accompany me, point out to me persons and places, give me strength and cheer, encourage me to approach people, to mount a carriage on its way, to engage in conversations that lead to Jesus. The angel’s directions in the desert of life. Gospel hope in an unbelieving society. Roads of faith in between tourist maps. Together with Philip, the deacon. And with his angel.
The biblical story ends on a happy note. The queen’s official “went on his way rejoicing”. Joy for all.
It has shaken me
I’m writing this immediately after the incident I’m telling here, with all the raw feelings the experience has excited in me.
After a busy morning and a cheerful lunch with my companions, I had fallen asleep while reading a book for my after-lunch rest. The phone has wakened me up. A man’s voice, so monotonous that it looked like a tape, has started its recital:
– We are offering you a better connection to Internet at a much lower price…
– Sorry, I’m not interested.
– Let me tell you that you’ll lose a golden opportunity if you…
– Excuse me, and I don’t want to hang up on anybody, but I’m not interested in your offer.
Then the voice that up to that moment had seemed just a recorded message, has all of a sudden become an anguished cry that has entreated me with all the vehemence of a desperate soul:
– DO NOT HANG UP ON ME, SIR! PLEASE! THIS IS MY WORK. I’M AT IT SINCE NINE IN THE MORNING. DID YOU HEAR ME???
It has broken my heart. This good man was there since nine in the morning trying to sell a new Internet connection to people who had no interest in buying it. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. Earphones hanging on his head and microphone strapped to his mouth. Picking up telephone numbers from a list on his computer’s screen, dialling, talking, cajoling, waiting, hanging up. How many times must he have repeated the same tale this morning! How many people must have told him they were not interested! How many must have hung up on him! How much fatigue, boredom, frustration, desperation!
It’s true I was half asleep when he rang, and the call has upset me. But that was a passing inconvenience. For that man it was his livelihood. We have parted company politely.
From his accent, it was an immigrant’s voice. Latin American.
It has broken my heart.
The old wise man walked every day leisurely. He had few disciples because he talked little. They did the talking, and he just nodded his head and uttered a few words here and there. He taught more with his deeds than with his words. It was up to the disciples to find out their meaning. One of his disciples asked him once:
– May I come to talk with you?
– Surely. The plum tree over there at sunrise.
The student was there on time. No sign of the master. Time went by. Finally the young man went away disappointed. Next day, when he again met the sage, he protested:
– Where were you? I didn’t see you under the tree.
– I was up on the tree. Why didn’t you look up?
(Fun-Chang, Los sabios de la túnica color ciruela, Obelisco, Barcelona 2004, p. 40)
The old wise man came out of the water dripping wet, and his disciples laughed at him as they had seen him stumble on a stone and fall into the river. They saw him undressing, lighting up a fire, and hanging over it his clothes to dry. For those young people who followed that master’s instructions day by day, seeing him fall into the water had been a disappointment. Without saying a word, the sage put on back his clothes as they dried up, joined his disciples and made them a sign to follow him. Then he asked them smiling: “Who is a greater fool, the one who stumbles or the one who follows the one who stumbles?”
Among the people in the village there was a young man called Chao Mu. He was twenty-two years old and had never left his birthplace. When he saw the sage he felt inspired and decided to follow him. The sage and the young man walked for a good while together in silence. When passing under a quince tree, the sage took one and began to eat it. Chao Mu said: “I don’t like quince.” The sage answered: “I haven’t told you to eat it. Just leave it alone.” They went on their way and Chao Mu saw a plum tree on a field. He spoke up: “I love plums!” The sage told him: “Just eat them.”
A few hours later they reached a river under the shadow of leafy trees. The waters of the river flowed gently, and some swans swam along the current. “O, what a beauty!” exclaimed Chao Mu while he stopped to look at the sight. “Just enjoy it”, counselled the sage while he kept walking. Farther on they came to a dog’s corpse rotting away in the dust. “How unpleasant!” burst out the young man. “Just ignore it”, advised the sage.
When their walk ended, the disciple complained to the master: “We have walked together for hours, and you have taught me nothing.” The master answered him: “I have showed you everything.”
Once a man came running to the tree under whose shadow the master sat in peace, and asked him between breaths: “Master, what road should I take?” The master answered him: “None. Let the road choose you.”
Indian saying: The weather does not care about criticism.
Moses is engraving on the Tablets of the Law the Ten Commandments Yahweh is dictating to him. When he finishes with the tenth, he looks up wistfully at Yahweh and tells him: “Lord, there’s still room for one more.”
In fact, Moses’s commandments are eleven, as his second is “You must not make a carved image for yourself, nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above…” which we have suppressed.
They’ve told me just now another story. Yahweh told Moses to underline some letters and some words in the Tablets of the Law, as that would help future interpreters of the Ten Commandments to understand them better. Moses did so without knowing what that sign meant. When many generations went by and the rabbis taught the Commandments, their disciples asked them what was the meaning of those signs, and the masters answered that they had been put there by Moses, and he must have known what he meant by them, but that we didn’t know it any more.
This is more than a joke.
Yahweh always has the last word.
Thank you, Francisco, for the issue of London’s Catholic weekly, The Tablet, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae on contraception in 1968. I was then in India and remained unaware of the violent reaction it caused then in the Catholic world, so it has made very interesting reading for me. The following are literal quotations from several articles in this issue of The Tablet, 26.07.08.
“It was a watershed. The then editor of The Tablet took the controversial decision to oppose the encyclical, and ended his famous editorial with these words: ‘We, who are of the household and can think of no other, have the right to question, complain, and protest, when conscience impels. We have the right and we have the duty – out of love for the brethren’.”
“Communication between the Church authorities and the faithful on this issue has broken down. There is silence from the majority of bishops and priests on this church teaching. There is silence from huge numbers of the laity who rarely use the confessional nowadays, and even if they do, would never think to speak on the issue of contraception. Instead, large numbers of the laity, at least in the West, have developed a kind of moral autonomy.
“The New York Times leaked the report of the commission appointed by the pope to decide on the use of contraceptives, in which the absolute majority of the commission approved of the use. All were, therefore, expecting a favourable answer, but Paul VI meditated long on the issue and eventually decided to go against his own commission.”
“Something has gone seriously awry.”
“The encyclical Humanae Vitae did fundamental and irreversible damage.”
“I hope and pray that in the early part of the twenty-first century the hierarchical Magisterium will recognise that it has claimed too much certitude for many of its specific moral teachings. The credibility of the Church is at stake.”
“I’m Irish, Catholic, married to an Irish Catholic husband, both of us brought up in the strictest moral conviction and behaviour. I went to confession about not following the Church’s teaching on contraception, and I was specifically told in confession not to bring this up as a sin any more. The comfort I received was somewhat diminished when the priest told me not to tell anyone he had said this.”
Psalm 46 – You Chose our Land for Us
“The Lord chose our heritage for us.”You divided the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel, Lord, and you have chosen for me the circumstances of history and family and society in which I am to live. My promised land, my inheritance, my “vineyard” in Biblical terms. Today I want to thank you for my vineyard, to accept it from your hands, to tell you explicitly and openly that I like your choice of life for me, that I am proud of my age, at home in my culture and happy in my land. It is a wonderful time to be alive, Lord.
I hear people compare and complain and regret and wish they had lived in another age and in other lands. That, to me, is heresy and rebellion. All times are good and all lands are blessed, and the time and the place you chose for me are doubly blessed in my sight as your personal choice, your caring providence, your loving gift to me. I like my vineyard, Lord, and I would not change it for any other ever.
I love my body and my mind, my intelligence and my memory as you have given them to me. My vineyard. Many around me have healthier bodies and keener intellects, and I praise you for that, Lord, as you show glimpses of your beauty and your power in the living works of your creation. There are better vines and more luscious grapes in vineyards around mine. Still I value and treasure mine above all others, because that is your gift to me. You have chosen my patrimony for me, and I rejoice in it.
You choose for me the events that meet me during the day, the news I read and I hear, the weather that greets me and the moods that assail me. You choose my land for me. Teach me now how to till that land, how to handle those moods, how to meet those people, how to profit by those events. I am a child of my time, and, as I see times as given by you, I want to work in it with faith and with joy, never with despondency or despair. This world is lovely because you have created it for me. Thank you for this world, for this life, for this land. Thank you for my vineyard, Lord.
The angel of the chains
“On the very night before Herod had planned to produce him, Peter was asleep between two soldiers, secured by two chains, while outside the doors sentries kept guard over the prison. All at once an angel of the Lord stood there, and the cell was ablaze with light. He tapped Peter on the shoulder to wake him. ‘Quick! Get up!’ he said, and the chains fell away from Peter’s wrists.”
(Acts 12:6-7)The angel of the chains. The angel who breaks chains of oppression and sets innocent prisoners free. The angel who denounces with his presence and illuminates with his light the darkest corners of violence and repression, who leads the cause of the poor and the oppressed and liberates them from those who exploit them, who helps the helpless and saves those in need of salvation. The angel of freedom.
Today there are chains and oppression and hunger and poverty and privation and death. And there are also angels in human flesh, men and women with a live conscience and a valiant heart who fight for justice, wake up those who sleep, give voice to the voiceless, denounce violence, consecrate their life to the sacred task of bettering other people’s lives. May the angels in heaven protect these angels on earth and give them strength and wisdom and perseverance and efficacy to lighten up suffering and soften human misery.
The world today overwhelms us day by day with news of world suffering in wars and migrations, hate and vengeance, sickness and famine, inequality and discrimination. Worse chains than those that tie down hands and feet in iron. Chains that oppress bodies and souls, peoples and races, men and women, children and old people in the dark dungeon of deprivation from their human rights and their human needs. Chains of oppression in the middle of promises of freedom. Each time it is harder and harder to get rid of them.
Angel of the chains: help, inspire, protect, defend, organise, and accompany all those who desire in their hearts to break all chains and set humankind free. Let the light that you brought to a dark dungeon shine in the whole world. Let us all come to rejoice with the freedom of all.
East and West
[In a talk I gave in Zaragoza ten days ago on “East and West” I said, among other things, the following:]In Christianity sin is a personal offence to God (Psalm 50:6) as we crucify Christ every time we sin (Hebrews 6:6), which makes us into enemies of God (James 4:4) worthy of hell (Matthew 25:41). In Hinduism sin (so long as no harm is done to anyone) is only the breaking of a law that is made up for with the corresponding penance (prayashchitt) which restores the balance of karma without a blame on our character. And the majority of Catholic sins do not do any harm to anybody. You may ask our young people about that.
An anecdote to explain the difference in these two ways of understanding sin and its importance. In our part of India, in Gujarat, the stars forbid to start a new venture on Wednesday. (Typical injunction whose infraction harms nobody. As it would be, for instance for a Catholic, to miss mass on Sunday.) Now College started on 20th June, even if it was a Wednesday. The students knew that they couldn’t afford to miss the date, as that would mean losing their admission to a prestigious College. So they dutifully turned up, and I would ask them, not without a tinge of Christian malice in my voice, How come? Are you not breaking a serious law? Is it not forbidden for you to start College on Wednesday? They had their answer ready. Yes, it was forbidden, but they had seen to it. The previous Tuesday they had gone to the temple, had asked God’s pardon for the fault they were about to commit on Wednesday, had offered a cocoanut in reparation beforehand, and that settled the issue. Just imagine a Catholic lad going to confession on a Friday and telling the astonished confessor: “Now, father, this weekend a group of friends, boys and girls, are going to be together, and, you know, there will be a bit of everything between us. Please, give me your absolution beforehand so that I can enjoy all the fun with a good conscience.” It makes us laugh, and it is good to bring a bit of humour to ecumenical transactions. So long as nobody is harmed, “sin” for a Hindu is a mere breaking of a law that has to be made up for by the corresponding fine, without leaving any scar on the soul. No “sinner” and no “enemy of God”.
For a Hindu a non-ethical action (always on the assumption it does no harm to anybody) is just so much “negative karma” which will have to be made up for with the corresponding penalty in human suffering, but is not an offence to God, a “sin” that makes a “sinner” out of the person, much less an “enemy of God” that “crucifies Christ” every time they “sin”. The word “sin” does exist in Sanskrit and derived languages, “pap”, but it denotes a grievous wickedness, while for what we call “sin” the common language uses simply “bhool”, which is an error, a mistake, a fault.
One Good Friday, which was a holiday at College, I went to a parish in a village called Jham to help the parish priest, my good friend father Alex, in the Holy Week services. He asked me to hear the confessions of about thirty men he had baptised at the beginning of lent (about five weeks before), who wanted to profit by the visit of a visiting priest to make their first confession before Easter. They had been duly instructed and were ready and eager. I willingly accepted. The first young man came in, I blessed him, said a brief prayer, waited, but he was not forthcoming. I gently started: “We are here, both of us, in the presence of God, and you may like to mention before him any sin you may have committed…”. He interrupted me with a start: “What? Sin? Me? I don’t do such things, father. I have never done anything sinful. I’ve done no harm to anybody. Who do you think I am?” He was indignant. And all the other men reacted in the same way, one by one, in spite of my softening down my language as I twisted my grammar without success. There was not a single decent sin to reckon between all those recently baptised fine lads. They had been properly instructed. But they had been Hindus till the beginning of lent. I only got a few “errors” out of them.
I take your leave for a brief but necessary excursus out of India in order to observe the same phenomenon in America. I told a group of Jesuit friends in Santiago de Chile the anecdote of the young people in the village of Jham, and they exclaimed in unison: “The Mapuches! Try getting a sin out of them in confession! Same as your people in India.” The Mapuches are South American aboriginals. And I read in the letters of the German Jesuit priest Antonius Sepp who was the founder of St Michael’s Reduction in Paraguay in 1692, that the aboriginal Guaranis duly responded to all the sacraments except confession, since, he declared with a tinge of regret, “they don’t commit mortal sins!” Historian Swiburne wrote that “the sin of the Spaniards in America was to bring in sin among people who knew no sin”, which is understood in the context I am describing of regions outside Judeo-Christian influence where sin does exist as an immoral action, but not as an offence to God. To be “sinners” and “enemies of God” vilified and threatened with eternal punishments is exclusively Christian. It makes us think.
Again in Santiago de Chile I met a Catholic prayer group where the holy rosary was prayed in common, but with a slight variation. Instead of repeating with each Hail Mary “pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death”, they all said devoutly, “pray for us your children, now and in the hour of our encounter”. That’s the way I say the Hail Mary since then. I also say it so when we pray the Angelus together in community, where the Hail Mary comes three times and all say it aloud together, but I say it in a low voice so that my companions may not come to know that I’m not a sinner any more while they still are. The mischief heightens my devotion. A Hindu friend of mine in India who used to pray the Our Father with his wife, as she was a Catholic, instead of saying “forgive us our trespasses” said always “forgive us our errors”. Though his wife went on with her “trespasses”. She is a Goan.
I helped in the translation work of the whole Bible into Gujarati at the hand of Shri Nagindas Parekh, Hindu Brahmin scholar specially gifted for translation who did an outstanding job of it. There were interesting and amusing incidents in the long process, and this was one of them. It is known that King David fell in love with Bathsheba and ordered her husband Uriah to be left alone in the battlefront to be killed in order to possess her. The prophet Nathan reproached David, and he confessed, “I have sinned!” This sentence is engraved in every Christian conscience in every country, time, or language. “I have sinned!” How then did our faithful Hindu scholar translate David’s expression into Gujarati? He did it with linguistic accuracy and idiomatic sensitivity. And yet we, his Catholic co-workers, could not help smiling when we read it. This is, put now into English, David’s expression “I have sinned” in the Gujarati version of the Hindu translator: “By me a mistake has happened.” A mistake. Has happened. Through me. That was the perfect translation in the Hindu context. Only that Yahweh could not be satisfied by it.
One day, while I was studying the Gujarati language in Sardar Patel University at Vallabh Vidyanagar, I went out for a walk with a Hindu classmate of mine. In the course of our conversation I did say in some context or other: “I am a sinner…”. My friend stood for a moment, turned towards me, gave me the once-over, shook his shoulders, and peacefully announced: “Well, I am not.” Those three words shook my soul. I am not. He was not a sinner. Here was I for the first time in my life face to face with a person who was not a sinner. No queuing up before a confessional, no “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned”, no striking one’s breast, no singing penitential hymns. I looked around, watched for a while other students milling about alone or in groups, fixed my gaze on each one as I could not come out of my wonder. All these were not sinners. And they went about quite happy, satisfied, at peace with themselves. Lucky me to have met them at last. I turned to my friend and I declared: “Well, neither am I.” End of a complex.
Thank you, India.
Elisa: All you say about the encyclical Humanae Vitae is true, but it is unnecessary as we have already got over it and we quietly accept pill and condom without qualms of conscience and nobody asks us anything about it. It’s better not to speak about it.
Carlos: This is the serious matter for me, Elisa. That we “have got over it”. That is, we have let the authorities keep on repeating their doctrine while we know they are being ignored. And we keep quiet. Authority has distanced itself from reality, and we keep quiet. I think it is our duty to speak out, and we are keeping quiet. If we do not listen to the authorities we have at least the duty of letting them know. Not just “getting over it”. Many young people do not obey the official doctrine in their behaviour while they cheerfully shout ‘Viva il Papa!’ in multitudinous world meetings. Let us not deceive ourselves thinking those joyful shouts mean any acceptance of moral teachings. They are not. The English Catholic weekly The Tablet reported in August without any malice and with British humour the anecdote (which made me laugh innocently when I read it) that during the pope’s visit to Australia some brothels in Sydney offered a discount to the delegates. No offence is meant. And nobody need have accepted the offer. But the image stands. And it makes us think. The encyclical never did win general acceptance.
Psalm 47 – The City of God
Zion for me means Jerusalem, the earthly and the heavenly, the home of the People of God, the Church, the Promised Land, the City of God. I rejoice when I hear its name. I like to pronounce it, to sing it, to fill it with my dreams of that heavenly homeland, with the landscapes of my imagination and the colours of my longing. All that is good and beautiful is projected into the skyline of that ultimate city on the eternal hills.
“The city of our God upon his holy hill.
fair and lofty,
the joy of the whole earth is Zion’s hill,
like the farthest reaches of the north,
the hill of the great King’s city.”A city has foundations and monuments and gardens and avenues, and the city of my dreams has all that in the perfection of its design and the glory of its architecture. Symbol of order and planning, of men and women living together, and of nature’s resources being harnessed for the welfare of its children. The city fits in the landscape, is part of it, is almost the horizon made geometry, the trees and the clouds blending in graceful harmony with the buildings and the towers of man’s habitation. The perfect city in an ideal world.
I cherish my dream of my fair city, and then I open my eyes and prepare my day and get ready to walk the streets of the very real, human, earthly city I live in. I see crooked alleys and dirty corners, I pass by gloomy buildings and dark entrances, I see traffic and crowds, I smell the unventilated presence of humanity, I hear the cries of beggars and the wailing of children, I suffer in the midst of this living reality of the City, the “polis”, the “urbs”, that has transformed the dream into a shadow, and the model of design into a blueprint of a labyrinth. I weep in the streets and squares of my tortured metropolis of today.
And then I open my eyes again, the eyes of faith, the eyes of wisdom and of knowledge, and I see my city… and in it, as figure and sign, I see the City of my dreams. There is only one city, and its appearance depends on the eyes that contemplate it. This city of mine with its twisted alleys and its pungent smells was also created by God, that is, created by humans who were created by God. God also dwells in it, in the dignity of its temples and in the lives of its inhabitants. This city is also sacred with the smoke of sacrifices and the shouts of jubilation. This is also the City of God, because it is the city of man, and man is the child of God.
I rejoice now while I go through its streets, I mingle with its crowds, and I am caught in its traffic jams. I sing hymns of praise and glory at the top of my voice. Yes, this is the City and the Temple and the Tent of the Presence and the abode of the great King. My earthly city shines with the splendour of the men and women who dwell in it, and as they are the image of God, so their city is the image of the heavenly City. I am glad at my discovery which opens my heart and redeems my sojourn on earth. Blessed be your City and my city, O Lord.
“Make the round of Zion in procession,
count the number of her towers,
take good note of her ramparts,
pass her palaces in review,
that you may tell generations yet to come:
Such is God, our God for ever and ever;
he shall be our guide eternally.”
The angel of the shipwreck
“When they had gone for a long time without food, Paul stood up among them and said, ‘You should have taken my advice, gentlemen, not to put out from Crete: then you would have avoided this damage and loss. But now I urge you not to lose heart; not a single life will be lost, only the ship. Last night there stood by me an angel of the God whose I am and whom I worship. “Do not be afraid, Paul,” he said; “it is ordained that you shall appear before Caesar; and, be assured, God has granted you the lives of all who are sailing with you.” So take heart, men! I trust God: it will turn out as I have been told; we are to be cast ashore on an island’.”
(Acts 27:21-26)Generous promise on the lips of the angel of the shipwreck. He not only saves Paul, who has to reach Rome to be judged and set free by the imperial court and thus bring to the centre of the Roman Empire his message, his organisation, his witness to build up together with Peter the gospel in the whole Roman world, but he also grants to him the lives of all those who travel with him. Nobody will die even if the ship runs aground and comes to grief in Malta’s reefs, they all will reach the shore, will spend winter on the island, and will continue their voyage to Rome three months later. The angel’s promise protects them.
Many are the people that sail with me, my dear angel. There are companions and friends and readers and inquirers who share with me a way and a goal in life’s stormy oceans. Meetings and letters and emails and encounters where I meet with fellow travellers in search of a haven. There are dangers of winds and tides and rocks and shipwrecks, and I’m now asking you, dear angel, that you may save me… and “grant me”, in the expression of Paul’s angel, the salvation of all those who in one way or another travel with me. Salvation from troubles in this life and dangers for the next, health of mind and body in family and friends, and health in faith and prayer and fidelity and redemption. Health and salvation in this life and the next for all those who read my books, listen to my talks, write to me, or open my Web, or simply know my name. Let no one suffer, let no one be shipwrecked, let no one be lost. We all travel together. Let us reach harbour all together.
For my part I will keep alert and concerned about all in my heart. I ask my angel for joy in this life journey as a preparation for joy for ever at the end, and I also ask, with Paul’s example in biblical pages, to “be granted” the joy of all those who one way or another journey with me.
Thank you, dear angel, for having helped me to write these lines with joy. Now “grant me” that all those who read them may read them with joy. We all travel together.
[Last month the Zaragoza daily Heraldo de Aragón published this interview with me on the occasion of some talks I gave there.]
1. What are the main differences you observe between eastern and western culture?
The rhythm of life, the joint family system, detachment, hospitality, peace before death, belief in reincarnation, peace. Whenever I went to teach mathematics at the Gujarat University, the Chancellor Umashankar Joshi, who kept the door of his office always open, used to tell me that, without looking up from his papers on his table he could tell when I had arrived at the university, since in the middle of the leisurely step of all others along the corridor someone would all of a sudden shoot in front of his door like lightning. “There goes father”, he would tell himself. That was me, of course. Mediterranean.
2. What values would you take from the one and the other to make a better world?
The same person I have mentioned, Umashankar Joshi, would tell me with gentle humour that he secretly longed in his dream for the whole of India to become Christian… for ten years, so as to learn the western values of hard work, punctuality, good use of time, efficiency, excellence, productivity, honesty, and success; only to come, of course, after ten years back to Hinduism with its traditional values of peace, spirituality, detachment, simplicity, coexistence, family. Time, perhaps, for Christians to think of becoming Hindus for ten years. Cultural exchange.
3. What can eastern culture bring to the West?
“India exports peace.” There are frictions, of course, as everywhere else and as we have recently seen and have suffered, but the atmosphere, the pace of life, the tone of voice, the images of the Buddha, temples and squares, society and family do speak of peace and can spread it to the world.
4. What did you learn after so many years in India?
Once the well-known Gujarati writer and friend, Ishwar Petlikar, asked me that very same question in an interview for the daily Sandesh in Ahmedabad, and I answered him that India had enlarged my own concept of God. The answer was not flying out at a tangent to avoid the issue, but coming right to the point, as the concept we have of God is what rules our lives. “Tell me which god you worship and I will tell you who you are.” I just mention a trait. Western theologians of both sexes are getting a little concerned now-a-days about the masculinity of God. God is neither man nor woman, simply has no sex, but in the west we have conceived him as Father, and his incarnation as a man, Jesus. In Hinduism the three persons of the Hindu trinity, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva have their respective wives Saraswati-Lakshmi-Parvati, and Saraswati is as much God as Brahma, Lakshmi as Vishnu, and Parvati as Shiva. Six divine persons forming one only God, or rather three persons, each of them made up by a masculine-feminine couple. And when the second person of the Hindu trinity (coincidentally), Vishnu, becomes man in Krishna, Lakshmi becomes a woman in Radha, who is Shri Krishna’s wife, and she is as much an incarnation of the divinity as he is. That brings theology, liturgy, and popular devotion to life. Our Lady is our beloved Mother and we love her dearly, but she is not God. Our God is exclusively masculine. With the present trend towards equality of the sexes maybe Hindu theology will come to our seminaries. Equality between the sexes.
5. What consequences will the coming up of the east have for the west?
The west should forget its pride to be the centre of the world. The distances of “the far east”, “the middle east”, “the near east” were measured from London, and the mentality behind them still obtains. This has to change.
6. What was hardest for you in your first years in India?
The language. I thought I’d done something learning English on arrival, but I soon realised I had to learn the local language, Gujarati in my case, to establish a personal relationship with the people. After that, heat was the hardest. And the monsoon downpours. Drenched to the bone. Pungent food was hard at the beginning, but it soon conquered me. Now I miss it.
7. Is economic progress changing India?
Yes. Economic progress together with demographic and urban growth is leading young people to set up separate flats when they marry, and this is breaking up the joint family system, basis of Indian traditional society.
8. Could the present world economic crisis have been foreseen? How will it affect East and West?
The overnight debacle of the subprime mortgages took everybody by surprise. This confirmed the definition of the economist as “an expert who explains tomorrow why what he predicted yesterday did not happen today”. Let us hope the financial crisis, provoked by the West and dampened by the East, may lead to levelling out economic standards in the whole world.
The statistics of Santa Claus
(Adrián Paenza, Matemática, ¿estás ahí?, RBA Barcelona 2008, p. 181)“As I believe there are still people today that complain to Santa Claus for not having received what they had asked of him, I request them to follow carefully the programme Santa has to follow each year. Here it is.
There are approximately two thousand million children in the world. Still, since Santa Claus does not visit Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist children, this brings down his work on Christmas night, as he has to visit only 38 million children.
With an average of 3,5 children per home, the work comes down to 108 million homes (supposing there is at least one good child in each). Santa has now about 31 hours on Christmas to carry out his programme thanks to the different hour zones and the rotation of the earth assuming he travels from east to west, as is logical. This comes to 968 visits per second. For every Christian home with a well behaved child Santa has about a thousandth part of a second in which to park his sled, get down, enter through the chimney, fill in boots or socks with his gifts, arrange the remaining gifts around the tree, eat the sandwiches left for him, climb back through the chimney, get on to his sled… and reach the next house.
Supposing each of these 108 million stops to be geographically equidistant, we are talking of about 1,248 meters between house and house. This totals up to a journey of 1,040 kilometres per second, that is, almost three times the speed of sound.
A conventional reindeer can, at most, cover 24 kilometres in an hour, or, what comes to the same, about seven thousandths of a kilometre per second. The load on the sled adds an interesting consideration to the problem. Supposing each child asked only one middle sized toy of one kilo weight, the sled will be loaded with more than 500.000 tons… not counting Santa. Down on earth a normal reindeer cannot carry more than 150 kilos. Even supposing a reindeer could carry ten times its own weight, Santa Claus would need 260.000 of them.
After all that precedes we have now to consider the de-acceleration of 1,040 kilometres per second. In 0,001 second, taking Santa Claus’s weight at 150 kilos, he would be subject to a force of 2.315.000 kilos that would break all his bones. Poor Santa.
If with all that data you still feel angry at Santa Claus not having delivered your petition this year, you realise you are unfair and inconsiderate.”
I’ve discussed through several emails with a dear friend the question of change or no change. I’ve told her the anecdote that took place in the discussion between Bossuet, defending Catholicism, and Leibnitz, standing for Protestantism in the XVII century. Catholic Bossuet meant to silence Protestant Leibnitz with his daunting French logic: “You change, therefore you are not the truth!” But Protestant Leibnitz was not dumb either, and retorted on the spot to his Catholic counterpart: “You do not change, therefore you are not the life!”
The amusing thing about this for me is that I heard this anecdote a number of times in classes and sermons along all the years of my Jesuit formation, but we were told only the first part of it, namely what Bossuet told Leibnitz: “You change, therefore you are not the truth!”, and we were left with a sense of satisfaction and victory of our Catholic champion (and a bishop at that!) who silenced the philosopher-mathematician Protestant with that definitive blow. “You change, therefore you are not the truth!” We scored a goal. We won! One-love. It was only many years later when reading on my own history and philosophy free from censorship that I found the complete anecdote with Leibnitz’s answer: “You do not change, therefore you are not the life!” The Protestant scores. One down for the bishop. Ecumenical draw. One all. And I laughed mischievously.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. We’ll have to get both sides together, Catholics and Protestants, to get the full gospel. The way. With the truth and the life.
This is not the only time I’ve been told only one half of the story, only to find out later by myself the other half. It always makes me smile.
Psalm 48 – The Eternal Riddle
“Hear this, all you nations;
listen, all who inhabit this world,
all humankind, every living person,
rich and poor alike;
for the words that I speak are wise,
my thoughtful heart is full of understanding.
I will set my ear to catch the moral of the story,
and tell on the harp how I read the riddle.”The riddle is the eternal riddle of all ages and all men and women. Why do the just suffer while the wicked prosper? Is it to test our faith, to try out our patience, to enhance our merit? Is it to hide from our eyes the ways of God, to shake our complacency, to challenge our human calculations? Is it to tell us that God is God and will not be held to account by any human mind? Is it to remind us of the smallness of our minds and the meanness of our hearts?
Why do the just suffer and the wicked prosper? All philosophies have wrestled with the question, all wise man and women and all privileged minds have tackled the problem. Volumes upon volumes and discussion against discussion. Is God unfair? Are humans stupid? Is life without a meaning?
Men and women have approached the problem with their minds. The psalm sings it with the harp. And there is wisdom and depth in the gesture of the psalmist. The depths of the mysteries of man’s life on earth are not to be thought but to be sung; they cannot be expressed through equations but through mysticism, they are not to be analysed but to be lived.
Yes, there are things I don’t grasp in life, many situations that pass my understanding, many problems beyond my ken. I can rack my brains trying to give an answer to questions that generations of wise men and women have not been able to answer… or I can simply in realism and humility take life as it comes and answer its questions by living them with sensitivity and commitment, with personal responsibility and social sense, with honesty in my actions and concern in my service. I prefer to handle riddles with my harp rather than at the point of the sword. I prefer to live my life than to spend it in reasoning out how I ought to live it. I prefer to sing rather than to argue.
I accept the riddle of life, Lord, I trust your understanding of it when my own fails, and I commit myself and all men and women into your hands with trust and with joy. That is my practical way of showing that you are Lord of all.
“God will ransom my life,
and take me with himself.”
Angels and shepherds
“Now in the same district there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; I bring you good news, news of great joy for the whole nation. Today there has been born to you in the city of David a deliverer, the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’ All at once there was with the angel a great company of the heavenly host, singing praise to God: ‘Glory to God in highest heaven, and on earth peace to all in whom he delights’.”
(Luke 2:8-14)Angels of Christmas. Fields of Bethlehem, flocks and shepherds, light in the night. An angel who speaks and many angels who sing. The humble manger is exalted by the heavenly choirs. The whole heavens rejoiced at what is happening down on earth. Angels travel from their heights to a lowly cave where the Lord they worship has appeared, and they hasten to come and protect him on his journey through earth. Something new for the angels that brings them closer to us because their Lord has become one of us.
The angel of Christmas brings us light, brings us peace, brings us joy, and brings us signs to recognise the newly born Messiah with the unlikely features of the swaddling clothes and the manger. And he brings with himself a whole crowd of companions to signify that in their numbers they protect us as a people.
“After the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Come, let us go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child, they related what they had been told about him; and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them. The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen; it had all happened as they had been told.”
(Luke 2:15.20)The shepherds believe the angels, run, find, see,and when they see it all is as they had been told, they believe, they trust, they begin to tell others about their encounter with angels on the fields at night. Thus the angels, who lived in the tradition of the people of God in the Old Testament, make themselves present and real before the first witnesses of the New Testament.
The shepherds repeat the message of the angels. Those who have seen an angel cannot forget him. Those who have heard his words cannot help repeating them to others. If I want to be an apostle of Christmas I must become friendly with its angels. To do that I will seek the company of humble shepherds on the fields of Bethlehem for the midnight tryst. Glory to God in the highest!