Joy for a professor
The French writer Daniel Pennac tells his adventures as a teacher:I’ve always heard it told in my family that as a child I needed a whole year to learn the letter ‘a’. The desert of my ignorance started with the letter ‘b’. My father set everybody to rest: ‘Let no one panic. After twenty-six years he’ll master the alphabet.’ And when I got my master’s degree in 1986, the year of the students’ revolution in Paris with the academic concessions it brought with it, my father teased: ‘For your master you’ve needed a revolution; may we expect a world war for your doctorate?’
(Daniel Pennac, Chagrin d’École, Mondadori, Barcelona 2008, p. 17)
A winter evening. Nathalie comes down the stairs sobbing. A sorrow waiting to be heard. She is still a child. It’s five thirty and almost all the students have left. I’m one of the last teachers still around. Nathalie appears at the foot of the stairs. Come on, Nathalie, come on. What is the trouble? I know the girl, she was last year in my class. An insecure child whom I had to quiet down often. What’s the matter, Nathalie? Reluctance to begin with: Nothing, sir, nothing. Then, that’s too much noise for nothing, my child. Sobbing increases, and Nathalie finally bursts out:
– Sir…sir… I… I… can’t… can’t… under… under…
– What is it you cannot understand?
– The…, the…, the…
And suddenly the cork flies and the tide floods out at a time:
– The subordinate-adversative-conjunctive-coordinate proposition.
Silence. Don’t laugh. Above all, don’t laugh.
– The subordinate-adversative-conjunctive-coordinate proposition? Is that what’s troubling you?
Relief. The teacher starts. He explains. Have you understood? Give me an example so that I may see it. Right example. She has understood. Do you feel better? No. New sobbing crisis, tears, and then, suddenly, a sentence I have never forgotten:
– You don’t realise it sir! I’m already twelve-and-a-half years old and I’ve done nothing!
I’ll have to wait till the next afternoon when I’ll learn that Nathalie’s father has just been dismissed from his job after ten years as a manager on I don’t know which firm. And this young man, a model manager and a loving father has crumbled down. He repeats again and again at the family table: ‘I’m thirty-five years old and I’ve done nothing!’
Last week, coming out of the cinema, a girl of about nine or ten runs after me in the street and catches up with me:
– Sir, sir!
– Yes? What’s the matter? Have I forgotten my umbrella in the cinema? Wreathed in smiles the girl points to a man who is looking at us from the other side of the road.
– He is my father, sir!
The father attempts an awkward greeting.
– He feels shy to greet you, but you were his teacher.
You lose sight of a little girl at school, and twenty years later a young woman addresses you on a street at Ajaccio, beaming with smiles, places her hand lightly on your shoulder and begins to recite without previous notice:
“Do not touch the shoulder
of the wandering knight!”
You stop, turn, the woman smiles at you, and you continue the recital of the poem L’allée by Supervielle which, apparently, is know to us both. You take it up:
He would turn at once
in the darkest night,
a night without stars
a sky without clouds.
She laughs heartily and continues:
And what happens then
in our private heaven,
the moon and its light
the sun and its crown?
Then you answer the girl that now is showing in the woman’s smile, the withdrawn girl to whom in the past you had taught that poem:
You would have to wait
for a second knight,
noble in his figure,
valiant in his heart.
I had taught that poem in my class twenty years ago. Someone remembered it. Joy for a professor.
I’m watching over about sixty students of the last year who are slogging in silence at their exam. They all are smudging paper, the darker the better, except Emmanuel, there at my right near the window, three or four rows from my platform. Daydreaming, idle, blank paper in front of him, that’s Emmanuel. Our eyes meet. I ask with my face: What’s wrong? Will you start once and for all? Emmanuel signals for me to come to him. I accept, if only to scold him. But he interrupts my scolding with a decisive sigh:
– If you knew how all this bores me, sir!
– Then what would interest you?
– This. – He answers giving me back my pocket watch he has pinched without my realising it.
– And this. – He adds giving me back my ball-pen.
– Magician, sir.
By Jove, he became one, and he is a famous one. Without my having anything to do with it.
The presence of the teacher who is fully present to his class is tangible. The students feel it from the first minute in the year, and we all have known it: the teacher has just entered the classroom, he is totally there, and it can be told from his way of looking, of greeting the students, of sitting down, of taking possession of the table. He has not shrunk for fear of their reactions, has not dispersed himself, no, he knows his job, he stands on his own, he notices each face, the whole class exists before him. This presence of the students in class depends on my own presence. My physical, intellectual, mental presence during the fifty-five minutes my class lasts. Oh for the sad memory of those classes in which I was not present! How was I feeling that my students were adrift on those days while I strove to gather them in! The overwhelming sensation that I was just missing my class even if I was there! No, I am not there, they are not there, the classroom is empty, there is no teaching taking place here. I’m not the teacher, I am the guide of a museum shepherding mechanically the visitors in a conducted tour through the halls. My real work consists in getting my students to feel they exist.
In this world you have to be too good in order to be sufficiently good.
My own reflection now: While reading Daniel Pennac’s book I’ve remembered some anecdotes of mine too as a mathematics professor at college. An old student has just reminded me of one of them by email. He has made me laugh. In Ahmedabad I was first known for my mathematics textbooks, which were quite tough, and often I would receive letters from teachers who could not resolve my problems. I always answered them. At the end the students thanked me as my texts had helped them to score high in their exams and get better prospects for their future. My textbooks were referred to by my name, “Father Valles”, and the students wrote in their books and sang in unison:
“No Father Valles, no mathematics!
Know Father Valles, know mathematics!”
Al least some people profited from my books. Joy for the professor.
Miguel Ángel: You told us in your last web that being told only half a truth had happened to you on other occasions too in your life. I’m curious to know some of those.
Carlos: In history class in our novitiate, where we had the History of the Society of Jesus explained to us, we were told the story of the Jesuit Japanese martyrs who gave their lives for the faith in heroic martyrdom; but we were not told that the superior of the mission, the Portuguese Jesuit Christovao Ferreira, had apostatised when submitted to torture. Maybe those who failed help us in our failures as those who persevered help us in our perseverance. They also taught us that St Ignatius practiced and prescribed in his rules for Jesuits “angelical purity in the cleanliness of body and soul” in the matter of sex; but they did not mention to us that before his conversion he had fathered a daughter for whom he had to make provision in his last will. Knowing the whole truth makes us more human, and discovering it later by ourselves makes us smile a little. But don’t ask me for more cases, please.
Psalm 49 – The Blood of Goats
This is my danger, Lord, in my prayer life, in my dealings with you: routine, repetition, formalism. I recite the prayers, I follow the rituals, I fulfil the requirements. But sometimes my heart is not in my prayers, and I say them out of habit; I go because everybody goes and I am supposed to go. I even feel some scruple and fear that if I omit my prayers you will be displeased with me and might even punish me; and so I go when I have to go and I say what I have to say and sing what I have to sing, but in a rather empty way, without devotion, without love.
What is worse, Lord, sometimes I am very careful with the rituals of the liturgy precisely because I have been negligent in the observance of your precepts. I pay attention to your service to make up for not having paid attention to my brother. And I fear you don’t look kindly on that type of service.
“Shall I eat the flesh of your bulls
or drink the blood of your goats?”You don’t need my sacrifices, my offerings, my money or my blood. What you want is the sincerity of my devotion and the love of my heart. And the manifestation of this love in my love to all men and women for your sake. That is the sacrifice you desire, and without it no other sacrifice will be pleasing to you. Your words are harsh, but they are true when you rebuke me, Lord:
“You charge your mouth with wickedness
and harness your tongue to slander.
You are for ever talking against your brother,
stabbing your own mother’s son in the back.
All this you have done,
and shall I keep silence?”I admit it, Lord; I often I have been unfair with my brothers and sisters; and what value can my sacrifices have if I have hurt my brother before coming to the altar? Thank you for telling me, Lord, thank you for reminding me; thank you for opening my eyes and teaching me what is the true sacrifice you want of me. No bulls nor goats, no blood and no rituals, no routine and no repetition, but love and service, honesty and commitment, justice and perseverance. To serve you in my brothers and sisters before serving you at the altar.
And once I serve my brother and sister in your name I want now to ask of you the blessing that when I come to you in prayer I may also find you, I may see meaning in what I say and may put feeling in what I sing. Free me, Lord, from the curse of routine, of formalism, of taking you for granted, of converting religious practices into meaningless rubrics. Let every prayer of mine be a psalm, and, like a psalm, have joy in it and confidence and love. Let me be true to myself and true to my brothers and sisters, that I may be true to you.
“To him who follows my way
I will show the salvation of God.”
THE ANGEL OF PERFUMES
“Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer. He was given much incense to offer with the prayers of the saints on the golden altar in front of the throne, and the smoke of the incense from the angel’s hand went up before God with his people’s prayers.”
Just as well my prayers rest on the hands of an angel. Just as well they are accompanied and disguised in the midst of the prayers of the saints. Just as well they have been placed in a golden censer and mixed with incense to create scent and ascend in a spiral of sacred smoke on the golden altar in the presence of the Lord. There go my meditations with their distractions, my broken prayers, my twisted petitions, my ambling vagaries. My beginner’s stutters squeeze in between the saints’s devotions and the mystics’s contemplations. They rise up from the golden censer in the hands of the angel. I never imagined my prayers were going to fare so well. This encourages me to keep on praying.
The angel’s presence by my side enhances my life. It lends importance to what I do, makes me feel respectable, gives value to my prayers. Even if I do things by half, he is there to complete them, and even if I act very imperfectly, his artistic sense can make my actions appear attractive. The glowing embers do not look like coal in a golden censer.
My angel is always by my side, but particularly so when I pray. He likes that, he is especially good at that, he treasures those moments. “Their angels constantly see the face of my Father who is in heaven”, said Jesus. Since my angel knows too well how to pray, it doesn’t matter if I slacken a little, as we do it together and he covers for me. And then I’m learning little by little from his example. His memory helps me recollect myself, his image focuses my devotion, feeling his presence is entering into prayer, living by his side I come to live by the side of God. There is no better master of prayer than my angel by my side, always down to earth and always high up in heaven. Books and handbooks and courses and exercises are fine, but all that comes to life only with the professional and specialised help of my angel praying by my side. The best school of prayer.
Angel of prayers and perfumes, make my humble prayers into heavenly perfumes pleasing to God in your golden censer.
Doses of tenderness
I knew her since she was a small girl. I saw her grow up, study, graduate, marry, and go to live in Mumbai with her husband and her parents-in-law in the unwieldy labyrinth of growing space and cosmopolitan humanity. It is always hard for a Hindu bride to leave her parents’s home and go to live with her in-laws in the closely woven patterns of relationships in the joint family. The change was harder still in this case, as the bride was a delicate girl, both in health and in mood, had been brought up with overindulgence by her parents who belonged to the exclusive caste of “Anavil Brahmins” where the search for a suitable partner is a delicate task as the caste is small and the prospective bridegrooms scarce. In this case, to make matters worse, the girl had lived all her life in Ahmedabad, my own city, and a city joyful and carefree and measurable and walkable and enjoyable, while now she had to live in the huge metropolis of Mumbai that dwarfs the newcomer in its boundless extension. There she went. Several months passed by.
I happened then to go to Mumbai for a lecture, and I am saved from being swallowed up in the whirlwind because my hosts come to fetch me and bring me and take me and handle me without my quite realising where I am or what I am doing. I had a day off between engagements, and I tried the adventure. They had put at my disposal a car with its driver, I had the girl’s address, and the driver would find the place. It took us an hour and a half to get to the area where she lived. Mumbai is immense. And yet another half hour to find the exact street in the maze of lanes and alleys that criss-cross the city’s suburbs. At last we found it.
We climbed the narrow stairway in the crowded building, quite different from the elegant villa that had been her home in Ahmedabad. The driver, efficient to the end, knocked at the door. The girl herself opened it, but she did not see me. I had hidden myself in a corner of the stairwell. I saw the girl’s puzzled expression. “Whom do you want?” She was looking at the driver. I came out of my hiding place and pronounced her name. “Anar!” She saw me and her whole face lit up. “Father!” For a moment the whole environment disappeared. She held me crying for joy, and I caressed her gently. We went inside. She introduced me to her in-laws. She brought me tea. As luck would have it, while we were talking, her father called long distance from Ahmedabad and I spoke with him on the phone. The girl was suffused with joy; her parents-in-law looked at her with respect when they saw that such a one as I had come to visit her, and her family in Ahmedabad rejoiced at the happy and unexpected event. The greatest joy, though, was mine. It is vital to renew links of affection in a ruthless world.
Some times I have made long journeys just to visit a friend and spend with him or her a few days of renewed closeness. I need doses of tenderness to soften down the Darwinian harshness of the struggle for existence. I need to know that someone at least loves me for myself, not for my books or my conferences or my successes. I need to rest from my work and my efforts and my efficiency, before people who are only interested in my presence, my person, my affection as they know I am interested in theirs.
During my first summer after my arrival in India as a young man, I fell sick. It was nothing serious, but my western body felt the grip of the tropics, and my whole skin swelled in purple waves of seasonal allergy. I was then in the natural paradise that Kodaikanal is, doubly precious to me for its wild haunting beauty and for being my best Jesuit friend’s birthplace; but since the burning malaise caught me in its grip, I lost all sense of beauty and laid down writhing in pain and unease in my lonely room.
Suddenly Father Rector appeared at the door. He was a very efficient and quick administrator, and he unleashed his efficiency on me. He told me, without even stopping to ask me how I was feeling: “I know your situation. I have called the doctor of the place who will be here soon. He will give you the proper treatment. If in three days your health does not improve, I will send you with a companion to Chennai and have you admitted to hospital there. Do not worry.” And he turned and left before I could open my mouth.
I was furious. My soul was burning inside me even more than my skin around me. How and where they heal me is not the point; I am not going to die of this one, and you need not worry about my burial. But, for heaven’s sake, treat me at least as a person! Look me in the face, speak slowly, hear my own condition from my own lips, tell me you feel it though it is not true, cheer me up telling me it will soon be over though neither you nor I know how long this is going to last. Spend a little while with me, please, sit down on that damned chair and keep me company which is what I am longing for when I am alone and sick in a foreign country where I have just arrived for the first time. He was only the efficient executive, he had heard that one of this subjects was in the infirmary, had taken the proper steps in the matter, had informed me, and that was all. To hell with efficiency! I would have preferred to be given a purgative, happen what may, rather than a professional diagnosis under a dehumanised treatment. That was my first sickness in India, and I got over the allergy, but the inside scar remained. I tell it now to wipe it off.
In Africa it was different. I had literally landed in the midst of a community of Sisters where I was supposed to give some talks on religious life, and the talks were at the moment in jeopardy, as I was running a temperature when I arrived, my throat was hoarse and I felt an overall weakness due to a strong flu that had almost made me cancel my journey at the last moment. I landed anyhow, and they saw my plight. I was sheer misery. To my surprise they seemed to rejoice at that. “We are going to heal you!” It was a battle cry. They saw their chance to have me under their sway as a helpless patient, and they decided to take revenge on me for all the times when priests like me had held them under our sway. I could expect no quarter.
Part of them went immediately to the surrounding forest to fetch the medicinal leaves and herbs they know so well and use so efficaciously. Native medicine of home-made remedies. Meanwhile another party had brought a huge cauldron, had filled it up with water and placed it over burning firewood to boiling point. Then they began to throw the leaves into the water while they uttered words in languages I did not understand, and I could not make out whether they were Christian prayers or heathen incantations. They looked like Macbeth’s witches dancing around the cauldron, but one thing was clear, and that was that they were having the time of their lives. Then they placed my naked torso over the boiling brew, they covered me with blankets on all sides and they ordered me to stir the concoction, breathe deeply and sweat feely. They kept me at it for three quarters of an hour while they laughed and sang and danced around me, keeping me helpless in the wild sauna.
At long last the din stopped, someone gave the order, “One, two, three!” They removed all the blankets at once, dried me up, gave me a strange brew to drink, and they put me to bed under orders not to stir a finger. I dropped like a log, and slept for ten hours. When I got up, my throat was cleared up, my lungs were clean, and I was ravenously hungry. Another outcry. The tribe was getting ready to feed me. I do not know who had a better time, whether they looking after me, or I letting myself be looked after by them. The beauty of giving and receiving in love, which blesses both the one who gives and the one who receives. I am only eagerly waiting to get the flu again.
[Thank you, María José, for having sent me this narrative, which apparently is a letter to the editor of a daily paper, and which has touched me.]
“We are parents who were told by our gynaecologist that the child we were fondly expecting had a serious problem. Only after having being through this did we realise how hard it is to hear that your daughter has a brain injury and she will die soon after she is born, or maybe before. So many fond dreams smashed in a second! The same doctor explained to us that in such cases abortion is permitted up to twenty-two weeks of pregnancy. Even some relatives, friends, or companions at work dared give their opinions about what we should do with our daughter. We do not want to give advice to anybody, just to narrate our experience.
A year ago, the ultrasound scan after twenty weeks revealed our daughter had a brain lesion incompatible with life. We called her Mary, and we went ahead to live with her all the time her own nature would allow us. It was a hard gestation: nights without sleep, crying beyond control, and, chiefly, the day to day uncertainty, what will happen? Will she be born? How will she look? How long will she live, seconds, minutes, hours perhaps? But I must say that, at the same time, it was the happiest of my four gestations, the one I lived more intensely, because I was conscious that the longest time I was going to spend with her was while she was inside me. I enjoyed every kick, every moment we spent together, I sang to her, y even read stories to her before sleep.
Our daughter was born on 25 February and she lived hardly for two hours in our arms. She went surrounded by all those who loved her, dressed in the clothes that her two grannies had knitted, stitch by stitch, tear by tear, with the utmost love.
Remembering it I must assure you those two hours were the happiest and most intense hours in our lives. And even if it was very sad and very hard, we lived that painful and inevitable separation with the serenity and the pride we felt at having given her our love as to any of our children. Eight months have now gone by, and we have learned how to live without her, but her touching memory consoles us and will accompany us all our lives.”
I cry reading this.
Psalm 51 – The Razor and the Tongue
A modern metaphor in an ancient psalm.
“The tongue of the wicked is like a razor.”It slashes, it cuts, it wounds. Calumny and insult and falsehood. Whenever it strikes, it hurts. A thing of danger and a tool of death. A deadly edge of spite, slander and scorn. The human tongue can cause more harm than any weapon in humans’ hands.
The psalm defines the evil: “cruel gossip”. And I awaken with a shock to the burden of my daily irresponsibility. The gossip that so easily leaves my lips, that I utter in jest and carelessness, that I think to be just universal practice and forgivable fun, is in fact something hurtful, inhuman, cruel. I am cruel when I speak ill of others. I am merciless when I indulge in backbiting. I am heartless when I gossip. I destroy reputations, I damage relationships, I smear characters. And the smear remains because men and women are prone to believe the evil and ignore the good. There is destruction in my tongue, and I did not know it.
“Your slanderous tongue is sharp as a razor.
You love evil and not good,
falsehood, not speaking the truth;
cruel gossip you love
and slanderous talk.”Purify my speech, Lord. Curb my language and tame my words. Remind me, when I open my mouth, of the harm I can do, and direct all that I say to profit and to goodness and to help. I don’t want to hurt anyone with the cutting edge of thoughtless words. On the contrary, I want my tongue to be aware of its power for evil and for good. Let my language encourage, uplift, heal. Let my words help all and let my talking give joy.
Do help me, Lord.
Angels over the gates
“This is the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him so that he might show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.”
(Revelation 1:1-2)The angel of revelation. Angel who describes and encourages and enlarges our horizons and strengthens our faith reminding us, with the imagination of his visions and the guarantee of his testimony, that God is the Lord of history, that the times are in his hands, that he rules over the future as he has ruled over the past, and that his people have nothing to fear as his throne is eternal and his word is everlasting. Angel of trust and strength and joy. Vision of glory and winds of promise. Angels in human history.
The whole book of the Revelation of John is full of angels. Every church has its own. “The seven stars are the Angels of the seven Churches, and the seven lamps are the seven Churches themselves.” (1:20) The seven Churches mean all of us, and to us are directed the warnings and the encouragement the angels address to each one of them. Another angel “comes up from the east” with the seal of the living God in his hands in order to mark the forehead of the servants of God. Others manage the winds and the seas and the fires and the stars, they open seals and blow trumpets and defeat devils and protect the elect and lead them to the throne of the Lamb. They organise history and shape eternity. They are many, and their presence fills the heavens.
“As I looked I heard, all round the throne and the living creatures and the elders, the voices of many angels, thousands on thousands, myriads on myriads.”
We are in good hands. Every angel is a creation by himself, and there are numbers without numbers of them in the heights of heaven and on the walks of earth. Their ways lead us to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Bride of the Lamb, the Holy City that is image and reality of the eternal joy that awaits us, together with the angels who have been by our side in our pilgrimage.
“So in spirit he carried me away to a great and lofty mountain, and showed me Jerusalem, the Holy City, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, it had the radiance of some priceless jewel, like a japer, clear as crystal. It had a great and lofty wall with twelve gates, at which were stationed twelve angels.”
The angels who guide us on earth keep watch at the gates of our eternal city in heaven. We who walk with them will enter through them. An angel locked the gates of Paradise, and twelve angels welcome us at the open gates of heaven. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you with this testimony to the Churches”, says the last page of the Bible (22:16). The Law of Moses “was promulgated by angels” (Galatians 3:19), and the fullness of revelation is now handed over to us by their hands in is definitive abundance. The company of angels guides and strengthens our lives.
Angels at the gates of heaven: keep the gates wide open that we all may enter through them.
My Jesuit friend Paul Varghese has narrated a lovely anecdote in the Gujarati monthly Jankalyan, January 2009, which I translate here.“The writer Dilip Ranpura went once for a lecture to Bhavnagar. He was walking from the bus station to the hall when, as it was dark already, he stumbled on a sewage hole without a lid, fell down and broke his leg. He had to be taken straight to hospital and he missed his lecture.
Next day the city papers published the news to explain the cancellation of the talk. On that same day in the morning, while the writer was lying down on his bed at the hospital, an unknown man stood at the door of his room and asked permission to come in. The writer told him he didn’t know him but let him come in and asked him what was bringing him there. The unknown man spoke: “I am the cause of your being here in the hospital today.” The writer looked at him surprised and added: “I was the one who fell down the hole through my carelessness, and I don’t see what you may have to do with this matter.” The man explained: “Sir, I am a thief. I had stolen the lid of that sewage hole and had sold it by weight as metal. This morning I have read in the papers about your mishap at the place, and I knew it was the place where I had removed the lid. That is why I have come to ask your pardon.”
There was a mutual silence, and the thief continued: “See, Sir. I am a thief and I steal to eat, so that I cannot stop stealing. But one thing I do promise you. I will never again steal the lid of a sewage hole. You may be sure of that.” The man uttered those words steadfastly, bowed his head, and took his leave.”
An honest thief. I had a similar experience once. I had arrived as a guest at the Biblical Institute of the Jesuits in Rome on my way to Spain from India, had left my clothing and my wallet in my room while I went to the showers, and when I came back my wallet was missing. No Jesuit had taken it, of course, but they explained to me that workers in the house would watch guests and occasionally take undue advantage of them. That was what had happened. But there was a twist to it. The thief had taken my wallet with all that was in it, but he had before taken out my passport, my yellow fever vaccination certificate, and my driving license, and had left them neatly arranged on the table. Another good thief. He profited by his trade, but without causing me unnecessary trouble. A good professional. I couldn’t invite that noon my friend George Ukken, now missionary in Sudan, for lunch at a good Roman restaurant (I had thought of ‘Alfredo’ with its famous fetuccini) as I had promised him. We had to do with a birra.
Email without address
You have made me laugh, Angela. I don’t know when my turn will come to die, of course, and when I turned 80 I declared I had a right to go without complains; I have lived a full life, have taught, have travelled, had talked, have written more than a hundred books, I’m already ten years in the Web, have helped, cheered up, accompanied many, and I’m surrounded by images of angels I have collected from exotic places. I’m in good company. But your email had gladdened me. You write with tenderness, and that has touched my soul. And then something amusing has happened. I have answered you at once, as I always do, personally, carefully, extensively, but when I’ve tried to send you my answer I’ve realised that your message had no address. If you email me directly, your address comes automatically with your message, and I have only to click on ANSWER and my message reaches you. But if you email me from my website you have to write your address as you are there requested to do, otherwise my answer to you reaches back my own Web and I have no way to reach you. This has happened many times and I feel it as people think I am not answering them, when it is their fault. But your message has charmed me and I don’t want to leave it without an answer, and so I’m going to copy here my answer to you, reproducing of course your message before so that it makes sense, and then adding my answer as I had written it. I understand your reference is to the tenderness I have experienced in my life, of which I had spoken in my previous Web of February 1st.
You write: “Tenderness can also reach you via Internet and you can feel it through these pages fortnight by fortnight. It’s now some time that when I open your page the doubt assaults me, will this be the last? Because of your age, Fr Carlos, the good God may like to take you with him. Then I feel a great uneasiness and I ask myself: ¿Who will help me with his wise advice, who will tell me stories and experiences full of tender love, and how will my Angels, whom he unveiled for me, accompany me if he is no more? Then I think that since you always tell us to live in the present, and as of now and hopefully for a very long time we’ll have you with us, you’ll surely go on teaching, writing, consoling, telling us your stories full of wise advice, and giving us your tender love through Internet. With all my love and for a long, long time to you, my Angel. Angela.”
I answer: “It’s worthwhile having lived so long if only to get those lines from you, Angela. Tenderness is the treasure in life, and I treasure these experiences as you saw precisely in my last Web of February 1st under the heading ‘Doses of tenderness’. I remind you of my own sentence there: ‘I need doses of tenderness to soften down the Darwinian harshness of the struggle for existence.’ It is lovely to discover now that tenderness can also be perceived through Internet. Thank you for this revelation, Angela. It opens up the heart. We men pride ourselves on being tough, and we Jesuits do that all the more. They say Voltaire said of us: ‘They join without knowing each other, live without loving each other, die without mourning each other.’ Of course, Voltaire was a little voltairian and he stretches the point, but tenderness is not our strong point. We do help each other, appreciate each other, support each other and would do any thing for a companion, but we trim our feelings. And maybe it’s not only us who do that. A good Sister has just written to me that she does not feel herself loved by the other Sisters in the convent. We are reserved as we know the dangers, but precisely for that I do appreciate the direct, simple, innocent, delicate, bold and delicate manifestation of sincere affection. Tony de Mello used to repeat to us: ‘If you love someone, tell them.’ So simple, so human, so divine. And then insisted when someone showed us affection and we felt reluctant to acknowledge it: “Take it in! Take it in!” Your message has stirred up all those feelings in me. And I value feelings above ideas. Thank you, Angela. Kisses. Carlos.”
I’m glad someone has noticed that I have skipped psalm 50 in the series. I’ve jumped from 49 to 51 without scruple. Poor 50. What’s wrong with it? It is no less than the famous Miserere. A fine psalm at its time, and a standing inspiration for composers and for sinners in all ages. But you already know my disagreement with the guilt complex that has been hammered into us as a fertile ground for all kinds of manipulation through fear and inferiority throughout our lives. Starting from birth. This psalm says:
“From my birth I have been a sinner,
in sin did my mother conceive me.”To call a sinner the most innocent and tender creature in the world as is a newborn child is not acceptable to me. It is an insult and a conditioning for life. Formerly they baptised us shortly after birth for fear we could die before baptism and prevented from entering heaven. They even invented Limbo. Now they have scratched it off, so that even an unbaptised child can go to heaven. ¿Will they go as newly conceived sinners? Poor little things. If the gates of heaven have opened before an innocent baby, let as take away from them the abuse too.
But then I do like the closing verses of the psalm:
“Restore to me the joy of your deliverance
and grant me a willing spirit to uphold me.”
Psalm 52 – The death of God
I thought atheism was a relatively modern fashion. The talk on the death of God was almost news in the morning papers. Atheists and agnostics boast of being the latest thinkers against obsolete believers. And yet now I find in your psalms, Lord, that there were atheists already in those days. Already then people denied your existence and tried to convince themselves and others that there is no God. The disease seems to be an old one.
“The impious fool says in his heart:
There is no God!”I note the single word to describe the atheist and dismiss his case: fool. The Biblical fool. The person that lacks wisdom, does not see far, does not perceive, does not understand. The absence of vision, of perspective, of sense. The incapacity to see what is before one’s eyes, to take in the reality that emerges all around. The fool misses the point of life and does harm to his own self.
Am I not a fool at times also, Lord? Don’t I behave as though you did not exist, blind to your presence and deaf to your warnings? I ignore you, I forget you, I bypass you. I live long hours and meet people and take decisions without ever a thought of you. I think and act at times as though you simply did not exist. I act on a purely human level, make my choices on human calculations and evaluate my results by sheer statistics. Am I not practically an atheist?
I want to fight atheism in the world today, and to do that I realise I have to begin by fighting it in my own life. I have to live and show a happy dependence on you in all that I do. I want to keep you before my mind when I think, to feel you in my heart while I love. I want to hear your voice and sense your presence, and I want to act always in such a way that your closeness to me appears and shines through my own actions. I want to be a believer not only in the recitation of my creed, but in the living out of each one of its words.
My answer to the “death of God” is that you, Lord, come truly alive in me.
The angel of the book
“The voice which I had heard from heaven began speaking to me again; it said, ‘Go and take the scroll which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and the land’. I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He answered, ‘Take it, and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will taste as sweet as honey.’ I took the scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it and in my mouth it did taste as sweet as honey, but when I swallowed it my stomach turned sour.”
(Revelation 10:8-10)The scroll is the little book with God’s decrees for the world, which are sweet when we receive them from his hand, and they hurt our insides because there is suffering in life, and because it is easy to listen the God’s word but it is difficult to put it into practice. It is the same book as was offered to the prophet Ezekiel in his vision, parallel to the one of John.
“Then he said to me, ‘O man, eat what is in front of you; eat this scroll: then go end speak to the Israelites.’ I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat, saying, ‘O man, swallow this scroll I give you, and eat your fill.’ I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey to me.”
(Ezekiel 3:1-3)The vision of the scroll before the eyes and into the mouth passes on from the prophet of the Old Testament to the apostle of the New. The book is not to be read but to be devoured, as we familiarly say we have devoured a book in rapid reading. This book is a scroll written on the back and on the front with God’s will for me and for humankind. It is the book of his word and his inspiration, of prophecy and gospel, of preaching and witnessing, and then, in its own continuity and development, it becomes every book and every written page that reflects God’s will, every word pronounced with faith and prayer to provide an echo for the eternal word, every printed writing as a pledge of his continued presence among us. New books in the hands of the everlasting angel. The writing continues.
I’ve written many books in my life. Angel of the book, let them taste sweet in the mouths of their readers as also in their insides as they read them together with you.
Cheer people up!
[This is part of what I told a group of Jesuits the other day in a talk.]We are questioning ourselves about our identity. Persons change, as do groups too. Heidegger said that man is born as one, becomes many, and dies one again. We go on adding facets to our personality and reshaping our image. Also as a group.
The identity of the group is defined by the aim it pursues. St Ignatius defined the aim of the Society he had founded as “the care of the salvation and perfection of our own souls and of those of our neighbours”. Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits, learned well his lesson and dedicated his life to the care of souls in the East at a time when the doctrine “Outside the Church there is no salvation” was almost a dogma of faith, which he expressed in a prayer he himself had composed and recited daily: “See, oh Lord, how, to your discredit, hell is being filled with the souls of pagans!” He worked for the salvation of those souls. Today we are more generous, theologically speaking, and the Vatican Council has admitted that non-Christians can also go to heaven, so that helping people not to go to hell does not seem now so urgent as fewer go that way. About “perfection”, religious life was then called “state of perfection”, while now we call it “consecrated life” as we feel shy to call ourselves perfect. In conclusion, our aim of “helping souls” is the same but the words “salvation” and “perfection” don’t appeal to us, and so we are looking for new expressions.
Fr Arrupe, the saintly father general of the order in the last century, interpreted the aim of our mission as “the service of the faith and the promotion of justice”. This is “helping souls” now, and it expresses in a felicitous phrase the world situation in our century. Another expression gained currency at the time too, the “preferential option for the poor” as the defining attitude of the Jesuit in his mission, but that was not so fitting as many of us feel that if working for the poor was the defining task of a Jesuit, we just were not Jesuits. I’ve read a book, written by a justly famous Jesuit, with the title “Outside the Poor There Is No Salvation”, but it has not worried me overmuch. A little bit exaggerated.
Some ideas occur to me too. There is an expression of Ignatius’s himself in the very papal bull that established the Society of Jesus, which appears to me to have permanent value and inspiring strength. In the “Formula of the Institute”, pope Paul III’s bull “Regimini militantis Ecclesiae” (27.09.1540), it says that the Society of Jesus has been founded for “the encouragement of souls”.
In the Acts of the Apostles we are told of a Cypriot convert called Joseph whose name the apostles changed to Barnabas which means “Son of Encouragement”. In Hebrew grammar there are few adjectives, and the expression “Son of…” followed by a name is used as an adjective. For instance, Jesus called John and James “Sons of Thunder” to signify that both of them had strong characters. (Which, by the way, does not fit with the tenderly delicate image tradition has created for John the Evangelist whom Jesus called “Son of Thunder”.) The Greek word means “encouraging, strengthening, cheering up”, and such was Barnabas as the Bible shows him to be. He was a Levite, apostle, St Paul’s companion, saint. He cheered people up. That was his charismatic gift.
Once I attended the consecration of a new church in North Gujarat and many gathered for the occasion. Old friends meet again on such a celebration, sometimes after years, and greetings and news are freely exchanged. The bishop presided, of course, and about twenty or us priests went with him in procession from the presbytery to the church. The problem was that there was some distance between the two, and there were only a few meters of red carpet available. But the good people had thought of it and had the solution. They spread out the carpet, we tread on it carefully up to its border, stood there, they quickly took the carpet from under our feet, and spread it out again in front of us. Thus we went on walking and stopping while they recovered the carpet and spread it out again stage by stage. We solemnly reached the door of the new church and stood for the prayers.
The bishop prayed, blessed, lifted his hand and banged the door three times with his crozier intoning “Gate, open!” But the door did not open. It had been stuck on the inside and resisted all attempts to open it. A little boy run from the crowd, climbed like a squirrel the wall of the church, went in through a window, unlocked the door from the inside, pushed it open, and greeted the bishop with folded hands. Cheers from the crowd.
After the mass I went round shaking hands, reflecting smiles on my own, greeting old friends, when I found myself face to face with a missionary I had not seen for years. We hugged, we laughed, we looked at each other, and then I asked him by way of starting conversation, “What are you doing, Chomin?” The question meant only to find out whether he was a parish priest or a teacher at school or a chaplain to nuns or anything else, What are you doing, where are you posted, what is your job, what is your work? But his answer was better than my question. When I asked him “What are you doing?” he shrugged his shoulders, broadened his smile, waited for a moment and said charmingly, “Cheering people up, what else?”
Cheering people up. I told him he had given me the best definition of a Jesuit, his identity, his function, his mission. Cheering people up. He didn’t know he was quoting St Ignatius, the pope’s bull, and St Barnabas. But he was giving me an expression and an emotion that through times and moods and fashions and cultures remain valid and meaningful and define our personality, our charisma, our mission. Cheering people up. That is the Formula of the Institute, the “encouraging souls”, the “Son of Encouragement”, that is our life and our mission. Cheering people up. Definition for ever.
That is what I always tried to do when I was teaching mathematics at college. To cheer up my students. There were, of course, courses and tests and exams and grades, and I did want for every student of mine to learn the subject and pass the examination and get a first class, but my immediate aim in each class was that they would have a good time in it, that they enjoyed themselves, that they would forget their worries at home and at college and in sport and in love, that they would plunge into a happy and exhilarating experience, would enjoy the long theorem with its suspense and its exactness, would shout for joy at the solution of a complicated problem, would come out of class jumping with excitement after the intense experience of the best of sciences in the best of moods. It did not turn always that way, of course, but I tried hard, and I often succeeded. I enjoyed myself and got them to enjoy themselves. Cheering people up.
That’s what I do when I write books. Cheering up my readers. I don’t aim at changing society or saving the world. God forbid. I don’t try to teach or preach or direct or resolve anything. I just want to have a good time myself while writing, and hope to make the reader to have an even better time reading what I write. Cheering people up.
That’s what I do too in my Web page when I figure out what to tell in it, when I bring up memories, find anecdotes, manage to fill up the pages each time to make up the issue and honour my fortnightly tryst with my friends in Internet. Let whoever reads it have a good time, enjoy themselves, smile to life, cheer up.
And that is what I’ve tried to do in this talk to you. To cheer you up. Let us cheer up each other so that we can keep cheering up all those people that meet us in life. This is, in the end, our vocation. Cheering people up.
The question is a delicate one, and the answer will have to be delicate too. But all the same it will have to be clear and realistic, or else it’ll be of no use.
You tell me you suspect your wife is not being faithful to you, and you are asking me what you should do about it.
I understand your doubting her is serious, that is, you have some significant hints of it and this is not mere jealousy or baseless suspicion. You seriously suspect. But you are not certain. Your doubt has some foundation, or else you would not have written to me. But you have no proof.
The first thing is not to remain in doubt. Your doubt will ruin your marriage. You cannot go on dissembling while your inner uneasiness grows. And I say grows because the doubt in your mind will go on increasing and you’ll interpret every incident with your wife as a new proof. You have to clear your doubt. The best way to clear your doubt, as also the hardest one, is talking it over with her. With all care, delicacy, tenderness, sensitivity, and at the same time clarity, sincerity, vulnerability, equality. Talking it over.
What matters most here is your attitude when opening the dialogue. If your suspicion turns out to be baseless and her reaction satisfies you fully, well and good. If it is founded, and you threaten her with separation and you split up, you’ve destroyed your marriage. If it is founded and you demand repentance and bestow pardon and expect total amendment, you will unbalance your marriage. I mean to say, you will stand out as the forgiver and she will step down as forgiven, and that will not work. You see that yourself.
But there is another attitude, and this can help. Just realise that if she has distanced herself from you, you have something to do with it. Distancing is mutual. I don’t say you’ve done both the same, but I do say that both of you are responsible for finding yourselves now at a distance from one another. Don’t measure or compare responsibilities, but do admit that there is responsibility on either site. There must not be an accuser and an accused, a forgiver and a forgiven. You are equal. Become equal again.
What about the future? The ideal marriage is monogamous, monoandric, exclusive for life. That’s the ideal. But the ideal is not always realistic. You’ll have to accept reality as it presents itself and learn how to react to it. Marriage is something so important and valuable that it is worthwhile to tolerate at times its imperfections precisely in order to maintain it.
All that has been said here about a husband doubting his wife applies exactly equally to a wife doubting her husband. Only the terms have to be interchanged.
Psalm 53 – The Power of Your Name
“Save me, O God, by the power of your name!”I worship your name, Lord, which my lips dare not pronounce. Your name is your power, your essence, your person. Your name is you. I rejoice at the thought that you have a name, you can be called, can be addressed, can enter into dialogue with man and woman, can be dealt with as a person in confidence and familiarity. And I revere the silence of your anonymity in hiding your name from mortal knowledge and veiling your privacy with the mystery of your transcendence. Your name is above all names because your being is above all beings, the ground of all and the centre of all.
Your name is written in the clouds and uttered in the sky among peals of thunder. It is etched in the profiles of mountain ranges against the snow and whispered in the murmurs of the water in the ocean. Your name resounds in the name of every man and woman on earth, and is blessed every time a child is baptised. All creation pronounces your name because all creation comes from you and goes back to you.
In the power of that name I trust. Whatever I am is also an echo of that sacred name. Don’t permit that echo to die in barren silence.
“Save me, O God, by the power of your name!”
And the butterfly said: “I told you.”
(Chamalú)How long is it since you last saw a butterfly flying? Is it days, months…, years perhaps? When was the last time you were surprised by the beating rainbow of weightless wings in their silent path of colour and light? When did you last watch a butterfly alight on a flower and notice its straight antennae, its pigeonhole eyes, the tender spiral of its sucking tongue skilfully unwinding towards the hidden nectar in the flower’s heart?
When I was a child I saw butterflies daily, not just in the fields, but in the midst of the city that was less asphalt and more garden than it is now. Only in winter would I miss them, and I eagerly expected the appearance of the first butterfly as a living certificate of the arrival of spring. I would even catch them tenderly between my fingers to watch closely the bursting geometry of the designs on their wings, the life of their colours, and the suppleness of their sails, to let them take flight again after a while, keeping only between my fingers the printed memory of the magic powder from their fairy wings. That was when I was innocent and the air was clean. Now I don’t see any butterflies around. Where can they have gone to?
They tell us that a good index to measure the ecological health of a region is the number of butterflies that are seen flying freely in it. If that is so, we are in poor health. The butterflies withdraw because the air is defiled, the grass withers, the flowers depart. And as they leave us, they take away the consolation we had in enjoying their cheerful presence and in gratefully acknowledging their precious witness on our live environment. Now they are no more here, and their absence emphasizes the saddened poverty of the air we breathe and the earth we walk on. We have lost our character certificate. Retribution will not be long in coming.
What is there in the loss of a butterfly? Losing a butterfly is losing a part of nature, losing an heirloom, losing creation. God generously created a multiplicity of living beings for the company, service, and joy of man and woman, to show them, after he had made them in his own image, his practical love and his all-embracing providence. The paternal heritage that furnished and embellished the house in which the children are to live. To preserve the family homestead in good keep is sacred duty for each generation. That is why ecology is a virtue, and the care of our environment is worship of God. Any loss of our inheritance is an offence to the Father who bequeathed it to us.
The loss continues. Plant by plant, butterfly by butterfly, species by species. The list increases daily. We lose greenery, we lose melody, we lose colour, we lose life. And the loss is irretrievable. The butterfly that once leaves, never comes back. That is why it wants to warn us before it leaves. It wants to wake us up before it is too late.
The butterfly warns us with its steady withdrawal. Every wing missing in our gardens is a danger for our near future. Let us wake up in time and act upon the message. Or else, the day will come when the butterfly will not be there any more to warn us.
There is mummy taking her son to school as she does each morning. She is one of the many I cross in my morning walk when schools open and dads and mummies take their children by the hand to the daily duty that is beginning to shape their lives. This mum goes on dragging after herself the bag with wheels that carries the heavy load of books and notebooks for the child’s school day. Formerly is was a handbag. Then it became a rucksack on their back. The latest is a square bag on wheels. Each time healthier for the body and its joints, and each time wealthier for the mind with the increase of printed knowledge. Mummy pulls at the box on wheels. A tennis racket handle sticks out from the top. There is something more than books inside. The child keeps kicking a football from side to side on the street. This is more amusing, of course, while mum willingly drags the books after her. Though mum is tall and the bag’s handle is short as it is made to a child’s measurement, and so she has to bend a little and stoop to reach the handle. But it doesn’t matter. All for the sake of the child.
Now the boy missed the ball. He has kicked it too strongly and it has come out of the street, is rolling in the middle of the road and any car can run over it and burst it. The child shouts, “Mummy, the ball!” and points at the danger. Mummy leaves the bag with the books on the street, plunges courageously between cars, signals desperately for them to stop, reaches the ball, catches it, misses it, grabs it, she is now closer to the other side of the street, gets on to it, reaches the zebra crossing, crosses back with the ball in her hands, gives it triumphantly to the child, kisses him, grabs again the bag’s handle, pulls it along, while the child starts again kicking the ball and so both together continue on their way to school.
I too continue on my way back home.
Poor little kid!
The sailor in his sailboat in the middle of the sea watches the remote horizon which lengthens his sight till the ends of the earth. Waves and foam and space and blue till the sea becomes the sky and the sky becomes the sea and everything is round, infinite, cosmic. The definitive meeting point of everything. The goal of life. The young sailor’s dream. When will I reach there?
Then he stares, he sharpens his look, focuses his eyes, and he sees. There on the far horizon, in the cosmic point, right over the meeting of heaven and earth there is a small sailboat like his own. He can make out its sail, follows its rocking on the waves, guesses the happiness of its sailor who has reached the final destiny. How lucky he is!
The happy sailor on the final destination is also looking towards our sailor from afar. He also sees him on the horizon where the sky meets the ocean, on the cosmic point, the final destiny. And he too thinks, how happy that sailor is to be there, to have arrived, to have fulfilled his dream.
We all believe that the point of the cosmic meeting is far away. Others have reached, not me. Others are saints, are good, are perfect, not me. Others are happy. Not me. I always remain at an infinite distance from the impossible ideal. I shall never reach.
My favourite among the Buddha’s stories.
– Master, you have ten thousand disciples. Hoy many of them have reached illumination?
– All of them, but they don’t know it.
Let’s realise it once and for all.
Waves on the sea
The master and the disciple are seated side by side on the seashore. The master speaks first:
– Do you hear the rumble of the waves? Of each wave. They all look equal but they are all different. As they rise, they grow, they advance, they break. And then they crumble, they withdraw, they listen to themselves, they gather strength to strike again. No two waves are equal. Learn to identify each note, to distinguish each shade, to let each wave be what it is, always true to itself, always spontaneous, obedient, punctual, unique. Learn the science of the waves. The art of the waves.
– I’m listening to the waves, master. I close my eyes and I sense their coming, their breaking, their returning, each one in its own way, in its own time, all equal and all different.
– The sea is the image of life, my son, as the waves are the image of persons. All similar and all different. Learn to know them, to respect them, to let them be what they are. Learn to live each moment, to discover each person, to value each life. Learn to know the ocean. Meditate on the waves which are patterns of life.
– I hear the waves, master, and I hear the persons.
Good, my child. Now, do you hear also the silence between two waves?
Thank you, Donald, for the book you’ve sent me. I do like autobiographies, even of drug addicts. I’m going to quote to you a paragraph I’ve just read in it so that you see I am reading it. After a spell in jail, the author of the book joins his usual junkie group and soon notices something. The clothes he had bought when coming out of jail do not fit with those of his mates. Fashion has changed in a short time and he had not kept up to date in jail
“As soon as I meet them, I’m aware that my clothes don’t look right. Since I’m just out of jail, I have no idea what the look is and no money to buy it anyway. I wear a jumper I found for a few quid. It’s dark, which is good. It has one stripe across it, which is bad. In fact, from the way the lads glance at it, I know it’s very bad. [He steals, gets some money, the first thing he does with it is buying himself new clothes.] So now I can afford to reinvent myself. My clothes go dark and tonal. I wear black Caterpillar boots and a pair of deep-blue canvas trousers and a blue rollneck. I throw away the jumper with the white stripe. Neil starts to make jokes about it and that makes me feel like one of them.”
I don’t recommend the book and that’s why I don’t mention its title. It is too crude and hurts. But it does reveal traits that help us to understand one another across the generation gap. One of those traits is fashion. The young person has to be alert to follow the latest fashion which is the identity certificate and the passport to the group. That’s why fashion changes constantly, even if we elders do not realise it, to change along the group’s identity, its image before society, its continued allegiance. So fashion has to change, and change quickly. The passport has to be renewed.
Psalm 54 -Violence in the City
“I have seen violence and strife in the city;
day and night they encircle it all along its walls;
it is filled with trouble and mischief,
alive with rumour and scandal,
and its public square is never free from violence and spite.”That is my city, Lord, and that is happening in my time. Violence in the city. Strikes and agitations and police sirens and military raids. Streets that look like a battlefield and buildings that look like besieged fortresses. The clattering of automatic weapons and the report of bombs in the neighbourhood. Houses on fire, markets deserted, and blood on the stones of the pavement. I have been in those buildings and I have walked those streets.
I know the anguish of a twentyfour-hour curfew, the stinging bitterness of tear gas, the Dyonisian frenzy of a crowd on wild rampage, the ominous news of violent death at a neighbour’s doorsteps. The insecurity of the dark hours, the fear and the tension of enforced confinement at home, the uncertainty of the future, the weight of the black curse of vengeance on the hearts of men.
This is my city, fair in its gardens and proud in its monuments. A city of long history and flourishing trade, of peaceful tradition and artistic design. A city built for men and women to dwell in it in harmony, to worship in its temples, learn in its schools and meet in the open spaces of its urban embrace. A city I love through many years of living in the midst of it, watching it grow and identifying with the many moods of its seasons, its feasts, its rains and its heat, its noises and its smells. A home to me, my address on earth, the resting place I come back to after every journey with the warmth of my friends and the familiarity of its surroundings.
And now my city burns with fire and runs with blood. I feel shame and sorrow, as I feel fear and disgust. I even feel the temptation to run away and find a safe refute, free from the hatred and violence that here sadden and threaten my existence.
“Oh that I had the wings of a dove
to fly away and be at rest!
I should escape far away
and find a refuge in the wilderness;
soon I should find myself a sanctuary
from wind and storm.”But I will not go away. I will stay in my city, bear its scars in my flesh and its shame in my soul. I will stay in the midst of violence, a victim to the passions of men in the solidarity of a common sorrow. I will fight violence by suffering its effects. I will win peace by enduring war. I will stay like the stones, the buildings, the trees of the city in loyal fidelity to it through adversity as through prosperity. I will redeem the sufferings of the city I love by taking them upon myself. Let men of good will walk together through tension and strife, that peace may return to the troubled city.
“Commit your fortunes to the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous be shaken.”
When I open my window every morning,
I see Mount Fuji.We are glad to know it. Perhaps we even feel gently jealous of the Japanese sage who, just on opening the window of his own house in the morning, can enjoy the view, at once artistic and sacred, of the perfect mountain in its snowy cone; a mountain pregnant with tradition and feeling, symbol of a nation and a people, of a faith and an effort to rise from an earthly basis to a vertex in the clouds near the highest heavens. Mount Fuji, image and inspiration of the Japanese people and of all those who with them appreciate their values and delve in their spirituality. Its view every dawn from one’s own home consecrates, no doubt, and ennobles the rest of the day with the pointed reminder of the eternal goal that awaits us while it guides our steps day by day in grateful pilgrimage. Happy indeed the man or woman who begins the day at the feet of the sacred triangle of Mount Fuji against the rising sun.
Things change a little when we come to know that the Japanese sage who uttered those words lived very far away from Mount Fuji; indeed he lived in another one of Japan’s many islands from where no other land could be seen even in the far horizon; and, what is worse, his house was situated in the midst of a little village and its crowded streets, where the only thing he could see on opening his window in the morning was the wall of his neighbour’s house with its off-colour paint and its weather stains in desolate condition. To top it all, our good man had never left his village and had never in his life seen Mount Fuji, which he only knew through pictures and poems as a remote name, a symbol, a fantasy. Whence, then, his proud claim to see Mount Fuji from his window? Was it presumption? Was it wishful thinking? Was it poetic licence? Was it a dream?
It was something simpler and deeper at the same time. The sage had learned to value ordinary life in its true worth, to take every passing incident as a manifestation of life itself, to discover nobility in the commonplace and beauty in homeliness, to know that every word is a message and every face a revelation, to see the whole of creation in a blade of grass, and Mount Fuji is a mud wall. He had found the sacred meaning of existence, the soul of the universe, the unity of the cosmos. He had no need to live on a sacred mountain or in a solitary cave. No need of images or recitations, no need of scriptures or rites. He had gone through all that with due reverence and devotion and that had brought him in due time of effort and grace to the direct contemplation of all in all, of heaven down on earth, of the divine in the human, of Mount Fuji in the wall across the street. That is how he saw it every morning, and blessed his day with the far and close memory of sublime spirit in humble matter. The eyes of faith see redemption in every event, and grace in every gesture. That was the secret of the remote worshipper of sacred Mount Fuji.
And this is the secret of the ennobling of the soul in the midst of daily routine. The contemplation of Mount Fuji every day on opening the window…, whatever that window may be. The cult of the ordinary. The novelty of repetition. The surprise of boredom. The inner and true reconciliation with things as they are and with life as it is. Joy in the present without waiting for success in the future. Greetings to the wall in front without envying the neighbours of Mount Fuji. To open the morning with that attitude in one’s soul in the best way to set the day on its course of joy.
I even suspect that the neighbours of Mount Fuji who see it directly from their homes every day at any time, little by little get used to it, ignore it, and cease to see it. The distant sage is better off: he keeps on guessing the beauty of the mountain because he has never seen it. That is the best definition of faith.
My tummy’s been acting up. Nine days at the hospital. I felt a sharp pain at night. I thought I would put up with it and call later in the day a doctor friend at her hospital. But the pain became so unbearable that I phoned her at 7 in the morning. She told me to take a taxi and come straight to the hospital. The speed with which they worked at me saved me. Scanner, X rays, tests, operation theatre. All in record time. The surgeon who operated on me told me later that if we had waited a few hours I would have had a very bad time. Just in time. What had happened?
54 years ago I had been operated upon for appendicitis in India. And this crisis now, however strange that may seem, comes from there. By the way, that appendix operation at the Emery Hospital in Anand, Gujarat, at that time was quite amusing. The anaesthesia did not work, and though they thought I was anaesthetised, I felt the first cut, and they had to pour in a hurry liquid ether from a bottle on a cotton pad under my nose to knock me down with its vapour that extended through the operation theatre. It almost anaesthetised all the doctors and nurses around. The surgeon was the justly famous doctor Cook, an Australian Salvation Army missionary, who during the day performed operations at the hospital and at night went to preach the gospel around with a trumpet. When I was admitted in the hospital he had already gone out with his trumpet, and so other doctors examined me and diagnosed hepatic colic. As all the beds were occupied as usual, due to the well deserved good name of the hospital, they laid me down on a couch in his office where I remained alone. At midnight I felt much pain, tried to get up to call somebody, and fainted on the floor. Just then a nurse happened to come in, and went at once to wake up doctor Cook. He came in his pyjamas, saw the chart about hepatic colic, put it aside, and made a single test. He asked me: “Father [though I was not yet a priest], give me your breath.” He sniffed my breath and said: “Typical acute appendicitis smell. Operation theatre number 1 immediately.” And he saved my life. Clinical eye. Or rather clinical nose.
To top it, alter the operation he came to thank me. I told him it was I who should thank him, but he explained: “Look here, I’m an Australian and you are European. We have big appendices. These Indians here, I don’t know why, perhaps it is because they do not eat meat, but the fact is they have very small appendices. It was a long time sine I had seen a big appendix, and while operating on you I felt I was back at home and I had a grand time. When I removed your appendix I showed it round to the doctors and nurses that were helping me and I told them: ‘This is an appendix, and not what you have.’ It was a treat.” I told him I always endeavoured to give satisfaction.
Now, it is not that the operation was badly performed, but even in the best intestinal operations filaments can result and grow till they form what doctors call a bridle which can extend from side to side and on which, following a sudden movement in sleep, my intestines got hanged and strangled. The ensuing pain saved me. I can stand pain and hate to complain and give trouble, and so I thought I would wait and call the hospital later during the day. But the pain became so excruciating that I had to call early. And that saved me. Pain can save us. It gives us notice.
That an action on the body 54 years ago can have its effect today made me think of the law of karma. Whatever we do leaves its imprint. On the body as on the mind. Without fail. My dean of theology at the Pune seminary, Fr Joseph Neuner who has reached a hundred this year, used to tell us in class that karma was “the law of metaphysical congruence of the universe”. More simply: If you do it, you pay for it. Or: “What man sows, he also reaps.” (Galatians 6:8). Or again: “When I throw a stone, I alter the centre of gravity of the universe.” (Carlyle) Or, yet: “When I move on earth I feel I am disturbing the stars.” (Pessoa) The butterfly effect. Everything I do has its consequences, for good and for evil, and they are inexorable. This is not to get frightened but on the contrary, encouraged, as we all have done some good in our lives, often without giving importance to it or even remembering it, and all that bears fruit in benediction. “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will come back to you.” (Ecclesiastes 11:1)
I was the first to be surprised at my own good mood after the operation. When friends came to visit me I was the one who did most of the talking and cheered up everybody, not on purpose but spontaneously. They all told me I had a good aspect. I realised how much of an optimist I am and how much this has helped me in life. A niece brought me a watercolour painted by herself to cheer up the relentlessly white walls of the hospital room. I’m going to frame the picture and hang it in my house to gladden me. Thank you, Elena. I have also appreciated friendship all the more. How nice have my friends been to me these days! I had very good friends in India, and when coming back to Spain after 50 years I understood I needed new friends here, and I sought them and I now have a good group that accompanies my life. They have been my strength these days.
Suffering gives credibility. When everything goes well it is hard to console those for whom things do not go well. Of course, since you have no problems! But I’ve had problems and I have them and they give me the right to talk and console and cheer people up and declare that life is beautiful and it has full sense. A surgical operation can be well worth its while.
I gave three big chocolate boxes to the nurses, one for the morning shift, one for the afternoon shift, one for the night shift. Just one question: Why is it that some nurses are charming, and some are unbearable? It’s so easy to smile.
Just as the operation of 54 years ago had this untoward effect today, so I’ve been warned this operation now may cause a similar crisis later. I hope it’ll take another fifty-four years.
A young couple of my close acquaintance came to see me at the hospital when I was in my bed of pain, and my own pain was reflected in theirs. They came again when I was back in my home, and on seeing me in good shape, standing and moving around, their faces suddenly lit up with joy in spontaneous reaction. Observing the sudden change in their faces I felt the affection and the care of those good friends. Seeing their joy at seeing me well made me feel even better. It is worthwhile falling sick in order to appreciate the love of friends.
Some of you have been surprised at the Buddhist story I told you last time. Thank you for telling me. I told you it was my favourite story. The one about all his disciples been enlightened while none of them knew it. You find it strange. How can we say all of them were enlightened if no one knew it? And to make matters worse, I ended the story saying, “Let’s realise it once and for all!” as though it applied to us too. Of course it applies. Of course we all “have arrived”, “are enlightened”, “have been saved”, but we don’t know it or don’t believe it or don’t understand it. And you have asked in your wonder how can this be.
The amusing part of it is that this very idea is in the gospels, strange as you may think. Jesus clearly says that “the Kingdom of God has already come upon you” (Luke 11:20). That is, the kingdom is already here on earth even if we have not heard about it. My favourite exegete, Joachim Jeremias, wrote with humour: “Faith is believing that the Kingdom has come… in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.”
Apparently the Buddha said the same as the Bible. We have arrived, we are enlightened, we have been saved. And to top it all, St Paul also tell us that “we have been risen with Christ and are sitting with him in heaven” (Ephesians 2:6), although we haven’t realised it either. Risen and sitting down. Present perfect in the original Greek. Present. Now. St Paul. I repeat: It’s about time we realise it. A little bit of optimism, at least, in the midst of all those depressing news that we get every day.
Psalm 55 – To walk in your presence
“You have rescued me from death,
to walk in your presence.”To live is to walk. To keep going, to move ahead, to open new paths, to scan new horizons. Standing still is not living. That is passivity, inactivity and death. And rushing is not living either. That is shooting through events without realising what they are.
Walking keeps my feet in touch with the earth, my eyes open to the changing landscape, my lungs filled with new air at each step, my skin alert to the presence of the wind. At each moment I am fully where I am, and fully moving to the next event in the gently course that is my life. Walking is the most enjoyable sport in life, because living is the most enjoyable thing on earth.
And my walking is with you, Lord; by your side, in your presence. Walking in the presence of the Lord: that is what I want my life to be. The precious luxury of the leisurely step, the lost tradition of walking for its own sake, the silent companionship, the common direction, the ultimate end. Walking with you. Hand in hand. Step by step. Breath by breath. Knowing that you are there all the time, that you walk with me, and that you are enjoying my life with me. When I feel that you are enjoying my life with me, how can I not enjoy it myself?
“You have rescued me from death,
To walk in your presence in the light of life.”We’ll keep walking, Lord.
“Out in the desert
dawn happens unannounced.
And someone knows it.”
(Borges)And because someone knows it, the dawn becomes prayer, the desert flowers in contemplation, and existence itself is a sacrament. The presence of man and woman in the barren desert gives meaning to its extension and life to its sands. The human being sanctifies creation by living it, and returns it thus in joyful fruition to the Creator who first gave it to him at the beginning of time. Dawn is beautiful because there is a man and a woman to see it.
Dawn “happens”. The great events of life and history simply “happen”. Things “happen”. Whatever is, “is”. The simplicity of existence enhances the majesty of the commonplace. “All that exists is worthy of adoration”, said Claudel. Our role is to see happenings as providence, to recognise the painter in the painting, God in the dawn, and eternity in the desert. When we smell a rose, we enliven its existence. When we drink water, we sanctify its course. When we look at the heavens, we consecrate their splendour. We have been placed in the midst of creation that by admiring it and accepting it and using it and enjoying it we may witness to its greatness and acknowledge the generosity of its gift. Our presence gives meaning to the universe.
And then, while we bow before nature and all its creatures, we elicit also their friendly reaction, and they become ready to help our toil and our suffering with the family understanding of the common struggle. Another haiku from the same source:
“Trill of a lone bird.
The nightingale does not know
that he consoles you.”If the presence of man and woman had given nature its soul, nature now responds and rewards human presence with the best it has in light and colour and clouds and birds. The trill of the nightingale heals away sadness; the breeze in the afternoon relieves fatigue; the colour of the rose softens the eyes; the perfume of the fields widens the soul. And nature does all this with supreme disinterestedness, without seeming to realise, to know, to value what it does, doing it simply because it does it, without giving it importance, without keeping accounts, without asking for a receipt. The nightingale consoles us with its joyful trill, and the rain refreshes us with its gentle touch. The creatures give us back the thought of God we had given them. This is the sacred circle that justifies the universe. Let us learn how to contemplate the dawn. And let us allow ourselves to be consoled by the nightingale. The galaxies are watching. And God is in the midst of them.
Just happened. I’ve made two phone calls to two airlines for a reservation. My questions were the same, and their answers were similar. Both were female voices. Same information, language, professional manners. But there was some difference. One of them exuded kindness, pleasant manners, charm, almost beauty. The other was jarring, unpleasant, stupid, obviously ugly. All in their voices. Can the human voice do all that?
It can. There is the delightful anecdote of the blind man who knew the person’s character by their voice and declared that Zen Master Banzei spoke always the truth because that showed in his voice. Or the psychoanalyst quoted by Fritz Perls who not only diagnosed his patient’s ills from their voice but cured them also working just on their voice.
Actress Kathleen Turner dedicates a whole chapter in her autobiography to her voice. She says among other things:
“I take the idea of voice quite literally because I truly believe the sound of my voice is terribly important to my overall presentation and how I will be received by others. It started with my being an actress, but it is much more basic than that, really. A resonant voice is first of all a practical communication tool for anyone at any time.” (Send Yourself Roses, p. 176)
“A voice, like a fingerprint, is unique. Everyone has a unique voice quality, but the effectiveness of one’s voice can be improved upon. And should be. It seems to me that, particularly for women, having a good vocal presence completes you. I mean, what does it matter what you look like if people cringe when you open your mouth?” (177)
“It was a great honour to me when I was asked to narrate a documentary, Answering the Call, about the first sixteen horrendous days right after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre. There was so little I could do but I had to do something. We were together taking a stand against terrorism. We were saying the forces of evil would not win the day; we would rescue who and what we could, we would rebuild, and we would prevail. Using my voice to document the stories of those heroic people, from the fire-fighters and police officers to the emergency medical technicians and the volunteers, was the very least I could do. I was and am humbled by each and every one of them.” (186)
“I don’t know if my voice shaped me or if I shaped my voice.” (180)
She goes on to say something interesting about her grandfather. “My grandfather, that wonderful down-to-earth Daddy Russ, who taught me how to persevere in life as I’ll presently say, died when he was ninety-five. My daughter Rachel and I went to the funeral. The church they belonged to had a circular sanctuary with the altar in the middle. In front of the altar was his coffin, not open, thank you very much. I had Rachel, who was three years old, on my lap, and she asked, ‘Where’s Daddy Russ?’ I said, ‘Well, honey, Daddy Russ is in that coffin. He’s in that box.’ She said, ‘What’s he doing?’ I said, ‘He’s sleeping. And he’s going to stay asleep now.’ She nestled her head on my shoulder and said, ‘Good night, Daddy Russ.’ And she went to sleep in my arms. That was when I started crying. I was fine up till then. It was Daddy Russ that had given me the mantra in my life. When I would tell him before any serious difficulty in life, ‘I can’t stand it, I’ll never do it’, he’d look at me and he’d say, ‘Well, you just have to, don’t you?’ That has led me through life. ‘You just have to, don’t you?’ And I would go and do it. (287)
Her father never approved of her vocation to the stage. While she was still at school she took part in a play for the end-of-the-year function, and this is what her father did. “Dad was always there as a strong positive force in my life, but his disapproval of my work at the stage was equally intense. Like the time he drove my mother to my high school to watch one of my performances. He wouldn’t come in to see the play because that would have violated his principles. But he wouldn’t abandon his daughter, either. Instead, he sat in the car outside the school during the entire program. Inside the theatre, I pictured vividly how his hands must have been clenched on the steering wheel while he waited. But he waited till the end.” (64)
By the way, the two airlines I mentioned at the beginning were Lufthansa and Iberia. But I won’t say which of them was the good girl and which the bad one.
A bath in the Ganges
A devout Hindu went on a pilgrimage from his village in South India to Benares in the north to bathe in the Ganges and thus to get rid of his sins according to Hindu belief. The pilgrimage was painful as he went on foot and alone in his penitential pursuit. On arrival he had to make his way through the large crowds, he finally reached the waters, immersed his whole body three times to make sure he was getting rid of all his sins, came out in his wet clothes, went to a sadhu who was sitting facing the river, gave him all the money that was left to him as part of his penance, and asked for his blessing. The sadhu told him:
– I have seen how you came, tense, tired, in a hurry. You went straight into the water, dived three times, came out at once, then came straight to me to give me your money. Tell me one thing, did you have a good time?
– I didn’t come to have a good time, Swamiji. I came to do penance for my sins.
– You didn’t enjoy your bath, did not feel the current, did not see those beautiful trees on the shore, the temples, the crowds with their colours and their faces, did not appreciate the beauty of the river, its breath, its majestic flow, its surroundings, its slow and steady walk towards the sea?
– Nothing of that, Swamiji. I only came here to wash away my sins.
– And do you think the river liked that? The Ganges likes for people to appreciate it, to enjoy it, to feel the coolness of its waters, the caress of its current, the beauty of its landscape. A bath in its waters has to be a treat for body and mind. Have you not felt anything of that?
– Nothing, Swamiji.
– Then your sins have not been forgiven. Take your money back and go. No blessing if you don’t enjoy yourself. And if you truly enjoy yourself and everything good and beautiful around you, if you live out with joy the life God has given you, you don’t need any penance. It was worthwhile having come here from far away to learn that lesson. Don’t forget it.
The pilgrim left lost in thought.
I’m not surprised at your question, Juan Ignacio. In talks, in discussions, in conversation about the afterlife there is always someone who does not believe in hell. It’s a hot proposition. How can God send a person to hell to torture them cruelly for all eternity? And that for a single unforgiven mortal sin. There is no proportion between human sin and divine punishment. Your query comes in time. Very recently I’ve come across the most amusing argument I know against the existence of hell. You’ll enjoy it. It is based on the Golden Rule of the gospel and of all scriptures in all religions that, in its simplest expression, says, “Don’t do to others what you would not like done unto yourself”. God would not want to be sent to hell to suffer for all eternity, consequently, if he wants to keep the rule he himself had set, he cannot do to others what he would not like done unto himself. That’s his own Rule. Are you convinced?
When hell is discussed there is always someone who comes up with a witticism. They say: Hell exists, but it is empty. Nobody goes there. This saves at the same time God’s and the Church’s honour, as the existence of hell is many times asserted in the Bible and it is a dogma of faith for Catholics which would make into a heretic anyone who would deny it and they would go to hell precisely for having denied it which is the limit, so that the existence of hell is upheld at any cost; and on the other hand it saves also the serious thinking of many who cannot conceive such a punishment, as hell remains empty, thus saving God’s honour. Some even quote Pascal who is supposed to have said that already. Hell exists but it’s empty. And everybody is happy.
The pity is that that’s not true. Even if Pascal said it. Hell is not empty. Those who repeat the saying forget that the separated angels, the devils, many and angelical in their origin, are already there. They are heating up the cauldrons and sharpening their tridents. Complete with horns and tail. Hell is inhabited since times of old. Besides it would be ridiculous if God would threaten us all our lives with the prospect of hell, only to tell us at the end that it was all a joke. And then there is the consideration of the heavy expenses involved in running hell, the maintenance of the cauldrons, the burning oil, the large spaces along so many centuries and ages, particularly now in the midst of the financial crisis we are in, if all that was going to go waste. Well, the notion that there is hell but it is empty does not hold water. Even if many of you uphold it cheerfully.
Maybe the right solution lies in humility and simplicity, in recognising that we don’t know much about what is awaiting us in the realms beyond, and in trusting that God will somehow manage to make his justice and his infinite mercy converge. We’ll see it some day. In heaven.
Meanwhile the best approach is humour. When I was young there was abstinence from meat on Fridays, and eating meat on a Friday was a mortal sin. Hell sin. The norm was later changed, and in its place the faithful were recommended to do some good work on Friday, like giving alms or reading the Bible or visiting a church or helping somebody, always without the weight of sin. And one could eat meat. The New Yorker brought out a cartoon those days in which Satan appeared on his throne in hell between fire and smoke before his demonic councillors and was asking them: “What are we to do now with all those that are here for having eaten meat on Friday?”
I can also tell something that happened to myself while hearing confessions – without breaking the seal. In those times of many years ago a man, who had not come to know about the change, came to confession and accused himself of having eaten meat on Friday. I gave him absolution, as in his conscience he had sinned since he believed he had, but then I explained to him for the future that the pope had changed the rules, there was no more sin and he could eat meat on Friday if he wanted to. He answered vehemently: “The pope may say whatever he wants, but it is a sin to eat meat on Friday and it will always be!” More Catholic than the pope. He was a Goan, of course. I gave him a good penance.
Psalm 56 – Your purpose for me
“I will call upon God most High,
On God who fulfils his purpose for me.”How consoling it is for me, Lord, to know that you have a purpose for me! I am not useless in your sight. I am not a routine creation, an accidental afterthought, a disposable production. I am in your thoughts and in your plans from before the beginning of things, I am a thought in your mind before the stars shone and the planets found in obedience their orbits. I make sense to you before I ever made it to myself. There is a purpose for me in your heart, and that is enough for me to value my life and trust myself into existence. You see where I don’t see and you know what I don’t know. You know me and count on me for your dreams of the Kingdom. You have a purpose for me. To discover it by living it out along my days is my very definition as a person. I want to be myself in faith till I find myself in you. That is my life.
You not only have a purpose for me, you fulfil it. In spite of my ignorance, my weakness, my laziness, you carry out your plan and fulfil your purpose. You never force me, but gently lead me on with the mysteriously respectful and lovingly effective assistance of your grace. Your purpose will not fail and your plan will not be frustrated. My own life rests now in the cosmic perspective of your infinite providence. The speck of dust has become a shining star. I am part of a glorious firmament, and I let its beauty and its majesty be reflected in the smallness of my being. Then the power of creation flows through me, and I am filled with the joy and the boldness to sing my song in the concert of creation. I have found my place in the world because I have found my place in your heart. And this is my song:
“My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and raise a psalm;
awake, my spirit;
awake, lute and harp;
I will awake at dawn of day.
I will confess you, O Lord, among the peoples,
among the nations I will raise a psalm to you,
for your unfailing love is wide as the heavens,
and your truth reaches to the skies.
Show yourself, O God, high above the heavens;
let your glory shine over all the earth.”
What the thief could not steal
“The thief forgot to take
the moon framed in the window.”
(Ryokan)The thief took away all that he could lay his hands on. There were not many things in the poor monk’s cell, but he could always have found some piece of clothing, some writing utensil, a begging bowl or a walking stick, and all this was taken away by the professional plunderer under cover of the conniving night. The monk, always alert to the noises of the night, woke up in time to see the silent shadow and understand the house-cleaning he had just unwillingly undergone. He noted the missing articles, but then he looked at the window, saw the full moon framed in its background of stars, and smiled to himself. His most precious possession was intact. The white moon was still shining through the square of his window. The monk turned in his bedding and went on with his sleep. His riches were safe.
Who can take away the moon from me? Who can take away the sun and the stars and the clouds and the winds and the mountains and the meadows? Who can deprive me of my greatest treasure which is the earth and the sky and the air and the sea? World markets may fluctuate up and down and may drag along with them the value of my money and the savings of my toil. The thieves of darkness can spy on my earnings and empty my coffers. All that can be gained, can be lost, and the anxiety for the constant danger dampens the joys of uneasy possession. There is no restful sleep under the ceiling of ambition.
The true restful sleep comes under gentle moonlight. Detachment from unnecessary tinsel. Wise austerity in the midst of a wild consumerism. Simplicity as a way of life and as a matter of spiritual elegance. To place nature first, so that all other pleasures may yield rank, fall back, lose importance, and thus cease to be a hindrance, as they usually are, with their compulsive craving and their doubtful outcome, in the healthy pursuit of happiness in life. If we learn how to enjoy the silent beauty of a moonlit night, we’ll not feel any more the urge to hunt for pleasure in the deceitful shows of boisterous emptiness.
Whoever bears in themselves the riches of his life, will never need to cast about to find external glamour which will never fill his heart and can always trap him in frustration. Now, to bear one’s riches in oneself means to know how to appreciate and enjoy in full the daily blessings of life itself – the day and the night, the water and the breeze, solitude and silence, friendship and company, the laughter of the child and the trill of the bird, dawn and dusk, food and sleep, prayer and love. All that the moon in the night represents and enacts in her loving presence, her transparent light, her delicate figure. All those treasures that no one can take away from us.
Before going back to sleep, the poet and monk bequeathed to eternity his thrifty verse wrapped in his nightly smile:
“The thief forgot to take
the moon framed in the window.”
I’m no good at finances, but I’m not a stranger either to whatever happens to me and to the world. I cannot solve the financial crisis but I can recollect the traditional principles I learned in my youth and can be of help to us again, the principles of moderation and saving. When I was young we were told that we should never live above our means, should spend less than we earned, and should save for the future. This was the basis for all rational economics for the person, the family, the institutions, and the state. But things changed as I went on in life. Accidentally, I’ve found an echo of that culture and that change in an autobiography that describes with charming innocence this same process of economic change that has affected us all along one generation and has brought danger to the whole world. Alek Wek, the international supermodel of the Dinka ethnic group in South Sudan, tells her experience when, after years of extreme poverty in her country, she reached the fashion catwalks, settled in New York, and thought of buying a house for herself. She stopped one day with her American agent, Mora, in front of a real estate office and looked at the photos and prices of houses “For Sale”.
– That one looks nice – said Mora, pointing to a three-storey red brick townhouse that was listed at 395,000 dollars.
– Are you kidding? You know I don’t have anywhere near that much money in the bank.
– You borrow it, Alek. You get a mortgage.
– No way! In Dinka culture it’s almost unheard of to borrow money. My mother had always stressed that a person should never buy anything they can’t afford or pay for outright. This idea of getting a mortgage was so foreign to me that I couldn’t even begin to understand it: you borrow a hundred thousand dollars and end up paying the bank two hundred thousand dollars over the life of the loan? That seemed ridiculous.
– Let’s just get a list of houses and we’ll go see some of them. There is no harm in looking.
– OK. But I’m not buying anything I can’t afford.
After a few years in my own life, I too came to know, in the midst of my persistent ignorance of finances, that not getting into debt was out of fashion. Only a fool would live below their means when it was now possible to live above them. The new economics was called “deficit financing”, and apparently that was what governments, business, the rich, and the clever were doing. That was also what Alek finally ended up by doing:
“We went along in the car and saw about ten houses that morning. We laughed a lot. All the time I was wondering how I could possibly pay for a house. Mora made it sound really simple, if daunting. If I put 10 percent down I could pay the rest off monthly until I was over fifty years old. It sounded crazy but I realised that it wasn’t as crazy as paying rent.
As we pulled up to the last house of the day I realised it was the red brick one I’d admired in the real estate office window. For some reason, it made me think of my childhood home in Wau, even though they didn’t look at all alike. There was a feeling, an energy about the place that spoke to my heart. The house said, ‘Home’. It was very expensive, and in Timbuctu we’d get a whole city block for that kind of money. But this was New York. I bought the house. All of a sudden I was an upstanding member of the community with a mortgage to pay and pipes to fix.”
(Alek Wek, Alek, Virago, London 2007, p. 177)
I understand your plight. You are well settled as a widow and you look after your only son in his adolescence with great care. And now you’ve found he is on drugs. What can you do? I’m going to tell you something very hard but very real. You’ll help your son in every way possible to keep him from sinking, but the best thing you can do for him is not to sink with him. Don’t be disheartened. He is your son, by all means, and his pain is your pain, but he is one person and you are another, and you are both distinct and separate. You love him very much and do well in doing so, but you must not identify with him. If you sink with him, there will be two to sink instead of one. That does not help anyone. Be strong. Happen what may.
If anyone is drowning in the river and has still strength left, the best way to help them is to throw them a rope from the shore. If you jump into the river to be by their side, both of you will sink. Be steady on dry land to help your son better. Do not sink. Continue with your life and let him see that. “I love you with all my heart and I’ll do everything possible to help you, my son, but you are you and I am I. If you go down, I’ll feel it with all my soul, but I won’t go down. And I want you to know that.” He’ll respect you all the more for that. Total help, and total independence. That’s the way to come out of the trial. You are not to live his life for him. You live your life, and he lives his. Very close but quite different. Keep up your friendships, your occupation, your recreation. Do not weave your life around your son. Do stand by his side, but never depending on him.
And don’t be afraid to be strict with him. And to control the money he spends. Let him know drugs claim higher and higher doses and become unbearably expensive leading to thefts and violence. Let him not harbour any illusion that he is not yet an addict and can leave the drug any time he wants. They all say that and by the time they really want to come out in desperation, they cannot. Whatever level he is at, the sooner he quits, the better. He knows it but you tell him too.
About direct help for him, there is nothing you don’t know. Depends how far he’s gone. The company he keeps is important. And his keeping busy and entertained. Do not pretend to keep him company. In any case, it is his life. How are his studies? Let him realise his life is at stake. Professional help can do much, whether personalised or in an institution. And the family will rally round. Do not lose hope, which is your best contribution. I, and all those who read this are with you before God.
By the way, you’re all wrong. In my 15 April Web the good girl was Lufthansa. Of course I took her flight.
Psalm 57 -The Curse of Deafness
Evil men go wrong all their lives;
they tell lies from the day they are born.
They are full of poison, like snakes;
they stop their ears, like a deaf cobra,
which does not hear the voice of the snake charmer,
or the chant of the clever magician.I think of myself and of the evil that is in me. I sometimes tell myself that I just don’t hear your voice, so how can I proceed? Now I know that when I don’t hear your voice it is because I have stopped my ears. The deaf cobra. The wily snake. It keeps its poison by closing itself to the charms of the flute in the hands of the skilled magician. Poison to kill others. Poison to make itself cursed among the creatures of earth.
I stop my ears and refuse to hear. I close myself in my stubbornness, and the poison of selfishness brews within me. Then, when I speak, I hurt; when I touch, I burn; when I move among others, I am feared and avoided. Those who know me sense the curse within me, and keep away from me. I become the victim of my own poison, and I am left alone because I have proved myself dangerous.
Open my ears, Lord. Make me docile to your voice, open to your charms. Drain away the poison from inside me, that I may become and be recognised as harmless and friendly to all creatures and all men and women, may be admitted into their company and trusted in friendship.
Do not let me ever lose contact with you. Do not let me interrupt, be it only for a moment, my communication with you. Do not let me close my ears, turn my face, isolate my life. Even when I drift away from you, keep me always within hearing distance, call me, remind me. Do not give me up, Lord, and never permit that I may ignore you.
The opposite of deafness is sensitivity, and that is the grace I ask of you above any other grace. To be open, alert, sensitive to you, to your presence, to your voice. Let me hear, let me listen. Let me welcome always your word to me, that my life may be the incarnation of your Word through me.
The arrow fled!
“Too late already!
The arrow left the bow!”I find it a fascinating image. I see the archer poised for the final twang in the vertical bow strained by self-assured hands. I see the Master who has tried to come in at the last moment with an urgent but belated correction. I see the arrow, frozen an instant ago in tense expectation, unleashed already in linear flight against the remote target. And I hear the exclamation which sums up the frustration of the lost effort in the exacting training. Too late already! The arrow left the bow!
The reaction has to be instantaneous if it is to be pointed. A second too late, and the arrow is gone. A doubt, and the opportunity is lost. A delay, and the freshness of the moment disappears for ever. The arrow does not wait. Life does not wait. Chances are flying birds. All the cells of our brain and all the fibres of our body have to be on maximum alert to jump at the moment and grasp the occasion. The challenge has to be met when it comes. Delay means death.
Why are we so slow in our reactions? Why do the best chances slip out from between our fingers? Why do we think of the witty answer only when the conversation is over; why do we see the clear solution only after the crisis has passed? If we see it so clearly now, why did we not see it then? If we have the capacity to think of it now, why did it not occur to us when we would have shone so brightly by saying it? Why is it we find spontaneity so hard, while we know it to be so attractive? Why does the arrow always escape our grip?
Because we are blocked up inside. We all have it in us to be able to see and feel and react and daze everybody with a witty repartee on the spur of the moment. But we are all walled up inside with a thousand walls that hinder our response and delay its effect. Shyness and fear and anxiety and need to do the right thing and doubts about ourselves and complexes before others and compulsive perfectionism before our own eyes. And we rethink and polish and brood and wait… and the arrow flies before we can put in our personal remark. And the Master laughs. The arrow has left the bow!
I sometimes feel as though I were all tied up in knots on the inside. I want to strike the right note, not to hurt anybody, satisfy all, be up to the mark, hit the nail on its head. All those are knotty knots. And so long as these knots are there, I know very well that I’ll not be able to do the right thing at the right time in full justice to myself and to others. And I also know very well that the moment those knots go, I will suddenly wake up from my stupor, will feel at ease, will think of clever things to say, will say them at the right moment and in the right mood, and will give satisfaction to myself, and all others with me.
I keep on working at untying knots. It is worth the trouble. Spontaneity is the salt of life. I don’t want the arrow to escape me again!
I like to listen to music while I work. Classical music. Instrumental, as the human voice distracts me. Mozart and Beethoven and Schuman and Bach. Never in any particular order, so that I never know what I’m going to choose, and it is always a pleasure to recover a masterpiece forgotten for years. It was years actually since I had last listened to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D. I remember having heard Jehudi Menuhin play it in the Madrid Royal Theatre in one of those performances one never forgets. Menuhin said on that occasion that, although the concerto is not difficult for the violinist, he waited long in his professional life to approach it, as it requires great artistic maturity. I have it now by me in Arthur Grumiaux’s version conducted by Colin Davis. It was so long since I had listened to it that I had forgotten how it began. I did remember the last movement with what has been called “one of the most joyful themes of all times”, but however much I tried I could not recall the opening bars of the concerto. It just escaped my memory.
Then a strange thing happened. I took the cover, took out the CD, was going to insert it in the player, and before I could slide it inside, before closing the lid and pressing the button and hearing a single note, while the record was still in my hands and I was reading the printed information on it… I suddenly heard in my mind’s ear its opening bars strong and clear. The four strokes of the kettledrum with which the score opens. And from there on to the whole melody in all its arresting beauty. What had happened?
Something quite simple had happened. Memory is not only a matter of the ear. It is not only intellectual memory, mental memory. There is such a thing as a sense memory too. Eyes and hands and skin and body. Bodily memory. My hands were touching the record, my eyes were scanning it, my body was sensing it, and the first notes of the forgotten concerto sounded at once within my mind. There was no need to hear a note or to read a score, no need to wait for the record to be inserted, to spin, to sound, no need for the orchestra to play and the violin to follow. The CD was silent, waiting in my hands, and yet the melody was already in the air and the performance had begun.
This is important. Memory is not a purely mental activity, but also a bodily one. Every remembrance is inscribed in our body. To be watched if it is harmful, and to be cherished if it is helpful. As the violin concerto. Let it come into my body again. F-G-A-B-C-DDD-A…
As though this were not enough, here comes another recent experience. I’ve just been to Malaga, in the south of Spain, and visited the Banús Harbour which I had known about forty years ago when it was only a small fishermen’s harbour, while now it is a very large concern full of the most modern ships and buildings. In the old days we had taken a beer in a small café whose name I now wanted to remember as we approached the place, but it didn’t come to mind. When we reached the place, the café was not there any more, neither was its name anywhere, but then it suddenly sprang to my memory. El Chiringuito de El Beni”. That was it. My feet did remember it. Uncanny.
Funnier still. I went to a German school as a child but left it when I was ten years old and never practiced the language again. In spring we used to sing a song to the month of May… which I had not sung again since those days at school. And that is now more than seventy years ago. Well then, the other day, May the 1st, I went for my morning constitutional, I greeted the beautiful spring day that was expecting me outdoors, I saw trees in full flower all around me…, and suddenly, without any thought or intention, I found I was quietly singing to myself the German spring song of my tender days:
Der Mai ist gekommen,
Die Bäume shlagen aus.
“May has arrived! All trees are in bloom!” And so on verse by verse as though I had learned them yesterday. My memory was keeping them safe. And it brought them out when it wanted. Everything waits in our subconscious. Just as well the flowers of the month of May are also there.
Swami Ramdas was one of the best known and loved Hindu saints in the last century, who roamed India from South to North singing the name of God and cheering people up with his smile, his teachings, his constant recitation of the name of God. Here are a couple of his experiences. He always spoke of himself in the third person, as St Ignatius did in his diary, so that when he says “Ramdas said…” he means “I said”.
“Ramdas had been several days in the temple preaching and distributing to children the food and sweets people brought to him when two Muslim policemen appeared in the temple, pushed the crowd aside and face Ramdas and his companion. One of them took out pencil and paper and asked in a hostile tone:
– Are you the sadhus? Give me your address. We are in a hurry.
– Ramdas’s address is this temple where we are now.
– Place of birth?
– The universe.
– Don’t come to me with nonsense or you’ll end up in jail. Occupation?
– Praising God.
– What is that?
– Oh God, how wonderful are your ways! Sometimes you appear to us with a smile and sometimes with a stern face, but you are the same. The mother sometimes kisses and sometimes scolds her child, but she is always the same. Today you have sent to us someone to threaten us, but that is your same self as when you appear in those who come to listen to us. You are the devotee who comes with their offerings, and you are the policeman who comes with their threats. How wise you are in disguising yourself in such different ways! And what about jail? The only thing that matters for Ramdas is the repetition of God’s name, Rama, Rama, Rama, and that can be done in jail just as well as in the temple. Come, take us wherever you want.
The policeman listened patiently. Ramdas was as peaceful and cheerful as ever. Suddenly the policeman’s face changed. He became pale and lowered his eyes. Then he joined his hands before his breast, which he had not done before in greeting, and said:
– Sorry, sir, and I apologise for my language. I had come with orders to take you to jail, but I’m old at this job and I can see that you have nothing to do with jail. Your very face is saying you are a man of God. Your smile is disarming. I have behaved in a rude way before you and I ask forgiveness.
He put paper and pencil back in his pocket and turned to leave with his companion. Before they left Ramdas gave then sweets from the prasad he was distributing. Ramdas later came to know that first two Hindu policemen had been sent to arrest him but the pious crowd had convinced them to let him alone, and subsequently two Muslim policemen were sent to do the job, but they equally left Ramdas in peace.
– – –
One morning Ramdas found Durgadas and Gopalrao sitting under the shade of a tree in the garden, examining some precious stones Gopalrao had bought. He had in his hands a big transparent opal and was quoting its value. He showed it to Ramdas and said: “See what a beautiful stone. I’ve paid a big sum for it but it is worth it, isn’t it?”
Ramdas bent, took an ordinary stone from the ground, and told them: “Do you see this stone? Is it not a wonderful, surprising, exceptional work of art? The whole power of creation, the whole beauty of the arts, the whole majesty of the mountain is in it. Keep this also in your collection.” And he handed Gopalrao the stone.
You’re asking me once again about homosexuality. I’ve always so far answered in private, and now for the first time I’m doing it here. I want to be faithful both to the Church and to reality in my answer. For the Church a homosexual condition means no inferiority in any way, but it cannot be put into practice without sin. The Bible explicitly rejects homosexual practice both in the Old and in the New Testament. I was brought up in that same attitude of rejection at a time when homosexuality was hardly mentioned. But now it is talked about, it is known, it has concrete names attached to it, and we have to keep in touch with reality. The situation has changed.
The English Catholic weekly The Tablet proposed in a recent number a comparison I may be allowed to quote. According to the article, the game of football was first invented, and one of its rules is that, apart from the goalkeeper, the players cannot touch the ball with their hand. If they do, the referee whistles and it is a fault. Rugby came later, and is similar to football, only that in it players can touch the ball with their hand, but the referee knew nothing about the new game and went on whistling as in football when any player touched the ball with his hand, so that the game of rugby became impossible. Eventually the referees came to know about the new rules for the new game, and rugby became possible. Similarly, according to the paper, sex was formerly only heterosexual, at least openly, but now homosexual sex has come into the open, and the referee goes on whistling according to the football rules. British humour. For the referee’s attention.
Now more in earnest. It is hard to believe that God, from birth or through the circumstances in which the person grows up, puts into the mind and the body of the homosexual person a radical, intense, deep tendency, and then tells them that if they act according to it he will take it as a grievous offence to himself and will have to send them to hell for all eternity unless they go to confession. True confession entailing a resolution never to do it again. Not easy to understand.
I read about a cardinal who said that when God makes a person a homosexual, he gives them a vocation to celibate life. The cardinal’s saying is against the facts.
We respect those who forbid homosexuality as well as those who practice it. And we remain always open, with a delicate touch and much prudence, to the ways of man and woman upon earth. You can tell me if you agree.
Psalm 58 – My tower of strength
“O my strength, to you I turn in the night watches;
for you, O God, are my strong tower.”On the horizontal landscape of the limitless plain there is a vertical shaft pointing to the heavens. Work of man between two works of God. Stone upon stone. Daring height over silent wastes. Safety from danger. Perpetual watch over unfriendly land. The watchtower. The timely warning. The trusted refuge.
I prize the symbol and make it mine. I need that tower. I need strength to face life, and I find none in me. I need firmness of thought, of will, of patient perseverance and living faith. I need courage to stand in the midst of a threatening world. I need steadfastness when everything around me shakes and wobbles and crumbles and falls. I need the comfort to know that there is a place where I can be safe, from which I can see far and watch the paths that lead to my heart. I need a tower in the topography of my surroundings.
You, Lord, are the tower of my life, my tower of strength. In you my doubts disappear, my fears vanish, my wavering ceases. I feel my own strength grow within me when you stand by me and lend me, by your very presence, confidence and faith. I thank you for putting that image in my mind, that reality in my life.
“You are my strength, and I will raise a psalm to you,
for you, O God, are my strong tower.”
Feet on a snake
“To put feet on a snake.”
(Zen saying)That’s what will all do. We feel pity on the snake and its lame walk of convulsive contortions on dusty ground, and we set ourselves to the humanitarian task of fitting little feet on to its body so that it may walk on the floor as any well-behaved animal. See the poor little thing, how it squirms in the dust! Let us get it out of its misery with the generous gesture of the kind-hearted benefactor. You’ll see how grateful it feels when it tries the new displacement system. It will be a joy to see it tread nimbly on its feet in rhythmical pattern. A truly good deed. We can feel proud of it.
That’s what we all do. Adding feet to the snake. Complicating what was simple in itself, putting questions when keeping quiet was the best understanding, searching for explanations when the facts spoke for themselves. Feet on the snake. Forced understanding, intricate methods, twisted logic. We try to be wiser than nature, and submit to logic what was matter for contemplation. Uniformity in all. Let all walk alike. Let all walk as we walk, which is, of course, the best way to walk. We pretend to bring everything under measure, reason, and number. Let everything adjust itself to our way of thinking; let all animals walk on feet. That will be the way for all to understand one another at last.
That will be the way for us never to understand one another. Poor snake! See the trouble it is getting into with its fashionable feet! It is not getting into step. For the snake it was so simple to slide effortlessly on the friendly ground that now it does not know what to do with the awkward jumps of the stumping feet all about the place. The king cobra, which when left to itself could overtake even a strong man in its run, gets now entangled and trips up in the newly-implanted prostheses. Life, that was clear and simple in its direct experience of daily living, becomes now an impossible tangle, a riddle and a mess when we pretend to elucidate it with sophisticated premises from uneasy philosophies. Prayer becomes examination of conscience, religion becomes a syllabus, and God is the conclusion of a syllogism. The snake, in the end, cannot walk at all.
Not that reason is not to be used. Only that it has not to be abused. It is to be used to respect the nature of each being, the crawling of the snake, the intimacy of life, the mystery of God. It has not to be used to impose mathematical patterns on the flights of the spirit. Excessive reasoning drowns out feelings, puts out fervour, dries away devotion. The mind’s lucubrations can hinder the feet’s movements. The snake walks better on its sturdy scales, slippery and intertwined to tackle any ground, that on artificial feet it has no use for. Let us allow it to walk its own way.
Why is it we don’t walk properly? Why is it we do not advance in life, do not progress in the spirit, do not reach, in our well-meant efforts, the goal we had meant and were sure to reach? Because we have fixed feet on the snake. Because we have complicated what was plain, have darkened what was clear, have blurred what was distinct, and thus have removed beyond reach what of itself was always close at hand. We have lost the spontaneous innocence of our natural walk. And we are in a mess. Let us ask the artist who fixed those feet on the body of the snake to have them taken away at the earliest.
A friend of mine was a great mathematics teacher in the same college I taught in Ahmedabad, and when he retired he devoted himself to teaching bright students who wanted to excel in maths. He did so with great skill and dedication. Recently he has lost sight at a distance, though he can still see close by and can still write his equations on the blackboard given the way he masters the subject. Still, he has left teaching. And this is the reason he gave me: “I can see the blackboard and can write on it and even point out figures reasonably well, but I cannot see my students’ faces, and if I don’t see their faces, I cannot teach.”
That is a good teacher. The teaching is not on the blackboard but on the faces of the students. They tell how much they have understood, what is still unclear, what bores them, what amuses them. A good teacher teaches looking at their students’ faces. And if they cannot see them, they don’t teach.
When I taught mathematics in that same college I had more than a hundred students to a class. They psychologically and spontaneously arranged themselves in such a way that the best students sat on the first rows, and the slow ones right at the farther end against the wall. While I went on cheerfully writing equations on the blackboard I could see how the wave of understanding went on higher up from row to row from the first to the last. Faces opened up, eyes flashed, smiles bloomed…, while there at the far end dark faces and dull eyes remained untouched. I repeated and explained and waited and watched…, I’ve reached fifth row, eleventh, the last but one…, till the faces on the last row against the end wall would light up and I could pass on to the next theorem. That’s why I understand my friend’s decision. We have to keep looking at faces.
In the classroom and in life.
Every day he would ask God for the grace to find a treasure. He was toiling in the fields and thought God could easily reveal to him in a dream a hidden treasure for him to go, dig, and find it. Then he could live happily his whole life without having to get up early in the morning and toil and sweat seven days in a week. It was as simple as that. And he was sure God would sooner or later reveal to him the hidden treasure. God was omnipotent, and he had entreated him with full faith and devotion. It couldn’t fail.
One night he had a dream. In a field close to his own, on the riverside, near a tree he at once identified in his dream, was the hidden treasure waiting for him. The next day he surveyed the land on the sly, and everything was exactly as in his dream. The field, the river, the tree, and there, a few feet from the surface, the treasure was waiting for him to make him happy and carefree for life. He could barely hide his joy, but he let the whole day go by, darkness to fall, midnight to come and go, and then he silently went with his pickaxe and his shovel to dig at the precise spot.
He started digging. In a hurry, on the one side, and with care not to make any noise on the other so that nobody would know. The treasure was to be for him alone. At long last the pickaxe clang on a metal surface. A large coffer came up gradually into view. After many efforts it came lose. He lifted it. It was very heavy. He placed it on the ground, eyed it with greedy eyes, broke open the lock with his pickaxe, and lifted the lid. Inside there was an envelope with a paper. He tore open the envelope, unfolded the paper, and read it by moonlight. It said: “Don’t think you can get a treasure by digging a hole. Those are fairy tales. Work on your field and you’ll earn your livelihood.”
God had heard his prayer.
The cross on the dust
John MacCain, the republican candidate for the White House against Obama in 2008, was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam war, was shot down and captured, and spent five years in a jail as a prisoner of war. He tells this anecdote of those days:
“As an American prisoner of war wounded in Vietnam my captors tied me very tight to torture me and left me alone in an empty room to suffer for the night. Later, a guard with whom I had not spoken came into the room, and, without saying a word, loosened up the bonds to relieve my pain. Shortly before sunrise, before his merciless comrades would come, he came again and readjusted my bonds. He never said a word. A few months later, on a Christmas morning, I was standing in the prison courtyard when the same guard came and stopped for a moment by my side. With the tip of his sandal he drew a cross on the dust. We remained silent side by side for one or two minutes till he rubbed out the cross and went away.” (“Lo que mueve mi vida”, Jay Allison, Plataforma Editorial, Barcelona 2007, p. 141)
The London Catholic weekly THE TABLET brings on one page the advertisement of the last record of the three Irish singing priests, and on another page a cartoon showing a man coming out of the confessional and saying: ‘Damn it! The priest has given me as a penance to buy his last CD!’
It has made me laugh. And it has given me an idea too. I can also set as a penance in the confessional that the penitent should buy my latest book. Though I’m afraid that would be the best way for them not to read it.
All those who have written about their reaction to what I wrote on homosexuality last time have been in favour. A bit of a surprise. Only one has raised a question, not so much to oppose the issue as to ask for an explanation. Sex is for procreation, he says, and since that is not the case in homosexual relationships, they would stand forbidden.
That brings up the fundamental question. Sex is for procreation. It is. But not only for that. To say that sex is exclusively meant for procreation is an exaggeration, as sex is something much deeper and richer and more complex than that. Sex is also meant to foster intimacy, company, marriage, family, shared joy, innocent pleasure. Always with the proviso not to do any harm to anybody, of course, but not only and exclusively for procreation. In fact most of sex relationships do not lead up to conception. If nature would have intended sex for conception only, it could have made it a little more efficient.
The Church accepts that married couples past fertile age may lawfully have sex. The woman has reached her menopause so that she cannot have children, and yet she can have sex with her husband. That is, sex without procreation. And the Church accepts that. Again, the Church accepts sex for a woman who has undergone a hysterectomy. As she has no uterus she cannot conceive, but she can continue having sex within her marriage. That is, the principle that sex is for procreation is true in general, but it has exceptions admitted by the Church, and homosexuality could become another accepted exception. The principle, as such, is no obstacle, as it already admits of exceptions approved by the Church.
It was St Augustin who gave the Church it’s doctrine on sex. And Augustine’s sexual experience had been rather traumatic as he himself tells us in his Confessions. A balanced view on the matter could not be expected from him. Sex for him was something shameful and sinful, and it was only made respectable by the generation of a new life. Hence the exclusivity of procreation in sex. Once we accept that sex is something more than reproduction we may come to understand the homosexual’s situation which is what has given rise to this discussion. I repeat that we always have to proceed with delicacy and prudence, but also without fears or scruples. I know these things are not usually spoken out, but it is worse to do things without speaking about them. Humble talk among Christians helps shape Christian conscience.
Psalm 59 – The Fortified City
“Who will take me into the fortified city?”This has been my prayer for life, my daily longing, the aim of all my efforts and the crown of all my hopes. To enter the city. To penetrate its walls, to get past its fortresses, to reach its heart, yes, its heart, not only its heart of cobbled stones in the central square that rules its map and its life with the speed of its traffic and the efficiency of its business, but the heart of its culture, its history, the heart of its social life, its character, its personality. I want to enter the city. I want to reach its heart.
I live in the city, but, in a way, out of the city. Not quite a part of it, not quite identified with it, not quite belonging. Surely I pay taxes to the municipality and vote in its elections, I am a citizen in full right, I drink its water and board its buses. I can shop in its bazaars and relax in its gardens; I know the labyrinth of its streets and the design of its skyline. And yet I know I am not quite part of the city I call mine.
I feel a stranger in my city, or rather the city as a stranger to me. Alien, cold, remote. The city is secular, and I, because you are with me, am sacred. I bring your presence with me, Lord, whenever I walk into the city, and that makes my steps sound strange in the bustle of profane noise. I represent you, and you, Lord, have no place in the planned capitals of modern man and woman.
The bulwarks and battlements of the modern city against you, Lord, and against me in so far as I represent you, are not masonry walls or crenelated towers; they are more subtle and more formidable. They are just materialism, secularism, indifference. People have no time; people don’t care. The things of the spirit find no place in the city of man. There is no question of vanquishing armies, but of winning attention; we don’t want to obtain a victory, just to obtain a hearing. And that is the most difficult thing to obtain in this busy would of indifferent people.
I want to walk into the city, not with the anonymous curiosity of a tourist, but with the message of a prophet and with the challenge of a believer. I want to make you present in it, Lord, with the urgency of your love and the totality of your truth. I want to enter the city in your name and with your grace to sanctify in public consecration the habitation of man.
“Who will take me into the fortified city?”Only you can do it, Lord, as the city is yours by right. Your words proclaim your dominion over all cities in the land:
“I will go up now and measure out Shechem;
I will divide the valley of Succoth into plots;
Gilead and Manasseh are mine;
Ephraim is my helmet,
Judah my sceptre;
Moab is my wash-bowl,
I fling my shoes at Edom;
Philistia is the target of my anger.”The city is yours, Lord. “Who can guide me to Edom?” Who will take me into the heart of the city where I live, who will make me present where I already am, who will bring down prejudice and ignorance and indifference to open the way for the light not only in the privacy of men’s hearts but in the meetings and groups of open ways and public squares? Who will pull down the walls of the fortified city?
Edom is yours, Lord. Make it mine in your name, that I may consecrate it back to you.
When a thorn can help
Something draws my attention on a dry bush in the open fields in the Indian monsoon, season of water in the stormy skies and of new life on earth. I draw close to examine with caution the enticing surprise on the branch. At once I recognise the unmistakeable relic of the renewal of life in spring when all bodies grow with the vigour of youth and with the bursting strength of mother nature in their veins. There it was, hanging from a thorn on the highest branch of the bush: the recently discarded slough of a young growing snake. All of a piece, silky, transparent as the new bride’s veil. I disengage it carefully, I hold it in my hands with wonder, and I think wistfully of the snake that abandoned its wrapping in order to grow.It is comfortable to have one’s suit made to order by nature itself in perfect fit of the latest cut. The snake can boast of it with justified pride. Perhaps it gets fond of the suit and thinks that with it there will be no more problems in tailoring for the rest of its life. But the body grows, and the suit gets too tight. The suit becomes uncomfortable. It cannot house the mature reptile any more. It has to be discarded.
Not an easy task. One feels lazy at the change. The folds hold on tight. They even warn us there is danger as the snake is exposed and defenceless during the change of clothes. But life beckons and the moment arrives. The snake scans the horizon, waits for safety, chooses a bush, hooks on the end of its sheath over a thorn, and begins to wriggle out, curve by curve, inch by inch, leaving behind the worn-out slough, and emerging bathed in the bright shine of the new suit. After repeated efforts it shakes itself free, and is back on its way with the new-found relief of the expanded body. The old covering would not do any more. To grow, one has to change one’s skin. Even if it hurts.
I go around looking for a thorn to help me in my own growth. I want to hang from it the slough that is choking me. It prevents me from growing. It served me well in its time, and the patterns on its texture were beautiful as fashions in snakes go. But I have grown up and do not fit any more in it. It is bursting at the seams. I was fond of it, and was used to it. I feel sorry to have to let it go. It accompanied me a long time. My life for many years, my habits, my opinions, my ways of thinking and my ways of judging, my convictions and my devotions, my image and my history. It was all very comfortable, very pleasant, very worthy. But if I want to grow, I have to change. If I remain imprisoned for ever in my first skin, my members will not develop and my mind will not open up. I have to undergo the tribal ritual of deconditioning if I want to go ahead in the spring of the spirit. And the process is not once and for all. Next spring I’ll change my skin again to go on growing and to go on living. The skin of the soul has to be changed if the soul is to grow into the fullness to which it is destined. We have to find the thorn, hook on to it, and pull. It is painful, but necessary. The snake knows it.
I am stroking in my hands the discarded slough. I think of the snake, far from here by now, which had the courage to leave it behind. Beautiful fabric of symmetrical scales. Beautiful but, by now, obsolete. The jungle experience encourages me to follow nature’s ways. I’m going to change my skin.
Memories from India
I was living in those days from house to house in the city of Ahmedabad begging for hospitality among Hindu families, staying a week with each and sharing fully in their life. In one of the houses I lodged in those days, the man of the house showed me with genuine pride the altar of his family gods, where he had collected, as is often the custom, images of different divinities in the rich Hindu pantheon, not to offend one by pleasing another, and to obtain the blessings of all.
There I could see the joyful Shri Krishna with his flute and his peacock feather on his forehead; Lord Siva with his mane of hair that slowed down the Ganges’ descent upon earth; Lakshmi, goddess of riches; Saraswati, goddess of wisdom; Ganesh to remove all obstacles and to bless the beginnings of any new work; the exemplary couple of Rama and Sita with their faithful Hanuman; Kali in her awesome incarnation of the dark moments of life; and Yama, god of death riding a black buffalo.
My friend showed me all of them, and then he pointed with special pride to one of the images and told me: “See, I have now also placed the Lord Jesus among my family gods as a remembrance of your staying with us for these days.” I looked closely, and a smile, which was at the same time a sign of satisfaction and of amusement, gently curved my lips. Yes, that was a Christian image all right, but not precisely of Jesus. The image was actually… that of Our Lady of Fatima! Somehow he had got mistaken by the similarity of the long white vestments of the Sacred Heart and of Our Lady, and had taken one for the other. I was sure Our Lord and Our Lady must have enjoyed the joke, and I also enjoyed it with them and told my well-meaning Hindu host nothing about the mistaken identity of the statue. That is how Our Lady of Fatima came to preside over a Hindu household with her motherly care.
The parable of the twins
It once happened that two twins were conceived in their mother’s womb. Weeks went by and the twins grew. As they were becoming conscious of their being, their joy was unbounded. “Tell me, is it not wonderful that we are alive? Isn’t it marvellous to be here?” The twins began to discover their world. When they found the umbilical cord that connected them to their mother and through which the received their food, they burst out in joy: “Our mother loves us so much that she shares her food with us!” Weeks and then months went by, and one day they suddenly realized how much they had changed. “What is the meaning of this?” – asked one of them. “This means – the other answered – that we soon will not fit in here. We won’t be able to stay here: we’ll have to be born.” – “No way to see myself outside here – objected the other – I want to remain here for ever.” – “Just think. We have no other go – said his brother – unless maybe there is another life after birth.” – “How can that be? – answered the first in anger. – Without the umbilical cord life is impossible. Besides, many have left their mothers’ womb before us and no one has come back to tell us there is life after death. No. Birth is the end of it all. Nothing after that.”
The other twin kept remembering his brother’s words and became deeply troubled. He thought: “If conception ends with birth, what sense does this life in the womb have? It would have no meaning. Maybe there is not even a mother as we always thought there was.” “But there must be a mother – argued the first. – Else there would be nothing left for us at all.” – “Have you any time seen our mother? – asked the other. – Maybe we’ve just imagined her. We have invented her to explain away our life here.”
The last days for the two twins in their mother’s womb were thus darkened with doubts and questions in deep anguish. At long last the moment of birth came. When the two twins left their world they opened their eyes and uttered a loud cry. What they saw was far beyond their wildest dreams.
(Selecciones de Teología, nº 152, Vol.38, 1999, pág.306)
What do you think about Osho?
When I was staying in Ahmedabad, Osho, who then went by the name of Bhagavan Shri Rajneesh, came for the first time to our city to give some public talks. His disciples came to ask me in his name to preside over his talks. I took it as an honour as he was already a very well-known person, yet I had to decline. The reason was that his talks were going to be about a book he had just published in Hindi and whose title was Sambhogse Samadhi Tak, which literally means “From Coitus to Contemplation”, and, honestly, I did not consider myself an authority in the matter. When they told him about my refusal, he answered them: “It does not matter. I have given Fr Valles a mental appointment, and when his hour comes he will come to me.”
I’ve read several of his books and have even quoted some in my own writings, and I know he helped many people to get rid of taboos and complexes common at the time. But he also overdid things, proclaimed absolute sexual freedom and fostered a personality cult which do not seem acceptable. We never met. Apparently my hour had not come.
I’m going to reveal to you a little secret. Tony de Mello never quoted Osho in his books, but he read him and used some of his ideas and his stories. He would ask me about Osho whenever we met, as I knew about his activities and he wanted to know. When Tony died they found in his room a large Godrej cupboard totally filled with Osho’s books. He had published very many, as they were not exactly books written by him but transcriptions of his talks very well edited by his publishing team in his Lonavla Ashram. Tony had collected them and had studied them. But he never quoted them.
At that time Osho’s answer to Mother Teresa became much talked about in India. She had said in public, in answer to some question at an interview, that Osho preached excessive sexual freedom (which was true), and that she was praying that he would change his views. Osho said in a public answer: “If Mother Teresa thinks she can change me with his prayers, I’ll take her to court for trying to change me against my own will; and if she doesn’t believe it, why does she pray?” There were no further comments.
Psalm 60 -My tent in the desert
Life is a desert, and you, Lord, are my tent in it. Always ready to shelter me from the rays of the sun and from the sands in the storm. Ready help and constant safety. Without the promise of the tent I would never venture into the hostility of the desert.
You teach me through images, Lord. You have called yourself my rock, my fortress, my tower of strength, and now my tent. If the rock and the tower spoke of power and strength, the tent speaks now of companionship, of closeness, of being together in the intimacy of a reduced space through the thousand vicissitudes of a desert journey.
Your temple is your official abode before all the people, and I come to it with joy and exultation with the crowds of feast days, singing with all your faithful the songs of praise in the majesty of your presence. But now your tent is the intimate rendezvous, the personal encounter, the secret tryst. I come to it with gratitude for your calling, with the thrill of expectation, with the hope of seeing your face and hearing your words. To the temple I can go at any moment, and on the yearly dates of your popular festivals. To your tent I can come only when you call me in the freedom of your friendship and the turning of my ways. Your temple is in the midst of the city. Your tent comes up by surprise at the turn of a dune in the desert when I thought I was lost in the sands of life. There you wait for me to give me strength, direction and love.
Blessed be the desert that brings me closer to you in the shadows of your tent!
“Lift me up and set me upon a rock;
for you have been my shelter,
a tower of refuge from the enemy.
In your tent will I make my home for ever,
and find my shelter under the cover of your wings.
For you, God, will hear my vows
and grant the wish of those who revere your name.”
The nimble grasshopper
No one knows in which direction
the grasshopper will jump.
Not even itself.Often in my childhood I watched grasshoppers in the fields. And I can testify that the Chinese proverb is right. One never knows which way the grasshopper is going to face for its next jump. The first thing it does on alighting safely from its latest parabola is to turn on itself on the ground; but at one time it turns towards the right, another towards the left, again sometimes it is through the smallest of angles, and sometimes a complete half turn. Jumping and turning, jumping and turning, but never two jumps in the same direction. The straight line was not made for the grasshopper. Olympic weathercock. Record-breaker in surprises. Champion in zigzag. It finally arrives where it wants, but in its own way. And it does not know itself what its own way is to be. Maybe it does not even know where it wants to go. And this happy and free nonchalance makes of its joyful trajectory a wise lesson and a chastening example for human life. We need its open freedom.
Spontaneity on the spot. Unexpected turn at each jump. Bursting geometry in three dimensions. Faith and trust that at the end of all this game and sport and circus and play we are putting up here on earth, we’ll arrive at last at the expected goal through the space labyrinth of untrammelled exploring. The straight line is boring. To know the end of the story right from the beginning, is to kill the story. We must recover at every landing our initial freshness, so that the new flight may face a new horizon under the instant guidance of our inside instinct. The grasshopper never errs.
It is fine to plan and foresee and take insurance and study maps and draw itineraries. Everything is needed in this complicated world we live in. But the greatest need is for the freedom to react at each moment with the intact totality of the live being that knows itself in full possession of its faculties and trusts itself and the whole of nature to let itself be taken where its pointed instinct has just told it to go. Another jump, and another surprise landing. There are even at times little aeronautical accidents. The grasshopper lands on its back or twists a leg. But it straightens itself at once and goes on with its geometric ballet in ever rising curves. It weaves breezes with its flight. And it always comes back down to earth that gives it protection, sustenance, and rest. Carefree life over luscious fields.
The grasshopper is nimble. Featherweight. Therein lies the secret of its liveliness. It jumps, because it is not heavy; it flies, because it is not bound. It reaches incredible heights in its amateur acrobatics. Its body does not feel heavy. Neither do its worries or its past or its future. No weight to weigh it down. It feels light in its body, its members, its mind, its conscience. That is why it can fly. We must discharge ballast. We must empty the warehouse. We must clean the cellar. We carry with us such a weight of memories and resentments and dreams and fears that it becomes impossible for us to take off. Few animals – given the size and weight of their bodies – jump so high in proportion as the grasshopper; and few so low as man and woman. We could improve our record.
It is fascinating to watch at close quarters the travels of the little grasshopper. To watch and to learn. To jump over difficulties when we cannot remove them. To change our grounds as they grow barren. To scan horizons from instant summits in aerial vantage-points. A sudden burst of strength, followed by a span of leisure. Energy and elegance. Activity and rest. High and low. To know how to live on the ground, and to know how to glance from the heights. And everything at the spur of the moment, from jump to jump, from emotion to emotion. Permanent school of life.
I never imagined that some open-air memories of my childhood could become inspired lesson for the spirit in years to come. No experience is lost. Today’s grasshopper is tomorrow’s inspiration. Life is enriched by all we put into it. A hearty welcome to the joyful memory of the nimble grasshopper. Glimpse of spontaneity in the monotony of life. Let us learn how to jump.
Vincent Ferrer, who passed away these days, was a classmate of mine at the De Nobili College in Pune. His interest in the poor and his capacity to attract people to work for them appeared already from those days on. For our first Christmas there, he organised a regular campaign to get money for the poor. We all received Christmas cards from all over the world, and he conceived the idea of recycling them and selling them back. He called for volunteers to detach the inside sheet of the card where the signatures come, replace it neatly with a new one, find convenient envelopes, and sell them to bookshops he had previously contacted to get money for the poor. That’s how he began.
The formation of a Jesuit priest has two versions. The long course for the cleverer ones, and the short course for the not so clever. Those who qualify for the long course become the ‘professed’, while those who fail at any exam along the way pass on to the short course and become ‘spiritual coadjutors’, who are fully priests and fully religious, but, as their name indicates, are supposed to be ‘helpers’ to the professed. This distinction does not please us anymore, but it was formerly given importance to, and it comes from St Ignatius himself. We always faithfully kept it secret who was professed and who was spiritual coadjutor among us, but Sisters always found out, and some times, when asking for a chaplain or a retreat director, they would specify he should be a professed father. Then we used to tell them the joke of that nun who asked a Jesuit what was the difference between long course and short course, and he answered her: ‘The same as between long pants and short pants. Both cover the essentials.’ Today we don’t like to speak of the matter of professed or helpers any more. Vincent Ferrer was, obviously, in the long course, but he was not interested in theories, not even in theological theories, and he, of himself, asked for and obtained permission to shift from the long course to the short one. This would leave him more time to give himself to his activities for the poor. This is the only case I know of someone changing from long course to short course of his own initiative. Clever man that he was.
An important exam for all of us was the examination for hearing confessions. Three professors on the board ‘made their confession’ to the candidate in public with all the ugliest sins in the world, and he had to answer properly as to content and manners. The textbook was the Genicot-Salmans manual of moral theology, and each one of us was given a copy. Ferrer lost his, and asked me for mine. He told me he was borrowing it from me, because, as he knew me, he was sure I must have studied it thoroughly already. He was good at sizing people up. I gave it to him and he promised to give it back to me after the exams. He never gave it back to me though. I doubt whether he ever read it. He must have lost my copy as he had lost his own. He passed the exam at first trial, anyway.
People in high places from all over the world have honoured his memory. Except Church authorities. He died a priest, as priesthood is for ever.
[I’ve been invited to send a message to the World Jain Convention in Los Angeles from 2nd to 5th July, and this is what I’ve written:]
I feel honoured to be invited to send a message to the 15th Jaina Convention in Los Angeles, and I do so from the heart. All the more so as the theme of the Convention, ‘Ecology – the Jain Way’, is particularly important and meaningful today.
Jainism has a threefold claim to world relevance in our days.
1. Ahimsa. Non-violence is a fundamental principle of Jainism and the first need of the world in these times of continued wars, increasing terrorism, and widespread street violence. Peaceful restrain in thought, word, and deed. Mahatma Ghandi was not a Jain but his ayah was, and she taught him that attitude from childhood. Later, Ghandi obtained independence for The Jewel of the Crown from the British Empire without a war of independence, first time that such a feat took place in history.
2. Anekantvad. The many-sidedness of truth is also a Jain principle. The parable of the eight blind men and the elephant, now present in all literatures, is of Jain origin. The need for different cultures, and particularly different religions, to know, understand, accept, and complement one another is keen and urgent for the survival of civilisation.
3. Jiva-ajiva. This is the most interesting contribution Jainism can make to ecology.Jainism extends life to material beings like Earth, Water, Air, Fire, only that they have fewer senses (one) than human beings (five). They are live and sentient beings. This means that the whole of creation is alive, and this in turn is the best basis for a true ecology in theory and in practice. It is this principle that gives Jainism a very special relevance today.
Reverence to living beings should be extended to what western thought calls material beings, and so all should be equally respected. Jain monks and nuns show this respect for all beings in several ways, through which we are reminded of this fundamental attitude. They wear a piece of white cloth in front of their mouths hanging from their ears. The reason for this is not precisely to avoid swallowing insects, as is popularly believed, as monks and nuns are not so silly as to go on swallowing flies as they walk. They cover their mouths in order to minimise the hurt and pollution caused to the surrounding Air by the human breath while speaking. Water taps in Jain homes are covered with a cloth, not to filter the Water, but to break its fall and soften its impact on the basin below so that the Water is not hurt. Jain monks and nuns walk barefoot, again not out of a desire to practice austerity, but in order not to hurt Mother Earth while walking. Devote housewives salute with folded hands the Fire in the kitchen before switching on or off the electrical supply to the oven. Practical respect for Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. I’ve witnessed all this and I’ve been inspired by the deep meaning of these simple gestures.
These examples put before us an ideal ecological image, and place in our hands a practical daily reminder of our duty to nature. Reverence to Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and then, as we go up in the scale of more-sensed beings, to plants and vegetables and animals and humans. This is deep and true and all-embracing ecology. The Earth is alive. May this Jain tradition guide us and encourage us to lead more ecological lives, and may this Convention inspire us all in the task.
A Jewish story
Once a villager went to the city of Khelm to visit the rabbi and asked him:
– Rebbe, I’ve been listening to the Talmud from my youth, but I never understood exactly what it is it about. Could you explain it to me?
– Listen carefully. Two thieves get into a house down the chimney and they reach the hall; the first thief has his face fully covered with soot, and not so the second. Which of the two will go to wash himself?
– The one with the dirty face.
– No. The thief with the dirty face sees his companion having a clean face, so he thinks he also has a clean face and does not wash. It is the other one, whose face is clean but he is looking at his mate with a black face, who goes to wash as he thinks his own face too is covered with soot.
– That means that the dirty one does not wash, while the clean one does.
– No. Just the other way about. The dirty one goes to wash as he has a dirty face, and the clean one also goes to wash as he sees his mate going to wash.
– So that both go to wash.
– No. Neither of the two does. The one with the blackened face sees his mate with his clean face, and so does not wash; and the one with the clean face does see his mate having a dirty face, but since the mate does not go to wash, neither does he.
– In the end, none of the two wash.
– No. And you will never understand the Talmud.
– But we’ve exhausted all four possibilities!
– Yes, but how can you imagine two thieves going down a chimney full of soot, and only one of them to come out with a soiled face?
(Ben Zimet, Cuentos del pueblo judío, Sígueme, Salamanca 2002)
When you tell me your sufferings, I suffer. Shared pain becomes lighter, and personal sufferings become more real than world upheavals. Today I received a very painful email, and I’m reviewing my own feelings around it.
Three approaches to suffering: the past, the future, the present. The past is the oriental karma. I suffer because of something I did in the past which has to be made up for before I can reach salvation. The good point is that I know I’m thus getting closer to the happy end; the bad point is that I’m suffering for something which I have no idea at all what it can have been.
The future is the western approach. God tests us on earth so that we may merit heaven. When I was young I used to preach that, just as I would ask the best students the toughest questions so as to give them higher marks in their exams, so, the greater sufferings God sends us, the more he shows he appreciates us and wants to reward us. Very clever of me, young priest that I was, but I wouldn’t repeat that sermon before anyone suffering.
The approach of the present bids me to take things as they come to me without asking why. And then going ahead. To do all that is in my hand to relieve suffering; and then to accept what I cannot remedy. “What shakes people is not the facts, but their own reaction to the facts.” (Epictetus) He who holds on, wins.
And always to stand by those who suffer.
Psalm 61 – True Love
“True love,. O Lord, is yours.”There is no word we use more here on earth than the word “love”. Love is the highest aspiration, the noblest thought, the deepest pleasure of humans on earth. And yet there is no word more misused than “love”. It is made to stand for base passions and fleeting feelings, it is stained with infidelity and marred by violence. Good men and women have to refrain from using the word to avoid its unhappy connotations.
Even when I come to religion and prayer and my relationship with you, Lord, I do use the word “love”, I am emboldened by your grace and your benevolence to say “I love you”, and yet I realise how little I say when I say that, what an inconstant thing my love is, how unreliable, how superficial, how weak. I see the limitations and imperfections of my love, and I also feel inclined to abstain from using the word. I don’t find true love on earth, not even in my own heart.
That is why it now fills me with consolation to realise that somewhere at least I can find true love, and that is in you, Lord. “True love, O Lord, is yours”. In fact that is your very essence, your definition. You are love, you are the only true love, pure, firm, eternal. I can now pronounce the word and recover its value. I can now believe in love because I believe in you. I can renew my hope and regain my courage to love, because I know there is one true love, and that is close to me.
I now can love because I believe in your love. I know and I sense myself loved with the only true love that exists, your own eternal love. And that gives me the strength and the confidence to go out myself in love, to you first, and then in you and through you to all those you put close to me in my life. True love is yours Lord, and in faith and humility I make it now my own to love all in your name.
Trouble on the second floor
A group of natives of the Andes was taken under contract to work in a modern city. Lodging was arranged for them on the second floor of a house. On seeing it, they earnestly pleaded to be allowed to live on the ground floor. On the second floor they lost direct contact with earth, and they could not live that way.What would have they said, had they been housed in the twentieth storey of a skyscraper? What would have they felt on seeing themselves hemmed in on all sides by iron and concrete in the hardened shell of soundproof isolation? How would have they breathed and eaten and moved and slept cut off from the ground by the strange framework of beams and stairways and ceilings and lifts? How would they have lived without the earth?
For the aboriginal, anywhere in the world, Mother Earth is still a mother. They need her nearness, her contact, her bosom in order to feel safe and cared for while they explore life. Their naked feet on the live soil are uninterrupted dialogue of information given and received, of personal messages, of physically-felt love. To sit under a tree is for them restful intimacy. To lie down on fresh grass is Nirvana. The smells and sounds of the countryside, the perfumes of the air and the games of the breeze, the parallel colours of the standing harvest, the upright guard of the watchful trees, the wild running of the waters in pristine purity. A whole world of hearty and strong sensations that cleanse the body and rejoice the soul. A life lived close to Mother Earth. To lose it is to become orphans. And we have lost it.
We do not even see the earth any more. We have covered it with a layer of asphalt and cement all through the length and breadth of he spaces in which we live. We are strangers to its surface. And when the cement feels rough in our homes, we spread carpets on it to cheat our feet. Layer upon layer. Forced exile. Compulsive bereavement. We have lost the kinship, the contact, the language. We do not speak any more with our Mother. The delicate Morse code that naked feet tapped on the live skin of our planet has been forgotten and replaced by the hammering of military heels on the cobblestones of spectral avenues. Our walking is no more conversation, it is a fight. We hurt the earth. And our feet hurt back.
To recover the earth we still feel the need to “get out” and seek the open spaces. But even then, the stark reality is the highway and the car and the restaurant and the hotel. And the excursion gear and the thick socks and the stiff boots that would do honour to a professional astronaut. One has to “protect” oneself for the adventure. And every protection is isolation. And every isolation is a loss.
Maybe we cannot go back to aboriginal innocence. But we can at least appreciate it openly and envy it secretly. I admire my brothers, true sons of the earth, who reacted so fast against a second floor because it deprived them of their essential closeness to their roots. At least I feel joy at the incident. I would like to learn from them their sensitivity before nature in all its manifestations. To learn to love the earth. To call her mother. Perhaps even to prefer to live in a ground floor and to mistrust lifts. The lower, the better.
The Iguazú Falls
When I visited the majestic Iguazú Falls in Latin America, the guide of the group was a very likeable man and a very knowledgeable professional. He was a mature person, had been for more than ten years at the job of showing tourists round the Falls as he told us, and he was doing it with an enthusiasm, a zest, a passion that added his personal charm to the awe-inspiring show of the most beautiful waterfalls on our planet. I’ve seen Niagara and I’ve seen Victoria Falls, but nothing compares with the massive, torrential, vertical fall of the white curtain in the middle of the green forest along the frontier marked by the Iguazú river between Argentina and Brazil. “The Devil’s Throat” brings the majesty of the great waters (Iguazú means “great water”) close to the astonished eye of the spectator who watches at arm’s length the geometrical fall of the wide river on to the waiting fathomless abyss.
Our charming guide grew friendly with me, and on taking leave I warmed up to him and told him:
– I admire you for the enthusiasm with which you’ve shown us the falls. Congratulations.
– I say what I feel, sir.
– I can see that. But then you’ve told us that you’ve been here showing day by day the same view for over ten years.
– That’s right.
– And don’t you get a little bored over that? Repeating the same story every day, however wonderful the show may be, doesn’t make you feel tired, fed up, bored stiff?
– I admit to that, sir. Some days the round comes up better, and some days worse; but in any case I strive to cheer up the visitors and I do appreciate my good luck to be watching daily this marvel of nature that you’re paying to see while I’m being paid to show it to you.
– Good for you.
– And now, please, allow me to question you in turn, sir. You’ve told me you are a priest aren’t you?
– Yes, I am.
– And you say Mass daily, don’t you?
– Yes, I do.
– That’s to say that you recite more or less the same prayers every day.
– Yes, it comes to that.
– And are you not bored by it?
– Sometimes I am, and not all days are the same, but I too try to cheer up my listeners and I thank God for my good luck to have this vocation. Just as you do with your job.
– I see, but I’ve an advantage over you. I change my listeners every day, while you have the same audience daily. I too appreciate you, sir, and please remember the Falls.
I’ll remember them for life.
When I thought of that, I realised that the guide’s experience with his tourists had also been mine as a teacher with my students. For thirty years I was teaching mathematics at college to a class of a hundred boys and girls who were the cream of learning youth in the city (Ahmedabad). We had a great time. I prepared well my classes, I sharpened theorems, displayed formulae, worked out equations, created suspense, delayed arguments, questioned steps, invited hints, made mistakes on purpose to measure the students’ attention to the argument, wore sticks of chalk away, feigned anguish, accelerated conclusions, smacked down on the board the final proof at the stroke of the bell that signalled the end of the period. Smiles, big eyes, sighs of relief, cheers. Some times even applause at the end. That was heaven. Other professors used to tell me they did not like to have their class after mine, as the students were exhausted. There was some truth in that. We really enjoyed ourselves.
But, then, you know. You guess the sequence. That did not happen every day. Mathematics is the most loveable subject on earth without any doubt as any student will tell you, but mathematics morning and evening five days a week is too much mathematics. And repetition of the same syllabus every year does not help either. No suspense holds and no trick works. The first one to get bored at times was myself. And when I got bored, the whole student body throughout the classroom got bored with me. Dull classes, blurred equations, embarrassing mistakes, incomplete proofs, frustrated results. Not even Euclid with his triangles cold hold the front. I was bored, and so were all the students with me. Rub off the blackboard and get away as soon as you can. Today you bungled the class.
You got it. You have understood the parable. We share responsibilities. When the priest who celebrates the Eucharist is feeling great, everybody in the congregation feels great with him. When he crumbles down, everybody crumbles down with him. If the cheerleader does not cheer, nobody cheers. The team folds down. We all want to do our best, to be sure, but we all are prey at times of routine, and we can, in our weakness, carry out the most heavenly actions with the most earthly indifference. For a start, don’t panic. The important thing is to realise the situation, and a timely e-mail has helped me do that. And once we realise it, we look around and think of cases and attitudes in ourselves and in others that may help us to understand the situation better. We must first enlarge the information before we proceed to the diagnosis.
A mischievous thought comes to my mind. It’s almost irreverent, but it’s also cheering if we take it well in this delicate matter of our attention during divine service. Joseph and Mary surely took Jesus along with them to the synagogue ever since he was small, as they took him to the Temple in Jerusalem when he came of age. And most likely Jewish children got as bored in the synagogue on Saturdays as Christian children get bored in the church on Sundays. Children do not kindly take to divine worship. Neither was Jesus the only child at the synagogue, and there must have been plenty of moving and running, of grimacing and gesturing, of sound and laughter among the young worshippers all around the sacred premises. Surely Jesus fell asleep at times in his Mother’s arms while the rabbi expounded psalms and prophets with scholarly eloquence. It is more than likely that Jesus, as a boy, got helplessly bored at the proceedings in the synagogue. We would have to ask his Mother.
What did the rabbi say this morning at the synagogue, my son?
I’ve read the encyclical the pope has just published, Caritas in veritate’. I wanted to comment it with my companions, but none of them has read it. It’s a great treatise, but few will read it (it’s more than a hundred pages in small print), and those who read it will agree with all it says, that is how things should be and should work, but all will also think that things will remain as they are since an encyclical has not much influence on governments. What everybody has questioned is whether it is justified for the pope to spend so much of his valuable time and energy, as he must have done to prepare this encyclical with his usual dedication and responsibility, when in practice the effort has hardly any effect. Is the pope kept duly informed about what many people think and say?
I see you’ve taken it ill. I’m sorry, but I don’t take back what I wrote to you. I asked you to delete my name from your list of addresses of people to whom you send your emails with photographs, news, articles you’ve liked, invitations to conferences, sundry greetings. All that does not interest me, and it slows down my computer, particularly when you send me series of photographs that are slow to download and take up my time. I use email as a means for personal contacts, I read every message and answer every message myself, and I do it most willingly as I consider it a great means to be in touch and to help people, a means of communication that does fall short of direct presence, but which in its simplicity and quickness is much more than a letter and has inaugurated a new type of relationship in our times. That’s why when someone floods my mail with unwanted material I feel it and try to avoid it. I’m not talking here of Spam, which I also receive in abundance, about a hundred Spam messages a day which go directly to the wastebasket. I am talking about well meaning people who honestly believe I am going to like what they like and be interested in what they are interested in. And that is not always the case. I repeat that email is for me a means for personal communication, and I’ll fight to keep it that way. Please, do not put me in your mailing lists. First rule in Netiquette: “Don’t do to others what they do not like to be done unto them.”
Psalm 62 – Thirst
“O God, you are my God,
I seek you early with a heart that thirsts for you
and a body wasted with longing for you,
like a dry and thirsty land that has no water.
So, longing, I come before you in the sanctuary
to look upon your power and your glory.”That is the one word that defines the state of my soul, Lord; thirst. Bodily thirst, almost animal thirst that burns my body and parches my throat. The thirst of the desert, of the dry sands and the scorching sun, of dunes and mirages, of desolate wastes and merciless skies. The thirst that overcomes every other desire and overrules any other need. The thirst that needs the draught of water to live, to subsist, to restore sensing to the body and rest to the soul. The thirst that mobilises every cell and every sense and every thought to search for the nearest oasis and reach it before life itself is scorched to death in the body.
Such is my desire for you, Lord. Thirst in my body and in my soul. Thirst for your presence, your vision, your love. Thirst for you as you are. Thirst for the waters of life which alone can bring peace to my desolate mind. Running waters in the midst of the desert, miracle of light and freshness, streams of delight, play of singing speed and dancing currents through dry earth and rocky ground. Presence in the night, and melody in silence. I long for you. I trust in you. I rest in you.
Increase my thirst, Lord, that I may intensify my search for the fountain of life.
How to win a marathon
“How many hours do you give daily to God?”
they asked the native in the jungle.
And he answered:
“The whole day.”
“And how much time you devote to work?”
“The whole day.”
“And to rest?”
“The whole day.”To understand the native, we’ll have to try and see things as they see them. They do not divide the day in businesslike timetables. There is always, of course, for them as for all, a day and a night which nature itself marks in its common course; but not for them the executive’s daily agenda with fixed appointments by the secretary’s hand. The day is one, as life is one and the person is one, and it is the whole person that plunges as one into all that it does, and makes all it does into vital activity beyond all artificial divisions of work and leisure, or class and vacation. The work is done with joy, and so it gives rest; and it is done with commitment, and so it leads to God. No parcelling of time.
They explain this to us with unexpected clarity: he who does not know how to rest while he walks, will never arrive. A little reluctantly we begin to guess what they want to say, and begin to realise how right they are. There is no question of resting by interrupting the walking, by stopping on the way and sitting for a while on the side to relax. It is not that, but simply resting while one is walking; walking in such a way that the walk itself becomes rest instead of fatigue, game instead of duty, relaxation instead of effort. That is the best way to ensure arrival.
The winner in an Australian marathon, which lasted for two consecutive days with intervals in between for meals during the day and sleep at night, was an unknown aboriginal who joined the competition and did not know there were stops to eat and sleep; so he went on running non-stop for the two days, since, apparently, he knew how “to rest while walking”; and he was the first to be surprised when he arrived first and well ahead of all the others who had divided their time between running and resting. We have lost the art of working restfully.
We measure timetables, work against the clock, go on strike to reduce the number of working hours, oppose work to rest, split up the day. And, while doing this, we split ourselves and face different activities with different parts of our being in helpless parcelling. We have lost the totality of being and acting which the so-called primitive men and women had, and we have been the losers in the process. We work so that we may rest, and we rest so that we may work. That is, we are always doing something in order to do something else without ever being really present to ourselves in what we are doing. Shortcut to schizophrenia.
When walk and rest are reconciled, the person is also reunited with God, and so the native can answer with truth that his whole day belongs to God and to work and to rest. No artificial boundaries. No opposition within the person, and no opposition in the person’s activities. No rival claims on time. The totality of the person engaged in the totality of the activity. There are wafts of the breeze of the Garden of Eden in the existential innocence of these natives of contemporary history. They live closer to our origins.
Unless you become like little children…
[Letters from small children who were asked to write letters on their own to the Child Jesus.]
Thank you for my little brother, but what I’d asked for was a dog. (Gianluca)
How is it that you used to work a lot of miracles in the old times, and now you don’t work any? (Jacobo)
Is father Mario your friend really or only your partner? (Antonio)
Do you know things before they are invented? (Daniela)
Do you mark sins red as our teacher does? (Clara)
I would like to know the names of your ass and your bullock. (Valentino)
If you had not got rid of the dinosaurs in time there would be no place for us now. Very clever of you. (Mauricio)
We’ve been told in class that Thomas Edison discovered light. But in catechism class they say it was you who invented it. I’m sure he just copied from you. (Dario)
It’s good that there are many religions, but don’t you ever get mixed up with them? (Francisco)
Don’t worry about me. I always look both sides before crossing. (Mario)
You’d better make people that don’t need repairs so often. They’ve already given me three stitches and one injection. (Sandra)
Maybe Cain and Abel would not have come to murder if they’d had each a room to themselves. With my brother it works. (Lorenzo)
You must be very clever to get each star in its proper place each night. (Caterina)
It must be very hard for you to love all people in the world. In my family we’re only four and I don’t succeed. (Violeta)
I like the Our Father very much. Did you think of it at a stretch or did it come to you by bits. Whenever I have to write something, I do it in patches. (Andrea)
Sometimes I think of you even if I am not praying. (Ricardo)
Of all those who work with you I prefer St Peter and St John. (Ambrosio)
If you look for me on Sunday in church I’ll show you my new shoes. (Miguel)
Are you really invisible, or is it only a trick? (Juan)
How did you know from the beginning that you were God? (Carlos)
[This is the second time someone sends me children’s letters to God. The first time was years ago, and I remember one that tickled me particularly: ‘They’ve told us in class that you say that if someone strikes you on one cheek, you have to offer the other. But what have you to do when your sister hits you over the eye?’]
Golf and life
A golf champion gives advice for life from his own game.
(Severiano Ballesteros, Las Claves del Golf para la Vida, La Esfera de los Libros, Madrid 2006).p.35. Let’s suppose you’re at hole 5 in a golf course playing an important tournament. What are you thinking about? Are you thinking about how this game will figure in your playing history? about the new record you can break if you win at several championships this season? Nothing of the kind. You are just thinking of your next stroke. Before coming to the game you have planned your victory and could even imagine yourself receiving the trophy and attending the celebration after the game. But at the moment when you’re about to play your swing, you are not thinking of anything else except the next stroke, which must be according to the strategy you have planned for this particular hole. The next stroke is a link in a chain, and the chain is better the fewer links it has. When you are playing, you must think only of this one stroke. Your whole agenda is at this moment restricted to this stroke. With this example I just want to say that the only way to gain an international trophy and get a ranking is to intensely think of the next step. Nothing else. The summit is reached only little by little, stroke by stroke.
38. This means that success at sport is in no way different from success in any activity in life: making of it a gentle pleasure. The day we realise that we are playing with gentle pleasure without any hurry, that what we are doing is just an extension of what we are thinking, that day we reach the summit. The best player in the world is the one who is most relaxed at play and experiences the greatest joy in it.
59. BEING PRESENT [Chapter title]
61. St Andrews in Scotland is the oldest and most prestigious golf links in the world, where a golf champion becomes a master in the history of golf. My turn to play there, in The Home of Golf as St Andrews is rightly called, came in 1984. It was not an easy tournament. My last and only chance came right in the 18th hole if I could get a birdie. Hundreds of thousands of persons where watching the event on TV, while about 50.000 people were present. I could not miss. Everything depended on me at that instant.
There was I, with the ball at twelve feet from the hole. I crouched down, checked directions, verified the irregularities of the green at that spot, and was tempted to think of my childhood, how I learned to play, my tournaments as a caddy, my premiere as a professional, my whole career. But none of those remembrances was going to be of any use at that moment. I couldn’t start to imagine what it would mean for me to win my next British Open; I had thought of it before coming on to the grounds, but at this moment that was no motivation, just the opposite, a pressure that would stiffen my body. I decided to open my senses. I listened to the sound of the wind on the trees, even of the sea that was close by. I could smell the fragrance of the newly cut grass in the manicured grounds, mixed with the salty smell of the coast, very similar to the one of my young days. I was finding a sensorial kinship between these grounds and the Real Golf of Pedreña where I was born. I rubbed my hands together in order to increase the sensitivity of my fingers: that was going to be the hardest stroke in my whole life, given its consequences. But that was not the issue at the moment. I had to avoid both the remembrance of the past and the projection to the future, however alluring it was. The only way for the right putt was to keep the eye on the ball, its right trajectory, the round sound it makes when it falls right on the hole.
Now then, I hardly remember what came next. I stood up, placed my legs as my instinct and my experience were telling me, and after a try in the air I hit the ball… which very obediently, as though on rails, went straight for the hole. I could begin the celebration: I had won the British Open of St Andrews on the last hole.
There is not for me a way to play golf except the best the present moment and my own practice can give me at the time. Whatever you do, do it to the full.
79. Each man – be it a thinker, a sportsman, an artist, or a simple worker – has the right and the duty to attain excellence.
87. “The more I practice, the more lucky I am.” Gary Player.
138. One of those friends my sport has brought me close to is the great Argentine player Roberto De Vicenzio. Good Roberto, besides being a great player, is a man of great goodness. Just an anecdote to reveal his personality. After winning a tournament he collected the cheque and was entering his car in the parking lot when suddenly a desperate looking woman approached him and told him her only son was dying of a terrible disease and could only be saved with a costly operation which she could in no way afford. She didn’t have to plead much, because Roberto immediately endorsed the cheque he had just won and gave it to her. A friend who came to know of it told him: “I’m sorry to tell you that that woman is a fraud. We have seen her several times around here taking advantage of people like you who believed her.”
“Then the child is not dying?”
“Of course not.”
Then De Vincenzio breathed relief and said: “That is the best piece of news I’ve heard today.
You’ve many times told me that you feel tepid in your religious practice, you do not any more feel the fervour and devotion you used to feel before, you want to go back to fervent prayer, to living faith in all its intensity as you had always done. And I’ve many times answered you, and I do it again, that life changes, that the golden jubilee of a married couple is not quite the same as their honeymoon, that prayer is fervent and the whole hour passes in a jiffy for a novice while it may become boring for a professed religious, that mass is wonderful for a newly ordained priest and can become routine for a veteran, that Mother Teresa vibrated with religious emotion when she founded her congregation, while for the rest of her life she was “a block of ice” in her religious practices as she herself said.
A good father provincial, in his yearly exhortation to our community, told us we had to revert to “the spiritual motions and emotions of our novitiate”. The average age of his listeners was 75. There were knowing smiles all round. Motions and emotions are fine at their time, but their time is not usually at age 75. And that is neither better nor worse. It is simply that life changes.
I learned that in India. Hinduism conceives God both as Saguna Brahman and as Nirguna Brahman. That is, God With Attributes and God Without Attributes, or the Concrete God and the Abstract God, and we are instructed that the way of the spirit leads us along our lives from the first to the second. For us in Christianity the Concrete God is Jesus Christ made man, our friend with whom we talk freely, before whom we complain, whom we entreat, who listens to our prayers and grants them, whom we receive in the Eucharist, whom we know and we deal with in all familiarity, whom we praise and whom we thank, and all that is very fine at its time. But that time does not last for ever. The Concrete God is the one of the first stages of the spiritual life, and that helps a lot, but this is a too anthropological point of view and it does not last for ever. It is what St Paul tells the Corinthians that at the beginning he gave them milk, and then solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2). The Abstract God belongs to an advanced spiritual life. The Absolute, the Dark Night of The Soul, the Cloud of Unknowing, the Not-This not-This, the Transcendent, the One Without a Second, the Wholly Other. As legitimate and as necessary as the Concrete God. And spiritual progress, we are told, lies in passing from the Concrete God to the Abstract God, as, again we are told, happens to the saints. Congratulations for having reached that stage. And we’ll shortly meet again as I’ll have to repeat it all over.
Psalm 63 – Arrows
Flying arrows are messengers of death. Silent, pointed, deadly. The weapon most feared by the warriors of Israel. They cannot be seen, they cannot be parried. They strike from far, unknown and undetected, with death on their wings, and find with cruel accuracy the human target in the shadows of the night. Sword can be fought with sword, and dagger with dagger, but the arrow comes single and treacherous from an anonymous hand in the distant safety of enemy land. Its sharpened swiftness strikes helpless human flesh, and its needle point instantly reddens into gushing blood. Arrows are fateful death on winds of hatred.
Man’s word is an arrow. It flies and it kills. It carries poison, destruction and death. A small word can ruin a life. A mere insult can build an enmity between two families for generations. Word can cause wars and plot murders. Words hit and wound man’s noblest depths, his honour, his dignity, the peace of his soul and the value of his name. Words threaten men in a world of blinding jealousy and ruthless competition. And then I pray.
“Hide me from the factions of the wicked,
from the turbulent mob of evildoers,
who sharpen their tongues like swords
and wing their cruel words like arrows,
to shoot down the innocent from cover,
shooting suddenly, themselves unseen.”I ask for protection against the words of man. And the protection that is given me is the Word of God. Against the arrows of men, the arrow of God.
“But God with his arrow shoots them down,
and sudden is their overthrow.”One arrow against all. God’s Word against the words of men. God’s word in scripture, in prayer, in incarnation and Eucharist. His presence, his strength, his Word. It illumines my mind and steadies my heart. It gives me courage to live in a jungle of words without fear of evil. God’s Word gives me peace and joy for ever.
“The righteous rejoice and seek refuge in the Lord,
and all the upright exult.”
Help me look, daddy!
Diego did not know the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it. They travelled south. The sea was waiting beyond the tall sand-banks. When the child and its father reached finally the sandy heights after long wanderings, the sea burst before their astonished eyes. The immensity and the brightness of the sea were such that the child lost its speech in its beauty. When at last he could speak, shaking and stammering, he entreated his father: “Please, help me look, daddy!”
(Eduardo Galeano, El libro de los abrazos, p. 3)The child’s request, when shaken by the blue surprise of the unending sea, is beautiful expression of what we men and women can do for one another in the continued search that marks our existence. Help me look! You cannot look for me, cannot force me to look, cannot lend me your eyes, your ideas, your principles, your experience. But you can help me. And I ask you to give me that help.
You have already helped me when you have taken me along in your journey to the south, when you have crossed the sands with me, when you have set me in front of the sea and have remained by my side while I looked. But the unexpected task of looking at the sea is so huge that I keep needing your presence, your company, your hand on my shoulder, the assurance that you see what I see, and wonder at what I wonder. Help me with your witness that what I see is real, that it is there, that it has always been there and will continue to be after we leave, as you knew it was here when you brought me along. Help me with your remembrance and with your secret. And if you happen to know some beautiful verses of any poet on the sea, help me reciting them here to me, so that I too may know them, and may enjoy inside me what I see there outside. Help me to see the sea!
Life is immense, and when we look at it over the horizon, we lose speech. “Please, help me look.” You who live with me, who have walked ways I have not yet walked, who have seen sights I have not seen, who show already mirrored in your eyes the blue mystery of the depth and range of life, who know how to hold your peace before the sea and let its majesty enter you with echoes of eternity: Help me look!
I do not need to understand; I am not going to paint a picture; I do not want explanations; I am not going to take photographs or take notes. I do not want to think out or find reasons or measure depths or study tides. I only want to look. I want to open in full my eyes and my soul and all my senses and my whole body to see and sense and experience with my whole being the fascinating reality that spreads out in front of me. I want to fill my organism with the presence of the sea. I want to take it along with me, into the land, into my life, into my conscience, that the shores of my soul may be enlarged for ever.
I am not asking for help to walk, to work, to achieve, to succeed. I only ask for help to look. Help me to see truly all that comes to me on the outside with all I have with me on the inside; help me open myself in wonder; help me encompass in grateful look all that ocean which is life from shore to shore, from birth to eternity. Standing by my side on the shore of friendship, dear friend of my soul, Help me look!
A doctor speaks
It’s not easy to speak about you now that you’re gone for good. So many things have happened, my dear one. I grew older, I went back to my country. Do you know? I got married and I have daughters, little girls like you. Similar smiles, the same glint in the eyes of young people without guilt. I don’t know if you see us from where you are now. If you do see us, forgive my indiscretion in saying who you are and painting your picture, in rough lines, to be sure, as the artist is a street artist only.
I remember well the day we first met. You adolescence was just over, like a jigsaw puzzle just put together: a number of small neat pieces fitting all together. That was you. A look without shadows, a smile without irony. You did not come alone, of course. You brought with yourself your court, like a princess, your family, you came surrounded and cherished by your elders who saw in you divine grace incarnate. You are that.
Meanwhile I had to get into some serious talk. To speak of brain cancer, of its ways and its tricks. I wrote to the University to make sure you would have full medical aid. To convince the professors that your heart was worthy a million hearts. To overlook all shortcomings, as that little girl was really sick.
You behaved very well in your first stage. The tumour withdrew, maybe shamed at your youth and your beauty. But it remained in waiting, rascal that it was. And you forgot about it, my dear child. And we cannot afford distraction. So it came up again, the bastard, laughing at us. And it advanced a little more. It came to dwell in you as in its own house. It invaded you. I swear I did not give it permission. I shouted, ‘Get out! Get out!’ I tried to drive it away with all my strength. But the wicked fellow that it was, just laughed at me and put out its tongue.
There are things that should not be told to a twenty year old. Yet, dearest flower, you were of age under the rules, had the right to choose, knew you had to decide. I liked you so much. I offered you two poisons. I mean, two treatments. I swore that with medicines you would live two years more, and then you would say farewell to your beaches, your dogs, your lovers. A risky treatment with constant poisons and brews: chalk in your veins, acid in your blood, stepmother’s spindle’s stabs, apples with a worm… because the deadly herbs growing within you were strong as hell. I was handing you over to witches, to stepmothers, to executioners, and if you would come out safe, as a princess in a fairy tale, you would appear dressed as a bride, dancing waltzes with whomsoever you wanted. The doubtful alternative was a transplant. And none of us knew what would happen.
You asked for time to think and consulted your friends. You went to dance with dolphins, who became coaches and horses as for Cinderella, gentle and soft as streets in the waters do not shake. You said you were a child, and fairies and ghosts and knights errand would be by your side. There were no curses enough to pierce though those walls, through your joy.
I bowed my head and I obeyed. I injected potash and nettle’s juice in your veins. Chemotherapy. Acids and herbs. Cobra’s spittle, toad’s saliva. And waited for you to come back. You’re not going to like this: but the fact is you were not beautiful any more. You had swollen, you were out of shape. Blisters burst, locks of hair came lose. Your skin, so fair and tender, was full of stains, scars, grains. You would look to me from time to time and smile. I staid on this shore signalling to you to come back. But you didn’t come back. Your ropes had snapped, my dear one, and the current was strong. You left for ever, adrift.
If you already know all this, I apologise for boring you. I went to your burial but again I was late. The mourners had already left. Your parents came back to embrace me. Your beloved parents. I don’t know how they knew it (you must have told them) that this useless man, this ambassador of nothingness, had done the best he could. Or perhaps they guessed that, if you could come back you would have given me a last kiss for me to give it to them. But the kiss did not come.
The ceremony was beautiful. You were lying in a blue coffin, smaller than normal. You had shrunk. Blue, I suppose, because of the colour of your eyes and the colour of the sea. Your father, just imagine, had painted during the night on your coffin the dolphins you so much liked. They jumped happily. The waves broke about them and smiled, only for you, the enigmatic smile of the Gioconda. I then realised you were beautiful again, that sea and sky are the same thing, that you were happy.
I wept so much, Jennifer, so much. So much that your parents pitied me. Honest! They took my arm, they kissed me, they consoled me. And I, my dear little one, I was lost. Lost in my pain and in my guilt. And in my longing. I don’t know if you know what a well is. The well is hell. And I was in it. All darkness and lack of air. I need the sun to enjoy life. Your parents, in their grief, helped me stand, as they were collecting your last memories spread out all over the stones of the church.
My dear little one, if you already know all this and I am boring you, please forgive me.
(Nuno Lobo Antunes, Lo Siento Mucho, Aguilar, Madrid 2009, p.45)
I’m touched by what you tell me, W. You’re 24, your whole life is still before you, you have a good formation in Ignatian spirituality, and a good job as a nurse. Yet you are despondent. You say you are lost and lacking in all motivation. The causes may be any, and I know that their effect on a young person can be devastating. I know life is hard, and I have felt it in my own life, brutally at times. But I have passed through that all, and that’s why, without in any way setting myself up as a model or preaching any sermon, I want to encourage you with my own experience and my own conviction, whatever their worth. I will not give escapist answers or abstract doctrines that help no one. I only witness to my faith in life, after having lived it out for more than 80 years, and having passed through trials and sufferings as strong as anyone may have faced. I have been through harsh times, very harsh times, but life goes on and I’ve had always got ahead, I hold on to the reality of the present, I foster joy, I share it, and I go on with cheer and joy because I know that life is good, that is straightens itself as it goes along, that it pays to live, that all is well at the end. I don’t know whether all this I’m telling you is of any use to you, but that is what I live and that is all I can tell you. It’s like climbing a mountain, where you are starting at the bottom while I’m reaching the summit, and I signal to you from the top to tell you that climbing is possible and there is a most beautiful view from the summit. After all, being an old man con be of some help, and if it helps you in your situation, it will be worth while being old. Cheer up. Kisses, Carlos.
Psalm 64 – The Rainy Season
It is raining today. With the Oriental fury of a heathen monsoon. I watch the curtain of water, the instant Niagara, the running streets, the leaden skies, the violent descent of heaven upon the naked earth with waters of creation and waters of destruction on the liquid horizon where sky, land and sea seem to be one with the primeval celebration of cosmic unity. The dance of the rain, of the children in the rain, rite of spring that seals the eternal covenant of humans with nature and renews it year by year to bless the earth and multiply its crops. Liturgy of showers in the open temple where all humankind is one.
I rejoice in the rain; it makes the earth fertile, the fields green and the air transparent. It brings out the perfume hidden in the dryness of the earth and fills with its humid delight the open spaces at the dawn of spring. It tames the heat, veils the sun, cools the air. It guarantees the fruits of the earth for the needs of the year, and renews the farmer’s faith that God will keep his word year by year and send the rains to give food to man and cattle as proof of his care and sign of his providence. The rain is God’s blessing on the earth he created, renewed contact of the Divinity with the material world, seasonal reminder of his presence, his power, his concern. The rains come from above and enter deep into the earth below. God’s touch on simple mud, which is the initial gesture of creation.
‘You visit the earth and give it abundance,
as often as you enrich it with the waters of heaven
brimming in their channels,
providing rain for men;
for this is your provision for it,
watering its furrows,
levelling its ridges,
softening it with showers
and blessing its growth.’ also love the rain, the heavy, noisy, material rain, because it is figure and token of another rain which also comes down from heaven to earth, from God to man, from Divine Providence on the dry, barren fields of the heart of humans unprepared for the harvest of the spirit. Rain of grace, showers of blessing, water of life. I feel the helplessness of my untilled fields, clods of dry earth between ridges of indifference. What good can come out of them? What crop can grow here? How can my field become soft and green, and flower into harvest?
I need the rain of grace, I need the steady influx of God’s power and mercy to soften my heart, fill it with the fragrance of spring and make it fruitful. I depend on the grace of heaven as the farmer depends on its rains. And I trust in the coming of grace with the age-old trust the farmer has in the advent of the seasons and the faithfulness of nature.
I need torrential rains to wash away the prejudices, the bad habits, the conditionings, the addictions that beset me. I need the freshness of the falling rain to feel again the reality of my wet skin through all the artificiality of protective covers under which my real self hides. I want to play in the rain like a child, to recover the pristine innocence of my heart under grace.
That is why I like heavy, steady rain, and make every drop into a prayer, every downpour into a reminder, every storm into an anticipation of what my soul expects to happen to it as it happens to trees and flowers and fields. The green renewal of the season of rains.
Then my soul will sing for itself the psalm of the fields after the blessing of the yearly rains:
‘You crown the year with your good gifts,
and the palm-trees drip with sweet juice;
the pastures in the wild are rich with blessing,
and the hills wreathed in happiness;
the meadows are clothed with sheep
and the valleys mantled in corn,
so that they shout,
they break into song.’Come, blessed rain, and soak me to my heart!
The New Fire
‘He who lights a match in the dark
is inventing fire.’
(Borges)The poet wonders at the daily event. The mystery of fire is revealed in the obedient flame. Wild nature meets human need in the domestic task. We have in our hands the novelty of creation itself…, if only we know how to feel it and value it.
We have done it so many times that we are not struck any more by the miracle. It is so commonplace that it is not worth the trouble mentioning it. Matches come by the dozen, in boxes, in parcels. Take any, strike it, and light it. The flame sprouts. Bring it close to the stove, the paper, the cigarette, and wait for a moment. Fire lights fire. Shake the match, put it off and throw it away. Transaction over. Who ever paid attention?
Books have been written, fiction has been created, fossils have been investigated, movies have been made on that process of processes and that moment of moments in which primitive man and woman discovered fire and learned how to light it and keep it and use it in a cultural leap that changed for ever their life on earth. And that moment is ours every day when we light the match in the dark. Let us relive its magic, its charm, its wonder with the primeval innocence of the first human being who nursed the new fire in their hands. Every humble match is a Holy Saturday in its Paschal Candle. Let us celebrate in faith the liturgy of our daily redemption.
Fire is still today the most awe-inspiring of all elements. The signature of lightning, the ashes and the heat, the conflagration of the entire forest. Today that wild and frenzied and orgiastic and savage power dances humbly at our fingertips, obedient like the genie in the magic lamp, ready to come at a gentle rubbing and to depart with a blow of air. Cosmic powers of creation and destruction, now within responsible reach of our mortal hands. Let us know we are masters so that now we can serve.
All that in a humble matchstick. Novelty, wonder, strength, surprise, imagination, poetry. The repeated act becomes again brilliant premiere if we know how to look at it each time with clean eyes and joyful heart. Daily routine washes away the colours of life. Consumer markets shut in the god of fire in a matchbox. Magic dies in our hands.
We all can invent fire. All we need is a matchstick in the dark. And the awakening of the mind. Everything becomes new. If only we know how to become new ourselves.
Tales of a doctor
[Some of you have liked the experience I told you last time of a kind and thoughtful doctor. I give here two more of his experiences, no less touching. I’ve cried typing them out.]
The night was dark, that I’m sure of. Nights in New York look like the Last Judgement. The starless sky was an ocean without lighthouses, without caravels, without heroes. A night without horizons, without a thread of light to mark the frontier between what we are and what shall become of us. On my way to the hospital at the depth of night, jumping red lights, crossing lanes, blinded by incoming lights I raced on. The hospital shone at a distance. I was on call that night, I was late, and I speeded up. There was no traffic that night.
George Washington bridge suddenly appeared in total silence. A miracle. It was Christmas night. I alone was crossing it. On the opposite side a broken car, its front crashed, leaned against the divide. No sound of sirens, no flicking of lights. I passed by it at the moment a light went off, a pair of eyes are closed, the pendulum stands still, and a girl died inside. No corpses on the water, no blood on the road. In the New York night the silence was total, the heap of scrap iron laid shattered, and someone was inside it. I went ahead, minding my exits not to miss my way. Minutes later I saw revolving lights in front of the hospital and I heard the wailing of sirens in the midst of the fog. Ambulances arriving. I put on my white coat and went to attend to my patients. Routine work in my section.
It was only hours later that a surgeon friend came close and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, Nuno.’ I did not understand the gesture. The surgeon was painfully describing his desperate efforts to save his patient while I had no idea who the patient was. Scalpel, pincers, bold practices to stem the haemorrhage. That life had been cut short that night in the middle of the bridge. When I passed by the side of the wrecked car with the smoke and the sparks I never imagined I would know the person inside it. But the surgeon with his blood stained coat gave out a name, and all of a sudden everything was clear, and a winning Irish smile, a pair of blue eyes with Celt music, the blond hair of another race stood before me. And, above all, the charm of the nurse that used to help me push ahead with that smile of hers that came straight from her island made up of herbs and reefs, of shamrock and ghosts. I had seen her dance on the corridors of the hospital, dancing while she walked, without moving her waist. I had seen her bending over used sheets to make up the beds of men without a history as is each one of them were his own man. I had seen her, while lifting her head from the tiresome task to still have time and cheer for a conspiratorial wink to that doctor who had come from a faraway country and who admired her. [Nuno had come from Portugal.] Her smile and her eyes spoke more than her words when I was still dreaming of the sickness of my voyage and the accents of the seagulls. Who knows whether that night I was crossing through the New York night in the caravels of my race.
The night was dark, of that I’m sure, as I’m sure that spirals of incense came out of the remains of a wrecked car across a bridge, angel powder. Who knows? Maybe today she is from heaven, as she was on earth, my guardian angel.
She looked like a badly dressed doll. A white dress with frills and embroidery as for a christening or a first communion. The white dress was delicately arranged as a crown of petals on her intensive-care bed. I don’t remember her name, but she was, simply and popularly, The Girl.
Before her birth her brain had been destroyed. The neck arteries, blocked by a clot of blood, ceased to provide the oxygen that was needed for the life of the cells that would enable her to think, to talk, to love. That would enable her to live, in a word. Yet, when she was born, her heart was beating and the nerve centres necessary for breathing and the other vital functions were intact, allowed for life, at any rate for counting the days of her existence. She was 15 and had a grotesque aspect. She could lay in a cradle, since her immobility through years had atrophied her muscles and her limbs. Her gums, swollen by medicines covered an irregular set of teeth. Her face was featureless, expressionless. But she had eyes. And her eyes, apparently, spoke and entreated in baby language because her family, whose accent, humility and distress revealed at one their humble origin from somewhere in Colombia, was insisting without a shadow of a doubt that ‘she was not herself’. That is, that something was the matter with her, and so they had brought her to the hospital.
But could anything ‘be the matter with her’ so as to say that ‘she was not herself’? How was it possible that that being, which was hardly different from a flower, would show something more than a flower? It was touching to see the love they showed for that almost ‘thing’, their care in dressing her up, their anxious looks, their tenderness. But how to believe them? Her brain was just water and salt in the proportion that goes into a tear, but in order to prevent the brain from growing too much a pipe had connected it to her belly so as to drain, drop by drop, the excess of liquid. A sea that enveloped the brain and protected it. ‘She is not herself’ pleaded her mother with shifting eyes. Two or three words in the little Spanish I know as a Portuguese touched them, and their eyes lit up. The doctor was ‘one of us’, spoke Spanish, understood that a mother’s heart can know more things than a doctor’s brain. But this doctor speaks the language of infinite sweetness, akin to the Latin that even Our Lady will understand. The angels will exchange knowing looks and, with a stroke of their wings they’ve borrowed from the seagulls, will disperse the morning mist that darkened the mild eyes of the worshipped child.
It was not easy to persuade my fellow surgeon to withdraw the pipe. The fact was it wasn’t working, and a new drain gave back to The Girls’s sight something I could not see as I was blind. But they saw it. The love with which that family looked after their daughter, granddaughter, and niece, was truly touching. What they told her, how they nursed her with tenderness I would like for myself, and I envy even today. The gratitude they showed me makes me entertain the hope that, on the day of the Last Judgement, a modest family from somewhere in Colombia will intercede for me.
Months went by. One night I was paged at the deepest hour of the early morning hibernation. ‘My patient’s’ family – said the doctor on call – requested my presence. The Girl was in her agony, an infection had extended throughout her body, and nothing could convince the family that the end was unavoidable. They requested the presence of the neurologist who spoke broken Spanish and who, for once in their life, had understood them. There is no merit in fulfilling a duty that claims us as the force of gravity. At four o’clock in the morning the water in the shower clears up thoughts, washes the soul, cleanses the spirit as a sacramental confession. When I arrived, I just could embrace that village in Colombia, absolutely identical to the villages of my own country [Portugal], to the mothers in my country, to all the women of the land in which I was born. They were emigrants like myself, attached to a child they embellished as though that were the day of her coming of age.
The following days many of my companions offered me their condolences for the death of ‘my’ patient. They all told me they knew how much she meant for me. I don’t think I told them what I had learned: it is possible to love a less-than-perfect being, and as a consequence to entertain some hope for the day of the Last Judgement.
(Nuno Lobo Antunes, Lo Siento Mucho, Aguilar, Madrid 2009, p. 78, 85)
A Jesuit companion phones to tell me to check the last issue of the Jesuit theological magazine ‘Selecciones de Teología’, published by all Jesuit theologates in Spain, and see a certain page. I search and find there a lovely anecdote from a man I knew well, the Jesuit father Marcelino Zalba, who taught me in my youth and died last year at the age of 100. He had been a member of the famous commission pope Paul VI personally appointed to study the case of the pill. Could artificial contraceptives be used or not? The commission answered, by a majority of 14 to 4, that they could be used. Father Zalba was one of the four against, and in fact the pope listened to the four dissenters instead of listening to the fourteen in favour. And he forbade the pill. The person telling the anecdote is another great moral theologian of those times, father Bernard Häring:
‘That was the big question, and father Zalba rose to give his opinion. He said it vigorously, and I understood it was a case of real anguish for him, a very good person who was faced with a very serious issue. He said in a loud voice: “If we now allow the use of the pill and other artificial contraceptives, what will happen to the millions of persons we have sent to hell till the present date?”
Ms Crowley, that charming and gentle American lady, answered him: “Father Zalba, are you sure God obeyed all the orders you gave him?”’
(Quoted in Selecciones de Teología, Julio-Septiembre 2009, Vol. 48, 191, p. 196)
In the same issue of the magazine another theologian, Andrés Torres Queiruga, is quoted on this theme:
‘The heroic resistance of the Church to maintain in all its rigour moral norms that even a large number of faithful and of theologians consider outdated and at times inhuman, is creating a situation which it will not be exaggerated to describe as disastrous.’ (Ib. p. 228)
Quoted from a Jesuit theological magazine.
Psalm 65 – Come and See
‘Come and see all that God has done.’Come and see. The invitation to experience. The chance to be present. The challenge to witness. Come and see. To me these three words are the essence of faith, the heart of mysticism, the core of religion. Come. Don’t sit down quietly waiting for things to happen to you. Get up and start and move and search. Come close, enter, face the reality you have been called to meet. And then see. Open your eyes, watch, see for yourself. Don’t just listen or read or study. You have spent all your life in readings and studies and discussions and abstractions. All that is good, but is only second-hand evidence. It has to be transcended in faith and courageous humility to seek the firsthand evidence of vision and presence. Come and see. Seek and find. Enter and enjoy. The Lord has summoned you to his court.
I now take those hallowed words as said by you, Lord, to me. Come and see. You invite me to be by your side and to see your face. Your words are unmistakable, and your invitation deliberate and serious. Yet I fight shy, I hold back, I find excuses. I am not worthy, I’ve been told it’s safer to walk in the darkness of faith. I’ll stick to the trodden path. I’ll keep my place and hold my peace. I leave to my betters the mystic claims of your face-to-face vision, and feel content with the life of routine that waits in patience for the plenitude to come. I am afraid, Lord, I don’t want to get into deep waters. I feel comfortable where I am, and beg to be left unmolested. The heights are not for me.
I am afraid that if I see you my life will have to change, my attachments will drop and my routine will be upset. I am afraid of your presence, and in that I feel one with the people of Israel who delegated to Moses the responsibility of meeting you because they were afraid to do it themselves. It is my laziness, my inertia, my cowardice. Ultimately, it is my lack of trust in you, and, maybe, in myself. I acknowledge my pusillanimity, and ask you not to withdraw your invitation from me.
I want to come and see your works, to come and see you at work, to contemplate you, to see the splendour of your face as you rule the vastness of your creation and the depths of the human soul. I want to see you, Lord, in the light of faith and the intimacy of prayer. I want the direct experience, the personal encounter, the effulgent vision. Devout people in all religions speak of the experience that changes their lives, the realisation that fulfils their aspirations, the illumination that gives meaning to their existence. I humbly want that illumination for me, and it is your face alone that can shed that light on my mortal eyes. I want to see, and by that I mean that I want to see you, who are the only reality worth seeing, you who with the light of your face give light to the whole of creation and to my own life. That is now my only desire and my ultimate hope.
Come and see.I am coming, Lord.
Give me the grace to see.
From the Summit
‘The valley is lovely,
but it has no value without the mountain.
First climb the mountain,
conquer its summit,
and when you are back in the valley
all will be different for you.
(Chamalú)The valley is daily life, and the mountain is contemplation. The valley is beautiful in its ploughed fields, its rows of trees, its brooks and its fountains, its paths and byways, its villages and its flocks. But to see its beauty it has to be viewed from the summit. One has to climb the mountain, gain height, acquire perspective, command the view. When taking a bird’s-eye view of the whole landscape from the vantage point over all horizons, we feel the eerie charm of the aerial sight: we put together the fragments of life in their nature context; we take notice of the paths and their directions, we understand the valley. Now we can go down and enjoy each corner, because we know its position and grasp its environment. We take in the valley because we have climbed the summit.
In fact the valley would not be a valley without the summit. If those two mountain ranges were not there one at either side, there would be no valley. We would have only a flat, level tableland without variety and without depth. The valley, in order to be a valley, needs the mountain for contrast, for background, for meaning, for personality. The valley is a valley because there is a mountain. Earth is earth because there is a heaven. Life is life because there is God. That is why in order to understand life we have to reach God.
Every time I have lived in a valley with a peak over the horizon, I have felt uneasy until I have summed up courage, made up my mind ad climbed the summit. I think of Bembodi Peak in Kodaikanal, Perumal in Shembaganur, Gurushikar in Abu, Itzarraiz in Loyola. I had to climb them at my earliest in order to establish friendship, knit horizons together, encompass the vision. Once I had the view, I could go back in peace to the valley and live contentedly the life of the plains. Now it made sense, because I had seen it from above.
The valley is different after I climb the summit. The valley has not changed, but I have changed. How small from the top the shape of that stone on which I stumbled one day! How clear that curve on the way that I once missed because I could not see beyond my nose! How straight the course of the river through all those twists and turns that deceive the unwary wanderer in the closeness of its crazy ways! How well mapped the village, how serpentine its streets, how pretty my home! Everything finds new value from the heights; because everything fits in; everything stands out; everything together makes up the complete whole. The view from the summit is the secret of meaningful life in the valley.
I want to keep on climbing the summits of life. Again and again. To gain and regain the vision for ever. Mountain climbing in the mountain ranges of the soul.
MAKING HINDUS LOVE CHRIST
Something was missing. I lived fifty years in India and left without a farewell. It’s true, I kept coming back for some years, but visits were becoming fewer and far between, and I began to wonder whether each would be the last. So I grabbed at the invitation to come for the Silver Jubilee of the CISS (Catholic Information Service Society) in September 2009 in Ahmedabad, as I had helped Fr Sontag in that pioneer ministry in Pune in the fifties, and my book Khristidarshan had become the textbook for the course in Gujarati in the eighties. I would come, hug friends, make speeches, neck garlands, record the event in my web site, and formally close the best chapter of my life.
I never chose coming to India. After World War II, pope Pius XII thought Japan would open to the gospel and asked the Jesuit General Father Janssens to send to Japan as many Jesuits as possible from all parts of the world to gather in the expected harvest. I volunteered. My Jesuit Provincial in Spain answered me: ‘Japan, no. India, yes. We’ve just taken charge of the Gujarat Mission as separate from the Bombay Mission in India, and I’m planning to start a College in Ahmedabad. You are hereby appointed to that non existing College.’ Once in India, people often asked me what had attracted me to India. I soon learned my answer: ‘In the West’ – I would say – ‘people first fall in love, and then marry; in India, people first marry, and then fall in love. Mine with India is an Indian marriage.’
I arrived at Loyola College, Chennai, for my maths honours degree in January 1950 on the precise day when College Day was being celebrated, and I sat in my brand new white cassock on the benches reserved for the fathers. I had never in my life seen such a glamorous display of youth, sport, art, dances, sheer beauty and glorious spectacle as that. I sat fascinated. At the same time I kept praying within myself in the solitude of my fresh arrival: ‘Lord, what a pity that these magnificent people, men and women, young and old, must all go to hell!’ This is not a joke. It was anguish to me. The Catholic doctrine ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation’ was in full force at the time, and the recent encyclical Mystici Corporis had emphasised that water baptism was necessary to enter heaven. Still, I wrote to my teacher in Spain, later to be the dean of moral theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, Fr Marcelino Zalba, who died last year in his 100th year, asking him how had I to understand that teaching when surrounded by non-baptised people. He promptly answered: ‘Have you just now arrived in India and you are already losing your faith? Be careful lest you fall into hell yourself!’ Cold comfort. Yet, I knew already in my heart of hearts that things could not be that way. Years later, a Council would come to prove me right.
One thing I had observed in Chennai. Teachers and students knew perfectly well English – with a lovely Tamil lilt to it – but as soon as they jumped out of the classroom they all started talking in their swift Tamil among themselves. It was then that I made the resolution that changed my life: If I come to Gujarat, I will learn Gujarati first. I went to Anand in Gujarat to its language school for a year, realised that one year was not enough to master the language, and asked for one more year to perfect it before going to Pune for theology.
But then something happened that threatened my resolution. There was an anti-Christian move in the new government, and the Catholic M.P. Mrs. Violet Alva was asked to inform us privately but officially that we, foreign Catholic missionaries who had arrived after independence in India on a temporary visa to be renewed each year, would certainly be allowed to complete our studies in India, but after that our visas would not be renewed and we would have to return to our countries of origin. There were enough Catholic priests in India to minister to the Catholics in the country, and proselytising missionaries were not welcome. In such circumstances it looked foolish to stay for one more year of Gujarati before Pune.
Yet I stayed. I took a room for a year in a Hindu hostel at Vallabh Vidyanagar University in Gujarat where I attended classes, mixed with students, took a vow never to speak English with them, wrote endless compositions, even took part in a Gujarati drama, and came out speaking the language. My Jesuit companions who went ahead to Pune charged my conscience (no joke) with the reproach that I would have to give an account to God for having said 365 masses less than they in my life, having delayed my priestly ordination for a year quite uselessly. It didn’t quite turn out that way, though. The Indian government soon changed its policy and we were allowed to remain.
Once in Pune I dedicated the first two hours of my study time each morning without fail to writing Gujarati. Just filling up sheets of paper and tearing them up. I’ve always said that my teacher in the art of writing was the wastepaper basket. I loved theology, specially Scripture, and I studied it with gusto, but I never cared much about exams. Not even the dreaded ‘ad auds’ for hearing confessions moved me. The summer months between our second and third year were meant to prepare for that exam, but I made use of them to write, behind close doors to prevent detection, a book in Gujarati, Sadachar, that was to become my introduction to the reading public in Gujarat. Not too easily, though. When I reached Gujarat after ordination and tertianship, I showed my manuscript to the publisher at Gurjar Granthratna Karyalaya. The book purported to be a moral guide for students. The publisher paged through it, threw it on the table with such a bad grace that it fell to the floor and said, ‘Who would ever read this?’ I gathered the pages, wrote to get some money from my mother in Spain, and printed the book privately in our Anand Press. A copy reached somehow the education minister, Shrimati Indumatiben Sheth, who recommended it for all schools. The magazine Kumar asked me for similar articles each month. The daily Gujarat Samachar gave me the whole last page of its Sunday supplement each weak for a column I titled To the New Generation. With it I entered the Gujarati homes in times where there was no television, and the Sunday supplement of the newspapers was the only entertainment of Sunday morning for all members of the family. Since then, as I was once introduced to a Gujarati audience and I quote without blushing, ‘Each home in Gujarat has two fathers. The father of the family, and father Valles.’
The Jain community in Mumbai celebrated each year their Paryushan Parva with religious lectures in eight consecutive days by well known and well accepted scholars. After many consultations, as I later learned, they decided to risk inviting me, a foreign Christian missionary, to address them. As a precaution they set Shri Chimanbhai Chakubhai Shah, a forceful personality who was at the time a member of the Indian delegation at the UN, to preside over my talks so as to check any trespass on my side. My talks went well, and that was the beginning of my love affair with the Jains that has led them to call me an ‘honorary Jain’ and to be their guest at innumerable functions from India to America – passing, of course, through Africa, Australia and Japan.
On the last day of that first Paryushan, at a tea party in a flat overlooking The Queen’s Necklace in Mumbai, I was walking among groups with my teacup in hand when I noticed some speaking about me. ‘What are you saying about me?’ I cheerfully asked. They told me: ‘You’ll take it ill if we tell you.’ ‘Now you have to tell me’, I insisted. One of them finally spoke: ‘Forgive us, father, but we were saying that you appear to us as such a fine person that… you could not possibly be a Christian!’
We all laughed, but the incident stuck in my mind, and I quietly thought about it and began to shape within me what I wanted my life in India to be. I would endeavour to live and to appear and to be such that Hindus and Muslims and Parsis and Jains would accept me as a Christian, breaking down old prejudices and making it possible for us to speak about religious matters with the direct testimony of our own faith. This, I think, I have done in my measure. It is significant that my book Khristidarshan, whose use in the CISS courses has prompted my coming now to India as I’ve mentioned at the beginning, was commissioned not by any Catholic publisher but by Vallabh Vidyanagar University as a purely secular institution of the country. They wanted to make the knowledge of Christ’s person and teaching available to the general public, and they asked me to do it. I readily accepted. A schoolboy once wrote to me from Bhavnagar: ‘I’ve read your books and I like them. While I’m reading them I feel the need to imagine your face, as I feel as though you were talking to me. But I haven’t seen you or any photo of yours. In our World Religions textbook there is a lesson on Christ with his photo (?) on it. So I imagine your face as that face of Christ. Do you mind my doing so?’ Thank you, Himansu. You defined my life ideal.
In Chennai I had been lucky to have the French Jesuit Fr Racine as a teacher in Modern Algebra. He had introduced us to the then new subjects of set theory, group theory, ring theory, field theory, vector spaces, matrix theory, linear algebra, Boolean algebra, that were unknown in the universities at the time, and so, when I came to Gujarat, I was requested to introduce them in the Gujarat University, which I was glad to do. I had to work at the very terminology. ‘Pure mathematics’ became, at my hands, Kevalganit in consonance with Shankaracharya’s Kevaladvaita; ‘ring theory’ became Mandalshastra, and for ‘one-one and one-many correspondence’ I proposed Sita sambandh and Draupadi sambandh which any Indian with a sense of humour would readily understand, but this was not accepted by the University authorities. I enjoyed teaching mathematics as much as writing books.
Another translation work, even more rewarding, presented itself at about that time. For the first time vernacular versions were allowed for the mass in place of Latin. The new Eucharistic prayer, ‘Lord, you are holy indeed…’ had to be translated into Gujarati and I was asked to do it. I found the British ‘indeed’ unbearably prosaic indeed, and worked from the Latin, which was not much better. The sentence had to come after the ‘Holy, holy, holy’, of the Sanctus, and so my Gujarati became: ‘Holiness is your name, oh Lord…’ (Pavitrata tamarum nama chhe, Prabhu…), and so down the line to the ‘lotus hands’ of the Lord at the consecration, and the Balidan Murti for the ‘Lamb of God’ which was an expression foreign to India and put our vernaculars to the test. (Father Segundo Llorente, popular Jesuit missionary in Alaska, faced with the same situation chose to proclaim, ‘This is the Seal of God’ before Eskimos who new no lambs and lived on seals.) And then on to other canons and prefaces, though the rest of the missal was done by other and very capable hands. Honestly, I felt inspired while doing that work. Today nobody knows that is my work, as missals do not show credits, but it is a matter of deep satisfaction to me that wherever a priest says mass in Gujarati, I am secretly present at the altar. There was only a snag. My version was sent to Rome for approval, but in Rome nobody knew Gujarati. So they sent back my text, a holy missionary, Fr Pariza, translated my Gujarati back into Latin (I told him just to copy the original Latin but he didn’t listen to me), this was duly sent to Rome and the approval came. ‘Holiness is your name, oh Lord!’
My books and articles had brought me closer to the people, but then I noticed the existential gap between me, in my safe and comfortable Jesuit residence at St Xavier’s College, and my readers in the narrow lanes of the walled city. And I conceived the idea of going to live as a guest among them, asking for hospitality from house to house, staying with them full time day and night including all meals, and coming to the College only for classes in the morning and back in the evening to my temporary home as any other teacher. There is an Indian word, vihar, which refers to the wandering monk, and there is the tradition of hospitality that makes it possible what would be unthinkable in any other country. I asked the permission of father Provincial, got on my bike, and started knocking at doors. For ten years I lived in that guise, and felt a member of as many families that adopted me for a week each and made me feel like one of them. My experiences in my vihar filled three books, and their imprint has stayed with me. And with many neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad.
When Fr Tony de Mello announced the first month retreat he would direct in Khandala, I applied for it and went. Later, when he started his Sadhana courses I did not apply, but my Provincial proposed to me to go for the maxi (9 months) or the mini (3 months) Sadhana. I answered him: ‘No minis for me. I’ll go for the maxi.’ And I went. I’ll be for ever grateful to Tony for that year. Inner freedom, contact with myself, Gestalt, ‘lose your mind and come to your senses’, deep relationships, ‘choiceless, effortless, purposeless awareness’ (Krishnamurti). A way of life that, in my hope and in my measure, has come to be a part of myself. People have told me I am jealous of Tony. I admit that. But in the matter of jealousy I’ve been more sinned against than sinned. Success is paid for dearly among us. And I’ve had a good deal of it. As for Tony, I willingly and spontaneously paid my debt back to him with my book ‘Unencumbered by Baggage’, which remains to this day the standard book on Tony, given the (amazing!) lack of any biography of his. When Tony stopped giving thirty-day retreats he passed on to me those he had already accepted, and I gave them. Then, unexpectedly, our General, Fr Arrupe, gave orders personally from Rome that I should give the long retreat to Jesuits in their last year in formation (Tertianship) in our two institutions for the purpose in India, which I did for a number of years (and for which the Tertian Masters, obviously, hated me), coming always back to my teaching in St Xavier’s College and my weekly writings. I do wonder at my hectic activity those years.
One of the results of my retreats was that I for the first time agreed to write a book in English. For years I had written only in Gujarati. Suggestions were made to me to write in English, but I used to answer that many Jesuits knew English in India better than me, and I owed myself entirely to Gujarati. For a time I fooled myself with that answer, till I avowed to myself the true answer: If I wrote in English, other Jesuits would read me, and I was afraid of their criticism. Finally the genial director of Gujarat Sahitya Prakash in Anand, Fr Diaz de Río, convinced me, I put together some talks I had given in a retreat to the Andhra Loyola College Jesuit community, and that was my first book in English, ‘Living Together’. Many more were to follow.
When arriving in India I had asked my spiritual father, the Alsatian Fr Froehly in Madurai Mission, for permission to make a vow never to leave India. He refused permission. I remembered him when I was chosen to represent India at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Moscow in 1968. Fr Froehly was a wise man, and to Russia I went. Once in Europe I visited Spain and rediscovered the West. The director of the Jesuit publishing house, Sal Terrae, in Spain asked me for permission to translate my book ‘Living Together’ into Spanish. I did my own translation, and gradually did the same with all my English books. That was how I became writing in three languages. From Gujarati, however, I never translated my books into English or Spanish, as the backgrounds were too different. In fact, when giving now talks and answering questions in Spain, people often expressed surprise at my answers. Finally some questioner revealed the explanation to me when she exclaimed: ‘But of course, you are an Indian!’ I treasured the compliment.
My Spanish books crossed the Atlantic and reached Latin America. And soon the call came for talks and courses there. First to Argentina, then year by year to neighbouring countries, and higher up all along the New World. For a Spaniard to ‘discover’ Latin America, to speak Spanish in twenty countries whose mother tongue it is, to identify Spanish features in gently coloured faces, to read in their own backgrounds books by Borges and Neruda and Vargas Llosa and García Márquez, to taste mate in Uruguay and tacos in Mexico, to meet a faith strong and alive in the sanctuaries of its geography and in the hearts of its inhabitants is a soul-shaking experience that, added in my case to my Indian avatar, enriched and blissfully bewildered my soul beyond measure. And back to India again.
Dattatreya Balkrishna Kalelkar, or Kakasaheb Kalelkar as he came to be fondly called in Gujarat, was the Maharashtrian scholar Gandhiji had entrusted with his educational work and the founding of his Gujarat Vidhyapith in Ahmedabad. Circumstances brought me into a close friendship with him. He knew me well, and we shared for hours on end our respective backgrounds, experiences, beliefs and dreams for a closer understanding and a mutual enrichment. Once I invited him to deliver a lecture in our St Xavier’s College, and at the beginning of his talk he referred to me and said before the assembled staff and the whole student body: ‘Other Christian missionaries make Hindus Christian; father Valles makes Hindus love Christ.’
I pause to delve on those words. They are in no way any comparison or judgement or disparagement of the work of any of my brothers whom I deeply revere and admire; they are only my way of presenting my own life. I am entitled to it. Bishop Charles Gomes, known for his missionary zeal, told me once in the presence of my Jesuit companions at St Xavier’s College: ‘You may be a great person and have a good name, but you are wasting your life because you have not converted anybody.’ We all knew that wasn’t true, but it did hurt none the less.
Pope Paul VI wrote in his encyclical on the missions:
‘What matters most is the evangelisation of the cultures of man.’
(Evangelii nuntiandi, 20)
I give an example. Love and service of neighbour is a fundamental and characteristic Christian value. ‘Whatever you did for any of these little ones, you did it for me.’ It is not a Hindu value though, since the doctrine of karma teaches that whatever a person suffers in this life is the unavoidable result of what they did in their past one and they cannot and should not be helped in their payment for past deeds. A thief in his past life becomes in consequence a beggar in this life. If I now help the beggar out of his poverty, I do give him a passing relief, but in reality I do him a bad turn, as I only delay his paying for his karma which he will have to do in any case. Vivekananda knew this weakness of Hinduism in the face of Christianity, and solved it in his own way: ‘If the beggar’s karma is to suffer, my karma is to help the beggar.’ This is a purely dialectic answer, much in line with Vivekananda’s rhetorical approach to Hinduism, but it leaves the beggar with his karmic debt to be paid for anyway. Thus, charity to the neighbour is a Christian, not a Hindu value. And yet, Indian mentality has changed in this respect due to its long contact with Christianity; social projects and help to the poor are widely undertaken, and when the country is now faced with a flood, an earthquake, a drought, Hindus today do not leave people to their karma but rush to their help in a clearly, though anonymously, Christian way. The Gujarati word for ‘hospital’ is ‘ispital’ which linguistically shows that there were no hospitals before the (Christian) British since there was not even the word for them; while now devout Hindus and Jains found hospitals for the poor. Here we have evangelised a culture. A basic Christian value has quietly seeped into the Hindu conscience without any fuss. We don’t even need to be given public credit for it. Society has been ‘baptised’, and this is what matters according to the pope. This is our missionary task. And we achieve it by our example, our joy, our presence, our service, our love.
It might even happen that baptising individuals would at times prove an obstacle to baptising cultures, as converting some Hindus may cause other Hindus to oppose Christianity. Maybe that is what our present pope had in mind when he wrote in his first encyclical:
“Charity cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous (Latin ‘in gratuitate’ = free of charge) love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love.”
(Benedict XVI, God is Love, 31, c)
When my widowed mother was 90 she wrote to me that she was weak and alone, and requested me to come and look after her at the end of her life. I had by then retired from teaching, asked due permission, and went to help her. She lived to be 102, and by then my field of work had shifted to Spain. I stayed.
The electronic typewriter, on which I had written all my books for years, eventually broke down. That led me to my first computer. And soon to Internet. And to the daily emails. I did a course on websites and started my own, in English and Spanish, ten years ago to the date this October. The section ‘I Tell You’ brings to readers my latest thoughts, experiences, anecdotes. In ‘You Tell Me’ they react to my ideas, ask their questions and add their comments. Then comes a commentary to a Psalm and a Meditation. Apart from its update every fifteen days, it takes up several hours of my working day each day to answer emails. I call it ‘my virtual parish’, and people have asked me to hear their confessions via Internet, but the time has not yet arrived. Emails take time but they bring their consolation with them. Readers of my books write to thank for the help, guidance, and inspiration received through them, and their spontaneity and their closeness warm my heart. A reader wrote: ‘Please, tell me this is true, father. Isn’t it that you have written all your books only and exclusively for me?’ Yes, my dear Laura from Chile, only for you. ‘Thank you for reading me’ is a repeated blessing, and I always personally answer every message.
In fact that is what I intend my lifework to be. Cheering people up. The papal bull that founded the Society of Jesus, Regimini militantis Ecclesiae’, expressed St Ignatius’ aim in founding it as‘ad consolationem animarum’. ‘For the encouragement of souls.’ ‘Consolatio’ in the Latin and Spanish of the time did not mean ‘consolation’ but ‘encouragement’, as in the Rules of Discernment of Spirits in the Exercises, and ‘soul’ is the term for the human person. We have been founded to encourage people, to lift up people’s hearts, to cheer people up. When life is so dreary, so senseless at times, so unkind to many, we stand at their side to say a kind word, to smile into faces, to kindle faith anew, to pronounce Jesus’ name with them. This I understand my Jesuit vocation to be.
I hope this reading has done something of that for you, dear reader. Cheer up and love Jesus Christ.
And now, yes. Farewell to India! With all my heart.
Carlos G. Vallés, SJ
Ten years is quite a birthday for the Web. It has been said that the measure of the passing of time is how long the last electronic gadget takes to become the last-but-one. The train goes fast. I boarded the Web train as soon as I heard of it. I like writing, I like communication, my age sets limits for me, the keyboard calls, and all that took me to the Web. Blessed moment. I began only in Spanish and once a month. I had to measure strength and find my balance. I soon saw one month was too long a gap and I made it fifteen days. And then in English. Those were the beginnings. I placed my address at the beginning of my books, and readers began reading.
There are millions of Webs in Internet. I like to think mine is a bit different from most. I once defined it as “My Web is me every fifteen days.” A bit arrogant, perhaps, and, naturally, it does not interest those who are not interested in me, but, for the same reason, it does interest those who like my books and my ideas and my person, and they like to meet me electronically from time to time. Just as I, too, like to meet my readers in the quick, informal, direct, simple style of the Web and its mail. For me the Web is a new literary genre which we are learning as we go on inventing it. It is not a book, a letter, a newspaper, a speech, a biography, a history. It is something different which is taking shape in our hands as we go on enjoying our creation. The joy of creation.
I read much in order to write a little. I have to cull quotations, anecdotes, stories that touch me, as I see that what touches me touches all of you too. And then I’ve realised that what you like most is real experiences in my life and the reflections I weave around them. That makes me pay attention to my own life to make extensive to you whatever reaches me.
The mail born in the Web is the best part of it. I personally read every message carefully, think about it in love, answer it in detail. Some send me a first exploratory message to make sure I am the one who answers, and the real message comes only later. I’ve never had a secretary, and personal communication is sacred to me. I give to it all the time and the love it is asking for. I remember many names, I recall situations and consultations, I sometimes grow impatient as I am asked questions nobody can answer, when in fact what matters is not the answer as such but the fact of the communication in itself. The contact, however virtual it may be, the conversation, the greetings, the kiss itself that brings warmth to the message through the cybernetic bits. Thanks for reading me, they say. Thanks for writing, I answer. I say it from the heart. Every message is an encounter. The communication is a value in itself.
I open the email with anticipation every morning. That is the first task of my working day. These are the four questions you ask me more often.
1. Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do good people suffer? Why has God permitted that my daughter should die? I begin by checking the language. It was the theologians that invented the expression that God “does” some things (the good ones) and “permits” others (the bad ones), that is that if a plane flies properly that is because God “makes” it fly properly, and if it crushes with two hundred passengers on board that is because God “permits” it to crush. No such distinction. The fact is that God does everything in everything and everybody, he does it cooperating with the created being that takes part in the same action, whether it be the human being acting in freedom or the tree growing in its strength…, or again the lightning that strikes the tree and kills it. God does not “permit” the lightning to strike, but the lightning that kills the tree comes from the hand of God just as well as the rain that gave it life had come from the same blessed hands. Let us be clear about it. God’s omnipotence joins human freedom, and human life results. Suffering shapes us, draws us close to each other, makes us take life seriously, teaches us to appreciate joy. I have suffered in my life, and that gives me the right to accompany those who suffer. Not a day passes without the email bringing me some witness of personal suffering, and that gives weight to my life and seriousness to my joy. The answer to suffering does not lie in explaining it but in accepting it and sharing it. I always answer such queries from the heart. Thank you for sharing with me the hardships of life.
2. Why is the Church doing so badly? She truly is. I’ve done what I could do as a writer. I’ve written a book about it and that is my contribution. I touched in it all that I thought needed correction in the Church, called it “Dear Church” as it is written with love and concern, and had it published. It was published only in Spanish because the English publisher rejected it. I wrote on the lack of transparency in the Church, the loss of credibility, the teaching on sex, the guilt complex, the unfairness to women, the alienation of youth, priestly celibacy, the vocation crisis. A friend told me that my book would be of no use. I answered him I know my book was not going to change the Church, but it did satisfy my own conscience. I had done my duty. The Church at present holds on popular devotion, on the extreme right associations, and on the travels and audiences of the pope that give it visibility but cannot give it the credibility, authority, and exemplarity she truly needs. The Church in her universality, her influence, and her mission in the world is going through a crisis. And on top of it she gets angry when we tell her so.
3. What are we to do for our children to acquire Christian values? To practice them yourselves as parents, and to say so before your children. “See, my child, I could tell a lie here and pay less money, but I don’t tell lies because a lie harms society and lowers your own credibility; I could remain in bed and not go to mass, but I know that going to the church helps me to be a better person; I could forget about the poor, but I understand that to help them as far as I can is my duty as well as my own satisfaction as a person.” Let them see you doing it and hear you saying it.
4. “Formerly I used to feel much devotion in prayer and at mass, but now I feel dry.” I always remind you of the relationship in a happily married couple. Their golden jubilee is not quite the same as their honeymoon. Each time has its own mood. And never get discouraged.
And then come all the eternal questions whether to marry or not to marry, to separate or not to separate, to join the novitiate or not to join, to stay or to quit…. I always take each question seriously, I let myself be questioned by them, and then I answer with all my sincerity and all my love. And one thing, by the way. Only too often I send my answer as reply to the sender, and it comes back unsent. The address had not been properly spelled and the electronic postman does not allow for errors. And I have no other way to communicate. The person in question is left thinking I haven’t answered them, while it was their fault in not writing their address properly. I feel annoyed but I can do nothing about it.
I take the opportunity to remark on one point. In matters of sex the majority of Catholics thinks and acts differently from the official Church, and, in the conflict of ideas and the differences of the moral theologians themselves, it is legitimate to follow the general feeling of the faithful. On the other hand we priests are instructed not to put in writing what we say by word of mouth in this matter. Maybe an electronic message can be considered as something between the spoken word and the written word. Let us say, the cybernetic word. That would give us some freedom.
A message these last days has given me particular satisfaction. My last Web consisted of a long write-up on my visit to India, and in consequence I omitted (for the first time in these ten years) the Psalm and the Meditation. Someone has delicately written: “I missed the Psalm and the Meditation.” Many wrote in appreciation of my writing on my visit to India; but someone felt that did not make up for the loss of the Psalm and Meditation. That made me happy. The Psalms are worth all my experiences together. Although I always present each Psalm as a personal experience of mine. Here they go again.
Psalm 67 – From Sinai to Sion
I knew that life is a journey, and I want mine to be a journey from Sinai to Sion with you as the Leader. Sinai was your voice, your command, your promise to lead your people into the Promised Land; and Sion is the stable city, the mighty fortress, the holy Temple. My life too goes, with your people, from mountain to Temple, from promise to reality, from hope to glory through the long desert of my earthly existence. And with me all the days of the life, your presence, your help, your unfailing guidance through the sands of time. With you I feel safe in my journey.
“O God, when you went forth before your people,
marching across the wilderness,
the very heavens quaked before God the Lord of Sinai,
before God the God of Israel”.The pilgrimage is hard at times. There are dangers and enemies, there is the weariness of the journey and the doubt whether it will ever come to an end, a happy end. There are strange names in the long geography, threatening kings at every turn of the map. The peaks of Bashan are jealous of the hill of Sion, and the enmity of neighbours plots harm against the transit of the Ark that carries your Presence. But it is that very Presence that gives protection and victory in the daily encounters of the faith pilgrimage.
“God arises and his enemies are scattered!
Sing the praises of God,
raise a psalm to his name,
extol him who rides over the desert plains.
Be joyful and exult before him,
father of the fatherless,
the widow’s champion.
God in his holy dwelling place gives the friendless a home
and brings out the prisoner safe and sound;
but revels must live in the scorching desert.”The strength of my pilgrimage is to realise that it is also yours. You are the Lord of the desert, you are the Lord of life. And, with you, you carry your people, and me with them. I rejoice as the least member in the holy procession, the Benjamin in the tribes of Israel.
“Your procession, O God, comes into view,
the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary:
at its head the singers, next come minstrels,
girls among them playing on tambourines.
In the great concourse they bless God,
all Israel assembled bless the Lord.
There is the little tribe of Benjamin leading them,
there the company of Juda’s princes,
the princes of Zebulun and of Naphtali.”To walk in the company of your people: that is my joy, Lord, and that is my protection. To feel one with your people, to fight in its battles, to grieve at defeat and to exult in victory. You are my God because I belong to your people. I am no lonely traveller, no solitary pilgrim. I form part of a people that marches together with one faith, one Leader and one destiny. I know its history and I sing its songs. I live its traditions and I cling to its hopes. And as a closer and daily sign of my belonging to your people I renew and strengthen my union in friendship with the close group with which I live in your name. Cell of your Body and image of your Church. They are my companions given by you, and with them I walk and I strive, I relax and I play in the intimacy of a family which mirrors in humble miniature the universality of the whole human family under you as a Father.
“O God, in virtue of you power,
that godlike power which has acted for us,
command kings to bring gifts to you
for the honour of your temple in Jerusalem.”In a way we have already arrived at the end of the journey. We are in Jerusalem, we are in your Temple we are in your Church. “The righteous are joyful, they exult before God, they are jubilant and shout for joy.”The joy of knowing that we are already in faith where we shall be for ever in perfect fruition. The joy of a journey which is already crowned with the anticipation of the arrival. The joy of the traveller joined to the satisfaction of the inhabitant. We are pilgrims and citizens, we are on the way and we have arrived, we claim both Sinai and Sion for our heritage. With you by our side we journey with joy and arrive in glory.
“Blessed is the Lord:
He carries us day by day.
God is our salvation!”
Frogs and princes
“We are born princes,
and civilisation makes us into frogs.”
(Eric Berne)The fairy tale in modern version. We are princes by birth, by blood, by lineage, by nature. We are free before thought and courageous before love; we are spontaneous, mischievous, light-hearted as the sons and daughters of the king who romp around the halls in the royal palace and shake its stately vaults with the wild screams of our infant throats. The royal palace is ours, and the whole of creation is ours, as children that we are of the Father who has made it all. Each son and daughter is different, marked by the artist’s touch that gave us life; each one of us is a unique expression of that particular glimpse of himself that God imprinted on each one of us, thus to build up between us all the image of his glory. We are princes and princesses in the Kingdom that lasts unto eternity.
But the curse of the jealous witch converts us into frogs. The curse is the so-called civilisation. Etiquette, formalities, bureaucracy, computers. The pattern and the expectation and the procedure. The eternal queue before the correct window. The printed form, the stamp, the true copy. We all end up by being a file in a cabinet, a file in a computer. Bow to the fashion and follow the crowd. Do what all do, and speak as all speak. All with one accent. All with one voice. Like frogs in their pond: all green, with bulging eyes and a voice out of tune. From pond to pond and from night to night. Croak, croak, croak! Royal ancestry converted in wet serenade. Lost heritage.
Who will now be the good fairy that may give us back our face? With which magic wand will she touch us to make us recover our shape? Which incantation will she pronounce to counteract the spell under which we are bound?
We are not going to wait for our turn in the queue of the thousand-and-one nights. The awakening comes from within. It shakes our conscience and sets fire to our blood. We know ourselves to be different, and we refuse to remain in the routine any longer. It is time to get out of it. On a starry night, in the silence of sleep and the secret of shadows, we claim our true form and recover our independence. No need for revolutions or manifestos. It is enough to stand erect and smile all round. We know the mystery. We know our royal blood. And as princes and princesses that we are, we dare to be ourselves, to be different, to say what we feel, to feel what we live, to live what we are. We dare to think by ourselves. To break the mould. To jump the pigeonhole. To escape the bulldozer. We will always be respectful before the society in which we live and the persons with whom we deal; but at the same time we’ll feel free, original, creative. No repeated croaking in uniform chorus. We are princes and princesses of royal blood, prophets of the imagination, artists in behaviour. We want to be the touch of colour in a computerised society. To be truly ourselves in the fullness of our being and the zest of our life is the best service we can render a spiritually steamrolled society. This is true civilisation.
I hope this narrative touches you as it has touched me.
Harry Bernstein, a Jewish writer born in England and settled in America, tells how in his village the main street that run from end to end through it was divide by an Invisible Wall (which is the title of his autobiography), as only Christians lived on one side of it and only Jews on the other. And they never mixed. The only contact took place on the eve of the Sabbath when the Jews needed to light their fire but could not do it as any physical activity was forbidden on the Sabbath since its eve, and so they would call a Christian from the other side of the street to light their fire for them.
Eventually the inevitable happened. A Jewish girl, Lily, sister of the book’s writer, Harry, fell in love with a Christian boy, Arthur, and he with her. First on the sly. Then the parents of both came to know of it and both forbad the match. Lily’s family was poor but they got some relatives in America to send them the ticket for Lily to go there and so to forget about Arthur. The ticket arrived, but on the eve of the voyage when her mother was packing for her and was placing her best dress in her trunk, Lily told her she wanted to wear it as a farewell. Then she asked her brother Harry to accompany her, they went to an office a the other end of the village where Arthur was waiting, also in his best suit. It was the register’s office, and there they got married.
Her brother came back home to tell the mother. (Their father was always drunk and oblivious of everything.) His mother uttered a sharp cry and began to tear at her dress. Neighbouring women gathered and restrained her. Then they closed all the windows and hung black drapes on the mirrors as in mourning. As their daughter had married a Gentile she had to be held as dead, and they began the mourning at home. Then the newlywed, Lily and Arthur, arrived. This is how Harry tells the story:
“My sister saw the condition my mother was in, with her head sunk on her chest, and became distraught immediately, fell on her knees before her, took both my mother’s hands in hers and cried, ‘Mama, what’s the matter? Are you ill? Look at me, Mama. This is Lily, your daughter. I’m not dead, Mama. I’m not dead. Look at me, Mama. I’m not dead, Mama, I’m alive. I’m married and Arthur is my husband now. We love each other. I love you too, Mama. I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to be angry with me. Talk to me. Say something. Oh Mama, Mama. Please, please…’. She burst into tears. She might just as well have been talking to a wall for all the response she got. There was nothing showing on my mother’s face, no sign of recognition, no acknowledgement of the voice, and Lily kept pleading with her, begging her to listen, to say something, and we all sat there numbly, too frightened and too shocked ourselves to be able to do or say anything. There was no response from my mother. Nothing at all. It was as if she had not heard her. She remained silent, with her head bent. Lily kept on pleading until Arthur finally bent down and lifted her up and led her away, and I could hear Lily still crying as they went out into the street and the door had closed after them.”
When, on the next Saturday eve, his mother told Harry to call the Christian woman neighbour to light their fire, she came to her door and shouted among insults: “You can light your own damned fire, dirty Jews! Who killed Christ, anyway?” Harry told her mother, and she was about to come out to fight with the other woman when she remembered the Sabbath had began and it was forbidden to fight. But who was then going to light their fire? After a while, someone knocked at their door. It was another neighbouring Christian woman from the other end of the street who had heard the shouts and she told Harry: “Tell your mother that if she wants I can kindle the fire for you.” Her offer was certainly a help, but that would amount to accepting Lily’s wedding. On the other hand, to remain without fire and without cooking on the Sabbath would be an even greater sin. His mother found a way out: “I have to go out just now, but she can come in to light the fire while I am out. And don’t forget to give to her the shilling we always give for the task.” The neighbour woman came in, lit the fire, and refused the shilling: “Thank you, but it’s been my pleasure to do it.”
Harry visited his sister from time to time, and soon he realised she was pregnant. One day he found that the child had been born. “You’re already an uncle”, his sister told him. On top of it Lily remarks that the baby looked like him when he was small. Harry goes back home and gives his mother the news: “Lily has had a baby and he looks like me.”
“There was a long silence. She must have been going through a great emotional upheaval. The daughter who was supposed to be dead had given birth to a child and that meant she had to be alive herself. How could it be denied? And yet her religion told her that she was dead. I broke the silence saying, ‘Lily told me to tell you that she wants you to come to see her and your grandchild.’
‘She said that?’ my mother whispered and her throat seemed constricted, as if she were having difficulty talking.
‘Yes’, I said.
Then she said something that surprised me. ‘You must go across the street and tell Arthur’s parents that she has had the baby.’
I went running. They knew it already as they had been going to see the couple. Then they told me they wanted to have a birthday party for the whole street, but only if my mother agreed. I went home and told my mother.
My mother stood for a long time saying nothing. She just looked at me. She was utterly confused. A tug of war was taking place within her, between her religion and her heart. How could she agree to celebrate the baby with a party when she had not even seen it yet, when she refused even to acknowledge that the mother of the baby, her daughter, was alive? Then suddenly her mind was made up. ‘Take me to see Lily and her baby’, she said, speaking abruptly, as if in a hurry to get the words out of her mouth before changing her mind. I was only too glad to go.
Arthur received us with surprise and joy and took us upstairs to see Lily. When he came to the door he leaned in and we heard him say, ‘Lily, I’ve got visitors for you and you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.’ He straightened up and moved aside to let us in. My mother went first. I was behind her, conscious of the shock Lily must be feeling. She was in bed, with the baby in its cradle at the side of the bed. Her eyes were riveted on my mother, as were my mother’s on her. There was a brief and breathless halt when neither seemed to know what to do or say. The Lily let out a cry: ‘Mam!’ I heard my mother begin to sob, then their arms went out to one another and they were both together, both weeping. I stood watching, stirred myself by what I was seeing. Once it was over Lily said, ‘Don’t you want to see the baby, Mam?’ She turned her head towards the cradle and smiled. The baby was awake. It looked back at her.
My mother laughed. ‘He knows me already’, she said.
‘Yes, he does.’ Lily laughed too, happily. ‘Would you like to pick him up and hold him, Mam?’
‘Would it be all right?’
‘Yes, of course.’
She had been wanting to do that all along, you could see. She bent over the cradle and took the baby in her arms and held him up close to her, and there was an expression on her face that I had seen before. It was the one we saw when she looked at her own baby, or any one of us, and it was one of deep love.
‘Are you going to have a circumcision ceremony?’ she asked.
Lily must have been dreading this question. It would be the natural thing for my mother to ask. A Jewish child was circumcised when he was eight days old and this made him a Jew. She looked desperately towards the door where Arthur was lolling up against it. He had been saying nothing until now, simply watching and taking it all in. But now, seeing the look Lily gave him, he came forward to her rescue, smiling. ‘My father asked me a similar question. Not quite the same, but very much like it. He wanted to know if we were going to have a christening, a baptism, that is when the minister sprinkles what is supposed to be holy water on the child’s forehead and by that ritual he becomes a Christian. This is followed by a party.’ ‘We could have that, at least’, Lily said. ‘We could have a party for the families.’
‘Arthur’s father told me he wanted a big party for the whole street’, I blurted out, speaking for the first time. Arthur said, ‘It doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. What do you think, Lily?’ ‘I’m not so sure about that’, Lily said hesitating. ‘I was thinking of just a private little party for ourselves. I’m not sure all those people on our street would want to come.’ Arthur answered, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. They’d come all right. And there couldn’t be a better way to bring both sides together for once. The more I think of the idea, the more I like it. What about you, Mam? What do you think?’ My mother spoke slowly and again without looking at him. ‘If there can’t be a circumcision then I suppose a party will have to do.’ And I think that settled it.
Soon people from all the houses in the street were on their hands and knees in front of their doorsteps with buckets of water and coloured sandstones to rub on the floor and decorate the pavement in front of their doorstep until, when they were done, it looked like two rainbows with all the different colours running down on either side of the street from top to bottom. And with that there ran a current of excitement through every house. It was only the start of how our street was to be decked out for the party that was to be held on Sunday. They were all coming. There had been no question as to that and then all took a hand in the preparations, some with the decoration, some cooking special dishes, some baking cakes, everybody contributing what the family could manage to the party. Arthur’s parents would supply the beer and my mother would practically empty her small shop to bring the fruit, which was all she could afford.
The weather was just perfect. The sun had begun shining from early morning and the sky was a deep blue. It was a Sunday sky, of course, the mills not working and no smoke coming from their tall stacks to darken it. And since it was early May the air was soft and balmy. It couldn’t have been a better day and yet I noticed there were some people who were slow in coming out of their houses, and when they did come there was a tendency on the part of either side to stick together, the Jews all gathering on one side of the improvised table that run the length of the street, the Christians on the other in the same old way. Then suddenly there was the clop clop of a horse and carriage as it came into the street, and all heads turned towards it and a great shout went up, because this was Lily and Arthur arriving with the baby. Everyone rushed towards it. There was just this one awkward moment as Arthur and Lily were alighting. She had the baby in her arms, and both my mother and Arthur’s mother reached up to take it from her. Lily, still standing on the step, hesitated not knowing which one to give it to. Arthur’s mother solved her dilemma by taking it from her and giving it to my mother, smiling. But she remained close while my mother proudly showed it to others.
The kids were having a great time, running wild on the street around the table, yelling and screaming, wrestling with one another, both Jewish and Christian kids playing together for the first time that I could remember. The gramophone continued to make itself heard over the din, and then came a lively tune that made someone get up and do a clog dance. There was more dancing after that by other people, and more dinking. The woman neighbour that had refused to light the Sabbath fire for us approached my mother, and there was a moment of expectation when she approached my mother, as all knew the confrontation that had taken place a few days before. But she told my mother, ‘I’d like to drink a toast to you.’ And she went on, ‘My good lady, if you want me to do your Sabbath fire just send your Harry out to call me, and I’ll come quick, I promise you. And I tell you something else. You didn’t kill Christ and if anybody says you did he’s a liar.’ This added to the satisfaction my mother felt about the whole day. It was not only that it had brought the two sides of the street together in a bond that would last for quite some time, but it had brought Lily back to her. Lily was a living creature and she had added to her own life with another, and that’s what completed the day for her.
Eventually the street grew quiet. The last of the men had gone in. The last door had banged shut. The lights in all the houses had gone out and the two rows of houses were in darkness, save for the pale greenish light thrown by the gas lamp on the upper corner. It was very still in our house and soon I fell asleep.”
(Harry Bernstein, The Invisible Wall, Arrow Books, London 2007, p. 288 ff.)
Someone has told me his wife has been unfaithful, and as a consequence he is thinking of separating. Before taking that last step, he wanted my advice. The very tone of his letter to me was harsh, authoritarian, self-justifying, and definitively condemning his wife, and that reminded me of something that is usually true and could well have been so in this case particularly. When two persons fall apart, both are implied in the separation. The more obvious offence may have been caused by one of them, but the less obvious but not less real offence of lack of care, love, attention, tenderness, interest, effort to please and to make the other person happy, may have been committed by the other person. That’s why before condemning the obvious fault of one of them, the less obvious behaviour of the other has to be examined too. There are also husbands who do not value their wives and do not pay to them the attention they deserve. And they don’t even realise it. That creates a climate that leads to the regrettable incident. This does not justify the wife’s lapse, but it does extend the responsibility to the husband. Something like that could have happened in this case, since the husband’s very letter to me looked more like a justification of the step he was determined to take than a sincere asking for advice. And in any case my hint to him to question his own behaviour could be a good approach to a possible reconciliation. Where have I gone wrong for you to think of going with another man? I wrote along those lines to the husband in my answer with all possible tact.
He got angry, of course. He took it as a personal offence. He answered me an arrogant and insulting letter. Who did I think he was? He had always behaved in an exemplary way with his wife in everything, and she had failed him by spending a night with another man without any provocation from her husband. He was furious with me and never wrote again.
I suspect my suspicion was founded. I would like to hear what his wife had to say. It takes two to damage a relationship between two.
Psalm 69 – Make no delay!
I know the virtue of waiting, Lord, but I also know times in my life when waiting is not possible and the urgency of desire overrides every patience and clamours for your presence and your help. My endurance is limited, Lord, very limited. I respect your time-table and worship your divine will; but I burn with impatience, Lord, and it is useless for me to try to hide the imperativeness of my need under the cloak of my conformity. I know that you are here, that you can do things, that you will act…, and I cannot bear the delay of your action when I believe in the readiness of your love.
“Show me favour, O God, and save me;
hasten to help me, O Lord!”I have noticed how the days shorten when winter comes. As the winter of life approaches, my days also feel shorter and shorter, and I fear life will ebb away before I do what I want to do and I reach where I want to reach, that is, before I reach you and achieve realisation in your presence. The fear that freezes my bones is the fear to think that soon may be too late, that when I wake up I may have missed the chance, that my life may be wasted and my ideals may be left unconquered. Yes, I trust that in your mercy you will not reject me, but the fullness of my life, the dreams of my faith, the longing of my hear may still be left unfulfilled in this brief existence of mine. That is why I pray:
“Make haste, Lord: do not delay!”Have I not waited enough? Have you not counted my long years of training, my hours with you, my studies, my vigils, my unremitting efforts and my undefeated hopes? Is all that not enough? What more do I have to do to obtain your grace and change my life? Always the same miseries, the same shortcomings, the same temper, the same lust! I’ve put up with myself long enough. I want to change, to be a new person, to please you and to make life pleasant for those who live with me. I don’t expect miracles, but I claim some improvement.
I want to feel your influence, your power, your grace and your love. I want to be a witness in my life to the saving presence I acknowledge in you by faith. I want to do well, I want to be kind, I want to be faithful to you. With all my limitations, which I accept, I want to be loyal and true. For that I want your help, your blessing, your grace.
“I am poor and needy;
O God, hasten to my aid.
You are my help, my salvation;
O Lord, make no delay!”
The twittering of swallows
“When entering the Hall of Righteousness
and hearing the swallows twittering,
Master Gensha (ninth century) said:
‘They are indeed deeply discoursing on the Reality of Things,
they are indeed talking well of the Essence of Righteousness’.”They say that some of his monks did not understand his sermon. Francis of Assisi would have understood. He preached to the birds, and so he knew that birds also can preach. They are good preachers. They speak joy in the melody of their trills. They lighten the air with the call of their awakening. They enliven nature with the speed of their wings. They do what they are created to do, and by doing that they remind us that if we all did what we are created to do, if we thought and spoke and acted as we are meant to do by our human nature and our divine destiny, the world would be a happy place like the sky with the birds and their songs.
This is the Essence of Righteousness, that we know our place in creation, and act accordingly. At each moment and in every place. That we know the range of our throats and exercise the sounds of our music. That is the Reality of Things of which Master Gensha speaks. And the swallows know it so well that they proclaim it in every note with the faithfulness of their singing. They fit into nature. They take their place. They act their role. And in so doing they teach us the lesson and set the example for our obedience to our mission as humans, as they proclaim it in their role as birds. Masters of life in the melody of their daily concerts.
I imagine Master Gensha must have carefully prepared his sermon for the day. He must have chosen his readings from the Scriptures, his quotations from the sages, must have kept in readiness his own reflections and considerations and exhortations. He must have been thinking of all that, revising his summary and readying his punch lines for the effective presentation. But as he entered the hall, he had the wisdom to listen to the swallows. Freedom of mind of the illumined person who, while listening to his own thoughts, can also listen to the birds and change in an instant his personal lucubrations for the message of nature. The freshness of the day, the awakening of the senses, the oneness of creation.
The secret of life is the hard work of preparing one’s sermons, and the readiness to exchange them on the spot for the twittering of the swallows. To strive hard, and to be relaxed. To think one’s thoughts, and to look around. To concentrate the mind, and to listen to the birds. Whatever my day and whatever my job, I will labour and toil and plan and study and research and rehearse; and then I will let myself free to respond to the challenge of the moment with the fullness of my awareness. The difficult spontaneity which is only the fruit of hard labour.
Our tragedy is that we go through life without listening to the birds. We slog and struggle and follow patterns and obey orders. We are efficient and reliable and steady. We respond to the expectations of society and to the claims of our conscience. But we miss the morning song of the twittering swallows. No wonder our sermons are dull, and our life routine. Next time we go into the Hall of Righteousness, we shall do well to look up for the birds and listen to their song. That may improve our sermon. And may improve our life.
Open me very gently!
I am opening my daily mail with that mixture of curiosity and boredom that accompanies the necessary and expectant routine at the beginning of the working day. The pack of letters brought by the postman in his daily round. They are stacked now on my table in front of me waiting to be read and asking to be answered. A friend’s letter, an unknown person’s letter, an invitation, a thanksgiving, a publicity folder, a greeting card. And in the midst of them all today an envelope that looks different in its shaded colour and relief texture elegantly rough to the touch, and announces freshness. There is only my address on the front of it. Correctly addressed to St Xavier’s College Residence, Ahmedabad 380 009, and with the title ‘father’ in front of my name. No sender’s address on the corner as prescribed. I turn it round as at times the sender’s address comes at the back. There it is. But it is not quite an address. It is just a request in a sentence. And a little mystifying at that. It just reads: ‘Open me very gently, please!’
I can’t help a smile. Who can the sender be? What can his mood be? Or rather her mood, as only a woman’s hand could write that. What is her intention, her meaning, her challenge, her prank? I’ll have to find out soon. I open the envelope with eager fingers, very very gently of course, or not so gently in fact if you ask me as a certain impatience speeds up my fingers, I fumble inside, take out the letter, and unfold it. Handwritten, careful penmanship, two pages, a name at the end. Unknown to me. I begin to read. And the surprises continue. This is how she begins:
‘My very very dear and somewhat brutish father.’
Quite a way of addressing me to be sure. I’ve been called dear, respected, venerated, even worshipful, but never brutish. Not at the beginning of a letter anyway. I may be that, of course. A bit rough and impatient at times. Even brutish perhaps. At least if tempered down by the ‘somewhat’. But I didn’t expect that as a greeting from an unknown correspondent to start a letter to me. I must read on.
‘I received your answer to my first letter to you. By return of post. Very much like you. Your daily mail. Your first task at your office. Letter received, letter answered. Like a machine. Letter, answer, paper basket. Another letter, another answer, paper basket again. Clean desk they call it. Very efficient. And very stupid. Don’t you realise that an instant answer like that has no value? How much I waited and doubted before writing to you! Should I dare, should I not, should I write, should I not, should I post the letter, should I not…? How many letters I tore, I rewrote, I tore again, I wrote again! Finally I plucked up courage, I wrote the final draft of my letter, copied it out on special art paper I bought for the occasion, addressed the ornamented envelope, stuck the stamp on it (I’m sure you didn’t notice it was a newly issued saint Tukaram memorial stamp I chose for you), posted it at the end of so many days and so many trials and so many doubts, and finally I sat down to wait out the long wait.
And the next day I get your answer! Yes, very polite, very proper, very formal. And very stupid. Don’t you see that an immediate answer like that at lightning speed has no value at all? You should have kept me waiting, doubting, suffering, despairing. Will he have received the letter, will he have read it, will he have liked it, will he write back, will I receive his answer, what will he say to me…? You should have kept me pining for days on end, wondering, agonising. Till at last a week later or two weeks later the postman would come, stop in front of my house, call out my name, and I would jump out of my chair, come out running, snatch your letter, go back to my room, make sure nobody was watching me, and I would have read it again and again and treasured it for ever. But no. Your reaction was automatic. Like a robot. Letter received, letter answered. I write today and receive your answer tomorrow. As all the people in your stack of letters for the day must have received. The efficient executive. You may be very intelligent in other things or people say so, but in this you are stupid. You don’t know how to deal with people. Not with women anyhow.
You have never seen me, of course. Or rather, you have seen me but you didn’t know it was me. The other day, in the talk you gave in the town-hall I was sitting in the front row right in the middle on your left side looking at you all the time and smiling at you. So I have seen you. But you have not seen me. You tell me in your answer that if I want I can come to your College and meet you at any time in your office. But maybe I don’t want to come. Not now, anyhow. I am very shy and I’m a little afraid of you. You are a big person. Not that I have any objection to your seeing me. I’m quite pretty, you know. But I’m sending to you no photograph of mine either. I prefer for you to imagine my face. I hope you are a good painter.’
Amazing girl. And she says she is shy. Just as well, I find myself thinking. That’s a woman’s charm for you.
‘You could come to my house if you want. My address is at the end of this letter and my house is close to your College. If you come and knock at the door I’ll open the door. When you ask about Sonali I’ll answer that, yes, she lives here but she is not at home. And you’ll have to go back sheepishly. Of course I have read your books and I follow your column in the Sunday paper every week and I’ll continue to do so. And then we’ll see what happens. For now I want it that way. I’m studying now though not in your College. I am not your student. I’m just a reader among the many you have. Only that I feel that all you are writing you write it only for me. But I imagine many others feel the same as I do. Never mind. I will write from time to time to tell you what I do and how I feel. And you can do the same with me if you feel like it.
That’s all for today.’
That was the letter. Now I understood why she had warned me to open it very very gently. There were many delicate feelings in it. And now it was my turn to read it several times in wonder. It started a long correspondence. We went on exchanging letters with free irregularity and happy mood through years. Of course, never by return of post. I realised how she was right, and how in fact a delayed answer has a greater value than an immediate one as it keeps me thinking of the person between letters, leaves the choice of timing to me, my letter ceases to be an ‘answer’ and becomes an independent writing at my own initiative and in my own time, and as such it gives life and freshness to a correspondence. Not one letter ‘answering’ the other person’s letter, but both correspondents independently choosing to write at their own time and in their own mood. That is friendship by letter. This much that plucky girl had certainly taught me.
She graduated, and soon after graduation she wrote she was getting married. No details. I congratulated her and sent her my best blessings for her marriage. After that she never wrote again. At her marriage she must have gone to live at her husband’s place, and she had not given me her new address. I think I can guess why. In her husband’s home she would be traditionally under her mother-in-law who, also traditionally, would exercise absolute control over her daughter-in-law, and consequently would carefully watch her correspondence and would feel jealous at the letters she wrote to me and I wrote to her, as I was a well-known person and mothers-in-law are always jealous of their daughters-in-law. She rightly opted for peace in the home. I did think of her off and on, always with kind feelings and wistful memories, and I always felt sure she also thought of me off and on with kind feelings and wistful memories, and maybe she wrote letters in her mind to be opened very very gently by me. As for me, writer that I am, I am writing now the story of this beautifully feminine chapter in my life just as it was. I never saw her.
On this my recent public visit to India and Ahmedabad after so many years, I did entertain the fantasy that, as my programme in the city had been announced beforehand in the papers, she would know about it and would come to my public reception, stand in front of me, join her hands and bow her head, then look at me straight in the face and tell me in her teasing playful way: ‘I am Sonali.’ And we would both laugh our souls out in recognition. But she did not turn up.
Though, who knows? Maybe that woman who was sitting in the front row right in the middle of the hall on my left side during my talk at my public reception in the Gujarat Vidyapeeth of Ahmedabad the other day looking at me all the time and smiling wistfully to herself and at me was Sonali. I shall never know.
One thing I know. I should have written at the beginning of this article, ‘Read me very gently, please!’ There are many delicate feelings behind it.
Good day, father Carlos, I am Francisco Herrera from the beautiful city of Cancun in Mexico, I’ve written to you in a couple of occasions, and when I find the time I open your Web page to keep in contact. I’m sending you here this beautiful story I read in a book someone forgot in my office:
HOUSE FOR SALE. Mr and Mrs Martinez suffered from that common sickness that does not allow anybody to feel at home anywhere. There house was beautiful had a large garden, but it seemed to them as ugly as a jail. So they went to a real estate agent to find them a buyer while they began to look for a new house. One day they found an advertisement: ‘For sale. Beautiful house on the riverside, with a panoramic view of the city, ideal for rest, good price. Don’t miss it!’
– This is what we need! Let’s go at once and buy it!
They went at once to the agency, went to see the house… and they found it was their own house.
– But this is our house! And how lovely it is! To think we were going to sell it!
Chesterton wrote the store of the man who got fed up of his own country, crossed the seas in search of another, saw many lands and many cities, arrived finely at a lovely country with beautiful cities… only to find out it was his own country which he had left. It would seem this happens to many of us.
Psalm 71 -Prayer for Justice
Israel’s prayer for its king was a prayer for justice, for right judgement and for the defence of the oppressed. My prayer for my country’s government and for the governments of all countries is also a prayer for justice, equity and liberation.
‘O God, endow the king with your own justice,
and give your righteousness to a king’s son,
that he may judge your people rightly
and deal out justice to the poor and the suffering.
May hills and mountains afford your people peace
and prosperity in righteousness.
He shall give judgement for the suffering,
and help those of the people that are needy.
He shall crush the oppressor.’I pray for just structures, for social awareness, for human concern between man and man, and therefore between group and group, between class and class, between nation and nation. I pray that the stark reality of poverty today may come to view before the conscience of every man and every organisation to shake every human heart and every ruling power into moral responsibility and efficient action to bring bread to every mouth, shelter to every family and dignity to every person on earth.
When I pray for others, I wake myself and translate into my own situation what I wish for others in prayer. I am no king, and the destinies of nations do not hang on the words of my lips nor can be changed by the stroke of my pen. But I am a man, a member of society, a cell in the body, and the currents of my feelings run through the nerves that sensitise the whole body into understanding and action. I pray that I may be so much alive with the need of reform that my thoughts and my words and the very look of my eyes and the spark of my step may kindly in others the same zeal and the same urgency to uproot inequality and establish justice. It is the task of all, and so for me it is my task, to be communicated in full conviction and enthusiasm to all those who in one way or another come into contact with me.
Israel will continue to pray for its king:
‘For he shall rescue the needy from their rich oppressors,
the distressed who have no protector.
May he have pity on the needy and the poor,
deliver the poor from death;
may he redeem them from oppression and violence,
and may their blood be precious in his eyes’.Then the Lord will bless the king and his people:
‘He shall live as long as the sun endures,
long as the moon age after age.
He shall be like rain falling on early crops,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days righteousness shall flourish,
prosperity until the moon is no more.’
The crow and the partridge
‘They say a crow saw a partridge walk
and was much pleased with her gait.
He conceived hopes he too could learn it;
but he could not.
When he finally gave up,
as he couldn’t learn,
he wanted to go back to his own way of walking,
but he could not do that either,
as he had forgotten it.’
(From the Kalila va Dimnah)Imitations never did work. One ceases to be what one was, and cannot become what one aspired to be. The originality is lost, and the borrowed manners do not fit. Neither crow nor partridge. It does not know how to walk any more. With him remains the shame of having rejected his own manner, and the frustration not to have learned the foreign one. Now he cannot follow the foreign way, because he has not grasped it, nor his own because he has disowned it. He will never walk at ease for the ret of his life. It was a bad moment for the crow when he paid attention to the partridge.
The soul and its gait. Steps on the rods of the spirit. The temptation to imitate others. Enticement to submission Invitations to copy. Promises to walk like a partridge. The crow is enticed, begins his lessons, tries the steps, feigns the movements, but in the end gets discouraged because he sees by experience that those rhythms are not meant for him. He cannot return to his old ways, because he has publicly repudiated them, and he cannot adopt the new ones because he has not mastered them and never will. And so he is left with that uneasy, ungainly, clumsy carriage of one who wanted to be something and has failed in the effort, and drags along now in his life the half-hearted patterns that give satisfaction to no one. Imitation is death.
The parable, in its didactic brevity, teaches the fundamental principle of all popular wisdom, namely that each thing has to be what it is; each being has to act, according to its nature, and in doing that there is satisfaction and progress and success. Trying to change one’s individuality is destroying it. There is now no question of carriage and movement, but of thoughts and feelings. If I am a crow, I will walk as a crow and caw like a crow and look like a crow, and I will not mind the clumsy step and the black colour and the harsh voice. Neither boast nor shame. I am a crow by birth and am proud or it.
Out in the fields the cows now keep walking as crows, and the partridges as partridges. They have learnt the lesson of the unhappy crow. But in cities and villages men and women keep trying to imitate one another in walk, in dress, in fashion, in ideas, in customs, in postures of the body, and in attitudes of the mind. And that is how we far. Chiefly the young. Walk as you are told. By your group. Do not lose your step.
The last phrase in the brief parable is sudden tragedy. When the crow wanted to revert to his natural walk, he had forgotten how to walk. Let us never get away so far from ourselves that we come to forget what we in full truth are. Let us wake up before it is too late.
An atypical member of the SS
[This is the main episode in the book ‘A Seminarian in the SS’ by father Gereon Goldman. He was at that time a 25 year old Franciscan seminarian and had done his philosophy studies, but he had still to do the four years of theology he needed to become a priest. He was conscripted by the German army at the beginning of the war, and was taken into the SS together with other seminarians, as they were educated and intelligent people, and the SS chose the best for its ranks. Himmler himself gave them facilities and coaxed them into acceptance. When he was destined to the Russian front for the Leningrad battle he went to take leave from his family. (Few Germans survived that battle.) Here the story begins:]
‘I was passing through Lindenstrasse when, suddenly, I found myself in front of the convent of the Sisters where, nineteen years before, I had served at Mass for the first time. While I was praying on my knees before the altar, a small, old Sister approached me. She was Sister Solana May, the sacristan who had taught me how to serve Mass, and who had recognised me at once.
She asked me point-blank: ‘Do you pray with devotion?’
This was at first sight an unlikely question for a soldier, yet I answered her: ‘You know how I used to pray in this chapel, Sister.’
‘And are you praying to be ordained a priest the next year?’ she insisted.
‘Who? Myself? Next year? That is impossible!’
She gently asked me: Why is it impossible, my son?’
‘Because I haven’t studied theology! I have to complete at least four years in the seminary after the war before being ordained… if I am alive!’
She gave me a sweet smile and told me trustfully: ‘Don’t worry. Next year you will be ordained a priest.’
I knew that was sheer nonsense, and I asked her how she was so sure about it. To my astonishment she brought out a notebook from a drawer and gave it to me to examine it. There it was written that on the day of my mother’s death she had begun praying for me to become a priest as soon as I reached the required age. She had offered prayers and sacrifices together with her whole community for nineteen years now for me to become a priest in the Franciscan Order. She had even asked the Sisters in other convents – numbering 280 – to pray with them, and they had done so. She also prayed to many deceased Sisters, now in Heaven, to pray for that small Mass server to become a priest. Then she told me: ‘Since Holy Scripture assures us that all our prayers will be heard, there is no doubt that you’ll be a priest next year.’
I answered her: ‘There is still a law in the Church to the effect that nobody can be ordained a priest if he has not studied theology, and even the most fervent prayers, dear Sister, cannot change that.’
She asked me: ‘Who has made that law?’
‘Well, the pope.’
Then she laughed happily: ‘It’s quite simple, then. Since the pope has made the law, the pope can dispense from it.’
‘I have not studied theology, and I am not in Rome.’
‘Then you’ll have to go to Rome. I’ll be praying from today that you may go to Rome and see the pope. Then you’ll be able to ask him for your ordination.’
I was left without words before that mad trust, and then taking out of my pocket the order to start the next day for the Russian front I told her: ‘Tomorrow morning I’m going to Russia. The pope does not live there, Sister.’
She added: ‘You need the help of the Mother of God, the mother of all priests. So you’ll first peregrinate to Lourdes and you will ask for her help. Everything will go smoothly.’
The next day at eight o’clock in the morning I arrived at the railway station with the two hundred soldiers under me. We boarded the train which was to start at 9:10. Five minutes before, I came down from the train to check everything. Suddenly a car approached with an officer, an armed soldier, and a sergeant in uniform. The officer asked me my name and told me coldly: ‘You are under arrest.’ And to the sergeant: ‘Take charge of him’. I handed him over my papers as commander and went to sit in the car with the armed soldier behind me. They took me to jail. I began to think that my association with a group that was plotting to kill the Führer had been discovered. I was three days in jail. On the third day a message came from Berlin. The commander opened it before me. To my surprise I was to be shifted immediately to the south of France. ‘Where?’ I asked. ‘To Pau’, he answered. ¿Do you know where is Lourdes? Pau is just by its side.’ So I didn’t go to Russia, and I went to Lourdes. Sister Solana’s faith was justified.
From Pau, where I visited Lourdes, I was sent to Italy and reached Rome. I went to the German embassy with a secret message for one of the officials involved in the plot to kill Hitler, Herr von Kessel. I was the messenger between them, I pronounced my password before him and repeated from memory three times word by word the message that had been given to me for him as nothing could be put in writing. Herr von Kessel told me: ‘You have rendered a signal service to our cause. Can I do anything for you?’ I told him I wanted to see the pope. He told me that was impossible, but I insisted, he took the phone and after several calls he gave me the time I should present myself at the Vatican. I was received by a monsignor who asked me what I was going to tell the pope. I answered I was going to ask him for permission to be ordained a priest.
– Have you successfully completed your seminary studies?
– No. I’ll finish them after the war.
– Then it is absolutely impossible.
– It’s the pope that has to say that, not you.
– I forbid you to mention the issue to the pope.
– I’m a soldier, and if necessary I’ll force my way in and will cause quite a scandal.
-Well, you may go, but do not mention your ordination.
The pope was Pius XII and I spoke with him about the work of the military chaplains in the war. Then I told him:
– I humbly ask you to admit me to the holy priesthood to be able to confess soldiers and prisoners.
– Do you have the certificate of your studies?
– Yes, of my philosophy studies.
– What about theology?
– Not yet.
– What do you mean? Have you not studied theology?
– I’ll study it after the war.
– But you cannot be a priest without those studies!
– I’ve served Mass since I was eight, and I did it very well. I know all the ceremonies of the Mass.
– But here we don’t ordain Mass servers!
– Besides, Holy Father, I’ve taken Holy Communion to wounded and dying soldiers in the battlefront.
– How can you do that if you are not a priest?
– A bishop gave me permission. I’ve done it many times. And I carry consecrated hosts with me all the time for that purpose.
I showed him the bishop’s letter and I reverently took out the small box in which I always carried with me the consecrated hosts for their protection and distribution as I never parted with them, and I knelt in silence. The pope understood and he too knelt down. Then he told me to wait outside and the document signed by him would be given me. And so it happened.
I went back to the front. I was taken prisoner by the British. They took me from one prison to the other till Argel. There I was able to contact the bishop, I showed him the pope’s letter with the seal of the Vatican on it, he examined it, made some inquiries about me, and was satisfied. That was how a French bishop ordained priest a German soldier belonging to the SS. The French general of the garrison attended my first Mass, knelt down to kiss the anointed hands of a German prisoner, and asked me my blessing. Sister Solana’s prayers had been heard.’
A friend of mine has travelled to Bokara in Uzbekistan and has brought me a book of stories of Mulla Nasserudin who was born there, as he knows I like the wisdom stories of the Mulla. Here are some of them:
– What is more useful to us, the sun or the moon?
– The moon.
– Because she gives us light at night which is when we most need it.
Nasserudin was working as a dyer. A costumer brought him a cloth and told him to test him:
– Dye it a colour no one has ever seen before
– What do you mean?
– The colour must be neither black nor white, neither yellow nor green, neither red nor roseate, neither grey nor brown, neither blue nor violet.
– Agreed. I’ll do it.
– When shall I come for it?
– Any day except Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
The men in the village were boasting who was stronger. Nasserudin said:
– I am old, but I am as strong as when I was young.
– How do you know it?
– In our courtyard there is a large stone. I couldn’t move it when I was young, and now that I’m old I cannot move it either. That’s why I say I am as strong as before.
A neighbour saw Nasserudin busily looking for something on the field and asked him:
– Mulla, are you looking for something ?
– Yes, I’m looking for something.
– What are you looking for?
– See, last year I came by some money and I dug a hole in the field and hid it there, but I don’t remember the exact place and I cannot find it.
– But you surely must have fixed some sign to remind you of the place.
– Yes, I did. There was a cloud whose shadow was just on the spot, and I’m waiting for that cloud.
Nasserudin had to go to a distant city on business and took leave of his wife and children for three months. After three months he realised he would have to remain for one month more to bring all business to a happy end. He wrote a letter to inform his wife, but he could not find anybody with whom to send it to his village. Finally, he himself started for his village, reached it, and knocked at the door of his own house. His wife came out, was glad at seeing him and welcomed him. But he told her:
– No, it’s not that way. Look here, I have not come. The one who has come is the person to whom your husband gave this letter for you. I will come after a month, and then we’ll be able to talk.
So saying he gave his wife the letter, turned round, and left.
Nasserudin and his wife were one day talking at night at the light of a candle. A gust of wind put off the candle and they remained in the dark. His wife told him:
– There, at your left hand, you’ll find the matchbox. Take a match and light the candle.
– But how do you want me to see in the dark which is my left hand?
There is also the story, repeated in all literatures, how Nasserudin is on his way with his son and his donkey. First he rides the donkey and his son walks by the side so that people criticise him for being selfish; then his son rides on the donkey and he walks by the side, and people criticise the young man for riding while the old man walks; finally both ride the donkey together, and people complain they are overloading the donkey.
That far I knew the story. But I didn’t know its new ending. Fed up with so much criticism the Mulla took the donkey on to his back and started walking in that guise saying: ‘At least now they will leave me in peace!’ But, of course, he was not left in peace. People laughed at him as it was the donkey that should carry him and not the other way. Whatever you do…
Psalm 72 – The pangs of envy
“When my heart was embittered
I felt the pangs of envy.”I feel ashamed of myself, but I cannot help it. Why should I burn when my brother triumphs? Why should I feel sad when he succeeds? Why cannot I rejoice when he is praised? Why have I to force myself to smile when I congratulate him? I want to be kind to him, I recognise that his work is different from mine and his success does me no harm.
On the contrary, he, in his own way, is also fostering the cause of your kingdom which is my own aim too, so that I should rejoice when he achieves something for your glory. But instead of seeing your glory in it, I see his glory and I chafe at it. There is not a more dismal sadness in the heart of man than the sadness of grieving at the good of his brother.
And yet that sadness is in me. The seed of bitterness. The shame of jealousy. The pangs of envy. The most irrational suffering in the world, and yet the most real, actual and daily. Hardly a day goes by, hardly an hour without the misery of senseless pride gnawing at my unhappy heart.
Then I seek justification for my insanity and I cover with philosophical questioning the indefensibility of my complaints. Why do the good suffer? Why do the wicked prosper? Why does he, who hardly takes your name, get ahead of me who take it daily? Why do you suffer an irreligious man to do well while deeply religious people are left in misery? Why is the world upside down? Why is there no justice on earth? Why is it you don’t care?
Why is it I am left to suffer oblivion and failure while people, whom I don’t want to judge but who obviously neglect your rules and even your commandments, bask in the limelight and collect admiration? Why can I, who am your true servant, be left behind in life, while others who are your servants only in name (if at all!), enjoy popularity and thrive all round in society?
“My feet had almost slipped,
my foothold had all but given way,
because the boasts of sinners roused my envy
when I saw how they prosper.
Their talk is all sneers and malice;
scornfully they spread their calumnies.
Their slanders reach up to heaven,
while their tongues ply to and fro on earth.
They say, ‘What does God know?
The Most High neither knows nor cares.’
So wicked men talk, yet still they prosper,
and rogues amass great wealth.
So it was all in vain that I kept my heart pure
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I suffer torment
and am punished every morning.”
That is my temptation, Lord, and I lay it open now before you in the sincerity of my heart. I accept your judgement, I profess my ignorance, I worship the mystery. I know that you are just and you are merciful, and it is not for me to call you to account or to expect your views to conform to mine. You have time on your side, you love all men, and you know what is best for each at each moment, and what is best for me who watch all that and feel deeply and want to strengthen my faith through the contemplation of your action among men. You are free to bestow your graces on men, and the good of all is always enshrined in what you do for each one.
Soften in me that urge to compare myself to others, to feel threatened by their successes and belittled by their achievements. Teach me to rejoice with the joy of my brothers and sisters, to smile with their smile, to take as given to me the graces you give to them. Remind me to respect always your judgements, to wait for your time, to give you the benefit of eternity.
And above all, Lord, give me the special grace never to classify people into good and bad, to label them, to throw them with intemperate pride into categories which only my own mind has built. You alone know the hearts of men, you are Judge and you are Father. Let me love all men as brothers and free myself from the self-imposed burden of judging men’s consciences without knowing them. Let me stay by your side, happy and contented to be where you want me to be.
“Having you I desire nothing else on earth.
I am always with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me by your counsel,
and afterwards will receive me with glory.”
The crow and the partridge
‘They say a crow saw a partridge walk
and was much pleased with her gait.
He conceived hopes he too could learn it;
but he could not.
When he finally gave up,
as he couldn’t learn,
he wanted to go back to his own way of walking,
but he could not do that either,
as he had forgotten it.’
(From the Kalila va Dimnah)Imitations never did work. One ceases to be what one was, and cannot become what one aspired to be. The originality is lost, and the borrowed manners do not fit. Neither crow nor partridge. It does not know how to walk any more. With him remains the shame of having rejected his own manner, and the frustration not to have learned the foreign one. Now he cannot follow the foreign way, because he has not grasped it, nor his own because he has disowned it. He will never walk at ease for the ret of his life. It was a bad moment for the crow when he paid attention to the partridge.
The soul and its gait. Steps on the rods of the spirit. The temptation to imitate others. Enticement to submission Invitations to copy. Promises to walk like a partridge. The crow is enticed, begins his lessons, tries the steps, feigns the movements, but in the end gets discouraged because he sees by experience that those rhythms are not meant for him. He cannot return to his old ways, because he has publicly repudiated them, and he cannot adopt the new ones because he has not mastered them and never will. And so he is left with that uneasy, ungainly, clumsy carriage of one who wanted to be something and has failed in the effort, and drags along now in his life the half-hearted patterns that give satisfaction to no one. Imitation is death.
The parable, in its didactic brevity, teaches the fundamental principle of all popular wisdom, namely that each thing has to be what it is; each being has to act, according to its nature, and in doing that there is satisfaction and progress and success. Trying to change one’s individuality is destroying it. There is now no question of carriage and movement, but of thoughts and feelings. If I am a crow, I will walk as a crow and caw like a crow and look like a crow, and I will not mind the clumsy step and the black colour and the harsh voice. Neither boast nor shame. I am a crow by birth and am proud or it.
Out in the fields the cows now keep walking as crows, and the partridges as partridges. They have learnt the lesson of the unhappy crow. But in cities and villages men and women keep trying to imitate one another in walk, in dress, in fashion, in ideas, in customs, in postures of the body, and in attitudes of the mind. And that is how we far. Chiefly the young. Walk as you are told. By your group. Do not lose your step.
The last phrase in the brief parable is sudden tragedy. When the crow wanted to revert to his natural walk, he had forgotten how to walk. Let us never get away so far from ourselves that we come to forget what we in full truth are. Let us wake up before it is too late.