Bringing home baby
[An experience by Tama Janowitz in “Family Wanted, True Stories of Adoption”, Granta Books, London 2006, p. 157]
We are in Beijing, en route to adopt our baby. Our group consists of eight couples and two single women, along with our leader, a woman named Xiong Yan, who will serve as tour guide for two days in Beijing before we fly down to Hefei to collect the babies and where Xiong Yan will do our final adoption paperwork.
The endless adoption process has been like a scavenger hunt: the FBI, for example, needed fingerprints to prove we weren’t on their most-wanted list. Birth certificates with original signatures had to be acquired, then sent to city departments, taken to state departments, federal departments, then to the Chinese consulate. Medical exams were required, along with tax returns and letters of recommendation. Our heads even had to be probed and analysed by therapists. During that time, it seemed we would never get our baby. My husband, Tim, and I were keen on adoption. I knew Tim would make a wonderful father, and I was longing to become a mother. I really did want a baby, as long as it was quiet and gurgled to itself in a crib. Anybody I ever new who had a baby always said, almost continuously, ‘You should have a baby. It’s the most fantastic thing that can happen to you.’ I could never figure out why they kept saying this when the look in their eyes was that of a survivor of an airplane crash, but I figured it was something I would understand later.
I am beginning to get to know our group a little bit. Everyone is in their mid-thirties to mid-forties – a physiologist, a paediatrician, a photographer, an editor, an insurance agent, an education researcher, a marine engineer. Under normal circumstances, the people in our group wouldn’t have much in common, but the fact that we are all joined together in this adventure makes me feel like a timid opera buff on a conducted tour of La Scala. At the hotel in Hefei we all disappear to our rooms, still laughing, smiling. The next time we see one another, we will all be with our smiling, adorable, happy little babies.
Two o’clock, two fifteen, two thirty. Tim and I pace back and forth, as if a husband were waiting for his wife in labour next door in the delivery room. Finally, around 3:30, the call comes: she is on her way. After months of arguing, we have decided to name her Willow. The photograph we received later indicated that she was extremely short and fat. A name like Willow will help to change. The doorbell rings: Xiong Yan and a baby-nurse from the orphanage arrive with Willow.
Willow is very cute, dripping with sweat, with giant ears. ‘She’s just been fed’, Xiong Yan says. ‘When you give her food, make sure it’s boiling hot – that’s what they’re accustomed to. She should be fed at six a.m., nine, twelve, three, six, and then she goes to sleep and gets fed again at eleven at night. Keep her warm – never let her stomach be uncovered.’ Then, handing us a box of rice cereal and a bag of formula that we are to combine in specific amounts at the next feeding, Xiong Yan and Willow’s nurse leave.
Immediately, the smiling happy baby in my arms bursts into tears. The nurse was right, Willow doesn’t cry… as long as she is played with – every single second. This baby doesn’t want to cuddle; she wants to be bounced, rocked, swooped around the room, then turned upside down to stare grimly while adults flap their arms and hop around the room like monkeys. Her head has been shaved, and though they tell us it is another Chinese custom to assure thicker growth, we wonder as in her photograph she had not been shaved. Could it be she is bald?
Despite her physical weakness, she has an abnormal amount of energy. She cries non-stop, and since I have read somewhere that babies cry only for a reason, Tim and I decide to change her diaper. We put her on the floor and try to get her out of her clothes. Though she is weak, she is able to fight like a wounded fox in a leghold trap. Even with the two of us working hard, the task is next to impossible. My face is bright red; sweat is pouring off Tim dripping onto the sweating baby. We look at each other. ‘Is it too late for her to catch the bus back to the orphanage?’ I ask.
The diaper changing takes around an hour. When Willow is back in her clothes with a diaper haphazardly strangling her midriff, the sobbing diminishes somewhat, which makes us realize it is time for her bottle. Trying to get the lumps out of the gruel with the lukewarm water in a thermos provided by the hotel takes almost another hour. By then I can tell, she is really angry and bored – obviously this was not what she expected.
The hotel has provided our room with a purple metal cage, a crib with bars that are spaced just far enough apart to trap a baby’s head. Willow doesn’t like the crib. Being in the crib makes her very upset. If she was anger before, now she is furious. The toys we brought from the United States are louse; any fool would have known. But finally, after several hours of strenuous entertainment – songs, clapping, arm wrestling – and another feeding we are able to get her to sleep. By now it’s quite late, though how much time has passed it’s hard to say. I was ready for bed hours ago.
At three a.m. she decides to take a second look at the toys. She discovers that if she pounds a button, the tinny electronic version of ‘It’s a Small World’, a song I have always loathed, will play over and over.
Dawn. First there is the feeding, the bathing, the changing, the attempt at cheering her up while the other adult member of our family unit tries to shower and put on some clothes and vice versa. At no time must she be ignored. The kid has no inner resources – can’t read, write letters, put on nail polish – and seems to have nowhere to go. It is now eight – it has taken us only three hours to get ready for breakfast.
In the lobby, large groups are patrolling the halls, and I see that every single one of them is lugging a sobbing Chinese baby. A woman approaches Willow in her stroller. Willow looks up at her and coos appreciatively, as if she is about to be rescued from what is obviously a mistaken placement. ‘Oh, what a cute baby!’ the woman says. ‘I was supposed to get mine yesterday, but she’s not going to be delivered until today. It’s like torture, waiting for her!’ – ‘You could take this one’, I offer.
The horror. The horror.
By now the other parents also appear to have aged ten years. They’re so worn down that at last they, too, are willing to admit everything is not perfect. Two babies cry constantly and even if they can be stopped will start again the moment anyone looks at them. One baby is on a hunger strike. Two babies have been given the wrong ration of rice cereal to formula and are severely constipated. At every meal we have the most fascinating conversations on topics ranging from diaper rash and diarrhoea to baby dandruff.
I will never forgive myself for believing all those girlfriends who kept telling me, ‘You should have a baby! It’s so great!’ I see now that it was their method of revenge. I must remember to encourage others to do this marvellous thing – adopting a hyperactive, sweating lunatic unable to change her own diaper.
The Chinese paperwork is complete; our next stop is a week in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) to complete the American immigration process. After that, we fly back to the United States, where, I suppose, the real nightmare begins and where Willow will soon begin demanding Barbie dolls, Nintendo, and pure-white Arabian mares, start taking drugs, contract sexually transmitted diseases, insist on attending the fanciest, most expensive private schools, and sob uncontrollably when she doesn’t get into the college of her choice.
Postscript: Four Weeks Later
Despite what my journal predicted, we have been extremely lucky. Our baby is easygoing; she’s laughing, laughing, laughing all the time. Honestly, no matter how many times anyone insists I wrote those earlier entries in my diary, I truly can never believe them. It must have just been the jet lag. Or something. Willow is so sweet! Just the other day our pediatrician told me not to worry – hopefully by college age she won’t need a bottle and will be on to the harder stuff. Having a baby is the most fantastic, wonderful thing a person can do. And Willow is so cute! So smart! I’m thinking maybe in the fall I’ll look into adopting one from India. Yes, I can see her already: perhaps a bit older than Willow, with golden skin and silver bangles at her slim wrists and ankles, and thick, wild hair. I wonder just how long it will take to convince Tim…
A few more Naseruddin stories you’ve told me on your way back from Samarkanda.
Once Naseruddin was about to fall into a large fountain, and a passer-by saved him at the last moment. Then, every time they met, the man reminded Naseruddin how he had saved him from getting drenched in the water. Finally, unable to bear with him any longer, the Mulla took his friend to the fountain, got into the water up to his neck, and shouted: ‘Now I am as wet as I would have been if I had never seen you! Will you leave me in peace now?’
A disciple asks Naseruddin why he is blowing on his hands.
– To warm them up, of course.
After a little while, Naseruddin fills up a bowl with hot soup and starts blowing on it. The disciple asks again:
– Why do you blow on the soup?
– To cool it, of course.
– And how it is that you blow to warm up in one case and to cool down in another?
– Because my hands are not my soup.
Once Naseruddin asked a rich man for money.
– What do you want it for?
– To buy an elephant.
– If you have no money, how will you maintain the elephant?
– I have asked you for money, not for advice.
Naseruddin had two wives, one much older than the other.
‘Which of us you love more?’, asked the older wife.
‘I love you both equally’, answered Naseruddin wisely.
‘If both of us were caught in a shipwreck in the sea, which of us would you save first?’
‘You know how to swim, don’t you?’ answered Naseruddin.
Naseruddin had lost his donkey. While he was looking for it, he kept repeating, ‘Thank God, thank God.’
– Why do you thank God?’ people asked him.
– Because if I had been riding my donkey, I would have been lost myself.’
On another day, Naseruddin lost his donkey again, but was doing nothing to find it. People told him:
– You need your donkey, because you are always represented with your donkey, and without it nobody will recognise you.
– That means that my donkey is famous because of me.
– Exactly so.
– Then go and tell my donkey that if it does not come back, it’ll get none of the fame it gets with me, and it’ll come back at once.
Once a man asked the Mulla to write a letter for him. ‘Where is the letter to be sent?’ asked the Mulla. ‘To Bagdad’ answered the man. ‘But I cannot go to Bagdad’ objected the Mulla. ‘You don’t need to go to Bagdad, only the letter will go’ explained the man. But Naseruddin explained in his turn, ‘My handwriting is very bad, so I will have to go to Bagdad to read it our to them.’
Naseruddin went daily to beg for alms at the door of the mosque, and people enjoyed making a fool of him with the following trick: they showed him two coins, on valued ten times more than the other. Naseruddin always took the one of lesser value. The story spread throughout the whole region. Day after day men and women would come and show him the two coins, and Naseruddin always kept the cheaper one. Finally a compassionate man, uneasy at seeing the Mulla put to shame in such a way, took him to a corner and told him: ‘Whenever they offer you the two coins, take the more valuable one. In that way you will have more money and people will not take you for a fool.’ But he answered: ‘You seem to be right, but it I take the bigger coin, people will stop coming to since they will not be able to prove that I am a fool. You cannot imagine the amount of money I have already collected in this way. There is nothing wrong in passing for a fool if you are really intelligent.’
Psalm 74 – The cup of bitterness
This psalm frightens me, Lord. Your image as a strict judge with the cup of retribution in your hands, holding it forcibly to the lips of sinners to make them drink the dregs of damnation while no power on earth can save them from your wrath.
“No power from the east nor from the west,
no power from the wilderness,
can raise a man up.
For God is judge;
he puts one man down and raises up another.
The Lord holds a cup in his hand,
and the wine foams in it, hot with spice;
he pours it,
and all the wicked on earth must drain it to the dregs.”
Frightful image of judgement and punishment. Yet I don’t want to forget it, Lord. I don’t want to pass it by, to gloss it over. Your justice is also part of your being, and I accept it and worship it as I do with your mercy and your majesty. You are a just judge, and the cup of retribution is in your hands. Let me never forge that, Lord.
I don’t want to claim exemption for myself; in fact I don’t dare. I know my wrong deeds, and I know my lips have condemned themselves to touch the brink of the cup of malediction. I cannot hide in east or west or even in the wide wilderness or in the very ends of the earth. I don’t want to hide either. I dread the cup, but I trust the hand that holds it. I wait for the coming of the judge.
I wait in hope because I think of another cup, remote in time but not unrelated in content. A cup of bitterness, of sufferings and of death. And that cup was also in your hand in the solitude of a garden where the rays of the full moon filtered shyly through the clustered leaves of olive trees on to a figure that prayed in agony. The cup was full of the dregs of death, and the cup did not pass away. It was drunk to the full. Mystery of the cup in the garden which cancelled the cup destined for my lips.
This, O Lord, is the greatness of your mercy and the glory of your redemption. If I have praised you for the heavens and the earth, for the sun and for the moon, I praise you now much more for the greatness of your wonderful works, your redemption of man through the life, death and resurrection of your own Son.
“We give you thanks, O God,
we give you thanks;
your name is brought very near to us
in the story of your wonderful deeds.”
The caged rabbit
“They presented it to us one morning:
a white little rabbit.
It came in a cage.
At noon I opened the gate of the cage.
When I came back in the evening,
I found the rabbit as I had left it:
deep in the farthest corner,
close against the bars of the cage,
shaking with the fright of freedom.”(Eduardo Galeano, El libro de los abrazos, p. 99)
One fine morning preachers and teachers presented us with the gift of freedom. They opened our eyes, they quickened our hearts, they reconciled us with life, they made us realize that heavens and earth belonged to us in sacred inheritance, that we all men and women are brothers and sisters, that the ground is firm and the sky is blue. Long ingrained complexes disappeared, prejudices vanished, fears flew away, chains and bars and locks fell with a clank on the cold floor of the prison cell. The day we had for so long dreamed of, had finally arrived. The long calendar painfully scratched stroke by stroke on the prison walls, had come to an end. The gate of the cage was opened, and the air inside and outside met and found their kinship.
But the little white rabbit did not come out. It remained all huddled up in the farthest corner. The prison cell had become even smaller for him, as he dared not now even approach the door for fear of coming out. He was afraid of the open space. He was afraid of the unknown world. He was afraid of freedom. He was begging, with his shrunk slavish posture, that they would close the door again so that he could feel safe, that they would protect him with the unyielding bars, that they would lock him in, that they would bring him his food at the appointed time, that they would clean his cage once a day and put out the lights at night. He was asking to be allowed to live as he had always lived. He knew no other life.
Safety seduces us and cheats us. Remain where you are. Do not change. Do not move. Do not open the door. If possible, not even the window. Do not allow new breezes to fly in, strange noises to be heard. A new idea becomes life’s greatest threat. The risk of adventure freezes the little white rabbit. It also freezes the mind, the imagination, the will of the person who does not want to face new hazards, and in consequence does not want to think. The need for security can be so great that it can justify jail itself. The little white rabbit refuses to come out.
Jail of prejudice. Fetters of custom. Iron bolts of dead routine. All the more dangerous as they are not seen. All the more invisible as they are always with us. The little white rabbit had been born in captivity. He did not know fields or prairies; he had not tasted the joy of getting lost in the high grass, jumping over bushes, seeking company, romping about together with others of his group and making friends. He only knew the monotonous safety of the square floor of his cell. Tiny solitude of parallel walls. There he chose to stay rather than risk the paths of the jungle that beckoned from far. For pity’s sake, leave me alone in my little corner!
We’ll leave you alone, dear little rabbit, in your own little corner if you so desire. We’ll not thrust you into a hostile world if you are not prepared to go into it. We’ll keep you and look after you for so long as you desire. We’ll never force your door open and push you through it. But one thing, dear little rabbit, one little thing, and we hope you won’t mind our telling you this: we’ll certainly learn one lesson from you, and that is never to get so much used to our fetters that when they remove them from our hands we may not want to come out.
Earthquake… on earth and in the soul
Suffering makes me think. A close young friend has told me he has been diagnosed with a self-immune sickness that will cause him the stiffening of his joints leading to the loss of all mobility. Very painful. A year ago the eldest son of another close fiend, father himself to two young children, died in a car accident. Such things do happen and we all hear about them daily, but when they touch me personally, they shake my soul. And now the Haiti earthquake. So much poverty and so much destruction. Many have written to me in this very Web, How can God allow such things to happen?
I don’t know. What I do know is that the difference between God ‘allowing’ something to happen and ‘causing’ something to happen has been intended by theologians. It is not in the Bible nor in human reason. God does everything together with us, and if a car reaches its destination, it is God’s doing, and if it crashes against a tree and all die, it is God’s doing. It is not someone else’s ‘doing’ and God’s ‘allowing’ it to happen. Everything is God’s doing. The happy journey as well as the crash. Some religions go to the length of postulating a good god and a bad god to explain the duality of life, but this does not solve the issue either.
Why do we suffer so much? I don’t know. Suffering is a mystery. It is true that it brings us closer to Jesús who died on the cross. But then, why should Jesus die on the cross? Could not the Father just forgive us as the father of the Prodigal Son in the parable Jesus himself told us? The mystery stands. Suffering helps moral growth. Agreed. But I wouldn’t tell that to the people in Haiti. God brings out good out of evil. Right. But he could also bring out good our of good. We shall see it clearly in heaven. By all means, but on earth we don’t see it. Mystery stands.
I’ve read in a theological magazine a consideration that helps somehow without quite solving the problem. We tend to make for us a God with too human traits, familiar, close, whom we can handle and manipulate, we shape such an image and get used to such a concept…, and the Haiti earthquake comes to shake us also and to do away with that image and that concept. We assume an anthropomorphic idea of God, and our familiarity with Jesus may lead us to forget his eternal majesty in the heavens. God is different. God is transcendent. God is the ‘Wholly Other’. And this has to be brought to our mind again and again by the suffering that does not fit into our concept of what God’s goodness, omnipotence, and providence should be according to our understanding. This does not justify suffering, but it does help us to draw a practical conclusion from it. God is beyond our thought. Respect, worship, silence. Mystery is a part of our faith. This is the real earthquake.
Stories of King Solomon
A learned rabbi came to King Solomon and told him:
– O pious king! You know well that I have given my whole life to the study of the Torah. Now, please, free me from my neighbour who troubles me. He cries and weeps the whole day. He spoils my study and my sleep and he makes it impossible for me to pray. I confess I at times feel the impulse to go and strangle him. Please, o king, rid me of that curse!
King Solomon looked at him sternly and asked him:
How old are you, rabbi?
– This year I’ll be forty, the number of years Israel was in the desert.
– And in forty years nobody has taught you to ask your neighbour why is he weeping?
(Carlos Allende, Los Cuentos del Rey Salomón, Océano, Barcelona 2006, p. 57)
Among King Solomon’s wives there was a noble Egyptian who lived by herself far from all the others. One night, a servant entered her quarters and found her prostrate before a statue of one of her gods in her land. He told a priest in the Temple about it, and the priest went straight to the King.
– O King! You have married an idol worshipper! She has been found worshipping a black statue last night in your palace.
King Solomon, who was aware of such happenings, called his Egyptian wife and asked her in the presence of the Temple priest:
– Can you tell me what you ask for in your prayers?
– Yes, o King! I ask the heavens to have pity on me and to give happiness and long life to the King.
The King apologised for having woken her up, then he turned to the Temple priest and asked him:
– And what do you ask in your prayers, may I know?
On a certain occasion, at the edge of the desert on the south, King Solomon reached a crossroads where he sat on a stone waiting for someone to show him the way. After a while a man came by, and the king asked him politely to show him the way.
– Who are you? – asked the man. You say you don’t know the way, but you have reached here alone. So far as I know you could be a robber or a devil.
– I am King Solomon – answered the King. – You have nothing to fear.
The man looked at him in disdain, as Solomon was only dressed in a rough mantle and was not accompanied by any of his courtiers. He had come out for the day in secret.
– Where is your throne and your palace? Your sceptre and your crown? – asked the man. – I’m beginning to think you are a madman. You look like a beggar, rather than our king.
Yet, he did not leave, as curiosity moved him to find out more about the man. King Solomon then asked him:
– What is your trade then if you can tell me.
– I’m a peasant.
– Then where are your fields and your furrows, your plough and your bullocks?
– I’m here only on my way home, sir.
– Well, so am I.
A quotation with authority
‘The Church today has become for many the main obstacle to their faith. In it we can see only the strife for human power, the mean play of those who want to make official Christianity an absolute principle and so to paralyse the true spirit of Christianity.’
(Joseph Ratzinger quoted in Selecciones de Teología 193, Enero-Marzo 2010, Vol. 49, p. 44)
Of all the reactions I’ve received about the ordination of women to the priesthood as also of married men, all except one have been in favour. This seems to be fashioning a public opinion which may find its way as ‘the voice of the people which is the voice of God’, but it will take time. The actual magisterium of the Church has made it rather hard. This is what pope John Paul II decreed in 1944:
‘Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force. Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful’.
Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).
I hope those who told me they expected to see this change in their lifetimes will live long. A priest friend told me with a smile, ‘We’ll have to wait for three popes at least.’ What is significant is that in spite of pope John Paul II having declared his prohibition as definitive, the matter continues to be discussed.
Psalm 75 – The scourge of war
As I begin my prayer, Lord, I am reminded that there are wars being waged at this very moment far and near on the face of the earth, and even worse new wars threatening us closely. Cruel, senseless, inhuman wars. Wars that have been going on for years, and wars which have flared up without notice and without reason.
There is never reason for a war. There is never reason to shed the blood of men and women who want to live. There is never reason to ruin nations and foster hatred and drag human history through the shame and the suffering of whole generations of men.
‘You alone can stop wars, Lord.
You break the flashing arrows,
shield and sword and weapons of war.
You are terrible, O Lord, and mighty;
men that lust for plunder stand aghast,
the boldest swoon away,
and the strongest cannot lift a hand.
At your rebuke, O God of Jacob,
rider and horse fall senseless.
Terrible are you, O Lord;
who can stand in your presence when you are angry?
You gave sentence out of heaven;
the earth was afraid and kept silence.’Make the earth be silent again, Lord. Let the earth with its silence acknowledge your dominion, Lord. Let bombs and missiles and mines and bullets cease to crease the face of the earth. Let the tumult of war subside in the hearts of man and on the fields of battle. Let the silence of peace envelope the earth. Let the songs of birds be heard again instead of the rattle of machine guns. Let weapons be destroyed that they may not destroy man’s civilisation in his own home.
Make silence in my own heart, Lord, because it is there that the sources of war are found. The passions that lead men to seek power, to hate each other, to kill and to destroy are all present in my heart. Silence violence in me, silence pride and silence hatred. When I read news of war, make me think of the secret wars of my own heart. When I decry violence, remind me of the seeds of violence within me. When I see blood, bring before my eyes the blood that I shed unseen in the spiteful encounters with inimical men. Silence the storm within that it may never rage outside, and the peace of my soul be sign and prayer of the peace I want for all men and women in all places and in all times.
‘O God, at your rising in judgement
to deliver all humble men on the earth,
for all her fury Edom shall confess you,
and the remnant left in Israel shall dance in worship.’Make the clamour of battle change into the music of dancing, Lord God of peace!
Wood for handicraft
José Luis Castro, the carpenter of our village,
is very good with his hands.
The wood, which knows that he loves it,
yields to his touch.
(Eduardo Galeano, El libro de los abrazos)The wood lets itself be carved because it knows the carpenter loves it. Skill and feeling come together in the hands of the master craftsman. And from these hands comes out the perfect work that brings honour to the wood and to him who wrought it. The gentle curves along the exact veins, the due shape with the adaptation to the uses destined for it now in human service, the smell of the forest, and the touch of the workshop. Noble work in an honoured profession. Joint work of the hands that carve and the wood that yields. All that becomes possible because there is mutual trust and respect and love. That is the way to work.
The carpenter loves the wood. The wood knows it. And the masterpiece is born. That is the secret of art in action. To love what we work at, to love what we touch, to love what we do. And to love it in such a way that the things and the persons we love may feel themselves loved by us, and may thus respond with kindred feeling to the process that shapes them in shared responsibility. Never to force anything, never to impose, never to enslave. The wood knows itself to be loved, and that makes easy for it the generous submission to the cleaving process that gives it a new being.
Chuang Tzu tells of a carpenter who, on getting an order for a piece of furniture, would go to the forest and start asking the trees, one by one, whether they were suitable and ready for the job. He sensed their answers, weighed them, compared them, and finally chose the tree that was going to be most fitting to the work at hand. The wood knows better than the carpenter which is the best material for each work, and will say it if we know how to ask about it.
The vital point is that the wood may know itself to be loved. That it may not be the blind instrument of selfish gain. That it may not see itself as the helpless victim of cruel manipulation. That it may feel itself useful, beautiful, loved, and may perceive in its veins that it is precisely that painful and skilful transformation at expert hands that enhances its value as noble artefact in human presence. That it may surrender with joy because it trusts the hand that chooses it with love.
Another carpenter may work unwillingly, violently, spitefully. Maybe the external observer does not notice the difference, but the wood feels it. It is the flesh that feels the surgeon’s touch and the aggressor’s blow, and knows the difference. We all are carpenters, in one way or another, and can choose between loving the wood we work on as an ally or forcing it down as an enemy. The final work will be different, and so will our feeling towards it be.
Let us love the wood, so that the wood feels itself loved by us. That is the art of the true carpenter./p>>
Om, mani padme Om
I am travelling on the metro in Madrid as I often do. I’m sitting down and there are several vacant seats in the train around me. A young man comes in at a station, looks around, goes straight to a corner, leavess his rucksack on the floor, sits down on it cross-legged, places his hands on his knees with their palms up and with the index finger touching the thumb in a Buddha-like way, stretches up his spine, closes his eyes, and remains in a perfectly Oriental meditative pose. I watch him from my seat. The train keeps pounding its way from station to station. People get in and out of it without stopping to pay attention to our prayerful young man. ‘Om, mani padme Om’.
It is beautiful to see a young man meditating in the corner of a metro compartment without a shadow of self-consciousness. Quite a new experience. Formerly we could still see from time to time someone fingering their rosary and reciting its Hail Marys between stations while counting them on their beads. Now we see Buddhist meditation in lotus posture. Liturgical changes.
But my thought on seeing that young man today is rather different. It’s all very well finding a corner, adopting the proper posture, resting one’s hands, stretching up one’s spine, closing one’s eyes, but all this is not necessary. True Zen leads up to the point where every moment and every posture is Zen. Feeling what I feel, seeing what I see, hearing what I hear, being aware, living the present, taking life as it comes and every moment as it is. Zen can and should be practiced with open eyes, standing or sitting down, walking or running, talking or keeping quiet, laughing or crying. There is no need to find a corner and a time and a posture. Zen is everything or it is nothing.
A Zen master opened his centre in a busy area in the middle of Tokyo. His disciples objected that they would not be able to meditate with so much noise around. He answered them: ‘If you cannot meditate here, how will you be able to meditate in the street and in your office and when someone is snoring by your side?’
I too am practicing Zen just now in the underground while I’m looking at that young man practicing it, and I allow myself just to think what I am thinking. I see him move his lips gently. ‘Om, mani padme Om’. I too know the prayer and I repeat it to myself. ‘Om, mani padme Om’. Maybe there are even indulgences attached to it.
I keep on looking at the young man as I ask myself: How will he know when his station comes? He’ll have to come out of his Buddhist trance.
My station arrives and I come out leaving the lad in his Nirvana. Om, mani padme Om.
The first principle
Disciple: ‘Master, which is the first principle in Zen?
Master: If I would tell you, it would become the second principle.
Zen lives on immediacy. Contact, awareness, reality. No repetition, no preaching, no teaching. We live second-hand lives believing what we are told and doing what we are asked, and we lack vitality, originality, liberty. We are not going to reinvent our life every moment or course, but the fact is we are given readymade directives and we obey instructions. We have to maintain the freshness of the new experience. That is, we have to make every experience into a new experience. We must do everything as though it were the first time we do it. The encounter, the gesture, the surprise. We must let ourselves be surprised by every voice and every face even if we see them every day, we must never take anything for granted, never live by memories, never repeat our day. Every experience becomes new when we know how to live it as new.
With all this, of course, I too am trying to teach what I was taught, isn’t it? At least I’m conscious of it and I enjoy myself doing it. Do not get too much scandalised. Om, mani padme Om.
Question: Were you born joyful or did you learn it later?
Answer: Whether I was born that way I don’t know as I did not realise it at the time. And I make it clear that your question has pleased me, Ramiro. I do remember that ever since I was very small my mother used to say about my brother and me: ‘Josemari [my elder brother] will always oppose; while Carlos will always agree.’ He defined us both for life. When I was asked anything as a small child, like ‘Let us go visiting’, I always said yes, and if they proposed the opposite, ‘Let us remain at home’, I again said yes, and instead of just saying yes I always added, ‘Delighted!’ I’ve kept up the habit till this day. I like to agree.
Tony de Mello almost ruined my attitude (although he did me a lot of good in other points). He told me at some moment in the nine month Sadhana course I did under him: ‘Carlos, you are too soft in your dealings with other. You agree to everything. That cannot be. And, please, do not say ‘delighted!’ again. I don’t want to hear that word from your lips again. You have to show a stronger character. You have to be assertive, incisive, aggressive.’ God knows I tried to be, and for some time I frowned and stared and cursed with my Sadhana companions. Never again being ‘delighted!’, but refusing if possible, and only a grunt for acceptance if at all I would agree. Better refusing for a start. I stuck to it for a time, but I felt unhappy and soon I came back to smiling and agreeing’. And I feel much happier.
Later in life I have learnt to positively foster joy in my life. Having close friends with whom to share everything and laughing at everything (which often is the best we can in the world we are in), smiling, telling them my funny stories and listening to their funny stories, and laughing loudly together. Feeling joyful in order to share my joy with other is my conscious task, my prayer, my secret. Not that I haven’t undergone hardships and suffering. I have, and in a large degree. But when I face hardships I tell myself I’m lucky to have them as they show I’m not just happy because I have an easy life but because I work at it and so I have a right to console others in their sufferings as I also have had and have mine. This is the limit of optimism: to rejoice at my sufferings because it is they that give depth to my joy and make it true and real. This I did learn by myself. My brother, by the way, whom I remember with all love in the world, suffered in later life for opposing everything.
By the way, I was delighted with your question. (Sorry!)
Psalm 76 – The Right Hand of God
‘Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in his anger withheld his mercies?
Has his right hand lost its grasp?
Does it hang powerless the arm of the Most High?’Forgive my vehemence, Lord, but when I think of your power and my miseries, of your promises and my failures, I feel that something is wrong, and I express the frustration of my heart in the despair of my words. Have you failed me, Lord? Have you let me down? Where are all my efforts, my prayers, my hopes? I am the same old wreck I always was, nothing has improved in me, my temper continues to hurt people, my intemperance continues to hurt me, my passions are stronger than ever and my failures multiply with age. Where is your power, your mercy, your grace? Where is the might of your hands? Has your right hand lost its grip? Does your arm hang powerless? Have you lost your influence in human affairs? Have you lost your interest?
I speak for me and I speak for the friends and companions with whom I share the work of the Kingdom, and with whom I speak of the disillusionment that chills us when we compare the earnestness of our efforts with the meagerness of our results.
‘Will the Lord reject us for evermore
and never again show favour?
Has his unfailing love now failed us utterly?
Must his promise time and again be unfulfilled?’
When the cloud of disappointment sweeps over me I feel discouragement and despair. Dreams are not fulfilled, ideals not reached, the Kingdom does not arrive. I know my defects, and I know the failings of the human race. But I also know the firmness of your promises and the power of your hand. Don’t let your hand rest idle, Lord. The hand that created the world, that opened the sea, that brought down massive walls can now do much more that that, beyond the figure of those material events, in the reality of the lives of men and the welfare of their souls. There is where your marvellous works are to shine, where your right hand has to exert its power.
Lord, let it never be said of you, not even in the obedient question of a devoted friend, that your right hand has lost its grip.
Talking to trees
Tourist to native:
‘How is that?
Can it be that you speak to the trees?’
Native to tourist:
‘How is that?
Can it be that you do not speak to the trees?’Mutual surprise of disparate cultures. One thinks the other is mad because he speaks to the trees. The other finds it absurd not to speak to them. There is no question of animistic rituals or of romantic vagaries. There is question of being close, of belonging, of communicating proportionally with life in all the shapes it takes around us under the responsible unity of a global family. To speak is to relate. And to relate is to live.
Poets and mystics talk to the trees and the mountains and the stars. And we all have something of the poet and the mystic in us. An imaginary dialogue can be realistic projection that enlivens feelings and strengthens relationships. And if that is so, we welcome such imagination. Time to learn how to talk to the trees.
The old little woman told of how when she entered a valley in her comings and goings in Cuzco land (Peru), she greeted the valley she entered and took leave of the valley she left. She gave thanks for the safe journey along the valley now left behind, and she asked permission to go in respectfully and come out safely from the valley that lay now before her. Thus she went from valley to valley, as from hand to hand, in the ceaseless company of friendly nature through unending grounds. If we knew how to talk to the trees, maybe we would not feel so lonely.
Good gardeners converse with their plants. They understand their feelings, their fears, their joys. They know how to encourage a withering stem, and how to compliment a blooming flower. And when they do so, they open themselves to their own feelings, mirror their own situations, lighten their trials and double their joys. A dialogue always benefits both the partners in it.
In Cape City in South Africa I stayed with an Indian family who showed me the plants they had at home. One of them had withered and was drooping. They placed it on a table in the middle of the room, the whole family gathered round it, they all joined hand to hand, talked to the plant, showed it their love, and prayed for it. They repeated the ceremony several days. The plant slowly stood up and became green again.
To the native, talking to the tree comes so naturally that it is unthinkable for him that the others may not do it. We have definitely lost something of the pristine innocence that knew itself kin to all creation, and as such could work and talk in communion with all created things. We would blush if someone found us talking aloud to a tree. Our friends would smile at us. The sense of shame inhibits us and deprives us of the spontaneity that once was ours. We knew how to speak with the trees, and we have forgotten the language.
I secretly approach the native who speaks with the trees, and I put before him my request in humble desire. ‘Brother, can you teach me how to speak with the trees as you do?’
The faithful answer back
A priest friend tells me what happened to him the other day. He was saying mass, and an old woman in the first bench kept repeating what he was saying. ‘In the name of the Father…’, ‘Glory to God in the highest…’, ‘I believe in God…. When he came to communion and said, ‘Lord I am not worthy…’, the old woman echoed, ‘Lord, the father is not worthy…’. He told me he felt quite annoyed, and commented: ‘One thing is for me to say I am not worthy, and quite another for the woman to say it. I also call myself a sinner, but I would not bear anybody calling me that!’
When bishop Pinto, who ordained me to the priesthood in India, was inaugurating his new cathedral church with a mass, he went to the microphone and began, ‘In the name of the Father…’. The mike was working all right, but he somehow thought he had not been heard, so he turned to the sacristan by his side and said aloud without covering the mike: ‘Something is wrong with this mike.’ To which the whole assembly who had heard the words answered in solemn unison: ‘And with your spirit!’
The principal of our College in Ahmedabad was one day in the morning saying Mass before Catholic professors and students. He was reciting the first Eucharistic prayer which begins the mention of women saints with the names ‘Agatha, Lucia, Caecilia, Anasthasia…’, but he tripped up thinking of the book he had been reading the previous night before going to sleep and confidently announced: ‘Agatha Christie…’. The faithful smiled knowingly, and a lady teacher in the congregation turned back and said in a low voice: ‘I gave him the novel.’
The book ‘Anécdotas de profesores’ (Carlos G. Costoya, Styria, Barcelona 2010) collects true answers by rather imaginative students in routine examinations. Here are some from their religion papers.
God created Adam and Eve from an apple.
The original sin is called like that because it was originally thought out by Adam and Eve.
God sent Abraham to conquer the land of Canada. [Canaan]
What is Genesis? – The best rock group of history.
Who was Moses? – The hero in the film ‘The Ten Commandments’.
Who is God? – It is a very difficult concept to define because since he does not exist we cannot say anything about him.
What is faith? – Faith is a gift God gives to people to understand what the priest says at Mass.
What is the Ark of the Covenant? – It is an ark hidden in Egypt which was found by Indiana Jones in the film ‘In search of the Lost Ark’.
Which is the sixth commandment? – This commandment is no more in use because now you can do it anywhere.
Mention a parable of Jesus. – The parable of the Pharisee and the Republican. [The Publican]
What is the Apocalypse? – The book that was written for the film ‘Apocalypsis Now’.
What is a priest? – In the Church there are two kinds of priests: those who believe in God and those who don’t.
What is the Blessed Trinity? – The father and the son and the dove that lives with them.
How was St Paul converted? – He fell down from the horse when Jesus gave him a shock.
Who was St Paul? – The apostle of the genitals. [gentiles]
What was the Tower of Babel? – The first School of Languages in the world.
How is one to resist temptation? – The best way to avoid the temptations of the devil is to let him tempt you, to fall into the temptation, and then you come out again.
How many things are necessary to duly receive Holy Communion? – To stand straight in line, to watch out for anybody trying to jump the file, to lift your head a bit, and to open the mouth wide to get the sacred host easily in.
‘Out of the mouth of children…’.
Heard on the street
Mummy to a small child she is leading by the hand: ‘Tell me your things, darling, as I tell you mine.’
Little child to mummy who is leading him by the hand: ‘My things are not meant to be told to anybody, mummy.’
What book or website do you recommend me to learn sex morals?
There are many books on sex morals, but I don’t read them as I know that the Church forbids everything and the majority of Catholic faithful permits everything (so long as nobody is hurt, or course). That is the situation. I’ll quote you what the editor of the prestigious weekly ‘America’ of the American Jesuits, Fr Thomas J. Reese, SJ, wrote on this point:
‘In the Catholic Church the battle on sex is over. In matters like birth control, masturbation, premarital sex, second weddings…, the hierarchy has lost the majority of the faithful. The battle of sex is over, and there are no winners. The Church has not won because people don’t listen to her, and the faithful have not won because they still get a guilt complex even if in theory they see no sin in what they do.’ (Selecciones de Teología, nº 150, p. 96)
This is a sad summary. Painful but true. Without any solution in sight. The ‘heroic resistance the Church is putting up in the matter of sex’, in Andrés Torres Queiruga’s phrase, is hurting her, and we all feel it. The best you can now do in the matter you are asking me about is to go to a Catholic bookshop, see books on sex by yourself, and ask the booksellers to recommend you some book written with an open mind on this topic. The great commandment is not to harm anybody, and the normal sex practices as enumerated by the editor of the magazine do not harm anybody. And do not worry about it.
Om, mani padme Om
Several of you have asked me about the meaning of the Buddhist prayer I quoted in my last Web. This is precisely what a Buddhist would never do, asking about its meaning. We are worried about the ‘meaning’, the logic, the intellectual content, and that is exactly what has to be discouraged. By the way, it means, ‘the ruby is in the lotus’. As you can see, that does not explain anything. Or it does explain everything. It is the Buddhist tactics that seek to take us out and away from the intellectual logic that enslaves all of us here in the West, and to free the mind from its usual conditionings. We all in the West are children of Aristotle, Descartes, and Newton, and those gentlemen are fine, no doubt, but their iron logic is depriving us of the spontaneity of the senses and the freedom to talk nonsense, to laugh belly laughs, and to waste our time if we are pleased to do so. Descartes held that animals were mere machines because they could not say ‘I think, therefore I exist’, Aristotle thought in syllogisms, and Newton could not see an apple falling without starting to write down equations on the law of gravity. It’s about time we change, for heaven’s sake, it’s about time! About time we free ourselves from such slavery. The ruby is in the lotus. Let’s laugh together a good laugh.
Psalm 77 – Salvation History
I know the history, Lord, and I know its lesson. I know that the journey of your chosen people from Egypt to Canaan is figure of my own life from birth to death, and I now relive that story in my heart while I see myself in my own crossing of the desert of life.
The story is a poem, and the poem has a theme and a refrain. The theme is your bounty and your power to help your people; and the refrain is the ingratitude of the people who, no sooner have they received a favour from you than they start a new complaint, doubt your power and shout rebellion. Will I learn the lesson at the end?
‘He did wonders in their fathers’ sight
in the land of Egypt, the country of Zoan;
he divided the sea and took them through it,
making the water stand up like banks on either side.
He led them with a cloud by day
and all night long with a glowing fire.Those were wonders enough to establish a people’s faith for ever. Yet, their effect did not last long. Yes, God has taken us out of Egypt, but can he give us water in the desert?
‘He cleft the rock in the wilderness
and gave them water to drink,
abundant as the sea;
he brought streams out of the cliff
and made water run down like rivers.’New wonders to strengthen the faith. And yet new doubts and new complaints. Yes, he has given us water; but can he give us bread? Can he give us meat to eat in the desert?
‘They sinned against him yet again:
in the desert they defied the Most High;
they tried God’s patience wilfully,
demanding food to satisfy their hunger.
They vented their grievance against God and said,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”
When he struck a rock,
water gushed out until the gullies overflowed;
they said, “Can he give bread as well,
can he provide meat for his people?”
When he heard this,
the Lord was filled with fury;
because they put no trust in God
and had no faith in his power to save
Then he gave orders to the skies above
and threw open heaven’s door;
he rained down manna for them to eat
and gave them the grain of heaven.
So men ate the bread of angels;
he sent them food to their heart’s desire.
He let loose the west wind from heaven
and drove the south wind by his power;
he rained meat like a dust-storm upon them,
flying birds like the sand of the sea-shore,
which he made settle all over the camp
round the tents where they lived.
So the people ate and were well filled,
for he had given them what they craved.
Yet they did not abandon their complaints
even while the food was in their mouths’.That is the story of the fickleness of Israel. Wonder after wonder, and complaint after complaint. Short-lived faith which believed only for an instant in order to doubt the next. Stiff-necked people unwilling to accept the reality of God’s power and God’s protection daily shown to them and daily forgotten.
‘In spite of all, they persisted in their sin
and had no faith in his wonderful acts.
They were not loyal to him in their hearts
nor were they faithful to his covenant.
They rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the desert.
Again and again they tried God’s patience
and provoked the Holy One of Israel.’Dismal story of a stubborn people. And dismal story of my own soul. Have I not experienced enough your power, your protection, your providence? Have I not seen you act in my life, Lord, from the miracle of my birth through the wonders of my youth to the fullness of my maturity? Have you not rescued me from a thousand dangers, have you not fed me with grace in my soul and food in my body, have you not blessed me with the health of nature and the joy of life?
Have you not proved yourself abundantly to me as friend, protector, father and God?
And yet I doubt, I forget, I ignore, I chafe, I complain. You have given me freedom, but can you give me water? Can you give me bread? Can you give me meat? You have called me to the life of the spirit, but can you teach me to pray? Can you give me detachment? Can you raise me to contemplation? Can you control my temper? Can you lift up my moods? Can you give me true faith? Can you give me true happiness? Every grace of yours is followed by a complaint of mine. Every demonstration of your power lands me in a new doubt. Thus far you have done it, but will you be able to do it in the future? You have done much, but can you do everything? Can you make me truly loving, saintly, free, devoted, selfless, committed, healthy and happy? Can you? And if you can, why don’t you show it now and make me into the truly fine person I dream to be?
Yet he wiped out their guilt
and did not smother his own natural affection;
often he restrained his wrath
and did not rouse his anger to its height.
He remembered that they were only mortal men,
who pass by like a wind and never return.
He brought them to his holy mountain,
the hill which his right hand had won;
he drove out nations before them,
he allotted their lands to Israel as a possession
and settled his tribes in their dwellings.’Salvation history has a happy end. Let me anticipate that happiness in my life, Lord.
On Climbing Trees
Leo F. Buscaglia tells the story:
‘Recently I gave a talk to a group of boys in a school in a California district, and I had a great time with them. The teachers took me for lunch, and when in the afternoon I came back to the boys they told me they had had some trouble. Apparently I had said in my talk that if you want to know a tree, you have to climb it. “Shin up its trunk, sit between its branches, feel the touch of its bark, listen to the wind in its leaves, and then you’ll be able to say that you know the tree.” A boy, coming out of the talk, went straight to a tree in the school garden and climbed it with zest. The director of the school passed that way, saw him and ordered him to climb down, and rusticated him for fifteen days.’
Strictly forbidden to climb trees. It is true that if the boys begin to climb trees indiscriminately in the school garden, soon there will not be a green leaf left on it. The director has to protect the institution’s property, and forbids the adventure. We understand his motives. But we are also saddened by the bureaucratic barrier that deprives the trees of the boys’ embrace, and the boys of the vital and quickening experience of climbing a tree and feeling its friendship in the high recesses of its green foliage.
To climb a tree, to conquer a summit, to plunge into the swift current of a mountain stream. To lie down on wild grass, to smell a flower without plucking it, to eat the ripe fruit fresh from the tree. To breathe nature, to feel spaces, to grip life. Invitation to reality, to fullness, to the fat of the land and the banquet of creation. But they forbid us to climb trees. And we miss the experience. Life in nature reflects once more the life of grace. Also in our prayer life our teachers load us with precepts, impose discipline, draw barriers, teach rules; and in practice they deprive us of the direct experience of the realities of the spirit. Do not climb the tree. Enough for you to be allowed to glimpse it from afar. The direct experience of God is only for the mystics and the saints. Do not come near. Do not presume to tread grounds where angels do not dare. Be satisfied with the obscurity of faith and the glimpse of hope. Keep your distance. Worship from afar. Do not draw near. So we are told, and so we do. And we miss the climbing of the tree.
Leo Buscaglia went to see the boy expelled from the school, and gave him back his smile when he told him: ‘Now you have fifteen days to yourself to climb trees!’
I speak from the heart
I knew and appreciated Swami Abhishiktananda, who was the French Benedictine monk Henry le Saux, and now I find several anecdotes from his life in the book ‘Abhishiktananda in The Cave of the Heart’ by Shirley du Boulay, Orbis Books, New York 2005.
An Indian Carmelite friend said of Abhishiktananda affectionately, ‘There was a man who could talk about silence twenty-four hours a day.’
He gave many lectures to many students, but he had only one disciple who followed him in his meditation and in his life, the young French seminarian Marc Chaduc whom he gave the name of Ajatananda. He took him to the Himalayas for training and prayer, and one day he disappeared and was never heard of again. Abhishiktananda said of him: ‘I showed him the path of illumination without ever having a thought he would take it so seriously!’
He would say: ‘The satires of Isaiah against the makers of idols of wood and gold apply just as much to the makers of conceptual idols. The simple man sculpts a bit of wood and prostrates himself: “You are my God”. The intellectual sculpts a concept and does likewise. Only that this is much more dangerous.’
His motto: ‘Wake up. Wake God up.’ He spent years in the caves of the Arunachala Mountain near Tiruvanamalay in South India where he listened to Shri Ramana Maharshi in his ashram at the foot of the mountain.
I met him once for a long talk at the De Nobili College, Pune, and a gesture of his has remained in my memory to this day. We were speaking in English, but for a moment he switched to Hindi (not Tamil but Hindi) to quote to me what people said of him. He told me: ‘Simple people listen to me because they say I speak to them “from the heart”. And he placed his right hand on his chest over the heart. The gesture stuck in my mind. The Hindi words too.
Children in class
[Since you liked the answers of children in religion class I’m quoting here answers from other subjects.]
Philosopher: A man who knows many things while knowing nothing.
Impatience: Waiting impatiently with patience.
Radioactivity: Working in the radio a fixed time a day.
Redundancy: To repeat something one has never said.
Rhetoric: Speaking without being understood.
St John of the Cross is the disciple that accompanied Jesus at the foot of the cross.
Primitive man was made up of fossil bones.
The Neolithic was the time when man invented fire so that woman would learn how to cook.
What are the Middle Ages? – The middle age of a person is the age of a person from the time they are born to the time they die divided by two.
It is not known whether Charlemagne was born or not, because some say he was born in 742 and other in 747, but finally his parents married and he could be born.
Giordano Bruno was an astronomical who discovered the solar system, but since he said the sun was not the moon he was condemned to life imprisonment till recently when he was released.
Calvinism was invented by Calvin, and it is something like Lutheranism but without Luther.
(Carlos G. Costoya, Anécdotas de profesores Styria, Barcelona 2010)
I understand what you said in your last Web that the actual situation of the hierarchy does not show signs of a greater openness in the Church’s teaching on sex morals, but can we not expect a change in the future?
Not likely either. I tell you why. The same article I quoted by father Thomas J. Reese SJ, editor of the weekly ‘America’ of the American Jesuits, said further down with the same clarity and authority:
‘The Vatican uses the acid test of birth control, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women to choose the candidates for bishops. Only those who defend the Vatican position are promoted. This rules out any foreseeable change.’ (p. 99)
According to that, changes on those three points are not forthcoming.
Father Thomas J. Reese SJ was removed from the editorship of the ‘America’ magazine in 2005.
Psalm 78 – The enemy within
‘O God, the heathen have set foot in your domain!’I read a modern danger in the ancient alarm. The heathen have set foot in your domain. The secular mind has gained a foothold in religious circles. Rationalism has infiltrated your Church. Authority is played down, dogma is explained away, traditions are ignored, obedience is minimised. Everything is rationalised, secularised, demythologised. A pagan outlook on religious truth. Reason over faith. Man before God. That is the danger in the religious world today. That is the heathen foothold in the sanctuary of Jerusalem.
And that is the danger in my own life. I live in the midst of the sanctuary, but I am affected by the heathen winds that sweep through it. They all think that way, that is the modern trend, the latest theologians favour that outlook, all scholars take now the liberal interpretation. This is the danger. The assaults from outside the sanctuary are easily rejected because they are recognised for what they are. The cunning insinuations from inside are much more difficult to resist because they look friendly and harmless. Yet their harm is greater as they go unnoticed and strike in the dark.
I want the fullness of the faith, Lord. I want no compromise, no misgivings, no half truths. I want the sanctuary of my soul to be free from any pagan touch, any heathen influence. I want the integrity of your word and the totality of your revelation. I don’t want to jeopardise eternal truths with passing fashions. I want the purity of your sanctuary and the sanctity of your temple. I want the Holy City to remain holy for ever. I want my faith to shine without shadows and without flickers. I want to be modern by being eternal, to be actual by being traditional. I want to know the latest research from the firmness of my permanent convictions. I want fidelity to you, Lord, to rule my mind and my life for ever.
Restore in your Church the firmness of your revelation. Purify our thoughts and strengthen our beliefs. Cleanse your sanctuary and sanctify your city. Illumine the doctrine of your faithful with the brightness of your truth.
‘Then we your people,
the flock which you shepherd,
will give you thanks for ever
and repeat your praise to every generation.’
The voice rings true
‘A blind man spoke about Master Bankei (1622-1693) and said the best thing he could say: “I am blind, and cannot see the face of the person with whom I speak. I must, in consequence, judge only their sincerity from their voice. My experience tells me that when I hear someone congratulate a friend on his success, I notice a ring of jealousy in their voice; and when I hear social condolences, I detect also a secret note of pleasure. However, this does not happen to me with Bankei: when he expresses joy, there is only joy in his voice; and when he expresses sadness, it is only sadness that I hear in him”.’My voice is the messenger of my soul. Let it be firm, whole, sincere. Let it express in its vibration the totality of my being; let it reveal with its innocence the depth of my feeling; let it manifest with its right tune the transparency of my existence. Let there be not a single note out of tune in the melody of my life.
My voice takes birth in the inner recesses of my conscience, winds its way through nets of tissues, through lungs and diaphragm, through temper and volume, and becomes intelligible language in that throbbing miracle of vocal prowess that my throat is. All that I am is in that voice, and it identifies me, with the exactness of a fingerprint, before the science-fiction machine, as before the keen ears of the sightless sage. My voice betrays my mood. And I am glad to know that, so that I can now learn how to tune it to truth. When I hear my own voice, I realise how at times it sounds false, hollow, deceivingly flattering or stiffly formal. I say one thing while I feel another, and the words are proper, because they are censured in time, but the voice escapes censorship and shakes with the hidden lie of the jarring note.
I want to listen to my own voice, so that I can scrutinise my conscience, filter my feelings, tune my thought. I want to hear myself when I speak, so that I may know how my voice sounds, how my vowels vibrate, how my phrases ride the wind. I want to spot the sensitive dissonances between what I feel and what I say. I want to do away with any hint of divergence between the convictions of my soul and the sound of my voice. I want to sing the song of my life with a full voice, leaving no trace of doubt, to my self or to any one that I say what I mean and I mean what I say. My voice has to be truth, if my life is to be testimony.
Allow me to remember
A great friend of mine during many years in India has died recently and I want to pay my tribute to him. He was Professor P. C. Vaidya, head of the mathematics department in the Gujarat University. Scholar, intellectual, teacher, communicator, writer, founder of the first mathematics magazine in an Indian vernacular, heart and soul of the introduction of the ‘new math’ at the middle of the last century in Gujarat. On a certain occasion I invited him to give a talk to staff and students in our St Xavier’s College, and in my introduction of him I said before the public: ‘If I had done for the cause of the Gospel what this man has done for the cause of mathematics, I would be a saint.’ What prompted me to say that?
I was lucky to study the then new mathematics subject, ‘Modern Algebra’, at Loyola College, Chennai, a subject which had been up to that moment unknown in India. It was always introduced with the attempt at humour that Modern Algebra was not modern and was not algebra, but it was all the rage in mathematical circles at the time. The French Jesuit Fr Charles Racine had just brought from Europe the new subject and I took it for my optional subject in the last year of the degree course. Set theory, group theory, ring theory, field theory, vector spaces, matrix algebra, vector spaces were topics that were written about in research magazines but had not yet entered the classroom. Racine placed in my hand’s Nicholas Bourbaki’s Théorie des Ensembles which I eagerly enjoyed, and mathematicians know what I’m talking about, as Bourbaki never existed but his name brought a revolution to the field.
When I arrived in Ahmedabad to teach mathematics at St Xavier’s College, the subject was yet unheard of there since, as Racine himself had textually said, ‘the word “set” has not yet been pronounced in the classroom’, a thing which now seems impossible but such was the situation then. To introduce the new subject in Gujarat, Vaidya, who knew I had arrived fresh from Chennai with the new knowledge, asked me to conduct a summer course on Modern Algebra for postgraduate teachers so that, working our way from the top down, the new topic would filter down from postgraduate teachers to college teachers, high school teachers, primary school teachers through all the levels through the whole state. That was how I found myself conducting classes for postgraduate teachers before I had even given a single class to B.Sc. students. Thus I landed on my feet in Gujarat University. In my first class I somehow mischievously quoted to them Nicholas Bourbaki’s book as the first reference for the course’s bibliography, being fully aware that none of them knew French. I smiled wickedly as I watched the good professors writing carefully in their notebooks Théorie des Ensembles, knowing perfectly well that none of them would be able to read the book. That’s always one up for the teacher, and a little trick can go a long way to establish authority from the start. I remained all my life grateful to Vaidya for having introduced me so generously into the Gujarat University.
May is the month when the thermometers shoot up in Ahmedabad, and I would sweat copiously as I rode on my bicycle in a 42º sun in my new white cassock wrapped awkwardly around me and my bike as I pedalled along to Gujarat College where the course was being held, but it was worthwhile. If I was sweating bodily I made them sweat mentally. All learned eagerly the new concepts and theorems and problems so that they could soon go on to explain them in their classes to their students. One day I asked my teacher-students to propose a mathematical example of a binary relation that would be symmetrical, transitive, but not reflexive, and I promised as a prize a sweet I had in my pocket and which I placed on the table. Professor Rao, head of geometry, put up his hand, I invited him to come to the blackboard, he explained his example and I asked the remaining professors whether they agreed with him. They all said yes. But then something very upsetting happened to me. I had withdrawn to the far bottom of the classroom, and even if the professor’s demonstration and the agreement of all the others were overwhelming, I knew inside myself that the example was wrong. Something was essentially wrong with it. I was absolutely sure of it. But I didn’t know what was wrong! That is, all my body, my head and my soul and my whole being claimed that the example was wrong, I was feeling it in my veins and in my neurons and in all my bones, but I had not the slightest idea what exactly was the concrete failure in a seemingly perfect argument. And in a moment I would have to say something. An onslaught of scientific existential anguish swept through my whole being and froze me for an instant. I lived in that instant the situation where it becomes clear that it is not the brain by itself that understands and assimilates and reasons out and ‘knows’ but the whole body. Here was my body existentially bursting with the negative, while my reason found no cause for the earthquake. Overwhelming perplexity.
Just as well the hall was large, and I advanced slowly, very slowly to the front, measuring every step and teasingly delaying the moment of truth as far as possible. What was I going to say? How could I give the sweet to professor Rao when I inwardly knew that his example was wrong? But then how could I say it was wrong when I could not prove its falsehood? I reached the dais. I went up. I turned towards the class, and in that very moment the spark flashed in my brains and I knew the answer. I knew why the example was wrong. I smiled to myself and to my listeners who didn’t know what was waiting for them. I asked the class: ‘Shall we give Professor Rao the sweet?’ They all answered, ‘Yes!’ I took the sweet, played for a cruelly delectable moment with it in my hands, and then I slowly announced: ‘I am very sorry for two reasons. For one, I have to disagree with all of you, and for another, I appreciate professor Rao as a teacher and I hold him as a friend. But the example is wrong.’ There was a sudden and expectant silence. I turned to the blackboard. I wrote down the equations that showed up the flaw in the professor’s proof. The relation was certainly symmetrical and non reflexive as it had to be, and it also appeared to be transitive, and it was so in some cases, but not in all as it had to be, and I had just thought of a concrete case in which it was not. That was the crunch. Professor Rao got up a little excited and wanted to defend his case, but Vaidya told him gently, ‘Sit down, sit down, the father is right.’ All saw it, and in the end professor Rao too. I ate the sweet. It tasted great.
Vaidya and I took upon ourselves the mission to spread the message of modern mathematics from village to village, from school to school, from classroom to classroom, with true apostolic zeal and with a complete lack of financial interest. The great English mathematician G. H. Hardy (whose book ‘Pure Mathematics’ I translated into Gujarati at the request of the State University) who introduced mathematical rigor through the length and breath of the Commonwealth at the middle of last century, used to say about himself that he taught modern mathematics to students with the zeal of a missionary preaching the Bible to cannibals. That was what we did. A true mission for us both. We founded the first mathematical magazine in an Indian language of which he wanted to make me the editor, but I refused and told him I knew how to write but not how to make other people write. Every month we published in the magazine articles on the last tendencies, discoveries, and challenges of modern mathematics.
I used to read three mathematical magazines without missing an issue. The American Mathematical Monthly, The Mathematical Gazette, The Mathematics Teacher. I waited for them with concupiscent delight, and I read them with greed in the University library out of which they could not be taken. One day I was interested in taking home an issue to take down a series of results from it, and I went to the librarian to ask for his permission. He answered me: ‘You can take it whenever you want, as you are the only one who reads these magazines.’ I’ve enjoyed reading those magazines and those books as much as reading other books and magazines that have interested and fascinated me along my whole life. Books on literature, on classical music, on languages and cultures, on history, on Latin America, on Christology, on Bible studies, on St Paul, on St Ignatius, on Eastern topics, on Zen, on cybernetics, on autobiographies. And I always derived as much satisfaction from my efforts to cheer up my mathematics students in their theorems and in their exams as I now derive from my efforts to cheer you up, my readers and listeners in my books and in my Web, in the midst of your problems and of life’s crises for you. All from the heart and full of joy and hope. It was a wonderful period in my life, and I remember my classes and readings and mathematical congresses and mathematical meetings with the same joy and enthusiasm with which I remember the Spiritual Exercises and confessions and Eucharists and the whole of my priestly ministry. I don’t admit one activity to be inferior to the other. I am as much of a person when I’m giving a mathematics class as when I’m saying Mass. Everything is service. Everything is joy. Vaidya, good Brahmin that he was and able to quote Sanskrit by the mile, was an atheist, and his life was far fuller and deeper than that of many faithful believers. Just as well by then I had already come across the Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s famous definition, ‘Whoever takes something fundamentally seriously in their life – be it their faith, their profession, or their wife – is not an atheist.’ It is our commitment that defines us.
Vaidya had written a textbook on Mathematical Dynamics that was very popular with students and teachers and which had already sold out several printings. When the course of that subject was going to be changed in the new math, the publisher of the book came to know about it and, as he knew Vaidya had influence in the University, he told him to prevent the change from taking place, since otherwise the book would stop being published. Vaidya answered him it was he himself who had changed the course. He was not interested in money but in good education.
The University written exams are corrected by professors who change every year, and who do not know whose are the papers they are correcting, just as the students do not know who is the teacher correcting their papers. But some do get to know. One such student approached an examiner, told him he knew his paper was in his hands, gave him his number on the paper, confessed that he had not written very well, but he was offering a good sum of money for being passed. The professor answered him with indignation, ‘Don’t you know that I am Dr Vaidya’s student?’ Such was my good friend’s reputation.
When asked a few years ago what was his age he answered with a steady voice, ‘Minus twelve.’ That is, a hundred minus twelve. Counting from 100 down. 88. He has died at 93. He was in good health in body and in mind till his wife died twenty months before. Solitude after so many years of life together took him to his end in twenty months. Theirs was an exemplary marriage. His daughter, Smita, has informed me of his death. I’ve watched in Internet a video in which he recently talked on his favourite topics. I was touched by seeing his face and hearing his voice. Living with great men has enriched my life. He was one of them.
Your query: I feel depressed and this is no passing mood. I feel like this for quite a long time, though now it’s getting worse. I find no satisfaction in my work or at home, and there is nothing particularly wrong with me except that I don’t feel well and I seem to be just spoiling my life away. At times I feel really bad. I say my prayers and I go to Mass and I do my duties, but nothing seems to help. What can I do to come out of this state?
My reaction: Depression has become a common word. It’s a modern disease, not because it didn’t exist before, but because it was not spoken about. It is also a young disease, as it is young people who feel it specially. But the complaint is old. My father St Ignatius had his own terminology for it. He spoke of ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’, and he gave some concrete rules to deal with them.
‘Those who labour under desolation should be patient and think that they soon will find consolation. Those who enjoy consolation should think how they will act in the forthcoming desolation to gather strength for then.’ Simple enough, and practical enough. The roller coaster. The swing. Up and down, up and down. And the point is that when we are up we should think that sometime we’ll be down, and when we are down we should think soon we’ll be up. A matter of balance. Together with a good memory. And a lot of patience.
I don’t know how serious your case is. There are cases of clinical depression, and the manic-depressive syndrome can be serious. A good professional can help and apply methods and even prescribe medication to bring depression down as with any other sickness. The important point is to avoid worries, obsession, the depression complex which is what really hurts. It’s just a sickness and it is just dealt with like any other sickness without any moral connotation. Why some of us are cheerful by temperament and others are gloomy is a matter of our genes and of the first years in our life that shape our character, but there is no question of any moral fault or offence or sin. We simply are different. Each one must know themselves and act accordingly. You know your own case and can handle it best. Thanks for asking, and get down to tackling your situation.
Psalm 79 – Prayer for the Church
I feel confidence, Lord, as I see I can address you today in the very words you inspired ages ago, and I can say for your Church today the prayer your psalmist said for your people when your word was made Scripture and every poet was a prophet.
I know the image of the vine and its branches and the wall round it and the damage done to that wall and its restoration at your hands. I identify with every word, with every mood, and I pray for your vine today in words which are familiar to you ever since your people was first called your people.
‘You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out nations and planted it;
you cleared the ground before it
so that it made good roots and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
and its branches were like those of mighty cedars.
It put out boughs all the way to the Sea,
and its shoots as far as the River.’
Such was your Church in its origin and in its strength, in its expansion and its missions, in its greatness and its might. It covered the world, sanctified the continents, served humanity, wrote down history. But now, Lord, its holiness is tainted, its failures multiply, its authority weakens, its doctrine is ignored. It image is blurred and its defences are broken down.
‘Why have you broken down the wall round it
so that every passer-by can pluck its fruit?
The wild boar from the thickets gnaws it,
and swarming insects from the fields feed on it.
O God of Hosts,
once more look down from heaven,
take thought of his vine and tend it,
this stock that your right hand has planted.
Let them that set fire to it or cut it down
perish before your angry face.
Let your hand rest upon the man at your right side,
the man whom you have made strong for your service.
We have not turned back from you,
so grant us new life,
and we will invoke you by name.’
The vine, the boughs, the mountains, the wall. The time of trial, and the man of your choice. Terms of yesterday for realities of today. You inspired the prayer, Lord, and you had it preserved that I could bring it before you today. You like to listen to those words because you inspired them, and if you like to listen it is because you want to act accordingly and do in effect what you move us to ask you in prayer. With that confidence I pray, and I enjoy doubly this prayer in which I can literally use inspired words of another age to urge vital needs of my present day.
‘Lord God of Hosts,
make your face shine upon us
that we may be saved.’
‘I make everything new’
‘‘Life is change.
Being yourself is being another.
You cannot feel if you feel today as you felt yesterday:
the same feeling is the same as no feeling:
it is only a memory of yesterday’s feeling,
today’s ashes of yesterday’s fire.
This morning is the first of creation.
This hour has never struck before.
Tomorrow will be another age.
To live is to change.’
Eyes to see. New eyes to take in new mornings. ‘This hour has never struck before.’ The poet lives the fullness of his life in the depth of his inspiration. Every fire is new, every hour is different, every breath is fresh because my own being is ever different, ‘unexpectedly resurrected’ in another expression of the same poet. I let myself to be surprised by myself, and so the whole world surprises me at every instant with the novelty of an old landscape, the discovery of the daily road, the shock of a familiar face. Everything is new because I am new.
‘Being yourself is being another’. Thank you, poet. To be another while I am myself. The permanent continuity of my faithful conscience and the renewed novelty of my free spontaneity. Feeling confident with myself to let myself change, to dare to come out of my routine and out of the expectations that chain me down in set habits and fixed principles that don’t allow me to be another. Being another is the only way to really be. Coming out each day from yesterday’s shell. Being born again with the new sunrise. Greeting the word at each meeting with the joy of a new creation. Life never repeats itself. And whatever repeats itself is not life.
‘The same feeling is the same as no feeling.’ Feeling is instantaneous, spontaneous, alive. The rest is memories. And memories of memories. Our feelings today are only en echo of our feelings yesterday, that is, they are not feelings any more, as we are not feeling them now, and a life without feelings is no life. Today’s ashes of yesterday’s fire. A love that is only a remembrance, words that are only entries in a dictionary, fantasies that are only dead butterflies pinned down on a sheet of cardboard. We miss life while we claim to be alive.
A new vision is the secret of a new life. Clean eyes. Big eyes. Fresh eyes. Open eyes to see the burgeoning of nature all around us at each moment with virgin clarity. ‘Look, I make everything new.’ (Apocalypse 21:5) Let us learn how to open up before novelty. Let us learn to be ‘another’. Let us learn how to live.
I had gone to the ENT, and for a start the nurse took me to a room to test my hearing. I sat behind a glass with earphones on my ears, ready to signal with my right hand as soon as I heard the sounds she was raising from her keyboard. She suddenly told me, ‘Excuse me but I have to go out a moment. Remove your earphones and sit down here outside. There was no other chair, so I sat down in her chair as she left. After a little while there was a knock at the door. I said, ‘Come in’, and in came a mummy with a little girl. I remained seated in front of the keyboard, and on looking at the child I realised she was taking me for the doctor who was going to test her. I told her, ‘You know what we’re going to do, don’t you? You go seat there inside, I place the earphones on your ears, and then as soon as you hear a sound you put up your right hand, OK?’ She nodded assent, adjusted the earphones, I fumbled on the keyboard, although of course I had no idea what to do with it, and I let out a low sound in a whisper. I then began to raise my voice, and the girl suddenly lifted her hand. She had heard me through the glass. I did as if I were noting down something on a paper and went on with the experiment although by now I could hardly refrain from bursting with laughter. Suddenly the girl removed her earphones, literally jumped out of her chair and pointing at me she shouted to her mother, ‘It’s all wrong! He is laughing! It is not true!’ I burst out laughing before her perplexed mother who took a little time to understand the joke and to laugh with me and to calm her daughter down till the three of us laughed together and the nurse came back and she took he mother and the child away and went on with my test.
At the end she told me I needed a new hearing aid and quoted its price. When she saw my face she hastened to add that I needed not to worry as I could pay by instalments in 14 months. But she checked herself at once and she asked me my age. I told her I was 85, and she reacted, ‘Then it cannot be, for that age there is no credit.’ That is, she did not expect me to live more than 14 months. I started laughing again and told her that for 14 months I could manage with the old hearing aid. She looked confused. She got up and went to fetch the girl who was waiting outside with her mother. When going out our eyes met and I winked at her. She certainly would be granted credit.
Margaret A. Salinger, daughter of the writer J. D. Salinger who died recently, describes here a situation that affects many people and makes us all think. It happened when she was 11 and her brother 6.
‘Sometime after my aborted stay at camp during the summer of ’66, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. Or, perhaps I should say, they tried to announce it. It had been in the air for quite some time and came as no surprise to me. In fact, when they called us into the house to say they had something to speak to us about, something they never, ever did – speak to us as a team, I mean – I slumped down in our big leather chair and beat them to the punch. I rolled my eyes and, with my best ten-year-old ennui, said, “You’re getting a divorce, aren’t you? “Well, yes, actually, we are”, my mother said as she started to deliver her speech about how sometimes when grown-ups can’t get along…
She was interrupted as my little brother, just six years old, burst into tears and ran out of the house and down the road. On the doorstep, I told my parents in no uncertain terms, “Wait here, I’ll talk to him”. I found him by the roadside, down a bank, curled up in some leaves and sobbing. “Matthew, stop crying and listen to me.” You had to speak a little sharply to him at first because he could be quite hysterical, understandably lost in the swirling storm of rage and fear in and around him. A few months prior to their announcement, he’d been furious at my mother about something, and he had sat on the stairs, giving vent to the obvious tension in the house, screaming down at my father, eyes bulging, blood veins visible in his pale, six-year-old’s neck, “Divorce Mom! Divorce her!” I didn’t even know he knew the word.
Matthew took his head out of his hands and, snuffling, looked up at me. “Listen”, I said, “nothing is going to be any different when they get divorced, except maybe they won’t fight. They both love you. They just hate each other. Daddy will still live in his house, Mom and you and I will still live in our house, and Daddy will still come over to visit and play ball on the roof and go for a walk with the doggies and everything. All right? It’s no big deal.” He smiled damply and said, “Okay”, and got up. Big Sister had spoken. I put my arm around his shoulder for a second or two as we walked back to the house. I told my parents we were fine now and that I’d explained to him that nothing was going to change except that you two won’t fight as much, as I glared darkly at them. Then we went back to whatever it was each of us had been doing, alone, before the “family conference”.’
(Margaret A. Salinger, Dream Catcher, Scribner, London 2001, p. 204)
Many of you have appreciated in my last Web my remembrances of a good friend and a great person as Dr P. C. Vaidya was, and I’m thankful for that. But some have felt alarmed at my sentence, ‘I do not accept one occupation to be higher than the other’, referring to my own occupation as a mathematics teacher and as a priest. Is not being a priest ‘better’ that being a mathematics teacher? Is not saying Mass something ‘higher’ that teaching Pythagoras? Is not priesthood a vocation while being a teacher is only a profession?
As for myself, one occupation is as sacred as the other. Teaching is also a vocation. The same God who called me to the priesthood, called me to mathematics. Or is it that God singled me out personally for the priesthood whereas he had nothing to do with my mathematics? I took both tasks with full enthusiasm and total commitment. I precisely quoted the English mathematician G. H. Hardy, the ‘apostle’ of rigour in mathematical demonstrations in last century who said of himself he taught mathematics ‘with the zeal of a missionary teaching the Bible to cannibals.’ I love that quotation. I got as much pleasure out of his classical work ‘Pure Mathematics’ as out of the study of St Paul which has been my permanent hobby through life. Just now a de luxe ‘centenary edition’ of that work of Hardy’s has been published to mark hundred years since its publication. Few mathematics books have received such honours after Euclid’s ‘Elements’. Its results are dated, of course, but its spirit lives through its pages. He loved the expression ‘pure mathematics’ which referred to mathematics in themselves, not to any of its applications, which are many but which he rather despised. He prided himself on the fact that none of his mathematical discoveries had any practical use whatsoever, and he was disappointed when a mathematical physicist once did find a practical application for one of his theorems. He felt the purity of his research had been stained.
There is a charming anecdote in his life. He hated the telephone. If any visitor would ask his permission to use his phone as they thought he would have one in his house, he haughtily answered: ‘If you fancy yourself at the telephone, my next-door neighbour possesses one such appliance.’ Genial. Just as well he didn’t live to see our mobiles.
Psalm 80 – Remember your liberation
‘I am the Lord your God
who brought you up from Egypt.’A people that forgets its origins, loses its identity. That is why God’s great commandment to Israel is: Remember Egypt! Only then will you remember the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and you will be his people and he will be your God.
What makes us a people is our common origin in Christ. Our liberation, our redemption. We too were slaves, though we do not like to remember that. We take for granted our independence and our freedom, our human progress and social welfare, we take all that as normal and natural and due to us, and in the process we lose the common bonds that bind us to each other and to God. We have forgotten Egypt, and we have ceased to be a people.
‘This is a law for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob,
laid as a solemn charge on Joseph
when he came out of Egypt.’
Remember your past, remember your origins, remember your liberation. Remember Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Mount Calvary. Remember, deep in your personal history, your own bondage under passions and vices and sin. Personal slavery and universal captivity from which we were redeemed by the salvific action that made us one in Christ. That is our common root, our single history, our radical unity. Memory makes us one, while forgetfulness scatters us into separate groups and opposed factions. A person without a memory is no more a person. A people without a history is no more a people.
Give me the grace of memory, Lord, Make me recall, make me remember, make me be mindful. Let me have always before my eyes the poverty of my lowliness and the splendour of your redemption. You broke my chains, you tamed my vices you healed my wounds, you uplifted my spirits. You gave me new life, Lord, and in that new life is expressed my new identity as a member of your chosen people. I too have come out of Egypt, and I have not come out alone, but in the midst of a joyous crowd that felt the same liberation because they all had been under the same yoke.
To be truly myself I want to feel a member of your people. I accept your commandment to remember, and I ask for the grace to fulfil it so as to build the hopes of my future on the firmness of my past. I am one with your people, one in liberation, one in hope, and one in the end in fulfilment for ever.
Yes, you are the Lord my God who has brought me out of Egypt.
We’re those on our way
Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean poet who wrote the best Spanish in the past century, wrote about clouds:
‘There is nothing that couldn’t be a cloud.
Clouds are our cathedrals
in their massive stone and coloured glasses,
driven to nothingness by the relentless time.
Cloud is the Odyssey,
which changes like the sea every time we open it.
The reflection of your face is just another,
and each day is a labyrinth of doubts.
We’re those on our way.
The heavy cloud that dissolves in the West
The rose keeps on becoming the next rose.
You’re a cloud, you’re the sea, you’re oblivion.
You’re just as well all that you have not been.
Everything is a cloud. Because everything changes. Change is charm, is growth, is life. Even cathedrals in their carved stone and stained glass change in their stillness as the light filters through their coloured windows. The Odyssey changes every time we read it because our eyes and our mind have also changed in the interval; the sea changes, the mirror changes, the day changes. Change brings novelty, surprise, and joy. Change is life.
Poets agree. Pessoa told us: ‘Living is being another.’ Borges agrees: ‘the rose keeps on becoming the next rose.’ Notice the verb: ‘keeps on.’ The process goes on for ever and it is in that permanent conversion that the source of our energy is found. Petals open up, fragrances waft, colours appear. With all the courage and the strength of the new adventures, as the day is ‘a labyrinth of doubts’. It is in this new daily flowering that we find the strength, the charm, the breathing that life is.
‘We’re those on our way.’ Not in the dismal sense of the funeral dirge but in the renewed courage of the eternal farewell, since we have to take leave of each instant if we are to welcome the next one. This ‘being on our way’ is life’s wisdom from road to road and from fullness to fullness. Knowing how to take leave is the painful condition for meeting again. And every meeting is a new birth because our face has also changed as the mirror testifies. Everything is in those verses. Everything is in the cloud. We see the cloud daily though we do not pay attention to its messages in its ever changing shape. The beauty of the cloud is in its impermanence. Beauty is rare. Being a cloud is also a rare achievement.
The verses teach us at the end that changing we lose nothing. ‘You’re just as well all that you have not been.’ Nothing is forgotten in the cloud’s weightless biography. Enough to live each day in its simplicity. ‘You’re a cloud, you’re the sea, you’re oblivion.’ I am all that I have been and I will ever be. On condition I let myself be at each moment whatever I am. As a cloud. Which is the title of the poem: Clouds. Heavenly inspiration.
I was invited to a concert. A Russian orchestra and choir were to interpres Orff’s Carmina Burana and Thchaikowsky’s 5th Symphony. I’ve always loved classical music, and I was happy to accept the invitation. Carmina Burana always amuses me, not only by its catchy music but also by its delightful Latin text. They are authentic XII century couplets written by monks in a celebration of life with a freedom and a joy that shakes a bit the concept we have of monastic life in those days. They were found in the library of the Benedictine monastery of Beuern (hence their name ‘Burana’) in the XIX century, and set to music by Carl Orff in the XX century. The abbot of the monastery speaks in them and tells those who would like to meet him to look for him in the tavern, as he likes to drink with those who drink. The wine helps him to relax from his monastic responsibilities.
‘Abbas sum Cucaniensis;
consilium meum cum bibulis.
In taberna cuando sumus
non curamus quid sit humus.’ I am the abbot of Cockaine
where drunkards are my company.
When we drink we don’t think we are dust
and unto dust we shall return.
The allusion ‘we are dust and unto dust we shall return’ is from the Bible and from Lent, but not for the tavern. Besides, they duly pray for the pope there.
Tam pro papa quam pro rege
bibunt omnes sine lege.’We pray for pope and for king,
We drink our full and we sing.
‘Bibit hera, bibit herus,
bibit miles, bibit clerus.’The lady (hera) drinks, the lord (herus) drinks, the soldier (miles) drinks and the clergy (clerus) drink. Herus and clerus. The abbot minds his rhymes and seems to be enjoying himself at it. They also throw dice among themselves, and some of the monks have to leave their habits there as payment for their gambling debts and come out half naked from the tavern.
‘Sed in ludo qui morantur,
ex his quidam denudantur.
Quidam ibi vestiuntur,
quidam saccis induuntur.’Some of the gamblers
come out in shambles.
Some with new clothes,
others in sackcloth.
New habits were given them in the monastery, as everything was prepared for those who ‘come out undressed at the time of Vespers’.
The mandates of Venus had them to be obeyed, as ‘what Venus commands is always soft and pleasing’:
‘Quidquid Venus imperat
labor est suavis.’I’m leaving out more explicit terms. In a word, the monks did seem to have a good time, and they had the sense of humour to say it all in verse. It would appear that the Middle Ages were not such dull times after all, and that the monks did something else besides copying out manuscripts of classical works for posterity. And people knew it. Carl Orff’s music is also playful and sticks to the ear, and I remember the first time I heard these tunes in concert I came out singing them full voice, which is not usual with me.
velut luna!’Fortune is like the moon, waxing and waning again and again. Such too was the monks’ life. And the Russian orchestra and choir promised a glorious performance. The conductor was also well-known for his command and energy.
As for Tchaikowsky, his 5th Symphony is not precisely my favourite one, but Russian musicians in orchestra always bring out the best in their most famous composer, so that the programme was quite attractive. But as we arrived at the Music Hall there was a surprise waiting for us. We arrived on time but the doors were still closed and we were told we would have to wait for a while outside. Why so? It was already time. Yes, but it was explained to us that the orchestra and the choir were practicing inside. A little late for a practice, we thought. Finally the doors opened, we entered and found our places. When we were all in, silence descended on the hall, and the mystery was solved. The loudspeakers informed us that there was a change in the programme. The scores of Tchaikowsky’s 5th Symphony had been misplaced…, and in its place another piece would be performed…, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony!
We all burst into applause. Nothing wrong with Tchaikowsky and his Fifth, but nothing again in comparison with Beethoven and his Ninth. And for the same price. That was quite a present. That also explained the last minute rehearsal. Apparently, every Concert Hall has on hand the scores of Beethoven’s 5th, and every orchestra and every choir know it by heart, and just a brief practice would be enough for its performance. Soloists and all. Ideal concert. Carmina Burana to begin with, and Beethoven’s 9th alter the interval. Quite a treat. At times it is a good thing the scores are lost.
Statu variabilis.’O Fortune,
like the moon!
Always in your changes.
Beethoven’s 9th always moves me. It was quite a few years since I had heard it in concert, though in CD I often play it to myself. As a piano student in my youth I even had the effrontery to learn it for piano at four hands, so that it is now with me in my fingers and in my soul. Its first movement with its tantalising introduction, its swift octaves and its daring chords; the adagio with it second theme in C even better that the first one in B flat; the playful scherzo; and the last movement with Schiller’s words and the simplest and most fascinating motif in the history of music in only five notes. When the first notes of ‘A Hymn to Joy’ started to sound pianissimo in the double basses my eyes went wet and I wept like a child. The beauty of music, the memories of childhood, the magic of the moment overwhelmed me. And then the theme keeps on working its way up from double basses to cellos, from cellos to violins, from string to metal, from the orchestra to the baritone, from the baritone to the choir, from pianissimo to fortissimo till its fills up the mind and the soul and the air and the heart. Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium! That was heaven indeed.
I listened and I melt and I cried and I clapped and I shouted ‘Bravo!’ when the last chord sounded; and when at last I calmed down and got up and went out, I told the friends that had invited me something that I remembered very well that day but that I had not told them yet: ‘You have unknowingly contributed to a very intimate joy of mine today. You have seen me enjoying Beethoven down to tears. But you did not know that another personal celebration of mine is joining today this musical feast. Today is the anniversary day of my priestly ordination. 52 years ago on the 25th of March, in the feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, I was ordained a priest in Anand, Gujarat. You may now understand my feelings at the unexpected gift. Your invitation and Beethoven’s Ninth.
vita detestabilis.The only discordant note in all this beautiful concert was the Benedictine abbot of Cockaigne calling his life ‘detestable’ in his last verse. ‘Detestabilis.’ He does it, of course, to rhyme with ‘variabilis’ for the variations of the moon in her waxing and her waning, and we know that rhyme mattered for the good abbot. But he could have found a happier rhyme. Or a happier tavern, perhaps.
Statu variabilis.O Fortune
like the moon!
Always in your changes.
Question:Hi Carlos,as you know, I’m going on my pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Apostle St James in Santiago at Compostela next week. [That is ten days walking along the pilgrim way from France to Spain along which thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe and the world come to travel the distance on foot and to gain the merit of the pilgrimage and the official document of having completed it on foot as it has been sealed in all the pilgrim resting places along the way.] My doubt is, can I get that certificate in my grandmother’s name? She would love it, of course, as she cannot do the way in person at her age. That is, can I do the pilgrimage in another person’s name that cannot walk the 100 miles, and would she get the plenary indulgence and all the spiritual benefits of the pilgrimage?
Just that for today.
Answer:To do your pilgrimage in your grandmother’s name is a beautiful thought, Elena, and it will do for her soul whatever the actual walking would do for her. What I don’t know is whether they will give you the official Latin certificate of the pilgrimage (the so called ‘Compostela’) in your grandmother’s name. If you explain to them the situation, they should give it to you. You can tell them that in Catholic masses, the one who says the mass is the priest, but he can ‘offer’ the mass for anybody else, and in fact he usually does that and even charges a stipend for it. We in India used to say masses which we offered for the intentions of Catholics in the USA, where another priest gathered such intentions and communicated them to us in advance, and he charged there the stipend (one dollar) and then sent it to us. We irreverently called them ‘dollar masses’, and many parishes among us lived on them. This was a little ugly as you see, but it does show that you can ‘offer’ a good work and its religious merit for another person. The same is the case of the masses for the souls in purgatory. They are said here, and they have their effect there. With all these arguments you’ll we able to convince the clerks at the pilgrims’ office. Tell them your grandmother, who is 89, cannot be expected to go to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and start walking from there through Spain with walking stick, rucksack, scallop shell, and pilgrim’s hat for ten days. Your grandmother will understand, as she surely has paid for many masses for her intentions and her dead relatives, and now she can get the merit of the pilgrimage for free. When I say ‘merit’ I mean the plenary indulgence and everything included. And, besides, that does not in any way diminish your personal merit on foot.
I’ve just now read the book ‘I’M OFF, THEN’, on the Santiago pilgrimage written by Hape Kerkeling, a popular comedian in German television who has made the Way himself. The book has sold more than three million copies in a short time and is very entertaining. I can lend it to you if you want. And then see: the book is dedicated on its first page to his grandmother! It would seem geniuses think alike. You can even give the book to your grandmother. Or, better still, you write your own book and dedicate it to her. I can write a prologue for you if you want. I too went to St James’s sanctuary in Santiago a few years ago and I asked for the ‘Compostela’ in the pilgrims’ office. They asked me whether I had come on foot. I said I had come by plane which was much more expensive. And I got the certificate! So all my sins are forgiven. Still, I’ll be going again this year which is special as it is a jubilee year, just in case. The subtitle of the German book is also meaningful: ‘Losing and finding myself on the Way to Santiago.’ May you get lost and find yourself again. Tell me all when you’re back. Kisses, Carlos.
Thank you, Carlos. Lovely. Elena.
[The official ‘Compostela’ was given with Elena’s name on it and the Latin postcript: ‘vicarie pro’, which is ‘in place of’, followed by her grandmother’s name. Everything has been foreseen at Santiago. And everybody was happy.]
Psalm 81 – Judge of judges
‘How long will you judge unjustly
and show favour to the wicked?
You ought to give judgement for the weak and the orphan,
and see right done to the destitute and downtrodden;
you ought to rescue the weak and the poor,
and save them from the clutches of wicked men.
But you know nothing, you understand nothing,
you walk in the dark while earth’s foundations are giving way.’For the sake of the oppressed I pray for justice, Lord. Give courage to your judges, make them recognise innocence and denounce guilt, and deliver their sentence without fear. Make them give confidence to your people and kindle a ray of hope in a society that has lost its sense of fairness and equity. Let there be justice on earth, as a sign and pledge of your divine justice in heaven.
And to that end, Lord, let my life be just and fair in my thoughts and in my deeds. Let my conscience be stirred whenever I read in the papers or see on television that the mighty on earth abuse of their power, the politicians misuse their politics, and the leaders pervert their leadership. Let all do their duty to all, and let me do also my duty to help awake in society the conscience that will save the world.
‘Arise, O God, and judge the earth;
for you pass all nations through your sieve.’
How to think with the body
‘Think with your whole body.’
(Taisen Deshimaru)Just to hear the challenge in that phrase does me good, even if I don’t quite know what it means. I don’t know what it is to think with the body, as I have never done it; but the bold pronouncement triggers in my mind an avalanche of thoughts, instincts, longings, intuitions that make me dream a fuller reality than I have lived so far, a keener commitment in my human activity, a wholesome totality in my responsibility as a person. Something beckons to me in the unusual proposition. ‘Think with your whole body.’ I, hardened intellectual, worshipper of the mind and slave of reason, glimpse a welcome ray of liberation in the oriental challenge of thinking with the body. What can they mean by that?
I realise I am taking refuge in a question, so as to avoid the inconvenience of an answer. I will admit that I know, at least in some initial way, what it is to think with the body; but I feel lazy to open the door that will lead to changes, as changes always bring trouble and inconvenience. But I guess some of the meaning in the invitation to think with the body. The fullness of thinking comes in the feeling; feelings show in the senses, and the senses are the body. In strained circumstances of intense thought, my pulse quickens, my breathing becomes conscious, perspiration surfaces, and my skin becomes taut against my bones. There I have my whole body taking active part with full responsibility in the vital process of thought. And if I feel that cooperation in peak moments, I guess the same happens quietly in daily thinking. The whole organism participates in an activity which matters to the whole organism. The mind also feels, and the body thinks. We are all of a piece.
Let them not divide us into watertight compartments. Let them not isolate our faculties. Let them not split the unity of being. Labels and divisions can be useful in the laboratory, but life is one, and it is in its oneness that its strength lies.
My body knows when it wants to walk and when to rest, when it wants to eat and when to wait; it knows when it can trust a person, and when it must keep a distance; it knows when it rejoices at seeing me undertake a new ideological adventure, and when it feels saddened at seeing me lose my time in a useless endeavour; it knows when I feel at home in sharing my life with faithful friends, and when I whither away in the slow loneliness I live alone. There is an instinct that resides in all my members, as the migration instinct in the wings of the birds, and that guides me, encourages me, lifts me up and makes me fly. If I learn how to sense, decipher, and follow that instinct, my life will cross infinite spaces with the ease of a seagull.
Such is my task. To learn how to trust, to understand, to listen to my body. To refine this incipient instinct till it becomes second nature to me. To forge the unity of my being in thinking and walking and dreaming and eating. To do all I do with all I am. To think with my whole body. To live with my whole being. Just to have said this gladdens my skin. Auspicious beginning for a happy task.
Canonisations as seen from above
It takes genuine British humour to tell all that I’ve read in the London Catholic weekly The Tablet on the occasion of the forthcoming beatification of Cardenal Newman to take place at the hands of the pope next September in Birmingham during his official visit to England. The literary genre of the piece could be called ‘heaven fiction’ as it is not quite ‘science fiction’. I summarise.
The good cardinal and convert was quite shy, reserved, humble and simple, and honours and ceremonies did not agree with him, not even the red hat of cardinals; but now in heaven he comes to know that down on earth there is a move to canonise him. He feels curious about it and inquires about the matter from some of the canonised saints who abound in heaven. They explain to him that a certified miracle is needed for him to be declared a blessed, and another to be declared a saint. Formerly three miracles were needed at each stage, but pope John Paul II brought down the number to one in each case, thus facilitating the process so that many saints were canonised in that period in many places. Accordingly, Newman learned that just then down there on earth, and particularly in England where he was best known, there were people who were praying for one such miracle for his beatification, and when one would work, he would be beatified. And then, in course of time, canonised. The point was that the miracle had to take place at his intercession. Else, it was no use. Newman feels interested, starts looking down, and spots a nun who is reciting a prayer with his name on it asking to be cured of some ailment. He feels compassion for the good sister, begins also to feel elated at the thought of being raised to the altars, runs to St Peter and tells him: ‘Look here, Peter. Over here in heaven there are many canonised saints, and now it seems I too could be one of them. Not that I have any ambitions, of course, as here we’re all above those things, but it would always be nice, wouldn’t it? It would be a fine thing for the Church in England. An English saint, and a convert from Protestantism at that. Can’t ask for more. Well, I’ve spotted a nun down there on earth who is making a novena in my honour and every day she asks to be cured of some sickness she is suffering from. I don’t know exactly what it is but it seems to be serious enough and it would do for a miracle. And she is asking for it in my name. The point is you can easily go to the Holy Spirit and ask him to heal that nun, and here I am a blessed! What about it?’ Peter goes to see the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit answers him: ‘I hadn’t noticed that nun, but if you want…’. He gets up and says under his breath: ‘Come, let us lengthen the litany.’
The article goes on to say: ‘The idea that God would demonstrate a saint to be really in heaven by suddenly healing someone’s fatal sickness because the mentioned saint has asked him to do so seems to me so naïve, mean, pretentious, mechanical and manipulative that is does no honour to the Catholic religion while it does confirm the worst prejudices of its enemies. Is this truly the God we believe in? Are there not millions of people who pray every day for the healing of their loved ones, and some are healed and others not? Doesn’t it look as though this whole idea of miracles for canonisation, miraculous cures as part of a public relations exercise, is a mockery for all those millions of believers who are not asking for a canonisation in their prayers? In the case of John Henry Newman, for instance, could this not convert his imminent beatification into something truly embarrassing? For all we know about him we can safely say that Newman had (or should we say ‘has’?) no desire to be presented as a saint. He hesitated enough to accept the cardinalate. How is it that he now becomes ready to collaborate with all this process from his place in heaven? In Rome they used to say some years ago that the reason his canonisation process was not going faster was that the great majority of English Catholics were not asking with sufficient eagerness for the necessary miracle. If there is some truth in this, I suspect it is because the great majority of English Catholics share my scepticism. They probably believe that to unite his name to such an attitude is degrading him. It defeats its purpose. Newman deserved something better.’
(Clifford Longley, The Tablet 9.1.2010)
This quotation goes with my own apologies to the soon new blessed. I remind him that in our exercises on formal preaching as seminarians I used to choose passages from his sermons to memorise and to deliver before the whole class with proper gestures and intonation as a practice for future preaching from the pulpit. His exquisite English and his sharp arguments helped in the practice. That is Newman’s true character.
In the same article in The Tablet, the author mentions there are no less than five recent popes in the process of being canonised: Pius IX, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, and adds pointedly: ‘The papacy begins to take on the appearance of a mutual admiration society.’ It’s almost, I canonise my predecessor so that my successor may canonise me. And he adds with another touch of dry humour: ‘What have poor Leo XIII, Benedict XV, and Pius XI done not to be canonised? They are the only recent popes to be omitted from the waiting list. Are they not too in heaven?’ – All this can be said in The Tablet. At the end he adds: ‘If the Church does not change, that’s not because she is not told.’
– My name is Santiago, although I’m not from the place, and I liked Elena’s pilgrimage to Santiago. Can you give us a few quotations from the book of that German pilgrim you mention?
– Yes. The author of the book is Hape Kerkeling, star comedian on German television, and I’m going to quote to you a few passages from it. One of them made me cry. Another made me laugh. I hope you spot them. At the end you’ll become serious.
Once I get to the hilltop, there is a majestic view of Nájera, the former residence of the Navarrese kings. And while I gaze down into the valley, I think: What I wouldn’t give to be able to talk about this experience with a good friend, in my own language!
Shortly before I reach Nájera, I find a gigantic thirteen-by-thirteen-foot billboard in my path. It’s smack in the middle of nowhere. I am quite astonished to read what’s on it. A poem. In German! Only in German! The anonymous poet describes his feelings during the pilgrimage. I goes something like this:
‘Why do I deal with the dry dust in my mouth,
the mud on my aching feet,
the lashing rain and the glaring sun on my skin?
Because of the beautiful towns?
Because of the churches?
Because of the food?
Because of the wine?
No. Because I was summoned!’
While reading the poem, exhausted and covered in dust from top to bottom, I have no choice but to relive every word. These words are true in some mysterious way.
Larissa treats me to a beer, and we start to talk. Her face clouds over as she tells me that this is her second journey on the Camino de Santiago. In 1999, she hiked this trail with her daughter Michelle. Michelle was then thirty-two, and had breast cancer. Mother and daughter were quite devout, and they were determined to walk the Camino. Since Michelle was unable to carry a back pack, they bought a donkey named Pierrot in southern France on the spur of the moment, then spent two weeks hiking to Santiago with the donkey as best they could, until Michelle was no longer able to endure the pain of her tumour and had to break off the journey. Larissa and her daughter headed home to the Netherlands, where Michelle died fourteen days later. This year, Larissa began her trek at exactly the spot in southern France where Michelle stopped in 1999. Larissa is determined to make it to the end to honour her daughter’s memory. [My eyes get wet again when typing this. I cannot help it.]
Tina has a wonderful pilgrim story to tell. Earlier on the trail, she couldn’t find laundry detergent in a tiny town. Since she doesn’t speak Spanish, she made a series of wild gestures to show the saleslady what she wanted. The saleslady gave her a package of something or other, which Tina happily purchased and brought to the pilgrims’ hostel. When Tina later opened the little package over the sink, she found out that it contained liquid vanilla pudding. So she washed everything in vanilla pudding! ‘My clothing may not have been clean’, Tina explains, ‘but it smelled very good!’ [And here I burst into laughter again.]
Each year, thousands of pilgrims’ passports are issued, but only fifteen percent are actually stamped in Santiago.
I can neither relate nor record what I experienced yesterday. It is inexpressible. I highly recommend hiking for seven miles without speaking or thinking. Larissa had told me something back in Grañón that I thought rather foolish at the time: ‘Everyone eventually gets to the point of bursting into tears somewhere along this route. You just stand there and cry. You’ll see!’
Yesterday was the day it happened to me. I was standing right in the middle of the vineyards, and out of nowhere I began to cry. I cannot say why.
Exhaustion? Joy? Everything at once? Whining near the wine? In spite of it all, I burst out laughing.
Then it happened! I had my very own encounter with God. What happened there is between Him and me. The bond between Him and me is an entity unto itself.
To encounter God, you first have to issue an invitation to Him; He does not come without being asked – a divine form of good manners. It’s up to us. He establishes an individual relationship with us. Only a person who truly loves is capable of sustaining this relationship.
Yesterday it was as though a huge gong had rung in my head. And the sound will reverberate. Sooner or later the Camino shakes us to our very foundations. I know that the sound will gradually fade, but if I prick up my ears, I will hear the reverberation for a long time to come.
For all intents and purposes, my quest is at an end here, because I have found the answer to my question. From now on, this journey will be purely for pleasure.
My pilgrimage can be interpreted as a parable of my path through life.
Psalm 82 – God, don’t keep silent!
‘God, don’t keep silent!
Don’t be still, God, don’t keep quiet!’You are an active God, Lord, the way I know you from the days of creation to the care of your people and your walking with them on earth and inspiring them through your Spirit in the initiative of your directives and the power of your help. You were cloud and column of fire, you were storm and wind, you opened up seas and brought down walls, you led armies and won battles, you called prophets and ruled kingdoms, you inspired virtue and made martyrdom possible. Yours was the greatest power in the world, Lord, and men and women knew it and acknowledged it with awe.
Now, on the contrary, you seem to keep quiet. The world goes round by itself, and your presence is not felt. People do what they please, and nations go their own way without any reference to you. And you keep quiet. No bright cloud and no column of fire are to be seen now. No trumpets of Jericho and no winds of Pentecost. You do not count, you are ignored, you are silent. Have you given us up, Lord?
And when I think of my own life, I find the same situation. There was a time when I felt your presence and experienced your power. You spoke to me, you inspired me, you led me. It was the enthusiasm of my youth and the fervour of my growing years, but you were to me as real as my closest friend and you took part in my plans and my decisions, in my joys and in my sorrows, with a daily realism of faith and experience. Now for a long time you are silent. I don’t hear your voice, I don’t feel your presence. You are just absent from my life, and I go on, yes, doing the things I always did and believing the things I always believed, but out of habit, out of routine, without conviction and without zest. When I speak or experiencing you I speak of the past, when I extol your graces and your power, I speak from memory. You have faded from my experience, you are silent in my life.
Speak again, O Lord. Make yourself again actual and real to me and to all men and women who love your coming. Take your rightful place in the world you have created and in my heart which is still yours. Silence those who ignore you, discount you, neglect you. Break your silence and let the world know that you are here and you are in charge.
‘Let them learn that you alone are Lord,
God Most High over all the earth.’
How to pray with the body
‘Meditation is not
thinking that we must not think.
Meditation is feeling the silence
of the whole body
with your whole body.’
(Chamalú)We were told we had to think with the body. Now we are told to feel the silence of the body. And we are encouraged to do that because – we are told again – that is precisely the true way to meditation. Maybe they are right. Maybe meditation is after all the silence of the soul, and the way to it is the silence of the body. Maybe body and soul form an intimate and intertwined unit, and the organic calm of cells and neurons generates the peace and serenity of the soul that finds itself in the mystical embrace of the unity of being. And maybe this is meditation.
The silence of the body. I have tried it in the midst of a public bus, among the pushing and pulling of the people, the shaking at the potholes, the trivial conversations, the roar of the traffic. I asked my body to stand erect in the middle of the surrounding chaos. And a temporary oasis descended among the offending din. The noise from outside continued, but its vibrations passed through my body without affecting it. There was no tension in my muscles, no curling up in nerves, no defensiveness in my skin. There was no violence in my hands, and no impatience in my feet. My whole body breathed at once, and the breathing created a peace zone around me, to defend the inner tranquillity against the onslaught of the forces of unease. It was a fact. The body can be at ease even if everything around it is up in arms. In such moments the peace of the body becomes image and support of the peace of the soul that abides in it.
The silence of nature seizes us with the grip of an intensely religious feeling. A mountain summit, the majesty of a motionless cloud in the remote sky, the darkened mystery of a starry night. Everything speaks, because everything is silent. And if nature knows how to keep silence, we too can begin to practise those silences in our own body, and learn to still noises so that we may communicate better. That is meditation.
We carry within ourselves the best tool for effective meditation: the pauses of life, the orchestra of silence, a body innocent of thoughts and words. To feel that body intimately, quietly, devotedly, is the practical meditation that calms down our impatience and unities the soul. That is the deepest and richest ‘recollection’ of ascetical practice, the felt contact with ourselves in all our bodily reality, the live acknowledgment of God’s presence in the body which he made and in which he dwells day and night.
To feel the silence of the body is to make it into a temple of glory, and to worship in it the majesty of God. And than, again, is prayer.
The missionary dog
This story of Khalil Gibran’s I read quite some time ago, and I like to quote it from time to time as it helps to unmask the guilt complex which has done so much harm to so many.
“In a large, large city there was a dog that was a preacher, an apostle, a missionary, and exhorted other dogs to virtue and to service. He preached to them for their moral uplift, and once he undertook a campaign against that most uncivilised of all dogs’ habits: barking. He preached to them: ‘Do not bark. Barking is bad manners; by barking we lose ninety per cent of our energies in a silly way, and besides we annoy all humans. That is why we have never advanced in our lives through history. Now we know better. Out with the bad habit! No barking from now!’
But it is not easy for dogs to stop barking. It is an instinct with them. In fact they only feel happy when the bark: ‘Wuau, wuau, wuau!’ It is their own catharsis. They did listen to the missionary dog who preached to them a kingdom of peace where no one would bark and no one would quarrel, and all dogs would be deeply religious and concerned for one another. But they went on barking. ‘Wuau, wuau, wuau!’ They would listen to his sermons, and then they would approach him and tell him: ‘You are perfectly right. You are a great person, an extraordinary dog and a great preacher, and all that you say is true. But we are poor dogs, we are frail and weak, and we cannot do without barking. We feel guilty as the poor sinners we are, we feel ashamed of ourselves, but we cannot help it.’ And they barked on, ‘Wuau, wuau, wuau!’
One day all dogs got together by themselves without the missionary dog, and discussed the situation as they felt very sorry for their sins. Someone proposed a remedy, between barks, which would enable them to show their good will at least, as they were not able to quit barking altogether. He said: ‘The missionary dog is a very good dog and wants only our good. But we are not able to do what he tells us. So let us please him al least for a day. If we cannot let off barking for ever, let us do it at least for one day in the year to show that we appreciate what he tells us, and thus to ease our own consciences. Besides, we are going to choose for that day the missionary dog’s own birthday. On that day none of us will bark even once. Non-Barking Day. It will be hard, but we’ll hold on for twenty-four hours. And we are not going to tell him anything. It must be a surprise. That will make the good missionary dog very happy.’ They all agreed and barked out their satisfaction: ‘Wuau, wuau, wuau!’
Well thought, well done. The birthday came, and not a bark. The missionary dog was overjoyed. ‘My labours bore fruit at last! The dogs have listened to my message and have reformed their lives. See, no one barks at all. A new age has dawned on our race.’ He waited anxiously the whole day, but not a bark. He was afraid what would happen at night when barking is unavoidable, but even then not a sound was heard in the whole city. His mission had succeeded.
But then he began to worry. ‘If all the dogs stop barking… what am I to do now? The only thing I know is to preach to them that they should not bark. If they do not bark, my mission is over. I’m out of a job. Poor me! What will happen to me?’ And he began to roam through the streets, his heart swayed between worry and hope, but… nothing again. All the wretched dogs were dying to bark, but they held fast thinking there were only a few hours left for their deliverance, and then they would make up for their enforced silence. ‘I don’t only lose my job’, the missionary dog went on to worry, ‘but also all my influence, my position, my power over society. Who am I if I am not the apostle of freedom from barking? And how can I be the apostle of freedom from no barking if nobody barks? That is the end of my prestige and the end of my power. Something has to be done.’
The missionary dog entered a dark alley. No sound. He drifted listlessly into a cul-de-sac. Nothing. Then he looked around in the darkness. He made sure nobody was watching him…, and quietly first and with full purpose on the increase, he himself started barking louder and louder: ‘Wuau, wuau, wuau!’ Another dog heard it without knowing who was barking, and thought, ‘Well, if one barks, so can two.’ And he barked, ‘Wuau!’ A third dog barked, ‘Wuau!’ And so more and more through the whole city. The prohibition was lifted, and the night woke up. ‘Wuau, wuau, wuau!’
The missionary dog breathed his relief. He had a job again. He had his power back, he has his influence, he had his power. He waited till the dawn, left then his hiding place, and began to preach again.”
Thank you for the drawing you’ve sent me, Emilio. I’ve enjoyed it. The whole large flock of sheep crowded against each other as they all advance without seeing what is in front of them, and then all fall down the precipice towards which they going without suspecting it. And in the midst of them all, the lonely little sheep that has turned back and begins to walk away from the precipice while she very good mannerly says, ‘Excuse me, please’. I see myself in that little sheep, as in many points I see myself walking against the tide and saying politely, ‘Excuse me, please’.
Quite a few of you have told me you liked Elena’s pilgrimage to Santiago in the Web of May 1st. Thought some have been disturbed by my mentioning the ‘plenary indulgence’ as though it were important for me, without realising I was mentioning it with a touch of humour, precisely to rest it importance. Indulgences have always created trouble since Luther who saw how churches in Rome were built with money raised by auctioning indulgences. In our novitiate there was once a discussion because a novice asked innocently what was the meaning of the phrase ‘Indulgence of seven years and seven Lents’ attached to some prayers, and he said it without any malice, simply to find out what it really meant, and those around smiled, while the other novice took it ill as an offence against faith and protested in earnest: ‘Seven years and seven Lents is half fourteen years and fourteen Lents, and double three and a half. And if you don’t respect these sacred things, you’ll pay for it in purgatory. And no indulgences will avail you.’ We laughed all the more, of course. It has always seemed strange to me that someone, who finds a prayer with a plenary indulgence attached and says it in his deathbed escapes purgatory, while any other good person in any corner of the world in any other culture or religion dies without any such help and has to endure purgatory without remission. As the official version goes. Not my version, anyhow. Excuse me, please.
Psalm 83 – Love of God’s Temple
‘How dear is your dwelling-place,
Lord, God of Hosts!’When I say these lovely words, Lord, I think of a number of things at once in my mind, and several images surge in happy confusion from the depths of my memory. I imagine the Temple of Jerusalem, stately cathedrals I have seen, small chapels I have prayed in. I think of the temple of my heart, of the visions of the Book of Revelation and of paintings of heaven. Whatever can be called your house, your temple, your dwelling-place. All that is dear to me, and becomes the aim of my desires and the focus of my longing.
‘Happy are those who dwell in your house!’
I know that your house is the whole world, that you fill every space and are present in every heart. But I also like the symbol, the image, the sacrament of your holy temple where I feel almost physically near you, where I can visit you, worship you, kneel before you in the sacred intimacy of your own house.
‘Better one day in your courts
than a thousand days at home.’
In the secret of my mind, in the freedom of my fantasy, in the reality of my pilgrimages, in the devotion of my visits I see myself kneeling before your altar, which is your presence, your throne, your home. I enjoy being there with my body whenever I can and with my imagination whenever I desire. A place for me in your home, a corner in your temple.
‘Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow has her nest
where she rears her brood beside your altars,
O Lord of Hosts, my King and my God.’
Just to be there, to feel at home near you, to be surrounded by memories that speak of you, to be penetrated by the smell of incense, to sing sacred hymns that I know since childhood, to witness the majesty of your liturgy, to bow in unison with your people before the secret certainty of your presence. That is joy in my heart, and strength to live my life wherever it may be, with the thought of your temple always before me.
I feel at home in your house, Lord. Will you feel at home in my house too? Come to my heart. Let our visits be mutual, our contact renewed, our familiarity grow through frequent meetings in your place and in mine. Let my heart too become your temple in the glow of your presence and the permanence of your memory. And let your temple become my home in the length of my visits and the longing during my absences.
‘I pine, I faint with longing for the courts of the Lord’s temple;
my whole being cries out with jot to the living God.
O lord of Hosts, happy the man who trusts in you!’
The journey to Entepfuhl
‘Meditation is not
thinking that we must not think.
Meditation is feeling the silence
of the whole body
with your whole body.’
(Chamalú)We were told we had to think with the body. Now we are told to feel the silence of the body. And we are encouraged to do that because – we are told again – that is precisely the true way to meditation. Maybe they are right. Maybe meditation is after all the silence of the soul, and the way to it is the silence of the body. Maybe body and soul form an intimate and intertwined unit, and the organic calm of cells and neurons generates the peace and serenity of the soul that finds itself in the mystical embrace of the unity of being. And maybe this is meditation.
The silence of the body. I have tried it in the midst of a public bus, among the pushing and pulling of the people, the shaking at the potholes, the trivial conversations, the roar of the traffic. I asked my body to stand erect in the middle of the surrounding chaos. And a temporary oasis descended among the offending din. The noise from outside continued, but its vibrations passed through my body without affecting it. There was no tension in my muscles, no curling up in nerves, no defensiveness in my skin. There was no violence in my hands, and no impatience in my feet. My whole body breathed at once, and the breathing created a peace zone around me, to defend the inner tranquillity against the onslaught of the forces of unease. It was a fact. The body can be at ease even if everything around it is up in arms. In such moments the peace of the body becomes image and support of the peace of the soul that abides in it.
The silence of nature seizes us with the grip of an intensely religious feeling. A mountain summit, the majesty of a motionless cloud in the remote sky, the darkened mystery of a starry night. Everything speaks, because everything is silent. And if nature knows how to keep silence, we too can begin to practise those silences in our own body, and learn to still noises so that we may communicate better. That is meditation.
We carry within ourselves the best tool for effective meditation: the pauses of life, the orchestra of silence, a body innocent of thoughts and words. To feel that body intimately, quietly, devotedly, is the practical meditation that calms down our impatience and unities the soul. That is the deepest and richest ‘recollection’ of ascetical practice, the felt contact with ourselves in all our bodily reality, the live acknowledgment of God’s presence in the body which he made and in which he dwells day and night.
To feel the silence of the body is to make it into a temple of glory, and to worship in it the majesty of God. And than, again, is prayer.
The first time I read it
I am sitting in the underground. A child about ten years old and his father sit by my side. The father asks: ‘What is what you would like most to do in your life?’ The child answers: ‘To score the goal that will make the Spanish team win in the world football championship.’
Noble endeavour. When I was asked at age ten what was what I most wanted in life, I had learned to answer: ‘To be a martyr for Christ.’
Noble endeavour again. And as distant from reality as the world football championship. But somewhat more useful. Christ had entered the programme, and that was what mattered. Martyrdom or not, his love was the issue. We used to speak a great deal in those days about the need to have an ideal in life, an aim, a goal, a star to show the way, to guide our steps, to give us strength to achieve it. And our ideal was Christ, his friendship, his love. Personal reading of the Bible was not common at the time, and nobody owned their own copy of the gospels, but that was what we were advised to do now as a new gesture, a bold innovation, a daring step for our time then.
The mass at the time was still in Latin and in a low voice, so that one didn’t come much in contact with the Bible directly, although we did know its more common passages as the parables and the sermon on the mount, the passion, and the apparitions. But never a direct personal reading. That was a novelty. That was how I came to but my first copy of the gospels and I read them eagerly. I read for the first time Jesus’ dialogues with his disciples at the Last Super followed by what we call his priestly prayer in the chapel before the tabernacle, and I’ll never forget the impression they caused on me. I felt even bodily heat, the beating of my heart, the thrill of being in contact with something unique, divine, definitive, supernatural. That was heaven. I was left with a nostalgic feeling for that moment which later in life I was able to identify when I read Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Unease’. In it he tells about the impression caused on him by the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio Vieira’s famous sermon on the occasion of his returning from his mission in Brasil to Portugal. He says: ‘At the end I was left with the nostalgic feeling that I would never be able to read for the first time that supreme linguistic symphony.’ Of course, nothing can be read again ‘for the first time’. The first time is unique by definition. And that is sorrow. I’ll read again a thousand times Jesus’ words in the Last Super, I’ll meditate on them, will study them, will quote them, will speak about them, will learn them by heart…, but I’ll never be able to read them again for the first time. The virgin moment. The surprising initiative. The exclusive experience. The first innocence. The blessing of the first love. Such was my first reading of the gospels. It left its mark on me for ever. The love of Jesús as our life ideal was truly a blessed idea.
Isidro Esteve took part in the motorcycle Dakar competition in 2007 where he met with an accident and remained wheelchair bound for life. He tells here an African anecdote and the way he was later discharged from hospital.
I met Fatima in Zouérat. She was five year old, had black eyes, dark skin stained with tar, and curly hair. She came up to me barefoot, in a frayed dress, running in the dust. She was hoping for a gift from the stranger. She murmured in French, Cadeau, cadeau! (bakshis, a gift) asking for anything. I searched my pockets but all I found in them was desert sand. Fatima by my side and pulling now at my trousers kept asking for any help.
Suddenly, as an inspiration, I realised I had in my right side pocket one of those tiny plastic envelopes with sugar they give you in cafés. I took it out and gave it to her. She took it, laughed nervously and went running to a house where a bed-sheet hung as a door. I felt at the same time happy and miserable. Happy as I had finally found something to give, and miserable as the gift was such a paltry thing.
I called after her but she did not turn back. I thought she must had felt offended at my giveaway. And she had full right to feel offended though I had never meant it. I walked on, and after about five minutes someone caught the leg of my trousers. I turned and I saw Fatima, together with her mother, her grandmother, two brothers and an aunty. They all had come to me to thank me.
On May 30 I was operated upon for the first time after my accident, and on April 11th I was placed on the electric stimulator. I had to stay in hospital following a strict diet, daily checks, and all other cares till August 16th. But I couldn’t bear it any longer. I told the nurses about it and they told me to see the head doctor for spine trouble. I explained to her: “I just have the feeling I cannot stick it out here any longer; I must go back home.” She answered with a smile: “Congratulations. You can go. What I was waiting for was for you to have such a sensation and tell me. The first step to overcome all that has happened to you is for you to realise that you can do it and you want to do it. To feel sure on your own that it is not strictly necessary for you to remain any longer in the hospital.” I reported back: “I’m leaving.” – “When, tomorrow? After a week? When?” – “Now. Just now.” An hour later I was out with my wife eating an ice-cream on my way home. I myself couldn’t believe it, but it was a fact.
That charming little girl is my daughter. She sometimes looks at me with a question in her eyes that never comes to her lips: “Why is it you cannot walk, daddy?” She gives me life.
(Isidre Esteve, La Suerte de mi Destino, Ediciones Now, Badalona 2008, p. 85, 99, 109)
You have asked me a quite clear and straightforward question, José Ignacio, and a little daring: How do we know God has heard our prayers? And me answer to you is as clear and straightforward and daring: We never know it. I know you’ll be surprised and a little shocked too. But that is the plain truth. If we ask God for something and it does happen, we’ll never know whether it would have happened anyway even if we had not asked for it. On the other hand, if it does not happen, we certainly know God has not granted our petition. We are left with the paradox that we only know the result of our prayers when they are not heard, and never when they are heard. Unless you are telling me about a definite miracle that proves God has acted when we asked him to do so. But such definite miracles do not happen in our experience. I know you’ll tell me that when God does not grant us what we asked for, he does so because what we asked was not convenient for us, and in its place he will surely grant us something better. That is fine, but it does not answer your question. How do we know that God has answered our prayers? We don’t know it. We never know whether what happens to us is an answer to a prayer. This is plane to me. But it is never said so plainly. I found I am, for better or for worse, clear in my thinking and bold in my expression.
A good Muslim kept asking God for a particular grace day after day, and all in the village knew about it, but there was no answer to his prayer. Once, while he was at his repeated prayer after many days, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him: “God has decided not to grant you what you were asking for.” He went back running to the village square, gathered all the people and told them he had news of great joy for them. When they all fell silent to hear the revelation, he informed them: “An Angel has come to me from God and has told me he has decided not to grant me what I was asking for.” – “And how is it you look so happy about it?” – “Acknowledgement of receipt of course! Acknowledgement of receipt!”
Psalm 84 – Justice and peace
‘Let me hear the words of the Lord:
are they not words of peace,
peace to his people and his loyal servants
and to all who turn and trust in him?’Peace is your blessing, Lord, on the human heart and on the face of the earth. Man and woman at peace with themselves, with their fellow humans, with the whole of creation, and with you, their Master and Lord. Peace that is health in the mind and wholeness in the body, unity in the family and prosperity in society. Peace that unites, reconciles, heals and gives joy. Peace that is the greeting of men and women to each other in all languages of the world, the motto of their organisations and the slogan of their public meetings. Peace that is easy to invoke and hard to achieve. Peace that, in spite of an announcement by angels on the first Christmas night, has never quite arrived on earth, never quite settled in my heart.
‘Love and fidelity have come together;
justice and peace join hands.’The condition of peace is justice. Justice that gives each one their due between persons and institutions; and justice that justifies the failings of man and woman with the forgiving mercy of God. If I want peace in my soul, I must learn to be fair to all those with whom I live and about whom I speak; and if I want peace in society I must strive for social justice in the structures of society and in the relationships between classes and between people. It is only justice that will bring abiding peace to our troubled earth.
The Biblical word for the good man is ‘just’. In justice I fulfil my duty to God, to myself and to all men and women. The sensitivity to recognise all men and women as brothers and sisters and to give each one their due with joyful readiness and open generosity. Justice even in my words which tend to be unfair and disparaging when I speak of others, and justice even in my thoughts which only too easily condemn the behaviour of others in the private court of my own mind. Then will justice emerge in my conduct and my dealings with all, and I will be ‘just’ as I desire to be.
Justice in my own life will then give me the right to proclaim justice for others in the public forum where injustices are fraught and oppression rears its head. Equality, openness, fairness for everybody and in everything. Awareness of the deep cleft between classes and peoples, with the awakening, both emotional and practical, to the urgency of the cause of justice for the very survival of humankind.
Justice then will bring peace. Peace in my soul to balance my emotions, my feelings, my joys and my sorrows in the equanimity of the heavenly perspective of things; and peace in the world to make reality the divine gift God brought with himself when he came to dwell among men. Justice and peace are the blessing that accompany the Lord wherever he goes.
‘The Lord will add prosperity,
and our land shall yield its harvest.
Justice shall go in front of him,
and the path before his feet shall be peace.’
Lakes, stars, and electrons
The fish put out its head in the midst of the lake,
and the far shore knew at once of its presence.’The old saying enshrines a moral teaching. The responsibility of my actions. All that I do, even alone in the secret intimacy of my own thoughts, has far-reaching repercussions. An idea shows its head on the surface of my mind…, and my friends far in the horizon wink their eyes. Whatever I think, whatever I say, whatever I do has a public, social, cosmic reach in the unity of nature, and kindred vibrations that link us in essential brotherhood and sisterhood with all human beings and the whole world around us. My life touches all, just as the lives of all affect my own. No one is an island.
Maybe the lakeshore has not seen the jumping fish. Maybe it is Lake Titikaka in the heights of the Andes, or Victoria Lake in the jungles of Africa, where the blue expanse of the diamond waters keeps out of sight the centre of the lake from the distance of the shore. But even without being seen, it is felt. The water obeys the movement, and the smallest contact with the surface brings news-laden crests of eager waves to the far-off boundaries. Instant sensitivity of virgin nature. Image and inspiration for our individual conscience that it may learn how to feel related to all other consciences and to gauge the unsuspected reach of a minimal action before the silent but alert expectation of society at large.
All have seen me put my head out. All know about it. Everyone has been told by now. I am not saying that the fear that they may come to know is going to make me keep my head under water; but I do say that, if I make up my mind to put my head out, I must do it with the full knowledge that all will come to know, and that my gesture can affect them in one way or another. Nothing will remain hidden, and the knowledge of this fact will help me to be clearer in my intentions, straighter in my thoughts, purer in my actions. Whatever I do can help or hinder someone. This simple thought can help me do better whatever I do. ‘Nobody is saved alone’, is repeated saying of eternal truth. We all go hand in hand, and we’ll do well to keep that always in mind. The shores of the lake know everything about the fish in it.
Fernando Pessoa expressed the same truth in the flashing depth of his inimitable language:
‘When I bestir, I can’t help the sensation
that I disturb the stars in their station.’The remote stars shake in their distant hideouts when I move upon earth. They too know everything and react to everything that happens in the universe of which they form part. Maybe that explains why they twinkle in their heights as they watch our comings and goings. Cosmic responsibility, which once more becomes practical metaphor and poetic reminder of our social responsibility. Even the stars are disturbed when I move. And I am joyfully grateful at the spatial notice. I want to behave better from now on; I want to be more authentically and fully whatever I am called to be, for the well-being of the lakes and the stars. Every time I look up to heaven, I will think of this.
‘I am fifteen and I don’t want to die.’
[Christine Arnothy narrates some incidents from the days she spent hidden in a cellar in Budapest when the city was occupied by the Germans before the Russians liberated it. She writes in her diary:]
We have no food and no water, and someone has to risk going out in the streets where the Germans shoot at anyone they see, in order to get something for us to survive day by day. Our hero is Pista, a cheerful and daring young man who manages to get out every day and always brings something to share between all.
Eva and Gabriel are a young couple that has come to take refuge with as since their homes have been destroyed and they have lost their families. We make room for them in a corner, but an old tenant objects to their sleeping together as they have not yet married. What else can they do in the circumstances? One morning we ask Pista to go to a parish church, about half an hour away, to fetch a priest to say holy mass for us. Pista has the reputation of been bullet-proof as though he wore a talisman that keeps mines and bombs away from him in the battlefield the city has become.
Our wish was fulfilled earlier than we expected. Hardly two days had gone by when the lad told us we would have mass in our cellar on the next morning. (It did sound strange to hear words like ‘tomorrow’, ‘morning’, ‘evening’, as in the perpetual darkness of our cellar our bleary red eyes in the yellowish light of the tallow candles could not measure the hours or the days. The only fixed moment in our timetable was the night bombing that ended its destructive rides at about four in the morning, and since then there was relative silence till about six.)
The great day has arrived. Everybody is up since three thirty. It has snowed during the night and so we can freshen up a little using the snow in the patio. In the centre we have placed a table with the only clean sheet we have found. We all notice a remarkable happening: Mr Radnai, the atheist, has shaved and has tied a rather colourless tie round his collar. The banker’s widow is carefully arranging her locks, and Ilus dresses her baby in a clean shirt. The previous day Pista had found six candles in a store. They were as big as an arm, and they turn out to be a great treasure.
A few minutes after four comes the old priest. He is bringing along the sacred vessels and the wine for the mass in a bottle. A corner of our cellar has become the confessional. We have placed a chair for the priest and a folded blanket on the floor for the penitents. We line up one after another, and confessions begin. Mr Radnai, the atheist, is also in the queue with his head down. The doorkeeper and his wife are also there, dressed up as though they were going to high mass in their village. Eva does not let go of Gabriel’s hand. The lawyer has a forty degree fever, is delirious, and is going to be given the last sacraments. Esteban lights the candles over the improvised altar, and the cellar is filled with a golden light. Shadows with bent heads cross in front of me to go and kneel down for confession. Pista smoothes out the folds on the altar cloth and then comes to the queue.
When my turn comes, I feel my hear beating heavily. ‘I don’t want to die, father’, I tell him weeping. ‘I am only fifteen and I am horribly afraid of death. I want to live on.’ I don’t know what he tells me. Through the tepid veil of my tears I see the glow from the candles reflecting the colours of the rainbow. Shaking voices sing softly a canticle, and a feeling of pure joy sweeps through me. It is only later that I come back to reality and I see Eva and Gabriel kneeling down before the altar. The priest is marrying them. That was an unforgettable sight: their vow of fidelity to each other being pronounced at the footstep of eternity under the shadow of death.
The priest left at seven in the morning in the midst of a terrible bombing. It looked as though that day would be worse than any. Our house was much ruined, and part of the third floor fell over the courtyard. All wanted to present something to the newlyweds. Mr Radnai offered them an orange he had kept during almost five weeks and had almost dried up. He had kept it for harder days still to come. The doorkeepers brought them a glass of wine. We all shared in their joy. /// Pista decides to go out and get a bride’s veil for Eva. He seems to remember a cloth shop in the outskirts where such clothes were sold before the Germans came to the city. In the showcase there are not now feather hats but a bomb that has not exploded, but Pista feels sure he can find a bride’s veil inside. We try to dissuade him, but he laughs, and his beautiful white teeth shine in candle light. He keeps repeating obstinately, ‘I want this day to be an unforgettable one for Eva.’ Resides, he’ll bring milk for the baby and a medicine for the sick lawyer. He doesn’t go alone, as the doctor wants to go with him. Hunger is to acute now that we all welcome his decision. We know he is very skilful with a knife, as he is a surgeon: outside he’ll surely find some dead horse and will bring back to us bits of its flesh to eat so that the wife of the restaurant owner will prepare a good soup for us and a meat course. Pista and the doctor go out.
‘It’s seven o’clock’, says Mr Randai, ‘and Pista is not yet back.’ Our uneasiness increases. Ilus, above all, is in anguish, since, if the young man doesn’t come back, her baby will have nothing to eat the next day: that last tin of milk powder is empty. My father squeezes my arm as I have just now uttered a loud cry: an explosion very close to our place has shaken all of us. The door of our cellar slams as though pushed by a bomb. The doorkeeper comes in. He is white in the face and his trembling lips can hardly pronounce the words: ‘Come, come, they have just brought him…’. I ask: ‘Whom? Pista?’ A terrible foreboding oppresses my troat. We run along the corridor pushing one another. The doctor lets down Pista’s body from his shoulder. Both are covered in blood, as though painted with red paint. ‘Is he unconscious? asks a deep voice from the end of the corridor. ‘Quite dead’, answers the doctor shyly, as though apologising. ‘We had reached quite far, and a mine hit him square. The explosion threw me against a wall. When the dust and the smoke settled down I saw he was dead.’
Ilus breaks into tears. ‘Here is his bag’, the doctor goes on, ‘it contains something for you.’ He hands over the bag and Ilus takes it with a weak hand. She takes unending minutes to untie the cord but nobody comes to her help as we all are frozen with horror. She bends over her task and gets stained in blood up to her elbows till she succeeds in opening the bag. Her trembling hands take out three tins of condensed milk. She laughs hysterically: ‘Mill for my baby! He will not starve to death! O my God, it is milk for my child, for my poor little child!’ It takes quite a while for her to calm down. Then she takes out the medicine for the lawyer. She searches in the bottom of the bag and takes out a beautiful white veil. ‘The bride’s veils’, says Mr Randai with a choked voice, while out in the street the gun thunders again. Eva covers her face with her hands and shakes her head again and again: ‘I don’t want it, I don’t want it.’
Ilus takes the veil, comes close to Pista’s body and covers it up with the fine white veil. Hers is a mother’s gesture, gentle and loving, as though she was covering a sleeping child. ‘Thank you…’, she keeps murmuring, ‘thank you…’. The narrow corridor has become a funeral parlour. We all kneel down, and Eva recites a prayer. The white veil gets slowly soaked in blood, and outside the guns boom without ceasing.
That night the bombing raged all night. By noon we had drunk all the water that was left. Now there is no more water. Not a drop. And no Pista. What will become of us?
[The day finally comes when they can leave the cellar. They leave Budapest and try to escape to Austria. But there were still months of anguish for them, and she writes about that period:]
I felt cheated and betrayed all the time. I had left the cellar full of an ardent expectation that remained unfulfilled. The girl in me had died. Now I had to live as an adult. I would have expected somebody to feel happy at my existence. But the men thought only of themselves, and the sun caressed my thin arms and my pale face as indifferently as though I were a length of grass. I spent my time looking at the lake, waiting for an unknown man to come and love me. But nothing happened. Only the seasons came one after another. When my parents told me we were finally going to cross the frontier, a new ray of hope shone on me. Maybe at last I was going to begin my life.
(Christine Arnothy, Tengo quince años y no quiero morir, Barril & Barral, Barcelona, 2009, p. 45, 95)
Last time, in answer to a question how we can know whether God has listened to our prayers of petition, I answered that we don’t know it. We only know when he does not grant them. This does not diminish the importance of petitionary prayer, and Jesus insisted on it all his life till its very end, as some of you have reminded me of, and that’s why I answer now here. I see its importance in the fact that prayer of petition leads us to acknowledge our limitations, to remember God, to renew our dependence from him, to enliven our faith, and to foster thanksgiving. And all that is very valuable apart from whether our petition is granted or not, and that is why Jesus insisted on it. But keeping records of prayers granted or not granted does not please God. Do not keep accounts, please.
I also keep seeing from your reactions that some of you have taken too seriously my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela last month to gain the plenary indulgence of the jubilee. I always take for granted some sense of humour in my readers. Apparently, I am too optimistic. And I don’t plan to change.
Psalm 85 – Guide me, O Lord!
‘Guide me, O Lord,
that I may be true to you
and follow your path.’Today I ask for guidance, Lord. I feel so confused at times, so helpless when I have to make up my mind and put aside an option and take another, that I have come to realise it is my lack of contact with you that makes me lose clarity and feel perplexed when I come to take decisions in my life. I pray for the grace to be near you so that I may see with your light and be strengthened with your support when I make the choices that steer my life.
At times it is external factors that confuse me. What people say, the way they talk, pressure on me, prejudices, atmosphere, fashions and slogans. I don’t know where I stand and I find it impossible to define myself and see clear and go straight. Clear up the air round me, Lord, that I may see far and recognise my goals.
Deeper in me is the confusion I feel inside me, the fears, the attachments, the lack of freedom, the cloud of selfishness. It is there that I especially need your presence and your help, Lord. Free me from all complexes in me that prevent me from taking the right choices. Give me balance, give me wisdom, give me peace. Temper my moods and tame my instincts that I may be impartial in my own cause and chose the right way without impediment.
Guide me in the important choices of my life and in the passing options that make up the routine of the day, and which, step by step mark the direction in which my life moves. Train me in the small options that I may confidently tackle the big ones. Direct each step of mine that the whole way may be straight and may lead me where you want me to go.
‘Guide me, O Lord,
that I may be true to you
and follow your path.’
On the sacred mountain
I heard a tourist ask in the sacred heights of Machu Picchu in Peru, ‘Can one get here a Coca-Cola?’ Yes, one can. Consumer markets have reached even where religious and scientific archaeology have reached, and the modern drink coexists with the ancient ruins. The tourist can even throw the empty can on the wrought cobblestones of pristine craftsmanship. I did see one on the sacred pavement, and collected it at once with blushing cheeks, so that it would not disturb with its commercial effrontery the permanent peace carved into the geometrical rocks along the centuries by the serene contemplation, the rich austerity, the closeness to earth and the cult of the sun that gave rise to astounding civilisations in the mountain ranges of the sovereign Andes in Latin America. May the presence of the Incas, heirs and seers of loft traditions, remain unsullied on the eternal summits of their noble land.
I have submerged my head in the icy waters of The Spring of the Princess, indented with the triple notch that represents the three worlds – inferior, middle, superior – through which all life must pass; I have climbed, with rarefied breath labouring at twelve thousand feet, the unending steps of the initiation pyramid at Ollantaytambo; I have felt in my limbs the living current of the Urubamba river and the motionless transparency of the Titicaca lake; I have witnessed the processional arrival of the Inca High Priest in the liturgical feast of the winter solstice in the majestic scenery of the mighty Saksayhuaman, ‘the navel of the world’, with the kindling of the new fire, the symbolic sacrifice of the white llama, the proclamation of the prophecies, the libation of the sacred drink, and the distribution from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth of the new maize as nature’s communion in the large earthly family: almost an anticipated Holy Saturday with Quechua accents and universal faith. Secular treasure of humankind’s traditions.
I have felt myself, in those privileged moments, heir of centuries and brother to civilisations; I have listened to living witnesses of ancient religions; I have embraced giant rocks carved in astronomical parallel to the course of the sun, and have prayed aloud in the five ‘prayer windows’ that in their mysterious position and craftsmanship amplify each vowel in ever-widening vibrations through the body and the wall and the mountain and the whole valley, till everything becomes prayer, and the prayer is felt in all the corners of the soul and in all the cells of the body in plenary communion with the whole of nature which forever prays by lovingly existing.
And it was there, in the blessed summit of Machu Picchu which zealously keeps its intimate secrets, that, while walking in reverential silence in its extended lawn – now mute amphitheatre of past feasts and rites and joys and life in palpitating history – I saw something shining in between the symmetrical slabs of the ancient flooring. I bowed close, observed it, took it carefully and cradled it in my hand with wonder. It was a small metal silhouette, old relic for the absentminded tourist who lost it there, and unexpected gift for me from the munificence of the majesty of Machu Picchu who had acknowledged my visit with royal delicacy. The relic was shaped like a dove with extended wings, and thus it became at once Spirit and Cross, the best symbols of my life in one of its most beautiful moments. I kissed it and put it round my neck. Thank you, Sacred Mountain.
The most popular drink in Peru, home of Cusco and Machu Picchu in it, has an exotic taste in its native components, and a sense of humour in its hybrid name: ‘Inca Cola’. It is drunk with a smile. The aboriginal Inca is still happily present in the Andes.
A bishop speaks
John Pritchard, Anglican bishop of Oxford, has written a book about ‘The Life and Work of a Priest’, from which I give here a few quotations. They apply to all.
‘Bishop Jack Nicholls was once told by his spiritual director that the only things he had to be concerned with as a priest were the glory of God, the pain of the world, and the renewal (repentance) of the Church.’
‘A man was seriously ill in hospital. He claimed to be a non-believer. A parish priest came and sat with him and held his hand, not saying a word. After some considerable time, the man said, “You know, you lot can be very comforting at times.” The priest smiled and said nothing. Eventually the priest knew he had to move on. He took his hand away and as he did so he said, “Now remember, even though I’m taking my hand away, God never takes his hand away.” The patient’s eyes flashed. “There you go!” he protested. “You just can’t resist it, can you?”’
‘I have a cartoon that shows a man and his cat looking together at a tray of cat litter. The man is saying sternly to the cat, “Never, ever, think outside the box.” That may be fine for the cat, but not for us in the Church of God in these days. Radical thinking is no longer a luxury, and no priest is immune from the challenge of re-thinking the Church’s ministry.’
‘The parish system is stretched to the limit; money is running out; the age of congregations is rising sharply – project many ageing congregations 20 years on and few people may be left in the pews. We don’t need to list the social and spiritual changes that are causing the tectonic plates to grind together increasingly noisily. They are well known and probably irreversible.’
‘A crucial, and worrying, question to ask of our worship is whether people are indeed being led to an encounter with the profound and transforming reality of God. One city-wide study revealed that although there were many reasons why worshippers attended church, only 5 per cent of them believed they’d experienced anything they might call “divine presence” on the particular Sunday they were interviewed. When routine overtakes reality, and repetition replaces imagination, then worship is dying.’
‘The consequence of these mayor cultural and ecclesiastical changes is that today’s priests may be ministers of the last rites of the Church as we know it. There will be sorrow in this, of course, but at the same time God is bigger than all our structures and each expression of church has its season. We can thank God for the gift of the past and trust him for the future. Of course there will be continuity in forms of church as well, and the principles of priestly ministry that we have been exploring in this book will find their expression in whatever form of church emerges in the future. However, the context of this ministry will be very different, which is why the priest of today and tomorrow need to be able to think outside the conventional church box. The situation is the more complex because today’s priests need to be living in two ecclesial worlds at the same time. It’s as if the ship has to undergo a refit while still at sea; it can’t retreat to dry dock and take time out. We have to do the future thinking for the Church while the former model is still just about surviving because, if we leave it too long, the catch-up distance becomes too great.’
‘There is little in ministry today that causes more stress to clergy than having to live in the two realities at the same time, re-imagining the Church for tomorrow while still having to minister in the Church of today. This is no mere theological plaything; it’s the reality by which we need to live, and it enables us still to rejoice and celebrate the love of God, even in the midst of much uncertainty.’
(John Pritchard, The Life and Work of a Priest, SPCK, London 2007, pp. x, 14, 67, 130, 132)
Good for the bishop.
St Peter’s Square
I was struck by the photograph of St Peter’s Square with the concelebration for the end of the Year of the Priesthood on Pentecost Sunday. 15.000 priests, all dressed in white, along equal, parallel lines. We are used to the sight of crowds in St Peter’s Square, but this was different. All white, symmetrical, identical. One could guess the devotion and the fervour. It was a magnificent image. I remained looking at it for a while. Then, I don’t know how, two ideas came to my mind. One was what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount:
‘When you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.’
We stand before the Eucharist as show, which is something rather different.
The second idea was that I would like to ask each one of those 15.000 priests whether they agreed with the Church doctrine on sexual morals. The same pope that was there presiding at the Eucharistic celebration, had endorsed two years ago Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on the commemoration of its 40th anniversary, in which encyclical any use of sex outside marriage and not open to procreation was condemned as a grievous sin. My question: ‘When people come to you for confession or for advice in conscience, do you tell them masturbation, the contraceptive pill, the condom, sex before marriage, marriage after divorce, homosexual practice are grievously sinful?’
It is possible that the voices that sounded in unison in the canticles and the responses at the Mass on the Square would vary when they were answering personal questions about sex morals in private.
I just remained looking at the photograph for a while.
You often ask me questions on sex, as common practice does not coincide with official doctrine, and I answer you in private, with delicacy in the matter and respect for each one. Now a Jesuit friend has sent me a past issue of the London Catholic weekly, The Tablet, in which Clifford Longley (15 March 2008, p.7) writes as follows:
‘Recent Vatican declarations about a “crisis” in the practice of confession are realistic and edifying. But if the time has come for the renewal of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Church has to stop thinking that all is well with its doctrine on sexual morals. Many priests with whom I have discussed the decline of confession in our days sum up the cause of the crisis in two words: ‘contraception’ and ‘divorce’. They say this even though they may accept the Church’s doctrine in those issues.
Le us take three observable facts.
1. The size of the family, as it can be observed every Sunday at mass. Half a century ago it was common to see a typical Catholic family in a bench, father, mother, and four children or more. That defined Catholics as against Protestants. Now there is no such difference. The Catholic family has come down to the same levels as the Protestant family, and it would be naïve to say that this is the result of the “natural” methods of abstinence and rhythm on the part of Catholics. This is due to contraceptives.
2. The sale of contraceptives is popular and universal, and it is not limited to non Catholics.
3. Observe the number of those who go to communion at mass. Compare the queues for communion on Sunday with the queues for confession on Saturday. Those going for confession are much fewer than those going for communion.
Taking together this three data, there is no need to have a degree in sociology to know what is happening. People tell themselves that contraception is not a sin but a necessity, and as such it is no obstacle for holy communion. But they don’t want to submit this conclusion to the test of confession not to risk a negative answer.
The topic of contraceptives has undermined the trust of the faithful in the discipline of the Church in a subtle way. It is probable that some of those who go to communion every week are in irregular marriages. They have divorced and have remarried without asking for the nullity of their first marriage, but they do not resign themselves to accepting the status of semi-excommunication this implies. If they have consulted a priest, many will have told them that ‘in the private forum’ they are subjectively without sin and consequently they should not considered themselves barred from communion. Others have reached the same conclusion by themselves. In the matter of contraceptives and divorce the norm seems to be, “do not tell, do not ask”. The faithful do not mention the point, and the priests do not ask about it. Priests are beginning to apply the same norm to Catholic homosexuals for the same reasons.
This is at the heart of the sacramental life of the faithful in England and in the greatest part of Western countries. Much of what we hear in Rome about the need to renew the Sacrament of Reconciliation has much sense, as its practice is being lost. Priests and people have to be re-educated in this matter. But if the broader context of the sex issue is not tackled, it is going to remain very doubtful whether concentrating exclusively on the rite of confession as such will be enough to revive it.’
Thus far the quotation from The Tablet.
Psalm 86 – Zion, Mother of Peoples
“Zion shall be called a mother
in whom people of every race are born.”The boundaries of my heart are enlarged, Lord, when I say this prayer and I dream of that moment. Men and women of every race come together because all have become one in you. This is your own plan, and I embrace it with open faith and keen desire. All races are one. All men and women meet. All are children of the same mother. The moment of unity towards which we move. The seal of brotherhood and sisterhood. The supreme destiny of the human race.
“The Lord shall write against each in the roll of nations:
This one was born in her.”
All nations are born in the Holy City. All men and women are my countrymen and countrywomen. I look at their faces and I recognise in them the family traits under the joyful variety of features and colours. I project into each face the feeling of fellowship and recognition that grows over me while I look at the person. I feel brother to each man and woman, and I trust my own conviction to shine through my eyes and to vibrate in my words to carry the family message in the waves of my faith.
No frontiers, no boundaries, no exclusions. No man or woman is a stranger to another. Nature abhors bureaucracy. Bonds of birth transcend impositions of legislation. Unity is our birthright. Our smile is our passport. Freedom to travel, freedom to meet, freedom to face any human being and feel one with him or her. And courage to forget our differences and recognise our common destiny. We all are children of Zion.
Give me a true ecumenical heart, Lord. Let me love all men and women and respect all peoples.
“I will count Egypt and Babylon among my friends;
Philistine, Tyrian and Nubian shall be there.”
Let me feel at home in every culture, love to learn and grow to understand. Let me discover your presence in the hearts of all men and women, and learn your name in all languages. Let me strengthen my roots and deepen my sources, with the faith that in doing that I am coming closer to my fellow men and women because all our sources are in you.
“Singers and dancers alike say:
All my springs are in you!”
An ecological watch
‘It happened at the entrance of the village of Ollantaytambo, in Cuzco country. I had detached myself from a group of tourists, and was all by myself, contemplating from far the ruins in stone, when a local boy approached me and asked me for a pencil. I could not give him the only pencil I had, which I was just then using to write I don’t’ know which kind of boring notes; but I proposed to draw for him a little piglet on his hand.
Suddenly the news spread. In no time I found myself surrounded by a swarm of boys who demanded at the top of their voices that I draw animals for them on their little hands, sadly disfigured by cold and by dirt, like living skins from burned hides. Someone wanted a condor, someone a snake; others preferred parrots or owls, and there were those also who wanted a ghost or a dragon.
And then, in the midst of all that uproar, a little life-forsaken kid, who barely stood three feet from the ground, showed me a watch painted with black ink on his wrist. He told me: “It was sent me by my uncle from Lima.” “And does it keep good time?” I inquired. “It’s a little slow,” he admitted.’(Eduardo Galeano, El libro de los abrazos, p, 27)
Valuable match on the wrist of the Andean child. Richness in imagination amidst poverty in the market. In that moment he was the benefactor who was presenting the well-to-do tourist with a generous gift. A gift of imagination the native child had given to the learned writer while he took scholarly notes, and in him he gave to all of us too, the creative alms to open our minds and let us realise our poverty in needing an expensive watch to be told the exact time without which we cannot live. We do not appreciate the naïve drawing of an ink-watch on the slender wrist. But the child was proud of his watch. It had been sent him by his uncle in Lima. It is true that it was a little slow. If it got slower, he could always send it to Lima for repairs. He was safe in his innocent possession. There was more joy in that flat picture-watch than in the latest digital model. The true value of things is not what it appears to be.
There was also joy in the improvised drawings on the living canvasses of extended hands. Those children in tourist land where compassion is cheap, might have begun by begging for the easy alms of gifts and money. But the artistic sensitivity of a different tourist opened for them the gates of a far greater treasure, and they jumped at the chance in their noisy and happy group. Here was a tourist who did not distribute dollars, but handed out condors and serpents and ghosts and dragons. Season sale of exotic articles. Unique occasion of unexpected wealth. They had never seen the like of it. And forgetting for once the easy prey of monotonous begging, all the kids rushed that day to receive each one his or her favourite animal on the palm of their hands. Royal munificence in the creative gesture. Adam receiving all the animals from the hands of God. Dawn of Genesis. Glory over the Andes. Happy encounter of the sensitive tourist and the frolicsome kids. Impossible to say who were the poor there and who were the rich. All were rich in the open exchange of the best they all had. The legendary riches of the ancient ruins became reality for a moment in those proud descendants of noble races that were friends of nature and children of the sun.
The fleeting episode leaves with us a permanent lesson: true service takes place when we all learn from all.
Let’s have a good laugh. These are summer holidays.
Mulla Nasruddin started shouting through the streets of the whole village: ‘I’m not finding the rug I was always wearing on my shoulder. I’ve lost it or someone has stolen it from me. If you don’t find it and return it to me, I’ll do in this village what I did in the other village just now!’ People got frightened and all started searching everywhere for the rug. Finally someone found it where it had fallen, or where a thief had put it back, and gave it back to him. Then they asked him, ‘And what would you have done to us if we hadn’t found it?’ He answered, ‘The same as I did in the other village. I would leave this village and go to the next one to look for it.’
Naseruddin claimed to know all words in all languages. They asked him how to say ‘cold soup’ in Arabic. As he didn’t know it, he answered, ´The Arabs never take their soup cold’.
Naseruddin lost his donkey again and again, and while looking for it he would always be thanking God. They asked him why that thanksgiving, and he explained, ‘I thank God because if I had been riding on my donkey, I would have got lost too.’
Naseruddin went to a clothes shop and tried a pair of trousers on. Then he removed them, left them on the table, and tried a coat on. He said,
‘This coat fits me. I’ll take it in change for the trousers.’
‘But you never paid for the trousers!’
‘How do you want me to pay for the trousers if I’ve not taken them?’
Naseruddin was running at full speed through the fields while shouting at the top of his voice. They asked him why he was doing that, and he explained, ‘They tell me I have a good voice which carries very far, and since I like to check the truth of what they tell me, I’m running to see how far it reaches.’
Someone stole Naseruddin’s donkey at night, and when he told his friends, they began to tell him, ‘You are very careless’, ‘You sleep so tight that you hear nothing at all’, ‘You didn’t lock the stable properly’, ‘You should have the stable in front of your house, not at the back’, ‘This is the second time it happens to you, and you never learn’… Finally he got fed up and expostulated, ‘I see, I see; so it is I who is to be blamed for the theft, not the thief.’
Naseruddin felt hungry and asked his wife for a piece of cheese.
‘Cheese is very healthy’, he said, ‘I like cheese very much, and it is cheap.’
‘But there is no cheese in the house’, answered his wife.
‘I’m glad’, he went on. ‘Cheese is harmful, it fattens, and gives indigestion.’
‘But how is it you change your opinion so quickly?’
‘Because the circumstances have changed quickly.’
Naseruddin woke up for a noise at night and saw a thief entering his house. He got up and hid in a cupboard. The thief went up, rummaged through the rooms for something of value to take with him, but found nothing. Finally he saw the cupboard and thought all the valuables would be inside. He opened the door and found Naseruddin inside. When he recovered from the start, he asked, ‘Where you hiding out inside there all the time?’ ‘Yes’, answered the Mulla, ‘I was so ashamed to think that I had nothing of value in my house that I hid myself so that you wouldn’t see me.’
Naseruddin’s wife woke him up at night and told him, ‘I have to get up. Please, give me the candle that is at your right.’ Naseruddin woke up in annoyance and answered her, ‘How can I give it to you when I cannot see in the dark which is my right and which my left?’
Naseruddin’s wife threatened to leave him as he was snoring the whole night. The next morning he told her, ‘That is not true. Last night I kept awake the whole night to check whether I snored, and I can assure you there was not a single snore.’
Naseruddin was in the cemetery weeping before a tomb and saying, ‘Why did you go so soon? Why have you caused me such suffering? Why have you saddened my whole life?’ A friend who was passing by heard him and asked him, ‘Whose death are you lamenting? That must be your son’s tomb isn’t it?’ Naseruddin said, ‘No, no. It is the tomb of my wife’s first husband who died and left his wife a widow to marry me.’
Nasseruddin’s wife died, and the whole people came to offer their condolences, but he did not show himself much affected. Some time later, his donkey did, and the Mulla felt very sad. People were surprised and they told him. He explained, ‘When my wife died, many people came to console me and tell me I would find a better wife; but now nobody has come to offer me condolences and nobody has told me not to worry because I’ll easily find a better one. That’s why I feel sad.’
Naseruddin lost his donkey once more, went to the main square, and shouted before the whole people, ‘I’ve lost my donkey, and I’ll give it to whoever finds it as a recompense for finding it.’ They told him, ‘What is the sense of asking them to find your donkey if you’re going to give it away?’ He answered, ‘Does not the joy of finding it deserve that recompense?’
The donkey again, which is as famous as his owner. Naseruddin had no money and decided to sell his donkey. His wife remonstrated with him, ‘You are mad. ‘Don’t you see you need it? You cannot walk nor carry burdens, and you’ll not be able to go anywhere or to do anything without your donkey.’ ‘Don’t worry’, explained Naseruddin, ‘I’m going to set such a price that nobody will be able to buy it.’
Naseruddin went to the milkman and asked for a litre of cow’s milk. The milkman noticed the vessel he was bringing with himself and told him it was too small, so that a litre of cow’s milk could not go in. Naseruddin answered quickly, ‘It doesn’t matter. Give me a litre of goat’s milk then.’
Keeping in mind that there is always a moral to Naseruddin’s stories. A happy summer vacation to you all. We’ll meet again in September.
You ask me, E.G., whether I have anything to say about the crisis we are going through if I happen to know anything about economics.
I know nothing about economics, and that’s precisely why I can say something about the crisis. Since my early age I remember the clear principle: do not spend more than you earn. Live always a little below your means. Save. And never, never get into debt. Debt was a shameful thing, and as such had to be avoided by all means. The pawnshop was not a place for a decent person to resort to.
Later in life I came to know that things were not that way. On the contrary, the real thing was to get into debt. There were three reasons. First, currency was quickly devalued, so that when the borrowed sum had to be returned, its value was much less than when it was taken, with the result that one was in fact returning less than one had got (even with the interest). That was good business. Second, the most powerful nation in the world, the United States, was also the one deeper in debt, which was a fact, and that proved the principle that debt was the right way to thrive in life. Third, if you waited enough to save sufficient capital to buy a house in cash, you would grow old before going to live in it, and, besides, you would have been paying rent for years in another’s house. Mortgage was cheaper. To make it worse, they gave the practice a well sounding name: Deficit financing. There was no question of debt any more, but of a new and fashionable device. Deficit financing.
So deficit became the fashion. Loans, borrowing, mortgages, paying by instalments, forward payment, deferred payment. The car, the house, the wedding, the round-the-world tour. I remember the advertisement of a travel agency: ‘Travel now. Pay later.’ On the road, then! And so for everything. Persons, families, offices, nations learned the way. Everybody owned money to everybody. (I used to wonder who was lending, but never knew it.)
That was blowing the bubble. It blew and blew. And it burst. It does not matter when, why, because of whom it burst. It burst because of all of us, because we had blown it away between all of us.
Now we have to tight our belts. And this is the fun now. Serious countries have taken the matter seriously and have lowered down earnings at every level. And each one has adjusted the necessary holes on their belt. Less serious countries have felt annoyed at the measure, and each group is going on strike complaining that they had to tighten their belt. So that the crisis worsens. That’s the situation.
To top it all, a new device called ‘financial engineering’ has come into being to handle the risk of getting into debt. The limit. But I feel a fine word has been dethroned. ‘Engineering’ was a noble word. I loved it and l love it because my father was en engineer, and engineering was for me the best in the world. Now it means getting into debt.
It’s quite easy, then. As you see, not knowing economics has its uses too.
Psalm 88 – The power and the promise
The Psalm is long, but the prayer is short. The long poem softens the sharpness of the pointed appeal. I feel enough confidence with you, Lord, to make first the appeal in all its bluntness, and then to go and lengthen it in the poetry of the psalm. Few psalms touch me more deeply than this one, Lord.
The appeal is clear and definite. You are powerful, Lord, powerful in the skies you have made and on the earth you gave created. No one can resist you, and if you choose not to do something, it is not for lack of power. You are also faithful, and keep the promises you have made. You made a promise to David that his descendants would rule Israel for ever, and you specified that your promise would stand even if the descendants proved not worthy. You declared that David’s throne would be firm in Israel as the sun and the moon in the sky. And I know well that Israel is your Church, and David is figure of Jesus. Well then, Lord: The sun and the moon are still there, but David’s throne is no more. Jerusalem is destroyed and Israel is defeated. You Church today is attacked by some, abandoned by many and ignored by most. Why is it so?
“I will sing the story of your love, O Lord, for ever;
I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
Your true love is firm as the ancient earth,
your faithfulness fixed as the heavens.”Nice beginning for a frontal attack, isn’t it? Did you guess, Lord, what was coming in this psalm after this beautiful opening? Your love is firm, and your fidelity eternal. Surely you love to hear that. Sincere praise from the people who knew you best. And on a point you are sensitive about too: your faithfulness. Your truth that never fails, and your promises that never disappoint. But from this moment you are caught, Lord, by the very words you like to hear. You are faithful and you keep your promises. Why, then, have you not kept your solemn promise to your people and your king?
“The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord…;
in the skies who is there like the Lord?
O Lord God of Hosts, who is like you?
Your strength and faithfulness, O Lord, surround you.
You rule the surging sea, calming the turmoil of its waves.
Yours are the heavens and yours is the earth;
the world with all that is in it is of your foundation.
Strength of arm and valour are yours;
your hand is mighty, your right hand lifted high;
your throne is built upon righteousness and justice,
true love and faithfulness herald your coming.”The rhythm of praise continues. Your power and your strength. Your dominion over land and sea. Everybody acknowledges it from the angels in heaven to the men and women on earth. Nothing can resist you. You are the Lord of history, the master of the human heart. You ordain events and dispose circumstances just as you establish mountains and orbit stars. All is the work of your hands. We have seen you at work and we recognise your sovereignty over all that is. We are proud of being your people, because there is no god like you, Lord.
“Happy the people who have learnt to acclaim you,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your presence!
You are yourself the strength in which they glory;
through your favour we hold our heads high.
The Lord, he is our shield;
the Holy One of Israel, he is our King.”Your power is our guarantee. Your strength is our boast. We are happy to be the people whose God you are. We rejoice in your glory, and love to retell the story of your wonderful deeds. Your history is our history, and your Spirit is our life. Our destiny on earth as a people is the expression of your divine will, and so we extol your will and venerate your majesty. You are our God and we are your people. And now comes the promise. Wide and generous, firm and immovable. We like to remember every word, to savour every phrase, to witness your solemn oath and to treasure in our memory the charter of our future. Strength to our heart and music to our ears.
“I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your posterity for ever.
I will make your throne endure for all generations.’
I have discovered David my servant,
I have anointed him with my holy oil.
My hand shall be ready to help him,
and my arm to give him strength.
My faithfulness and true love shall be with him,
and through my name he shall hold his head high.
I will maintain my love for him for ever
and be faithful in my covenant with him.
I will establish his posterity for ever
and his throne as long as the heavens endure.”Consoling words from one who is truth itself. Only the nagging doubt remains: If we fail you, if your people prevaricates, if the king proves unworthy of the throne, will that not invalidate the promise and rescind the covenant? And here come the reassuring words from your own mouth.
“If his sons forsake my law
and do not conform to my judgements,
if they renounce my statutes
and do not observe my commands,
I will punish their disobedience with the rod
and their iniquity with lashes.
Yet I will not deprive him of my true love
nor let my faithfulness prove false;
I will not renounce my covenant
nor change my promised purpose.
I have sworn by my holiness once and for all,
I will not break my word to David;
His posterity shall continue for ever,
his throne before me like the sun;
it shall be sure for ever as the moon’s return,
faithful so long as the skies remain.”Divine words of infinite comfort. We may fail you, but you will never fail us. If we misbehave we shall bear the punishment, but God’s promise will never be broken, the throne will remain safe and David’s descendants on it. The oath is sacred and will remain firm for ever. The word of him who made heaven and earth has been pledged on our behalf. Our future is safe.
“Yet you have rejected your anointed king,
you have spurned him and raged against him;
you have denounced your covenant with your servant,
defiled his crown and flung it to the ground.
You have put an end to his glorious rule
and hurled his throne to the ground;
you have cut short the days of his youth and vigour,
and covered him with shame.”Shame is all that is left to us. We are your people, your Anointed is your Son and our Lord, his throne is the place he holds in the hearts of men and women and in the ruling of society. And society is not very mindful of your Son today, Lord. There is distant respect and polite regard. But little obedience, scant reverence and limited acceptance. Humankind does not accept your King, Lord, and his throne is not universal. We suffer to see his law disregarded and his person ignored. We are pained to see that things do not seem to improve, on the contrary, men and women drift farther and farther away from your Kingdom, and we do not know how long this will last.
“How long, O Lord, will you hide yourself from sight?
How long must your wrath blaze like fire?
Where are those former acts of your love, O Lord,
those faithful promises given to David?
Remember, O Lord, the taunts hurled at your servant,
how I have borne in my heart the calumnies of the nations;
so have your enemies taunted us, O Lord,
taunted the successors of your anointed king.”And there the psalm ends in abrupt eloquence. There is only a blessing and an Amen tagged on to the end, but that is only the rubric added to mark the end of the Third Book of Psalms. The psalm as such ends in the sudden pain of the taunts that we bear. The next word is with you, Lord.
How do they know?
Karen Blixen writes in Out of Africa:
‘For some time I had a small farm up at Gil-Gil (in Kenya), where I lived in a tent, and I travelled by the railway to and fro between Gil-Gil and Ngong. At Gil-Gil, I might make up my mind very suddenly to go back to my house. But when I came to Kikuyu, which was out station on the railway line, and from where it was ten miles to the farm, one of my people would be there with a mule for me to ride home on. When I asked them how they had known that I was coming down, they looked away, and seemed uneasy, as if frightened or bored, such as we should be if a deaf person insisted on getting an explanation of a symphony from us.’
When I told this anecdote to the group of spiritual adventurers with whom I explored in enraptured days the archaeological wonders of Cuzco and Machu Picchu in Peru, our genial guide, Pepe Altamirano, scholarly lover of the history of each ruin and the mystery of each stone in the magic Andean heights, smiled benevolently, and, with his usual humility and authority, contributed his superior experience as confirmation of our shy attempts. He told us as we were dining on fresh trout from the Urubamba:
Once I was about to go to the airport to fetch a friend who had announced himself. One of the native Quechuas who work with me told me nonchalantly on seeing me getting ready: “Don’t go, Your friend is not coming today.” In my hand was the telegram complete with date and time; and before me was in self-composed attitude the wise child of the land. I have enough experience in these things and I knew what I had to do. I did not go to the airport. My friend did not come. Next day I questioned with my eyes the telepathic aborigine. He only shook his head. My friend did not come either. I put the affair out of my mind and went about my business. A few days later, the clairvoyant native announced simple: “Your friend comes today. He comes at such a time, and is not alone. Two persons are coming.” And so it was. My friend took pains to explain the delay and the extra guest, and he was surprised at my lack of surprise. I just knew.
The narratives of explorers and researchers all along native Africa and aboriginal America are full of incidents that surprised them while they were commonplace for the people of the land. A person suddenly starts out from the village in rapid journey to a distant place because he or she knows that a relative has died or is seriously sick or simply needs him or her urgently. There has been no mail, no telegram, no radio message; there has only been another kind of message, quite different from those we scientifically handle. There have been ‘waves’, far beyond the latest computer science, which have carried the news with thorough fidelity and free of charge from person to person in parallel vibration. How do they know it?
They live close to nature, to Mother Earth, to the common ground of our bodily existence. They feel its vibrations on their naked feet, they welcome the breeze in their open skin, they train their senses in the receptive innocence of virginal creation. They have not locked up the myriads of tiny pores in their bodies with the noises, the flashes, the smokes of the modern city. They keep intact the oldest and quickest communication system in the world, with invisible aerials that sense the events and send them from mind to mind, because they live them from body to body. Their heart knows it, and their feet start on their way. And nobody is surprised in the village. In fact they all, with their atmosphere, their alertness and their presence, collaborate in the sure reception of the remote message. Instant communication of life’s news. And those are the only news that matter.
Foreign visitors in native neighbourhoods often get the impression that they were expected, even if they come unannounced. There is no question of their arrival having been spied upon in secret; there is simply the direct coming to know of the event without previous notice. When John Neihardt and his son succeeded in approaching Black Elk with a view to hear from the lips of the old Oglala Sioux the traditions and memories of a wise people to be able to publish them, they did not have much hope that he would receive them or talk to them, as by then he hardly ever spoke with anybody. Finally they arrived at the place and went near the Chief:
Black Elk was near a pine grove when we arrived. It was noon time. We stayed with him till the evening. “It’s strange”, exclaimed Flying Hawk, “the Old Man seemed to know you were coming.” My son commented he had the same impression. And I myself, after visiting the Old Chief along many years, came to be convinced that he always knew of our arrival. He certainly had more than normal powers.”
Maybe those powers were not ‘more than normal’ after all. Maybe the exact opposite is the truth, namely, that the ‘normal’ thing would be to get spontaneous notice of family events, of far-off sufferings, of the sudden arrival of an honoured guest. As it was normal in open spaces and older days to feel the moods of nature, the rains and the droughts, the tides and the quakes, the phases of the moon and the flowering of the crops. Maybe this was normal for man and woman when they were whole and innocent and in touch with the currents of life and the orbits of heaven. And maybe we are the ‘abnormal’ ones, having lost all those gloriously primitive faculties that allowed us to feel the ways of our fellow men and women, synchronise with their sufferings and predict their presence. We have lost those powers. We do not any longer understand the trees or listen to the wind. Progress has given us machines, but has taken away our sensitivity. And we wonder when we see or are told about people who still keep their senses alive.
Baroness Karen Blixen is right when comparing the helplessness felt by her black servants when asked how they knew she was coming, with our own helplessness if a deaf person presses us for an explanation of what a symphony is for us. The black natives cannot explain it, not because it is not clear to them, but because we are unable to understand it. We are deaf. We cannot hear their symphony. We have lost that finely-tuned ear that grasped the whisperings of nature, the language of the trees, the secret rhythms of the human heart. We have blocked the channels of the senses with the constant rush of saturated information. We have given up on our instincts and have pledged our loyalty to machines. And we miss the symphony.
Our guest arrives, and there is no one at the airport to receive him.
– I didn’t get your message.
– Sorry, my cell phone was out of order.
Cooks and housekeepers
As I like Beethoven, I thought I would tell you a few things I’ve come to know about him. I spent a whole summer in my youth playing each day, as the first exercise of the day, the whole ‘Moonlight Sonata’. I never got tired of it. It is hard to play, to be sure, but it is deep, challenging, eternal. ‘A flower between two chasms’, as Liszt said referring to the gem of its second movement between the veritable storms of the first and the last. But one thing is knowing Beethoven’s piano sonatas and symphonies by heart, and quite another to know his character as a person and the anecdotes of his life. Among these, some give us joy and same make us sad. All of them together make up the whole of the genius’s life.
His father was a heavy drunker. When he died, some said in posthumous humour that his death was a loss for the nation’s economy as he had contributed heavily to its wealth paying taxes for alcoholic drinks. His mother resented her husband’s behaviour, and family life was not happy. This brought out a shy child, sceptical of marriage and unable to relate to women. As a young man he was unkempt and lazy, but he knew by then that something special was burgeoning within him, and when he was chided for his slovenliness, he would reply, ‘When I become a genius, nobody will pay attention to that’.
Haydn taught him, and he would despair because Ludwig could not learn the rules of harmony, counterpoint, and fugue. When he complained to his pupil that he was not showing any interest in learning the rules, the future genius answered him: ‘Rules are only good to break them.’ Genial. That fact is, Beethoven did not compose a decent fugue in his life. There is, of course, the last movement of his Hammerklavier Sonata, but that is more of a tornado than of a fugue.
When he was 17 he met Mozart who was 31 by then. Mozart asked the young man to play something on the piano, but did not pay much attention to it as he thought Beethoven, as child prodigies are wont to do, had come with an ‘improvisation’ well prepared and learned by heart. Beethoven noticed it and asked him to give him any theme to develop on the spot. He began with the undoubted improvisation, and Mozart was dumbfounded. He encouraged the lad, but they never met again.
At the beginning he was not very successful with his music. He had to put advertisements in the papers to sell his compositions. He did not have much money. To pay the house rent one day he had no money and the payment urged, he locked himself in his room, wrote in a hurry a theme with variations, and gave it to a friend to sell it for some money. His friend, instead of selling it, gave the paper to the landlord who first refused it but finally accepted it. The next day he came to tell Beethoven he could pay him with those little papers. To avoid payment and to run away from neighbours’ complaints, he was constantly changing house in Vienna – always carrying with him all his furniture and three pianos. He changed Vienna for Heiligenstat where he did persevere for some time in the same house. The house was near a church, and it was then that Beethoven realised that he was hearing less and less the sound of the church bells. He was getting deaf.
He kept a diary of housekeeping diary with full details. Some excerpts:
January 31: Housekeeper dismissed.
February 15: Cook joins.
March 8: Cook leaves.
March 22: Housekeeper joins.
April 17: Cook joins.
May 16: Cook dismissed.
July 1: Cook joins.
July 28: Cook runs away at night.
September 6: Maid joins.
October 22: Maid leaves.
December 12: Cook joins.
December 18: Cook dismissed.
The problems with the cook were not only culinary. When he was composing his Solemn Mass and had already finished the Kyrie, he wanted to correct it again as he always did, but could not find the papers with the score anywhere. He was in despair thinking he had lost them and could not write the music again, when he found them in the kitchen where they had been used to wrap the cheese. Dressing-down for the cook. But some of the papers were still missing. They were found wrapping butter and lining the shelves. Out went the cook.
He did not brook any interruptions at table, and so the servant had to bring all the dishes from the beginning and leave them on the table. Now, whether Beethoven was eating alone of with friends, he would concentrate on his own thoughts or on the conversation going on, and the dishes got cold. Then he got angry with the servant because the dishes were cold. So the servant could not bring the dishes one after the other because he could not be interrupted, and could not bring them together because they got cold. Daily problem.
Saturday was the day for the girl servant to go to the market and buy provisions for the week. But, again, Beethoven could not be interrupted at his work. The girl dressed up, stood complete with bonnet and basket before Beethoven while he was composing, and waited there without saying anything. At long last, Beethoven looked up, noticed her, realised what her presence meant, but still protested and said:
– Do you really have to go?
– Yes, sir. I have to go.
– Is it that today is Saturday?
– Yes sir, it is Saturday.
– How do you know?
The girl had a calendar ready and pointed at the date. Beethoven then searched in his purse, gave her the money, and the girl went to the market. Beethoven’s favourite dish was fish, together with macaroni and bread soup. And eggs. He would carefully examine each egg, and if any one looked suspicious, he just would smash it against the wall. The fish he ate was river fish and was contaminated by the lead coming from factories on the riverside. A recent analysis of a lock of his hair has showed that it was poisoning with that lead that eventually killed Beethoven. He paid dearly for his fish. And we missed the tenth symphony.
God made Beethoven deaf, Demosthenes a stammerer, and Homer blind. Lesson to conquer obstacles.
(cf. Fernando Argenta, ‘Los clásicos también pecan’, Plaza y Janés, Barcelona 2010.)
You’ve asked me quite a few times by now whether I believe in hell. I do believe, since hell is a dogma of the Catholic faith, and not believing in it would make me a heretic. Then you tell me that hell does exist but it is empty, which saves the dogma on the one hand and saves God’s good name on the other hand, as he wouldn’t send anybody to hell to be tortured there for all eternity. I then go on to say that it is not empty since the fallen angels are in it, that is the devils. Now I’ll tell you the last chapter of the story. God and the Devil are the same person. The Bible says it. I explain. David made a census of Israel and Judah, something God did not approve of as it showed reliance on man’s own strength and resources without reference to God, and pride in his own power, and that displeased God. Still David carried out his plans and the census, and God punished him with a plague that killed seven thousand persons. (Which, of course, spoiled the whole census.) The curious thing about it is that the text appears twice in the Bible, first in the Second Book of Samuel, and later in the First Book of the Chronicles, that is, the same historical event is narrated twice in the Bible, but with a little difference. The first text begins, ‘God’s anger flared again against the Israelites and he incited David against them saying, “Take the census of Israel and Judah”.’ (2 Samuel 24:1) The second says, ‘Satan, setting himself against Israel, incited David to make a census of the people.’ (1 Chronicles 21:1) In the first writing, it is God that incites to the census, while in the second it is Satan. The rest is the same in both writings. What does that mean? The Jerusalem Bible explains in a note: ‘The Chronicler attributes to Satan, according to a more developed theology, what the Book of Samuel had attributed to God.’ In human’s first conception of God, it was he himself who did everything, good and bad, as the first and only principle of all that existed; but, as the concept of God was been perfected and refined by the wise people (the ‘more developed theology’ of which the Jerusalem Bible speaks), it did not seem proper to refer unpleasant dealings to God, and so the good things kept being referred to him while the bad ones were passed on to a new character, Satan. That was how temptation to evil changed hands from God to the Devil. The Devil is simply God’s image when he does unpleasant things. Division of labour.
Alan Watts tells a story in which God feels lonely, sees his own shadow, beckons it into existence, and it shapes into the Devil. God tells him: ‘See, things are rather dull down there on earth. Now we’ll be two to run the show. I’ll be the good guy and you the bad guy, and we’ll fight around as in the movies. At the end we’ll tell them we both were one, and we’ll all have a good laugh.’ Isn’t that a good exorcism?
‘I am the Lord, and there is none other.
I make the light, I create the darkness;
I fashion peace and I create evil:
I am the Lord and I do all these things.’
Psalm 89 – Life is short
“Make us know the shortness of your life
That we may gain wisdom of heart.”I bring before my eyes a fact of life: life is short. Time passes swiftly. My days are numbered, and their number is not very high. Before I realise it, before I want it, before I can accept it my day will come and I shall inexorably depart. So soon? So early? In the flower of my life? When I had still so much to do? Death is always sudden because never expected. It always comes too soon, because it is never welcome.
And yet there is wisdom in the memory of death. When I learn that my days are counted, I am moved to use them well. When I accept that my time is limited, I begin to get the most of it. Life can be revalued by the memory of death.
“Our years die away like a murmur.
Seventy years is the span of our life,
eighty if our strength holds;
the hurrying years are labour and sorrow,
so quickly they pass and are forgotten.”I accept the shortness of my life, Lord, and in the wisdom of that acceptance I find the strength and the urge to make the best in humility of whatever days will be mine. When suffering comes I will know that it’ll soon pass, and when pleasures beckon I will reflect that they too will be with me only for a short time. Thus I will bear suffering and enjoy pleasure with the light heart of one who knows that nothing lasts long. That will bring balance, detachment and wisdom to my life.
“Men are like a dream at daybreak,
they fade like grass
which springs up with the morning
but when evening comes is parched and withered.”Let the grass behave like grass. In that lies its happiness. If it’s one day it’s one day, but let that day be green with the luscious glory of the smiling fields. If my life is to be like grass, let it be green, let it be fresh, let it live in the intensity of the unique morning all the fullness of nature and all the fullness of grace. Each moment now acquires value of eternity, each blade of grass shines with the tender dew under the rising sun. Each instant is revalued, each event is enhanced, each meeting is a surprise, each meal is a feast. The briefness of the experience brings to it the sharpness of pure awareness and free enjoyment. Life becomes precious precisely because it is short.
Give me, Lord, the wisdom to live the fullness of my life in every instant of it.
Bird of Paradise
‘The bird of paradise alights only on the hand that is not trying to chain it down.’
(John Berry)Americo Yabar, Andean pontiff of Quechua mysteries, told me that once, when he went to visit an aged ascetic in the solitude of the Cuzco heights, he found him amicable conversing with a royal condor majestically perched on his extended hand. When Americo approached, the condor watched his presence with a quick turn of the head, measured his steps with a glance, and, on not having been introduced to the intruding guest, he unfolded with proud gesture his incredibly long wings, flapped them haughtily and lifted himself slowly on to inaccessible heights. Mistrust had wretched intimacy.
Americo, in his keen sensitivity, could not bring himself to depart without having dispelled the misunderstanding with the king of birds, and he decided to stay as long as necessary in the abrupt wilderness. The condor showed himself again. He stayed on a far-off rock, and observed from there the two men. Seeing their evident closeness, he guessed their friendship and knew himself invited. He came closer day by day, landing each time at a shorter distance from the two waiting men. At last, in a smooth landing, he circled them both and came to stand on Americo’s shoulder. And there was happiness in three hearts.
This is the paradox of happiness (which is what the bird of paradise means): it will come down and rest only on the hand that is not trying to get hold of it. If it suspects treachery, it withdraws and disappears. And nobody can reach it in its kingdom of limitless space. Freedom will not be possessed by force. It does not obey orders nor yield to pressures. It is almost true to say that the more we seek it, the farther away it hides itself. Someone said it explicitly: ‘The search of happiness is one of the surest sources of unhappiness.’ (Eric Hoffer)
The paradox of love. In its keen desire for eternal union, it seeks to possess with final certainty…, and the bird of paradise escapes, shy and suspicious, from the iron embrace that chokes it. Possessiveness hurts freedom and endangers love. The condor has to feel free if he is to approach at all. Only if he knows himself free and untrammelled to take off at any moment, will he consent to stay on our hand. Intimacy can only be deserved, never imposed.
The anxiety for good results ruins the results. He who wants to save his soul, will lose it. He who wants to catch the condor, will never see its noble head.
I would love to see the condor of the Andes, admire it at close quarters, feel its weight upon my hand. That is why I want to let it know that I desire its presence, and that at the same time I totally respect its freedom. The rest is up to the bird.
These are bits from Mike Oldfield’s autobiography. The music icon of Tubular Bells brings us through Catholic memories, sin and guilt, drugs and depression, inspiration and success to the daily reality of the burden of work. Fame exacts a heavy price.
20. Some time around my sixth birthday I was deemed ready to take my first confession and to take the sacrament. I went into the cubicle with Father Scantleberry and he asked me to tell him my sins, but it just so happened that particular week I couldn’t remember having done anything wrong so I said, “I haven’t sinned”. Father Scantleberry seemed to be very upset about that, particularly as I couldn’t go through the ceremony of holy communion unless I actually confessed to some sins. He said, “Yes, you have, tell me”, so just to shut him up I told him that I lied to my mother, I hit my brother, I stole this ad that, and so on. He sent me off to say ten Hail Mary’s, and I thought, “What on earth is going on?” I really, honestly, couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong, but I was being punished for it anyway. After I had said my Hail Mary’s and I’d had my first sacrament, my mother must have thought she had done enough for me. They let me off after that and I didn’t have to keep going to church any more.
42. It was around this time my father started to go to catechism classes. He went for around six months and then converted to Catholicism. Then I was put in a Catholic school called Presentation Convent. It was an awful school in terms of both discipline and teaching ability. The monks were cruel and vicious. The headmaster would literally beat you around the room. I constantly lived in fear of the “brothers” as we called them. Our physics teacher was a Muslim. One day, instead of asking about physics, somebody asked him about his own religion. Suddenly the whole class went completely silent. We had all been indoctrinated as good Catholics, and we were all fascinated to know about another man’s religion. Every physics lesson from then on became a lesson in Islam instead of physics. We wanted to know all about Allah, about our teacher’s praying and rituals; I’ve forgotten most of it but at the time I found it all very interesting indeed. Here was a completely different way of looking at the world.
47. I remember coming home from school one day and hearing a different kind of music floating down the stairs. Sally, my sister, had put Beethoven’s fifth symphony on her record player, which made a change from the usual things she would play, Elvis Presley and the like. I just couldn’t believe this music I was hearing. I was totally enthralled. I loved the way a piece of music would start up with one idea that would develop into something different; it would be reprised in a different form and various instrumentals would echo its themes. Instead of the ding-a-dong of the songs I’d been used to, it was an enormously rich and complex musical world. It was like walking into St Peter’s in Rome, if you have only been in a little village chapel. I was filled with awe.
92. I did LSD and drugs often, but one evening came when I was to have the last LSD trip in my life. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I do remember walking down Vauxall Bridge Road, where we were tripping (walking under the influence of drugs). All of a sudden, something simply switched in my body, almost like switching on a huge electric current. It felt like I was being electrocuted. The effect on me was immediate. I felt a veil was lifted off, from where I was and what I was, and from what everybody was. The people around me, they weren’t people I knew any more, everybody was stripped of anything I had ever learned about them. They looked to me to be just like biological machines, almost like robots, but made of flesh and blood. I saw into their bloodstreams and down to the molecular level; I could see that all their movements were dictated by electrical impulses and chemical reactions. They were inhaling this gas which we call air into their lungs, they were somehow processing it into energy so they could move around. Even their mouths, the way they spoke – they were making these weird, strange sounds we call language. It wasn’t that I had a hallucination, that I imagined that humans were machines, but I knew, I saw it. If you see that in its harsh reality, it’s horrifying. I became a hopelessly lost, weird thing, floating in the middle of an eternal void. It completely terrified me. Of course, I now know I’d got what they call the horrors. There must be something about LSD that fundamentally changes and expands how your brain works and perceives things. I have never again touched another LSD pill in my life and I’ve only ever had the occasional puff of a joint. I am still terrified when someone is rolling a joint and passing it round, and I should certainly never go near LSD again.
107. Spirituality definitely influences my music. There is even a name for it now – it’s called ‘being in the zone’. It’s a magical feeling. It can happen to a sportsperson, an artist or whatever; when you are there, you are completely plugged in to the whole power of nature, God, the universe, everything. You are functioning in tune with all that, you become not just a musician making an album, you really are connected to whatever energy it is. We don’t really know what it is exactly. One day we will find out. It won’t be totally logical and it will have some connection with creativity.
109. Stress is a kind of mental disease. When things got really bad for me, there were only two things I could look calmly on: one was alcohol and the other was music. When I wasn’t making music I felt so totally like a fish out of water, it was kike I was living in an alien world – I just didn’t seem to fit. The normal world was scary: I had to anaesthetise myself with alcohol just to get through each day. Tubular Bells gave me a way out. I was so completely into it, the music became the sole, solid purpose of my existence, the focus for my entire life.
151. As success followed, depression struck and I was hanging on for dear life to my sanity. Richard Branson, my manager, wanted me to take Tubular Bells on tour but I just couldn’t imagine it, I was fending off panic at every second. He was also pushing to go to America. I was getting requests from just about everywhere to go and perform concerts, but I just wasn’t psychologically capable of doing that. I had difficulty enough just getting into a car, let alone getting on a plane.
155. I was certainly not well prepared for the success of Tubular Bells, but it was only later I started to understand the real, terrible drawbacks of being famous. As I became more and more successful, I found that fame wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The worst thing was friendship – I had to say goodbye to that. After a few years I realised that many of the people I believed to be friends were actually employees, they worked for me. I was paying people to be my friends; when I talked about it to people of similar status I found they were going through the same thing. People seemed to think that if they were associated with me, especially if they shared some of my private thoughts, they would be entitled to large amounts of money. They were friendly towards me just because they wanted something: if it wasn’t money, they’d want something else. Eventually I realised that I couldn’t have any true friends any more, because I couldn’t trust why they were being friendly. Perhaps they feel some of the success will rub off on them and they ill become successful, by magic or something. It wasn’t must my paranoia at the time: there are examples throughout the music industry and elsewhere, where previous ‘friends’ hire lawyers or go crying to newspapers: at the end you’ve got to have an army of lawyers to fight them off. I found it very trying to be suspicious of everybody the whole time, it added to my feelings of isolation and anxiety. I think that’s typically what happens when some people win the lottery: they end up terribly miserable. Most people in my position would agree, that’s just how things are.
There are some good things, though, like when on holiday recently in the South of France, I was riding my rented Harley Davidson through Monte Carlo dressed in my tatty jeans and ancient leather jacket when a very prim Monégasque policeman flagged me down and was about to throw me in jail for not having the right documents. When he recognised the name on my driving licence suddenly it was, ‘MYC OLLFEELD! MYC OLLFEELD! I LURVE MOONLIGHT SHADOW!’
159. I hated myself for causing inconvenience to others. This came from my childhood experiences and how I was indoctrinated by my Catholic upbringing when I was taught about sin and guilt. It all becomes a vicious circle. I still carry around a sense of guilt.
254. Today it’s a very different world from when I first started out. The utopia we thought was going to exist in the 1960s, all that was going to carry on and get better. By now we should have colonies on the moon, have abolished poverty, have reversed the climatic change, have magnificent art and culture; instead we have grossly obscene, voyeuristic television, smothered in degrading advertising that is an insult to human intelligence. Technology has advanced beautifully but culture has suffered, it has almost gone back to barbarism with our yob culture. I don’t know what happened, but it’s not all doom and gloom; perhaps it has to dip before it gathers momentum again. It might take another twenty or thirty years to get back on track.
(Mike Oldfield, The Autobiography, Virgin Books, London 2008)
I like to see how people so different from me think. Without judging anybody and trying to understand the people around us. While I all the more appreciate what I have received.
Question: Is it allowed to pay ransom money to terrorists to free their hostages?
Answer: No. It is illicit and inmoral. Paying ransom to terrorists is financing crime, and that is forbidden by law and conscience. Even if there be question of freeing an innocent person. This has to be said with all tact and respect as we do not want an innocent to die, and their family have every right to claim their freedom. But the end does not justify the means. Neither can it be said that you simply pay money for a transaction and are not responsible for what the other person does with that money. You know perfectly well that terrorist organisations need money for their existence and their aims, which are further crimes and murders, and it is there that the ransom money goes. No mistake about it. Society cannot condemn terrorism on one hand and tolerate its being financed on the other. Paying ransom money is forbidden by law.
The kidnapping of Lindbergh’s small child at the beginning of last century was day by agonising day followed all the world round, and that event contributed to make kidnapping a sadly popular method to obtain money. The police asked Lindbergh not to pay. The kidnapping lasted for a year and a half, and the whole world hang on the news as Lindbergh was a very popular hero. He paid up. At the end his son was found dead, but the harm was done. Kidnapping became an established practice by extortionists. Kidnapping followed kidnapping, the victims always being rich people who could pay high amounts of money for the liberation of their relatives. The method was criminal but it worked.
In our days kidnapping has acquired a new dimension. The ransom is not paid now by the family but by the government of the country from where the kidnapped person comes. This has had two consequences: one, that now the kidnappers can kidnap anybody; and two, that they can ask for a ransom as high as they want, as the one who now pays is the state. Some countries refuse to pay, and some have even publicly announced that they will never pay. Others pay. The result is obvious. If they all refused to pay, that would be the end of kidnapping.
The Church has been weak in this point. It she had openly and strongly spoken from the start with all her moral authority against the paying of ransom money, maybe this moral plague could have been stemmed, or at least the principle would have been made clear. Now it is too late. You see how you yourself have had to ask as the topic is seldom treated. But the principle stands. Thanks for asking.
Psalm 90 – God’s daily care
‘He will cover you with his pinions,
and you shall find safety beneath his wings.’All my day is under your care, Lord, and I want to be mindful of it minute by minute as I live my life by day and by night.
‘You shall not fear the hunter’s trap by night
or the arrow that flies by day,
the pestilence that stalks in darkness
or the plague raging at noonday.’By day and night, at noon and in darkness, you are with me, Lord. I need that confidence to brave the dangers that beset me. This world is an unsafe place for mind and for body, and I cannot venture alone into the constant threat. I want to hear again the words of reassurance as I start a new day or as I entrust my body to sleep, to feel safe in work and in rest under your loving and unfailing care.
‘No disaster shall befall you,
no calamity shall come upon your home,
for he has charged his angels to guard you
wherever you go,
to lift you on their hands
for fear you should strike your foot against a stone.’Lovely words for me. Lovely thought of angels watching my step and saving me from stumbling on a stone. Lovely image of your Providence made wings to flutter over me with the message of your love and your concern. Thank you for your angels, Lord. Thank you for your care of me. Thank you for your love.
Now I want to hear from your own lips the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard, with the message of your daily care as a sign of the fullness of salvation. Say them slowly, Lord, as I listen to them with all my heart.
‘Because his love is set on me, I will deliver him;
I will lift him beyond danger,
for he knows me by my name.
When he calls upon me, I will answer,
I will be with him in time of trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honour.
I will satisfy him with long life
to enjoy the fullness of my salvation.’Thank you, Lord.
To stroke the tiger
Sticker on a car:
‘Have you hugged your child today?’
The luxury of touch. The message of the caress. The warmth of nearness. The language of the body. To learn how to touch is to dispense life. To hug is to share. Love made reality in the visible gesture. So easy to do, and so enriching to experience. And yet so little common in practice, that we need to be reminded of it. Touch does not come easy.
Maybe the cause is the initial bashfulness of the child we all carry within us. Maybe the fear of hidden dangers we have heard about. Maybe the understandable reluctance to trigger feelings that may spur intimacies. Or maybe the cause is that we appreciate the treasure so much that we do not want to scatter it about. The fact is we do not trust our skin, and protect it in excess against even a healthy contact in vital exchange. Cutaneous isolation. Then, no matter how many creams we apply on it, our skin withers without human contact. Premature wrinkles on the tissues of the soul.
We can begin with nature. It, too, loves a touch. Hold a plant, caress a flower, hug a tree. Plants too have skin and feel the contact and appreciate the warmth. To feel in the tip of our fingers, delicately crafted for touch, the thousand differences on the bark of a living tree. To brush gently our hand against the gossamer petals of the newly-open flower. To rest the whole palm on the refreshing greenness of young grass in the open. All that is life touching life. And when life touches life in deep and mutual respect, life is born.
Animals come even closer. The cat in its silken softness, the profile of the dog made for the human touch, the long neck of the horse. Victor Hugo said: ‘God created the cat so that man could caress the tiger.’ Inspiring flight of fancy. To it we can add the practical advice: we can train our touch caressing animals to graduate gently to persons. A human person is far more dangerous than a tiger. We can practice with our willing companions in the animal kingdom. They can help us to free our fingers, to purify our touch, to perfect the caress. If we somehow see how touch brings out life among living beings, we may feel encouraged to extend its blessings, with infinite delicacy and outmost respect, to humans.
Let it not be necessary again to reminding the parents, from a sticker on the back window of a speeding car, not to let the day pass without hugging their children. And kissing them.
The baby’s bare foot
I’m sitting in the bus when a woman boards the bus with a baby in its pram. She parks the pram just in front of me between the two lines of seats. I wink to the baby but it ignores me. It is interested in its own game. The baby is wearing a shoe in one foot, very cute and neatly tied, while its other foot is just bare. Nothing on it. The delicate miniature of a baby’s foot, so small, so well shaped, so tender in its promise of a strong and shapely foot. I look at the child and I notice he’s cradling the other shoe firmly in his hands and would not let go of it. Mummy starts her reasoning: “No, darling, not that way. The shoe is meant to be worn on the foot. If you don’t want you shoes, I’ll remove the one you have on and we’ll keep both in the bag till you come down from your seat. And if you want them, I’ll put both on your feet and you’ll look very nice. But one foot with its shoe and one without it will not do. It is ugly. Come on, give me that show and I’ll fix it for you.”
Mummy: Look here, it is not nice to hold your shoe in your hands. The shoe has been touching the ground, getting dirty, catching germs which then will stick on your hands if you hold it and they’ll make you sick. Come on, give it to me and I’ll put it nicely on your foot.
Mummy: See all these people in the bus. What will they say about you? That you are a naughty child. And I don’t want my son to be spoken of as naughty. The shoe is very nice and it shows well on you foot and you liked it when we bought it in the big shop and it was quite expensive and you’ve been wearing it all along happily, and you’re just now wearing the other one and there is no reason why you are making such a fuss now.
Their stop has come and they get down from the bus. I am left with my thoughts. Why are all children like that? Why do they protest and object and behave irrationally and make a nuisance of themselves in any place and before all others?
And then, why are we all that same way too? Are we not doing just the same? Ggggg. Rrrrr. Jjjjj. After all what the child wanted was to assert its independence. Which is just what we too want. Zzzzz. Only that our feet are not so shapely as the baby’s.
But again, why don’t they allow us to go with one foot in its shoe and the other without it? We’re not doing any harm to anybody.
“We must strive to be like the moon.” An old man in Kabati repeated this sentence often to people who walked past his house on their way to the river to fetch water, to hunt, to tap palm wine, and to their farms. I remember asking my grandmother what the old man meant. She explained that the adage served to remind people to always be on their best behaviour and to be good to others. She said that people complain when there is too much sun and it gets unbearably hot, and also when it rains too much or when it is cold. But, she said, no one grumbles when the moon shines. Everyone becomes happy and appreciates the moon in their own special way. Children watch their shadows and play in its light, people gather at the square to tell stories and dance through the night. A lot of happy things happen when the moon shines. There are some of the reasons why we should want to be like the moon.”
(Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone, (boy soldier), Fourth Estate, London 2007.)
[I transcribed this paragraph in a full moon night. She looks marvellous. I don’t tire looking at her.]
Thank you, Pilar, for this poem of Bertold Brecht which you sent me some time ago and I have remembered today.
“Of all the things I have, I love most the things that had already been used. No new objects for me.
Copper vessels with dents and twisted borders,
knives and forks whose wood handles have been in many people’s hands.
These are the noblest shapes to me.
Floor tiles round old houses,
worn out by many feet;
flag stones with grass between their junctures
seem to me happy objects
graced by the touch of many,
transformed by tradition and love.
They have perfected their shape
and have become precious
and appreciated by all.
I even like sculptures with their arms missing.
They too lived for me.
They fell down as they were shifted,
they were pulled down because they were accessible.
Buildings in ruins appear to me as unfinished projects of grandiose mansions.
Their measurements can still be guessed in a flight of fancy.
They served their day,
they gave way to newer shapes and forms.
All these things make up my happiness.
I honour them.”
Psalm 91 – A song of optimism
I wish all days were like today, Lord. I feel light and happy; full of faith and full of energy. I feel sorry for all those complaints, remonstrances, and even accusations I made against you in moments of anger. I don’t understand how I can have been so blind to your presence and so forgetful of your graces. It is true that I pass through dark moments at times, but then I have also glorious days like this one in which the sun shines and the birds sing and I want to tell everybody about the happiness I have found in you, which is the greatest humans can ever find on earth.
“O Lord, it is good to give you thanks,
to sing psalms to your name, O Most High;
to declare your love in the morning
and your constancy every night,
to the music of a ten-stringed lute,
to the sounding chords of the harp.
Your acts, O Lord, fill me with exultation;
I shout in triumph at your might deeds.
How great are your deeds, O Lord!
How fathomless your thoughts!”Only song and music can do justice to my mood today, Lord. To sing of your greatness, to proclaim at the top of my voice how great you are and how loving you are and how wonderful it is to be at your service and to form part of your people. Oh, when will all men see what I see, when will all come to you and drink at the sources of your grace the happiness that you alone can give! If they only knew your sweetness and your power! How to tell them, Lord? How to make my happiness reach others? How to let all men and women know that you are the Lord and that in you we all find our rest?
I don’t want to preach, I don’t want to argue with any one. I just want to live the happiness you give me today, and to let others see the genuineness of my joy. My cheerfulness is my witness. My satisfaction is my messenger.
“I lift my head high, like a wild ox tossing its horn;
I am anointed richly with oil.
The righteous flourish like a palm-tree,
they grow tall as a cedar on Lebanon;
planted as they are in the house of the Lord,
they flourish in the courts of our God,
vigorous in old age like trees full of sap,
luxuriant, wide spreading,
eager to declare that the Lord is just,
the Lord my rock
in whom there is no unrighteousness.”This is my happy mood today. Thanks for it, Lord, long or short as it may prove to be; and be assured from now of my acceptance from your hands of whatever other mood you may be pleased to send me next.
You, Lord, reign on high eternally.
Portrait of a cat
“The cats were invented by the Chinese”.
(Ramón Gómez de la Serna)The cat is the Zen creature par excellence. Owner of the cosiest corners in the house, perpetually relaxed, master of ease, universal pet. It does not need to watch the house like a dog, or to be kept in a cage and chirp like a finch. Formerly they said it had to catch mice, but even that was only a gastronomic sport without any labour contract to force it. The cat moves with feline elegance, steps with cotton softness, jumps without effort and lives without noise. Its body adjusts itself to the curves of the furniture, and its supple anatomy merges with the human lap in organic integration. Always alert and always at rest. Profound sleep and instant waking. It possesses itself with graceful totality, master of its gaze and conqueror of its space. Walking conscience in docile environment. Pointed awareness of all surrounding landscape, and natural centre of all life around it. The cat, silent and still, anonymous heap of heaving breath, becomes suddenly the converging vertex of all attention with a gesture or a jump. The cat, Buddhist monk in its unruffled contemplation of the mystery of life and its unfathomable depths.
I have before my eyes the reproduction of a Chinese picture of a cat. It is laughing at me. It tells me: “Let us see when you learn how to be like me. To walk leisurely, not by fits and starts; and to jump exactly when the occasion demands it. To observe everything, examine everything, appear to be indifferent to all, only to choose at the given moment the favourite corner or the preferred morsel, and enjoy the daily pleasures with the harmless and detached intensity of the professional loafer. To sleep deeply with your whole body in the visible rhythm of your relaxed breathing. To let yourself be pampered by all humans as though you had a right to their petting and a claim on their time. To live without a care in the world, and to disappear one day as quietly as you came, without worrying how the world is going to manage with a cat more or a cat less. Let us see if you learn once for all, as that will be my way to repay you my debt with you and with all humans for the excellent way you have always treated me without my ever doing anything to deserve it.”
The cat in the picture is still looking at me. To me all cats in the world look alike, and yet I somehow realize that this is a Chinese cat. It must be true. The cats must have been invented by the Chinese. A gift for humankind.
Being in the zone
Last week I gave some talks on spirituality in Seville, and here is something of what I said.
Today, October 2nd, is the feast of our Guardian Angels, and so my first word is a greeting from my Angel to all your Angels, with my wish that they have a good day, and they help us to have a good time too.
Spirituality is the link that unites all believers. Religions in the plural divide us. We Christians observe Sunday, while Jews observe Saturday, Muslims keep Friday holy, and Hindus do not fancy any day of the week particularly. Our holy city is Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca, Banaras; our scriptures are the New Testament, the Old, the Koran, the Vedas. Our cults divide us. Religion in the singular, religiosity, spirituality unites us.
Once in Delhi, at sunrise on the hallowed grounds of Mahatma Gandhi’s Samadhi where many people walked and worshipped in the early hours, I saw a Muslim and a Parsee ready to bend in adoration at the first ray of the sun. But with a difference. The Parsee gentleman was facing the rising sun in the east, while the Muslim devotee was facing Mecca, which looking from Delhi is west. That is, they were with their backs to each other while greetings the first light of the day and worshipping the same God, as God is one and the same by whichever name he is called and in whatever direction we look for him.
Both worshippers bent deeply at the first glimpse of the golden dish…, and they bounced awkwardly backwards against each other much to their embarrassment and to the enjoyment of all the people around. Two deeply religious persons united in their belief and divided in their worship.
John Pritchard, Anglican bishop of Oxford, gives an unusual quotation in his excellent book on priesthood. It is from Bono, lead singer of U2, who says: “I often wonder if religion is the enemy of God. It’s almost like religion is what happens when the Spirit has left the building. God’s Spirit moves through us and the world at a pace that can never be constricted by any one religious paradigm. The Spirit is described in the Holy Scriptures as much more anarchic than any established religion credits.” [The bishop then continues:] “People have come increasingly to separate religion and spirituality. Church is perceived as either damaging or irrelevant. It represents a bygone age, and if it tries to preach Good News it comes across like a radio announcer telling us about a deep depression off Iceland.”
The bishop gives another unusual quotation. Another singer, Mike Oldfield, of Tubular Bells fame: “Spirituality definitely influences my music. There is even a name for it now – it’s called ‘being in the zone’. It can happen to a sportsperson, an artist or whatever; when you are there, you are completely plugged in to the whole power of nature, God, the universe, everything. You are functioning in tune with all that, you become not just a musician making an album, you really are connected to whatever energy it is.”
I like the expressions “being connected” and “being in the zone”. Young expressions of contact with the transcendent. We have to recover that touch, that connection. It has been said that the Church lost the intellectuals in the XIX century, the workers in the XX, and the youth in the XIX. Now she is losing the women – and the priests she lost long ago. We have to go back to the zone. Back to being connected: to reality, to life, to God.
Another quotation from the bishop of Oxford: “The only things we have to be concerned with as priests (and similarly as Christians) are the glory of God, the pain of the world, and the renewal (repentance) of the Church.” I said in Seville that those three concerns of the bishop had moved me so much that I would consider my trip to Seville worthwhile even if I had only read out to them that quotation and had come back to Madrid just like that. The glory of God is an expression dear to all Jesuits as it was St Ignatius’ motto; the pain of the word is the direct and deep contact with all humankind, as all suffer in this world, rich and poor, Christians and pagans, young and old; and the renewal of the Church is the urgent condition that the Church, who has done much good in her history, may do it now in greater fullness. Everything is in that, and that should be our endeavour.
Another quotation, this one from Albert Nolan in his book, “Jesus, today”: “One of the most significant developments in our times is the separation of spirituality from religion. Religious institutions tend to fossilise, to become legalistic, dogmatic, and authoritarian. My experience with young people, black and white, along more than thirty years in the school and in the university, is that none of them, except the fundamentalists and the ultraconservative, are interested anymore in doctrine and dogmas. The number of persons, particularly young, who renounce all kinds of certainties of the past, be they religious, scientific, cultural, political or historical, keeps on increasing. This is postmodernism.”
I take that up. Modernism was the optimism generated by science and philosophy since Newton and Descartes, which led humankind to belief in an unstoppable progress at the hands of science, once the fetters of religion had been broken. But the two world wars that followed, fascism, communism, and capitalism destroyed that optimism, and have left us with a universal scepticism of all ideologies and institutions, as much in science as in religion, in which we are now stuck. Postmodernism.
The reaction has been (apart from the birth of extreme right religious organisations), the turning back to spirituality as being above all organisations and legislations. This is the basis of a true renewal.
Spirituality is based on detachment. This is the first beatitude. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Simplicity in life, and non-attachment. The motto of an Indian friend of mine: “If I can do without it, I drop it.” Without exaggerating, of course. Seeking God’s presence throughout our day. We would call that now “being connected”. The cell phone. There is no question of keeping talking all the time, but of being open and available. And the phone rings. Or we call. We would be lost without our cell phone. Lest we run out of power.
And true spirituality at the end leads on to service. Pray to serve. “Whatever you did to one of these little ones, you did it to me.” I was tired the other day before my computer and a stream of emails which gladdened my soul but tired my body, when Jesus’s saying flashed before me in another way: “Whenever you answer any of these persons, you are answering Me.” That changed my day. Light and joy. Smile before the computer. Digital spirituality. Living for sharing. Guardian Angels. The Vatican has three super-computers with the names of Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Prayer with wings.
You’ve asked a straightforward question, George, which has a straightforward answer too, but the answer may bring some consequences. You’ve asked me whether we have to take literally all the words of Jesus en the gospels. The answer is no, and the delicate consequence is that then we don’t know which are to be taken literally and which not. You haven’t asked that, but that is the moot point.
That not all of Jesus’s words are to be taken literally is self-evident. Some examples: “If your eye is an occasion of sin to you, pluck it out”, “whoever does not hate their father and mother is not worthy of me”, “all those who came before me were thieves and robbers”, “they are eunuchs who castrated themselves for the Kingdom of Heaven”, “straight is the way and narrow the gate that leads to salvation, and few enter through it”, “many are called but few are chosen”. I don’t believe that only a few get to heaven while most men and women go to hell for eternity. That wouldn’t reflect well on God the Father if he had created humankind knowing that most people were going to spend eternity in hell. Jesus exaggerates. Exegetes tell us, with a touch of authority in their voices, that Jesus spoke in the language of his time and his people, who in fact were given to exaggeration. That makes him more human. Origen took castration literally, and then he was not allowed to become a priest precisely because of having practiced it on himself. These are clear examples. The moot point is when to take Jesus’s words literally and when not. In that we follow tradition and the Church’s magisterium. And, simply, common sense. Origen went too far. And not all those who came before Jesus were thieves and robbers. I tell Jesus I’m sorry, and I know these things are not commonly mentioned, but I think they are true and should be known. I’m sure Jesus agrees.
Psalm 92 – The Lord of the sea
I watch in awe the eternal sight of the mighty waves of an enraged sea pounding away on the stubborn rocks of the haughty waterfront. The rumbling noise, the heaving tide, the head-on crash, the white fury, the unyielding stand, the foam, the spray, the waters receding to come charging again. I never tire of watching the might of the sea, the primeval abyss where life was formed, the secret depth, the untiring breath, the infinite expanse. Figure and mirror of the Lord who made it.
“O Lord, the ocean lifts up,
the ocean lifts up its clamour;
the ocean lifts up its pounding waves.
The Lord on high is mightier far
than the noise of great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea.”I worship your power, Lord, I bow in humility before your might. In my heart I rejoice to see glimpses of your omnipotence, to see you as unchallenged Master of sea and earth, because I fight on your side, and your victories are mine. I grow in confidence, I acquire courage, I experience joy. My King is the King of kings and Lord of lords. My daily life is easier because you are Lord. My future is safe because you rule all time. My salvation is assured, because you, almighty God, are my Redeemer.
I like to look at the sea because it reminds me of your majesty, Lord.
“The Lord is King;
he is clothed in majesty.”
School for skiers
This is the dedication Denise McCluggage prefaces to her book “The Centered Skier”:
“Dedicated to Velma F. McCluggage, my mother;
to Al Chung.liang Huang, my T’ai Chi Master;
and to Hathaway, my cat, who is T’ai Chi Master of us all.”The cat’s graduation. Master of masters. Silent trainer, practical demonstrator, living lesson. Look at it and learn. Observe it and let its movements sink into yours. Watch its goings and comings, and let yourself be jealous of its relaxed step and its exemplary rest. Permanent Master at each hour of day and in every corner of the house. Learning by presence.
The authoress of that book was chief sports reporterwith the New York “Herald Tribune”, car-racing champion at Montecarlo and Sebrig, expert parachutist and skier. The book, as its title indicates, is about skiing, and it opens with this surprising sentence:
“Much before I began studying Chinese and T’ai Chi and to collect Bruce Lee posters, I already had the hunch that learning Chinese would help me to ski better.”Cats and Chinese. The cat is a T’ai Chi Master. T’ai Chi is the art of the Chinese whose culture and mentality are reflected in their language, and so grammar leads us, unexpectedly, to sports. There is no question here of special treatises on skiing being written in Chinese, so that the study of that language might help directly the practice of the white sport. The point is a much deeper and much truer one. The language we use determines to a large extent our view of reality and our reaction to the circumstances of life, as thoughts are shaped by grammar and words. Now, Western languages obey a rectilinear logic and follow a successively deductive course; while Eastern languages, particularly Chinese in its pictorial script, lead up better to an integrated perception and an organically spontaneous reaction to events, and this attitude is the one that teaches to ski better, and presumably to live better.
“Through the years I had allowed myself to be trapped by the overwhelming linearity of my only language, English. As one resounding word followed another, forming phrases that again resounded into other resounding phrases, I felt my thought seduced and forced to proceed in the same way. As one word came ‘after’ another, and one line ‘after’ another, the sequentiality of the language bewitched me. Due to the very nature of the arrangement there was always something that ‘followed’ something else in fragmented succession. Thus I got stuck in an ordered notion of cause and effect and transition, in a simplistic idea of time as though moving along a one-way track.
It was then that I decided Chinese would be a better language than English to learn something akin to simultaneity. All that I knew about Chinese at the time came from the menus in Chinese restaurants, but I suspected that a single character was worth at least a thousand words. I imagined that Chinese characters contained wholes within wholes and meanings intertwined with meanings, thus diminishing the risk of mistaking the sequential for the simultaneous.
I was sure that in Chinese characters the energy wound itself backwards. In that way it feeds itself, instead of spreading out on to the wide, white margins and scattering its strength away. Chinese language – I thought – is more total, more whole, more…, well, more ‘Gestalt’ (a cherished remainder of me College flirting with German). And ski was all those things: totality, simultaneity, Gestalt, flow. It was not at all linear, as English, in which I had locked myself till them. Therefore Chinese would help me ski better.”The whole book bears witness that so it happened indeed. Ease on the curves, balance in the body, oneness with the landscape, the centre of motion in the centre of energy. Less logic and more contact, less thinking and more feeling, less programming and more experiencing. Relaxed attention and controlled distraction. The awakening of the senses and the imagination much above all arguments and deductions. The free brush of the Chinese scholar against the electronic typewriter of the hurried newsman: efficient, to be sure, but tyrannically monotonous, rectilinear, sequential.
It is now a little too late in life for me to try the skis on or to learn Chinese. There is always the cat.
I’m walking early in the morning on Saturday when I come upon a group of young people who have unhinged a garbage can and are now trying to balance it on top of a parked car between laughs and cheers. There is no one else on the street. I see everything and say nothing. One of the young men addresses me as I’m passing by and says defiantly: “So what?”
I haven’t said anything, of course, but he senses I don’t agree with their doings and he feels the need to check me. That is, he is projecting onto me what his own conscience is telling him. He knows perfectly well that what he is doing is wrong, he projects his own thought onto me, he imagines (and rightly so) that I don’t approve of what he is doing, and he defends himself before me when in fact I have not accused him. So what?
This means that those who say that when young people play mischief in public they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, are quite mistaken. They know it. They know it is quite wrong, but they have precisely to do something wrong, something not approved by their elders, something revolutionary, against public order, “progressive”, against the system, in order to show to themselves and to the group that they are different, independent, free, original, and spontaneous… when in fact what they are proving before themselves and before the group is just the contrary. They are commonplace, dependent, and slaves to the group. And they do know that placing a garbage can on someone else’s car is a wrong thing to do. Even if they strut about like heroes.
There is no need of much courage to unhinge a garbage can, or of much imagination to lift it on to a parked car. I don’t even think the girls in the group think highly of the boys for attempting the deed. Maybe there are some among them who disapprove of it and deep down feel uneasy about it. But that is the group, and all have to laugh and to clap. They’re not at their best at this moment, to be sure. Not all young people are like that. Not even these young people are like that for the rest of the week. Now it’s early Saturday morning. They have all spent Friday night going from bar to bar. That’s the ritual. The garbage can is slipping down from the top of the car where they had placed it and crashes on the floor. A boy kicks it and the garbage is spread all over the street. A peal of laughter. They have achieved the day’s feat. The group goes ahead. So what?
I was writing a new book when I just thought a page in it could well fit in here, and so I’m advancing it. It comments on Jesus’s expression, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, and it deals with our freedom while we do obey religious authorities. This is what it says:
The expression “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, in the Hebrew context in which Jesus pronounced it, is the clearest and deepest declaration of human dignity and liberty before all kinds of laws in all times and all ages. All the laws are made for the good of the people, no doubt, but many tie down the individual instead of liberating them, and condemn them instead of absolving them. Then comes the moment to remember that the Sabbath exists for us, and not us for the Sabbath.
With all respect and reverence we address you, legislators, and remind you that your laws were made for men and women, and not men and women for your laws. Do not forget, please. And do not get angry, legislators of today, if we remind you of it from time to time and we act accordingly, and if repeat to you, with due submission and humility, that there are some concrete moral laws enacted by you which are quietly ignored by many of your lawful subjects who respectfully distance themselves from your official teaching in their practical behaviour. And you know it. Do remember, in your legal activities of precepts and sanctions and commandments and prohibitions, that we know that all that was made for us, not we for it. We are constantly reminded of it by Jesus’s attitude before the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is the sign, the parable, the certificate of the Christian’s freedom before the law. Jesus, in his ultimate definition, is the Lord of the Sabbath, and that title establishes him as well as any other as the true and only God who rules even over the Sabbath. And we too enjoy in him, as our Lord and the Lord of the Sabbath, the blessings of the Sabbath without being tied down by the legal servitude to it or to any other command. Jesus upheld the Law (the Sabbath), but changed its practice for his followers in his time. And he keeps doing the same today in our consciences. Even if this entails at times the opposition of the authorities as it did for him.
Just as well you’ve not asked that question for yourself but for someone else. With due respect, it is an absurd idea, however common it may be among some people. You tell me a friend of yours has a small child who has been diagnosed a terminal sickness, and she is asking God to pass on to her the sickness so that her child may be saved even if she dies. I know there are loving and pious mothers who would think that way and do that, but, with all love and tact, they have to be told that they are wrong. God, in their conception, would be like those ogres in the legends who claim a victim a day, whoever he or she may be, and one can be exchanged for another provided he gets his daily tax. Or what was done in the concentration camps when they took any ten prisoners and they executed them as reprisal for someone who had escaped. They did not care if another prisoner outside the appointed ten would offer himself to take another’s place provided there were ten. That is what Maximilian Kolbe did in Auschwitz and was canonised by pope Juan Paul II for that. But God is not like the Auschwitz torturers. Far from it! When God grants a grace, he grants it in full, with total generosity and without unworthy bargaining. Let your friend pray for her son’s health, but let her not offer herself as a replacement victim in his place. Yes, I know that is proof of extolled motherly love; but it is also a grievous misconception. Tell her ever so kindly.
Psalm 93 – Teach me, Lord
“Happy the man whom you instruct, O Lord,
and teach out of your law.”I need your instruction, Lord. I want to be a docile pupil in your wide classroom. I want to observe, I want to assimilate, I want to learn. I know that the teaching goes on the whole day, only my learning fails because I do not pay attention, I do not recognise the situations, I do not hear your voice.
Teach me through the events of the day. You put them before me, therefore you know their meaning and their importance for me. Teach me how to read them, how to decipher your messages in a chance encounter, in a piece of news, in a sudden joy, in a threatening worry. You are there, Lord. Your hand is in those writings. Your face is behind those faces. Let me recognise it. Let me understand what you want to tell me through each one of those events and encounters along my day.
Teach me through the silence of my heart. You need no words and no actions. You are present in my moods and you read my innermost thoughts. Teach me to know myself. Teach me to understand this mess of feelings and this tangle of ideas that is inside me and that I myself don’t understand. Why do I react as I react? Why do I feel sad without motive? Why do I get angry with people I love? Why cannot I pray when I want to pray? Why do I doubt you when I swear by you? Why do I hate myself when I know you love me? Why am I such a riddle to myself that the more I reflect the less I understand my own mind?
Teach me trough others, teach me through experience, teach me through life. Free my instincts from routine and prejudice that they may guide me with nature’s wisdom through the jungle of decisions. Enliven my senses that they may give back to me the freshness of creation through the friendliness of my body. Still my mind that it may perceive in virginal innocence the unspoilt images of the world of thought. Cleanse my heart that it may beat with steady confidence to the eternal rhythms of friendship and love.
Teach me through your presence, your word, your grace. Make me see things as you see them, make me value what you value and reject what you reject. Make me trust your Providence and believe that men and women are good even when they hurt me or wish me ill. Make me have faith in your action among men and women, and rejoice with the hope of the coming of your Kingdom.
Teach me, Lord, teach me day by day, teach me trough my life that I may grow in understanding of myself, of life and of you, and the light in my mind may illumine for my steps the path that leads to you.
“Computers are useless.
They are only good at giving answers.”
(Picasso)Art laughing at machines. The painter snubs the computer. Good sense of humour and good critical mind. Answers are no use. Handbook dialogue in which the reader knows what is coming next and if one does not know it beforehand, one can never decipher it. If the question is properly put, it contains the answer within itself; and if it is not properly put, the answer will never be found. Mechanical answers are no use. And that is all the computer knows. That is why computers – in Picasso’s opinion – are no good.
Computers come in handy to make lists, to catalogue items, to place orders, to store data. They are good at making journey reservations instantly, at displaying bank accounts before quick eyes, at checking the goods that come in and out daily at the supermarket. Our thanks to the machine for all that. They are also good – and this comes nearer home in intimate feeling – to free the human brain from the slavery of numbers and calculations and algorithms and repetitions, thus sparing our time and our energies for the creative work of inspiration and imagination which is our great joy. Our thanks, then, once more and with deeper gratitude to the machine for the welcome liberation. And for the easy and instant communication its mail gives us – which was not yet popular in Picasso’s time.
And after the heartfelt thanks follows the heartfelt criticism. Answers are cheap. They are a matter of time. The computer works out in one second what I would take one hour to figure out. But that happens because another person has spent several hours teaching the computer what it has to say. So, my thanks first to this other person. For the computer it is all a matter of repetition and accumulation and classification. A matter of telling me now what in any case I would have known later. Or maybe of telling me what I already knew. The answer the machine gives has no value, because it has already been given before by someone else. Otherwise it would not be in the machine. And saying just what someone else has said before, leads us nowhere. Classroom textbook, handyman’s manual; kitchen recipes. They are fine in an emergency, but useless for life. I feel prompted to paraphrase Picasso: Textbooks are useless; they are only good to help pass examinations. I should know. I have written several textbooks in mathematics.
The true answer is the answer that springs up within me, that I find on my own, that I discover, that I imagine to be an answer because it is mine and it has taken me time and effort to bring it out. I do not want easy ways nor borrowed shortcuts. I do not want machine prints or robot walks. I do not want mummies in my life. I want the creative freedom to risk my own answers and shape my own life. I do not want to depend for my life on the cold screen of identical digits. I want independence.
In a playful joke someone types the polite request on a computer keyboard: “Please, tell us something about yourself.” Instantly the screen flashes the answer: “I think, therefore I exist.” Wishful thinking.
Pattie Boyd, Wonderful today, Headline, London 2007. Wife of George Harrison (Beatle) and Eric Clapton successively.
81. A lot of fan mail came to the house and when George’s mother was down from Liverpool she would take it away and answer it. In the meantime it would stack up, mountains of envelopes, in cardboard boxes. I’ll never forget coming home one day and finding the boxes all over the floor, the letters scattered far and wide. It looked as though we had been burgled. As I put it back I noticed that one envelope had been opened. It was addressed to Korky, our adorable white Persian cat, and contained a ball of catnip, the herb cats go mad about. Clever thing, he’d found and opened his own fan mail.
89. They (the 4 Beatles) knew little about life and, with Brian Epstein (Manager) looking after their every need, they had no reason to learn. Money was never a motivating force. They enjoyed the toys it bought them but they never had any idea how much they had. If they wanted something they asked Brian.
98. We went in search of a restaurant (without Brian). A couple of hours and many bottles of wine later, we discovered that none of us had enough money to bay the bill. We weren’t used to paying restaurant bills. Or any others, for that matter.
175. One evening when John Hurt, the actor, was with us, Eric Clapton was due to come over and George decided to have it out with him. John wanted to make himself scarce but George insisted he stay. He remembers George coming downstairs with two guitars and two small amplifiers, laying them down in the hall, then pacing restlessly until Eric arrive – full of brandy, as usual. As Eric walked through the door George handed him a guitar and amp – as an eighteenth-century knight might have handed his rival a sword – and for two hours, without a word, they duelled. The air was electric and the music exciting. At the end nothing was said but the general feeling was that Eric had won. He hadn’t allowed himself to get riled or to go in for instrumental gymnastics as George had. Even when he was drunk, his guitar-playing was unbeatable.
208. [Eric asked her on the phone to marry him, and he pleaded for an immediate answer. She hedged about a little, but had to say Yes.] What I did not know until Roger Forrester confessed a few days after the wedding was how the whole thing had come about. He and Eric had been playing an endless drunken game of pool at Roger’s house and they had had a bet. Roger had bet Eric that he could get his photograph in the newspapers the following morning. Hric bet him ten thousand pounds that he couldn’t. So Roger went straight to the telephone and told Nigel Dempster, the gossip-columnist on the Daily mail and his friend, that Eric Clapton would be marrying Pattie Boyd on 27 March in Tucson, Arizona. By the time they woke up the next morning the story, plus photograph, was emblazoned across the Daily Mail and the two were in total panic. What to do? A few million people now knew about the wedding, the only person who didn’t was the bride. Hence the hasty phone call – and the desperation for an immediate answer once they saw the paper. We were married on 27 March in Tucson, Arizona.
299. Being the muse of two such extraordinarily creative musicians and having beautiful, powerful love songs written about me was enormously flattering but it put the most tremendous pressure on me to be the amazing person they must have thought I was – and secretly I knew I wasn’t. I felt I had to be flawless, serene, someone who understood every situation, who made no demands but was there to fulfil every fantasy; and that’s someone with not much of a voice. It’s not realistic: no one can live up to that kind of perfection. Now I feel I can be myself – but it took me quite a while to discover that and even longer to work out who I was exactly because the ‘me’ in me had been hidden for so long. For most of my life I’d been what other expected me to be – the eight-year-old who could cope with boarding-school, the protective, all-knowing older sister whom all her siblings looked up to, the sixties icon, the glamorous model. / Do you have any idea what having your face on the front cover of Vogue does for the ego; it seriously undermines it. I knew – as all models know – that I didn’t really look like the image on the magazine cover because, like all good models, I knew how to manipulate my body to its best advantage. It’s an illusion – the public never see the real person. They see the fantasy, and it’s the fantasy they admire and fall in love with: the photograph, the image someone has spent hours getting together. You know that in the flesh you can never live up to it. You play the game and do the things, but when you walk out of that studio you’ve left the image behind. Then you have to do the hair and put on the full makeup every day so that people don’t see behind the illusion. The more successful you are as a model, the more insecure you may become, preoccupied with your imperfections. When you look at other models all you see is their perfection so you are constantly with people who, you think, are far more attractive than you. But I have stopped thinking like that and I have stopped worrying. Nowadays I’m perfectly happy to go to the local shops in a tracksuit without a trace of makeup and if, as occasionally happens, someone stops me and says, ‘Aren’t you Pattie Boyd? I give them a big smile and say, ‘Yes! I’m Pattie Boyd!’ [end of the book]
A few days ago I got a different phone call. The phone rang, I took it, someone mentioned my name, I said that was me, there was a pause, and then that same feminine voice kept on talking but rather as it were reading a book or reciting a text. It took me a little while to realise what it was. She was reading at the phone one of the psalms as commented by me in my book “Praying Together”. She went on reading. I kept listening. Alter a while she stopped and said: “I cannot go on. I’m crying.” My eyes too went wet. Two people crying by phone. She could not finish the psalm. She told me her name and a few things about herself. She thanked me for my book. Y thanked her for her tears. Sometimes it is worthwhile to write a book.
Psalm 94 – God’s own rest
“They shall never enter my rest.”Those are among the most frightful words I have ever heard from you, Lord. The curse of curses. The rejection away from you. The prohibition to enter your rest. When I reflect on the depth and the beauty of the word “rest” as it becomes your own, I begin to understand what misery it must mean to be excluded from it.
Your rest is your satisfaction after completing the creation of heaven and earth and man and woman on it, your enforced Sabbath of joy and liturgy in the midst of a life of toil, your eternity in the blissful fruition of your being for ever. Your rest is the best in you, the leisure of life, the graciousness of mercy, the celebration of your essence in the midst of your creation. Your rest is your smile, your relaxation, your pardon. Your rest is your divine quality of doing everything while seeming to do nothing. Omnipotence without effort; action without fatigue. Your rest is your essence without change in the midst of a world that turns on change. Your rest is you.
And your rest now is open to me. I am called to the eternal holiday. Invited to your heaven. Destined to be with you for ever. That magic word “rest” has now become my favourite with its Biblical ring and its theological undertones. A rest so big that one “enters” into it. It envelops me, it grasps me, it fills me with its bliss. I see easily that such a rest is my final destiny, a homely yet divine word for the ultimate aim of my life; to rest with you.
I want to train myself in this life for my rest in the next. I want to enter already in promise and in spirit the heavenly rest that one day will be mine with you. I want to learn how to be relaxed, to feel at ease, to conquer hurry, to avoid tension, to be at peace. I ask for an anticipation of your blessing, for an earnest on earth of your eternal rest in heaven. I want to reflect in my behaviour, my speech, my countenance the hope of the essential rest that will give my soul and my body the ultimate fruition of perpetual peace.
What prevents me from entering your rest? What led you to swear in your anger, “They shall never enter my rest”?
“Do not grow stubborn, as you were at Meribah,
as at the time of Massah in the wilderness,
when your forefathers challenged me,
tested me and saw for themselves all I did.”
The incidents remained so sharp in your memory that you quote the very names of the places where they happened, unhappy stages of a spiritual geography which your people lived and we repeat in our lives. Your people tempted you, mistrusted you even after seeing your wonders, were stubborn in their complaints and unbelief. Your wrath was kindled and you closed the door to those who had so long refused to enter.
“For forty years I was indignant with that generation,
and I said: They are a people whose hears are astray,
and they will not discern my ways.
As I swore in my anger:
They shall never enter my rest.”
How many years for me, Lord? How many chances, how many doubts, how many Massahs and Meribahs? You know the names of my own private geography. You remember my infidelities and regret my stubbornness. Make me docile, Lord. Make me accept, make me believe. Make me see that the way to attain your rest is to trust in you, to rely on you, to put my whole life in your hands with confidence and joy. Then I can live without a care and die in your arms to enter your peace for ever. Make it so, Lord.
“You shall know his power today
if you will listen to his voice.”
The congress of the cats
I would like to know Japanese in order to feel within myself and understand in depth the meaning of the word “mushotoku”. I am told it denotes a state of soul in which one acts without any concrete aim in mind, without desire of gain or profit, without any reference to merit or hope of recompense. Things are done and life is lived “for the heck of it”, in the most absolute and sovereign sense of the expression, and it is precisely in that liberation from all conditioning aims that the secret lies of a greater strength to act and a greater joy to do it with. To explain this situation they tell, in Japan, the story of The Cats’ Congress of Martial Arts.
Cats boast of their prowess to kill rats, in the service of humans and of their own stomach; but once a huge rat appeared in a house, and cat after cat failed in their attempts to get rid of it. At long last an old cat came and sat himself, quiet and restful, in a corner of the haunted room, and waited. The rat appeared, was cautious first, but then it grew careless and made a wrong move. At the same instant the cat was on it, caught it by the neck and dispatched it.
The cats decided to call a meeting to draw the lessons from that experience and to learn why one cat had succeeded where all others had failed. The old cat explained: “You all are younger and stronger than I am, but you were all too keen to overcome the rat, as it had become a public issue and the whole community of cats followed it closely. That’s why you couldn’t win. The rat sensed your keenness, your urgency, your need to win, and easily avoided your hurried moves and violet jumps. I, on the contrary, simply sat down and waited, without a worry on my mind about what was going to happen. Faced with my utter tranquillity, it was the rat that lost its nerve, and fell a prey to my instant paws.
And I even know another cat, older and wiser than myself, who puts all rats to flight with his very presence, and no one remains in his neighbourhood. His composure, his concentration, his absolute motionlessness are such that he commands respect and obedience, and, doing nothing, he does everything, which is the proof of the highest wisdom.”
It is common experience that when we try to do things too well, we spoil them. The tension to win hinders victory. The need to succeed prevents success. We have to work, by all means, as sleeping cats catch no mice; but we have to work with a free mind and a joyful heart. Without goals or prizes or records. This is the daily paradox of our complex living: we cannot act without an aim to our action, but then we see our action disturbed by the very need to obtain the aim. We have obediently conditioned our behaviour to rewards and punishments, to success and failures, and an action that only looks at the result loses all the concentration and ease and elegance it has when it is performed for its own sake.
This must be the meaning of the Japanese word in question, and the word in the dictionary means an attitude in life. By the same measure, if we lack the word, we are also likely to lack the attitude. It would do us good to learn a little Japanese. Maybe it is not so difficult after all when even cats can learn it.
I’ve read, as I guess many of you have also read, the pope’s declaration in which the use of a condom is allowed in certain cases, “for instance when a prostitute uses a condom”, as quoted in the papers; and then the declaration of the Vatican’s spokesman Federico Lombardi’s statement that with that “the pope does not reform or change the Church’s doctrine but he reaffirms it”, again according to the newspapers.
Well, something does change. Formerly nobody could use a condom, while some can do it now. That is change. The Church’s moral teaching on sex was solemnly proclaimed in the encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968, whose fortieth anniversary was celebrated in 2008, on which occasion pope Benedict XVI stressed again its teaching and added that the encyclical had been “both providential and prophetic”. Prophetic, as it predicted the sex revolution about to take place, and providential because without it the damage would have been greater. The encyclical forbad all kinds of artificial means for contraception. The fundamental principle was that sex can be exercised only within the marriage and being open to conception. With a condom there is no conception possible, so that it stands forbidden for a start. It is to this general and universal principle to which an exception has now been officially made, and that does create a precedent.
What has certainly hurt me is the mentioning of prostitutes as the only example. If a married woman judges herself to be justified in conscience to ask her husband to use a condom, or if the husband suffers from a serious contagious disease and wants to have sex with his wife (which might be other examples), the wife would accept the condom, but she almost would see herself placed side by side with the sex workers, as theirs is the only case mentioned, and that, with all respect to all persons included, would not be dignified. I would have expected more tact in the issue.
I also feel that the pope’s declaration in such an important matter should not have been done in such an indirect and light way as it is in an answer to an interviewer for him to publish in his book, but in a carefully worded declaration by the pope himself, in speech or in writing, as they know how to do in the Vatican and should have been done in this case. One gets the impression that this has been done on purpose to take away any solemnity and gravity from the declaration as though it were not important and as though they meant to take it lightly and in passing, and I think this is wrong. The Church faces a credibility crisis, and evasive policies do not help.
For the rest, it has been a timely, expected, necessary, welcome step. And somebody is going to sell many copies of his book.
Dear father, I would like to know when was private confession introduced in the Church, as it did not exist in the beginning.
The first Christians, Elva, and the Christians along many centuries later, used to go to confession only once in life, and they did that as public sinners without oral confession of concrete sins, and undergoing a public penance. Pope Leo the Great in 459 changed confession from public to private. The Council of Orleans in 538 even forbad confession before 35 years of age, as it was only practiced after the adventures of youth and as a preparation for death in mature age. Later, Irish monks under spiritual direction from other monks began to add oral confession made to their spiritual director in their weekly visit to him in the monastery, and when those Irish monks spread throughout Europe in their preaching, they introduced and propagate the practice of personal, oral and detailed confession for lay people too. The Council of Toledo in 589 actually forbad this private confession, but the custom prevailed and the figure of father confessor acquired a high social standing from the king’s confessor to the personal spiritual father the faithful boasted of.
In school in my youth we were recommended to go to confession every day, and some actually did so (I did it for a while till I owned to myself that I was getting bored and so was the confessor as my sins were not very interesting), though the usual thing was weekly confession with long queues by all boarders being quickly disposed of after the hurried declamation of “having told lies, having used bad words, having had bad thoughts, which I think I didn’t consent to but I say it as God saw it…”, always adding just in case “and I accuse myself of all the sins of my past life” to make sure of a valid and fruitful confession. Of course, all that was not exactly what Jesus had in mind. I imagine he benevolently smiled at our penitential eagerness. Confession did get exaggerated, became an instrument of power in the hands of the priests, and was even sadly abused. These extremes brought the pendulum to the other end, and now few go to confession. I’ll transcribe for you here a chapter of a book of mine on that topic published in Colombia where I treat of confession as the sacrament of healing for the soul and for the mind which is what it truly is and should always have been.
“The fundamental passage in the gospel to understand Jesus’ pardon in the sacrament of penance is the one of the woman caught in adultery whom the mob wanted to stone to death and whom Jesus saved with his gentle challenge, ‘ He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone’. The importance of this touching passage lies in its beginning and its end. It begins with ‘flagrant adultery’ and it ends with ‘go and sin no more’. If it were not Jesus speaking, this would seem an irresponsible thing to say to a woman in sex. Don’t do it again. Sex leaves its mark, stays in the body, craves repetition. Chastity is not improvised, and bad habits are not corrected with good advice. There is no question of cheerfully telling the girl in order to somehow close down the embarrassing incident: ‘Take it easy now, be a good girl and don’t do it again. All right?’ knowing full well that the situation will be repeated at the first opportunity. That would do no good, and, on the contrary, would leave the woman in sadness after having for a moment longed for a new life, having come close to the light, having touched freedom without knowing how to achieve it. She feels helpless under the weight of her past and the pressure of her surroundings. Telling her not to do again what she herself does not want to do any more would be making her hear from others what she wants to do herself but does not know how. But here it is Jesus who speaks, and his word ‘does’ what it ‘says’. When Jesus tells a leper, ‘Be made clean!’ his leprosy disappears, and when he tells Lazarus, ‘Come out!’ the man who had been dead for four days walks out of his tomb. When Jesus tells the sea to calm down, its waves subside, and when he commands the wind to stop, it stops. The word from the lips of Jesus does what it says, it acts upon the body and the soul, over elements and sickness, over man and woman. When Jesus is telling that woman ‘sin no more’, he is giving her the strength not to sin any more, is straightening up her imagination, is cleansing her memory, is healing her existence. ‘Sin no more’ on the lips of Jesus is no utopia, it is reality; it is no advice, it is a declaration; it is not a beautiful resolution, it is a new life. It is telling the woman: ‘You are now in a non-sinning situation. Act accordingly.’ Jesus’ pardon brings healing along with itself. That is the great lesson of that great passage in the gospels. And that is what confession is and was always meant to be.”
Psalm 95 – A new song
“Sing a new song to the Lord.”This is at first sight the impossible precept. How can I sing a new song when all songs in all languages have already been sung time and time again to you, Lord? All themes are exhausted, all rhymes have been tried, all tunes have been explored. Prayer is essentially repetition, and I must struggle not to appear to say the same things every day, even when I know I am saying them. I am condemned to attempt variety even when I know well that all prayer reduces itself to the repetition of your name and the manifestation of my needs. How can you, then ask me to sing a new song?
I know the answer before I finish the question. The song may be the same, but the spirit with which I sing it must be fresh and new every time. The zest, the joy, the sound of each word and the flight of each note has to be different every time that note leaves my lips, every time that prayer leaves my heart.
This is the secret of newness in life, and in asking me to sing a new song you want to teach me to live a new life each day and each moment with all the freshness of dawn in every minute of my existence. A new song, a new life, a new dawn, a new breath, a new strength behind each step, a new hope behind each thought. Everything the same, and everything different, because the eyes that look at the same object of yesterday are new today.
This new sight renders me able to enjoy the blessings of nature in the fullness of their new reality. Heaven and earth and fields and trees become all new because my heart is new. They join me in my joy and sing with me the new song of praise.
“Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult,
let the sea roar and all the creatures in it,
let the fields exult and all that is in them;
then let all the trees of the forest shout for joy before the Lord
when he comes to judge the earth.”
This is the new song that fills my life and fills the world around me, the only song that is worthy of him whose essence is to be new each instant in the unrepeatable richness of his eternal being.
“Sing a new song to the Lord;
sing to the Lord, all men and women on earth.
Sing to the Lord and bless his name,
proclaim his triumph day by day.”
The way to the oasis
The wayfarer in the desert approached the Bedouin in the solitude of his contemplation and humbly asked him, “Could you show me the way to the oasis?” The Bedouin answered briefly from the depths of his solitude: “No.”
The wayfarer insisted with accents of need and the logic of the professional explorer, “You are a child of the desert. You know which way the oasis lies, and you can tell me. Why do you refuse?” The Bedouin spoke: “I cannot tell you where the oasis is. I cannot give you a street and a number as you do in your city. You have called me child of the desert, and you are right. You are the child of the city, and your ways are not my ways. I cannot direct you.”
“You can at least draw a map for me that I may follow it”, the wayfarer entreated in his eagerness. “There are no maps in the desert”, continued the Bedouin, “the sands look the same in all directions; the dunes shift their places and their position cannot be pinned down on paper for the child of the city.”
“Then stretch out your hand”, the wayfarer pressed on, “and show me the direction in which I have to walk. I promise to follow it to the end.” The Bedouin answered the plea: “In the desert there are mirages and hallucinations and sandstorms, and the direction of an instant is lost the next instant. I cannot show you any direction.”
“There is a way left for you and for me”, argued desperately the anxious wayfarer, “you can walk before me, and I will follow you and reach the oasis.” “Yes”, answered the Bedouin calmly, “I could walk before you, and you would reach the oasis on my footsteps. But then you could not say to yourself you had found the oasis; and its palm-trees would not refresh you, nor could its waters quench your thirst. Remember, wayfarer, only what you find for yourself satisfies the soul and justifies life. Understand what I tell you, have faith in life and in the sands of the desert, and your own feet will find the oasis.”This is the most repeated request in life. Tell me what I have to do. Tell me how to go. Show me the way to the oasis. We want to be told, to have it explained to us, to be given everything ready-made. The map and the compass, and the guide and his footsteps. Everything fixed and safe to guarantee the arrival at the oasis. But that is not adventure, is not discovery, is not life. Those palm-trees give no shade, and those waters quench no thirst. To follow footsteps, to repeat formulas, to travel highways. That is not the way to the stars.
The great temptation of the professionals of the spirit is to yield to the request and to become guides. Seduction by discipleship. Follow me, imitate me, obey me. I will tell you what to do, will point to you the way, will accompany you step by step. The master wants to have disciples, and the guide wants to have followers. The whole live and radical detachment of the Bedouin in the desert is needed to reject the temptation, send away the disciple, respect the sanctity of the desert. That is, to respect the sanctity of the human person. Never to tell anyone what he or she has to do. Encouragement, help, support by all means. But never to impose a direction on anybody, never to yield to the alluring request of the pleading wayfarer.
The Bedouin closed himself in his silence, and the wayfarer went on his way.
A Christmas Story
[I like to be optimistic and cheerful in my life and in my writings, but I also know there is misery in the world, and we have to be aware of it to keep doing in that matter whatever we can in our own way. And, at least, to be aware of suffering in the world. The gap between rich and poor is the greatest problem of humankind in all its history, and that gap keeps widening. Hence the story I give below for the sake of awareness, compassion, and action. It’s a real story, and I’ve summarised and abridged it from the central chapters (5-8) of a book I’ve just read. It comes from Africa. It has made me cry. And it is a Christmas story, as you will see. As it is long (though it is by no means the whole book) and takes up more space than usual in my Web, I omit the other regularly changing sections of the Web for this time: “You tell me”, “Psalm”, “Meditation”. I remind you that I take a holiday from the Web on January 1st, and we’ll meet again on January 15th with all the sections as usual. Tell me by then if you liked this story. A very happy Christmas to you all!]
My family never had much money, and trapping birds was occasionally our only way of getting meat, which we considered a luxury. The Chichewa language even has a word, nkhuli, which means “a great hunger for meat”. And Christmas, of course, would not be Christmas for us if we didn’t have meat on that day
– even if we had had none in the whole year.
My father said, “This year will be a disaster for us all”. My mother said, “We can only trust in God”. What had happened was this: the floods and drought the previous year had given us a food deficit far greater than people realised. In addition, the international community – namely the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – had pressured the government to pay off some of its debt by selling off a portion of our grain reserve, since holding on to it was getting expensive. But some individuals in government sold all of it instead, without keeping any for emergencies. Where it all went, no one knew. Corrupt officials had hoarded it for too long, and it spoiled. Much of the good maize, which is our staple food, was sold to prominent traders with government connections – men who’d foreseen the food shortage and wanted to take advantage of this dire situation. They would wait until no man or woman had any food at all, and then increase the price by a hundred percent. My father was right. We were headed for a disaster, but even he didn’t know at the time how bad it would get.
Just as expected, the price of maize started going up the first week of October from its normal seasonal price of one hundred fifty kwacha (the local currency) a pail to three hundred. And when this happened, people began searching for other food. Walking through the trading centre a few days later, I noticed something I’d never seen. Several market women had spread out plastic tarps on the road and were now selling the husk of the grains of maize which were usually thrown away and eaten by animals. For me that husk was the perfect bait for my bird traps. We feed it to our chickens, and we heard of poor people eating it, but it has very little food value. But now, with maize selling for three hundred kwacha a pail, I saw giant sacks of husks being sold for one hundred, that is ten times what it had cost a month earlier. People were crowded around raising their metal pails, practically shoving one another to get it.
“Move away, I was first here!”
“We’re all hungry, sister, there are no first in that!”
Down the road, it was the same story. When I returned an hour later, all the husk had been sold. Right then a kind of shock went through me, like someone shaking me awake in the middle of the night, and I began running home. After seeing people fighting for the husks, it was like my eyes had been opened wide and a great fear had made its way in. As I ran down the trail toward my house, I felt it grow inside me like a fist gripping my stomach. Once I stopped at the storage room door, it tightened its grip: out of the five bags we’d filled with grain for the whole season, only two were still there. In my mind, they were already gone.
Staring at the sacks, I tried to imagine how much flour we’d get before all the grain was gone: two bags equalled six pails. One pail equalled twelve meals for my family, meaning six pails equalled seventy-two meals for twenty-four days. I then counted how many days before the next harvest: more than two hundred and ten, and at least one hundred twenty before the green maize cobs would be mature enough to eat without making us sick.
Two hundred and ten days until food – and we hadn’t even planted one seed. When we did, there was no guarantee it would even rain or that we’d get fertilizer. As of now, we were going to run out of food in less than a month, and I had no idea how we’d survive after that. The next time my mother returned from the mill, our flour was coarse and filled with husks. Everyone began milling their grain this way, just to get a little extra.
A few days later, I saw my father rounding up our goats to sell in the market. Like many people in Malawi, our livestock was our only wealth and status on this earth, and now we were selling it for a few pails of maize. The men who ran the meat stands in the market were very powerful now with the abundant supply they were getting from the impoverished people, and they could lower the prices for them to buy meat however cheap they wanted. One of the goats was Mankhalala, a small male with long horns who’d been a favourite of mine. He’d let me grab his horns and wrestle, and sometimes even gave Khamba (the dog) a good chase just to humour him.
“Papa, why are you selling our goats? I like those goats.”
“A week ago the price for a goat was five hundred, now it’s four hundred. I’m sorry, but we can’t wait for it to go any lower, son.”
Mankhalala and the others were tied by their front legs with a long rope. When my father started down the trail, they stumbled and began to cry. They knew their future. Mankhalala looked back, as if telling me to help him. Even Khamba whined and barked a few times, pleading their case. But I had to let them down. What could I do? My family had to eat.
In early November, I started waking up as usual at 4:00 a.m. to go make ridges in the fields. One morning, as I waited in the yard for my mother to prepare my porridge, my father stepped out into the darkness.
“No breakfast today,” he said.
“It’s time to start cutting back. We need to stretch out what we have.”
We had less than two bags of grain in the storage now, so I knew there’d be no breakfast tomorrow, or the day after that. Breakfast was first to go, and I wondered what was next. Instead of complaining or asking pointless questions, I took my hoe and headed for the fields to meet my cousin Geoffrey. When I arrived, I told him about skipping breakfast.
“Can you believe it?”, I said.
“You’re just starting that today?”, he asked. “It’s been two weeks for us. I’m getting used to it.”
At 4:00 a.m. the weather was cool, and I could dig my ridges with great energy. My stomach must have also been fooled from last night’s supper, because it had yet to wake up and grumble. But by 7:00 a.m. it was clawing and screaming to be filled, and the blazing sun was sucking all my strength. I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my head, but the extra weight of it made me more tired. The only thing keeping me from falling over was my father stomping past.
“Make those ridges better!”
“I’m hungry, out of strength.”
“Think about next year, son. Try your best.”
I looked down and saw my ridges were small and uneven, as if they’d been dug by a slithering snake. Across the field, my cousin swung his hoe, covered with sweat and breathing heavily.
“Geoffrey”, I said, “You dig my ridges today, and I’ll dig yours tomorrow. Can we make this deal?”
He didn’t look up. “I’ll think about”, he said, gasping. “But it sounds like the same deal as yesterday.”
I was trying to joke and raise his spirits, because lately I was feeling bad for him. Ever since his father died, Geoffrey hadn’t been the same. Sometimes Geoffrey forgot things, or he would drift off into space when I was telling him something – something of great importance, no doubt. Other times he just stayed in his room for a couple of days and didn’t talk to anyone. He hadn’t been feeling well, and on a trip to the clinic recently, he’d been diagnosed with anaemia. Food was running low all around.
“I’m joking”, I shouted. “Seriously, you don’t look good, man. Maybe you should take a break. Don’t work so hard, and get some rest.”
“I have no choice”, he said swinging his hoe. “You know my deal!”
Even worse, with the recent troubles, I was pretty sure Geoffrey wouldn’t be returning to school in the upcoming term, now just over a month away. His mother already struggled to pay his student fees, but now she needed him and his brother Jeremiah to work and provide food. I didn’t want Geoffrey to know that I knew this, so I kept our usual banter going.
Geoffrey wasn’t the only one who was changing. Ever since the bad harvest, Khamba the dog had gotten a bit slower. I hadn’t realized it, but he was already an old dog when he’d first arrived, having lived out his better years on the tobacco estate where life was good. Life in the village was much tougher, and despite the food I was feeding him each night after supper, I’m sure it wasn’t enough. As Khamba got slower, the mice began to outwit him in the fields, and the younger, faster dogs snatched up the better scraps from the rubbish piles. His thin frame got a little thinner, and I noticed he was sleeping more. He no longer chased the chickens, choosing instead to doze in the shade behind my room.
Around this time, President Muluzi was busy travelling the country in his usual fashion, giving out small handouts of money and showing that he was a Big Man. Massive rallies were held for loyal officials, complete with dancers, military parades, and lots of food. Everywhere the president went, he tossed the poor just enough flour or kwacha to make sure they remembered him come Election Day. He came to our village. There were speeches and dances and songs by the people who had come with the president, and then the chief of the tribe spoke on our behalf. “We are hungry”, he said. “We don’t have enough to eat. We cannot dance because we have no strength. We cannot sing because we have no joy. We thank you for promising to build toilets for our village, but how can we use them if we do not eat?” The crowd erupted in applause, and several well-dressed officials that had come with the president took the chief aside and went into an alley. He was happy thinking they were going to give him money or food for all, but they took him aside, they knocked him to the ground and began beating him with clubs and batons. They left him bleeding in the dirt and slipped away into the crowd. The chief was found later but refused to be taken to the city hospital for fear they would murder him there. For me, this turn of events was frightening. Our chief was like our father, the man who protected our small area and represented us to the rest of the country. When we heard he’d been beaten, it was as if we’d all been violated, our safety no longer guaranteed. If the government treated our dear leader in such a way, with the hunger bearing down, I wondered if we people would fare much better.
That night, my father called us together in the living room. “Given our situation”, he said, “I’ve decided it’s better if we go down to one meal per day. It’s the only way we’ll make it.”
My sisters and I understood, but still argued over the fine points.
“If we have one meal a day, when should it be?”, asked Annie.
“Breakfast”, said Aisha.
“I like lunch!”, shouted Doris.
“No”, my father said. “It will be supper. It’s easier to keep your mind off hunger during the day. But no person should try to sleep with an empty stomach. We’ll eat at night.”
So, starting the next evening, we ate our single meal of the day at night.
My parents came home with a new baby girl. My parents seemed worried. For days, my new sister didn’t even have a name. In the villages where health care is poor, many children die early of malnutrition, malaria, or diarrhoea. In hungry times, the situation is always worse. Because of this, names often reflect the circumstances or the parents’ greatest fears. It’s quite sad, but all across Malawi, you run into men and women named such things as Simkhalitsa (I’m Dying Anyway), Malazani (Finish Me Off), Maliro (Funeral), Manda (Tombstone) – all of whom had fortunately outwitted their unfortunate names. Many change their names once they’re older. Despite the stress my parents were facing, my sister was born healthy. My parents named her Tiyamike, which means “Thank God”.
People began selling their possessions. Standing on the porch one morning during a heavy rain, I watched a line of people walking slowly past like a great army of ants. They were our neighbours and farmers from other villages. The women carried large basins atop their heads containing the items from their kitchens, all their pots and pans, water buckets, even bundles of clothing. A man carried a chicken under each arm. Men balanced sofas, chairs, radios, tables across their backs and shoulders. Their heads bent and faces twisted under the weight. They spread tarpaulins on the street to display what they had, offering it all at giveaway prices. “I’ll take anything. My children need to eat.” Soon people began selling the iron sheets off their homes for a cup of flour, and their thatched roofs for even less. “What good is a roof when I’m dead?”, one man asked.
A woman, on her return home with the little money she had collected from selling all her belongings, was attacked and robbed by thieves. She cried and cried, “My children are waiting. What am I going to do?” A few other women appeared and tried to console her, “We know your kids are crying at home; just send your husband next time.” “Next time?”, the young mother replied. “There may not be a next time.”
Inside the maize mill, the owners no longer had any use for a broom. The hungry people kept the floors cleaner than a wet mop. At the beginning of the month, the mill was packed full of those waiting for fallen scraps. The crowd would part long enough to allow rich women to pass with their pails of grain to be ground in the mill. As the machine rumbled and spit a white cloud of flour into the pails, the multitude of old people, women, and children watched intently with eyes dancing like butterflies. Once the pail was pulled away, they threw themselves on hands and knees and scooped the floor clean. Afterward, old women would rattle their walking sticks up inside the grinder as if ringing a bell, collecting the loose flour that drifted to the floor. This activity stopped by mid-December because so few people had any grain to mill anyway. The building remained empty, all except the operator and a few children whose parents had either died or had simply abandoned them to hunger.
If you go all year without eating meat, hopefully on Christmas Day you can manage a little something. Or in the early afternoon on Christmas Day my father would kill one of our chickens. But Christmas of 2001 arrived more like a punishment. All our chicken got Newcastle disease and died. The Catholic Church cancelled the Nativity service, and the Presbyterians didn’t even bother making an announcement. No one showed up. Even on Christmas morning there was no breakfast. I woke up, washed my mouth, and heard the sounds of “Silent Night” coming from the radio. When the song ended, the young DJ came on, sounding very energetic. “Ehhh, here’s wishing all of you a very merry Christmas”, he said. “Easy to say when you’re in Blantyre, working for the government”, I said, then grabbed my hoe and headed for the fields, anything to keep from hearing more about Christmas.
“It’s Christmas”, my cousin Charity said, “and I haven’t eaten a thing.”
“Yah”, I said. “I’m hungry too.”
“We need meat”, Charity said. “I can’t go to sleep tonight without my Christmas meat. It is a custom and it is a habit”
There was a guy named James who run a stand in the market where meat was fried and sold. Charity and I started dreaming aloud.
“Perhaps James will be generous on Christmas and let us have some.”
“Don’t be stupid”, said Charity. “He’ll never do that.” He paused for a moment, then said, “But he does throw away the skins.”
“Can you eat that?”, I asked, twisting my face.
“I’m thinking why not? What’s the difference? It’s all meat, right? All is in the animal.”
“Yah, I guess you’re right” I said.
The hunger had affected our thinking.
As we walked to James’s stand, we saw the butcher boys were doing brisk business as usual. Despite the hunger, the wealthy traders were crowded around their stand chewing on grilled meat, not even swallowing before shoving in a handful of fried chips. A group of villagers were crowded around watching them eat, studying the motions of the traders’ hands as they dipped the greasy bits of meat into the salt before popping them into their mouths. Watching them chew, I could feel the salty burn on my own tongue. James’s stand was just a bit farther down the road. He was there, as usual, standing above a giant pot boiling on the fire. Getting closer, I could see a delicious goat head and some leg pieces swimming around inside. I wanted to leave immediately.
“Eh, James”, said Charity. “William and I are making a Christmas drum for the children in the village. Can you part with one of your skins?”
James looked up from his pot. “That’s a good idea”, he said, then turned around and nodded toward a mound of something on the ground. It was a heaped skin atop a black plastic bucket and crawling with flies. “I have this goat skin”, he said. “I was going to throw it away, but you can take it.”
Charity quickly threw the skin inside the bag and handed it to me. It was still warm. “The kids will appreciate you”, Charity said.
With our warm goat skin in hand, we hurried back down the hill to our houses.
“How are we going to prepare this?”, I asked.
“It’s easy”, he said. “We’ll just do it like a pig.”
Back at the clubhouse, I lit a clump of firewood and the fire started again, then I added a few small sticks, since we’d run out of maize piths long before. When the fire was strong and hot, Charity and I held the corners of the skin and stretched it flat over the flames. Soon the heat was singeing the hair, curling it black. Normally this would make a terrible stench, but now in my hunger, all I smelled was cooking meat. Once the hair charred and curled, we took our knives and scraped it off the hide. We did this again and again until we were sure it was properly cleaned. We cut the skin into small cubes and threw them into a pot of water. For good measure, Charity even made me sneak into my mother’s kitchen and steal a handful of soda. “It’s how women make their beans cook faster”, he said. “I’m thinking it works with skin, too.”
We let the skin boil for over two hours, adding more water, salt, and soda. After three hours, a thick white foam had collected on the top. Charity took his knife and fished through the froth, pulling out a piece of steaming hide. It was grey and slimy. Charity blew on it for a few seconds, then shoved it into his mouth. He struggled to chew, his jaws working hard, then finally swallowed.
“How is it?”, I said, my mouth watering.
“A bit tough”, he said. “But we’re out of firewood. Let’s eat.”
We fished the pieces out of the pot and grabbed them with our fingers. The skin was slimy and sticky, as if covered in scalding glue. I put the first piece in my mouth and breathed in, feeling the heat of hot food rush into my stomach and lungs. I chewed and chewed. The juice from the skin seeped out of my mouth and caused my lips to stick together. With each chew, my lips sealed shut.
“Merry Christmas”, I said, struggling to speak.
Just then, I heard a clawing sound at the door, then a soft whine. I threw open the door and found Khamba. He must’ve smelled the Christmas meat all the way from my room and came limping over. His bony frame was hunched and tired, but his tail was wagging as fast as ever. I was glad to see him.
“Give some to that dog”, Charity shouted. “It’s dog food we’re eating anyway.”
“For sure”, I answered, then turned to Khamba. “Let’s get you something to eat, chap. I’m sure you’re starving.”
I tossed up a piece of slimy skin, and to my surprise, Khamba leaped onto his hind legs and caught it in the air. Just like old times.
“Good boy!”, I shouted.
It took him one second to swallow it whole, then he licked his lips and waited for more. I went back inside and brought out two giant handfuls of hide. After slurping up every piece, the life seemed to return to his body. He blinked his eyes excitedly and flipped his tail. And making an exception on Christmas, Charity even let Khamba come inside the house.
I lost count of how many pieces I ate myself. But after about half an hour of chewing, Charity and I gave up. Our jaws were too tired and sore to continue. Several large pieces of skin remained in the pot, and I thought about my sisters and parents who were at home, probably hungry and dreaming of meat on this Christmas Day. But I didn’t dare ask Charity to allow me to share, as the need in his family was greater.
As the sun went down that afternoon, we sat around a dead and smouldering fire, content with the warm feeling of meat in our stomachs, because that’s what Christmas was all about anyway.
The next week, I received information better than any Christmas gift. I was sitting at home listening to the radio when I heard a wonderful announcement. “The National Examination Board has released the results of this year’s Standard Eight exams”, the announcer said. “If you’d like to check your score, the Board asks you to visit the institution where you sat for your test.” I went to check, and my name was on the list. I had passed! I could go to high school! But there were problems at school. The principal gave me the once over and decreed,
“This is not the proper uniform. And sandals aren’t allowed. We require students to wear proper footwear at all times, so please go home and change.”
I looked down at my flip-flops, which had certainly seen better days. The rubber connecting the sole had broken on one foot, forcing me to carry in my pocket a crochet needle and bit of rope for emergency repairs. I had no shoes at home. I had to think quickly.
“Mister headmaster, sir”, I said. “I would put on proper footwear, but since I live in Wimbe I must walk one hour and cross two streams to get here. And because it’s the rainy season, you can imagine how the mud will destroy my good leather shoes. My mother wouldn’t have it.”
He scrunched his eyebrows and considered this. I prayed it would work. “Okay”, he said. “It’s fine for now, but once the rains are over, I want to see you in proper footwear.”
Despite what I’d imagined earlier, the hunger was just as painful in class as it was in the fields. Actually, it was worse. Sitting there, my stomach screamed and threatened, twisted in knots, and gave my brain no peace at all. And I soon found it difficult to pay attention. During the first week of school, enthusiasm among my fellow mates had been high, but only two weeks later, the hunger had whittled away at all of us. A gradual silence soon fell over the entire school. At the beginning of term, a dozen hands would shoot up when the Principal asked, “Okay, any questions?” Now no one volunteered. Most just wanted to go home to look for food. I noticed faces getting thinner, then some faces disappearing altogether. And with no lotion or soap at home, people’s skin became grey and dried, as if they were covered in ash. At recess, tall of soccer was replaced by tales of hunger.
“I saw people yesterday eating the maize stalks”, one boy said. “They’re not even sweet yet. I’m sure they became sick.”
“I’ll see you gents later”, said another.
“I’m not coming back tomorrow. I don’t think I can manage the walk anymore.”
I suppose none of this really mattered because on the first day of February, the Principal made this announcement at assembly. “We’re all aware of the problems across the country, which we also face”, he said. “But many of you still haven’t paid your school fees for this term. Starting tomorrow, the grace period is over.”
My stomach tied itself into another knot because I knew my father hadn’t paid my fees. I’d refused to ask him about it these past weeks, knowing what he’d say. The fees were twelve hundred kwacha, and that was collected three times a year. Walking home, I cursed myself for being so optimistic, for allowing myself to become so excited. When I got home, I found my father in the fields. “At school they’re saying I should bring my fees tomorrow, twelve hundred kwacha”, I said. “So we should pay them. The principal wasn’t joking around.” My father looked down at the dirt as if waiting for it to tell him something. He then gave me the look I’d grown to fear. “You know our problems here, son”, he said. “We have nothing.”
I could see that my father felt terrible, but I was certain it was nothing compared to how sad I felt. The next morning, perhaps just to torture myself, I woke up at the same time, stood at the junction, and waited for Gilbert as I had done every day. I even wore my school uniform, my black trousers and white shirt, though I don’t know why because I wasn’t going to school. I wanted to cry, but tears did not come. “I’m dropping out, Gilbert”, I said. “They don’t have the fees.” On his way back from school I met him again. “Today we were few”, he said. “Most of school dropped out. Out of seventy students, only twenty remained.”
My own problems didn’t seem so important; the hunger belonged to the entire country. I decided to put faith in my father’s word, that once we made it through the hunger, everything would be okay. But first we had to make it through the hunger.
Famine arrived in Malawi. It fell upon us like the great plagues of Egypt I’d read about, swiftly and without rest. As if overnight, people’s bodies began changing into horrible shape. They were now scattered across the land by the thousands, scavenging the soil like animals. Far from home and away from their families, they began to die. The same people I’d seen carrying their belongings to the trading centre now stumbled past us in a daze, their eyes swimming in their sockets. The hunger ravaged the body in two different ways. Some people wasted away until they looked like walking skeletons. Their necks became long and thin, not even strong enough to hold up their heads. Others were stricken with kwashiorkor, a dreadful condition a body gets when there are no proteins in the blood. Even as these people starved, their bellies, feet, and faces swelled with fluid like ticks filling with blood. The starving people didn’t say much as they passed. It was as if they were already dead, yet looking for something to fill their stomachs. They moved carefully along the roads and through the fields, picking up banana peels and discarded empty cobs and stuffing them into their mouths. Near my house, groups of man were digging up roots of banana trees to eat. Some dug up other roots and tubers, even the grass from the roadside, to eat it anyway. Other restored to eating the few seeds the government had given us to sow this season, scrubbing off the pink and green insecticide that kept off the insects. But it was impossible to scratch the poison off, and many suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea, which only made them weaker. Plus, having now eaten their seeds, they had nothing left to plant.
The crowds continued to pour in from the bush. More than ever, they now converged at the trading centre like herds of crazed and wasting animals driven together by fire. Women with thin, ashen faces sat alone, pleading with God. But they did it quietly and without tears. Everywhere the anguish was silent because no one had the energy to cry. Elsewhere in the trading centre, children with swollen stomachs and strange copper hair clustered under storefronts. A few traders still spread tarps in the mud and sold grain, but the packets of grain had become smaller and smaller. Its price was like gold as though buying the universe and its stars in one half kilo. Crows gathered round, but mostly to stare in stunned silence, as if watching a dream in heaven. Those with energy still screamed and begged, lunging like dogs whenever a kernel fell to the ground, scooping gravel and all into their mouths.
Amid this great suffering and confusion, the government radio said the president had travelled to London on state business. When he returned, a Malawian radio reporter questioned him about the famine. We all gathered around at home to listen. The reporter said something like, “Your Excellency, many are dying across the country from lack of food. What are you planning to do?” The president scoffed at this absurd idea, saying he’d grown up himself in the village where people often died of other things, such as tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, or diarrhoea, but never from lack of food. “Nobody has died of hunger”, he said. When the report was over, my father shook his head and turned away.
Two weeks after burying my dog Khamba, cholera swept the district. The epidemic had started in November in the southern region near Mwanza. A farmer from that area travelled to a funeral in Kasiya, twenty kilometres from Wimbe, and brought the sickness with him. Within days, a dozen were dead in that village, and hundreds were infected across the district. Cholera is a terrible way to die. It begins with a horrible stomach ache, nausea, and instant weakness. Violent diarrhoea then follows. It drains the body of all life and energy, leaving a person so weak he can’t even speak. Without treatment, death comes in six hours. Each day, the cholera people walked past our house on their way for treatment, their eyes milky and skin wrinkled from dehydration. I’d watch them from behind the trees until they got close, then run down the trail toward home. But as they left, the starving people would follow. Those who died from cholera were soaked in chlorine and buried at night in the graveyard by the Catholic church, usually by the same doctors and staff who’d treated them. To speed the process, two bodies would be placed in the same shallow hole, then quickly covered. No one knows how many were dying across Wimbe. Between hunger and cholera, there were burials every day.
We were all losing weight. The bones began to show in my chest, and the rope I’d used as a belt no longer sufficed. Now I’d started pinching my two belt loops together, then tying them off with a stick, much like a tourniquet, which I could simply twist as I became thinner and thinner. My mouth was always dry. My arms became thin like dry sticks and ached all the time. Soon I found it difficult to squeeze my hand into a fist. One afternoon I was pulling weeds in the fields when my heart began beating so fast that I lost my breath and nearly fainted. What’s wrong with me?, I thought. I was so frightened. I bent down slowly until my knees were in the soil, then I stayed that way for a long time, until my heart returned to normal and I could breathe. At night I sat in my room with the lamp and stared into the walls, dozing off, like passing through some other world. I watched a centipede crawl up the wall for what seemed like hours. I grabbed a mayfly by the wings that had flown too close to the flame, asking it, “How are you live? What are you eating?”, then let it go, watching it spiral toward the ground like a broken paper airplane. No magic could save us now. Starving was a cruel way of dying.
Around mid-February, the tobacco was finally ready to prune, and my father needed me and Geoffrey to help. We gathered the yellow, oily leaves into fisted bundles. Then, sitting in the shade, we threaded the stem of every leaf with a crochet needle and twine. The bundles were hung to dry under shelters on bamboo poles, a process that could take as long as eight weeks, depending on the humidity. Threading and hanging took hours and killed out backs, especially because we had no energy to stand or hold ourselves up.
“Soon it will be dried and the traders will line up to buy it. We’ll finally end this sadness.”
“Yeah, for sure.”
But that’s not what happened. Only a week after hanging the tobacco, my father went to the trading centre and started cutting deals against the crop once it was dry. He couldn’t wait for the auction. He had to find our supper. “Brothers, my family is placing all their hopes on me”, my father said. “I’m asking you to give me a quality price, perhaps twenty kwacha a kilo.” A small bag of maize cost thirty. The traders just shook their heads. “You know times are rough”, they said. “I can’t see myself giving more than ten kwacha a kilo, not during this time.” After some time, they agreed to fifteen. As the famine deepened, these deals became more sour and unjust. My father has no choice but to accept. Each week, he cut more deals against the crop, attempting to keep the numbers straight in his head.
Meanwhile, out in the maize fields, the stalks were now as high as my father’s chest. The first ears had begun to form, revealing traces of reddish silk on their heads. The deep green leaves had begun their healthy fading to yellow, along with the stem. While men withered and died all around, our plants were looking strong and fat.
“Twenty days”, I said, looking at my father.
“I’d say you’re right.”
We smiled and stroked the leaves like swaddled babes, enjoying the soft music they created together in the breeze.
If it was correct, we had twenty days until the green maize was mature enough to eat, our favourite food. It’s the same as American “corn on the cob”, when the kernels are soft and sweet and so heavenly in your mouth. Standing in those fields in February, I felt like one of the old explorers I’d read about – lost on the ocean and dying of thirst. Water everywhere and not a drop to drink. All day and night, I dreamed of maize.
Toward the end of the month, Radio One said the maize was ready in Mchinji, about 120 kilometres southwest. People started travelling there by the hundreds, including my uncle Ari, my mother’s brother. Along the way he saw older men stop alongside the roadside and wave family members on, saying, “Go ahead. Get to Mchinji”. He later heard those men had died. Gangs with spears and knives guarded the fields and harassed those coming from other districts. Theft was rampant. Many were killed.
After nearly five months of suffering, on February 27, the radio sent a message from our president. He was letting us know that the country was experiencing a hunger crisis. After consulting with his officials, he’d finally concluded it was an “emergency”. As I said, our president was a funny guy.
At the beginning of March, the maize stalks were as high as my father’s shoulders. At this stage, the flowers told you everything. Once the red and yellow silk began to dry and turn brown, you could star checking to see if the maize was ready. I pinched the cob very hard to feel the grain. If they crushed under your fingers, it was too early. But if the kernels were firm, you knew it was time. Every day that week, Geoffrey and I left the tobacco fields to check the maize, making sure to always use secret codes. God forbid my sisters followed and discovered that it was ready!
Walking up and down the rows, we pointed out cobs that looked nearly done.
“Look at this one”, I said. “In three days it will be in my mouth.”
“Let’s get firewood ready. Can we do this?”
“I think we can.”
Then finally one day I spotted a cob that appeared ready and I pressed my fingers against its grain. It was firm.
“It’s ready”, I said.
“Yes, it is”, said Geoffrey, feeling another. “And so is this one.”
“That means our long-awaited day has finally arrived.”
“For sure! Let us proceed!”
I ran through the rows pulling the ripe maize, gripping them lovingly in my hands. Soon I had fifteen ears spilling over in my arms. I peeled back the first layers of husks and tied them together, then draped them in a chain across my shoulders. Passing the tobacco shelter, I grabbed the armful of sticks we’d set aside for a fire. The sight of Geoffrey and me running into the compound with necklaces of maize nearly started a riot.
“It’s ready?” my sister Aisha asked, eyes wide and excited.
“MAIZE IS READY!”
I ran into the kitchen and quickly made a fire. White smoke soon filled the room and burned my eyes, filling them with tears. I didn’t care. I was too excited. My sisters now crowded into the tiny kitchen, fighting for space.
“Let me see!”
“No, I was here. You wait!”
“All of you go outside”, I shouted. “There is enough maize for all!”
I didn’t wait for the fire to die into embers. I placed several cobs directly on the flames flipping them until the peels were brown and blackened just right. I didn’t even wait until the other side was finished cooking. I pulled the cob off the fire, so hot it scalded my fingers. I then peeled back the steaming husks and began to eat. The kernels were meaty and warm and filled with the essence of God. I chewed slowly and with great satisfaction, knowing I’d waited for too long. Each time I swallowed was like returning something that was lost, some missing part of my being. When one side was eaten, I tossed the other back on the fire and moved to the next one.
My parents now gathered in the kitchen as I prepared the steaming food. “I don’t think this maize is ready”, said my father, snatching one quickly. “Let me have a taste.” He ripped off the silk and bit into the maize, savouring it as I had. Within seconds, the blood of life seemed to rush back to his face. He knew we would live.
“It’s ready”, he said.
That afternoon, Geoffrey and I probably ate thirty ears of maize. We felt sick, of course, as our stomachs were out of practice, but that didn’t matter any more. We had eaten at last.
I remembered a parable that Jesus told the disciples, the one about the sower of seeds. The seeds sown along the path get snatched away and damaged, those sown on rocky soil take no root and die, and those sown in the thorns get choked by the barbs. But the seeds sown on fertile soil will live and thrive.
“Geoffrey, we’re like the seeds planted on fertile soil, not on the roadside, stepped on by those walking past.”
“They were those who died.”
“They were many.”
“But we lived.”
“Yes, yes, Geoffrey. We lived, we survived.”
(William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,HarperCollins, London 2009)