The texts of Carlos G. Vallés
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Year 2011
I tell you

[Ulla-Carin Lindquist, with 4 children at 50, was an anchorwoman in Swedish television. She suffered from Lateral Amiotrophic Sclerosis and she died one year alter writing this book. The quotations I give below begin with a phone conversation with her husband:]

p. 15.

– Hi darling, Gustav is sick. They have called from the kindergarten. He is vomiting. You have to go and fetch him.
– [Her husband, a plastic surgeon:] Who, me? I cannot. I’ve got an operation for burns.
– And I have my TV programme. Coming on right now.
– Sorry, they’re calling me from the operation theatre. It is a serious case. See you later. [Hangs.]

All my colleagues around me are following the dialogue with interest. Who “wins”? The plastic surgeon who is responsible for the life of a person, or the anchorwoman of a programme with two million viewers? – The decision is obvious – she tells the programme editor. Aware as she is that there are many TV professionals who would like to be conducting the most important programme in the country.

I collect my things and go home to look after my sick child. To have small children and a fulltime job is as hard for me as for anyone else. With the only difference that, in my case, everybody in the country will notice I’ve slept little. I take care of my child and go back to my programme.

– You looked very tired tonight on TV. How are you feeling? – my mother asks from Värmland.

p. 17.

– Mummy, I kissed you on the TV screen – Gustav tells me – but you didn’t kiss me back.
– I kiss you now.
– Good night.
– Good night. Sleep well.

p. 58. Pontus, my eldest child, is ten years and nine months old. This is what he thinks on 16th July 2003. He allows me – and you with me – to read what he wrote in his diary:
“Mummy has a sickness that is making her muscles weaker and weaker. It affects her right arm, her left leg and arm. I feel sorry. Mum cannot climb stairs or carry burdens or run or jump or wash her hair. She doesn’t work as much as before. She cannot get up from bed as fast as before. I look at her and I feel sorry. I only think of how I could help her. I want her to keep a diary so that I can read it when she is dead. I have dreamed I was a doctor and there was a way to operate upon to heal this sickness. Then I operated upon her. I want to learn more about my mother’s sickness. Why can’t we get a robot arm? I’ve seen it on TV. They are guided by muscles on the shoulder. I think it is a good idea. Mum cannot go for long walks. Mum knows how to write well with her left hand. Happen what may, I love my mummy.”

p. 64. There is still a nexus between sickness and punishment for sin. [I felt bad when I read that.]

p. 145.

– Last night I was sad, mum.
– Tell me, Pontus.
– It’s only you that get sick.
– Yes, I know.
– And you’re going to die.
– Everybody dies.
– But I don’t know anybody with a dead mother.

p. 156. [Dialogue between her and the woman pastor that comes to visit her on behalf of the Church.]

– But what is the meaning of my having to die leaving behind four children, two of them minors?
– It’s hard for me to answer that question. I myself find it hard to see sense in that. I would like life to be fair. But in situations like this one I find no answer.

Your life is more than this episode of your sickness. There are greater values in it. Ulla-Carin is more, very much more than Lateral Amiotrophic Sclerosis. You have a whole history to your past. The people you’ve met. Your children. I don’t know much else about you, but I do know that a human being is always much more than their sickness. We must look beyond our limitations.
p. 204. [The last line in the book:] Every second is a whole life.

(Ulla-Carin Lindquist, A Merced de la Vida, Mi último año. Plataforma Editorial, Barcelona 2008.)

You tell me

Hi Carlos! How are you? I hope you’re doing well. I wrote to you some time ago about Tony de Mello, and now I want to ask you a point in connection with him as you knew him well. I’ve read he said that one could not do any evil in conscience, and that only a madman could do that. That has clicked with me and I agree with that. The fact is that when I’ve done something wrong I’ve never been conscious of it. So I find it hard to repent. How can I feel guilty when I haven’t done it consciously? I know that for a mortal sin there must be full conscience of the fact. I don’t know what to think. Answer me if possible. Thanks a lot. Eduardo.

Many things are attributed to Tony, Eduardo, which he never said. It is not true that only a madman can do evil willingly. Unfortunately there are quite sane people who at time do harm to others quite willingly and quite conscious of what they are doing. Think of robberies and insults and quarrels and injuries. There is evil in the world. What Tony did say was that normally decent people like you and me never do harm to others willingly, and that, since the only sin is to do harm to somebody willingly, you and me are not “sinners”, even though we are taught to call ourselves that and to strike our breast in repentance. We certainly have our own failings and sometimes we do things that turn out to be unpleasant or harmful to others, but we normally do not harm people on purpose. Tony spoke against the guilt complex we Christians (together with the Jews) have been indoctrinated with, and I myself have written much about that guilt complex in an effort to make all of us get rid of it. This is an important lesson for all. We are not sinners, we are decent people and do not mean to harm anybody of set purpose. That is what Tony meant. Thanks for writing, and best wishes, Carlos.


Psalm 96 – Rejoice in the Lord!

“The Lord is King, let the earth be glad;
let coasts and islands all rejoice!”
The great commandment: “Rejoice!” Sum and substance of all the other commandments. Love God and worship him, be fair and kind, help others and do good. In a word, rejoice and make others rejoice. Bring to your life and show on your face the happiness that comes from serving the Lord. Rejoice with all your heart in his service. Be sincere in your smile and genuine in your laughter. Achieve joy in your life, and that will be the sign and the proof that you are happy with God and with his creation, happy with society and with the world…, and that is the Law and the Prophets. Rejoice and be glad. The Lord is with you.

“Zion heard and rejoiced,
the cities of Judah were glad at your judgements, O Lord.”
That is the law of Zion and the rule of Judah. Rejoice and be glad. In that will you show that the Lord is your God and you are his people. Joy as persons and joy as a group. The way to grow, the secret to be strong, the call to all men and women to witness and reflect on the choice of Israel and the power of his God. The power to make his people rejoice.

Difficult virtue, this virtue of joy. Difficult because it has to be genuine and deep, and it is not easy to obtain genuine and deep joy in a world of sorrow. I need faith, Lord, I need a long view and a lasting patience, I need a sense of humour and a light mood, and above all I need the assurance that deep down in me, through all the trials and the sufferings in my private life and in the history of humankind, you are there in the fullness of your power and the tenderness of your love. With that faith I can live, and with that faith I can smile. The gift to rejoice is the flower of your grace in my willing heart.

Thank you for the joy you give me, Lord; thank you for the courage to smile, for the right to hope, for the privilege to look at the world and be glad. Thank you for your love, your power and your providence, which are the unshakeable foundations of my daily joy. Rejoice with me, all you who know and love the Lord.

“You that are righteous, rejoice in the Lord,
and praise his holy name”


Psalm 96 – Rejoice in the Lord!

“The Lord is King, let the earth be glad;
let coasts and islands all rejoice!”
The great commandment: “Rejoice!” Sum and substance of all the other commandments. Love God and worship him, be fair and kind, help others and do good. In a word, rejoice and make others rejoice. Bring to your life and show on your face the happiness that comes from serving the Lord. Rejoice with all your heart in his service. Be sincere in your smile and genuine in your laughter. Achieve joy in your life, and that will be the sign and the proof that you are happy with God and with his creation, happy with society and with the world…, and that is the Law and the Prophets. Rejoice and be glad. The Lord is with you.

“Zion heard and rejoiced,
the cities of Judah were glad at your judgements, O Lord.”
That is the law of Zion and the rule of Judah. Rejoice and be glad. In that will you show that the Lord is your God and you are his people. Joy as persons and joy as a group. The way to grow, the secret to be strong, the call to all men and women to witness and reflect on the choice of Israel and the power of his God. The power to make his people rejoice.

Difficult virtue, this virtue of joy. Difficult because it has to be genuine and deep, and it is not easy to obtain genuine and deep joy in a world of sorrow. I need faith, Lord, I need a long view and a lasting patience, I need a sense of humour and a light mood, and above all I need the assurance that deep down in me, through all the trials and the sufferings in my private life and in the history of humankind, you are there in the fullness of your power and the tenderness of your love. With that faith I can live, and with that faith I can smile. The gift to rejoice is the flower of your grace in my willing heart.

Thank you for the joy you give me, Lord; thank you for the courage to smile, for the right to hope, for the privilege to look at the world and be glad. Thank you for your love, your power and your providence, which are the unshakeable foundations of my daily joy. Rejoice with me, all you who know and love the Lord.

“You that are righteous, rejoice in the Lord,
and praise his holy name”


Thunder in life

The Disciple: “What have I to do to free myself from the fear of thunder which frightens me out of my wits when the storm rages over my head?”

The Master: “Let yourself be frightened.”

Nothing will happen. You will not lose anything by being frightened for a while by the peals of thunder. No harm will come to you. The only harm that comes to you is the harm of being afraid of fear, of being frightened at the thought of going to be frightened, of trembling because you are going to tremble. This definitely undoes you, because this fear of fears will always be with you; this recoiling before thunder makes you think of thunder when there is none, as you are doing now, and it weighs you down with its standing oppression. The thunder lasts an instant. The fear of thunder lasts a lifetime. Let yourself be shaken by the thunder, and stop worrying that it is going to shake you. Let yourself be frightened by it when it comes. That is the only way to stop being frightened the rest of your life, which is its greatest portion by far. Just let it be.

There is nothing wrong if thunder shakes us, if suffering affects us, if failure disturbs us or a parting upsets us. This is thunder and lightning that strikes in life and that, whatever we do or foresee, always unsettles us with the sudden distress of human tragedy. There is nothing wrong in mourning over a death, grieving at a separation, lamenting an accident. But it would be very sad if we were to spend all our lives crying and weeping and mourning over all the calamities that have befallen us in the past and will befall us in the future. The key is not in our liberation from the fear of thunder, but in our acceptance of it. I tremble when it thunders. So what? It is fine with me. The thunder is swift, and the trembling subsides soon. If I look at it in this way, I am almost amused by the experience: the rumble in the heavens, the shaking of the walls, the pang in my body, the relief at finding myself alive, the deep silence that follows in nature and in my soul when I have seen life and death together in an instant. Over the horizon glows the rainbow of feelings. I have lost nothing, and I have gained much.

“Let yourself be frightened.” The advice is unusual, even paradoxical. But it is wise and practical. Allow yourself to feel your own feelings as they come. There is nothing wrong in it. If the feelings are harmful, the best remedy against them is to look them in the face, greet them civilly, and let them pass. They pass like thunder. Much noise and no harm. Our ears go deaf for a while, and soon return to normal. That is all. On the other hand, if you tense yourself to avoid the shaking up, if you worry at its coming, if you ask from others and try by yourself in a programmed effort to escape from the trembling when heaven again thunders, you are going to tense yourself all the more and will cringe all the more at the striking of the next thunderstorm. When you work yourself up against thunder, you are reinforcing your own fear complex of it. The result is increased misery. On the other hand, if you selfpossessedly accept your fear, it will soon politely take your leave.

The horizon darkens in the grip of black clouds. Let it darken. The storm does not trouble me now. If I feel fear, I will feel it; and if I don’t, I don’t. As simple as that. In any case the storm will leave no trace in my soul when it leaves. By giving up safety, I begin to feel safe.

I tell you

The computer and the cycle

I’m optimist by nature and conviction, and I like to think that all the world is good and people are well-behaved and nobody does harm to anybody wilfully, at least among the normal people I live with and whom I imagine to be the largest part of humankind. There are always news of wars and terrorism and violence to be sure, but that happens far away and they are only news items in the papers and not personal experiences. But today one such experience has come my way. A troubling and unsettling experience. Not any big thing, of course, but close and personal. How can people do these things?

I’m opening my email and I find a notification from UPS (United Parcel Service) telling me they have a parcel for me and they have to check my address before they bring it to me. For that I have to enter an Internet address they give me and answer from there. Coincidentally I was expecting a parcel of books in the mail, so that it all seemed to fit together. I had only to go to Internet and confirm my address. I almost did it.

But something made me suspect. The parcel was coming from the online bookshop Amazon from where I had ordered a number of books before and they had sent them and they had my address and it was the right one and the parcels had always arrived perfectly well without any previous inquiry? Why now this doubt? I verified my order in Internet and the address was properly given. Another detail: Amazon has its centre in America and a branch in England, which was the one from which I always ordered my books as nearer to me; and the notice now sent was coming from their America address which I had never used. Strange. Suspicious. I phoned UPS and asked whether they had any parcel on my name and mentioned my suspicion. They answered my they had no parcel for me, but then they had also received from other clients similar inquiries. I was not no enter in any way in that Internet address from where a virus would most certainly get into my computers. I thanked them.

I felt sad. I had escaped the virus and I felt happy I had seen the danger in time, but I felt sad. Why do they do that? Why do they cause harm on purpose? How do they enjoy hurting people? They say such viruses are programmed by computer experts to show to themselves or to others how clever they are (or how frustrated they are with life and themselves and their work), and sometimes it is the virus companies that sent them to promote their antivirus. Perhaps. In India I always moved in the city by cycle as do so many others along the wide and level roads in the big city. One could find everywhere small cycle-shops ready to repair a puncture right on the spot. There it was said that it was the owners of those shops that threw drawing pins on the road just before their shops so that tires would puncture and they would get instant clients from their privileged position. It’s quite possible because I got any amount of punctures in those days. And something else: when the boy in the shop took out the tyre and submerged it in water to see where the bubbles where coming out, y always turned to me and told me cheerfully, “There is not one puncture but two.” Double charge. I always had my suspicions about the second puncture; and perhaps I should have also suspected the first. Wit in search of a gain. The curious thing is I was not disturbed by the punctures. One has to pay a tax if one uses a cycle. But now, on the contrary, the virus threat has hurt me. Maybe it is because I now depend more on the computer than on the cycle. Because a virus is more serious than a puncture. Because I am helpless before the attack. (On my cycle I always carried a hand pump and a few patches for an emergency, but I have no such repair kit for the computer.) Because there are no computer shops at every corner as cycle shops in my Indian city. Because computer hackers are not so charming and cheerful as the boy at the cycle-shop. But it hurts me. My computer is almost part of my person, and someone has invaded it.

How did they get my address, my order of books, my waiting for them? What is the use of the password? What is the use of privacy? There isn’t any. When opening my computer today I’ve felt some uneasiness. A virgin has been raped. He feels it mare than me. Mutual intimacy, trust, joy, spontaneity in our dealings have been marred. I shall never know anymore who has got into it even if no one has entered my room. But he is not to blame. Neither am I. Not anybody, perhaps. That’s the way the world is and life is, and those are the advantages and disadvantages, the facilities and the dangers, the worries and the blessings progress brings with itself. The tax to be paid for having a computer.

The parcel of books I was expecting arrived a few days later by UPS.
Back to normal

Popular piety

I’ve seen in a church an image of Our Lady of Fatima at arm’s reach on the wall with a rosary hanging from her hands, and faithful coming and kissing her feet devotedly. I too got close and kissed her feet tenderly, and then I read the notice in front of her: “Please do not take away Our Lady’s rosary.” The devout urge to say the rosary with Our Lady’s beads.

You tell me

The question again: What is there after death? And the answer again: Nobody knows. The Church teaches us that the soul survives the body, it passes through Particular Judgement first and the Day of Judgement later on, goes to Heaven, Hell, of Purgatory, and before it could also go to Limbo, but not any more because the Church itself has recently suppressed it, which makes us realise we are not on very sure ground in those regions. The existence of Limbo is mentioned in the Creed of the Apostles and it appears in the gospel as Abraham’s Bosom, but of late it has been closed down. Congratulations. When the present pope stated that hell exists and is not empty, the answer was not long to come up in Internet: “Or course it is full; full of bishops and popes.” Humour is the best way to deal with what we don’t know. An eternal hell with fire that does not go out, the worm that never dies, and the gnashing of teeth, which are the traits given by the gospel, does not seem a proportionate punishment for a modest human who has not gone to Mass on Sunday or has paid money for sex. I do hope there is something after death, and that is better than what we have down here. Which is not much to ask. I’ll found out some day.


Psalm 97 – A song of victory

“The Lord has made his victory known;
he has displayed his righteousness to all the nations.”
I believe in your victory, Lord, as though it had arrived already…, and I fight for it on the battlefield as though it still had to be won by your might and my effort with it. That is the paradox of my life: tension at times and certitude always. You have proclaimed your victory in the face of the whole world, and I believe your word and I spread your proclamation with total confidence in the face of all doubts and all attacks. You are Lord, and victory is yours. Still, Lord, in all sincerity, your much announced victory does not appear yet, and my faith is on trial. That is my test.

I proclaim victory with my lips…, and fight for it with my hands. I celebrate the triumph…, and I labour to make it come. I believe in the future…, and I struggle in the present. I rejoice when I think of the final day…, and I shudder when I face the task of today. I know that I belong to a victorious army which in the end will defeat all opposition and conquer the whole world; but I fall in the field of battle with blood in my body and langour in my soul. I am a wounded soldier in a triumphant army. Mine is the triumph and mine are the wounds. Think of me, Lord, when you announce your victories.

Strengthen my faith and open my eyes to make me realise that your victory is already here, though hidden under the humble veil that hides the glory of all heavenly realities while we are on earth. Your victory is here because you are here, you have walked the earth and spoken the language of humans, you have experienced their plight and proclaimed and effected their redemption, you have tasted death and restored life. I know all that, and I now I want to make it all real in my life for me to realise and for all to witness. Make me taste your victory in my soul, that I may proclaim it with my lips.

Meanwhile I rejoice seeing in dream and prophecy the final victory that will give the earth back to you who created it. Then all will see and all will understand; mankind will be one, and all men and women will acknowledge your might and accept your love. In happy anticipation that day is mine already, Lord.

“All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.”


Fine snow falling flake by flake.
Each flake falls in its own proper place.
I am watching a snowfall in a still winter morning. Myriads of snowflakes fall in quiet array through the frozen silence of a windless sky. They all look similar, but all are different, each one marked with the original imprint of a creative touch. Each one a thing of wonder, a frail crystal of limpid water shaped into white symmetry in the hidden laboratories of the winter clouds.

They fall slowly, very slowly, with weightless ease and playful curves, as though chatting with each other and contemplating with childlike curiosity the undiscovered earth that awaits them below. Not theirs the suicidal plunge of heavy raindrops in linear dive to a destructive splash. They float; they swim; they hover, they drift. A gently breeze twists their path, and unseen currents lift them and turn them into graceful figures of nature’s own winter sport. Crazy itineraries in a well-planned game.

And then they alight. Open parachutes in friendly competition. They land gently, softly, tenderly, kissing the earth with the welcome rite of kinship from eternity. Each one has its own individual spot to itself, predestined target in exclusive possession. They do not push; they do not fight; they do not worry. They settle on their home ground with the contented gesture of a well-ended journey. They knew they would be welcome. They enjoy their trip. They relax on the ground. For each one of the myriads of snowflakes there is a chosen spot prepared to receive it with care and love. That is what makes a snowfall such a happy event. Each snowflake gets home in the end.

My life is a snowflake. It drifts and it wavers and it lingers and it does not seem to know where it is due to land. Is there a place for me on earth? Is there a meaning to my life, an aim to my struggle, an answer to my doubts? Is there somewhere for me to reach, or am I going to melt in the disorderly chaos of a senseless storm?

I look at the falling snowflakes and I know the answer. Each snowflake finds its place. I can trust cold and wind, i need not know at the start what the end will be; I forget guarantees and laugh away worries. I just let go and enjoy the flight, and ease my soul into the royal chamber prepared for it. Every snowflake is an act of faith. And the heavens are full of them.

Not only my life, but every part of it, every plan and every action, every day and every hour shares also in the carefree trajectory of the playful flake. Not for me to trouble myself, to be anxious, to fret. Everything finds its place. Every meeting and every undertaking, every friendship and every prayer. They all know their way and wind their happy paths through heaven if only I am trustful enough to let them fall at their ease and fit effortlessly into the white pattern of the Christmas landscape Art and providence. Wisdom and beauty. Worship and faith. Open theology of the humble snowflake.

The telling sentence and the lovely insight that goes with it come from Zen. They are an inspiring episode in the live experience of the master who, more than any other, explained Zen to the West in word and example. Dr D. F. Suzuki. Here is his telling:

One interview with Kosen Roshi impressed me particularly. He was having breakfast on a veranda overlooking a pond, sitting at a table on a rather rough little chair and eating rice gruel which he kept ladling out of an earthenware pot into his bowl. After I had made my three bows to him he told me to sit opposite him on another chair. I remember nothing that was said at that time, but every movement he made – the way he motioned me to sit on the chair, and the way he helped himself to the rice gruel from the pot – struck me with great force. Yes, that is exactly the way a Zen monk must behave, I thought. Everything about him had a directness and simplicity and sincerity and, of course, something more which cannot be specifically described.

The first time I attended the “teisho” lecture was also unforgettable. It was a solemn business, starting with the monks reciting the “Hear Sutra” and Muso Kokushi’s last words – “I have three kinds of disciples” and so on – while the “roshi” prostrated himself in front of the state of the Buddha, and then got up on his chair facing the altar, as though he were addressing the Budda himself rather then the audience. His attendant brought him the reading stand and by the time the chanting was finished he was about ready to start his lecture. It was on the forty-second chapter of the “Hekigan Roku”, the one where Hokoji visits Yakusan, and, after the interview, Yakusan tells ten monks to see him off down the mountain to the temple gate. On the way the following conversation takes place: “Fine snow falling flake by flake. Each flake falls in its own proper place.”

This struck me as a strange subject for Zen monks to talk about, but the “roshi” just read the passage without a word of explanation, reading as though he were entranced and absorbed by the words of the text. I was so impressed by this reading, even though I did not understand a word, that I can still see him sitting in his chair with the text in front of him reading “Fine snow falling flake by flake.”

All this happened in 1891, when he was seventy-six and I was twenty-one.(A Zen Life, Masao Abe, Weatherhill 1986, p. 7)

Happy is the person who can have such an experience at twenty-one.


I tell you

Quotations from the book “…al volver vuelven cantando” my life with refugees, by Gary Smith, SJ:

Rose is a Sudanese refugee in the north of Uganda. Today she has come to see me in Adjumani where I am working in the Jesuit Refugee Service, and she is going with me through her difficult years and her actual dreams. While she was talking, suddenly tears came to her eyes, she bent forward hiding her face with a big blue handkerchief. She was crying. She told me: “I’m sorry, father; I’m not weeping out of sorrow. I’m just immensely happy and thankful to be here with you talking about my future. My life could have been quite different.”

The fact is things could have been quite different for Rose. Two sisters of her died of malaria, and another is a paraplegic in a wheelchair. Her family escaped the Sudan war and took refuge in the Rhino Camp at the north of Uganda. Rose was then fifteen and was in school while working in between as a help in the kitchen to pay for her studies. She asked me if I could help her get a calculator for her to use in class and to share with other students as nobody had one. I bought it for her at the price of seven dollars. She was the first woman in her clan to pass seventh grade examination and, consequently, the first to reach secondary school.
I kept helping her till I was sent to another centre, eighty kilometres from Adjumani. About a year and a half later, Rose came all the way on cycle to see me. Could I help her in the second stage of her formation? Two more years at the higher level. “It is a boarding school”, she went on, “and I know it is hard; but I also know I can pass the entrance exam. I’ve worked hard at school.”

It was a total of about three hundred dollars, a real fortune for her and her family, but I could get it easily. She was going to a good institution, and the studies would be hard. Besides, she would have to face the challenge that meant being a Sudanese refugee in a Ugandan school to which very few members of her tribe went.

“I know I can do it, father, if I am giving the chance. In the school I paid all my dues, and at the end the administration sent to my house a letter claiming I had left a debt of nine dollars. Then my father accepted a very hard work as a miner in the hottest season of the year to earn the necessary money to pay.” Her voice broke into sobs and she had to wipe her face with her blue handkerchief. “My father is an elderly man, and the work was very hard. He has done this sort of things all his life for me and my sisters to care for us. Thanks to his sacrifice I was able to finish the course.” I then collected three hundred dollars from friends in the United States and from my own savings. She passed the entrance exam. Every three months she would come back home to help in the work in the fields and in helping her disabled sister.

Her second year began brilliantly, but almost at once she was diagnosed with TB she had probably contracted in her village. And then typhoid. She, as most of the refugees do, was reluctant to go to a doctor for fear of the expenses, till we finally convinced her and helped her. She went ahead with her studies.

Today, as we were talking together, she put on a shy smile and then, in her inimitable English, he blurted out: “Father, I love you; my family loves you; Lillian, Mary and Elina love you. God has brought you here together with those who help you, and now we can say that not only have we survived, but we have the chance to grow as women in our own culture: independent, strong, and a cause for joy and pride for our families.” Her lips trembled and, as so many times now, she had to take her blue handkerchief to her eyes. “I thank God for you”, she murmured. I had to get hold of my own handkerchief, moved by her tears. I took her hand in mine saying nothing. Once her hear had spoken, words seemed superfluous and without meaning. I thought: Good God, what an extraordinary woman!, and I murmured my own prayer of thanks for the coming of Rose into my life.

Rose left Adjumani the next day. I was now going to go back to the United States after having spent six years among Sudanese refugees in Uganda. We know that most probably we would never meet again. When I got into the bus she handed me this letter:

“Dear father Gary: Parting must be painful for you, Father, so all I can do for you as you are leaving is wishing you a happy journey back home. May God bless you for the love you have showed me since you came to Africa for your work. Never will I forget you, simply because I don’t know which kind of woman I would have been in the future without you. I give many thanks to God for all that. For your having come into my life. May God bless you and also your family. Remember me in your prayers, as I also will remember you always. And may the love of Jesus Christ accompany you and look after you always. Amén. Thank you. Your faithful and loving daughter, Rose.”
(p. 238)

Easter Sunday. I was tired, but during the Mass I recovered my strength thanks to a joyful and enthusiastic group of faithful who kept singing in several African languages. After Mass, the delegates of the congregation made their paschal speeches while I remained seated and trying to relax. At a given moment, Kiden, a girl of about three years of age, came up to me, climbed on to my lap and fell asleep. Kiden and her little friends had apparently climbed recently a tree full of mangoes, and she was covered up to her eyebrows in the juice of the fruit, which meant that she was attracting to herself all the flies of the Nile, a fact of which she was happily unconscious. At the end, when all the paschal speeches were over, her grandmother appeared, took her from my lap, and got lost with her in the crowd. I think of Kiden in my arms and I ask myself: Is this not a metaphor for the mandate to the Jesuit Refugee Service to accompany refugees all over the world? Little Kiden’s life is constantly threatened by all kind of privations and exploitations; yet, in my arms – heart to heart – she was able to experience her own dignity, that promised, sanctified human dignity the shines at the very centre of the resurrection of Christ.

I was in the confessional for an hour listening to confessions in various African languages without understanding what they were saying. After all, sins are very much the same all over the world. I just listen very serious, from time to time I repeat one of their words, I accept that what really matters is the penitent’s intention. Of course, it is rather frustrating not to now the languages in which they speak, because language reaches the very heart of the person, and a few words of advice or counsel can be a source of solace and inspiration for the penitent. So, to make the difference, I depend on what I can perceive in the face of the penitent… and of the Holy Spirit. And, even if I don’t speak the language, I can still establish a personal connexion with the penitent.
(214, 127)

I spend the whole day answering any number of petitions and requests, often impossible to satisfy, and trying to adapt to the subtleties and the defects of the staff of others NGOs. The simplest things can make bearable the most emotionally exhausting day: a cold beer, a letter where someone tells me they love me, a piece of classical music barely perceived on BBC’s short wave, a child who inexplicably hold tight my hand from the moment I come down from the van till I have to go back into it when leaving the village after all my work in it… Small things.

During Mass, and as I was looking at each one in the congregation, I thought of the impossibility to describe the scene. I’ve been immersed in this African world so long that everything in it has become familiar to me: the smell of goats’ urine, the faces, the laughter, the strange and mysterious transmission of the faith in baptisms and in the reading of Scriptures, the difficulties of translation, the nursing of babies in public, the effects of malnutrition and of the whole life of hard work that leaves its evident mark on the bodies of people. Grace has converted this African experience into something totally natural for me, unveiling certain talents I never had any idea I had.

You tell me

Question: How is it that the Church refuses to ordain married men to the priesthood when they are more and more needed if we don’t want to be left without parish priests in our parishes, if other Christian confessions have them, and if they could help in the ministry with her own family experience?

Answer: I add a few reasons to yours, Miguel Ángel. Why does the Church refuses to ordain married men when Jesus did it? St Peter was married as the gospel mentions his mother-in-law, and the fact that tradition presents St John as the virgin apostle seems to indicate that the rest of them were married, as the custom then was to marry very young. And more: The Church says she cannot ordain women because Jesus did not ordain women, and yet she refuses to ordain married men even when Jesus did it. And more: The Church forbids to speak about it. I think everything will come in time, but as of now it is truly saddening because we love the Church. Patience.


Psalm 98 – Holy, holy, holy

I begin my prayer on my knees, I bow to the ground, I close my eyes and worship in silence the majesty of your infinite presence. Holiness is your name, Lord, and my lips are polluted with the dust of lies and the breath of conceit. I want to express with my prostration and my silence the feeling of total adoration that fills me when I appear before your holy presence. Accept the humble homage of my heart, O Lord.

I often deal with you in familiarity and friendship, and I treasure those moments and value that closeness. But I am conscious all the time that I belong down here in the dirt of the earth while your place is in heaven. I know the distance and that is why I appreciate all the more your coming close and dealing with me as a friend. I take full advantage of your offer, and my whole life is full of those intimate dialogues with you in freedom and confidence, daily witness to your generous condescension.

But today I want to revert to my stand as a creature, and offer you my silent worship in bodily reverence.

“Exalt the Lord our God,
bow down before his footstool;
he is holy.”
You are holy, with a holiness that is above all my concepts and beyond all my experience. The purity of a mountain spring, the flight of a bird in the sky, the path of the clouds, the silent falling of immaculate snow. Images in my mind to portray the remoteness of your essence in the limits of my experience. Or maybe the flame of fire, the sheet of lightning, the eye of the storm, the centre of the earthquake. All that is great and awesome and pristine and pure.

I ask for the sense of your holiness to pervade my whole being, to be touched with a spark of your fire and a tremor of your storm. I want to learn reverence in my dealings with you, to temper the promptness of my feelings with the dignity of my respect. I want to be trained to the good manners of the heavenly court so as to practice heaven while still here on earth. I want to be your worshipper, Lord, as I am your companion and your friend. And I invite all men and women who know you to do the same.

“Exalt the Lord our God,
bow down towards his holy hill:
for the Lord our God is holy.”


The thinker and the tree

Eric Fromm tells how once he took part together with Dr. D. T. Suzuki in a Congress on Zen and Psychoanalysis in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and how the mere presence of the quiet Japanese scholar brought peace and blessedness to the sessions, the persons, and the very halls of the Congress.

One day they were looking for Dr. Suzuki through the extensive gardens of the place, and they were not finding him through they knew him so be somewhere there. They had to look sharply to find him. He was sitting at the foot of a tree, alone with his own peace and his own silence, and he was so relaxed, so plant-like, so identified with the tree that it was difficult to make him our apart.

Mimesis of the spirit. The butterfly that, steady on the bush, looks like one more leaf on the plant’s display. The “stick insect” that, in its wood-like appearance, looks like one more branch on the browning tree. The chameleon that, in its organic resourcefulness, changes skin-disguises according to the fashion of the moment. And the lover of nature, the contemplative sage, the son of the soil, who, leaning against a tree finds himself so much at one with it, feels so much within himself the earthly kinship with trunk and roots and sap and bark that he foils his friends’ search with the innocent mischief of his treelike transformation.

The life-instinct to be close to all beings, to know oneself one with nature, to become almost a tree with the tree, cloud with the cloud and water with the water. The urge and readiness to learn from all beings, and to meditate as the tree meditates, steady and self-possessed in the serenity of its stand and the depth of its roots. Each plant has something to teach us, and each bird can be our master. We have only to sense its speciality and approach its secret. If we sit under a tree with the only idea of resting as in a rustic char, its rough trunk will feel harsh and will hurt our back with the knots on its surface. But if we understand its life, feel the hidden current of its living sap, sense its solid grip on the earth, its free movement in the dancing of its branches, and its blooming in the greenness of its leaves…, then we will feel intimately at home in its company, and will be able to rest in its shadow with long abandon. That is the way to learn nature. To become tree and rain and star. Suzuki himself had thus described in theory what he so well put into practice:

“Man is a thinking reed, but his great deeds are done when he is not calculating or thinking. “Childlikeness” has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness. When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think. He thinks like showers coming down from the sky; he thinks like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage shooting forth in the relaxing sprint breeze. Indeed, he is the showers, the ocean the stars, the foliage.”
(A Zen Life, p. 192)

I tell you

Peter Godwin, born in Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, to white parents, and living now in England, comes for a visit to his parents. This is his narrative:Despite his level of pain and his age, Dad continues to do the shopping. It’s a duty he has long claimed and clearly enjoys. And some weeks it is all that prevents him from tipping over into complete misanthropy. Today, he takes me with him. First stop is Vasilly’s, the bakery which apparently invented the Marie Antoinette ‘cake bread’ exception. Dad loads his little basket with a small selection of loaves, which he will later freeze, and, as a special treat, he says, because I am here, two croissants. The assistant wraps them individually and rings up the total on the till.
‘What!’ Says Dad. How can it possibly be that much?’ The black shop assistant manages to look sympathetic and embarrassed at the same time. ‘It’s the inflation’, she says, and looks down at the till, waiting for Dad to make a decision.
Dad slowly counts out the notes in his wallet but they fall short of the total required. I haven’t yet changed any money so I am unable to make up the difference. Vasilly’s, like most shops here, stopped taking cheques ages ago – they are not worth their face value by the time they clear. He points to one of the loaves, and she removes it and subtracts it from the total. But the total is still too much, so he hands back the rolls one at a time until finally all that’s left are the two ‘special-treat’ croissants.
But then, inexplicably, the cashier wraps up the whole order, including the items he cannot pay for, and presents them to Dad. He is confused, as am I. The cashier nods her head towards the queue that has formed behind us, to a tall well-dressed black woman. ‘She is paying the extra for you’, says the cashier.
I am not sure whether to offer to pay her back, or if that will offend her, and clearly neither is Dad.
‘Thank you so much… for helping us’, I say as we leave.
‘You are welcome’, she smiles. Dad just looks at the floor.
‘Many is the time’, my other says when I tell her about it later, ‘that we have done that for a black person struggling to pay.’
Peter Godwin, When a crocodile eats the sun, Picador Africa 2006, p. 242)
[A few more quotations from that book:]

p. 29: We stay at Meikles Hotel. The low colonial building has long since been rebuilt as a five-star tower block but it is still guarded by its original twin stone lions, who are supposed to roar every time a virgin walks by. To date they have remained oddly silent.

p. 8: In Zulu language, a mobile phone is called umakhalekhukhwini, which means ‘the screaming in the pocket’.

p. 46: His mother is a doctor in Zimbabwe and had to deal with the first inroads of Aids in the country among ignorance and neglect. This is her tale. ‘A woman came to see us years ago with a novel ailment that looked like German measles but wasn’t. I thought it might be HIV of which I had heard but we’d never seen a case before, it was still so new here, and at the beginning there was no test for it. When testing became available a few months later, this woman, who was a theatre nurse in our own hospital came along and she was one of the first patients we tested. It came back positive.
For the first time we had to deal with the problem of how you inform patients they have HIV. It was decided that a panel should do it: a consultant physician, a psychiatrist and me. The theatre nurse was an intelligent woman, and the others talked to her for about fifteen minutes, discussing contraception and the prevention of transmission, and then they left, well satisfied that they’d told her all they could. And she turned to me after they had gone and said, “What was that all about? What were they trying to tell me?”
I said, “You have a new viral disease that may cause you great difficulties in time. And there is no treatment for it yet.”
“But I feel better now”, she said.
I said, “Good, just enjoy yourself, then, while you feel well. Keep as healthy as you can, eat well, don’t get overtired. And I will be at you side.”
There was no point in spelling it out to her that she had a death sentence and spoiling what life she had left to live. Anyway, she survived nearly ten years before she died of Aids.
You must remember how many years we weren’t even allowed to talk about Aids here. It was all a dreadful secret. Herbert Ushewekunze, the Minister of Health, issued an edict, a ministerial fatwa, that there was to be absolutely no publicity at all. And later he died of it himself.’

I sit at the back in the room behind the rows of patients that are waiting to be seen by my mother in her consult. Two of them have contracted HIV. It has become so common that my mother can usually diagnose the illness at the doorway of her consulting room. As a patient politely knocks on the metal door frame, she knows already what is wrong.
Now there are many cases, but no more consultant physicians and psychiatrists now. And anti-retroviral drugs are not yet available, so there is no treatment at all, there is only shame. Shame, and its offspring, secrecy. The death notices and the obituaries only ever mention the opportunistic diseases that actually felled the victims. They never mention that these diseases galloped in through the open gate of a collapsed immune system – collapsed because of Aids.
And sometimes, especially when it is a man who is infected, he has a terrific hunger for revenge. If he is going to die anyway, then he will infect as many women as he can before he goes, because it is a woman who has done this to him, a woman who has given him this sickness.
There are orphans, so many orphans. In an African society where there has never been much of a need for orphanages or old folks’ homes because the extended families have always looked after their own, there is suddenly a great need for both. The people in the middle die, leaving the very young and the very old behind. Deep in the bush, whole villages are being found where the eldest person is a twelve-year old girl. Villages of children, alone. And these children walk miles to fetch the water and collect the firewood and plant the crops and cook their meagre food and sometimes they even try to keep on going to school, all by themselves.
Because it is only blacks who die of this sickness, not whites, some have started to claim that it is a white man’s weapon, part of a plan to get rid of blacks. Week after week after week there are funerals, so many funerals now.
In 1980, at independence, a man might expect to live to sixty. Then life expectance dropped to fifty, and now it has collapsed, all the way down to thirty-three. It is hard to comprehend. At thirty-three, just as people should be in their prime, they suddenly sicken and die. The managers of the mines and the rectories and the farms have begun training three people to fill every job, because they know two will not live to do the work.
And worse, some of them have begun saying that the only way for a man to cure himself of this lethal affliction is to have sex with a young virgin, that this will make him clean again. Many young girls are raped by men for this reason, and they too die in their turn, as do the ones who rape them.

I can see my mother is weighed down by the burden of it all. Every day she has to tell dozens of people they have an incurable disease. She sits in her office surrounded by the badges of her profession, her white coat and her stethoscope, and they serve only to mock her inability to heal. But my mother hasn’t given up. At seventy-three she still gets up at dawn every morning and comes into the hospital, working on well past her retirement age, paid only her meagre government salary, impelled only by her stubborn sense of duty. Even when there is little she can do for them, she has not abandoned her patients, she continues to shed her smiles of compassion over the desolate fields of the killer disease.
p. 46-50

You tell me

I’ve been asked to send 100 grams of Spanish saffron to Australia. Spanish saffron is supposed to be the best in the world, but what’s the point of sending it to Australia? It is not to give flavour to paellas as in Spain, but for quite a different use. In Australia there is a large community of Gujarati Jains, a very fervent minority religion in India in which I have many good friends. Jainism, like Buddhism, is a religion without a god, but it does worship its founder, Mahavir, together with the 24 prophets who preached the Jain creed through history. They are all represented in marble statues, almost totally naked as an expression of their radical detachment from everything, sitting cross-legged, with their eyes wide open as a sign of having attained enlightenment. In their religious ceremonies, the faithful anoint or daub those statues on their forehead, breasts, knees, and feet. And by now you’ve guessed that the daubing is done with saffron. The Jain prophets deserve the best saffron in the world, the best saffron comes from Spain, the only person they know in Spain is myself, and so they write to me. Clear. I feel no qualms of conscience in contributing to a rite the Catholic Church considers idolatrous. I won’t go to hell for that. But there is a more practical consideration. 100 grams pure saffron cost 1000 euros. And saffron’s smell is so overwhelming that the parcel will go smelling from nose to nose from Spain to Australia – if it arrives. I am very ecumenical but I’m not sending it. I hope they’ll understand. I am left with the satisfaction that my Jain friends in Australia have felt free enough to ask me for it. I price their friendship.


Psalm 99 – The sheep of his flock

I am yours, Lord, in so far as I am a member of your flock. Give me that sense of belonging to your people on earth, and through it to you. I am no isolated individual, I have no claim to personal attention, I am not saved alone. It is true that you, Lord, love me for my own sake, and look after my welfare and direct my steps; but you have chosen to work among men and women through the groups you have formed, through the people you have shaped. You deal with us as a shepherd with his flock. He does pay attention to every sheep and tends with special care the one that needs it most at any moment; but he leads them together and grazes them together and shelters them together in the unity of the flock.

Make me feel a member of the flock, Lord. Make me feel responsible, sociable, amiable, brother to my brothers and to my sisters, and accountable to all human beings. Never for a moment allow me to think that I can go it alone, that I don’t need anybody, that the lives of others do not concern me. Don’t let me isolate myself in haughty pride or fallacious self-sufficiency. Don’t let me be a loner. Don’t let me be a stranger in my own land.

Make me feel proud of my brothers and sisters, appreciate their qualities and love their company. Make me feel at home in the flock, sense its support and value the strength that being together brings to the group and to me in it. Make me contribute to the life of the others, and allow them to contribute to mine. Make me enjoy going out together into common pastures, playing together, working together, living our life together. Make me be a community person in the full and blessed sense of the term. Make me do well in the group, that seeing myself appreciated I may also appreciate the others and contribute to the common unity.

I am a member of the flock because you are the Shepherd. You are the source of unity, and our dependence from you makes us happily seek our safety in you and thus meet each other under the shadow of your staff. Let my loyalty to you make me be loyal too to all the members of the flock. Let me trust others because I trust you. Make me love all because I love you. And may we all men and women under your care learn to stand together for your sake.

“Know that the Lord is God:
he has made us and we are his own,
his people, the flock which he shepherds.”


That the clay may not lie

The Codex Mendocinus, dated in the sixteenth century, in Mexico, exhibits drawings of different craftsmen at their work, like the carpenter, the painter, the goldsmith, in the best tradition of the Aztec civilisation; and the Codex Matritensis preserved in the library of El Escorial records the testimonies given by native artisans about their own crafts in their Nahuatl language as collected by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. Here are, as a touching example, the norms handed down by tradition for the office of zuquichiuhqui(potter):

“He is it that gives the clay its life. Sharp eyes, deep spirit and loving hands. The faithful potter takes every care in his work, teaches the clay not to lie, dialogues with his own heart, knows everything as a Toltec, gives himself through his hands.”
(Paideia Precolombina, Castañeda, p. 81)

The Toltec culture precedes and underlies the Aztec, Mexica, and Nahua and lends them that humanistic trait, in art and in spirit, that ennobles them with stately dignity. Every worker is an artist, and every trade a cult. Of the painter it says that “in his heart every object is divinised” so that he may “put a face on faceless objects”. Life-giving task in skilful hands.

The most striking feature in those rules for the potter, the sharp contrast with out consumer society and the precious glimpse into the selfless outlook of the anonymous artist, come in that novel phrase of ancient ring: “The potter teaches the clay not to lie.” The artist carries within himself the laws of life that shape his behaviour in responsible society, and he passes them on through the pressure of his fingers and the beating of his breath to the soft clay that becomes an object in his hands.

The painters of icons in Russia prepared themselves with the sacrament of confession and the practice of penance for any new order in their sacred trade. They prayed and fasted before holding the brush, so as to feel first in themselves the faith and fervour that, woven into the lines and the colours of the image, were to transmit to the faithful the spell of the divine presence in the human endeavour.

In today’s India the cooks are still preferably Brahmins, so that they may communicate their ritual purity to the food they prepare, and so may lead body and soul together on to the organic sanctity that consecrates the whole human person. And all cultures believe that the food cooked with love agrees well with those who with love receive it. Vibrations of the spirit in the realm of the body.

The potter has to be righteous in his life and pure in his mind so that his hands may imprint on the clay the beneficent teaching of the unmasked truth. May his hands teach the clay never to tell lies. May the work of his hands from the wet clay on the tirelessly turning wheel always reflect truth, be truly and fully what it is meant to be, perform the tasks it has been created to perform, and thus proclaim in the veracity of its shape the eternal principle of the honesty of being. Let the clay not lie, so that every being in creation may be neatly and decidedly what it has been called to be

Let the pitcher be a pitcher; let it be used and appreciated as a pitcher; let it bring water from the well; let it adjust itself to the hand that carries it and to the hip on which it rests; let it be homely ornament in the shady corner in which it rests with its ready supply of fresh cool water for human need; let it last a long life of service and usefulness in the honest fragility of its innocent clay. Let the pitcher not lie. Let it be what it is and be of use in what it is meant to be, of use with noble sincerity and elegant craftsmanship. Let the hands that shape it imprint on its clay the message of truth in the fullness of being.

Today that noble tradition of the ancient Aztec has been lost. Today the greater part of the objects made by human hand, lie. The clothes, the buildings, the furniture, the motorcars lie. And so lie cities and roads, cinemas and theatres, newspapers and books. They do not lie because the tell lies, but because they are a lie. The dress in not covering for the body but fashion for the mind; the car in not a vehicle for transportation but a shop-window for boasting display; the city is not haven of well-being but a polluted trap. All things lie because they are not what they say they are; they do not serve the purpose they were supposed to serve; they hinder where they should help, and they bore us while claiming to be amusing.

Our clothes lie, as they are no more cotton from the fields or silk from the worm, but mechanical fibres of obscure birth; our pearls lie, as they do not any more come from the bottom of the seas but from the automated factory; the leather lies as it is no more living heirloom but lifeless plastic.

The strawberry ice cream lies, as it comes from chemical compounds in the laboratory which know nothing of the fresh flavour of the wild red fruit over its green leaves on the edge of the forest. Artificial flowers lie in the cheating perfection of their painted colours, soon betrayed by the unnatural smoothness of their touch and their lack of the virgin scents of open fields. Synthetic wood lies in the sad mimicry of its false veins and knots drawn in faded paint.

And we all lie in our speech and our acts when we say things we do not believe, and adopt a behaviour we do not feel. We lie when we make someone a present, not out of love but out of formality; and we lie when we express delight at the present given to us, not because we like it or find it useful, but because etiquette requires it of us. We lie when we go to shows that do not amuse us, when we go for trips that do not cheer us, when we buy books we know we are never going to read. We lie when we clap because all clap, and laugh because all laugh, while no one knows why the rest are laughing. Our whole life, in our profession and our society, is itself a long lie in its false attitudes and its put-on gestures.

The great calamity of modern life is its artificiality. We have lost naturalness, spontaneity, truth. We are formal and conventional and official. We dissemble and lie so often and with such ease that we have ceased to be conscious of it. And with that we have lost the vitality, the strength, the freshness of the direct contact with living reality. The pitcher is no longer a pitcher; it does not bring any more water from the well, and it has become instead a showpiece in the corner of a stately mansion, a relic in a curio shop, or a ruin in a museum. To redeem our civilisation from the artificiality and fraud that oppress it, it would be enough to teach the clay not to lie. Let every object, every action, every word, and every gesture be what it truly is in itself, say what it has to say, and do with intimate and existential devotedness whatever it has to do. Let the clay not lie, so that life on earth may once again be life.


I tell you

A new smile

I hope this narrative by father Gary Smith, SJ, from whom I quoted some stories a month ago, may inspire you as it has inspired me.

“I found myself in Arra, at about sixteen kilometres north of Adjumani. While I was saying Mass, I was listening to Madra, the catechist, read the gospel, and I observed how a girl of about ten years, very poorly dressed and carrying the burden of a baby on her back, was moving about the place. I thought the baby was most probably a brother of hers as older sisters have often to carry a smaller sister or brother who cannot walk yet. At a given moment our eyes met. Her eyes were sad, and her round face underlined the fact. But there was something worse: she had a cleft lip.

A cleft lip is a manifestation of the most blind and brutal aspect of nature. It is a deformity that breaks one’s heart. It can be due to different causes, one of which is the mother’s precarious physical condition during pregnancy because of malnutrition, sickness, or taking food or medicines in bad condition. Often the parents do not know the defect can be surgically corrected, and even if they know it they don’t have the means for it. There are also those who think it has to do with the will of God, that it is question of a divine punishment. How is one, then, to go and correct God himself?

I ask myself: Where is God found in all this affair as in so many bodily malformations round the whole world, in the cripple I see crawling on the streets of Adjumani, in the famished beggars that plague the streets of Kampala, or in the children who die of malaria in Moyo, or in the lepers of Arua? Why should this happen? Is God not concerned with this suffering? And where do I stand in the middle of all this?

I tried to explain to Madra and the elders of the village that there was in Kampala a team of plastic surgeons specialised in repairing cleft lips and who regularly came to the hospitals in the North without charging. Would Madra and Lilly, the girl’s aunty, be interested in making an appointment with those doctors for Jacelin? They at once said yes.

I turned to Jacelin, who was very shy and obviously blushing while she spoke with me, and who spoke only monosyllables to me through an interpreter without daring to look at me. It was probably the first time she was talking with a white person, and that made her uneasy. So much attention on her was too much for her, and she burst out crying. I asked her through Madra whether she would like to have her lip repaired. She managed an ‘Ahhh’, which in the Madi language means yes.

Two months after having known Jacelin, I went back to Arra to supervise the repair work on the chapel. I was accompanied by father Idro, an African priest with whom I work in the refugees settlements. Madra was not there at the moment, and so Idro and I kept talking with Lilly, Jacelin’s aunty, while she kept standing close to us with her little cousin on her back. She did remember me, but she was still withdrawn. We spoke about plastic surgery, and Lilly seemed worried how to look after Jacelin in hospital. Uganda hospitals do not provide meals for the sick, so that each patient’s family has to take care of everything.

When father Idro and I were taking our leave, I wanted to take a photo of Jacelin. We had to wait a while, as she wanted to put on a better dress, although the new dress was, pitifully, as worn out and faded as the other. It broke my heart to see her efforts to have a better aspect. I got ready to take her picture and I asked Idro to tell her in Madi to smile. She did so with pathetic innocence. Then we took our leave.

A month and a half later I went back to Arra, again so say Mass there. I tried to spot Jacelin among the crowd, and when I started the Mass I saw her sitting at the bottom of the church with her little cousin strapped to her back as always. I looked at her, and she gave me her winning smile. After Mass I went to see her and her aunty. While I spoke with Madra and Lilly, Jacelin kept by my side, her hand in mine. When we finished talking I asked her whether she had understood we were talking about a possible operation for her. She said yes. I asked her whether, after hearing all that, she still wanted to have it done, and she answered she did. ‘O God – I prayed at that moment – make the operation come through!’

The plastic surgeons had to come from the North in two months time. But, under some sudden impulse, I phoned their hospital to learn about the procedure to get Jacelin admitted, and they told me the surgical team would arrive at our place… after two days! I had to organise everything in a hurry, in spite of my already overcharged agenda. I kept wondering at how providential it all had been. What the hell had prompted me to phone that day? We almost lost our chance.

When we arrived at the Adjumani hospital the person in charge received us and took us to the reception hall where many other children had gathered. I asked her how many of them had come for a surgical operation, and she answered that possibly about sixty. That same morning quite a few operations had taken place on children that had come from Moyo, at the other side of the Nile, the previous night. There were three doctors, all of them African surgeons from Kampala. Jacelin would be operated upon the next day.

The next day I went with Ratib, my driver, to the hospital. Jacelin had come out of the operation theatre about an hour before. She and Lilly were in a pavilion full to capacity with recovering children and worrying relatives. My entry cause a certain sensation: a white man had come to visit someone he knew there. Jacelin was still under the effects of anaesthesia, lying on her side, with her face turned to the other side. I bent over her shoulder and observed her new mouth: it was perfect, and Jacelin looked now ever so beautiful.

Is that what a father feels when he takes in his arms his newborn child? I placed my hand over her and murmured a prayer of thanksgiving for all the children in that hall of miracles.

That night, as I retold the whole experience to a friend, I broke into tears.”

(“They Come Back Singing” by Gary Smith, Loyola Press, Chicago, p. 131)

You tell me

Question: How to understand the saying “outside the Church there is no salvation”?

Answer: Not easily, Roberto. I’ll give you my own understanding and lack of understanding of that saying along my life as a missionary. Vatican Council I said in chapter VII of its “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church of Christ”: “It is a dogma of faith that no one can be saved outside the Church.” Now, the only way of entering the Church is the baptism of water, the baptism of blood in non-baptised martyrs of the faith, and the baptism of desire of the catechumens who were preparing themselves to receive baptism and died unexpectedly before receiving it. It is not enough to say that the not baptised person would have known that baptism is necessary for salvation, they would have wanted it and would have received it, as that would simply mean that baptism as such was not necessary.

In my youth I knew the doctrine and faithfully accepted it. Around those days pope Pius XII published his encyclical Mystici Corporis which I studied in religion class and in which he repeated the same doctrine. We were told, with a quotation from St Thomas to that effect, that if an infidel in pagan lands would observe the natural law without committing sin, God would send an angel to baptise him so that he would go to heaven.

I was 24 when I went to India, Madras (now Chennai), to study for my maths degree, and it so happened that I arrived exactly on the day when Loyola College celebrated its annual feast with price distribution, dances, songs, gymnastics, and march past that were a display of youth, rhythm and energy as I had never seen in my life. I was watching that wonderful show of art and beauty, dressed in a white cassock in the main stand as I was a Jesuit, and while I wondered at the magnificent spectacle, I kept thinking inwardly and telling myself: “What a great pity that all these splendid young men and women have to go to hell!” Most of them were Hindus and Muslims, and there was no helping it. All down to hell.

I know you’ll all laugh, thinking this absurd. I too thought so, and from Madras itself I wrote to Fr Marcelino Zalba, a world authority in moral theology, professor in the Gregorian University, whom I had personally known in Spain. I explained to him how I found it hard to greet, live, establish friendships with people who I knew would be going to hell, and I hoped he could officially open up for me new perspectives to be able to look at those people without condemning them. He answered me by return of post: “You have hardly arrived in India and you are already losing your faith? You should be careful you are not condemned yourself.” So I was heading for hell too.

When, after Madras I went to Pune for my theology, our Canon Law professor, the Shrilanka Jesuit father Rayana Putota, explained to us the “Outside the Church there is no salvation” canon. He used the traditional “distinctions” of scholastic theology, and said literally: “The dogma says ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation’. Now you must distinguish the meaning of ‘outside’, the meaning of ‘Church’, the meaning of ‘no’ and the meaning of ‘salvation’.” Which he proceeded to do, giving to each word a different meaning from its usual one. Everything settled. I remember that after class I told my companions a joke I had not dared tell the professor in class. A boy, who does not drink alcoholic beverages, is sitting in a bar with other boys and girls who go on asking the waiter for a beer, a whisky, a vermouth; and when the waiter comes to him, he shakes off his shyness and asks with a flourish: “Please, bring me a whisky and soda, but without soda, and instead of whisky bring me a coffee.”

The redeeming feature in all this was that Hindus and Muslims in my acquaintance did not know about our doctrine that “Outside the Church there is no salvation”, and so I could safely establish friendships without the offending threat coming up. But time came when someone did know about it. I arrived in India shortly after Gandhiji’s death, and so I never met him, but one of his close followers and collaborators, Dattatreya Balkrishna Kalelkar, did become a very good friend of mine. And he knew about it. The first time we were introduced, he joined his hands, bowed his head, and said with mischievous seriousness: “I am a humble candidate for hell.” I spontaneously answered him: “If anyone goes to hell, that will be myself for having sent you there.” We embraced and our friendship lasted for life.

Vatican Council II (1962) dealt with the matter, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats its doctrine in this way: “Those who, without their fault, are ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and the Church, but they search for God with a sincere heart and strive in their life, with the help of grace, to carry out God’s will as it is know to them in their conscience, can obtain eternal salvation.” (n. 847)

The text is a little longwinded, but sufficiently clear. The good point about it is that non baptised can now go to heaven, and the bad point is that for that it is necessary that the non baptised should have no knowledge of the Gospel of Christ and the Church; and also that such ignorance should not be their fault, whatever that means. Read the text again to verify it. Those who know about the Gospel and the Church and are not baptised, cannot be saved. That brings about some difficulties. People like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Pandit Nehru, D. T. Suzuki and so many others certainly knew about the Gospel and the Church, and yet were not baptised, so that according to the letter of the text they cannot have gone to heaven. About Gandhiji we know that he learned Christianity from his Protestant friends in South Africa, and for a time he contemplated conversion, but in the end he did not convert. That, according to this doctrine, would prevent him from going to heaven, as he clearly knew about the Gospel of Christ and the Church, and was not baptised; and since now there is no Limbo and the soul keeps being immortal, he must of necessity have gone to hell. To say such a thing is absolutely intolerable, and such doctrine should be corrected as soon as possible. I find it unbelievable that there should be such urgent and necessary corrections to be made in official declarations of the Church, without anybody noticing it or protesting against it. The majority of humankind knows today something about the Gospel and the Church, and yet many such people are not baptised, so that they would be officially condemned to hell. Yet no one seems to be concerned about it. The sad conclusion is that there seems to be no interest in knowing the Church’s teaching, and nobody seems to care about what the Church says. I do feel the hurt.


Psalm 100 – Resolutions

I bring before you, Lord, today the list of my resolutions. The end of a retreat, the beginning of a new year, or just a day of awakening in which I have looked at myself and at my life and I have noted down a few points to remind myself of and to ask you to bless them. Here they are.

“I will follow a wise and blameless course;
I will go about my house in purity of heart;
I will hate disloyalty;
I will reject all crooked thoughts;
I will silence those who spread tales behind men’s backs;
I will choose the most loyal for my companions.”
I know I could have been more concrete, and in practice I’ll do it if you so desire, but for today I wanted to set myself guidelines that will focus my efforts and direct my day. I want to strive for purity and wisdom in my actions; I will watch my thoughts from which actions follow; I will stop backbiting; and I will prize loyalty. Bless my programme in your house, O Lord.

I know only too well that resolutions by themselves achieve nothing. I could show you whole lists which I have made year after year, with the sincerity of the fervent moment and the overconfidence of immature youth, which are only repeated records of naive goodwill and utter failure. Carefully written lists with measured hand-writing and numbered entries in order of importance. Written only to be forgotten. Recorded only to be filed away. My resolutions count for nothing, and experience has taught me that lesson with inescapable clarity.

That is why today I have just told you my thoughts, I have outlined before you the paths I would like my behaviour should follow. Today that list is not a record but a prayer, that is, it is a list for you, not for me. It is for you to remember, to keep in mind and to act. They are not successes for me to achieve but graces for you to grant. They are not my effort but your power. Or rather they are you and me together, working hand in hand for the good of my soul and the welfare of your household.

”I sing of loyalty and justice;
I will raise a psalm to you, O Lord.”


Full Moon

Yakusan was walking alone in the dark, still night. Suddenly there was an opening in the clouds and the full moon appeared in its silent glory. The whole world instantly became silver and silence. Yakusan looked at the moon with a shiver of gratitude, and quietly uttered the gentle syllable, “Ah!” The exclamation was just a whisper in his lips, but they say that it was heard in the whole region for many miles around, and that all joined with bowed heads in the wonder and the joy of the lover of nature.

There is no need to shout in order to be heard. Sometimes it may even by an obstacle. The more we shout, the less we are heard. A whisper, a word, a subdued exclamation is all that is needed, and if it truly comes from the heart, it will reach all ears in the wide open field. To talk about the things of the spirit, studies are not needed, feeling is needed. The utterance must come from within. It must be personal experience and conviction and life. It must be the spontaneous exclamation of the heart before a full moon between clouds in the sky. Pointed monosyllable. Harmonious silence. Pregnant solitude. The best way to reach the ears of all is to talk softly.

The people on that region did not go to Yakusan to tell him they had heard his voice. He needed no compliment and no encouragement. They, on the other hand, knew that it had to be him. No one else had the spiritual strength to make himself heard with a mere sigh. They valued the presence of the sage among them because they knew that his blessed existence gave life to the whole country. The moon was all the more beautiful because there was a man in the land who knew how to appreciate her beauty. Life was more tolerable, because there was someone in the region who lived it with joy. Heaven was closer at hand because there was someone who knew how to look at it. It was enough that the restrained voice of the mystic artist would be heard from time to time among the nightly expectation of the sleeping fields.

I anyone sees, we all see with him; if someone understands, we all understand; if someone discovers the beauty of the full moon, we all understand it with him through his timely exclamation. It says a lot of Yakusan that his slender syllable was heard far and wide; and it says a lot for the people of the region that they were able to recognise the whisper and to vibrate with it.

The full moon is there. There are men and women who know her beauty and desire her vision. And there are romantic night-walkers who love to let themselves be surprised by the vision, and express their delight in a secret exclamation.

Let us learn how to speak softly, that the message may reach far.

I tell you


It hurts. Deep in my soul. So much suffering for so many people. And so much patience and so much peace. In spite of so much suffering I couldn’t help smiling at today’s cartoon in the paper: “In the midst of such a catastrophe, Japan is lucky to be inhabited by Japanese.” They have given an example to the world at large. We were proud of our European culture, our Christian values, our tradition, but today we bow our heads before Oriental values shown by a distant people with a different cultures and different but outstanding values… shall we call them “pagan values”? Yes, thereby redeeming the word “pagan”.

Yesterday (18th) I watched for a while a live TV report on Japan. The Spanish correspondent was reporting with great feeling how the government had announced a power cut of several hours that night in Tokyo in order to save electricity, but the night was about to be over and the power cut had not taken place. She repeated from the Tokyo street where night lights could still be clearly seen, “No power cut has taken place!, no power cut!” and she explained that on hearing the power cut announcement, all people in Tokyo had shut off lights and heaters on their own so effectively that power consumption had dropped instantly and the power cut became unnecessary. It was snowing. They would feel cold but they saved power. Admirable.

I find it hard to reconcile so much suffering with the existence, providence and omnipotence of God. They tell me that the tsunami is the work of nature, but nature was made by God and he knew where it was going to lead us. He could have made a kinder planet for us to live in.

As a Jesuit I always kept in mind the Jesuit saints and martyrs of Japan, St Paul Miki, St John Goto and St James Kisai, crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 together with other 23. But the true martyrs appear now to be all the workers who are risking and shortening their lives in their zeal to switch off the damaged reactors and avoiding a nuclear explosion that would harm many. I have been touched by the sight of small children coming out in an orderly way from their Kindergarten with their funny caps and masks as protection from radiation. They looked charming.

Christianity is highly individualistic, and it sets the “salvation of the soul” as the aim of human life. “Man is created to praise, do reverence to and serve God our Lord, and thereby to save his soul.” Thus says the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises of my father St Ignatius on which I have meditated and preached all my life. Shintoism seems rather to look at the family, society, ancestors and sages, and insists on the duty of a social and publicly responsible behaviour above all. Oriental values.

In my youth I was about to go to Japan to work and live there for life instead of India, and maybe that’s why this touches me so deeply. I’ll tell how it happened. At the end of the Second World War, pope Pius XII thought and declared that as Japan was opening for the first time in its history to American influence as it had been defeated by the United States in the war, the Japanese people would spontaneously adopt Western values, and with them Christianity, and he formally asked father Vladimir Ledokowski, the Polish General of the Society of Jesus at the time, to send immediately to Japan as many Jesuits as possible from all over the world in order to take this opportunity to evangelise and convert the whole of Japan. Father General asked for voluntaries, and I offered myself. The brief answer I got through my Provincial was: “For you it is not Japan but India.” I cheerfully agreed and went to India. But I kept my soft feelings for Japan. Today they have come to life again.

By the way, Pius XII was wrong. Christians in Japan today are 0’7%.

You tell me

Question: Do you believe in the Devil?

Answer: When I’m asked, “do you believe in…?” I feel like answering, “And what do you care about what I believe? Are you going to believe or cease to believe in something because of what I believe?” It’s quite different when I’m asked about reasons to believe in something or not. In this case the Devil certainly appears in the Bible quite clearly and frequently both in the Old and in the New Testament. Everybody knows that. What few people seem to know is that in the Bible, God and the Devil are two aspects of the same person. At the beginning, both good and bad things are attributed to God as a matter of fact, and then little by little the approach changes and good things are attributed to God and bad things to the Devil, almost a division of labour. When David sets about taking a census in Israel, which was considered something bad and forbidden as it looked like pride on the part of the king, a first report of the event says, “God tempted David…” (2 Samuel 24:1); and later on, when the same event is recorded in a later chronicle, the new historian does not think it fit to attribute temptation to God, and he writes instead, “Satan tempted David…” (1 Chronicles 21:1). In any case God punished the census with a pest that killed seventy seven thousand. It is the same event recorded in two different ways as theological thinking developed among the Israelites. In the first narrative, God is the one who tempts, while in the second narrative of the same event, it is Satan. Enter the Devil.

Alan Watts in his book “Two Hands of God” says, quoting Mircea Eliade, that God one day saw his own shadow, lifted it up, created the Devil with it and told him: “Look here, things are rather boring on earth. Let’s liven it up a little. You’ll be the bad guy and I the good guy as in the movies, and we’ll whip up a good hullabaloo down there. Then at the end we’ll tell them we are friends, and we’ll all have a good laugh.” (p. 29)

Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) in her famous book (and then motion picture) “Out of Africa” says: “Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you: that God and the Devil are One, the majesty coeternal, not two uncreated but One uncreated, and the Natives neither confounded the persons nor divided the substance.” The terms in the quotation show that the Catholic baroness knew her theology well. She also knew Africa well. And she had a sense of humour.

Maybe in the end all this comes precisely to that, namely that we have to take it with a pinch of salt. I’m just now writing a book whose main characters are Devils. I polite call them “Separated Angels”, which is what they really are, and I get on quite well with them. I hope to finish the book soon. I’ll let you know.


Psalm 101 – I love my city

I love your very stones and the dust of your streets. You are my city, my Zion, my heavenly Jerusalem; you, the city where I live, whose streets I walk, whose corners I turn, whose air I breathe, whose buildings I love. You, the city given to me to be my home, my place on earth, my shelter in life, my urban link with humankind. You, figure and sign of the City of God, I love you, I am proud of you, I am happy to live in you, to show you to visitors, to give your name next to mine in my address, linking my name with yours in the topographical bond of residential marriage. You are my city, and I rejoice in you.

I love you as you are, dust and all. I could worship the stones in your streets and take them as altars to offer on them a sacrifice of praise. Your lanes are sacred, your crossroads are blessed, your houses are anointed with the presence of man and woman, the children of God. You are a temple, the whole of you, consecrating with the seal of working man and woman the virgin landscapes of planet earth.

I pray for you, for your beauty and for your glory, to that God whose temple you are and whose majesty you reflect, that he may repair the wounds inflicted on you by the thoughtlessness of humans and the ravages of time, and make you shine with the final perfection I dream for you, and he, as your Lord and King, wants for you.

“You, Lord, are enthroned for ever,
and your fame shall be known to all generations.
You will arise and have mercy on Zion;
for the time is come to pity her.

Her very stones are dear to your servants,
and even her dust moves them with pity.

Then shall the nations revere your name, O Lord;
and all the kings of the earth your glory,
when the Lord builds up Zion again
and shows himself in his glory.”Your wounds are my wounds, and your trials are my trials. In praying for you I pray for me, derelict as I feel at times before failures and sickness and death, and my hope for your restoration is my hope for my own immortality. I hang on to your walls and take courage in the firmness of your structures. My own life sometimes seems to crumble, and then I lean on you, hide in you, identify with you. When i suffer, I remember your sufferings, and when the shadows of my life lengthen I think of the shadows over your ruins. Then I also think of your foundations, firm and lasting from times immemorial, and I find faith for myself in the permanence of your history.

Modern city of strikes and protests, of bombs that explode and police sirens that wail in the night, of terrorism and blood. I suffer with you and live with you in the hope that our suffering will bring redemption and I will be able to sing in you the praises of the Lord who made you and made me.

“The Lord’s name shall be on men’s lips in Zion
and his praise shall be told in Jerusalem,
when peoples are assembled together,
peoples and kingdoms, to serve the Lord.”


The withered branch

On a certain occasion a young man named Kiosho went to see Zen Master Gensha (831-908) with the purpose to study under him. Kiosho said: “I have come in search of truth. What must I do to enter Zen?” The Master answered with another question: “Can you hear the murmur of the brook that flows down the mountain?” – “Yes, Master, I can hear it”, answered Kiosho. “Then enter Zen through it!” was the Master’s answer.

Some time later, a rather raw Zen student, Kyo by name, told this story to Master An in Sengan, and asked him: “Gensha could advise Kiosho to enter Zen through the murmur of the waters of the brook because Kiosho answered that he could hear it. But if he had not heard it, what could have Master Gensha said?” Suddenly the Master called aloud his name: “Kyo!” – “Yes, Master”, answered Kyo. “Enter Zen from the sound of your name!”What matters is not the murmur of the waters, but the actuality of the present moment. Any sound will do. Or, for that matter, any absence of sound too. The point is to grasp the occasion. Any delay is fatal. To wait for the new experience, for a special call, for the waters of the brook when none are heard, is to miss the revelation and to delay the awakening. Heaven is here, ad enlightenment is now. Any instant is good to enter Zen, and if this instant is missed, the next one will not avail either. A quickness in reacting is the only guarantee of illumination. If there is no brook, it is enough to ask the candidate its name, to utter a sound, or just to hear the silence. Anything will do as a starting point, provided it is present.

Master and disciple were together sitting among trees in the silent valley, when the disciple asked: “It is many years since I wait for you to place in my hands the book whose study will lead me to liberation. When will you give me that book?” The Master was toying with a dry twig that had fallen from the tree under which they were seated. He held out the twig to the disciple and said: “Take the book. Here is liberation. If you cannot read life’s secrets here, you will not find them in any scripture.”

Life’s secret is in our hands. It is no other thing than the present moment lived with all its intensity in unconditional commitment. The branch of a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a word, a face, a smile; or silence, solitude, emptiness. All things speak if we allow them speech. Everything is a starting point if we are ready to walk. Any light is dawn if we know how to recognise the new day. We must learn now to make the most of each instant in the fullness of its salvific presence. Not waiting for the day when it is night, or for the night when it is day. Life is both in the light and in the darkness if we have the eyes to see it. The withered branch in the Master’s hands can be the open book before us to understand the world.


I tell you

[Some more stories from the book “They Come Back Singing” by Gary Smith, SJ]After the Eucharist, the few people that had gathered told me they had decided to accompany me on my way back to the headquarters of the Jesuit Refugee Service. We went into the night, singing and dancing in the darkness where you couldn’t see your own hand in the flickering light of the paschal candle that led the group. In this part of the world there is no public lighting system, of course.

People sand in Arabic, in Bari, in a few Congo dialects, in English and in any number of languages. Africans can manage with languages with an astonishing facility. They placed me in the middle of the group, and all split with laughter seeing my awkwardness in trying to follow the rhythms all Sudanese carry in their blood. From time to time they introduced in their songs the words “Father Gary”, though I had no idea what they said about me. In any case they did all that without ceasing to laugh with the spontaneous joy that comes from love and wellbeing.

The accompanied me till the door of my cottage. It sounds paradoxical that, while the job of the Jesuit Refugee Service is to accompany these good people in the darkness of their exile, here it was they that were accompanying me in the darkness of the jungle. I stood by the door, just watching their smiles, as I thanked them in Arabic, Bari, and English. They again started singing, and I felt an inexplicable peace filling my soul. After a good deal of singing, beating palms, stamping the ground with their feet and laughing all the time, they wished me good night, they gave me their wishes for the Pasch, they turned round and were lost into the night. (p. 54)

The leaders of Ngurua village, where I celebrated the Eucharist on Sunday morning, asked me to come to the cottage of a young man whose wife had died the previous night while giving birth to their son. We all went together. Sorrow is with them a community experience, as all refugees share the same history of flight, suffering, and death. The husband was a young man, and his face showed his sorrow. He took me by the hand and led me to his wife’s body. His cottage was full of women sitting on the floor in a silent, sorrowful circle. They made place for me to kneel as well as I could before the body. I prayed and thought of the young husband and how was he now going to manage to look after the newborn child. He then knelt down by my side before his wife’s body. Moments like this shake my insides, and the only thing I can do in such overwhelming situations is to cry. A young person’s death is so absurd! That day it was even harder to bear as it was my own birthday.” (78)

The last day of the seminary we had a Mass, and after that the two eldest women went slowly round the circle of all the rest of them and imposed their hands on the heads of their sisters sending them to their respective villages in their mission as catechists. At the end they came to the end of the hall and they blessed me. (88)

After lunch, all the women boarded the lorry of the Jesuit Refugee Service and we started for their villages. In these places, travelling with a group in a lorry is an extraordinary experience. Everybody stars singing, and the longer the way the more they sing. Usually one person sings the stanzas and then all together sing the refrain. When we approached a village, all the women in the lorry added the name of the village somehow to their songs. At every stop the people of the village came out to greet us and they also started singing and clapping to welcome their women back in their home. That happened in all the villages, and the women never stopped singing. What about myself? I felt like a child who had sneaked into a cinema to see the most amusing film in the world for free. When we reached the last village there were only two women left who kept singing like birds. I left one of them at her village, while the last one did not stop waving at the rhythm of a Congolese song. We finally reached her home, and she, coming down from the lorry, presented me with the most marvellous smile in the world and said goodbye in Arabic. What a wonderful journey! (88)

One good day, a very poor woman, Mary Kenyi, came to see me, all draped in rags. She used to come to ask me for beans or wheat, and sometimes for a blanket. She has nothing and nobody, no son or daughter to look after her in her old age. All her children and her husband died in the civil war against Sudan. I say how she was approaching leaning on her long stick while I was talking with one of our workers. I thought to myself, perhaps with some irritation: “What can she be coming to ask for today?” She had a small plastic bag which she placed in front of me as she regaled me with a smile that would have charmed anybody’s heart. In the bag there was a gift for me. Three eggs. (129)

Before landing, our plane had to fly low over the landing strip to shoo away the giraffes that use it as a shortcut. (31)

On Christmas Eve I celebrated the Eucharist in the village of Agulupi. Some students were singing the songs while twenty girls from the primary danced around the altar. Many Sudanese, who had fled to Uganda through the Congo, have taken refuge in Agulupi, and after communion the choir sung for them a carol in Lingala, the language of East Congo, which imitated the crying of a child. The dancers sighed while they bent their arms as though they were mourning. That touched me to the quick. The weeping of the Child Jesus, and now the echo of the sighs of the refugees who have had to endure a long way in desperate escape among sufferings. Just as in the Child Jesus’ crying, there was also in the song a note of newly born hope. (39)

The man standing in front of me was about thirty, was incredibly thin, and wore a look of deep sadness. When I greeted him I noticed he shook my hand firmly and she had the rough skin of a person who has worked all their life. He was asking for help for the funeral of his daughter Viola, only nine months old, who had died of pneumonia and malaria combined. I answered with some arrogance, as I sometimes did in spite of myself as director of the project of the Jesuit Refugee Service, and I told him straightaway that we could not take financial responsibility for funerals. Just that. I will never forget the astonished look that came over his face, which brought out the offensiveness of my answer. Funerals are sacred for them, and he had nothing to celebrate it with. I remained silent, my heart pierced by his look, and asked him whether that daughter was his only child. “No”, he answered, “I’ve had other three children.” – “What about them?” – “They also died, father. They all died in there first year. My wife and I could have died of sorrow.” It was a blow that smashed my arrogance to pieces. Feeling a perfect fool, I blurted out a few words to express my condolences. Just imagine: four children, and all dead. All his life ruined. I turned to Atibuni, my catechist who was acting as interpreter, and I told him: “Give him whatever he needs.” The young man pressed my hand, thanked me, and left. Things like this happen every day. I keep learning. (82)

I asked Josephine, who has no money but had managed to send her daughter to school, “Are you going to by for your daughter the textbooks and exercise books she’ll need at school?” She answered, “Yes.” I asked again, “Why do you do that?” – “Because I love her.” I insisted: “And if the doctor would tell you that she has kidney failure but could be saved if you would donate one of your kidneys, would you do it?” – “Yes”, answered Josephine with aplomb. “I have lived my life”, that woman of little more than thirty said, “and my daughter deserved a full life.” – “But then, why would you do it?” – “Because I love her.” The expression “because I love her or him” is an idiom in the Bari language (kogwon narju) which I heard thousands of times, and which explains and sums up the joy of life of these people. When people truly love one another, everything becomes easier. (171)

You tell me

Thank you for sending me this article by a Spanish Jesuit in Japan on the tragedy that has touched us as much as it has touched them. I quote from it:

“What now? Nobody knows. The situation continues to be serious and to worry us. We are in the hands of God and of the experts who are trying solve as best they can the problems that come up one after another. The earthquake and the tsunami have put us, human beings, in our place, and they have forced us to be more humble. We thought we had conquered nature, and yet we find ourselves helpless before her gigantic strength.

This has been the first time for me in my 48 years in Japan in which I have experienced such a strong earthquake. It has been an experience that has made me think and has chastened me. I’m again admiring and loving more and more these good Japanese. Once again they have given to the world an example of social behaviour, of solidarity, of a deep compassion for all those who suffer. The messages many Japanese send to persons in the affected area show a true gospel spirit lived out in the midst of the hard reality of these days. Many Japanese are not “professional” Christians, but their behaviour is becoming a true sign of the loving presence among us of a God who suffers and weeps with his children.”

I like what he says that “the earthquake and the tsunami have put us in our place”, and his tribute to the exemplary behaviour of the Japanese. At the end, it would have been better to say that “Jesus suffered and wept for us on earth” rather than “God suffers and weeps with us”, because God at present does not “suffer and weep” in heaven. We should also recognise that the “Christian” values the Japanese are showing in their behaviour are simply universal values for all men and women of good will in the world, whether they be Christian or not. We Christians too have something to learn from non Christians without having to give them our name. I appreciate the contribution of the missionary to the “living presence of God among us” which we all adore in faith in the midst of so much suffering.


Psalm 102 – Trust in God’s mercy

“Bless the Lord, my soul,
and forget none of his benefits.
He pardons all my guilt,
and heals all my suffering.”
I want to sing your mercy, Lord, which I have experienced in my body and in my soul. You have forgiven my sins and you have healed my sicknesses. You have defeated evil in me, evil that showed itself as rebellion in my soul and corruption in my body. One leads to the other. I am one whole and united being, and the whole of me, body and soul, reacts to my choices and my actions in blessing or in darkness as I stumble along the way of life.

It is over that whole of me that you have extended your healing hand, Lord, in a gesture of pardon and of grace that restores my life and quickens my body. My very bones rejoice as I feel the blessing of your mercy in the depths of my being. Thank you, Lord, for your infinite goodness.

“As the heaven stands high above the earth,
so his strong love stands high above all who fear him.
Far as east is from west,
so far has he put our offences away from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so has the Lord compassion on all who fear him.
For he knows how we were made,
he knows full well that we are dust.”
You know my weakness, because you made me. I have failed numberless times, and I know I shall fail again. And my body will reflect the failings of my soul in the breaking down of its functions. I expect your mercy to come on me again, Lord, as it has done now and will always do, because you never fail those who love you. Heal my body and my soul to renew my life once more.

“He surrounds me with constant love,
with tender affection;
he contents me with all good in the prime of life,
and my youth is ever new like an eagle’s.”
Like an eagle’s flight is my life on the horizons of your grace. Strong and firm, high and majestic. I feel my youth renewed and my strength affirmed. The whole sky is mine, because it is yours, and you now give it to me in my flight. My youth surges through my veins as I survey the world with peaceful joy and gentle pride. How great are you, Lord, who have created all this and me with it! I bless you for ever in the gratefulness of my soul.

“Bless the Lord, my soul!”


The parrot’s vengeance

A parrot was one day speaking with a human being, and said: “I Can imitate all your sounds, and I feel proud of it.” The human answered him: “What is the use of imitating our sounds if you don’t know their meaning?” To which the parrot retorted: “Is it that they have any meaning for you? If so, could you teach it to me?” And the human kept quiet.Humans laugh because the parrot talks without understanding what it is saying. They use the term “parrot” in patronising spite of the person who knows only how to repeat what others say for lack of personality, originality, independence. We call “parrot” the person who speaks without inner conviction, without personal thinking, out of sheer imitation, repetition, routine. A lesson learned by heart and repeated mechanically without stopping to understand it. We look down on such an attitude, and rightly so. It does not become human beings to speak as mere vocal instruments without thinking, without feeling, without baking the sound of their words with their own live understanding and personal commitment. We are not parrots.

But the parrot bides its time. It waits for its vengeance. We have used its name as an insult in human language. Now the parrot observes us carefully, verifies the emptiness of out actions and our speech, and when the occasion comes challenges us. “Do you perchance know what you are saying? Are you really convinced of the things you say? When I hear you recite what you call your principles, your values, your creeds, even your faith, your voice often sounds to me very much similar to the one of my brother and sister parrots when they repeat their lessons. They are beautiful sounds, but they do not seem to actually say anything. You pronounce them without your soul in them, and they do not seem to have any relation with your lives. We, parrots, have after all our own limitations in our own nature, and within that we do our best. We entertain you, humans, with out skilful mimicry. By the way, kindly take notice that we do not like to have our name used as an insult. We have our own dignity. On the other hand, we suspect you have lost something of yours. Tell me truly, do you really know what you say; do you understand what you assert; do you live out what you believe?”

I am blushing just now. I have insulted a bird who does all it is meant to do, and I find that it is me, who, having been given the faculty and the command to do much more, am only doing what I ridicule in the parrot. I speak without understanding. I repeat without assimilation. I teach what I was taught, and tell what I was told without making it mine, without grasping it, without living it. I speak by rote. I live on routine. I advance by being pushed. My ideas are not mine. My language is pure phonetics. My sounds are empty. Could this in any way suggest that my life too is empty?

The parrot has flown away, green signature on the open sky. Every time I see it again, I will remember its lesson. Do my own words tell me anything?

I tell you

On pilgrimage
[I’ve been to Lourdes and Fatima, Guadalupe and Luján, and Our Lady is the best we have in our life and our faith, and precisely for that I allow myself to quote the following commentaries from a recent writer with all their humour. At the end, all turns out well.]“My mother loved pilgrimages. Wherever Mary had appeared, she and the Union of Catholic Mothers would follow. Coaches bearing this horde of devoted groupies would sweep into any town in the UK that had a shrine to Our Lady: Walshingham, Pantasa, Cardigan and Doncaster. The women would descend on these towns and their shrines gripped by a frenzy of religious fervour, lighting candles, praying at grottoes, confessing with priests, singing hymns with gusto and then inevitable rounding off the session before they had their sit-down tea by doing the Stations of the Cross. This involved staggering up a hill barefoot, clutching rosary beads to bosoms and stopping to say a decade of the rosary at allocated points, each representing Jesus’s journey to Mount Calvary and his crucifixion. This act sorted out the women from the girls and only the truly devout endeavoured to face the stony climb without the protection of their sandals. But the St Joseph’s, Birkenhead, branch of the Union of Catholic Mothers were hard. Without hesitation and regardless of age, physical condition and capability, these game girls would whip off their shoes and stockings and, hanging on to each other for grim death, would slowly make the ascent up the hill, puffing and blowing, in a long unsteady line. From an aerial view they must have looked like a crimpling snake.

When the Mothers announced at one of their regular meetings that a trip to Lourdes was on the cards and that any ladies wishing to go should put their name down, she was first in line to sign up, as ecstatic as a kid who has just been told that this year’s school trip is to Euro-Disney.

Lourdes was a big hit, even though it looked nothing like the Lourdes of the movie Song of Bernardette. My mother loved that film. Gladys Cooper playing a cynical and embittered old nun, jealous and doubtful of Bernardette, couldn’t understand why the Virgin Mary chose to appear to an ignorant peasant girl and not to her, a faithful servant of the Church. After months of being an utter bitch to her, the old nun finally discovers the tubercular ulcer on Bernardette’s knee and slowly realises that she must by a true saint to endure such agony without complaining. Relenting of her cruel ways, the nun becomes the dying girl’s devoted nurse – and this bit always reduced my mother to tears. ‘See, she did see her, you wicked old bitch’, she would mutter to the telly as she blew her nose noisily, ‘she did see her’.

She hated the commercial side of Lourdes, with all the shops selling religious tar. Yet when I came home from work the day she returned from Lourdes I found her pouring liquid from a five-litre plastic container into a plastic bottle fashioned in the shape of the Virgin Mary. On Mary’s head was a little blue plastic crown which you unscrewed when you needed to gain access to her contents. ‘It’s holy water’, she explained as she gingerly poured the precious liquid into the funnel sticking out of another Virgin Mary’s head. I looked around the table. There were at least forty of these bottles lined up nearly in regimented rows. ‘Some people would kill for a bottle of this’, she said, nodding knowingly towards the bottles. ‘It’s the real thing, you know, none of those imitations. This stuff would cure anything.’

She had an unswerving belief in the power of Lourdes water and these bottles with their magical contents would be handed out to those she considered to be deserving individuals. She was also rather fond of splashing it liberally around the house to dispel any evil that might have crept in. On New Year’s Eve the house and its occupants usually got a good soaking.

If I came home from a club in Liverpool in the wee small hours of 1 January worse the wear for cider, she would be waiting and I would be greeted with a cup of holy water flung all over me. When my cousin Tricia was a young girl she had an unfortunate outbreak of warts on her face. Nothing would shift them until finally her skin was bathed in Lourdes water. They vanished overnight – positive proof for my mother and, indeed, the rest of the family of the miraculous healing properties of the waters of Lourdes. My aunty Bridget in Ireland swore by it and she always had a bottle handy in case a cow fell ill. I still have a bottle to this day, the holy water inside now a murky shade of green. I wonder if holy water goes off? Or like a fine wine does it improve with age?

My mother never tired of telling how, after a dip in the waters of Lourdes, she came out ‘dry as a bone’. ‘You put this linen shift on and stand on a step that leads into the pool’, she would recall, ‘and then these two nuns standing waist-deep in the waters, great big beefy nuns with hard faces and dirty big hands like shovels, get hold of you and throw you in it – backwards, head and all, casual as you like, without saying a bloody word to you. It was a bit of a shock. They’re very rough-handed, these nuns’, she said knowingly. ‘I think they’re Dutch. They were dragging the lame and dying alike out of their wheel-chairs and chucking them into the pool as if they were a bundle of dirty washing. Still, they had a smile on their poor faces as they hit the water’, she added, fondly recalling the experience. ‘It’s ice cold, that water. I’m surprised some of them didn’t drop dead from the shock of it. Anyway, when the nuns throw you out on to the other side, you’re as dry as a bone! No need to dry yourself with a towel, which was just as well since I didn’t happen to have one on me. They know you’re not going to need it.’

The house was full of souvenirs carted back home after each trip with the Mothers. Over the years she amassed quite a collection of holy medals, Mass cards and candles. On the mantelpiece in my parents’ bedroom sat a large plaster image of St Bernardette praying at the feet of the Virgin Mary at the grotto in Lourdes, complete with a little plastic font that was meant to hold holy water but was home to an assorted collection of buttons, pins and safety pins for years instead. In the back of the statue was a music box which, when wound up, played ‘Ave Maria’. But without doubt the pride and joy was a medal of St Bernardette that had been blessed by the Pope. She kept this wrapped inside a lace handkerchief and tucked away in her knicker drawer to preserve the power that His Holiness had infused into the medal by his touch.”

(Paul O’Grady, At my mother’s knee, Bantam Books, London 2008, p. 96)

You tell me

Question: Have you heard about the purification of memory? What is that?

Answer: Yes, I’ve heard about it in Pentecostal meetings in which people pray to clean their memory from harmful contents and also impose hands calling upon the Holy Spirit to cleanse the memory from anything that stains our lives from the past. The faculty of memory thanks to which we remember the events of our life is wonderful, and it is the one that shapes our personal history and, together with it, our personality and our character. I am I because I remember who I am. There are painful things that form past of our lives, as deaths of dear ones, and we do well to remember them as part of our own being; but there are also unpleasant memories which simply harm us, trouble us, stain us, and these are better be relegated to oblivion. This is not easy, and here comes the prayer to the Holy Spirit. In the Pentecost sequence we ask the Holy Spirit, among other things, “lava quod est sordidum”, “cleanse whatever is stained”, and that is our memory.

I’m going to tell you a couple of cases, not of the bad ones but rather amusing, to underscore the subtle, important, and little understood role memory plays in our lives. Last week I was invited by friends to a classical music concert. The main attraction of the programme was Dvorak’s New World Symphony. It was years since I had listened to it, and I did not even remember the famous powerful theme that opens its last movement, which I myself had played at the piano when I was young. There was nothing to worry about, of course, and it would be better to let myself be surprised by it at the concert which was still a few days away. I just went on doing whatever I was doing in the whole day in studies and meetings and prayers and walks, and just went at the end to sleep without worries and without a thought. Next morning in bed, You guess it. Dvorak’s theme. I enjoyed the concert.

Another musical adventure. One day I was recalling the themes of Beethoven’s symphonies and could not remember the beginning of the seventh. Not a life and death matter, of course, so I forgot about it and the day went on its way. When waking up the next morning I again started singing spontaneously. Beethoven’s seventh.

Very recently the same happened to me with Stravinski’s Petrushka which I had quite forgotten. I saw the name in an article on music and went on ahead. A little later I was just singing to myself its first bars. Uncanny.

One more example, not so artistic but more practical. The final exam of the Honour’s Course at Madras University was as comprehensive as it was inhuman. Ten consecutive three-hour papers covering all the subjects of all the years of the whole course. Our Dynamics teacher at Loyola College, Shree Narayanam, gave us a problem on the last days from a recent book with some probability of coming up in the exam as it was on the topic of three dimensional dynamics through vectors which was new that year, and let us to solve it by ourselves. I solved it, filed it, and wrote a note on the margin “to be revised on he eve of the exam.” The day came, I saw the note, I revised the problem, and I realised to my horror that my method was wrong. It was just worth nothing. I didn’t worry, as there were very many problems I had to revise, and I got down to the task. On waking up the next day, a thought came to my head: “Turn the coordinate axes 45º couterclockwise, and you’ll get it.” I had to get up, take a shower, shave, dress up, make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel, make my full hour of meditation, attend Holy Mass, take breakfast, say the rosary…, and only after performing all my spiritual duties could I turn to my studies and try to solve the problem following the night inspiration. I did so, though I don’t know what rosary I prayed of what Mass I attended while thinking all the time of the forty-five degrees counterclockwise. Finally, with all my religious duties behind me, I landed on my table, took up paper and pencil, tackled the problem, turned the axes…, and the problem came clean. A few hours later, in the imposing building of the Examination Hall in the Marina Walk of Chennai, I sat at my individual desk, received the paper with the questions, and there was the problem of the axes. I had solved it in my sleep.

Memory works without end, day and night, it stores, files, orders, revises, remembers all that we keep putting into it. Let us give it only clean data. They will help us in the final exam.


Psalm 103 – Harmony in creation

I want to discover the beauty of your creation, Lord, by thinking of the hand that made it. You are behind each star and each blade of grass, and the unity of your power gives unity and light to all that you created.

“You have spread out the heavens like a tent,
and on their waters laid the beams of your pavilion;
you take the clouds for your chariot,
riding on the wings of the wind.”
It is your presence that gives strength to the mountains and speed to the rivers; you give the ocean its depth and the sky its colour. You shepherd the clouds through the heavens and send down the timely gift of rain. You lead the birds in their flight and help the stork build her nest. You give the ox its strength and the gazelle its grace. You let the sea monsters play in the ocean and fish without number teem in its depths.

You care for all of them, you watch over their lives, you direct their path, and you give them food for strength and for joy.

“All of them look expectantly to you
to give them their food at the proper time;
what you give them they gather up;
when you open your hand they eat their fill.”
And man and woman in the midst of it all. To see your work, to enjoy its blessings and to thank you for them. How much more will you care for them, heirs of your earth and owners of your creation. You feed them with the fruits of the earth to build their body and free their mind.

“You bring bread out of the earth
and wine to gladden people’s hearts,
oil to make their faces shine
and bread to sustain their strength.”
And to watch over man and woman you send the moon and the stars, you order the days and the seasons for the rhythms of their life, you light their universe with the sun and cover their sleep with darkness.

“You have made the moon to measure the year,
and taught the sun where to set.
When you make darkness there is night,
all the beasts of the forest come forth.
When you make the sun rise they slink away
and go to rest in their lairs;
but man comes out to his work
and to his labours until evening.”
Everything is in order, everything is in harmony. Countless creatures live together and they greet one another with the variety of their faces and the swiftness of their paths. Each one enhances the beauty of the other, and all together form the eternal marvel that is our universe.

There is only a discordant note in the concert of creation. That is sin. It is there as a blot on the landscape, as a cleft in the earth, as a rift in the sky. It disturbs the balance of the world, it blackens the history of humankind and endangers its future. Sin is the one thing out of place in the universe, out of place in the heart of man. When I look at creation I feel that violent trait that disfigures the work of the Creator, and my contemplation of the disturbed universe ends, as the psalm itself ends, with the poignant cry from my wounded heart:

“Away with sinners from the earth,
and may the wicked be no more!”


The way of the bird

In Zen the faithful training in the spirit is beautifully and accurately called “The way of the bird”. There is no question of a road or a path; there are no footprints and no milestones, and no two birds follow the same course. All this has meaning in the way of the spirit. Freedom, independence, and originality at each moment in the lofty endeavour. Not even the bird knows this instant where it is going to turn the next. Spontaneous answer to each challenge. Bold steering by wing-stroke. The way without a way. The path without a path. And the wide heavens as range and as goal.

It is remarkable, however commonplace the observation, that birds do not collide among themselves when they cross the skies, no matter the density of their flock or the speed of their turns. They cross and mix, draw close and retreat, but they never clash with each other in their sudden twists and their dead dives. To clash is left for us, men and women in crowded streets. Pushing and shoving and stumbling on each other. Could any kind bird come along and teach us how to go about without accidents?

Accidents of the soul. More painful because on more sensitive grounds. Blood on the roads of our lives. Discussions and misunderstanding and holy wars and feigned ecumenisms. And opposite methods and different ways – and mine always better than yours. And jealousy and pride and competition. How are we not going to clash? We clash because we all want to drive along the same way. We can avoid clashes by opening up the skies and let each soul choose its path in responsibility to its own principles and sensitivity to all hose who fly around. As the birds do. There are no traffic-lights in the sky. But there is serious conscience and responsible sociability. There is awareness and there is tact. If we all learn how to fly that way, there will be no clashes in the high heavens.

In the heavens there is no path because everything is path. All the options are open. All directions are calling. Supreme respect for human dignity that teaches not to force two persons to follow an identical track. The individual is by definition unique, and so is his wandering and his flying. Our salvation lies in recognising this fact and living up to it. Out with the temptation of maps and itineraries and milestones and distances! We, in our lack of faith, ask for concrete guarantees and fixed directions. But that is not the way to fly. To fly we must trust the heights and the winds. That is the greatest conquest, because it is the greatest adventure.

The very original Zen expression harboured in itself a paradox: the way of the bird is not a way: it is infinite space in a three-dimensional expanse. And so is the way of the spirit.


I tell you

Osama bin Laden

I have not rejoiced at the death of Osama bin Laden. He was, of course, a universal criminal, but a person’s death is never a cause for joy, and then his death is by no means the end of violence, and may even increase it. There is an Indian proverb that says: “vengeance is not brought to an end by vengeance but by non-vengeance.’ Vengeance grows as a spiral and becomes permanent. An Arab tells his friend: “My enemy did me harm a long time ago. I’ve waited for thirty years, and now I’ve taken my vengeance.” His friend answers him: “And why were you in such a hurry?” Vengeance never ends, and increases at each turn. Vengeance ends only through non-vengeance.

The Catholic magazine VIDA NUEVA says in its editorial: “The Vatican has asked that there should be no celebrations at Bin Laden’s death. The head of the Vatican Press Office, Federico Lombardi, declared: Before the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices.”

The Catholic weekly THE TABLET says in its editorial: “The Americans claim that ‘justice caught up with Osama bin Laden’, but from elsewhere it looked more like vengeance. He was unarmed but shot at close range, once in the head. There is no evidence that an attempt was made to arrest him. The raiding party of American special forces was on Pakistani soil without the permission of the sovereign Government. It had no authority either from the American legal system nor indeed the United Nations to carry out what was in effect an execution, without trial or sentence.

Such a military invasion is against international law; political assassination is illegal under American law. Yet almost nobody in the United States has confessed to any qualms as to the morality or legality of the raid on the fortified mansion in Abbottabad, a town close to the capital and some way from the Afghan border over which, some years before, Osama bin Laden had fled when the forces pursuing him came too close.

This reaction seems to confirm what is known in America as ‘exceptionalism’, the doctrine that their country has a providential place in the world to achieve God’s purpose, exempting it from the restrictions that bind the behaviour of other nations.”

Up to here the quotation from the Catholic magazine. Now you’ll allow me to dream a dream. The President of the United States gives order to capture if possible, and if not to kill Osama bin Laden. The special forces capture him alive as they could have well done in this occasion since he was unarmed. He is taken to the United States, judged, condemned to death by a civil court. Then the President of the United States, with the power given to him by law, grants him his life and lets him free to go back in safety to his people. In the hypothesis of this dream, ¿how would the whole world, the Christian world, the Arab world, Osama bin Laden himself react?

I repeat it is a dream, but it would be the end of this vengeance. A parable of the Kingdom. Vengeance does not end through vengeance but through non-vengeance. We are stuck with violence.

You tell me

I always receive with utmost delicacy and deep respect questions you ask me about suffering. Why do we suffer, why do good people suffer, why does the whole world suffer? I always ask with all the sensitivity I can muster, as I have also suffered in my life, and all tenderness in the world is needed before a person who is suffering. And I know by heart all the official reasoning and formal consolation that are offered in such occasions and which are not much help in any case.

Today I was reading a book which is not precisely religious but which has taught me several things while telling how the musical “My Fair Lady”, whose songs I know by heart, was conceived and brought to the stage, and in it I’ve found this paragraph in which Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the musical, speaks of Moss Hart who directed it and died an early death in the fullness of his life:

“There will never be another Moss Hart, and no priest, minister, rabbi or lama can convince me that taking him away at the age of fifty-seven was anything but senseless cruelty. I believe deeply there is a Divine Order and that life is without end, but at times Fate deals with it so frivolously that it seems without meaning.”

It is very hard, and I would remove the word “cruelty”, but that is the fact, and before personal, physical, moral, familiar, deep, unexpected suffering of mind or of body which overtakes us at times in our lives, I find greater peace and ease in taking things just as they are and things as they come, that in philosophies and sermons and demonstrations and explanations to explain the unexplainable and justify the unjustifiable. And no priest, minister, rabbi or lama will convince me of the contrary. Sincerity is the best compassion. I’m not going to tell this so bluntly to whoever is suffering at this moment, but it has done me good to get it out of my chest for once. I hope somebody will understand it.


Psalm 104 – Don’t touch my servants!

Few words from your lips have moved me more, Lord, than this declaration in your Psalm:

“Touch not my anointed servants;
do my prophets no harm!”
Lord, I’m unworthy, but I am your servant, I represent you, I speak in your name. And you are warning the kings of earth along my way not to touch me, because your hand is upon me. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for your love, for your care, for your protection. Thank you for engaging your word and your power in my own cause, for standing by me, for fighting by my side. Thank you for your readiness to punish people who may do me harm. You have come into the open to show me favour, and I treasure your words and your gesture, Lord.

I had set about singing once more the history of the salvation of your people (and me with them) through desert and sea, out of bondage into the promise…, and I see it now summed up in that decisive admonition: “Don’t touch my servants!”. It resounds from Pharao’s palace to the sides of the Jordan, it opens up ways and wins battles, it refrains enemies and defeats armies. It marks the pilgrimage of the people of God day by day with the power of faith and the confidence of victory. It is itself the whole history of the chosen people. “Don’t touch my people.” And the people reaches the Promised Land.

Those words explain my own history too, Lord, and I see it now. How am I where I am, how have I reached here, how do I find myself in the safety of your Church and the blessing of your grace? How is it the world has not overcome me, temptation has not overpowered me? Because one day early in my life you pronounced the royal warning: “Don’t touch him; he is my servant.” Your word protected me. Your warning defended me. Your promise guided me. I am what I am today because your words have gone ahead of me clearing the way and removing the dangers. Your words are my history.

Consoling words that built your people and shaped my life. Words that give firmness of heart and confidence in trouble, because they come from you and declare the seriousness of your intent. I love to hear and to repeat those words: Promise, covenant, oath, decree. I rejoice to see them piled up in the verses of your Psalm:

“He called to mind his covenant of long ago,
the promise he extended to a thousand generations,
the covenant made with Abraham,
his oath given to Isaac,
the decree by which he bound himself for Jacob.”

All those beautiful words are summed up in that practical command from your lips: “Don’t touch my people!” That is your promise and your oath, the way to carry out your covenant and your decree. Your people will be protected and your word will be fulfilled. Those few decisive words will write the whole glorious history of your pilgrim people.

“A small company it was,
few in number, strangers in that land,
roaming from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another;
but he let no one ill-treat them,
for their sake he admonished kings:
‘Touch not my servants;
do my prophets no harm!’”

I take it the full import of your words: “Don’t touch him; because whoever touches him, touches me!” Isn’t that what you mean, Lord? And isn’t that enough to move my heart and open my chest in gratitude and love? You take as done to you what is done to me. You identify with me. You make me one with you. I don’t deserve the grace, but I fathom the privilege. I am grateful for the safety this word brings to me, but much more for the practical assurance of love and care from you it effects and signifies.

“Touch not my anointed servants;
do my prophets no harm!”

Thank you, Lord, in the name of your prophets and your servants.


For whom is the armchair?

To see a thing, we must first understand it. The armchair presupposes the human body, its joints and its parts. The scissors presuppose the act of cutting. What is the meaning of a lamp or a vehicle? The savage cannot understand the missionary’s bible; the passenger does not see the same riggings that the crew in the ship sees. If we really would see the universe, we might perhaps understand it.
(Borges)That is, if we would understand it, we would see it. As with the scissors. If we do not know their use, we don’t “see” them. We see only two crossed iron shafts with loops at one end and a sharp edge on one side. That tells us nothing at all. We don’t know the use, therefore we don’t understand the object. We don’t see the scissors. We just see a crazy metal contraption. Unless we fathom the soul, we don’t see the shape.

To see and to know. The bible, the riggings, the lamp, the armchair. And then the universe. To know it in order to see it, and to see it in order to understand it. We don’t understand it because we don’t “see” it, and we don’t see it because we don’t “understand” it. There is no question here of a scientific understanding. There is question of human feeling. We need to encompass with total vision, in wonder and in faith, the inner meaning of the whole of God’s creation to his own glory and to the service of men and women on earth. To see the totality of the universe as garden of life and palace of divine majesty. Celestial bodies are lamps in orbit, and birds are melody in flight. Everything is connected with everything in a harmonious blend of cosmic architecture, because everything has a common origin in God, and a common destiny in humankind’s welfare, under genuine gratitude and filial understanding. The stars are stars because humans see them and recognise them as such. Everything in creation acquires meaning as it passes through the human heart.

An anatomically-shaped armchair would be a riddle for a Martian visitor who was ignorant of the human shape. What is the meaning of those curves, those angles, those paddings? They mean everything to the human being that relaxes on them, and they mean nothing at all to the alien who sees an armchair made for humans without knowing humans.

The universe is made for humans by someone who loves humans. Without that knowledge, there is no understanding. And without understanding, there is no seeing. If I don’t understand the uses of this armchair, I don’t see the armchair. I only see a strange object with soft cushions and calculated bends. But I make nothing out of it. It is only when I see a man or a woman literally sinking into the armchair with a sigh of relief after a hectic day, that I understand in an instant the function and being and shape and blessedness of the mysterious piece of furniture.

The universe is man and woman’s generous armchair. When I have faith, I’ll begin to understand the universe.

I tell you

Early morning

I go for a walk every day in the morning, and I see small children going to school accompanied by their father or mother. They are many of them as there are many schools along my way and they start early. Sometimes I hear them say things that touch my soul.

A very small child. A new school uniform perfectly ironed. Shirt, short trousers, belt, coat. Everything very small, of course, and everything the same as the other children who are crowding towards the gate of the same school. The mother kisses the child, and the child looking up at his mother asks her, “Mummy, will you come to fetch me?” – “You know I’ll come, darling, as I come every day.” – “Yes, mummy, I know it, but I like you to tell me.” I also would like to see the state in which that shirt and those trousers are when mummy comes to fetch the child.

The child has stopped and lifts his two arms towards her father in a gesture that is self-explanatory. Daddy answers: “This is the last time I’ll take you on my shoulders. You are a big boy and quite heavy at that. It’s time you learn to walk on your own.” Then he lifts the child, places it on his shoulders, the child smiles contentedly and surveys the whole world from his vantage point. I walk ahead and the thought comes to me: Most probably the father has told the child a number of times that this is the last time. And this will not be the last time he says it’s the last time. The last time should truly and once for all be the last time if the boy is going to be well trained for life.

Two children come out of the car while their father, who has brought them, remains at the wheel and is going to go to his office. He keeps looking at them as they come out of the car. The eldest tells the youngest: “Close the door.” The youngest rejoins: “You close it.” The two just go away leaving the door of the car open and enter the school. The father has seen and heard everything, comes out of the car, goes round it at the back, closes the door, returns to the car round the back again, and starts. Brothers who clash. And parents who are not teaching them manners as they should.

Mother and child before a red traffic light. The boy pulls at his mother’s hand to crass. His mother tells him: “Don’t cross against red.” The boy pulls free, jumps on the street, shouts “When I cross, the cars stop!”, runs and reaches the opposite side. The cars stop, of course. Some day the traffic of life will not stop before the child who crosses the roan when he shouldn’t.

A young mother with her very small daughter are coming facing me. I look at them and stop. The girl looks so much like her mother that she is almost a living portrait in miniature. They are the same! And both are so beautiful! I hope they don’t notice I’m staring. For an instant I share the happiness that mother doubtless feels on seeing her daughter so much like herself, and before the mystery of nature and genes and heritage. May God bless them.

Saturday morning. The bus is painted in bright colours and announces an excursion on the side. Boys and girls from the school are boarding it in the midst of a medley of names and greetings and shouts and kisses and embraces. All get in at the end, the doors are closed, the engine roars, and the big blue bus starts on its way with its young charges. Behind the glasses a hundred hands wave farewell while the parents on the road also wave happily to their children who are going for a weekend picnic with their schoolmates. A mother shouts after them,: “Happy weekend!” Another answers in an aside: “For us too.” Everybody is happy.

I always pray for the children and the parents I see each morning. My joy on seeing them holds up my prayer. I have no children.

You tell me

I was expecting reactions like yours, Leonor. Before my reflections on pain and suffering you remind me that when we suffer we become united with the suffering Christ. St Paul says that he rejoices in his sufferings because with them he completes what remains of the passion of Christ. (Colossians 1:24)

Apart from anything missing in Christ’s passion, I keep my reflections. I suffer because Christ suffered. But again, why should Christ have suffered? St Anselm’s theory, which we all were taught with our catechism, teaches that I offend God with my sin, I can offend him but I cannot make up for my sin, so Jesus is incarnated, he dies in my place, and I am saved. Apart that that is the just paying for the sinner, the question remains: Could not the Father forgive me without sending Jesus to his death? Jesus himself taught quite a different thing in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When the prodigal comes back, his father does not tell him: “Well, my son, you have repented; but you have no merits of your own for me to forgive you. I’m first going to have your elder brother killed, and once I am appeased by his blood I’ll admit you again into my home.” He says nothing of the kind. Jesus says that as soon as the prodigal began to speak, his father embraced him, did not let him keep on accusing himself, took him home and prepared the banquet.

Suffering as such remains without an explanation. There are manmade sufferings like terrorism and wars, and these could still be attributed to human freedom without God being able to do anything to avoid them (?), but there are many more caused by earthquakes and draughts and volcanoes and tsunamis and viruses and bacteria which come from nature without human intervention. There are also normal and unavoidable sufferings that accompany our joys as shadow follows light. But a young man’s death in the middle of life remains without an explanation. Suffering is a mystery.


Psalm 105 – Israel’s short memory

That was the trouble with Israel, source and cause of all its troubles: it had a short memory. The people of Israel saw the greatest wonders a people has ever seen and experienced in its history. But they clean forgot. No sooner had they seen the miracle than they forgot about it. They experienced God’s protection in wonderful ways, but soon it was with them as though nothing had happened, and they fell to fearing new dangers and to displeasing the Lord who so faithfully had helped them, doubting that he could do it again. And so they suffered and they provoked God’s anger. That was the great weakness of Israel as a people: it had a short memory.

“Our fathers in Egypt took no account of your marvels,
they did not remember your many acts of faithful love.”

God did wonders for them,

“But they quickly forgot all he had done.
They forgot God their deliverer,
who had done great deeds in Egypt.”
I too have a short memory, Lord. I just forget. I don’t recall what you have done for me. Your wonderful acts of mercy and power for me in my life are just not present in my memory when I come to face the dangers of a new day. And I fear and suffer, and, what is worse, I irritate you who have done so much for me and are ready to do it again… if only I let you act by looking at you with gratitude and confidence.

I forget. I tremble again before difficulties I have surmounted before, I cow down before sufferings I have formerly endured with your grace. I feel diffident when your grace has shown me a hundred times that I will be successful, I run away from battles much less formidable than others you have made me win before.

It is not that I don’t know my past. I recall its events and I can write down my own history. I know, yes, the moments when you have intervened in my life in a special way to give it a new turn upwards, to save it from dangers, to lead it into glory. I know all that, to be sure, but I forget its significance, its importance, its message. I forget that every act of yours is not only an action but a message, it not only gives help now but promises delivery for ever, it not only does, it signifies. And it is that significance, that reassurance, that promise, that I miss and I forget.

Teach me, Lord, to understand, teach me to remember. Teach me to give to each of your actions in my life the value it has as a concrete assistance and as a permanent sign. Teach me to read into your actions the message of your love, that I may never forget and never doubt that you will always be with me in the future as you have been in the past.

“Then they believed his promises
and sang praises to him”

With them I too will sing your praises, Lord.

“And let all the people say: Amen!”


Know thyself

If you focus your torchlight on the mirror
you will see nothing.
If you focus your torchlight on yourself
you will see your distinct image in the mirror.
The experiment is quite simple. If I am standing in darkness before a mirror and light my torch on it, the mirror reflects back the sharp focus, blinds my eyes and leaves me momentarily without vision. On the other hand, if I focus the light on my own face, this gets lit up, and the mirror then gives me back my own image on a background of shadows. It is no use to try to throw light on my image in the mirror: I have to throw light on myself.

We have always been told that self-knowledge is the axle around which the whole sustained effort of spiritual growth revolves. To know – not now virtues and vices, but more deeply and truly, the contingency of human life, the limits of our being, the humility of existence. To become conscious of who I am as God’s fond creation and as humble-felt smallness in myself. To attain the gradual revelation of dark corners I myself am ignorant of, blurred memories that yield one by one to the repeated examination of my labyrinthine subconscious. To uncover bitter moments and hidden anxieties. To clean up hardened complexes sheltered in dark recesses. To open up blind passages, and to heal ancient wounds. To know, in order to be whole. To know oneself in order to be oneself in gratitude and fullness. Task for a lifetime.

This requires that we focus the torchlight on our face. To focus on the mirror will not do. To look at the others will not do. To read books, consult treatises, follow courses will not do. Or rather, yes, all this can help me in my search, but only if it prompts me and urges me on to the direct examination that reveals myself to myself. All these helps can make up the torch that places in my hands the power to focus the light. Now it is for me to use my torch with straight courage on my own face. What will it show me?

This fear of what the mirror may reveal is what keeps us back and prevents the scrutiny of our own face. What if we don’t like what we see? Here we can be helped by the thought that if we don’t like it today, we shall like it still less the more the time passes. The sooner we see reality and tackle it, the easier the task and the better the result.

A wise man told me once at the end of his life: “If I had known myself years ago as I know myself now, my life would have been different.” He said it with a tinge of sadness in his voice. He meant to tell me that to gain self-knowledge is to gain life. Quick, to the mirror!


I tell you

Three steps

There were only three steps. But the little girl refused to climb them. It is true that the steps were high for her short legs, but she could perfectly manage them if she wanted to. But she did not want. She cried. She trampled. She put out her arms towards her mother pleading with her to be taken by her and be bodily lifted over the three steps. Quite a show in the middle of the street before people who passed by, looked for a moment, and walked ahead.

The girl’s mother stood by her side looking perfectly quiet, patient, serene, just waiting. She was not scolding the child, but she was not yielding either. She was not angry, but she was not lifting the girl in her arms. She wanted her to learn what she had to learn, wanted her to climb the steps she had to climb, wanted to teach her not to manipulate her mother with her tears, to teach her to live. So the mother waited in peace. And the child cried.

The little girl climbed one step. A concession to maternal authority. Once she climbed it, she stood on it and went on weeping and putting out her arms towards her mother. Again exerting pressure. She had yielded by climbing one step; now it was her mother’s turn to yield and take her up. But the mother did not yield. She remained composed, peaceful, serene. Without yielding. Without getting impatient or getting angry. Without moving. Let the child learn.

The girl climbed the second step. And cried again. Her last effort to impose her point of view, to force her mother, to establish her own dictatorship. But the mother did not yield. She was giving a lecture on how to train children there in an open-air school. An order is an order and it has to be obeyed so long as it is reasonable and just. No emotional blackmail. Even if the child cries.

The girl climbed the third and last step. She stood on it. Her mother took her hand and both went on walking ahead. The child had stopped crying. An important life lesson had entered her little head: Thou shall not manipulate anybody.

I asked myself: Will this wise mother be able to keep her firm and steady stand when her daughter grows up and begins to do things she should not do and to exact from her mother concessions that should not be granted? Will she know how to stand her ground when her daughter, already grown up, will tell her she is going to spend Saturday night with friends, will she know how to tell her smoking harms her and drinking weakens her, will she know how to refuse to pay the bill of her cellular phone when it is double the amount agreed upon, will she know how to switch off the TV for her when she spends hours before the screen, will she know how to disconnect Internet when she abuses her computer, will she know how to motivate her when she fails exam after exam, will she know how to stop her if she takes to drugs?

I wish for her and for her daughter that she knows. I wish for her and for her daughter that she does not let herself be manipulated by adolescent tears. I wish for her and for her daughter that she stands always firm before her daughter.

It is only three steps. It is a whole life.

Walking with holy men
[Stories taken from Fun-Chang, “Los sabios de la túnica color ciruela”, Obelisco Editions, Barcelona 1996]p. 40: Every day the old sage walked went for a walk with his disciples. They were few, because he never talked much. The disciples did keep talking, and he just nodded his head or added a short remark now and then. He taught more by action than by word. It was then up to them to find their meaning. Sometimes they called him the mad sage for his way of disconcerting his students.

One day one of them asked him:

– May I come to speak with you?
– Of course. Come tomorrow morning at sunrise.
– Where?
– On the plum tree.

At the appointed time the disciple came to the point. The sage was not there. He waited and waited, and finally he left, disappointed. The next day he remonstrated before the teacher:

– Where were you? I didn’t see you under the tree.
– I was on the tree. Why didn’t you look up? I told you clearly I would be on the tree. Pay attention to what you are told, and learn how to look around. Do not stick to the obvious.

15: The sage and the young man walked for a long time in silence. When passing under an apple tree, the sage took one and gave it to the young man.

– I do not like apples – said Chao Mu.
– Limitation – answered the sage.

They went on their way, and Chao Mu saw a pear tree.

– See, what beautiful fruits! I love pears – he exclaimed with joy.
– Limitation – said again the sage. And he went on walking.

Some time later they reached a river under the shade of old, gnarled trees. The water run softly and some swans swam along the current.

– O, how beautiful! Isn’t it? – exclaimed Chao Mu.
– Limitation – answered the sage once more.

They crossed the river and on the other side they suddenly came across a man how had been robbed and killed by bandits.

– How horrible! – said the young man under his breath.
– Limitation – the sage added in peace.

They then came upon a farm. There were children playing on the courtyard, while their father and mother were sitting down by the side looking at them. The young man stopped, and kept looking at the scene with pleasure, taking in the feeling of joyful freedom enjoyed by that family. The sage placed his hand gently on his shoulder, a thing he had never done before. Chao Mu turned towards him in amazement and said,

– But I haven’t said anything…
– That’s why. You have lived this moment without talking. That is wisdom – said the sage.

36: At that time of the year all the sages and masters of the kingdom had gathered in Lo-Yang to share their wisdom and to show their powers. Suddenly the branches and the leaves of a tree in front started shaking, and one of the disciples shouted at once: “See what my master has done from a distance!” Another shouted, “It was my master!” No! mine! mine! mine! went on shouting one after another. Till one of them pointed his finger and showed them: “It was that crow over there as it landed on the tree.”

You tell me

I was expecting the question after my last Web, and I thank you for your clarity and brevity: Why did God became man?

Let us always speak with delicacy and devotion, F., as we are on holy grounds. Jesus did not become man so that the Father would forgive us because of his death, since the Father forgives us by himself as Jesus taught in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He became man to be one with us, to live with us as we live, to identify with us. Love wants nearness, and Jesus loves us and wants to tell us and make us feel it with his presence, and that is why he was born and lived and died as we do. And then, on identifying with the poor and the suffering, he reached the limit and suffered to the limit in the death on the cross. There is no question of Jesus “placating the Father’s wrath against us” as we have been told at times, but only of his desire and determination to be one of us till the last consequences. The Father loves us as much as Jesus does, and he blesses us in him.


Psalm 106 – The dangers of life

Danger and deliverance. That is the routine of life. It was so in antiquity and it is so with us. The dangers may vary in shape or in name, but the fear when they come is the same, and the relief when they go is the same. As the same is the hand of the Lord that delivers us from them.

Ancient peoples list their four dangers: desert, prison, sickness and storm at sea. And four deliverances: from the hunger and thirst of the desert to the straight road to a fortified city; from the darkness of the hidden dungeon to the light of freedom; from sickness to health; and from the stormy sea to the safety of the harbour.

In my life too, Lord, there is the dryness of the desert, the darkness of the dungeon, the weakness of the body and the uncertainty of sea and air and even land under threats of war and attacks of terrorists near home. Humankind has not improved in two thousand years. Human life is very much the same today in the traffic of the city as it was in the sands of the desert. I live with danger, I fear calamities, I fall a prey to suffering, I collapse in despair.

I too need the hand that delivers me from the dangers in my life. From my desert and my dungeon and my storm. I need your hand, Lord, I need your guidance and your light. I need your power and your strength. I need again and again in my day-to-day life the nearness of your presence and the healing of your touch. I need deliverance because I am not free.

I pray for freedom from sickness, but more than that I pray for freedom from the fear of sickness. That is the deliverance I pray for. Not so much the deliverance from the outside danger as from the inward fear. So long as the deliverance does not come, I shall never be free, because the danger is always there. I want to be free from fears, and then the desert and the sea and all the prisons and wars of the world will have no effect on my.

“Some lost their way in desert wastes;
they found no road to a city to live in;
hungry and thirsty,
their spirit sunk within them.

So they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he rescued them from their distress;
he led them by a straight and easy way
until they came to a city to live in.

Let them thank the Lord for his enduring love
and for the marvellous things he has done for all people on earth:
he has satisfied the thirsty
and filled the hungry with good things.”Give me a fearless heart, Lord, a heart that believes and trusts in you, and in consequence fears nobody and is afraid of nothing. Bring the blessing of your deliverance down to the very depths of my soul to pluck out the roots of fear and sow the seeds of peace. Give me confidence in my heart that I may live with joy, Lord. Be close to me, Lord, so that the dangers of existence may turn into the bliss of living.



Beyond the fish, the ocean is lonely.
(Miguel Ángel Asturias)All is joy on the surface. Waves and foam and flying seagulls and cruising fish and surging life in the heaving waters of the boundless sea. No room for a pause, for boredom, for solitude in the busy life of the sea near the shore. The sea is never alone.

But far from the shore the sea has unplumbed depths in receding realms. The fish become scarce as the waters turn to themselves and the light is dimmed. They are fewer and fewer. The greater the depth, the less the stir. Only darkness and cold. Life drifts upwards. And the ocean remains alone in the abysmal sterility of its unknown recesses. Silence in the deep.

Solitude is the price we have to pay for depth in life. The hustle and bustle remains on the surface. Popularity, visibility, geniality. The party, the crowd, the prattle. Waves at play, people that laugh, entertainment at its best. But disappointment in the heart. No serenity, no peace, no depth. The beach is attractive to be sure, but it lacks the seriousness of the vertical dimension in honest self-search. All dissolves in foam.

There are depths in the sea beyond the fish. And there are depths in the soul beyond thought. It is in those depths where it finds itself as it faces the unavoidable identity of its own company. Solitude moulds character in the intimate encounter of the person with itself. To see, to know, to accept, to love oneself. All this process is worked out in the depths of self-examination. The individual personality is born in solitude.

The ocean is abyss and is shore. So is the human person. The two dimensions in delicate balance make up life’s intricate design. It is not good for us to be always alone, as it is not good to be always in company. One’s capacity to be alone is a measure of one’s fortitude of character, and one’s readiness to be in company is proof of one’s openness to welcome society. We must learn how to play on the beach and how to withdraw to inward solitudes beyond sound and word. As the ocean beyond the fish. Therein lies its greatness.

I tell you

Osura and Juliet
[An African experience in these times of home violence.]‘The meeting of the leading catechists among the Palorinya refugees took place in Belameling, a remote place by the river Nile. After a sincere exchange of ideas, together with tea and biscuits, Juliet, Osura’s wife, joined the group. She had had eight children of which six survived. She was dressed in an orange dress and a bright red kerchief round her head. Wurube, who was the leading catechist, informed me that Juliet wanted to address me and all the others. I was wondering what she would say. I knew she had been sick, so that maybe she wanted to ask for money for medicines with the help of the rest of the catechists. But I was wrong.

When she started speaking she was not looking at any of us. At her left, and at a little distance, was her husband, Osura. What happened next was something I had never experienced in African culture: the wife complaining against her husband before a group of men. Juliet’s words came out of her mouth with unexpected violence and hardness, as though they had been repressed for a long time in her heart. Her face reflected feelings of sadness, fury, frustration, and determination. Dima translated her words for me:

“I’m very much confused. My husband is a drunkard. He not only drinks, but when he drinks he comes home ready to quarrel about any silly thing, and he ends up by ill-treating me verbally and even physically, beating me all over my face and my chest. Our differences are such that now, in order to shame me, he has told the whole community that he has left home, and I suspect he is living with another woman.”

Osura was looking away, shifted his feet, and kept his lips tightly pressed. I felt how my heart sunk in sadness at the revealing of all the cruelty of what was happening to one of my best catechists and his wife. Juliet went on: “I have lived in such a torture for all this that I have not set foot in the church for more than one year. He says all those beautiful things in church, but then at home it’s all the way about. He is a hypocrite, and I’m disgusted with all his ways. How can he preach about the love of God and then go on to drink, to argue with me, to beat me? Certainly, this is not the man I married.”

There was a dead silence. I felt overwhelmed by that outburst of brutal sincerity. Wurube then asked Osura whether he wanted to answer his wife. Osura was annoyed at seeing his family problems aired before his colleagues and before me. On the other hand, he accepted that he had to answer before us all. He spoke in Bari, and Wurube translated his words for me:

“Juliet knows I married her many years ago because I wanted to. It was I who asked her, and not she that asked me. It was me that chose her. We loved each other. But she came from a tribe that believes in evil spirits, and she now says that she sees them everywhere. If I drink, that is largely because of my having to face her beliefs in all these matters, but I do not drink that much, and in any case I’ve never got drunk. When I’ve hit her, I have done so with an open hand, never with my fist.”

Juliet kept shaking her head from one side to another trying to deny all her husband was saying. Osura went on: “Yes, I’ve left my home because I could not bear being constantly arguing with her. I never see a happy face greeting me when I get back home, but only an angry face and a heap of recriminations. We are so unhappy that it is impossible for me to live under the same roof with her. As for the affair with another woman, it is not true.”

There was silence again. Wurube turned towards me and asked me for my opinion. I faced Osura while Dima translated my words: “Osura, your words say one thing, and your face and your wife say another. I feel you are trying to deny the seriousness of this matter of your drinking. It is a matter we should approach with wisdom and prudence, as it seems to be the root of the whole problem. Besides, if you hit your wife there is no excuse for that. Never. Stop drinking. Let the darkness I see in your face and in Juliet’s face disappear.”

Wurube thanked me and asked Eiyo, a woman catechist, whether she had any further comment. Eiyo had walked for two hours to come to the meeting. At 46 she had had eleven children, out of which six had died. Her husband had died too in the Sudan civil war. But in spite of all her suffering as a widowed mother, she is a woman of extraordinary beauty and a youthful look. She turned towards Osura and took up the matter of his drinking again: “Osura, you must stop drinking, not only for you marriage but because everybody in the parish knows about it and speaks ill of you behind your back: ‘This man says one thing and does another.’ At the end your own community will not believe your words. Besides, you are losing all their respect. And this is bad, because you should set an example for all. I know all those who come to this chapel, and so I’m not talking out of ignorance or simply as a woman who blindly defends her sister. And now that you have decided to leave your wife, what can this mean for all the couples in your parish who are all striving to defend and protect their own marriages? No only in your own community and parish, but in the whole land. Some of us have heard rumours about this far away from here.”

Eiyo’s words went straight to the point. All were impressed. I myself had to hold my breath. I had known Eiyo for five years, and I know she always speaks the truth without listening to backbiting. Dima spoke after that, an intelligent man of forty something and a father of five sons, the older of whom had suddenly died a few months before at seventeen in an attack of cerebral malaria. He addressed Osura: “Osura, we have been like brothers through many years, endeavouring to keep our faith in spite of war, exile, sickness, and death. Because of that, and as a brother who has remained by your side all these years, I have to tell you that there is no justification for your hitting your wife. She is a human being and deserves all your respect, whether or not you are in agreement. How are we going to claim rights for our women in our culture if catechists beat their wives? How can we say that we follow Jesus, all peace and love, if we maltreat our own wives? How are your sons, and even more your daughters, not going to be afraid of you when they see how their mother, who bore them in her womb, is being hit by their own father? Have done with all this, my dear brother!”. And turning to Juliet, he said: “And you, Juliet, my sister, must from now on receive your husband when he comes back home with a smiling face. You must welcome you husband and forgive him, just as he too has to forgive and change his attitude.”

At that moment I felt my own tears on my face. I was deeply touched by the great sincerity, full of compassion and candour, of Eiyo and Dima. Then Wurube spoke as the head catechist, and these were his words: “My brother and sister: you are both blessed by God for your courage to speak out as you have done and for inviting us to give our opinion. You have to renew your mutual commitment. You have to say ‘yes’ again to each other and forgive each other for ever. Let all that anger, that drink, those abuses, that hostility and that separation cease once and for all. Juliet, come back to church and support your husband. And you, Osura, forgive and ask pardon and stop doing all that has caused so much pain to your wife. Look at her face: it is the face of suffering and of longing to love and be with her husband for ever. Let your children know again the happiness of a family in which they must live happy and joyful.”

When Wurube stopped speaking, we had been more than an hour dealing with this matter. Then Osura spoke to thank us all having tackled his personal problems with love. His large eyes were flooded with tears. He asked his wife pardon, and Juliet for the first time lifted her eyes to him. Her face reflected peace. Wurube spoke again: “Stand up you two together, and we’ll impose our hands on your heads asking the Holy Spirit to come down upon you and stay with you, and father Gary will bless us all at the end of the prayer.”

At the end I witnessed something I had very rarely seen in a Sudanese couple in public: Osura took his wife in his strong arms and embraced her lovingly, and Juliet, like a shy bride, put her delicate arms round her husband. I felt blessed to have been introduced to such a fascinating world.

(Gary Smith, “Al volver vuelven cantando”, Sal Terrae, Santander 2010, p. 223 – 230, shortened.)

You tell me

Question: What does Jesus mean when he says “Many are called but few are chosen?”

Answer: The saying comes in the parable on the invited guests for the wedding feast of the son of the king which we understand as the invitation we all have received for the glory in heaven for all eternity. It would seem that God calls many but few do answer. Whatever meaning we give it, it is rather disturbing. He seems to invite many, even all, as the Greek expression is “hoi polloi” which is used in English to signify a crowd; but in any case it is few that get in at the end. There is another saying of Jesus which is even harder than this. “Wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many enter that way; narrow is the gate and constricted the road that leads to life, and those who find them are few.” (Matthew 7:13) That seems to say that many go to hell and few to heaven.

When I was studying theology in Pune, India, our dean of studies, the Austrian Jesuit Joseph Neuner, conducted a seminar on the topic “Hard sayings of Jesus”. These were the passages chosen for study:

“If your eye scandalises you, pluck it out!” Mt 18:9
“Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (all of them) Mt 23:13
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother he cannot be my disciple.” Lk 14:26
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (the Canaanite woman).” Mt 15:26
“Those who castrate themselves for the kingdom of God.” Mt 19:12
“Those who came before me were all thieves and robbers.” Jn 10:8

Each student explained as best he could the corresponding text, and then the general conclusion was that Jesus was just following the usual way of speaking at the time, which was to exaggerate and generalise to make the message clear to the crowds. If only a few were saved, the incarnation would have been a failure, and we do not admit that. I feel quite free with Jesus, and when reading such passages I tell him he was going too far. Not all those who came before him were thieves and robbers. Buddha and Confucius and Rama and Krishna were good persons. I tell him not to frighten us away with hell, as we’ll be good boys anyhow. He smiles.


Psalm 107 – The wheel of life

You may get the impression at times, Lord, that I repeat myself in my prayers to you. Permit me to say, in recognition of a common situation, that you also repeat yourself in your Psalms, Lord. And in a way that is as it should be; it is proper that both you and I repeat ourselves when dealing with life, because life itself is repetition. Life is a cycle, a wheel, a routine. Life is day after nigh and night after day with the inevitability of the laws of the heavens and of the moods in the human heart. Don’t mind, then, my repetitions, Lord, as I don’t mind yours.

What I ask when the same prayers come to my hands and the same verses to my lips, when the same situations occur in my life and the same thoughts cross my mind, is to live the old situation with a new heart, to say the repeated prayer with a new faith, to love the routine of life with the newness of an open mind ready to take every day as new and every dawn as a surprise.

This Psalm is made up of parts of two other Psalms pieced together. My life also is made up of patches of old experiences lived again and again in the repeated framework of my own limitation. Give me the grace, Lord, to take each experience again as a new event, to find fresh every time the bread I receive from your hands at the beginning of each new day.

It is love that makes repetition pleasurable. Give me love, Lord, that every prayer may turn to joy in my lips.

“My heart is ready, O God;
I will sing, sing your praise.
Awake, my soul;
awake, lyre and harp. I will awake the dawn.”


The order of factors

Zen is the end of reasoning.
Reasoning is the end of Zen.
The end of reasoning is Zen.
The end of Zen is reasoning.
Reasoning of the end is Zen.
Reasoning of Zen is the end.
The is reasoning Zen end of.
Zen end reasoning the of is.

I don’t say there is no Zen.
I say we cannot grasp Zen by means of reasoning.
(To say this, I have used reasoning.)
(And non-reasoning too.)

(Dokusho Villalba)To still the mind and listen to the senses. To silence thought and wake up intuition. To restrain reasoning and let contemplation surge through. This is the direction of growth. The great obstacle for a healthier, simpler, truer attitude to life is precisely the utter sophistication with which we look at it. We do not see because we see too much. Why and how and when and how far. Layer upon layer of logic obstructs our view, and we miss the landscape. Reasoning is the end of Zen. Lucubration on life kills life.

The remedy is at hand. The opposite direction. Zen is the end of reasoning. Direct, simple, innocent contact with life, with reality, with all that surrounds us and lives with us. Recovering our senses helps us to put our mind in its place. Important place, to be sure, but not exclusive. The democracy of the senses replaces the tyranny of reason. They all have something to say and much to do. Life is rescued by living it, not by thinking about it. That is Zen. And we all know how to do that.

The trouble is that when we come to express this we feel obliged to have recourse to words. Reasoning never leaves us. To explain how to still the mind we must resort to the mind. To learn how to avoid words we find ourselves using more words. Since we have to do it, then, let us do it at least with joy, with playfulness, with humour. Humour enlivens the way to liberation. It allows us to do all there is to be dome, and to do it without feeling the burden of serious rationality. Humour frees us from the clutches of logic.

Simplicity brings us close to nature. Close to nature simplicity brings us. To brings us close nature simplicity. Us simplicity close brings nature to. Nature simplicity to brings close us. Jhgvfcdtegrf! (Which is “frgetdcfvghj” backwards.)

The order of factors does not alter the product.


I tell you

Wisdom stories

I’ve read the book El Círculo de los Mentirosos by Jean-Claude Carrière (Lumen, Barcelona 2001), and I’m quoting here for you some passages that have amused me.

29. Hunchback to preacher: “How can you say God has done everything well? See what a hunchback I am!”
Preacher: Yes, you are a very well made hunchback.

113. Loqman tells the fable of a man who once met a lion. They started talking about their respective works and abilities, and the lion boasted of his immeasurable strength. At that moment they passed in front of a picture that represented a man strangling a lion with his bare hands. The man looked at the picture with satisfaction. The lion commented: “Well, if there were lions that could paint…”.

197. A spiritual master had several disciples, and each morning he spoke to them about nature, about goodness, about beauty, about love. One morning, as he was about to begin his sermon, a bird sat on a windowsill and started singing. Then it flew away. The master stood up and said: “The morning sermon is over.” The next morning there was no bird. The master just looked at the windowsill and said: “The morning sermon is over.” Not even the bird was needed any more.

228. A friend told Naseruddin: “Give me a ring. Every time I see it, I’ll think of you.” Naseruddin answered him: “I’m not giving you any ring. Thus, every time you see your finger without a ring, you’ll think of me.”

229. When Naseruddin wanted to marry he thought of a young woman he knew. She, however, chose another man and married him. Years later that man died of sickness. Naseruddin went to offer his condolences to the widow and told her: “I was lucky you married the other man. Else, the man they are burying today would be myself.

281. A poor Bedouin called Harith lived in the desert. He wandered from one place to another with his wife Nafisa. He only drank the murky water he found in muddy wells. One day he came across a rivulet in the sand. The water was muddy and bitter, but he had never seen running water and thought it was real Paradise water that had now run down his throat. “I have to bring this Water of Paradise to the caliph”, he thought. He filled up two goatskins with water, one for himself and the other for the caliph Harun al-Rasid, and started for Bagdad. When he arrived there after a long and harassing journey, he told his story to the guardians and was admitted to the royal presence. Harith bowed deep before the Prince of All Believers and told him: “I’m only a poor Bedouin born in the desert and living in it. I only know the desert, but I know it well. I know all the waters that can be found in it, that’s why when I found this Water of Paradise I’ve brought it for Your Majesty’s delight.” Harun al-Rasid took a glass and tasted the waters of the bitter river. The whole court was watching him. He took a good draught and showed no feeling. He gave orders for the man to be taken inside, without talking to anybody, to be offered a bath and new clothes. Meanwhile the caliph told the court: “The water is muddy and bitter. What for him is the Water of Paradise is an unpleasant drink for us. But we have to keep in mind the welfare of the man.” He gave orders for the man to be escorted straightaway outside the city till the beginning of the desert without allowing him to see the Tigris river or any of the fountains in the city, and giving him to drink only his own water. To the man he gave a scroll and told him: “I thank you. In this document I’m appointing you guardian to the Water of Paradise. You have nothing to do, but all will know your noble title.” The Bedouin kissed the Caliph’s hand and returned, grateful, to the desert.

283. A Sultan heard people speak of the great Sheik who lived in Anatolia and ruled over hundreds of thousands of faithful. The Sultan felt afraid before such a multitude of faithful servants, called the Sheik to Istanbul and asked him:

– What is this I hear about you? Do you really have hundreds of thousands of men ready to die for you?
– Oh, no. I have only one and a half such subjects.
– We’ll verify it. Let all men gather tomorrow morning on the grounds outside the city.

The edict was proclaimed. The Sheik had a tent put up on the grounds and a few sheep were kept there without anybody knowing about it. The faithful came in their numbers. The Sultan, who was standing in front with the Sheik, told him:

– You told me you had only one faithful and a half. Look! There are thousands of them! Hundreds of thousands!
– No. I have only one faithful. You’ll see it presently. Make the announcement that I have committed a crime and you are going to have me executed unless someone from my faithful is ready to sacrifice himself for my sake.

The Sultan did so, and a long murmur came up from the crowd. A man came forward and said:

– My king is my father. I owe him all I am. I’ll give my life for him.

The Sultan had him taken to the tent, and there, as they had been instructed, the servants cut the throat of a sheep so that all present outside saw the blood appear from below the tent. Then the Sultan declared:

– One life is not enough. Is there any other faithful ready to sacrifice himself for the King?

After a dead silence that lasted several minutes, a woman came forward and said she was ready. She was taken to the tent and they cut another sheep’s head. The crowd saw the blood and started dispersing. In a short time there was nobody left on the grounds. The Sheik told the Sultan:

– You see? I have only one faithful and a half.
– Do you mean to say that the man is a true faithful and the woman only half?
– No, the other way about. Because the man did not know they were going to cut his head in the tent, but the woman had seen the blood, and still she volunteered. She is the true faithful.

306. In Guangdong, in the ravine between the mountains and the rest of the country, there lived a poisonous snake of a very large size who boasted of being longer than any human it had met. It would measure the shadow of the person at the moment in which the height of the person is equal to its shadow, and if the person’s shade was shorter than the serpent’s length, it would kill the person and eat it. On the other hand the serpent had promised that if it would find a human being taller that its own length, it would quit and would leave the people in peace. A man found the solution. He passed near the snake lifting the umbrella he was wearing. In the shadow the umbrella appeared as the prolongation of his own body, so that this was longer than the serpent. The serpent was as good as its word and disappeared. The citizens of Guangdong, in memory and in gratefulness for the event, established the custom to always carry an umbrella when crossing the ravine. The custom is observed to this day and all wear an umbrella and lift it when crossing the ravine, although nobody now knows why they are doing it.

316. A man who was living alone hired a two-room apartment recently built in one of those high towers one sees now being built everywhere. He went round visiting his neighbours, among them the one who was living just on top on him in an apartment identical to his own. He liked the wallpaper on the walls and praised it. His neighbour asked him,

– Do you really like it?
– Yes, very much. It is the most beautiful wallpaper I have ever seen.
– If you want I can tell you where I bought it.
– Yes, please. And how many rolls of paper did you buy?
– Twenty eight.

The new tenant thanked him, went to the shop, chose the same paper, bought twenty eight rolls and took them home. He himself went about cutting and pasting the paper on the walls of his apartment not forgetting the smallest corner. Even so, when he finished all the work he found himself with ten rolls of paper left over without any use. He went at once upstairs, called his neighbour and told him: “Excuse me if I trouble you but I am a little mystified. I’ve done as you told me, I’ve bought twenty eight rolls of wallpaper, I’ve covered the walls of my apartment which is identical to this one of yours, and there are ten rolls of paper left over! – “Well, as a matter of fact I had also ten rolls of paper left over at the end”, answered he upstairs neighbour.

359. The Iranian cinema director Abbas Kiarostami has one of his characters in a film tell the following story. A man goes to his doctor and asks him:

– Doctor, I feel pain all over. If I touch my head with my finger, it hurts, if I touch my belly, it hurts, if I touch my knee, it hurts, if I touch my foot, it hurts. How can I stop the pain?

The doctor examines him and tells him:

– Your body is fine. Only your finger is broken.

You tell me

Question: “I’ve heard from someone who knew Fr Anthony de Mello that his method in directing the courses of Sadhana was simply borrowed from Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Theory and Carl Rogers’ Non-directive Counselling. Is that true?

Answer: No. Tony was Tony, and he was so personal and original that his method was characteristically his. It is true that he was a quick learner and assimilated all that he learned in his studies in the United States, and he did often quote Fritz Perls and Carl Rogers; but there is no label for his teaching except his own name. He was unquestionably himself.


Psalm 108 – The weapon of the poorPeople do not understand curses. Because people do not understand the poor. The helpless man who has nowhere to turn to, who suffers without remittance at the whim of the rich and the powerful, who knows in his bones that he is the victim of injustice and yet finds no redress in the bitterness of his days and the agony of his life. What is he to do?

He has no power of his own, no money, no influence, no way to exert pressure or show strength the way men of the world do to force their way and get what they want. He has no weapons to fight in a world in which every man is armed to the teeth. He has only the weapon of the word. As a member of the People of God his word when he speaks in self-defence is God’s word, because the defence of a member is the defence of the whole People. And so he releases the weapon, he charges each word with the ugliest calamities he can think of, and he utters the curse which is warning and notice and threat that God will do what the curse expresses if the enemy does not stop his attacks and withdraws. The curse is the nuclear deterrent in a society that believed in the power of words.

The word is effective. It does what it says. It cannot be called back. The blessing will be blessing and the curse will be curse once it has left the lips of the poor man who alone has the right to utter it, and it will go and fly and wreck ruin on the head of the wicked who persecute the poor, restoring justice to a world where justice is not done. The curse is the weapon used in self-defence by the man who has no weapons.

I feel helpless too before the reign of injustice in the world today, and with the right that my helplessness gives me I use wholeheartedly the weapon you, Lord, put in my hands as member of your People and poor among the poor.

May all violent men be brought to nothing, may all oppressors, exploiters, profiteers, extortionists, all moneylenders, black marketers, hoarders, speculators, givers and takers of bribes be subdued for ever; may all abductors, kidnappers, hijackers, terrorists fall victim to their sword; may all dictators of every sign cease to dictate any more, and may all those who plot evil for others see that evil done to themselves. May these words spread their wings, hit their target, stem injustice and bring peace to the poor you love, Lord.

I will lift up my voice to extol the Lord,
and before a great company I will praise him.
For he stands at the poor man’s side
to save him from his adversaries.


The sooner you die…

Die, and do what you wish.
(Shido Bunan)Sounds a little too radical for a start. The saying of St Augustine was gentler: “Love and do what you wish”. Though in fact the two sayings are close in meaning. True love is unto death, ad it is only love that can make us accept death. In love and in death we fully surrender; we go out of ourselves; we give ourselves totally; and that is why both love and death give us the right to do what we wish. The redeeming paradox makes me free when I surrender my independence, makes me be truly me when I come out of myself. “He who does not deny himself cannot be my disciple.”

To die to oneself is an old precept. To surrender the self. To empty the ego. To vacate the throne. All my life revolves round a point that marks my interests, my wishes, my attachment to life and to success and to pleasure. So long as that iron axle is stuck in the centre of my being, I will be subject to the mad whirlwind that spins me round and round. True balance is only achieved in a vacuum.

When I cease to desire, I’ll be able to desire anything. Free window that opens up the whole world to me, on condition that I first open up myself. The surprise that awaits me is that when I divest myself of my desires, I shall find that I have lost nothing; on the contrary, as I’ll have gained in inner balance, I’ll also gain in the capacity to enjoy all good things in fuller measure. The cleaner my senses, the greater the joy. The clearer my mind, the deeper the bliss. To leave all to obtain all. To leave myself in order to be truly and eternally myself.

The bold saying inspires determination. Since we have to die anyway, the sooner we do it, the better. It pays.

I tell you


I’ve already written so much about conditioning, and yet I can’t help telling this story.

“Let’s imagine six monkeys are shut up in a cell. From the ceiling hangs a bunch of bananas. Just below it there is a ladder. No much time passes before one of the monkeys tries to climb up the ladder to reach the bananas.

Here begins the experiment: at the same instant when the monkey touches the ladder, all the monkeys are sprayed with freezing water. This, obviously, dissuades the monkey from climbing. After a while, the same monkey or any of the others tries again with the same result: all the monkeys are sprayed with freezing water as soon as one of them touches the ladder. When this process is repeated a number of times, the monkeys are already warned. As soon as one of them attempts climbing up the ladder, all the others try to prevent it, and they come to blows if necessary.

Once this situation obtains, we withdraw one of the monkeys from the cell and replace it by a new monkey (who obviously had not taken part in the experiment and knows nothing about the cold shower). The new monkey sees the bananas and immediately tries to climb up the ladder towards them. But, to its horror, it sees how all the other monkeys attack it. They do so, obviously, because they are afraid of the cold shower. After one or two more trials, the new monkey learns the lesson: if it tries to climb the ladder it’ll be hammered without pity. Although it knows nothing about the cold shower.

The procedure is repeated: a second monkey is withdrawn and a new one put in. The newcomer approaches the ladder and the whole process is repeated: as soon as it touches the ladder, it is attacked by all the others. Not only that: the monkey that had entered last (who had never experienced the freezing shower!) shares in the violence with full enthusiasm.

A third monkey of the original ones is replaced, and as soon as the new one attempts climbing up the ladder, the other five beat it with all their might. The fourth monkey, then the fifth, and finally the sixth and last are replaced so that by then no one from the original group remains. When the sixth monkey has been removed, not a single one of those who had experienced the freezing water remains. And yet, once the last arrival approaches the ladder a couple of times, it is furiously beaten by the others. Thus the rule is established: no one should climb the ladder. If anyone would attempt it, it will be brutally beaten. The only difference is that now none of the six monkeys has any reason to defend such a crazy behaviour. They just don’t know why they are doing it.

This is the story. Any resemblance with humans is not pure coincidence or chance. That’s exactly the way we are: just like monkeys.”

(“Matemática, ¿estás ahí?”, Adrián Paenza, EBA Barcelona 2008, p. 188)

Writing stories about conditioning is, after all, useless, as we never admitted we are conditioned. Though all of are so. I am conditioned to de-condition myself. A hopeless task.

If you now remember that to Freudians a banana is a phallic symbol, and that cold showers used to be a traditional remedy against sexual excitement, the story turns even more amusing. Why is sex forbidden in cases when no harm is done to anybody (which are the majority of the cases anyhow)? Nobody knows it, but it is forbidden to climb up the ladder.

Did you like the story?

You tell me

I quoted here last time Fr Pagola’s book on the Life of Jesús, and I’m going to quote here a few pages on the point I’d made just then about why Jesus was incarnated and died.

“Why had Jesus to die? The first Christians had to go a long way before finding some answer to something so shocking and so unfair. About the year 40 or 42 they coined a strange formula: ‘Christ has died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’ (I Corinthians 15:3) But how can the death of one save the others? God is someone to exact the previous suffering and death of Jesus so that his honour and justice may be satisfied and so he may ‘forgive’ men and women. Jesus, on his part, does not appear as though he were trying to influence God with his suffering in order to obtain from him a more benevolent attitude towards the world. The Father does no seek the painful death of Jesus, and Jesus is not offering the Father his blood thinking that will please him. No one in the first Christian communities ever thought of saying such a thing. If God were such as to exact previously the blood of an innocent in order to save humankind, the image Jesus had given of the Father would have been given the lie to. Suffering is bad in itself and it has no redeeming value at all. God is not pleased by seen Jesus suffer. The only thing that saves us on Calvary is the unfathomable love of God.

“Jesus did take into account the possibility of a violent end. He was not naïve. He knew the danger he was courting if he continued his activity to insist on the coming of the Kingdom of God. Sooner or later his life could lead him to his death. He could not promote the kingdom of God as a project of justice and compassion for the marginated and rejected without provoking the persecutions of those who did not want any change in the Empire and in the Temple. It was impossible to identify with the poorest, as he was doing, without provoking the reaction of the mighty. Jesus probably realised very soon the possibility of a fatal end. First as a possibility only, then as a probability, and finally as a certainty. It would have been enough for him to keep quite and stop insisting on things that could provoke opposition in the Temple or in the Roman Prefect’s palace. He did not do so. He went on his way. He preferred death rather than being unfaithful to the mission for which I know he had been chosen.

“Jesus did no understand his life as an expiatory sacrifice offered to the Father. The Father does not need anyone to be destroyed in his honour. His love for his sons and daughters is free, his forgiveness is unconditional. What does give the torture of the cross its redeeming value is love, not suffering. What saves humankind is not some ‘mysterious’ saving power hidden in the blood shed before God. Suffering by itself is evil and it has no redeeming power in itself. It does not please God to see Jesus suffering. What alone saves us in Calvary is the unfathomable love of God shown en the suffering and death of his Son. There is no other saving force outside love. Suffering is always evil, but, precisely for that, it becomes the most solid and real human experience to express love.”

A couple of Webs back I quoted the pointed statement of a good friend of mine: “Jesus became man in order to be one of us…, and then whatever happened to him, happened.” A good summary of Christology.


Psalm 109 – You are a priest for ever

This is my Psalm, Lord, your blessing for me, your reminder of the day my hands were anointed with your oil that I could bless all men in your name. Your promise, your election, your consecration. Your word itself engaged for me in the most sacred pledge of eternal commitment:

“The Lord has sworn and will not change his purpose:
You are a priest for ever in the succession of Melchizedek.”
Ever since that day the very name “Melchizedek” sounds like welcome music in my ears. His mysterious appearance, his royal priesthood, his offer of bread and wine, and his blessing with authority Abraham in whom all faithful were also blessed. From him comes my sacred lineage, the bread and wine in my hands, and the right to bless with authority all men and all leaders of men. Family tree of long Biblical roots.

My priesthood is mysterious as Melchizedek’s. I never fathom the depth of its meaning, I look at my hands and wonder how they can forgive sins, bless children, and bring heaven down to the altars of earth. The greatness of my calling even creates in me doubts of identity and crises of unworthiness. How can the smallness of my being carry the majesty of your presence? How can I prove true to the trust placed on me? How can I persevere in the face of dangers that threaten my state and undermine my convictions?

The answer is your word, your promise, your oath. You have sworn that you will not change your purpose. You will not change your mind. You will not dismiss me. You will not allow me to break the sacred bond. And I don’t want you to allow me. I want your oath to stand firm for you and for me. I want the firmness of your word where I fear the fickleness of my heart. I trust in you, Lord. I trust in your trust in me. Let me never prove unworthy of that trust.

Do not change your purpose for me, Lord. And don’t allow me to change it either.

Let your sacred words accompany me with love every day of my life:

“You are a priest for ever.”


To fill up the well

To fill up the well with snow.The phrase is used by Zen masters to describe the sustained effort that is to take us to the final liberation. They quote the image, and withdraw the explanation. They know that the explanation we find by ourselves is more satisfying than any ready-made declaration from outside. It is worthwhile to look into the well.

There is water in the well, but not up to the brim. This is precisely what the well is for, namely, to bring up to the level of the fields the water that lies way below them, and that, coaxed with a bucket and a pulley, can be rhythmically made to reach the waiting furrows. That is what the well is dug for.

If a well is to be filled up, that could be done with sand or mud or stones. Pile them up till they block up the hole, come level with the land and obliterate the memory of the well. It can be done if necessary without much difficulty.

But here the question is different. The well has to be filled up with snow. Let us try. First of all we must have sufficient snow at hand, and that already limits us in time and space. We shall not be able to do it in summer, and never in a hot climate. We wait for a cold winter or at a very high altitude. It has snowed abundantly; we pick up our shovels and get down to work. We begin to pile up snow inside the well. The white level comes up higher and higher. It approaches the surface of the land. We got it. The well is full of snow. The task is done. But wait a little. The snow below, near the water, is meeting at its contact; the new water has filtered into the subsoil back to its old stable level; and in consequence the snow on top has yielded to its own weight and has come down into the well leaving an open gap above. The well is not now full of snow. We refill it, but with that we only set in motion again the same cycle, and, with greater or lesser speed, the snow sinks again and the gap appears. We cannot fill the well with snow.

The Zen masters who coined the saying knew that. And that is precisely why they said it. We cannot reach the goals of the spirit by our own effort. That is the lesson to be learned. The goals seemed possible; they looked near; they appeared to depend on our determination and our endeavour. But that is not the case. However much we wield he shovel, the well is not filled up. When we seem to have achieved it, when the snow has piled up and we smile our success, it suddenly sinks and we begin again. The experience repeats itself, and we begin to ask ourselves. Is not all this a wasted effort? Would it not be better to admit defeat, put aside the shovel and quit the work?

The first condition of our spiritual effort is to know that by itself it can achieve nothing. But the second condition is to know that it has to be continued without fail. The order is to fill up the well. We willingly obey. The work cannot be abandoned. And so we reach the impasse. Without work, we get nowhere. And with work, we stay where we were. Where does the paradox leave us?

Suddenly one night the earth freezes with cold. The waters in the well solidify into a lump of ice. We keep on piling up snow as we were told and as we have always done without results. But today the snow stays, rises, reaches the top leaning on its icy base, and fills up the well weightlessly with its innocent whiteness. We have achieved our aim when we least expected it. A hidden hand had worked in the night from the heavens, and the task is done. Blessings from above.

We now realise that the precept was meant to make us work, and the impossibility of success was meant to keep us humble. No anxiety for immediate results. We must keep up our work, even when it looks as useless as piling up snow into a well; we must detach ourselves from the results of our efforts; we must learn how to wait; and one day the well appears full of snow, and we smile and rest for a while, and then get again to work because we know that the task is permanent and the result is guaranteed.

And it is always more romantic to fill up a well with snow rather than with stones of with sand.

I tell you

The pope has visited us in Madrid. I’ve been reminded of the visit of pope Paul VI to India back in 1964. He was the first pope to travel to the five continents. His first journey was to the Holy Land, and his second to the International Eucharistic Congress in Mumbai. I went to Mumbai for the occasion. I attended the Eucharist at the Oval with friends, and I told them there was something I could do better than the pope: singing the preface. Paul VI was tone deaf and he sang notoriously out of tune. Benedict XVI has sung his Latin gloriously.

Apart from liturgy, all the functions and speeches of the pope have gone very well. He did appear tired, but quite in command of the situation, and always came up to expectations. I met with a group of Catholics from India. Those days Madrid was a feast of young people with their hats, there shirts, and their rucksacks. In the rucksack each one of them had been given a copy of YOUCAT, or Catechism for the Young prepared specially for the occasion, which is a very interesting update of the standard catechism. It begins by saying that “the Church is not a democracy”, it speaks of “marriage without papers”, and “hired mothers” (young language), and declares that the Church opposes sex before marriage “because she wants to protect love, since ‘I love you’ cannot be said only for a time and in a tentative way but once and for all”. New ways of speaking. Taxpayers may be relieved to read that, “while tax evasion is immoral, ingenuity in response to complex systems of tax collection is not morally objectionable”.

But there is one thing I have not liked in the YOUCAT: it does not speak well of Yoga. It says: “Many people today practice Yoga for reasons of health, take part in meditation courses to observe silence and recollection, or attend dance workshops for new experiences in their body. These techniques are not always harmless.” I don’t like that way of putting it. First of all, these are not “techniques” but traditional and tested ways of wisdom and training for spiritual advancement; and then, to say of them that “they are not always harmless” is a very poor and unfair appraisal of their worth and their depth. This is a regrettable statement in the Catechism. Again the old attitude of condemning whatever is not mine.

Those who wanted to protest against the visit did protest of such an expensive altar built in a public square just for a day, of the roads closed to traffic, of the cost of the whole visit and who paid for all that. Unfortunately the visit coincided with the news all papers are carrying these days of the famine in Somalia, and that led people to say that such a sum should have been collected and sent there to save human lives.

There is no doubt these papal travels were a genial idea which is giving the Church a universal presence in the media throughout the world, and they are already a feature in the Vatican agenda. The next visit will be to Brazil two years hence.

You tell me

Father Carlos: My wife and I, old as we are, have read your meditation on Psalm 70 and we now feel full of hope and joy as we accept our situation as elders. At home we usually watch Holy Mass on TV, sometimes through the Spanish TV, as we hail from Spain, and sometimes through the local TV here in Buenos Aires, Argentina. What strikes us is that the words of consecration, which are sacred, are different. The Spanish priest says: “This is the chalice of my blood that will be shed for you and for all men for the forgiveness of sin”. Here in Argentina they say: “will be shed for you and for many”. What does that mean? Did Jesus shed his blood for all or only for many? I don’t know the original words, but maybe you can give us an explanation. Thanks in advance.

Yes, J. M., we do have here a little Biblical problem, and I’ve mentioned it sometimes already in this Web. The gospel of St Matthew and the gospel of St Mark, which both give the words of consecration, say literally “for many”, not “for all”. Thus the expression “for many” is the original. The Latin Mass has “pro multis” which is “for many”. When the missal was translated and the people began to understand what was being said, some translations changed to “for all” in order to avoid the problem you have noticed. But that is cheating anyhow as the true text reads “for many”. We definitely know without any doubt that Jesus died for all without excluding anybody, and that is enough for us (2 Corinthians 5:14). But scholars keep turning the matter round and round, and I’ll tell you about that. Some say that in Greek “many” meant “all”, but that is not true. “Many” in Greek is “polloi”, and “all” is “pantes”. To make it a little more confused, in English we use the Greek expression “hoi polloi” for a crowd in a somewhat derogatory sense, the illiterate masses as opposed to the cultured few. To make it worse still, there is a singing group that call themselves “hoi polloi” with the same popular meaning. So, “hoi polloi” can in a way mean “the people” in general, and that is its most general use. As for the Eucharist, St Luke says only “for you”, so that we don’t know which were the exact words Jesus used. The uncomfortable fact remains that Matthew and Mark have “for many” and not “for all” as it would seem more natural.

There is something even worse in that expression, though you haven’t remarked on that. It says: “for all men”. What about the women? They too stand in need of redemption, and now the fashion is to specify the genders. I always say at Mass loud and clear: “for all men and women”, and someone on the benches always smiles knowingly. We’re going forward. Thanks for writing, and a fond greeting. Carlos.


Psalm 110 – Community prayer

“With all my heart will I praise the Lord
in the company of good men,
in the whole congregation.”
I do not pray alone, Lord. I pray with my brothers, I pray with my group, with the friends who in your name and with your grace live and work together for the coming of your kingdom. I pray in the group and with the group, I make mine the prayers of each one and I know that all make my prayers their own. This is not only multiplying the number of lips that praise your name, but giving the prayer a new meaning, a new dimension, a new depth, because the group, though small in itself, represents your whole People, and thus the prayer we make together is the prayer of your People before you. You love your People and you like to see it praying together. And we too like to pray together before you.

The very fact that we are together in your presence is a prayer. Our silence speaks, our posture prays, our awareness of each other is mute intercession. And our words, even when they are ordinary words and common expressions, are charged with feeling and care because we recognise each other’s accents and know each other’s histories. A short phrase may carry a whole life, and a simple expression may reveal a deep heart because we know the lips that have spoken and the background of that phrase. No word is lost in the intimacy of the group that knows why that word has been spoken today.

When our voices unite in a common prayer, that prayer, too, acquires a new urgency as the harmony of dissonant voices emphasises the universality of the need we lay open before you. When we pray, the whole world prays, because we know its needs and live its aspirations. Even the individual’s prayer for a personal need becomes universal in the group as it acquires the public resonance of all those we know to suffer the same evil and need the same blessing. There is no egoism in common prayer, because each concrete need, when pronounced in the group, becomes symbol and carrier of all such needs in us and in all men and women in the world.

The prayer we enjoy most together is the prayer of praise. Psalms were meant to be sung, and sung not in the exclusiveness of the soloist but in the roaring sound of a tumultuous choir. We like to praise you together in words which are all the richer on lour lips as they have been spoken by thousands of lips, and each time they are enriched with the memory of a new blessing and the recognition of a new grace. The praise of your People is precious to you, Lord, who receive it, as it is precious to us who in the joy of our hearts and the music of our voices offer it to you. Accept our petitions, our thanks, our worship and our praise. We know that to be our function as a people, and we do it most willingly in the daily comradeship of our group.

“With all my heart will I praise you, Lord,
in the company of good men,
in the whole congregation.”

Bless our group, Lord. We are few but we work hard; we are different but struggle for unity; we even make the others suffer at times, but our love is stronger than our jealousy, and our commitment to one another in you is stronger than our grievances. Bless us in the daily routine that brings us together hour by hour in moments of tension and of relaxation, in fun and in work, in consultations and in prayer. Bless our planning together, our efforts to back with the whole group whatever any one of us does. Bless our growth into unity through noble ideals and earthly realities. Make us truly a “company of good men” that our praise may be pleasing to you.

“With all my heart will I praise you, Lord,
in the company of good men,
in the whole congregation.”


Up and down

In Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India, the temple of the tutelary deity, Arbuda Devi, presides from the height of its white pyramid over the serene valley and the playful lake created by the gods for their own amusement before they made it over to mortals for their pilgrimages and their tourism. One reaches the temple along a never-ending flight of steps carved from the steep rock since time immemorial, and dotted from space to space with sacred verses inscribed on the mountain wall to allow the tired pilgrims to rest and to appear to be reading the texts when all they want is to recover their breath and steady their feet. The strenuous climb forms part of the merit one acquires in the sacred visit, as penance always leads on to glory.

In the same Mount Abu are also found the ruins of the ancestral residence of the sage Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, by the side of the Gaumukh spring in a deep ravine of the sharp-edged mountains. The spring is twice holy, by the memory of the sage who lived near it, and by its name, Gaumukh, which means “Cow’s Mouth” and so it consecrates as a Hindu sacrament the jet of water that permanently flows from it to slake the pilgrims’ thirst and to forgive sins. The difference with Arbuda Devi’s temple is that here one has to come down as many stone steps as one has to climb up to the temple. The way of devotion points here downwards, and devout pilgrims obtain here the merit and reward of their faith by coming down the steps instead of going up. It was here in the midst of the merciless steps, while climbing back after the pilgrimage and resting in a midway halt, that I once listened to an inspired sermon in which the anonymous preacher explained touchingly the mystery of the ups and downs in life.

“They say that the way of the spirit is uphill. We have to strive, to fight, to go against the current, to deny ourselves. We have to climb to reach heaven from earth: and climbing is burdensome for the soul as it is for the body. The goal is always the summit, and spiritual training is mountain climbing.

When we say that – and we all say it – we forget that this is only half the task. Life is not only climbing up, but also coming down. And whatever is true of life on earth is also true of life in the spirit. If, therefore, we have seen merit in the climb, we must see it also in our way down: if we have seen it in suffering, we must also see it in joy: if we have see it in our effort, we must also see it in our rest.

Now you will understand why it is as meritorious to climb down to the Gaumukh spring as to climb up to the sanctuary of Arbuda Devi: why we have to see God in pleasure as well as in suffering: why we have to consider each step in life as a step towards eternity, no matter whether the step is up or down. All is temple: all is pilgrimage: all is sanctity: all is life. Whatever we do is sacred, and God is always with us. This is the faith that brings hope to life, and eternal glory to human endeavour.

And have you not realised – the mischievous monk added with a grin – that if you climb up to Arbuda, you have then to climb down in return; and if you climb down to Gaumukh, you have then to climb up! Is it not all the same?”

The sermon had been delivered on a rough resting-place, half way up on the stone steps as we were climbing back after our visit to the Gaumukh spring. We got our breath back and continued our way up. I don’t know why, but the climb seemed easier after that.


I tell you

A movement has been started in Austria and it concerns us all. It is called “Austrian Priests’ Initiative”, and what they ask for is the removal of the great distance existing between Catholic sexual morality and general Catholic practice in the matter. They mention birth control, holy communion for remarried divorcees, priestly celibacy, and homosexuality. The English Catholic weekly “The Tablet” comments as follows:

“This distance between theory and practice is undeniable, from whatever perspective it is viewed. For some, the messy compromises of pastoral practice have been stretched to breaking point. What Catholics hunger for, and not just in Austria, is a Church of integrity, without hypocrisy, doublespeak or pathological denial. This blindness may have worked for a while, but the next generation want something better, something more honest. It is not fair to leave them with no other choices than to leave the Church in indifference or despair, or to opt for a quirky and fastidious traditionalism” (The Tablet, 3 September 2011, p.2)

The “Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1986) states: “The following are grievous sins against chastity, each one according to the nature of its own object: adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, and homosexual acts.” (492)

You tell me

Is it true that in view of the pederasty cases in Ireland the pope has been asked to lift the seal of confession so that confessors can inform about such cases?

No, it is not true. What is true is that the prime minister of Ireland, or the Taoiseach as he is called there, Enda Kenny, said he was thinking to issue a new law that would make it compulsory for everybody to inform the police about any such cases, and that such a law would also apply to the seal of confession. (The Tablet, 23.97.2011, p.4). But such a law has not come out, and the pope has not been asked such a thing and he would never grant it.


Psalm 111 – Portrait of a just person

I collect with reverent attention the traits that define the just person in the sight of God:

“They fear the Lord, they find great joy in his commandments,
they are gracious, compassionate, good,
they give freely to the poor,
righteousness shall be theirs for ever.”

The quest for perfection need not be complicated. Sanctity is within reach, and righteousness can be found at home. Joy to keep the law, and compassion to help the poor. Common sense holds its own even in the spiritual life, and the simplicity of a true heart will find the shortcuts to holiness. To be a good person. To be just. To be righteous. The heart knows the way, and to follow it is the elementary wisdom of all spiritual progress.

Sometimes I feel that we make the spiritual life too complicated. When I think of the many spiritual books I have read, the many courses I have followed, the many systems I have tried, the many practices I have adopted… I cannot help smiling good-heartedly to myself and asking myself whether I need to pass so many examinations in order to learn how to pray. And the answer I give myself is that all those religious studies are very fine in themselves, but they may well become a hindrance when bend my knee and want to pray.

To be a just person is easier than that. I don’t need the latest book in the spirituality market in order to find God in my life. I want to go back to simplicity of mind and humility of spirit. Back to loving God and loving my neighbour. Back to opening my lips and reciting prayers I learned as a child. Back to fearing the Lord and keeping his commandments with joy. Back to being a kind and simple person in the midst of a sophisticated world. Back to what God called simply and directly “a just person”.

Many are the blessings God piles up on the head of the just:

“Their descendants shall be the mightiest in the land,
their house shall be full of wealth and riches,
nothing shall ever shake them,
bad news shall have no terrors for them,
their goodness shall be remembered for all time.”

Again straightforward blessings for the straightforward person. Happiness in their home and security in their life. The blessings of the earth as anticipation of the blessings of heaven. The just person knows that God’s hand is on them in their life, and will simply and humbly let it be happily there for all eternity. The ripe fruit in heaven of his goodness on earth.

“Happy is the person who fears the Lord!”


Children in a city school were asked to draw a chicken in their drawing class. Most of them drew a featherless chicken hanging head down in a butcher’s shop.

They had never seen a live chicken on the fields. They had no acquaintance with the little fowl that picks up grains of wheat fallen on the ground, turns around its long neck in all directions, gives little runs at the least attraction or fear in the uneasy flock. They had never seen a fowl pen. They had only gone, hand in hand with their mothers, to the neighbourhood butcher’s, and in it they had seen the parallel line of naked chicken for sale. That was the meaning of the word “chicken” for them, and that was what they drew in their childlike innocence. They could get full marks for their drawing.

Hens and chickens are not a species under fear of extinction. Their demand in food markets guarantees their continued existence. So long as “Chicken a la Kiev” is on the menus of restaurants, chicken will be raised round the world. It’s something else that is in danger of extinction, and that is the chicken as a live animal, as the hen’s offspring, as a display of feathers and colours in open fields. This also is a loss. Knowledge of the animal after its death only. That is no knowledge.

There are people in big cities who have never seen a cow. They drink her milk, know her name, have seen cows in pictures and films, but never on the fields. They have not touched their body, have not heard their bells, have not looked into their eyes, have not grabbed their tails. They have not seen them eating quietly the fresh grass on green pastures under an open sun. For them it is just a word in the dictionary rather than an animal in real life. One more loss.

When the school children were asked to draw a chicken they drew a chicken in the butcher’s shop. A day may come when they’ll draw not even that. They’ll draw a roasted chicken on a tray in the midst of the dining table. That is, after all, what a chicken will have come to mean for most people. No more colour feathers.

I tell you

Some quotations from the book “Russian Surgeon” by N. Asomoff, Nevill Spearman Ltd., 1967, which have touched me.

“I am always filled with awe when seeing the living human heart.”

He tells himself: “Stop bragging, Professor! Look at your trembling hands. They have been trembling all your life.”

He cuts too deep, blood bursts out, heart collapses. “What have I done? Idiot! I am a quack. Let everyone know it!”

“God, grant me a miracle! No, stupid, there are no miracles. Just your brains and your hands.”

He describes how he is looking at a dead girl in the morgue. “I have put in the stitches sloppily. Everything is quite clear, Professor [he tells himself]. Newspapers and doctors can look upon you with awe and admiration, but in fact you murdered this little girl.”

The mother of a girl operated upon by another surgeon, who has to be re-operated, complains to him: “Why didn’t you operate her yourself?” He answers her: “That wouldn’t have altered anything. It’s routine surgery and it’s been done correctly.” The dry, official words. And my face is also dry and official. I would have liked to calm her down, to dry off her tears with a handkerchief. Or cry with her a little. But I cannot permit myself this luxury. I represent science. I feel terrible.” So he decides to re-operate himself because “if the girl dies, the mother will always think: If only the Professor had operated himself, Maya would still be alive”.

He shouts at the assisting doctors who have made mistakes, but recognises that the main mistake is his. The girl dies. Her mother comes in. “I get up, try to speak to her, I say some stupid dead words which I am ashamed to repeat, words I have said so many times before, and have been ashamed of, every time I spoke them. Shall I ever forget this day?”

“These are murders. Every day in hospitals throughout the world people are dying. Often because of doctors’ mistakes. Especially surgeons. But no one calls them murders, except hysterical relatives. We have noble aims.”

“In our work, mistakes are paid for with lives. Our material is people. There is no point in going to pieces because two little girls died who would have died anyway. No one can possibly blame you. Whatever people say of me and the praises they pile up on me, at times I feel I’m not fit to be a surgeon.”

“The heart is the most difficult area. It will probably prove to be my undoing. Why do I do it then? For the love of my fellowmen? Keep quiet, doctor, you’re doing it for yourself.”

“When the heart stops in your hands, when you feel the quivering life ebb away – how many times have I felt like dying myself to prevent this disaster! The history of medicine knows the cases of surgeons’ suicides, committed after their patients had died on the table. If this practice were accepted, there would be no one left to perform a simple appendectomy.”

“I could go into research…, pure science. No! The real satisfaction comes from watching results, from facing direct responsibility, from sharing the joys and sorrows of all those mothers.”

“Let them die without me! I won’t operate again!”

“And then, that special kind of calm which always comes to me just before the operation.”

You tell me

You said the Church has forbidden speaking of the ordination of women priests even as a possibility. Is that true?

I don’t think the Church has forbidden speaking, and in fact I don’t know of any case in which the Church should have forbidden to speak about anything. On the other hand, about books the Church definitely has always maintained and still maintains a strict ecclesiastical censorship which requires first the Imprimi Potest (It can be printed) of the diocesan censor, and then the Imprimatur (Let it be printed) of the bishop of the diocese in which the publishing house is situated, and the book cannot be published without that. The amusing thing in this case is that it has been the bishop himself, the Catholic bishop of Toowoomba in Australia, William M. Morris, that has written in favour of the priestly ordination of women in a pastoral letter published in his diocese and addressed to all the faithful, and, of course, in this case the bishop has done it with the bishop’s permission. The Vatican has reacted quickly and has removed the bishop from his diocese.


Psalm 112 – Strength in weakness

I know something of your ways of acting with humans on earth, Lord, and one of the norms you secretly follow and openly proclaim is that your strength is manifested in weakness. When humans lift their heads in pride, they will be humbled; but when they recognise their own weakness, own it, and accept it, you fill the empty vessel of their acknowledged humility with the fullness of your power. Humans’ weakness is God’s strength. It has always been so.

“The Lord lifts the weak out of the dust
and raises the poor from the dunghill,
giving them a place among princes,
among the princes of his people;
he makes the woman in a childless house
a happy mother of children.”

God brings fertility out of sterility, and crowns the poor as princes of his people. That is the Kingdom. Human values are upset, and earthly calculations discounted. The wisdom of the wise is confounded, and the cleverness of the clever is destroyed. The glory of God shines in the lowliness of man.

I want to experience your power, Lord. I want to feel the power of your Spirit when I speak in your name and when I act for your cause. And I am grateful to you for showing me now the way to release your power in my actions. I have to disappear that you may appear. I have to be shadow that you may be light, I have to humble myself that you may do your work. So long as I am full of my own importance, I am just obstructing the way for your power. The day I am nothing, you will be everything. I must diminish that you may increase, as someone said while preparing the way for you on earth. That is the law of prophets and apostles, of preachers of your word and workers of the Kingdom. Let me glory in my weakness that the fullness of your power may work through me.

“There is none like the Lord our God
in heaven or on earth,
who sets his throne so high
but deigns to look down so low.”


A tiger at large

Let the tiger return to its den.
(Chinese saying)Wait a little. Do nothing right now. Don’t move. Don’t talk. Do not even get up to leave. Only hold out for a while till calm returns. Then you can speak out.

A tiger is stalking in the night. Silent deadly danger. Blood in its paws and death in its fangs. It will tear you asunder of you but move. It never spares its victim. Keep clear of it if you price your life.

You yourself have let the tiger loose. The tiger is your anger. It was shut in your breast, and you let it out; you pushed it out in the violent clash till your breath shortened, your cheeks burned, your voice faltered, your whole body shook and you became ready to throw out of your mouth all that was brooding in your mind. You have let the tiger loose. If you do not react instantly, soon there will be blood on the roads.

Just keep gently quiet. Do not give way to your anger. Open your crumpled fists. Calm down your startled breath. Loosen your muscles and soften down your looks. Let the tiger return to its den. Let this tide of anger die away for from you. Relax the tension. Purify the atmosphere. Let human faces be human again, and let words be language again. Let the tiger withdraw and its stench disappear. Then you will be able to speak, and your words will spell peace. Do not act under anger. The mad tiger does not know where and at whom it is striking.

Hajarat Alisaheb, whose nobility matched his courage, had often met Abu Malik in combat, and neither of the two had ever succeeded in overcoming his rival. One day, in singular combat, Alisaheb defeated Abu Malik, threw him to the ground, and was about to finish him up with the sword, when Abu Malik, about to die, spat from the ground on his face. Alisaheb then sheathed his sword and withdrew. In explanation he murmured as he walked out: “I have felt anger when he spat on my face, and I have promised never to act under anger. When my soul is at peace once more we’ll fight again.”

Even the warrior wants his soul to be at peace when he enters battle. Let the tiger be at a safe distance again in its den. Never to act under the fold of anger.


I tell you

(Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Caste and Outcast, Standford University Press 2002, p. 31)

“Once at Benares I stopped to bathe in the Ganges and I saw an old priest who had taken his bath and was meditating on a rock. Two Americans, a man and a woman, came along rushing. The man pointed his camera at him, and said reassuringly, “Don’t be scared; it won’t bite!” Then snapping his picture, he hastily put a coin in the old man’s hand and disappeared as suddenly as he had come. The priest, who had been meditating upon the Lord, looked at the coin, then looked at the disappearing couple. In silence he threw the coin into the water.” (p. 134)

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

– What does he want, the fool, screeching like that?
– He wants a signal to come to the platform – someone said.
– Then let him wait till I’ve finished my dinner – replied the man crossly.” (118)

“The reverence I felt for America was so great that nothing short of falling on my knees on arrival and kissing its soil would have sufficed to express my feelings. But Americans are a strange people! No sooner did they see that I had such feelings for their country than they began to knock it out of me in a very unceremonious fashion. The first American I met on landing was a man very quaintly dressed (later on I learned he was wearing ‘overalls’), who had been sent to me to take care of my trunk. I gave him my trunk, which he threw from the deck of the ship down to the wharf – a matter of some eight or ten feet. Not knowing enough colloquial English, I quoted to him the magnificent lines of Milton:
‘Him the Almighty Power hurled headlong
flaming from the ethereal sky.’
The expressman looked at me very quizically and exclaimed: ‘Cut it out! You’re too fresh!’ This was my initiation into America.” (141)

“Since I had come to acquire knowledge in America, I did not tarry in the seaport town very long, but hastened to Berkeley, the site of the University of California. I had no money except fifteen dollars that a friend had lent me. I went to the university hungry for knowledge, not knowing that knowledge, like bread, had to be paid for. So they took several fees out of my fifteen dollars under different pretences, such as ‘non-resident fee’, ‘gymnasium fee’, and ‘infirmary fee’, and to my great consternation, that drew my last dollar out of my pocket.

I kept myself alive on bread and water. Then I landed a job as a dish-washer. I stood silently for a while in front of the pile of dirty dishes till my employer came along and sternly demanded, ‘Why aren’t the dishes done?’
I said, ‘How do you wash them?’
‘Don’t you know?’ she asked in astonishment.
I said, ‘No.’
‘But’, she said, ‘you took the job on the understanding that you would wash dishes.’
‘I will wash dishes if you will show me how’, I replied.
Then in great dudgeon she said, ‘Will you please look for another place tomorrow?’
‘What place’? I asked.
She answered, ‘I mean you are fired.’ [estás de sobra – ¿Qué es estar de sobra?
I asked again, ‘What is “fired”?’
And I was told, ‘In good English, you are discharged!’ ‘But’, she added with a smile, ‘you can stay here tonight.’ (143)

You tell me

You said last time that the Church imposes censorship with the censor’s Imprimi Potest and the bishop’s Imprimatur on every book. Is the Web also censored?

No. The two expressions “May be printed” and “Let it be printed” refer only to printing, and prohibitions have to be understood in their exact and strict sense without extending it. The Web itself is no printing. I know you’ll ask me now, what about if I print the text in my printer? Well, that would be only a private printing without publication as in a book. And you could keep asking questions, of course.

I know ecclesiastical censorship looks outdated and some people won’t believe it is still practiced, but it is still in force and I know of concrete books whose publication has been forbidden by ecclesiastical authorities.


Psalm 113 – Idols on my altar

There is a verse in this psalm that haunts me, Lord, and you will understand me if I put aside in my consideration all the many other beautiful verses this psalm, or rather the two psalms accidentally united to make up this psalm, have, and I fix the eye of my faith and the hopes for my spiritual growth on that single verse which you utter here and repeat again word by word in a later psalm. It sounds like a proverb coming from your mouth, a wisdom principle, a Biblical curse of long consequences for a People in search of a Promised Land, and for a heart in search of God. The proverb is:

“He who makes an idol will become like it.”

I feel a chill down my spine when I hear those words. I know that idols are wood and stone, and so to wood and stone are condemned those who make them. There are idol makers in the outward sense of the word, craftsmen who fashion the images of the divinity as ordered by the variegated imagination of fanciful worshippers in all cultures and all ages. Against them goes the direct invective of the psalm to enforce the Lord’s commandment to his people not to make for themselves images of the divinity, and to deride the ridiculous efforts of misguided piety in lifeless figures.

Their idols are silver and gold,
made by the hands of men.
They have mouths that cannot speak
and eyes that cannot see;
they have ears that cannot hear,
nostrils that cannot smell;
with their hands they cannot feel,
with their feet they cannot walk,
and no sound comes from their throats.
Their makers grow to be like them,
and so do all who trust in them.”

And then there are idol makers in a more subtle sense of the term, all the more dangerous for being less obvious, and it is there that I see myself and feel on my head the weight of the Biblical indictment. I make idols in my mind, and I worship them with hidden fidelity and stubborn submission. Idols are my prejudices, my judgements, my tastes and distastes, my own ideas of how things should be, my values and principles however legitimate they may appear to me, my habits and customs, my own past experiences that now rule my present life, whatever I have assumed, taken for granted, fixed in my mind and made into an inflexible rule of conduct for myself and for all men and women for ever.

All those are idols. Idols of the mind. Wood and stone, or even gold and silver, but in any case dead metal unworthy of a living soul. Mental idols, ideological idols, cultural idols, even spiritual and religious idols. All the dead weight of a long life. All the unhappy baggage of the past. Burden and bondage. Slavery and chains. Sorry heritage of my heathen spirit.

What frightens me now is the penalty attached to the worship of idols. To be like them. To have eyes and not to see, to have ears and not to hear; to have hands that do not fell and feet that do not walk. To lose my sense, my contact with reality, my life. That is the punishment of sticking to an idol in my mind: to cease to be alive. I worship my old ideas, I hold on to my prejudices, I hang on to the past…, and I lose the capacity to see the present. I clog my memory with custom and routine, and cease to see and hear and sense and walk. I become wood and stone. I become dead. I have worshipped my past in search of security and comfort, and I find the black night of insensitivity and death. The idol is a fixed notion, and when I hold on to a fixed notion I become fixed like it in wood and stone.

You hated idols, Lord, throughout your recorded utterances to your chosen people. I ask you today to free me from all idols in my life… that I may walk again.


His heart is at home.
(Old Mexican expression)“The expression is used to denote a person who is master of himself, mature and self-possessed, as someone who, after finishing the day’s work, sits down at the door of his house to enjoy the peace of the evening.” (Eugenio Maurer in Rostros indios de Dios, p. 100.)

¿Is my heart at home? Or has it gone out, and even I don’t know where it is? I don’t know what I want, what I feel, what I live; I don’t know whether I am alive or not in the scattered routine of mad activities that make up my day in programmed timetable. Are you at home, spring of my blood, centre of my being, rhythm of my life? Are you at ease, are you happy, do you feel the joy of making your vital beat reach the whole organism through the constant message of your invisible and indispensable presence? If sometimes I do not speak to you, it is because you do your work so faithfully, so softly, so quietly that I forget you and take for granted your permanent cooperation with carefree confidence. Accept, please, as sincere praise of your loyalty, what could appear to be ungrateful forgetfulness. You are so much my own, and I am so much yours, that this may be the very reason that we don’t converse much, don’t you think?

Is my heart at home? Is my affection, my love, my commitment centred on those that are closest to me, on my home, my family, my companions, my co-workers, my friends, the people with whom I live, work, share time and space in the daily exchange that defines my life? Is my heart with them in the intimate closeness of brotherly contact? Or does my heart run and disappear far from home, to search far away for what it should have found at home, to make up in flights of fancy for the affective poverty that crumples its limited reality? If my heart is not at home, how will my hearth warm up?

Pascal said: “The heart has reasons that reason is ignorant of.” From the heart come the sudden insights, the flashing surprises, the joyful discoveries of life, and silence and beauty and art. Where would our abstract thought remain without the living beat that breaks through ideas and concepts, through theorems and conclusions, through syllogisms and judgements to open windows and illumine paths in our daily practical living? If our heart is at home, it will guide us powerfully and gently onto new landscapes that only its lead can discover for us.

Is my heart at home? Without it, however much I may try to put on a show of life, my biography would have been finished long ago, and my house would be empty by now. I feel its beat again. My heart is at home. All is well.

I tell you

Tales from Tibet

– Master, do I do well in avoiding extremes?
– Yes, you do well.
– Master, do I do well in following the middle path?
– Yes, provided you do not make it into an extreme.

There was a monk who, in spite of all his spiritual efforts, could not find inner peace. He went to his master and asked him: – How can I free myself? The master answered: And who is tying you down?

The master called all his disciples and asked them to bring each a glass of water and a spoon.

– Now you’re going to do something quite simple. Strike your glass with your spoon. Let me hear the sound.

The disciples did as asked. Only a dull, soulless sound could be heard. Then the master ordered:

– Now empty your glasses and strike them again.

The monks did as told. They emptied their glasses and then they proceeded to strike them with the spoons. A clear, live, musical sound was heard. The monks understood. Just as a full glass does not give a pleasant sound, so a mind loaded with thought cannot shine. We have to empty our minds.

A monk locked himself in a cell to spend one year, one month, and one day in total isolation, silence, and meditation. All the other monks accompanied him to the door with great feeling. The monk in charge the meals to be passed inside through a small hole in the wall asked him to leave outside all his belongings that would be restored to him at the end of his penance.

– I would like to keep my watch – the monk pleaded.
– You must leave it also with us. You’ll not need it all this time, anyhow, and we’ll give it back to you when you come out.

Rather unwillingly the monk handed over his watch and entered his cell for his retirement. The days passed, the season passed, and finally the year and a month and a day passed. All the monks gathered together to greet back the monk into their midst. He emerged from his cell, and without looking at anybody asked first: “Where is my watch?”

A yogi from India went on a pilgrimage to Tibet. He was interested in the Tibetan monasteries and their monks. In particular, he wanted to discuss with them some philosophical matters. In the first monastery he visited, he found a very kind and intelligent monk who showed himself ready to discuss such matters with him. As they engaged in conversation, the Tibetan monk told the Hindu monk: “Everything is transitory, impermanent, as a river that flows without ceasing.”
The Hindu yogi replied: “You are wrong. In every person there is a soul that is permanent, immortal, eternal.”
The two monks got into a discussion that grew more and more heated by the minute. They defended their own positions with such a vehemence that they would have come to blows had not the surrounding people intervened and separated them.
A lama was passing that way at the moment and, on learning what was happening, addressed them thus: “I suggest that each one of you now defend the other man’s opinion. That is, that, as an exercise, you put yourselves for a while in the other man’s mind and uphold the opposite opinion from the one you were holding till now.
They did that. As they got into the discussion with their new approaches, they began to fight as fiercely as before. The visiting yogi concluded that there were fighting not because of their ideas but because of their characters.

In the mind of a confused disciple there were many doubts and tensions. He approached his master and asked him: “How will I know, master, that I am on the right spiritual path?”
The master answered him: “When you do not ask that question any more.”

(Cuentos tibetanos, Yosamo Sim and Pedro Palao Pons, Ediciones Karma, Madrid 2005, pp. 111, 98, 62, 136, 105, 90.)

You tell me

Question: You speak much in your books of the importance of detachment. Attachments make us suffer, and the least we have of them, the better. But how can one live without attachments? Family, friends, whatever we like, whatever we need… all those are attachments. How to get rid of them? Is that possible? Is it advisable?

Answer: It is not advisable. It is not possible. The first attachment we must get rid of is our attachment to logic. I mean to too much logic as you are doing. We are too Aristotelian. Common sense is above logic, and we must not forget that. Without getting attached to common sense either, of course. We definitely need things and we love persons and we are helped by situations, and all that is fine and it entails an interest and a commitment to everything and to everybody in our lives. Only that it always has to be done with due balance. Love is essential to life. The danger comes when we say, “I cannot live without you”. In our Sadhana course with Tony de Mello he had us tell our best friends, “I love you, I hope to love you always, I desire to have you always in my life and for me to be in yours; but I can live without you.” It is a healthy exercise. Recommended for lovers.


Psalm 114 – Passion and resurrection

This psalm was prayed on the way to Gethsemane. Supper was over, the group was small, the final thanksgiving hymn, the Hallel, had to be recited, and they did so as they crossed the valley on the way to a garden with old olive trees where some rested, some slept, and a frail figure on his face under the full-moon shadow prayed to his Father for delivery from death. His words were an echo of one of the psalms of the Hallel he had just recited. The psalm, through its yearly recitation at the Paschal meal and this day through its timely memory on the way to death, was the final acceptance of the Father’s will by him whose purpose in coming to earth was to do that will.

“The cords of death bound me.
Sheol held me in its grip.
Anguish and torment held me fast;
so I invoked the Lord by name:
Deliver me, O Lord, I pray you:
for I am your slave.”

I approach this psalm with inward reverence knowing that lips holier than mine have prayed it in the face of death. But saving infinite distances I too have a right to say it, because I too in my human misery know the despair of life and the terror of death. The seal of death marks me from the moment of my birth, not only in the mortality of my body but also in the existential anguish of my soul. I know myself on my way to the tomb, and the shadow of that day falls on all the other days of my life. And when that final day approaches, everything within me revolts and protests and clamours for a postponement of the inevitable hour. I am mortal, and I bear the brunt of my mortal condition in the very essence of my being.

But then I also know that the loving Father who brought me to birth waits for me just as lovingly after death. I know that life continues, that my real existence will begin only then on the other side of eternity. I accept the fact that as I am mortal so I am also eternal, and life will be mine for ever in the final glory of my Father’s house.

I have faith in life after death, and I take heart with the thought that the words of the psalm that bring me comfort today brought comfort too on a bleak Thursday night to another troubled soul who said them in the solitude of a garden before the dawn of his last day on earth:

“I will walk in the presence of the Lord
in the land of the living.”


Unnecessary needs

The best way not to be anaesthetised by progress is to avoid false comforts, to avoid unnecessary needs.
(Chamalú)This was one of the first striking sentences I heard when I arrived in India and began to learn the language: “I can do without it; and so I leave it.” The one who spoke thus was a classmate of mine in the university, and the matter he spoke about was taking tea, a universal habit in India which he, however, did not follow. He did not take tea because he could do without it. Great principle. I was to hear it subsequently hundreds of times, and its straight wisdom and practical appeal always filled my mind with the gentle attraction of a transcendent teaching. I can do without it, therefore I leave it. Without exaggerating, of course, with common sense and prudence but also with awareness and determination. If I can do without it, I drop it. Whatever it is, big or small, general or particular, passing or permanent. I can do without it. That is enough. Never to create “unnecessary needs”. Far-reaching life principle. Gem of oriental wisdom.

Consumerism consumes us. More and more. Day by day. I can afford it, therefore I buy it. The exact opposite of “I can do without it, therefore I leave it”. To see it is to desire it, and to desire it is to acquire it. Everybody has it. It is the latest. It is the in-thing. I have seen it in the shop-window, in the fashion magazine, on TV, in my neighbour’s house. Therefore it has to be in my house too. It is not that I in any way need the contraption. Probably it is no use to me. What I need is to have it. This is the unnecessary need. Not the need of the thing itself, but the publicity-generated slavery to possess what others possess. The jealousy, the competition, the compulsion. The yearning to be what other are, not to be left behind, not to be less than anyone. The need to have.

It can become a hardened habit and dire servitude. The instinct to possess gets out of bounds and grabs whatever comes within reach without even caring what it is. To acquire, to hold, to use, to consume. The habit is learned in childhood, thrives on the demands of youthful fashion, grows as the earning capacity grows, and strangles with its iron grip all efforts at true development. Greed and consumerism stunt personal growth. To save the person and to save society it is urgent that we learn the sober satisfaction that knows how to live under the supermarket invasion without yielding to it. The story is told of Diogenes that – already in his time – he would leisurely walk through the market in Athens without buying anything, and murmuring all the time to himself: “How many things I do not need!” This was already then the clue: I do not need; and today it is needed more than it ever was. The serene view of the profound sage who knows how to look without being trapped. The philosopher’s tourism.

Put down the cup of tea. Never mind if others take it. I do not need it. I can do without it. And so I do. Innocent secret of freedom and peace. One can live without tea. Even in India.


I tell you

“You did it to me”

I was just answering an email in my computer, and in my answer I was quoting, as an explanation to what I was saying, Jesus’ most typical saying, centre and essence of Christianity: “Whatever you did to the least one among yourselves, you did it to me.” I rested for a while in the midst of my first and longest task each morning, which is opening the computer and answering the email of the day. Then suddenly this thought emerged in my mind before the computer’s screen filled up with messages: “Whatever you answered to this email, you answered it to me.” I felt a gentle shudder in my soul. Each message is a person, and each person is Christ. Sometimes I grow impatient, the same question again!, why should they ask such a thing?, what can I answer to that? The temptation to judge, to classify, to omit, to rub off the message without giving an answer, to prefer one question to another, to see as a burden what in truth is a gift. Time to remind myself: “Whatever you answer to this one, you answer it to me.”

Formerly people used to tell me: “Thank you for listening to me.” Now that I speak less and write more, they tell me: “Thank you for reading me.” The human contact, the personal care, the few minutes devoted exclusively to a person, thinking on who wrote, what can I answer, how can I cheer him up, is a responsibility and a privilege that always gives more to the one who answers than to the one who asks. Email is gospel.

An eastern story

A man and his family were very poor and they prayed daily to God to relieve them in their poverty. One day the small son looked up a tree that grew near their cottage and he saw a swan sitting on one of its branches. The child shouted, his parents and brothers and sisters came our running and they all saw the swan. Wonder of wonders, the swan had a golden colour all over. Then the swan plucked a feather of his own body with his own beak and let it fall into the man’s hands. It was heavy in its falling. The man saw that the feather was solid gold, sold it in the market, and he and his family lived happily on its price for a whole year.

The man was beginning to worry what would now happen, but just when the year was over, the swan appeared again and gave them another feather. And the same happened the next year and the next. But then the man began to feel afraid that the swan would not now live many years more, as birds have shorter lives than humans, and any year now he could miss the rendezvous. He had to make sure. So, when the swan came next, he grabbed it, plucked out all its feathers and kept them carefully. He had now feathers to spare for his whole life. The swan escaped as best it could and went to hide in the bushes.

When the man took a feather to sell it he found it was white and had no weight. The golden feathers were heavy as gold is metal and is very heavy, but now the feathers where only feathers, white and light, and when he threw all of them into the air they descended little by little till they formed a carpet over the whole floor in the cottage.

This is the parable. Its teaching may be that life has to be lived day by day, year by year, instant by instant, with the oriental attitude of the present moment as the most important thing in life. Or again it may just mean that we cannot keep on all our lives living on swan’s feathers. We’ve got to work.

You tell me

“My name is Ignatius, I’m 39, I’ve been diagnosed a malignant tumour with bleak prospects. I’ve always been very religious but I’m finding it difficult to admit my situation. I know God does everything for our good, and I’ve always been told that God sends us sufferings in this life in order to give us a higher reward in heaven, but that does not help me. I wonder if you could tell me something.”

I can’t tell you anything you don’t know already, Ignatius. I can only tell you I agree with you that such explanations of suffering as though God would send them to us in order to give us a higher place in heaven do not convince me. Imagine a father telling his son: “Look here, my son. I’m going to buy you a bicycle, but in order for you to deserve it properly I’m first going to beat you properly so that you may deserve the cycle, and the heavier the beating, the better the cycle.” To make us suffer in order to give us a higher glory in heaven would be just the same. It makes no sense. I thought hard about the meaning of life for years, till I found the saying of Krishnamurti’s: “Life has no meaning, and there is no reason why it should have any.” It looks like nonsense, but it is the most sincere and heartening and liberating saying I know. No question of any discouragement or disappointment. Just living life day by day as it comes, as it is always a gift and a privilege, and we’ll keep on quietly seeing what it brings us. Life has always its ups and downs, joy and sadness, cheer and pain. And that’s all. Another Taoist saying gives me light: “When you say beauty you have created ugliness.” There cannot be one without the other. There is no summit without a valley, no high without low, no joy without sadness, no enjoyment without suffering. There are two faces of the same coin. Life, in order to be life, has to have something of everything, and that is the situation. We certainly can do something, and that is accepting reality instead of protesting against it. We, of course, do always all we can to avoid suffering in ourselves and in others, and then we just welcome whatever comes. This is the game.


Psalm 115 – Renewal of vows

“I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.”
I am happy, Lord, I took my vows. I am happy of the day in my youth when, with open generosity and blissful enthusiasm, I publicly consecrated my life to you in poverty, chastity, and obedience. I am proud of that moment and look back on it as a new birth in your service and in the service of humankind for your sake. I am glad I took my vows, and I want to renew them today, in thanksgiving for that day and in the clear determination that if I had not taken them then I would take them now. Accept again the consecration of my life, Lord, as you accepted it that day, and keep in me the joy this consecration has given me.

I know now more about poverty, chastity, and obedience than on the first day I pronounced those three words aloud and together in the presence of my brothers and on my knees before your altar. I have measured with my own failings the depth of my commitment, and I have learned with my mistakes the practical meaning of the lofty ideal.

Even today I have doubts at times, I am questioned by others and I don’t know how to answer, I hear about new interpretations and more meaningful approaches, and sometimes I fail to recognise my original notions under the new vocabulary. But I know well what I mean, what those three sacred words mean in my life and in my history, as in the history and tradition of the People of God whose portion and representatives and servants we are. I am committed to you, mind, body and soul, for the glory of your name and the service of all men and women. That is the strong and clear conviction of my heart. Now I ask for your grace to make that conviction my daily conduct, and to translate my verbal commitment into actual practice.

This is the meaning of my renewal of vows. It is not only a yearly custom but a daily privilege. I like to pronounce those three words again together, in the silence of my soul before you, and in the company of my brothers when we all renew our bonds by pledging our life. And with those words goes a prayer that the spirit those vows represent may become stronger and stronger in my life and in the group, that my commitment and my service may grow into wisdom and joy as my years increase and my initial consecration takes on new meanings without ever forgetting the old.

“I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the Lord’s house,
in the midst of you, Jerusalem.”


Rowing lesson

It was the first time I was seeing it in reality. Before that I had seen it only in advertisements or documentaries, and it had not particularly impressed me. But when I saw it in a private home with all its heavy equipment and the sophisticated paraphernalia, I smiled wanly while a number of fast thoughts run through my mind.

The sight in question was an indoor gymnasium in a private residence. A large room, with wide windows and heating and cooling devices, displayed on its carefully planned space all kinds of strange contraptions. A bicycle to pedal without advancing, a moving-mat to walk on without gaining ground, weights to lift while lying down or sitting up, and even a shadow boat to row in a dry dock. Modern machinery for exercise at home.

All helps to keep in form. But I just wonder whether the thoughtful businessman who has had the interest and the means to gather all that impressive equipment would not do better to buy himself a bicycle and roam around on it through the avenues of the large public park near which he lives, or to hire a boat and go rowing in the near-by lake where he could temper his muscles and deepen his breath under sun and sky in open biorhythms. Wouldn’t it be simpler?

That purposeful executive drives daily his own car to his office through a distance roughly equivalent to the miles he later stumps through on his rolling-mat while the electronic distance-counter ticks off dry numbers on a fixed landscape along imaginary fields. Has it no occurred to him to walk to this office? Or is it that his status requires him to arrive by car? Is he afraid to get to his office with his shirt collar soaked with perspiration? In any case his head would be fresher, and work would go better. If he only thought this out with the thoroughness and clarity with which he examines the matters of his own business, he would be able to arrive on foot every day at his office as the most natural thing in the world; and he would even come to enjoy it, so that he would not have to force himself to exercise later at home in mechanical fashion. It is more pleasant to walk in the open than to slog in a closed room.

The first rule for perseverance in the necessary exercise for health is that it should be enjoyable. If it is done against the grain, as a duty, by sheer will-power, the smallest excuse will be enough to postpone it, shorten it, suppress it. And even if it is gone through out of iron self-discipline, its effect will not be so wholesome, because it is imposed, unpleasant, violent. On the other hand, if it is liked and enjoyed it will become regular, will refresh the soul together with the body, and perseverance in it is assured. That is why a favourite sport is more beneficial than solitary gymnastics, and the boat with its oars on the sea does more good to the organism than the latest model of rowing device between four walls that do not know water.

The great deterioration of human life lies in the replacement of the natural by the artificial. In food and in thought and in word and in exercise. And the great come-back that opens horizons and awakes hopes in our days, is the return to the origins, the new discovery of land and air and water and sun, the wide embrace in loving reconciliation with mother earth. Back to nature is not only a contemporary slogan, but an eternal reminder of youthfulness and wholeness. It is time to begin our rowing lesson.

I tell you

A few pages from the biography I’ve read of the Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, whom I know and appreciate. I visited him once in Buenos Aires and I reminded him of what the bulletin of this archdiocese said about me and by book “Dear Church” which had been published there: “The book is the work or an immature adolescent whatever his age.” He didn’t know about it. Among all my books that’s the one that has got more feedback from Catholics who were straying away from the Church, and on seeing that I was mentioning clearly the same shortcomings but lovingly drawing the opposite conclusion that for that very reason the Church became more understanding and more human and a better help for our own shortcomings, they became reconciled with her and came back to religious practices. The three words the Cardinal chooses are very meaningful.

Sergio Rubin, “El Jesuita, Conversaciones con el cardinal Jorge Bergoglio”:

p.62: When I was a vicar at Flores, a girl from Villa Soldati school who was still very young became pregnant. It was one of the first cases that occurred in the school. There were several attitudes about how to meet the situation down to downright expulsion, but no one was thinking of how the girl was feeling. She was afraid of any reaction and didn’t allow anybody to get near her. Finally a young teacher, married and with children, a man for whom I have the greatest respect, approached her during recreation, kiss her, took her hand and asked her lovingly: “So I hear you’re going to be a mummy?” The girl started weeping. That friendly attitude helped her to open up, to face herself, to work out what had happened to her, and helped her to react in a mature and responsible way, thus avoiding having to leave the school and remain alone in life with her child, as also avoiding – which was definitely another risk – that her companions would hold her up as a heroine for having become pregnant.

p.136: For me there are three words that define the person and make up a summary of attitudes – which, by the way, I don’t know whether I possess them – which are the following: please, thank you, I’m sorry. The person who doesn’t know how to ask for permission will push others, will bump ahead without caring about the others as though they didn’t exist. On the other hand, the person who says “please” is more humble, more sociable, more integrated. What about the one who never says “thank you”, who feels in his heart that he has nothing to be grateful for to anybody? There is a saying in Spanish which is quite eloquent: “The right birth brings the right thankfulness.” Gratitude is the flower of noble souls. And, thirdly, there are people who think they never have to say “I’m sorry”. They suffer under the worst of sins: pride. And, I insist, only one who needs pardon and has experienced pardon can pardon in turn. Whoever misses these three words, misses something in his life.

You tell me

[This is my answer to someone who was enthusiastically telling me how God had heard her prayers in several occasions and asking me to put them up in my Web in order to encourage others to pray.]

I congratulate you on your faith, Diana, and I’m glad petitionary prayer has helped you. I receive many more reports of people whose prayers have not been heard, and so I appreciate all the more your experiences. On the other hand, I cannot tell your experiences to people whose prayers have not been heard as it would be counterproductive. They could tell me, ‘Then why did God heard Diana and not me?’ Also, the alleged ‘miracles’ mean only that the doctors don’t know how the healing took place. I mean to say that this is not an easy topic, and I therefore treat it with all respect and reverence as petitionary prayers continues to be a mystery. Jesus said, ‘Ask and you’ll receive’, but many times we do ask and we don’t receive. And then in order to exculpate Jesus we say that what we had asked for was not convenient for us. Although we had asked for it in full earnest. Besides, when what we had asked for does happen, we never know whether it would have happened anyway even if we hadn’t asked for it. If I pass an examination after having studied hard and having prayed hard for success, y usually don’t say I have passed because I prayed but because I studied; while on the other hand if I fail, I don’t usually say I have failed for not having prayed enough.

Jesus also said: ‘Your Heavenly Father already knows what you need”, which seems to made pletitionary prayer superfluous. Before the mystery implied in all this, I prefer the realism of the theologian William Barclay which I have often quoted: ‘Every white bed in a hospital and every early tomb in a cemetery is a monument to an unanswered prayer.’ Above all we need credibility, and credibility is based on truth, and the fact is that many petitions are not granted. We are believers and we are grateful when we are granted what we ask for; but we have to acknowledge that this often does not happen. We also have to think that if all we ask for would happen, things would sometimes get complicated. Remember the story I sometime quoted in this Web of the people in a village who prayed with faith for a mountain to be removed and it did as the Gospel promised, but then the people of another village prayed also with faith that the mountain would return to its previous place, and it did. And so on and on. What happens when many people pray to win the lottery or to get the first prize at a competition or to be first in an examination? How do they manage that in heaven?

My understanding of prayer of petition is that God wants, on one hand, that we should remember him, and so he encourages us to ask (if there were no petitionary prayer, many people would not think of God at all), while at the same time he always keeps his supreme and absolute freedom even above any promises he may have made without ever binding himself to anything. Then he’ll bless us in his own way. If we could bind him, he wouldn’t be God. I hope all this helps you. Thank you for writing. Greetings, Carlos.


Psalm 116 – A short prayer

This is a great psalm with a long lesson to it. Because it is the shortest psalm. And, for it all, it has the strength and the beauty of the longest of all. It fits in with Jesus’s words: “In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them, for your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him.” (Matthew 6,7) That’s why the commentary should not be long either.

Prayers need not be long, and if I truly feel what I pray, the intensity of the feeling makes up with advantage for the length and the time of the recitation.

I put in my prayer a word of divine praise, the conscience of the group, and the universality of humankind, my faith in God’s love, and his faithfulness to his promise of salvation… and a perfect prayer is made.

“Praise the Lord, all nations,
extol him, all you peoples;
for his love protecting us is strong,
the Lord’s constancy is everlasting.”


The wipping machine

A wisdom saying by Master Kisu:

However much you turn the grinder,
you may grind as much grain as you want
but you will not grind its axle.
Once I heard a housewife say with a touch of humour: ‘I have a whipping-machine complex.’ The whole day round and round, the whole day running errands, the whole day rushing from one end to another. Universal mixer that whips up everything. Eggs or dough. Frit juice or ice cream. It takes on anything. Turn on the switch and it works. Non-stop. Guaranteed for one year. Wonders of modern technology. Gadgets for the home. Metal and plastic image of what we are in life. Always on the move.

But the axle stays in its place. The axle is the Self. The intimate axis of my total existence. Straight and steady. Vertex and centre. The circumference turns and turns madly, but the centre remains untouched. Never mind what is being ground by the machine. It may be grains of wheat or it may be grains of rice. The axle is the same. The mass around it changes, but it remains intact in its vertical conscience. You cannot grind the axle.

The mad world continues to go round and round in whirlwind dizziness. But we do not feel giddy any more. We are not dragged into its vortex. We do not lose our balance. We do not lose our peace. The eye of the storm is silent while the storm rages round it. To find one’s centre is to find oneself. Let the grinder go round. Let the world go round. Let the daily chores and errands and routine go round. We continue at attention, steady on the perpendicular axis of our being. In the midst of the tempest there is calm.


I tell you

I’ve spent a week in India. The Mathematics Department of the Gujarat University in Ahmedabad has invited me to inaugurate its new premises. I like to be remembered as a mathematician, since I’m rather known as a writer, and so I willingly accepted. I spoke of mathematics and mathematicians in India. In the XII century there was a great mathematician, Bhaskacharya, who wrote a beautiful treatise with a beautiful name: Lilavati. “The playful one”. That was his daughter’s name, and thereby hangs a tale. Nothing less than the very wedding of Lilavati. It was to be celebrated with all solemnity as befitted the daughter of such a father, and, concretely, the moment in which the bride’s and bridegroom’s hands were joined by the priest for the first time, had to be calculated with mathematical exactness. Here the father’s knowledge excogitated a new and original way. Better than sundials or hourglasses, to calculate the exact moment as it fitted his knowledge and his science. He took a large lotus leaf, round, flat, with lifted border, and bored delicately a tiny whole in it such that the water would come in through it little by little, and the moment the leaf sank would be the moment of the joining of the hands. Poetical and scientifical. Everything was done accordingly, the leaf was getting heavier with water, and all expected the exact moment. But the moment was not arriving. Something had gone wrong. The water had stopped getting into the leaf. They worried and examined the leaf closely. There they found to their dismay that one of the pearls of the bride’s necklace had got lose and had blocked the hole. The water was still, the stellar moment had passed, and the wedding could not take place. Wedding takes place only once, and as its only opportunity had been irretrievably lost, Lilavati could not marry for life. This was a disgrace for her and for the whole family, but what could they do to console her?

Here is where the father stepped forward and told her: “I’m sorry with all my soul that this has happened, my child, and that you now cannot be married in your whole life. But it order to make it up for you in this great suffering, and in order to make you name immortal in all generations to come, I’m going to write a mathematical treatise which will be the best and most advanced of all times; and I’m going to put your name to it. It’ll be know as the “Lilavati”, so that all will pronounce your name through the ages. He wrote it, and it survives to this day. It contains theorems and problems, and, apart from mathematics, it interests us for the idea it gives of social life in the XII century in India. Mathematical problems in our textbooks deal with weights and measures, forces and distances, trains and planes, angles in football and orbits of satellites, while those in the Lilavati speak of spears and arrows, snakes and peacocks, Brahmins and ceremonies. A mirror to society. Just one sample which is not found in our textbooks:

“A prostitute is making love to a client. Her necklace breaks in such a way that one fifth of the pearls falls on the bed, one third fall to the ground, one sixth remain on her body, and one tenth in her lover’s hands. If there are 6 pearls still left on the necklace, say, oh devout worshipper of Vishnu, how many pearls were there on the whole?

Whether Lilavati was consoled or not we don’t know, but the example does give us another conclusion, that is the naturalness and matter-of-factness with which sex was mentioned in the XII century, which is a good lesson for our own society and its deep complexes in the matter. By the way, the necklace had 30 pearls. It is enough to write down the equation, clear the fractions and solve for the unknown. After such digressions I spoke to them of my own studies at the Madras University (Chennai).The so called “Modern Algebra” (set, groups, rings, fields, matrices, vector spaces) had just come into being in France in the Bourbaki school (a character that never existed but whose name, with a touch of humour, proposed the new discoveries. They even publishes his biography! There was in those days in Madras a Jesuit priest, father Racine, who introduced Modern Algebra in India and taught it to us as the special subject in our last year. That means that when I reached Ahmedabad, I was the only person to know the new subject. I was, accordingly, asked to give that summer a course to postgraduate teachers, and so I began teaching the teachers before I could teach the students. I was lucky that way. I later attended international mathematical congresses, beginning with the one in Moscow in 1964 in which I heard Michel Artin declare that “modern mathematics have become so complex that all important theorems are false, and all true theorems are useless.” This was no so unexpected, however, if we remember the definition Bertrand Russell had previously given: “Mathematics is the science in which we do not know what we are talking about, and we don’t care whether what we say is true.” I did plunge into mathematics wholeheartedly and I enjoyed my classes, and even correcting examination papers, which are always amusing given the bloomers committed by the students.

All this and much more I recollected with nostalgic joy before all those professors who have lived with me all those eventful years. A whole generation of mathematicians. I also remembered with them what some literary critics wrote about my style in my articles and books in the Gujarati language. One of them said: “One can see that Father Valles is a mathematician in the clarity and logic of his literary style.” Another wrote: “The only thing that one cannot explain is that Father Valles may be a mathematician, given the simple and transparent style of his writings.” Please yourself.

As you see, I’ve have a happy time in India. I always say this is my last visit, but I’ve already got an invitation for next year.

You tell me

“I’m 24, I think I have a vocation to be a Jesuit, and those I’ve told about it encourage me to follow it; but I know that now there are hardly any vocations, and I ask myself whether I’m not boarding a sinking boat. I don’t know what to think. How do you see this from the inside?”

Yes, I’m inside, P., and quite happy about it, but I too am learning that the boat is slowly sinking because we have very few vocations. Well, not precisely sinking but getting empty which comes to the same. A ship without a crew is useless. Sometimes we console ourselves saying that there are still vocations in Asia and Africa. This is no consolation as that would be acknowledging that religious life was for third world countries only, and as those countries pass on to the first world, and some of them are doing just that pretty fast, vocations will soon be over. We, of course, keep praying for vocations and organise regular campaigns for the promotion of vocations, but without much fruit. When I was a novice at Loyola we were 150 novices for one single province, while now they are only a handful for the whole of Spain. At that time we used to say that God was sending us many vocations to show that he approved of our way of life; now that he hardly sends us any vocation we should draw another conclusion, but we keep quiet. Religious life in general, and Jesuit life in particular as I’ve know it and lived it out, has been a great way of life, a privilege and a service, joy for the religious and support of the Church for centuries. It answered the pervading mentality of the young person who thought about his life, weighed his options, considered marriage, priesthood, religious life, one of which he had to choose for life, committed himself and lived out his commitment to the end. Now we live longer, and change is faster. Life expectancy has climbed in a few centuries from forty to eighty. And the speed of change, whether technological, psychological or social, has increased from moderate to mad. That has changed the whole map. Before this new perspective, a life commitment early in life and lasting for ever does not appeal to young people. And they stop coming to the novitiate or to the seminary.

I would go so far as to say that a new model of religious life is needed. Founders may apply. As for you, God is calling you to be a Jesuit for all we can see and discern. Come in joyfully and keep thinking on all this. May God illumine you, young people, to discern his ways in our times and to lead us anew.


Psalm 118 – A Young Person’s Prayer

“How shall a young man steer an honest course?
By holding to your word.”
Your word. This is a long meditation – as young persons are generous with their life and with their time – on the Law. To bring out its different aspects, different words are used for it in the drawn out study: law, statutes, commands, ordinances, decrees, precepts, promises, word. They are woven together in acrostic stanzas along the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with the loving repetition of a young scholar who wants to master the mystery and the practice of the divine Law.

“Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes.
I say them over, one by one,
the decrees that you have proclaimed.
I have found more joy along the path of your instruction
than in any kind of wealth.
I will meditate on your precepts
and keep your paths ever before my eyes.
In your statutes I find continual delight;
I will not forget your word.”

Your divine will, Lord, is the law of my life. I want to know it, to accept it, to practice it day by day and hour by hour. I want to understand the depth of your designs and rejoice in the execution of your desires.

“O how I love your law!
It is my study all day long.”

And all life long. The study that never ends because your law is your will, and your will is yourself, divine essence and infinite being. The study that is contemplation and worship in faith and in love. The study that brings wisdom and joy to the young person who makes it the love of their youth. Gives even courage and optimism to the young to place themselves before their teachers and their elders:

“I have more insight than all my teachers,
for your instruction is my study;
I have more wisdom that the old,
because I have kept your precepts.

Teach me, Lord. To see your will in the laws of nature and in the accidents of life, in the regulations that govern peoples and in the events that befall humans, in the orders from authority and in the promptings of my heart. Your will is all that happens, because you are in all things and your dominion is supreme. To see you in all things and your will in all events is the way to wisdom and happiness and peace. Let me learn that one lesson in the leisurely meditation of the depths o your law.

“Let my cry of joy reach you, O Lord;
give me understanding of your word.
Let your praise pour from my lips,
because you teach me your statutes;
let the music of your promises be on my tongue,
for your commandments are justice itself.
Your law is my continual delight.”

Let your Law be truly my continual delight, Lord.


Twenty-four hours

A famous saying of Master Joshu’s:
“I use up the twenty-four hours of the day;
you let yourselves be used up
by the twenty-four hours of the day.”
Do I use my time, or does my time use me? Do I use my work, or does my work use me? Am I master or slave? Is man the lord of the Sabbath, or is the Sabbath the lord of man? When I do what I do and I say what I say, do I have the sensation that I am at the controls, that I direct my own words and actions, or do I feel only a mere toy in the hand of circumstances, compelled to act the way I act by the habits I have acquired, the expectations I have raised, the injunctions I have submitted to?

I claim before my own conscience that it is I that have freely chosen my path, my profession, my principles, my life. Even so, the pressure exerted on me on those occasions by family, society, prejudices, atmosphere cannot be underestimated. But be that as it may, even if I chose freely my ways when I chose them, they may become servitude with the passage of time, hardening my reactions, forcing my options and taking away the spontaneity of my actions. I am not any more able to use my time as I would like to. Timetables impose themselves on me till the twenty-four hours rule me instead of my ruling them.

I want to recover the control of my day. I want to be the master of my time. I want to revalue each hour, each minute, each second with the gentle but firm directive of my own desires and my own options. No more slavery to routine, to conventionality, to custom, to inertia. No letting the clock rule my life. Not letting my own duties smother my initiative. I want to do again what I do, not because I have to, but because I want to. I want to recover the zest of work, the pleasure of speaking, the joy of living. I don’t want to be a slave to time, a worshipper of the sundial, a servant of the calendar. I don’t want to have to take a holiday when others take it, or to have to read a book because others have read it. I will do whatever I have to do, and go wherever I have to go, but in my own freedom, initiative, and choice. With new vitality and new energy. Renewing the will to live and the art of feeling at ease. Regaining the clear vision, the steady hand, the original independence of my own being. Let the twenty-four hours of the day serve me again in fruitful readiness.

Fundación González Vallés

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