Happy New Year! And let it truly be happy in health and joy and family and work. In India, where I lived many years, we each year celebrated five different new ears in five different dates: Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Parsi. All were holidays in the university, and that helped to remember and appreciate all religions. Practical ecumenism. We only had to be careful to check person and religion so as not to wish one person on the other person’s New Year. The most important in practice was the Hindu New Year as they are majority, and I used to spend that day on my cycle, pedaling from house to house all down the list of my Hindu friends. In each house I had to take tea and a sweet, so that I took no regular meals on that day.
The new year prompts us to look back and to look forward. No question of a sacramental examination of conscience, but rather a grateful review of the year that ends and a hopeful glance at the year that begins. I’m always moved by the remembrance of places where I have been and of friends I have lost. And many younger than myself! Fond memories and deep joys with a name and a surname attached to each. And life goes on.
The next frame is a help to communication. Any reaction, question, commentary or criticism is welcome. This is the dialogue that can do us all much good.
A letter from a far-off friend I recently received begins by saying: “I have nothing special to tell you, but I just remembered you and wanted to tell you that I did.” Beautiful letter. No particular news, no urgent message, no recurring routine, but just a spontaneous burst of affection as of a cheerful conversation that was suddenly interrupted yesterday and continues today. Faraway countries, multiple cities, persons and groups and faces and smiles, fond memories from multiple places. A whole life at a glance. A treasure for ever.
Psalm 43 – My God, my protector
“Do me justice, Oh Lord, defend my cause against pitiless people, save me from wicked men. You are my God and my protector, why should I be sad and worried and troubled? Send your light and your truth, and they will lead me to your holy mountain, your own temple on earth. I will come to the altar of God, of the God of my joy, and I will sing my thanksgiving with my sitar, Oh God, my God!
The psalm’s expression “I will come to the altar of God” takes up a stronger and higher meaning in the New Testament than it had in the Old, since the altar is now the altar of the Eucharist with the real presence of God and holy communion as a sacrament. That is truly coming to the altar. And then another language gift: “The God of my joy”. Best title for the Almighty. Not just adoration and reverence and fear and distance, but closeness and company and trust. A God who brings us joy, familiarity and company. The deepest blessing.
An Indian story. There was a holy man who lived in a forest, far from all human habitation, eat the fruits of trees and the roots under the earth, and drank of the running waters of the river nearby. He wore only a loincloth and kept another for a change. He spent the whole day in the contemplation of God and of the universe.
But there were mice in the forest, and while the saint was in prayer they would come and nibbled at the spare loincloth the saint had hanged to dry, so that it soon it was practically destroyed. Something had to be done. People from the neighbouring villages who came to seek his blessing brought him a cat whose presence kept the mice away. That was fine, but then the cat had to be fed, and the cat drinks milk, so the pious people gave the holy man a cow to provide for the milk. What would the cow it now? Grass, of course. So the people gave the holy man fields for the cow to get grass to eat. He now had only to look after the fields, water them, spread manure on them, cut the grass, milk the cow so that the cat would drink the milk and chase away the mice and the spare loincloth would be protected. The monk did all that with great love for his faithful devotees.
Till one day he realized that he was not praying any more. He spent all his time on the fields, the cow and the cat. He had no time for anything else. He had become a landowner. And his once faithful neighbours ceased to visit him. They said his blessing was now just useless.
February 2nd brings to me memories of my last vows in religious life on that day when we Jesuits took our last vows. The mystery of God’s vocation, and of life itself, recognizing that all is God’s gift and we are to receive it with joy and gratitude. As a child I was sent by my father to the German Kindergarten to learn German, which was then considered the most important language for culture and for travel. My father added: “English is not important, and you can always learn it by yourself late if you want.” Little did he foresee the invasion of English on the whole world. As a Jesuit I went to India where I proposed to my superior to send me to learn and graduate in the Gujarati language and so to teach it in our Jesuit College in Ahmedabad. He gave me his blessing and added with some solemnity: “The Holy Spirit and I send you to learn and teach Gujarati in our College at Ahmedabad.” However, the next day itself he called me and said not without a touch of humour: “The Holy Spirit has changed his mind. You will not go for Gujarati but for mathematics.” Quite a change. He didn’t tell me the reason, and I didn’t ask for it. He went then as superior in several places in America, and on the 25th anniversary of our coming to India he came to visit us, and then he told me: “I sent you for mathematics because your Indian Jesuit companions objected to a Spaniard teaching Gujarati which was their language.” I did learn and teach mathematics, but I also wrote some articles and books in Gujarati, and I eventually received the Ranjitram Gold Medal which is the highest price for Gujarati literature in India. Later, when the new subject of “Modern Algebra” (of which we always began by saying that it was neither modern nor algebra) was introduced in the syllabus, I was asked to translate into Gujarati the terms of the new subject, like group, ring, vector, matrix, etc., which I did easily using Latin and Greek roots. Languages are important. Even English… pace my father.
Question: I say the rosary every day, but I’m beginning to lose devotion as it is only repetition and I’m thinking of dropping it, but then I also feel bad about dropping it. Quite a mess.
Answer: The whole life is repetition. The point is to do whatever we do… not as though it were the first time, which it definitely is not, but as it is in itself, as we eat and walk and smile and talk, and all is right and proper at its time and in its way. I tell you a little story. In my holidays in India I was once climbing for my morning walk from the plains up to Mount Abu where we had our house, when a little woman overtook me on the way. She was carrying a large load of firewood on her head to sell in the market, and as she passed ahead of me I heard she was repeating to herself: “Oh, my God! Oh, my Lord!… Oh, my God! Oh, my Lord!” It was just repetition, but she was praying. I was just holidaying. I will never forget her.
Wake up, Lord, why are you asleep? Get up and help us. Why are you hiding your face and forgetting our plight? Our soul sinks in the dust and our body lies on the ground. Do hurry to help us, to redeem us in your mercy.These are sad moments full of desolation and misery. They are part of life. And there are psalms for all of them to put the right prayer on our lips and to fill our hearts with the love that redeems us and saves us.
St Ignatius Loyola has given us his “Rules for the discernment of spirits” which are the best help for spiritual in all its stages and for all times. Consolation and desolation, joy and sadness, life is marvelous and is miserable, and living all its stages in full is the best way to live out our lives on earth.
The father was a rock singer by profession and with enthusiasm. He was not famous, but he expected his son would become, and was planning to train him personally from the start. He was glad when his wife told him he was expecting, and he began to prepare his programme. He knew his job and he would train his son from the cradle.
The mother liked classical music. When her husband told her his plans for their child she smiled and said nothing. In her mind she thought: “We’ll see who wins. I’m leading for nine months.”
While the father was out at work, the mother played records of classical music all about the house. She approached her body, which were already two, to the players that played Beethoven, Mozart, Back, Vivaldi. The training of the child still to be born had already began.
The child was born and grew and liked music, and he soon showed he could learn it fast. His father introduced him to the secrets of modern song of the electric guitar. The child, already a young man, had a good ear for music and learned fast. He followed the traditional studies, and then the moment came in his life when his father asked him the question that was to define his future:
– “And what do you want to study now?”
– “And what kind of music?”
– “Classical music.”
The mother smiled. She herself told me the story.