Saturday 30 March 2013

Dying with Christ


Reading Rossi de Gasperis. Dying with Christ, he explains, is not biological death. It is dying to every egoistic project, to being through having. It is the flight from all vanity, from the desire to appear rather than to be, from the search for empty popularity, from every desire ‘to count’. Jesus did not count. He was publicly repudiated as a useless Messiah, and Barabbas, a recognized terrorist, was preferred to him.

If we ask to know Jesus more intimately, so as to love him, to imitate him and to follow him more closely, we practically ask to experience the humiliation that his name implies among the men and women of this world. 

And when I read this, I find myself shouting to myself: No!

And RdG adds:

We will struggle all our lives to overcome the resistance we feel in asking the disgrace and the humiliation that are part of the following of Christ. 


Worldly and carnal wisdom finds ridiculous and impossible (ostica) the request to be humiliated. Such a request is far from fashionable in our world that is drunk on talk of ‘justice’ and ‘rights’ and self-realization. More easily we love to say that Jesus ‘struggles,’ and that we also should participate in this struggle. Against whom does Jesus fight, however? Against Herod or Pilate? Against the Sadducees or the Pharisees? Against the priest and the notables of his people? More often, for certain Christians of today it is enough to understand this struggle and formulate it in terms of ‘a fight for justice and peace’. In the exercise of the King, instead, Ignatius pushes far further. “Going against one’s sensuality and against every carnal and worldly love.” (ES 97) And in the exercise of the two Banners, we discover that Jesus fights against Satan (ES 136-148).


And RdG goes on: the best weapon against a worldly and carnal love is humiliation, the lack of success of one who is regarded as a failure or as deluded, that of a useless messiah, to be discarded because he is of no use to anyone, because he does not respond to what was expected of him (Lk 19:14; Jn 19:15, 21)…

Jesus followed such a path because he was convinced that this was the way of the Father among the men and women of this world. [Sentieri di vita 2.2:589-91] 

The Kidron Valley

With the Temple wall in the background

Powerful moment, prostrating here on this ground, perhaps exactly where Jesus might have walked, and certainly not far from where he himself prostrated before the Father... in suffering and anguish and surrender. "He emptied himself..."

With the Church of Gethsemani in the background. Close by, on the left, is the Orthodox Church of the Dormition of Our Lady, and next to this church, caves or grottoes which might have been a familiar place for Jesus and his disciples for spending nights.


I presided at the Good Friday service of the Indian Konkani community here, and sang - or tried to sing - the Passion, which was written in the Kannada script. We had transliterated it into Roman script, and all seemed to be going well, but somewhere the note got lost, and so... But I have the impression that my mangalorean konkani has sort of ... improved.

All in all, quite moving to celebrate the Passion in the Kidron Valley, which is the first thing mentioned in the reading from John's gospel, and just in front of the Gethsemane where he prayed and was anguished and sweated till his sweat fell to the ground like drops of blood, where he complained to his disciples, who were sleeping, and where he surrendered to his Father.

Why was he so anguished? What made him terrified, so that the memory of it remains in the Letter to the Hebrews - "with loud cries and entreaties" - "he learned obedience through what he suffered"? Was it the pain? Was it the prospect of death? Is every human being terrified at the prospect of death, including Jesus? Or was it more, the mixture of the prospect of dreadful suffering, and death, and the fickleness of the crowds and of his closest friends, and betrayal, and just plain misunderstanding and miscomprehension and the stark fact that so few, perhaps no one, understood him, loved him enough to stand by him... "He came unto his own, and his own received him not."

Enchanted in Gallicantu

Yesterday, after more than a year and a half in the Holy Land, and quite unplanned, I dropped in at Gallicantu. I came away enchanted. A lovely, gem of a church. I was in a hurry, since I was on my way to join the great Indian Konkani Way of the Cross from Dormitio to the Kidron Valley. I had decided to go late, so there I was, trailing them by a good bit. That's when I decided to drop in to see this church that I had passed by many times, but never seen. As I said, I am amazed. And I have still to see it properly. The upper church was occupied by the Filipino community from Jaffa, led by an Indian priest celebrating mass. The lower church was free - and I wish I had time to simply sit, and look at the icon of Peter weeping bitterly. The Blessed Sacrament chapel is another gem - empty of course on Good Friday. And the cells or prisons found below - with the probability that this is where the Lord was held, this being the house of Annas, according to what Vernet told me later. Cabanas asked me whether I had seen the stairs, and I said no. It appears that these are the only thing in Jerusalem that might actually be the thing on which Jesus walked...

I bless Peter and his fragility. I bless the Infinite Compassion that has been revealed.

Praying to Jew called Jesus

Overheard in the streets of Jerusalem:
- Abba, what is this?
- This is a Monastery, son.
- What is a monastery?
- I don't know. People go in and never come out.
- What do they do inside, Abba?
- They pray.
- Do they pray to God?
- Yes, but not directly like us. They pray to a Jew called Jesus. 

Thursday 28 March 2013

Fully Catholic, fully open


Fully Catholic and fully open: our seminarians need this. No need to get mad at the mere mention of Gita or Kundalini.

The option of the Church has ever been both/and, not either/or. When faced with the Arian challenge, the Church decided: the Father is God, the Son is God, and there is one God. It was Arius who was the true rationalist, the true Hellenizer. Failing to understand the mystery, he opted to chop off one wing. If Father and Son are both God, there will be two Gods. So the Son cannot be God. The Church: we do not understand; but scripture says; and so: Father is God, Son is God, and there is one God. Later, faced with the mystery of Christ, again the temptation to say: either human or divine. And the Church: both fully human, and fully divine. A mystery that we still struggle with, as when we speak so glibly of the foreknowledge of Christ, and fall quite unwittingly into a Catholic monophysitism.

Aquinas is the great example of the Catholic position. No demonizing of Aristotle, but a patient work of bold discernment: adopt, and adapt. Here Aristotle is put under tribute to the gospel; the gospel remains the supreme criterion. With all his love for Augustine, Aquinas chose to depart from Plato in favour of Aristotle when the need arose. Evangelical boldness. Parrhesia. Not black and white.

Despoiling the Egyptians, as Newman might put it. Reversing the counterpositions, as Lonergan might say, not rejecting the counterpositions. Counterpositions are not mere errors, but truths set in an erroneous or faulty context.

A great attitude to have when faced with the religions, with New Age, even with the non-religions.

Leaning on the heart of Jesus: the singularity of love

We are called to lean on the heart of Jesus, like the beloved disciple did. (Jn 13:23)

But why spend time leaning on the heart of Jesus? Why spend time listening to his joy and to his pain? Is he not himself telling us to wash one another’s feet, to love and serve him in his brothers and sisters?

And yet here too things are not as simple as they appear. There is to love an inerasable personal dimension. Love reaches the singularity of the person. “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me."  (Mt 26:10-11) There is place for the prayer that just spends time with Jesus, that leans on his heart, that listens to his joy and to his pain. “He called twelve, to be with him and to be sent out to preach.” (Mk 3:14)

Pain and love and glory

When we draw near to the heart of Jesus, we feel his love and his joy. But we also feel his pain. In his heart, there are both contrasting emotions, especially in these days of the Passion. he rejoices, but he also weeps, is distressed, is sorrowful to the point of death.

Both emotions come from the same root: the way God reveals himself. "I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to little babes." But why the sorrow? It is not primarily physical pain, or the prospect of such pain. It is the pain that comes from the lack of response. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not."

All our relationships and loves bring joy and pain. Ex amore procedit et gaudium et tristitia, said St Thomas Aquinas very rightly. But the pain that we experience in our relationships is often born of attachment, possessiveness, selfishness, expectations. Can we assume that the pain of Jesus was born of attachment? Or should we not think that there is a pain that is rooted also in true love, a love that does not find a response, a love that suffers at the fragility of the response as in the case of Peter, a love that is distressed that one of his own betrays him (Judas)? For there is that kind of pain too. It is the pain of the heart of God. It is the suffering of God. God who is a beggar before the human heart. God who is a beggar before my heart. He can only wait there, in patience, till I open, till I hold the door open, that he might enter and take over, once, repeatedly, completely, forever.

And this is the moment of glory. This moment of joy and sorrow. In this moment the heart of God is fully revealed. In this moment we know what the heart of God is like. It is a heart that loves, that suffers because of the lack of response, but that continues to love nonetheless. "He knew what was in the hearts of men, and he did not trust himself to them." But also: "he had loved his own, and he loved them to the end." Imperfect as they were, hard-hearted as they were, fickle as they were, self-centred as they were. God who is a mystery of continuous and ongoing kenosis, self-emptying, God reveals the depths of this mystery to us in this moment of great pain: he continues to love us even when we do not love him. So it is not the young Jew in the burning ghetto at Warsaw who is the first to shout out: I will continue to love you forever, O God of anger, even if you do not love us. It is not the young Francis de Sales who is the first to say: I will love you every moment that you allow me to in this life, even if you will not allow me to love you in the hereafter. It is God who has shouted, it is God who shouts out to us: I will continue to love you forever, even if you do not love me. This is the moment of Jesus' glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father. Here is fully and dramatically revealed the love of God.

And perhaps there is also the note of obedience, surrender. Once again, self-emptying and love.


Pain and pain

In the heart of Jesus, especially in these days, there is both joy and pain.
In our hearts too, there is often both joy and pain.
But pain can be ambiguous. It can be the pain that comes from our attachments, our expectations, our sinfulness. It can be the pain that comes from a love that is pure, like the love of Jesus, a love that does not find a response.
There is one sure criterion of the type of pain we are suffering. When pain comes from a love that is not yet pure, there is no joy. When pain comes from a love that is pure, it is accompanied by joy, a deep set joy, and peace, a deep set peace that comes from knowing deep down that one loves, and that one loves purely.

Jesus and the two swords (Lk 22:35-38)


The following is from Augustine Perumalil, SJ, "Violence and Meekness in the Teaching of Jesus," a paper given at the ACPI meeting some years ago. His interpretation, that Jesus was facing the temptation to use violence, does not seem so new and fresh to me anymore - perhaps after reading Rossi de Gasperis. 

In this passage [Lk 22:35-38] Jesus would appear to endorse the possession of weapons of violence, if not their violent use:

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’: and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” (Lk 22:35-38, NRSV)

A literal reading of this passage would suggest that Jesus, though he had previously advocated love of enemies, was now envisaging extreme situations in which violence would be necessary. Some have suggested that Jesus in this passage is accommodating himself to the ‘non-ideal’ context of human fallenness.[1] This literal interpretation was used to justify the Holy Roman Empire by early medieval thinkers. Likewise, the theorists of the High Middle Ages grounded the notion of a papal theocracy in the same notion. Martin Luther also interprets this passage in a way that shows Jesus as endorsing prudential administrative violence. For Luther, Rom 13:4 was the key to understand the endorsement of the sword. Rom 13:4 endorses the use of the sword by the ruler for the good of the community, to punish the evildoers.
Many in the peace tradition take account of Jesus’ rejection of violence at his arrest (Lk 22:49-51), and have tried to find an understanding of this passage that evades an endorsement of violence. Four such suggestions are worth considering.
Guy Herschberger suggests that the disciples, alert to the plots to kill their master, had already acquired swords with which to protect him. However, they had failed to grasp Jesus’ radical rejection of violence, as they had many other elements of his mission. Thus Jesus’ command here should be taken as an ironic rebuke to Peter’s lack of faith (especially in view in the preceding verses, 22:31-34); and Jesus’ conclusion, “It is enough,” should be taken as a regretful “What more can I say?” or “Enough of that.”[2]
John Stoner, on the other hand, has seen the passage as Jesus’ final examination of the disciples’ grasp of his teaching on nonviolence. Their failure to protest or question his command constituted a failure of the test, while his response meant, “That is enough. Obviously, you do not understand. We shall go on.”[3] This interpretation bears well with Jesus’ observation that the apostles were slow to understand spiritual matters, that they had hearts too hard to take in his teachings, eyes that did not see, and ears that did not hear (Mk 8:16-18).
Richard Hays, in his turn, takes Jesus’ command as a figurative warning of impending opposition, while the disciples’ literalist response provokes the impatient dismissal, “Enough already!”[4]
According to Howard Marshall, the saying is not an endorsement of violence but an indication of the intensity of the opposition which Jesus and his disciples will experience, endangering their very lives.[5] 
These explanations are not satisfactory. Many consider such explanations motivated and opt for a more straightforward reading of the passage. Jeremy Thomson, for example, argues that Jesus’ command in v. 36 meant what it said; he wanted his disciples to carry actual swords as his end approached. But the intention was not to use them in self-defence; two swords would hardly be enough to protect him against the crowd that came to arrest him. The purpose of the sword was to give the appearance of being among outlaws, as suggested by v. 37: “For the time has come for this prophecy about me to be fulfilled: ‘He was counted among those who were rebels.’” If this interpretation is true, Jesus’ final remark in v. 38 must be taken to mean: “Two swords are enough for me to be counted among the lawless.”
Undoubtedly, the passage is ambiguous. Its ambiguity has invited various interpretations. But if the test of a difficult teaching is the way it is put into practice, we must pay attention to the account of the arrest later the same evening (Lk 22:47-53). There is no doubt that when the crucial moment arrived, Jesus decisively rejected the use of the sword in an explicit statement, “No more of this!” (Lk 22:51). The miraculous healing of the severed ear emphasized that violence had no place in his strategy. Therefore the explanation of the two swords being enough must be one that rules out any endorsement of violence.
Jeremy Thomson offers an innovative interpretation that takes the endorsement of the swords literally, but at the same time emphasizes Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence. Thomson sees a struggle going on in the mind of Jesus in the unnamed place near the Mount of Olives (Lk 22:39-46). Jesus is reluctant to go through with the ‘cup’ of suffering and is looking for an alternative by which he might accomplish his messianic task. The choice before him was between the way of suffering and a campaign of violence. We may imagine that before the conflict was resolved in the garden, Jesus was in two minds as to the course of action. Perhaps he was tempted to take the way of the sword, but did not know exactly what was to be done with the swords, except that their appearance would entail outlaw associations.
But the time of prayer was crucial. During prayer, his confusion regarding the future course of action had been clarified; he had become even more determined that the cycle of violence must be brought to an end. Therefore, when one of the swords was used, he immediately intervened. From this action of Jesus, Thomson concludes: “His pronouncement, because it was made in the worst circumstances possible (‘your hour and the power of darkness,’ v. 53b), assumes the character of an absolute prohibition for all his followers; an end to violence for all times.”[6] If this interpretation is correct, the controversial passage highlights a renewed commitment to nonviolence after a period of toying with the idea of violence. When he declared, “No more of this” that was his final word on the subject.




[1] Jeremy Thomson, “AT 33: Jesus and the Two Swords: Did Jesus Endorse Violence?” at http://www. anabaptistnetwork.com/node/137. Originally published in Anabaptism Today 33 (June 2003).
[2] See Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969) 302-303.
[3] John K. Stoner, “The Two Swords Passage: A Command or a Question? Nonviolence in Lk 22,” Within the Perfection of Christ, ed. Terry L. Brensinger and E. Morris Sider (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1990) 67-80.
[4] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996) 333.
[5] Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke NIGCT (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978) 823.
[6] Thomson. 

Sunday 24 March 2013

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea. Arimathea was the name for the old Ramah, the town of the prophet Samuel. We passed that town - I forget what it is called now - the other day, on our way down from Jerusalem to Caesarea by the sea. 

Take and drink, this is my blood

With all the prohibitions about drinking blood, which is life, Jesus takes the chalice and passes it on to his disciples having proclaimed that this was the new covenant in his blood.... Someone was saying yesterday that it was still wine, and that the fact that the disciples slept it out in Gethsemane shows that it was wine. I do not want to go into all the details of the classical theory of transubstantiation. I only wonder, for the first time, about the impact of Jesus' action: Take and drink, this is my blood. 

Saturday 23 March 2013

The stones cry out

So many mentions of stones in the readings of these days. The other day, "they took up stones to stone him." And tomorrow, Jesus himself to the Pharisees who want him to make the crowds shut up: "If these keep quiet, the very stones will cry out." The stones of Jerusalem and of the Holy Land do still cry out. Like the stones of Taibeh - Ephraim, where in today's gospel reading Jesus went with his disciples to get away from those wanting to kill him, and to prepare - to face the passion, and the death. Sometimes we are Catholic-Monophysites, thinking that Jesus is more divine than human, that he knew everything in detail beforehand, and so on. But the gospels are clear, and the dogmas are clear: truly God, but also truly and fully human. The picture of the crucifixion - a modern one - in my Claretian gospel diary struck me particularly forcefully. Crucifixion is shameful, painful, degrading. There is no honour left, no dignity, no quarter. That is how Jesus died. With no honour, no dignity, no glory. That is the prospect of the passion that he contemplates in his retreat at Ephraim. That is what he faces in the Garden.

He faced it: though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. And being found in human form, he became humbler still, becoming obedient unto death.

The glory comes from death. The death is the glory. The glory of a being who is fully and completely what he is called to be, what he is: son, Son, of the Father. Totally obedient. The eternal Yes of the Father, to the Father.

And the stones themselves still cry out. They have been invested with the splendour of his glory. 

Friday 22 March 2013

Caesarea Maritime


Cabanas amidst stones from the theatre (much reconstructed now, in the background)

A view of the site of Herod's palace

The Mediterranean...

The temple of Rome used to be here, and then a Byzantine Church
Caesarea Maritime, important city for the New Testament. Here the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius took place, together with that of his household. Here the gospel was first shared with the gentiles. Here therefore is the place associated with the universality of the church. Here is where the first inculturation of the gospel into another culture began. Peter came here from Jaffa, at the behest of the men sent him by Cornelius. (Acts chs. 10-11) Paul also took ship and landed back several times from here, and here it was that he remained a full two years in prison. (Acts 9:30, 18:22; 21:8; 23:31 - 27:2) He was probably imprisoned in Herod's palace. Here is where he appealed to Caesar, and so was sent to Rome, where eventually he suffered martyrdom. The long period of imprisonment was fruitful, said Vernet: it helped him to concentrate and pray, and the result is the Captivity Letters.

A phrase to be kept in our hearts during the day, from Peter's speech at Caesarea: transit bene facendo - "Jesus went about doing good."

Caesarea was a great school of exegesis and theology. It is associated with Origen, and with a famous library, second only to that of Alexandria, now unfortunately completely lost. It is associated with Eusebius, historian of the church and metropolitan.  St Jerome was himself one of the great users of the library.

We took the road through the Palestinian territories, passing Gibeon and Bet Horon on the way. Sanballat, the builder of the Gerizim temple of the Samaritans, was a Gibeonite. He built the temple for his faithful daughter-in-law - the one who preferred to be faithful to her love than to her Jewish religion.

We also passed Rosh Ha Ayin, which used to be Epheq, and later Antipatris (in honour of Herod the Great's father Antipater). 

Prosopon


Mosaic of a prosopon or stage mask - the original root of the word 'person'. Found at Caesarea Maritime. 

Herod Agrippa I

The podium where Herod Agrippa I died


A view of the breathtaking Mediterranean from the theatre

This is one of the theatres in Caesarea Maritime (Caesarea on the sea, half way between Tel Aviv and Haifa, great city built by Herod the Great). I'm sitting exactly where Herod Agrippa I took ill: see the account in the Acts of the Apostles 12:21-23:
21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (NIV)
Josephus reports the same incident in practically the same way, noting, however, that Herod died 5 years later.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Don Bosco the mystic

A new book on Don Bosco: Cristina Siccardi, Don Bosco mistico: una vita tra cielo e terra (Torino: La Fontana di Siloe, 2013). 

Joseph and the splendor gloriae

Vernet gave an extraordinary homily on the feast of St Joseph during the recollection for the candidates for perpetual profession at Cremisan yesterday.

Somebody told me recently what a Jewish scholar said to a group of Christians: for you Christians, Jerusalem has only a spiritual significance; for us Jews, it can never have only a spiritual significance; it is very material and concrete. Vernet's homily began with the phrase from the Psalm: "In your light we see light." Jesus, in Heb 1, he reminded us, is called splendor gloriae: the splendour of glory. And he went on to say that the Holy Places here - Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth - keep something of this splendour. So they have more than a 'merely spiritual' significance. They are not merely symbolic for us. They mean that, and much more. That is why, as Rossi de Gasperis says, there is much sense in pilgrims kissing the stones of the Holy Places. The incarnation is far more concrete and sensible than we care to think.

Not only the stones, but also the people around Jesus shared his splendour: first among them Mary, and then Joseph, and the apostles and disciples. At Pentecost this sharing of the splendor gloriae reaches its peak.

We also share in some way in the splendour of  Jesus. Not so much the splendour of physiognomy or  character or temperament, but the splendour of Jesus, his beauty, his holiness, his love, kindness, humility, goodness, service.

God has willed that our small splendour be communicated to others. This is God's will: that we communicate his light and splendour. This is our mission. We are called therefore to receive, keep, and thank God for this sharing of his splendour, and to communicate it to our brothers and sisters.

As the moon shines by the light of the sun, so do we shine by the light of Jesus. This is also what happened to Joseph, in his humility, his silence. The gospels report not a single word of his. But of one word we can be sure: Jesus, when he gave the name to the son that was born to Mary.

He is the Patron of the Universal Church, not only of the Catholic church. The eastern churches have a great devotion to him, because the Fathers had great esteem for him, because of his closeness to Jesus. Jesus is the sun, Mary and Joseph the reflection. And we can say also that Jesus himself received the light of Mary and Joseph.

Recently an ostracon was discovered on a Greek island. It contains a phrase of just three words from Greek literature: HEROS THES PHANESTOS: be resplendent, shine, as long as you live.

So be great devotees of Joseph, and ask him that we might be small 'splendor gloriae' as he was. 

Ready made


The ready-made society: potato chips all cut and ready for frying, and peeled onions, waiting outside a restaurant on King George Street not far from Ratisbonne. 

Sunday 17 March 2013

The very stones will cry out...


Another of my favourite stories, this is from Dorothy Sayers’s The Just Vengeance. An airman dies and returns to his city. The ‘Recorder’ asks him to recite his creed. Here is how it goes:

RECORDER

What matters here is not so much what you did
As why you did it: the choice behind the action;
The deed is the letter; what you believe is the spirit.
Except a man believe rightly he cannot be saved.
Not even by suffering. Can you recite your creed?

AIRMAN (mechanically)
I believe in God . . .

CHORUS (picking him up and carrying him along with it)
. . . the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth; and
in Jesus Christ . . ,

AIRMAN

No! no! no! What made me start off like that?
I reacted automatically to the word 'creed’
My personal creed is something totally different.

RECORDER

What is speaking in you is the voice of the city.
The Church and household of Christ, your people and country
From which you derive. Did you think you were unbegotten?
Unfranchised? With no community and no past?
Out of the darkness of your unconscious memory
The stones of the city are crying out. Go on.[1]

What is speaking in you is the voice of the city. The very stones cry out. Faith is not something solitary. It is not something so totally personal that it has nothing to do with anyone else. Heidegger and Gadamer have taught us at the very least the inevitable and unerasable historicity of the human being. Gadamer’s dramatic way of putting it is wonderful: our prejudices or pre-judgments, far more than our personal judgments, are the very stuff of our being: "wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein ist mehr Sein als Bewußtsein."

So faith is a gift, not something of my own making. And I must not assume that faith is a solitary gift, something that is somehow given to me alone: it is a gift that passes through a community.



[1] Dorothy Sayers, The Just Vengeance, see http://www.archive.org/stream/foursacredplays012302mbp/foursacredplays012302mbp_djvu.txt, as of 15 March 2013.

The second conversion


Something I have been looking for, and thought I did not have with me. Delighted to find it. I had forgotten that I had discovered the Donovan story in Thomas Cullinan.

One of my favourite stories is from a little book written by a missionary in Africa. It is a good entry into the theme of contemplation and action. The story is about a Masai elder speaking to Vincent Donovan in Tanzania:

Months later when all this had passed, I was sitting talking with a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. He used two languages to respond to me - his own and Kiswahili. He pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey faith was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally "to agree to." I, myself, knew the word had that shortcoming. He said "to believe" like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word. He said for a man to really believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down, the lion envelopes it in his arms (the Masai refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms), pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is.”

I looked at the elder in silence and amazement. Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own faith was gone, I ached in every fibre of my being. But my wise old teacher was not finished yet.

“We did not search you out, Padri,” he said to me. “We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end the lion is God.”

Cullinan comments: when we first set out to work for God the chances are that we are more or less Pelagian and have a reasonably clear ideology. We set out ‘to do God’s will,’ and he is indeed lucky to have us around to do it. We the actors, he the spectator.
For some, that state of affairs lasts until middle age tempers it and they slide quietly and sadly into mediocrity.
But what should happen, and I believe is the normal progress for Christians in any walk of life who have remained alert, seeking and prayerful, is a transition from being in dialogue with God as neighbour (with all the demarcation disputes that it involves) to being in union with God....
It is a conversion which we cannot programme or achieve, but which God’s Spirit will work in us if we are open to it and persevering. We recognize it by hindsight. It is, I believe, the transition:
-        From ‘coming to do God’s will’ (Psalmist) to really seeking ‘that God’s will be done in us’ (Mary)
-        From moral endeavour for God to contemplative union with him.
I have died already. Or as Paul sings at the end of that chapter (Rom 8:38): I am now sure that neither death, nor life... no ‘power’... can come between us and the love of God.

Four thoughts

1.    This conversion ushers in an intense solitude of communion. We discover that the heart of ourself is not in the end an ultimate aloneness but a radical solidarity and communion with all God’s beloved people.
2.    But also we carry an intense joy, because the Christian is not merely a striver for liberation yet to come but a hearer of a liberation of which the down-payment, the pledge, has already been made. It is an enigmatic co-existence of suffering and joy which makes our lives, especially our community lives, living signs:
     From being patrons of his Kingdom, to being instruments of his Kingdom....
     From Jesus’ initial ‘follow me’ to Peter by the lakeside calling him to work for and preach the kingdom to his second ‘follow me’ by the lakeside after Peter had lost any self-assurance other than loving the Lord! When you were young you girded yourself and went where you would; but the time comes when you will be girded by othes and not go where you choose. Follow me. (Domine, quo vadis?)
3.   It is a conversion – from living out of duty and thereby keeping our self-image intact, our autarchic ego respectable, to abandoning that entire game of ‘being somebody’ before God and others. It is the conversion which Paul talks of so often in Romans. God’s Spirit releases us from loving through moral endeavour, to being able to love freely, as it were, naturally.
The conversion always involves a death; indeed, this side of the grave, it involves a constant dying, but only that a new life and freedom may be released in us. We learn what it is to constantly carry in the Body (our community of faith) the dying of Jesus so that his risen life may be manifest. And, surprise, surprise, this freedom from fear makes us invincible: you cannot kill me for I have died already.
4.    Living in the present – one final comment to end with: all our work and missionary endeavour is surely, in the end, enabling the daily things of peoples’ lives to give glory to God. It is the experience of a number of people I know that the conversion I have tried to speak of enables us to live far more fully in the present, and to savour all things.
We are not really artisans in God’s world, are we! We are “God’s work of art” (Eph 2:10). All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God!

See Thomas Cullinan, “A Spirituality for Conflict,” East Asian Pastoral Review (1984) 396-405. 

Saturday 16 March 2013

Understanding Sankara: Essays by Richard De Smet

Just received the news that Understanding Sankara: Essays by Richard De Smet  (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2013) is just out of the press.


Friday 15 March 2013

Kairos Palestine

Extraordinary day yesterday, with the Cultural Initiative of the STS: “Theological Discussion on Kairos Palestine: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” The participants in the Panel were H.B. Michel Sabbah, former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fr Rafiq Khoury, and Fr PierGiorgio Gianazza. Fr Rafiq presented the context of the Kairos Palestine document, H.B. the contents, and Fr Gianazza some theological insight and comments. H.B. was extraordinary in his simplicity, lucidity and penetration, and above all in his deeply Christian invitation to be salt of the earth, to live as engaged disciples of Jesus in the Holy Land, without excessive fear of suffering. It was liberation theology at its best. And it was, according to H.B., the very first time that any Catholic institution had requested a session on the document in question. 

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Faith, and Jesus

Rossi de Gasperis asks, does not grace follow nature, and should not faith be in harmony with reason? does not the spirit presuppose the flesh and the psyche? And further: this harmony between the psychic and spiritual dimensions of our evangelical destiny, should it follow an ascending order or a descending one? In other words, should we begin with nature in order to arrive at grace, or from grace, which will then elevate nature? Should we begin from Simon in order to arrive at Peter, or will Peter awaken Simon into a horizon that is completely unexpected and unlimited? But: beginning from Simon, will we ever reach Peter?

Jesus begins with a dramatic call to his person: 'Follow Me!' (Lk 5:27) ... The power of such a call lies in the ME of Jesus. This ME creates an order of things that is completely new and transcendent, even if the composition of the group will present progressive tensions and dramatic risks of failure, continuous discussions about who is the greatest, up to Peter's denial and Judas' betrayal. The fact is that none of them was really up to the task proposed (cf Lk 9:62). Only the fascination and the heart of Jesus could give rise to that miracle of grace and of nature that was and is the Church of the New Testament. We remember that also with Abraham and the patriarchs of Israel the Lord did not begin with their (inadequate) moral dispositions, but from pure faith. Faith and salvation are gifts offered to a people that is not yet healthy, a people who is unprepared and unpreparable, who however has an extreme need of them! (140-141)

And so: how did I come to faith? Only one answer: the fascination, the heart of Jesus that breaks in upon the busy day and calls: Follow ME. There is no reasoned discourse into the faith, there is no syllogistic ladder when it comes to faith in Jesus. There is only fascination, which is another name for a love that does not need to respect the old adage, Nihil amatum nisi cognitum. 

Stones

"For your servants love her very stones
and are moved with pity even for her dust." Ps 101(102)

The forgiveness of sins, and liberation theology

"He teaches, casts out demons, cures fevers and lepers, but in the end it is for the remission of sins that he has been sent, and the healings are a sign of the forgiveness of sins that he offers." (RdG 136)

It is for the remission of sins that he has been sent, in the end. For one who has grown up with liberation theology, that is still difficult: it is for the forgiveness of sins that he has been sent. Are not the problems of humankind more urgent, the injustices, the pain, the evils inflicted by human beings on one another, often quite 'unconsciously'? Are we then once again to fall into a seeming 'spiritualism', glibly ignorant or wanting to ignore the real pain of the world?

And yet here there is something to be meditated on. The reversal of values that Jesus has come to bring about. What is evil for us is not the ultimate evil for Jesus. Do I understand that? Ultimate evil is sin, it is hatred, it is lack of love, it is indifference. And there, perhaps, lies the root even of structural evil.

Rossi de Gasperis is interesting. Jesuit that he is, he has meditated and contemplated in his Ignatian way long and often on these passages of the gospel. See, for example, what he says about the men who lower down the paralytic through the roof: the first thing Jesus says is: "Man, your sins have been forgiven you." And RdG: "It is as if lightning strikes that little house in Israel. What might 'forgiveness of sins' have to do with all this? The four bearers, surprised, might have thought: We have gone through all this trouble only to get 'forgiveness of sins' for our sick friend, something that in the end no one can really verify? But what sins? If this man is paralysed, the important thing is to make him walk, not to forgive his sins! What delusion!" (135)

And again, about Jesus curing the paralytic: "Jesus' reply is marked by a subtle sense of humour [La replica di Gesu' non manca di un fine umorismo]. He had said what, according to them [the Pharisees] was easier to say, but absolutely impossible to do, unless the one saying it was God. Now, instead, he says what, according to them, was more risky to say, and this so that all Israel might know that the Son of man had the power on earth to forgive sins. Irony and omnipotence of Jesus: his day is the Day of Expiation of the Lord!" (137)

"It is not true that there is always time for the remission of sins, and that what is urgent is first of all the healing of bodies. Simon Peter, at the sight of all those fish in the nets, had grasped immediately the primacy of his own spiritual state. Jesus proposes first of all this condition to the paralytic of Capharnaum. A good contribution for understanding who really are 'the poor' in the discourse at Nazareth." (136) Once again the challenge to deepen my understanding of poverty. To put on the mind of Jesus. Jesus for whom the real evil is not physical but indifference, lack of love, hatred, and a merely human - and so in the end diabolic - way of thinking. Difficult, this, even to write, in our New Age. 

Monday 11 March 2013

The man born blind (Jn 9)

"If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children..." What does Jesus mean by 'evil' here? Perhaps nothing more dramatic than a merely human way of thinking. That, at least, is what he seems to mean when he says to Simon Peter, "Get behind me, Satan, because the way you are thinking is not God’s way but man’s.”

But what is wrong with a merely human way of thinking? What is wrong, is that it is not God’s way of thinking. And, despite my difficulty is really swallowing this, I am beginning to slowly agree with Rossi de Gasperis that this is diabolic. It is the anthropos psichikos. Opposed to this is the anthropos pneumatikos.

The alternative gospel for today, which is the gospel of IV Sunday of Lent A, is the gospel of the cure of the Man Born Blind (Jn 9). We could ask, with Ignatius: which of the characters am I? am I the blind man? but I believe! Am I the Pharisees? But again, I believe! Then why this gospel addressed to me today? Perhaps: an invitation to migrate from a merely human way of thinking to God’s way of thinking. A migration that has begun but is never quite complete. We pray that we might see. We pray for the Eye of Faith. 

Sunday 10 March 2013

Ana Rita Fernandes Vaz


Bust of Ana Rita Fernandes Vaz, mother of the artist Inacio Vaz of Guirim, grandmother of my own maternal grandmother, Maria Piedade Da Cruz Cardoz. Never knew this bust existed. Thanks to Belinda Vaz for the information. Good to have some links with the remote past! We used to have several pics of Maria Piedade, unfortunately most of them lost or damaged now. 

Saturday 9 March 2013

The importance of Capharnaum

Capharnaum is the place Jesus chose as the centre of his mission in Galilea. (Lk 4:31). This is a choice of great importance. The town was smack on the Via Maris that comes up from Egypt along the Mediterranean coast and then crosses the country towards Damascus, constituting thus a great link between Africa and Asian, from Egypt to Syria, Mesopotamia and up to India, open therefore to international, religious, social, economic and cultural contacts and relations of every type. In fact, on the southern shore of the Lake of Tiberias, there were at the time rich cities, populous and importante, such as Magdala, Genesaret, Capharnaum itself and Bethsaida.

Further, Capharnaum was situated on the borders of the Tetrarchy of Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great and Maltace) and that of his step-brother Philip (son of Herod the Great and Mariamne II), a border that was marked by the entry of the river Jordan into the Sea of Galilee. This has a certain importance in the life of Jesus, who was never completely at peace with that Herod, the one who killed the Baptist (see Lk 9:7-9; 13:31-33; 23:6-12). The capital of Herod, from about 17 AD, was Tiberias, a Jewish-pagan city that perhaps Jesus never visited, erected by Antipas in honour of the emperor Tiberias, and about 13 kms away from Capharnaum. The tetrarchy of Philip was instead more safe, because it was only partly Jewish, with a mixed population. Its territory, in the north-east of the Lake of Tiberias, consisted of Batanea, Traconitidis, Iturea, Gaulanitidis, Auranitidis. We see Jesus often crossing the Jordan to the safety of the other shore, in these areas which for him were more peaceful, or climbing the Golan heights, towards Caesarea Philippi, the capital of the tetrarchy.

Capharnaum, therefore, was an ideal place for that universal openness announced at Nazareth, and, besides being an important place for international contacts, offered Jesus greater security, because it was easy to get away from in case of danger. Jesus, therefore, fixes there the centre of his activity, and from what we know, in the house of Simon Peter. (Rossi de Gasperis, Sentieri di vita 2.2:98-99)

Friday 8 March 2013

The absolute horizon

"Leaving... and following" does not mean necessarily breaking up with everything, but rather putting Jesus at the absolute centre of our preferences, subordinating to him every other attachment." (See Mt 10:37-39: he who loves father and mother more than me...) (Rossi de Gasperis, Sentieri di vita 2.2:114)

Thursday 7 March 2013

Wadi Hariton

Wadi Hariton

John Lian, Finansius, Luca, Clarence

The wadi again
Another extraordinary 'rusticatio' today, this time to Wadi Hariton (or Kharitoun), named after the famous St Chariton, founder of the first laura in Palestine.

Wadi Hariton is the most famous wadi in the Judean desert. It is 40 kms long, beginning from the Pools of Solomon in Bethlehem, and ending in a delta in the Dead Sea. Till the British Mandate, it had water all the year round. Herod the Great with the help of the Tenth Legion 'Fretensis' had constructed many aqueducts along the course.

We read from Is 35, Jer 2:2-3, and Hos 2:16-17 (I will bring her into the wilderness). The desert and the covenant, especially the matrimonial covenant, are very much connected in the thinking of Israel. This is not surprising, seeing that Israel was formed in the desert.

The Wadi has seen human life since the early Palaeolithic Age. The most important of the caves in this regard - dating back from 400,000 years - are the Erk al Ahmar, the Umm Qatafa, the Umm Qala, the Chresmastos, and the Labyrinth. Umm Qatafa was the place where the very earliest evidence of fire has been discovered. Human beings had already made flint weapons, and fire was produced by striking two flints. In other caves, evidence of art and sewing have also been found. In fact, the Neolithic period is divided into the pre-ceramic and the post-ceramic.

One of the highlights of the rusticatio was the visit to the Labyrinth. This cave is some 2000 metres long, but we did probably only about less than half, and even so at some points we had to literally crawl on our bellies - except for, that is, the chaps from North East India and Myanmar who seemed to just crawl through on their knees without any difficulty and without a spot of dust on their shirts.

The gundelia tournaforte is found in great abundance along its slopes. This plant is particularly important and famous because its flowers occur on the Shroud of Turin, and because the combination of gundelia and zigophyllum is to be found only in and around Jerusalem, and nowhere else in the whole world, so that the man of the Shroud was certainly buried in Jerusalem - all this according to the Jewish professor Avinoam D. The gundelia flowers only from February to May, and Jesus died in the early part of April, 7 April according to Vernet. We unfortunately were able to see only a few specimens that were beginning to flower. (The zigophyllum is a bush, about a metre high, covered with a thin down, a bush that can survive upto 250 years, and in conditions of great aridity. It is found in South East Israel, in the Negev and in Sinai. It therefore approaches Jerusalem from the West, while the gundelia approaches Jerusalem from the East. They meet, therefore, along the Jerusalem ridge.)

The personages associated with Wadi Hariton are David, the prophet Amos (his Tekoa is not the modern settlement on the hill, but 5 kms away to the south), and St Chariton.

St Chariton was from Iconium, converted to Christianity, and suffered persecution under the emperor Aurelian. He did not die, however, but was eventually released, under the emperor Tacitus. He was allowed to journey to Jerusalem. On the way, he was beset by robbers, who left him bound in their cave in the Wadi Phara. Here again he was saved, and decided to live a life of asceticism in the Robber's Cave. This became the first laura in Palestine. Eventually he founded a second one on the Mount of Temptation, the Douka, and a third one in Wadi Hariton, the Souka. He returned to Wadi Phara, died and was buried there. Chariton was a contemporary of St Anthony of the Desert. Laura means 'narrow way' - somewhat like the course of the wadi. The monks lived in caves, and met saturdays and sundays to celebrate the liturgy, to eat together (convivium), to hand over their work, and to receive material for more work. They produced ropes, baskets and carpets, which the one in charge of the economy sold in Bethlehem. 

Wednesday 6 March 2013

"What have you to do with us?"

For the very first time, perhaps, a light on those mysterious passages of the gospel, where Jesus casts out demons. "If you who are evil..." - as I suspected, "evil" here is a merely human, all too human, way of thinking, and this, says Rossi de Gasperis, is diabolic.

Jesus enters the synagogue at Capharnaum and begins to teach there on the Sabbath (Lk 4:31-37). He speaks with authority - not for him citations from authorities as was the custom. Instead: "I say unto you." He is fully conscious of being the subject of the messianic "today" of his discourse at Nazareth. And his teaching causes the demons to come out. (Lk 4:33-34)

The unspiritual man cannot understand the things of the spirit; only the spiritual man can. (1 Cor 2:12-14)

To absolutize the political, the economics, the cultural - that is to fall into the trap of demonic possession, says RdG. And this is the point to be understood, grasped, accepted. A merely human way of thinking - we do not normally think of this as demonic, diabolic. But that is what RdG is saying. "If you who are evil..." 'Evil' here is far from being diabolic in the rather dramatic and perhaps Hollywoodian sense that we seem to be accustomed to. It is far more - banal, normal, everyday. And so absolutely easy to ignore. 

Tuesday 5 March 2013

"I, Samson"

Here is Joan Maria Vernet's beautiful account of Samson:

Today you have thought about me and have come to my region, the original place of the tribe of Dan. The territory of the tribe extended along the middle course of the Soreq creek, which comes down from the northern part of Jerusalem (Bet Hanina) and passes below Ain Karem. I will talk to you about myself, Samson, name that means: "Son of the sun". A name so beautiful and full of meaning... but for me it is almost a synonym for shame and humiliation. Even the Philistines laughed at me, they cruelly laughed as they inflicted pain on me with the worse humiliations and racks: you remember how they took out my eyes and forced me to pull the mill stone of the prison. And then even my tragic end became emblematic, the so-called "Samson syndrome" that means the death on oneself together with the killing of one's enemies.

Certainly I am the most enigmatic character of the Old Testament, the most woeful, with a harsh personality and tragic circumstances. Besides me there is another person hard to explain, controversial: King Saul and perhaps even a third one, much more difficult to understand: King Solomon. But I went even further of them in my rashness, superficiality, passions (on this the king Saul Had no problem, while Solomon went much further than I did): most of all my mistake was my unfaithfulness to God’s plan. I admit it: I have been a proverbial negative case, sadly notorious for my eccentricity an lack of judgment.

However I think that among you there might be somebody who will look at me with sympathy and understanding… The circumstances in which I found myself were extremely difficult. In Israel there was no temple yet and there were no prophets, there were no Psalms to pray, there was almost nothing written to let me know some examples of God's fear or to find comfort in prayer. Joshua and Gideon were remembered and their valorous actions full of violence: my small tribe of Dan was surrounded by the terrible Philistines and the environment was really debased from a moral and religious point of view.

Moreover I had a passionate and violent character, peremptory and whimsical. Temperament does not depend on ourselves: we are born with it. I was born with this strong character, choleric, primary, fragile, and with an irresistible weak inclination to women. These became, as in many other cases in history, the sources of my ruin.

I did no go to school nor did I have a teacher who could teach me the fear of God. My parents, simple and honest, but without initiative, always lived in fear of the nearby Philistines and did not dare to correct me, even though they knew that) would have not minded their advice. In short, I grew up as a wild plant, without care or protection from anybody.

You might remember some of my adventures: the fight with the lion, the foxes that set fire on Philistines’ harvests, the killing I did with a donkey jaw at Lechi, the doors of Gaza carried on my shoulders, and my sad ending… These are the things that people remember about me. But this is but the frame of my person, which is ultimately always a mystery, or, as in my case, an absurdity.

My first wife, from Timna, near Nahal Soreq, West of Bet Shemesh, could have been the source of my joy: I was deeply in love with her but she was not so much in love with me. The story began very well despite the silent opposition of my family, because my wife was Philistine. Then the envy of my friends began and my superficiality brought about my ruin. I was imprudent in telling them that riddle about the lion and the honey. It was the beginning of my misadventures.

With Delilah, my other wife, I could have been happy: she was a fascinating person who fell in love with me, attracted by my insuperable strength. With a little of will and more common sense I could have overcome this obstacle; to tell her the secret of my strength was my ruin and it opened my tomb.
Hero, villain, terrorist, judge, womanizer ... all titles were given to me and always with some negative connotation, with suspicion, contempt and for this reason I am quoted only once in the New Testament (Heb 11, 32) and never again mentioned in the OT, not even in the Psalms which describe the glory of Israel or in the list of biblical figures that you can read here and there in the scriptures of the wise.

Myth, legend, history, literary invention? Even my life is discussed by the experts: somebody claims I never existed; somebody thinks I am the result of a compilation of different data from different Bible figures; somebody regards me as a literary invention with a doctrinal purpose. You see, my status in the Bible is unique, and not at all favorable for my fame.

But I really did exist, perhaps not in the precise way as the book of Judge describes me: but my existence was real, a man in bones and flesh, and these hills which today you see, I saw too, during my childhood and youth, and if they could speak they would tell you many things about me and not all of them would be negative or burlesque.

When I was forty, my death came: I died crashed with 3000 Philistines, under the ruins of the temple of Dagon, in Gaza. In my biography, the book of Judges writes an immensely sad sentence: "But he did not know that the Lord had left him" (Judges 16, 21). This is one of the saddest and painful sentences of the Bible. Yes, I was then blind and in chains, I fell in desperation, in a terrible darkness, in a horrible emptiness.

For me it is not a source of real pride the fact that among the Judges I am the one whose story takes more space (4 chapters) nor that my name is still used among people to say "he is like Samson" for his strength, or when people talks of the "Samson's syndrome". Nor that movies were made about me. No, these things pass away; they do not touch the core of one's personality. What makes me happy and proud is that God chose me for a mission in favor of his people and I, although badly and faulty, fulfilled the task that God entrusted to me.

Lack of prudence, lust, ruin, passions ... all can be explained and can find forgiveness in God's eyes, when a man is left alone with himself and his suffering, solitude, the deepest failure. I experienced betrayal, humiliation, contempt, jokes, abandonment ... but I also know what strength is, what valor, glory and the joy of victory are.

I lived all these things with intensity: all these I have been, Samson of Zoreah, the "Son of the sun", the son of Manoah. I will always be a problematic character, discussed among people, a mystery, but a person that God never disowned. 

Remember: only at God's light and at the splendor of his goodness, man has a real fame and a real story.

Handel's Resurrection


It was 21st August 1741. George Frederick Handel was despondent, a lost soul who no longer
believed in his ability to create music. In his struggles he felt alone. When he returned home
that night, he found a manuscript sent him by Charles Jennings, “hoping that the greatest genius
in music would speed forth the lumbering words on the wings of undying melody”. On the first
page, Handel read the word “Messiah”. Turning the title page, the first words that arrested his
attention were: “Comfort ye!” He felt it was the voice of God addressed to his weary heart. As
he read on, the words penetrated his soul and brought forth a sense of liberation. The Hallelujahs
that followed almost reflected his own “resurrection experience”. Approximately three weeks
later, and seventeen hours of uninterrupted sleep on completion of the task, Handel awoke. On
seeing his doctor Jenkins, he began to laugh and sang the final chorus. When Handel finished,
the doctor muttered: “You must be possessed of the devil!” To which, with hanging head,
Handel whispered, “I think rather, that God has visited me.” The Messiah marked the temporal
resurrection of Handel – a movement from despair, loneliness, anger, to joy, laughter and a spirit
of religiosity. In fact, an unmistakable sign of this new life was the fact that Handel asked that
the money he earned from his work be devoted to the care of prisoners, orphans and the sick.
“Because”, he said, “I have myself been a very sick man and am now cured; I was a prisoner and
have been set free.” (Courtesy Fr Ian Figueiredo, Provincial Circular 3, INP Province, 3 March 2013)

Monday 4 March 2013

Jesus the Eldest

Reflecting on the parable of the Prodigal Son, the question occurred to me: which of the characters is Jesus? I have never asked myself this question. He is certainly not the younger son, but he is not the elder son either.

Or perhaps: he is the Elder Son, the Eldest Son of the Father, who is "always with the Father." But an Elder Son who rejoices, celebrates when the Younger Son comes back. And in fact, while the Father "stays at home," goes in search of the Lost Sheep.

And what is the "sin against heaven and against you"? The share of the property belongs to the Younger Son: he takes what is his rightful share. But: he has no patience. He claims by right what is gift. And he squanders it. He is left with nothing. He eats the food of the pigs. (That's quite something, especially in this Middle Eastern culture.)

Jesus reveals to us the Face of the Father.

"Io, Sansone"


I am publishing here a wonderful text by Fr Joan Maria Vernet. It involves Samson speaking about himself to us, people of today. We read this (in English) at our last excursion, at Deir Rafat, not far from the place where Samson was born and lived. It was touching.

Oggi avete pensato a me, Sansone, e siete venuti nella mia regione, il posto primitivo della tribù di Dan. Il territorio di questa tribù si estendeva ai lati del corso medio del torrente Zoreq, il torrente che scende dalla regione nord di Gerusalemme (Bet Hanina) e passa sotto Ain Karem. Vi parlerò un po’ di me,  Sansone, nome che vuol dire “figlio del sole”.
Un nome così bello e così emblematico, ma che io ne ho fatto quasi un sinonimo di ignominia e di scherno. Perfino i filistei si facevano beffa di me, mi hanno deriso crudelmente affliggendomi con le peggiori umiliazioni e tormenti: ricordate che mi hanno cavato gli occhi e mi hanno condannato a girare la macina del mulino nella prigione.
E poi, persino la mia fine è diventata un motto, la cosiddetta “sindrome di Sansone” quando si vuol indicare la morte di sé stesso con l’uccisione dei propri nemici.

Sicuramente io sono il personaggio più enigmatico di tutto l’Antico Testamento, il più deplorevole, con una personalità difficile tra circostanze tragiche. Accanto a me sorge anche un’altra figura difficile da spiegarsi, controversa: il re Saul, e forse ancora una terza, molto più difficile a comprendersi: quella del re Salomone.
Ma io sono andato più avanti di loro nell’irreflessione, nella leggerezza, nella passione (sulla quale il re d’Israele Saul non ebbe nessun inciampo e Salomone andò molto più lontano di me); ma soprattutto il mio sbaglio è stato, come il loro, l’infedeltà al disegno di Dio. Io, lo riconosco, sono stato un caso proverbiale e negativo, tristemente celebre per le mie eccentricità e poco senno.
Penso comunque che fra di voi ci saranno alcuni che mi guarderanno con una certa simpatia e comprensione... Le circostanze che io trovai nella mia vita erano estremamente difficili. In Israele non c’era ancora il tempio, non c’era ancora nessun profeta, non c’erano i salmi per pregare, non c’era quasi niente di  scritto in maniera che io potessi vedere esempi di timor di Dio o trovare il conforto della preghiera. Di Giosuè e di Gedeone si ricordavano le loro gesta piene di violenza... la mia piccola tribù di Dan era attorniata dai temibili filistei, e l’ambiente era degradato dal punto di vista morale e religioso.
Inoltre ho avuto un carattere appassionato e violento, imperativo e capriccioso: il temperamento non dipende da noi stessi: nasciamo con esso. A me toccò in sorte un temperamento assoluto, infiammabile, primario, fragile, e con un debole sempre più acuto e irresistibile per le donne. Queste sono state, come in tanti altri casi della storia, la mia rovina. Io non ho conosciuto la scuola, né un maestro che mi insegnasse il timor di Dio. 
I miei genitori, semplici ed onesti, ma senza iniziativa, vivevano sempre sotto la paura dei vicini filistei, e non osavano correggermi, anche perché sapevano che io non avrei fatto nessun caso dei loro consigli. Insomma, sono cresciuto come una pianta selvatica, senza  cura né protezione di alcuno.
Ricorderete alcune delle mie imprese: la lotta col leone, le volpi che portarono il fuoco sulle messi dei filistei, la strage fatta tra di loro con la mascella di un asino, le porte di Gaza caricate sulle mie spalle, e la mia triste fine... Sono le cose che la gente ricorda di me, ma questo non è che la cornice della persona. Questa rimane sempre un mistero, e tante volte, come nel mio caso, un assurdo. 
La mia prima moglie, di Timna, accanto al nahal Soreq, ad ovest di Bet Shemesh, doveva essere la mia felicità: io ero follemente innamorato di lei; e lei di me forse non tanto. La cosa cominciò molto bene, anche se con l’opposizione tacita della mia famiglia per il fatto che mia moglie era filistea. Poi si mescolò  l’invidia degli amici e la mia leggerezza che mi procurò la disfatta. Sono stato imprudente nel proporre loro quell’indovinello sul leone e il miele. Fu l’inizio delle mie disgrazie.
Con Dalila, l’altra moglie,  sarei stato anche felice: era una persona affascinante che si innamorò di me, attratta dalla mia forza insuperabile. Mi voleva molto bene, ma si sentiva totalmente legata al suo popolo. Con un pò di volontà e un pò di senno da parte mia, avrei potuto superare quello scoglio; quel rivelarle il segreto della mia forza fu la mia disgrazia, aprì la mia tomba. 

Eroe, bandito, terrorista, giudice, donnaiuolo... tutto mi è stato applicato, e sempre con una connotazione negativa, sospettosa, disprezzabile, e per questo non sono stato citato che una sola volta nel Nuovo Testamento (Eb 11, 32) e mai più ricordato nell’Antico, neppure dai Salmi che cantano le glorie di Israele o dai sommari dei personaggi biblici che si leggono qua e là nei libri dei saggi. 
Mito, leggenda, storia, creazione letteraria? anche la mia vita è discussa tra gli specialisti: chi crede che non sono mai esistito, chi pensa che sono il frutto di una compilazione di dati  appartenenti a diversi personaggi, chi mi considera una creazione letteraria a scopo dottrinale. Vedete che il mio stato nella Bibbia è tutto particolare, per niente favorevole alla mia memoria.
Ma io sono esistito, forse non nella maniera esatta con cui mi descrive il libro dei Giudici: ma la mia esistenza è stata ben reale, un uomo in carne ed ossa, e queste colline, queste valli che voi oggi vedete, le ho viste anch’io nella mia infanzia e gioventù, e loro potrebbero parlare di tante cose a mio riguardo, e certamente non tutte sarebbero negative o burlesche.

Appena quarantenne arrivò la mia morte: morìi  schiacciato con 3.000 filistei, sotto le macerie del tempio di Dagon in Gaza. Nella mia biografia, il libro dei Giudici scrive una frase immensamente triste: E Sansone “non sapeva che il Signore si era ritirato da lui” (Gdc 16, 21). Questa è una delle espressioni più dolorose e desolanti della Bibbia. Sì, io, allora, cieco e prigioniero, ero caduto nella disperazione, nel buio più terribile, nel vuoto più spaventoso.
Per me, però, quello che costituisce un vero vanto, non è che sia il giudice biblico le cui vicende occupano più spazio (4 interi capitoli), né che il mio nome sia ancora in uso fra la gente quando si dice di uno: “è un Sansone” per la sua forza, o si parla della “sindrome di Sansone”, né che  siano stati fatti dei film su di me, no: queste sono cose che passano, non arrivano al fondo della personalità. Quello che mi rallegra è che  Dio mi abbia scelto per un compito a favore del suo popolo, e che, anche se male e difettosamente, ho adempiuto questo ruolo che Dio mi ha assegnato. 

Irriflessione, lussuria, disgrazia, passione... tutto può avere una spiegazione e sempre un perdono agli occhi di Dio quando l’uomo si trova con se stesso, con il dolore, con la solitudine, con l’insuccesso più nero. Io ho conosciuto il tradimento, l’umiliazione, il disprezzo, le burle, l’abbandono... ma anche so cosa sia la forza, il valore, la gloria e la gioia del trionfo...
Ho vissuto tutto questo in un modo intenso; tutto questo sono stato io, Sansone di Zorea, il “figlio del sole”, figlio di Manoach. Io rimarrò per sempre una figura problematica e discussa tra gli uomini, un enigma, ma una persona che Dio non ha mai ripudiato. 
Ricordatelo: solo alla luce di Dio e allo splendore della  sua bontà, l’uomo ha un vero nome e una vera storia.

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