Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Vaclav Havel and the Politics of Hope"

"Vaclav Havel and the Politics of Hope" from Noetic Sciences Review, # 18, Spring 1991

It could be that many in our culture have developed an almost voyeuristic interest in the personal lives of our celebrities, including our political leaders. Yet, we seldom (if ever) deign it necessary to consider in any deeper ways the worldviews of those who lead us. It is not considered "important" to know, for instance, George Bush's view about the meaning of life, or even what the perspective of Dan Quayle is regarding the nature of reality. Certainly, this apparent lack of interest in such "deeper" matters is not unique to American society. While consideration of such philosophical matters may have a somewhat more prominent place in the political history of other lands, nowhere do they predominate. Nowhere do they assume a prominence over more down-to-earth, "bread and butter" issues like war and taxes and bread and circuses.

Perhaps this is the reason Vaclav Havel seems to some to be a manifestation of a completely different genre of political leader. He is a man whose life is energized by consideration of these "deeper things". What is the main issue faced by modern humanity in these closing years of the twentieth century? One might tick off the whole "laundry list" of the troubles of our day: the Middle East, the world economy, problems of industrialization. But no, Havel says:

The question is . . . deeper . . . whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speaking, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human I, responsible for ourself because we are bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything . . . for the sake of that which gives life meaning.

Perhaps one needs to remind oneself that these are not the words of a detached professor of philosophy (or even of political science!) at some central European university. They are the words of the
president of a nation of sixteen million souls in the heart of Europe. These are the words of no detached intellectual; they are the words of a man whose philosophy of life has been tempered in a crucible far harsher than that which most of us will ever be called upon to withstand. They are the words of a man who led a revolution, right in front of the eyes of the world.

And what a different kind of revolution it was! "In Poland, the revolution took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in Czechoslovakia ten days." So the saying (coined by the British reporter Timothy Garton Ash) went during the later months of 1989, the year that changed our world. Strictly speaking, the revolution in Czechoslovakia took all of a month and a half, from November 17, when government riot police attacked demonstrators in Prague, to the afternoon of December 29 when, with Alexander Dubcek presiding, the nation's Federal Assembly elected Vaclav Havel the president of what was then still called the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

It was a revolution led by writers and actors and teachers and university students and members of labor unions by intellectuals and workers, side by side. It was a revolution whose manifestos and policy statements were often drafted at mass meetings held in the auditorium of a theatre called the "Magic Lantern" with several hundred people present, all with the right to make a point about the matter under consideration. It was a revolution which, aside from that initial state-instigated violence in Wenceslas Square, proceeded in a spirit of passionate and rigorous non-violence. It would become known among the people of Czechoslovakia and then the world as the "velvet revolution", because it was so gentle and non-violent and seemed to hold close to its center a joyousness and a celebration of imagination and creativity unknown in the annals of political revolutions of
ages past.

It was a gentle revolution with a most unlikely leader: Vaclav Havel was born to a prosperous bourgeois family in Prague in October of 1936. His father was a civil engineer and a builder; his mother's father was a financial editor and had served as ambassador to several countries and then as a government minister for a short while. As a child, Vaclav grew up in the midst of plenty and privilege. Of those early years, he would later write:

Our family employed, as the custom was, domestics. I had a governess; we had a cook, a maid, a gardener, and a chauffeur. All of that put between myself and those around me (I mean my poorer fellow students and our staff) a social barrier which . . . I was very much aware of and found hard to deal with. I was ashamed of my advantages, my 'perks'. . . . I longed for equality with others, not because I was some kind of childhood social revolutionary, but simply because I felt separate and excluded . . . because I knew that between me and those around me there was an invisible wall, and because behind that wall . . . I felt alone, inferior, lost, ridiculed . . . humbled by my 'higher' status. 3

Havel's feelings of being an "outsider" would only intensify when the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and the members of his family were stripped of all their special privileges. He would later say that this feeling of always being outside the norm would have great influence upon him; later, he said, it would influence his art and his view of the world.
Central among the ideas which Havel articulates in his work is a view of humanity standing humbly before the greater forces of the natural world and the unfolding cosmos. It is only by rooting our lives within these greater forces, and directing our sights toward greater goals, Havel believes, that the so-often-absurd little lives of each of us can grow to become truly meaningful. But if we cling with all our strength to our own little lives as the center of all meaning, then we ultimately drown in a sense of our own absurdity—or, we lose hope and give over control of our lives to some outside force of ideology or authority.

It is through our identification with goals and ideals beyond the ephemeral, transient world of business or politics as usual that we find meaning and strength in our lives. Through this identification with the timeless, indestructible forces of life, the conscience of the individual is empowered to continue questioning without pause in the face of absurdity, and the individual person is empowered to act without fear in the face of tyranny. This sense of oneness with a greater force beyond the constrictors of an oppressive society is what Havel calls "the power of the powerless".

Each individual being connects with the "greater force" by listening to his or her own deep, inner voice and then seeking to lead a life based upon the principle of
living within the truth. Where does one find "truth"? Out in the natural world, Havel believes: in the natural world with its natural objective laws, its cycles and seasons, and its ebb and flow. According to him, it is modern humanity's alienation from the natural world which is the cause of much of our trouble. In order to grow into harmony with the greatest Truth in the universe, Havel believes we human beings must stop seeing ourselves as the ruler over nature, and must once again come to see ourselves as part and parcel of nature. In one essay, he writes, "We must honor with the humility of the wise the bounds of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our [human] competence. . . "

The natural world will tell us what is true for us—and what is true for the world. Alienation results when people in a modern society fail to listen to the voice of nature, the voice of the conscience, and instead base their lives on the dictates of some party or corporation or ideology outside of themselves.
 Human beings relate to the cosmos and to the natural world, not only individually, but socially and politically as well, of course. What kind of social and political structures can help to lead women and men away from the alienation of living a lie, and assist them as they seek to "live within the truth"? To further these ends, Havel believes, the institutions and structures of society have to be built from the ground  upward, and not from the top down. Structures must be constructed based upon "human factors"—the needs and desires of individuals—"rather than from a particular formalization of political relationships" and the overriding demands of this or that ideology. Havel writes: "Rather than a strategic agglomeration of formalized organizations, it is better to have organizations springing up ad hoc, infused with enthusiasm for a particular purpose and disappearing when that purpose has been achieved."

It is because such small groups of mutual support and edification seem so insignificant in the face of the totality of the predominating culture that these manifestations of the "parallel polis" in the East and in the West (are these the real "thousand points of light"?) can keep hope alive.

Because they set their sights on more distant horizons—which is at the same time the horizon within their individual consciences—supporters of such grassroots organizations can strive to remain true to their own personal integrity even in the midst of oppression.

Living within the truth is never easy, for the pull of forces outside of ourselves is so very strong, and the ideology of the predominating culture always provides what Havel calls a "bridge of excuses" for choosing not to live within the truth. For Havel and his fellow dissidents in Eastern Europe, as for political dissidents everywhere, choosing to live within the truth sometimes meant facing harassment or exile or jail or even death. (Havel himself was imprisoned for nearly five years during the regime of Gustav Husak. He nearly died in prison, and was only released because such "enlightened" Communist authorities decided that they didn't need a martyr on their hands.) But in spite of persecution, Havel remained true to his course; indeed, he seemed to grow stronger in the face of persecution, for the hope within him continued to grow, and to nourish him.

In 1986, three years before he became president of Czechoslovakia, Havel was asked, "Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?" And he replied:

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . . Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for . . . success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. [My emphasis.] 

Our hope arises from "elsewhere", Havel writes, from the "wide horizon's grander view", in the words of Samuel Longfellow, and not from the day-to-day reality of existence. Our hope—our sense that life "makes sense", that it has meaning (in spite of the absurdity and violence and tragedy all around us)—emerges out of our rootedness in the universe (not by our putting ourselves at the center of the universe). It does not emerge out of the blind glorification of human beings, human reason, and human endeavors—but rather emerges from the sense we receive when our human good works grow into harmony with the greater spirit of life.

Which might bring some of us to the question of God, but does not necessarily bring Vaclav Havel there. At their deepest, Havel believes, the roots of life are
transcendental: in some fundamental way "more than" the physically verifiable here and now. But, he adds, "I can't—unlike Christians, for instance—say anything concrete about the transcendental."

In describing his own religious background, Havel wrote:

I haven't been to confession (I mean the institutional variety) since childhood. I don't pray, and I don't cross myself when I
am in church. I took part in secret masses in prison, but I didn't take communion. There are some things that I have felt since childhood: that there is a great mystery above me which is the focus of all meaning and the highest moral authority; that the event called the 'world' has a deeper order and meaning, and therefore is more than just a cluster of improbable accidents; that in my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world I know; that in everything I do I touch eternity in a strange way. . . .

What is also important is to keep one's sense of humor, and a humble sense of one's own absurdity. "The life of a dissident in Czechoslovakia is not particularly jolly, and spending time in Czechoslovak jails is even less so," Havel wrote in 1985. But still, he maintained, the need for a sense of levity and lightheartedness toward life remained a crucial part of his existence.

There is also, Havel believes, a need to be realistic and not to give in to pie-in-the-sky Utopianism. For Utopianism—the belief that human society can somehow be made perfect—can readily become the genesis of political or ideological tyranny and totalitarianism. A grain of what he calls "our distinctive central European skepticism" can provide a very healthy sense of balance, indeed. "This may be a world of dreams and of the ideal, but it is not the world of Utopia."

In April of 1985, Vaclav Havel wrote, "History is unpredictable, and we need to be prepared for a whole range of eventualities." Just how unpredictable it could be, even he had no way of knowing. In little more than four years, he would become president of his country, a "politician", whether he liked it or not. Within just seven years, he had come from being a prisoner of the state to being president of that same (but utterly transformed) state. Seemingly overnight, the most unlikely of eventualities became political reality, and the members of Civic Forum were transformed from outcasts of society into government ministers. The "parallel polis" had become the government. And the world watches eagerly to see what will happen next, and to see if the world is truly changed.

"The real question," Havel wrote in 1978, "is whether the 'brighter future' is always really so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us, and within us, and kept us from developing it?"

For in Havel's view, deep, real change does not merely take place on a political plain, on a linear scale of chronological history. The real change takes place within our souls; the real change takes place when the unfolding of our souls reflects in some deep, mysterious way the unfolding of the universe. Then it is—when an individual person dares to live within his or her truth—that the world is changed, forever.

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz is the author of six books, including Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Copies may be purchased from Amazon.com, or directly from the author.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Burma's Brave Voice of Freedom

The Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has written:

"It is [our]vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads [us] to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power…

"The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear…
We will prevail because our cause is right, because our cause is just. ...History is on our side. Time is on our side."

In the exotic Southeast Asian nation of Burma (sometimes called Myanmar), a country of about 50 million people on the Bay of Bengal, a battle of wills of heroic proportions has been taking place for the past few decades. At first glance, it might seem an uneven struggle. On one side stands one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, known as SLORC (the State Law and Restoration Council). On the other side is an heroic 65-year old mother of two sons named Aung San Suu Kyi.

For more than 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi was held as a virtual prisoner in her home on the outskirts of Rangoon. She was held in virtual isolation from 1989 to 1995 for daring to speak out against a government which has killed tens of thousands of its own citizens, which as tortured thousands of others, and which enslaves countless political prisoners in forced labor camps. For a few years in the mid-1990s, following her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, official house arrest was lifted by the Burmese junta, though Aung San Suu Kyi was trailed continually, forbidden from meeting with foreigners, and told that if she ever dared to leave the country, she would most certainly not be let back in.

But following her release from confinement, she continued to challenge the dictatorship at every opportunity. Every weekend, thousands of Burmese men, women, and children, at no small risk to themselves, would congregate in front of her home and wait for her to address them. Her weekly speeches became the country’s only open forum of free ideas. In 1998, SLORC banned any gatherings in the vicinity of Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, and arrested thousands of suspected supporters of the democratic movement. In 2003, they reinstituted formal house arrest (which was then again lifted in late 2010).

Aung San Suu Kyi has been a great inspiration—to her own people, and to the whole world. As Madeline Albright once said, “When the Burmese government tries to blame the victims for the crime, and say that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are responsible for their own repression, I can only reply that much the same was once said about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. The world is not fooled.”

She has become an inspiration to the world. But the personal cost to Suu Kyi has been great. Once her struggle against the Burmese junta began, she was allowed to see her husband and children only a few times. When her husband, Michael Aris, an British citizen and professor at Oxford, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1997, the junta refused to allow him into Burma to visit his wife one last time. She was told that she would not be allowed to return to her homeland should she leave to visit him. So, Aris died in 1998, having never seen his wife again. She has not been allowed contact with her sons, Alexander and Kim, who live in England, since 1999.

Even though Aung San Suu Kyi had been born into a prominent Burmese political family, she was leading a quiet life in England as a housewife and an academic when her country called. Almost overnight, she was transformed into a symbol of democracy, freedom, and resistance.

For many of Burma’s people, Aung San Suu Kyi is a living link to their history. She is the daughter of Burma’s greatest modern hero, General Aung San, who founded the Burmese army in 1941, and led the fight to expel the Japanese during World War Two. After the war, Aung San entered into negotiations with the British for independence, which was scheduled for January 4, 1948. But before that date arrived—on July 19, 1947—Aung San was assassinated by right wing political rivals. He was only 32 years old; he left a wife and three children—two sons and a daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was just two years old at the time.

At the age of 15, she moved to New Delhi, where her mother was appointed Burma’s ambassador to India. Later, she studied at Oxford University and received her degree in political science and economics. Following her graduation, she came to New York to work at the United Nations. It was a time of political and social turmoil in the United States, Suu Kyi said of her time in America. “The young people were for love and not war. There was a feeling of tremendous vigor.”

In 1972, Aung San Suu Kyi married Michael Aris, and just before their wedding she had written to him, saying: “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them.” The two settled in Oxford, where they began to raise a family, and Aung San Suu Kyi continued studying for her doctorate. It was a fairly quiet, normal life.

Quickly, the military government moved with full force against the pro-democracy movement. On August 26, a general strike was called in Rangoon, and Aung San Suu Kyi addressed her people for the first time. “People have been saying that I know nothing of Burmese politics,” she began. Then, recalling her father’s assassination, she continued, “The trouble is, I know too much.”

Overnight, it seemed, Aung San Suu Kyi became Burma’s voice of freedom, the leading spokesman for the Movement for Democracy. On September 18, 1988, the government declared martial law, and stepped up its repression. Thousands more were killed. But the opposition couldn’t be stifled. A week later, the National League for Democracy was founded, and Aung San Suu Kyi was chosen as its leader.

For the next year, she would travel around her country, rallying people to the cause. She made over 1000 speeches, in large cities and small hamlets, often at no small risk to herself. In April 1989, as she and a group of demonstrators were returning to Rangoon, they were stopped, and Aung San Suu Kyi got out of the car, and started to walk toward the battalion of troops. “It seemed so much simpler,” she explained later, “to provide them with a single target.” A captain order his soldiers to raise their rifles, but as Aung San Suu Kyi continued to move forward, seemingly freed from all fear, the soldiers put down their guns, and the caravan was allowed to proceed.

Shortly after this incident, the dictatorship ordered Aung San Suu Kyi placed under house arrest at her home in Rangoon until further notice. She would not be released from incarceration until July of 1995—six years later.

In the meantime, though, her fame grew, and the struggle in Burma received increased notice around the world. In May 1990, in response to international pressure, the Burmese government allowed the first free elections in more than 30 years. But when Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy gained over 80% of the vote, the military junta simply voided the election and announced the formation of SLORC—the State Law and Restoration Council—instead.

But Aung San Suu Kyi and her movement would not just fade away. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with all proceeds going to establish a health and education trust fund for the people of Burma. In 1991, the first book of her writings was published under the title Freedom From Fear—with all proceeds again earmarked for her people.

In her speech to the European Parliament after being awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (a speech which, of course, she was never able to deliver in person), she said:

“It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and the fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it… It is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all its forms becomes deeply entrenched…”

The people of Burma, she continued, had grown weary of passivity and fear. She quoted the lyrics of a song of the student rebellion:

Emerald cool we may be
As water in cupped hands
But oh that we might be
As splinters of glass in cupped hands, too…

The days when the Burmese people were like water—cool and passive and pliant—in the cupped hands of their oppressors were drawing to a close, slowly but surely, Aung San Suu Kyi declared. Instead, they were set of becoming “glass splinters” in the hands of the oppressors: “Glass splinters, the smallest with its sharp, glinting power to defend itself against hands that try to crush… a vivid symbol of the spark of courage, essential to those who would free themselves from the grip of oppression.”

“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit,” Aung San Suu Kyi continued. “A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions [alone] has little chance of genuine success… It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy, and human rights. There has to be [also] a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance, and fear.”

“Saints,” she reminded her listeners, “are simply sinners who go on trying.”

So, in their most recent “Saffron Revolution”in 2007, the saintly people of Burma—their brave Buddhist monks, their shining “lady” (they refer to Aung San Suu Kyi as simply “the lady” within Burma—even to speak her name publicly is a crime, punishable by years in prison)—and hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands—of ordinary men and women—workers, and farmers, and students, and teachers, the whole nation—have opened our eyes again to the power of freedom in the human heart.

“Please use your liberty to promote ours,” Aung San Suu Kyi implores us. And, she continues:
"We have faith in the power to change what needs to be changed but we are under no illusion that the transition from dictatorship to… democracy will be easy, or that democratic government will mean the end of all our problems. We know that our greatest challenges lie ahead of us and that our struggle to establish a stable, democratic society will continue beyond our own life span.

But we know that we are not alone. The cause of liberty and justice finds sympathetic responses around the world. Thinking and feeling people everywhere, regardless of color or creed, understand the deeply rooted human need for a meaningful existence that goes beyond the mere gratification of material desires. Those fortunate enough to live in societies where they are entitled to full political rights can reach out to help their less fortunate brethren in other areas of our troubled planet…"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wilfred Owen and the Poetry of War

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was the hour that the guns fell silent on the Western Front in Europe in 1918, and the Armistice ending the First World War came into effect.

They called it “The War to End All Wars,” which sounds like an almost pathetic label now. So presumptuous and supercilious. “The War to End All Wars” was followed, just twenty years later, by a greater and even more deadly conflict. Then second half of the twentieth century witnessed one war after another, all across the globe: Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East Nigeria, Mozambique, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan-- to name only a relative few. The Iraq-Iran War fought during the 1980s cost somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million lives, and accomplished absolutely nothing. Most wars, if we look at them historically, accomplish little—certainly little positive (there may be exceptions, of course). As Dr. King once said, "Wars are very poor tools for carving out better tomorrows." Today, the First World War is remembered, when it is remembered (which is seldom), not as “The War to End All Wars”, but as the conflict which spawned Hitler and led to the tragedies of World War Two.

“If ye break faith with us who die,” John McCrae wrote in Belgium, just hours before his own death, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.”

How do we keep faith, on this Veterans’ Day, and every day, with those who have died?

We keep faith by remembering. We truly remember the fallen when we make part of our reality what they actually went through, and how they actually suffered. Only those who have witnessed war firsthand can speak the truest word against war. The political machinations that gave the world that first Great War may lie largely forgotten, discarded on the ash bin of history. But the voices of the poets of that war—the “War Poets” as they are called—McRae, and Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke, and Isaac Rosenberg, and Charles Sorley, and Wilfred Owen, and others, continue to speak to us still.

Wilfred Owen was the son of a railway worker who was born in Shropshire in the English midlands in 1896. He hoped to enter the University of London, but after failing to win a scholarship he found work as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Although he had previously thought of himself as a pacifist, in October 1915, in the patriotic fervor of the moment, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and joined the Manchester Regiment in France in January, 1917. While in France, Owen began writing poems about his war experiences.

Life on the Western Front was bitter indeed. In the summer of 1917, during the Battle of the Somme, a shell landed just two yards away from Owen and he was forced to spend several days trapped in a bomb crater with the mangled corpse of a fellow officer before assistance could pull him out. Following this experience, Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock, and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him to keep on writing, as did another writer at the hospital, Robert Graves.

Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Sassoon had written:

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

Later, Sassoon took aim against the Church and the Establishment back in England as well:

The Bishop tells us; “When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”

“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”

Over the next several months, out of the horror and pain he had experienced, and the futility of the conflict in which he was engaged, Owen wrote a series of war poems, including “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Owen then hurled his own experience of the hell of war against a poem called "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” written by a woman named Jessie Pope, a pro-war propagandist back in England. The facile words of the Roman poet Horace-- Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.— “Sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.” – had been a lie in ancient times, Owen declared. Even more was it a lie in his own time:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

There was no beauty in war, Owen knew-- as only one who had experienced the hell of war firsthand could know. (Owen was later “cured” of his shell shock, and sent back to the Front, and was killed on the fields of France in November of 1918, during the last week of the Great War. He was 26 years old when he died.)

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden once wrote (in a poem). Wars go on. More young men—and women—and children—will die. New tyrants will rise. There will perhaps always be that endless struggle for power and position and wealth and resources.

Yet the voices of the War Poets—of World War One, and of all wars, too-- sing deeper and stronger with the passing of the years. Their hopes may be unfulfilled, but their vision abides. That is why so often it is the voice of poetry that presents the clearest picture of those human endeavors (and all too often, follies) that matter most. Poets witness to the deepest reality of the world, be that a physical reality or a spiritual one. They pull our eyes toward that which is within, and beyond.

To observe truly this day of remembrance, and to honor those who have fallen, we must never lose sight of those things for which they died. As Archibald Macleish wrote at the end of the next Great War:

 “We were young, they say. Remember us… They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.”

It is the meaning inherent the blessed vision of which a poet sang:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

The singing will never be done, and our vision for peace may well never be realized. But we must never stop seeking it, not if we are to be true to those who have come before.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Smiling Pope

On a morning at the end of September in 1978, a stunned world awoke to hear of the death of a pope. The world press announced that John Paul I had died suddenly during the night, barely a month—just 34 days—after ascending to the papal throne. At the time of his election on August 26, Cardinal Albino Luciani was little known outside of Italy . But during his brief time in the See of Peter, he had captured the world’s heart with his simple, unfeigned warmth and humility. He had already become known the world over as “The Smiling Pope”.

The election of the diminutive, soft-spoken Cardinal Luciani to the papacy on that late summer day more than thirty years ago was a surprise to almost everyone outside of the College of Cardinals. But Luciani had been chosen pope with remarkable speed, on just the fourth ballot, on the very first day of balloting.

As crowds watched the tiny chimney connected to the stove inside St. Peter’s, where the ballots of each round of voting were burned, predictions of a long, drawn-out conclave seemed to be confirmed. If no candidate had been elected, damp straw would be added to the burning ballots to make the smoke turn black; white smoke would symbolize the election of a new pope. After the fourth ballot, however, the smoke that poured forth from the chimney seemed an ambiguous gray. Many assumed it was black, and so turned to leave. But when Cardinal Pericle Felici, dean of the College of Cardinals, stepped out of the great central door of St. Peter’s onto the balcony, all those present knew that, remarkably, a new pope had already been chosen.

 “Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum,” Cardinal Felice announced in Latin: “I announce to you a great joy”. “Hambemus papem.” “We have a pope.” After Luciani’s name was announced, the new pope was led out onto the balcony as well—a small man, perhaps five foot three or four inches tall; eyes twinkling behind round spectacles; his hair sticking out beneath his skullcap, slightly disheveled; and bearing already the unmistakable, slightly impish smile that would become his trademark.

Luciani had taken the first double name in the history of the papacy: John Paul, “Primus,” he said, “The First”—because, he added, “there will soon be a ‘Second’.” He had chosen the name in honor of his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII, who had first named him a bishop, and Paul VI, who had named him a cardinal. It was a sign that Luciani would continue their policies, including the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

“I have neither Pope John’s wisdom of heart nor the preparation and culture of Pope Paul,” the new pope told the crowd gathered to hear him. “But I am now in their place, and so I must seek to serve the church. I hope you will help me with your prayers.”

For his papal motto, John Paul I chose a single word: Humilitas. Humility. Not because he personally excelled in that virtue, he said; but because it was the virtue he most wanted the church to exemplify during the time of his pontificate.  

Luciani moved quickly to do away with some of the pomp that had surrounded the papacy. At his coronation (which he renamed his “installation”), he refused to wear the traditional tiara, or Triple Crown, worn by popes for centuries. Instead, he put on a simple bishop’s miter. He shortened the ceremony, and moved it outside into St. Peter’s Square, so more could attend. He refused to be carried in the sedia gestatoria—the portable throne of the popes, and instead walked to the ceremony himself. (Later, he would reluctantly agree to reinstating the sedia gestatoria because his short stature made it impossible for the assembled crowds to see him.)

He remained, through his tenure as pope, a simple and unassuming man, always uncomfortable with the trappings of office. He never moved too far, it seemed, from his simple origins in the mountainous region of northern Italy .

Albino Luciani was born of October 17, 1912, in the small town of Canale d’Agordo, in the Veneto region between Venice and the Austrian border. A frail infant, he was baptized immediately by a midwife, who didn’t expect him to survive the night. Throughout his childhood, he was sickly, suffering from bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory ailments.  

His mother, Bortola, was a nurse’s assistant; his father, Giovanni, was a bricklayer, who spent much of each year away from the family, as a migrant worker in Germany and Austria . His mother was a devout Catholic, who led her children in daily prayers; his father was a dedicated socialist, who would often speak of the exploitation and needs of the workers, and discuss with his children the events of the day. Both wanted their children to learn, to study, and to rise above the poverty into which they had been born.

They went to school barefoot most of the year, and food was often scarce. But Bortola, whom the future pope described as “very sweet, but very severe,” insisted that they say their prayers—and do their homework. Early in life, young Albino became enthralled by the preaching and holy simplicity of the Capuchin friars who would visit the area, and soon had decided upon the priesthood as his calling.

At first, however, his father, good anti-clerical socialist that he was, refused to sign Albino’s application to the junior seminary at Belluno

At the seminary in Belluno, Albino’s warmhearted personality and eager mind made a deep impression upon teachers and fellow-students alike. “He was always amiable, quiet, serene,” one of his classmates later said, “unless you said something inaccurate—then he would fly at you like a spring. In front of him, you always had to speak carefully. Any muddled thinking, and you were in trouble!”

 Luciani was ordained to the priesthood in 1935, and spent two years in the parish until returning to the seminary as the vice-rector. When he was given the honorary title of monsignor, a friend suggested that he wear the customary red-trimmed cassock to which those who bore that designation were entitled. “Oh, come on!” Albino groaned, “You know I have no time for that nonsense.”

When Mussolini and the Fascists took power in Italy , the Luciani family joined the opposition. When the war came, and Mussolini allied himself with Hitler, Albino’s younger brother, Edoardo, went underground to fight with the anti-fascist partisans, and his sister, Antonia, served as a partisan courier in northern Italy . For his part, Albino also assisted with the partisans efforts from his position at the seminary in Belluno. “He wove the threads of Catholic resistance in our town,” one resident said after the war. He hid Jews escaping from persecution in Rome within the walls of the seminary. He served as a go-between in negotiating the release of local men from both Fascist and Communist prisons.

When the war finally ended, Albino continued his work at the seminary. Placed in charge of religious education in the diocese, he authored a book for teachers, Catechetica in Briciole (Catechism in Crumbs) which came to be used throughout Italy. In 1950, received his doctorate degree in sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome , with a thesis on the 19th century radical theologian Antonio Rosmini.

During a visit to Belluno, the patriarch of Venice , Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, realized that Luciani was a priest of extraordinary gifts. When Cardinal Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he attempted to name Luciani bishop of the vacant diocese of Vittorio Veneto  in northern Italy . Luciani demurred, citing his lack of qualifications and his poor health (he had already been hospitalized twice for tuberculosis). Pope John reassured him, and guaranteed that the mountain air in Vittorio Veneto was just the cure that Luciani needed!

 His smiling warmth and total lack of pomp soon won the hearts of the people of his diocese, priests and laity alike. To everyone, he was simply Don Albino, and when he visited parishes, he would dress as a simple priest, a custom he would continue throughout his career. Sometimes, he would go unrecognized because of his unassuming ways. Meeting with a group in one parish, he asked for whom they were waiting. “For the bishop,” they told him. “But it looks as though he’s late.”

 “Oh, I don’t think so,” Albino said, finally introducing himself. “I believe I saw him arrive a little while ago.”

 Driving to an early morning Mass one cold and rainy morning, he spotted a woman and her young son hurrying along, heads bent against the wind. When he asked where they were going, the woman said “To church,” where he son was scheduled to serve the Mass for the bishop; but now, she said, said she was afraid they were going to be late.

 When the procession later entered the back of church with Bishop Luciani, now vested, he spotted the woman in the congregation, and whispered to her, with a smile, “You see, we all got here on time.”

 But there were problems at Vittorio Veneto, as well. In 1962, two priests got involved in a scam that cost numerous small investors their life savings—over 2 billion lire, tens of thousands of dollars.

 Bishop Luciani called a meeting of his 400 priests, and announced that the diocese would repay every lire the priests had stolen. There also would be no civil immunity for the priests, either, he emphasized; they would be punished to the full extent of the law (and both went to jail for several years). To repay part of the debt, he would sell all objects of worth in the diocesan treasury; one of the buildings owned by the diocese would be sold, as well. “In this scandal, there is lesson for us all,” he said. “We must be a poor church.”

 Concern for the poor was always at the heart of his vision of ministry. In 1966, he traveled to Burundi in Africa , to oversee charitable efforts. When he became patriarch of Venice in 1969, his concern for the poor continued. Within days of his arrival in the city, an army of poor folk seeking assistance descended on his doorstep. He greeted each one individually, listened to their problems, and did what he could to help—often finding them jobs within the diocese. After becoming patriarch of Venice, he sold a gold cross and chain that had been given to him by Pope John in order to donate the money to an orphanage for handicapped children that was threatened with insolvency.  

As president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, he proposed that wealthy dioceses in the West should donate 1% of their annual income to poorer dioceses in developing countries—not as charity, he said, “but as something owed, to compensate for the injustice being committed by the consumer world against the developing world.”

 Visiting hospitals around Venice on a weekly basis, Luciani would charm the patients with his smiles and jokes; but the honor guard of doctors, nurses, and administrators that insisted on following him around the hospital irritated him greatly. “Don’t let me take your precious time,” he told them. “I can find my way around on my own.” In time, Luciani figured out that if he visited on Sunday evenings, there were fewer people around, and he could visit patients unbothered by his retinue.

His door was always open, and his telephone rang constantly. When a priest called him at lunchtime, and was told by the nun who answered the phone to call back later, Luciani reproved her gently. From now on, he was to be interrupted for calls, even at lunch, he said. If any Italian man calls someone at midday, instead of eating lunch himself, the cardinal pointed out, it must really be an emergency!

 But even with his busy schedule, Albino Luciani found time to study and to write. He wrote several books, the most famous of which was Illustrissimi, imaginary conversations with personalities from literature and history, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and even Pinocchio. In his letter to Mark Twain, Luciani’s deep humility shines through:

 “Just as there are different books, there are different bishops. Some are like eagles, who glide at great heights with magnificent documents; others are like skylarks that sing the praises of the Lord in a marvelous way; finally, others are poor wrens that, on the lowest branch of the Church tree, only squeak, trying to express some thought on the broadest themes. I, Mark Twain, belong to the last category. I am just a poor wren.”

 But many of his fellow bishops felt differently. Visiting Venice in 1972, Pope Paul VI publicly placed his red stole around Luciani’s shoulders, a gesture many interpreted as a sign that Paul wanted the patriarch of Venice to be his successor. The next year, Paul named Luciani to the College of Cardinals.

 When the 1978 conclave searched for a successor to Pope Paul, the quiet, unassuming Luciani, a man of deep warmth, great learning, impeccable pastoral skills, and moderate theology, soon emerged as an obvious choice. He was “God’s candidate,” Britain ’s Cardinal Basil Hume said later. “Once it had happened, it seemed totally and entirely right… We felt as though our hands were being guided as we wrote his name on the paper.”

In accepting election to the papacy, an overwhelmed Luciani added to his colleague cardinals, “May God forgive you for what you have done on my behalf.” He would do what was required of him, he said. But he confided to close friends that his reign would be a short come. “The foreigner will come after me,” he told one: the one who had sat across from him at the conclave would succeed him as Pope. (Later, when the seating plan for the conclave was checked, the “foreigner” turned out to be none other that Cardinal Karol Woytjyla of Poland —who would, indeed, come to be Pope John Paul II, just a short time later.)

 A little more than a month after his election, Pope John Paul I died in his sleep on the night of September 28, 1978. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack. But there was no autopsy, and conflicting accounts soon lead to rumors, and conspiracy theories, and persistent charges that he had been murdered. Some say he was killed by liberals because he was too conservative; others by conservatives because he was too liberal. Others said it was because be was going to expose deep corruption in the Vatican Bank and other offices of the curia. Others said that he was just a weak, sick man whose body gave out under the pressures of an overwhelming and demanding position.

“He was shown to us, not given,” a German archbishop named Joseph Ratzinger said in a homily following the death of Pope Luciani. He was like a comet who flashed briefly across the sky, lighting up the world and the Church, if only for an instant, said Cardinal Confalonieri.

 On the day of John Paul’s funeral, St. Peter’s Square was all but flooded by a steady, torrential downpour that just would not let up. The assembled thousands-- world celebrities, heads of state, common men and women-- were soaked to bone by the rains of heaven. The untrammeled grief of the people of Rome reminded many observers of the mourning that had accompanied the death of the beloved John XXIII.

 But even in its mere 34 days, the papacy of John Paul I had touched the world deeply. Many believed that his had been the smile of a saint. He had touched the world, and had given us just the barest glimpse of the sorriso di Dio—the very smile of God.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Judging Columbus


In his journal entry of October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote:

“The people here …are friendly and well-dispositioned… who bear no arms except for small spears and they have no iron… I want the natives to develop a friendly attitude towards us because I know they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Catholic Faith more by love than by force. I therefore gave red caps to some and glass beads to others. They hung the beads around their necks …And they took great pleasure in this and became so friendly that it was a marvel. They traded and gave everything they had with good will, but it seems to me they have very little and are poor in everything. I warned my men to take nothing from the people without giving something in exchange.”

In 1510, Anton Montesino, a Dominican friar, preached a sermon at the main church in Santo Domingo. Many of the main empire builders of New Spain were in the congregation that morning, including Diego Colon, the royal governor—Columbus’s own son. The sermon had been written jointly by Montesino and the other members of his Dominican community:

“Your greed for gold is blind,” Father Montesino declared. “Your pride, your lust, your anger, your envy, your sloth, all blind… You are in mortal sin. And you are heading for damnation… For you are destroying an innocent people. They are God’s people, these innocents, whom you have destroyed. By what right do you make them die? Mining gold for you in your mines or working for you in your fields, by what right do you unleash enslaving wars upon them? They lived in peace in this land before you came, in peace in their own homes. They did nothing to harm you, to cause you to slaughter them wholesale… Are you not under God’s command to love them as you love yourselves? Are you not out of your souls, out of your minds? Yes. And that will bring you damnation.

 A Cherokee poet named Jimmie Durham has written:

In school I was taught the names
Columbus, Cortez, and Pizzaro and
A dozen other filthy murderers…

No one mentioned the names
Of even a few of the victims.
But don't you remember Chaske, whose spine
Was crushed so quickly by Mr. Pizzaro's boot?
What words did he cry into the dust?

What was the familiar name
Of that young girl who danced so gracefully
That everyone in the village sang with her--
Before Cortez' sword hacked off her arms
As she protested the burning of her sweetheart?

That young man's name was Many Deeds,
And he had been a leader of a band of fighters
Called the Redstick Hummingbirds, who slowed
The march of Cortez' army with only a few
Spears and stones which now lay still
In the mountains and remember.

Greenrock Woman was the name
Of that old lady who walked right up
And spat in Columbus' face. We
Must remember that, and remember
Laughing Otter the Taino who tried to stop
Columbus and who was taken away as a slave.
We never saw him again.

In school I learned of heroic discoveries
Made by liars and crooks. The courage
Of millions of sweet and true people
Was not commemorated…

It used to be so easy. We knew what our history was. We knew who our heroes were. And we just went along with it.

But then, we realized that other peoples had different stories, different histories. The price of freedom in this postmodern age means trying to see things from all available perspectives. It means collecting all the data and listening to all the evidence, and trying to come to some more truthful view of reality.

Of course, the “real story” about Columbus and those who came after him was never too far beneath the surface. Historians always had “the facts”. It is just difficult to fathom, perhaps, why it took the rest of us so long to discover them. What, exactly, do these “facts” tell us? What did Columbus wrought among the native peoples of the Western hemisphere? It is a sad litany which, I’m afraid, bears repeating every year as we approach Columbus Day:

It is estimated that there were between 75 million and 80 million inhabitants of what came to be called the Americas in the year 1492, just before Columbus landed. By 1550, the native population stood at just 10 million. In Mexico, the population on the eve of the European conquest stood at 25 million; by 1600, only 1 million people remained. The population of Santo Domingo in 1492 was somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million; by 1530, only 10,000 of the native people were left. In 1492, the population of Cuba stood at 600,000 inhabitants; by 1570, only 270 households remained.

This historical data reveals a genocide of unimaginable proportions—beyond a doubt, the most wide scale genocide in the history of human “civilization”. Of course, not all of those killed were slaughtered by the Spanish conquistadors. The major causes of the destruction of the native populations of the West Indies were disease and famine. By 1496, the limited surplus food supplies of the Taino people of Hispaniola, whom Columbus himself governed, were depleted and the native population was surviving largely by eating immature sweet potato and manioc tubers. By the next year, the native people of San Salvador were in the midst of a major famine, and demographers estimate that the population declined at annual rates exceeding 30% for almost the next decade.

The Spanish conquistadors

But it wasn’t just these “acts of God” (if you really want to call them that) like famine and disease that took their toll. From its very start, European subjugation of the New World was marked by severe and blatant cruelty and abuse. Of his first meeting with the natives, Columbus wrote of converting the native peoples he saw “more by love than by force”. But then, by October 14, Columbus was writing: “With but fifty men, you could subject every person in San Salvador, and make them do what you wished.” Columbus’ “holy intentions” lasted all of two days! So much for operating “more by love than by force”!

The rest of the sad story emerges clearly enough: On his second journey to Hispaniola between 1495 and 1496, Columbus himself initiated the wide-scale shipment of Caribs, Arawaks, and other native peoples to be sold in Spain as slaves. Those of the “well-formed and handsome people” who remained in the West Indies became nothing more than slaves in their own land.

Columbus also just knew—in the way only a fanatic can know something-- that there were large caches of gold on the islands of the West Indies, just waiting to be mined. Even when it became obvious that there was relatively little gold there, the Indians were pushed harder and harder to find gold—find gold! Each man and woman was given a hawk shell, ordinarily a small ball tied to the foot of a trained falcon. It was their “duty” to fill this hawk shell with gold every three months, and give it to their Spanish masters. Those who failed to meet this quota would have their fingers or hands cut off, and would often be left simply to bleed to death.

This was the reign of terror that Columbus enforced—all force and no love; all for greed, devoid of all humanity and compassion.

Of course, Columbus was just a man of his time. That is what people say, over and over, in his defense: “He was just a man of his time.” But he wasn’t the only man of his time. There was also a Dominican friar named Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas lived at the very same time as Columbus; indeed, the two were close personal friends—for a while. It was Las Casas who transcribed the accounts of Columbus’s first voyage. On the second voyage in 1495, Las Casas returned to the New World with Columbus, and here he would spend the remainder of his life, until his death in 1567.

In time, Las Casas rose to the position of bishop of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. There, he became known as the apostle to the Indies, protector of the Indians, and friend of the poor. In spite of his former friendship with Columbus, Las Casas would not remain silent in the face of the injustice and oppression he witnessed. He wrote volumes about the terrible crimes he saw committed in the name of Spain and the Christian Church. Largely because of his work, Spain eventually (far too late) adopted a more humane policy toward the native peoples. Faced with what his own eyes could see, Las Casas made his choice—a far different choice than that made by Columbus.

Nor was Las Casas alone (he in a distinct minority certainly, but he was not alone). There were other voices crying out to Columbus and those who followed him to stop the mayhem, to stop the killing and torture and mass exploitation of innocent people.

Another voice in the wilderness was Montesino, the Dominican friar we heard from earlier: “Your greed for gold is blind,” Father Montesino declared. “Your pride, your lust, your anger, your envy, your sloth, all blind… You are in mortal sin. And you are heading for damnation… For you are destroying an innocent people.”

Remember that all the “big wigs” of Hispaniola were was right there in the congregation as Montesino spoke these words. That’s brave. Montesino, too, was a “man of his time”—and he, too, saw the evil which Columbus had wrought—and he, too, chose not to remain silent. He, and Las Casas, and there were others as well, saw what was going on. And Columbus saw it, too. He wasn’t just flotsam and jetsam tossed about by great historical currents over which he had no control. To the contrary, Columbus was an active agent in history. We all are. He was, in fact, probably less hindered by the hand of the past than any other major character in Western civilization. He had the chance to choose, consciously, the course his journey would take. After coming ashore on an island he named Isabella, Columbus had written in his journal:

“It is one of the most beautiful islands I have ever seen… You can even smell the flowers as you approach this coast; it is the most fragrant [place] on earth. The song of the little birds might make a man never wish to leave here. The flock of parrots that darken the sun and the large and small birds of so many species are so different from our own that it is a wonder.”

If only Columbus had listened to the birds, and stayed to smell the flowers, and then glimpsed the deeper wonder—the wonderful humanity—of the people around him so different from his own…

But he didn’t. Columbus chose not to. And so, he must be judged by history.

“History is the record written by victors,” Hannah Arendt once wrote. But history is not necessarily written in indelible ink. In this postmodern world, the winds of change scatter once mighty myths into a million fragments. Heroes are now villains—and one regime’s villains become the next generation’s heroes.

But life isn’t about things being easy, and neither is history. Not in the lives of us as individuals, nor in the lives of nations and civilizations.

Ultimately, of course, more important than the choice Columbus made are the choices we make. Do we ultimately decide to treat other people—or other peoples, other nations-- as mere stepping stones to what we want-- or do we seek to live with them in peace and harmony. I pray that we, too, are people on a long voyage to a New World: a journey away from centuries of conquest, genocide, slavery, exploitation, oppression, and racism, toward a time of turning, healing, reconciliation, and redirection.

History is not an easy journey, and it has been a rough voyage sometimes. May we take up the shattered fragments of the old myths and weave from them, instead, a new view of reality, a new picture of our history. Knowing our history is the first step on the road to transforming society, and changing the world.

Columbus made his choice. Now we must make ours.