San Cristóbal

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San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico – 19.June.2019

6:35 in the morning. I leave the hotel in the old center of town and head for the Church of Santo Domingo. It is the only one open early in the morning, since almost all of the churches in San Cristóbal are being renovated. Santo Domingo, dating from the mid XVIth century, is also under renovation but they tell me there is a small door on the side that will remain open.

6:41 I arrive. I find the door after a gentleman sweeping the street points me in the right direction. I wait a few minutes. The early morning sky is majestic and soft all at once after a night of intense rain.

6:45 The door opens and I step in. It smells of humidity. The main altar is hidden by a giant scaffolding, so I go left to the Chapel. Rather large with about 30 rows on each side, its walls are stained with water marks, the floor tiles faded. A large crucifix stands behind the altar covered with glass. On the left, a Virgin Mary dressed in bleu. On the right side of the Chapel, an old Crucifix with a pale Jesus looking down at us.

Two Dominican nuns walk in and sit in front of me. A few more people arrive. Among them, an old man, poor, dirty, with a face of immense sadness. He goes to the first row, kneels and prays in silence. More people arrive. An old lady with a silvery braid and a grey jacket sits next to me. We exchange smiles. She smells of vel rosita (a popular Mexican fabric softener).

Suddenly, the noise level goes up. People talking in Tzotzil (the indigenous language of the Tzotzil, a large and varied Maya indigenous community in Chiapas and other regions of Mexico and Guatemala). I see some 100 persons fill all the remaining rows of the chapel. They are all dressed in a long sleeve top with a red and yellow flower pattern embroidered upon dark burgundy, with black trousers or skirts. They must be coming from the Chamula area, in the mountains near San Cristóbal.

One of them carries two very large candles set sideways on a silver tray, and brings them to the altar to be blessed.

The Priest arrives. He enters from a side door I had not noticed. He is tall, a full head of unruly white hair, light eyes, skin tanned by the sun and the high altitude, in his seventies. A total contrast from most of us in the church. He smiles and shakes hands as he walks down the aisle. He starts to sing with a sincere and broken voice, and encourages everyone to sing with him.

“Alegre la mañana que nos habla de ti – alegre la mañana…” Joyous de morning that speaks of you – joyous the morning…

Mass – simple and profound words by the Father on generosity as he comments the scriptures of the day. He speaks with a faint Spanish accent tainted by decades in Mexico, his strong “jota” (letter “j” pronounced “kh”) revealing his origins. He smiles incessantly and I cannot help doing the same.

As the recitation of “Our Father…” starts, the Tzotzil light one by one tall and very thin white candles, including the very young children. Behind me, everything becomes light. The Chapel takes tones of gold erasing off the water marks from the walls and the wounds of time from the statues.

When the time comes to exchange the sign of peace, instead of shaking hands or embracing the neighbor, each Tzotzil bends his or her head so that an older one may touch the head with his hand as a blessing and sign of mutual peace. Even the very young ones do it between them. A little four or five year old girl with lovely braids, cannot stop giggling as she does it, infecting even her mother who at first admonished her to keep still.

When the Father starts to offer the host, the Tzotzil start forming a long double line and as they walk up to the altar, place their candles at the foot of the Crucifix on the right side of the Chapel. The older ones do it for the children.

The mass ends.

The old and poor man I saw at the beginning, approaches the Father as he steps down from the altar. The Father listens to him. While doing so, he straightens the collar of the old man’s jacket, fixes his hair, talks to him, embraces and blesses him. The old man leaves with an enchanted smile on his face.

Others also approach the Priest. To each, the Father dedicates his full attention. He listens, touches, embraces, smiles, blesses.

I stand up and get ready to leave. I saw and felt what it is to be a Priest, to be with the faithful, to give hope through humanity and simple presence. I saw what we read in books about small Churches in small towns. I saw what most think belongs to history and far away novels.

I was very moved by the humanity and simplicity of it all. It was precious, the reason I wanted to share it here.

Thank you for taking the time to read this account.

Kenza.

Art – Lady with a fan

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She stood with a fan in her hand, her gaze reaching far beyond the fence.

She filled the museum room with grace and poise – a silent contrast to the visitors, all smart phone at hand rushing by, their short attention span turning stillness into boredom.

I was absorbed by her grace. I never asked myself any questions about what she may have been thinking. There was no need.

I stood there, wishing for her serenity to touch me. And as the visitors withered away, it did. I hope it touches you as well.

Kenza.

“Lady with a fan” by Fei Danxu (China, 1801-1850), ink on paper, hanging scroll, Qing Dynasty – a photo I took at the Shanghai Museum in June 2018.

Inspiration: Chinese New Year and serenity. 

Art – Nativity by Luini

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“Nativity” — a fresco by Bernardino Luini (Italy, 1485-1532), made around 1520-25.

In my eyes, this Nativity representation is most special because of the serenity that emanates from it and the gentleness in the gestures of all the ones present.

Being a fresco, the colours appear to us after so many years subdued, giving the scene a most serene and warm feeling. The use of the full spectrum of colours from warm to cold hues is remarkable in that there is no clash and everything remains soothing to the eyes.

And of course, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is undeniable. Da Vinci was a contemporary and a friend of Luini, and his influence can be seen through the softness of the facial expressions and the delicate touches of light. Actually both painters used similar technics, and until recently some paintings by Luini had been attributed to Da Vinci.

This fresco was originally in a private chapel in Milan. It is now at the Louvre, Paris. The photo was taken by me and the colours are exactly as you see them.

Gare de Lyon

Gare de Lyon, Paris (Français, English)

Sous le regard automatique de la grande horloge,
les gens se retrouvent et se séparent.
Elle qui a tant vu, ne sais plus lire les visages.
Pourtant, je l’ai vu hésiter une fraction de seconde
lorsque j’ai serré mon fils dans mes bras.

Under the automatique gaze of the big clock,
people meet and part.
The clock has seen so much, it can no longer read faces.
And yet, I saw it hesitate for a fraction of a second
when I held my son in my arms.

Kenza.

Contemplative silence

For the ones who have been following this blog, you may have noted that many writings are on silence.

Reading expressions of silence 

Recently, I have been looking a little bit more into it, beyond the usual poetry and expressions of silence.

I read from the Desert Fathers, those wise early Christians who spent time in utter silence and contemplation. I looked into Zen poetry, and the silence that comes gently once the temple bells quiet. I even delved into the notion of the 40 holy days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and Jesus fasting in the desert; and through them at St Francis, Sta Teresa de Avilla and St John of the Cross –not that I aspire to be a saint, mind you, but just as celebrated events and writing about contemplative silence. I read the Sufis, especially Rumi and Ibn Arabi; and I looked at what contemporary thinkers and poets had to say from Emily Dickinson to Rabindranath Tagore to Antonio Machado to Thomas Merton to Czeslaw Milosz.

And as usual, I turned my attention to the Tao Te Ching, a book I read every morning and where I still discover, after many decades, wisdom and intellectual sustenance. This of course, led me to the late third century BC Chinese Taoist philosopher par excellence, Chuang Tzu. And here, I finally found what resonated best with my line of thought or at least what felt in harmony with my instinctive notion of contemplative silence.

Chuang Tzu

In a few words, not to bore you, Chuang Tzu advocates silence as a natural condition. He places it along with all human behaviour within the notion of “wu wei” (無為) or non-action.

“Wu wei” is not idleness. Rather, it means that there is no deliberate planning and one acts spontaneously without rigid rules or restrictions; and because one acts naturally, it is “perfect action,” that is “perfect joy.”

Being in contemplation is not a goal and does not entail a rigid system of rules (kneel, stay alone, etc…); rather, true contemplation is the tranquillity that comes in the action of non-action (known in Chinese as “yin ning”). So one transcends contemplation and action because one is beyond them, all being spontaneous.

To explain further, allow me to paraphrase an example given by Chuang Tzu himself. He says it is a little like wearing tight shoes to impose discipline (a Confucian notion). The shoes are tight so you think about them all the time. As a result, you are forced to walk straight or be generous or whatever these tight shoes are suppose to make you do. Now, if you wear comfortable shoes, you actually do not “feel” the shoes and whatever action you will take will be with joy.

To get back to the topic of these lines, silence should not be forced. If so, then it is not silence. If there is a plan for remaining silent, then silence will not be. It would be like having tight shoes and constantly thinking about them.

There would never be contemplative silence since it will become the constant topic of thought, analysis and internal discourse. These thoughts and discourses will lead to having opinions, to evaluations of good and bad, and right and wrong, and all will become entangled and inharmonious, hence, unnatural.

So silence, and more precisely contemplative silence, should be spontaneous and lively. It should not be dictated by rigid norms nor by some attachment to the fact that one wants to remain silent.

Contemplative silence transcends the very act of “not talking.” It is spontaneous and hence joyful.

As Chuang Tzu said:

“The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
not because he wills to be quiet.”

Retreat

I hope you do not mind me sharing these thoughts. Next week, I shall be in a one-week silent (talking only when absolutely necessary) retreat at a Cistercian Monastery near Avignon, France; and in the midst of anxiousness and trepidation, I needed to understand more about contemplative silence.

I am afraid however that I have fallen into what Chuang Tzu warns us not to do –intellectualise. Notwithstanding, I am glad that my instinctive take on contemplative silence echoes in a very humble way the dust left by his words.

I shall share some more upon my return if you are interested.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.


Quote: “The Way of Chuang Tzu” by Thomas Merton (New Direction, 1965), xiii-I, page 80.