This Side of Glory


The birth of Christianity is irreducibly, unmistakably and – among religions of the world – uniquely centered around an event. It is, first and foremost, not about a teaching to be learned, an example to be followed or a moral precept to be enjoined (a number of other religions will offer you that), but rather a happening, and one that is both weird and wonderful. The first generations of preachers of this faith walked the Mediterranean world like men stunned or drugged, almost stuttering their message as they pointed their fingers back to that place and that moment when something had occurred that changed everything forever. It was the Resurrection – an event which, almost by definition, you cannot understand. The worst thing that ever happened (the Crucifixion) had just befallen the best man who ever lived, and he had answered it with the greatest surprise of history. Not even St. Paul claimed to have figured it out, but he knew that things can happen that do not fit into our customs of thought. This was one of them, and to the nth degree.

As the years rolled by, and that event sunk deeper and deeper into the past, two things happened. First, the ocular witnesses of the Risen Christ soon died, and the event was thereafter witnessed more by mouths and ears than by eyes. But later eyes wanted to see their world redecorated by the new truth, and hear sounds that thrilled with the new message; above all, they wanted to be rescued from our tragic tendency to forget. Thus, slowly but logically, liturgical forms evolved, clerical paraments, chapels and churches, and an explosion of Christian art and music began to fill the world – all to remind us of a glory once glimpsed in a Man whose birthday became the measure of time. From church walls covered with Byzantine icons in the East to Gothic spires in the West, from almost whispered mantras of Gregorian Chant to Baroque and Romantic musical exaggeration and insistent gesture, from refined high Christian culture to kitschy pilgrimage memorabilia – a new garden of sensations would keep us from forgetting what had happened, crowding our visual fields with unusual light and putting new music into our ears.

For Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the Eucharist – whether called the Mass or the Divine Liturgy – is the event in time designed by Providence to keep the Event of the fullness of time anchored in our shifting world of change. It happens every day, all over the world, and – with the possible exception of the annual Hajj – becomes the most spectacular religious show on earth when a pope offers Mass in public. Even the secular media cannot resist its magic, though it often trips over itself trying to find the right verb to describe what is occurring. It is amusing to read lines like “the pope did (or had, or performed, or gave) Mass – all expressions I have read in newspapers – as they found themselves at a loss to describe what that ‘thing’ is that Catholics call the Mass, and how one does it. It obviously is more than a commemoration, more than a sermon, more than a songfest, more than a ‘service’ (though service it is); again, it is an event, a happening.  And something happens to you when you ‘go to Mass’ – once again, the verbs contend:  one goes to Mass, or assists at Mass, has Masshears Masstakes Communion, has communion, receives Communion, communicates, etc.  Verbs have a hard time keeping up with the acts of a God who is the Verb Incarnate.  In fairness to Protestants, it must be said that even  Catholics tend to get tongue-tied when asked about the details of their fabled ritual. A number of distinctions – regarding sacrament and sacrifice, time and eternity, and a handful of others – would need to be urged in order to account for the rite’s density, which challenges both word and concept. But my only point here is that the liturgy, with all its art and music, produced a conspicuous, worldwide change in time and space and that it was called forth by the event of Christ’s mystery.

That is the first thing that happened after the Happening: liturgy, art, music – in short, a visual and acoustic makeover of our world. The second thing is just as important. As the first generation of Christians feverishly tried to put down in writing what had just occurred, they found themselves creating a new literary category – the Gospel – and adding Epistles, Acts and an Apocalypse into the mix – four genres virtually vibrating with urgency. All this evolved into the dramatic and insistent little text we now call the New Testament (an expression the Gospels, significantly, reserve for the Eucharist itself) – more a set of preaching documents than a tome to be put on a bookshelf. But meditating on those documents and partaking of that ritual Mystery, the Master enjoined subsequent generations to ponder it all – like the disciples of Emmaus, to whom Christ had revealed himself through the Scriptures and the Breaking of Bread. Thus grew, slowly and incrementally – and contemporaneously with the spreading array of new art and liturgy – a new way of thinking. We call it theology.

Here, I only wish to draw attention to one detail of liturgical event and theological reflection. Christians not of the Catholic or Orthodox traditions are often taken aback by the insistence of those traditions on the real presence of Christ – body, soul and divinity – under the Eucharistic species at Mass. There is a considerable body of polemical literature about this question in the history of theology, and I for one find the weight of argument quite convincing on the Catholic and Orthodox side of the debate. But what concerns me here is much simpler, and it might transcend confessional disagreements. Most who believe in Christ’s Resurrection accept that his body now exists in a way fundamentally different from that of our current ponderous organisms. We read of this in the Gospel reports of his unusual appearances after rising from the dead: passing through closed doors, appearing and disappearing almost like a ghost (and not to forget the refulgent apparition of his glory at the Transfiguration). Christian teaching in virtually all of its mainstream forms agrees that he still has a real body now, but that the matter of that body (and not only the soul) has been ‘glorified’. What that really means we have no way of definitively knowing until, God-willing, we one day partake of it. One thing that it entails, however, we can already surmise.

When Catholics and Orthodox insist that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, it is to that mysterious and glorious reality of his transfigured body and blood that they refer. That does not imply, however, that the presence is merely spiritual, or symbolic, or metaphorical, etc., or any of the other ways of unduly domesticating the mystery. It is a real body (with molecules and cells), but in a form already anticipating that state towards which we are all called to proceed, grace by grace. In order to adhere to a traditional belief in the Real Presence, one is not required to imagine an adult male body, such as those we see around us, somehow ‘miraculously’ crunched into the space of a tiny host or a goblet of wine. It is a mystery of faith, not an absurdity of faith. The mode of existence of the glorified human frame of Christ is already a miraculous prefiguration of the final transfiguration of the material universe, foreshadowing the sort of ‘space’ in which the New Jerusalem will descend from heaven. There will be “no temple in the city, for the Lord God and the Lamb are its temple” (Apoc.21,22). There, he will fully contain creation; but here, it is creation that contains him, imperfectly but truly, in its temples and liturgies. In this propadeutic universe of ours, he ordained to place his mysterious, glorified presence in that form of matter which is destined to enter into the precarious temples of our human bodies: food and drink. There, within us, that which is contained (Christ) grows to paradoxically contain its very recipient (us), and like the great reversal of center and periphery prefigured in Dante’s cosmos – where the earthly core of perdition and purification suddenly gives way to the converse center of the divine essence in paradise, and the world is turned inside out and right side up – so it is with Communion.

Grace is just glory under seal, and its propagation on earth through prayer and sacrament is candidly revolutionary. Wherever grace is quietly planted, one day tumultuous glory will shine forth. If the larger portion of the world’s Christians attribute such overwhelming importance to the Eucharist, it is because they see it as the way heaven is preparing its final sedition against the earthbound plans of this world. Holy time-bombs are being planted in human hearts and church tabernacles, all over our troubled planet. And there’s a wonderful bonus that cheers my heart. The saints tell us that one day, looking back from glory, the enigmas of our crazy human story will finally make sense.

Como (não) aprender uma língua


Quando eu era um garoto de nove anos, sendo criado no Kansas, certa vez fui chamado – com os outros pestinhas do bairro – a correr para a casa de meu melhor amigo, a fim de escutar um milagre acústico. Ele tinha acabado de ganhar um rádio de ondas curtas de aniversário e, logo de cara, tinha captado um sinal extraterrestre tão bizarro, que ele chamou imediatamente todos os seus coleguinhas a se maravilharem com ele. Eu fui o primeiro a chegar, e logo se veria uma tropa de garotinhos, todos boquiabertos, ouvindo àquele ruído alienígena. Não podíamos acreditar no que estávamos ouvindo. Quando ficou claro que se tratava de uma voz humana, que produzia aqueles fonemas de outro mundo, longe de a coisa nos parecer mais familiar, pareceu-nos mais estranha. Hoje, relembrando esse episódio, é difícil crer que estávamos simplesmente ouvindo uma emissora de rádio do México, e que aquele idioma extragaláctico que nos maravilhava era simplesmente o espanhol.

Isso mostra o quão longe eu estava das línguas estrangeiras, quando criança. Sem mérito meu, as circunstâncias da minha vida iam mudar isso tudo. Mais de quatro décadas depois, estou lendo livros em sete línguas, e falando três ou quatro bastante bem, o que é um feito atípico para um garoto do Kansas. Mas não foi fácil chegar aqui, nem é tão desejável em si; foram circunstâncias da minha vida e vocação, e não um projeto cosmopolita meu. Admito cair no pecado da inveja quando encontro pessoas da Holanda, ou mesmo dos Bálcãs ou do Cáucaso, e que cresceram falando pelo menos duas línguas. Eu comecei a aprender línguas – para valer – só quando já tinha vinte e poucos anos e, conquanto não fosse tarde demais, é incomparavelmente mais árduo assim do que com pessoas que passam a infância e a adolescência com duas línguas do mundo já dançando alegremente em sua única língua de carne. Minha língua já foi endurecida com inglês com 22 anos de idade.

Tendo eu vivido, ao longo desses mais de quarenta anos, em países onde minha língua nativa não era falada – quase um ano na Bélgica e França, três anos na Áustria e Alemanha, cinco anos na Itália, oito anos em Portugal e agora 25 anos no Brasil (eu disse 25?) – posso dizer que sei alguma coisa sobre línguas estrangeiras, porém não de um ponto de vista erudito – de uma ‘torre de marfim’ -, mas por trabalho de campo (quase falei ‘trabalho forçado’). Meu sistema nervoso e minhas vísceras guardam as cicatrizes de batalha de décadas de entender mal, e de ser mal-entendido por meus anfitriões, sem entender suas piadas e os ofendendo com as minhas, e – sobretudo – de ter de passar ao largo de milhares e milhares de coisas no mundo, cada qual com a sua palavra específica (sem a qual você passa por um completo imbecil), sendo essa palavra diferente em inglês, francês, alemão, italiano, espanhol, e mesmo em português. A busca por essas salva-vidas nunca cessa. Enfim, sou grato pela experiência, mas também gasto.


Tudo isso me faz desconsiderar a ideia de ‘dominar’ uma língua estrangeira – isto é, ter ‘comando’ sobre ela. Claro, dizer isso faz certo sentido pragmático ao fazer o pedido em um restaurante e expressar o que se quer. Mas, no final das contas, uma língua – qualquer uma (e há mais de 6.000 delas lá fora) – é potencialmente tão grande quanto a realidade. No máximo, podemos aspirar a navegar em uma língua, como se navega no oceano, sem qualquer ambição de dominá-lo. Na verdade, a língua é que domina você. Se você verdadeiramente aprender uma língua estrangeira, será porque você terá se rendido a ela, e não ela a você. Você nada, ao invés de afundar, quando aprende a mexer os seus braços e pernas de modo que permita a água sustentar você. Se você malhar e bater na água, ela levará você para baixo. A língua somente nos elevará se aprendermos alguns movimentos simples e desistirmos de tentar pô-la sob nosso controle.

Cuidado com aqueles que se vangloriam de quantas línguas eles ‘dominaram’. Certa vez, encontrei um europeu que falava cinco línguas (talvez diga agora ‘nossa!’), e ele falava todas as cinco fluentemente (sem hesitação), e falava todas as cinco mal. Mesmo em sua língua nativa, ele nunca se deteve com regras de gramática e dicção. Era um dos homens mais incultos que eu conhecia, mas era um poliglota! Ora, poliglotas, assim como os polígamos, tipicamente têm problemas quando se trata de fidelidade. Se você for um diplomata ou um linguista, terá uma desculpe pelo seu poliglotismo (embora Noam Chomsky seja monglota!). Mas, para pessoas ‘normais’ como nós, eu desaconselho fortemente trilhar a promíscua carreira de poliglota. Porém, digo também que é algo maravilhoso aprender uma língua estrangeira, se não por outra razão, que seja a de lhe ajudar a conhecer melhor a sua língua materna. Goethe (acho que foi ele) disse sobre as línguas: “se você conhece apenas uma, não conhece nenhuma”, querendo dizer que a consciência plena de uma língua, especialmente a sua própria, é enormemente favorecida pelo contraste com uma segunda língua, que destaca suas características e a coloca em perspectiva.

Então, recomendo a meus alunos o estudo de apenas três línguas. Em primeiro lugar, aprender sua língua nativa melhor e mais profundamente; ler a sua melhor literatura, estudar sua história, fascinar-se com o milagre linguístico pelo qual a realidade foi apresentada a você pela primeira vez. Em segundo lugar, estudar uma língua moderna europeia, e tentar viajar, se possível, para onde ela é falada. Se não for possível, você tem múltiplos recursos hoje em dia no mundo virtual (de minha parte, recomendo o método de Michel Thomas). Em terceiro lugar, se você está realmente interessado em penetrar nas dimensões mais profundas de uma das grandes tradições do mundo, estude uma das principais línguas clássicas. Recomendaria o latim ou o grego; ou então, para os intrépidos, servirão também o hebraico, árabe, sânscrito, chinês, tibetano ou japonês, para mencionar só as principais (apenas uma, por favor!). Essas línguas, em suas formas clássicas, abrem horizontes vastos (com pequenos vocabulários, mas ricas gramáticas) que nossas línguas modernas perderam em sua maioria (com vocabulários enormes e extensivos, mas com gramáticas compactas e cada vez mais empobrecidas com o passar do tempo).

Ser poliglota deveria ser tão almejado quanto ser polidáctilo. Minha sugestão mais modesta é a seguinte:  Aprenda muito bem a sua língua materna; aprenda uma segunda língua razoavelmente bem; e entre no mundo sem fim do estudo de uma língua clássica. Finalmente, as línguas, assim como o mundo, são realidades nas quais vivemos, e não objetos que dominamos. Nesse sentido, você logo descobrirá palavras maravilhosas e reveladoras – o tipo de palavras que flamejam intuições e geram contemplações –, fluindo do seu coração e se posicionando– de modo precário, mas promissor – no trampolim da sua língua.

About Travel – I


Twain is right, but I would add a small correction (later). And I was impressed to learn that the author of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – which I read as a boy and inspired me to run away from home more than once – also travelled to India, as I had, and allowed its multiple traumas and trances to fall over his soul. No one comes back the same, although some may happen upon its more degenerate sectors, and judge it all from the gutter. Still, India remains (as does much of China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Myanmar) one of few reserves in our violently modern world where you can still experience what it was like to live within rhythms of ritual liesure and along stretches of geography unvisited by the haste of programmed intervention (whether from Market or from Marx).

I grew up in Kansas, about as far from foreignness as you can get in modern geography. The incredible beauties of Mexico – just a thousand miles away (closer than the route to California, or even to New York) – were never even mentioned as possible vacation destinations for our family outings.  I was left with the impression – through no fault of my parents (who simply consumed the media’s report on all things ‘non-American’) – that south of the Rio Grande you would only find insufferable heat, incessant revolutions, violence, and governments run by families (like the Adams, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons…. oops, sorry– I am trying to remember the names of the Latin American dynasties….no luck). At any rate, it was a foregone conclusion that we had better stay up here north of the boundary if we want to enjoy the benefits of democracy.

Well, my biography seemed to already be projected in international terms.  I had a lady friend in Kansas who offered once to do my horoscope, and as I was then (as now) skeptical of such things, I let her cast my scope as a kind of lark. I read through it sympathetically (not wanting to hurt her feelings), and noted a large number of perhaps statistically foreseeable coincidences, but then my eyes fell upon a detail that was obviously so far from even the most modest expectations for the life of a Midwestern kid, I only laughed.  It said I would travel much.

On Learning a Language


As a nine-year-old boy, while growing up in Kansas, I was once summoned – together with all the neighborhood urchins – to hasten to my best friend’s house to hear an acoustic miracle. He had just gotten a short-wave radio for his birthday, and right off the bat had picked up an extra-terrestrial signal so bizarre, he at once called all his little buddies to come marvel with him. I was first to arrive, and soon one would have seen a troupe of little boys, all with their jaws dropped to the floor, listening to this alien noise. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. As it became clear that it was a human voice that was producing the unearthly phonemes, it became not less strange, but more. Looking back at this episode today, it is hard to believe we were just hearing a radio broadcast from Mexico, and that the extra-gallactic idiom we were marveling at was common Spanish.

That’s how far I was from foreign languages when growing up. Through no merit of mine, the circumstances of my life were soon to change all that. Now, over four decades thence, I find myself reading seven languages, and speaking three or four pretty well, which is a bit of an accomplishment for a Kansas boy. It did not come easy, and I don’t think it is even particularly desirable; it was my vocation which brought this about, and no cosmopolitan project on my part. I admit I can plunge into the sin of envy when I meet people who grew up in the Netherlands, or even in the Balkans or the Caucasus, and spoke at least two tongues (rather effortlessly) since they were toddlers. I started to learn languages in earnest only in my early 20s, and while not hopelessly late, it is still far more arduous than growing up with two spoken tongues dancing happily on your lonely tongue of flesh. My tongue was already hardened in English at the age of 22.

Having lived for these 40+ years in countries where my native tongue was not spoken – almost a year in Belgium and France, three years in Austria and Germany, five years in Italy, eight years in Portugal and now 25 years in Brazil (did I just say 25?) – I can say I know a thing or two about foreign languages, but not from an erudite, ivory-tower point of view, but from laboring in the field (I almost said forced labor). My nervous system and gut bear the battle scars of decades of misunderstanding and being misunderstood by my hosts, not getting their jokes and offending them with mine, and having to hack through the underbrush of the thousands and thousands of things in this world, each of which have a specific word (without which you turn into a sputtering imbecile), and that word is different in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and even in Portuguese. The search for these life-savers never ends. I am grateful for the experience, but also exhausted.


All this makes me dismissive of the idea of ‘mastering’ a foreign language – getting ‘command’ of it. Sure, saying this makes a certain amount of pragmatic sense in ordering at a restaurant and expressing your wishes. But finally, a language – any language (and there are some 6,000 of them out there) – is potentially as big as reality, and the sane among us have given up trying to master that for some time now. At best, we can aspire to navigate in a language, as one navigates on the ocean, with no ambition whatsoever to master it. Indeed, it masters you. If you truly learn a foreign language, it will be because you have surrendered to it, and not it to you. You swim, rather than drown, when you learn to move your arms and legs in ways that allow the water to hold you up. If you flail and beat the water, it will take you under. Language lifts us up, if only we will just learn a few simple moves and give up trying to bring it under our control.

Beware of those who brag of how many languages they have ‘mastered’. I once met a European who spoke five languages (here you are supposed to go “wow!”), and he spoke all five of them fluently (without hesitation) and all five of them he spoke poorly. Even in his native tongue, rules of grammar and diction never slowed him down. He was one of the most uncultured men I ever knew, but he was a polyglot! Now polyglots, like polygamists, typically have an issue when it comes to fidelity. If you are a diplomat or a language scholar, I’ll give you a pass. But for the normal folks among us, I strongly discourage pursuing the promiscuous career of being a polyglot. However, it is a wonderful thing to learn one foreign language, if for no other reason than that it helps you learn your mother tongue better. Goethe (I think it was him) said of languages: “if you only know one, you know none”, meaning that full awareness of language, and especially of your own, is powerfully aided by the contrast of a second language, which throws the first into perspective.

So I recommend to my students the study of only three languages. First, learn your native tongue better and more deeply; read its best literature, study its history, get fascinated by the linguistic miracle through which you were introduced to reality. Secondly, study one modern European language, and try to travel, if possible, to where it is spoken. If not possible, you have multiple resources today in the virtual realm (for my money, I would recommend the method of Michel Thomas). Thirdly, if you are truly interested in penetrating the deeper dimensions of any of our great traditions, study one of the principle classical languages. I would recommend Latin, but Greek, or (for the intrepid) Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan or Japanese, will also do (only one, please!). These languages, in their classical forms, open depths (with small vocabularies, but rich grammars) that our modern tongues have mostly lost (with huge, sprawling vocabularies, and grammars more shrunk and impoverished by the year).

Being a polyglot should be no more coveted than being polydactyl. My modest suggestion is the following:  Learn your mother tongue well; learn a second tongue pretty well; and enter into the unending world of the study of a classical tongue. Finally languages, like the world, are lived in and never mastered. In this way, you will soon find wonderful words, revealing words – the kind of words that spark intuitions and sire contemplations – pouring out of your heart and poising themselves, precariously but hopefully, on the diving-board of your tongue.


First U.S. Homily (1984)

First Homily in the U.S. (1984)

After returning from India and visiting the States at the end of 1983, I was invited to give a guest homily at my old Presbyterian church on Jan. 1, 1984. I’d be a bit easier on the Indians if I were to preach about these matters today, but otherwise I can still endorse what I said.  Today (Oct. 16, 2016) I have substituted a recording on which the speed has been corrected, so I don’t sound as much like a castrato.