In Henri-François Rey’s novel The Mechanical Pianos, a couple converses like this:
“- I have discovered a label that seems really made for both of us – confesses the husband.
– What is it? – the wife asks curiously.
– We are uninhabited beings, you and me.
– Why is that?
– We are like a pitted cherry or a body without a soul. I’m sure of it. We no longer have a soul… just a huge emptiness, a big hole”.
Uninhabited, us? Even now I laugh at a scene I witnessed some time ago. I was walking down a street in Lisbon when I saw a young man in his twenties coming from a distance and in the opposite direction, swerving to the right and to the left, throwing his head back and forth, gesturing and writhing. Was he epileptic? Was his head in a bad way?
Well, he was simply listening to music with his headphones in his ears, and the music must have been nerve-shaking and turned the listener into a kind of galvanised frog. Someone called these contraptions an “annexed brain”.
Uninhabited, the men and women of today? Inhabited, that’s what they are, by an annexed brain that “thinks” instead of the real one, that decomposes it, that shuts it down. Empty as a bowl? Or, on the contrary, full – of sensations, of ephemeral things, of fragmented knowledge, of “weak thoughts”? Incapable, in any case, of listening to the “quiet music”, of savouring the “sonorous solitude” of which St. John of the Cross speaks. Or of “habitare secum”, of living with oneself, as St. Gregory the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus would say.
I am not as pessimistic as Bertolt Brecht who described an air force soldier: “General, man is very useful: he can fly and he can kill. He has only one defect: he can think.
The bad thing is that humans eliminate this “defect” easily, often and willingly. When they are in a position to be silent and to think, they are frightened by this possibility and are then flooded with noises, even if such noises have the name of music. In order not to bother to think, they docilely adapt themselves to think like others, becoming an open field for all fashions, conformisms, ideologies and the most diverse interests. They live absent from themselves. They do not mind being puppets led by invisible strings: there are those who think for them, those who decide for them, those who rent out their conscience.
Martín Descalzo said that today’s man “seems to know no other way than to work like a donkey, to be bored like a cat, to jump from madman to madman like a mosquito”. And I believe that the great mission of the family and the school, in this age of fabulous discoveries but also of the globalisation of stupidity, is to teach people to think, to be free. Because it seems that people do not aspire to be anything, but simply to have big salaries, luxury villas, top-of-the-range cars, “dream” holidays and increasingly crazy distractions. And there it says in the Bible that “the man who grows rich and does not reflect is like the animals that are slaughtered”.
I also believe that, in seminaries and religious cenacles, the number one function of formators is to teach “habitare secum”, to overcome “the great current conspiracy against the interior life”, according to Jorge Bernanos. We need silence like oxygen and blood. I am referring, of course, to the fertile, dense, melodious, populated silence, and not to that of rocks or oxen. I mean that immersion within ourselves, where the roots of what we can become, of our creative capacities, of our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings are at deep and serious levels.
Only thoughtful, studious, educated people can listen to the needs and aspirations of their contemporaries.
Only such men and women are able to do the obligatory thing: to change from molluscs to vertebrates, that is, from people protected from the outside, as was the case in former times, to people with a skeleton and consistency of their own. Indeed, we no longer live in a world and in a fortress-like Church; today we have to live in the open, in the open, where a thousand winds blow and we are exposed to the elements. Whoever is not structured, responsible, adult; whoever is not equipped with the criteria to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, is unarmed and vulnerable. Critical capacity is their protection, their armour.
The unbridled activism into which we fall is perhaps the consequence of having lost the profound dimension that should rule our lives. This feverish activity, without nourishment, without goals, woven with urgent tasks that lead to forgetting the most important ones, is sterile and empty.
Those who work like this, like donkeys, may not be as bored as cats. But they are not far from those who jump like grasshoppers, multiplying contacts and experiences, “sailing” a lot in the immense sea of this complex society; or dancing to the taste of the music of any annexed brain.
Abílio Pina Ribeiro, cmf