The Malta Independent 8 December 2021, Wednesday

Time to meditate…

Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 09:49 Last update: about 4 months ago

‘Dik il-Qalb tal-laham ta’ Alla’. Author: Gilbert Scicluna. Publisher: CAK: Religjon u Hajja, 2021. Pages: 79 pp. Illustrated

Words by Victor Mallia-Milanes

There are two ways of approaching Our Lord - one is to learn about Him, the other is to experience Him directly. The first is to know who He is by reading what is written about Him in the Holy Scriptures and elsewhere and perhaps by occasionally listening to the traditional Sunday homily. I would call that the academic way, to learn about the Lord as we learn about Shakespeare, Michelangelo or Louis XIV. The second, the personal way, may be achieved solely by meditating on Him, by engaging in mental and spiritual conversations with Him, by sustaining a constant living dialogue with Him.

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Within the general social and religious context of an alarmingly declining faith, Gilbert Scicluna, a young, intelligent priest, feels it necessary, indeed vital, to respond to the current needs of the increasingly secular world surrounding us by trying to cultivate God's real presence in meditation, as the early Christian communities did, by reflecting on the life of Christ as an enriching source of inspiration and guidance. The present work under review, a splendid booklet, with hardly 70 pages of text, is a graceful attempt to relate this old story in an interestingly unconventional way, one dictated, as the author himself confesses in the preface, by "the thirst and void that I feel, first and foremost, in myself, and [then] around me". Prompted by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar's brilliant and highly influential Heart of the World, Scicluna's is a book of profound meditations on the Word of God, elegantly written in a form that is purely exquisite and lyrical. This is how the first meditation, entitled It-Taħbita (The Knock), opens so poetically:
"Humanity moans without knowing precisely why. The heart yearns without knowing exactly what for. It feels empty but cannot recall what it was that had been filling it - or what can possibly succeed in satisfying it. Debilitated. Our flesh has been worn away, our bones dried up. As if buried alive, we walk in utter darkness and find no path that leads to freedom; that shows the way out of this jungle we've found ourselves in after having been evicted from the garden".

In translation, I feel I must admit, the pleasantly stylish prose is deprived of the pure lyricism of the original.

This first section sets the tone of the entire collection of meditations. Was not the Garden of Eden an authentic symbol of man's soul in a state of innocence? But once that was lost, the jungle that replaced it was wild, complex and chaotic; the soil, like man's soul, turned arid and sterile, and could only produce "stones, thorns and bramble". Does "the knock", the theme of the first meditation, signify hope, the Redeemer's arrival at humanity's tightly locked door? Or is it the deafening sound of a holy heartbeat signalling the generous offer of an intense, radical, spiritual change? The answer lies buried deep inside one's conscience and provides ample scope for a genuine exploration of the intricacies of one's inner life. It is the quintessence of an intimate, personal relationship with Christ. The option to answer "the knock", to accept with humility or out of sheer audacity decline the invitation, belongs entirely to man, whom the Creator allows full freedom of choice, with no limits or restrictions. That is the raison d'être of this meditation. And of all the others that follow.

The book consists of a remarkable symphony of 16 such noble themes; each makes a genuine, sincere, but very subtle call for a profound reassessment of one's assuring bond with the Creator and with one's neighbour. Or a soft and subdued whisper perhaps to reshape and refashion the relationship after it had been allowed to get drained, damaged or destroyed. They are 16 vignettes of Christ's life on earth, evocatively interwoven occasionally with Old Testament episodes, and indeed with man's - the author's reflections on the grave difficulties embracing man's attempt at following in practice the awe-inspiring Beatitudes. The resplendent ideals expressed on top of the Mountain are so distinct from the grim and painful physical existence experienced daily at the foot of the mountain, on the plains, grave difficulties that mark the stark differences between heaven and earth. The sharp, flagrant contradictions. Life looks so absurd; but, says the author, it is precisely the very heart of this absurdity that embraces the true sense in anything that might be deemed reality, hidden deep inside the profound contradictions. That is what constitutes Christ's desire to share His love with us. Reflections on the true meaning of the "Our Father"; on how difficult it is to accept Our Lord's invitation unconditionally, to give up everything we have in respectful silence in exchange for His promise.

The book is a paragon of a spiritual drama. It provides all the relevant ingredients and a lively natural movement from one scene to another. At one moment, the reader finds himself in the Garden of Eden; then he moves in the midst of doubt and suffering in Jerusalem; or fearfully on a tiny boat when the furious sea and raging wind both contend which of the two is the mightier; or to the enlightened empty grave which had annihilated the darkness of death. The next moment, he is in a carpenter's workshop, with the child Jesus learning not only his foster-father's trade, but rather "to live in the world He himself had created". They are all striking moments of meditation which encourage man to leave the ideas on the printed page to search his soul as widely and as deeply as he feels possible. At another instant, man is depicted as spiritually dehydrated, worn out by the pressures of human pleasure, passions, aspirations and ambitions: all murky waters that contribute solely to sustain an unquenchable thirst. But Christ too is insatiably thirsty - for man's love, yearning to be loved, to be accepted again by the human being He himself had created out of mud and whom he had endowed with an innate freedom to choose, now that man is, after Eden, fully armed with knowledge of evil. This reminds me of John Milton's definition of "the true wayfaring Christian" in his Areopagitica: "He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue. ... That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary."

In my modest opinion, the present work has one other outstanding quality. It is a golden treasure trove of ideas for the Sunday homily, of novel approaches to the conventional, often hackneyed, sermon.

Fr Gilbert Scicluna deserves full praise for such a work of art.

 


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