Twelfth St. Josemaría Escrivá Arts Conference
On Monday, November 15, the Colegio Mayor Moncloa (Madrid) once again hosted the St. Josemaría Escrivá Arts Conference. Entitled St. Josemaría and Nobility of Spirit, it featured Enrique García-Máiquez, writer, literary critic and poet. The journalist Alvaro Sánchez León had the opportunity to interview the speaker in depth. We reproduce his article below.
Enrique García-Máiquez is a poet, literary critic, writer, professor, columnist and translator. According to a tweet from the Colegio Mayor Moncloa, his intervention in the Twelfth Conference of the St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer Arts Conference has been “an inspiration.”
The topic? Nobility of spirit in the thought and life of the founder of Opus Dei. Focus? 360 degrees. Guide? “The finest definition I know of nobility of spirit,” which is the one Dante's Divine Comedy places on the lips of Ulysses to elevate the spirit of his companions: “Don’t forget your lineage and birth:/ you were not made to live like beasts,/ but to attain virtue and knowledge.”
Atocha train station. In a quiet corner we have a tranquil cup of coffee, talking about the years 1902, 1928, 1975 and 2021.
–Dante, St. Josemaría, university students of the 21st century. The guide for your reflections is the thread of nobility.
–Nobility of spirit is an eternal ideal that the founder of Opus Dei brought intact and luminous to our own day and age.
–St. Josemaría was a person in tune with his times, aware of the most pressing problems of the moment, and his sensitivity enabled him to discover in the cultural environment ideas that furthered the divine message. He understood, for example, that the masses of people rising in the new industrial society required an ideal of nobility and altruism to channel and dignify the unstoppable “revolt of the masses” diagnosed by Ortega y Gasset. Because of his Aragonese roots, born in the shadow of the castle of Monzón and Torreciudad, and because of many conditioning factors due to his personal biography and his way of being, he realized that God was asking him to offer a noble zeal, a moral crusade inspired by freedom, to all those who were part of the great new working and middle classes of the 1930's. He sought to awaken people to the ideal of the universal call to holiness amid the heroism of daily work, infusing it with a sense of mission.
–You speak of an “almost a chivalrous” ideal.
–Yes, in some of his intimate notes, St. Josemaría acknowledges that he has in mind setting up a kind of military order in the middle of the world. He even thought that it would be made up of “white knights” and “white ladies,” although later, in response to divine inspiration, he decided not to use names that were unnecessary and would have been distracting. But the first intuition remains inside, like a seed. There is a chivalrous ideal in the core of Opus Dei. This is neither snobbery nor an anachronism. In those years, Eugenio d'Ors launched the idea of “intellectual chivalry” in his Glossary and in Learning and Heroism. Let us not forget the proposals of Juan Ramón Jiménez in his address on El trabajo gustoso. He argues that the work of a gardener or a mechanic can become “the best work,” poetry, which, for him, is literally a concept analogous to sainthood. St. Josemaría proposed, in line with the best intellectuals of his time, what we could call a “transcendent aristocracy.” In short, he verbalized the mission entrusted to him by God with the loftiest ideas of his time.
–This ideal of noble chivalry is very present in The Way.
–Indeed. In The Way, St. Josemaría speaks of noble thoughts, of great virtues, of soaring ambitions... Books of chivalry had a strong impact on his life, as they also had, curiously enough, on the lives of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Teresa of Jesus. The founder of Opus Dei was a great admirer of Don Quixote, by Cervantes. In his message and his life, the audacity, nobility, madness and eagerness for adventure present in the story of Alonso Quijano, who strives to be a knight-errant with the same desire with which St. Josemaría encourages the struggle for sanctity, take center stage, without human respect or fear of ridicule.
–Don Quixote is a book of chivalry with an important element of humor.
–Humor and a sense of comedy are intrinsically inherent to nobility of spirit. It is clear from the writings and thoughts of the founder of Opus Dei that one cannot claim to be a saint in the middle of the world (just as one cannot try to be a knight-errant) without knowing how to laugh at oneself, even at one's failures. We read in point 390 of The Way: “Laugh at ridicule. Despise the bogey of what people will say. See and feel God in yourself and in your surroundings. And you will acquire the holy shamelessness that you need – what a paradox! – in order to live with the refinement of a Christian gentleman [caballero cristiano, literally a Christian knight].”
–A Christian knight. You understand St. Josemaría to mean that the first step to being a saint is to be a good person, and being a “Christian knight” is the best way to express this set of flesh-and-blood virtues prior to the supernatural ones.
–The nobility of spirit of Christian knights and ladies presupposes wisdom, elegance, fortitude, prudence, charity, decision, boldness, integrity, coherence, heart, honor, courage, commitment to one's word, a sense of humor... Nobility of spirit can be understood as a set of human virtues that predisposes one to undertake the task of sanctity in true imitation of Jesus Christ. We were speaking earlier about Don Quixote, and I remembered the clear-sighted words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger in his homily at the Mass of Thanksgiving after the beatification of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer in 1992. The founder dared to be something like a Don Quixote of God. Or does it not seem 'quixotic' to teach, in the midst of today's world, humility, obedience, chastity, detachment from material things, forgetfulness of self? The will of God for him was what was truly reasonable and thus the apparently irrational was shown to be rational.”
–In this homily, Ratzinger also speaks about the times when St. Josemaría referred to his own madness of love for God. He said: “Again and again he spoke of his 'follies': to begin without any means, to begin in the midst of the impossible. These seemed crazy things that he had to risk doing, and risk he did. In this context those words of his great compatriot Miguel de Unamuno come to mind: “Only madmen do what is sensible, the wise do nothing but foolishness.”
–Dante calls for this in his definition: virtue must be pursued with energy and will. Nobility of spirit entails a great desire to dare, to embark on adventures, adventures that to many faithless eyes seem madness. St. Josemaría expressed this metaphor with elegance and without ambiguity in a meeting in Pozoalbero in 1972. Again, Dante has already said it: “you were not made to live like animals,” but to aspire to the best gifts (cf. 1 Cor 12:31), to great projects, to be the protagonists of conquests that fill the world with holiness and joy. All the literature of the Arthurian cycle speaks about metamorphoses: that of the kitchen helper into a hero, for example. In folk tales, too, where a toad can become a prince. St. Josemaría proposes a real metamorphosis to attain true life: to become better persons with a zeal for sanctity.
–The founder of Opus Dei has Don Quixote in mind and takes advantage of the life of its protagonist and Sancho Panza to speak about interior life. But he disagrees with Tartarin de Tarascon. In fact, he uses him as a counterexample in this passage from his homily The Greatness of Ordinary Life, collected in Friends of God: “Thinking of those of you who, despite years of experience, still go about dreaming – with vain and childish dreams, like those of Tartarin of Tarascon – imagining they are hunting lions in the corridors of their homes, where the most they will find are mice, if that; with, I insist, such people in mind, I can only remind you how great a thing it is to be accompanying God through the faithful fulfilment of your ordinary daily duties, coming through struggles which fill our Lord with joy, and which are known only to him and to each one of us.”
–The problem is that Tartarin de Tarascon has too much childishness and airy idealism, and lacks nobility of spirit. Without eagerness to go out into the world and strive to put his dreams into practice, there is no nobility that is worthwhile. “Tongue without hands, how dare you speak,” we read in the Cantar del Mío Cid, a book that was also of great interest to St. Josemaría Escrivá. Confucius would not have liked Tartarin either: “A gentleman is ashamed that his words are better than his deeds,” he said.
–Because realism and nobility of spirit are in harmony.
–That’s right. Nobility invites us to put our ideals into action.
–In St. Josemaria’s preaching, writings and personal dealings with others, service to God and to others is often viewed as an adventure.
–He preached the adventure of becoming a saint raised to the altars, which is no less adventurous than becoming a knight of the round table. And of peacefully conquering the world so as to place Christ at the summit of all human activities, nothing less. In listening to these goals, don’t you hear the beating of a noble heart?
–As part of your analysis of nobility, you also speak of the importance of “the nobility of origin” in St. Josemaría’s life.
–The “hidalgo” (a Spanish nobleman) is, by definition, the son of something, of someone. Boethius specifies this more clearly: of Someone. He wrote in The Consolation of Philosophy that, if we look at our origin, we are all children of God, and we cannot have a nobler origin. In St. Josemaría's message, that origin, divine filiation, sustains the whole spirit. Moreover, in the life of the founder of Opus Dei there is also a deep interest in vindicating his family origins: the virtues of his parents, the defense of his family name… Personally, I am moved by this love for genealogy, seen so clearly, of course, in the life of Christ himself, as the Gospels tell us. Two of the Gospel accounts begin with Jesus’ family tree.
–St. Josemaría finds his reference point for the Christian gentleman also in Christ.
–Always. In The Journal of Happiness, Nicolae Steinhardt says that Christ is “the model gentleman.” This is only logical, since He is the perfect man. Steinhardt admires his elegance, his affection for everyone, his attention to detail, his courage, etc. This is the tone that pervades St. Josemaría's teachings. Christ, who is born in a manger and has no concern for money, is proud to belong to the House of David. Christ, who is elegant, wise, prudent, courageous, strong, loving, noble. Referring to God the Father, the philosopher Rémi Brague gave a memorable lecture entitled: “God as a gentleman.”
–This chivalrous message could sound elitist.
–Yes, certainly, but it is not! On the contrary: one of the key problems in today's world is the imposition of an egalitarianism that only works if it equalizes us from below. The accusation of elitism falls apart when we realize that this ideal of a Christian knight or gentleman is part of a greater proposal: that all men and women, without exception, can be noble, because we are all called to holiness. Few things are less elitist and more socially sensitive than offering people –everyone! – the highest possible rank.
–Elegance is also nobility.
–Without elegance there is no nobility. Which, in the end, has a divine meaning. I agree with Josep Pla that “the supreme elegance is charity.” To be attentive to others with genuine affection is the pinnacle of good manners.
–Do you see any connection between nobility and poetry in the life of St. Josemaría?
–He himself establishes this connection between poetry, ordinary life and the spirit of chivalry in that graphic passage in Christ Is Passing By: “The ‘miracle’ which God asks of you is to persevere in your Christian and divine vocation, sanctifying each day’s work: the miracle of turning the prose of each day into heroic verse by the love which you put into your ordinary work.”
–Another meaning of nobility present in St. Josemaría’s preaching and writing is honor.
–And in his life! The founder of Opus Dei is not ashamed to speak of honor, nor to aspire to it, nor to defend it, which again brings to mind the figure of the Christian knight or lady. Karl Vossler, with his very Germanic concern for technical terms, sees in honor “an intermediate and pivotal stage between sanctity and the norms of the world.” St. Josemaría also proposes this “intermediate stage”: a stage of listening to what our conscience asks of us – noblesse oblige – in order to rise from there to holiness. The founder of Opus Dei took a further step in his life that seems key to me. At the beginning of the 1940s, at the height of the attacks against him and the Work (many coming from people in the Church) he recounted his own experience: “There came a moment when I had to go one night to the Tabernacle... to say: Lord – and it was hard for me, it was hard for me because I am very proud, and I was crying tears...– if you don’t need my honor, what do I want it for? Since then I don’t give a hoot about anything.” Montaigne says at some point in his essays – and I quote from memory – that “no one is honorable unless he is ready to renounce his honor for a higher cause.” St. Josemaría also fulfills this final requirement to the letter.
–Do you find nobility of spirit in St. Josemaría's teaching on the need “to love the world passionately”?
–A lot. It is the virtuous action of the noble spirit, which strives to improve the world, without surrendering to it. It is the knight-errant who confronts all injustice and disorder, without being worldly or renouncing the world.
–How does one bring this chivalrous message to the 21st century?
–Someone as “unsnobbish” as Camus said that “this world moves with so many contortions – like a worm being cut to pieces – because it has lost its head. It is looking for its aristocrats.” St. Josemaría presents an analogous idea in point 301 of The Way: “A secret, an open secret: these world crises are crises of saints.” And another impressive point of agreement: Camus, a committed intellectual, could only conceive of two aristocracies: “That of intelligence and that of work.” with the insistence that they must go together: “But intelligence alone is not an aristocracy. Nor work alone.” We shouldn’t reject the clarion call that nobility of spirit represents, and that St. Josemaría presents to us. The adventure of serving God elevates us as we strive to improve the world with our intellect and work. Don Quixote said: “Enchanters may deprive me of good fortune, but of spirit and courage, never!” They will never be able to take them from us either.
Romana, n. 73, July-December 2021, p. 65-72.