One thing that has always struck me as bizarre is how sometimes outsiders to the faith seem to have keener insights on how the faith works, or should be working, than Catholics allegedly in good standing. Sometimes, when atheists or secularists denounce Catholics for behaving in an unchristian way, our apologist reflex kicks in, and we immediately go on preaching elaborate theological justifications to the perceived inconsistency. This is needed, of course, but we should also take some time to absorb those criticisms… if we do it, we will find out that, many times, it contains some (or much) truth in it, and it can even often be reconciled with sound doctrine. We could become better Christians by listening to those criticisms.

This is, by no means, a modern realization. Jesus sometimes found a more attentive ear from pagans and other outsiders to the Jewish faith (the Canaanite woman, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion), than from Jews themselves, who practiced the revealed religion in its fullness at the time. The Good Samaritan parable deals entirely with that, after all. And even in the Old Testament, we see gentiles like Ruth, giving lessons of Law to the Jewish people.

But for me, what impresses me more, is how sometimes some atheists (when they are not bent on overthrowing the Church,) can actually produce hymns and praises to God, either willingly or unwillingly, which should make any Christian artist jealous. In this article, and in my next, I will give our readers a sample of Portuguese literature illustrating what I’m talking about. They are also a good Advent read, since they seem to focus on waiting for the divine to come and illuminate our wretched lives here down bellow (and how could atheists talk of God in any other way, than through the urge they feel for Him as they can’t find Him?).

What is the explanation for this phenomena of good Christian art from atheist artists? Well, it often happens that outsiders sometimes have a more objective perspective on matters than insiders. Also, they have different backgrounds, which can color the inside knowledge with new perspectives. And they are not as comfortable as the people inside the bubble, so for whom the Good News may be too familiar, and hence, not so fresh. However, I think the most important explanation is found in St. Augustine’s old saying: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” This yearning can act as semina Verbi, i.e. seeds of Gospel lying dormant in the souls of the atheists, just waiting for some grace to spring forth (and this should give us hope, for sometimes their conversion might not be so far off as we think, even if we cannot see it, for only God knows the hearts of men.)

I saw a proof of this in an event involving Portuguese Nobel-award winning writer José Saramago. Saramago, an outspoken Communist, made it his life’s purpose to write novels shamelessly debunking the Catholic faith. They exude pure hatred and contempt for religion… Once I went to read one of his books, looking for a theological intellectual challenge, and found only a juvenile screed that could have been written by a rebel and badmouthed teen who thinks he has just come up with the answer that brainwashed religious people have overlooked for millennia. It wasn’t even good literature… its only merit was the humored way it ridiculed and satirized the religious strawmen existing in the author’s head. And yet, in an interview promoting that same book, I heard Saramago say, referring to the injustices and evils of the world: “God created the world in six days, and he rested on the seventh. He never did anything ever again.” But when he said this, his voice suddenly crumbled, as if trying to contain a cry, fighting to keep the tears in… it was said with extreme and noticeable hurt and anguish.

Now, I can’t recommend anyone to read Saramago’s works on religion. In fact, I can’t advise you enough not to do that. However, today I want to bring you a poem from Portuguese writer Guerra Junqueiro.

Guerra Junqueiro (1850-1923)

Junqueiro hails from the nineteenth century and is the typical son of the Englightenment and Modernity. His writings were profoundly anticlerical, and he would become a partisan of the secular and anti-Catholic Republic overthrowing the ancién regime in the country, deeply imbedded with Catholicism (in fact, this was the country’s official religion during the monarchy, even enshrined in the Constitution.)

And yet, he was able to write this amazing poem, which I took the liberty of translating. The Portuguese original can be found here. First disclaimer, my translation does not do the poem justice. The original has spotless rhyme and metrics, but my abilities as a translator are not sufficient to present the poem to you in all its splendor, so some (if not most) of the linguistic beauty was lost in the process. Second disclaimer: the poem uses a Jewish man as an archetype for greed. As a Catholic and philo-Semite, I cannot condone this caricature, but unfortunately, anti-Semitism was widely prevalent at the time, so in the interest of historical and artistic accuracy, I decided to keep it. I ask the readers to focus on the deeper meaning of the poem and not on that.

Furthermore, I would like to dedicate this imperfect translation to my lovely fiancée and love of my life Claire Navarro.

So, without further ado, here it is: “Celestial Tear.”


Celestial Tear

A scorching June morning… a steep hillside…

Dry, desert, and naked, by the roadside.

 

Ungrateful land, where heather hardly had grown

Drinking sun, eating dirt, biting stone.

 

Over an unfriendly leaf from a savage fig tree

(Just like a magmatic rubble fed refugee)

 

The Dawn had released, compassionate and divine

An ethereal tear, round and crystalline.

 

A Tear so ideal, so limpid, that when you saw it spark,

Up close was like a diamond, and from afar like a star.


A King passed by, with his courtly procession in row.

Helms, spears, trumpets, flags dancing as the wind blows.

 

“- On my crown” – said the King, halting his retinue

“There are countless sapphires and unparalleled jewels.

 

There are oriental rubies, bloody and golden

Like kisses of love, burning, emboldened.

 

There are pearls like drops of sorrows immense,

Which the moon cries, and the sea freezes and condenses.

 

Yes, diamonds, and rubies, and pearls from Ophir…

All of this I give you, if you come hither, o tear, and glimmer

 

On this proud, olympic, supreme crown.

And from the top of my head, on the whole Globe ye shalt look down!

 

And the Celestial Tear, naïve and light filled…

… listened…

… smiled…

… trembled…

… and silently stayed still.


Armour-clad, epic and dazzling, at high speed

A Knight passed by on his noble steed.

 

Said the Knight to the rainbow colored Tear:

“- By Jesus, come shine on my sword’s cross and spear.

 

I’ll make thee shine as lightning bolt, from victory to victory

In the Holy Land! At the light of Faith! By the sun of Glory!

 

And upon our return, my bride shall guard ye, o star,

On her auroreal bosom of rose and alabaster.

 

And thus, shall ye illuminate with thy lively gleam

A thousand heroes battles and a thousand lovers’ dreams!”

 

And the Celestial Tear, naïve and light filled…

… listened…

… smiled…

… trembled…

… and silently stayed still.


Riding a dark mule, out in the way,

An Old Jew passes by, miser and gray.

 

A drudge caravan carried his treasure.

Great arks of cedar, with gold without measure.

 

And the ragged old man, thin as a reed,

With his bald skull, febrile glare, sharp beak,

 

Noting the star, cried out: “- Oh God, what a marvel!

How it shines, and shimmers, and sparkles!

 

With all my gold, you could buy, for a petty fee

All the empires of kings and all ships from the sea!

 

But for this splendid diamond I would trade and auction,

With my miserly hand, all of my fortune!

 

And the Celestial Tear, naïve and light filled…

… listened…

… smiled…

… trembled…

… and silently stayed still.


Under the fig tree, then, a grim Thistle, growing near

All dried up, said to the Celestial Tear:

 

“- The land where the other flowers bloom,

With a stony heart, never showed me anything but gloom.

 

If I complain, and raise my hands to the sky,

The sky retaliates with a scorching fire.

 

Never near me, since by thorns I’m wounded,

Have the tweeting birds next to me roosted.

 

Never near me, flocks of enamored maids,

On starry nights did their loves serenade.

 

The birds fly on the blue up above,

So much distant as them flies over me love,

 

Because – woe! – I’ve never given shade,

And never a stunning flower I made.

 

O God’s tear, o star, o drop of water,

Please fall on the desolation of this infinite sorrow!”

 

And the Celestial Tear, naïve and light filled…

… trembled …

… trembled …

… trembled…

… and silently spilled.


And some time later, the sad Thistle bloomed

A blood colored flower, pleasant and perfumed.

 

Of a macerated, sore, and exhausted purple tone,

Like the wounds that Our Lord on His chest borne.

 

And to the virginal cup of this poor red flower… the bee,

Humming with joy, would collect its golden honey.

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  1. Avatar Pete Vickery says:

    Very beautiful and moving, especially considering the source of the poem. I am happy to hear of your fiancee and pray God’s blessings be upon both of you. Feliz Navidad. Que Dios les bendiga ahora y siempre.