Of Love and Books
Encounters | In conversation with a Catholic Priest
Listen in Spanish
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I originally wrote this week’s piece in Spanish and this is the first time I’ve translated my own work! It is one of a series of journal entries following my conversations with the Catholic priest who married my parents some thirty years ago. For the past couple of years now, every time I visit my grandmother in Spain, I make a pilgrimage to visit Don Ignacio and his books (please note this is a pseudonym to preserve his anonymity).
Don Ignacio is the custodian of one of the oldest books in the world. Known as an incunabulum in Latin, this manuscript was printed in the earliest stages of printing in medieval Europe. The only other copy was burned by the falangists during the civil war when Franco’s soldiers set fire to libraries and forbidden books - book-burning was common during that time.
I didn’t know that Don Ignacio was a fellow book lover when I first visited him. I just wanted to meet the priest who married my folks. But his home is filled with books, and when he noticed my admiring them, he showed me his greatest treasure. On one occasion, he let me spend a whole afternoon with it while he went off to lead mass. That was one of the most exceptional days of my life. I can’t quite put into words the sensation of being in the presence of a book that old. Dating from the 1400s, it is about six hundred years old. I didn’t know time had a scent until that day. Books this old are usually exhibited behind glass panels in museums. You can’t touch them, let alone smell them. Time permeated the room like the scent of baked bread and took me right out of the disquiet within me, out of tiredness and concern, and I was filled with relief. Books tend to have this effect on me. They are friends to the tremblings of the heart.
I would like to read you one of these entries today. I’ve translated it from the Spanish and the original is up too for Spanish-speakers. This was the first of our conversations from July 2021. It was exquisite, unusual and unexpected. Don Ignacio is unpredictable, witty and bold. He has a rebellious spark and is prone to momentous grumpiness - mercy to she who disturbs him during siesta time! All in all, he is a man of God who does not pretend to be anything other than human. He has opened his home and his heart to me on several occasions now. And within a religious tradition that has been largely politicised, corrupted and made elitist, this piece hopes to honour him and what he stands for.
He was out on his balcony watering his flowers that fell in a fountain of dawn pink and night blue when he saw me arriving. The priest, tufty haired and wrapped in a teal bathrobe that contrasted dramatically with the luxury attire of the Vatican, waved for me to come upstairs in a splash from his watering can. It was as though he had been waiting for me, as though it were the most normal thing in the world for a non-religious woman to seek out a priest.
I don’t know if it was the slippery climb up the seemingly-infinite stone stairs or the treasures that filled his home that took my breath away entirely. It was like entering a sanctuary removed from time and space, rising out of the bustle of life down below like Rapunzel’s tower or the spinning palace of the Welsh star goddess Arianrhod. Nothing could touch me up here. The priest lived amongst the feathered ones, the birds and the angels. And considering he spent the majority of his time tending to the suffering of elderly folk in the home he founded some five decades ago, it made sense to me that he would live somewhere removed and nestled amongst clouds.
His home had the intellectual stimulus of a museum and a library, and the damp simplicity of my great-grandmother’s house that she shared with her cow. Stone columns engraved with thousands of tiny fleur-de-lys and grape vines of the Greek gods of wine held up the wooden-beamed ceilings that hung heavy with crystal chandeliers. There were angels everywhere. Angels the size of my palm holding up beeswax candles and angels in every corner of the ceiling gazing down from their invisible worlds and offering blessings to the pilgrim that might find this place. Pheasant feather quills poked out of marble jars and the walls were lapis lazuli blue and covered with renaissance paintings framed in golden wood of the type you see in art galleries in Paris. And then, all of a sudden there would be an empty space with decaying wallpaper, damp stains and a simple crucifix. The bare spaces spoke to the renunciant in him, while his intellectual side was held up by the books and the paintings and the angels. The walls summarised Don Ignacio rather accurately, the ascetic and the scholar, he who renounced the material world and yet offers every drop of his vitality to assisting its suffering and preserving its knowledge.
When he entered the room, Don Ignacio had replaced his bathrobe with a long black chasuble that characterises a Catholic priest, replete with slippers poking out the bottom. With a youthfulness uncommon for a man his age - he must be almost ninety now - he nestled himself into an armchair embroidered with gold stars. I waited for him to get comfortable before introducing myself.
“You made possible an impossible love.” I began.
And I told him that I was the daughter of the Spanish man and the Welsh woman that he married three decades ago. He was the only priest who agreed to marry them because my mother was not baptised. Back then, you could only be married by the Church if you were baptised. Don Ignacio chose to look away from the Church laws and put love before dogma. He told me that God exists in love, and that he is no one to judge who wants to spend their lives together. But he added that in the last few years, of every ten couples he marries, nine separate.
I could not have imagined that my encounter with him would end up becoming a conversation about love. What could a priest possibly know about love?
As though he were about to reveal a great secret to me, he leaned in closer and said, “Do you know why love fails? People separate because when things get hard, they think that a relationship is like a car with a broken motor that needs replacing. But we are the ones who break the motor. Relationships are made or broken by the individual, not by some ambiguous outside circumstance that needs to be replaced by something better. To keep a relationship alive, there must be a will. The will is the most important ingredient. We must muster the will to love each other; not enamouring but loving.”
Not enamouring but loving… This made me think of a concept Martin Shaw brought up in one of our classes a few months ago that I found myself wrestling with - the difference between “eros” and “amor.” I understand eros to be the animating force that exists in all things. It is the current in nature that the poet Dylan Thomas would call the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. It magnetises and attracts us to that which we need to pay attention to, to the secrets that have something to tell us. It is not just sexual attraction, it is the mystery of existence that beckons us via the other. Through eros we experience the sensuous world. That which religious dogma asks us to evade, but is itself holy. It engenders a participatory experience with all of life. It cannot be reduced to the impulses of the senses and dismissed as an experience of the material world that must be transcended. I see it more as the current we must allow in, fully, if life is going to be worth living at all.
Amor, I think, is eros and more. It is the current and the force and the fuse, but it is specific. It knows precision. Eros courses in all things, whereas amor is one-pointed. When the god Eros finds his target and strikes his arrow, it is amor that emerges from the strike. Amor knows certainty. If there is amor, there is not doubt. They simply cannot coexist. It would be like placing a lamb and a lion in the same room. Amor tears doubt to shreds.
Don Ignacio continued, “We must not love with the senses, but with the sentiments. Because falling in love is transcendental, it’s temporary, it’s crushed by coexistence. When we coexist with someone, we see the reality of the person, and we fall out of love with them. Because in reality, we never truly loved the person. We loved the idea of them. We loved what we chose to love. We projected our ideals on the other and created a false self. And then we become disappointed when they don’t live up to our ideals. But in reality, that person does not exist. They never did. They are only an amalgamation of our ideals. They are not real. That kind of idealising is not love.”
His words brought to mind the love poems of the troubadours in medieval France. The troubadours are known for placing women on pedestals and worshipping them with their words. But their poetry creates an ideal out of them that is not mortal. It makes for an impossible love.
Don Ignacio went on to tell me stories about the couples that he had married throughout the decades. Stories of successes and failures. More failure than success. But all the stories seemed to draw down to the same root problem: love crushed by unmet ideals.
He said, “When we coexist, we see the reality of the person. We see them for who they truly are, and it scares us. And we think that our relationship is a broken motor. And we flee. And we see conflict as a bad thing. But arguing is a good thing because it shows that we still care about what the other person thinks. If you didn’t argue, it would mean you no longer care. For a relationship to work, we must know the other. In all their expressions. We must know their defects, and choose to love them anyway; loving them in their totality. That is love, don’t you think?”
I was in a bit of a daze after hearing his love oration. His words took me completely off guard, and I responded with nervous laughter.
“If I am honest, I have no idea,” I murmured. “It seems the more I experience love, the more numinous it becomes, and the less I know altogether.”
At that, he laughed too; the kind of contagious laughter that makes you laugh more and we ended up rolling around on our armchairs of stars in a frenzy.
A knock at the door broke up our laughter, and a man poked his head into the room enquiring after Don Ignacio. I noticed there was now a queue of people lining up outside his front door waiting to consult him. The scene reminded me of the Jain nuns I used to live with in the desert of Rajasthan who were consulted by the villagers every evening. When I asked them what advice people sought most of from them, I was surprised when they said love. Perhaps it takes renouncing it to know it. I wonder what love would look like after a period of renunciation? Come to think of it, after undertaking my own stretches of celibacy, I do feel I meet love with a new freshness and detachment when I come back to it. It’s as though I can see it from afar, and a part of me is participating and another is always an arm’s-length away, just watching, baring witness. During periods of celibacy, I think there’s something about returning fully to our own love, our self-love, and cultivating it within ourselves that perhaps makes it possible to then give it away to another. Because how can we give away what we don’t yet have? Perhaps this is how renunciants can see love so clearly.
I thought about a poem that an old man wrote for me in Andalusia some years ago. It was only a couple of lines, but they got inside me. He wrote:
Whatever you do, my friend, Give your love away Give your love away Give your love away.
He died shortly after. I think I have honoured his wishes, perhaps to my detriment. When I love, I love all the way. And so I suppose I feel loss all the more. When I went to visit Don Ignacio, I was tending a broken heart. I was feeling embittered, beaten and disappointed in love. It was coming up to four years of, indeed, more failure than success, false starts and wrong turns, and I was tired.
But the heart knows the antidotes to heartbreak and will always point towards them. I didn’t realise then that it was my broken heart that led me to him and his books. This maverick priest who brought my parents together, against all odds, and risked losing his title in the name of love. I took my heart to him that day and he embalmed it with love and books.
“Do you like books?” He asked me. He had dismissed the man back to the queue, and while I mulled over these questions, my eyes must have been wandering over his bookshelves.
I felt suddenly shy and exposed. There’s something about books that oddly feels even more intimate to me than love. Books speak to the ensouled, the invisible made visible. They are devotional and faithful and true. They speak to the immortal and the shared experience of the human condition. They are holy, like the hallows of the Grail Romances.
I responded, “Books are of what I love the most.”
“Then come!” He exclaimed. And he leapt out of his starry armchair with an impossible burst of youth. “I’m going to show you the most special book I have.”
He lead me to another room. Along the way, he showed me a book the size of a table. A book of hymns handwritten in Latin. A collection of one of the first printed encyclopaedias in Spain. Books from the sixteenth century written by amanuensis (people employed to write what another dictated in the Middle Ages). And then we came to it.
Wrapped in a scraggly cloth and tucked away in a deep dusty cupboard, he pulled out the oldest book I have ever seen outside of a museum or a library archive. It was an incunable from the 1400s of which there is only one copy, and to which he is now the custodian. My Latin is very basic and I have yet to translate what it says, but Don Ignacio explained that this particular incunabulum was an instruction manual for how to live, almost like a medieval-version of a modern self-help book. It consisted of directions on how to raise animals and how to cultivate plants and each of their properties. There were instructions on everything from particular herbs to use for illnesses to how to aid a donkey in giving birth. Of most interest to me was the section on beekeeping.
Don Ignacio explained that he has been consistently pestered to give the book up. Even the National Museum of Madrid has been wanting to buy it off him, but he refuses.
He said, “The interest they have in selling it to me is equal to the interest I have in not selling it.” And we laughed again.
There have been articles written about Don Ignacio calling him “the jealous priest” and accusing him of hoarding historical artefacts that should be in the public domain. Of course it is a tricky subject. I am of the mindset that though knowledge should be accessible to all, perhaps it is not necessary for every piece of history to be stored and displayed in museums. There is something magical and sincere about a piece of history living in somebody’s home, treasured and respected, and found mysteriously. Don Ignacio isn’t keeping his book a secret. But he chooses who he opens his door to.
I have found that books are an antidote to heartbreak. They offer a quality of company that few other things can when we are in the trenches of love’s battles. They speak to the parts of us that checked out during times of pain and call them back home. Books can break through the walls of agony and despair and touch something deeper, that still quiet place that we shut away when we suffer. They remind us how to break free from the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives our ego thinks it needs to create in order to survive: who was wrong, what could have been done differently, accusation and blame of the other, regret and sabotage of the self… Books remind us how to listen to something greater - a new narrative, a middle way, the blue feather, the impossible possible… They open the doors to the realm of miracles.
After leaving me alone with the book for a little a while, so I could smell and feel and imagine, he entered the room and said, “The only way to learn in this life is to listen. And to listen, we must love.”
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