“Everything is nothing, only God”
Manuscript by Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino
Pre-contextualization of the text.
I have chosen the title “Everything is nothing, only God” to name this manuscript entrusted to me by Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, for they were the last words that His Eminence referred to me about it, and even with regard to his life. However, as the Cardinal gave me the manuscript privately (and sealed), and so it remained until after his death, it is necessary for me to first clarify the context in which it was written, delivered and preserved.
They were running on the end of May 2017. One morning, as was customary in him when he had no other commitments, after breakfast Cardinal Jaime Ortega went to work in my office, which was also his, even if His Eminence did not have his own desk on it, but worked on a chair at the dining room table that he permanently kept placed in front of mine. In this way, our working hours were necessarily passed face to face, separated only by a desk about 1.5 meters wide and about 1 meter deep. (Except when His Eminence worked “alone,” which He did in his room.)
That morning Cardinal Jaime brought a sealed envelope with Scotch Tape, which he put on the desk. It was a totally “blank” envelope, without any indication. I was struck by the detail that I did not say “Reserved”, nor “Confidential”, nor “Under Pontifical Secret”, the only envelopes containing his manuscripts (or other documents), that His Eminence gave me seals for transcribing with extreme reserve (Cardinal Jaime Ortega never used a computer), or that, after his reading, he would archive them under very precise conditions. Only in such cases did Cardinal Jaime use Scotch Tape for profusion to seal documents; then, when he handed them to me, he would point the word in question (one of the aforementioned ones) with his index finger, and this without him articulating any word (“the walls have ears,” he told me).
However, that May morning was different. When I placed the envelope on top of the desk, he started a conversation that left me quite confused given the subject I was referring to. She was the first to argue closely on it, at least with me, since I began serving as Secretary in 2000. That morning Cardinal Jaime Ortega told me about existential and eschatological issues, but he did not do so by way of dissertation or reflection, he did so in the first person, telling me about the closeness of his own death. Among other things he told me that he had to “prepare for his departure to the House of the Father”, “that there were things in which he was dealing that he had to put in the background…” and, after a long time, he emphasized to me that he “ignored the moment,” but that he “had to watch because he was coming.”
My confusion increased as that atypical conversation unfolded, especially as His Eminence, even when He was 80 at the time, was in “excellent health,” or at least that seemed. (It would still take a year for him, in August 2018, to be detected to have liver cancer, of which he died eleven months later, on July 26, 2019).
At the end of the conversation, which was rather a monologue, he took the sealed envelope and, hand-giving it to me, said to me with an imperative tone: “Take it, keep it, but get it out of my house today” (I still haven’t been able to unravel his haste in getting him out of his house), then, without telling me what the envelope contained, he added in a more relaxed tone: “Nelson, keep it as if it were a will , open it only after my death, then do with it what you want: publish it, break it or burn it.” (That same day I took the envelope out of his house.)
For two years we did not talk about it anymore until the end of June 2019 when Cardinal Jaime, already in the final stage of his illness, asked me about “the envelope”. I replied that I had it in my house. He nodded and in a rather weak voice said to me, “Nelson, there it is, everything is nothing, only God, only God…” I wanted to ask him what he meant, because at that time he was still unaware of what the envelope contained, but his physical condition no longer allowed him to have a conversation; so I just asked him if he wanted me to bring him to him. After uttering a “No,” crisp and resounding, he added, “Nelson, the Lord calls me.”
When the Cardinal passed away, I had no courage to open it, at least for the duration of his funerals. On July 29, 2019, the day after his burial, early in the morning, I took the envelope and, sitting on the terrace of my house, opened it and read the writing it contained. They were reflections that His Eminence had written in a Retreat in which, feeling, silently and enigmatically, the proximity of his death, he made from 19 to 25 April 2017 with the Carmelite Fathers in the Convent of San Juan de la Cruz, in Segovia, Spain; Convent founded by San Juan de la Cruz himself in 1586, and in which the Saint lived from 1587 to 1591, the tomb where his remains are guarded. (To specify the exact dates of the Retreat, and other details, I have had to refer to the e-mails exchanged at the time with the Carmelite Fathers.)
Cardinal Jaime Ortega wrote the manuscript on April 23, 2017, Divine Mercy Day that year (as specified in the text) and is, above all, a reflection he made about his life. This 14-page document, written very fluently for the subject it deals with, constitutes, more than a kind of spiritual testament (according to the Newtonian “as if” that he used when he handed it over in 2017), the story of the soul of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who naked on those folios from the experience he lived on the rocky paths of El Carmelo segoviano.
A few days after I opened the envelope, I informed Archbishop Juan García Rodríguez, Archbishop of Havana (created Cardinal of the Church on October 5, 2019), about the existence of the manuscript. However, given its testimonial importance, I decided that it would be a few months for its publication (after reading by the Archbishop, to whom I gave a copy in mid-August 2019). I didn’t want this manuscript to become tabloid news (much less destroy it or make it grass from the flames), I wanted it to be read calmly.
In this way, I make public the full transcription of the manuscript, aware that, although some people will be surprised to find, and understand from it, deep aspects of the soul of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, there will be no lack of those who will read it moved only by curiosity, looking for various intringulis and vericuetos, without missing those who will do so trying to hear subsequent unveilings (something they will not find , at least in this manuscript).
On the other hand, I wanted to be faithful to an ancient Latin sentence: Verba volant, scripta manent (“Words fly, the writing remains”), but in the original sense of it, so misrepresented in our day. Consequently, I do not make public the text of this manuscript so that “what is written remains” (it is not yet the time for it), but for it to “fly the word”, especially now that Cardinal James, beyond obnubilations, is seeing everything as it really is, and not in a confusing way, as in a mirror (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
After this preamble, necessary to know the context, without which the text could be indeterminate and timeless, I give the floor to Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino. I only say to him, “Eminence, Peace, watch volant.”
Dr. Nelson O. Crespo Roque
Havana, January 14, 2020.
Full transcription of cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino’s manuscript.
From the spirit, from the center of the soul, are lyrical and mystical realities (very close to each other) spring from there (from the spirit, from the center of the soul), in the preconceptual or supraconceptual region of the spirit.
Discovery of Jesus in his passion and at the same time discovery of myself in quick reading (in one fell swoop) of my life was rescued from the nothingness of absurdity, of nonconformity, of fear, all of a blow, without words, producing Light that illuminated everything suddenly, and joy of having an explanation without words and of having discovered myself.
In Jesus Christ I contemplated myself and none of that is explainable or variable, even if I have tried many times. It was the eternal Word that “spoke” me without words and left me speechless to communicate it to others. I had found Jesus-God and found myself. That’s where the story of my life begins. He was very close to the age of 15. Baptized at the age of 5, he did not frequent the Church. When I was seven or eight years old I went several times to a catechesis in a Salesian parish, I found it boring, the “childish” language used by the priest on a day of Kings when there was a feast and distributed gifts seemed false to me. I left. I never came back.
When I was 12 or 13, I went to the Holy Burial on Good Friday. I was just looking. I had taught the prayers an aunt-grandmother and the memoir questions of the Catechism of “Pius X”. I knew everything with the automatism of memory, like the multiplication tables, but I never prayed, the painting of the Sacred Heart of the hall of my house was one more ornament, typical of all the houses of Cuba. I felt religion as something far removed from me. Everyone said I believed in God, and so did I. But God, faith, religion, were off the horizon of my life.
At the age of thirteen-fourteen, however, I experienced that I opened myself up to the world and that everything was inexplicable to me, to live, to die, to choose a career, the festivities, everything was alien to me, strange; after the encounter with Christ I understood the meaning of that existential crisis. It is a challenging thing for an intelligent being to live without God.
My friends from the Preuniversity, with whom I played volleyball, were Catholic. I was invited to go to cultural-religious activities in the social premises of the Catholic Youth of Action, for example, to a Cinema-Club, to a conference. I had never attended, I had never entered that House I saw every day in front of the Institute as I entered and left school.
After that “meeting” I also rediscovered in one fell swoop my friends “as Catholics” and, without any special invitation to any cultural activity, I showed up there one night, feeling strangely part of that group. They asked me if I had done The First Communion and I said no, that I was only baptized. They said, “You have to get ready,” they explained to me that it would take a while, that I had to know what Confession was, etc. I was available.
A few days later, when I left the Institute, two or three of my “new Catholic friends” said to me, “Don’t you have a tax on the scapular of Our Lady of Carmen?” I told them no, and what was that? They opened their shirts and showed me the scapular. I’d seen it to some people, and they said, “Do you want to impose it on you now? That’s how you’ll have the protection of Our Lady.” (The Church of Carmen is one block from the Institute). We went, it was the first time I entered that church in front of which I spent four or five times a day. But now there was a Church there that was also “new” to me. Some July 16th I had stopped in the corner to see the procession of Our Lady and saw my friends with the bracelet of the Youth of Catholic Action on my left arm. Today they accompanied me and this was my thought, as we waited for the Father to come down: “Good thing that the Church gives something without having to prepare, to learn doctrine, and without confessing.”
I knelt in the Sacristy, the Father blessed the scapular and put it on me. My friends introduced me to him. And it was the scapular of Our Lady of Carmen that I first received from the Church after Baptism. In that church I made my First Communion three months later. It was a Carmelite, my first confessor, Father Ignatius of the Virgin of Carmen. I did not stop going to Mass on a Sunday after my communion.
To that church, a few months later, I began to go to Mass daily and every afternoon to a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. In that Church I celebrated my First Mass. There I learned of St. Elijah, St Simon Stock, St Teresa of Jesus, St. John of the Cross, Saint Teresita of the Child Jesus, the Child Jesus of Prague, the fame of holiness of Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity, whose spiritual doctrine (presented admirably by Father Phillipon), accompanied me from my first year of the seminary, “Laudem Gloriae”.
It was there, in the austere cloister of Carmen de Matanzas, that my spiritual director, Father Cristóbal de la Virgen del Carmen, and where I held the dialogue with that man of God, who decided me to be a priest.
“Father, I feel called to religious life and would like to be Brother of La Salle.” The brothers worked with the young men. They had no school in Matanzas, but they came as animators from Catholic Youth to Matanzas. Several members of the group to which he belonged had entered the Congregation in previous years.
With his chin resting on his cane, Father Christopher told me:
– Who told you that you have a brother’s vocation? No, you’re not for a brother. Do you know the joy you would give the bishop if you go and tell him you want to be a priest?
– Father, but I like to teach, to be a teacher.
– That is what is necessary: priests who are teachers, who teach the people and do not make oratory pieces.
– Father, but I work with youth I like…
– That is what is needed: priests who work with Youth and attract it to the Faith.
– Father, but loneliness… (He had the testimony of priests living in a beard above the Sacristy, as he visited different peoples as a member of Catholic Action.)
– There is only one who wants to be alone, the Father said.
Lapidaries, short, vibrant of realism, with transparent ecclesiality, were his answers. And he told me to think about it. I promised him I would. A month or so, then I stopped by to see him to tell him that he was going to the Bishopric to speak with my Bishop.
The Teresian Carmel, after the blinding light of the first encounter, has been my lazarillo. And now here, in the orchard of San Juan de la Cruz, next to the Fortress of the Alcazar, the gray wall and the beautiful nature of April, where the Bridebroom at passing left his seal, I think he will remain my Lazarillo, because it is night, and I must prepare (this time soon and necessarily) to open my eyes to the eternal flame. Then no longer blind, as well as the first time, as Paul, but will be made day without sunset.
To San Juan de la Cruz I entrust this last stretch of my life. I have so much to leave, God has given me so much, perhaps because of my fragility the Lord has had a Providence of continuous thanks throughout my life. My mother would say to me, “You’re lucky, everything works out for you.” Even in minor things, in small projects, or in large works, God’s hand is always there. I’ve learned to see her. Sometimes those around me admire how “things come out.” And I’m afraid to think of pain, of suffering.
On the other hand, if I could think objectively of myself, as if looking inside me from the outside, I have suffered a lot, intimate, existential sufferings. An older man, whose letter I keep, being a young Archbishop, wrote to the Religious Superior of the Sisters of Love of God who accompanied me as Archbishop of Havana. I may then have had about 50 years, he perhaps 80, and made as an enthusiastic study of me, of my ministry, of my preaching, of the love that, according to him, the faithful felt for me and their admiration for my person.
He makes this reflection: “He is a man who would have to feel happy, but he is not, when he blesses when he comes out of Mass he always has a sad smile that tells me, he said, that he is not fully happy.” Sister brought me the letter. I made a banal comment, but I was shocked, because his textual phrase was: “there is something internally in it that doesn’t make him happy.” Reminded me of a cousin of mine, my mother’s niece, my own age, that being both teenagers, when I arrived she said to me, “What happened that you didn’t come on my birthday? I said, she added, “Jaime’s tristone smile is missing here.”
Yes, faith lifted me above these inner sufferings, and the Lord wanted to compensate with continuous and delicate details what might be painful, so that it has made me feel that nothing I have suffered in the light of his passion, that I have not shared anything from it. When they tell me about the months I spent in forced labor, of the hardships of food, transport and clothing, of the difficult years of pastoral work in parishes in the countryside, none of that seems extraordinary to me and I am afraid that I am not even remotely attached to the passion of the Lord. So is my soul that I put under the guidance of St. John of the Cross.
I have always been shocked to read his pleas to the Lord to give him suffering, including spiritual suffering such as contempt, slander, offenses, etc.
And I remember almost daily a pious and good auxiliary bishop with a big soul. I ordained him a priest and ordained him bishop. She was an assistant to my diocese. He always said to me, when Lent’s time came: “I never pray that hymn of Vespers that says to the Lord, ‘I do not seek crowns of glory. If you give me a crown, give it to me with thorns.'”
He added, “The most I can say to the Lord is: May I accept the sufferings that come!”
He died at the age of 54, it was a colon cancer operation that had to be performed quickly, as it had not manifested itself. I came from abroad and went to his deathbed in the hospital. I was one of the last people to see him and talk to him. It was just a few words. I said, “Offer it all for the Church.” With a full smile and making a gesture with his hand not compromised by the serum, he told me clearly and slowly, “I have offered everything.”
I think he was a chosen soul and even that he aspired and could get there.
I ask St. John of the Cross that at least I may come to that, so that “my sad smile” may become radiant in the eternal contemplation of the Husband.
And yet I am full of projects, I have always been like this and I thought that my retreat would be like that of Pope Benedict and that saddened me, I “still”, thought within me, I have not reached that capacity to pray for the Church and leave another all project, I think of other saints, St. John Bosco, or priests who among us (one is 96 years old) are still active. I’ve been living all this with concern.
I think the final path to the Light is different for everyone. I remember Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, already without hearing, at the end of his life he composed it. I’m worried about interfering, being the shadow of my successor. They say no, former collaborators, that I’m doing well. But the references of the Diplomatic Corps and even the government are to me. The Holy Father said to me, “Jaime, do all you can, but rest too.” I attend a popular parish, small, poor, I do it with pleasure.
A Foundation is being created that bears my name “Cardenal Jaime Ortega”, because for legal and practical reasons it was appropriate that it was so and I am the First President of that Foundation. But everything that is undertaken at my age has the seal of precariousness. How long can I last, how will my health be maintained? The fear of “losing my mind” accuses me more than death.
I seek this path of necessary preparation and offering to go to the Lord and yet, involved in several projects, I think at the same time that this has been the style of my life where God has shown his benefactor Providence continuously, will you want me to follow him in this new rhythm imposed by my present condition? But this walk has to necessarily decrease. Will I lack acceptance? Will I know the signs of the Lord? Will I have the strength to accept, not the retreat of the Archdiocese, which thank God I was able to accept, but the modification of my existential path to project myself more serenely to my ultimate purpose, or to maintain the tonic of work, as so many elders do, not taking into account precariousness and being available at the time of God?
I would like these days of prayer to give me light on this Way.
In the hands of the Virgin Mother of God, and with the intercession and accompaniment of St. John of the Cross, I put all my quests, because at the same time I am aware from the moment of my retirement, a year ago, that these “activities” can be like a filling up with the “divertimento” to go through like this until I die, and I do not wish it to be so. I must reorient everything to go to the Light. That was the end of these days (withdrawal) and I think it’s helping me do it. From the first moment I realized that “it is a matter of love” and felt something like desolation at dusk on the first day for “not knowing how to love”, for not always accepting the central role of love in spiritual life, perhaps for lack of “training” in interpersonal relationships as a child and as a teenager, also for the spiritual guidance of Catholic Action , in what it’s like to love others.
I was always “too much” loved and was not meant to love others, and when I have done so it has been with possessive love. This damaged me and may be the cause (I think so) of my sad smile.
This is the story (the story of the soul). The other, parish priest, starting as a cooperating vicar at 27 years, 8 months in a labour camp, brief times in various parishes in the countryside for 5 years, 9 years parish priest of the Cathedral of my Diocese, bishop at the age of 42 in Pinar del Río, Archbishop of Havana at 45, Cardinal of the Church at 58 , retired at 80.
That’s the story full of praise from some and bitter criticism from others. In this history Christ Jesus became particularly good and merciful to me. It has helped me carry the Cross of criticism, bitter attacks and misunderstandings of my Cuban brothers living abroad. Of the faithful in Cuba I have felt closeness, affection, admiration, gratitude. This compensates for the sufferings said above, but they are still very sad and hard to bear, for I think of the Church that is challenged, even in the Holy Father. Every pope’s visit to Cuba has been an opportunity to attack him. These sufferings and comforts in the development of my ministry do not constitute the axis of my reflection. They’re just bad, good memories.
The story of the depths of the soul, where God is, is the one that has led me here. The memories of my pastoral life, good and bad, rather have been in the way. As I passed through the corridor (the cloister) I saw the magazine ORAR with St. Elizabeth of the Trinity and the phrase of Jesus to Zacchro: “Come down, that today I will stay in your house” indicated the way by the hand of my dear Sister Elizabeth: how far should I go down? Deep in the heart, deep in my interiority: there I “found” God, because there he is.
And that is where I would like to settle, immovable, looking for ways to pass certain episcopal “post-retirement” commitments to others and bringing my ministry, attending to a small parish “from that center of living love”, with simple projects of evangelization and sowing love, so that it enriches (as I notice it is already doing) my priestly heart, because the poor, the sick, evangelize us , tell us “of that love” of which is a matter on the way to Light. This re-finding my priesthood in its original simplicity and greatness does help me to go down deep into myself.
Because there is the gift of priestly character that is already inseparable in me inner self. Now I am not the 15-year-old boy who saw himself in Christ, now I have to see myself in Christ eternal priest. The table in my inner house where I must go down is the Eucharistic table. In it I have to feed myself to face and overcome immediate future praise and subsequent criticism.
“Because you set a table before me in front of my enemies.” And praise and criticism are equal enemies of the soul. Don’t let these shadows stain the light these days. Saint John of the Cross, pray for me. Don’t let me get tangled up in my flaws, sins, or psychological discomfort.
Today is the Sunday of Mercy, and the same Jesus who came to me in the mourning, dignified step, revealing to me the man that God wants from every man and lifting me from my prostration filled me with joy, comes today after so many years of journey and transfigured, resurrected, tells me: “Look, my sores have healed you again and again, I have been with you for these long years. I am the reason for your perseverance, I never give up the work of my hands. It is not that you are kind, I am the one who always loves and understands and sustains with the Easter triumph of Mercy, I am the one who makes you kind.”
Thank you, my Jesus, my rock, my alcazar, my liberator, the refuge where I am safe. “Remember the previous retreat: you are not the center, it is Jesus, do not look to you, but to Him. Look, you can go deep down from you just to look for Him that’s there.” Thank you, St. John of the Cross, for this peacemaking precision. The abysmal is not our misery, the abysmal is God who makes us a new creature.
“PEACE to you” is your Word today, second Sunday of Easter. Give me your peace, lord.