Again, José Lezama Lima and the contents of the Catholic faith

By: Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes García-Menocal

José Lezama Lima


As an introduction. I cannot pinpoint exactly how many times I have spoken and written about this subject – after Lezama’s unexpected death – in almost all its variants, with the inclusion of the “old” discussion around the Catholic identity of our poet. Word New magazine is aware of this on more than one occasion. I proposed another topic for this issue: the presence of Christianity in cultural transit in the West, from the Ancient Age to the Middle Ages. This topic is of great interest to me and, acceptablely developed, was the subject of a “master class” of closing course, a few years ago, at the Colegio Universitario San Gerónimo. The College made a very careful edition of my text. Often, some friends and students ask me, but I no longer have any copies; hence the idea of dedicating this Apostille to that subject. I proposed, as an alternative, to address, again, the Catholic religiosity of Lezama: Orthodox, but sui generis.
Someone who can do it and knows how to do it, asked me for the Lezamian alternative, not my original proposal, of historical genre. Of course, talking and writing about Lezama – his exuberant lyrics, his ecumenical thinking, his Catholic religiosity and his singular life – does not tire me, nor am I bored; I always learn from him, savoring his infinite and delightous ragweeds. Taking on loan and parody – with all respect and Marian devotion – the well-known dictum of Mariology, I allow myself to affirm, in a Cuban cultural context, De Lezama, numquam satis. We’ll never exhaust the Lezamarian theme. The poet is an inexhaustible mine. And here I am, trying to please and… Please. I hope that those who have read and heard other texts of mine about the poet will know how to excuse repetitions and common places; I won’t be able to avoid them, because I won’t invent another Lezama today.

  1. José Lezama Lima
    José Lezama Lima
  2. Putting the tooth insistently into a hard bone to gnaw: the Catholic identity of Lezama; I think it is appropriate to clarify that, on a personal level, I take for the conviction that Lezama was Catholic, from the cradle to the tomb. I believe that, where appropriate, there is no indication either of agnosticism or atheism, or of any other religious confession, non-Catholic, Christian or otherwise. Although he was an ecumenical man, he had no relationships of personal connection either with the evangelical religious confessions present in Cuba, nor with the syncetic forms, derived from African religions and a certain poorly known and worse internalized Catholicism. He knew them all – his cognitive appetite, like the digestive one, was insatiable – but he did not flirt with any. In addition, I confess that I do not like to rummage on a subject that is ultimately linked to the sanctuary of personal consciousness, be it Lezama or any of us. I dislike the dig in the inner world of others and I reject, with all the strength of which I am still capable, the pretence that in this area – that of Catholic identity and personal conscience – we can achieve strong results, of a marmorrhic nature.
  3. What would happen if we let Lezama himself speak; if we called him to introduce us to his real life and express himself on the subject of his personal religious conscience, in his own words? I think that he himself, speaking to us today from his work and from the memory of his life, is the only access to an acceptable response. His texts are edited, and the facts and attitudes of his life are well known to us. It was not a hidden existence, but very visible to all of us who were his Haban countrymen.
  4. The limitations of this article make it impossible to analyze in detail writings and facts or attitudes. I’ll quote some enlightening texts and do no tricks, or hide deck cards up my sleeve. I consider it sufficiently evident, in them, the identification of the poet with Catholicism, at the level of his deepest and most defining religious convictions of his way of being, even if he has not, throughout his temporal existence, been an exemplary Catholic, assiduous to sunday Mass – in the years of the originist “convivios” in Bauta, in the shadow of Father Gaztelu , it was – and to other community and visible religious practices. I do not ignore the fact that any specialist could meet a Moorish sabre, supported by texts that would allow Lezama to be regarded as an exponent, not of a religion other than Catholic, but as an ambiguous Catholic in some of his philosophical convictions; that is, as a heterodox or “orrfical” Catholic, as some friends have called him, and even himself, half jokingly, half-seriously. From quotations, whether from their poetry, whether from their prose, narrative or essayism, some authors have pointed towards a certain neoplatonic or gnostic dualism, of Alexandrian cut, which would seem to peek under the texts, as a kind of flight from an ancient indiscreet reflux, from the time of our great-grandmothers. If this were the case, that would be equivalent to asserting the ambiguity mentioned, but would that be the case?
  5. I believe that everything is resolved positively if we know how to place these provocative texts in their literary context and in the irreplaceable framework of Lezama’s own life. Moreover, we should not fail to take into account the pluralism of textual, artistic and vital expressions within Christianity, and that, it is one thing to be Catholic, and another is that, despite these convictions, once again, our author “has taken his feet off the plate” and suffered some textual slip that does not diminish the certainty of his convictions , but simply solidifies the poet with the human frailty that we all share. And we writers suffer from them, in a very special and painful way, when it comes to the good choice of a word, a sentence or paragraph or even a literary genre, in order to achieve the best transparency Who among us does not suffer at least slight contradictions of this kind? “He that is free from sin, let him throw the first stone” (Jn. 8:7). Thus Jesus said before the woman caught in adultery and the Gospels collect the scene from us.
  6. I don’t know if there will be any among my readers, but you can be sure that the street shooter of crushing seborucos is not going to be me, towel rack as I am by nature, that in my not short life, what I have strived to learn to throw are flowers, not stones. Or better, not to throw flowers, but to offer them gently. And for the best reasons, I also offer them to Lezama, one of the Havana intellectuals whom I have appreciated the most and to whom almost all Cubans are grateful for the enjoyment that their letters allow us, and because he has taught us, with his texts and with his life, the carambolas of existence, lived in the ins and outs of true Havana , the almost secret one, the one that María Zambrano could see, who loved us well. That Havana that often escapes us or, we simply do not perceive because we have a misteered look. Not the other Havana, that of bullangas and colorines, that we stumble on every corner.
  7. On the other hand, it seems to me that we should not ask Lezama for the philosophical and theological precisions of Catholic magisterial literature. Lezama was a multiform poet and prosist, very fruitful and of superior quality and, with regard to the subject at hand, had a self-taught intellectual formation well above the average of the Haban Catholics of the time. If I insist on the Catholic identity of the poet, I do so not for the aim of “unionist”, but for service to the truth of our author and to facilitate his diaphanous understanding.
  8. I quote some illustrative or perhaps better illuminating examples of the Catholic faith of Lezama: the “Tomist Prayer”, included in the Treaties in Havana (p. 46, Cuban Book Institute, 2009); “Loanza de Claudel”, 11 March 1955 (ibid., p. 72); the “Sonnets to the Virgin”, included in his complete Poetry (p. 36), exponents of a very fine Catholic mariology; the extensive and unique poem “San Juan de Patmos ante la Puerta Latina” (ibid., p. 61), which denotes both a Catholic anthropology and ecclesiology, as well as a spirituality of the same kind and of rather traditional cut; of Chapter III of Paradiso, The Conversation of Augusta, in Jacksonville, with Florita Squabs, which explicitly establishes esttachment from the reformed religiosity of the Squabs. It seems to me that these quotations, taken from the various literary genres that Lezama addressed, could multiply; I believe, however, that these are sufficient to clarify this brief analysis.
  9. I have the impression that before the publication of Paradiso, that is, before 1966, and taking into account not only the magazine Orígenes, but also the others in whose direction our poet of Trocadero appeared, as well as his poems, articles and numerous lectures, no one was afraid to steal the qualifier of Catholic to Lezama. It was often said that he was not a regular practicing Catholic, nor of frequent communion, nor was he among the members of Catholic Action or the Knights of Columbus, but he married the Church very visibly and in his life gestures of relationship with Catholics multiplied; it was repeated, by fas and nefas, that in the frequent discussions on religious issues with his best friend, Msgr. Angel Gaztelu, in which they apparently disagreed, the priest hastened the end point by saying, “Lezama, don’t forget that you’re Catholic!” to which Lezama used to react saying, “Gaztelu, remember that I am a Catholic in my own way,” and Gaztelu immediately replied , like the one who bites a spicy chilli: “Lezama, that’s the best way not to be Catholic!” This kind of jocholy discussion ended up becoming the obligatory ritual to give way to another topic of conversation and thus avoid a religious dispute that threatened to be tedious to the contertules.
  10. In the previous paragraph I included the expression “apparently disagreed” because it is not necessary to have been a very close friend of Lezama to know of his sense of humor and the introduction, in writings and in conversations, of such provocateurs who did not intend to give us a lesson in Aristotelian logic, but to splash with pepper and a tantic of oregano of the earth, of habanero chili and other seasonings , to achieve a better taste in the subject. Amen that, in my opinion, we could even make a positive exegesis of the well-known expression “Catholic in my own way”, if it is understood according to good humours: not as a capricious path, which would distance us from the path of the Church, but as a ratification of the sincerity of choice by the Catholic faith; that is, you are Catholic not in the way of another, nor because of the exclusively epidermal adoption of schemes that are not based on the personal inner world. According to this proposed exegesis, the phrase could express that he is Catholic in a personal way. That is, Catholicism is assumed as it is, but in the personal style; “being Catholic in my own way” could mean that I internalize Catholicism in my own self, while simultaneously being the same Catholicism as the “rules of faith.” Since apostolic times, we know this, Catholicism is unique and, at the same time, multiform in expressions of faith that do not affect its substance.
  11. We can continue, so why, then, these doubts about the quality of Lezamian Catholicism, after the publication of Paradiso, his immense novel, which is also a poem of the best quality? I’m almost sorry to say what I think! Quite simply, because many members of the Church, to which I gladly belong by the grace of God, both some notable characters and simple people of the habaneras sacristies, considered the famous Chapter VIII of the novel Paradiso, that of the descent to hell, contradictory to the Catholic faith.
  12. This kind of negative consideration, which goes far beyond literary judgment and aims to reach the Lezamian intimacy, its veryness, shows, first of all, a disrecognise, quite broad as knowledge, of the literary genre “novel” and of that peculiar genre, that of “poetized novel” or “novelized poem”; as well as the licenses that this genre not only allows, but necessarily includes: the progression of dramatic action and symbolic expression in a text whose title explicitly evokes Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and, perhaps also, in deafness, John Milton’s Lost Paradise. Secondly, it also shows that when the first edition of the novel came to light, in 1966, many did not understand that chapter and misqualified it as “pornographic”, due to a very explicit language of sexual coloration. Could Lezama have used another form of poetic storytelling in that chapter? Of course it is, but the form he chose should not be a pivot of discernment of Lezamarian Catholicism.
  13. Generally speaking, most Of the Catholics at the time had not read Lezama; they did not like his poetry or his prose and, consequently, they did not understand his unique personality, nor did they appreciate Paradiso as what it is, the extraordinary Cuban novel of the twentieth century. Thank God, this sunni of cough and goofy beatyness is not what prevails today in the Catholic Church in Cuba. It exists, but it does not prevail, nor in relation to Lezama, whose bonhomía is already almost universally recognized, nor in relation to almost anything. You may or may not feel literary in relation to Lezama’s work, but that is something else.
  14. Very personal considerations. Lezama set out, I think, to become accustomed to true wisdom, which not only accumulates knowledge, but one that makes us able to establish the most unusual relationships and create with them a new reality. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be herself. Allow me, in this place of the text, the brief mention of the “Rhapsody for the Mul” (one of the Lyzamian poems I prefer). Lezama, faced with a question about the correspondence of the symbol, would have stated: “The mute is me”, conferring to the poem an autobiographical value that stings us to achieve the best possible exegesis of the odd “Rhapsody…”. Let us remember the text: the allusions to the chasms, the gorges and the sash that bears the mute because God wants it; In addition, it is God who squeezes it, she prevents her from dispersal, and comes to allow her the gift of creation. The mute, for its part, walks slowly, but acquires the safe passage and becomes able to fit, at the entrance of the abyss, the wet trees: “With which surely the mute passed into the abyss […] Step is the passage, boxes of water, sashed by God / the mighty mute sleeps shaking. / With his eyes seated and watery, / at last the mute trees fits into all abyss.” (Ibid., pp. 133 s.).
  15. If, in matters of faith (experiences, dogmatic presentation of it, celebratory texts, manifestations related to aesthetics, etc.), the Church would impose a uniform expression and refuse “catholicity” (universality), it would be closed to the evangelizing dynamics imposed by Jesus himself, Redeemer, Lord and Master: in every place and until the end of time, which does not refer exclusively to a geographical and chronological problem. It is a matter of implantation or incarnation of the gospel – critical, certainly – in all cultures.
  16. It does not seem to me that Lezama can be accused of being heterodox for having been more temperamentally sympathetic to neoplatonism, an offeror of better encompassing and unitive possibilities to his Baroque soul than with the aristotelian neotomism he met, touched by a certain coldness, will those who claim Lezama’s heterodoxy know what Catholic orthodoxy resides in? Hasn’t it happened in our country that many identify Catholicism with an image or caricature that, on one way or another, they have perceived? In this hypothesis, when reality escapes from the image or renounces the mask and caricature, then it burdens reality with a qualifier that, in many cases, would correspond better to the false or unilateral conception of the Catholic faith.
  17. Similar accusations have been thrown into the face of holy thinkers, whose doctrine – philosophical, theological or spiritual – in the long term, and sometimes in the medium and short term, came to be considered an eminent exponent of some path of Catholic orthodoxy. Knowing personally the extent to which the contents of Lezama’s faith were traditional, almost childishly traditional, inclusive from rosary to hand, kissing the stamp of the Virgin Mary and the saints of their devotion and easy glare at the miracle or simple wonder of Catholic religious coloration, as well as having in mind and before their steely ironical estrangation of the groups and religious attitudes arising from the Reformation and their expresses sympathy for the letters and forms of beauty generated by the Catholic Counter-Reformation, I cannot fail to consider an implicit self-confection of ignorance about the subject by questioning the catholicity of the poet. I may or may not like his neo-Baroque literary style; I can consider unfair the criticisms that, in private, among friends, I could make to a pastoral decision of a bishop; I can censor the literary genre, so carried and brought, from Chapter VIII of Paradiso, et cetera, but that’s something else.
  18. Heterodox for his undisputed neoplatonism, someone claims; by his exploration of pagan sources, not excluded from his worldview, he asserts another. Do these sentences authorize lezama’s writings that qualify him as a heterodox Catholic? Catholicism proclaims unity in the contents of faith as one of its characteristic notes and, at the same time, calls itself Catholicism, and includes Catholicity, that is, universality, as another of its defining notes. It seems to me that it would reduce the understanding of universality, if it were to stick to the most epidermal levels, those of geographical and temporal coordinates. It is not only a simplifying and simplistic intellect of Christianity as a religion of the Good News, the Way of Jesus destined for all people of all places and moments of human journey, but of squeezing to this truth all its juices and ragweeds.
  19. In order to achieve its universal vocation and to break down the walls that raise our smallnesses and smallnesses, the Gospel, like Jesus, must be embodied, become a fragile, poor, discreet and even brittle human flesh, in all the points that make up the parabolic line of human history, without losing its genuine face, without diluting the features that identify it: the honoron of the gaze , the benevolence of the smile, the exquisite smell, the broad and rough forehead – manifester of centurial wisdom – and hearing care. “Jew with the Jews and Greek with the Greeks,” said St Paul of Tarsus himself, who, with the same certainty, was able to affirm that it was no longer him who lived in himself, but that it was Christ the contents of his clay glass because, for him, “living is Christ”.
  20. The human person who welcomes Jesus Christ as his own life, animator of his mud, is born in Bethlehem, grows in Nazareth, lets himself be baptized in the Jordan by his relative John, celebrates in Cana, sits at the table of the publicans, converses at the edge of the road and next to the foundational well with the Samaritan of the many husbands, does not elude the nocturnal friendship of the Pharisee Nicodemus , nor does he stop sharing the table with other members of his sect, praises the faith of the pagan centurion, before the adulterer only writes words in the sand and manages to make the stones of unmisericorde justice disappear, rests in Bethany at the house of his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary, ascends in a borrico and between palms by the rampant paths that lead him to Jerusalem , dies on Calvary and, risen, making a route with those of Emmaus, opens the doors of hope for them.
  21. Difficult to reconcile that of the unity of the contents of faith with the effective catholicity of them and, however difficult, not always well achieved. Sometimes the emphasis of unity has been detrimental to catholicity, or the emphasis on it has caused decline in the former. Heterogeneous and pluritonal, but one is only Catholicism, although not uniform because, if this were intended as a happily unrealizable goal, such an attitude would amount to the absurd desire to establish a contradiction in the terms of definition. It seems to me that one of the possible linguistic approaches to the mystery, unstoppable in its most delicate essences, of the divine gift of the Catholic faith, would be to outline it as heteromorphic Communion of Love, lived in the most interpenetrant cultural syncretism imaginable, based on the rock that is the person of Jesus and in his Vicar, which is an infallible guarantor of authenticity.
  22. One is faith in the Eucharist, the centrifugal and centripet point of Catholic life, and various forms in which it is meant, celebrated and celebrated. What a distance between the sober and monophonic Roman liturgy and the multicolored arborescences of the Eucharistic cults of the Eastern Churches! Catholic is the overwhelming basilical nudity of St. Sabina in the Aventine and also Catholic the dazzling Baroque of the Gese, the solid pillars of the Pink Cathedral of Mainz, the unheard-of arrows of Chartres, the golden blindings of the Bavarian and Austrian temples, the jungle rupture of architectural banality in Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia and the candleing iconostasis of the mystery intuited in the perfumes of the copious incense of the temples of Greek Catholicism and Slavic. All the possibilities of the plastic arts and music could illustrate with slack the unlimited heterogeneity of the expression of the multiform Catholicism. Servatis servandis et mutatis mutandis, why not the thought and language that reveals it?
  23. Neotomism, the quasi-official system of Catholic thought for a long time, has its germic humus in whom it is baptized by lending its name, Saint Thomas Aquinas. This, in its thirteenth century, suffered the suspicions of heterodoxy because of its est esttainment from the plotinian neoplatonism of Augustine and Anselmo, saints also both and of whom the aquinatense himself was always considered a debtor; of that same neoplatonism that for a long time identified in the West with orthodoxy and from which, over the centuries, Christian thinkers have never stopped drinking, both the most systematizing, rational and tersotic theologians, and the most ineffable and asymptomatic mystics, artisans of metaphor, allegory and parable. The illustrations of history and contemporaneity are so numerous that the insistence would be superfluous.
  24. La expresión de los contenidos de la fe católica desborda, pues, la unicidad de las categorías y estructuraciones filosóficas y de sus epifanías lingüísticas, ungidas todas por la excelsitud del tesoro que se quiere manifestar –perla preciosa que merece la venta de todo lo demás con tal de adquirirla–, pero portadoras, simultánea e inevitablemente, de los límites propios del mismo raciocinio, del lenguaje, de las fronteras y requerimientos espacio-temporales impuestos por la economía de la Encarnación. La Verdad acerca de Dios y del hombre, en Jesucristo y su Iglesia católica, debe perseguir el camino y castigar el verbo hasta obtener que resulte noticia buena tanto para el judío y el griego de los tiempos de san Pablo de Tarso, como para la persona humana situada en cualquiera de los puntos de la línea, con su especificidad intransferible.
  25. We shouldn’t have intended to take Lezama away from her ego and her personal style of apprehending Cubans. Baroque was his paladeo and in the Baroque he found the peculiar sabrosura of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Always, according to Lezama, “there is the thing”, because the Baroque style is the non-helpless form of its contents, which best meets our Caribbean insular specificity. Nor was heterodox for diving in Taoism and other pagan cultures, since the historical and contemporary experience of the Catholic Church is, also in this tillage, that of this repeated and indefatigable dive, for generous and wise purposes: to find the seeds of the Word, the seeds of Truth. Although we recognize that, neither Lezama nor anyone, always obtained dishes well seasoned in diving, that does not excuse us to practice it, armed with the exquisite discernment, typical of an experienced balancer and a master of cuisine from India or China, who knows how to select between the incorporation by nutrient, and what, however harmful, should be abandoned in some apocalyptic steed. Only in this way can one contribute to the growth of the person – of all people and of the whole person – to the size that belongs to him.
  26. Epilogue. And that was precisely what the poet proposed with his singular magisterium, which we thank God as an ineffable gift to our people and to our Church. Does this mean that I am equating him to St Francis of Assyses or St Ignatius of Loyola? I don’t canonize Lezama, but I don’t demonize it either. I encouraged him as a person and admire him as the multifaceted writer he is. And I do not exclude him from ecclesial communion, which lived with truth, but… in his own way!


Havana, July 13, 2013.

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