I went to the Dominican Republic, in the Caribean, as I told you here in the last issue, and had a lovely time there. The first surprise was the welcome. The ladies in charge of my visit had emailed me before, and I had imagined them as elderly ladies, very highbrow and very dignified, ready for their responsible task. I memorised their names so as to place them from the first, and so I tried to do on arrival. But placing them was not so simple. They introduced themselves. They gave me their names…, and I stood perplexed for a moment. These must be the ones, aren’t they? The problem was that the four women in front of me were not the solemn, robust, elderly shapes I had imagined, but they were four pleasant, lively, charming young women, and, yes, they were Zaida and Kim and Lily and Isabel Laura alright. No question about it. They were the ones who had sent me the emails. I had to change the script all at once. I told them how I had imagined them as old and fat ladies, and they laughed with me. Today, back in Madrid, I find an email signed by “Your fat old friend.” You have made me laugh again, Zaida.
Another surprise was the way I was introduced at the Catholic Book Fair. I have been introduced to audiences in many book fairs, but never so cordially, exactly, respectfully, and humorously. So much so that I asked for the script, and I’m going to put it here. That will be the best account of my visit. It is the work of Fr Martin Lenk, S.J., a German Jesuit of the island, and it has reminded me of things in my life which I myself had forgotten and I feel inclined to share with you. Thank you, Martin.
Presentation of the book of Fr Carlos G. Vallés, S.J. “Christian Self esteem”, Casa San Pablo, Santo Domingo, 7 March 2007, 7:30 p.m.
Dear brothers and sisters,
It is a great honour and a great joy to have Fr Carlos Vallés with us here today, and to be able to present his latest book, “Christian Self-esteem”.
Fr Vallés is not unknown to us. His books have made a great impact on our Church, on our country, on very many persons. Among them they have made an impact on me.
That’s why I would like to tell you a little anecdote of myself which marked deeply my own relation to Fr Vallés’ writings. About twelve years ago I was waiting for a delayed flight here in Las Américas airport. Carlos Vallés tells us in one of his books that he hates waiting in airports (I Am Colecting Rainbows 119). Well, I had a wonderful time once in an airport because I found a book from our guest here, one of his better known books, Unencumbered by Baggage, about the unforgettable Anthony de Mello. I spent several happy hours in the waiting room of the airport reading that book. It all changed a little when on arrival at the Santa Cruz de la Sierra airport in Bolivia, I started watching attentively the luggage conveyor belt. I saw any amount of bags, suitcases, rucksacks pass by… but my humble rucksack, faithful companion of so many journeys, did not show up. It was at the time going round at round helplessly by itself on the conveyor belts of American Airlines in Miami. That was how Carlos Vallés’ book became a prophetic word for me. I had to spend a whole week in Bolivia finding out the special blessing attending on a journey unencumbered by baggage. Though, evidently, it is easier reading a book called Unencumbered by Baggage than applying it to real life, as it is much more important living out a book than reading it. I think this also goes very specially for the recent book Fr Vallés has brought for us in his luggage from Spain and is now before us. Its title is: Christian Self-esteem.
Before presenting the book and listening to Fr Vallés himself, it will be fitting to share something about him as a person.
Who is Carlos González Vallés? He himself tells us that he is “many people”, and that’s why he calls his autobiography I Am Collecting Rainbows. Let us quickly focus on some of these rainbows in his life.
Fr Carlos was born on 4th November, feast of St Carlos Borromeo, in the year 1925 in Logroño, Spain. This was a good omen as – at least in Germany – St Carlos is the patron saint of Catholic libraries.
As a lad of 15 he joined the Jesuit noviciate at Loyola itself, the birthplace of the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. He describes himself in those days as a cheerful student, voracious reader, passionate friend, captain of the football team, in love with Mozart, and enjoying a good appetite. (I Am Collecting Rainbows 12)
He arrives in India at 24, and takes then a rather unusual vow, unknown in the Society of Jesus: the vow not to speak even a word of English while he was studying the Gujarati language (Living Together 85), one of the official languages in India, the native language of Mahatma Gandhi himself, and the language of the state where Fr Vallés was posted.
He mastered the language after much effort and practice, so much so that his Gujarati books have obtained the highest literary prizes. In 1978 he was awarded the Ranjitram Gold Medal, highest literary award in Gujarat, for the first and so far only time it was awarded to a foreigner. Before that he had been awarded the “Kumar Prize” for the best contribution to the best magazine. He wrote a weekly column in the main Gujarati daily, Gujarat Samachar. He won the government prize for the best book in the essay category on five consecutive years, so that a law was enacted that no writer could be awarded the prize more than five years.
We have seen one rainbow, that of the writer. We now turn to another, the mathematician. He graduated on 1953, introduced the “modern math” in the Gujarat University, wrote the first textbook on “Abstract Algebra”, and represented India at international mathematics congresses in Moscow, Exeter, Nice.
More rainbows. The priest, the Jesuit. He was ordained a priest on 1958, and is known since as Father Vallés. Once he refused permission to publish his articles to the editor of a magazine who was reluctant to print the word Father before his name (Rainbows 114).
Carlos Vallés, priest and Jesuit, expert on the Exercises he has directed countless times, master of discernment as we see in his book The Art of Choosing, defender of community life as we see in his first book in English and Spanish, Living Together, a book that has done so much good to so many religious. I looked up yesterday my copy of Living Together, and I realised how a Sister to whom I had lent it had filled it up with marginal notes which said: “How true!”, “Splendid!”, “Fantastic!”, and though she left my book much the worse for use, that gladdens me as a sign of how much good that book continues to do day by day.
His passion is to serve God and people, as the titles of his books proclaim: Sketches of God, Praying Together, Faith for Justice, Our Lady of Joy. About 20 books in English.
Something would be missing if we did not record the 10 years he spent living with families from house to house in his city of Ahmedabad. He writes: I took with me a bag with only essentials, got on my bike, and went to ask for hospitality from house to house in the old quarters of the city. The proverbial Indian hospitality opened for me the doors of family after family, and so I lived with them twenty-four hours a day, sharing their vegetarian meals, their floor to sleep at night, their closeness as a family member for a few days till I took my leave and knocked at another door. I went daily to the College to teach, but for the rest I fully stayed and lived with the family I lodged with for the week. Ten years that way. Maybe that is possible only in India.
That is what Fr Vallés did in his enthusiasm to promote mutual understanding, mutual appreciation and unity among people of different languages, cultures and religions. He also obtained several prizes for his work towards harmony among peoples, but I leave their names for another occasion as I find them impossible to pronounce.
Carlos Vallés, Spaniard in India, priest and Jesuit, writer and mathematician, has brought to us today his last book with the title: Christian Self-esteem. We need that book. We need that medicine. We have to recognise our own value and the value of each human life. In his book Fr Vallés tells us about the value of the person, the importance to realise and accept one’s own value and uniqueness. Our faith helps our self esteem as it shows us coming from the hands of God in his image and likeness, but it also at times weakens it calling us sinners and inducing a guilt complex that threatens our self-esteem. The reaction against this complex in our days has lead many to ignore the concept of sin, and so the pendulum has swung from one end to the other. It is time to find the proper balance. (p. 100)
One of the chapters of the book is simply titled He loved me, quoting St Paul and establishing the principle that knowing and feeling ourselves to be loved by God is the basis of our self-esteem and our wellbeing.
Some years ago, Fr Vallés described in one of his books what the greatest happiness of the writer lies in. It is the thrill to nurse in mortal hands the printed miracle of a newborn book. There is no perfume in the world that can be compared for the writer with the deep fragrance of the printing ink on the first copy of his last book. (Rainbows, 102)
Let us then hope that many of you will share the perfume of the printed word in this book.
And now I ask Fr Carlos Vallés to speak to us all.