"I respect a lot priests with rifles on their shoulders; I never said that to use weapons against an oppressor is immoral or anti-Christian. But that's not my choice, not my road, not my way to apply the Gospels" – Dom Helder Camara
In the Introduction to this book, its editor Jose de Broucker referred to Dom Helder Camara’s “unrelenting struggle for men really to be able to live together as brothers.” It was a commitment I first became aware of during the 1981 hunger strikes when I fortuitously discovered The Desert Is Fertile. The work – a treatise against oppression and poverty - had a calming effect on me at a turbulent time and the bookshelves here retain a copy although not the same one from the prison: a Christmas gift from my wife.
Although I had yet to read the following verse during the blanket protest, its sagacity captured the spirit of the times:
Do not condemn us
to be alone
Allow us to be together
Helder Camara was the archbishop of Olinda and Recife, described on the back cover as “the poorest and least developed” part of Brazil. Because of his commitment to the poorest in Brazilian society he was known as the "bishop of the slums." He also immortalised and has become inseparable from the phrase:
When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.
The military dictatorship in Brazil of course despised him and it was they who labelled him a subversive communist. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times but never won it. That it was once awarded to Henry Kissinger tells us more than we need to know about the politics behind the prize being anything but noble or peaceful.
In the opening pages Helder Camara writes, “Out in the open, near my home, sleeps one of God’s fools. A wonderful little madman.”
Although sent off for psychiatric evaluation, Camara has second thoughts about wanting him to be cured, feeling that:
we should all be losers by the change. There are all too many people with their rational and ultra-rational heads screwed on. Perhaps, this is why we keep misunderstanding one another and why the world is in such confusion.
Not so much an attack on reason as an appeal to empathy, it would be reflected in writers such as Derrida who would rail against the technological horrors that reason would let loose upon the world: the Holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not the result of chaos but the product of calculating, thinking minds.
The real substance of the book is a series of mediations written over four decades from April 1947 to February 1978. It is deeply spiritual: man is not a mere tree, the “creator” is omnipresent. Thirty years prior to the death of Bobby Sands, the 5th May 1951, Camara was seeing God in the faces of the poorest.
A spirituality that could so easily be a strong disincentive to continue reading, is anything but in the case of Camara. My favourite from the book is the meditation called Excessive Profit Making.
If the sun were as thirsty
and greedy as you
not one puddle of water
not one drop of dew
would be left on the face of the earth
This is the greed that pursues wealth not to survive and live comfortably but to amass it for the sheer malign joy of having it while denying others access to it.
There are so many insights in this book that it is hard to choose one over another. But a fitting one to end on is:
... woe to him who feeds on You
But later has no eyes to see You
To discern You
Foraging for food among the garbage
Being evicted every other minute
Living in sub-human conditions
Under the sign
Of utter insecurity
Dom Helder Camara, 1981, A Thousand Reasons For Living. Publisher: Darton, Longman & Todd. ISBN 0 232 51521 2
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