Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Pathway to Diplomacy

The following is the author’s introduction to his book, A Pathway to Diplomacy, which has recently been published by the UST Publishing House.  Copies are now available at selected branches of National Book Store and Powerbooks.  They may also be directly obtained from:

The UST Publishing House
Beato Angelico Bldg.
University of Santo Tomas, Manila
(+632) 406-1611 loc. 8252 / 8278; (+632) 731-3522 (telefax) (email)


            There is no single pathway to diplomacy.  In the Philippines, as in many other parts of the world, one who wishes to pursue a diplomatic career is not required to arrive at his destination via a standard (much less, an obligatory) route.  There are, rather, many possible roads he can take to reach his goal.  In fact, he can even create his own path to diplomacy. 
For one, an aspiring diplomat is not required to earn a specific university degree in order to qualify for the annual Foreign Service Officers’ Examination (or FSO Exam).  Unlike the bar and board exams, which can only be taken by those in possession of a specific university degree,  the FSO Exam can be taken by anyone---regardless of his university degree---as long as he fulfills all the other non-academic requirements for the exam.  Having a degree in foreign service or in international relations can, of course, be an advantage; but it is definitely not a must.  Any university degree will do.  What matters is that the aspirant can show, through his performance in the FSO Exam, that he has the intellectual, emotional, psychological, moral and practical ability to represent his country abroad, and to advance his country’s interests in bilateral, regional and international fora.  
            It should hardly come as a surprise, therefore, that career diplomats literally come in all shapes and sizes.  The Philippine foreign service, for example, is made up of men and women with the most diverse academic and professional backgrounds imaginable.  Its corps of officers consists of erstwhile academicians, journalists, writers, lawyers, certified public accountants, bankers, economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, social workers, military officers, architects, engineers, schooled musicians, priests, philosophers and poets, to name but a few.   There is probably no other field in both the public and the private sectors that can equally pride itself with the immense diversity of its talents.  
But this vast multiplicity of talents is not the only consequence of the foreign service’s “openness” as far as academic and professional backgrounds are concerned.  The other is that, since the FSO Exam does not require of the aspirant a prior education or training in diplomacy, a career diplomat literally has to learn the ropes of his profession as he goes along.  He acquires his craft not before he sets about his work, but while doing it.   He is, in the truest sense, trained to be a diplomat on-the-job.  He is, of course, given a formal training in diplomacy at the start of his career.  After passing the FSO Exam, he is made to undergo what is called in the Department’s parlance the “cadetship program,” wherein he will be trained in diplomacy from its most rudimentary skills to its most profound theories.  But his education as a diplomat does not end there.  In fact, it can be said that his real education in diplomacy begins when he steps out of the Department’s Foreign Service Institute (where the cadetship program is held) and joins one of the Department’s various offices.  
            My own on-the-job training as a diplomat started at the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs, where I was assigned shortly after finishing the cadetship program in mid-2000.  It swung into high gear during the six and a half years that I spent in Rome as Third Secretary and Vice Consul, and later, as Second Secretary and Consul of our Embassy to the Italian Republic.
            The Philippine Embassy in Rome (Rome PE) is not an easy assignment.  Italy has one of the largest Filipino communities in the whole of Europe.   In addition,   the city of Rome hosts the headquarters of several U.N. bodies and other international organizations. Serving as an Alternate Representative to these international organizations is part of the functions of a Filipino diplomat assigned in Rome, over and above his usual bilateral diplomatic tasks. 
            Fortunately, I enjoyed a peculiar advantage during my posting there:  for the greater part of my sojourn in Rome, I was a single man who had all the time to myself the moment I got home.  Unencumbered by the responsibilities that go with having a wife and children, I had more than enough opportunity to reflect on and write about the things I experienced and about the issues that engaged my mind during my stay there. The essays in this collection were the fruits of those solitary hours.  They were written between 2005 to 2008, on weekends when I did not have to leave the house to attend a community affair or take care of an urgent assistance-to-nationals (ATN) case.  Naturally, the themes and topics of these essays reflect my interests and preoccupations at that time:  the theory and practice of diplomacy; the lives and ideas of the leaders and thinkers who had, in one way or another, shaped my own life and thoughts; art and literature; and an assortment of subjects that I tried to understand better by putting my thoughts on paper.
            Yet, varied as their themes and topics may be, a common thread actually runs through these essays:  They constitute a written record of the insights I came upon and the lessons I learned in the course of my first foreign posting as a fledgling diplomat.   They are, as it were, the jottings I wrote down on my maiden voyage in the challenging but exciting world of diplomacy. 
            They say that our first experience in any area of life exerts a lasting impact upon us.  In fact, it usually sets the tone and shapes the character of our subsequent engagements in that particular sphere.  My maiden posting in Rome has taught me lessons and given me insights which, I am sure, will continue to stand me in good stead in the years ahead.  If other diplomats can find something useful for themselves among the varied thoughts that these essays contain, then writing them shall have been worth it many times over.  
            But the publication of this book was inspired not only by the desire to share with my colleagues in the foreign service the lessons and insights I gained during my first posting in Rome. It was also stirred by the desire to offer something useful to the thousands of young men and women who dream of becoming career diplomats someday. There are a lot of highly romanticized ideas about diplomacy and the diplomatic life that are floating around in university campuses, and many young people have been attracted to the foreign service largely on account of these glamorized notions of the diplomatic career. Unfortunately, the actual work and lifestyle of the diplomatic profession do not exactly match their idealized representations.  The essays in this book can help aspiring diplomats acquire a more realistic picture of what they would be getting into, should they decide to join the diplomatic service. 
            Diplomacy is by no means an easy calling.  But, as I hope these essays will reveal, it is definitely one of the most fitting vocations for anyone who genuinely wishes to serve his country and, in some way, make a difference in our world.



Saturday, April 13, 2013

Meeting Ted Sorensen


     It would not have pleased either men if I called Theodore C. Sorensen “JFK’s speechwriter.”  Neither would it have been a fair and accurate description of the working relationship between the two.

     The word “speechwriter” conjures, for a lot of people, the image of someone (usually anonymous and unacknowledged) who writes a speech for some public figure who merely delivers what the former has written.  Sorensen has always asserted that that was not how it was between him and John F. Kennedy.  Neither men denied that they worked together on JFK’s speeches.  But, as Sorensen himself clarified, Kennedy “would never blindly accept or blandly deliver a text he had not seen and edited.  We always discussed the topic, the approach and the conclusion in advance.  He always had quotations or historical allusions to include.  Sometimes he would review an outline.  And he always, upon receiving my draft, altered, deleted or added phrases, paragraphs or pages.  Some drafts he rejected entirely.”1 

   Hired by Kennedy, on a trial basis, as his number two legislative assistant when he was still a freshman Senator from Massachusetts, Sorensen (then twenty-four) gradually rose to become Kennedy’s most trusted and most influential aide.  He had been called Kennedy’s “intellectual blood-bank,” “top policy aide” and “alter ego.”2  So significant was Sorensen’s role in the crafting of Kennedy’s speeches and writings that, soon after JFK won a Pulitzer prize for his second book, Profiles in Courage, rumors began to circulate in some circles that it was Sorensen, not Kennedy, who actually wrote the book, or at least, the bulk of it.  A columnist, Drew Pearson, soon made a public claim to that effect on ABC television’s Mike Wallace Show.   “Of all the abuse he would receive throughout his life,” Sorensen would later write, “ none would make him more angry than the charge a few months later that he had not written his own book…  On Sunday afternoon the Senator called me in an unusual state of high agitation and anger.  He talked, as he had never done before, of lawyers and lawsuits.  ‘We might as well quit if we let this stand,’ he said when I counseled caution.  ‘This challenges my ability to write the book, my honesty in signing it and my integrity in accepting the Pulitzer Prize.’”3   Throughout the controversy, Sorensen maintained that the charge was utterly false.  He did not deny the important role he played in the book’s making – a fact that Kennedy himself admitted in his book’s Preface.4 But he strongly defended Kennedy’s authorship of the book, going so far as to issue a sworn statement that he himself was not the author and that he had never claimed authorship of the book.  After a series of cross-examinations and arguments between the Kennedy camp and ABC executives, ABC television later made a complete statement of retraction and apology for airing Pearson’s false allegation.5

     I first learned about Theodore Sorensen through an English composition textbook which I stumbled upon during my college years.  I can no longer recall the author and the exact title of the textbook.  But I remember that it contained an excerpt from Sorensen’s best-selling book on Kennedy.  The excerpt was on the way JFK’s speeches were written.6 

   Until then, I never considered speech-writing an art form, much less a literary form in its own right.  But reading Sorensen’s description of how he and JFK wrote the latter’s speeches made me realize that speech-writing can indeed be considered a literary form.  It requires imagination, creativity, skill and dedication, as much as any other literary form.  It is a testament to JFK’s singular talent as a speaker that the speeches he and Sorensen wrote sounded exceptionally well when he delivered them.  But it is likewise a testament to Sorensen’s unusual gift as a speech-writer that, even when they are merely read as words on a page, the texts of JFK’s speeches have a beauty and worth of their own.   My continuing appreciation of speech-writing as a literary art owes its conception to that excerpt from Sorensen’s book.  

     I, therefore, considered it a genuine privilege to finally meet Sorensen in person in November 2003.  He was in Rome, along with JFK’s other former aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and JFK’s sisters Jean Kennedy Smith and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, to participate in the city’s commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of JFK’s demise.  One of the activities organized for the occasion was a panel discussion dubbed “Quarant’anni dopo:  le frontiere del Kennedismo” (“Forty Years After:  The Frontiers of Kennedyism”).   Members of the diplomatic corps had been invited to the affair, which was held at the Aula di Giulio Cesare in the Campidoglio (Rome’s city hall).   Sorensen was one of the panelists.

     We had to listen to several speakers before finally hearing Sorensen speak.  But the wait was well worth it.  Sorensen’s speech stood out from everyone else’s (including Schlesinger’s) on account of the warmth, the fondness, the undiminished respect and admiration with which he talked about JFK.   He began his speech by asking why we were there; what it was about JFK that continued to captivate the interest and admiration of people even forty years after his assassination.   He then spoke about what personally drew him to Kennedy and what he believed was Kennedy’s unique legacy to America and to the world at large.  It was hardly a surprise that Sorensen’s speech won the warmest applause that day.

     When the event ended and everyone rose to leave the hall, I approached Sorensen and introduced myself.  After the pleasantries, I said, “I genuinely admire your speeches, Mr. Sorensen.”   For a few seconds, I sensed that he inwardly wondered what I meant by “your speeches.”  Was I referring to the speeches he co-wrote with JFK, or to the speeches he himself wrote and delivered after JFK’s demise?  (In the years following JFK’s assassination, Sorensen distinguished himself as an international law expert, a best-selling author and a widely-sought speaker in his own right.)  Then he smiled and modestly said, “Thank you very much.”  

     In his classic work, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli underlined the importance for a prince to choose his ministers well for, he argued,  “the first estimate of [a prince’s] intelligence will be based upon the character of the men he keeps about him.”7

     That  brief encounter with Sorensen further increased my estimate of the leader whose company he once kept.

     1Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York:  Bantam Books, 1966), 66-67.
     2Ibid., p. 882.
     3Ibid., p. 76.
     4See John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage, memorial edition (New York:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1964), 17.
     5Sorensen, op. cit., 77-78.  Some JFK biographers like Thomas C. Reeves still maintain that Sorensen was the real author of the book.  Reeves argues for that position in his book A Question of Character:  A Life of John F. Kennedy (New York:  The Free Press, 1991), 127-128. 
     6Upon acquiring my own copy of Sorensen’s book Kennedy many years later,  I found that the excerpt comes from pages 66 to 72 of said book.
     7Daniel Donno, trans.  (New York:  Bantam Books, 1981), 79.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Journeys Without Encores


     One of the advantages of being assigned to a European post is the vast opportunity it offers for traveling.   This is especially true if you are posted to a European country that belongs to the so-called Schengen zone – a group of European countries that have agreed, among other things, to do away with visa requirements as far as the cross-border travels of their citizens are concerned.   In the case of those assigned to Italy, for instance, possession of the carta d’identita (identity card) issued by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is enough, if you wish to travel to other Schengen countries such as France, Spain or The Netherlands.   You no longer need to apply for a visa to enter these countries.  Showing your carta d’identita to their border police or their immigration officers would suffice.  

     Not only that, low-budget airlines offer airfares that are so cheap, traveling from Italy to Spain or France can actually cost less than treating a couple of friends to dinner at a typical Italian restaurant.

     Yet, while in Rome, one does not even have to look beyond the borders of Italy to satisfy one’s desire to travel and see new places.  Every Italian region (nay, every province within a region) has something unique to offer;  it deserves to be visited at least once.

     Aware that my term in Italy would not last forever (the normal length of a foreign assignment being six years) and that it might take a while before I get assigned again to a European country, I tried my best to avail of every opportunity to travel both inside and outside Italy during my sojourn there.  I took the chance to visit Paris, Cannes, Nice, Monaco, Lourdes, Barcelona, Montserrat, Madrid, Amsterdam, Geneva, London, Athens, Milan, Turin, Venice, Verona, Padova, Pisa, Cremona, Florence, Naples, Taranto, Sorrento, Pompeii, Palermo, Reggio di Calabria,  and a number of other Italian destinations, thanks to the ease and economy of traveling while in Europe. 

     It is often said that traveling broadens one’s horizons.  Indeed, being exposed to ways of thinking and living which differ from one’s own expands the range of one’s perspectives.   As a result, one becomes more flexible in one’s views and more tolerant of other people’s divergent opinions and beliefs.   No wonder, a lot of people claim that traveling is a form of education.  In fact, many people suggest that traveling should complement one’s formal education, for there are certain things that one will learn from traveling which one will never learn within the four walls of a classroom.

     My own limited experience in traveling has certainly pushed back the frontiers of my understanding in no small way.   But it has done one other important thing besides.  

     I have noticed that every time I travel to a place which I feel I may never have the chance to visit again,  I literally make every effort to ensure that it is going to be a most enjoyable and unforgettable journey.   Days before I actually take the plane or the train for my intended destination, I try to read every literature I can get hold of regarding the place I am going to see.   I try to learn about its history, its culture, its current economic, political, social and religious conditions.   I even try to learn a little of its language within the limited time I have before the actual journey.   Aside from the obvious practical advantages of knowing how to say “Where is the washroom?” or “How do I find my way back to the train station?”  a little knowledge of a people’s language will enable one to view the world through their eyes, so to speak.

     Moreover, as soon as I board the plane or the train, all my senses become more attuned to their surroundings than they would normally be.  It is as if my eyes, my ears, my nose, and even my mouth and skin would like to absorb every particle of the journey I am undertaking.   I notice sights, sounds, smells, and tastes I would have been oblivious to, had I encountered them along the roads of my everyday life.

     Finally, in my desire to make the most of the journey, I would not, if I could help it, allow anything to spoil the fun.  Snags and glitches that would have disturbed my balance under normal circumstances become petty and forgettable while I’m on the road.   I would not permit such “small problems” to ruin my trip.   I always remind myself:  I may never get the chance to undertake this journey again.  I want to be able to remember this moment, many years from now, with a smile on my face and the sound of laughter in my heart.

     The metaphor of life as a journey has been used for so long, it has become hopelessly trite for a lot of people.   Yet my travels have taught me that, hackneyed as it may be, the metaphor remains a good one; and it is worth keeping the image in mind as we undertake this “journey without an encore” – this “trip” we will surely not have the chance to take again after our time on earth is done.  I am, of course, speaking of the life you and I have been granted the privilege to live for a given number of years.

     We only live once, and we will not live forever.   Yet how often do many of us live as if life were a reel of tape we could rewind and fast-forward at will?   We often take the hours and days of our life for granted.  And we throw away the joy of the present moment by wasting our time regretting our past mistakes and worrying about the future.  Before we know it, our chance to journey through life is over.  And we realize with sadness that we have barely enjoyed the trip.

     Not so long ago, I came upon the following poem attributed to a fifth century Indian poet and playwright named Kalidasa:

Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities
and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every
yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.

     If we’ve forgotten how to relish the irretrievable moments of our journey through life, it’s never too late to relearn it.  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

In Sartre's Neighborhood


     I had long resolved that if I ever got the chance to see Paris, I would not leave the city until I had paid a visit to the place where Jean-Paul Sartre lived and did his writing.  So when the chance finally came, I searched every tourist book I could lay my hands on for any information on Sartre’s former neighborhood.  One tourist book implied that Sartre lived somewhere in Place St-Germain-Des-Pres, “the heart of old Paris, and a meeting place for the Left Bank intellectuals.”   It mentioned a Café de Flore which Sartre and his lifetime partner Simone de Beauvoir allegedly frequented, and which was likewise patronized by such literary figures as Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet and Boris Vian.   But, it said nothing about where Sartre went home to when night fell.

     “If I cannot find it in the books, I can always ask around,” I told myself as our plane approached Aeroport Charles de Gaulle.  On the bus from the airport to the hotel, I had the good fortune of striking up a conversation with a fellow passenger who introduced himself as “Zarrabi.”   It turned out that he himself liked Sartre, and when I asked him if he might be able to tell me how I could visit Sartre’s neighborhood, his eyes lit up, and he went so far as drawing a map for me, complete with the names of the streets I should take in order to get there.   But he couldn’t tell me exactly where Sartre lived.   “You can ask around when you get to the place,” he suggested.

     It was not difficult to find Place St-Germain-Des-Pres.  Part of the square had been christened "Place Sartre-Beauvoir"  in memory of the literary couple, and a street sign bearing their names greeted you just a few steps away from the subway exit.  A Romanesque church stood in the square and my tourist book said that it was Paris’ oldest church.  I went in, partly to see the inside of the church, and partly to inquire at the parish office where Sartre’s former apartment might be.   The lady who manned the parish office couldn’t tell me where Sartre lived either.  But she was very helpful.  She phoned several people for the information I needed, to no avail.

     I then walked to the Café des Deux Magots across the street and made my inquiries there.  No one in the place could tell me where Sartre used to live.  My efforts at the Café de Flore were equally fruitless,  notwithstanding the fact that Sartre used to be the establishment’s most popular customer.  The waiters, understandably, did not even know who he was.

     So I had to content myself with looking around the Café de Flore and imagining how it must have felt to sit at table with Sartre, Beauvoir and their literary and philosophical friends as they exchanged thoughts on the issues of the day and addressed the questions that have hounded man from the dawn of his ability to think.

     But it was quite a different story when I decided to visit the bookstores of Place St-Germain-des-Pres.  Although their managers and attendants could neither tell me where Sartre lived, they spoke of Sartre as if he were someone who just got out of the door and who would probably be back in a few hours.  His books filled their shelves, along with several CD recordings of his lectures.   Works by other authors were, of course, also on display.  But one could easily feel the special place that Sartre enjoyed in the bookshops of his old neighborhood.    

     Sartre once said, “And so glory, and the works you leave behind you, clearly represent a worldly equivalent of immortality.  In fact, people referred to it as immortality, and to great writers as ‘immortals.’”*

     As my train moved away from Place St-Germain-des-Pres, I realized how Sartre’s life was inextricably intertwined with the words he wrote.   He had become, in a way, immortal through the works he had left behind.  Sartre lived on through his books.  And I did not have to visit the cafés he frequented,  nor the apartment he used to live in, to know what kind of man he must have been.  

     *Sartre by Himself, transcript of the film directed by Alexandre Astruc and Michel Contat, translated by Richard Seaver (New York:  Urizen Books, 1978), 17.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Meditation on W. Somerset Maugham's "Rain"


     A group of travelers find themselves stranded on an island in Samoa.  The schooner which is supposed to bring them to their destination has been quarantined because one of the crew has contracted measles (a serious and often fatal disease in that place and time).   Among the travelers are two couples (the Macphails and the Davidsons) who have become somehow close in the course of their journey.   But, the intimacy that has arisen between them (Maugham quickly points out) is due more to propinquity rather than to any community of taste.   Indeed, no men can be more different from each other than Dr. Macphail and Mr. Davidson.  Dr. Macphail is an open-minded physician who has a lot of empathy for other men’s peculiarities and frailties, while Mr. Davidson is an overzealous and self-righteous missionary who cannot hide his contempt for other men’s weaknesses and sins.   Mr. Davidson is, in fact, obsessed with fighting sin with all his might and “saving” sinners no matter what the cost

     Also stranded on the island and billeted in the same inn as the Machphails and the Davidsons is a prostitute named Sadie Thompson.   Young and, in a coarse fashion, pretty, but expectedly uncouth and “immoral,” she soon earns the ire of Mr. Davidson.  At first, she proudly defies and challenges Mr. Davidson’s “right” to intrude into her life.  But, when Mr. Davidson utilizes his political connections to show her how capable he is of punishing her for her defiance, she capitulates and even acquiesces to his efforts to “convert” her from her sinful life.  The strange thing, however, is that despite her “conversion” and the “spiritual bond” that has developed between her and Mr. Davidson, the latter is still bent on giving her the punishment he believes she deserves:  sending her back to San Francisco where she has a standing arrest order for her past crimes.  In fact, Mr. Davidson relishes, in a rather demented way, the prospect of seeing her suffer in prison.  To him, such “cleansing” – no matter how painful -- is a necessary step to her salvation.  His convoluted theological rationale for such a stance is summarized in the words he says to Dr. Macphail, in reply to the latter’s intercession that Ms. Thompson be spared such punishment:  “Ah, but don’t you see?  It’s necessary.  Do you think my heart doesn’t bleed for her?  I love her as I love my wife and sister.  All the time that she is in prison I shall suffer all the pain that she suffers…  You don’t understand because you’re blind.  She’s sinned, and she must suffer.  I know what she’ll endure.  She’ll be starved and tortured and humiliated.  I want her to accept the punishment of man as a sacrifice to God.  I want her to accept it joyfully.  She has an opportunity which is offered to very few of us.  God is very good and very merciful.”  He continues:  “I want to put in her heart the passionate desire to be punished so that at the end, even if I offered to let her go, she would refuse.  I want her to feel that the bitter punishment of prison is the thank-offering that she places at the feet of our Blessed Lord, who gave his life for her.”1  No amount of pleading and weeping on the part of Ms. Thompson can make Mr. Davidson change his mind.   And as the day of her deportation to San Francisco nears, Mr. Davidson is filled with an inner excitement that makes him behave almost like a man going insane.  

     When the day of her deportation arrives, however, Mr. Davidson’s corpse is found lying on the beach with its throat cut.   In Mr. Davidson’s right hand lies the razor with which the deed has been done.   All indications point to the fact that Mr. Davidson has taken his own life.

     Dr. Macphail cannot, at first, understand what made Mr. Davidson do it.  Until he learns from Ms. Thompson that the night before her deportation, Mr. Davidson had succumbed to his carnal desires and taken advantage of her like all the other men she had known. 

     We can better understand the strange character of Mr. Davidson if we take a closer look at his “spirituality,” i.e., the kind of relationship he had with his God.   And since one’s relationship with God is largely determined by one’s view of God, it would be instructive for us to examine Mr. Davidson’s peculiar view of God. 

     Mr. Davidson obviously looked at God as a vindictive judge who could never be satisfied until a sinner had fully paid for his sins.  It was, therefore,  inconceivable to Mr. Davidson that God could forgive a sin as deep as the one he had committed:   destroying the soul of a person he was so close to “saving,” and ruining his own soul in the process.  He could not bring himself to believe that God could forgive any sin as long as there was a sincere repentance on the part of the sinner.  His distorted view of God precluded such a possibility.   In the end, believing that he was “doomed” beyond redemption, he saw no other way out besides taking his very own life.

     Incidentally, Mr. Davidson’s view of God and the despair to which such a view drove him echo those of another man who lived almost two thousand years ago.  Judas, unable to believe that God could forgive him no matter how humanly unforgivable his sin was, also felt that he was beyond redemption and consequently killed himself.

     The truth is:  many of us will probably do the same thing if we view God in that same manner.   For, whether we like it or not, we shall all fall into sin, in one way or another, in the course of our lives.  No amount of human effort towards untainted holiness can eradicate our human propensity to sin.  To put it figuratively:  no matter how hard we try to reach the heavens, we shall always fall back to the earth -- just like the rain (hence the title of Maugham’s story).  We are human beings and we will remain so as long as we live.  Our humanity and all the weaknesses that it contains will always remain a part of us.  We can only go so far when it comes to transcending our human limitations.  This painful reality is part of what the writer Stephen Vincent Benet once called the “sadness in being a man.”2

     The good news, however, is that our God does not really expect us to fully overcome our humanity while we are still in this world.  He accepts and loves us for what we are: human beings who can never save their own selves by their own efforts, human beings whom He and He alone can save.  Certainly, He wants us to do our best in trying to transcend the limits of our humanity.  But if we fail – as, for sure, we often will, despite our sincere efforts – God will, so to speak, bend over backwards as many times as necessary to forgive us and offer us the chance to start anew.

     The Bible proclaims this good news about our God in a number of gospel parables:  the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the lost coin…  It is also touchingly expressed in psalms like Psalm 30, verse 6:  “For his anger lasts but a while, and his kindness all through life.”  Our God is an infinitely merciful God.  While He is also a God of justice, His mercy far outweighs His sense of justice.

     Unfortunately, this good news about our God often sounds too good to be true to many people.  I remember the worried reaction I used to receive from some parishioners whenever I proclaimed this good news in my homilies while I was still a priest.   The reaction was worse whenever I mentioned the position of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar:  that God’s mercy is so unfathomable, it is possible that even Judas had been spared the punishment of eternal fire.  They would point out to me the negative implications of such a position for our practical life.  They would retort:  “If God is that merciful, then what’s the use of trying so hard to live a Christian life?  I might as well live my life as I please.  After all, as long as I repent just before I die, God will surely forgive me.”   “And what about justice?  If God will likewise forgive the serial killer who murdered my father, or the young drug addict who raped my daughter, where is His sense of fairness?”   “How will God do justice to the victims of willful mass murderers like Adolf Hitler?”

     Von Balthasar, of course, clarifies that “the defense put forward by ‘our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’ (1 Jn 2:1)…  does not give us carte blanche for new sins; on the contrary it presents us with the most urgent challenge to start loving, at last.”3   Still, I must accept that his position indeed poses a number of complications when applied to our practical life.   Even the so-called “Final Option Theory” (which proposes that no matter how sinful our lives have been, God will still give us the chance to make our “final option” at the end of our lives; and it is our “final option” – either for or against God – that will determine our ultimate fate) is not without similar complications.  

     But then, doesn’t the Bible itself remind us that God’s ways are not men’s ways?  Our human mind can never fully comprehend how God can be infinitely merciful without violating the other values that we hold dear, such as justice and fairness.  It is one of those things about God which we can never fully understand while we are still here.  And we are definitely in no position to require God to make His actions and decisions neatly fit the pigeonholes of our minds.


     1W. Somerset Maugham, “Rain,” in A Pocket Book of Short Stories, M. Edmund Speare, ed. (New York:  Pocket Books, 1998), 159-160.
     2Stephen Vincent Benet, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” in Speare, 22.  
      3Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Prayer, Graham Harrison, trans. (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 47.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dag Hammarskjold and the Journey Inwards


     I first “met” Dag Hammarskjold in late 1981, a few months before my graduation from San Pablo Seminary.  I am enclosing the word met in quotation marks because, to state the obvious (Mr. Hammarskjold having died on September 18, 1961, more than a year before I was born), our “encounter” was not actual but virtual.  I met him through a stationery,  half the size of a short bond paper.   

     I no longer remember exactly how that stationery got to me, but I do remember that it came from one of my seminary mentors (an Assumption nun who had become a very close friend of mine).  She must have used the stationery to write down a note for me – an unimportant one, I suppose, otherwise I would not have forgotten what she scribbled.  Anyway, what etched that stationery in my memory was the quotation that was printed on its bottom margin.  It read: 

     I don’t know Who – or what – put the question.
I don’t know when it was put.  I don’t even remember answering.
But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something –
and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and
that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
-- Dag Hammarskjold1

     I knew nothing about Dag Hammarskjold, but his words struck me as coming from someone who knew and understood quite well what I was going through at that particular point in my life.  Here was a man who seemed to be speaking directly to me about an issue I had been trying to grapple with as I neared my graduation from college:   “What do I really want to do with my life?  Do I truly want to become a priest?   Is that really my calling in life?  Will I be happy as a priest?  Or, will I be happier being something else?  Does my true calling perhaps lie elsewhere, outside the priesthood?”   I was nineteen years old, and the question of  what “path” to pursue after my graduation from college was of utmost importance to me.  And yet, here was this man suggesting to me that the real question was not “What path should I  pursue?” but “What for?”; that, in the end, it didn’t really matter what you were doing with your life but What – or Whom -- you were living it for.  He was, in effect, telling me:  Unless you find Something – or Someone – to live for, your existence will be meaningless.  Unless you “surrender” yourself to an Other much bigger than your Self (a cause, an ideal, or God, by whatever name you call Him) your life will be devoid of any true worth.

     Consequently, I wanted to know more about the man behind the words.  So, one of the first things I did when I set foot in theology school was to go to the library and see what I could find about Dag Hammarskjold. 

     I can still remember my increasing fascination as I went over the pages of Hammarskjold’s posthumously published diary, Markings.  My fascination turned to admiration as I placed his entries against the backdrop of his life history.  From W.H. Auden’s Foreword and from entries in encyclopedias, I learned that Hammarskjold was a man whose life was one of “uninterrupted success” – in the outward, worldly sense, at least.   The son of the Swedish Prime Minister during World War I, Hammarskjold was a brilliant student who finished law and a doctorate in economics at the universities of Uppsala and Stockholm.  He entered government service at the age of 25 and rapidly rose from one important post to another.  He eventually became chairman of the board of the Bank of Sweden at the age of 36, secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry at 43, deputy foreign minister at 46, and secretary-general of the United Nations at 48.   And yet – in spite of his enviable worldly success – he remained, as his spiritual journal showed, a man who was in close and constant touch with his soul.  He was a man of action.   But, unlike many so-called “men of action,” he was at the same time a “man of contemplation.”  Auden was right when he wrote that Markings should be read as an “attempt by a professional man of action to unite in one life the via activa and the via contemplativa.”2   Hammarskjold was a man who continued his spiritual search in spite of  -- nay, in the midst of -- his active engagement in the affairs of the world.   And, as C.P. Snow observed, “the really remarkable thing is that Hammarskjold was engaged in this search at all – while he was managing, in the world’s eyes, great affairs…  Great world figures have sometimes communed with their souls when they have finished acting:  but [in Hammarskjold’s case] this was done right in the thick of the active life.”3

     Not everyone, of course, admires Dag Hammarskjold’s “negotiations” with his soul in Markings.   Some say that the journal’s entries reveal too much of the man’s inner struggles, thereby giving a rather unflattering picture of Hammarskjold as a man with an overly scrupulous conscience.  They argue that such a quality is, to say the least, not an admirable one when found in a public servant.   The political theorist, Niccolo Machiavelli, pleaded for the freeing of  political action from moral considerations, arguing that the political imperative is essentially unrelated to the moral imperative.4   A politician/public servant who communes too much with his soul (the Machiavellian view contends) will surely vacillate in the face of political decisions that are laden with  serious moral considerations – and many political decisions are, unfortunately, of that nature.   Although no one has accused Hammarskjold of vacillating in his major decisions as U.N. secretary-general, one reading his diary cannot help but imagine the intense moral and spiritual ordeal he must have gone through whenever he made those decisions. 

     When one reviews other people’s recollections of Hammarskjold, however, it appears that his moral and spiritual self-negotiations in no way made him a vacillating decision-maker.  On the contrary, they made him a very courageous and determined leader – strong enough, at least, to stand up to someone like Nikita Krushchev.  I.E. Levine’s account of how Hammarskjold responded to Krushchev’s “malicious personal abuse” (as Levine describes it) in the very hall of the U.N. General Assembly during the Congo crisis5 shows the incredible inner strength of the man – the kind of strength that can only come from a solidly grounded soul. 

     But, I have run ahead of my story.  

     After borrowing Markings from the seminary library too many times, I decided to buy my own copy.   It wasn’t easy to find a copy of the book in the local bookstores then (internet bookstores were still science fiction at that time).  When I finally got my own copy (with the help of my younger sister, Maris), it became the most important book on my shelf – next only to the Holy Bible.  I took it with me wherever I went and read its pages whenever I found myself in situations where I had to “negotiate” with my own soul.  My inner journey as a young man had been guided, in no small measure, by such unforgettable passages as:

     The only value of a life is its content – for others.   Apart from
     any value it may have for others, my life is worse than death.6


     You have not done enough, you have never done enough,
     so long as it is still possible that you have something 
     of value to contribute.7


     Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding
     something to live for, great enough to die for.8


     The longest journey
     Is the journey inwards.9

     In the summer of 2002, I had the chance to visit New York City on a weekend break from Boston University where I was attending a summer seminar on a fellowship from the University’s Institute on Religion and World Affairs.  It was my first time to be in New York City,  but I could not stay too long there.  I had to go back to Boston Sunday night for the resumption of my summer seminar the following day.  So I had to “prioritize” the places I would visit.  Naturally, next to Ground Zero, the U.N. Headquarters was one of my top priorities.  I wanted to see, among others, the Meditation Room that Hammarskjold built during his term at the U.N.   Unfortunately, the Meditation Room was closed when we got there,  and so were most of the other important sites of the U.N. Headquarters.   But the hallway where one could find the portraits of former Secretaries-General of the U.N. was open.   I spent several minutes examining Hammarskjold’s portrait and wondering how it must have been like to meet him in person.

     The original Swedish title of Hammarskjold’s journal is Vagmarken.  According to W.H. Auden, a more or less literal English translation of that word would be “trail marks” or “guideposts.”  Auden settled for its present title (Markings) since, according to him, the literal translation “immediately conjures up in a British or American reader an image of a Boy Scout, or of that dreadful American college phenomenon, Spiritual Emphasis Week, at which talks are given entitled Spiritual Guideposts.”10

     I believe Hammarskjold would not have minded that mental association.  After all, his diary entries can indeed serve as helpful “trail marks” and “guideposts” for young people trying to navigate terrains and territories they have never before seen.   That’s what they were to the young man I once was.   And I know I was neither the first nor the last young man to benefit from Hammarskjold’s thoughts in that manner.


1Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, Leif Sjoberg & W.H. Auden, trans. (New York:  Ballantine Books, 1983), 180. 
2W.H. Auden, foreword to Hammarskjold’s Markings, xx.
3C.P. Snow, Variety of Men (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967), 220, words in brackets mine.
      4See Daniel Donno’s introduction to The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, Bantam Classic edition (New York:  Bantam Books, 1981), 6.
      5I.E. Levine, Dag Hammarskjold:  Champion of World Peace (London and Glasgow:  Blackie, 1964), 158-177.
      6Hammarskjold, 144.
      7Hammarskjold, 137.
      8Hammarskjold, 72.
      9Hammarskjold, 48.
      10Auden,  xxiii.