The huffing “h” sound in the Spanish word ‘hola‘ is silent, as a general rule. Except when it follows and combines with the letter c, creating the fourth letter of the Spanish alphabet: ch. Ch makes the sound of chocolate, nachos, and chocolate nachos. RoCHa. Cha. Not ca. The h isn’t silent in my last name.
Back to ‘hola‘: the silent h makes it sound exactly like the word ‘ola‘ — wave.
In English, a “wave” can be a sign, a gesture. A greeting or goodbye. An hola. The physical gesture can be exaggerated and made more fun in soccer stadiums. The wave. This wave mimics the movements of the sea, the small and sometimes enormous microcosms of the tides. Ebbing and flowing. Swelling and crashing. A soft, harmless caress against rigid jetties; a tsunami; shark attack!
Sigmund Freud once wrote (in Madness and Civilization) about a friend who wrote him a letter, describing the distinctly religious experience of being surrounded by the ocean in every direction, feeling consumed by it, like Abraham gazing at the stars, his descendants forever. Like the agony in the garden, I suppose. Freud called this the “oceanic feeling” and placed his almost empty sense of what religion might be in that experience he’d never had — so he claims.
My favorite poet is Pablo Neruda. His poetry embodies what Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life.” In the Anglophone (read: Protestant) world we live in, there is a disenchanting tendency to see tragedy in a very one-sided way. But the Bard of Avon himself reminds us, again and again, what tragedy truly is: a form of drama that is real, serious, and graphic, a place where suffering and love play together at the games of life and death — and beyond.
On most days my favorite poem by Neruda is “Para Que Tu Me Oigas” (“So That You Will Hear Me“). The poet asks his beloved for tragic companionship, not a romantic thrill or freedom or escape. “Love me, companion. Don’t forsake me. Follow me. // Follow me, companion on this wave of anguish.” This plea is as much an invitation to live and love as it is a realization that in that life and love there will be death and suffering. Tragedy. Neruda sings the blues, the Gospel of hope and dark, felix culpa of redemption.
Waves of anguish. Tragic waves that greet us everywhere we turn, if we’re open to feel them. Not too closed or rigid.
First, please, don’t mispronounce my name. I never remember to tell people in advance and they end up doing it at no fault of their own. Then it’s awkward. Now it’s your fault entirely.
But, more importantly, follow me, read me, become my companion.
This companionship — which is, I believe, at the heart of this whole business of blogging and shameless online socializing and self-promotion — reveals and conceals a dark, tragic reality, a reality so real it surrounds us on all sides, whether we admit to feeling its presence or not: these are lonely times. Times of boredom and tedium. Times projected all around: in Dilbert and Officespace and The Office and smalltalk about the blessed weekend.
This is what brings us together here, right now: our brokenness, our tragic personal existence in this present malaise of late modernity.
We need God. More than that, we need to need God nowadays, when the Divine has become a private option, an add-on. “Would you like fries with that?” We need to need God for more than petty freedom or easy, pious happiness. Surely not to escape or run away from what is already too real to deny. We need God in order to be: to dwell in and on this wave of anguish, together.
This tragic “togetherness” — this broken solidarity, this universal vocation of love and call to holiness that always sings the blues, in a minor chord — this creates the melancholic thing that being Catholic is all about to and for me. From these wretched waves of anguish we find our place as one body, a broken and fragmented body, yes, but a single body nonetheless: the tattered tapestry of Christ.
It is strange to say hello when I lack a body to show you my greeting— to wave an arm and hand at you, look you in the eyes, and greet you the way I greet my wife and two sons and perfect strangers. There are no embraces here. Only words and pixels and advertisements. When we cannot show, we must say in the only way that words can show: through poetry and self-disclosure. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Hola. Good to meet you. I hope we can be friends. Tragic, catholic friends.