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Hope is, in itself, an act of defiance and rebellion

Weston Benedictine Monks
Journey to Nicaragua
Winter Retreat, 2001

A morning with Ernesto

(ONE OF A SERIES )

Before leaving Managua for our home in Vermont, we spend a last morning with Ernesto Cardenal.

We have fond memories of our visit with him in 1988 when we were first in Nicaragua, and we have been looking foward to seeing him again.

At that time, Ernesto was the Minister of Culture, and one of the few Catholic priests who held government offices after the Revolution. He was vigorously promoting the national literacy program and a variety of cultural opportunities in music and the arts for young people.
This time we meet with Ernesto in his art studio in Managua, where there are lovely examples of his sculptures and paintings on display.

At first glance, he seems much as he did when we first met him 12 years ago: Flowing white hair and beard, black beret, white shirt, gentle smile, and youthful spirit. But there is an air of sadness about him.

Ernesto Cardenal
Ernesto Cardenal

The morning visit passes quickly with many questions. What really brought about the collapse of the Sandinista Revolution? What happened to the persons whose hopes and lives were invested in that cause? What is it like to live in Nicaragua now? What of the future?

We hear once again of the brutal divisiveness of the Contra War.

We hear of the people traumatized by the killings, worn out by poverty and strife.

But at the end, the saddest story of all: the sense of betrayal by the very colleagues who had served in leadership positions in the Revolution.

When it was clear that the administration had to yield to popular elections, some of the top leadership of the Sandinista Party did the very things that they had accused their predecessors of doing, amassing wealth and property for their own personal and private aggrandizement.

The disillusionment continues to the present day. As we meet, they are preparing for new elections. Ernesto speaks of el pacto, the deal that Daniel Ortega, former president and head of the Sandinista Party, has made with the present president, Arnoldo Aleman.

With a vastly unpopular Constitutional amendment and the consent of Congress, both Ortega and Aleman have been granted lifetime membership in the Senate. They thus obtained immunity from prosecution, which they both needed because of lawsuits brought against them.

At the same time they have assured the position of their political parties by requiring an impossible number of signatures for the recognition of new parties in the political system. And they both affirm that salvation lies with "free trade." [learn more]

Ernesto Cardenal and Brother Richard
Ernesto Cardenal and Brother Richard

Ernesto has deeply loved the monastic movement since his youth, when besides trying to resist the repressive police state of the U.S.-imposed Somoza dictatorship, he dreamed of becoming a monk.

He spent some time in Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where he became a friend of Thomas Merton, but the North American winter proved a health hazard for this son of the tropics.

He then went to the Benedictine Monastery of Santa Maria de la Resurreccion in Cuernavaca, Mexico, but that monastery was closed and the community disbanded.

Back in Nicaragua, he started a lay community in the Solentiname Archipelago, where gospel values were to inform the life of these peasants and fishing folk.

Under Ernesto's guidance, spirituality and the arts flourished in the community, but war and the Revolution brought this new attempt at gospel-based community life to an end.

Today the Revolution itself is gone, some of the former Sandinista leaders are mired in scandals, and he himself has resigned from the Sandinista Party.

The country is in far worse shape than it was in the '80s. Although the war, the American blockade and the embargo are over and the Somozas are gone, the present government is the most corrupt in the history of Nicaragua.

Ernesto explains this situation in grim detail, yet he remains hopeful.

Hope? Amidst the pandemic misery, unemployment, lack of education and health care for the vast majority? Amidst the drugs, violence and suicide among the young? Such hope is, in itself, an act of defiance and rebellion.

Ernesto is now engaged in writing the second volume of his autobiography, Una Vida Perdida -- A Lost Life. It doesn't sound like a very cheerful or hopeful title, and yet it is based on his real life experience in the light of the gospel saying, "Those who lose their life will find it!"

It is the story of life becoming the gift of self for others, the life journey so vividly traced out by Jesus of Nazareth. It is a story of radical joy.

In La Mañanita, he has written of the vision of faith rising from the ashes of the Nicaraguan experience:

    All this was here before
         But a dark night covered it,
    And it could not be seen. The night of temptations.
         Each one with his own temptation.
    The temptation of a false dawn that still could not be.
    Lying in bed in the middle of the night, dreaming it's already dawn.
    Now yes, dawn is here, Pancho Nicaragua,
         Everything is clear
    Around this shanty.
         Land and water. You can see it.
    And in that hut I hear someone sing:
         "How joyous and fresh
         is the morning."
It's the midnight dream of Ernesto Cardenal, of the poor, of the little ones of Nicaragua, dreaming when Easter resurrection will finally dawn in Nicaraguita , Little Nicaragua!

A popular Nicaraguan song goes like this: "Ay Nicaragua, Nicaraguita, la flor mas Linda de mi querer!" --Oh Nicaragua, little Nicaragua, the most beautiful flower of my longing!

We will return to Vermont knowing that the loving mystery of God has been disclosed to us in this beautiful flower, Nicaragua -- in its fragile grace and color, in its aching misery and poverty.

In the words of the Little Prince, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

Next: Looking back from Vermont

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