“The Kingdom Has Come and Is Among Us”
A review of
The Gospel in Solentiname.
By Ernesto Cardenal.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
The Gospel in Solentiname.
By Ernesto Cardenal.
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I am yes. I am Yes to a you, to a you for me,
to a you for me.
People are dialogue, I say,
if not their words would touch nothing
like waves in the cosmos picked up by no radio
like messages to uninhabited planets,
or a bellowing in the lunar void
or a telephone call to an empty house.
(A person alone does not exist.)
— Ernesto Cardenal,
from “Cosmic Canticle”
Nicaraguan poet, priest, and Sandinista revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal lived for ten years on the archipelago of Solentiname, in Lake Nicaragua; the Sunday gatherings of the campesinos had at its heart a conversation based on the day’s Gospel reading. Cardenal recorded, transcribed, and edited these conversations into The Gospel in Solentiname, just republished all together in a new edition from Orbis Books.
The ongoing conversation, situated in a particular people and place, reflects the sensibilities contained in Cardenal’s poetry; his poetry, likewise, can be instructive as to the context in which the Gospel is shared. The Word of God, as expressed by Cardenal and by those at Solentiname, is at its heart communal, that is to say, without a word, without a sharing of life together, there can be no love, there can be no Kingdom of God. The radicality of the Gospel is that it comes to earth, to the oppressed, in Christ, and then in a people, and that it is predicated on love – as an economy, a politics, a comprehensive ordering of all life. And furthermore, it is particularizing, dwelling in a people and in a place.
None of this is lost on the Solentiname campesinos, who are the poor and oppressed of Nicaragua, with the backdrop of the United States-backed contra warfare, arms sales, and capitalist dictator Somozo. The Gospel of liberation takes shape in this context, with the members of the community embracing a faith that governs all of life:
My brother FERNANDO (a Jesuit priest): “…for a long time we have been misreading the Gospel, interpreting in a purely spiritual sense, eliminating all its political and social circumstances, which are certainly very dramatic; that is, we have abstracted the Gospel from its reality.” (37)
Reading through The Gospel in Solentiname is to see a community discerning the shape of its life together, informed by the wisdom of the Gospels, but uniquely suited to their context; it is exactly this work of together seeking the kingdom which gives The Gospel in Solentiname its revolutionary strength, because the Kingdom of God by its very nature is an upside-down kingdom, that of the humble, the poor, the peacemakers, and the persecuted:
FELIPE: “That’s exactly what the revolution is: to flip the tortilla.’
I: “And that is the subversion of the kingdom of heaven.” (352)
This work, then, happens within a placed people; the Kingdom of God is contextual. In Solentiname, several large themes shape how the Gospel is interpreted: there is the oppression of the rich and powerful capitalists in power always at play, but there is also the lake and islands where they live, as well as the farming, fishing, or carpentry that many campesinos do for work; all of which, of course, Jesus has some things to say about, and so his teachings and parables are all interpreted through the daily lives of the community. For instance, when Christ says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, the conversation takes a local, and then a cosmic turn:
MARCELINO, with his calm voice, said: “I don’t know about the mustard seed, but I do know about the guasima seed, which is tiny. I’m looking at that guasima tree over there. It’s very large, and the birds come to it too. I say to myself: that’s what we are, this little community, a guasima seed. It doesn’t seem like there’s any connection between some poor campesinos and a just and well-developed society, where there is abundance and everything is shared…
I said: “The great tree with all its branches and its leaves is already present in the seed, even though in a hidden form. In the same way the kingdom of heaven, which is a cosmic kingdom, is already present in us, but in a hidden way. A tree is the product of the evolution of a seed, and in nature everything is produced by a process of evolution. And it seems to me that with this parable of the seed Christ is also telling us here that the kingdom of heaven is the product of the same process of evolution that formed stars, plants, animals, people. And it grow in us impelled by the same forces of nature that impelled the evolution of the whole cosmos, which is to say that the kingdom of heaven is evolution itself.” (169)
These recorded conversations from Solentiname speak the radical words of the Gospel to us once again. The campesinos remind us that the kingdom has come and is among us; in fact, the Kingdom of God, of love, is when two or three gather together. We, the gathered community, are the physical body of Christ. In that shared life, there is a new ethic, that of love, and it is our ongoing work to discern how that plays out in our places; while everything spoken and recorded in The Gospel in Solentiname may not fit a particular conception of the Gospel, especially here in the rich West, this too is a part of the process of discernment. As Cardenal writes elsewhere:
Evolution and transcendence:
There’s no difference.
The cosmos an as-yet unfinished process
and life is an interval in that process.
An earth that longs to be joined to heaven
and a God who is not merely ontological functions.
From the Big Bang to the Kingdom of Heaven.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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