The classic bicycle was leaning against the post in front of the workshop. Loureiro, the shoemaker who loved philosophy books and red wines, welcomed me with a sincere smile and a strong hug. I sat beside the old wooden counter where he sewed the leather of bags and shoes, while he lined up baffling ideas with friends who were always arriving looking for a good chat over coffee. He placed a steaming mug in front of me and we started chatting. I commented that I had been very lucky, as I had not expected to find the workshop open late in the afternoon on an Easter Sunday. Although his opening hours were famous for being unusual, I knew that he had the habit of starting work at dawn, with the stars still high, and closing the doors at noon. The artisan explained to me that he had woken up late because the night before he had gone to the Holy Mass in the town’s small church, held at midnight, marking the beginning of Lent. Loureiro told me that it was a very beautiful ceremony, wrapped in very strong energies. It began with a big bonfire in the courtyard in front of the church, when people threw into the fire pieces of paper on which they had written situations in their lives that they wished to overcome. Then they entered with the church completely blacked out, lit only by the candles they were carrying. It was a very beautiful image. Then the lamps were lit and the Mass went on. I asked him if he had also given to the fire something from his life to be burnt. “Yes,” he replied. I confessed my surprise. Loureiro explained, “The visible and invisible worlds are in constant interaction. Everything that happens on one side has a reflection on the other. Help is indispensable. However, nothing will happen if I don’t do my part”.
I questioned whether it was essential to participate in a ceremony for existential modifications to occur. “I don’t believe it. There will be no help if, when I participate in a religious rite, in the following days I continue with my arms folded. The universe follows my movement. I am the conductor of my life; the execution of the symphony awaits my command and will depend on how I conduct it. The musicians of the orchestra will not play at my wish, but in response to the movements I make.”
“It would be absurd to imagine that enlightened spirits would feed from burnt papers. The ritual has the power to open a portal of connection and firm up a commitment. It also serves to remind me of the responsibility I took on myself at that moment for my evolution and to honour the help offered. Difficulties are inherent in life; they help me to become a better person. To solve a problem is to overcome an existential situation, to go beyond where I am. This consists of going through a whole cycle of learning and transmutation, from beginning to end.
“To do so it is necessary to learn from the problem and transmute the new teachings to the point that they become intrinsic to daily choices; to be enchanted by the effects arising from a different behaviour and to maintain the will to move forward. In this way we improve our own essence by expanding our consciousness. Any change other than this is only make-up, superficial because it hides inaccuracies instead of overcoming them. Nothing changes on the outside until it changes on the inside.
“Sometimes improvements arise in our lives in the physical sphere. A good job, unexpected money, a passionate romance, just to give a few examples. It is necessary to understand that these facts do not necessarily mean an existential evolution; sometimes they are operational conditions, either as an aid to overcome or to start a new journey. Daily situations do not always signal a finished work, sometimes they arrive as tools. Taking advantage of this requires attention and virtue”. He paused and concluded: “The tools are in the world; the work, within yourself.” He took a sip of coffee and finished his thought: “Oh finished work, be for the world what the world has helped you to become”.
I said that was the problem. Many people attribute their revolts and dissatisfactions to the fact that the world is not a good place to live and the main cause of their sufferings. They complain that people are bad and this has made them bitter. Loureiro shrugged his shoulders, as if he was stating the obvious, and fired off one of the ontological teachings of the Sermon on the Mount: “When your eye is healthy the whole universe is light”. He took a sip of coffee and added: “The world changes its colours when we improve our sight. While looked at by a selfish and domineering ego who looks at it with a desire to conquer, the world will appear hostile. When looking at the world with the will to be in communion with a master who has much to teach, it becomes generous. Never according to our wishes; always according to our need”.
He shook his head and said, “Out of philosophical equivocation, as well as a generous dose of self-indulgence, we insist on reacting as if our problem existed because of other people’s behaviour. Hell is other people, said Sartre, a French philosopher, with obvious good humour. In trying to change others, over whom we should exercise no power from the point of view of light, we increase our own suffering and waste our existence. Either I change myself or nothing will change”.
We were interrupted by the arrival of Bernardo, a nephew of Loureiro. The young man had been arguing with his mother and was very upset. The shoemaker welcomed him warmly, handed him a mug of coffee and let him talk. Just as silence has its undeniable importance, talking has great values. One of them is so that we can listen to ourselves. There are many ways to understand our difficulties. Deep meditation and prayer are good examples. Speaking is another, when we are willing to listen to ourselves. Words are messengers of the soul.
The mother’s quarrel with her son was founded on the fact that he did not want to go to Mass. She said that this took him away from God and, consequently, prevented him from being a good person. Bernardo declared himself a convinced atheist. He claimed that the idea of God did not hold up intellectually and, worse, without any scientific support. For him, in short, the belief in any divinity came from an atavistic conditioning based on ignorance, fear and used as a tool for domination of some people over others. When he finished, he waited for his uncle’s commentary. Loureiro surprised his nephew: “I understand your reasoning and have no arguments to dismantle it”. Then he explained his point of view: “I think you should not go to Mass if you don’t like it, don’t feel good about it or think it’s silly. This will not prevent you from being a good person.”
Astonished, Bernardo questioned why his uncle attended mass in the town church. The shoemaker arched his lips in a slight smile and said with a sly manner: “Because of the wine and the conversation. I am very good friends with the priest. He is an intelligent and pleasant man. I always go to Sunday masses. At the end, we go to a restaurant to drink a bottle of a good red wine and exchange enriching ideas. He paused and finished: “When we are lucky, we have the company of the Elder, who comes down from the monastery to socialize with us. I confess that this is my favourite part of the Mass”. We laughed.
Then he arched his eyebrows and said seriously: “I go to Mass because it does me a lot of good. The energies moved during a sacred ceremony help to move away deleterious vibrations that, by carelessness in my thoughts and feelings, may be aggregated within me. This is more common than one imagines and we do not always perceive them. Only the sensation of lightness in feeling and clarity in thinking that the rituals provide, allows me to understand the action and the interference of the abstract in the concrete.”
He took a sip of coffee and clarified, “Of course, I don’t necessarily need to go to Mass to benefit from good energies. The sea is a sanctuary, the mountains are cathedrals and everyone should have a sacred place at home for a connection with the sacredness of life. In truth, if I do not encounter God in my heart, I will not find him anywhere else. Only this encounter gives me the mystery of faith.” Bernardo interrupted to question the mystery of faith. He wanted to know whether his uncle thought that the mere fact of believing in a divinity made someone better or whether it was possible to obtain a grace. Loureiro answered the young man’s question: “Not at all. Faith is not a belief as many people think; nor is it an instrument of bargaining. In truth, it is the immeasurable power to feel and move cosmic energy through me. It builds the bridge that allows us to move between the visible and the invisible of life. Faith is a virtue conquered little by little. A mature spirit is necessary for the exercise of faith.”
Bernardo wanted to know how his uncle explained the existence of God. Loureiro went as far as he could: “There are some things in life that I know that exist because I feel them so truly that it would be absurd to deny them. However, I find it difficult to put them into words because I do not yet understand the full dimension of what involves and drives it. They are greater than my capacity for expression at this moment of existence. Just like love. I relate to God as I understand love.”
He looked into the young man’s eyes and confessed: “If you asked me to explain love through the prism of science, I wouldn’t be able to. No one could. But who in his right mind could deny it´s existence?”
“I know about the existence of love for all the good and for the power of transformation it provides me, for the light and protection I wrap myself in it. I would not be able to deny love even in an act of madness. To doubt love would be to lose the meaning of life and distance myself from the most precious thing I can be and offer. Even though I recognise all its value and power, because of the immeasurable influence it has on me, I would not know how to explain what love is. I can’t because I still don’t understand all its size, strength and dimension.” He looked at the young man and said sincerely: “Although it is my greatest wealth, I confess that I know very little about love. I know only a very small part of it: when it flows through my veins, life is enchanted; when I move away from it, my insides are poisoned. I am certain that only through love will I succeed in becoming a better person.
Loureiro asked a rhetorical question, without waiting for an answer: “Should I deny love because I can’t translate it into a mathematical equation? Just as for many people the existence of God is held up in fear, ignorance and hidden interests, could we affirm that love is an invention of poets, of dreamers or an illusion of an escape in a world of reluctant pain?”
Bernardo said that his uncle’s argument did not hold any water. The fact that he did not believe in God did not mean that he could not believe in love. The shoemaker clarified: “I did not say that. I only meant that although science is an undeniable ally of the truth, it is still light years away from it. Not by chance, in Ancient Greece, the cradle of Western philosophy, more than two millennia ago, some thinkers were already seeking understanding for spiritual evolution through ethics, aesthetics and mysticism.”
Aesthetics? The nephew was surprised. Loureiro explained: “In its original conception, aesthetics is the encounter with the beauty of life through truth and purity that exists inside each person. A very beautiful concept that was lost because the word was hijacked for less noble purposes or, if you prefer, aesthetics became more linked to the vocabulary of appearance than to the essence for which it was originally intended.
The nephew confessed himself delighted with that idea. However, he found the use of mysticism to understand life strange. His uncle was didactic: “Mysticism talks about the knowledge of truth beyond science. Truth is the cornerstone of the mechanism to reach the Plenitudes.” Bernardo interrupted to question how the shoemaker defined truth. Loureiro did not evade the question that spans the centuries: “Roughly speaking, truth is the knowledge one has about oneself and its reflection in the world around him. Truth deepens as the individual’s consciousness evolves. It is an intrinsic journey applied extrinsically.” He took another sip of coffee and continued, “Truth is at the core of being; and only there. Without the search for truth, we will be far from freedom, peace, dignity, love and happiness. A meeting linked to the existential and spiritual sphere, without any scientific aspect and no materialistic bias.”
“Truth is embedded in the universe since the beginning of time; science is not. Scientific knowledge advances with the passing of the centuries. A fact that causes the wise to perceive many things before scientists can decipher them. However, not being able to explain something does not validate its non-existence”.
Bernardo inquired whether science was the enemy of truth. His uncle denied this vehemently: “Of course not! On the contrary, science loves the truth to the point of seeking it without measuring efforts. They are just at different moments of their existence. Many of our perceptions, for the moment, only find answers in mysticism. We cannot limit the spiritual evolution to the advance of science. Spirituality serves as an incentive for science, never as an insurmountable barrier. In the last decades, psychoanalysis and quantum physics have helped a lot to unite some of the many loose ends in the mosaic of human knowledge”.
Loureiro got up to make some more coffee. He refilled our mugs. I remembered that the he had spoken of aesthetics and mysticism, but had not touched on ethics. I listened to the conversation without saying anything. However, I knew its importance for the understanding that the uncle had built in himself and wanted to demonstrate to his nephew. Loureiro was didactic: “Ethics is a personal code of conduct, partly innate, partly acquired throughout life. We are born with a natural instinct for right and wrong. However, it is not enough. We evolve to a refined sense in distinguishing good from evil. Ethics are the reasons that improve the individual through the exercise of virtues. Ethics is spirituality applied to daily life”.
“The individual can live in a morally corrupted social group and under a regime of laws demeaned by shady interests without getting involved in collective mistakes, because ethics will keep him away from harmful influences. In other cases, on the contrary, he can profit from these practices. But a discomfort, a feeling of incompleteness will accompany him. It is the voice of his soul abandoned in the emptiness of existence. When the individual still does not understand or denies the light, the influence of the shadows in his suffering will serve him as a generous, but severe, evolutionary master. Ethics is the educational primer in which the individual is guided as he adapts his behaviour to the expansion of his own consciousness.”
“In the initial phase, the light comes to us as an impetus or reasoning that is still immature. We strengthen the light when we make it a habit. Ethics is this perfect exercise for stimulating virtues. The light intensifies with the germinating virtues which, little by little, blossom. An improvement occurs in the being. Meanwhile, ethics will be responsible for keeping the individual on the rails of light through reasoning and wisdom, at times when he lacks love.”
“Ethics shapes my character. Character brings me closer to love. Love makes me sacred.”
The young man asked his uncle to explain further. Loureiro was generous: “Ethics allows me to do good even when I do not yet have the necessary love to enlighten a certain choice.” Facing his nephew’s questioning look, the shoemaker went on: “At every moment life puts us before complicated bifurcations. Because we do not know the road, we are assaulted by the doubts inherent to the best decisions. Do I say yes or no? Do I go this way or that way?
Bernardo recalled that one day his uncle had taught him to always choose for love so as not to choose wrongly.
Loureiro smiled satisfied. This was an unmistakable truth. But he made some philosophical remarks: “Sometimes we lack love at the moment of choice. Everyone knows love. However, very few know its full extent, power and dimension. Love is the most talked about, sung about and celebrated feeling. Despite the enormous intimacy we have with love, it is still an unknown celebrity. And he predicted: “I am in its infancy. All the love I feel today is not even a thousandth part of the love I will one day be.”
“As I am in evolving, the expansion of love is an essential part of this process. Often, I do not have in me the love in the dimension necessary to engage a specific situation, capable of pacifying my soul in the face of a difficult issue. When I cannot free myself from doubt, I suffer; this makes happiness and peace impossible for me. So, what do I do? The answer is simple: I act ethically.”
“Ethics has its root in dignity, which by definition is treating others as I would like them to treat me. However, pay attention, because dignity is connected to the educational process and not the satisfaction of mere desires. Ethics does not require you to love everyone as yourself; this is much further ahead; it is at a more advanced stage of love. In the dark moments of the crossing, when you do not find within yourself the love necessary to choose, seek the light through ethics. Be patient and understand the infinitude of the road. Rejoice with each step. One at a time.”
“When you feel in yourself the barren desert of the lack of affection, decide through ethics. This will help to quiet your heart. Then examine it carefully. Even the grossest of men has at least a single lost seed of that wonderful feeling, love, within himself. Finding this tiny seed will be enough to give rise to empathy, to understand, at least in small part and for the first time, the afflictions and difficulties of others. Use the virtues within your reach that are applicable to the case. Be dignified with the other so that love may spring up in you. Dignity creates the perfect conditions for love to grow. The seed germinates, grows, becomes a tree, flower and fruit. Then this feeling will nourish the world.”
“In this way, it is of little or no importance whether a person believes in God. The fundamental is love. In the absence of it, use ethics in your interpersonal relations. Ethics, in constant exercise, makes love mature. A little more each day. When I love I live with God in me; ethics allows me, in the absence of love, to approach myself. When close to me, I feel God’s presence. In love we are one heart; in ethics we hold hands.
“There is no point in attending ceremonies of any religion without applying the virtues in the choices inherent in daily life. There is no use in including God in the discourse and excluding Him from the attitudes. Closer to Him is the one who, not believing, does not speak of Him, but has Him behind a gesture. I am not what I say, I am what I do, the Stoics taught.
“It does not matter whether I believe in God. He is present wherever there is humbleness, simplicity, compassion, generosity, mercy, sincerity, delicacy, firmness, honesty, purity, justice, forgiveness and, above all, love. These are the divine manifestations. Whether you are an atheist or a religious person, God acts through the virtues contained in each of your choices.”
“Simple as that,” the shoemaker shrugged. He emptied his coffee mug and concluded, “Through love and the other virtues, anyone becomes holy. When that consciousness is still only in seed, use ethics.”
On the counter rested a paper calendar, one of those with an image illustrating each month of the year. Loureiro took a yellow pen and drew a sun shining behind the picture of the blue sea.
He arched his lips in a soft smile to finish: “Ethics is the gardener of virtues for the love that has not yet blossomed in the heart.”
The nephew looked at his watch. He said he had to leave, because an appointment awaited him. He said nothing more. However, it was not necessary. His eyes carried a different glow caused by the charm of that afternoon.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic