Ernesto Cardenal: Revolutionary, rebel, poet
On September 30, the government of France bestowed the officer grade of its highest decoration, the Legion of Honor, on Ernesto Cardenal, the pride of Nicaragua. These were the words spoken by France’s Ambassador Antoine Joly in the ceremony in Managua.
Beloved Father Ernesto Cardenal: I would like to express the reasons France, my country, wants to show its esteem and admiration for you. And I personally want to add the lessons I feel your life offers the future generations.
From a certain age, it’s enough to show one’s face. The emotions lived are imprinted on one’s skin, which becomes a parchment on which life writes, crosses out, erases and adds whatever interests it. Your face is an open book about your life, your commitments. And also about your goodness, which can be seen in the photo of you given us by our friend Daniel Mordzinski.
I believe that not a single book but a whole library is written on your face. On it there’s a book of History with a capital letter and also books of smaller histories, stories of men and women, real stories, educational books for life, books for children and, naturally, books of poetry. There is also a book about the revolution.
Your face is the mirror that reflects the absurdity of the world and what can save it: goodness, forgiveness and generosity. “She hungered for love and we offered tranquilizers…” as your poem “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” puts it. Your face, Father Cardenal, doesn’t offer tranquilizers; it offers love, goodness and the will to change the world.
Today we are afraid of words like fidelity, honor, ideal, courage. But the nobility of human destiny is forged with them and also with disquiet, with questions, with the painful choices we must make and that turn us into neither victors nor defeated. It is also forged with rebellion against injustices. Ernesto Cardenal: indignant before the appearance of “the indignant ones.”
Men don’t change; they become more complex, said a Frenchman who experienced the Buchenwald extermination camp. His name was Hélie de Saint Marc. I would like to borrow some lines from his literary testament: “The moment always comes in which we realize that the liars and cheats are, by far, the majority. Because the obsession with playacting is such that in the end it kills the intimate being. I distrust beings full of certainties. They seem to me so unconscious of the complexity of things… I advance in the midst of uncertainties. I passed through so many tests in my life that they don’t let me continue believing in ‘mirrors for skylarks.’ The thirst to pose is a terrible passion that destroys the humanity in the human being. It is insatiable. It dries up the interior springs. I prefer those who are trying to elevate themselves, which is radically different. Their inner paths pass through a patient and simple life.”
Your face, Father Ernesto Cardenal, expresses better than anything that this is the path you have taken. And that path is echoed in verses of that same poem: Lord/ in this world tainted by sin and radiation,/ You cannot blame only the shopgirl/ who, as all shopgirls, dreamt of being a star./ And her dream was real (but as Technicolor is real)./ She only acted the script we gave her,/ that of our own lives, an absurd script.”
What does your face of peace and suffering say to today’s youth? Perhaps it modestly gives them some counsels for life: be consistent with your acts and convictions, be able to look yourselves unashamedly in the mirror, do not set traps—unquestionably the hardest, practice trying to reconcile value and generosity, maintain yourselves as free human beings, and hold on to the capacity to become indignant.
Jean Guitton, a French philosopher of Catholic inspiration, said: “Between the absurd and the mysterious, I choose the mysterious.” Another writer also of Christian inspiration, Georges Bernanos, said we had to combine “one hour of profound faith with 23 hours of doubts.” How could all the absurdity of the world not spark doubts? I find them in one of your Psalms: “And you are a clandestine God/ Why do you hide your face/ forgetful of our persecution and our oppression?/ Awake/ and help us!/ For your own prestige!”
Alongside the doubts exists that beauty, that mystery, and at times all that generosity, which are like the imperfect reflection of what awaits us afterward. Your face, Father Ernesto Cardenal, is the reflection of what awaits us afterward, because it is the reflection of a disinterested life, a lesson for all the “greats” of the world.
A lesson for the French Republic, which takes pride in having you among our Officers of the Legion of Honor. France receives your lesson because it is a universal lesson. France, and above all the French, love revolutionaries, love rebels, love poets. It is the revolutionary, the rebel, the poet who is honored today by the President of the French Republic, his ambassador and, more than anything, the people of France.