Friday 15 August 2014

Viva La Vida

By John O'Brien, S.J.

On the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe (Aug 14), patron of journalists among other things, I noted that my birthday — or “anniversaire” as they say here in Quebec — had arrived.

It’s the anniversary of being “dato alla luce” (literally: given to the light), as the Italian phrase goes. But enough linguistic poaching. I’m presently enjoying days of villa with my Jesuit brothers on a lake in the Laurentian Mountains west of Montreal. “Villa” is Jesuitese for our annual week of relaxation, usually accompanied by hikes, films, novels, and this year at least, paint-ball. Yes, a large group of late-20 and 30-something professed religious let their primal survival instincts loose in an epic game of urban warfare. But I digress. As my birthday often falls during our summer villa-week, I get plenty of fraternal feting and roasting (the two go hand-in-hand in notre petite compagnie). But it also is a pleasant reminder each year to take stock, as a good existential philosopher might do, of the horizons of my being.

All right, downgrade that. I’m less an existentialist than I’d thought, and probably less a philosopher. But as I begin the seventh year of Jesuit life, and the 38th year of human life, I realize more and more how much all is truly, at its most essential nature, a gift. Before a certain year in the late 1970s, I was not. Now I have probably lived half my life. In a few short decades hence, I will, again, not be, at least not in the corporeal form I presently enjoy. And during this time there is so much that has been granted freely, starting with the breath I breathe, the world I inhabit, the family and friends I love, and even the basic elements like colour, and smell and sound. “Tout est grace!”, as the little Therese said. I cannot but be overwhelmed by the fact that this life, now more and more swift in its passing, is less something of my making, and more a collaboration with the ministrations of grace. It’s also remarkable how the more I surrender, in all the facets that compose “self”, to the transforming action of God, the more I seem to receive. That’s the ultimate paradox of this existence.

So my prayer this day must be a blend of thanksgivings: for the human life I’ve been given and the Jesuit vocation that’s now given it form. For this, I can think of no greater words than a song penned by a 22-year-old named Robert Robinson in 1757, with lyrics recently adapted to give them an Ignatian twist. May it be likewise the prayer of all those I know and love, and of those who might read this post today.

Come thou fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing thy grace
Streams of mercy never ceasing
Calls for songs of loudest praise.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Bought me with His precious blood.

O, to grace, how great a debtor,
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for thy courts above.

Take my freedom and my mem’ry,
Understanding, my whole will,
All I have in my possession
Are the gifts you have instilled.
Lord, to you, I make this off’ring
For your glory and your praise;
Do with me as you find pleasing,
Give me but your love and grace.  
(Come Thou Font, by Robert Robinson, alt: Gregory Celio, SJ and Rob Van Alstyne, SJ)


  1. Great post John. It always seems odd to me that we celebrate birthdays almost exclusively with the song "Happy Birthday"; there are so many other words that could capture our sentiments more precisely. Thanks for sharing these lyrics with us. I hope that the year ahead becomes an answer to the prayer articulated here.

    1. Katrina: I always like hearing the "birthday songs" from other cultures, which seem less happy-clappy, and have greater depth and feeling: for example, "Gen du pays" in Quebec and "Las Mañanitas" in Mexico. Check out the richness of Mañanitas:

      Las Mañanitas Lyrics:

      Estas son las mañanitas, que cantaba el Rey David,
      Hoy por ser día de tu santo, te las cantamos a ti,
      Despierta, mi bien*, despierta, mira que ya amaneció,
      Ya los pajarillos cantan, la luna ya se metió.

      Que linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte,
      Venimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte,
      Ya viene amaneciendo, ya la luz del día nos dio,
      Levántate de mañana, mira que ya amaneció.


      This is the morning song that King David sang
      Because today is your saint's day we're singing it for you
      Wake up, my dear*, wake up, look it is already dawn
      The birds are already singing and the moon has set

      How lovely is the morning in which I come to greet you
      We all came with joy and pleasure to congratulate you
      The morning is coming now, the sun is giving us its light
      Get up in the morning, look it is already dawn

      * Often replaced with the name of the person who is being celebrated

      Additional verses:

      El día en que tu naciste nacieron todas las flores
      En la pila del bautismo, cantaron los ruiseñores

      The day you were born all the flowers were born
      On the baptismal font the nightingales sang

      Quisiera ser solecito para entrar por tu ventana
      y darte los buenos días acostadita en tu cama

      I would like to be the sunshine to enter through your window
      to wish you good morning while you're lying in your bed

      Quisiera ser un San Juan, quisiera ser un San Pedro
      Para venirte a cantar con la música del cielo

      I would like to be a Saint John I would like to be a Saint Peter
      To sing to you with the music of heaven

      De las estrellas del cielo tengo que bajarte dos
      una para saludarte y otra para decirte adiós

      Of the stars in the sky I have to lower two for you
      One with which to greet you and the other to wish you goodbye.