Paul Gauguin is the famous French artist of the late 19th century. A sailor, then a stockbroker, in 1885 Gauguin left his wife and five children to take up life as an artist. He spent much time overseas, before spending his final years in poverty, disease and despair in Tahiti. So deep was his despair that in 1897 Gaugin attempted suicide. He failed and lived for another five years. It was during this time in Tahiti that Gauguin painted his masterpiece, a three paneled work entitled “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The first panel shows three women and a child, representing the beginning of life – “Where do we come from?”. The middle panel shows the daily existence of young adults – “What are we?”. The third panel shows an old woman approaching death – “Where are we going?”
The three questions are written in small print in the bottom corner of the painting. They are the questions Gauguin wished to answer, the universal human questions of us all: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
Source: Information on Gauguin and the painting from encyclopedia.com and mfa.org (website of Boston Museum of Fine Art where the painting hangs).
A man tells the story about a special friend he made while just a boy. When quite young, Paul’s father had one of the first telephones in their neighbourhood. Paul was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when his mother talked to it.
Then Paul discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person – her name was “Information, Please” and there was nothing she did not know.
“Information, Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time. Paul’s first personal experience with this genie-in the-bottle came one day while his mother was visiting a neighbour. Amusing himself at the tool bench in the basement, Paul hacked his finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. He walked around the house sucking his throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway.
Quickly, Paul ran for the foot stool in the parlour and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, he unhooked the receiver in the parlour and held it to his ear. “Information, Please,” he said into the mouthpiece just above his head.
A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into Paul’s ear.
“I hurt my finger,” Paul wailed into the phone.
“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody’s home but me” Paul blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?” the voice asked.
“No,” he replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. He said he could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.
After that, Paul called “Information, Please” for everything. He asked her for help with his geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped him with his maths. She told Paul that his pet chipmunk, which he had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts. Then, there was the time Petey, the pet canary died. Paul called and told her the sad story.
She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child, but Paul was inconsolable. He asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?”
She must have sensed his deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow he felt better. .
When Paul was nine years old, his family moved across the country to Boston. Paul missed his friend very much. “Information, Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home, and he somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall.
As he grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left him. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity Paul would recall the serene sense of security he had then. He appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on his way west to college, Paul’s plane put down in Seattle. He had about half an hour or so between planes. He spent 15 minutes on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what he was doing, Paul dialled his hometown operator and said, “Information, Please.”
Miraculously, he heard the small, clear voice he knew so well, “Information.”
He hadn’t planned this but he heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell fix?”
There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.” Paul laughed. “So it’s really still you,” he said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.”
“I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls.” Paul told her how often he had thought of her over the years and asked if he could call her again when he came back to visit his sister.
“Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.”
Three months later Paul was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, “Information.” He asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” She asked.
“Yes, a very old friend,” Paul answered.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally has been working part-time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”
Before he could hang up she said, “Wait a minute. Is this Paul?”
“Yes,” Paul replied.
“Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.” The note said, “Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.”
Application: Listening – Information Please gave Paul one of the most precious yet simple gifts a person can give, the gift of listening.
Application: Hope, Death, Heaven. “There are other world’s to sing in”. Beyond death lies the hope of a new life.
Application: Community, Friendship. This story reminds us that we need each other. Information Please and Paul both had their lives enriched in powerful yet simple ways by the gift of their friendship with one another.
Application: Children. We adults often make the mistake of dismissing the concerns of small children. Yet coping with the death of a budgie or telling someone that you’ve hurt your finger are the things that are important to a small child. Sally reminds us of the importance of being attentive to the needs of children, not expecting them to function as mini adults but nurturing their journey as children.
Eminence, a novel by Australian author Morris West, tells the story of Luca Rossini, a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Luca who now serves in the Vatican, live sin the shadow of a terrible experience he suffered as a young priest in Argentina. It was the 1970’s, a time when the military junta that ruled Argentina, acted with terrible brutality. Luca was brutalised in front of the villagers. Lucky to escape with his life he was spirited out of Argentina. Yet the scars across his back are an outward symbol of the scars he bears within. By the time we find him in West’s novel Luca is 50 years old, a confidant of a rigidly conservative Pope. In one scene the Pope reflects that he, the Pope, will have much to answer for when he comes to judgement before God. Luca responds, “We pray every day that our trespasses will be forgiven, Holiness. We have to believe that our end will be a homecoming, not a session with torturers!”
“Do you really believe that, Luca?” asks the Pope.
“If I did not, Holiness,” replies Luca, “I think I could not endure the chaos of this bloody world or the presence of whatever monster called it into being.”
Source: Morris West, Eminence (Harper Collins, 1998) p106-107
George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty Four was written in the aftermath of WW2, a time when Hitler had been defeated and the Soviet Union was on the rise. Orwell imagines what the world would be like under the control of authoritarian regimes. In this world “Big Brother” controls everything – where people live, what they do, where they work, what they say, even how they think. “thought crime”, to think thoughts that are against the ideology of the Party, is a heinous wrong.
The central character in Orwell’s book is a man named Winston. He works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting history so that it fits with Big Brother’s view of the world. But he despises what he does and the regime that makes him do it. Winston begins rebelling against the “Big Brother”, small but deliberate acts of defiance. He finds an alcove in his house where the cameras of Big Brother cannot observe him, he begins an illicit affair with a woman named Julia, and in his own thoughts he questions the way the world is. As each small act of rebellion occurs the likelihood Winston will be caught increases.
the tension rises until the fateful moment when Winston’s resistance is exposed. He is sent to prison to be “rehabilitated”. This means breaking him emotionally and physically and then turning him once more into a party drone. His interrogator is a man named O’Brien. He wants to convince Winston that resistance is futile, that the arty will never be defeated, that the present will stretch unending into the future. At one point O’Brien chillingly says to Winston: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It’s a depressing image. The future no more than a repeat of the past.
To this the gospel screams a loud “NO!” . It declares that death, disease and distress will will not be the last word, that the risen Christ will return to restore the universe too goodness and justice. This is the Christian hope.