A couple of days ago, while going through the latest Doubleday releases, I discovered a curious novel called The Delight of Being Ordinary: A Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama by Roland Merullo, a Massachusetts-based author of twenty books of fiction and non-fiction. As a cradle Catholic with an interest in several aspects of Buddhism, I thought I might enjoy this one.
Tenzin from Tibet (the Dalai Lama) is in the Vatican, meeting Giorgio from Argentina (the Pope) – and the two holy luminaries decide to take a vacation through the Italian countryside in disguise. They are accompanied by Paolo dePadova, the Pope’s cousin and personal assistant, and Rosa, Paolo’s estranged agnostic wife, a successful beautician-businesswoman. During the adventure, the reader finds philosophical reflections (on justice/injustice, good/evil), references to current world events (from Chechnya to North Korea), meditations on history, and an informative and entertaining look at the Italian situation (its culture and cinema, its politicians and prostitution). Throughout the narrative, doctrines and dogmas are enquired (birth control) and explained (reincarnation). Commonalities and differences are confidently asserted.
I loved the imaginativeness of the prose and the sharpness of the arguments – Paolo saying “We were the Palestine and Israel of the married world”, Rosa asking the Pope a perennial and legitimate question: “But I want to hear something else. I want to hear the explanation you give to yourself, in your heart of hearts. For torture. For evil, For terrorism. And, forgive me, but if you say ‘original sin’ I’ll never speak to you again!”
Through the mess and the confusion of human life, what shines, ultimately, is the value of kindness and compassion. And certainly, hope in a broken world.
Roland Merullo has artfully incorporated material from several interviews, articles and biographies to create this humorous and well-meaning story. “Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama,” the author writes, “seem to me like wise teachers, extraordinary men in difficult position of guiding billions of followers, of steering vessels with a heavy cargo of good and bad history, in the same general direction, across the rough seas of modern life.” While the book honors them, it also makes an effort to show them as “people”, not figureheads.
I wish the The Delight of Being Ordinary were more suspenseful – not in the way of Dan Brown-type conspiracies – just a little more fast-paced and thrilling in terms of physical drama. Still, it remains weighty, worth reading for its discussions. I would recommend it to those who are annoyed with the shallow New Age-y stuff that is often marketed under “Religion and Spirituality” and are in search of something denser and deeper in that category.
Two valuable passages:
…there was nothing we should take for granted, nothing at all, not our breath, not our life, not the next minute of existence, not our ideas about right and wrong, not even the solidity of the ground beneath our feet. A larger intelligence ruled all that, and we’d been given this time on earth, these millions of breathe, to ponder it…We didn’t want to worry about breathing, or the earth splitting apart, or a million whirling universes composed of unlocatable electrons. We wanted to think we understood, that we had some control, when in actual fact we made our way through time on the thinnest film of ice over a lake that was unfathomably deep and utterly mysterious, knowing all the while that one day we’d fall through and drown. We’d seen loved ones disappear like that, one after the next, again and again and again. Still, a sly part of us mouthed a proud “Not me!”
There is an ideal balance between our small will and God’s larger will, and it’s our task to discover and refine that balance. It is a balance as delicate as the balance of power in a marriage. There are times when we must act to change a situation, yes, of course. But there are also times when we must yield, accept the unexpected, the unwanted, even the apparently unbearable. The world is bursting with neurosis…and the source of this neurosis is a lack of appropriate acceptance, an urge to control everything, to resist God’s divine guidance in whatever surprising or difficult form it takes.
A video of Roland Merullo:
Featured: Italian countryside (edited and cropped) by User “CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons