FR. MIGUEL AGUAYO, SJ, born in Mexico City, has a versatility and talents that make him a rather multifaceted Jesuit. He began writing in 1962 and won a national prize for his novel Trigo Verde (Green Wheat). In 1967 he published Los Signos del Silencio (Signs of Silence), a book of poems that won a fine arts award. He has written other books of poetry, including La Soledad Luminosa (Shining Solitude) and Volver a Venecia (To Return to Venice).

In 1971, when he was studying art history at the Sorbonne in Paris, he began painting. His work won first place in a competition and was exhibited in Europe and New York. His sculpture Cristo de Fuego (Christ of Fire) is in the chapel of the Jesuits' Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, where he has taught Latin American and Spanish poetry for the last 28 years. In an interview with Fr. José Francisco Navarro, SJ, Fr. Aguayo gives his thoughts on his artistic and his religious vocations.

¿Sabes tú qué es la rosa, qué es el aire
en el arpa esmeralda de los fresnos?
¿Y qué sabes del mar; qué de lo eterno
en su rítmico son; qué es el anhelo
y qué la trabazón de las angustias,
del llanto, de la muerte, del ensueño?


"The job of giving roses fell to me."
says poet, sculptor, painter, and teacher
Fr. Miguel Aguayo, SJ

Do you know what a rose is, what air is
in the emerald harp of the ash forest?
And what do you know of the sea; of the
eternal in its rhythmic chant; what of longing
and of the linkage of many anguishes,
of weeping, of death, of illusion?

A poem by Fr. Miguel Aguayo, SJ from Todavía,
Translated by Gretta Tovar-Siebentritt

Has it been a challenge for you to integrate your Jesuit and your artistic vocation?
Yes! Since my years in the novitiate I've had to struggle with the so-called artistic temperament. But I learned -- in the silence of the novitiate -- to transform anger, sadness, loneliness into a poem or a painting with a message of beauty.

Of course, there was pressure in integrating both vocations. But without that pressure my works would have been of lesser quality. I felt an obligation to look out for imperfections, and this allowed me to discover one of the cardinal rules of the writer: not every written word is useful nor has the same value. You have to maintain great discipline in order to judge what is good and what is best.

What's most important in art is order. Isn't it the artist who imposes order on chaos? You also have to know how to impose order on personal chaos so you can enter into the depths of the soul and walk those subterranean corridors without doing yourself harm.

Tell us about your fellow Jesuits and your superiors. Were they patient with you during this process?
Actually, if they'd been more patient, I wouldn't have written so many poems. Their impatience with me actually gave me the incentive to unburden myself poetically. Some of them were understanding people, but there were others who weren't so understanding and patient. I owe many good poems to that latter group.

What's the role of the humanities in the Society?
The humanities are, and they ought to be, of the first order of importance because they can tame the wild beast, refine the senses, polish the soul, teach it the rules of beauty. And that's consistent with the formation of a Christian, which implies a refining of natural gifts through grace.

Have you had a lot of contact with other Jesuits in the arts?
No, not too much, but what contact I've had has been intense. For example, I remember spending only one afternoon with Br. Mario Venzo, SJ, in his studio in Gallarate, in Italy. We looked over his canvases and we talked about painting, human beings, God, the Society, everything. He, in my mind, is the model of the Jesuit artist. He was aware of his talent, but he didn't put it first. He was a man of God and then an artist, not the other way around.

What does it mean to dedicate yourself to art and literature in a country such as Mexico that lacks so many basic necessities?
That's a cruel question, but the answer is absolutely innocent: I believe in the diversification of the Spirit's gifts. There is an Arab proverb that goes something like: "Bread for your body and a rose for your spirit." The job of giving roses fell to me. What can I do in a country going through convulsions and fever? I wasn't meant to bake bread but to ease the baker's weariness by singing a song. That's my function: to beautify life, which is so in need of beauty.

It's sad to see people today, how they hear the warbling of birds only on a radio or a cassette tape, how they get their idea of a garden from the faded flowers on some carpet. This is a world so in need of beauty! People have forgotten that they need beauty as an emollient for their hearts. Some people handle the hunger of the belly; I work on the hunger of the spirit. What I do in essence is tell people, "Take a break -- I'll tell you a story. Close your eyes, you're tired. Look, I'm making a rose for you so your spirit can rest."

What's the state of art and literature in Mexico today?
The media have this habit of making art and the artist just one more consumer item -- art lite. How can a superficial artist, someone who fluctuates along with the art market, create anything profound? And right behind the artist is a whole team of marketing specialists; they launch new artists like they would a new detergent. But true art waits in the shadows, waiting for the day when its splendor will shine forth. The artist too has to learn to wait.

You have a reputation as a teacher loved and respected by your students. What does it mean to you to teach? One is a Jesuit in order to show others a certain path, a certain way of living life, of looking at the world. And the person who knows something should and must show others how to do it. Otherwise, it would just be selfish, like throwing out the window all the training you've gone through. Being a teacher gives me a marvelous opportunity to do the most beautiful work in the world: cultivating an intellect.

What's your experience of the process of artistic creation?
Everything depends on allowing yourself time for artistic creation. I've learned how to work under pressure; maybe I couldn't work any other way. But in poetry the process for me is more or less like this: I'm like a radio that suddenly goes on by itself, and out comes a phrase that's different from others in its beauty and mystery. I listen, but don't know if it's going to be the beginning, the middle, or the end of a poem.

Sometimes the phrase doesn't make any sense, but I know it's an emissary of beauty: it has an excellence some other phrases don't. I wait until the phrase draws out another and another and I begin to see, as in a chess game, the next move. Just like a jigsaw puzzle, empty spots in the poem fill in with words, and suddenly the moment comes when I can impose order on that chaotic subconscious message. This is the dominion of the intellect, the triumph of Apollo's light over Bacchus's noise.

What advice do you give young Jesuits with artistic leanings?
I advise them to be very patient with themselves, because life in the Society is not possible without patience. There is so much to learn, to wait for, to suffer, and to love! And youth is in such a hurry to live! But things will come, if one knows how to wait.

The Author

Fr. José Francisco Navarro, SJ, is a member of the Jesuits' Peru Province. He is earning an MA in Latin American literature at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, [email protected] Created: 5/23/96 Updated: 6/22/96