The famed Nicaraguan poet, priest and revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal died on March 1, 2020 at the age of 95. Over the years, many of the Quixote Center staff and our partners had met him. Even though he was a public figure, he was also known to be a man of the people, approachable and warm.
His poetry expressed the complexities of his relationship to his Nicaraguan homeland, the natural world, and the United States. His life showed much of the same complexity. After graduating from the UNAM in Mexico, he continued his studies at Columbia University and returned to the United States to study under Thomas Merton in his Trappist community. From Cardenal’s early collection, Gethsemani, KY, we find a poem, which I have translated below, that gives a glimpse into how he understood the contemplative life in relationship to the realities of consumer society:
In the night lit up by words:
PALMOLIVE CHRYSLER COLGATE CHESTERFIELD
that flicker on and off on and off,
the red green blue lights of hotels and of bars
and of movie theaters, the Trappists go up to the choir loft
and light the fluorescent lamps
and open their great psalters and antiphonaries
among millions of radios and televisions.
They are the lamps of the prudent virgins awaiting
their husband in the US night!
From Kentucky, he moved to Antioquía, Colombia for seminary studies before settling on the island of Mancarrón, the Solentiname island in Lake Nicaragua, where he founded a radical intentional community that welcomed locals and international figures alike to reflect upon the nature of the Gospels as understood in lived experience. He developed a political and social consciousness quite at odds with that of the Catholic hierarchy and increasingly aligned with Sandinista leaders during the insurrection. As Cardenal described the development of the community’s collective conscience through the 1960s and 1970s:
These commentaries on the Gospel were radicalizing us, me and others in the community. Little by little, we found ourselves identifying with the movement in Nicaragua until a moment arrived in which we were practically assimilated to it. Some of the youths already wanted to leave the community to become guerrillas. It took a lot of effort for me to hold them back and a message sent to us by the legendary guerrilla Comandante Marcos was a great aid. He said that we had to maintain the community in Solentiname because it had social, political, military, tactical, and strategic importance for the revolution.
The consequences of that tactical and strategic importance were great. Several members of the community – Cardenal not included – participated in the failed uprising of October 13, 1977, with the goal to take control of a military base in nearby San Carlos. The reprisal was swift, with an aerial bombardment that decimated the island community of Solentiname and scattered the population.
Even as Cardenal won many awards for his poetry, he was ostracized within the Church – particularly the Vatican – for his support of the Sandinista Revolution and his role as Nicaragua’s Minister of Culture from 1979-1987. He was famously rebuked by John Paul II on his 1983 visit to Nicaragua, who, wagging his finger at Cardenal, scolded him for his role in the government. His priestly ministries were suspended by Rome from 1984 until 2019, when Pope Francis lifted that suspension.
Due to a combination of budgetary problems during the Contra War and what might be described as artistic differences with Rosario Murillo, Cardenal’s Ministry of Culture was closed in 1987. While he expressed a lifelong commitment to the Revolution, Cardenal left the Sandinista party in 1994 and publicly criticized its leaders.
Although he was openly critical of the Sandinista party, his stature is such that the President and Vice President decreed three days of national mourning. As might have been anticipated in the current polarized environment, there have been media reports that the funeral services on March 4 were disrupted by Sandinista “turbas” [mobs]. But this claim is backed up with only a few brief videos supplemented with the claim that reporters were robbed.
According to his wishes, Cardenal will be cremated and the ashes deposited in the Solentiname archipelago that was so dear to him. His archives, however, are stored at the University of Texas at Austin.
In early 2018, Cardenal released a poem titled “Así en la tierra como en el cielo” [“On earth as it is in heaven”], reflecting on faith, mortality and the natural world. To capture the scale of his legacy I end this reflection with my translations of a few passages from this much longer poem:
Billions of galaxies with billions of stars
(there are more than one thousand million galaxies)
our galaxy of trillions of stars
barely one among millions of galaxies
a star gas
and a galaxy gas
I open the window and gaze
at the stars from which we come
it seems that the universe had a purpose
in which we find ourselves
the universe conscious of itself:
that can in the night
gaze at the stars
We are lavish because of the Sun
always bathing in light and food
light that is food
because plants eat light
a chemical reaction called photosynthesis
chlorophyll: light from the Sun and water from the Earth
by which plants are green
the variety of shapes and sizes of leaves
one over another fighting for the Sun
and the light made sandwich and made wine
“I am the light,” said Jesus
light and food
the universe is not only for man
and the Good News is for all of creation
the whole world with cries of childbirth
its mystery that surrounds us all
and is almost entirely empty space
God/Love is not an unmoved mover
but rather change and evolution
the future that calls us
and the resurrection our future
all together in the center of the cosmos
there are many rooms there said Jesus
the Only planet in the solar system
with lights in the night
And we are God’s dream
God dreams of us
wants us in a different world
without the sins of inequality
the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer
where no one rules over anyone
The stars are not above
They are atoms like us
born of stardust
and from this same dust are they
Millions of conscious stars
their sacrifices shining all night long
the explosion of supernovas
teaching us how to die
~Rest In Peace, Ernesto
David Harding (not verified)
Nicely done, John. A fitting (and educational) tribute.
Joseph M Gainza (not verified)
You carried the dream when too many of us had forgotten how to dream
You kept hope alive when so many around you wanted to extinguish all hope
You were a faithful disciple even when your Church substituted itself for Christ
Now you are present to us as never before
Muchas gracias Ernesto
Frank RileY (not verified)
The passing of Ernesto Cardenal may bring different reactions. In the Preface of Apocalypse and other poems ERNESTO CARDENAL, one of the editores , Donald D. Walsh, wrote:
“Most people who knew Cardenal are convinced that he is a saint; others are equally convinced that he is the devil in priestly disguise. I am one of the ‘most people,’….” So am I!
George Hutchinson (not verified)
Thank you so very much for this tribute to Ernesto. I know so little, but now I know a bit more. Enjoyed and felt deeply his Gorgeous poetry!