To Pello Zabala, my travelling companion

My dear Pello,

I am dedicating this brief, humble, heartfelt tribute to you. In a way it is a futile attempt, because there are so many who have already praised your gifts and achievements better than I am capable of doing; so I congratulate everyone. I gladly endorse all the praise.

So, I will be honouring you not because you displayed so many admirable qualities; nor because you were blessed with the gift of the spoken and written word; nor because your ears were able to pick up the melodies of the wind, the rain, the stone and the people, and transfer them from your ear to the stave with such ease and elegance; nor because you were a virtuoso organist, without having been taught by anyone; nor because on Basque radio and television you had become an ebullient weatherman and an expert presenter of classical music, thus encouraging people to enjoy it. And a blogger and a writer and…

It is no mean feat. You set the bar very high; you never competed with anyone and always made everyone happy. Well done, Pello! However, I am honouring you more than anything not because of all the above. I want to remember and pay tribute to your humanity, your vibrant disposition, your simple, whole self, your wayfarer’s nature. I would like to express my appreciation of the wonderful years, my last as a Franciscan, during which we were together at our blessed Arantzazu (2003-2010), as well as the years before and after, when, without actually being together, we remained united. It is a way of expressing gratitude. We were each other’s travelling companions. I owe you so much, Pello, and all I have to offer is a paltry thank you. And these lines that spring from my heart.

Above all I celebrate your playful childhood, the innocent child that you were. That alert, lively child who emerged from the foothills of the Txindoki mountain and who remained a child right up until the end, until the end became a new beginning. You were the child that was inside you. Or rather, you managed to become that child. The more adult, the more childlike, the older, the more gifted. Or the more childlike, the more gifted? “The kingdom belongs to a child,” wrote the wise Heraclitus 2,500 years ago. He certainly had a point there. You were a playful child. And you created by playing as children usually do, as you suckled at your wonderful mother’s breast, as you spoke and wrote and composed and played the organ, as you loved the ordinary Basque people and as you breathed the Basque language, all with that ease that was so much a part of you, just by allowing what emerged from inside you to flow. That is how you achieved so much, but I never saw you overwhelmed or anguished, although in your all-encompassing light the anguish and shadows that we all bear must have been familiar to you; however, you had also learned on your own to play around with your shadows, just as –I heard you say– the light of the pinnacles of the pointed stones of the towers play around in the early hours of sunny Arantzazu afternoons with the shadows of the cracks.

I often watched you playfully whistling to the blackbirds –and their response– amusing interlocutor of all that is. Bending to the earth, gazing at the sky, attentive to the moon and the wind. Ember Days and such things. You knew I wasn’t a great believer in all that, but they, too, were part of your childlike candour. I delight in the way you admired nature –you yourself being nature, like us, and like all that is– and I revere the veneration you professed for it. Without that –no matter how strong we are– we cannot survive. That midday, in the hushed grove of Elkota, that was what you were saying as I listened to you in what seemed to me to be the melodious flute-like call of a thrush.

It is also a joy to mention and praise the openness with which you lived and thought about religion, an openness that mattered to each of us so much and united us both. In you it was no fad, but instinct. And knowledge, and choice. Although I may be overdoing it, I’d say in a few words that in the history of the Franciscans of Arantzazu spanning over 500 years you were the first icon of lay spirituality, an image of a spirituality that transcends religion, a model of the spirituality of the future, which –in your case, and in mine, too– need not abandon certain Christian religious forms, but which puts its heart beyond religion and all religions. Well done, Pello! If only Arantzazu had followed your path during the 60 years you lived there! I say this with regret.

But you did your bit, and there it is, in that respect you are fully alive. At Candlemas, halfway between winter and spring, as a way of acknowledging the light, you set out on your final journey to the four winds –Udalaitz and Aizkorri, Aloña and Elgea–, towards the plenitude of light, beyond all space and time. By going further, you ended up even closer.

During the celebration of your farewell, while the voice of the baritone soloist with moving sweetness filled all the corners of the basilica of Arantzazu, at the summit of beauty, I recall that we sang Gandiaga’s words set to your own melody: “Let us kindle the light, because it is the way of life.” So be our companion along the road, Pello; as our travelling companion, you have already attained goodness in the kingdom of childhood, while we still strive to bring about the goodness of the child that we are.

Aizarna (Basque Country), 11 February, 2022

(Translated by Sarah J. Turtle)