Over lunch at Tertulia, Howard Chua-Eoan talks psalms, redemption and croquetas de pulpo with David van Biema.
No one seems to know how the Spanish word “tertulia” came to mean a social gathering to discuss ideas or to show off a new artistic creation. It is so different from the French “salon”—which is related to the Spanish “sala” or living room and which can easily be imagined as a setting for disquisitions on politics and art. I like to imagine—in spite of a lack of proof—that tertulia derives from a 3rd century thinker in the Roman Empire named Quintus Septimius Florens Tertulianus (better known as Tertullian in English, Tertuliano in Spanish), a loudly argumentative Christian theologian who helped shape the early thinking on the Trinity and whose diatribes against gnosticism relegated that philosophy to the nether regions of heresy.
In any case, tertulias often take place at bars. And so, with my mythical etymology in mind, I was at the bar of the restaurant Tertulia on 6th Avenue and Washington Place in Greenwich Village, flipping through a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi while waiting to lunch with the former religion writer of TIME magazine.
I am very fond of Tertulia because it reminds me of one of my favorite places, Spain. Not the glitz and glass of the new (and now bankrupt) Spain but the old, woody, cidery Spain of rich flavors, deep shadows, fiery flashes of light, dry wit and drier sherries. Many of my friends from Spain cannot bring themselves to admit to liking a menu masterminded by a chef named Seamus Mullen (the chef/owner of Tertulia). But Seamus speaks Castilian as well as any Castilian and can trace his culinary genealogy through the superb kitchen of Mugaritz near San Sebastian. His cuisine stays faithful to the spirit of the classics even as it veers away enough from them to provoke debate. All of which adds to the meaning and noise of Tertulia.
But I was waiting for David Van Biema not so much to discuss food but the book he is writing about the Psalms—as well as what the future holds for journalists who cover religion (spoiler: it’s all about Pope Francis now). Before I became News Director of TIME, I was concurrently editor of the breaking news and religion sections. David and I have worked on countless stories on the preachers, prophets, Mormons, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Popes… Few were breaking news stories except for one.
In order to write an entire new cover story in eight hours, I needed writers.
That was the evening of the Saturday of Labor Day weekend 1997 when the news arrived that Princess Diana was in what would prove to be a fatal car accident in Paris. I was the duty editor and, after quick deliberations, we were going to change covers, one of the most sudden, late cover switches in TIME’s history. In order to write an entire new cover story with only eight hours before you had to send the text to press, I needed writers—and the only writers in New York City that holiday weekend were the sports writer, the science writer and the religion writer. Not one of them a keen observer of the royals. So I gave the sports writer—who would know about drama–the job of writing the lead of the piece; the science writer—who was familiar with physics–got to detail the scene of the accident and to David, the religion writer I gave the responsibility of writing the end of the story: what did all this mean? I would then sew everything together along with a biographical section thrown together by our London bureau chief (who was, thank God, available to work). David did a touching and masterful job, with a heartbreaking final sequence about the fate of Prince William, complete with Shakespearean allusion: “…the mother was from her son untimely ripped. The young, burdened future king of England, in what may be his first great totemic act, will grieve Diana’s death not only for himself, but for his country, and the world.”
The Psalms are a perfect book subject for David: they are at once about suffering and loss and longing and, amid tribulations, the promise of divine comfort if not rescue. Over squid-ink paella and croquetas de pulpo, we discussed his progress on the project and our feelings about the most poetic book of the bible. I have always thought the 23rd Psalm of the King James Version is at the heart of the rhythm of the English language, even with all the verbs ending in –eth. For David, though, the Psalms are not just beautiful language but profoundly existential, millennia-old petitions for God’s attention and love, the private and personal songs of King David of Israel transformed into a universal liturgy for dealing with the excruciating nexus of fate and faith.
I have recited that psalm as I worried about correspondents I sent to war zones.
For example, David reminded me that so powerful is text of the so-called Protection Psalm, the 91st, that in the gospels Satan himself uses a line from it to tempt Christ to throw himself off the top of the temple in Jerusalem because, as the verses promise, God “shall give his angels charge over thee to keep thee in all your ways. They shall bear you up in their hands lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.” I admit that more than once have I recited that psalm as I worried about correspondents I sent to war zones. I once wrote it out long-hand as a kind of “estampita mistica”—a talismanic prayer card—that a friend headed for a dangerous assignment could carry in his wallet. “There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.” You do all you humanly can to prepare for the worst; but after that you really want that something extra to help you through, even if it is all in your mind. Who is to judge the form divine comfort will take?
And if there is no salvation? David tells the story of a friend in the middle of a losing battle to disease who substitutes the assurances of Psalm 91 for the fatalistic 13th: “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? For ever? And how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” And yet even that despair ends with a promise to sing of the glory of the lord in spite of tribulation. As the mystics say again and again, nothing can separate us from God—neither light nor darkness, neither good nor evil. It is a terrifyingly modern truth.
As we finish lunch, Seamus comes by to say hello. He always does when he’s around. But, today, he has lost his voice. I wave him away saying not to strain himself. Then I remember: this is the least of his travails. Years ago, he was suddenly and inexplicably attacked by pain and was rushed to the hospital. So intense was the suffering that, as he gripped the armrests of the gurney, he ripped them off. It was the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, a terrible thing to happen to someone so young. And yet, here he was with a successful restaurant and new projects on the way. Grateful for Seamus’ food, I silently repeated these lines for him from the 91st: “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.” A little late for lunch, but we are still allowed grace after meals.