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The Mortality Club

The Cretan Glance

My daughter, Monica is in Spain with her husband Fran and my two grandsons. They intend to go to a bullfight in Madrid. That got me thinking about the dangers a matador faces when in the bullring. I wondered about the kind of person who chooses a career in which the only path to greatness is the willingness and ability to stare death in the face. A search of the Internet revealed an interesting article that appeared in the New York Times on February 1, 2016. It introduced Jose Tomas, one of the greatest matadors of all time. “Tomás’s performances were savage ballets, a blend of elegance, fearlessness, timing and sacrifice. He seemed determined to pass bulls ever closer to his body, pushing the boundaries of how close a man could get.”

On the previous Sunday, the forty-year-old matador had stood tall and erect in the center of the Plaza de Mexico, the largest bullring in the world, surrounded by 45,000 spectators. They sat transfixed at the sight before them. The deadly horns of the 1,150 pound bull, Bellotero, were so close as to almost brush against Tomás pink and gold suit of lights.

Staring directly into the eyes of the animal intent on his destruction, Tomás sliced the air with his red muleta, provoking the bull to attack. He turned and made a pass. As the bull charged, the crowd exploded. Tomás turned again, and made a second pass, bringing the bull even closer to his body.

As his dance with death intensified, the roaring crowds grew quiet, silenced by a strange combination of fear and anticipation. And then Bolletero charged again. This time, Tomas was not agile enough. The crowds shrieked in horror as the horn of the bull gored Tomás’ thigh.

I imagine, lying there in the sand as his helpers lured the bull away, Tomás was remembering the last time the horn of a bull had pierced his body, puncturing the femoral artery. That time he had almost bled to death. Rather than keep him out of the ring, it had simply intensified his desire to dance with the bull, the ancient symbol of power and fertility. This time would be no different. He got back on his feet, and once again engaged in a deadly confrontation, tempting and provoking the fierce beast the ancient Egyptians had considered a god.

Nikos Kazantzakis calls the bullfighter’s approach to living life the Cretan Glance. In his words, "This is a dangerous game and to play it you need great physical and spiritual discipline. The heroic and playful eyes, without hope yet without fear, which so confront the Bull, the Darkness, this I call “the Cretan Glance.”

Perhaps we would all benefit from learning to display the Cretan Glance, to unflinchingly stare down the bulls and the black bears that cross our path as we journey through life. As Kazantzakis explains, “If you are able to dance with the tragic elements of life in both ecstasy and joy and to laugh in the face of this darkness – this is the highest calling of humanity, and this is where joy can be found."

Joy and freedom from fear can be gained through having the courage to confront the dark side. I believe that is the reason it is so important to confront our own mortality, and to bring death into the room when we are still feeling strong.

Note: Both quotes from Nikos Kazantzakis came from his book, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, published by Simon and Schuster, New York, in 1960.

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