Bogħod mill-qalb

Have you heard about the Swiss cart-rut photographer? Monika Trinkler has visited Malta twice a year since 1983. A lover of history, Ms Trinker sought, and failed to find, a guide to all the cart ruts in Malta, ultimately embarking on a project to map the cart ruts herself (ToM link). One particular quote struck me:

“While Ms Trinkler thinks of Malta as her second home, with friends all over the island, she admitted to being slightly disappointed that the Maltese seem uninterested in learning about their own heritage. She added that recently, she had also noticed an increase in illegal dumping of waste all over the island, sometimes in areas which were hard to reach.”

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In my first post, I referred to the expression Bogħod mill-għajn, bogħod mill-qalb, which implies that what is distant (or not seen) is not valued. It’s an interesting paradox that we might need things to be nearby to appreciate them, but take for granted what is constantly around us. Another expression, familiarity breeds contempt, illustrates this attitude better, particularly on the issue of dumping of waste (contempt for the environment).

In spite of the distance, I think of Malta as home. I enjoy bringing friends over, and they leave with a little taste and a desire to return. This differs from the view of Malta as “the rock” that some Maltese friends express, often accompanied by a vilification of their culture, and the desire to leave. As someone who has “left” Malta, I think they romanticise travel, while they think I romanticise Malta. Is it easier to appreciate from afar or is it under-valued by those who have it? (Where and why is the grass greener?)

All I can say is that I’ve met more Brits who’ll talk my ear off about British history, than Maltese who are passionate about Maltese history. Indeed, in Ms Trinkler’s story, we see “contempt for the familiar” present in attitudes towards both the physical country (dumping of waste) and also the roots of its culture (history).

This also affects the Church, which has shaped Europe over the centuries. Places in the ancient Universities are still among the most sought-after, and in Malta the Church is known for its support of the people through schools and charity work. It’s seemingly ever-present, yet often misunderstood.

The Church through the ages has animated our culture by endorsing of the visual, architectural and musical arts, and shaping language and literature. For example, the festa would have been an invitation for artisans to unite in the practise of their crafts: the music, elaborate banners and bunting, hand-crafted statues, ornate sacred vessels, vestments, fireworks and food… all required experts to put their skills towards a spectacle that united people in praise of God through His servants, and a public witness of joy.

Today, the festa isn’t always described in this way. I think it’s fair to say that, for many, it has no purpose; the masses still gather – they are entertained – but it’s not always clear what they’re celebrating. A similar observation can sometimes be made in church, where lacklustre participation is responded to with attempts to ‘animate’ the service with entertainment. Just like the festa, the replacement of God’s celebration with a celebration for man is a symptom, not the cure. The familiar is first taken for granted, then held in contempt.

At least we can be thankful for the chance to celebrate our faith in public, without mortal threat. Today, faith in the public sphere is contentious, which brings out the best and the worst in the Church; many acquiesce to external pressures, while others take these challenges as an invitation to reassert their creed: learning more to better understand it, and to live it more resolutely. Consequently, the Church under attack can become the Church that is most valued, particularly in the way that it continues to reach out to those in need, even as it suffers. In my personal journey, I have encountered the most erudite and charitable role models in places where the Church was challenged… and challenging.

So, Bogħod mill-għajn, bogħod mill-qalb. Perhaps the proverb doesn’t just tell us about what is “too far” to see; also that our “heart is distant” from that which is right before our eyes, but not truly seen, or understood… be it our country, our world, or something in it. Still, there is hope for the object of this proverb, for even in its disparaging, or vilification, it may yet be reaffirmed.

Benjamin Portelli is a PhD student researching Visual Perception at the University of St Andrews. He has lived in a few countries (Malta, Scotland, the UAE and Bahrain) and visited a few more. When he isn't in the lab, Benjamin can be found reading articles or planning his next escape (usually back to Malta).Benjamin has held positions of responsibility in youth/student organisations. More recently, this has included President of the Aberdeen University Catholic Society, Treasurer of the Aberdeen University Scottish Dance Society and Treasurer of the St Vincent de Paul Society (Dundee Students' Conference).

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