The stars have a habit of misaligning badly.
I have no affinity with astrology and never attributed anything in my life to celestial bodies, but on Friday morning (CST) I couldn't make sense of the terrible news which I got on social media: my old friend, mentor and comrade, Charles Miceli, passed away unexpectedly.
By way of coming to terms with the shock I wanted to write a tribute to Charles’s generosity of spirit, but I couldn’t. Charles’s passing affected me, thousands of miles away from Malta, in ways I never expected.
The bit about the stars aligning badly has to do with commemorations. It starts with Karl Marx (to whom Charles had an uncanny resemblance when he was in his 30s).
I met Charles back in 1983 in the Workers Memorial Building where he worked as a journalist. Then, Charles was as enthusiastic and as moved by social justice as he remained throughout his life. I was 19, just waiting to start university in the Fall. By my calculations he was 33.
1983 marked the 100th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death. I was a young man, hooked on all manners of theory and radicalism. Charles read a (rather youthful) article which I got published in the left-wing monthly Il-Ħsieb, and he invited me to write a series of five articles on Karl Marx to be published on the GWU’s weekly newspaper It-Torċa.
That was the beginning of a very long and fruitful friendship. I now realise Charles was only 14 years my senior and yet our friendship transformed itself from him being the older brother I never had, to him becoming more and more of a father figure to many young persons from all walks of life who came to know him.
So what about the stars? As it happens this year I was thinking of writing another set of articles on Karl Marx and Charles was on my mind. This time the occasion is the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.
Marx was born in 1818 and died in 1883. 1983 came before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a different time. The world has changed so much that it feels like a hundred years ago. Thankfully, the regard for Marx the philosopher and political economist has now changed from that of being adopted as a prophet of a failed system, to that of a 19th century philosopher whose work changed the way we think, equally worshipped and detested, still attracting detractors as much as followers.
The thought of writing another set of papers on Marx has now gained special significance. In 1983 I met Charles who prompted me to write about Marx for a Maltese audience, in Maltese and in a popular weekly. Now, here I am in 2018, thinking of writing another series of papers on Marx, and yet I am now writing about Charles.
Charles was a person who digested what he read and made of it something useful for himself and more importantly for others
As I reflect on Charles’s work in social justice and the struggle for the poor, this story has many ramifications. Charles was a man who read continuously and voraciously. He was an avid learner and I’d say he was also a conscious unlearner in the sense that he did not simply absorb anything he read and parroted it out. Rather, Charles was a person who digested what he read and made of it something useful for himself and more importantly for others. Charles always shared his insights, his reading, his writing, his wisdom. He was a born teacher and mentor.
His approach to life was enthusiastic and profound. Over the years, after I left Malta and briefly lost touch with him, our friendship kept us linked through mutual interests, until we got in touch again and took up where we left, especially on email and social media.
A few years ago, Charles couldn’t resist embroiling me back into writing about Maltese affairs. I remember reading a piece by him titled “Ir-Rieda Politika” (Political Will), and I emailed him. His response was the same as back in 1983: “Għax ma tiktibx xi ħaġa?” (Why don’t you write something?). It was difficult to say no to Charles.
So there I was, following Charles’s advice and encouragement once again, but this time we were both middle aged. Even when he no longer worked as a journalist, his writing never stopped. His articles were short, to the point and had a mastery of the Maltese language which was totally inclusive. Those who continuously struggle to achieve such clarity know very well that Charles was indeed the ultimate master of succinct and sharp prose. His writing was witty and grounded.
As his experience with organisations like Caritas gave him first-hand experience in the suffering and poverty of the many, Charles came to represent the hands-on activist, who is more interested in doing rather than simply talking about social justice. No wonder tributes poured from everywhere, from the President, to the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, to MPs from all parties, and more so from the many friends who loved and were inspired by him.
So what about Dorothy Day and Charles Miceli?
It was Charles who introduced me to the work of this great radical American woman, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Charles cited Dorothy Day often in social media and his writing. With hindsight, this is not surprising at all, as Day’s life trajectory runs parallel to Charles’s in its basic tenets: she was a journalist, a campaigner for social justice, inspired by pacifism and socialism, militated in the labour movement, but also someone who embraced the Christian message from its radical roots where humanity remains at the centre of one’s convictions.
It is not a coincidence that Pope Francis (whom Charles greatly admired and cited) is also so fond of Dorothy Day. Day’s radical approach was wholly inspired by the Sermon of the Mount and the Beatitudes—which Pope Francis regards as the foundation, indeed the roadmap, of Christian life and social justice.
Charles introduced me to Dorothy Day as a person who simply went on and did what she believed in. Like Day, he respected everyone, no matter which political or religious tradition they came from. Charles always insisted that the problem in Malta is that we view politics vertically–splitting political life between one party and another—when in fact our political attention should be focused on the horizontal divide: that which comes between the haves and the have nots.
In many ways, I now fully understand Charles Miceli through Dorothy Day, inasmuch as I cherish the seamless journey which I took with Charles since he invited me to write on Marx back in 1983. Ultimately the horizon on which this journey took place was clear and simple: trying one’s best to build a fair, equitable and socially just society.
There are few people who, in one’s life have had a remarkable impact on one’s own formative years. I can cite only a handful. Charles was one of them.
Farewell my brother!
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