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Blessed is the time of disillusion

Listening to Life/26 - Fresh air is always good for every house and community

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 18/12/2016

Albero bucato ridAlas, what our ideas become at times! As if they were a mask for us. I can express highly generous ideas, say, on the condition of the poor; and my ideas are generous: at the same time I have a rich and beautiful home, and do not see the poor along the road. What is my love for, in this case? For poverty and the poor? But of course not: otherwise I would be among them, one of them, my ideas may well be about poverty, but my love is for my house"

Giuseppe de Luca, Introduzione alla storia della pietà (An Introduction to the History of Piety)

Each community experiences the vital tension between the inside and the outside. Between the need to preserve their identity and the need to accommodate those who knock on the door. Opening up to let fresh air giving life to the house in, closing the doors to retain the warmth created by the intimacy of the relationship between the inhabitants. Usually it is the fear of losing the good warmth that prevails, and communities gradually turn into private clubs of equals that consume relational goods between them, inside protective fences that eventually become actual and real walls.

The cum-munus (reciprocal gift) of the community is thus guaranteed by the cum-moenia (reciprocal walls) that prevent many who are outside from deteriorating the reciprocity of who's inside the citadel that's getting more fortified every day. This is how communities wither, because the indoor air itself, without any change over time becomes too flawed to allow for new life to sprout. The warmth of the familiar breath becomes toxic carbon dioxide that makes breathing difficult one day.

The prophets re the first ones to warn us about the thin air and they rush to the door and windows to try to open them wide. They must shout and elbow strong because, especially in times of identity crisis and during cold winters, communities do everything to lock their doors, and their managers write detailed regulations to prevent the opening of any little hole. This is an expression of the fundamental dynamic-conflict between "charisma" and "institution", that tension-struggle between those who have the responsibility of government of a community and must, by their task, preserve the tradition, identity and well-being of the inhabitants, and those who - because of the same identity and the same well-being of the community - know that all they have to do is only to open the doors. To let the the poor, the rejected, the lepers and the children in, who belong precisely in those categories that most seek and consume the warmth of the house. The biblical prophets know the Torah well, they love and understand it, but with the same divine authority they defy and break it, and sometimes they "transgress" it in the name of a Law and justice that's deeper and truer. Communities, and most certainly those gathered around an ideal and a promise, do not go astray as long as they run the good risk of allowing the prophets to change, update and even amend the law that other prophets (even the greatest of them all: Moses) had written as a gift; as long as they don't kill or silence the new prophets in the name of the words of the prophets that founded them yesterday. When the word of yesterday - even if it is prophetic or has since become law and institution - does not allow for its own correction or transgression, the "letter" kills the "spirit", and the promised land is reduced to a meagre piece of land that's barren and without water. The communities with only prophets get dispersed (and then perhaps end up in other places), communities with only institutions die from asphyxiation. The law, the same law of Moses and Israel forbade foreigners and eunuchs (sterile men) from becoming members of the people of YHWH (Deuteronomy 23.2 to 9). But the law was not the only source of the authorities of Israel: the prophets were also there, and only the Law and the prophets together and in continuous tension were able to keep the promise and the covenant. This dual system is among the greatest civil and religious innovations in human history, and contains a very precious message for every charismatic and spiritual community: the Law is not enough; to live well prophets are also needed. And so, while the rules we read in the Torah exclude foreigners and eunuchs, in the Book of Isaiah we find these wonderful words: "For thus says the Lord: / To the eunuchs... / I will give in my house and within my walls / a monument and a name / better than sons and daughters; (...) And the foreigners... / I will bring to my holy mountain, / and make them joyful in my house of prayer" (Isaiah 56:4-7).

It is with this song of universal brotherhood that serves as the self-introduction of the unnamed prophet - or school of prophets - now known as the Third Isaiah, whose prophecy complete the scroll of Isaiah (chapters 56-66). The First Isaiah was the great prophet, the master of all. He prophesied before the Babylonian exile, he announced and interpreted it as the natural consequence of the infidelity, idolatry and wickedness of the people, and (especially) of its leaders. The Second Isaiah is the prophet of the exile, and his vocation and mission was above all a hymn of hope for a liberation, a new exodus of the "faithful", deported remnant. He kept the faith in the promise and covenant alive, indicating a nearing homecoming, a new land, a really new time.

The historical condition of the Third Isaiah is different again. It is that of the prophet who is to carry out his mission in the midst of a people disappointed after the return from exile. They were finally home again, but did not find the promised land at the end of the new exodus. It turns out, however, that the sufferings, evils and sins of the times before and during their deportation are not terminated. The land found again is not flowing with "milk and honey", the new age promised by the prophets has not started, there is no new pact and no faithfulness, only the sins and evils of all time. How could they still continue to hope and believe?

To keep the hope and faith alive amidst the disappointments that followed the liberation, authentic prophetic charismas are needed that, by vocation, are capable of re-elaborating salvation, reconstituting a new narrative capital that should become the first and essential resource to keep going. The stories of a possible salvation in times of disappointment must be different from those of the times of the first promise and those of exiles and tests.

There are too many ideal-driven communities that cannot continue the race in times of crisis and disappointment because they are not able to write and tell new stories, because they cannot find the spiritual and moral forces to re-elaborate the great gift of narrative capital of the early days. They do not understand - for the lack of prophets, or because they are but not recognized, or because they are silenced for fear of losing identity - that the first collective action to take is try to discover and tell new stories that are emerging in their present time full of hurt and disappointment to supplement and nourish the ancient capital. For Saint Francis to continue to perform the same - or even greater - miracles in his Assisi now, the story of the kiss to the leper is not enough: we need the living stories of Fra' Enrico and Sister Marina hugging and kissing the lepers of today. Instead, many communities die as soon as the annuity of the first narrative capital of the time of the first promise is finished, because of the famine for new stories.

The Third Isaiah was great because he told a new story of salvation, because he was able to develop his present by showing the truth of the promise in spite of the presence of evil, sin and unfaithfulness that the people thought and wanted to be finished with the end of the exile. This prophet does not hide the ancient evils and sins: he sees them, reports them, he shouts them out. He condemns the leaders of the people who continue to be corrupt as those in Ahaz' time: "His watchmen are blind; / they are all without knowledge; / they are all silent dogs" (56:10). The same idolatry, the same perversion, prostitution as always: "you who burn with lust among the oaks, / under every green tree" (57:5). Even the same ancient horrendous sacrifices of children: "who slaughter your children in the valleys, / under the clefts of the rocks" (57:5). And the same denial of justice, oppression of the weak and the poor, sacrificed to the profits and business: "Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, / and oppress all your workers." (58:3) And also: "No one enters suit justly" (59:4).

All in all, the Third Isaiah tells us that the fulfilment of the promise is not the end of evil and sin, because the grain of salvation blooms along with the evil of the weeds. This is his true masterpiece. The past is not the scapegoat on which to pour all the ills of yesterday, hoping in vain to get rid of them forever. Salvation, however, is a mysterious flower of evil, blossoming on the compost of our imperfect and impure past and present.

Here we are faced with an immense lesson in humanity, a priceless gift to learn the workmanship of living. At the end of the exile and the great individual and collective trials, there is always a very strong, sometimes invincible temptation-delusion to think that the longed-for liberation was the final liberation from the evils and sins that had made us suffer so much; that the wound from the "fight with the angel" can finally heal and not bleed any more. Then the time of trials is over, ending a painful and long chapter in history, we survive a devastating loss, we go home and we see that the wound does not stop bleeding. It is there, just like before, alive and open.

Upon the meeting with that old pain, we often curse the first promise and our past life - and begin to die. At other times we hide the wound, we cover it with a cloth and bandage hoping not to see it again - and soon it gets gangrenous. The prophets provide us with another solution: they tell us to look into the "eyes" of those wounds, to make them breathe the open air of all, to meekly accept that we will be limping for life (vulnerability is nothing but the true human condition). And then, perhaps, to try to glimpse a blessing in our wounds and in those of others. We will need prophets to "heal" our deep wounds that never heal: "And the Lord will guide you continually / and satisfy your desire in scorched places / and make your bones strong; / and you shall be like a watered garden, / like a spring of water, / whose waters do not fail." (Isaiah 58:11)

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