01-03-2006 - Traces, n.3

A time to educate / Carrón

an Experience
The Crucial Question
of Education

Here are some excerpts from a conversation of Fr. Julián Carrón with a group of teachers of Communion and Liberation. Milan, January 29, 2006.

Question: I teach in a class in a scientific high school in Prato. I began the year very struck by the text, “Something Within Something.” I teach Italian and Latin, and it seems to me that helping the kids to discover this “Something” is not simply a question of taking the texts we use in Latin or literature as a starting point. I have to identify with the texts and with what I am teaching. This echoes what Fr. Giussani said in the text we used for Christmas: “The mission is… the identification with others… of this identification with Christ that I am.”1 This set me moving again, even though I still have the feeling that this identification is impossible in the end, because what I think always gets in the way. In my school, where I have been teaching the same class of five for seven years, I have even become a point of reference for many questions, but I still have this big wound, because it seems impossible to identify with the other person–it seems that everything I think keeps getting in the way–and to identify with Christ.

Julián Carrón. Thank you, because this is an absolutely crucial question. I don’t know if you have understood what is at stake. You realize that in the end what you can transmit to the kids–and it’s already quite a lot–is your identification with the texts. In other words, we can transmit only what we have experienced, that ineffable and total vibration before things–people or texts–that we ourselves live. But it is just this that seems impossible for you, because, as you quite rightly said, what you think keeps getting in the way. It is as if, at a certain point, you realize that between you and the text (as between you and the other person) there is a wall preventing the text from striking them. Why does this happen? Because we are not an abstract “I,” but an historical “I,” with a whole series of preconceptions. So you ask yourself, “Does what I have before me–this text–really touch me?” I felt this problem acutely when I was teaching Holy Scripture, a rather important text, you will agree; so important that I had to think deeply about it. The whole modern approach to Holy Scripture has been characterized by this problem, especially in the face of the challenge of Protestantism. I will summarize it briefly, because I’d like you to understand the question as it touches everyone, and because most people are not even aware of it. The Church has always maintained that Holy Scripture must be approached in the context of the tradition. There came a point when something completely new broke onto the horizon: “sola scriptura.” Martin Luther affirmed that the only way of approaching the Scriptures, the Bible, is the pure text, because the tradition cannot transmit the truth of it. Since we men are sinners, we are unable to transmit it. So where, according to Luther, is the beauty of the origin preserved? Only in the Scripture, because by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the sacred authors were enabled to transmit what Jesus had lived and witnessed in the text. The whole struggle of modernism lies here. At first, Luther thought that this, sola scriptura, the claritas scripturae, would be enough to allow the individual person to establish an immediate and direct relationship with the beauty of the Scriptures. He did not realize that, when he himself was reading Scripture, he was reading it in the line of and in the context of tradition, since he accepted, for example, the great Councils of the fourth century: Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc. Now when the Reformation was followed by the Enlightenment, that sola scriptura became sola ratio. In other words, the Reformation gave way to a climate of rationalism, and reason became the measure, and everyone began to approach the Scriptures with this new criterion: reason is the measure. “We need nothing else, we have only one criterion–reason.” From then on, only a method born of “this” reason was considered sufficiently scientific to grasp what really happened at the origin of the Christian event, without the influence of tradition–since the tradition was made by Christians, who after all transmitted what they had in mind. If the only recognized authority is reason, reason as measure, then only what derives from a method applied according to this concept of reason can be accepted. So they tried to avoid the influence of tradition by using all the literary, philological and archaeological methods, and so on, so as to reach the original text. In this period of history, we find all those who tried to write a life of Jesus according to the new concept of reason and the consequent historical-critical method. We are in the time of Albert Schweitzer, who is quoted in the School of Community. He tried to draw up an account of all this research. The outcome was that each one, though using the same “scientific” or “objective” method, reached a different image of Jesus. The attempt to avoid subjectivism and to reach an objective result defeated its own object, and without any interference from Rome, from the Holy Office. The research itself had to surrender before the evidence that it is unable to reach an image that is absolutely scientific and objective. Although they all used the same method, each individual reached a different conclusion. This means that what they wanted to control could not, in fact, be controlled, because it is always the subject that uses the method, and, in the end, only the attitude of the subject determines the method. This is the problem of modern hermeneutics, as you know as well as I do. Hermeneutics is the acknowledgment of the importance of the subject in relationship to the text. I cannot prescind from the subject in relationship to the text; the presence of the subject cannot be eliminated. So here is the question you posed in the beginning: if I cannot eliminate the presence of the subject–because I belong to a tradition, because the subject that uses the method belongs to a tradition, so it has a whole series of things that determine his way of relating to the text–when I read the Scriptures, am I reading something I already have inside me? Can I break through the wall of preconceptions or, when I read, do I find only what I have inside me? This is the problem of that impossibility you spoke of. When we read the Scriptures in the morning or when we keep silence, are we listening to something more than we have inside us or are we listening only to ourselves? These days, we often see the gross consequences of this problem, when it is not adequately grasped and tackled. How often do we hear the accounts of the birth of Christ read out in Church, an historical event, and then are told about the event for five minutes and then for twenty minutes we are told about poverty and solidarity? Why? Because Christianity has been reduced to ethics. The text is used as an excuse for saying what someone has in mind. What happened, what the text speaks about, is used as an occasion for talking about something else entirely. It is as if it were impossible to reach the text, as if it were impossible to let ourselves be struck by it; so we speak about something we had in mind before. I could just as well read a text about Christmas, or a Hindu text, or a newspaper article–in the end it’s all the same, because in the end I say what I already had in mind. But if it is impossible to establish a relationship with the text, then it is all useless. In a famous article, Ratzinger asked a question: When we listen to a text of Scripture, are we in fact listening to something outside ourselves? This is the grave problem, and it sends us back to the real question: since I influence the text, the real question is, “Who has influenced my subject in such a way as to open it to the text?” Here we are faced again with the problem of tradition. Without a present event that opens up reason, that breaks through the wall and opens up reason so as to make it enter into the event of which the text speaks, we do not understand. What was said before is true: it is impossible to identify with the text if you do not participate in the present event that enables you to have the experience that you rediscover in the text. This is crucial as regards education: either we participate in an event that continually, permanently, opens us up, time and time again, an event that involves the whole of our “I” in such a way as to enable us to transmit to others that ineffable and total emotion that we live, or there is nothing to be done; we transmit only ourselves and our prejudices. Only by participating in a human experience that the text speaks of can I transmit it. I transmit it not only because I read the text, but because there is a present event that enables me to have that experience, that enables me to enter into the meaning of the text and understand it. This is possible only if I have a human correspondence with the text that makes me understand it, otherwise I reduce it (and this is what happens most of the time) to my own measure, to my own prejudices, to what I have in mind. The crucial question of education is therefore participating in a place that is absolutely alive, where what we are talking about happens; otherwise, you can make all the effort you like, but you will transmit only what you have in mind. I have been a bit long-winded, but it is very important to understand this; most people are not aware of the problem and therefore of the need to participate in a place where what we talk about is continually happening.

Question. I teach in a state high school that has been disturbed by various attempts at reform over recent years. First of all, we were a “pilot” school for the Berlinguer reform and had to change everything; then last year we were chosen as a pilot school for the Moratti reform; now, in preparation for what some presume will be a new government, we are removing all references to the “Moratti reform,” so as to be ready for what will happen next. All these transformations have been imposed on my colleagues, and so there is a general air of skepticism. When the government fell and they tasted political defeat, even my left-wing colleagues, who had made the Berlinguer reform their own, lost their enthusiasm and fell into total apathy. The idea is that it’s not worth the effort. One of my colleagues says that I am the only one who considers the place a school, whereas it is really a playground for apathetic adolescents, for whom it is not worth making any effort. This is the situation I am living in and I have often complained about it. My friends all tell me, “Stay there,” and I asked myself why I should stay; to do what? Moreover, I began teaching Italian in a high school for “communication and marketing,” without even knowing what these words mean. I found myself at a loss. “What on earth am I doing here? I don’t have the faintest idea about marketing strategy; the whole school is bent only on economics and it has nothing to do with me.” Instead, the fact that it had nothing to do with me made me realize that the basic question is, “Who am I?” Who am I inside these subjects, so new and so strange, that have forced me to change? I began to take seriously what was before me; I asked those who knew more than I did; I asked my friends; I tried to get more involved in what I had in front of me. I became almost an expert in marketing, and I began to do things I found interesting and I drew along some colleagues and students with me, creating interesting projects, at least as prospects. What did I understand? That when you speak of marketing, it is impossible not to speak of education, and that taking seriously that piece of reality that was so foreign to me made me ask “Why?” and “Who am I?” and “Why am I teaching?” The outcome was that a small group of my colleagues began to read The Risk of Education with me. Is this what it means to take the reform seriously?

Carrón. To take the reform seriously means to take seriously your “I” in the school, otherwise the school becomes your grave, with or without Berlinguer. In the end, what was the decisive point of all you told us? Your tenacity in staying there, thanks to what you live with us in the Movement. But no one is spared the decision, just as you were not spared it–you had to face up to the situation. You could say, “There is nothing to be done; I have every reason to leave.” You could have a thousand reasons to feel justified in getting out, even if you decide something absolutely unreasonable (because you are called there). The question is whether that circumstance of your life becomes the occasion for you to take a serious look at yourself, at reality. Only when you open yourself to this, and begin to move, does your reason begin to move in a totally different way. You begin to ask everyone and to discover things that become interesting. Whoever does not accept this challenge of reality is defeated. I’m not concerned with the moral aspect. What concerns me is that in fact you can be in circumstances with no openness to verify the victory of Christ that passes through your “I,” which commits you there where you are. There is nothing automatic about accepting it, and we are not spared the freedom of accepting or deciding. You need to make the whole journey in its details right up to that point, and then you see that everything in the school depends on the fact that there are teachers who don’t give up–though they have a thousand excuses–in the face of what they have before them. This is the challenge, for us and for the others. In the end, the question is whether or not the skepticism we see around us prevails in us, too. The fight is about the verification of the faith; in other words, is there is something in reality, today, that enables us to start off, again and again, whatever be the circumstances–or are the circumstances more powerful than Christ? Is the impossibility we spoke of before more powerful than Christ’s power to open us up? The challenge is not just in the school, which is a detail of life; for someone else it may be work or sickness. It is there where we verify who Christ really is. In any circumstance, this road has to be traveled, and no one can jump over it. Only if someone accepts it will he see what you have seen, and can look at the kids before him with hope in his eyes. But there must be a hope that is in you; otherwise, God help them! In the end, I wish that all students could meet people who live with hope, because the kids’ problem is our problem.

Question. I teach in a state professional institute. I realize that the more we go ahead, the more mind-boggling the question of education becomes and the more the element of risk is involved. Moreover, it proves to be the way God converts us to Himself, to His Presence as Mystery, and not as a plan of ours. An aspect that is provoking me recently is that the question implies, as I believe The Risk of Education says, “passing on” the accent with which you perceive things so as to bring reality to the fore, and therefore the truth, because only the emergence of reality can awaken the “I” as objective curiosity for the truth. I felt suddenly reminded of this because, after many years of being the one in charge of GS, I found someone else put beside me and I realized that, though my intentions were good, I was running the risk of keeping things so much under control that it leads to deception that expresses itself in my attitudes, formulas and behavior. Luckily, God, in His mercy, is still God. The question I wanted to ask concerns this passing on the accent, because it is also evident that one cannot live fully if he is in suspension or in doubt about himself. I was always struck and surprised by the fact that Fr. Giussani gave himself to us and poured out his whole life into ours, with all the particular sensitivity that characterized him, without making us slaves of his own perception. I realized that if we do not put to use the awareness that we have been given and is not ours, there, where God is calling us, then we make others and ourselves slaves of our provisional perception of reality, of our measure, whereas passing on the accent means putting to use another’s awareness in things. This saves and strengthens our “I,” otherwise we dry up and lose our own taste for truth and diversity. Putting our “I” to use according to Fr. Giussani’s awareness is the only way our “I” can become a way for others.

Carrón. The only question, if I understood, is how to get to know Fr. Giussani’s awareness in such a way that this “passing on” not be ideological. You can pass on this accent by participating in a place where you can experience what Fr. Giussani experienced, in such a way that you don’t transmit only Fr. Giussani’s concepts, but the emotion that he lived. In his encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI said something very beautiful (precisely what we have learned from Fr. Giussani): “The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ Himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts–and unprecedented realism.” The novelty lies not “merely in abstract notions but in God’s unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God Himself who goes in search of the ‘stray sheep,’ a suffering and lost humanity.” The challenge is just this: you, too, can transmit Fr. Giussani’s approach, not as an abstract notion, but by participating in the same experience to which he introduced us, in such a way, though, that this experience would not be the same if you had not participated in his approach. A phrase of Fr. Giussani’s from A Coffee in Company keeps coming to mind: “A look that shapes the look.” We have met a look, Christ’s look that shaped Fr. Giussani’s look. The challenge is that this look we met in Fr. Giussani has to shape our look, in such a way that the people who meet this look meet the look that Fr. Giussani introduced us to. This is why, as you said yourself, there can be no suspension, otherwise we transmit nothing. What Jesus introduced is this dramatic moment. “More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving.” We are taken up in Christ’s self-giving, we have been taken up in Fr. Giussani’s self-giving; we don’t see things from outside, but participate in the event that generates our “I;” we are “taken up.” It is all here: at a certain point, we have been taken up by something else, “taken hold of by this Presence, by what has happened, the presence of what has happened.”2 It is not a suspension, it is being taken hold of by something else and, in order to be taken hold of, it needs this something to be present, real. No attraction can take hold of me if it is not a present event. Whoever says this is abstract has not understood, because this mode with which the Mystery identifies itself with our nothingness, this “tenderness,” says Fr. Giussani, is “a million times more acute, more penetrating than a man’s embrace for his woman.” Far from being abstract, far from being a suspension, it is entering into his self-giving, as the Pope says. Giussani continues, “We do not understand these things by reasoning, but by looking at the words that synthetically indicate the experience… .” 3 It is by looking at the experience that we understand the words. To go back to the initial question, it is not by reasoning, by playing with my thoughts, but by participating in an experience and looking at this experience that I understand the words: “but by looking at the words that synthetically indicate the experience we want to evoke; and so it needs more than one word. We have to look at this word–tenderness–within the awareness of this identification between me and You or, better, between You and me, within the awareness of this event that has taken its place in me, of this ‘You who are me.’” To participate in what Fr. Giussani told us is to participate in this; if only words remain, then we betray with the words what we have met, because we can do with Fr. Giussani what the Protestants have done with the Scriptures–words, words, words. We have to participate in what the words say, because what the words say is an event that has taken up residence in me. This is the only way of transmitting what we say, in the school and elsewhere. Without this, first of all you are stifled in the situation, and then you don’t move. Instead, this is an all-round openness to any move, our own or other people’s, with no fear, no preconceptions or schemes, because everything becomes an opportunity for verification. Someone who lives the experience of this event can go anywhere, because all the darkness around him cannot put out the light he has inside him. This is the challenge. Education is precisely transmitting what has taken up residence in us, this “You who are me.” Far from being slaves of our own measure!

1 Cf. Luigi Giussani, “Christmas: the Mystery of God’s Tenderness,”, Traces, Vol. 7, No. 11, (December) 2005, p. 4.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.