|01-05-2006 - Traces, n.5
in the Mystery of Christ
and of the Church
Notes from an address by Luigi Giussani in Faenza Cathedral, Italy, May 2, 1988
I thank his Excellency the Bishop1 very much for the opportunity he has given me to give this witness, as he said, especially because it is a witness to Our Lady. It is a witness, and this means that it is not a speech, but the communication to brothers of something one feels he is living or has experienced as life. The biblical text, which Christian tradition identifies as a prophecy of Our Lady, says, “Qui elucidant me, vitam aeternam habebunt.”2 “He who speaks well of me will have eternal life.” So thank you for the occasion given me to speak well of her. On the other hand, we cannot but admit that, in Christian history, or even in the history of the world, there is nothing more astonishing than the fame, the veneration, the trust and the love that have converged, have polarized around this figure, who was a girl of fifteen or sixteen, in an absolutely secluded village like… I don’t know, I cannot make a local comparison because I am not familiar with your region.
I - What is the first word that our heart can begin from? “Respexit humilitatem ancillae suae,” “He turned to look upon the humility of His handmaid.”3 “Humility” derives from the Latin humus, meaning earth, because she was an “earthly” reality, a nothing, as I just said: a girl of fifteen or sixteen in a little village then completely unknown to the rest of the world. Why do I begin with this word? Why does my own devotion begin from this observation?
What is great in the world? Everything once was not and will be no more, everything! Everything is truly “earthly.” Even a drop of water on the crest of a wave breaking against the crags on the seashore seems like a pearl, but only for the instant in which it sparkles. You interpret everything in a time and space which, together, are like an instant, a place that lasts an instant and then is no more, like the flower of the field, as Isaiah said, and the psalm repeated–in the morning it springs up and flowers and in the evening it withers and fades, and is of no use other than to be gathered and thrown in the fire. All things are nothing.
The awareness of one’s own smallness, the awareness of one’s own frailty or, as the philosophers have it, of one’s own contingency, the awareness of being ephemeral, which one may not have at the age of twenty or thirty, but when you feel old age coming on (we have a safety valve, and it is distraction, distraction and lack of reflection; but this is not very human, and it doesn’t last), this awareness of one’s own nothingness, of one’s own littleness, leaves the same room for, or rather, often favors, violence, because when you have a short time to live, you are tempted to be violent. In any case, whether violent or not, man, in as much as he perceives the shortness of his life, his being “just earth,” his being nothing, borders on cynicism. He walks on the brink of the feeling of being nothing and the reaction to this is certainly cynicism; in as much as he is an active being, he becomes cynical; in order to go on being active when he feels this nothingness, his own nothingness, he has to be cynical. He is saved to a certain extent by this cynicism from his natural affections, but then he becomes sad; if he is not cynical then he is sad.
I said that at the age of twenty it is possible not to think of these things, but no, even at the age of twenty these things can very well give rise to attitudes; there is a kind of despair that is typical of early youth, of adolescence and early youth. But this girl of fifteen or sixteen, who was perfectly aware of her smallness, of her nothingness, had this awareness but without violent presumptions, without cynicism, without sadness, but rather with her heart open in expectation. Here we are: a small person can save himself from cynicism and sadness only if he is open to expectation–but expectation of what?
II - This brings us to the second thought I would like to stress. Here we have a being that in her earliest youth had this wisdom, because the first aspect of wisdom is love for the truth of oneself, and the first factor of the truth of oneself is that we are nothing. But we are not arid nothingness; we are nothingness that has been called–“called,” because once we were not, and we did not choose to be. If we have been called and created without our wanting it, and we find ourselves small, as small as an atom in the whole cosmos, like something so small as to be invisible, then this explains why on earth man’s heart is by its nature open in expectation, so much so that the nature of man’s heart is that it is need, need for truth, need for justice, need for love. Man’s heart is need; in other words, it is open, it is an open reality, open not with demands, because who are you to demand, you who come from nothing? Your only wealth is that of being open in an expectation in which you cannot know, nor say, and therefore nor demand anything, just as you knew nothing when you were made.
An expectation without demands... Imagine this girl of fifteen or sixteen, who kept all the laws of her people, and so she prayed, she had moments in her day when she prayed, and she prayed with the words everyone else used, the words of her people, who for millennia had repeated these words to the great, mysterious, inexpressible and unutterable (His name could not even be pronounced) Yahweh, God.
Now, what is prayer if not entreaty? She, too, in the sincerity of her heart, felt her heart as a great entreaty, as I said before, a great need. What characterizes true entreaty is that it does not picture what it “expects.” A true entreaty is an expectation, it is filled with expectation; and this was particularly true of her, who inherited from her people the great promise of a Savior, of someone who would put everything right. How He would put everything right was pictured in various ways. (Some belonged to liberation theology, while others had a more intimate or spiritual approach. Even then, these divisions, these differences existed, but what prevailed was liberation theology, supported at the time of Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, because they were hoping for a Messiah who would bring justice–in other words, make their people the greatest people in the world, free from everyone else, from the United States of the time, who were the Romans.) She, instead, was waiting for this salvation according to the tradition of certain groups called the “poor in spirit” (the Anawim), without claiming any right to picture it in one way or another, but with her heart and arms open to God’s deed, to whatever God was going to work. Hers was pure expectation; her entreaty was pure expectation.
Here is the second important passage in the analysis of her heart, or the analysis of our heart (because Our Lady is truly an example from which to understand ourselves). God is that from which everything comes, because nothing makes itself, and we do not make ourselves. Now, in this mysterious moment, which the Gospel relates as the apparition of an angel–more a message than an apparition, the annunciation of a divine messenger–the words that resounded in Our Lady’s heart were “Nothing is impossible for God.” 4
“Nothing is impossible for God.” This is the secret, the reason that makes the expectation true. This is what makes the expectation reasonable and positive, as opposed to what we have called cynicism, and what makes it profound and discreet–as opposed to what we have called sadness. “Nothing is impossible for God.” Can any objection be made to this phrase? No! So, if nothing is impossible for God, then we understand the true nature of this woman’s, this girl’s, spiritual life that emerges immediately. It is what we will now call the religious sentiment.
When I was a boy in high school, our physics teacher would take us to the laboratory and show us what was called “Ruhmkorff’s coil” (this was more than 50 years ago, so perhaps I don’t remember the names correctly), an instrument that had a metal spike at one end and a plate at the other. You pass electric current from one end to the other and a miniature streak of lightning is created thanks to the high potential difference (I can’t explain these things, I can only repeat what I studied). The potential difference caused a small flash of lightning in the darkened room. Thus, the religious sentiment is like a light that jumps like a potential difference between the two poles–the pole of one’s nothingness, of the awareness of one’s nothingness and the pole of the knowledge of the fact that God can do everything–my nothingness and His everything.
This is the sentiment that is described and documented in what they say of St. Francis of Assisi, of that morning when they couldn’t find him in the convent and found him in the undergrowth at La Verna with his face to the ground and his arms outstretched, saying over and over again, “Who am I? Who are You?”5
The sentiment of this difference is precisely the religious sentiment. Our Lady is really an admirable example–admirable, with no theological or philosophical frills–of this religious sentiment: on the one hand, humilitas, and on the other hand, God, the Almighty.
“Nothing is impossible for God.” That nothing is impossible for God seems something easy to understand, because in fact no objection is possible, but in the whole history of thought, even theological thought, even Catholic thought, it is not so easy for it to be respected, it is not at all easy for man to respect it. Man is always tempted to dictate to God what He can and cannot do, to project onto God what he thinks is right and what he thinks is wrong, and to forbid what he thinks is wrong. But, no; “Nothing is impossible for God.”
III - Here we are at the third step we have to take this evening, and that Our Lady has us take this evening, just as she took it in her heart. And it is at this point that she became truly a protagonist. If nothing is impossible for God, then these small created things, these nothings that we are, all of us, can be taken hold of by God and made into great things.
St. Augustine, foreseeing all the concepts of evolutionism that modern science boasts of, even, or above all, in an anti-Christian sense, said that God is so powerful that He could have made the world as a small initial seed, seminales rationes,6 a small initial seed from which everything developed. Fifteen hundred years earlier, he took the steam out of Darwin and the anti-Catholic, antireligious scientists. Thus, God really could have drawn the whole of the evolution of the cosmos, and of man, out of an invisible, created point.
What really interests us, however, is that, from my almost invisible human point, He can draw something great, as from the instant. An instant seems to be something, but it is like nothing, because an instant is something so short-lived that, once you have said it, it is no longer; so small that once you have indicated it, it has to be passed over. From our small humanity and from an instant, God can draw something great. This intervention of God’s unlimited ability in the nothingness of the creature is called “mystery.” Therefore, “Nothing is impossible for God,” and so, if He intervenes in the humility of His creature, He can make it something very great. What do I mean by “something very great”? He can make of the small creature a vehicle of Himself, of the Infinite. We have also learned from the Son of Mary that even one word spoken in fun has an eternal value, and that the smallest of the sons of man (remember the campaign against abortion, which the Church supported and not many understood), even the smallest of the sons of men is relationship with the Infinite, and has an immortal value. For this reason, St. Thomas exclaimed that the human soul, what is inside man, “est quodammodo omnia,” “is in a certain way everything;”7 that is, greater than the world, as Pascal would later stress: if the whole world were to get together to crush him, the smallest man would be greater than the world that crushes him, because he would “comprehend” it, because he has this relationship with the Infinite.
So the intervention of the Infinite God–of the unutterable God, of His omnipotence, which in some way reveals Himself and makes Himself the object of man’s experience, enters into man’s experience, making Himself in some way a factor of history, using the humility of His handmaid, using the smallness of His creature–is called “mystery.” For the word “mystery,” in the Christian sense, surpasses, or rather overwhelms, the meaning of the word as used in human thought, in philosophy. For human thought, for philosophy, “mystery” is unknowable, it is the source of being as unknowable; in the Christian sense, instead, “mystery” means the source of being, God, in as much as He communicates Himself and makes Himself the object of man’s experience by means of a human reality, through a historical reality. In the ultimate, analogical sense, the first mystery is the cosmos, because through the stars in the heavens and the flowers of the field this wisdom and this infinite power makes itself visible and tangible to us (it is from the world that we get to know God). But the word “mystery” in the Christian sense is more dramatic, much more precise. It is God Himself who uses a human factor by uniting it with Himself, becoming, together with it, the protagonist of history.
The Christian Mystery is God who makes Himself visible, tangible, the object of experience, in as much as He joins to Himself and joins Himself to a small, poor human thing. Our Lady was this, and the Almighty joined Himself to her in a way inconceivable for us, in a way so great we certainly cannot imagine it. He could not have done more than this; it is as if, in becoming the child of that girl, God exhausted His infiniteness.
“And the Word was made flesh,” just as each of us was made flesh in his mother’s womb. These are things you have to look at in order to begin to perceive and to feel them, let alone to be able to talk of them; they are things you just have to stand and look at, like you look at the greatest and most beautiful things, but even these are but a pale comparison.
So, the Blessed Virgin’s religious sentiment came to be taken hold of by God’s power, since “nothing is impossible for God,” and thus the Son of the Most High became her son.
So, the Mystery in the Christian sense is the event that makes us understand what God is, God in as much as He makes Himself communicable and the object of experience, joining Himself in some way to something; from the voice that spoke from the burning bush, and the voice that spoke through the prophets, to this summit, this truly ineffable summit, that we cannot express unless by embracing its fruit, —God became the son of that young woman.
IV - Now let’s see what effect all this had on the Blessed Virgin’s human activity and what new relationship it established between that Being otherwise unknown and the whole of human history. Let’s look at what effect it had on human history.
The active reaction it had on Our Lady is called “faith.” How does this faith express itself, this acknowledgment of a presence greater than herself–because faith is the acknowledgment of a presence among us of Someone greater than us, and this Someone greater than us is called “the Lord”? How was it expressed? The Gospel tells us: fiat.
Fiat, like a breath: just as that small fifteen-year-old girl was nothing, so this great act–without which the whole history of the world would be changed, or rather would not have been changed–this act, fiat, which had a crucial value for the whole world, is like a breath, the breath of freedom. And freedom is capacity to adhere to Being, to Mystery, to Being that reveals Itself through the Mystery, to the Mystery that invades our lives.
Fiat, yes–yes! What strikes me most when I read the Gospel account of the Annunciation is when the Angel finishes speaking and Our Lady says, “Yes, let it be done to me according to Your word.” Period. “And the Angel left her.”8 I like to stop at this phrase, “And the Angel left her,” and try to put myself in her place, to imagine how this girl must have felt psychologically, without any support, without any apparent motivation, other than loyalty to that memory. She could have said, “It was an illusion, it was just my imagination.” “And the Angel left her.” Just think. She was left to face her fiancé, her parents, and what was throbbing in her as life was not yet tangible, not yet provable, not yet possible to experience.
I think I can grasp in this phrase the moment of faith, the culminating moment of faith: made, built, made truly of devotion and of reason, of the truth of reason, loyalty to her own history, loyalty to what had just happened, and fidelity to the greatness of God, of which in some way a hint had given evidence. Freedom, love for truth, loyalty, fidelity to God–faith is made of all these things. “Reasonable deference,” the Scripture calls it.
So, firstly, faith. Her cousin Elizabeth, whom she went to visit immediately, would say, “Blessed.” When God’s greatness touches the humility of His creature, that creature cannot fail to show itself growing, the beginning of its greatness; it cannot but show it in love for others. She rushed at once to help her cousin Elizabeth, and when Elizabeth saw her she said, “Blessed are you who believed that the Lord’s promise would be fulfilled;”9 your greatness lies in having believed that what the Lord promised you would be fulfilled.
So man’s greatness lies in faith, man’s greatness lies in acknowledging the great Presence within a human reality, because the great Presence, so confused as thought can picture it, is still of little effect. Faith as acknowledgment of the great Presence within the nothingness, the smallness, the humility of a created thing, of a historical event, a historical fact, of the life of a young woman–“Blessed are you who believed that God’s promise would be fulfilled”–, this is the faith that becomes the protagonist of history. For the theme of the Magnificat is this: “Fecit mihi magna qui potens est.” “The Almighty has made something great of me.” This is not pride: “He looked on His servant in her nothingness,”10 through her freedom, her yes, and therefore her faith, make her the unequalled protagonist of history. There is no name greater than this.
Do you remember when we still studied beautiful things at school, when Manzoni, in his poem The Name of Mary, said, “Silently one day up I don’t know what hill / climbed the spouse of a Nazarene carpenter; / she climbed unseen to the happy mansion / of a pregnant old woman [Elizabeth, who was made pregnant in her old age, as the Angel had foretold] // and after greeting her, who reverently / welcomed and honored the unexpected guest / praising God she exclaimed, ‘All generations / will call me blessed.’ [Tonight, we are here to repeat this prophecy, making it come true once again.] // Oh! With what contempt / the then-proud age would hear the distant predictions [modern man would laugh spitefully at hearing that sixteen-year-old girl say, “All generations will call me blessed”] how slow / we are at understanding [how thick-headed we are], oh, how deceptive / our foresight of human intents [how petty and deceptive is our way of foreseeing!].” 11
“He has made great things of me.” For the whole world, in its history, has been divided, in the very numbering of the years, by the child who was to be born of her. And the child who was to be born of her would be the Savior of His people, the Savior of the people of God, which is the whole of mankind. “The Almighty has truly made great things of me.”
Then in the pages narrating the wedding feast in Cana, we have the record of what she, as woman and mother, was to be in the long course of history: the mediatrix between man’s poverty and the greatness of the Mystery, Jesus. She told the servants, “Do what He tells you,”12 and Christ obeys her–let’s say, “He obeyed her,” because it wasn’t, strictly speaking, obedience, but that supreme convenience that is born of a son’s love for his mother.
This is the greatest devotion in the Church’s history and in world history: devotion to Our Lady, therefore, as a prolongation of the mediation she worked in Cana between that humble married couple and Jesus, for a profound, admirable convenience, full of tenderness, an instrument of supreme affection, God-made-man, in whose hands everything has been put. “Everything has been put into my hands,” “You have put all men into my hands,”13 Jesus says before going to die.
All this is thanks to the intercession of this woman, mediatrix of all graces, that is, of every communication of salvation that Christ makes to poor man, to the poor creature; so mediatrix of the saving action of the Mystery, more than merely protagonist of history! And the whole world and all human powers, even ecclesiastical powers, are forced, as it were, to be humble before the emergence of the miracle of Mary, because in all the years of the Church’s history she has spoken to her people, which is part of her maternal object, because all men are members or destined to be members of her Son. Truly protagonist of history. “The Almighty has made great things of me.”
V - At this point, the Mystery of God reveals more the mystery in the obscure, not luminous sense of the word, the mystery of man’s life, the mystery of human history. The mystery of human history is the history of a conflict, a conflict between good and evil, that is, a conflict between the Son of Mary and–let’s use the words of the Gospel–those born of lies, of Satan. Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel describes human history exactly as a conflict between Jesus and the followers or children of Satan. “You do the works of your father, Satan. He is the father of lies; when he tells lies, he draws them from his nature, because he is the father of lies.”14
So Mary is the protagonist of history by being mother of the truth, and man, any man at all, before her, comes back into the truth of his humility and finds himself before the greatness of the mystery of God, for whom nothing is impossible. In human history, Our Lady is the most immediate, most vigorous and vibrant source of religious sentiment. Let’s think of Fatima when Mary intervened in the Church’s history and in the life of the world through three children of five and eight years old, who changed the face of their whole nation.
So, on which side do we stand? Are we on the side of the children of lies or do we want to be part of the Son of Mary? “For all of you who have been baptized have put on Christ. There is no more [difference between] Jew or Greek, slave or free [right or left], male or female, but you are all one [eis–a single person] in Christ Jesus.”15 So she is truly my mother as she is Jesus’ mother, our mother as she is Jesus’ mother.
Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus appeared on the shore of Lake Tiberias (one of the finest pages in the whole Gospel). All the Apostles were there that cold dawn, before that individual, that man who had prepared grilled fish for them (who knows how He had come there and prepared that fish for them?). And they all felt, “It’s the Lord!” but no one dared say it to Him; no one had the courage. After they had spoken, Jesus turned to one of them and asked, perhaps as they were going off, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” And Peter felt his heart shudder as he remembered the betrayal, the contradictions, the cowardice that had marked the life of that wretched man he was; who knows how he answered, “Lord, You know I love You”? And Jesus looked at him and asked again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And who knows how he trembled as he answered, “Lord, You know I love You”? “Feed my lambs.” He made him a protagonist of history, protagonist of history as head of the Church. A third time, perhaps after taking another step, He stopped and asked him again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Then St. Peter felt all confused, and yet he had the courage to say, “Lord, You know everything, You know I love You.” “Feed my sheep; all that is mine I leave in your hands. When you were young, you clothed yourself and went where you chose, but when you are old, someone else will clothe you and take you where you do not wish to go.” And shortly after this, He said to him, “Follow me.”16
“Follow me.” The whole history of the Church is grafted onto the descendants of Peter, the papacy, the Bishop of Rome, guarantor of the faith of all the bishops and all the faithful (this is the mystery, God’s omnipotence in history, in the history of poor men). He made him protagonist of history, with just a short command, “Follow me.”
What was that fiat for Our Lady, “Yes, let it be done to me according to Your word”? “Yes, I’ll follow You.” As the Pope said in his marvelous encyclical letter on Our Lady,17 the Angel’s invitation to Mary was the first “follow me” of Christian history. And she replied, “Yes, I’ll follow You; let it be done according to Your word.”
That’s how it must be for us. In our short existence, which is part of the great history of God with mankind, on whose side are we? We are on the side of fiat, yes, before all the circumstances of life, which have no other meaning but this “Follow me.”
How does God, Christ, tell me, “Follow me”? Through the circumstances of my life, in themselves so humble, made of instants that are nothing, made of nothing, but, embracing these circumstances, saying, “Yes, I’ll follow You,” we put ourselves on the side of that human people that, enlightened and redeemed by Christ, through the example and the mediating intervention of Our Lady, draws the whole world, human and non-human, the human world and the entire cosmos, toward its destiny. Living the fiat, today, in the circumstances of this evening or the circumstances of tomorrow morning, saying, “Yes I’ll follow,” fiat, which is like a breath, like nothing, compared to the enormity of things that happen, we become, with Our Lady, co-redeemers. This means that we collaborate in bringing the human and cosmic world toward its destiny, toward happiness, eternal fullness, that for which a mother gives birth to a child–happiness.