|01-05-2008 - Traces, n. 5
Required for Faith
Notes from Luigi Giussani’s talk during the June 18, 1988, pilgrimage for young people to the sanctuary of Caravaggio, promoted by the Diocese of Milan for the Marian Year
I would simply like to comment on what the text calls the “most perfect icon of the freedom and liberation of humanity,”1 the fact that Our Lady is the point at which the mystery of the liberation of humanity has become more tangible. Even if the word “liberation” is so indistinct and so confused in our hearts, it still says something clearly: that liberation is liberation–it’s not slavery–of humanity, of this reality that eats and drinks, wakes and sleeps every day. In Our Lady, the mystery of the liberation of man, which is Jesus, reveals its beneficent influence in an exceptional way (“perfect,” as we’ve read in the text).
I’ll tell you some of the things that most struck me in my life, and, first of all–“first of all” in the literal sense, because even today it’s the thing that leaves me slack-jawed–what Psalm 8 says. When I entered the seminary at the age of ten, one of the things that most struck me, the first days, reading the small breviary of the Blessed Virgin, as was done then, was hearing in Psalm 8, together with my other small companions, “What is man that You think of him?” From then on, this sentence has remained impressed in my heart: “And the son of man, that You should care for him?”2 In fact, even back then it seemed evident to me that man is like a twig in a whirlpool, a great fragility, like a speck of dust in the wind, blown by the gusts of the wind. And man is not only a fragility: there is also in us an incoherence, and, therefore, a dissipation of strength and a division within ourselves, so you can’t manage to grab everything to unify it.
Man is truly poor! Who of us, at the end of the day, feels that our human energy as a protagonist has succeeded in the human effort of the day just gone by? Nobody. This is the reason we abandon ourselves so much to distraction and forgetfulness: to avoid disappointment.
Well, “the Lord has looked with favor on [the nothingness of] His lowly servant.”3 And Our Lady–in fact, a girl of fifteen or seventeen–what was she in the universe, in reality? Truly a mere straw. Who noted her in that village, among the remotest of the Roman Empire of the time, in the known world of that time, a little village with a bad reputation, for that matter? She was truly nothing, as I have to say in certain moments, “I’m really nothing!”–and I’m not exaggerating when I say so.
The Lord took that little thing. If you have the fortune to go to Palestine and lean against the railing that separates you from the little room where she lived, where there’s a plaque with the words, “Here the Word became Flesh,” then you too–I believe–will be struck as I was by the thought, “How is it possible? From here, from here, everything happened? Everything, from here!” We still move with a lucid, limpid conviction, with a burning heart, for something that happened there, in that hole, two thousand years ago. And should the world endure two hundred million years, it would still say so, that everything started out from there. It’s true, as Saint Paul would then say, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”4 However, I want to underline what this “icon” says to my life, to our life. I believe that this is the greatest thing one can know: the value of the instant, a moment of our life, which has need of no other circumstances to claim the attention of the angels and of God, of eternity, to have value, to truly count. This brief point in space and time, which is this moment, now, is taken by God so that it may be functional and useful for everything, for His whole design. This instant is important for Christ; “how” it is important, the Lord God knows, but it’s important. We can affirm that it’s as important as the greatest gestures recounted in books, in history books and those memorialized in newspapers. I need nothing more than what I have now to be great before the mystery of God and thus to be of eternal value. Our Lady, this girl chosen by God, first of all, tells me this.
Circumstances, therefore, precisely the circumstances of life, for example our character (not “for example,” because almost all of the circumstances are tied to character) or the inevitable situations and the outcome of what we do; it’s not possible to live through or get past circumstances scot-free: it is in them, through them, that greatness flows within our “I,” our person, and that our life becomes useful, participates in that great usefulness of the life of Mary and therefore–and therefore!–in the great usefulness, for the liberation of man, of the life of Christ.
In this sense, it isn’t wrong–in fact, it’s our duty, source of gladness, and even source of joy (to which we were called in the reading of the beautiful text that accompanied our walk)–for us to understand that the glory of God, through the glory of this man who is the Son of God, Christ, passes through our moment and the circumstances of life in which each of us journeys. This is why, rightly, an ancient postcard of the Kingship of Christ quoted a famous sentence from Saint Catherine: “If you will be what you should be, you will set all of Italy afire. Don’t be content with the small things: He, the Lord God, wants them great.”5 This doesn’t contradict what I said. It’s that every moment must be in us–can be in us–so great, and we’re not friends for each other if we don’t remind each other of this, if we don’t encourage each other with this, above all with the example that, in these things, an energy is generated that flows from us and “catches” all those around us.
His Eminence Carlo Maria Martini, in Leningrad, in his beautiful talk, said these things, which I copied from Avvenire: Every time that “God has been rejected, that His meaning has been lost or diminished, or He has been presented incorrectly, this has initiated movement toward more or less latent forms of decadence of man and of social co-existence itself.”6
“Decadence of man” means that man contracts and stiffens, that he becomes miserable and petty. It is, in fact, when what we look at or the relationships that are established respond exclusively to the reaction that is provoked and affirms itself in us, or when judgments or relationships are born of the attempt–always, deep down, a bit hysterical–to affirm our own projects (in the relationship with one’s boyfriend or girlfriend, in family life, at work, in studies or in cultural life, or in politics). Pettiness means that one is imprisoned, that the horizon is no longer open and time becomes a judge, because we get bored with what we’ve done and what we do, we can’t support anything and nothing can last, even though at the moment it may give a certain pleasure. The limitation of our prison has to be shattered. And–here is the aspect of liberation–our prison is shattered only if the wall opens and the infinite enters. This is why His Eminence said that those who reject God, or who lose His meaning or diminish Him, will then fall into decadence, because freedom is without confines, and without confines is the relationship with God. But how man struggles with this!
How we admire all the efforts that humans have made to cling to God, to imagine Him for themselves, to establish an affective relationship with Him, and to express aesthetically the emotion that this thought aroused in them–that is to say, the various religions! But Our Lady had the infinite Mystery there, with her, while she ate and drank, in her waking hours and in her sleep. What different dimensions all these things had for her! In no moment could she forget the relationship that bound her to that Creature, before He was born, after His birth, seeing Him grow up. In her, memory dominated.
“Memory:” this is the great word that continually rekindles and continually liberates our life, which otherwise would be continually tempted, that is, would be crushed by a limiting imprisonment, by a burden. In fact, it is this memory that liberates us from the burden of existence, as when Jesus saw that funeral in the midst of the fields–which we have recalled so many times among ourselves–and heard the cries of that woman, her desperate cries, and then inquired, took a step forward, and told her, “Woman, don’t cry!”7 which–as we’ve noted so many times–is nonsense, seems nonsense, because how can you tell a mother whose son has died, “Woman, don’t cry!”? But it’s the greatest, most beautiful expression of that tenderness, that passion for man which we must feel, realize, in order to understand the Lord. In this sense, the Lord came out of pity for man, and the origin of His movement isn’t thus an origin, I was about to say “of religion,” but of humanity. How this memory made all of Our Lady’s actions different! God among us has become a present reality.
How should we embrace this invitation that Our Lady extends to us, that her figure extends to us? Let’s have a great devotion, a great attention to all that calls us to the memory of Christ: from the great mystery of the entire Church, to the living and concrete mystery of our particular Church, our parish, the community of friends, the people in our family: they are truly–after the adoration of God, after gratitude to God–the greatest gratitude of our life. Almost an adoration should go to this human reality in which we are called to the memory of Christ, that is to say the memory of His presence, because by ourselves we are distracted; we can also study theology, but here it’s a matter of sentiment, of an awareness, an awareness that invests, that reaches out to invest all our affectivity, that has to qualify a way in which we look at all things and thus the way in which we treat all things.
What a grace, what a grace is this sign of His presence, the humanity that calls us to Him: from the Church to family, to friends, to close personal friends. This is true friendship. I have always strongly felt this value that the icon of Mary calls to our consciousness. Even back when I was a boy in high school, and during our Thursday walks, during our seminary outings, in line then, three by three, especially with my two buddies, I always felt called to these things and we dreamed of them. The glory of Christ is greater and bursts beyond all the limits of the imagination with which we try to give Him homage, but remembering it, remembering it–in whatever form of recollection it can adorn itself–remembering it is, in our life, the point in which our life is liberated: the prison of affection is opened, the prison of companionship, the prison of work, the prison of toil, the prison of ourselves.
Now, this memory, precisely because it isn’t the recollection of an unimaginable and ineffable Mystery, but the recollection of a present humanity (the Mystery became a man, and “I will be with you”–He said–“to the end of all times, to the end of the world”8) is called “faith.” When she said “fiat,” “yes,” she expressed faith in the shortest, most succinct and magnificent way of all times.
I’d like to emphasize–it’s something that has always moved me–how Our Lady’s faith is first of all a reasonable faith, according to what the Apostle requires: that faith be a “reasonable homage.”9 In what sense was Our Lady’s faith reasonable? We don’t know how that great moment that we call the Annunciation happened; we can imagine it, but we really don’t know how it happened. What happened is certainly this: that it was made evident to Our Lady that there was a correspondence between what was happening, between what she was being told, and the profound expectant awaiting of her heart. Reasonableness is this. The profound expectant awaiting of her heart was that the promise made by God to her fathers would be fulfilled: “Blessed is she who believed in the fulfillment of the word of the Lord.”10 Blessed is she who believed in the fulfillment of the word of the Lord, and the fulfillment of the word of the Lord is the accomplishment of the great promise: “He will be born”–we heard it read just now–“He will be born:” God made human presence.
What has always struck me is the sentence that the Gospel says after the angel stops speaking and Mary answers, “Yes, may it be done to me according to your word.” Period! “And the angel left her.”11 I have always been struck by this sentence; who knows how many hundreds and hundreds of times I’ve returned to it, imagining the terrible situation that girl must have been in. As soon as “the angel left her,” she could have said, “It’s an illusion!” “I built it myself!” “What does it mean?” “It was a flight of fancy!” In that moment, Our Lady had to live all the energy that is required for faith. And she demonstrated it precisely in that moment, in which even what she bore within couldn’t be ascertained, in that great moment (“And the angel left her”), in which she remained alone, alone before her fiancé, alone before her family, alone before the world, and was loyal to what she had heard and seen.
Faith implies a courage that sustains intelligence. Intelligence expresses itself with a judgment (“Yes, it is so”); but courage of the heart is required first of all even to say, “It is so,” and then, above all, to remain in this affirmation, to go on in this affirmation.
This is why faith is directly proportional to the most elementary and irreplaceable gesture of man; in fact, the true human gesture, I was about to say, is only this (all the rest is given; this too is given, to a certain point, but it is the point in which what is given to us obligates our freedom): I want to speak of the “entreaty,” which can also be called prayer.
You can’t have faith without asking for faith. This is how I imagine Our Lady before the Annunciation, with the habit she certainly must have had of reading the Bible, of repeating within herself the great entreaty that man made to the Lord of all times. And it seems fairly significant to me that, at the end of the religious history of humanity told by the Bible, the Bible should end precisely with an entreaty: “Come, Lord Jesus.”12
Antonio Socci said in his monograph on the great Tarkovskij, “For a long time, Western man has burned the knapsack and the staff of the wayfarer, with his touching natural disposition for entreaty [man rejected being a pilgrim; that is to say, man rejected understanding that life is a journey toward the infinite destiny, with his touching natural disposition for entreaty]. The dimora (ethos) of man [that is, the way of conceiving and behaving] is no longer the horizon [the horizon toward which the walker, the wayfarer goes], but the hiding place, where he encounters no one and where, therefore, he begins to doubt his own existence.”13 Only in the entreaty, only when we place ourselves in a position of entreaty, do we feel all other humans–near and far, of the same opinion or of different opinions–as part of ourselves.
We can only imagine Our Lady as a continual entreaty that the glory of her Son appear on the horizon of the world and that all men know Him. All the time of her existence, Our Lady lived the entreaty of what Christ asked before dying, “Father, the hour has come, glorify Your Son.”14 Each of us is called to adhere to the figure of the Blessed Virgin, that the glory of Christ may come. Thus, our life will be an adventure; thus, our life will be a journey useful for us and for others, luminous, because “the hour has come.” We said it before: every moment is the hour.
1 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 97, Istruzione circa la libertà cristiana e la liberazione, [Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation]. (Quoted by John Paul II in Redemptoris Mater,37).
2 Ps. 8:5.
4 Cf. 1 Cor. 1:27.
5 Cf. Saint Catherine of Siena, Letter to Stefano Maconi, n. 368.
6 C.M. Martini quoted in U. Folena, “Russi, l’Europa vi aspetta,” [Russians, Europe awaits you] in «Avvenire», June 17, 1988, p. 8.
7 Cf. Lk. 7:13.
8 Mt. 28:20.
9 Cf. Rm. 12:1.
10 Lk. 1:45.
11 Lk. 1:38.
12 Rev. 22:20.
13 A. Socci, Obbiettivo Tarkovskij [Objective Tarkovskij], EDIT, Milano, 1987, p. 27.
14 Jn. 17:1.