01-12-2008 - Traces, n. 11


Face to Face with His Tenderness
Saint Augustine, Bakhita, the saints of the past, but also Andrea, Cilla, and others who spoke at the last Meeting
for Friendship Among Peoples (in August in Rimini, Italy), all demonstrate how unexpectedly, in the most dramatic situations, only Christ can respond to the heart of man

by Antonio Socci

That day, her owner was bored, so she decided to have the three black girls she’d bought as slaves tortured; they were 10 or 11 years old. Bakhita was held down on the ground while they cut her with a razor 114 times, then filled the wounds with salt. Just like that, for fun, because her Muslim owners considered her a thing. When she was 7 years old, in 1876, she’d been abducted from her Sudanese village and then sold as a slave four times. The only thing she’d ever known was ferocity.
Such is human history without Jesus. Joseph Ratzinger, in his Jesus of Nazareth, explains that before the coming of the Savior, the world was infested by demons. Ferocity and inhumanity dominated everywhere. Then, one day, these words sounded forth: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people …and have heard their cry …so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them” (Ex 3:7).  “He showed Himself. He, personally,” 2,000 years ago. And from then on, every day, “in a phenomenon of a different humanity,” Fr. Giussani tells us. Even that unfortunate girl, Bakhita, “runs into and discovers there a new presentiment of life… We would never have expected it. We never would have dreamed of it. It was impossible.”

Free from slavery
Bakhita couldn’t have dreamed of it.  Through chance circumstances, when she was 16, her owners brought her to Venice, where she met the Canossian sisters. She was struck by their humanity and by the goodness of a true Christian, a “man with a heart of gold” (a relative of the man who would become Pope Saint Pius X), who gave her a crucifix. “In giving it to me,” the girl remembered, “he kissed it with devotion, and then explained to me that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for us.” Bakhita was dazzled. He died for her? Could it be possible that someone loved her? Yes. She saw it in the faces of “those saintly mothers who lead me to know God,” especially the sister who instructed her. “I can’t remember her care for me without crying.” When her owners came back for her,  Bakhita, who didn’t want to lose God, refused for the first time to follow them. On November 29, 1889, the Patriarch of Venice had the King’s Magistrate intervene, declaring Bakhita free from slavery. She remained in Italy, was baptized, and asked to become a sister; she lived to the age of 78, “during which time I knew more and more God’s goodness to me.” She died in 1947, and was proclaimed saint in 2000.
No situation is too extreme or dramatic to be reached and liberated by God-made-man, even today, a time of different kinds of slavery. The readers of Traces know this well. You’ve read the unforgettable testimony to this fact in the story of Andrea, the young AIDS victim, who wrote to Fr. Giussani two days before he died (his letter is printed in Il tempo e il tempio [Time and the Temple]). I’ll quote a few passages: “I’m writing just to say thank you; thank you for having given meaning to this arid life of mine.” Andrea explained his gratitude with these words: “I’m a high school classmate of Ziba… When Ziba prayed the Angelus in front of me, I cursed blasphemously in his face; I hated him and said he was a coward because the only thing he could do was say those stupid prayers in front of me. Now, when I stumblingly try to say them with him, I understand that I was the coward, because I couldn’t see the truth that was right under my nose. Thank you, Fr. Giussani. It’s the only thing a man like me can say. Thank you, because through my tears I can say that dying this way now has meaning, not because it’s more beautiful–I’m very afraid of dying–but because now I know that there’s someone who loves me and maybe I, too, can be saved and I, too, can pray that my bedmates may encounter and see, as I have seen and encountered. In this way, I feel useful. …With the only thing I can still use well (my voice), I can be useful. I’ve thrown my life away, but I can do good praying the Angelus. I think that my greatest satisfaction is having met you, in writing this letter, but even greater is that, in God’s mercy, if He so wills, I’ll meet you there, where everything will be new, good, and true. New, good, and true like the friendship you’ve brought to the lives of many people and of which I can say, ‘I was there too.’ I, too, in this crude, rough life, have seen and participated in this new, good, and true event.”
This is a story of our times–just like the extraordinary ones of the Meeting 2008, recently collected by Paola Brizzi and Alberto Savorana in the volume Un’avventura per sé [An Adventure for Oneself], and so similar to the stories of 2,000 years ago. This also happened in the fourth century to Augustine, the most refined intellectual of Rome, and then of Milan, where he went to teach in 384 AD. He lacked for nothing, neither academic success, nor wealth, nor women’s love, nor the satisfaction of fatherhood, nor diversions, nor friendship with the power politicians of the city…

A greater happiness
And yet an inexplicable angst enshrouded him: “I was unhappy.” He spoke of “deepest tedium,” of “fear of death.” It was his encounter with Saint Ambrose, the bishop of the city, only a few years older than he, that would strike him. “The sweetness of his speech gave me pleasure.” It opened a breach in Augustine, fascinating him, even moderating the intellectual’s pride: “Certainly, humility of reason is always needed in order to welcome [the fact of the Incarnation]; what is needed is man’s humility that responds to the humility of God.”
His life changed. Now, “the cupidity for honors and earnings... had no more power, compared to Your sweetness and the splendor of Your house that I loved. But,” he confessed, “I was still in the grip of women”–“my previous lovers still held me back.” And, once again, unforeseen encounters prevailed, with the attraction of a greater happiness. This happened when Ponticiano told him that in Treviri, two friends of his had left their fiancés to enter into a community of virgins (the first monastic experiences) and that the two girls had done the same. This was a new form of life that spread to many young Christians in Milan as well (where they were followed by Ambrose himself). Augustine met them and was fascinated and engaged by them. Later, he would confess, “Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved Thee! For behold Thou wert within me, and I outside; and I sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made. Thou wert with me and I was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to me and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.” (The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Books X, XXVII, transl F. J. Sheed, Sheed, Andrew and McMeel, Kansas City, 1942)

Unexpected blossoming
Many centuries later, the same thirst for happiness and the same moved wonder marked the life of a teenager from Piedmont, Italy, another presence familiar to the readers of this magazine. From the book Fr. Primo Soldi dedicated to Cilla, I’ll draw two brief moments. Before the “encounter,” this girl of just 15, so deep and intelligent, wrote of herself in her diary (her “communications to the family”): “Lord, I communicate to you that Your daughter is alone. Lord, I communicate to you that Your daughter isn’t happy. Lord, I communicate to you that Your daughter wants to love, but isn’t able to.”
One day, something happened, a simple invitation by her friends, who were beginning the journey of CL, to Morning Prayer. A lightning bolt of wonder struck. Cilla wrote, “This is the first time I’ve prayed this way. ...I believe I’ve been missing one of the most important things of my life.” In just a few weeks, with the discovery of a new life and a true friendship, she experienced an unexpected blossoming. In her diary, one reads, “Before, I didn’t exist. I was born in the moment in which I understood what community is: the means that brought me to Christ.”
In every age, Jesus has made Himself known in “a phenomenon of different humanity: a man runs up against and discovers there a new presentiment of life.”Saint Augustine said, “God became man. You would be dead forever if He had not been born in time. You would never have been freed from the flesh of sin, if He had not taken on a flesh similar to that of sin. You would always find yourself in a state of misery, if He hadn’t shown you mercy. You would not have returned to life, if He hadn’t shared your death. You would have disappeared, if He hadn’t come to your help. You would be lost, if He hadn’t arrived.”