|01-03-2009 - Traces, n. 3
Notes from a lesson given at a Memores Domini retreat in Pianazze, Italy, on November 30, 1974.
by LUIGI GIUSSANI
How important is the last word of this evening’s Gospel, the last word of the Gospel for the liturgical year, “Be vigilant and pray!” (Lk 21:36) It’s the same word Christ said in His agony on the last evening of His life (cf. Mt 26:38). How important is the word “vigilant”–to be on the lookout, to stay on the lookout. Because, if life isn’t something that passes, but something that comes, then hope truly is the right way to face life: it is a hope that is “against hope” (Rom 4:18).
This is the energy of vigilance, discovered in its dynamism, in its dynamic. All appearances counter hope; all appearances are distraction, intemperance of affectivity, anxious woes. All this is like a sedimentation that buries us, like the walls of a tomb, and man is obtuse, as it says in the Gospel (cf. Lk 21:34-36), closed within these walls. Then you see that the energy of hope breaks through the walls.
In order to say these things–do you understand?–I have to expend effort, I have to break through the walls. But if, in listening to me, you don’t break through the walls, it’s useless for me to keep talking. This activity is what saves: the collaboration, our engagement in the work of redemption, as it said in the prayer over the people this evening (collect of the XXXIV week of ordinary time: “Reawaken, Lord, the will of Your faithful, so that, collaborating with commitment in Your work of salvation, they may obtain in ever more abundant measure the gifts of Your mercy.”)
Walls can be made of many things, but the most resistant, the hardest material is in walls constructed of our sin, of the consciousness of our laziness. This yoke is terrible, because at first we’re attracted to sin; then, sin becomes a reason for desperation, and you can go on no longer. I’m not speaking primarily of a gesture, of sin as a given action, but of sin as a state, as a normal condition.
As an introduction, I wanted to remind you of the word “hope,” showing you or calling you to realize that hope is an energy, the energy of vigilance, an energy that continually pierces through, penetrates, continually tries to penetrate through the shadows. This is indicated in the expression “be vigilant” because, as everyone knows, it is the verb of the night watchmen. The energy of hope breaks, perforates the hard walls of the tomb in which distraction, intemperance, and worries enclose us. It’s not the disappearance of distraction, intemperance, or worries; it’s that in the midst of distraction, worries, and intemperance, unconquerable hope continually breaks the walls that continually form. This is the living heart, the sign of God living within the land of the dead.
The factors of a dynamic
But once we’ve affirmed hope as the impetus of the Spirit–because it is the impetus of the Spirit in us, so much so that this hope is nourished exclusively by Veni Sancte Spiritus, by “Come, Lord Jesus,” by crying out, begging, or listening: “Seek every day the face of the saints and draw comfort from their discourses” (Didaché, IV, 2, in I padri apostolici [The Church Fathers], Città Nuova, Milan, 1978, p. 32)–once we have affirmed this impetus, this impetuous principle that is in us, which is the gift of the Spirit, and which, for homo viator, for wayfaring man, is called hope, we have to say a few things, a bit humbly, a bit scholastically, about the mechanism to which hope gives substance. This impetus gives substance to a dynamic, to a mechanics whose factors are decisive instruments of hope as energy that breaks the tomb, as energy of continual resurrection.
Really, you don’t understand yet, because you’re still unripe; even if you suffer all the poison, you still don’t understand well the most powerful weapon of the devil. The most powerful weapon of deceit, of the enemy, is the defeat he has inflicted upon us. The defeat he has inflicted upon us is either an instrument of Christ for the purification of our conscience, to deepen our awareness of our nothingness and that mercy is everything–that He is everything, because mercy is Christ–or it becomes the instrument in the hand of the evil one, in the hand of the enemy to define us, judge us, paralyze us, nothing more. The normal indomitability of Christian hope, in life, is the continual resurrection, as we’ve called it in other moments, such as those of Easter, the continual resurrection.
Now, let’s look at some factors of the mechanism to which hope gives substance.
Tomorrow we begin another year, and who knows if I’ll still be here at year’s end (well, the same goes for you, too, but given our age difference…). We have to set up things–relationships, actions, projects–in such a way that, should this apparent separation happen, the relationships that are established and the actions that are done will tranquilly continue to build. This is the test of the truth of a relationship or an action. What enables this freedom of the relationship and of the action, this redemption of the relationship and of the action is hope; may the relationship and the action be instruments of expectant awaiting of the Lord who comes.
Impetus for ascesis
Here is one of the first factors of the mechanism that hope creates. Let’s first of all say the outcome of this factor in action, which is the unity of the person, the unity of your own “I” and your own life, because this is the first sign of freedom, what those who heard Christ expressed, when they said, “What is there about His word? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out” (Lk 4:36). “Never before has anyone spoken like this one” (Jn 7:46). Even if we don’t understand, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” the words that give unity to life (cf. Jn 6:68).
We are talking about the unity of the person. Think of our distraction, which deep down is a phenomenon of inertia, of laziness, of negligence, all the more tragic in that the more people are distracted, the less they realize it–think of the anxious woes, think of the intemperance, the straying, and how they tend, how they would tend to section, to dismantle our unity of life, centering us on one point, “scattering us” on many points, “drowning us” in others–anxious woes. Instead, hope–which lives in the heart even when we are distracted, intemperate, worried–represents the continual reconstitution, the continual reproposal of the unity of life, of the unity of the person.
Hope is the relationship with Christ who comes. But the relationship with Christ who comes is the memory of Christ who came. Hope as expectant awaiting of Christ who comes coincides with the memory of Christ who came.
Good then, unity is a construction; our unity is constructed. Hope as impetus gives you back unity, but this unity is ephemeral if you don’t build. In the midst of distraction, trouble, and intemperance, you lose your unity, you rip into pieces, dissolve or drown in a point–anxious woes. Hope bores through this tomb, makes you come forth from this heap of stones, and gives you back the sense of your unity, makes you feel yourself again even in the midst of total dismantlement, disaster. How clear that it is “yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20) and “sine tuo numine nihil est in homine, nihil est innoxium” (cf. Veni, Sancte Spiritus)! However, this unity–that hope saves–tends to die, can’t stand on its own, if it doesn’t become an object of work. We know the word for this work: ascesis. Unity is the fruit of an ascesis or, better, it is the fruit of hope that déclenche [catalyzes] (I don’t know how to say it otherwise), that makes an ascesis begin.
Hope is an impetus from which an ascesis develops. If an ascesis doesn’t develop, then hope becomes immensely more exhausted, increasingly wearied, and the walls of the tomb increasingly rough, increasingly thicker, and therefore the energy succumbs to the tiredness more and more. Thus the paradox: if you accept the work, the impetus of hope is increasingly clear and increasingly sprightly, increasingly more youthful; if you don’t accept this work, if you don’t start off from this work, the impetus of hope becomes increasingly tired, because it has to bore through a yard of reinforced concrete instead of an inch. This work is called ascesis.
Therefore, this new year is given to us so that the unity of our person may be fulfilled more, given that what we’re awaiting comes closer. His presence is what gives unity to our person. The memory of His having come and the hope of His return is what gives unity. So then, a new year brings His coming closer; deepens, that is, His memory, making it more alive. This year, the unity of our person has to become more alive; this event is called “maturity.” But this is precisely why hope has to develop in ascesis, in work.
Work on the authoritative judgment
Now, here’s an important qualification. I’ve told you these things–which we already know–because this ascesis is a work that starts out and develops; it is a work that starts out, is based on, and draws nourishment from an authoritative judgment. How did hope arise in us? Through an announcement that was given to us. That announcement is the authoritative judgment of our life. Everything is based on the memory of what happened; the memory of what happened contains the fundamental authoritative judgment. It is precisely the announcement of what happened that generated the memory in us.
Hope, as expectant awaiting of what will come, is founded on an authoritative judgment, on the warning given us: that Christ will return. This authoritative judgment–which, at its root, is Christ Himself, Alpha and Omega, memory and return–in history becomes that of the Church of God. How do we experience the Church of God? Through the way the Lord mercifully had her touch us, that is, through the Movement. Before everything else, how do we experience the Movement? As a certain vocation: the Memores Domini. You can push the analogy as far as you want. The important thing is this criterion: ascesis is work on an authoritative judgment.
When Moses stood before the Promised Land, he referred to the entire past to understand the meaning of what lay before him (cf. Dt 32). To understand the meaning of what he had before him, beyond the Jordan, which he could see from the mountain, he relived, went back to all that had happened. What happened was like the authoritative judgment, upon which the ascesis of his behavior, at that moment, was being built.
Authoritative judgment: let’s not reduce this thing in a small-minded, puerile, adolescent, mechanical, moralistic way. I hope that the examples provided will give the total horizon of this word. Authoritative judgment is Christ, the memory that He struck in us, the mystery of the Church and, thus, the whole history that precedes us. But precisely for this reason, it is articulated in a contingent and ephemeral way in the structures or in the authoritative relationships that have given life to us, that have given life to our journey of vocational maturity, that have given life to the reality of our houses. It is very important that this analogy be pushed to its extreme consequences. This certainly implies attention to those who have functions of unity in the house, attention to those, in a given dynamic, who have responsibility; but even further, attention to all the brethren with whom God has put us: “Seek every day the face of the saints and draw comfort from their words.”
Which, all told, means obedience, means that the fulcrum of ascesis is obedience. Even if we don’t understand well yet–neither I, nor much less you, except for a few to whom God has given His Spirit in an exceptional way–what this great word means, which summarizes the morality of Christ before the Father–“made obedient, even unto death” (Phil 2:8)–but it’s like a great sea we have to sail, a great road we have to journey more and more.
“Oboedientia et pax” (an expression of one of St. Philip Neri’s favorite disciples, Cardinal Cesare Baronio, who repeated it often, resting his head on the feet of the statue of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica), as we’ve said so often: obedience and peace. Peace is the unity of self and obedience is the work done on an authoritative judgment. Therefore, even when you got up on the wrong side of the bed, even when you have sacrosanct resentments in the name of justice because–I don’t know–they squished a bean on the kitchen floor instead of picking it up, the criterion of ascesis, the criterion of truth and holiness certainly isn’t that bee in your bonnet or that noble resentment; it’s obedience. Without this, there’s no work. In fact, it is in the peace of obedience that “fervet opus” (Virgil, Georgics, IV, v. 169): this means that the work blazes, the work is hale and hearty; the ascesis is unleashed, isn’t stopped.
Something objective to adhere to
What’s the name of the dynamic that hope builds? Ascesis. The first factor, we’ve said, is obedience: work constructed on an authoritative judgment. Now, we come to the second factor to keep in mind in the dynamic that hope constructs.
Ascesis, therefore, is not introspection or voluntaristic effort developed from sentiments, reactions, or personal intuitions, but is something objective to adhere to and adhering to which I change.
You see, we’ll never be changed by voluntaristic effort constructed from sentiments of good, intuitions of goodness, our noble and just reactions, because the abovementioned noble and just reactions, the abovementioned sentiments of good and the abovementioned intuitions of goodness are still us; to a small or great degree, ultimately, they are still us. What is being affirmed is our measure. These sentiments, these intuitions, these reactions are precious, a gift from God, if they call you to measure yourself in terms of an objective reality to adhere to, just as the Lord did, who summarized everything, calling humans to adhere to an objective reality: “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” “Come, follow Me” (Mt 19:16-21). And “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). “Whoever listens to you listens to Me. Whoever rejects you rejects Me. And whoever rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (Lk 10:16).
Let’s think, then, about the importance of the mystery of the Church in its factors: the truly tremendum mystery of the authority of the Church, tremendum for our sensibility and for our self-love and for our gusto in living; the factor of the sacrament–because the Church is made of these things–which, notwithstanding appearances, is worth a hundred times more, as educative development, than all our prayers born of our innermost depths.
Let’s think about the importance of the reality of the Memores Domini, which is the closest way with which the Church is lived and the closest way in which the objective to adhere to–and adhering to which, you change–is manifested to us.
Let’s think about the importance of the house, in which the Memores Domini life is in effect.
Think, therefore, about the importance of what the Church, the Memores Domini, or the house give as direction, as judgments; what they make you do: from the choice of songs to the modality with which you face a problem or the modality with which you discuss a certain topic.
It’s something objective to adhere to, and it changes me: “Why torment ourselves, when it is so simple to obey?” (cf. P. Claudel, The Announcement Made to Mary, Cowa Publications, Kampala, 1992, p. 140). I insist on obeying the rule or obeying the indications, obeying the modalities established for our gatherings, from the rules on the schedule to the rules on songs, because the very choice of placing ourselves in these riverbeds enables us be molded, shaped.
Accept the covenant with the Strong One
So then, you understand that this ascesis is contrition; by its nature, it’s contrition. I say contrition so as not to say sacrifice, because this impetus that breaks the stone of the tomb afterwards tends to generate a mechanism that continually has to break the stone that tries to return, like broken ice that tries to reconsolidate.
Contrition is therefore accepting; first of all, it’s accepting. Ascesis is contrition and therefore it is first of all accepting, acknowledging. How was salvation introduced to mankind? As a proposal of the covenant, as the announcement of the covenant. What is the covenant, if not the proposal of a Strong One, one who is stronger than you, to whom you must adhere, in obedience, as something objective you have to adhere to, and adhering to whom you change? “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house…” (Gen 12:1), “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust” (Gen 22:2). Because “kill your son for Me” means many things that are happening to each of us; bigger or smaller, according to the moments.
Therefore, contrition is accepting the covenant of a Strong One, of one who is stronger than us. At this point, the synonym of the word “authoritative judgment” or “objectivity” is the word strong, someone stronger than us. If there is this acknowledgment of the covenant, if there is this acknowledgment and acceptance of the Strong One, then peace arrives. We’re set on sure footing: “For You are my rock, my stronghold” (cf. Ps 31:4), “The Lord is my strength and my song” (Ps 118:14). If and to the degree to which we don’t accept this Strong One, who breaks, conterit, then it’s a struggle, a battle in the bad sense of the word; enmity, the enmity that is the essence of the life of the world, which, even when it shakes your hand, does so to exploit you.
Prizing the present moment
Now we come to the last point. This evening, we started out–apparently, at the beginning–dominated by time that passes, by life as time that passes, as something that passes. But, immediately, the redemption, the presence of the Spirit, like a miracle, transformed the question and it became life as something that comes, therefore as tension toward a future, and this is why we called it hope.
But we’ve noted often, this evening as well, that this future that comes is nothing other than a past that manifests itself. So then hope is entirely identifiable with memory, that is, it is immersed in and identified with memory; all of it is born as memory.
Then we said that ascesis–that is, the effort to create unity and the effort in expectant awaiting to reach the end of the road, to reach His coming, to reach the end of our journey–this work to create our unity, or ascesis, is formed of factors that all concern the past: ascesis as work on an authoritative judgment; ascesis as something objective to adhere to; therefore, it already exists; ascesis as contrition, which is acceptance, acknowledgement of the covenant with a Strong One; therefore, it is already there before I even think about it. The future, that is, springs forth within a history.
If the future springs forth within a history, then the value of the future is nothing other than the consequence of my prizing the moment I’m living now. If the future springs forth within a history, the future is unleashed for me from the moment that I’m living, because history becomes the moment that I’m living. This is the meeting between memory and expectant awaiting; this is the generation of memory and of expectant awaiting; this is the moment in which what is past–what exists before, the objective, the Strong One–and what is to come–the manifestation, the unity–are experienced in action, become present. Memory and expectant awaiting, hope, what has happened and what is about to come, the unity of our person, the impact of the past, contrition, the acknowledgment of the covenant: all this is in the moment I’m living.
The future springs forth within history; therefore, the future is born as a prizing of the moment I’m living, this enormous thing that exists only in the Christian person. Only God could make the ephemeral instant eternal, could give eternal value, could thus anticipate the experience of total unity and happiness, of truth and happiness, in the ephemeral and contingent instant.
Therefore, the ascesis with which the new year opens–and which hope will make possible because hope, therefore memory, demands it and makes it possible–this ascesis, let’s remember, isn’t in projects or procrastinations or, this time, in expectant awaitings. It isn’t expectant awaiting if it doesn’t change the moment; it isn’t expectant awaiting if it doesn’t impact on the moment, if it doesn’t transform the moment, if it doesn’t give contrition to the moment, if it doesn’t construct the action of the moment, if in the moment it isn’t something to adhere to and that changes us. The adoration of the moment: this is the adoration of God.
I’ve quoted many times the ending of Ibsen’s famous play, Brand, in which the main character was a rational man, full of willpower, who strove for perfection all his life, without evidently succeeding in anything more than discovering ever more clearly his own incoherence. In the last scene of the play, on the slope of a snow-covered mountain, he suddenly hears the thunder of an avalanche breaking loose not far overhead, about to overwhelm him, and in the middle of the scene, alone, solitary, he cries, “Answer me, God, in the moment of death! If not by Will, how can Man be redeemed [that is, a crumb of a perfect act]?” (H. Ibsen, Brand, M. Meyer (trans.), Anchor Books (Doubleday, NY, 1960, p. 157). As he says this, the avalanche crowds out the scene and overwhelms him. And then, one hears overhead, far away, in the air, a voice that says, “God is love,” that is, God is mercy. But in the play, it’s airy, abstract, Protestant, because there, mercy is realized beyond action, that is, in eschatology. Instead, for the Christian announcement, no. God’s mercy changes now; it is a miracle. It changes the moment. For this reason, understand, it changes even the moment of sin, making it sorrow, that is, making it contrition, making it maturity.