|01-09-2009 - Traces, n. 8
An Increase of the “I”
This past August, 400 Communion and Liberation leaders gathered for the annual international assembly in La Thuile, Italy. What happened during the four days in which everyone was challenged to renew the journey of the Spiritual Exercises of 2009? We offer a personal eyewitness report. (The full content of the International Assembly of Responsibles may be accessed at www.clonline.com.)
by Paola Bergamini
August 18th, La Thuile, Italy, Planibel Hotel. “Hi Rose, how are you?” “Good.” “Your women in Kampala?” “Good. I ‘run’ after them. See you...” My question was just the usual formality, but as always she went right to the core issue, to the heart of experience, as I was to understand in the following days. That evening of the first day of the International Assembly of Responsibles, I was stunned. A few minutes later, Alessandra, a new “recruit” for Traces, joined me. She’s young, and didn’t know anyone. We went together to the veranda for an aperitif, where a hullabaloo of languages greeted us. I introduced her to Fr. Antonio, Carmen, and Juan Emilio, and some of us agreed to meet for lunch and dinner to share what was happening in our various communities. I thought to myself, “Okay, now we’re getting down to work. We’ll bring home as much material as we can for our next issues.” But the thought grated, because I realized it wasn’t enough. I could sense that. Alessandra stayed close to me and asked about everyone I greeted. After dinner, we went to the hall for the lesson. On one side of the stage was a huge print of the Easter poster and this year’s title, “From Faith, the Method,” and on the other side was the list of the 67 countries represented.
“At the beginning of a gesture like the one we are about to start, there is nothing we need as much as the power of the Holy Spirit. May the energy of Christ enter our life and open us to the grace the Lord wants to give us in these days,” introduced Fr. Carrón. Did I desire anything less? Together with the others, I softly sang, Come Holy Spirit.
Drawing on the Fraternity Spiritual Exercises, Carrón emphasized the confusion we’re immersed in, and challenged us to ask ourselves how we respond in our lives. It’s not enough to have a few rules about how to be Christian, a correct repetition of a discourse. Sometimes we’re very good at this, but real life is another matter. His example was patently clear: “Knowing the definition of marriage isn’t enough to make a marriage thrive. Knowing that circumstances are an occasion is not enough to keep them from becoming a tomb.” Well then? We need to look at the people who “in their way of addressing life, in their way of facing reality, introduce a light.” I thought of Rose, her women, and the 1992 CL Easter poster: “There are always people or moments in the lives of people to watch.” Faith is a life, not a discourse, but the witness is not enough. Carrón pressed on to say that each of us needs to have personal experience of what the witness demonstrates, that is, “we need evidence in our own existence.”
full of emptiness. Experience: this word would echo often during those days, seeking its true meaning, which is the exact opposite of what the common mentality thinks. It doesn’t mean trying everything possible. “Somebody who reaches sixty [years old] can have tried all that can be tried, but won’t necessarily be an experienced person; experience is the capacity to compare against the ideal. Otherwise, you don’t experience anything; you have the characteristic attitude of so many old people, full of emptiness, of nothingness,” said Fr. Giussani. This ability to compare has a name: judgment. “Judgment turns something that I do into an experience. It happens when the ideal is like the specific weight of a metal. It’s a weight, a memory, a gusto you have inside... consciously or unconsciously...” I thought of so many faces I’d encountered in whom this gusto, that is, the event of Christ, reverberated with attraction: the Sisters of the Assumption and the friends from the Cometa foster home, but also simply the words of a friend. This makes the experience of Christianity come alive. Carrón concluded with the challenge for the coming days: what experience do we have of this encountered gusto?
This was what grated in my thought: it was a thought, a discourse to apply, something to do. Instead, it is so much easier just to look at those who have been embraced by that Fact. I walked back with Carmen, whom I’ve known for over 30 years. She was the one who “pushed” me into GS. Now we only see each other here, and talk by phone about work. “How’s your child?” she asked–not, “How is your child feeling?” It wasn’t a formal question.
On Wednesday, we began the assembly by praying Lauds and singing “Error of Perspective” and “I Wonder,” a simple and immediate introduction, as Carrón underlined. “Christ came to make us experience richness of life, now. This is perceived when we sing, in our daily actions. We are here to witness to each other about this. Come forward!” Lots of hands went up, and as Julián called on people, there was no space for discourses, for intellectual speeches. The whole assembly was rapid-fire question and answer. Peppe said, “For years, I projected my idea on reality. It was a good idea of the Movement, but in the face of pain and error this attitude couldn’t hold up. It’s the dualism you were talking about. I’ve started out again from this.” “You began to understand that pain is a gift, not an objection. The Lord reveals Himself in your need,” explained Carrón. The contributions followed one after the other, and each time it was one more step. Chris: “Beginning the day saying, ‘You can do everything’ is a poverty that throws me wide open to the miracles that His Presence works in reality.” This happened for Alberto, who recounted, “Just as I arrived, I saw Vicky and said hello, and she told me, ‘Here, I feel at home.’ This is the embrace of Christ.” Time flew by, with so many stories of beautiful facts, at times surprising. But… When do we truly have an experience? When it isn’t just a daisy chain of things tried, felt. “Otherwise, we are like old people whose unjudged experiences add up to emptiness. This happens only because of failure to judge. Fr. Giussani showed us a method. Do we use it?” asked Carrón. That afternoon, the ball was in our court.
At lunch, I ate with “the Russians”–Jean-François, Fr. Pietro, the rector of the seminary in St. Petersburg, and Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow. We joked and laughed, and they told me about life in Russia. As we got up, Pezzi told me, “You know, I’ve never stopped doing what you asked of me, every day.” I was moved. Almost 20 years before, when he was a young priest in the Fraternity of St. Charles, and I had just started work, I’d asked him to remember me in his prayers.
In the afternoon, we went back to work and, again, many raised their hands. “Good. It means this morning something happened. Knowledge is an event. Let’s stick with the question: How can I be certain that I have had an experience?” started Carrón. Franco: “When there is an increase of the ‘I.’ For me, this is the passage from discourse to reality.” It’s the turning point, the passage for overcoming dualism, the victory of Christ, of this Presence that makes itself an encounter, that changes our way of acting, that converts, in the literal sense of the term: change.
In a Dublin school. As in the simple testimony of Mauro, the director of an English-language school in Dublin: “This summer, there was a fifteen-year-old who gave us all sorts of trouble. When I called his mother, she told me to call the police. When he ran off for the nth time, I went to get him and, without preaching, just kept him with me all day. He was speechless.” “You realize that there is a Presence in action, not in words. This increase of the ‘I’ that we discover in ourselves is visible to the others, too,” concluded Carrón.
At the bar, Giacomo invited me to have dinner with two friends of his from Pristina, Kosovo: Sister Teuta, at the Assembly for the first time, and Donjeta, director of a project for a non-governmental organization. They told me about the war, the situation in Kosovo, and their work with the children. When we got up, the room was empty, and I realized that I had not been worried about getting “news”–maybe the “news” was the image of their gaze as they spoke about What they had encountered, and that had changed their lives, making them glad and certain.
The evening held a surprise: songs. Soloists and groups alternated on the stage, with music in Italian, Gaelic, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and others. To feel moved by this was not sentimental. How many times did Fr. Giussani underline the importance of songs in our gatherings, because “it is the most authentic expression of man, if man is man, and he is such if he belongs”? Though I usually hum under my breath so as not to torture those around me, I fully enjoyed the evening.
Thursday morning. Carrón reviewed the journey and indicated another step: you can reduce experience to empiricism or intellectualism if there is not judgment. Judgment is not something added on; it’s the repercussion of being. Carrón’s example was simple: you’re in the mountains and say, “How beautiful!” There’s no need to think it through or have someone explain it to you. Judgment is contemporaneous with the experience, with the repercussion of being. “Therefore, knowledge isn’t characterized by an accumulation of impacts, impressions, emotions, but by an acquisition of knowledge, by an understanding of meaning,” underlined Carrón. Certainly, an alert “I” is needed, aware of all the factors in play. And it is the only possibility in order not to fall into emptiness. All this is amplified, reaches the maximum level, in the Christian experience, which is “the unity of a vital act.” In all this lies man’s freedom, to accept his own fundamental dependence on He who became man to save us. For this, we need to be simple, pure of heart, to be able to say, “I am You who make me.”
The lesson lasted only 60 minutes, but struck forcefully. For that reason, we couldn’t stop at just passively listening. Before and after lunch, in the Planibel armchairs, outside around the tables, in groups or individually, the work began. With notes in hand, people discussed, asked, and sometimes voices were raised, but one thing seemed clear: this adventure of knowledge, if one is loyal, engages the “I” totally.
In the afternoon, there were the witnesses of Giorgio Vittadini from Italy, John Zucchi from Canada, John Waters from Ireland, and Fr. Julián de la Morena from Brazil (see sidebar).
At 9:30 pm, we returned to the hall, and after songs and a brief introduction by Fr. Pino, the lights went down and Fr. Giussani appeared onscreen, in a video of a lesson on Leopardi that he’d given at the Polytechnic University in Milan in 1996. A few days before, the book Cara Beltà had come out for the “Books of the Christian Spirit” series. In those 60 minutes, judgment, like the repercussion of being, had immediate force. The tiredness from the intense days of the retreat vanished. I think we could have watched without the audio, just letting that gaze full of affection and unimaginable humanity flow over us. Afterwards, I asked Michele, with whom I’d attended university and who now works as the new Director of the International Secretariat, if his eyes had misted up as he watched. “Yes, but not just at the memory. I saw again the passion he transmitted in every word, in every gesture, at university lessons, in our meetings, in every minute he spent with us.”
The hike to the lake. On Friday, we all met in front of the hotel to pray the Angelus. We’d been told in the announcements that only those with serious health problems should stay at the hotel, and to be sure to wear suitable clothes. John was there in the front of the line with a little cotton jacket, city loafers, and his lunch bag in hand, absolutely at ease. When we reached the lake, someone exclaimed, “How beautiful!” Just like Carrón’s example.
In the afternoon, at the last assembly, once again many hands were raised. The focus was on judgment, and its contemporaneousness with experience in daily life. The risk is to take refuge in dreams, and nothing can be taken for granted. Carrón was implacable, and spoke again about the witness. “In the end, you’re the one who has to experience what the witness testifies to!” Otherwise, you don’t perceive that faith is humanly worth your while. It is the dawn of a new humanity, as testified simply by Fr. Aldo, by two brothers from Carrara, and by other speakers. In the evening, Letizia Bardazzi and Jean-François Thiry spoke about the Crossroads Cultural Center in the U.S. and the Library of the Spirit in Moscow.
Carrón’s summary was a point of departure, asking for a change of method. Faith is the certainty of a Presence I can experience, that embraces all of me, that increases my “I,” just as it was for John and Andrew–even when they couldn’t stay with Him, they were sure of His presence. It is the memory of that Presence that, “conquering time and space, He spoke to you; and He will speak to you the day after tomorrow and in ten years from now.”
A few days later, Alessandra sent me a text message from the Meeting: “Here, what I saw at La Thuile is happening.” An experience.