01-01-2011 - Traces, n. 1


The Law of the "I"

You may take up charitable work for many reasons, but "something in action" goes beyond the ideas, and tests your faith. Italy, Spain, Scotland, Russia: Experiences of young people and adults among the sick, the homeless, or those in shelters, sharing their free time, which "redeems everything."


"Wonderful." "What's wonderful?" Marina is not wrong to ask. Here, there are 600 seriously ill people, some of them here for 40 years, and most of them will never get out of bed–like Concettina, who shares a room with Teresa, but they don't chat very much, since Teresa can only move her eyelashes. This institute in Genoa, ["Piccolo Cottolengo" founded in 1933 by St. Luigi Orione and commonly known as called "the Paverano"], is like this, 27 wards for the incurably ill and the physically and mentally handicapped. But the young people come out after the visit, look at Marina, and thank her: "Wonderful." "But what is wonderful about it?" she insists, "There is only pain here." What is wonderful has been brought here by her. She is their teacher, and what happened was much more than she expected.
Her idea was clear: to show her students that life is also a time of suffering. They had no idea; she could see it from their discussions in class. So she decided to take them to "the Paverano," and they wanted to return–once, twice, three times. Then others asked to join them. It became their "work of charity." "I would never have thought of doing it, even for myself," says Marina. She already had other activities, in the context of her service to the Movement, but this charitable work made the difference; she could no longer do without it. "I need to see the faces of my students with those sick people, to see them moved by a girl who spends her days in a garage hitting herself on the head and plucking leaves, and to see them coming back in overalls to stay with her; or to watch Julia as she spoon-feeds Fulvia, who is blind, deaf, mute, and walks barefoot because it's her only way to feel reality. "Julia was there with her, with a look of love that moved me." There was something happening that was eternal.
A fact penetrates: "When I go home from Paverano, I get back to studying, and I stay with my mother. I feel changed," says Alessia. She and her schoolmates had gone there to "understand" the life of others and began to ask questions about their own lives. "I don't think of myself as I did before," Alexandra says. "I no longer say 'I'm happy,' or, 'I'm not happy…' as I used to." Even the relationships in class have changed. In one year of charitable work, they have seen that what everyone has inside is "the desire to give yourself," Marina goes on. "The joy that comes when you bring out this desire is the sign that you are living, consciously or not, the law of the 'I'–the law of life, which is love." Because of the happiness she saw in them, she invited them to come and tell the GS [youth group] students about what they are living. "They, too, got involved in the gesture, and even the adults of the community." This year, as soon as school began, her students asked if they could continue the work, not so as to take those people a little charity, but because that place is a spectacle of charity. They say, "We go there for training"–and to learn the law of life, although you understand it only afterwards, by doing.

LITTLE BY LITTLE. Whatever the reason for which you begin, you learn this law. Daschya began doing charitable work because her friends were doing it at the Golubka Home in Novosibirsk, Siberia. "We don't do anything special; we just sing, and sometimes chat with the guests." But every time, when it's over, she can't wait for the next time. "It gives me nostalgia for infinity." Daschya can't say more. But until you know the reason clearly, "… you must be restless," Fr. Giussani reminds us in his booklet, The Meaning of Charitable Work (see http://www.clonline.us/readings/charitablework.cfm). The way you get there is not important, nor the way you start off–it's always God who starts off, like for Aleksandra, who felt the need to do something good and came across the Sisters of Mother Teresa who care for children with Downs' Syndrome.
The first move just happens, in Genoa as in Novosibirsk; or in Moscow, where Aleksandra's idea was realized the first day: "The help we give is insignificant for those children and even for the Sisters. It would be ridiculous to think we are doing good."
But she kept on going, thinking she had to find a meaning for that unjust suffering, "and for all the moments of life that are pointless suffering. Then, I discovered that my problem was precisely this question of meaning: what keeps the question alive in me?" What rescues your life and your judgments from automatism, and from habit? "What is it that goes on renewing the foundation of my faith, making my heart capable of true love? I understood this, little by little, by doing charity work. 'Little by little,' as Fr. Giussani said…. Little by little, your little free time redeems all the rest." The presence of those children and those Sisters "makes me look for the meaning of my life," says Aleksandra. "It makes me look for confirmation that He who knows the reasons for everything exists, and so nothing is meaningless." And she loves those children because her destiny is inconceivably bound up with theirs. "I am not the one embracing them, they are given to me to embrace my whole life." Sharing a few hours a month surpasses all my intentions, and fathoms the true measure of need, a measure that no one possesses.

"HE WANTED TO OFFER IT TO ME". It is painful to discover this, and Eugenia suffered and wept before that Moroccan woman, a widow with two children, whom they had helped in every way possible. She had begun by delivering her a food parcel from the Solidarity Bank, in an old farmhouse. She and ten Roma ("gypsy") families live in some former stables, with no heating, in a village near Arezzo, Italy. "I got so attached to that woman and her children that I wanted only to find a decent home for them." She found much more: a good job, room and board guaranteed, and a school nearby. But the woman refused everything; she wanted to stay in that farmhouse. "I wanted to give up," says Eugenia. "Then, on impulse, I took Fr. Giussani's The Meaning of Charitable Work and I read that Christ could have revolutionized the situation but, instead, He shared it. 'He made Himself poor like us.' He had a look different from other people upon everything and everyone. And He wanted to offer it to me," amid all the smells of that farm where everything is lacking. So she went back.
As soon as she got there, she and Antonio found themselves surrounded by children who just wanted to be with them. They improvised a table where they could all draw together, and this beautiful experience is repeated every morning, before the surprised faces of the mothers. Their initial impotence clarified the way to be with them, a new kind of involvement. One day, the mother of one of the children came up to Eugenia, resolute, saying, "What have you done with my child?" Eugenia was worried for a moment, "What have I done?" "I do not know, but he goes to school every day; he sets two alarm clocks, he gets up an hour earlier to get ready, he puts gel on his hair, then takes the bus. What did you say to him?" She had only helped him to prepare for the entrance exam, and Daniele, a young engineer, had helped him at nights with math in his office. "Over these years, the history that has built up is impressive," says Eugenia. "I have seen much fruit, as well as difficult moments and endless changes in ways and in times. And often, instead of solving themselves, the problems have become even more complicated."
She doesn't know how it will go on. "Every time I turn to go back, I am freed from worries, from assessments. I find I am ready for it once again, in seeing God looking down on me"–and on that humanity that knows Him so little. In following the needs of others, her own exploded: "Being with them is to be with the Mystery in action, who makes things, and who moves hearts."

WITHOUT MEASURE. If this measure of the Mystery is victorious in you, you can give without measure, and receive more. "It was clear to me at once that I was not going there to get something, a 'profit' for myself, not even an affective gain," says Fr. Javier Prades, head of Madrid's San Dámaso Theology Faculty, who has missed only one charitable visit in 7 years.
When you hear him speak of the house run by the Sisters of Charity, it is like seeing it. He goes into those rooms empty-handed, taking nothing of what he knows. Here are men with their sufferings, and he with his hands, with all their inability to touch and wash those incurable bodies. "They sense immediately if you are uneasy with them, and they let you know it. At times, they can be very direct." The relationship with them is essential–often completely silent. "When you see a smile forming, you are mysteriously repaid a hundredfold." Those first years he had a question about charity and how to live it. "In the course of priestly formation, we have scores of experiences of solidarity, but I found a journey that makes my humanity grow only in being faithful to this gesture."
The home offers shelter to old people and AIDS victims. The friends of the Madrid CL community go there once a month. They recite the Angelus, read a short excerpt from The Meaning of Charitable Work, then split up into groups–some with the elderly, others with the AIDS victims. At the end, they meet to recite a Glory Be and tell each other what happened. The first they talk about are the Sisters. Watching them serving and working, in a human but perfect way, "is the primary educative fact for us," says Rafael, a lawyer. "Seeing them always so happy is striking; they live in this place all day and every day." The visit to the institute has become one of the best cared-for activities of the Madrid Community. "It is fundamental for my life," says Rafael. "Faithfulness to an aspect of the educative journey has opened up the Christian experience for me. I have begun to understand the rest." It is a beauty that spills over into life and onto others.
When he leaves home to go for the visit, his eldest daughter, ten years old, wants to go with him. "It's an attraction." The families have begun to go along when there is a trip or a party. "We went to the stadium, to the zoo, to the aviation museum," says Ramón. Saturday after Saturday, these years have left their mark on him. He discovers it in the office, when he is wronged by two of his colleagues. It is hard with them, but he looks at them with a fact in the background: "They are me, created and needy just as I am; they are given to me, and that's why we're together." It is something great when adults see that the way is concrete. "This is the genius of Fr. Giussani," Prades explains. "There is a method to follow in order to verify the heart of the faith." And to learn to conceive life, as a whole, as sharing, as Jesus lived it, as He looked at it.

GESTURE AND THOUGHT. You go there to give and you receive this tenderness. Jeong-Yon knows this. He threw his arms around Sr. Elred in tears: "I wish I had known a place like this before." It was his first time to go for charitable work to the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Edinburgh, Scotland. He knew nothing about Christianity but simply followed Maria and Giacomo, who give some time to this soup kitchen for the city's homeless, where people who do not even know their own names are given some comfort and relief. Some of the CL community serve tables, wash fruit and vegetables, and clean the kitchen. "It is a great educative gesture for us," says Giacomo, in Edinburgh for his doctorate. "Here, people who are Catholics have often become so for intellectual reasons." This, instead, is such a simple gesture that cannot be mistaken for an idea. It's the life that's there that gives substance to your own. The same goes for Michael, converted from Protestantism, always with his underlined Bible and his head full of quotations: "While doing charitable work, he began to talk about himself," Maria says. The first time he went, Jeong-Yon spent the whole time slicing carrots, and when the work was over, as always, they went to the chapel with the Sisters, who prayed for the homeless and for them, the volunteers. At that point, Jeong-Yon burst into tears. "I had never seen such love," a love that has entered the world, assuming a home, an address, face and hands.

JUST AS I AM. Prades sees clearly that this is Christ's love, on those mornings of charitable work in Madrid, with those old people. If it were not so, they would not be moved when they hear the Gospel read. "It was the Sisters who asked me to do it. I go and read a few pages: those words speak to their hearts as they do to mine. For them, hearing what Jesus says and receiving every day the love of those Sisters is the same thing." It is the same concrete, total love. "It's a love I receive myself, every second, just as I am; it is God's love for me"–God who hovers on the horizon, waiting for Christmas. Only this opens up life, and has us enjoy the unthinkable: you are me.