Upon the Ruin
Notes from an address at the Spiritual Exercises of the Memores Domini
at Riva del Garda, Italy, November 30, 2003
by Luigi Giussani
I would like to speak about what the Lord has called me to feel these days. I
consider it important, and so I will tell you; I consider it important for your
journey in awareness, in awareness of its destiny. It’s the greatest service
that we are given by a current of thought and an integrity of heart, which fill
any period of life we pass with teaching.
The President of the Massimiliano Kolbe Cultural Center, in Varese, Italy, wrote
to me saying, “For us the Cultural Center is an area of freedom, a place
where it is possible to be generated and to generate…” But the main
question in guiding a “cultural” center is that the individual who
accepts to share in this responsibility knows—and wants to be coherent—that
it’s a question of helping a poor human individual to take up all his responsibility,
to be a complete answer in the arms of God.
Thus, the Hymn to the Virgin, which Dante narrated to us—and has now become
rather a formal prayer for many of us—has already been a history of reminders
to many of us, a wealth of useful knocks, of spontaneous revelations. But yesterday,
as I thought of the more than 80 brothers1 whom the Lord had us encounter and
with whom we now take up the journey together, thinking of these more than eighty
people, the Lord made me perceive with unusual clarity the value of this “detail,” brought
about by this moment of our life. This, too, is a Hymn to Our Lady, but the one
that concludes Petrarch’s book Canzoniere, the book of his love poems,
and therefore of his interior life:
The day is coming, and cannot be long,
time runs so fast, and flies,
Virgin, unique, alone,
remorse and death sting my heart.
Commend me to your Son, true
Man, and true God,
that He might receive my last breath, in peace.2
I went to re-read this poem, which I studied at the age of sixteen, at a time
when the teaching in the Milan seminaries was still sound, not yet undone and
suppressed by the aridity of anticlerical controversy; the aspect of connective,
impetuous profundity was still safeguarded.
The day is coming [the end of life is approaching], and cannot be long [and this
end is not very far off]; thus time flies, brandishing the image of a present
that is fleeting. May your dedication to Christ—that the whole of your
life become a witness to Him—be the only meaning for which, in the morning,
as you turn over again in bed, you go through the effort of the first exterior
action of the day!
Time runs so fast, and flies. We can well repeat these words, which express a
thought so moving, but also so tragic for every human being who thinks, who is
Virgin, unique, alone. Now, here, all of a sudden, comes a break that no one
expected. Unique and alone: neither unique nor alone! Petrarch had an admiring
devotion for the Virgin, mother of Christ, but he didn’t feel her victorious
destiny, her destiny as queen of heaven and earth; he didn’t feel it possible!
Therefore, the only meaning he could give to all the Lord’s redemptive
effort was the effort, full of meaning, but sour, of a human life not saved—not
saved as the possibility of every moment, of wealth, of love for Being, of abandonment
in the Father’s heart.
So we can understand the final words of the quotation that have impressed me
ever since I was sixteen.
Commend me to your Son, true man, and true God… For Petrarch it was something
certain: he was sure of Christ in His greatness. He was still a child of the
Middle Ages, he was a christened man. Commend me to your Son, true man, and true
God. But a wave of “values” covers up the purity of this acknowledgment.
Our life must not be like this, it cannot be like this! Our life is the introduction,
it’s the power of entrance, a reminder full of safety and assurance. And
we cannot repeat this reminder in the way that Petrarch felt his earthly life,
in the way Petrarch felt his journey as a man of this world: with that conscience
that reproves him, without forgiveness transforming even lowliness and pettiness
into greatness. The conscience is afraid and it has no moments in which it can
be quiet, its reproof is beyond remedy, because Christ is not the mediator, he
is not the “remedy.” In short, Christ, Son of God and son of woman,
truly son, saved nothing of the human condition—except a forgiveness for
ourselves, unfulfilled as reason and as completeness.
If we read Dante’s hymn, if we recite it (as we should get used to doing,
every day), how different Dante’s heart is, how infinitely different from
that of Petrarch it reveals itself! And Petrarch represents the first step, the
great step that takes man off the right path, off the exact way, with no longer
either father or mother, with a peace that is assured by a sound—or unsound
(we can correct ourselves thus)—answer of the judge, of eternity as judgment,
of Being as judge.
Every morning, as we get up, we shall be “disposed” to overcome the
fear of time, of time that runs so fast in the conscience that burns or in the
hour that is passing; we shall be surely helped to rise up above the ruin, the
ruin of man.
Dante is the summit, the end of a road twelve centuries long from the time Christ
came; and that of Petrarch is an entrance where all those who don’t have
a sure meaning of life take their places.
The vocation God has given us makes the hours of our days a song of the salvation
that finds its contingent and eternal praise only in simplicity.
So, as we wait for every day of our lives, from now on—to be spent as encounter
and embrace of each of us with the others, of everyone together with the world,
in this expectation that this definiteness begin soon—we pray with the
last sign of the sacred, before the “stagnant slime”, the mortifying
destruction, which came with the waning of the Middle Ages, that God bring to
rebirth the hope that created all that is left of humanity today (we need to
look for it still amongst the remnants of the Middle Ages!).
The world does not and cannot expect from us—as justice and as beauty,
as goodness and as our happiness—anything but this: that we get together
in a stride in which we feel repeated the great stride of the great Christian
saint, Dante Alighieri.
1 Novices of the Memores Domini who were to make their profession
shortly after, last December.
2 F. Petrarch, Canzoniere, CCCLXVI, vv. 131-137.