A passage from the book by Luigi Giussani, Stefano Alberto and Javier Prades, Generating Pathways in the History of the World:
In Chapter 21 of St John's Gospel we find the fascinating documentation of the historical birth of the new ethics. The particular story that is documented there is the keystone of the Christian conception of man, of his morality and of his relationship with God, with life and with the world.
The disciples are on their way back at dawn after a bad night on the lake, in which they had caught nothing. As they approach the shore they see on the beach a figure in the process of preparing a fire. They would see later that on the fire were fish collected for them, for their early morning hunger. All at once John says to Peter, "But that's the Lord!". Then all their eyes open and Peter dives into the water just as he is and reaches the shore first, followed by the others. They sit in a circle, in silence; no-one speaks because they all know it is the Lord. Laying there eating they exchange a word or two amongst themselves, but they are all afraid at the exceptional presence of Jesus, the risen Jesus, who had already appeared to them several times.
Simon, whose many errors had made more humble than the rest, was lying amongst the others before the food the Master had prepared. He looks to see who is next to him and, amazed and trembling, he sees that it is Jesus. He turns his glance away from him and sits there, full of embarrassment. But Jesus speaks to him. Peter thinks in his heart, "My God, my God, what a telling-off I deserve! Now he's going to ask me why I betrayed him. The betrayal had been his last big mistake, but the whole of his life, even the familiarity with the Master, had been troubled by his impetuous character, by his instinctive impulsiveness and unguarded forwardness. He saw the whole of himself in the light of his defects. That betrayal had emphasised clearly the rest of his mistakes, how little he was worth, how weak he was, so weak it was pitiable. "Simon" who knows how he trembled as that word entered his ear and touched his heart , "Simon" and here he would have made as if to look towards Jesus "do you love me?" Who would ever have expected that question? Who would have expected that word?
Peter was a man forty or fifty years old, with wife and children, and yet so much a child before the mystery of that companion he had met by chance! Imagine how he would have felt pierced by that look that knew every part of him. "You will be called Cefa"1 His difficult character was identified by that word, "rock", and the last thing on his mind was to imagine what the mystery of God, and the mystery of that Man Son of God was going to do with that rock, was going to make of that rock. From their first meeting He occupied his whole soul, his whole heart. It was with that presence in his heart, with the continuous memory of Him that he looked at his wife, his children, his work-mates, his friends, and strangers, individuals and crowds, that he thought and that he went to sleep. That Man had become for him a great immense revelation that was still to be clarified.
"Simon, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord, I love You". How could he say such a thing after all he had done? That "yes" was the affirmation of his recognition of a supreme excellence, an undeniable excellence, of a sympathy that overrode all the others. Everything was there inscribed in that look of theirs, consistency and inconsistency seemed finally to be relegated to second place, behind that faithfulness that felt like flesh of his flesh, behind that form of life that the encounter had moulded.
There was, in fact, no reproof. Only the same question repeated, "Simon, do you love me?" Not unsure of himself, but fearful and trembling, he answered once more, "Yes, I love You". But the third time, the third time that Jesus asked him, he had to ask Jesus himself for confirmation, "Yes, Lord, You know that I love You. All my human preference, all the preference of my heart is for You. You are the extreme preference in life, the supreme excellence of things. I don't know how, I don't know how to say it, or how it can be, but despite everything I have done, despite all I might do again, I love you".
This "yes" is the birth of morality, the first breath of morality in the dry desert of instinct and of pure reactivity. Morality sinks its roots into Peter's "yes", and this "yes" can take root in the man's earth only through a dominating Presence, that is accepted, embraced and served with all the energy in one's heart, that only in this way can become a child again. Without the Presence there is no moral action, there is no morality.
But why is Peter's "yes" to Jesus the birth of morality? Don't the criteria of consistency and inconsistency come first?
Peter had got just about everything wrong, and yet he lived a supreme sympathy for Jesus. He understood that everything in him tended to Christ, that everything was embraced in those eyes, that face, that heart. The sins of the past could not constitute an objection, and not even all the inconsistency he could imagine for himself in the future. Christ was the source, the place of his hope. Even had what he had done and what he would possibly do been thrown at him as an objection, Christ was still, through all the fog of those objections, the light of his hope. He valued Him above everything else, from the first moment he had felt those eyes fixed on him, had felt that look. He loved him for that.
"Yes, Lord, You know that You are the object of my supreme sympathy, of my highest esteem". This is how morality is born. Yet the expression is very generic, "Yes, I love You"; but it is as generic as it is generative of the pursuit of a new kind of life. "Whoever has this hope in Him purifies himself as he is pure".2 Our hope is in Christ, in that Presence that, however distracted and forgetful we are, we cannot take away at least not completely from the earth of our heart for all the tradition through which he has reached right up to us. It is in Him that I hope, before counting my mistakes and my virtues. Numeric quantities have no place here. In the relationship with Him numbers don't count, measured or measurable weight has no place, and all the possible evil that I may bring about in the future, even this doesn't count, it cannot usurp the first place before Christ's eyes that is held by Peter's "yes" repeated by me. Then a sigh comes from the depths of our being, like a breath that rises from the breast and elates the whole person and makes it act, it makes it long to act more justly; from the depths of the heart springs the flower of the desire for justice, for true, authentic love, for the capacity for gratuitouness. Just as our every move does not start off as an analysis of what our eyes see, but the embrace of what the heart is waiting for, so perfection is not the keeping of laws, but attachment to a Presence.
Only the man who lives this hope in Christ goes on for the whole of his life in this ascesis, in this striving for good. Even when he is clearly contradictory, he wants the good. This always wins, in the sense that it is the last word on him, on his own day, on what he does, on what he has done, on what he will do. Whoever lives this hope in Christ goes on in ascesis. Morality is a continuous tension towards perfection which is born from an event in which the relationship with the divine, with Mystery, is marked.
The ultimate reason for the "yes"
What is the true reason for the "yes" said to Christ by Peter? Why does the "yes" said to Jesus have more value than listing all one's mistakes and all the possible future mistakes that one's weakness implies? Why is this "yes" more decisive and greater that all the moral responsibility translated into detail, into concrete practice? The answer to these questions reveals the ultimate essence of the Father's Envoy. Christ is the "Envoy", the one sent by the Father, he is the One who reveals the Father to men and to the world. "This is the true life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent".3 The most important thing is "that they know You", that they love You, because this You is the meaning of life.
"Yes, I love You", Peter said. The reason for this "yes" consisted in the fact that he had glimpsed in those eyes that fixed on him that first time, and then had fixed on him so many times during the following days and years, that he was God, that he was Yahweh, the true Yahweh: mercy.4 In Jesus is revealed the relationship with God as love and therefore as mercy. Mercy is the attitude of the Mystery towards any kind of weakness, mistake or forgetfulness on man's part: before any crime committed by man, God loves him.
This was what Simon felt, and this is where his "Yes, I love You" is born.
The meaning of the world and of history is the mercy of Christ, Son of the Father, sent by the Father to die for us. In the play by Milosz, the Abbot, to whom Miguel Manara would go every day to lament of his past sins, seems one day to lose his patience and says, "Enough of all this womanish lamentation! All this never existed". What's this "never existed"? Miguel had murdered, raped, and committed all kinds of injustice"All this never existed. Only He is"5 he, Jesus, turns to us, he makes himself an "encounter" for us, asking us only one thing, not "What have you done?" but , "Do you love me?".
Loving him above all things does not mean therefore that I have not sinned, or that I will not sin tomorrow. How strange! It takes an infinite patience to be this mercy, an infinite power from which in this earth, in the time and space we are given to live in, whether the years be few or many we receive, we draw happiness. Because a man with the awareness of how small he is, is happy at the announcement of this mercy: Jesus is mercy. He is sent by the Father to make us know that the essence of God has mercy as its supreme characteristic for man. "You have bent down over our wounds and have healed us", says one of the prefaces of the Ambrosian Rite, "Giving us a medicine stronger that our wounds, a mercy greater than our fault. So even sin, in virtue of your invincible love, serves to raise us up to divine life".6
Peace, the possibility of peace arises from this happiness. In all our misfortunes, in all our evils, in all our inconsistencies, in all our weakness, in that mortal weakness that is man, we can really breathe and long for peace, generate peace and respect for the other.
Respecting the other means looking at him with our eyes on another Presence "The Christians", says the Letter to Diognetus of the 2nd century, "treat each other with a respect that is inconceivable to others".7 The word "respect" (Latin respectus, from re-spicio) has the same root as aspicio (to look at), and the re- means keeping your eyes turned towards something, like someone who while his is walking keeps his eyes fixed on an object. "Respect" means "looking at a person while keeping another person in view". It is like looking at a child when his mother is nearby. A teacher doesn't treat a child as she normally does if the mother is present. She is more attentive, at least if she has a minimum of sensitivity (maybe it's no longer the case today). Without respect for what you are using, for what is there for me to use, for what I take hold of because I want to use it, there is no adequate relationship with anything. Respect, though, cannot come from the fact that what I have before me is useful: if this is my viewpoint I dominate it. No, respect looks beyond what I use. In this way work acquires nobility, becomes light-hearted, in the midst of all the worries with which we get out of bed. The renewal of this awareness is morning prayer. A man who looks at his wife while perceiving and acknowledging an Other, Jesus, within and beyond the figure of his wife can have respect and veneration for her, can value her freedom, which is relationship with the infinite, relationship with Jesus.
is an act of love
Simon's "yes" to Jesus cannot be considered as the expression of a feeling, but is the beginning of a moral road that either opens with this "yes" or doesn't open at all. The beginning of a human morality is not the analysis of phenomena that fill the existence of the "I", nor the analysis of human behaviour in view of a common good; this could produce an abstract secular morality, but not a human morality.
St Thomas notes, "man's life consists in the affection that is its main support and in which it finds its greatest satisfaction".8 The beginning of a new human morality is an act of love. This is why a presence is required, the presence of someone that strikes our person, who gathers all our powers and draws them towards a good that we don't know and yet long for and are waiting for: that good is the Mystery.
The dialogue between Jesus and Peter ends in an odd way. Peter, who is on the point of following Jesus, is concerned about the youngest among them, John, who was like a son to him. "Seeing him, he said to Jesus, 'What about him, Lord?' Jesus replied, "Don't worry about him, just follow me'".9 That "yes" is addressed to a Presence that says, "Follow me, give up your life". "Jesu, tibi vivo, Jesu tibi morior, Jesu sive vivo sive morior, tuus sum".10 Whether you live or die you are mine. You belong to me. I have made you. I am your destiny. I am your meaning and the meaning of the world.
It is the "I" that is the protagonist of morality, the whole "I"; and the person has as its law a word that we all think we know and of which, after a long time, if we have a small shred of fidelity to what is original in us, we begin to glimpse the meaning: love. The person has love as its law. "God, Being, is love", St John writes.11
Love is a judgment moved by a Presence linked with destiny. It is a judgement, like when you say, "That's Mont Blanc", or "this is a great friend of mine". Love is a judgement moved by a Presence linked with my destiny, which I discover, I glimpse, I sense to be linked with my destiny. When John and Andrew saw him for the first time and heard him say "Come home with me. Come and see", and they stayed all those hours listening to him talking, they didn't understand, but they sensed that that person was linked with their destiny. They had heard all those who spoke in public, heard their opinions and those of all the parties, but only that Man was linked with their destiny.
Christian morality is the revolution on earth, because it is not a list of laws, but a love for being. One can go wrong a thousand times and will always be forgiven, he will always be taken back again and will set off once more on his journey, if his heart takes up again this "yes". What is important in that "Yes, Lord, I love You" is a tension of the whole of one's person, determined by the awareness that Christ is God and by the love for this Man who has come for me. This determines my whole awareness, and I can go wrong a thousand times a day, to the point of being ashamed to lift up my head, but no-one can take away this certainty from me. I only pray the Lord, I pray the Spirit to change me, to make me an imitator of Christ, that my presence become more like that of Christ.
Morality is love, love for Being who has become man, an event in history, that reaches me through that mysterious company that historically is called Church or Mystical Body of Christ or People of God. I love him within this company. They can accuse me of a hundred thousand wrongs, they can put me on trial, the judge can send me to prison without even questioning me, with patent injustice, without considering whether or not I am guilty, but they cannot take away from me this attachment that keeps on making me vibrate with the desire for the good, that is to say to adhere to him. Because the good is not "the good", but to adhere to Him, to follow that face, his Presence, to carry that presence everywhere, to say it to everyone, so that this Presence may dominate the world the end of the world will be the moment when this Presence becomes evident for everyone.
This is the new morality: it is a love, not rules to be followed. And evil is offending the object of this love or forgetting it. You can quite well say, analysing humbly all the highways and byways of a man's life, "This is right and this is wrong", listing in order all the errors into which a man may fall. This would be to write a book of morals. But morality is in me, who love Him who made me and is here. If it were not so then I could use morality exclusively for asserting my advantage; in any case it would destroy all hope. You need to read Pasolini or Pavese to understand this; but no, it enough to remember Judas.
The permanence of the new morality
If the beginning of the new morality is an act of love, of adhering, and this requires a Presence of someone who strikes us and gathers all our powers as Jesus did with Simon , it becomes fundamental to answer the question: how does this event go on being present in our existence? The answer to this question establishes the possibility of the new morality in the present, here and now, otherwise for us it would begin in an intellectualistic, abstract, theoretical way. This answer lies in that Christian term that belongs to the experience of what is present, without which we would not be able to know whether our experience is concrete or fantasy: the term is "memory". In the memory the event that we experience in all its richness becomes immersed in the flow of time and space, becomes part of a history.
The first condition for the new morality is making memory of that Presence that surpasses the terms of human knowing, that is to say acknowledging here and now the Presence that cannot be reduced to any human hypothesis.
This Presence is a reality that is before us and through the power of His Spirit, is in us. This Presence is permanent in our life and is so powerful that it makes possible, through our adhering to it, the coming about of a new creation in us. So a person can rise again after imperfection and error, at the end of every action that is always disproportional and always imperfect, with a step that is more just, because His gift continues, like a cool spring, and no limitation of ours can put a stop to it.
The permanence of this Presence is grace, pure event, and we do not persevere in adhering to it in the here and now. We acknowledge it and adhere to it. Just like the encounter, the wonder, its continuity, the impetus of adherence is grace: and this grace becomes ours because we accept it. Accepting this absolute novelty, that happens over and over again, a thousand times a day, is the supreme aspect of freedom.
Just as for John and Andrew, for Simon, for Zacchaeus, the beginning of the change in us is a grace, a gift. We have had an encounter whose aim was to change us and perfect us. We adhered to this Presence that corresponds to our expectations in an exceptional way, with a persistence, as in the case of Zacchaeus who was no longer defined by the imperfections he was prey to, because that Presence was there to pierce like a cool stream all the filth of the forest of his humanity12.
The wonder of the encounter, the wonder that continues, the adherence to that Presence that goes on imply the embrace of and the unity with all those whom that Presence puts near us. The Presence has made itself the object of our gaze so that through us, with our defects, and the sorrow for those defects, and the strange energy that comes from it, it may be more known and loved.
1 Cf Jn 1:42.
2 1 Jn 3:3.
3 Jn 17:3.
4 A passage of St Ambrose can shed light on this. In his comment on the Creation, speaking of the seventh day, when God rested, he says, "I thank the Lord our God that created a work so marvellous in which to find rest. He created the heavens, and I don't read that he rested; he created the earth, and I don't read that he rested; he created the sun, the moon, the stars, and I don't read that he rested even then; but I read that he created man and at this point he rested, having a being whose sins he could forgive" (Sant'Ambrose, Hexameron, IX, 76, in Opera omnia di Sant'Ambrogio, vol. 1, Biblioteca Ambrosiana-Città Nuova Editrice, Milano-Roma 1979, p. 419).
5 Cf. O. Milosz, Miguel Mañara, Jaca Book, Milano 1998, pp. 48-63.
6 Preface of XVI Sunday &laqno;per annum», in Messale Ambrosiano Festivo, Marietti-Jaca Book, Torino-Milano 1976, p. 653.
7 Letter to Diognetus, PG 2, 1167-1186.
8 Cf. St Thomas, Summa Theologiae, II, IIae, q. 179, art. 1.
9 Cf. Jn 21:20-22.
10 &laqno;Jesu tibi vivo», mediaeval Hymn, in Canti, Coop. Edit. Nuovo Mondo, Milano 1995, p. 34.
11 1 Jn 4:8.
12 Cf. Lk 19:1-10.
-- Monsignor Luigi Giussani, in Traces, November 1998.