Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tina, I miss you

Tina LilligA Tribute to Valentina Lillig (May 28, 1945 - December 13, 2009)

Visionary religious educator, wife, mother and grandmother Valentina Lillig died early Sunday, December 13, 2009, at Loyola University Hospital in Maywood. She was 64.

Ms. Lillig, who was known by all as Tina, had been hospitalized since Friday afternoon after suffering a stroke while working in her office at the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Oak Park.

A longtime resident of Oak Park, Ms. Lillig was born Valentina Varias in Hyde Park and grew up in the Galewood neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side. She attended St. William grammar school, where she was class president, and Trinity High School in River Forest, where she was president of the Sodality and Vice President of her class. Ms. Lillig, who was of Italian and Filipino heritage, was fond of telling her sons that she was the first non-Irish girl to serve as a class officer at Trinity, whose students were overwhelmingly Irish at the time.

After graduating from Trinity, Ms. Lillig attended Loyola University, traveling to Rome, Italy to study Loyola's Rome Center Campus. While in Rome, Ms. Lillig learned to speak Italian, which aided her in her later graduate studies and in her professional and personal correspondence with Italian theologians and religious educators. Ms. Lillig would sometimes resort to Italian expressions to counsel her sons or to explain ideas that she felt English could not adequately express.

Ms. Lillig left Loyola in 1965 without finishing her degree to begin teaching in Catholic schools, which was allowed at the time. At the age of nineteen, she taught first grade at Our Lady Help of Christians Grammar School on Chicago’s West Side. Ms. Lillig’s class, which had 52 students, was the start of a lifelong career of teaching and working with children. In 1967, she married John Lillig, a teacher, former seminarian and Help of Christians parishioner whom she had known since she was fifteen. That year, she taught kindergarten at St. Attracta grammar school in Cicero. She later taught at Providence-St. Mel High School and worked as a copy editor for The New World, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

In 1968 the first of Ms. Lillig's three sons, John, was born. He was followed by Matt (1970) and Thomas (1973). As a young mother Ms. Lillig was active in La Leche League. The family lived in Help of Christians parish until 1972, when they moved to Oak Park. Ms. Lillig raised her three sons at home, and Mr. Lillig worked as a Chicago Public Schools teacher. During this time, Ms. Lillig contemplated returning to finish her college degree and perhaps eventually working as a librarian.

In 1976 Ms. Lillig entered her three-year-old son Thomas in a local Montessori-based religious education program called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, part of a program founded by the Italian educators Gianna Gobbi and Sofia Cavelletti, the niece of Pope Pius XII. This simple act would change Ms. Lillig's life. Thomas was enthralled with the rituals and songs presented to him at catechesis, repeating songs and prayers at home in the family dining room. Ms. Lillig was profoundly affected by her young son's behavior, which validated her longtime belief that even very young children enjoy an active spiritual life, and it inspired her to register for a training course to become a teacher, or catechist, of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. She was able to take the course only because it fell within a three-week period during which her husband, a CTA bus driver in the summer, worked an all-night shift and could stay at home with the children during the day.

Ms. Lillig devoted the rest of her life to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, eventually becoming its national director and teaching courses to train other teachers throughout the country and in Europe. She worked as a catechist at St. Giles Family Mass Community, St. Giles Parish, and Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park. Under her visionary leadership, the Catechesis grew into an expansive worldwide organization, with a curriculum used in thousands of Catholic and Episcopal parishes worldwide. In 1998, she published a book, The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in a Parish Setting, to guide religious educators who wished to implement a Catechesis program in their own parishes. Over the years, she served as an editor and advisors to many other religious educators who sought her editorial guidance in publishing their own work.

In 1980, Ms. Lillig returned to Loyola to complete her undergraduate degree in Theology, commuting several nights a week to Loyola's Lewis Towers campus. She went on to earn a Masters Degree in Pastoral Studies from Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park.

In October, 1999, Ms. Lillig was preparing to lead a Catechesis training course in Rome, Italy when she slipped on a marble floor getting out of bed, breaking her hip. Taken to a local Italian public hospital, Ms. Lillig lay unattended and without anesthetic or water for several hours before a friend from the training course discovered her. The friend was able to arrange for a transfer to a private hospital which served American diplomats, where Ms. Lillig stayed for a few days until her husband came to Italy and flew her home, immobilized, to undergo hip replacement surgery in Chicago.

In 2002 Ms. Lillig became a grandmother for the first time. The first grandchild would be followed by five more within a three-year period. Ms. Lillig delighted in her grandchildren, especially enjoying reading to them and taking them to her bedroom to show them the small crucifixes, candles, and religious statues that she kept carefully tucked away in her drawers. Ms. Lillig's love for her grandchildren allowed her respite from a variety of painful conditions which she began to experience in her last few years. While she was often in significant pain, almost no one around her except her husband realized it because she never complained or expressed any resentment about her pain, and it failed to slow her tireless work at the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd or any other aspect of her active life. While painful, her conditions were unrelated to her fatal stroke, which came suddenly and without warning.

When she died, Ms. Lillig was in the midst of an ambitious new project, developing a comprehensive website for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that would provide, online, the numerous books and teaching materials that she and other catechists had written or helped publish throughout her career.

Ms. Lillig leaves her beloved husband, John Lillig, three sons, John (Anna Lee), Matt (Laura Salvarini) and Tom (Cindy Ivanac-Lillig), her six grandchildren, Eun Hae, Tae Won, Juan, Mariana, Meche, and Coleman, her brother Angelo (Denise Fedewa) Varias, and her mother Frances Fiscella Varias. She was preceded in death by her father, Gonzalo Varias and her sister Graziella Figi.

Visitation will be on Friday, December 18 from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. at:
Drechsler-Brown Funeral Home
203 S. Marion Street
Oak Park, IL 60304
(708) 383-3191
The Funeral Mass will be on Saturday, December 19 at 10:00 a.m. at:
Ascension Church
808 S. East Avenue
Oak Park, IL 60304
(708) 848-2703

Interment will follow the Funeral Mass at:
Maryhill Cemetery
8600 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Niles, IL 60714
(847) 823-0982
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to:
The National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
P.O. Box 1084
Oak Park, IL 60304

This tribute was originally published here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Et incarnatus est

Et incarnatus est is one of the two pieces of music that Fr. Pietro played for us during the Advent Retreat on Sunday. It is an aria taken from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor, from the Credo, and refers to the moment in the Creed when we pray, "And became man." Here is information on the recording and an excerpt from Fr. Giussani's reflection on the piece:

Spirto Gentil music series founded by Fr Luigi Giussani - n. 24

Grand Mass in C Minor K427
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Deutsche Grammophon
Herbert von Karajan
Berliner Philarmoniker

The Divine Incarnate

This spectacular work by Mozart, which culminates in the song Et incarnatus est (And was made flesh), is the most powerful and convincing, the simplest and greatest expression of a man who recognizes Christ. Salvation is a Presence: this is the wellspring of the joy and the wellspring of the affectivity of Mozart’s Catholic heart, of his heart that loved Christ.
Et incarnatus est is singing at its purest, when all man’s straining melts in the original clarity, the absolute purity of the gaze that sees and recognizes. Et incarnatus est is contemplation and entreaty at the same time, a stream of peace and joy welling up from the heart’s wonder at being placed before the arrival of what it has been waiting for, the miracle of the fulfillment of its quest.
There came a Man, a young Man, who entered the world in a certain town, a certain place in the world that can be identified on a map, Nazareth. When one goes to the Holy Land, to that little town, and enters the shadowy hut where there is an inscription on the wall that reads Verbum hic caro factum est (the Mystery of God, here, was made flesh), he is overcome by shivers. This is the Man Jesus of Nazareth, chosen to be the humanity of the Word, the humanity of God, God who is the answer to the heart of man whom He created, the complete, superabundant answer to the cry of the heart He created; the cry that reverberates in the mystery of the Trinity through the presence brought about by the spirit of a Jewish Man, born of a 17-year-old woman.

(Excerpt from the introduction by Luigi Giussani to the booklet enclosed in the CD)

Why I Garden

death and the art of digging beneath the surface

I used to hate gardening. I hated measured, ordered flowers. I saw something so militaristic and tacky and even unjust about imposing artificial geometry on something that already has an intricate, hidden order. Base fear seemed at the heart of the antiseptic impulse to remove what Nature so abundantly bestows on the earth -- I took the gardener's imperative to weed as a personal affront. I happen to be a scrappy survivor type with blunt fingers, an iron stomach, and large feet. So, if I were a plant, I'd probably be a weed. How like the worst impulse in humanity to kill one thing to encourage some artificial and biased standard of botanical beauty. Why rake? Why remove stones and briars? Let the earth go natural! Why tamper with God's green earth? That was my philosophy.

But on some level, I knew it was a philosophy of convenience. Because beyond any philosophical revulsion, I particularly hated the feeling of dried dirt on my hands. Dust on my skin sends shivers through me the way that the sound of squeaking chalk on a blackboard does. And the way it gets beneath your fingernails and drives a wedge between the nail and the skin makes me feel almost sick. I hated the posture I had to assume to weed: squatting or kneeling in the awful dirt, with the sun beating down on you. My attitude was inconsistent: occasionally I would color my hair or impose curls on what nature had made straight. Colors that God had never designed for the human face would sometimes appear on my lips and eyes. Perhaps a barely felt awareness of my inconsistency made me resentful.

Also, my experience had educated me to believe that I had a dispositional lack of patience; thus, I took this poverty of virtue for a component of my soul, and after the habit of all good narcissists, I promoted it as a valid state of being. I call myself a narcissist, because in those years, "I" was the only point of reference I could safely describe and feel certain about. If I was to view my self, that is to say, my starting point and end point, as "good," then anything that requires patience must be "bad" -- at least from the subjective (the only "valid") perspective.

None of this is very pretty, and it isn't the root of my distaste for gardening, either. What I have thus far described is more the soil in which the root was buried. The root itself received water and a kind of negative nutrition from this noxious humus and also released toxins that could support other growths that bore unsavory and poisonous fruit.

I used to hate gardening because I feared death.

When I was fourteen and living in Hong Kong, I was the proud mama of two African violets. It required all my attention and dexterity to water them in such a way that no drop of moisture fell on the velvet surface of their leaves. I observed their color and the tension in each hidden stem from day to day. When a leaf began to rely too heavily on the edge of the pot for support, or when its color faded even a shade, I would gently work it loose from the plant, for the good of the whole. Each new bud that started as a dark knot in the secret, leafy heart was greeted with my own quivers of joy, and the days during which it slowly arose from its bed of foliage, swelled and lifted its chin from its chest, and opened its glistening violet soul wide to the cosmos were altered in their very substance. Every moment of my experience was washed with the subtle glaze of anticipation, which transformed even the quality of sunlight and the intensity of its reflection on everything it yanks into life.

Life, indeed all substance, in this phenomenal world is temporary and provisional. Only the light is eternal, but I didn't understand that then. All I understood is that my family would be moving across an ocean and a continent, to someplace called "home" that contained more unknown variables than any ordinary tomorrow. The wash of color vanished and sunlight dimmed. Exercising dexterity, which was essentially powerless to prevent the rot of anxiety from eating my own insides, reminded me too much of its limitations and quickly came to nauseate me. Even brushing my teeth brought on the kind of existential nausea that Jean-Paul Sartre described with so much morbid precision.

So, the violets died, and with them, any trust I had in a world of shifting shades of green. I experienced this as a profound guilt. I had betrayed something, "some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing," that had depended on me.

Well, is it any wonder that I began to sneer at small minds that conceived of tidy garden beds decorated with uniformly spaced hothouse flowers marching in orderly columns, took up the banner of "going natural" in order to trumpet the survival of clumsy, impatient weeds like myself, and crowned the whole ugly mess by complaining of the discomforts of handling dirt?

What overcomes fears, lets us tell ourselves the truth, gives us strength to promote life? What allows us to breathe?

* * *

discovered, while digging

In the basement, in boxes:

1) A man's platinum wedding band
2) A pair of high magnification reading glasses
3) Black and white photo of a high school senior named "Michael" from Wilson High School's 1954 graduating class
4) A CIA bronze medal awarded for "meritorious service"
5) Several letters of condolence addressed to "Wally" with carbon copies of response letters, signed by "Wally" attached with rusty paper clips
6) A map of Arlington Cemetery with a red X marked in Section D.
7) Death certificate for a man who died of a crushed skull

In literature:

1) The Fat Lady, in Franny and Zooey, for whom one can sing
2) The end of all our exploring, in Four Quartets
3) A daughter who is mother of her son, in I Synge of a Mayden
4) Myrrh and how dead wood blooms, in Trilogy
5) How to stain the water clear, in Songs of Innocence and Experience
6) An onion, in The Brothers Karamazov
7) A baby's sneeze, in Anna Karenina
8) Fresh woods and pastures new, in Lycidas
9) the godless , in proud of his scientific attitude
10) Gold to airy thinness beat, in Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
11) What happens to prophets no one believes, in Elektra
12) The one who anticipates desires, in Paradiso
13) A bed, in The Odyssey
14) A burning boy, in Casabianca
15) Dying frogs, in Water and Land Animals
16) Rooms within rooms, in In the Western Night
17) Palimpsests

In my mother's address book:

1) Contact information for Fred, who was Mike's college roommate

In a photo album:

1) A picture of myself, sitting in the front pew, at my parents' wedding
2) A set of four images that together tell the story of how I once fell off a swing

In the woods of Virginia and Pennsylvania:

1) A night filled with as many fireflies as there are sequins on a cocktail dress
2) Trees with limbs that twist and writhe black against a slate sky
4) A crayfish I mistook for a baby lobster
5) An allergy to mold

While walking through a door on a Tuesday morning:

1) My future husband

In an ugly church in the suburbs of Philadelphia:

1) The skin on Jesus' feet
2) A white handkerchief
3) A reason for tears

In my friend's refrigerator:

1) Six bottles of cheap beer
2) A reason to stop counting

In Paris:

1) Chanterelles
2) A copy of Playboy magazine that mentioned Mike and Wally
3) The Bagatelle
4) Ten cousins I never knew
5) A taste for coffee
6) Giverny
7) Nine varieties of potato
8) The Medieval castle under the Louvre museum

In children:

1) Love

In parables:

1) A light by which light may be seen
2) A drop of water that spreads to the edges of the Infinite
3) The bean that sprouts beyond the clouds
4) A pearl with which I could buy back my life
5) How to wait

* * *

living things and the art of digging for them

I dug two holes, one on either side of the steps leading to my front porch. With one gloved hand, I had taken hold of a young rose bush, gripping it at the thickest part of the stem, right where it met the surface of the dirt. With the other hand, I gently nudged at its plastic pot, working the cylinder of soil loose from its container. Just then my neighbor, who is a philosopher by trade, called from across the street, "Planting flowers?"

If he was surprised by what I was doing, it was nothing compared to my own amazement. "Yes!" I answered, "Roses!"

Giving my project a critical once-over, he asked, "Is that how you do it? Just dig a hole and stick it in?"

"I guess so," I said. I mean, what did I know about gardening? Those two rose bushes were my first plantings. Two days later my husband had to dig them up and replant them because I hadn't put them deep enough in the soil.

So then I fell madly in love with gardening, and the roses and I lived happily ever after.

No: I just had to write out that particular sentence, to finally get the lying thought out of my head and keep it instead, where I can see it. In actual point of fact, I did not begin to love gardening for at least another year. For many months I was pleased with myself for having bought the roses and stuck them into the ground (albeit, ineptly), and then I was amazed to see them come back again in the Spring. During the following summer, each time I looked at their frilly, pink blooms I experienced an emotion that can only be described with the words, "Will you look at that?"

Taking all my courage into my hands, I planted more flowering perennials. I didn't do it out of love or because the roses were a "success" that I wanted to repeat, but rather because I felt something was missing in the garden. I was new to the house when I planted the roses and had inherited with it a few unusual and beautiful plants, as well as scores of horrid hostas. A friend was kind enough to dig many of them up for me and relocate them to a place where they could be enjoyed, but now the flower beds were pitted with craters, which I attempted to fill, one by one, with plants that wouldn't require any effort or care after I did them the small service of covering their roots with dirt.

But performing even one small service to aid some helpless and innocent life form can change the way we look at it. Or cause us to look at it at all. The first thing that I began to love about the garden was the way it invited me to look at it. And the act of looking, looking with love, seemed to vivify the plants. Before I went away for a three week vacation, I asked a friend to water my garden for me. She asked if there were any special instructions, and when I told her the most important thing was to look at the plants, she thought I was crazy (so she told me later). But I still maintain that there is something holy about looking at a thing: "He has looked on the lowliness of his servant" (Luke 1:48). And soon after Mary's prayer, Zechariah uses this strange idea of being looked on by God, too: "He has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them" (Luke 1: 68) -- elsewhere in the Bible, the Greek word for "look" is translated as "visited," "has broken" (as in "the dawn from on high will break upon us"), "to select or to choose" (from Acts 6:3), and "to care for" (see James 1:27). Well, I know what happens when the sun from on high "breaks" on my flowers: they are fed on light and they thrive.

This house is my twenty-third residence. I have lived in it for a little over two years, and still we have many unpacked boxes in the basement, the attic, and my bedroom. With each move, it seems to take longer for me to unpack the boxes. There are some boxes I have never unpacked, through the past several moves. They stay sealed, get loaded onto a truck, and then come to rest in a new basement. What is in those boxes? Old letters, the bulk of my postcard collection, certain items of clothing, family photos...yes, and what else? It seems to be a function of my psyche that I don't want to have a mental catalog of what lurks in all my literal corners.

The interior corners are a different matter, though, and so are the exterior ones. In fact, my gardening seems to gravitate to corners. On the northeast corner of the property, at the foot of the retaining wall that makes a nice sharp angle to echo the street corner beyond it, I have planted three blood red poppies that pop from their green fuzzy pods, and toss their petals, like the skirts of Spanish dancers. Above them, just inside the wall itself, I planted two rows of lavender -- different varieties -- that send sprays of stiff, narrow bloom stalks up over formless mounds of greenery. The effect, from a distance, is to soften the sharp lines of the stone wall with a continuous bluish, pinkish, whitish and purplish cloud of perfume. Then, tucked into the elbow of these two lines of lavender, a cluster of peonies rise to offer up an embarrassment of pink froth, so heavy that their showy heads bow down to earth when they are wet. As the eye moves diagonally back from the corner, there is a young dogwood that bears a whole constellation of white stars. Further in and further up, at the corner of the front flower bed, a baby lilac bush stands erect while yarrow, blue daisies, and violet verbena dance in a circle around it. Behind the lilac, a venerable old syringa, dotted with tiny pale green leaves, hides the corner of the tiled porch. Within the wrought iron railing, two flower boxes, filled with geraniums, peachy snapdragons, and pinwheeling zinnias, crowd the porch corner with color. Finally, on the windowsill at the same corner of the house, lantana and dahlias tap at the glass, asking the inner world to acknowledge the unexpected. The other corners of my garden are equally dizzy with tiers of color that work their way in imprecise diagonals toward and away from the house.

I did not plan this pattern, nor any of the others one might discern with a critical eye. Friends have praised my "English" garden, but I did not set out to create a special type of garden. From my perspective, the over-all effect is a messy, riotous metaphor for something that was never determined in advance.

I am still preoccupied with the question of how I went from hating gardening to passing so many timeless hours stooped and kneeling with the sun beating down on me. How did I come to like the smell of dirt? Why do I not mind when the mud cakes and dries on my skin, ruins my shoes and pants, even sometimes gets into my nose and eyes?

1) Breaking the seal on one cardboard box led me to a cemetery where human bodies were planted in geometrical, "militaristic" rows, and where I found questions, red as blood, then

2) Combinations of words yielded clouds of meaning, radiating like halos of cloud around figures of speech, until

3) A single unexpected address began a process of discovery that turned death into someone with a name, a face, and a history as rich and complex and full of hope as blooms that are crushed in a storm, so that

4) Staring fixedly at family photos until they yielded up their secrets helped me locate the mystery in others who danced a circle round the figure of myself in a pew or on a swing, then

5) Paths through woods and along creeks showed me sequins in the air that could birth mythical shapes in the stellar universe, then

6) Peering through doors brought me face-to-face with fatherhood, in all its dimensions, such that it could generate me in every instant of my existence, until

7) Anointed feet brought me an invitation to look up into eyes that were new and great with life, so that

8) In refrigerators, I found my own littleness and dependence, then

9) Mushrooms and potatoes and all the colors contained in the petal of a white water lily revealed to me all the multitudinous contradictions hidden in the heart, until

10) Love led me to the Infinite, who tapped at my glass until I looked upon his garment sewn with seeds and pearls.

Because I am earnest to a fault, I must admit that I made all that up, on the spot, which doesn't mean that any of it is untrue. Just that my flowers could tell you another story, or another. And that is why I garden.

This post is in three parts. The first two parts ("death and the art of digging beneath the surface" and "discovered, while digging") first appeared as stand-alone posts. The entire essay was first published 12/5/07.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why I Cook

Cooking begins with hunger...

I typed the above words three days ago, and then I minimized this window. Every time I came to the computer, I looked at those words and then minimized the window again. Too busy cooking to write about it.

But so, cooking begins with hunger, but it doesn't end there. I began to cook seriously as a result of a huge shift in my self-understanding when I was pregnant with my first child. This shift was dramatic and multi-layered, but at first I only experienced the drama. I found that I could not eat the same food twice. Once I'd had a meal, the thought of that particular flavor combination made me sick. By the end of two weeks of this, I had exhausted my repertoire of recipes, and I began to order carry out. This solution was a stop-gap measure, at best. The budget wasn't bottomless, and neither were the menus of our local restaurants. Soon all our paper take-out menus were annotated in my handwriting with comments beside different items that read, "yuck," "superyuck," "abominably yucky." It was time to hit the cookbooks. What I sought most were recipes that used ingredients that I'd never tried before. In those months, I tried mustard greens, broccoli rabe, radicchio, arugula, celery root, Belgian and curly endive, white peaches, and fresh fennel for the first time. It wasn't that I couldn't eat celery root twice, but if I had it once in a gratin with new potatoes and gruyere, then the next time I would have to prepare it with tomatoes and garlic. But new factors entered into this particular drama that could not be explained by the problem of nausea. For instance, it seemed that I enjoyed making fresh pasta, and this enjoyment had nothing to do with the experience of eating it when it was done. I simply received great pleasure in the give and take of the dough, the dust of flour on my fingers, the golden color that the egg yolk imparted to the flour and water mixture, the fruity smell of the olive oil. What I loved most were the various new ways in which my hands were learning to move. First pressing into the elastic mass with the heels of my hands, then gathering the edges up in my fingertips and pulling them to incorporate them back into the ball, sliding the strips of dough between the rollers of the pasta machine, turning the crank, and pulling out the long, smooth tongue of soft pasta, using the pads of my fingers so as not to create dents. Being able to detect changes in temperature in the steam that rose to my face, or feeling a sauce thicken through the handle of a wooden spoon, or discovering exactly how to hold the knife in order to take the yellow off the peel of a lemon and leave the bitter white pith behind -- these all gave a particular sensation of happiness that surprised me. Then one day, when I had seven pounds of peaches to peel and slice, I could not ignore the complete astonishment I felt as I picked up the first peach, feeling its warm, soft weight in my palm, slipped the tip of my paring knife under the fuzzy layer of skin, and began slowly working the blade in a spiral around the fruit. Thick, pale orange juice oozed between my palm and the fruit, and I stood with my hands over the sink, smelling the warm peach that sat wet and slippery in my fist, and I almost blushed, the pleasure was so acute. How many times had I peeled peaches in the past? It was always a chore to complete, a job for the lowly kitchen helper, but here I was, discovering for the first time in my life, a secret that no one had tried to hide from me. Peeling and slicing peaches was one of the sweetest pleasures given to humanity. From this new insight, I began to be able to see the pleasure in less intuitively positive kitchen experiences -- handling raw meat, the scent of crushed garlic in the pores of my skin, or stripping the tiny leaves from a sprig of thyme.
It took some deep pondering for me to understand finally that my hands enjoyed working just as much as my mind did, and I began to be conscious of all the various ways that my hands keep themselves occupied throughout the day.
After my daughter was born, my hands were pretty content just to be touching her, patting her, fiddling with tiny buttons, rearranging wisps of hair, rubbing the soles of her feet with my thumbs, and the pleasures of food took a back seat to these new found delights.
During my second pregnancy, though, my love for food was reawakened. This time, however, it manifested in a new way that I can only characterize as a passion for excellence. I bought an oven thermometer and would shift it to different positions within my oven so that I could know the precise temperature in every particular corner of it. Not content to measure dry ingredients precisely by the dip-level-pour method, I began to use a kitchen scale to weigh everything and standardize my recipes. I would make the same recipe several times in a row, altering quantities or techniques each time, in order to find the perfect combination. It was during this period that I came up with a recipe for the perfect chocolate cake. This new passion also required that I make new friends who would receive the many cakes that flew from my kitchen. I began to think in advance of who would receive the cake I was about to make, and then all the pleasures, both sensual and mathematical, would be dedicated to the person who would be receiving the final product.
I also began to plan meals and menus particularly suited to the persons I had invited to enjoy them. I would collect details, likes and dislikes, combinations of flavors, favorite restaurants and cuisines, about each of my friends, so that when I served them, the meal would perhaps tell them a story about themselves -- or even better, about us. I even began to acquire enough skill in the kitchen to be able to tell subtle jokes with the food, communicate ideas, and even bring about reconciliations that had been impossible with mere verbal methods. Cooking was like a prayer, or a simple piece of music, or one of the best conversations.
During my third pregnancy, my grandmother died. All the cousins paid a visit to her house to choose an object that had special meaning for them. I wanted to take her huge gas stove, but I had no room for it in my suitcase, so I chose the white milk glass salt and pepper shakers. They were each still half full. When I got back home, I filled both to the top and then resolved never to let either empty completely. That way, there would always be a trace of Grandma's salt in what I ate.
I had a recipe for Italian Anise bread I'd been making for a little over a year, and it produces a nut colored, braided loaf studded with golden raisins with a faint scent of licorice. That Christmas, I decided to make enough loaves to give one to each of my friends. However, by loaves eleven and twelve I was very discouraged. Like numbers one through ten, they were destined never to be eaten. For some reason, my dough would not rise, and I produced, instead of bread, small, braided nut colored bricks. I began to plan construction of a garden wall by Easter, by which point I thought I'd have all the bricks I'd need.
I tinkered with every aspect of the recipe, measuring the temperature of the liquid with a thermometer, adding ingredients in different order, switching yeast, kneading first by hand and then with the mixer. For all the variation, the loaves came out identical to one another.
Grandma's idea of a recipe was never more precise than, "Well, you take your onions and you cook them in a little oil..." Measurements were in handfuls, fist-sized bunches, little fingers, ladles. She also believed in ghosts.
I didn't want to admit that I thought the bread was haunted. Of course, Grandma would have said it was. And if I could have her here now, telling the story of the year I couldn't make the bread rise to save my soul, she'd have me believing in portents and signs and laughing at the small and large ironies of life until she'd brought enough leavening to raise the roof.
So, if during my first pregnancy I learned to communicate with myself through food, and during the second I learned to communicate with others, during the third pregnancy I learned to use food to communicate, even with the dead.

Originally published 11/24/07

Monday, November 23, 2009

There's the vocation you want, and the vocation you're given

I'm reprinting this... Originally published here on 6/4/08:

Silly creatures that we are, we think that we can call ourselves. We think that we choose ourselves.

We can be machines for generating interpretations.

We think that when we do wrong, to recognize it would be a curse.

Then we generate more interpretations to cover up the most recent batch of mistakes.

But there is something outside of me -- radically outside of me -- that generates me. The interpretations that originate in me are mere words. If I want the truth, then I must look outside of myself to the Something that generates me. What do I see outside of myself?


An interpretation that does not take into account ALL the facts is just my own wish masquerading as a truth.

And how is it possible for a small, ornery human being, trapped in a particular point of view and without access to any other pair of eyes or set of ears, possibly take ALL the facts into consideration?

Yep, you heard it here: it's impossible. Any interpretation that originates with me is false.

I cannot even say, "Well, this is the truth for me."

I do not have a 360º view of myself. I cannot even decide the truth of my own self.

I did not make myself. I was not the one who gave me life. And I am not the one who decides that I may continue to take up space on this planet.

But I am intensely grateful to discover that I have been made, I do have life, and Someone does decide that I, in all my minuscule insignificance, should find a pocket of space just large enough for my body to inhabit, at any and every given moment.

So, I do not decide that I am here and that I am I. I discover it.

Life is a quest and an adventure, not a series of interpretations.

Wherever do we find the nerve to pronounce, to define, to put forward the products of our thought? How do we ever dare to presume to have an answer??

I have been given this body, these eyes, this particular space from which to view the world, these hands, this mouth, this heart; and they have all been given for only one reason: to help me seek.

Let's stop wasting our lives -- our mysteriously beautiful existence here -- in the fantasy of making up our lives, generating millions of false little answers. The only rational way to live is in asking and listening, asking and listening...and then following.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reality, fiction, and being Catholic...

"The very term 'Catholic novel' is, of course, suspect, and people who are conscious of its complications don't use it except in quotation marks. If I had to say what a 'Catholic novel' is, I could only say that it is one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships. Only in and by these sense experiences does the fiction writer approach a contemplative knowledge of the mystery they embody." -- Flannery O'Connor (Mystery and Manners).

Monday, November 16, 2009

The anger and irritation were extraneous distractions.

Speaker: During the past holidays of All Saints and All Souls, I thought of my sister who died three
years ago and the fact that I haven’t visited the cemetery in three years. A friend who
knows about this called me and said: “I went to the cemetery to visit my mother-in-law,
which I had never done before, and you have to go too”. Just the fact that someone was
telling me “you have to” started to irritate me, I felt it was an imposition. Furthermore
this makes me particularly angry because … the idea that I might miss my sister…….She
got on my nerves and I put the phone down saying: “You mind your problems and I will
mind mine!”. Instead, mysteriously, this incident worked on me, and while I was going
through the day I realized that I wanted to understand why this friend spoke to me like
that. I started to desire to follow the journey to the end, that journey that lets me look at
my sister saying: “It is my sister!”, and recall her in my memory as mine. This struck me
deeply, because I couldn’t even think of her any more as my sister, as a person,
something belonging to me, with her own face but deeply connected to me. Then
something that was said at the last School of Community came to my mind, that judgment
and so affection are not detached from reason, the fact that when this moves you, it is not
a judgment tacked on. I started to desire. Maybe also the love of this friend for me [that
she expressed in what she said to me] mysteriously worked. At the end I did not go to the
cemetery [I went only to Mass] because it’s still hard for me. But it is really mysterious
how the love she witnessed to me generated this desire I did not have, and this anger
slowly became desire to follow the journey to the end, without fear of asking myself the
question. And it is so true that my younger son, since I had been sad for a few days,
noticed the difference and said: ”Mom, today you look happy”. This erased any doubt
about the truth of my experience, there was no possibility for ambiguity.

Fr Julián Carrón: What is your judgment of this?

Speaker: My unexpected change, unthinkable for me, that from this anger a new desire could be

Fr Julián Carrón: From this anger a desire was born? I want to understand this: the desire was born from
your anger?

Speaker: No, it was born from the fact that I listened to a person.

Fr Julián Carrón: What was it born from? Because, this is the important point. You used the word “love”.

Speaker: Yes.

Fr Julián Carrón: Love, a good, which means a grace, which means a Presence that was not scared in front
of the cemetery. You can see what this Presence is because of what it moved in you.
What does it mean? If you start from this desire that was re-awakened, from this
happiness that even your son recognized, what does emerge? Which Presence is able to
do this? We do not realize it even when it happens! You see how many times we think of
the two things as separate, grace on one side and freedom on the other [or, the presence
of Christ on one side, and then my move on the other]. But where do you see the power
of what happened in what you recounted? That something moved inside you, it shows
that it is exceptional because it moves you, it grabs and exalts your “I”. Only Christ’s
contemporaneousness can move to the point of being able to face death. But how did this
happen? How does it happen? It happens exactly because of what is described in point 5
in the La Thuile Booklet, “The Triple Factor of Christian Experience”.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Today my face has changed."

Speaker: I work at a school [I am a secretary], and this month a young woman has come to work
with me to help organizing the archives. During this time we got along very well and we
became friends. The other day she found out that her job with us was ending, and we
went home feeling pretty sad. The next morning I got to the office and she told me: ”You
know, I decided to go to Mass in Trivolzio” [note: Church of Trivolzio near Milan, where
the body of S. Riccardo Pampuri is buried and venerated]. She is not a religious person
and she has nothing to do with us, but after hearing me talking about Trivolzio at school,
she had felt the desire to check the Trivolzio internet site and she read everything. She
had looked at the entire Trivolzio site and the entire CL site! After a moment of silence
she added - these are her exact words-:”It is too beautiful. Actually, if you look at me you
see that my face is different”. I was deeply moved because the day before she had been
fired and nevertheless, the things she had heard, often not even addressed directly to her,
corresponded so much to her desire, that this beauty prevailed even over the loss of her
job. In front of this my heart truly jumped, and to be honest, for the first time my thought,
not tacked on, not invented, was: ”It is Him, it is Jesus!” It could not be anybody but
Him, so attractive that my friend could meet Him even through my limited person, and He
could be far more fascinating to her than the seemingly more important desire for her
job. From that moment when I get up in the morning to go to work my first thought is for
Him: it is this enormous curiosity to see where and how, again, today, He will make
Himself known to me. I understand that this is possibly the beginning of experience
because it identifies a step from which one cannot go back any longer.

Fr Julián Carrón: That is, judgment is the least artificial thing that exists.

Speaker: Yes, because it is a recognition, it is like saying: ”Wow, it is really Him!”

Fr Julián Carrón: “Today my face has changed”: if you do not arrive to this point you miss the best of experience, because the sign that one has recognized something when circumstances do
not change - as in this case, it’s not that she found a job – is the change that happens in
the person. Then she will have to discover slowly all that is inside that first jolt. This
research she has done is already something, she has intuited something, but she will have
to look more deeply into what has already happened, the nature of what happened,
become aware of all of this. Thank you.

Now that Fr Carrón has decided to publish translations of the notes/transcripts of his School of Community on the CL website for the US, we have such a precious gift! To think of how technology has advanced our access to so much richness! Now there is document after fascinating document available to anyone with an internet connection.

The above excerpt provides a simple and compelling example of judgment; it is clear that the speaker has had an experience. "Then she will have to discover slowly all that is inside that first jolt" -- this was Fr. Carrón's observation about the speaker's new friend. And our work -- of discovering slowly what is inside the first jolt for us -- lies in steeping ourselves in these new gifts. Tonight my heart is full of gratitude for all Fr. Giussani has left for us and for the care and tenderness with which he continues to accompany us.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"...does not build, but destroys..."

Charity projects in the Milanese plain, a large agricultural area on the edge of Milan, involved hundreds of students every Sunday

Monsignor Giussani, with his fearless and unfailing faith, knew that, even in this situation, Christ, the encounter with Him, remains central, because whoever does not give God, gives too little, and whoever does not make people find God in the Fact of Christ, does not build, but destroys, because he gets human activity lost in ideological and false dogmatisms. Fr Giussani kept the centrality of Christ and, exactly in this way, with social works, with necessary service, he helped mankind in this difficult world, where the responsibility of Christians for the poor in the world is enormous and urgent. (Pope Benedict XVI)

h/t Paul Zalonski at Communio

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Pope and political engagement

I am reprinting this reprint to share with Justine:

My friend Paul just posted this article from America Magazine on his blog, Communio, and I think it is so apt that I want to put it up here, too:

Pope Benedict on Religion and Politics: the influence of Communion & Liberation

By Michael Sean Winters, America Magazine

Pope Benedict XVI greeted a group of pilgrims this past weekend with a short discourse on the Feast of Christ the King that has an obvious application to the political circumstance of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States in the wake of President-elect Obama's decisive win among Catholic voters.

"Dear brothers and sisters," the Pope told the pilgrims, "this is what interests God. The kingship of history is of no importance to him -- he wants to reign in people's hearts, and from these, in the world: He is the king of the entire universe, but the crucial point, the place where his reign is at risk, is our heart, for there God finds himself encountering our freedom." Reign in the heart, then in the world. That is the proper order for political influence by the Christian Churches.

Unfortunately, political power inevitably invites that deadliest of the seven deadly sins, pride, and it is always tempting for those of us whose involvement in politics grows out of our religious motivations to conflate the two, to think that politics is about the Kingdom not the kingdom, to collapse our eschatons into our exit polls. And, this happens on both left and right.

But, Benedict is right. The primary means by which the Church should influence the realm of politics is by converting hearts and generating culture. This insight was the principal reason Don Luigi Guissani founded his movement, Communione e Liberazione and distanced himself from the Christian Democratic Party of his day. And, the Holy Father's reliance on the insights of Don Guissani is well known.

So, as we Americans prepare to celebrate the quintessential American holiday, so soon after a tumultuous election, let us all remember that the kingship of history is less important than breaking bread with our friends. And, for those of us who are Catholic Americans, let us commit ourselves anew to the wonderful adventurous drama of the human heart where, as Pope Benedict said, "God finds himself encountering our freedom."

Friday, November 6, 2009

PRO-LIFE/ Change comes from a long and patient cultural work

An article I wrote for Il

A recent Gallup poll (May 2009) indicates that significant numbers of people in the United States have changed their minds about abortion, and that now, for the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1995, more Americans identify themselves as pro-life (51%) than as pro-choice (42%). These results are even more dramatic when compared to those obtained in 2008, when 44% said they were pro-life, while 50% reported that they were pro-choice.

In the United States, the terms pro-life and pro-choice carry emotional, as well as political or philosophical weight. Whether one is pro-life or pro-choice is influenced by multiple factors, including past and present social milieu, the family of origin's attitudes and beliefs, norms among fellow professionals in the workplace, ideas expressed in the media, or religious belief; and it implies membership in a loose group of like-minded people. All these factors exert pressure on the individual to remain either pro-life or pro-choice; therefore any change in the way Americans identify themselves in this regard is significant.

What could account for the change in attitude reflected in the Gallup poll's data? Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, has said, "The days of legal abortion in this country are numbered" because of the number of women who have had abortions and have come forward to describe the devastating effect of abortion on their lives: "The other side wants us to think they are on the side of the women, and we are on the side of the baby.... You can't love one without loving the other. You can't hurt one without hurting the other." Fr. Pavone also credits those who have been working in the abortion industry who have witnessed the devastation first hand and who are now closing their clinics. "They are coming out of the industry by the hundreds," Fr. Pavone said. In addition, Pavone noted that the use of ultrasound technology has helped the pro-life cause by providing the evidence that the fetus is indeed a human life.

Recent dramatic events in Texas support and illustrate Fr. Pavone's assessment. Abby Johnson was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas for two years until she resigned last month, after using ultrasound to view an abortion. Johnson is now volunteering with the Coalition For Life, a pro-life group whose volunteers pray regularly outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic where Johnson once worked. Shawn Carney, director of the coalition, issued a statement that concluded, “Abby believes in the power of prayer and she thanks all of you for your peaceful presence outside of her former workplace all of these years.”

Abby Johnson with Coalition for Life Director Shawn Carney

This episode calls to mind another similar incident documented in Letters section of Traces magazine (April 2003):

Dearest Fr Giussani: For 37 years, I was in charge of the instruments in an operating room in the Obstetrics and Gynecology ward. In my region, Molise, the rate of recourse to voluntary interruption of pregnancy has always been very high compared to the total population. Because of my affection for Jesus, I applied to be an objector, but I did not wash my hands of things just because of this. Quite the contrary. I tried to make Jesus present in those circumstances in every way my creativity could invent. I would talk with the women to open them up to welcoming the little seed that was already inside them; many times I would sterilize the instruments that others should have checked so that the operation would not result in more pain; I would debate with my non-objector coworkers to show them the lack of sense in their choice, and above all I would talk with the doctors who performed abortions. In so many years, the Lord has given me the grace of seeing many babies saved through me. But the greatest gift the Lord gave me came the day the abortion doctor on my ward phoned to tell me that after so many years of my witness, his heart had been touched, and he had decided to apply to be an objector. He had understood that my admonishing him, urging him, was born of a real affection for him, of a real desire for his good. The Lord has used me so that the creature He loved could discover the love of his Creator. Now I have retired, and in the hospital where I worked, as a consequence of this doctor’s objection, abortions are no longer performed. I have learned from this experience that what counts in man is the task each one has in life, but no one is ever alone in this task, because God’s Mercy always makes itself our Companion. Thank you, Fr Giussani, because the Yes that you said one day has made the Lord’s embrace possible for me in a way that responded so fully to my heart. Enza, Termoli

From the above examples, we can make the following conclusion: to change from identifying oneself as pro-choice to seeing oneself as pro-life requires that something new happen to the person. This newness must be unusual and unexpected, and most of all, it must be patient. Despite the sudden change from the 2008 to the 2009 results in the Gallup poll, the cultural work of bringing others to see the value of human life in its earliest stages is slow and hidden. The poll results simply reflect the final step of conversion. May many others have the courage to take the same step!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

THE POOR/ With obedience, a way to sanctity

Something I wrote for Il Sussidiario:

sabato 17 ottobre 2009

On Sunday, October 11, 2009, the Church canonized five new saints. Far and away the most famous is St. Damien, the priest who gave his life to serve leprosy patients quarantined on Molokai in Hawaii. Most reporting did not mention the names of the four others who were canonized with St. Damien, but there was one among them, St. Jeanne Jugan, who has been called " Mother Teresa before Mother Teresa” (Dr. Edward Gatz), and in her poverty and compassion, Eloi Leclerc compared her to St. Francis himself.

Who was this woman that even her fame seems hidden from notice?

"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field" (Matthew 13:44 NAB).

Generations of scholars have read these words of Jesus and asked, "Why does he hide the treasure once he's found it?" There have been various answers, but perhaps the life of Jeanne Jugan provides the fullest and most satisfying answer.

Born in 1792, three years after the French Revolution, in Cancale, a small fishing village on the rough and windy coast of Brittany in France, the first "secret" of her life was the illegal catechesis she received from members of a lay order founded by St. John Eudes (she later joined this order). At age 18, she received two marriage proposals, which she turned down, explaining to her mother, "God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work, which he has not yet founded." This certainty in the Unknown would form an essential support for the work she would accomplish during the remainder of her life.

By the time Jeanne Jugan had reached age 47, a friendship had formed between herself and two other women, and the three moved into a small apartment together in 1839, so that they could lead a life of prayer and dedication to God. Shortly thereafter, as Jeanne was returning home one winter night, she met an elderly blind widow named Anne Chauvin. Moved with pity, Jeanne lifted Chauvin and carried the older woman over her shoulder and brought her up the stairs to the apartment. That night Chauvin slept in Jeanne's bed while Jeanne went to sleep in the attic. At the time, Jeanne was working as a maid for Monsieur Leroy at Saint-Servan. When Jeanne told him that she wanted to devote the rest of her life to the poor, begging on their behalf from door to door, he asked her who would respond to her requests. "People like you," she replied. He laughed at her but then gave her 3000 francs. Soon other elderly poor had arrived at the apartment, and Jeanne spent days on end begging in order to support the poor in her care. She would go out into the town with a basket over her arm, persistently knocking on doors, and with gentleness and love, she would accept even the smallest donation with gratitude. When she was slapped in the face by a man who refused her, she replied, “Thank you. That was for me. Now please give me something for my poor.”

From these small beginnings, other generous young women joined Jeanne; soon a new and larger house was needed. During these years of difficult and fruitful labor, Jeanne was recognized for her service. In 1845 the French Academy awarded Jeanne the Montyon Prize "for outstanding meritorious activity." And the Freemasons conferred a gold medal on her. She had this gold medal melted down and made into a chalice to be used at Mass.

In the meantime, two of Jeanne's friends had a spiritual adviser, Fr. Auguste le Pailleur, who began to advise the small group of women about various aspects of their life. In 1841, Jeanne Jugan was elected Mother General of the small congregation. But then, in December of 1843, Fr. le Pailleur, on his own authority, annulled a second election that again unanimously named Jeanne Jugan Mother General; soon after, he named himself Father General and gave Jeanne the task of begging. Not content with the possibility that Jeanne should receive any recognition, Fr. le Pailleur then ordered Jeanne to halt all her interactions with donors, assigned her the rank of novice, and sent her to the new Motherhouse at La Tour St. Joseph's in Saint Pern to live with the novices. Jeanne Jugan's biographer, Paul Milcent, wrote, in Humble So As to Love More: “The Abbé le Pailleur’s behavior has something odd about it, pointing to some kind of psychological disturbance. He was determined, even at the cost of falsifying the truth, to concentrate power and fame in his own person.”

After moving to La Tour St. Joseph, Jeanne Jugan lived for 23 years in obscurity, hidden away, her work stolen from her. The novices, among whom Jeanne lived, had no inkling as to her identity or role in the founding of the order they had joined. This period of the saint's life most fascinated the friar and author, Eloi Leclerc. In his spiritual biography of Jeanne Jugan, The Desert and the Rose, he explores the hidden life she led in complete obedience to Fr. Pailleur, despite his injustice. When a novice might ask her about a rumor she'd heard, Jeanne would reply, "They’ll talk to you about me. Don’t pay any attention. Our good Lord knows the whole story." We who thirst for justice are confounded by her attitude. Why didn't she defend herself, fight for the right to a holy work that God himself had begun in her? What we have from her instead is a long silence. Leclerc, having studied accounts given by those who spent these 23 years with her, concludes that she expressed no bitterness but rather accepted that the "unknown" work that God had first given to her had changed to become a hidden work upon her, within her person. Thus she retired willingly , until her death, at age 86 on the feast of St. Augustine. Rather than disturb the pomp and celebration of his feast day, Fr. le Pailleur postponed the announcement of her death; and in a circular letter he set two days later, he made no mention of Jeanne Jugan.

Monday, November 2, 2009

For you, dear friend

We must welcome our neighbor as a "guest" of our inner self. Hospitality means precisely to allow others to be part of our lives. After the sacrifice of one's life, hospitality is the greatest sacrifice, so much so that we find it difficult to be true hosts, we cannot even welcome our self. A true imitation of Christ consists in making others part of our life, just like Christ made us so much a part of his that we have become the limbs of his very Body. The mystery of the Body of Christ lies also in the fact that he welcomes our lives into his own.
- Don Gius, The Risk of Education, pg 42
A friend asked me for prayers today, and the above passage seems to reflect the new energy and compassion with which she has been facing her desire for the world and for those around her. I cannot think of a better prayer to accompany her through all the challenges that crop up as we attempt to welcome our neighbors as guests of our inner selves...


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Something new this morning

For over twenty years, the dominant thought/feeling I have had on waking in the morning is of amazed gratitude: How is it that you have preserved me in life, O Lord? This beauty that I am given to participate in seems completely disproportionate to all my weakness and evil. Please make me worthy to face it and to receive it. It makes me tremble a little to admit to this in public -- it sounds like a boast; but what's to be done -- it's the truth.

But this morning, I had an entirely new feeling, one that expressed itself in these words: Okay God, give it to me! And it's easier to admit to it because it seems so, well, rude and impious and presumptuous of me to speak in such a way to God and to have such an attitude in front of the Almighty! But I trust God understands that these words were accompanied by a great spirit of adventure and curiosity and even submission to God's prerogative to choose precisely what "it" will be during this day. And this sense of adventure and curiosity and desire to follow were not something I chose to attempt. Isn't it great to be alive?!

Friday, October 30, 2009

"The Butterfly Circus," directed by Joshua Weigel

"You do have an advantage: the greater the struggle the more glorious the triumph."

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Alongside of life, always"

[After the October 25, 2009 Angelus the Pope greeted the pilgrims in various languages. In Italian he said:]

I offer a special greeting first of all to the thousands of faithful gathered in Milan, in the Piazza del Duomo, where this morning the liturgy of the beatification of the priest Don Carlo Gnocchi was celebrated. He began as a sound educator of boys and young men. In the 2nd World War he became the chaplain of the Alpini (The mountain infantry of the Italian army), with whom he participated in the tragic retreat in Russia. It was then that he dedicated himself completely to a work of charity. Thus, in Milan during reconstruction, Don Gnocchi worked to "restore the human person," gathering orphaned and mutilated boys and offering them help and formation. He gave all of himself to the very end, and dying gave his corneas to two blind boys. His work continued to develop and today the Don Gnocchi Foundation is on the cutting edge in the care of persons of every age who need rehabilitative therapy. As I greet Cardinal Tettamanzi, Archbishop of Milan, and I rejoice with the Ambrosian Church, I make the motto of this beatification my own: "Alongside of life, always."

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

-- Reported on

...and from what Zenit reported:

Blessed Gnocchi (1902-1956) is remembered as a hero of solidarity with victims of World War II. He was called father for the mutilated and of combatants' orphans, since the center he created offered rehabilitation to those who suffered as a consequence of the war.

"Rather than a political or economic crisis, there is a profound moral crisis, more than that, a metaphysical crisis," he wrote in 1946. "As such, it affects all peoples because it touches man and his existential problem."

Father Rodolfo Cosimo Meoli, the postulator of Father Gnocchi’s cause for canonization, told ZENIT that the priest was particularly characterized by his charity.

"More than virtues, I would speak of ‘the virtue’: charity, on which all the others rested," Father Meoli said. "Also nobility, charity turned into action, tenderness, compassion, hospitality, availability."

The postulator recounted how Father Gnocchi was a volunteer chaplain during World War II.

"Then the tragic experience of the retreat from Russia matured in him the specific plan to offer assistance to orphans of the mountaineers and of many other little innocent victims of the war battles," he continued.

Father Gnocchi created a foundation in 1947 that has evolved into centers that receive patients with various disabilities, as well as patients who are in need of surgical intervention and rehabilitation, elderly people who are not self-sufficient and terminal cancer patients.

The postulator of his cause described the priest as "the modern face of sanctity."

Father Gnocchi saw his vocation "to be light and support, strength and hope for all those he met," Father Meoli said. "His life was consumed in doing good to others. He was an alter Christus, something that every priest, yesterday, today and always, is called to live."

-- reprinted from Zenit

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eleventh hour thoughts on judgment

My School of Community will meet tomorrow morning, and in light of the text of the talks given at the International Responsibles Meeting in La Thuile, which took place at the end of August, "Experience: The Instrument for a Human Journey," as well as the presentation given by Fr. Julián Carrón for Beginning Day this year, I am feeling some urgency to have these lessons very clear and very simple in my mind. I would welcome any comments or corrections to this attempt.

What we do in School of Community each week is called judgment. We compare our experience with the text that we are reading. Ordinarily in the Movement, we refer to judgment as a comparison of our experience with our elementary human needs (heart): for Truth, Beauty, Love, Satisfaction, Justice, etc. Given, though, that everyone is confused about what precisely constitutes his heart or her needs, we have a tool to help guide us as we learn this method; the tool is the text we read together. How can our weekly texts, which are after all an objective reality, be conflated with our heart, which is so personal and intimate? Though it is true that the heart is personal and intimate, it is also true that the heart is not subjective. The heart, the true heart of a person will argue with him or her; so much so that should I get a thing that I believe my heart desires, my heart will rebel and put me into a dark funk.

The texts we read in School of Community each constitute a view onto the true Source of satisfaction: Christ or life in Christ. Each week we read of another facet, which together with the others allows a glimpse of the whole Jewel, that is: God made man. Let's take a recent example: the text on poverty was a description of life that is lived as though totally aware of the Presence of the Mystery in the flesh. And after reading a piece of it, we compared our lives to this description of Christian poverty in order to have an objective record of that heart within us that is made precisely to want the Infinite companion, Emmanuel. So, judgment isn't something new, a description of a new burden that the Movement wishes to place upon us. Fr. Carrón's passionate insistence on judgment is simply a call for us to live more truly and fully our experience of the Movement.

Now, School of Community meets for an hour per week, and we could theoretically live, only making these sorts of comparisons between our lives and the Mystery of God during that one hour out of 168 in a week. But if we find it beautiful to live this way, to approach our lives as we do during School of Community, the Movement invites us to live with this sort of awareness in every hour of the week (at least during the ones in which we're awake). We can use the pages for any given week, and each day we can compare our lives, the experience that we have, to the objective criterion that is given in the text. In this way, life can be beautiful all the time. In time, one begins to recognize when life has zest and gusto and when it is flat and flavorless. The great adventure of Communion and Liberation -- the risk we in the Movement take and the wager we make -- is based on the proposal that when one lives with this on-going comparison, or judgment, life does indeed have zest and gusto. Thus, to have a zestful life rather than a flavorless one does not depend on what happens, on the circumstances we face, but rather fullness of life comes to us through the circumstances (we neither rely on what happens to make us happy, nor ignore what happens in order to find happiness "elsewhere"). Rather, the key is to face everything that happens while making the comparison between the Church's proposal of life in Christ and life itself.


And how about thoughts on this one?

Reprinted from Front Porch Republic:


There is no doubt that the Catholic Church supports the idea of a just social order, and has expounded on that order in the great Social Encyclicals. However, and despite more than 100 years of constant Papal teaching on this subject, the average Catholic—indeed, the average Bishop—is confused about it meaning or even unaware of its existence. Most preaching concerns personal sin without ever considering the social implications or connecting sin to a violation of a just social order. And yet, this is strange, since what makes a sin sinful is that it violates what the right order between a person and his neighbor and his God. Without a violation of this order, a thing cannot be sinful. This is expressed [...] read the rest here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

“What Should Shimmer in Our Eyes Every Day”

Notes fromthe talks by Davide Prosperi and Julián Carrón at the Beginning Day for CL adults and university students. (Milan, Italy, September 26, 2009)

Aware of our need, let us ask the Spirit to bring to completion, throwing everything open, the desire that brought us to this point.
Come Holy Ghost
We welcome everyone and we greet our friends who are linked up to us from the various regions of Italy and abroad: this is an attempt, like everything we do, an ironic attempt, having this linkup today directly from Milan. But for it to really be a gesture, it’s not enough to be physically present here; each one of us, wherever we are, has to be present with all his own “I” so that what happens can find that openness, that crack, through which the grace that the Lord wants to give us can enter.

We are beginning our meeting this year from the point where we left off last year, because last year we focused on the witness, on the essential importance of the witness in the path that brings us toward maturity of faith, toward certainty of faith.
As Carrón reminded us in his letter to the Fraternity when he had just come back from the Synod, our principal contribution to the Church and to the world does not consist first of all in a cultural, civic, or political action, because these are fruits that ripen–they can ripen how and when God wills it–but rather it’s precisely in this: the witness of an event that has impacted our life and, by impacting it, has made it and makes it different day by day, more human, more capable of gratuity, of gladness, so capable of gladness that it can end up actually enviable to those who, for a thousand reasons, have often, have always criticized us. And we really saw this at the Meeting [in Rimini]: one of the things that mostly struck those who came for the first time was the passion and the charity of the volunteers who are actually there giving their own time and energy, even paying to be there, to be able to contribute to this gesture that expresses, yes, at the cultural level the heart of our… well, the expressive capacity of our experience, and this is a fact that can’t be explained with the predictable categories that we are used to using to judge everyday things.
Allow me to cite Arditti’s editorial in Il Tempo from a few weeks back. He relates how he went to the Meeting a little skeptical because of an old aversion to CL coming from his student years: “A day spent in Rimini,” he writes, “forced me to radically change my idea. What did the secular world of the end of the twentieth century offer to most young people? What useful response did it know how to build? I don’t find convincing answers to these questions, but those kids at the Meeting (I don’t want to mythologize them, for heaven’s sake) are free and strong. At eleven o’clock at night, I went back to the parking lot to get my car. There was a girl sitting alone on a little plastic chair. She smiled and greeted me and accompanied me to the car: she was a parking lot volunteer (you can imagine what a privilege it must have been for her). She’s standing there with her Meeting t-shirt, happy about what she’s doing and smiling at a person she was meeting for a few seconds. The night before, I was at a supper at the Billionaire [one of the most exclusive summer clubs in Europe]. No one smiled like that girl in the parking lot.”
I’m also talking about those who came to Rimini to measure with great loyalty the proposal that was made to them, giving a really courageous witness of how the Christian event becomes a new cultural judgment, as, for example, Tony Blair and Mary Ann Glendon, just to cite two examples, showed us, and this is because witness is not only a different way of doing things, but it’s really a new way of understanding reality and one’s own relationship with it.
But this year’s experience also brought to the fore the risk of us being superficial, having a reductive–we could say sentimental–understanding of the significance of the witness. We run the risk of reducing the witness to a positive example, someone who makes me feel uplifted, or gives me a precarious comfort, a feeling that then goes away naturally, just as it came, leaving us unsatisfied, feeling like we’re always at the starting point. But really, who is the witness, literally? We’ve asked ourselves this many times this year. The witness, in the narrow sense, is someone who tells me a true fact, a fact he’s sure of because he’s seen it, he’s experienced it. The witness is someone who shows me that the fact of Christ is true; it’s true because he’s experienced it. He’s sure of it because this fact has changed his life; it’s present here, now, always, as the title of the last book of the équipe says (Qui e ora [Here and Now] 1984-1985, Bur, Milan, 2009).
Therefore, the witness is someone who is acquainted with the Truth, and it’s this that makes him a different person–the fact that he leans on what is solid, on the only one who has conquered death. In fact, I was always struck by Father Giussani’s insistence on the fact that in the Bible the idea of truth is expressed at many points through the image of “rock.” The Truth is not a thought, not an intellectual concept, but a Presence on whom I can stay rooted, on whom I can prop my whole “I,” a Presence that keeps me from collapsing. As Psalm 40 says, “You drew me from the mud of the swamp; you have set my feet on rock.” Thus, the witness is someone who lives entirely rooted on this rock, and this is why it sticks with us.
But this is where the first question comes up: if the witness is what we just said, why then is our certainty so often weak, even when we are surrounded by so many witnesses?
This summer, you began to insist that the witness is not enough. So then, what is the step we need to make? Where are we blocked? Because it’s often as if we had stopped–for convenience or, deep down, because of contempt for ourselves–at the feeling of the beauty of the effects of the fact, that is, at the feeling of the beauty of the fruits that belonging to Christ brings in some moments to some people. We stop at the fascination at the humanity of some people without it triggering–how to say it?–an ardor, a desire, and so a work, a path, basically a movement toward the hidden origin of that different humanity.
This summer [at the International Assembly for CL responsibles in La Thuile, Italy (August 18-22, 2009)] some of us saw the film of Giussani’s commentary on Leopardi [at Politecnico University, 1996]. I was personally dumbfounded in front of this, really torn away from that way of feeling, of looking at and feeling what is human, but after two days I became aware that I wasn’t thinking about it anymore. Look, it’s as if there were always the risk of stopping at a sentimental or aesthetic feeling, even in front of the greatest witness, but I understand that the desire I have, and this is the step to what you are tirelessly calling us, is toward a level where something of those eyes, of that way Giussani spoke about what is human would enter into the way we do everything, the way I go to work in the morning, the way I am with my friends, the way I greet my children or my wife when I get back home (what the editorial writer of Il Tempo must have seen, when he got to the parking lot at the Meeting), or else, even being surrounded by a multitude of witnesses I am still sucked into confusion, neither more nor less than anyone who has not had the encounter I have had.
So this is the second question, that in a certain way contains the first one: what is it that conquers confusion?

1. The victory over confusion
is an experience

What conquers confusion is an experience, and what characterizes experience is judgment, not–as we often see in ourselves–the sentimental feeling that things provoke in me. It is judgment that makes an experience something that is done. This is why Father Giussani constantly invited us, if we don’t want to give in to confusion, “if we wish to become adults without being cheated, alienated, enslaved by others, or exploited,” we have to get used to “comparing everything with this elementary experience,” with that array of needs and evidences that make up our “I.” But Father Giussani was well aware that what he was proposing was “neither easy nor popular. Normally, everything is approached from the perspective of the common mentality which, in turn, is publicized and sustained by whomever holds the reins of power in society. Consequently, [pay attention!] family tradition or the tradition of the broader society in which we have grown up, obscures or hardens over our original needs and is like a large crust that alters the evidences of those primary meanings, of those criteria” (The Religious Sense, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1997, p.10) that make up these needs. And we have to be aware of this, because what we often call “heart” is nothing but these sediments, expressions of this mentality that everyone has, and so we often find ourselves lost, confused, like everyone else–just look around. So he was well aware, my friends, of what kind of challenge he was launching: “the most audacious challenge to that mentality that dominates us [pay attention!] and touches us at the very point–from our spiritual life to our clothing–is to be accustomed to making a judgment about everything in the light of our primary evidences and not to be at the mercy of our more occasional reactions [that is, of the sentimental feeling of things]” (Ibid, p.11).
So, if we want to really conquer this confusion, we have to decide whether or not to accept this challenge to make judgment habitual. “The use of elementary experience, or of one’s own ‘heart’ is, therefore, not popular especially when one comes face to face with oneself. This ‘heart’ is vulnerable, precisely the origin of that indefinable unease that overtakes the individual, when, for example, he or she is treated as an object of another’s interest or pleasure” (Ibid.). It is unpopular when we look at ourselves; it is easier to repeat what everyone says, to not deal with that indefinable unease that we find ourselves carrying. Judging is the beginning of liberation from confusion. But why is it unpopular? Fr. Giussani answers: “Recovering this existential depth [that depth which lies under all this encrustation], permits this liberation; yet, in doing so, an individual cannot avoid going against the current. We could call this ascetical work, where the word ‘ascesis’ means man’s work–man engaged directly on the path to his own destiny, seeking his own maturity. It is a work, and it does not come naturally [as we often think]. It is simple and yet it is not to be taken for granted. What has been said up to now must be reconquered. And even though in every era man has had to work to reconquer himself, we live in an age in which the need for this reconquest is clearer than ever. In Christian terms, this labor is part of metanoia, or conversion” (Ibid.).
It is so impressive to reread this page of Giussani in the present context we find ourselves in! Nothing better describes what has happened to us. It would be hard for us to find anything more pertinent to this confusion.
But what is the difficulty, my friends? That what he is proposing to us–judgment–is for us something we feel to be tacked on, intellectual, only for people who complicate life. We think that life is something different, experiencing things is something different, judging is only for those who make a mess in their heads, and so we don’t even take it into consideration, we don’t trouble ourselves with accepting the challenge, and we say, “Judging? Please, be serious…”
And so the biggest snag we have, as has been the case for us for years (because it’s been years that we’ve had this before our eyes), the big snag for this proposal is understanding what the problem is, recognizing what the point is. This is why I always quote that saying of Chesterton to you when we get together: “The trouble with our sages is not that they cannot see the answer; it is that they cannot even see the riddle” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, NuVision Publications, 2007 [1927], p. 27). We understand what it’s about, and so we find ourselves very well described in what he says in The Religious Sense: “Men do not learn when they believe they already know” (p. 94).
So it’s not first of all about a problem of content, but it’s first of all about becoming aware of a difficulty that we carry, a difficulty we suffer the consequences of; it’s as if we weren’t able to understand the origin of this unease, of this confusion we carry with us, of this difficulty of staying in reality, of living in the circumstances, and so on the one hand we repeat certain gestures and on the other hand daily life crushes us.
I’ll read you a letter: “Father Giussani said, and you have often reminded us, that the circumstances that God has us pass through are an essential and not a secondary factor of our vocation, of the mission He calls us to, and this is something,” he writes, “both disruptive and rewarding in our living distracted and hurried. And yet I, after years and years in the Movement, find it hard to live daily life [thank God, I say, because we can make all our castles in the air, but there’s something that doesn’t work out]. Sometimes, there’s something that doesn’t work out: the little things, the simplicity of a normal gesture with my children, enjoying a normal family moment, are always lived by me as a lesser thing, as if the most important thing in that moment were something else (the meeting of the School of Community, the assembly with Tizio and Caio, helping with the Christmas Tents, or being available for the Food Bank project), and I become aware that in doing this I’m living an alternate reality, sort of fleeing the circumstances that are given to me to live every day.” When I hear these things, I feel like crying, because all that we do for the Movement isn’t helping to live daily life… but then what good is the Movement? So we understand how right Father Giussani was when he pushed us “to move from groupthink to a dimension of personal awareness” (Qui e ora 1984-1985, Bur, Milan, 2009, p.320). Because the group–just belonging to the group–is not enough for daily life not to be intolerable, and so he proposed the formula of “moving from doing the Movement to the experience of the Movement” (Certi di alcuni grandi cose [Certain of a Few Great Things]1979-1981, Bur, Milan, p.149).
So what is the problem? It’s a lack of experience, that is, of judgment, but this seems strange, exaggerated to us, because we think we are having experience, we always talk about facts, but we confuse experience with what is not experience; we think we are judging, but more often we stop way before judgment has been completed; we content ourselves with reaction or with prejudice. And the most imposing example of this is what often happens to us with the witness, because the witness doesn’t run away from this way of living the relationship with reality, even the witness, even in front of the greatest witness, as Davide was saying before, we can reduce him to a sentimental feeling and two days later we find ourselves back where we started, because someone else’s experience is not enough. The witness shows us a real, more human possibility for living the circumstances we’re called to live in, but if it doesn’t push us to have our own personal experience of what the witness is showing us, the witness sooner or later will not interest me; I’m fed up with all these witnesses, because it never becomes mine. This is why Father Giussani said, “If I don’t commit myself to verifying what I intuit or find valuable through a witness, sooner or later I will walk away” (Ibid., p.158). That is, if I don’t see it happening in me, with time it doesn’t interest me. And he gave this example: “A sixty-year-old can have tried everything that can be tried, but he is not necessarily an ‘experienced’ person because of this, a person who’s really had an experience, because experience is the capacity to make a comparison with the ideal. Otherwise [pay attention!] there is no experience of anything; there’s just the characteristic attitude of so many people, old people full of emptiness, full of nothing” (Ibid, p.148).
This is our destiny, if we just try, try, try… Without really having an experience, we will become empty old people. This is why he insisted on passing from doing the Movement to the experience of the Movement, what he called “personalization,” and the turning point of this passage is judging, what we consider tacked on, foreign to experience, because it is judging that makes experience something that one has.

2. The reductions of experience
But let’s help one another understand what kind of reductions of experience we usually make. The sad thing, I was saying, is that we get tired of really having an experience, and our confusion proves this. Confusion gives evidence of exactly that reduction that we place on experience, a reduction that is serious, very serious. Why serious? Because it weakens and empties the basic method of human development. Because this is what Giussani considers to be experience: experience is not a word to be used haphazardly. Experience is the path to the person’s development, it is the instrument that we hold in our hands for our development, for our growth. So if we use it wrongly or reduce it, everything that happens in life is useless (as we remembered at the Meeting when we quoted Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians), barren, good for nothing, he was saying; it doesn’t grow our “I,” it doesn’t develop our person, and we can become empty old people even having lived so many things because we didn’t really have experience.
And how does this experience get reduced? We often reduce experience simply to the impact that things have on me. We give an account of the facts, but it all stays there and afterwards nothing remains. This happens because we too identify experience only with the impact things have on me, with the impressions we have, which are all real–it’s not that now we use words, just words… No, we give an account of the facts, we start with real things, but they are only impressions. Experience is thus blind, mechanical. What we often call experience is nothing but trying, mere trying, mere sensing, without intelligence, without judgment, or it is subjective, in the worst sense, that is, something sentimental. Father Giussani described it for us with all its features: “This tendency to separate and isolate gives all sorts of typical and inadequate connotations to the word experience [reduced], among which are [take note of the following list, which is an X-ray of all of us here] an immediate reaction to things, multiplication of links through the mere proliferation of initiatives, a sudden attraction or disgust for the new, an insistence on our own designs or plans, insisting on memories of the past that have no value in the present, or even referring to a particular event in order to block aspirations or stunt ideals” (The Risk of Education, Crossroad Publ. Co., New York, 1995, p.100).
And so Father Giussani helps us to understand how we often make this reduction: “Without the capacity for evaluating, man cannot have any experience at all. […] Experience certainly means ‘trying’ something, but primarily it also coincides with a judgment we make about what we try” (The Religious Sense, op. cit., p.6). This is why this past summer I said, “The incomprehension of the word ‘experience’ is evident in the way we usually contrast it with ‘judgment’ or ‘knowledge’–where one exists, the other doesn’t. They’re alternatives. It’s the clearest sign that we’re confused about both terms. For this reason, when we reduce experience to this sort of impact or mechanical shock, then judgment seems to be something intellectual, almost tacked on. Precisely because of this, we often feel the judgment as something forced, like something that we impose upon reality, that we create […] [I]t seems that having to judge beautiful things, intense things, ruins the enchantment of what we’re living; to some degree it takes the poetry out of experience, ruins it. Therefore, when things have been interesting, beautiful, and persuasive, what need is there to judge them? We enjoyed them. Therefore, very often in instigating each other to judge we seem like party-poopers. After all, we’re living something beautiful–why should we have to judge it too? It seems like we’re carrying out an artificial and toilsome operation” (Experience: The Instrument for a Human Journey, International Assembly for Communion and Liberation Responsibles, La Thuile, August 2009, pp.11–12).
“What do we miss?” This tells us how hard it is for us to understand. This is the crucial point: that when we have this experience in this way, enjoying it and not feeling the need to judge it, we don’t miss anything. The really sad thing is that we don’t miss anything. It’s a reduction of humanity in having compassion, where everything becomes formalism, superficiality (as Davide was saying before), conformism. Like the nine lepers that we’ve referred to at other times: they don’t wonder about anything, they don’t miss anything else, they don’t feel the urgency of the other. The fact that we feel judgment to be foreign means that we’re not missing anything, and this tells us how appalling the reduction of humanity is, because not judging is losing the best part, it’s stopping before coming to what interests me, but we don’t feel this lack; it seems like a matter for intellectuals. So it’s striking that the thing that’s most ours, that should be ours, the desire for fullness in front of absolutely everything, would be the thing most foreign to us. What a separation from ourselves! Unpopular to himself, Father Giussani was saying before. But what happens when we wake up from a dream? After the enjoyment goes away, what’s left? Us, alone, with our nothingness, more and more lost, more and more skeptical. Do you see why the confusion grows?
And what a difference, what a difference with what Father Giussani witnessed to us, what Davide was saying before, reading Leopardi. Because it’s impossible for someone to see that humanity and not desire that gaze, not want to share in that way of relating to reality, because what we see there is a man, a witness of how a person can stand in front of reality and read Leopardi in such a way as to uncover, to bear witness to that “eternal mystery of our being” (Giacomo Leopardi, “Sopra il ritratto di uan bella donna” –“In Front of the Portrait of a Beautiful Woman”)–that is, what we are. And what is this mystery? “Human nature, entirely weak and vile as you now are: if you are dust and shadows, you feel like something entirely different” (Ibid.). You, being so fragile, have such great desires. But these desires, as we often say, aren’t there, as if everything had failed. Father Giussani (and it’s striking to hear him brandishing Leopardi) says: not at all, no, this is the dominant thought: “Powerful and most kind, ruler over the hidden depth of my mind” (Giacomo Leopardi, “ Il pensiero dominante”–“The Dominant Thought”). This cry, this urgency for happiness resurfaces from the universal shipwreck, from “the infinite vanity of everything” (Giacomo Leopardi, “A se stesso”– “To Himself”), but all this infinite vanity of everything cannot remove the seed of this dominant thought, of this thirst, of this passion for happiness, and “like a tower in a solitary field, you stand alone, giant, in her midst” (Giacomo Leopardi, “The Dominant Thought”). We can find ourselves in the middle of this universal shipwreck and this total confusion, but the dominant thought implacably resurfaces. You can be as confused as you like, but when someone does you an injustice the whole urgency for justice resurfaces; you can be as tired as you like, but in front of beauty you can’t avoid having all your wonder come out. And what we call heart, this dominant thought, is an irremovable reality. It’s about this that Father Giussani, with Leopardi, is a witness, a witness of this loyalty to experience that he finds a companion in someone like Leopardi. In the midst of the great “ruin” there’s this thing that stands impetuous and grand. If we were to follow this sometime…
The witness is someone who uses reason in this way, who has this loyalty to himself in this way, defined by this dominant thought, and so he cannot enter into relationship with anything without the desire for everything. And this is judgment. We need to compare everything to this humanity; it is this urgency that comes out in the relationship with everything, but we need this loyalty that we see in Giussani and in Leopardi. It’s someone who takes this dominant thought, this urgency seriously, that is in the innards of each of us and that comes out in the relationship with everything and that is not satisfied with anything less than this urgency that everyone can truly understand what experience is.

3. The ultimate implication
of human experience

“What characterizes experience is our understanding something, discovering its meaning. To have an experience means to comprehend the meaning of something” (The Risk of Education, op. cit., pp. 98–99). And when do I understand them? When I can give reasons for all the factors involved in the experience. This is why, when we say that it’s artificial, we’re saying that it’s something that goes against experience. We have to watch this simple experience that we have in front of reality, in front of the mountains, in front of song, to see how there immediately appears, at the same time, the judgment: “They’re beautiful!” When someone says that it’s artificial, we’re the artificial ones who are not truly aware of what happens when we have an experience.
It often happened during hikes, the CLU people were saying, that seeing 800 people climbing in silence, tourists would ask us, “But who are you?” At a certain point a married couple asked, “Who are you?” “We’re university students.” Yes, but who are you? Where are you from?” “From La Thuile.” “Fine, but where are you from?” “Milan,” “Palermo”… “No, no, no, but who are you; where are you from?” “We are Communion and Liberation.” “Ah! It’s wonderful seeing you climb.” Is this artificial, added on, or is it perhaps someone who cares about what strikes him, someone who stops with his humanity in front of the provocation of reality, someone who is loyal to this provocation? So much so that the students were struck by this loyalty: “This question also popped up in us, a question about the ultimate origin of what we had in front of us, and it would have been artificial to block it before coming to an adequate answer.”
Two others write to me about the experience of their vacation: “We wanted to tell you something that happened the last day of our vacation, right when we were packing our suitcases. To start out with: during our stay we were with friends in a residence where each of us had his own studio, but we always ate together at lunch and supper, besides, of course, sharing the whole day together. Next to our apartments there was a couple, husband and wife, Tuscans, about sixty years old, who often saw our coming and going from one studio to another with our child or someone else’s in our arms. Their table at every lunch and supper faced our big table with eight adults and three children in the yard in front of where they were staying. The day we were leaving, the Tuscan gentleman came up to Ciccio, one of our friends, and said, ‘I’m going to ask you a question and you have to give me a clear answer. We watched you a lot these past few days. We saw you eating together, how you pray, how you are with your children, but beyond your friendship (maybe you work together, but it doesn’t seem enough to explain it), what is the common thread that unites you?’ Ciccio answered that we belong to the Movement, that we are Christians and that this is what has united our lives and has made us friends. He answered, ‘I knew it!’ and he explained that in Pistoia where he lives he had met people from the Movement and he is also a Catholic, and then he thanked us for the companionship that we gave him and his wife and he said, ‘You are something to behold!’” There is no experience until there’s understanding. But to understand means not stopping until you find an exhaustive answer to what you see: friends together in such a different way that makes the question arise, “What is the common thread that unites you?” “When Ciccio related this dialogue to us, we were moved with that same emotion that Rose talks about, of seeing the Mystery happen, at work. This man’s use of reason really struck us, that when he watched us, he let himself be baffled and especially that he asked [this is a human trait: it takes a man]; he observed our simple staying together (eating, talking at table, praying) and he saw something different that impressed him, but he didn’t stop at this wonder; he asked the question, ‘Where does this way of being friends come from? What could be the common thread that binds them?’ He tried to find an explanation, and when he realized that none of his attempts to find an answer was enough to fully explain that difference, he came straight to us and asked to have a clear answer.”
It is simple: this is an “I” involved in what he is checking out. Who among us feels this urgency to understand as strange, tacked on to the beauty of experience, ruining its enchantment? Asking to understand is part of the experience I have; otherwise, experience is incomplete, I can’t understand, I can’t put together what I see in front of me. So someone who has this humanity does not feel judgment to be artificial or foreign.
Let’s use an example to dismantle once and for all this idea that judgment is something artificial, with the example that Father Giussani often gave us, elementary in its simplicity: who feels artificial, in front of a bouquet of flowers, asking who sent it? This doesn’t ruin anything at all; it’s a simultaneous part of the reaction to the roses that I find in my house to ask, in the same reaction, “Who on earth could have sent them?” Does anyone feel it to be intellectual to ask this, to wonder about the ultimate origin of the presence of those flowers? Let each one answer for himself. The “who?” is the ultimate implication of those flowers in front of me. It only takes not being a stone; there’s no need to take some weird path; all that’s needed is to acknowledge the reaction, because the whole implication is already in the reaction.
This is why Father Giussani tells us that there is no experience until we recognize “God is the ultimate implication of human experience, and that therefore the religious sense is an inevitable dimension of an authentic, exhaustive experience” (Ibid., p.100). Let’s compare what we call experience to what we are talking about here and realize how much we reduce it.
This is so simple that I’ve chosen as the title of our meeting this line of Leopardi: “Your beauty, O lady, appeared as a divine ray to my thought” (Giacomo Leopardi, “Aspasia”). It is so simple that Leopardi cannot avoid discovering, in his reaction to the beauty of the lady he loves, the divine ray. This is experience in its simplicity, that the lady’s beauty can’t help but make Leopardi recognize the divine ray inside it. This is exactly what we mean when we say that there is no true experience that does not have the Mystery within, that does not imply the Mystery as its exhaustive reason. But is Leopardi saying this because he has to play the intellectual? Leopardi could not live his own experience of his relationship with the lady’s beauty without it referring him to the Mystery, without it causing him to glimpse the divine ray. But you need a man like Leopardi for this! You need a loyalty with that dominant thought that again and again resurfaces in the universal shipwreck, in order not to stop beforehand. We lack this immediacy; we find it hard because, as we explained on other occasions, there is this encrustation over our elementary needs, and only if we put ourselves to work can we get them out. We have seen how hard it is to get to the point of describing experience in its totality (this summer, we had a different experience of this in our common gestures). It’s what Father Giussani always said: that someone who says, “I” with all the awareness, with all his self-awareness, can’t help but imply the You who makes him: “I am you-who-make- me” (The Religious Sense, op. cit., p.105). This is the formula of complete experience. “So I do not consciously say ‘I am,’ in a sense that captures my entire stature as a human being if I do not mean ‘I am made’” (Ibid., p.106). But to understand how far we are from this, we only need to recognize how often we say “I am” without this self-awareness.
So, without the perception and recognition of the Mystery as a factor of reality, there is no experience, of no matter what we’re talking about, and this makes us aware of the handicap we bear, which makes the path of reason to the You arduous, difficult, not to be taken for granted–the path to that implication of human experience, because it’s already found within; there’s no need to add Him on. As Father Giussani taught us with that image of the mountain climbers: “We are like the climbers of a century ago who [in order to reach the mountain top] first had to face a long march to the rock face” (Why the Church?, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2001, p.28). We can do it if we feel that urgency for totality, for a total explanation, pressing inside us, which only the Mystery can fulfill.

4. The test of experience:
realizing we are growing

But after many years in the Movement, we can still feel the struggle we have, and we often see it. For example, I saw it in a simple example at the CLU Assembly this summer, when we were trying to really understand fully what experience was, on at least three occasions during the assembly they answered correctly, but I asked them to repeat it: “Repeat what you just said”–I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t get them to repeat what they had just said as they said it by chance. This is why–and this is decisive for us, because we say these things a lot, but the sad thing is that we’re not aware of it–Father Giussani says, “experience connotes the fact of becoming aware of one’s growth” (The Risk of Education, op. cit., p. 142). If we are not aware of this, even if we say it a lot, we, as Davide was saying before, are starting all over again. We see that we’re not having an experience because experience is not making us grow; it’s not making self-awareness grow, and so we go back to being confused.
It amazes me how clearly, with such evidence, he had already identified all the factors of experience, so he can accompany us now. This is why we often tell ourselves, “Well, yes, I know it.” Things seem to already be known, since we’ve heard these things so often or have repeated the words ourselves. I really understand it, because that’s what happened to me, that I thought I knew certain things, and so the biggest decision in my life was when I had to agree to begin to understand what I thought I knew, to learn what I thought I knew. I’m not scolding anyone about anything, because I really know it well through my own experience, but I know what the problem is, I really know it: I was repeating all the right words, but then, in reality, I wasn’t there. But what got me to follow a path is exactly that I agreed to start all over. And Father Giussani had this clear. I’m amazed when I reread what he says about the first hour of classes: “From my very first day as a teacher, I’ve always offered these words of warning to my class: ‘I am not here so that you can take my ideas as your own; I’m here to teach you a true method that you can use to judge the things I will tell you. And what I have to tell you is the result of a long experience, of a past that is two thousand years old’” (Ibid., p.11). That is, he knew that he could not help if he didn’t put the “I” of those people in motion, that what he was saying wasn’t enough; not only witness was enough. He was aware that he could only help by offering a method so that they could judge everything he was saying. That is, from the beginning, Father Giussani challenged the heart of those he had in front of him. This is the exaltation of the person, saying: you are capable of judging because there is this “dominant thought,” this “tower” in the middle of the “universal shipwreck” that allows you to judge, to follow a path to get out of the confusion. And he adds, “From the beginning, our educational efforts have always stood by this method, clearly pointed out that it was intended to show how faith could be relevant to life’s needs [that is, the desire for happiness]. As a result of the education I received at home, my seminary training, and my reflections later in life, I came to believe deeply that only faith arising from life experience [of everyone] and confirmed by it (and therefore, relevant to life’s needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction” (Ibid., p.11). The first hour of class!

5. Christian experience
What he describes about experience in general happens in the same way and more easily in Christian experience. Why? Why more easily in Christian experience? He always told us: because the more exceptional the presence that I encounter, the easier it is to recognize it. The more beautiful the mountains, the easier it is for us to recognize Him; the more beautiful the woman that I find, the easier it is to recognize Him; we see how this urgency comes out more easily. It takes hold of you more, it grabs you more; it is so imposing that we get overwhelmed in front of exceptional facts. We can be distracted, but in front of certain things it’s impossible for us not to jump for joy, not to ask ourselves what makes it possible. This is so universal and I had a foretaste of it when I went to Brazil, when I heard a Methodist girl, Natalia, saying this in the assembly: “This month the question that was given to us was meeting something that corresponds to your own heart. I truly met something that corresponded to my heart. It’s these people from the Association of Cleuza and Marcus because, as incredible as it seems, we live in an age where if you say that you are Catholic, the Evangelicals walk out, they go away; if I say that I’m Evangelical, it’s the Catholics who walk out. I came here and I said what religion I belong to. Then, back home, I thought, ‘Do I realize what I said? Do I realize what it will provoke in my life?’ But what happened is the opposite of what I thought, because when I came here everyone smiled at me; people asked me if everything was fine. I didn’t understand, but I answered, ‘Everything’s fine.’ And then someone else came up and said, ‘Are you okay? How are you?’ And I began to understand what God is, what faith in God is: nowhere else have I ever felt so accepted, so loved as I feel here. I have never felt so respected in all my years of life.” This experience is so extraordinary that, in order to explain being so respected, so loved, Natalia has to imply the divine.
Only if we accept this ultimate implication in every experience, that we really realize what is implied in every experience, can we conquer confusion. The contribution that Father Giussani gives us when he witnesses that God is the ultimate implication of experience is the most adequate answer to the question. But often when we see exceptional facts, we stay stuck in confusion because we block that urgency that comes out, the inevitable question of who makes all this beauty possible. Just look how he describes it, how he witnesses to it: “The encounter–from which starts the persuasive image of Christ, for which we understand that Christ is something pertinent to life, that interests life–is with a companionship, or even with a single person, not insofar as you understand that Christ is inside it, but insofar as it makes you say, ‘How on earth are these people here like this?!’ So, you begin this path by finding a companion, a companionship, or by seeing a group that has something interesting, and you follow them and hear these people saying that what they have that’s interesting is there because of the Lord, and you follow them, a little bit intrigued, but without being defined by that thing, and at a certain point this attraction gets bigger and you are struck more by that idea, by that word, and you are struck by the fact that the people tell you, ‘We are together because of That One, the Lord.’ This is a qualitative jump as compared to the first impression. So you start to take That One seriously, and the more you keep following this unfolding, the more Jesus becomes more important than all the faces put together [this is the kernel of the question, that Jesus–Jesus!–becomes more important than all the faces put together]. And He becomes so important that you understand that without That One [Jesus] the faces would disappear and you would be bored. This is the destiny of a great many people who come through our companionship and then go away. As in Pascoli’s ‘Focolare,’ they go away as their destiny, because they haven’t taken into adequate consideration, they have not been serious with what the companionship that attracted them was saying about its own motive. The companionship says, ‘We are together because of This One here.’ Someone doesn’t take this seriously and is satisfied with the companionship, he likes the companionship, not looking at this motivation, and after a little while he swears that he’s leaving the companionship too [this is the consequence if we don’t come to judgment, because a reality without adequate motive vanishes]! The adequate motive for our companionship is Something other, but this is what has to shimmer in our eyes every day” («Tu» (o dell’amicizia) [“You” (or, On Friendship)], Bur, Milan, 1997, pp. 175-177).
That is, the sign that we are walking a path, he tells us, is that Jesus becomes more important than all the faces put together, not because I forget the faces put together, but because they don’t exhaust all the urgency for fulfillment that I have inside, and if I don’t get there I get bored and I go away. This is why, if we don’t get there and if we keep saying that this is artificial (because what matters is what I touch, what I see, and that all the rest is rubbish), we’ll go away sooner or later, because whether we like it or not it will never correspond to the urgency we have inside, to that dominant thought that remains, like a “tower in a solitary field” in the middle of the “universal shipwreck.”
So how can we not be moved by this witness of Giussani? “Jesus is what should shimmer in our eyes every day” (Ibid., p.177).
Without this experience of Christ there is only formal discourse about Christ, but we are lost and confused like everyone else, victims of that restless guest of our time which is nihilism, which Cardinal Bagnasco spoke about. Without a real experience of Christ, we look at reality in the same way everyone else does. To understand that this is not at all to be discounted, each of us just has to see how he’s been moved in the circumstances that are shaking Italy, which is, as Cardinal Bagnasco said, cyclically traversed by a malaise as tenacious as it is mysterious. How have we judged it? With what criteria? So much noise seems to have only one purpose: to avoid asking the only truly exhaustive question, the question that corresponds to the heart, the one asked by Ibsen in Brand: “Answer me, O God, in the hour when death is swallowing me: is all a man’s will not then enough for him to achieve just a part of salvation? [Can man make a single act true?]” Everything else is an attempt to hide all our inability to have an answer for our evil and the evil of others.
It’s an experience, then, that makes a gesture like the Meeting [in Rimini] possible, where everyone feels at home and, paradoxically, not hiding what we are, but focusing on what we are, what we hold most dear, which is what makes us interesting to everyone. Without this real experience of Christ there is no education because no one is capable of challenging the heart.
This is why it is still striking how Father Giussani at a meeting with CL teachers in 1980 said, after having read the witness of a person in the Russian Samizdat, thankful to be condemned for his faith to imprisonment in a lager (and during the verdict his friends were singing the Easter hymn of the Risen Christ): “And we, in an age when there is this faith, are living our communities! So what is your community? And what is our group of youngsters? You’re then one in front of the world, at school, with the teacher; you’re in front of the books, in front of the ideas going around. You’re the one, not your friends, not your community, not CLE [educators], not CL. This is the only way to make CLE and CL rise again: your faith, period. This is the issue, faith lived in the first person [as a real experience]. The issue is not your temperament, the circumstances around you, the friends you have, your incapacity in front of your friends, the class where you’re doing well and the class where you’re not doing well at all. If you were all alone and even your dog had left you, it would be the same, sadder, but with less illusion and purer. I swear to you that sooner or later others will come. The issue, then, is the faith lived in the first person, and I will never tire, when I use the word faith, of recalling what it means, because you don’t know what it means even if you define it theologically: faith is the amazed, grateful, awestruck, and simultaneously uplifting recognition of a Presence, because God has come and is among us. And the beautiful and present thing is the content of the faith, and I know nothing other than this. ‘I came among you and I knew nothing but Christ and Christ crucified, historical, God made man.’ How can there be a witness if not for this faith, and not coming from our mental capabilities or special cunning or the possibility of certain days?” (CL archive)
This is why, at the beginning of this year, each of us is called to decide whether to follow the whole path as Father Giussani proposes it, being loyal to his experience, or to keep on blocking it. It is only if we have an experience in this way that we can see the human fittingness of the faith. And this is not to be taken for granted, because we often confuse the intention of following with real following, that is, with that close comparison with the method that he is proposing to us; we have to decide if we really want to become sons, because it is in this way that he can always be more a father, generating us with that humanity that we saw in him, [that is represented in Henri Matisse’s Icarus, which we are using as the image for our meeting] the feeling of ourselves as defined by the awareness of the presence of the Father, in such a way that our every expression may be ever more fulfilled as the relationship with that great plan, for our good and the good of our fellow men. This is the challenge and the choice that each one has to take up and that we want to accompany you with throughout this year.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."