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 , 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!
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.