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A Different Gaze Dwelling in and Changing Life

Charismas - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/13

by Luigino Bruni 

published in Avvenire on December 22, 2013 


The moral and civil shortcomings of our times are also the result of the expulsion of the charismas from public life, the charismas that all too quietly accepted their marginalization and retreated. And when the charismas are missing, or when they are considered some “religious thing” only and therefore irrelevant to civilian life, than economy, politics and society are all at a loss because they lack the essential resource of gratuitousness. In fact, there is an inseparable link between the charismas and gratuitousness.

Gratuitousness arrives in the world, transforming it every morning, through two major pathways. The first lives inside us, since every human being has a natural capability for gratuitousness. Life itself, our coming into the world is the first major experience of gratuitousness; we find ourselves alive, called into existence, without having chosen it, as a primitive gift which is the foundation of all other gratuitousness. And it is also for this reason that there is no act of gratuitousness greater than that of a mother who lets an unwanted child to come to this world. This is our natural vocation for gratuitousness that makes us attribute an immense value to the gratuitousness of others, and makes us suffer a lot when our gratuitousness is not recognized, appreciated or thanked. Perhaps there is no spiritual pain that is more acute than the one felt by those who see their gratuitousness trampled, hurt and misunderstood by others. If gratuitousness were not already in us, we could not recognize or appreciate the generosity of others, we would remain trapped inside our narcissism, and we would be incapable of perceiving true beauty or the virtues. For this reason, gratuitousness is a constitutive dimension of the human being, of the whole of it, of every human being, even of the homo economicus, which today systematically denies it and drives it away. Without gratuitousness Mr. Rossi will never be more than a client, colleague or supplier: it is gratuitousness that transforms him into Mario. Gratuitousness is often relegated to the places of its (non -profit?) professionals where it dies for lack of the open air of the streets and the lively sound of factories. The dough needs yeast, but the yeast needs the dough, too.

The second main way of gratuitousness are the charismas, the gifts of charis (grace, gratuitousness). Every so often, much more often than one would think, there appear among us people with a special vocation of gratuitousness. These "non-ordinary" bearers of charismas once operated mainly inside religions or great philosophies. Today we can find them in other realms of human life: from economics to politics, from environmentalism and human rights. There are many, but rarely do we have the cultural and spiritual capability to recognize them. Without gratuitousness there is no charisma, and so all the phenomena that, after sociologist Max Weber we now call "charisma" or "charismatic" are something else, often ambivalent, sometimes even bad things. The charismas increase and enhance gratuitousness on earth, and they wake it up or revive it in those who encounter them. They find the "already" of our gratuitousness and they make the "not yet" flourish. Every real encounter with a charisma is an encounter with a voice that challenges our gratuitousness, and if it looks dead it says: "Talitha kumi", get up, girl.

We should write encyclopaedias on the essential role of the charismas in economic and civil life, starting from the less obvious things. For example, one of the dimensions of the charismas and gratuitousness-charis is their "natural-ness" which links them on earth and reveals the hidden gratuitousness to us, mysteriously but really, in nature. When you meet a true bearer of charisma, whether that person is a social assistant or a founder of a religious community (I've met and I meet many of them and they always make me a better man), the first and most radical experience that you have is the physical sensation of meeting people who love you and do good in the world by just being there. You do not see people who are better or more altruistic than others, but people who are there and do what they should. A charisma is not primarily an ethical issue, but an anthropological and ontological one: it is being manifested and shining. Gratuitousness is its ordinary exercise in everyday life (although many virtues are necessary in order not to lose it along the way). So the charismas are at once pure spirituality and pure laity. Just as the greatest meekness and the most radical action to <put down the mighty from their thrones>. This "natural" dimension of charismas, for example, means that those who feel they are benefiters of this gratuitousness do not feel that they are indebted. This gratuitousness takes away the demon of the gifts (called hau by Polynesians) and thus it frees us and transforms this reciprocity into an encounter of freedom.

This friendship between gratuitousness and nature is very important. The tree grows and bears fruit because that's the way it is and it could not do otherwise. The stream runs into the lake because it obeys a law of nature. Just like the charisma: whoever receives it will act because "that's the way they are" and because "they could not do otherwise". They know they must preserve and nurture that "something" that dwells in them, but even before that they know that the something or someone who speaks to them and guides them is acting on a force of its own, although, paradoxically, that charisma is also the best and truest part of them. It is this dynamic of "intimacy - otherness" that prevents its holder from taking possession of their own charisma, to use it to their own advantage (and when he or she does so, the charisma disappears) which guarantees gratuitousness. A dynamic that applies to the founders of charismatic communities, but also to each member of these communities who are no longer followers of movements, or associates of organizations, but persons driven from the inside because the same charisma of the founder dwells in them. The Franciscans do not follow, nor imitate Francis, but together with Francis they follow that same charisma of his, and become in time than they already are. This is where the mystery of charisma lies, for all the religious charismas and all the secular ones (if you really want to tell them apart), for and their typical freedom.

It is here that you will discover a profound analogy between the charismatic person and the artist: both are "servants" of a daimon, a Spirit, both obey a voice and can conquer death. Theresa of Avila and Caravaggio were two very different moral realities, but both have made the world better and more beautiful, they both loved us and love us, free of charge. It is here that gratuitousness intersects with beauty, too, which is so similar to it (perhaps this is the etymology of "grazioso", meaning graceful or pretty in Italian - the translator). Both tell about the intrinsic value of life, which comes before any payable price, before reciprocity, and even before a careful look taken at the other. It is the beauty-gratuitousness that really decorated the rooms of the palaces and the vaults of the cathedrals, or that today is urging Giovanna to prepare a beautiful table, even though she has been widowed and is alone, so she cannot share with anyone.

The charismas come into the world for the good of all, even those who cannot see the charismas or disregard them. But they come mainly for the poor. If there were no charismas, the poor would not be seen, loved, cared for, saved, valued: <Today Salvation arrives in our community: a family with five children, all handicapped> (Don Lorenzo Milani). It is the different gaze of the charismas that gives the poor hope, joy, and it often revives them. And it is the gaze of the poor that makes the charisma alive, does not let it die or become a mere institution.

It is the charismas and their gratuitousness that reveal Christmas to us. And it is Christmas that opens the charis up for us. Merry Christmas to all.

  Translated by Eszter Kató

Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial



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