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To give some spirit to the world

The Voices of the Days/13 - What really matters is to keep walking, until the very end

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 05/06/2016

Rosa ridOnce married you are punished by never feeling any kind of sweetness apart from what belongs to all.” (rough translation from the Italian original)

Davide Maria Turoldo, L’Uomo (Man)

The biggest challenge in all community experience is being able to create a "we" that does not end up devouring the "I" of the individuals who have created it. Collective nouns are good and on the side of life only if they are accompanied and preceded by names and personal pronouns. The "we" without the "I" is the origin of all community pathologies and illiberal regimes, even when they arise as a promise of liberation and are clothed with the robes of salvation.

Communities can only serve their people if they recognize that they are second, allowing the first person singular to precede the plural. When this natural order of plurals and the singulars is reversed or denied, personal paths fail, vocations wither, the community betrays itself.

The destiny of every vocation is the generation of new life, the liberation of slaves from the pharaohs, beyond the sea. But every vocation is also a great love story. Its good development over time, therefore, lies in the concrete possibility of being able to hold together the call to the liberation of the oppressed and the delicate management of narcissistic emotions present in every love affair. In the beginning there is eros. The voice comes to us, it calls us and seduces us, and we find ourselves in the dream of dreams. All around us bursts out singing and is illuminated by a new sun inside, which is truer and brighter than the one shining outside. All the feelings light up, the heart moves and is moved, we feel and touch the voice that calls us like bread, like people. It is a sublime experience and essential to start each high flight under the sun. And those who have got to know it keep looking for it all their life. But in order for the vocation to continue its good development, the maturation of eros into philia (friendship) is needed. When that happens, the first call becomes an experience of company and fraternity. We exit the central and the prevailing register of emotions and passion and we start building communities. The feelings and the falling in love do not necessarily disappear, but they are neither the only nor the first language anymore. This is a very nice period of life and it is generally very long: this is when the vocation builds new cities, it realises works and an experience of a new kind of fertility and new children takes place. To Ishmael, the son of the flesh, Isaac, the son of promise is added. Faith also changes, and from an emotional and intimate experience it becomes a great history of a people, blooming in the community. The same first love is discovered in the love of the others, and a new alliance is celebrated together. The vocation opens up and it becomes a collective event. Eros stays alive even in the age of the philia because every form of love is co-essential if we want to live it well: there is no good philia (or authentic agape) without eros. But the maturation into philia changes eros forever, it opens and humanizes it.

In vocations that do not fail along the way, philia, born from the maturation of eros, blooms in turn into agape. This is the time of full maturity, when the flowers of spring become the fruits of summer. The community that has kept the first vocation and turned it into a shared and fruitful collective adventure, now becomes the springboard towards new spiritual horizons. The community does its job of a good pedagogue and finally introduces the person into adulthood. We continue to live with and for other fellow travellers, but with an all new sense of freedom and truth. Here the liberation promised by the first call reaches a first milestone: one is freed from the very community that had been donated to us. We understand that we have been sent to a larger community of our own: that of all. It turns out that the family that welcomed us was not the last word, but only the penultimate one. That our destiny is in the land of all, that the sky above the home garden is too small to hold our call to infinity. And we take off, even when we stay in the same house. There is no truer or more radical freedom than the one gushing from agape, when it really becomes anima mundi and we get to know gratuitousness. Those who come across these agapeic souls feel the heartbeat of the whole universe, no longer limited by the boundaries of a community or a specific charisma. Their identities become radically universal, their communities always have the door open.

Not all vocations manage to reach their agape phase. Many, too many, are stuck in the previous stages. The most common outcome is stopping at the "erotic" phase. People remain within the register of feelings, emotions and romance for life. Those who never leave the first dream fall into this vocational narcissism, and they reinvent and recreate it when it disappears. Instead of reading the end of the phase of as a sign and an invitation to evolve into a different, more mature love, they remain entangled in the toils of their own feelings, in a constant search of emotionally exciting narcissistic "spiritual" experiences that are able to stimulate the senses and passions. Life becomes a continuous flying from flower to flower in search of new, fresh and intoxicating pollen. They keep looking for friendships, meetings and new communities, "consumed" and left after a very short time, as soon as nourishment is finished. Life becomes a unique, monotonous and repetitive experience of "emotional" consumption, without ever moving on to the "production" phase and the liberation of the slaves.

Emotions and feelings are only the dawn and not the noontime of a vocation. The first exclusive and satiating dialogue must become a dialogue with the people in time, a dialogue with the poor, the slaves, with all the voices of the world, with that of the birds, the sea and the stones. One voice is not enough today to express that first voice that called us yesterday. Too many people lose faith in the truth of the voice of the first meeting because they seek it in the wrong places, in the infancy of vocation, in the feelings and passions of the heart. That was only the cradle, but when you are grown up cots must serve the children, ours and those of others. Biblical faith is never individual consumption: it is always the generation of salvations not yet accomplished, for others, and sometimes for ourselves. Noah went on the ark of salvation that he had built by vocation. Moses on the other hand did not reach the promised land, he saw it only from a distance. When we receive a call we do not know if we are to save ourselves, too, or only others. But what really matters is to keep walking, until the very end Mount Nebo can be a good place to die if before we have seen our people reach salvation.

Usually these blocked vocations arrive in times of great crises, when the natural habituation to emotions boils down to cancel the ability to experience pleasure from emotional consumption. An absolute dryness of feeling settles in, which is confused with spiritual aridity, and having identified the vocation with that first and only nourishment, people feel lost. Sometimes this great drought can open a new phase and mark the beginning of spiritual life. But this happy event is rare, because those who are in these "erotic" arid phases, instead of being helped to make a radical change of register, are very often encouraged to continue their inner consumption to regain the lost emotions. And the disease becomes incurable. They do not understand that in order to move from one stage of life to another they only need to learn to die.

No less common is the block at the stage of philia, which is harder to spot as illness and vocational failure, because the line between philia and agape is far more blurred than the one between eros and philia. Persons who reach the stage of philia experience fruits that resemble the ones typical of agape. When, leaving the individual eros behind, the chorus of community life is reached is we live a new kind of fertility, especially when compared with the sterility of an erotic phase prolonged beyond its natural span. This is why it is easy to be trapped by the community-philia, and not to arrive ever to the true agape phase. When we reach the age of philia, our individual identity ends up coinciding with the community identity almost inevitably. We identify with it to the point of not being able to say "I" but only "we." The arrival of the phase of agape then becomes a liberation from community philia, a great blessing which comes as a wound that can be very deep and painful. We cannot pass the age of eros and enter that of agape without crossing philia, because the agape communities is the resurrection of the philiia communities, and hence they are essential. When, in fact, personal identity has completely identified with a given group for years, to move to the new freedom of agape we go through a real death. The philia community must disappear to make way for the agape community. This disappearance brings with it all: the charisma, our personality, not infrequently even faith. This loss is total and radical, but there is no other way to reach the land of agape. The wisdom of those who accompany people during the crisis of philia is knowing how to indicate the promised land beyond the waves sweeping away everything, knowing to show a tree beyond the sea that is a lot more fruitful and lush than the dying bonsai.

Only those who have already passed the stage of philia (and that of eros) should accompany those who are still struggling in the ford. Too many rivers Jordan are never crossed because they have never been shown by the guides, or were confused with the River Nile of ancient slavery.

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