The Great Prayer of Women

Greater Than Guilt/1 - The breathless words of the victims are worth more than any other

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 21/01/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 01 rid“The Bible knows lament. Lament is an extremely critical moment in the relationship with God, until God consoles man and man consoles God. Prophecy and liturgy bring laments back and forth between heaven and earth.”

Paolo De Benedetti, La chiamata di Samuele e altre letture  (Samuel’s Call and Other Readings)

Let us begin reading and commenting on Samuel’s two books. And the time of a new joy begins, a joy that can perhaps only be delivered by an intimate connection with the immense biblical text, and only sometimes. Above all at the beginning, on the Saturday of waiting, in that auroral joy that floods the soul before knowing if and what words will come from this new encounter with the in-finite words of the Bible. Before we know if and how we will be able to make them become a discourse about our time, our kingdoms, weeping, vocations, betrayals and prayers.

Samuel is a text that contains some of the most popular and wonderful characters and episodes of the Bible, history of art, literature and popular piety - of all the words that the human genius has been able to write. It’s enough to pronounce a single name: David, or name a single city: Bethlehem. If those distant writers hadn't kept and handed down these stories, Michelangelo, Bernini or Alfieri would have had fewer words available to embellish the world. And we would all be poorer.

To get closer to these texts and receive their blessing, however, a certain exercise and a specific intentional ascesis is needed. We must try to become capable of not fearing impurities, cross-breeds, contaminations and sins. To face the crimes that often happen in border areas, and in those insecure and dark places that are the intersections of roads, their crosses, their crucifixes. One cannot meet David without feeling his pietas for Saul in the flesh of our soul, or his wicked passion for Betsabea, his scream of pain after the parable told by Nathan the prophet. The characters of the Bible - just like and more than those of all narrative masterpieces - only change us if they get embodied in us. If we die with Uriah the Hittite, if we enter into the temple with Hannah feeling desperate and hopeful, with and like her complaining, moaning and asking for a child who puts an end to our infertility, and then, women and men, we generate the son of the promise. If we then return to the temple with Hannah and her son Samuel and sing her Magnificat with her and, on another day, we sing it again with Elizabeth the sterile and then with Mary. If one night we feel being called three times by our name, we don't recognize the voice that calls us, and a friend tells us: "It is the Lord”. We believe him and say the wonderful words: “Here I am”.

Samuel's books are populated by men and women who are neither worse nor better than we who read them: they are exactly like us. They are immense, faithful and infinite like us; and like us, they are fragile, unfaithful and sinners. Perhaps the highest human and ethical message that we can find in the Bible is the true humility of those ancient Jewish writers who wanted to lay the foundations of their sacred history: that of the highest and truest God - and flesh-and-blood men and women. Sara, Rebecca, Jacob, the deceiver, the ancestor of the tribes of Israel, sellers of a dreamy brother for profit. Moses the murderer, Aaron the maker of the golden calf. David, murderer - and image of the Messiah. The Bible was not afraid of whole men and women, and thus it gives us its most beautiful word: if you want to meet God on earth, you have to walk the dirty and spotted land of real men and women.

Samuel is a book set in an epochal passage of Israel's "theological history", between the end of the Judges' time and the birth of the monarchy (which classical chronology places around 1000 BC). It is a book on a border, a book of the border. The very figure of Samuel is a border and a passage. Samuel is the last Judge and consecrator of the first King, he is the forefather of a new prophecy in Israel and the world, but he is also heir to the archaic figure of the shaman-seer, very common among the Canaanite peoples and in Egypt. Promiscuous and mixed like all borders, an end and a beginning, sunset and dawn, a ford, a night wrestler, Jacob and Israel.

The extraordinary narrative and spiritual beauty of these books also depends decisively on the presence of many other protagonists, all masterfully described. Among them there are many women, many prayers by women, a lot of pain, many victims and a lot of beauty.

“There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah... He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.” (1Samuel 1:1-2) The book opens by depicting a rivalry between the women, a conflict of two wives: “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. (...) ...she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat” (1:6-7). Hannah (“the fascinating one”) and Peninnah (“the fertile one”): two women with two different kinds of richness. But in that ancient world fertility prevailed over beauty, and the sterile woman was humiliated by life, the community and religion ("YHWH had closed her womb"). The beauty of the body and heart came after the "beauty" of the womb. Children are the first paradise of the Bible, its eternal life, the truth of the Promise and the Covenant. In their faces the image of that different and unique God shines forth. To see the image of YHWH on earth, it is not enough for the biblical man to look at Adam, or even Eve. They must see him in a child, every child is an Immanuel (God with us).

A splendid and fascinating humanism, but one that has made it difficult to understand the truth and dignity of women, of all women for millennia, prior to and regardless of whether they are mothers in the flesh. So in these first verses of Samuel we find an echo of the cry of all women crushed and mortified in a world of men who sometimes loved them, but generally did not understand them, even when they were fruitful and fascinating. But the Bible sometimes manages to puncture time and give us phrases that surprise us, that should not be there, but they are there. The prophecy of the Bible is not a monopoly of prophets. The entire Bible is sprinkled with it, and it emerges when a page rises up when its time, its idea of God, man and woman comes, and tells us about another God who is not yet there, about a man and a woman greater than their sin, their world and their religion. And these are its most beautiful, really infinite pages. Like the words of Elkanah: “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1:8). Wonderful words, which are still repeated today, in the flow of tears mixing, in the homes of many couples who love each other with a kind of love that tears make capable of a different type of generativity.

The rivalling and antagonistic relationality, which we often find in the Bible, is not exclusive to males. The anthropological wisdom of the Bible tells us that women also have their own rivalry (Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Lea...), which is linked to generation. Males, usually brothers, struggle for birth right and power; women compete for life, and they are not sisters. To tell us that the diversity of the woman, her special talent which in many things is greater than the male one, does not exempt her from this typical disease of living together; and that although they are really different, women and men are really equal, similar, the same, the mirror image, ezer-kenegdo of each another.

Rivalry, also here, is accompanied by another constant of biblical humanism: predilection. “Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh... On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her...” (1:3-5).

However, her husband's passion and sincere love are not enough to console her. Hannah leaves the sacrificial banquet and goes to the temple of Shiloh, where Eli, the chief priest, worked: “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly” (1:10). A moan, a prayer crying for a son. Recited in the heart, in an intimacy that, even here, Eli the man does not understand: “Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. (...) But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. (...) ...I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation” (1:13-16). Certain kinds of pain and anxiety, everyone’s but above all women’s, cannot be said loudly, because life has taken our breath away. But the Bible wanted to record these breathless words so that they accompany our own. And so it kept for us the most intimate words of the victims, slaves, servants, the most beautiful words of all prayers: “if you will ... remember me and not forget your servant” (1:11).

There are no prayers that could be more human and real than saying “remember me” and “do not forget me”. They are the first words of everyone, but above all of the victims, of the poor, of those crushed by life and the powerful. "Hear and remember Israel" that your God has freed you from Egypt - it is only a part of life and faith. Before this "remember" addressed to Israel, which opens the first commandment of the Law (Deut 6:5), there is a "remember" shouted to God by the victims, which opens the first commandment of life.

On earth, every day, many men and women’s "remember me, oh, God" are raised, pronounced and shouted by the poor and oppressed who do not know the name of God, who have forgotten him, who had never prayed with that cry to heaven before. These cries are truer and more beautiful than all of David’s Psalms. Many people learn to pray because of "excess pain", shouting: "Remember me", "remember my child", "do not forget my brother". Many people, many humans. Especially many women, who keep the prayer of the earth alive with their many "remember"-s and "do not forget"-s.

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