Greater than Guilt/12 - The art of life can be learnt by starting the journey
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 08/04/2018
“Even as a boy I sometimes looked up with endless sympathy and respect into a half-withered female face on which it was written, as it were: life and reality have given me a drubbing. (...) And if we live, there’s something wondrous about it. Call it God or human nature or what you will, but there’s a certain something that I can’t define in a system, even though it’s very much alive and real, and you see, for me it’s God or just as good as God.”
Vincent Van Gogh, Letters, 193 (English translation by Diane Webb, John Rudge and Lynne Richards)
When a vocation is real and grows well, the "hosanna" of the crowd is always followed by the time of passion. It is always a crucial period, when the design and the task for that person begin to reveal themselves more clearly, because the dark background of events highlights the bright contours. So David, after his first success at court and in Saul’s heart, after his victory against Goliath, the women's song of glory ("Saul has struck down his thousands, / and David his ten thousands") now finds himself forced to flee and hide, because Saul wants to kill him. So the text now shows him to be a fugitive and a nomad wandering from city to city, his life in continuous danger, himself being homeless, vulnerable and poor. Like Abraham, like Moses, like Mary and Joseph. He too was a wandering Aramean, he too was in search of benevolence and hospitality; like us, like everyone else, who from the day we came to light became beggars for a good hand to welcome us and host us, never stopping to look for it, until the end.
David first arrived in Nob, to a priest, Ahimelech. David gives him a (false) explanation of why he went to him, and then asks him "five loaves of bread" (a number and a type of food that speak to us immediately). Ahimelech replies: “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread” (1 Samuel 21:4). The consecrated bread of the sanctuary was a bread for rituals. David manages to persuade Ahimelech, so he and his men receive and eat those "offering breads” which, according to the Law, could only be consumed by priests. That is why the synoptic gospels cite this episode when, on a Saturday, Jesus was passing through grainfields and his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And after citing David, Jesus concludes: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). David was in need, he was hungry, and hunger comes before the Law, in the Bible and in life. No religious, economic or political precept can justify denying bread to the hungry. And when bread (and work) are denied in the name of the law, of any law, and man is left without bread, the Bible is denied, faith is denied, and before all that, the law of bread, which is the first law of life, is denied: if there is bread in the house and a hungry man asks for it, I must give it to him, even if he cannot pay for it, even if he cannot give me anything in return, even if it is sacred bread - because nothing is more sacred and holy than a hungry man. The Bible is also a history of bread, starting from the manna to the Last Supper, and it is a history of gift. Symbolically (and therefore deeply) bread also marks the beginning of David's odyssey, where he is shown to us first and foremost as a hungry man who needs bread.
It is with these wide and good looks at the elementary human condition that the Bible manages to "see" the many men and women who continue to hunger every day and who, like David, must resort to stratagems and lies in order not to die - often without succeeding. It is these glances that make the Bible the great book that’s a friend of man, of every man, of the whole of man, of every woman and every man. It should never be forgotten that before speaking well about God the Bible speaks well about man, blessing him so (in Italian, the verb ‘bless’ can be broken up to ‘bene-dire’, ‘to speak well of’ - the tr.). And so it presents man in his vulnerability and limitedness, because it knows that it is only within that infinite smallness that one can touch the infinitely large and its mystery. David is also disarmed, and after the bread he asks the priest for a weapon. With a further series of lies, he receives the sword of Goliath that was kept in that temple (21:10). David is clever and unscrupulous, so much so that to save himself he systematically resorts to lies. Lies and half-truths do not, however, lead him out of the grace of YHWH, who continues to assist him, bless him and protect him. The Bible, which has infinite esteem for the performative capacity of the word and which, in the age of continuous lies, all pacts transformed into contracts and fake news continues to remind us of the importance and dignity of words in life, is not afraid to insert lies, in the foundations of its humanism: lies told by its characters that it loves and looks upon with a benevolent eye (Abraham, Jacob, Michal, Jonah, David, Peter...). Saying lies is another expression of the "poverty" and vulnerability of David, his humanity, and ours. It is the natural response to another form of poverty. David's lies are those of the poor man, frightened, unarmed and hungry. Lies are not all the same. The snake, that of Cain, and the false prophets are always evil and are therefore condemned by the Bible and by us. But like the violation of the law on consecrated bread, these lies of David are at the service of life.
The Bible is not a treatise on ethics; it is not a manual of civil virtues. It is much more than that. It is the book of life, it is a song to the living man and to the earth that is the first home of the angels of Elohim who do not come to visit us because we are good and religiously perfect but because they are attracted by our imperfection when accompanied by a good heart. The biblical sincerity of the heart is above all linked to the ability to repent and suffer for the evil done (David will repent for the lies to that priest, cf. 22:22), it is that blessing that reaches us in the soul and surprises us when we were already certain that we had lost our chastity forever. Shortly before, in another account of his escape, it was the prophets who saved David at Naioth, first from the men sent by Saul and then from the king himself. Saul thus comes into contact with the community of prophets close to Samuel, is "infected" by prophetic enthusiasm, and falls into a sort of mystical exaltation: “And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night” (19:24). It is a mysterious and ambivalent episode, certainly suggestive and fascinating, the echo of an ancient local tradition. Abandoned by the good spirit and increasingly at the mercy of the bad spirit and his ghosts, inexorably heading towards his end, when Saul gets in contact with that community of prophets, he relives something very similar to the prophetic enthusiasm of the day of his vocation, when he received the anointing to be king from Samuel, and "God gave him another heart" (10:9).
This nakedness of Saul is very human and full of pietas, his fall to the ground and the way he stayed there for a whole day and a night. Perhaps, finding himself in contact with the spirit that had felt alive and wonderful on that first blessed day, something shakes him inside, beats him and knocks him down. As it happens to those who, when life has led them on paths where they lost the voice and light of that first distant encounter, one day come across their first community by chance, or listen to an old song, see a picture, or return to that place where they received a real call (as true as Saul’s). And within their soul they are upset by a strong wind of emotions, upsetting and overwhelming them, and they are invaded by a deep emotion of an immense nostalgia for something beautiful that they know they have lost forever - thank God, unlike Saul, sometimes those great cries and those long hours spent lying idly on the ground, are the beginning of a new and wonderful phase of life. With the help of prophets and priests, David saves himself and continues his fugitive journey. He arrives in Gath, a Philistine city. He is recognized, and to save himself, he “pretended to be insane in their hands and made marks on the doors of the gate and let his spittle run down his beard” (21:13). Gath's leader, Achish, says to his servants: “Behold, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to behave as a madman in my presence?” (21:14-15). David is pretending to be crazy, like Ulysses. He continues to fight and simulate - in order to live.
He leaves Gath and enters a region with many caves: Adullam. His family members join him there, who no longer felt secure in Bethlehem. “And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them” (22:2). The description of this community formed around David is very beautiful. It reminds us of the Jews who left Egypt with Moses, the crowds who followed Jesus to Palestine, the first Christian churches, the first monastic movement, the mendicant orders and the many communities that sought and still seek a liberator to dream of another life. Honest and oppressed people, insolvent debtors fleeing prison and slavery, and others who are simply dissatisfied. All of them poor, persecuted, oppressed. The people of the Beatitudes. True communities, those capable of recognizing David and beginning social redemption and authentic revolutions are always like this: they are mixed, promiscuous, bio-diversified, heterogeneous, made of people driven by very different motivations who care and improve by "touching” each other. And that is how they remain alive and fruitful. When communities begin to subdivide and segment into communities of the honest, those of the insolvent and those of the merely discontent, they lose prophetic strength, generativity and the ability to change. And the debtors end up as slaves, the dissatisfied surrender, the honest become too similar to the workers of the first hour and to the elder brother of the prodigal son. Communities made up of different people that become communities of similar people get impoverished and soon die out. David continues his journey along the dangerous roads of Palestine, a hungry and frightened liar, in the company of normal and imperfect people, just like him, just like us. The charming and loving youth who is the chosen one learns the art of living by experiencing the fragility and vulnerability of the human condition. Like us, like everyone else.
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