A prophecy about the grape cake

Listening to Life/11 - Any era is poor without the beauty of work done together

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 04/09/2016

Vigna Isaia rid"The prophet is not covering anything: the use of a symbolic language is in fact his way of taking the veil off."

Guido Ceronetti, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah

Knowing how to pray is a personal and civil capital of great value, it is a key capability of the human person, the first opportunity given to us when we become aware of being immersed in a mystery, that of life. It is always an extremely precious moral resource, but it becomes essential when you go through the long sleepless nights, the times of destruction, the deserts. Those who have learned the art of prayer - from their parents, grandparents or from great pain - and have been able to cherish it as they grew up, realise that they are inside an authentic heritage of high and ever increasing returns (it is important to know how to pray as children, but it is crucial to be able to do it even when we grow old, when the innocence of the first prayer is not there anymore, but it must come back). Those who have forgotten how to pray, those who are struggling not to forget the last prayers they learned as a child, those who never knew nor wanted to pray but one day felt the desire to do so can all find a new start in Isaiah.

For the fields of Heshbon languish, / and the vine of Sibmah; / the lords of the nations / have struck down its branches, / which reached to Jazer / and strayed to the desert; / its shoots spread abroad / and passed over the sea. / Therefore I weep with the weeping of Jazer / for the vine of Sibmah; / I drench you with my tears, / O Heshbon and Elealeh;/ for over your summer fruit and your harvest / the shout has ceased. / And joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field, / and in the vineyards no songs are sung, / no cheers are raised; / no treader treads out wine in the presses; / I have put an end to the shouting.” (Isaiah 16:8-10).

The cycle of prophecies and laments about the cities and nations in the Book of Isaiah is also a sublime, tragic song about human work, about trades, about the fields of man during the time of ruins. It is a poetry of pain that reaches even to work, and so it combines people and nature, homo and humus, adam (man) and adamah (earth, land). The prophet contrasts two types of shouts: those of pain felt over destruction and those of joy felt over work. When misfortune strikes in a community, the cries of pain today put out the good cries of yesterday, those of life lived together in conviviality. The mourning chants strangle the songs of the harvest and the vintage.

On this earth there are good cries and bad cries, just as there are good laughs that bring life and bad laughs that kill. Misfortunes and destruction cause pain twice, because they produce the tears of grief and because they stop those of joy. It is amazing that Isaiah weeps also for the destruction of the vineyards and work that are annihilated along with the city. The armies of the empires were not limited to killing and deporting people. They also destroyed (and destroy) the houses, they burned the walls, destroyed fields, the places of work and economy, they felled the trees. Because a city is never completely destroyed until there remains a workplace, a workshop, a vineyard, a bunch of grapes. That's why we do not start over after the destruction if we do not start to work again, and to work together. Resurrection is also the raising of work and its places. The children cannot raise them; our work can, and it is because of these possible resurrections that we can start living again. After destruction we can be reborn by rebuilding. The first way of rebuilding is to see things being reborn from our hands, to co-create the land again through our work. And maybe when we return to graze our cattle, to see a burning bush that reveals another name of God, or while we go fishing again to hear the voice of someone who calls us by name.

Isaiah, therefore, teaches us to weep for the death of men and women and to weep for the death of their jobs, their homes, their oikonomia. On the day of the destruction of Egypt: "The fishermen will mourn and lament, / all who cast a hook in the Nile; / and they will languish / who spread nets on the water. / The workers in combed flax will be in despair, / and the weavers of white cotton. / Those who are the pillars of the land will be crushed, / and all who work for pay will be grieved." (19:8-10) And on that of Ethiopia: "he cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks, / and the spreading branches he lops off and clears away." (18:5) Fishermen, those who do the pruning, weavers, workers. They lament, they are deluded, they languish, they become pale, they mourn. We cry for broken lives, we do not get consolation for the death of children, but we also cry for destroyed factories, for collapsed schools. The city's mourning is one and the same, it touches our works. The things we love and loved suffer with us, and we suffer with them.

Isaiah is a great connoisseur of the life of the people, and therefore of their work. We have to imagine him wandering in the countryside around Jerusalem and observing and listening to the peasants and workers. Seeing the ordinary life of the people on a regular basis, the experience of the times and ways of pruning and the action of the pruning knife and the nets has enriched his poetry and his prophecy. Today our spiritual discourses often stop too early and too close to ourselves and do not reach those whom they should reach, because they are too distant from businesses, from the fields, from construction sites, from the ordinary places of living. The prophecy changes the earth if it emerges from its bowels, if it is the song of the hatchet and the flax.

Here the metaphor and symbol that are always active in the prophets, take strength from the actual vineyards of vines and branches and from the trades. A vineyard can become a living image of the people and of the Church if we have seen at least one true example of it, if we have walked between the rows, if we have felt its smell and seen its colours, and maybe struggled a bit with the pruning and the vintage. Only embodied metaphors manage to affect our flesh. When shall we return to write - and read - new prophetic songs in the markets, workshops and classrooms to be engraved into the flesh of our time?
The Bible knows that work is life and life is work. It knows that work has its own effort and, sometimes, pain, too. The pain of work is usually good and fruitful. But there is a type of suffering that is never good: to be unable to return to work because the workplace is gone, collapsed, it cannot be used.

On this earth there are few things more beautiful than the joy that you experience while you work and the joy of work done together. In our time this collective joy is in a strong and fast decline, replaced by individual satisfaction through incentives and bonuses. But it has not disappeared, it is still there. We can still see it in the fields, in factories, offices, hospitals and schools. We can get to know a special and precious form of this joy when after experiencing fatigue and suffering in handling a major emergency or overcoming a serious crisis, after having given everything, at some point, without warning, a different atmosphere is created around us, fresh air breaks in. These are brief and rare moments, however, they are able to compensate for the time of pain and fatigue and they can sublimate it. Sometimes this different joy comes at the end of the crisis and marks the beginning of a new phase; at other times, the problems are not resolved, but this different air arrives all the same, as a balm for the individual and collective soul.

Past generations knew, better than us, how to recognize and celebrate this typical joy. Often women were the ones who sensed the arrival of the early signs; they started singing a folk song, and the feast began. At other times it was a prayer, a song of resistance or a story that triggered these different dimensions of time and space.

In those moments ordinary work became liturgy, it forged community ties, it created friendships lasting forever, it made people start the time of companionship and fraternity over and over again. We can attend a thousand courses on wellbeing at the workplace, hire coaches and counsellors, but if we do not learn how to re-create the spiritual and moral pre-conditions for the miracle of these different times to happen, work in the twenty-first century will be poorer than in the past centuries, when was hard, very hard, but it also had this beauty.

The cry of Isaiah for the destruction of the region of Moab holds another surprise for us, a delicate and wonderful one: "let everyone wail. / Mourn, utterly stricken, / for the raisin cakes of Kir-hareseth." (16:7) Between the pages of the scroll of Isaiah, inside the Bible, a word of the Word is dedicated to a grape cake, a typical, humble product from Moab. Isaiah sheds his tears for a local dish, too, for a particularly delicious cake, known in those regions. His grieving lament embraces a type of food from that destroyed land, a cake, the fruit of the hands and the wisdom of that land. It is there, it is also the eternal sacrament of that ancient suffering of women, men, boys, girls, of the earth. Before becoming a business, entertainment, television, food is the life of people, it is their companion (cum-panis) in joys and sorrows. The Bible knows and teaches this to us, and it has left us traces of a destroyed place by crying for one of its 'typical foods'. There is a spirituality of places and therefore also of the products of the places, of culture and cultivation.

Isaiah is great because of these details, too, which remain hidden and silent for centuries, until life enlightens and explains them. If we had reached the cake of Kir-hareseth two weeks ago, it would not have been enlightened to us, that love would not have been the same as it is today. That grape cake has been there for two and a half millennia, waiting for us to give us today, amidst our acts of destruction, a message of hope, a message that Isaiah could not have known. Our history revealed it to us.

We still need the Bible and the prophets. The Bible and the prophets still need us.

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