Giving What's Necessary Is Not Enough

Listening to Life/25 - Learning to witness the time needed for the seeds to mature

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 11/12/2016

pescadorI am looking for the word. / Our language is powerless / its sudden sounds - poor. / I search with all the effort of the mind / I am looking for this word - but I cannot find it. / I cannot.

Wislawa Szymborska, I am looking for the word (rough translation)

Hidden in the heart of humanity there has always been a deep desire for a land of gratuitousness. A land where every man, every woman, every poor person has bread, water, milk and honey, without the access to these basic necessities of life being mediated by the possession of money. Because we know, we feel that – deeper than the law of the giving and receiving of money and finance - there is a bond of fraternity that is truer than economic and social inequalities, one that calls us and waits until we find and recognize it.

This land of gratuitousness has not been found yet. We stopped too soon, to be content with a society where access to things is regulated by the monetary registry, by markets that are closed to those who have nothing to offer, or have different types of goods that merchants cannot see or do not appreciate. Yet, while money is becoming more and more the yardstick of everything and everybody, the prophets continue to keep alive the promise of a different land, still far away, but still alive as long as there is someone who cannot stop wishing for the impossible, dreaming the dream of a society of gratuitousness. They are the ones who continue watering and fertilizing the land with their greater words, to transform and redeem it every day: “Come, everyone who thirsts, / come to the waters; / and he who has no money, / come, buy and eat! / Come, buy wine and milk / without money and without price." (Isaiah 55:1)

After the prophet sang the songs of the 'servant of YHWH' who gets crushed and discarded as a victim, who as a meek lamb goes through his suffering as the 'birth' of a newly re-created innocent people emerging from the innocence of the victim, we run into this prophecy of gratuitousness. It takes us by surprise and continues to amaze us, to move us with its beauty - the adjectives for this prophecy are many, and many more are needed to be able to describe it at least a little: it is true, strong, indignant, comforting and beautiful. Perhaps only after seeing the world from the perspective of the last ones, of the oppressed and humiliated, and perhaps after having tasted the raw side of life, only after the climbs of many Mounts Moria and Golgothas can we really understand something of value and price of gratuitousness and its typical beauty. Only those who are thirsty and hungry can really understand the value of a glass of water and a piece of bread donated to them. And only those who hunger and thirst understand the value of the feast and bounty: the 'wine and milk'. The prophets, these masters of true humanity, know that many people die for lack of bread and water; but they also know that there are just as many who die from the famine of joy and celebration, because 'they have no wine left'. They have the eyes to see the hunger and thirst for beauty, gratuitousness and feasting; they can see the famine of primary goods and the famine of the overflow, the hunger and thirst for 'more'. Because, unlike the other living beings, when we men and women lack that 'something more', the necessary is just not enough for us, and we starve to death if our tables are lacking the 'wine' of friendship or the 'milk' of honour. With only bread and water you can survive for a while, but you cannot live long. For gratuitousness an essential trait would be missing if it were limited to giving what is needed for free: gratuitousness without overflow would not be gratuitous enough. Giving what's necessary is not enough. Like when we agree with a close friend or wife that in this year of economic crisis you will exchange no gifts at Christmas, just a greeting; but then the evening of the exchange comes and if - in addition to the previously agreed card - there isn't at least a flower, something 'more', we are not really happy. It is that 'something more' that humanizes our necessary relations, generates joy, is the sacrament of any excess, the flower of gratuitousness.

The prophecy on gratuitousness of the Second Isaiah does not stop there; it continues until the end of his song. With their great words about the Immanuel, the faithful 'remnant' and the swords turned into ploughshares, the amazing Servant Songs are words that have been fertilizing the earth for thousands of years; they have made it different, better, certainly more fertile and more beautiful. Without the prophecy and without the Book of Isaiah we could not understand and tell the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we would have had poorer words to tell about our peaces after the wars, poets and writers would have less expressive words to sing of our hope and our pains. We would have less beautiful, rich and colourful churches and cathedrals, our symphonies and operas would have less deep notes. We would have less nouns and verbs to remember Auschwitz, to understand the pain and anguish of victims and maybe try to save them, to tell about and express our greatest sufferings and joys. The gift of these words would suffice to be eternally grateful to the biblical prophets, every one of them, and most certainly the Book of Isaiah. But also the words on the universal gratuity of bread and milk, the most humble and simple words of the great songs and hymns (you can only speak well softly about gratuitousness, whispering it, because it talks about itself as we live it) have irrigated and fertilized the earth, they changed time and history: "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven /and do not return there but water the earth, / making it bring forth and sprout, / giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, / so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; / it shall not return to me empty, / but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, / and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it." (55:10-11)

The word is effective, it bears fruit especially when it penetrates the earth and disappears from the soil. It's like the good rain and the snow: they seem to disappear from the surface but that is when they start to work really, to ripen the seeds in the ground. If the word acts as it penetrates into the ground and disappears, we should not look for it on the surface of our cities, because it has to be absorbed in order to act in depth.

If we take this image of the Second Isaiah seriously, we cannot read the history of Europe, the Western World or Christianity as a process of decay, a shift away from a first and far-away Eden - even if many do so, each of them with their own Eden. Instead, we should read this same history as a slow blossoming of the seed of the word that has not returned empty. This is a truer reading of history, a more biblical and prophetic one. This free offer of food and water that the old Israel was practising while the Second Isaiah said these words was what the institutions of tithing, gleaning and the temple permitted. The lepers were discarded and marginalized outside the city, and the widows, the orphans and the majority of the people lived in constant conditions of poverty and deprivation. In later centuries, Christians continued to read and proclaim the same words, taken up again and amplified by the teaching of the Gospel, and in the course of many centuries that word began to bring about the seeds of the Franciscans' Monti di Pietà, then those of schools, hospitals and many of the social works of the modern charismatic movements. And today: the welfare state, pensions, basic income, the many movements that walk the roads (while we sleep) to free slaves, show up at the stations not in order to leave but to stay close to, nurture and warm up those who cannot set out for new journeys. And also democracy, the rights for many, sometimes all, freedom, equality, sometimes fraternity that flourish thanks to the water and the snow of the biblical word - and other waters and other snows of other religious and civilian prophecies. Good seeds, matured and grown in our field together with the weeds, but where the seeds were and are more abundant and stronger - the rain and the snow water and nurture all seeds. That word originally fallen in abundance to (the soil of - the tr.) Jerusalem and Palestine continues to irrigate our lives even if we do not see it any more, even if today we can no longer recognize the first water in the fruits we eat, and aren't grateful for it. The necessary gratuitousness of the word is also to be found in this disappearing.

This logic of the word acting while disappearing also makes us understand the moral and spiritual journey of the individual who receives and embraces it. The word we hear when we are young, the one that fell upon us as rain and snow, upon the best years of our lives, must disappear if we want to bear fruit, because it has to be absorbed by our flesh and heart. It should not be collected in plastic bags or tanks, it must not be stored for fear of being dispersed, because it really begins its work when we can see it the least. In order to flourish the seeds must penetrate deep into the soul and intelligence, and that's why we can no longer see it in front of us. It is when it disappears that the word starts to perform the function for which it 'was sent'. And so when the snow melts and the landscape loses its purity and silence, when we no longer find the words of the first love and the land looks barren, when we no longer feel the freshness that bathes the leaves, nor the cosiness of the snow that covers our land, that is when the word is really working to perform its most valuable function. There's a first time of the word when it bathes us, we can see it and it inundates us, covering the whole of our landscape: it is in front of us, above and around us. But if we want the fruits to come, this first phase must end. What appears to us as absence and nostalgia is only the time needed for the seeds to mature. The greatest blessing of the word is the part that is no longer visible, because while it vanishes it nourishes and enlivens us and the earth. The truth of the word is measured by the seeds and the fruits that bloom in our fields when it does not seem to be there anymore.

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