Three Words to Restart (and a Right Desire)

Comments –Lenten Christian Culture and its Civil Nature

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire on 17/02/2013


Lent also has a civil nature, which reveals itself to us if we read its words in the light of this crucial phase of our public life.  These words are articulated and go to form a true and proper message of a change of route, of a conversion.  The first word is repentance, a strange word in our culture, yet a fundamental one in order to be able to truly begin again after every personal and collective crisis.  After having made mistakes, especially if serious and collective, in order to restart and go speedily on our journey we need, first, to repent, because if we lack the awareness of having done wrong, we cannot find again the road to walk on.

The first expression of every repentance is a feeling of pain, of sorrow, of regret for having done things that are not good, that brought harm to ourselves and above all, to others.  We have seen many things that are bad and serious, in these years of crisis, and we are still seeing too many.  But one does not see or glimpse remorse in leaders of financial speculation, in the culture of top management of big businesses, companies and banks, and even less in our political parties.   Without civil repentance, accompanied by some gesture, as in all true repentance, we will not have the strength to restart.

For these civil and economic errors and sins, the (very necessary) trials through civil courts cannot exhaust the rites of repentance, excuses or of reconciliation.  When the manager of a great bank or company commits crimes, there is need of something more than just the sentence given by the courts (when one is given): there is also need for these entities who have betrayed the trust and hopes of all shareholders and of the entire country, to be able to repent, to ask forgiveness and pardon of the people.  The reparation and restitution of the civil and penal code are much too poor for these kinds of crimes which hurt the symbolical and ethical codes of the community.

The second word is humility; a fundamental virtue for a good life, a word totally out of use in a culture that rewards the hypertrophic ‘I’ and no longer has eyes for appreciating the virtue of humility.  Humility comes from earth, from that humus that was root one time of humility (humilitas) and of man (homo), a semantic richness that is also found in the Hebrew language where man and earth are called adam and adamah.  Humility is a word that founds the human, because it tells us that great things in life are such because of their smallness, because they  are a little less, a dwindling, because they are earth and dust.

This ancient tie humility-man-earth reminds us that humility is virtue when it comes from having touched dust, earth, ash: one becomes truly humble and truly man/woman when one falls, when one feels the earth and the dust, and then gets back up.  This is the humility of Job, but also of those who work and know the earth, of those who in front of a mountain or a rock, experience their own infinite smallness, and from that contact with the earth rediscover also their own infinite dignity.  We cannot become humble by ourselves (this is narcissism), but it is the others, life, the earth and the dust to humiliate us, which can then help us to continue on our way.  The failures, individual, economical, and political of these past years can become an occasion to do better, but it is necessary first, to want to experience humility, which is absent from all the programs, the promises and above all from the words and tone of these pre-election days.

The third word is fasting.  Our century is obsessed with diets, but no longer knows fasts, because fasting is not a matter of counting calories or of losing weight, but is another pivotal point of a good life: temperance.  Fasting is educating one’s desires, passions, heart, spirit, and intelligence.  In order to appreciate and then cultivate fasting and temperance people are needed who are able to see the values in such things as limit, moderation, and sobriety.  In reality, if we take a good look at our people beyond the television shows, we become aware that there are ever more people leading temperate lives, who give due value to limits (in the use of resources, time, work, profits, consuming…), who moderate their own needs, who enrich them by diminishing them.  I meet many of them, and more every day, but they are not spoken about in the public sphere, because they don’t make for good audiences and don’t bring votes.

The civilization preceding ours was governed by fasts, because the hardship of life was supportable only by educating passions, intelligence and will:  poverty can, and has become, a life that is good and worthy only if accompanied by fasts, which multiplies the value of having little food, and the feasting of the poor.  It is also the lack of a Lenten culture that is decreeing the death of the ‘carnevale’ in our country (and the boom of Halloween, which is its opposite), Carnevale can be lived when it is preceded and attended by fasts, food and feasting.  Fasting, in the end, nourishes and reinforces, it doesn’t reduce the will to live, nor does it reduce the generative side of life: not by chance did the great Greek philosophy indicate in Penia (indigence, lack) the father of Eros.  Every form of creativity, from art to family to business, requires one to desire that which one doesn’t have or is not yet.  The root of every true crisis is the extinguishing of the desire for what isn’t yet.


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