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The grammar of forever

Faithfulness and redemption/3 - The middle ground between Moab and Bethlehem becomes a land of women, and of freedom.

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  11/04/2021

"A person who receives a visitor in his or her home will certainly offer the visitor a bed to sleep in; if he returns, he or she will offer him an armchair; if he comes back again, he will be entitled to a bench; and if he appears again, the host will tell him: that's enough now. With God, it is different: the more we disturb him the more he rejoices".

Rabbì Zerà in Elie Wiesel, Somewhere a Master: Hassidic Portraits and Legends.

The words that Ruth says to Naomi to persuade her to take her with her to Bethlehem are among the most poetic and beautiful in the Bible, and they make us feel and understand what vocation and fidelity are all about.

«With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud». (The Book of Ruth 1,7-9). The three widows leave. While they are on their way, there is a first twist: Naomi asks her two daughters-in-law to go home. They are loyal and good daughters-in-law, who have shown merciful love (hesed) to her. We are in the presence of a relationship of love and reciprocity. However, once they leave, Naomi changes her plans. They are no longer in Moab and not yet in Bethlehem: they are halfway there, at a crossroads. This middle ground between Moab and Bethlehem is a land of women.

Why did Naomi not speak to her daughters-in-law before leaving? The book does not tell us. Perhaps the author wanted to take the three women into the "desert" because that non-place held the conditions for a freer choice, away from the gaze of their families of origin, from the weight of the gods of the house, from the males in their vicinity. Along the way, the two widowed daughters-in-law can choose to either continue or go back. Out there, space was greater than time, because while time continues to flow on its axis of always and everyone, those women were marking the other axis of their lives with the freedom to continue or return. In that world, the small and spare freedom of women was created outside the house of yesterday and before arriving in the home of tomorrow. Their freedom was transitory (in transit), provisional and temporary, a fragile freedom that the Bible sees, watches over and presents to us. The choices made by Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are choices of free women, at least during that stretch of road, of life, of the book - and if a person is truly free even during a single, limited stretch, he or she will always be free.

Naomi kisses her daughters-in-law. Kisses in the Bible are always important, but sometimes they are even more so. As in this farewell kiss, salty with tears - the kisses of greeting between women who love each other are always wonderful; they have the flavour and intensity of paradise. But the daughters-in-law are not convinced by Naomi's words: «We will go back with you to your people» (The Book of Ruth 1,10). Naomi insists, this time with other arguments: «Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me - even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons - would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lords’s hand has turned against me!» (The Book of Ruth 1,11-13). We do not know why Naomi is so determined to go back alone. Different interpreters have offered different versions, including the fear of arriving in Bethlehem with two Moabite widowed women, or the fact that she feels out of God's favour ("the hand of God ..."). We, however, remain struck by the honesty of that elderly woman. Here is the second part: «At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her» (The Book of Ruth 1,14). This time the two daughters-in-law act in two entirely different ways: Orpah returns home, while Ruth disobeys and stays. Naomi insists: «“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”» (The Book of Ruth 1,15).

Naomi says the words she has to say, because they are the words of a mature love. She gives all her good reasons, and we understand her. Orpah's behaviour is also normal within the context of the culture in question and what the reader expects. The transgressor here is Ruth. Orpah in fact does nothing but obey Naomi's words. Unlike some traditions that read the word "nape" in her name, and therefore turning her back on Naomi (in the Ruth Rabbah Midrash, the night Orpah leaves, Naomi is raped by a hundred men and a dog, and Goliath is later born from that rape). The author does not pronounce or suggest any kind of negative judgment towards Orpah - The Book of Ruth is a book of benevolent gazes. She initially leaves together with Naomi and Ruth, then, faced with the words of her mother-in-law, she does what she has to do. She kisses Naomi twice and she cries twice. She loves her, she must have loved Ruth too, but she proceeds to resume the ordinary and orderly flow of life. She does not hear a calling; she simply goes home, leaving the book forever, and with our blessings.

It is at this point that Ruth speaks for the first time, in one of the most beautiful poetic and spiritual passages in the whole Bible, which should be read in one single breath: «Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me» (The Book of Ruth 1,16-17). Beautiful! An ode to the infinite value of human bonds, of people, of the absolute value of one single person.

But why does Ruth want to follow Naomi instead of following her advice? Ruth commits a transgression; in fact, every vocation is transgression. Her words are an entire chapter in the grammar of "vocations-forever". Ruth does not only see a good mother-in-law or a very dear friend in Naomi, she also sees her own destiny, her place in the world, she can hear her own name being pronounced. These words pronounced by Ruth are even greater than the context of her book. They are a horizontal and anthropological declination of the Biblical Covenant. For starters, they contain the true meaning of forever. "Forever" can only be found in vocations, even if we should stop one day and go home. And when someone feels like saying forever, we find ourselves within a vocation, even when they are not aware of it. This is why this page from the Book of Ruth is read during the wedding liturgy, but it could also be read during that of religious vocations, even non-religious ones (if we were lay enough). However, these are neither simple nor romantic words, but a cry, touching the very heart of the drama, of the risks, of the paradox of vocations. A passage that should be placed right next to some words in Job (chapter 1) or in Jeremiah (chapter 20). If we erase the tragic original context, we risk turning this cry and vocations into mere sentimental and banal thoughts, thereby betraying them.

Then there is the follow-up. Vocations are, first of all, a matter of walking. After hearing a voice, one immediately starts walking with someone, behind someone, attached (davàk) to someone, to one or more specific persons. It sticks to us like Ezekiel's tongue sticks to his palate after losing his wife, the "delight of his eyes" (Ezequiel 24,16).

We remain faithful to our vocation as long as we keep walking, even when with time we no longer know whom we are following. Vocations are followings of people. This is why there is such a great proximity between marriage and religious vocations. Men and women learned to follow only God by watching people who follow only people, a wife or a husband; and thereby we learn and relearn it again, every day. Because followings are never abstract - if there is a space in which reality is greater than the idea it is in vocations. Even when you enter a cloister, you follow people; you bind yourself to someone who constitutes the place of a voice, who gives the voice flesh. We attach ourselves to a founder, to a community, to friends, and we tie our destiny to theirs. And when this is lacking, vocational experiences become neurotic, just sad loneliness filled with self-delusion.

The times when I have encountered "closely knit" followings in my life, the protagonists were almost always women. A female following has its own set of typical characteristics, and one of these is the ability to fully commit with body and soul. This bonding clearly knows its fair share of risks (manipulation, abuse, violence, idolatry...), but when it is free and aware, it is among the most beautiful things under the sun; akin to getting yourself committed to a nursing home while still healthy just so you can be close to your wife.

Ruth is difficult to understand, because behind the choices of each Ruth, both in ancient and recent history, freedom was not always present, and the various Naomis are not always as honest and responsible as the one in the book. The first and true Ruth, however, reminds us of a great human truth, which does not cease to be great because it is fragile. We can see Ruth again, every time a person decides to continue to follow another person without having any other reasons than following. When he or she realizes that the freedom that made him or her leave everything and everyone in order not to depend on anything or anybody, is the same freedom that makes him or her want to spend all that freedom conquered yesterday on one single person. What is infinite in scope turning into the smaller details, Logos becoming a child. Ruth is an icon of the greatest form of gratuitousness because she is an icon of the greatest freedom.

I have met a few Naomis and a few Ruths. I saw Naomi's face in the face of the founder of a community who, having reached the end of her mission, proceeded to retire, and I saw Ruth following her in her retirement, or taking care of her during her long illness. It is faithfulness becoming greater than the "task" and the role at hand. I saw it again in the faithfulness of a husband to a wife who, due to an illness, no longer recognized him, but he continued to know and recognize her, until the very end. Without a Ruth in communities, only the ruthless turnover of titles, offices and functions would reign, and no family would last forever.

(Dedicated to Margherita and Paolo, firmly attached to a forever to the end).

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