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Fullness in an incomplete home

Prophecy is history /4 - The most precious symphonies in life are those that remain unfinished, our true masterpieces

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 23/06/2019

« I said, “I will be wise”; But it was far from me. As for that which is far off and exceedingly deep, Who can find it out? »

Ecclesiastes 7,23-24

Biblical wisdom is a texture that is intertwined with historical facts. And it reminds us that we are greater and more beautiful than the most beautiful and greatest things that we can do, because we have been created out of love and not for utility

Wisdom is a common silver thread running through the Bible. It was the flower of one of the longest, most colourful and multi-coloured springs in the history of humanity. What manifested itself in Greece as philosophy, more or less at the same time in the area between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, became wisdom. Ancient myth and its symbols reached a new more mature age, above all finally capable of expressing concepts and realities that previously remained engulfed in the blinding light (and darkness) of the mystery of the whole. Mythos gave birth to Logos. It was the invention of the word, as a new epiphany of life and therefore of man, of the world and of God. Even if the words of philosophy do not coincide with those of wisdom, they are very similar. Job is not Plato's Timaeus, the Song of Songs is not the Symposium, yet they manage to speak and understand each other.

Philosophy is born from the wonder of a world that could not be but actually is; wisdom however arises from the discovery that if well looked after reality includes rules, laws, words that reveal the meaning of life and teach us the profession of living. A reality, however, that is not simply the book of nature, because the experience of the Law and of the prophets, of revealed words and gifts, are essential to biblical wisdom, an essential map to be able to investigate, penetrate and understand the world, God, man. Man also marvels in wisdom, but the first and fundamental marvel of biblical humanism stems from the experience of a world inhabited by Yahweh, by his presence and by his word. The biblical man dreams of a different man because he dreams of a different God.

This is why the wisdom that we find in the Bible is not just ethics or theology. In a different way, and more so than with Greek philosophy and contemporary Asian ethics, it is history, because the concrete presence of Yahweh in the world renders human affairs true and not merely a pale shadow of the real world above the sun. The Covenant is a decisive event in biblical history, because it takes place over time and in its unfolding it gives substance and truth to time and history. Wisdom is then the warp that intertwines with the plot of historical facts to give life to the tapestry of the world; it is also the human word in dialogue with the word of God in an intimate conversation of love that has lasted millennia – and still continues.

This wisdom is the breath that inspired the writers of many biblical pages, the key to reading books that deal with very different subjects (history, prophecy, law ...). And so, in order to understand the meaning of the story of Solomon and the parable of his kingdom as well, it is important to read them in parallel with the first chapters of Genesis. Solomon is placed by his God-Yahweh in the centre of a new Eden, a garden of goods and shalom. Like Adam who cultivated and kept the land given to him by Elohim, Solomon administers a vast, peaceful and rich kingdom: «So King Solomon ruled over all Israel» (1 Kings 4,1), the greatest kingdom in all of Israel's history: «And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt» (1 Kings 4,21). At the height of his shalom, the Adam in Genesis begins his decline. He begins to believe in a different logos, that of the serpent, and therefore to deny the discourse of wisdom. A denial of wisdom that generated the fratricide of Cain, the gesture of Lamech and finally the flood. The first chapters of the Books of Kings also show us Solomon reaching the culmination of splendour and glory: «Judah and Israel… they ate, they drank and they were happy» (1 Kings 4,20). And for Solomon too, the pinnacle of success coincides with the beginning of his decline. He had received the gift of wisdom and had exercised it: «God granted Solomon great wisdom and intelligence and a mind as vast as the sand that is on the beach of the sea. The Wisdom of Solomon exceeded the wisdom of all the Orientals and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than all men ... his name was famous among all the neighbouring peoples ... From all nations they came to hear the Wisdom of Solomon» (1 Kings 4,29-34).

But, at a certain point, Solomon leaves the path of wisdom and takes that of the serpent. The Bible does not tell us when the decline of its wisest king began. Perhaps because many scholars get lost without realizing it. A sapiential reading of these chapters (in the light of the Law in its entirety and the prophets) however suggests that this downfall began while Solomon was building his masterpiece: the temple of Jerusalem. Even his sunset began at noon. For some mysterious law of human nature, one of the truest, our masterpieces also tend to contain the seed of our corruption. Because if the "talent" we received is great (as was Solomon’s), applying it often takes away our innocence. The beginning of our decline becomes the cost of having completed our most important work - «So Solomon built the temple and completed it» (1 Kings 6,14).

This is why one of the few ways to save something of the purity with which we arrive on earth as children is to not expect to conclude the works that we feel ethically compelled to complete. It is the Shabbat of the heart that can save the other six days and our last day. When we succeed in respecting this special and invisible Shabbat, and do it in mild obedience to an intimate law that has not been written by ourselves, but that we feel is ours and necessary, we do not completely appropriate the gifts we have received and hence do not become masters of our life (the first and foremost chastity, the most arduous and essential one, is towards ourselves which, if practiced, enables us not to devour ourselves).

The most beautiful symphony in life is the one that remains unfinished, our true masterpiece, because it did not turn out in the shape or form we thought and wanted. The most beautiful scientific achievements are those that we have not been able to solve and that we can therefore leave to the young; the most sublime poetry are the verses that arrive to us, like whispers from the soul, many times during many nights and that we have never been able to write down when waking up; it is that word which we have said and reiterated, said and repeated again within ourselves and then, when he or she finally arrived, ended up extinguished in our mouths because of too much pain, thus remaining only a cry or scream - as in Golgotha, when the Logos became mute, and said its masterpiece. All this can simply be called gratuitousness. In Jewish tradition a house must never be entirely completed: some corner of a room must be left unfinished, a few uncovered bricks; to remember the destruction of Jerusalem, but also to remember that life is always incompleteness. On the wedding day, the Jewish bridegroom breaks a glass pitcher with his foot, as if to say that the party must not be complete. Only an imperfect party and an unfinished house can become end-less.

Hence, by joining the school and learning of wisdom we can also understand, the ambivalence that is inherent to the entire biblical theology of the temple. The priestly tradition must and wants to build the temple; while wisdom tells us that its construction reminds Solomon and us that God is greater than his temple, and therefore no temple contains God but only his images, which the Law forbids because in fact we are the only legitimate image of Elohim, created in his "image and likeness": every other image of him is merely a doodle - the anti-idolatrous commandment is primarily anthropological. Paradoxically enough, the religious contamination and idolatry that Solomon will come to know are therefore already implicit in the construction of the temple, inscribed in his masterpiece. Without wisdom we would never understand it. When I begin to build a temple to my God, I am in fact saying, perhaps without being aware of it, that he is just like the gods of all other people, and therefore as trivial as all other idols. Thus, from the point of view of wisdom, starting the construction of the temple is the first step on the road to religious corruption. But the Jews understood this only during the Babylonian exile, when the destruction of that marvellous temple enabled them to understand what the temple really was and what Yahweh truly was. When they found themselves without a temple, without worship and with a defeated God-Yahweh, they also discovered wisdom and never abandoned it again.

And here we find a precious hidden message for every faith and religion. When movements and spiritual communities, founded by following "the one and only voice", begin to build temples and shrines to their founders (physical or ideal), their corruption has already begun. That different breath and that special Covenant become just like all others, that different "god" is now really like all other "idols" from which we wanted to distinguish ourselves when it all started. It is not the founders who make the temples (David), but their children (Solomon). In fact, it is precisely that construction of the temple, understood as the spectacular celebration of the greatness of one's own charism («I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you»: 1 Kings 8,13), that tells us that there is nothing different from other people in their spirit. The great construction decrees the beginning of the end while on the outward everything appears as the pinnacle of success.

The corruption of the individual and collective heart, which begins while we are finally doing what we thought was the most beautiful and greatest purpose we had in life, tells us something very beautiful indeed but also dramatic. That we are greater and more beautiful than the most beautiful and greatest things we can do, because we were created out of love and not for utility, not even to be useful to the Kingdom and its temples. And if there really is a paradise - and there must be, if only for the poor - we will not enter it because of the masterpieces we have built, but for that little piece of non-corrupt soul that we have managed to preserve while we built our most beautiful works; for that corner of the garden in our hearts that we have left free without putting it to earn its use, and not for all the fruit that we have gathered for ourselves and for others; for that one and only reason that we found to go on, not for the ninety-nine that told us to drop everything; for the talent we have safe-guarded, not for the five that we have invested in enriching a "demanding" boss. For that sin that has besmirched and humiliated us and that one day we finally mercifully will accept, not for the virtues that have earned us praises and merits. But this different logic of life can only be taught to us by wisdom.

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