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The civilization of the stork

The soul and the harp/22 - Like God, we too, at least once, can love those who do not deserve it

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 30/08/2020

«Priests cannot accept gifts», said Don Paolo. The woman protested: «Then it will not apply», she said. «If you do not accept the hen, grace will not apply, and the child will be born blind». «Grace is free», said Don Paolo. «Free grace does not exist», the woman replied.

Ignazio Silone, Wine and bread (Vino e pane)

The Bible teaches us to be grateful, for the salvation we receive, entirely free and not given to us due to our merits.

Gratitude is an essential word. It is the first word in our family, in our communities, less so in modern businesses, where gratitude with its closely related words recognition and thankfulness does not find the space it deserves because of its fragility. Gratitude - from gratia, charis - is very closely linked to "thank you", an expression we learn from our parents as children and which from then on never leaves our relationships again. Even those "thank you" that we say, several times a day, out of respect for social norms, bear at least some trace of gratitude, which however is more fully manifested in other "thank you", those that we expect and desire, not those that are demanded or claimed. They are the decisive ones in our most important relationships, those delicate signs of gratitude, more feminine than masculine in nature, more whispered than spoken, which appear in the crucial moments of our life. That thank you from that colleague on the last day of work, both identical and yet different from all the others, written on that note with the farewell gift. That "thank you" from the student who struggled the most, who on the last day of school leaves you a post-it on the desk, saying "Thank you Professor". Or the one on the day of leaving our home, to follow a voice, that we were unable to tell our parents because it was left stuck in our throat, and which then many years later we discovered to be similar to those ineffable signs of gratitude that are whispered every day at our bedside.

The beauty and drama of this gratitude lies in its gratuitousness. Not being a contract, gratitude only has value when it is gratuitous (gratitude and gratuity are almost the same word). However, it also contains an aspect of duty and obligation. Because, if on the one hand the most precious qualities of gratitude are freedom and giving freely, on the other hand there are some forms of gratitude that, when they are missing, help to generate ingratitude, one of the strongest passions and bearers of suffering. Gratitude is in fact a form of reciprocity (of thank-fulness, of re-cognition), and hence, it includes an aspect of restituting something that you have already obtained. The presence of ingratitude alongside gratitude makes giving thanks a complex experience. Because with gratitude, we are at the center of the semantic paradox of gift and reciprocity, and therefore of those emotions and actions that are an intertwining of expectations and demands, freedom and obligation, between what is free and what is dutiful. We cannot demand that our next-door neighbor invites us over to say thank you for the plants that we watered for her during many summers in the past, before moving, yet if she does not, we will not be happy, and that lack of gratitude will ruin something important in that relationship. And perhaps there are very few adjectives that hurt us more than "ungrateful", especially when pronounced by the people we care about.

As it is true that we truly know and recognize people only at the end of a relationship, when their capacity for gratitude is truly manifested - sometimes even extending beyond life. It always strikes a chord with me to see the grateful fidelity of many and above all many women who for years, decades, look after the graves of their loved ones. We suffer a lot from ingratitude, also because there is a tendency in everyone to overestimate their credit of gratitude towards others (and hence to also underestimate their debt), and so we are accompanied by a constant feeling of not being thanked enough. Gratitude, then, is a feeling that needs time and duration. It is only born within stable and lasting relationships. It manifests itself today while maturing yesterday, and is therefore an exercise in memory: it is while remembering what you have been for me that gratitude now is born in my heart. This is why the icon that accompanied the depiction of gratitude in classical antiquity was the stork, because its legendary reputation for taking care of parents who had become old.

The Bible teaches us to cultivate and express our gratitude towards God too: «Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever» (Psalm 107,1). The community of believers is also a community of the grateful, because it is a community of the saved. Psalm 107 is in fact a hymn of thanksgiving (there are many in the Psalter) that comes from the experience of salvation. There are four paradigms of salvation in the psalm: salvation from on hunger and thirst: «Some wandered in desert wastelands... They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away» (Psalm 107,4-5), salvation from prison: «Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness, prisoners suffering in iron chains… and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness… and cut through bars of iron» (Psalm 107,10-16), from fatal diseases: «They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress» (Psalm 107,18-19), from the dangers of the sea: «Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters… He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed» (Psalm 107,23-29). And after each and every scene, a verse of gratitude is repeated four times: «Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind» (Psalm 107,15). It is the concrete experience of salvation that generates thanksgiving, which in turn makes gratitude flourish. A concrete salvation, from the evils of the body, which recalls the salvation by the historical Jesus, who while announcing a spiritual salvation freed people from concrete evils, by feeding and healing them. The salvation that produces gratitude is always punctual; it is always a question of concrete, actual resurrection.

Salvation, a decisive word if any in the Bible and later in Christianity, and closely related to the paradoxical dynamic of gratitude. On the one hand, on the side of God, it is all gift, and cannot be explained within the context of conditionality, of do-ut-des. No, we are just saved and that is it. Salvation is not something we can earn by way of our virtues and merits - perhaps by crying out: «Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress» (Psalm 107,13). Salvation is a response to a cry or calling out, but it is not a response to an action that justifies it: crying out is an expression of faith, and the justification for that salvation is faith (here we can clearly see, among other things, how much the theology of St. Paul was anchored in the Old Testament). However, it is also very beautiful and consoling that the saved men in this entire Psalm are not the people of Israel, they are not the elect: they are just men and that is it. This salvation is universal: it is enough to shout out - and perhaps we do not do it enough. At the same time, the Bible asks the saved for gratitude, inviting them to thank God for their salvation. Herein lies another great meaning of prayer: we do not only pray (or pray a lot) to obtain salvation (the biblical cry is a strange form of prayer), but we should pray above all to give thanks. Jesus himself shows that he is sensitive to both gratitude and ingratitude. People have often learned to pray precisely to say thank you: they do not ask for anything, then experience salvation, and give thanks. And from that thanksgiving prayer is born. The most beautiful birth of them all, completely free, freed from any residue of commercial faith.

It is difficult to remain in a state of gratitude, it is difficult to remain in the condition of one who gives thanks because he knows that what he possesses is all a gift, that the salvation he experiences every day is completely gratuitous. It is especially difficult for men of faith. Because, once salvation has been experienced and gratitude learned, the need and want to deserve and earn future salvation arises progressively and naturally in men (less so in women), in order to feel that there is also something of our own in the salvation that comes to us every morning. That we also contributed to it, that there is a share of co-financing in that mortgage of infinite value that is being offered to us, that we deserved that mercy, that faithful love (hesed) if only just a little. Thus, the experience of "being saved" is transformed little by little and without realizing it, into "saving oneself". And every time that saving ourselves steals ground from under the feet of being saved, the value of gratitude inevitably is being reduced.

It is human, it is very human. Because we men do not like to depend entirely on the gratuitousness of others, we like to earn our salvation with the sweat of our hard work and our merits, we too love that reciprocity where we alternate between the motion of giving and receiving. In part because we have also seen how much injustice the lack of reciprocity produces, how much inequality, how many poor people there are who are kept in a condition of perennial subjection due to depending entirely on their masters. The idea of ​​a God who gives us everything and on whom we totally depend has also produced a political-economic theology that has certainly not helped the poor to free themselves from their condition of inferiority, and a wrong, one-way and obligatory gratitude, which has left infinite suffering all over Europe and the world. The salvation of the people also turned into a question of saving them from theologies that were using a certain idea of ​​God to legitimize profoundly unjust structures of power, by making them sacred, Hence, the wonderful civil, economic and political movement that in recent centuries has worked to link the rights to nature or to an original egalitarian social pact, and salaries to the concept of work.

And while this great ethical movement of the people was taking place, and continues to unfold, the Bible is still there, faithful to itself, to remind us that these logics, essential and blessed in inter-human relationships, should not be applied to God, who instead should be held above our merits. Because if there is no principle of absolute gratuitousness in the foundation of our life to remind us that before and after merits there is an infinite gift, every meritocracy runs the very real risk of becoming a dictatorship of the strong over the weak. The biblical God does not love us because we deserve it - or because we deserve it more than others do - but because we are, simply, his sons and daughters, and son ship is not a meritocratic relationship, despite the protests of the elder son in the parable. We have to be thankful, this is our duty, but our saying thank you today is not the meritorious pre-condition for being saved tomorrow: God would still save us even if we were ungrateful. Knowing and remembering this absolute gratuitousness of God tells us, then, that somewhere in our being, made in his image, we are greater than reciprocity, and we too, at least once, can love those who do not deserve it, we too can love an ungrateful person.

The stork is also the one who brings us our children. The civilizations of the stork are those that have been able to keep up and combine the gratitude towards the elderly with the love for the children. The Fourth Commandment, which associates honoring the father and mother with the "prolongation of our days on earth", knew this very well. Only children know how to extend our lives.

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