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Words that are capable of reconstruction

Listening to Life/3 - Sounds and Colours in the Song and Tears of the Prophets

By Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire  on 10/07/2016

Spighe di grano rid“Segovia said that the interpreter against the piece of music is like Jesus raising Lazarus: the interpreter brings it back to life. If I do not make it alive again, the piece remains dead.”

Piero Bonaguri, The Segovian Teaching (rough translation from the Italian original)

Authentic religious experience is a gift for everyone, even those for whom faith does not have it, or it has it in a different way. Outside of this free gift, there is only barbarism, idolatry, self-deception, emotional consumerism and the pursuit of power and money. In our time of deep crisis of religions and faiths, we must return to speaking well of the religious spirit, of talking about it using good words, of blessing it through our words (cf. bene-diction, bene meaning good/well). It is only the good spirituality that can cure the diseases and perversions of religion.

The world without faiths and religions would only be an infinitely poorer place. We would lose a lot of words to tell the most beautiful things in our lives. Those distilled in special alembic located in the best part of the human soul, which is activated when it feels the need to look up to search for the deep sense of the world, life and death - or at least to try to. Our culture has already cancelled many of these words, because with all their institutions and cults religions are almost never up to the best part of man. They almost always end up taking possession of the person's natural spiritual calling, promising heavens they do not possess, cheap salvations in seasonal sales, promises way too trivial to be true. Many of our most beautiful and great words granted to us by faiths have been debased and sometimes destroyed by religions themselves, for lack of generosity, selflessness and grace, and because the prophets are not listened to.

This is the first meaning of that universality which, with its contradictions, is the source of inspiration for biblical humanism: "It shall come to pass in the latter days / that the mountain of the house of the Lord / shall be established as the highest of the mountains, / and shall be lifted up above the hills; / and all the nations shall flow to it, / and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord...that he may teach us his ways / and that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2,2-3). You do not go up to the "mountain of the Lord" to become devotees of the temple masters, but to learn the "ways and paths" of life. The prophets know that religions become anti-humanism when they begin to count the steps within their temples, to hold censuses, to want a salvation only of their own against that of others, when they forget that the revelation (torah) is a good that can only be enjoyed together with everyone and in harmony (2.4).

It is within this universal embrace of the earth that does not exclude anyone, in this broad and benevolent gaze, that one of the most beautiful surprises embedded in the book of Isaiah reaches to us. And like a rainbow in the sky that's still dark, we come across a shining jewel of human literature: "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, / and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, / neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2.4). And here we should just keep quiet, or simply pray. Isaiah lived in a very different world, where the work tools were transformed into weapons of war ( "Beat your plowshares into swords, / and your pruning hooks into spears;" Joel 4,10). But one day he saw something else, and he wrote it. He wrote what he did not see, and he did it so that today we should be able to read it. The prophet is a voice that sees even the deepest Isaiah ONU 300desires, the vocation of humanity still unexpressed. And it gives it to us saying it, so that we too may become what we are not yet. How beautiful was the inspiration of those who wanted to put these words of Isaiah on the wall opposite the UN building in New York. The words of the prophets are great because they are in-finite, unfinished. They are always in front of us, as a constant call to do everything possible to make them become a bit more of history, life and flesh.

In the world that Isaiah had in front of himself, the corruption of the leaders of the people, with their idolatrous cults and then the abandonment of the poor produced (as they continue to produce today) famine and misery for all. All "support and supply, / all support of bread, / and all support of water; / the mighty man and the soldier, / the judge and the prophet, / the diviner and the elder, / the captain of fifty / and the man of rank, / the counsellor and the skilful magician / and the expert in charms" (3,1-3) all disappear from the country. Soothsayers and bad advisers disappear, but above all, sages and prophets disappear. To remain, at best, are only the gangs of young unable men: "And I will make boys their princes, / and infants shall rule over them." (3,4) When people go astray and lose the golden thread of wisdom that generated (almost always in great pain and too much blood) agreements, constitutions, ethics and good laws, they sink into the deepest traps of poverty, they end up in vicious and perverse circles. Famines and the great crises are at first the result of not listening to the prophets and honest people, and then in turn they generate the flight and expulsion of the prophets and wise men.

The best men and women are no longer attracted by the beautiful craft of politics, and thus leave an open road to those who seek power only for personal or partial interests. And the vicious circle closes, the trap becomes perfect. In severe cases - such as those described here by Isaiah - the crisis is so deep and widespread that it keeps even criminals away from roles in the government, since there is nothing left to rob and divide up if not a "heap of ruins": “For a man will take hold of his brother / in the house of his father, saying: »You have a cloak; / you shall be our leader, / and this heap of ruins / shall be under your rule«; in that day he will speak out, saying: »I will not be a healer; / in my house there is neither bread nor cloak; you shall not make me / leader of the people.«” (3,6-7). Only the jackals remain: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, / the spoil of the poor is in your houses.”(3,14).

And it is at this point, when civil hope is gone that the prophet is left with only his song, his prayer of lament over his people: "O my people, your guides mislead you / and they have swallowed up the course of your paths" (3,12). The people becomes “my people”. Of God and of Isaiah. This is also the job of the prophet, being able to weep for the destruction of their own people, the communities, the individual persons, for our own ruin, for yours and mine. Even when God is heard, when his words of invitation to repentance and conversion are held for unexpected and offensive, the prophet has one last resource: he can still cry for his people.

He can sing his song of lament; he can mix his tears with those of the crushed people. And sometimes, in history, the miracle happened, too: when someone picked up the tears and the cry of the prophets, more than their words. There is no more powerful word than a cry: Golgotha will always be a reminder of this. It happened when after the wars and the periods of great collective madness, a few women and men, sometimes only one, could feel a vocation in those tears, laments and cries. And they started to rebuild cities, communities, businesses, entire countries. When they did, Isaiah was there on their side, even though they did not know it. Solidarity of tears is a very high form of love. It is typical of the prophets, but it's also there in the experience of artists, poets, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and many women and men who continue to accompany the ruins of the others only with tears, after having exhausted every other resource. Much poetry and literature - even what remained hidden in diaries and letters - is a constant and profound exercise of the solidarity of weeping and lament. A great gift of true art is being able to see the victims of history, real or created by their genius (and so just as real); and then approach them, really look at them, become their travelling companion both in their journey and tears. By "seeing" Cosette and Jean Valjean, Renzo and Lucia, Victor Hugo and Alessandro Manzoni made us see the miserable ones of the earth better and more. The creation of their characters has given us new words to understand the victims around and in us, and sometimes to love them more.

This generative gaze of great artists, when it is honest and born in pain (and this is why it is very rare), does not love the world less than those who serve it by tending to and serving their family members, friends and patients every day. These are different kinds of love, but all are precious and essential in bringing closer the fulfilment of the words of the prophets, or at least the possibility thereof. That's why the prophets have an immense need for us, because they have an eternal need of our hands and hearts, of the pen and soul of artists. There is a friendship between the truest words on earth. They are all holy and profane at the same time. We would not have the moral tools to really understand the words of the prophets, Job and Jesus, without the many poets and artists who have broadened the repertoire of the soul of the world through their charismas, making us capable of hearing ultrasounds and broadening the spectrum of visible colours for our soul's eye.

Tomorrow, in a hundred or a thousand years, humans will be able to understand the ancient biblical words better and more thanks to the new artists, philosophers, spiritual women and men, who continue to donate words, sounds and colours. The sounds and the colours of the prophets will go out only when the last man ceases to give his voice to their word. But the Bible will always be reborn on the day someone recognizes their own burning bush in that of Moses, reads their own name in that of Adam, or identifies themselves with Noah when in the midst of the flood of their own time they begin to build an ark of salvation. And they will also begin to tell this story to someone who will listen to them.

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