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The Day of the Sons and Daughters

Listening to Life/9 - the blessed certainty that we shall have a land again

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 21/08/2016

Cardo indaco rid"Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please?"

Fedor Dostoevskij, The Brothers Karamazov (English translation by: Constance Garnett)

Gratitude is a rule preceding social grammar. When it is respected and practised there is more joy in life, the ties are firm, the offices and factories are humanized, we all become nicer. But in the human heart there is only a deep desire to be thanked, seen, recognized for what we are and what we do. There is also another profound need: that of saying thanks. We suffer a lot when we do not receive recognition; and we suffer in a different way but no less if and when we have no one to say thank you to.

This gratitude is like respect: we do not just want to be respected by others, we also want to be able to be able to pay respect to the people with whom we live. Human existence flourishes when both demand and the offer of gratitude (and respect) increase over the years, until the last day when we close our eyes pronouncing the last 'thank you' - which will be the most authentic, the most beautiful one we say.

"And the Lord will utterly destroy / the tongue of the Sea of Egypt, / and will wave his hand over the River / with his scorching breath, / and strike it into seven channels, / and he will lead people across in sandals. / And there will be a highway from Assyria / for the remnant that remains of his people, / as there was for Israel / when they came up from the land of Egypt." (Isaiah 11,15-16). This verse that concludes Isaiah's cycle of 'messianic peace' tells us something very important about the relationship between memory, promise and future, typical of the entire biblical humanism. After announcing the Immanuel and a cosmic promise of peace which is greater than the first (chapters 7-11) Isaiah ends this great cycle with a memory. He makes us return to the founding event of Israel: to Egypt, to the crossing of the sea, the end of slavery, the beginning of freedom, to Moses. The first great collective liberation becomes the point of departure in observing the present and the future of his people and humanity. He returns there to have faith in the future again. The exodus from Egypt is not something that belongs to the past. It is a deposit on the future: if liberation took place once, then it can happen again. So it will happen: 'It will happen again because 'it has happened already'.

The first word of the Decalogue is a memory: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’” (Exodus 20:1-2). Shema' Israel: listen, that is, remember. "My father was a wandering Aramean" (Deut 26:5). In the Bible, listening is the same as remembering. It is an activity, it is the collective exercise of memory. It is listening to the voice of the spirit and listening to the voice of the prophets, who by vocation are responsible for establishing the link between memory and promise. The same task befalls the charismas, which are the continuation of biblical prophecy.

This is the vision of history in the Bible. We have betrayed it whenever we decided that only the present is real and true, that the past is dead forever, and the future is a bet entrusted to the forecasts of financial analysts or horoscopes. The Bible, however, is a formidable continuous exercise of a living memory capable of a future. The prophets take us back into the past to surprise us with a meeting with a promise of the future. And so the memory immediately becomes a look forward. It is anti-nostalgia, because what it makes us remember is not a past that no longer exists. The past is desire and hope instead.

From this perspective, people and communities are like plants. We live on roots and on the light of heaven, memory and promise. Roots need water, salt and minerals. These make the raw sap develop green leaves, that process and return it nourishing the whole plant with its roots. A tree does not grow in height and extension unless its roots grow and develop, and are fed by their typical food which is different from that of the crown. Even the roots of our personal and collective history are in need of facts and specific, different words. They do not need light, but the refined sap from leaves. If we expose the roots to the sun to be able to examine them better - as some naive scientists sometimes do - we collect little and wrong knowledge about the life of the roots. The roots can be understood in their own, dark environment, because they can be seen in their own way, without eyes. They roots of our individual and communal identity today are not being fed by reinterpreting the past but by illuminating the present of a real future.

Isaiah (chapter 11) has already told us that the first nourishment of the root is announcing an even greater promise than the one before: wolves together with lambs, kids friends of vipers. This is always true, but it is an absolute and decisive factor in communities created by faith in a promise. These 'plants' are very delicate, and only skilled gardeners can keep them alive and take care of them. There is nothing better than a great, non-vain promise of future to feed the memory. When the plant begins to wilt and suffer, the crisis may be a consequence of little or too much light, but also of the arid and exhausted soil that no longer nourishes the roots. If there is no water it does not help to move the vessel from the living room to the sunny balcony, because it only accelerates the process of dying.

When communities and charismatic and ideal-driven movements begin to wilt, the disease is sometimes caused by the light, sometimes by the soil. It often fades because of little light, or for the lack of someone (prophets) capable of telling great stories of the future at least like the first of the fathers, to shed new light to the new generations and to warm the cooled hearts of the first ones. It may also wither, however, because of too much light, when in order to give enthusiasm to the people false promises are constructed using neon lights after the sun sets, feeding of the doping of mystics and visionaries, losing contact with the poor and with the simple words of life and the earth. This artificial light dries the leaves and soon the roots, too. But the withering can also come from a lack or wrong type of nourishment of the roots, by a missing or bad exercise of memory and identity. From little water, when memory and identity are forgotten and not cultivated; or from too much water, when history and identity become the first and only concern, and so the whole plant dies because of the drowning of the roots. The great crises come because of the loss of roots or the lack of sun (or both). We stay alive and grow until we are able to keep both the roots and light, a beautiful story of our origin with an even more beautiful story of our fate.

Only then can we understand something that touches the heart of Isaiah's prophecy.

It is said that the book of Isaiah is the book of faith. After these first chapters, the first word that comes to us like the morning star is hope. The development of this scroll is also opening up the logic of biblical hope to us. A hope that today we no longer understand, because we have lost contact with the biblical spirit and with his wisdom relationship with time. Biblical hope is always a historical hope, not postponed to an eschaton after history. We should not think that the universal peace of Chapter 11 of Isaiah is referring to our paradise: its only possible paradise is what we are able to build on earth, which is the only place where YHWH lives and works. His eschaton is the vocation, the fulfilment, the fullness (pleroma) of human history and that of the earth: it is the last day of it, not the day after

This is the hope kept through the generations, passed down from father to son. Like faith. The man of the Bible can believe because his ancestors believed. His faith is faith in JWHW and it is faith in the faith of the fathers. It is tradition. Our fathers founded the faith, but our hope rests the fulfilment of the promise in the days of the children. We are in exile, but we know - we hope, we believe - that our children will have a land again. Hope can be just the name of the child: 'a remnant shall return, Seariasùb' (Isaiah 7). For biblical hope a people is needed, so is the faith of the fathers and mothers, and hoping for the sons and daughters. When this height and this depth is not there we end up bartering hope with optimism or with the 'positive thinking' techniques sold by the business schools.

It is within this horizon of faith-hope that we can also understand the biblical sense of praise, gratitude and thanksgiving that Isaiah puts to crown the first part of his book. He spoke of the vineyard, told of his vocation and failure, he gave us the prophecy about the Immanuel and the young woman, he promised us a new creation of peace. The last editor of his scroll wanted to seal these prophecies with praise, with thanks and gratitude. While we are in exile, believing that a remnant shall return, while we hope for our children, we can already give praise and thanks. Those who have children know this. The return is not there yet, but we hope-believe that it will come 'in that day'. So there can already be praise-gratitude. We can, we have to thank now already in sight of that day. And it is not the prayer of supplication, it can only be prayer of gratitude. Because the most beautiful and true praise is the one that arises in exile to thank for a liberation that is not for us because it's greater than us: "You will say in that day: / “I will give thanks to you, O Lord... / Behold, God is my salvation; / I will trust, and will not be afraid; / for the Lord God is my strength and my song, / and he has become my salvation” With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation." (12:1-3)

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