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The «Laudato si'» of the prophet

Listening to Life/16 - Straightening backs, liberating slaves, controlling machines

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 09/10/2016

Lago Albano rid"Inspiration. It's just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don't understand yourself. When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits."

Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel lecture, 1996

The illusion that salvation is brought about by the powerful, the pharaohs or the empires has always been a radical and very strong temptation for people, communities, for each and every one of us. When distress grows in us and discouragement nears us, when despair casts its increasingly long and menacing shadow over our days and we start to prefer the night in order not to see it, the temptation of seeking out a powerful person to beg them for our salvation immediately arises, with increasing insistence.

And so does disappointment, too, which was already present while we were desperately crying out for help for a last time, but preferred to delude ourselves in order to live a little longer. As our friends who are willing to drain their bank account just to pretend that the latest experimental treatment that's not part of the protocol can save them. Blessed are those who have at least one friend who saves them from these illusions and gives them their fraternity as a last true Viaticum. These friends are prophets who can save us from these great illusions, but are unheard, because the leaders, the people, we still prefer illusions to the truth: "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help / and rely on horses, / who trust in chariots because they are many / and in horsemen because they are very strong, / but do not look to the Holy One of Israel..." (Isaiah 31:1)

The first gift that those who believe in the Bible's promise have is protection from the illusion of trusting in empires for their own salvation. Learning to say 'you are not God' to the great ones of the earth, the powerful of our communities and businesses, is the great teaching of the prophets, of which there is an extreme need in our time, where the expulsion of God has produced an invasion of 'suitors' competing with each other to take his place. All eliminations of God have always generated a multitude of false gods, who are eager to declare his death just to replace him. They prefer an artificial and skimpy little paradise to the real one, if only to look a little bit like that God whom they claimed to hate so much. We do not understand the meaning of the disobedience of Genesis (chapter 3) if we do not take seriously that 'you will be like God'. The prophets are the anti-snake, because they do not deceive us by promising us to become divine, but give us the antidote to the poison of false promise - that snake is also an image of every false prophecy. The prophetic principle is therefore also the Marian principle, and vice versa. Even if almost all the biblical prophets are unmasked, there is a profound harmony between prophecy and charismatic female genius: their word begets life, it sees and announces the advent of children, it cries and consoles. When communities lack the prophetic dimension, the feminine one also disappears from them, hierarchy becomes pure power management and the law devours the spirit.

We have not stressed enough the importance of the spirit (ruah) in the vocation and mission of the prophets. The 'gap' between mind and inspiration, between the self and its surplus has been called spirit by many cultures; some have attributed a divine origin to it. Christianity, at the height of biblical revelation, made it such a concrete experience so as to call it a person.

Prophets are experts and masters of the action of the spirit in the world. They know it, they know that the universe is at work every day. They feel it active and life-giving inside themselves, as a sweet guest of the soul. The spirit is the voice that inspires, guides, calls, encourages and comforts them. Sometimes they can doubt that YHWH is at work in the world, if he is awake and not 'asleep', if he is angry at and turned away from the earth; but as long as they remain prophets they cannot deny to be inhabited by the spirit, which does not coincide with their intelligence and creativity and is not something they produced. It is a fire that burns and the wood is not theirs. It is a completely intimate presence that's clearly distinguished from their soul. They recognize it, listen to it and obey it, as long as they remain prophets.

There are prophets who lost faith for years, decades, but no prophet can lose this relationship with the spirit that inhabits them, because it is part of their nature and vocation. They may perhaps forget his name and ask him to stop talking to them inside in the nights of the soul, but they can never doubt of this existence. They can become blind to see God, they may not see him again for a long time, but they cannot become deaf to the spirit. It is the spirit that saves the faith of the prophet. Except for the first meeting with the voice, in time God gets distanced, he tends to evaporate. The spirit, however, grows and feeds the prophet. When prophets receive their vocation, they get associated with YHWH, they pass onto his side. They do not see him in front of them anymore because he is next to them, at their side, inside them. We do not understand prophecy if we do not enter into this great mystery, that of the one who speaks in the name of a voice that they do not see but which guides them inside. Biblical prophets know, or hope, that he who speaks in their soul is the spirit of YHWH, but the world has always been populated by other true prophets that gave other names to that voice, and they often did not and do not know that they are the friends of Isaiah. They are aware that there is a voice that inhabits them, and if they are honest they know that that something that speaks and calls within them is something other than them.

Prophets end their function (think of Jeremiah) when they do not feel this presence in them anymore, when the spirit leaves them and does not speak to them and does not make them speak anymore. They can last long without remembering the features of the first voice, but they no longer remain prophets when this internal voice dries up. This is the only way their song can end, when they feel that their job is over, that they have not been masters of the voice, which has been all gratuitousness.

The prophets speak little about the spirit, because it is an intimacy for them, to which they are a secret tabernacle. But when they manage to give words to what dwells in their hearts, they give us the most beautiful verses: "...until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, / and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, / and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. / Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, / and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. / And the effect of righteousness will be peace, / and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever." (32:15-17) Only when the spiritual breath the prophet received inside as a dowry of their vocation will become the breath of the people, when it will not be just the voice of the heart of a few people but come down from above and fill the earth, only then will justice, freedom, happiness and peace be the permanent condition of humanity and of all creation. It is a day that's still very far away, but the inner experience of the prophet is the deposit of the advent of that day of cosmic bliss: "Happy are you who sow beside all waters, / who let the feet of the ox and the donkey range free." (32:20)

A bliss that will include human labour, and our relationship with animals. Giving voice to the deeper biblical soul, Isaiah Profeta Isaia Raffaello rid is aware that the subordination of animals to our yokes is an imperfect condition, due to the hardness of the land, of labour, and people's hearts. The fields fertilized by the generosity of the silt of the Nile and the great rivers of Babylon are too rare. In all others, the wheat grows by the sweat of foreheads, by slave labour, by the subjugation of animals. In the fields outside of Eden, the fruit of the land does not, in general, come from industrious friendship and spontaneous reciprocity between Adam, the soil and the animals. The donkey that becomes the instrument of production is not the vocation of the wild ass running free in the mountains, the yoke of the ox may not be its first or only life: they are not in the world only to serve us. They have value in themselves: they are a 'good thing' arrived on earth before us, to keep company to their creator. No creature has dignity if it is only practical for man. And their backs, bent and broken from work, let alone those of the slaves released from the strain by their masters - this cannot be the fate of the earth. This is the great message of the Shabbat, which is not a free oasis in a world of enslaved people and animals, but a sign and prophecy of our truest vocation. Isaiah knows, he tells us, reminds us and invites us to build days that are always closer to his Sabbath. Today we would have all the resources and all the technology to straighten the back of the workers, to free the slaves, to let 'oxen and donkeys' free, and instead, backs are still broken, slaves increase in number, the animals are still used, or, which is a no less serious error, idolized. Technology, instead of freeing us from the ancient servitude, threatens to enslave us to machines that are gradually becoming the masters of our soul, our time, our relationships and the devourers of our silence. And, from the heart of our day, the Bible continues to remind us that 'in the beginning it was not so', and therefore 'the day will come' when it is not so any longer. The prophets are certain of this. We can at least hope for it, actively awaiting that day when the 'spirit will descend from above'. And over the time that goes from 'our day' to 'that day' we can recognize the voice of the spirit in the mouths of the prophets.  

Isaiah began his book by contrasting the rebellion and disobedience of the people to the docility and meekness of the ox and the donkey ("The ox knows its owner, / and the donkey its master's crib"; 1:3). His whole book is populated by animals - they are the protagonists of his most beautiful verses. Now, after the lament about the destroyed cities, the apocalypse, the songs of the watchman and the rejected stone, here come these two animals again. Two docile animals that the Christian tradition placed as companions in the most beautiful night of history. But they were not bound to a yoke, nor did they have to carry a burden on their backs. They were donated to us resting by a manger, donating their breath (ruah) to warm a newborn baby and its mother. In that cave the whole Bible was there, there was Isaiah with his promise of another day, another work, another relationship with the creation - a fraternal one, at last. Laudato sii.

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