The hand holding the rope

The Dawn of Midnight/3 - Having people more faithful than us by our side is a great gift

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 07/05/2017

170507 Geremia 03 rid"...he went forth into the mountain, where Moses climbed up, and saw the heritage of God. And when Jeremiah came thither, he found an hollow cave, wherein he laid the tabernacle, and the ark, and the altar of incense, and so stopped the door. And some of those that followed him came to mark the way, but they could not find it."

Second Book of the Maccabees

Faithfulness is one of those words that are capable of saying all that there is to say about life. An existence is made up of many words and a lot of things, but if we were to choose only one, faithfulness would be a very strong candidate. Faithfulness is almost everything; faithfulness, perhaps, is everything. Faithfulness to the foundation pacts of our existence, to marriage, our profession, to friendships, to the voice that called us one day by making us start on the greatest journey. It is faithfulness that warms our heart during the winters, that consoles the soul when everything else passes and makes us pronounce our name without shame. It is the most beautiful legacy we leave to our children.

Even if we cannot see it or say it, the world is full of faithfulness. We do not see it, or we do not see it enough, because its most precious part is invisible. We see unfaithfulness, not faithfulness, because it takes place and is done when we could be unfaithful but are not, when we have the 'incentive' for betrayal and instead decide to remain faithful to a pact; when we could chose not to go back - yet we return home faithfully. And we do not tell about it to anyone, because if we did it would lose its charm.

But the Bible, with its infinite human wisdom, speaks to us of unfaithfulness above all: "Lift up your eyes to the bare heights, and see! / Where have you not been ravished? / By the waysides you have sat awaiting lovers... You have polluted the land / with your vile whoredom." (Jeremiah 3:2) And if the Bible speaks to us about unfaithfulness, then we must be able to look deeper into the faithfulness-unfaithfulness binomial, because it may be more complex than we think. The Bible is not afraid to base its argument on man as it is, and call him by name: "Return, faithless Israel... I will not look on you in anger, / for I am merciful"(3:12).

Many of the experiences that appear to us and that we live as unfaithfulness are mysterious exercises to learn the art of living. There is much unfaithfulness inside what appears to be faithfulness, and there is some faithfulness in betrayal, too. One of the most sublime graces of life is to succeed, on an unexpected day, in finding our own unfaithfulness sitting next to us in the kitchen, finally greeting it like our other travel companions and then dining and partying together.

The meeting of two (or more) instances of faithfulness is called alliance or pact. When unfaithfulness takes place within a pact-alliance, it becomes stronger, because the alliance can live and grow even if one of the parties becomes unfaithful. The alliance is a rope, a fides (that is, a faith-trust) that binds people to each other. It's the rope in rock climbing. If one stumbles or gives up, he or she does not fall or sink until the rope holds and until there is someone still well anchored to the rock. There are families, communities, businesses that have been saved because at least one person held on, because one person believed when no one believed in that love story anymore, because one person persisted when everyone else gave in. There is perhaps no greater gift than being able to climb the summit of life with people who are more faithful than us. One can stay in a state of unfaithfulness for years or even for decades without getting lost because another one manages not to give up. Faithfulness, instead, precipitates into the deep when it gets removed from the rope to continue climbing alone. As long as we remain inside a story of alliance, we cannot know how many times we save ourselves because someone next to us is holding us. Even when we do not notice or think that that rope is just a shoelace tying us to the headstock of a prison. Whoever lives and survives the great crises while remaining in an alliance does not know how many times they have not fallen into a precipice just because someone was loyal to them - perhaps by praying, or by meekly accepting the pain. Few people have the gift of discovering the bailouts they had not seen there and then during their lifetime - as these are always more than we could get to know and recognize.

But by their very nature, alliances and pacts are tragic experiences, because even though we can hold on to the rope and not let it go, the other one can also cut it off and fall down. Or else, at other times, the weight of the unfaithfulness of others is so heavy that it pulls us down, too, unless we have the clarity of understanding what is the last moment when we can still cut the rope. We suffer, we suffer much, for our own unfaithfulness, and we suffer, we suffer much for the unfaithfulness of the people to whom we are bound. This is a profound reason for the cult that our civilization has developed around contracts that are much lighter and more tender than pacts and alliances: they are easily cut, but they do not save us from the precipices of life.

The great prophetic principle of the remnant is also valid for faithfulness. Salvation from unfaithfulness can be accomplished as long as there is a remnant, a small part, a sprout, a son alive in us: "I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, / and I will bring you to Zion" (3:14). An alliance story can continue if, during the moments of getting distanced, we were able to remain faithful to something, because there was at least one thing we did well and with faithfulness to the end. There are people who have been saved in situations marked by their own unfaithfulness or that of those to whom they were bound because they were able to save a living remnant in themselves, because they continued to do just one thing for decades: a job, taking care of a relationship or a garden, because they continued to recite the only family prayer they still remembered, faithfully and well. We can save a vocation and a whole life also by caring for a plant on the balcony of the house, which becomes the rope that prevents us from sinking.

After the cases of unfaithfulness, only a remnant comes back. After every betrayal there is a nation that has become smaller, entire chapters of our lives and that of others are forever lost. But the promised land can still be attained if at least one remains alive and faithful, if a piece of the lawn has not been destroyed. Just like with plants. At the end of the race not all the beauties and not all the hopes of youth will reach their destination; many good and nice things are left behind on the way, held up by other things or by others. Sometimes there is only one to finish the race, only one pearl of the gift given to us by the first voice reaches the destination; but what really matters is that a remnant, something of us remains faithful to the first pact. When we were young we wanted a pure, coherent, religious, meek and poor life. When we are grown-ups, we find ourselves in impurity, in inconsistency and with a very frail faith. But if we have remained really poor, or if we have been able to remain meek, we enter the land of Canaan, or at least we get to see it from afar - and then, sometimes, we find that in that poverty to which we have been faithful there were also all the other ideals and beauties we were looking for when we were young but we did not see them anymore because we did not realize that it was only in the 'ugliness' that we could find them as adults.

In the Bible, the Alliance is linked to the image of the ark: the Ark of the Covenant. Moses (Exodus 25) had received the order from God to build it, for keeping the two tables of law in it, together, perhaps, with a gold vase containing the manna and the flourished rod of Aaron (Letter to the Hebrews 9) . The ark resembled Babylonian and above all Egyptian objects, where it was common to build trunks to safeguard their gods and idols, which they carried around in processions during the great festivals. The ark symbolized the Covenant because of the presence of the Tablets in it, the sacrament of the covenant stipulated between JHWH and Moses on Mount Sinai. It was the greatest treasure of the people of Israel.

We find the ark again in Jeremiah's prophecy on Israel's return, having finally become faithful: "And when you have multiplied and been fruitful in the land, in those days, declares the Lord, they shall no more say, »The ark of the covenant of the Lord.« It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again." (3:16).

The ark will not be talked about any more, it will neither be regretted nor reconstructed. After the destruction of the temple of Solomon by the Babylonians (587) there is no sure mention of the ark any more (according to some traditions it was destroyed, according to others it is still buried under the remains of the Temple of Jerusalem, others believe it is in Ethiopia or in a number of other places).

Jeremiah does not mourn the loss of the ark, perhaps because he knows that even the ark, made by God's command, can become an idol. The prophets know that idolatry can touch the heart of true faith, too. If mankind has the tendency to make idols of what is not God, they even more radically seek to transform God into idols. The cases of idolatry with no return are not those of Baal but those of God.  If there were no prophets (or if we did not listen to them), the tabernacles of our churches would become totems, and Jesus our greatest idol.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, in the second temple the former place of the ark was taken by a simple stone, which indicated a void, an absence. As long as the temples and churches can enshrine the absence of God, we may remain alive in his desire and dream. And, maybe one day, we can meet him as we graze a flock, or as we gather the nets, when we set out on a walk, disappointed, to a village. Or when, finally at home, we recognize him in the face of those who have been waiting for us faithfully.

Dedicated to Marco Tecilla, first focolarino

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