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Only the wounded land brings fruit

The Dawn of Midnight/9 - The seed breaks the earth crust, the petals colour the flower field

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 18/06/2017

170618 Geremia 9 ridAlmost all the ideas introduced by Jeremiah in this time period are related to the law; almost all the images he uses are drawn from the same heritage of biblical prophecy - which by then turned secular. All this is but an exercise, a learning process.

André Neher, Jeremiah

“Thus says the Lord to me, »Go and buy a linen loincloth and put it around your waist, and do not dip it in water.« So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it around my waist. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, »Take the loincloth that you have bought (...) go to the Euphrates and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.«” (Jeremiah 13:1-4)

Go. Prophets receive orders from God that are precise, detailed and meticulous. Words that call objects, rivers and stones by name. They are instructions to carry out a special mission, a map for a journey to an unexplored territory, a testamentary execution. A mandate to do, not only to say: the mouth of the prophets is their body. They speak by saying, they speak by doing. They speak with their mouths, with their hands, their feet, their legs and their backs.

Attaining the experience of the truth of the word that speaks to him and the ability to distinguish it from the non-truth of the false prophets is, however, a slow and often long process, which sometimes can take decades or years, perhaps the whole life of a prophet. The flowering of these vocations follows a path marked by precise steps, which the study of the Bible and life can teach us to get to know and recognize.

At the beginning there is a community where the prophet is born, where good and bad people, true and false prophets live. Real communities are always mixed and spurious. A prophetic vocation can only grow and develop inside one or more communities, starting with the first community of the family. Even though nothing speaks of individuality and personal dialogue between two instances of "you” more than prophecy does, even prophecy is a practice, and therefore a social and community affair. Prophets are sent to concrete communities, they are incarnated in the land and in the history of a place and time; their criticism, care and questions are embedded in the daily lives of their own people.

It is within this first community that the first call, the vocation reaches them, which is a fundamental and absolutely individual event. After the vocation, however, we find the community again, sometimes that first one, and at other times a new prophetic community, where the young man gets training, seeking one or more masters, companions of his vocation. The idea that prophets are lonely men who come to the world already trained and perfect to carry out their mission or that they are taught by God only in secret belong to artistic representations or novels, not to historical reality. In the real training of prophets, the voices and words of the Baptist and Ananias are necessary allies of YHWH's voice. You can be born a prophet, you can become a prophet, learning with time to be what you were already in your mother’s womb.

This temporal and diachronic dimension of the prophetic vocation explains why the first chapters in the Book of Jeremiah are not so original, despite some bright lightnings of his genius. Van Gogh learned to draw: he was Van Gogh from the beginning by vocation but still did not know the techniques of painting. In his first brush strokes, his great genius could already be seen, but years had to go by before his masterpieces were made. Jeremiah also learned how to be a prophet, because prophecy is flesh and blood, living amidst humanity’s laws and times. Thus, in the first phase of his activity, as a young prophet, Jeremiah begins to get to know the great Bible prophets who preceded him, studying the Torah, the tradition of the Covenant, the stories of the patriarchs. The young prophet is still finding his own identity and begins to discover his specific profile that he will find in maturity. Therefore, to understand and touch the depth of the prophetic books that take place and are written over time, we must learn to wait, we must accompany the prophet in his growing up. The word grows together with its writers, and we grow together with the prophets if we can wait for them. Prophetic writing is a mother, it is a bride; but it is also the daughter of those who know how to wait while it grows, and ask their questions at the right time, neither before nor after - too many times we find no answers in the Bible because we ask them at the wrong time (kairos), out of time.

The link between the youth and maturity phase of Jeremiah (and prophets in general) is represented by the conflict and emancipation (liberation – the tr.) from the first community. Indeed, as his vocation develops, Jeremiah begins to have doubts not only about his family (chapters 11 and 12), but also about his own prophetic community. The people are oppressed by drought and hunger, and Jeremiah asks God: “Ah, Lord God, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place’” (14:13). We are not yet in the actual battle that Jeremiah will engage in against the false prophets in the successive chapters of his life and his book. His words, however, suggest a young, still confused prophet who finds himself in the community which has brought him up and trained him, the one he trusts, but he asks God about a new inner contrast that he begins to notice. The contrast between the words that are born in him and those he can hear from the other prophets.

This is a crucial stage of prophetic vocations, especially of the greater ones - like that of Jeremiah. We can understand it if we keep in mind that prophecy was also a kind of profession in Israel. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of the nabi (prophets) who went around the country telling their visions, performing bizarre acts, and prophesying about scary and apocalyptic scenarios. They had a typical outfit (e.g. the mantle), and were well-known in the midst of the people and around the temple. Not all these prophets were "false" or impostors. Most of them were merely prophets by profession who merely repeated some verses of Isaiah or Amos, and on the basis of their knowledge of the wisdom of prophetic tradition they also managed to give some good advice or, in any case, to find some listeners and disciples. In the first phase of his life Jeremiah was probably one of these nabi, mingling with many others of whom we no longer have any trace of. One day, however, that already different prophet begins to realize that his words are not like those of his "colleagues", because the things that the voice that speaks to him tells are different from what he can hear from the others: “And the Lord said to me: »The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.«” (14:14) That’s when Jeremiah becomes aware of his being a different prophet. A diversity that in order to acquire all its strength recurs to the words synthesized by the expression false prophecy. Historically, it is difficult to imagine that all the nabi of Jeremiah's time were false prophets, inventors and singers of lies - even though that’s what Jeremiah writes. As in all professions, the good and the bad prophets would live side by side in his time, too.

Here, however, the issue is different and very important. It is not just the Law to play the function of the pedagogue (Saint Paul), which must leave space to the Spirit in adult age. The prophetic community is also a pedagogue, and if it does not know how to disappear when the youngster faces adulthood, it prevents young people from blossoming. At the same time, the community can only counteract this blossoming, like the seed that finds itself to be in contrast to the land that has nurtured it, but if it is not forced and pierced, there will be neither ear (of wheat - the tr.) nor fruit. There is a day, a moment when those who have received a prophetic vocation may feel the urgency of leaving the community of the prophets-by-profession to become something different that he/she does not even know yet. A new and completely different stage starts for them, and almost always they are alone in it. This "flight" often takes the form of a hard judgment on the community, which can assume the same words as Jeremiah: falsehood and lies. In history, the falsehood and lies of the first community are not always real, but they are real in the subjective experience of those who must take on that crazy flight.

That is how great innovations are born, even spiritual ones. A creative destruction that in the prophetic experience takes the form of the "destruction" of the prophecy of others in order to "create" one's own.

All the other fellow prophets of Jeremiah did not feel the need to destroy the words of others simply because they had nothing to create. Great prophetic innovation needs the ruins of tradition to build its own cathedral. This is another analogy between prophecy and charisma: both of them innovate by "destroying" their institutions and their words. But - and this is a decisive problem - alongside a true prophet who destroys in order to create there are a thousand fake ones or buffoons who destroy things and that’s that.

When in a prophetic community a young man gets into a conflict with the words of others to the point of feeling and calling them "false" and "liars", it is possible that we are facing the blossoming of a genuine prophetic vocation. In fact, in order to carry out his task and his mission of salvation he can only destroy and then create, tear up the earth so it can flourish following the law inscribed in its spiritual genetic code.

Many vocations do not blossom and go bad just because there is no way or time for the conflict to generate. The original community doesn’t manage to see the blessing in the wounding of its land, they cannot see it. But the prophet can still blossom if he succeeds in staying in this painful conflict until he settles in it, if he does not give up the temptation to return to the community of the ordinary and harmless nabi. There are too many prophets who cannot blossom because persisting in the state of creative destruction is very painful: “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, / and let them not cease” (14:17). But every time a vocation dies after being submerged, colourful petals disappear from the flower fields of the earth.

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