The living wound that can speak

The Dawn of Midnight/10 - We recognise prophets when they prove to be beggars of light

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 25/06/2017

170625 Geremia 10 ridRabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher, Rabbi Elimelekh, that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbi Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that, too. Later on you don’t see those things any more.’”

Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (English translation by Olga Marx)

The deepest and most intimate experiences are valuable because they are generated and experienced in the unspeakable secret of the heart. They give us a new depth, they make us see a new interior that we did not think we possessed when we started crossing the desert before the night struggle, when we got up early in the morning to go with the firewood and our son up that tremendous mountain.

But we did cross the desert, we did fight with an angel, we went up Mount Moria, and sometimes we found ourselves with a son given to us as a gift, with a new name, in a promised land, or we saw it from afar as our children were entering it. In our decisive experiences, we hear inarticulate sounds and voices that warm and burn us like the sun, soak and bathe us like water, touching, caressing and wounding us. But they do not speak.

The prophets sing their interior and their most intimate experiences to us to make ours speak too. They give us their internal dialogues, words of loneliness and fights, of questions that almost always remain unanswered. They are the great experts of the words of the depths of man and the depths of God, the silences of man and the silences of God. Many people do not believe there is a God somewhere "above the sun" awaiting us at the end of the journey; but nobody can deny that "under the sun" there have been and are some people, the prophets, who have made God speak in the heart of man. We cannot deny that quotation mark of God who is the prophet, because he is a completely human creature, all flesh and blood. We can discuss what or who the "God" they are talking about and the one that makes them talk is, but it is certainly a concrete, vital reality, far from being abstract. When religions lose contact with the God of prophets, they turn into practices that celebrate an abstract God who has stopped talking and is as mute as the idols.

"Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me. "(Jeremiah 15:10).

My mother, mummy. The name of the mother is not uttered in vain. If and when we do it, we violate the first commandment of the primary relations. As a child, "mummy" is the word of life, the one that makes us live. As an adult, and when she is gone, "mummy" is almost always accompanied by "my". (This reasoning works better with the original Italian - “mamma mia” - and cannot be perfectly localised into English - the tr.) Even when it spontaneously blossoms in front of an emotion, if we stop for a moment and look closely at that "mamma mia" we realize that it expresses a visceral feeling like those that surrounded us in and outside of the womb. Sometimes, though, "mamma mia" is the last word that is left for us in the bag of the words of pain and anguish. In prisons, among the condemned to death, in the bed of the last journey, or when even the umpteenth job interview has gone badly when we read the medical report we did not want to see...: "Mamma mia!".

This song-prayer of Jeremiah also begins with the name of the mother, perhaps to return to the origin of his name and vocation. He does not begin his confession with: "My God," but calls his mother instead. He returns to being “woman-born", like everyone else. In times of great crises we all naturally return to our mother, seeking the deepest and truest origin of our own life story. Sometimes we go back to the maternal home, to the places of life before that voice took us away for a fate that we no longer understand. When the second home seems to die and evaporate in the dream and in vanitas, we all return to the motherly house to re-establish ourselves based on something truer, seeking a more radical and true origin of that first vocation. On the day of his calling, Jeremiah felt that the two origins - the natural and the prophetic - were really one (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, / and before you were born I consecrated you” 1:5). Now, on the day of the test, the two origins are separated, and the prophetic one is lost. And the umbilical cord can become the first thread to stitch together a frail life again.

 Prophets are men and women like us; this is always true - but especially when their different sun fades and they remain earthly children of the earth, brothers and sisters of Adam. Not always and not all of us can follow and understand the prophets when they lend their mouth to YHWH, but we can all understand when - naked and poor - they become beggars of light, life, a mother, an origin, just like us. In these moments they take our hand and teach us the profession of living under the skies of everyone.

When he writes and reads these verses publicly, Jeremiah is a grown-up man. He has spent his best years trying to remain faithful to his vocation, he has performed his task with zeal and generosity "I served you as best I could, I turned to you with prayers for my enemy" (15:11 - direct translation from the Italian original - no available English parallel translation of the Bible verse - the tr.). The honest following of his call has made him live a life in solitude ("I did not sit in the company of revellers, / nor did I rejoice; / I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, / for you had filled me with indignation." 15:17), laughed at and hated by his fellow citizens and family, cursed just like and even more than usurpers or insolvent debtors are. He had to announce to his people a fate of destruction and he had to fight the false prophets comforting the illusions. Now he no longer understands that fate that seems sad and deeply unfair to him, and fights with YHWH to the point of accusing him of betrayal: "Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, / like waters that fail?" (15:18). These words could disturb us or appear unlikely and foolish in the Bible - but only if we did not know Job, the nightly ford of the Jabbok River, only if we did not know the prophets, life, faith that sing their most beautiful verses in times of agony, when they struggle with the greatest ideals that have turned into an enemy. And so, in this confession of Jeremiah, too, at the climax of his struggle we find one of his most beautiful verses: “Why is my pain unceasing, / my wound incurable, / refusing to be healed?” (15:18).

We are facing one of the peaks of the self-revelation of the prophetic vocation and therefore of every authentic human vocation - the prophets’ books are extraordinary because they show us a different face of God, but also because they show us a splendid face of man: his ability to respond to a vocation.

Here Jeremiah tells us that vocation is a wound, an always open wound that does not heal over. It tells us that the good voice that one day reveals to us what we have been for ever is also a scalpel that cuts deeply into our soul and our flesh to open our truest nature, to reveal us to ourselves. It is a circumcision of the heart, but it is carried out under the anaesthetic effect of the loving light that calls and seduces us. Then there are years when the work of the surgeon-voice continues and goes deeper, even if everything is only immense happiness: “your words became to me a joy / and the delight of my heart” (15:16). But the effect of anaesthesia goes away gradually, and one day we find ourselves with the bleeding wound only, without understanding the sense of the pain and the wound. What we see is simply a useless wound, a sign without any meaning. A mute sign. That opening of the soul that for so many years has been the place for meeting and dialogue with the voice now appears to be a mere cut that hurts and does not heal.

It is this transformation of the first opening into a wound that marks the beginning of the most fruitful phase of every vocation, of that mysterious and typical generative capacity which is precious and very rare. The prophet is a wound that speaks, a thorn perpetually stuck in his flesh, and each one of them has his sign marked that allows him to teach the word (the Italian verb in-segnare allows for a full illustration of the original idea - the tr.). False prophets, on the other hand, have either never known the time of anaesthesia, or continued to use opiates in order never to reach the actual time of the wound.

In the midst of his struggle with YHWH, Jeremiah has a new encounter with the first voice: “And I will make you to this people / a fortified wall of bronze; / they will fight against you, / but they shall not prevail over you, / for I am with you / to save you and deliver you” (15:20). If we go back to the beginning of his book, we find that Jeremiah recalls the same words of the first day here (1: 18-19). Sometimes in the many agonies of adulthood we may hear the words of the call from our youth, but these words are no longer anaesthetized and they do not heal the wound - even though there are many people with a true prophetic vocation that are blocked: it is because they start a life-long waiting for the balm to cure their wounds when the effect of anaesthesia is gone, forgetting to cure the wounds of others where the only balm is to make their own ones - that are always open - bearable and fertile.

Despite this new inner epiphany, Jeremiah's wound will continue to bleed until the end, and produce some of the most refined and sublime songs of the Bible. Jeremiah's wound could not heal, because that wound was simply him. If it had healed, if he had used the dialogues with YHWH to be consoled and healed, today we would not have those different words to shout and pray with in our fertile fights, we would not have the greatest pages he wrote, we would not have his book. And we would not have understood a fundamental law of the most beautiful vocations: that the dazzling lights of the infancy of the spirit are a loving anaesthesia during the performing of the most important operation in life. That the wound is just the form the first light takes in adulthood. And that from our wound that speaks our most beautiful and true words will flourish.

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