Yosemite National Park. Via Wikimedia Commons

A Vacation Is Forever Living Is Belonging

About a hundred American university students vacationed in California’s Yosemite National Park. They experienced a bond stronger than any limit, and discovered a human reality that does not disappoint because it bears the meaning of everything.
Giorgio Vittadini

On the movie screen of Delta flight 7748 from Milan to New York, the film Along Came Polly was aired, an enjoyable comedy with Jennifer Aniston on the instability of marriages and bonds among young people. The second film was a bit more challenging: Mona Lisa Smile, almost a feminine version of Sieze the Day. It’s the 1950s, and a splendid Julia Roberts teaches art at a women’s college for the well-off, where she tears down the middle-class idea of marriage as a girl’s only goal in life. A career is better. Obviously, she’s fired, but remains a heroine. I realized in these viewings that the best actresses are employed to demonstrate one of the faces of the country that is the motherland of endless freedom and endless opportunities, but where bonds, even those of love between men and women, fathers and sons, are hard to maintain. This is the experience of a good number of the university students who await me in Midpines, California, for the week we will spend together. In many cases, their parents are separated, and their families have dissolved. What, then, is the value of these days passed together, while young people of their same age are dying in Iraq? We’ll find out a bit at a time as the vacation unfolds.

When we arrive in San Francisco from New York, I see eight young people playing frizbee in the airport parking lot. It is the little group of university students from Evansville, Indiana. One of them is barefoot. I recognize Emily, a recent graduate, one of the first followers of Mike Eppler, who came to La Thuile, Italy, last year. “None of them wanted to come,” she explained. “For them, vacation means going ten miles, at the most. I was the one who convinced them. I want them to discover that the Movement is bigger than the Evansville community.”

An anomalous fact
One hundred miles by car and we reach our destination, Yosemite National Park, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s enchanting: wild, uncontaminated nature, with forests of centuries-old sequoia and oak, waterfalls… well, the goal for anyone who wants to get away from chaotic life and immerse himself in nature.

The hotel isn’t exactly deluxe, but to immerse yourself in nature you have to sacrifice a few comforts. On our first hike, we drive an hour, then hike an hour, until we reach the center of a huge amphitheater of mountains. It’s gorgeous. We stop, eat, and, immediately, all the kids get involved in singing our songs.

Their openness to following the choir director, to being amazed at the beauty of the mountains, and to moving in an orderly fashion is truly impressive. The first thing that is striking about this vacation is the simplicity, full of question, of these young people. On the way back, Thomas, a German biology student at Yale, approaches me and says, “A month ago I heard a conference by your Italian friend, Rondoni. He struck me. Stella was with him. I wanted to meet her. We became friends and she invited me to the vacation.” After a moment of silence he resumes: “I’m studying the genome and in a few days I’ll transfer to Dresden. How can I understand if something is true for me?” As we descend through the woods, a vivacious discussion arises that involves, one after the other, more young people. For that matter, the vacation is full of spontaneous clusterings–around Chris, Albacete, Tommy, and me–in which people talk about the Movement, how they live life at the university, how to face life, studies…

The second hike is much longer. The landscape is stupendous and the walk winds along a series of waterfalls. After such a long trek, the idea of having scheduled Chris to read Dante, presenting Casella, Beatrice, and Saint Bernard, seems a bit out of place, to me. But instead, as soon as Chris opens his mouth until he finishes his presentation, he is surrounded by a religious silence. Dante is something new for all of them. In the schools, there is an emphasis on factual information that leaves the students little time for the experience of beauty.

The next day, during the assembly, Evelyn, a Malayan, speaks. “This is all very interesting, but in Malaysia, Dante is unknown and they don’t even know what the religious sense is. How can I know what CL is?” She hasn’t even stopped speaking when a hand goes up. It’s Annie, a Nigerian philosophy student in Washington. “No, no, don’t worry. My friends didn’t know about Dante either, so I told them about him. Go and live what you’ve met, and the rest will happen by itself. You just have to have certainty.” The discovery of beauty is the second characteristic of this vacation–not just the beauty of nature but, above all, human beauty. One of the Evansville students is a music major. After a few minutes, we start talking about music, and I ask him if he knows the “Spirto Gentil” CD series and Giussani’s comments on Beethoven. He doesn’t know about them, but he’s very interested. The next day I give him two CDs. He’s struck by the fact that our experience is so concerned with judging what one loves.

From Yale to Romania
In the days passed together, we hear different stories. Mary, a Marquette University student, enrolled at a time when her one goal was to oppose all movements. One day in class, her professor explained The Religious Sense. She was impressed and decided to go to Yale “to look for someone linked to that person.” She found them and they invited her to the vacation. “I’m here to get to the root of that encounter.” Maria, who knows David Jones, told him, “I want to meet a humanitarian organization.” David gets in contact with AVSI and Maria will depart soon for Romania to see what our presence means there. The Californian students tell me about how much they were struck by Holly, their teacher who introduced them to the life of the Movement, getting involved with them, in life, in studies, and in free time. This, after all, is the irrepressible fact.

Day-to-day life
Alongside the names of these young people are the names of Chris, Mike, and Giovanni, of older people who have taken their lives to heart. With patience they have made them see the possibility of living friendship, love, and even studies with a new meaning that permeates every part of life. It is an education in the context of daily life, just as it was for the first students who encountered the Movement. But here there’s an added element: they have become their family, the possibility of a bond that will hold, all through their lives. It is the miracle of the encounter, a gratuitous love in a place where love is sex, violence, infidelity, and instability. This is something glimpsed in the places where they were born and that renewed itself in those days among people who, for the most part, didn’t know about it before. It’s not a fragile feeling. It is the beginning of a new fact in history because the thing that man least knows how to do is to be a friend to his friends. Let’s not even talk of enemies! When it happens, it doesn’t matter how many or how strong it is, but it is a new fact in history… for those who have the eyes to see it.