Daniele Mencarelli (Photo: Rimini Meeting)

The need for the unimaginable

Our thirst, “because water exists", the posture of free persons that “makes them hunt for the event.” In August Traces, a conversation with writer Daniele Mencarelli on Fr. Giussani’s challenge in The Religious Sense.
Paola Bergamini

Hey Paola, I’m at the beach with my family. But not even a ray of sun,” Daniele Mencarelli begins on the phone, in the lively Roman accent that had struck and delighted me back in 2019 when I interviewed him about his novel La casa degli sguardi [The house of gazes]. We had hit it off immediately and our conversation lost any formality as we revealed ourselves to each other, recounting what we held most dear in life. “It’s been a beautiful year,” he says. I immediately thought of the success of the Netflix series Tutto chiede salvezza [Everything calls for salvation], based on his book (winner of the Strega Prize for Young Adult Readers 2020), and of his last novel, Fame d’aria [Hunger for air], which sold over twenty-five thousand copies in four months, as well as his theatre piece and his articles in various publications. “A very beautiful year because of all the people I’ve encountered. Above all young
people.” He blows me away when he says, “They are hungry for meaning in life, and reality throws it against me daily. This relates to our conversation on The Religious Sense, right, Pa’?” “Right, Dan.” But let’s relate the full conversation as it happened.

When did you read Fr. Giussani’s book?
In the 1990’s, Davide Rondoni, knowing my passion for poetry, said I should read Le mie letture [My readings] and that was the discovery of Giussani and one of the poets I’ve loved the most since then, Pär Lagerkvist. In 2001, when I was working at the Bambin Gesù hospital as an attendant, Davide gave me The Religious Sense.

What struck you then, and what strikes you now?
The reasoned idea, which I had more instinctively, that people need more than just themselves, that we need to search beyond ourselves forthe answer to the meaning of life, to look for the love that from within asks us to look at each thing, and that nothing fulfilled me at the time. Thinking about the “three premises,” I am fascinated by Giussani’s challenge: in order to know reality, don’t start from your preconceptions, but instead live it, or better, put yourself in the existential position of not asking what reality can do for me but what I with my openness to the other can do for others. I ask young people to do this exercise: go into a shop smiling and look the shopkeeper in the face. Then do the same, but looking down, frowning. Observe how two different worlds open up.

You spoke of knowing reality. In his preface, Bergoglio wrote that The Religious Sense “is a book for all human beings who take their humanity seriously.”
The Religious Sense is an extraordinary book of methodology for the “posture,” as Fr. Julián Carrón called it in Reawakening our Humanity, with which people must face reality and the other. If you start from this existential striving, God is not a premise, but a natural consequence, a promise of fulfillment that is realized. It is a book for those who want to know themselves and to know in a totally different way than the usual reading of reality as being always malign. Humans have this interior voice warning them to “not to trust reality; it is your enemy,” and even more so today with the advent of the digital world and social media (without slipping into easy demonization). But the risk is certainly higher.

You said that young people thirst for meaning in life. Giussani called these “original needs and ‘evidences.’”

It’s an experience I’ve seen in these last three years, starting from my books, thanks to which I’ve encountered about seventy-eight thousand young people. Often, in speaking with teachers, the same old expression arises: the “problems” of young people. I say that the fragilities (not the “problems”) of young people (I think of the digital world) are different from those we had at their age. They want to talk about this. I also ask whether we adults, both teachers and parents, are open to dealing with themes of existence, the meaning of life and death, justice, and happiness. I’ll tell you about an experience. I was in Fasano at a technical high school. I’d arrived early and noticed a girl who was already waiting to enter and sit in the first row. At the end of the gathering, the teacher moderating asked if anyone had any questions. The girl’s hand shot up, and she stood and asked me, “For someone suffering for those she loves, what answers do you have?”

And you?
I told her, “Let me tell you what I saw of you: a girl who arrived an hour early, stood there next to the door waiting to be in the first row, and as soon as possible asked this question. You are one of the most loving and courageous people I’ve ever met.” These are the unexpected encounters that throw my life wide open, like the nun in The House of Gazes and my companions in the psych ward in Everything Calls for Salvation who make me believe in the unbelievable.

Referring to Caligula by Camus, Fr. Giussani said, “It is not realistic for people to live without yearning for the impossible, without this openness to the impossible.” “The human person thirsts because water exists,” Cardinal Matteo Zuppi said recently in a very beautiful public conversation we had in Bologna. In that encounter, who did not feel a correspondence with that thirst? When I enter into reality and find one, ten, a hundred people in front of me who share this need for the unimaginable, I understand how reasonable this search is. Mostly it is experienced individually, but I think there is also a community dimension.

In what sense?
Our era is marked by a deep individualism. It is irrational to ask yourself certain questions, and in any case, if you do ask them it is better to answer them on your own. Instead, it was no coincidence that I gave the example of Zuppi. There are people whose words and actions “translate” the reasonableness of this search for meaning. All my life has been, initially in an unaware and extreme way, a stepping toward people who gave me back that glimmer in the eyes, that love that “moves the sun and other stars,” as Dante wrote. As I’ve always told you, I’m an aspiring believer, and this is why the itinerary of The Religious Sense is fascinating. Even if it is a book that asks so much from the reader.

What do you mean?
You need courage and openness of heart to read it. I would give it to anyone who wants to live reality fully, not just as an approach for reaching God. The wisdom of this book is in inviting the reader to live reality, to be there in the middle of what reality offers in that precise moment. It is the posture of women and men who are free and alive, and it makes people hunt for the event. Today I sense a dual temptation, be it at the age of fifteen or the age of ninety: living in the past or in the need to build your future in an overly intense and anxious way. This does not mean not trying to achieve your desires–if I think of myself, I’ve always pursued writing–but, rather, actualizing the future through the present.

Seizing what happens, now.
I often tell young people, “Live reality in this way: you never know where it will go.” And they respond with, “What?” I answer, “Put in the object yourselves:
the event of love, of a lifelong friendship...” It’s like that for me, at forty-nine. Really, there have been some wonderful conversations with young people in which I feel like I’m a seeker just like them. I tell them I don’t have answers because I have the same hunger, thirst, and passion for meaning. The same heart.

You’re one of the curators of the exhibit at the Meeting, Alone Is Not Enough, and in Rimini you will have a conversation with Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça on the theme of “The Cry of the Heart.”
Other opportunities for encounters! In the fall I’m going to concentrate on my new novel, the one I’ve been pursuing for 32 years, because I have yet to write the most beautiful one. You know, I’m a lucky man, and I’m grateful for this. My life has been and is one great flow that I’ve received as a gift and so ... there is Someone who gave it to me.

It is the infinite game of “tag” between you and God, as you told me the first time we met.