Fr Giussani with Pope John Paul II (© Fraternità di CL)

“How will it be to be touched by Being!

Jone Echarri is the physical therapist who worked with Fr. Giussani during his illness. We offer here an extract from her testimony at the International Days dedicated to the founder of CL (Madrid, March 31–April 2, 2022). From August Traces.
Jone Echarri

Luigi Giussani is a man who was surprised, seduced, and captured forever by the event of Christ. This encounter dominated his whole life and was the reason for his entire existence: to live and bear witness to the beauty that had called him and which he had answered so passionately. This belonging marked his whole life.

What I am most grateful for in my relationship with him is having seen with my own eyes the rare spectacle of a unified man, which is the most important identifier of Jesus’s promise of “the hundredfold here below.” He was unified in everything, even in the most dramatic situations marked by weakness and pain, of which I’ll speak later. First, I would like to talk about some aspects of his daily life that clearly show who he was and his self awareness, because in times of illness the how and why you live become clear.

Giussani began physical therapy with me thanks to a friend, Carmen Giussani, who came to my studio and saw the treatment I was using with my neurological patients. When she went to Milan, she explained to him what she had seen and suggested to him that the therapy could benefit him. A few days later Giussani called me and said, “Why don’t you come and treat me for a weekend?” It was 1994.

The first few times I wanted him to be treated by my teacher from London, an internationally recognized professional. She did a physical therapy session with Giussani, which provided him with strong relief from his symptoms. With great naturalness, he said, “If someone can feel such a tremendous benefit when he is touched by the hand of another person, what will it be like to be touched by Being?” All of us there remained silent because his illness was already showing its harsh face, and yet he commented on “how will it be to be touched by Being”! From that day on, I wanted to know the meaning of what he said, what it meant in his daily life.

Marx said that “religion is the opium of the people.” Instead, Fr. Giussani always said that religious people are those who live reality intensely, and I said, “I want to observe how you live reality intensely” because that is how you understand everything. Observing him attentively day after day, I began to see surprising things.

Jone Echarri and her husband, Jesús Carrascosa, on Fr. Giussani's 78th birthday

The first thing that struck me was the way he got up in the morning. It was moving. He got up in expectation of the events that would happen and from which he could learn, notwithstanding his advanced age. He told me, “Jone, open the window because we must understand what we have to learn today.” After several days of hearing him repeat those words, one day I asked him, “What do we have to learn?” and he answered, “That this entire day is given to us to know Him and love Him.”

In this situation, I remained in silence and understood that he wanted to live reality discovering every morning not only what was happening in it, but Who was there at the foundation of reality. That “Who” is He who gives value and meaning to all things; you could perceive a personal and familiar relationship with the mystery Who made him live reality as a gift, as something given to him, to his very life, and to Whom he wanted to adhere with the heart of a child. There I understood the meaning of life as vocation in action.

Mealtimes. We were eating spaghetti with oil, garlic, and hot peppers, and he exclaimed, “Such goodness!” Then he reflected and said, “Although I wouldn’t be able to say this if there hadn’t been a Goodness at the origins. God endowed us with an ability to adhere, that is pleasure, enjoyment. That is why whoever is not educated in pleasure cannot be free.” (cf. A. Savorana, Life of Fr. Giussani, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, 2018, p. 1018).

The thing that most struck me was that all this happened with great spontaneity; it was evident that these considerations arose from his self-awareness, from something that it would be difficult for him to contain. You perceived that for Giussani, even with food there was not only us, but another Guest present, and this made him enjoy meals even more.

One morning he woke up and said to his secretary, “Gather together all those in the house.” We met around his bed and he said, “We are together because you take care of my health, and this is good, but not only for this. Not because of what we do, but in order to help each other hear the voice that is within what we do. When that happens, there is a change in the air. It’s like when you go to the seaside: the air you’re breathing is different because the sea is there” (cf. ibid., p. 1099). From that day on, I became increasingly more aware that the sea was the Lord of the universe, present there within what we were doing. The bond with such a Lord opened the doors for me to a relationship with the people tasked with taking care of Giussani, and also opened the doors of the world for me. Within those four walls I understood that what I was doing was for the good of the world, thanks to a man who testified to us that the sea was there.

What he was learning from illness. One day, turning to me with a very intense gaze, he asked, “Do you know what I’m learning from physical therapy?” I was surprised, and he continued, “I’m learning to know the relationship between physical therapy and morality. When Marco Bersanelli, an astrophysicist friend, speaks to me, I perceive that he is talking to me about a macrocosm. Instead, when you work on my body, I perceive a microcosm made of miniscule parts, where each one functions in perfect harmony with the others. Every part of the body acts to carry out its own function, in function of the whole. If you look at it partially, it can seem that it is only something disordered; the body is seen as something mechanical. Instead, the moral point of view of physical therapy is the order of every part, as a function of the whole. The principle of the value of the body and the spirit is identical: it is a perfect analogy with morality. It consists in the unity of the whole physical person and his consciousness. I’m looking at how I can transmit what I’m learning from physical therapy.” (cf. ibid. p. 979).

I was amazed to see how he lived everything, even the smallest things, in relation to the ultimate reality. He was a man whose reason did not stop at appearances, but opened to the ultimate discovery that gave complete meaning to everything he lived. I had been a physical therapist for many years, and I could never have imagined in the least what he was perceiving.

One day I got up my courage and asked him a crucial question. “How can I live with the intensity you live with?” He looked at me very seriously and said, “You have to take the initiative; you have to make of your life a personal relationship with Christ; that is, you have to live a remembrance and allow Him to invade every aspect of your life. I assure you that if you live this remembrance you will have the same intensity of life that I have.” I want to stress that Fr. Giussani rarely used the verb “have to,” but on this occasion, to indicate the seriousness and gravity of what he was telling me, he used it with intentionality: “You have to.” “Look, Jone, the poor in spirit are those who have decided, and you have to decide.” That moment was a step in my life. I wanted to live the same beauty of life that I saw in him notwithstanding his illness, and to accept his challenge.

He changed my way of working. I am a neurological physical therapist and take care of patients who have suffered very serious problems, like paralysis of one or both body hemispheres. Some of them recover their functional abilities well and return to leading a fairly normal life. This meant enormous gratitude from them and their families, who look at me almost like a demigod. Seeing the importance my work had for people, one day Giussani asked me a radical question. “Hey, Jone, who do you think is more fortunate, you who do this work, or somebody who works eight or ten hours a day on an assembly line?” I remained silent, and he said, “I put you on the spot, didn’t I? Well, the person on the assembly line is more fortunate, because if he did not live a remembrance, he would shoot himself.”

For Fr. Giussani, remembrance was a matter of life and death. He wanted to say that remembrance is not an option, but a vocation; he wanted to show me that the value of work lies not only in doing but in belonging. The belonging comes before the doing. For this reason he told me, “Satisfaction in the day doesn’t begin when we start working, but a minute before, when we reflect and become aware of what has happened to us, of the event that attracted us, and only then do we become aware of ourselves.”

Since then, before opening the door of my studio I say to myself, “I’m entering a sacred place.” I was aware that through my remembrance He was entering that place; I could perceive clearly that His presence had to do with everything that happened at work–it was the space inside those four walls spread out to the world. This may not seem concrete at all, but for me it has become very concrete. Imagine the young people, the parents who will never again have a child like the one they had before an accident. And yet I was able to stay in front of them, to walk with them, to support their hope, because I knew that everything had been redeemed by Him who was present there. How many disappointments, how much frustration, how many sleepless nights this realization spared me.

He always reminded me, “In order to be with patients like us, to support the hope of people, you need a lot of strength, and this strength does not come from you–don’t fool yourself! Either you live the remembrance of Christ, or you will not be able to keep your gaze on the patients. In the beginning you can, but then slowly you begin to lower your eyes, then to back off, then to complain, and in the end, you lose the enthusiasm to serve the masterpiece of the Creator, which is the human person, and to work for the human glory of Christ.”

The value of the moment. He was becoming increasingly acute, his awareness ever deeper. One day he spoke about the value of the moment: “Every moment is for eternity.” I asked him, “How can I live this if, for example, I see a person just once, or if the person I am meeting is the one I have the most difficulty with, the one who hurts me the most? It could be at work or in the family.” He said, “The person you have in front of you has your same heart and your same destiny. Destiny has been manifested to you because He loves you, but He also loves the person you meet, even if that person makes you suffer. If your gaze embraces this person with this same awareness, when you meet in heaven this person will run up to you and hug you because at a certain moment in your life you looked at her in the way Christ looks at her now.”

I was very struck. It is truly necessary to keep alive a desire to be educated to looking in this way, because in doing so nothing is lost, neither the apparently banal moment of a gaze, nor the pain caused by a person. He taught me to look at people with respect, which does not mean treating them politely; it means looking at a person while thinking of an Other.

Limitations in communication began to appear. It was 1997. Fr. Giussani had always preached the Fraternity's Spiritual Exercises live, but he began having difficulty with diction and decided to videotape them. We were there in front of him, a small group of people, because he did not like speaking alone in front of a camera; he wanted to see our faces to know whether his words reached us. At the end of his lesson he asked, “How did it go?” We answered enthusiastically, “Fantastic,” but before we could continue, he said, “You don’t understand. You can’t understand.” What could we not understand? “God is giving me so much during this time, but he is taking away my ability to express it. And He’s right to do it, because otherwise I would fall into pride.” (cf. ibid., p. 976).

His journey through pain. The illness continued its course, and the most feared symptom began to appear: pain. At this time, he commented that “God allows suffering in order for life to be more itself. Life without suffering shrivels and closes itself off” (cf. ibid., p. 1074). But at times the pain was strong and lasted a long time. I was sad because I did not know how to help him, but he told me, “Don’t be sad. Even this is positive. I think this is the way to participate in Christ’s Passion, because He, too, was a man like me” (cf. ibid., p. 1057).

Life became harder and harder. He lost his mobility and speech, and had many painful moments, but his human stature was never diminished. The needs of his heart continued to remain alive. He wanted to live circumstances intensely, saying yes to the mystery. He knew that Christ had endured and overcome the circumstances, and so he said, “God does not show His love only when He gives us good things, but also when He permits things we don’t like.” The certainty that God’s love gave him was perceptible in his state of mind. One day when he felt better he said, “It’s like the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and Saint Riccardo Pampuri were telling me, ‘We care about you, go ahead, we are doing our best!’” But one day he discovered he was feeling another type of pain. He was very sad and I asked him, “Is something wrong? Are you in pain?” He answered, “I don’t have anything physical, but I can’t stand the thought that so many people do not know Christ.”

Read also - "Grateful, even for my weakness"

I saw how he lived for Christ and in Christ on the feast day of his namesake saint, Saint Aloysius (Luigi) Gonzaga. By then he was very ill, and he told me, “I have very little life left, but until my last breath my first feeling is gratitude, because it comes from Him” (cf. ibid., p. 1127). This left me thoughtful, because the usual thing you hear in these situations is, “This life is no life. Better to die than live this way.” Instead, his first sentiment was gratitude, an acknowledgment of God as the source who communicated life to his being.

Another key moment for understanding who Christ was for him was when he went through a period of inactivity, something fairly common in Parkinson’s patients. It happens suddenly, without any warning and it is as if the patient’s battery has run down and is completely empty. When he came out of that trance, I said to him, “When you are this way, you must feel very alone.” He answered, “I’m never alone, because Christ is the indivisible companion of my ‘I.’” I have desired to cherish these words in my heart for all the days of my life.

A crucial day arrived, which really affected me. In October 2004 he had a very hard day and that evening, when everything was over, he said, “What a horrible day!” That is how he was, a realistic man, but right away he added, “But if I live this day with a yearning to go through and experience these circumstances, living the occasions that the Mystery allows, I am certain I will walk better and more quickly towards the Destiny I will one day see, much better than I would walk according to all my own plans for living this day. For this reason this day is beautiful because it is true” (cf. ibid., p. 1127).

As you can imagine, hearing this after such a terrible day–and it was not the only one–I understood that he was living life as an offering, with unlimited trust in the Father’s plan. He sensed that the definitive encounter was close and accepted His will, knowing that everything was for his good, and desiring ardently to collaborate in the redeeming work of Christ.