All Things: Mystery and Sign

Notes from a conversation of Luigi Giussani with a group of Novices of Memores Domini Milan, April 11, 1999.
Luigi Giussani

1. Life is relationship with destiny, relationship with reality, relationship with Mystery, in other words relationship with God. Life is relationship with God, but in the literal sense of the word. Just as my voice is the expression of my throat, so life is relationship with God, relationship with Infinity, in other words relationship with "something" whose nature we cannot know. That it is cannot be denied, what it is would have been impossible to speak of-it can be seen in the history of all the religions: all religions are attempts on man's part to interpret this. I am not speaking of a scientific interest, but of life.

Are you convinced of this? No! Because we could not live like we do, if life is relationship with Mystery, relationship with God! The more correct word is the word Mystery, because Mystery indicates God, Destiny, and implies that God is beyond knowledge. Unless God himself takes the initiative, understanding our smallness (as a beautiful prayer of the Church said three weeks ago, "O Lord, look at you people weighed down by its mortal weakness."1 Where do you find a truer definition of what you are, of what we are, of what we shall be? There is no other place where this expression of prayer for the whole people can be said! Because we see that that's where compassion comes from, and we see how God, when he speaks to man, cannot fail to be full of compassion).

Our life is relationship with God. But then what are all creatures? What is a stone? What is a pool of water? What is a flower? Relationship with Infinity. We are not all the same: we are in the same boat, we are in the same current! Everything is relationship with God. If we are relationship with God-and for us relationship with God is the awareness of relationship with the Mystery; a flower doesn't have the sense of the Mystery, and nor has an ox, nor even a goose!-our life, however, should be defined by it.

But there are those who have something else that defines, that can define their life (changing with the times, since spring is one thing and summer is another, when you are twenty you think in one way, and when you are twenty-five in another.)

We are tired out, we are so fragile and weak that we can have as a definition of our life just doing nothing, in other words not being overtaxed by work, having little work or work that's not too heavy, that doesn't wear us down and in which, therefore you can "get along." But your relationship with the thing on which we are working is relationship with God; that thing that we are touching in order to drive three nails into it is relationship with God-if it weren't relationship with Being, it would not exist!

Many of us can be tied down to the satisfaction of the relationship with her man or his woman, of his relationship with others. But this relationship is secondary with respect to the relationship with God, it is tied up with the relationship with God; this means that God governs that, too, and therefore you can't treat people and things just as you like. You must always be concerned not to go against the plan of the Mystery.

In the life of society, you couldn't care less, because you have no "explosive" interests to defend. In society, though, justice is something fundamental for an order in social life and so being concerned about justice is interesting for a man who is aware of what he is doing (especially when, as in our case, justice can collapse, where the proper and immediate object to which justice must provide an order and defend it is subordinated to an agenda of power.)

In the course of these months we have developed these three categories of reflections2 and each one is linked to the others (ask the older friends to help you in these steps): work, the man-woman relationship and justice.

The Lace-Maker (detail).
2. Now, though, I'd like to tackle the key-point of life, of our life. We've a question here that is rather grave! It would not be grave were we to feel responsible, were we to feel the responsibility, the principle of responsibility, that is the response that we give to Being. The response that we give to Being is the object of our responsibility, and the responsibility is first and foremost acknowledging That from which we come; and we have to listen or look at how it requires us to behave in one situation or another.

Life, for all God's creatures, for all that God has created (life is a web of relationships with God and with everything he has made), cannot be explained either by science or by the power of money, or by politics (because today politics is clearly identified with the kingdom of Mammon that Jesus speaks of,3 that is to say with money, with the possession of money: that is something cheap enough when you come to think of it, but full of consequences; for example, freedom for you may be greater than for someone who has no money to offer!).

In the last few months we have touched on this problem. Now, summarizing all that, I want to say that the most important thing on which we have reflected is life: life, the word without any other context.

There is one thing that leads me to the heart of the question. I was saying that it's a question neither of science nor politics, nor even of possessing things or persons as is the aim (it is not the possession of anything, this is why Mammon and God cannot go together, as Jesus implied: because with Mammon you do all the rest, you move in politics and you play the habitué!). What am I trying to stress here? That the relationship between the "I" and God is a "multiple" relationship, indefinitely multiple (it's also the relationship with every object of the creation, with every aspect of the creation that is not "thrown away," that is taken into consideration), but firstly and above all the relationship with God is the relationship between one person and another! So the problem is neither scientific nor a problem of possession, nor of justice alla Tangentopoli4: the problem is that the relationship with God is relationship between two persons, because God is a person to whom we must say "You;" and since he makes all things, he concerns us; since he judges all things, he concerns us (we would like him to concern us less, but it's impossible.)

Now what is the problem between two persons? What words can we use to define the relationship between two persons as such, an I and a you? Affective. It is an affective problem. The affective problem surpasses and supersedes science, economics, politics and all the rest. The affective problem counts even in politics and in all the rest, since God has his own idea in the matter, he made man in a given way. Is it clear? The relationship that God has with all things is a relationship that commits God for the way in which he made creation, shaping things as he wanted. Things are made, we ourselves have been made by Him at the first step of our road and therefore we cannot look at a panorama and say "Isn't it beautiful!" without thinking of God's existence, otherwise our way of looking at the beautiful valley is crude, mean, opaque.

The affective problem has a vertex in human experience, where we can imagine the relationship with Being, with the Mystery, to be the less felt, or the less imagined or detailed, and what takes pride of place are instincts, feelings and temperaments.

So in order to know a creature as God wanted it, as God created it (it's not up to us to say how it should be, but we can say how it should be by interpreting, "reading" what God has put into its structure, for example in its physiology: if it is an animal or a man!) and therefore in order to tackle all the themes we have already dealt with, like work, or the ideal commitment, we have to take stock of what God has done. All that we have dealt with so far is centered here: we have no relationship, we can have no relationship if it is not within, if it is not consciously within God's plan, God's heart, God's will, because as we have seen in recent years, with the whole of the Fraternity, "God is all in all."5 This documents it: there is a clear evidence that in every relationship we are responsible for this! Because if God has made us the gift of this object, of this person, then we cannot presume to do with that person what we please, following our instinct.
What I have referred to up to now has no value for the vast majority of people. It's nothing! And for us, too. We, too, are immersed in this wickedness, this distraction, this forgetfulness. Because getting up in the morning and remembering that the whole day belongs to an Other, accepting it and offering everything, this is freedom. Freedom is this: adhering to Being, in other words acknowledging that God is all in all.

We really don't have much to suffer for this: it is something that's not there and that we don't do unless when we are roused to it. Because we would never do it, we would always be forgetful, always! Whereas a man begins to be a man when he is aware of this responsibility! It is in this responsibility that he discovers the word "vocation," and what is meant by, "What do you want of me, Lord?"

In the Memores Domini, you can see it for yourselves, there is no-one who denies God (because otherwise he couldn't stay!), but there are those who are kind of dazed, sleepy, or superficial, whose heart is not struck by the thought of life's meaning and the acknowledgement that all the things that happen are an invitation to a relationship with the Mystery.

What I really want to say, thinking about you-I have always been repeating this to the members of Memores Domini in order to give a concrete education-: you must take the initiative so that your life be relationship with God. Instead we are dazed and superficial, because we let the question pass us by, as if, since we are in "a house,"6 our problem were already solved. Not by a long chalk! If the house doesn't become the beginning of your day, a stimulus for the day, you will have no other moment or relationship that tunes you in to the fact that man's life is relationship with the Mystery.

It's only when something exceptional happens to us that we hear it said that the problem lies there.

Instead of "God," let's put the word "vocation." We live our days without taking up a new awareness, without taking up again the awareness of our vocation. This is already a word not understood by everyone else; because a lorry driver who has to travel from Vienna to Milan every week probably doesn't think of it. But if his mother and father had given him a Christian up-bringing, he might have been able to think of it more than we do! These days the whole world has thrown into the huge pit of misery all that man has inherited from those who have gone before them. This is why our problems are narrow, not totalising, but isolated.

Today I want to ask you to make an effort in praying the Spirit and Our Lady-Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam-that you may understand, above and beyond the words that I am saying, the link between God, the Mystery, and our life: this is the greatest problem!

Portrait of a Girl.
3. Someone in the Memores Domini who has, let's suppose, an irresistible penchant for a "girl" in the Memores Domini, can go so far as to say, "That girl is a sign that God gives me to make me understand what Jesus is for me"-because it's easier for Jesus to figure in the equation in such a situation! In saying this phrase as regards a typical problem of affectivity (because, I repeat, even getting up in the morning, and since you are in the mountains, looking out and taking a deep breath, or if you are in Liguria taking a walk in the morning with the sea spread out before you) the strength of our position is not yet indicated. I'm not making fun of this phrase, I have repeated it to many people: "If this has happened to you it's the Lord who wants you to understand how He wants you, how Jesus feels you; because if that girl is a sign of Jesus, she'll tell you what Jesus is and feels."

The problem that arises in this way and tends to have a solution that is by no means always the same, puts into the soul of the Guardian Angel the longing that the "boy" or the "girl" under his care might understand the meaning in the whole of his life of what we have said many times recently: "Mystery and sign coincide." Here lies the answer to the great problem, that is reflected in an acute way in an affective relationship, but which should suffuse all relationships and suffuse them all with the warmth the Creator has for his creatures, and especially for man.

I was saying that we hear it said (when the attitude of the priests one refers to is positive, when the thinking is positive, when the starting point is positive), "This is a sign that God is giving me to make me understand what Jesus is for me." But when it happens that you fall in love with a girl you meet at the retreat of the Memores Domini (anything can happen, can't it?), where is the ambiguity? It is not yet indicated in the phrase, "This is a sign that God is giving me to make me understand what Jesus is for me." This phrase must have as an implication the reply to the question, "Who is Jesus for you?" And in that reply you have to include what is dictated to you in the solution to your problem!

The strength of our way of looking at things (reason is the embrace of reality, it is interacting with reality according to the whole of its factors)7 is when we say, "Mystery and sign coincide." This goes for any relationship in which the object is recognized. Your friend who has heedlessly fallen in love (heedlessly because it is fruitless-she won't go along with it!), if "Mystery and sign coincide," he cannot just say, "This girl is a sign the Lord has sent me," and his confessor can't say, "Okey, she's a sign the Lord has sent you," but he must be led to the fact of how to act, to the fact of how he considers himself. So another point that has to be looked at again and again is "what does it mean for us that Mystery and sign coincide?" I have used the example of a boy who falls in love, because the sharpest aspect of the problem of affectivity is that! In fact this is a phenomenon we have to follow attentively, it's a problem we have all experienced and experience.

"Sign and Mystery coincide." If it's true, then everything is solved! Instead it is true but everything is not solved! Because one or other of the factors is reduced, if not completely eliminated. As one of you wrote me on a sheet of paper, "On reading your comment on Leopardi in Si può (veramente?!) vivere così8 this idea came to me: often it seems that to conceive things as a sign is in the end detrimental to concreteness in the relationship. Now this condition is not dictated to us by our vocation [but even if it were dictated by our vocation, it would be the same: the reasoning follows all the same], but rather by the nature of the heart [the problem arises from the nature of the heart]. Man must accept the ethical law implied in his nature [translated into vocation because nature is lived in the vocation]. It is still wounded, though." "Wounded:" in other words the process reduces the power of the identification between Mystery and sign, in which all our affective problems would be solved; and it's awful that the power of the sign in its objectivity be reduced, or that a part of the Ideal, of the Mystery be denied. It's like going around with a bleeding wound in your chest; but above all it's like looking at yourself in the mirror when your heart is bleeding: it scares you and you don't know what to do!

But now I would like to speak to you of two "atrocious" deeds that we can commit. Before an affective problem-but a political problem, an economic problem, all kinds of problems must come down to that because the ultimate aspect of every problem is man's relationship with God-in the opposite case, that is to say when the coincidence between sign and Mystery is not perceived, one of two things happens: either Jesus is eliminated or the other person is eliminated.

A. Jesus is eliminated, if you see yourself as nothing more than the image you have of yourself caged up within the situation where you are, as the suggestion you give to it. You eliminate Jesus when you are attached to the other, to a thing in a way that Jesus would forbid, or forbids. So you solve the problem by eliminating the Lord.

But you choose Jesus rather than the alternative! How many of us have this problem wriggling around in the heart, a problem that could come to the fore at a certain moment and destroy all the rest! You choose Jesus. And yet, if we could analyze your choice with a spectroscope, we would find that it is not truly love for Jesus. One can say; "In this situation I'll settle the question, I'll cut and run and not think of it any more." Is it truly love for Jesus when one says this? Is it not rather a compromise with the social situation that you are living in (in this case Memores Domini) without deciding really to dedicate yourself to Christ? So the affective problem can be like a great heap of clouds that stop you from trying to see, trying to ask God to make you strong.

This is what generates a situation of forgetfulness, as I said at the beginning. You can live for years in Memores Domini, without being aware of this, without even thinking of it! Because you already have a solution. One may come there, but then he has no other interest, nothing else moves him because for example he is only interested in Greek! Forgetfulness. You can spend many years together, kneeling in Church or during Mass, without this bringing about a change in the relationship. We can go to Church together always without this changing our relationship in any way: this means that you haven't Jesus as an influencing presence, that must become clear and must clarify our situation, that must change us. Otherwise a situation of dazedness is generated.

Instead in the affective problem there is always an option: for God-and therefore for the creature as sign-or for the creature, even though this appears in different ways.

In any case, either through distraction or light-headedness-living in mediocrity "sanza infamia e sanza lodo"9-it is possible to walk together without Christian inspiration and human reality producing, in the their daily encounter, a spark that drives you to clarity and to dedication. Thus you can live in the "house" or in Memores Domini without any initiative: you stay because it is the right thing to do (you have a certain piety, however dictated or received.) The basic truth of love for Jesus dissolves in us into a "quiet life with minimum disturbance." You may say Lauds, Vespers and Night Prayer together; you can even be fascinated by the singing (very rare!); but what have you to do with your problem? You don't even have a problem! This is like having your head cut off. You are not a man, you're an animal, the Bible would suggest.

Without initiative, the Lord is eliminated, Jesus is there as if enfolded in clouds: one of us who follows him, whoever of us follows him, does not "decide" to set off after Him. In this case there are awful consequences. Because if someone is in this attitude in which he wants that the affection that is his lot not become an upsetting of the "quiet life" what does he do? He holds himself with his soul suspended: he does not change his relationship, he tries not to do things that outwardly annoy him and then, since it is easier in the affective field, he goes wrong. But it's like this in all the relationships man has with the world! Because in all man's relationships with God, whatever he does there is a decadence. If there is no initiative, that is to say previous and coincidental, there is a decadence; decadence in which we feel okey because we are sitting on the fence, we make no choice, we risk nothing. We sacrifice nothing for a Present that asks us for it. We sacrifice nothing for a Present with a capital P who asks us for it. This is so terrible that when I look at some environments I feel suffocated when the faces tell you that it's like that (and this is not "going astray" because you are reminded too often!)

So then in this case there is a symptomatic ambiguity: if someone has a temptation, in the sense of an invitation to something else against the form of his vocation, while he settles into the situation where he is, and stupidly, gets enjoyment from his thoughts and feelings, and does nothing about them, he drags himself out of a danger. The result, though, is bitter and dry.

In this sense then, sacrifice is inherent in the solution of affective problems. I say "affective," but as the index of all our behavior in every problem.

It may be that many feel fine like this, in the position of someone who doesn't want to get down to work, who doesn't want to get together with someone else (he doesn't know how to go about it, but does nothing bad); you could decide to move them far away from each other so that it would be like sending one of them into the desert. But a certain relationship that has arisen in the heart remains-if it's not resolved it remains. So a disaster may be avoided for a certain time, but after a while he will make his move.

B. Apart from this elimination of Jesus, that is inherent in our intervention in a relationship that God calls us to (I take the example of the boy-girl relationship because it is the most symptomatic, but I am speaking of all relationships, with anyone or anything whatsoever, because in every relationship there is the problem of the relationship with God and of ones own person and the person of God); apart from the fact, that is to say, that we can all be full of attitudes for which life has nothing to tell us any more, not only things don't satisfy us, but we become isolated, too, or we let off steam in any way we can (playing cards, or bar-football, watching TV or just doing nothing!), apart from this there is another attitude: eliminating the other. Instead of suffering through what you have felt as best you can, without doing anything (only that the problem doesn't go away and in time you will feel it, and when it does come back the second time you will feel worse than before; anyway the terrible thing is that that moment, that phenomenon that does not bring Christ nearer, doesn't change you, doesn't make you stop short, doesn't make you different), instead of this another solution often happens, which is that of making a clean break (perhaps it's the priest who suggests it; or the public prosecutor, or the general or your lawyer: make a clean break!), making a clean break is not necessarily the right thing to do. Because if God has made us come across that problem, there is a new good in us that has to take root.

So the objection comes over the sacrifice. Instead the sacrifice has to be wanted: not wanted as a starting point but wanted as a consequence; the sacrifice must be there as a consequence of your life, as part of the way you behave in life at this time.

It's true, then, that the Lord sends you certain encounters, arouses certain feelings, forces certain hardships on you: so that the sacrifice inherent in them be part of His Cross, so it be felt as part of His Cross, and change you. So the sacrifice, the sacrifice inherent in certain answers to our problems is a just sacrifice. But normally we don't understand what it's all about, so we are not able to grasp the urgency with which Christ is calling us. We can spend three, four or five years of our life in total deafness, like someone with no ears, and blindness, like someone who has an eye complaint, with no interest in anything.

The paper I read from just now said, "When someone has this open wound [in other words when someone is in a relationship that is not resolved], he has the desire to possess the other, but he doesn't know how [how to resolve it, in other words how to adhere to this possibility that God places before him]." So if someone who begins to feel all the human need of knowing Christ, he understands that this is not in order to satisfy a particular need, but rather in order to satisfy that of the flesh, too; paradoxically it is to fulfil what is true in the alternative, it is in order to know the truth of what he is feeling. In an affective experience, in any affective experience, the good of what is felt cannot be in spite of one thing or the other, it cannot be to spite oneself (a forgetting of the impulse that has risen up inside you), nor can it alter your attitude in day-to-day life. But you have to understand that your sacrifice (and the sacrifice is not true unless it reaches this point) is in order that what you were feeling become true, is to make what you were feeling become true; it was loving so that loving became true, so that loving become good.

And it is in this clarity of love and of tension toward the truth that the sacrifice softens its turbulent, wounded, painful nature, and becomes a pain that awaits the future, in which what nature promised comes to be evident in the Christian vision of things (the vision of those who follow Christ and his Church.)

You cannot forget a relationship you have had with a person, nor treat it as if it had never happened. You cannot fail to feel it like a thorn in the flesh that the Lord has sent you, "Lord, what do you want of me? With this what do you want of me? What are you telling me?" And the answer will always be, "That what you wanted to take, to grasp, to possess, be true." That it be true, because only what is true is eternal. What is true is eternal ("everything, Lord, except what is eternal, is empty.")10 and therefore a passing, fleeting vanity.

So if we have to affirm "not the elimination of God!" then it's "no to the elimination of the other," too. Relationship with the other is relationship with God, with the Lord. In this sense, in order to solve the affective problem positively the formula I have used is decisive, "Mystery and sign coincide." It's right that you feel this because it's a sign, it's right that you look at that creature because it's a sign of God, it's a sign of the Mystery. And this is not contradictory nor fickleness, nor ambiguity only in so far as the Mystery coincides with the sign. "Coincides with the sign" means that, if that woman you have seen weighs on your soul because she struck you, you cannot but really accept what has happened, but it is in the inherent sacrifice that you discover the truth! Because your determination not to accept to change your vocation or your road or way of life implies a sacrifice.

A sacrifice, then, is not a reduction of the sign, because the stronger the unity between Mystery and sign, the stronger the sign itself; it is not a question of focussing on the sign and then reducing it to a shadow of itself! The stronger the sign in which you sacrifice your human drama, the more powerful the evidence of the fact that the Mystery coincides with the sign. If it is the sign that points to the Mystery, that makes us understand the Mystery, this is what composes everything positively.

Woman Reading a Letter by a Window.
See, then, that if a doubt comes to you or the fact that you have no answer gets you down, you must go to the more mature of your friends and "have it out" with them, because, even though in an approximate way, I have touched on things that are true.

I wanted to speak to you about these problems as a whole, because it's an important question: if all the relationships are relationships with God, with God the creator, and with God the redeemer, if all relationships are like this, there is no relationship of any kind in which I am not responsible (of any kind at all: from the chair that has to revolve properly to the friend that has spoken ill of you). When we spoke about work as the best way, the most difficult and the greatest way of relationship with Christ,11 we had already introduced this as a topic. What I said today is to clarify further what perhaps had seemed something strange!

And then, you have to pray Our Lady and St. Joseph to make you understand what is meant by "Mystery and sign coincide." Because what we leave aside, we leave aside in order to be more true. If what we leave, we leave for a greater justice, then justice is assured even in the relationship with the other. What happens with the man Jesus is something "more human:" this is the only criterion, but it is an ultimate criterion to experience, that can be experienced.
So, the initiative that I was referring to-and that is fundamental for being humanly aware-the fundamental initiative is to get up every morning, every day, and remind ourselves of this. It is the most striking thing that can happen on earth, in history: that there be a people in which persons in the morning-every morning-know, think, are aware of where they are going, and for what they are working and living. It's something out of this world, because this is an aspect proper exclusively to Christian anthropology! But you are together to stir each other to this!

Anyway first of all say this prayer, "Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam," because it is the synthesis of the whole Christian message. Think of it, a woman is the instrument of the Spirit of God: "Non horruisti Virginis uterum."12

Work on this with your more mature friends, because the only beautiful thing in the world is to discover the Christian point of view: how to look at things, everything.

Do you remember Ada Negri? Go and read the chapter on Ada Negri in Le mie letture.13 The two quotations I always use are a wonderful intuition, at seventy years of age, of a person who converted in that age, when she discovered what we are now asking God to discover. Because if you read My youth, you will find a love, a loving, affective, powerfully affective relationship, with everything: with the flower that blossoms, the child that is born ("To the God of the meadows and the races give heartfelt thanks.") And Act of love (that is a bit earlier): "All was well, even my evil." Marvelous!
Greeting, because this is the eternal Easter.

1. Cf. "Almighty God look down on mankind weighed down by its mortal weakness, and bring it back to life by the passion of your Only-begotten Son" (Collect of Monday in Holy Week, Roman Missal).
2. The themes of justice, of the man-woman relationship and work were already deal with in L. Giussani, A New Man, in Litterae Communionis-Traces n. 3, 1999, pp. I-XVI, L.Giussani, The Gushing of Obedience, in Litterae Communionis-Traces n. 4, 1999, pp. I-XII.
3. Cf. Mt. 6:24; Lk. 16:13.
4. The judicial inquiry initiated in 1992 to evaluate the professional conduct of Italian politicians and entrepreneurs.
5. Exercises of the Fraternity, You, or about friendship, Notes taken from meditations by Luigi Giussani and Stefano Alberto, Milan 1997, pp. 11-21.
6. The word "house" indicates a stable community life lived by the Memores Domini, numbering usually from three to twelve members. In the house, Christ is affirmed as Lord of all, as the ultimate reason for every action and common life. Therefore in its objective structure the house is an instrument for living the memory of Christ and a space for living ones faith and vocation. The house is the sketch for the way of looking at things and of the conception of the world had by the individual members of the house.
7. L. Giussani, The Religious Sense, McGill-Queen's 1997, p. 4.
8. Cf. L. Giussani, Si può (veramente?!) vivere così?, Bur, Milano 1996, pp. 323-340.
9. Dante, Inferno III, v 36.
10. A. Fogazzaro, A sera, in Le poesie, Mondadori, Milano 1935, pp. 194-197, vv. 21-23.
11. "Work for the Christian is the most concrete most arid and concrete, and the toughest aspect of one's love for Christ" (L.Giussani, Christmas: The Motive For Life As Work, in Litterae Communionis-Tracce, n. 11, December 1998, p. VI).
12. Te Deum, in The Divine Office.
13. L. Giussani, Le mie letture, Bur, Milano 1996, pp. 69-80.