Charity: Gift of Self, Moved

The talk at the presentation of Charity, third volume of Is It Possible to Live this Way? (McGill-Queen’s University Press) by Luigi Giussani (Dublin, January 7, 2010; New York, January 17, 2010; Montreal, January 18, 2010).j
Julián Carrón

This text is the third book of Fr. Giussani’s trilogy (Is It Possible to Live This Way? Vol. 3 Charity, McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal 2009), which deals with the three theological virtues; faith, hope, and charity. Once again Fr. Giussani introduces a dialogue on the nature of the Christian experience, as it emerges from within the dynamic of daily life. For him faith, hope and charity are not words to be superimposed from outside our human existence, but are facts that enter into the structure of the I, in its awareness of itself. These words carry with them the claim of answering the problem of life. This, in fact is what is at stake above all today: whether life is worth living. In this book Fr. Giussani accompanies us in the rediscovery of the value of words that explain life. Man has long lost the original meaning of these words, and as a result, feels them as abstract or burdensome.
For this reason, in our time, words like “love” and “charity” cannot boast of a good reputation. Rather, impoverished notions of these words thrive, and are popular according to the “interests” of those in power: like sentimentalism, loving and doing good because one wants to do so, or moralism, loving and doing good out of a sense of duty. Behind the word “love” there even can be a hidden desire to impress, to cut a good figure. This raises the question whether loving is dictated by a real interest in the person toward whom it is directed or by an ill-concealed egoism.
Pope Benedict XVI himself, in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, cautions against this risk of equivocation when one speaks of love and charity. He says, “Today, the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words” (Deus Caritas Est, 2).
It is difficult to overcome this encumbrance if we are not willing to learn from the experience that we all have had at least once in our lifetime, of being the object of a gratuitous act. It is not uncommon to encounter people who doubt the existence of good, considering it to be motivated by one’s own interests, comfort, habits, etc. When, however, one experiences being loved gratuitously, as we all have, at least once in our lives, all these theories and interpretations crumble. If this occurs because of the disinterested gesture of another fellow human being, what will happen when we are faced with God’s charity toward us? It is for this reason that the Pope affirms that “God’s love is fundamental for our lives, and it raises important questions about who God is and who we are” (Ibid.).
Let us begin from the second of the two questions (who are we?), in order to understand the extent to which the love of God is fundamental for us. We cannot understand what charity is, if we do not become aware of our needy, wanting nature. This emerges in the relationship with all things: nothing satisfies us.

1. “What exactly is this lack a lack of?”
The Italian poet Mario Luzi could not more comprehensively and exhaustively delineate what constitutes our very nature.
“What is this lack a lack of, / o heart, / of which all of a sudden you are full? / Of what? Once the dam is broken / it floods and submerges you / the inundation of your poverty… It comes, / perhaps it comes, / from beyond you a recall / which you now do not listen to because you are in agony. / But it exists, fostered by strength and music / the perpetual music will return. / Be calm” (Mario Luzi, in Under Human Species, Green Integer, 2010).
The nature of this lack makes itself evident when we try to respond to it. The pleasures often constitute the first attempt to fill the emptiness of this lack. But a surprise awaits us, as described in Cesare Pavese’s exemplary words, “What a man seeks in pleasures is the infinite, and no one would ever renounce the hope of attaining this infinity” (Cesare Pavese, Il Mestiere di vivere, Einaudi, Torino 1973, p. 190).
But where we usually think we will find a response equal to our desire is in love. The reason for this hope of ours in love is recalled by the Pope: “Love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. This would seem to be the very epitome of love; all other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison” (Deus Caritas Est, 2). For this reason, nothing better helps us understand the mystery of our human nature than the relationship between a man and a woman.
This is exactly the experience that Giacomo Leopardi expresses unforgettably in his poem: “Divine ray to my thought appeared/Woman, your beauty” (Aspasia, vv. 33-34). The woman’s beauty is perceived by the poet as a divine ray, as the presence of the divine.
The woman’s beauty is a sign that refers to something beyond, to something greater, divine, incommensurate compared to her limited nature, as Romeo describes in Shakespeare’s play, “Show me a mistress that is passing fair,/what doth her beauty serve but as a note/where I may read who pass’d that passing fair?”(Romeo and Juliet, I,1).
This is the greatness of man, this “inability to be satisfied by any worldly thing or, so to speak, by the entire world. To consider the inestimable amplitude of space, the number of worlds, and their astonishing size, then to discover that all this is small and insignificant compared to the capacity of one’s own mind; to imagine the infinite number of worlds, the infinite universe, then to feel that our mind and aspirations might be even greater than such a universe; to accuse things always of being inadequate and meaningless; to suffer want, emptiness, and hence boredom–this seems to me the chief sign of the grandeur and nobility of human nature.” (G. Leopardi, Pensieri, LXVIII, trans. by W.S. Di Piero, Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1981, p.113).
Experience shows that nothing tangible corresponds to the infinite nature of our desire. At the same time we cannot remove it, and it is inevitable that sooner or later we try to fill this emptiness by trying to possess people or things. This attempt cannot but be violent and pretentious. This would then be our fate: to sink into skepticism, abandoning the hope that there is something capable of matching the greatness of our desire.
But from the deepest depths of man a desirable hypothesis springs forth, “Something unforeseen / is the only hope. But they tell me / that it is foolishness to say this to oneself” (E. Montale, Prima del viaggio, vv.25-27).
Well, this unforeseen event has occurred.

2. “Christ draws me completely to
Himself, such is His Beauty”
In our tradition, we are used to hearing about the charity of God. For this reason we find it difficult to identify with the novelty which Christianity introduced to the ancient world. A world characterized by what, in modern terms, is called “multiculturalism”: there was room for every culture in the Pantheon; there was no want of diverse cults.
So it is all the more surprising the way the novelty of Christianity was immediately grasped. Its prodigious and unstoppable diffusion is evidence of this. What did it have that was so new and attractive? In the ancient religions the gods did not bother themselves much with the affairs of men. (To give just one example, in the Mesopotamic religions, the deities created men to free themselves from the yoke of work. Caring for men was the last thing on their minds!) A constant in the ancient religions was a belief that divinities could not love. Love was understood mainly as desire (eros). Therefore, accepting that the gods had desires–eros–implied that something was lacking in them, and this was not in accordance with their perfect divine nature.
It is in this context that Christianity burst forth, revealing the nature of God and introducing a new meaning to the word “love”–that is, charity (caritas).
The first sign of this love is the gift of being and the heart of man–when it is simple and true–is capable of recognising this love: “Therefore, the very first sense of the human being is that of facing a reality which is not his, which exists independently of him, and upon which he depends. Empirically translated, it is the original perception of a given, […] ‘given,’ as a past participle, implies something which ‘gives.’ The word which translates in the content of human terms the word ‘given,’ and thus describes the content of our first impact with reality, is the word gift” (L. Giussani, The Religious Sense, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999, p. 101). Now, since it is evident that within this given reality, a gift, I also exist as person, reason used according to its true nature of need for the total meaning cannot fail to conclude, “At this moment, if I am attentive, that is, if I am mature, then I cannot deny that the greatest and most profound evidence is that I do not make myself, I am not making myself. I do not give myself being, or the reality which I am. I am ‘given.’ This is the moment of maturity when I discover myself to be dependent upon something else. If I descend to my very depths, where do I spring from? Not from myself: from something else. This is the perception of myself as a gushing stream born from a spring, from something else, more than me, and by which I am made. If a stream rushing forth from a spring could think, it would perceive, at the bottom of its fresh surging, an origin it does not know, which is other than itself.
“Here we are speaking of the intuition, which, in every period of history, the human spirits have had. It is an intuition of this mysterious presence, which endows the instant, the ‘I’ with substance (solidity, density, foundation). I am you-who-make-me–except that this you is absolutely faceless. I use this word you because it is the least inadequate in my experience as a human being to indicate that unknown presence which is beyond comparison, more than my experience as a human being. What other word could I, on the other hand, use? When I examine myself and notice that I am not making myself by myself, then I–with the full and conscious vibration of affection which this word I exudes–turn to the Thing that makes me, to the source that caused me to be in this instant, and I can only address it using the word you. You-who-make-me is, therefore, what religious tradition calls God–it is that which is more than I, more ‘I’ than I myself. It is that by means of which I am. For this reason, the Bible says of God, ‘tam pater nemo’ (Gal 4:6) or, no one is as much a father” (Ibid., pp. 105-106.).
This simple recognition would be enough for man not to feel alone in front of reality. He could live with the awareness of being the child of a God who is so much a father. However, many times we forget this elementary evidence and live like orphans.
Man’s forgetfulness over the course of the centuries does not cause God’s nature to change. Rather, this separation is the opportunity for Him to reveal his true nature. A mother in the face of her stubborn child is forced to mobilize her maternal heart. Similarly, in the path of the human journey–God takes a step which renews and realizes the gratuitous nature of His being–He in Christ, makes a gift of Himself.
Fr. Giussani writes, “God’s nature appears to man as an absolute gift: God gives Himself, gives His very self to man. And what is God? The source of being, God gives man being: He gives man the ability to be; He gives man the ability to be greater, to grow; He gives man the ability to be completely himself, to grow to fulfilment; that is, He gives man the ability to be happy (happy–that is, totally satisfied or perfect. As I’ve always said, in Latin and in Greek, ‘perfect’ and ‘satisfied’ are the same word: perfectus, that is, perfect or fulfilled. A man who is fulfilled is a man who is satisfied). He gave Himself to me by giving me His being: ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness.’ And then, when man least expected it–he couldn’t even dream about it, he no longer expected it, he no longer thought about Him [God] from whom he had received being–this ‘Him’ re-enters man’s life to save it, He gives Himself again, dying for man. He gives everything, a total gift of self, until: ‘There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ A total gift.” ( Is it Possible to Live this Way? Vol. 3 Charity, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2009, pp. 9-10).
However, Fr. Giussani does not stop at the objective fact of God’s great gift of Himself, but adds that this gift of Himself is “moved”: “The second factor–the first is the essential one–is like an adjective next to a noun, it’s descriptive. Adjective means that it rests, it rests on the noun, therefore it would be secondary to the first. Nevertheless, it is the most impressive, and we–I am willing to bet you–have never thought of it and would never think of it, if God had not put us together. Why does God dedicate Himself to me? Why does He give Himself to me, in creating me, giving me being, that is, Himself (He gives me Himself, that is, being)? Moreover, why does He become man and give Himself to me to make me innocent once again […] and die for me (which there was absolutely no need for: a snap of the fingers and the Father would have certainly done it)? Why does He die for me? Why this gift of self up to the conceivable extreme, beyond the conceivable extreme? Here you must go to see and learn the sentence of the prophet Jeremiah by heart, in the thirty-first chapter, from verse 3 onwards. Through the voice of the prophet that is fulfilled in Christ (think of the people who were there together with that man, that young man who fulfilled these things), God says: ‘With eternal love I have loved you, for this I have attracted you to me [that is, I let you share in my nature], having pity on your nothingness.’ I have always translated this sentence in this way. What does ‘having pity on your nothingness’ mean? What is it about? A feeling, a feeling! It is about a value that is a feeling, because affection is a feeling. To have ‘affection for’ is a feeling, yet it is a value. To the degree that it has reason, it is a value; if it does not have reason, no type of affection is a value because it is missing half of the I, the I is truncated: only what is below the navel remains” (Ibid., pp. 11-12).
One capable of speaking of charity as “gift of self, moved” can only do so because he himself is deeply moved by Christ’s deep emotion: “God’s charity for man is being moved, a gift of self that vibrates, agitates, moves, is fulfilled in emotion, in the reality of being: it is moved. God who is moved! ‘What is man that you should be mindful of him?’ says the psalm”(Ibid., p.14).
Fr. Giussani is well aware of the insidious possibility of reducing this aspect as well, exactly as we have seen in the Pope’s admonishment in the beginning of his encyclical: “We must pay attention to a particular point: this being moved and this emotion bear, bring with them, a judgment and a beat of the heart. It is a judgment, therefore a value, a rational value, let’s say; not inasmuch as it can be boiled down and reduced to a level that only our reason is capable of, but rational in the sense that it gives a reason, it carries its reason within it. And it becomes a beat of the heart for this reason. If emotion or being moved doesn’t carry this judgment and this beat of the heart within it, then it is not charity. What is the reason? ‘I have loved you with an eternal love, therefore I have made you part of me, having pity on your nothingness.’ The beat of the heart is pity on your nothingness–but the reason is that you might participate in being” (Ibid., p.18).
The whole of the New Testament affirms the absolute precedence of the love of God. In his letters, St. John expresses this in a definitive way: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another” (1 Jn 4:10-11).
And further on, “We love because He first loved us”(1 Jn 4:19).
This is the novelty the Pope reminded us of in his first encyclical: “The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ Himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts–an unprecedented realism”(Deus Caritas Est, 12).
This moved love of God, which was made evident in Christ, is the only form of love that corresponds to man’s wanting nature, to the deficiency in him. This is why man is so attracted to Christ. Jacopone da Todi articulated this attraction. He says, “Christ draws me completely to Himself, such is His Beauty.” Beauty became flesh, and Christianity is precisely the surprise at the fascination provoked by Christ’s attractiveness. This is what struck those first two disciples, John and Andrew, who from the day they met Him became His. And now we can understand why they followed Him, because “charity […] indicates the deepest content, […] discovers the heart of that Presence that faith recognizes” (L. Giussani, Is it Possible to Live this Way? Vol. 3 Charity, op. cit., p.4). This is what strikes those who belong to Him. Christianity would not exist if there were not this surprise, this surprise that no human error can impede.
For this reason, “the first object of man’s charity is called Jesus Christ. Man’s first object of love and of being moved is called ‘God made flesh for us’” (Ibid., p.22).
In fact, this endless love of God, as revealed in Christ, awakens all the affection of the person who welcomes it. “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian personality is completely defined by this recognition. Christians are those who bear witness to this; “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 Jn. 4:16).
“It is this affection for Christ, this continuous surprise caused by the ‘moved’ gift of Himself that the Mystery brings to fruition in our lives, it is this affection and surprise that in time generates a subject capable of being interested in the destiny of every man. And this subject is interested in the destiny of every man not in an ideological or mechanical way, but as compassion and closeness, as a moved gift of himself which is a testimony to the original precedence of the Mystery” (P. Martinelli). “In fact, if God had not become man, nobody would have been able to conduct their lives according to this gratuity. Nobody would have dared to look at their own life with this generosity” (L. Giussani, L’io, il potere, le opere, Marietti, Genova, 2000, p.132).
Therefore we can understand well the beginning of the Pope’s recent encyclical, “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by His earthly life and especially by His death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (Caritas in Veritate, 1). Why? Because “everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is His promise and our hope” (Ibid., 2).
It’s God’s infinite love for us, a love more fulfilling than any hypothesis of individualism that makes us capable of charity: “As the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity”(Ibid., 5).
From the abundance of charity, from the fullness of the love we are objects of, can spring gratuity. It cannot come from a lack but only from a surplus! “Because this Christ exists there is no longer any man who doesn’t interest me. If only you could read certain notes of Mother Teresa and her sisters, especially one I often read a few years back that relates how one of Mother Teresa’s sisters found a man who was dying in a sewer in broad daylight. She took him, brought him home, washed him and got him in order, and that man said: ‘I have lived like a wretch, now I’m dying like a king.’ But only a Christian can do this. To love Christ and in Him, that is, according to His way, your brothers; devotion of self (gift of self) and being moved for others, for the other. So then, it is the I that affirms the you, it is the I that is fulfilled in affirming the you, it is the I that dies for the you.” (L. Giussani, Is it Possible to Live this Way? Vol. 3 Charity, op. cit., pp. 22-23).
But who is capable of a love like this?
Thus Fr. Giussani can face with unheard of newness the two most incomprehensible questions of Christian experience: sacrifice and virginity.

3. When sacrifice and virginity became interesting
“There is no ideal for which we can sacrifice ourselves, because we all know deceit, we who do not know what truth is” (La tentation de l’Occident, Bernard Grasset, Paris 1926, p. 216). This atrociously realistic sentence by the French thinker André Malraux expresses well the human reaction to sacrifice. In fact, sacrifice appears to man to be contrary to his nature, which is made for happiness. For sacrifice to become a value, you must discover something for which life is worth living.
When did sacrifice begin to become interesting? Sacrifice began to become interesting when man, wonderstruck by God’s gratuitousness to him, intuited that there was nothing more intelligent to do than to acknowledge Him. Only this experienced preference of the love of God can be the adequate reason for giving Him everything. Sacrifice is born of the heart-thawing yearning of love of Christ. “For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
“The truest sacrifice is to recognize a presence. What does it mean to recognize a presence? The I, instead of affirming itself, affirms you. This is the greatest devotion: ‘There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends;’ it is the same as giving one’s life. To affirm you in order to affirm the I, to make the I live, to affirm you as the goal of the I’s action, to affirm you is love for you. […] to affirm the other implies the forgetting of ourselves, which is the opposite of being attached to ourselves; we sacrifice to the other. The truest sacrifice is to recognize a presence, which means the truest sacrifice is to love” (L. Giussani, Is it Possible to Live this Way? Vol. 3 Charity, op. cit., pp. 22-23).
It is this acknowledgment of Christ, this attraction to His beauty, the heart-thawing yearning full of moved emotion experienced by those who encounter Him that can fill all the capacity of love of man, all the lack that Luzi wrote of. It is the experience of this fullness that makes possible a gratuitous relationship with people and things. This new relationship is called virginity, which Giussani defines as “possession with a detachment within.” “To think of your life (you whose face I know), to love your destiny, to love your happiness, to love your contentedness […] to truly love a person you need detachment: does a man adore his woman more when he looks at her from one meter away, in awe at the being he has before him, almost on his knees, even if he’s standing, almost on his knees in front of her; or, when he takes her for himself?”(Ibid., pp. 106-107). And, as documentation of this new way of possessing, Giussani gives us the example of Mary Magdalene. Who possessed Magdalene the prostitute more: Christ, who looked at her for an instant while she was passing in front of Him, or all the other men who had possessed her? When, a few days later, that woman washed His feet in tears, she answered this question” (Ibid., p. 107).
This is the way Christ loves. “When they arrived within twenty meters of Him, they were nevertheless pierced by that Presence inside Him, a Presence that remained with them for days, that required an effort to shake off! In this way, Christ put Himself in a relationship with people, bringing about a more useful love, a love that was more of a company on the path, a love that made the road lighter, a love that foreshadowed–like the skipping of a heartbeat–eternal tenderness…” (Ibid., p. 108).
Who would not desire to be reached by such a gaze? To make Himself present in the world today God continues to choose some, that they may “cry before all in every instant that Christ is the one thing for which life is worth living” (L. Giussani, Il tempo e il tempio. Dio e l’uomo [Time and the Temple: God and Man], Rizzoli, Milano 1995, p. 20).

“With eternal love I have loved you, for this I have attracted you to me, having pity on your nothingness”(Jer. 31:3). This news, which comes to us from the history of the Jewish people, is what moves me most. The Mystery, who made all things, has had pity on my nothingness, on our nothingness. Our Lady recognized this when she said, “The Lord has looked on His servant in her lowliness.” God’s mercy toward us comes “before” any other consideration–so much so that it is not connected to our goodness. The preference of God is totally gratuitous. In fact, He takes us just as we are. This is why God’s preference is the starting point for every one of our initiatives toward others. It also indicates the method: gratuity.
If, in every one of our attempts to love and help others and in every gesture of what we call charity, we do not set out from here, sooner or later we tire. Things wear us out and in time we become oblivious to our needs and the needs of fellow human beings. It is for this reason that we are tempted to imprison ourselves in individualism, ultimately indifferent to everything and everybody, that is, alone. Remaining amazed by Christ’s pity on our nothingness, His lowering of Himself to the point of becoming one among us, is what overcomes every type of confusion, of powerlessness and fills us so that we can accept every sacrifice. We can thus even accept the humanly inconceivable sacrifice of giving one’s life so that another can live. This is exactly what Jesus did with each one of us and what a Christian mother would do for her child.