Life: God Has" Mixed in" With Us

Notes from a talk presented by Luigi Giussani in the house of the Novitiate of the Little Sistersof the Assumption, who in 1993 became the Sisters of Charity of the Assumption Rome, March 10, 1970
Luigi Giussani

1. "Yahweh appeared to him at the Oak of Mamre while he was sitting by the entrance of the tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up, and there he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance to the tent to greet them, and bowed to the ground. 'My lord,' he said, 'if I find favor with you, please do not pass your servant by. Let me have a little water brought, and you can wash your feet and have a rest under the tree. Let me fetch a little bread and you can refresh yourselves before going further, now that you have come in your servant's direction.' They replied, 'Do as you say.' Abraham hurried to the tent and said to Sarah, 'Quick, knead three measures of the best flour and make loaves.' Then, running to the herd, Abraham took a fine and tender calf and gave it to the servant, who hurried to prepare it. Then taking curds, milk, and the calf which had been prepared, he laid all before them, and they ate while he remained standing near them under the tree. 'Where is your wife Sarah?' they asked him. 'She is in the tent,' he replied. Then his guest said, 'I shall come back to you next year, and then your wife Sarah will have a son.' Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well on in years, and Sarah had ceased to have her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, 'Now that I am past the age of childbearing, and my husband is an old man, is pleasure to come my way again?' But Yahweh asked Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh and say, "Am I really going to have a child now that I am old?" Nothing is impossible for Yahweh. I shall come back to you at the same time next year and Sarah will have a son.' Sarah said, 'I did not laugh,' lying because she was afraid. But he replied, 'Oh yes, you did laugh.'" (Gen. 18:1-15)

This first revelation full of shadows-but already so filled with light for us to whom the explanation, the definitive word has been given-of the mystery of the Holy Trinity is perhaps the most moving passage in the Old Testament, if we look it full in the face, if we stop to meditate on it. It is the page in the Old Testament that is the most moving, as we see what God became for man.

God comes into the life of man, and He enters it with the familiarity of a dialogue, of a dinner: being served by man. Let's look at, let's contemplate on the figure of Abraham-these pages cannot be understood unless we fix our eyes on them a long time, unless we contemplate them. "Taking curds, milk… he remained standing near them." We pray to God that we may relive all this emotion, all this vigilance filled with humility and solicitude. Imagine Abraham there, leaning attentively toward these three persons who were One (note the continuous movement back and forth from the singular to the plural, so full of mystery); let's try to think of Abraham's expression as he stood there, ready to serve them, ready and available to them, let's think of how Abraham's mind, his consciousness, his heart must have been like a light, an undefined light, because it was like a great dawn that was breaking, in the history of mankind, within the soul, through the soul of Abraham, since this is the place where the meaning of all the history of the world, the meaning of every man's existence, finds its communication. The event begins to communicate itself by which God becomes a factor within our lives, within the life of man, by which God becomes one of us, one of us, like us.

Here there is still the shadow of prophecy, the first dawning, it is the first hint; but the value of life and the individual, the value of history, lies in this event. That from which we can draw the reason for our feeling secure, for our way of acting, the motive for our acts, our own contentment, the certainty by which we walk, is an event: it is not so much a reflection on the world, an analysis of situations, the thing from which we take our directions, but it is the wonder of this event-that God came down and "mixed in" with us-it is the wonder of this event, the contemplation of this event. The wonder of this event is the beginning of our rebirth, of our life. It is in contemplation of this event that the directives for our actions are traced out.

This event has within it an inexorable definiteness, it contains something hard and inexorable: when Sarah laughed, Yahweh observed her and rebuked her, but He did not, because of this, change the significance of His presence, His plan. The fact that Sarah laughed did not make Him change His plan: "Nothing is impossible for Yahweh. I shall come back to you at the same time next year and Sarah will have a son." The entire Old Testament, the marvelous story of the Hebrew people, is this miracle in the history of all mankind. The entire history of the Hebrew people is the unfolding of the wonder of this Covenant, this "Covenant"-this is the exact term-of God with man. Covenant means that God joins Himself to man, He joined him precisely as an event in man's life.

The entire history of the Hebrew people is the development of the awareness of this Covenant, it all "spins out" along the thread of this Covenant, and it carries within itself, constantly, their yielding to the temptation of uncertainty, to the temptation of letting go of their certainty, or better, of the criteria by which they judged their own measures. Sarah laughs: "Am I going to become a mother now that I am old? It is impossible, it's ridiculous." Before God, who through the Covenant came to be among them, the people of Israel appear as though always divided, so to speak, between the figures of Abraham and Sarah, between the attentive, devoted, obedient wonder of Abraham and the laughter of Sarah, Sarah's incredulous laughter. But God is faithful.

God rebukes the people of Israel for continually sliding into a placement of their hopes in their own measures, their idols, their constructions, their "heights," as the Bible says continually, "in the temples they erected to the gods created by them;" that is, in their own actions. God constantly admonishes the people of Israel for sliding into placing their hope, their esteem, in the actions they do, in what they create, in their plans, which are always made in the measure of their own fantasy and imagination, while God cannot be measured with that imagination; Yahweh is infinitely greater.

"I am your hope," I who am talking to you; not in an abstract sense-the God who did not show His face-but I who reveal Myself to you. Your hope is founded on the event in which I reveal Myself to you, in which I am with you, your hope is in this event. You must conceive your entire history in terms of this event, and therefore the criteria for your actions must be sought in this event, not in anything else. You must not be an adulterer (as the prophets will always say), you must not introduce your idols, your measures, of whatever sort they may be.
God rebukes Israel, but He does not withdraw from the event; His event does not fail: "I shall come back to you at the same time next year and Sarah will have a son." The 32nd chapter of Deuteronomy, verses 1-52, should be read, as it is one of the most beautiful synthetic expressions of this whole dialectic between the people and God. Waxing fat on the favors received from God, the Israelites fall away, seeking their own paths, appreciating (because this is the primary, radical problem: the esteem that arises from the ultimate judgment one has on things) other things than the event of God; Israel fixes its esteem on other things. God rebukes them but He always says, "I do not go back on my word." God is faithful, because He is just. Justice is God's consistency with His plan. Thus, for those who have been called by God, justice is consistency to His plan, or rather, it is the consistency of God's plan to ourselves, and therefore the consistency of our adhesion to it. Justice is only this. Otherwise, the 22nd chapter of Genesis (the sacrifice of Isaac) would not make any sense.

2. But after Genesis 18, we should read the last chapters of the Gospel of John, from 14 to 17, especially chapter 15. What a magnificent difference and at the same time what continuity, what profound continuity, between Abraham and the Trinity under the Oak of Mamre and Jesus who no longer calls men "servants," but "friends," because everything that He is, He has given to them, He has communicated to them! What a profound continuity, but at the same time what an enormous difference: how things have matured, how they have been fulfilled! Here it is truly accomplished, you can't go any further than this. No one loves his friends more than the one who gives his life for his friends; it is not possible to go any further than this.

Perhaps the concept that St. Paul will formulate can help us to understand that it is not possible to go any further than this: "You are me and I am you," the mystical body of Christ, flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. (cf. Eph. 5:29-32) But the Gospel of John says it, too, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in Me, with Me in him, bears fruit in plenty, for cut off from Me you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5); without this event you are no longer anything. Other men can still fool themselves by placing their hopes in their own actions, their own plans. You cannot do even this any more, because whoever has been marked, in his being, by God's involvement with him, whoever is marked by the sign of the risen Christ, whoever is marked by the definitive sign, whoever has within himself the seed of the final resurrection, the beginning of the end of the world, as the Christian (who already has within himself the seed of final salvation, because he has within himself, in his flesh, in his bones, the risen Christ), can no longer deceive himself: to forget this is a betrayal so great that he immediately finds himself empty, and his sense of unrest is much more pathological than the unrest that the man of the world feels within himself. All his actions are reduced to this unrest and this truth: "Cut off from me you can do nothing." This is our value, this is the value of our face, the content of our person.

3. Now, all our actions express who we are. In this fact, here lies the reason, the motive, the criterion, and this is the announcement, the message of every action we make: what He is for us, not because we are able to do anything on our own, as St. Paul says, not for the acts of justice that we do, but for the mercy He has shown toward us. For this we have value and this is our task in the world: we have been chosen to bear this mercy, not principally as a word, except as it is an expression of the awareness we have of ourselves. We witness to this mercy in the measure in which we are aware that our substance is Him ("omnia in ipso constant," says St. Paul). Think of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The substance of all things is He; but we are those, among men, who have been chosen to understand these definitive things already from this moment, now, in time; we have been made part of His mystery, thus this new definitive reality of things is already known to us. And this is the task: to bear this message to others, "Go out to the whole world; proclaim this gospel, this announcement to all creation."

So then, all the hints through which God arouses our attention, all the relationships in which God engages us, are nothing other than God's paths for this announcement of ours. This is precisely the concept of "poverty," which is the distinguishing, fundamental feeling for Christians.

In the place where a person is Christian, that is, where he lives in the awareness that his consistence is Another (Another in him: "For me, to live is Christ"), in the awareness that his consistence, the consistence of the event of his existence, is the existence in him of Another, the event of Christ that is communicated to him through Christ's long mystery in the world, through the mystery of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, the feeling which dominates life is poverty. Where a person lives this awareness, lives him or herself with this self-awareness-the content of our self-awareness is His mystery in us: "For me, to live is Christ," and indeed our most profound name is not our own given and family name, but His: "Christian"-the feeling of life, the feeling that determines one's attitude in life, one's morality (because "morality" means the attitude from which action is generated, from which action is born, which determines the action), the fundamental attitude is poverty.

This poverty is defined in an egregious and existential way by St. Paul in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapters 5 and 6. "It is all God's work… we urge you not to let your acceptance of His grace come to nothing." What is this grace? It is the event of Christ: "As He said, at the time of My favor I have answered you; on the day of salvation I have helped you; well, now is the real time of favor, now the day of salvation is here." But there is another passage from St. Paul, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7, where this poverty is defined even more clearly: "What I mean, brothers, is that the time has become limited, and from now on, those who have spouses should live as though they had none; and those who mourn as though they were not mourning; those who enjoy life as though they did not enjoy it…." This "as though" is truly the formula for Christian poverty. The passage from Second Corinthians is like a psychological reflection on the passage from First Corinthians, which describes instead the moral attitude. Rather, it indicates the ontological level of which the first passage is the psychological reverberation. The first passage points to the freedom, free certainty, joy, peace (the real word is "peace," the word Christ used) with which the Christian lives. This second passage, instead, indicates detachment, poverty, at its origin. Keeping our eye on the goal of our faith, on Christ, on Christ's coming again, it is as though everything one does slides away, because everything one does is just one step toward Christ who is coming again. We are-this is the poverty of the Christian person-as though suspended between a grace which makes us in the literal sense of the word, which causes us to be born (see Nicodemus), which gives us a new being, and the manifestation of this new being that we already are. This is our existence. Our being is God's covenant with us, no longer in the shadows that captivated Abraham in such a fascinating way, but in the definitive reality of the risen Christ: " All that I am I have given to you;" in the definitive reality of the risen Christ we are already children of God, even if it does not yet appear what we are. (cf. Jn. 1:12)
"Brothers, we have already been saved, we are all saved in hope." And the hope is for the emergence, the manifestation of what we already have. For St. John the Christian's expectation is not for goods that will come, but for the manifestation of a good that he already possesses because, having given us Christ His Son, what has the Father not given us already, with Him? For this reason the Christian is no longer judged by anyone, he does not fear judgment: "No one can condemn us any more, no one can judge us." (cf. Rom. 8:31-33)
Thus, our life is suspended between this grace that grants us renewal, that gives us a new ontology (participation in Christ, in the risen Christ: we are co-risen with Him, as St. Paul tells us); between this definitive covenant, the new and eternal covenant, and the reality of this new being that is given us by the covenant of Christ, of God with us, through Christ. From this new being that the covenant gives us emerges then one attitude, which is the expectation that what we are will be made manifest. All our existence, like all of history, is the expectation of the manifestation of what we already are. History is the expectation of the risen Christ to manifest Himself, who already is; the definitiveness is already present on the terrain of history, and our existence is completely aimed at the manifestation of what we already are.
So then, stretched between these two poles, our life is truly poor, because our hope is not in anything that we do and the estimation of our value is not based on anything that we do: our estimation of value, our hope is based only on what God has done in us, on the covenant that He has given us; hope lies in the manifestation of this covenant.

4. Now, what is existence made up of? Existence, one's personal history, is made up of actions, which are the expression, instant by instant, of the person. Thus our actions must all be generated by an awareness of the covenant and be aimed at manifesting this covenant. To the extent to which we manifest this alliance, to this degree we witness what we are, and in that measure we anticipate the end of the world, we anticipate it for the poor men who are made for this. In the measure in which our actions manifest what we are, God's covenant in us, they bring into the world an anticipation of the final joy. And this is what man is waiting for. In the end, really, man does not seek to have two straight legs or arms, he doesn't seek to be healed; man seeks happiness, he seeks the sense of the perfection of his life. In his progress along this path man is much more himself, he is much more human, he feels life more, in the degree to which he has been given to get to the bottom of the question. And Christ came for this; indeed, He did not heal everybody, He did not straighten things out for everybody. The task Christ gave us is to proclaim His name, not to fix all the heads, all the arms, to make everybody well-educated. This is not the task. In fact, very realistically, Jesus said, "You will have the poor with you always." In the measure of this awareness, kept alert by vigilance (at this point I truly understand the decisive importance, the grandeur of Christ's call to vigilance; because, in the degree to which vigilance is relaxed, in this measure we return to being worldly, thus we fail to be what we are, and we do as the people of Israel did, exactly the same. Faced with the presence of God, which is a promise of manifestation, faced with the announcement of what has happened in us, we are like Sarah, we laugh, maybe not in a bad way; but, since Christ has come, it is more likely that it will be in a bad way), to the extent to which we are vigilant about what we are, there are the two great corollaries that derive from Christ's redemption.

A morality is born out of a different life. St. Paul, when he urges the Corinthians to give money for the people in Jerusalem suffering from famine, does not say, "Look, you have to give this, look this is justice…" but he says, "You are well aware of the generosity that our Lord Jesus Christ had, that, although He was rich, He became poor for your sake, so that you should become rich through His poverty." It is as if he says, "I am not saying this as an order but as advice.…" Later he speaks of equality: "It is not that you ought to relieve other people's needs and leave yourselves in hardship; but there should be a fair balance." (cf. 2Cor. 8,13) Everything, then, derives from awareness of what Christ is. And the same is true for purity. When St. Paul speaks of purity, he does not say, "It is right for you to do this or that," but he says, "Remember that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit."

Out of awareness of this new reality in us, to the extent to which we are faithful to our vigilance-which is communicated as a dawn, a twilight of the end of our eyes (as St. Paul says, we go from brightness to brightness, reflecting in our faces the glory of God)-a new morality is born. If we do not derive our behavior from this, then our situation, our way of conceiving of ourselves becomes moralistic, and moralism is terrible because it throws us into desperation. Precisely because God has made us sensitive to the life of the Spirit, moralism casts us perforce, when we look it in the face, into desperation, except for some moments, perhaps our moments of activity, when we become, like the scribes and the Pharisees, satisfied with ourselves, with what we are doing. Instead, when we derive our attitude from what Christ is in us, from this new ontology, from this new being that is in us which the catechism calls "sanctifying grace" (it is always a question of understanding, of living these things); if we take our attitude from what Christ is, from what we have, what we are, from our new birth, then we are full of certainty, not in the works that we do, but in the fact that God will fulfill His history, because God is faithful. God is faithful, and having started His work in me, He will carry it out all the way to the end.

Therefore our only true moral concern is that of prayer, that is, to remain attentive "like the eyes of a servant on the hand of her mistress," ready ("be ready"). The readiness, the vigilance which is prayer, this alone is our concern: vigilance that is expressed in entreaty to God that He hurry up His work, that He hurry up the coming of His Christ, the good Israelites would say, that He hurry up the manifestation of Him who is in us.

Thus if, as we reach out toward others, we do not draw on the awareness that Christ gave us in the covenant with God for our motives and criterion, the content and form of our action, the entire value and aspect of the action, in the best of cases we will bring glory to ourselves, but we will not be witnesses for Him, because people will admire our skill and will give glory to us, but not to something other than us: we will not give glory to the mystery of God.

Thus, our safety on the road of life-the Lord came to make us safe: everyone was groping in the dark, seeking, until the sun came out and all was safe-our security on the path of life (you cannot build anything except on some security, it is only on a foundation of security that one builds himself and builds the world), the validity, that is, the truth, the permanence of the efficacy of our action for men, the truth of our love for men, of our contribution to men, depends on this self-awareness, which Paul expressed so powerfully: "For me, to live is Christ." My living is You, O Christ, my life is You, everything that I think about myself and everything I try to do comes from this, including the building of the Church (the Church is built by us, it depends in mathematical proportion on the amount of this self-awareness, otherwise we could all be Christians and yet not build the Church, despite all our best intentions). The Church is built only by the Mystery that operates in us, that is, by this new being, not created by our works but from whom our works derive, with a speed that is determined by God's time (quite rapid in the case of St. Therese and St. Catherine; in our case perhaps imperceptibly slow). This reality changes us first of all, and for this reason we hope that our works may be changed, not by our own will, because if our will did things, could do things, then God's coming would have been useless. But instead, everything is grace, that is, the unfolding of an event that God created in the world-the covenant-without asking our opinion beforehand (He didn't ask Abraham his opinion).

The problem is that faith cannot be something that is presupposed and then left alone, taken for granted, thinking, "Now we have to act!" Faith has to be the horizon of all our actions. If not, even our sense of social justice is moralistic, because it arises from a rationalistic position. Even the pagans can have one and act according to it; in fact pagans do it better than we do, Marxists do it better than we: the origin of their attitude is the human response to need that has to be resolved. This is something that all honest people can do. So, the response to need idealizes the need, seeks its theory, that is, its paths, and tries to plan according to it to the extent that, if the need is pressing, then even violence is justified. Instead, for the Christian, this is absolutely not the case. The Christian is as though awakened by feeling that he has been "grabbed in his inner being" by an event that primarily has nothing to do with social justice: it is the event of Christ. The people in the Gospels were not troubled by the problem of social justice; the announcement to the shepherds was the same as the one to Nicodemus ("Master, no one does what You do"), that is, to unschooled shepherds and to university professors just the same. So, the Christian is grabbed inside by an event, a happening. The event that God provoked in the world is the primum, the primary thing in life: God came, the covenant with God. This is the new situation: it is the wonder, the marvel, the admiration, the faithfulness to this event. I am grabbed inside by this event, and this event changes me and projects me onto myself and others, onto the world, with eyes filled with an attention and a brotherly feeling from which then all my demand for justice, for help, derives. It seems like it might be a theoretical question, but out of it two radically different methods arise. The second attitude, the one that marks the Christian, leaves no quarter to the inadequacy and injustice that exists, but the way it does not let it be is different, it possesses a more complete sense of the matter, so that it cannot pursue a line of argument based on values by trampling on other values, it is forced to move everything forward, and thus it requires patience, which is the great Christian word. Patience is the opposite of complacence, of sitting there passively, it is an unlimited tenacity that never changes. That is to say, it does not become impatience, violence, because it is sure, not of its own energy, but of Christ, of God who moves everything along, and of God's time, especially of His plan, His history. "Your patience will win you your lives." In this way, the value of a person is not destroyed in the pursuit of a social structure. This profound difference in method, which we can discover in ourselves, is perhaps the most impressive comparison. Because when we slip into a moralistic, rationalistic method, our moral seriousness leads us to discouragement, except in the moments when we are distracted or deceived, full of self-love, of confidence in our actions. But when we see clearly, the disproportion between what we are and what we would like to be cannot but cast us into desperation, and thus, full of impatience, we do violence to ourselves and say, "I will achieve this purpose, this week," and it is truly terrible. In the second method, one instead does not yield an instant in his desire for good, he or she is completely attentive, full of awareness of the conditioning carried within and of the fact that only God's time will purify and decant, and thus one is completely alert to the entreaty. Completely alert, not to his own plan, but to the entreaty. For an entreaty cannot be sincere if it does not keep you completely alert, in other words, completely ready. And this is the liberation that St. Paul spoke about: "Freed from the law." It is the freedom of the children of God, which does not mean that we are perfect; we, sinners, and yet such sinners and so completely saved.

This is the contradiction, or better, the tension between the covenant, which is the foundation and origin, and our history, which will reveal this in its own time, which reveals it according to the time of God. It is really true what Isaiah said: "But those who hope in Yahweh will regain their strength, they will sprout wings like eagles, though they run they will not grow weary, though they walk they will never tire." (Is. 40:31) There is nothing that tires us more than leaning on ourselves and our own plans. "Whoever loses himself will find himself": our life is the life of Another.

I would not be able to remain a Christian if these things were not true; it would not be possible to stand yourself or stand others, because we can't stand others if we don't have a reason to stand ourselves. Our relationship with others is always a projection of the way we perceive ourselves, consciously or unconsciously. In the last analysis, if in our subconscious we don't accept ourselves and don't acknowledge ourselves, then we cannot succeed in accepting and acknowledging others. But how can we acknowledge ourselves and accept ourselves, with this nothingness that we are? We accept ourselves because the face of Another is in us, another reality is in us. It is no coincidence that the whole modern mentality accepts and tolerates Christianity to the extent to which it is reduced to moralism or activism. This is a tendency that has always existed and that modern desacralization or secularization has theorized and taken to its consequences, which are that the Christian is acceptable to the extent to which he identifies his Christianity with social and political action. Because where Christianity shows its contents, what it is, its physiognomy, its personality, it is no longer tolerable; in the best of cases it is absurd, for "philosophers," who are in favor of pure rationality; for educated people it is an absurdity (cultivated people don't get their hands dirty) and they put it aside; for the "Pharisees," that is to say for the moralists, for those who are committed to "values," it is a scandal, it is not tolerable, it has to be ripped out. Thus cultured liberalism has tolerated Christianity and the Church; Marxism, which is much more engaged in reality, does not. Therefore, it is "scandal to the Jews," that is, to the moralists, to those who place a great value on relationship and action, and "to the Gentiles, foolishness," that is, to pagan philosophy.

It's another world. Besides, if God reveals Himself to man, if God comes into our history, He has to bring something that overturns all our measures a priori, otherwise it is not He. And the search, filled with listening for this, the desire, the prayer that it happen, that our reality, our flesh be shaped according to this event, is all the Christian effort, and it's called ascesis. This is our task. I don't know any other. The Jews asked for miracles; the moralists that the world be changed, that the situation change; the Greeks, wisdom, philosophy, an organic conception. But we know nothing other than Christ and Christ crucified.

Our whole concern in these years is that, in the Christian world, these last few phrases, which however no exegete can reduce, not be emptied of their content.