Something That Comes First

Notes by Luigi Giussani from the Assembly of CL Responsibles (January 1993).

Luigi Giussani

This month’s “Page One” is drawn from Fr. Giussani’s talk at the Assembly of CL Responsibles in 1993, published in a Traces booklet entitled, “From Faith, the Method” (April 1994). Precisely this fundamental concern for method motivates us to publish it again. In the recent “Beginning Day” of the academic year in Lombardy (see Vol. 10, No. 9 [October] 2008 Traces), in a crucial passage, Fr. Julián Carrón said, “This is the challenge we have before us. The capacity of obedience is the precedence to what we see happening before our eyes, to that ‘Something that comes first,’ that Fr. Giussani always reminded us of, responding to a risk that always lies in ambush, the risk of changing your method.” Later, drawing on this text in a dialogue with some CL responsibles, Carrón continued, “All these things illuminate what’s at stake in this passage: either we let everything be dictated by this ‘Something that comes first’ that happens, and this generates all the rest, even our communion, or otherwise inexorably we introduce something else; not out of ill will, but because it’s inevitable. Ever since I realized this, a chill runs through me at the prospect we have before us: we’re at a fork in the road, at the decisive point of the problem. We have to allow ourselves all the time necessary to help each other understand this issue deep down.” We hope your reading of this text and consequent work will be fruitful.

Now I would like to briefly touch upon the crucial and constitutive factors of a “movement.” The first constitutive factor of a movement is that a person runs up against a human diversity, a different human reality.

The movement is the expansion of an event, of the event of Christ. How does this event ripple outwards? What is the initial, original phenomenon by which some people are struck and attracted and coalesce together? Is it a catechesis–what we call “School of Community”? No, every catechesis comes later; it’s the instrument of development of something that comes before.

The modality with which the movement–the Christian event–becomes present is the running up against a human diversity, a different human reality, that strikes us and attracts us because deep inside us, confusedly, or clearly, it corresponds to an expectant awaiting that is constitutive of our being, to the original needs of the human heart.

The event of Christ becomes present “now” in a phenomenon of a different humanity: a man runs up against you and discovers in you a new presentiment of life, something that increases his chance of certainty, of positivity, of hope, and of usefulness in living, and moves him to follow.

Jesus Christ, that man of two thousand years ago, is imminent, becomes present, under the veil, under the aspect of a different humanity. The encounter, the impact, is with a different humanity that strikes us because it corresponds to the structural needs of the heart more than any other modality of our thought or imagination–we never expected it, we never would’ve dreamed of it, it was impossible, it cannot be found elsewhere. The human diversity in which Christ becomes present lies precisely in the greater correspondence, in the unthinkable and unthought-of greater correspondence of this humanity we run up against to the needs of the heart, to the needs of reason.

This running into a different humanity is very simple, absolutely elementary, something that comes before everything, before any catechesis, reflection, or development. It’s something that has no need of explanation, but just needs to be seen, intercepted. It is something that evokes wonder, awakens an emotion, constitutes a call, moves a person to follow because it corresponds to the structurally expectant awaiting of the heart, “since,” as Cardinal Ratzinger said, “really we can only recognize that for which a correspondence exists in us” (Il Sabato, January 30, 1993). The criterion for the truth lies in the correspondence.

Running up against the presence of a different humanity comes before, not only at the beginning, but in every moment that follows the beginning–a year or twenty years later. The initial phenomenon–the impact with a different humanity, the wonder born of it–is destined to be the initial and original phenomenon of every moment of development; there is no development if that initial impact is not repeated, that is, if the event does not remain contemporaneous. Either it is renewed, or nothing proceeds, and right away you theorize about the event that has happened, and you fumble about seeking substitute supports for What is truly at the origin of the diversity. The originating factor is, permanently, the impact with a different human reality. Therefore, if what happened at the beginning doesn’t happen over again and isn’t renewed, then true continuity doesn’t occur; if you don’t experience now the impact with a new human reality, you don’t understand what happened to you back then. Only if the event happens again now can the initial event be illuminated and deepened, thus establishing continuity and development.

This first factor touches upon the fact that “everything is grace.” Running into a new human reality is a grace, always a grace–otherwise, it becomes the discovery attempted by our own thoughts or the presumptuous affirmation of our own critical capacity. The diversity we notice, the origin of the human diversity we run into, is absolute gratuitousness. The initial event proceeds only if you continually start out from running into a new human reality: “Seek every day the face of the saints and draw comfort from their discourses,” said the invitation contained in one of the documents of early Christianity, the Didaché. Continuity with what happened in the beginning, therefore, will only happen through the grace of an ever-new and wonderstruck impact, as if it were the first time. Otherwise, in the place of this wonder, there will be the domination of the thoughts that your cultural evolution makes you capable of organizing, the criticisms that your sensibility formulates for what you’ve experienced and what you see living, the alternative that you would claim to impose, etc.

The impact with a human diversity is fundamental ethically as well. The registration of this impact demands the original attitude with which the Creator makes us, that is, the attitude of a child who abandons himself and follows: “O Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so my soul” (Ps 131). In order to admit that phenomenon of human diversity, you need the gaze of a child: a humility, simplicity of heart, poverty of spirit, that some adults, even those who have experienced the first impact, may have lost. And then the original event that began the memory (in them) becomes a fact of the past, remains merely a “pious recollection.” Instead, with this simplicity or availability, a man can have erred for years, but recover better than those who have been undaunted and have nothing for which to be reproved.

It is with this “poverty of spirit” and “simplicity of heart” that human freedom is played out. As it says in Traces of Christian Experience,“As in any authentic experience, but above all in the Christian experience, it is patently clear that our self-awareness and critical capacity (the capacity to verify) are engaged and that an authentic experience is far from a simple impression and cannot be reduced to a sentimental effect.
In this ‘verification,’ the mystery of the divine initiative existentially enhances human ‘reason’ in the Christian experience.

In this ‘verification,’ human ‘freedom’ shows its nature. We cannot acknowledge the close correspondence between the present mystery and our own dynamism as human beings if not by the measure in which we accept our fundamental dependence, the essential fact of our ‘being made.’ This present and profound acceptance consists of simplicity, ‘purity of heart,’ and ‘poverty of spirit.’ All the drama of freedom lies in this ‘poverty of spirit’ and it is so profound that normally it comes upon us unawares”. [This text is published in L. Giussani, The Journey to Truth Is an Experience, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2006, p. 106.]

Therefore, if someone, struck by a diversity, set out for his destiny trying to “do” everything himself, he would lose everything; he has to follow. That different human presence he ran into is something other, something he must obey. Through an ever-new impact, in following and obedience, continuity is established with the first encounter.

I’d like to give an example. Let’s say that today some people who’d already had the experience we’ve spoken of gather together and, with the impressive memory of an event that struck them, that did them good, that even defined their lives, they want to renew it, overcoming a “discontinuity” that was created over the years. What makes them still feel like friends is a past experience, a fact that happened, but that in the present has become (as we were saying) a “pious recollection.” Now, how is it possible for them to regain continuity with the initial event that hit them? If, for example, they were to say, “Let’s get together and do a catechesis study group, or develop a new political initiative, or support a charitable activity, create a work, etc.,” none of these responses would be adequate to bridge the discontinuity. What’s needed is “something that comes before,” for which all these activities simply serve as an instrument of development. They need what happened to them in the beginning to happen again–not “how” it happened in the beginning, but “what” happened in the beginning; they need the impact with a different humanity that renews the same event that moved them originally. There, everything coalesces, and in following someone they come full circle to what happened in the beginning, and all the principal factors of the past experience re-emerge, clearer now, and more mature. In the renewal of the first impact, and thus of the surprise of the correspondence between a different human presence and the structural needs of the heart, you feel the reverberation of the same event that happened ten or twenty years before, in your classroom or in your university group.

Without the presence of this experience–the encounter with a different human reality–any “foothold” on which you tried to resume what was interrupted wouldn’t constitute real continuity. Continuity with the “then” is re-established only through the re-happening of the same event, the same impact, now. Ten or twenty years later, the same experience proceeds if your point of departure is the impact with a new reality and, “as a child has rest in its mother’s arms,” you abandon yourself, follow, obey, because that diversity doesn’t spring from your imagination or thought, from your dialectical skill or your obstinacy, from everything, that is, that has kept you away for years; it’s something other, irreducibly new–an event–to be obeyed.

At this point, we can delineate the second factor.
In the continually renewed impact with a presence of different humanity, what can educate and “draw forth” the surprise, the hope, and the presentiment that are born of this presence and that move you to follow? The main instrument of this education is what we call “School of Community.” It is the main instrument because it is systematic and coherent and, therefore, explicative and unifying. The School of Community is the instrument of development–as awareness, as affection, and as mobilizing catalyst in how we live our relationships–of that “something that comes before,” of the experience of encounter with a different humanity.

Thus, in carrying out the work indicated by the School of Community, the essential aspect is explaining, giving the reasons for the words used. And “reason” means the experience of the correspondence between reality you’ve run up against and the structural needs of the heart.
But then the aspect of primary importance in the School of Community is someone who “teaches,” a person or people in whom the initial impact is renewed and expands, offering themselves as the prompt so the first surprise may be repeated in the others. The person who guides School of Community needs to communicate an experience in which the initial wonder is renewed, not just carry out a role or perform a “task.” Communication of an experience can’t start out from a consciousness of oneself as a role, a vision of oneself as the person who has command of the subject matter or superiority, and the subsequent claim to be entitled to teach, because the only one who teaches is the Spirit of God; the Spirit is the one who makes the heart leap for the first time, and renews this experience.

Those who guide School of Community, communicating an experience in which the initial surprise happens anew, carry out this communication explaining, giving the reasons for the words used. Giving the reasons for the words used means communicating the experience of the correspondence between the event of a Presence and what the heart originally awaits expectantly, with the light and warmth that those words convey and offer. So the reason given for each word transforms us “from light to light,” as St. Paul says (2 Cor 3:18), introducing us to the ever clearer discovery of the truth, because every word used clarifies a response to a need of the heart that is in search of its own destiny.

Here we see again the poverty of spirit implied in the first factor. Without poverty of spirit, you don’t listen to what’s being communicated–your usual thoughts prevail: what you’re most attached to or what you feel entitled to. Therefore, they said to the man born blind, “What do you think you can learn from an ignorant man who hasn’t studied the law?”–or who hasn’t studied psychology, philosophy, and theology, we would say today. Instead, those who follow and obey develop, and the more they follow, the more they desire to follow.

There is a corollary to this second factor. The best position for understanding what is said to us is, paradoxically, the passion for communicating it to others–the passion for communicating to others what is given us to experience. This is documented simply and beautifully in a letter written by our friend in Canada. He recounts that last year a young doctor, Mark, an intense and dramatic person full of questions and doubts, joined the little community of the Movement in Montreal. After a turbulent year together (“It was as if he’d never adhered,” wrote John, the author of the letter), Mark received an invitation for an important two-year internship at the University of Buffalo. “I’m not going,” was Mark’s immediate response. “Why not?” John asked. “If I accepted, I’d have to abandon you all. And I can’t abandon you.” At this point, John suggested, “Accept! Go to Buffalo, and try to communicate to others what you’ve run into here.” He accepted, and after a few months he found more people around him than the number he’d left behind. But that’s not all. Two months after his departure, a young woman of the Montreal group, a nurse, began working in the hospital where Mark had worked up to two months before. Only a few days into her new job, the head nurse came up to her and, pointing her finger at her, said, “Mark Basik!” She asked, amazed, “What do you mean? Certainly, I know Mark Basik. He’s one of my best friends…” “I imagined as much,” continued the head nurse. “You and Mark do things in the same way.” That woman had run up against a phenomenon of a different humanity; that is, for her, the first impact happened.

I mention the episode above all because of the first part, because it shows clearly how, in a missionary tension, what was communicated to that young doctor no longer found in him the teeming “buts,” “ifs,” and “howevers” that previously would have entangled the message.

Now we come to the third factor, but just a quick mention.
The third factor is, as it were, “all the rest.” It is impossible for the experience up to this point not to give rise to a new subject, a new protagonism in the world, a companionship engaged in reality in a different way that is more human, more correspondent to the expectant awaiting of the human heart. It’s impossible for there not to come forth attempts to share emerging needs, gestures, and initiatives of charity; that there not arise a group that wants to truly renew the unity of Catholics in politics with all the patience necessary; that there not be created new activities for the unemployed, etc. The event that School of Community illuminates in its profound nexus with the heart inevitably becomes a subject who acts upon the world. From here, the work is born, the opus Dei, because the work is nothing other than an “I” in relationship with the Ideal, who, in his relationship with the Ideal, tries to mobilize reality according to that Ideal, whatever his situation: building a family or adhering to the vocation to virginity, working, or visiting old people in the local nursing home.