The Perception of Mystery in the Encounter with That Man

Notes from a talk between Luigi Giussani and a group of Memores Domini novices Milan, December 19, 1998

Luigi Giussani

We want to have an assembly to clarify the step we are taking; that is, to clarify the link between the reasonability of starting and the question of faith.X1
I accepted the invitation to come here in order to answer three questions on the first two chapters of my book, Si può vivere così? (Can you live like this?) So whoever has a comprehensive question on these two chapters may begin.

I want to know Destiny, I want to know Christ more and more, and I feel the urge for everything in me to be implied in this work. We have seen that faith is a method of knowledge with which you can get to know a reality that is knowable neither directly by evidence nor directly by analysis of one's experience. I asked myself, "But don't we know Mystery also through all reality since it is a sign?" So the dynamics of faith could become broader. But it says in one place that faith is played out at the level of persons: I trust in a person and not in a thing.2 I would like to understand this point better.
You cannot have faith in nature: in a poplar, in a whale, etc. You cannot have faith in these things. These things, in which you cannot have faith-later we shall say why-are rather the sign of something else. In order to be, to exist, to be seen by you and me, they suppose something else. Up to this point human reason must come in, human reason which is awareness of reality. Awareness of reality: a whale is a reality, the star that is not seen is a reality, the sky is a reality, and the whirlwind of disasters that happen in the world is a reality. When you read the newspapers or switch on the television at six in the morning to hear the news on the Swiss channel you would go into the world an hour later with your heart broken in pieces, almost not wanting to hear anything more; instead it is by means of those lights, through the circumstances we live in, that the Lord shows us the road.
Now, travelling on the road, making a journey one particular day, I meet a stranger in a roadside restaurant. This is someone I never knew before, never thought of and never imagined; a stranger, one who comes from outside my region, a foreigner who is talking as he eats. We are there in the restaurant, I am eating, and there are three people at the table in front of me, they are talking and saying things that interest me. Then I perk up my ears and I hear among other things one of them saying, "I am the way, the truth and the life."3 While they are eating! And from that moment the other two never speak again. He was doing the talking! Afterwards, when they had finished eating, they went off together-I kept close to them, watching them continually-and they took the road through the fields.
Had I been together with those two-the third along with the two, the fourth was with the one who was talking-I would have said, or rather at first I would have kept silent, but then I would have said, "Where do you come from?" "I come from Nazareth." "And what work do you do?" "I will have to be a fisherman, too." "But how could you say what you said?" And he explains.
Men don't know what God is. Everyone can talk about God. As long as you don't define anything, as long as you don't say, "God is like this," everything can be questioned. But "listening to that man," said one of the two to the other as they went back home, leaving behind the villa where he was staying, "I was struck. I was struck that a man should say such a thing. How can you say something like that? Either he is crazy or there's something that I don't know. 'I am the way, the truth and the life [the right road for the right goal].' How can a man say such a thing?" Then the other one says, "Yes, I don't get it either. I don't understand how he can be like this, but he speaks like our prophets, like the books of our prophets [because they had the Bible, too]-who knows!"
There were other times, too. Going with him became a habit for them, because they were more and more attracted by what he said. He touched on things that no one else questioned, because either they weren't understood or they weren't talked about. But he also spoke of things about which everyone had an idea. And yet no one had ever said that you cannot know unless you love:4 even the clearest evidence assumes the meaning of what the heart makes you feel.
Yes, heart. What do we mean by "heart?" How do we define the heart?

It is that complex of needs and evidences with which man is thrown into the comparison with reality.5
And what is reality? It's what everything is made of. All that happens is made; how evident things are! However, just as evidently, we don't know how they "come to be," we don't know how they can be as they are. It's clear that you haven't made yourself. And so? You are, and yet you didn't make yourself. The greatest evidence, the greatest discovery that I-that a man-can make is this: to understand that I am nothing and yet I am.6 We are the only ones who say these things. There is no one who says them in any other place in society today, and yet they are evident. They are the first evident things. There is nothing more immediately acceptable than this.
Let's take another example. In a small village in Triveneto [Italy], a very Catholic area, there was a boy who, against his mother's orders, went to a certain tavern in a nearby village to meet a group of three or four young roughnecks he liked. He would go there and after a while he was dissuaded from going to church on Sunday and from obeying his mother. And his mother loved him more than his destiny (using our words, because she didn't think of this, she didn't make this connection). In any case that boy became Pasolini. He had sucked the genuine Christian tradition from his mother's breast, he had to live it, he was forced to live it, even though he interpreted everything in a different way; that is, according to the mentality of the group. So he became Pasolini, one of the greatest Italian writers, a witness of the values that a certain kind of socialism practiced. And he was a poet, too, a great artist.
In those years the Communists (still in the minority, not yet in government as they are now thanks to the help of the Catholic left), much more intelligently than other agents of public life, made great efforts to support cultural centers, artists' exhibitions, centers where people could be more moved by reality. So much so that most people in Italy were saying, "They've got control of culture." And whoever has control over culture is sure to come out on top in time. If Christianity is so difficult to know and therefore so hard "to accept" these days, it is because it has gone on calling people to take part in certain rites and the only content of Christianity, for a century, has seemed to be the moral question, the moral question reduced to one point, the sixth and ninth commandments, in other words the problem of sex (as we see these days in the United States). An exception seemed to come in 1968, when the revolution attempted by the youth-manipulated by those underneath or those above!-said that the evil lay in the way power was used, and so they had to get into a stronger position than the power in order to take power themselves. So instead of the sixth and ninth commandments the fifth and the seventh were stressed: the question of social justice.7 But with the defence of social justice there was turmoil in every other field.

What is the difference between the first case and the second? In the first case, or rather in the follow-up to that question that I hinted at-that even a whale "speaks" of the Mystery-it is only the religious sense that has to be applied. And the religious sense is reason in as much as it is able to become conscious of reality according to the whole of its factors. When you see a mountain or a whale, you cannot just say, "It's a mountain" or "It's a whale," but you say, "Who made it? Who makes these things?" I think of that child adopted at the age of three by a friend of mine who is totally atheist, and whose wife is atheist (adopting her was a grand gesture): intelligent and confident after two years with them, when she was five she wasn't able to "read or write" in the "religious" sense of the term; in other words, she had no education in religious terms. They went for a tour in the Dolomite Mountains. At a certain point, I no longer remember where, they came upon a wonderful panorama, and the two parents stood there admiring the scene. The girl-five years old!-turned to them and said, "Mummy, who made this?" From that moment began their return to religiosity, to the religious experience, which is in our Christian tradition.
So, it all starts from reality, any part of reality. Even Jesus Christ on the cross or the risen Christ on Lake Tiberias belong to reality, because they are from this point of view the object of reason, because they belong to reality as something evident, as a fact that happens. For it is only reason that can capture the presence of that which is being spoken about.
Second case. There are encounters or facts or a natural reality that claim to be "something." Let's look at Pasolini. Pasolini encountered a group of persons who set themselves against the society of their day, the culture of their day, as innovators, as discoverers of something new, a new way, "This is true life, to live in society, to live freely doing what you like," or "it is to live freely in society; and in order to be free we need 'conditionings' set by the socialist State." In short, the consequences of something we affirm, depending on its nature, can be many; but there are always consequences for everything we meet and is of interest to man.
In the example of the two or three fishermen of Galilee, instead, that man said, "I am the way, the truth and the life" -something so transcendent, something so all-embracing, it is a claim out of this world! They could have said, "What on earth does he mean? He's crazy! '…the way, the truth and the life'? What's he talking about?" Way, a means, a method for being true, for reaching the truth, or rather for becoming aware of a life that was inside. But these were three things too great for those two to be able to draw conclusions.

They were struck, and this blow, this shock questioned them many times. For example that time they invited him to get into the boat with them; even earlier when they had gone with him to a wedding in Cana;8 then they took him on Lake Tiberias. He went fishing with them several times, even at night. Once, after having taken him along three or four times, one night, there was a terrible storm, with a strong wind, almost a hurricane. In these cases Lake Tiberias has such waves that they even drag up rocks from the bottom. Those fishermen, who knew the lake so well, had made a mistake going out that night, or maybe they had gone out because he was with them. Anyway, he was sleeping! It seemed that not even the raging wind, not even the terrible waves swamping the boat would wake him up. He was so tired that he had his head down and was asleep. Then one of them went up to him-he would have grabbed him by the arm, and shaken him, I don't know, because they were friends-and said to him, "Hey, Master, were going down!" and he replied, "What are you afraid of, men of little faith?" Then he called to the wind and the sea, "Silence! Stop it." And at his word the sea was suddenly calm, without a wave, only the murmuring of the tide. So the ones who already knew where he lived, who knew who his mother and father were, said, "But who is he?"9 They ask the same question that they had asked in their hearts right from the beginning. He had gone to eat with them often, but there is a huge difference between one who shares a meal with you and one who says, "I am the way, the truth and the life." It is a huge leap for reason, "What can I say of this man?" Every time there is a decisive step, the Gospel describes the human experience in relationship with God precisely in these terms, "Who is he?"
Imagine three months later. They have known each other for three months, and they have become friends, so they are familiar with him. Why had they become friends? Because there was something in what he said that corresponded with their "heart." And all this was evident. But what was not evident was the content, what lay beyond the words "way, truth and life," because they all took these words in the sense that we all use them, every one of them used these words not as a totality, as words that represent everything and make everything live, that embrace everything in man, but in order to describe "way": a path leading from Milan to Bergamo; "truth": an approximation that all mathematics and sciences are; and "life": we understand at once what life is!
Anyway, they went on like this for two years. In these two years, by the way, he was continuously working miracles at the drop of a hat! Like for example that leper who was suddenly cured because Jesus had touched him.10 Or like that girl who was dead, whose family he knew. He went to their house, sent everyone out of the room where she was, and, soon after, opened the door and said, "Here is your daughter." And she had come back to life!11
So you reach the point where there can be no more resistance, no alibi can stand up: either they had to leave him at once, or they had to ask another question, like the one they asked after that night on the lake, "But who is this man?" They asked each other, they didn't ask him.
The thing came out when Jesus asked Peter, "Who do people say I am?" "Oh, a charlatan, a prophet, a great man, a powerful man." "And you, what do you say?" "You are the Christ, the Messiah, sent by the living God."12 Simon had given this answer spontaneously, almost rudely, not because he had understood what he was saying, but because he felt that this answer was more in proportion with what that man was. The evidence of that man found no objection in the heart.

It is here that Jesus says, "The Mystery sent me to you, to the world, making me take flesh in your humanity…" He is a man! It is as if the Mystery were to have grasped, in the intimacy of a woman, the origin, the original leap of life (the seed from which you later reach the age of 76 with no voice left!) It is as if the Mystery, wanting to make man understand what He-God-is for man (who is always an individual, first and foremost an individual, because the person is like that!), the first thing that he wanted to say is that the Mystery is good. Man, in his vocabulary, can find only this formula, "The Mystery is good." Or another connected with this: that man is not without defects, can never shed his defects completely (normally he is sunk in them up to his neck), but the Mystery forgives everything. "Forgive" is not the right word, He had "mercy" on everything. Of all that the Mystery works, what reason understands is forgiveness, whereas "mercy" cannot be understood at all. What is understood in fact is a human reduction. But you will read this I hope in the booklet of the Fraternity Retreat.13 I have put a lot of stress on this in the last two years, because I didn't understand before. Once I told somebody, "I have told you all correct things that I didn't understand." If someone had asked me before, "Can you explain this to us?" I would have answered without being able to bring out all the logic within the things I was saying; I would have answered without being able to draw the conclusions from evidence that I had.
Now let's think of who is implicated in the relationship with Jesus as a man-as a man. If Jesus had asked him what he thought of him he would have answered, "He's a prophet, a genius…" Instead, St. Peter repeats a phrase he had heard from him and had not understood, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." So Jesus says to him, "Well done! You are great Simon, because what you've said now you didn't say off the top of your own head, you didn't discover it with your own reason, but it is the Father-in other words the Mystery as the origin of things-who has reached you; you've said something the Spirit suggested to you without your understanding what it meant."14 Not as words in themselves, Simon knew the meaning of what he was saying. And he would have used those words even before the Pharisees, the leaders. Simon was like that. Later he gave way, he faltered, but Christ took him and told him, "I give you everything. All that I came for I give to you; I give it to you, I tie it to your action."15 And he got together with other apostles, his best friends. It is at this point that the question of "faith and reason" comes into play.

You said that they understood those words, "… way, truth and life," as each of them used them, not as a totality…
Way, truth and life: Christ didn't use strange words in order to say what he wanted to say. But you couldn't expect to define or understand what he wanted to say in its final complexity or its final horizon. They were certainly amazed at these words, so much so that they learned them by heart (because the Gospel is made of memories, of reminiscences).16 Christ said, "I am the way, the truth and the life," and time made the apostles understand in what sense he was the way, in what sense he was the truth, and in what sense he was the life. It is time that makes one understand the pregnancy of a word. The thing that God has most made me understand at 75 years of age is this, "All that you have done, all that has come out of your first step at the Berchet High School, all that has developed out of that elementary condition [in which I was not even sure to be dealing well with my rector or with my bishop], all that was born, I was the one who gave birth to it," says the Lord. Because God is all in all.17 Thus, they published the things I was saying in a book, the articles I wrote before GS [the Catholic student youth group begun by Fr. Giussani in 1954], and during the first years of GS.18 On reading those articles everyone said, "But everything was already there, you were already saying it all then!" I didn't understand what I was saying, but I was not an impostor, I was saying what I was doing, as I understood it then.

When the apostles became aware of the exceptional nature of the presence of the Lord, there were committed in some way to their humanity…
I said they were struck by the Lord, because as they spoke with him their heart came back to life: he was in tune with their heart.

So when they met him the vigilance over their heart coincided with vigilance over that Presence: it was staying with that Presence that in some way their heart came back to life. I have the impression, though, that every so often we go back; in other words, we think we can commit ourselves to our humanity without reference to this Presence.
Yes, very good. Only that I imagine for example Andrew and John, or Simon, or Philip, or Nathanael (these are the first five to be in St. John's memory)19 could have had a different attitude: one of them was shocked and struck, he felt he had to follow that man; instead the other, let's suppose, had a family, wife and children-"I would come, if I was free, I would come, but…" When you have an encounter, this encounter, the main question is that the Mystery, in having you meet this thing, wants your life to change. So you have to follow him; you follow that man. If the initial impression is confirmed you reach a point in which you feel full, you feel like attaching yourself to Him, you feel like referring to Him more than to anything else. You attach yourself to him like verbena attaches itself to the plant that supports it. The following day, two days later, three days later, you don't give up certain bad habits of yours (insulting your wife, betraying her…). But if someone were to come up to you and say, "That man wouldn't like you to do that," and you reply, "I know, I agree," and he says, "So you're no longer one of us," you would say, "I would like to belong to him. I want to belong to him! I feel like being his more than going with women like all the others do. I can't do it any more because I am attached to that man, I am more attached to that man than I am to my instincts or to my reactions, or to my moments of madness."20
The encounter takes on a meaning for our life according to the time in which we preserve it. In order to preserve the good juice of an encounter, the good impression of an encounter, we need to think about it over and over again: time, as it passes, makes it clearer and more persuasive. Perhaps one is not able to reason through it, but in the end has a profound sympathy for it, as an expression of his heart. The heart expresses a sympathy, lives of sympathy. Or better, the heart lives of truth. For the finest thing we say is that you cannot know without loving, because knowledge is an attraction. If it does not follow an attraction, it is not real knowledge, knowledge remains on the surface and does not last; you don't remember.
So I agree with the point just made, but I would stress the need for time. Not abstract time, but concrete time. In other words, maintain the link with Him, with what you have felt.
And there is another thing to be said: you have had this encounter, that's why you are here. Even if it lasted only three minutes, it is what had you come here. So it had quite a strong effect. Someone who comes here, to a place he doesn't know, where the dialogue is "strange," someone who is here now, has had an encounter. I made the objection to myself, "Someone could have had the encounter without reasons!" Fine: you haven't had it with reasons, but now I'll tell you the reason why you must change what you felt before. Whoever is here has had an encounter!

So whoever has had an encounter must commit himself to what he has encountered; this coincides with commitment to one's own humanity.
If you have had an encounter, your behavior toward what has happened to you depends on your honesty; in the end we should say on your morality. Morality is the function of a particular for the whole. It is not a particular of your life, like a dandelion gone to seed, one puff and it's gone. Imagine how John and Andrew were struck when they were in the boat that night on the lake, and they said, "But who is he?" It is the same question that the Pharisees asked. Before beating him up and killing him, the scribes and the Pharisees went to him in public and asked him, "How long are you going to keep us in suspense? Who are you, and where are you from?" And he had kept silent, because that question was not sincere, not real.
So, the most serious question for every one of you who is here, as you have been called, every one of you must find from now on how to understand well and more the road to travel, what the truth is, the truth you have encountered, and the life you must live. These are the three things that man, whatever idea he may have, must accept.
Pasolini followed the wrong road: he said that truth does not exist-or rather, that we don't know what the truth is, how it is, as Malraux said-21and that life is made of immediate things (eating and drinking….) But little by little in his life he heard the echo of what his mother said about life, about truth, and about which road to travel. If he had met someone with our passion, if he had come to one of the gestures of our community, especially in certain moments, he would have wept.
This is why I said that if one of you is here, then he has had an encounter. You have to develop this encounter, you must try to understand it. You cannot get started only when you have understood everything. No one can do this. There is nothing in this world that reveals itself clearly in the instant when it first happens.
But we cannot say that the expectation of things that brought you here is unbearable. No, it is unbearable for whoever wants neither the truth nor life; for whoever is an impostor and goes against himself. It is not others who say it, you are the one: if you reflect, if your "yes" or your participation in the thing as it presents itself becomes less serious, it is a dishonesty, according to the contents of what encountered you, of what you have encountered.

So, what is the difference between religious sense and faith? Or, what does religious sense say about the word faith? The religious sense is reason, reasonability. Reasonability is called precisely "religious sense," because if reason is grasping reality according to the whole of its factors, it never quite manages this, there is always something that escapes (there is a point of escape through which the whole of truth passes, spraying outwards or inwards). Reason has a limit. Even if you were to go to the top of the Himalayas trying to see the panorama of the whole world, if you reached the top of Everest, you would see as far as Kamchatka, but you would not see as far as Russia, for example; you would not see "beyond" that. Man is serene only when he hears everything, when he knows everything, and when he possesses everything. "Each one confusedly learns a good/ in which his soul reposes, and desires;/ to reach which each one contends." (Con-tends: together with others he is forced to do it.)22
This "beyond" is the Mystery. And what is not Mystery, reason rightly plans to know. Reason can know everything except the Mystery. The Mystery is what makes it, it is the creator, because reason is not self-made. And this is the greatest evidence that reason has: the moment in which I am most aware that I don't make myself, but that an Other makes me, is now, the instant I am living.
So the ultimate meaning of all that we live-of all that happens, that each one is searching for as his desire to know, to understand, and to bring about in its existential consequences-in the final analysis cannot be defined by reason. If reason is relationship with reality according to the whole of its factors, a woman cannot be defined by the man she goes with, and a child cannot be defined by the mother who gives it birth. A level of truth in the relationship with your wife, your husband, your children is no longer possible, an attitude of truth is no longer possible if it does not pass through that which is not admitted, that which many believe they cannot admit-in other words, God, the Mystery. It is in our life, on our way, you will see that without adhering to the Mystery, man cannot sustain any act that is just and good, completely good.
So, suppose that the Mystery, in order to persuade man that He, the Mystery, is a reality-the most decisive reality for all the rest of reality; it is the reality that creates all the rest, that communicates itself to the rest, to the world, with all that entices or dishonors-in order to communicate itself to man, who is the only point in all the cosmos that is conscious of things (no other reality has consciousness), in order to make himself known to man as a super-human reality, becomes a man. The Mystery slid into time, was born of a woman, "Non horruisti virginis uterum,"23 he did not disdain to enter into the womb of a woman like each one of us.
He was a man like us, he went around through the lanes of Nazareth, or went to the synagogue with the others, he sang with the others. As a man it was as if he didn't yet have the awareness of who he was, until he went to John the Baptist. John the Baptist baptized him with the others, and in that instant he and John heard the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Mystery, which said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."24

As a man born in a given town to a given mother, he was familiar with that town and its inhabitants, he was one of them. Therefore he had a particular way of speaking, of doing things. When he was thirty years old, the novelty he carried within himself was no longer recognized. When he proclaimed on the streets of his town, "The prophets spoke of me. I am the long-awaited Messiah,"25 they wanted to throw him over the cliff. Imagine what his fellow-townspeople thought of him, "He's mad, completely mad!" Or, "He's a dangerous madman, because he speaks in such a way as to deny all our prophecies; he is destroying the people," which was quite rightly for the Jews the adequate subject in the relationship with God (who, if he comes to communicate himself with man, does not pass through the normal ways of human generation: we should have to say horruit virginis uterum!).
Anyway this man, after thirty years, leaves his home, abandons his mother-I'm not sure if "abandon" is the right word; he tells his mother that he will come back when God wants (but he had already said that in the temple at the age of twelve!)26-and he finds those two. Then the following morning he finds them there with Simon, and they meet Philip and later Nathanael. Think of them going home to their families to tell them these things (because you have to tell your family the things you believe in; the first love for the family is this, even though the family may be purgatory for you). At a certain point-all things go in a certain way, the question becomes keener and keener, "Who on earth is this man?" or, as the Pharisees will laterask, "How long will you keep us in suspense? Tell us who you are and where you come from!" (and they had the birth registers from which it was clear that he had been born in Bethlehem and his parents were so and so)-at a certain point that that man should say he was God was the complete explanation for the attachment they had for him. St. Peter included, who even after Christ had told him, "Get away from me Satan"27 because he had said to him, "You will never be killed," and after betraying him (despite Christ's warning that it would happen-St. Peter's sinfulness is the most highlighted in the Gospels!) he gives Him everything.


1 Cf., L. Giussani, Si può vivere così?, BUR, Milan 1994, pp. 11-61.
2 Ibid, p. 22.
3 Jn 14:6.
4 Cf., L. Giussani, Si può (veramente?!) vivere così?, BUR, Milan 1996, pp. 58-65.
5 Cf., L. Giussani, The Religious Sense, McGill-Queens, 1997, pp. 7-9.
6 Cf., Ibid, pp. 105-107.
7 L. Giussani, Se non fossi tuo, mio Cristo, mi sentirei creatura finita, suppl. to Litterae Communionis - Tracce, September 1997, p. 12.
8 Jn 2:1-11.
9 Cf., Mt 8:23-27; Mk 4:35-41; Lk 8:22-25.
10 Cf., Mt 8:2; Mk 1:40; Lk 5:12.
11 Mt 9:23-25; Mk 5:35-43; Lk 8:49-55.
12 Cf., Mt 16:13-16; Mk 8:27-29; Lk 9:18-20.
13 You, or About Friendship, notes from the meditations of L. Giussani for the Fraternity Retreat of 1997; also The Miracle of a Change, notes from the meditations of L. Giussani for the Fraternity Retreat of 1998.
14 Cf., Mt 16:13-17.
15 Cf., Mt 16:18.
16 Cf., L. Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, McGill-Queens, 1999.
17 1 Cor 15:28.
18 Cf., L. Giussani, Porta la speranza, Marietti, Genoa, 1997
19 Cf., Jn 1:35-51.
20 Cf., L. Giussani, "Tu" (o dell'amicizia), BUR, Milan, 1997, pp. 275-321.
21 "Il n'est pas d'idéal auquel nous puissions nous sacrifier, car de tous nous connaissons les mensonges, nous qui ne savons point ce qu'est la vérité," A. Malraux, La Tentation de l'Occident, Bernard Grasset, Paris, 1926, p. 216.
22 Dante, Purgatory, canto XVII, vv. 127-129.
23 "Te Deum," see Liturgy of the Hours.
24 Cf., Mt 3:17; Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22.
25 Cf. Lk 4:16-29.
26 Cf. Lk 2:41-50
27 Cf. Mt 16:21-23; Mk 8:31-33.