The Wonder of “the Presence” The Dependent “I”

We offer here the first and last parts of the tenth chapter of The Religious Sense by Fr. Giussani, entitled, “How the Ultimate Questions Arise: The Way of the Religious Sense."
Luigi Giussani

A new perspective on the problem awaits us. If those ultimate questions are the very essence, the stuff of human consciousness, human reason, how do they arise? To answer such a question, we must identify how a person reacts to reality. If an individual becomes aware of his constitutive factors by observing himself in action, we need to observe this human dynamic in its impact with reality, an impact which sets in motion the mechanism revealing these factors. If an individual were to barely live the impact with reality, because, for example, he had not had to struggle, he would scarcely possess a sense of his own consciousness, would be less aware of his reason’s energy and vibration.
In the following description the factors of this mechanism, in a certain sense, assemble themselves in a chronological sequence.

Awe of the “presence”
First of all, to make myself understood, I will stir your imagination. Picture yourself being born, coming out of your mother’s womb at the age you are now at this very moment in terms of your development and consciousness. What would be the first, absolutely your initial reaction? If I were to open my eyes for the first time in this instant, emerging from my mother’s womb, I would be overpowered by the wonder and awe of things as a “presence.” I would be bowled over and amazed by the stupefying repercussion of a presence which is expressed in current language by the word “thing.” Things! That’s “something!” “Thing,” which is a concrete and, if you please, banal version of the word “being.” Being: not as some abstract entity, but as presence, a presence which I do not myself make, which I find. A presence which imposes itself upon me.
He who does not believe in God is inexcusable, says St. Paul in his letter to the Romans (Rom 1:19–21), because that person must deny this original phenomenon, this original experience of the “other.” A baby lives this experience without being aware of it, because he is not yet completely conscious. But the adult who does not live it or does not consciously perceive it, is less than a baby. That person is atrophied.
The awe, the marvel of this reality which imposes itself upon me, of this presence which reaches me is at the origin of the awakening of human consciousness.

“Radical amazement is to the understanding
of the realness of God what clarity and distinctness
are to the comprehension of mathematical ideas ...
Devoid of wonder, we remain deaf to the sublime.”1

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, a word which, if used in a completely human sense, involving the total person, all of the factors of an individual’s personality, comes alive: “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. But without dwelling on this, the very word “given” is also vibrant with an activity, in front of which I am passive: and it is a passivity which makes up my original activity of receiving, taking note, recognizing.
One time, while I was teaching in a high school, I asked: “So then, according to you, what does “evidence” mean? Can one of you define it?” One boy, to the right of my chair, after a very long and embarrassed silence on the part of the students, exclaimed: “But then evidence is an inexorable presence!” Becoming aware of an inexorable presence! I open my eyes to this reality which imposes itself upon me, which does not depend upon me, but upon which I depend; it is the great conditioning of my existence–if you like, the given. It is this awe which awakens the ultimate question within us: not as a cold observation, but as a wonder pregnant with an attraction, almost a passivity in which simultaneously is conceived an attraction.
There is no attitude more retrograde than a certain claimed scientific approach towards religion and humanity, in general. It is, indeed, truly superficial to repeat that religion is born of fear. Fear is not a human being’s first sentiment–it is attraction. Fear emerges only in a second moment, as a reflex to a perceived danger that this attraction may be fleeting. Attachment to being, to life, awe in front of the evidence comes first: only after this is it possible for one to fear that this evidence might vanish, that the presence might not be yours, that the attraction you feel might not be fulfilled. You do not fear losing things which do not interest you. Rather, you fear losing things which have to interest you first.
Religiosity is, first of all, the affirmation and development of the attraction. A true seeker’s disposition is laden with a prior evidence and an awe: the wonder of the presence attracts me, and that is how the search within me breaks out. Fear is a shadow which descends upon us as a second reaction. You fear losing something, even when you have had it only for an instant.
Another great word which must intervene to clarify further the meaning of “given,” is “other, otherness.” Let us take up again our image: if I were to be born with the consciousness that I now have, and my eyes were, for the first time, to fly open, then reality would disclose itself as the presence of something “other” than myself.

“Religious awe is something other than
the wonder from which, according to Aristotle,
philosophy is born. When otherness emerges
before one’s eyes, the human person is not given
to posing speculative inquiries, but to venerating,
to pleading, to entreating, to invoking, to
contemplating. This remains firm, that it is
the different-from-oneself and the meta-
(=beyond) natural.”2

The human being’s original dependence is well explained in the Bible, in chapters thirty-eight and thirty-nine of the Book of Job, in the dramatic dialogue (“duel”) between God and Job. After the latter has given into a rebellious lament, for two chapters, God presses on with his radical questions, as Job appears physically to shrink, as if he wants to vanish because he is absolutely unable to give an answer. Then, from the heart of the tempest, Yahweh gives Job his answer:

Who is obscuring my designs
with his empty-headed words?
Brace yourself like a fighter; now it is my turn
to ask questions and your turn to inform me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me, since you are so well informed!
Who decided the dimensions of it, do you know?
Or who stretched the measuring line across it?
What supports its pillars at their bases?
Who laid its cornerstone when all the stars
of the morning were singing with joy?3
Nothing is more adequate to the nature of the human person than his original dependence. Indeed, the human being is, by nature created.
We can say then, that three different nuances make up this first factor: The first is reality perceived as “otherness” or the “given,” as “thing,” generally speaking. In the second, only in a subsequent moment do I distinguish faces and things in this reality. And, in the third, I become aware of myself, therefore only later making distinctions and finally perceiving this “I” as distinct from other things. The psychological trajectory of the human being confirms this because the perception of the “I” as “distinct from” comes at a certain point in the evolution of one’s consciousness. One comes to understand oneself as a “given,” as “made,” and this is the last step within the perception of reality as “thing” and “things.”
The prime original intuition then, is the awe in front of this given and of the “I” as part of it. First you are struck, and then comes the recognition that you have been struck. It is from this that the idea of life as gift originates: without this concept, everything man touches turns to dust.


The dependent “I”
At this point, when an individual is reawakened within his being by the presence, the attraction, the awe, he is grateful, joyful, because this presence can be beneficial and providential. The human being becomes aware of himself as I, recovers this original awe with a depth that establishes the measure, the stature of his identity. 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 more intelligent 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 causes 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, because, in our experience, a father gives life its beginning which, from the first fraction of the first instant of being, detaches itself and goes off on its own. A woman expressed this to me in a most surprising way. When I was still a very young priest, this woman would come regularly for confession. For some time I did not see her anymore, and, when she returned, she said to me: “I had a second baby girl.” Before I could reply, she added: “I was truly surprised! Just as I became aware that she had been born, I did not think of whether it was a boy or a girl, whether it was healthy or not. No, the first idea that came to mind was this: ‘Look here, it is starting to go on its own.’”
Whereas God, Father in every instant, is conceiving me now. No one is so much a father: he who generates.
To be conscious of oneself right to the core is to perceive, at the depths of the self, an Other. This is prayer: to be conscious of oneself to the very centre, to the point of meeting an Other. Thus prayer is the only human gesture which totally realizes the human being’s stature.
The “I,” the human being, is that level of nature in which nature becomes aware of not being made by itself. In this way, the entire cosmos is like the continuation of my body. But one could also say that the human being is that level of nature in which nature experiences its own contingency. Man experiences himself as contingent, subsists by means of something else, because he does not make himself by himself. I stand on my feet because I lean on another. I am because I am made. Like my voice, which is the echo of a vibration, if I cease the vibration, it no longer exists. Like spring water rising up–it is, in its entirety, derived from its source. And like a flower which depends completely upon the support of its roots. So I do not consciously say “I am,” in a sense that captures my entire stature as a human being if I do not mean “I am made.” The ultimate equilibrium of life depends upon this. The human being’s natural truth, as we have seen, is his nature as creation–he exists because he is continually possessed. And, when he recognizes this, then he breathes fully, feels at peace, glad.
True self-consciousness is well portrayed by the baby in the arms of his mother and father–supported like this, he can enter any situation whatsoever, profoundly tranquil, with a promise of peace and joy. No curative system can claim this, without mutilating the person. Often, in order to excise the censure of certain wounds we end up censuring our humanity.
All human actions, therefore, inasmuch as they aim toward peace and joy, seek God, the exhaustive substance of our lives.


What is the formula for the journey to the ultimate meaning of reality? Living the real. There is an experience, hidden yet implied, of that arcane, mysterious presence to be found within the opening of the eye, within the attraction reawakened by things, within the beauty of things, within an amazement, full of gratitude, comfort, and hope. And this is so because these things move themselves in such a way that they serve me, are useful to me. Numbered among these things is myself as well–myself, in whom that presence which is concealed, hidden, becomes close, because it is here, forming me but also informing me of good and evil.
Now the question is this: How can this complex, yet simple, this enormously rich experience of the human heart–which is the heart of the human person and, therefore, of nature, the cosmos–how can it become vivid, how can it come alive? How can it become powerful? In the “impact” with the real. The only condition for being truly and faithfully religious, the formula for the journey to the meaning of reality is to live always the real intensely, without preclusion, without negating or forgetting anything. Indeed, it would not be human, that is to say, reasonable, to take our experience at face value, to limit it to just the crest of the wave, without going down to the core of its motion.
The positivism that dominates modern man excludes the call emanating from our original relationship with things, to search for meaning. This relationship invites us to seek substance, a meaning and enables us to sense this presence that provides substance which things themselves are not. This is so true that I (and it is here that the problem is defined), I myself am not this presence either, because I am the level where the stars and the earth become aware of their own lack of substance. Positivism excludes the invitation to discover the meaning addressed to us precisely by our original and immediate impact with reality. It would have us accept appearances. And this is suffocating.
The more one lives this level of consciousness in his relationship with things, the more intense the impact with reality, and the more one begins to know mystery.
Let us repeat: a trivial relationship with reality, whose most symptomatic aspect is preconception, blocks the authentic religious dimension, the true religious fact. The mark of great souls and persons who are truly alive is an eagerness for this search, carried out through their commitment to the reality of their existence.
Here then is the conclusion: we could say that the world, this reality into which we collide unleashes a word, an invitation, a meaning as if upon impact. The world is like a word, a “logos” which sends you further, calls you on to another, beyond itself, further up. In Greek “up” is expressed with the word ana. This is the value of analogy: the structure of the “impact” of the human being with reality awakens within the individual a voice which draws him towards a meaning which is further on, further up–ana.
Analogy: this word sums up the dynamic structure of the human being’s “impact” with reality.
(Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense,
pp. 100-103, 105-107, 108-109)

1 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1955), 251, 253.
2 Alberto Caracciolo, La religione come struttura e come modo autonomo della conoscenza (Milan: Marietti, 1965), 24.
3 Job 38.