Your Work is a Good For All

Notes from a talk at the General Assembly of the Companionship of Works in Assago, Italy, on November 22, 2009.
Julián Carrón

1. Perhaps as in no other time before, this period of economic crisis makes us realize the truth of the motto you’ve chosen as the theme of your annual gathering, “Your work is a good for all.” No one understands this better than those most struck by the crisis, their families, and their children.

Trying to keep a work alive in these times is truly arduous. You know this well, you who debate among yourselves whether to continue building this good or to throw in the towel. The temptation to individualism is always on the prowl. The insidious instinct of “every man for himself” is stronger than ever.

For many of you, this would be easier, and you’d save yourselves not a little worry. Yet, you haven’t closed in on yourselves, forgetting the others, and in this way, you’ve defeated the individualism of which Bernhard Scholz spoke. But the temptation remains, so to continue resisting you need the reasons that enable you to do so, and this is the goal of my talk. Paradoxically, the economic crisis can become an opportunity for laying stronger foundations for the work you’re building, gaining greater awareness of the underlying reasons.

2. Individualism is an age-old temptation to solve problems your own way, involving the relationship between your own good and that of others, the tension between the “I” and the community. The fact that we don’t live alone, but are always within a community, forces us to decide continually the way of facing this paradox.

We’re called to live this challenge in a cultural context in which the response to this tension seems obvious: individualism. In a nutshell, I have a better shot at reaching my own good if I exclude consideration of others. Not only that, but the individualist sees in the other a threat to his attainment of happiness, as in the saying that defines the attitude of this mentality: homo homini lupus.
But, in speaking this way, modernity shows its inability to give a complete response, that is, one that considers all the factors in play. In fact, the individualist conception solves the problem by eliminating one of the poles of tension. A solution that has to eliminate one of the factors in play simply isn’t a true solution.

You can see just how mistaken this approach is by the increasingly strong and urgent calls for more rules. The more the other is conceived of as a potential enemy, the more there arises the need for external intervention to manage conflicts. This is the paradox of modernity: the more it encourages individualism, the more it is forced to multiply the rules to restrain the “wolf” lurking in each of us. The egregious failure of this approach is before the eyes of all today, notwithstanding the attempts to hide it. There will never be enough rules to tame wolves.

This is the tremendous outcome when we wager everything on ethics instead of education–that is, on an adequate relationship between the “I” and the others.

But the problem isn’t so much the inadequacy of rules. The true problem is that individualism is founded on a colossal error: thinking that happiness corresponds with accumulating things. Here, modernity demonstrates once again its failure to understand the authentic nature of man, that structural disproportion expressed in Leopardi’s poetry. So not only is individualism mistaken, but it is useless in resolving the drama of man.

In addition, it is necessary to add a further deception proclaimed by the dominant powers that be: that you can be happy without others.

3. In order to respond adequately to our problem, the point of departure is elementary experience, which each of us can loyally trace in ourselves: “In the face of pain and need, every man of good will immediately takes action, shows himself capable of generosity” (L. Giussani, L’avvenimento cristiano [The Christian Event], Bur, Milan, 2003, p. 81).

But this natural sentiment of generosity cannot last without adequate reasons: “Solidarity is an instinctive characteristic of the nature of man (a little or a lot); however, it does not make history, create a work, as long as it remains an emotion or a reactive response to an emotion; and an emotion does not build” (Ibid., pp. 82–83).

How can we sustain this elementary experience in the face of need? This same question was posed by Fr. Giussani years ago in an assembly like ours today: “How can man sustain this ‘heart’ before the cosmos and, above all, before society? How can man sustain this positivity and optimism (because without optimism you can’t act)? The answer is: not alone, but involving yourself with others, establishing an operative friendship (shared living or companionship or movement), that is, a more copious association of energies based on a reciprocal acknowledgment. The more permanent and stable the motive for which an association is born, the more substantial the companionship. A friendship born of shared economic interest will last as long as it is judged useful. Instead, a companionship, a movement, that springs from the intuition that the goal of a firm exceeds the terms of the firm itself, and that the firm is the attempt to respond to something much greater, well, a movement born of the perception of that heart we have in common and that defines us as men, establishes a ‘belonging’” (Ibid., pp. 88–89).

This elementary experience shows that the other is perceived as a good, so much so that solidarity goes into action, to the point of generating a people that responds to the need. For this reason, we feel the need to draw together to be supported in our initial impetus. This position has enabled many to hang on, much more than a lot of empty proclamations.

Belonging in order to help in elementary experience is also the method for correcting the inevitable and continual reduction of the same elementary experience in living and in action. We are not naive; ours isn’t a utopian optimism a la Rousseau. We know our limitations well, our personal sin and that of society, and for this reason, as Fr. Giussani said in his talk to a meeting of the Italian Christian Democratic Party in Assago in 1987 (in Traces vol. 2, n. 5, 2000, pp. 34-36), belonging to movements continually corrects participants when they fall, educating them continually to the beautiful, the true, the just. Instead of a police state, it is education through the context of belonging.

But in times of crisis, not even this striving for the ideal and this operative friendship can resist the temptation to individualism, if they don’t find an adequate reason. In fact, we always have to keep clear in mind the error into which we too often fall, that of substituting a friendship, born to sustain the “I” on its journey, with a hegemonic project of success that passes through socio-political power. This is unable to hold fast in the face of the storms of life.

Therefore, the current situation is a special opportunity for gaining a more mature consciousness of why we’re together, for clarifying the reason that can resist any tsunami.

4. Without an adequate reason, there’s no chance of standing firm and thus of building something with a prospect of duration. Only something that is more substantial than any eventuality can be the adequate foundation for building. What is it?

In order to answer this question, let me confide something. Every year, I have to speak with those who, after years of novitiate, ask for definitive admission into the Memores Domini Association. On this occasion, I ask myself, among so many particulars that make up life, what I must look at to help them understand whether or not it’s reasonable to take such a decisive step in their lives. Since I don’t know how the Mystery will bring them to their destiny, what situations or circumstances the Lord will make them pass through, the only guarantee that will enable them to face any eventuality is that each of them has had an experience that, no matter what happens, they won’t be able to shake off–an experience that can sustain their entire life. And Saint Thomas Aquinas’ sentence, so familiar to many of you, comes to mind, because it summarizes the key to the question: “Man’s life consists in the affection that principally sustains him and in which he finds his greatest satisfaction” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 179, a.1). Only an affection in which you’ve found the greatest satisfaction can sustain your entire life.

Does an affection like this exist? Is there an affection that corresponds so much to our expectation that it can become the foundation capable of holding up in any battle? Or, in words more related to today’s occasion, is there an affection more satisfying than any individualism?

Since man is a need for totality, only something total can correspond to this exigency. Only one man in history made this claim: Jesus of Nazareth, the Mystery become flesh. Only those who’ve had the grace of a gift like this can understand that satisfaction that sustains their entire lives. It only becomes possible not to yield to individualism if we have received such an incommensurable good.

This is Christian realism: “In fact, if God hadn’t become man, no one would have been able to set his own life according to this gratuity; none of us would have dared to look at his own life according to this generosity” (L. Giussani, L’io, il potere, le opere [The “I,” Power, Works], Marietti, Genoa, 2000, p. 132).

Thus, you understand well the beginning of the Pope’s recent encyclical: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by His earthly life and especially by His death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, 1).

Why? Because “everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is His promise and our hope” (Ibid., 2).
It is this unbounded love of God for us, more satisfying than any hypothesis of individualism, that makes us in turn subjects of love: “As the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity” (Ibid., 5).

Gratuity can flow from the superabundance of charity, from the fullness of love bestowed on us. Not from a dearth, but from a superabundance!

“It is the primordial truth of God’s love, grace bestowed upon us, that opens our lives to gift and makes it possible to hope for a ‘development of the whole person and of all people,’ to hope for progress ‘from less human conditions to those which are more human,’ obtained by overcoming the difficulties that are inevitably encountered along the way” (Ibid., 8).

Without this, we can’t keep building for long. Twenty-five years ago, Fr. Giussani, speaking to a group of university students, said, “We can’t continue to be so active and to produce what we’ve produced in these ferocious years without communion, but communion without Christ can’t stand. The reason for the communion is Christ and, in fact, only the thought of Christ, the relationship with Christ generates that condition by which I can remain in the companionship without feeling alienated, that is, the love of myself, the love of others as the reverberation of the love of myself. So I say that you can’t remain in the love for yourself unless Christ is a presence like a mother is a presence for her child…. If He isn’t a presence, if He hasn’t conquered death, that is, if He isn’t risen, and therefore isn’t the dominator of history–so that time doesn’t stop Him, space and time don’t limit Him–if He doesn’t hold history in His hand, if He isn’t the Lord of space and time, if He isn’t the Lord of history, if He isn’t mine like He was John’s two thousand years ago, You aren’t a real presence for me, O Christ, and I return to being nothing. Therefore, the acknowledgment of Your presence, the continuous acknowledgment of Your presence, this is the change I need. Conversion is like someone who goes along, as if I myself were going along with lots of good thoughts deduced from Him, and at a certain point I turned around (conversio) and saw Him present. It’s entirely different; the journey becomes altogether different. Justice is this faith, and faith is acknowledgment of this Presence. Christ is risen, that is, Christ is contemporaneous in time, contemporaneous in history. Now, the profound change that implicates the new subject, the new creature, is this: it’s the faith in Christ crucified and risen, where the ‘crucified’ is the condition for being risen. Therefore, I shouldn’t be scandalized if the condition for living the joy that He has promised me is the cross. Actually, here will be the fascinating demonstration that even pain and the cross and death become joy. As Saint Paul says, ‘I am full of joy; I flow over with joy in my tribulation’–it is humanly inconceivable; that is, it’s another being, another world that is present and that we must, in our poverty, acknowledge, acknowledge ever more strongly, so that it becomes ever more habitual and familiar, so that our presence in the world will be ever more redemptive, that is, ever more humanizing for us and others” (L. Giussani, Qui e ora (1984–1985) [Here and Now (1984–1985)], Bur, Milan, 2009, pp. 76–78).

Put another way, “In order to love ourselves, in order to work so much, we need to be together; in order to be together, we need to acknowledge a love of self that enables us to love others as well, and thus that works the great change that is the love of people and of oneself considered as relationship with destiny; but this is only possible through a Presence. It’s only possible if Christ… is risen, that is, if He is contemporary. So then, acknowledging that He is contemporary, that He is a presence in my gesture, that He is a companion for my journey, is the first fundamental gesture of freedom that enables all the others, or rather, that enables and urges on all the others” (Ibid., pp. 82–83).

An experience like this can definitively vanquish individualism: the “us” enters into the definition of the “I.”

So then, this is the reason we can imitate God–not because we’re good, but because He chose us: “In our plans and in our projects we keep in mind all that is needed to achieve them, realistically. But, beyond this, we must realize, or try to realize, in imitation of the Lord, an emotion that doesn’t enter into the calculations for organizing things, but that directly is born and is directed at our fellow man, in friendship, gratuitously. It is called charity, gratuitously helping your neighbor, a man, to solve and respond to the need he has, whatever its nature, be it for bread or be it for his soul. Solving, or helping to solve, the need that makes a man cry and suffer. Keeping in mind that this charity is judged madness by those around us in today’s world. They say, ‘Yes, this is idealism,’ which is their way of saying, ‘It’s madness. You’re out of your head. You should look at what you have to do, instead! Drop this superabundance that can alter the outcome of your work.’ If you’re here, it’s because in your work commitment, in your organizational commitment, in your reality of knowledge and in your companionship, you’ve found a motive for action, beyond what you have to do and achieve, in gratuitousness that can’t be calculated and doesn’t give rise to calculation. Only God is beyond all possibility of calculation. Therefore, your work is and must strive to be imitation of God, or better, imitation of Christ” (L. Giussani, L’avvenimento Cristiano, op. cit., p. 120).

This imitation of God isn’t something we can do with our own energy. There is the possibility of imitating God because He Himself gives us the charity with which we can imitate Him. For this reason, “charity is a factor that challenges and penetrates all the other factors; charity is the greatest of all. It generates a people that can only arise from something gratuitous. Well-done calculations can’t build the highest phenomenon of human expression that is the reality of a people. …Among us, a people has been born through a gratuitousness that imitates, that tries to imitate the superabundance and the grace with which Christ came and has remained among us. Our best interests, our highest interests in life, lie in the gratuity that has penetrated the interstices of our calculations” (Ibid., p. 121).

The ideal that gratuitousness should penetrate the interstices of our calculations must always be before us, something we should yearn for, because we’re all sinners, and not at all exempt from the fall from gratuitousness into pure calculation, thinking we’re safe only because we belong to a friendship like ours. We always run the risk of entrenching ourselves in a corporate defense of what we do, maybe containing a project of political hegemony. The fact that gratuitousness is in our best interests means a race in seeking the good that passes through respect for the laws, but that makes of this gratuitousness affection, construction for the common good, correction without reticence in the face of the continual fall.

So, once again, our authentic goal is clarified: not growing in size and power, but that your works be examples of a diversity that people see and are struck by, because this diversity testifies to Someone else. This is the response to the continual degeneration of public life. This is the morality our country needs.