Truth - to the marrow of life

The Dawn of Midnight/13 - How God nourishes and changes our existence for ever

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 16/07/2017

170716 Geremia13 ridMy soul always retreats to the Old Testament and Shakespeare. There at least one feels something: there are men who speak there. There is hate there! There is love, there is the killing of the enemy, cursing the other’s posterity for all generations; there are sins committed.

Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in Scipio Slataper, Ibsen

The Book of Jeremiah marks a new stage of human consciousness, a leap in the process of humanization, a true anthropological and spiritual innovation. His entire book and especially his confessions. And if we allow these to enter the intimacy of our conscience and are willing to sustain the great costs it means, that ancient innovation can still be accomplished here and now.

From the first chapter of his book, Jeremiah alternated the contents of his prophetic mission with his intimate confessions, revealing his soul, his hopes and anguish to us. Now, at the height of his inner diary, we come to chapters 19 and 20, when the narrated facts and his poetry reach an absolute summit.

Here the prophet and the man of Anathoth deeply intertwine, YHWH's word and Jeremiah's word vanish into one another, forming a plot of life and poetry that represents a true human heritage. We must therefore approach these chapters by taking our sandals off before listening to the voice that comes from this different burning bush, as what is burning this time is not a shrub but Jeremiah’s very bones.

At the beginning of this wonderful diptych we find another gesture, one of the most famous and strongest gestures of the Bible. We are still inside the absolutely secular scene of the potter's workshop when we discover a new command: Jeremiah receives the order from God to buy a flusk and to go to the “Valley of the Son of Hinnom”, which is a dumping ground of the city (Jeremiah 19:1-2). We are led out of the city, into an environment that immediately reminds the reader with biblical literacy of Job, as he too was led by God and life to a heap of rubbish - the most famous one of the Bible. Jeremiah buys the jug from the potter, takes the most authoritative witnesses of the people with himself and explains the sense of that trip taking them to the waste of the city with his words: God will send a great misfortune on Israel because it has been prostituted to the Canaanite cults and the sacrifices of children (10:3-9). And then YHWH adds: “Then you shall break the flask in the sight of the men who go with you, and shall say to them, »... So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter's vessel«” (19:10-11).

Everything is clear and strong, and the consequences are clear and strong, as Baruk, Jeremiah's secretary tells us, who appears here in the book and will not leave any more: “Now Pashhur the priest, the son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things. Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord” (20:1-2). That broken jug worsens the situation greatly: there are not just slanders and conspiracies - Jeremiah is also lashed and tortured now. The obedience to the command to break the pot to a thousand pieces marked a turning point in Jeremiah's life and flesh. We do not understand his song in chapter 20, which is perhaps the most famous - and most ambiguous - one of the whole book, unless we see Jeremiah with the jug in his hand and then in prison as we are reading. And it is at that point that the most beautiful de profundis sounds, the one we should only sing along with the many prophets who continue to be tortured, imprisoned, killed only for being faithful to the voice of their conscience: Jeremiah sings for them, too: “O Lord, you have deceived me, / and I was deceived; / you are stronger than I, / and you have prevailed. / I have become a laughingstock all the day” (20:7)

We must not allow any of the sentimentalism and romance that have too often clung to these tremendous lines. Here, the "deception" Jeremiah speaks about is that of an adult who adores a minor person, a strong one who charms and deceives a child to abuse them. The dramatic context and the Hebrew verb used here leave no room for misunderstanding, everything is clear and simple: From the bottom of his prison Jeremiah accuses God of having fooled him in his age of enthusiasm in youth and having - simply - ruined his existence. Strong words that can only be understood by those who in order to follow a call have had a taste of the same night as Jeremiah. These are adult words, and only wonderful as such because they open us to the tremendum of true vocations.

Without the dumping ground of the crocks, the shackles and tortures of the community leaders, vocations cannot be understood: we just enter their antechamber, we stay with the wrapping of the pack unopened, and we are held back enchanted in the early days of the dawn of spiritual life. Anyone who wanted to understand true prophetic vocations has always gone through broken crocks, prisons, exiles, and it is there that we must return even today if we want to meet the prophets. But since those who are in these places do not make spiritual speeches, sermons or miracles and visions but are silent, and when they say a few words those are often curses of God and life - and they can only occasionally pray with these words that are incomprehensible to us -, true vocations remain hidden and strange, or we confuse them with those who speak a lot of God and religion, perhaps with nice music in the background and images of colourful sunsets. And so we miss the true and desperate kind of prophecy, the only one that can save: “Cursed be the day / on which I was born! / The day when my mother bore me, / let it not be blessed! / ... Why did I come out from the womb / to see toil and sorrow, / and spend my days in shame?” (20:14-18). There are no greater vocational words than these under the sun. Only a few lines of the Psalms, Qoheleth, the Passion according to Mark and the words of Job's sisters compare to them.  

But Chapter 20 tells us something more intimate about the nature and the mystery of a vocation. At the heart of Jeremiah’s confession, we find these words: “If I say, »I will not mention him, / or speak any more in his name,” / (but) there is in my heart as it were a burning fire / shut up in my bones«” (20:9).

“If I say”: Jeremiah tells us that he thought about shutting up the voice, not lending his body or mouth again, to retiring quitting his prophetic task, throwing his cloak on the nettles. From what he says it seems he thought about it seriously, he really tried to change his life, it was not just a temptation left in the realm of thoughts. But as he was trying to escape and perhaps ran away from it, too, he noticed that he wasn’t able to do it: the vocation had become his bones and his flesh, which kept burning. And it is at this point that the prophet senses a new kind of tiredness, which is something different from physical or moral exhaustion: “and I am weary with holding it in, / and I cannot” (20:9). It is the experience of being encircled, the grip that grabs and clings inside of us, leaving no escape. While it is true that nothing more than a vocation can say freedom, because following the voice you realise that you are following the most intimate of your bones, Jeremiah also tells us another thing: there is nothing less free than a true vocation, because there is no way to escape it - because you cannot escape from your marrow.

This is the real drama of those who encounter a real, true voice in life. One day they realize that the life they are living is not what they thought in their youth. Everything speaks to them only of this deception that made them make choices that now feel like violence or being forced to do things by God, by people in his name - those who seduced the prophets -, or by idealized ideals they believed in when they were young and innocent. And they start dreaming and thinking of different words from those suggested by the voice, new words in which they believe more, their own words that appear more sincere than what they tend to say and repeat by vocation.

The test Jeremiah is going through is not simply that of the persecutions, chains and torture. It is much deeper and more tremendous. A prophet does not scream against God and life until he believes in the truth of his own story and mission: instead of martyrdom, what pushes a vocation into crisis is rather exaltation and fulfilment. Jeremiah's test is of a different kind: he no longer believes in the truth of the beginning, he feels like he is in a plot of deceit and rage. It's the experience of a young man plagued by an ideology or a sect who at one point wakes up and wants nothing more than to escape and return to the real life he abandoned because of believing in lies, illusions and false promises.

We lose almost all of the strength of this immense confession by Jeremiah unless we read it in all its radical nudity and scandal. Jeremiah does not question the truth of the voice that speaks to him and had spoken to him the first day - other prophets have done and still do so. However, he questions the truth of his own mission and life, which he feels totally futile and wrong. And he wants to run away, take back control over what's left of his life. But here we can find one of the most splendid paradoxes of life and its mystery: while fleeing from illusion, it is the most intimate experience that we can have on this earth: discovering another hidden truth inside one’s very bones. Just as he wants to silence it, that voice seems true to him - it's so true that it is impossible to escape. What he now feels burning in his bones is the voice of the first day that says, on this other, adult day of life, that what we once encountered was so true that today it is impossible to flee from it, as it is impossible to escape the truth of our bones and marrow. However, we could not know this before trying to escape.

We do not know how Jeremiah overcame the crisis, he does not tell us. Perhaps because the crises cannot be overcome, they enter the marrow of our life, feed it and change it forever.

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