The logic of charisms/2 - The value of first and second vocations in community experiences
by Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 29/08/2021
"But Herod continued seeking John. (2) And he sent his servants to Zachariah at the altar, saying to him, "Where did you hide your son?... Outraged, Herod said, "Is his son destined to rule Israel?"
The Protoevangelium of James XXIII
The analogy with the early days of Christianity helps us to grasp some new dimensions of communities born as a way out of the original one.
The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is essential in order to understand the birth of Christianity. According to the Gospel of John (unlike the other synoptic Gospels), not only did Jesus frequent the Baptist movement, but some of the first apostles were disciples of John (among them Peter, Andrew and the anonymous "disciple whom he loved" (John 13,23). In an ancient Ethiopian text we read: «A disciple of John said that the Messiah was John and not Jesus» (Pseudo-Clemens, Book of Recognitions I, 60, edition by Silvano Cola). The Apollo of whom Paul speaks regarding some disagreements in Corinth - «My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you…“I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ”» (1 Corinthians 1,11-12) - was a disciple of the Baptist (Acts 18,24-25) . These are signs that the dialogue-controversy between the two movements lasted well beyond the death of the founders. We also know from the Gospel of John that Jesus and his disciples baptized people in Judea (John 3,22).
The activity of Jesus as a baptizer is a very uncomfortable fact for John's theology, so much so that shortly after he corrects it: «Although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples» (John 4,2). Corrections that point out controversies on this aspect (baptizing) within the Christian communities, where many (not all) of the Baptist's disciples had converged: «Jesus certainly acted as a baptizer alongside John for a certain period» (Encounters with Jesus/Il Battista e Jesus, A. Destro and M. Pesce, p. 165). We do not know how long Jesus' "Baptist" phase lasted, but from the Gospels we can deduce that it was not brief - he probably continued to baptize all his life, since the apostles continued to baptize even after that. Perhaps at an early stage Jesus also shared John's wild life, as the account of temptations in the wilderness may suggest. In Mark we then read an important detail: Jesus leaves the community of the Baptist and returns to Galilee «After John was put in prison» (Mark 1,14). That arrest, whose historical veracity is also testified by the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII), represented a turning point in the relationship between Jesus and the Baptist. The Gospel of John gives a different explanation of Jesus' return to Galilee, but it is also linked to the relationship with the Baptist: «Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John… So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee» (John 4,1-3).
So far the story of John and Jesus. There are communities that are born from scratch. Others, on the other hand, are first preceded by discipleship, a following that can last a long time - it is difficult to become a good guide without first having learned to follow someone. In these cases, at first the person is sincerely convinced that the community where he or she incardinated his or her vocation is the one where he or she will remain forever. They do not experience it as a transitory community, because in the beginning authentic vocations are found in an eternal present, where there is no place for anything other than "forever". A gifted innocence, spiritual children with no past or future. The person will then recognize himself perfectly in that charism and feel an absolute ontological spiritual consonance. He will not feel like a guest, but one of the house, sometimes even as the master of the house. It is neither the sea nor the desert, but the Promised Land. There he will begin his spiritual life, there he will learn the ABC of community life, and there he will learn the grammar of the "voice". And if that vocation should generate another community tomorrow, that future community will carry traces of the first one, even if the person should not be fully aware of it or, if the exit from the first one was difficult, he should deny it (or the disciples deny it).
Anjezë entered the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or Sisters of Loreto) in Albania as a young girl. There she took the name of Teresa. She remained there for eighteen years, until the 10th of September 1946, when in a dusty train «I opened my eyes to suffering and fully understood the essence of my vocation». It was at that moment that Teresa sensed the true essence of her vocation. To go deeper, until touching the heart within the heart. She needed eighteen years before having this realisation. In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity. Teresa did not change her name again, but the name remained that of her first vocation. Like Silvia Lubich who remained Chiara, the name she had taken upon entering the Third Order Secular of St. Francis, when a few years later she understood the essence of her vocation and gave birth to a new community. The essence does not wish for a third name; the second is quite enough, sometimes even the first. Because the new vocation is a penetration into the essence of the first one, to the point of smelling its unique perfume. Teresa left the Sisters of Loreto to find something that truly conformed to her essence, but there are traces of the Sisters of Loreto in the Missionaries of Charity. There she came to know India, falling in love with it; she gave her yes to the poor and learned the art of following. If in the theophany of the baptism of Jesus there is a memory of something historical (and it is probable), it is more likely that it was the manifestation of the first vocation of Jesus, not of the second.
The discovery of the essence of one's vocation can take many different forms, some of which can be quite traumatic. Sometimes it generates a new branch from the same tree - just think of the hundreds of Franciscan families, or community reformers. Other times, the exit gives birth to a new tree, which grows next to the first one, often linked to it through the roots. Sometimes the tree grows beyond the realms of the woods and everyone's oxygen increases. The discovery of the essence is an experience of both great light and great pain. Many experience it with a feeling of betrayal that can last for years, sometimes turning into a wound-scar that stays for life. At a certain point, however, a day arrives when you understand that the time has come and you have to get up and leave. A decisive moment, because if we do not start at the right time and the process of coexistence between vocation and the essence of the vocation lasts too long, the second vocation runs the risk of failing. A process that is never easy, because those who stay behind tend to do everything in their power to stop those who wish to leave, using arguments such as: "What exactly is missing here to allow you to do what you want to do?" Highly effective words because for many people they ring true, but only nearly true for those with a second vocation. The difficulty in discerning consists in being able to grasp the difference between the truth and a quasi-truth, an imperceptible difference when you do not have a specific vocation - or experts and honest companions with you.
The John-Jesus analogy suggests that the departure of the person who personified the first charism can become the turning point. We find ourselves in the objective condition of freedom to be able to take flight, without the fear of disappointing those we love. If the person has great spiritual talents (and this is often the case), the first community had projects, expectations, hopes about him or her, which then risk becoming yet other bonds that can block the flight towards other projects and hopes. It is not about the child's well-known need to ‘kill’ his father in order to become an adult. These dynamics are also common in communities, but this is not what we are analyzing right now. Here the person who seeks his own essence after the founder's exit does go on and kill anyone’s father. It is the objective condition of absence of the key person in the first community that creates the space necessary to start the new one. As in the case when a disease, that was not wanted or sought, generates a new maturity in us that perhaps we would never reached without it. The death of the Baptist, however, may suggest something else too. It is a fact that the death or departure of the founder gives way to a period in which a large number of people (if compared to before) leave the community. They do so for various reasons, many related to the new space created by the absence. Among those who leave, we may also find some "Teresa" who set out to create a new wonderful collective adventure - even if it may "only" be a family. Moreover, as the story of Jesus suggests, the discovery of the new vocation often brings along some of the companions from the first community - a further reason for disagreements and tensions.
An interesting message can be taken from this. Founders would not have to wait for their death or retirement to create this space of freedom. Too many communities (but also businesses) born in the last century are struggling today because they have grown as a single trunk without branches and without generating other trees. Because, whenever they caught a glimpse of a "beautiful soul", the temptation to turn it a source of income for the development of the community was too strong. Hence, the greatest talents are all oriented to its organizational needs, all their creativity directed towards the objectives defined in detail by the founder. While this operation is (almost) inevitable in the first generation, if it continues in the second and subsequent generations as well, the communities risk becoming isolated and bare trunks, which progressively lose all their leaves, flowers and then their fruits. Only a charismatic forest of tomorrow can save the first tree of today. Going beyond the metaphor, however, that wood is not going to be formed without a "staff policy" which allows Jesus - a man who was not only a man - to flourish even outside the movement of the Baptist. In part because it is rare for the founders to be active only during three or four years, as was the case with John and with Jesus himself - it cannot be excluded that this is part of the reason behind the great generativity and variety of the first primitive Church.
The name of this policy is "community chastity", the one that allows you to see a beautiful person arrive, nurture them while they are with you and then help them understand who they really are, whether inside that first community or outside of it. A very difficult form of chastity, because some of the people left free to leave never come back. However, there will also be branches growing out of the trunk and other trees in the same woods that will allow the charism to continue to grow and flourish. Without being willing to waste, in a generous surplus, part of the seeds, no seeds of the charism will ever reach good soil and grow. A wise founder is the he who, when he sees a new person arriving, sets himself as his first goal to identify which branch or tree that this person will be able to generate, instead of immediately putting him to work as the gardener caring for the only large beautiful tree of the community. A tree that is presented like an already accomplished and unchangeable tree that only needs maintenance and water - even if that person should be exceptionally talented at watering. Many crises, and withering and non-generative branches and exits, could have been avoided if only people had been close to someone capable of reading their discomfort and the effort of getting to the essence of their vocation. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the blossoms are free, varied, excessive, colored, plural, and symphonic.