The Great Transition/9 - Encounters that "light up" spiritual and civil vocations
by Luigino Bruni
published in pdf Avvenire (54 KB) on 01/03/2015
To hide from you I turned off my light,
but you surprised me with the stars.
Generative communities and movements have always been those that put their members in a position to repeat the founder's experience in various forms. The same miracles, the same freedom, the same fruits. The history of Christianity is an eloquent demonstration of this: the fruitfulness of the Christian experience can be found in the thousands of communities and movements generated by the same origin that repeated the same experiences of the early days in time and space and have seen bread being multiplied, the lame walk and crucifixes raised. The charismatic experiences capable of a future have always been plural, pluralistic, orchards with many trees, gardens populated by hundreds and thousands of flowers, all equal and all different, growing from the same humus, with colours and scents that are similar or very different. The seed that takes the forms of the land where it grows, creating new personalities that enrich the earth.
Each member of an authentic charismatic community has, in fact, his or her own features that radically differentiate him or her from other more common characters of our time (the employee, the fan of a writer, the activist of a humanitarian association). All these characters are often also present in communities and charismatic movements, but in addition to them there are some very different ones, too. They are embodied by people who, getting in contact with an ideal-charisma do not encounter something external to them, because they meet themselves. This experience is very common in spiritual movements, but we can also find it – in varying degrees - in some civil, political and cultural organisations. There are, in fact, men and women who, once they get in contact with a spirituality or an ideal, immediately feel a deep harmony between their more real, inner reality and the one they encounter. They are people in whom something of the same charisma approaching them is already alive, but they remain its "immune carriers" until they come in contact with the community where that charisma is at work and alive. When a young man begins to study chemistry and then starts to work in a company, through his studies and work he learns a profession that makes him something that he wasn't before. When, however, a young man encounters the charisma of Francis and feels a vocation, he does not become a Franciscan, because he is already one; in other words, he becomes what he already was. You can learn and acquire a profession, but you cannot learn a vocation: Van Gogh learned the techniques of painting, but he was already Van Gogh at the time.
This is the great mystery of the charismas and all human vocations (the world is full of vocations). In the decisive encounter of their lives, these people have an "ontological" experience, one that happens on the level of existence, which is much deeper than the mere psychological and emotional dimensions. This means that a Jesuit does not receive the charisma of Ignatius or the other Jesuits, but, mysteriously and really, he finds it in himself, he finds it alive and asleep in the "wine cellar" of the soul, where it has been waiting to be called by name. The encounter with a charisma lights up a latent but real dimension, and generates a process of recognition: the person re-familiarizes with him/herself, and a new awareness and an unveiling of the self and the world emerges from that decisive encounter. If it weren't so all the mystery and charm of vocations would disappear, we would all be destined to be followers of other people and external incentives, and true freedom and true donation would be precluded, as they arise only when one feels that following a charisma is following the best part of one's self, even if together with others and in a fundamental, defining relationship with the founder. Looking carefully at it, this game of becoming what one already is, the meeting between what's external and what's internal, can be found in every true love relationship, when upon meeting the other we realize to have recognized someone who, mysteriously, has already been present somewhere in our lives, where he/she waited silently to be "seen". All this, and in an even more radical way, happens when it comes to collective authentic experiences of the ideal.
Two consequences can be derived from here. There have been, and there are many people on earth who do not "light up" only because they have not had the opportunity to meet a person or a community capable of activating the deepest part in them. Secondly, there are always several encounters of a vocational dimension between people. Although for some (like a nun or an artist, for example) there may be a decisive encounter, this is never the only one, and the sure way to turn off the light on the main encounter is to put people in a position where they are not able to have further encounters of identity. The first and most important meeting does not become a prison if it does not become the only one.
This helps understand that the experience of following a charisma (whether religious or civil) is a very delicate affair. There is always the risk that this ideal recognition between the person and the community may produce a mutually narcissistic neurosis.
A crucial element is the management of disappointment. For those who encounter a charisma and set off on a journey, the experience of disappointment is inevitable because no historical reality can be level with the ideal. The ideal of the community and the ideal within us had to be bigger than life; otherwise they would have not "lit up" anything. Every good maturity is also a disappointment of the promises of youth.
If a disappointment is poorly managed and is not accepted, it produces two possible scenarios. Both of them are very dangerous: (a) the reduction of the ideal to reality, (b) the ideological interpretation of reality to make it coincide with the ideal. The first error is committed by the communities and people that, upon facing the first disappointments (especially collective delusions) reduce the ideal scope of the charisma, and turn it into something more manageable and easy: YHWH gets reduced to the golden calf. The unavoidable outcome of this first error is the failure of this "new", resized ideal to attract high quality people because when ideals are reduced, the excellent people can no longer be recognized. The second scenario is no less dangerous or harmful. It occurs when trying to prevent that people attracted by the great and necessarily non-real ideals come to the stage of disappointment, by building a real ideology. Instead of a common effort to accept and inhabit the "gap" between the promises of the ideal and the possibilities of the real, they turn reality, any reality into an ideal, reinterpreting it every time, blaming the mismatch of the individual as responsible for the "gap". Disappointment as a natural and necessary part of the process of personal growth is therefore denied and drowned in the ideology, preventing the full growth of the members who continue to be comforted and entertained, kept in an infantile condition. They are not disappointed since they are deceived. In the first scenario the difference between ideal and reality vanishes by reduction (of the ideal); in the second one it is eliminated for the sake of increase (of reality). However, what is not offered is the only real possibility for a positive overshoot of this decisive stage of all existence, and that is an education or training preparing people for a coexistence with the gap, tending and processing the inevitable disappointments of adulthood, without erasing either the truth the ideal or that of the reality.
It is understandable, then, that the ability of having a future of a collective reality born from an ideal-charisma depends fundamentally on how the relationship between the founder, the community and the interpretation of the charisma and the individual "vocations" develop over time. The charismatic profile of a society is an expression and a continuation of the prophetic vocation, for which the Bible offers an ultimate type of grammar. The prophecy of the communities and charismatic movements, however, does not belong only to the founder or the community as a whole: each person who received the same charisma embodies it, lives it and develops it by offering their own flesh. In each Franciscan, Gandhian, Dominican, Salesian there is Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea revived, their words and their outrage are resurrected, as well as their criticism of the powers of every age, including our own. Moses, the greatest prophet lives again, and his typical vocation of the liberator of an enslaved people of the pharaoh and his idols. Furthermore, the experience of prophecy is not reserved for the elite of intellectuals or professionals: among the "prophets" that have loved and "lit me up", there are workers, peasants, and women with only five grades of elementary school.
An ideal-driven organisation lives well and makes its members and the world live well if it generates hundreds and thousands of Moses'. But when communities and movements allow these moments of liberation only to their leaders, while all members are assigned the role of the people liberated and guided through the desert, it happens that vocations are turned off, the flowers wither, the prophetic power of the charisma is resized very much, or even too much. And the land of all loses brightness. There are few people on this earth who are more beautiful than young people with a vocation; but there are very few experiences that are sadder than seeing those vocations fade with adulthood.
The charismas will stay alive as long as they generate free people who, having met a voice speaking from a burning bush while they were grazing their sheep, recognize it as a profound voice that has always inhabited them (if it weren't so, we would not know how to recognize it as a good voice and obey it). They depart for Egypt and they see the plagues, the sea opening up, the manna fall from heaven and Miriam dance. And they keep showing us a promised land that is beyond our horizon.