Communion - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/20
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on February 9, 2014
We are all suffering from serious shortages of communion. We are actually risking getting used to its absence, and so stopping to long for it. Communion is formed within the community, but a reversed statement is not necessarily true: there can be and there are communities without any type of communion among the people in it, where gifts become obligations, without freedom or gratuitousness. Current studies on happiness and subjective well-being tell us very clearly that the main cause of people's happiness is a life of communion, starting from that first cell of communion which is the family. Living a good life definitely depends on the quality of communional relationships at all levels, including the fundamental experience of communion which is work.
We must not, in fact, make the mistake of thinking that communion is only possible in intimate relationships or inside the family: communion is the deepest and truest vocation of human beings in all the areas in which human qualities are exercised. There are some dimensions of communion that are so intimate and spiritual that in order to describe them we should appeal to the poetic powers of Dante and his ingenious neologisms ("s’io m’intuassi come tu t’inmii", Paradise, IX 81; in English: "If I in-you-ed myself, as you in-me yourself", meaning: if I were in you as you are in me - the translator). But there are other dimensions, no less critical to the quality of our lives that do not require the mutual indwelling of souls, but necessitate that fellow citizens listen to and consider each other as related to and necessary for their own happiness - Europe will suffer forever, until the community does not become communion, too.
It is the community that allows us to decline verbs of our lives in all persons, especially the first person plural ("we"). Also because the first person plural may be missing from our syntax time to time and if it is so, the second person singular may disappear, too, and so does the face of the other person, and we find ourselves in communities inhabited by anonymous and lonely third persons.
Communion, to avoid becoming "communionism" must always be declined along with equality, freedom and gratuitousness. Unlike community, communion requires certain equality, especially when from the communion of goods we move on to the communion between people. It is an equality in dignity, a "face to face" recognition, knowing that the other is there, in that relationship, because he, just like me, has freely chosen to be there (and maybe to get out tomorrow), and chose this as an act of gratuitousness. This communion requires the overcoming of status, and is not complete until this happens. Communities can exist and persist even in feudal and unequal societies; communion requires much more. And even when the experience of communion begins inside a non-egalitarian or caste based community, if the experience is authentic, little by little it will undermine and transform it from the inside. Just like it happened in the early Christian communities and in those born from great religious and secular charismas, where people arrived as noble or plebeian, but soon found themselves in a new reality of true communion, where there was "neither slave nor free...nor...male and female..." (Galatians). For this reason, communion teaches the brothers and sisters who are siblings a new fraternity, where it is understood that you have to become brothers. Communion is all free, because it is the highest experience of gratuitousness - it is no coincidence that the Eucharist was named, the "eu-charis", and also, communion. History has known and still knows the community-without-communion, exactly because and whenever this kind of equality, freedom and gratuitousness were missing.
Our world suffers mainly because of the lack of communion at all levels, starting with that of the economy. Communion would be needed to try to resolve the serious problems of poverty and exclusion; philanthropy is not enough, and often it is even harmful, because it is a one-sided affair. Communion calls for much from all of us, from those who give and those who receive it, because it is a form of reciprocity where everyone gives and everyone receives. And where everyone forgives - without continuous and institutionalized forgiveness, communion does not last long.
Communion is happiness, well-being, living a good life. But life within and around us shows us a constant show of non-communion. To say and to continue to remind us that communion is a vocation of humanity means to have an idea of the health and diseases of human societies. Judeo-Christian humanism, for example, tells us of a beginning of humanity's communion, a start which is also the end of history, the goal towards which we strive. Non-communion is neither the first nor the last word on the human. To say that communion is health and non-communion is disease means to have an idea of therapy to cure ourselves. However, the dominant culture is reversing this order, and has transformed the disease into health. It does it every time saying that the rivalry, envy and oppression of the other are the main agents of economic growth, and harmony, generosity and equality do not increase the GDP.
Those who believe in communion as a vocation of human beings, whenever they find that it is not realised repeat the words of Don Zeno Saltini, "man is different" from what he appears to be, and we see it in history that man is "greater" than the disunities and discords around himself. It is the realistic possibility of a "not-yet" of communion that makes the "already" of non-communion possible and sustainable. When this broad horizon is deleted or when it is classified as naive utopia, the human factor shrinks, and since the ideal that would call for our attention even in the worst situations is missing, politics becomes cynicism, economics turns into dominance, and sociability to life imprisonment. The civil, moral and spiritual quality of the third millennium will depend on our capacity, at all levels, to see more in the human being than what we've seen so far, and equipping ourselves with communional institutions that promote peace, harmony, well-being and living a good life.
With the entry of "communion" this first volume of new vocabulary reaches its end. I feel that I should go back to the streets to look for new words, among the people, the poor - just where I had found what I have tried to tell so far. The great Argentinean, Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story "Avverroes' Search" envisions the crisis that the great Arab philosopher lived through when he had to translate the words of Aristotle, " tragedy" and "comedy". He did not manage to translate them because the experiences those two Greek words meant were missing from his culture (or he thought that they were missing). He left home, walked in the streets of Cordoba in Spain and listened to the travellers. Returning to his library he seemed to have understood the meaning of those far-away words. But Borges' Averroes got it all wrong in his translation ("Aristotle calls eulogies tragedy and satires and anathemes comedy"). Maybe he became too distracted walking the squares and passing between the merchants, and was not able to discover the tragedies and comedies "down in the small gravel courtyard, where little boys were playing. One, standing on the shoulders of another acted as the muezzin, the one that held him served as the minaret, a third one, on his knees, represented the faithful". In this admirable and difficult age of extremely fast passages, there are some "big" words that cannot be "translated", and so we risk losing them forever. We have to go back and watch the children play in the courtyards and meet the people in the streets. There we will be able to understand again the sense of big words lost or worn by time, starting from the Word that has become too foreign in our streets and in our markets. This is what I will try to do from next Sunday on, in agreement with the director of this newspaper, through a new series of reflections.
Thanks to those who followed me in this first volume of "vocabulary", and also to the many who have written to me and, I hope, continue to do so, giving me more words, different semantics, new stories to tell, so that we could share them with each other.
Translated by Eszter Kató
Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial