Anthropological prophecy in post-modernity
PASCUAL CHAVEZ VILLANUEVA, SDB Rector Major of the Salesians
The purpose of this reflection, rather than pretending to be some-thing “new”, aims to stimulate common reflection. Because of this, I will try to be as faithful as possible to my title and to its meaning: Offering an anthropological framework in which we can locate proposals to help strengthen the fidelity of consecrated life of those called to it: with particular attention to the younger generation.
There is no doubtthat the fundamental problem touches the core and very development of faith, beginning from personal and community experience of the God of Jesus Christ. Presupposing this, here we have to make a “methodological reduction” from a specific angle: Perhaps we can even get as close as possible to this issue where Nature and Grace; without being confused, are found and interact! In practice, the theme of fidelity (not only in its vocational sense) touches on such essential aspects of the person, that we must consequently of necessity surrender an attempt at a complete view, and instead be content to locate it within this anthropological framework.
On the other hand this problem is not exclusive to religious or consecrated life: It is sufficient to think of the dramatic circumstances, and very often tragic ones, of so many marriages and families in the world, even of Catholics! In the field of religious life, it affects recently founded Institutes, older Congregations and even monastic Orders, eremitical forms of life. And there’s more: Although we are interested in the younger generation, the reference is not only to them: the possibility that one might pull back from the radical call of Jesus does not finish until death. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it so well and so acutely, the first words that the Lord said to Peter were also the last: “Follow me!”
Before dealing with the content of this reflection, it would be good to see it from its _axiological point of view: are we dealing with a problematic situation, even a dangerous one which we have to defend ourselves from, or a kairos that, other than being inevitable, becomes a fascinating challenge for our creative fidelity to God, to Church and to humanity? I believe we are convinced that, notwithstanding the seriousness the situation calls for, it is the second alter-native we are dealing with: It is the consequence of believing that the Holy Spirit continues to be present and active in our Church and in the world; but also because in this, as in many other aspects, we find the “law of the pendulum”: our period dialectically emphasizes elements that, explicably but unjustly, were overlooked in other eras. It is up to us, with the help of the same Spirit, to seek the right balance.
Put in symbolical terms: culture today, especially youth culture, has turned the kaleidoscope of anthropology upside down: It con-templates a completely new picture, but one in which we can recognize the same structural factors as in preceding cultures, reflecting the light in a very different manner, and becauseof this, also projecting a different image. We believe, then, that we are dealing according to the happy expression of G. K. Chesterton, with one of those virtues that has’ gone “crazy”: Let‘s hope the disease is not beyond recovery!
Still in formal terms, I thought it was better to choose one direction, amongst others, hoping it may be sufficiently, relevant to offer us adequate paths for reflection. The alternative would have been to signal many elements, but of necessity Superficially and without plumbing their depths. In other words, recallingthe proverb. “He who wants too much doesn’t catch anything”, I’ve taken the opposite view: Taking up a little, in favor of much greater depth.
2. Historicity, Horizon of and Road to Human Fulfillment
Without doubt, amongst many other factors that shape culture today, the “discovery” of human historicity is one of the most relevant. This is not to speak of something “new” that did not exist before, or that was not universally perceived. Rather it is to speak of coordinates of human existence that, because present everywhere and at all times, run the risk, paradoxically, of becoming elusive. It would be enough to take up some pages of Holy Scripture to see that the Word of God absolutely cannot be understood without the pre-supposition of human history. Without this, God’s revelation, human freedom, sin and conversion would not exist.
This “implicit presence” of human history in Revelation accentuates, amongst other factors the value of the “today” faced with the past, and even the future: What counts is not, putting it in terms of an image, the weight of good or bad actions taken in balance, but the actual situation. We recall, amongst others, the famous text from Ezekiel: If the evil-doer renounces all the sins he has committed, respects my laws and is law abiding and honest, he will certainly live, he will not die. All the sins he has committed will be forgotten from then on; he shall live because of the integrity he has practiced” (Ez. 18, 21-22); Psalm 95 (94) says the same, as suggested at the beginning of the liturgical prayer of the day: “If today you hear the Lord’s voice, harden not your heart” (v. 7-8); or, more dramatically, the moving words of Jesus on the cross to the penitent thief: “Indeed I promise you: Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23, 43). This brings us, doubtless, to a more qualitative evaluation than a “quantitative” one of human existence, without identifying it, necessarily with the relationship between attitudes and acts in the moral arena. Therefore, speaking of “discovery”; let’s refer ourselves more precisely to the explicit theme, tied to philosophy, of the 20th century, (even if the roots are to be found at least from the 19th century on), and, more concretely, to existentialism, which constitutes one of the most valid and ongoing contributions of this current philosophy and culture.
As the title of this paragraph indicates, “horizon and road“,we are saying that not only does the human being live in history (in the world and the entire universe, that can .also be called, thanks to human intervention, “historical”): this e evident; but, more intrinsically, it seems to affirm that man is a “historical being” because he becomes himself, or destroys himself, in history: As much at the personal level, as at the community level, and even on a global scale: principally in an era where geographical coordinates give up their relevance more and more to historical ones, in this “global village“ that our planet is becoming.
We are not only dealing with something of quantitative importance, a “something more”; but especially of a qualitative relevance, giventhat history constitutes a paradigm, sets itself up in the centre of a Gestaltthat includes all the human structural elements in a new synthesis (harking back again to the image of the kaleidoscope).
This topicalizing of history has brought consequences to all fields of human existence: It is enough to recall the revolution it caused in thinking about education and formation, understood as “continuingformation”, referred in first place not to specific or possible up-dating, as it is often thought to be, but to the belief that we are in formation for all of our life, and that, therefore, we cannot really think of anyone as already fully “formed.” (Similarly, in the moral field, we do not think of a homo viatordefinitively lost, nor for that matter “con-firmed in grace”).
This brings with ,it a radical change in the manner of doing “initial formation”, and even` the following stage, called, inadequately “continuing formation”, as if it was something that came after initial formation. Also keeping in mind that the most important thing is not changing the words, but renewingtheir content, we should at least mention the problem, not so simple a one, of the manner of carryingout this “initial formation” so that it is not some thingseparate from what comes after, and even less some sort of antidote to it, but nor is it resolved by being a simple “first stage” of a process. At base, we are trying to clarify what it means to say that “ongoing (inasmuch as it is this) formation animates and guides initial formation.”
From this perspective on history, we are fully in integration with those “key words” that currently “have a right to citizenship” even in consecrated life: the search for personal realization. Here we are tackling un unavoidable aspect, but also a source of misunderstandingand of frustration even.
In this regard, am happy to recall a clarifying text Fr. Friedrich Wulf SJ, speaking of the theological phenomenology of religious life:
“At the basis of religious life that seeks to have a theological and spiritual basis we find a being affected by the Divine Mystery of the world and life….This impact is noted in three forms: As a being affected by God, by Jesus Christ or by the sorry state of the world. Here we see ideal types that only emphasise different centres of gravity never exist in pure form. They are strictly linked by the same content that is the content of Christian revelation. A being affected by God who does not include the decisive mediation and redeeming role of Jesus as a responsibility towards the salvation of the world and of others would be so minimally Christian as a being concerned about the sad state of the world that he would not have the God of our salvation revealed in Jesus as centre Whoever chooses as his purpose in life, to the extent to which one can choose for him sel a mystique and contemplation that excludes the world, would be essentially guilty of cutting out the Christian salve c message, like one who thinks of his apostolic vocation only as a notional service. Despite this there need to be priorities, emphases because otherwise everything would continue to be theoretical and would not be adequate to the peculiarities of each individual, to his specific quality and personal vocation” .
This is all fully valid… and a clarification; but is it not true that, together with this triple essential and inseparable motivation of religious and consecrated life -Absoluteness of God; following/imitation of Jesus Christ; salvation of the world – the concern for personal fulfilment is emphasised, at least implicitly? I# can be too easy to ignore, and even exclude this aspect, as an expression of selfish individualism and an unhealthy individualistic “psychosis”: nevertheless, if we read the Gospel carefully, we never find arejection, on Jesus’ part, of this: what the Lord does is to indicate the right path for this fulfilment. Is it not of significance that we have too often forgotten that thebeatitudes are not religious or moral norms but promises of happiness?
Rather than rejecting or anathematizing, we need to discern and clarify: It is only valid and fulfilling, in consecrated life, when we speak of afulfillment in Christ, indissolubly tied to the three aspects. Evidently, there is a place here for rightunderstanding and a putting into practice of the concept of vocational suitability that allows us to integrate both dimensions, objective and subjective.
One of the most fascinating aspects in the contemplation of the great saints, is to thinkof them as fully fulfilled and happy people. If we are called to be, as Vita Consecrata says, a “spiritual therapy” for the world of today, and wewant to more deeply understand the “profound anthropological significance” of the evangelical counsels, we cannot ignore this dimension: It is not enough to live chastity, poverty and obedience in a radical and complete manner: We need, even at a human level, to have radiant and attractive attitudes, the expression of maturity and fullness (cf. VC 87-91).
3. Freedom, the Supreme Value of Human Fulfillment
Within the paradigm of history, freedom takes on a decisive importance, particularly because the human being is understood not as something “pre-programmed”, like a computer, even the most sophisticated, but as a person, someone who takes his own life into his own hands, can. dispose of it, can decide what he wants to do with it; indeed: What he wants to be, by means of it.
In this sense, we can recall the deliberately exaggerated and provocative wordsof J.-P. Sartre: ‘Existence comesbefore being.” No-one, no being, human or divine, can decide for me what’ I want to be. Behind this attitude we can find the expression of a more or less atheistic Prometheism, but also a challenge that helps us under-stand that God cannot desire from us, his children, a love and a commitment other than completely free.
It is appropriate to analyze freedom more in-depth as anessential dimension of the human being; Undoubtedly, we cannot accept a supremacy of freedom that seeks to set itself over and above every other moment or value: but nor can we reject it or preach against it: We often complain about a freedom that degenerates into licentiousness, etc.; but what is the shape and dynamic of this attitude, so as to be able to understand it, face it and respond to it?
In a way similar to history, this over-evaluation of freedom is not only quantitative (“the most“); but also qualitative, a nucleus of a paradigmaround which all other values turn.When this is not taken into consideration, it makes it impossible to understand certain attitudes that seem contradictory.
I offer one example, not just by chance. Faced with the deplorable theme of sexual abuse and molestation, certainly never justifiable, and the no less deplorable manipulation of same, we note an often hypocritical “double standard” in society and in the midst of communication: How can it be possible that this society, which seeks to punish the least failure in this regard, can at the same time tolerate its exacerbation in the form of an. almost unlimited pornography? Seen from theparadigm of sexuality, this duplicitous attitude is incomprehensible; but from another paradigm, that of freedom,it is not only comprehensible but logical:: at base it says that because we are dealing with adults (= 18 years plus), they can do what they like, with absolute freedom, so long as they don’t injure a third party (recently: “in their freedom”).
Obviously, I am not trying to justify this attitude; to the contrary, here we see, in my judgement,the core of the real problem. As indicated above, we are not only dealing with a quantitative evaluation (=exaggerated) Of freedom, but qualitatively, it is seen as a paradigm of human self-fulfilment. Faced with this, we need to say: Freedom does not constitute a paradigm, is not the basicvalue which allows human fulfilment: It is, instead, the characteristic that must accompany every human value, so that it may be truly human.
Put in other words: freedom,as an adjective, has to accompany every noun: otherwise, the noun loses its character as value. Instead, when the adjective tries to become the noun, it absolutizes freedom, destroying itself, and destroying the being involved. (It is good to recall here. the etymology of the word “absolute”: absolutus reminds us of the “un-attaching” from anything else).
Against this formal absolutising of freedom, we can even quote an author who certainly could not be suspected of “asceticism” Federico Nietzsche:
“Do you call yourself free? I would like to hear your dominant thinking, and just not that you have escaped from some burden.
Are you someone for whom it is licit to escape from a burden? More than one has thrown away his ultimate value by throwing away his ultimate form of slavery.
Free from what? Zarathustra was not interested in this! Your eyes have to tell me clearly: free for what?? (author’s highlighting).
I would like to go deeper into this idea by turning to the thinking of someone considered, in literature, as the greatest knower of the human heart:’ F. M. Dostoievskij. It is common place to quote him as a writer who, more than anyone else, defended human freedom; nevertheless, he knew how to nicely present the risks of this very freedom when it tries to set itself up as an absolute value in human existence.
In the impressive range of Dostoievskij’s characters, we find three who incarnate, from different angles, the temptation of absolute freedom, which runs the risk of self-destruction, and in two cases succeed (through suicide). From an ethical perspective, we find Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment obsessed with the question of the possibilities there are in “superior men”, and if they are allowed to do anything (and, concretely, if he is one of those exceptional beings); Kirillov, in the novel The Demons; who incarnates the theological radicalisation of freedom, pretending at the same time to supplant God; understood as a despotic and absolute Lord and Master of every freedom; and especially Stavroguin, in the same novel, from an ontological perspective: A fascinating character for all those around him, but we are dealing with a lovely statue which, unfortunately, in reality is inwardly empty.
One of the best scholars of Dostoevskij, Louis Pareyson, comments thus:
“His freedom is purely arbitrary, having no norm before him to violate, he does not even have a purpose to offer, and .so revolves around emptiness, dissolving in apathy, in boredom, in laziness in a kind of uselessbeing and destructive inertia. His potential was great and fearful, as was the destruction that came from it. men that have comeunder his influence are lost and he a dark and demonic character, posits the supreme problem. To be ? or not to be? To live or to destroy oneself?‘ . And he destroys himself: Suicide puts the stamp of nothingness on a life that had only nothing as its teaching”
Undoubtedly, these are extreme cases; but particularly for this reason, they .outline to perfection the danger of a freedom that does not accept, humbly, that it is an adjective that must inseparably accompany the values it fulfils, humanly and, in our case, also in Christian and religious terms- the person: and in first place and especially, love, because there is no authentic love that is not free. Freedom is the undeniable terminus a quo of human fulfill” merit, under which we lose our human dignity, and we transform ourselves into the mob that follows the Great Inquisitor (and God frees us from being “great inquisitors” who act against ‘the freedom of their brothers!): but in no way does it constitute the terminus ad quern of this fulfillment.
4. “…It is an Experience…”
Withinthis constellation of values (history – freedom -fulfil-meet) experience has a privileged place. A “magic” word, that has an intimate relationship; with each of them: It advantages human f ulfilment, in the perspective of historicity, as a privileged moment for the exercising of freedom.
Leaving the analysis, no doubt very rich, of the etymology of this word from various linguistic fields, especially Latin (ex-perior = expertus) and germanic (Erfahrung = er-fahren), we go directly to its typical meaning. Also here, it helps to explain that we are not dealing with a “new” reality: In various cultures there are proverbial expressions that show the difficulty of “learning from someone else’s brain’ and making a treasure out of it. To experience everything in first per-son has always been seen as something, while not always desirable, but in any case inevitable.
Besides: in practically all traditional cultures there are “initiation rites” that make possible the passage from one to another stage of life, experiences involving the complete person, and not only his intellectual or affective ability, but both dimensions at the same time, also his bodily reality often in painful ways. We need to add, nevertheless, that although these “initiation rites” persist in today’s cultures4, often in disguised form, there is an essential difference: Today we do not seek, through these unique experiences, to be integrated with a mythical past, but to open ourselves to a promising future, rejecting
sometimes explicitly -their past.
In this experiential direction we can mention the mystagogic dimension of the Christian catechesis of the first centuries,that sought not only to prepare the catechumens through acquisition of knowledge, but get them to live an experience of encounter with the Lord Jesus and, through Him, in the Holy Spirit, the Father. Also today, pastoral ministry, youth ministry especially, tries to develop
Cf., in this regard, the extraordinary work by MIRCEA ELIADE (for example, ary
Lo Sagrado y to Pro ano Barcelona Ed. Labor’, 6a. Ed. 1985.
this essential dimension. Not only this: Mystical experience is characterised particularly for this reason as drawing specifically from the encounter with the Triune and One God (it does not depend on human ability but is a divine Gift).
All this shows us that we are not faced with a difficulty to over-come but a very rich reality to discern and take up: overcoming, without doubt, the dangers it implies.
Amongst these dangers we find, in the first place, its formal nature (similar to what we were saying about freedom). It gives the impression that each experience exists for the very fact of being such: How many times have we not heard, as justification for an unacceptable attitude, this explanation: “…it is an experience.” Perhaps irreverently glossing the first letter of Peter: experience is similar to brotherly love, inasmuch as it is a garment that “covers a multitude of sins° (cf 1 Pt 4, 8). Speaking from experience in formation, I have noted that, together with pride, it is one of the strongest structural impediments to penitence and conversion, since the alternative would be to be without experience, and this is seen, formally and a priori, as a limit and an impoverishment. It can come to the point of saying – thanks be to God not in consecrated life! – that any kind of sexuality, even the most aberrant, is preferable to abstaining from it altogether! It seems to me to be the extreme formalist evaluation of experience as such.
This manner of thinking often misunderstands the meaning of `experience. Already the fact of moving from the singular of “the” experience, as an expression of the wisdom of one who knows how to learn from life beginning with daily and habitual experience, to the plural experiences as extraordinary and exceptional moments, moving the emphasis from attitude to act. There is a Mexican song which says this wonderfully: “Nada to han ensenado los anos, siempre saes en los mismos errores” (“The years have taught you nothing: You always make the same mistakes”) wHch is the same as saying: you have had lots of experiences, but you have no experience”, you have not learnt anything from life, you have not become an “expert” in life.
From this unilateral over-appreciation of one’s own experience
come two great dangers for consecrated life today: individualism, because no-one else can take my place in learning from life: “it is my experience”; and along with this, relativism: “each one to his own thinking, according to his own experience”: beyond this, everything else is an abstraction. There are no objective norms that can prevail over what “life has taught me”.
I would like to take this point further. The spiritual direction of religious in initial formation has led me to the belief that probleins, especially in the affective area, come largely from the manner in which they are tackled (or even of not tackling them); other than the `ostrich’ approach which, head buried in the sand, thinks that nobody has noticed (when, in reality, everyone is well informed, speaks about it with everyone else except the one involved), it is typical to begin from the presumption: “I have to experience this affective relationship alone, because no one else will understand: They will think -starting from my formators – that this is one girl like all the rest, when instead, she is a unique, unrepeatable individual”, etc… Deep down, there is no doubt that each human being is unique and unrepeatable and for this reason one can’t give ”a recipe”; but we are all human beings, realistically, men or women, and for this reason there can be criteria that,
other than the undeniable singularity of each situation, let us
locate and discern it as objectively as possible, and especially to
help one another.
d) With a view to overcoming this formalism, we need to understand that what matters is not only having experience, but the value of the experience we are having: That is, its content :Here we take up what was said previously, i,e. the need to overcome an intellectual type of education-formation that pretends to interiorise vital con-tent without experiencing it. Put emphatically, and making it a play on words: what counts is not the value of the experience, but the experience of the value to be interiorised and assimilated. In the Salesian Constitutions, the central article which seeks to characterise formation as an ongoing process has as its title: “the formation experience”, and is described thus: “the Salesian learns by expe‑
rience the meaning of the Salesian vocation at the various moments of his life and accepts the ascetical demands it makes on him” (C SDB 98).
In Buddha’s life we find a very meaningful legend and story. From the time he was born, his father wanted him to avoid any kind of ‘negative’ experience that that might endanger his optimistic view of life: in practice, old age, illness, death. Nevertheless, this concern was counter-productive: There only needed to be an occasion when, leaving the family home, he met up with many situations: a sick per-son, an elderly person and a funeral cortege — it was enough for him to be mired in a deeply depressing crisis:
Often, with the best of intentions, we want to do something similar in the different areas of consecrated life, especially in the initial stages.; But such an attitude, instead of being formative, is profoundly deformative. One needs to say, without doubt, that our young members, and not only the young ones, don’t experience a crisis when they are looking at an old lady close to death, but rather looking at a beautiful young girl full of life: and especially when we have tried to keep them far from any `dangerous’ experience in the field of affective relationships with people of the opposite sex…
5. Formation to Renunciation
Finally; and still with regard to overcoming “formalism”, we need to say something of a reality that in our age more than any other, means going “against the flow”: Formation to renunciation. Put paradoxically, we need to favour the experience of saying ‘no’. It is not a question of looking to times gone by where this exercise had a very formal nature: The most important thing there was learning to say no… to renounce, to “temper the will.” Instead, it is essential to rediscover the human and Christian value of authentic renunciation, to be able to live an experience that is enriching, in a manner that can be taken positively, and which does not lead to nervous frustration..
In the short Gospel parable of the merchant with the precious pearl (Mt. 13: 45-46), we find some basic elements that allow us to describe the “phenomenology of renunciation”:
a) Precious pearls are renounced (“the merchant went and sold what he had’) not because they are false: they are authentic after all, and
up till then made up the merchant’s wealth. Applying it to our reality, it is certainly not an appropriate method to try to diminish the value of what has to be renounced, to try to make it something easy to do. Deep down, renouncing “bad things” does not make for the most profound and complete human renunciation. How many times .have we heard the request, as a resistance to what has to be renounced: “what is bad about what I am doing”? And one who says this is right: only that s /he has to understand that it is precisely then that the opportunity presents itself to take up renunciation in its most authentic sense.
Authentic pearls are renounced sorrowfully and at the same time cheerfully, because “the” ultimate pearl has been found, the one that has fulfilled the merchant’s vision and heart: and he understands that he cannot buy it unless he sells the others. If our consecrated life, centred on the following and the imitation of the Lord Jesus, is not fascinating, the renunciation it requires becomes unjust and dehumanising… As Potissimum Institutioni puts it so splendidly; “Only this love of a natural character implying all of a person’s affectivity, will allow us to motivate and sustain the renunciation and the crosses that the one who desires to ‘lose his life’ for Christ and his Gospel necessarily finds along the way (cf. Mk. 8, 35)” (n.
The joy of possessing the “precious pearl” never eliminates the fear that maybe it is not authentic: Where it turns out to be false, my decision will have been mistaken, and I will have ruined my life. This “risk” in Christian life , and even more so in consecrated life, is a direct consequence of faith: only in faith does our life have meaning: If what we believe in does not have truth, we are more unfortunate than any person”, to paraphrase St. Paul (cf. 1 Cot 15, 19). The day when, in whatever aspect of consecrated life, we can say: “my life is fully satisfying; even if what I believe in is not true”, our Institute becomes an… NGO, with the further problem of demanding certain unacceptable requirements from its members…
Playing with words again, we need not only to foster the experience of renunciation, but also, in many situations, renunciation of experiences, is needed, one of the most difficult things to under-stand and accept today. Let’s think, for example, of the affective (and sexual) area: there are those who think, with the best of intentions, that renunciation will come more easily to them if they live out the corresponding experience: “at least, then I know what I am renouncing.” Deep down this is a mirage: we cannot follow all the different paths that life offers us, to then choose in some subsequent step, the right path. What is decisive – and a solid formation has to help this along – is that the person maturely takes this decision (a word that connotes, in its etymology, “to cut”), and does not complain for the rest of his life about what he didn’t experience, something which inevitably magnifies the experience: the forbidden fruit is always the most desirable.
6. The Context Today: Postmodernity
In the hope that everything said up to now respects, from a specific perspective, the anthropological situation of consecrated life, we need to ask ourselves: is all this a novelty in our own time? Or are we only dealing, as said initially, with a topicalisation of aspects that were always there, at least implicitly?
Evidently we cannot speak of absolute “novelty”, because this would be to ignore that, as human beings, there is an undoubtable similarity to every time and place. Using an expression of Mircea Eliade, we need to say that we have the same “archetypal structure” or, using a simpler image: even if the photograph taken of each one would be different, an X-Ray would be very similar.
Nevertheless, from the moment that we speak today of a new and qualitatively distinct era in the history of mankind, this implies factors that, at least to a greater or lesser degree, have radically changed. I refer to one, in practice, that is fully relevant to our discussion.
The human being, although always living in the present (this is a self-evident truth), is a “being of the future” (E. Bloch, W. Pannenberg): By his very nature, he is faced with a utopia, something that has as yet “not happened” in our world and in history. This can
be said, a fortiori, of the younger generation which carries this approach to the future in its very psychosomatic identity, written into the “humblest” cell.
This is why we see a tragedy in the postmodern situation: the threat of the future that weighs on humanity places us, especially for our younger generation, before an existential contradiction: on the one hand, with the irresistible need for a future horizion, and on the other, with the lack of this horizon. If we add to this the rejection of the past on the part of today’s youth culture, we can understand its sensation of being “locked in” in the small space that the presentprovides, with no solution to enable one to “experience the fleeting
moment” (l’attimo fuggente).
This threat shows up in a double way: on the one hand, in what J. Moltmann called “the loss of atomic innocence” from Hiroshima onwards:5 we know — and recent news items remind us- that for some decades, and for the first time in the history of the worldand of mankind (from what we know); there exists the real possibility (depending concretely on the decisions made by some) that could see the entire human race disappear as a consequence of a nuclear conflagration. The fact that the leaders of nations may reach some possible agreement in this regard does not eliminate the danger. As the same Moltmann said, we can never get back our lost innocence.
“The era we live in, even if it were to last forever, is, the final era of mankind… We are living in the end-times, that is when each day could bring about the end’6
On the other hand – and not totally unconnected with what went before – we find this threat in universal and irreversible ecological decline: think of air pollution, loss of drinkable water, destruction of forests, to the giddy exploitation of unrenewable energy. As Moltmann again said, “we are all equal.. faced with the ozone layer.”
5 Cfr. JURGEN MOLTMANN, La Catastrofe atomica: e Dio, dove?
Leo Leopardi, 1987, p.11:
6 Ibidem quoting GONTHER ANDERS.
This “suppression from outside” of fixture horizons is a typical fact of out times, and is fundamental to the understanding of our obsessive attachment to the present; and the need for immediate “satisfactions” which are characteristic ofthe postmodern era: since it is not the same to “want to live ‘today’ ” in the perspective of tomorrow, anchored in today, because maybe tomorrow will not exist… Some days ago a newspaper, writing of a review of a book by the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, Literature Nobel Prize-winner; used this expression: “Is it possible to have children after Auschwitz”? (which recalls a famous sentence: “Is it possible to believe in God after Auschwitz”?). It is the question that today so many young people ask when facing marriage and family: not with the illusion of earlier times, but with the anxiety of facing the future touching them; is it worth bringing new beings into the world?
Undoubtedly this “privation of the future’, in a totally different sense, also affects consecrated life, especially for new generations.
We could continue to plumb the depths of the topic of postmoder‑
but by going to specialised studies that you know well. I would prefer rather to invite you to reflect on the present and the immediate future of consecrated life, rather than theoretical ideas, by contemplating a figure of holiness currently typical in the Church: Saint Teresa of Lisieux.
Amongst her many experiences, today we emphasise, rightly, the lack of belief and atheism the Saint experienced towards the end of her life. She knew how to discover God as gift, and to take this, on in. a most positive way, as a kind of solidarity with those “far from God.” Now I want to emphasise another aspect. Amongst the many memories of her infancy, one, quite ordinary to look at, is particularly significant. One clay her sister Leonia, thinking she was too old to play with dolls, went to find her with a basketful of little dresses and bits and pieces for making other ones, for each of the sisters to choose from. When it was little Teresa’s turn, she tells us: “I put out my hand saying: IT take the lot!, and without further ado took
the whole basket”7 We could say: this is a typically “postmodern’ approach, for someone who does not want to renounce anything.
We are not talking about an outburst of infantile selfishness: I believe it shows a very deep aspect of her personality. In fact many years later, in one of the-most important moments of her spiritual discernment, this urge flourished again in pages that have become a classic in Christian spirituality:
“I sense other vocations in myself I sense the vocation of the soldier, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr; in short, I feed the need, the desire to accomplish for you, Jesus, all the most heroic deeds… I feel in my soul the courage of a crusader, of papal knight: I would like to die on the battlefield in defence of the Church … How can I reconcile these contrasts? How can I realise the desires of my poor little soul? … During prayer my desires made me suffer a true and proper martyrdom. I opened the Letter of Saint Paul to find some answers… I read that not everyone can be an apostle; prophet, doctor, etc.; that the Church is made up of different members, and that eye cannot be the hand at the same time… The answer was clear, but it did not assuage my desires, it did not give me peace … Without being discouraged I kept reading and this sentence struck me: ‘You zealously seek the most perfect gifts: but I will show you one more excellent still.’ And the apostle explains how all the most perfect gifts are nothing compared with love … Finally I had found the answer!…Charity gave me the key to my vocation … I understood that only love made the members of the Church do what they do: that if love should die out, the apostles would no longer announce the Gospel, the martyrs would refuse to spill their blood… I understood that love embraces all vocations, that love was everything, that love embraced all times and every place… In brief, that love is eternal! Well then, in the fullness of my delirious joy I cried out: Oh Jesus my Love…! I have finally found my vocation!
My vocation love”!…5
Only to the extent to which we focus all our being on love for God and our neighbour, and act so that all of lifelong formation has the purpose of growing in love, can we achieve what seems impossible: having “everything in just a fragment” (recalling Von Balthasar). This
7 S. TERESA DI GESU BAMBINO, Opere Complete, Roma, Libreria Editrice Vaticana Edizioni OCD 1997,.p. 91.
8 Ibidem 221-223
way we can bring about, in routine and in life’s limits, and in the “uniqueness” of our life, the totality of the Christian vocation: We will understand that in love the extraordinary paradox of being able to renounce everything can be realised and, at the same time and precisely because of it, not renouncing, deep down, anything that can allow us to realise complete fulfilment; this was how the little Saint of Carmel understood it and experienced it…
8. Fidelity in the Postmodern Era
All that we have said, basically, tries to give a consistency to our consecrated fidelity, in the difficult but fascinating times in which we live. We already indicated from the outset that certainly today’s culture does not favour the practice of fidelity: In some settings even marital fidelity is the “exception.”
The biblical motivation in this regard is huge and fascinating. The Hebrew word generally translated by “fidelity”, hesed, con-notes in the first place, especially when applied to Yahveh, solidity, strength, persistence over time, in contrast to the fragility of human promises. As a consequence the Covenant is drawn up, as much from a “juridical” angle as especially in the basic motivation that makes it possible, that is the solidity of God’s love. In this sense, a great exegete comments: “The most wonderful thing about the People of Israel, is not so much that God loves them, but the fact that this love was faithful, lasting, despite everything”(E. Jacob).
There are two psalms in particular which sing ofthis fidelity of God’s love: 117 (116) which, in its brevity, is a real jewel: “Praise the Lord, all you peoples… because strong is his love for us, and the fidelity of the Lord lasts forever”.
Similarly, the “great Hallel” 136 (135), sings not so much of the divine love but of its fidelity: “because hisLove has no end.” This guarantee of the love of God that is firm, solid, faithful, finds its fullness in the New Testament, in the new and eternal Covenant, in Jesus Christ.
Consecrated life is in its deepest essence, a nuptial covenant with God and depends on his guarantee; unfortunately, the human “partner” in the Covenant can err; but even in this case, “He remains faithful, for he cannot disown his own self” (2 Tim. 2, 10).
It would be very enriching to locate fidelity within the “paradigm” of historicity. Since it is impossible for me to develop this at length, I will only mention some relevant aspects.
At the beginning we pointed to the ongoing nature of formation, the following and imitation of Jesus Christ “until death.” Nevertheless it is worth going deeper into this “ongoingness” so that what happens to many spouses does not also happen to us – continuing to live together through “inertia”, since the nucleus that gave meaning to their covenant, love, has disappeared. If we begin from the belief that “formation is the free response to vocation”, we can draw the following conclusion: ongoing formation can continue to
exist only if there is also the experience of ongoing vocation. The Lord
did not call 10 or 20, or 50 years ago: He calls us today, at 10, or 20, or 50 years of- age. Uniquely this joyful experience of a God who loves us and calls us, makes a likewise joyful and fully faithful response possible. In an almost imperceptible manner we have included history here, experience, freedom and personal fulfilment in Christ.
It nevertheless remains a problem to which today’s generation is especially sensitive. We cannot deny the generosity with which many young men and women give themselves to the service of the otheri, often in a total way; nevertheless this happens for a determined period of time: the. most difficult thing is to take on a definitive commitment, pronouncing a “for ever”, renouncing every alternative possibility in principle. “What if life should show me other paths? What if I should find the man /woman who will make me happy? What if circumstances, place, community, work where I find myself should change radically?” All these questions agree in the fact that they make fidelity depend on a ‘future outside of us, which we cannot man-age ourselves. Faced with that it is necessary to emphasise, in all stages of formation .(until death), that authentic fidelity does not depend on what “can happen”, but on what I have decided, and
which I renew daily: My faithful love for the Lord, in the total giving of myself to my brothers and sisters.
Fidelity has a typical feature that distinguishes it from other virtues. We can compare it, in the fine arts scene, to music, compared with painting, sculpture In a single moment of time I can contemplate a beautiful statue or a famous painting, but I cannot listen,dt one and the same time, to both the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven and The Magic Flute by Mozart: Here we need as explanation, time and “historicity”… In similar fashion, fidelity cannot be realised except as an “historical” experience… Fidelity has no fear of the future, precisely because it can only be realised as such in the future; and especially when talking of fidelity of love and in love, lived in fullness, even at a human level only on the horizons of “forever”. Nietzsche said: “All cheerfulness demands eternity.” Paradoxically, what seems to be at
risk becomes the indispensable condition for future possibility. I would be happy to finish this section with a very beautiful text
that I am certain many of you have heard or read some decades ago. It is taken from the famous letter on Priestly Celibacy by Karl Rahner. Addressing himself to the one who is speaking with him, he asks:
“What value will theses juridical questions have for you and all the juridical suggestions for the future, if you remain faithful to: your life and your basic decisions? asically, none. Would you let me express myself clearly and honestly? I do not await the ‘future”, like that awful mask in Freiburg Cathedral representing an elderly Sister showing her last tooth to let it be known that it was never too late to get married. I have already chosen… I am a priest. I have not complained about this”9.
If I were to finish this reflection with an invitation to make a relationship between the theological virtues and the dimensions of time, I imagine it would seem out of place and irrelevant. I will try to show its validity, as a conclusion and projection for the future.
KARL RAHNER: Siervos de Cristo Barcelona Ed. He
rder 1970r p.206. ,
Cervantes says, in his Quijote, that there is no book, no matter how bad it is, that does not have something good about it. I apply this to a work that appeared in the ’60s, and that was considered the most radical expression of the “theology of the death of God”: The Gospel of Christian Atheism, by the American theologian Thomas J. J. Altizerlo. The kindest critics comment on this book ironically, that it was not gospel, atheism nor Christian. Nevertheless, towards the end the author throws out a challenge (such is the title of the last chapter) that we can take up and that allows us to understand better what we want to say.
The author places “the theological virtues” (without using that term as such) in strict relationship with the dimensions of time: faith with the past, hope with the future, love with the present; then says: anyone who wants to base himself on faith is still in an anachronistic past; whoever wants to live in hope, is taking refuge in a future that doesn’t exist; it is then necessary to reject both approaches, in order to live in the constant present in love; Christian life is reduced to this alternative, according to Altizer. In some way this same idea is found in the postmodern interpretation of the Incarnation of the Son of God in Gianni Vattimo, in his book Credere di Credere.
a concrete and unconditional love for God and our brothers and sisters in whom we see the face of the Lord Jesus, can our fidelity in consecrated life be relevant, as it has been in the tradition of our Institutes, beginning with our Founders and Foundresses. Only a present which is faithful to its past and open to its future can be relevant and meaningful, in the continuous present of the service of God and,the world, out of love.
A tree is healthy and strong when its roots go down into the dark depths of the earth; when its trunk points to the skies, receiving the sap the roots give it and fostering through its leaves and branches the birth and maturity of its fruits. Without the roots of faith re-fashioned in a concrete and real historical past, without the trunk of hope that launches us towards the future, and without the fruits of love, ever present, we will be a dried up tree that would be better chopped down and used as wood or left simply to rot. Let us ask the Spirit of the Lord, with the maternal help of Mary to enliven our Institutes in such a manner that each one makes up a wood, a forest that offers fresh shade, purifies the polluted air breathed by our world and produces fruits of salvation in abundance for all the brothers and sisters whom the Lord sends us!
As said before this relationship between theological virtues and temporal dimensions is a suggestive one, although its nature as an “alternative” may be unacceptable: either one or the other. On the contrary, only in its total integration, as a triple theological attitude, with a solid anthropological basis, can these three virtues find their full meaning. Even though the fact that love is the most important is not up for discussion, it is necessary to emphasise that there is no Christian love without Christian faith and without Christian hope: “This is his commandment: that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and we love one another, as he told us to” (1 Jn 3, 23).
Instead of complaining about our present times, let us trustfully take up, in the Lord, the challenge that he gives us only beginning from a solid faiththat nurtures a ‘living hope’ and manifests itself in
1° THOMAS J. ALTIZER Il Vangelo dell’Ateismo Cristiano, Roma, Ubaldini Ed. 1969.
REPORT OF THE WORKING GROUPS RANCESCO CEREDA; SDB
In understanding human life and its possibilities there are some constant elements that could be said to constitute an intercultural and generally accepted view. Happiness and self realization, desires and aspirations, affectiuity and emotions are opportunities and challenges: We will present a synthesis of these anthropological aspects that, while challenging, must be dealt with in any consecrated life that wants to be fully human and therefore credible. These constitute the basis for vocational fidelity.
The present anthropological situation offers the religious life an opportunity for a new authenticity. Today’s culture, especially among young people, prizes authenticity. People want to see religious as happy individuals. They want to see that what we say is consistent with what we do and that our words are genuine because they spring from a coherent life.
Authenticity is a real opportunity because it corresponds to the generosity and the desire of young people for community; for a giving of self and for the joy of relationships. These aspirations are strong and deeply seated and can promote growth in a genuine consecrated life and in self giving love. It is an opportunity that pro-motes and encourages the elder members of our communities to be real models that are both attractive and challenging, in living the love of Christ that inspired them to embrace the consecrated life and to understand that they have a role to play in the formation of the younger generation. Authenticity is an opportunity that
demands attention to the human dimension of the consecrated per-son and to the daily life of the community.
Authenticity is also a challenge since it is a matter of returning to what is essential, especially to go beyond a functionalism that reduces the consecrated life to a role, job or profession that poisons the passion for self giving to Christ and to humanity. Authenticity challenges a consecrated life that is daily threatened by mediocrity and inertia, and from the danger of confusing itself with and succumbing to the values of the “world.”
To be a person means to have life in one’s own hands, that is to decide what needs to be done with one’s own life. Freedom is the responsibility to create oneself, it is possibility and future.
Freedomis an opportunity because it is only by being free that one can arrive at an interiorization of values and an appropriation of formational development and therefore at a real maturity.
Freedom is also a challenge since it needs to be able to put together self-realization and action, self-formation and accompaniment, including spiritual direction. It is necessary to give to young people all the time needed to develop and mature at their own rate; there is not always a correspondence or coherence between the canonical stages and the stages of maturity and personal decision. A mature, personal decision does not always take place at the time of presbyter-al ordination or final profession. For this reason, formators able to personalize the formation process are needed.
A human is abeing in fieri and society is in continual evolution. Persons construct themselves in time, their autobiography is a link connecting a diversity of experiences. The narrative of one’s own history makes one’s identity possible.
Historicity therefore is an opportunity because it makes us recognize that our life is a journey and our formation is a process that never ends. Life is self realization and construction. Life is a kind of constant music that plays from initial formation to on-going formation. The
changes in life push the consecrated life to renew and adapt, inviting it to rearticulate itself in the language of contemporary humanity.
Historicity is also a challenge since it requiresthat formation, insofar as it is on-going, animates and orients all of initial formation. It is not sufficient to focus on young people and their formation. The whole community and Institute must be engaged by encouraging all of the members to relive “heir first love—their vocational passion that they had at the beginning of their consecrated life: One’s life journey also runs the risk of being narcissistically self obsessed unable to open itself to self-Biding: In a changing world that lacks a center; it is the parts rather than the big picture that dominate. Formation, then ought to serve to unify the person and center him/her on the essential which is following Christ.
Today it is necessary to go beyond an intellectualized formation approach that claims to be able to transform the individual without experience. There is a great desire for experience today. The most moving experiences are sought out. There is a desire to have one’s own experiences.
Experience is an opportunity since when it is learned from life, formation becomes more personalized, concrete and profound. This is necessary for everyone, not only young people. Adultconfreres also need strong and authentic experiences of God, of the charism, of the poor, of fraternal and in-depth relationships.
Experience is also a challenge because it can become an end in itself rather than lead to a real transformation. Different experiences may be fragmentary and disconnected. The help of a spiritual director is therefore necessary who can bring together the experiences and pro-mote an interiorization of values. It is not a question of trying to pro-vide a lot of experiences, but to choose a few that are well prepared and meaningful linked with a real pedagogical approach so that experiences become experience.
Human Relationship and Affectivity
In today’s culture a great need is felt for authentic human relation-ships. Young people have a real thirst for fraternity and friendship;
informal and affectionate relationships. Adults also seek enriching and significant relationships. In order for it to be prophetic, community life must have something to say regarding the, capacity to weave relationships and it also must be attractive because of its human face.
The desire for relationship constitutes an opportunity since journeying toward a deepening of human relationships personalizes fidelity and makes it possible to invite others to enter into a real relationship of authenticity and communication—especially relation-ships of love and commitment with the person of Jesus Christ. Fraternity involves daily issues of living together. A need to enlarge the circle of relationships and to heal feelings is also part of the concern of fraternity.
Fraternity also constitutes a challenge since it requires a focus on conversion and on the renewal of our communities. What kind of interpersonal atmosphere does the young candidate find in our communities and what kind of communication do the adult confreres find? It’s a challenge that takes the forms of “regenerating” the community, especially when it is growing older. It’s a challenge :because it is not easy to find balanced and able formators who can take this personal approach and know how to avoid individualism, going beyond the private, able to offer wise personal accompaniment and adequate spiritual direction. It is therefore difficult to build emotion-al and affective equilibrium in our relationships and in our experience of life.
Renunciation is a part of life and therefore also part of the consecrated life; when it is practiced in a positive way it becomes a liberating and enriching experience. It is not possible to choose everything, even though whoever lives for love and chooses love lives a totalizing experience.
Renunciation is an opportunity to live our consecrated life with authenticity to make of it a real “spiritual therapy” for humanity. It purifies and makes love true.
Renunciation is also a challenge because the consecrated life offers a privileged way of life, often sparing the consecrated person from having to deal with the problems and toil of normal life. Even the
temptation to consumerism, the comfortable life, well being, travel and the ownership of personal media affect consecrated persons in all cultures. There is a need to turn to the essential of our life and our structures. Especially for young people, but not exclusively, renunciation can be a problem: We need to help them understand that it is not a question of sacrificing something, but to choose something, rather someone—the Lord Jesus and discipleship. True freedom, joy and fulfillment are found in this choice. It means to be open to permitting Jesus to enter our life and take the first place being freed from those tendencies that prevent us from making and living this radical choice.
Fidelity is the consequence of the choice that the consecrated per-son makes for God, kindling in his/her life the fire of the passion for God and for the Lord Jesus, even to the perpetual offering of one’s life.
Fidelity is an opportunity because it makes the relationship with the LordJesus and his Reign progressively more profound and personal. It allows the religious to affirm God as an absolute and constant value that stands firm in the whirlwind of cultural change. Fidelity helps the religious to see the world with positive eyes and to perceive positive experiences of fidelity in the family, community, and church as the action of the Spirit in history. It also allows us to see meaning in the sacrifices that the consecrated person is called upon to make.
Fidelity is also a challenge because it is shaken by the fragmented and impermanent situation of the culture: In this sense it needs to be constantly supported both personally and communally in order to pass from narcissism toadying to self in following Christ. In addition, fidelity cannot remain only at the conceptual level but must become a living fidelity, and encounter with Christthat involves the whole person and leads the religious from the “experiences” to grounded “experience.” Moreover, the fidelity of the consecrated person is an on-going challenge to deepen the answer to the daily question: to whom am I faithful? Fidelity is a challenge that requires the creation of a faithful community that generates fidelity that helps
in going from superficiality to the deep roots of faithfulness that builds and renews fidelity to the charism and is familiar with the journey and the dynamic nature of the process. Fidelity is no longer exclusively considered as a reality that lasts one’s whole life, butcan exist as fidelity for “a time.” For this reason the possibility is often raised of incorporating some kind of temporary commitment in the consecrated life.
In order to be prophetic for the postmodern world, the consecrated life must be attractive and help the world to re-discover its beau‑
In general the confrontation with postmodern culture is an opportunity to propose the values of the consecrated life as an encouragement, purification and alternative to the values of the world. For example, fidelity in a culture that boasts of being unfaithful;, the life of faith is a society that never refers to religious values; optimism and hope in a world full of fear. It is also an opportunity to direct the generosity of young people, their thirst for fraternity, their desire for fulfillment; their search for God.
The confrontation with postmodern culture is also a challenge because the media promises a false but attractive happiness; it is only necessary for us to offer, especially to young people, a personal and authentic experience of. Christ and to demonstrate with words and actions that the consecrated life promotes full, human development: What is needed is a new charismatic, prophetic and credible presentation of the consecrated life. At the same time there is a need for a new balance between the charism in its renewed freshness and in its historical expressions.
We live in a world that is fast becoming a “global village.” From cultural individualism we are moving to encounter with different cultural ways of being—not without resistance, of course: It is a world characterized by globalization, rapid change, complexity, frag
mentation and secularization. The consecrated person sees in all this the action of the Spirit of God— in all of these situations the Spirit moves where, when, and as it wills.
Cultural diversity is an opportunity because it favors solidarity, welcoming diversity, experiences of volunteerism, empathy toward the poor, ecological awareness, and the search for peace. It also favors the internationalization and the experience of universality of the community of the consecrated life as openness to serve where one is asked. In this way the charism is enriched. It promotes a search for knowledge, and a spirit of welcoming and dialogue among the young generation.
Cultural diversity is also a challenge because it is difficult for the majority of adult consecrated persons to enter into a multicultural situation. The need to rethink the language and the manner of transmitting values arises between very different cultural worlds. The task of formation to promote fidelity in a world that is constantly changing and culturally pluri-directional, and to promote a life of faith in a society that does not tend to base itself on religious and Christian values are difficult tasks, indeed, since this very formation ought to be on-going and open to intercultural experiences.
The richness and diversity of the human being possible today offer great opportunities that need to be appreciated, and imply new tasks for formation in the consecrated life. This does not exclude the important and determining contribution of the grace of the Spirit that acts in the psychological and anthropological dimensions of the per-son. Formation therefore needs to be attentive to following the lead of the Spirit manifested precisely in these human dimensions, working with them to develop maturity and fullness in the lives.. of consecrated persons.