No armour is the way to rise again

The Voices of the Days/5 - The work of a reformer is a humble and miraculous craft

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 03/04/2016

Logo Voci dei giorni rid"A community is never founded once and for all. The first founder cannot be the one and only point of reference. Society's needs change; communities evolve; their members grow. They need to be constantly 're-founded'. The founding myth remains but the form in which it is embodied is called to change. It is here that the presence of wise 're-formers' is required. They are capable of advancing, maintaining and deepening the founding myth, pruning and reshaping what seemed essential in the early years but was not really."

Jean Vanier, The Founding Myth

The stories of communities, organizations and movements that have been able to live beyond the era of the founders tend to present some constant features: they usually have had reformers and have been able to tell new stories alongside those of the founding era.

Reformers make space for a charisma that's foundational for the community to stay alive and fruitful and to return to the original charismatic questions, changing the answers given to them. When the reformers don't appear, or are ostracized and not recognized, charismatic ideals and experiences inevitably decline due to the lack of grip on the present, and, consequently, because of a radical shortage of young people and 'vocations' due to the inability to translate the first message and the first experience. Its most involved and motivated members experience a deep moral and spiritual crisis: in a first phase they suffer for the lack of young people and new vocations, then they become indifferent and in the end they even feel some joy, because their disappointment leads them not to wish anyone to repeat their same sad existential experience. Therefore this crisis manifests itself as a no-good way of aging, leading to read life as decadence and decline. When and if these symptoms emerge in the concrete charismatic communities, it is clear that there is an urgent need for reform.

At the stage of the foundation, charismas generate more seeds than just those that manage to flourish in the first season: there are some intended to sprout in the subsequent ones, when the first seeds will have become old. The full potential of a charisma is greater than what can be manifested in the times of the foundation. There are deep veins that do not surface right away: despite being connected to the same source they are intended to emerge during droughts or after earthquakes. The concrete forms of poverty, loved and embraced by the Church during her two millennia, have been much more than those loved and embraced by Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. The poor of Mother Teresa, Francesca Cabrini, Don Oreste Benzi and Hans Frei are not those who lived in Pilate’s Palestine: these new charismas have done "greater things" for poverty in the name of Jesus Christ than Jesus himself or his historical community. A similar process is repeated for each individual charisma, which in the course of its development uncovers dimensions that did not emerge during the historical life of the founder. The founder creates the community-movement through a process of discovering the charisma, which is revealed gradually, and during the community's entire existence. The more difficult part is to realize, in an already established community, that this progressive discovery of the charisma continues even after the first foundation, and when this process is stopped or interrupted it is the first charisma that becomes sterile.

Sometimes it is the historical Francis who understands that the church to rebuild is not the church of San Damiano; at other times it is the living spirit of Francis between the Franciscans that understands and does it. It is a Francis after Francis to complete the foundation of Francis and Bernard. However, when the foundation process is stuck with the first generation because it is considered complete and final with the death of the founder, it prevents the charisma from maturing and being revealed to the full and from illuminating and explaining the facts and events of the founding generation, too. Just as we do it at home, when we place some apples placed among the kiwis to make them mature. In a mysterious but real inter-temporal kind of solidarity, the Francis that lives on after himself serves the first Francis, too. We would know less of his charisma without Bonaventure or Bernardino of Siena. The first beneficiaries with the courage of the reformers are the founders themselves, since they can say new and sometimes different things thanks to those who freed them from the limitations of their historical time. Reformers make the rocks roll away from the 'tombs' of their founders. They are 'resurrected' from their graves. True reforms are not only the actualization of the charisma: they are a continuation of the first foundation, with different but no less wonderful fruits and miracles. The second 'miracles' are essential for unlocking the first ones.

Once deemed so precious, why are then reforms rare and always very painful?
The first charismatic groups, in order to survive in the time in which they were born (all societies have a tendency to kill the prophets that could save them) had to carry out a sort of hybridization between new and old in order to prevent the old from rejecting and choking the new. So, around the first good shrubs, the first generation naturally develops an ancillary vegetation to protect new seedlings, which allows them to flourish in the shade of other, more robust and weatherproof plants. This way, charismatic intuitions are surrounded by an entire subsidiary bush; they are covered with infrastructure, languages, written and unwritten rules, sometimes self-produced and sometimes inherited from tradition or the specific historical context. At a certain point this hybridization - which is a different process and one that is parallel to the ideological production that accompanies the development of an ideal that we have already discussed on these pages - becomes a straitjacket, which blocks growth and shuts down the future. The reforms come to slow down and, in the happiest cases, break the initial coating which has gradually become a straitjacket, the protective shield that has turned into a rigid steel armour.

The extreme difficulty of the operation of liberation is found in the difficulty of recognizing the straitjacket of the 'person' who wears it. In the biggest and richest charismatic communities, hybridization between old and new has been profound and lasted for many years, and so pieces of armour got into the flesh, and the skin has grown over parts of the armour. The first place that encloses the intermingling of old and new is the very rule written by the founder and left to his heirs, where items of novelty and coating coexist, without the founder himself being aware of it, or perhaps in a small part only.

Reforms, then, are painful because by removing the armour a few shreds of skin are also taken off. This is where the almost invincible tendency comes from whereby communities reject the very reformers of whom they would have a vital need. The natural and necessary need to protect and save the charisma ends up blocking the attempts at reform. In the name of its own purity the charisma gets condemned to sterility. Purity becomes unfruitful purism, for not having had enough charismatic courage to snatch a few flaps of skin, creating a wound through which the only salvation would have passed.

Every translation is also a betrayal, and the fear of betrayal should not prevent the success of the translation. Because without translation, the beautiful poems of the charismas are incomprehensible to those who would listen to them, but speak and understand a different language.

There are many experiences and charismatic ideals that today would still be alive and / or fruitful if they had been able to generate a reform from the pain of a wound.
Reforms succeed way too infrequently because the true reformers are suffocated or because false prophets are followed - or both. Also because wise reformers and false prophets are very much alike, even too much. And the reformers that are too easy to spot are almost always false reformers. The first criterion for recognizing a reformer is the fact that he does not present himself to the community as such. We should always be wary of the reformers who attribute this title to themselves and introduce themselves as 'reformers by vocation' to the people. The first art of reformers is that of the craftsman: they collect the stones of yesterday, sometimes even the rubble, and with these they build a new San Damiano with humility and hope: it may be smaller than the old church, however, in its humble silence you can listen to the first voice, and sometimes learn to pray again.

When the reforms are successful, communities live an authentic resurrection, and then a Pentecost. All the different languages are understood among each other, and you find yourself with new stories to tell. Reforms are also a new evangelization, the gift of good stories to be told to others and to each other amongst us. The first foundational stories are complemented by new ones that make us live and sing the first ones again. A crisis is always a shortage of stories that are capable of con-moving us inside and together. Reforms re-populate communities and the world with new stories: with the dead who rise again, the blind who see, water turned to wine or the poor who become citizens of another kingdom.

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