When there's light again

The Voices of the Days/6 - To see even in darkness, beyond fake brightness

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 10/04/2016

Fiore Fragola rid"There are qualities or instances of excellence that the I cannot attribute to itself alone: ​​purity, charm, modesty, humour, all the perfections that disappear if only we touch them, even if for just a moment, because they cannot exist except as unaware of themselves. In other words, it is never the same subject to be it and to say it."

Vladimir JankélévitchThe Pure and the Impure

The decisive experiences of life are not easy to recognize and call by name, because if we could understand their blissful nature their injury would leave no mark (or sign) on us, they would not mean (signify) or teach anything to us.

If we were able to decipher the birth of a new purity along a pathway that opens up to us, and maybe is impurity; if we could understand that we are becoming stronger while a disease is making us experience the greatest weakness; if we could realize that we are actually creating a new and truer docility as we strive with all our strength to keep our business alive..., these experiences would lose their value, and that grace/charis which has saved the world so far, and which continues to save us would simply disappear. Like nature, like the smiles of children who convert us and give us the greatest joy because they do not want to either convert or make us happy, because they are simply so. Voluntarism is used in many things, but not in the really decisive matters, where we only need to learn to "know how to be" in unawareness.

When a person starts on a path of ideals following a vocation – whether religious, civil, artistic or poetic - at the beginning there is always the experience of a strong new light, amplified, often by the strength of youth. A light that is inside and outside at the same time, which turns on the best part in us: it calls to it, we recognize it as a good voice that we have always waited for, and so a journey following the voice begins. That's when we move all the furniture inside the room of our soul, because we want the new light to fill the entire space. At the beginning of every vocation there is a voice and an emptied room that becomes very-very bright. It nourishes us, quenches our thirst, fills us and makes us live. We do not want nor do we need anything else.

After this phase of naked light, which can last many years, a second phase begins. Day after day we start repopulating the room with new objects, furniture, ornaments, paintings, curtains, cupboards, clothes, statues and crucifixes. It is the building up of religion and worship. It could not be otherwise, because the symbolic construction of an illuminated environment from the original spiritual experience is the first act by which human beings recognize and love vocations. At first, this construction and this fulfilling are mostly social and collective: the furniture and cabinets are neither built nor bought by ourselves, instead, the community provides us with these. The only space that remains for us is for a photo of our parents or girlfriend. After a bit of time, if the vocation grows well and it matures, gradually and almost always unconsciously there emerges a need to customize the furniture and so we start adding new items and our things to the earlier furniture. This is a particularly creative moment of life, which usually coincides with the years of youthful maturity, when that first voice gradually takes the forms of our personality, and a symbiosis between the light and the most beautiful part of our character is created. From "consumers" we start to become "producers" of light, in a sublime type of reciprocity game: we are conscious of not being the masters of the light that we consume and produce, but we feel that the work we are doing would not come to earth without our part, without our industrious and creative "yes", the one that allowed that logos-voice to become "flesh." The poet knows that the voice that inspires him is not his property, but he also knows that without his efforts, docility and talent that voice would not have become poetry, his/not his poems.

The creations and creatures multiply and with them success and the feeling of bearing much fruit into a thriving existence grows, too. Without us becoming aware of it during the process, the first inner room begins to lose brightness, because the new furniture and new products, added to the old, begin to fill all the space, to the point of blocking the window and the light. But - and this is a central aspect in this filling process - the subjective experience made by those who blocked the window with their works is not the one of darkness. Born from the encounter with the first light, their works illuminate the environment with a light that is very similar to the original one, to the point of not being able to distinguish them clearly. This way the less light that penetrates from the outside is replaced by the light that emanates from our works, to the point of replacing it entirely. The light changes and decays every day, but our eyes will gradually get used to the decreasing and different kind of light. This is how we get used to the light of our works and of our fruits, even to the point of forgetting the colours of the room of our youth. But when the light of our home begins to come only from our illuminated works, creativity is reduced, the light loses its luminosity, we do not get surprised by anything we do anymore. The process is slow and can also take many years before we and others realize that the light has been changed. This is a form of spiritual narcissism that often imprisons people - specifically those with strong vocations and great talents. They feed on themselves, thinking that they are still nourished by the first light - also because, in a sense, these two are (almost) the same thing.  There are people who for the longest time stay in their stuffed room which is illuminated only by reflected light that is more and more artificial and dim, deriving form their own constructs.

One day, the reflected and artificial light is spent because of a lack of feed. And here there are three possible scenarios. The first is adapting to living in this darkness: the pupils enlarge until they manage to see in almost total darkness. To survive, the other senses are developed, so sight is lost without realizing it. Some people, however, when their room is left with no more light feel an uncontrollable desire to quit: they escape and look for another home, they return to their previous existence, to the meeting of their vocation, and no longer want to know about the light that has seduced them and now is but deception and condemnation for them.

But there may be a third outcome: reform, and the beginning of a new spiritual life. Having touched bottom with the extinguishing of the light, a dream comes to save us: one night we dream of the first light in all its colours again, and wake up with an invincible longing for real sunshine (many people who become blind continue to see colours in their dreams for years). And, once awake, we frantically begin to remove objects, artefacts, furniture, which now appear to us all dull and heavy, to free the window and see the original coloured light again. And so, as we are thirsty for sunshine, we start a new process of liberation from the room of artefacts, and from many idols that had accumulated over the years of worship.

But it is here that another surprise awaits us. When, at the end of the clearing, the room is empty again and we finally reach the window, we open it and realise that outside it is the time of night. Where did the first light that we all longed for end up? To the years that passed between the first light and the reform, instances of human pain, limit experiences, suffering, injustice, death, mistakes and sins (especially natural idolatry) got inserted. And we do not find that sun anymore. At this point, some people are convinced that the sun is gone forever, and the spiritual path is blocked; others leave home, begin to walk the earth, and are waiting for a new dawn. There begins a new phase of spiritual and moral life, which is among the rarest, highest and most extraordinary. You find yourself in an empty room and, having been liberated, looking out towards a sky that does not light up. Reform is the work done to free us from darkness to get us to another darkness. With a crucial novelty, however: the new dark is true, airy, spacious and alive. The main effort of spiritual life is learning to distinguish the second darkness from the first, because they are very different. The first imprisons, the second saves us.

After the reforms, both on a personal and community level, we must learn to see in this darkness. That's why only a few succeed, and most people get stranded in the first post-reform season because of the disappointment over not finding the light they long for (communities do not like and tend to "kill" authentic reformers because they expected light from them and found darkness, and it happens all too often that they love false prophets who are great builders of new artificial lighting systems).

Reforms, those of the soul but also of communities, are successful if they manage to stay in this new darkness, if they learn to live in it, to love it, and then to stretch their eyes until they see the stars in the depth of the dark sky, and discover their new and different light, “clarite et pretiose et belle” (clear and precious and beautiful). Even the night has its own brightness: farmers and nocturnal wayfarers are well aware of this. It is a less intense but more real light than that of the street lamps.

The first result of any reform is to take notice that the light of adult life is different from the artificial one that we had built, it is less dazzling than that of youth, but it is no less true. It is the splendour of the light of this truth that makes us walk the long nights of reforms, those of the soul and those of the community. It is in this waiting that, gently and lovingly, the sentinels announce the dawn to us.

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