Greater Than Guilt/2 The gift of children received as gifts is the grammar of existence
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 28/01/2018
«Dammi da mangiare
dammi da bere …
Fame è misterioso
alza e abbassa regge lascia
ti reggo mi lascio.
dammi la mano
nello stesso mondo.»
Chandra Livia Candiani, Dammi da mangiare
God listened to Hannah’s cry and "remembered her" (1 Samuel, 1:19), as he had remembered his people enslaved in Egypt, after the first collective prayer of the Bible (Exodus 2:23). The biblical God is a God who knows how to listen, to everyone, but above all to the victims. The idols are deaf and mute because they are dead. YHWH is alive because he has an ‘ear’ and can listen, and can be awakened from his sleep, his inattention can be regained while we are in the boat and the storm is going on.
Faced with a God who seems deaf and does not respond to our prayer, the metaphor of sleep is the one that allows God to continue to be alive, to exist. We can always continue to pray in the time of God’s silence until we believe that he is only asleep and can be woken up by our lament. We stop believing and therefore praying when we think that the sky is deaf because it is - quite simply - empty. God can be alive even when he does not respond, and the Bible tells us that we must make his sleep difficult with our cries. Hannah’s lament-prayer succeeded in awakening him, and it is a deposit and hope for all the other prayers of women and men who cannot awaken God, for all the people who have prayed like her but their children were not born or healed. They, too, we too, can always use Hannah’s words to continue believing and hoping. Until the end, when perhaps he will wake up to embrace us on our last trustful flight, accompanied by our last ‘here I am’. Faith is alive and true even if it is trust in a God who is asleep, whom we seek to wake up. For all our life.
After praying in the temple of Shiloh, Hannah "went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad”. Elkanah “knew Hannah his wife... (who) conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel” (1:18-20). When the child was born, the father went back to the temple for the annual pilgrimage that also became a thanksgiving: “But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, »As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, so that he may appear in the presence of the Lord and dwell there forever.«” (1:22). The parents together uphold Hannah’s vow ("if you will (...) give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head” 1:11), but the mother takes the freedom to keep him with herself for the weaning period (at least three years). For this choice Hannah does not ask for her husband’s permission (whom the story shows us in favour of her decision, anyway: 1:23), nor for God’s, because it’s one of those fundamental, intimate choices that women can make on their own. Mothers (Hannah in the Hittite language meant ‘mother’) are not the masters of their children, but they have a natural and sacred authority over their first steps, on which neither law nor religion can or must interfere. This has been, and continues to be, a great and exclusive gift-richness of women, which creates solidarity between them and a similarity before and beyond the great diversity of life, which is a profound and foundational expression of the law of life. Then comes a day when this special and unique mother-and-child intimacy ends. It must end, and that’s when the child is generated a second time. On that day there is a need for a gratuitousness-love that is not necessarily present in the first act of generation. Mothers generate us by bringing us to the light and then regenerate us by losing us in order to make us capable of making our gift. This second birth takes many forms. The biblical text does not describe Hannah’s emotions and feelings - even if there are some very delicate details inserted in the narration, such as this one, bringing back many mothers to our hearts who accompanied and accompany their children received as gifts with similar acts: “And his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year” (2:19). Not only Samuel, Samson or Isaac are children who are re-gifted after having been received as a gift. For each child there comes the moment when they are ‘given to the Lord’ - and if it does not arrive, then woe to those children and their mothers. When parents, and - in a different and special way - mothers realise that the son they had received as a gift and then ‘weaned’ and sent out to life must be re-gifted (we all know that children are all and only a gift and providence, but those women, men and families who have not received these gifts know it best among all). They understand that their children are not their property, and that they are only guardians of their dawn. That they must therefore let them leave. This is also a sign of that radical gratuitousness which is at the origin of life and generation: “the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord” (1:27-28).
Then came the day of Hannah’s journey with Samuel to the temple of Shiloh: “And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and she brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. And the child was young” (1:24). The tone and atmosphere of this journey closely remind us of Abraham’s journey to Mount Moriah, to give up another child given to another sterile woman. It is in the gifting of the children received as gifts that we learn and re-evaluate the grammar of existence under the sun, as we discover and rediscover that all life is given to us because we can give it back on our own accord and free of charge. Until the end, when we will reach that spirit given to us on the first day and we will be able to make this last offer because we will have exercised ourselves in this primary reciprocity for life.
And it is here that we find Hannah’s song, one of the most beautiful of the entire Bible. A wonderful hymn, which the biblical writer wanted to insert after the gifting of the son receives as gift, not when Hannah becomes pregnant or after she gives birth. It is the song of reciprocal gratuitousness. In order to be able to intone these songs of liberation and resurrection, there is no existential condition more suitable than that of those who have received everything and then re-donated it all. Only the poor can sing the magnificat: “My heart exults in the Lord; / my horn is exalted in the Lord. (...) The bows of the mighty are broken, / but the feeble bind on strength. / Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, / but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. / The barren has borne seven, / but she who has many children is forlorn. (...) The Lord makes poor and makes rich; / he brings low and he exalts. / He raises up the poor from the dust; / he lifts the needy from the ash heap / to make them sit with princes / and inherit a seat of honour.” (2:1-8).
The scene of the world around Hannah was not like the one described by her song. In her city, in the other tribes of Israel, among the surrounding Canaanite peoples, in the temple of Shiloh from where she raised her praise the poor remained in the dirt, the hungry (not the satiated) sought bread and work (without finding them), and did not stop being hungry. Hers is therefore a prophetic song - like those of Isaiah, like Mary’s Magnificat (which some ancient commentator attributed to Elisabeth because she was sterile like Hannah). And like in every prophecy, it is an ‘already’ that indicates a ‘not yet’. The little Samuel is Hannah’s ‘already’, her piece of the promised land from which she can rise and glimpse the horizon of the land of all, flowing with milk and honey. Some of the ‘not yet’ of today can become ‘already’ tomorrow if there is someone who has the strength now to see and then sing of the poor being raised from the dust while they are still being humiliated, satiated while they are still hungry, of the rich lowered while they are high and invincible. Liberations are not accomplished if they are not seen, prayed for and sung about beforehand. But the prophecy needs its own little ‘already’, an already-child; and the already-child needs someone who by singing about them allows them to be incarnated inside the ‘not yet’. There are too many poor, humiliated and hungry people who do not rise, and too many rich and powerful who do not go down because there are no experiences of the ‘already’, or because there are no singers of the not yet. Our time does not suffer so much from the poverty of ‘already’, but rather from a great poverty of prophets, the only ones capable of seeing and then singing that we need a ‘not yet’ that’s greater than us, and so capable of generating a present for our children which is better than ours - no generation can leave a better land to the next one if it kills the not-yet, if it lowers it too much or crushes it on its ‘already’.
Hannah, Mary and the prophets keep the promise alive without shrinking it, they help us not to confuse the rivers of Babylon with the River Jordan, and while they sing their Magnificat, they invite us to ask: sentinel: watchman, what time of the night? As long as we find energies of the heart and mind to sing these Magnificats, and as long as we remain poor enough to sing them with truth and dignity, we can always hope that the night will end, and that the dawn will surprise us. The night becomes infinite when we stop singing with Hannah, when the non-resurrections of our own and of other victims convince us that there is no dawn, that there is no watchman, that there is nothing more to ask for, nor a God to wake up. The Bible has kept us the possibility of the Magnificat, but it cannot sing it instead of us: to intone it our voice is needed, and before that, our faith that those words can exist, in our nights.
Because even in these endless nights we can come across Hannah’s hymn, perhaps by chance. And we can borrow her words to begin praying, singing and hoping again without asking for her permission. There is no prayer more beautiful than the one whispered by those who stopped praying one day because of too much pain, and on another day, already without words, found her lost words in those of the Bible. They felt that those words had been written only for them; that they were there, waiting for us, all gifts, in the infinite time of advent. And the word continues to become flesh.
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