In the Night and Until Dawn

Listening to Life/12

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 11/09/2016

Alba rid"...never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, 'Wait and Hope."

A. Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

The words of the mouth are not enough to talk, and sometimes they are not needed, either. We also speak with the words of the body, with gestures that are often stronger, more clear, universal and radical than things said and written. These different words sometimes precede those of the mouth, and sometimes they follow them and explain what those words did not manage to say. Sometimes the only words we have available to talk with, or the only ones that we can understand are those of our hands and our flesh. The words of language are not good nor beautiful if they are not preceded, accompanied and followed by those of the body, because disembodied words cannot say the words of life.

“At that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, »Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,« and he did so, walking naked and barefoot.” (Isaiah 20:2). Isaiah receives a command to speak to his people with his naked body, going barefoot. He executes the prophetic order, the meaning of which is revealed to him only after a certain time: “Then the Lord said, »As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered«” (20, 3-4).

We are getting closer and closer to the heart of Isaiah's vocation. His nudity (and it cannot be excluded that it was a historical fact) reveals another essential dimension of prophecy. There are stages in the life of a prophet in which he understands clearly that he must act, take action even without understanding its meaning. At such times it is absolutely clear what to do ("the Lord said..."), but there is no certainty, and sometimes no idea why that thing has to be done, the sense of the action is not understood. We feel that we have to leave a job, end a relationship, enter a convent or leave it, but we do not know why we're doing it, or at least we are not at all certain that the sense that we are giving to that choice, and/or what others give to it, is the real one. Sometimes the meaning is revealed many years later. At other times only at the end of life, sometimes never, but we have still continued to 'walk naked and barefoot' through the city, till the very end. To the prophets walking is more important than understanding the meaning of the race, because the first and the most important meaning is that of the voice that tells them to walk. The vocation is betrayed when we stop walking naked and barefoot, not when we do not understand why we do it. It is not in the competence of the sign to interpret itself. The exegete, if there is one, must be someone else. Prophets are signifiers that do not know their own meaning. It is almost fully here that we can find the gratuity-poverty-obedience-chastity of their lives, in this not being able to know the meaning of what they are and what they do. Therefore, it is in the prophets, that we can understand, with extreme clarity, something that is true for every living thing, and certainly for humans: we are not the masters of the ultimate meaning of our actions, of our life, its management and its significance. We are a mystery to ourselves. Sometimes we meet someone well-versed in hermeneutics who explains some of our actions and part of our history, and it is great; but we know that the interpretation of the entire score is not given to us. Under the sun, our symphonies, even the majestic, beautiful and heroic ones, are always unfinished.

Continuing to walk in Isaiah's company while we are still fascinated and enchanted by his prophetic gesture, let's turn the page as in the next chapter one of the most beautiful songs of the whole Bible awaits us. Is it the Shomèr ma-millàilah?: 'Watchman, what time of the night?'

"For thus the Lord said to me: / »Go, set a watchman; / let him announce what he sees. / ... let him listen diligently, / very diligently.« / Then he who saw cried out: / »Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord, / continually by day, / and at my post I am stationed / whole nights.«” (21:5-8)

Acting as a watchman is Isaiah's response to the same command of YHWH: "Go." He is becoming a mute sign that runs through the city naked and barefoot, but he is also the one standing in the watchtower, guarding it 'continually by day' and 'whole nights'. He goes wandering on earth, he stays in the only remaining lookout post. The watchman is the prophet - among the many images of the prophetic vocation, and perhaps all authentic human vocations, that of the watchman is the one I love most. The lookout sights wagons, horses, riders, and it sees the fall of Babylon. But then we find out right away that the craft-task-mission of that watchman it something else. The text undergoes an unthought-of poetic rise, and - leaving the ordinary task of sighting of enemies behind - the watchman becomes the voice inside a mysterious and wonderful dialogue: “One is calling to me from Seir, / »Watchman, what time of the night? / Watchman, what time of the night?« / The watchman says: / »Morning comes, and also the night. If you will inquire, inquire; / come back again.«” (21:11-12) It is a peak of Isaiah's poetry, a summit of the consciousness of humanity. One of the greatest verses of its author, the greatest of the already immense book of Isaiah. A pure gift of gratuitousness, because it is not composed of functional words to lament on the cities and perhaps it isn’t even the theology of Isaiah. These lines were of no use to his discourse, they could not have been. They are incomprehensible words in their context, and every generation and every reader has had to interpret and reinterpret them and we still continue to interpret them without really getting the gist of them. This verse should only be commented by the great poets, the true spiritual masters, those who have known the endless nights of prisons and concentration camps, or those who have been through a long illness of their own or that of others - 'what time of the night?' (i.e.: how much is still left of it? - the tr.) But we can all pray with them, sing them and get inspired by them to sing.

The nightly poem of the watchman is many things together, and perhaps the first sense that its first author planned for it is now lost forever. It is the prayer of waiting and hope in time of the night, the waiting and hope of God, a friend, peace, paradise, justice or love that still does not make a return even though it should. The singing of those who struggle not to lose faith, of those who know that the dawn will come but do not know when, and darkness continues. It is the cry of the never-ending nights of the soul. But it is also a revelation of the mystery of the prophetic vocation, and thus of the charismas, those of yesterday and today.

The prophet is the night watchman. He is not a man or woman of light; he is not an inhabitant of the midday. He knows that the night is not forever, the dawn will come, but above all he knows that he does not know when it is due and he knows that 'it is still night'. He inhabits the night, like everyone else, not-knowing, like everyone else, the time of the dawn. He does not call the night day; he does not light fires to make the darkness disappear. He knows the night: it is his time, and he does not give answers that cannot give. The prophet is not an astrologist, he cannot read the stars, he is not a fortune teller or a soothsayer. That is not his job. He is 'the one who stays', he remains in his nightly lookout post. And there he hopes, waits, believes and does not know, like everyone, together with everyone. But he talks to those who pass by, to the travellers of the night: 'If you want to inquire, to ask more questions, come back again to ask'. He cannot give those answers but does not refuse to listen to the questions. He does not chase away the inquirers because he does not have answers to give, and he even invites them to continue to ask questions, to come back, to come back again.

The prophet is the man and the woman of the night-time conversation, he or she is the companion in the time of unanswered questions. Prophets can only respond by giving their only two certainties: that it is still night and that the dawn will come. They are not experts of the times, they do not attempt to forecast the auroral moment. The prophetic hope does not deny the night or the dawn, and the prophet's faithfulness to the vocation lies in knowing how to remain not-knowing in between the night and the dawn, and invite passers-by to ask questions. The prophets love their own time, talking with those who ask for answers without being able to respond. And while they inhabit this night of dialogues, the first rays of the day arrive. There is no dawn that’s more beautiful than the one that surprises us in the company of honest prophets.

False prophecy is a negation of the night or the dawn. The prophet is always tempted to turn into a soothsayer, or a professor of hermeneutics of the dawn that is not there yet but is coveted by many, forgetting the reality of the night. These false prophets betray the truth of the night, because instead of staying in solidarity with all the non-knowing people of the time, they think they can cancel the darkness by offering certainty on the time of day, as if the knowledge of the end of the night time could erase the reality of the absence of light. They pursue dialogues on the abstract future and make their inquirers lose the concreteness of the night. This is eschaton without history, paradise without earth, a temple without a square, resurrection without the cross. Prophets are not sellers of futures that they do not know, they are not technicians of time - they are just unknowing inhabitants of the night. Then there are the false prophets who deny the dawn, and while they honestly announce that 'it is still night', they do not even say that 'the day will come'. This is the temptation that affects the honest prophets above all, as in the continuation of the night, surrounded by fake consolation future sellers, they start to think that the only chance they have to show solidarity and authenticity to passers-by is to erase the end of the night and make the darkness eternal, to cancel the waiting, hope and faith. The story loses the eschaton, one is crucified forever.

The non-false prophets know how to handle the difference between night and dawn, they can stay and put up with their ignorance and that of the nocturnal passers-by, faithful in their sighting place. And they accompany and fill the night by talking and talking again, listening and listening again to the questions of those who continue to ask: 'Watchman, what time of the night?'

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