Called to set up tents

Listening to Life/23 - Beyond failure, "the second day" of every vocation

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 27/11/2016

Maschere CoreaHaving finished the Gospel according to Saint Mark, he wanted to read another of the three Gospels that remained, but the father asked him to repeat the one he had just read, so that they could understand it better. (...) The next day began like the previous ones, except that the father spoke to Espinosa and asked him if Christ had let Himself be killed so as to save all other men on earth. Espinosa (...) answered, "Yes, to save everyone from Hell." (...) The three had been following him. Bowing their knees to the stone pavement, they asked his blessing. Then they mocked at him, spat on him, and shoved him toward the back part of the house. (...) The shed was without a roof; they had pulled down the beams to make the cross.

J.L. Borges, The Gospel According to Mark (English translation by Norrnan Thomas di Giovanni)

Our most important words have the capacity of becoming history, flesh and blood, of incarnating in our lives. If it were not for these few different words, all our speaking and writing would be but a breath, wind...vanitas. If we say true words of praise about poverty and the poor while we are still living in comfortable wealth, the day will come when those words become life and we will also end up poor. If we believe that a crucified man saved us and proclaim this faith, there comes a time when we will also be nailed to a cross to embody that salvation, to free our friends from their hell. A prophet can say words he does not live for many years, but if he is not a false prophet the day will come in which he will become the words that he has announced. He may cry for a long time over his humiliated and crushed people, until one day he himself becomes crushed, humiliated and outcast, just like his people. And his vocation will be fulfilled.

"Listen to me, O coastlands, / and give attention, you peoples from afar. / The Lord called me from the womb, / from the body of my mother he named my name." (Isaiah 49:1) We are inside one of the most elevated cycles in the Book of Isaiah and all prophetic literature: The Servant Songs. We do not know who this mysterious 'servant of YHWH' is. He is, however, a key figure of Isaiah's prophecy as his presentation that the author refers to the same YHWH suggests: "Behold my servant, whom I uphold, / my chosen, in whom my soul delights; / I have put my Spirit upon him; / he will bring forth justice to the nations." (42:1)

In this 'servant' scholars and commentators have seen the figure of a deliverer king, the people of Israel, a new Moses, the author of these songs (the anonymous Second Isaiah), a prophet of the past or future and a lot more. Perhaps the four Servant Songs – now scattered and fragmented into various chapters – were a unique composition originally, perhaps they were the work of the Second Isaiah, later sectioned and amended by an editor. Perhaps. What is certain is that this servant is a symbol of many different realities. In these songs there are verses where the servant appears like a king (ch. 42), others where he is shown as a prophet (ch. 49), and others where he is the image and personification of the whole people ("I will keep you and give you / as a covenant to the people": 49:8). In some chapters (50 and 53) the prophetic poetry rises, it goes beyond time and space, it gets sublimated, leaving its normal trajectory to become the singing and wailing of all the servants of the people and the powerful, of all the slaves and the crucifixes of the earth and the sky, without thereby ceasing to be an image of the life of the prophet, too – in some biblical traditions, Isaiah was martyred (sawn in two), just like Jeremiah.

We would lose much of the prophetic value of these wonderful songs if we disregarded the autobiographical story of its author prophet, the Second Isaiah. Then we can, and perhaps must, read these songs of the servant also as a meditation and a revelation of the vocation and destiny of prophets – those of yesterday and today.

At first, here too, we find a voice that calls and reveals a destiny that was not known to the person called before that encounter. This event, however, is a meeting with someone/something from outside and a very intimate experience at the same time. We can feel that the voice calling is revealing – removing the veil from – what we have always been, from the origins, from the 'womb'. And it is this tension between a voice calling outside and the greatest intimacy constituting the very substance of vocations – perhaps of all of them, but certainly the prophetic and charismatic ones. They are all exterior and all interior at the same time, everything new and everything ancient, completely unknown and completely known, all happiness and all pain, all of the heavens and all of the earth. Together. So much together that although the call has arrived at a precise time and place, these people almost do not remember what life was like before the call, and they cannot imagine a life different from the one they lived. And even when the vocational experience gets 'institutionally' interrupted and ends, at the end of life they discover that they have never left the place of that first meeting. Because the real meeting place was the womb. That's where we were marked, where the way was indicated for us, forever. This nostalgia of the beginning never leaves us, and it makes a powerful return in our last few days of life.

On the day of the revelation of the vocation, the mission that the voice assigns to us seems immense, infinite: "he will faithfully bring forth justice. / He will not grow faint or be discouraged / till he has established justice in the earth; / (...) to open the eyes that are blind, / to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon" (42,3-7).

No person can complete such a mission, no one can perform these tasks. The promises of the day of the call are much greater than our ability to implement them in all the other days of life. Because if they are not too great they are simply too small. If the promised land is not flowing with milk and honey, if the children of the Covenant are not as numerous as the grains of sand, we will never leave the land of our home, we will never manage to generate the children of all, like everyone else. No promise smaller than heaven is able to make us depart knowing that we'll never return. Only an infinite horizon is able to contain that mad flight.

For this reason, failure and disappointment are part of the development necessary for a good vocation – and if they never happen, then either we haven't encountered any voice or the only voice that spoke to us was our narcissism. The first day of the impossible promise must be followed by the second day of the betrayed promise: But I said, “I have laboured in vain; / I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity" (49:4). The servant of YHWH had to re-establish justice, open the 'eyes to the blind', 'free the prisoners' – he was not supposed to get discouraged. But the Babylonian exile is long and hard, rights and justice are increasingly distant on this land; the people are weakened, unable to open their eyes, the prisoners are not released. And the prophet gets discouraged. And the feeling of having laboured in vain and having spent their forces 'uselessly', of having lived in a great 'empty hole' becomes very strong in the prophet, so much so that it gradually becomes a certainty. This second day of the vocation, which is necessary and inscribed in the first, is the decisive passage of a prophetic vocation, on which many authentic vocations are broken. And so the second day becomes the last, it marks the end of the path that does not reach the 'first day after the Sabbath'.

In some cases the failure and disappointment are expressed with respect to themselves, their own mistakes, sins or limits, and easily turn into spiritual and mental depression. At other times the words of the promise of the first day are accused and cursed. We – like Jeremiah, like Job – curse the day of the first seduction, when we were enchanted by the spell, when a poisonous elixir killed our youth. In one way or another, the snake bites the tree of life, and it makes it dry out.

The Servant Songs, however, do not end with the day of discouragement: "And ... the Lord says, (...) “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant / to raise up the tribes of Jacob / and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, / that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (49:5-6) As if to say: what you thought was your task was too light: you have been called to so much more. You were unable to restore the dispersed tribes of Jacob, or to bring back the rest of Israel home, it is true; but that was not the content of your vocation. It was already an impossible task, but it was still too light. It was impossible because it was too light.

It is a paradox, but it is solved if we look closely at the nature of prophetic vocations – those of yesterday and today. Many vocations are blocked and many prophets are lost, because when the second day of failure comes they cannot understand that what is lost is not their vocation, but only their interpretation of that vocation. Someone thought that the Church to be rebuilt was the Church of San Damiano in Assisi; someone thought that she had married a risen one; or that they had to found a new charismatic community. Instead, in the failure of the second day, sometimes one can understand that the church to be rebuilt was another one, that the person found was not a risen but a crucified one, because every time that the crucified is resurrected he is nailed onto ever new crosses. And so we understand that he will only continue to rise from those crosses, and only there can he be met, hugged or married. And one discovers that what had to be founded was a simple tent, in the shadow of which one can finally learn the art of living and then, on the last day, that of dying. It is the light emanating from a humble tent that can be a light to the nations, and only a movable tent can reach the ends of the earth. The lights of the great temples we had built were too bright and they obscured the moon and the stars to us and to others.

The prophets manage to continue their song when in the day of the great failure they can understand that what looked like defeat was only the gift of a greater freedom. It was not the mad check-mate of existence but only the beginning of the true incarnation of the words they had announced: "Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; / break forth, O mountains, into singing!" (49:13)

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